A Remembrance

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Today is Father’s Day in many countries, including of course the United States (although not in Australia, where Father’s Day is in early September – your bit of trivia for the day). My father died many years ago, suddenly, when I was eleven. It shattered my world, and the reverberations from that break I still feel to this day. Some of those singing breaking crystal sounds have helped me mess up my love life, some have made me, perhaps, just a bit more empathetic  than I otherwise might have been, but it’s hard to find an upside to the death of a beloved parent.  People have tried, in that backwards, not really complimentary way they have: Well, look at it this way, he would have been very angry about your choices as a teenager.  Gee, thanks for that, Mom. (I loved my mother in a more complicated way than I loved my father, which is the way of daughters, I guess, and you may notice that I have not written a Mother’s Day entry into this series of blogs and probably won’t.) And others have said it must be easier to grow up with a dead father than a divorced one leaving you alone, which absolutely infuriates me, as if because he couldn’t help it, his absence in my life becomes more okay than if it was a choice. I would far rather have a divorced dad somewhere in the world, even if only occasionally in my life.  It is never easier to have someone you love dead.

My daddy left us, his truly beloved family, via a heart attack nobody expected, while we were in Wisconsin where Daddy planned to get his Ph.D. in education at Madison. We didn’t have a home, our furniture was in storage, we were taking a long car trip across the country, which we did several summers in a row, we were staying with old friends who certainly got something quite different than they expected, including the absence of the linchpin of the family, ambulances and doctors in the night, a furious and grieving woman (my mother never forgave either God or daddy, let alone the United States government, for daddy’s death), a howling cocker spaniel whose world was left in pieces, and a bewildered, numb and increasingly sullen daughter nobody knew how to handle. That last person would be me, and the happy, eager, secure girl I had been before that night never quite came back. I’m not saying that to garner sympathy votes; it’s merely the banal truth.  And it happens to far too many people.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel the hollow place inside where a loved person used to be? In a poem written in remembrance of his father, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote of the place somewhere behind the breastbone that feels both weighted down and weightless. For those who’d like to read that poem and I can recommend doing that, here’s the URL: http://brightweavings.com/journal/2016/06/19/fathers-day/. That day in June in the midst of a Wisconsin heat wave, that day was the first time I felt that heavy hollow place. It has never quite left me. Sandra Bullock once said, in answer to a question about how she went on after the death of her beloved mother, that you open a new room in your heart. And you do. I did. And do. But the lonely, empty room, where the fire has gone out, and the windows have been closed, and it’s cold and bare and still somehow filled, stays in my heart. I go there only sometimes, when the world is too much with me, or not enough with me, and sometimes I dust off the memories. Sometimes I just stay for a while and feel the pain and the heaviness and the lightness again.  There is a nostalgia there, and a distance. It is a room that has echoes rather than life, a reverberation of what used to be. Nothing in that room in my heart is new, or present, or here, but me. There is a distance, rather like having a head cold, where sounds feel muffled. And a chill as if after a snowstorm. And how I long to kindle the fire on the hearth in that room, the warmth and living joy that was my father. But I can’t. I can only remember the fires of long ago. It was a long time ago that he died. And yet, if I go into that room in my heart, I am as bewildered, as numb, as un-understanding of what happened, as sullen, as deep down enraged, as ever I was. As if it was this morning I woke up to him being gone.

I learned to love again, but it is sometimes a limping, scrabbled thing, as if I’m learning to reach for things with my left hand because my right arm has been broken and can no longer be used. I think I am afraid of it, love, though I try to be brave because love is after all the best of what human beings are capable of and love is, I believe, what we humans have incarnated to practice, in all its glory and misery.  I am afraid of it because that hollow, numb, angry, weightless, weighty, sullen room awaits, like a Bluebeard’s Cave, as the possible, and I’m so afraid probable, end point of any love I may try to have.

This was to be a paean to the wonderful man that my father was, not the empty room he left behind in more hearts than mine, but especially in mine. This was going to list the stories he used to tell, each time in the telling growing and changing and getting funnier, and, because he was wise, more thoughtful and important. It was going to be a jolly remembrance of a man who, like Will Rogers, never met a stranger, a man far ahead of his time in the ways he thought about how people did live and the possibilities they had to live in better, more inclusive ways. It was going to remember Christmases and birthdays, and everyday days when he’d turn off the main highway and get us lost somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. It was going to be about finishing dinner and deciding he couldn’t get through the night without a root beer float and piling us all in the car, including the dog, and going to A&W. It was about the man who loved movies, and parties, and playing cards, and being home and having company and talking with his daughter about life and art and human thought.

He was a man who could never leave a good story alone, always tinkering with words and meanings and giving what began as an anecdote an eventual point that made even the slightest moment meaningful as a lesson in living. He lived as some who have come very close to dying live, hugely and with happy greed, drinking it all in, the sights, sounds and joys of life. What he loved, he loved greatly: good food, coffee, cigarettes, dogs, parties, teaching, directing plays, arguing politics and religion, traveling, exploring his world and the ideas of people in it, reading, writing, and the great love of his life, my mother, his wife, and his daughter, his princess, the girl child he had never expected, the small human being he delighted to watch grow. He was immensely proud of me, and his hopes for me were as large as his life. It was for my mother to be the realist, to set all those limits of being a lady, a good girl, to live in the small world she inhabited.  Daddy believed, no, he KNEW, my life was as limitless as his, more so because I was loved and cherished (and I was) and his life had been empty of love until he met my mother. His death didn’t kill those realities for me, but it made some of them dreams unlikely to be fulfilled.

And it makes me rage, still, because he was far from done. He was going to back to school, to get his Ph.D., because he was, fully and deeply, a teacher and he wanted to know, with that hunger for knowledge he imparted to me, as much about how to teach as he possibly could. His love of life, his ability to create out of the poor clay he was handed such a beautiful sculpture, his achievements as a scholar, teacher, human being, husband, lover, father, friend came from him and his open-hearted joy in life, and as a conscious repudiation of a very hard, even bad, childhood. Besides which, he wanted to grab even more life than he already had. He wanted to see every place there was to see, taste every food, drink every drink (except those with alcohol, he simply didn’t like the taste of it), experience everything.

And now I come to think of it, he missed something he deeply wanted to see and take part in: my blossoming as a human being, even through the exasperation my teen years would have been to him. He may have wanted to dance at my wedding, but I believe he was more interested in watching me learn, in feeling the pride that would come when I graduated from college, when I chose a life’s work, when I succeeded at that life’s work, when I made an independent life. He never got that chance, and because of his death, parts of me were clipped, I think, hobbled in some way I can’t quite understand. I know that my heart hurts when I hear about swan’s wings being clipped so they can’t fly, or parrots being kept in cages. Keeping any creature from doing what that creature is made to do, which gives that creature joy, feels more cruel than killing. I’m thinking, right now, oddly, of a video I saw on Facebook last night, of Secretariat, in his happy retirement from racing, galloping around his large pasture, a picture of glossy health and utter joy in the running he was born to do, that was bred into him. Running, galloping, as fast as he could, because it was sheer joy.

My father couldn’t have trotted without gasping for breath, but in his grabbing for all of life with both hands, for his eagerness to meet and talk to people, find out what made them tick, his joy in his family and his accomplishments, and in simply living life, Daddy was Secretariat. That he didn’t get to keep joyfully galloping as long as he wanted is tragic for him and infuriating and miserable for me, for all who knew him or who might have met him.

So here I am, wanting so much to remember the joy. Maybe another time I can write about that without going back into that cold empty room in my heart. Maybe another time I’ll write only about the man as he was, not about my losing him. He wouldn’t have much patience with this wallowing, I know that. He’d tell me to read another book, learn something new, fix a good dinner and laugh with my friends. He’d tell me that my wings aren’t clipped at all, let alone because he’s gone, that everything I’ve done has been reaching past my limitations even if I haven’t yet grabbed on to my dreams exactly as I wish. He’d point out to me the simple truth that I’m still alive and that I can make my dreams reality. And he’d tell me with a hug and a laugh that he liked being compared to Secretariat, but that the real champion is me.


May Day

May Day


Tomorrow, except across the International Date Line where it’s today, is the First of May. It occurred to me that, rather than do the homework I’m supposed to be doing for the class for Avid instructors I’m taking in mid-May, I’d much rather write a blog post (my first since waaaaay last fall because life happens, I moved to Los Angeles, and I got very busy, which is no excuse) about May Day.

I suppose a lot of us in the US and in Europe connect May Day still with the USSR holiday celebrating the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Russian Empire. I can still visualize the grainy videos of marching troops, miles of huge tanks and “floats” that carried huge menacing weapons passing in review in front of a stand holding the Premier and the highest-ranking members of the Politburo. Amazingly enough, I don’t even have to look up those terms to remember them. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, such images inhabited a lot of people’s nightmares.


Even those of us too young to really understand this show of power but still old enough to remember living in the days when there were two superpowers in the world staring at each other across a huge wall bristling with weaponry remember the fear this celebration of sheer might engendered. And even then, so long ago it truly seems like another world, I remember resenting the co-opting of one of the happiest holidays – May Day.

May Day originally started as a Celtic holiday, Beltane, welcoming in spring and the renewal of fertility in the earth. The musical “Camelot” celebrated May Day/Beltane with the song “The Lusty Month of May” (here is a link to Julie Andrews singing the song in the original production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pljyjiIMH9o). But the Celts REALLY celebrated May Day. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on Beltane (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane). Beltane was celebrated approximately halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (thus, usually on or around May 1) with fires and dances and, admittedly, a good deal of slipping off into the surrounding forest with one’s sweetheart. After all, the whole point was fertility.


Above is a photo of a recent celebration of Beltane held on Calton Hill in Scotland. I’m not entirely sure what fire has to do with fertility, beyond the undoubted fact that burning off a field refertilizes the soil with the carbon residue from the fire, but I would imagine that the Beltane fires were as much a celebration of living through the winter and having fun dancing in the human-created light as anything else. Contained fires, like bonfires and campfires and fireplace fires, are invigorating and calming at the same time.  Fire can be terrifying but a bonfire reminds us (or makes us think) that we humans are in charge of fire. (Mother Nature has her methods of proving us wrong about this as about so many things, which may keep us humble.)  In any event, Beltane was one of the happier holidays celebrated by the Celtic culture throughout Europe even under the rule of Rome and, later, during the advent and spread of Christianity.  (Christian leaders, being canny folk, more or less took over pagan holidays of all sorts, including Yule and Samhain, inserting Christian dogma and saints in the place of the original Druidic lore and Celtic gods and goddesses. This made it possible for the people to transfer over their loyalty to the “new” God, or – and this is probably more likely – continue to worship and celebrate their own culture under the guise of celebrating the Christian God.)

In the process, of course, the holiday became a minor holiday, being so much less important in the calendar than Easter, which is the most important Christian holiday. And while it never completely lost its attributes of fertility, May Day (no longer Beltane) became a rather pretty and, on the surface at least, innocent holiday devoted to flowers and dancing.  In fact, much of the fertility aspect of Beltane got transferred to Easter. Eggs and rabbits are ancient symbols of fertility for entirely obvious reasons. They’re sanitized a bit for the kiddies, but they still mean, like spring itself, the renewal of life. And May Day was left to children and young people entirely, with the symbolism carefully hidden from their innocent minds.

In my childhood, in small town Colorado, May Day primarily became the day on which we took the little baskets we’d made from pieces of construction paper or wallpaper (always in pastel colors), ribbon and sometimes pipe cleaners in pastel colors and filled with candies and flowers to leave on the doorknobs of our friends (or kids that we’d like to be friends with).  The May baskets were projects worked on in grade school classes. Here’s an example:
29578b5b0f46f18af53321cf52b302d7May baskets still hold a place in the world of children and grade schools, but have also become a crafting project. Here’s an article about the history (or part of it anyway) of the May basket: http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/04/30/402817821/a-forgotten-tradition-may-basket-day)

Oh, and this is quite important – when you leave a May basket on somebody’s door, it has to be anonymous! Or the point is lost.  This led to the May basket tradition becoming a part of courtship ritual for teenagers. It takes a lot of craft to leave an anonymous basket of flowers and candy at somebody’s door and still let that somebody know who it might be who left it.

Another tradition that leads directly back to Beltane is that of the Maypole.  This traditional dance has almost disappeared. That’s rather sad because it’s beautiful.  In the town square (or perhaps the grade school schoolyard or gymnasium), set up a tall pole, at least 15 feet high, with many colorful ribbons (at least 20 feet long) attached to the top of the pole. Don’t forget the flowers.  Then have the children of your village (or grade school), or girls on the cusp of womanhood, dress up in their new white or pastel spring dresses, put wreaths of flowers on their heads or entwine flowers and ribbons in their hair, give each one a streamer/ribbon and have them dance around the Maypole in such a way that they weave the ribbons in a cross-hatch pattern all the way down the pole.  When the free ends of the ribbons are too short for those holding them to move, the dance is done, everybody cheers, and then there’ll be a party of punch and cake and cookies and candy with a probable finish after dark of a bonfire.


The particular Maypole above uses the red, white and blue of the American flag as a theme and is obviously part of a larger celebration of spring (note the tent in the background), and it looks like a lot of fun.

I remember once in grade school (which was a while ago, but some things do stick in the mind) being part of a Maypole dance. We started very slowly weaving in and out around each other to make the pattern of the streamers and then they added the music and the dance got faster and faster.  Of course, being me and contrary, when the great day came and we started the Maypole dance (parents and friends sitting in the gymnasium bleachers and believe me everybody more than ready for the Kool-Aid punch and cookies to come), I managed to get my directions mixed up in all the excitement and started unraveling my ribbon.  As I recall (and I recall it with the vividness we all reserve for humiliating moments), our teacher had to stop the whole thing, we had to unravel what we’d done, and start all over again.  I also remember my mother almost lavender with embarrassment for her wrong-way daughter and my father laughing his heart out.  (I also remember getting an extra treat of candy from him to make up for my embarrassment, so it worked out pretty good after all.)

We don’t do many of these relatively innocent (at least on the surface, please do remember that Beltane from which this all descended is an overt fertility festival) celebrations any longer. While (WARNING: editorial coming) we continue to commercialize Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, even Easter, and now Hallowe’en to a point past ridiculous, some holidays like May Day have diminished except in small, usually fairly rural spots.  Kind of a shame.

So, here’s to a resurgence in some holidays, like May Day, and may yours be filled with sunshine and flowers and, maybe, just maybe, a May basket hanging on your door. Hmmnhh, I wonder if I have any pastel construction paper and pipe cleaners in my office supplies . . . .

Film Gems, Part Trois: Some Choice Holiday Movies and TV Shows

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, now that Thanksgiving is over, I am turning my flittering attention to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and the celebration of the New Year. Of course, I have much to do: presents to buy, create, wrap and ship, house to decorate, parties to go to (maybe, if I’m invited), family and friends to enjoy, newsletter to write and send, along with last year’s which never got sent, addresses to update, cards to buy and write in and send, catalogs to recycle (I’m still wondering how I got on the mailing list for “All Things Golf” — I don’t golf and I know only one person who does and he’s already got golf clubs — really not in your demographic, guys), and gluten-filled baked goods to sigh over and not eat.  So what I’m doing this last Saturday in November is writing a blog about holiday movies.  If nothing else, I’m good at misdirection — I’ll sneak up on the other holiday doings somehow and somewhen.

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a long-time favorite:  “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck portrays a columnist in a women’s magazine who pretends to be a happy housewife and cook when in reality if it weren’t for S. A. (“Cuddles”) Sakal (who owns and is chef in the Hungarian restaurant downstairs from her New York studio apartment), she wouldn’t have a thing to write about.  Meanwhile, a sailor rescued from a raft in the Atlantic (all this takes place during WWII), played by Dennis Morgan, sits in a VA hospital and dreams about food, reading the column and drooling because he’s been starving for so long they won’t let him eat what he wants to eat.  (Well, and it’s hospital food, anyway.)  All of this comes back to bite Barbara, who ends up having to pretend in real life at her stick of a fiance’s weekend house in Connecticut that she really is the happy housewife, mother, and superb cook.  It’s funny, charming, shows off  Warner Bros. deep field of character actors at their best, and it gets very very complicated with rocking chairs, horse-drawn carriages, a preacher who has to be smuggled in and out of the house, and two babies instead of just one before the girl gets the guy right at Christmas. If you haven’t seen this one, just skip right by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and try “Christmas in Connecticut”. You’ll be glad you did.

Another oldie but very goodie: “The Apartment.” This one is all the way Billy Wilder, so it’s sharp, cynical, sad-edged, funny and ultimately very positive.  The film stars Jack Lemmon as the mid-level accounting nobody who is working on getting ahead at work by passing around the key to his apartment to his co-workers who want a private place for some private canoodling, Shirley Maclaine as his crush, who herself hopelessly loves Fred MacMurray (who was always at his best cast against type as a selfish, even evil manipulator), and a cast office workers who still resonate today as being way too realistic.  The apartment itself is practically a character in the movie, beautifully realized as a Victorian parlor in a brownstone on West 65th in NYC that has come on slightly seedier times.  Lemmon discovers that Maclaine has tried to kill herself in, duh, his apartment, and the complications that ensue result in a black eye, a fractured compact, a raise and promotion, and a resignation that’s just in time for the happy ending.  And it has Billy Wilder’s second-best last line ever (the first is from “Some Like It Hot”, but that’s not a holiday movie, unless you count the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre): “Shut up and deal.”

English: Screenshot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley...

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine,The Apartment (1960) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one, too, is a lovely old film that manages to be cynical about Christmas and yet the holiday spirit finds the way in spite of everybody involved: “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 34th Street windows of Macy’s in New York still always have decorations about this movie in them, no matter what the other decorations may be.)  Is the gentleman known as Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Or is he not and he’s actually scamming the populace? In the end, the courts and the United States Post Office state that he is indeed Santa Claus, and who are we to quibble? Especially with Natalie Wood (in one of her first roles while she was still a little girl) getting what she never thought she would, a new daddy and a house, and everybody else in spite of themselves getting what they really need and sometimes actually want.  You’ll like it, I promise.

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie more recently made is “White Christmas”, a star-studded, music-filled, all dancing and singing spectacular from the 1950’s, and one I have to watch each year at least once.  The stars are Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen (was anybody’s waist ever actually that small?), and Danny Kaye, the music is by Irving Berlin, mostly, and the songs and dancing are terrific.  It’s about a two guys who met in WWII and who are now the toasts of Broadway, with one of them (Danny) trying to get Bing married off so that he can have some time off, a sister act in Florida who have to get out of town the quiet way since their landlord wants to sue them for something or other, who cares, since the way they get out of town requires the guys to cross-dress, a train trip to Vermont where there’s no snow, and the classic “we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” finale.  The romantic complications between Bing and Rosemary have to do with trust and angles and using other people, but it all comes out right in the end as a holiday movie simply must.

Cropped screenshot of Bing Crosby and Danny Ka...

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, White Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also during this time period they shot a film called “My Three Angels”, which stars Walter Slazek.  The film shows three convicts who are repairing a roof on a shop and overhear the shopkeeper and their family trying to find their way out of major difficulties.  The three fix the problems and Christmas happens right on schedule.  I can find very little about this 1959 small gem, and I hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it again.

Then, there’s “While You Were Sleeping.” One of Sandra Bullock’s more charming comedies, which is saying something, it’s about a woman who is alone at Christmas and longs to be part of a family.  While she thinks she’s falling in love with the guy she saves from being run over by a train (and who ends up in a coma for most of the film), she’s really falling in love with his quirky family and, more important than that, his slightly disillusioned brother.  Wonderful supporting performances, many funny lines, and Sandra simply watching as a happy family shares Christmas fill this film with joy and longing.  The theme song is now used for a computer dating service, so every time the commercial comes on, I think of this film, which is not a bad thing.

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love, Actually” is truly one of my favorite films, one I watch when I’m feeling there’s no love in the world.  As Hugh Grant says right at the very beginning, however, there’s lots of love, and some of it is sad, some of it is funny, and a lot of it is hopeful.  Great performances by British actors it’s impossible not to enjoy (and some terrific Americans too), really nifty songs (including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by a truly talented teenager and “The Trouble With Love” by Kelly Clarkson), and Bill Nighy portraying as only he can a has-been rock star trying for a comeback which somehow seems to involve getting naked on TV.  It’s beautifully shot, too, making modern-day London as much of a holiday destination as it would have been for me in Victorian times.  And Colin Firth.  Ahem.  A movie with Colin Firth in it? I’m so there.

Love Actually

Love Actually (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, by the way, while the primary plot of the movie has to do with the other end of the story, the very beginning of “Ben-Hur” has a gloriously shot nativity pageant at its very beginning with some of the loveliest music ever.  Well, the whole movie is the best of the huge spectaculars and in many ways, one of the most moving.  They’re planning a remake, but I just can’t see how they can improve on the classic.

I finally saw “A Christmas Story” a couple of years ago.  So I now know why there is such a thing as a table lamp made to look like a high-heeled female leg in the world and why you will never get a BB Gun for Christmas (because you’ll put your eye out).  The truly terrifying scene with Santa became an instant favorite and the excruciating (because I did it once when I was a very gullible small child) moment of sticking a wet tongue on a frozen flagpole are all now part of my holiday vocabulary.  This film not only shows us the importance of Christmas to a small child, it fills Christmas with hysterical laughter and still a sense of the wonder of it all.

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a rela...

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a relatively recent reissue. The boxes promote the gun as being “just like the one your Dad had!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about how much I love “The Lion in Winter” in another blog about Film Gems, but yet another reason to watch it is its deliciously cynical (realistic?) portrayal of family Christmas:  “Well, now, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”  So that’s another one for the list. And one I remember enjoying, too: “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen, who portrays an unhappily separated father who discovers he’s actually been tapped to be the next Santa Claus and there’s nothing he can do about it, although he tries.  He finally embraces his fate and  takes over in the (ahem) “nick” of  time. Yet another pair of films that occur to me are not specifically about the holidays, but are rather set during them: The first two “Die Hard” films starring Bruce Willis. (Oddly enough, the primary crossover talent in this area is Alan Rickman, who appears in “Love, Actually” and in the first “Die Hard.”)

All of the above have to do with Christmas, I’ve been noticing, and many of them seem to be about love among the commercialism, cynicism and annoyances of the Christmas holidays in modern times.  And you will notice I’ve not mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t happen to like this film much and the plot holes in it, well, Santa could easily drive his sleigh through them without touching the sides.  I also haven’t mentioned, except in “Ben-Hur”, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, about the birth of Jesus Christ.  There aren’t all that many films, however, based on the Winter Solstice (which is the holiday most people celebrated in deepest winter and which Christianity co-opted), or on Kwanzaa, or for that matter (and this surprises me) Hanukkah.  I would be very interested to hear from my reader about such films.  I’m sure they exist.

There are also many television films, specials and cartoons about the holidays, most of which have a Christmas theme, but are based on Santa, Frosty, and other non-religious Christmas icons.  An exception is “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, which is still occasionally shown on network television and which I can recommend for its lovely music and its theme of the people — that is, all of us unknown and sometimes unhappy and distressed folk — that Christmas is supposed to be about.  And don’t forget “A Christmas Carol.” For me, this is a read-aloud yearly treat, but it has been produced as a film or TV special many times and they’re all fun to watch.  Maybe the best is the one with the Muppets.

The best of the Christmas TV specials for me are “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and, of course, the original cartoon TV version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate, and if you’re so inclined, have some fun watching a few of these classics.  Maybe, like the Grinch, our hearts are sometimes “two sizes too small”, but these films and TV shows just might help us expand our hearts to the size they should be during this season and all year through.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Colorado Gold

The state of Colorado has many colors and is often called “Colorful Colorado“.  The very name (taken from the river that springs up in the western part of the state) is Spanish for the color red or reddish, which is the color of the water in the Colorado river, coming from particles of the red sandstone that is part of the state’s geological heritage.

But more than anything else, Colorado is known for gold.  The gold dug out of the mountains that brought Caucasians and their culture first to Colorado and that kick-started its economy, yes.  But the gold that Colorado is famed for now is the gold of autumn in the high country, the gold of the turning leaves of aspen, their final glory each year before the leaves fall and winter sets in.

On Saturday, I took a drive/hike/walk in Rocky Mountain National Park to see the color (that’s what we call it around here, “going to see the color”). And with just a few comments, I’ll mostly let these photos speak for themselves.

Long's Peak in the distance

Long’s Peak in the distance

My special mountain, Long’s Peak, but look at the patches of gold on its lower flanks.  Those are aspen.  Aspen have some unusual, even fascinating facts, information to share.  For one thing, a grove of aspen does not consist of separate trees, but of one organism connected via a root system and appearing to be individual trees.  Aspen are a member of the birch family of trees, with paperwhite bark and heart-shaped leaves.  These leaves are attached to the twig in such a way that each individual leaf quivers in the slightest breeze — so much so that the tree is often called a “quivering aspen”.  Aspen are first growth trees.  In areas of land with very poor soil or little topsoil, or land that has been burnt over or clear cut, the first trees that will grow on such land are the aspen.  They will seed themselves after scrub oak and other lower, ground-covering bushes and plants, and will help to prepare the soil over time for the more needy pines that, in our part of the world, are considered the “mature” forest.

So, in a sense, aspen are placeholders, but such beautiful placeholders.  Mostly, during fall weather, when temperatures get low enough, the aspen turn gold, with some trees for reasons that are unclear, at least to me, turning orange, rusts or even nearly red.

Small aspen grove

Small aspen grove

Artist and Aspen

Artist and Aspen

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine on Bear Lake Road

Moraine on Bear Lake Road





Rocks in the River

Rocks in the River


A Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

Except it isn’t, sometimes.  Sometimes, it’s life long, a constant battle against grayness, against hopelessness, against seeing the world as cliffs surrounding you that you have to climb daily, against feeling as if you live at the bottom of a well and there’s no way out.

Suicide has a checkered history. In some cultures and at some times, it is the honorable way to handle an impossible situation.  In other times, other places, it is the final last gasp of defeat at this sometimes miserable thing called life.  Sometimes it is called, by insensitive people, cowardice, which it almost never is.  Sometimes it is, if something this tragic can be more tragic for some than it is for others, a momentary response of anguish, fury and defiance against a world that just doesn’t understand.

But it is one of those horrible human things that, if successful, is permanent.  No more chances at glory, at happiness, at climbing out of the well, even for a day or an hour.  I once was asked to define death and it was not a “well, duh” moment.  I could only respond that death is the end of choice. But some people feel more and more as if choice has left them while they still exist.

I have only once in my life, a very long time ago, contemplated killing myself. I lived on the sixth floor of my college dorm and I looked out the window for hours one day, not so much imagining myself jumping as fighting the need to jump.  I didn’t think, I didn’t even really feel.  The world was gray.  I had made a huge, horrible mistake and was in more trouble than I had ever been, branded as a  thief.  I saw no way to get back to the other side of the bad thing I had done and be the person I had been.  And I saw no way to become any other kind of person than the bad, no-good person I felt I had become.  Obviously I didn’t jump.  I still don’t quite know why I didn’t. I stared out of that window for hours and then I turned away from the window and made myself a pot of coffee (I could drink coffee then) and I started, step by tiny, backsliding, embarrassing and very hard step, to become another version of me, one that incorporated being a former thief and paying for that and learning new ways to cope with stress and terror and how difficult life could be. And joy and inspiration and zest came back, sometimes intermittently, into my life.

I am in no way comparing myself to Robin Williams or to anyone else who has not found a way to climb out of the well.  As I said, this was for me a one-time, if very long and horrible, moment in my life. For the most part, while I freely admit to being a drama queen, my highs are not manically high, my lows are not suicidal. I have more problems with anxiety than with depression.  But that moment when death did not just seem, but was, preferable to continuing to live happened and it was real.

This is true for a lot of people.  A situation feels hopeless and death seems like the only solution because nothing else is possible.  But the feeling, while real and horrific, passes and the hard climb begins, and life becomes once more possible, hopeful, even good.

But for others, life is a long, hard, and more often than not unremitting battle against depression, against hopelessness.  For the most part, it seems more and more that this “black dog”, as Winston Churchill called it, is a matter of brain chemistry.  And the gray, forever miserable landscape of life felt by a depressed person often does not reflect at all the successful, creative person we on the outside see. Many of our greatest, most admirable people have suffered (and it is suffering, deep suffering) from this debilitating illness of brain chemistry and have created wonders in spite of it. Most of us, ordinary folk that we are, if we have clinical depression, would find our lives more productive, happier, easier, without this scourge of hopelessness.  It is a very hard battle, and as those who have depression would say, it doesn’t lessen with age or wisdom, and the good times get fewer and the lightening of the dark happens less often.

What can be done? There are medications that lift the spirit, but often they flatten the higher end of emotion that is the only candle flame in the darkness of the depressed mind.  There is prayer, there is reaching out to — and by — friends, family, therapy.  There is admitting that the facade of “I’m okay, I’m fine, I’m good” is just that, a facade, and doesn’t match at all the gray landscape within.  We are not talking about sadness here, or grief, or situational depression.  These, while sometimes so bad a person finds it impossible or nearly impossible to live through them, come to us because we have lost something or someone, or have, as in my case, done something we think is horrible and unforgivable.  Sometimes, they come because the road in front of us is just going to get rockier.  I, for one, have no idea how victims of ALS, which is a living death before one inevitably dies, manage to keep going, keep living.  What is life without some kind of hope?

For those who suffer from clinical depression, however, that hopelessness is simply life more days than not. Today I read a story about Robin Williams written by someone who had worked with him. This man saw that Mr. Williams was, when not performing, quiet, sweet, kind, and always somehow sad.  When he was performing, the manic energy poured through him.  I have known artists or of artists, we all have, who seem only to be truly living while they are performing.   It used to be a trope we all believed that artists, by their nature, had to take the bitter — the mental problems, the down times, the depression — with the better — the moments of flow when they felt attached to something wildly creative.  But nobody can work, can flow, can use up all that energy all the time.  The curtain comes down, the applause ends, and you are left with yourself.  And if that self lives at the bottom of a well of hopelessness . . . .

My title for this essay is meant to be unpleasant, even shocking.  Those of us who do not live at the bottom of a well can find it possible to think of suicide that way, that if you, hopeless though you feel, just hang in there, you’ll feel better soon.  As, tragically, the Robin Williams of this world would tell you, were they still here to do so, hanging in there doesn’t much help, because the “feel better soon”  part happens less and less, until all the world is bleak and flat and gray.

Maybe the only possibility is to be kinder, to accept that those around us may be fighting battles we can’t see, can’t know. Sometimes if we listen without judgment, without advice, without telling somebody to pull themselves together, maybe that somebody will be willing to tell us just how gray it is and that might just help a bit. A tiny bit. But maybe not, although that is not a reason to stop trying to help.  We battle many things in our life, valiantly, reluctantly, fearfully, sometimes hopelessly.  And sometimes we lose the battle.  We just do.

I have no solutions to offer, no wise words.  I, after all, am one of the lucky ones whose brain does not routinely bathe itself in the neurotransmitters of hopelessness. But I am sad today because we have lost another creative mind to its own chemical, emotional demons, a life we could not afford to lose, and for such an unhappy reason: Robin Williams could transmit happiness, joy, mirth everlasting to all of us, but could not keep it for himself.

Robin Williams, may your heaven be filled with the joy that so often eluded you in this life.


Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace

The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America


It was written by Thomas Jefferson and amended by the Continental Congress until, as John Adams said, “would you break its spirit?”. It wasn’t signed by all the members of the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776.  In fact, the last signature wasn’t appended until the next January.  It wasn’t printed and distributed until, I believe, August of that very hot summer. It was approved on July 2nd, and John Adams, for one, believed that it would be on July 2nd every year that the country would celebrate the declaration with fireworks and galas.  So he was off by two days.  We were at war, with England, which believed it owned us.  We disagreed. We disagreed with firearms and battles and vituperation, but we also disagreed by writing the glorious words of our Declaration of Independence. And, in the end, it was these words that prevailed, even more than our tough little armies.

Today is Independence Day for the United States of America.  We’re having our problems (we always had our problems), we seem to lurch from one extreme position to the opposite (we always did and probably always will), but we’re still here, and that’s fairly remarkable.  You see, our system of government had been tried once or twice in history, but it never seemed to really catch on. Most governments found the concept of the people being governed also doing the governing to be at the least laughable and at the most much more than alarming.

The very idea, government being instituted and continued for the benefit of the governed!  The whole point of government was to benefit the guy (or much more rarely the gal) at the top.  We laugh about the term today because it feels to us like our elected representatives belly up to the public trough more than serve us, but before the United States, the idea of a “public servant” did not really (except for lip service) exist.  Oh, kings always bowed to God and they knew better than to get too frisky in their kingship or the peasants would make their lives highly inconvenient, but the king was not the servant, everybody else was.

But we in what was then the thirteen colonies of North America didn’t like that and we got real vocal about it.  Maybe we didn’t start it. That was Greece. And the subjects of the all-powerful king in England started upsetting the apple cart a long, long time ago.  And we’re not the only republic or democracy in the world today.  After 1776, quite a few places on the planet created their own styles of government by the people, of the people and for the people — countries such as France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, India, a whole bunch of South America, Africa and Asia, and it still goes on, more or less successfully, throughout the world. Sadly, whether the people succeed or whether they fail, there’s a huge human price to be paid. There always was.  There always will be. “Give me Liberty or give me death” isn’t just a pretty catchphrase.

And sometimes that “public servant” business does feel kind of nominal, doesn’t it? But we not just in the US but all over the world who think all the people have rights believe all of us by right have a say in how we’re governed.  We keep trying and failing and lurching around and enjoying a few sometimes all too brief successes, and we’re still here. And in the US we’re still tinkering with the concept (and with the Constitution we wrote later, which starts, heart-wrenchingly, “we the people”), trying to make it better.

Today is Independence Day.  Being Americans (nothing else seemed to stick to call us, even though it still annoys the heck out of everybody else in our hemisphere, as it should since all the land in the western hemisphere is called America), we celebrate with fireworks and brass bands and barbecue.  But there’s also a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye because — well, we’re still here and we’re still trying, for us and for all the people of the world (meddlers that we are), to show that governments serve us, not the other way around.

People love their countries (when they’re not actively hating them).  We, as citizens of the United States of America, are by no means unique in that.  But this Independence Day is our very own day to celebrate not just a piece of land or a government, but the rebirth of a concept. That concept is simple.  Not easy, but simple. Each individual human being has “certain inalienable rights” because he or she is human.  These rights cannot be granted by a government and they cannot be taken away.

So to enhance that lump in the throat and that tear in the eye, I found this song on YouTube.  Katherine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” while vacationing in Colorado so it has a special meaning for me, and nobody ever sang it like Ray Charles, whom we lost in 2004.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xk1P1913y0  And I would also suggest, in honor of the day, watching the film “1776”, from the Broadway musical of the same name, about the hot summer in Philadelphia when the irascible and quarreling representatives of the thirteen colonies (colonies which agreed on very little except that King George was not the boss of them) created the United States of America.  And there’s always fireworks and barbecue and a brass band.

With my lover’s quarrel with my country because it’s not perfect in abeyance for this Independence Day, here’s to the United States of America, from sea to shining sea.


A Weighty Matter

Should this really be the tyrant of our lives?

Should this really be the tyrant of our lives?

I woke up today thinking about weight.  Human weight, that is, and our collective and individual attitudes toward it, especially, of course, when it comes to women.  Since this post is about weight and (mostly) women, let’s get this out of the way.  Over the last three years, I’ve lost a great deal of weight — my health had gone south for many reasons and whether too much weight on my 5 foot 5 inch frame was a result or a cause or just went along with it, I could no longer pretend to be above the fray.  I’m stating this at the beginning of this post because I want to be clear that I do have an oar in the water on this topic, but my comments to come are not so much about me as about attitudes toward this physical phenomenon that have, to my way of thinking, become increasingly toxic.

English: Actress Gabourey Sidibe at 2010 CBS S...

Actress Gabourey Sidibe at 2010 CBS Summer Press Tour Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while ago, I saw an article on the web about Gabourey Sidibe‘s response to snarky comments from social media about her appearance at the Golden Globes where, apparently, she committed the crime of “being in public while fat.”  Her response made me want to cheer (this is a paraphrase):  “When I think of the hateful comments at GG, I mos def cry all the way to my private jet and to the dream job I’m flying to.”  And why did I want to cheer?  Two reasons:  her refusal to accept others’ opinions of her weight and her value; and the fact that for her, her talent and her work come first and she has no time for those for whom her body and personal appearance should be more important.

Just a few days ago, Tara Erraught, a mezzo-soprano rising star in Grand Opera, was critiqued more for her weight than for her voice in a performance as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, which set of nasty comments, as they should have, set off a firestorm of criticism directed against the reviewers. They, as a group, did mention in passing that she sang well, but how dare she have the nerve to appear on a public stage while fat!  (By the way, she isn’t fat, which didn’t used to be an ugly word, except by the very strange and unpleasant standards of today. She’s what used to be called in a kinder age zaftig, rounded and very pretty as you can see from the photo just below.)

Tara Erraught in Concert

Tara Erraught in Concert

Earlier this year I read a most thought-provoking article about how Jennifer Lawrence, America’s sweetheart, is actually buying into the zeitgeist in her comments about her own weight.  The point the author made (and I’m very sorry, but I can’t find the reference on the web to the name of the author of this article) is that BECAUSE Jennifer Lawrence is within the parameters of weight we allow for women in our culture, she can talk about how she never diets, loves fries and hamburgers, can’t understand the fuss about weight, and so forth.  The writer compared Lawrence’s statements to quotes by Melissa McCarthy in which she says she eats healthily, does not eat sweets and finds weight difficult to lose.  The writer points out that the message is clear.  A thin or thinner woman isn’t shamed in public or in private for eating, while a fatter woman is.  The writer went on to give an example of a woman (let’s call her Suzy) going up to another woman (let’s call her Beth) in a pizza parlor.  Suzy considered Beth to be overweight.  Beth was about to eat a slice of pizza.  Suzy “intervened”, suggesting to Beth (and everybody else in the place) that Beth should not be eating something so unhealthy.  (So tell me, what was Suzy doing in the pizza parlor then if pizza is so unhealthy?)

And, on a trivial level but it still counts, I’ve always wanted to know why a woman (much more than a man) of larger than stylish size cannot get any calories from cheese puffs without somebody giving her the stink eye, while somebody female who is thin can eat all the cheese puffs she wants.  That kind of puts paid to the notion that it is “health” that people are concerned about.  Believe me, cheese puffs are unhealthy for ANYBODY, and if you are thin and eating them, then you’re obviously not eating as much of food with, you know, actual vitamins and nutrients that might make up for the empty calories, salt, sugar, trans fats and whatnot that are the only ingredients in cheese puffs.  Okay, there’s some cheese in there somewhere.

English: Cheese snack Svenska: Ostbågar

English: Cheese snack Svenska: Ostbågar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and while we’re on the trivial end of this subject, could somebody tell me why a male whose beer gut is assuming barrel-sized proportions will have the gall to tell his (slimmer) woman companion (and what is SHE thinking, besides contemplating her despair at watching his belly blossom) “Are you sure you really want that dinner roll?”  Apart from wishing that the woman’s immediate reaction would be to stuff the dinner roll down his jerky throat, the answer to my  question here is easy. We still live in a world in which a male is judged by his deeds, while a woman is judged by her appearance.  Just take a look at pictures of distinguished, craggy, older men (and there’s a lot of them) and then the pictures (you’ll see three — Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, and Dame Maggie Smith) of compelling and vital older women.  Okay, four, if you include Hillary Clinton, but if her picture is part of the article, the comments will be of the “while she is a fine or hard-working or terrible (whatever point the writer is trying to make) politician, what is that thing she’s doing with her hair and why is she always in a pantsuit?” variety.  (Further trivial note.  Why is it when women wear them, they’re “pantsuits”, while when men wear them, they’re just “suits”?)

Obesity (which is a really ugly word, isn’t it?) does indeed have health consequences, although in spite of all the hype, every day it seems we get news items (tucked away, because obesity, by fiat and obviously, HAS to be unhealthy) showing that, for example, high cholesterol is not as dangerous as everybody thinks and that as you get older, you need to have more weight on you in order to be healthier and last longer.  But because it is visible, obesity has turned into the red flag indicator for a person who does not take proper care of his or her health and is, therefore, not just in danger of keeling over at any time, but deserves to.


Segregation (Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar)

Because of this, it seems we all are allowed, even mandated, to shame anybody over a certain weight or size because it is, after all, for their good. (Like being really rude about and to smokers.)  We can all pretend that we are not expressing our own attitudes and revulsion and fears, but that we are rather simply and winningly being concerned about another human being’s health.  But as far as I can see, our attitudes toward obesity use the EXCUSE that we are concerned about health when in actuality we are shaming the person for what we consider to be a failure of character as well as of public aesthetics.

As you know, I get all historical about these things.  While sloth and gluttony are and always were considered to be sins, the definition has changed over time.  For most of history, food was scarce and only wealthy people had enough to eat; therefore a certain embonpoint would be considered healthy and admirable.  Why? Because wealth meant industry and work and the favor of God.  Therefore, God’s favor and wealth allowed you to eat as much as you liked because you could afford it.  All those paintings we laugh about now featuring young women we consider to be fat as the objects of desire and how could that possibly be so — well, they WERE the objects of desire because they were well-off, obviously fertile, and could sustain a pregnancy to full healthy term.  (There’s a meme going around Facebook recently on which such glorious women as Aphrodite and the Three Graces (Botticelli) and various subjects of Titian and Rubens are Photoshopped into what we consider healthy and attractive today.  Here’s the URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/22/art-history-photoshopped_n_5367171.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000063

Now, of course, food in the western first world is cheap, especially the kinds of food that scientists (and anybody with common sense) say are the most likely to create excess weight — refined carbohydrates, sugar and trans fats.  If you are poor, if your food budget is tiny, if the only store you have within walking distance (and you don’t have a car) is a 7-11, it is not easy or sometimes even possible to find and purchase the “healthy” foods (fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fresh fish, and so forth) that we now consider necessary for health (and thinness).  So the paradigm has definitely shifted:  now those who are thin are assumed to be thin because of their sterling character and self-discipline, not because they don’t have enough to eat, and the same traits that were considered admirable in William Howard Taft (probity, industry, wealth as an indicator of virtue) are still considered admirable, but as far as Taft’s size is concerned (and, by the way, the story that he got stuck in the White House bathtub is a base canard), in the other direction.   Then, he was the picture of health, wealth and solid virtue.  Now he’s a fat man with a weird mustache. (Okay, I’ll give you the mustache.) In other words, we have taken the same values and assigned them to the other end of the human size spectrum.

English: William Howard Taft William Howard Ta...

William Howard Taft, half-length portrait, standing, facing right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only thin people can have such traits we admire, obviously, because people who do not fit into our definitions of thin must be slothful gluttons with no self-control in any areas of their lives.  So if you can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods, if all you can find to eat is chips and Velveeta at your local grocery store, you are not just unlucky or poor or faced with impossible choices, or no choices, you are a BAD PERSON, you are LAZY, and you have no SELF-CONTROL.

It is a kind of shorthand humans have always used.  We are hard-wired to make instantaneous judgments about the surrounding environment because that moving object in the still, windless bush is probably a snake or a leopard so you run before your brain catches up and shows you that it’s a meerkat instead.  Only now we make these instantaneous judgments of at least other humans based on skin color, on clothing, on menacing postures, and act accordingly.  And somehow, starting in the 20th century and on into now, weight has become an instant indicator of a person’s value in all areas. There are stories out there about people who in all other respects have the skills required for a particular profession but are fired or not hired based on their weight.  I can visualize a body weight within what insurance adjusters call “normal” parameters being a prerequisite for some jobs (trapeze artist springs to mind), but sitting at a computer typing all day?

Anecdotally, I have noticed that celebrities who are thin can charmingly and self-deprecatingly admit to fast food addictions, that they can’t leave chocolate alone or that they always have fries with that, while a fat celebrity (that rarest of breeds) had better only admit to loving broccoli and lettuce with lemon juice the only dressing and charmingly and self-deprecatingly shrug as if their eating habits did not at all reflect their size.

This may be true in both instances. Tastes differ and I happen to love broccoli with lemon myself. (Okay, truth? Broccoli with lemon and butter tastes a lot better than just broccoli with lemon.)  And as tastes differ, so do metabolisms.  There are people who simply don’t understand the problem because they do eat whatever they like and never put on a pound. (This, by the way, usually stops being true for anybody after the age of about 35.)  And there are people (sadly, I’m one of them) whose metabolism, while completely normal, is slow, a “saving” metabolism.  While this would have stood me in good stead in the scarcity of the last ice age (I would have lived longer than anybody else during the famine, probably, as if that’s something to wish for), right now it’s pretty inconvenient.

(And, on a related subject, don’t you just love it when somebody interviews a “star” about how she lost the she weight gained during pregnancy and she just says that running around after her little one is enough.  Please. Running on a treadmill while the nanny runs around after the baby is probably a bit closer to the mark.)

To get away from trivial reasons and results of the first-world attitudes toward weight and women, and into (oh, the puns just keep on coming) meatier issues, let’s talk about controlling the population.  Through the ages, we’ve used everything from force of arms to force of shame, from laws to culture to manners to disdain, to keep various groups of humans in their “places”.  There used to be sumptuary laws so that middle-class upstarts could not wear the same kinds of fabrics or furs or gems that the aristocracy wore (whether they wanted to wear diamonds and ermine or not, poor royals).  Weight is one of the ways in which the modern world controls our behavior.  Often more so for women, but it’s beginning to be so for men too, we are judged and therefore shamed by the way we look, the closer we approach some kind of impossible ideal of attractiveness or the farther away we have gotten.

In an era in which women have made enormous strides into some kind of parity with men in public and private arenas, those who have the power, who think the pie cannot get larger and so if somebody else gets power, those who had it have therefore lost it, will do nearly anything to maintain their position or get their power back.  Controlling women has been a huge issue in human culture since the dawn of time.  (Women should never have let out the secret that men have something to do with creating a pregnancy.)  We are still paying that price in misogyny, in rape, in violence against women.  But we also pay that price in our idealization of impossible standards of beauty.  Just like the peacock (see his story below), who spends all his time and energy growing and maintaining that beautiful tail, a woman whose worth is measured by her looks will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy maintaining and improving those looks.  And will worry about losing them.  While she’s doing that, she can be dismissed as vain and only interested in her appearance, that her concerns are only about appearance and so she is trivial and not to be taken seriously, thus she loses in both directions.

One more thing while we’re on the subject of using our attitudes toward human weight as a method of control:  a thinner woman is, or at least seems to be, much easier to control in a completely physical way.  A woman who weighs 110 pounds, unless she’s super fit and a martial artist, can be physically picked up by a man, can be overwhelmed simply by size.  And what woman hasn’t felt intimidated by the sheer size of a male human being?

N_53_16_5489 August 28, 1946

Man Carrying a Woman (Photo credit: State Archives of North Carolina)

People do indeed have different metabolisms, all within a range of normal.  People do indeed have different body types, and if you are short and thick-boned and wide, you’re probably not going to get a job as a supermodel.  Some people can be so thin they look like somebody stretched them on the rack and that’s normal for them and they look good in their clothes (because clothing these days is designed for alien beings from the planet Skeletor) and probably not so good without them.  Other people, even if they could get that thin, which can be impossible without falling deeply into anorexia, would look as if they were genuinely starving (which they are). We are not all designed by nature to look the same.  There are good reasons having to do with climate and with food supply for the range of human body sizes and shapes.  Moreover, if we all looked exactly alike, if we all approached or achieved the “ideal” (whatever that is for the time), what point would there be? Believe me, humans would find something to rank.  If we all looked exactly the same, there would be some way we would find to create and enforce a hierarchy of desirable traits or status.  In chickens, it’s a pecking order.  With humans, it’s the scramble to find our place in the pyramid.  All social animals have ranking systems.  And all creation has the ability and desire to extend or attenuate desirable traits to the ultimate degree.  In animals, this is what happens when natural selection takes place and sometimes, yes, the result is beautiful:

Glorious example of natural selection.

Glorious example of natural selection.

When we look at this exquisite creature, we’re not seeing why this has happened.  The females, who do the choosing in virtually all animal societies, particularly in the world of birds, over impossibly long periods of time began to find males who had more beautiful plumage more appealing.  So those are the males who got to reproduce.  Now, scientists are so careful not to ascribe human emotions or desires to animals, it’s kind of pitiful, so they won’t say that females like a handsome man.  What they posit, instead, is that the females, in looking for the best, strongest male to fertilize their eggs, take the sheer effort, the physical cost, of maintaining the plumage, as a sign that this is the strongest, best male possible.

If that’s so, and it seems likely, then humans have gotten it pretty darned wrong.  In moving towards the idea that an extremely thin woman is the sexual paradigm, we’re cutting off our noses (so to speak) to spite our faces.  Women as thin as are the ideal in today’s world often have lost the ability to menstruate and find sustaining a pregnancy and bearing a healthy child much more difficult. (Nature, in its old-fashioned way, assumes we still live in an atmosphere of scarcity, so women more likely to conceive and have healthy pregnancies usually have a layer of fat as insurance that the foetus would be fed and sustained in a time of famine.)  So those artists with their dimpled (that’s what cellulite used to be called, dimples), zaftig artists’ models had the right idea all along.


Botticelli's Primavera

Botticelli’s Primavera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




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Barefoot With Shoes

I’ve been scanning old (hard-copy) writings of mine from non-compatible computer files and whatnot.  In so doing, I came across a poem I wrote about summer and childhood and what we lose as we grow.  Perhaps because I so long for summer this year, perhaps because in my (biased) opinion, it’s pretty darned good for a maiden effort at poetry, here it is for you:

English: A depiction of the natural dry terrai...

Greeley, Colorado, my childhood home. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Barefoot With Shoes

Dirt Road

Nubbled, sharp, squishy
Powder dust between the toes
Walk along, little girl

There now — the road turns
Dust-sifted corn leads left-handed
Noon-time summer smells
Dry, salt-sweat, must, sun



Sweet, heavy honeysuckle
Hot rubber
Baked steel


The stretched snap of the screen door
The slow creak of the tire swing
The lazy cackle of the Rhode Island hen

A dog barks into a whiteyellow blaze of sun

Stop then
Change dust footing
For prickly grass, sudden shade

A breeze lifts the hair
And chills the sweat

Now —

A meadowlark
And a tightness in the throat

So much to feel, smell, hear


–Don’t forget–


Reach the hot green apple
Let the tart juices
Sharpen dirt-dulled mouth


Summer that never was

I see it so clear

Smell it
Hear it
Taste it
Feel it so clear

I could walk barefoot into it



Walk out of here into there
Walk out of now into then

Barefoot, chewing a green stalk of wheat


I am so grown now

No matter how I walk
I am still here

Still now

No matter how I walk
I am not there

Not then

Oh summer
Summer that never was

Even barefoot
I still wear shoes


Apple Tree

Apple Tree (Photo credit: Rovanto)

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The Japanese have an artistic tradition of mending broken ceramics, specifically those used in the Tea Ceremony, with gold.  It is called “kintsugi” and the concept and the reality enchant me.  A quote from a Smithsonian exhibition including examples of kintsugi from (I believe) 2009 follows:

One shallow stoneware tea bowl in the exhibit dates from early-16th century Japan. For centuries, its owners spooned powdered green tea into this bowl, added hot water and swirled the contents with a bamboo whisk before passing the steaming beverage to an honored guest. Someone also dropped the bowl—more than once. Tracks of precious gold snake up its side, highlighting fissures in the ceramic where broken pieces of the bowl have been rejoined.

“It’s been repaired a number of times,” Freer Curator of Ceramics Louise Cort observes of the antique. Artisans who mended the bowl used lacquer—derived from the sap of a plant related to poison ivy—to glue the pieces back in place.

Finely powdered gold was then sprinkled onto the sticky lacquer seams, a purely Japanese technique known as kintsugi, or golden joinery, illuminating the repairs.

Tea-ceremony aesthetics often focused on the beauty in imperfection, Cort explains. “Even in tea bowls that were not repaired, people came to look for the slight idiosyncrasies, even flaws, in the glaze that made one bowl more interesting than another. The context of tea drinking created a moment of awareness of transiency, of the way in which all objects, like all human beings, exist in a fleeting way and are decaying.”

Tea ceremony before Kamogawa Odori.

Tea ceremony before Kamogawa Odori. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tea ceremony is a celebration of much that is valuable to the human spirit and to the world.  Of course, it is a celebration of the gift of tea.  All tea (not including herbal teas, which are more precisely referred to as tisanes) comes from a relative of the Camellia plant, a bush that can reach up to 15 feet in height, has glossy leaves and, in some varieties, truly gorgeous blooms.  Just as no-one knows exactly where and how humans figured out the unwinding of the silkworm’s cocoon to make that most glorious of threads, no-one is quite sure how our species came up with the complex process that turns a glossy green leaf into a delicious drink.  But we have drunk tea for thousands of years.  The leaves of the Camellia, when dried and steeped, provide us with one of the nectars of the Gods.  To celebrate the gift that is tea, the Japanese created the tea ceremony.  The ceremony uses powdered green tea, made of tea leaves from the freshest shoots of the bush.  The leaves are dried and pounded to a powder but not fermented (black and oolong teas, while from the same kind of bush, are fermented and dried differently from green teas).  The tea ceremony, while to western eyes formal to the point of ritual, is considered to be an informal entertainment in Japan.  I refer you to Wikipedia (thank heavens for them) for a detailed description of the ceremony itself.  My concerns here are with the spiritual and aesthetic meanings, at least for me, of the tea ceremony and of the implements used in it, many of which are so fragile that they become, over time, treasured objects called kintsugi.


Camellia (Photo credit: Sunchild57 Photography)

In Japanese aesthetics, the transitory and fragile nature of an object, whether created by the world, or by a human being, is an essential, integral, part of the object’s loveliness and value.  Kintsugi celebrates that fragility and transitory quality.  Just as cherry blossoms fade and fall from the tree, thus enhancing those brief moments of the Cherry Blossom Festival, the fact that ceramic objects break makes their beauty more heart-catching.  Kintsugi captures that breakability, the temporary nature of all we see, all we create, by repairing the ceramic object with lacquer and gold powder.  In western culture, we often say that we become “stronger in the broken places”.  In many ways that statement is more wishful thinking than reality, but it does have something to do with the acceptance we all must have of the fact that nothing lasts, that anything can be broken, that all will wear away.

Cherry Blossom Festival 2010

Cherry Blossom Festival 2010 (Photo credit: vpickering)

Kintsugi celebrates that.  The point is not that the object has been repaired, but that its brokenness is part of its beauty, a reminder that nothing in this world is perfect, and that the imperfections enhance our experience of the beauty of life.  Even a ceramic piece that has not (yet) been broken is considered, as it is in the tea ceremony, beautiful and precious for its fragility, its imperfections, the place near the rim where the glaze slipped, the wobbly bit on the base, the dip on one side that, with the best efforts in the world, the ceramicist was unable to make perfectly round.  Once the piece has been broken, and repaired with lacquer and gold, the imperfections of the piece become its beauty, as in the exquisite bowl depicted at the top of this essay.

We can approach perfection, as in the breeding and refining of various varieties of tea from the same simple bush, as in the disciplines and pleasures of the tea ceremony, as in the care with which we create a ceramic bowl.  We can not achieve it.  And that in itself is a gift. And so we appreciate the perfect imperfections of nature, as when we contemplate the cherry blossoms during their all too brief moment in spring.  As when we honor the bends and twists of natural growth by engaging in the slow sculpture, as Theodore Sturgeon called it, of bonsai.

Bonsai group planting at the "Foire du Va...

Bonsai group planting at the “Foire du Valais” (Martigny, Switzerland). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 We can, as many artists do, deliberately leave a spot unpainted because to do otherwise is to attempt to take for ourselves the prerogatives of  God.  We can and do honor the imperfections of living, of life, of love, of art.  But in kintsugi, we go even farther.  We celebrate as central, as transcendent, the brokenness of creation.  We make the broken places, if not stronger, certainly essential to the experience of art, of beauty. We revel in the accidental beauty of loss. We pay homage to the fact that all of life, even the mountains that look to us so permanent and lasting, are temporary.  And we transcend the brokenness by making the repair the primary part of the experience, just as the earth itself, after the water and wind wears away the mountains, builds new mountains in titanic upheavals.

Brokenness hurts and the experience of breaking, of loss, of wearing away, of endings, feels deeply sad.  And the upheavals, the things that begin out of the endings, often are violent, destructive, terrifying.  And yet — and yet — we can repair a ceramic bowl with gold and make of its shards more beauty than the bowl had before it broke.

あけましておめでとうございます_Mount. Fuji in rose pink

あけましておめでとうございます_Mount. Fuji in rose pink (Photo credit: midorisyu)




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