Be Back Soon

I haven’t written in ages, and it feels odd to say how off-track I’ve gotten with school and writing. It’s been a busy spring and summer. I am currently on vacation, sitting on a canal boat in Wrenbury in the UK. While I struggle with spotty WiFi, it’s made up for by the lovely sights, sounds, and smells of the canal and surrounding countryside. I have loads of ideas for stories and essays ahead, including the funny one about meeting the Red Imps football/soccer team from Gibraltar on a quayside on the canal. For now, I will sign off with promises to get back into writing mode in August. Off to return our rented canal boat, Cobb’s Wren, to the marina and catch a train to Oxford! If that doesn’t inspire me to mental activity, I don’t know what will!

I put a spell on you…

Let me start by saying I know nothing about the religion of Voodoo (or Vodou, considered by scholars to be the more appropriate spelling). I am sure it has been drastically misrepresented in television and the movies. The religion originates in Africa, but is different in the various places it is practiced. As practiced in the Americas (most famously in New Orleans in North America) and the Caribbean, it combines African, Catholic, and Native American traditions. Voodoo is not necessarily a cult, or violent, or the black magic it’s been portrayed to be, and my understanding is that most people who are Voodooists have never seen or used a Voodoo doll. (If interested, you can read more about Voodoo the religion in Saumya Arya Haas’s article for the Huffington Post.)

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Voodoo festival in Benin, image from cnn.com

I, however, am fascinated by Voodoo dolls. I have a few, not a lot, that are not meant to represent anyone in particular and I don’t stick pins in them or anything. Mostly, I think they are terribly cute.

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My Voodoo dolls. Cute! And their powers are for good, not evil.

At least the ones you used to be able to buy from places like Jamie Hayes Gallery in New Orleans are cute. I bought a couple of dolls the week I was there between Christmas and New Years in 2009. In the gallery window was a Christmas tree decorated with little dolls, and I thought it was about the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. )Looking at the website now, I don’t see any dolls.) These are the dolls I bought at the gallery:

I love these 2 in particular because they remind me of another cute overload duo–Hoops and Yoyo™ from Hallmark.

Hoops and Yoyo for real

Hoops and Yoyo™ crack me up. My inner 12-year old takes over at certain moments, and she will almost always choose Hoops and Yoyo™ if choosing a card for someone (given that humor is appropriate; I do have some common sense).

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The tiny Mariposa doll was a gift from a very dear friend who always knows what to pick up for me on her travels.

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Tiny Mariposa. Use the cat hair under her feet for scale.

Mariposa, a string doll from Watchover Voodoo, has a particular assignment and was thoughtfully chosen for my needs:

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My first experience with a real life Voodoo was at a job, a job I loved but unfortunately didn’t stay at long. And no, that had nothing to do with the presence of a Voodoo doll in the boss’s desk drawer. The Voodoo doll was meant to represent the former boss, who had left suddenly and vaulted the new boss into the position with little notice or preparation. In times of stress, New Boss would secretly take out the Voodoo doll of Old Boss and stick a pin or two into her, and then get back to work. The secret didn’t stay secret, but given what a cool and unflappable (being sarcastic there) group of women we were, none of us thought too much about it. It was an amusing way of relieving stress. If Watchover Voodoo had existed back in the early 1990s (or, if online shopping had existed, which, believe it or not children, there was such a time), New Boss might have bought Watchover Voodoo’s the Stress Reducer, the Love Your Job, or even the Ninja.

I myself am partial to, besides Mariposa, the Bad Hair Day (I have a lot of those), the Pixie, the Loner, and the Nice One. Sometimes I really need the Scatterbrain. Take a look at the collection; there’s one for everyone and every need!

I might have made a Voodoo doll once, but I won’t go into too many details except to say I was at a very low point in my life and I was really furious at the person whose name and image the doll carried. I did stab the doll through its little heart a few times. Did it make me feel better? Absolutely, for a minute or two. Did it make a difference? Not at all.

This brings to mind the whole concept of magical thinking, which I’ve always found myself doing, but hadn’t thought about as a concept or applied a name to it until I read the Augusten Burroughs memoir Magical Thinking: True Stories (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

Best known for the memoir Running with Scissors (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), Burroughs does not shy away from the personal and painful while still mananaging to be funny.

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From the site GoodTherapy.org:

Magical thinking is the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. It is common in very young children. A four-year-old child, for example, might believe that after wishing for a pony, one will appear at his or her house. Magical thinking is also colloquially used to refer more broadly to mystical, magical thoughts, such as the belief in Santa Claus, supernatural entities, and miraculous occurrences.

My experience as an adult with magical thinking runs along the line of the belief that I am bad luck for the San Francisco Giants so I shouldn’t watch their games on television (e.g., if I root for them they will lose, but if I don’t pay attention, they will win). Or if I wish really hard, that pair of shoes I really want will go on sale. Magical thinking can be totally harmless, but can also be correlated with mental health conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Does love invite magical thinking? (I just stole that line from the book The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.)

Joan Didion also wrote a memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which magical thinking plays into her journey through grief in the year following the death of her husband, while she also cared for her comatose daughter, who also eventually passed away.

We see athletes who never vary their pregame rituals or their approach to their turn at bat, say. I’m thinking of San Francisco Giant Pablo Sandoval there.

Or former Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who was reported never to wash his trusty cap, but to spray it with Febreze fabric refresher once in a while, for luck.

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You can call it superstition or magical thinking or delusion or irrational or whatever you want (or unhygienic in the cap case). But does it work? According to a 2009 article by Piercarlo Valdesolo for Scientific American, it can give people an edge. Lucky charms do have power, not because they are indeed magical, but because we believe they are.

Rituals, signs, omens. They’ve been part of the human psyche forever. Supersitions and the belief in luck are reported to have an evolutionary basis. The cave person who runs from the rustling in the bushes survives, whether it’s a fanged and hungry carnivorous beastie or the wind.

Many writers have compiled encyclopediae of superstitions.

Some of the described superstitions are amusing, others not so much. For instance, diagonal windows in Vermont are called witch windows, due to the belief that a witch can’t fly a broomstick through them.

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A witch window. Eccentric but harmless.

At the animal shelter, we see more often than you might think people who will not consider adopting black cats. And some shelters will not adopt out black cats at Halloween to prevent animal torture.

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All of that aside, lucky charms and rituals provide us with comfort and a feeling that we can somehow control the chaos of life. I’m okay with that! Much less fattening than a bowl of macaroni and cheese, even the vegan kind.

vegan mac and cheese
Vegan mac and cheese recipe available at The Organic Authority.

So now I bring out my magic wand and take you back to the magical and simpler time of 1982 and the band that was known as America.

My magical powers are perhaps limited. I can make a great vegan muffin. And make it disappear as well! I can try to make Einstein see the wisdom of my words.

What I really can do is choose how I live in this world. And I choose, to the best of my ability, to live a good life, a life of love and kindness, and a belief in the magic of happiness. Perhaps the beautiful and inspirational Audrey Hepburn said it best.

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Peace and hugs.

Remember Proverbs (Cultivate Kindness)

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That’s something I never thought I’d do: start an essay by referring to the Bible (or any other religious text). It’s so not my style. First of all, I’ve never read the Bible so quoting the Bible or anything remotely Biblical is beyond me. The Bible would be one of my nightmare categories if I ever competed on Jeopardy! or any other quiz show. Along with sports and pretty much anything to do with geography.

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I think of myself as more of a secular pagan (if there is such a thing) than anything else: I love feasting and gift giving but for reasons of all kinds and on a daily basis, not because of any religious foundations. I’d much rather celebrate solstices, equinoxes, the seasons and nature. And kindness as an everyday way of life. Which leads me to Proverbs.

I didn’t get there by myself. The author Alex George took me there in his book Setting Free the Kites.

On page 39, the main character Robert, after the new kid at school, Nathan, defends him from the school bully, is being told by his mother, ” ‘So now he needs you to be kind back. Remember Proverbs: Do not let kindness and truth leave you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart.’ She smiled at me, and I knew the game was up.”

Do not let kindness and truth leave you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. 

This struck me as possibly one of the most important things I’d read in a long time. (If you must know, it’s Proverbs 3:3, according to Google.) Words spoken by Solomon, who I was thinking about just the other day. Really.

A story I do remember hearing often is that of two women both claiming that they are the mother of a fought-over baby and King Solomon, deciding the case, advises cutting the baby in half. I was always horrified by what was called the wisdom of Solomon. But of course the upshot is that he correctly surmises that the woman who says she will give up the baby is the real mother. In her love, she’d rather give him up than have him hurt.

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Maybe the story wouldn’t have scared me as much if I’d seen it told with Legos.

I have to remind myself every day to be kind. As much as I wish it always came naturally to me, it doesn’t. People try my patience and elude my understanding. I find myself being judgmental, envious, dismissive. Working in an animal shelter, I see both the best and worst in human nature. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, part of the unpredictability of being human.

I felt called upon to be Solomon not so long ago when two women were arguing over who should get to adopt a particular dog. Would Solomon have suggested cutting the dog in two and seeing how the women reacted? Neither was willing to step back and let the other adopt the dog. I had to make a decision based on our first come, first served policy. Whatever my decision, one of the women was going to be very angry with me. My interior voice was saying that there are plenty of little brown Chihuahuas (also called LBDs, Little Brown Dogs) to go around so let’s not argue over that particular one, but I can’t say those things out loud. I really don’t like the feeling of having made someone angry and unhappy. And if I had handled it better, two dogs would have gone to new homes, not just one.

I wish I had remembered the wisdon of William Ury rather than Solomon. Ury is a noted writer, speaker, negotiator, and helped found the International Negotation Network with former United States President Jimmy Carter.

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William Ury

Here’s his amazing TED talk, The Road to Yes.

 

I am familiar with William Ury from his book The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop.

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I automatically went to the role of arbiter in the dog dispute, but I could have explored other roles. If I’d only had the book with me and the time to consult it! As an introvert operating in an extrovert job, I find myself not always thinking fast on my feet. I like to mull things over, reflect, and formulate my responses. I’m terrible at witty answers to stupid questions, too.

One of my go-to sources on postings about life as an introvert is Introvert, Dear. I’m not alone in my need for time to respond. Plus, if I said the first thing that comes to mind, I could get in a lot of trouble.

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The motto “the customer is always right” really sucks sometimes. Because the customer isn’t always right. Alexander Kjerulf listed 5 reasons why the motto is wrong:

  1. It make employees unhappy. True. We take a lot of bad mouthing and abuse and smile while we do it.
  2. It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage. Absolutely. Squeaky wheel syndrome. Bad behavior is rewarded.
  3. Some customers are bad for business. Yes, anyone causing a ruckus at any place of business will turn off other customers and they will go elsewhere. Or we will get a bad Yelp review.
  4. It results in worse customer service. If we are tired, humiliated, frustrated, we may unintentionally reflect that to clients who are there with the best of intentions.
  5. Some customers are just plain wrong. They are. And sometimes we have to convey that to prevent harm to an animal. Tactfully, of course. Our ulitmate priority is the health and safety of the people and the animals we serve.

I can list many examples of all of these points, some funny (the male dog returned after 2 hours because the woman felt awkward explaining to her 6 year old about male body parts), some sad (the elderly woman who fell in love with and wanted to adopt a particular dog but her son said no because he didn’t like the breed mix), some infuriating (people who insist on animals living outdoors despite evidence that animals who live indoors with their human families generally live longer, healthier lives), some downright puzzling (the woman who pointed to a kitten and asked “do you have that one in gray” as if she were shoe shopping). And don’t get me started on some of the phone calls we field!

John Cleese
“You want me to come catch the wild turkey in your office parking lot?”

We all have bad days, make mistakes, could use a little leeway. I try to keep that in mind with the people I deal with. I wish everyone kept that in mind when dealing with others: we don’t know what another person might be going through, what might be making them act they way they do, what their story is.

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In a world where you can be anything, be kind. To each other, to animals, to the earth. To yourself.

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A song I adore (got to get a musical reference in here somewhere!) that speaks to love, kindness, and writing them on the tablet of your heart is Clem Snide’s Find Love. Love is an infinite commodity. The more we give, the more we have.

 

I do have a quibble with Proverbs. Our hearts are not tablets. That to me implies stone, a hard substance that wears away with time. I think of the metaphorical heart as able to grow, to be nourished and to provide sustenance, more like a garden. Apparently Jesus said that hearts are like gardens too (I didn’t know that, I just Googled “the heart is a garden”). I also discovered a poem by Katherine Merrill, Heart’s Garden.

Heart’s Garden

By Katherine Merrill

My heart is a garden where thought flowers grow.
The thoughts that I think are the seeds that I sow.
Every kind loving thought bears a kind loving deed,
And a thought that is selfish is just like a weed.

So I must watch what I think each minute each day,
Pull out the weed thoughts and throw them away,
And plant loving seed thoughts so thick in a row,
There will not be room for weed thoughts to grow.

Buddha also compared the heart to a garden. As did Oscar Wilde. I feel like I am in such good company on this one!

buddha

Oscar Wilde

If this is too high-minded for you, think of Dr. Suess’s character the Grinch and his tiny little heart that grows when he discovers the power of love and kindness.

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You might have noticed I haven’t addressed the truth side of the Proverbs quote. Is it possible to have kindness without honesty? Honesty without compassion is cruelty, I’ve heard someone say. Bruce Kasanoff writes about the downside of honesty without compassion. Maybe brutal honesty is just brutality. Michelle Reid addresses the question of whether honesty and kindness can coexist, and they can, if we stop and think before we speak. And I’d add, reread and think before you hit send on a text or email.

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If I am honest with myself at this moment, I should go fold that load of laundry waiting in the basket. But I’m going to choose kindness, and get back to my reading.

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Peace and hugs.

Sunshine on My Shoulders and Other Small Victories (and Some Small Acts of Anarchy)

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I was enjoying a nice lunch break at work one day last week, and was pleased to notice while enjoying the warmth of the sun that my socks not only matched each other and my shoes matched each other, but my socks matched my shoes. It made me so happy, and on one of those days when I was feeling behind on everything at home and perhaps a bit stretched at work, it felt like such a victory. A small victory perhaps, but embracing those victories helps me keep my well-dressed feet on the ground, so to speak.

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Especially working in the world of animal rescue, it can be easy to slip into the feeling of never getting anywhere. For every animal successfully placed into a loving home, there are countless more that need help. The spay/neuter message is not getting out to people, if the number of kittens coming into shelter right now is any indication. On some days, it seems like we have more animals coming into the shelter than going out. Believe me, I love fostering kittens during so-called kitten season, but I wish there wasn’t so much need for it.

me with fosters
I love these little cuties, but I wish there weren’t so many homeless kittens that need our help.

 

My way of coping, and staying firmly planted on the sunny side of the street (my preferred side of the street and of life), is to focus on the small victories.

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Celebrate the one cat that did get a wonderful home.

Read a book.

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Take a break and walk around the neighborhood admiring the trees and flowers. Sing a song, loudly and out of tune, in the car on the way to work. It’s okay to have a moment of happiness in these troubled times. Even keeping up with the laundry is a victory to celebrate some days. And at an animal shelter, we have a LOT of laundry! When it’s neatly folded and stowed on the nicely labeled shelves, it’s a thing of beauty.

 

 

Other victories, built on baby steps over the years, involve me driving on my own to places I never would have before. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my early 30s. Then I didn’t drive on the freeway until I was about 40. Of course, the Google Maps lady on my iPhone has made a huge difference in my bravery. (I have remarkably poor orientation for someone who used to draft maps as part of my job.) Yesterday, I celebrated 2 victories–driving the shelter van on the freeway, and driving it with animals inside! I feel extra apprehensive when I am responsible for lives other than my own.

 

The caption to this cartoon is about happiness. I celebrate these examples as small victories as well.

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I prefer the middle brownie to the edge one. Notice that the laundry theme comes up again.

 

Sitting out in the sunshine (that’s where I started this conversation) can itself be a small victory on a busy day.

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I have been revisiting John Denver’s song catalog lately, mostly inspired by Sunshine on My Shoulders. It’s a sweet, simple, but poignant song, and a good reminder to embrace feelings of happiness and joy, however small they might seem.

 

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John Denver, 1943-1997.

 

Near the end of John Denver’s life, people made fun of him. It was cool to NOT like John Denver. I always liked John Denver, but I went through that period of wanting to fit in so badly that I pretended NOT to like things and people that I did and to like things I people that maybe I didn’t care about as much. I feel really bad about that now. John Denver, if you can hear me from wherever sing/songwriter souls go when they pass along to the next stage, I apologize and I proudly sing Sunshine on My Shoulders again.

 

 

I remember the anti-John Denver sentiment from the period when he was lobbying to be the first civilian in space on the Space Shuttle Challenger. The punch line was “Help send John Denver into space–one way!”  He didn’t go on the Challenger mission in 1986. When the Challenger exploded on take off, NASA’s plans to send civilians into space were ended. All 7 crew members were killed. I remember watching the tragedy on television.

 

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The Challenger crew.

 

John Denver was a flawed human being, absolutely. But every one of us is flawed. It doesn’t mean we should hold him up in disdain for the contradictions between his clean, wholesome (okay, nerdy) image and his battles with drugs, alcohol, and marital infidelity. At one point in the 1980s, the University of Colorado campus newspaper ran an essay contest called “When did you first learn to hate John Denver?” And there’s the rub. I never hated him. I just pretended to, which is even worse. Peer pressure is, in my opinion, a form of bullying. And that is not cool.

 

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Excluding others and bullying, not cool. I’m with her.

 

I was never cool or popular, and I cared a little too much about it as a teenager and young adult. I agonized over what to wear, who to like, why boys ignored me. At one point I tried a little too hard to break out of my introvert shell and had a disastrous tryout for high school cheerleader. It was bad. Really bad. Humiliating. I never did that again!

 

 

But people were kind to me afterward, not cruel as so easily could have been the case. Now, I still care maybe a little too much about what others think of me, but I am much more accepting of who I am and what makes me happy.

I have fond memories of watching The John Denver Show on television in the early 1970s. In 1974, his Back Home Again album was a hit, mostly because of the songs Thank God I’m a Country Boy and Annie’s Song. The song my friends and I loved to sing was Grandma’s Feather Bed (written by Jim Conner), to which we not only sang, but jumped up and down on the beds and had pillow fights to while singing along.

 

Jumping on beds while having pillow fights is one of those acts of anarchy and rebellion we cherish as children. I still have my acts of anarchy, too. Mostly they revolve around socks with attitude. I might be smiles and sunshine to all appearances, but my socks are telling it like it is. Of course, no one sees the socks unless I pull up my pant legs, but I know what they say. I have socks for every mood. I love my Blue Q socks. They make me feel victorious.

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Today, I am the Duchess of Sassy Town.

 

I throw off the yoke of oppression and declare my love for John Denver songs, the Hallmark Channel, and the ocassional romance novel. Call me sentimental, silly, whatever. I don’t care and you can kiss my grits if you don’t like it! (Southern sayings are great, by the way.)

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Love the things you love, don’t pretend to love the things you don’t (unless tact and good manners make it the kind choice), and celebrate the small victories.

 

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How can you not tickle that belly?

 

As soon as I am done tickling this kitten, I am going to go sing while folding laundry, and then maybe sneak in a few minutes with a good book. Best day ever.

 

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Peace and hugs.

 

 

Five Little Poopers and How They Grew (apologies to Margaret Sidney)

We have foster kittens in the house again! Beautiful momma cat Cola arrived to us with her 1 week old babies Squirt, Soda, Pop, Fizz, and Bubbles, on April 2. In the week we have been watching them, they have shown so much change. I can sit and watch them for hours. And I do, believe me, much to the chagrin of my instructors at Saybrook University, who keep waiting for me to submit this semester’s essays on the human animal bond. Instead of writing about it, I am living it! They have me mesmerized.

Here is the family on the first day they came to stay with us.

 

 

These little bundles of love and joy get bigger, stronger, and more active every day. I feel so privileged to be a part of their journey to finding new homes with loving human families.

It was a bit of a challenge to sort out which little one is which, but on the day of their first weigh-in we tried our best.

Day 7 collage

I’ve been waiting for a mom with 5 babies to come along just so I could use the title Five Little Poopers and How They Grew, a nod of a sort to Margaret Sidney’s series of books, Five Little Peppers. The first in a series of 12 books (published 1881-1916), The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a childhood favorite of mine. As I’ve written before, as the youngest child of a young, pretty widow, I was fascinated by stories of widowed mothers with spunky children, everyone pitching in and getting into all kinds of hijinks.

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Margaret Sidney was the psuedonym of Harriet Mulford Stone Lathrop (1844 – 1924).

Five Little Peppers book cover

Margaret Sidney considered the series done after 4 books, but pressure from her fans prompted her to keep writing. The series, in order:

  • Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)
  • Five Little Peppers Midway (1890)
  • Five Little Peppers Grown Up (1892)
  • Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper (1897)
  • Five Little Peppers: The Stories Polly Pepper Told (1899)
  • Five Little Peppers: The Adventures of Joel Pepper (1900)
  • Five Little Peppers Abroad (1902
  • Five Little Peppers At School (1903)
  • Five Little Peppers and Their Friends (1904)
  • Five Little Peppers: Ben Pepper (1905)
  • Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (1907)
  • Five Little Peppers: Our Davie Pepper (1916)
all 12 books
Someday I will own them all!
kindle collection
For now, I will settle for the much cheaper alternative of the Kindle version of the complete set.

In 1939, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was released as a film, with Edith Fellows receiving top billing as sister Polly.

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The cast of the film version of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939).

 

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Of course, as the youngest in my family, my favorite Pepper was baby sister Phronsie (short for Saphronia). She was also the sibling saddled with the least common name in the family, another trait I share with her. In the film version, she was played by adorable little Dorothy Ann Seese.

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Dorothy Ann Seese (1935-2015) was considered to have the potential of Shirley Temple. She appeared in 11 films between 1939 and 1955. She became a data analyst and then a paralegal.

When I finally saw the movie, not so long ago, I became seriously concerned for the kitten actor who appears as a gift to Phronsie. Phronsie hauls that poor little thing around like an old sock, and I became concerned for the welfare of that long gone cat.

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Phronsie and her kitten.

Apparently I’m not the only one who was concerned for the kitten. I found pictures of the kitten in several scenes, marked with a red arrow to show that the kitten was alive and kicking and still in the movie.

 

I’ve been oddly fascinated with the number 5 recently. Biblically, the number 5 supposedly signifies the grace of God because man was created with 5 fingers on each hand, 5 toes on each foot, and 5 senses. In other traditions and readings, the number 5 represents balance, health, love, marriage, the human (the 4 limbs and the head that controls them), peace, harmony…

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Other odd things about the number 5: there are 5 vowels in the English language, an earthworm has 5 hearts, many (but not all) starfish have 5 arms. Back to the Bible, David was armed with 5 stones when he killed Goliath. I am generally opposed to throwing stones at anyone or anything, but it’s a good story as far as parables go. With faith and determination, you can do what you set out to do.

5 stones

 

Legendary designer Coco Chanel considered 5 to be her lucky number. Her most successful and iconic perfume, Chanel No. 5, was released on May 5, 1922. She purportedly said, “I always launch my collection on the 5th day of the 5th month, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck – therefore, I will name it No 5.”

 

 

I am currently reading Louise Penny’s 9th novel in her Inspector Gamache series, titled How the Light Gets In. Gotta love a book that references singer/songwriter/poet/ordained Buddhist monk Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

 

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Here is the song performed by 2 amazing singers, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, who were both backup singers for Leonard Cohen, or his angels, as he called them.

 

In the Inspector Gamache book (yes, back to the book, there is a reason I brought it up), How the Light Gets In is a mystery surrounding the famous Ouellet quintuplets, a fictional set of 5 identical sisters based on the real-life Dionne quintuplets (born 1934) and the story of their family ceding custody of the girls to the government of Ontario, which made millions of dollars off of them a tourist attraction.

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Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn with the Dionne quintuplets.

The Dionne quints were the first known quintuplets to have survived infancy. In 1934, such a birth was headline news and not a common occurence. Now, with fertility drugs and medical interventions, such a story would not be the rarity it was then. In the midst of the Depression, the world was hungry for what they thought was a happy story. But the true story of the Dionne sisters is much darker; they were watched, examined, kept by Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe in his Dafoe Hospital and Nursery with the support of the Ontario government.

Quintland
Living facility constructed by the government of Ontario for the quintuplets, surrounded by barbed wire fencing. It became known as Quintland and was a tourist attraction.

 

The parents were poor, unable to make ends meet, and already had 5 older children to support, so the girls were taken away at 4 months of age, exploited, exhibited publicly several times a day. They didn’t see their parents Oliva-Edouard and Elzire Dionne until they were 9 years old, in 1943, when Oliva and Elzire won custody of the girls back from the government. In later years, the girls described being sexually abused by their father. They had all left home by the age of 18.

 

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Never thought of indvidually, sisters Annette, Émelie, Yvonne, Cécile, and Marie.

 

Émilie became a nun, but died young at age 20 from suffocation during a seizure. Marie died of a brain tumor at age 35. In the 1990s, surviving sisters Annette, Cécile, and Yvonne, living in poverty, received a settlement from the government, but it could, of course, not make up for the abuses they suffered. They also told their story in the book Family Secrets, with writer Jean-Yves Soucy. Yvonne died of cancer in 2001.

 

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Annette, Yvonne, and Cécile in 1998.

 

As far as I can tell, Annette and Cécile are still living.

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Cécile and Annette in 2017.

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Morbid curiosity on my part? Probably. Partly. It is a fascinating story. Not necessarily murderous as in the Louise Penny fictionalized version, but still dark and tragic.

 

 

As for my 5 little ones, their mother is taking quite good care of them, and they are on the path to very happy lives. Yes, I love to show pictures of them and it would be great for people to spend time with them, socializing them to human company. But I don’t get any benefit from them other than tremendous happiness and the feeling that I am doing something good in the world. Priceless.

 

 

I love all 5 of the babies, and their momma, to pieces and would never do anything to hurt them in any way. But I do want to share them with you. Everyone needs a little kitten photo break in their day.

Cola today
Mother cat Cola.
Squirt latest
Squirt, the only boy.
Soda latest
Lively adventurer Soda.
Pop latest
Serious looking Pop.

 

Fizz today
Curious Fizz.

 

Bubbles today
Tiny Bubbles, the smallest of the siblings. The smallest always holds a special place in my heart.

(I am aware that Tiny Bubbles is a 1966 song from singer Don Ho, but I am not going there right now. You’re welcome.)

I wish them loving adoptive families, long healthy lives, happiness cat-style, safety, delicious nutritious food, and bright sunny windows. That’s 5 things. I am sure I can come up with more, but this seems a fitting place to stop.

Consider fostering for your local shelter. You’ll be glad you did.

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Read books. Read every day. Seriously.

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Peace and hugs (and kittens).

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Beige is Not a Color

I love color, unapologetically and enthusiastically. Everywhere. In the landscape, in my closet, for my food, cars, house paints, you name it. Color makes me happy. Lack of color bums me out.

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So cheerful!

On a recent Project Runway Allstars, designer Isaac Mizrahi, in giving the contestants a color challenge, said that people crave color without knowing it. Then why were all of the designers so freaked out about using color? Over the years I have heard countless Project Runway hopefuls say they don’t use color or prints. Yes, many women are looking for that perfect little black dress. But if I had one, I would liven it up with an amazing splash of color. I don’t want to look like Wednesday Addams!

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Not my style.
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See, she has to accessorize with a cat to add some color, plus the contrast of the pink background. I admit I would wear a little black dress if I looked anything like Audrey Hepburn in one.

 

Mizrahi, although often dressed in black himself, is known for his use of color. At the exhibition Izaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, the Jewish Museum in New York showcased his high-end and colorful women’s fashions. Yes, there is some black in there, but it’s not what stands out to me.

 

 

I met a dear friend for coffee today, and for fun we went into Neiman Marcus just to look around. There were some spring pops of color, but still an awful lot of black and gray tones.

 

Even some of the art on display was black and white. It might be meant to denote a certain elegance, but to me it’s just dreary (the lack of color, not the painting).

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Judith Foosaner, Breaking and Entering #12, 2012, acrylic on paper on canvas, The Neiman Marcus Collection.

One window display did catch my eye, with 1960s inspired colorful print dress. Although the mannequin seems worried, or startled.

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Why are people afraid of color? Interior designer Maria Killam has a theory that people aren’t afraid of color, but of choosing the “wrong” color. Mother Nature doesn’t have such worries! In nature, fields of wildflowers grow in an amazing array of colors, yet many of us worry that mixed colors will clash when we choose clothing, paints, etc.

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Perfectly lovely color mixing.

Okay, I have a black and white cat, a white cat, and a beige dog. But my brown tabby girl–when you look at her coat it’s a wonderful mix of various shades of browns, oranges, black, white.

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Sara’s coat of many colors.
Marble
Marble’s coat is black and white, but his personality is colorful!

When I was a design student at UC Davis back in the “a long time ago” era, I had a professor, Richard Berteaux, who often said that beige is not a color. His own home was shades of pink varied to take advantage of the shifting sunlight. It certainly stood out among its dull, beige neighbor houses.

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Urban Dictionary’s definition of beige.

 

The architecture of Amsterdam is cheerful even in gloomy weather, with its bright palette and quirky facades. Compare that to Monte Vista Villas (silly name) in Oakland, which I see on my drive to and from work every day. Boring! And ugly, defacing the hillside, but that’s another story.

 

 

It was a mjor change in movies when Technicolor came in. In The Wizard of Oz (1939), when the movie shifts from black and white to color, it still is breathtaking all of these years later.

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In the film Pleasantville (1998), the characters and scenes emerge from black and white into color as the characters experience real emotions and change.

Pleasantville

The musical is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Who wants to see Joseph and the Black Overcoat? That sounds way too teen-angsty and sad.

Do you live in Technicolor or Film Noir?

 

 

I choose Technicolor!

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I embrace color!

Back when I had to sell my house in Napa, the realtor advised that I paint over my multicolor walls (they were the blues and yellows of Provence, like a Vincent van Gogh painting) and make it all white. Ick! I worked hard getting all of those colors together and on the walls! Plus I didn’t have the time or money or patience to repaint the house.

Cafe Terrace
Vincent van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888.

Bob welcomed color into our house when we went through a remodel a while back. Even the light switch plates are colorful. I’m so proud of him.

 

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Painting by local artist Carol Aust.
Warhol wall
Andy Warhol Endangered Species (1983) series prints.

My closet is colorful too. Once I wore my tangerine sherbet color jeans to work with a colorful t-shirt and a coworker said I looked like bubblegum. That’s okay with me!

 

 

I noticed today in a parking lot that most of the cars were black, white, or silver. Mine is a color called Laser Blue. Makes it easier to find.

 

 

 

Yesterday, I was at my fun Monday book arts class, where we were making little house books. I was the only one using a bright color. Everyone else was using muted yellows, greens, and blacks. Mine also has some black in it, but the predominant color is red.

 

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Good, whole foods are often in wonderful colors.

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Okay, the potatoes are brown, but they are so delicious, who cares?

 

I love playing with new mocktail recipes. My latest, in living (well, artificial) color, I dubbed The Shape of Water. Might be a little scary looking to some, but it was tasty and refreshing, a happy drink.

shape of water
The Shape of Water: mint, kiwi, lime, coconut water, sparkling water, and a splash of Torani blue raspberry syrup. Colorful and delicious!
shape of water film
Don’t worry, my mocktail, I promise, tastes nothing like the murky depths.

One area in which I am admittedly lacking in color–footwear. My mother always said that every woman should own at least one pair of red shoes. Working at an animal shelter, my shoes tend to comfortable, practical, and who-cares-if-they-get-dog-poop-on-them-able. On my days off, I aim for “no shoe” days of not leaving home. I think I need to get some red shoes. Not the evil, possess you and make you dance until you die kind from the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes. The happy, sparkly, magical kind from The Wizard of Oz.

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redslippers

So, I think I’ll make a colorful mocktail and do some online shopping, in my bare feet, for a colorful pair of shoes. Happy feet!

 

Cheers, and live your life in brilliant color.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

As with many of these musings, this one begins with a dream and a musical earworm. I dreamed that my family (a mixed lot of from throughout time and some people strictly from my imagination) moved into a house, an old, blue-painted, farmhouse in need of a lot of work but with some great features, and before even unpacking, my dream father-figure (one of the imaginary dream characters, oddly resembling the writer Michael Chabon) decided we were selling the house and moving. There was much interaction with realtors, cleaning up of the farmhouse, etc.

Chabon
Author Michael Chabon.

Moving has been a recurring theme in my life from the age of 10 through my adolescence and adulthood until I met Bob, who’s comfortingly happy in one place.

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Home is where the heart is.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve moved over the years. If my tally is correct, I moved 25 times between the years 1972 (Atlanta to Sacramento) and 2006 (from Napa to Oakland). Locations in between included Ashland, Oregon; Ankara, Turkey; Chico, California; and a long tour of Davis, California at 5 different addresses. I’m sure family and friends gave up trying to keep up with my changes of mailing address along the way.

demonic U-Haul
Demonic U-Haul, drawing by headexplodie.

Which brings me to the earworm, David Bowie’s 1972 song Changes. I was never a huge Bowie fan when he was alive, sad to say, but I’ve come to appreciate his work more in the last few years.

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Most of us want change at some point in our lives, whether to escape boredom or troubles, to challenge ourselves, to not be stagnant. In recovery circles, it’s called “doing a geographic”, and is not always the best approach. Such as in those 25 moves over 34 years–some were for good reasons (new jobs) and some were for the wrong reasons (unresolved unhappiness). My mother’s second husband put us through a few moves, usually for financial reasons (downward, not upward) and in one case, to escape creditors in one state by fleeing to another on short notice.

Then I went off to college and met a boy, and set off on a whirlwind of moves myself. My now ex-husband seemed to think the cure for any unhappiness or restlessness was to do a geographic. Rather than addressing the real problems in our lives, we had the thought that going to a new place would make everything better. Unlike smaller changes we make, like a new haircut that can put a spring in your step and make you feel sassy and fun, moving is itself stressful. And your friends get really sick of being asked to help.

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Some changes, like I say, are great. I went from vegetarian to vegan in the spring of 2015 and although I am not a perfect vegan, I am a happy one.

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I remember visiting my paternal grandparents in about 1971, and thinking how cool and modern their house was. I revisited years later and nothing had changed. It made me sad. It seemed old and faded and no longer cool but fusty. I look around our house now and long for new furniture, partly because the cats have destroyed most of our upholstered furniture, and partly because I don’t want that unchanging, old-person fustiness to envelop me. Unless fringed furniture becomes stylish, in which case my cats are trend-setters.

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The fringed look is great for dresses and jackets, not so much for furniture.
Kitten scratching fabric sofa
Interior designer cat. Image from cattime.com.

Haircuts and hairstyles and fashion are like that too. We change with the times. And if we don’t, we can hope that what’s old comes back in style and is new again. That 1980s mullet hopefully never comes back in style! Please, never.

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The classic mullet on Billy Ray Cyrus.
Clooney mullet
Even young George Clooney looks silly with a mullet.

My hair has changed many times over the years, long to short and back again. It’s also changed as I’ve gotten older, from thick and wavy to neither of those things.

Gen and Ellen
Me on the left with a lot of hair, my equally thick-haired sister Ellen on the right, circa 1988. My hair, sadly, is not thick and wavy anymore. The things they don’t tell you about getting older!
1975 hair
Circa 1975.
1985 hair
Mom on the left, me with 80s hair on the right. Circa 1985.
2015 hair
Fast forward to 2015.
2017 hair
Getting longer, 2017. I call this my moody rock album cover photo.
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Today in hair, March 13, 2018.

Rather than moving, when I am hit with those “doing a geographic” urges, I go back to school. School is my comfort zone, my safe place, the place I feel like I belong much of the time. I’ve been back to school several times over the years, and now with online education, I can be a life-long learner from the comfort of my own home, changing mailing address or not. Someday I’ll finish this Ph.D. I’ve embarked upon, and then I’ll maybe go to sewing school or goat-herding school or who knows what.

goat herding

Another change I go through admittedly more than I’d really like is jobs, which is what really brings up the whole Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes song for me.  I’ve had jobs I loved–working as a museum technician for California State Parks in Sonoma, as Assistant Registrar in the art exhibitions department at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. I’ve had jobs that I disliked–my first job after I finished my Bachelor’s degree in design, working as a “scientific illustrator” for an unnamed company in Sacramento. I’ve had jobs that I was mostly “meh” about–the 11 years I spent as the Assistant Registrar at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

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Because I was “meh” about that job, I spent a long time looking for and interviewing for other jobs. I thought I landed my dream job when I was hired by the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis in late 2015. I love UC Davis and I love the city of Davis. I was sure that was the job I would retire from. Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again, though I don’t really believe that. Maybe my clue should have been my start day on Pearl Harbor Day–December 7. Or on my second day of work when my car broke down and I was 3 hours late getting there.

Cooper

Needless to say, it didn’t work out and in the summer of 2016 I found myself unemployed. Yippee!

I felt unappreciated at first, then I tried to be positive and think of it as a learning experience.

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(From the Travelling Squid)

better

A career change, that’s what I needed. I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world. Another version of doing a geographic, maybe, but in my case, it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I applied for jobs at every animal shelter and rescue group I could think of, and landed at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in August of 2016. I couldn’t have been luckier. Or happier.

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Best job ever!

I spent a wonderful year and a half there.  I fell in love with the dogs and cats there everyday, and couldn’t ask for better colleagues or volunteers to spend my days with. I traded down in terms of a paycheck, but seriously up in terms of satisfaction and mental rewards. Like David Bowie sings, “Don’t want to be a richer man…” (woman), just a more fulfilled one. I wasn’t looking for a change.

So I applied for a job at the East Bay SPCA.

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I’m still not sure why. Needing a personal challenge? A shorter commute? Trying to go home again (I volunteered there from 2009 to 2016)? I was offered the job. I spent 5 days agonizing over what to do. I accepted the job. And here I go again, starting anew. Which starts my ear worm transition to Here You Come Again, by Dolly Parton (1977) (“…here you come again and here I go…”).

 

I hope I made the right decision. Admittedly, I miss my friends at ARF. But I seriously hope I spend the rest of this career in animal welfare with the East Bay SPCA (assuming I do a good job and get to stay). I’d like to stay put in one house and one job for a while. I can keep changing my hair. Maybe we’ll get new furniture and miraculously the cats won’t destroy it. (Do they make stainless steel living room furniture? And how uncomfortable is it?)

astounding-cat-proof-furniture-design-for-joy-cats
Cat proof?

Before you know it, it will be time to make a big change and retire. Then maybe we’ll sell the house, move to the country, rescue some goats…

goatbook1
Leanne Lauricella, one of my heroes, is the founder of the goat rescue and sanctuary Goats of Anarchy.

Keep learning, keep happy, and stay motivated to make a difference. You can change the world.

 

Bright lights, long shadows, and mementos

Memento:  something that serves to warn or remind; also: a souvenir.

bracelets

When I looked up memento on Merriam Webster, I wasn’t expecting the word “warning” to be a part of the definition. But given the reason I looked it up, it’s actually apt to include warning in my thoughts. Then I looked up memento mori, thinking of the movie Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) and the story Memento Mori (Jonathan Nolan, published 2001). “A reminder of mortality.” Yikes. Even more appropriate. I followed up with memento vivere (a popular tattoo according to the internet): in Latin, remember that you must live; a reminder of life, a reminder of the pleasure of living.

memento poster3 Ryan

 

Christpher and Jonathan Nolan
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan came up with the story and proposed it to Christopher as an idea for a script. Jonathan’s original story was published after the movie was released.

 

I read a line in a book I just started, Setting Free the Kites by Alex George (2017):

But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.

George’s narrator is speaking of his friend Nathan, but it made me think of a dear friend of my own.

 

Late last year, a friend of mine took her own life.  She was a bubbly, enthusiastic, cheerful person. So many of us were stunned that her bright light hid such dark shadows. Pain, despair. She was always helpful to everyone else, but left her own needs secret from us.

She befriended me and my dog Einstein when we were new in the neighborhood and feeling friendless. She and her Friday dog invited us on walks and playdates. We both joined a neighborhood book club. We went out together to concerts and restaurants. I didn’t see her regularly or often, but when I did, I always felt comfortable (hard for an introvert) and had a good time. She had the most amazing smile and dimples. Laughter came easily. She really was a bright light.

Just last weekend her family held an estate sale at her house down the street from me. I briefly thought of going in and picking up some memento of my friend. I couldn’t do it. I drove past on my way to work and kept going. Partly, it seemed ghoulish, going to a sale at her house and going through her things to buy something. I decided I’d prefer to remember her one of the times we went out together, for tacos at Xolo and then a Damien Rice concert at the Fox Theater on April 23, 2015.

 

 

I had bought 2 tickets, hoping I’d find someone to go with me. Trying to be a “glass half full” kind of person and hoping for the best, I posted that I had an extra ticket. She was the first to respond. She wasn’t sure she knew who Damien Rice was, but it wasn’t just about a free ticket. She wanted to do something with me; it felt genuine. We met at Xolo, had a great meal and caught up. At the Fox, I had splurged on not terrible tickets. We goofed around taking photos of the giant Hindu-deity figures that flank the stage.

We chatted with the people in the seats on either side of us. We were mesmerized by Markéta Irglová, who opened for Damien and also sang backup on a few of his songs. She recognized a few of Damien’s songs. It was a great night.

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Markéta Irglová

 

Life got busy for both of us. We didn’t see each other often. She changed jobs, worked a lot of extra hours. I changed jobs twice. My schedule shifted to weekends and evenings. We liked each other’s Facebook posts. She was always the first to respond when dog Einstein posted on his Facebook page (he can be quite witty). At some point, she wasn’t responding any more. I didn’t give it a lot of thought.

Another mutual friend messaged me, asking if I’d heard the news. She was gone. I went to the service, cried with her friends and family, wished I’d noticed something was wrong. We all asked what we could have done. Maybe that’s the memento I carry forward–an awareness of suicide prevention and the ending of the silence around suicide. As well as the notions of memento mori and memento vivere: remembering our own mortality and embracing life.

end the silence

 

My mother passed away in 2009. I have several mementos of her, but one of my favorites and maybe one of the silliest to an outsider is her beloved cookbook, Noted Cookery: Favorite Recipes from Friends of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (1969).

Noted Cookery

It’s hard to explain how much this cookbook meant to my mother and the sentimental value it possesses for me and my siblings. We still cook some of her flagged recipes from it, as they are old family favorites and standards at family gatherings. They aren’t vegan, so I don’t indulge anymore, but I still have fond memories of helping mom make the Broccoli Puff or the Hello Dolly bars (aka 7-layer magic bars).

 

The cookbook, one of those fundraiser efforts of recipes submitted by various community members, was a Christmas gift to my mother from her sister Isabelle and her family in 1970, part of the reason for its importance to Mom.

Noted Cookery signed

 

As kids, we were fascinated by the list of contributors, some of whom we had heard of and I still don’t know what their connection to the Dallas Symphony was (but it doesn’t really matter; they generously contributed). Mrs. Bob Hope (Bob Hope’s Favorite Lemon Pie) and Danny Kaye (Chicken with Peppers) were notable among them. Later, I saw names that I had come to recognize: actress Loretta Young (Bride’s Delight), opera great Leontyne Price (Crabmeat Imperial), Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Pedernales Chili), Mrs. Ross H. Perot (Crabmeat Aspic Salad and Mocha-Nut Tortoni), Mrs. Ronald Reagan (Sweet Potatoes Supreme and Orange Sparkle Cookies), Mrs. Richard Nixon (Apricot Nut Bread), violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin (Birchermuesli), actress Greer Garson (English Trifle).

 

Don’t discount that lemon pie. Bob Hope lived to be 100, and Dolores Hope to 102. And Danny Kaye is said to have loved to cook and to have been quite a good one. Food writer Ruth Reichl, in a piece she wrote after Kaye’s death in 1987:

“It may be the sense of timing he developed as a comedian, or the balance he learned in music. It may be the generosity of somebody who gave so much of his time to charity. Or the sheer gusto of the baseball lover (you should have heard his discourse on hot dogs). Or maybe it was the much-vaunted hand-eye coordination that made his cooking so incredible. But there was something more.

Danny Kaye didn’t cook like a star. He didn’t coddle you with caviar or smother you in truffles. He had no interest in complicated concoctions or exotic ingredients. His taste was absolutely true, and he was the least-pretentious cook I’ve ever encountered. The meals he made were little symphonies–balanced, perfectly timed, totally rounded.”

danny cooking

 

Some of the recipes in Noted Cookery horrified us. Hot Citrus Fruit Salad? No thanks! Same to the equally horrific Hot Pineapple Salad on the same page. Blech.

Hot Citrus Fruit Salad
Make and consume at your own risk.

 

Others we loved, partly for the names. Johnny Bozzini, You Asked For It. Remember, it was 1970 and these recipes ddidn’t seem quite as odd as they do to at least me now. Lots of canned soups and weird things in jars.

 

The cookbook was lost in a house fire in 1987. Mom managed to save the page with her beloved sister’s inscription, but the rest of the cookbook was a charred lump. She put the remnant in a plastic bag and made the recipes she loved best from memory. Years later, around 2004, I was volunteering at a library fundraising book sale. I always look at the cookbooks for hidden gems. There it was, sitting on the shelf, easily recognizable to me with its ochre yellow cover. For fifty cents. I grabbed it, feeling the sense of excitement I might have felt finding a rare first edition of Catcher in the Rye. I managed not to spill the proverbial beans on my weekly phone call with mom, awaiting the look on her face at the surprise when I gave her the book. My next visit, I presented the book. I don’t remember if she cried. More than likely she did. We cry easily in my family; tears of happiness as well as tears of sorrow. We sat down and perused the old recipes. A trip down memory lane. She put bookmarks in at the old favorites, even though she knew the recipes by heart.

When she passed away a few years later, we were going through her things. Somehow that cookbook had taken on an even greater significance for me after having reunited her with it. It’s a memento of her and our earlier family life that I treasure. It sits with my other cookbooks, rarely used but often fondly brought out just to look and remember.

Not so long ago, my sister Ellen texted me that she was making one of the old favorites from what we call the Dallas cookbook: Chicken Tortilla Casserole. Back in 1970, tortilla chips were an exotic thing in Atlanta, so Mom made the recipe with Fritos instead. I’m trying to figure out a way I can veganize this recipe just for fun.

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Not one, but two cans of soup.

 

If you are feeling hungry and inspired to cook, you too can have this gem of a cookcook. I just found it listed on eBay for $5.95. Better idea, think back to a cherished memory and a memento that you can treasure the way I treasure the nostalgic memory of a family, safe and happy, laughing and enjoying a meal together, or the memory of a dear friend who made me feel special.

Memento vivere.  Remember to live.

memento vivere

All mouth and no trousers

 

don't talk

Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. Well done is better than well said. Walk the walk, talk the talk. It was George Bernard Shaw who wrote in 1903 in the play Man and Superman, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” You can talk a good game but be full of empty promises.

GBS at 90
George Bernard Shaw at 90. He looks wise to me!

From Shakespeare, who said everything better than anyone else, in Richard III:

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Fear not, my lord, we will not stand to prate;
Talkers are no good doers: be assured
We come to use our hands and not our tongues.

BC as RIII
Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Richard III.

In other words, yep, shut up, we are here to get shit done.

Apparently, in the UK they say someone who is full of those empty promises is “all mouth and no trousers.” Which makes me think of the Wallace and Grommit movie The Wrong Trousers.

wrong trousers

 

 

Last month I attended my last required residential conference for my doctoral program at Saybrook University. No, that doesn’t mean I am anywhere near completion! One of the sessions I attended was about identifying our values and then living and leading by them. After we each winnowed a 2 page list of terms down to our personal top 3, we had to write the 3 on the backs of the name badges we wore throughout the conference.

Values

Since I could never make my badge hang right anyway, for the rest of the conference, what people saw if they looked was not my name but the words I had written. I kept waiting for someone to ask me about it, but no one did.

Maybe everyone thought I had the adorable hippie name Kindness Compassion Love. It’s easier to spell and pronounce than my actual name.

But I was quickly tested on living by my values. Of walking the walk. Of proving I wasn’t all mouth and no trousers. It wasn’t so easy. In that same values session, we broke out into small groups to discuss examples of leaders who we think of as living by their values. Normally in these sessions, our political alignments tend to be fairly aligned. I mean, come one, it’s an alternative university with twice yearly meetings in Monterey, California. Not a huge bastion of conservative Republicanism; in other words, it’s not Trump country. Just saying. But we are all allowed our own views and the safe space to express them, yes? And there are students at Saybrook from all over not just the country, but the world.

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The first student in our group, a new student in her first semester, prefaced her choice by saying that she realized she would be the only one in the room to choose who she was about to name. Then she said that to her, Trump (she said President Trump, which I refuse to do) is second only to God in leadership and values, and that she admires his family values and people skills. No joke. I sat in stunned silence for a moment. She was clearly serious, and I have to admit it took courage for her to take this stance in this group of people. She knew she was a minority of one. My mantra of “kindness compassion love” looped through my thoughts. I smiled, I babbled. I was friendly. Later, I made an effort to befriend this student. I could tell she felt lonely and somewhat ostracized in the group. Others, also shocked but wanting to walk their walk as well, talked to her, engaged her, made their best efforts to include in her group activities. But even though she seemed to relax a bit, she still kept herself somewhat separate from the class.

ostracized

It was an uncomfortable feeling to find myself so clearly tested on my values. I came away hoping I had learned a lesson in tolerance. And then it happened again at work.

Not a Trump incident, but in dealing with a difficult person in a public setting as a representative of the organization for which I work.

I work at an animal shelter. Emotions can run high in both directions. Yes, pople are often overjoyed at meeting their new best friend and getting to take them home. But people also cry over lost and deceased pets. They get upset when the animal they want to adopt has been adopted by someone else. They get frustrated when we don’t have the answers they want to hear. And we get frustrated when we are trying our best and the situation is still going downhill despite our best efforts. (Check out this list of tips from Psychology Today.)

There is a woman who lost her cat. She comes to the shelter looking to see if we have her cat. That’s reasonable. I would do the same. She is sad and angry about her missing cat. I get it. She is frustrated. Desperate even. She is not easy to talk to. Her anger and emotions get in the way. She perceives she is being treated badly, that people are being rude to her. I spent about half an hour with her, doing my best to practice kindness, compassion, love. To exercise my empathy muscles. Reminding myself that she is a very unhappy person and to be treated gently. It wasn’t easy, but I did my best. We did not have her beloved kitty. I hope she finds him. I hope she comes to realize some inner peace.

lost cat

As for myself, I will always be a work in progress. I have to exercise those empathy muscles so they don’t atrophy. To remind myself not to turn a blind eye to people who are homeless, to not turn my head the other way when I see suffering, to not bury my head in the sand when I don’t want to know what horrible things are happening in our world. Apathy is not one of my values, and I must do my best not to let it lull me to inaction or avoidance.

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In the words of essayist/philosopher/poet/filmmaker Suzy Kassem, “Apathy is the door to ignorance. Empathy is the door to wisdom.”

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Suzy Kassem

 

I want to be wise, not ignorant. So I am going to put on my trousers and get out there walking.

my projects

 

Peace and hugs.

Troubadours and Storytellers

For many years, I have been intrigued by the designations troubadour and storyteller. There is a very long tradition of both throughout history. What’s the difference? The word troubadour is from the French and was used to refer to medieval lyric poets, often concentrating on the theme of courtly love, with verses written to music. A poet musician is how I think of it. In more modern times, troubadours have been folk singers in particular.

 

Scheherazade spins tales about Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor over One Thousand and One Nights, enthralling her murderous husband King Shahryar, who postpones her execution night after night in order to hear another story. Stories are that powerful.

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Storytelling goes much further back, when histories were passed down in the oral tradition rather than the written. Oral storytelling remains central in some cultures today.

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Still from the documentary Al-Halqa–In the Storyteller’s Circle (2010, Thomas Ladenburger).

 

The storyteller figures above were made by Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero (1915-1994), who based some of her work on the “singing mother” motif and others on memories of her grandfather. Her figures are storytellers and she herself became a storyteller through their creation.

Storytelling clearly doesn’t have to involve words, as seen by Helen Cordero’s work. Images tell wonderful stories. Think of ancient cave paintings, some over 35,000 years old. In the January 2016 issue of Smithsonian, Jo Marchant and Justin Mott explored the cave paintings on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, thought to be the oldest cave paintings thus far discovered.

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Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.

Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks—it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.”

Humans making figurative art, using imagination and symbolism–truly a remarkable development. Previous to the discovery of the paintings on Sulawesi, the oldest cave paintings were thought to be the famous Chauvet Cave paintings in France, made a World Heritage site in 2014. You can see an online exhibition of them through the Bradshaw Foundation.

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I come to write about this through my love of singer/songwriters. Preferably menlacholy ones. Or romantic. Or romantically melancholy. As I have written about before, I have really weird and vivid dreams. Last week, I had several dreams in which Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (as a young man, not the close to 80-year old he is now) was wandering through the action, playing his guitar and singing.

As I have also written, I am highly susceptible to ear worms. So for days now, Lightfoot’s song “If You Could Read My Mind” has been on an endless loop in my head. The song is about the breakup of his first marriage. Hauntingly beautiful but unbearably sad.

 

Sigh. Of course, there are many wonderful examples of troubadours: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Wilcox, Kelly Joe Phelps. I heard Kelly Joe Phelps describe how when he’s performing a song, he sees it as a movie playing in his mind. Storytelling, yes indeed.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

 

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) and his son Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947)

 

Bob Dylan (b. 1941)

 

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

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David Wilcox (left), Kelly Joe Phelps (right)

 

Lest I leave out women, I’ll add Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Emmylou Harris. I consider Natalie Merchant to be in this group of female troubadours and storytellers. I could go on and on.

 

And this is only a very narrow sampling from North American, white culture. There is such an array to choose from; the African American blues tradition, for example, with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter…

 

Writers are, by nature, storytellers, but I consider some to be more in THE storyteller tradition than others. For example, Irish writer Frank Delaney (1942-2017), a novelist, journalist, and broadcaster, is best known in the United States for his book Ireland, a many-layered and rich story of storytellers. Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

In the winter of 1951, a storyteller, the last practitioner of an honored, centuries-old tradition, arrives at the home of nine-year-old Ronan O’Mara in the Irish countryside. For three wonderful evenings, the old gentleman enthralls his assembled local audience with narratives of foolish kings, fabled saints, and Ireland’s enduring accomplishments before moving on. But these nights change young Ronan forever, setting him on a years-long pursuit of the elusive, itinerant storyteller and the glorious tales that are no less than the saga of his tenacious and extraordinary isle. 

It’s probably not okay to bring up now-disgraced storyteller Garrison Keillor, but for many years, before the sexual misconduct allegations, he created a wonderful world of characters and stories with his radio program and books about the fictional Lake Wobegon. There, I brought him up anyway.

 

One of my personal favorites is Eudora Welty, author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, Why I Live at the P.O.

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Eudora Welty.

Following in her footsteps and the tradition of female Southern writers is my mother’s favorite, Fannie Flagg.

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Mom made a point of making sure each of her children had a copy of A Redbird Christmas, which I’ve reread over several holiday seasons, and also listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Flagg herself.

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You might be more familiar with her work from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, based on her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

 

Filmmakers are certainly storytellers, whether it is in telling a hardhitting true story through documentaries, like Michael Moore, or whimsical fictional stories along the line of Tim Burton or Wes Anderson.

 

There’s a novel I am going to write someday. I know what it’s about, but it’s a long way off, and will require much research on my part. (I think I’ll complete the Ph.D. first.) I already have a vision for what the film version will look like, and Wes Anderson is my first choice for director. I see something in the spirit of his The Grand Budapest Hotel. I hope your curiosity is piqued so that you will read my novel. When I write it. When it’s published. By then, I’ll be old enough for the large print edition myself.

 

I could go on and on, but I will end with an art exhibition here where I am now at the Saybrook University Residential Conference, being held at the Hyatt Regency Monterey. Photographer and filmmaker Randy Bacon has compiled a work entitled The Road I Call Home, featuring portraits and films of people who are homeless telling their stories. The project is presented by Gathering Friends for the Homeless in conjunction with 7 Billion Ones. I have been gazing at the portraits as I travel the conference center today, but only just started reading the stories they tell. Everyone has a story to tell, and deserves the chance to tell it. Here are a few of the portraits.

 

It’s late now and time for me to sleep, perchance to dream. And perhaps hear a little Gordon Lightfoot.

Sweet dreams to all.