Sunday, August 24, 2008
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."
Spouse and I depart tomorrow morning for our week-long adventure. Before we arrive at the home of my relative in Michigan- one I have not met with for many years- we will make a slight stop at Niagara Falls.
Poor Mater, who heard about our trip in precisely that order and who has long wished to visit both the relative and the waterfall, lamented softly about our seeing the former. She wished me a happy family visit in her brave and noble way.
I made it worse by adding the bit about Niagara Falls, but I could hardly help it: Mater prefers to know my whereabouts and my attire at all times and I was obliged to update her on my imminent trip. Regarding the aforementioned attire, on this occasion she would greatly like to be assured that I would be dressed not only in my usual sunhat and sunglasses and sunblock, but a secure lifejacket as well.
Have no fear, Mater. Our neighbourhood waterfall- a mere droplet compared to the great Niagara- causes my stomach to churn about in most unsettling ways and I shall not venture, once we reach Niagara Falls, to closely examine the water's temperature, velocity, or capacity to instill fear.
I will, on the other hand, remember to commit the entire scene to memory, to inhale the mighty spray and to marvel at the astonishing fact that once more I get to plant my feet firmly on land I had only dreamed of experiencing.
I will be safe, but I will also be glad.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:44 AM
Saturday, August 23, 2008
"Children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything."
My brother and I, in our youth, conducted an experiment that involved a piece of fruit and a biscuit tin, and a wellspring of curiosity that had no end. In short, we nurtured a banana and gave it a unique classification.
During the month of December friends and family would invariably call on us and bestow gifts of biscuit tins- the cheerful containers were delightfully bedecked with reindeer, Santa Claus or snowflakes and one way or another my brother and I always found a use for the pretty things beyond storage of generic biscuits.
Sometime after Christmas one year, when the supply of gift-biscuits had at last been depleted and the tins were almost empty, my brother and I deemed the occasion right to commence our work.
We snatched from the table a bruised and sorry looking banana. We emptied the least popular and therefore doomed biscuits- there are always some sort that nobody will ever eat- into another tin, and took our project outside. The banana went into the tin, the lid was closed tightly and the whole thing was given a name. We called it- secretly of course- after two people we were not so fond of; let us say here, for the sake of common decency and privacy, that it was X and Y's Atomic Banana. X and Y were a rather volatile and acerbic pair and we thought the name apt.
That was that.
We were to resolutely check in on X and Y's Atomic Banana, which was stored safely in the darkest recess of the garage, every few weeks to examine its sticky and unsettling progress. The more rusted and liquidised and melted and vile and unbanana-like the banana became, the more successful we considered ourselves in our ambitions.
I cannot now recall what was done in the end with the tin when all traces of fruit had evaporated, when the tin and the banana had absorbed each other to create an object that was neither wholly tin nor completely banana but we thought fondly of X and Y's Atomic Banana in the years afterward.
The game, as such, cost next to nothing; was an enormous amount of fun; lasted a long stretch of our childhood; required great leaps of patience and taught us one or two things about the aging process of a banana.
One can hardly discount such fun and learning and ungarnished enthusiasm. Those were the days.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:37 AM
Friday, August 22, 2008
“Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat.”
I have been postponing a grand disquisition on how Spouse at Last Bought Some Sunglasses. It had taken so long to reach that particular point of expenditure and decision-making that I almost did not believe it myself.
For two hours we languished in a large discount store and experimented with various colours, frames and designs. We compressed, I suspect, all the time we ought to have spent casually over the previous two years into one single- and I must admit pleasant- afternoon.
I would like to tell the world that it ended happily, but the truth is that the sunglasses cracked the other day. They mysteriously snapped in the same section of the frame that was fractured in the previous pair.
Worse yet, less than twenty four hours after we disposed of the receipt the sunglasses gave up the ghost.
I am, truth be told, rather more immune to the fact of the breakage than that of the receipt being lost to us forever. After all, quality understandably varies from item to item but the fragile piece of paper- which might just have recuperated if not our time then at least our money- sat in a pile of paper for more than two months without its services being required. It reposed quietly, waiting for the call of duty, but none came.
We tore it up and sent it out. The sunglasses had officially been made permanent.
Then they broke.
Once in a while, I might whimsically imagine myself to I have it all calculated and figured- life, that is- and then I am made sharply to understand that I have very little grasp on things.
A certain fact: a truly important paper will not ever be needed until the day after it is thrown away: although I cannot hear the sounds, the very walls are laughing at me, at us, at any soul who thinks otherwise.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:57 AM
Thursday, August 21, 2008
“One man's remorse is another man's reminiscence.”
Many years ago my mother and I accompanied an elderly neighbour to an out-of-town concert. The neighbour had entered a radio contest and she won several sets of tickets to see a fellow named Johnny McEvoy. Mater was quite a fan, I liked his songs well enough and we thought we would make an evening out of it. He was rather well known around Ireland and we were delighted at the imminent and unexpected prospect of seeing a celebrity.
Mater and I were surprised, upon arrival, to find that the venue was no theatre: instead we stepped into a diminutive community hall. The chairs were of cafeteria quality- hard backed plastic- and there was no visible stage.
We looked about and wondered at the diminutive area Johnny McEvoy would have to perform in. We lamented that his career must be at a low ebb. The whole scene left us with the distinct impression that we were about to witness a cheap and amateur routine.
The mystery was soon solved when the singer emerged from behind a curtain- and it was not him at all.
It turned out in the end that we three spent the entire evening listening to the low-key warblings of local man Larry McEvoy- not a celebrity, not related to Johnny, not even, dare I say it, a particularly notable singer, our high expectations aside.
The old woman, whose mishearing had led to our deep disappointment, was the sole satisfied listener of the three of us. Indeed, I would go so far as to say she had not an inkling of who either Larry or Johnny were and could not, then, have told the difference between them, between an evening with a music star and a bleak, monotonous stretch of slow-ticking time. Mater and I kept each other awake with intermittent prods and, too, saved each other from tumbling into grim despair at the melancholy tunes.
When all is said and done, though, I know this for certain: had it been Johnny who played for us that evening; had things gone according to plan; had the old lady known whose concert tickets she was in possession of, I might not remember the event to this very day.
Mater and I are still laughing. That must count for something.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:29 AM
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
"The past is strapped to our backs. We do not have to see it; we can always feel it."
Mater is a steady source of inspiration. In requesting sparks of writing ideas from my mother I have found her to be constantly unfolding new items; even if they are not quite on the same train of thought as I had planned then her advice sets me onto another, equally hopeful track.
She mused on a story I know well but had long since neglected to think of: years ago a cousin of mine was cycling with her young son near their home.
They sailed over the brow of the hill- I must stop for a reminiscence: what a hill. I can clearly see the spread of patchwork fields, the faint outline of a distant farmhouse down in the valley, the unkempt mass of thorns and brambles that brushed the mother and son's shoulders as the two wheeled idly over that well-worn and narrow road with its caterpillar of grass rising up through the middle.
The son, who might have been eight at the time, was leading. He suddenly turned his head into the wind to ensure that his mother was still there. He shouted, in a most spontaneous moment, that his mother, at a certain angle and with the right shade of dusk upon her, looked just like yours truly. I had long been said to bear a resemblance to my cousin but it was a sudden and fleeting glimpse that the child caught.
I was not there; I heard tell of it soon afterward, and of my cousin's amazement.
I know the tale well, as does Mater who a short time ago related it to me.
"Do you remember," she said, "we were all walking, and he shouted that she looked like you?"
"Were you there?" I asked with some skepticism.
"I was there! We were walking. You were there too!"
"Nobody was walking," said I. "They were on bicycles, and they were alone."
"No," insisted my mother slowly, "I was there."
After a short pause, she added, "or was I? You know, maybe I wasn't!"
One has to love a story that coasts merrily along through the mists of time without losing its colour, a story that one hears so often and so well they might as well have been there.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:03 AM
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
"The real mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be experienced."
-J.J. Van der Leeuw
Mater woke up yesterday morning, reached for her cell phone and constructed a message of goodwill and sympathy to my brother. He injured his hand the other evening and Mater, wondering what the condition of the bandaged appendage might be, carefully typed: "how is my poor son's hand?"
No, thought she, it was best not to suggest that he might be impoverished.
She quickly adjusted the appropriate letters: "how is my son's poor hand?" and sent off the message with a flourish.
Moments later a call came from the fellow in question.
Tongue firmly in cheek, he exclaimed, "what do you mean, saying I'm your poor son? I'm not poor! I'm rich!"
Mater soon advised my brother that he must have read the message incorrectly. After he examined the note, and after a puzzled Mater glanced at her virtual folder of sent messages, it was understood that he had inexplicably managed to read it exactly as the first message had been written- despite the fact that it had been deleted and had never in fact been sent.
A mother ought always to be careful about her flashes of thought. That magical mother-child connection is not a one-way system.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:43 AM
Monday, August 18, 2008
"Things do not change; we change."
-Henry David Thoreau
Mater frequently makes enquiries about my particular food habits- but then refuses to believe anything I tell her about vegetables.
If it happens that she questions me when I am in the midst of cooking broccoli, cabbage or anything remotely considered 'greens,' Mater assumes me to be merely teasing.
She has, I admit, rather good reason: I shied away from vegetables until I was in my twenties, not being able to abide the taste of that category of food. No doubt the faces I habitually made as a youngster- curling lip, watering eyes, jutting tongue- compelled the various boiled vegetables to retreat in mutual repulsion.
I have of late been consuming a significant amount of broccoli with a dash of soy sauce, and am finding it to be the better part of a meal. I have settled at last on a style of cooking vegetables which is my own and which I can savour.
"I'm really cooking broccoli," I say to that disbelieving ear, "and I'm about to have it for dinner. I can't wait."
"But what are you really having?" trills the inevitable voice of doubt. She simply cannot envision me sitting down to a plate of steaming vegetables and happily devouring the lot. Perhaps a photograph might sort matters promptly.
Truth be told, I myself would find photographic evidence to be useful: I am as startled as my mother at the relatively recent turn of events. There is nothing, I find now, quite like a lightly pan-fried piece of broccoli so soft that the touch of a fork causes it to disintegrate and there is nothing so fascinating as the thought "if my mother could see me now," to inspire one to attempt new culinary endeavors. There is no accounting for taste, or change, or change of taste.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:21 AM
Sunday, August 17, 2008
"A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins."
It is said that we can tell a good deal about people from their book collections. To some extent I have found that old maxim to be true.
Once, when Spouse knew me first, he caught sight of my little bookshelf, a semi-blurred fragment in the background of a photograph.
He noted with some surprise that I appeared to be in possession of a book either regarding Information Technology or Income Tax. The book's title, so far as he could fathom, was 'IT.'
Spouse, being all about technology, information and engineering, one day thought to question me about the book and what I had thought of it.
It transpired that the book was neither of his estimations. Instead it was of the lone genre that Spouse actively avoids: a horror novel by Stephen King.
Too late- we were already rather compatible, enough to find the humour in a misunderstanding.
Even though I have long evolved from that sort of reading material the book still features on our bookshelf as a quaint reminder of a time when Spouse had to guess at who I might be, and vice versa.
When much time passes, with a fleeting glance at our books old and new, loved and loathed, we can tell a good deal about ourselves as well.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:55 PM
Saturday, August 16, 2008
“Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.”
We own a tent. It is a fine grand tent that we carried with us from California, and subsequently from Texas, and- I do not yet know the end of that story. It will come with us wherever we go next.
That is to say, I do believe the tent is fine, even though we have spent in it just part of an evening when we set it up four years ago in our friend's back yard.
She was most kind to offer us the use of her space to erect the tent- we wanted to know how it would be, and to get a little practice before venturing into the unforgiving wild.
We drove to our friend's house and pitched the tent just after twilight. Our companion wandered about, looked the tent over and deemed it an excellent one, exclaiming happily that we would have lovely times with it.
Spouse and I sat on the threshold; we gazed out and observed the stars that winked above Northern California. I think in the end we were more enamoured of our friend's delight and of the tall trees that circled her property than of anything related to the art of building a tent.
We made great plans for our travels but with one thing and another never found the right reasons to go on an expedition that required the tent.
In spite of the preceding being the single occasion in which we unfolded the enormous shelter, it is still a very dear memory- and it is why we will cling to it and keep the tent for as long as we are able, even in the whirlwind of cleaning and deconstructing that takes place weekly in our apartment.
Nothing, of course, stays the same: among other things our friend's beloved house is for sale and we are far, in so many different ways, from our impromptu camping ground. It might have been the world's briefest camping trip, and it is just a little reminiscence, but it cannot be surpassed, and we are fortunate.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:36 PM
Friday, August 15, 2008
“Being brilliant is no great feat if you respect nothing.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A few years ago Spouse and I were motoring with Mater in her car. If memory serves rightly it was shortly after our wedding and we were on our way to a train station. All of a sudden another car overtook ours and rushed past from behind. It was an incompetent and illegal action as we were on the cusp of a bend in the road. When the car was level with us and we were running parallel to each other, it met an oncoming car. The impatient driver attempted to abruptly pull back onto his own side, which happened to have Mater, Spouse and I obstructing his path.
He succeeded in getting in front of us and out of the way half a second before the other car flew past, and in the end nobody was hurt.
Mater was seething and annoyed, and for once she thought she ought to flash her lights, if only to inform the erratic driver that he had behaved foolishly.
For one reason or another Mater hit not the lights but turned on her windshield wipers instead. The fellow turned off onto another road and was gone, and Mater lost her chance.
"That's it," said I, cackling. "You flash your wipers at him. He won't try that again!"
I think of that often, of Mater's wipers gently and meaninglessly waving back and forth in a poor attempt to express her dismay.
None but we three understood the intended message.
Last night Spouse and I glanced out our window and noted with horror and a strange awe that our neighbour, who is not on his best days likely to be a candidate for any Good Parking awards, had positioned his vehicle in the most disastrous way I had yet seen. He had reversed in at a curious angle so that both our cars made a 'V' shape, such was their proximity to one another. Despite Spouse having parked his own car two feet or more from the line- there is no assigned space on the other side so Spouse has ample room to park rather far over on his side without bothering anybody- our neighbour had still, somehow, inexplicably, managed to inch his car alarmingly close to ours.
It turned out that Spouse was sufficiently unsettled by the observation- not the first from that neighbour but certainly the worst yet- to take some photographs, examine the side of our car for possible dents- I still wonder at how anybody could have emerged from the car without hitting ours- and climb upstairs to request that the fellow move his poorly aligned car. Warily observing the camera around Spouse's neck, he did so, but did not quite seem to grasp the nature of the problem, nor the concept of brightly painted lines.
Spouse is not a confrontational sort of character, just as Mater is slow to enact her wrath. There are times when voicing concern is necessary, if uncomfortable- we would both have preferred that Spouse did not have to go to our neighbour and complain.
Oh, to have Mater here, flashing her wipers and causing a tremble among the less respectful drivers!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:56 AM
Thursday, August 14, 2008
"Let us forgive each other - only then will we live in peace."
Local lore from my area in Ireland tells of a man named Croker, a landlord in the early nineteenth century. He had great expanses of lush land and much power and wealth. It was a good life for a ruthless landowner.
In Croker's last days a priest was sent rushing to the enormous house. As the priest tried to comfort the dying man, he said softly, "you'll be going to a better place."
The greedy Croker took a long look around his beloved empire and sighed. "I doubt it."
The phrase has never faded from common usage. I find myself at times uttering the words, "I doubt it, says Croker," to emphatically deny a given situation.
Some years ago Spouse and I almost moved to Long Island, New York, from California. At the last moment Spouse made a telephone call and informed the recruiter he was working with that he would not be accepting the offer after all.
As is Spouse's natural custom in his professional life, he said, "I hope to work with you again someday."
Whether Spouse thought they would need each other again, or whether the recruiter considered Spouse to be a person he wished to work with, the right thing to demonstrate would have been respect and a dignified farewell. It is a small world we inhabit and a shared career path shrinks the space a little more.
Instead the recruiter, stung by the revelation that the enterprise had not worked in his favour, spat back: "I doubt it."
Spouse, in his usual manner that reminds me always of sleepy lapping lakewater, said, "that's very unfortunate. I'm sorry you feel that way." He, however, never quite forgot the spite and anger that the recruiter displayed so unprofessionally.
After four years we were given occasion to recall the fellow when just yesterday he left a message for Spouse regarding a potential job opportunity.
It was evident from his carefree tone as well as his inability to pronounce Spouse's name correctly that the recruiter had not a jot of recollection of their working together previously.
At yesterday's end they spoke briefly and civilly but Spouse declined to stimulate the fellow's memory and for various reasons they will not be reconnecting this time around.
It helps to bear in mind that the world is very small indeed.
Croker, who doubted it, might not have thought much beyond the vast property and riches he laid claim to, but the rest of us must do so, and must get along as best we can.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:29 PM
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
“Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”
-George Bernard Shaw
Mater has of late been renovating the kitchen. Wallpaper, cupboards, furniture and floor lining are being drastically torn out and replaced and I might perhaps not know the old homestead when next I travel.
I heard tell yesterday of the bright new furniture. Mater gushed the rehearsed profile all at once: "the chairs have black metal legs and backs; the cushion covers on the chairs are cream-and-terracotta check pads."
Well, one just might have to sit down after such an exhaustive verbal excursion.
I asked Mater, rather wickedly I admit, to repeat the statement, but her four attempts were futile. She descended into hysterics when the words got mingled and the description became one I could not recognise: 'black' turned to 'back;' 'legs' turned to 'begs' and the word 'leck' appeared from that great void of nowhere. The remainder was likewise suitably mangled.
I relish words, the pitfalls and entertainment they provide, the priceless combination one can invent on a whim, beginning with an object as simple as the leg of a chair.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:44 AM
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
“Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
Last year Mater transformed a green patch of garden to a space that could hold some parked cars. It was quite necessary due to the ever-increasing difficulty of getting the car in and out of the yard, considering that the adjacent road nowadays hosts so many delirious and speedy drivers.
The driveway had previously been dangerously narrow, and as such all incoming cars were forced to reverse in from the road so that they might point the right way for a safe exit- highly troublesome on such a stretch.
I heard from Mater yesterday that a fellow in a truck had come by to pave the driveway with more slabs of stone; over the course of some months the stones had gradually sunk and settled and it was time to add another layer.
Alas, she said, he had not understood his job very well and had poured all the stones on top of the wooden fence, flattening it completely, obscuring it from sight.
I was outraged on Mater's behalf.
"What did you do?" I was very curious because I could hardly imagine Mater expressing her vexation.
"Oh," she brushed it away, "I didn't say anything. The fence was old anyway. It needed repairing."
I was stunned into silence for a long moment. When I found my voice I struggled to keep it in measured tones. I explained to my mother that the driver of the truck had no knowledge of the fence's quality- or lack thereof- nor of its advanced years, nor Mater's attitude toward it. Which is to say that the fence, for all its weathered faults, was of no concern to him in performing his task.
Mater is rather a laid-back and undemanding individual at the best of times; I can hardly deny that she knows how to satiate her need for personal justice but more often than not she happily lets go of things I would prefer to pummel into the ground. How we differ!
As for the fellow who toppled the fence, I cannot say for certain what thoughts struck his mind as he poured the material and observed the wood splintering under the weight of the sudden burden- perhaps he was mildly surprised- but I suggest he was most astonished to get away without so much as a curt or crusty word from Mater.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:20 PM
Monday, August 11, 2008
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.”
This day one year ago our friend got married; Spouse and I travelled to Maine for the wedding. It was not a lavish or extravagant affair but it was the happiest of days.
I brought a selection of Irish music to accompany the bride, and our friend chose her favourite tune the night before- the melody that she would walk with and remember forever.
The ceremony was held in the open air at the edge of a lake. Speakers were arranged so that the instrumental tune would be heard by all.
Unfortunately, just as the bride was about to begin walking down the path to her betrothed, the fellow in charge of the music announced in a panic that for one reason or another his system was not compatible with the disc and the tune would not play. Music was a significant element of the wedding and the bride was understandably distraught at the possibility of striding down the aisle, as it were, without a song, without a sentimental soundtrack.
Her niece, in a bright and wonderful moment of innovation, suggested that she make haste, climb into her truck, drive it as close as possible to the ceremony, and play the music from the car's stereo.
The industrious niece did just that, and not a soul in the gathering was any the wiser. The music strummed and our dear friend walked the path she had dreamed of for so long.
It is a precious and beautiful attribute to be adaptable and open to last-minute adjustments. Life, of course, is all about change and quite about being prepared for diversions around the corner.
With such qualities as those, I anticipate for the pair a blessed and steadfast life together, and I tip my hat to my friend and her husband on this symbolic day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:34 PM
Sunday, August 10, 2008
"Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings."
After many decades a story recently surfaced that meant a great deal to my mother. She had known nothing of the event but its restoration emphasises the necessity of telling stories, of sharing personal anecdotes and of avoiding the dull sadness that comes with being the only soul left who recalls a happening.
One evening more than forty years ago my mother's parents were driving home from the city, where they worked daily, and had just begun their journey.
Tom, a fellow from their village who also worked in the city was waiting with thumb extended for a passer-by to offer him a lift; like most in Ireland in those days he had no car and relied on the kindness of strangers- or neighbours.
In any case, on the particular day in question, he saw his familiar neighbours coming from a distance. My grandfather was a notoriously slow driver and so Tom was astonished when the pair passed him by on the road- they were deep in discussion and did not see him.
It was not too long, however, before somebody did stop for poor Tom and soon overtook my grandparents' laggard car.
It was the custom to take a passenger as far as possible and drop them at some point so that they could get a lift with the next passing car. Tom waited by the roadside, hoping that my grandparents would soon pass by once more.
Indeed they did, but just like before the two did not look up and for the second time sailed past an astounded Tom.
He got another lift a few minutes later and the driver took him another length, again passing out his lumbering and oblivious neighbours.
I hardly need tell that it happened again: Tom, poor fellow, was subjected to a third overlooking when the next driver took him as far as he could and Tom watched my grandparents go past without seeing him.
Eventually Tom succeeded in reaching a petrol station a couple of miles from home- there, at last, my grandparents caught sight of the stranded Tom and invited him into their car.
Tom might never have divulged the whole tale but for the fact that my grandfather, as soon as the car began to roll, candidly said, "I nearly missed you there, Tom."
Tom could contain himself no longer.
"Paddy, you passed me three times already."
At which point all three roared with laughter and did not stop laughing all the way home.
The story is slight, but its resurrection is immeasurably significant to my mother, who knew nothing of it, and perhaps to Tom, too, who possessed it and carried it unshared for forty years or more.
He has passed it on, as did Mater, as do I.
When Tom met Mater in the village some months ago and insisted he had a fond memory of her parents that he wished to narrate, he was demonstrating a powerful element- one that goes far beyond providing temporary entertainment and brief laughter.
What was lost is no longer lost- that is the magic and the beauty of sharing stories.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:50 PM
Saturday, August 9, 2008
"The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes."
"You should write about that," urges Spouse often in attempts to assist me with writing material. He is my muse at the best of times, and if an idea strikes his mind he mentions it quickly lest he forget.
Most lamentably, I always fail to write the note, trusting implicitly in my memory, and inevitably Spouse's notion is tragically lost to the wind. Should I turn to Spouse hours later and request a second telling, his horrified expression tells all I need to know: he has lost it too.
Between the two of us we are sometimes unable to ever recall the fleeting glimpse of a story but their tantalising memories haunt us yet. One might suggest simply using pen and paper but I tend not to do so- due, perhaps, to the inexpensive nature of such implements and the ease with which we can forget or dismiss them. Spouse and I, then, determined that we ought to invest in a more costly and inspiring object that we will never forget to carry with us and never neglect to use in situations of potentials literary creativity.
Sometime in the coming week we will receive a small package in the mail: we purchased a miniature digital voice recorder, long considered, abandoned, reconsidered in a conflicting whirlwind of options and frugality.
"You should write about that," said Spouse, and although the tiny item has not yet arrived I completely agreed, made a mental note, and- well- here we are.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:51 PM
Friday, August 8, 2008
"And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."
I grew up in the countryside but our domestic animals consisted of the usual fare: cats, dogs, birds. Our neighbour, however, along with cats and dogs, had horses, goats and chickens- far more thrilling for children than the pets we loved dearly but considered lovable yet rather ordinary.
Our neighbour was then and still is a very wild sort of fellow, one whose skin turned to leather a long time ago. He was not precisely a farmer- he simply kept the assortment of animals on his little plot of land, driving from his home in the city every day to tend to the creatures, spending the day in the sun or rain building additional barns and henhouses before vacating it again for the night. They kept him company, and the sentiment was returned.
I was terrified of him. So was my brother; we had no particular reason to be so frightened save for the fact that the neighbour was not conventional and that he told rough tales of his exploits in handling fierce animals or people. We imagined he had been through many a battle.
The prickly predicament was this: my brother and I loved our neighbour's land, his animals and his mysterious dark barns with their cobwebs, sweet hay and scampering mice. He often suspected us of clambering over the barbed wire fence at twilight and pretending the animals were our very own. He suspected it and was quite correct in his judgement. One day, perhaps after finding our footprints embedded in his muddy fields, he urged us not to play with the horses. He felt he had to explain it in a coercive and loud way in order to make clear the message of danger to us: he said that the horses- especially the stallion- should be out of bounds for us because they might kick, bite or otherwise injure us. How much more sensational than our kind-hearted dogs who would not harm a fly.
I remember long Summers waiting for dusk, for our neighbour's van to roll out of his driveway and fade away with the last shreds of sunshine. We hid in the long grass on our property; the moment we could no longer hear his vehicle's engine, we hauled ourselves over the fence and became explorers. We never, I must stress, did any harm and our neighbour never feared that we would- his concern was for our safety. Our concern was that he must never catch us. Over the course of our childhood my brother and I garnished his personality, made him somebody to be wary of and to avoid diligently. It was more exciting, in our rural and sensible part of the world, to believe that we had to hide from him.
We dared each other night after night, year after year, to venture alone into one of the stables or barns, foolishly trusting that the other would not lock the door and run away. Petting the animals- goats, dogs, horses- chasing each other around the enormous fields- it was all utterly exhilerating because we were trespassers, we were young, and we were blessed with what seemed like miles to run about in and forever to do so. We fed the horses apples and grass, the dogs some scraps of meat.
One evening when I was eleven years old, our neighbour drove away at last into the setting sun. Having waited impatiently for that since earliest morning, I was first over the fence; there was just a single opening in the fence that bridged our land and his and we used that regularly. I was two feet, no more, from our field, and my brother was about to join me in adventuring. As I stood with my feet planted in the grass, watching my brother, thinking of horses and wondering how the goats were, I saw my sibling's face take on an expression I was not familiar with. I tried to analyse it. His mouth was opening bit by bit. His eyes were widening. His face was turning the colour of goat's milk. He was not looking at me, but at something just over my shoulder, behind my back. I turned around slowly and it was then that I became certain my heart would stop beating.
Our neighbour had returned. He had turned around on the road and was backing into his driveway. I had my hand on a horse at the time and to suggest that our neighbour had not yet seen me was naive even for a child. I knew, he knew, and my brother knew that there was no way to avoid the consequences.
I could but try, though, and I made a vain attempt that has stayed in my memory ever since.
Instead of taking two steps forward and coming back over our fence where all would be well and I would be safe, I backed away and started running down the length of the big field. The minute I began moving I knew it was a grave mistake but by the time I turned to look behind the fellow was already standing near that gap in the fence, watching me. I could not go back. My brother was nowhere to be seen. My neighbour- oh, yes, he became 'my' neighbour once my brother went into hiding and it was no longer his problem- started moving toward me. I had nowhere to run to and just kept on racing in a pathetic attempt to extricate myself.
At one point I crouched in some mercifully long grass while he hunted nearby for me and swished grass close to my head. I escaped again and in total ran about a quarter of a mile more than I needed to because of the roundabout and convoluted method I had undertaken to escape. I emerged, breathless, through our other neighbour's fence on the other side of our house and onto the main road.
I was just in time. As I entered our front gate I overheard my neighbour asking my mother if she had seen me lately, and encouraged her to warn me that I might do well to avoid the horses in future.
He may well have known that I was inches from him, just around the corner of our house.
I made sure from then on that my brother would always go over the fence before me and that we would never be caught again.
These days our neighbour is not the ogre we invented. He likes to converse for hours at a time, once kept Spouse for an hour for an over-the-fence discussion which I presume to have included my childhood exploits- and still enjoys the company of his beloved animals, lost though they might be without small intruders to feed and play with them.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:30 PM
Thursday, August 7, 2008
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
-Antoine de Saint Exupery
When I was sixteen my classmates staged a performance of 'Oklahoma.' All fifty students in my year were involved, and practice was a regular occurrence for six months- most of the school term: dancing, singing, acting the given parts until the show was perfected to a reasonable level.
Each student had at least one dance to implement even if their spoken lines or their singing routines happened to be few. Each student had their opportunity to beam their bright talents to an expectant audience.
I, however, was the exception: I was not assigned a single dance- solo or group- in the entire production. Instead I was placed in the wings; I was a costumed extra, a nameless character charged with the bland task of looking on at the various scenes as they unfolded. I was to do rather a lot of looking on during the course of the three evenings that the show would run for. In retrospect, I was rather like a privileged member of the audience- I had a bird's-eye view of all the activities and could observe the cast at close range, reacting accordingly with a hand or an open mouth to particular lines and cliffhangers.
I was, I have to admit, the bearer of a single line in the play. My words and character were both concocted at the last minute by a teacher who noted after half a year that I was standing idle.
My line was this: "it sounded like a gunshot."
My appearance on stage was limited to one minute, three quarters of which were filled with the speech of other cast members.
I bellowed my line when the grand moment came; I put forth all my vigour and energy into the role in spite of acute awareness that it was merely a scene inserted to kill time, a superfluous addendum to the play. Before the event I considered not turning up at all, not playing my minor part.
I was able to trumpet my one line because I believed this: even when we are inclined to underrate the usefulness and impact of our smallest actions, we ought to do what we can where possible. We might do better to put whole heart into all that we do- into small kindnesses and minute assignments and seemingly insignificant things. People always notice such things, be it a member of an audience or a passing stranger on the street.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:21 PM
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
"If only we'd stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time."
I do hate to be late. I prefer to arrive on time- or early- for any appointment that I make; it is part of my natural sensibility to worry about arriving promptly, and is quite fixed and permanent.
On the day Spouse and I got married, I was left with Mater in the house while the remainder of the wedding party had proceeded to the church.
I recall that Mater was attempting to complete my ensemble and attach a shawl to my dress. I was having none of it.
Oh, to have had a camera man immortalise one scene above all: I hauling and pulling for the back door, my half-arranged shawl streaming out behind me, poor Mater's hands attached to the other end of it and clinging on for dear life. I was the packhorse, she held the reins and I was not going to wait for Mater to fumble about when I was in danger of being late.
In actuality, the church was less than five minutes from home and we had perhaps ten minutes before the proposed starting time.
I desired to be precisely on time and nothing less would suffice.
"Let's go, let's go!" I said as Mater dawdled over something on my back, as she tried desperately to adjust one more thing on the moving creature that was I.
The road to the church was unobstructed by cars, as is typical on country roads, and we reached our destination at precisely the appointed time.
I stepped inside and peeked around a corner, sure that the family members were inspecting watches and looking anxiously for the bride.
To my astonishment, not one soul was sitting down. They were all milling about, gathered in various corners and catching up with one another's lives. I was forced to clear my throat not once but thrice in order to garner any attention and Mater had to wave wildly from our corner. I believe that the group had, for the moment, forgotten all about me.
I caught them by surprise and it was delightful to do so: I snatched a glimpse of faces I had not seen in long months or years. I was blessed with several moments to gather my thoughts, and to observe, unheeded and unseen, a small party of family and friends that had assembled for Spouse and I. Everybody looked immensely happy; no facade was it for the benefit of the bride and groom- for they were each unaware that I had arrived. Our entire wedding plan was devoid of tension, forced cheer or awkwardness: Spouse spent the evening beforehand learning to paint pictures, and had never been so carefree.
I do like to be ahead of schedule. Early presence can offer extraordinary insights and memorable portraits that one might otherwise be denied.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:08 PM
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
There is a television show I enjoy which features a female housekeeper at its heart. She makes the tea. She makes lots of tea, and offers it in teacups around the house at whim and refuses to take no for an answer.
Making tea happens to be the housekeeper's whole life, and she is utterly devastated one Christmas to be given, by the rest of the household, an automatic tea-making machine.
She is told lightly that her days of making tea are finished.
It is said in such a way as to make her feel better- her position of employment is secure though duties will no longer include anything to do with tea- but they do not know how much she cherishes the business of making tea, of serving it to those in her charge, and it makes her feel dreadful to know she is about to be made useless.
Such is her distress that the housekeeper sneaks down to the kitchen late at night and sabotages the machine with a screwdriver. After it grinds and wails alarmingly and then falls silent, there is an enormous smile on the perpetrator's face. Her work is, indeed, done, and off she goes to bed, knowing that she will be called upon in the morning to make some tea- by hand.
This could well have turned into a lengthy exposition on the importance of work and the necessity of feeling valued. That is all well and good, of course, but unrelated at the present time to my most urgent point: I admit to being a trifle influenced by the housekeeper's desperate actions.
Spouse and I own a perfectly valid and working television, some ten years old and serving its duty beyond all expectation.
It, however, is a hulking great big contraption and in our present state of reducing not just the amount of objects but their size, where possible, it is simply too big.
We have of late been looking- no: staring lavishly- at flat-screen televisions. We make trips to the local stores and we ponder over the few in our price and size range. We are within sight of purchasing one of them, but having trouble justifying such a thing when our own works so awfully, horribly, troublesomely well.
What I fear is that one of these nights either Spouse or I will succumb to irrational temptation and sneak into the living room, furtively pick up a screwdriver and set to work on the television's inner workings, thereby justifying the need for a new appliance.
It might be easier and far less convoluted and complicated, on the other hand, if we- just this once- buy what we are thinking of.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:15 PM
Monday, August 4, 2008
“Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity.”
Progress; upgrade: despite what the words might imply, improvement does not always follow. Often, I find, it is better to leave well alone.
Our computer is constantly badgering and heckling us to update certain software and to get the latest installment of such and such a program.
Spouse is old-fashioned and methodical, and makes use of some systems that pre-date 2002. For the most part they are quieter, less ostentatious and flashy and they tend to allow our computer to run much faster, being free of extraneous hidden tricks.
We were forced, though, to update our Internet browser the other evening; my e-mail was suddenly no longer compatible with the current browser and everything went wrong in a single day.
We quickly opted for a newer version, hoping that it would resolve the e-mail trouble.
It certainly did that.
It reminded me, too, that nothing is ever perfect.
I like to play music while tapping away on the Internet and usually I can go to a myriad of different websites trouble-free while I listen.
After we installed the updated browser I set to work on my various tasks, clicking here and there quite contentedly.
I soon found that every single time I opened a new page, clicked a link or did anything at all on the Internet with the new browser, the music halted for a few seconds, as though the singer had been physically muffled- and then resumed after a few more hiccups. It performed the action every time, without fail, and was most disturbing to me.
Another element distracted and infuriated me and made me determined to return to our original browser- I would find a way around the e-mail problem- and it was this:
Spouse, who was listening with one ear as he engaged in his own projects, would look up, startled, the moment the music was cut off, and he would ask, with purest innocence:
The first time, I explained that I presumed the matter to be related to the recently upgraded software; I hardly had to go into more detail as Spouse, shall we say, is the computer monarch.
Poor Spouse; he experienced a very understandable reflex action to the music being terminated and I could hardly blame him for being surprised every time a soothing song was strangled into silence.
"What happened?" Spouse said on average four times a night for three nights, until one withering look from my direction finally advised him not to ask.
As soon as we have a free moment we will downgrade- if one can call it that when it works so much more efficiently- to the old program.
Spouse's words are resounding still in my head: while I cannot undermine the benefit of the very electronics I utilise and enjoy, the truth is that technology was once meant to aid us, to enable our lives and to leave us time for the finer things in the world.
We are far from that ideal, instead doing intricate battle with more complex machinery, and drifting ever further from simplicity.
I ask: what happened?
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:56 PM
Sunday, August 3, 2008
"The love of learning,
the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3,386: the number of pages I hauled about with me on my first day in Cambridge this past week; the sum total of papers that I stored in my bag from earliest morning.
I boldly set out for the thrift stores just as soon as the doors were opened and the streets began to enliven a little.
Until late that same evening I carried 3,386 pages on my back like a triumphant snail proud of its burden. Truth be told, I felt no pain, no weight, just a brimming happiness that I had achieved what I set out to do: I had found nuggets of literary gold among the grimy bookshelves.
I suppose, on reflection, that I was much like the parents who I passed on the streets, the ones who carried small children in their arms: when something is so precious and sought-after, the physical weight is hardly noticed, and instead transcends to a warm glow of achievement and comfort.
Delighted at my excursion to the thrift stores, and aware all the day long of what I had found there, I was nonetheless continually astonished to note the volume of the books when I reached home and spilled each day's delving onto the carpet; by the close of the week it had surpassed twelve pounds.
What follows is an offering of the first lines from each individual book I found during the week.
*The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushkin, 2005, fiction
'Stop here,' said Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov from the back seat, addressing the pair of suede gloves on the steering wheel. The white and yellow columns outside his window ceased their tiresome flashing, began to slow down, and in another moment fell obediently into their assigned places. A pale orange tentacle of a nearby street lamp pierced the plush darkness around him, and Nina, who had been silent the whole way, stirred as if waking.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866, fiction
On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge. He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase.
Night Flight, by Antoine de Saint Exupery, 1942, fiction
Already, beneath him, through the golden evening, the shadowed hills had dug their furrows and the plains grew luminous with long-enduring light.
At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman, 2007, non-fiction
The net was green. The handle was wood, and the grip was uncomfortably thick, like that of a tennis racket borrowed from an older player. The mesh bag was long enough that if we caught a tiger swallowtail- or a spicebush swallowtail, or a mourning cloak, or a European cabbage, or a common sulphur, or a red admiral, or a painted lady, or a monarch, or a viceroy- we could, with a twist of the wrist, flip its tapered tip over the wire rim and trap the butterfly inside.
Laughing in the Hills, by Bill Barich, 1980, non-fiction
For me it did not begin with the horses. They came later, after a phone call and a simple statement of fact: your mother has cancer.
Wordstruck, by Robert MacNeil, 1989, non-fiction
It is a winter's night in 1936 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A small boy is being read to. He is warm from a hot bath, wearing striped flannel pyjamas and a thick woolen dressing gown with a tasselled cord.
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, 1948, fiction
Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.
Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, 1990, non-fiction
This isn't at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident, I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.
The Ministry of Pain, by Dubravka Ugresic, 2005, fiction
I don't remember when I first noticed it. I'd be standing at a tram stop waiting for a tram, staring at the map of the city in the glass case, at the colour-coded buses and tram routes that I didn't understand and that were of little or no interest to me at the time, standing there without a thought in the world when suddenly, out of the blue, I'd be overcome by a desire to bash my head into the glass and do myself harm.
Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks, 1973, non-fiction
In the winter of 1916-17, in Vienna and other cities, a 'new' illness suddenly appeared, and rapidly spread, over the next three years, to become world-wide in its distribution. Manifestations of the sleeping-sickness were so varied that n two patients ever presented exactly the same picture, and so strange as to call forth from physicians such diagnoses as epidemic delirium, epidemic schizophrenia, epidemic Parkinsonism, epidemic disseminated sclerosis, atypical rabies, atypical poliomyelitis, etc., etc.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, 1970, non-fiction
It began with Christopher Columbus, who gave the people the name Indios. Those Europeans, the white men, spoke in different dialects, and some pronounced the word Indien, or Indianer, or Indian.
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, by Margaret Corrigan, 2005, non-fiction
Among the many dangers of being an obsessive reader is that you tend to mediate your life through books, filter your experiences through plots, so that the boundary between fiction and fact become porous.
Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, 1982, non-fiction
Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren't tuned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, 1964, fiction
Once there was a tree... and she loved a little boy.
Letters of E.B. White, 1976, non-fiction
If an unhappy childhood is indispensable for a writer, I am ill-equipped: I missed out on all that and was neither deprived nor unloved. It would be inaccurate, however, to say that my childhood was untroubled.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:24 AM
Saturday, August 2, 2008
"The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
In our small California town, in the garden of our rented house, Spouse and I basked in the green friendliness of the trees. There was a particular tree- no, not the legendary Badminton Tree but a gigantic Blue Spruce- that once revealed a tiny surprise.
After a windy night I discovered a child's toy airplane on the footpath underneath the boughs of the Blue Spruce. It was in a puddle and slightly battered, but intact, and maybe a little shocked at being propelled out of the snug safety of the tree's arms.
Spouse and I did not, could not know how long the airplane had been embedded in the leaves, who the owner was or how much he cried when the toy would not come down again.
What I do know is that we posted the item to my cousin in Ireland as a token of the treasures that our beloved town insisted on unfolding, and he keeps it to this day.
If only the child could know just how far his little airplane flew!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:33 AM
Friday, August 1, 2008
“A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.”
-Heraclitus of Ephesus
George Thorogood, a guitarist, rough around the musical edges, whose electric driven tunes are infused with raw references to alcohol and his inability to pay bills; James Thurber, a wordsmith, sharp as a blade, possessed of a notable and notorious wit: none but Spouse could link the two.
'Bad to the Bone' growled from the stereo last week and Spouse, long aware of my fondness for brittle and intelligent scribes of bygone eras, commented: "that's George Thurber, isn't it?" He realised his slip of the tongue as soon as the word was out. After all, he himself had introduced me to Thorogood just as I had brought Thurber to his attention.
Our admiration of both fellows, and the simple fact that they bring us immense enjoyment, ought to be sufficient reason to connect the two, at least within the confines of our little world.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:25 PM