The Dot Principle

Having survived the past four years in this nation, I will never again underestimate the power of The Dot Principle!

In June, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States issued its landmark decision regarding the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry.  This event was a hot topic of conversation the next day at the office where I worked.  At the time, I participated in a walking group; we spent our breaks and sometimes part of our lunch hours getting a bit of exercise by striding briskly through the wide halls and many stairwells of the Indiana state office building, happily (and noisily, according to my boss) gossiping as we did so.

On the morning in question, as it happened, only two of us were walking.  Turning to me with a bewildered look on her face, my walking partner—let’s call her Dot–remarked, “They said on the news last night that gay marriage is now the law in all 50 states.  But what about the other two?”

I was, of course, confused.  “The other two what?” 

“States.”

I’m certain my face  must have done that “eyes-rolling-to one side-lips-twisting” thing which indicates complete incredulity.  “Uh, Dot, there are only 50 states.  Forty-eight contiguous states, and Alaska and Hawaii.”

“But I’ve always heard there are 52,” she persisted.

“Uh, no.”  At her look of skepticism, I continued, “There’s the District of Columbia—DC,” I explained. “It is separate from the States. But not a state.  And there are possessions and territories. Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands…”  I trailed off as she continued to look disbelieving.  “There are 50 stars on the flag, one for each State,” I persevered bravely, finally surrendering as Dot just shrugged.

Dot, a few years older than I (and I was nearing retirement), had, I believe, a couple of years of college under her belt; an Associates Degree, as opposed to my high school-only education.  She’d been born a citizen of the United States.  English was her natal language.

But she didn’t know how many States comprise the union.

I’ve looked back on that rather terrifying conversation many times in the past four years, realizing, “Not only do they walk among us, but they vote!”

I now apply “The Dot Principle” to about 75% of the comments I torture myself by reading at the close of articles when I check the news each morning.  (Do NOT ask me why I put myself through this.  I can only surmise that I am a masochist.)   In any case, I usually peruse the comments.  While doing so,  I remind myself that, not only are the Dots of this nation supremely ignorant, but they are astoundingly unafraid in displaying that ignorance to a cringing populace.  They are utterly confident in the correctness of their outrageous assertions.  No matter what facts are presented, the Dots will not be budged from their convictions, preferring their “alternative facts”.  Ill-spelled, and displaying mangled grammar and mutilated sentence structure, riddled with hateful name-calling and, above all, a dearth of knowledge and factual information, and inevitably peppered with ALL CAPS BECAUSE I’M SHOUTING AT YOU SINCE THAT WILL MAKE YOU BELIEVE ME, they troll the pathways of the Comments sections, providing cheap entertainment when one is not too aghast at the remarks to enjoy the show. 

The Dot Principle provided me just a smidgen of reassurance when I read, shocked and appalled, about the Q-Anon Conspiracy. As much as I enjoy a good conspiracy theory–and I really do enjoy them; some are quite masterful in their depositions, and nearly convincing–as much as I admire the enormous work that goes into constructing these mangled theories that fly in the face of reality and plain old common sense, I don’t genuinely find myself being sucked in.  I tell myself this means I am not a Dot; that I still have a few neurons firing, if not so many as I once had when young.

Having been in ascension for four long, painful years, the Dots of this nation are now stunned, brimming with new conspiracy theories, furious and disbelieving that their construct of reality has somehow crumbled, as that nail-biter of an election finally concluded with the overwhelming popular vote and electoral college selection of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States of America.  Nevertheless, as I pointed out to a fuming and incredulous acquaintance, one could consider this just the swing of the pendulum.  “Give it four years, and, who knows—maybe you can elect Jared Kushner or Trump Jr. or Eric Trump or even, saints preserve us, Ivanka,” I suggested.  (On the other hand, maybe not, since I devoutly hope and expect that most of that crew of con men/women, slum lords, Hatch Act violators, and tax evaders will be languishing in prison.)

But having lived through the last four years in this nation, I will never again underestimate the power of The Dot Principle.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy the essay, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, which you can locate in the Archives from July 31, 2019.

 

 

 

Political Civility

§  This essay was originally printed in July, 2019.  I’m now (in September, 2020), pre-posting it once more so that it will appear on the day following the Federal elections.  As I do this, I feel almost sick with fright; terror  of what we may see happening in our country on that morning–our country that has not been so divided since the Civil War…  §

In May of 2019 I was dealing with the potentially fatal illness of my favorite pet, holding my head up as I prepared for the possibility of releasing her to her final journey, when a series of hate-filled e-mails sent me into an emotional tailspin. The e-mails had nothing whatever to do with pets or illness or any other life-altering, sad situations.  They were political.

And while facing the possible loss of my favorite cat hadn’t forced tears from my eyes, the e-mails made me weep.

The first contained a graphic that proclaimed:

“We hated Obama like you hate Trump.  Except we hated Obama because he hated America.  You hate Trump because YOU hate America”.

Dismayed and affronted, I nevertheless replied to the e-mail mildly, saying just that I found this very offensive, and asking not be sent anything like it again.

Yet only a short 24 hours later, I received another e-mail, this time referencing those whose political views were similar to mine, alluding to us by name-calling and bullying.  We were, it seems, “Libtards”.  We were “Wingnuts”.

Previous to this, I’d already dealt with and dismissed being derided as a “Snowflake”. Despite knowing that it was not meant as a compliment, I accepted the appellation proudly.  Snowflakes are incredible: intricate, astoundingly beautiful and infinitely individual—created of water, without which life itself cannot exist.  Joined together, snowflakes are capable of creating massive, unstoppable forces for change, such as blizzards and avalanches.

But, hitting me at an already-low point in my life, the abusive invective of these latest e-mails was not something I could shrug off.  Instead, they wounded me at the very wellspring of my heart.

I do not, under any circumstances, ridicule or deride a person by bullying and invective for their political choices.   I firmly insist on being respectful toward the person, even when I just as firmly disagree with their beliefs.  Politically, I consider myself to be an Independent middle-of-the-roader, slightly left-leaning, but always open to civil discourse and the possibility of changing my mind.

I voted for President Barack Obama, and, while I certainly did not approve of everything he did, I thought him to be far from the worst President we had ever seen to that time (after all, I lived through Nixon).

And I did not vote for President Trump.  Like our late, greatly lamented former First Lady, Barbara Bush, I’d been reading about Trump the greedy and unethical businessman, Trump the immoral adulterer, since the early 1980s.  I’d made up my mind about him at that time, and nothing I heard him say, nothing I saw him do, during his campaign, gave me cause to alter my opinion.  Had I been persuaded in that direction, reading the 2016 article, “I Sold Trump $100,000 Worth of Pianos.  Then He Stiffed Me”1  would have sealed my opinion of the man forever.

But nothing, NOTHING, in my judgements about either Trump or Obama signal that I do not love my country.  In fact, my opinions represent exactly what is best about the United States of America: the right to personal convictions.  Liberty.  Freedom of expression.  The right to choose one’s leaders, and to criticize those leaders without fear of retribution or reprisal.  The right to see matters from differing perspectives.  The right—the requirement—to stand up for one’s beliefs.  The requirement to be respectful toward those who believe differently.

But now derision and ridicule, vicious mockery, name-calling, bullying, harassment of and persecuting others for their beliefs have become the standard; have taken the place of civil debate.

And I find that horrifically, painfully sad.  That is not what I have always understood America, or Americans—the concept, nor the reality—to be.

And so, receiving such harassment by e-mail, and already in a saddened state of mind, I wept.

I will never claim that those who have stood with President Trump are in some way un-American.  I will call not call them wingtards or nutjobs or  deplorables, or even, as their own President called them (exulting that  Covid-19 put an end to handshakes), “disgusting people”.  They are merely individuals who hold a different viewpoint, one which I barely understand and with which I very firmly disagree.  But that I do not agree with their choice of leader makes me in no way unAmerican or vile or deplorable, either.  On the contrary, it makes me a true American: one who is unafraid to speak up for her convictions; who accesses her right to freedom of expression, to liberty.

I, an American woman, do not deserve to be made to weep, to be derided and insulted, for my political opinions, least of all through the faceless, cowardly medium of an internet communication.

My right to view and work for and love this wonderful country of ours in the way that I see best is my personal pursuit of happiness.  And I would not have it shadowed by those who demean America by deriding the liberties bestowed by the Constitution upon its citizens.

1https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “29 Things”,
which can be found in the Archives from November 6, 2019.

Lilith, the Invisible Cat

§  Since beginning this blog, each year near Halloween I’ve shared a poem, always supernatural or otherworldly in nature.  I had a tough time continuing with that tradition this year!  §

Since the start of this blog in 2017, it’s been my custom to include some ghostly little poem for Halloween.  I began that tradition using a mysterious story poem that I’d written for youngsters, my great niece and nephew, titled Ghost Kitty Walks.  (They were thrilled when I sent them a print of their homemade storybook, now published on my blog.)

The following year, I continued with my “Second Annual!” Halloween tradition, using another story poem, one that I had written decades ago.  Struggling Home told an engaging supernatural tale.  But it also (as poetry often does for the soul of both author and reader) exorcised some old uneasiness and personal angst.  I’ve always thought it fitting that I began composing that poem to the rhythm of my steps one dark afternoon as I fought my way home through a torrential rainstorm, walking from a distant bus stop to my house.

Bearing those two posts in mind, in 2019 I sifted through my hundreds of unpublished poems  for a verse that I recalled having penned many years ago, Alicia Walks Softly.  This was yet another story poem, the tale of a ghost who walks nightly to weep at the site of her own grave.  It seemed appropriate for Halloween.  I wasted an hour or more poring through old ring binders and loose sheets of paper and computer files, but, unfortunately, could not find it.  I stumbled across countless verses that were indescribably awful (which sort of explains the “unpublished” part). Despite finding all those sad attempts, though, I also discovered a few poems that I had written well at surprisingly young ages.  Nevertheless, hunting for Alicia Walks Softly proved fruitless, and I realized I must have discarded it.  Sadly, I could recall only the first stanza and the final line of the poem–far too little to reconstruct it, even had I the impetus to do so–though perhaps I might, one day, attempt to do just that.

But as I sifted through reams of my old poetry, I came across one that, while definitely neither a story in verse nor a ghost poem, seemed to fit the bill for my 2019 Halloween-themed blog.  Certainly, it spoke to the seasonal topic of Halloween with its references to demons.  This time, though, the poem, Rooms of Darkness, spoke of true demons: the inescapable demons and devils of one’s heart and mind and soul; the demons that can, if we do not grapple with them, haunt us throughout our lifetimes.

Now the Halloween season of 2020 has rolled around to find me once more turning the pages of old-fashioned ring binders and searching through faint memories for something appropriate to this most disturbing of years.  I know very well that I’ve never written anything on the subject of plague…or riots and looting…or the horrific deaths of individuals at the hands of law enforcement…or entrenched racism…or wildfires burning through thousands of acres, leaving whole populations homeless and the earth scorched…or world leaders who threaten the 244-year-old history of the peaceful transference of power. Frightening as those subjects are (and they are a thousand times more terrifying than any supernatural story I’ve ever encountered), I have nothing in my accumulated verse that even remotely touches them.

In consequence, and perhaps hoping to escape some of the dreadfulness that has comprised this sad year, I find myself turning once more to a lighthearted story poem written for my great niece and nephew when they were small.  After all, The Invisible Man was once considered quite a creepy tale, wasn’t it?  So here, to give you a perhaps just the slightest smile in the midst of so much world-wide awfulness, or to provide a little story that you might take pleasure in sharing with the small children in your family is,

Pretty LilithLilith, The Invisible Cat

Lil2Small Lilith is a pretty cat,
Impeccable in grey.
Her white shirt front’s immaculate.
She’s dressed up every day

But Lilith is invisible.                Invisible.                                         Invisible.

LilithhidesSmall Lilith is invisible.
She hides herself away,
When people come to stay.
When children come to play,
Small Lilith goes away.
She hides there in the closet.
She hides there all the day.

Lil6

Small Lilith is a fraidy cat.
She doesn’t understand
That she could get soft pets and pats
From gentle, loving hands.

Lil7

And so she hides in corners dark–
In closets, under beds.
And shivers, shakes and trembles there,
And hangs her little head.

So Lilith stays invisible.             Invisible.                                       Invisible.

LilithhidesSmall Lilith stays invisible.
She hides herself away,
When people come to stay.
When children come to play,
Small Lilith goes away.

Lil8She hides among the pillows.
She hides there all the day.

The End

May your Halloween be free of both
imagined and this year’s frightfully true terrors.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Ghost Kitty Walks”, published 10/30/2017, “Struggling Home”, from 10/31/2018, or “Rooms of Darkness”, to be found in the Archives from 10/30/2019

I Am a Retired…Me

§  I read an article claiming the importance of outside work, employment, to each individual’s self-concept.  I don’t agree!  §

Not long ago I read an article stating how important outside work, employment,  is to each person’s self-concept. People never, the essay claimed, say merely, “I am retired”.  No, the author asserted, these individuals state “I am a retired (whatever).” Architect, programmer, office support staff, police officer, pilot, teacher, activist, politician….

That’s not true! I thought to myself, putting down the magazine and never finishing the article. (Well, actually, what I thought was, “What a crock!”)

When asked, I tell people, “I am retired.” If they request more details, I reply that I worked for the State of Indiana for 37 years, and briefly for a few other companies prior to my career with the state. In response to those who are nosy enough to ask, “What did you do there?” (What business is it of yours? If  I’d wanted to say, I would have told you!) I tend to get a bit touchy and, yes, perhaps just a wee bit snotty. (Okay, a lot snotty.) Although I have been heard to snap just, “I worked!”, I sometimes reply, “Well, I was a file clerk, a clerk typist, a low level secretary, a high level secretary, an office-group Working Leader, a low level Administrative Assistant, a high level Administrative Assistant, and finally, an Office Manager.”

This usually shuts them down and me up!

The truth is, all those titles, all that employment, really had nothing to do with “me”. They were just jobs that I held to support myself and later my daughter—to put a roof over our heads, food on our table, clothes on our backs; to buy our cars and insurance and occasionally even a meal out or a movie, while still paying taxes and purchasing necessities and settling medical bills. Sticking it out in unpalatable jobs, working for often-unreasonable, difficult and sometimes downright obnoxious supervisors (and, in all honesty, a few really great managers, too), was the way I functioned as a responsible adult. My work was never a career, and, other than drawing upon my strong organizational skills and caretaking core personality, it had little to do with who I was, or am. Perhaps had I been able to follow through on my youthful desire to become an English teacher and a free-lance writer, I might have considered my employment a career. (Then again, knowing how schools and teaching have changed in the years since I was a child–then again, perhaps not.)

These days, this blog suffices as an outlet for the writing that I never found time to do while raising my daughter and working in situations that were sometimes humiliating and occasionally even soul-destroying.   The book reviews that I now write so continually also fill in that gap, too; I sometimes consider myself an unpaid literary critic (and probably am as much hated, and with as much justification, as most such critics are). I strive continually to educate myself, compensating for the higher education of which I was deprived, reminding myself that education is not something one gets, but a gift which one gives to the self.

But the simple truth behind all these occupations remains: I have not, will never, retire from the true work of my lifetime. My greatest life’s work was and still is to be a mother (and anyone who denies that being a parent is the most difficult and most rewarding job they’ve ever done, well, that person is simply not a very good parent). Over the years, though, my work has also been to be a wife for the time I was able to do so, before my spouse’s affairs and drug addiction put an end to our relationship. My job was to be a “working mother” (show me the mother who doesn’t work, whether she holds an outside job or not!) a good homemaker who also held an outside job to support my family. My work has been and still is to grow emotionally, to continually mature, and to become more truly spiritual. My work has been to constantly question all that I have been taught, all that I believe, and from that questioning, derive my own, firmer, beliefs; my morals, ethics and complete value system.

I am genuinely a work in progress—and from that, I hope, I will never retire, not in this lifetime, nor the next.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to check the archives for
“The Retirement Guilt Monster”, from 01/12/2018, or
“Retirement Is…” , posted on 03/13/2019

Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

The Savage Reviewer, Part 2 (or, Revenge Isn’t So Sweet!)

§ Revenge isn’t always so sweet, Author Who Cannot Spell! §

As I mentioned in the post “The Savage Reviewer”, I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews. I was a lot more hesitant to criticize—much kinder, and certainly far more generous with praise–when I was initially writing book reviews. Now, having gotten into the swing of the game, I’ve become far more critical…and a lot more honest.

This all came to mind a few weeks ago as I was clearing out spam from the Comments section of this blog. I admit it with wholehearted shame: I am really, really bad about checking the Spam section and removing comments that have been diverted there! I’m far too trusting of WordPress’s excellent spam filters, which seem to catch most problems. Regular comments arrive in a notification to my e-mail, with a request that they be approved—or not. I rarely fail to approve a comment, since most of my few followers are friends and family members who are actually quite crazy enough to enjoy reading my weekly maunderings.

But an occasional genuine comment gets diverted to the Spam section that I am so dilatory about monitoring. And so it was that a few weeks ago, as I ran a “search and destroy” on the multi-car pileup in that folder, I came across a rather snide remark responding to an older post.

The commenter observed that my essays were “so rife with misspellings that it made what should have been a pleasure into an ordeal”.

Hmmm.

Now, while I’m not precisely spelling bee championship material, I’m can say, in all honesty, that I am “knot to bad” (pathetically poor humor, yes) at spelling. During elementary school, I usually received an “A” in that category on the majority of my report cards. And while my abilities have declined a bit since that long-ago era, I am wise enough to NOT trust the spell-checker. Oh, I rely on it—I just don’t trust the darned thing. I’ve never forgotten that brilliant little poem, Candidate for a Pullet Surprise, by Dr. Jerrold H. Zar, that circulated so constantly several years ago:

I have a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
I ran this poem thru it
I’m sure your pleased to no
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh
My checker told me sew.

But, spell checker or not, since I am editing my own material, an occasional error does slip through. Nevertheless, I felt that “rife” was pushing matters just a bit. So I began to comb through recent posts, coming across a mistake or two here and there, most of them more in the form of a typing mis-stroke than an actual spelling error. I checked with some friends, also, who read my blog posts regularly; they claimed to have rarely found spelling errors. Having satisfied myself in this regard, then, I deleted the obnoxious comment.

Yet something about the remark still bothered me. I finally put my finger on the problem: They were my own words.

You see, the site where I post most of my book reviews has a Profile section. And that profile mentions that I am a blogger and states the title of this blog. Any author whom I disparage–or praise–can run a quick search and locate my blog.

That comment was lifted, word for word, from one of my own reviews–a rather negative review that I had posted about a book I’d tried to read—tried to read, and found painfully unreadable, due to the fact that it was, indeed, rife with errors in spelling and grammar.

I began to regret having blithely deleted the unkind comment without noting the name of the person who’d attempted to post it. As I have, in years of writing them, placed several hundred book reviews on the site, I realized that it would be a complete waste of time and effort to scroll through all of them attempting to discover the author whose work I’d so disparaged.

But I had to admit to a sensation of evil glee as I realized how bitterly furious the resentful author must have felt when the attempt to turn my own (honest) words back upon me failed so completely. Even had their comment survived the Spam filter to land in my in-box, awaiting approval, I would never have permitted it to be posted. By ending up as Spam, though, it caused me to dig a bit deeper, and to come up laughing with snide delight at the failure of the maligned author to troll me.

Revenge isn’t always so sweet, Author Who Cannot Spell. But I’m just rotten enough to admit that having the last laugh surely is!

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for “The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; “Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them?, from 09/23/2020, or “To Review or Not Review”, posted 12/13/2017.)

The Trials and Tribulations of Houseguests

§  A young friend won’t be making her annual trip to stay with me and visit her “Indiana Family” during this difficult year.  But I hope she will get a smile from this essay!  §

Listening to a radio show as I drove one afternoon, I caught part of a discussion on the topic of appropriate behavior by houseguests when making visits.  The subject intrigued me because  it had often been covered by those original Agony Aunt columnists, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, to whose advice I’d been devoted in adolescence.

The interviewee, asked to explain what houseguests should not do during a visit, launched into a total bitchfest about guests who, having risen in the morning before their hosts, proceeded to brew themselves a cup of coffee and (horror of horrors!) use the mug which was sitting out beside the coffeemaker for that morning cup…their host’s favorite coffee mug!

 Now, I rarely have houseguests, and I don’t even own a coffeemaker; anyone unfortunate enough to be lodging with me is going to discover that instant coffee is the best available.  Tea, now, tea is a different matter.  Depending on their preferences, they might get a good quality teabag of regular or flavored tea, or even loose tea brewed properly using a tea ball in a china teapot.  But, those facts aside, the truth is that, as a good hostess, if I was providing for a houseguest who I knew might be waiting for a “cuppa” before I rose in the morning, I would have set out not only a cup, but a spoon and a spoon rest and real sugar and sweeteners and a napkin, all awaiting their use.  I’d have made certain they knew where all the other accoutrements were to be found too: the toaster, the bread, butter, jam, and milk.  And, even though I do, yes, have a favorite mug, I damn sure wouldn’t have gone on public radio making an ass of myself because a guest in my home had availed her or himself of simple accommodations.  To do so would be disrespectful.

Respect, as I learned from those long ago Agony Aunt columns, is what smooths the relationship between host and guest.  Both acknowledge the disruption to their usual lives, and treat one another with courtesy, making an effort to be especially respectful to smooth over any bumps in the road during a visit.

A much younger but extremely wise friend once related to me that her mother, having come to visit, was both very surprised and complimentary when she found the apartment beautifully cleaned prior to her visit.  My young friend, while admitting that her home was rarely in that condition, remarked that it was simply respectful to prepare for a guest’s visit by cleaning her home.

I agreed wholeheartedly.  Having a houseguest means that one looks at one’s home differently.  The worn but still useable bath towels that are perfectly suitable for my own bathtime would be disrespectful if put out for a guest to use. The chipped mug is placed to the back of the cabinet, and the nicer ones, including that favored mug—why wouldn’t I want a friend to have the best?– set forward prominently.  Bedsheets are fresh, TVs are turned down low when a guest has retired for the night, and favorite foods are offered.

But, returning to the memory of those Agony Aunts columns, I recall long, serious deliberations on whether a guest should, on the final day of their visit, make the bed (because that’s simply a nice gesture to one’s hostess) or remove the sheets and pile them on the mattress (since they now have to be washed).  Silly debates such as this enthralled me when I was a mere teenager, years always from having a home of my own, much less a houseguest.  Even more interesting (and often hilarious), were the disputes—many of which flamed into fury—over nosy houseguests, those people who snooped and pried into places they had no business being, and how they should be handled.

Putting a jack-in-the-box into a drawer to pop out and send the prying houseguest shrieking, was often favored. I particularly loved the suggestion by one host who claimed to have hidden notes in each drawer which said, “Too bad you decided to snoop here.  I put poison on the handle, and I have the only antidote.”

But then came the rejoinder from a woman who was obviously suspected by her friend of being one of those very sneaks, a charge which she strenuously denied.  While staying there, she related, she’d needed a thread of dental floss, something which she hadn’t packed.  She opened the medicine cabinet to search for some, and was sent screaming back from the sink as a cascade of glass marbles came tumbling out of the cupboard, pouring like a loud river onto the sink and bouncing across the bathroom floor.  When her host came charging up, ready accusation at her lips, the terrified guest was crouched in a corner, surrounded by marbles, stuttering, “I just wanted dental floss!  Just dental floss!”

I seriously doubted that the friendship between the paranoid host and the shocked houseguest continued following this fracas.  After all, it appeared that, just like that belligerent radio show speaker, someone had forgotten the first rule of having or being a houseguest: Respect.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Agony Aunts”,
to be found in the archives from February 16, 2018. 

Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them? (‘cause if they do, teachers, here’s a suggestion…)

§   Monthly book reports were a class requirement throughout all of my elementary school years  §

I am a prolific reader. It’s nothing for me to knock back two or even three light mystery novels a week, especially as I prefer reading to watching TV.  I am also a prolific reviewer; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I style myself “The Savage Reviewer”. (Scroll to the end if you’d like to locate and read that post.)

Due to the number of books I read, though, I’m not merely a reader and reviewer; I’m also a major consumer of reviews. So I find myself constantly amazed (and irked! Decidedly irked!  Really, really, really irked!) by readers who can’t compose a helpful book review.

These are, obviously, people who enjoy reading. Since they are taking the time to write a review, one would suppose that they probably (as I do) rely heavily on these assessments before purchasing a book. Despite these obvious facts, though, instead of writing a review, they produce what is, in essence, a book report.  An elementary school book report!

Honestly, I’m not certain if today’s students are still required to write them, but composing monthly book reports was enforced throughout my school years as an additional study obligation to our classroom textbooks. These were descriptive plot summaries which proved we students had completely grasped the contents of a novel.

Each book report consisted of specific components: the names of the main characters, the location where the action took place, and a brief description of the plot. As we students grew older, our papers became more complex.  Character motives and the theme of the novel were added, and sometimes, even the reasons why we did or did not like the story.  And it is only those “grown up” categories—liked/disliked, motives, themes, and behaviors—that actually have any real place in today’s reader book review process.

The liked/disliked category, nothing more than a row of stars, should be basic enough for the most profound moron.  Nevertheless, some critics manage to botch even that, awarding only a single star to a book they genuinely liked.  From the stars, a review dives into a headline. Most reviewers seem to manage that with the requisite flair, providing quick, all encompassing phrases such as, “Loved This Book!”, or “Worst Book EVER”.  But their remarks often cascade downhill from that point.

Plot summaries and teasers were once the province of dust jackets or back covers, whereas now they generally reside in the online synopsis labeled “Product Description”. But all too often, what passes for a review is nothing more than another synopsis–unfortunately, often replete with spoilers. “After 20 years away, Emily returns home to open a bakery, and her first customer drops dead in front of the cash register!” So the reviews trumpet, one after another.  Great. Thanks. Now I don’t really need bother reading the first chapter of the book.

Skimming these reviews, I grit my teeth. I don’t want to know WHAT happens—I’ve already surmised that from reading the online synopsis. I want genuinely pertinent information that might help me decide if this is a book I want to read. Is the book riddled with typos, misspellings,  rotten sentence structure and poor grammar? Is the poor grammar limited to the characters’ slang speech, or is it part of the text itself? Are the characters three-dimensional, with clearly-defined motives? Are their actions, behavior and speech realistic? Does the book move forward briskly, or does it creep at a snail’s pace? Does it keep one’s attention, or are there long, boring digressions in the plot? Is it humorous, or witty, or even laugh-out-loud funny? Is it depressing, sad? Exciting, thrilling? Terrifying? Is the ending satisfactory, or does it leave the reader hanging, without real resolution? (Or, worse, is the reader intentionally left dangling on a hook intended to make her or him buy the next book in the series?) Can you, the reader, put your finger on just why you did/did not like the book, or are your feelings amorphous—i.e., you hated it, but you can’t quite say exactly why that should be. Do you recommend the book? Would you tell friends, “Don’t bother”?

These are the elements that need to be incorporated into a genuine book review, and rarely are.

Book critics still abound, but, more and more, most of us rely on the advice and opinions of  readers like ourselves. Bearing that in mind, teachers, here’s a recommendation: Perhaps you need no longer require your students to produce book reports.  Instead, maybe you should grade them on just how well they can write a book review.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for
“The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; or
“To Review or Not Review”, from 12/13/2017, or the upcoming “The Savage Reviewer, Part 2” , TBA.

The Person at the Other Fax Machine

§  The most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  §

I rarely speak of current events in this blog, since doing so would counter the purpose of my motto: May Something Said Here Touch Your Heart, Make You Laugh, or Give You Hope.  Few situations in our current world could achieve even one of those goals!

Yet there are some incidents so dreadful and obvious that it would be almost immoral to evade them. They cry out to be acknowledged, no matter how dissonant and disheartening the subject.  One of these situations is surely the horrific behavior of those who, in the guise of standing up for their rights, threaten or attack others who reproach them for not wearing face masks while in the middle of a worldwide plague, and contrary to the orders of local governments or the requests of private property owners.

I won’t take up the questions of whether masks are protective or not; whether they are a violation of one’s constitutional rights; or even whether they shield the wearer or those with whom one comes into contact.  Those matters can be endlessly debated.  The real question that I’ve uncovered (while watching countless videos of people being attacked or beaten or threatened) is why society has degenerated to such a point that these behaviors are accepted with little more than a shrug or a sigh.

I run through just a few of the incidents, all captured on camera, watching them play horrifically across the movie screen in my mind:

The hapless individual threatened by a livid man in a local Costco:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/07/08/i-feel-threatened-who-protects-shoppers-angry-anti-maskers/5389199002/
The elderly disabled veteran brutally punched over and over:  https://www.newsbreak.com/washington/spokane/news/1615195034250/see-it-suspect-caught-on-video-punching-elderly-disabled-veteran-during-mask-dispute-cops-say-perp-knocked-victim-unconscious-broke-his-jaw
And, perhaps worst of all, the middle-aged organ transplant recipient heaved into a bone-shattering crash by a hefty young woman:
https://www.nj.com/bergen/2020/07/woman-with-cane-violently-assaulted-at-nj-staples-after-asking-customer-to-wear-mask-video.html

Of all of them, I think this last incident shocked me the most—not because of the violence, since other videos and reports have displayed far more brutality; even fatalities.  But what I found most disturbing in the attack by Terri Thomas on Margot Kagan wasn’t the fact that a beefy young woman would brutally assault a slip a lady who was not only old enough to be her mother, but who probably weighed in at 95 pounds soaking wet. No, that sort of unconscionable behavior is all too common these days. Nor was I flabbergasted by the inaction of the employees and customers captured in the video (despite later claims that they rushed to the victim’s aid after the close of the surveillance clip).  Their immobility as the victim lay injured on the floor was shocking, but not surprising; compassion and courage–gallantry–are all too lacking in today’s society.

No, to me the most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person (man? woman? I think it is a woman) in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  Watch carefully, and you will see that, as Ms. Thomas storms out of the store, this customer cautiously toes aside the fallen cubicle divider that was overturned in the fracas—pushes it away with a foot, and then calmly returns to her copying or faxing or whatever transaction she had been making before the violent altercation began.

To say that this display of utter indifference chilled me to the center of my soul would be to describe Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell as a cool spring breeze. I watched that entire disturbing video over and over, each time thinking perhaps I had missed something—that there was some mitigating factor, some reasonable excuse, that this person blithely turned aside and continued processing paper.

But there was none.  No mitigating factor, no reason, and certainly no excuse.

The very idea that someone—anyone—would turn their back upon the victim of a horrific assault and coolly continue running off copies, casually ignoring the entire situation, speaks terrifying volumes about the moral state of our populace.

Somewhere, someone has seen that video, and recognized the person at the fax machine.  Someone—some friend or family member, perhaps even a pastor or rabbi, has gazed (in horror? unsurprised?) at the behavior of that individual.  Perhaps they said something; tried to rebuke him or her.  Perhaps (more likely) not.

The rest of us will almost certainly never know who it was standing at the other fax machine that day.  And I doubt that individual will ever read this blog post.  But I say now, and will forever say, that their behavior was an affront to human decency as grave as any assault committed by those who threaten, slap, punch or spit upon their masked counterparts.

I’m sure The Faxing Person would shrug, as unconcerned by my opinion as they were for the victim of the assault. But their display of inhumanity was deplorable. And they should be ashamed. Quite thoroughly ashamed.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Political Civility”, in the Archives from July 3, 2019.  (On the other hand, you might absolutely hate it!) 

Scrubbing the Sunbeam

§   My favorite of all Grandma’s stories was The White Spot  §

My Grandmother Marie lived in the same red brick house on Southern Avenue in Indianapolis from the time she married in 1928 until her death in 1989.  Despite financial difficulties, she and my Grandfather, Charles Sr., managed to retain their home during the Great Depression solely due to the kindness—or perhaps pragmatism!–of a local bank official.  As Grandma told the story, when “Pop” accidentally met the bank officer on the street one day, he confessed miserably that it was unlikely they could continue making their mortgage payments.  The banker first asked Pop how much he could afford to pay, and then asked him to hand over the passbook that recorded their payments. A bit bewildered, Pop duly handed over his passbook.  Glancing at the payment amount, the bank official inked a line through it, wrote in the affordable amount, and, initialing the change, handed the passbook back to Pop.  I’m sure the bank did not need one more foreclosed home during the Great Depression, but it was a kind act, nonetheless.  So it was that the little red brick house stayed in the family.

The story of The Mortgage was just one of the dozens of tales my Grandmother had to tell me: The Smoke Alarm In Her PurseThe Brains On the Asphalt.  The Irish Catholic Nun Who Hated WopsThe Silk Parachute.  The Clock With Sparklers on the Front Porch. My favorite of them, though, was always the story of The White Spot.

Passionately house-proud to the day she died, Grandma’s home was always beautifully kept: polished, swept, dusted and scrubbed.  So as a young bride, it drove her simply nuts one afternoon to find a white spot on the living room carpet.  She had no idea what it was—flour, perhaps?—but she moistened a clean rag and scrubbed at the spot until it disappeared.

The next day, though, the spot was back.  And the next, and the next.  Like Lady Macbeth bemoaning the blood on her hands, Grandma scrubbed daily at that mark on her carpet:  “Out, damned spot!  Out!”   Frustrated, she could not for the life of her figure out what was being spilt in the same place on the carpet every single day!–until the afternoon she realized that The White Spot was actually a tiny, stray sunbeam, slanted onto the carpet from a miniscule hole in the Venetian blinds covering the window.

That’s right.  Every day Grandma had been “scrubbing” a sunbeam out of her carpet. It disappeared under both the onslaught of moisture that darkened the carpet temporarily and the movement of the afternoon sun.

I never failed to chuckle at this story, told in my Grandmother’s expressive Italian manner, complete with hand gestures, of course.  I’m giggling now, remembering it.

Then one Sunday afternoon at a church service, I listened as a visiting minister from Germany related his own, similar tale.  He called it The Phenomenon of the Black Spot.

Quite a dandy, the minister, Peter, liked to dress well, and he favored white ties with his well-cut suits.  Those ties, though, were sometimes the utter bane of his existence, for he occasionally spilled something—food, ink, dirt—on his tie and had to wear it the rest of the day, stained. And it was inevitable, as he related to us during that Sunday lesson, that at some point during the day a helpful person would say to him, “Peter, did you know you have a spot on your tie?”

An excellent speaker, Minister Peter was able to spin this story into a significant lesson about our human habit of focusing on the tiniest of problems rather than the bigger picture.  While taking the theme of his sermon to heart, I could not help but laugh quietly to myself, linking it to Grandma’s story of zealously scrubbing that damned non-existent White Spot.

I sometimes now look back on both these stories, finding that they remind me to concentrate on the important problems that I encounter, and not, as my obsessive-compulsive personality tends to do, on the minor, easily correctable situations.   But the tales of White Spot and Black Spot came home to me just the other day when I happened to look across my living room to the area rug that rests beneath the long hassock.  Mahogany and cranberry-colored flowers and dark green vines twine across a pale ivory-green background—but the area where my attention focused appeared to have been spotted with fresh blood!  I glanced in consternation at my bare feet, but there was no wound.  Then I jumped up, prepared to check the paws of each of my cats, when the truth came rushing in on a flash of inspired memory, making me laugh aloud.

A ray of afternoon sunlight was slanting between the blinds onto the carpet, turning the cranberry flowers blood red.

I’m sure, Grandma, very sure, that you were laughing, too.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “And Speaking of Prejudice”, in the Archives from 01/18/2018, and reprinted as “Racism Knows No Logic,” 06/10/2020)