Aging Gracefully

What does that phrase even mean?!

Not long ago I celebrated my 69th birthday. Shortly thereafter, a woman with whom I have only slight acquaintance (for reasons that will be totally apparent in just a moment) asked me when I was going to stop coloring my hair, allowing it to grow out to its natural white. Without engaging in the question of why this could possibly be any of her business, I retorted that I’d already covered this territory in a previous blog post, and if she really wanted to know the answer, she could read The Body I Inhabit. Since she never reads my blog, and wouldn’t be about to do so even if she really wanted my answer, I felt pretty certain this reply would shut down her prying. (I was wrong.)

What seemed most laughable, though, was that her question was triggered by the fact that I’d changed my hair color. After twenty years, I’d decided that the shade I’d been using was now too deep a color for my aging complexion. I’d updated it to a lighter shade of the same basic color. This was my first step in a planned transformation that would slowly permit my hair to transition to its genuine pure white. But as I disliked two-tone hair, roots a glaring shade different from the strands, I was going to take this action in phases.

Unfortunately, my evasion didn’t satisfy my officious friend, who lectured that I needed to “age gracefully”.

What does that phrase even mean, I now wondered? Aging is, in Western culture, a pretty despised condition; hence, the reason that I, once a young woman who’d used nothing more than lemon juice and chamomile to brighten my natural dark blonde, became a middle-aged woman who regularly dyed her hair to combat an onslaught of whitening strands. But though I’d originally begun coloring my hair because I felt it was almost expected in our youth-oriented society, the action slowly melded into my choice to do so because I enjoyed what I saw. The hair color that began and then continue to use for twenty years flattered my complexion as my natural shade had never done.

Was it only because my hair color was my most obvious attempt to disguise the rush of oncoming age, though, that this person felt comfortable in hectoring me? Or was it because she, just a few years older than I, had given up hair dye at about the age that I’d just reached? Was she resentful that I had not followed her lead? Did giving up a self-care routine equate with “aging gracefully”?

Shrugging at her comments, I launched into an irritable tirade. (Hey, she started it. If she didn’t want to listen to my remarks, then she shouldn’t have done so.)

“Well, I do facial exercises, too, to reduce the sagging. I whiten my teeth because years of coffee and tea have done their damage. I always used spot corrector on my freckles; now I slather it on my age spots, too. I use a depilatory every week on my facial hair because I don’t think female mustaches are attractive! There’s nothing I can do about my veiny hands, and I draw the line at cosmetic surgery, so I’m stuck with the rest of it. But I do these things because I want to feel comfortable with the image I see in the mirror: an aging woman who acknowledges that she’s no longer young but still enjoys putting some effort into her appearance. And that’s the crux of the matter—I enjoy it. It’s fun. When it becomes more trouble than it’s worth, I’ll quit. But in the meantime, I’ll color, correct, and fight.”

My outburst gained me raised eyebrows and put an end to the discussion. (Would that it had put an end to the relationship, too, but I couldn’t get that lucky.)

As I pointed out in that previous essay, all of my self-care routines are a form of self-love. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Every five minutes of facial exercise or tooth whitening gel, each gentle massage of dark spot correcting cream or depilatory, says to me that the body I inhabit, despite onrushing age, is worthy of my attention. I am worthy of my attention.

Never having been, even at my best, any more than moderately attractive, I always put effort into my appearance. Plain I may have been and was, but I saw no reason to be sloppy, as well.

Now, aging, I see no reason to take any less care of my appearance merely because I am growing old. Call it vanity; call it pride; call it just a refusal to acknowledge the inevitable. It doesn’t matter. Eat right, exercise, die anyway… I’ll go down fighting the appearance of age tooth, nail and claw, enjoying every minute of the brawl.

If you’d like to read the original post on this topic, “The Body I Inhabit”, you can find it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It published on August 11, 2021.

The Book of Joys and Sorrows

The concept fascinated me: a chronology of important points in one’s life.

Perhaps 40 or more years ago, I came across an article by a man who had chronicled his life, not through a diary or journal, but by simple notes jotted onto paper calendars. When something significant or simply interesting happened in this man’s life, such as the night he attended a dance where he met a fascinating young woman, he penciled a remark onto his calendar. At year’s end, he tucked the calendar away, saving it. Thus, he could look back over the years and know precisely when a major event occurred; i.e., the night of the school dance where he met his future wife; the day his first child was born.

This concept fascinated me. Already in my late 20s, I wondered if it was too late to begin compiling my own chronology. But I was blessed/cursed with a ridiculously accurate memory. I might not be able to recall the exact dates that certain events occurred in my childhood and early adulthood, but I could make a good estimate at least of the years, perhaps even the seasons. By asking older relatives for information, I could probably target many incidents more closely, reconstructing my early personal history.

And so my own chronology was born. I began compiling what would eventually grow into My Book of Joys and Sorrows.

Beginning with misty, distant memories, I chronicled my earliest years: important moments of my childhood, such as my first memory as a tiny child; my first day of school. I noted our family’s move to a new home; the joyful acquisition and sad loss of pets; new friendships; my mother’s many mental health hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Meanwhile, just as the writer of the article described, I now began jotting down daily events onto the pages of calendars. At the beginning of each new year, I would sift through the old calendar and transcribe the most momentous occurrences into my Book.

From its simple beginnings, that Book has now grown to over 70 pages, the notations ever more detailed and involved as my life, and my understanding, has grown complex. Reading over its pages, I see, even touch, the dates of the most important moments of my life: my wedding day…and the date my divorce was final. My dreadful miscarriage. The date of my daughter’s and granddaughter’s births, and of their first steps, first words. The day of my daughter’s wedding. The dates that I graduated high school; began jobs, received promotions. My mother’s and father’s deaths, and the sad passings of beloved friends and pets. The day I learned I had cancer; various surgeries and illnesses. My memory of 9/11. The “Coloring and Tea” party I threw myself for my 65th birthday.

Moments of my life, as the title claims, of both great joy and immense sorrow.

Had I been born in today’s more technological era, perhaps I would, as the younger members of our family constantly do, make endless videos of my daily life (recording their lives instead of living them, I sometimes think). Mine is a book, though, and while certainly not literature, it is all the more complex for not being a video record. As I have become more deft at creating my Book, I no longer merely document an event, but instead sift though the most minute details. I delve into the emotions of that moment, or the responses of others, describing how their behavior either affected or caused my own; examining my understanding of each situation while holding to the light the success or failure of my own conduct.

I’ve never shared my Book with anyone. It waits there, a document on my computer; a hard copy in my filing cabinet, but not gathering dust. Instead, it is alive with constantly expanding information. It is a detailed record of my existence; a map of my growth or regression and changes; my few accomplishments and many failures.

It is my great hope that, when I am gone, the pages, hard and digital, of my book will not be discarded into some trash heap, but kept—perhaps cherished; at least read. I flatter myself, laughing aloud even as I do so, that, like the journals of the great diarists of past centuries, my Book of Joys and Sorrows will be a chart that future readers in some distant day may use to gain slight understanding, not just of this era’s daily life, but of thoughts: the constantly-expanding hopes and fears of those of us born midway into one century and surviving all the shocking changes to the next.

Perhaps you might also enjoy “My Kindness Journal”. You can locate that essay by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on November 2, 2017.

Happy Birthday, my darling daughter, light of my life!

Passive Aggressive Peanut Butter Pie

As promised in yesterday’s post, here is my recipe.  Years of making this pie have taught me not to use any generic substitutions for the specified ingredients.  Make this pie to give to YOUR most difficult relative, and when they go nuts over it, refuse to share the recipe!

1                8 oz. Package Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1/2             Heaping Cup Jif Creamy Peanut Butter
1 & 1/2      Cups Powdered Sugar (do not sift)
1                8 oz. Package Cool Whip
1                Keebler Oreo Crumb Crust
1                Small Bottle Hershey Syrup and/or Chocolate Curls

Cream together the cream cheese and peanut butter until smooth.  Slowly add powdered sugar, and 2/3 of the Cool Whip.  Turn into the crumb crust and smooth.  Top with remaining Cool Whip and blend the topping to the edges of the crust.  If you’re feeling fancy, make swirls and patterns in the topping.  Drizzle with Hershey’s Syrup, and/or scatter small chocolate curls or chocolate shot over the top.  Cover (you know this game, right?  You use the plastic press top from the Keebler crust to make a lid for the pie) and chill at least 3 hours or overnight.  Oh, and serve with more Hershey syrup for chocolate lovers to drizzle!  (Grandpa Bob used to like a little peanut butter pie with his chocolate syrup!)

The Joys of Passive Aggression!

I have definitely enjoyed my share of passive-aggressive behavior!

Not long ago I got sucked into a clickbait about windshield notes left on cars parked by people who seriously needed an extra session (or sessions!) of parking practice during driver’s ed. The notes were hilarious. I especially liked the ones which included simple diagrams. I really appreciated the time it must have taken to produce these little gems.

Like many people who avoid conflict at all costs, I understand, even approve, of passive aggression. Leaving an anonymous message when someone has upset me often seems like a really smart choice, especially in today’s violent, mannerless society. So, yes, I’ve left a parking note (or two, or five) on the windshield of various thoughtless asses, and have definitely enjoyed my share of other passive-aggressive behavior.

There was, for instance, the note I left blatantly on the building entry door of the apartments where I resided. I taped the poster-sized missive, written in heavy black felt tip pen, to the glass, where it would be visible to everyone entering or exiting the building:

To the Couple in Apartment 4B:

WOW! That was some GREAT SEX you had last night!

Thank you for sharing it with all of us!”.

Then there was the harsh winter when the post office put out a warning that, if deep snow was not cleared in front of our condo mailboxes, our mail would not be delivered. Displeased with my Old Curmudgeon of a neighbor*, I considered our condos’ three side-by-side letterboxes before shoveling out my own mailbox and that of my other, inoffensive neighbor. Then, leaving the Curmudgeon’s box still encased in a tall, mail-proof glacier, I dusted off my hands and marched inside to drink hot chocolate.

That wasn’t the first time I’d used snow as a P/A weapon. At another apartment where I’d resided, we had no assigned parking spaces, but each still had our accustomed spots. I’d cleared my usual space after a snowstorm, and even helped my elderly neighbor with her customary spot. But when I returned home from work that evening, I found that my upstairs neighbor (young, strong, healthy, childless, and therefore without excuses), who’d always previously parked in his own place two slots down, had co-opted my beautifully-cleared parking space. Sighing, I took a hit off my asthma inhaler and, wheezing, began to dig through the now-frozen snow to unearth a new parking space. But I carried every shovelful of snow and carefully dumped it right behind his car. I scooped up a few spades’ worth of snow from the lawn, also, and tossed them on his windshield for good measure.

Apartment parking was a bone of contention almost everywhere I’d lived, though. One night I hustled out the door to hurry off for an evening meeting, only to find that I was blocked in by a moron who’d slewed diagonally into the space next to mine. With a vehicle also parked on the other side of my car, there was no room for me to exit. Fortunately, the individual parked to the other side of my car happened to come out. Seeing my dilemma, he not only moved his car to give me space to maneuver, but helped guide me past the diagonal car. However, when I returned home that evening, I was forced to park over a block away, since the only space left was the one made impassable by the moron.

Happily, though, just a few days before this incident, I’d purchased a lipstick which turned out to be a Very Bad Mistake. Now, using that unwanted tube, I carefully wrote in glossy, greasy magenta across his windshield, “LEARN HOW TO PARK, YOU CRETIN!”.

Parking at my condo hasn’t always exactly been a joy, either. Just as the mailboxes are grouped, the driveways of the three condos are diagonally conjoined, emptying out into a single area for entry/exit. Often, careless people pull in, blithely ignoring that each section actually leads to a specific condo. I returned home from the supermarket one afternoon to find an unknown SUV blocking my single-car garage.

Grumbling, I parked my car immediately behind the gas-guzzler and schlepped several shopping bags across the lawn to reach my front door. But when, an hour later, I heard irritated banging on that selfsame front door by the offending driver, I took my time both in answering the door and then slowly putting on my shoes before pretending to search for lost car keys and finally moving my car so that the offender could exit. Playing the dithering old lady, I smiled sweetly the entire time.

But the crowning jewel of my passive aggression probably occurred when a relative texted to ask for a recipe: the peanut butter pie that I have for over a decade brought to Thanksgiving dinner–the same Thanksgiving dinner from which she’d trounced my daughter and her family not once, but twice, due to a situation over which I had no control*. Now, considering her request, I responded calmly that this particular recipe was one that I never shared. No one was getting it until I died, I said.

Then I smiled evilly and sent the recipe to every other person I know.

Ah, the joys of passive aggression.

If you want to know the stories behind the Old Curmudgeon or the Thanksgiving Shunning, check the Archives for “There’s Always One”, 04/20/2020, and “Typhoid Mary, Covid Carrie”, 08/24/2022

A special issue of this blog tomorrow will carry the recipe for my Passive Aggressive Peanut Butter Pie!

Language Evolves. Sort Of.

Celebrating Women’s History Month!

Many gendered nouns have become passé.

I grew up in a gendered-language world, and one that remained pretty much strictly divided that way for most of my fairly long lifetime. We spoke of actors and actresses; waitresses and waiters. There were stewardesses and stewards (mostly stewardesses, as it was often beneath the dignity of a male to serve in such a capacity except, inexplicably, aboard ship), and cowboys and cowgirls. We had heroes and heroines, landlords and landladies. We had, still have, lions and lionesses. We may have prayed to a monotheistic deity as merely God—always conceptualized as a white-bearded Caucasian male–but there were ancient gods and goddesses, and those who worshipped them were priests and priestesses, witches and warlocks, prophets and prophetesses.

But the world turns and language evolves, and many, most, of those gendered nouns have become passé. So rarely are some of them used that people of the youngest generations may never even have heard of many of them.

Which brings me to the question: Why is it always the male version of the noun which becomes predominant? With a few notable exceptions (i.e., witch, now often applied to those of any gender who practice the ancient religion of Wicca), it is only the male version of the noun which becomes acceptable in writing and speech. Consider, by way of example, that no matter what pronoun the individuals themselves choose—she, he, they, or some bizarre permutation–every Hollywood performer is now referred to as an actor; a woman who executes an act of valor is a hero. Why should this be so?

Well, duh. Because males everywhere would rise up in mammoth protest were they to be identified by a female-gendered noun. Can you even imagine the results if any writer or newscaster referred to one of those badass male Hollywood action performers as an actress?! What might you expect if you signaled for the male server at your favorite restaurant by calling him a waitress? Spitting on your food would be the mildest response, I should think. Even with the gender-neutral Wiccans, who worship both female and male deities, it’s common to qualify the noun by referring to a “male witch”.

The female-gendered nouns simply whisper away.

It’s unfortunately the case that contemporary gender norms, tackling the vagaries of an ancient but evolving English language, have become a veritable minefield even for those most willing to accept, understand and involve themselves in changing customs. One can view the substantive efforts of writers and speakers to be gender-inclusive by using only the male noun as an uplifting change—or as just one more example of males taking credit for a whole lot more than their share. “All mankind under God”, after all, just has a more decisive ring than “All humankind under the Deity”, doesn’t it? Or does the second choice, in fact, sound better—more powerful, more all-encompassing?

Does anyone, I wonder, ask an upcoming Hollywood starlet (yes, starlet) not just for her pronouns, but whether she prefers to be referenced as an actress? Does the newscaster request information before broadcast about whether the woman who’s achieved a remarkable rescue wishes to be called a heroine, and not a hero? Or is it the sad truth that, because they are women, their opinion and permission is not sought?

An acquaintance long ago queried me on why I usually refer not to God, but to the Divine. I explained that the higher power in which I firmly believe is neither male nor female, but the composite of and greater than both. As I further explained to my inquisitive friend, my late and greatly-beloved mother-in-law began every blessing at the table with “Father-Mother God”, a phrase which I came to associate with her and to love. Yet even that assigns gender, if two genders, to what I see as a creative, protective, genderless Power. Divine One is, to me, all-inclusive.

Still, I find that, in my personal prayers, I often begin with the Mother. Speaking to Her as Goddess somehow brings that unknowable Divinity closer to me.

It’s true that one becomes less flexible in one’s thinking as age creeps along; it’s a situation greatly to be battled against if one wants to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. Nevertheless, despite knowing that it is becoming passé, I shall go on thinking of those Hollywood icons as actors or actresses. I will recognize Moses as a prophet, but his irrepressible sister Miriam (“Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses?”) as a prophetess. Yet I will do my best to think of the person bringing food to my table as a server. I will attend Pagan Pride day (great shopping!) and see practitioners of an ancient faith, not female or male witches.

I will always be the possessor of a mind trained by the usage and customs of my earliest upbringing, but I’ll do my damndest to evolve as both understanding and language advance.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Language is a Funny Thing”, which you can locate in the Archives by scrolling below. It was published on June 5, 2019.

“We” Are NOT Pregnant!

Celebrating Women’s History Month!

If “we” are pregnant, then how come he’s not losing his figure? Why is he not throwing up?

I just heard, for the umpteenth time, the statement, “We’re pregnant!” I gnashed my teeth. I wanted to scream.

WE are not pregnant. SHE is pregnant. HE is expecting. THEY are going to have a baby. She is a pregnant mother-to-be. He is an expectant father.

I am reminded of an old episode of Bewitched—the one in which Darrin claimed to know everything Samantha was experiencing in her first pregnancy. Endora took great offense to his remark (well, when didn’t she take great offense to anything Darrin said?) and decided to place a spell on him so that he would, actually, physically, experience what Samantha was going through.

I think of that episode every time I hear the misbegotten phrase, “We’re pregnant”, and heartily wish that there existed an army of Endoras with no job except that of zapping fathers-to-be with just such a spell.

If “we” are pregnant, then how come he’s not losing his figure? Being awakened throughout the night by a kicking fetus? Why is he not throwing up? Unable to roll over in bed or sleep on his stomach? Why is he not having to purchase a new wardrobe to accommodate his increasing abdomen? Why are his feet not swelling to three times their former size (and, by the way, never quite returning to their pre-pregnancy proportions, necessitating a farewell to many a beloved pair of shoes). Why are his back and pelvis not in agony as they struggle to carry the extra 40 or so pounds packed onto his abdomen? Why is he not spending hours in painful labor, or having a doctor’s whole hand shoved up his inner parts to check dilation?

While I understand the concept of wanting one’s partner to share in the wondrous creation of a new human life which is occurring, to be appreciated for a (minor) role in having begun that new life, the whole phrase, “We are pregnant” seems to me just one more instance of patriarchal males trying to lay unwonted claim to a whole lot more than their fair share. Already, most women still relinquish their names, and therefore a part of their personal identity, upon marriage. Their children, even their female children, generally bear the last name of their presumed male parent. (And, let’s talk turkey here: Guys, short of a DNA test, you are always the presumed male parent.)

But, for the love of heaven, do men also have to lay claim to pregnancy, too? And, if they do, should they not have to actually experience labor and birth? Should some tech wiz female not be inventing a sci-fi apparatus that would allow a “We’re pregnant” partner to share in each and every labor pain for eight or ten or twenty hours? To know the exquisitely unpleasant experience of pushing an object the size of a football out of an opening the size of a golf ball? To be torn from the front opening to the back and then stitched together again? Or perhaps males should be hooked up to that sci-fi machine following an emergency C-section, so that they know what it is to have been sliced and diced, had multiple organs moved out of the way, and then to be unable to fold in the middle: to have to clamber out of bed by rolling off the side, kneeling and then pushing oneself up by elbows on the mattress; then to stumble through the house with a gaping wound from hip to hip, and all in an attempt to care for a sobbing, soggy newborn.

No, no matter how popular and fashionable the phrase, I simply cannot reconcile myself to the utterly ridiculous statement, “We are pregnant”, for “we” are not. She is a pregnant; a mother-to-be, someone undergoing the rigors of creating a new human life. He may, perhaps, be a supportive husband or partner (or not), but he is not physically pregnant. Like clueless Darrin, he is physiologically incapable of undergoing or even psychologically comprehending her experience. He is an expectant father. And that’s simply all there is to it.

This post originally appeared on August 10, 2018, and, being a very opinionated person, my feelings about the phrase haven’t changed a bit!  If anything, they are more adamant.

Yes, Ma’am! Yes, Sir!

Celebrating Women’s History Month!

How could this happen?!

Oh, for the love of heaven, God, and little green apples. Yet one more time, while recently reading a book with a female, first-person protagonist, I was subjected to the main character’s whining, moaning, and kvetching about being addressed as “Ma’am”. Oh, the horror of it! How could this happen? Was she really THAT old? How is it that the person speaking to her could not recognize her youth, her with-it attitude and trendy, modish clothes, hairstyle and makeup? How could they possibly address her by courteously using a term of respect?

It was one of those moments when I wished that I were not reading on my Kindle, but on a plain, old-fashioned hardback book. There is very little satisfaction in merely clicking off a Kindle. I always derived far more gratification from slapping shut the covers of an irritating book; hardbacks were even better than paperbacks. The same is true of ending an unsatisfactory conversation on a cell phone. It was a thousand times better when one could slam a receiver into a cradle on a house phone. Stabbing the end call button just doesn’t suffice. (Oops! Getting off the track here!)

Sooo… Here’s my rude and altogether honest response to the hapless heroine’s whinging: Give it up, you pathetic loser! (Well, actually, what I thought was, “Oh, for Chrissake! Grow the hell up and get over yourself, bitch.”)

Yes, times change and so do people, but the simple truth is that I have almost never heard a man complain about being called “Sir”. His own age, or the age of the person addressing him, is not even considered in his response to that title. The word is recognized as precisely what it is: an honorific. Courtesy. A term of respect. (Or, in ex-President Trump’s case, the preface to a bald-faced lie, but we probably shouldn’t even go there.)

Admittedly, I am old. I was raised in an era in which respect was not only expected, but demanded, and not just for one’s elders, but for anyone in a position of authority. As I determined early on in life, not to just protect myself from imminent peril but, cynically, to further my personal agenda, I did not actually have to feel respect for anyone in authority over me–they might very well not have earned it–but I had to behave respectfully.

Teachers, other adults, supervisors, traffic cops, whatever: Anyone in a position of power or influence had to be taken seriously and addressed respectfully, and that respect began with titles. At the very least, one spoke to such individuals using the honorifics Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., or perhaps even Reverend, Rabbi, Your Honor, Officer, Captain, Chief… There were many such titles; “Ma’am” and “Sir” were just further extensions of respectful speech. The titles had nothing to do with the age of the individual being spoken to, but everything to do with both the power they wielded or the courtesy and esteem they should be granted.

At the opposite end of the respect spectrum lay the words used by those both older and excessively conscious of their exalted positions; words used to belittle and to put one in one’s place: the sarcastic “Young lady!” or “Young man!” The word “lady” itself had mutated from a term of respect to just a general and/or slightly rude form of address for any woman of unknown name: “Whaddya think you’re doing there, lady?!” Now, those terms did indeed often call for a response of resentment, or even antipathy. To this day, I clearly recall being addressed as “young lady” by a supervisor at the first job I ever held. That rotund old fart happened to be shaking some file folders (which he’d just had to spend his precious time hunting for because they had been carelessly misfiled) — shaking them right under my nose, as he snarled out the insulting sobriquet. I glanced at him and at the age-browned, misfiled manila folders for which I could not, patently, have been the miscreant responsible, since they’d been locked in a vault since long before my time with the company and probably even before my birth. Then I answered his snarling, “Just how did this happen, young lady?!” with a forced look of concern and a sweetly musical response of, “I’m afraid I really couldn’t say, SIR, since I didn’t work here then.”

But, returning to my primary point in this missive, it is long past time for every woman over the age of 20 to get over this ridiculous concept of, “To be called ma’am means I am old”. In the first place, there is nothing inherently wrong with aging. It happens to all of us, if we’re lucky enough to continue living, and is usually accompanied by wisdom, which is a good thing. But in the second, and far more important place, “ma’am” is an honorific, a term of courtesy, and above all, an expression of respect and regard.

Deal with it, young lady.

Enjoyed this post? Then you might also like the essay, “Pennies, Headlights, and Bubonic Plague”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on August 7, 2018.

The Crap They Made Me Read!

Celebrating Women’s History Month!

To this day I regret the experience of reading some of those books!

Fifty-odd years after the fact, I’m still bitter over some of the utter garbage they forced me to read in high school. Looking back on the torture of those “classic” books, I wonder how much misogyny, both hidden and overt, I imbibed along with those supposedly-great works, such as Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace. (God know why, but I read a couple more of de Maupassant’s stories later on, probably only because they were included in short story compilations. The man absolutely despised women. His female protagonists were all vain and empty people, devoid of genuine feeling and lacking in character, and all were suitably punished through dreadful events by the end of each story.)
Maupassant and his misogyny aside, among the worst books I suffered through were Moby Dick, The Oxbow Incident, Lord of the Flies, and The Plague. Not to put too fine a face upon the matter, none of this was reading to be recommended for a teenage girl suffering severe clinical depression. I attribute a great deal of my senior year suicidal ideation to having been forced to read The Plague. But I found few redeeming features in any of these novels. It was not just that most of them were stultifying (which they were); they were upsetting, sometimes gross, often disgusting. Despite the fact that I could discern important themes promoted within the stories, they were still not novels I would have chosen to read, and I regret the experience to this day. I’m actually sorry that I can recall a great many passages from those books, because most of what I remember of them is disturbing.patch (4)

The one disquieting book that I recollect with some redeeming grace is Elizabeth Kata’s Be Ready With Bells and Drums (A Patch of Blue), which our 7th grade class was, quite surprisingly and after a great deal of back-and-forth between our teacher, the school principal, and our parents, given to read. Reading it was, however, still distressing; not because the subject, racism, was in any way repellant, but due to the descriptions of physical, verbal and emotional abuse suffered by the main character, Selina. Owing to my personal experience of neglect and abuse, the described situations felt agonizingly familiar. I dared not tell my teacher, my friends—certainly not the other students–that the vivid portrayal of one brouhaha in the book, the screaming quarrels and obscene insults, were all too familiar; were daily occurrences in my own home.
To the disgust of my teacher, Mr. Phillips, I could only repeat inanely that I disliked the book. Disguising my true reasons, I complained that I found the slang speech of the characters irritating. Beyond that, though, I provided only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory reasons for my aversion.
In retrospect, I realize that this one book, of all those I was forced to read, was a genuine classic; a truly important, timely story, one that initiated hard conversations about racism (an unusual and valuable discussion in a 1967 classroom). Sadly, I was just at a very bad point in my adolescence to be reading it.
Rereading the book as an adult, I still found many passages of the book distressing, but was in a better position to handle my reactions.

Still, there is one literature lesson which I remember with pleasure. During my freshman year of high school, our teacher assigned the class to write a long, comprehensive essay on a book of our own choosing, with the caveat that she must approve the book we selected. “None of those trite romances!” she commanded. I smiled. At the time, I was working my way through the entire Pearl S. Buck oeuvre, having begun with Pavilion of Women and continued with The Good Earth. I’d just finished Jane Eyre. I’d twice read Karl Bruckner’s The Day of the Bomb, the heartbreaking account of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I constantly borrowed from my mother’s huge collection of biographies and historical fiction novels about famous women of history: Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, Empress Josephine, Harriet Tubman, Isabella of Spain, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Esther, Elizabeth I, Katherine of Aragon, Empress Tzu Hsi, Anne Boleyn, Lady Julian of Norwich, Mary, Queen of Scots… Stories of real women and their formidable effect upon history that were certainly never touched upon either in my history classes or in the “masterworks” (emphasis on master) that I was forced to read.
I no longer remember which of these books my well-read adolescent self selected for my essay; I only recall that I didn’t need to reread it after having it vetted by my teacher. I just wrote my paper and earned my A.
I recall many passages from those biographies and novels, too, and the lessons that I learned from them: primarily, that women have had limited power throughout history, even when they achieved wealth and status, and also that the few female authors whose books were considered classics were still somehow of too little importance to be believed valuable for instructing the young.
I wonder sometimes how my love of reading survived the awful books that I was tortured with in high school. And I’ll never forgive my schools and teachers for the misery I endured in each page.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Hook, Line and Sinker”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on June 19, 2018.

You’re Doing WHAT for Lent?

Wild indulgence following deprivation never seemed sensible!

Knowing that I had been raised Roman Catholic, although perhaps not understanding I’d left the church at the tender age of 13, an acquaintance asked me, “But you still give something up for Lent, right?”

Her question startled me. I hadn’t given anything up for Lent since I was 11 years old and still languishing in the prison of parochial elementary school. I’d never forgotten the nun-teacher who’d advised the 40 of us crammed into a single classroom (where, despite the overage ratio of students-to-teacher, we LEARNED–we dared not do otherwise; those nuns could be mean! Oops! Getting off the track here.) Anyway, Nun-Name-Forgotten advised us that sacrifice was good, a noble action, but of absolutely no use if we whined or were resentful. (We did and we were.) If that was the case, she advised us, we’d be far better off—and the world a much finer place—if we made a commitment to doing something: taking some positive action on behalf of ourselves, our friends, our family, or for everyone on the planet, as a Lenten resolution.

Alternately, we could commit to breaking a bad habit or developing a good habit. (Psychological science hadn’t yet, in that era, come up with that “30 days to establish a habit” concept, but at 40 days of Lent, the nun was probably on to something.)

This all came back to me recently as I watched a favorite movie, Chocolat, and recalled the many people I’d known who chose to give up chocolate for Lent. I also recalled one coworker, a darling woman, who nobly resolved to give up chocolate for Lent every single year that I knew her. And every year she broke her resolution in less than a week. Totally free of condemnation, I completely understood her failure. I never even CONSIDERED giving up chocolate. I’d sooner have given up my firstborn.

Of course, the chocolate-denied, both children and adults, indulged wildly on Easter morning, diving into Easter baskets and biting off chocolate bunny heads with all the fierce madness of deprivation. Even at the tender age of 11, this always just seemed to me to be the wrong way to go about things; consequently, my nun-teacher’s remarks were a revelation, and something that I would never forget. I don’t now recall what positive action I resolved to take during that Lenten passage so long ago, but I adopted her suggestion as a maxim and began to use it every year thereafter, even following my break with the Catholic church.

Sadly, though, just as with the sacrifices promised for the duration of Lent, the pledge to do something positive for the season falls into precisely the same category as New Year’s resolutions: noble and commendable, but rarely performed. Follow-through seems to be a gene lacking in the makeup of most human beings. I will say, though, that 40 days is a far more doable commitment than 365. Of the times I’ve resolved to take some positive action during the Lenten period, I’d say I’ve managed to adhere to my resolution at least half of the time. As for the other half, well, does start-stop-start again count? I tell myself that it does. Perhaps self-honesty might be the positive action I need to consider for the Lenten period.

Anyway, I ponder all of this each year as Christian Lent rolls around, even though I’m not precisely what most people would genuinely term Christian any longer, having sauntered down a very blended spiritual path in my lifetime. Still, if I am out and about on Ash Wednesday, I take note of those individuals whose foreheads are speckled with the grey dust that we Roman Catholic school children, chivvied to Mass early in the morning before class on that Holy Day of Obligation, were always warned we must not rub or wash off. (As if the coming season of enforced sacrifice weren’t punishment enough, we had to go about for a whole day looking as if we didn’t know the proper use of a bar of soap.) Now I wonder, glimpsing those ashy foreheads, if these people ever sat in a classroom listening to a wise nun as she explained the greater personal and societal value of positive action as opposed to deprivation and sacrifice. I wonder if it is too late for them to take that lesson to heart.

Regardless of anyone’s belief system, I think as I pass those ash-bespeckled faces, it’s still a truly wise and useful thing to set aside a few days each year trying to make ourselves, or the world, just a little bit better.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on March 30, 2018.

Totally Crackers!

Synchronicity is a funny thing! I’d originally planned this essay for publication in June. But after reading about Lisa Kennedy Montgomery’s recent and inexcusable rudeness in calling Pete Buttigieg a Cracker, I simply couldn’t resist publishing this post immediately!

    Language evolves.

Recently, while re-watching an episode of Downton Abbey, I smiled when the Earl of Grantham referred to the behavior of another character as “totally crackers”, meaning wild, nutty, bonkers. My grin was brought about by the memory of two Black coworkers who, in 2014, were shocked when I used precisely that phrase while referring to our mutual supervisor.

My coworkers hadn’t, as I had, the experience of working with a Scottish woman and picking up the phrase from her. To them, “totally crackers” meant, could only mean Cracker, the nasty American Southern slang for “white trash”. They were quite obviously aghast at my light-hearted remark, and it took me a long moment to comprehend why. My lagging brain finally made the connection, via a half-dozen or so rarely used neural circuits, to the three years I’d spent living in South Carolina while I was still a young woman. It was there that I’d had the insulting sobriquet “Cracker” slung at me occasionally. The first time this occurred, I’d only recently moved to the South after a lifetime spent in Northern climes. I was completely unfamiliar with the idiom or why I would be called the name. I’d asked for enlightenment from a Black coworker, who promptly collapsed into hysterical giggles over my Yankee ignorance. “It’s the equivalent of you calling one of us the N-word,” she explained between chuckles. Oh. Well, I was still mystified as to why just walking down a sidewalk, minding my own business, should result in such an outburst, but at least I knew now that I’d been wise to ignore it.

Now, many years later and once again living in the home of my ignorant Northern roots, I found myself explaining to my fellow Yankee Black coworkers the actual meaning of the British phrase “totally crackers”. I could see that they remained unconvinced. To them, the word meant, would always mean, a rather nasty insult.

Is it any wonder that people can’t get along, when our very means of communication, language, trips us up this way? When, to a Brit, even the phrase “get along” sounds odd and wrong, and should more correctly be phrased “get on”? I also recall reading that the name of the main character in the Disney cartoon “Moana” had to be changed prior to the movie’s release in Italy because it was, most unfortunately, all too similar to the name of a well-known Italian porn star. Ooops.

Bad enough that a name should cause such consternation. But even the smallest of common phrases become mangled and altered enough to cause confusion. For instance, I grew up hearing only the expression “set foot”. That made sense to me (and still does); one sets a foot down. Now the more commonly used phrase is “step foot”, which sounds both curious and grammatically wrong to my ears. One steps into something, or just steps. A foot steps, but one does not step a foot.

Yet I’ve also learned that two of the idioms I’ve heard and used throughout my entire life are, in fact, quite incorrect: “You’ve got another thing coming”; and, “That’s that”. Apparently, the correct phrases are “You’ve got another THINK coming” and, “That’s FLAT.” Having never heard or read these sayings expressed in this manner until I’d reached my 50s, I simply can’t say them that way. I will never be able to use either axiom except as I’ve done my entire life.

This makes me sympathetic toward younger people when I hear them say “on accident”, even if I can’t accept the idiom, cringing when it’s spoken. The grammatically correct phrase is “by accident” – by meaning “via” or “by way of”. For some reason, the phrase mutated during a recent generation, and so now younger people have heard it as “on accident” throughout their lives. However incorrect the phrase may be, that is what they have always heard, and that is what they are always are going to prefer.

As I mentioned once to an acquaintance, language does evolve, else we’d all still be speaking and writing like Chaucer. (In fact, somewhere in my distant, misty past I read a poem that ended by making just that point. Unfortunately, three separate search engines and multiple wordings of the question have failed to bring up either the poem or the author.) But whether that evolution is a good or a bad thing probably falls into the category of personal preference.

For myself, whether or not my fellow ignorant Yankees have encountered the phrase, I imbibed the expression from my Scottish coworker, and so I’ll go on occasionally saying that things and people are totally crackers, despite shocked reactions from some acquaintances. Although, come to think of it, after six seasons and two movies’ worth of exposure to Downtown Abbey, people living both north and south of the Mason Dixon Line might now be more familiar with the British idiom.

But I’ll just never be able to “step foot” into a room or “have another think coming”. I’ll never meet someone “on accident”, and that’s just that, not flat.

It’s all just totally crackers.

Language does indeed evolve, as I first pointed out in “Pennies, Headlights, and Bubonic Plague”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on August 7, 2018.