Just Jeans That Fit!

As an adolescent reading “improving” Catholic youth literature, I recall reading a story about two young women anxiously preparing for a school dance. In this stuffy little tale, the girls confided their worries ( no, of course, not to their mothers) to a kindhearted neighbor.  They discussed their concerns about waistlines too wide, complexion breakouts, and smiles marred by teeth not white enough.  The kindly neighbor gave them such helpful advice as brushing with baking soda and peroxide to whiten their teeth and patting witch hazel onto their zits.  (Trust me on that witch hazel thing: totally worthless advice, but something I kept trying for years, since it was also endorsed by my Grandmother.)  Girl #1 confided that she had been “slipping into my older sister’s girdle” to get her waistline into shape, and was told by Helpful Neighbor to do isometric exercises because, “All a girdle does is push flesh into other places where you don’t want it.”

Darn, I wish today’s manufacturers of women’s jeans had read that article!

If there is one factor that is constant and consistent throughout the entire United States of America, it is that there is no such thing as a pair of women’s jeans that fits correctly. Talk to any woman who wears a size above 2, and you’ll hear kvetching, moaning, and complaints about having to try on thirty pairs of jeans to find just one that fits correctly.  Even two different pairs in supposedly the same size and created by the same manufacturer will fail to fit one’s body in the same way.  How is that even possible?!

If a pair of jeans fits through waist and hip, miles of cloth will be flapping about one’s thigh. If thigh and hip fit correctly, the waist will either be gapping hugely or so snug that the button can’t be closed or the jeans zipped. If the jeans fit through waist, hip and thigh, they will be miles too long, even in the supposedly “petite” length – or will fall across the ankles at the high water mark. Skinny jeans, appropriate only for the aforesaid Size Two (may Audrey Hepburn rot in hell), are still unaccountably manufactured, and finding anything flattering to a more common figure is virtually impossible, even when spending a small fortune for what should be casual wear.

But of all the jeans foisted on a long-suffering female populace, the Spandex-enhanced, “stomach panel” jeans are truly the invention of the Devil. In keeping with the Hollywood ideal of a female body straight out of the rigors of Dachau or Auschwitz, the normal, slightly-rounded stomach of a woman who is of appropriate weight for her height is, for some unknown reason, supposed to be as unrealistically flat as an ironing board, if not concave.  But (as so perfectly described in that decades-ago improving literature for young women), all that darned constricting panel does is push flesh up into other places where it isn’t wanted, creating the notorious muffin top.  Rolls of flesh that puff up under one’s shirt.  Yep, so flattering!

Worse is the dichotomy between men’s pants and women’s. Stroll down the rows of men’s jeans sitting snug on their store shelves, and one will find nicely delineated increments of waist and length. Short and slim?  There’s a pair sized for that.  Tall but chunky?  Ditto.  Long-legged?  There’s a pair of jeans manufactured for guys built like a stork.

And none of them have a stomach panel.

I remember reading the excellent novel The Color Purple, and marveling that the main character, at the conclusion of the novel, had created her own small business called People’s Pants. She knew that women wanted a pair of pants created for their bodies — not for the body of some sub-male.  Not for the body of a “you aren’t a man so you don’t need a good fit”.  I thought at the time that it was one helluva business opportunity and someone who knew a bit about fabric and fits and stitching clothing should actually do it.

I will never puzzle out why women’s clothing is based on the tradition of “one-size fits all even if it doesn’t and you’ve just got to live with it”, but it’s tiresome and frustrating, and long past due for a change.

But I would genuinely settle for just being able to find one lousy pair of jeans that fit.

Wagons, Ho!

I’ve recently discovered a passion for watching old, black-and-white Westerns—not the movies, but the decades’ old TV series. The Rifleman. Wagon Train.  Rawhide. Have Gun Will Travel.  Gunsmoke.  Maverick.  These and several other shows have become a guilty pleasure in which I regularly indulge, watching them on the Classic TV rerun channels.

Never mind their asinine, inaccurate, and degrading depictions of Native Americans, nearly always played by Caucasian actors dipped in stage makeup. Disregard the pioneers with perfect teeth…the women with perfectly-coiffed hair, makeup, clean dresses, and even popped collars.  Ignore the rare appearance of dirt and sweat, pipes and chewing tobacco on the well-shaven male main characters…the healthy, fat and strong herd animals and horses (barely a mule or a burro to be seen!)  Overlook the extremely rare appearance of a black or Asian person (although Hispanics, all too often portrayed as cunning or criminal, seem to abound).  Never mind the Hollywood fiction of  bespangled saloon girls and the frequently wrong-for-the-era clothing of all the characters.  Yes, it’s all ridiculous.  And, yes, despite all the nonsense and bias, I still enjoy watching these old Westerns.

I grew up watching them, of course; these and several other shows were the common TV fare of my childhood, so there is a nostalgia connected with viewing the reruns. I was too young when I first saw them to now remember more than a scene or two, or a particular character, so I delight in the stories; to me, they are not reruns; they are brand-new.

But what strikes me most about many of these old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films may 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 as opposed to implied cowardice. 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.

Characters in these old shows agonized over decisions in which they felt their ethics would be compromised. Every shade of grey in the human experience comprised part of the Western stories, and their conclusions were surprisingly contemporary—sometimes what we would now, scathingly, refer to as “politically correct”.  And although often simplistic, the answers provided in each 30- or 60-minute show were, above all, honorable and decent.  They exhibited complex interactions between main characters who held civility and courtesy to be their abiding principles, who genuinely believed that a man’s word was his bond. There was always an expectation that individuals who were proved wrong would admit their fault and be punished for it—and yet justice was often, unexpectedly, tempered with mercy.

My brother commented once that he realized he’d learned much of his understanding of morality from watching episodes of “The Rifleman”.  His comment made me wonder what the children of the current generation are learning from their diet of TV fare consisting of the carefully orchestrated unreality of “reality” shows, horrific crime dramas, and bloody fantasy programs.

It will be a long time before I’ve finished watching these old Western reruns. Even when I’m certain I’ve seen most of the episodes, I occasionally run across one I missed.  And I expect to go on enjoying them, despite the fact that many of the episodes are now reruns even to me.  Like a complex tapestry, the many threads that make up these decades’ old stories are carefully crafted and interwoven, and endlessly surprising.

The More Things Change

I was with a group of friends the other day and someone asked the time. Before anyone had picked up/turned on/unlocked their phones, I’d glanced at my wrist and said, “Twelve fifteen.”

Everyone looked at me in surprise; I still wear a wristwatch. I knew that I was an anachronism in this.  But I now realized that we have, essentially, returned to the era of the pocket watch.

You know of it, I’m sure; everyone’s seen it in old Westerns and in movies set in the Victorian era. To check the time, a man pulled a chain from a vest or suit pocket and, sometimes after first flipping open a cover, announced the time by looking at a large, hand-held watch.  Occasionally, woman might flip up and read the time from a specialty watch, one having an upside-down dial, which was pinned to the bodice of her blouse.

But wristwatches were being seen occasionally in 1800s, and were standard use by the military late in that century. Sheer practicality made watches popular.  No more waiting for the clock on the town hall to strike; no more the cumbersome chain and multiple movements needed to check on the time—just a quick glance at one’s wrist. Forgetting one’s wristwatch in the 20th century led to the tired joke, “It’s a hair past freckle”, as one glanced at a bare wrist.

But now we have returned to the era of the pocket watch. Unless a smart phone is already in one’s hand, turned on, and unlocked, checking the time means multiple gestures or wasted effort just to find out what the heck time it is. Call me old-fashioned and I will smile proudly: I find it’s easier to just wear a wristwatch.

Of course, when checking the time, one might also be figuring out when the grocery order will be delivered.

Grocery delivery was a common service in the 1800s. Much of the population lived in rural, farming areas outside the cities, and few housewives had either the time or the wagon available to make a long journey into town for groceries and sundries more than monthly. Such trips had to be carefully planned.  But a shopping list could be dropped at the General Store while a male family member was on the way to the blacksmith’s or the feed store, or even by a child walking home from school.  The grocer gathered together the items on the list, debited a running account, and sent the groceries off to the purchasers by an employee making rounds in the store’s delivery wagon.

But cars were invented, urban sprawl happened, and within just a few decades, the supermarket became the standard. The lady of the house made a weekly trek to shop for groceries, pushing a metal cart around packed aisles, Stepford Wife-style.  No supermarket delivered groceries; that was an antique concept, simply laughable.  Until recently.  The pendulum has swung once more to the other side of the metronome, and now fewer and fewer full carts are seen being guided through the aisles of the grocery store.  Busy purchasers log in and click through an on-line list to select their food purchases.  Some arrange a pick-up time; others have their foodstuffs delivered; and a few even have someone enter their homes and shelve their goods.

Leaving entirely aside the fact that I don’t want anyone waltzing into my house and deciding where my well-organized spices belong, nor seeing the likely state of my pantry and cabinets (which gremlins apparently mangle into untidiness just hours after I’ve cleaned and rearranged them), I resist this whole idea. Having someone else choosing my cucumbers and lettuce just strikes me as a bad plan.  Is that disinterested clerk going to root to the back of the row to pick out the bagged salad with the most distant ‘use by’ date?  Not likely.  Are they going to know that I will substitute blueberries, but not raspberries, when blackberries are unavailable?  Are they going to select the freshest package of mushrooms?  Not to mention that spending an hour pushing a heavy, packed grocery cart hither and yon about the store might be the mildest form of exercise, but at least adds to my daily step count.

Nevertheless, a few years ago when I was housebound throughout the month of December with a wicked illness called adenovirus-68 (the “Killer Cold”), I would probably have paid good money to have someone deliver goods to replenish my depleted pantry.  Like those 1800s folk, I’d have used the service out of sheer necessity, rather than modern luxury.  Unfortunately, at the time, grocery delivery wasn’t yet a glimmer on the horizon, which meant that I was down to my last can of chicken noodle soup before I was finally well enough to venture out and restock my shelves.

Fashion, I’ve always heard, repeats itself. Save anything long enough, and it will come back in style.  So also, it seems, do all the other aspects of daily living.  Or, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.

The Name of the Goddess: Isis

Surely I cannot be the only individual worldwide who objects to the co-opting (only by an ignorant American press, I must point out) of the name great Mother Goddess of ancient Egypt to signify the Islamic militants. To employ the acronym ISIS, the same letters that compose the name of Isis, Goddess of compassion and enduring love, to signify terrorists who are anything but compassionate and loving – who do not even exemplify the tenets of the faith for which they claim to be waging war – is wrong.  Simply wrong.

During the years when Downtown Abbey was one of the most popular shows on TV,I read all too many reviews containing references to the “unfortunate” name of the fictional Earl of Grantham’s beloved dog.  So I was not surprised when the show’s final season made a carefully contrived reference to the ancient Egyptian origins of the name Isis.  British press, I understand, tends to refer to the militants as IS or ISIL, not ISIS, so obviously it was the American fans who were being coddled with this explanation.  But, I wondered grumpily, why was an explanation even necessary? Did most American viewers fail  to realize the name was that of a goddess of ancient Egypt? Obviously so.  The untutored American audience was, apparently, largely unaware that the name Isis was chosen as a compliment to the setting of the popular series, Highclare Castle, where Downtown Abbey was filmed.  Highclare was the onetime home of Lord Carnarvon, who financed archeologist Howard Carter’s magnificent discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.  The dog’s name was an historical reference. Surely, I thought, everyone must know that.

Uh, no. It would seem not.  Not everyone, I finally acknowledged, was passionately interested in ancient Egyptian history.  Not everyone was a fan of the inimitable Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series of archeological mysteries.   The subtle compliment to the series’ setting apparently did a complete flyby right over the heads of most of its American fans.

Still, if I were a member of the press, selecting an acronym for Islamic militants and terrorists, I would prefer to call them almost anything else. Probably something very rude. Sadly, I suspect that the acronym ISIS is too firmly entrenched in American minds to make the change.  That saddens me, and makes me long to beg: Please, please, stop using it!  Restore to grace the name of ancient Egypt’s great Goddess, she who was the Protector of Children, Resurrector of the Dead, Patron of Artisans, Protector of Slaves, Friend of Sinners, and Universal Mother: Isis.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.

My Life in Photos

There is shortcut file on my computer desktop titled, “My Life in Photos”.

This is a fairly unusual file to be maintained by a person who is well-known among all her friends and family, to hide her face from every camera. (“Point that camera at me,” I have been heard to say, “and I will turn you into a frog.” And, if they persist, I instruct, “Start picking out your lily pad!”)

The simple truth is that I take horrifically bad pictures. Some individuals are gifted with just that flawless bone structure, that enviable arrangement of facial features, so that the play of light and shadow in the two-dimensional image of a photo results in loveliness. In fact, years ago when I lived in Charleston, I knew such a woman.  To meet her on the street, one would have said she was plain, even unattractive.  Yet in photographs,  even without makeup,  her face was striking and remarkable.

I am not such a woman. I’m as plain as the proverbial mud fence—except in photographs, in which I look like a bowl of undercooked oatmeal.

So for me to have a file representing the highlights of my 64 years of life through photographic evidence is not only unusual, but was damned difficult to assemble. Nevertheless, I put it together and am even now in the process of turning it into a PowerPoint show, a storytelling event, eventually to be (I hope, and when I’ve acquired a few technical skills now absent) recreated as a video slide show, complete with music.

But the important aspect of this project is the reason I am doing it: because, several times in the past years, I’ve had to hunt through my collections of photographs for pictures of friends or family members who have recently died. To do this is to be assaulted by mixed emotions—heavy feelings that are hard to bear when one is already grieving.  Each time, too, I’ve wondered if the pictures I’ve chosen were the ones that this person would really have wanted to represent her life.  Which of these, I pondered, would have been her favorite photo of herself?

Which might she not have really much liked?  Is this a photo she would have preferred had never been taken?  An event she wanted to forget?

And while the act of looking through old photographs was wondrous and painful, time constraints limited what might have been a nostalgic journey through another’s life. The photos had to be located and selected quickly to be prepared for a funeral or memorial service.  There just wasn’t time to pick the perfect set of pictures to represent someone’s entire existence on this earth.

2000 Rebecca Xmas Crop

And so, for my survivors, this job will be already done. The photos will be chosen, the stories behind each of them told.  The one photo of my adult self that I have ever truly liked will be there and labeled as such; the events that I saw as the highlights of my existence will be arranged chronologically. If others choose to add to those memories with photographs representing memories of their own, they’ll be free to do so.  But the difficult work of recreating the important moments of my life  will be done.

It will be a special and loving farewell to those I love best, demonstrating how much I cared for them: that there exists an album of photographs of the woman who, always and forever, simply hated to have her picture taken.

Remembering Advice

As mentioned in an earlier post, I used to read the newspaper advice columns religiously. As regularly as I attended daily mass at my Roman Catholic grade school, and with a great deal more religious fervor, I read Ann Landers in the morning paper and Dear Abbey in the evening news.  And because I have a quirky, persnickety memory, some of those columns have remained in my head forever.

I particularly recall one that related to a young couple who had requested that no very small infants be brought to their wedding. This was a hot topic at the time: Do babies so young that they will likely cry and disrupt the wedding service actually belong at a wedding, or not?  This young woman and her fiancé had chosen “not”, and she and her husband had been paying for it ever since.

The husband’s sister, it seemed, had borne a child  just shortly before the wedding, and was resentful of the young couple’s decision. She’d contrived a very specific revenge.  Since the sister’s home and yard were the largest, all family gatherings and holidays were held there.  Her brother and his wife had been excluded from every get-together since their wedding.  The angry sister refused to have them in her home.  Being continually excluded from his own family gatherings broke the young man’s heart, and his wife was wracked with guilt, blaming herself for their ostracism.

I don’t recall now what the advice columnist’s response was, but I certainly knew what my own reply would have been, and to this day I wish I’d sent in my retort to the newspaper regarding the vengeful sister’s behavior. It might have gone something like this:

Dear A,

In response to the young woman and her husband who were excluded from all family gatherings after requesting that no small babies be brought to their wedding ceremony, my question is: Does no one in this family have a spine?!

Here’s the salient point: Babies are a surefire draw for attention, and Little Sister just couldn’t STAND the thought of not stealing her brother’s thunder on his wedding day. I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that Little Sis has been the spoiled darling of the family her whole life.  She just couldn’t abide not being the center of attention, even at her own brother’s wedding.

But to make him and his new wife pay for her petty narcissism by ostracizing them from every family gathering from thence onward is taking spitefulness to an entirely new level! How long does the average wedding and reception last?  Four or five hours?  And how many times has the young couple been excluded from family events, times the number of hours?  Every July 4th, every Memorial and Labor Day celebration, every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner?  Four or five hours each,  multiplied by the years that this nastiness has gone on, equals what?  The spoiled little princess has gotten her payback with a vengeance, along with thousands in interest.

Someone in this family of spineless wonders needs to stand up to this narcissistic little shrew and say, “Enough already! You’ve gotten your revenge.  Now act like the adult you supposedly are and make up with your brother and his wife.  Otherwise, the next family gathering will be held at MY home, and the only one not invited will be YOU. And don’t give me that ‘you have the biggest home and yard’ crap.  There isn’t any home or yard large enough if love is absent.  Or have you never heard that proverb which begins,  ‘Better a dinner of herbs where love is’?”

All these decades after reading that advice column, I still do wonder if someone in that family group ever got up the gumption to smack the spoiled princess upside her nasty, narcissistic, vengeful little head. Knowing families as I do, though, probably not.  They were probably united in their resentment of the outsider who had upset their precious darling, and never forgave her brother for wanting his wedding day to be focused on him and his bride, rather than his spoiled sister.

But I do wish I’d written that letter.

Agony Aunts

I was intrigued by the Downtown Abbey episode in which the Dowager Duchess’s butler begins anonymously writing a popular “agony aunt” column for Edith’s magazine. That episode delighted me, because I grew up reading both of the daily newspaper columns, Dear Abbey and Ann Landers, and it’s likely that they shaped much about my understanding of the larger world outside my little Midwestern niche.

I was perhaps 11 when I first began reading the advice columns, finding them both instructive and sometimes shocking. I read about teen pregnancies and unfaithful spouses, family spats, cruel in-laws, and the heartbreak of parents who had lost a child.  I read about indecision regarding which of two potential spouses a person could choose, and the difference between infatuation and love.  I read about mistreatment of the elderly and the bitterness of those who had grown up as abused children, and how those two situations were sometimes linked.  I read of alcoholism and drug abuse and sexual perversion and racial prejudice.

The advice columns were, I now think, part of my social education, teaching me a myriad of things that would never have dared been touched upon either at school or by my parents.

For a long while, ten years or more, I took the guidance handed out by the Abbey and Ann duo as gospel. But as I began graduating to other advice columns, the ones I discovered in a dozen or more women’s’ magazines, I also found my own voice.  Shocking as it seemed even to myself, I began arguing with the columnists.  I dared to think that perhaps, given this question or asked to make that judgment, I could have given better counsel.

I would have told the young woman who complained about her husband’s predilection for sex in the shower (in which he got the warm stream of water and she only the cold steam) that the real problem was his lack of interest in her comfort and pleasure.

I’d have advised another young woman whose boyfriend always found fault with the gifts she gave him, and the exasperated family of a grandmother who did the same, that these people were toxic recipients and were never going to be pleased, no matter what accommodation one made to their taste and preferences. I’d have suggested an intervention, facing the fault-finders with every unappreciative remark they’d made for each gift given them for as long as anyone could remember.  I’d have advised the gift givers to state flat out that they were weary of trying to please someone so critical.

I’d have told many, many questioners that they were presenting their story to the wrong person; that what they were saying needed to be said not to a columnist but to their spouse, their friend, or their family member. Face it, I would have responded: stop hoping that “they” will read your complaint in the column recognize themselves.  For heaven’s sake, just get up the gumption to say it, I’d have advised.

And for those who were determined to verbalize a problem, begging for advice on how to soft-pedal an approach, I’d have said outright that there was, sadly, no chance that what they planned to say or do wasn’t going to create a rift between family or friends. But I would have added the solace that,  if they had the courage to stand up for themselves, they also had the courage to survive the upheaval that would follow.

I would have told the young couple who could not afford the big family birthday dinners (at which they ordered the least-expensive entrees, but were forced to ante up for everyone’s meals when the single bill was divided by all those present) that they were absolutely right.  They should explain to the family that their finances forced them to begin paying only their fair share for the dinner of the birthday person and for their own selections, or otherwise, sadly, stop attending these family functions.  They, and they alone, knew what their financial situation permitted.

But the truly important factor in all this, in finding my own responses to the questions asked in advice columns, was not that I was intrinsically right or wrong; it was that I had begun sifting through my own sense of morality and my understanding of human nature to make what I deemed rational and informed choices.

Although I’ve often asked advice from my circle of friends, especially when faced with a difficult choice or a situation that involved the possibility of hurting the feelings of others, I’ve never felt the need to write to a total stranger requesting guidance. And for that fact, I tip my hat to all those authors of all those many advice columns that I read over the years.  I thank them for teaching me how to think though a problem from all angles, consider multiple solutions and probable results, and finally reach my best decision.

It was an significant life lesson, but one I doubt I would ever have learned without them.

The Illuminati

How, exactly, and when, did the Illuminati become the bad guys?

I’ve seen them now portrayed in novels, movies, and television shows, and they are inevitably depicted as malevolent, secretive masterminds, hovering in the shadows and moving heads of state about like chessboard pieces. I’ve read about their plans to overthrow all government and establish a new, presumably evil and dictatorial, world order. I even read – tried to read – a website by a purportedly “released” Illuminati member.  He lost me at the description of how Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated, but lived out his life in one of their secret bunkers; I was sure he didn’t intend to be hilarious.  But, in general, the Illuminati are always portrayed as really nasty guys, something along the lines of the fictional Hydra. They lurk, they conspire and collude, they weave plans of Machiavellian complexity and pull the puppet strings of world leaders, dancing them about at whim.

Huh.

That’s really strange, because the Illuminati, at least at their inception in 18th century Bavaria, were sort of the good guys. The original goals of the society were to oppose and defeat religious influence over public life (sounds a bit similar to a certain country’s First Amendment to the Constitution, doesn’t it?), to defeat superstition, and to end the misuse of State power.

In their original general statutes, they wrote: “The order of the day is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice.” Translation: Stop the people who do wrong.

Not a whole lot wrong with that. Arguably a very solid, laudable goal. Although it may have been what got them blamed for inciting the French Revolution.  (Personally, though, I’ve always thought that the abuses of the ruling class, coupled with the Marquis de Lafayette’s return from fighting the American Revolution and “Declaration of the Rights of Man” actually had much more to do with turning France on its head – yes, dreadful pun intended.)

It is notable that the Roman Catholic church in Bavaria felt threatened enough by the Illuminati to encourage Charles Theodore, the ruler of Bavaria, to have the group banned by edict. I suspect that whole ‘defeat religious influence over public life” didn’t go down at all well with most churches, and the Catholic church hadn’t been happy about that sort of thing since the time of Martin Luther.

However, if the transition from Good Guys Opposing Suppression to Bad Guys and Their Evil Plan was present from the early days of this secret society, it can probably be seen in their recruitment tactics.  Adam Weishaupt, their founder, encouraged the participation of wealthy young Christian men, but specifically excluded Jews, monks, women, non-Christians, those of limited means, and members of other secret societies, such as the Freemasons.  Although the society later reneged on the “no Freemasons” thing, it still remained in conflict with Freemasonry, alternately trying to recruit from their ranks, malign them, and copy their degrees and orders.

Actually, as secret societies go, the not-so-secret Illuminati basically managed to infuriate and annoy almost everyone, from rulers of various countries to church leaders, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and their own members. Splits in their ranks and dissension seemed to follow them around like a bad smell, and, deviating far from Weishaupt’s original concept of defeating superstition, they devolved into various forms of mysticism, ritual and secret rites.

I suppose it’s no wonder then, that the Illuminati of modern understanding have transmuted into little more than a conspiracy theory of evil lurkers in the shadows, manipulating public policy and infiltrating governments to establish a New World Order (which, when described, actually sounds a whole lot like an old world order called Nazi Germany). Groups now going by the name of Illuminati and claiming descent from the original order are almost certainly no such thing, unless by descent they mean from the original group’s fascist notions of appropriate membership.

That would certainly explain how The Good Guys became The Bad Guys.