Friday, November 30, 2007
"Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory."
-Miguel de Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote
My mother, bless her, yesterday told a work colleague at lunch that she always added sultanas and bananas to her curries when she used to cook them for me years ago. The friend was stunned: bananas in curry? Whatever next?
My mother then reached into her handbag for a napkin with which to dab her lips and discovered a bruised but eminently edible banana she had forgotten about from a few days earlier.
Wielding it like a punctuation mark to defend her cooking style, she retorted, "I have all the makings of a curry right here!" which sent her friend into absolute fits of giggles.
Just last week my Spouse and I spent a long afternoon in a shopping mall, by the end of which time we needed to partake of some victuals. I ate some quite tasty Teriyaki Chicken from the Food Court but Spouse, still unable to eat much while recuperating from an illness, ate a little homemade bread and meatballs we had carried in our backpack. Otherwise we would have simply had to go home, which we were not quite ready to do.
I repeat it often, but one should always be prepared.
Take along some little bit of food no matter where you go and it will save so much trouble. Whether it is a biscuit or bread, fruit or vegetable (I once sat at a bus stop next to a man happily biting into a raw, red bell pepper and it was an enlightening experience for me) -pack something into your pocket or bag. It is wise to be ready for traffic jams, unpunctual friends or the quite unexpected detours that can take you anywhere, as long as you can have a bite to eat on the way.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:26 AM
Thursday, November 29, 2007
"If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can't buy."
I may very well be taking our frugal lifestyle too far. This was conspicuously reflected in a conversation I had with my mother last evening as I was preparing the dinner.
Phone under my chin and dish in my hand, I begged her to forgive the distraction while I was stretching my fist into our 20 pound rice bag.
I ordinarily add six decent handfuls of rice to our glass dish before I fill it with water and microwave, covered, for fifteen minutes.
"Hold on one moment," said I to Mater. "I'm counting my rice hands."
The task required a concentrated effort on my part because I do like to get the dinner portions just so. Five handfuls of rice, or seven, would not do at all, and for good reason: often it leads to waste if we cook too much. Spouse and I both hate to discard food.
My mother was shocked for a moment.
"Counting your rice GRAINS?" she cried in my ear.
"Yes," I sighed wearily. "Between us we get six rice grains for dinner. Money is tight, you know."
It was a simple thing- she misheard- but what, I must ask, does she think we are? Maybe a couple of Scrooge-like misanthropes who meticulously pore through all things with a fine tooth comb? Perhaps, perhaps. We do enjoy our life, though, and counting our blessings does come naturally after some time.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:11 AM
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
(Here, the permanently grumpy Eeyore has decided to do a good deed: he finds a new house for Owl, whose abode was destroyed. What he does not know, however, is that the house he selected currently belongs to little Piglet. Of course, nobody wants to do anything to impede Eeyore's change of heart...)
"There!" said Eeyore proudly, stopping them outside Piglet's house. "And the name on it, and everything!"
"Oh!" cried Christopher Robin, wondering whether to laugh or what.
"Just the house for Owl. Don't you think so, little Piglet?"
And then Piglet did a Noble Thing, and he did it in a sort of dream, while he was thinking of all the wonderful words Pooh had hummed about him.
"Yes, it's just the house for Owl," he said grandly.
"And I hope he'll be very happy in it."
And then he gulped twice, because he had been very happy in it himself.
"What do you think, Christopher Robin?" asked Eeyore a little anxiously, feeling that something wasn't quite right.
Christopher Robin had a question to ask first, and he was wondering how to ask it.
"Well," he said at last, "it's a very nice house, and if your own house is blown down, you must go somewhere else, mustn't you, Piglet? What would you do, if your house was blown down?"
Before Piglet could think, Pooh answered for him.
"He'd come and live with me," said Pooh, "wouldn't you, Piglet?"
Piglet squeezed his paw.
"Thank you, Pooh," he said, "I should love to."
That passage from A.A. Milne's classic work never fails to cheer me up. It is so full of honest goodness in an understated and gentle way. Of course, it is purely a fictional tale from long, long ago but how I would love to open a newspaper or see on television that such kindness is taking place in some part of the planet. I am sure it would not take much for the world to look a little brighter; these days if a store cashier so much as smiles at us we are pleasantly surprised.
My aim, then, is to root out as many decent, good natured stories as I can for the purposes of reminding myself and others that the world can be a nice place when it wants to be. I am positive that they exist.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:11 PM
"The greatest gift is a portion of thyself."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
This Christmas for the first time, my Spouse and I plan to give personalised, handwritten letters in lieu of Christmas cards. They will be decorated with a number of photos of ourselves, and of the area we live in.
Rest assured, it is not about money. Hardly anybody writes anything nowadays, or so it seems. What better gift to receive during the season than a short, cheery letter that clearly took effort and time to prepare? Aside from a carefully selected few presents for immediate family overseas, we have avoided buying material things and are opting for a hopefully more thoughtful kind of gift.
That is not to suggest that card-buying is wrong: it just does not work for us. I highly value any card that I receive but because I am fond of the mighty pen, it is exciting for me to write my own greetings. The majority of cards available that we have come across are flashy (sometimes flashing!), ostentatious, garish and wholly impersonal. Although I stated that money is not a factor, we do quietly absorb the exorbitant prices if any catch our eye for good or bad reasons.
We are not trying to overemphasise the importance of our own writing but most would agree that such cards or letters are not 'a dime a dozen' and would be appreciated more than a store-bought version.
As a rule, I will never buy an item for someone else that I would not enjoy myself. I buy presents for those people I have something in common with and generally those gifts reflect the relationship. For example, I might send my brother a disc of a favourite and treasured television show that we watched when we were growing up. For my last birthday he sent me a six-disc set of the audio book The Third Policeman, by Flann O' Brien. I had bothered him for the best part of a year until he read the book; that became something we talked about between us. I think that anything we choose must be personal in some way- if not made by our own hands then as an epilogue to a long-running joke or bond between two people.
The gifts for family are already wrapped; one might think we are ahead of time being in November still but the package has yet to be shipped to another country. It will take time to prepare the letters individually for everyone else but I am certain it will be worth it.
For our wedding last year we sent handwritten invitations to each of our guests. It was quite possibly the best decision we made about the entire day: everybody loved the friendly notes. If we can recapture even just a murmur of that spirit this Christmas, we will be exceedingly pleased.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:22 AM
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
"Men are disturbed not by events which happen, but rather by the opinion they have of these events."
I admire this quotation enormously. All we need to know is right there before us: places, people and events are what you make of them.
I try to be more patient these days; stress leads to defective health. It is easier said than done, however. An instant of panic or annoyance, and all our good intentions go flying out the window.
When we lived in our small town in California, I could walk everywhere. Our house was a couple of streets from the supermarket, and just a few miles from my college. Everything was nearby: library, thrift stores and cafes. It was marvellous and we loved every moment of it.
One day I traipsed to the supermarket. I was, I recall, highly stressed at the time. It was coming to end-of-semester time and I had exams to study for, essays to begin. I was not particularly pleased to be doing the grocery during such precious, much-needed study time but normal life had to continue.
I loved living in that town but from time to time when I crossed the street at a green light, drivers would continue to roll toward me, urging me to walk a little faster. It vexed me greatly, especially as a green light gave me permission to take my slow time if I desired. Not that I dawdled; people were simply impatient to be moving and I was but an obstacle in their path. I never indicated to any of them that I was angry; rather I pretended not to notice.
As I was walking across the supermarket parking lot I felt the faint breath of a car creeping up behind me. I dared not look behind; the best way to annoy such drivers is, as I said, to pretend they are not bothering you in the least.
I kept walking and the car grew closer.
My blood began to boil. I slowed down to a crawl. The car was very close, too close now.
And then the driver blew the horn. A gentle tap, it was, but gently or furiously, I did not care by then. I was indignant. I spun around on my heel, ready to take on the demon who had been so pushy and rude.
It was not an impatient, lunatic driver- merely my friend from college, who was delighted not only to meet me, but to see by my face that she had inspired ferociousness in a person. I do believe it made her day.
Not everything is as we think it might be: sometimes a few moments of calm are required. Perhaps we might count to ten, or one hundred if we really feel the need. I try now more than ever.
It will not always be a friend having a laugh; it will not always be a good person. But a few moments of reflective thought can make a world of difference.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:17 AM
Monday, November 26, 2007
"He who wants to change the world should begin by cleaning the dishes."
During September when we had seven people in our home, that crowd included a baby.
One evening we all were lounging in the living room; the child at one point needed to have his nappy changed and his mother did it without fuss. She stepped into the adjoining room to dispense of the item.
From where I was sitting on the floor I noticed her face metamorphose into a mask of slow-dawning horror. She was laughing but something was wrong: she looked as though she could happily get in her car and drive away forever.
She told us not to look, any of us. Of course we looked. In moving from the living room to the kitchen she had lost some of the 'material' along the way. She was mortified. In another person's home, at that!
I provided her with items so she could dispense of the 'material' that had fallen onto the tiles.
Then, from the living room, came her husband's gasp: something was on his leg and, worse, something was on the carpet by his leg.
They both looked like they might cry at any moment.
We were all struck dumb by the situation but, having learned a tip or two about cleaning over the last few frugal months, I happily leaped into action.
"Did you know that baking soda would make this carpet cleaner than it was before?" I said to her.
She was astonished and a trifle dubious.
"Really? I had no idea. Baking soda?"
I gave her the container, myself wanting to steer clear of the affected area.
She sprinkled some baking soda onto the spot and before long, that was the cleanest area of carpet in the apartment.
The bright patch is still there today, reminding us that the rest of the carpet could do with a jolly cheering up.
That is one of the most urgent cleaning tales I possess in my repertoire: thanks to the mercy of an inexpensive box of baking soda, all was well in no time at all.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:28 AM
Sunday, November 25, 2007
"I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards."
Within the last two weeks my Spouse and I learned to slow down a little; we will get where we want to go, just not so quickly. Two weeks ago my Spouse began to complain of terrible pain. After a few days when it did not vanish, my Spouse became really ill and had to go to the emergency room at the local hospital.
Yesterday was the first day that Spouse ventured out into a crowd and attempted to walk. We went to a shopping mall which, given that it was Thanksgiving weekend, was bustling with eager shoppers out for a clever bargain.
I am a super fast walker by nature and it was nearly impossible for Spouse to keep pace with me. I had to be told to slow down numerous times. Finally I trained myself to count each step: "Step one. Walk. Step two. Walk. Step three. Walk." and stay a marginal distance behind my Spouse. It was hard work; I had forgotten the art of walking with slowness. It provides, when one can manage to do it well, a different vision of a shopping mall and of the people that fill it. It offers time to reflect on the futility of the shopping season as well as the unfathomable amounts of money that are spent every minute. I don't doubt that we were the shuffling slow pair that held everybody up. We quite possibly, though, were the only two truly enjoying ourselves and stress-free.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:18 PM
Saturday, November 24, 2007
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
In my early teenage years I remember one day there was an (Irish) American relative of ours on her way to our home. She had flown in a few days earlier, rented a car and was now driving from one end of the country to the other in order to see us all.
My mother, having had but a few days' notice to prepare, whooshed around cleaning our home from top to bottom; she scrubbed and dusted every little thing and put backbreaking work into making the place look respectable for our cousin.
During that time my brother and I were subjected to constant provocation and hassle about our attire and our personal appearance, that we might ourselves look shipshape and orderly on the big day. Not everything was matched or purchased fresh but she did her best.
We washed our ears more times than could be necessary.
Fingernails were trimmed and polished.
The truth was, our cousin would typically notice none of those things. What was important to her was seeing us for the first time in a good number of years.
On the afternoon of her impending arrival, we waited anxiously, trying not to get dusty.
We got a call from somebody a mile away informing us that an American had been spotted in the village and had been seeking out our house. She had been guided in the right direction and therefore was due at any second.
With the pressure over, my mother began to relax a little.
As we waited idly, she glanced at the shoes on my brother's feet. While they were in no way worn out, he certainly could do with a new pair soon. She commented in an offhand way,
"you need a new pair of shoes."
My brother, weary of the entire process of freshening up for guests, visitors and cousins, looked at his mother, sighed, glanced at his watch, then at his shoes, then in the direction our relative would be travelling from, and back to his watch again.
"Well," he said resignedly, "it's too late now."
I know my mother would not have done it any differently: it is to her a matter of respect and kindness to clean the home so properly.
However, that misunderstanding, and the fact that our relative, when she arrived, never once ran a finger along our shelves or bent to sniff our lovely clean carpet, served to indicate that it is indeed the company that matters most.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:37 PM
Friday, November 23, 2007
Spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling TUESDAY simply doesn't count.
-Winnie the Pooh
When I was seven I was given a fabulous five-year diary for Christmas. I was very excited: the pages were clean and bright and full of possibilities. Having waited until the first day of the new year to begin my chronicling, my hand was practically trembling. I was thrilled to write the first notations. Pen clutched between small fingers, I dived in. And promptly made an error within twenty seconds. I misspelled a word such as 'present' or something as mundane as that. In any case, the instant I understood my mistake, I was entirely devastated. I scratched out the word. Then I wailed: the page now had an ugly ink blob instead of either pristine pages or tantalising writing.
I believe I cried and I distinctly remember that I put away the diary at that point and never wrote in it again.
I am currently reading 'No Plot? No Problem!' by Chris Baty. This is a book that encourages writers to try their hand at creating a novel in thirty consecutive days. The author insists it can be done, but on one condition: no editing can take place. Put aside the demons and the inner voice that demand you destroy your work because it 'might not be good enough.' Launch right in and start writing, and see what happens. Worry not about typing errors or glaring factual mistakes; the vital element is to get the story on paper and leave the proofreading and cleaning for later on when the tale is safe.
I could not agree more with this sentiment.
If striving for perfection halts our progress and nothing is achieved then it causes only grief.
I have never forgotten that diary. It serves as a reminder that we ought to do what we can, as well as we are able. The story, in the case of a writer, should be the most important thing. Comparisons to other people are a weak point; we should try to do the thing we most love doing, and be more like our own selves. Let's see what creative enlightenment can come from our wellsprings if we tap into our individuality.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:38 PM
Thursday, November 22, 2007
I heard this first from my Spouse:
If one drops a frog into boiling water, it will leap out in shock and escape in a hurry. It knows, after all, what danger is.
If, however, one places a frog into a cold pot of water and allows everything to grow warm slowly, a different outcome will be seen.
The frog will sit in the cold water, perhaps puzzled at first but not feeling any immediate danger.
By the time the water is warm the frog will be quite used to the situation.
By the time the water is boiling, the frog will be dead.
A slow, calculating method indeed, that is largely ignored by the victim until it is beyond all hope of redemption.
Our favourite breakfast cereal went up 50 cents literally overnight, a couple of months ago.
We were astonished to note about the same time that our weekly gallon of milk went up by approximately the same price. That is, until we looked at the container more closely, suspecting something amiss, and recognised that the situation was a little worse than initially thought. The cost had definitely increased but the gallon was no longer a gallon. Instead we were getting less milk.
The price of gasoline is rising beyond all possibilities and there is not a mutter to be heard.
Lately we have been examining our long-stored grocery receipts that date back to the late nineties, and my goodness, what a wealth of information is stored in those seemingly innocuous scraps of paper.
There is a lot to be said for not getting used to a situation.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:21 AM
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
E. B. White once told of a letter he received. The writer of this letter
'went, during his lunch hour, to buy stamps at the small post office in Bloomingdale's basement. Ahead of him in line was a lady who bought things to a standstill by changing her mind about what kind of stamps and envelopes she wanted, by running up a bill of more than thirty dollars, and by discovering that she didn't have thirty dollars and could she pay the balance by check?
The line grew and grew. After a while, someone ventured to hope, out loud, that she wouldn't change her mind again, because he was on his lunch hour. At this the woman turned on him and said, "you aren't even an American, are you?" The man was quite shaken by this, but the others in the line weren't, and they came to his aid instantly.
"We're all Americans," shouted one of them, "and we are all on the lunch hour!" '
In late 2002 my Spouse and I drove to San Francisco with a friend. We had a superb day out, at the end of which we had to take the ferry back to the harbour where our car was parked.
We arrived at the ferry port quite early in the evening but rather too late to avoid a large crowd. We all knew that places on the ferry would be limited; we also all were aware that it was the very last boat going to the harbour that evening.
When we approached the crowd the three of us noticed the line had formed in a peculiar way. There were a few at the very start of the line and on the better side of the gate: those were certainly getting on the boat first. However, after the gate the line had branched ominously into a 'Y' shape. Each branch of the 'Y' thought theirs was the proper line and that the other would not have a place on the boat. We joined the smaller of the branches, hoping that ours was the right choice and that any moment, somebody would come along to tell the other line they needed to join ours and their line was invalid.
Each branch began to make snide and highly-strung comments to the other about how they were right and it was ridiculous, nobody would let them all on. Vicious glares were dispensed left and right. At times I actually felt we were under threat from some of the people. We could all clearly see that there were too many people for the ferry.
When a ferry official wandered by, we had hopes he would attempt to diffuse the situation. Instead he muttered something to the effect of "sort it out yourselves" and continued on his way. Perhaps he was scared too.
One could have cut the air with a knife, such was the tension. The moment they started to let us progress forward, there was a surge and people began to push, using elbows and anything that might serve as a means to get ahead.
It was the most tense three hours of my life waiting for that ferry, and that of my Spouse and friend. We too were trying to get to that ferry. Our goal was to get home, of course. We were not rude to anybody, nor did we do anything to instigate the bad feeling that flung the blanket of malevolence over the waiting people.
So much agitation and frustration: for what? Such a waste of time. We had had such a lovely day in San Francisco, on Fisherman's Wharf and in the city: how sad that the finale had to be tainted in that way by intimidation.
It is imperative to learn to let things go; not only material possessions but traits like impatience, and egocentric ways. Just like in E.B. White's little story, we were all trying to get home, and nobody was more important than another.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:21 PM
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust too.
- by John Masefield
It will be Thanksgiving on Thursday. My Spouse and I intended to drive to Maine and visit our friends to celebrate with them. It looks like snow will prevent that. At this moment the world outside our window is a gentle white blanket, albeit for us a poorly-timed one.
In the summer we drove to our friends' house for their wedding. One passes through many toll roads along the way. At a particular place, we slowed the car to a crawl and prepared to hand over some change; it happened to be the most expensive of the toll roads we would encounter on this journey.
My Spouse, with almost 2 dollars clutched in a fist, prepared to hand over the sum to the attendant. He waved his hand oddly at us. We could not interpret the signal easily, since all previous attendants have taken the cash monotonously and mechanically. Such places are the epitome of cool efficiency and warrant no idle banter or greeting. This was something new to us.
My Spouse made a second attempt.
We saw that he was waving us away, but, naturally, assumed it was a cruel trick. Once we drove away and were past the gate, we would be held accountable and accused of trying to leave without paying. So of course we were determined to clear up the matter.
"What are you saying?" my Spouse cried. "Here is the money."
The attendant said something in a muffled voice that my Spouse did not catch but which I deciphered the last word of: "...paid."
I said, "I think somebody paid for us."
My Spouse, never having heard of such mysterious creatures as those who pay your way at a toll, did not hear me.
The attendant waved us onward. "It is paid. The gentleman in front of you, he paid."
My Spouse was speechless. I, who had heard vague tell of such beings, said, quickly, "I think he means it is a gift. We can go." I said it, but did not believe it, even then.
The attendant had a strange smile as we drove on.
An individual had, for no reason we could identify, paid for us at the toll booth. I am unsure how many people behind us he also paid for. We meet meandering and indiscriminate kindness so rarely that when they greet us we narrow our eyes in suspicion and shake our heads before walking away to avoid getting into any sort of trouble.
The amount we saved was $1.75. It is truth to say that the money was well spent; were it ten times as much, it could not have bought a more pleasant feeling.
It does not look likely that we can make our journey this Thanksgiving. I still hope, though, that the roads will be friendly for travellers with ne'er an ounce of hostility to be seen.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:39 PM
Monday, November 19, 2007
Books to the Ceiling, by Arnold Lobel
Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
A few months ago I joined my Spouse who had already moved into this apartment. I had been apart from Spouse and, as well, from our possessions, for more than one year. At long last, I could begin to unpack box after box of books which we had placed into storage while still residing in Texas. We found treasures I had nearly forgotten about and more I had longed for. We had no assembled bookshelves at the time of unpacking so I stacked the books four piles deep, and roughly fifteen books high, in our bedroom. Finally it looked like a library, albeit a somewhat inaccessible one. I think that our entire collection filled twenty or so boxes, and we emptied each and every one with loving care, as one would greet a dear friend.
Some weeks later and on a whim, I decided I wanted to root out a particular book I knew we had. It would be an enormous task given the vast space devoted to books but I felt sure I could locate the exact book in a short time.
I proceeded to search, but alas, not terribly carefully at first. Thus, after an exhausting but haphazard search, I did not know which of the forty or so stacks I had already combed through and thereby found myself repeatedly perusing the same piles, in vain.
I am sure now that I spent at least four hours on my poor knees looking through the veritable haystack of poetry, science fiction, novels, essays and mathematics books.
I was bewildered. I knew, I was certain, that I had the book and so it must be somewhere. I pulled the entire 'shelf' apart; I undid every stitch of my careful library-formation.
I grew impatient. I found endlessly inventive ways to rapidly examine all books in a short span: still nothing emerged, but I told myself I had just missed the book, somehow. Is it not always the case that the very thing you are looking for will be tucked away the most secretively of all?
As it turns out, I had not tucked it away.
Instead, four days later I recollected, rather belatedly, that I had in fact given it to a college friend in Texas just days before we moved.
I was exceptionally furious with myself for wasting so much valuable time. I see now that I ought to have known what books we still had in our collection.
Since that time we have revolutionised our lives and eliminated, among other things, at least 150 books we were positive we would never read again. They were given away to good homes, and we made a note of the occasion should doubts ever arise again about the whereabouts of such items. I cannot stress the value of knowing what is in your home, and where it is located.
The book I wore my knees out for; the book I tore my room apart to find; the book I vowed to dig up no matter what it cost:
'The Idiot' by Dostoevsky.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:32 PM
Sunday, November 18, 2007
"Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one."
I well remember a story from last year that caused quite a stir in art circles. A sculptor discovered to his horror and amusement that a piece of his work had been misplaced- and that the base, which had somehow become separated from the actual sculpture, had been crowned as a marvelous and interesting work.
The article bemused me:
"Mr Hensel had never considered the empty plinth a work of art in itself. But the exhibition selectors evidently did. So, too, did visitors, who pronounced it beautiful.
No one seemed to notice, or mind, that the sculpture itself, a laughing head entitled One Day Closer to Paradise, was missing. "What apparently happened was that they had become separated and the selectors judged the empty base a good enough sculpture in its own right to include it in the show," said Mr Hensel."
I thought that this story was delightful, myself. It proves what I have always imagined to be true: that pretentiousness is but a thin blanket of disguise. Sooner or later one will make a slip. Sooner or later so-called 'art' will be exposed for what it is, or rather, is not.
In the art gallery, when people were gathered making obscure comments, they ought to have taken the time to look, to just look at the thing with their own eyes. They might have seen how daft the entire process actually is.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:41 PM
Friday, November 16, 2007
Doing Without, by David Ray
It's an interesting
custom, involving such invisible items
as the food that's not on the table,
the clothes that are not on the back
the radio whose music is silence.
is a great protector of reputations
since all places one cannot go
are fabulous, and only the rare and
enlightened plowman in his field
or on his mountain does not overrate
what he does not or cannot have.
Saluting through their windows
of cathedral glass those restaurants
we must not enter (unless like
burglars we become subject to
we greet with our twinkling
eyes the faces of others who do
the lady with the fishing pole,
and the man who looks amused
to have discovered on a walk
another piece of firewood.
I still keep open a bank account in my home town, although there is an ocean between myself and it now. I have no access unless I am at home. From time to time my mother lets me know that a piece of mail arrived, addressed to me. Usually it is from my bank; it will, generally, be a statement or a letter describing how they are changing or expanding and I will most certainly benefit if I 'act now.'
On most occasions the information is of absolutely no use to me and is merely an annoyance.
A couple of days ago, however, my mother opened my mail while I was on the phone with her, and read out the latest information. It seems that my account, for which my plastic card has only ever served as a means to withdrawing money from an ATM machine, is all going to be amended in the new year.
As well as being my ATM card it now will function as a debit card. I can walk into a store, for instance, and flash the card to get whatever I want- subject, of course, to the state of my bank balance. It negates the need for cash withdrawal and apparently is more convenient.
I remarked to my mother that I would pass up this golden opportunity and keep everything the same as it had been since I opened the account.
"You can't," came the reply. "It's all going to change in January. You don't have an option."
I then did some research. It emerges that it is all true. My account, whether I wish it or not, is being altered behind my back. No, I do not consider a letter of notification any kind of 'warning' as it came with no alternative.
I say this now: I do not wish my ATM card to double as a debit card. I have always felt distinctly uncomfortable with credit cards and similar things that encourage a person to want, and seek out, that which they cannot afford. I loathe the idea of making the act of purchasing any easier, particularly when it comes to non-essential items. It is, I think, all too simple already.
I wonder what on earth ever happened to "I can't afford it today. Perhaps next time, then."
I cannot easily say that we are all 'victims' for it is entirely up to each of us to be strong and resist excessive consumption of shiny objects: but still, somewhere deep down I know that we are being targeted. People are admittedly weak at saying no to things they think they would like and are pressed to get a third credit card, or another loan, or, and this one burns me up every time, "now that you have saved so much on your car insurance, you can take a trip to somewhere sunny." Forgetting, always, that it was our hard-earned money to begin with.
Speaking as a couple who have accrued no debt whatsoever, I can safely say that my Spouse and I are not the sort of people that banks are very fond of. Bright items do not catch our eye when we venture out; we like books but always are aware that libraries are a short trip away, as are numerous thrift stores if we are so inclined. Yes, sometimes we root out things we might like, but it is always accompanied by the thought, 'will it make me any happier?' That might sound tedious and too time consuming for some ultra-shoppers but we are very happy. It means that, when we do finish clearing our apartment, we will love and appreciate everything we own. It means that there will be no excess and no 'guilt' items such as the kind hastily taken out and dusted off when the gift-giver pays a visit and expects to see the ornament on the shelf.
If one is diligent about money, there should be nothing to worry about. A family member who I believe to be of the utmost prudence went into a grocery store some months ago to buy some food for dinner. He intended to pay with cash. The assistant told him that the total came to a particular amount which he felt was 50 cents higher than it ought to be. When the assistant double checked, she saw that he was indeed correct, and the amount was reduced. This person went home with his groceries. How did he know it was 50 cents over the limit? Because he had, in his pocket, the exact change for the items and had not a cent more. He bought what he could afford, to the cent. Somebody foolish or with excess of money might not have noticed but he literally could not fork out that extra money because he did not have it. How easy, if one has a credit card, to inadvertently make a mistake.
My Spouse and I are not alone, of course, in believing that if you cannot afford it in real money then you cannot have it. I personally will never use my ATM card as a debit card if I travel home. I suppose any day now it will become a credit card also, or my ticket to a mortgage. It is up to me to watch out but I greatly resent the change.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:16 AM
Thursday, November 15, 2007
"He who has food has many problems. He who has no food has only one problem."
My Spouse and I greatly like being at home. Now that November is here and the sorry wet weather is upon us, nothing gives us more joy than watching the rain from the comfort of indoors.
My mother sent me some tea yesterday; I had been without any for almost a week. I will only drink the tea I grew up with and I cannot get it here. I just don't much like the tea I find locally. How I felt when I drank a cup after so long almost made me thankful that I had run out of tea, it was that pleasant a feeling.
Today it is raining steadily and an old copy of 'The Fall' by Albert Camus was just delivered to our mailbox. It smells like an old library.
Speaking of libraries, last evening we picked up some films for a wet and windy weekend ahead. We brought home 'The Double Life of Veronique,' 'The Cave of the Yellow Dog,' and a box-set of Musashi Miyamoto films.
It was recommended by a friend that I seek out a book called 'No Plot? No Problem!' by Chris Baty. I plan to read it over the next few days. Perhaps it will, as it suggests, motivationally and physically speaking teach me how to write an entire book in thirty days,
I scan approximately forty to fifty pages of old documents a day which is happily decreasing the muddle in our apartment.
And at last: the Tom Waits CD, a masterpiece, no doubt, that I have been waiting for since May has finally arrived in our library; perhaps we will pick it up tonight. It only goes to prove that some things are worth waiting for. Patience, my Spouse always says about everything.
Those are very simple things to be glad about.
A few weeks ago we discovered another treasure in our library: 'Umberto D.' The film deserves its own review and I will do just that in good time. For now, all I shall say about the story is that it is set in Italy in the aftermath of World War Two. Umberto, an old man, is utterly lost. He does not have a place in the world anymore, despite his years of hard work, and society is rapidly leaving him behind. He has nowhere to go and nobody, nobody at all cares about him. My Spouse noted the film's description on the back of the DVD box: "Umberto’s simple quest to fulfill the most fundamental human needs-food, shelter, companionship- is one of the most heartbreaking stories ever filmed."
Food, shelter, companionship. Really, nothing else matters. Some will tell you differently but those are all that one needs to live, and to live happily.
My Spouse and I, these days, are content to read books, watch films at home and cook new kinds of food: we are, I am convinced, heedless of advertisements and immune to consumerism. Sometimes a little extra joy comes along such as a special book or some much-missed tea but most certainly we are not burning with a desire to own things or spend lavish amounts of money on ourselves.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:28 AM
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
"As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness."
-Henry David Thoreau
Some years ago, before we knew one another my Spouse attended an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.
Spouse likes to get money's worth, as I now do, and generally seeks out the meat and the seafood. There was a young boy passing nearby. He carefully balanced a piece of cheesecake on a plate.
"Mom, mom," the boy called out as he neared his table: "I think I must have already eaten at LEAST 15 dollars' worth of cheesecake!"
That is admirable in a peculiar way: at least, one might agree, he was distinctly aware of what he was getting for his (or his parents') money.
Right up until my Spouse and I began to clear out our home, we had no real concept of the amount of possessions we owned. As I have said before, in this apartment there are no corners for us to stash away bits and pieces: it will only disappear when we determine its value and choose to keep it or discard it.
It is so important to know what you have. That is obvious when considering how many times over you might buy a certain item you cannot find in your closet, but there is another, less obvious reason.
We have, in one corner of our most used room, a stack of old A4 sized notebooks from both our college days, my Spouse's note-taking on personal projects, and my own writing, including poetry, essays and such things. That stack is costing us precious money. We rent this apartment and that space, however small it may be, cannot be utilised fully while mostly redundant notebooks hinder our path.
It is easy to calculate just how costly that pile of papers can be:
Let us say that you spend 1200 dollars per month to live in your apartment, including rent and utilities.
That amounts to 14,400 dollars per year.
If your home is, say, 800 square feet in area, then the yearly sum of 14,400 divided by 800 comes to a cost of 18 dollars per square foot.
Now suppose that your little pile of books or magazines or whatever it may consist of, comes to about 2 feet by 2 feet, that is an area of 4 square feet.
18 x 4 is 72 dollars per year.
And how much money did the books/magazines/papers cost to obtain in the first place? Much less, no doubt.
We were horrified when we did our own calculation. I am not one for numerical figures but even I could see a discrepancy in our lives: we were literally saving pennies on grocery but shunning a larger, more expensive problem in our home.
Our personal papers are now being scanned at a very high rate per day and shredded quickly. Of course, one might argue, reasonably, that it isn't at all possible to use all space in a home. However, there is a vast difference between the area of your oven/fridge/bed and a random, jumbled pile of unknown items. We are paying for our space, and so we need to know exactly what our disorganisation is costing us in terms of money, before we can be compelled to systematically bring some order to our lives.
That being calculated and known, it is then much harder to ignore such expendable items. We have found it immeasurably helpful to list everything we own. At first it is uncomfortable to a great degree, for it pulls us right out of our sheltered nesting place and into a situation we long attempted to avoid.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:47 AM
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
-Leonardo da Vinci.
This summer we made a trip to attend the wedding of some friends of ours. We fretted ever so slightly about what to bring as a gift: they had not mentioned a word about what we ought to bring, except to say that our being there would be enough. When my Spouse and I urged that we wanted no gifts at our own wedding, we meant it. I am sure our friends meant it just as much but it is difficult when you are on the receiving end of that firm statement.
We travelled to the wedding with a package of photographs from our last trip to see these friends; we selected one photograph and placed it in a typical wedding-style silver frame. The bride was mighty pleased with them, as they had not expected us to bring anything.
The day before the wedding ceremony we took the bride to one side and asked her to please think about what we could buy, something that she needed, perhaps, for the home. She looked aghast: surely the photographs had been ample? She had thought those were the wedding present! We pleaded with her, and she promised to think hard about the matter.
In a few hours, she said quietly to me, "I thought of something you could buy. But you're going to think it's a bit strange." I replied that we did not much care how strange it might be: if it turned out to be something they could use and had been thinking about for a while, we would be more than happy to buy it for them. She pointed out, reluctantly, that their kitchen waste bin was made of wood, which meant that while aesthetically pleasing, it could never be completely cleaned. It also was flawed in that the base was narrower than the opening, causing the bag of rubbish to perpetually become stuck at the bottom. Usually it took the pair of them to pull the bag out because of the small opening. This struggle, she said, was causing rows and arguments about who should take the rubbish out. It would make their lives easier if they had a better-functioning rubbish bin. It also had a very nasty snapping lid which reminded one of a crocodile who has just been fed. She was embarrassed to ask but did admit that they needed a new one. They did not wish to spend money on a replacement: it would seem too frivolous to them to do so.
Off we trotted, then, to Walmart, and our friend selected a new waste bin for a humble, modest sum.
She has since told us that, including all the towels and kitchen appliances, gadgets and ornaments and out of all the gifts they received for their wedding, nothing has been as useful to them in their daily life as that waste bin. She says that they think of us every time they go to take the rubbish out, a compliment we take with good grace.
It should always be about what can be used and valued. It may not have been a typical wedding present but it positively had the most impact in their home.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:44 AM
Monday, November 12, 2007
"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."
-Henry David Thoreau
I have come to notice, when perusing the telephone book for listings of hair dressers for my Spouse- most typically when we move to a new place we must find a new version of everything we had- that most salons don't simply cut hair anymore. Finding somebody to just cut your hair seems an uphill struggle. If one wants nails tended to; visit to a day spa; visit to a night spa; hair removal; hair implant; suntanning or leg waxing, it's all there under the name "hair salon" and readily available. It has become an enormous task for us, however, who just want our hair cut from time to time, to find a simple and ordinary place where the scissors is the primary implement. Dare I mention how much money the above mentioned luxuries generally cost? My goodness, it appears that pampering oneself this way is an expensive activity.
At the beginning of November we could not take it any more and I cut my Spouse's hair for the first time. As a result, since Spouse took care of mine a couple of months ago, we are both sporting super haircuts which did not require us to leave the house and for which we had to sacrifice no money at all.
I was a trifle nervous, as was Spouse. I had never done anything like that before but mercifully it turned out admirably. To be perfectly frank, my hair never cost us much anyhow. I quite possibly have had four haircuts in as many years, including in preparation for our wedding. Spouse, though, goes out to get it seen to once in a month and a half and it costs about 20 dollars each time. That's slightly more than 150 dollars a year.
If one should happen to have somebody who trusts enough to have their hair done at home, I suggest it as an excellent alternative. It is not entirely about money: we were extremely busy the day that I cut Spouse's hair and it would have cost us dearly in terms of time to go out and drive to a hair dresser's salon.
Of course, it helps too that the gentle banter has changed from "are you going anywhere nice this year?" to "what shall we have for dinner this evening? Shall we watch a film?"
Much more pleasant, I think.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:19 AM
Sunday, November 11, 2007
There are two things a person should never be angry at: what they can help, and what they cannot.
My cousin, who is twelve years old, came to visit my mother's house last year while his parents were on holiday. He specifically asked to stay at that house because I happened to be living there at that point and we had not spent much time together in recent years. That was the house I grew up in and my cousin said he had good memories from his trips there when he and I were both much younger. I had long since moved away, married and lived in another country but, since I was residing there for the moment, he wanted to take advantage of that rare occurrence.
We had a wonderful week. We read books and watched movies and I showed him old photographs of his father, my uncle. That made him laugh heartily. Oh, but when he found a twenty-five year old school report card with his father's name on it, and a less-than-stellar comment from a teacher, well then, he jumped up and cheered as though he had discovered a goldmine. He was particularly amused because his father was forever declaring that he himself had been flawless in school. My cousin was so pleased, in fact, that he called his parents on their cell phone and laughed down the phone about the 'secret' he had uprooted.
So, we had a good seven days, as one can see.
There was something, though, that he asked for from the beginning: he longed for a soft boiled egg. Plain and simple, with runny yolk inside, along with maybe a cup of tea and some bread and butter. He didn't eat many eggs at home, he said, but he would love to have one while he stayed with us.
We didn't have any eggs when he first made this request but I promised him that I would see to it.
The days went on and when I remembered, I was working on something and a little bit busy. We asked my mother if she could make him a soft boiled egg.
She agreed to do so.
My cousin was very much looking forward to this small treat. He prepared his cup of tea while I buttered the bread. The egg was delivered in an eggcup, on a tray. My cousin started to eat.
After a few moments I asked if all was well. He said that yes, it was. He had a strange smile on his face.
I suspected there was a problem with the egg. I tried to see and he tried to hide it from me. All the while he was saying, "it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter."
The egg, you see, was hard boiled, more suitable for a salad than anything else. He had wanted a more dinner-time appropriate soft-boiled egg which takes much less time to cook, so that he could dip his bread into it.
Hard-boiled eggs are not, not at all the same thing. It being his last evening with us, I felt terribly bad for him. I must have had a look of fury on my face because when I said I would "take care of it" he possibly detected there may be a bit of shouting involved.
"Don't be cross with her," he said as I flew out into the kitchen.
I wasn't cross with her but I did make it clear she had broken his little heart, shattered his dream and ignored his request.
Not so harshly, though, I hope.
He did, happily, get his soft-boiled egg in the end.
I could scarcely believe that such a nice and obliging child could exist. He did not seek to tell me about the matter, and probably never would have if I had not forced him to. It is also important to take into account, of course, the fact that a simple egg, in the first place, was his only request from us.
I know that it was only a little thing but the fact that he didn't crumple up his face and announce "what IS this?" or similar exclamations, is a credit to his parents. He was so very nice about it and would, I know, have eaten the whole hard-boiled egg despite his distaste for it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:13 AM
Saturday, November 10, 2007
The Greatest Love, by Anna Swir
She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.
She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."
Her children say:
I think it was five years ago that my Spouse and I took a trip to Klamath, California. We rented an impossibly small caravan and spent a number of days wandering the remote and beautiful wilds of Northern California. Just yards from the park we were staying in was a perfectly ordinary street with houses: these people, we were certain, were most definitely fortunate to live in such an awe-inspiring part of the world.
We were strolling on the country road one afternoon when we noticed a yard sale of some kind was taking place. I am always drawn like a veritable magnet to such things so naturally we angled our way over to where an old couple were waiting. They let us browse for a while. There were a few bits and pieces scattered and labeled 'for sale' on the table.
To this day I don't remember what else was on display but we immediately caught sight of a Hitachi breadmaker. Not only would it knead dough but it would bake the bread too! We did not have a bread maker in our home so we began to consider making the couple an offer.
They approached us and we said we would like to buy their bread maker. After some few minutes of friendly chit-chat with them we asked if they were perhaps moving away; that might account for the yard sale.
They smiled. It seemed they had a story to tell.
We guessed that they were in their eighties but when they were young they had been in love with each other. Life, however, had pulled them in different directions. They eventually married other people and heartbreakingly lost touch completely.
Half a century later they found each other. We did not learn how that came to be but when they met up again it was to learn that their respective spouses had passed away.
The time seemed fitting: they realised that they still loved one another, so they married and moved in together. They now owned double of everything and decided to sell what was superfluous.
They were startlingly happy.
What we were witnessing there in that green and rainy corner of California was something special: a couple, old now but very much in love and embarking on a new phase of life that we blindly tend to associate with the young.
That was five years ago; whenever we use the bread maker we think about that old couple and wonder how they are.
The bread maker, which we bought for thirty dollars, has become most useful in the last few months. It gets used to its capacity at least once a week. We have learned to make soda bread and pizza dough with the machine; we do not use it for baking bread- instead we use our oven and cook more items at one time- but now making dough is effortless.
I am delighted that we have such a distinctive, one-of-a-kind tale behind an item that has been our life saver.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:39 PM
Friday, November 9, 2007
Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.
PLAN IN ADVANCE:
Try, if you can, to come to terms with map reading. Spouse and I have had many a squabble as we are driving about my inaptitude regarding maps. I am not a particularly good navigator, I admit. I am, however, getting better as time goes by and I do recognise the great value in reading a map beforehand and plotting out one's journey, however long the intended distance.
Yesterday my mother decided to drive a friend and herself to visit a work colleague of theirs who was recovering from surgery in which her gall stones were removed. All three women work and live within a twenty mile radius of each other, so the terrain was familiar enough.
The pair set off at a leisurely pace to see the invalid friend, who was reposing carefully at home; they had not had occasion to visit her house before.
After a short time my mother, to her horror, noted that they were becoming more and more lost. Somewhere she had taken a wrong turn and they were now out in the wilds of the countryside, unsure of the best thing to do and with no landmark in sight.
My mother opted for telephoning her colleague; perhaps she might give them some understanding of their location.
After a brief discussion, it was determined that the friend could indeed identify their position but could not for the life of her guide my mother to the main road so that they could find the house. My mother withstands directions as some would take bad news: her mind closes down for the duration, only resuming once the poor soul at the other end says "did you get all that?"
The friend, then, with no obvious alternative, climbed out of bed, sat into her car and went to meet the duo and lead them to her home so that, presumably, they could enquire about her well-being and subsequent recovery from an operation.
She did not grumble and was very kind about it but, oh, what a dreadful situation that could have been avoided by taking a few moments to plan the route.
EAT MORE SLOWLY:
Another useful tip for organising one's life is a suggestion to eat more slowly. I have found this to be most helpful on many levels.
I prepare food slowly and happily, and I eat it at a snail's pace. It gives me ample time to plan my next steps.
A few years ago while I was at college I went to lunch with a fellow student. This, I must hasten to add, is the very person who I have written about previously, who confounded me about 'hitting it on the 57.'
We had a sufficient time between classes to go out for lunch, and we did just that.
We did not know each other very long at the time.
I believe I mused over that sandwich for an hour and a half. Suddenly, while chewing, I realised with a start that my friend's plate was empty and it occurred to me that we might need to go back to college shortly. I tried to hurry it along as best as I could, but of course it invariably goes unnoticed when a snail speeds up a little.
I was floundering. I was unpolished. Nevertheless, I was inordinately enjoying my meal. It really was delicious.
My friend was looking at me. My mouth was full. I was caught between trying to be punctual and savouring a rare experience of dining out.
Then all of a sudden, with a smile:
"You're very strange."
It was said, however, with a complimentary lean to the tone. I thanked her profusely. We still get along just fine. I suspect you have not lived until somebody remarks that you are strange, however the words may be intended. It is a quite liberating experience and assured me there and then that eating slowly and being yourself is the best thing for one's constitution.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:13 AM
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Teach us delight in the simple things,
And mirth that has no bitter springs;
Forgiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men beneath the sun.
For necessary purposes, we own numerous computers, both the desktop and laptop kind. At the end of this summer, our most used and valued laptop sputtered and expired, regained life for a bit, then died again, this time for good, a scant few days later.
We were most regretful that it happened, especially because my Spouse devoted a large portion of a precious vacation at home to extend the laptop's life, to no avail.
We are not the type to reinstate things quickly and thoughtlessly. It is November now and Spouse has not found a suitable replacement.
Fortunately we are blessed with other computers that can fill the gap for the time being. At the moment I am using a large, ugly, archaic and noisy old dinosaur which at least seems to do its job sufficiently.
A couple of days ago, my Spouse, who I must insist had a long day and is wretchedly tired, was bemoaning the fact that we have not taken the time to seek out a better model of computer than what I use now. For, truth be told, the laptop that terminated was mostly for my use.
"I am sorry," said Spouse, "that I have not had a chance to replace you with a laptop."
It is fortunate that we understand each other remarkably well. We do not, ever, celebrate anniversaries or Valentine's Day, nor do we exchange presents on birthdays or Christmas. For more than twelve months this and last year we mostly only spoke to each other on the phone: at various times either my Spouse or myself or both of us would be carrying out some daily activity and the other would be privy to that through the medium of telephone. As we were lucky enough to have an unlimited computer phone plan, our calls, then, would go on for hours and hours. I might cook or clean, Spouse might cook or write an e-mail. We carried on for interminate periods of silence, a nice and comfortable quiet with each other at the opposite end.
Whatever technology was involved, it saw fit, lamentably, to disconnect us regularly. They actually cut us off more times than we can count.
This occurred because the technology, in its infinite wisdom, detected silence, long stretches of nothingness, and assumed that we had completed our call, merely forgetting, perhaps, to put the receiver fully back into its cradle.
Oh, dear. What about right to silence, then? Can we not have continuous phone conversations without speech? It seems not.
I wonder what such technology, or rather, the people who determine how it runs, would make of my Spouse's comment.
All that matters is that I know my Spouse does not want to replace me with a laptop. That might be construed as a frivolous comment but understanding certainly goes a long way: it negates the need for exchanging gifts and in so doing makes life a whole lot more straightforward and trouble-free.
It helps greatly that we are fond of all the same things-music, films, places, food and weather. In our house in Texas, for instance, which I have mentioned before was quite like a palace to us, we had a bathroom adjoined to the master bedroom. There were two sinks: one for him, one for her. We never could understand that. Why would we need separate sinks? Does that not complicate matters unnecessarily?
For us, there is no 'his/hers' situation, no reason in the world for me to have my own collection of something and Spouse to have another; no way on earth that Spouse would take one sort of vacation while I take a different kind. It isn't about money at all, truly. Life is simpler this way and much more fun.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:18 AM
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Fear, by Charles Simic
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.
There are a number of reasons my Spouse and I buy next to nothing from chain bookstores except under circumstances such as being absolutely unable to find the book somewhere else and/or needing it urgently. One of our motives, of course, is based on the fact that we discovered thrift stores. It is extremely challenging for us to justify spending the price of a meal on a book that can be bought for less than the price of a stamp.
We now, it seems, have another reason to avoid such bookstores. According to an article at
it would appear that retailers 'promote lists that consumers believe are based on independent assessments of a book’s quality. No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked.'
'One publisher claimed yesterday that he had books 'recommended' and positively reviewed in marketing literature by bookshops before the books had even been read.'
What this important article ominously tells us, then, is that the bright and chirpy sticker on the front of a book which says 'unputdownable,' 'riveting,' or 'a page turner,' sadly means little and cannot be trusted. Perhaps these are designed to be self-fulfilling prophesies, suggesting that such works will enter the 'top 100 books' if a sufficient number of people purchase based on those words. It is rather an unpromising thought, that thousands or millions of people could buy a book because they heard a rumour that somebody somewhere was charmed by it. I am put in mind of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' and I have visions of enormous crowds surging forward in pursuit of a book that nobody has read but which is very popular indeed and in fact received 'four stars.'
I for one do not know that the author of such enthusiastic lines actually read the book; nor can I be certain that a book on a particular bestselling list is genuinely popular.
For me, it matters not. I choose, buy, borrow and and read books based purely on my own instinct. Were I to put faith in the 'lists' that we are bombarded with, I most likely would end up burdened with something not at all to my taste. In the same way, I have discovered a number of treasures that, it seems, nobody knows about or wants to read: books that remind me exactly why I love reading and books that I would never know about except for my triumphant rooting around in used bookstores and thrift stores. If we do that, then perhaps fewer books would be consigned to our 'please discard' pile.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:07 AM
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money.
While browsing the most delicious of places- thrift stores- I recently rediscovered a favourite book of mine from my childhood:
'Well, Really, Mr. Twiddle!' by Enid Blyton.
The book was written in the 1960s and set in England. Much has changed since but I found striking elements within the pages that provided some food for thought.
Mr. Twiddle is an elderly gentleman who lives with his wife, and a cat that he cannot stand. The cat is incessantly causing all manner of trouble for poor Mr. Twiddle, such as getting under his legs on purpose and tripping him up or playfully destroying his favourite pair of slippers; but Mrs. Twiddle does not believe her husband for a second and thinks the man is simply impatient. Certainly, he has his faults. He is forgetful, does not listen to a word his wife says, is dreadfully lazy and prefers to snooze in a chair rather than perform his chores.
One day, Mrs. Twiddle succeeds in shooing her husband out the door to cut the grass after much pleading. He relents because he thinks getting it over with would be more beneficial than listening to his wife nag him constantly.
Out he goes into the garden and he begins his work. However, the cat is playing games and lies down in the grass, making it tremendously difficult for Mr. Twiddle to proceed. He chases the cat away and finally he can start.
After an exhausting few minutes Mr. Twiddle finds a sixpence in the long grass.
He is pleased. He cheerfully puts it in his pocket. He cuts some more grass and in a short while finds a shilling. His luck is changing, he thinks brightly. He pockets the treasure carefully.
The garden is looking slightly improved but then he spies another sixpence! And as he goes on, Mr. Twiddle finds an awful lot of money. He is quite a daft man and does not even wonder much about where it came from. All he knows is that his wife will be very pleased.
When Mrs. Twiddle steps into the garden to check on her husband, expecting to find him sleeping in the long grass, perhaps, she instead finds him beaming. He tells her about his afternoon gathering enormous amounts of money.
And this is the part that struck me:
He says, "we might perhaps buy a chicken for our dinner."
That was a world in which two people would consider it a luxury to eat a chicken dinner that evening. That, for me, was a rather wistful moment in an otherwise lighthearted and frivolous book for children. Mr. and Mrs. Twiddle were not poor by any means. They were pensioners and, I suppose, what could be considered 'comfortable.'
At last, Mrs. Twiddle gets to the root of the situation. Mr. Twiddle, excited to show his wife the findings, reaches into his pocket and finds- nothing. Not a penny. His pocket is perfectly empty.
Mrs. Twiddle realises immediately that Mr. Twiddle must have lost his own money when chasing the naughty cat around.
"You've got an enormous hole in your pocket. I really do think you are the very stupidest man I've ever known! Here you go, walking about with a hole in your pocket, dropping all your money out, and picking it up and putting it in your pocket again and then out it falls, and you pick it up all over again- and think you're so rich we can have chicken for dinner!"
So rich we can have chicken for dinner.
Mr. Twiddle, you see, a careful man in his own way where it mattered, regularly only bought what he could afford. That is why the prospect of a chicken dinner was so very gratifying to the Twiddles and the entire scene so nostalgic. Working hard for something makes luxury just that: an extravagance, a treat. In using credit cards for every infinitesimal aspect of our lives, I think we lose the joy of suddenly getting what we could not think of before. If one can have everything at any time, then what is there to look forward to? So, then, perhaps one decent way to 'treat ourselves' is to not consume so much. That way, a good deal more is available for us to savour on those most special of occasions.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:31 AM
Monday, November 5, 2007
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
-Henry David Thoreau
We did it. My Spouse and I put our Christmas tree up this weekend. We needed a little cheering up and it was the most effective and the cheapest way we could do so.
We have not had a Christmas tree in two years. My Spouse and I did not even see each other last Christmas so it was particularly wonderful to put up the tree early and set the lights a-twinkling. Most of our decorations came from friends over the years and so are quite meaningful.
My friend in California gave us a large number of them and I think fondly of her every time I bedeck the tree, not least because I hang her bear ornament on a branch and wince a little.
I visited her house many times when we lived in our delightful little town.
She referred often in conversations to her mysterious annual ritual of 'trimming the tree.'
It was mysterious because I was never able to make the event, sadly, until the very last Christmas we lived in that town. There was always something momentous I had to do, such as completing a semester at college and rushing through my final class exams or assignments.
That last Christmas, however, I was available, for various reasons. I was gladdened to be invited to her house where, along with her closest friends, we would trim the tree.
My friend has a lifetime- decades' worth- of decorations to hang which is why she makes a regular celebration of putting up her seven-feet-tall freshly cut Christmas tree. We sang merry Christmas tunes and had delicious food as we worked. We were awash with tales about every single item to be placed. Some baubles, she told us, were more than fifty years old. It was an honour to be there with her.
As I slid the glass balls and paper lanterns on the branches, however, I wondered silently why we were putting them on first before completing the tree.
The tree was gigantic and there must have been hundreds upon hundreds of fancy trinkets to be suspended.
After two hours, I could not contain my curiousity for a minute longer.
"When," I asked my friend quietly, "are we going to trim the tree?"
To my utmost horror, my friend started laughing. And laughing. She did not stop. I was beginning to be worried about her. I did not know what I had done.
When finally she caught her breath, she told me that trimming the tree simply meant decorating it. That was all. I had thought, since it was a genuine tree from a forest, that we would need to chop the branches or, well, trim it in some way.
My friend assures me that nowadays whenever she trims her tree, she thinks of me and starts to laugh. I think of her too when I garnish mine. We are far from her now and trimming her tree would be a very pleasant luxury.
I think we might just leave our tree standing permanently. It makes us very happy and it is being so much better used than lying prone in a cardboard box, propped in a shoe cupboard.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:05 AM
Sunday, November 4, 2007
"A handful of common sense is worth a bushel of learning"
A couple of months ago I chanced upon a caption contest. A particular magazine was offering a prize: they showed one ambiguous cartoon frame and the object of the competition was to come up with the best caption or suggestion for what might be taking place in the picture. It might be a single, witty line of dialogue or a bold political statement. For instance, were I to draw a sketch of a dumpster and what seems to a pair of legs indicating a person upside down rooting around inside it, I might caption it with:
"He Loved to Go Bargain Hunting," or some such description.
I very nearly entered the contest. I am, however, extraordinarily careful about signing my name to anything. I read, always, the small print and then the smaller print.
It appeared that the 'prize' would be a physical copy of the cartoon in question, complete with winning caption and autographed by the artist, as well as the cartoon being openly published in the magazine within a month or two. All well and good, you might say. So there was no cash prize to reach for but I felt that it would be an interesting challenge and winning would be splendid. One could always do with accolades and the solace of achievement.
The prize was worth a small sum of money in the region of a couple of hundred dollars but could not under any circumstances be exchanged for cash.
Then I read the very very small print, which tends, more often than not, to be skimmed over by even the most astute of fine-print readers.
Because it had a monetary value, one would in due time be taxed on said prize.
In plain terms, if I won the prize I would be out of pocket.
I would have to pay for the privilege of winning.
I would be dispatching my own money should I win.
Due to the rules being so diminutively printed, and being conscious of the general lack of interest in fine print, it would be safe to suggest it is not common knowledge that the winner would end up, financially speaking, worse off than before.
For all aspiring contestants I would recommend reading every rule before entering. I am certain that for some it matters not that a little money would be handed over; perhaps it is a necessary loss to further one's ambition. For those who are not, however, aware that winning can equal loss, I was alarmed and taken aback by the revelation and I only offer the advice of being very diligent and wary when entering any contest.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:40 PM
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like.
Spouse possesses one pair of sunglasses and they broke after nearly ten years of use. The plastic rim snapped and will just barely hold the lens in place. From time to time the lens will suddenly just drop out should Spouse nod too enthusiastically about some particularly fresh way for us to save money. Spouse, now looking like an eye-patched pirate, will, thanks to mighty decent reflexes, catch the lens before it should hit the ground -for that would be something the sunglasses could not recover from. After a dreadful moment a couple of weeks ago when the lens was very nearly not caught in time, Spouse said, "that was lucky, wasn't it?"
I vehemently disagreed, stating that perhaps such an event as the lens tumbling to the dirty street would inspire Spouse to seek out a new, and well deserved pair.
"Well," said Spouse with the utmost sincerity and seriousness, "it would be most awful if they were gone just like that. You see, I really don't want to have to buy a new pair under pressure."
Under pressure, Spouse says. I am afraid I laughed at that one. Let us examine, if we may, this pair of sunglasses.
Said glasses were purchased: ten years ago.
Said glasses have been defunct: for one year.
One year ago they snapped and should, at my request, have been put out to pasture.
Some indelible facts about us include that:
-We do not dumpster dive, except under exceptional, entirely fortuitous and random circumstances such as extricating particularly wonderful items upon which we have not the heart to turn our backs.
-We do not starve ourselves: truth be told, we eat exceptionally well. We love our homemade food and we spend hours every weekend simply cooking and listening to music.
-Our clothes are in fine shape. If we find a sock with a hole, it becomes a sock with no home, for we dispose of it immediately.
We do look after ourselves in that sense. We certainly do have a comfortable, simple and happy lifestyle. Why, then, are we so reluctant to spend the money on such items as necessary sunglasses? We are not the sort to treat ourselves, but instead each other, as a rule. If they were my sunglasses, I emphatically guarantee that Spouse would have good heartedly forced me to replace them long ago, for my own sake. If I thought for a moment that I could choose the right pair I would buy them for Spouse but one cannot choose a pair of glasses for another person, especially one who thinks a year of knowing that the sunglasses are about to be jettisoned, is 'pressure.'
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:42 PM
Friday, November 2, 2007
New Houses, New Clothes, by D.H. Lawrence
New houses, new furniture, new streets,
new clothes, new sheets
everything new and machine-made
sucks life out of us
and makes us cold, makes us lifeless
the more we have.
When my Spouse and myself lived in our beloved small town in California I became quite a thrift store virtuoso. And no wonder: every street, even that which we lived on, had a thrift store of some quality or another. I would pass at least three on my way home from college every evening and characteristically stopped in to all of them at least once a week. Books for 25 cents: it was a long-ago pleasure that feels like a vague and wonderful dream I had. I hope someday I can experience that exhilaration once again.
One afternoon near to Christmas, I visited, on foot, my friend who worked just outside the town. She offered to drive me home after she closed up and finished work. I waited with her and then we went downstairs together. There was a marvellous thrift store immediately underneath where she worked. I did not attend it very often as it was slightly out of my way. We both browsed around for a few minutes; my friend, working just above, knew the staff there and was also having a pleasant chat with them. I noticed a charming little porcelain ornament on a shelf: two bears, wrapped in winter hats and scarves, were snuggled together and appeared to be skating on ice.
I wavered. It was a dollar. Even in the days when I was not at all frugal I still had become well versed on what I should expect to pay for an item in a thrift store. I thought it was a high price, considering that that it was a used item, and that I only had two dollars on me for which needed to ride the bus to college the following day.
Yes, I dithered, I hesitated. I weighed it up in my mind: how pretty was it?
Would I use it? I could give it to a friend, perhaps. I could suspend it from our Christmas tree. It was very pleasing to the eye and when I touched the bears' winter clothes it felt as though they were made of some soft material and not merely painted on.
As I vacillated, my friend came and stood beside me. "Oh, how lovely!" she breathed. "Isn't it irresistible? I think I'll take it. Yes, I will. I'll take it."
She scooped it up, my precious bear ornament, and carried it to the counter. My mouth hung open. I could not move. I was stunned at her vicious swooping in and her apparent disregard of my feelings. I fumed inwardly. I think I was particularly angry at myself for giving so much thought to something so little and inexpensive. So much so that I had lost it. Of course, then I longed even more for it. I asked myself all the right questions but the item in question was not worth the consideration: I should have just secured the bear ornament there and then.
My friend loudly rejoiced in her purchase. I steamed silently. We exited the store and I pined for the loss and castigated myself for my inability to decide on even the most trivial of things.
Instead of driving me home, my friend suggested we go to her house in the woods. I might, she asked, help her to wrap her family's Christmas gifts as she has difficulty with her fingers and in performing delicate tasks.
I agreed, magnanimously of me, I thought, to assist her.
When she made me some food and when I started to have an enchanting time I felt awfully contrite for thinking such parsimonious thoughts. As I said her house is in the woods and in the mountains of Northern California and, being days from Christmas, it was an utterly fetching place to be.
At the close of our time together when I had to go home and prepare the evening meal for my Spouse, my friend drove me to my door. As I began to exit the car, she triumphantly presented me with a pocket-sized, brightly wrapped package.
"I saw how much you liked it. That's why I bought it!" she beamed as I ripped open the token innocently, shortly thereafter feeling my heart sink to the sole of my shoe. I have never felt like such a self-indulgent low-life in all my born years. I am comforted, though, by the fact that she was not at all aware of my turmoil and that she was bestowed with great gratification to share the ornament with somebody who would appreciate it.
There is a far greater pleasure in giving gifts than in receiving them. I now try to remember that more faithfully.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:16 AM
Thursday, November 1, 2007
We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?
Last night was Hallowe'en; for the first time since my Spouse and I met, we had not a single trick-or-treater. Luckily, I suppose, we had not been expecting any. We live in an apartment that has a common front door and so it would have been impossible for random people to come in.
When we lived in California in a small old town, every year a long stream of children would come by for a period of about three hours, and then fade away when we ran out of goodies or the town ran out of children.
It was lovely.
Particularly I remember the tiny bumblebees that were so little they had to get their mothers to knock.
Before living on that street, my Spouse and I, due to growing up with ne'er a busy street for miles, had not experienced trick-or-treaters, although we knew what it meant.
We didn't, then, know how much to offer each child or even how many would visit us. When they initially started trickling by, I held out the basket of chocolates and sweets, of which we must have had close to a thousand.
One group of children took a single, solitary sweet each, delicately. Afraid that we would be left with an enormous supply at the end of the night, we insisted that they take some more.
"As many as you like," my Spouse said.
They looked up at us with astonished faces, mouths gaping.
"As MANY?" they gasped in unison, in wonder. Their eyes positively lit up.
We guessed, from their eagerness, that the evening's supply might shortly come to a grasping finish.
However, as they all reached in for the taking, I can vouch for the fact that they took not one, but four at the very most. They were jubilant. And away they went before we had time to tell them what nice, polite and delightfully unselfish children they were and that we would recall them in years to come.
Our most favourite, though, he trick-or-treated alone. He might have been eight years old. He stood on our doorstep without an adult in sight. He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. We were puzzled, at first, unsure what he was supposed to depict.
He did not say a word. I held out the basket.
He still maintained a stoic, stony silence as he clicked open his briefcase, as his fingers dangled ever so briefly over the choice, as he punctiliously selected just one chocolate from our offering. Not a murmur came from him.
With a precise air of aloofness he gently placed his prize into the briefcase and snapped it shut with a suggestion of professionalism one rarely witnesses in adults.
I am convinced to this day that he nodded, almost imperceptibly, in our direction before turning on his heel and exiting our garden.
Somewhere, somehow this tiny salesman had learned that less is more, judging both by his veritably simple costume and by the net weight of his chocolate selection; and he was one trick-or-treater we shall not forget.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:40 AM