Battling Winter Despair

On the elevator this morning, a man I see all the time but have never spoken to asked me why I was so cheery.  Apparently, I had wished him a hearty, cheery, happy good morning and it had shocked him into speech.

I’m pushing back against despair, I found myself saying in a cheery voice, even though it’s never really a good idea to say things like that to total strangers, because it makes them think you’re a weirdo.  It’s true, though. Another thing that’s true is that the more miserable I am, the cheerier I get. Oddly, and wonderfully, this man did not push the emergency button and jump out of the elevator. Instead, he lifted his hand in that high five gesture you don’t see very often around the court where I work. We slapped palms, compatriots in the battle against winter despair. Now that’s something I can say with absolute certainty I’ve never, ever done in an elevator before. But it made me feel better (and my next greeting wasn’t quite so scarily cheery.) I am not alone in working hard this January to push back despair.

Really, don’t you think January can be such an awful month? There’s so much RAIN around here, and all the warmth and good food of December has come to an end and things just seem so much colder and grimmer than they usually do.  What to do?

Look around you, I think. It’s time for one of those beauty-in-small-things assessments. I suppose in a pinch, I could try alcohol, but that’s frowned on around my office even more than high fiving in the elevator. So, today, I photographed things in my office that make me feel okay — peaceful even. Settled. And this made me like my life a little bit more than I did when I walked in the door that morning and even kept me from weeping when it started to rain… again… and hard … right around lunchtime.

doing their bit

These women never, ever moaned about the rain.


So drink your tea, eat your whole wheat toast with honey, your vanilla Brown Cow lowfat yogurt, and your bloom

Inside, things are blooming.print

Pretty soon, it’ll be spring.

Christmas on the Prairie


I’ve been feeling less than literary these days, which is one of the occupational hazards of teetering on top of the work/life balance.  I’ve noticed that when you’re up there on that precarious perch, it’s hard to keep your balance if you have a book or a pen and paper in your hand.   I’ve also noticed that it’s particularly difficult to keep yourself from crashing to the ground during the holidays, a time when there are more than the usual number of things to do that I’m not particularly good at doing.   Like sewing.   

Since I’ve been on the subject of household management lately, I want to discuss sewing with all of you.  First, let me say that I do know how to sew.  I’ve never thought of myself as being from any particular generation, much less one that’s been around for a while, but it turns out that I’m from the tail end of a generation of women who had to take home economics in junior high, which makes me a person who’s lived in a world that many young women don’t know anything about.

If you missed it, home ec is what you took when the boys were learning to weld in shop.  It was where you learned to make coffee cake, muffins (don’t stir too much) and dresses.  They waited until the spring for sewing, wanting to make sure they could trust us with dangerous objects like knives before setting us lose on machines.  My sewing project was a dress that had six zillion darts in it.  To this day, I can’t see a dart without having a shuddery flashback to myself, c. 1974, hunched over a dress that, even by the very low standards of that decade, was terribly, terribly ugly.  

After that one dress, I put the sewing machine away for a few years.  Until 1976, in fact, when for some reason I am unable to quite fathom, I became a high school cheerleader and actually had to sew an entire uniform to wear during basketball season.  Apparently, it wasn’t enough to have one expensive uniform, the skirt and sweater you wore to football games.  Nope.  You had to have another entire get-up for the sport that mattered more than football in our town, which was basketball.   

So there I was, 16 years old, a recovering seamstress, with a pattern and a lot of red and blue and white material that I’d stuffed under my bed the instant I brought it home from the fabric store right before Christmas vacation.  It was clear to me that I was on my own when it came to sewing that basketball uniform.  My mother was busy working as a bookkeeper at J.C. Penney’s and she really didn’t want to hear about my issues with the uniform, a piece of apparel that was way more complicated than anything I could handle, involving as it did buttons and fabric that was slinky in that way only a 1970s cheerleading uniform could be slinky. 

Part of the problem in getting help with this whole uniform issue was that neither of my parents understood or approved of cheerleading.  (I don’t blame them, I don’t approve of it either.)  My mother was sort of circumspect about it, and just didn’t mention it, the way you wouldn’t mention somebody’s obvious physical handicap.  My father, on the other hand, routinely referred to my fellow cheerleaders as the vestal virgins, a phrase I found really embarassing and hoped he’d stop saying in that loud snorting way.   I was pretty sure if anyone I knew heard him using the word virgin (ick) or that whole phrase, my cover as a sort of normal girl would be totally and utterly blown.  I couldn’t talk to either one of them about the uniform, that was quite clear.

Adding to my angst over this uniform problem was that the other girls on the squad were named things like Cindy and Debbie and Tracey and Vicki and Linda and they were perfectly normal girls (not like me with my weird grandmotherly first name) and every single one of them had a mother who happily whipped up a perfect basketball uniform during Christmas vacation.  Still, I didn’t really expect anyone to come to my rescue, because I never even mentioned the problem this presented for me.  I just ignored it until it was almost too late. 

And that is how it happened that the night before the first basketball game of the season, a cold, rainy night in January, after the heat had ben turned off in our house, I stayed up until about three in the morning, like Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together odd bits of this and that, all the while holding my breath and hoping against hope I’d end up with something that sort of looked like a basketball uniform. 

Let me just say that a more misshapen thing was never worn by a Washington Patriots cheerleader before or since.  It was too big in the places where it was supposed to be snug and too snug in the places where it was supposed to be loose.  I kept it together for almost three months, and a series of championship games, using a combination of safety pins,  masking tape, and hope.  And now I’ll close the curtain on that episode in my life.

Which brings me to last night, to the Secret Santas, and to the Christmas on the Prairie. 

At the very nice school one of my older boys goes to, they do Secret Santas during the last week of school before the Christmas holidays  The children pick names out of a hat and then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, they give their secret friend a gift.  Okay, you’re thinking, no problem.  Five bucks, a few hairclips, or a bunch of chocolate, or a paperback book. 

But nooooooo.   That’s not how it works.  The children, you see, are meant to learn about giving from the heart.  Which means they have to make the damned presents.  Themselves.  Except they don’t really make the presents themselves.  We do.  Apparently, people like my parents no longer exist, and so no child actually has to do this project on their own while their parents are busily balancing the books of the Penney’s at the Tacoma Mall, or sitting in the brown chair in the corner of the living room reading Nietzsche, which is how my parents occupied themselves during the Christmas season.  Or at least I am not capable of being like my parents and ignoring the whole secret santa week and making my son deal with it in his own special way.  (Which would be to give the girl who’s his secret santa old baseball cards.)

My son (aka me) made his secret santa person some brownies the first night.  I thought that was pretty good, and we (me) even put them in a nice cellophane bag with a cute ribbon.  The report on the brownies’ reception was lukewarm, however.  They got crushed, he said, and were only “okay.” 

Instead of thinking, okay’s pretty good, I thought, Jesus, we’re (me) going to have to think of something genuinely charming, handmade, rough hewn and useful.  Something Laura would make for Mary in the Little House books.  (Aha!  A literary allusion.  Whew.) 

We (I) looked around, considered and disgarded hand made stationery (no nice paper in the house), more food (not special enough and besides we’re out of sugar), and came across the Martha Stewart website which is a very bad thing for a person like me, a person with a history of handmade failures, to come across at times like this. 

Too late, we (this time, both of us) saw the Christmas stockings.  Too late, we (both of us) committed to the project.  Too late, the sewing machine happened to be out (for hemming pants, something that doesn’t involve darts).  Too late, too late, too late.

And so, dear reader, we made the stocking you see at the  beginning of this extraordinarily long and rambling post.  Surprisingly, my son did a lot of the stocking.  He sewed the button ornaments on the little felt tree.  He downloaded and printed out the stocking and tree templates.  He cut stuff out.  He admired my erratic sewing.  (Mom, you’re like, so fast with that thing.)  The end result looks like it should:  utterly handmade.  But this time, thirty years later, handmade is really okay.  It’s good, in fact.  I don’t want people thinking I made it, for heaven’s sake! 

The odd thing is that making this stocking was actually a lot of fun.  Maybe it was having my son’s help, and company.  Maybe it was the fact that my son now knows how to sew on a button, something his father can’t do. Whatever it was, this project seems to have exorcised the memory of being alone in my room on a cold January night, hunched over all that red and blue slinky fabric.  I know making a stocking was a hugely inefficient way to spend a Tuesday night.  It messed up our living room, and everyone got to bed half an hour late, and I probably should have let my son have a go at the sewing machine.  (I didn’t let him.  It was too much fun to do it myself.)  But among the many redemptive things about being a parent yourself, is that you get to correct for your children a few of the things that hurt more than they should have when you were young.  Were I to come up for air from this sentimental paragraph, I’d also observe that in so doing you add a few problems of your own — in this case, maybe it would have been better for my son to do more of this for himself.  Still, having said that, I’m okay about it all.  And you know what?  I stayed up another hour after they were in bed and made another Christmas stocking.  For my son.  From his secret santa.  Me. 

Imminent Victorians

Okay, for starters, I know it’s Eminent Victorians. But it’s next up on my list of books to write about and so …. you know. (Sorry. Nothing is un-funnier than a pun somebody tries to explain.)

I’ll begin by saying that Eminent Victorians is part of a larger reading plan for this month, a month when I’d like to re-read a few things I first read in my twenties. I wonder how well those books will have worn twenty years later. I did this a bit over the spring and summer, and even gave it a name: the Madeleine Project. But I haven’t done as much of it as I’d like, and since it’s cold outside these days, and the fireplace looks so warm, and I’m taking things a little slower, it seems like an ideal month to re-read.  (In fact, I’ve just noticed I’m in great company:  Dorothy and Danielle have both written about books they’d like to re-read.)  

And now, on to the book: Eminent Victorians, for those who don’t know, is a series of biographical sketches written by one of the Bloomsbury notables, Lytton Strachey. I’ve always wondered how his last name is pronounced, so I googled it. It’s strakey, which rhymes with flakey. (As in, doesn’t post on a regular schedule, doesn’t stick to the same topic and has been known to make really stupid jokes.)

When I read Eminent Victorians twenty years ago, I loved the piece on Florence Nightingale (I even wrote down something about how Nightingale saw God as a glorified sanitary engineer and so she felt free to boss him around just like she bossed everybody else in Victorian England around.) And I had no idea things went so badly for General Gordon, having never heard of General Gordon and not knowing the British military had such a hard time of it after the American Revolution.

I was also unaware at the time that these sketches were considered sort of shockingly modern, something I’ve since discovered, mostly through reading about Strachey in the context of Virginia Woolf, who thought at one time she might marry him. (Good thing that passed, is all I can say.)

The copy I’ve got this time around is illustrated, so there are interesting pictures of the notables Strachey writes about. They certainly look stuffy –especially the ecclesiastical figures he spends a good part of the book talking about. Or maybe the pictures were chosen to emphasis all the Victorian stuffiness that Strachey was reacting against.

The question I’d like to answer is this: just exactly what did Strachey think “un-stuffy” looked like? Strachey, at least from his photographs and the things I’ve read about him in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, was a bit of a piece of work himself. So how he goes about kicking aside the traces really interests me.

I hope it interests you, too, because that’s what I’m devoting my next post to. (By the way, the sketch of Strachey you see at the beginning of the post is on the cover of his letters, which look quite interesting.)

Another Modernist Masterpiece

I love driving across the Bay Bridge under the following conditions:

  • there is so little traffic you suddenly think there’s been a nuclear conflagration further back and so everyone who lives in Orinda has decided to stay home for the day — or better yet, you’ve been transported to 1952 (except of course the problem there is that you’d be staying home for the day too, making tuna mousse in your flowered apron and wondering if it’s too early to start watching television)
  • it’s so clear you can see Japan or, if you’re a less romantic sort, Marin County
  • there’s something good playing on KFOG, a radio station where the people who speak into the microphone in the morning don’t yell things at you
  • you don’t have too much work waiting for you when you arrive and, possibly, there is the hope of a good lunch.

A few days ago, all those things, with the exception of nuclear conflagration and time travel, happened. (Which is good, because Orinda is where my friend Debby’s from, and where Maria and Lisa and Lisa’s lovely daughter in law and nice son with the new baby all can be found!) I took my camera out and pointed it in the general direction of the sky and there was the bridge, a modernist masterpiece if I’ve ever seen one. And no, it won’t sharpen a pencil or dispense tape, like its younger siblings (the ones that have been featured here for the last couple of weeks.) It is a stirring sight — you come out of a tunnel and there they are, these huge, beautiful spans for which the word “soaring” is actually accurate.

But I don’t think I’ll be trying to simulataneously steer my car and aim a camera again. The no- traffic thing is unlikely to be repeated under these same conditions in my lifetime.

I hope for all of you a workday that involves some patch of clear weather, or good music, or a nice lunch, or not too much to do when you sit down to do it.

Tonight, the Writing Cafe is Serving

something cold. For those of us in the northern hemisphere who are VERY HOT right now.

The Snow Man, Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

(photo from Christine Breslin’s Elizabeth Park Series; Elizabeth Park being where Wallace Stevens often walked, composing poems on the way to work)