Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On the Subject of Cars

I don't really like cars. In this respect, I think I am probably unusual. I do, of course, appreciate the convenience of having a car at one's disposal.  Waiting for buses (which I did for a couple of car-less years) can be annoying especially if it is raining or unusually windy or cold.  On the other hand, bus passengers can be rather entertaining. For instance, I remember a woman ecstatically clutching a number of items she'd just purchased from the Goodwill Store. "I used to not be caught dead going to some second-hand store," she gloated. "What a fool , huh? What a fool!" The pure pleasure she took in her conversion was
contagious and I departed the bus in a state of euphoria.

I don't remember ever having a "first car" all my own. After receiving my license at the age of seventeen, I borrowed my mother's car and proceeded to back it into a pole at a fast-food establishment called Hot Shoppes (similar to present-day Sonic). That incident was the first of a number of incidents in which I backed into things. Fortunately it coincided with my getting accepted to the college of my choice so my mother wasn't all that mad. She was less forgiving when that same car, which I had hastily parked slamming the gear into reverse rather than park, ended up in a neighbor's front yard.

Just after we were married, my husband and I purchased (with some help from his parents) an Opel Kadett station wagon. (At that time Opels were still made in Germany.) What I remember about this car is that Rick was always locking the doors and leaving the keys inside. Eventually a former car thief taught us how to gain entry by using a bent coat hanger.  I grew to hate this car because whenever I drove it, it sputtered and died.  Rick would have to come to my rescue. One quick turn of the key in the ignition and the damn car revived. Perhaps my former husband was a car whisperer. That's the only explanation that makes sense because he had no mechanical skills whatsoever.

My father was a Unitarian minister in the days when preachers still had dignity. His strong belief was that someone of his profession should drive a somber-looking car, i.e. a black one, a squat, ugly-looking black one. A year or two before he died, though, he boldly departed from tradition and bought a navy-blue Nash which had to be the ugliest car ever made. I thought it resembled a hideously grinning Galapagos turtle and was embarrassed to be seen riding in it. One time I was on my bike practicing wheelies in the middle of the tree-lined suburban street in front of my house, when what should come creeping  into sight over the hill but the repugnant reptilian Nash itself with my father at the wheel. Needless to say, I was grounded, my acrobatic dreams postponed indefinitely.

Ironically, the only car I've ever bonded with wasn't actually mine. It was a Toyota Previa that in fact belonged to the family of one of my special needs clients. Various people suggested that it looked like a condom and maybe it did but I didn't care. SUVs were in and mini-vans were out, hence the derogatory remarks. The Previa was bigger than any car I'd ever driven. I felt elevated and powerful, cozy and well-protected. This was a vehicle I could live in if I had to. (Having once or twice fallen on bad times, I was always looking for make-do possibilities.)

After a number of years, the Previa gave up the ghost and I ended up driving a Toyota Corolla which I still have. It is a sturdy, serviceable car and I'm not complaining. It is heavily dented because a well-meaning gentleman with the sun in his eyes accidentally drove into the side of it. Years later, another well-intentioned person backed into it and slightly enlarged the dent. There is, in addition, a bullet-sized hole in the rear bumper which I acquired while being pursued by members of the Mafia hell-bent on trying to silence me.

Additionally, the doors on two of the interior compartments have broken as has the handle to the door on the driver's side. There are two prominent cracks on the front windshield and the left side view mirror has been shattered. Since none of these cosmetic flaws interfere with driving, I have chosen not to spend my scarce monetary resources getting them repaired. Though the car looks like shit,  its internal organs remain healthy and that's what counts. People whose self-esteem is linked to the the make, year and pristine condition of their vehicle inspire nothing but pity and contempt on my part. To quote the infamous Mrs. Rafina Draminsky, "A car is a machine the purpose of which is to get you from one place to another. If yours is a work of art, then park it in a museum!"

That could be a matter of sour grapes on Mrs. Draminsky's part, and mine too, but I honestly believe that were I  to become the proud winner of a brand new car, I would sell it in order to buy and fill another floor-to-ceiling book case or maybe take an extended vacation on some tropical isle.

Or, if I was feeling generous, I would give it to my oldest grandson who, being infinitely more sensible and conscientious than his nana, might actually take good care of it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Writing

The rarest thoughts
have wings of tissue that
once torn, remain
forever grounded...

Inspiration of the kind
worth sharing
rarely can
take flight;

through you always
remember how it feels
the lift, the thrust,
and now aloft...

Sweet savagery of wind,
bare, craggy heights,
nearness of dimpled cloud
and shock of sunlight...

Green sea beneath
all gold-chipped
tumble of waves and sweep of froth
that cannot stop

that cannot stop,
that, surely,
cannot stop,

And yet
inevitably does.
World without end
but ending

Wings ripped to shreds,
all broken now,
nerve endings
shrieking pain,

and all that remains:
faint shadow of wings,
the leap
and the ache of the love of it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Pre-Christmas Dialogue in Monosyllables

Royalty Free Stock Photo: Dry land. Image: 15445855
A poem in short words?

Why not give it a try?

Why should I?

What do you want to say?

In truth, I don't know.
The sky is blue. There is no snow.
There should be snow.

A drought, you think?

This land is like a thing used up,
Royalty Free Stock Image: Deadwood and desert. Image: 19680296
all  dust and dry curled leaf,
thin bare bones of trees
and not a cloud to be seen.

No clouds?

Not a one.

Well, take heart, the snow will come.

Will it?

It's bound to, don't you think?

I don't know. The earth has changed.

Change can be good.

Not this change, I think.
Stock Photo: Nativity Mary and Baby Jesus Woodcut. Image: 16916550
Don't yield to grief, just think...

Of what?

Of joy -- the joy that was,
The joy that is to come.
A star will blaze;
A child will be born.
 Hope will be born. Hope can't help being born.

Hope should be white and moist
A slow melt down to the roots of plants;
This blue sky mocks, I think.
But, yes, I will hope -- for snow, for peace,
For the flow of streams,
for new green growth and the end of fear and want.
Royalty Free Stock Photography: Pandora. Image: 12274277

You know the myth?
Hope is what stayed in the box
When the bad things got out.

Yet, hope with no cause is a sad, doomed thing.

Hope is what it is.
It will not stay lost.
It is the first, faint light in the dark,
The last of the lights to go out.
It is the gaze that looks up,
Hope is what binds us to this world.

Then let's drink to hope.

Royalty Free Stock Images: Girl enjoying the winter. Image: 22217489

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On Gratitude, Loss, and the Afterlife

Stock Photo: Thanksgiving set 2. Image: 16850710

Thanksgiving Day, 2012.

Throughout this month people have openly (and sometimes ostentatiously) published their gratitude on Facebook and I am sure their motives for doing so are pure.

I'm thinking, though, about my friend, Ellie.  Ellie just lost a daughter who was also my friend -- one of my best friends actually. Knowing Ellie, I'm sure there are many things for which she is still grateful. She is not one to nurse her wounds however cruelly inflicted. Even so, I wonder if she experiences the holiday bustle and ebullience all around her as something like a chasm surrounded by glitter, sequins sewn along the edges of a wound.

To lose one's child. To me, that is unimaginable grief. Leigh, or McEwan as I called her, was my very good friend and I loved her dearly. For me, her death is not quite real partly because I live so far away from where she lived and am able to grasp only in brief powerful shocks the fact that I won't see her in this world again.

Does Death sit silently in the shadows, smirking, as we gush out gratitude for our successes, comforts, safety nets?  We all die, that is true -- many of us while still young, many from circumstances that could have been rectified if others had paid more attention, been more generous.

The death of a loved one hurts like nothing else does. It is an aching hollowness, and, at the same time, a heaviness that pulls down on you so hard you can scarcely breathe or stand.

Royalty Free Stock Image: Mexican Coyote Wolf Illustration. Image: 22895046I don't pretend to know whether souls exist and, if they do, where they travel to after death. What I do believe is that each afterlife story should fit each unique soul. Thus, I imagine that Coyote, a trickster god, took custody of the soul of my friend, Sherryl. In at least one native American myth, Coyote is the one who brings death to humankind. He does it because otherwise the earth will soon be overcrowded with no  room on it for newborn souls.  Sherryl was always delighted by people she deemed to be "brand, spanking  new souls." She loved practical jokes and was willing to take the chance of finding herself in ridiculous situations.  Pretty much like Coyote.

For McEwan, though, I imagine a more elegant transition. What comes to mind is the novel, The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. In that story, all but one of the unicorn population had been imprisoned in the sea by an evil wizard. What I am proposing is that, after the unicorns were liberated, a few of them chose to remain as free denizens of the ocean. One of these, perhaps, was the magnificent Unicorn King, a numinous creature, white as surf all over, with eyes as blue as the bluest imaginable skies.

I believe that just before McEwan took her very last breath, she saw him, suffused with sunlight, immense and dazzling, his great head bending over her, almost reverently, perhaps touching her on the lips with his spiral horn. I believe that, seeing him, she let go, let the last bit of her life slip away, that she mounted  the Unicorn King and lay her exhausted body against his back, her face buried in his  foaming mane. I believe the two of them took off across the sea, across many seas, until they reached...whatever it is we reach when our time comes due.

Stock Image: Unicorn collage. Image: 19035321

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reflections of Numbers

Royalty Free Stock Photography: Think Numbers. Image: 15091837

Numbers. I never cared for them unless (rarely) they represented an unexpected, and substantial, addition to my bank account.

In terms of numbers, I am poor.

In terms of numbers, I am old.

In terms of numbers, the world's population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet.

Numbers in history mark the times when conquerors celebrated and the defeated suffered:  1066, 1492...

Numbers, I am told, have given us our technology without which we would still be naked nomads struggling for survival in a numberless world. This makes me a hypocrite, I suppose, because I'm fond of warm houses and automobiles. Not to mention that here I am blogging away, taking access to the Internet for granted.

In truth, I am not good at numbers. Without the slightest twinge of conscience I cheated in math all through school -- except college.  I wrote essays for people who did my math homework. They got As and I passed -- a fair trade, all in all.

Numbers define us and there's no sense in fretting about it. Our age, our height, our weight, our IQ,  our GPA, the year our car was purchased, the number of friends we have on Facebook, the number of page views our blog pieces receive...

Call me Ebeneezer, but I feel as if Christmas is more about numbers these days than it is about the winter solstice or or the birth of Christ.  Even when I was a child, back in the fifties, my friends used to count the number of presents they received. I remember one friend telling me, "You didn't get very much." These days it's all about what is affordable and what is not, who will pay for it and how. There is an unpleasant, monetary-infused air of tension that hovers about the holiday. Adults must sacrifice; children must get what they want. I admit, I can't think of any way to rectify this situation other than robbing a bank.
Royalty Free Stock Photography: Christmas numbers. Image: 16885747

The best Christmases I ever celebrated weren't even on Christmas Day. They took place some days afterward when my friend, Sherryl, and I would gather with Zoe and Erik (our two charges) to open a few presents and cook up Bird's custard which we poured lavishly over apple strudel. Because of the custard, we called this "our English Christmas." Erik, being autistic, enjoyed shaking strings of bells and twirling ribbons. Zoe, who had different challenges, loved Christmas for its magic:  the lighted tree, the carols, the scented candles.  Especially the candles. After dinner and present opening, Sherryl and I played Scrabble and Zoe drilled Erik on identifying letters of the alphabet using flash cards. At some point Erik's tolerance for this game would end and he'd stand up abruptly, scattering cards in all directions. This (highly predictable) event signaled  time to enjoy a second helping of dessert.

So, what is the point of my saying all this? That numbers get in the way of having a good time? Or is it expectations of the unrealistic variety that do that?

Most of the time, numbers have had a negative influence on my life:  too many pounds, not enough money, etc.

As for Christmas...well, love drowned in numbers is still love, I suppose.

Stock Images: Christmas candle. Image: 17340804

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Vortex, Eddy Or Whirlpool With Foam

My beginning was just a continuation, a new twig caught in a whirlpool. The whirlpool was my family. My presence in it didn't change anything, didn't slow down the maniacal, swirling  waters. Maybe it sped them up a little. Some would claim that it did.

The whirlpool became a waterspout -- a small pillar of water wreaking private havoc in a private lake. Most people who observed it pretended they hadn't. Some mistook it for a specter or a miracle. Eventually it decayed and those who had been swept up in it drifted apart.

My true beginning happened when I left the East coast for California. I chose the sensual golden hills, the manzanita, the madrone, the live oaks, the creeping fogs, the appalling vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I married,  settled down and soon created my own whirlpool into which my daughter was born. Eventually she broke free, swimming off on her own.

For much of our lives, I think, we are captives of a circular momentum -- a senseless chaotic repetition of  actions (our own and other people's) we aren't quite strong enough to escape.

The beginning is when we finally break free of the whirlpools and the waterspouts, when we experience that wonderful sensation of swimming alone toward a chosen destination.

I am (as you can see) quite fond of metaphors and so my metaphor for this sense of breaking free is taken from last summer's visit to the coast of Maine. There I plunged, quite on impulse and fully clothed, into the chilly waters of Grimes Cove and swam, buoyed by ocean swells, toward the float (at high tide, a good distance from the shore) that had been there ever since my childhood. I pulled myself up onto the float and lay on my back. I was breathless, tingly and euphoric.

I was an old woman beginning anew.

Monday, November 5, 2012


I have the reputation for getting angry too easily.

From my perspective, what I'm prone to do is tell what I believe to be the truth even if it hurts people's feelings and ruins the cocktail party or the family gathering. I'm not defending this and, over the years, I have learned to take deep breaths and bite my tongue even to the point where I feel like a hypocrite.

My daughter just published a rant on her blog about how our education system has failed her children and I can't restrain myself from jumping on the band wagon.

 I've worked in several of California's public schools in various capacities since 1981. Here are some things I've learned, solely by experience, and I have no doubt they can be applied to New Mexico or any other state in the USA.

Catering to each child's individual learning style is not easy in a class of twenty or more students and it is certainly incompatible with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, not to mention standardized testing.

Most teachers think bad behaviors are the result of bad parenting while parents think bad behaviors are the result of bad teaching.

Only a few teachers consider "misfit" students challenging and interesting; most prefer students who can follow directions the first time they're given, students who can  quietly and accurately complete a worksheet without drumming on the desk, squirming, whistling or talking.  

Elementary school teachers are shockingly deficient in areas such as Social Studies -- i.e., their knowledge does not extend beyond the text books they use, most of which are glib, inaccurate and supremely boring.

Teachers tend to resent other teachers who go the extra mile or are singled out for being innovative and inspiring.

On the other hand, being named "teacher of the year" means precisely nothing when it comes to broad-mindedness, compassionate teaching, impartial grading, etc. What it probably means is the administration is pleased with you.

In affluent school districts, parents can, and do, intimidate teachers, turning them into sycophants and lackeys.

Many education courses appear to consist of filigreed structures of meaningless jargon which have no relevance whatsoever to what actually goes on in a classroom.

"Experts" on education tend to be overpaid masters of newly-minted cliches.

Most parents could not do a better job than their child's teacher, though some undoubtedly could.

Is  our educational system broken? Certainly it is and here's why...

Enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, one's subject combined with an innate ability to teach and a capacity for empathy and compassion is RARE, RARE, RARE. It cannot be procured by offering mediocre salaries, politically-generated goals based on rote learning, and intimidating consequences for failure to reach such goals.

Friday, October 26, 2012

In My Bathroom

I am in the bathroom of my apartment in Fairfax, California. I have been here for a long time, at this point close to an hour. No, I do not have the runs. Or a stomach virus. I am here because there is a stranger in my living room talking to my husband.  Because of the floor plan of this apartment, I can't leave the bathroom without being seen by the stranger. If I am seen by the stranger, I will have to introduce myself. My husband will not introduce me because introducing people is a social skill he hasn't acquired. I will have to say, "Hi, I'm Bronwyn," and the stranger will say, "What? Brownwyn? Bronson? Benson?"

At age almost thirty, I am sick unto death of this routine and so I have opted to remain in the bathroom until the stranger leaves. If necessary, I'll stay until midnight. I'll curl up on the bathmat with a rolled towel under my head and sleep here. If the stranger needs to relieve himself, he's out of luck because I AM NOT UNLOCKING THE DOOR.Hairdress Haircare Hairdry

In the meantime, I take down my hair dryer. I turn it on high and its amplified mosquito-sounding whine drowns out the voices in the living room. I have already towel dried my hair after stepping out of the shower half an hour ago and it is no longer wet, just slightly damp. I try to create an old-fashioned pageboy hair style by turning the ends under with my comb. My hair is slippery and fine and rarely cooperates with any attempt to control it. Consequently, half of the ends turn under and the other half insist  on flipping up.

 After awhile, I get sick of the hair styling  ruse but I can't stop because I'm out of reasons for remaining in the bathroom. The stranger probably already thinks I'm weird. That's okay, though, because the year is 1973 and, in Fairfax, California, which is about 30 miles North of San Francisco, it's still au courant  to be weird. In fact, I could be sitting in here stoned out of my mind on acid and most people wouldn't bat an eye. If discovered, I could say, "I'm really digging the molecules in this shower curtain," and most people would say, "Cool!" and go off in search of their own alternative reality.

Right now, though, I'm thinking that being held prisoner in my very own bathroom by my very own choice is massively dysfunctional. It's not my fault, though; it's my parents' fault for naming me Bronwyn. It's also my husband's fault for inviting someone I don't know into our apartment.

I notice that the hair dryer feels as if it's overheating but I'm afraid to turn it off. Also, my hair has begun to smell singed. I summon up courage by taking one deep breath, then another. On the third inhalation, I turn the dryer off.

 I listen. Listen some more. No voices. Nothing. With trembling hand,  I unlock the bathroom door and opening it a tiny crack,  peer out. My husband is humming but that doesn't tell me anything. My husband is always humming even while he talks. He is a musician but his music is complex, unconventional and, speaking on behalf of the unenlightened public, generally unfathomable. I can't decide whether he is a genius or a schizophrenic.  Maybe both.

I speculate on what will happen if I venture out of the bathroom.  Possibly the stranger, who has been hiding in the kitchen, will pounce on me. "Gotcha, Bronson!" he'll say, laughing.

Finally, after five minutes of nothing but humming, I take my courage in hand and walk out. No one is there but my husband who has picked up his guitar and is plucking the A string over and over. He doesn't notice me until I  sit down next to him and clear my throat. ", hi, Bronwyn," he says, and I am thinking now that I'm lucky to be married to someone who will never think to ask me why I have spent the last two hours in the bathroom.

 I want to ask about the stranger but decide it is better just to let it go. If it was hospitality he was looking for, he won't be back anytime soon.

Hippie Guitar Player

Friday, October 19, 2012

Concerning Cobwebs

Cobwebs.  They are actually spiderwebs with an implication of dustiness and disuse. Abandoned spiderwebs, perhaps.  You are supposed to get rid of them since their presence in your home is clearly a sign of poor housekeeping.

Yet these structures, even when sooty, torn and sagging, are a miracle of meticulous construction. No other creature can produce this phenomenon: create art using materials from its own body. When new, they shimmer in the slant of a sunbeam. They are beautiful but cunningly constructed to kill. A filigreed slaughterhouse, an abattoir disguised as a fairy castle.

In science fiction people sometimes dress in clothes made of spider silk which are always described as soft and incredibly light.

Spiders evoke fear in a lot of people though only a few of them are poisonous. They creep around on eight spindly legs, have multiple eyes and disproportionately fat bodies. These are features which many humans find revolting.

On the positive side there is Spiderman who is feared only by those who've gone over to the dark side. Then there is Anansi, the spider god of Africa and the Carribbean. As with Coyote and other trickster characters, he is both clever and foolish, cunning and inept. Even more compelling is Charlotte, the literary archetype of friendship and abiding loyalty, created by E.B. White. She uses her web-spinning ability to save the life of a sentient pig.

Quite frankly, I find it sad and rather hypocritical that the very children who cried their eyes out when Charlotte died grow up to commit  multiple homicides against harmless household spiders.

I, for one, do not kill spiders. If necessary I transport them carefully to the  great outdoors. In the days when I was teaching, both my students and my coworkers knew to alert me whenever a spider appeared in the classroom whereupon I would gently and humanely remove it from their arachnophobic presence.

In my own home, I never destroy an occupied web. Why should I?  Spiders catch flies more efficiently than I can running around with a fly swatter or a rolled newspaper. "What if it's a black widow or a recluse spider?" you ask. I have never come across either of those indoors but, if I did, I suppose I would have to kill them. Yet, I would not do so gladly. I mean, it's not their fault they carry around sacks of poison. I believe it is only human beings who deliberately chose to be lethal.

It is almost Halloween when good housekeepers will sweep away the authentic cobwebs and replace them with fabricated replicas containing synthetic spiders.  Some of these fake arachnids will move up and down  when you clap your hands. Others are constructed to crawl across the floor while their ominous-looking eyes blink red like live coals garnered from the depths of hell.

Elderly retirees such as myself sometimes imagine their once orderly, spic and span brains now cluttered with cobwebs. Old knowledge is obscured, new knowledge confounded. Thoughts no longer speed along a well-lit  road but fumble and grope through a gauzy wilderness   Cobwebs, though, can be soft as mist and ticklish as fox tails.  Perhaps senility occurs that way at times.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Interpreting Uncle Irwin

Uncle Irwin

"Is that Santa?" The black and white photo was of a bearded elderly man wearing a smile that seemed mischievous but in a good way. Almost certainly in a good way.

Child ReadingThe child carried the photo album over to where her mother was scrambling eggs in a big red bowl. "Is that Santa?" she asked again, pointing.

"No, that's Uncle Irwin, the Communist. Now take that dusty old book away from the food."

"What's Communist?"

"Someone who believes in Communism. A Russian."

"Was Uncle Irwin a Russian?

"He ran away to live in Russia is what I heard. Now stop with the questions, Carolyn Jean."



"Call me CeeJay.  What's com...comulism?"

"Some anti-American thing they have in places like Russia and China. Now put that album back and go sit at the table. Breakfast's almost ready."

"Some anti-American thing, Mom? Seriously?"  CeeJay's  fifteen-year-old brother, Prescott, entered the room scowling fiercely. He was incredibly tall and skinny and had eyes almost the color of violet. Just recently he'd dyed his straw-colored shaggy hair jet black. "Communism is a philosophy originated by Karl Marx in which the means of production is owned by the workers. 'From each according to his ability; to each according to his need'. It's never been practiced in its pure form though -- definitely not in the Soviet Union. Not in China either."

"Okay, Mr. Smarty Know-it-all. Think you're good enough to eat breakfast with us?" CeeJay noted a faint smile of pride playing on the edges of her mother's lips.  Would her mother ever smile about her that way, she wondered. It seemed unlikely. Mainly her mother wanted her to be pretty. Which, so far, at age seven, she  definitely wasn't. She was pigeon-toed, for one thing and had bad posture.  Worst of all, though, was her hair that refused to be tamed by braids, barrettes or gobs of styling gel. Her mother wasn't exactly  pretty either but she had been once  -- in the years before Daddy left and she got all thin and tired and frowny.

 CeeJay pulled an extra chair next to her own at the table and sat the album down on that. It was still turned to the page with the picture of Uncle Irwin. Where's Russia?" she asked, addressing Prescott.

"It's actually the biggest country in the world. Part in Asia part in Europe."

"Is it near the North Pole?"

"Some of it is, I guess."

"I said enough questions, Carolyn Jean. Just eat before your eggs get cold."

"How's CeeJay going to learn if she doesn't ask questions?" Prescott challenged.

Their mother sighed heavily. "She goes to school, doesn't she? Let her ask her questions there."

"I doubt her teachers receive them any better than you.  It's not like they actually know anything."

"Now, Prescott, you know that isn't true. Some of your teachers..."

"Is Santa a Communist?" CeeJay interrupted.

"Is...? Good lord, no wonder your hair's so flyaway crazy; it's got its roots in that flyaway crazy head of yours." Her mother laughed sharply in appreciation of her own wit.

"Well, he looks like a communist," CeeJay insisted. Her cheeks were beginning to burn.

"Don't you get the logic, Mom," Prescott said. "It's a false  syllogism:  Uncle Irwin is a communist; Uncle Irwin has a beard; therefore all bearded people are communists."

Their mother was no longer amused. "If the both of you don't start acting normal right this minute, I'm going to bring the TV in here and turn it on to the food channel." "And," she added, addressing her daughter, "I'll write to Santa and tell him to put a dirty old lump of coal in your stocking this Christmas."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Retrospect

In retrospect, I would have let Nursie rule my life sooner. She is, after all, my inner voice of caution and common sense, similar but not identical to what Freud referred to as the superego.

Nursie is mainly an auditory, as opposed to visual, hallucination. She speaks with a clipped, no-nonsense, grammar- school-educated British accent by which I mean she would be eligible for employment as a governess at Buckingham Palace if such a functionary were needed.

In the past, ignoring Nursie led me down a ruinous road of reckless self-indulgence. No, I will not entertain my modest readership with horrific tales of riotous living and its inevitable consequences. Suffice it to say, that only moments before I became an itinerant bag lady, Nursie broke out of jail and engineered a coup d'etat.

Now she's in charge...well, not all of the time but most of the time. Every once in awhile she takes cat naps. That's when I go online and order books from and pay for them with my credit card. Sometimes Nursie catches me in the act and marches me off to the local library. I have nothing against libraries. They are noble institutions which ensure that everybody, regardless of  their station in life, can become literate and well informed. It's just that I love the smell and feel of a new book, one that I can take down off my bookshelf and read anytime I want.

Another indulgence is buying toys, books, etc., for my youngest grandson. I adore my grandson. I also love toys except for cheap plastic ones that fall apart instantly or ones that talk. My grandson enjoys costumes and I love buying them for him. At this point, he has almost more costumes than he has clothes. As a child, I used to improvise costumes from various discarded items from my family's wardrobe. In those days clothes held up longer and were cast aside mainly because they were no longer in fashion. In these days of planned obsolescence and economic uncertainty, discarded clothing items are useful mainly as kitchen rags.

From all the above, the reader has no doubt ascertained that I am not an actual grown up, despite being more or less in my dotage. It's true, I confess. Some of us are simply incapable of maturity and that's why I have handed the reins of power over to Nursie.

Nursie's  most challenging agenda these days is keeping me away from fat, sweet, salty, delectable foods such as custard-filled maple bars, fried chicken and pizza with multiple toppings.  For the past two weeks she has been mostly successful. "Hmm," she'll intone, as I'm about to reach for a buttered roll, "Quite a few calories in that, I should think."

In summation, if I had let Nursie rule my life sooner, I would be in better physical shape and enjoying a lifestyle further away from the poverty line. I would have a graduate degree in something useful such as civil engineering instead of a useless BA in English literature with a writing emphasis. I would have a robust savings account instead of a  finger puppet collection. I would have fewer wrinkles because I would have stayed out of the sun instead of indulging in fantasies of myself with a bronze tan.

My scarred, besmirched and pitted conscience would be as smooth and as dazzlingly white as new-fallen snow. I would be enjoying a tranquil old age knowing I had led an exemplary life...

...if I had only let Nursie take over  sooner.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Honoring McEwan

My friendships have always been limited to a few people -- individuals whose unique qualities make it virtually impossible to label or categorize them.

Sherryl, about whom I've written voraciously, is one such friend.   McEwan is another.

McEwan does possess a first and/or given name -- two of them, in fact -- but I've never called her anything but McEwan.

We met as returning (i.e., non-traditional age) students at a private college in California and found we had more than a little in common. For one thing McEwan scored extremely high on the verbal section of  just about every standardized test and extremely low on the math section. I did not score quite as high on the verbal or quite as low on the mathematical but the discrepancy was nonetheless remarkable.

We also shared the difficult combination of high expectations and low self-esteem. "I think I flunked that exam," she'd say and I'd inevitably respond, "Me, too." By "flunked" we meant we probably wouldn't get an "a."  Nine out of ten times, though, we did. Get an "a" that is. We possessed a fanatical, almost frantic determination to excel but we knew this and were able to laugh at ourselves. In fact, we laughed quite a lot -- applauding our own wit, our mutual talent for satire and our capacity to view ourselves as slightly absurd.

McEwan's poetry was poignant, subtle and professional while mine was melodramatic, self-evident and puerile. My expertise was more in the short story genre, an area where McEwan perceived herself as more of a novice.  Whatever the genre, her facility and artistry with language was always astonishing.

One of the many things McEwan excelled in was her descriptions of food which were so tantalizingly accurate they made my stomach growl. Whenever one or several or her characters dined in style, her easy flow of words was rudely disrupted with audible gastronomical protests from my rebellious body.  This was especially true when our creative writing class took place just prior to lunch.

During leisure hours we indulged in diet Pepsi served in tall glasses crammed with ice and a wedge of Meyers lemon. If I stayed at her apartment for dinner, we often dined on what we called "dog food" -- some brand of canned chili, I believe, but I can't remember for sure. I do remember that it was quite tasty.

McEwan has eyes which I was once inspired to describe as "glass blue." Her eyes have appeared on the faces of various characters in my various short stories, though sometimes "glass blue" changes to "ice blue."  Just one of many examples of McEwan's generosity is that she's allowed me, for literary purposes, to borrow her eyes.

After graduation McEwan went away to graduate school while I remained in California and held various positions in the field of special education.  We communicated off and on via the phone, email, short visits. She returned permanently to California just months ahead of the time I retired and left for New Mexico.

Fate has rarely been kind to McEwan. Most of her life she has suffered a number of excruciatingly painful medical issues, both chronic and acute. Her husband had serious medical problems which precipitated his early death, while various friends and relatives have suffered painful crises.  Amazingly, no tragedy or calamity ever blunted her sensitivity or eroded her enormous capacity for empathy.  She is one who really has walked in someone else's moccasins.

Now, while still in her forties, she has been diagnosed with an especially pernicious form of Stage III breast cancer.

Breast cancer is an illness that has been highly romanticized and embroidered over with life-affirming, self-affirming psychobabble.  Like my late friend, Sherryl, McEwan shoots from the hip and has little taste or tolerance for fluff and frosting. She does not think of her disease as a self-transforming opportunity. She does not wish to cuddle a pink teddy bear. In fact, she doesn't much care for the color pink.

However, she does not appear to be harboring that perennial outcast of the human potential movement -- i.e., a negative attitude.  Simply, she prefers to be honest and finds it frustrating when people respond to her  honesty with pasted smiles and perky cliches.

In a culture where virtually everyone suffering from cancer is described as being brave, it becomes hard to honor the truly brave.  It is hard to wade through the flotsam of denial, the pep talks and the slogans out into open waters where illness means exhaustion and pain, and half of all roads to the future are signposted with fear and sorrow.

As with Sherryl, I am angry and frustrated because I cannot bargain with some disease-dispensing deity to allow me to bear half the pain, take half the cancer cells into my own body.

All I can do is say "I love you." And hope those words will shed their cliched shell and actually mean something however small and pitiful.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Regarding Deja Vu

I no longer experience this phenomenon very often these days. When I was a child, though,  it happened on a regular basis. A friend I was playing with would attempt to execute a cartwheel, tumble sideways against a dining room chair, giggle and say "phooey beans!" and I would feel as if someone had thrown a switch inside my brain.  First would come an eerie sense of physical separation, followed by a shock of familiarity as if I had witnessed every detail of this action with this exact same person before, expletive and all.

File:Ivy Hedera Red Brick Wall 2892px.jpgSometimes the focus of my experience would be a place-- someplace I was supposedly seeing for the first time:  a house surrounded by a brick wall accessible through an iron gate, a brick house half-covered in ivy with an abandoned wasps' nest attached to one of the eaves.  Had I lived there once? Visited someone who did?

I did not tell anyone about these episodes. Neurologists might claim I was experiencing a type of seizure. There are many different types of seizures I've come to find out since working in special education.

As a young adult in the late sixties I tended to ascribe these episodes to sudden links with a previous incarnation. Back then, we "radical thinkers" made a point of believing in just about anything our brainwashed, hyper-conforming  parents rejected as utter nonsense.

 I still don't dismiss the idea of reincarnation though I don't believe that being born with cerebral palsy into a family of poverty-stricken alcoholic parents is the result of previous bad karma.

To tell the truth, I miss my deja vu episodes which were kind of like taking a mild dose of a mind-altering drug. Some wise person (Carl Jung? Joseph Campbell?) suggested that humans possess a basic need for metaphysical experiences. In many primal cultures such experiences are highly valued and can even be induced without the aid of a substance such as Jimson Weed, Peyote or Cannabis Sativa.

                                                                   *  *  *

Sometimes you'll meet someone for the first time whom -- you're convinced -- you already know.

This happened to me only once with my friend Sherryl.  I, who am incurably socially awkward, felt no discomfort whatsoever on first meeting her -- none of the initial concerns such as: should I refrain from profanities or obscenities? downplay my irreverent humor? steer clear of controversial subjects?

I knew Sherryl instantly and she knew me. From the onset we conversed as if we'd been friends forever. When Sherryl was dying of cancer, we were both convinced we'd see each other again but not in some celestial afterlife of harps and frilled clouds. Neither of us specified exactly how this future encounter would occur because we didn't know. All we knew is that our connection would somehow be preserved.

 Magical thinking, some would say, a way of coping with a painful separation, with death.

It is important to be able to demonstrate what is so and what is not so. Science is, and ought to be, the basis for making decisions that affect the course of human events. But it's also important, I think, to let oneself be confounded by the sheer majesty and mystery of human existence.

Thus, deja vu can be a neurological glitch, a synaptic collision of short term and long term memory. Or it can simply be... deja vu.

In any case, Sherryl said when we met again she'd have a cup of coffee ready for me.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Criminals and Kindergartners

The days are getting shorter; the nights longer. That, at least, remains within the range of predictability. However, I can't help thinking our earth is being crudely reshaped in the hands of criminals and kindergartners.

I know, I have touched on this subject before. The other day, on a wildflower identification hike, we encountered an enormous weed patch -- a fire-eaten  shallow bowl of tangled shrubbery where Ponderosa pines once grew. Artemesia was the predominant shrub -- not bad looking really, feathery and full but not a Ponderosa pine.  Definitely not a Ponderosa pine. These weed patches will proliferate  as each summer thousands of acres of the southern Rockies burn with unprecedented ferocity.

Then there's the coast of Maine where, once upon a time, we went out every morning wearing a heavy sweater which we shed at noon and put on again just before sunset. This July, we actively sought shade at nine a.m. and never wore anything more than shorts and a tank top even after sundown. The once sharp blue sky was smeary with a thin layer of clouds. The starfish were gone or almost gone and new forms of aquatic life replaced them. The humidity reminded me of long-ago summers much further south -- in Virginia or Washington, D.C.

I have done some research online and it seems pretty clear to me that (a) global warming is a fact, and (b) that it is human caused. The majority of climate scientists think so and they can cite data to prove it.

I also believe that the the most vocal opposition consists mainly of uber-rich capitalists who trot out studies sponsored by Exxon-Mobile and other fossil-fuel-based industries.

The uber-rich capitalists won't have to endure the consequences of global warming. They will have air-conditioned mansions in cool places. They will have access to food even when half the world starves due to drought. They will still be able to enjoy their swimming pools even as the water table sinks and rivers dry up.

I think the top dogs in the energy industry know that human-caused global warming is a scientific fact. They simply don't care because they won't be negatively affected by the consequences. In the meantime, there are huge profits to be made. These are the ones I call criminals.

Then there's the kindergartners.  Kindergartners indulge freely in magical thinking -- e.g., if I want it to be so, then it is so. Attached to this assumption is its corollary: I am supposed to live happily ever after.

These kindergartners are easily persuaded by the energy industry's propaganda. They also harbor an attitude of suspicion and contempt toward environmentalists. I can sort of understand this having  observed inflexible ideologues hooting like spotted owls at town meetings as if such behavior had even a ghost of a chance of changing hearts and minds.

I am not one to claim a moral high ground. I, too, am a kindergartner, just not when it comes to global warming.

Kindergartners believe in the bottomless cookie jar. They cannot imagine a tomorrow with fewer cookies, no cookies, or no food of any kind. Someone will fix it so that this doesn't happen. The grown-ups. They. The people in charge.

 Meanwhile, we continue to raid the cookie jar, reaching down further and further as the supply dwindles, scraping the sides to gather crumbs. Eventually we smash the container to pieces, promising to glue it together later. After all, the bottom isn't really the bottom. And we can always lick the shards.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Coward's Peace

In the long-ago days of my childhood, a group of us (consisting mostly of girls) were ritually chased all over the neighborhood by a pack of bullies (consisting mostly of boys.) Those of us who could run like the wind  experienced the intoxication of speed, the exhilarating triumph of freedom . Those of us who weren't quite fast enough would run until there was no more breath in our lungs and then we would double over puffing like a steam train, clutching the side of our bodies where the stabbing pain was fiercest. When the bullies reached us we were already a conquered people, a half-dead quarry.  All that was left to do with our sad remains was to shove us roughly, into the bushes or against the nearest fence or tree trunk and be done.

I could not count myself among the human gazelles. My obsession with confections in ample quantity resulted in my carrying more ballast than I needed. Thus, I was one of the slower ones who would inevitably be caught. I was doomed to suffer the agony of a pounding heart and exploding lungs. I went around the neighborhood dreading the prospect, yet  knowing it would eventually come. I was skittery as a jackrabbit, vulnerable as a fawn in an open meadow.  I lived the whole of  my outdoor life in abject fear of pursuit.

Then one day as I was in the frantic process of making my escape, I  suddenly decided I'd had enough. I stopped, just stopped right there in the center of the sidewalk and waited. I might as well be shoved and pulled and pummeled while I could still breathe, I reasoned. So I waited for the predators to descend on me and in that waiting, that absence of struggle, I discovered an odd sense of peace. It consisted, I suppose, of simply yielding to the inevitable and knowing that, whatever my pursuers chose to do, I would not be killed or even horribly maimed. It would hurt a little, that's all. I would survive and go home to dinner licking my wounds and hoping that dessert would consist of something more tantalizing to the taste buds than canned peaches or fruit cocktail.

I stood in a half-paralyzing, half-liberating state of acquiescence, freed of  that horribly burdensome need to keep running, and watched  as the boypack came closer. And closer.  Then -- to my utter astonishment -- they parted and flowed around me as though I were a rock in the middle of a stream. Only one of them thought to shove me and he did it so half-heartedly that I easily regained my balance before toppling into a picket fence. I stared as the mongrel pack ran on in search, presumably, of more challenging prey.

That incident in my childhood has stayed in my mind as a sort of metaphor which I feel compelled, at odd moments, to pick apart.  Are there times when it is best to cease to struggle, times when the odds are so heavily stacked against you that it is better to yield quietly than continue to fight?

I remember the sense of peace I felt when I realized I could just stop running, a coward's peace perhaps, and yet...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Generations 1954 (Two Perspectives)

Miss Felicity Bryers

No doubt about it, there were certain children one simply could not make oneself like.  Even if one is an elementary school teacher. One must maintain a professional demeanor, of course. Swallow one's irritation. Smile, always smile, even if one's facial muscles ache with the effort.

Miss Bryers inhaled deeply then let out her breath in a long, weary sigh.  Every year of teaching (and there had been almost forty of them at this point), every single year, there was at least one child who tested her patience almost beyond endurance. This year it was Edwina Baker, a loud, big-boned girl with untidy hair who slouched at her desk and scowled openly whenever Miss Bryers reminded her, ever so gently, of the importance of good grooming and correct posture. Edwina wasn't actually fat like poor Junie Bass who weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds at the age of ten. Junie, though, was  quite amicable and had such a sweet dimpled smile that one could quite easily overlook her obesity.

With Edwina it was the way she flung herself about like one of those child-sized rag dolls, a grotesque, jumbo-sized Raggedy Ann. She was simply too big to romp about the way she did . If her big body had harbored a big brain, Miss Bryers might have found her more tolerable but Edwina's work was generally average or slightly above, except in math where she struggled along without bothering to hide her resentment, tapping her pencil against the metal side of her desk until she was told to stop or drumming impatiently with her feet against the floor. On one occasion she'd even dared to complain that she couldn't work the math problems without making some kind of noise.  "Nonsense," Miss Bryers had declared. "Everyone else can do it," she'd said, making a sweeping gesture with her hand around the classroom. Edwina had scowled at her but kept silent.

Then there was that incident of the Friday spelling test.

"And now let's get ready for our spelling test," Miss Bryers had announced, and Edwina had shouted out "Whoopee!" in an unmistakably sarcastic tone of voice.  Well, Miss Bryers had sent her out of the room to stand by herself in the hall -- a reasonable, in fact rather a mild punishment for such an open display of disrespect.  When the spelling test was completed and the papers collected, she'd invited Edwina to come back to class. "You may come in now, Edwina," she'd said, and Edwina had shocked Miss Bryers right down to the soles of her shoes when she answered "No thanks, I prefer it out here in the hall."

After that, things had gone from bad to worse. Miss Bryers had called in the principal,Vera Downing,  who had threatened to call Edwina father. Surely that should have frightened the incorrigible girl but Edwina only smiled -- smirked, actually-- and gazed up at the ceiling. Miss Bryers thought that, in all her days of teaching at Foster-Merriam School for Girls, she'd never witnessed such open defiance. Too bad, she found herself thinking, too bad they outlawed corporal punishment for surely what Edwina Baker deserved was a hard paddle to her backside. That would wipe the smirk off her face. Not that Miss Bryers condoned corporal punishment, but in certain cases such as this one....

And the worst of it all was there were still two more months to go before school let out and she need never come within ten yards of Edwina Baker again.

Edwina Baker

Seated on the bus on her way back home from school, Edwina conceded that she did feel just a little bit apprehensive. By now, the principal would have called her mother. Her father, of course, was permanently  unavailable for such phone calls, something she knew but which Miss Downing and Miss Bryers did not.  Anything to do with children and school was up to her  mother. Her father was much too busy writing books and traveling all over the world giving lectures to be bothered with such trifles.

Edwina was no more afraid of her mother than she was of her principal and teacher and, in that respect, she differed from most of her classmates who were completely cowed by the idea of scoldings, spankings and loss of privileges. In order to excel at being bad -- and Edwina did excel at it -- you had to live inside a cold hard anger. That way the words people threw at you were like those baby marshmallows propelled by a slingshot. Even if they stuck to you, all you had to do was brush them off.

Edwina reflected that she had been angry most of her life:  angry at her father for ordering her mother around like a servant, angry at her mother for letting herself be bossed around, angry at her grown-up sister who carried a list in her head of all the bad things people were always saying about Edwina. She was angry at Miss Bryers, too, or The Little Red Hen as Edwina preferred to call her. Miss Bryers was such a prim, fussy hen-like presence in the classroom, always offering advice that no one had asked for in the first place. Whenever Miss Bryers moved about the room glancing at every one's paper to see how they were doing, Edwina would mutter "pawk, pa wk, pa wk," under her breath. If one or more of her classmates overheard, they would smile ever so slightly. Though the other girls didn't like Edwina all that much because she was big and bony and they were all -- except for Junie Bass -- small and dainty at least they admired her fearlessness.

The reason Edwina was apprehensive wasn't about fear; it was about that sad look her mother always got whenever Edwina landed in trouble. Sad and confused.  Like she couldn't understand how Edwina  could act that way and maybe she really couldn't. In the days of her mother's childhood practically everyone  did as they were told. In her mother's day, if you weren't good, you had to sit in a corner wearing a cone-shaped cap that had "dunce" written on it. You could even get beaten on the backs of your legs with a switch. These days you just got sent out of the classroom to stand in the hall which was no big deal.  In fact, standing in the hall was better than sitting in the classroom which was why Edwina had refused to come back in. In the hall she could think her own thoughts, make up stories in her head, stories in which she put on armor and entered a tournament pretending to be a knight. In the end after she'd unseated every contender, she would pull off her helmet and shake out her long hair while all the spectators would gasp. Then Sir Julian, the Intrepid would ride forward on his palomino horse, dismount and, taking her hand, beg her to join his elite group called the Knights of the Burning Blade and she would gladly accept.

Edwina sighed. It wouldn't work indefinitely, of course -- standing out in the hall all day with no book to read or paper and pencil for writing and illustrating stories. If only she could make time jump forward two months. Then fifth grade would be over and she wouldn't have to be anywhere near Miss Bryers ever ever again.

Monday, August 6, 2012



When you were a child, did you have a special hideout in your house, your backyard or somewhere in your neighborhood?  A place nobody but you knew about? A place safe from bullies, parents, pesky siblings, disloyal friends?

I had several of these places. The first one I remember is Wisterialand.  During my childhood we lived in a large colonial-style house in Washington, D.C.  My bedroom was built over the kitchen and over the kitchen porch was a roof lavishly covered by a wisteria vine. In spring an explosion of purple clusters sent their intoxicating perfume into the air. I was captivated and so were the bees -- thousands of them swarming over the blooms.

It was because of the bees that no one expected me to venture out onto the roof. What they didn't know though  was that the bees and I were entirely compatible. They never stung me and I never, for a moment, feared they would. Their business was to harvest the sweet nectar of the wisteria; mine was to sit quietly leaning my back against the outside wall of my bedroom, concealed from view both from inside and out. I would close my eyes and inhale deeply, filling my lungs with the blossom-infused air and my ears with the low-pitched hum of the bees.

Sometimes I would think about flying, taking off from the roof, rising on the updraughts over the roofs of neighboring houses, soaring ever higher, my face caressed every now and then by fragments of  cirrus clouds.

Or I would imagine myself the same size as a bee, perhaps even disguised as a bee, another long-term denizen of Wisterialand. My parents would search for me in vain and the police, whom they would eventually call in, would fare no better. I did not think about what would happen when autumn came, followed by winter.  I was a child and winter was about as far into the distant future as adulthood or old age.

The only thing imaginable past spring was summer and then I would leave the city and go either to our farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia or else to Aunt Elizabeth's cottage on the Maine coast.

In both those places I had several hideouts.

I am an old woman now and still a product of my childhood obsession with hiding places. It has occurred to me that Wisterialand represents both my need for safety and my craving for adventure. Daring to climb out on the roof and remain there surrounded by bees is the adventurous part.  Being hidden from those I wish to avoid is, of course, the safety-seeking aspect.

Even now, wherever I happen to be, my eyes will naturally seek out hiding places:  the hollow trunk of a tree, a shallow cave in a rocky ledge, a  small opening in a clump of bushes, an abandoned house or barn, a narrow space between two buildings...

In harboring two seemingly conflicting impulses I am, I suppose, no different from most other animals. My summons, their summons, is simply this: go out into the world prepared to hide.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Poem for Educators

Sad Lonely Child

What happens to the child who knows the tune
But can't remember the words to the song,
The child who can shinny up any pole
But kicks the ball in the opposing team's goal?

What happens to the child who knows the names
Of all fifty states at the age of ten
And their capitals, too, but can't tell time
Or be able to tell you if two words rhyme?

Child Climbing Wooden Column
What happens to the child who'll take apart
a watch or a toaster and fix it like new
But can't read the words in his third grade text
And two-step directions leave him perplexed?

What happens to the child who wants to know
If kittens believe in the afterlife
Or if presidents have to follow the law
A child who can't write but who loves to draw?

What becomes of the thrush in the eagle's nest,
The gazelle  in a herd of wildebeasts
The pony who bucks and won't take the bit
Eccentric, maverick, oddball, misfit....

The child you'll never find multitasking?

Maybe these are some questions we ought to be asking?