Monday, December 31, 2007
I know I'm not seeing things as they are,
I'm seeing things as I am.
At the end of 2004 my Spouse and I were in Ireland to celebrate the New Year. We were with family in a seaside town renowned for its lively spirit, fresh air and unique brand of welcome.
As the year evaporated before our eyes, we stood on Main Street, at one end of the town on the brow of a hill.
An energetic crowd of a few hundred people counted down the last moments. Old and young, drunk and sober, we all cheered a much-welcomed new year into our lives.
"Ten...nine...eight...seven..." We finally made it amid much jostling and whooping.
Two or three minutes passed in a blur; people staggered about congratulating one another as was the normal sequence of events.
We all wondered, some aloud and some internally, whether we would be around to see another ringing in of a new year. Life is like that; one never knows.
Then, from the other side of the hill, from another portion of Main Street, came faint but certain chimes:
"ten...nine...eight..." came the cries.
They were ringing in a new year independently and either unaware or careless of the other revellers.
We experienced two New Year festivities in the space of a few minutes, not by hurrying our way to another time zone but by turning to face the other side of the street. It was charming. It was odd. It was wonderful and we never forgot it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:29 AM
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I lamented recently about the mishap that occurred in our apartment complex parking lot, the one involving a manic snow plough driver and a fallen tree. We have not been able to park in our alloted space for quite some time now- about a month. Every other slot was cleared but they dumped, for some reason, all the extra snow into our spot- ours happens to be the first in the complex- and of course it froze into a cement-like block.
Well, hurray, for it is now cleared and even though the snow is falling heavily at this moment, we have our precious space returned to us. All is well. All is, I believe, as it ought to be.
It is such a little thing, I know, when mended- and such a burdensome problem when we are in the thick of it. We must try to start the new year off with some positivity and the ability to trundle over the minute problems much like manic snow plough drivers except, hopefully, a good deal happier.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:41 PM
Saturday, December 29, 2007
"Pretty convenient how every time I build character, Dad saves a couple hundred dollars."
-Calvin and Hobbes
When my Spouse drove from Texas to the other side of the country to where we live now, I was in Ireland and very much unable to join for reasons beyond our control.
It was wholly heartbreaking to envision my Spouse all alone in our car, an empty seat alongside and three thousand miles of a journey in front.
It was a very long day when Spouse set out. I wanted to be part of the adventure and for Spouse to have some company.
Spouse sent text messages to my cell phone at every new state and so I was able to be there in spirit, following the path.
Over the telephone, days later when Spouse arrived, I mentioned my heartache, most notably the eternal image of the vacant seat.
"Oh," said Spouse in a nonchalant manner, "there wouldn't have been room for you anyway. The car was filled with our belongings and so there was no empty seat for you."
I wish I had known that. We surely built some strong character during that experience but oh, I wish I had known it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:32 PM
Friday, December 28, 2007
"Make haste slowly."
While reminiscing about the friend who had visited the Rock of Cashel, I was reminded of another of his tales that Spouse and I heard last year.
He needed to have several teeth extracted, a nasty business at the best of times. Post-operation, the dentist was overly concerned that the man should exit the building safely and, assuming that he was parked just outside the surgery on the street, with a waiting driver, asked if he needed accompanying to the car.
After a long and oddly awkward pause, our friend insisted that he would be perfectly fine.
The dentist was quite worried but let him go along all the same.
Our friend, as it turned out, would never have been allowed to go home had he told the dentist the sickening truth.
He did not have a kindly driver in the car waiting to take him home.
He did not have a car.
The poor patient climbed atop his motorbike and rode, dazed, all the way home which amounted to more than fifteen miles. He to this day does not know how he accomplished it and nobody else has an inkling either.
Ah, but at the very least, his sight was present and accounted for.
My mother once visited an optometrist for a routine check-up. The doctor squeezed some drops into her eyes and urged her to remain in the waiting room until the eyes had frozen open. Then, he said, he would call her in and take a look at the back of her eyes.
She sat stoically for three or four minutes, pondering the words.
How on earth would he look at the back of her eyes? Perhaps it meant removing them altogether or inserting an instrument.
Mater waited an impossibly short amount of time. She leaped up from the chair, eyes already glued open and straining from being unable to blink. She hurried to her car as quickly as she could locate it, and drove home like a madwoman in the wind, trembling and utterly relieved that she had avoided an uncomfortable situation.
That is, until she related her story and realised the foolishness of her haste and the true nature of the doctor's methods. When she was able to, she cried, though from laughter or despair it was never made quite clear.
I wonder to this day if the doctor thought she visited him merely for the eye drops.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:35 AM
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Vision: the art of seeing the invisible.
We happen to be acquainted with a man who once visited the Rock of Cashel in Ireland. He tells of his time there and of one particularly puzzled tourist he encountered some years ago.
A crowd of people from various parts of the world was milling happily around the plateau and with awe they were admiring the crumbly, ancient buildings that encompassed it.
A loud, overbearing American man stood at the spot in obvious dismay and indignation.
"Just where is this rock, anyway?" he bellowed. "I've been hearing about it for a long time. So, where is it?"
Our friend, a quieter and more composed sort of human being, gently offered to the fellow,
"Sir, you are standing on it."
Life is what we make of it, and we see what we want to see. It is as simple as that. With attitude such as that displayed above, I fear that 'under our very noses' will never be close enough.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:17 PM
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
"All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."
Spouse is back at work on this day. Sitting alone, it hardly feels like the holidays. Still, I do have plenty of hot tea to drink and suitably Wintery films to view. I am thankful for Mater's surprise gift of a warm and snug pair of slipper-boots. I feel quite like I ought to be climbing mountains in them, although, given the fickle nature of slippers, they would not survive a trip to the front step of our apartment.
The sky is blue, the snow is melting gradually and it remains one of those peaceful, perfect frosty December days which one cannot help being pleased about.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:49 AM
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
"Be grateful for luck.
Pay the thunder no mind.
Listen to the birds.
And don’t hate nobody."
We wrapped up our wonderful Christmas Day with the most charming and feel-good film we could have chosen in our sluggish (for we ate far too much food) mood. We heartily enjoyed the 1955 version of 'The Ladykillers' starring Alec Guinness.
An unexpected surprise, I must admit, was our immense liking of it. The basic premise of this oh-so-English film is that a little old lady opens her home to a group of musicians for them to practice their art. Of course they are nothing but crooks using her and the house as a means to a planned robbery. The manners, the elegance, the trust that was implicit for a kindly lady to rent a room to a stranger! Those seemed, at least, like better times. A facade, perhaps, but one worth making the effort for. And somehow we drew comfort from it this evening despite its being an era we never breathed.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:18 PM
Monday, December 24, 2007
"Eat a bug every morning, and nothing worse will happen for the rest of the day."
We have those words attached to our wall underneath a picture of a bright and chirpy frog. My Spouse reflected upon it the other day when consuming a remedy of some kind or another. For weeks now our house has been a scene of medicines and tissues, cough syrups and cures and tubes, and half-finished glasses of salty water for gargling purposes.
There might be nothing worse than having to take pills for health on a daily basis and we were both glad that this would be a temporary anomaly in our lives.
I am also more glad than I can say about Mater's cure for sinus problems: she recommended that I boil a saucepan of water and breathe the steam through a towel into my nose. It sounded a little intimidating but I tried it for five minutes at a time and what joy- after three separate efforts my face no longer hurt and my nose was clear.
I am certain that no store-bought medicine could have achieved that result.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:36 PM
Sunday, December 23, 2007
"...and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild; then silent night
With this her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train..."
-From Paradise Lost, by John Milton
This week I tossed book after book aside: nothing was holding my attention. Nothing on earth was making me forget I was poorly.
At last I reached for Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything.' I have had the book for more than a year but the time never seemed right. I hauled the door stopper of a book to bed with me and delved in.
It opens in this way:
"Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise."
It is very fine indeed to read books that make one feel small and humble. The dull ache in my face might have been from a sinus problem but quite likely it came from the jaw-dropping facts on every page, about our world.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:47 PM
Saturday, December 22, 2007
On the fifth day of Christmas,
My True Love sent to me:
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.
I am at this time feeling very sorry for myself and not at all wordy.
I might as well, then, between now and Christmas, find five things, five 'golden rings,' if you will, that I am glad about, and declare them.
My brother opened his Christmas gifts from us, over the phone yesterday evening. My voice, which was already failing miserably, began to squeak embarrassingly as we talked. Midway through our conversation it began to disintegrate at intervals and I, battling along and sounding much like a curious intermingling of The Godfather, a talking rodent and an old pair of bellows, was apparently providing my sibling much amusement. He said, although not unkindly, "this is hilarious."
I am thankful, therefore, that I could bring a laugh to somebody and use my weakness as a useful tool.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:35 PM
Friday, December 21, 2007
"As every thread of gold is valuable, so is every moment of time."
My friend and surrogate grandmother used to take groups of children on adventures and teach them how to pan gold in the Mother Lode country, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Particularly she treated children from Chernobyl to this experience of a lifetime and she got great joy from watching them sift for gold. As reward she would pass out tiny packets of Fool's Gold to the children every time one of them completed a panning task. The gold might have been worthless to anybody else but to these children it was a most amazing treasure.
One little boy was overly active in panning for gold and he returned, it seemed, every few minutes for a new prize of gold. "I have finished again," he would say proudly, and my friend would give him yet another pouch of Fool's Gold.
He did his work so quickly, in fact, that she soon was beginning to run out of gold and she was concerned that the other children might not get any at all.
One last time he returned, and again he asked for gold.
"Morrre gold, please," this small person requested, looking earnestly up at the good-hearted giver of precious metals.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't give you any more. There won't be enough for the other children."
"No morrre gold?"
"No, I am very sorry."
There was just a very slight pause, then:
"Morrre gold, please."
"I don't have any more gold for you. You worked hard and got a lot but I don't have any more for you."
By now the boy was looking very confused indeed.
"But I do not underrrstand," he said softly.
"You have lots of gold. You arrre Grrrandmotherrr Lode!"
That was years ago now but I am certain my friend is still laughing. She was roaring with laughter about it when I saw her last and she told me that story for the umpteenth time. Between the mystery of trimming a Christmas tree, and panning for gold in the Mother Lode, we innocents do keep her happily entertained. And I am glad.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:09 AM
Thursday, December 20, 2007
"Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself."
Some years ago my Spouse attended a conference relating to work. Spouse's boss was also present and a small group watched as one colleague, armed with two graphs, a speech and no shortage of determination, prepared to deliver a lecture on the benefits of one plan over another.
He pointed to Plan B and said sincerely, "as you can clearly see, this is the far superior option for us to take. You can clearly see this."
My Spouse's boss looked and looked at the graphs very carefully.
My Spouse looked and looked at the graphs, also very carefully.
Everybody else was nodding enthusiastically. Oh yes, their nods were saying, most definitely the second choice was the right one.
My Spouse's boss could not take it any longer. He raised his hand.
"What do you mean by saying 'as we can clearly see?' I don't see any difference at all!"
My Spouse supported this revelation.
His plan foiled, the man smiled sheepishly. "Yes, it is true," he admitted. "They are, actually, exactly the same."
The plans differed but the graphs were identical. He simply wanted to push his favoured plan forward. One can scarcely blame the man: after all, in order to do his job he had to cleverly win over a group of people- and he very nearly succeeded, at that.
It says, however, far more about a conditioned society than it does about him. It tells that we are too quick to agree, too quick to nod for convenience and too trusting to see glaring discrepancies in front of our own noses. I would rather believe that the remainder of the group just did not have enough interest in the matter to pay attention but it is far more likely that they honestly agreed the second plan was clearly better, having just been told so.
With eyes and mind open, we can never be fooled.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:00 PM
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
"A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked."
Late on Sunday night Spouse and I were out in the cold for a grueling, toe-numbing two hours in which our car was very nearly towed away from our very own parking space because we could neither open the doors or dig out the frozen snow quickly enough for the snow plough to trundle through and save us all, notwithstanding the fact that all tenants had been in their pyjamas minutes previously and had not been aware that they needed rescuing.
Except, that is, from the erratic driving of the man in the plough: we were all ducking and diving into the deep piles of snow to avoid him while he was reversing and racing forward at fifty miles an hour inside an apartment complex and I know that at one point I heard somebody cry out: "he just took down a tree!"
Out of that night emerged an unrepentant sickness which left me out cold for half a week. I am happily mending but, needing inspiration for writing, beseeched Mater to quip me some wise words that would motivate my recovery and make me laugh, perhaps.
"Do you know how to make a boiled egg?"
"I do," I replied, a trifle impatiently.
There was a heavy pause.
"Go on," I urged.
"No, that's it," she said, rather flatly. "It used to make sick people laugh in the old days. About the stupidity of asking how to make a simple boiled egg."
I could not believe this attempt.
I retorted that in all likelihood they had been laughing, not at the egg non-joke but as the result of a dizzying, raging fever.
There it is, then. I can always count on Mater to provide nourishing thoughts to chew upon.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:59 PM
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
"I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful."
-John Constable (English landscape painter 1776-1837)
At 8:30 the other morning Spouse was racing around the place trying to get ready for work. That was rather late by Spouse's standards.
I had, for once, breakfasted before Spouse left and, along with the fact that I had ironed some clothing and cooked some apple sauce, was quite ready to go back to bed for a light morning nap.
"Oh, good," I exclaimed, "it is only 8:30. Doesn't it feel so much later?"
Spouse gave me such a look just then, and advised me to write about the matter so that I would understand the vast difference that perspective can make. So I did, and I surely do now. It might have been the same time by way of the clock but it all depends, really, on whether one will be napping or working.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:24 PM
Monday, December 17, 2007
"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."
In July I ventured into a thrift store, my first in a long while, and discovered a treasure trove of books. I was delighted to find
'So Many Books, So Little Time', by Sara Nelson. Months earlier I had come very close to buying the book for full price. The concept looked immensely appealing: this editor chose 52 books to read, one for every week of the year and opted to write a review of each. They would not be ordinary book reviews, though. She planned to discuss the book in relation to what was happening in her life at the time of reading as well as describing such elements as where she picked up the material, where she was when she read it, and things of that nature.
I bought the book, as I said in July, for $1. I was elated. I am, though, an avid hoarder as much as a reader and I tend to squirrel things away if I anticipate their being gems.
So I did not select the book for reading until December, which was a long ardent wait indeed and a lifetime away from the scorch of a July afternoon. I was waiting until the first snow fell, until the day was grey and I could curl up with a book about books.
It is true what they say: anticipation is what makes life worthwhile. The myriad of possibilities, the Schrödinger's Cat idea that a book could simultaneously be all things wonderful and yet could equally be a disaster- lack of knowledge preventing you from knowing which it might be and in the meantime there remains the delectable taste of a potential good book. For that reason, I am both glad I kept it for half a year without opening it, and lamenting that I maintained high expectations of it for so long and verily wasted my time and shelf space.
In the first respect, I got excellent value for money: after all, I spent $1 and the pleasure lasted from July to December.
In the second, it might have been far better to know beforehand so that I could withhold my money; failing that, considering that I did buy it, I would not have
jammed it onto my bookshelf and considered it an 'item' when Spouse and I worked so hard to dispose of other possessions. Our space is so much more valuable than that and it seems sullied by the presence of a book I now loathe.
Short of writing a book review, suffice it to say that the book was not for me in the least. A literary collection about an editor's year of reading books ought not to contain, in my very humble opinion, disappointing comments about how she escapes to fashion boutiques when feeling frustrated and spends lashings of money on frivolous things. That being one reason of many, I simply do not think that sort of content has a place in the book I imagined. I sensed no deep love of books or reverence for reading and while I might be entirely wrong in my summing up of the writer, it remains the case that the book left me cold. Life is too short by far to read books that do not move a soul.
That being said, the experience summed up entirely my torment about whether 'tis better to know than to not know, to read or to not read. I loved the book enormously while the pages remained closed and the mystery was unsolved; while I could envision a book that would make one seem to smell the dust and the pine of bookshelves; while it was still a fabulously written collection of classic essays by a witty, articulate writer reminiscing about my favourite subject- books.
I suppose, then, I need never have bought the book at all, for imagination is all-powerful and keeps the possessions to a minimum.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:38 AM
Sunday, December 16, 2007
"Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it."
-Henry David Thoreau
Somebody I know well who works in a supermarket told me this recently: the store has invented a peculiar policy to entice customers. By way of a 'points' system they can see who has been shopping with them recently, and which patrons have dropped away and, supposedly, are finding their goods elsewhere.
The loyal and supportive customers, the ones who come back week after week- it seems there is no use in fishing for them: they are well and truly secure followers.
Ah, but for the ones who do not visit for months or weeks- a bountiful reward. From time to time they receive, in the post, a voucher offering a discount for the next time they should pass by.
Now, were I one of those lucky customers, I would gladly use my voucher, then avoid the place for another few months until I am entitled to the next one, and continue to do this for as long as the store feels it can afford to support me and my fickle-minded absence.
Naturally the old-timers are furious: where are their discounts, their reward for never straying from their favourite supermarket? They get nothing for their dedication and they, like myself, are left flabbergasted at this pitifully pound-foolish means of drawing back shoppers.
Somebody, somewhere must have concocted this laughable plan and deemed it to be worthy. One can only wonder.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:13 PM
Saturday, December 15, 2007
"I've had an elegant sufficiency; any more would be an obnoxious superfluity."
Years ago I used to get great joy from jesting with my mother in any way I could. We both still drink a good deal of tea and as every tea-drinker knows, it is vital to have a biscuit or piece of cake with each cup.
We would sit in the living room beside the roaring fire, she in her armchair and I on the other side. The chairs had wide arms, ample room for a cup and a selection of biscuits. My mother would invariably leave two or three biscuits next to her while she sipped.
One evening I took it into my head to play a trick. I vaguely pretended to fetch something near her chair. I stood up, discreetly added an extra biscuit to her pile and returned to my place.
Eventually, of course, her fingers reached for the next biscuit and she consumed it without thought. I stood up, added another biscuit and kept on drinking my tea. She was so engrossed in the television that she ate six biscuits before beginning to wonder slightly, and eight before she sat bolt upright and asked herself what was going on. I was in fits of giggles by that time and there was no more obvious culprit. I had wanted to see, I told her, how long she could go on eating before it dawned that her supply was not diminishing at all. She called me, I recall, a "rotter" and I was never able to pull off that trick again. She would always catch me in time and force me to return the biscuit to the box.
Although my poor mother was but an innocent victim in my heartless game, I believe it nonetheless emphasises our assumption that resources are unlimited. Most of us are a little bit like that: we don't see the bottom of the well and we assume it will always be full of water when we need it. Yes, we think, let's stretch our hand out one last time. There may be one more good thing waiting for us.
Credit cards are a fine example of this. We near, then bypass our limit and keep on spending until we are at last forced to halt, not by our satisfaction and declaration of having enough, but by the people we owe money to.
If we paused to question what is 'enough' instead of waiting until the proverbial biscuit box is empty, fingers scrabbling over dusty crumbs, we might learn to enjoy what we have, look forward with patience to the next treat, and leave something behind when we have finished taking what we need.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:36 AM
Friday, December 14, 2007
"I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart."
-e e Cummings
Last week Spouse and I were out and about in the shopping mall to watch the Christmas rush unfold.
We saw some novelty cushions in a Christmas gift section: there was an empty plastic sleeve in the front for one to add a photograph of a friend. Cheerfully embroidered into the cushion were the words
"The Best Gift Is a Friend."
We thought about that for a few seconds. If the quote can be thought to be true, then why on earth would I buy the cushion as a gift in the first place? I think that the purchasing of the cushion would negate the validity of the quote and render the item useless with its empty, hollow statement. Why, I might as well buy a plain cushion instead of a fancy, frilly one for ten times the price!
Some might say that Spouse and I cannot possibly have any fun: we pick everything apart when we go out to the stores. Ah, but there is so much there to be picked apart and it keeps us alert and entertained and even though answers never come to us, we do not stop asking questions.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:25 AM
Thursday, December 13, 2007
"What others think of us would be of little moment did it not, when known, so deeply tinge what we think of ourselves."
-Paul Valery, French critic and poet (1871 - 1945)
I once had my friend collect me at my house to drive us both to college. When she reached my door I saw that she carried a couple of black bags. They were filled with clothes she thought that I might like, that she no longer needed. I was very grateful but she said that there were even more bundles in the car.
I slipped my feet, which were enrobed by thick socks, into a pair of worn sandals and went to assist her. We together brought in about five sacks of clothing. Mostly they were items she had no more use for because she had replaced them with newer versions.
It was most kind of her and I told her so as we rode along in her car.
I found out the extent of her kindness when we reached college and she did not get out of the car. She informed me that her class had been cancelled and the lift to college had been purely for my sake. I extended my gratitude and reached down for my bag of books which rested at my feet.
My feet. Oh, my feet.
I clenched my eyes shut, hoping that when I opened them again I would see my ordinary, college-going shoes, my respectable and intended pair.
Alas, no. I was, horrifically, wearing my old sandals over a ghastly, ugly pair of men's socks. I assumed I would faint: I believe my friend's laughter kept me alert. I had forgotten to change them and she, whose fault it was, thought it hysterical. I numbly climbed out of the car, lost and desperate. She sped away and left me standing in the parking lot wearing the costume from Another Planet.
After a moment I had an idea: I tore off the socks, balled them up and squashed them into my bag between my college notes and my sandwiches.
Bare-toed, shame-faced, I wandered to my class on that grey November morning feeling a trifle foolish. My toes blinked, unaccustomed to the sunlight.
I carried the socks around with me all the rest of that long, chilly day.
I cannot profess a cliche here that I long to go back, that this time I would march in proudly, sandal-socked and defiant. I can say nothing of the sort, I am afraid.
I still absolutely loathe the vision of myself in those Winter socks and Summer sandals and would still prefer to go barefoot than that alternative.
I don't quite understand it. After all, I proclaim on a regular basis that appearances are irrelevant and caring so much for them is shallow. It has to be acknowledged I suppose, that we each have our distinctive dislikes and a certain, acceptable degree of vanity about us.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:20 AM
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
"There's so much good in the worst of us
and so much bad in the best of us,
it hardly behooves any of us
to talk about the rest of us."
We first heard those beautiful words during a recent trip to Maine to see a friend recovering from surgery. We had the most delightful and heartening conversations with some of the family members. This was an enlightening experience for my Spouse and I: here we met down-to-earth people who live primarily off the land. They turned out to be thoughtful in matters relating to frugality, simple living and honest-to-goodness friendliness.
It was refreshing. There we were, in the woods among people who understood our struggle for simplicity and nodded vehemently when we told of our longterm plans.
We spent almost $3 a couple of weeks ago on a small bag of supermarket potatoes.
There were ten potatoes at the very most and they were wet, mouldy and sadly the best of a dreadful lot. What a miserable forced-purchase that was.
At our friend's house in Maine I noted a sack of potatoes propped in a corner. It was a 50 pound bag and it cost them $6.
Spouse and I felt humbled. These people truly know the value of money and we can learn a lot from them.
One of the family members told us that she was in Walmart some months ago. A lady in front of her at the checkout was having difficulty with a credit card that the machine would not accept. She flipped open a book-sized wallet and dangled her fingers over a choice of no less than eight credit cards.
She turned to our friend and sighed. "Those credit cards never work. You know how it is."
"I don't," came the determined reply. "I don't use them."
This was met with shock and incredulity.
No, we do not all know "how it is", and thank goodness for that.
Thank goodness, too, for being able to meet decent, earthy people who are educated in all the right things and who still know what it means to earn a crust, and to share that crust even if it is little. They scarcely knew us but it did not seem to matter.
We came home from Maine with a precious package of potatoes, two large hunks of lamb, kindly donated, and a hoard of new ideas to simplify our existence.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:49 AM
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
"I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be."
My mother, having read my wistful piece regarding the lost Major Morgan, confided to me that she felt rather bad about the whole matter.
"You really might have been a musician," she said.
No, I mightn't have been. If I had wanted to pursue a career in music I am certain I would have found a way. Whatever the outcome, whatever I discovered about my talents, I would have least have attempted to forge a path in a more determined manner than simply bemoaning the loss of a toy at the age of seven and ending my music possibilities there and then. One has to fight a little harder to be something special.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:35 PM
Listen to the Mustn'ts, by Shel Silverstein
Listen to the Mustn'ts, child, listen to the Don'ts.
Listen to the Shouldn'ts, the Impossibles, the Won'ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be.
My Mater was working the other day at the checkout in the supermarket. It was a particularly bad-weather day and everybody was on edge for worse to come. Shortly before her shift was to end, the wind began to shriek through the roof. My mother could hear it high pitched and threatening. For a long while it continued and she went so far as to comment to her fellow workers that it was sure to be a stormy night.
Then she had to leave her post to fetch a box for a customer. Upon her return she espied a tiny child, no more than three, blowing away heartily and tonelessly on a brand new whistle while, according to my mother, "his father looked on lovingly." There was no wind after all, and how glad she was!
Along with the gladness came a slightly embittered memory of one Christmas many years ago. A bright and earnest child had been given a magical gift: one Major Morgan. He was about six inches high, plastic, blue and dressed like a soldier. His stomach was filled with buttons which one could press to depict a musical scale. Along with the box came some cards with different coloured circles. One of these would be inserted into the stomach and the notes would coordinate with the particular tune named on the card, for example, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' or 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'
This child received the gift but sadly was not allowed to play it, or even to learn how, for that would require a good deal of mistaken notes. Major Morgan right away became a friend to the child, a trouble to the Mater and a musical nuisance to everybody else.
And then one day, not long after Christmas, Major Morgan vanished. The child looked everywhere but Major Morgan was simply gone and the child had thereafter to grow up without the blue musical companion.
We have no idea what talents might be hidden in small children: I wonder what I might have become had I been given half a chance with Major Morgan. My mother clearly feels the same way: two years ago she stunned me with a wrapped gift. Inside was a Major Morgan- no, not the very same, but identical- which she had located after much effort. I do not shock easily but my Spouse, who knew the surprise and was ready with a camera, photographed me with my hand over my mouth and scarcely able to breathe.
It brought back such lovely memories of a few days long ago, a short spell in which I had the potential to make art out of dreadful noise. We all have to learn somewhere, after all.
I hope that the supermarket father lets his child go on whistling and making as much noise as he likes; let him mimic the wind! Let him mimic the birds!
I am delighted to have my cherished toy back. Things, though, are never perfect: my Spouse forbids me to play it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:59 AM
Monday, December 10, 2007
leans into the honeysuckle
rusted and empty
Perhaps my dear Mater pondered the above thought today.
Spouse and I just received a delightful package from her, in fact one of three proposed Christmas packages that she has recently posted. Today is her birthday and I sent absolutely nothing to honour it.
So this day, instead of making light fun of her poor sense of direction, or writing about how she often mishears my speech on the phone, I will simply wish her a happy birthday and attempt to compose a Mater's-Shoes-like poem a little later on.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:12 AM
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
This Sunday afternoon, while Spouse was busily ensconced with a computer project, I sat nearby and shredded some previously-scanned papers. It was not a years' worth, nor was it a culmination of months of effort. It was, at most, the scanning work of one week. I try to scan about thirty or so a day, or more if I can, and at the end of each week I set to work a-shredding what we have harvested.
My Spouse, having a moment to spare, turned around to say hello while I worked and for an instant could not find me at all.
Spouse could not believe the gathering, the heap of shredded statements and old receipts. I myself was stunned: in the middle of the pile, I was too busy to see the mountain growing and towering above my head, or my knees when standing.
I enjoy the scanning process, and then feeding the pages to a hungry shredder. I get particularly enthusiastic about feeding the shredded pieces to the dumpster in our apartment complex. On Monday morning I will say a welcomed farewell to all that paper which we are now permanently free from and which no longer will be carried with us every single time we change address.
That was but one small, insignificant demonstration of the masses of paperwork we have accumulated over many years. Further, it is evidence of the old adage that hard work is always worth the effort in the end.
We have many miles to go before we are paper-free but it would seem as though we are indeed well on our way.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:04 AM
Sunday, December 9, 2007
"The nights are colder now
Maybe I should close the door
And anyway the snow has covered all your footsteps
I can follow you no more..."
-From the song 'A Winter's Tale,' by David Essex
Those lines have disturbed my Spouse and I for as long as we have known each other and listened to that tune together. We had both heard it before but our combined efforts and four ears enabled us to hear those words in a new, and emphatically unforgiving light.
"Of course you should close the door: all the heat is getting out!" I have the urge to cry when e'er I hear that song.
I am hopelessly and categorically unromantic but even I can see what the lyric probably meant to convey: his loneliness and resignation. However, while I know he was not thinking of frugality, the line transcends beyond his personal story and becomes more symbolic of a careless way of living.
As far as I can fathom, it perfectly represents the foolishness of spendthrifts, and careless waste. To give one example: what could be the point of saving pennies in the supermarket if one does not bother to inspect the receipts to check for errors?
Likewise, one would not actively burn money in a furnace but apparently many people do, every day, and it is truly frightening.
Speaking from a more literal, and environmental point of view, closing the door is but the first and most obvious step to cleaner and more efficient living.
The cold weather has just arrived here and we plan to caulk, or seal up, our windows so that no chill gets in. Then and only then can we happily switch on our heat with the certain knowledge that we are not wasting precious money or energy. It might seem blindingly evident what needs to be done in terms of money or energy saving but we all think differently and approach things from unique angles.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:55 AM
Saturday, December 8, 2007
A man walks into a bar with a roll of tarmac under his arm and says, "Pint please, and one for the road."
It is utterly simple, but it works for me precisely for that reason. I am, of course, partial to things without frills, extraneous explanation or verbiage. I wish, honestly, that everyday life could be so simple. Wouldn't it be charming if, for example, Christmas time could unfold in the same way: plain, honest and with minimum amount of insult or pain? Ah, but we must have the pain. We must, it seems, clamber over one another to get the brightest presents in the store, or the freshest looking ham. It makes me want to stay indoors with my Spouse while the snow falls heavily, having already bought, wrapped and posted our selection of gifts to the immediate family.
At this time of year, as we drive like wild pirates on a mission, as we seek out more material goods for our loved ones, perhaps the road, after all, does need a good pint. Or at the very least, a decent interlude from the non-stop commotion we cause in our never ending quests.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:36 AM
Friday, December 7, 2007
"Talent develops in quiet, Character in the torrent of the world."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Spouse and I have often considered purchasing a decent sound system for our home, one luxury for the fact that we adore music. After all, it is what we love so investing in such would be only fair if we use it and enjoy it.
We never did bring ourselves to buy one, though, at least not yet. In summer, you see, it is positively not necessary. We can listen to our heart's content to other people's.
We live in an apartment next to a frightfully busy road and a set of traffic lights. Summer is the worst: that is when windows are rolled down, volume control is cranked up, and it appears that all the people in all the world who love rap music glide by our house, pausing, of course, for the red light to turn green. It takes forever for the light to change and by the time our volume-loving drivers move along, Spouse and I have become experts in thudding, shock-enhancing music.
I have gleaned the lyrics to a number of the songs and find myself on the brink of singing along as I do the washing-up.
Sharing is all well and good but I wish that for once, somebody would pass by our home who enjoyed, say, Tom Waits, Carla Bruni, or even Nightwish who are not at all 'quiet' but nevertheless a group we are very fond of.
Once, somebody did pass through playing a favourite Slade tune of mine: 'Come on Feel the Noise.' I certainly did but unfortunately the light was green at the time and they were gone, all too soon.
I don't mind any kind of music, really. The volume, though, is another matter. It shakes our apartment and interferes with our peaceful existence.
Spouse and I refer to these creatures as 'bugs.' They come out when the weather is warm and they are interminably annoying. Sometimes a rider on a bike will grind his or her motorcycle over and over even though they are obviously going nowhere; they want the world to know they have a motorcycle.
There are no bugs out and about these days, and for that we are glad.
This week we are up to our ankles in snow. The world is crisp and clean and very, very cold. There are no buzzing, revving motorcycles and nobody at all has their window down.
So we might, perhaps, in this season of silence, 'treat' ourselves to that music system we have discussed for so long.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:12 AM
Thursday, December 6, 2007
"Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Perhaps Spouse and I ought to paste those precious words in our bathroom, just inches above the sink.
We have been a little on the sickly side these last few days, with sniffles and sore throat. My mother just loves to advise on all things medicinal and since I can remember has been recommending gargling with warm, salty water first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I generally will not unless I am miserable. Spouse will not unless I keep nagging.
Yesterday evening we decided it was the next necessary step to our well-being. Off I went, then, to warm up the water for us.
We stood in our bathroom, facing the mirror above the sink and set forth a-gargling side by side. Henceforth I retract anything I may have uttered about the daftness of his-and-hers sinks. We in fact needed two separate bathrooms that night and had we been blessed with them the task would have been efficiently executed. Spouse took a mouthful and I did the same from my cup.
At the last moment we caught sight of one another. Spouse's salted water sprayed and hit the mirror with a grisly splash in tune to the echo of our laughter.
I composed myself, carefully avoiding Spouse's eyes which were streaming tears just then.
My mouthful hit the bathroom wall and the door jam.
We paused, steeled ourselves and tried again, with the very same effect on the walls and mirror.
I thought I could not take another drop and Spouse gave up immediately. It was too much work and in any case, Spouse declared a feeling of altogether-much-betterness.
Spouse vacated the bathroom in defeat. With the sink now all to myself I was able to finish the procedure with what little liquid was remaining in my cup.
After vigourously cleaning up I must admit that I did feel a good deal better but I imagine that Mater had something else in mind when she pushed forth her home-cure.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:55 AM
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
"Elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well dressed."
Last year while I was back with my mother for a short spell, she was fortunate enough to win a competition at her workplace. The prize, joyfully, was a posh hotel stay for two people for two nights, something she was particularly unaccustomed to.
"Well done," I said to her. "When do we go, then?"
Fearing my wrath but I am sure also favouring my company, she brought me along to the hotel which was a three hour drive away and buried deep in the rural countryside.
The hotel, part of a renowned and world-famous chain, was newly erected in the wilds of Ireland. I believe they had opened their doors just a few weeks earlier.
Mater and I were ecstatic to be there. We could smell the new paint and polish. The receptionist spoke with a voice we were sure was only her working one, such was its elegance and crispness.
We were slightly intimidated, to say the least.
There is such a thing as 'old money,' which is apparently very popular as it indicates your heritage and breeding.
Next to that is 'new money,' which is somewhat frowned upon as it tells that you merely got lucky in your monetary gain and may not necessarily have come from a proper background.
We two were 'no money,' but, sailing in grandly on a free ticket, were determined not to show it.
My mother held her head high. She was very proud indeed to be able to stay in this five-star hotel.
We checked in without trouble. My mother was given a set of tickets with her name and room number that we should show when we wanted to dine.
Upstairs we went, after I foolishly declined any help with our luggage. I see now that I should have permitted the young man to help us, as it caused some confusion when I insisted that we could manage. As I said, we were not used to this lifestyle and hardly knew what to do.
The bed was at least seven feet wide and upon our entering the room found a television with my mother's name emblazoned on the screen, welcoming her. Very nice, indeed.
My mother took a bath before dinner and used all the bubble bath and scents they provided. It was heavenly.
We strolled down to dinner at about 7 pm with a walk that we hoped looked confident and non-plussed. Inside we were dazzled but it never does to show that, not among such people as we were dining with.
My mother greeted the head waiter and gave our room number. He made a little check mark in his book and was about to say 'this way, Madam' very finely when my mother remembered the dinner ticket. She reached into her handbag- her very best handbag, at that- and pulled out the tickets. In her most endearing voice she said, "and may I present these to you?"
The gentleman made to take them from her, but paused. He smiled. Something ghastly had happened.
"We do not take those here, Madam."
My mother, puzzled, glanced down at what was clutched in her shiny, polished and scented fingers.
She was grasping her supermarket coupons that verily shrilled in scarlet:
"GET 10 CENTS OFF YOUR NEXT PURCHASE!"
Oh, we did not know where to look. By all accounts, my mother finally retrieved the correct papers, and according to her we then slid along to our table; but that part for me is terribly hazy. I do remember giggling frantically throughout the entire six-course meal which was served on plates the size of bicycle wheels. Each course was about a mouthful worth of food.
It was a lovely couple of days, I must say.
Of course, in such a place we had to be a soupcon more refined than usual but we were glad in the end to return home and wave our supermarket coupons freely among people who understood us. Being yourself is so valuable, even if some will not like you much for your efforts.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:38 AM
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
"The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity."
Last year we owned a house in Texas and on a number of occasions were visited by door-to-door salesmen. One afternoon I greeted a man attempting to sell us a home security system for the protection of our house and possessions.
I was obliged to tell him that my Spouse would be home from work shortly and would talk to him upon returning. The man left after depositing his business card and expostulating about the need for such an alarm system.
I immediately spoke to my Spouse who called the salesman from work. It became clear very quickly that we could not afford the product he was offering but my Spouse latched onto another idea before terminating the call.
"Would we," enquired Spouse, "get one of those signs in the garden that announce to passers-by that 'This House is Protected By Such and Such Security?"
"Yes, yes you would," replied the salesman eagerly, desperately scrambling to keep us interested.
"Then," continued my quick-thinking Spouse, "what about this: the sign that says 'we are protected' is well known to be the most effective part of the whole operation. People will assume we have an alarm, which is a deterrent in itself. You proceed and put a sign on our lawn: you get free advertising and we get to ward off potential burglars at no cost to us. What do you think, Sir?"
The salesman was outraged at the suggestion and sadly did not warm to the idea at all.
We were in fact quite genuine about the matter, and we thought it was a mighty fine plan which would benefit everybody, especially considering that we were never going to buy the alarm, not being able to afford it. It was either that or nothing with us.
At best, the man thought we were strange; at worst I imagine he got the impression we were just not well at all.
After all, how on earth could a person, in good conscience, agree to advertise freely for a company? That would be a ludicrous and nonsensical thing to do, would it not? Surely the company should be paying for any advertising that promotes their business!
I am happy to declare that our entire home, including our clothing, backs up the above philosophy. You will not, I promise, find a T-shirt or pair of shoes, bumper sticker or handbag or anything that proudly announces in public that we drink this or wear that or eat the other thing.
If it seems foolish to agree to advertise for an alarm system company, well, at least that act would serve a purpose and has the power to do us some good. The same absolutely cannot be said for most clothing and items that are being sold in stores.
Nobody, nobody should be giving a company freely what it really ought to be paying money for.
Monday, December 3, 2007
"In the hope of reaching the moon,
men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet."
When my Spouse and I first met, it was Christmas and we visited my relatives. We brought some gifts to my cousins who were twelve and seven years old.
Spouse, not having met them, was unsure what would be suitable but we chose carefully. I thought that, for the younger child, a book in which he could draw or write might be a pleasant gift.
When we arrived, my younger cousin tore open his brightly wrapped package and exclaimed: "a blank book!" with a gasp and an expression neither Spouse or I have ever forgotten.
He was truly pleased. He was already optimistically contemplating the possibilities of a big fat book of nothingness.
How many of us would be yet content with a book of blank pages, or could see the potential of something so empty and simple?
Granted, he was only a child but I am certain there is a message to be taken from that: the art of finding something where the rest see nothing is a tremendous utility that should not be underestimated.
Those are the individuals that see whole pictures in clouds and never use the word 'bored.'
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:42 AM
Sunday, December 2, 2007
"This is the final test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him."
-William Lyon Phelps
Spouse and I have just arrived back from a drive to Maine to see our friends, one of whom has had serious surgery; we thought we would pay a visit to the patient.
Their whole family had gathered for this occasion and they were kind enough to put us up for the night despite a shortage of room.
We needed to step carefully: there were children everywhere. During that one evening we watched a sword fight take place between two of the children in a living room stacked to the ceiling with toys of every type.
The battle ended, unsurprisingly, with a sword being smashed beyond repair. The small owner, whose home we were in and to whom the sword belonged, was very sad indeed when he picked up the two pieces and noted that they could not be put back together.
One might reasonably think that with so many toys in his possession he would be apt to be spoiled or selfish.
Not at all. The child, who is just six, looked forlornly at the broken item and said quietly but honourably,
"I was good to that toy."
We were pleasantly surprised to see for ourselves that he was indeed careful with everything he owned; any of his toys that had been broken- and in fact broken by other children- were bound with duct tape and still being played with on a regular basis.
Personal property aside for a moment, I wonder how people can be so careless with another's.
Since Spouse and I moved to our current part of the country, our car has been smacked and dented more times than in the previous ten years that Spouse owned it. We might go to do a quick grocery and return to find somebody did not care what they hit when they swung open their car door. It symbolises an utter lack of respect that is new to our lives.
I lament when we check out films from our local library that are scratched or marked in any way, or books that are scribbled upon. One does not have to be extraordinary to be thoughtful when handling discs or library books; we treat everything as we would our own and cannot imagine how people can be rough or disrespectful towards things which do not belong to them.
The sad truth is that people do need to train themselves to be aware and careful. It sounds horrendous to contemplate but there it is: respect does not always come naturally and it needs to be worked at.
That child we met who respects his own possessions will certainly grow up to have consideration for the property of others and he hopefully will 'be good' to everything he finds.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:12 PM
Saturday, December 1, 2007
"What humbugs we are, who pretend to live for Beauty, and never see the Dawn!"
-Logan Pearsall Smith
Unless you are motivated to get up early, it is next to impossible to pull off the task after years of sleeping late. You must be truly excited by the prospect of a fresh and silent morning unsullied yet by traffic or slamming doors.
I am not a morning person. My Spouse believes, however, that there is no such thing, and that we can be whatever we choose. Spouse, clearly then, is an early riser.
There are mornings, beautiful prologues to days when I open my eyes and cannot imagine staying in bed another moment: the sunlight might be pouring in; I might be anticipating a particularly busy or inventive day; whatever the reason, it happens that occasionally I am highly alert upon waking.
More often than not, woefully, I have to practically pry my eyelids open with a teaspoon before I can proceed with my day. My limbs feel weighty, the pressure in my head is too much and all I want is to go back to sleep. In fact I could do just that while standing in the kitchen trying vaguely to remember where we store the milk. It reminds me of wading through mud: unbearably slow and too much trouble.
By the time I have prepared said breakfast, Spouse has usually sent an e-mail, scanned several pages and embarked on a brand new project and, as I deliver the bowl of steaming oatmeal, is quietly musing about lunch.
As I said, though, one has to want the early mornings. One has to see that they are, in fact, the best time of the day as long as one's mind is not shrouded in a cloak of cumbersome fog.
How remarkable- it is invigorating to look at a clock and see that, despite a good deal of work being done, 9 am has not come around yet. An early morning feels serene, full of possibilities and all yours.
Spouse likes to wake at 5 am and with the best of intentions, to be out of bed at quarter past. These days in December that means a sliver of moon might still be visible. I long to be able to appreciate the mornings more often. To achieve this one must sleep well so that when 5 am approaches, it seems like time to get up.
I suggest some simple methods such as:
-Going to bed before 10 pm and following the same routine each night.
-Not using the computer after 8:30 or at least an hour before bed.
-Reading until sleep hits like a wave. Spouse and I share our copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a novel I have mentioned time and again and of which we are both very fond. It is a soothing and gentle lull of a read and very charming.
-In the evenings my Spouse likes Horlick's, a warm, milky drink. Were I a milky-drink aficionado no doubt I would enjoy it also but nothing comes between me and my black tea sent via a care-package from Mater.
Before this week, before my Spouse became ill I had recently begun going to the same gym that Spouse had been attending for months. Spouse goes for a workout in the mornings. Of course that meant we had to rise earlier so that we could be back in time for Spouse to go to work.
We began this procedure just as the cold spell hit our area and so over the course of one morning I went from remaining warm and sleepy when Spouse drove to the gym, to accompanying Spouse in the freezing darkness with nothing but pain to look forward to for the next hour.
Mercifully it turned out to be better than I had expected: once I became accustomed to the machines and the art of numbing my brain to all feeling, I began to feel quite good about getting exercise and felt stronger by the second.
Sadly our routine was short-lived but we will be able to return with regularity in the coming weeks as long as Spouse continues to improve.
At 5 am, the roads look vastly different; so does the world. At that hour we can imagine we own the roads, so few are the souls travelling on it.
Tick, tock: beds are cosy but life is short. I say, take back the mornings and feel a little more productive.