Monday, October 27, 2008

Stay With Me, God

Stay with me, God.
The night is dark,
the night is cold,
my little spark of courage dies.
The night is long.
Be with me, God,
and make me strong.

This is the last month we can pay bills. After this, we exist at the whim of the universe.

Rich went on an interview last week that was particularly painful. He had been called by this company, they liked his resume. Then they had a 1.5 hour phone interview with him, and at the end asked him to come in. He was home in one hour. Rich said when he met the young man who had interviewed him on the phone, he could see that his age had not been evident from the resume. The guy just dismissed him out of hand. Rich said he could practically see the thought process. He couldn’t get him out of the place fast enough. Just dismissed him, even though he is completely qualified for the job.

I have traded horror stories about interviews with other wives. My favorite one that Richard had was a company in Boston. The job advertised fit Rich exactly. When he got there they brought guys into the conference room in groups of six, and they gave him a “problem” to resolve. He used a whiteboard to show how he would approach the storage issue, what products he would use, etc. This happened for two groups of employees before Richard realized that he was giving a free seminar. They had no intention of filling any position, they were using the interviewees to resolve their issues so that their own people could effect a solution. No concern for the fact that they wasted a day of his life and didn’t pay him for it.

I have a friend whose husband was flown out to Chicago on a private jet, given an interview with top management, offered the position, and spent the return flight mapping out the formation of the new division with top managers. His advice was undoubtedly implemented, but not with him, because he never heard from them again. They did not return his bewildered calls. Did I mention that the person who recommended him at the company was an old college buddy? Never heard from him again, either.

This happened to Richard, as well, on a smaller scale. A company in Framingham “hired” him, and we had a great weekend celebrating the end of our misery. On Monday we didn’t hear anything, and by Thursday it was obvious that something was wrong. The man who interviewed him introduced himself as a “Christian,” and said how important high morals were at the company. We never heard from them again. Yeah, great Christian behavior. It would make us paranoid that there was some black mark against Rich somewhere, but he has nothing worse than one speeding ticket long ago on his record. We have never been in trouble at all. Just regular people, work ethic, non-smoking, cheap champagne at Thanksgiving and beer in their chili kind of people. Apparently expendable.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Does This Seem Odd To You?

I can’t work any of the media equipment in our house, either upstairs or down, without access to three manuals, four remotes, my conversation hat, and six beers.

Not one single piece of equipment operates according to its instructions. There are ancillary little boxes and switches on shelves nearby the equipment, lights flashing and beeps beeping, and the DVD player in our bedroom doesn’t work for more than half an hour without a portable fan trained on it. (I discovered this by accident, but you don’t even want to hear that story.)

In short, I am married to an engineer. Wherever he is, there is a dusting of wire bits and the faint sulfuric whiff of metal solder in the air, prompting visitors to query, “Been boiling eggs?” No, just waiting for that ferry to Hell.

Along with the fact that I am married to an engineer comes the additional fact that I am married to an engineer who appears to be incapable of accurately taping the correct episode of anything. We begin to watch the tape of The Mentalist, only to find that we are watching a grainy Hudson Selectmen meeting from 2006, or even better, the belly dancing class on local cable. This class isn’t even campy, let me tell you, somebody paid somebody off to get this on the air.

So today, after (literally) 30 years of this, I asked him, “Do you think this is acceptable?”

“What? I wrote out the instructions and stuck them to the bookcase.”

“Rich, YOU YOURSELF can’t manage this equipment without your calculator and your Boy Scout compass!”

“You just have to read my instructions! I spent a lot of time making those instructions for you.”

[Here is a sampling from the instructions: "Video selector IS on unless Sony TV says Video 1, otherwise will say 'not connected'. VCR = 3, Video 2/LD also may say 'not connected'.]

I feel like that man named Charlie who is still riding the subway through Boston. You can just hand me a sandwich once in awhile. I’ll be trying to find the input for the red jack, or is it the black one that needs the yellow hole? Oh, well . . . . see you sometime . . . .

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Take It or Leave It


When I was a child, the playground do-it-yourself merry-go-round was my favorite event. You held on, ran around and around to get up a good head of steam, and then jumped on for a long, giddy ride. My biggest choice in those days was whether to lie flat and watch the clouds spin by, or sit up and watch my friends’ faces appear periodically, like jerky frames in an old movie.
These days, I just wish I could stick out my foot and slow the ride down. Here are a few of my ideas.

Let’s slow the world down.

Recently I was roundly chastised by a fellow volunteer board member because I forgot to leave my home messaging unit on when I went out on errands. Three years ago I had a phone, with two extensions—whoopee. Now our family has access to Internet, IM, texting, Skype VOIP, voice mail, e-mail, fax machine,, cell phone, file attachments, and so on. All these things are wonderful. But they are tools. We control them. We can choose when and how to use them. It is up to us to control the expectations that result from a speedy, technologically advanced society. We may not want to be always accessible. We can choose to make time together, to make that time sacrosanct, safe from intrusion by the tools we have embraced.

Let’s keep the holidays as events, not as a 6-month ramp-up period for merchandising.

For instance, I heard the first television ad for holiday merchandise just after Labor Day this year. November and December used to be anticipated with pleasure; now many of us dread the term “holiday season.” We don’t have to acquiesce to this pushing. We can decide not to fight our way through two months of the year with heavy hearts, rushing from one mall, one event, one cookie batch to another. There are many great ideas for avoiding this. Here are a few: shop by Internet; spread out shopping for holidays over the whole year (this is less painful than it sounds); make mustard instead of cookies to give as gifts (it’s much easier); buy good, store-bought food as gifts, wrap it creatively, and keep your mouth shut. Turn down invitations you don’t enjoy. Believe me, it won’t be tragic if you are not there, and it’s absolutely liberating. Simplify and downscale your own entertaining. If you want it badly enough, you can have a wonderful, stress-free season.

Do away with “I should” thinking.

I like and admire Martha Stewart, but I don’t intend to go into beekeeping or topiary design as hobbies. I like to watch This Old House, too, but I don’t plan to tackle that home theater/workshop renovation on my own house. Let’s look at media mavens as teachers and not as guilt inducers. Don’t buy the women’s magazines in December. Clean out a drawer if you have a burning need to drive yourself crazy. Don’t agree to run the craft fair at the school (offer to “bake” something). Don’t acknowledge the power of this year’s Tickle Me Elmo toy search. Don’t support that madness. Don’t start a diet, for God’s sake. Don’t worry; be happy.

Let’s be nicer to each other.

Road rage. Mother-in-law and sibling rage. The thoughtless boss or co-worker. The rude clerk. The bank teller with an attitude. The teenager who makes your teenager cry with embarrassment. Let’s kill ‘em all, right? I tried this kind of thinking, and it just didn’t work well. I have found that maintaining my own standards of behavior works better. This doesn’t mean being meek and witless; you can still take action on that bank teller deal. What does it mean? Teaching my children well, for one thing. They need to be streetsmart—yes—but they need to learn kindness skills, too. Set an example. Open doors for people; help when help is obviously needed. Stand up when someone significantly older joins the group. Don’t stereotype generation X’ers or any other group. These tolerances don’t hurt us; they make us a community. I wish they’d teach etiquette in school. It greases a lot of gears. Throw bread on the water with your behavior geared to conciliation and non-violence. It will pay off for everyone. Okay, sermon’s over.

Let’s work to banish fear.

This is a tough one because the fears are based on real issues. We have a number of sex offenders residing in our town—-human beings who have hurt children. I am afraid of these people living near children—possibly near my very home. What kind of world have we become? I am homesick for my childhood, when we had no locks on the door; when neighborhood houses were drop-by places for juice or snacks; when we rode our bikes all day Saturday and never checked in. I would never dream of such behavior now.

However, some of the fears are overblown. Apparently, for example, we are curtailed by the food police from enjoying Chinese food, popcorn, Mexican food, Italian food, water from our faucets, any imported fruit, cider, fast-food burgers, produce touched by humans, anything cooked rare, chicken or their eggs, anything with caffeine or fat, and to top it all off—I recently read that enjoying Jell-O was a crapshoot because some cow disease could be in the gelatin. I should be thin from these fears.

I don’t really know what can be done about fear, except to take prudent precautions and try not to let our kids see us with a bunker mentality. We can’t let the horrible few poison our world; we can’t let our children live in a world with joy stifled. This is a bit of a tightrope, so let’s try our best to keep a perspective.

Let’s read more things that make us laugh or inspire us.

Let me give you a few pointers here—from experience. For funny: Bailey White’s books of essays about living with her aging, loopy mother in the Florida wetlands. Gerald Durrell’s stories about his family, in particular My Family and Other Animals. Paul Rudnick’s hilarious (and instructive—you’ll learn some Yiddish) recounting of a car trip through the Northeast with his mother and aunts, entitled I’ll Take It. Two family members took this book to baby labor and laughed through the hard parts. Patrick McManus’s tales of life in the outdoors with his friend Rancid Crabtree and others. Anything by David Sedaris (I particularly enjoyed his essay on the stadium buddy appliance for avoiding going to the men’s room. I also loved his tales of being an elf at Macys.) And, of course, Jean Shepherd’s classic In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. You may remember him and his Red Ryder BB gun from a movie called A Christmas Story. Read, laugh, read with the kids, read to the kids. For inspiration, read A Christmas Carol; read A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read together and to each other. Just read.

And love each other; stay healthy. Everything else is small stuff. Everything.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Unexpected Art

My college was located in a little town in South Carolina, untouched by the twentieth century. Aside from the students, there were about 60 aging residents, courtly remnants of the antebellum South. It was a drowsy, gossipy, languid sort of place. Since I was a Yankee, which was truly like being from someplace like Tibet, I was treated with polite but persistent suspicion.

One day close to Christmas break, I noticed that an empty storefront along the town’s tidy Main Street had been spruced up and sported a “Christmas Exhibition” sign. With the arrogance that only 18-year-olds (who fancy themselves terribly cosmopolitan) possess, I posed a slightly sardonic question to my friends—-What could pass for art in such an unlikely setting? We crowded through the door and stumbled into a magical world.

Strung on invisible lines at varying heights—-from almost ceiling height to inches above the floor—-were hundreds of fabric-covered, decorated spheres. Large or small, they were each as unique as a snowflake, some lavish and regal, others simple and adorned with only calico ribbons. Some were trimmed in pearl designs with satiny ribbon shimmer. A few were as big as basketballs, others were intricate, small wonders the size of Faberge eggs.

Speechless, we began moving along a marked path through the globes. Some invisible moving lighting made it seem as though we were observing an underwater, otherworldly place—-a solar system unlike anything imagined. There was so much to look at that my brain resented my eyes as they moved to each new creation.

I went back every day until it was time to fly out for the holidays. But all through the break, I thought about those beautiful ornaments. When I returned to school, I dialled, with some trepidation, the phone number of the exhibit’s sponsor. I asked if I could meet with her to see her studio and observe how she made the wonderful works.

“Well, shuah, dahlin’,” she responded. “You just come ovah any time. I’d be delighted to show you my studio.” She chuckled and gave me directions.

I was startled to be greeted by a sixtyish, bosomy matron with a freshly lavender-rinsed hairdo. She was wearing a well-worn housedress and an apron. She looked like an illustration out of one of my childhood Dick and Jane books. With a sly glance, she said to come along for a tour of her “studio,” then threw open the door of what was obviously her bedroom. From behind the door, she pulled out a brown shopping bag, overflowing with colorful fabrics and ribbons. Further down, I glimpsed styrofoam balls of varying sizes, and other paraphernalia.

Mrs. Brennan and I became great friends, and, in time, she generously forgave me for being a northerner and shared many of her secrets with me. I learned so many lessons from her, not least of which was the lesson that artists’ spirits do not depend on trappings, or on youth. I miss her. And while I have often wished I could share just one more Christmas with her, her lessons did take root. My lovely friend, wherever you and your shopping bag are now, God bless.


A million of us have breathed
the clean smell of hot muslin,
have felt it between our fingers,
rich and velvety.

Or rejoiced,
laughing, talking of nothings,
ripe with our unborn,
in the sharp tang of August geraniums.

Some of us fashion quilts not of cloth,
but of memories, or of words,
or of families.

We are thus inherited by our daughters,
quiltmakers all.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

To Jean Shepherd

The rough voice in the darkness, always on the verge of laughter. I used to love the way he told his radio stories, taking side trips down back roads, only to bring the plot thread home just in time to close the show. I wish I could thank him for all the joy and laughter, and to wish him well.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Oh, Well

The craft fair turned out to be a bust. We did sell one item, but were obligated to donate one of equal value to an auction. Plus the $30 entrance fee, which does go to a good cause. There were less than 100 people who came through, according to the kids, and the fair preceded the actual Pumpkinfest event, rather than coincided with it. Very frustrating.

I am wracking my brain to come up with ways that I can make money at handcrafts. I suppose more research is in order. I need publicity, so maybe I can make a comment at a political rally, and become instantly famous and trendy like Joe the Plumber. Yeah, that’s the ticket! In fact, I probably have as many bona fide plumbing credentials as Joe does — ZERO. We surely can chew them up and spit them out here in the USA . . . .

Friday, October 17, 2008

Perspective, Perspective . . .

Shopping site for Alyson:

So, as I was kvetching about our troubles, I got a reality check. My sister-in-law has a mentor and friend whose son’s wife just went into the hospital to deliver their first child. During the delivery her heart failed, and when she woke up her heart had been removed and she was hooked up to a mechanical heart. Can you imagine how devastating? Now they are awaiting a heart for transplant. The baby is fine, and I know that is a blessing, but how can I complain about my minor problems in the face of such actual suffering?

Life keeps on keeping on anyway, and this weekend I am putting my work in a local craft fair at our Town’s annual “Pumpkinfest.” My daughters are going to “man” the booth. I have gotten a folding bridge table, vintage linens to drape over it, and many, many pincushions to sell. I decided to make the sock monkeys into toddler toys, and now each one has a little booklet from the pictured monkey directly to the recipient child. They are just adorable, if I do say so. I can’t imagine that some of them won’t find new homes. I am told that their is quite a subculture of monkey-loving children. I hope it is true, because I surely have a lot of tiny monkey pillows. I also have now made over 60 more pincushions that I haven’t placed in my shop. I will wait until the craft fair is over to list those. I tried to explain today why I can’t stop making these things, and I think it’s because it’s a project totally within my control. Nothing else in my life is. Unemployment is not something I can influence or change. But a pincushion. A bit of fabric, a bit of fluff, an old button, and VOILA! A small piece of control.

If anyone is reading this, please post and tell us why you create, and what you create. I am so interested in what women do to express joy in their lives, and to cope with negativity. Be of good cheer, all of you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hanging by a Thread with a SAN Storage Engineer

We’re at the 4-year mark for Richard being unemployed, and it’s becoming harder and harder to look ahead with optimism. We know that the reason is his age, everyone knows that it’s hard for 60-year-old men to find jobs, but it is hard to believe that corporations can’t see the value in the years of experience–and a person who has kept up with the skills in his field. He’s had contracts during the four years, but our lives always seem so precarious now, and with so few options to fix things. We have maneuvered our way through financially by selling investments that were earmarked for retirement, refinancing our home, and taking help from the state on our health insurance for two years.

It feels as if we have been painting a floor, and now we are painted into a corner and the paint won’t dry. What action can we take? Are people supposed to sell their homes, cash in their retirement funds, and get on an ice floe and float away? What are the options when you simply cannot pay your bills?

I never thought, back in 2004, that it would not be possible for my husband to find work. It almost seems as if there is a hidden black list or something that prevents him from getting a job. He goes to the interviews, answers the questions, is personable and enthusiastic, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and is a person who feels as if he represents a company even when he is on his own time. I have listened to him in telephone interviews, written and rewritten his resume, dumbed it down, made it into different styles, added keywords, had it looked at by professional human resource people. The only thing we can point at is his age.

To make it worse, Rich is a person who can ramp up on new technology in a heartbeat. But at some point keeping current seems futile. And we have begun to ask ourselves: Is his working life over? Should we be planning for continuing unemployment? How do you plan for that? We can’t live on our retirement at this point and certainly the crash has taken its toll on our assets. Companies with jobs outside his field won’t take a chance on him. He’s tried applying for lower level jobs with a synergy to his skillset, but they think he’ll leave when something better comes along. He tried applying for jobs driving shuttles and vans, but no one will call him back. He tried ambulance transport. What do people do?

There must be many of you out there with similar stories. Please write and give me some ideas and some hope.

Monday, October 13, 2008

New Sheets, a poem

New Sheets

We really need new sheets, you said,
but then I found these, forgotten
behind the heating pads
and the old crib linens.

Translucent with age,
silky from a thousand washings—
one breath and I am young again,
folding, tucking.

We made love on these faded blues when
there was endless love to make.
We made babies
on these trailing, sage-green leaves—
babies now into women grown.

We need new sheets, you said.
And you shall have them,
new again.

—Alyson Button Stone

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Pickle Caper

This week I “put up” my refrigerator pickles, and it reminded me of something so funny that happened years ago. The way I make pickles these days sort of feels like cheating. They are not “real” pickles, but rather boiling brine that I pour over jars of Kirby cukes filled with a mix of herbs and spices and garlic that I just guess at until it seems right. They are always so delicious, and we always say that “this year’s are the best.” Every year is the best.

Pickling wasn’t always so casual and peaceful around here, though. When I was younger and crazier, I used to make processed pickles. A whole day, the boiling water, the jars timed and processed, left to cool and make that satisfying popping sound, then stored for the winter. (I used to make my own mustard, as well, and it is delicious. Try it sometime.)

The last time I pickled this way was one August before my kids were born. Rich and I had moved to our first house, and he was making a bathroom out of an unfinished room on the second floor. I made like 6 dozen pints of pickles, a long day’s work. I stored them in a closet upstairs, and looked forward to a winter of plenty. No Claussen’s for me, no sir. I even had an “arrangement” with the produce guy, who put aside the best cukes for me.

One day I went up to get a couple of jars for consumption, opened the closet door, and found 6 dozen pint jars of brine and floaty bits. Richard, during the weeks of construction in the bathroom, had EATEN EVERY PICKLE. When confronted (and confronted is a civilized word for what occurred) he admitted to the crime, but said he hadn’t known how to tell me. “I just kept eating them, and shuffling the jars around to hide the gaps,” he said. “And then it got so there was no hope of hiding it.”

So he has sworn to consume only his jars of pickles, labeled in the fridge. But I’m considering an alarm, just in case.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Faith and Frustrations of Creativity

I have an issue to discuss. Bear with me, it will make sense by the end.

I can do many things, but mostly I don’t feel that I stand out at many of them. I am a sponge when it comes to learning new things, but until lately, I haven’t had the feeling that I had anything new to offer.

For instance, I am a good writer–on a project basis. I recognize superior writing. (I was the children’s book reviewer for the newspaper for years.) But if you asked me to write a novel, or even a good short story, I would be lost. I recognize good fiction, but I can’t write it. I can write persuasive and moving speeches, but not fiction.

I look back at things I have created in a flurry of passionate artistic frenzy, and I marvel at them. At the same time, I get angry with myself because those creative periods peter out.
This time, I have done all the research, and I think I have got something unique and superior to offer. Some of the things I am creating are unique; I can’t find other similar things on ebay or etsy. The flurry of creative activity is not petering out, and I believe that I could continue to create my “art things” forever. But I don’t even know what to call this stuff. It doesn’t have a name, and some of it doesn’t have any use (like most art).

Sometimes I get inspired by someone else’s work. For instance, for my birthday my husband gave me a “pincushion” made of chenille with a little figurine of a deer on it. I took that idea and ran with it, and now have created many cloth and china “sculptures,” little vignettes of vintage animal figurines, old millinery bits, vintage buttons, bits and pieces of ribbon and trim. They are adorable. They are charming. They would sell — if only I knew how to categorize them in order to get them before the buyers on, or even ebay. They are technically pincushions, in the sense that you could use them as pincushions, but I don’t think most people would use these “story pincushions” for sewing, but just to look at. I have sold three of them, I think almost by accident, because the buyers happened upon them when they were looking for something else.

Then there are the “art collage tags.” I mean, these are just useless entirely. They are the size of manila hanging tags, with a hole at the top through which I thread ribbons. Most of them are on a wooden tag, too substantial to use as a bookmark, but with no real other purpose. But they are just great, with beautiful Italian papers, charms, old ribbons, photos, and gilding. Some of the papers and tags are made with a 50s retro feel, some with Art Deco flair, some tell a kind of story, or encourage the viewer to create a story. They are sort of altered art, sort of collage, sort of girlie vanity things. Who knows how to categorize these? There is nothing like them available for me to match up against.

Then there’s the knitting. God help me, I spent a lot of time and money on exotic fiber, beautiful embellishments, and vintage buttons so that I could make these adorable little handbags that you could use as an evening bag, or for your ipod, or your cell phone, or just to hang over a mirror and admire. Other people do make these, so I at least know how to classify them on But how to price them? Well, I think I will probably break even if they all sell . . . folks this is not the way to wealth!

But I am very proud of my sock monkey portrait series. This is a series of little 4″ square pillows or pincushions, each with the face of an individual, unique sock monkey character. I imagined that these monkeys enjoyed getting their picture taken, gave each of them a name, and made tons of them. They could be used as pincushions, or just as easily as toys for toddlers. I even contemplated making up a little card for each character, telling a little story about where they are from and what they like to do or to eat. I would have loved for my kids to have such a charming toy to spark their imagination.

So imagine, if you will, the irony of having finally gotten to the point in my life where I actually think something I’m making is not mediocre, but superior. But — wait for it — I have no idea how to move it into public view in an effective way! Aaaaah!! I am afraid I will get discouraged before I have given this endeavor enough time. I know that is the best forum for these creations, because the cost of making a shop and getting started on selling is really low and very fair. I know that the people I have met through the site thus far are spectacular women (I haven’t met any men yet).

Since this is a blog, you’d think I could write about my trials and successes without guilt. But no, I am not used to writing about myself, and so I feel like discussing these things makes me self-involved–a whining princess who needs to get over herself. But menopause has made me bold, and I am going to overcome the rude comments by the “committee” in my own head. I am shushing them for the first time. (They all seem to speak in the irritating voice of a very unpleasant relative, now deceased.)

I would value any advice and counsel by other travelers, other pilgrims. Creativity should lead to grace, not to angst, don’t you think? Share your stories with me. There’s power in numbers.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Lesson from Across the Pond

Woke up this morning to sunshine, but it couldn’t deflect my dire thoughts about the economy and how it’s affecting our family and so many others. When I opened the computer, I was checking my Etsy shop and browsed the Showcase. Saw a really wonderful old British repro poster from World War II. It is a simple message: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. I took a deep breath and thought that I should take the advice.

As unfair as the Wall Street shenanigans have been, as awful as the current administration has been, as outrageous as it is that our retirement money is disappearing, as unfortunate as it is that my husband can’t find a job — all this pales in comparison to what the good folks of England suffered through in WWII.

I just finished a book about the island of Guernsey during WWII. It’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. What a remarkable tale. I am always astonished at all the history of which I am ignorant. I had no idea any part of England had been occupied by the Germans during WWII. This is such an uplifting novel, full of rich characters. It is funny, poignant, and ultimately I felt as if I wanted to go to the Channel Islands.

So, I will try to remember today: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Etsy (Marketing Myself Is My Least Favorite Part)

Next week I am going to take a hard look at the Etsy advice on marketing your shop. I have (finally) gotten all my handmade pieces posted, and that took two weekends. It is a wonderfully easy site to understand; nonetheless, there are many decisions for each of the items posted for sale, not least among which is the amount you are going to charge. That takes research and judgment.

I once owned a regional parenting newspaper, and as much fun as the editorial side was, the sales side was just unbearable for me. I just don’t have that ability. I am confident of the quality of the work, but convincing someone else to spend their money on something I made is just beyond my capabilities. I want to find a way to do marketing “one step removed” from personally selling.

The way I look at it, it costs only $.20 to list an item for sale on Etsy. So my investment so far is my time, plus about $30.00. Not too shabby! And I am learning about how to take the photographs of my items. Etsy sellers have been so wonderful to share their tips with me. That is another fine thing about Etsy–women helping women. I have met so many people through Etsy conversations who feel, as I do, that sharing your knowledge and experiences is a privilege. I love to see this level of support and encouragement.

So — this weekend I will take a deep breath and see what I need to do to put my work before the masses.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Contemplating the Great Depression

When I would visit my grandmother’s apartment, I was always puzzled that she had a closet packed with canned goods, when she didn’t have the space or need to hoard food. When I was old enough, I had a conversation with my mother, who explained that Mimi had been through The Great Depression and ever since had an obsessive need to have a stash of food for “a rainy day.”

As I learned more about that era from both of my parents, I could understand the fear. Both my parents were young children when their families went through hard times. My father, a Texan, lived on a tiny farm (called a “dirt farm”), where his father (Papaw) eked out a meager living from the land, and odd jobs. My grandmother (Meemaw) took a job pumping gas at the town station. Every day after school, my dad would leave elementary school and walk to the gas station. Across the street was a diner, where for a nickel he would purchase a big hamburger. Then he would go across to his mother, and they would share it as their dinner. He told me that once, when a family friend came to visit from the city, he gave my father a dime to go buy candy.
When he came back from the store, Meemaw saw that he had bought bread for the family instead. I cringed to imagine how I would have felt if my children were in a situation where they needed to be so concerned about the family’s welfare that they wouldn’t even use a dime to buy candy.

Now that this downturn is so dramatic, I not only understand intellectually how my relatives felt, I feel it emotionally. I remember a similar unpleasant epiphany when we had the September 11 tragedy. I had never understood how Americans could hate Japanese/Americans in the days after Pearl Harbor. After all, they hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor; they were Americans. Why couldn’t they see the difference? Were they ignorant, uninformed, or just stupid? But after September 11, I had experienced those pangs of hate and rage toward an ethnic group, and no matter how unreasonable it was to feel those feelings, I could now empathize with the way the Japanese citizens of the US were treated. Of course, it’s horribly wrong thinking. I am a better person for seeing that I could be filled with unreasoning prejudice. Now I can guard against it. It scared me to see the veneer of my intellect brushed away like smoke, to be replaced with some primal emotional response.

Now I feel those same feelings of rage against the faceless, greedy corporations. These entities (of course they are people) made a pyramid scheme out of the whole US population, unfettered by any common sense regulation and unchecked by any agency. Even after the savings and loan regulatory crisis, no action was taken to stop the train wreck. They got rich, went back into the woodwork like the roaches they are, and left all of us holding the IOU’s for their behavior. And now we are all in danger.

Looking at the world through the lens of my husband’s unemployment, the tribulations of our friends and family who have lost so much in the past few days, I feel betrayed. When we refinanced our home a couple of years ago, a young broker tried to push us to take an interest only package, one that we turned down because we could see it was crazy, not prudent. He was like a used-car salesman, calling every five minutes, pressuring us relentlessly. When we declined, he charged our credit card a $500 fee anyway, just to see if he could. We had to go through the process of protesting to get it removed. He is just one of many, many backroom brokers who sat in motel rooms with their laptops, cranking out the endless, crazy mortgages for their fee. They had to know it was wrong, that it would come around to disaster. The people who encouraged them, their evil minions, to do these things, certainly knew it was wrong.

Now we seem to have an America that is divided into three strata: rich, struggling to tread water, and dirt poor. There doesn’t seem to have been any payoff for being good citizens, paying on time, trying to get ahead, saving where we could, planning for retirement, honoring our employers by behaving honorably in our private lives. My husband is still out of work, still feeling his age as a horrible stigma. My children (who are grown, thank God) still worry endlessly about whether we will lose our home. That saying about following your bliss is inspiring, but unrealistic. We will do what we have to do, what we can do, to stay afloat. Our healthy retirement nest egg is decimated. We planned to take care of ourselves; who will take care of us now? I no longer have confidence that the government is running this country, or can control runaway business practices. Businesses, and the rarified strata of the richest of the rich are in charge.

We can only hope for some more reasonable future where things aren’t quite this difficult. That’s all anybody wants. Not to be rich, no, just to have enough so every waking moment doesn’t seem like a ticking time bomb leading to disaster.

So, Mimi, wherever you are, I understand the canned goods. It’s no mystery to me why Campbell’s Soup was the only stock to go up on the day of the worst drop in the market. Your pantry, full of dented, dusty soup cans, was a harbinger and your great grandchildren recognize the signs .

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Start of Something Big

I know that there must be a lot of terrific women out there who are in the same boat — learning to live on the other side of menopause. This journey is fraught with opportunities, but sometimes I have trouble recognizing things as opportunities when they look so much like troubles. For instance, we used to have a pretty average middle-class life in our small mill town in Massachusetts. But in 2004 that all changed when Hewlett Packard let Richard go due to the downsizing following the merger with Compaq. Since then we have been sinking slowly into poverty, using all our tips and tricks to juggle things so we can remain afloat with a good credit record. Now, with the crash (and imminent Depression?) our retirement plan has been gutted and we can’t see how to climb out.

How can this be viewed as an opportunity? Well, for one thing, it made me count my blessings in a new way. Our two daughters are happy and healthy (25 and 19), and successful. My brothers and their wives are doing fine overall and are hugely supportive and loving. We both have good brains and can find ways to use them. We have generally good health.

The ironic thing about this stressful situation is how it affected my creative, artistic side. With all the time I spent doing stuff I didn’t want to do (either to earn money or help Richard with the job hunt) I found it necessary to balance it out by allowing myself to make pretty things for part of the day. I roam from thing to thing, trying altered art creations, handknit purses, pincushions with little scenes on top. I needed to see something come out of my time and effort, something that I could see and admire in a relatively short time. I can control this, if nothing else in my life.

I also find that I meet new and interesting people at a clip through the Etsy site where I sell my finished pieces ( There are so many super-talented people; I can’t help but wish to have a conversation with all of them. It was lucky I discovered Etsy through a friend, or I would be hardpressed to come up with a way to use all the things I make.

I have come to admire myself a bit for my optimistic nature and ability not to get too wrapped up in my own troubles. I know some people who wallow — I hate wallowing. I have a time limit, and I am very strict with myself about the wallowing. I have a time limit for ranting, too. Except for discussions about Sarah Palin. Not a fan. . . .

My sense of humor has also come in handy. I believe that laughing is really healing. I love old-time humor and the newer, ironic kind. I love Jean Shepherd, but also find David Sedaris hilarious. Erma Bombeck is great, and so is Maureen Dowd. The oldies are goodies. The new stuff keeps you sharp.

I love to cook, and cooking on a shoestring is interesting. Sometimes take-out is cheaper, but I have become a soup chef. Soup is heroic. Soup makes me feel like a pioneer. Soup is like creating life. Also cheap to make. Yay, soup!

Hobbies: reading, handiwork, games

Favorite genres: mysteries, weird (Koontz, King), anything British, those Norwegian/Swedish police procedurals, Anne Tyler, Frank Parrish British mysteries

Weaknesses: chocolate, Martha Stewart reruns from the old days, onion rings

Joys: Reading the perfect poem, seeing the perfect photo, thinking about things in a new way (my brother calls this “seeing around corners.”

I love to hear from women who are of a certain age and moving into a new chapter of their life. I like to share stories with these women. My daughter says this blog will lead to that. “Trust me,” she said. “You are not alone.”