Posts in Category: musings

Gates

1.

Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

I’m reading Through the Garden by Lorna Crozier, the Canadian poet, writer, teacher—this woman has worked hard at her craft for decades, and it shows in whatever I might write after her name. She uses a mix of memoir and poetry to portray a passionate marriage with another writer, Patrick Lane. His death is the framework on which she’s told the story of their life together (with cats).

She stopped me cold with her thoughts on gates.

All gates herald a transition: a movement from outer to inner and back again, a passage to something that needs protection from invaders, a step into a space defined as different and more valued than what is on the other side. They’re an invitation but also an impediment. Signalling a need for privacy, this gate would make visitors pause, hesitate, delay, before they walked through. Some might choose to turn around and not enter the private enclosure presaged by such an imposing construction. Just as well. Something is being protected, secluded, differentiated from what’s on the other side. Something is being sanctified. Is the time we have left what is being sheltered? Isn’t there a holiness to our diminishing days?

Yes, I thought, yes, that’s it, that’s perfect.

As his health failed, she and her husband commissioned a Torii- style gate built with special timbers that required curing, and a complex hand-forged latch that took months to arrive. They were intentional about the design and construction, making it perfect as if as if they had all the time in the world. They did not, of course, but that was no deterrent.

*

When I bought this house in 1988, there were two gates into the backyard. The fence on the east side stretched between my neighbor’s sturdy, enviable, indestructible cyclone fence and my house. My fence’s gate was originally wide enough to allow the entrance of a vehicle, but the growth of trees eventually blocked the path. That fence/gate combo blew down, and then it fell down, so I leaned it against the house with a shrug and carried on with my life.

On the west side of the house was a narrower span of fence, also with a gate. It connected to the house on one side and on the other, a post planted right next to a big, thriving, shiny-leaved laurel hedge. Those laurel hedges really grow. They grow and grow and grow! Eventually, this hedge ate the gate.

So much for my gates.

*

You might wonder, is my yard open? No, not really. The east side is currently gated with a really shabby combo of sagging wire fence and a hinged panel from a portable dog yard. Some sagging wire fencing runs around the west side and joins up with my back neighbor’s sagging wire fence to create a putative barrier we call “the dog fence.” So technically, my back yard is both fenced and “gated,” with materials that do very little to keep out the wildlife that wants in.

The fence is only tall enough to impede very small dogs with no interest in athletic leaping. I have no dogs, but I keep it for my grand-dog, Marlowe. He inspects the fence boundaries when he visits. He reinforces ownership with liberal marking.

It’s a lot of work to create a scent barrier, especially now that he’s getting older, but he does his best to let the coyotes, raccoons, skunks and rodents know that the yard belongs to us. He understands this part of Lorna Crozier’s words: All gates herald a transition: a movement from outer to inner and back again, a passage to something that needs protection from invaders, a step into a space defined as different and more valued than what is on the other side.

I appreciate him. He is our protector.

*

Oddly, these crappy gates and fences don’t bother me. With all the critters out there, you’d think I’d be interested in having a fenced back yard, but instead, I want to fence off a little space between my house and garage. This is the area I see when I sit on my postage-stamp-sized front porch. It has vexed me from the beginning, when it was a small grassy slope with a three-foot high maple tree.

Over the years, I tried different ways to make this space into something besides a shaded place that was impossible to mow. I planted many bushes that died in this space, and also many flowers that died. The only thing that’s grown is the maple tree, which is now over thirty feet tall. We are continuously hacking off limbs to keep it from ruining the new roofs.

Even though it’s currently a mess (let’s face it, my entire yard is always a mess), I have come to love this space. I hired an absolutely insane woman to build me a retaining wall here, and even though the dirt is bad and the maple is a gutter-clogging, roof-ruining nuisance, it pleases me. I sit on the porch and look at the planters full of weeds and the weeds poking up through the gravel beds and the weeds growing in the pile of decorative rocks I have yet to spread and…I smile. I imagine all sorts of things I could do to improve it, and I never do those things.

I even had the idea to build a fence on its far side, a fence that would stretch between the front corner of the house and the back corner of the garage, connecting them to enhance the sense of enclosure. The east side (where my porch is) would remain completely open. The fence would make it nice and cozy. I would want a gate there, too, a pretty gate that would lead into this half-finished area of wrack and ruin.

I explained this to my oldest daughter, excitedly sketching out my ideas, and she listened. When I finished, she simply asked, “Why?”

I really couldn’t come up with a good answer.

*

My daughter’s question is a valid one. It’s a needed interrogation of a flawed idea that appears to hold no value at all, because there’s nothing on the other side of this imaginary fence and gate. Just that tremendous laurel hedge and a strip of weedy gravel (I specialize in weedy gravel, it’s my landscape design signature). I’m not sure why this area would need to be reached through a gate that literally no one would ever walk through.

No one walks around over there besides the owner of the laurel hedge on his yearly trek to keep it trimmed. He owns the property next door, where the hedge originates. He used to ignore my side of it, and it cost a lot to have it cut, so I could only have it trimmed every few years (hence, it ate the gate). I think he became afraid that I would cut it back to the property line, which would possibly kill it. So he took over trimming, which is fine, but there’s always that awkward space of time when I can see him in my back yard on the other side of the dog fence, clipping away.

This is awkward because he is awkward. I am the opposite of awkward, but I stopped saying hello to him because he is so pained by me. He’s never once made eye contact, let alone had a conversation with me. Luckily, I got married five years ago and he will speak to my husband. His big conversational gambit was, “Are you the property owner?” Apparently the property had no owner during the previous decades, but there’s a man here now, so whatever.

When he’s in the backyard, I close the shades.

*

Back to my idea of a fence and a gate. I still want my gate, which leaves me over here grasping for an explanation.

I think it has to do with this part of Lorna Crozier’s thoughts on gates. They’re an invitation but also an impediment. Signalling a need for privacy, this gate would make visitors pause, hesitate, delay, before they walked through. Some might choose to turn around and not enter the private enclosure presaged by such an imposing construction. Just as well. Something is being protected, secluded, differentiated from what’s on the other side.

Protected, secluded, differentiated. I think I understand. What’s on the other side is just…me. I would be inside this gate. I am less concerned with what’s without than what’s within. The gate would not be there to keep anyone out. It wouldn’t enclose a secret garden, because gardens need weeding and I’m clearly terrible at that. But it would feel protected, I think. A different kind of garden. The gate would be there to enclose me, to mark off and protect a place I love.

Who knows.

It might even sanctify the holiness of my diminishing days.

Happy New Year!

Tuberous Greetings

vintage new year postcard potato man

Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a misshapen potato playing at dandyism with boots, hat, and umbrella, am I right? His trailing roots add a special festive touch. I also found a pickle man, but couldn’t capture the image for you (so sorry). I just showed this to my husband because it’s the weirdest one I found, and he said, “It seems like in the not-too-distant past, vegetables had more active social lives.” (So you can see why I married him).

And speaking of anthropomorphism…

vintage new year postcard - kissing bottles

Okay, that is almost as cute as it is weird. Like, getting so drunk that you drop your glass and kiss the whiskey when you’re clearly Chianti. Does that seem like you’re thinking of Glad Memories and Future Hopes? Or are you just trying to blot out a terrible year with some cross-spirits over-indulging? Either way, these tipsy bottles send New Year Greetings to one and all.

There’s also this one…

vintage new year postcard - giant wasp

There’s nothing anthropomorphized here. Just a giant wasp, its barbed tail curled and ready to strike, determined to wish you a “Joyous New Year” by stinging these innocent tots in their middy blouses and sailor suits.

I’m looking for deeper symbolic meaning here, like, the wasp is the old year, chasing away the new year as symbolized by these children? And there’s another umbrella for whatever reasons (the potato man is also holding an umbrella). Does the umbrella mean anything? So many mysteries, lost to Time’s unending march…

On to Happy New Year and Pigs.

This is German. I’d know that even if I didn’t recognize the phrase, which translates as Happy New Year, but looks like I’m being wished a Frolicsome new year, which sounds more fun.

vintage new year postcard - happy cooked pig

It’s the roasted pig on foot that gets me. He’s already roasted, so wouldn’t this be a New Year’s Pig Zombie? Right? There’s an old ad for sausage where the pig is slicing its own middle into perfectly round slices of sausage. This Neujahr Greeting reminds me of that, as if the pig is willingly participating in his own slaughter by running along with carving tools in his back. So weird, so German.

If the pig must be running, I prefer this:

vintage new year postcard - good luck sleigh ride

“Happy driving in the New Year.” Can’t you just hear the song that goes with this? Dashing through the snow / in a four pig open sleigh / mushroom by my side, and hey…why is that crow wearing pants? I’m not sure, but those piggies look as focused as sled dogs, really giving their all to the Swine Iditarod, or whatever this is. Clearly, pigs have skills.

vintage new year postcard - a monkey and a pig

“Feliz Ano Nuevo.” This one is in Spanish, I can tell that even without Google’s help. This is one fierce pig, just look at the intense focus in his wee piggy eyes. He’s been trained by a chimp, and we all know how smart chimps are. But again, my friend April, the vegetarian, is always telling me how smart pigs are, and how sweet, and how pigs have surprising skills.

I just reply, “Bacon.” But anyway…

I think this next card is taking it too far. I don’t know what language this “Boldog Ujevet” greeting is in, and if I weren’t so lazy I’d Google it (okay I Googled it and it’s Hungarian), but this is a dark, dark story, here.

vintage new year postcard - romantic chimney sweep with his piggy gf

That man clearly has designs on the piggy in the ruffled apron and fetching pink shoes. He appears to be a chimney sweep, what with the ladder and broom. So he’s going to clean the chimney, get her drunk and do something bestial before roasting her in the newly cleaned fireplace.

And then I thought, no, this is an even darker story of survival at all costs. A subversive effort on the part of the pig. She (or possibly he, it might be a male pig disguising himself as a sow because desperate times call for desperate measures) is going to use its porcine wiles so as to avoid being dinner. Get that sweep drunk and shove him and his Boldog Ujevet right up his own damn chimney. Start a fire and say, “Oh heavens no, I didn’t know he was up there!”

I’m cheering on this pig. Like I said, pigs have skills.

Unless they’re drunk.

vintage new year postcard - party at my sty

It’s a Piggy Party! This one is pretty funny, especially when you see the boy holding the switch gazing lovingly at the drunken pigs. Why is he so happy? He came out there to beat them into their sty (see: switch), and there they are drunk out of their little piggy brains. It’s a happy story! No pigs will die! He’s too charmed to even beat them! Oh, those silly pigs!

A drunken pig must be a sign of good fortune in the year to come. Why else would so many of us transform ourselves into drunken pigs on NYE? (Not me, we will be lucky to make it to ten PM, I’m a sleepy pig).

In closing…

vintage new year postcard - froggy pops the cork

This grinning frog and I wish you a Happy New Year full of many symbols of good fortune, including keys and mushrooms and four-leaf shamrocks and horseshoes, and of course (if you drink it), champagne. It’s been a difficult year for too many people I care about, which means it’s been difficult for me, but only because I care. My husband and I are fortunate enough to end this year healthy and happy and surrounded by family and friends. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.

Here’s to 2024!

A Short History of Frosty Windows

The Frost

(from a Katrina writing prompt, The Frost)

Image by Frauke Riether from Pixabay

The frost is here, and I want to park in my garage. I have rarely, if ever parked in my garage. Let’s take a look at why.

When my then-husband and I bought the house in 1988, my father broke a sliding screen, and his father immediately broke the lock on the garage door. I’m not exactly sure how. He manhandled something. After that the bolt never worked right. Rather than throwing ourselves against the stubborn thing, or paying someone to repair it, we mostly kept it bolted. The door is an old one, made of wood, and very heavy.

I could have parked in the garage, but I was a young mother with young children. Imagine a young mother pulling up to that garage in her minivan.  I wasn’t going to get out of my car, walk around to the back of the freestanding garage, make my way through it, use an enormous amount of strength to unbolt the door, then get back in, drive in, pull the door down, bolt it, get the kids out of their car seats and shepherd them through the garage and up some steps and over to the front door.

I didn’t use the garage.

This meant my car windows were often frosty on wintry mornings. But the nice thing about being a stay-at-home mother whose kids ride the school bus was that the sun took care of it for me. Frost melted away before I ever started up my minivan.

My ex did sometimes park in the garage, but once he moved out, that didn’t mean it was empty. It was stuffed full of his possessions for a good seven years after he left. Once I sold all of his remaining items at a garage sale, my sister sensed an opportunity. I wouldn’t call her a hoarder, but given a chance, she would completely fill up other people’s storage; my garage, her friend’s basement, wherever she lived, and of course, she also had two storage spaces. My sister had quite a longstanding love affair with my garage. I was always trying to get her stuff out of there.

So I could, you know, park my car in there.

During the ten or so years she monopolized the garage, I became an expert at scraping my windshield. I was working an office job, so I would go out and scrape, scrape, scrape my windows, and run the defroster, and curse my life and grumble about my sister at 6am on a cold Oregon morning.

I had good scrapers and bad scrapers. The best was a thin blue tool about the size of my palm and not much thicker than a business card. It was a freebie from my health insurance company during a benefits fair at the office. I almost didn’t take it because it looked flimsy. But during the three years I used it, it peeled off the frost with a scalpel’s precision and a blowtorch’s efficacy. Then it snapped in half.

After some rather dire threats, my sister finally removed her belongings from my garage. This was a difficult time in our relationship, but she rode the bus out and got to work, and she hauled and donated and finally, my garage was empty enough to park in. If I’d wanted to bother with that heavy, malfunctioning garage door, I could have started each day with clear car windows and saved myself all that bother. But I didn’t, so I still parked outside.

A helpful gift

While I was dating [Redacted], he found it upsetting that I didn’t park in my garage. I’d go so far as to say it was an affront to him. But once he’d lifted that heavy door a few times, he understood why I didn’t want to. So for my birthday, he helped me clear out my garage and then bought and installed a garage door opener for me.

This was truly a halcyon time in that relationship. Together, we enjoyed cleaning out that garage, getting rid of an old wooden bed frame I’ve written about (but not posted), clearing shelves of the many many things left by the man who built the house in 1984 ([redacted] took a lot of that, to squirrel away in his own stuffed-full garage), and rooting out the last of my sister’s belongings, because they haunted the corners.

The opener was a real gift. It made parking in the garage so easy. I loved it. I enjoyed frost-free car windows for five years. Five years of not having to scrape a windshield. It was heaven, I tell you. And then, my guy moved in. We began to commute together. In his car. Which was parked in the driveway. Where the windows frosted in the winter.

You see where this is going.

I spoke the words of self-sacrifice. “You should park in the garage. That way, your windows won’t be frosty.” That was mutually beneficial until 2020. We both worked from home that year. But in 2021, he began working somewhere else and I had to commute in my own car again. Which was parked in the driveway. With frosty windows, in the wintertime. But I still worked from home half the time the time. He had to go to the office every morning, so it only seemed fair to spare him the scraping.

Why didn’t we both park in the garage? Well, one daughter put a big ass desk in there. She just dumped it in my garage one day, and she left it. It was there for one year. And then it was there for two years.  “Honey, will you get that desk out of there?” “Sure. But I don’t have anywhere to put it.” “Well can you come get it?” “No, you should sell it.” We finally hauled it to the curb and gave it away. This cleared a lot of space, but not quite enough. With a little compression, donation, and rearrangement, we were almost there.

I could practically taste those frost-free windows.

It was going to happen!

Three weeks later, my youngest daughter and her son moved in with us. Guess where her stuff landed? Yes. That’s right. In the garage, where my car would be parked.

I work in the office three days a week. Most of the time, I’m fine parking in the driveway. But on mornings when it’s dark and cold, I approach my car with trepidation. Will there be frost? I replaced my nimble blue ice scraper with an orange behemoth of a tool that looks like I could use it to strip paint off a submarine. It is almost useless on a curved surface.

Another winter of frosty windows. But it’s so fun to have my daughter and grandson here that I really don’t mind at all.

The Whale, and taking things personally.

I’ve not seen The Whale, but here’s my review.

Sculpture of beautiful fat woman at Lake Constance
Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is on streaming, now. It is supposedly a moving look at one man’s extreme obesity, caused by self-loathing over the abandonment of his family for a male lover. He’s killing himself with food out of grief and guilt. Sounds like a real feel-good flick.

Since I’m fat, I should probably watch it, but I was angry at this movie before I ever read a review for it. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus was pun-heavy: “Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering.” Really?

Aronofsky Grotesky

Based on my sole experience with his work (Mother!) I assumed Aronofsky would handle this plot with a deft mixture of bombast, grotesquerie, and mental decay. My psyche still hasn’t recovered from Mother!, but the story here was not about how much psychological torture the director could inflict on his lead female character. No, the big story here was Brendan Fraser’s comeback.

Brendan Fraser had a decent Hollywood career, but gained a lot of weight after being groped by a producer type at a Hollywood party. I read his account of this assault. It was invasive and traumatic. It’s also familiar. I could rattle off a string of events like this in my own life, both verbal and physical. So could any other woman reading this.

Trauma and Fat

It may or may not be true, but it’s a common observation that traumatized women hurt themselves, and traumatized men hurt others. Fraser hurt himself. I wish he’d sued the guy instead, like Taylor Swift when that old DJ went under her dress to fondle her butt. She filed suit, testified, and publicly refused to take any blame whatsoever for his ruin, insisting that everything that happened to him was his own fault for taking it upon himself to grope her.

Fraser hasn’t even named the man who assaulted him. Instead, he withdrew and got fat, but apparently not fat enough. Aronofsky outfitted him with a prosthetic suit to approximate weighing 600 pounds. The weight was set by the source material, a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. Still, I wonder if this amount of obesity was really necessary. It doesn’t take 450 pounds of extra weight to crush a person’s self esteem.

The Celebrity Penalty

Sometimes it only takes ten pounds to convince a person that she must starve her body into submission. Just ask Britney Spears, who was publicly humiliated for showing off a five pound weight gain after her second child. I mean, how dare she. A modest weight gain is enough to sabotage self-esteem, and it’s also enough to end a career.

That’s a movie right there. A restrained but interesting story to tell about how a gentle softening of your chiseled edges can ruin your name in Hollywood.

However, Aronofsky is not known for cinematic restraint. Of course he was more drawn to a story that involved a quarter ton of fat caused by binge eating. And that’s another problem. Binge eating is far from the only cause of obesity, but of course it is the most cinematic. It ties in well with a general perception of fat people as moribund monsters, their stomachs distended by joyless stuffing.

Getting personal.

I take this way too personally. I have never been a binge eater—I don’t see the allure—and resent this being assumed as a “why” for my weight. Will people see this movie and think I sit at home with the often cited “whole pizzas and gallons of ice cream”? Because I don’t. I haven’t. I physically couldn’t.

I also worried The Whale would kick off a wave of “fat people suffering” cinema. Would these movies resemble the “Black people suffering” movies made by White people for other White people? Well-meaning White people who always identify with the one decent White character, so they can walk out of the theater feeling reassured that they are not the problem? Would there be movies about thin saviors? Magical fatties who have no lives of their own but just exist to solve thin people problems?

How far would this thing go? Would there be marches and demonstrations? Would there be obesity reparations? Could I punch anyone who offered them to me?

As I have said before, this new appreciation for the fact that fat people are human beings is annoying to me. I don’t want a bunch of thin people offering me their heartfelt sympathy for how terrible my life has been. I will punch anyone who tells me I’m brave for lumbering along under the crushing weight of my despair (and my fat). Jesus Christ, it’s not ideal to be fat but I’ve certainly managed to have a decent life.

But now there’s a cure…

I shouldn’t have worried, because since that movie came out, Ozempic and Wegovy and all the other injectable semaglutides hit the public consciousness. These new drugs will apparently cure fat forever. Whew! No need for a wave of Fat Cinema.

I had kind of a moment about Wegovy with an online book group. No one else in the group is fat, I am the only fatty there. And someone started tsking and tutting about how famous people are all taking these injections to get thin, so vain, so shallow.

Ahem.

I pointed out that we live in a culture that turns a microscope on famous people and penalizes them for every physical flaw, every line, every pound. And we also denounce them for anything they do to remedy those physical flaws. We can’t have it both ways, can we? We can’t condemn them for being human and then condemn them for trying not to be.

Then I spoke up about my own experience; how years ago I had talked with my gastroenterologist about what to do about my weight, how calorie cutting doesn’t work for me because I don’t eat all that much so I have to eat under a thousand calories to budge the scale and I can’t sustain that. I have a messed-up heart for which I take a possibly lethal prescription drug twice a day, so heavy exercise is not an option. My older brother died from complications from weight-loss surgery, his organs failing one by one, so I have zero interest in that.

I asked my doctor, what should I do?

And he said, “Karen, don’t worry about it. There’s something coming, a shot or a pill, and it’s going to change everything about weight loss.” He told me to wait for it. He retired before it hit the market, but once it did, I went right to my PCP and requested a prescription. She wrote one, but insurance wouldn’t cover it and that stuff was wildly expensive, so I didn’t pick it up.

Well, now these drugs have been approved for weight loss, so insurance will cover them. Did you all know that Weight Watchers immediately bought a medical company that can prescribe these drugs? They are changing their model from portion and calorie control to injectables. WEIGHT WATCHERS. But of course, the drugs carry side effects for some people, mostly nausea. And now I’m reading that these drugs can paralyze your stomach. So you’re nauseous all the time, and then you can’t actually digest food anymore, so I suppose you get really thin.

Yippeeee.

On second thought, I probably shouldn’t watch The Whale.

Halloween Postcards: Amorous Pumpkins!

Kiss a Squash Day

I’ve enjoyed finding Creepy Valentines and sharing them with you, because who doesn’t want a murderous or suicidal Valentine greeting, am I right? So recently, I came across a feature on antique Halloween postcards from the “Golden Age of Postcards.” I think this is the same era as the Christmas cards that feature dead bugs and homely suffragettes. Anyway, among the witches, I was surprised to see so many postcards featuring amorous pumpkins. I guess even way back when in the days of yore (just like now), nothing says loving like a squash (though wasn’t an eggplant in the olden days). So, here we go. Also, all these cards are in the public domain, so right click to your heart’s content.

Hairy Pumpkins

Vintage Halloween postcard of kissing pumpkins

Please note the handwritten note: “I send you a kiss-” And what a kiss it is. Two hirsute and swarthy orange globes, all puckered up. I can’t tell if this is a gendered osculation, but one squash has some mighty impressive sideburns. I mean, how romantic! Wouldn’t you be all a-flutter if you received this postcard? Romance galore! However, the cat doesn’t seem to agree. The cat actually looks a little freaked out. Shouldn’t we all be a little freaked out?

Jane Austen Pumpkins

Vintage Halloween postcard of kissing pumpkins

A more genteel take on the kissing pumpkins. Here, the pumpkins are a bit less androgynous, what with the breeches and skirts and whatnot. And look, he presented her with a posy of carrots, so that’s romantic, yes? I mean, a little on the phallic side, but at least they’re not eggplants. Also, the apparently male pumpkin is green, which is a nice variation. I like how their little stems perch on their heads like tiny hats. But again, the cat is really freaked out. Perhaps the black cats are a kind of Greek chorus, providing the audience reaction when seeing pumpkins kiss?

Yee Haw Pumpkins

Vintage Halloween postcard of embracing pumpkins

Okay, I’m a little more comfortable here because despite the clothes, these are actual Jack-o-Lanterns. I have to say, I like the carved pumpkins better than the smooching anthropomorphized pumpkins. These country pumpkins have a down home lovin’ kind of air about them, like scarecrows come to life. Even though the kiss isn’t shown, Jackie is pointing to the place where she wants Jack to plant a big ol’ pumpkin smackeroo. The cat appears a little wistful, instead of aghast. And it seems the moon approves…

Foot Fetish Pumpkins

Vintage Halloween pumpkin postcard

Okay, now, hold up. What in the Sam Hain is going on here? There’s a pretty girl sitting on a huge Moon squash, and a serpentine parade of pumpkin creatures with zucchini limbs and vacant eyes coming to…do what exactly? Take turns looking at her foot? Or are they going to bow? Pay Halloween homage of some sort? Or is it something more interesting than that? What are the pumpkin zombies up to? “Strange things will happen” for sure! If only there were a black cat to provide reaction and commentary on the action.

When Pumpkin Love Gets Weird

Vintage Halloween postcard with pumpkin man, goddess, and goblins

Okay, speaking of strange things…

“On Halloween your slightest wish

is likely to come true,

so be careful, or the gobelins

will spoil your wish for you.”

I’d like to know who is wishing for what, here. It seems like the pumpkin person is the most likely to be making the wish, what with the googly eyes and goofy smile. But there’s a chance it’s this Diana Moon Goddess person whose wish is the subject. Is she supposed to be a witch? She has moons on her shoes. Perhaps she’s hoping to animate the pumpkin man (though he looks quite animated to me) (all he needs is an eggplant at this point). The “Gobelins” give me no clue. I would hope they’d interrupt this pairing, but they look delighted by the budding romance between Moon Goddess and Squash Man. The little weirdos. What’s going on? Again, without a black cat to react, I am lost.

And…A Cute One

Vintage Halloween postcard of a witch kissing a jack o'lantern

Okay, even though this witch is making advances on a member of the vegetable kingdom, this still strikes me as relatively tame compared to the other cards. This Jack O’Lantern isn’t aggressively amorous. It’s just a nice Jack O’Lantern that seems completely amenable to being kissed. It probably helps that this pumpkin doesn’t have a body. Or sideburns. And the witch is pretty. There’s nothing overtly aggressive about her little closed-mouth peck, which almost seems innocent. Overall, there’s no foot worship, no weird leering going on. And we don’t have a black cat, but we do have an intense little bat speeding over like a traffic cop to break this up. Come on, little bat. This looks harmless.

Happy Halloween, and may all your pumpkins be normal.

The Brakes

Failing the Brakes

A woman walks on the beach.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

It was Bozeman, Montana, in 1975. I was driving my boyfriend’s Plymouth Duster, bright yellow with a sexy black racing stripe that followed the curve of its bodylines. He’d taught me to drive in that car, and I loved it. Not bad for a girl who had just finished ninth grade.

I stayed with my older brother at the time. My parents had moved to Missoula, leaving me behind with Brother Steve. I had no idea what the future held, but when does that matter to a ninth grader? The sun shone, my stoned friends laughed, and David Bowie sang from the 8track. I was living my best life.

I’ve never understood what happened next. Suddenly the car fishtailed, brakes screaming, tires smoking until my foot remembered how the brakes worked. The only evidence was a trail of four S-shaped black skids on the west end of Bozeman’s Main Street.

Driving ever-so-slowly, I crept down Main to the gas station where my boyfriend worked, and parked the Duster. My friends left the car, swearing it wasn’t my fault, it couldn’t have been my fault, no way was that my fault. I was shaking all over as I solemnly returned the Duster’s ignition key to my boyfriend, the key he’d presented with more flourish than the ring I wore to signify our togetherness.

I didn’t drive again for months. It was time to pump the brakes.

Learning the Brakes

I’ve taught three daughters how to drive. Each had her own set of challenges behind the wheel. One was too anxious, so she rode the brakes. Another wanted to be told what to do long past the point when she should have been making her own driving decisions. She ignored the brakes until I told her to apply them.

The other daughter was emotional behind the wheel, speeding up and weaving through lanes when she was happy, jerking the steering wheel and jamming her foot on the brake pedal when frustrated.

After a particularly dangerous display, I yelled at her to pull over. I delivered my judgment in a cold, harsh voice. “You are not allowed to have emotions behind the wheel. It’s dangerous.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?” she cried.

“Whatever you have to,” I said. “Just don’t drive with them.”

We paused driving lessons for a week. It was time to pump the brakes.

Pumping the Brakes

There was a heat wave in my city that week, and everything was overloaded, including me. I was out with friends after a writing class, in an actual bistro, in person. All this felt new, precious, as had all social events since the spring of 2020. After recent bout with Covid-19, I was recovered, out and about again, basking in my temporary immunities.

We ordered fancy cocktails and delicious small plates. My expensive cocktail was absolutely delicious, but it hit me hard and I felt a little embarrassed. I drink so little that my tolerance is always low. Covid had only made it worse. Was I going to talk too much?

Our food hadn’t yet arrived when the server came by and asked if we were ready for another round. My friend raised her hands, palms out, and gently gestured. “I think I’d better pump the brakes.”

It wasn’t just me who found the cocktail potent. This pleased me, reassured me. I was even more pleased with her gentle miming of the metaphor.

Not long after, the power went out on the entire block. We sat in the darkened bistro, suspended in waiting, but our food arrived. We ate and talked, soaking up the drinks and each other’s company. No more cocktails came to our table. Thankfully we all had enough cash to settle our bills, since the registers were down. Two of us had to drive home.

We were relieved to pump the brakes.

A Tip for the Server

Servers at the Talkative Table

An alley with bars and neon signs.
Image by Daniel Nebreda from Pixabay

Back in the 1980s, my family had many intense conversations in restaurants. We were younger and more alive in both a metaphorical and literal sense. We were tall, smart people with the resonant voices of singers. If you put some or all of us around a table with cups of coffee, those voices rose up to discuss politics or history or music or real estate, loudly and at length.

At times, our conversations were spirited enough to invite participation from the wait staff. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” a server might say. “Excuse me, I heard you talking about…” a server would shyly offer. Of course, we listened politely, but I didn’t really care how the waiter voted, or what neighborhood the waitress grew up in. Backpacking in Italy was probably an adventure, but excuse me. I was talking to my mom.

Once, way back in the eighties at a Mexican restaurant, a young server stood at our table and recited a poem he’d written. It was a lengthy, worshipful ode to Oliver North. He may have been an actor, but he clearly did not know his audience. We never returned to that restaurant. Now it is long gone. Decades later, most of the places we used to go are gone.

The family has also suffered some attrition. Our most recent all-family restaurant gathering was after my father’s memorial service, when we filled a long table at his favorite restaurant–Bannings–for one last meal on Dad.

My Dad and Bannings

Bannings is one of those places we all hope to find in our neighborhoods–a family diner with good food and comfortable booths and the most attentive servers on Earth. All the servers at Bannings knew Dad. They vied to have him in their sections. They made him welcome, brought him sides of sausage gravy at no charge, and kept his coffee hot. He always tipped well.

At this post-service-last meal, with all the family and some friends ranged around a long table, meal, many of the servers came by to say they were sorry. They hadn’t seen him because Dad was housebound for months before he died, but they certainly remembered him. “I’d wondered when we didn’t see you.” “We’ll sure miss him.”

You forget, or at least I did, that his decline was pretty obvious from the outside. He changed rapidly from a relatively hale man who took smoking breaks after a meal, to a frail man wearing an oxygen tank. Of course they noticed when he stopped coming.

After that last meal, I couldn’t go to Bannings without Dad. It was just too sad to sit there and think about all the years we’d met there for breakfast, all our conversations about everything in the world. Dad knew so much about the mechanics of the world, and how our government actually worked. We met there nearly every week for fifteen years.

So I left Bannings alone. A year and two months after Dad died, Covid hit and everything shut down. It was 2021 before I started going there again. One August day, I was having lunch with my friend Sarah and realized it was my dad’s birthday. Our server, who I remembered, didn’t remember Dad when I asked her. It had been almost two years, after all. But she asked me what his favorite dessert and brought me a piece of strawberry shortcake as a gift.

This was so human of her. So kind. And yes, I cried.

Servers in Context

My husband and I were at a company Christmas party on the Portland Spirit years ago, and a young woman who looked so familiar came up to me on the dance floor and said, “Karen!” and hugged me. I knew her but I couldn’t place her, so I bluffed my way through the encounter, smiling and laughing and wondering where the hell I knew her from.

As I walked back to our table, it hit me. She was a server at Bannings. She was a doll. And I knew she was going to school, and she was bright and kind and funny, but I absolutely couldn’t place her out of context.

This made me feel like a real jerk.

In my home city, almost no one who waits tables does it for love. They do it while preparing for something better; a new job, an upcoming move, a leading role, or a paying gig. The people who wait on me are human beings with opinions and passions. I know that. I grant them privacy for that part of their lives. I think this is more dignified.

If you are a server or a waiter and you’re reading this, I probably owe you an apology for the fact that your dreams don’t concern me. I know you’re a real person who has tied on the apron. I appreciate you. But I only want your attention when I want it.

Swoop in with more coffee, more water. Bring me extra napkins. Don’t make me wait forever for my check, but reassure me there’s “no hurry” when you lay it on the table. I know some days it takes everything to show up, put on your apron, and tend to your tables. I admire the seemingly effortless ballet of your service, a dance that is actually a great deal of work. I like that you perform it with the invisible grace of a professional.

For what it’s worth, I always tip well, too.

Siblings in Harmony – Regrets and Videos

No regrets? Of course I have regrets! Regrets in harmony.

shelves full of vintage radios
Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

I have a few regrets in this life, and not recording some songs in harmony with my siblings is absolutely one of them. I’m speaking of the original three siblings: myself (youngest), my sister (middle) and my Brother Steve (oldest). At my mother’s parties in Aberdeen, South Dakota, my sister and I used to bring down the house with our childish rendition of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” The three of us together graduated from car-trip singalongs to rousing a crowd with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971 at a political rally in Booneville, Arkansas. Despite the heights of our harmonic glory during the refrain, we remained staunchly liberal, like our parents, and we did not become the next Von Trapps, though my sister and brother were in a band together in the 80s (it wasn’t particularly harmonious).

Harmony came easier to my brother and me. We dueted constantly from about 1974 on, at home and at parties. It was our thing. Somehow, we never got a moment of it on tape. I regret that.

The way sibling voices blend moves me. Even when the voices are very different from each other, there’s alchemy in how they come together, constant infinitesimal adjustments to smooth the harmonies. I believe this is done by instinct rather than decision. Here are a few of my favorites, almost all of which fall into the country category. And please note, even though these are sister acts, I sang far more with my older brother than with anyone else. I miss you, Brother Steve.

The Chicks

I’m all for the rename. But in the Dixie days, the harmonies of sisters Martie and Emily provided a soft grounding for Natalie Maines’ forceful lead vocals. This band has been through the wringer both professionally and personally, andthey are still together. Gaslighter is a BRILLIANT record/song/video, but I like these earlier songs. Also, that fiddle, and the banjo. I mean…

The Browns

Talk about country! I first learned about the Browns while reading Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I had no memory of the Browns, and thought I was reading a not-so-good novel with real characters like Elvis Presley dropped in. At some point I began to understand that, yes, this was a not-so-good novel, but the Browns were real. At one time, they were one of the most popular musical acts in the country world. Bass described how they twanged and arced and hung in the air, blending and bending together like the tones of a bandsaw. I wanted to hear their voices. I ordered a CD, which took months to reach me. When it finally arrived, I played it obsessively.

Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne

These sisters have intense, rich voices. Shelby’s is full of emotional punch and power, and Allison’s is low and heartfelt, as big as the sky. I couldn’t prefer one over the other. Each sister has a record that sits on my all-time favorites list (Shelby’s Temptation, Allison’s The Hardest Part). They join each other onstage now and then, and have one joint project, Not Dark Yet. Individually, they are powerhouses. Together, they are sublime. The video below gives me constant shivers from beginning to end.

That’s pretty much perfection, in my book. Lest you think these sisters do not rock, here you go:

SheDAISY

I have one CD by SheDAISY, their debut “The Whole SheBang”, and that appears to be enough. I have never bought or even listened to another. I’ve been playing this record on car trips since the year 2000 and still love it. It’s straightforward commercial country done right. I have no idea if they’re still performing together, but the harmonies these three sisters create are grand, swooping, impossible to tease apart. I’m going to post two examples and I hope you listen more than watch.

The first one, “Little Goodbyes” is such a funny song, very country pop, but the video is of the “beautiful women make sultry faces while singing” variety. It distracts, then gets old.

“This Woman Needs” is a HEARTBREAKER ballad and has hair-raising shivery harmonies. It’s also an oddly crappy video with too many jump cuts. But it’s a gorgeous song.

Haim

Okay, finally, a sister act that is not country at all. My kids told me about these three sisters long before I actually heard them. “Mom, you’d love Haim.” “Mom, have you ever heard Haim?” “Mom, I think you’d like Haim.” I finally encountered them as actors in Licorice Pizza. This led to watching the video below and while watching it, I fell hard. Este, Danielle, and Alana (who starred in the movie) are so…talented, striking, odd, fascinating. They have quite different voices but listen to them blend into something special! And watch the whole thing because it builds in a wonderfully strange and subtle way. When did they film this, and how did they do it, and could they be any more cool?

I played this for my five year-old grandson and he was transfixed. He remarked, “They all have the same shoes.” He’s right. They sure do.

In conclusion

Did I miss anyone besides the Jacksons (can’t/won’t talk about them, it makes me too sad)? Because I’m sure I missed some people. Let me know in comments.

Covid and Catachresis: Finding the Words

The visitor that won’t leave

An open book, a dog, a girl with a red umbrella. Chosen to show how strange catachresis is. 

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay
Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay – chosen because it really makes no sense.

Catachresis: The use of a word in a way that is not correct — for example, the use of “mitigate” for “militate.”

I describe it like this. I reach for a word and grab the one beside it on the shelf. I want to say “cerebral,” and I say “cereal.” “Mutual” instead of “mutable.” Almost immediately, I catch myself and correct. But we both notice.

“I did it again,” I say to my husband. “You did,” my husband affirms. 

I’ll do this like four times over two days. Then it subsides for weeks, even months. But I know it will come back, especially when I’m exhausted. You know how Autocorrect will plug in the wrong word, even when you’ve carefully typed out the word you want to use? That’s what my brain is doing to me right now. It’s AutoIncorrecting.

Sometimes it’s not the word right next to it on the shelf, but more kittycorner to it. I might mean to say the doctor prescribed something, but I say she subscribed something. Almost there but not quite. It reminds me of my grandson, with his “consplosions” and “conspiraments,” his use of “extract” rather than “distract.” Except I don’t find it charming when I do it, because I’m not five.

The cause

It’s been a couple of months since I mixed up my words, so I’m probably due for a run of stumbles. It only happens while speaking, never while writing. Since I make my living at the latter, I’m grateful for this, but still embarrassed. I have an expansive vocabulary that can also be a bit cumbersome. I’ve been teased about my wordiness my entire life, but I love words. I’m particular with them. This catachresis overrides my careful choices.

Please don’t come at me with advice about having my brain checked out for early senility, because I know where this came from. This started after I had COVID-19 in January of 2020. I’ve been struggling with this particular piece of neurological fallout ever since.

I believe that most of us who’ve had it are struggling with at least some damage from the virus. Catachresis one of three symptoms of long COVID that I try to ignore. I get a little wheezy some evenings. Occasionally, something will taste completely wrong to where I couldn’t identify what’s in my mouth without visual cues. I deal with these other lingering guests as small inconveniences, but I hate it when the wrong word comes out.

A little hope

I whine about getting sick quite enough on here, but since I had “the birthday flu” this spring, my daughter and five-year-old grandson have moved into our house, where we hope they’ll stay for the school year. My grandson arrived with a cold, so I promptly caught that. It was horrible. We got over it. Then he picked up another cold in swim lessons. I came down with it on a weekend getaway to Yakima with friends.

The bad news is, I’m going to get all his kindergarten colds. The good news is, my immune system seems to be working again. Yes, I had a cold, but my body seems to know what to do with it. I was tired over the weekend, blew my nose now and then, had some cough drops. But I was functional and even able to taste all the fine food we sampled on a weekend of restaurants, antiquing, and talking about our lives.

A week later, I seem to be over it with no secondary infections, sleepless nights, or hacking. I haven’t even had a flare-up of the catachresis.

But I’m still paranoid.

I try to stay calm. I’ve had COVID twice and I can’t do anything about that. I don’t think this is the last time, either. But as I was coming down with the cold on Friday night, I was terrified that it might be COVID again.

Both of my weekend traveling companions are recently retired frontline workers. One has had COVID three times, but the other has not had it, not even once. She worked with the actual virus for years, and she did it on the daily. She’s either the most cautious person in the state, or she’s immune. Maybe both? I did NOT want to be the person who gave it to her.

This friend is a scientist. She has patiently listened to my crackpot theories about the virus, and read the Vanity Fair/ProPublica article at my urging. She might not buy the lab leak theory (and please don’t assume that I do, here’s a rebuttal), but she was the first person to explain to me that Covid is not actually a respiratory virus. It uses the respiratory system to hitch a ride to its actual target; the heart, lungs, or brain. No one knows exactly what it does in there, but she fears what it has done to the population as a whole.

As I told her, “Well, we’re all just going to be a little more stupid from now on.” My stupid is Catachresis. But I don’t say the word out loud. I’m afraid it will come out as “catechism.”

The Napkin

A mother’s dismay.

Wooden cutlery on a folded cloth napkin
Image by Pictavio from Pixabay

(I’m still stuck in the past, and stuck in the kitchen. This was from a Katrina prompt, “The Napkin”.)

My grown daughters don’t use cloth napkins, or paper napkins, or any napkins. I’ll be served a beautiful, even elegant meal at one of their homes, then handed a small section of paper towel to use as a napkin. I’m not much on formal table settings, but it feels wrong to me, a mistake, as wrong as if I’ve been handed a wad of toilet paper with which to dab my mouth while eating.

Where are the napkins in my daughters’ homes?

I’m not sure, and I want to trot out that old saw, “They weren’t raised like that.” But really, they weren’t. We had a basket of paper napkins on the counter for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, each place was set with a cloth napkin.

Getting Fancy

I didn’t encounter cloth napkins until I was a nanny, working in the aforementioned Vandor Country Kitchen home where I learned to roast a chicken, bake a fish, and use cloth napkins. I wanted to incorporate them in my own home. It made me feel fancy.

Proof of this is that I only use them now when company is here. So take note. If you come to dinner at my home and I’ve set the table with cloth napkins, I’m being fancy on your behalf.

The history of napkins!

I was considering that idea, the cloth napkin as fancy, so I did a little research, which means I Googled it and clicked on the first promising link that popped up in my results. I found this blog post while trying to find out when paper napkins arrived on America’s tables: The History of Paper Napkins (this is a blog for a store that sells paper napkins). Here is an excerpt:

Paper napkins themselves originate from ancient China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. The historical accuracy of this is backed up by documents describing the possessions of the Yu family from the city of Hangzhou.

And when did North America start getting in on using paper napkins? They arrived in the late 1800s, but didn’t pick up in popularity until 1948 – because Emily Post proclaimed that “It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”

Emily Post approved!

My mother had adopted so many markers of class and taste reminiscent of the 1950s, but for all my mother’s airs, we always used paper napkins. Perhaps Emily Post is why. We still had to use our napkins correctly. She trained me to always keep my napkin in my lap, or if I rose from the table, my chair. A used napkin on the table was a definite manners misstep.

My mother wouldn’t have dreamed of using a paper towel next to a plate. Is that why I’m so horrified by that idea?

Mom liked to imitate how her sister, my aunt Elaine, carefully and firmly pressed a napkin to the edges and corners of her mouth. “It was like she was staunching blood,” Mom explained. I try to imagine handing my Aunt Elaine a scant section of paper towel for this act. What would she say? How would she adjust?

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO NAPKINS, I ASK YOU?!

More on the history of Napery

(Yes, “napery” is a word I discovered while working on my latest project, which is a novel narrated by a somewhat fussy man. Anyway.)

As I’ve explained before, I’m an inveterate thrifter. I also go to antique stores, which is less satisfying because everything needs to be looked at, and I find it exhausting. Anyway, I think, as a secondhand shopping wizard, that I’ve seen everything. But in this thrifting group I belong to on Facebook, someone posted one of these and I had no idea what the heck it was. It was something like this:

Vintage serviette holder, or napkin lady

Does this confuse you? Good. It certainly confused me.

This is a serviette lady. A very fancy example, with salt and pepper shakers, and a tray to hold toothpicks, and something (a candle?) sticking out of her head. Less fancy models just have the skirt with all the slots in it. The idea is, you fold your napkins (clearly cocktail napkins for this one, which were a thing) and arrange them in the slots so that they make a bouffant skirt of sorts. Then you put her out with your lady luncheon or bridge club spread, and people take their napkins out of her skirt.

I probably don’t need to explain that my mother would not have had such an item in her home. She was gifted a ceramic frog scrubber holder by a neighbor that she grudgingly used for years, but that was the extent of Mom’s tacky ceramics. The woman had taste (unlike me, who has a full shelf of ceramic honey servers).

But I don’t have any lady serviette holders. That is a bridge too far, even for me.

Today.

My husband and I both have big noses that drip constantly as we eat. I have no idea when this started to happen but it’s annoying and makes the use of cloth napkins problematic. So we use paper. Big, fluffy white paper napkins, the costly kind.

He has a whole system where he folds down the top edge of the napkin, creating a demarcation between the part used for his nose and the part used for his mouth. I admire this while also thinking it’s kind of weird. He also sets his napkin on the chair next to him, as opposed to his lap. Whatever works, at least he’s using one.

Over at my plate, I’m working my napkins like someone trying to clean up after a flood. I use more napkins than anyone I know. Sometimes I’m eating in a restaurant with a friend, and I’m on my third while theirs is untouched. How do they do that, I wonder?

Alternately, is there something wrong with me? Even if my nose weren’t drippy, I’m wiping my hands and mouth constantly while I eat. Am I leaky and strange? Unduly repelled by food juice? Why am I such a mess?

Hope for the future.

The last time I ate dinner at my oldest daughter’s home, her in-laws were there. As she set the table, my daughter let me know that her mother-in-law had made this beautiful set of cloth napkins for her. I smiled and complimented her MOL on the beautiful fabric and workmanship. Did I only imagine that we shared a swift but knowing glance?

Acknowledged or not, I’m not the only person who believes in napkins.