Tuesday, September 30, 2008
“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”
When my brother and I were little I remember a big commotion in our house. My mother had one day put her hand idly in the biscuit box, intending to fetch for herself a chocolate snack, but her searching fingers instead touched a torn piece of paper and some scattered crumbs.
The message, scrawled, unsettling and anonymous, was this: "Ta for the biccies. Yum yum." There were no biscuits- or biccies, as we fondly called them- left inside the box. The strange culprit had even expressed gratitude, conveyed with brevity in the succinct word 'ta.'
The next few hours were filled with interrogation of such gravity that I recall it to this day.
Who wrote the note? we were asked over and over, it being most unlike either of us to perform such a practical joke.
If it was not my brother's work, and it was not mine, then, we were warned, it must have been an intruder and the police would have to be called. That, as hoped, terrified both my brother and I but, in its own way made the matter far worse, such that admitting to the act was no longer an option.
Unfortunately, undermining the seriousness of the matter and perhaps, conversely, because of it, I laughed each time the question was posed to me. My mirth, quite out of order, was like a brilliantly lit flame of guilt rising above my head. But I had not committed the biscuit-crime and it was a wholly innocent head.
I suspected my brother, but he denied it, denied it steadfastly for hours until the fellow broke down and confessed all, finally exonerating me.
The police were never called- of course- and remained only a vague threat- but their very mention was enough to cause trepidation in the youngest heart.
I recollect no reason why my brother saw fit to eat all the biscuits that afternoon and leave a nonsensical note in their stead; but his was a deed that was surely written with indelible ink.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:36 PM
Monday, September 29, 2008
"Action is the antidote to despair."
That I always arrived at school unscathed is a wonder to me. The fleet of school buses that transported me to and from my destination were at least three decades old, often took us no more than halfway before a failure of some sort set in, and were wholly without safety belts; the seats, with bolts rusting alarmingly on the rotting floor, routinely rattled like a mouth full of loose and very old teeth. Turning bends in the road was a continual journey of fervent hope that the seat would stay in its assigned place.
Those details were superseded only by the disturbing occasions on which our vehicle of the day went on fire, those times in which we had to abandon the stalled contraption and stand by the roadside staring at clouds of smoke and awaiting another bus from the same antique collection.
Those buses would always be mended, never replaced; and as far as I know, up to last year, almost ten years after I finished school, those machines were still rumbling along precariously.
In my heart I believe that the parents involved- who had once been young passengers on those very school buses- honestly believed that the grim line of danger would never be crossed, that we youngsters would perpetually be safe and sound. After thirty years or more, an entire community had somehow come to accept those damaged buses as roadworthy because they had not known how to go about the business of promoting change, how to be the first to stand up and complain. As time went by and nobody was ever hurt, the thought of Doing Anything faded away like the wisps of smoke that frequently streamed like tails from our school transport.
It is astounding what can be deemed acceptable after sufficient time has passed, what people come to accept as normal and tolerable.
Character is a marvellous thing to build in a child, a most noble venture: but I could have done without the fumes and the fire.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:45 AM
Sunday, September 28, 2008
"There are more things, Lucilius, that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality."
"I have a fear of fishing hooks," I confessed to my friend the other day.
"A terrible fear of them."
Indeed, I dread the cruel, spine-tingling barbs that, once wedged in their prey, are not easily removed. Were that prey to be some unfortunate human skin, my fears would be realised.
But as the words were tumbling forth I heard them, all at once, with a different ear, and I was struck by the absurdity of my own offhand comment.
I said as much to my friend, who listened patiently.
"That makes no sense," I continued, shocked. "I can't recall the last time I was even near a fishing hook!"
The notion that I would be made nervous by an object that never enters my days seemed not only highly irrational but hysterically funny.
"It's as ridiculous as admitting," I said, "that I have a fear of space shuttles!"
My friend, who knows the likelihood of my ever being forced to face a space shuttle, understood immediately and laughed along with me.
I suspect that if, in the course of my travels, I met a fishing hook, I would be diligent and careful in my handling of it, and the shadows of fright would soon vaporise.
Not every fear is grounded in reality, nor are they all necessarily useful: if only we took the time to better understand the concerns that burden us, we might be granted a better perspective on the worth and validity of our worries.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:25 AM
Friday, September 26, 2008
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Spouse took a few days off work, and we went out this afternoon, dashing here and there through the drab drizzle of a grey sky, taking advantage of the time and completing little tasks that can only be done within limited office hours- which, of course, no mere mortal can attend to during a normal working day.
When we were ready, we splashed home through a trumpet of car horns, restless drivers and comatose traffic lights. I boiled some water and made tea, adding just a drop of velvety honey for Spouse's palate, and I served it with a hefty slice of moist pumpkin bread, courtesy of our fine friends in Maine.
A rather commonplace scene, save for the fact that Spouse had, for the first time, just registered to vote in a United States presidential election. While even that might be nothing out of the ordinary for those born and raised in this country, Spouse earned it after a decade of considerable struggle through the immigration process and much anticipation of one day being able to participate.
Life will sail on as before, yet intangibly, imperceptibly altered.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:45 PM
Thursday, September 25, 2008
“You win battles by knowing the enemy's timing, and using a timing which the enemy does not expect.”
I worked as a waitress some years ago. Although my week hours varied, typically my Saturday shift would end at closing time, which was one o' clock in the morning. I should say that my shift ended when the dining room was completely empty and thoroughly cleaned, and the hands on the clock had crawled to that revered hour.
Sometimes patrons would remain in the restaurant long past official finishing time, chattering idly and laughing with all the oblivious enthusiasm of people who generally conclude the night only when they themselves are exhausted, and who seem to think that their plates are set down and glasses refilled by fairies who never sleep.
Those, however, were not the most dreaded sort of patron for me. If only their tendency to sit for long hours had been as tiresome as things got- but there was worse to be wary of.
With the onset of midnight, tension routinely set in. My jaw would tighten, I would find myself sneaking furtive and helpless glances at the door, willing it with all my might to stay closed. I did that because I was terrified that the door to the dining room would open at exactly one minute to the precious hour- particularly awkward if the restaurant just happened to be empty and pristine and my soul was prepared for home. To see a customer at that hour, at that minute, was utterly lamentable and I had to struggle to be cheerful in the face of personal devastation.
My boss had determined that customers ought to be allowed to enter the building until the precise chiming of one o' clock and so I could never rest until the key had been turned, the door firmly bolted.
To make matters much worse, there were regular customers: three bedraggled, greasy fellows who made it their business to go to the restaurant every Saturday night at two or three minutes before closing time; who usually stayed for an hour; who sneeringly asked for the most complicated ingredients when most of the chefs had departed for home; who spoke crudely to the female staff and who turned my stomach not least because of their ill-timed visit. They certainly knew, after becoming frequent patrons, the particular closing time and they thought nothing of it except perhaps with humour.
How I hated to see their familiar figures sliding along the long hallway, their loathsome shadows trailing suspiciously as the men pulled open the door to the dining room, grinning with silent victory!
One particular Saturday night, the dining room was empty as one o' clock was drawing near. I could hardly bear to build up my hopes, so often had they been dashed. My heart pounded a little faster as the clock hands dragged themselves to the appointed moment.
At two minutes to go, I considered that I might faint, so much fate rested on the next seconds.
At one minute to go, with no customer in sight, I looked at my supervisor and silently willed her to hand me the keys of the front door. She did, after an interminable period, and I reached out for them as though my arm were encased in mud.
I exited the dining room and tore along the hallway, which was L-shaped and prevented me, woefully, from observing the front door until I turned the corner.
I turned that very corner, enormous set of keys in hand, and prepared to fly like the wind down the rest of the hallway.
Then I saw three dim shapes ascending the steps outside. I knew the fellows by their laughter, which repulsed me and turned my blood cold.
I could not travel down that hallway fast enough. I nearly let the keys slip from my grip, such was the level of sweating and fear. I was, I gathered, approximately the same distance from the door as the men.
I, however, still had the difficult business of locking the door: the rules stated that any customer must be allowed to sit and be served as long as he had entered the building through an unlocked door.
I thought that I might never find the exact key. Miserably, they all looked identical. The men were looming closer, suddenly aware of my presence beyond the glass and that I was intending to lock them out. They hastened ever so slightly and I sprang for the door, inserted the- joyfully- correct key with a hand that shook so much it was nothing but a blur, and turned the lock just as another hand made an effort to turn the handle on the opposite side.
The men thus discovered that their way was barred, and they all three threw up their hands at me as if to question the sudden obstruction. I flung my hands in the air just the same, as if to say how terribly, awfully sorry I was but orders were orders. I think that my smile, which stretched from ear to ear on a face that was literally numb with shock, belied the sympathy my outstretched hands offered.
I was ecstatic. I had won the battle against the three. With any other customers I might have felt a twinge of sorrow for the inconvenience but for those fellows I spared not a shred of remorse.
To the best of my knowledge, they never returned to dine in that restaurant.
Sometimes things work out: the right key fits in at just the right time; the minutes and the planets and the stars synchronise in perfect alignment that borders on magic.
Then again- it depends which side of the door we happen to be on.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:12 PM
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
"Perfect behavior is born of complete indifference."
We dined out last week, Spouse and I, on a rare occasion of ravenous hunger and a missed meal.
We stumbled into the Chinese restaurant on unsteady legs; our rumbles were audible, I imagined, to the waiter who showed us to our place.
"Is this okay?" he asked with immeasurable good grace, and when we agreed that the table was suitable- indeed, we might have eaten it there and then, legs and all- he said, "thank you. Thank you," and ambled away to fetch us some water.
Each time that he came by, whether to deliver some cutlery, the enormous plates of food or the final bill, he thanked us kindly all the while. The waiter was conventional and rigorous in his manners and seemed for all the world to be quite hesitant to intrude upon us to ask if we were enjoying the food.
"I am sorry," said he at one point in the course of our meal, when he queried about refilling my glass- and my mouth just happened to be full of chicken.
I expect that most diners leave a little food behind; in truth, we ourselves tend to require a box after each restaurant outing so that we might pack up what we could not finish. In the case of that particular evening, however, Spouse and I were in no shape to leave any remnants and we cleaned our plates thoroughly.
Based on the waiter's impeccable sense of etiquette and professionalism, it therefore came as a surprise to witness the wonderful flash of ordinary humanity that emanated from the fellow: he returned to discover we had consumed every last morsel, and he could not contain his astonishment.
"Oh! You did good! Good job!" he beamed, genuinely astounded by the fact that two people had devoured so much food in a single sitting.
I might assume he had never before been presented with such a situation. It was heartening to stride out of the restaurant full and satisfied at last, and having glimpsed a momentary and most welcome lapse in the formal facade of a professional.
We are human, after all, inhabiting the same world, and we should more often demonstrate warmth and understanding in our working lives.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:26 AM
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
How beautiful a day can be
When kindness touches it!
Spouse and I stopped at a gasoline station yesterday just after we left our friend's home in Northern Maine. The morning was motionless, and the frigid air had razored teeth that gnawed at our faces. We welcomed the drastic change in temperature, resigned as we have become to the overwhelming blanket that Summer flings over us.
As Spouse filled the tank of the car and we stood shivering and surveying the scenery, a figure burst from the adjoining store.
Then she was calling to us, the station attendant Spouse had spoken to minutes earlier. She was trying desperately to tell us something but she was at too great a distance for her words to be determined. Perhaps, we thought hastily, we had left the credit card on the counter inside; perhaps our particular gas pump was out of order. We wondered, and waited for her approach.
"Look!" she cried, pointing at something behind us. "Moose! There's a moose. Look!"
We turned. Far across the frost-tipped fields, obscured first by one enormous tree and then another, then at last visible in its magnificent entirety, was a tremendous, lumbering moose.
He was thundering past somebody's house, somebody's garden, crashing briefly through civilisation, his herculean form shaking loose the tranquility and ripping across the canvas of a pure morning.
A shred of sunlight ricocheted off the departing creature, and then he was gone.
It was the first moose I ever laid eyes on; but more significant was the fact that the lady, who surely was familiar with the antics of moose in the area, had emerged from her warm corner to tell us we were missing a spectacular sight.
She might have dismissed the thought of sharing the scene with us; the fact that she did not hesitate, and the coinciding fact that I had never seen a moose in all my life made the event a precious one.
We did thank her profusely, but in all likelihood she was unaware of how deep an impression her humble deed left on our day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:06 AM
Thursday, September 18, 2008
“Keep high aspirations, moderate expectations, and small needs”
-William Howard Stein
Mater, Spouse and I travelled to Las Vegas a few years ago. We did all that tourists ought to do: took chances in the casinos, sat down to an extravagant dinner and paid a visit to the MGM Grand with its old-time atmosphere and with living, breathing lions behind thick glass.
After a time, we fortuitously found ourselves walking on Fremont Street, the lesser known, older and less flashy section of Las Vegas. We could hardly believe our luck. Fremont Street was charming, most unexpectedly so: long passed the glory days, it eventually dwindled to the more benign role of the little sibling of Las Vegas, which overshadowed it.
There were market stalls, casinos and performances at every turn. A fellow played piano atop a truck- few were present to observe him but we three will not forget the sight.
We were astonished, too, by a display of dancing lights that beamed onto a canopy ninety feet high and fourteen hundred feet in length- those twelve million lights were part of a grand performance that took place shortly after nightfall, a great moving picture of monumental sounds and images.
We could hardly have imagined that beyond the popular and the typical, Fremont Street might await with a character all its own.
Mater paused to look at a little collection of five hand painted Russian dolls, the traditional wooden figurines that sit one inside the other until only the largest is visible.
I briefly remarked on how lovely they were, all lined up in order of size, and although they were not at all cheap, Mater immediately requested one for me the instant my attention was elsewhere. The seller- a Russian woman who wore a bright shawl and who looked as though she might moments earlier have stepped off the boat at Ellis Island- took the doll from Mater's hand and slipped it into a little bag. Away we went, happy as anybody could be.
We had not walked more than a few feet when I stopped, reached into the bag, and took out the doll. I pulled the two sections apart.
There was nothing inside.
Panicked, we hurried back to the seller- I whimsically imagined that she might have vanished in a puff of grey smoke in the interim.
Mater, in error, had presumed that all the little dolls were already inside the bigger one- the smaller neighbouring dolls perhaps for display purposes only- and the busy seller had taken the money without questioning whether we had gathered them all together.
It was no trouble to convince the woman we had made a mistake and that four fifths of our paid-for property were in fact still sitting on the shelf. Soon we were away again with the correct number of dolls in our possession.
I have many recollections from our trip to Las Vegas but none so clear and so numerous as those memories we brought with us from Fremont Street.
We found a wealth of stories where we thought to find none. On the contrary, to my dismay, instead of a host of incandescent Russian dolls I found a void.
And as much as there might be a marvellous story tucked away in an innocuous corner far from flamboyance, the world does not consistently live up to the expectations we invent around it. We find joy or tedium as we go along, depending always on what we search for.
I will be going to Maine tomorrow, returning on Monday, and so in between will be accessing this page only in my head. Until then...
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:06 PM
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
“We work to become, not to acquire."
This morning Spouse left for work much earlier than usual and I intended to go back to bed for a while.
For breakfast, however, I needed to make bread: we had none, not a crust in the house.
I thought that I would take care of the bread-making after an hour or so, following my sleep. Then I reconsidered; I would be more hazy of mind and bleary-eyed at that time, and hardly fit to boil water for my tea much less to roll bread.
So, I decided to simply make the dough, which is one of the more difficult parts, and then I would sleep.
I made the dough with that determined outline of a plan but just as I was dusting the flour from my hands I considered that I might as well break the dough into spheres and save myself the task of doing that later.
I made the spheres, and then decided that I could go one step further and roll the spheres into discs, for that most certainly was an intricate process I would not relish doing after a sleep.
It is rather laborious to roll the dough into paper-thin pieces, for the mix will often stick to the breadboard, fall apart or just not turn out as I hoped.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that five flat shapes were made almost before I knew it.
Before I exited the kitchen, however, the thought struck me that it would be wise, after all, to have the bread already cooked by the time I rose for breakfast.
I heated the pan and patiently cooked the bread.
Then- wonder of wonders- I made a hot cup of tea and sat down to eat breakfast.
I did not go back to bed, and the entire bread-making endeavour had been free of frustration and impatience.
As they say: one step at a time.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:57 AM
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
Years ago Mater, whose house is observed mostly by sheep and cows, answered the door to a stranger. She listened for a few polite moments to what the fellow was saying. He purported to be a travelling salesman and Mater had no reason to doubt the validity of his claim. However, due to her not requiring anything he might be selling, and the faint hint of alcohol that wafted on the air, she amiably declined any further discussion with the possibly intoxicated visitor.
He slid his foot inside the door just as Mater bid him farewell. She could not, of course, close the door with a person's foot blocking the way, but he was able nevertheless to continue the conversation his host had terminated- and he did so without missing a beat.
Mater felt a rush of concern, then irritation, and the two juxtaposed into one frantic arrangement.
Mater reached into the Hat of Few Options and pulled out the oldest trick in the book.
"What's that?" she said with puzzlement, and pointed to a vague spot behind the salesman's shoulder.
He turned around to see what the thing might be.
Mater swiftly kicked the discourteous foot out of the entrance and closed the door on the gullible, astounded fellow.
The dubious character never bothered my mother again.
We tend, as a rule, to follow the grandiose plans and the elaborate paths of popularity, but it sometimes happens that the most laughably simple idea is the most effective one of all.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:11 AM
Monday, September 15, 2008
"Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom."
I participated in an optional year at school in which students concentrated less on academics and more on practical social and professional skills. It set me back one term in my standard education.
I also repeated my final exams a year after I left school.
As a result of those divergences, by the time I was finished with that institution I was at least two years older than my fellow students.
The term 'fellow' would in fact be a misnomer: I studied at home for that year, by myself and not attending any classes. I had completed my formal education and a repeating student was not obliged to sit through year-long classes but could simply turn up for the final exams at a school of their choice.
When the week of tests came around I made my way to the local school for a brief meeting. It was disconcerting for several reasons: I was the only one not dressed in a uniform; I knew nobody because all my classmates had graduated the previous year and worse, the building itself was newly constructed and it was not the familiar place I had grown used to. I was surrounded by chattering students who knew the school better than I, and as I sat waiting in the midst of an ocean of uniforms for the meeting to begin, I felt immeasurably out of place.
An examiner came to confer with the group about the Irish language exam. He told us what we could expect, what the rules were, and, kindly, not to worry at all.
The first segment would involve thirty minutes in a closed room individually conversing with him in Irish; those would begin immediately and carry on for several days until all students had been tested.
I was not, alphabetically speaking, at the top of the list so unlike many I had a few more days to prepare.
The examiner concluded his speech and the tide of youngsters began to sweep from the room. The meeting was over and I was relieved to be on my way home.
I was most astonished when the fellow stopped me, extended his hand and spoke softly to me in Irish: "...ceart go leor?"
I was nervous and not prepared one whit for an early interaction. He had asked me if the speech was all right.
I agreed, in Irish and beaming most enthusiastically as I shook his hand, that the speech had been very good, very good indeed. I was confused, though, as to why he sought my approval in particular.
Before I released his hand I had the solution: he had assumed me to be a teacher of those students. He had no inkling that I was a part of the restless crowd and that he would be meeting me again in a short time in a different capacity.
I cringed at the thought of having to explain I was not in any position to applaud his speech; but I had indeed praised him- albeit inadvertently- before I realised his mistake and thus my own. How to avoid embarrassing the examiner and save face myself?
I dropped the hand and fled from the room that had suddenly grown too vast, swimming into obscurity with the rush of students and leaving a bewildered man to wonder just what sort of half-hearted, half-witted and fragile teachers were being hired nowadays.
I hoped that he would quickly forget me and my odd manner. It turned out well enough at the end of the week when I took the test, with him not seeming to make the connection, but it was a ghastly encounter all the same.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:15 AM
Sunday, September 14, 2008
“A man is a very small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders.”
Some years ago Spouse and I attended a dinner at the home of a friend, to which another couple were also invited. Spouse knew the two slightly, I not at all but we had a marvellous time getting to know one another.
In the course of the drive home, as we discussed the evening that had passed, Spouse insisted on referring to somebody called Robert. As I had not been aware of any Robert in connection with the conversation we were having, I quizzed Spouse.
"Robert- who we met tonight!" Spouse was astonished that I could forget.
"Robert?" I said. "But his name is Bruce."
Spouse glanced at me in dismay. The two names were not, of course, in the least alike.
We both fell silent in the grim and puzzling aftermath of such an error.
After a while I said, "I wonder if you were thinking of the fourteenth century King of Scotland?"
Spouse must have indeed thought I had gone mad, until I continued, "Robert the Bruce."
Spouse certainly knew who Robert the Bruce was: a brave fellow who had led several notable rebellions in efforts to free Scotland from English rule. The legend tells that he was on the run and had been in hiding in a cave, swiftly losing faith in his ability to succeed in his mission. One day he looked up to see a poor struggling spider. The creature made, so we are told, seven failed attempts to spin a web and climb upward- it fell to the ground every time.
On the eighth try, however, the spider, in one last valiant effort, achieved a personal victory and made its way to the top of the cave.
It is often claimed that that was the moment Robert the Bruce regained his courage and confidence, determined not to give up, and was the catalyst for his subsequent victory in a particular battle. I was taught that story in my early schooldays and have remembered it always. It is just the same for Spouse.
After a moment's thought, Spouse concluded with a good measure of awe that he must, in the furthest recesses of his mind, have been thinking of Robert the Bruce. At the time we knew of nobody else called Bruce, and nobody called Robert, and only one man named Robert the Bruce.
The wondering, wandering mind reads like a deep mystery at times, and from time to time catches us by surprise with its cobwebbed corners.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:47 PM
Saturday, September 13, 2008
"Given a choice between grief and nothing, I'd choose grief."
We had a cat in Ireland, a docile creature that lost a front leg as a result of an incident with a speeding car. Daily the cat would stand on its hind legs and use a particular tree as a scratching post. We would watch in mute horror as it swiped the stump of a foot uselessly over the broken bark, accustomed as it had been to sharpening its claws on the tree.
Far be it from any of us to determine the cat's understanding of the missing leg but it appeared for all the world as though the animal routinely forgot the absence, and that it derived sufficient satisfaction from the phantom scratching.
It could be that the habit was ingrained far too deeply, that the awful loss could not quite be registered.
My friend, whose canine companion passed away earlier this week, cannot seem to stop raising her head to glance out of the kitchen window. The dog house has fallen silent now, and the stillness is a continually overwhelming surprise to those acquainted with the friendly shadow of a tail darting around the corner, or the almost-human voice that frequently broke an afternoon's quiescence.
As much as each realisation is a dull blow to the senses, my friend's need to meet the void with her eyes is very telling. It is a testament to how substantial an element the dog's presence was and how integral that their lives should overlap for a while. Each time she turns her eyes to the dog house, toward the memory of better, buoyant days, it is because habitual thoughts of her friend are still vivid and vibrant, untainted, for a merciful instant, by the absence. In that respect such habit is a blessing of a kind, despite being punctuated by unspeakable pain.
The loss of good friends always serves to elicit a crushing wave of grief and of not knowing, such is the vacancy, whether we are missing a limb or a loved one.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:28 AM
Friday, September 12, 2008
"The past is never dead, it is not even past."
Recently I have taken to temporarily going back to bed in the mornings before Spouse goes to work. Spouse would venture an argument on my interpretation of 'recently' and 'temporarily' but nevertheless, there I was one morning, three-quarters into a slumber when I became aware of Spouse making a telephone call in the next room.
"May I speak to Bridget Jones please?"
I was not certain that I heard it correctly. Indeed, I ruminated on the possibility of the entire thing being a figment of a dream that, for reasons unclear to me, included the muffled mention of a movie character from some years ago- a movie, I might venture to add, that had almost passed under my radar.
I got the distinct impression that Spouse was embarrassed, was trying to make amends and, judging by the intonation of his voice, I gathered that something untoward had transpired in the course of the call.
It was at that point, though, that I fell into the last quarter of my nap and I knew no more.
Days passed before the subject arose, and I came to understand what had happened.
Spouse had been attempting to return the call of a recruiter named Bridget Burns, and had accidentally, terribly, requested Bridget Jones instead.
It was never apparent whether the person on the other end of the line heard the dreadful error, but after Spouse fumbled graciously with the right name, and following a moment's aching silence, the receptionist agreed to put Spouse through to the Bridget she was most familiar with.
The movie which bears that name had passed, for the most part, under Spouse's radar too and the slip therefore was a baffling one to both of us.
I can only surmise that we absorb and store a good deal more information than we have frequent access to. Sometimes, the oddest detail can spring from seemingly nowhere at all and startle us with its banal mediocrity. We muse: why did I remember that? Why now, of all moments? What possible use could that fragment have had, stored in the mind for years upon years, emerging not when specifically called upon but when it saw fit to intrude on unrelated business?
As for poor Spouse, who was only trying his best to get through to Bridget Burns, that intrusion occurred at quite the wrong time- or the right time, if a good round of mirth is called for, and if one is not the unfortunate speaker but a member of the proverbial audience.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:16 AM
Thursday, September 11, 2008
"We wake, if ever at all, to mystery."
Spouse bought a different kind of breakfast cereal the other day, a blend of fruit and oatmeal which requires some minutes in the microwave.
Typically, on our first day with a strange cereal, I prefer Spouse to make his own so that if the timing or consistency is incorrect I may avoid blame. All cereals call for varying measurements of water, milk and temperature and it is difficult to judge each one.
I watched yesterday morning as Spouse poured the water and placed the bowl inside the microwave.
"Three minutes and thirty three seconds," suggested Spouse with supreme confidence, and although I am never one to argue with his precise calculations I do, in passing, wonder where he gains his knowledge. If he would only share such detail, it might not in future take two of us to prepare a bowl of oatmeal.
Spouse pressed 3:33 on the display and touched the Start button.
Then the chosen numbers disappeared, we heard a distinct and alarming click, and the screen went ominously blank. Even the clock, with its sleepy-eyed time of 5:45, had fallen dark.
Spouse succeeded in reclaiming the clock after a moment, and began the process again, warily considering the possibility that the microwave had retired in that instant.
When 3:33 was requested a second time, the microwave simply refused to obey and the numbers vanished as before.
After several more efforts with the same result, Spouse thought to try a different set of numbers, and pushed 4:44 with an increasingly impatient finger.
Inside, the oatmeal began to rotate pleasantly as though nothing untoward had transpired. We could hardly believe our eyes.
The microwave is not broken, then- far from it, as the breakfast turned out perfectly fine- but for some peculiar reason it dislikes 3:33, of all numbers, and refuses to work with it. As far as I am aware, the microwave tolerates all other combinations of digits.
Even Spouse, the expert in our home on all things technical, could not determine a sufficient explanation as to why in the world a microwave oven would reject 3:33, a number so reasonable, so harmless- yet of such cryptic personal significance to the machine that it would rather terminate its own clock and sit in stony silence than accept such a code.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."
The other evening Spouse pulled an envelope from our mailbox which contained some new and ungraded credit cards for both of us.
Spouse had not requested anything of the sort. He had good reason for his reluctance to change and he decided to make a telephone call to find out what he could.
Visions of red tape and repetition flashed before my eyes and I settled down to listen to what was bound to be a frustrating conversation.
"I don't want this new card," said Spouse.
"I like my old one. This new one has no credit limit. I like the limit- it might sound strange to you but it gives me a feeling of protection. Not to mention the fact that I didn't ask for any change."
"Well," said the voice on the other end, "you were given an opportunity to opt out some time ago."
She was referring, we presumed, to some papers that shrewdly contained text more miniscule than the leg of a dustmite and just as obscure as could be.
That set Spouse off and he countered the lady's argument with a suggestion that opting out should not be his responsibility if he never wanted the change in the first place. There ought, if the world were fair and reasonable, to be a consideration to opt in if one wished for such.
"But it gives you benefits!" the voice protested, rising a degree above its flat monotony.
Spouse delivered a sweeping line: "the benefit is in the eyes of the corporation."
Having been a loyal customer of that particular company for more than ten years Spouse was inflamed more when the lady changed horses midstream, attempted to be helpful and offered to assist him in completely closing his account.
Spouse dutifully informed the supervisor that the previous assistant had suggested dismantling the account, and he recommended that the company's employees in future not be so hasty to terminate the patronage of an honest cardholder.
"I'll take care of that as well," said the supervisor rather gravely as he tapped on his computer.
Sanity was restored, and all is well again.
Just the same, I do wonder if one can simply opt out of all the red tape and small print and smaller print and meaningless nonsense that strangles the precious hours and minutes out of daily life. How nice that would be.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:59 AM
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about 'and.'
—Sir Arthur Eddington
There is an enormous reservoir, a concrete water tower, on the edge of the village I grew up in; it is shaped like a champagne glass, with a tall stem and a top rather like that of a mushroom.
My brother's significant other grew up in a different country with a more varied range of water supplies; as a result she played regularly in a flat, canal-like reservoir close to her home.
When my brother visited her family for the first time somebody suggested they all wander down to the reservoir and go for a pleasant swim.
My brother was at first mildly puzzled, then his concern grew.
"But how will we climb up?" asked the poor bewildered fellow finally, afflicted with trembling visions of imminent danger and of splashing about in precarious, prohibited champagne glasses.
He was faced with an unexpected response: one of equal confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, how will we get in there?"
Nobody was sure what my brother meant by his question; they all had an ordinary image of a grassy embankment with a source of water beyond it; my brother could only see the water tower of his village with its unscalable height.
"We'll just climb down."
That made not a drop of sense to my brother. Surely one had to first climb up in order to climb down into the bowl of the tower?
It was a rather good idea to go first to the reservoir before attempting to unscramble any more of the obfuscation. The chaos was cleared, the matter was solved, and a good laugh was had by all, quite rightly so.
Such mental sketches were present from childhood and each member of the group had formed their own indelible idea of what a water reservoir ought to look like.
It stands to reason that we carry with us personal definitions and descriptions of what is familiar. It is commonplace that those assigned meanings are firmly fixed in position until the very moment we encounter people from another society or a different corner of the world and we come to learn that there are many ways of seeing the same thing- none of which are necessarily invalid.
We naturally base all that we are sure of on what we can see and hear within the particular confines of our lives.
Still, sometimes a reservoir is shaped like a champagne glass, and sometimes it resembles a canal; and once in a while we are apt to be reminded that people everywhere are the same, though their ways and convictions are outwardly painted with a different brush.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:26 AM
Monday, September 8, 2008
"Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true."
It is generally thought that Sherlock Holmes, that canny fellow of literature, used to regularly proclaim "elementary, my dear Watson!" at precise moments of revelation.
It is, however, a myth that ought to be dispelled swiftly: Holmes never uttered such a phrase in any of the Arthur Conan Doyle books- it found its origins only in the films featuring the detective and his trustworthy companion.
It causes no grief, I am sure, to eradicate the Holmes myth from common thought; some will be surprised while others will shrug amiably and get on with their day.
That being said, there are certain fabrications and figments that one ought to avoid clarifying: the following tale serves to illuminate just one.
I grew up in a time and place where believing in Santa Claus up to the age of twelve was considered appropriate and healthy.
My brother was aged eleven when his teacher suddenly questioned the common sense of the little people in front of her.
"Don't tell me any of you still believe in Santa Claus!" she sneered. I suppose that there had been some sort of catalyst for the outburst but it has long since faded from record.
I cannot speak for others who sat in the classroom on that day of revelation but my brother's heart was broken there and then. He went home in a blind fury, not sure who to focus his anger on and not certain which was more devastating: the myth that had been delivered to him all his life, or the untimely- and wholly misplaced- shattering of it.
We are all equipped with the ultimately useful tool of conscience as well as the ability to judge circumstances that arise.
It is not noble to undo the beliefs of others either for entertainment or to elevate one's status. Children unequivocally assume that their teachers possess authority, and as such it is not necessary to emphasise the divide by belittling the daydreams of inexperienced youngsters or dishing out a lesson that is, in truth, best left to the right person at the right time.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:05 AM
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I once accompanied Spouse on a work-related excursion; we were living in California at the time and Spouse drove to the event.
Happily, I had much to occupy my own time: I ventured to take a bus from our hotel and succeeded, after much entanglement of numbers and routes and interesting interactions with locals, in reaching an enormous shopping mall. I seem to recall it was the largest within a reasonable radius and I was content, if not to shop, then to browse around and explore.
As always, I had let Mater know where I planned to be, and I sent to her, via my cellphone, the number of a public telephone.
"Be careful," said she when I found her voice; she was concerned for my safety inside a staggeringly vast complex on another continent. I promised faithfully that I would be diligent and anyhow, what harm could come to me in a densely crowded area? Off I went, to see what was what.
After a few hours had dragged on and Spouse's day was not even near to a close, I unfortunately became a trifle weary of wandering aimlessly. I seated myself on a wooden bench located in one of the mall's many corners.
I noted at one point that a tiny, behatted old lady sat down next to me; then she was gone again, and I was faintly surprised to see other people in her place. I had not seen her leave; I had not seen them arrive.
I had good reason to not notice, as it happened.
I realised with a start that I had been drooling and that at least fifteen minutes- and countless people- had passed me by as I slept sitting bolt upright in the heart of a shopping plaza, my small backpack beside me guarding us both in my oblivion.
No harm had befallen me save for the unfathomable humiliation of temporarily losing consciousness when all I wanted was a bit of a sit-down and a chance to gather my thoughts. Nodding off and making a spectacle of myself had not been on the agenda.
There are some things that a mother ought not to be made aware of. Still, I told Mater afterward at a neutral point when I could reassure her my experience had ended without trouble.
She was not amused.
No, Mater was not pleased at all to learn that I had thrown her caution out the window and- of all things- slipped into slumber in a public place.
Then again, truth be told, neither was I.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:17 AM
"A little simplification would be the first step toward rational living, I think."
It was a very close call. We almost bought some doorstoppers, those little rubber wedges that so generously prop doors open. Our apartment doors are a particular nuisance because they tend to gravitate toward closure and as such, prevent a reasonable air flow around our home. The objects we examined were priced at a dollar for three, and we hoped we might do away with the rolled up junk-mail sandwiches that presently are employed as doorstoppers, none of which actually hold the doors for a sufficient length of time.
We agreed to buy them- it was quite on a whim that we were even in the store- and had in fact begun treading the unaccustomed path to the checkout when some thoughts occurred to Spouse and I. We have grown used to Thinking While Shopping and frequently pause to pay attention.
The thoughts were these: namely, that our concern regarding the unbalanced doors is not worth spending an entire dollar to mend, nor is it worth adding to the supply of miscellaneous items already in our possession. It might not be deemed a significant amount of money in the grander scheme of things but just the same it is our money, and the thought of some industrious fellow becoming rich because people wish to continuously keep their doors in position- that was rather too much to bear.
It is one thing to line a deserving businessman's pocket so he might earn his daily crust, quite another to fill one's own pockets with useless lumps of clutter.
We put the package back on the shelf, shaking our heads slightly- not at the product but at ourselves for momentarily believing in it.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
"Tell me what you eat, I'll tell you who you are."
-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Once, in our younger days, my brother went to town and brought back a hot dog and a curious offer.
He had purchased the former for himself, taken one bite and then uncharacteristically had thrown it out the car window in disgust and torment. It was a chilli hot dog, but one so fiercely hot that my brother could not swallow the little mouthful he had torn off.
He disposed of the item but was in some agony anyhow, such was the violent and unexpected aura of red-hot spice.
My brother, as I have stated, returned home bearing one of those very hot dogs and an offer.
What is this? an astute reader might exclaim: did he not fling the thing out the window? Or was he then a scavenger of his own roadside castoffs?
The offer was this: upon discarding the food, my brother struck upon a plan. He returned to the scene of the culinary crime and ordered another hot dog.
He had paid the sum of one Irish Pound, he told me. If I could manage to eat the horror, I would be the happy new bearer of that money. If, however, I failed to consume it entirely, I would be the sorry loser of one Pound.
He would pay me to eat it, would extract money if I could not.
The deal was on, and I set to work at the grim task. My brother would of course watch closely while I attempted the feat, his hand outstretched in expectation of financial equanimity.
The very juice from the hot dog was akin to a combination of paint thinner and burning coal; as such, taste was of little consequence and my tongue, anyhow, was rendered incapable of speech, much less luxury of palatable preference.
Oh, wicked, wicked fellow that assembled such a cruel morsel, that most assuredly steeped his patrons' fodder in tubs of volcanic lava before selling them under the guise of a light snack. Light Snack? I tend to lean more toward the title of Lighted Snack for such a fire feast.
Numb tongue, disfigured lips, melting cheeks, scalded throat, eyes that poured streams of water- obscuring both the flaming hot dog and the grinning brother- not one of those elements could halt me in my determined tracks.
I ate the hot dog.
One must understand this: I had no money to spare. I was not inclined to propel myself into debt to my sibling and for that reason alone I ate the vile mouthful, piece by piece, pain by pain until it was gone, vanished along with the look of glee on my brother's face. That last had been replaced by another expression uncommon to my brother- one that I dare say struck a fragile balance between fear and respect.
Triumphant, I accepted the money; but since my eyes were shrouded in a rather alarming mist, some time passed before I could see the note properly to ensure it was genuine currency.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:40 AM
Friday, September 5, 2008
"I think we risk becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance."
"Well, that's what happens when you live underwater."
My ear caught that remark this week just as Spouse and I tucked into a buffet lunch during a respite from a long car journey.
No, the speaker was not delivering an account of fish. Nor was his area of expertise embedded in marine life- instead, it was in his magnificent ability to judge the plight of storm-wracked people from his masterly position at a leather-cushioned booth.
He was fixated on a nearby television screen, where a wind-whipped reporter was detailing the destruction that wicked Hurricane Gustav was showering on the Gulf Coast of America.
Coming late to the discussion by way of overhearing, one could not say for absolutely certain whether the chap was on his third or fourth- or goodness me, his fifth- plate of heaped chicken wings, but it is presumable to suggest that he was referring specifically to the population of New Orleans, who live at or below sea-level, and that he thought those people should just live somewhere else.
They should just live somewhere else, so that their homes might not get so tattered and so awfully wet the next time a detrimental entity like Gustav comes knocking.
They should just live somewhere else and take the opportunity to use up the troves of money Mr. All-You-Can-Eat envisions they have stashed away.
They should just live somewhere else.
Friends, we must write and inform them immediately. No more living underwater! It is so outmoded nowadays to wait around for one's house to float away on a wave, especially considering the erratic nature of weather patterns.
Oh, those bright, invigorating sparks of creativity that save the planet from tumbling around us!
And if the world does happen to fall apart- we could always move away.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:47 AM
Thursday, September 4, 2008
"What we see depends mainly on what we look for."
Spouse and I have, over time, managed to amass a number of coins in Canadian currency. The wise thing to do, we always have agreed, would be to ensure that the money accompanies us on any trip to Canada.
Sadly, during our recent fabulous experience at Niagara Falls, we found ourselves in a casino with not a cent in our collective pockets. There we were, surrounded by gleaming and ringing and chiming machines, along with the frequent tinkling sound of somebody's monetary success- and not a hope of being able to test our own luck with the least coin.
Never mind, we said, and we amused ourselves for a while by watching others at play.
Spouse then reminded me of a road adventure he once took with his friend. The pair drove in a random direction from California one evening and, before they knew it, had weaved their way to Las Vegas.
After an interval in which they roamed free and explored the casinos, it came time for each to give a brief account of the time they spent. It appeared that they had been rather frivolous.
"I've spent all my money," complained the friend.
Spouse replied mournfully, "and I've been drinking."
What a pair they were, behaving in a manner quite departed from their typical characters.
Ah, but not quite that way: one had merely dropped his spare change- all in all, three quarters- into a slot machine and the other had, against his better judgement, consumed a Coca Cola.
And for a short while this week past, as Spouse and I wandered around the bright casinos in an unfamiliar country, we were penniless.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:31 AM
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
“Your neighbor is the man who needs you”
My mother was hanging out the washing yesterday afternoon when her neighbour called out across the field.
"I wouldn't leave that out too long if I were you," said he sagely.
He tramped across the grass and drew closer. Then he explained that he had just observed his trusty horse reverse and turn its tail to the fence- a sure sign to the old fellow's eye that wind and rain were imminent.
Mater quietly noted that the sky was clear but, confident in her long-time neighbour's wisdom and seeing for herself the unusual position of the animal, promised to take heed of the equestrian signal.
Sure enough, before too long down came the torrents, a mighty gale rose, and both man and beast were proved correct. Mater, fortunately, had been watching from her window and had taken in the clothing moments before the storm blew in.
What a grand world this could be if neighbours everywhere looked out for one another, if advice and trust went hand in hand and if men comprehended the silent language of animals.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:04 AM
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
"The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do."
Niagara Falls have been tumbling and thundering for thousands of years without missing a beat. Today the great waterfall will plough on, regardless of societal changes and utterly careless of humble human observation.
Spouse and I- and I would wager most visitors to the landscape- half expected the flood to run silent as dusk approached, rather like somebody turning a tap to end the spectacle. Most tourist attractions are short-lived and are run according to popularity- so the thought was not an irrational one.
In an age of deficient attention span and exhibitions of a transient nature, it was gratifying to be a witness to Niagara Falls: the show will not end because tourists return to their hotels for the night or because the season trickles to a close. The white waves will crash and collide with one another through night and day, century after century: if an interested party happens to be within sight, so much the better, but we humans are incidental to the occasion.
Rather humbling, I might say.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:48 AM