Friends have been asking me what I’m going to write about the NSA and Mr. Snowden and my concerns about privacy. Here’s the answer. Nothing. It’s not that I don’t care or have an opinion – god knows I have opinions about everything. But we’re hearing quite enough about it at the moment.
So tonight I composed something other, as Christopher Fry once wrote, something altogether else. Dinner. Because I was doing some cleaning and assorted other things today and it got late and – well, here goes:
I see by the old clock on the wall that I’ve now waited too long to cook a decent dinner and will be resorting instead to something from the reliable old freezer.
I’d go out but I’ve already used up my “damn-the-expenses-four-course-dinner-ahead!” money for the week. Actually, I don’t remember the last time I had a four-course dinner. I do remember a time, though, when I was traveling on business – a dreary activity most of the time – being served a four-course dinner all at once in a Holiday Inn.
I would not have chosen to dine in a Holiday Inn restaurant at all, but I was stuck halfway between Connecticut and some nuclear power plant, without a car and too tired to try to figure out an alternative. But let me give you the full picture. When I say the four-course dinner was served all at once, I am not exaggerating by one stale crouton.
Apparently the waitress disapproved of women traveling alone on business – so many did back then – and took it as her personal mission to make me sorry as hell for ever hanging up my organdy apron and hitting the road in a business suit.
She started by seating me at a tiny table about the size of a large TV tray smack in the middle of the dining room where I seemed to be the most interesting attraction to hit this Holiday Inn for some time. Now, that’s not saying much and you’ll understand why in the next paragraph.
This Holiday Inn was essentially under construction or some kind of ongoing remodeling, and the lobby was temporarily decorated not with chairs and side tables and attractive lamps and paintings but with upholstered bench seats apparently taken directly from a passing Greyhound bus and installed for the customers’ pleasure.
The only thing on the plasterboard walls were marks to let carpenters, if there actually were carpenters involved know where to drill or cut or pound. The bus seats and plasterboard went well with the area across from the lobby, an area draped in heavy, semi-clear plastic kept in place with two by fours. All the room needed really to make it perfect was crime scene tape.
But I digress. I was hungry after a day of travel and interviewing relatively boring executives for the project at hand, so I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner, small table be damned. The dinner special I ordered came with soup, salad, a main course with vegetables and some kind of dessert – now forgotten in the “let’s not think about that again” memory bank. I found a tiny place on the table for my book – always bring a book when you’re traveling on business and likely to dine alone – and I waited.
Nothing happened for the next twenty minutes and then everything happened. The waitress arrived with my soup and salad together which was odd, left for thirty seconds or so and returned with every single other item I’d ordered – main course, vegetables, roll and butter, coffee, and dessert. The entire table was covered with dishes – hot things getting cold, cold things getting warm. I didn’t know where to start.
I mean, I didn’t grow up with servants who came when you rang, bringing one lovely course at a time. But I also didn’t grow up with a family that wanted it all on the table at the same time. I mean, there are rules!
The only thing I could relate this dinner service to was lunch at the junior high school cafeteria where you only got one pass and the ladies in hair nets put it all on your tray at the same time. Iceberg lettuce that passed for salad, some kind of unidentifiable casserole, over-steamed vegetables you were never going to eat and the lumpy, crusty dessert called something exotic like Cherry Surprise or Butterscotch Delight.
I would have given a pretty penny for a nice Cherry Surprise that night, but there was no room left on my little table for anything but the check. Which came with the last item of my four-course-all-at-once dinner. A tiny after-dinner mint. There was no room for anything larger.
The next morning I skipped breakfast and took a limo into Manhattan and never looked back. I’ve also never stayed – or eaten – at another Holiday Inn.
The microwave just dinged. Dinner is served. One course of something resembling a junior high school casserole. If only I had a nice cafeteria lady in a hair net to add a dish of Cherry Surprise.
I apparently had a terrible childhood although I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I have a few bad memories of childhood – who doesn’t? – but a lot more great ones – fun, goofy times, happy days, weird events, errors in judgment (that little stream really was deep in the middle) and all.
Apparently childhood can be something like childbirth when it comes to fading memories of bad things happening. I know they’re not really the same at all, of course. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I’ve been through both.
I’ve also been through the requisite late 20th century/early millenium therapy where I learned about all the bad and sometimes very bad things that happened to me. These were not repressed memories that the therapist dredged up out of whole cloth. They were real memories, and I remembered them well once we began to talk. I was unhappy at the time and the therapist was doing her job and doing it well.
As a kid, I knew things were not always story-book great at home. I read story-books all the time and nearly lived at the Library. I knew my life and the lives of people in the books were not the same. I especially knew that the lives of my friends differed in lots of ways from mine – money, the kinds of houses we lived in, the clothes we wore, the vacations we took.
I’m not a psychologist so I can’t really tell you from my own experience how these differences affected me at the time except that I had what’s a fairly standard kid reaction to the “wrong” family – I couldn’t belong to these people. I must have been adopted. The thought crossed my mind more than once although I knew all the stories of my birth and young childhood and, in the deep place of my heart, I knew them to be true.
Which, of course, made it worse. I really did belong to these people!
So I’d think about that for ten or twenty minutes and wish that I could be adopted by people who understood me or at least lived in a big, fancy house where I could wear ruffled pinafores and take piano lessons. Then I’d dash out the door to meet my friends and play jump rope or jacks on the sidewalk or outfit the dolls in lovely new creations we’d make out of cloth napkins and safety pins or to walk around the neighborhood and investigate anything new since we’d been there the day before.
A side note: When I was a kid, kids could do that kind of thing. Helicopters had barely been invented and helicopter parents were so far into the future as to be unknown. I really think this may have been the key to a happy childhood, at least the one I had even though it was apparently terrible. I certainly would not have wanted “those people” who didn’t understand me hanging around any more than necessary.
Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the kids I envied ended up in worse places than I ever visited. I’m always sorry to hear these things, but it’s another truth of growing up:
A happy childhood is no guarantee of becoming a happy adult.
When I grew up, I became a writer, and writers love to indulge all the worst things that ever happened to them. It was good luck that I had such a fine therapist who helped me uncover the best possible material – painful, wrenching events in my young life that could make me a million bucks if they ever got into print. I wrote and wrote and wrote and some things did get into print although not much about my apparently miserable childhood.
Any time I seriously tried to write about it, the words just sounded pathetic and whiny. Besides, I knew my life was not as bad as that of the girl in the sixth grade who wore her coat in class every day. Word on the playground was she did this because she didn’t have blouses to wear under it. Who knows the truth? I just know I had blouses.
I was disappointed, of course, that I couldn’t write about the angst, but now I’m really glad it worked out that way. Because I’ve come to see that it was the happy stuff I remember that was the best. I know all about perspective and how our memories change, but I’m opting for a choice. I love those happy memories so much more than any of the others. I’m not kidding myself about things that went wrong, but those other memories have bogged me down for too many years.
I’m going for the gold now – the gold of memories that let me remind myself that jumping rope and playing jacks and being with my odd family were pretty wonderful, even with all things considered.
I know there are kids in families that make mine look like a Mary Poppins story, and my heart goes out to every kid in such a bad situation. We need to do as much as possible to keep the kids all right, all the kids, all the time. But “all right” is not necessary perfect and you know what they say about perfection: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” So I say to parents and kids:
Parents – be as good as you can be to your kids but forget about trying to be perfect.
Kids – know that your parents are trying to be as good to you as they can be. Forget about nailing them because they’re not perfect and don’t even think about writing a whiny memoir, novel or poem twenty years from now.
My writing? Well, I used to do a lot of art, but somewhere along the line I stopped and started trying to write those intense grown-up novels and stories instead. I’m shifting gears now to writing and illustrating children’s books. I’ve signed up for an art class this summer. I’m reading children’s books everyday. And I’m already having a happier adulthood than I could possibly have imagined.
I don’t know where it’s all going and I don’t care. I may be too old for hopscotch now, but we’re never too old for the dance! So I invite you, as Alice did in her delightful and wildly fantastic book:
“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”
I want to tell you about something completely different today, a truly small volume I ran onto among the big books on the shelves of the Big Library. This little book was published during World War II, and has a message inside regarding wartime necessities and what even the publishing industry must do without – excess paper. No wasteful blank pages, no wide margins or wasted space at the ends of chapters. A note on the title page tells us:
Under Government regulations for saving paper during the war, the thickness of this book has been reduced below the customary peacetime standards. The text is complete and unabridged.
The pages give new meaning to the words “paper thin.” Expensive bathroom tissue is thicker than this paper.
But I’m not here to talk about the mechanics of wartime publishing, but about the subject of the book and its authors. This slim volume, which I found tucked away among much larger books at the Big Library, is titled First Whisper of “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, edited by Elspeth Grahame, his wife, who also wrote a wonderful introduction.
The book includes not only the genesis of The Wind in the Willows, but also a great story about a book store on the edge of the Grand Canyon that sold mostly tourist guides and such, but had a copy of The Wind in the Willows in a prominent place. An English friend of Grahame’s on a trip to see the Grand Canyon (“Having seen it, I am relieved of any desire to see it again.”) also visited the book store and saw Grahame’s book.
He asked about it and the owner of the store said “I am very pleased to meet you.” She then told him about buying the book years before in Chicago and making a vow that if she ever owned a bookshop Grahame’s book would be there in a place of honor.
“It helps me to retain my self-respect while I am selling to the daily tourists the sort of fiction that they read in Pullman cars.” Today it would be 747s. But her other motive was that she knew who people were when they commented on the book. “That is why I said at once that I was pleased to meet you.”
This exchange, Grahame’s friend noted, happened at the outset of Bright Angel Trail. “No other place on earth could be farther in feeling from the English countryside.”
I first read The Wind in the Willows as a child, but it seemed too complicated for my little mind. Then I read it again at Whitman College when it was assigned reading for a wonderful freshman class with a reading list that included Hesse’s Magister Ludi, Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, War and Peace, The Wind in the Willows and Goethe’s Faust.
Quite a lineup for a freshman lit class. And one of the most stimulating classes I ever had. One of our assignments was a paper comparing any two of the novels. I chose Magister Ludi and The Wind in the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows is much more than a children’s story although it began that way, as an entertainment from Kenneth Grahame in bedtime stories and letters to his son, Alastair, nicknamed Mouse. The book first centered around the adventures of Mr. Toad, but over time expanded to include the Mole and the Water Rat and the rest of the creatures living near the willows.
Two of the chapters near the center of the book, “Dulce Domum” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” are among the most spiritual and tender chapters ever in print. These two chapters are meant for the grownups who read the book to their children. “Dulce Domum” speaks to the concept of home, no matter how long one has been away from it or how humble it may be.
I had a sweetheart once who loved this book as much as I did, mostly because he loved “messing about in boats,” much like the Water Rat who explains to the Mole that “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.”
But we both loved “Dulce Domum” and one Christmas I recorded a tape of it for him. I wonder if he still has the tape. It was a very long time ago.
“Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is a tale of a lost creature, faith, and rescue in the presence of – well, something greater than oneself. It’s a beautiful story.
One of my favorite pieces of advice for living comes from The Wind in the Willows. It’s in the chapter “Wayfarers All” when the dashing Sea Rat describes his adventurous life to the Water Rat and urges him to come along on the next adventure:
“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!”
I try to remember these words when I’m boggled by so much new life these days…one thing after another. I try to take the blithesome steps forward but often, like the Water Rat, just end up more boggled than ever.
In the book, when the Water Rat sinks into a daze of confusion about the irrevocable moment, the Mole comes to the rescue – gently and with great tact. He puts a few pieces of clean paper in front of his friend and a pencil and says the magic words:
“It’s quite a long time since you did any poetry…You might have a try at it this evening instead of—well, brooding over things so much. I’ve an idea that you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve got something jotted down—if it’s only just the rhymes.”
It’s a beautiful book. Two beautiful books.
I think I’ll go write some poetry.
It’s Memorial Day weekend in America. Big things are happening in your neighborhood. Or a neighborhood near you.
As is our tradition on any long weekend now, we have juggled the actual date for which the celebrating once happened to the nearest convenient date. Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July are the only dates still sacred in our calendar. Memorial Day was once celebrated on May 30, but that’s in the dim and distant past.
We love three-day weekends, mini-vacations as it were, and cram them full of activities. We’ve got the Indy 500, bike races, marathons, humongous department store sales, parades, festivals, concerts and rallies.
There will be speeches and flags and the sound of mournful bugles blowing “Taps,” ball games and picnics where the weather is warm enough, and traffic jams up and down the highways of America as people head “somewhere else” for the long weekend.
The provenance of Memorial Day is up for grabs, but it was officially declared a national holiday to honor veterans of both sides of the Civil War and changed after World War I to honor all who had fallen in any war.
The poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian Army brought to us all the image of the red poppies which have become a symbol of Memorial Day. Here’s the first stanza of his poignant poem:
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…”
When I was a child, the holiday was still celebrated on May 30 and it was still called Decoration Day. This was an important holiday in our big family. My grandparents had lived in the same town for many decades and we had a lot of graves to decorate.
My grandmother marshalled all hands to create the many bouquets of peonies, iris, and lilacs which we then carried in all the cars available to the cemetery in La Grande, Oregon, where most of the relatives were resting in what we hoped was peace, although from what I know about a few of them, it might have been otherwise. After we’d decorated all those graves, we took the rest of the flowers to our old pioneer family graveyard outside of town at Hilgard where my grandmother’s family had homesteaded.
On Decoration Day, we kids in the family learned about death and the proper respect for those who were in the ground. “Be careful where you walk. You don’t step on the graves.” And we heard stories about relatives long gone including the saddest memories of children lost through typhoid or influenza. The day was a family history lesson itself.
Things have changed now. My grandparents are buried in the big cemetery along with my father, a couple of my aunts, and other close and not so close relatives that I once knew. My grandparents’ house belongs to someone else, and our family no longer gathers in LaGrande for the ritual of filling jars and vases with water, mixing the bouquets, loading them in the car and decorating graves. We’ve scattered to many places now as so many families have.
But I’m thinking about my grandmother today, and the memories of those Decoration Days are as fresh as the sweet lilacs from the big bushes in her yard. Please indulge me as I include here a poem of my own about those memories. I like to think I got my spirit of determination from my grandmother.
In late spring,
on Decoration Days,
after we’d carried peonies and iris
to the cemetery near the high school,
we gathered in whatever family car
would hold the most
and headed for the lonely graves
Grandmother called the shots
from whichever seat she occupied,
a bucket of lilacs
on her lap.
She had the right. The hand-dug
graves that waited year to year
belonged to her, and all the memories in them.
“My Grandad Hawes’ old homestead,”
she’d remind again,
as if we could forget.
We’d find the narrow road that shot
straight up the muddy height.
The lucky devil at the wheel
would give ‘er the gun. Halfway up,
the car would lose its grip and
slowly slide back down
with Grandma resolutely watching
everything run backwards
through those lilacs on her lap.
Stopped at the bottom of this
always muddy track, she’d leave the car,
a struggle with the bucket, and announce
without a moment’s pause,
As I wrote just four days ago, on my planet we go for Clean Energy which includes:
“Clean Energy means corporations pay their fair share of taxes.”
Look, I don’t care if the tax code is “Byzantine” (and what the hell does that mean anyway, when it comes to the tax code except that it gives companies an excuse when they don’t want to pay their fair share).
I don’t care if what Apple did is “within the letter of the law.” As Charles Dickens once wrote, “The law is an ass.” In this case, I say he was absolutely right.
I don’t care if the shareholders love what Apple’s doing, and I don’t believe for a minute that all the shareholders approve of the tactics anyway.
I care that a major corporation that’s making billions by pushing their products on every man, woman, and child in America and beyond, decides it can blow off its responsibility and live high instead of being a good citizen of its own homeland.
I care that bean counters and lawyers and corporate execs think their country’s future is a game and really don’t give a damn about contributing to the health of that future.
I care that a company that’s done plenty to undermine the infrastructure of America by promoting everything on-line (we don’t need no stinking postal service to pay our bills or send letters to our friends)is copping out on helping to pay for what infrastructure remains.
I care that our country is infected by an attitude of disregard and disrespect and greed, and that our children and grandchildren need to be vaccinated against this infection.
I care that although the people at Apple have become technological whiz kids, they have remained social neanderthals.
I care that the rest of the corporadoes jumping to Apple’s defense are pulling the same shenanigans on the American people and laughing at the rest of America all the way to the bank.
I care that I can’t stop feeling a deep ache about what’s happening to the country I have loved all my life.
That said, I have now revoked Apple’s passport to Miss Molly’s planet, have strapped a Buck Rogers jet pack onto the leadership team and am sending them off to parts unknown. And don’t bother to leave that Apple computer you brought with you either.