Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…

§ At least some of the tests on which we rely for determination of diminished brain and physical function are completely, utterly and totally bogus! §

I recently read that an efficient self-test for diminishing brain function was to count backwards by seven. Huh, I thought.

Now, the truth is that I was cutting class on the day God handed out the math portion of the brain, so I can barely count forward by seven. It requires a wrinkled brow and strong concentration, as I carefully add seven to the preceding figure. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight… Then I run into trouble. That’s because I’ve never been able to recall my “Eight Plus” tables. I have to stop and think carefully, “What the hell is eight plus seven? Oh, yeah, seven plus seven is fourteen, so eight plus seven is….” I realize that, even to those people who are otherwise uneducated, my inability to calculate indicates that I am an idiot born of morons. But in the dashboard of my brain, the trouble indicator light for mathematical functions is always lit.

Language and literature, now, that’s another matter. Except for an occasional need to punch out to a grammar site to determine whether to use who or whom—and then argue with their conclusions–I have a fair degree of literary competency. (How many people, after all, know that might is the past tense of may? Oh, yes, it is! Look it up.)

This literary ability does not, however, extend to reciting the alphabet backwards. Years ago, when breathalyzers were uncommon and police relied on ridiculous “field sobriety tests”, an older acquaintance discussed being stopped by a traffic cop. Stone-cold sober, he was asked not only to do the silly touch-nose nonsense, but to walk heel-to-toe in a line—then given a pass on that one when it was apparent that he would have to use his cane. Instead, he was told to recite the alphabet backwards. At this point he awarded the very young officer a stern look, explaining that sixty-plus years after the first grade, he had never learned nor had any occasion to need knowledge of the alphabet in reverse. (The young cop gave up and let him go, telling him to drive safely.)

But what all this nattering is in point of is that so many of the tests on which we rely for determination of diminished brain and physical ability are completely, utterly and totally bogus. Shoving totally aside the “seven backward and forward” question, the brain function test administered at the doctor’s office to those 65 and older is simply demeaning. Condescending. Belittling. (Of course, after now having dealt with an entire citizenry that endured weeks of pandemic quarantine, the medicos might finally realize it’s almost useless to ask a retired person what day of the week it is. When one is no longer bebopping off to an office every day, that question simply has no relevance. None whatever.)

I once ventured onto a site containing those “Alzheimers Test” questions, and was doing quite well with the test until I came to the question regarding the Prime Minister’s name. Uh… I’m in the US. I hadn’t, unfortunately, realized that I was on a UK site. The best I could answer I could frame was, “Well, it’s not still Tony Blair” (that being, at the time, the last Prime Minister to whom I’d paid much attention).

Then there was the time that I attended a Senior Fair, and was asked to place my hands behind my back, one over the shoulder and one under, and link my fingers. Say what?! This was not something I could have done even in my twenty-year-old heyday, and certainly not now that I’ve experienced a broken collarbone in my time. But even without that consideration, what does this test really say about limberness, or lack thereof? Are the buffoons devising this type of idiocy aware that people’s arms vary in length? So do fingers, for that matter. Not only that, but (having attempted this many times since) I find that I come a lot closer to having my fingers meet using right-arm-over-shoulder/left-under, rather than the reverse.

At the same Senior Fair, I was asked to grip a handle that calculated my hand strength. The problem with this was, though, that in the days leading up to this fair, I’d been doing an enormous amount of work at my computer; my carpal tunnel syndrome was so troublesome that my toothbrush felt heavy. So it seemed to me that what was being measured was not my hand strength or lack thereof, but how close I was to requiring surgery.

There are enough limitations, humiliations and concerns associated with the slow process of aging without being troubled by senseless tests devised by youthful minions who remain quite clueless about the realities of aging until it assaults them.

And, by the way, I’d still flunk that UK test. For the life of me, as I wrote this, all I could think was, “Boris Bad Hair”!

Oprah’s Brown Satin Gown

§ Perhaps it’s not always about race. §

In a recent casual conversation with a friend, we discussed the many over-the-top gowns worn by celebrities at various award ceremonies through the decades. I mentioned that I seemed to recall a dress worn by Oprah, perhaps in the 1990s: the most stunning, classic, utterly gorgeous gown I had ever seen. It was a confection of satin and chiffon reminiscent of a bygone era; sophisticated and elegant. Although I couldn’t be certain,

Brown Satin

I also thought I recalled this to have been the year that the news rags, reporting on the award ceremony the following day, had savaged Oprah’s gown in their descriptions. They disparaged the elegant simplicity of the dress, which stood out in such direct contrast to the exaggerated, ridiculous apparel being worn by other female celebrities that year. Oprah’s superb gown was described contemptuously.

“Well, of course they were rude,” my friend commented. “Oprah’s black.”

I didn’t respond, but I thought to myself, “No, I really don’t think that was the reason.”

You see, in the early 1970s, I’d become heavily invested in reading women’s magazines. I was young and perhaps trying to define a style for myself while overcoming debilitating shyness. Reading articles about dress, hair, makeup and women’s issues became my passion.

Unfortunately, the 1970s, although a turbulent time for societal changes, was also the decade of books such as The Total Woman (yes, after discovering magazine articles about it, I read the absolutely-dreadful book itself. It should have been titled: How to Reverse 100 Years of Women’s Progress in Six Easy Steps). Consequently, looking back now, I can’t say that all the periodicals I read actually did me much good toward my defined goals! But they did, conversely, give me a bit of instruction in critical thinking. During the five or so years that I read these publications, I began to note a relentless trend: the very advice, recommendations, and endorsements from one season or year were totally invalidated in subsequent issues.

I recall precisely when I first noticed this conundrum. I’d read an essay enthusiastically endorsing heavy, kohl-style eyeliner in dark colors of navy blue and black. The accompanying photos were striking, but I, not being skilled at all with eyeliner in any case, and particularly not with heavy liquid eyeliners, quickly dismissed the idea. But in the next seasonal issue of the very same magazine, I was astonished to read a makeup article stating that “thank heaven”, the kohl-lined, Egyptian-style eyes had gone the way of the dodo. Since I had a habit of keeping old editions, I rooted around and lay hands upon the earlier issue. Yep, there it was: praise and approval, advocating thick, dark eyeliner. Yep, there it was again: a whole article devoted to whisper-thin, lightly lined eyes.

Huh.

I began to read my periodicals with a far more critical eye, realizing that, be it fashion, marriage, makeup, dating, hemlines, children, work, or any other aspect of life and behavior that the articles might address, this repetitive conflict appeared. A bold reversal of everything stated one year cropped up the next. Sometimes the instruction changed even between spring and fall!

Of course, in one aspect this made sense: How could the fashion houses keep women buying new clothes and makeup if everything didn’t constantly change? But advice on marriage, children, dating? How could that alter so rapidly? There was, I realized, no logic to the stuff I was reading. Right then and there, I gave up on turning for life advice to whatever nonsense popular journalism was spouting at any particular time. I read for entertainment, not instruction.

I carried this knowledge regarding editorial inconsistency away with me and thereafter applied it critically to every advice book or magazine article I read. So it was in this light that I now considered my memory of Oprah’s gorgeous-but-maligned brown satin gown. For you see, as much as I remembered the articles lambasting her dress, I also clearly recalled what the periodicals said the very next year following that same annual award ceremony. “A Return to Classic Elegance and Timeless Grace!” the reviews trumpeted, one after another, ad infinitum.

Oprah, it seemed, had actually been a trendsetter; a woman ahead of her time. Now every celebrity was jumping on the bandwagon of good taste and sophistication, rather than attempting to discover who could rack up the most points for appearing in a garish, vulgar outfit.

Decades later, not wanting to turn our lighthearted conversation into a deep discussion, I remembered all of this but said nothing about it to my friend.  But I thought at the time, and still think, that it’s not always about race.  Often, yes; even, sad to say, commonly–but not always.  Sometimes it’s just about the way life and the world and the news media machine functions.  Sometimes it’s just about fashion houses trying to palm off new styles in dress and makeup and hair on a foolish public which embraces such nonsense–because if no one buys anything new, they are out of business.

But no matter what the truth of it all, I will never forget Oprah’s perfectly stunning brown satin gown.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these posts in the Archives: “The Slave Cabin”,  on 02/28/18;  “Amosandra”, from 06/01/2018; “You Dirty Wop!” , 02/01/2018; “A Bra of a Different Color”, posted 10/02/2019, or “Racism Knows No Logic”, from 06/10/2020 )

Tales of the Office: Under the Weather

§   My scam worked without a hitch. I was excused from work, feeling neither compunction nor apprehension. None whatever. After all, I’d used just one of my accrued store of legitimately earned sick leave days, and I hadn’t lied.   §

A friend confessed to me once that when, during her working years, she wanted to take a “mental health day”, she couldn’t bring herself to lie about being sick. She just knew the Universe would kick her butt for the falsehood, paying her back with a genuine, nasty illness. So before calling in to her boss to request sick leave, she would write “WEATHER” on a piece of paper and hold it over her head. Then she would call her boss and say, “I’m afraid I can’t make it into work today; I’m really under the weather!”

I liked her idea. The occasional consumer myself of a desperately needed illicit day off, and having plenty of accumulated sick leave, I’d made it my mission in life to learn the power of a really good lie, well told. Male bosses, I found, were unlikely to argue with anything that included the words “female problem”. Female bosses were unimpressed with that particular explanation. After all, they themselves had suffered through too many a day at the office while enduring grinding cramps. But they were generally sympathetic to the “stomach flu” routine, since that nasty little bug had a habit of sweeping through offices and was the very last thing they wanted to catch themselves. (There is nothing more accurate, though, then the fact that generalities are rarely true. I had one termagant of a boss who complained that I was “getting this stomach stuff far too often!” Sadly for me I was,  at the time, genuinely ill, having contracted a serious stomach ailment from my mother-in-law, who had carried it home from an overseas trip.)

Nevertheless, despite my friend’s compunctions, and with the exception of that stomach flu debacle, I hadn’t really noticed that my fibs for “Luxury Time”, (as I thought of it) caught up with me. After all, I rationalized, I’d struggled into my job many a day while deathly ill, hoarding my sick leave to cover those times when my child was sick and I had to be at home, caring for her.   Looking after my sick  daughter, I’d  catch whatever bug she’d towed home. Then I’d drag myself into the office to work a full day while feeling so unwell that I wanted nothing more than to lie down and die.  But using my sick leave for my own genuine illness wasn’t even a consideration when I was a young mother. Consequently, it seemed perfectly all right that I now sometimes took a day off when I wasn’t really physically sick at all. It all balanced out, I consoled myself.

Nevertheless, once my daughter was grown, I found myself worrying that payback was in the offing. I no longer needed to hoard sick leave for childcare, but I did hoard it, and my unused vacation time, nonetheless.  Some personal emergency—severe illness, an accident—might occur, and such an event could render me unable to work for a long while. I needed that reserve stock of unused leave days. Besides, the pathetic three personal days doled out annually by my employer failed to cover even a few appointments for doctors, dentists, or ophthalmologists, let alone genuine emergencies (like that slashed tire on the morning after Halloween).  Much of my vacation leave stockpile went to cover those contingencies. But sick leave, ah! Sick leave was there, I reasoned, to be used not only for genuine physical illness but for those days when I was just damned sick and tired of facing one more day in that office.

So, taking counsel from my friend’s shenanigans, I went out and bought a plastic bug. A really ugly-looking, scary, big, realistic plastic bug. And the next time I called in for a Luxury Day, I pulled Big Ugly out of my bedside table and dialed, holding it in my hand. “I’m sorry; I need to take a sick day,” I explained to my boss in my best pathetic manner. “I’ve got a really nasty bug!”

My scam worked without a hitch. I was excused from work, feeling neither compunction nor apprehension. None whatever. After all, I’d used just one of my accrued store of legitimately earned sick leave days, and I hadn’t lied. I really did have a very nasty bug—right there in my hand.

Confiding this ruse to a trusted coworker, she followed suit, selecting her own Big Ugly. And occasionally we even passed our pets back and forth, so that we could change our plaint to, “I’ve caught that bug that’s been going around!”

Big Ugly did not retire when I did; I bequeathed him to a another coworker. I understand he’s been called upon to work his Buggy Magic quite a few times in the intervening years, both for her and for others at the old office.

Works like a charm, every time.

To Wash or Not to Wash: No Question!

§   With all the incessant and frequent handwashing everyone has undergone since the beginning of the pandemic, this post (originally published on July 13, 2018) seemed remarkably timely!  §

The other day I was at my daughter’s home, and she commented that “Puppy” (a full-grown, 40-pound Husky) was in need of  “a spa day pretty soon; she smells like a dog”.

Now, I lost much of my sense of smell–no, not due to coronavirus, but to a sinus disorder many years ago.  Consequently, I could not comment on the problem, despite the fact that my granddog was dancing in front of me, performing her “I have not seen you in at least two days and you’re my favorite person on the planet” act. She might not have smelled like roses, but Puppy’s doggy-odor hadn’t reached offensive levels, I thought.  However, the comment on smell jogged my memory regarding an article I’d read a few months earlier.

The author of the article was a proponent of infrequent bathing. His essay discussed the natural biome of the skin which was, he claimed, destroyed by too-frequent bathing (which, his article seemed to indicate, was basically any form of bathing at all).  The author explained that he no longer showered or bathed, contenting himself with occasionally rinsing off excess sweat, something made easy in the summer months by merely standing beneath the garden hose—especially to rinse off his genital area.

Eeewww.

After I finished retching (and wondering just how active this joker’s sex life wasn’t!), I continued reading to his conclusion that, instead of soap, he “smelled like people”.

As I clicked off the article, I wondered to myself if smelling like people might be somewhat equivalent to smelling like a dog, especially after the garden hose trick. Despite my weak sense of smell, wet dog is not one of my favorite scents.  I’m pretty certain that wet, unwashed people smell pretty similar to that.  And I was absolutely certain that the male author of the “don’t wash” essay had never been a menstruating woman on a hot summer day.

I’ve always equated not bathing with, oh, say, body lice and bubonic plague. I’ll take the sheer, unmatched pleasure of soaking in a hot bath with lavender salts, or a steamy shower with scented soap on a “scrubbie” body puff—yeah, I’ll take that any day over any amount of “natural biome”.  And don’t even get me started on the “no-poo” non-hair-washing crusaders.  No-poo-schmoo-poo!  I generally use styling products to arrange my long hair, so unless I’ve not needed to do much more with my locks than brush them (i.e., been nowhere or seen no one for days–which usually happens only when I’m sick in bed),  my hair gets thoroughly shampooed and conditioned every second or third day.  On the rare occasions that I must wait longer than that to wash it, it feels absolutely icky and looks dull and anyone trying to restrain me from the hot water and shampoo had best be armed!  I use a nail brush to scrub beneath my fingernails every morning, too, all the while wondering to myself just what frightening “natural biome” lurks beneath those lovely gel-manicured fake nails I see on every second pair of female hands.

I still wonder how the author of the “don’t bathe” article felt about the CDCs recommendations for handwashing during the flu season. And that causes me to recall another article that I read, this one long before the marvels of instantly available knowledge on the Web.  That article discussed the age-old scourge of the disease trachoma, a bacterial eye inflammation that causes granulations to form beneath the eyelids. The disease is progressive, eventually causing the eyeball itself to harden and blinding the sufferers. Trachoma is a common cause of blindness in third-world countries.  But the researchers had discovered a simple way to reduce the spread of trachoma and prevent re-infection of those receiving treatment.

They simply had the people, either infected or at risk, wash their faces every day.

Natural biomes are not necessarily benign. Queen Elizabeth the First may have bathed monthly “whether she needed it or not”, but I’ll stick to my daily schedule, thank you very much. And enjoy every blessed minute of rearranging the natural biome of my skin.

Second Hand Rose

 §  To celebrate our upcoming Independence Day, I will extol a different way to buy American!  §

One of the worst aspects of the Indiana coronavirus lockdown was, for me, the inability to spend my free time shopping at flea markets and thrift and consignment or charity shops.  Tracking down wonderful and unexpected treasures at these markets has been one of my favorite pastimes for the past couple of decades.

Now, to be quite frank, there was a time in my youth when I would have been horrified at the notion of bringing second-hand goods into my home or wearing them on my back.  Even the name “flea market” (yes, it is unappealing!) sent a shudder down my spine.  That was, however, until one rainy weekend afternoon when I was convinced by an acquaintance to give the activity a try.  With nothing better to do and utterly bored, I agreed to traipse with her through a local flea market, figuring it would at least get my butt up off the couch.

Joining her on that first marketing adventure, I was amazed and astounded.  Yes, the shops contained an immense amount of junk, much of it dirty and obviously unloved, but there were also hidden riches just waiting to be unearthed.  I was astonished and delighted. Shopping at a thrift store or flea market was, I realized, a whole lot like a treasure hunt.  Often I came away empty-handed, but other times, why, at other times I was rewarded with masses of unexpected and unlikely prizes.  My “fleaze” I called them, the lovely things from furnishings to beautiful china and glassware that I delightedly discovered on my thrift shopping trips.

My obsession with second-hand goods has been possibly helped by the fact that my family is in no way pretentious or supercilious about gifts.  Instead, tightfisted and genetically bequeathed with the thrifty habits of our Scottish forebears, we are thrilled beyond measure when the giver, handing us something we really love or want as a birthday or holiday gift, can exclaim in excitement, “I found it at a consignment shop! You wouldn’t believe how little I paid for it!”  Yes, we are definitely all anti-snobs, gleefully gloating over our Scrooge-like frugality.

Some—most—of the furnishings and accessories in my home that I best enjoy have been purchased at flea markets, or at thrift or consignment or charity shops.  My adorable distressed dining room table and chairs and gorgeous antique rocker; the favorite green armchair that comforted me through a bad bout of flu; my converted-from-an-entertainment center china cabinets–all were purchased second-hand, and I genuinely value them.  Recycled goods have also nearly saved my bacon on a few occasions, such as the time when I, newly divorced, had to furnish an apartment for my teenage daughter and myself. I was leaving nearly every piece of furniture I owned behind with my ex-husband. But my sister-in-law contributed a loveseat that had been stored in her mother’s garage, while a friend provided a used entertainment center for our living room. Another friend bequeathed me a cast-off bunk bed for my child, while a neighbor sold me a daybed that she no longer needed.  Without those furnishings, my daughter and I would have been laying our heads to rest in sleeping bags and sitting on the floor to watch TV.

Despite constantly patronizing the second-hand shops and garage sales, I’ve never made so wondrous a discovery as an aunt who purchased a used cedar chest at a garage sale and, upon arriving home with her prize, discovered it had a false bottom where a hand-made antique quilt had been secreted.   I’ve never been that lucky.  Nor do I anticipate ever being one of those fortunate individuals who stumble upon a Van Gogh hidden in a rack of amateur artist’s paintings.  Instead, I’m over-the-moon if I can just find a fine piece of the hand-blown glass my brother treasures to add to his collection.

But perhaps the best thing about buying and using and really enjoying these recycled bits and pieces is that I am supporting the very smallest of small business owners: the little people who scour the moving and garage and estate sales and auctions, and who then rent a booth to peddle items ranging from the odd and unusual to the astounding.  The merchandise they sell, no matter where it might have originated, has been bought and owned and then discarded or contributed; purchased again and then prepared for resale.  And by the time any product has been through all that, been passed through so many citizen’s hands, no matter where it was once manufactured, it is an American product!

So I, proudly and happily, will continue on my treasure hunts to buy American “Fleaze”.

The Many Faces of Hate

§  To wear the mask of a stranger is to see merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision.  §

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren.  Her favored offspring were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures.  But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of  her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren.   Or:  Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law.  Or, best of all:   Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor.  It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

Puffy Socks Finds a Home (Sort of a Pandemic Story)

§   Pandemic has changed everything… §

Every summer for the past four years, my twin great niece and nephew, Mya and Kai, have arrived in Indiana to spend the season with their grandparents, my brother and his wife.  Every summer we all gather together for family picnics, and afternoons at splash parks and pools.  We visit the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the zoo together.  We play card games and spend time in the kids’ room at the library, and visit the playgrounds at every single park within a 30-mile radius! The twins ride bikes and ponies, hold squirt gun battles, stay overnight with their Aunt Paula, and climb trees. Together we all eat mounds of mac & cheese and chicken nuggets.  We color and watch videos and go to movies.  Mya and I paint each other’s nails, and I comb her long hair into braids and ponytails.  Kai builds forts out of my furniture.  The big baskets of toys that I keep on hand just for them are always filled with fresh playthings that I’ve picked up through the year at garage sales and flea markets. GrampsCrop4 The whole family troops out together to watch a July 4th fireworks show.  And, finally, after we’ve kissed a tearful goodbye and seen them winging their way home, I send letters—one letter every week—and homemade books; books filled with photos describing their summer adventures and telling them stories about their “Indiana pets”.

Every summer that is, until this year.  Pandemic has changed everything.  The plane that would transport them here would be, we fear, little more than a container for incubating the Covid-19 virus, and there would be almost nothing for them to do, anyway, even if they arrived, for all the city pools and splash parks are closed, as are the museums and movie theaters; the zoo is open by reservation only.  The Independence Day celebrations, those open-air gatherings crowded with people, will be canceled. The park playgrounds are shut down.

The collective hearts of our family are breaking over this sad reality, yet we know that keeping the twins safely in their home state is for the best.  Nevertheless, my thoughts keep zigzagging back to last summer,  remembering a moment when Kai, while petting my big old orange kitty, explained seriously to me that they, the twins, were the reason I have Puffy Socks the cat.  I agreed; Kai was absolutely right.  Three years earlier, Puffy, a homeless feral, spent a whole summer coming to play with the twins each week on my patio.  At the time, Puff was living under a neighbor’s mini barn.   Each week he waited eagerly for the moment the three of us stepped out onto my patio.  A clatter of sound would announce his presence as he darted through the spare lumber stored behind the barn before leaping majestically over the fence to rush to the children: “The twins are here!!”  Their mutual admiration society was touching to watch.  And when Kai and Mya left for home that summer, I (after a failed attempt to rehome him) adopted the big old softy of a cat they loved so much and had named.

So this week, in honor of my beloved great niece and nephew, who I am missing so much that my heart feels shattered–in their honor, I’m printing here the little storybook that I wrote and sent to them the following winter about the sweet, homeless orange kitty who became so dear to all our hearts.

PS Pic     Puffy Socks Finds a Home  

There was once an orange kitty with white feet who lived in a nice house.  But his owner moved away, and she left Orange Kitty behind.

But Orange Kitty was a smart little cat.PS3 pic  He made lots of friends in the neighborhood.  They petted and fed him, but none of them could give him a home.

So Orange Kitty slept under barns to shelter from the rain.  He curled up with his tail over his nose when it snowed.PS4 Pic

Then one pretty summer day Orange Kitty made two new friends.  They were the twins, Mya and Kai! 

PS 6 Pic (2)PS5 pic (2)They were playing on the patio at their Aunt Beckett’s house.  They liked Puffy very much.  And he liked them, too!

Since their Papaw and Nana had an orange kitty named Puff, Kai and Mya thought this Orange Kitty should be named Puffy.  Their Aunt Paula had a kitty with white feet named Socks, and this new Puffy cat also had white feet.  So they decided Puffy should have a middle name: Socks!  Kai thought Dragon would be a good name, too, just like Puff the Magic Dragon. And Aunt Beckett believed they should  add Esquire, because he was a gentleman cat. 

So  Orange Kitty became Puffy Socks Dragon, Esquire!

When the summer ended and the twins left, Aunt Beckett found Puffy Socks a new home. But that lady could not keep him, after all.  Puff was very sad!Puff Visits 2 (3)

So Aunt Beckett decided she would keep Puffy Socks as her very own kitty.  She even bought him his first Christmas stocking!  PS 14

At first, Aunt Beckett’s other kitties, Zoe and Bella and Lilith, were a little upset to have a new cat in their home.  But slowly, they all began to get along and to love each other.  IMG_20181208_144305066_HDR (2)

Happy PuffSo Puffy Socks found a happy home at last!

                                               The End

 

I miss you both very much, my darling great niece and nephew.  And Puffy Socks misses you, too.

Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.

Be Prepared

§   Throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead.   § 

I first read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 12 years old. It fascinated and enthralled me; horrified me and completely broke my heart. I loved every word of it. Yet I can’t say, even now, that Anne was my hero. Oh, I loved that teenager; felt that I understood her and empathized with her highs and lows; laughed over her astute, witty, and oftentimes rude descriptions of the inhabitants of the Secret Annex. But, no, my real hero in that story was Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Without Otto Frank’s sagacity, without his careful preparation that took his family into hiding and the precious two years of life he gained for them and their companions—well, without that, Anne’s diary would never have been written.

Despite the betrayal that doomed them to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Otto Frank did his best to protect his family, and for that reason, he became my hero. He thought ahead. He prepared. At only the age 12, I was in awe of his wisdom, his far-sighted perception.

All these many years later, I realize that throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead. Think ahead. Plan ahead.  Have a contingency fund as part of my household budget; keep a fire escape ladder in my second-floor bedroom. Buy a gun and learn to shoot. Be ready, not just in my personal life, but for where I thought the world might be heading.

As a young adult living alone, part of that preparation involved a technique which I came to call “a pair and a spare”. Even when I lived in a one-room apartment, my tiny larder and under-counter fridge were always as full as I could afford to keep them. After all, I lived alone; were I to be sick, unable to get out to shop, I would need supplies on hand. (Only once did this far-sighted plan fail me, when a long week’s housebound illness preceded one of the worst blizzards that Indiana had ever experienced.) Later, when I had more storage space, my technique evolved further.  A pair and a spare. One bottle of liquid soap beneath the sink; two in the pantry. Six onions in the vegetable bin; twelve potatoes. An open box of breakfast cereal; two in abeyance. A roll of toilet paper on each dispenser; three more in a basket in each bathroom; a full package in the bathroom closet. A box of tissues in each room; an equal, unopened number of boxes stored.

Much later, I read about preppers.  While not quite convinced of their sanity, I  nevertheless incorporated a few of their ideas. I laughed my way through the Millennial Bug nonsense (smiling smugly when all the clocks went on ticking and computers running),  but disease was, I believed, a different matter.  The very first cases of Legionnaire’s Disease tumbled into headlines, and then the threat of Swine Flu.  The SARS outbreak splashed into the news, and then MERS, and then Ebola. It was reasonable to expect that if a pandemic, or even just a plain old epidemic, arose, getting out to make purchases might be a fraught experience.  With each outbreak, I made certain I had more than I would usually have on hand my home: canned goods, paper goods, soup, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, OTC medications. Utilities, too, might be disrupted, so keeping some jugs of water available seemed like a sensible idea, along with candles, matches, oil lamps. If nothing else, it was all very useful during power outages! Nothing I ever bought was to outrageous excess; each time when the threat passed, my extra supplies were very quickly absorbed into daily use. But, had they been needed, they were available.

So when the first whispers of the coronavirus arose, I began my usual routine. Very early in January, long before the initial case of the disease was identified in the U.S., I began storing essential items. A pair and a spare, not just for myself, but a bit of extra for my daughter and son-in-law and their toddler, just in case. I might not need powdered milk, but it would be there if needed for my granddaughter.   My pets, too–my elderly cats eat a special diet, but I  keep only a week’s worth in the cabinet.  Now multiple cans went into the pantry, and I made room in my garage for several more cat litter sacks than would usually be stacked there.  And, yes, there was a spare package of toilet paper!

And this time, finally, all the supplies were needed. Indiana went into lockdown status on March 23, days after panic buying had all but stripped the shelves bare. Secure in my preparations, I did not need to brave the possibly-infected, rude rush of people out storming the stores. My pantry and garage were stocked with goods enough to see me through at least a few weeks of quarantine, with enough to spare for the people I most love, if needed.   I was prepared.  A pair and a spare…

I like to think Otto Frank might have smiled, just a little.

 

Proudly a Cynic

§   An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs. §

I’m proud of being somewhat cynical.

Never did this fact become more clear to me than when it was chosen as part of our weekly topic at the Monday night meditation and discussion group, Many Hearts, One Spirit, that I attend.  The actual point of that discussion was, I believe, to renounce cynicism–something along the lines of becoming as a little child again.

Happily, our open and receptive discussion group (unlike our nation’s current President) welcomes differing viewpoints, calm, courteous debate, and new insights, because, huh-uh. Nope. Ain’t doing it.

I was, for most of my adult life, profoundly naïve and gullible.  And that—trust me on this one—is not a good path to go strolling down.  I have worked hard to develop a healthy skepticism; hence my motto, “An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

So I heartily admit it:  I am somewhat skeptical.  I am minutely mistrustful.  I am always ever so slightly suspicious.  And I’m PROUD of it.

Taking people at face value, unquestioningly, trustingly, resulted in many a painful moment in my life: the narcissistic friend who played upon my caretaker personality and constantly gave me veiled commands and orders, all careful cloaked in compliments and kudos, so that I would not realize I was being manipulated; the husband who drank, took drugs and had affairs, all the while looking me directly in the eye and denying that any such things had taken place.  The boss who praised me for showing up, sick and bleeding, during the weeks of my prolonged miscarriage—and then denied me a raise by grading me down on my annual review due to the few sick days I’d taken during this devastating personal disaster. The repentant man who had totally screwed up his life and begged me to trust his transformation, but proved to be a sly emotional abuser; a misogynist and con man who preyed quite effectively on my caretaker tendencies and easily-bruised self-esteem.  The woman at my job who smiled to my face while behind my back claiming I’d stolen money from the office sympathy fund that I managed.

Such lessons did not come easily to me, and had to be repeated time and again before I finally learned not to give my trust until an individual had proved worthy of it.  And I simply don’t believe there is anything wrong with that stance: with requiring that trust be earned, rather than freely given.

Perhaps it is unexpected that I find one wonderful thing about being a skeptic, about mistrust, is that I am, happily, often proved wrong.  These are astounding and delightful moments, when my façade of cynicism is cracked like an ugly plaster mold, revealing the shining statue hidden within.  When that happens, it is more than a pleasant surprise; it feels nothing less than a miracle.

But the converse is also unhappily true. The crash of my spirit, the aching disappointment, when I am confronted, yet one more time, with proof that my lack of trust was appropriate–yes, those repeated disappointments are difficult to endure.

Still, my hardened shell of cynicism provides me with some protection.  No matter how great my disenchantment, if the disillusionment was not totally unexpected, it is less painful.  That is, I find, the greatest benefit of being ever so slightly mistrustful: the mitigation of recurring disappointment.

There are qualities of becoming a little child again that I dearly love to evoke in myself: a sense of wonder, for instance, and awe at the unleashed and unexpected beauty not just of the world, but of many of the people who dwell within it.  But the naïveté of childhood is a condition that I gladly leave behind.  I will always strive to remain, proudly and carefully, just the slightest bit a cynic.