Saturday, December 17, 2011

Backstage Mom and Fruitcake

This is the latest I've ever made fruitcake. December 17th. But it's not my fault. We have a music-mad high school senior in our house this year. He is in six performance choirs, ranging in size and style from eight close-harmony male singers to a full-on chamber choir that performs with groups like the Oregon Symphony and Pink Martini. When you go to those beautiful holiday concerts, it all looks so effortless and festive. The orchestra is in tune. The guys look great in their tuxes. The singing is heavenly. What you don't see are the last-minute trips to the dry cleaners and the Mr. Formal outlet for an extra tux shirt, feeding the guys who are rehearsing for five hours straight, waking the kid up after a half-hour nap so he can get to the 5:00 call, making a half-dozen sandwiches so he can grab a couple as he runs out the door.

It's so worth it and it's the reason I didn't get around to the fruitcake this year and it's the reason why I couldn't find my recipe, so isn't it a good thing that I posted it a year ago?

However, I owe you all an apology. As I was reading the ingredients list, I realized that I had LEFT OUT THE NUTS. Whoops! I hope that those of you who made this queenly cake last year realized this lack and remedied it yourselves. But for those of you who didn't, I fixed it.

So without further ado (and without the accompanying Truman Capote story, but you can look that up on your own), here is what I have decided will be the annual posting of the Best Fruitcake Recipe Ever, known at our house as...

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas Fruitcake

You can change up the kinds of fruit and nuts and liquid, heaven knows I did. But this is the latest version and as far as I’m concerned, the best.

Plan on doing the work over several days, and allow four hours for the baking itself.

Step One

Prepare six cups of chopped dried fruit by cooking it over extreme low heat, preferably in a cast iron Dutch oven in two cups of liquid. Although I have included dried pineapple and golden raisins in the past, I recommend this combination:

2 cups dried apricots, diced
2 cups dried Bing cherries, snipped in half
½ cup candied orange peel
2 cups dried papaya, diced
A pint of rum. I like Bacardi’s Gold. Glug glug glug!
A cinnamon stick. This is to be removed after the simmering.

Stir it when you think of it, or when you want to inhale the Christmas smell. After it’s simmered for awhile (one to four hours, say), turn off the heat and let it sit. A day or two is fine. It sat three days this year, but it was out in our enclosed non-insulated porch known as “Fred,” so that was all right.

Chop a cup, cup-and-a-half of toasted nuts: hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, whatever you like. Put them aside. Once the fruit is done macerating, stir the nuts into the fruit mixture.

Step Two

Prepare the pans. This can be one big tube pan or several smaller loaf pans. If you have batter left over, you can even make cupcakes. Grease the pans with Crisco (I know, I know. Just do it…) and line them with parchment paper. When I line loaf pans, I just use one strip to cover the long axis of the pan and leave bunny ears hanging out on both sides. Then grease the paper. When Ed lines the tube pan, he uses Scotch tape to affix the paper to the inner tube part. Somehow, he does it so the tape is not in contact with the batter. I don’t want to know how.

Step Three

Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cream together:

1 cup shortening
2 cups packed brown sugar
4 ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli’s 60%, but really any baking chocolate will work)
4 tablespoons cocoa

Beat in:

6 large eggs

Add and beat in:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom, if you have any.

Add and beat in:

3 cups WHITE flour. Don’t get all crunchy and sincere and use whole wheat flour. It will not work. Trust me, I know.

Add and beat in until the batter gets fluffy and changes color from dark to light brown, scraping the sides of the bowl from time to time:

2/3 cup apricot preserves or red current jelly
1 tablespoon rum extract
1 tablespoon chocolate extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Stir the batter into the fruit and nut mixture, and then stir in:

8 ounces of bittersweet, mini chocolate chips.

Really. Elizabeth says to do it and it worked out for us this year.

Make sure everyone in the family stirs it for luck in the coming year. Wishes made at this time have a better chance of coming true than wishes made at other times, except for birthday candle wishes.

Step Four

Boil water in a kettle. Then pour this hot water into a large lasagna-type pan. While you are waiting for the water to boil, pour the batter into prepared pans. Put the hot water pan on the bottom rack of the oven and the cakes on a rack above it.

Get out your timer and a box of toothpicks. The length of time that fruitcakes bake is much more art than science and you will have to rely upon your Curious Nose as much as upon the timer. I’ve found that fruitcakes bake for these approximate durations, but don’t blame the results on me if you get all precise and just use a timer for these treasures instead of paying attention.

Tube pan: four hours
Nine inch loaf pans: 2 ½ - 3 hours
Seven inch loaf pans: 1 ½ - 2 hours
Little pans: About 1 – ½ hours
Really cute tiny pans and cupcakes: I once had an oven that baked them in 45 minutes flat. My oven this year takes more like an hour, maybe even an hour and a quarter.

Check them with toothpicks before you take them out. The toothpick should come out clean when the cake is done, but it might not because of the sticky fruit or if you hit a pocket of chocolate chips. Check it twice.

The cakes will look dry around the edges and should have pulled away from the ends of the pan a tiny bit. Don’t let them brown though.

They should smell like heaven. You can carry one around the house and give everybody a sniff. This always makes me feel like a pre-Christian priestess with a votive offering. Or maybe I’m just being a bit braggy.

As you take out each installment, put the pans on cooling racks. Don’t take the cakes out of the pans, no matter how Curious you are, until they’ve sat for 15 minutes or so. The first tiny one can be a tester, that’s okay. And besides, you need to know if the parchment paper will peel off cleanly, right? Use a serrated knife to slice those first warm, fragile pieces. Be patient and slow in your slicing.

I like to loosen the parchment paper on all the cakes before I go to bed for the night, just to make sure it will not cement itself permanently to the cake, although I’m sure it wouldn’t. Pretty sure, anyway.

Once the cakes have cooled thoroughly (the tube pan will need to sit all night, and I sometimes get all 1950s and invert it on an old-fashioned glass Coke bottle or even a wine bottle), you can peel off the paper and wrap them in aluminum foil. Some years I wrap them in cheese cloth first and douse them in brandy or rum before wrapping them up – this is on the rare occasion that I actually do make them in August or September.

Put them somewhere cool for a month or so to age and meld. Mine used to sit in the cellar until we insulated it. Now we put them in “Fred.” Somewhere that stays above freezing but below fifty degrees would be ideal. Keep an eye on them. Sometimes one of the smaller ones will disappear.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I don’t like cowards and I don’t like hypocrites.

So you can imagine my delight to discover that I am both of those things.

I was a failed hippie. Born in 1956, I was just twelve years old during The Summer Of Love. Too young to be part of the war protests or pay much attention to Woodstock or smoke marijuana. The older, “cool” kids did. I probably wouldn’t have anyway, because I was a singer and didn’t want to hurt my vocal cords, and I didn’t like rock music anyway. I had a Don Giovanni poster on my bedroom wall, which I thought was pretty risqué.

I did grow my hair long, but since I was a girl, it didn’t get a lot of notice.

And here I am, washed up on the shore of 2011, and once again I’m not being an agent of change. Or maybe I’m just washed up. I should be doing something.

I am, of course, talking about the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.

I just read in the New York Times that, according to the Census Bureau, 17% of four-person American households have an average income that is four times the poverty level. That’s about $95,000 a year, or two fairly modest middle-class incomes, say, a technical writer and a public school teacher. That’s enough to pay a mortgage on a small house, put two kids through a state school and put a little away for retirement, if you’re careful.

Only 17%? That’s a problem.

We’re not even talking about poor people. One-third of similarly-sized households earn between 100% and 200% of the poverty level. The poverty level is defined as $22,350 for a household of four. After taxes, that’s about $1,375 a month. A three-bedroom apartment would be nice if you have two kids, say $900. Plus heat and electricity. Food. Gas and insurance for two cars and could you save up enough cash for those cars on that income? So a car loan. Don’t worry about a health insurance premium, at that pay you have no health insurance. So just don’t get sick or hurt. I don’t know about you, but the number on my calculator just went way over $1,375.

Sixteen percent of the country lives below the poverty level. I’m adding up the numbers here, and realizing for the first time that half of the American population is struggling to pay for basic expenses.

Then there’s the folks who have fallen off the map entirely, because they’re mentally ill and we closed those hospitals and care facilities a couple of decades ago, or because we would rather treat addicts as criminals instead of people with a reparable problem, or because they have been unemployed so long that they have exhausted all their resources and no longer have a place to live.

Like all of us, I’ve been aware that there are fewer cars on the roads, that there are more empty storefronts than there used to be and that there seem to be panhandlers at every traffic light. I’ve been worried about where this country is headed and will the economy ever come back.

There have been a few times when I’ve read an article about unions losing the right to negotiate or something and thought, “For heaven’s sake! Since when do unions need permission to organize!” I’ve read history. I know that people gave their lives in the 1920s to organize unions. They were beaten and shot and ostracized. Unions weren’t just unpopular then, they were crushed. Because workers were asking for things like an eight-hour day and work conditions that had some safeguards and weren’t necessarily lethal.

There have been plenty of times when the “little people” have stood up to be counted. In 1932, unemployed World War I veterans camped in Washington D.C. to demand redemption of their bonus payment tickets. They were tear-gassed, beaten, and their encampment burned. But their actions cost Hoover the election. Freedom Riders in the 1960s risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to register voters who had been disenfranchised because of their color. Their actions, unpopular then (and in some history books now) were part of a civil rights movement that resulted in real change for people of color. But these events happened comfortably in the past, where we don’t have to look at them.

I admit, I’ve been a little curious about what it would take to get folks to demand change in a way that might get some attention here in the present day. But my mild curiosity didn’t stop me from clicking right past the MoveOn requests for money on my e-mail screen. I even stopped reading the paper. Fingers in ears, eyes squinched shut. La la la la!!

Until this week. Because the Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t stay on Wall Street. There’s one downtown in my city right now. And the discussion about it landed on my Facebook page so I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

My friends and family and acquaintances, not to mention my hometown paper, all have opinions about the people “manning the barricades” in the little park downtown across from City Hall and the police station. (They’re not manning any barricades. Boy, that does sound scary! Mostly they’re camping in the mud and the rain, because this is November in the Pacific Northwest, after all. Sometimes people do talk through a megaphone. That is a little intimidating.)

Mostly the opinions are, they’re ruining the grass. There’s been some vandalism. It’s harder to get around downtown. They should get those people out of there because they’re going to hurt the Christmas shopping season. Crime is up downtown because of them. (Never mind that they’re parked right in front of the jail, where people being released from jail can go immediately to get a meal instead of dispersing throughout the city, or that they’re camped right in front of the police station.) Here’s the statement I keep hearing over and over – they’re not even organized! They’re not even mostly real protesters! A lot of them are homeless and mentally ill!

No, listen to that last sentence. A lot of them are homeless and mentally ill.

The unspoken part of that sentence is, So they shouldn’t be part of the protest. They are a problem. They are causing a problem.

My friends, you may see them as being a problem or causing a problem. And I agree that it’s hard to cheerfully go about your Christmas shopping while “those people” are ruining the grass in the park.

But they are not causing a problem. They have a problem. They have run out of options. They are sleeping in the rain and the mud in November in Portland, Oregon. And the people down there who are not homeless and mentally ill are trying to speak for those who have fallen off the map or who are falling and don’t know what else to do, except to all go to one place where you can see them, right downtown where you want to go out to lunch and do your shopping. Because they are visible there.

I said I was a coward and a hypocrite. That’s because I don’t want to go downtown and join them. I don’t want to get shot by a rubber bullet or even have to listen to my friends and family’s opinions about involving myself in such a questionable venture.

But I can at least have my own opinion about the protests, and it is this.

If, as a community, our average reaction to the growing numbers of people who are falling out of the middle class or even right off the map and who have to sleep outside and eat in soup kitchens is that they make it unpleasant and inconvenient for us to go buy more stuff with our charge cards, then as Mrs. Landingham said to President Bartlet in the second season of West Wing, I want to say, Jeez. Jed, I don’t even want to know you.

It makes my heart sick.

As you care for the least of these…

As we make our annual sojourn towards the winter solstice and the darkest day of the year, could we prepare for the return of the light, in our hearts and minds as well?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why So Serious?

I've decided that sometimes a girl just has to have a little fun.

My son Robin and I were in Seattle last week looking at colleges. For those of you who haven't yet taken part in this exercise in the later part of child-rearing, it's intense, it's emotional and it's exhausting. One evening as we sat around in an Admissions-office-induced stupor, surrounded by flyers and college catalogs, it occurred to us that if you were to produce a modern-day setting of Romeo and Juliet, you would have to keep in mind that they would have modern electronic communications. So we wrote a new version of the next-to-last scene, with Friar Lawrence texting Romeo blow by blow updates of what's happening with Juliet, with Romeo's replies. And here it is, for your scholarly reading pleasure.

juliet not reely dead ok
got it
ok now in toom
ok me too
sure shes not dead man
dude no way
see paris dont worry ;)
paris lol
what a wuss
dude mess him up
where are you
in driveway
im standing behind cript
in doorway
paris sees you
oop fuck
not dead not dead
i think i got him
can i go now
go check on juliet now
wont wake up
just put her in the car
ok going to las vegas
ok have a good time
yeah see you

There. Our contribution to the modern-day cultural scene. I guess Robin can go to college now.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sometimes the Cup Can Be Empty

A very strange thing happened today.

After a Saturday morning that included waking my son at 6:00 to take two antibiotics, three painkillers and a probiotic, making pancakes, corresponding with a dozen parent volunteers, ducking a two-hour rehearsal in my living room, filling out an auto loan application in eleven minutes, sending 60 choir students (including the teen-age son) away on a bus with ten chaperones -- my husband was one of them -- with all the attendant legal paperwork, and having lunch with my grown daughter, I found myself alone in the house.

Two yellow schoolbusses drove away with the contents of my brain at 2:00 this afternoon and then I didn't know what to do.

No, I mean it. I didn't know what to do.

I drove home and sat in front of my computer screen. There weren't any new messages because everybody I'd been e-mailing had just gone to a wilderness area where there isn't any wi-fi. I played a couple of games of Solitaire. Then I scheduled three college visits for later this month for me and my high school senior. Then I played some more Solitaire.

What do you do on a Saturday when all your jobs desert you and the laundry is caught up?

I'm re-reading Anne of Green Gables this week. That's the turn-of-the- (twentieth) -century story set in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where everybody grows their own food, quilts apple-leaf bedspreads, chases the cow out of the wheatfield, makes plum cake for tea, and still has time to sit on the front porch and knit and soak in the beauty of the St. Lawrence Gulf. I'd go for it myself, too, if they didn't describe ladies of 40 as being in their twilight years.

It sounds silly. But what happened? I can't even get into my back yard to see if there are tomatoes and carrots growing. I suspect there are, but I'm afraid to go out there. The last time I went into the back yard was before the school year started.

I have friends sending me Facebook messages wondering if I'm mad at them. No, I've just been too busy to sleep.

I made myself some dinner and sat down in front of the TV to watch a West Wing DVD. Four episodes of West Wing. Then I had some popcorn. Surely it's time to go to bed now.

It's 8:30.

I promised you posts that weren't perfect, and this is one of them. I'm surprised that I'm even going to let you read it. But it's worth it, just to ask:

When did it become so virtuous, so important, to be busy every waking moment? When did it become virtuous to have every moment be a waking moment?

And would there really be anything wrong with just sitting in a rocking chair and knitting, or watching the cool fall twilight enfold my street?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When the Cup Runs Over, Get Another Cup

I woke up this morning realizing that the autumnal equinox wasn't kidding -- the fresh smell of damp greenery wafting through my window is here to stay for awhile. The fiercely hot weather of two weeks ago is really gone and we're back to clouds and intermittent rain -- a bit of warmth and sun now and then, but I know where we're headed.

I'm still getting over the loss of the summer before last. This makes me feel like one of J.R.R. Tolkien's immortal Elves, who after living for thousands of years see "the years fleet by -- it is a sorrow to them."

Aging around here is a real experience. Western life has been all about youth since the 1960s, and I discovered last week that even if I can pass for mid-to-late 30's, and I can, my eldest child just turned 28 and I would have had to be nine when she was born and that's just weird.

Besides which, I'm still mad at Nixon and if I were 38, I wouldn't remember Nixon.

Ah, youth! This is turning out to be any age under 40. (Remember "don't trust anybody over 30?" Now anybody under 30 is a kid.) Youth is obsessed with reproductive issues. Puberty, contraception, biological clocks, pregnancy, PMS. Thank God I'm past all that kid stuff. And it's not just women who have to deal with hormonal issues. I just read that when men have children and begin to take care of them, their testosterone level drops. You do know that the fluctuations in crime rates correlates to the percentage of young men in a society? More young men, more crime? It's not the guys' fault, it's their hormones. If less testosterone makes a guy less aggressive and more community minded, that might be a good thing.

Not that it ever looked good to combine inexperience with brains bathed in hormone soup. I taught middle school and I know what I'm talking about.

I think I've been afraid of aging because I've been stuck with outdated information. One hundred years ago, the average life expectancy for a woman was 48. Die in childbirth or of exhaustion after having 15 kids, oh boy! When Social Security was first established, half of all Americans died by the age of 62. This generation's 60-year-old looks like last generation's 40. Better diet, better exercise, and in many women's cases, the right hormones at the right point in their lives all have contributed to a completely new version of middle age than we're used to.

So now we have the luxury of finding out what it's really like to live a long post-reproductive life. What's it like to have a whole second adulthood?

I just read in "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," (an inflammatory title bestowed on a well-researched book on neuroscience by Nicholas Carr) that memories are laid down in the hippocampus and then, over time, are enriched and connected throughout all the different parts of our brains, including the olfactory, auditory, and linguistic centers. Memories are embedded into our brains as a whole. We synthesize new neural pathways as our memories become part of our thinking process. Then the unneeded "first draft" memory is erased from the hippocampus. So what I wrote in this space last week is wrong -- your brain can never be full. In fact, your ability to think deeply increases the longer you live and the more experience and knowledge you amass (that is, if you haven't fried your brain on drugs, such as too many hyperlinks).

If you're over 50, you might know what I'm talking about. Haven't you started to feel more centered, more confident, more...wise?

And if you're a younger adult, say, 30 or 35, and you're worried about getting older, don't be. The combination of knowledge, skills, memory, and a clear mind feels great. I know that might seem like a poor trade for the loss of (ah!) youth, but you'll see. I'm coming to believe that the difference between adults over 50 and adults under, say, 35, may be as significant as the difference between adults and pre-pubescent kids. Yes, aliens are among you and they are us.

And if you are already here with me, well into your second adulthood, keep eating your vegetables and walking and getting to the gym. You want to enjoy this good deal as long as possible.

I don't know about you, but I'm already planning my 100th birthday hike in the Italian Alps. If I can get my grandkids to go with me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Memory Full

Okay, sports fans, here's the deal.

My brain is full.

It's so full, I don't seem to have the wherewithal to write regularly for this space.

And that's not the only problem. There's the it's-not-good-enough syndrome, so I never post anything...and when I do, it's too long to read in one sitting.

So this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to write a little bit, several times a week. That will toughen me up, not make me lower my standards exactly, but maybe I'll get used to the idea that a blog is a web LOG -- not essays for the New Yorker.

And I'm going to empty out some memories that I don't need any more. They do seem to create mental clutter and use up synapses that would be better used for things like, say, remembering the name of that thing on the counter that makes the bread brown...I had that word yesterday...oh, that's right. The toaster.

Ready? What follows is what I'm putting in the Goodwill bag for my brain...

646-5873. That was my phone number in 1972.

292-5368. Another phone number, that of my best friend in the second grade. Her birthday is July 7, one month after mine. I haven't seen her since 1984.

I lived in a pink apartment building in Beaverton when I first moved to Portland in 1981. It was the same apartment building I lived in back in 1965. (I do want to keep a few memories of that apartment, all from 1965: My baby brother riding his tricycle around and around the courtyard, learning to bake bread, pie and cake at the age of nine, and the clown costumes my mother made for Hallowe'en that year. I cheerfully relinquish the memory of flunking fourth grade math twice and stepping in cat poo in my bare feet the day we came back from the beach.)

How to clean the toilet and how to iron a dress shirt. I have found that when I look my husband in the eye and declare that I really don't know how to do something, he will do it for me. I'm cheating on this one...he already cleans the bathroom and does all the ironing. Do you think he would believe me if I said I don't remember how to wash the dishes? If I still wore lipstick, I could probably manage to ruin some laundry by forgetting to take it out of my jeans pocket.

I do not need to know how to use a mimeograph machine anymore.

That IBM Selectric Executive typewriter that cost $2,000 in 1977? I know that to erase a capital M, you must backspace five times. Once for a lower-case "i." I know the backspaces for every single letter and number. I give it all up.

I no longer wish to know how to make Fast Rabbit (a cheese sauce made with condensed cream of mushroom soup and cheddar cheese) or Raggedy Ann salad (canned peach on lettuce) or a Hot Dog Round Up (slice a hot dog almost through, sideways, four times so it curls up when you cook it. Put it on half a hamburger bun and fill it with mustard and ketchup. I knew you wanted to know, so I told you.)

The number to call the police in Baltimore, pre-911. 222-3333. It probably doesn't work anymore. But it sure came in handy when I lived just below the hookers on Chase Street.

The sound that the first video game made that my neighbor Pete had in 1976. The one with the little round monsters floating down? You're lucky this blog doesn't work with your sound card. Pete voted for Reagan, too, back when Reagan was just a B movie actor. But I will keep the memory of the Ernie Kovacs re-runs that we watched on his static-ridden black and white TV. I give up the memories of the cockroaches in Pete's shag rug, though.

I would like to forget the sound the Addressograph made. I would like to forget that such a thing as an Addressograph existed.

That mean manager at lunch rush in the Eugene Farrell's restaurant in 1974? She used to plate my orders on really hot plates fresh from the dishwasher and then shout my number, "Five THOUSAND!!" I give up all memory of her.

I want to keep sleeping in the "way back" of our Volkswagen bug when I was little. Likewise sitting on the flat folded down seat of my Dad's 1963 Porsche with my brother while he cruised at 80 mph from Portland to my grandparent's house in Southern Oregon. This was before seat belts were mandatory and a good thing, too. Would have messed up the card game.

Also I want to be careful not to erase the memory of the fresh peach ice cream that seven cousins, my brother and I made under the direction of my Uncle Weldon in 1965.

Thanks, folks. I feel my mental processes clearing up already! That thing on the's a toaster! And that other's a...microwave!

More soon. Thanks for sticking with me this far.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Where the Air is Rarified

We’re at 6200 feet and James Darren is singing in my head. My old college buddy Carl and I are climbing basalt rocks at 8:00 in the morning. It’s already 90 degrees here in New Mexico, and we are on the hunt for petroglyphs, pre-Columbian symbols etched into the rock, presumably by a tool harder than basalt.

To get to the petroglyphs, you drive ten minutes east of the subdivision, park just below a mesa and walk up a dusty unmarked trail, past the “decorated tree.” This is a dead tree with rusty cans hung from its branches. Nobody knows why the random decorating, except for the people who do it.

Up up up, and the trail becomes less trail and more rock. We’re frankly climbing now, three points of contact, careful not to step into tumbleweed bogs – where the spaces between rocks are filled with stickery dried tumbleweeds that obscure the depth and angle of the potentially ankle-twisting space. Carl has reported hearing rattlesnakes up here, too. My eyes are on the next rock and my hands and feet. Every now and then I glance up to see how far I am from the top of the mesa. We’re at a point where if I really stretch and hoist myself energetically for twenty feet or so, I will scramble onto the top of the flatland. Then Carl says, “Brenda, look up.”

I look up. Just above my head, on the flat wall of the basalt that is the edge of the mesa, are alien-looking symbols. Heads with antennae. Spirals. Corn. Eagles. Lizards. Not a “Tiffany loves Ryan” in sight. They’ve been here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the artists long dead. Pagan graffiti? Good luck for hunting? Pre-historic art gallery? Nobody knows. But there I am, out of cell and wi-fi range, hanging onto a rock in the hot early morning sun, eyes trying to make sense of what they’re seeing.

Sometimes it’s not about getting to the top.

Friday, June 10, 2011

History Is the Next Tweet

I am living so beyond the future.

That’s me -- To the future and beyond!

If you are about my age or older, you know what I mean – the future was supposed to be 1984. No, 2001. No, the sequel – that really cool one with Helen Mirren and Roy Scheider – 2010.

Now it’s 2011 and wait, what?

(That’s something we say here in the future. “Wait, what?” I think that’s kind of funny.)

First the phone booths started disappearing and the few that were left didn’t have phones in them. They got filled with spit wads and graffiti instead.

Then my phone stopped ringing a year ago. Did anybody else notice that? People don’t make phone calls. They e-mail or tweet or Facebook you. And if you weren’t paying attention to your computer or smartphone – or if you don’t have a smartphone – too bad, because they assume you saw that they were moving that meeting to the other Starbucks.

We had a toxic chemical cloud release from a factory that’s sited near my home, just last month. If you were watching TV or were on a social media site at the time, you got the word to “shelter in place,” in other words, don’t go outside and breathe the air because it would make you really, really sick. If you weren’t, that was too bad, because nobody ever thought to activate the automated “reverse 9-1-1” system where they call everybody in the area and tell them there’s a disaster going on right now. Why bother? It’s on Facebook!

They re-named Depressions, “Recessions” and said that this one ended, but they’re worried that we might slip back into it because the unemployment rate has gone up four more points and the housing market is still dropping and the economy will never recover anyway.

All the stuff I was worried about in the ‘70s is coming true, and some new stuff too! Good thing I didn’t know about global warming in 1969, my head would have exploded. Has anybody noticed that the reporting on climate change has shifted from It’s a Big Ol’ Hoax to Whoa, It’s Happening Now and We’d Better Make Plans to Do Something About the Effects? Look at Chicago – they’re re-doing the whole city, because they’re pretty sure they’re going to have two or three different weather incarnations before they finally settle into a tropical climate only about 90 years from now.

From denial to resignation in about twelve months. That was fast. That’s how you get beyond the future in a hurry!

A friend of mine just got back from a several-year-long adventure. She and her husband unplugged from their jobs in the East Bay and moved to Japan, then walked around the Himalayas for a couple of years, then went to live in China for six months. She’s lived out of a backpack for the last three years. We were eating dinner, catching up, when she palmed an imaginary smartphone and bent her face to it and wiggled her thumb around. “I see people doing this all the time. What are they doing?”

“They’re texting, or tweeting.”

“Yes, but what are they doing? They do it all the time, while I’m sitting there with them!”

“They think they’re communicating.”

You should have seen her face.

“In China, people still eat meals together. They sing together. They get together to talk.”

Yes, well, those poor folks. Guess they can’t afford the latest technology. Ironic that China is where the rare earths come from that make our nifty toys go.

Also ironic that apparently, China and India, the new economic powerhouses, won't be able to offer all the same toys and foods and cars to their populace that Americans can get…because the planet simply doesn’t have the resources to provide that much stuff to that many people. I'm not making this up. I read this in the International Herald Tribune last week.

I remember teaching a unit on Utopian literature to a fifth grade class and asking my students how they envisioned the perfect society, and one boy said, “A place where everything is always in stock!”

Hum, Ryan, what do you mean by that?

“Everybody in the world would have a clothes washer!”

Yes, but there literally isn’t enough metal in the world to make all of those clothes washers , to say nothing of enough electricity, water or clothes to put in them. I don’t think he believed me.

But I ramble. That happens more and more. It doesn’t have anything to do with my age, although I did turn fifty-five this week. What I really wanted to say is, I have figured out the real reason why there’s a push to cut Medicare.

Now, Medicare was about to be the only way anybody could count on having health benefits. I was looking forward to it. Because if you lose your job, you lose your insurance. Even if you don’t get laid off, if you get too sick to work, you lose all that lovely insurance that you were counting on to make you better enough to go back to work. If you don’t have a whole bunch of money, it can be pretty hard to pay those premiums. Or if you are like a healthy young woman I know who has had hemorrhoids, you will be denied health insurance even if you have the money. Or if you are fifty and have ever been to a doctor or ever plan going to a doctor, you will never qualify for self-paid insurance.

But if you could manage to live to 62, at least then you could have some benefits, although more and more doctors don’t take Medicare patients anyway, because they lose money every time they do.

So this is my theory. I think that cutting Medicare, or turning it into a private system where you either can’t afford to see a doctor or the private plan won’t take you no matter how much money you have, is a plan to get rid of everybody with a long-term memory.

You may not believe this looking at me, but when I look out of my eyes, I still feel like I’m twenty-two, twenty-three years old, just with a really long memory and a bunch of critical thinking skills that I didn’t have thirty years ago. I remember lots of stuff, not just phone booths and home cooking.

I remember what happened when Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers and had too much fun with deregulation.

I remember when the richest people in the U.S. made just twelve percent of all the income in the country instead of having one quarter of all the money. According to Isaac Shapiro, reporting for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “New figures from the Internal Revenue Service show that income disparities grew substantially from 2002 to 2003. After adjusting for inflation, the after-tax income of the one percent of households with the highest incomes shot up in 2003 by an average of nearly $49,000 per household while the after-tax incomes of the bottom 75 percent of households fell on average.” I remember that.

I remember when the trees outside my house were full of birds singing loudly at dawn. They made a racket. They woke me up.

I wish they still did. They aren’t there anymore.

I remember when the public schools had stable funding sources and teachers had 23, 24 kids in a classroom. Schools offered shop, Home Ec, and typing. Choir and band were in the curriculum, and the school library not only was unlocked and in use but it actually had a librarian in it. The asbestos wasn’t leaking out of the walls and when you flushed the toilet, it didn’t splash all over your shoes as another acoustical tile fell on your head from the soggy ceiling. Remember that?

It’s inconvenient to have people like me running around with all these dangerous memories in their heads. The continuity and memory and wisdom accumulated over a lot of years has always been something to fear – didn’t you read George Orwell’s 1984? Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past…Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date... All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary."

It’s better if those people with the inconveniently long memories don’t have Medicare. Maybe they won’t be around as long.

But I’m being silly, of course, because we don’t pose a danger. Who reads mainstream op-ed pieces anymore anyway? They’re all tuned into where all the real meaning is – in a little glowing pad held in the palm.

What’s beyond the future? If you follow a circle, you end up in the same place…and as Santayana pointed out, if you don’t remember the past, you are condemned to repeat it. The new history is being re-inscribed in the next tweet.

Watch the birdie!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Earthquake II

Just about a year ago, I wrote an essay using earthquakes as a metaphor for “danger that you can’t avoid, can’t really change and can’t even influence.” At the time it was just a metaphor, but now, of course, it’s real. Japan, our first world neighbor and buddy – practically a family member, since it’s hard to even buy a reliable car if Japan isn’t able to manufacture them – is on the verge of melting down in multiple ways, except, of course, for how the traumatized but stalwart, creative and heroic Japanese people are caring for each other under conditions that would make most of us just curl up in a ball under the bed, if we still had a bed.

I belong to a working support group of people who are bent on making the world a better place. Among them are writers, a photographer, a manager and business wizard, a web designer, a graphic designer, a conservationist, a master gardener, a publisher, an information technology guru, a psychologist, an opera singer and several Trekkies. And there are only five of us, so this tells you something about how high-powered this group is. The problem with us high-powered people who want to change the world is that we tend to take on problems that are beyond us. Those of you who have been with my blog for awhile know that I at least won’t be truly happy until the planet is saved, with its species, oceans, atmosphere, peoples, cultures, and oh yes, the attributes of human empathy and love, still intact and healthy.

Maybe a bit too much for me to take on. But at least I’m being consistent. At the last meeting, the facilitator asked me what my goals were for the next ten weeks. I replied that I wanted to finish a book revision, get a new website up and operating, get my book published in hard copy and e-book form and launched. There was a long silence, I remember. The publisher in the room remarked gently that even if I had a contract, with a marketing department, editor, and layout people, that the turnaround was a bit tight. And that January might be a more reasonable target.


One of our members is spending most of her waking hours attempting to save the elephants of Chad. Elephants are highly intelligent, have complex and empathetic social orders, and are being slaughtered for their tusks. (It makes me think of killing Grandma for her teeth, although if there were a profit in it and the kids were poor and desperate enough, Grandma might wish she didn’t have any teeth.) The ivory is sold to China. This situation is dire and urgent. If the poaching isn’t stopped, there will be no more elephants in Chad. My friend is doing her best to garner 50,000 signatures for a petition to present to the Chinese government, asking them to outlaw the purchase of ivory. Unfortunately, Chad is now being visited by the fury of genocide and the threat of a complete collapse of its government and infrastructure, and no one really has time to worry about the elephants. (Well, and it is hard to concentrate, what with that flap with Charlie Sheen and all. Besides, we have Japan and Libya to worry about – and what about the housing market and the cuts to state budgets and our leaders who would rather try to take each other down than govern, and checking our Facebook, tweets, texts and e-mail every five minutes? For those of us with a bit more of a long-term memory, there are the headlines receding into the past, like the Haiti earthquake, the Indonesian tsunami, New Orleans – the headlines recede, but the tragedies don’t).

So my colleague is out there with her shoulder to the wheel, writing, networking, strategizing, educating – tired, frustrated, and soul-sick about this heart-breaking problem. And there really isn’t much of a chance that she will be able to shut down the Chinese market for ivory.

Should she stop trying?

My husband and I have one car, an older model Toyota that gets 50 miles per gallon, and we try not to drive it much. We and our grown children live in a 1500 square foot house with one bathroom, a great garden, photovoltaics on the roof, good neighbors, and which is within walking distance of good transit and about every amenity you could need. We live this way by choice, because if living this way ever became really popular, it would make a difference in how many greenhouse gasses were emitted into the atmosphere, how much petroleum we as a nation needed to extract from Alaska, the Gulf and politically unsavory but oil-rich countries, and how many sweatshops we have to patronize.

Do we really think we’re making a big difference in the world?

No. Well, some. Some of our friends notice what we’ve been up to. Some think we’re crazy, most think we’re harmless, a few have been inspired to try a few changes themselves. Our kids have been raised to always think about the difference between wanting and needing, and about how to leave some for the other guy.

But I can do the math. I know that really, I am not making any measurable impact on the world at all. My lonely shoulder can’t bend the arc of history by itself. I have to face that fact daily, or not.

Wise people have been writing for thousands of years about how to deal with problems bigger than one person, and here is some of their wisdom, paraphrased for my refrigerator:

Let your own hands be clean.

The fact that a problem can’t be resolved by you alone does not relieve you of the responsibility of working at its resolution.

All great problems that are worthy of attention are bigger than one person. Do your part as long as you can, and know that there are others. And that more work will happen after you’re gone.

And here’s one of my favorites. I like to think I made it up, but I think that really I got it from JRR Tolkien’s wonderful creation, Sam Gamgee –

Keep your spirits up.

And stick together.

If you would like to learn more about the movement to save the elephants of Chad, click here. To sign the petition, click here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pet Peeves

I’m not a grouch, really. It’s just that I’m noticing things that bug me. And I’ve decided that the way to make them stop bugging me is to share them with all of you. So here goes – my Top Three Pet Peeves for the season:

Treating Teenagers Like They’re Nuts, Predatory, or Inherently Dishonest

Really, where did this one COME from? I’m the proud mother of a seventeen year old son. He is loving, funny, has personal integrity to burn and works hard. At first it just made me weary to have people say things like, “And you believed him?” or “I’m sorry, I can’t trust a boy to babysit my children.” Now it makes me angry. According to the class in Adolescent Psychology, which was a requirement for my master’s degree, people his age are inherently idealistic, not dishonest. Yes, they are a bit self-centered, and wouldn’t you be if you were doing all the grown-up things for the first time and hoping that you were doing them right? Most teens I know are trying as hard and as anxiously as they can to please the adults in their lives.

The Idea That Instant Success is Normal

My grandfather used to read Oliver Optic. You know, the guy who first popularized the “rags to riches” notion, who wrote books like “Now or Never” or “Poor But Proud.” I’m on the periphery of the entertainment industry here in Portland (that’s a funny sentence, actually), and have been an aspiring singer/actress myself for most of my life. I’m here to tell you, the YouTube-inflated-concept that it just takes One Big Break to suddenly be a superstar does us all a huge disservice. It takes hard work and a lot of time and gumption to be a success at just about anything. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to master it. Divide that out by a 40-hour workweek and it’s…well, I don’t have my calculator with me right now. But it’s a lot.

So if you know anybody who’s working to make a living as an entertainer, don’t expect that they’re going to be the next big hit on “Leverage." They’re taking classes, getting to know people, working as an extra, working for free in student films, and oh yes, being a waitress whenever they’re not doing the rest of their 120-hour work week. Be supportive.

Last But Not Least: People Lie Down, Chickens Lay Eggs

I’ve been waiting for somebody, Noam Chomsky or the President, SOMEBODY, to make an announcement, but apparently they’re not going to. You LIE down, people. You don’t LAY down. Chickens LAY eggs. People LIE down. If you lay down yesterday, that’s OK, because it’s past tense. If you lay something down, that’s OK, because you are the subject and the something is the object.

There. Now I feel better. Thanks for listening.