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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Savage Reviewer

§   I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews.  §

The ability to read online book reviews written by everyday readers instead of some pompous newspaper critic has been, I find, a marvelous advancement of the digital age. I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews of every book that I finish (as well as a few books so bad that I do not finish them!)

Recently, I scrolled through the site where I post my reviews, re-reading some I’d submitted when I first began writing them a few years ago. It occurred to me as I perused my earlier reviews that I was a lot more hesitant to criticize—much kinder, and certainly far more generous–when I was initially writing book reviews. Now, having gotten into the swing of the game, I’ve become far more critical…and a lot more honest.

All this was running through my thoughts a few months ago as I reviewed a book I’d selected due to an intriguing plot summary. The novel, the very first by brand-new author, had only 10 reviews, all of them 5-Star ratings. Not being a complete moron, I knew that meant that the book had been reviewed only by loving family and non-critical friends. Nevertheless, the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance. And at first it seemed my gamble was justified; I liked the opening paragraphs; the tale seemed to be well-written–a rarity in these days of self-publishing–and the main character was a likeable woman. (There are few things worse than slogging through an interesting novel in which the main character is an irritating, self-serving asshole.)

Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there. I finished reading the whole the novel, although I have to say in all honesty that I did so only because I need to remark upon ALL the book’s failings, not just those found at the halfway point where I really gave up. No, I tortured myself all the way through the book, feeling I should provide multiple facts to counteract all those glowing 5-star reviews. Yet even as I typed the 2-Star review that I eventually submitted, I felt a current of guilt. Although not so much savage as straightforward, my words were bound to make the inexperienced author cringe, perhaps even cry. I sighed and reminded myself that I was attempting to save other readers from wasting their hard-earned money on this schlock. And, I consoled myself, who knew? If the author took my criticisms to heart, perhaps my honest, unflattering remarks might help her get to her next, much better, book–or even a revised edition of this sad attempt. Or so I told myself.

I was far less plagued by guilt over another very unflattering review I wrote for a novel which, despite yet one more promising plot summary and multiple flattering reviews, turned out to be unreadable. Simply unreadable. And that was a tragedy, because, with appropriate assistance—and if some of those flattering reviewers could have been honest—the book might have been great.

But the novel, a mystery, had been written in English by someone for whom English was quite obviously a second language. And while, technically, the author’s grasp of the language was excellent, well, God is in the details. And the details sucked.

The story began in a snowstorm. I think I finally gave up on the book about the third time I read the repetitive sentence, “The snow was hailing…”. Hailing?  What? Was the snow calling for a taxi? As I pointed out in my review, snow can fall. Hail can fall. It can be snowing. It can be hailing. But the snow can’t hail.

Then there was the fact that the car, a Rolls Royce, was constantly referred to as a Royce. Uh, nope. The casual reference is a Rolls. This minor but irritating error continued for page after page, setting my teeth on edge.

But the crowning blow was the sentence remarking that the only thing the characters could see was a “giant pile of snow blocking the road thanks to the car’s headlights.”

Oh, dear. A host of teachers from my distant past, probably all now long dead, rose up in protest.

As written, the sentence indicated that the snow was blocking the road because of the car’s headlights. I genuinely laughed out loud (sadly) reading that fractured sentence, correcting it in my mind to, “The only thing they could see, thanks to the car’s headlights, was the giant pile of snow…” (I shall I forbear even to mention that a “giant pile of snow” would generally be referred to as a snowdrift.)

Just before writing this essay, I reread my review of that novel. It was, as the title to this post implies, savage. Then, with equal honesty, I examined my own writing in this essay.

Yep, far from perfect.

But I was saved from abject embarrassment by two facts: First, I am not writing for publication, but for my own pleasure; and, second, I am not asking anyone to PAY for what I’ve written.

So as long as authors continue with those two objectives, well, I’ll just continue to style myself  The Savage Reviewer.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “To Review or Not Review”,
which you may find in the archives on 12/13/2017.  You might also like the upcoming post, “Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them?”, to be published soon.)

What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.

Mutton, Craft Beer and Desktops

§   A hive mentality must be genetically embedded somewhere in the human brain, for most of us are heavily invested in trying to force others do things our way.  § 

I have shortcuts scattered all over the desktop of my PC. Shortcuts to documents, to folders, to my blog, to my recipe books, all dot the landscape of my desktop photo. These shortcuts are carefully arranged in very specific order, and in most cases I’ve chosen unique icons for each, making it easy for me to quickly select the correct shortcut. Yet when I visit “how to” computer instruction sites, my habit of strewing my desktop with shortcuts is inevitably disparaged. According to the experts, my “cluttered” desktop is almost an affront.

I shrug. I like it; they don’t.

As I once pointed out in a earlier blog on this site, most of us are heavily invested in trying to force others do things our way, to like the things we like, and vice versa. A hive mentality must be genetically embedded somewhere in the human brain, for this common behavior causes a raft of troubles, from Twitter wars over whether Indian food is terrible,  to political parties, right on up the turnpike to things like Crusades for “the one true” faith.

I recall a friend who, hoping to reenergize her dating life, began spending weekend evenings at craft beer establishments. Urging me to join her in this pastime, she told me that she’d never previously liked beer, but she now enjoyed it. I shrugged. I rarely drink more than the occasional glass of cheap, sweet wine. I have absolutely no palate, and I’m comfortable with that; besides, I’ve always found beer disgusting. I’d sipped a craft beer once and found it no better tasting than the nasty, yeasty drinks that I’d always loathed. I dislike the atmosphere of most bars, as well, so an evening spent swilling down alcohol while having my ears assaulted by too-loud music and attempting to make conversation with total strangers held no appeal. I made it clear to my friend that I wasn’t interested. Yet for months she continued to hammer away at me, hoping to persuade me to join her in one of these outings. “I didn’t like beer either until I tried this!” she repeated ad nauseum, as if by sheer repetition she could convince me.

It was as futile an attempt on her part as those of friends and relatives who try to convert me to an appreciation of Brussel sprouts by dabbing them with olive oil and garlic and broiling them crisply. Underneath it all, it’s still a Brussels sprout. (I understand the British eat Brussels sprouts at Christmas, which along with cold toast explains a lot to me about their culture.)

Actually, a British acquaintance of my mother once mentioned to her that he found mutton inedible. She accepted this and repeated it several times, but not as something her friend described. Instead, she proclaimed, “Mutton is inedible.” Finally, goaded, I asked her, “Uh, Mom, when have you ever eaten mutton?” “It’s inedible,” she insisted. “But how do you know?” I persisted. “A lot of people eat mutton. Just because one person says it’s inedible doesn’t make it so; it’s a matter of personal taste.”  I reminded her of my Grandma Marie’s story of serving roast duck to my grandfather, who loved it, although all the rest of their relatives declared it too greasy a fowl to be edible. “It’s all a matter of personal taste,” I argued to my mother, who shook her head in irritation and informed me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Mutton may very well be disgusting; I would not know, since I’ve never eaten it, nor roast duck, either. But the point at the heart of this matter is, I think, that of accepting individuality: allowing others their preferences. I prefer a PC desktop that is scattered about with carefully arranged, unique icons leading me with a quick click to exactly the documents and photos I want; a computer purist finds this untenable. I can barely swallow a Brussels sprout no matter how cleverly hidden in broiled spices; others devour them in delight and serve them up as a Christmas dish. An Indian coworker served me many of her home cooked dishes, and I found most of them too spicy for my taste and unpalatable. Yet many of our fellow employees gobbled her food with pleasure. Personal preference. Varying taste buds. Perhaps even something encoded into our DNA.

Much like my craft beer-loving friend, my Indian acquaintance never ceased trying to find dishes that I enjoyed. Occasionally, she even succeeded, since several of the foods she served me were at least preferable to Brussels sprouts.

Yet still, I find myself despairing, for when will we each ever learn to just allow others their preferences, and cease urging them to adopt our quirks and choices?

No matter what, though, I’m keeping my icon-bespattered PC desktop.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Roses of the Soul”,
which you may find in the archives on 12/16/2017)

The Best Revenge (Part 2)

§ At one point or another, we all endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. §

Not long after I bought my little condo, I experienced a series of water-themed disasters. First, my dishwasher began pumping water onto the kitchen floor one Saturday afternoon. I frantically called a repairman who quickly located a small piece of piping that had separated, and fixed it easily. Only a few weeks later, though, as I was both running the dishwasher and doing laundry, I heard the toilet in the half-bath begin making disturbing “burps”. It sounded as though a giant with a bad case of indigestion was lodged inside the pipes! A few minutes later, both washing machine and dishwasher began to drain right onto my already-abused kitchen floor.

After another plumber had cleared out the latest problem, I thought all would be well—until the Saturday that I came downstairs from my morning shower to find my unfortunate kitchen flooded once more.

After locating a plumber who actually knew what he was doing to diagnose and clear the real problem, I found myself sitting with my coworkers the following Monday, bemoaning the mess and expense I’d incurred. Some of the women responded with tales of their own home disasters, many of them far worse than mine, and we commiserated. But the woman sitting across from me looked up from her phone long enough to say in a patronizing tone, “Yeah, well, welcome to homeownership.”

I didn’t reply to her snippy remark, but it stung, especially because a relative had made almost precisely the same reply to my tale of woe. I thought at that time, just as I’d thought in response to Ms. Patronizing’s remark, that the comment was not just unsympathetic; it was rude.

Oddly enough, though, when I began to pay more attention to similar situations, I found that uncaring and insensitive remarks were rife whenever a person dared to discuss an unfortunate circumstance in her or his life. And, surprisingly, these snarky statements were most often made by some individual who had endured a comparable problem.

I found this bewildering. Surely, I thought, surely having been in the same position would make one sympathetic to the plight of anyone who was undergoing a similar difficulty. But that didn’t seem to be the case. It was as if many of those who’d undergone a challenging situation seemed to feel that this entitled them to belittle the experience of anyone else who endured the something similiar.  They apparently felt the need to take the distressed individual down a peg.

Unkind remarks and a demonstrable lack of empathy were, I realized, a roundabout way of announcing, “Hey, I’ve had bad times, too. Tough shit. Deal with it. And don’t expect any sympathy from me.”

In one way, I suppose, this makes sense: all of us, at one point or another, endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. But while a few individuals will always whine endlessly over their unfortunate events, expecting everyone within range to proffer them tea and sympathy, the majority of us, describing our problems, are just looking for a listening ear, a nod of understanding; perhaps even advice. To be responded to instead with curt, snide comments is distressing. And to be the person making those comments is simply unnecessary–cruel and unnecessary. There is just no need to compound the unhappiness of someone already in distress.

But, in closing, let me return to the memory of those early mornings with my coworkers, wallowing in coffee and gossip before the day’s labors began. A few months after my series of minor household disasters, Ms. Patronizing joined us before work one morning, and, plopping down into her chair, announced that her bathroom shower was unusable. Her adolescent daughter had been dancing in the shower the night before; while flinging her arms about wildly, she’d struck the tiled wall, only to have it crumble and collapse around her. A small, unnoticed leak from the pipe behind the wall had slowly but surely destroyed the integrity of the structure, and the results were horrendous. Shoulders hunched, head in one hand, my coworker moaned that she was looking at major repairs to her bathroom.

I remembered her snide comment in response to my own series of water-related disasters, and considered for just a moment how utterly delicious it might be to fling her words back at her head. But then I took a breath and said gently, “That really just plain sucks. I wouldn’t wish that kind of trouble on anyone. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Sometimes the very best revenge is simply to do the right thing.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge”
in the Archives from February 5, 2018, or “My Nosy Encounter”, May 13, 2020

Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oprah’s Brown Satin Gown

§ Perhaps it’s not always about race. §

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

Brown Satin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the Office: Under the Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works like a charm, every time.

To Wash or Not to Wash: No Question!

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

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

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

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

Eeewww.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proudly a Cynic

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

I’m proud of being somewhat cynical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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