Monday, December 31, 2007

Turning In My Cat Stevens T-Shirt

Yesterday in church the congregation sang a hymn I didn't know. In the past that wouldn't have been a hurdle any bigger than a twig. Singing hymns has always been the peak moment of any church experience for me, and my pleasure was never hidden under a basket. "If ya wanna sing out, sing out!" That was Cat Stevens' invitation and my motto long before Stevens ever strummed a chord.

I always sang out. If I didn't know the tune, I offered an imaginative substitute. If the song was pitched too high for me, I sang an octave lower, and considered the result harmonizing. But in any case, I sang loud and with fervor.

Little children several rows ahead of me would turn around in amazement. Boys of ten and twelve would snicker into their hands, unfamiliar with harmony. Girls just into the teen years would slump further into their pews and roll their eyes at each other.

Among other motives, I always hoped, by example, to inspire lukewarm pewsters to sing from their hearts. Not meaning any offence, I have to say that most congregations sound pretty weary and wishy-washy: Methodist, Mormons, Lutherans, Presbyterians--especially the Presbyterians, who were not only sad but funereally slow--all seem muted and Prozaic. Two exceptions: a wondrous group of full-throated Freewill Baptists in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a lusty flock in bright muu-muus and neatly ironed shorts on the island of Oahu. In neither place did a single head turn my way.

But my days of merry freestyle singing are no more.

For months now, I have been taking weekly voice lessons. And oh, the hesitation, the modesty, the tentative sounds a little learning brings in its puny wake! All I could do yesterday with the unfamiliar hymn was silently mouth the words. Sic transit gloria ignoramus.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


The solitary junco
at our bird feeder
pays no heed
to the tolling bells
or shrill plastic horns
that mimic rasping crows.
It is not his new year
that is welcomed.
But it is mine.
So I will remember to buy more sunflower seeds.
And I have hung two wide strips of red ribbon
in the window,
because earlier, a sober junco crashed into the glass,
seeing it as simply more dark night.
I resolve to lose no more birds to illusion.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Today having grabbed the young goddess Cyberia around her waist and holding a sprig of mistletoe over her head, I intend to plant a few hearty kisses on her rosy cheeks. It's more than holiday playfulness behind this move; it's gratitude.

Quick chronology:

1948--Norbert Wiener coined the word "cybernetics" to denote
the study of "teleological mechanisms" [systems that embody goals].

1982--William Gibson coined the termed "cyberspace" to refer to the world of the Internet.

1994--Yours Truly christened the spirit of cyberspace "Goddess Cyberia."

Now, frankly, Cyberia resembles Shakespeare's Puck more than she does such high and mighties as Hera, Athena, or Kali. We're all familiar with her mischief-making side, and who among us has not sworn a few snarling words at her dark side, from serious ills such as abuse of children by online pedophiles to overkill by online winking-blinking-maddening pop-up advertisers?

Still and all--

Because of Cyberia, my brother and I, who for decades communicated solely by means of Christmas cards and a very rare phone call, now exchange chatty updates several times a month. In other words, in our seventies we are becoming acquainted, becoming family.

Because of Cyberia, I am now--after decades of "I wonder what happened to Whosis?"--
in touch with several chums from high school days. It's a shot in this aching arm to discover that Carolyn is as drily witty as she was at 16, and that John is every bit as quirky and imaginative and brilliant as he was in Mr. LoMaglio's English class, when he was responsible for my having to report to the principal.

Because of Cyberia, I can shop without grinding my teeth or kicking the walls of Nordstrom's dressing room.

Because of Cyberia, I can rent wonderful, thought-provoking "little" movies I would never have known about, let alone seen in a local cineplex. [Short list: Happy, Texas; Dancer, Texas Population 81; Career Girls; On A Clear Day; Nine Lives; The Tic Code.]

Because of Cyberia, I can stay warm and close to beloved friends even as they and we have scattered to Left Boot, Montana, or Mal de Mer, California. In some ways, we are closer via email than we were when we lived across town from each other. Can't figure that out yet, but it is true.

Because of Cyberia, if I forget the name of a minor actor in a 1943 movie, I can pluck it from cyberspace and not have to spend the night thrashing in the bedclothes and mumbling, "Was his name Conrad? No. Conway? No. Courtnay. . . ?"

Because of Cyberia, this hypochondriac knows all the symptoms of a textbookful of diseases she never heard of before 1995. (Okay, I admitted Cyberia has a dubious side.)

Well, of course there's more. But Cyberia is wriggling out of my grasp and about to crash or freeze or pull any one of her many tricks, so I'll stop now. But thanks, Milady Cyberia. When the Great Ice Storm of 2007 knocked out power last week, and you were as silent and inaccessible as Garbo for while, I realized just how you have changed my life. So stay around, okay? And ignore the occasional ranting from this end of cyberspace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


A dozen years ago, sore-footed from maneuvering Dublin's cobblestone streets, I popped into a little specialty shop and bought a cool walking stick. Made for serious hikers, of a lightweight metal the astronauts invented on one of those long dull circuits, it worked well, kept me from stumbling into harmless Dubliners, some of whom had their own stumbling to deal with anyway.

Then, a few years later, when arthritic knees started bothering me, I switched from the chic, outdoorsy stick to a plain, dowdy cane for occasional use. More than cobblestones seemed to make walking harder, and the cane helped. I thought.

Recently, I pulled into a Target supermarket, and since I planned to use a shopping cart, I just left the cane on the front seat. I am compulsive about locking the car, but apparently this time, I forgot. Returning to the van, I discovered the cane was gone. Nothing else was missing--sack of books to be recycled, dog crate, coats, box of groceries for the local food pantry, toolbox, CD's and tapes, gym bag and shoes--everything present and accounted for, except the cane. Exasperated with myself, I bought another cane the same day.

Three days later, back at Target, I carefully locked the car and took the new cane with me. Put it safely in the shopping cart as I trundled around the aisles. Driving out of the parking lot, I rounded the corner onto the main thoroughfare only to realize the cane was gone. I must have left it in the cart when I loaded things into the van three minutes earlier. I zipped swiftly back into the parking lot, earning three honks and one raised finger from fellow drivers, and searched the carts where I had parked. Nothing. Did gymnastics and peered under nearby cars. Searched the lines of neatly stowed carts. Talked to two different employees who herded carts back into the store. Talked to Customer Service. Called Customer Service twice over the next few days. Not a trace. So I bought cane #3.

Why in the world would someone lurk in Target parking lots to pinch thirty-dollar folding canes? Yes,I've heard about the importance of finding a niche when establishing one's business, but really--canes?

: Visiting some old stamping grounds a couple of weeks after the Great Cane Caper, I make an appointment with a chiropractor who has helped me for years. Mostly I wanted a 100,000-mile checkup. Told him about using the cane. He said, in effect,"Lose the cane." Pointed out that the cane created an unnatural gait and was also counter-productive in strengthening the muscles around the knees.

Because long experience has taught me to trust this man, I stopped using the cane at once. And of course--need you ask?--I am doing amazingly better, walking with almost the old verve much of the time.

The Universe (Life, God, the Spirit, our Inner Guide, the Oversoul) gives out messages all the time. About small things and large. Mostly, we're not paying attention. So the message is repeated, a little louder the second time. Sometimes the Universe has to get pretty in-your-face, pretty dramatic, to get through to us. To me, anyway.

Here's how Will Shakespeare puts it:

"And this our life . . .
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones. . . ."

And, perhaps, prescriptions in hapless happenings. Revelations in random reactions.
Served up, frequently, with a dash of cosmic irony.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Whenever I was being a particularly unendearing adolescent, my mother would shake her head and warn that I was "just like Aunt Harriet," who was of course Dad's sister, not Mother's. Harriet's sin, according to the Book of Esther (i.e. my mother Esther), was "too much independence."

I couldn't see all that much independence: Harriet lived at home till she married,then after Grandma's death, she took care of Grandpa, who was blind. She had a job, true, but during the Depression, so did everyone who could get one. I doubt if she ever traveled further than the big amusement park at Rocky Glen nine miles south of Scranton. She didn't sound like Amelia Earhart to me.

Over the years, Mother spelled out Harriet's stubbornness in the same crisp sentence:

"The doctor told her not to have a baby, but she went ahead anyway, and the baby died, and she died!" That's where too much independence took you.

It was decades before I began to question that clear-cut indictment. It seemed to be pure fact: A and B happened, then C and D happened because of B. Pretty clear logic, right? No, but pretty typical story-telling.

Ever since our days as cave-dwellers, men and women have not only told stories but hungered for them. Cherished them. Told and retold them. Enriched them. Some mean old SOB from the next valley over became a legendary bad guy, and before long, a monster, a Grendel,and the story-teller became--guess who? Beowulf.

So typical is it for human beings to elaborate stories beyond the truth that the word "story" itself can mean "a lie." In the movie True Grit, young Mattie Ross angrily responds to another's accusation: "That's a big story!" A few years back, a well-known religious leader achieved a considerable reputation for his lively sermons, which were full of his personal adventures as a major league baseball player and later as a World War II infantryman, survivor of many bloody battles. When inquisitive reporters revealed that in reality he had been neither a big-time baseball pitcher nor a magically protected warrior, the man's followers were shocked. Perhaps they shouldn't have been. The preacher defended his tales, denying dishonesty, claiming only that he had "put history in finer packages."

That's all my mother was doing, tying up a package that might have more impact on her hard-headed daughter than the loose facts. I found a few of those facts (long after my cantankerous adolescence), checking through available records. It was certainly true that Harriet had been ill (with rheumatic fever) as a teen-ager. Perhaps a doctor had advised her against having children, though when this advice was given we don't know: at the time she was sick? At the time she married? Anyway, a year or so after marrying Roy Jones, she did have a baby daughter. And the baby did die--at six months of age, from some unspecified illness of infancy. And Harriet herself did die--five years after her daughter, from a malady unrelated to childbirth. You see? A much less dramatic story than the one Esther told.

Packaging the story for an audience, or even for ourselves alone, seems to be etched
on our DNA. I've been wondering the last few days how much I've done of that, because like my mother, my father, and one of my two brothers, I have the story- telling gene. Can't help myself. Sgt. Joe Friday, on the old TV show Dragnet, would plead for "Just the facts, ma'am." Sorry, Joe.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The past week I have been reading Julia Child's My Life in France. (Julia wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking and many other books; she had her own show on television for years, and effected a major change in how Americans cook.The single down side of the book was reading it in bed: it invigorated rather than lulled me, and I lost sleep while lost in post-war Paris and the(possibly over-rated)Cordon Bleu.

Interested in others' evaluation of this charming autobiography, I browsed reviews at One reader, quite fond of the book, offered the opinion that Julia was probably "something of an obsessive-compulsive personality." Ye gods! The truth is out: the French Chef had OCD!

Well, no she didn't, of course. And aren't we all fortunate no one ever hung that label on her while she was alive, or suggested a regular dose of Zoloft? (I've wondered before about the results, had a kindly Amherst doc put Emily Dickinson on tranquilizers.)

Without underestimating the pain and distress it causes, I find actual compulsion of great interest. I wonder, for one thing, if compulsion and genius are perhaps on the same continuum. Studies tell us that heightened focus and perseverance characterize productive genius. Sounds a lot like obsession as well, doesn't it? But there are differences.

Two traits stand out for me when I look at people who achieve a certain level of genius in their lives--like Julia. (Or Edison or Alexander Bell or the people I
keep reading about in obits, who die at 103 while working at the button factory, or at 93 while riding the range.) First, they continue to get a big bang for their buck.
The more Julia studied French cooking, the more she loved it. The longer she fussed and pondered over the right mixture of herbs for the pot-au-feu, the more delighted she was and the tastier the results.

By contrast, those who suffer true obsession seem to get no bang at all, finally. The hoarders worry and agonize over the boxes, barrels, stacks, and shelves of stuff, but take no pleasure in them, only anxiety should they be removed. Those driven to count every lamp-post don't find delight in the numbers, only stress if they miss a beat.

The second big difference between the super-focused genius and the true compulsive is the issue of progress. Whereas compulsion makes a person loop around and around, repeating identical behaviors again and again, the purposeful genius who might seem to be looping is actually spiraling upward, learning a little more this time than last. Yes, he may experiment 1,000 times doing what seems to be the same thing over and over to no end, but on #1001, voila--the successful light bulb that changes the world. Yes, Julia made beurre blanc five times that day before serving it at a dinner party --but no one ever forgot that dinner.

Last week on TV, one of Oklahoma U's astounding women basketball stars said, "No one sees the two thousand baskets I shoot in practice before I make that one 'easy' three-pointer in the game."

Footnote: Two absorbing books about OCD are Passing For Normal by Amy Wilensky and I Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, by Allen Shawn.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oh, Your Knee Bone's Connected to Her Head Bone!

Anne and I arrived early for church, so we sat in the back and watched people come in. Since I'd not lived in the area for years, Anne updated me with particulars.

"Evadene's got a new knee." Evidently it was working fine: Evadene squatted down three times to pick up escaping Cheerios her grandchild had sown along the carpet.

A couple entered from the other side of the chapel. "Jo's getting her hip replacement after Thanksgiving. She says if they can afford Hawley's fishing boat, they can afford her hip." As they squeezed into a pew, Hawley gave her hip, and the rest of her, a wide berth.

"Now she," indicating a short woman whose long white braid hinted of an earlier, less mainstream lifestyle, "she has two knee replacements and
a hip. And Charles Bybee over there has a metal shoulder--he just loves it!"

By the time the service began, Anne (who herself has one knee and one hip that weren't part of her original complement) had pointed out a dozen congregants with newly installed joints. I thought back to our adolescent years, when we spent long dull services keeping tabs on clothes and hair styles, and then later, guessing about possible romances among the singles. (Well, okay, so I used the word "we" loosely. But my friends kept tabs on those things.) The crucial news then concerned who was developing an interesting bustline or a curvaceous derriere. Now, it seems, we're getting deeper into anatomy; it's the basic bones and joints that matter at this end.

But here's what really puzzled me: how does Anne KNOW about all these new installations? Anne works full-time at her profession, has four grown children and five grandchildren whose demands on her, day in and day out, seem breath-taking to me, and has recently finished remodeling her house. So how does she keep up with the orthopedic news? Does the women's auxilary publish a head-shoulders-knees-and-toes newsletter? Or does Anne have some sort of graydar that signals "new joint on this old body"? I suspect the latter. After all, Paul teaches in Romans 12:6 that we all have "gifts differing." I just never guessed the full panoply of those gifts!

Friday, November 9, 2007


Jane Wise and I don't believe in coincidences any more.

We each had long held this conviction, and the cosmos confirmed it last Saturday. I was making a short visit to Utah to see two very new members of the next generation. (Well, the generation after the next.) Anyway, along about mid-morning, friend Anne and I were all set to drive up the canyon to Robert Redford's Sundance, to see the glories of the changing leaves and to lunch in the admirable restaurant that overlooks a sparkling creek. But first, I decided to dash into the supermarket to pick up two items. (Neither was very important; being a Virgo, I already carry ample supplies in my handbag for a month in Mozambique.)

So I zipped in. (I use the term "zip" loosely, but let's stay positive.) Found my two items, headed for the checkout counter, and all but collided with dear friend Jane Wise. Hadn't seen Jane for a couple of years, but we stay in touch, thanks to Saint Cyberia and her Net.

Jane and Stuart have four children, each of whom would be enough of a marvel for any one family, but no, they have four marvels. And the very evening that we had run into each other in Harmon's, Jane's red-haired ingenue Caitlin was playing Nina, the lead in Chekhov's The Seagull at the university. Coincidentally (um-hum), I had previously resisted any idea of scheduling anything for Saturday evening, despite my short time in Happy Valley.

So Jane and I sat in the front row of the small theater-in-the-round (which was square). The period-piece gowns of the actors dusted our shoes, we were so close. And when Caitlin came on stage, it was as if an extra bank of spotlights had blazed on. "As if," I say. But I think Caitlin carries those lights with her, inside somewhere.

As we left, I overheard two college fellows commenting about her acting.

"Isn't she splendid? " said one.

"Oh, it's not even fair to the other players!" agreed his chum.

The name is Caitlin Wise. And if you see it on a playbill sometime in the near future, pay attention. It won't be a coincidence.

Monday, October 15, 2007


It was a dark and stormy night.

Sorry, but it was. Tornado warnings were in effect for most of the metro area, and while no one takes them very seriously until the big horn blows long and loud, they might have accounted for the moderate size of the audience. It was either that, or the fact that every possible family member of every performer had already been shamed into attending the recital.

Twenty-odd performers then, thirty in the audience at the charming and well-worn Catholic church, second oldest in the city. Two more men came in just before the starting gun, but were re-directed to the gymnasium, where the Spanish-language mass (every two hours almost around the clock) attracted much larger crowds in much less danger of being startled.

I say thirty in the audience, but of course that includes the twenty of us who will sing. Our voice teacher is at the piano, her husband beside her turning pages. We all know the teacher, of course; and a few of us know each other, but it's a wide net our teacher casts: we students range in age from twelve to 85, from those with years of training and experience in solo and choral work, to those of us making our singing debut. Some of us wear Sunday best and pearls, two sport cut-offs, and I counted at least three tattoos and a nose ring. Diverse we may be in experience, talent, dress and age; but the tingle of anxiety, not to mention the lash of fear, makes us one band for this evening.

Our teacher has encouraged comfortable dress and a relaxed approach, but before we start, she does remind us of a few matters of protocol: hands at our sides or held loosely in front of us, no beauty-contest smiles, use the music stand if we must, bow when finished. Oh yes, and be sure to stand parallel to the stained glass windows and just under the central chandelier. Nervous as a spooked cat, I fail to hear why this location is important. Only later do I find out.

There are no auditions connected to this recital. It's a "want-to," not a "have-to" deal. If you want to, you get to. Thus objective listeners might rank us, as to skill, on a 1 through 10 scale, and find the majority of us at the low end. But there are no objective listeners here tonight.

So one of the first singers is tone-deaf. Thoroughly. Doesn't really matter, except perhaps to Singer #3, who is her son and thus a little embarrassed. Just a little. He is not tone-deaf, and sings a lovely old folk song sweetly and simply. The boy is possibly twelve, slender as a sapling, not noticeably nervous, plain and unvarnished as a wooden flute. Seated in the third row, we can almost hear him.

Soon after him, a powerful young man in his twenties gets up. His chest is broad, his hair black and crisp; he exudes testosterone like an after-shave lotion. He has served in Iraq and competed several times for black belts in judo and other martial arts, but assures us that "the fear factor" of the present moment far outweighs the previous challenges. He then punches out "The Impossible Dream" with pleasing vigor and conviction.

The crowd favorite, by a country mile, is M, a tiny woman, now frail of body and mind, but with a heart and spirit more incandescent than any of the rest of us can muster at the moment. Her smile shines on us all; her quips and frequent asides during other numbers are merry and full of the spirit of the occasion. When she stands to sing, her sheets of music obscure her face, so close must she hold them, and there are more than a few wavers in her voice, but also many triumphs, good solid notes, great tempo, and no doubt at all about how clearly she grasps the intent of the flirtatious song she performs. Later she does a delightful Mozart duet with another singer plus our teacher, who sings backup in case M loses her place now and then.

My turn. In case you missed the earlier post about my voice lessons, they began last spring. First ever. I want to make this distinction clear: public speaking I have done and overdone. Years worth. And enjoyed it all. But public
singing in a serious vein, never. Ever. And I am coaching myself all the way through this program, prior to my little number, that there is to be no comic intrusion, no easy put down of my own efforts. All sorts of quips and asides and grimaces and gestures occur to me, but I edit them out fiercely in advance.

My song is very short, but it is by Scarlatti and it is in Italian. And I love it.So I position myself parallel to the stained glass windows, directly under the chandelier, and I sing.

And now I discover the physics of being directly under the great dome of the church. The sound of my voice rings out and up and around, full and BIG, so much bigger than in the small library at home where I practised! I make it through with no obvious goofs, and one corner of my soul newly lit up.

The final few pieces of the program reward the patience of friends, family, and other performers with the high end of the rating scale. Three or four truly delightful numbers merit the "Bravo's" and even the whistles they receive.

Outside, an Oklahoma storm is filling the sky from west to east with sheet lightning. The torrents of rain applaud, applaud, applaud;
and we head home, soaking it all in.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


In the fifth and sixth grade, occasionally a classmate would smugly announce, "I'm taking tap and toe." (These were always girls; we would have been slack-jawed with astonishment if a boy had said these words, even Stanley.) "Taking tap and toe"--the words made me giggle. "Taking toe" brought great visual images of contortion: where would you take the toe; what would you do with the toe? Of course we all knew what the phrase meant: skinny Helen was learning to tap dance and toe dance. (Ballet? Or just free-form en pointe?)

So all that is just to say, as unsmugly as I can manage: I'm taking voice.

The lead-in to the voice lessons can be found in an earlier blog. So why the delay in reporting on the lessons themselves? First, if I told you what happens, you'd think I was blowing smoke up your kilt. Second--well, never mind about the second.

So at 10 a.m. on Fridays I go up to this pretty little house and, without knocking, walk into the front room. The room is dominated by (in order) a very large piano; a long wall of shelves, floor to ceiling, crammed tightly with music scores and songbooks ("Songs of Old Italy," "Songs of the Pampas," "Songs of Porter and Gershwin," and 4,000 more such); and 1127 images of angels. Small plaster angels, large porcelain angels, medium-sized straw angels, copper, bronze, and resin cherubs, woven, water-colored, finger-painted seraphs. So far, no actual photographs.

I have not inquired about the angels, but clearly they bless the goings-on in that room.

So I go in, belly up to the piano and the tape recorder that lies in wait like a net, and we begin. First we make the HOOOO sound, a lot of wind, not so much voice. Think noise in the chimney on a stormy night. Then we leap up the scales on EEEEEEEEEEEEE, just as high as I can go. And then I screech five more steps, muscles clenching, eyes squinting with the strain, and the sound that cometh forth sets off the three or four Chihuahuas behind the dining room door. They are in anguish, and they're not the only ones. Soon we are making siren sounds, "siren" as in someone is dying, not "siren" as in seductress. I am singing EEEOOOOOEEEEEOOOO,
following instructions to "smear it," make one continuous legato noise, up, down, and up again.

The larynx muscles, which have for seventy years done whatever they jolly well pleased, now are in boot camp, at the mercy of the Teacher, she of the angelic eyes and voice and the focus of a drill sergeant. Unlike Sarge, she doles out praise and encouragement at each effort, however pathetic; then sets the bar a little higher.

The lesson ends with a new song to learn, often in Italian. It is the dessert, the gelato, the tiramisu. And after HOOOOing and EEEEEEing and YEEEWWWWing, no matter how I torture the new song, it sounds--okay. It's a song, real music, and in Italian.
(The English translation is better forgotten.) The teacher sings it, and the notes are balm to my shattered ego. It's on tape, for me to take home and learn, to layer her limpid voice with my limping vocals, all week long. Smiling and, yes, well, smug.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


"April is the cruelest month," whined T.S. Eliot. Maybe so, but August is not exactly Miss Congeniality either. To me, August is the Orphan Month.

By August, summer 's "short lease" groweth 'way too long for this lodger. (Besides, it was Will Shakespeare who spoke of the "short lease," Will, whose London shivers on the same latitude as Newfoundland, for pity's sake.) August doesn't really seem a child of summer, with its delights and charms, but clearly can't claim the vigor and anticipation of early fall either. Do you know what August's flower is? The poppy. That's August, all right: drowsy, dopey, drugged out. And August is (check it out) National Psoriasis Month. Let's all go out in the mid-day sun and scratch!

When I worked in Paris, August was eerie. Most of the population, rich and poor, abandoned the city to vacation the full four weeks in the mountains or at the seaside. Walking down a major boulevard, I could have been on the set of a sci-fi movie: no one strolling, shopping, no horns honking, the Metros echoing hollowly. One expected giant snails to slither out of the Bois de Boulogne at any moment, seeking revenge on escargot-loving gourmets.

And of course, for anyone who's ever been in therapy, August truly IS orphan month. All credentialed therapists, be they Jungian, Freudian, feminist or aromatic, must throw dust covers over the couch and close shop in August. Clients are left to deal with the unhealed wounds of abandonment, freshly salted, alone.

Even major league baseball, by August, is so deja-vu. The thrilling romance of spring training is long gone. Games stretch out like tired bathing suits--thirteen, fourteen, fifteen innings. Neither team can bring matters to a climax. Injuries sprout everywhere. The DL is no longer an elite club; it's homeroom. Summoned from the bush leagues, adolescents appear on field, disappear, and another lad has his brief stay in the show. You don't know any of their names, and you don't care. Not any more. It's AWGUST!

But up ahead, in the distance, cool and waiting, is October. Now there's a month!

Monday, August 6, 2007


Friday evening Nancy and I went to a concert, a fund-raiser to send a friend's friend Joseph off to theological seminary to become an Episcopal priest. Ah, you smile: a young idealist with going forth to battle the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Well, not exactly.

Joseph , though surely an idealist, is not young, and he has already had battles with the world and the devil that only a fast-on-his-feet lawyer can boast. (We'll leave the flesh alone for the nonce. ) Moreover, Joseph, a handsome bearded fellow in the high prime of life, is married and a father, and enthusiastic about both callings.

Yet now in midstream, he's turning against the career current he has long known and is breast-stroking his way toward the priesthood. That far shore must seem far indeed, and I admire his courage and dedication. But my immediate question is:

What's with lawyers?

In recent years, almost a dozen lawyers of my acquaintance have given up thriving careers and begun anew as men and women of the cloth. They've started from the ground up to pursue lives as priests, pastors, chaplains, directors of religious education and theologians. It's as if , well, not sharks, but, say, swordfish suddenly opted to swins with the dolphins.

By contrast, I've never known a single academic to leap from the walls of ivy into the churchyard. (Maybe that's because academics know that addressing a captive audience is hard enough; they may cower at the thought of preaching to a volunteer flock not under the motivation of final exams. Well, of immediate final exams. ) Nor can I think of one real estate agent who spurned a lockbox in exchange for the keys of the kingdom.

And so far as I know, restless religious don't become laywers. They do join the military (if they have been nuns), or become teachers, social workers, often therapists. But not lawyers.

My favorite trivia question is: which creature on earth is the most adaptable to the extremes of climate? The answer: the human. With the same dexterity, many people change careers and jobs a dozen times in a life span. There's something I admire about that kind of courage and imagination, even when it oversteps the bounds of reality. (I confess to relishing the true story of "The Great Imposter," a charming con-man who posed rather successfully as everything from a Navy surgeon to a prison warden without a lick of credential to his name.)

My grandfather, on the other hand, began as an engineer on the Erie Railroad when he was 19 and only stopped (grumpily) when, in his sixties, he became color blind. I grasped the podium at 22, and never let go for 35 years. Haven't decided whether that showed a lack of imagination or the presence of foolhardiness. In any case, it warmly suited me. So may the priesthood suit Joseph, formerly Esquire.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Picture it: Tucson, Arizona, 1955. A very sophomoronic sophomore attending the sun-baked U of A longs for a dash of sophistication. But where to find it? Fashion? Forget it! Sexual panache? Puh-leeze! Global travels? Not for another five years.

So what's available? Foreign films, of course. A small theater near campus specializes in the flicks from afar. The tiny lobby boasts serious art posters on the wall (Van Gogh--even a freshman can identify Van Gogh and feel safe); and after the late showing, offers free cigarettes and tiny cups of CPR-certified black coffee to the movie buffs, who stand around exuding smoke and hilarious baloney-cum-critiques of what they've just seen.

The sophomore (that's me) doesn't take advantage of the cigarettes or coffee,
and, being alone, lacks an audience for any baloney she might serve up. But, boy, does she soak up the atmosphere of the films. It doesn't get any more sophisticated than black and white cinema in French, Italian, German--and most high-falutin' of all--Swedish.

The great Swedish director Ingemar Bergman died today. And I'm here to say that I never really got a grasp on any film he made. Even the later masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander, which earned the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, left me somewhat mystified. Even the first film of his that I saw, that 1955 movie that had my classmates buzzing over their coffee cups, Smiles of a Summer Night, floated just over my head like a tantalizing balloon.

Doesn't matter, though. The bits and pieces I did understand, the scenes that did leave a lasting impression on my "inward eye," were more than enough to let me see a new vision of cinema, give me to understand that things would never be the same after this man had done his work. If nothing else, Bergman set me up for the countless ways Woody Allen would spoof and salute his acknowledged
hero. Smiles of a Summer Night would spawn Woody's own film, Midsummer
Night's Sex Comedy; Allen's Love and War is filled with parodies of a dozen Bergman films--well, that list goes on. But a dozen dozen directors did things differently because of Ingemar Bergman.

It doesn't matter if I understood only glimpses of what the Swedish genius tried to show us. Seeing his art drew me out of the sophomore playground and a bit further into the wider world. So rest in peace, Mr. Bergman, and thank you.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


We all know that three-year olds ask "WHY?" roughly as often as two-year olds say "NO!" My problem is that I never got over the Why's. And many of my "why's"are about as weighty as the three-year olds'.

For example, this week I 've been wondering why, in our vintage years, so many of us become enchanted with birds.

Take JD (retired Texas cowboy, age eighty-something). He shouldn't even be maneuvering without his walker, but last year he came perilously close to breaking his saddle-bones because he insisted on toting a 50-pound bag of birdseed out to the back yard over icy ground. The Bird Man of Ageless Acres, that's JD.

Nobody in my family ever tossed a crumb to birds, or knew a sparrow from a seagull. But now, as I thrash my way deeper and deeper through the tall grass of cronedom, I find myself spending long minutes staring out the kitchen window watching the birds at our feeder while my oat bran withers in the milk. I still can't tell a grackle from a cowbird (though I'm a whiz at spotting the cardinal couple). So my question is Why?

What's so fascinating about the birds?

I don't know. But last Tuesday, as I watched, four or five sparrows flittered down to peck at scattered sunflower seeds in the patio. It was the flittering that got to me. The way they drifted down from nearby trees, or from the rooftops where they hang out. Now, a variety of things sift down from the skies, at various times--the leaves of the great cottonwood that presides over the yard, each leaf on its own flight path, unhurried, floating. And snowflakes, of course, magical and forgiving, turning unsightly into spectacular in about twenty minutes. Sunlight sifts through the branches of the massive tree.

But the birds are best of all. Especially when they drift down, flittering. Sometimes, yes, they zoom in, hungry and intent. Or they dart, shooting down as though aimed.
But when they flitter, two, three, four at a time, gently, trustingly, as though they know they are welcome and wanted, and each so very alive, self-contained, they seem like a gift from the skies, separate small messages orbiting our anchored, earth-bound lives.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


(I first published this little piece years ago in a magazine called network. Later it appeared in a collection of my stuff titled Only When I Laugh (Signature Books). So it's hardly new. But, the state of things being what it is, I felt like putting it on the blog this month. So here it is. )

July is, of course, the stellar month for displaying the flag, setting the porch on fire with firecrackers, and otherwise celebrating our nation's birth. But during my childhood, February always headed the hit parade as the most patriotic month of the year. In school, we seemed to spend forever cutting out black paper silhouettes of Lincoln and smearing brown Crayolas over our wobbly drawings of log cabins; no sooner had the library paste dried than it was time for cherry trees, hatchets, and pictures of George Washington with his funny pony tail and grim smile. (Both birthdays were celebrated in those bygone, less hurried days. "Presidents Day" came later.) July couldn't touch February for patriotism, mainly because we weren't in school and thus didn't get so worked up with arts, crafts, and classroom pageantry.

All this nostalgia got me thinking about whether I am really patriotic. And that's when I decided we needed a new word; so I coined one.


Think about it. "Patriotic," of course, comes from the Latin pater, meaning father; a patriot is one "who loves and loyally or zealously supports his own country," his fatherland. A perfectly good word for a perfectly good feeling.

"Matriotic," by analogy, comes from the Latin mater; a matriot is then one who loves and loyally or zealously supports her motherland, her own planet--Mother Earth.

The two words are not perfectly analogous, fortunately, otherwise people might see conflict of interest where there is none. Patriotism, as we use the word, is about the flag and the history of a nation; in our case, it's about the Bill of Rights, free elections, and the peaceful transfer of power, even after a national trauma like the assassination of John Kennedy or the Watergate scandal.

Matriotism, on the other hand, is yin to patriotism's yang. It's about the Earth, not the world. It's about what those fortunate few have seen from spaceship portals, not what we see on a map or a globe with regularly updated borderlines and political color-coding. Matriotism is about one sun by day and one moon by night, a moon that waxes and wanes and marks months and menses whether you live in Moscow, Idaho, or the other Moscow. It's about what human beings have felt since the dawn of time when we lay on our backs on the ground and looked up at floating clouds or winking, wondrous stars.

Patriotism has always had a lot of the zest of competition in it--rival teams, us and them, Britain's battles being won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that. My country, right or wrong. My country over other countries.

Matriotism, by contrast, recognizes that while there may be six- or seven-score fatherlands, there is only one motherland. Untold political divisions have risen, prospered, and utterly vanished, myriad civilizations and great cities that are no more--too many to count or name. But while we have her, there is only one Mother Earth. And every person alive knows her intimately.

Standing on a grassy meadow in England once, I was told that the same huge old trees I was seeing, the same pitted boulders, the same streambed, had been seen and touched by Normans, by Anglo-Saxons, by Romans, by Stone Age Brits. They had been patriots of many cultures, many states, but children of one earth.

So it's not either-or; it's not a matter of matriotism vs. patriotism. But perhaps it is a matter of bringing our matriotism a little more to the forefront. For instance, we could start with a holiday. A matriotic holiday, a worldwide day of celebration, gratitude, and rededication to the planet. We'd need a flag, of course. There is that Olympic flag with the colored rings, but frankly I can't get very stirred up about what looks like beer-mug rings on a table. But that would do for a starter, until we got something better. And we'd need a song--an anthem, really. Wouldn't it be something to have an international anthem (no, no, not the Internationale) that little kids all over the world would learn to sing, a hymn about the oceans and the mountains and the sands and the snows of Earth? We could certainly work up a pledge of allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the soil, and to the air we breathe, to every species beneath the sun. . . ." Well, you get the idea.

We'd certainly need a Matriots' Hall of Fame someplace--maybe aboard a ship that would sail from country to country, celebrating the great matriots who toiled to defend Mother Earth, whether by saving the whales and the gorillas and the snail darters, or by engineering new strains of seed that would feed more people per acre, or by finding the keys to practical mass use of solar energy instead of fossil fuels.

Some people might not get too excited about being matriotic, seeing that it lacks that old competitive edge. On the other hand, remember what Pogo said: "We have met the enemy, and they is us." This fight to save Mother Earth could end up being the most glorious battle of all.

And besides: just think what first- and second-graders could do in the way of decorations!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I heard a great choral director once make the case for live music (as contrasted with records, tapes, CD's, peapods and similar reproductions) by saying, "Live music can actually change the molecules in the room."

Then last Friday, my voice teacher (how classy does that sound? "My voice teacher." Oh, brave new world, here I come!) testified that singing in fact changes the very cells in one's body.

That evening, Nancy and I went to a concert in which my teacher and six of her most stunning students performed. When I staggered out of the hall after the rousing finale (of which more anon), every single cell I possessed had been overhauled, upended, turned inside out, and rewired.

I emphasize that we're talking about much more than just having a buzz on because the adrenalin is up and running, although I acknowledge that a few well-honed high C's seem to out-do plain old caffeine by quite a few BP points. And as soon as I know just a tiny bit more about singing than the minus total I know now, I'd love to theorize about how making music in our bodies realigns those bodies.

But for now, let's talk about the adrenalin effect. The last number on the program called for all of the singers to join in a lusty rendition of "Oklahoma!" Of course this is OK's state song, currently being sung somewhere in the state about every thirty minutes, since this is Oklahoma's centennial year. You're likely to hear the anthem at the opening of laundromats and the closing of the daycare day, at the lowering of a new length of drainage pipe or the unearthing of the buried '57 Plymouth Belvedere in Tulsa. Any and all occasions are appropriate for belting out the great Rodgers and Hammerstein show-stopper. And on the occasion of last Friday's concert, every member of the audience apparently got at least a minimal shot of booster-juice, because we were all on our feet, joining the performers in affirming that "You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!" Yip-I-O-E-Ay!

And on the way home, all revved up (as the poor '57 Belvedere is, alas, never going to be), I got to thinking, "Does Oklahoma really have the very best state song in the Union?"

So, I Googled around a bit this week. Every state has at least one state song--except for that Charlie Brown of states, New Jersey. Massachusetts has seven--all unofficial. New Hampshire has two official and eight honorary. Pretty chauvinistic for such a minimalist state, I'd say. Virginia has only an "emeritus song." I love that way of saying that while they honor "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," they don't want officially to endorse its lyrics in the 21st century.

There are some surprises: I expected "California, Here I Come" to head the hit parade for the golden state, but no, their choice is something called "I Love You, California." (Ever heard it?)
And what about "Deep in the Heart of You-Know-Where"? Surely that's the state song? No, it's a thumping march called "Texas, Our Texas." (No hand-clapping that I could discern.) Never heard New York's state song either, but who can resist the marvelous Ebb-Kander salute to the Big Apple, "New York, New York"?

"Way Down Upon the Swannee River" is the signature song for--? Well, you probably knew, but I'd have never guessed Florida. On the other hand, Georgia (the other state graced by the Suwannee River) has a gorgeous song that feels just right: "Georgia On My Mind." Words by Stuart Gorrell, music by, yes, you've got it: Hoagy Carmichael. And finally, there are two state songs that I would guess most Americans have sung over and over throughout our lives, around campfires and on long road trips, in countries far from the U.S. or while looking into the eyes of our beloveds, without ever thinking of either Kansas or Louisiana: "Home on the Range," and "You Are My Sunshine." Anybody have a ukelele? An harmonica? I'll just whistle then.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Recital, Part I

Nancy's been taking voice lessons for a couple of months (to extend the range of her already fine voice), and three weeks ago, her voice teacher invited her to a recital. Would I like to go along? Well, sure, why not? The Sunday recital was to be held in a charming old Catholic church downtown, sandwiched in between an all-day schedule of masses. How long could it be?

More singers than expected, actually, but each piece shorter than feared. On a scale of 1 to 10, the voices ranged--from 1 to 10. And they were scheduled just that way.

The first couple of singers were teen-aged girls, their tiny voices inaudible beyond the second row. One sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and that's where her voice must have been, because it surely wasn't anywhere around us. Later, in the parking lot, I heard her call her little brother: "Ralph, get over here NOW!" Every Ralph anywhere in the county looked up from what he was doing.

Each singer was a little farther from ground zero than the preceding one. Vocal skill varied hugely, but courage was consistent and heroic. Halfway along, a woman stood before us who must have been ten years older than I. (That would put her in her eighties.) Her glasses were almost comically thick. She held the music an inch beyond her nose. Before singing, she beamed at us, smiling enagingly and summarizing the flirtatious little French aria she was about to sing. As the piece went along, she swayed coquettishly, periodically lowering her music to beam once more, then putting her nose back in the score. Her old voice wavered and quavered, mostly hitting the note, occasionally missing. And she captured exactly the spirit of the joyous song.

A little later, a tall, sturdy young man gave us "Be My Love" with a force that had to be heard to be believed. Forget "baritone" or "bass": this fellow was in a category by himself : he was unmistakably a BELLOW. When he finished, Nancy turned and said something to me, but my ears were still ringing. "WHAT?" I asked. Two women behind me snorted in agreement.

By the time we heard the last three singers, my life had turned a corner.

For more than fifty years, I have loved vocal music and grieved that I "couldn't sing." Who knows where that idea came from? Certainly I had not learned to sing. So what? Here in front of me were ten or fifteen people who wanted to sing and were learning. Why not me? Forget the last three splendid singers, who were surely born with the gift of music and were making the most of it. I don't need a Cadillac. I just need an inspired mechanic to help me get this old machine running.

Blessings on every participant in that recital. May their vocal studies bring them much joy. As for me, I signed up for lessons with their teacher the next day.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


I wrote this small poem a few months ago. It seems especially apt on this lovely June day. (If it's of interest, please use it as you like.)


Always, always in our day
those who run into Eternity unexpectedly,
bump into it, an accident on their busy road to
Somewhere Else,
always, they see the same revelation.

I hear no accounts of balls of fire swirling over Santa Fe,
No reports of angelic wings whirring over Wichita,
No chariots swingin' low above Charleston.

The favored ones, the veils of the blinding familiar
lifted from their eyes,
the ho-hum of, say, 15,000 yesterdays electrified
into the ecstatic WOW of today, of NOW, eternal NOW--
They speak of the sheen and splendor
of the round friendly acorn,
The impromptu music of the least lark spilling down the tree,
The mystery of slow satin waves glimmering in a fitness pool
full of ancient mariners.

Go where you want,
Stay where you will,
Run as fast as your made-in-China shoes will go;
Sway in your hammock lazy as a coddled cat.
Eternity swirls about you still,
And the glories of the living moment are yours
for the seeing,
Never waiting There,
only offered Here.
Never available Then,
only open Now.

--Elouise Bell, 2006

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Marshall is five, with the round face, strong chin, and frank blue eyes I've known for 45 years in his grandmother's countenance. More than that, he has her spirit, the same spirit that earned Grandma the nickname "Crash" on her mission decades ago. On her mission.

Last week, wedged firmly between both parents at church, Marshall still managed to wiggle about, count the house, and zero in on members of the congregation who held the most interest for him. At one point, his mother realized he was smiling and batting his eyes with particular intensity at someone behind him. She turned to see a handsome woman beaming at him and returning his interest.

It was Gladys Knight.*

His Dad later told him that Ms. Knight was not auditioning any new Pips. At the word, Marshall perked up even more (and he perks pretty high to start with).

"I'm a pip!"

No doubt he's heard that rather often in his young life. We have no idea what he thinks it means, but I'm pretty sure he'll be catechizing Sister Knight about it soon.

*Footnote, in the unlikely event that it is needed: Gladys Knight was one of the great R&B soul singers of all time, who with her group, The Pips, delighted music fans from 1953 until 1989.
Knight is pre-eminent in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and still does occasional gigs. She became a Mormon some years ago, and currently leads the Saints Unified Voices choir.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Some weeks ago, I had what I assumed was a recurring optical illusion: I kept seeing a bird fly into our mailbox. Since the mailbox flap is always snugly closed, I decided that the bird was flying toward the mailbox and then somewhow veering out of my line of sight. But then there was the question of the droppings.

Splat in front of the mailbox lay a considerable deposit of bird poop. Nancy said, "Well, there are droppings all up and down the street. We have lots of birds in the neighborhood, you know." Yes, and I rejoice in every one of them, but other mailboxes did NOT have the abundance of droppings at their base as ours did, just an occasional white fleck here and there. What's up with that, as the kids say.

By the Homeowners Association decree, all houses in our neighborhood have standard mailboxes. In front of each house is a brick pillar about shoulder height. Embedded in the brick is the standard USPS metal box, shaped somewhat like a large loaf of bread, with the hinged flap for putting in and taking out the 14 catalogs that constitute our daily mail these days. A bird could not get into the mailbox. Just to make sure, I opened its maw wide and felt 'way in the back, to determine if there were any feathers or other signs of permanent lodgers. Nada.

Still several times a day, the bird flew towards the mailbox and disappeared.

As it turns out, between the embedded metal box and the brickwork below is a slight gap, perhaps an inch high and as wide as the box. You'd swear only a hummingbird could fly in there, but no. A young sparrow couple had indeed set up nestkeeping in those cramped but safe quarters. And yesterday, in front of the brick pillar, three fledglings were hopping around on the ground, under parental orders to get those wings going. Of course, the minute I spotted them, I worried that they couldn't do it, and would get smashed by a passing skateboard or scooter or worse. Their hops were skittish, the fluffing out of their feathers a plea for help and comfort. But periodically they got airborne for several feet and then for a few yards. Today they are in the huge evergreen tree outside my window, gobbling up the birdseed and flying exactly as any teengers would fly, with energy if not accuracy.

Their parents are scanning the catalogs with an eye towards redecorating the now-spacious mailbox. The triplets are on their own. Send us a postcard sometime.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


"No! That's not how it happened!"

In a currently posted blog elsewhere, a fellow writes about an experience he and another man shared more than ten years ago. (These two haven't been in touch for almost that many years.) The blogger was delighted to read online his old buddy's account of a dramatic event they shared (they had nearly drowned), but was in quite a rush to clear up "the facts." Buddy had made several "mistakes." None of them changed the point of the story, but still. . . . Blogger felt it was important to get things straight.

Ah, that we ever could!

Mark Twain said that a person who could spell a word only one way showed a shocking lack of imagination. And none of us--certainly not Twain--can be relied on to tell the same story the same way twice. Blogger's Buddy was telling one of the major stories of his life ten years after it happened. Do we think he has told that story before? A hundred times? And wouldn't it naturally ripen and mature with each telling?

Some decades ago, I broke both my ankles sliding down a firepole in the mountain cabin of some friends. By the time it was over, it was quite a story, including as it did a hospital contratemps, growing rumors about how the accident had happened, and, some weeks later, a large public speaking engagement with me spouting forth from a wheelchair. Lots of melodrama and hilarity, at least for the spectators. This particular story needed no embellishment, though I'm with Twain on the value of elaboration and embroidering of anecdotes generally.

But an enhanced version of the story surfaced some years later, when I overheard a colleague of mine (from a rival university, no less) telling the story--except that she had cast herself as the owner of the cabin (and firepole) where the bones had been shattered and as the Rescuer who had whisked me off to be pieced together. Neither fact was "true" but each certainly added to her fun in telling the story. Which brings up the very interesting question of why we tell stories anyway. But another day for that.

My favorite version of the firepole incident, however, was the brief but lively rumor that I had smashed up by jumping off a mountain outhouse in pursuit of a well-known and skittish local bachelor. All pure fiction. But it's that outhouse that shows what really gifted storytellers most folks can be when encouraged.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Smelling the Deli Slices

Our wise blog-mentor and favorite poet, Emily, responded to our last blog thus: "Amazing, how much life wants to live. As long as there are deli slices and one is able to smell them, that is something."

As always, Emily gave me much to think about with that one spare line. The whole matter of life wanting to live sets off clusters of questions. Why do some lives want so fiercely to live, despite the odds against happiness, contentment, or freedom from pain, while other lives seem to have such a tenuous hold on the precious spark, even when all the externals run smoothly? I remember a 10th grade social science textbook that spoke about "emotional hardiness," admitting that research had yet to explain the why of that durable state.

But it's the deli slices that interest me today. As Emily reminds us, often dark and difficult--or just plain blah-- days are made easier by the simplest, most random things. Never has this point be made more convincingly than in Solzhenitsyn's "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." One reviewer recounts: "Prisoners take great pleasure in minor victories such as soup actually containing protein (albeit fish bones), a shelter to block the wind when the temperature falls to -40, or standing near someone who is smoking and getting the residual tobacco from his cigarette holder. "

Emily's comment got me musing about my own deli slices--the small things that are cheering when the day itself is not. Good to remind oneself of those from time to time. And interesting how very basic the "deli slices" usually are. Five of my faves might include: chocolate (of course) ; small, wondrous finches lunching on birdseed beyond the kitchen window; a spot of email from a distant friend, passing on the title of a good book, or gossip about a friend who'd dropped below the radar; finishing the blasted Times Sunday crossword puzzle by Tuesday.

And your deli slices? What "minor victories" give you great pleasure?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Girl in the Red Velcro Splint

She weighs four pounds nothing, is as white as fresh coconut, has bright blue eyes that no longer see anything, and clean pink ears that no longer hear anything. And she's more than twenty years old. Every night for more than a year, we've stuck a needle under her white fur and through her skin, to infuse her with fluids, because she also has kidney problems and would die without the daily fluids.

Last week, as very old folks sometimes do, she broke a leg for no discernible reason. Her old bones are brittle, of course, and she probably has osteoporosis.

Of course it was Saturday evening. We waited until Sunday, but finally bundled her up and took her to the emergency animal hospital. X-rays verified it: broken front leg.

"The worst part is, it won't heal," said the doc. The kidney problems, apparently.

Next day, we took her to the hospital she's used to, to have the leg splinted. The doctor there, who knows Buttons very well, said, "Well, the problem is, it won't heal. We'll give her pain meds, but. . . ." And she carefully splinted the tiny leg and wrapped it in a bright red Ace bandage, extra small.

We gave her pain meds that night and she slept soundly. Next day she ate as usual, which means about every two hours, voraciously. She didn't seem in pain, really. Just slept in her sheepskin nest. Used her box a bit when we put her in it. We skipped the pain meds that night; she slept fine anyway.

Two days later, as we watched, she hobbled determinedly from her nest to the futon (which she cannot see, but apparently smells, or maps out on an internal GPS) and leaped up to a second nest there, which is heated. That day, she climbed into the nest at will, and out when she was too hot.

Yesterday we took in her for her quarterly blood tests. An hour later the doc phoned, excited; "Her blood tests are normal! Her BUN [kidney tests] are better than they've been in a year!"

And today, when we returned to the house, she was at the door to greet us, which means she had jumped down from the futon, landing on the splinted leg, or on one wing and our prayers. She stumps around the house, eats, drinks, smells the deli chicken slices in my noonday sandwich from twenty-five yards out and comes to demand her tithe. And purrs. She has always been an Olympic purrer. For volume and beauty of tone, I'd match her against a puma.

Today, at the senior fitness center, I felt a little fatigued after my paltry few laps of slow walking around the track. About to call it quits for the day. Thought about the girl in the red velcro splint. And kept walking.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Riding contentedly up I-35 two weeks ago, my mind in neutral, I was startled to spot a sign on a small, "we’ve-all-seen-better-days" barber shop: "Easter Hair-A-Thon." That was a considerable bump in the road for my idling brain. What on earth could a "Hair-A-Thon" be? And the further possibilities of an Easter hair-a-thon flat-out stumped me. All the way home, visions flitted past the inward eye.

– Hair styled to replace the Easter bonnet: bouffant, expansive, perhaps with small pastel beads, suggesting eggs, hidden among the curls or dreadlocks?

–A 24-hour stylist’s special on Easter colorations? Lavender, pink, blue, green, and yellow featured, giving a rest to the much-used bottles of magenta, rust, and emergency-orange?

–A baby chick or bunny awarded to every child who submited to the shears? (Oh, please, let’s hope not. As a college sophomore, I once had (and carried out) the stunningly stupid idea of surprising each dorm-mate with a sweet little Easter chick, all fuzzy and new. It’s a miracle I lived to see Pentecost.)

–Easter-themed trims, the barber's version of topiary? A good full head of hair could be shaped by the barber’s wizardry to simulate a bunny, or at least an archetypal egg?

As we finished the drive, my companion (a recovering lawyer ), up till now silent through my fanciful musings, suggested dryly that perhaps Joe the Barber was simply offering to keep his little shop open later hours than usual through Holy Week so that all his hard-working customers could get properly spruced up for Easter Sunday.

Sigh. Fantacide, thy name is Reason.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I have loved two opera divas in my life (plus a tenor, but that's for another day). Years ago, the soul-stirring voice of the mezzo-soprano Eileen Farrell enchanted me beyond the power of words to describe. I bought all her records, including two amazing blues albums, even wrote her a fan letter and received a kind response.
Have toted that letter and the heavy cartons of records across every known time zone and back again. Recently read her frank, wise-cracking autobiography and found her as down-to-earth as expected. (An unexpected bonus was the off-the-cuff admission that she was a dowser--had always been able to find water with a forked stick. How's that for down to earth?)

And last night, I had the good fortune of sitting in on a master class of my other operatic love, the General.

Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, truly one of the grande dames of opera, has performed so many "trouser roles," in which a male part is traditionally sung
by a female, that she's been nicknamed "The General." When this little soldier learned that Horne was giving a master class down at OU in Norman, nothing could stop me from being among the troops--even though Mother Nature tried.

Maybe you've heard about Oklahoma storms? Then I won't bore you with details.

I actually drove to Norman through the howling, blinding downpour without incident, only to make every conceivable mistake trying to park VanGo in a multi-level garage. Went down the up ramp, then up the down ramp, tried to park in a slot that had obviously been downsized--I could have parked the car in the slot, actually; I just could not have then extracted myself from the van--and as a finale, I rode the elevator up and down several times, to the amusement of several giggling sophomores, only to find that it was not connected to the music center, only to the parking garage.

I was very early. The only other person in the hall was an odd-looking woman wearing a purple and green house dress, an orange bucket hat, and ten large
silver and onyx rings. (I counted them, having little else to do.) She occupied herself with a Bluetooth or a Blackberry or a Redbud--one of those. But from time to time, she glanced at me, and most likely made dubious conclusions about me, though I sported neither hat nor ring.

At 8 p.m., a man came out on the stage, studied his notes, and announced that Ms. Horne would be right with us, but had requested that everyone move to the front rows while we waited. Only then did he look up and realize that the hall was packed. "Oh! Never mind!" and he exited.

Then the General strode on, brisk as an Oklahoma wind, but full of sunshine and wisecracks. (She and Eileen Farrell had much in common besides their vocal range. ) She wore black slacks, a bright neon blouse, and sensible shoes. Smiling at us, she sat down at a folding table and waved on the first singer.

In a master class--at least in this one--each student gets to sing her aria through once, while the master teacher listens and jots notes on a pad. Then the master takes the aria apart, note by note and syllable by syllable. Two of the three women who sang last night were wrestling with German, and sometimes, German won. Frequently, the General would push her lips way out and insist, "EEWW! Eewww! Not "Oouu! " Then the student would sing the two bars over again. "Softer here, or you won't have enough breath!" "Louder--don't swallow that last word!" And the young soprano would try again. "Get the sound up in the mask!" Or "I want those notes in the chest!" "You're just singing words. Where's the emotion? You're dying to be this guy's hausfrau!"

Nor was the music all that received Ms. Horne's attention. To one statuesque blonde, she said, "Darling, you know I love you, but get your bangs off your face!
Try some hair spray. We need to see your eyes." And to another, demurely dressed in a snug black dress, but wearing very high heels with quarter-sized polka dots of yellow and red and green, she said, "My dear, without question we will award you the Shoe Prize, but don't those heels make your rear stick out?"

I agonized through the whole class. How could those young things stand up there before friends and family and strangers and have their performance dissected?
What if I had had an English major read an essay before the class and had then publicly picked apart rhetoric, coherence, and tone? Ah, but English majors don't generally perform in public, and these gifted musicians hope to do so for a living!

And clearly, having spent the previous two weeks working one-on-one with Ms. Horne, each soprano had fallen under the sway of her love for their common art and her affection for the student herself. Because both loves were obvious. The "General" was jolly, caring, congratulatory, and very, very demanding. And each singer ended her 3o minutes of fame with a warm embrace from a most gracious grande dame.

I drove home, not a drop of rain to be seen, surely the happiest monotone on I-35.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

So What Are You Reading These Days?

When people ask what I'm reading these days, I do a little sash-twisting, dig my toe into the carpet, stall a while with "Um-uh, umm, well. . . ." No, no, I'm not reading bodice-busters, nor confessionals such as, "Help, Dr. Phil: I'm In Love with My Alien Abductor!" But the last time I answered that question, the response was unfeigned repugnance; the attitude matched the way I felt when my father would offer me his favorite nosh, pickled pigs' feet.

Some background: in 1992, I spent a sabbatical year in Hungary, teaching literature at a college of unpronounceable name. I was something of a newspaper junkie then, and had assumed there would be at least one good English-language newspaper on the newsstands in Szombathely. Wrong. Result--I had serious newsprint withdrawal for some weeks. Finally, a faculty colleague took pity and began putting in my office mailbox her copy of the London Daily Telegraph. Ravenous, I devoured every page. And discovered a new delight. In a word, obituaries.

The obituary as a literary genre was born in England in the mid-1980's, but even now, twenty years later, many American newspapers are still woefully behind the times and simply don't run samples of what I'll call The New Obit. Some U. S. papers, yes, but most, no. That's why I'm blogging on the subject today.

What is the standard U.S. obituary like? "So-and-So died [met his maker, returned to Jesus, was reunited with both ex-wives and three girlsfriends, etc.] He was born here, went to school there, served in the military yonder, worked at these jobs, and is survived by the following."
The standard obit bears a strong resemblance to a book report by a kid who didn't read the book, just the Cliff Notes.

The New Obit celebrates the life of the subject. There may be two sentences dealing directly with death per se: "So-and-So, who has died age 96, was a wrestler whose profession was grappling but whose passion was collecting the Mottled Yellow Sumerian Butterfly in every corner of the globe. . . . He is survived by his wife Angela and three daughters. " The writer of a good obit expends effort and intelligence in finding out what the life in question was truly about, and puts that information together with humor, detail, honesty and respect.

Most news headlines in today's papers, on TV and on the Internet are depressing if not downright gruesome.Here are three I took this past week from AOL--these are word for word.

* "9-11 Remains Used to Pave Roads"
*"I Snorted My Father, Rocker Admits"
* "Housewife Convicted of Frying Husband"

By contrast, New Obits celebrate courageous, or outrageous, lives of the famous, the infamous, and the so-called ordinary. Try on some of these opening lines:

*"Canon Edwyn Young, who has died aged 74, was one of the Church of England's most colourful priests and claimed to be the first-ever chaplain to a strip-tease club, officiating at the Raymond Revuebar in Soho."

*"Nesta Cox, known as 'the Nanny of Nanteuil,' who died in Blois in France aged 92, was brought up to believe in the indestructibility of the British Empire, although in the event she herself proved the more indestructible."

*"Abe Coleman, a Polish-born professional wrestler promoted as the Hebrew Hercules and Jewish Tarzan and credited in the 1930s with popularizing the drop-kick move, likened to a flying kick to the jaw, died March 28 at Meadow Park nursing home in Queens, N.Y. He was 101."

* "Cockie Hoogterp, who has died aged 96, certainly added to the gaiety of nations and enriched the public stock of harmless pleasure. She was invariably witty in conversation, sometimes wickedly so, and given to impromptu practical jokes. . . ."

These days, I start off my mornings by browsing the New Obits in newspapers such as the Guardian, The Boston Globe, The New York Sun, and the San Francisco Chronicle. There are always a few good laughs to be found, often some tears at heroism and courage, and almost always an upbeat sense of astonishment and pride in the human spirit. I've not found a better corrective for the depressing, distressing stuff that the media serves up. In my own college days, I majored in journalism, and had as mentors two Pulitzer Prize winning newspapermen turned professors. I've always been glad that Madame Fate shepherded me down a different path, for journalism today is not so inspiring a career as it once was. But if I were to have a second go at it, I'd want to write the New Obits.

Far from being repugnant, New Obits are uplifting and celebratory. Not pigs' feet at all. If you want to read more about the New Obits, there's a great book by Marilyn Johnson, published by HarperCollins and titled--what else--The Dead Beat. And for a marvelous collection from Britain, try The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries: A Celebration of Eccentric Lives, edited by Hugh Massingberd and published by Macmillan.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Listen to this cast: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Stockard Channing, Maureen Stapleton, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara (from "Best in Show, "For Your Consideration," etc.), Joanna Gleeson, Kevin Spacey.

Bound to be a great flick, right?

We watched "Heartburn" last evening with high hopes. This 1986 film, directed by Mike Nichols, grew out of the semi-autobiographical novel by Nora Ephron. Well, sorry to say, it hadn't ripened enough. Or maybe it had rotted a bit in the sun of all that huge talent.

I had never seen it before--couldn't imagine how I'd missed one with so many of my favorite actors involved. As an added dash of gossip-spice, the louse depicted here by Nicholson was modeled on Ephron's former husband Carl Bernstein, one of the two young reporters who brought down All the President's Men. (Played by Dustin Hoffman in that film.)

Despite all of this to pique one's interest, plus music by Carly Simon, the film just doesn't make it, alas. The Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever gives it three stars, but they were just being kind. (They called it "a tepid romance.")

There is, however, a happy little surprise in "Heartburn." Early in the story, Streep's character delivers a baby (quite a lot of time spent on that). As the film lurches forward, the baby girl is shown at, oh, about ten or twelve months and then again at perhaps twenty months. The children used in the film are absolutely delightful, full of charm, and unusually responsive to Streep's on-film mothering--being fed, read to, hoisted off and on trains and airplanes, encouraged in several (possibly Symbolic) rounds of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." (Ephron, the itsy-bitsy spider, apparently did go up the spout again.)
I kept wondering: how do you get such very small children to be so responsive to a stranger in a film? I've seen five and six-year olds who do amazingly well in front of a camera; Haley Joel Osment leaps to mind. But a toddler?

Well, these toddlers, yes. Names are Dana and Mary Streep. And they added a sparkle to "Heartburn" that all the rest of the great cast couldn't quite generate. Maybe it was inherited talent; surely it was love. Delightful, in any case.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Driving downtown yesterday, we passed a charming small park, perhaps half a block square. Gracious shade trees, brand-new-in-the-world jonquils, lush grass someone clearly tended on a regular basis. And a large white sign insisting: NO LOITERING.

"Loitering"? Interesting word, "loiter." Always sounds a bit odd when pronounced. And the word has some sound-cousins with distasteful connotations: "goiter," "toilet," "hoity-toity." Plus
"coitus," of course --not in itself a distasteful concept for sure, but an ugly-sounding, medicinal term that we never use in eager invitation or sweet memory of the game itself.

But back to the park. And the ban on loitering. One dictionary defines "loiter" thus: "To delay an activity with aimless idle stops and pauses; to remain in an area for no obvious reason; to hang around."

Holy Thoreau! Guilty as charged! A good part of my day is spent delaying a given activity (such as doing laundry or writing email) with aimless stops and pauses! Heck, I'm good for as much as a two-week delay on just changing a light bulb. And almost every day, I drive past the horse farm down the road, steer off the highway to a precarious, teetering halt on the brink of the ditch, and remain in the area as long as I can, for no obvious reason that any witness could testify about. I just "hang around," watching the seven new colts nicker at each other, flex their unwieldy long legs, sprint independently away from their grazing mothers and then skitter quickly back to nurse if something startles them.

As to Thoreau himself: if my guy upstairs on roller skates has brought me the right information, Thoreau spent one night in jail on some non-payment of taxes charge; but if the local constabulary had posted NO LOITERING statutes around, Henry would have been permanently incarcerated. He was our nation's first serious Loiterer, and perhaps our best. (Well, he and E. B. White.) His idle stops and pauses resulted in observations that high school kids and retirees and mobs of other folks still read and underline and commit to memory and quote in town meetings.

So what are parks about these days? Organized family reunions, I guess; organized public protests with clearly defined reasons and appointed pickets; organized craft fairs hawking local jams and jellies and imported wicker-ware. Just be sure you have a shopping list in hand when you enter the park-fair; if you merely saunter aimlessly along, you'll be up on loitering charges, and there may not be a pro bono attorney hanging around to take your case

Saturday, March 24, 2007


It's in, these days, to knock one's memory. Even the Thirty-Somethings admit they called the police to report a stolen vehicle, when actually they had just forgotten that they were driving the old Honda that day instead of the new Hummer.

And yes, indeed, I forget things. Though I've lived in Oklahoma almost two years, I still manage to rattle off my new zip code only on windless days. Recently I showed up at a doctor's office and insisted that I did too have an 8:15 appointment; I had just made it 24 hours ago, for heaven's sake!

"And what are you here about today?" asked the polite, puzzled receptionist.
"A routine skin exam," I answered quick as a flash.
"Ma'am? This is an optometry practice; we don't do dermatology."

Right date, wrong address. Could happen to anybody.

But there's this little old guy on roller skates. . . . And despite trivial lapses such as the foregoing, I'm pretty proud of him, frankly.

Okay, a tad of backstory here. Before the Emperor of Cyberspace ruled, before Queen Electronica reigned, a student needing research material went to a counter in the college library and wrote on a small slip of paper the Dewey Decimal numbers of volumes requested. A clerk behind the counter took the slip of paper and disappeared into the Stacks--the acres of metal shelves storing the thousands of available books. The clerk then hunted down the books, one by one, Dewey Decimal by Decimal. In about thirty or forty minutes, he brought them back to you. If you were a winner in the Stacks Roulette, one of the books might turn out to be useful. It took a graduate student most of the summer term to find the identical material that his grandkids can today locate online during a single TV commerical, while simultaneously text-messaging their chums.

Now, back to memory. In recent years, I've had a weird impression that my memory is under the supervision of that library clerk of yesteryear. Obviously he is much older these days. And slower. But you know, he's pretty darned good just the same. Somewhere he has obtained a pair of roller skates to get around up there--and I'm not talking in-lines here; I'm talking old-fashioned metal skates that clamped on your shoes and were tightened with a skate key.

The Old Guy clearly prefers the far reaches of the stacks, where the early stuff is kept, rather than the more recent material. For example, he can still deliver the first and last names of every one of my sixth grade classmates. Likewise, most of the long narrative poem, "The Highwayman," by Noyes. (He hasn't lost the last two stanzas or anything; I just never got around to learning them.) And he can put his shaky fingers on lots of other vital, if outdated information-- 'way more than most of my friends care to hear about, frankly.

More recent data, such as my zip code or the passwords for the ten different online accounts I seem to need these days, or where in the world I put last year's income tax files--all these are up front in the grey stacks of my mind, recently uploaded, as it were; and the Old Guy can't always make it that far forward.

Today, for instance, while discussing collegiate women's basketball over lunch (we're still hip-high in the NCAA playoffs here), we brought up an old scandal that made national news fully 20 years ago. A key player in that melodrama was a witness who showed up, uninvited and unwelcome as a tornado, at a climactic moment. The witness's name was in all the papers, and I knew it well, then.
But now the name was deep in the stacks, not anywhere near the tip of my tongue. Try as I would, I could not retrieve it. And it was all so long ago, and so trivial (to me) at that time, that I wasn't at all sure the Old Guy even had the information in his stacks. So I tried to put the question out of my mind.

Half an hour later, paying the check, I suddenly blurted aloud (startling the waiter clean out of his apron): "Nora Delany!" And indeed it was.

The Old Guy is admittedly slow, and his rusty skates creak and wobble, and he puffs as he hunts. But he's got a lot of territory to cover, and I hope he stays on the job for a long time yet.