Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Closed Book

My cat Herbie sleeps much more than his adopted brother Guinness. A lot of the time Guinness has no one to play with but me and I spend a great deal of time in front of my computer – which is no fun at all. Some of his favorite toys are little balls of fluff stuff that some knowing manufacturer covers with shiny metallic rays. We play fetch with these. Guinness will bring one into the study if I’m working, or into the kitchen if I’m cooking, and drop it by my feet. If I don’t get the idea, he’ll meow, annoyed. So I throw it and he runs after it, sliding on the wood floors. He’ll bat it around for a while then bring it back for me to throw again. These and other amusements – such as helping me make the bed – usually suffice but occasionally Guinness gets bored.

A bored Guinness is a dangerous Guinness.

With the infallible instincts of a two-year-old human, he knows what gets my attention. If I’m in my study, he will begin by climbing over papers and folders to the shelf where I keep small collection of significant rocks. With infinite care, he will select one particular stone and send it to the floor. If I still ignore him, he’ll find another. If, even then, I keep working, he goes to the books. Knocking a volume off the shelf almost always gets me off my chair.

And evidently Guinness finds the thud of a fallen hardbound book especially satisfying. When I hear it while I’m eating at the dining room table, I know one of the downstairs books has hit the floor. Unfortunately, several of the downstairs volumes, carefully placed in the built-in bookcase, are family treasures. They include books that my great grandmother gave to my great grandfather when they were courting.

He knocked down two of them last week. That was the last straw. I spent an entire morning moving things in the pantry so things in the kitchen cupboards could go in the pantry – then moving things in the china cabinet into the kitchen cupboard. Eventually, the two bottom shelves of the glassed-in china cabinet were clear. They became the new home for the treasured volumes. Finally, un-clunk-able.

It’s a damn good thing he’s cute.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

If the shoe fits . . .

Recently the New York Times published a little story about a 5,500-year-old shoe found in an Armenian cave. Made of high quality leather, with leather laces crisscrossing through numerous eyelets, it resembles a modern soft-soled walking shoe. Scientists believe the shoe was for a woman’s right foot, approximately size 7. It had been worn. The archaeologists saw big toe imprints and some of the eyelets had been torn and repaired.

The huge Armenian cave where the shoe was found has yielded an abundance of artifacts from the “Copper Age” when humans are believed to have invented the wheel and domesticated horses, among other advances. The cave’s treasures include evidence of winemaking and caches of intentionally dried fruits (apricots, grapes and prunes). Archeologists believe the cave was used by high status people to store their community’s harvest and ritual objects.

Other leather shoes, which may be equally old, have been found in the Middle East but not yet dated. Previously, the oldest known leather shoes belonged to a mummified man found in the Alps near the Italian-Austrian border. His shoes had bearskin soles, deerskin panels, tree-bark netting and grass socks. They were a little younger than the Armenian shoe, only about 5,000 years old.

Sandals have an even longer history; the oldest known specimens, dated to more than 7,000 years ago were found in central Missouri. And another recent New York Times item noted that Mesoamericans, such as the Aztec and Maya, made sandals out of rubber beginning about 1,600 B.C.E. (about 3,600 years ago).

I believe my ancestor, who lived about 12,000 years ago in northern Spain (see posts for June 11 and June 22) had some kind of foot protection. Indeed, European Stone Age skeletons have been found to have unusually small toes – suggesting that footwear of some kind was used by 40,000 years ago.

These little tidbits of time -- souvenirs of pre-history -- help me begin to comprehend the vast scope of the human saga. Instead of my prior stereotypes of hulking, grunting primitives, far less intelligent than their modern descendents, I begin to envision a long, long line of ancestor Cinderellas, sipping wine and eating dried apricots. Not a bad occupation in any age.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

what words are needed?

                                          Herbie and Guinness in repose.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Solstice -- past and present

Monday, June 21, 2010 was the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere. In my genealogical memoir, Family Time, my ancient ancestor, Mirari explains the ceremonies that her people conducted at various times of the year. She convinces my two great grandmothers, three great aunts and two grandmothers and me to travel to northern Spain. Santillana Del Mar is the town closest to Altamira cave (see June 11 post). There is an old church at one end of the town and, attached, an even older cloister. Mirari remembers it, pre-cloister, when it was the site of Summer Solstice celebrations 12,000 years ago. The nine of us visit the cloister at the end of long day . . .

Once inside, the profound stillness of the cloister brought all nine women to a standstill. It was such a simple plan: a sheltered walkway surrounding a quadrangle of paired columns that in turn surrounded a lawn bisected by stone paths into four smaller quadrangles. Only after stopping to truly look would one notice that the pattern was not symmetrical. There were some groups of four columns. One gate. One arched double window with a roof higher than the rest of the wood-ceilinged perimeter. Many of the columns’ capitals were distinct, with arcane or obvious designs. Some patterns appeared only once. Others were repeated.

And none of this mattered to Mirari. Easing herself into the center of the lawn, the intersection of the stone paths, she raised her hands to the open sky in a manner that compelled the others to both attention and silence.

With unmistakable gestures, she directed Ma and Emma to stand on the north side, each under separate arcs of stone. Beryl and Hazel found their respective places on the west side. Zoe and Edna on the south. Mim and Nana on the east.

When all were positioned, standing (as Mim knew they should not) on the low stone wall supporting the columns, Mirari began to hum.

Instinctively, the others followed suit; with sounds first tentative then clear. Except for Nana, who had ruined her voice by smoking. Instead, she whistled softly. The combined sounds curled around the 900 year old structure, mingling with the prayers of medieval nuns and the thud of dancing feet from Mirari’s people. And the faint echoes of the interim faithful.

Then Mirari began to clap, very softly, turning in place to face each of the other women. And each of the other women responded by clapping softly until the cloister sounded vaguely like the waves on the seashore only a few miles away.

And they rode that sound in a way that connected the nine of them as they had not been connected before. And simultaneously they understood the power of the El Castillo ceremonies.

But it was inevitable. The church bells began tolling 7 o’clock. The grumpy guardian opened the door to shoo them out through the church and back into the village.

And they went. Muttering in unison: “I don’t want to leave.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Dad

Okay. It’s Fathers Day. My father has been dead for eight years now but he is still part of who I am. Here’s a (long) excerpt from Chapter 12 of my memoir, Tree Lines:

As a child, I both worshiped and feared my father. He was The Authority, relaying undisputed rules to both my brother and me: we should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to, say 'please' and 'thank you', 'yes sir' and 'yes ma'am,’ and write thank you notes for every gift received. We were expected to be obedient and respectful.

He was by all suburban criteria, a good father, interested and involved in the lives of my younger brother and me. But in retrospect he set impossibly high standards for us and, if we did not meet them, subjected us to some pretty scathing sarcasm and teasing.

I don’t think he understood that I believed everything he said. He was my father. What he said was true. If we had trouble with homework, or figuring out how to fix something or why something worked the way it did, we were made to feel unbelievably stupid. It was like a perpetual oral exam.

Yet Dad could be a tender Authority. When I had my tonsils out at age three, he listened to my anger about being put in a crib and he made it okay. He conspired with us to learn "Jest Before Christmas" by Eugene Fields as a holiday surprise for my mom. He brought me a bike named "Grapefruit" on my birthday. He put the worms on my hook. And, decades later, he spent hours refinishing the antique bassinet I had found for my first child.

He taught me a great deal--basic stuff, like riding a bike, fishing, and the multiplication tables. He spent time with me as I struggled with homework. It was rewarding when I got it and mortifying when I did not.

Someone else was always telling me what he felt about something . . . especially if it was difficult or negative. He never discussed big issues directly. At best, he referred to a problem with dry wit or sarcasm. He rarely revealed any emotion except anger 'in front of the children,' and found it hard to deal with the emotions of others. That was true to the end of his days.

His focuses were his job and my mom. He went on a lot of business trips. When home, he seemed perpetually busy with projects in the house or yard. I used to say he invented the Puritan work ethic.

When they came, his approvals were 'Miss America' moments, crowning a day--when I wrote an 'A' paper or won some kind of prize at school.

Family vacations--when he was released from his personal grindstone--were the times that he focused on us. To find the fishing he loved, he took us north into Ontario and, after a few attempts, found 'our' fishing camp on Georgian Bay. We'd go up there every other summer and I got pretty good at fishing.

As a special treat on my 18th birthday, he took me out to a previously identified 'fishing hole' on the edge of the larger bay and let me catch both my limit and his. That night, we consumed our bounty accompanied by his famous fried potatoes and onions, and champagne from chipped ceramic mugs. It was one of the best birthday parties I ever had.

After my marriage, contact was less frequent. Whenever I would see him--usually on major holidays--he was charming and witty and supportive. He paid nice attention to my sons as soon as they could talk, and was cordial but remote with my husband.

In August 1975, I asked my parents to visit immediately after I told my husband I had filed for divorce. I was terrified. I wanted them to provide support and (if needed) protection. I remember standing on my front porch with Dad, talking about what would happen next. I knew the house would have to be sold and that I would need to get a job. I told him that we couldn't live on the proceeds from the program I had developed, but that I was pretty sure I could get some kind of writing job. He just said that he was sure I would do fine. It felt like he meant it and therefore it must be true.

He divorced my mom and remarried. It was more than 15 years before he and his second wife visited me. My sons were approaching ages 26 and 23 and had not seen him since they were small. They were both on their own, struggling to survive but surviving. Even though I had a beautiful co-op apartment and was doing well in a highly responsible job involving international travel, I felt like a five-year-old who had broken something.

The mere fact of his presence triggered the sense that I was not good enough.

In spite of that, his visit seemed an honest overture. He started writing me letters and, once a year, I tried to visit his home -- a truck farm in the country outside Naples, Texas. Even retired, he was still dad. He raised chickens, vegetables and berries–even a few head of cattle for a while. He tried, with less success, to start a peach orchard. He worked hard, up at dawn. He still could not talk about personal things. I’d tell him about my work. He’d show me his tomatoes. He only asked about my mom once, when he was sure his wife couldn’t hear.

In so many ways, he was hard to get to. Their place was a two-hour drive from the Dallas airport. The railroad was closer. Once I took the train down, a shabby, crowded version of the grand trains of my childhood. Going home, I had stepped up to the passenger car when I heard his voice behind me: “We are proud of you.”

I was Miss America again.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fathers Day

Although the exact date has not been determined, most scientists agree that our particular species has been around about 200,000 years. And most of us would acknowledge that our species would not have survived for 200,000 years without both fathers and mothers.

So you have to wonder why it took us so long to set aside one measly day a year to honor mothers and another one measly day a year to honor fathers.

Greeting cards – in the beginning at least – had nothing to do with it. Nor indeed did merchants of any kind.

Mothers Day came first. Observances were initiated by Unitarian Julia Ward Howe in 1872 as anti-war events. They continued about 10 years before the idea lost momentum. Then early in the 1900s, various communities and states began having ‘Mothers Day’ events. It became a national holiday in 1914.

The first Father's Day was observed on June 19, 1910 in Spokane, Washington. It was launched by Mrs. John B. Dodd to honor her father, a widower, who raised his six children as a single parent. Eventually, towns and cities across America began to celebrate a "father's day." In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge supported the idea of a national Father's Day but it was not until 1966 that Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the 3rd Sunday of June as Father's Day.

Today both Fathers Day and Mothers Day are part of this country’s culture. And however long it has taken us to create them, both observances are probably a good idea.

No father (or mother) is perfect. But most fathers have, in their own ways, done their best to nurture their kids, teach them the rules, and help them acquire the skills they need to survive, and even flourish. And if your father wasn’t particularly good at it, there probably was another adult male who was instrumental in helping you (at whatever age) reach adulthood.

So hooray for the 3rd Sunday in June. Hooray for fathers (or adult male substitute fathers). Bless them, honor them and try to give them better neckties this year.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Such a Deal

When my cats, Herbie and Guinness, began their lives with me (see June 8 post) I thought that Herbie – the older and slightly larger animal – would be the ‘alpha’ cat. I was wrong. Guinness has a tendency to bully his adopted brother. It took, literally, years before Herbie dared participate in any game that Guinness and I might be playing. He would watch with one eye from another room (half hidden by whatever wall was providing cover). Even now, he sometimes seems to hesitate to eat until he is sure Guinness is through.

But Guinness has proven to be astoundingly neurotic. Forceful with Herbie, he nonetheless is terrified by any human other than me. Most of my guests think I have only one cat because Guinness hides the moment the doorbell rings. Often he will burrow beneath my bedspread; evidently unaware that the lump he creates gives him away.

It’s not that the two don’t get along. They do. They play, chasing each other around the house; they groom each other, and often cuddle together in sleep looking like a furry yin yang symbol. Their hobbies include squirrel and bird watching and it is fun to see their heads turn in unison as furred or feathered creatures scamper or fly outside my windows.

Herbie is my official host cat. He loves visitors and expects focused affection from all who cross my threshold. When my writers group meets at my house, he will go from lap to lap until sufficient homage is paid. And most visitors are delighted – he is soft and beautiful – until they discover that he drools. He drools when he is happy and when he is frightened and sometimes just because. The worst is when he shakes his head, sending saliva flying.

The moment company leaves, Guinness shows up and we are a trio again. Both of them seem to love me unconditionally. They greet me when I come home from anywhere. Sensitive to my every mood and condition, they cuddle when I need comfort and use their vast repertoire of antics when I need cheering. They wait until they are sure I am sleeping before making their nocturnal rounds.

They provide me with love to give and receive and with something to focus upon besides my own problems or whatever I am writing. All I have to do is provide affection, food, water, clean litter boxes and occasional pedicures.

Such a deal.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Portal to the Past

Earlier this week, Spain’s Culture Ministry announced that Altamira Cave would be reopened after being closed to the public for eight years.

I went to Spain last year – specifically to see Altamira Cave. According to the National Geographic Genographic Project, my female ancestor lived in its vicinity 12,000 years ago. According to Brian Sykes in his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, she may even have helped to paint what many call the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.

The cave was closed. But there is, adjacent to a wondrous museum of life in those times, a painstakingly exact replica into which you can walk and look around with wonder.

Many of the Paleolithic caves of northern Spain are open to the public. I was able to visit three: Tito Bustillo, El Castillo, and Monedas. And I can testify that walking through a reproduction cannot compare with actually being deep inside the earth, viewing incredible art created thousands and thousands of years ago.


Earlier this year, Spain’s main scientific research body recommended that the caves remain closed. "The people who go in the cave have the bad habits of moving, breathing and perspiring." When tourists flocked to see the cave, green mold stains showed up on the paintings and there was a gradual deterioration of the images.

So if they let everyone see the paintings, there will eventually be nothing to see.

It’s a hard decision.

Just being in Altamira’s vicinity -- learning about its inhabitants and walking the land -- was inspiration. It was so easy to imagine my female ancestor that I made her a character, Mirari, in my “genealogical memoir,” Family Time.

In my manuscript, she described the ceremonies and significance of Altamira and other sites that (I imagined) were sacred to her people. Her audience included the female ancestors I had known growing up: two great grandmothers, three great aunts, two grandmothers and my mom. Until we listened to Mirari, none of us thought ancient people were intelligent and creative. We learned that they were a vibrant people who, if we would only pay attention, could teach us much about honoring all life.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what is decided about the cave. As long as Altamira, in whatever form, can jostle our consciousness into a deeper understanding of existence.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Herbie and Guinness

My cats are a huge part of my life so it is time to introduce them. I adopted them in November 2002 – about seven years and seven months ago. Herbie was about two back then, the color of butter-rich cream with strawberry blonde ears and markings. His eyes are pale blue and his fur is intensely soft. Guinness was just one, a brown tabby with golden eyes. (He doesn’t look brown, more like dark gray with white around his mouth and chin, like a pint of Guinness with a fine head of foam.) He came home first. Herbie hadn’t had his operation. (The Humane Society insists on castration.)

While Herbie was suffering surgical indignities, Guinness and I bonded. Prisms hang in my east windows casting morning rainbows that fascinated Guinness. I was fascinated by his fascination, sitting on the floor with him on my lap, both of us in our own ways saying ‘wow.’

When at last I could bring Herbie home, I had to keep him in isolation. Both cats had slight respiratory infections and were supposed to take antibiotics. But isolation and occasional drops of antibiotics get old. On the third day after Herbie’s arrival, I opened the doors to their respective rooms. And they met.

Guinness noticed Herbie first. Herbie was a bit overwhelmed by all the new territory. Guinness did everything but juggle to get some kind of response beyond a cursory sniff from the bigger, more glamorous cat. Wherever Herbie went, Guinness trotted along behind, eager and friendly. And ignored.

Herbie just needed time. As he began to feel comfortable with a particular room he would rest there a while. First the TV room, then the living room. After several hours, he was ready to follow me upstairs. My bed skirt may have been the final arbiter. When golden paws poked out from under the bed toward the little gray tabby counterparts, contact was made.

It was explosive. They scrambled through the house in tandem for half an hour. Later, as the games subsided, Guinness presented Herbie with a catnip mouse.

They were home and we were family.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fire Restored

I thought I was empty. That nowhere in my brain resided even one spark of creativity. That I would never again write anything of possible interest to another human being.

You know what turned me around? A committee meeting. Of all things on earth, committee meetings are phenomena that many consider the most deadly. Boring. Useless.

And worse, I was in charge. I was supposed to inspire the others. Not likely.  But I had an agenda – typewritten not hidden.

That afternoon, there were only four of us – not the usual seven. And so many things we needed to accomplish. The probability of success was minimal.

Thinking back, I guess I did have a hidden agenda. I wanted some ideas, some contagious enthusiasm that would stir the embers of my own enthusiasm – and prompt me to blaze new trails, carry on, persevere … and all that.

And lo! As the meeting progressed and the group addressed shared problems, it happened. I began to give a damn again.

Even better, when I asked for ideas for a new project, I got great suggestions. And I was, literally, inspired – coming up with ideas of my own.

How did that happen?

We had a common goal. We were invested in success. We were (and are) intelligent, creative people.

When one kernel popped, another one burst open and we achieved lift off.

I can mix metaphors with the best of them.

But, more important, I can sit in front of my computer and once more move characters across a page and into a story. And I’ll do that, as soon as I type up the minutes of the committee meeting.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Monday’s New York Times printed an op ed graphic showing the number of American soldiers who died in each of the twelve wars in which this country has been involved since 1775. I copied those figures, added the dates of each war, noted the intervals between wars, and figured out the total of dead American soldiers. There were no statistics given for the dead ‘enemy’ soldiers, nor the numbers of civilian ‘casualties.’ And if there had been, how could we begin to comprehend the enormity of those figures?

Many of us have felt the impact of one life lost. Multiply that by millions.

No generation has been unaffected.

Perhaps it is time to ask: When will it end?

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) – 25,324 dead
29-year interval

War of 1812 – (1812 to 1815) 19,465 dead (subtotal—44,789)
31- year interval

US Mexican War (1846-1848) 13,283 dead (subtotal – 58,072)
13-year interval

Civil War – (April 1861 – April/June 1865) 622,000 dead (subtotal- 680,072)
33-year interval

Spanish-American War (1898) 2,446 dead (subtotal- 682,518)
16-year interval

World War I (1914 to 1918) –116,516 dead (subtotal- 799,034)
21-year interval

World War II (1939 to 1945) 403,339 dead (subtotal-1,202,473)
5-year interval

Korean War (1950–53) 54,246 dead (subtotal – 1,256,719)
2-year interval

Vietnam War (November 1955- to April 1975) 58,220 dead (subtotal 1,314,939)
15-year interval

Persian Gulf War (Aug. 1990 – Feb. 1991) 383 dead (subtotal 1,315,322)
10-year interval

Afghanistan War (2001 – present) 1,076 (as of May 31) (subtotal 1,316,398)
2-year interval

Iraq War (2003 – present) 4,401 (as of May 31 – total 1,320,799)