Friday, October 29, 2010

Topic 41: A Defense of Daydreaming

The Lovers, The Dreamers and…..Me
 I’ve always had an active dream life, mostly secret, and mostly to counterbalance my self-image as a wholesome, predictable, reliable (yawn) friend. In my dreams, one minute I was Jane Austin’s best friend sitting by an English brook and the next, Zorro’s wife riding  through the countryside bringing justice to old California. My most elaborate fantasies came as I lay in the dark, just after I had put down a book and before I fell asleep.

No wonder I loved fairytales, especially those of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) who was less scary than the Brothers Grimm. Young Hans was quite a daydreamer, and his parents encouraged his imagination. The Andersens  weren’t rich, just a simple tailor and a washerwoman, but they  finally allowed him at the age of 14 to seek adventure in Copenhagen. He told his mother,  “I'll become famous! First you suffer cruelly, and then you become famous" (Source: Encyclopedia of World Biography).

And, it was by a circuitous path of disappointment, cruelty, and longing in love that he eventually become a writer, publishing his first fairy tales between 1835-37.  Andersen first took familiar folk tales and painted them out with details before he began creating his own.  The stories are invitations to travel rich and exotic fantasy realms, as in the opening paragraph of “The Little Mermaid”:
“We must not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea but bare  yellow sand. . . Fishes, both large and small, glide between the branches, as birds fly among the trees here upon land. In the deepest spot of all, stands the castle of the Sea King. Its walls are built of coral, and the long, gothic windows are of the clearest amber. The roof is formed of shells, that open and close as the water flows over them. Their appearance is very beautiful, for in each lies a glittering pearl, which would be fit for the diadem of a queen" (source:  Candlelight 

Literary authorities will point out that Andersen’s success across cultures and ages comes from themes that touch on everyone’s experiences, but for me they encouraged my own sleep-time fantasies:
Have you been half asleep
and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I've heard it too many times to ignore it.
It's something that I'm supposed to be.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me (Source: The Rainbow Connection)
‘Night, John boy. ‘Night, Zorro. ‘Night, Hans ‘Night, Kermit.’


Around the time our book of topics was published, Daydreaming was not viewed in a positive way. At best it was considered a lazy past-time – Freud called it infantile and neurotic – at worst, a pathway to psychosis (Source: NYT). So, it is possible that this might have been a controversial subject back in the 1920’s … but now daydreaming is considered a mostly harmless activity, or an occasional frustration if you are trying to teach or get the attention of the dreamer.

For as long as I can remember my day dreams have centered around coming into some sort of fortune – either through an inheritance or a generous, anonymous benefactor who wants to support my creative endeavors. How I use the money changes depending on my mood – sometimes I travel the world, sometimes I set up foundations, or artists’ retreats like Yaddo. The most recent, elaborate version of this fantasy served to kill time on the 10-hour drive I took from Portland to San Francisco at the end of August.

I was unhappy to be leaving my friends after a too-short visit and simultaneously missing my friends in England, and unsure when I would see either group again. So, on the long drive coming down the 5, I formulated the following plan. With the inheritance money, I would buy two large houses, one in Portland and one in the south of England and I would find a friend in each place to live in the house and take care of the property, garden etc. I know exactly who to ask. I would divide my time between the places, and have a private studio for writing or painting or whatever at each place. But the main point is that I would have friends wherever I lived.
That is clearly a single person’s daydream. But since I don’t have a partner or kids to worry about in real life, I forget to include them in my fantasies. I hope they get involved some day, but it’s hard for me to think about things that could happen.  Some people engage in creative visualization, but I try not to do that. Maybe I’ll change my mind at some point, but the one time I tried it, it actually worked and it completely freaked me out. I’m afraid that if I try to wield such power, I might draw the attention of spiteful, jealous spirits who will destroy everything I already have. Nope, don’t want that.

But daydreaming can serve other functions besides killing time on a long drive or visualizing the ideal life.  It can help you make a decision.  You can imagine various scenarios and results that might occur, which might focus your instincts and gut and make clear the right path.  Daydreaming can also relax your mind into a meditative state, opening your consciousness to new ideas and flashes of insight.  In any case, as pointed out in the New York Times article “Discovering the Virtue of a Wandering Mind,” we spend roughly 30 percent of our time unfocused and daydreaming, so we might as well embrace it. 

Tierney, John. "Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind." New York Times, June 28, 2010.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Topic 40: An Apology for Polite Lying


I Owe You an Apology
One of my favorite family members has always shown integrity in his words and actions, even as a small child.  He is not rude, unkind, or thoughtless, but he is honest to a fault. We’ve heard this expression before, right? Honest to a fault. The expression implies that sometimes it is better to lie if…it protects someone else from harm or hurt? Situational ethics.

Consider this parent/child scenario. Three generations of family gather around the Christmas tree. Grandma smiles on sofa as she watches adorable little  Katie open her grandmother’s gift, a sweet little Christmas keepsake engraved with Katie’s name and the date. Grand-daughter tears open the wrapping and stares at the tiny gold decoration in…gratitude? Not quite. She hurls the ornament across the room, yelling “I hate it!” Honest to a fault.  Mortified, Dad grabs Katie, “That’s not nice. Apologize to your Grandma, right now." A guileless Katie might stomp her foot and say “No. I won’t.”  A compliant Katie might pout and whisper an obviously insincere “I’m sorry, Grandma.” A contrite Katie might run to Grandma for a hug, “I’m sorry, Grandma.” Underlying this scenario is the idea that an apology only has value if it is heartfelt. An insincere expression of remorse or regret is what G.K. Chesterton calls “a second insult.”

Chesterton the Apologist
Now, the word “apology” has another meaning quite different than “an expression of regret” although we don’t hear that reference much anymore. Philosophically, an apology is a defense of an unpopular or minority position.  William F. Buckley was a major 20th century Apologist for Conservative viewpoint. C.S. Lewis was a major 20th century Apologist for Christian orthodoxy. Lewis himself  was strongly influenced by the apologetics of G.K. Chesterton, known more today for his delightful Father Brown mysteries than for his powerful religious treatises. The full Chesterton quotation, which really hinges on the notion of compassion, is: “A stiff apology is a second insult... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt”(source: 

Let’s get back to the parent/child scenario around the Christmas tree. A socially savvy Katie might pause for a minute and then apologize to Grandma with a “polite lie,” Grandma, I’m sorry. I really DO like your gift.” A tactful Katie might say with honesty, “Grandma, I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings when I threw that expensive keepsake ornament all the way across the room and almost decapitated the cat.” Or, budding Apologist Katie might say, “Grandma. I realize  that my sudden outburst might have hurt your feelings. However, modern science advocates that free and honest expression of emotions is more psychologically healthy than either stifling those feelings. I know you value honesty and would not condone hypocrisy for the sake of good manners.”

And that, dear readers, is my Apology for Apologizing. Sincerely Yours.

Sources: G.K. Chesterton quote
"Chesterton the Apologist." By John Warwick Montgomery, Patrick  Henry College.


 “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” no longer seems to be the rule. Instead, it has been replaced with, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, make something up.” 

In polite, but superficial conversation, little lies make up the majority of what is said:

“How are you? Tell me everything” (Please don’t tell me everything.)
“Oh fine. Everything’s fine” (Everything is NOT fine.)
“Is business good?”(Don't care)
“Never better” (Never worse)
“Well, you look great!” (You look terrible.)
“You too, have you lost weight?” (More like gained weight)
“Thanks so much for noticing.” (Asshole)
“We must have lunch one of these days” (Not that you need lunch)
“Of course. I’ll call you!” (I’m not going to call you)

In England, polite conversation rarely approaches the personal. Instead, it centers on the weather (and sometimes sports) – also mundane, but not soul-suckingly disingenuous.  Some people cannot handle small talk – the hypocrisy and BS feel like a huge waste of time. It’s never come naturally to me, and although I’m getting better at pulling it off, it’s difficult for me to move beyond the greeting.  Then I stand there awkwardly and fidget (that's why I liked smoking. It gave me something to do with my hands).

If you don’t lie, what is there to talk about? This theme has been explored several times in film – Liar Liar and The Invention of Lying both involve characters (or a whole world) that not only cannot lie,  also have no filters.

Comedic value aside, if that situation occurred in real life, even if people couldn’t lie, they wouldn’t volunteer a running commentary of every thought and feeling that passed through their minds. On the other hand, where would our society be without polite lying? I love this Geico commercial about Honest Abe:

He could have saved himself so much trouble. Sometimes polite lying is necessary to avoid hurt feelings and awkward moments. But in other cases, maybe we should consider going back to the original rule, or like the English, restrict our comments to the weather.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Topic 39: On Going Barefooted

Here He Comes Justa Walkin’ Down the Street

My favorite scene in the 1979 movie 10 is the beach segment. Swathed head to toe in a heavy sweatsuit, Dudley Moore imagines himself running in slow motion along a smooth shoreline to embrace a corn-row coiffed Bo Derek running towards him in slow motion, all legs and sexy movement choreographed to the sensuous rhythms of Bolero. Bo is the iconic fantasy woman. Unfortunately, there is a lot more of the goofy Dudley Moore in me than the lithesome Bo Derek. When I run on the beach, the sounds in my head are more rap than rhapsody:  “ooh, ah, it burns; ooh, ah, throw me a towel; ooh, ah, it stings.”

Flash forward to the winter of 1989. Swathed in boots, overcoat, mittens and muffler, I make my way along the long, smooth path from Yavapai College to the parking lot. I’m going in slow motion, held back by the gusts of wind swirling snow flakes into my face. I look up, and glimpse a coatless figure coming toward me, all legs and pig-tailed hair. Am I having a retro-vision of 10? As the figure approaches, the image sharpens and I see that it is a man, maybe not a 10 but somewhere up there, and…..he is barefooted. I pull my heavy coat more snugly around me as I prepare to pass, ready for a close encounter with Prescott’s own iconic fantasy man Cody Lundin.

Cody has been a familiar figure around Prescott for more than 20 years. He founded his Aboriginal Living School here in 1991 and teaches popular outdoor survival skills classes at Yavapai College.  Why the bare feet?  “Going barefoot forces me to pay attention to my environment. I see more, I have better focus, I feel a greater connection to the planet; all very valuable survival traits” (source: Cody Lundin homepage). The shorts, long pigtails and bare feet are probably the most superficial evidence of an expertise and philosophy committed to a primitive, back-to-nature lifestyle.

If Cody’s bio sounds familiar, you may be a fan of his Discovery Channel television show Dual Survival. I haven’t seen it myself, but my husband insisted on recording all the episodes and he may someday get around to actually watching the final 6 stored on our TV along with Sons of Anarchy and old Deadwood episodes. 

Lundin celebrated the success of Dual Survival by hosting a screening of the final episode in the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, joined by an auditorium full of  friends, fans and former students. His television show isn’t the beginning of a public career, just another phase of one that has included a cover story in the October 2003 issue of Backpacker magazine, interviews in The Atlantic magazine (May 2009) and National Geographic Adventure (August/Sept 2009), and countless radio and television spots. His latest? A July 27, 2010 interview with Al Gauthier and Tina Dubois, hosts of The Living Barefoot Show, a Podcast and website dedicated to "exploring the world of, you guessed it, living barefoot” (source: Living Barefoot website).

As for me, I’m all in favor of living a natural lifestyle. And what’s more natural than bare feet?  But, that’s not MY nature. “Ooh, ah, hand me my slippers.”

 Cody Lundin
 Dual Survivors
 Living Barefoot

Musings On Going Barefoot

My little cousins basically live on a farm (with the chickens) and spend most of their time barefoot. I know their parents put them in shoes before sending them out to play, but they don’t keep them on as evidenced by the 5 pairs of little shoes I found within kicking  distance of the swing-set. I was baby-sitting them last week and the little girl had a cold and was in a bad mood. She buried herself in some pillows all the while mumbling that she had a lot of friends but I wasn’t one of them and that she wished her mommy was there. After a couple minutes the grousing gave way to snoring.


Two childhood influences have shaped my preference for going barefooted. The first was Pippi Longstocking, who always wore huge shoes so she could wiggle her toes. I imagine the idea charmed me at first, but it eventually developed into a thing  –  if I can’t wiggle my toes then I get  claustrophobic. As I’ve gotten older and developed a liking for cute shoes, I’ve still never gotten into pointy-toed shoes. Most high heels trap my toes, so I can’t wear them very long, but I’ve discovered that if I can see my toes – like with peep-toe shoes  – even if I can’t move them, I’m ok.

( I would not be okay if I was already barefooted, but unable to move my toes. )

The second demonstrates the effect my friends had on me. I must have been about 4, when I came home from the babysitter and solemnly informed my father that my friend Crystal didn’t like Jews. “What do you mean?” cried Dad, aghast.
“Everyday,” I continued, “Crystal comes home and takes off her socks and her Jews.”
Eventually, I grew out my lisp, but not the habit of kicking off my shoes the second I walk in the door.

(My parents stopped using that babysitter after it turned out that my brother’s frequent mispronunciation of the word “truck” was not, in fact, a mispronunciation but echolalia.)

Anyway, I go barefoot whenever I can. When I was studying Spanish in Mexico, this horrified my host lady’s grandson. He was about 5 and whenever he saw me wandering the house without shoes, he would point at my feet and scream. His mother explained to me that she broke him of the same habit with stories of scorpions and broken glass and that maybe she’d gone a little far.

Speaking of broken glass, last summer I was in a wedding. The night of the rehearsal dinner carried on in merriment and drinking long after Kelly, the bride-to-be, had gone to bed. Someone dropped a glass and it shattered on the kitchen floor, and the groom-to-be asked us to be sure to clean up every shard because “Kelly likes to go barefoot, and I don’t want her to get hurt.” That’s when I knew for sure that I liked him. 

It's starting to get too cold to go barefoot around the house now, but I'm holding out as long as I can. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Topic 38: The Enchantment of Distance

Dancing Down Memory Lane

From the distance of 50-some years, my childhood evokes mostly happy memories, tricks of the imagination that soften the edges of real life, exaggerate the shapes and colors into a fairy-tale picture where everything is bigger, better, and brighter. Some of those memories deserve a special  spot in the  memory bank: my first visit to Disneyland, our field trip to Los Angeles Harbor to watch the filming of Preston Foster’s TV show Waterfront, my first performance of a live ballet.

Franz and Coppelia
Even from my seat near the back of the huge auditorium, I can see how beautiful she is as she reads on the balcony of her old European villa. All attention is drawn to her beautiful, big, dark eyes even as dancers swirl in the artificial square beneath her high perch.  She seems oblivious to the movements below her, even to the attentions of a young man who throws a kiss—a possible suitor? But, she is distant, even cold, as she reads on that balcony. The magic  continues as the story of the smitten Franz, his jealous girlfriend and the beautiful Coppelia unfolds to the music of 19th century French composer Leo Delibes. 

Only during the end of ACT II does our audience of children from all over Los Angeles realize the reason for Coppelia’s aloofness. She is a life-size doll who has only achieved life and allure through the imagination of her maker Dr. Coppelius and the infatuation of the young peasant  Franz. The enchantment has been undone by the flesh-and-blood Swanilda,  her frenzied, destructive dance through Coppelius’ toy shop  a high point of the ballet.

This 1870 ballet is all about tricks and illusion. Franz becomes captivated by the strange beauty poised on the distant balcony despite his promise of faithfulness to the full-of-life Swanilda. Dr. Coppelius is tricked by Swanilda into believing that his beautiful puppet daughter has come to life as Swanilda-disguised-as-Coppelia twirls through his shop. The story, based on several  of The Tales of Hoffman, is really about disenchantment; happy endings can be found when our feet are firmly planted on the ground, in the real world.

The last time I went to a live ballet performance was in Prescott about 20 years ago. Tickets for the third row, I was excited. To see the dancers twirl and point up close…what a treat. The auditorium filled, the lights dimmed, and the curtains went up. The floorboards of the old stage creaked, and so did some of the dancers’ knees. Up close. The stage make-up looked like grotesque masks and couldn’t always hide the beads of sweat on the dancers’ faces. Up close. The costumes were still lovely but a little worn, the toe shoes a bit frayed.  Up close. I don’t  remember which ballet it was, but no one would have believed Coppelia on her balcony was real from that third-row vantage point.

I’ll never forget my first ballet, the delight of the fantasy revealed to a ten-year old. But, 40 years later when, in my disappointment I turned around from my up close seat at Hendrix Auditorium, I saw the faces of children all over the theater…full of delight and total enchantment.

Source: Coppelia. A Ballet in Three Acts.


My garden in March, England
I was 18 the first time I travelled alone.  I went to Mexico to study Spanish.  On my 21st birthday, I landed in England to begin my junior year of college, unaware that I would fall in love with the country and spend 7 of the next 8 years there. But living abroad is very different from travelling abroad. The thing about distance is that it changes your perspective on whatever it is you are looking at – a place, an idea, a person maybe. Little details blend together and the image is softened. This may be what people find so enchanting about distance… you can look out across a valley or an ocean, and instead of dangers and pitfalls, you see possibility and freedom. Until you get there.

Somewhere in my childhood journal, I recorded the moment I learned the term expatriate. And then I resolved to become one. This desire was born not out of any resentment or distaste for the US, but from a love of travel.

Oxford, 1989
 My parents love to travel. When we kids came along, 8 and 10 years into their marriage, they decided not to let us interfere with their plans.  They just took us with them. My brother was 4 months old the first time he went (or rather, was taken) to Mexico. Every few years there was a big trip – England & Ireland in 1989 was the first one I remember, followed by Panama & Colombia, Italy & France, Belize & Guatemala.  When we didn’t have a big trip planned, Mexico was our default vacation spot. As far as I can remember, the only time my parents left us behind was when they went to China.

I thought living in England would give me the freedom to travel, and it did. I spent Christmas holidays in Spain, France, Amsterdam, Bruges and Prague.  Seeing them listed like that, it looks like more than it was.  Once I started working, I spent most of my vacation time visiting my family back in the US.
My flat in England
My house in Arizona
When you live 6,000 miles away from your family and friends, that kind of distance eventually wears on you. Just a couple of years ago, I still liked being so far away. When you visit it’s a big deal, and people make time to see you.  They think you are brave and interesting and they want to come visit. But then a couple of my cousins started having kids and my parents started speeding towards retirement, England became a prison, and the distance seemed blurry instead of soft.  So, I came back. Now I’m trying to glimpse my future in the distance, trying to figure out what I should do and where I should live. My criteria used to be very specific, but I’ve limited my options to ‘not in my parents’ house.’  And now it is England, instead of America, that is softening into distance and memory.
The same garden, from a distance

Monday, October 25, 2010

Topic 37: Epidemic Education


Typhoid Carol
The Malone name runs through my father’s family: his uncle Malone DeWitt,  grandmother Anna Malone, her mother Indiana Malone and at least one Mary Malone in every generation. They grew up in Tennessee, Alabama and Texas, a far spell from the New York of a more infamous, Mary whose last name was pronounced Malone but spelled “Mallon.” This Mary AKA “Typhoid Mary” immigrated to New York from—anyone, anyone?—Ireland in the early 1900’s and soon gained a reputation for her culinary skills in the kitchens of the New York upper-crust. Unfortunately, her cuisine came spiced with a “healthy dose” of typhoid fever bacteria that sickened and even killed members of her employers’ families. Finally, medical investigation pointed to a link between her and the spread of typhoid, and she became the first identified healthy carrier of the disease. She probably would have been a footnote in history except that after agreeing not to work in the food industry again, she was released from quarantine only to resurface 5 years later as “Mary Brown, “ infecting 25 people served her cooking at Sloan Hospital for Women in NY (source: “This Day in Tech":

He's actually our 10th cousin
Well, grab your ear plugs and face mask because you have just been exposed to the germs of another plague carrier, who takes every opportunity to sneeze and cough family genealogy in your face.  The virus isn’t deadly, but you know you have been exposed when your eyes glaze over and your mouth opens in a huge yawn every time Typhoid Carol grabs you and says “Guess who’s my 16th cousin 42 times removed?” *     --------------->
Or, you may have an uncontrollable urge to turn the TV commercials up louder when she yells out “Omigosh, look at this incredible castle ruin in Aberdeenshire, Scotland that was the home of Gilbert Keith, my 15th great-grandfather!”  At her worst, this spreader of the deadly dull will bore you to death. She not only exposes her family to the infection but anyone she meets: neighbors on the morning walk, casual friends in the grocery line at Fry’s, readers of the “Daily Theme.” She knows she is making her family and friends sick—and tired—but SHE CAN”T HELP IT! The more she learns, the more she is compelled to share.

The current epidemic of minutia peculiar to the Family History bug is just one permutation of a life-long disease, manifesting itself whenever Typhoid Carol takes an interesting class, reads a fascinating book, or watches an unusual documentary. Words spill out uncontrolled at the dinner table or on a long car ride; the pitch of her voice getting higher and the volume louder. “This Malcolm Gladwell book is soooo fantastic. Can I just tell you about one study in Outliers? Just one?”  Well, the Carrier can never stop at Just One of anything.

You may think this disease is NOT one of epidemic proportions, that it’s not really infectious, but the evidence is there. Her husband has caught the bug, which has mutated into Motorcycle Mania and Bird-Brain Disorder. WE CAN’T HELP IT! We are passionate carriers. We think everyone should catch the disease until it becomes an epidemic. Education: help spread the word.
*He's actually a lot closer relation than that.

Source: Typhoid Mary

Educating on Epidemics
Last year, the back of my head started going numb. It would last about 5 minutes, and occurred several times a day.  I was concerned so I consulted everyone’s favorite tool for self-diagnosis – the Internet.  When I listed the symptom in the search engine, a number of possibilities came up. I eliminated epilepsy and stroke, but went for the other worst-case scenario. Within five minutes I had made an appointment with my real doctor because I knew I had MS.

Assuming the worst seems to be a symptom of the human condition. Mainstream news sources have capitalized on this by using sensational headlines to sell their product, and when they aren’t describing soaring crime rates and terror plots, then Health scares work just as well. Bird Flu, SARS, Swine Flu, Pandemics…

Out of curiosity, I looked at the Health pages of the two news sites I scan every day – BBC and CNN.  Today, the main headline for both is the cholera outbreak in Haiti. But below the main headline, the two sites seem to take a different approach reporting health stories. BBC’s headlines have an informative tone, quoting the doctors directly in the headlines:

           “Blood group ‘affects fertility’”
           “Aspirin ‘cuts bowel cancer cases’” 
           “Depression gene ‘fixed’  in mice” (How did they know the mice were depressed? asks my mother)
           and “Hard to read fonts ‘aid learning.’” 

(That one is interesting -- if you make something hard to read, a person is more likely to remember it, once he's deciphered it.) 

There are a couple of warnings about malaria in India, and an ‘unsafe’ drug in herbal tea, but for the most part, these headlines don’t have the same sensationalism as the American CNN.

Today’s headlines on CNN:

              “Raisinets recalled on peanut fears”
              “Health reforms side effect- Scams” (as if no one ever scammed a doctor before 
                                                                          President Obama passed the reforms…)
              “Teens may not reveal drug use”  (duh).
More interesting though, are the titles of some of the regular columns on the site. “The Empowered Patient”, “Toxic America”  and “Egg Safety.” I understand that salmonella is a very dangerous microbe, but it’s not limited to eggs… who would have thought there would be enough concern about the safety of eggs to warrant an entire column?

Anyway, when I went to see the doctor, I didn’t tell him I had MS. I only described the numbness. I was surprised though when he used a light to look at the back of my eyes and gave me a number of tests to check for muscle weakness. I was in the office for an hour, by far the longest I had ever spent with an NHS doctor.  Then he sat down and asked me what it was I thought I had. When I told him he nodded and said, “That’s what I thought too.” I almost died on the spot. He also told me that the Internet brings people into his office every day convinced they have life-threatening illnesses. Then he told me what I actually had.

The Internet is the most convenient way for people to “educate” themselves about health issues – convenient, but hardly reliable.  Without a real education, people don’t realize that epidemics are incredibly rare and that some conditions (pinched nerve) are more common than others (MS). 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Topic 36: Preparedness


Shake, Rattle, Roll And Duck
I lived in Los Angeles in the 50’s, on the small-house side of Brentwood. Escalating Cold War hostility created a weird disconnect between “out there” and “here at home.” After school, planted in front of the TV with my Mickey Mouse ears on, I daydreamed of going to summer camp with Spin and Marty. Meanwhile, 10,000 people were digging up their backyards to install family emergency shelters, Civil Defense Plans were on city and state agendas, and bomb drills were becoming more frequent than fire drills.

Brentwood Elementary School trained its grade-schoolers in emergency preparedness for nuclear attacks. In the main building, a loud emergency horn signaled us to file out silently into the hallways, crouch down against the walls, tuck in our knees, and wrap our arms protectively around our heads—the “duck and cover” drill. The routine for self-contained bungalows varied slightly because there were no hallways. If the teacher announced, “Drop,” we were taught to duck underneath our little desks with arms covering our heads and ears. We were so well-trained that my entire second-grade class hit the floor to “duck and cover” the instant Mrs. Blair read out the new spelling word, “Drop.” Cold War at school, Ozzie and Harriet at home.

Living in Canada during the 60’s, emergency preparedness took its own strange forms. We were told that if Russia and the US actually launched their missiles, they would collide over western Canada, dropping a rain of radiation, so “Never eat snow!” Strontium 90 was  carried by wind currents across the Canadian plains, and health officials warned about contamination of the milk supply after cows fed on tainted grasses. We had emergency drills but no “duck and cover” at Earl Grey School. Instead, children were directed to walk home at a fast pace and record their time over several trips (Earl Grey was a neighborhood school, and almost every child went home for lunch) so that the students could establish a pattern and parents would know when to expect them home in a disaster. Nuclear threat at school, Gunsmoke at home.
As futile as such nuclear war protocols might have been, they did serve the purpose of establishing order and alleviating panic, which is what ANY emergency preparedness plan tries to achieve. Maximize training; minimize consequences.  The 21st century brings us back full circle. Post-Columbine and post-9/11, The Los Angeles Unified School District website includes down-loadable resources, even simulation drill packets, for everything from pandemic flu to campus protection, homeland security, and search and rescue. Versions are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Russian. The new mantra for earthquakes became “Drop, Cover, Hold On” and school drills are reinforced with interactive websites where kids can “Play Beat the Quake.” And somehow most kids still grow up living with that  disconnect. Global disaster at school, Modern Family at home.


Earthquake Preparedness--
LA Unified School District “Administrator’s Corner”


Preparing for ... what?

On New Years Eve, 1999, instead of going to any parties, I stayed with a friend whose parents refused to let him go out that night. They were very concerned about the Y2K virus and the knock-on effects it would have, so they wanted their children home safe. The parents liked me a lot, so I was invited to stay with them too.  We roasted marshmallows over a fire we built in the back yard, and it began to snow and it was really a beautiful night. But I had to sleep on the couch in the living room before the guest bedroom had been completely filled with food, water and survivalist kits. In the morning we woke to several inches of snow, no electricity and no phone line. My friend’s father brought wood in to make a fire, with a certain smug attitude like, “See, I told you this would happen.” But then the power came back on, phones too. It was probably the snow.

When I was in college in Oakland, California we were constantly being warned that The Big One was on the way. It had been 11 years (now 21) since the last big earthquake, so everyone figured the area was due. After enduring a couple small quakes, that barely disturbed the dishes, one of my housemates decided it was time to prepare. She tried to involve the rest of us in the plan, but as I recall, aside from making a few suggestions about bottled water and flashlight batteries, we weren’t all that interested.  I was getting ready to move back to England for grad school and didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on a kit we probably weren’t going to  need.

“What about food?” she asked.

“Oh, you know,” we said, “food that will last. Canned, dry … whatever.”

So, off she went to Costco, alone and unsupervised. She came back with a heavy-duty flashlight, a gallon of water and about 200 cans of fruit cocktail.

“I hate fruit cocktail. It’s not even real fruit anymore. It’s just fruit shaped pieces of syrupy preservative!”  I was pretty irate because we’d had this conversation before.

“Should have come with me.”

The town of March is located in an area of East Anglia known as the Fens. A few centuries ago, the area was mostly marshland and underwater. A system of drains and Dutch dykes kept the North Sea from reclaiming the region, but flooding was still common in some areas after a heavy rain.  A prison officer once told me that his favorite joke to play on the cons (“back when we were allowed to have fun with them”) was to unravel the fire hose and wedge the nozzle against the bottom of a cell door. He turned on the water and started screaming, “My god! The Fens! The Fens are flooding!” and the water would pour under the cell door while the prisoner inside would scramble to move his few belongings to higher ground (his bed). I’m guessing the prisoners didn’t find this joke as funny as the officer. There’s not a lot you can do to prepare for a flood, even a fake one.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Topic 35: Rivalry in Gift-Giving

The Gift Game
Gift-giving in our family is, well, haphazard. Special occasions are sometimes forgotten, or remembered a day or week later, or even ignored. So,presents are never expected, rather a happy surprise. Rivalry?  Not so much about expensive or elaborate, more about funny or creative.
Not quite what I was hoping for...
Most of the presents I remember are those I really wanted or really hated. When I was about ten, my mother hid one of my presents, a life-size paper doll. By the time she finally found it in the back of the garage, I was too old to play with paper dolls. Hated it then, would have loved it the year before.  Several years later, I really hated the red petticoat I got for Christmas. It was actually quite beautiful with layers of ruffles and ribbon trim, hated mostly because the box it came in   was exactly the size of an autoharp. That’s what I really wanted for Christmas. I must have told that story to my husband because years later he gave me an autoharp for Christmas, in between the year he gave me the egg poacher and the year he gave me the pancake griddle.

I also remember the gag gifts, about which there WAS rivalry. One year my brother gave me a Christmas present that caught my attention because of its unusual shape—I was the one who always shook and squeezed the wrapped gifts for clues to their contents--two balls enveloped in paper with a card attached, “A Gift to match your personality.” Lemons inside,  two lemons. I wasn’t mad. I was triumphant. I had wrapped a single unshelled peanut inside a huge box, a reference to the size of my brother’s brain.

 We probably got the idea from our Dad, who exchanged gag gifts with a friend for over 40 years. One was an electric hammer (a regular hammer with an extension cord attached to the end); another, a “40-foot yacht” (a small plastic toy boat with 40 tiny  plastic feet glued to the bottom); one Dad made himself, a  stripped tree branch with a shotgun cartridge glued to it. Get it? A cartridge in a bare tree. The cornier the gag, the better.

Gift-giving has changed over the years along with the marriages, children and grandchildren.  Our family-within-a-family continues the rivalry with funny cards or gag messages left on voice mail, but the Hammond humor tends to the dark side rather than the cornball. It must be in the genes because I’m the only Hammond that doesn’t laugh; Pollyanna doesn’t do dark.

Several years ago Marc and I started a rule on gift-giving: hand-made, used, or thrift-store only.  I’m not sure my kids really believed me when I said that home-made was the best of all. But, walk around my house and you will see the evidence of that in the framed pictures, displays of mugs and bowls, and the holiday decorations that are the beloved handwork of family and friends.

Today is my husband’s birthday. His gifts? A book by one of his favorite authors from Megan (the best part of that being that she knows his favorite authors) and, from his wife, a beautifully set table to showcase the homemade breakfast made by his daughter. Anything else he gets will be—never expected, always a happy surprise.


"The greater part of human pain is unnecessary. It is self-created…"
-- Eckhart Tolle

This is an appropriate topic for today because it is my father’s birthday. I don’t think it was planned because my mom drew the little scrap of paper out of the basket, and she doesn’t throw topics back again if she doesn’t like them like I sometimes do – which is a really bad idea, because that means I’ll spend the last few months of this project writing on really difficult subjects and I have a hard enough time coming up with something to say about things that interest me.


It’s Dad’s birthday, and if there were a rivalry surrounding what gifts he got, I think I would totally win, if only because I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who got him a gift at all. I know mom has been sick in bed for most of the week, but it’s not like she didn’t know this day was coming… maybe she should have prepared a little, hmm?

Not that I should win any awards – I got him a book that is made up of excerpts of another book he has read – a book I do not care for because I think the author is creepy. I can’t really explain why – I’ve never read any of the books and I know nothing about the man. But his books are filed under "New Age" at Barnes and Noble, next to a bunch of manuals on what to expect in 2012 and David Icke books (neither of which are actual strikes against it – I would read both). Maybe it’s because Dad’s been encouraging me to read the books and, same as when he encourages me to exercise, I react defensively with an irrational, violent rage none of us has had to endure since I was 15 years old.

But I thought, I do love my dad and it is his birthday, and he will probably like this book.  So I picked it up and turned around and immediately made eye contact with a passing shopper. He was attractive (John Lennon glasses, beanie, unshaven and scruffy) and his eyes drifted down to check out the book I was carrying and I screamed. In my head. “NO!” I thought, “Don’t judge me on this book!” I knew if he initiated a conversation now, it would be because he approved of the book and I would have to write him off. And if he walked off without a word, then I had blown my chance and I would never have the courage to chase after him and say, “It’s just a gift! It’s not for me! I would never read Eckhart Tolle!”

I didn’t give either scenario a chance. I averted my eyes and practically ran for the checkout line, with the cover and spine concealed beneath my arm. Maybe I should read the damn book, see what the fuss is about, and then maybe I could calm down and discover the effing Power of Now.

After all, "Life isn't as serious as the mind makes it out to be."
—    Eckhart Tolle

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Topic 34: A Word for Mediocrity

        Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: A Star Procrastinator

I belong to a great book club called the Distinguished Literary Ladies (DLL). Our members have a sense of humor, varied backgrounds and reading interests, and imminent patience with any DLL who doesn’t get the reading done. There are stars within the Distinguished Literary Ladies, those who always finish the book, take notes, mark significant passages, research the author, and share unique perspectives on the readings. I am NOT a star in the Distinguished Literary Ladies book club.  

Our October selection was Malcolm Gladwell’s  Outliers. The Story of Success.  Being a procrastinator, I often scramble at the last minute  to find a copy of the book. When I was working, I would end up buying a copy at Costco –which gets expensive. Now that I am retired I try to use the library more. Shoulda looked for Outliers sooner. All copies were out, so I had to put my name on the waitlist.

The Prescott Public Library has a great system for reserving books, notifying  patrons electronically when a book is ready for pick-up. I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard from the library when I realized I hadn’t updated my e-mail address (ie. procrastinated); so, when I finally checked my online library account, the book had been ready for pick-up for a week. By the time I actually got to the library, I had ten days to read Outliers.

I am a fast reader, so ten days to get through any book should be manageable. I breezed through the first 100 pages. The chapter that really caught my interest was about the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that successful people work harder. Sounds like a “duh” idea, but Gladwell’s examples carry this notion to a new level.  One researcher interviewed violinists at a music school who had been ability-grouped, Top tier students  worked the hardest. As young children, they had begun to distinguish themselves not so much by raw talent but by commitment to practice, racking up over the years about 10,000 more hours than students in the lower tiers.  I was loving this book.

Shoulda kept reading until I finished, but I got sidetracked by our trip to Las Vegas.  Sin City isn’t conducive to non-fiction reading, so I loaned the book to another DLL, leaving two days when I got home to finish it….easy going. I loaded my suitcase with trashy crime novels. Finished three books in three days.  

When I got home, I got sick, missed the book club evening, and asked my DLL friend to return the book to the library.  As much as I liked Outliers, Gladwell will probably join my growing list of “started but never finished” books. Apologies to the Distinguished Literary Ladies: my lifelong struggle (but not too hard) with procrastination will keep me ever out of the top ranks of the DLL . Woulda, coulda, shoulda. 
Unfinished                                         Finished

Source: Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers. The Story of Success.  Little, Brown 2008.


So, even though I had my own idea of what mediocrity means, I looked it up.  “The quality or state of being mediocre.” God I hate it when they use the word in the definition.

Mediocre then: “of moderate or low quality, value, ability or performance: ORDINARY”
(By the way, the online dictionary offers a rhyming section, which I found sort of hilarious. 
Honest broker
Red-hot poker
Power broker
Yellow ocher
 It's like a really bad poem.)

Why does Ordinary mean mediocre?  (Clicking on the link. So much quicker than flipping the pages of an actual dictionary, but not quite as satisfying).  Apparently, Ordinary can mean both “routine, usual” AND “poor, inferior”  and it is the second meaning to which mediocre is ascribed. But what does it say about our culture that our language has evolved a negative connotation to any state that falls below ‘extraordinary’ as though the ‘exceptional’ should become the rule and not, well … the exception?

This seems wrong to me. And sad. But I can’t tell if I’m more sorry for the imprecise language or because I fear a penalty for not having much ambition. I have no “ardent desire for rank, fame or power,” (more like a passing desire), and do not seek to be among the ranks of the extraordinary. I prefer to spend my time seeing the funny side of a terrible situation.
However, I will admit, that regarding today’s essay, I should have at least aimed for the mediocre, instead of this craptastic waste of space. (Unless we can make craptastic into another word for mediocre.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Topic 33: On Being Good Company for Oneself


It is Carol's turn to fall ill, and she reports that she is not good company for anyone at the moment. Except for Milo.


And remember, no matter where you go, there you are. Confucius

Well, yesterday’s topic leads rather nicely into today’s. Now that we know how to act (and not to act) with company, (or as company) should we not treat ourselves with the same respect? Setting aside the fighting with a spouse/partner rule, it may seem obvious that we should keep ourselves clean and to offer and accept food and drink. And it should be impossible to overstay your welcome with yourself. Yet anyone who has ever suffered from depression will tell you that it is not only possible, but probable that each of these rules can be set aside.

This is a difficult topic to write such a short essay on without resorting to clich├ęs. There are legions of self-help books written on this subject that address issues of insecurity and self-esteem; throw around terms like self-actualization and finding the goddess within; use meditation and diets and workbooks and retreats –all with the ultimate goal of being good company for oneself.

It is easier to be bad company for oneself. I don’t know about you, but on occasion, I have treated myself with less compassion and respect than I would wish on my worst enemy. That can be partly blamed on not grasping cause and effect, on being young and stupid, but I’ve reached the point where I can’t blame my behavior on being young anymore. So, that just leaves stupid, and who wants that?

When I was in my early 20’s, I moved a lot – between college and home and England and college and home and England again. I moved 9 times in 5 years, each time wondering if I would be able to reinvent myself in a new place. I’m sure that my personality is pretty much set now, but hopefully not my habits. When I revisit the different people I knew in the places I lived, I have learned that my bad habits and the ways I used to mistreat myself sometimes reoccur. In England, I spent the days in prison always drenched in a slightly fearful anticipation that something bad might happen, a feeling that the green countryside and the pubs didn’t quite manage to erase. Visiting friends in Portland, I smoke cigarettes because they do, but I am placid and easygoing and can imagine a full life in that place. My cleanest living goes on at my parents’ house, for obvious reasons, but I am often impatient and I bite my nails.

Now that I am old enough to understand the full implications of cause and effect, I want to be better company for myself. And when that happens, I will want to still be there, no matter where I go.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Topic 32: Company Manners

Minding Our Peas and Queues

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."(Emily Post)

Emily Post
Raise your hand if you have heard of Emily Post. Anyone? Anyone? I suspect this best-selling author is no longer a household name, but when I was growing up, Post was the touchstone for appropriate behavior in any situation, in other words good manners. There really wasn’t a distinction drawn between good manners in private and good manners in public, as I recall, but my mother wanted to make sure I went out into the world well-prepared for any situation, so she gave me Emily Post’s book on manners as a high school graduation gift, a hefty 800 pages of rules for life. It was the umpteenth version of a book simply called Etiquette that Post had first published in 1922.

People may think of etiquette as an endless series of old-fashioned, stuffy rules of behavior, anachronistic in the 21st century. Certainly, that impression is reinforced by  the 1869   Frost's Laws and by-laws of American society: a condensed but thorough treatise on etiquette and its usages in America, containing plain and reliable directions for deportment in every situation in life. Quite a mouthful of a title. In her introduction, Sarah Annie Frost notes that  rules of comportment are based on the principles of comfort and convenience;  disconnected from those values, rules of behavior achieve the opposite effect and “must inevitably produce discomfort and extravagance of behavior” (9). I don’t think Frost would argue at all with Emily Post’s use of the phrase “sensitivity to the needs of others” as a broad definition of the word “etiquette.”

This idea of the spirit or values behind the rules sometimes gets lost when we look only at the minutia of social situations: how to set a table, going through a receiving line  at a wedding, what to bring the hostess at a dinner party. But Frost, Post and other etiquette writers also provide rules for handling grief and loss. In a 2008 review of Laura Claridge’s book Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, Azra Raza comments that she was surprised at the inappropriate and awkward responses of family and friends when her husband died, and that Post felt it it is exactly at such moments of intense emotion that “etiquette performs its most vital and real service” (qtd in Azra).

So, is the art of etiquette on the outs? Is Emily Post a has-been? In actuality, Emily Post has become a family business, and in 1946 Post and son Ned founded The Emily Post Institute, which now has a home on the web at   No less than seven family members are directors, authors, and speakers for The Emily Post Institute. And, the website includes an interactive “Etipedia” with the latest “company manners” related to instant messaging, tweeting, and social networking. 

My niece came for a quick visit last week with her two toddlers, and we enjoyed a multi-generational family meal. They may not know who Emily Post is, but the first rules of “company manners” are already in place: no farting, no farting talk, no burping, and… what do we say? Anyone? Anyone? PLEASE pass the potatoes. THANK YOU.

Emily Post Institute
Sarah Annie Frost
Raza, Azra. “RX: Emily Post and Laura Claridge: Two Women Possessing the Genius of Etiquette (book review)

Two common interpretations of this topic apply to how one acts when one either has a guest or is a guest.  There are a number of rules of etiquette applicable to both, but I have to confess that although I am aware of these rules, I hardly ever remember to follow them. There are reasons for this, but first, let us examine some of the rules of hospitality required of hosts and guests.
If you have a guest:                             If you are a guest:

Be clean                                                 Stay clean
Offer drinks/food                                    Accept drinks/food
Do not fight with spouse/partner            Do not overstay your welcome

Now I will go through each of these rules, and explain where I have fallen down in the past.

If I know that guests are expected, then of course I clean the house. But I discovered while I was living alone that keeping a tidy house is not actually my natural state. In England, people had a habit of dropping by unannounced, which is something I actively discouraged. I made it known that I needed at least an hour’s notice, or one would not be admitted.  I think I inherited this personality quirk from my grandmother.

As a guest, keeping the house clean is somewhat easier. You make the bed, help with dishes and try not to be sick in the bathroom. It’s the last one I have the most problems with – I can’t count how many times I have had food poisoning or nasty migraine headaches while staying with friends. Getting sick in someone else’s house is pretty much my worst nightmare, and it happens to me all the time.

Offering and accepting food and drinks is not something I’m very good at. In England, the first thing anyone does when you walk into their house, or their office (or the library) is say, “Shall I put the kettle on?” and offer a cup of tea. I never remembered to do this, mostly because I don’t drink tea. Or coffee. Unless it’s offered to me.
And then only sometimes. The reason I have a hard time accepting food or drink, is that I have a slightly codependent streak that doesn’t want anyone to go to any trouble. This is the only situation where that comes up (as it obviously doesn’t cause me to compulsively offer refreshments in return). But if anyone offers me a drink or food, my first instinct is always to say no. I just can’t help it. I think I get this from my grandmother as well.

Finally, there is not fighting with spouse/partner and not overstaying your welcome. I don’t have a partner, nor do I remember ever fighting publicly when I did. But I have witnessed this behavior as a guest, and it made me uncomfortable. 

But not uncomfortable enough to leave. I am a super-over-stayer (made-up-word!!). I have reasons for this too. While living abroad, I would sometimes go years without seeing some of my friends, and when we did get together I made the most of it. So, if I haven’t seen you for a few years, and it took me 3 days to drive to your house, I don’t care if you are getting divorced in front of my face, I am staying.

After all, who knows if I’ll ever be invited back.