Thursday, January 31, 2008
"You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something."
One Summer my Spouse and I, living in a little town in Northern California, attended a local Civil War Reenactment. All the participants were in costume of the period- the 1860s- and there was a veritable array of things to view. There was a battle on one of the fields- staged, of course, for our viewing but exhilarating nonetheless. Cannon thundered, horses charged and children played, a unique combination on a balmy afternoon.
We paused alongside a gentleman who was, perhaps, in his sixties. He had a fondness for cannon and was explaining to a slowly assembling group that the cannon in front of us had been built by his own hands as part of his hobby. He had designed it based on an existing cannon he had seen, had done so exclusively for the festival and was proud to be able to show it to us.
I noticed a young woman next to us. She was frowning slightly. She leaned forward and, interrupting the man's entire speech without any shred of hesitation, asked in a loud voice, "did you fire the cannon?"
The man explained gently that it was a replica only and not, in fact, a real cannon that he could demonstrate.
The lady was obviously irritated that he had misunderstood her.
"No, that's not what I meant." She shook her head in annoyance.
"I'm sorry, Maim?" said the fellow reasonably. We all waited.
She barked, "did you fire the cannon during the Civil War?"
There was an appalling silence. I do believe that cannon to the left and right of us, and all the horses too, ground to a stunned halt in the field. The man smiled to himself and recovered his composure with amazing elegance and gallantry.
"No, Maim, I did not. That was before my time, I'm afraid."
The woman shrugged and seemed disinterested which, given her question, was not altogether a surprise to the remainder of the group.
To be that tolerant and polite in the face of ignorance and rudeness- one can only strive to be that patient. We ought not to make people feel foolish, even at those times when it is most desirable to do so.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:07 AM
"The only way to enjoy anything in this life is to earn it first."
I experienced my first flight at nineteen years of age when I flew to the United States to see a relative. I had saved every penny and was jubilant to be setting off. I had asked specifically for a window seat so that I could regard the view with my unworldly eye.
Without any bother I got my window seat but just as the plane began to glide gently along the length of the runway, I became increasingly aware of a low mewling like that of a stranded, helpless kitten. The noise grew louder as we raced along the ground and I reluctantly and distractedly turned from my steadfast position at the window to see a tiny girl of about two. She was in the seat beside me and she was complaining to her mother that she could not see out of the window.
My heart melted. To be on a plane so young and to be thrilled about the experience! I contemplated giving her my seat entirely as I gazed at her devastated little face awash in watery tears.
As I mentally prepared to shift my belongings to the next seat, I thought to initiate some conversation with the child's mother.
"Is this her first flight?" I asked softly.
"Oh, no. Not at all," came the unanticipated response. " She has been to Japan, Singapore and all over Europe. She flies all the time."
I glanced out of the tiny window. I stole a fleeting look at the child, who was whining more crossly now, and once more back to the window.
I knew what I had to do.
I absolutely, wholeheartedly and unabashedly relished all to myself the moment of taking off, one which I am proud to say I had worked very hard to experience.
I surmised that she could appeal to the fellow-passenger on her next flight, or the flight after that, and get full access to the window: this might be my only time and I clung to it very tightly.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:43 AM
"It is no use speaking in soft, gentle tones if everyone else is shouting."
It being the very last day of January, I turned my ear to some carefully chosen music on this grey morning: songs with a Winter feel or promise of hopeful renewal were among my selection.
'January comes and the cold winds blow/and the days grow longer/ it's over and done/maybe now, I've learned from my mistakes/
I know that I feel stronger these days.'
I especially enjoy those words from the song 'January' by Dawn Kenny.
Spouse and I met Dawn Kenny at one of her performances in Ireland. When I say 'met' I mean to indicate that, shortly after the performance was supposed to begin she approached our corner table, looked into our blank faces and open mouths, apologised politely for the delay and promised that the show would be starting soon. I lost all power of speech and Spouse forgot where we were.
I do not recollect that we said anything at all to her aside from a guttural grunt of agreement. As a result she never knew of our delight to be at the intimate concert; never suspected that we two crouching in the dark shadow of the club might just be her biggest fans and had been verily looking forward to the evening for weeks.
As we own both of her albums we have come to admire Dawn Kenny for her warm, intelligent, witty lyrics and astounding piano playing. She is a wonderful live entertainer too, as we shortly thereafter found out. To see her performing those beloved tunes in person was enchanting.
It is true that we take our love of music seriously and if ever we have the opportunity to meet some of the faces- and hands- behind our best-loved music, we surely take the chance.
We did not know what at all to reply when she spoke to us; it did not matter much anyhow because the music struck up soon after.
It was a superb display of talent. As the night began to wear on and we sank deeper into the wonders that she played on the piano, Dawn Kenny declared that she would be bringing the show to a close shortly. If anybody had a request, she offered, as she tinkled away on the keys, now would be the time to say so.
Spouse and I looked at one another. We knew without question what our choice would be. We each saw, too, that the other knew it. The question remained, though: which one of us would shout the name? The chords were being struck much like sand trickling through an hourglass. Time was running out. Panic set in. I said that Spouse should call it out; Spouse suggested in a fierce and impassioned whisper that I ought to do it. After all, I had introduced him to the magical Dawn Kenny, and was the very one behind our attending the concert. We bickered as quietly as two people can do without disrespecting the artist.
Finally Spouse agreed to do it. He opened his mouth to call it out, and then froze.
"What is it called?" he gasped and turned to me for assistance.
"It's-" I could go no further.
"What's the name? Quickly!"
I did not know.
He did not know.
We were terror-struck and had forgotten the name of the song that was dearest to our hearts. It was a most beautiful piece and when we first heard it on the album were unsure how any ordinary person could make a piano do that. To have the opportunity to hear it played before us was an astonishing privilege. And neither one of us knew how to tell her.
"'Who Cares'?" I suggested. "That might be the name."
"I think it was 'Who Knows'," Spouse said.
We tried variations such as
'Know the Price'
'Who Looks So Good'
I wailed, inwardly of course. None of them were correct.
This frenzied battle continued for some time and we were becoming frustrated. We had named almost every lyric in the tune but had not landed upon the very name we needed.
Spouse, at long last, burst out with "'Give Yourself Away'!"
"That's it!" I cried.
Spouse turned to bellow it as Dawn Kenny finished playing. Just before he succeeded, there was a sudden silence. When the moment passed, Spouse and I had frozen again in the face of possible unwarranted attention.
Dawn Kenny then proclaimed that since nobody had any suggestions, she would play 'Blue Without You' as a final piece.
And then she added, as salt in two wounds that she could not see, that she would, as a matter of interest, have chosen 'Give Yourself Away' for herself but nobody requested it so she would play the other.
Tears stung my eyes. I had never wanted to howl the name of a song so loudly in my entire life and I generally refrain, as does Spouse, from any sort of public noise. We had spent minutes attempting to recall the name of the song we loved, only to lose the prospect of seeing it materialise on stage.
I was cross with Spouse, and he with me. Neither of the two of us were worth tuppence when it came to requesting tunes or meeting our favourite singers.
The happy finale to this tale, however, is that Dawn Kenny relented and played our revered song. Perhaps she sensed a deep sadness in the air or detected a mood of melancholy because two people had just come to understand this: that sometimes one needs to ask for things and needs to shout at the top of one's lungs in order to be heard above the noise and bustle of everyday life.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.
-From the poem 'A Minor Bird' by Robert Frost
"Come home, Eileen," trilled the little old lady with zesty spirit. I was sixteen and caught unawares in the living room as my Great Aunt's friend suddenly broke into song. Her voice was throaty and rugged and kept cracking for she was older even than the Aunt.
It would have been dreadfully rude to leave the room at that moment. The door, also, was too far away. The traditional song went on, I believe, for two hundred verses and I hid as best as I could behind my mother. Mater had no shield. The singer was oblivious and blissfully chanting but my mother's Aunt, ever the stern lady, was keeping a close eye on me: I could feel hot beams of maddened light streaming across the room, pulsating through my mother and forcefully striking me.
We were embarrassed; we had not expected a display of music and the song was so serious, so blatantly personal to the poor old lady and so somber that it was excruciating. I wanted to be anywhere else but ensnared in that room as audience to a concert I did not request. If only the old dear had warned us but there was nothing to announce the onslaught of warbling.
Do not come home, Eileen. There is an awkward moment afoot.
After the tune ended, Mater, reeling, served much needed tea and biscuits. The old lady, whom we shall call Mrs. W., munched happily and reminisced about her life and times. She lamented that some stories and songs were harder for her to recall nowadays.
"What's that disease," she sipped some tea out of a dainty cup, "where you can't remember anything?"
Mrs. W. snapped her bony fingers several times until Mater, gasping with the utter painfulness of the hour and the urge to cry with laughter, supplied the answer.
We shall never forget that harrowing afternoon.
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.
Just in case I had dared to wonder about the mysterious cause of our local grocery store suddenly raising its prices, I looked out our window last evening and beheld a potential answer. The people living in our apartment complex often wheel their purchases home from the supermarket in a shopping cart. I cannot help but have my attention drawn to the happenings outside when I hear the creaking and squeaking of a cart getting nearer to our building.
Our neighbours bring the cart across the road, up to the front door, and then proceed to unload the items one by one and carry them upstairs. Were they to return the carts immediately I might be willing and able to turn a blind eye to their removing the thing from the grocery store territory.
However I have frequently observed that they then push the cart into a corner of the yard, into the mailbox shelter, and trot happily back inside.
What I noted yesterday was a truck that arrived to sweep up all the carts that our residents had collected like stamps, and drive these and a good number of others away from my sight.
I do not know how many carts the driver eventually collected, or how far he had to travel before his task was completed.
I do know for certain that he was not performing the job for fun: he must be receiving a wage and the money must be coming directly from the store. No doubt there are other answers to my initial question but one can only imagine how they fund the shopping cart project, can only ponder it thoughtfully as one pours one's increasingly expensive milk over one's worryingly costly cereal. There again turns up the presumption that 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease' and if we speak up, make a little change in daily habits and do our part to be considerate, it makes a world of difference.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:38 AM
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
"The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious."
Where Have All the Grey, Much-Needed-in-Winter, Warm, Freshly-Laundered, Just-Seen-Last-Week, Carefully-Folded, Hard-to-Lose Sweaters Gone?
There is, to be truthful, only one, and Spouse needed it this morning. Upon his arrival home at 6 AM from a recent trip to California, I sought out the lone item that I had been preserving for such a time- and it was not there. It was not anywhere.
Spouse had not slept in three days. Spouse had a heavy head. Spouse could not have cared less if the couch itself had been missing.
I cared, though.
Over the course of the last six months we have arranged our small home in such a way that there are absolutely no hiding places. Everything is organised, there are no drawers for clothes to lurk in and I am most particular about folding and putting things in their rightful place on the single shelf we do possess.
I have man-handled each and every individual item of clothing that was in our closet and the grey sweater was not, I say not, among them, not the first time I inspected the pile nor the twelfth. I most definitely would not have put it in a foolish place, for obvious reasons beginning with the fact that hunting down clothing is not a game I like to play.
I do not know where to turn. The fact that Spouse is wearing something else instead and is comfortable is really not the issue. This is not about Spouse at all, actually. Perhaps in the cold light of early dawn when I first went confidently to fetch the thing, it might, then, have been about Spouse's needs. At the present time I am concerned with the absurdity of the matter. It is a very small home that we have. I immensely dislike things that make no sense.
When I find that sweater I shall wring its collar and quite throttle it.
*I am presently open to accepting ideas, suggestions and solutions to this mystery if anybody has a logical explanation. I would be glad to hear some thoughts on where the sweater might be located.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:26 AM
"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."
We adored our rented house in California but it was an old place and oft in need of repair. The bath tap was turned one morning and did not thereafter come to a stop. Thankfully the water was not pouring but there was no pressure on the tap and so no beginning or end point. We used a wrench for a day or two and that worked nicely to turn the tap on and off. Yet, we knew that we needed a plumber. We thought that we could not use a wrench for very long. It looked ugly and primitive and was not the sort of thing we wanted in our bathroom. Thankfully the owner always had plumbers ready and they came over in a short time to try and solve our problem.
Their investigation led them to discover that the tap could be fixed, but it would require some work in the wall behind the bath.
No problem, said I.
They dug out the tiles on the wall behind the bath. It worried me only because the bathroom became a veritable mess and I had always tried hard to keep it looking shipshape. The plumbers conferred with each other and then turned to me. They needed to get to the plumbing from the other side of the wall because there just was not enough room while standing in the bath to do what needed to be done.
No problem, said I.
They needed to go to the master bedroom and there they examined the wall. Wooden panels covered the walls. They conferred with each other and then turned to me. They would need, they said, to pull out a portion of the bedroom wall.
No problem, said I, trembling slightly. It, after all, was not our house and I feared agreeing to anything that the owner did not authorise.
They began to tug a bit at the wooden boards but nothing was forthcoming. They conferred again and turned to me. They needed to pull off some of the skirting board at the base of the wall. The skirting board had been nailed over the wooden planks and it had to be removed first.
No problem, said I, wearily.
After a few minutes of wrenching they had another conference. I was by then, I suppose, hiding under the kitchen table.
They needed... I was nearly in tears.
They needed to pull up the carpet, because whoever had completed the room had done a rather silly job and the carpet was nailed right over the base of the skirting board.
So the plumbers pulled up the carpet, tore off the skirting board, ripped out the wall, dug their way into the bathroom, fixed the matter and, after cleaning up properly, went on their merry way.
Never underestimate the beauty and simplicity of a wrench.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:48 AM
"Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins."
Recently, during one dismal and colourless afternoon, I found a silverfish on our kitchen floor. This remarkable creature, whose species has, it seems, been slithering for 300 million years or more, was stranded in our home with no obvious means of escape.
I scooped the little fellow into a dustpan as delicately as I could and prepared to remove him from the apartment.
There exists a long hallway between our door and that of the main building. I had the option to shovel him into the piercing cold snowstorm or fling him into the embracing warmth of the hallway and bid him luck with the rest of his journey. I decided to put him him into the hall and pointed out, as I walked towards the door with the pan in my hand, that he might fare better upstairs with possibly more accommodating and benevolent neighbours; although in truth Spouse and I have had absolutely no luck despite being the same species. One never can tell how these things will turn out.
I threw open the door and tossed him into the air. Somebody else could worry about him, I thought decidedly. As long as he was not in my territory I could be at perfect ease.
He was in mid-flight when I last saw him, and when I saw the shoes. A wet and soggy pair were sitting in the hall, fresh from the thunderous snowstorm.
They were my shoes and I considered, far too late, that he might well land in one of them. As it happened I did not see where the silverfish finally fell but it did cross my mind that it could have been my shoe he dropped into. Or somebody else's. Or I could have been Somebody Else, unsuspecting and just as undeserving of a wriggling insect under my foot as the insect was to be there. He was just a tiny creature but he forced me in a curious way to think about consequences, selfishness and the urgent necessity of trying to visualise an action from another's point of view.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:22 AM
Monday, January 28, 2008
"How much of human life is lost in waiting!"
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
During my recent interval in Ireland Spouse and I officially became Spouse and Spouse. Shortly thereafter I was left alone on my side of the globe and Spouse on his, each to wait out the interminably slow year of horrific paperwork and fervent hope that accompanies the issuing of a visa to the United States.
Because our marriage took place in Ireland my wedding dress was with me. It hung forlornly on the outside of Mater's closet, waiting for the day- as we all were- when it could be packed gently into a suitcase and taken home.
I did not know how much time the process would take. I roamed around the house aimlessly. In short, I was stranded. The year seemed, at times, to be an extended sigh of pity.
One morning I awoke and noticed that there was something wrong with my wedding dress. I inspected it more closely and reeled back in fright. I dashed into the kitchen to tell my mother. It was awful.
"My dress- wedding dress! Horrible!" I babbled incoherently. Mater went with me to the bedroom to see what on earth was the matter. Sure enough she saw it for herself: there were particles of dust on the garment.
My wedding dress had dust upon it.
My wedding dress was dusty.
I was sure, too, that I saw a cobweb.
It was ghastly. I had never once contemplated the possibility of living out my days as a Miss Havisham figure but there it was. I had something in common, after all, with Charles Dickens' notorious character from 'Great Expectations.'
The jilted lady with the skeleton face and waxen skin who shared a dusty, cobwebbed room with a crumbly, ancient wedding cake and a myriad of clocks which had once and forever stopped at twenty to nine: was this, then, to be my life?
Horror of horrors.
Mr. Havisham, meanwhile, was feeling just as miserable trying to sell our home in Texas, find a suitable job in another state and somehow bring me back home- and all while going through the ordinary troubles that life brings without such extravagant hurdles as ours.
So here I am, and here we are, and the next time, the very next time that I mumble anything about the fact that our upstairs neighbours appear to have a popular bowling alley above our heads, or anything of the sort, I ought to take out my bridal gown and be thankful that it bears no dust, and that our wedding cake was heartily eaten by a crowd on a happy Spring day almost two years ago.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:54 AM
"The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any."
Some months ago Spouse and I were in the supermarket for our routine of grocery shopping, a weekly experience for which we must take a deep breath and steel our nerves before embarking on.
Assuming that the task went along as it should- I am sure that it did not but let us proceed swiftly to the end- we made our way to the checkout. Spouse was signing the receipt when the cashier's code card fell at our feet. This card is emblazoned with pictures of all items and accompanied by codes for ascertaining the prices.
Spouse picked it up and gave it back to the girl on the checkout.
"Thank you," I said, loudly.
There was silence. The cashier packed our bags with a solemn expression. That is to say, no expression at all.
"No, thank YOU." Sadly, that was myself again.
"You are welcome."
"No, you are the one that is welcome."
By this time Spouse and I were in the parking lot and wandering away with our goods.
It is a terrible pity that the cashier could not have contributed even a little to the dialogue. The important thing is for us to not let it affect our own sensibilities and manners.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:45 AM
Sunday, January 27, 2008
"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."
-Henry David Thoreau
Upon the railing outside our apartment window there rests a bank of powder, fresh from this afternoon's tumble down of snow. Still visible are two deep grooves from a short time ago: the most unexpected sight of a blue bird had caught my eye. I am not certain what wondrous type of bird he was, but he sat watching the quiet world, and occasionally my window whence I twitched the blind too sharply. I have not had opportunity to watch any bird in such a long while and this five-minute interval was splendid. He reposed about one foot's length from the window and I could see his eyes searching. I threw some crumbs in his direction; he flew away lightly and I hoped that he was observing me from a branch and would return for them.
My mother, when I told her about it, suggested that he might be lost.
"How could he be lost?" I argued. "Some birds fly across the world for the duration of the Winter weather."
"Yes, but it might be harder than you think to wake up to a snow-covered place that is supposed to be familiar. It might be easier to fly long distances without a guide than to find your way around your own town in such weather."
I conceded that she might have been right.
I could not, alas, take a photograph of either the bird or the fragile footprints he left behind, for my Spouse has current possession of the camera. Spouse is at this moment in California and says that, as ever, it is very like coming home. It is most unusual for we are not the grounded sort of people who wish to remain forever in one place. Perhaps, then, California is an exception for us.
We are, mayhap, a little lost. We need crumbs of a different kind: advice, wisdom and a little push to make up our minds. No doubt the magic enlightenment will happen for us. We shall do what we can to enjoy the meantime and prepare the path for whatever comes along.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:27 PM
"Without adventure civilisation is in full decay."
-Alfred North Whitehead (British Mathematician and Philosopher)
Life is such an adventure. Spouse and I are a bit unsettled at the minute, and uncertain about where we may live next. We discuss daily the possibility of shipping ourselves to a new country- although we do each come from continents other than the one we now live on. We have sleepless nights contemplating the probability of our moving to a different part of this country- again. We simply do not know; and while half of the time that is a terrifying prospect, the remainder is a wide-open stretch of potentiality and spurs us on to continue reducing our clutter, casting off our sentimentality and living lighter, on the off-chance that a remote and thrilling change comes knocking on our door.
Yes, life is a thrilling enterprise and anything at all can happen:
I continuously lost at the game of Trivial Pursuit until a few years ago in California. I had lost to family members so many times in my childhood that even participating became a shameful burden.
The very first time I ever won was, victoriously, against a person who had never once in his life lost at the game. We were both, I recall, rattled by the outcome although one would never know it from the show of dancing and cheering that I performed.
Trivial Pursuit is not, at first glance, a symbol for Life. Still, I thought that my character for losing was set in stone; he thought the same of his for winning.
It turns out that nobody is right all of the time.
Spouse and I look forward to our next adventure.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:13 AM
"Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day."
I took a light nap the other afternoon; just an insignificant one. My mother telephoned in the middle of it. She is staying with her brother and his family for the night and I could hear them all chirping away merrily in the background.
"Do you have a cold?" Mater said to me after a minute or two of rather one-sided discussion based on the fact of my attempting to recover myself quickly.
"No, no I do not," I said with indignation.
"You sound a bit...different," she probed.
"Yes. Your voice is a bit strange. You don't have a cold?"
I blustered that I had been sleeping when she telephoned and I might, possibly, be a bit hazy yet.
"Ah," she said knowingly and triumphantly. "I knew something was different."
It did not end there.
She thrust the phone at my aunt and we talked for a moment or two. It was very pleasant.
"So, you have a cold?" she said sympathetically.
"No," I insisted. "I have no cold. I was lying down. I was sleeping."
And then from somewhere behind her I could hear another voice saying something about 3:20 in the afternoon and taking naps.
There are lessons to be had here. The ocean is no barrier to a mother's intuition; never take naps in the daytime without unplugging the phone; and lastly, always admit to a cold in times of crisis, thereby saving face and gaining pity.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:34 AM
Saturday, January 26, 2008
"Ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime,
But old dogs and children and watermelon wine."
-Tom T. Hall
We know a delightful child who, when he was about three years old, looked forward to Christmas and the arrival of Santa Claus. He declared to his relatives that Santa was making careful lists of the naughty and the nice people, delegating presents based on that age-old system and that he, the youngster, was privy to the information.
His mother enquired as to which list she might be on.
"You're on the Nice list," he offered with sweetness.
"And what about me?"asked his aunt hopefully. "Am I on the Nice list too?"
"No," said the child.
Both women were shocked to the core.
"You mean that Santa put me on the Naughty list?" gasped his aunt in dismay.
"No," cackled the mischievous one. "You're on the ROTTEN list!"
He ran away laughing. Goodness knows where children get such thoughts from but we could all benefit from dipping into their wellspring of imagination from time to time and drawing such curious, spirited thoughts.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:12 AM
"I will just have to sit here and do nothing," said Toad.
Toad sat and did nothing.
Frog sat with him.
-From the series 'Frog and Toad' by Arnold Lobel
My Spouse has jetted off to California and I am at a temporary loss. There are times when we might dwell for hours without talking, just reading along in the same room perhaps. With only music in the background or silence itself to connect us, one would hardly imagine a difference. Companionship, however, is rooted not in words but in the absence of them; not in paying attention to the other but a comfortable lack thereof.
How much better it is to do Nothing with Somebody!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:01 AM
Friday, January 25, 2008
“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last week I swept the kitchen after Spouse and I cooked our usual array of dishes. Sunday evenings mean homemade bread, lentil soup, fish, meatloaf and some vegetables. With that done, the food issue for two people with extraordinary appetites is quietly settled for the remainder of the week.
I swept the floor, as I always do, and I was anxious to return to more interesting events, as I always am. I greatly enjoy the cooking process but after several hours of stirring, kneading or slicing it is a pleasure to return to our one warm room and rest with a captivating book or a fine film.
There were stray crumbs here and there, as always. They all slid subserviently into the waste basket- all but one. It flew out of the dustpan and returned to the cold tiles. I tried once more. I swept the lone crumb into the pan and held it aloft to return it to its comrades.
It did not just roll, something I could attribute to the force of gravity: I watched silently as instead it made its way, by some other power, back to the floor.
I brushed it, harder now, into the pan for the third time and for the third time it jumped out.
We battled on, I growing more livid as my precious Sunday moments were being swept away by an arrogant and rascally crumb with ambition.
I continued to sweep it up and eventually I lost count of the number of times it fought back. Spouse entered the kitchen to watch me and ensured that it was, in fact, an inanimate piece of food that was defeating me and not a beetle with magical powers or anything of that nature.
My sweeping grew fretful and careless. I was furious. Each time I succeeded in getting the item into the plastic pan I was sure I had won, but when I tried to pour it into the bin it would miss the mark entirely.
Spouse threw me off balance by remarking that "it must be a very bad crumb."
I turned to the witty one and huffed that it certainly appeared to be its mission to make my life an uphill struggle. At that moment, with me still sweeping randomly and viciously, the crumb was suddenly reposing in the pan. Its lack of movement, back-answering or looking like anything other than a piece of food left me feeling like a half-wit. I brushed the lifeless thing into the bin and went to join my Spouse in a Sunday evening film and soothe my illogical and over-sensitive mind.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:10 AM
"The basic difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behavior affect the rights and well being of others."
-Sharon Anthony Bower
In late 2006 when Spouse and I had been apart for months, we took a cruise together from Ireland to France. We sailed for two nights before reaching Cherbourg, spent several hours in the port town and prepared to reach home after another two nights' worth of travelling.
One night I was awakened by the sound of a party I was not invited to attend but forced to listen to. There were obviously drunken people in the hall leaning against our door, lighting cigarettes, taking photographs- I saw the flash time and again-and drinking from bottles. I sighed and hoped that they would leave soon.
Spouse in the other bunk bed had not stirred. I was cross, for it seemed I must endure the situation alone. The crowd laughed louder and took some more photographs. I dimly recall getting out of bed and raising my shoe to hammer it on the door. The person pressed against the door would receive such a nasty jolt it would sober the fellow up in no time. My hand twitched but I pulled back in time. I did not want to cause trouble and they knew, in a manner of speaking, where we lived. Reluctantly I slipped back into bed, ready to burst into tears. I moved about in such a way and made sufficient noise that Spouse woke up promptly. I suspect I had initiated that in a sly way: I could neither sleep nor deal with it alone.
Spouse heard the mischief outside but being the sort he is, muttered something about letting things go, and went peacefully back to sleep.
"Wake up," I said. "I can't sleep."
Spouse now could not sleep either, and got out of bed. He swung open the door. I cowered under my covers.
The gang scattered like sand in a storm. They ran away to their rooms- all but one. One poor fellow had no nearby cabin to hide in and he was left stranded in the hallway. I heard Spouse saying, "there are people trying to sleep in here,you know." He evidently thought little of my Spouse, for although he replied with "I'm really, really, really sorry. It won't happen again," there was an underhand flavour to his tone that Spouse missed. Unfortunately for the sarcastic young man, I did not. I whispered to my Spouse, who was standing in the doorway ready to forgive, "he's mocking you. He's being funny."
Spouse again faced the scamp who had no idea that my Spouse was about to turn on the anti-charm. Bare chested and solemn and relying on the truth of my hushed words, Spouse declared, "and I'm not being funny, by the way." The power of those words cannot be underestimated. The whippersnapper went silent all of a sudden and then he began to apologise with the right amount of sincerity before retreating into the nearest hiding place.
There was not another sound that night save for the gentle splash of the water as we rolled softly home.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:43 AM
Thursday, January 24, 2008
'In Memory of the Day Before: June 8 1957.'
-Penciled on the opening page;
I bought the book to keep those words.
I was not born, I was not there,
I think I must be for the birds.
I hope the Day Before was one
you still recall with softened look;
Yet, then I pause and wonder how
You ever parted with the book.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:47 AM
"Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Last year, after our seemingly perpetual enforced separation, Spouse and I prepared eagerly for the next stage of our lives. I had my visa in hand at last and my plane ticket booked. I thought that I would do a brave thing and make a dental appointment. I had found, I must admit, a veritable gorge in one of my molars and I did not want to have to deal with a dentist upon my arrival in another land. I needed a fresh start and so I ventured to attend a checkup. I considered that otherwise, although I had not met a dentist in about fifteen years, my teeth were in perfect shape. I was wrong, and two more appointments, six fillings and a thorough teeth-cleaning experiment later I staggered out of the dental clinic in a bewildered state but feeling, it must be said, on top of the world. The two worst things in the world for me had just been conquered and I was elated. There was anticipation rushing through my veins along with whatever else my dentist had opted to pump into me.
It was the very last day before my departure; I had some gifts to purchase and very little time to do it in. I wobbled uncertainly but the feeling of floating on a cloud was greatly buoyed by all my troubles being solved.
With precious minutes to go before my shopping time would end- I could not have brought myself to buy gifts before I knew for certain I would be endowed with the visa- I found myself, at last and in desperation, in one of those tourist stores that sell fancy gifts at exorbitant prices. There are rarely any other shoppers in that sort of store apart from eager tourists, and for the most part they look at maps, ask for directions or are simply browsing. The silence is palpable, nothing goes unnoticed, four bored assistants will ask if they can help you and everything is either breakable or so flashy and useless that one might wish to break it. However, I did find some rather nice pieces in the end. I made my way to the checkout, still cheered by my courage in fighting the fear of dentists and triumphing over bureaucracy.
The total price came to 38 Euros which, when I considered that it was my very last chance to spend the money, seemed acceptable, especially in such a store.
I took little notice of the assistant but as I started to sign my name to the credit card receipt, I noticed a frightfully significant error. Perhaps I might not have glanced so carefully were I in better shape; but my head was spinning with a lot of noise and everything was heightened.
"There is a mistake, I think," I pushed the receipt back to the lady.
For the record, it came out as "huh's a issss hake, I hink." My jaw was numb, as was my face right up to the soft spot under my eye. What an odd thing- to rub one's eye and feel nothing!
She understood my gesture, though, because she looked quickly at the paper, and gasped.
It read that I was being charged 8 Euros. She had not pressed the '3' on the register heavily enough and as a result I was about to get all the goods for 30 Euros less than I had expected. Of course, I could not and should not do that and so I indicated with uncoordinated finger and numb tongue that she must fix it at once.
She printed out a second receipt for 30 Euros which I also signed and that happily made up the correct amount. And then the strangest thing happened. She looked at me, pale faced and anxious, and said very quietly, "thank you. Thank you for telling me. Thank you for being honest."
I looked at her as she shook her head in incredulity.
"I would have been in big trouble this evening. Thank you." I am sure that she would have; it was that sort of a store, after all.
I mumbled something about how I would do the same thing if I had been overcharged and did not see why somebody else's loss should change the matter. I am not sure she comprehended all of my words; I imagine that she assumed I was a lost foreign tourist with a thick accent rather than a local with a paralysed mouth. We parted ways, she very glad and grateful and no doubt vowing to be more careful in future, and I wondering how on earth we came to this: honesty being the exception rather than the rule.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:43 AM
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
"The sum of wisdom is that time is never lost that is devoted to work."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just the other morning Spouse and I went for an excruciating expedition into the freezing air in order to partake of a workout. We have been unable to attend for three months now on account of various mishaps and sicknesses and finally we are attempting to regain some sort of a routine. We talked as we drove, chatting with the ever-present hope that conversation would warm us sufficiently to maintain consciousness. In truth the air was so cold that I almost looked forward to the muscle cramps and the pain of the treadmill. Anything, my body screamed, anything but this ice air, this breathless excursion!
The talk turned to future plans and what we want from our lives, as it does, I am sure, for most people driving along just after dawn in the frigid throes of Winter.
Spouse declared a lack of feeling accomplished, a sensibility sorely missing and much needed. Spouse endeavoured to tell me that, after all the years of thinking otherwise, being an engineer was perhaps not much different from, say, working in a restaurant.
Teeth clacking and chattering, I heartily disagreed. I insisted with a surge of venom that being an engineer was absolutely different: not better or worse but certainly not the same as being a worker at a fast-food restaurant.
Spouse dismissed my thought and argued that in the end, it was all the same: working hard, day in and day out and getting one's work done and going home only to sleep and rise again to work another day. How was that at all different?
I mused for a moment and then suggested that the type of work he did involved processes that changed the world, albeit imperceptibly at times. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and such people undertook to build, teach or help in ways that moved our society forward and shifted the advancement of the world ever so slightly. Feeding people, for example, is an urgent business and I do not dismiss it- I worked for years in restaurants, stores and at checkouts and testify to the necessity of such work- but eating, cooking, serving at a supermarket does not leave such a dent as assembling technology that probes space, uncovering a cure for a disease or solving the greater troubles on our planet by education and dedication.
I had triumphed in the verbal battle. Spouse admitted that I was right, in such a tone as to indicate that I had won the day. My aim had been twofold: perhaps less crucially I delivered my speech in order to stay warm; I had, most importantly, wanted to bring solace to my Spouse and prove to him that he was possessor of a meaningful and worthwhile career.
I rarely, particularly in reasoning with my Spouse, hear that I am right. I savoured it. Then, to my own astonishment, I handed it back meekly. On second thought, I was not right at all, I said. There were people working in cafeterias and restaurants and supermarkets who served and assisted the engineers and doctors and lawyers and teachers and so forth. Their ability to change the world might be less transparent but it could not be denied.
We both won, in a manner of speaking and my Spouse went to work that morning feeling a good deal better about making a positive impact.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:14 AM
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Letter: Emily Dickinson
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,--
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
This is my letter to Miss D.
Who never shared a verse
Who left the charge her books to burn
Upon her soul's disperse:
Your message now committed
The world it now can see
The words you sheltered from our hands
and judged so crookedly.
Aye, hope is the thing with feathers
That stills the gloomy rain
And hope- the essence of your odes:
You did not live in vain.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:56 AM
"The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this."
I have a dream.
My Spouse had one last night, however, and it takes precedence for its outlandishness. He was at an airport terminal and presumably waiting for a flight. He was dressed in his best suit which, let us err on the side of caution and be less than generous, is about twelve years old. It might well be more but we need not delve too deep into Spouse's inability to purchase clothing. The suit is one that he wore at our wedding and I think it looks perfectly dapper.
My Spouse, as I say, was standing in the airport wearing this suit. He was dressed also in a white shirt of which the sleeve was clearly visible below the cuff.
Suddenly Spouse caught sight of an old college friend. The peculiar thing is that it happened to be a fellow he had neither seen nor thought about in fifteen years. His materialising all of a sudden in a dream seemed to be most odd.
My Spouse was delighted to see his old acquaintance and began to wave his hand to catch the friend's attention. The friend, meanwhile, was strolling along, obviously with somewhere to go, and he was, Spouse noted, wearing a very fine suit.
Spouse waved and waved and it seemed that the man would not see him, or was perhaps ignoring him. Finally, when avoidance was unavoidable, he made eye contact with Spouse.
He came closer and touched my Spouse on the sleeve of his suit.
"Your sleeve is showing," he offered. "You really should get a new suit."
The dream vapourised in the morning light and that fragment was all my Spouse could recall.
I understand fully that the incident was a figment of my Spouse's imagination but we have talked before about this matter: why discard a suit or item of clothing or indeed anything at all based on its passing the sell-by date? The so called 'time is up' concept is particularly objective.
I have a dream. I dream of a world where people are judged not by the age of their clothing but if anything by the number of happy or significant events that passed while wearing that particular outfit; not by the holes in their shoes but by the count of the other pairs they sighed wistfully over before buying bread with the money, or shoes, perhaps, for somebody else.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:51 AM
Monday, January 21, 2008
This weekend we were interviewed for the first time by the lovely grey mouse and aspiring film-star Terana Lark, who writes for the Weekly Whisker. She is an Efficiency Expert. That means that she regularly visits homes and families to discuss their day-to-day activities, money spent and general friendliness to the environment, in order to form a reasonable deduction about quality of life.
The poor thing did not quite know what to do with us. We surely are a pair. Eventually we felt terribly sorry for her and sent her off with a hunk of Swiss cheese and a promise to be more helpful next time.
TERANA LARK: It is nice to meet you both. So, it is Friday night again. The weekend!
TheElementaries: Is it?
TERANA LARK: Well, yes. What did or will you two do?
TheElementaries: We have been writing and working on our respective mysterious projects since early evening. We hardly knew it was Friday.
TERANA LARK: What mysterious projects?
TheElementaries: Hush. Close that window and we shall tell you.
TERANA LARK: Really?
TheElementaries: No. They must remain mysterious.
TERANA LARK: Can I have a hint? It would look better in the magazine if I have a little something.
TheElementaries: No. Or, to be more precise, yes. We listened to some music and we watched a video clip of a quite hilarious moment in comedy history: Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First" routine.
TERANA LARK: I don't believe I know that one.
TheElementaries: Well, we just happen to have the text right here. What a fortunate occurrence.
LOU: I love baseball. When we get to St. Louis, will you tell me the guys' names on the team so when I go to see them in that St. Louis ballpark I'll be able to know those fellows?
BUD: All right. But you know, strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names.
LOU: Funny names?
BUD: Nicknames, pet names. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third-
LOU: That's what I want to find out; I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.
BUD: I'm telling you: Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.
LOU: You know the fellows' names?
LOU: Well, then, who's playin' first?
LOU: I mean the fellow's name on first base.
LOU: The fellow playin' first base for St. Louis.
LOU: The guy on first base.
BUD: Who is on first.
LOU: Well what are you askin' me for?
BUD: I'm not asking you- I'm telling you: Who is on first.
LOU: I'm asking you- who's on first?
BUD: That's the man's name!
LOU: That's who's name?
LOU: Well go ahead and tell me.
LOU: The guy on first.
LOU: The first baseman!
BUD: Who is on first!
TheElementaries: It does go on for a while. Quite wonderful, really.
TERANA LARK: Charming. I admit that I was awfully confused, though. So- tell me your plans for tomorrow.
TheElementaries: Quite likely we shall do the grocery in the morning. We like to get that done while the roads are quiet. Then, a sweet little thrift store we know. That is, if the weather permits. Hopefully there will be lots and lots of books, since that is our main reason for visiting. We always have a plan. Gasoline is expensive and nowadays we can't simply drive around aimlessly. We start to talk about lunch around nine thirty.
TERANA LARK: That...seems a mite early.
TheElementaries: Oh, we do like to be prepared. We usually thaw some fish, so that takes time.
TERANA LARK: I heard that fish is very good for you.
TheElementaries: Her eyesight improved enormously since we initially started eating fish on a regular basis in April.
TERANA LARK: How curious.
TheElementaries: Yes, my Spouse is absolutely correct. It is true. I can see you! I can even see my hand in front of my face now. (Laughs)
TERANA LARK: But...it isn't in front of your face now.
TheElementaries: No, no. I meant that as a rule, I can see things more clearly.
TERANA LARK: Can we talk about music, perhaps? What music did you two listen to tonight, seeing as you never left the house?
TheElementaries: We played a measurably varied collection tonight as we worked on writing and computer-related endeavours.
TERANA LARK: Ah, while you worked on your writing and other projects. Now I know.
TheElementaries: Yes. We played Lucinda Williams, The Kingston Trio, Smokey Robinson, Carla Bruni, Queen, Shakira, John Mellencamp, Ray Charles, and a marvellous little tune called "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything," from the television show 'Veggie Tales.'
TERANA LARK: Pirates who don't do anything? You mean to say that they did nothing wrong? I thought pirates were supposed to be actively villainous.
TheElementaries: They did nothing at all, good or bad. Just lounged around all day and lay around. Never even 'threw their mashed potatoes up against a wall.'
TERANA LARK: They did make a song about it, though.
TheElementaries: That is something, I suppose.
TERANA LARK: In a song about nothing, it is surely something. May I ask how many rooms you usually keep lighted and heated on a typical Friday evening in Winter, for example?
TheElementaries: We work in one room mainly. We turn up the heat in the kitchen when we feel like cooking, but otherwise we have our computer, books and music in one warm room while the rest of the apartment is, for the most part, unlived in. So, small as the apartment might seem, it still is much too big for us. The couches get all the space, it seems.
TERANA LARK: You work side by side? Do you not talk too much to be able to get work done? Especially since your projects differ- one of you writing, the other engrossed in electronics?
TheElementaries: No. Sometimes we hardly talk at all. It's very nice. As with everything else in life, words should not be taken for granted or wasted. Small talk takes a lot of energy and consumes valuable time. 'Talking comes by nature, silence by wisdom,' as the old proverb says.
TERANA LARK: I never heard such a thing. But I'm sure...it...you both seem so cheerful!
TheElementaries: Do you like poetry?
TERANA LARK: Me? Oh, do I ever! I love a haiku now and then.
TheElementaries: I shall write you a haiku, then, for your next visit.
TERANA LARK: Oh, goodness, you mean you will have me back? I am pleased. I do get flustered.
TheElementaries: Here is a dainty little poem you can take away with you. It is called 'Small, Smaller', and it is by Russell Hoban.
TERANA LARK: Do go on.
I thought that I knew all there was to know
Of being small, until I saw once, black against the snow,
A shrew, trapped in my footprint, jump and fall
And jump again and fall, the hole too deep, the walls too tall.
TERANA LARK: Ah. It just about sums up my life.
TheElementaries: Thank you for coming. Do call on us again.
TERANA LARK: Toodlepip!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:58 PM
Sunday, January 20, 2008
"I rate enthusiasm even above professional skill."
-Sir Edward Appleton
"I'm just trying to find out what your goals are," said the fellow who came to speak with us.
It might have been acceptable were he a guidance counselor, interviewer or kindly questioning attendant at an Advice Bureau.
Truth be told, I would accept that sort of thing sooner from a street performer, beekeeper or librarian: then it perhaps would not have hurt so very much.
Alas, he was a doctor, and one distinctly displeased about the fact that my Spouse had some questions about emergency medical treatment for the illness he was suffering recently.
"What are my options?" Spouse wanted to know. Spouse was in pain and we needed something to be done in a great hurry.
"You can go to the emergency room and have a CAT scan," the man in doctor's clothing announced matter-of-factly, "or you can go home."
"Go home? Why would I go home?" Spouse wondered. "What will happen if I go home?"
"Then we would make a record that you denied yourself the treatment. That's all."
With pen poised above his clipboard, his face did not change for a second.
Ours did, I am sure.
How could a patient in so much pain be giving anybody, even an oaf, the faintest idea that he would rather go home and carry on as normal? Surely the fact that we fearfully entered the doctor's office in the first place in a snowstorm might be a suspecting clue about our intent.
Then the man in the room with us said, "I'm just trying to find out what your goals are."
Spouse retorted quickly and with a burst of strength, "I am trying to get better."
No, the other fellow did not like that answer one bit, which begs the question: why wear the suit if the actions do not accompany it? He knew seemingly little about our goals but rest assured, we could identify his with ease.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:32 AM
"When you sell a man a book, you don't sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue- you sell him a whole new life."
Ah, books. I take so much joy from them. This particular long-buried gem, an old library copy and much-loved, to judge from its appearance, is promising to provide all that I yearn for in reading material. I am stepping tentatively through the pages, much as I did with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Should author Ellen Raskin have known anything of my adoration for the latter no doubt she would have been heartened.
Rarely do I turn away after a single page to both absorb the words and mourn their passing. So far there is sufficient oddness, sparkling literary quality, good humour and general impression of fondness for books to satiate this oft-finicky and rather conscientious reader.
I cared, in a manner of speaking, for the two leading characters having only read the opening chapter- one filled with incalculable amounts of dust and must, and punctuated charmingly by whimsical and exceptional book lovers.
The giant paused to adjust to the dim dustiness, then shuffled toward the rear wall, past Enenezer Bargain perched on a tall stool behind his high desk. The wizened bookseller was bent over a book, thick glasses weighing heavily on his beaked nose.
Mona bit hard on her upper lip, trying to stifle a sneeze as she stared down from the dizzying height at the small bald spot on top of the old man's head. The bald spot reflected the shop's one hanging bulb; and it seemed to Mona that years of sitting in the same position must have burned this desert patch in his thicket of silver hair.
I look forward to the rest of the book with happy impatience.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:09 AM
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Trees yawn and stretch tall in Spring
Tipping their hats to fleece clouds:
The forest brims with sound that no soul hears
On a sultry Summer's afternoon during our days in California we opted to venture into the garden of our rented house and practice our badminton skills. Spouse and I were merrily playing and for once we were getting a good deal of physical exercise. The shuttlecock flew back and forth between us like a tiny bewildered bird. And then Spouse or I, it is too hazy to recall whom, smashed the shuttlecock into the air.
It did not come down.
"I can see it!" cried Spouse after a time.
It was perched delicately on the branch of a tree about ten feet above our heads. We did not know what to do: we had been having a lot of fun and were not ready to trail back indoors just yet. Spouse threw the racquet with a great force into the tree in order to dislodge the shuttlecock. The racquet kissed the shuttlecock lightly and proceeded to sit beside it on the branch. What a peculiar coincidence: that did not come down either.
This time I took charge. I flung our remaining racquet into the air in order to knock the first racquet sideways which would then dislodge the shuttlecock.
It did not come down.
We were beginning to imagine that the tree was coated with a mysterious, super-strong glue: those last two items were very heavy and ought not to be sticking up there on the silky branch.
Spouse winced; we had seemingly lost two racquets and a shuttlecock and were at a loss as to our next move.
Then I espied the smooth, shiny handle of a discarded sweeping brush. It had no head and absolutely nothing to grip the tree with. I silently handed it to my Spouse and he aimed it, javelin-like, at the tree in order to dislodge the second racquet which would shake out the first racquet and then in turn push aside the shuttlecock so that we could continue what had been, until then, a very ordinary day.
It did not come down.
We have moved across the country since then and left the lofty trees of Northern California far behind us. We miss them with constant heavy hearts, for there is nothing quite like a tree in all the world and those that surround us now are scarcely comparable to the giants that towered protectively above our lives for so many years.
They took our shuttlecock, raquets and a polished pole: they did not give them back. Likewise, the tall trees still clutch our hearts in their timber limbs.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:18 AM
Friday, January 18, 2008
"When a small child...I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away."
Yesterday there materialised a bite-sized cheesecake adorned with a cherry, carried carefully home from a hotel inside my Spouse's jacket pocket. A delicious mouthful rescued and verily appreciated.
"For the children?" a colleague asked immediately after the conference as Spouse collected the remaining few desserts, before they were cast aside by hotel cleaning staff.
"No. For my wife," replied Spouse.
Wives enjoy an array of cakes as much as a child might. This one certainly does.
Yesterday after the sweet-toothed moment, my Spouse switched off the computer early and settled in among blankets to read 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus. Spouse is not particularly the sort of reader to enjoy a novel and it is a pleasure to watch any person read Camus for the first time. True, too, that the copy Spouse is reading is a well-worn edition extracted breathlessly from the murky depths of a thrift store and was meant, I am certain, just for us to find.
Never decline the opportunity to rescue anything, no matter how modest or transient. Unexpected surprises and serendipitous finds can make up the better part of a very good day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:21 AM
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else's
-From the poem 'Numbers' by Mary Cornish
At eighteen, in my stressful and frayed final year of school I found Mathematics to be the class that most made me want to remain in bed in the mornings. In truth, I dreaded each meeting for they were certain to end in a further feeling of hopelessness. It was one of those classes, the horrific sort where I appeared to be the sole student who did not grasp the teacher's babbling. With each new section we passed on to, I would mentally put aside grievance for the lost information, sit up straighter and vow to understand this new topic with enthusiasm and patience. I promised myself to ask questions if I did not understand. The initial day or two of the fresh area in Mathematics was never easy but I had some inclination and hope, and by the third day I often felt as though I had transcended to a new level in intelligence and could join my fellow classmates in nodding agreeably at everything said.
And then it would spin out of control: I would enter the class on the fourth consecutive day and gasp in thunderstruck horror as the teacher supposedly continued where he left off. Always, always I got the distinct impression that either I had missed two months of class or that they had all held secret sessions without me. It happened without fail on the fourth day and after that I was floating on my own in a deep, dark ocean while my classmates had been lovingly supplied with motor boats. He may as well have been speaking a different language: when one gets the thought that they missed something important, it is virtually impossible to catch up, particularly when in this case the teacher rolled eyes hurriedly and impatiently when questions were asked timidly.
It was tear-inducing, and being the final year of school, not to be taken lightly. I tried hard on my own but I was drowning in a class of strong swimmers who never so much as glanced my way.
One bright afternoon we had a test in class. It was always tormentingly sunny in that room, with the light streaming in and quite likely touching upon everybody's books but my own. That is how it felt as I sat the test quietly and desperately. I had no idea what I was doing and my blood had run cold a long time ago.
The teacher corrected them midway through the class, for it was a short examination. At the end he prepared to deliver them back to our hands. He separated the class into groups based on the results of the test, and ordered everybody to come to the front of the room, all the while shaking his head. As he spoke to each group in order of rank, the teacher bade them to return to their seats and leave the lesser students standing.
There was the group who, as he personally declared, needed no help whatsoever.
They were brilliant, he coaxed, and would excel upon leaving school.
There was the group who had come along quite well and would do all right.
There was the group that needed to work harder and get a better grade.
Perhaps ten of us were remaining now. I simply wanted it all to be over.
Finally, there was the group that he did not know what to do with, and these he despaired at. They were lost to him forever. They never did homework, sometimes did not attend class, and this particular examination had proved their lack of worth.
I sighed. The teacher had said all this to me before. He refused to actually do anything about what he was saying, such as helping as a teacher might and as only a teacher could, and I was weary of his discarding us.
Us? I was arrogant to include myself in that group. He sent the rest to their seats but indicated that I must stay a moment. I could not imagine what the matter might be.
It turned out that there was another category and that I was the leader and sole member.
"You," he said.
I waited. He was smirking. "You are a different kettle of fish altogether. I don't know. Go on, sit down." He gave me my paper without looking at me, which I promptly balled up and I blindly returned to my seat.
It has stayed with me for the better part of eight years now, his refusal to include me with the worst of all his students.
I thought that he was all-powerful and knew something about me that I did not. I was wrong.
Years passed. I attended college for one semester in Texas and was forced by bureaucracy to take a basic Mathematics class. I had avoided it for the duration of my college days in California, despite needing it for my degree. Of course I was terrified but I had no option. I would not give up the degree so I had to try and get through.
I had a very sweet instructor; her name was Betty and she reminded me of a kindly mother hen who cared deeply about her chicks. If a student, such as myself, had a question it was answered with gentleness and respect or else she requested that the person see her after class to get a detailed answer. She assured us every single day of the semester that we were all excellent and could get a good final grade without trouble. She was clearly not familiar with either my dismissive teacher or this different kettle of fish.
One day in class we had a test which consisted of about one hundred questions on the cumulative work we had done. It involved fractions, quadratic equations, algebra, decimals, graphs and everything one could think of related to Mathematics on a fundamental level.
Before the instructor passed back the sheaf of graded papers, she clutched them to her chest and beamed brightly.
"Now, everybody, there was only one person in the whole class who got 100 percent," she said.
She looked right at me and said my name to the class. I am not sure there exists a word to describe my thoughts just then, or my suspicion that if I floated any higher I would touch the ceiling.
In between being cruelly called a Different Kettle of Fish and coming to understand that it might, actually, be a very fine thing to be, I met my Spouse, who is a walking calculator and relishes the mystery of numbers. That sort of enthusiasm tends to rub off on another person, and soon I was reading whatever I could find on the enchantment of Mathematics. I read, to name a few:
-A book about the astonishing Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, 'The Man Who Loved Only Numbers,' by Paul Hoffman
-'Mr. God, This is Anna,' by Fynn, about a tiny child who never ceases to question the magic of numbers and physics
-The works of Richard Feynman
-Certain writings of Douglas Hofstadter related to accessible number theory
There is magic in everything, magic in numbers. If that is not understood, it is impossible to teach anything to another human being. I am thankful for people who answer questions with patience and for people who open doors to great worlds; those who close them are in short supply and I am left with no available category to place them into.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:59 AM
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
"Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."
Contrary to popular trends, when I was in my final year of school I dreaded the very last class on a Friday. It was History, and for more than an hour I sat at my desk desperately wishing away the minutes. I did and still do love history, for all its subjective quality and its multiple versions. The problem was that the final year of school was a tense one and when I suffer tension, I find everything funny, especially things that are not. Coupled with that difficulty was the teacher I had: he made us all read out loud from our books and the least smirk, loss of attention or spark of giddiness and he was like a cannister of gasoline. Having with my own eyes seen him pick people up by the collar and throw their desks against the wall it was so very important that one not laugh while reading from the book in that class. He chose us randomly so there were times when I was saved by keeping my head down and at the back of the room. I was forever terrified of not being able to hold it in. Sometimes, though, I could not, and right at the end as I raced toward the final line, my breathless voice would break into a series of squeaks. He never seemed to notice and I did survive.
And then one Friday evening it fell apart in a blizzard of bad luck and poor timing. Minutes after class began he started to choose us in order of where we were sitting. I knew I could not escape this. The teacher was in a particularly ominous and edgy mood. He began with the fellow sitting three desks away and moving along in my direction. I was panicking, I was perspiring and I badly wanted to weep because I was afraid so much of laughing.
It came to my turn and I thought that something would happen: a fire drill, a change of heart, anything to save me from my impending doom. The girl next to me tore through her last line and I thought her cruel and heartless for not reading at a snail's pace. Finally she stopped and it was my turn. My heart was so violently loud I was certain that they could all hear it. Nevertheless the only way to get through something is to begin it, so I did.
I actually thought that I managed considerably well. I was smooth, and reading at a decent speed. Not a soul knew how scared I was. With one section to go I felt that I might make it after all and if I could get through this, then the curse might be broken.
He interrupted me for a moment to make a comment on the text. I despised that because I was in fine fettle and anxious to be finished. It gave me a moment to make a fateful mistake and to read ahead by myself. I wanted to know what was coming but I ought to have been wiser.
The passage was about the death of Stalin- the actual death and not the aftermath- and it read this way:
"...the best medical brains were summoned to his bedside...attended to Stalin..."
I had a ghastly vision just then.
I saw Stalin on his deathbed, and a team of brains- vibrant, living, pink and grey brains- dressed in stark white doctor's coats and looking as grim as one can be without a mouth or eyes, marching in a serious troop to the side of Stalin and determining that he could not be saved.
The teacher ceased talking and I understood with horror that it was my cue to continue. I took a deep breath and began to speak the words but when I reached that sentence my resolve collapsed and I had no more breath to continue the farce. It became quite clear that I was laughing hysterically and that I could not go on.
He raised his head from the book sharply and glanced at me.
"Go on," he said in a tone that I could scarcely defend myself against.
I was in no state to read any more and I shook my head. I could bear having my desk hoisted out the window with me seated at it: now that the pressure had been relieved I could envision nothing worse happening.
He sighed, deflated. I must have been under a special charm that afternoon: all he said was, "look at that. The poor man's dead and she's laughing!"
He shook his head with a faint smile and finished the piece on his own.
I wonder if he understood, in reading, what I had been humoured by; I would like to have told him but was so relieved by the lack of any punishment that I was ecstatic and carefree. Sadly, he passed away last year at a relatively young age. My laughing at the text of Stalin's death is my most distinctive memory of his classes.
I spent too much time fretting about that class.
I appreciate the the old adage that says, "never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you." In the meantime we ought to cherish everything else that happens along the way.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:25 AM
Monday, January 14, 2008
"Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon."
On Sunday we gallivanted to our new favourite thrift store and dug out the following treasures:
Albert Camus: The Plague
William Trevor: The Story of Lucy Gault
Colin Turnbull: The Forest People
Ellen Raskin: Figgs and Phantoms
None of the books resemble each other in content; they are as eclectic as it is possible to be at the price of a dollar each.
Ostensibly that activity did not align with our intent to live the uncluttered life. Were we to indulge in the exercise on a regular basis we would be far, too far from our dream of being able to carry our home on our backs in the admirable way that a tortoise does. Once in a while we might venture to such stores and, being careful indeed in our selection, treat ourselves to a wonderful hour of combing through the jumble. It is, for us, all about the search for books and about the exploration of unchartered corners.
During one delicious spell I was up to my elbows in discarded books and, oblivious to all else, was burrowing through an enormous skip of joy, armed with a capacity for dust and a fine measure of anticipation.
I must say thank goodness that each person varies from another:
one man's meat is another's poison, and somebody's tattered trash might be my idea of a pearl.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:38 AM
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Snowman in a field
listening to the raindrops
wishing him farewell
Meteorologists are not infallible. They earnestly promised rain for today but at this very minute the sky is cornflower blue, the ground dry and cracked.
Sometimes they are wrong, but in our favour, and we ought to be glad of that.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:23 AM
Saturday, January 12, 2008
"You've got to love many and trust a few,
do as well as you can do,
give everybody what you think they're due
and always paddle your own canoe."
-an old proverb, also words sung by Charlie McGettigan in the song 'Paddle Your Own Canoe.'
I did not lay so much as a fingernail on a computer until I was nineteen and my brother brought one home to us. It was Christmas time and the house was cosy, lit with prismatic and shimmering coloured lights around a roaring fireplace.
It was a happy, magical time when we got that computer: within hours my brother and I had discovered a sample of "Prince of Persia," a popular game, on a disc that accompanied the wondrous machine. Precisely because it was the very first video game we ever played, it still holds an air of wistfulness for me when I recall how our mouths verily hung open in awe and our eyes widened to the size of teacups as we discovered the colours, the sounds and the various actions we could cause the animated figure to perform.
A few years on, and I know now that many children take possession of computers by the time they can walk. It was not that way for us and every new element we came to learn on the prodigious piece of technology was another memory for the bank of nostalgia.
Ah, but when I discovered the joys of e-mail my entire world took off like a galloping horse.
One of my first thrills was setting myself up with an address and developing my skills at contacting people who heretofore had not known of me. At the time, I was listening repeatedly to an album called "Family Matters" by Charlie McGettigan. The words he sang were thoughtful and gentle and particularly at that time in my life I treasured the lines "don't be nervous/do your best/you're as good as all the rest/the world is out there waiting/just for you."
I decided that one of my very first e-mails would be to Charlie McGettigan himself. My mother had related many a time over the years how she once attended a concert of his and to her delight received a polite kiss from the singer after the show.
Naturally I had to make mention of that. I told him that I loved the album and jested that he must, surely, remember my mother from a concert he performed more than ten years previously.
I felt inspired by a great measure of bravery as I wrote the e-mail, a mere couple of months after using a computer for the first time. I wrote it, I think, not for a response- I was far too shy to think of that possibility- but for some character building and to improve my social skills.
Less than a week later, I was astonished beyond words by an e-mail I received. Charlie McGettigan had responded to me and made a wonderful, witty joke that he of course remembered my mother, and I was to be sure to say hello to her.
I was flabbergasted. The e-mail process worked, but more to the point, it showed me that well-known people could be polite and very ordinary human beings. Which proved, in turn, that polite and ordinary human beings could become anything they wanted to be.
That was all I needed to hear.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:26 AM
Friday, January 11, 2008
"A book of verses underneath the bough,
a jug of wine,
a loaf of bread,
We had no bread this morning and so I made some. I rolled five flat pieces out of a small ball of dough and then cooked them in a pan on the hob before sitting down to enjoy what I think might be my most successful bread yet. I am highly pleased with myself and feel rather accomplished in my own way.
I can hardly imagine that there was a time, mere months ago, that Spouse and I were buying bland packages of bread from the supermarket and enduring the honour of paying an arm and a leg for them. I do not dismiss packages of bread as a whole, simply the ones that are available in our particular local area. We have never been quite enamoured with ready-made bread wherever we lived, but prior to this period in our lives we had not been motivated to do anything about the matter. Indeed we would not have known at all where to begin. Owning a breadmaker with a curious story was not sufficient. Feeling a vague sense of longing for a better taste was not enough. When we were ready, and only then, we made the choice to change; and we are so much the better for it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:58 AM
"Whether you think you can or think you can't- you are right."
I do enjoy the fabulous and clever Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel. In particular I have a fondness for the story 'Cookies,' one of rather human willpower and character-building.
Frog and Toad begin to enjoy some home-baked cookies that Toad made. Then they worry that they are eating too many too quickly. They discuss willpower, and Frog reasonably classifies it as "trying hard not to do something you really want to do."
The pair decide to have one last cookie- many times over. Finally, they stand up, almost ill. Something must be done. Frog puts the cookies into a box, ties a string around the box and puts the box on a hard-to-reach shelf. They soon discover, though, that willpower is not enough: they realise that if they want to, they can climb a ladder, fetch the box off the shelf, untie the string, open the box and remove the cookies, by which time they might easily eat the delicious snack.
I absolutely love Frog and Toad for its breathtaking simplicity: in the end, they throw all the cookies to the birds, crumbs and all. Toad is devastated and wanders home after telling his friend that he is giving up; lots and lots of willpower might be fine but Frog could 'keep it all.'
If it seems too easy, perhaps we are not practicing willpower fervently enough. We imagine that if we can reach the shelf and untie the string, there might be no point in so much as beginning a resolution.
How far should one go to avoid our Achilles' heel?
I have been known to, for example, give my selection of chocolate to my mother and ask her to hide it for me; under no circumstance was she to hand it over, no matter what I asked or how difficult I got. I am surprised that she even undertook this dangerous mission but, there again, bravery does come in all shapes and sizes.
It inevitably ended with my demanding the goods less than an hour later. If she did not weaken and give me what I wanted, I sought it out myself and would locate it within a couple of minutes.
Willpower is hard, not just when it comes to dangerous snacks but in all aspects of life: rising early, finishing a project or keeping calm when faced with heinous bad manners. As my Spouse wryly quipped once, "life is hard, isn't it?" Perhaps avoiding temptation is intended to be an uphill struggle and we will emerge all the better for it. But one does enjoy an honestly-earned cookie sometimes.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:12 AM
"Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need."
The story goes that three eminent and successful people were questioned about what each would most like to hear their family say about them at their respective funerals.
The first said, "I would like to hear them all say that I helped a lot of people and achieved my life's ambitions."
The second said, "I want to hear them say that I made a great difference in the world."
The third was silent for a moment before he declared, "I would really like to hear them say, 'look! He's moving!'
Setting aside the fact that it is a joke and not at all to be taken literally, I mention it today because it put me in mind of ambition and the ever-present question of what we might want from life. We all have different priorities and varied visions of success that separate us from each other.
I fear, sometimes, that Spouse and I are being observed and listened to, and at very close range. How else would one explain Spouse's great ideas, projects and mental inventions heart-dashingly appearing on the cover of suitably geeky magazines a mere few months after Spouse spoke aloud about a vague idea? A good deal of the cause lies not in our being secretly recorded, but in the fact that we simply do not know what to do with our ideas, whether they be in technical or writing adventuring. The ideas might be decent ones but we are in dire need of more than thoughts: we need motivation, a real and actual plan that transposes into a physical project, and an unnamed something that burns us just enough to keep us endeavouring.
I think from time to time about the alarming shortage of people we know personally, who have set out to do what they always wanted to do, and are actually happy. There is but one life for each of us, and we ought to make the most, and the best, out of it. I certainly do not wish to be the wise-cracking joker who can think of nothing but a humourous punchline when asked about what they wanted from life.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:06 AM
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune- without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
It has been two years, and I have a mighty task to grasp that it has been so long, since Spouse, Mater and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon during one of her visits to see us. It pains me to even think of how exultant we all were as we stood on the rim gazing out at a humbling vastness, feeling like mere little humans on a planet we scarcely understood. The Grand Canyon will do that: shake a person to the core despite all the photographs one might have viewed or all the tales heard. It cannot be described, only seen and experienced.
To be there was awe-inspiring, hair-raising, staggering.
The entire trip had been magnificent. Just the previous evening we had attended an IMAX film about the Grand Canyon; a semi-fictionalised account of some men canoeing their way into history and scrambling over rocks to explore that incredible world.
One scene in particular stands out: a rugged pioneer standing on some jagged stone as a gigantic cat leaps from nowhere and prepares to savage him. The man was able to fire his gun with moments to spare; but when the cat pounced, my dear Mater forgot it was a film and she screamed shrilly for the sake of that poor man. She was the only one to scream and it was of course perfectly noticeable. I considered exiting discreetly but bore the shame with valour.
I like to recall that scene with pleasure because the following day it all turned upside down and my embarrassment was a drop in the ocean. We were cruising slowly through the park, stopping our car at all points beautiful which of course was every few feet. At some point toward the end, we paused for one last or second last longing look- Spouse and I through the car windows and Mater at the edge in the biting fresh air. We were ready to exit soon and we had seen what we had travelled for.
We drove for another twenty minutes after that scenic point. I was in the back seat, Spouse was driving, Mater was taking it all in. And then she muttered something under her breath, reached out her hand and clutched somebody's knee with a frightening fierceness. It is peculiar that I cannot now recall whose knee, yet I can still today see her expression vividly.
"My bag," she gasped, her face the very picture of horror. Forget mountain lions leaping on unsuspecting old men: she looked quite ill. Her eyes searched frantically around the car before she could utter another word. Her bag had been left on the ground at our last vista point, some half an hour and endless winding roads behind us. Which vista point? We did not know. There were so many and suddenly we were furious at the Grand Canyon for being so sweeping and far-reaching.
As we circled back and drove while trying to retrace our journey, the issue became a grave one. We found out what her bag contained and our hearts just broke.
Passport. Medicine. Glasses. Camera. Video Camera. Cigarettes. Airline tickets back to Ireland. 600 dollars in cash. Gifts. Other precious things that were given less priority due to the monetary and mental value of the initial items.
We hurried as quickly as we could. My Spouse drove so carefully and logically asked questions about where it might have been but in the end it was hopeless: hardly twenty minutes had passed but the bag was already gone by the time we reached the fateful spot.
It was the most dreadful six or seven hours we could imagine. The park rangers were very kind and assured her they would do their best but it was a blow of the worst sort.
We were due to fly back to Texas the following day and Mater had no passport to do so. That needed to be dealt with but leaving the park was so hard to do for we felt that we were abandoning all chance of finding the precious bag. It was silly, really: we thought that staying in the park would keep us closer to it.
Eventually we had to go. We did sort out the flight issue and got back to Texas after explaining the situation to the airline staff. That was a domestic flight, however. We were not sure how an international flight would work with the same circumstances, assuming that her passport and airline tickets would not be found. Days later Mater received a telephone call from the Grand Canyon rangers to say that somebody had found and handed in the bag. We asked them to post it to the house in Texas; there was, mercifully, ample time before her flight home. We fearfully tore through the bag which was bumped, dusty and bruised and had been on such an adventure it could not tell us about.
Passport. Medicine. Glasses. Camera. Video Camera. Cigarettes. Airline tickets back to Ireland. Gifts.
Mater explored every pocket for the money but the 600 dollars in cash had vanished. It was creepy, it was dirty and it was the worst of human nature. The rotten scoundrels carefully extracted the money and left everything else untouched, which I imagine we were supposed to be grateful for. We were of course glad for what was returned to us but when it is taken from you wrongly that gladness is a bitter pill.
Mater went back home as planned and we got on with our lives. She never wanted to use that bag again, she insisted, and instead gave it to me. Every few months, I pull the bag out and use it for a brief period. Whenever I do this, I examine the pockets and every inch of that bag. Just in case.
Of course I have not found the money. Logic says that I never will. But I search all the same, because some part of me cannot comprehend. Perhaps that is to say that I possess hope. I would rather think we had not looked properly, and emerge looking foolish for my naive nature, than to think such ill of human beings. I will probably search for as long as I own the bag because it helps to go through the pockets for the thousandth time and have a speck of expectation and a grain of hope.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:23 AM
"If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy,
If a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you,
If the simple things in nature have a message you understand,
Rejoice, for your soul is alive."
-Eleanora Duse, Italian actress 1858-1924
My mother requested me to add another memory from the trip where we supposedly enquired about Tip O' Neill.
A gathering of very, very old and impossibly wrinkled men in equally ancient cloth caps were propping up a wall on Main street, enjoying an enviably slow and peaceful life of which the pub and cows, no doubt, were the main concern. It looked like a scene from an Irish postcard.
This was a rare holiday for us and so it was essential to record every little detail on film. When the sharp old fellows realised that their photograph was being taken, one of them announced matter-of-factly to his friends in a thick, rural Irish accent, "they're shnappin' us."
Shnappin' them, indeed. I would surely like, somehow, to live the type of life that tourists would be inclined to photograph for the album and snap for posterity.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:37 AM
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
"Manners are more important than laws and upon them, to a great deal, the law depends."
-George Bernard Shaw
Years upon years ago when I was knee high to a grasshopper I went with my mother, while we were on holiday in a delightful seaside town, to a store on the main street that sold odds and ends and colourful curios.
I remember that there was the littlest, dearest old lady behind the counter who watched us in a pleasant way.
My mother was interested in purchasing some earrings but they had to be of a particular kind.
"Do you have clip-on earrings?" my mother queried while browsing.
The store owner thought about it for a moment.
"No," she replied at last. "I don't think he's been in here for a while, now."
My mother was greatly baffled.
"Clip-on earrings?" she said again, a mite nervously now.
"Tip O' Neill?" the little old lady said carefully, referring to the then-living American politician.
"No, no! Clip-on earrings," my mother tried again.
My mother was able, eventually, to discern that the store did harbour such things as she was searching for, and she subsequently purchased a pair. The lady was very sweet about her odd mistake and we went merrily on our way.
These days when Spouse and I venture into a grocery store or indeed any public place, we are misheard more times than one could shake a stick at. Yet, somehow, it never emerges in the same way that it happened for my mother in a windswept Irish town years ago. Instead of a sweet, extremely hard-of-hearing old lady frittering away behind her counter who innocently mistakes discussion of earrings for pondering about travelling politicians, we are met by youngsters with open mouths, reluctance to listen, and glassy eyes- and oh, yes: certainly it is quite all our fault that we struggle to be understood.
Maybe, perhaps, some day, when out seeking and hoping for high quality customer service, such a moment will happen for us again and we will laugh about it for another twenty years.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:56 AM