Christmas in July: The Christmas Chandelier

Sometimes we have to defy those silly “rules” about what’s appropriate for a particular time or season.

Several years back, I was shopping in the late winter and happened upon a long- after-Christmas sale. A lone ornament caught my eye: a sparkly chandelier. It sported plastic crystal droplets and faintly-pink sparkles and fake candles; it was adorable and unusual and 75% off. So, although it had absolutely nothing in common with my then-red-and-gold themed Christmas tree, I bought the ornament.

The following Christmas season, I hung the pink chandelier ornament from the tip of my real dining room chandelier. Now, here I must pause to explain that I detest my dining room chandelier. It was there when I bought my little condo but, as I mentioned in Coloring Our World, the previous owner of my home had, shall we say, unusual taste in décor (read: no taste at all). Although obviously very expensive, the chandelier is totally out of place in my ivory and pink and Wedgwood blue dining room. One might say it resembles something borrowed from a medieval castle. One might…if one were being polite. But the darned thing serves its purpose—to light the room—and I am nothing if not thrifty and practical, so I have never replaced it. Nevertheless, I only tolerate the chandelier. I don’t really like it.

So hanging the shimmering little pink chandelier ornament from the tip of the medieval monstrosity was an act of defiance. It said, “This is what you’re supposed to look like, you ugly thing!”

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Weeks later, as I was packing up all my holiday decorations (or, as I’ve always called it, “Taking Down the Christmas”), I missed the chandelier ornament. A day or two later, I discovered it still hanging from the tip of the feudal fake. I reached to remove it, but hesitated. I didn’t want to bother rustling up the correct box of Christmas decorations out in the garage; I didn’t feel like wrapping the ornament and putting it away. So I just left it dangling there, the chandelier-on-the-chandelier.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time some small bit of Christmas detritus had been overlooked during the post-Christmas cleanup. I recall the time that a plastic icicle lived an entire year in a plant pot where I stuck it after stumbling upon it days after the tree came down. Then there were the two small silver stars that I discovered in a corner, probably batted there by a marauding cat as playthings. I stuck them on wires and wore them as earrings.

But, returning to the chandelier, later that summer, as my young great niece and nephew, Mya and Kai, ate lunch with me one afternoon, Mya glanced at the glimmering little decoration and asked me, “Is that a Christmas ornament?” A bit abashed, I agreed that it was. I explained I’d forgotten to take it down in January and decided to just leave it up. “I like it,” Mya pronounced judiciously. “It’s sparkly!”

Enter the holiday season of 2020. Although I did not splash out on anything extra, I decorated early and fiercely, trying to brighten my spirits during the sadness of the lonely, anxiety-ridden pandemic Christmas. I brought out decorations that I hadn’t bothered with for years, when my motto had been, “If you put it up, you’re gonna have to take it down!” Now, in the Year From Hell, taking everything down a month hence seemed a small price to pay for having some light and beauty around my home. So the shimmering little chandelier came out of hiding once more and returned to the tip of the ugly lighting fixture.

But on January 2, sighing as I packed away holly garland and lights, tree skirt and ornaments and icicles and candles, I deliberately and with grave intent left the glistening little chandelier ornament hanging from the tip of my lighting fixture. Because it was bright. Because the house, stripped of all the holiday decorations, felt as bare and sorrowful and depressing as the continuing pandemic. Because that tiny bit of sparkling joy felt just a little bit like hope.

Hope… The hope that I will, next December, still be here to unpack all my Christmas things and splash them about the rooms once more. The hope, now showing promise, that the vaccine will bring an end to the horror and devastation of Covid-19. The faint and dimming hope that a new administration will be able to somehow mend the divisive anger and furious accusations of a divided American populace, unifying us once more. The hope that those I love will be safe and protected through whatever the year hurls at us.

So the little chandelier will remain hanging above my dining table for another year.

Because hope sparkles.

If this post resonated with you, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”,
which was posted January 3, 2018, or “Puffy Socks Finds a Home (Sort of a Pandemic Story)”, from June 17, 2020. Scroll down the page to the Archives link to locate them.

Minimizing Is Not a Bra!

It is NOT “all small stuff”!

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy the essay, “Feeling Our Feelings”, which can be located in the Archived material from October 14, 2020.

We Need a New Pronoun!

She, He, Ze or Te, that is the question.

I’ve just read (well, actually, skipped over reading most of) yet another story of some celebrity about whom I know little and care less who has come out as bisexual / transgender / asexual / lesbian / demisexual / gay / pansexual / cisgender / “I only have sex with Martians.  Green Martians, not purple ones”, or some other variation on the apparently-boundless spectrum of human gender and sexuality.  Well, here is me coming out with my reaction: Who the (multiple bad words deleted) cares?! 

Why is announcing this information to the entire planet not considered to be simply in bad taste, let alone the uttermost extremity on the far intergalactic end of the narcissism spectrum?  Why is it anyone’s business, except for the individual’s own partner? (Or partners, to be more likely accurate.)  Normalizing variations of human sexuality can no longer be considered an excuse for these vainglorious announcements, since “normal” comprises an extensive range these days, while those who do not accept such differences are never going to do so, anyway.

This most recent declaration included the expository remark that the individual in question wished to be known by the pronouns them or they.  And THAT, as much as anything, set my teeth on edge.

I fully understand and agree that those who’ve concluded they fall into a previously-unremarked gender category may feel disconcerted by referring to themselves using the gendered pronouns she or he.  But, frankly, in light of these unremitting public revelations,  we badly need a new, genderless pronoun added to the English language.

Language, not just spoken language but written language, changes. In the longer-ago-than-I-care-to-remember era in which I grew up, the only pronoun of general reference was “he”.  It didn’t matter than an entire magazine issue might be geared toward the female of the species; “he” was the pronoun of indeterminate reference used within its pages.  This was galling and irritating to all females everywhere; it was simply wrong.  I even endured one minister, God help me–pun intended, by the way–who insisted that we were all, male and female together He created them, Sons of God.  That’s right. Sons.  Only Sons.  No Daughters. Not even Children.  Just Sons.  (Here insert the sound of grating teeth…)

Eventually—I believe it may have been sometime shortly after the introduction of the prefix Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs.–one began seeing writing which used the phrase “he or she”.  Yes, always, always that damnable “he” first!  Or occasionally even “s/he”.  (As an aside, this could lead me spinning off into a discussion of why it is always the male noun now used when gendered nouns were once the norm; i.e., always actor, rather than actress—why is it always the male noun that becomes the norm?  But I suppose that’s a grumpy discussion for another blog post.)

In any case, despite these permutations, the pronouns of multiple reference were always “they” or “them”.  A student who misused the words they or them in writing that school essay was likely to see a blatant red circle on the sentence and a lowered grade.  Worse yet, students who had, as I did, the misfortune to attend a parochial elementary school were apt to have the Ruler of Death smacked across cringing knuckles.

Consequently, I will never be able to view the pronouns they or them as anything but pronouns of multiple reference.  An individual referring to her or his (Ha! Take that, Wielders of the Ruler of Death!) person using they or them will forever indicate to me that the speaker suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just grammatically incorrect; it’s downright confusing.

The simple fact is that, if we are to accept, acknowledge and adhere to our new understanding of the fluidity of human gender while using the common pronouns of personal reference, then we  need new pronouns.  The English language is endlessly malleable. New words are added at an alarming rate. We have, after all, come up with new words to describe these many variations of human sexuality.  The word transgender; the uneuphonious cisgender, which I personally so dislike (more about that in a future blog post) —those words were not commonly used until at least the 1960s, or even much later.  Why, then, not new pronouns?  Why not words which genuinely eschew gender, and simply reference humanity?

I have seen Ze or Zhey used, as well as Te or Tey.  (I suppose it should actually be Ze or Zhey or Zheir or Zhem, or Te or Tey or Teir or Tem.)  I have no preference for either form, and a consensus could probably only be reached by whatever words see the most use—sort of like the antique VHS/Betamax debate.  And while learning to use brand-new words instead of trying to hammer old puzzle pieces into the picture in an attempt to make them fit might be disconcerting to many, it is actually the appropriate thing to do.  One should  genuinely bend with the winds of change, rather than try to break in a word that’s already seen gender-filled usage for generations.

Until that happens, though—until the English grammar texts and the grave arbiters of language correctness settle on a pronoun of indeterminate gender reference, I shall continue to use my preferred “she or he”, if only to avoid the Universal Ruler of Death.  I have very tender knuckles.

Liked this essay?  Then you might also enjoy “Who or Whom? That is the Question!”, from April 17, 2018.  Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Juneteenth

Why had I never been taught about these events?

There are odd moments in our early education that will forever stand out in surprising clarity no matter how long we live. One of those moments for me was when, as a high school student, I turned the page of my history textbook to an illustration of the Trail of Tears. The illustration and the accompanying discussion of that horrific episode sent shudders down my spine.

During those years, the late 1960s and early 70s, the U.S. was coming smack up against the glass regarding its continuing abuse of the Native American population. The Red Power movement occupied Alcatraz and Wounded Knee; Paul Revere and the Raiders sang “Indian Reservation”. Claire Huffaker published the comic yet heart-wrenching novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian. Consequently, having read just that brief mention of their plight in my school textbook, I was saddened and supportive.

Circle the world on its axis thousands of times…. The summer of 2020 happened. Not just pandemic, but the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery and George Floyd. Racial protests and clashes throughout the U.S.

In the slow awakening of consciousness that followed, I read. I read, among other things, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and Juneteenth—events of which I had barely, or, in the case of Juneteenth, never heard. Subjects that had certainly not been covered in those long-ago school history books. Stories that were, until that summer, touched on briefly, if at all, by major news outlets.

Again, I was shocked and saddened, but this time I also questioned. Why had I never been taught about so many events? Why had my schoolbooks not examined them, my teachers never mentioned them?

And then, the horrifying realization: because my teachers did not know.

In the Pale Island of my youthful existence on the southeast side of Indianapolis, I had, throughout my school years, not a single Black teacher. The parochial elementary schools that I attended had not one Black nun or Black priest. My high school did not have a single Black student until my senior year. There were no Black families in my parents’ housing addition until I was in my 20s; a local library had a single Black librarian, Ms. Inez Babbs, a close acquaintance of my mother.

There was essentially no one to teach me about Black history, because no one in my immediate vicinity knew. What little I learned came from occasionally catching a documentary on public TV, or reading a few scattered articles about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I existed treading water in a sea of ignorance, without even realizing that others were drowning.

Occasionally, the truth was brought home to me. Living three years in the American South during the early 80s awakened me to more racial prejudice than I had ever believed existed. I rode the bus to work for economic reasons, but mine was one of the few White faces; the seats were clotted with older Black women—maids, mostly, taking the bus to the homes of the affluent White families for whom they worked. The insurance agency where I found a job had to be forced by the head office in New York into employing its first Black agent.

But that was the deep south. When I returned to Indiana a few years later, I told myself that such things only happened there. My Northern home was different, I assured myself.

However mistaken that assurance, it seemed to be true. I spent the rest of my years of employment working for the State, where equal opportunity hiring was enforced, and fully half my coworkers were Black. Lowly office support staff myself, it did not occur to me how few of those Black coworkers were supervisors.

Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes. My carefully-maintained ignorance allowed me to go for years existing on my Pale Island, genuinely believing the untruth that racial equity was the norm. Today, though, reading and watching and educating myself on racial disparities, I am far more than dismayed; I am angry. Angry and appalled at how little I was taught, not just of Black history, but of that of all races. Even having lived through the Red Power events of the previous century, I knew little about the shameful treatment of America’s indigenous peoples. I learned of Angel Island, and the horrific behavior of Americans toward Asian immigrants, from a novel, not my schoolbooks. The history of the concentration camps of WW II had been thoroughly taught to me, but their counterparts, the American internment camps, were accorded only a paragraph or two; carefully glossed over. Anti-Semitism was barely mentioned.

Why was I not taught, I ask, and then I must, in shame, face the real answer. It was not merely that my teachers themselves did not know, or that they did not choose to know. It was that I preferred keeping my head firmly in the sand rather than face uncomfortable truths.

Education is, as I have pointed out before, not something one gets, but a gift that one gives to the self. Painful as it is, I am slowly educating myself on the history and reality that I have, for a lifetime, preferred to ignore. Becoming my own teacher is a shock to the system, but necessary, and is, in the end, that gift.

If this essay struck a note with you, you might also like “The Slave Cabin” from February 8, 2018. You might also find “A Cultural Heritage”, February 10, 2018, interesting, but disconcerting. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate them.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair is on its last legs, almost literally. It is growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It is just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair has been my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s the chair where I sit to read in the mornings, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith comes to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the leather hassock in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die after a long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair which I knelt beside to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, sturdy fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It is those covers which are themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers are growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they go at last, there will be no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it will be genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens to everyone. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable chair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

It won’t be long before, one sad day, I’ll find myself dragging my battered old green armchair out through the garage to await the trash truck. Chairs can’t have souls, of course. But I will, nonetheless, pat it when I place it on the curb and tell it, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Cultural Appreciation

Mexico recently accused certain clothing manufacturers of cultural appropriation.

Undoubtedly, in a world where divisiveness and rage are accepted behavioral norms, someone will be furious at me for saying this, but I simply don’t comprehend the concept of cultural appropriation. All of us, we humans, have been borrowing on one another’s creations, discoveries, customs, culture, and traditions since the earliest rising of humanity. The current century, with its instantaneous transmission of information and knowledge, photos and videos, has simply made that sharing all the more rapid and simple.

Think on it: most of us in the Western world live in democratic societies—the political development of the ancient Greeks. Did we then culturally appropriate democracy?

Have you ever worn linen? Thank the prehistoric humans of 36,000 years ago who developed the process of extracting and weaving flax fibers, and the Babylonians who mastered the process, which was then taken over by the ancient Egyptians, who raised the activity to a high art form. The wearing and use of linen is already a cultural appropriation, millennia old and through multiple civilizations. Should it happen as well that you wore that linen cloth with embroidery upon it, remember that the oldest surviving examples of embroidery were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, so embroidery, too, was appropriated from that ancient civilization.

Slightly closer to home, how many of those reading this have taken a yoga course? Have you not then culturally appropriated a religious practice of Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, one observed for over 5,000 years? Or were you just getting in some stretching and calming exercise, unconcerned about how and where the practice originated?

Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? How dare you appropriate a German holiday custom! Worn a plaid skirt or shirt or tie? You have culturally appropriated a traditional Celtic form of weaving– which is, by the way, actually called tartan, not plaid; it is a plaid only if you’ve slung it over your shoulder as a giant rectangular scarf. That, you probably haven’t done, so you may be excused from that precise form of cultural appropriation—but if you’ve worn a kilt, and are not of Celtic descent, then, shame on you!

Think back to studying poetry in elementary school. Were you instructed to write a haiku? It is shocking, shocking, that you have culturally appropriated a centuries old form of verse native to the Japanese.

Did you celebrate a national holiday by attending a fireworks show? You and others for all the long centuries since approximately the year 900 have stolen that custom from the Chinese Song dynasty. You are a cultural thief.

Perhaps you’ve strolled down the sidewalk satisfying your hunger by munching a hot dog purchased from a street vendor’s cart. Again, cultural appropriation from the Germans, who developed the frankfurter from which that hot dog was derived. Foods are themselves an entire classification of the supposed crime of cultural appropriation, so you might consider giving up your tacos and burritos unless you are of a Latinx nationality. Stop purchasing your Chinese and Thai takeout, ditto. Of course, anyone of Italian descent may well jib at giving up spaghetti, despite the fact that the long noodles themselves were unknown until Marco Polo returned from his travels in the far east. But at least Italian Americans can enjoy pizza, especially if their ancestry derives from ancient Naples.

Caftans come and go in popularity, but are owed to ancient Mesopotamia, not the fashion houses of New York. But you may be easily excused from an accusation of cultural appropriation for having braided your hair, which is a traditional form of hairstyle so ancient that the oldest statue ever found, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, shows a female with braided hair. Various cultures from Africa to ancient America to Scandinavia may have developed different methods of braiding, from multiple thin beaded braids, to two plaits at each side of the face, but the hairstyle itself is basically so old that it might be best described as a cultural activity of all humanity, not any one national group.

And, considering hair, I hardly think anyone would deny a chemotherapy patient the right to a nicely-styled wig, despite the fact that it, too, is an Ancient Egyptian development, and therefore a cultural appropriation of an archaic African hairstyle.

Can music be culturally appropriated? If so, all current humans who haven’t been determined to show a few Neanderthal genes in that DNA swab they took should stop playing any music, for the oldest musical instrument known is a Neanderthal flute. Like a percentage of modern humans, I myself carry such genes, but, sadly, do not play any instrument. Nevertheless, bearing a few Scottish genes, I can still thrill to the skirl of the bagpipes; don’t you dare, unless you, too, carry Celtic DNA!

By now, I am sure you are shaking your head, or wryly twisting your lips, or perhaps even chuckling as you grasp, even if you do not concede, my point: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. We humans have been borrowing from and improving upon one another’s customs and traditions and inventions and creations for the entirety of our history on this mangled little planet.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is and never has existed any such thing as cultural appropriation. It is all, as it has always been, cultural appreciation.

If you appreciated this essay, you might find “A Cultural Heritage”, from February 10, 2018, interesting. Or you might hate it! But scroll down to the Archives link to find it.

The Landscape of War

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.

Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.

The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.

Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.

She could just about manage France.

So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.

I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.

I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.

I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.

I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.

Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.

There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.

Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.

But I’ve always hoped she did.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.

My Fitted Sheet Waterloo

Or, Tales of Perfectionism…

A few months ago, purchasing new bedsheets to fit over a tall mattress pad, I unwisely purchased some with a “boxer fit hem”.

Now, fitted sheets are no picnic to fold, as every householder knows (or there would not be so many YouTube videos explaining the process).  How in the hell new sheets come out of the package in such perfectly smooth, even rectangles is beyond comprehension.  The manufacturers must employ elves or gnomes or something of that ilk to tuck and fold and smooth them into pristine perfection.  But years of practice had given me the knack of at least getting regular fitted sheets into a semblance of order that would fit into the linen cupboard.

But these damn sheets with the “boxer fit” hem were my Folding Waterloo.  No matter what reiteration of “how to fold fitted sheets” I looked up, they came out into a messy pile of fabric that looked as if it had been wadded up any old way and then just shoved into the closet.

And this, as anyone who knows me, knows well–this is not me.  So not me.  If you look up “perfectionist” in the dictionary, my photo will be prominently displayed.

Never was my tendency to perfectionism more evident than during the preparations for my daughter’s wedding, when I became heavily invested in making centerpieces for the reception tables.  We’d chosen miniature lanterns with violet flameless candles, the lantern handles bedecked with bouquets of tiny ribbon roses and ferns and jeweled net butterflies, paired with tiny white birdcages filled with my daughter’s favorite miniature sunflowers, then tied with white organza ribbons and topped more of the butterflies. LanternBasket  I worked on those centerpieces for weeks during the summer preceding my daughter’s fall wedding.  Every bouquet, I believed, had to be just so.  Picture-perfect.  The exact mix of roses, babies’ breath, ferns, wire-and-net butterfly, and slender purple ribbons in impeccable bows.  I genuinely spent hours of my life making each of those bouquets absolutely flawless. I tied and re-tied the organza ribbons on the birdcages, carefully positioning each sunflower, gluing the butterflies to just that perfect position on the handles…

On the evening of the wedding reception, I watched as countless little girl guests untied the bouquets from the lanterns and carried them about or slid them onto their wrists as corsages, or festooned their hair and dresses with the flowers.  They plucked the butterflies off the lanterns to fling them into the air, laughing as they glided gently through the air before swooping and scooting across the dance floor.

Fortunately, my obstinate perfectionism does not extend so far as to prevent children from having a good time.  I found myself laughing aloud as happy little girls raced by me clutching flowers and butterflies—laughing at their joy, and laughing at myself, for the hours of slaving over those faultless miniature bouquets and ribbons.

And that, I suppose, is the rational divide between the innate perfectionism which so often trips me up, overtaking my common sense, and my ability to laugh at myself as I catch a glimpse of the larger picture.  No one, glancing at those centerpieces on the reception tables, would have seen anything more than they did: a sea of lavender light, glowing in the darkness, punctuated by the bright yellow of sunflowers.  All the blood, sweat and tears I poured into making those darned centerpieces so utterly flawless was quite unnecessary.  Nevertheless, I was justifiably proud of them.  Also nevertheless, I could not be put out when the centerpieces were disassembled by a tribe of rampaging children who were discovering the innate joy of making toys from of unexpected items; who were finding that this could be every bit as fun, or more so, than staring at a computer screen, no matter how new the game.

Despite what I learned on the evening of my daughter’s wedding reception, I don’t expect my OCD behavior to vanish anytime soon.  My house will continue to be a shining visage of cleanliness and order, so long as my strength to keep it so holds out.  I will still stress unnecessarily over all manner of tasks, and assign myself onerous responsibilities.

But I really don’t think I will ever learn how to fold those damn boxer-hem sheets.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Controlling the Rainbow”, which can be found in the Archives from October 5, 2018.

…Makes Us Stronger

Every healthy adult individual should be capable of and willing to care for the majority of her or his own needs.

I’ve spent much of my adult life living alone, and even more of my life caring for myself without much assistance—so much so, in fact, that I found it desperately difficult to allow others to care for me following a major surgery. This isn’t really a bad thing, I think. Every healthy adult individual should be capable of caring for the majority of her or his own needs, and of living, when necessary, with little companionship. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a difficult way to live. Bearing the burden of loneliness and surviving without the care and compassion of others can be emotionally devastating.

I recall feeling startled when, as an 11-year-old, I heard my friends complain about the food their mothers had packed in their brown-bag school lunches. My bewilderment was understandable; I’d been packing my own school lunches for well over a year, without supervision, and had no one but myself to blame if the contents were unappetizing or (as they frequently were) unhealthy. In that same 11-year-old time frame, I woke one night violently ill with stomach flu. I rushed to and from the bathroom all night long until my digestive system had completely emptied—then got up the next morning, washed, brushed and dressed myself and boarded the bus to school. In retrospect, this wasn’t a wise decision, as I had to be sent home, shaking from dehydration, before the morning had barely advanced. Yet there’s no denying the sense of personal responsibility I’d already developed that sent me off to the classroom despite a lack of sleep and brutal illness.

That ability to care for myself and accompanying inherent sense of responsibility served me well, when, just seven years later, at age 18, I moved to a tiny apartment in the slums and began supporting myself in a minimum-wage job. Decades later, the skills to care for a household and to be accountable were my strength as I became the divorced mother of a daughter just beginning high school.

To this day, I chuckle when recalling the astonished reaction of a man I was dating as I described to him a water problem at my apartment, explaining that I had rushed for the water shutoff before calling the apartment emergency line. He was simply flabbergasted to find that I knew what to do. He didn’t believe his ex-wife would have even known where to locate the shutoff valve, much less have done anything about it before calling for help. I was just as astounded as he was; I couldn’t imagine being unacquainted with the basics of taking care of one’s home in an emergency. I laughed yet again one afternoon a few years ago, listening to a podcast in which young people bemoaned the dreadful tragedy experienced by their peers in foster care who were, when their government stipends ended at age 18, being forced out to live on their own as adults. “It’s not that big a deal,” I said to the no one who was listening to me. “Trust me on this one: They’re going to be okay.”

But then, “Grow Up and Deal With It” might have been carved on my walls as my motto. I am, after all, the person with a fire escape ladder stored beneath my bed in case it should be needed to get myself out of my second-story bedroom. My monthly budget still includes an emergency fund into which I always drop a few dollars. The household junk drawer contains not just a flashlight and batteries, but a battery-operated radio, while three filled oil lamps hang on the walls. When I moved to a condo with smoke alarms wired into the home’s electrical system, I bought battery-operated models as backups.

There is an undeniable sense of strength inherent in such personal accountability. But there is also, just as undeniably, a sense of onerous oppression in having always been the grown-up. Despite knowing that there must have been a time when I was so small that I was completely dependent upon others for my care, I know just as surely that I was forced to take up the reins of my life much earlier than was common for a child growing up in Western world in the 20th century. The differences between the lives of my peers and the life that I was living made for a constant feeling of disconnect and discomfort. Nevertheless, I was and still am strengthened by the empowerment it gave me.

Not long ago, going over my medical history with a new doctor, she remarked that I seemed very self-sufficient.

Remembering that sick 11-year-old child, I could not help but laugh a little as I agreed.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Touching the Angel’s Hand”,
which can be found in the Archives from August 14, 2018.

The TV Shows That Shaped Us

My parents had unusual ideas about what constituted good family TV viewing.

If you have read my post “There Are No Generations”, from November 18, 2020, you’ll already be aware that the article, “Baby Boomers: Five Reasons They Are Our Worst Generation” written by Mr. Gene Marks in 2013, supremely ticked me off.  As I pointed out in that earlier essay, the people described in Mr. Marks’ angry diatribe in no way resembled anyone I’ve ever known.

But one of the points he made in his unpleasant and inaccurate rant, far from causing me disgust or making me angry, left me laughing—laughing hard and long.  That point concerned his remarks regarding the television shows that, watched by Boomers during their youth, supposedly shaped their worldview. According to Mr. Marks, the television shows of that era created a belief system, shared by all Boomers, that women were intended to be housewives; that of all human races, Whites alone mattered; and that homosexuality was disgusting.  As an example, he provided the vision of then-youthful Boomers clustered around the TV for family viewing of shows like Ozzie and Harriet.

Uh, no.

At least, not in the household where I grew up.

My parents, if not precisely having better taste, at least had more varied ideas about what constituted good family viewing. I don’t recall that we ever watched even a single episode of Ozzie and Harriet.  I did take in just a few installments of Leave It to Beaver and Lassie, but, honestly, I thought both shows were pretty dumb.

But, as I say, my parents’ tastes were varied.  Tales of the Vikings, Kirk Douglas’s only venture into television, lasted only 39 episodes, but was our favorite family viewing. (I can sing the theme song to this day.) We clustered about the TV, enthralled by the amazing sets and costumes, and always cheering when swords inevitably clashed.

During the day, especially as she endured the boredom of doing the ironing, my mother regularly viewed a few soap operas, which she would not let me watch.  Nevertheless, she and I also spent summer afternoons together drinking in the much higher quality Loretta Young Theatre in the early 1960s.

But Westerns were the order of the day for evening viewing, and, as I commented in the blog post Wagons, Ho!, what still strikes me most about many of those old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films might be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but.  Racism. Spousal abuse.  Bullying.  Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage. Gun control.  Bigotry.  The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.  

The Rifleman, Paladin, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke—all encouraged us not only to consider adult concepts, but to learn and practice ethical and moral ideals and behaviors.

Then we still-young Boomers grew a bit older, and true Westerns faded into Gene Roddenberry’s contemporary wagon train of Star Trek, throwing new ideas and concepts at our heads like errant baseballs.  A woman, a Black woman, as an officer on a starship? Amazing!  And an interracial kiss!  Wow!

From there we dove into the conflict, debate and generational discord of All in the Family.  Greatest Generation guys like Archie Bunker were being constantly challenged, on screen and in real life, and we then-young Boomers lapped it up, rooting always for the Glorias and Michaels of this world, and praying that the Ediths would stand up for themselves and find their place in the scheme of things.

Now, once more scanning Mr. Marks’ ridiculous comments about the TV programs that shaped a generation, I suspect that his misapprehension may stem from his misplaced certainty that reading about, and perhaps even knowing a few individuals who lived through a particular era, entitles him to draw generalized assumptions about an entire group.  But, as I learned several years ago to my dismay, that isn’t at all the case.

My enlightenment arose on the terrifying evening of 9/11/2001.  Still in the dark about who had committed this terrible atrocity against our country, we citizens were all simply reaching out to loved ones.  I called my Dad, saying to him, shaken, “Daddy, finally, finally, I really know what you went through on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

He was silent a heartbeat before he responded.  “No, honey, no. You don’t. This is completely different.  At Pearl Harbor, we knew who the enemy was.”

Perhaps it is true that the TV shows of our era helped to shape the viewpoints of the entire Boomer generation, contributing to our belief systems; molding us into the adults we would eventually become. I know that I was challenged by and acquired many progressive ideals from the programs I viewed.  But someone who did not actually live through those turbulent years can never have any more than the faintest glimmering of understanding, the merest glimpse into the reality of our lifetimes in that era.  They will never quite comprehend what the TV we watched really taught us.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Wagons, Ho!”, which  was published on April 6, 2018, and “There Are No Generations”, posted November 18, 2020.  Scroll down to the Archives to locate both.