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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing the Journey

I am embarking this week on a new adventure: teaching a writing class at the local senior center. I taught college writing classes for ten years many years ago now, and I have taught seniors more recently (genealogy and genealogical software). We shall see if I can successfully combine the old subject and the new audience. I am not teaching alone; my brother will team teach with me. I told him my main aim is to have fun, but it really is to help at least one person write something he or she is proud of producing.

The director of the senior center told us that they had started a writing class with a teacher whose subject was writing memoirs; then the teacher died suddenly, but the class has kept meeting, encouraging each other to write and share what they are writing. It has morphed into a creative writing group. My brother and I wanted to revive the memoir class. The director wanted us to teach creative writing. We decided to split our eight weeks in half, doing personal essays for the first half and short fiction the second half. We think we may get some interesting results.

For almost thirty years I judged a high school writing contest (I got roped into judging because my friend-who-became-my-sister-in-law was in charge and needed reliable “volunteers” to be judges.) I have read hundreds of personal essays and short fiction from teenagers. I think I know most of the potential pitfalls of the genres, especially the pitfalls presented by being so young that you don’t know that your heartfelt ideas are all cliches.

I wonder if the seniors will write in cliches. No matter what the age of the writer of a piece I am reading, I almost always find what people choose to reveal about their lives to be intensely interesting. Other people’s perspectives surely enrich my own journey.

My son had to create the seeds of a hero’s journey journal for a writing class he took in high school. We went through things he had written for other classes to get ideas, and he ended up creating a megalomaniac twenty-pound rat as the foil for his hero, a dog. It made me think about Agatha Christie, who wrote a lot of stories featuring megalomaniacal villains whose ambition is to rule the world. I love stories like these. What a hero really needs is a truly crazy villain to fight. No ambiguity. No second-guessing whether the villain deserves an ignominious ending. Didn’t we all cheer when Harry Potter’s sacrifice vanquished Voldemort for good? I wonder if I can suggest a good vs. evil theme for the seniors’ creative projects. I would love to see what kinds of villains they would create, what kinds of heroes, what kinds of conflicts. How enriching their wise perspectives would be!

My sister-in-law brought us a book on writing personal histories, written by Don Norton, a retired BYU professor, who is probably the most expert in the subject of anyone I know of. I loved his book! I want simply to start on page one and teach the whole thing, so sure am I that anyone and everyone could benefit from it. However, we already advertised the content of our class, and we do have only eight short weeks, and I am obviously not Don Norton (!). On the other hand, I am going to use some of his ideas for teaching the personal essay part of our class, connecting our first assignment firmly to the idea of using personal essays as a way to tackle the longer project of writing a personal history in manageable chunks.

I love hearing and reading people’s life stories. No life is uninteresting to me. If I can help one person to discover how to reveal the journey he or she has taken in fascinating detail, whether through personal experience or through fiction, I will count it a success.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Insomnia

It's a quarter to five in the morning and I have not been able to get to sleep yet. I never thought I would have insomnia, but here it is, obviously. When I am waiting for sleepiness to hit, lots of things start to worry me. What if one of my family members gets hit by a car today? What if one of them gets food poisoning from something I cook? What if a fire breaks out down in the basement tonight for some inexplicable reason? What if we have a home invasion? What if the dog develops cancer?

How am I going to teach my genealogy class with no sleep? How am I going to hide the circles under my eyes?

My brother and I decided to team-teach a writing class at the local senior center. We start next Thursday. Now I am thinking, What was I thinking? What if they don't like me? What if nobody does any of the assignments we've come up with? What if they don't laugh at our jokes? What if their hearing aids all stop working at once?

Sleeplessness seems to have given my entire body the fidgits--this is my word for Restless Legs Syndrome, only I get that crawly, itchy, jumpy feeling under my skin everywhere, not just in my legs. It starts in my calves and moves out. I feel like running around the block to see if it will go away. I keep doing exercises, tightening all my muscles to hold the itch, to fight the jumpiness.

I cannot think of anything that is bothering me particularly. Besides the unreasonable fears that come with tiredness and unreasonably early morning hours. Here we go again.

What if a horde of spiders attack my bed? What if . . .

>yawn< Hey! I think I will try my pillow again.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fireworks

At first dark on Saturday evening, we watched our official city fireworks display from the sidewalk in front of our next-door neighbor’s house. We used to sit on our own driveway watching them, until the trees across the street grew too big and blocked them out.

This year was different in that there were fireworks in the skies all around us. Despite the fact that we live in a desert environment and that it’s usually getting pretty dry here in July, our state legislature approved a law allowing these aerial fireworks displays to be bought and used by the general public, and not only that, but they extended the time from a few days before and after the holiday to last all month long!

What, one wonders, were they thinking? Doubtless the question begs the question. We are talking about politicians, after all.

I wasn’t at all surprised but I was sorry when I heard all the fire engines from the fire station three blocks away go screaming out of the garages. (Politicians should be required to ride along, don’t you think?)

And although I am writing this at about 1:00 in the morning, I am still hearing the boom of the fireworks guns on the streets around our house. This is madness, surely.

Don’t think I don’t like fireworks! I do, very much. They are pretty, they are impressive, and they are fascinating. I love the huge red-white-and-blue balls of fire. I love the cascading firefalls. I love the ones with the little colored squiggles at the ends of straight lines of gold fire.

We were wondering at every fresh type of firework, How do they do that?

My mom was telling us about how, when she and Dad lived in Lake Havasu City, they would enjoy the spectacle every February when fireworks companies would gather there for an annual convention to test out their new displays, which were shot out over the lake. How wonderful a sight that must be!

But with all my enjoyment, I do want to be safe, and I want my neighbors to be safe, and I do confess to sympathizing with all the howling dogs, terrified at the noise and sights of fire in the skies. It sounds like a war around here. And we have a whole month of this to look forward to. Sigh.

I never thought I would dislike fireworks, but this trial by fire is literal.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yellowstone Magic


The summer of 1916 in Yellowstone Park was a very strange time in history—the whole of Europe and half the rest of the world had become involved in a desperate war, but the staff of the Wylie Camping Company seemed oblivious of it. The young men and women cleaning the tents and cabins and the drivers of horse-drawn wagons who took tourists around the Park spent their free time hiking, picnicking, dancing, entertaining, and all the while flirting with one another, and on the part of the young women at least, looking for potential marriage partners.

I read a diary kept by a newspaper reporter who was on a leave of absence from the paper and working as one of the “Wylie Savages” that summer. She was my grandmother, bent on adventure and romance and finding both in bucketsful.

Their parties consisted of food, lots of sweets, singing, joking, talking, much laughter and staying up late, but everybody stayed in the same room and couples did not indulge in public displays of affection. There were lots of fudge parties at which fudge was cooked in a scoured-out washing basin over the pot-bellied stove in one or another tent occupied by the young women, using sugar filched from the kitchen and cocoa that one young lady had brought from home—someone with remarkable foresight. Their favored young men were invited over to wait for the fudge to be done while everyone would sing, joke, talk, and laugh together. Then they would feast, and invariably someone would have filched more snacks from the kitchen to eke out the feast.

Every evening the staff members were expected to participate in a campfire program followed by dancing in the pavilion. Several were singers, some were known for readings, and some performed skits. After the campfire was over, dancing began, and the staff members were expected to dance with the tourists. They also danced a lot with each other and made dates for that and for other things.

The young men and women did go off alone in pairs—it was called “rotten logging” after the practice of finding a place in the woods to sit together.

The double standard was in full force in 1916. The young women were expected to control the physical side of their relationships, and the young men were expected to take whatever liberties they were allowed. Everybody knew that a woman’s reputation could be irrevocably ruined if she allowed too much. The men could gain a reputation too, but they would not be treated the same way women would. The women would let it be known among themselves that this or that man was one whom they shouldn’t go out with alone. They developed a telegraphic system for advising each other, and they took turns acting as an unofficial chaperone for various activities.

Drunkenness among the men was strongly disapproved and barely tolerated. When a woman found out her companion was drunk, she made every excuse to rejoin others in order to better control her situation, and she’d ditch him if she could.

All the elements were in line for romance to bloom: plenty of moonlight, geysers erupting, paths through the woods, conveniently large rocks in the river to sit upon, beauty spot after beauty spot to visit, and plenty of time after chores were finished in which to indulge in cultivating friendships.

It was a magical summer, and seen against that backdrop of world history, something very like magic kept the tragedy of war—which would deeply affect their lives in only a few months—from intruding on those brief, shining months in Yellowstone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Riddles, part 2

Here are the answers to my riddles, along with my thoughts.

1. I don’t know why things hide when you want them. Probably it has to do with patience.

2. A blossoming cherry tree is the usual answer, but when I carefully remove the stones so that someone without dexterity can eat the cherries, I think there’s another valid instance.

3. An egg, or the chicken I buy at the store, because I no longer like to save a penny by deboning the chicken myself. Somehow after doing that, I lose my appetite for the meat.

4. I love you (and you know who you are!) has no end!

5. A sleeping baby is the answer, but there are babies I know of who rarely cried: one was me. My mother tells the tale that when I was a newborn, I never cried to be fed. I would just wait, looking around, even in the middle of the night when she didn’t wake up on time. Apparently I had full confidence that it was coming and was justified.

6. A bookworm is what I have always been. I’ve been reading since I was five; books, magazines, cereal boxes, notes, letters, everything online, and on and on. I never can stop reading, unless I’m writing. I love that the OE word for the bug can be moth or worm, and wyrm can also be a dragon. I love that!

7. Like my meals, tomorrow has always come and for now I expect it will continue. However, I know that there will come a time when tomorrow will no longer be coming.

8. In the early evening sitting outside watching the stars start appearing is a miracle to me that I never tire of seeing. Then in the early morning watching the growing light blot them from the sky is another miracle.

9. Jane Austen’s Emma is one of my favorite novels, and this riddle is one of my favorite riddles, when Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s clever courtship for the wrong target.

10. In Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, class divisions are undercut by Nutkin’s cheeky attitude toward Old Brown. And we really are back to the cherry here.

What are your favorite riddles?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Limelighters and Other Riddles

This evening we were looking for a CD that has been missing for several weeks, The Limelighters: Through Children’s Eyes. My husband walked over to the CD case, plucked it right out, and handed it to us. “Why do things hide whenever they find out you’re looking for them?”

It’s true. When you want a book or a CD or something like that, you can’t find it. They know they are wanted and they disappear.

I loved that CD—or rather, album—my parents gave me the LP record album for my birthday when I was a child, and I played it and played it. I had all the songs memorized. When I found it in a CD a few months ago, I found that I could still sing along on all the tracks.

Tonight somebody remarked what a beautiful song “I Gave My Love a Cherry” is. Something clicked and I started to think about my master’s degree, and how, when I was researching the Old English charms, I ended up reading an awful lot about Old English riddles.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a story that has no end?
How can there be a baby with no crying?

Those aren’t very hard to answer, but I love some of the harder ones. Here are some of my favorites. The first really is Old English:
Moððe word fræt—me þæt þuhte wrætlicu wyrd þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn, þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs wihte þy gleawra þe he þam wordum swealg.Moth gobbled songs—it seemed to me marvelous when I learned that wonder, the worm swallowing songs of men, a thief in darkness with glorious cud and that base of strength. The stealthy guest was none the wiser for his word-feast.

I never was, am always to be,
No one ever saw me, nor ever will
And yet I am the confidence of all
To live and breathe on this terrestrial ball.


At night they come without being fetched,
And by day they are lost without being stolen.


My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But ah! united what reverse we have!
Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown:
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!
—Jane Austen


Riddle me, riddle me, rot-tot-tote!
A little wee man, in a red red coat!
A staff in his hand, and a stone in his throat;
If you’ll tell me this riddle, I’ll give you a groat.
—Beatrix Potter

And we are now back to the cherry and the riddles posed in the Limelighters CD. There is an answer to all the riddles in this posting except the first one. Do you have an answer?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Fan Letter

Dear Mr. Plácido Domingo:

For the ninety-eleventh time I am listening to De mi alma Latina and marveling at your ability to evoke all the Latin memories at once in my Latina-wannabe soul. Where does my connection to Latin life come from? The closest to Latin blood in me is a distant French ancestor who fled to England and then North America when Louis XIV soaked the soil of France with the blood of the Protestants. Other than that one distant line, all my ancestors are English and Scottish and Welsh, with some Germans in the mix. I think my connection to these songs must be from my having been born and reared in California.

In California when I was growing up we did not find it at all odd that our Japanese fourth-grade teacher taught us to salute the U.S. flag each morning in Spanish. California’s Spanish heritage and history was my heritage and history.

I remember clearly feeling frustrated as Señor Amaya strode around our eighth-grade classroom with his head bent in concentration, listening to us, and barking “¡Otra vez!” In those days we were supposed to learn to speak Spanish by memorizing silly dialogues that nobody we knew would really say to their friends. I also remember struggling like a non-swimmer in the deep end of the pool with Spanish grammar rules in high school. Now if they had only given us heart-wrenching love songs to decode, I’m pretty sure that at least all the adolescent girls with typical adolescent yearnings for Great Romance would have found their motivation to learn the language soaring with no trouble at all.

But if you were recording heart-wrenching love songs when I was an adolescent attempting to learn Spanish, I did not know about it. My folks played Rogers and Hammerstein music, and big bands, and jazz, and pop. And because I had older siblings, I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll.

I discovered your voice and music years ago when my dear friend brought home a record album on which was a duet you sang with John Denver, Perhaps Love. I loved that song. Most of the other songs were sung by you alone, and I was enthralled. I played that album over and over and sang along, ignoring the effects of blending my thin little voice with your grand rich one.

I began to look for your other recordings. I took a dive into opera, rediscovering the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcast of their Saturday matinees. I saw your film of La Traviata. I saw a local production of Carmen. I saw your film of Otello. Much later I saw your film of Carmen. Wow.

My friend and I took a summer course in England in the early 1980s and went to Covent Garden one night to be captivated by your colleague José Carreras singing Rodolfo in La Bohème. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. But at the time we wished it were you up there on stage. It was your voice we preferred.

My husband and I collected your songs on CDs. You were our children’s first favorite singer. Our enthralled 3-year-old watched the original broadcast of The Three Tenors and wanted a recording for Christmas. It wore out.

When we bought this CD, De mi alma Latina, I rediscovered an intense desire to learn to understand the nuances of Spanish grammar. Not even a trip in the late 1980s to Spain to visit my sister, then serving with the U.S. military and stationed near Madrid, had made me this anxious. Back then, as we toured cathedrals and castles, I could understand about 40% of what people said to me and could not answer more than a word or two—something like a toddler who has yet to pronounce that first amazing full sentence. But this album got me searching the dictionary, studying grammar, decoding with all my energy. I wanted to know what exactly you were singing so beautifully, so powerfully, so emotively (if that’s a word)!

Before I knew what the words meant, I imagined being sung to in that way. But of course most of the songs are sad. So now I do not put myself in the role of the object of the songs so much! Instead, I see in my mind’s eye an old Spanish California ranch, with lemon trees and golden hills and beautiful horses and ladies and gentlemen in Spanish dress enacting the dramas you sing. There is peace in the scenes of my imagination, and Great Romance.

Thank you for making music your life and for sharing it with me. Thank you for all the music, and right now for recording De mi alma Latina. Even if I do not have a real Latin soul, I love to hear you singing, “Sin ti no podré vivir jamás/ ni pensar que nunca más/ estarás junto a mi”—and since I’m happy to admit that there’s someone else who to me is the epitome of creation for the past million or so years, even if I am haunting you, I’m content to remain sin ti—only I do have your voice, forever.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stale Days and May Musings

I want to post something before May turns into June and I have to face it that I’ve let an entire month get away from me without writing something interesting in my blog. But that is just my trouble: I have been trying for weeks to think of something interesting to write and have not come up with anything. I have decided today to write about things that are boring.

Everything I have done lately seems a repeat of what I have done before. Take last weekend for instance: Memorial Day weekend. We went to the cemeteries we always go to. It rained. It rains half the time on Memorial weekend.

I remind myself of a song from the musical Gigi, “It’s a Bore.” Gaston’s uncle Honore tries vainly to cure Gaston’s ennui, and Gaston persists in thinking:

It’s the same dull world where ever you go,
whatever place you are at—
The earth is round but everything on it is flat.
(Alan Jay Lerner)

This is not really what I think. It was the same event, and yet we were a year older, a year fatter or thinner, the cemeteries a year more run down, the photographs posed almost exactly the same showing the differences. The green of the trees—is it my imagination, or is it deeper this year, fresher than last?

The cemetery—is it more meaningful this year, now that I know more about those who are laid there?

More things there are probably no real answers for—Is it really fair that I love to teach and love genealogy and am teaching two classes at the local family history library that are turning out deadly dull to me? Not to the students, not yet, apparently. But I dread every class and hope merely to get through without anybody actually starting to boo. I keep rewriting, hoping to hit on a way to make it fresh, make it fun.

Today a real, live reporter from a local newspaper interviewed me over the telephone about genealogy and family reunions. I can’t say that was a bore or that it was the same old thing—being interviewed for an article was a brand new experience and I enjoyed it very much! However, the more I think about what I said, the less I think I said anything worth putting in the article. Mainly I corroborated the research and things the reporter had already gathered, so I am afraid I was “old news” through and through. Still, I will look for the article with anticipation.

And that is the news for today. New? No!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Comforting Hope

Today I am baking funeral potatoes for a dinner for a family on our street whose five-year-old daughter died last week. She and several other children were jumping on a bed, when suddenly she hit the screen on the second-story window next to the bed and went right through it, falling to the pavement. It has been a terrible shock to the little girls and boys in the homes right around hers, with whom she played, and probably a more terrible shock to all the parents. Of course the most terrible shock is to her own parents and extended family.

There is something odd about funeral potatoes. They are made with butter and sour cream and cheese—fats that I try to avoid most of the time, that are staples of “comfort food.” Why are fats comforting? Perhaps in the dim reaches of time, our ancestors stored as much of these fats as they could get, because too often their existence was threatened by lack of food or the necessity of moving or fleeing or something that precluded the production of dairy products, and when they could get them, they found the conditions comfortable and comforting together. Whatever the reason, we all need at least a little fat, and many of us derive comfort from fats in times of great stress.

When I was asked if I would make something for this funeral dinner for these people whom I do not actually know, but whose neighbors I do know pretty well, I was glad to help provide the comfort food, and perhaps provide a bit of comfort of discovering that the neighbors who don’t even know you care about the fact that your little daughter is so suddenly gone from you.

I went to another funeral yesterday, for a friend who had lived long and well. His whole life seems to have been dedicated to doing everything as well as he could, and it seems he was blessed with such abundant talents that that was very well indeed. He could play any musical instrument he took a fancy to, but he played the saxophone most. He was mechanically inclined and loved working with his hands, either fixing mechanical or electric things or building things. He was an English professor at a university, and, said his brother, although he was not always an English professor, he always had acted like one. Not just correcting grammar—he spent time and trouble to help people learn how to express themselves as well as they could. Apparently if you had been one of his students, you would have found that the papers you turned in were returned to you covered with more writing than you had submitted—he took the time with every paper from every student to help make them all the best that they could possibly be.

These kinds of memories of the departed, those that sum up the good things they have accomplished, are rich in comfort. I think the reason we don’t speak ill of the dead is that in their goodness and efforts to achieve great things we find the “fat” and comforting parts of life—and we have hope for them and by extension for ourselves. When little children die, we find comfort in the knowledge that in their purity and innocence surely there is rich promise of salvation.

It being the week following Easter, I find hope and comfort in reflecting on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which all of us will gain eternal life. Because He “drew living breath and conquered death,” we will see our loved ones again and know that the death of the little girl and of the old man are temporary separations. This to me is the richest of all comfort, needing no aid from any traditional funeral dinner components.

But people who survive their loved ones’ deaths must eat, and if there is any comfort in the food we provide, I want to be there, helping to provide that comfort.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Tide

Today is Easter Sunday, and one thing I associate with this day is going to church and singing “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today”—but we didn’t. We didn’t sing any Easter hymns today! You would have thought it was just another Sunday and not a particularly holy day. 

We sang very odd choices, I thought, for Easter Sunday. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the hymns we sang, for any other Sunday, but the Easter hymns are sung only one Sunday each year, and we lost our chance this year.

Where is “That Easter Morn”? Where are the Allelujahs? Where are the glad tidings of the angels ringing down through the centuries to our day, saying, “He is not here, for he is risen—come see the place where the Lord lay”?

Happily those elements of the divine Easter message were in the sermons given today. We heard the scriptures of the Savior’s Atonement and Resurrection. He is risen. He lives.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Raw Presentations

Genealogy can be the most boring thing in the world. Yesterday I was assigned to help a seminar presenter whose presentation turned out to be a most painful experience. The presenter spoke in a monotone and turned exciting details of ancestral history into boring chunks of time to endure. The poor presenter also had trouble with the program and the slides that were part of the presentation, allowing painful minute after minute to tick past while we watched the presenter type things over and over with the same wrong result, and without any explanation. No rehearsal, or too little rehearsal, I diagnosed. It could have been endurable if someone with animation had presented it.

The other big trouble with it was a poor decision not to talk about the sources that were used in creating this pedigree chart. It was supposed to be a talk on pre-1500 A.D. European genealogy, a subject that to most genealogists dictates talking about sources. Instead it was a rambling, disjointed description of the worst sort of assumption-making without mentioning sources that I have ever seen. Half the audience had walked out before the hour was half gone. I felt sorry for the presenter, but angry too.

People who don’t consider their audience when they undertake to do a presentation deserve what they get when they badly misjudge all three essential elements: the audience, the message, and the medium, especially when they volunteer; this was not a case of arm-twisting here.

I have been asked to teach two classes at the local family history library. I teach one for beginners of several varieties: beginners who want to start, those who stopped for one reason or another back before the Internet was invented, those who want motivation to help keep going, and those who think everything is “all done” but who have been told to check things. With such a broad audience, I have worked and worked and worked on the presentations for this class, which runs five weeks. I started teaching it almost a year ago and have probably rewritten every presentation completely twice. Mostly I tweak things. I have practiced over and over, and most of my lessons have gone smoothly. I can think of only one that was too raw when I first presented it to be comfortable, but my class did not seem to mind. I rewrote it right away, and I have continued to tinker with it since then to make it as near perfect as I can. My partner who teaches the same class on a different day and I talk all the time about what we should change, what we should keep the same, and whether to expand what we offer. When your audience is broad, it affects the message and the medium drastically. How much do we cover? Should we add hands-on elements or stick to slide-show lectures with emailed files afterward? We constantly polish our presentations.

The second class is one I have not started to teach yet. It is on a genealogy software program that I tried out for the free 60-day period offered, and then I dropped it in favor of that company’s rival. How ironic that I should now be asked to learn the program I rejected as quickly as I can so that I can start teaching beginners how to use it! I will be five minutes ahead of my class at first, I think. I am sitting in on the class as offered by a man who is pretty skilled in the software, to see how he teaches and to pick up as many tips as I can, as quickly as I can. I have to teach it hands-on, which I have never done before. I have the rest of this month to prepare. Yikes!

I have been in the “five minutes ahead” teaching position before. When my friend Pam and I decided to apply to teach freshman English classes as graduate student instructors, we went into the English Department office to talk to the composition coordinator one Monday midway through the semester before we expected to start. The coordinator unexpectedly needed two instructors for two block classes that started the next day, and rashly, we agreed to try to fill the slots! We were young and foolish—no, crazy! She spent a couple of hours with us, going over everything we were going to have to do the next day in class. We got through the first day of class all right. That night, we were tutored again in what we had to do the next day. That’s how the block went for the first month. Every night we found out what to do the next day. Every night’s tutoring session was a little shorter as we learned how to manage the time and subjects ourselves. It worked—at least, our classes never realized how raw we were until we both told them, the last day, and they were astounded, every one of them. We were well assured that they could not tell that we had not been teaching for years, and my! that gave us confidence in our con-artist abilities. I mean, we became confident teachers.

How raw a presentation is does not depend strictly on the preparation that goes into it. The fourth element, after assessing and addressing the needs of the audience, message, and medium, is the presenter’s manner. Manner can be taught to some extent, but we all have endured people who cannot speak with animation or interest. I hope I can be interesting when I am talking about a program I rejected. Obviously, I won’t let my class know I rejected this program! I will be positive about it—and there are many things about it that help. Where this program has bells, mine has different whistles, and vice versa.

The poor presenter of yesterday (I use the word “poor” both in sympathy and descriptively) probably went home knowing the bitter taste of failure—we could plainly hear through the walls the enthusiastic applause at the end of someone else’s presentation and there was no applause in our room. I am inspired to put a lot of work into my classes so that the presentations are worthwhile for those who come, and I hope to be successful in “ripening” the raw materials.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Round Grammies

It’s tradition: Grammies are supposed to be round. I know, I know. Most grandmothers these days are slim, trim, fit, tanned, athletic, stylish, and do everything to put off the obvious effects of aging. They exercise a lot, eat little, have their hair done and makeup on, wear youthful clothes, and sometimes even have cosmetic surgery.

My mother is and has always been slender. I won’t say she’s athletic, but she can walk a long way if she wants to. Put her on a beach somewhere and she’ll tire you out.

She kept her reddish-brown hair until she was in her 70s I think. I can’t exactly remember when she let her hair turn silver, but it was a while after she finally became a grandmother. She had to wait a very long time to become a grandmother. She was over 60, but a modern grandmother who was fit, trim, and able to play all day with the little ones and not get tired. 

My grammy, however, was little and round. She never reached five feet tall, and she was wonderful to hug—not a bone sticking into you anywhere. When I was little, she was always in a flowered type of soft dress, the kind that goes with a round, soft Grammy, the kind that works well with an apron so that Grammy can get on with the business of making cookies and pie and other goodies for grandchildren to eat. 

She did wear slacks later on—those funny polyester double-knit things that grammies in the 1970s wore and that nobody today admits to ever having owned.

She never had any color of hair but white, at least not in my memory, and not in my mother’s memory either (my mother was next to the youngest). Her soft, wrinkled face was pale like old pink rose petals. Her eyes were sparkly blue, and her skin had never known makeup—she was of that generation that didn’t seem to need it to be beautiful, unless you went to Hollywood when the movie industry was born and you became an It Girl. But an It Girl is definitely not my idea of a grammy.

My grammy died 20 years ago, when she was 99 and a half years old, a busy, active, warm, round person who loved gentle teasing and joking and feeding you good things.

So in the tradition of grammies, I am letting my hair turn white (although it is taking forever); I may give up on wearing makeup (it doesn’t seem to have the glamour effect I used to expect); and best of all, I now have a very good reason not to feel guilty about being overweight anymore: I am upholding Tradition. I am keeping alive the little, round Grammy of Yesteryear.

Here is a picture I took of my grandparents one Christmas.
Hooray for Round Grammies!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dog Wash

When I was driving around one day I saw a sign for a drive-through dog wash. How on earth would that work? I can’t imagine it, unless you have to hook up your dog to a little dog-cart and you hold the reins and drive your doggie through as if he were a little pony. But wouldn’t you get all wet too?

Of course, I always get all wet when I wash my dog. He is big, and he shakes to rid himself of excess water frequently, like every ten or twelve seconds. He squirms around a lot. You start rubbing doggie shampoo into one side and he promptly tries to turn that side away from you. You get very wet trying to reach around him and turn him and so on. His hair is long and curly too.

When he was still a little puppy (only 7 pounds of cuteness when we got him from the Humane Society), I washed him in the sink. Then he started growing, way too fast. I washed him in the bathtub, and we had to call a plumber to clean out the drain. “Don’t ever wash your dog in the house again,” he advised me. Oooops.

So I have to wait until the first warm day of spring to wash away all the winter doggie dirt. He was smelling pretty rank by the time I got to wash him last week. One winter I couldn’t stand it and took him to a doggie beauty parlor and paid to have him bathed. He returned to us late that afternoon looking and smelling very nice, but at a cost that I felt I could next time save and take myself and husband out to a nice dinner instead, and put up with the dog smell until spring.

The dog is getting old. He used to attack the stream of water issuing from the hose, no matter how small the trickle. He loved biting it, loved when I’d hold it up in the air and let him jump and jump for it, snapping madly and wagging his tail wildly. Now he slurps a couple times and then looks at me mournfully. “Are you going to soak me? Do I have to put up with it?” Enormous doggie sigh of resignation.

The breeze felt warm for the last day of March, but once that cold water hit him, and once he shook it all over me, we were both shivering as we felt the ice-tinged edges of a very early spring wind which brought snow the very next day.

Still, as he lay indoors and watched the snow steadily falling, falling, falling, he looked and smelled very nice indeed. The idea carried its own peculiar warmth.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kudos to Nurses

I had to do heavy-duty nursing last week. When I was a very young girl, I wanted to be a nurse. I had a great-aunt whom I loved very much who had been a nurse, and she was my professional idol when I first began to think what I would like to “be” when I grew up. 

However, I took a different path after all.

I have been called upon to do lots of nursing during my life, but I don’t think I’m suited to it. I don’t like it, but I’m glad to do it for the sake of a sick or injured loved one.

I am really glad to have been given the gift of a calm, practical-minded mother who taught me to do whatever needed to be done without fussing about it. I know I can take care of the needs of the people around me—so long as I have the energy—because my mother taught me so much about how to take care of people.

When I interviewed my little Grammy about her life years and years ago, she told me that she would have liked to have been a nurse. When she was a teenager, she nursed her brother through a dangerous illness, and the attending doctor told her she was a natural at nursing and that he couldn’t have pulled her brother through the illness without her work. 

But Grammy got married and raised nine children. Grammy was the go-to person for all the family when somebody needed nursing. If a baby was sick or an elderly aunt failing, my Grammy was the person wanted. She could do wonders.

I think my mother inherited some of that from her. My mother wouldn’t stand for illness to take over. It just did not dare—my mother had that kind of command about her.

So there is an attitude that I have learned, that is part of my heritage. And there is the practical, get-it-done attitude that I have also learned from the women in my family. But the fine art and schooled skill is something else—something that is amazing and awe-inspiring.

An English nurse named Louise last week, working in post-op, had it in abundance. Thank you, Louise, and all you other nurses who ensure our comfort, our hope, our very lives when we are most vulnerable.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Daisy-Kitty

My sister is a veterinarian in a very small town. I was told by my home vet last month that my dog’s teeth were in danger of falling out if I did not get them cleaned with their expensive new technology very soon. I asked the price. Gasp. I called my sister and we arranged for her to do my dog’s teeth (and she doesn’t charge what big-city vets charge either). My mother and I drove down to my sister’s to stay for a couple of days and visit and get the dog treated.

The morning of the treatment, my sister had me hold my dog while she gave him the necessary injections to put him to sleep. In came one of the family cats, Daisy. Daisy has an unerring sense, my sister says, of when a dog is helpless and vulnerable. She strolled over to a point right in the center of my dog’s field of vision as he began to get woozy and was stretched out. Daisy sat down facing my dog, a look of supreme triumph on her face, and licked a paw.

That’s the same paw that has smacked my dog’s nose with claws out when he disobeyed our orders to leave the cat alone. He’s afraid of her, but he still wants to chase her. There she was, probably appearing to be two cats, twice the normal size and shimmering in a mirage-like way. He cried. My sister ordered her daughter to get the cat out of the room, right now.

“That cat.” She loves to tease my sister’s canine patients. She knows when they are helpless, and she comes over and puts her nose right down to theirs if nobody is noticing her movements until the last second. Or she jumps on a piece of furniture near enough to the examining table to be able to stare down at the canine that in her eyes is finally getting its just desserts.

I can just hear her. “Ha ha ha, you Dog, you. Suffer! Suffer! Hooray for my master the Vet!” When I picked up Daisy, she purred. I’m sure she thoroughly approved my decision to bring my big, dumb Dog to be tortured.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Computers and Other Horrible Things

My computer was attacked by a dreaded malware last week, and although my security software identified it and quarantined it immediately, my browser crashed and burned and refused to work after that. I had to reinstall it, but first I was afraid that there might be something more wrong than just that, so I carefully copied off all my files onto a couple of flash drives, and I put them all on my husband’s computer for safe-keeping while I worked on mine to get it running right again. Everything went well, and I recopied everything back onto my computer.

The latest poetry effort I had made was still waiting to be added to my poetry files. I typed it and started to add it to the folder. The folder was empty.

Empty!

I have been writing poetry since I was a little girl. It’s not something I share with others, with a few exceptions through the years. There are a couple of poems I don’t mind if somebody else reads, but most of them are no good as poetry. Yet I still write it and write it and write it. I can’t stop. I’ve kept each one carefully copied into the latest software ever since I first started using computers 25+ years ago. Before that I had written them out in a sort of calligraphy I had made up for myself. I keep updating the ones I’ve written as an adult, fixing this line or that, tweaking, trying to get them to be real poems. I update the software they are saved in. I keep working at them. I had around 250 when I lost them all.

I couldn’t believe it. I searched through every folder, desperate. I knew I had a couple of backups—the ones up to five years ago were on a CD, and I had printed them from time to time to add to a binder, but when did I last print? I found the book; the last one I had printed was a year and a half ago. At least I had not lost them all; I had them up to that time.

What had I written since then? I could remember one poem I wrote last summer that I had actually had the audacity to share—even though it was still a rough draft—with my book group. I thought I had written a few more than that though. I searched through my handwritten notebooks in case I had that rough draft still in there. It was there. Whew. Another poem draft was also there.

I typed the rough drafts and then went to work on them. I worked and worked and worked, but I didn’t know if these new drafts were anything like what I had lost. I just could not remember.

It was amazing that I was so grieved to lose my poems. It is not as if they are some great treasure or legacy or anything I even want to share! But still I was bereft.

I wiped my eyes and copied the new poems into the empty folder. Wait a minute. All the old files reappeared. Where had they gone? Why hadn’t I been able to see them? But they were back! I printed them all, right away. And I backed them up.

I really hate computers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Handiwork


I dreamed about the days when girls were set to stitching samplers before they were twelve years old, learning the tiny, fine, even stitches by a stern mistress who made them unpick every uneven attempt until was perfect. I do not want to have to apprentice that way! No, I and my contemporaries are relearning handwork, but we are not about to submit to all that practice.

I decided I had to learn how to crochet an afghan when I learned I was about to be a grandmother. Quick! I took a vacation to Southern California where my Auntie Vi, in her 90s, was busy making afghan after beautiful afghan, lush colors, intricate patterns, incredible artistry. “Teach me how,” I begged.

She made me crochet long strings of chain stitches until after an hour or so I thought they were even enough that I wanted her to teach me the next step. She was reluctant. She had learned by doing long strings for days, probably weeks, maybe even months. I didn’t have that much time until the baby would be here, and I was determined that the baby would be wrapped in an afghan made by me. Besides, I was going to be at her house only a few more days. “Please?”


She taught me the next step, and then a simple pattern. I went home and made a little “Mile-a-Minute” afghan in pinks and pastels and whites. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even a really good job. In fact, it was definitely a first project—like a first draft. But it would have to do.


I have since made more of them, all simple patterns, for various family members. Auntie Vi said when I was ready, she would teach me how to do the intricate pineapple afghan. I don’t think I will ever be ready.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to teach her how to make that “Mile-a-Minute” afghan that she had seen me working on once when I was carrying my crocheting around with me everywhere. She wanted to make one for her son and one for her daughter, and she had not crocheted anything since the simple potholder she had learned decades ago as a teenager. I went to her house and started to teach her the pattern. She had some difficulty with it, because she was so rusty on the basic stitches necessary. But we don’t have time for her to practice, or apprentice, or anything like that. She has only a short time left to live, and if the afghans are going to be done, they have to be done quickly. She is doing the cores and I’m doing the wrap-around parts. It’s symbolic, we decided: she’s the heart of the project.

Another friend came over today to have my mother teach her how to embroider something special she is making for a family member. My mother sat with her for three hours this morning, and when the friend left, she said she was a very, very quick learner and was getting it done faster than my mother would have been able to do. She said our friend told her, “This has to go fast. I’m very impatient, and if it goes slowly, I won’t do it.”

This is the way handwork gets done in my circles. We live fast and then run out of time and realize that we have not left anything of the lovely things like our grandmothers and great-aunts and so forth left for us to enjoy. Or an important event is coming right up and we simply must have a project ready for it. We rush to learn! We rush to finish!

If we keep making projects (if we have time), we might begin to approach the level of excellence probably achieved by our grandmothers when they approached their teen years. I dare say not many of our handwork projects would win a prize, but I am betting they will be prized anyway.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Travel Plans: Armchair Version

Overseas air travel and I no longer mix well.

There was a time when there was nothing I liked better than to be getting on an airplane, anticipating adventures of all kinds: wonderful new places to see, new people to meet, foods to try, languages and culture to soak in.

I remember one business trip I took across the country, when the flight attendants were, indeed, very attentive even in the coach class cabin where I sat, and when I had the whole row to myself because it seemed as if there never was a plane fully booked.

The best days were those when I packed everything I needed for five weeks in Britain into one carry-on and stowed it under the seat ahead of me, and I still had plenty of room to stretch my feet out onto the top of my bag that served me for a footrest.

I loved the thrill of being just in time to catch my plane; one time on a business trip I remember running the length of the airport to a plane being held for me, attendants and officials running with me so that I had an entire entourage all to myself as I ran up the steps to get into the plane. My! How important I seemed!

One morning my friend and I were returning from Britain to the U.S. and had taken the train into London from Oxford early in order to catch our flight. We had an entire extra half hour that we just couldn’t waste in being early to check in to the airport, so we hopped on a bus and went to the old Tate Gallery, darted inside, ran back to the back room where the Pre-Raphaelites were, feasted our eyes one last time on The Lady of Shallot, and then dashed back to another bus to Heathrow, and when we checked in we found we had been bumped—but they put us back on in first class—wow. We luxuriated in huge recliner seats, slippers for our feet, extra food and drinks, and all the attention we most certainly didn’t deserve but serendipitously were entitled to receive that day.

Everybody seemed cheerful in those days, and once when I had to undergo a pat search in Heathrow on my way home, it was a really big deal to me, something extremely out of the ordinary. Even now I wonder how I could ever have looked remotely like a threat in those days, in my conservative blue suit jacket and skirt, the blouse with the tiny lavender flowers and ruffle down the side front where the buttons were, my long hair and wedged sandals.

Then I began to get a complex: I was always being singled out for extra security measures in the pre-9/11 decade. I’d have to answer extra questions or take off my jacket or sweater and undergo the pat search, it seemed like every time I flew anywhere. My business colleagues joked all the time about me being a secret hijacker. In those days we could visualize a secret government list of suspected problem travelers as something out of fantasy fiction—it would never happen in real life where we lived in the Land of the Free.

The weekend before that terrible Tuesday of September 11, 2001, we flew to Oregon for a family reunion. I was coming straight to the airport from work, and somehow in all the rush, I had left all my identification except my work badge at home. At the airport I found my mistake. I was very disappointed in myself, but I was getting resigned to having to go home and get it and fly later to join my family. But the officials decided to let me go with my family—so I flew without proper identification, knowing I had been given a break. When we checked in to come back home, the officials at the Portland airport didn’t want to let me fly, but since the officials at the originating airport had let me, they relented. Two mornings later came the attacks, and I realized that my experience of that past weekend was closed behind a door that would never open again.

Another thing I couldn’t imagine was how cramped I would become flying in coach class. In most of my traveling life I was crowded only when I got stuck between two heavy people, or one who took all his own room and then encroached on my space too.

But on our way home from Israel, the last overseas trip we took, our lack of room was a nightmare. We were wedged into the very last row of the airplane, so our seats did not recline. The people in front of us reclined their seats into our faces and knees, and we could not move. The flight was 14 hours. I slept not a wink, feeling claustrophobic, cramped, sore, and unable to do a thing about it except crochet as fast as possible to take my mind off my discomfort and my husband’s knee pain.

My mother and I tried to get my dad to go with us to Spain one Christmas to see my sister, who worked near Madrid at the time. Then we were going to drive with her through northern Spain, seeing castles and beautiful towns, along the French coast to Calais and take the ferry to England to drive to Oxford to see my dad’s sister and her husband—people he would have liked to see. But he would not fly. The trip was not worth the discomfort of getting there and the worry about his health while away from home and all that was familiar. I couldn’t understand him at the time, but now I think I do.

My mother has become averse to overseas travel as well. When we thought we would go to Ireland last year, she said she would be happier to stay home and watch travel videos instead. I was amazed. Then last St. Patrick’s Day we watched a PBS marathon of travel videos about Ireland and I realized that my mother was getting an education through the extensive narration necessary to a PBS-quality travel show, something you don’t get when you are on your own traveling about, and even if you are with a tour, the quality of the content not always what you thought you paid for.

The irreplaceable aspects of travel are the great foods, the wonderful people you meet, and the feeling you get for another type of life. These things I have stored in my memory, and my memory is happily full of marvelous experiences. I had hoped to travel more, but the combinations of economics, politics, and age are taking their toll and making that armchair travel more attractive every day.

Thank heavens for what Emily Dickinson expressed this way: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lessons in Miracles

A woman I know is dying, she has been told, of an aggressive form of cancer. She still looks well and seems to have energy. She spoke to the Relief Society this past Sunday about her journey from health to death sentence, chronicling for us how she dealt with each step along the road with a mixture of faith and trepidation; of denial and then wonder and the blessings of “tender mercies.” I loved her story, although I certainly don’t like it that she is having to leave seemingly so much earlier than we usually expect.

She said that a blessing she received long ago talked about how she would live a “long and useful” life. She mentioned that a friend told her she thought that 50 years was a long life. Oh my! How we laughed nervously to hear that; the median age in our Relief Society when I moved here 16 years ago was the early 30s and of course is getting older all the time, so a lot of us laughed more than the younger women, who probably thought 50 is old.

One of the crucial things my friend talked about was how to approach this thing. She quoted Elder Richard G. Scott, who said this:

“Just when all seems to be going right, challenges often come in multiple doses applied simultaneously. When those trials are not consequences of your disobedience, they are evidence that the Lord feels you are prepared to grow more (see Prov. 3:11–12). He therefore gives you experiences that stimulate growth, understanding, and compassion which polish you for your everlasting benefit. To get you from where you are to where He wants you to be requires a lot of stretching, and that generally entails discomfort and pain” [“Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 16; see www.lds.org].

I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis said about the same thing, referring to an old George MacDonald parable, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” [from Mere Christianity]

The thing I learned from what my friend said to us is that it can be stupendously uncomfortable to try to bend your will to the will of God. But I think it is worth trying, always trying. Certainly I fall short every day; I have plans and habits and things that I’m not yet willing to give up. I’m working on them. I’m sure I’ll always be working on this project until I die, but the more I work on it maybe the closer I’ll get to what the Lord wants me to be. I find that there is where my true happiness lies. When I feel that I’m actually close to doing His will, that’s when I’m most comfortable, the most me.

I had a near death experience not just once but several times. I don’t have great health, but I do all right. The times I came close to death, and the one time I came very, very close, I saw and experienced enough to take the fear of it right away forever. I actually look forward to the time when it is the right time for me to go. But I hope I’ll feel halfway ready. Or a quarter! That’s my only “fear” with death—have I loved people like I should have? Have I done what I could have for them?

My friend expressed amazing faith and hope concerning her experience now. She feels it is the right time for her to go. She feels good about it—only regretting having to leave her family and her nearly-grown children. Yes, that is my regret. No matter how much faith I have, parting is painful, especially when it is for the rest of someone’s mortal life. I know the one left in mortality will feel the pain much more and will have the harder time dealing with it.

When it’s me being left behind, I know what grief tastes and feels like. I know I can get through it, but it cannot be described as an easy thing. When I think of leaving my husband and my son, I have a very different feeling: worry!

Another story my friend cited was of a woman who wrote a book about a terrible experience she had had to undergo. When people told her how brave she was being and how God never gives us burdens or trials that we cannot bear, she learned to disagree. He does give us trials that sometimes are way too heavy for us to bear—on our own. But if we will rely on Christ to carry our burdens, we then can get through the ones that are too hard for us alone. This opened up a new line of thinking for me, and it confirmed what I had vaguely started to realize some time ago about the nature of mortal trials.

I am never alone, unless I cut myself off and choose that ultimate loneliness. Instead, when I open myself up to the growth that God knows I can achieve by aligning my will to His, I do achieve.

Miracles happen, and one miracle can be me.

Monday, January 31, 2011

No Time for Dickens

I was invited some time ago to join an online book group called Goodreads. It is a fun web site for a bibliophile: you type in the titles of your favorite books and then rate them and give them a review, and then as you read new books, you add your reviews of them to your online book shelves.

On my To-Read shelf has been the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. It has been there probably about two years now. I have it in the pile next to my bed. But I have what I think is an incredibly busy life and I have not wanted to invest the time that Dickens demands.

Back when I was about 15 years old, my great-aunt Ruth suffered a broken hip and had to be moved from her apartment in Portland, Oregon, to a nursing home near our home in California. My dad took me with him to make the arrangements. It was my first airplane trip among other firsts. We went to see the attorney who was handling the affairs of my great aunt. This attorney was an elderly lady (at least, she seemed elderly to me at the time), very regal-looking, and I developed an instant case of hero-worship.

After her interview with my dad, she asked me some questions about my interests. I told her I had just read my first Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, and had loved it. She offered to lend me her copy of David Copperfield, a beautifully bound, very expensive, two-volume edition that was quite old. Now I think she was crazy to trust such a valuable book to a teenager she had just barely met. But she did, and I treasured that book that summer. I do not remember how long it took me to read the book. It is very long! I think it took about two months.

I lived in the Dickensian world. I adopted Dickensian speech patterns. If I had heard a British accent, I am sure I would have adopted that too. I never wanted the book to end. However, it ended at last and I carefully wrapped up the volumes and mailed them back to the lawyer in Portland, with what I think probably was a Dickensian-flavored gushing letter of thanks.

I read The Pickwick Papers next. Again, I was immersed in a world that seemed to take over my life. Stopping reading was sort of like coming up for air while playing Marco Polo in our swimming pool.

In college, I read Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby, and parts of Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dombey and Son. I couldn't read all of these long books because I had too many other demands on my time. Dickens demands a huge investment in time.

I keep promising myself to invest that time in reading all of these novels, but I keep picking up something that demands far less instead. Does anybody sit down and read all of a Dickens novel anymore?

My book group (the live one, not the online one) chose David Copperfield last fall. I reread parts of it but did not have the time to reread the whole thing. My mother read it all, reading and reading and reading and reading. She also read other books in between marathon sessions with David Copperfield. It was worth it, she said, but difficult to achieve. I envied her.

I want time for Dickens.