The Fragility of Life

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IMG_2388My husband and I were unable to sleep in our bedroom the other night due to a minor infestation of flying pests. We are staying at a lake in Michigan, and I had stashed a couple of outdoor seat cushions in the closet while failing to inspect them for hitchhikers.

Every spring here, a certain type of fly hatches en masse only to mate, lay eggs, and die – all within a matter of a few days. They rise up in a frenzy when we stomp through their nesting grounds in the grass, and they cling to outdoor furniture, boats, docks, and yes, seat cushions. Their brief existence, along with daily news reports of coronavirus deaths, is reminding me of how fragile and finite life is.

My husband and I both have elderly mothers who are at extremely high risk of dying if they come into contact with the virus. We are both over 60 and thus considered in the high risk group ourselves. So we have been taking social distancing and other precautions very seriously, as have our children, I’m happy to say.

And yet, the fleeting nature of our lives should give us pause. We are not guaranteed the next hour, let alone the next year. It’s important to cherish the time we have, even if that time now seems circumscribed by events beyond our control.

With five of us sharing space here, nerves occasionally fray and sometimes snap. We are able to laugh and enjoy ourselves one day but feel gloom or discontent the next. In some ways, that situation is not unique to being quarantined. It’s part of the restlessness within the human soul.

I’m happy to say that my husband and I were able to enjoy a good night’s sleep in our own bed last night. Having spent the better (or worse!) part of the night before catching and squishing flies, I am grateful for the ability to sleep unmolested by flying or creeping things. Yet I feel for the little black critters and their oh-so-brief existences. And I appreciate their ability to remind me of the preciousness of my own.

 

 

In Love With Language

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I was reading over a former blog post and ran across the expression “in cahoots.” It’s kind of a funny word, cahoots. The dictionary explains that the term is possibly from the French cahute, meaning “cabin.” This gives me the image of a diabolical cabal gathering in some remote woodsy area to plot evil. In fact, the connotation of cahoots is mostly pejorative, even though people often use it jokingly.

Ever since I can remember, I have been in love with language: its sounds, spellings, multiple meanings, and etymology. In fact, when I was a college student, I fantasized about getting a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED contains a history of word usage for every word in the English language. How much fun one could have poring over the various uses of a word like cahoots! The development of the OED was the subject of a feature film titled The Professor and the Madman, which came out just last year. As you might imagine, I loved the movie.

I have always loved puns, malapropisms, and double entendres. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might have noticed that I use puns and double meanings quite a bit in my titles. Malapropisms – the inadvertent use of a similar word for the word one intends – are common in many farces. Last weekend, I saw the long-running play Shear Madness, which has great fun with the characters’ misuse of words. For instance, one of the characters exclaims, “Tony Whitcomb is a genital liar!”

Language is one of the things that made me love the comic MAD Magazine when I was a kid. They had a feature called “Horrifying Cliches,” which depicted monsters literally doing what the cliche said, such as “ironing out a problem.” It’s also why I have been able to watch my favorite television show, Gilmore Girls, over and over again. The snappy repartee gives me a laugh every time, and the characters even have discussions about funny words and phrases, such as the aforementioned cahoots. There is so much dialogue in every episode of Gilmore Girls, in fact, that the directors had a hard time fitting it all into a 42-minute time frame.

My passion for reading and writing stems from my love affair with the English language. When I do a crossword puzzle (another favorite activity), I am distressed when I find words that I’ve never heard of before. Yet I’m also thrilled to add to my vocabulary. I hope never to lose this passion for all things linguistic. To me it makes the word go around!

 

Talking to Myself

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Every so often I smile when I see a headline implying that talking to yourself is a sign of high intelligence. While I question the veracity of that theory, I at least feel as if my penchant for talking to myself is less crazy than you’d think.

Ever since I was a child, I have had a habit of speaking when there is no one else in the room. My mom used to tease me about talking to the television set when I was watching a favorite show. We are not talking about shouting out the answers to Jeopardy here. I would verbalize my feelings about the action in the show, going so far as to yell at the characters on the small screen.

I have always found it useful to think out loud. For instance, if I am planning a course of action, I will verbalize the steps I’m going to take. Or if I have a difficult conversation ahead of me, I will rehearse what I plan to say out loud. This has led to many instances of my husband saying, “What?” or, in a De Niro-esque way, “Are you talking to me?” So while others are nearby, I try to minimize my verbal mutterings, especially since in public, such behavior makes me look mentally unstable.

But I have concluded that verbalizing thoughts, even if just with my lips, helps me with processing. Years ago I had a friend who would, when listening to others speak, silently repeat the words they were saying. I found this to be a quirk of hers, but I’m guessing it was an aid to comprehension that she had been practicing most of her life. In fact, a New York Times article suggests that talking to ourselves can improve cognition and performance of tasks. (Kristin Wong, “The Benefits of Talking to Yourself,” The New York Times, June 8, 2017)

So if you see me speaking when no one else is within earshot, it is very likely that I am just trying to figure something out. Of course, I also like to sing in public. Not sure what that is a sign of, but it makes me happy.

 

The Evolution of Humor

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In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.

 

Senior Moment

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One of the more stressful times in the parenting of a high school senior is the college application process. This year Halloween promises to be frightening, not because of ghouls and goblins, but because early applications are due Nov. 1.

Last night I had a shouting match with my daughter over homework and college application issues. It ended with me swearing that I didn’t care what she did, I’d already gone to college, and then storming upstairs to my room to enjoy a pleasant trip into dystopian America with Margaret Atwood.

While senior year is proceeding in all its mixture of hope and dread, pride and fear, I myself am old enough to enjoy the senior citizen discount at my local movie theater. Is it cliche to say I’m too old for this sh*!?

Being an older parent is not all bad. Having had a fulfilling career as a high school English teacher, I was ready to take on full-time parenting when my oldest child was born. I’d like to think I had a smidgen more patience to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of raising young children.

At my age, I don’t have a dashing social life that includes lots of late nights out or trips to the Caribbean. So I’m there for my daughter and her needs: food, clean laundry, and the definitions of difficult words in her reading material. The problem is: familiarity breeds contempt – hers, not mine. For the last three and a half years, she has been like an only child, and she feels her parents breathing down her neck like a creepy stalker. She is 18, an age at which in earlier times people were marrying, raising kids, and generally being adults. So she has the urge to be independent without the wherewithal. It’s a bad combination.

I keep repeating a mantra that has gotten me through other stressful times in my life as a parent: “This too shall pass.” Take deep breaths and repeat.

I have no doubt that my lovely, talented, and intelligent daughter will find a great college to attend next year. While it may come down to the wire with application deadlines, she will cross that finish line with or without the worry lines sprouting on my face. So I will try to rein in the exasperation, the urge to control, the fretting about what ifs. I will attempt to enjoy these “senior moments” with more grace and wisdom.

At least I’ll give it the old college try!

Not Falling for Halloween Decor

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My minimalist Halloween decor

I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I’m not a big fan of Halloween. When my kids were little, it always caused too much anxiety and excitement, sugar highs followed by colossal meltdowns.

Still, I always felt obligated to participate in the annual ritual of choosing costumes, returning costumes, choosing new costumes, buying hordes of candy, and sprucing up the house come October 1. Dutifully I’d haul up the large orange plastic boxes to the eager impatience of my children.

In our house, the sine qua non of holiday decor was the vinyl window cling. My kids had no end of fun situating these reusable stickers on our sliding glass doors and the front windows of the house. By the end of the season, the glass was covered by sticky fingerprints. I was incredibly cheap about holiday decorations, so our Halloween pumpkins, ghosts etc. didn’t exactly scream, classy. This was fortunate, though, because my children never met a decorative item that they couldn’t find a way to chip or break. We even had a headless Joseph as part of our Christmas manger scene for a while.

Nowadays, with my children grown, I’m much more understated about my Halloween decorations. It takes all of 15 minutes to put them up, and there are no complaints that my little faux trick-or-treaters standing sentinel at the front door are not scary enough. I am, however, in the minority around my neighborhood. People in my town really do it up big for Halloween: lights, inflatables, ghouls hanging from trees, you name it. One house in town is full on decorated for Dia de los Muertos, complete with two female mannequins standing in their front yard wearing festive dresses and Day of the Dead skeleton masks.

Some of the decorations my neighbors put up for Halloween are downright terrifying, and the homeowners even create their own sort of haunted house thrills on Halloween night as trick-or-treaters come by. For instance, my mild-mannered neighbor around the corner comes out from behind his house brandishing a fake chainsaw and chasing hapless candy seekers. this guy is so scary he almost caused my husband to call 911 one year when said hubby approached the house with our kids.

I love fall: the colorful leaves, the scent of woodsmoke, the taste of pumpkin treats, the crisp, cool days. But I can take or leave the Halloween hoopla. Soon it be will time to think about my favorite holiday: Christmas!

Does Dad Need Some Daditude?

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Does your father or husband like to chuckle and/or laugh out loud occasionally? Do you need a last minute Father’s Day gift?

I’ve been listening to a wry, humorous, and heartwarming book of essays titled Daditude by Chris Erskine. Erskine is a Los Angeles Times writer whose columns are syndicated in my hometown Chicago Tribune under the title “The Middle Ages.” I’ve followed Erskine’s musings for a number of years now, and the man is great with a turn of phrase.

Erskine writes about the trials, tribulations, and joys of family, friends, and growing older. His tales about his brood of four kids and his long-suffering wife alternate with stories about a group of incorrigible drinking buddies. In Daditude, though, he has culled a selection of former columns about his family: rites of passage, holidays, childhood memories.

The tone of these essays is always one of tender bemusement. As much as he mocks some of his kids’ excesses (In one story, he claims his younger daughter renamed herself VISA, with a dollar sign for the “S.”), its clear how much he adores his kids and worships his wife, whom he affectionately calls “Posh” in his writing.

In descriptions of Christmases past and summers in LA, of dropping his oldest daughter off at college, and of shopping for the perfect valentine, Erskine notes the details – the little nuances of nature and human nature that many of us miss. For instance, he describes dressing his newborn son: “I can’t seem to thread this kid’s tiny hand through a shirt hole the size of a nostril.” Or the first cool day of fall: “The cool feels good. Like brushing your teeth. Like a snowy kiss.”

Some of the stories are even more poignant in retrospect, as the twin losses of his son and wife in the past two years had not yet happened. The book was published as Erskine’s wife was going through cancer treatment. Even in those columns that described Posh’s illness, Erskine retains some of the gentle humor and wry sense of the world that no doubt has helped him through such tragedy.

I highly recommend Daditude for fathers and mothers and anyone with a heart, really. As Erskine himself says in the foreword of the book, “I hope you devour this book shamelessly, like no one’s watching, like a big gooey pizza at midnight.”

 

BBT Had the Best Nerds

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An ad for a web-branding company recommends, “Hire better nerds.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek sales pitch and a sign of the times. Since the advent of Silicon Valley dominance, never before has it been so hip to be square. You can find tech gurus in matching t-shirts at the Genius Bar in the Apple store. And Best Buy sends out its Geek Squad to troubleshoot on all things tech. Revenge of the Nerds indeed.

But my favorite nerds are the ones who have populated the beloved sitcom Big Bang Theory for the past 12 years. BBT recently aired its final episode, and I have to say it was one of the most satisfying final episodes of a series that I have ever seen. (Don’t worry. No spoilers in this post!)

For all these years, audiences have grown to love the socially awkward, atrociously dressed foursome of Cal Tech scientists, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj – and Penny, the hot girl across the hall who helps them come out of their shells and teaches them a few street smarts. Later love interests Bernadette and Amy add female camaraderie to the tech bro culture of the guys.

The guys’ (and Amy’s) nerdiness is the major source of humor in the show. But being smart is also celebrated throughout the series, and the scientists’ real intellectual concerns are taken seriously. Recurring cameos by real life scientists such as Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and the great Stephen Hawking show that the series creators appreciate science and admire scientists, even the socially inept four who form the nucleus of the show. Mayim Bialik, who plays Sheldon’s wife Amy, is herself a well-regarded neuroscientist.

The character of Sheldon is arguably the most fascinating and beloved of the characters that populated The Big Bang Theory. His many personality quirks and slow development of more socially-accepted behaviors make his interactions with the other characters more interesting. We root for Sheldon because many of us also have idiosyncrasies and insecurities around social situations ourselves. Sheldon’s trajectory gives us hope that ultimately, we can be accepted and loved just the way we are.

Luckily for fans of Sheldon, his young self lives on in the aptly named series Young Sheldon. An interesting note is that Zoe Perry, who plays Sheldon’s mom on Young Sheldon, is the real life daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who plays his mom on BBT.

I will miss the lovable misfits of The Big Bang Theory. Their foibles gave me lots of laughs. And their love for one another gave me all the feels, as they say. Most importantly, the series confirmed that it’s cool to be smart and best to be yourself. And it all started with a big bang – BANG!

 

 

 

Water Torture

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I have a long-standing, deep-seated fear of water. My husband likes to joke that I’m afraid to take a bath. But my discomfort in the deep end of the pool, in lakes or oceans, has been with me since I was a child.

Like many kids, I spent most of my summer hours at the local public pool. Cavorting in the kiddie pool or splashing around in the three feet deep end once I was tall enough was fun. But I was terrified of making my way into the deep end. The feeling of not being able to touch bottom while my head was above water was unsettling.

My mom signed me up for swimming lessons for several summers, but I could never relax enough to do more than flail across the width of the pool in panic that I was going to run out of breath. In college, I took a swimming course and managed to pass. But the ease of gliding across the water never took hold.

Needless to say, natural bodies of water are even scarier. My idea of the ultimate horror movie is The Deep or The Abyss or any Jacques Cousteau special on PBS. It’s frightening enough just to worry about drowning; imagining what kinds of creatures are lurking below the surface of a lake or ocean is positively terrifying. Once while I was in a small motor boat with my family, the engine stalled not far from shore, and I had a near meltdown. Never mind that I could have walked to shore without getting my hair wet. On any boat trip, I am always the one with the bright orange life preserver around my neck while the rest of the passengers loll in their swimsuits, unafraid.

Lately my fear of water has expanded to include heavy rainfall. What I’m afraid of in particular is possible flooding and the thought of my car descending into what looks like a puddle, but is actually more of a lake. Recent trips in heavy rainstorms have been white knuckle driving affairs for me.

Deep water has even been a feature of my childhood nightmares. In one recurring dream, I am swimming underwater searching for something but never finding it. In another, I am poised on a balcony above a pool and forced to jump. That dream played into my other big fear: heights!

Water is supposed to be a source of peace, a reminder of the womb, and a symbol of life. I do enjoy the sounds of a gentle waterfall or gurgling fountain. The view of waves crashing onto a beach or the placidity of a lake are calming. Just don’t ask me to venture into any of those bodies of water. A landlubber is what I will always be.

Mom-isms

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30741381_1587385254720889_7378585026608234496_nIn honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to share some of the things my mom tried to teach me as I was growing up:

  1. Beds should be made daily and sheets changed weekly.
  2. Every kitchen counter needs a matching set of canisters.
  3. Men take showers, but ladies take baths.
  4. Leaving a dish or glass in the kitchen sink is a venial sin.
  5. No silliness at the dinner table.
  6. Moms have eyes in the back of their heads.
  7. Close the front door. You’re heating the outdoors.
  8. No reading at the dinner table.
  9. If you cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way.
  10. A dinner should consist of meat, vegetables, and a starch.
  11. Dessert is not optional.
  12. No singing at the dinner table.
  13. The teacher is always right.
  14. No roughhousing inside.
  15. Wash your elbows.
  16. Do it because I said so.
  17. Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about.

Although I haven’t always kept all of Mom’s “commandments” in my life, my mother’s voice still echoes in my head when I’m running around the house tidying up and making sure the dishes are done. I find myself using her expressions, such as “Stop your dilly-dallying!”

And my mom also taught me:

  1. Honesty is the best policy.
  2. Put others before yourself.
  3. Have a treat at night before bedtime.
  4. Have music in your life.
  5. Work hard.
  6. Be frugal.
  7. Family comes first.
  8. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
  9. Nurture your faith.
  10. The joys of having children outweigh the pain.

So Happy Mother’s Day to my beloved mother – and to all mothers, both literal and in spirit. May our mothers’ lessons give us the strength and courage to be good women and to nurture the next generation.