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 amazon.com. 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.