Friday, December 6, 2013

A Birthday Blog

I don't know what to make of the fact that I am seventy years old today.  Years, of course, are artificially-imposed structures which help us to organize our thinking. A year marks the time occupied by the earth in one revolution around the sun.  A period of the same length (365 days), starting at the time of one's birth, determines one's age. There are still cultures, though, in which people haven't the faintest idea how old they are. In our culture, age seems to be pretty important.

Seventy is considered old -- not as old as it can get but still old. In folklore, old women are supposed to be wise. In our culture, they are more apt to be characterized as a dithering nuisance.

Today I have entered a new decade at the end of which I will either be decrepit or dead...

...but then again, one never knows.

On the whole, I have led a rather silly life:

I have taken delight in small purchases of dubious value;

I have been spectacularly early to each and every event requiring my presence;

I have sent barbed words into the hearts of  people who've offended me;

I have loitered under bright sunlight without sunscreen or sunglasses;

I have forgotten what is ultimately important while memorizing endless trivia;

I  have indulged an addiction to all things, fatty, salty and sweet;

I have used bad words in the presence of my grandsons;

I have giggled out loud like a schoolgirl in public places even when I am all by myself;

I have measured out my life in aluminum cans (in particular, those which contain Diet Coke).

However, in these last decades of my life, I am not highly motivated to change. There is a sense in which every life is pointless (See Shelly's sonnet "Ozymandias") and a sense in which every life has meaning.  It pretty much depends on each individual's philosophy.

Here are some things I'm happy to have done:

climbed across rocks all the way to Diana's Bath on the coast of Maine;

gave birth to a daughter who, in turn, gave birth to my grandsons;

finished an entire novel and wrote one or two good poems;

got to know some totally awesome people who became close friends;

peeked under the label "disability" and found a human soul'

dwelt for awhile in Narnia and Middle Earth;

climbed all the way to the ice caves on Mt. Rainier;

watched spring erupt on the east coast in the company of my favorite niece;

lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 37 years;

saw the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory at the Louvre.

I no longer feel a need to impart some purpose to my existence. Sentient life is a beautiful and terrifying mystery and attempting to solve it theologically and philosophically merely trivializes and demeans it.  I prefer to think of myself as a tiny piece of something huge and unknowable.

I am perpetually in awe of myself  and all that surrounds me.

Friday, August 30, 2013


from the Spokane College of English Language
Several adages begin with the word "Never":

Never change horses in midstream. This old chestnut was invoked by President George W. Bush to caution the public against voting for John Kerry in the 2004 election. One assumes that the metaphorical stream, in this case, was war -- the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq -- two streams, actually.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth. What this means, I suppose, is that if someone gives you a horse, you ought not to behave rudely by pointing out that the hapless nag is afflicted with a gum disease.

Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. You should not postpone calling the vet to have your gift horse's teeth fixed.

Never trouble trouble til it troubles you. If you see a bunch of bullies beating up on someone, you should do nothing unless the bullies decide to come after you. 

Never forego an opportunity to empty your bladder. My mother told me this one. What is means is use the restroom before you get back in the car.

Never say die.  This one puzzles me. What actually happens if you say "die" for instance, instead of saying so-and-so passed away or so-and-so is no longer with us? Does avoiding the word "die" -- I suppose I should say "died" -- make the deceased seem less dead than if you use a fuzzier term?

 For some reason euphemisms regarding death have always annoyed me. "Passed away" makes me imagine the deceased  mounting the celestial stairway while clutching a pass card  like the ones issued to students who insist on using the bathroom during class time. 

"No longer with us" is just plain too ambiguous and "gone to a better place" presupposes the person you're addressing believes in heaven which, if they are a Buddhist, Hindu or atheist, they probably don't. 

There is one euphemism for death I actually like though. In Botswana (if one is to believe the author, Alexander McCall Smith) one will say of a dead person that he is late -- not late as in late for dinner, late as in the late Miss Scarlet or the late Mr. Plum. Why I find this turn of phrase charming and the others annoying I couldn't tell you. Probably it has to do with my enjoyment of the characters in McCall Smith's books, at least the ones  set in Botswana.

Come to think of it, though, I have no serious objections to "kicked the bucket" or "bought the farm" but these terms have (according to the laws of decency) a restricted use. 

I'm aware, by the way, that "never say die" probably means never give up. Again, whether or not this is good advice depends entirely on the context.

In conclusion, I think "never"is a word to be used with extreme caution. It is, after all, a word that slams doors, then locks and bolts them. It shuts you in as completely and as finally as it shuts other people out.

However, if you need to say "never" in order to bolster your resolve, feel free. I use it all the time when I say, for instance, that I will never eat half of an entire package of double-stuf Oreos again.

Friday, May 24, 2013

My First Mentor

My very first mentor was my third grade teacher, Lulu Langston. Well, perhaps she doesn't fit the strict definition of mentor, i.e. experienced and trusted adviser, but the memory of her popped up soon after I began teaching.

Not that I could emulate her. She was unique among her colleagues, a splash of living color among dull shades of beige and grey. This was back in the fifties when the stereotype of the old maid school teacher still dominated the profession, especially in the context of private girls' schools.

Miss Langston was broom-stick thin with flyaway hair like an eruption of dandelion fluff. Her flexible voice ranged from very low, soft and deep to high-pitched and blaring. She had a rule that no student would leave her classroom still smarting from a pedagogical reprimand.  She was, also,  not afraid to apologize -- an unheard of phenomenon both in those days and even today. At the end of the school day, she'd stand by the classroom door and hug each one of us in parting, delivering especially long hugs to the ones who'd had a difficult day. Bear in mind that the fifties was not a particularly huggy decade so this ritual of departure was by no means the norm.

Miss Langston's is the only grade school curriculum I actually remember.  We read from a text entitled Streets and Roads supplemented by a text called Friendly Village.  The latter included a story  about the transformation of a woman dubbed Mrs. Grumpy by her fellow villagers but who later became known as Mrs. Friendly. I can no longer remember the nature of this woman's epiphany only that the story caught my interest and perhaps gave me hope regarding the seemingly stagnant nature of human potential.

The New Friendly Village The Alice and Jerry Books 1950 school book
And it was Miss Langston who introduced me to Greek mythology. At the age of eight I understood the perils of hubris and that it was best not to boast or call attention to one's unique gifts lest the gods be listening. Not that I thought I had any particular talent or quality the gods might envy. My favorite god was the trickster,  Hermes, and my favorite goddess was Artemis though I had to forgive her for turning Actaeon into a stag to be hunted down and killed by his own hounds. After all, he hadn't meant  to come upon the goddess while she was bathing. However, one does not look to the Greek gods for fairness which, in my view, makes them easier to believe in than other reputedly compassionate deities.

I doubt if Miss Langston was better educated than her prim and somber colleagues. I'm certain she'd never given much thought to curriculum theory or the techniques of classroom management. She taught by instinct and she taught with passion. To her, each individual student was more than her reading level or mathematical acuity. I would even go so far as to say that Miss Langston was more interested in character development than she was in skill acquisition.

Is it true that gifted teachers are born not made? I cannot, of course, answer that question, nor (I suspect) can anyone else.  When it comes to teaching, there is (as in other professions) a wide range of abilities. What I believe about Lulu Langston is that she actually liked  to teach, that teaching, for her, was not a second-choice career or (given the values of the decade) one of the few jobs considered suitable for a woman. I also believe that she found each one of her students interesting and was driven to understand them, even to shape them a little if she could. In addition, she was not afraid to show emotion though she never allowed her feelings to serve as a basis for judgment.

I pretty much forgot about Miss Langston until decades after I'd departed her third grade class. When I started teaching she'd pop into my mind from time to time looking skeptical whenever I adopted what I hoped was an intimidating stance, fearful as I was of the classroom dissolving into chaos in response to my ineptitude due to inexperience. What Lulu's presence in my mind seemed to signify was simply this -- care about what you're doing, admit your mistakes when you make them, be in charge but be real, be passionate.

Doubtless, Lulu Langston departed this world long ago. I suspect there are many besides me who have had cause to remember her.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Woo-Hoo Bird

"There was a bird outside the window in our bedroom this morning," Brody said.

All seven of us were in the dining room trying to swallow the clumps of oatmeal swimming in   milk that Mama Candace gives for breakfast every morning. I tried to kick Brody under the table to get him to shut up but my foot couldn't quite reach him. In my opinion, Brody has no sense of survival whatsoever which is why he kept right on talking.

"It was bigger than a raven and it went 'Woo-hoo, woo-hoo," Brody continued.

Alexander smirked and Brendan sank down into his seat in anticipation. Jennifer winced and I guess I did, too. Sure enough.  Papa Branch reached across the table with his big old Kodiak bear paw and smacked Brody hard on the side of his head. Wham!

"God damn it, Branch. Now he'll have to stay out of school for the rest of the week," Mama Candace complained. She meant because of the lump and the bruise which she didn't want to have to explain.  It used to be Alexander who got hit all the time til he turned thirteen and grew almost as tall as Papa Branch. These days Brody was the main target because Brody could never remember the house rules, one of which was that us foster kids couldn't talk at meals unless a grownup asked us a question.

Brody was the youngest of us, only eight years old. His mom was a schizophrenic who used to make Brody wear tinfoil on his head so the government spies wouldn't listen to his thoughts. Papa Branch said Brody'd probably turn  schizophrenic, too, soon as he hit adolescence.

 Whenever the subject comes up, Brody always defends his mom. He once said she was practically a saint cause she worked so hard to keep herself and Brody safe.  "Wait til she takes a potato peeler and tries to peel off your skin," Alexander told him. Alexander's mother was shot to death by his father who's in jail for the rest of his life, so you can't really blame him for being cynical.

After Papa Branch smacked him, Brody just sat there without moving like he'd been turned to stone. With his skinny neck and arms, he looked kind of like a sculpture made out of pipe cleaners. The side of his face where he'd been hit had turned bright pink and pieces of his straw-colored hair were sticking straight up like someone in a cartoon who's just been electrocuted. He was staring into space with those foggy grey-green eyes of his. I got up from the table and went over to hug him. I couldn't help it cause he looked so pathetic.

Anger 2 Royalty Free Stock Images - Image: 1741489"Sit down, Sabrina," Papa Branch yelled but I ignored him. I knew he wasn't going to hit me cause that'd be two of us not going to school which would make Mama Candance mad as a wet hen. Truth is, I'd planned to skip school anyhow and maybe I'd sneak back home later and check up on Brody,

Brody leaned into me when I put my arms around him but he still didn't make a sound. "It's okay," I told him, "It'll be okay," which was a stupid thing to say because nothing was ever going to be okay in this sorry-assed foster home.

I was probably the luckiest one here. Until I was fourteen I was raised by my two great aunts who lived together in a big old three-story house with maple trees all around it. Aunt Terrie was an accomplished shop lifter and con artist who made sure I got what I needed in the way of  material goods while Aunt May put herself in charge of my education, focusing mainly on etiquette, fine arts, and elocution. It was after Aunt Terrie got busted at Macy's sneaking a cashmere sweater into her purse and Aunt May got judged incompetent that I was placed in foster care with the infamous O'Donnells.  By then my survival skills were pretty well honed and there was nothing the two of them -- Branch and Candace, I mean -- could do to ruin me.

By the time I left for school, Brody still hadn't said a single word. Mama Candace was making him clean the kitchen floor on his hands and knees, scraping away with a big old scrub brush. Papa Branch had already taken off for work. He was the maintenance man at the Presbyterian church and would probably get fired eventually like he always did for being lazy and drinking on the job. Most of the O'Donnell's money came from fostering us kids which, of course, was the whole reason they took us in.

I arrived at school about fifteen minutes or so after the bell rang for classes to begin. I crept quietly into the staff room and stole a half-eaten loaf of banana bread and a bag of fritos. Then I snuck back to the O'Donnells where I found Brody sitting on the steps of the back porch. Mama Candace was locked away in her bedroom having it on with her latest lover, a construction foreman named Kurtz,  so I knew she wouldn't be around to bug us.

I handed Brody the bag of fritos but he wouldn't eat any until I tore open the bag and placed one between his lips. After that he kind of woke up out of his trance and ate like he was half-starved which he probably was since half of what Mama Candace gives us to eat is only a step or two up from pig swill.  After he'd polished off the fritos and banana bread, the two of us just sat there for awhile. Then Brody started to talk.

"You know that bird I saw this morning, the one that goes 'Woo-hoo, woo-hoo'?"  I nodded. "Well, I figured out what kind it was. It's what my mom used to call a chuckle bird." Brody paused to lick some crumbs off his lips. "See, a chuckle bird is sent by God because God wants us to be happy -- that's what my mom says."

"If God wants you to be happy, why did he let your mom be schizophrenic?" I started to say but I stopped myself in time and pretended to clear my throat instead. Brody's fragile little glass world was bound get kicked to pieces sooner or later but I wasn't about to sign on as part of the demolition crew.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What I Am Longing For

It's simple. What I am longing for is spring. I mean real  spring which is not what we have here in the mountains of north central New Mexico.

What we have here is wind -- a sort of atmospheric temper tantrum on the part of an enraged earth spirit. We have brown -- lots of that --interspersed with the dull green of a desicated Christmas tree. Oh come, come, you will say, there are flowers if you look carefully, and, yes, there are but not the ones that belong here. The flowers that belong here will arrive after the monsoon season in mid-July.

In addition to wind, we have out here what I call tease clouds. These are brooding cumulus masses that are supposed to deliver rain or snow but, after raising every one's hopes, simply move on. Sometimes there are a few flakes, half a dozen plump drops of rain staining the sidewalks. I worry aloud about future forest fires and am told, "Well, really, when you think about it, what's left to burn?" Still, I leave my car windows open as an invitation to the rain gods, hoping they will take the bait. In the meantime...

I saunter nostalgically down memory lane summoning the image of  acacias bursting with fluffy, bright yellow bloom which (admittedly) leave half the population of Marin County, California watery-eyed and sneezing. These are followed, in February, by flowering fruit trees -- a veritable pastel explosion. But the latter, though impressive, isn't what I miss the most. What I miss the most are dazzling green fields smeared with mustard flower, brazen orange poppies interspersed with purple meadow lupine, mission bells, shooting stars, wild radish, blue-eyed grass, baby blue eyes, ceanothus, buttercups, trillium, Douglas Iris...

You see, spring, to my way of thinking, should not tiptoe in with a tulip here, a daffodil there, a scrawny spray of forsythia. No, spring should erupt with color, explode with beauty and variety. Spring
 should astonish, dazzle, overwhelm.

This verdant  and kaleidoscopic  panorama is, of course, the product of coastal California's rainy season -- soft, persistent drizzles that last for days and sometimes continue into May and early June. I can't believe I used to grumble in soggy-spirited annoyance while navigating around puddles and scraping mud from my shoes.

 " Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got til it's gone."

  In April, if you stand on a high cliff by the Pacific Ocean, you will see the hills below you covered with magenta ice plant. You will breathe in the rich sea-level air, heavy with moisture, and hear the hiss of churning waves raking pebbles and collapsing against white sand.  If you listen carefully,you can hear the bark of seals from a distant rock harshly punctuated by the nearby scream of gulls.

Shortly after I wrote this, a quantity of precipitation arrived, here in remotest New Mexico, in the form of rain, hail and then snow,enough to weigh down whatever is struggling to bloom in this meteorologically eccentric part of the world.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reflections on the Telephone (including but not limited to Caller ID)

I have never been fond of telephones. In fact, talking on the phone is generally a near-traumatic experience. Why?  I couldn't say. Why does anyone develop a particular phobia? My former mother-in-law was terrified of heights and she passed this on to her son who passed it on to his daughter. Thus, one could argue in favor of a genetic predisposition or, on the other hand, one could argue that it is an environmentally-instilled fear.

I suspect I inherited my phone-o-phobia from my mother. Since she was all about self-discipline and pulling oneself up by one's boot straps, she refused to succumb to fears. She did tell me though, in a rare confessional moment, that as a young woman, she used to sit by the phone and cry before summoning the courage to make a call. Her own vulnerability did not prevent her, however, from dragging me out from under my bed for an obligatory over-the-phone chat with Great Aunt Ruthie.

When I was a child, telephones were hard black objects that squatted on a table or clung like bulky alien lifeforms to a wall.  Each one had a receiver and a dial that whirred and clicked. Their ring tones were generally ominous and loud. Who, in their right mind, would wish to respond to such a thing? I certainly didn't.

Later, the invention of answering machines made the prospect of talking over a wire somewhat less traumatic. If the caller was someone with whom you actually wanted to communicate, you could pick up the phone the minute you heard their voice. If it was someone you wished to avoid, you could elude them indefinitely.

Then along came cell phones: compact, colorful, with an infinite variety of ring tones and games to play when you weren't busy chatting. You could even use the camera function to prove that the peace officer apprehending the boy in the hoodie really was using unnecessary force.

 One's cell phone is almost a part of one's anatomy though, on occasion, it disengages itself and you have to use your land line (or someone else's cell) to discover its hiding place.

In addition to voice mail, cell phones have caller ID which is an anxiety-reducing function similar to the answering machine.

Is the cell phone a true antidote to phone-o-phobia?  Not quite.  You still have to call people back and what if you don't know them at all, or  at least not very well? Then you are certain to stammer and blunder and blab and generally present yourself as a linguistically-challenged nincompoop.

 The only way to seem eloquent is to text. Texting gives you time to think before blurting things out you immediately want to take back. Perhaps this is why teenagers like it so much. The recipient of the text can't hear the pernicious squeak of your changing adolescent voice, the intermittent lovesick gulp, the unintended hiccup or the persistent stammer of embarrassment. I am not afraid of texting at all and I wish everyone would do it. The thing is most people my age don't like it. In fact, most people who are elderly or in late middle age are downright scornful of the process. Clearly these are people who do not suffer from phone-o-phobia.

Behind The Mask Stock Photography - Image: 19187902Back to caller ID.  I read recently that it is possible to fake it -- i.e., pretend that you are someone you're not. This gives me pause for thought. What if the announced caller is not my good friend but rather someone lurking behind my friend's name who wishes me ill? Am I vulnerable now to verbal assassination by an impostor?

Although the occasions when I have misplaced my cell phone have been cause for panic, there is a part of me that wishes I could be phone-free forever.  For the rest of my life. That I could venture out into the wide world and nobody would be able to contact me. Being permanently attached to my cell phone makes me feel a little bit like a marionette. On the other hand, I've gotten used to having my strings pulled, and I suppose, in a sense, we are all each other's puppets.

not quite a self-portrait

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Poem in Iambic Trimeter

This winter-colored scene:
 Stale brown and brittle green
And the relentless sun,
Bauble of cloud, finespun
Against merciless blue:
Frivolous curlicue
of dry fluff, cluttering;
No rainstorm, stuttering
Sleet, or hard-tapping hail...

How can our lives prevail
Clinging to spartan stone?
The high winds moan, they moan
Rising in the parched throat,
The strangled, broken throat

Of the dying land....