Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving without Mumbai

These are Asian spices in an outdoor market. I have seen such displays in various Indian markets, and in China and other countries, but I am thinking if India, especially. While we were going through all the Thanksgiving weekend motions, we -- especially Patrick, my son-on-law, and I were keeping tabs on the horror unfolding in Mumbai -- whichh the Indian press calls "their 9/11". Not their first terrorist attack by any means but the first were the terrorist chose their victims almost one by one -- not the random killings of bombs planted in busy places. This enormously important event was on the news yet, on Thanksgiving day, the only mentions of it were between Patrick and I; it seemed not to affect any of the many other people we saw that day. We Americans can block out what is going on in the rest of the world -- or I should say, most people do not feel empathy or even curiosity about what it happening to people in other places.

Since the first orbits of the earth more than 50 years ago, we have seen pictures to tell us what a small planet we live on but we are insensible to what happens beyond our immediate perception. A quirk of mine is to imagine larger areas. At one point during Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone had quieted as they ate, I could see something like the scene repeated in millions of homes across the US, each one somewhat different, but rarely so different as not to be almost interchangeable in terms of the food on the table and the overall surroundings, the assorted people, from infants to grandparents -- and barely any, unless of Indian background -- thinking about Mumbai and the people dying there.

The writer E.O. Wilson has liken the humans on earth to an ant colony. We have our roles and go about them, not really sensitive anyone else -- yes, there is a caste among us whose job it is to gather information from afar and even to try to make it known to others but that is a very new wrinkle on the skin of the vastness of humanity. Once those who gathered knowledge or retained history talked only to others of their own groups. Today those who work in what they grandly all The Media think they are talking to everyone, but they are not; for the most part they are still talking only to others of their peculiar sort. Perhaps this should not make me as sad and almost angry as it does. I ponder that, why do I want others to care about things they cannot influence? Why do I think it's terrible that the majority of Americans aren't even sure where Mumbai is or know that until recently it was called Bombay? To a degree -- but probably only a smallish degree -- we chose the role we have in this multi-body beast called Human Beings, a fact I should know by now I must accept.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the news

Just when I'm relaxing a little bit because some things seem to be going all right with the world -- Obama's victory, naming Hillary for Sec. of St., even a lessening of bombing in Iraq -- I am hit with another load of awfulness in the world. Mugabe's unwillingness to even let Carter and other prominent peace keepers intp his country -- where, we are told by Carter, that up to 6 million people are on the brink of starvation not to mention what else they are enduring. Why are we folding our hands and quietly letting 6 million people starve? Why? Because one despicable human being is willing it to happen. That happened -- not just once, but many times in the last 60-70 years, many places [eg, Ukraine, China]. And yet it is happening again and those who could help stand aside and simply wring their hands. How can this entire country think, this week, of gorging on our traditional holiday fare and know this is happening? How many KNOW about this, how many care? Certainly not enough. There is no real outcry.

Then I read today that even as the Tibetan government in exile has decided to follow the Dalai Lama's injunction against violence, his middle-road attitude to ask only for autonomy within China, not the independence so many younger Tibetans want [the independence that is rightfully, historically theirs[ the British -- the one government that always acknowledged that Tibet should be autonomous, not an integral part of China, has played whore to China's john -- asking China for money and negating their 60 years of acknowledgment that Tibet is NOT China, but an autonomous country. They have recanted and the Chinese have jumped on this, crowing their "victory" to the world and no longer feeling a need to have meaningful talks with the Tibetan representatives. It turns my stomach. Another six million people sold to the wolves for a handful of silver.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Frugalista "Frugalista" was William Safir's contribution to new words in his column in today's NYTimes Magazine. It seems appropriate to him in this time of recession. I like the word and am happy to add it to names I'll call myself.

I think most people who especially enjoy making scrap quilts -- the kind of quilt one does not go to the fabric store and select new fabric specifically for [although one can use up fabric that has been cached in a stash for whatever period of time] -- are dyed in the wool frugalistas. I have never purchased fabric specifically for a specific quilt although I have added to my stash knowing I was going need a certain color.

Beyond quilting I trained to be a frugalista at my mama's knee. Things were used up, leftovers were saved for tomorrow's meal or a snack later on, old towels or sheets became usable rags, bags of all sorts were reused until they fell apart, few things were purchased just because they were in style or a fad. And always there was an eye for a bargain, the coupons were used, the sales fliers were read. My mother loved reading what were frutalista hints -- "save old nylon stockings and use them to stuff a throw pillow" -- just one I remember.

The last post about purchasing books at a thrift store is a frugalista habit. Many things I have done all my life are suddenly things people are bragging about starting to do as they turn "green". I just read an article where a publishing company bragged about turning paper written on one side into memo pads -- the place where I work has been doing that for years. I have always printed first drafts of things I'm writing on the backs of stuff that might have been thrown away. The instances go on and on. I like this word, I'm going to use it and bother others about my discovery of it. Thank you Bill Safire.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Serendipity: the Art of Book Buying

People have a variety of reading habits and so a variety of book buying habits. Mine is very simple: I depend on serendipity. I read book reviews but am almost never inspired to go to a book store for a particular book. A certain set of neurons in my brain has been set aside for remembering author's names and titles and attaching a positive or negative charge to them. These neurons are not totally dependable but they do a passable job.

In NYC a chain of thrift stores called Housing Works attracts people who have high quality taste in literature, so much so that Housing Works even has an entire outlet that is a bookstore but it is in the Soho and I am rarely in that area. However two of their regular stores are essentially on my "beaten track". I stop in frequently and more often than not, the only purchase I made is a couple of books. Frequently a sign on the door will announce "Today all books 40% off" or even "all books $1." I nearly always find something, often by non-American authors that I want to read. They've piled up, of course, I can't read nearly as fast as I can buy. But that's okay.

In other places I like to go to used book stores too, but rarely do I find any with the quantity of good quality books that Housing Works sells. When I am in Hyannis visiting my daughter I like to stop at the main street used book store. I think it's called Tim's, although that might have been the name of it's predecessor. Their prices are a bit high but I get the feeling a lot of summer people who are probably Boston academics as well as Cape Cod's indigenous literary folks, sell their extra books there. They have a prodigious poetry section that I always check out.

Right now I am reading Scott Russell Sanders' Writing from the Center, a book of essay, in uncorrected advance copy [though it was published in '99]. I would have purchased this book wherever I might have found it for I once met Sanders' at a writer's conference and know him to be a professor [perhaps retired by now] at Indiana University. A man who cares deeply about writing well and also about the Midwest and about ecology. These are very satisfying essays. He defines for me once again why it is I and so many others felt it necessary to leave the Midwest -- de Toqueville defined it all before others noticed -- what a genius that young Frenchman was! His insights are just staggering. But Sanders' insights are also deeply satisfying. I have just one final essay to enjoy in a short while, then I will go on to a very clever Julian Barnes novel I've started and a book of Tess Gallagher's poems that I've been savoring for several days -- all these latter were Housing Works finds.

When one is finished I will stand in front of the "to read" bookcase and pick up one or two books, contemplate them, assess my mood, perhaps read the jacket blurbs once more and choose the next. No agenda. The variety is broad enough I can say, enough Americans for a while, how about a Scandinavian? How about a South American?

While I would enjoy the camaraderie of a book club, [I once belonged to a lively, wonderful one] I think I've become so independent about what I read and so picky about good writing that I would have great difficulty fitting into any group. Growing older may mean growing crabby-er. Ah well, it's prsonal enjoyment. And certainly the price is right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantity and Quality

"The quantity of our happiness depends the quality of our thoughts." I saw this quote on an art quilt in Quilting Arts Magazine. It was not attributed to anyone; it has a literary sound, or even the sound of a new age guru. However, it's memorable and I wanted to immediately agree with it. But then I begin to wonder, what does this mean? What are "quality thoughts"? Who is responsible for that definition? Are they what I think of as Dalai Lama thoughts -- those mediated by a life of meditational practices emphasizing compassion? If that is the case, I think I would agree. But most of us do not have thoughts of that quality, most of us have lived very different lives that have made us less serene, more venal, less balanced. Most of our thoughts are terribly commonplace, terrible egocentric, terribly scattered and terrible practical.

Does our happiness depend on doing away with at least some of those common place thoughts and replacing them with more "quality" thoughts? Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe that's why almost of the great religions, maybe all of them -- I am not erudite enough to say this with assurance -- insist that time is spend in prayer or meditation both of which may be quality thoughts in so far as they are not selfish, not grasping or angry or negative thoughts, but positive ones -- ones of rejoicing at the good things of life and wishing well to at least those we love and perhaps as broadly as to all sensate beings, perhaps as widely as to the earth as a whole.

Yes, I do think that positive thoughts produce positive feeling, and that is exacty what happiness is -- a positive feeling. I think those positive thoughts, those "quality " thoughts" come also from chosing wisely what we fill our minds with. I do not suggest that we looked only for the saccharine, the cute and sweet and darling. Not at all. I would say that the more we fill our minds with the best we can, good literature, good art, good music the better. But I'm aware that "good" is a subjective term. What is good music to a 15 year old lover of rock or rap or whatever the in kind of music is, is not good to me, the lover of Beethoven and Mozart and Bach. And vice versa, of course.

I feel that I will get into some boggy mire if I carry on in this vein. So I will return to the original quote: "the quantity of our happiness depends on the quality of our thoughts." There is a reading in the I Ching that says we are the sum of what we put into ourselves, which means everything from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the scenery around us, the sounds we hear, the things we read/watch/pay attention to. How could it not be true? What else can we be? So finally it come down to the defintion of "quality." And we'll mostly say, we know it when we see it. What is the quantity/quality of our happiness?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Markers of Time Passing

Now and then there are reminders of how time is flying and that if other people are getting older, then maybe, just maybe, that is happening to me too. Yikes!

November is the month my oldest grandson was born -- 21 years ago. He is a young man; a smart, interesting young man who I will probably see even less in the years to come than I have in the years of his growing up. This person with a quantum of my DNA is going to college and learning things I would never have thought of studying, developing talents that are all his and seem to have nothing to do with me. I've seen him grow from a dimpled little baby to a cute kid to an awkward adolescent whose body parts grew at varying rates for a while, to a handsome young man who has yet to fill out quite all the musculature his bones can hold. What an amazement that such a person is related to me, at least genetically, for there seems to be little else we share just now. I would love a time to come when we can talk adult to adult about matters of interest and importance that we have in common.

And later this month, I am reminded for I didn't realize, my brother and his wife are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary ... and he is younger than I, though only by 22 months. They were married while I was in college. I remember playing the Mendelsohn wedding march at the church. But that is really all I remember; it seems so long ago. Indeed, it WAS so long ago. 50 years, half a century. This is absolutely staggering. Yes, I know a lot of people do manage to have these amazing anniversaries. I am stunned by the thought of living with the same person for fifty years. Intellectually I understand that two people can be happy with one another for that long, can make a life that works in sufficient harmoniousness -- and I think that is the adult way of looking at it for no two people can know each other so very well without areas of irritation, without periods of dissatisfaction. But sufficient haroniousness is a wonder in itself. Something I doubt I could have ever have managed.

So, here I am with an adult grandchild and a younger brother with a golden wedding anniversary. That means I can't be a spring chicken; it means I, too, must have experienced a lot. And, yes, I have. Yes, and we will not be marking special anniversaries -- beyond having paid attention last summer to my 70th birthday. But I think of it all those years and realize how many bits and pieces have eroded mostly from my memory or have simply become a part of the flow. A good many have said life is a river and certainly it's looking like that right now. There were rapids and waterfalls and eddies and floods and droughts and times when the river cut a new channel and so on -- all kinds of debris floating on the muddy surface at times and at other times calm and clear reflecting mostly the blue sky and a fluffy clouds and a few trees overhanging the banks. I have a good many of those lovely days now; I think I've earned them.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ssasonal Change

The season is changing -- nothing new, happens every four months or so. Those of us who have always lived in the temperate zones are attuned, probably in more ways than we are consciously aware, to changes of light, temperature and nature around us. As the days grow shorter and the darkness longer, as we have many days of gray skies, chilly winds, leaves skittering underfoot, dampness not yet turning to snow, something a little like bearish hibernation seems welcome, even immanent.

This came to mind as I was drinking coffee a short while ago and thinking how very nice had been a long night's sleep. After a couple of restless nights, last night I went to bed a bit early, fell asleep quickly and awoke about eight hours later feeling satisfied as I listened to the voice on the clock radio that began saying it would rain all day and maybe all day tomorrow. I wish that weren't so but it's also okay. I have many indoor things I want to do. And then music began to play. I did not have to hurry out of bed for any reason so lay listening to music until something in my body said, "ready!" And I got up. I realize that for large, large numbers of people even those ten minutes or so are a luxury they rarely enjoy. They have work, expectations, necessities to tend to and have to get up and get busy.

I thought of Jame Smiley's big book The Greenlanders, well researched and enjoyable although it's not one of her most successful. I believe she was writing of how people actually lived a thousand years ago in a horribly harsh climate when she described those settlers who had very little food or fuelgot through the winter by essentially hibernating. They took to their beds for the majority of those almost endlessly dark arctic nights. So many images from that book, read many years ago, have stayed with me. I think many of us can feel that rhythmic instinct with the seasons that our distant ancestors going back to before civilization must have responded to.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A return to a thinking President?

On my other blog I wrote about the pleasure of continual education in a personal sense. Today I'm thinking about a wider view: Nicholas Kristoff, one of my favorite NY Times columnists, writes that we may have a return to the Kennedy era's idea of a President who surrounds himself with the "best and brightest." I sure hope so. It's needed in so many facets of American life. Right along side that op-ed pieces was one by Al Gore on how America can regain leadership in the world by dealing with global warming and at the same time create vast numbers of jobs which would be un-outsourcable -- which is to say they'd have to employ people living right here right now.

Won't it be wonderful to have someone who can make a speech using whole sentences and well crafted paragraphs? Because my every day work involves listening to people speak I can attest to how infrequently people can speak in whole,grammatically correct sentences -- let alone whether they have anything substantial, creative, interesting to say -- let alone whether the whole thing is graceful and truly intellilgent. Not that most American listeners know a proper sentence when it is spoken. I'll never forget my astonishment as a senior in high school when the boy who's name was alphabetically next to mine [so we had sat side by side all through 12 years of school) turned to me after 12 years of instruction and whispered, "What is a verb?" I'm sorry to say he is rather recently deceased and probably went to his grave not knowing or caring what a verb is.

I can't resist adding that Krisoff noted that few younger Americans think there is any reason to know where the various countries of the world are, and that Sarah Palin, like a great many of her countrymen/women didn't know that Africa is not a country but a continent. Really that kind of willful ignorance appalls me so that I become incoherent in my astonishment and regret and horror. I don't believe any President can undo willful ignorance among our ill-educated populace but I would rejoice if the tone of arrogant ignorance could be erased at the highest levels of our government.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History - looking back

When I graduated from college I was aware that there was just beginning to be a "Civil Rights" movement. In our college town a black man had dared enter a barber shop where only whites had their hair cut. It was quite stir in Indiana, birth-ground of the KKK. As my friend Ellen pointed out, in our adult lifetime we have seen the country go from not allowing many black people to vote, certainly in the South, to having elected a black man President It seems slow progress but as civilization goes, it wasn't so long after all.

We are now, in the so-called "developed" world, accustomed to rapid change, at least technologically -- since the last presidential election [only 4 years] we've gone from clunky auto cellular phones to everyone having a personal cell phone. Personally, I've joined the email world and use the internet daily which I did not then.

But people's minds and prejudices and political ideas do not change at the rate of LP to cassette to tape to Ipod -- although our mental synapses are still far, far faster and more powerful than any computer chip, we change our ways of acting, being, seeing the world VERY slowly ... but are being pushed ever harder to change ever faster. So in a single life time we here in the US have begun to erase our color prejudices. It is a good, good thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Historic Day

I think enormous numbers of Americans are united in the sense that this is an historic election and that they want to be able to say, "I cast a vote that election." As I write no returns are actually in yet and I'm not daring to say what's about to happen.

But I can write about my enormous surprise this morning at 7:20 a.m. when I went down to the school which is my polling place. In some 25 years I've never had more than 8 or 10 people ahead of me waiting to vote, no matter what election, no matter what time of day. But at that very early time, I was astonished to see that the line to get into the polling area was actually two cit blocks long! At first I couldn't believe it was the voters' line. When I realize it was I also realized that I didn't have sufficient reading matter with me to wait as long as it would take. So I went to work and came in the mid-afternoon with my fat book and comfy shoes, and it was not as long -- by about half, which is to say it was still 40 minutes of waiting. Ah, well! Like the others I'll say, "Yes I voted for Obama." [Still muttering, I must admit, "I wish it were Hillary."]

Now I hold my breath -- since the Gore/Bush election I've learned to take nothing for granted. I have spoken to no one who feels truly confident of what the outcome will be. No, I will not stay up late listening for returns [I am still television-less and don't mind] I am a bit anxious.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The New York Marathon

As all who care to know have heard, Kara Goucher, a English woman, won her third NY Marathon today, running more tha 22 miles in 2 hours and something -- amazing! The men's winner was from Brazil. It was a beautiful sunny day with a breeze that was a bit chilly to walkers like me but probably felt very welcome to the amazing people who managed to do the course, whether in two and a half hours or eight or even ten.

I wrote this poem last November. I won't apologize but I won't pretend it's deathless poetry.


They run
By the thousands
through the canyons
over the bridges
through the park.
News cameras look down from helicopters.
People look out tall windows
lean over high balconies
line crowded streets.

like once the bison ran over the grasslands,
like wildebeast still run over the savannahs,
like fabled lemmings run over cliffs into the sea,
like heroes ran the mountains in ancient Attica.

As they run
many thousand feet pound cement softly
their breathing is a mass sigh in a city
accustomed to sirens' screams.
The crowd's cheers drift softly to the sky
newscasters' chatter circles the globe.

They have been running
alone or in packs of two or three or a few
for months, years. They leave
behind home, wife, husband, children.
Silence is enough for many,
some reach for "the zone."

The run
to win, or bear a record, to follow heroes,
to prove something, "because it's there,"
"to do it once."
to be, this one day lost in the herd,
part of something big and beautiful,
massive and magnificent
independent individuals
who trained and paid and stayed the course.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dream Job

For several years now I have been telling people about my dream job. I only dream, knowing that even if I were younger and more ambitious I would not take the steps to explore it's possibility. I think of it today because a I just read a blog showing a roadside sign that totally misuses the Welsh language. All around the world tourists sites have signs in the local language and in English; the English is often misspelled [okay a lot of us make mistakes too] and often says something so awkward it's not clear what it means. The most egregious example I've seen was at the high end of a long escalator at a Chinese nature park where a trail took one to the bottom of a river gorge. To get back up to the top the escalator had been installed for those not walking the hard trail up. A lot of Chinese characters were translated in English simply as "No Having Fun." We English speakers took photos [which was fun] and chuckled at Chinese ineptiness [also fun].

My ideal job would be as a language consultant, hired by various countries' tourist departments. I would be paid to travel [free, course] to tourist sites to correct the English on all local signs [while staying, free of course, in one of the best local hotels which might wish also to retain my editorial services at my standard additional fee]. Thus I could travel to many parts of the world, render a service that is much needed and even get to know some of the local people in the course of my work. So all I need is an ambitious booking agent to make the necessary contacts. Any takers? You'd get standard agenting fees, and perhaps the occasional trip as well.