Time Travel

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Yesterday in New England we enjoyed our first real day of spring. Sunny. Warm. Green all around. Naturally my thoughts turned to time travel.  Or more precisely, Nashville Time Travel.

Let me backup a bit.

When temperatures hit 70 and the sun is shining, our college town goes crazy.  Students temporarily forget about research papers. They roll down car windows and pump up Lady Gaga.

I join them, but the music in my car is Nashville. There is nothing like blasting a little Alan Jackson or Secret Sisters as I tool around back roads of Western Massachusetts.

A bumper sticker on my car

All those good tunes make me think of Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium and how much I regret not spending weekends there when I was in college.  My college wasn’t that far away.  My friends were always up for a road trip.  Why in the world didn’t we pile into someone’s Chevy Vega and head South on I-24? The trip was five hours door-to-door. Back when I was in my twenties that drive was a ten dollar tank of gas and a big bucket of the Colonel’s.

I was talking the other day with an old friend of mine about our mutual love of country music.  Classic country. He told me stories I never knew about his father spending time on Loretta Lynn’s bus, an old photo of his mother with Marty Robbins, and an antediluvian machine his family owned that cut real records.  “Primitive,” he said.  All the better, I thought.

That’s what I love about classic country music: its raw, unapologetic simplicity.  Oh, and narrative. Every good country song has a story.

Driving around yesterday with the windows down and listening to Kitty Wells, I got to thinking about the Ryman and the classic performances I wish I could travel back in time to see and hear.

Ryman Auditorium

Here’s a partial list:

1946             Bill Monroe “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

1961             Ernest Tubb “Walking the Floor Over You”

1965             Connie Smith “Once a Day”

1968             Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash “Jackson”

1974             Dolly Parton “Jolene”

1998            Tammy Wynette “Stand by your Man”

I’m sorry I never made those trips to the Ryman many years ago.

But I did make a trip this year for my birthday.  That afternoon there were no performances or official tours of the great old auditorium.

Just as well.

I sat on worn wooden pews and looked around at light streaming through the Ryman’s stained-glass windows.

You could say there’s nothing like having the Mother Church all to yourself–but I heard too many ghosts to ever feel alone.

Breathing in Emily Dickinson

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Happy April—or as we call it here in the land of American Transcendentalism—National Poetry Month.  There are many reasons I love living in Massachusetts, chief among them its literary heritage. As a recovering English major, I enjoy being surrounded with the ghosts of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott and Melville. About this time of year when New England begins to thaw, I make the short drive out to Walden Pond to walk around Thoreau’s old stomping ground—well, ambling ground.  Thoreau loved a good amble.

Walden Pond-- a good spot for an amble

But more than anything else, I appreciate living in a town that is home to Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson has occupied a place in my mind for more years than I can remember. I count my intellectual awakening to a day in high school when I first read the poem, “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes.” I had no idea what the poem meant, but I loved the words and the rhythm and–most of all–the images. Reading that poem made something CLICK in my head and I went from being an empty-headed 15 year-old who loved television game shows and Switzer’s red licorice to being an empty-headed fifteen year-old who loved television game shows and Switzer’s red licorice, and Emily Dickinson.  That was a step up.

Fast forward several decades and I still love Emily Dickinson and I count my lucky stars that I get to live in a town that is positively GOBSMACKED with all things Dickinson. The poet was born in Amherst in 1830 and died here in 1886. Every fall I teach a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Emily Dickinson in the poet’s house  in Amherst, the Homestead.

I love the moment each December when students read “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons” and then look to the Homestead’s window sills with harsh light angling in. Then there are the days when I take our crew from stem to stern. We walk through every nook and corner of the house, including the cellar and the cupola.  Mount Holyoke students love the cupola best and who can blame them with its breathtaking views of Dickinson’s beloved New England.

Dickinson and Mount Holyoke go way back.  The poet attended Mount Holyoke for one year in 1847-48. She did not graduate, preferring to spend time at home writing. While I don’t encourage today’s students to leave college, I think Dickinson made a good decision back in 1848.  She needed to get started on the work-at-hand.  “My business is circumference,” she once wrote.  I think that means she didn’t care much for game shows or licorice.

In addition to teaching a Dickinson seminar in her house, I also enjoy helping out with Emily Dickinson Museum events whenever I can.  This summer I’ll be co-teaching a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for K-12 teachers. Eighty teachers from Alaska to Florida will converge on Amherst for two weeks to explore Dickinson’s life and work.  This summer is the second time I’ve taught the seminar and I love it.  Teachers, sprung from the obligation of teaching others, explode with excitement when they’re back to being students.  Combine their passion for learning with the beauty of Amherst in the summertime and you have an alchemy that can’t be beat.

Dickinson's bedroom

A few months ago, the Dickinson Museum asked me if I’d participate in some programming for a National Endowment for the Arts grant they received.  Dickinson is one of about 50 American authors who are the subject of the BIG READ this year.  Libraries, museums and community programs across the country vie for grants to develop opportunities for people to learn more about our American literary heritage. With funds from the grant, the Dickinson Museum is putting together a striking array of programs during National Poetry Month and beyond.

Here’s a line-up of some of the events from lectures to panel discussion to readings.  Next month, I’ll be talking about Dickinson’s most famous letter—a letter that first sent her poems out into the world–at a program on May 17 at the Jones Library in Amherst. If you’re in town, stop by.

I never turn down an Emily Dickinson Museum invitation because the Museum staff is so creative with ideas.

Take this one, for example.

For the next several weeks, people all over Amherst will “encounter” a Dickinson poem in surprising places. The Museum asked local businesses to post a copy of a Dickinson poem that people could stumble upon as they bought the local newspaper, paid their water bill at Town Hall or filled up their car with gas.  It’s the ambush quality of the encounters that I thought was imaginative. The idea is so—well–Dickinsonian. Emily Dickinson was a master of the surprising first line and her poems–like their physical placement all over town this month–arrest, assault, entrap and startle.

An encounter with Emily Dickinson at Ren's Mobil Station

My friends at the Museum asked if I would be willing to record one of the poems that people also could hear read out-loud on their cell phones. Technology and Poetry!—what a combo, I thought.  Of course I said yes and last week, I went to the Museum’s “studio” to record a poem.  Now I put the word studio in quotation marks because the recording booth was actually upstairs in Emily Dickinson’s attic—a small, dark cave of a room tucked among a warren of little-used spaces. There was a chair, a TV tray and two lamps that connected to a faraway outlet by snakes of extension cords. My friend, Cindy, sat cross-legged on the floor next to the chair.  She held the recorder hooked to a headset. “When I point to you—start talking,” she said.

The Studio

I took a breath and began.

“I heard a Fly buzz– when I died—“

“STOP!,” Cindy said.  “I can hear you breathing.”

Well, yes, I thought, I usually do that.

“No, really breathing. I hear you sorta heavy breathing,” she said. “Maybe the microphone is picking up everything.”

Well, it is April and allergy season, and I already had been pumping Allegra for several weeks. And then there was “the studio.” It carried the literary dust of centuries.

“Try it again,” Cindy said, “and this time–try not to breathe.”

I backed away from the microphone, took one last gulp of air, and dove in.

“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air—

Between the Heaves of Storm—

The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset—when the King-

Be witnessed–in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable—and then it was

There interposed a Fly—

With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—

Between the light—and me—

And then the Windows failed—and then

I could not see to see—“

Allergies side–sitting in that ancient attic, I was back to being fifteen again and awash in the wonder of Dickinson’s words.

I hope townspeople who stumble upon my recorded poem at the Hope and Feathers Framing Gallery on Main Street will feel that way, too. Give it a listen yourself—here’s a link.

I hope you don’t hear heavy breathing.


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Yesterday as I was teaching my weekly seminar at Mount Holyoke College, we all had our eyes to the windows.  The latest weather report called for snow, perhaps as much as four inches, to come through in the late afternoon.

Hearing the forecast, my students slumped in disgust.  Leslie said she had seen flurries on her walk to class. “Well, maybe not flurries,” she said reaching for any optimism she could muster. “Flurry-like. Almost flurries.” I grumbled at the thought of almost flurries and told my crew that at the first sign of a full-fledged storm, we were packing up. In twenty years of teaching at Mount Holyoke, I have made too many white-knuckle drives over The Notch—our steep and winding path through the Holyoke range.

Frankly, we are all sick of it.  The winter of 2011 has been brutal. Even as beleaguered as we are, we’re not quite ready to herald the beginning of spring.  In New England, we’ve been slapped in the face too many times in March and even April with monumental snowstorms.  Personally, I never take my shovel and ice scraper out of the car until income tax day.  It’s my policy.

I’m happy to report that yesterday’s snow in Western Massachusetts never materialized.  Somewhere over upstate New York, things petered out and we had only those “almost flurries” that Leslie spotted. My “Art of Fact” class on writing nonfiction about women’s lives proceeded apace. We finished our discussion of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwive’s Tale and all made it home without facing ice and skids.

This morning I’m breathing a sigh of relief and allowing myself a modicum of ease.  Maybe we’ve seen the last of what Mother Nature has dished out for this winter.

I thought you’d like to see where we stand.  Let me know if it’s almost time look for sprouting daffodils.

Snow is slowly receding out back.

See any sprouts?

A Casualty of Winter. Back in January, a snow plow took out nearly every mailbox on our road. Note the rubber band holding 'ole Number 41 to the busted post.

March Madness

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This morning I woke to news reports about the loss of national productivity during the upcoming NCAA basketball tournaments.  Workers absorbed with the post-season pour over spread sheets and compare records of Missouri and Pittsburgh. Will Ohio State take it all?  Will President Obama’s predictions somehow tip the scales?  Will Brittney Griner take Baylor to the top of the women’s game?

A few minutes ago, I called to check on a ride home for later today.  I’m on a train returning from a speaking engagement in Baltimore.  “The train’s on time,” I said.  “Looks like I’ll be at Amherst station at 4:30.”

Silence on the other end. “What did you say?” a distracted voice replied.  “I can’t talk now!  We’re filling out our brackets. Can you call back?”

I heard someone yelling in the background. “Jean, who do you have in the Georgetown—Notre Dame game?”

Sure hope I get picked up at 4:30

Obsessions amuse me. I’m all for them. In fact, just the other day I was in a conversation about “Magnificent Obsessions” and mentioned a house I look for every spring. It’s along Route 47 in Western Massachusetts, a lovely stretch of road that winds past loamy farmland along the Connecticut River.  About this time of year, I look for a regiment of white chairs that begin appearing on a certain wrap-around porch.  The chairs are the Magnificent Obsession of an elderly farm woman who places about ten of them at equal distance all around the porch’s perimeter. I’ve never seen anyone sitting in the chairs and the way they are staggered–one chair, five feet of empty space, another chair, five feet of empty space, another chair—would make it awkward for two or three people to talk comfortably.  A friend of mine describes this kind of line-up as “Elks Club Seating.”

I love the White Chairs of Route 47 because they are such a harbinger of spring. I drive by and imagine the old woman looking out the window and smiling. “It’s warmer,” she says to herself. “The snow is melting. Time to get the chairs from the cellar!”

When I was asked about my own Magnificent Obsessions in that conversation a few days ago, I had to confess that I have some: Emily Dickinson, the perfect chicken salad sandwich (grapes, walnuts, celery and very light on the mayo—PLEASE!), pots of coleus–especially a variety called Inky Fingers, and the Lady Vols basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

I’ve been an admirer of the great Lady Vols’ coach Pat Summit for a long time.  Summitt is the winningest coach in all of college basketball—men’s and women’s.  Eight national championships, .841 winning percentage, Basketball Hall of Fame, Naismith Coach of the Century.  Her coaching performance is unparalleled.

But what I really admire about Summitt is her trailblazing effort to increase opportunities for women in sports.  As a pre-Title IX baby, I believe strongly that sports are a vehicle for social change.  The more opportunities we have for women on the courts, the diamonds and athletic fields, the more we challenge stereotypes and move the world forward.

The graduation rate for all of Pat Summitt’s athletes isn’t bad either. Of the Lady Vols who complete their eligibility at the University of Tennessee, 100% graduate. Pat has her priorities and her rules. When you play for her, you must sit in the first three rows of every class you attend. “Pay attention,” Summitt says. To everything.

So, when a big birthday came up for me a few weeks ago—one of those “odometer changes,” if you know what I mean—my Magnificent Obsession for the Lady Vols took on unprecedented focus.

Last fall, this Lady-Vols-Obsessed-Women’s-Basketball-Watching-Wacko was the winning bid at a sports auction for item number 17:  “A Day with Pat Summitt.”

My heart be still!

On February 10, we flew down to Tennessee for a full day with the Lady Vols. I watched afternoon shoot-arounds, listened to scouting reports, studied film of the competition, toured the facilities, shared dinner with the team and took my place behind the bench for a game against Florida. For that evening, I was guest coach.

Did I mention I’m a pre-Title IX baby? What that means is that while I love basketball, I know very little about how it’s played.  My gym classes at McCluer Senior High in Florissant, Missouri never included strategy or chalkboard sessions.  Basketball meant that we ran up and down the court in our blue gym suits and tried to get to ball as soon as possible to Sue Brown. Sue was tall. “Just get it to Sue!” someone always yelled, snarled in a knot of sweaty arms.  That’s all I really know about the game.

Since the Lady Vols don’t have one player named Sue, my usefulness as guest coach had its limits.

At halftime, I went with the team into the locker room. This was the moment I was waiting for. For years, I have heard stories about Summitt’s locker room tirades. “This is a 40-minute game!” she would yell.  “You’ve got to play with intensity!”  “If I asked you to go to the store for milk, you’d bring back orange juice.  Pay Attention!”

Then there is Pat Summitt’s stare.  I couldn’t wait to see it. Summitt’s stares are the stuff of legend. Withering. Devastating. I wondered if I would cry.

But when the coaches’ door opened and Pat marched out, stat sheet gripped tightly in hand, there was no epic eruption.  Even though we were up by 20 points, she still was not satisfied. There was plenty of stern talk. Pat was disgusted with turnovers and laid down the law about the team needing to talk to each other on the court. I wondered if she had heard me yell, “Just get it to Sue!”

I think Pat is ignoring me.

We won the game.  Pat shook my hand. When I returned home, I realized I didn’t get one photograph of Pat and me.  I guess I never wanted to stop the action long enough to snap a picture. I wanted every minute to go on and on.

And maybe that’s the thing about Magnificent Obsessions. They aren’t about purpose. They aren’t about function. The White Chairs of Route 47 are not meant for sitting.

Magnificent Obsessions are all about abandon. We spin out of control. We go mad. For an all too brief moment, we unleash our most joyful selves.

So, ladies and gentlemen, get out your pencils and fill in those NCAA basketball brackets. In the Women’s Final Four, I’m hoping for the BIG rivalry: Connecticut against Tennessee.  This afternoon when I get off the train, I think I’ll play a trick on my neighbors who are passionate UConn fans. I’ll put an autographed photo of Pat Summitt in their mailbox.


And you know what that basketball lovin’ Emily Dickinson once wrote, don’t you?

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for the King

Out Here

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Like much of the country for the last several weeks, we’ve been under siege out here in Western Massachusetts.  Snow, ice, strong winds, and freezing temperatures have us in a stranglehold.  We have turned into primeval beings—searching only for food, shelter and warmth.

I can’t say that there’s much I enjoy about this harsh weather. I’m not a skier and have long ago given up snowman making.  I’m not even much for hot chocolate.

For the past few weeks I’ve done little else except look out the window at snow and worry about the roof.

Roof worries abound.  Daily newscasts are filled with stories of roofs caving in and barns groaning under the weight of three feet of snow.  Residents in my town reported 70 incidents of structural damage from snow in the last 36 hours. A barn a few towns over collapsed on a herd of cattle. Big box stores are especially susceptible to failures, of course, with their long, flat roofs. Everyday as I drive down the main commercial artery between Amherst and Northampton, I see men in orange snow suits shoveling atop the local grocery and hardware stores.  Bulked out in heavy-duty gear and silhouetted against the sky, they look like ice-locked astronauts.

If we weren’t concerned that all this snow signaled roof leaks and sagging ceilings, the icicles hanging from everyone’s homes might be beautiful.  Last Sunday morning—a rare day of sunshine and mild temperatures—I went out for fresh air.  I took my camera and hunted for images of this memorable winter–ropes of thick ice and glittering strands of crystal sparkling in the sun. Then there were more ominous scenes.  Front doors locked by long frozen bars of ice—rods that ran from roof to ground.  It looked as if no one had gone in or out those doors in weeks and I could only wonder what poor defeated soul was imprisoned inside.

Amherst, Massachusetts

The only pleasure I have taken from this winter has come, oddly enough, from shoveling the deck.  For the first several days, the task was nothing but a back-breaking chore.  I couldn’t get the deck door opened initially and had to push and shove against 30 inches of snow. But as I waded in and began work, something else took hold and I began to think of the job as facing down Mother Nature—as a test of character.  Soon, I wanted more than a single path cleared.  I wanted the whole deck free of snow.  Every inch, every skim of ice, every frozen foot chopped and scraped and hurled into a growing mound of snow at the edge of the woods.  That mound became a symbol of my perseverance, my readiness, my refusal to give in.  It was as if each heaping shovelful of snow was a “Take that!” to forces I could not see.

Yesterday around dinnertime,  I finished shoveling.  I was so proud of my accomplishment I wanted to call friends, invite them over even to take a look. I hoped they would pat me on the back and say “Quite a job you did there!”

A thing of beauty, right?

But then, thank goodness, I thought better of it. Shoveling the deck was only my personal stand against a rough winter. A way to blow off steam. Some claim to sturdiness.

But just to be safe, I’m leaving my shovel beside the door. Maybe it will ward off future storms.

Or maybe it will remind me of a local resident’s advice.  After all, poet Richard Wilbur, tells us, “Out here, you never know.”

Out Here

Strangers might wonder why

That big snow-shovel’s leaning

Against the house in July.

Has it some cryptic meaning?

It means at least to say

That, here, we needn’t be neat

About putting things away,

As on some suburban street.

What’s more, by leaning there

The shovel seems to express,

With its rough and ready air,

A boast of ruggedness

If a stranger said in sport

“I see you’re prepared for snow,”

Our shovel might retort

“Out here, you never know.”

*From Richard Wilbur, “Out Here.” Anterooms: New Poems and Translations. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

In the Land of Make Believe

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I stayed up late Tuesday night and watched TV, holding five quick picks in my hand. One-by-one the winning lottery numbers began to appear as a line of ping pong balls rolled down the chute.  I had the first number. I had the second number.

Then my luck ended.

Sad but true.

I never tire of imagining myself a kajillionaire.  I’m one of those people who play the lottery only when the jackpot reaches over 200 million.  I figure I need at least that much to move from having a life to having a lifestyle.

When I start fantasizing about what I’d do with all that loot, the first items are always the same: quit work, pay off the house, buy a new car, make sure future health care needs are addressed. Oh, and do some good deeds.

But really, this line-up looks like a government-issue wish list.  I’m a little embarrassed by how pedestrian my imaginings are.

Several years ago, I was standing in our department office at work and chatting with a friend about where we would live in New York City if we had all the money in the world.

“Oh, I’d get a nice two bedroom on the Upper West Side,” I said, picturing myself with golden light filtering in through old windows of a third-floor walk-up.

Pat looked at me incredulously.  “That’s it?” she said.  “That’s all you’d get with ‘all the money in the world’?

It was then that I realized even my dreams were trimmed to fit a Midwesterner’s notion of reasonable.

Clearly, I need to ratchet things up.

So here is my revised Mega Millions wish list. I’m thinking beyond the basics this time and directing my millions toward two areas:  International Relations and the Environment.

  • Underwrite hair, make-up and spa care for all past, current and future female Secretaries of State.  Have you seen poor Hillary Clinton lately?  She  looks beyond exhausted—flat hair, dark circles under her eyes, swollen ankles.  Give this woman a break!  When your weekly commute is from Beijing to Riyadh, you need extra help.  And let’s not quibble here:  women in high-level positions have it harder than men when it comes to looking the part and slapping on a smile. For women, there are those extra steps with eye liner and blow dryers. I’m happy to support my country’s peace initiatives with Kerastase hair products and soothing Keith Jarrett CDs.
  • And let’s not forget the men.  I am delighted to transfer funds to the Treasury of the United States to pay for good hair cuts for every male politician in the federal government.  Specifically, I would like to eradicate the scourge of comb-overs. By offering free hair cuts to our nation’s worst offenders, we not only can lop off long strands of hopeless hair, but we also can bring a sharper sense of reality to our governing.  After all, why should I trust a man’s analysis of homeland security when he is in denial about his own receding hair line? I’m talking about you, Carl Levin!
  • Moving to the environment.  I know I have been accused of being a Nervous Nelly at times, but certainly we need to do something about the Grand Canyon. Fence in those rims, people!  How many times have I stood at the North Rim in the radiance of wonder only to see a child dash to the edge and almost topple in?  A chain-link fence doesn’t have to be ugly; there are new and tasteful designs these days.  And, after all, what’s more important:  an unencumbered view of the canyon or risking the life of a 50 year-old burro in search of an overly enthusiastic park visitor? Home Depot?  Send me the bill.
  • And about the National Parks and Monuments.  I’ve been in many of them—even that tiny one in Montana where William Clarke carved his signature into a cliff side along the Yellowstone River.  Wonderful place. But really, the park rangers’ uniforms?  Just terrible. When it comes to fashion, we Americans have yards of talent.  (And I’m not talking about that one unfortunate Olympics in the ‘80s when Montgomery Ward outfitted our athletes.) I’m calling on the King of the Contrived Outdoors, Ralph Lauren to lend a hand and I’ll foot the bill. We need Ralph to design snappy uniforms for our dedicated and hard-working park staff. Get rid of those high-waisted pants, do something—anything!—with the women’s attire.  But, Ralph, please don’t touch the hats.  They’re keepers.

So there you have it: my revised Mega Millions Wish List.  I’ll be standing in line for a quick pick the next time the jackpot reaches 200 million. Who says a Midwesterner can’t push the limits of moderation?

The Year in Review: 2010

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Here’s a look back at 2010.

In January, Captiva, Florida turns a lovely shade of blue. New Englanders sit by the pool in sweatpants and order margarita toddies.

Fine dining continues back home in March. Burger King, as ever, sets the standard for connoisseurship.

"Curveball" hits the bookstores in June and within twenty minutes wins an award for "Best Book Launch Party Food Ever!"

Lots of baseball interviews in July. Thankfully, only have to wear mascara once.

Head to England in August for an alternative to baseball.

Oxford (UK) is invaded by hordes of Emily Dickinson scholars. The 'ole girl settles in at a cozy pub and "tastes a liquor never brewed."

In September, Decatur (GA) Book Festival is a blast! Even the T-shirts are literary (and a little scary).

Last day at the local soft serve in October brings out the whole neighborhood.

Who could forget the great Thanksgiving Turkey Plunge? Over 300 wackos dive into Nantucket Sound to benefit the local library.

Take Dad to see the Rockettes in NYC for an early Christmas. He says the last time he was in Times Square it was 1944 and he was shipping out to Europe. Says he likes the 2010 experience better.

2010 is almost over and marching orders seem to be coming from everywhere. Happy New Year!

Lessons and Carols from the Check-Out Line

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Truth be told, I’m not much for secular Christmas celebrations.  I know some people love hanging ornaments and baking cookies for days.  Many even enjoy firing up the virtual Yule Log for some digital crackle and pop.

But me?  Not so much.

To be blunt, I think the holidays are hell on women.

Now before you dash off a response to the complaint department, let me say that I know many men pull more than their share during the holidays.  My own 85 year-old father is hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for twelve people and a dachshund. He’s been cleaning house and stocking in groceries for days, bless him.

But all in all, it’s women who do most of the slog work this time of year: writing notes in  cards, buying presents, wrapping gifts, scrubbing toilets, shopping for fresh cranberries, making the guest beds, finding that kind of dark chocolate a nephew likes—you know what I mean.

Speaking as a member of the XY chromosome club, we bring a lot of this on ourselves.  We really do want everyone to have a picture-perfect holiday and we may be predisposed to obsess about details.  Years ago, my late mother taught me to make little notes in a Christmas card registry that would trigger my memory when writing comments in holiday cards.  “Did Jon play baseball again this summer?”  “How’s that new dog doing, Carl?”  As much as I would like to be less prepossessed about these matters, I simply can’t.  I feel it’s an affront to the lessons my mother taught me. I already disappointed her enough when I was ten and rejected her sewing instruction; I can’t ditch the Christmas card registry and the little notes.

But, I’ve been better about letting go other holiday chores.  Take cookie baking, for example.  I am a pretty fair cook. I subscribe to Bon Appetit and regularly watch Ina Garten on the Food Network. Well, really I listen to Ina. It’s the calm of her voice that soothes.  If Ina’s voice were a color, it would be cerulean. She’s that good.

But I’m terrible at cookie baking. Every cookie comes out too hard no matter how much I trim the baking time. Why can’t I bake a decent chocolate chip cookie?  Three years ago, my family flat-out asked me to stop baking Christmas cookies. I acquiesced with gratitude and shame.

This morning I made my pre-holiday excursion to the grocery store.  I couldn’t help but notice the tired look in many women’s eyes.  One woman was walking down the cracker aisle, deep in thought and using a role of wrapping paper as a cane. Another grandma-type had a baby in the front seat of her cart and he was screaming for a donut. Grandma jingled keys in front of her progeny while she hastily scanned the ingredient list on the back of a can of gravy.  No doubt someone in her household needed low salt. I suspected Grandma needed a valium.

Wanna guess what the bill was?

But the most tired woman I encountered was Shirley.  Shirley works as a bagger in the check-out lanes. She is about my age, has a soft, friendly face and lives in nearby group home for adults with developmental disabilities.

Often when I finish the last aisle of shopping, I look for Shirley’s lane because I enjoy talking with her.  Shirley asks me the same question every week when the heavy bag of cat litter comes through and all those cans of Fancy Feast. “How many cats you got?” We talk about what cats like to eat and she points out how much work a pet can be.  “But they’re worth it,” she always says.

This morning when I came through Shirley’s aisle, she looked tired. It seemed the holidays had taken a toll on her good-natured demeanor, too. She didn’t notice as I pushed the bag of potatoes down the conveyor belt or all those cans of cat food. No doubt, Shirley already had seen her share that day of harried and self-absorbed customers like me. She yawned and talked to the bagger in the next lane, another resident from the group home.  “We’ve got a lot to do before Christmas,” I heard her say.

“Merry Christmas, Shirley,” I said.

“Yeah, Merry Christmas,” she mumbled.  I had never heard such a drained and tapped- out response in my life.

Shirley didn’t raise her eyes as she helped bag my eight sacks of groceries.  I hate to admit it, but I was too busy arranging the cart to look up and say anything else.  All I could think of was getting home in time to unpack the groceries, make the guest beds, and have dinner on the table for guests by six.

“Gotta cat?” Shirley asked, noticing the Fancy Feast cans.

“Just one right now,” I answered.

Shirley sighed and took a deep breath.

“They’re worth it,” she said.

I had to agree. And all that jingle bell ringing, gift wrapping and guest bed making?  It’s probably worth it, too.

God Rest Ye Merry Grammarians

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OK, kids.  It’s that time of year again!

Time for the annual Holiday Cards Grammar Quiz.

Are you ready?  Get out your pencils.  Here we go.

Which one of these sentences is correct?

  1. Peace and Joy from the Bob Cratchits’.  _________________
  1. Best wishes of the season from Angelina, Brad and everyone at the Jolie-Pitts house, er houses, er continents._______________
  1. Over the river and through the woods from our house to yours’. ___________
  1. Holiday cheer from the Websters—all six of them. __________________
  1. Wishing you a season warm with smile’s and snowflake’s. ________

How did you do?

If that little quiz was a puzzler, here are some helpful hints about seasonal grammar.

Rule Number One:  Proper Noun Plurals

If you’re sending greetings from everyone in your family—Ma, Pa, and little Cindy Lou–then you’re in the land of the plurals—sorta like Whoville.  No need for holiday excess. Get rid of those apostrophes!

Not a Grinch nor an apostrophe in sight.

Here’s how you do it: Happy Holidays from the Whos.

Rule Number Two: Plural Possessives

I gotta admit–this one is a little tricky.

Let’s say you paid off your mortgage and want everyone to know that greetings come from your very own debt-free house. This year, it’s all about OWNERSHIP.

Here’s what you need:  Best wishes from everyone at the Trumps’ house.

Dust off that apostrophe and slap it on the Trumps–you know you wanted to…

Rule Number Three: You’re, Your and Yours’

Everything’s pretty straight forward here.

“You’re” is simply a winning combination.  Think chestnuts and an open fire. Mariah Carey and lip syncing. Or a houseful of people and plumbing problems.

You’re linking two words that naturally go together.

Now to the next one: “your.”   Here’s where it’s all about you: “Your” house, “your” unannounced distant relatives, “your” nervous breakdown.

No need to dress it up: “your” is as primal and stripped down as it gets.

And last of all, “yours’.”  There’s no such word.  It’s like a pleasant holiday shopping experience in the local mall. It simply does not exist.

Rule Number Four: Garden Variety Plurals

If you’re dressing up simple plurals with apostrophes–cookies’, and snowflake’s and raindrop’s on roses’s—then it’s time to take a break.

Put your feet up, pour that glass of eggnog, go ahead—splash a little bourbon on top and give a listen to one of my favorites.

Dolly Parton & Rod Stewart, \”Baby, It\’s Cold Outside\”

Oh, and if you guessed the fourth sentence was correct, you’re right!

Happy Holidays’!

Once More Unto the Beach!

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Remember the Turkey Plunge from my Bucket List—-the dive into Nantucket Sound at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to benefit the local children’s library?

Well, I did it!

And don’t even ask about the cold.  I couldn’t feel it.  Too much adrenalin.  Too many good-natured people in crazy hats.  Too many Secret Service agents.

More on that last one later.

It was a great morning: clear and cold, about 48 degrees on the island.

What I had heard about the exuberant Turkey Plunge was spot-on.  It was a major event.  People assembled from all around:  grandmothers brought lawn chairs, kids came in parkas and boots with inner tubes around their waists and lots of people carried heavy towels.

I was the only one from my merry band crazy enough to face the saltwater.  Plunge organizers, mindful of the crowds, allowed me one mate on the beach to hold the towels and one by the coffee pots to wait with a steaming mug.

Getting there early was a mixed bag.  It was great seeing all the wacky costumes, but standing around the registration tables for 45 minutes gave me time to wonder if I was in over my head, and—well—it was a little cold.

Moi and Mr. Gobble

During the wait, plunge officials awarded prizes for the best individual costume, best family costume, and prizes for swimmers who had traveled the farthest.  I thought I might have a shot at the long-distance prize.  After all, we drove nearly 200 miles, boarded the ferry at Hyannis and then crossed the Sound for an hour.

Foolish me.  Last year’s long-distance plunger came all the way from China. Our little jaunt across the state was nothing.

And I was no match for the costume prizes either.  I wore my swimsuit, of course, then about five layers of warm clothing and last of all my heaviest bathrobe– the animal print one that looks a little like wild fowl from far away. To top it off, I found a beige plush, plucked turkey rump to wear as a hat.

If you’re goin’ in, you might as well go all the way.

But looking around me, I realized my get-up was tame.  First there were the guys who drove up from New York: the Teletubby boys in brightly-colored fleece. We took photos and admired each other’s attire. Then there was the family dressed as a Wizard of Oz troupe.  Dorothy apparently hadn’t had time to shave that morning. And Dan, the Turkey Tie Man, his feathered wings made out of a hundred ties.

Dan, the Turkey Tie Man

Of everyone assembled—about 300 in all–the best dressed participant was Mr. Gobble, a spectacularly handsome white turkey in a red bow tie. He nonchalantly strolled around the beachfront as if he owned the day.

All morning the local radio station provided music from a flatbed truck and called attention to particularly good costumes such as young Superman and the rogue tattoo artists who made their costumes from brown grocery bags hand-lettered to read simply, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Dorothy did not have enough coffee.

My new best friends.

Young Superman

Those who seemed in-the-know moved down to the beach at 9:55 after murmurings that a countdown was starting.  That’s when I took a deep breath and began peeling off layers: first the wild fowl bathrobe, then the red insulated sweatpants, next the sweatshirt, then more sweatpants and more sweatshirts.  The last to go were my insulated boots.  I really hated to give up the boots.

I stood by the edge of the water and looked out to sea.  Plymouth Rock was only a few miles away.  All of America was at my back. I felt solitary, stripped of time and place, and part of the long march of history. Well, as much as you can feel history with a plush turkey rump on your head.

And then it began.

The radio station turned up the volume and started the countdown.  “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

I looked around to find my Teletubby pals. I wasn’t going in without them. They waved from across a distance and I waved back. Then I looked the other way and saw a guy I hadn’t noticed before.  He wasn’t as playful as the rest of the crowd and seemed oddly unaffected by the cold.  I also noticed a coiled wire snaking out of his ear.

That’s when I saw him.

A familiar face in a ball cap and a broad smile standing next to the guy with the wire.

Joe Biden! Holy Moley!  I’m plunging into Nantucket Sound with the vice president!

“GO!,” the radio announcer yelled and we all rushed into the water—hats flying, turkey ties swirling, a vice presidential baseball cap bobbing in the waves.

Here we go!

I couldn’t think of a better place to cross off a goal on my Bucket List. And I couldn’t imagine a better way to make a fool of myself on Thanksgiving morning.

Apparently others felt that way, too.

The next afternoon, I ran into Vice President Biden and his family in the Even Keel Café. Joe was sharing a plate of French Fries with his grandchildren.

I think he gave me a wink.