Friday, September 9, 2011

Topic 216: Winged Circle

Over My Head,  At My Back
“This project is mostly an intellectual exercise for a newly-retired writing teacher and her anxiously-unemployed librarian daughter, both of whom are in need of something to keep them occupied during a transitional time.” (About This Project)
Topic 216 is a “throw back,” returned to the basket when I pulled it months ago, thinking it required more research than I wanted to do. It still does, but I can’t throw it back again because I now can see the bottom of a basket that once was completely filled with strips of paper. Two-hundred and sixteen essays behind us, and most of the remaining topics are “throw-backs.”

Megan and I now have worked on this project for over twelve months, a little experiment to fill our time, present a mental challenge, and provide some structure to our day.  For me, much of the fun was in figuring out how to approach the “throw back” kinds of subject matter, the head-scratchers, and the yawners. I always told my students that their job was to find a way to take an assignment and “make it their own,” so I have had lots of opportunities to practice that principle. 

I usually have a direction in mind by the time I head out on the morning walk.  Not today.I sat down for coffee with wings and circles pushed to the back of my mind. Our neighbor’s patio is inviting, and the temperature perfect for slow sipping and chitchat. Suddenly, Marc pointed up at the sky to a bird in flight. He is always doing that, pointing out birds on bushes, in the trees or flying overhead. But, this time when I looked up, I didn’t need the birders in the group to identify the long legs and wings of a Great Blue Heron.

As I looked back down at the patio table, my eye caught our host’s coffee cup. On the side of the cup was an emblem, a winged circle. The logo was from the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, whose emblem is the “Great Seal of the State of Arkansas: with white bird wings added.  Interesting coincidence.

Wings and circles eventually led   to literature. Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is pretty well standard for any high school English textbook, and it introduces the notion of carpe diem—in tandem with sexual seduction—right at the point where adolescent hormones are kicking into action. Seize the day, a perfect bridge between the elegant language of the 17th century and the imagined seductions of teen-age boys: “Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball, and tear our pleasures with rough strife…” ( Marvell).

The other half of “carpe diem” fails to penetrate most young minds. Why are we urged to 
“seize the day”?  Because aging and death are inevitable, because the world changes and
 missed opportunities cannot be retrieved.  

“But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.”

I really feel those wings of change at my back this morning.  After 12 months and 216 essays, Megan and I have come to another “transitional time.” I am no longer newly-retired, and she is no longer unemployed.  I have plenty of fun research and writing projects to keep me occupied. And, Megan has her own exciting work and writing projects. I am about to lose my favorite cartoonist and writing partner, co-conspirator in movie getaways and book-buying frenzies.

Thirty-six topics left in the basket. 

 The Ciiiiirrrrcle of Life
I really wish we hadn’t kept throwing back the hard topics. After two weeks of vacation and illness, I could really do with one like “On the Dog.” Except I don’t think “On the Dog” was a real topic from the book– I think we just chose it as our first essay because it would be an easy way to start the project. 

As my mother mentioned earlier this week, it’s been just over a year since we began writing on The Daily Theme.  When we started,I had a concern, which I revisited several times over the year – that when we finished the project, an entire year would have passed and I would have nothing to show for it but this website. And in my mind, my father is telling me that’s not very “In the Moment” thinking and my cynical side is chiming in to suggest that Nowhere is exactly where a year of living “In the Moment” gets you.   

Of course, a lot has changed – or rather, a lot has happened. I’ve reconnected with my childhood friends. I’ve spent more time with family than I have in the past 10 years combined. I experienced professional disappointment for the first time ever – getting turned down for job after job.  I’ve changed my diet (although, just as I wrote that, I took a bite of a very non vegan chocolate chip muffin), and taken classes.

I got a puppy, and regretted it, and then stopped regretting it. And if I were writing “On the Dog” today, it would have been a very different essay. Mom just shouted down to me that Bella dragged her purse into the loft, opened it up and ate her toothbrush all in the time it took to write the essay. But if that’s all the damage she caused, then we are having a good morning.

When we decided to try writing every day on the same topic, I estimated it would take just about a year to get through the 250 topics. I hadn’t factored in vacations and illness and days when we just weren’t in the mood. And job interviews.

 I couldn’t have known that one year to the day of starting this project, I would be offered a job (I thought it would happen sooner).  And now, I’m not sure what that’s going to mean for this website. I know I’m not going to be able to write every day. I want to be able to finish the 250 topics, but it feels more “Circle of Life” to just end it now.  Except that a circle never ends.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Topic 215: The Pleasures of Loafing

The King of Loafers
I don’t read the Sunday comics much anymore, but I had my favorites when I was young. Many of the comic strips in our newspapers, no matter what city or state we lived in,  were syndicated by King features, a company owned by the Hearst corporation that not only distributed cartoon strips but editorial cartoons, puzzles and games.  Beginning around 1914 the King syndicate produces most of my favorites, including: “The Better Half,”  “Beetle Bailey, “ “Dennis the Menace,” “Family Circus,”and  “Popeye” (source: :King Features Syndicate”)
In grade school my favorite cartoon was Chick Young’s creation  Blondie, featuring the Bumstead family. Dagwood Bumstead is the king of loafers, his domain the couch, hammock and refrigerator. He has a job at J.C. Dithers and Company, and we do see him rushing off to work, rushing home from work. However, his default  mode is loafing. He has perfected the nap, stretched out on the sofa with an open newspaper covering his head. When he isn’t napping, he is enjoying the king of sandwiches, that gigantic meat, cheese and whatever pile of jaw-breaking proportions now known as the Dagwood sandwich.  Even with Blondie’s loving nagging and the distraction of two teen-agers in the house, Dagwood Bumstead always finds a way to indulge in his greatest pleasure, loafing.
Blondie first appeared in other cartoons before 1933, and apparently there is a back story to the Bumstead family. Blondie’s dimpled looks and yellow curls are reminiscent of the flapper cartoon character Betty Boop, and before she married Dagwood, her last name was “Boopadoop.” Dagwood was disinherited by his  wealthy family when he married Blondie, so he was forced to give up a life of privileged leisure for the middle class rat race. Apparently, the story of the romance and foibles of the Bumsteadd family was built over several years as part of the comic strip serial’s ongoing storyline, but I’m sure later generations of readers like me didn’t really know this history.
You don’t hear the word “loafer” so much these days. The more current expression “slacker” just doesn’t fit.  McSweeney’s magazine takes a fun swipe at Dagwood’s loafing in the Joe Moe essay “Excerpts from Dagwood Bumstead’s Intervention.” In the essay Blondie, neighbor Herb Woodley, Mr Beasley the mail carrier, and other Blondie characters have finally had enough after putting up with Dagwood’s eccentricities after 70 plus years. So, they conduct an intervention. Blondie hones in on the napping:
The only thing I hate—HATE—more than the eating is the sleeping. I’ve been reading some things online and I think you have undiagnosed clinical depression.  Listen, just because you’re asleep, it doesn’t mean that life stops.  You can take your naps on the couch, you can sleep in a hammock, you can oversleep before rushing off to work. But I have news for you, Dagwood: the world is still here. And you have to face it just like everyone else (source: Moe “Excerpts”).

I am trying to imagine a post-intervention, 21st century incarnation of Dagwood. He still prefers a life of leisure, but his Dagwood sandwich has shrunk to the thickness of pannini, meat and cheese replaced with heart-healthy veggie alternatives. He continues to enjoy the paper version of the newspaper even though Blondie and the kids have switched to reading on their laptops. You just can’t get the same coverage with  a computer that an open newspaper gives when you’re stretching out for a good, loafer-worthy nap before work, before dinner, before bed. ZZZZZZZZZ

 “King Features Syndicate.” Wikipedia.
Moe, Joe. “Excerpts from Dagwood Bumstead’s Intervention.” McSweeney’s.

I've spent the past 24 hours in bed, and that's the plan for the rest of the day as well. I had a lot planned for how I was going to spend my last few free days, and working my way through a Kleenex box wasn't close to being on the list. But that's what I'm doing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Topic 214: Acid Tests

The Dead Zone

I call the stretch of the I- 10 between Blythe and Indio the Dead Zone. It  peaks at Chiriaco Summit, which at 1700 feet altitude isn’t much of a summit unless you consider that you are climbing from 800 feet at Blythe in the middle of a desert and jockeying for position with massive trucks that slow to a crawl. I reckon I have driven The Dead Zone over 100 times since we moved to Arizona in 1983.
We called it the Dead Zone not just because of the arid terrain. Our radio reception would usually die out somewhere after Quartzite. We had a stack of tapes to counter the monotony, but often we would just talk, letting the conversation meander all over the place.
The first few years, we made the trip with two toddlers strapped into car seats. Going west, we usually broke the journey with a stop for breakfast in Blythe. As the kids grew older and quit napping, they would ask questions that often couldn’t be answered with our pooled knowledge which was long on language and literature and short on science and technology. How many times I wished we had a dictionary or a portable encyclopedia so that we could find the answer right away.
By the time the kids outgrew their car seats, I often made the trip without Marc to visit my parents and brothers’ families in southern California. If we left Thousand Oaks by 5 a.m., I could avoid the worst of the traffic crawling into Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley and the kids would sleep until we hit Blythe for a food and fuel stop. The Dead Zone seemed to stretch during those years, no conversation for the driver and no music if I forgot to pack the travel tapes.
The kids grew up, the vehicles changed and the technology evolved.  Our current vehicle has an I-Pod port and a CD player, but the conversations continue. Last August  Megan and I read essays out loud from a 1925 writing textbook. By the time we hit Blythe, we had committed to writing our own essays and creating a website. The first Daily Theme essay was posted on September 1, 2010.
On September 5, 2011 we found ourselves again traveling the I-40 back to Arizona after a family wedding. The radio was turned off, and conversation picked up after Indio. Did we know that Chiriaco Summit has a General Patton museum? Should we gas up over the border in Ehrenberg, or should we continue to the Pilot stop at Quartzite? My mind wandered ahead to the daily theme due the next day.“Acid tests.”  Hmmm.
I cheated a little and threw out a question to Marc. “So, how would you define “acid test”? Is an acid test the same as a litmus test?  If only we had a dictionary or an encyclopedia.”  A voice from the back seat suddenly announced, “According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, an acid test is….” Megan’s cell phone, not much bigger than a playing card, had become our dictionary thanks to the Internet.
The conversation eventually led us to Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, Tom Wolfe and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Like I said, we are short on science and technology and long on language and literature.
Megan says the satellite reception on that dreary stretch of desert between Indio and Blythe was strong and clear. Guess, I’ll have to find another name for The Dead Zone.

I came back from California with a little cold, which has now transformed into a serious sinus infection. For those of you who may not know, I start a new job next Monday, and I'm pretty sure that if I call in sick on the first day, I will fail the litmus test for new employees (litmus test being interchangeable with acid test, according to Merriam-Webster) and this is the best I can do. 

Back to bed.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

One Day More...

We are back from our trip, but we need a day to recover. 
We'll return tomorrow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Topic 213: Voices


Voices from the Blogosphere
Our New York Times subscription is a small but pricey indulgence. I love sitting at the dining-room table Sunday mornings and reading:  “Travel,” that showcases exotic getaways we can’t afford; “Arts and Entertainment,” that reviews plays and films we will never get to see;  “Book Reviews,” that lists the authors and books we don’t have time to read. However, my favorite section is the “Sunday Magazine,” which I read just about cover to cover—backwards.
I start with the last page column called “Lives.” Writers --profession and non—reveal the little, jewel-like moments we call “slice of life.” When I was teaching, I would   use “Lives” essays to show how good writing often comes in small packages wrapped in natural voices. One such essay was Avi Steinberg’s “A Prison-Library Reunion,” which caught my eye last October because, well, by now everyone knows an ex- prison librarian lives in my home right now.
 I enjoyed the essay until I saw the end note. Mr. Steinberg’s piece was adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. How dare he write the book that was going to make my daughter famous! I broke the news to Megan that her idea had been stolen, but she bought Steinberg’s book and highly recommends it.
This week, I didn’t have time to read the Sunday NY Times on Sunday, so I read it at Quixote’s Garage where I volunteer.  I grabbed the “Sunday Magazine” first, as usual. After reading “Lives,” washing a few dishes, getting someone’s mail, and greeting a few folks,  I working my way from page 50 back to page 44 and a column called “Riff” by Maud Newton.  I, like, totally identified with Newton’s comments about the evolving use of voice by essayists—professional and non—and how mixed, shaken and poured the language of the blogosphere has become. She blames it on David Foster Wallace, then she sort of blames Dave Eggers for passing on even further what she calls “the stylized mess that is Gen X and-Y Internet syntax” (Newton 46). Newton really seems to hate the way bloggers have gotten into using the word “folks.” 

When I finished Newton’s essay, I jotted down a little note before getting back to washing dishes and playing solitaire. “Note to myself: Megan should read this essay even if Newton maligns Eggers.” Note to readers: Megan loves Dave Eggers, reads all his books, subscribes to his quirky journal McSweeney’s and has attended numerous Eggers readings, even in England.
 Avi Steinberg abandoned the temporary job of prison librarian and is now a published author.  Maud Newton abandoned the practice of law and is now a published author. Avi and Maud also have blogs.
I couldn’t find a blog for Dave. Maybe… he’s just too busy. Like, folks, um, Dave Eggers spends a lot of his time and money helping kids learn to love writing through his 826 National non-profit organization. Friday is National Youth Literacy Day and “826 on 8/26.” In gratitude, I’ll give Dave the last words:
“Some of these kids just don't plain know how good they are: how smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them. You can shine that light on them, one human interaction at a time.”

Avi Steinberg blog.
Maud Newton blog.
Newton, Maud. ‘Really Pretty much the Only One That, Um, You know, Got It.” New
                  York Times Magazine. 21 Aug 2011 p 44.
Steinberg, Avi. “A Prison-Library Reunion.” New York Times 1 Oct 2010.                  
Dave Eggers and 826 National.


 I’m in a hurry today because we are leaving for California early tomorrow morning, and there is a lot to do to prepare for a week away. The packing is mostly complete, but I have several assignments due over the next week and I’d rather not have to worry about them while I’m away. The great thing about online classes is apparently that you can work on them from anywhere, but I’m more productive and efficient if I am working in my office than if I am working from a motel room or a friend’s house.

And the voices in my head are rebelling against this project, telling me I should just leave it until we get back because there’s too much else that needs to be done.  But this was supposed to be yesterday’s topic though, and Mom has written hers. I didn’t write yesterday because I had a job interview (it went well, I think). 

So, I apologize, but this is all you get. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Topic 212: Bristles


     Men of a Certain Age
 In my genealogical climb through the branches and tangled vines of my family tree, I have discovered photographs of a lot of hairy men—beards down to the belt buckle, mutton chop sideburns, pomaded pompadours. But, the moustaches tend to show up in photos of family men around the 1920’s No matter what state they lived in, or even what country, moustaches dominated early 20th century male fashion.

The   photograph of Walter Lugrin Sr  (1878-1940) shows a man who is meticulous in details of dress. He wears a stick pin in his carefully knotted tie, a white handkerchief in the pocket of his expensive-looking suit. The moustache is bushy but neat, somewhat between a chevron and a paintbrush (American Moustache Institute). I wouldn’t expect less than thoughtful, measured care in the looks of a watchmaker and businessman who worked for  the  A. Wittnauer Co in Manhattan.  Married to my great-aunt Hattie Edwards, Walter was a family favorite who had gotten jobs in the jewelry store for Hattie and three of her sisters.

Edward John Scott (1857-1925) also sported a moustache although we have no photos of him as a young man. He too was a “company man” who worked for the same employer for over 20 years, as a printer in New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic newspaper.  This photo (around 1918) shows a more casual  approach to dress. appropriate for the West. Hand cocked on hip, jacket thrown open, topped with a straw hat to keep off the New Mexico sun, E. J. Scott wears a bushy moustache too, not quite as contained as Walter’s but nevertheless in the “chevron” mode.  His expression is less business-like, less imposing than that of Uncle Walter back in New Jersey E. J. is often shown with that same affable smile in photos with his grandchildren, including my father, another Edward Scott.

Frederick William Stanley York (1876-1968) was from the Canadian branch of the family.  His mother Catherine was a first cousin of E. J. Scott’s wife Selina Jane, whose parents had immigrated to the American Midwest in the 1860’s from Ontario.  Stanley and several siblings moved west from Ontario to Manitoba and Alberta in the late 1880’s.  Stanley’s photo shows a young man of ramrod posture, eyes staring directly into the camera, high collar and white tie.  Although not as bushy as E.J.’s moustache,   Stanley York’s bristles add a good two inches to each side, a much truer chevron. This photograph  was probably taken around 1898, about the time he traveled with a group from the Churches of Christ congregation of Carman, Manitoba, all the way to Nashville for training at the Bible School.  From  photos of his horses and chickens, I know he farmed in Alberta with his wife Ella. They lived long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1953. The moustache was long gone.

Go back one generation from Walter, E.J. and Stanley and you’ll find that men of a certain age—staid, married men—wore beards. But, the beard only really came into fashion in the United States in the 1850’s after several decades of a vogue of clean-shaven faces.
By 1920, the beard went out of style again, replaced by either a moustache or goatee, no doubt influenced by Gillette’s invention of the safety razor which became standard-issue gear for U.S soldiers in World War I (source: “Safety Razors”). As fashionista Heidi Klum might say, “Bristles. One week they’re in, one week they’re out.”


 “The Lemania Legacy.”
“Moustache Styles.” American Moustache Institute.
Safety Razors.” Wikipedia. 

 *Please note that Carol was very late in finishing her essay today, and Megan's essay reflects that fact. 

The many uses of Bristles
Yesterday, on the way to the movies,  Mom and I had a conversation about this topic. Conversation is probably not the right word. I tried to guess what she was going to write about and she wouldn’t tell me.

“Are you going to write about hair brushes?” I asked thinking it sounded like something she would write about.
“No,” she replied. “I thought that might be what you were going to write about.”
“I could write about how it annoys me that you think your scalp is too sensitive for my brush, and I can’t even get your brush through my hair.”
“You mean like how you bristle about the bristles on brushes?”
“Oh my god.”

“Bella has bristles on her chin” she suggested.
“Those are whiskers. Are you going to write about facial hair?"
“I’m not sure how much I have to say about that,” she said, stroking the whiskers on her own chin.
“This morning,” I offered,  “I found this long curly black hair growing right out of the side of my face.”

She finished choking just as we arrived at the movie theater and saw the worst movie of the year – One Day. It was so bad. Also, it had the same premise as a story I’ve been working on which follows a character (me) on the same day each year. I was going to use my journals. I’ve put a lot of hours into this project, not to mention the ten years that had to pass in order for me to accumulate the entries. I’m not sure it’s going to work – it’s more of an exercise, but I can assure you that the unedited and angsty journaling from my late teens is still much more interesting than that movie we saw yesterday.

I guess the fact that the movie was bad is a good thing. It’s worse when you come up with an idea and then someone else has beat you to it and theirs is better. At least I have a chance to improve it.

Anyway, I’m not doing too well with this topic today. I keep wanting to add that my mother did not finish her essay because she had obligations this morning, obligations she has known about for a while – so she could totally have written the essay before. But I skipped out all last week, and I knew about Kelly’s visit for months. So, I don’t have any right to be annoyed. Except, have you ever noticed that getting annoyed at something is not a logical reaction anyway, it happens whether you have been rightly wronged or not? Still, when I write and she doesn’t, I bristle with annoyance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Topic 211: Conceited People

Dear Mr. Wordsworth
Right now I can only think of one conceited person in my circle of “friends. I don’t actually  know him personally, but I’ve had a close relationship with his sisters since I was a young girl. The brother of my very dear friends Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte, was indeed a conceited man. Patrick Branwell Bronte, known to everyone as Branwell, was also a drug addict and an alcoholic whose final year of life was plagued by deep melancholia. What’s a little vanity compared to that.
Unfortunately, this vain self-image contributed to his lack of success as a writer almost as much as his lack of talent. Friend and biographer Francis H Grundy noted in his book Pictures of the Past that Branwell “took an unusual fancy to himself,” which is a pretty good way of describing conceited people. Perhaps Branwell got that fancy because he was somewhat of a big fish in the little pub pond of Haworth, invited often to the Black Bull Inn where his reading and writing penchants “sufficed to make him a wonder among the rustics and manufacturers of the West Riding” (source: Bayne 248). 
Undoubtedly, the pub crowd adulation  only added to an already inflated sense of his own artistic talents fed by an indulgent father, doting Aunt Branwell, and loving sisters. So in 1837, 19-year-old Branwell, out of “the conceit and vanity which at this age are of fatal augary” (Bayne 248) wrote to William Wordsworth seeking his advice and support,   including in the letter a comment  that there was not a writing poet then alive worth sixpence. Wordsworth never wrote back to Branwell, so we don’t really know how he might have reacted or even if he did more than quickly skim the poems included in the letter.  Branwell was probably taken aback that he did not even receive an acknowledgement from Wordsworth, and likely would have complained about it over a pint back at the Black Bull Inn. Not that he hadn’t already tried before and failed to get the public notice he so craved.
Two years earlier, Branwell had written several letters to the editors of Blackwood’s Magazine, a popular journal subscribed to by the family and always read with great enthusiasm by all of the Brontes. On December 7th 1835 he wrote to the Editors, admonishing them for failing to respond to several earlier letters. In offering himself as a writer for Blackwood’s he wrote:
All, sir, that I desire of you is—that you would in answer to this letter request a specimen or specimens of my writing, and I even wish that you would name the subject on which you would wish me to write. In letters previous to this I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers ... I know that I am not one of the wretched writers of the day” (Orel 34).

Branwell Bronte was a better artist than a writer, but his efforts to make a living as a portrait painter also led to failure. Whatever combination of temperament, addiction and misplaced adulation contributed to his vain sense of self-importance, he died in pain, despair and dejection at the age of 31 within months of his sisters Anne and Emily. Sister Charlotte, as unassuming and humble as her brother was vain, lived long enough to see her own writing accepted by both the public and  literary critics.

Just call me Branwell

I often joke that the only time I ever felt smart in college was when I tested out of the English 1 and placed into upper division writing classes my first semester. This turned out to work against me because despite what I managed to pull off in the placement test, I never really got the hang of close readings and literary analysis – the basics of which were taught in that English 1 class I got to skip.

But aside from that, once I realized I wasn’t a naturally gifted academic, I really only ever felt confident in my creative writing classes, which allowed a bit more freedom in style.  I was suddenly complimented on themes, rhythm, and voice. I’d never been able to detect those things in my literature classes, and was unaware I’d included them in my own writing. 

Then, the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I was invited to join a small writing group composed entirely of MFA students. This was a seriously flattering invitation, and for the first time I was in over my head. I got comments like “The words are pretty but the character is stuck – where is the development?” I remember that comment because it provoked an existential crisis –all my writing was thinly disguised memoir, and being the main character in all my stories, this meant that I too was stuck. That fall, I went to England to study abroad and that set me on a new path – and unstuck me. I returned for my senior year refreshed, confident, with new ideas for my writing.

My senior thesis, which was a portion of a novel, was returned to me with a single comment written on a post-it “Fix the grammatical errors and this is publishable.” In retrospect, I think my advisor may not have read it, but at the time I was elated. That might have been the time to go for an MFA, when my confidence was so high, but I went to library school instead – sure that librarianship would only be a day job while I pursued my actual dream of being an extremely famous and successful writer.


I mention all of this because the Fall semester starts today, and I am taking two creative writing classes (and Zumba!). And I’m finding myself as nervous today as I was when I first started college 11 years ago. Added to the usual fears of “what if nobody likes me?”, I now have “what if I’m the oldest person in the class?” Since I’m attending the community college, I probably won’t be the oldest, but so what if I am. I just want to get back into the swing of things, workshop my stories, develop some writing samples and put together a decent application for grad school.

Watch, now I’m going to be offered a job.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Service Interruption

Not to sound conceited or anything, but when I'm not available to update the website, it does not get updated. And I'm unavailable for the next couple of days. If you need someone to blame, blame Kelly. That's what I always do.

We'll return on Friday.

Um... we'll return on Monday. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Topic 210: Mountains and Molehills

Little Engines That Can
I saw today’s  topic and immediately thought of the old adage “making mountains out of molehills,” which I  tried not to do before I was retired, when I really felt the pressure of juggling family and work. I made up for procrastination by being an expert time manager, and I focused all my attention at work on making it through my to-do list, no hanging out in the faculty lounge, no cups of coffee and shooting the breeze with my colleagues. I even got really good at helping my students learn how to navigate the molehills and mountains of their educational paths as they juggled school with family and work. But, I never really thought about reversing the adage and considering turning mountains into molehills.
There is a difference between NOT blowing something the mental size of a molehill out of proportion and NOT letting something that really is the size of a mountain paralyze you into inaction.
Gaining perspective, how to keep molehills from looking and feeling like steep, jagged, lung-sucking obstacles of mountains is about being realistic and patient. It’s about keeping your eyes on the next step or the next task without looking so far ahead as to lose your footing or sense of purpose.
Gaining perspective, how to turn steep, jagged, lung-sucking obstacles of mountains into manageable and satisfying little molehill challenges, is about being optimistic and patient.  The big challenges seem insurmountable, chronic, tragic—world hunger, economic downturn, environmental catastrophe, global violence.  But, turning mountains into molehills is all about strengthening the body, brain and spirit to attack tough challenges with skill and efficiency.  We can’t bulldoze the mountain, but we can learn how to conquer it a little bit at a time.
My engine search with “mountains and molehills” found several  interesting websites, mostly around the notion that a small group of people can effect change on a small scale and still make a difference. An interesting example is the website  Mountains and Molehills—Colorado’s Heartbeat.  It is basically an advertising site, doesn’t hide the fact, says it right up front that it serves “the needs of small business owners through affordable, effective advertising” (source: Mountains and Moles). But, the mission also includes a commitment to preserving the history and vitality of small town live, and its links celebrate the LOCAL, local business, local artists, local heroes.
A completely different website that pops up from the same engine search is called Repair the World, dedicated to inspiring service work among American Jews: “We aim to make service a defining part of American Jewish life” (source: Repair the World). This site does tackle the bigger, global issues of civil rights, disaster relief, child abuse, and social justice. But, it includes a section called D.I.Y with practical suggestions for making those issues local and personal.
Like I said, turning mountains into molehills requires a change of perspective to look positively at personal, creative problem-solving. Mountain climbers train rigorously for the work ahead, but they don’t do it just by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. They practice on the little, local molehills too. And, what about the people who don’t have the strength, skill or resources to be mountain climbers. They can make a difference, too, with a little positive thinking…
I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…. I know I can.

Mountains and Molehills website.
Repair the World.


Yesterday I took the day off to hang out with my friends Kelly and Chuck. When they left our house on Sunday, I gave them careful directions to help them avoid the various road repairs between here and Sedona – especially the construction on Mingus mountain. Then, the next day I drove to meet up with them and deliberately ignored all of the sensible advice I had given them. Not only was I stuck behind the Smelliest and Slowest Truck in the World, I also spent a full half hour completely stopped. Immediately behind me was an unmarked police car, and for the entire time we were stopped I worried about whether or not my registration was in date, if my tail and brake lights were in working order, what he would think of the dozens of empty beer and wine bottles I had in my trunk (Prescott has stopped recycling glass, so we periodically drive it over the mountain and drop it at the center in the Verde Valley). I was so fixated on the cop car, and the series of texts I was sending to Kelly and Chuck about my late arrival, that I didn’t notice when the traffic started moving again and the cop had to hit his horn.

Usually this would prompt me to speed ahead, especially since I had just lost 30 minutes. Once the pilot car turned around, the cars in front of me were long gone, but I had that unmarked car behind me so I crept along at the posted maximum speed limit (which at some places is only 20 mph) until the cop made a U-Turn and headed back over the mountain. I guess he was detailed to patrol the construction site. What a boring job.

Anyway, I called Kelly to let her know I’d be joining them shortly and we agreed to meet at  Red Rocks Crossing for a short hike and a swim in Oak Creek. She texted me directions, and once I noted that the turn was in Oak Creek, I happily cruised on my way. I know a lot of my readers are probably not familiar with the layout of the greater Sedona area, but I have been going there since I was a very small child and had been in the exact area less than 6 months ago. I don’t know street names, but I felt pretty confident I could find my way around. With that in mind, the fact that I confused the Village of Oak Creek with Oak Creek Canyon was incredibly stupid. 

It wasn’t until I passed Slide Rock that it occurred to me that I might be going the wrong way. And then I drove another 10 miles just to make sure. By the time I pulled over, I had lost another hour as well as my cell phone reception.  Luckily my GPS navigation worked, and I realized I was nearly 40 miles of winding canyon road north of where I was supposed to be. The reception came back about halfway through Sedona when my phone suddenly came alive with previously undelivered texts and voice mails, inquiring about my whereabouts with increasing concern.

I did eventually find my friends, (but not until I got lost twice more), and although they had been swimming and waiting for me for more than 2 hours, they quite happily stayed put and let me swim away my frustration for another hour. I slipped on the rocks, got swept away in about 8 inches of fast-moving water, and managed to dislodge a natural dam so I’m sure it was very amusing for Kelly and Chuck. They kept saying helpful things like, “This is your land. You grew up here. Why is this so difficult for you?”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Topic 209: Praying in Public

Say a Little Prayer for Me
Texas Governor Rick Perry filled a Houston stadium with an “apolitical Christian prayer service” on August 6, a “day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation” (qtd in  Have he and the other elected officials at the event blurred the lines between church and state which is a fundamental component of the United States Constitution? Conservative Christian evangelicals, or fundamentalists, are Governor Perry’s primary constituency. They wield inordinate power because of well-organized political strategies , giving the impression that their religious/political position is representative of the larger American point of view. But, is that true? I guess we will find out now that Mr. Perry has officially declared himself a Republican candidate for the next election.
 The conservative Christian movement does  not in fact represent a significant demographic either in the Nation or in the United States Congress.   A recent report by the Pew Research Center shows that  the 112th Congress isn’t all that different from the 111th Congress in terms of stated religious affiliations, nor does Congress vary significantly from the religious make-up of the public that elected their representatives. About half the group is Protestant (mostly Baptists and Methodists), one-quarter is Catholic and the rest a mix of smaller denominations such as Episcopalians, Jews, Presbyterians, Buddhists and Muslims. The only divergent statistic from the general population is the group who profess “no religious affiliation, “ with only 1% of Congress choosing that descriptor as opposed to the American public’s 16% (source: Pew Research Center)
That really isn’t very surprising. Having a visible religious identity is good politics, unless you’re a Muslim, of course. Consider the scrutiny President Obama has undergone—is he or isn’t he a Muslim, is he or isn’t he an American citizen, etc.? If there are no atheists in fox holes, there are no atheists or agnostics in politics. And, even the religious affiliation of Americans  seems much more “fluid” than we would expect. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44% of American adults have switched religious affiliation at some point, whether from one Protestant denomination to another, conversion to another faith, or dropping/picking up religious connections.
The numbers of Christians in America have declined with barely 50% of the population identified in 2010 as being Protestant, 26% describing themselves as belonging to Evangelical churches. And the Pew Report notes that not only are Protestants on the decline, but “the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation.”  The group that has seen the most gains in recent years? The unaffiliated group, the largest percentage of which come from people between 18-29 years old.
Both religion and politics in America represent more diversity and regionalism than the well-orchestrated campaign speeches and rallies would have us believe. Governor Perry may be part of a religious majority in the South, which has the heaviest concentration of Evangelicals in the country, but  he may have a harder sell for “prayer and politics” in the West, which has the largest percentage of unaffiliates, agnostics and atheist.
Praying in public? Can we really say that any call for public prayer organized by a political figure, whatever his or her political or religious affiliation, is apolitical. I remember the slogan from the sixties, “the personal is political,” and what is more personal than our religious beliefs.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  Pew Research Center.

My good friends Kelly and Chuck have arrived from California and are spending the week in Sedona. So, I'm skipping this topic today to hang out with them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Topic 208: Discords

A Little Night Music
A chord is a combination of at least three tones or notes sounded at the same time, The dictionary also says that chords are usually “concordant” or harmonious. They “agree” with each other.  We have borrowed from the musical world to describe people as harmonious, or to describe situations as discordant, i.e. lacking in unity or harmony. I have spent enough time using daily themes to talk about the tragic discord of the Civil War, of the American Revolution, of the Vietnam era 60’s. Today, I prefer to write about music.
A few nights ago, our family went to a potluck followed by an evening of “musical play” with a local musician. He calls his programs “Music for Every Body” with a clear reason for separating that pronoun “everybody” into two parts. Prescott is full of accomplished musicians, artists, and actors who have gravitated to our mountain community. Jonathan Best seems to roll all those parts into one, and he lives up to his name. He is one of the best.... at making great music, at making people feel comfortable, and at showing people how to play in new ways through Playshops: “We all need a safe place to explore our music like a child.  When we talk we sing and when we walk we create rhythm" (source: Jonathan Best homepage)
Tuesday night, we played our musical bodies with  fourteen people of all ages outdoors in downtown Prescott in a circle, accompanied by what sounded like thousands of cicadas in the trees above us. Off in the distance we could hear band music playing from the square, just a typical summer evening in “Everybody’s Hometown.”  Jonathan started out with a little bit of teaching, not the pedantic rule-setting but more like rule-breaking. He shared his experiences with the Masai in Africa, where every body in a village sings and dances. Every body. Then he had us hit a note, our own personal note. Not to worry, Jonathan said. Not to worry about harmony in the traditional sense, i.e. chords with regular intervals based on our scale. There would be no wrong notes, no discord, just an incredible variety of sounds coming together in play.
Jonathon’s studio is called “The Music Garden. As the evening progressed and we moved on to trying out his suitcase full of musical instruments from all over the world, he helped us grow more confident as we experimented with musical sounds and unusual noise makers. It was great fun to watch my husband, who will never dance because somebody made fun of him when he was a teen-ager, who never sings in public probably for the same reason. Yet, there he was hitting his personal note, and then experimenting with a tiny accordion as part of an impromptu trio that included a train whistle and a finger harp.
In Jonathan Best’s Music Garden, there is not only room for “disharmony" but for silence; in his Music for Every Body playshops, there is room for silence as well as sound and for listening as well as performing. When he said that all the activities were optional, I took him at his word without feeling guilty or self-conscious. I chose to listen, which if done with intention and focus is also a form of participation.
By eight p.m. the band in the Square had quieted down and so had the cicadas. The fourteen musical bodies and their conductor, the Best conductor ever, stowed the instruments back in the big, old suitcase. Fourteen happy musical instruments put their chairs away and headed home. Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-Long.

I'll show you optional...
The other night I attended a presentation by a local musician at the day-time hospitality center where my mother volunteers – Quixote’s Garage.  Once a month, there is a potluck followed by a talk of some kind. There have been presentations made on the death penalty, neo-natal care in developing nations, native American art. My mother gave a presentation on Women’s History Month.  I never, ever feel like going to these events at The Garage, but when I have a choice about whether or not to attend, it is always clear that not attending is the wrong choice. But they’re only once a month, the other people who go are interesting and invariably I do have a good time.

This week, I skipped the pot luck part to have dinner with a friend first so I arrived late, but while everyone was still eating. I was actually excited to hear this musician play because Dad said he performs in all the bars and is the best in town. I might have misunderstood that though, because it turns out the guy's last name is Best. Either way, I really enjoy live music, so I was relieved that I wasn’t so late that I was interrupting the performance. But when I sat down, my father turned to me and said, “It’s not going to be a show. It’s a proactive thing.” and he pointed to an open suitcase over flowing with instruments.

“Do you mean interactive?” I said. We both frowned. We feel the same way about these programs at The Garage, and an interactive musical event is very much not in our comfort zones. Immediately I started planning my exit. I was going to say that I felt sick from the meal I’d just eaten (this wasn’t a complete lie – I was uncomfortably full), and was only debating whether or not to throw my dad a bone and claim to be too ill to drive myself (thus getting him out as well), when suddenly the unbelievable happened.

We were sharing the table with a couple who were in town visiting their son and his fiancée (who volunteers at The Garage). We’d been chatting about diets (the father had recently lost 50 pounds), when the son came over and said, “I’m really not feeling well, must be something I ate – Dad can you drive me home?”   He totally stole my exit plan!

So, I had to stay. And so did my dad. The musician arranged us in a circle and we each got an instrument. Mom and Dad both chose maracas, and someone passed me a horn that made the same honking sound as a clown’s nose. I couldn’t play it without getting the giggles. AND the musician made us sing! He made us talk in gibberish and then sing the gibberish to people like we were having singing gibberish conversations. I have never been so incredibly uncomfortable and self conscious, although I did find that I enjoyed saying “hay bippity blibbity boo?”

In the beginning, Mr. Best told us that participation was optional, not to do anything we weren’t comfortable with, but I figured I had about the same choice there as I did to attend. And so Dad and I were standing there in the circle singing gibberish when I noticed someone was missing.

My mother.  She was sitting down outside the circle, hands clasped in her lap, and watching us all make complete asses of ourselves. I was like, Seriously?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Topic 207: Subway Scenery

Art on the Fly
I love riding public transportation, especially in big cities where having a private vehicle is an expensive liability. In New York, our hotel of choice is an easy ride from the airport, involving only the transfer from the Long Island Railroad at Jamaica Station to the A Train.  Off in Chelsea, walk two blocks and we’re there.  Tourists are often reluctant to ride the subways, but using the MTA is safer than it was 40 years ago, and definitely more fun.
I was afraid in New York back in 1973 when my then fiancé was working for the summer in a Manhattan law office. That August, heading to the airport for my California wedding, I carried my bridal gown on the subway. My imagination got the better of me, and I started constructing newspaper headlines. “Woman’s wedding gown stolen week before her wedding.” “Bride-to-be mugged on subway.”  Head down, holding onto purse or package or wedding dress, I rarely saw the graffiti on the tunnel walls or passing rail cars that constituted much of the subway scenery back then.
New York City was dangerous back then. The crime rate was a national scandal.  Riding mass transportation put me slightly on edge, completely alert to the passengers around me, yet trying to avoid eye contact. Thanks to a decline in drug use and major changes in the NY City police department, including more neighborhood-based police, the crime rate has steadily dropped over the last decade. Robbery statistics  have plummeted, from 32,562 cases in 2000 to 19,466 in 2010. Remember, this is a city of such a huge population that its subway system handles 5.1 million riders per week (source: Official NY City Statistics). When I visit New York now,  I can actually enjoy the scenery, not just on a walk through Central Park, but on the subway.

Yet, the image of The Big, Bad Apple still exists. To attract more riders and positive publicity, the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) has created Arts for Transit, a program  that supports visual and performing arts projects in subway and commuter rail stations. According to the MTA website, “Arts for Transit’s projects create links to neighborhoods with art that echoes the architecture history and design context of the individual stations.” Some installations are permanent, such as wall murals.  Many of the stations use ceramic tile art, a tradition that started with ceramic plaques used since the system’s opening in 1904.
The scenery on the New York subways isn’t just visual, however. Performance Art includes musicians from the “Music Under New York” program, including opera, jazz, blues, and classical music on subway platforms and train stations. Over 200 soloists and groups participate at 25 locations throughout the system, and complete information about the musicians, special events and locations are published on the MTA website.
Next time you’re in New York, enjoy a walk through Central Park, then look for the nearest subway station and head down, down, down to ride one of The Big, Bright Apple’s 26 routes. Treat yourself to the vibrant, creative subway scenery of a clean and safe  New York City.


Yesterday my mother wrote about The Channel Tunnel, which she has never taken.  My first year in England, I spent the Christmas vacation travelling around Europe with friends, and at the end, took the Eurostar train from Paris back to London.  I don’t remember too much about that trip (the train part) except that I didn’t pre-book my ticket, so had to stay an extra day. Also, it snowed in Paris and the train was delayed for several hours and everyone’s ticket was free. Once the train went into the tunnel under the water, there wasn’t much to see (obviously).  My ears popped and I thought, “This is just BART.”

That’s what happens when you travel a lot. You try to make sense of the new by comparing them to the familiar.  European cities remind me of each other, and of San Francisco. And I spent enough time in England that when I was driving through the sheep farms in Southern Oregon on my way to visit my brother, the landscape reminded me of England and not the other way around.

Anyway, I was meant to be talking about Subways. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was my first experience that I can remember with underground public transportation – and it’s only underground for about half the time. I often took BART from Oakland into The City so I could wander around the mission district, and attend author readings in bookstores. My senior year, my friends and I took the train to the Castro for Halloween. That was one of my favorite nights ever – I was a French maid, Kelly was an “Russian housewife on the lam” and our other friends were a cat, a scarecrow, a pimp, and a flapper. After hours of debauchery, and an encounter with the masturbating bear, we took the last train back to the East Bay. The cars were standing room only, and everyone was in costume. Seated nearby was a ninja with a sword strapped to his back. He had on a black fencing mask and it was impossible to see his face or where he was looking. Freakiest thing I ever saw – he pops up in my nightmares sometimes – just sitting somewhere in the background with no face.

The only other subway I’ve ridden with regularity was the London Underground – which is more like New York’s subway system than BART.  The Tube (as they call it) is a vast and confusing network of trains, which you navigate with a map that was designed for symmetry and is in no way to scale. Hundreds of thousands of people ride the  Tube everyday, and although I used it regularly whenever I was in London, I never really got the hang of it. I worried that my uncertainty identified me as a tourist, and was hyper-vigilant of pickpockets.  And, although I never had a problem with planes after 9/11, after the bombings in 2005, the underground trains made me nervous. When you’re walking shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, it’s not hard to imagine the danger of a panicked stampede.

That being said, subways are a very efficient way to get around. I’m a big fan of public transportation, and the benefits definitely outweigh the risks.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Topic 206: My Sleeves

The Sleeve
 I started planning my daily theme essay in my head yesterday evening, taking mental inventory of the different kinds of sleeves in my wardrobe.  Suddenly, my memory did one of those unpredictable backward somersaults that took me to a name I learned 40 years,  La Manche. The Sleeve.
La Manche is the French name for the “arm” of the Atlantic Ocean most of us call the English Channel.  Known for being “country-prideful,” the French would never refer to The Channel as English.   Imagine La Manche as being shaped somewhat like a sleeve, in fact one of those mutton sleeves that women wore in the 19th century. The “buttons” on the wrist of the sleeve are Dover, England and Calais, France. The wristband is the Strait of Dover. The broad end of the sleeve is marked by Penzance at the tip of south-west England and Brest in northern France.
The Channel also gave its French name to an area of the Normandy Coast that includes the beautiful Mont St Michel. La Manche is technically a “department,” or civil administrative region. Mont St Michel is an island of sorts where the Couesnon River meets the waters of The Channel. At one time a natural bridge connected Mont St Michel to the main land, revealed at low tide. This little islet is one of numerous islands of varying size “decorating” The Sleeve, including the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.  

The shorelines on both sides of the Channel have a rich history and strategic importance. But, today they constitute major ports and tourist locales with a combined population of over 3.5 million people (source: “English Channel”).
Le Havre beach
The friendly rivalry shown by Channel swimmers and boaters  goes back to the  1800’s.
No contending hostile shipping meet in the waters of La Manche, as our neighbours term what we call the English Channel. Far more glorious, far more agreeable… are the friendly contests of the friendly fleets of England and France in doings of mutual regard, esteem and friendship. We have indeed laid aside the sword for an olive branch, and long may this be held for the enjoyment, the benefit, and the gratification of the world, our countries and ourselves (“Naval Doings” 427)
Evacuation of Dunkirk
Eighty years later, the true test of that “mutual regard, esteem and friendship” came when the Battle of Dunkirk stranded hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian troops on the beaches of Normandy. On May 26, 1940 Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons to garner support for a massive evacuation of the troops. During the ensuing nine days, a flotilla of boats ranging from navy ships to fishing trawls and lifeboats to family pleasure boats evacuated almost 340,00 soldiers across The Channel, including about 140,000 French soldiers (source: “Dunkirk Evacuation ”).
Today the quickest way to traverse the Channel is not by ship or boat but by car or train. Since 1993 “The Chunnel,” a 31 mile railway tunnel under the Strait of Dover, has been providing service to increasingly speedy trains. Tourists and business travelers can now journey from London to Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes (source “Channel Tunnel”).
I haven’t crossed La Manche by Chunnel or Channel although I have flown across it several times. Speed may be great, but I prefer my Sleeve a beautiful deep ocean blue.

“Channel Tunnel.” Wikipedia.
“Dunkirk Evacuation.” Wikipedia.
“English Channel.” Wikipedia.
Image of Le Havre beach and the Channel. Wikipedia.
“Naval Doings.” Nautical Magazine. Vol 34 1865, p. 427.
We’ve had some silly topics before but I’m pretty sure this is the worst. Topics that would be better than this one (but still about clothes): My Shoes, My Buttons, My Pockets. I like the last one. I could write a whole essay about what I find in my pockets. Actually I couldn’t. I only ever find used Kleenex and movie tickets. Sometimes a dog treat.

What can I possibly say about my sleeves? Have you ever noticed that in most of the cartoons I am wearing a tank top? That is because in real life, most of my shirts and dresses are sleeveless. This is not due to any sort of bias against sleeves, although I do find that most long sleeve shirts are too long for my short arms. In 100+ degree heat, sleeveless is better than sleeved.

I suppose there is a fashion to sleeves – by which I mean, sleeve design changes with the fashion. I base this entirely on the part of Anne of Green Gables where Anne asked Marilla to make her a dress with puffed sleeves. That book had some influence on me and for probably the only time in my life, I had a preference about sleeves (aside from now, where my preference is none). When my grandmother made my First Communion dress (even though she was not Catholic), at my request she gave the dress puffed sleeves.

First Communion dresses, by the way and in case you didn’t know, look like mini-wedding dresses. They are miniature because they are worn by children, but also they don’t have trains. It is also tradition to wear a veil, or at least it was when I was a kid. I haven’t been a First Communion service since my brother had his (little boys wear suits and ties). I wonder what my grandmother thought about the Catholic ritual. I once asked her what was the difference between her religion, which was Methodist, and mine. She answered, “Methodists don’t worship the Pope.” Oooh, my mother was angry.

Anyway, I was really happy with my dress, and according to my mother, it’s packed away for me. I’m sort of sorry that we were the only Catholics in the family, because it would have been neat for one of my little cousins to wear a dress made by their great-grandmother. For a second just now I had a thought about finding the dress and giving it to one of the girls, but I don’t think that’s a good idea after all. The last time I saw the 3 year old wear her princess dress, she spilled an entire milkshake down the front. Of course, I was 8 when I had my First Communion, so she’s got about 5 years to grow before she’ll fit in it, and maybe that’s plenty of time for her to stop being so clumsy. OR, if I ever get married, she could be the flower girl and wear the dress then. That might be nice. I’ll have to time it pretty carefully though.