PROSE ENVY

A very cute green-eyed monster by Caleb Woods*

Envy, the green-eyed monster and one of the Seven Deadly Sins, is not one of my weaknesses…until I come across a bit of prose so fantastic that I wonder why I bother even trying.  [Along these lines, the writer Mark Salzman was a promising student cellist when he saw Yo Yo Ma perform at Tanglewood and decided on the spot that “his playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement I knew my cello career was over….”].

Here is what I mean. Earlier this week I was looking for a good mystery to read and chose A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang. I like English mysteries, especially the tricky ones, so the Booklist review that included, “The mystery itself is clever and should keep even the most experienced whodunit finders guessing,” sent me right out to buy a copy.  I wasn’t disappointed.  If you can think of a better way to describe a city and its occupants by class, send it to me.  Here’s what Christopher Huang wrote:

This was St. James. Clubland. The men traversing these streets walked with that air of self-assurance that comes from belonging to a privileged set.  In bookish Bloomsbury, the Londoners drifted around the British Museum in the wake of literary romance.  In the working-class areas of the East End, such as Limehouse or Whitechapel, they trudged with a grim determination, playing the cards they’d been dealt.  South of the Thames, in Battersea, where in 1913 John Archer became the first black man elected as borough mayor, they simmered after a better tomorrow.  But in affluent St. James, they simply knew that they were the Empire.

Wow.  Just wow.

And a googly-eyed, green-eyed monster by Juan Carlos Fernandez Rodriguez*

           

The second piece of prose I can’t get out of my head is, unfortunately, not fiction.  It concerns the recent College Admissions Scandal. Fortunately, Caitlin Flanagan’s piece–They Had It Comingin The Atlantic is both insightful and delightfully snarky.  Flanagan worked for a few years as a guidance counselor at an elite high school in Los Angeles.  Here’s a description of meeting with the students’ parents:

Before each meeting, I prepared a list of good colleges that the kid had a strong chance of getting into, but these parents didn’t want colleges their kids had a strong chance of getting into; they wanted colleges their kids didn’t have a chance in hell of getting into. A successful first meeting often consisted of walking them back from the crack pipe of Harvard to the Adderall crash of Middlebury and then scheduling a follow-up meeting to douse them with the bong water of Denison. 

I don’t know anything about Denison—but can’t you just picture the meeting?  That is really good writing.

Thanks to Chandler Cruttenden for this tiny green snake.*

And now…back to reading “A Gentleman’s Murder.”   Have a good week!

*All three photos courtesy of Unsplash.

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CATHOLIC SCHOOLS & GRAMMAR QUEENS

MY CROWN

Thirteen years of Catholic schools may not have done all my parents hoped, but they sure did turn me into a Grammar Queen.  No, there weren’t any Grammar Kings in my school.  The boys didn’t catch up until later when, in real life, they earned more money doing the same jobs we did.  But I digress.  I love grammar.

My kids will attest to the fact that every time they said, “Matt and me are going to the store,” I would respond, “Matt and I.”  And then I would explain that one wouldn’t say “Me… am going to the store.”  At best, they would revise this to “Me and Matt are going to the store,” and ignored my oft-repeated correction until it became a joke.

It’s not funny at all when I hear grownups say, “They gave it to Julie and I.”  I resist saying, “Julie and ME.  You wouldn’t say, ‘They gave it to I.’”  I resist it because I value friendships and I don’t think many people appreciate jerks tinkering with their English (even when we’re grammatically correct).  

Mary Norris, a New Yorker writer and copy editor, is a true Comma Queen and author of several books and articles on grammar, including Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

This April 2 piece in the New Yorker about a copy editor’s convention in New York is terrific, including the sentence:  “You could feel the excitement in the room when a slide appeared with the heading “HYPHENS!”

I can’t say I’m grateful for 13 years of Catholic School, though good things—lifelong friends, as well as excellent grammar and an aversion to plaid—remain.  In what must surely be some sort of Cosmic Catholic joke, the view out our picture window includes five crosses, two Catholic schools and a church.  Somewhere in heaven, my parents are smiling.

Photo by Ashton Mullins via Unsplash


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Superbloom, Kondo-ing and Recycling: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The past week was an interesting mix of The Good (Superbloom), The Bad (Kondo-ing  by clearing out more accumulated STUFF) and The Ugly (learning that China is no longer taking any U.S. trash).

THE GOOD California’s unusual weather has yielded a cheering benefit just when we all needed it.  After the devastating fire season of last Fall, hundreds of thousands of wildflowers are putting on a stunning show, beginning at the south end of the state and heading northward.  Last week we drove 350 miles southeast to the Carrizo Plain, and here’s what we saw:

Carizzo Plain, California – March 26, 2019

and for good measure we checked out the elephant seals on the coast.

Baby elephant seals keeping in touch.

THE BAD The Kondo-ing of American homes (named after Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and host of  Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix) is spreading, at least among millennials. You can read about it in a previous blog here, or you can just remember that anything you keep around should “spark joy.”  I like the idea of keeping belongings to a minimum but the idea of their sparking joy is a tough one.  Toenail clippers?  Pretty much a necessity but certainly not a joy-sparker!  A secondary effect of Kondo-ing is that charities such as Goodwill are being inundated with clothing, furniture and knick-knacks to the point that they are turning donations away.

Photo by Julien Pier Belanger via Unsplash

THE UGLY Apparently the Chinese have enough trash of their own and no longer find it useful or profitable to take ours.  Until recently I recycled diligently, believing that someone somewhere would sort and repurpose our separated plastic, glass and paper.  It turns out that, according this article in the New York Times, I may have been naïve.  

Photo by Ignat Kushanrev via Unsplash

Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to recycle and will continue to do so.  Surely we have the ingenuity in this country (if not the priority) to turn trash into treasure.

Photo by Bernard Hermant via Unsplash

But maybe more useful treasures.

Have a good week!

Unattributed photos by moi.

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WHEN LOVE DIES

Bibi and Poldi have split up after more than 90 years of “marriage.” The sad news of the breakup of two Galapagos Tortoises, reported here, made my sister Liz and me howl with laughter. What happens when love dies?   If you’re a tortoise, it can get physical: “A keeper saw Bibi rear forward and bite a large chunk off of Poldi’s shell.  (She drew blood.)”  After a few years of trying to persuade the pair to reconcile, zookeepers gave up and put the tortoises in separate but adjoining indoor quarters.  Their outdoor space is separated by a divider with a glass window so they can see each other. This seems to be fine with Poldi but unfortunately, when Bibi catches sight of him, “she hisses like a snake.”

Who among us hasn’t hissed at one’s long-time partner/roommate/friend occasionally?  After 40 years of marriage, I can assure you I have. My husband sniffs a lot; it gets on my nerves.  He objects to my throat-clearing. Neither of us has committed the human equivalent of taking a bite out of the other’s shell, however.  

And as long as I’m telling animal stories…

CatmanDeux after lunch.

Last month I was so irritated at CatmanDeux’s constant whining for food, I decided to try Ivan Pavlov’s experiment in classical conditioning.  You may remember that the Russian physiologist used a variety of neutral sounds before feeding dogs and eventually the dogs salivated at the sound, even when they weren’t being fed thereafter.  Catman is fed at 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  For the past several weeks I have set my phone alarm to those three times and, sure enough, when the alarm goes off the cat snaps to attention and runs to his bowl:  easy-peasy. The unintended and unfortunate consequences of this otherwise successful experiment are that I, a sleep-lover, now wake up at 7:29 every morning and Bill has begun to complain that when the 11:30 alarm sounds, he wants to eat lunch.

Have a good week!

Photo of tortoises by Magdalena Kula Manchee via Unsplash. Photo of Catman one of hundreds by me.

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ROAD TRIP!

Road scene
Somewhere in northern Arizona.

I like road trips in the U.S.   It’s fun to see new places, visit old friends and learn about life in different parts of the country.  Earlier this month my husband and I traveled to Tucson to visit our friends Judy and Clint and then continued north to the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and the slot canyons near Page, Arizona.

Multi-colored shot
Sunset at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon was not on my list of places-to-see-before-I-can’t.  I have seen so many pictures of it, I felt like I’d already been there.  Well, let me tell you:  it is more than Grand.  It’s amazing–immense, multi-colored, ever-changing.  I am so glad I got to see it in person.  A slot canyon is pretty much what it sounds like:  a narrow slot in sandstone formations, big enough to walk through and open at the top so the sun filters through.  Like the Grand Canyon, slot canyons have to be seen to be fully appreciated. 

We spent a couple of nights in Page, Arizona a town founded to house workers and their families during construction of the Glen Canyon Dam.  The dam across the Colorado River created Lake Powell, a reservoir, and in the process destroyed one of the most beautiful canyons in the U.S.  Before the trip, we reserved a room at the  Lake View Best Western.  Upon our arrival, we discovered that there was a lake view–if you happened to bring a very powerful telescope.  Worse, the Lake View Best Western was right across the street from the Best Western Plus.  When I asked what the difference was, the desk clerk replied, “The other one’s fancier.”  

I like Best Western hotels. We often stay at them on road trips because they are clean, comfortable and have excellent staffs.  All of this held true for the Not-Much-of-a-Lake View Best Western. But every time we drove past the Best Western Plus, I wondered what fanciness we were missing.  It reminded me of the scene from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, in which Woody looks through the window of his dark, dingy train full of unhappy, depressed-looking people into a car on the adjoining track where there is a brightly lit party in progress, complete with beautiful women in cocktail dresses, laughing and clinking champagne glasses with handsome men.  I have remembered that scene for 40 years because it perfectly depicted how I have felt at times.  Haven’t we all?  But then there were the stunning canyons, the birds of prey and endless vistas.  A good road trip is the perfect reminder of the fanciness available to all of us.

Photos by moi.

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AT HOME IN VIETNAM

Home…is where the heart is. (Pliny the Elder)h

Home…is the nicest word there is.  (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

There’s no place like…home. (Dorothy of Oz)

Okay, so I fudged a little on the last quote. 

Home and feeling at home are often on my mind. Bill and I travel a lot, trying to find out as much about the wider world as we can.  The best part for me is seeing how people live in other countries—what kind of shelter they inhabit, what they eat, how they treat each other. 

Here are some unedited photos from our trip to Vietnam.

Four generations of one family at Horizon Bungalows in Tam Coc. The young man in the white shirt owns the lovely small hotel. The baby is his youngest son, nicknamed “Sumo.” Every morning his father (left) and grandfather (right) come by for breakfast.
Two men at home in a floating village in Ha Long Bay.

This is a collection of photos of people at their homes in Vietnam.  The shots are from Hanoi, Tam Coc, Bac Liu and Ha Long Bay.
Heading home at dusk, Ha Long Bay
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SAYING GOODBYE

Bill's autumn pic
Autumn leaves, Simsbury, Connecticut*

My friend Norm Benjamin died last week. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.  He was one of the first people I met when we moved to Simsbury, Connecticut 22 years ago.  Norm was a husband, father, church sexton, owner of Cobblestone Landscaping and all-around good, kind person.  I thought he would live well into his eighties, as his father did, but he died at age 67–too soon.  It’s hard to believe.

His friendship meant a lot to me, and I wrote about him a few years ago in my blog about “Autumn Leaves and Leaving:” An excerpt:


In the autumn of 1996, Norm appeared at my kitchen door and told me he had come to say “goodbye.” Our family had moved to Connecticut from California six months earlier and Norm was one of my few friends. We had worked together fashioning a garden around the newly built house, planted trees, installed a raised bed for growing vegetables. It was Norm who taught me about frost heaves, the mud season, hardy perennials and Swamp Yankees—all new concepts for a West Coast native—and he was a good friend, besides, so I was distressed at his leaving.

Are you moving away?” I asked.

He shook his head. I recognized the incredulity with which most locals greeted my cluelessness. “No. It’s the end of October. I’ll see you when winter’s over.”


Time passes, life changes. We sold the Simsbury house with its beautiful gardens that Norm and his wife, Pam, planned for and with me. Pam and I have sustained our friendship through various moves within the East Coast and then to California but it’s hard to keep up from long distance.  I thought that everything was fine until I learned that Norm was very ill and then, only days later, that he died. Norm won’t be back when winter’s done.  A modest man, I’m sure he had no idea how much he will be missed. 

Goodbye, good friend.

  *Photo by William C. Popik, MD

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You Must Remember This

There will be a memory test at the end of this blog.

I have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. This doesn’t mean I am certain to get it, but my risk is greater than that of most people.  My father had significant memory loss and, when he died at age 88, had been showing signs of Alzheimer’s for about 15 years.  That would make him exactly my age when his condition was noticeable.

I am significantly healthier than my dad was and….so far so good.  I haven’t been stashing my wallet in the refrigerator.  I can find my way home.  I’m not so good at finding my car in parking lots but I never have been.  I ace those tests all Medicare patients get when they visit the doctor–I can draw a fabulous clock face.  Some of my friends are worrying about losing their memories, too. We compare symptoms:  “I lost my car keys twice today;”  “I forgot my next door neighbor’s name;”  “What’s the name of that thingy that…does that stuff…you know.” Or my personal favorite:  “What were we just talking about?” And neither of us can remember. 

To date, there isn’t much to be done to stop progressive memory loss so, besides keeping up with the literature and participating in medical studies, what is to be done?  I figure the best approach is to appreciate what we have while we have it.  And deal with the problem if it presents itself.  

Memory Test

Do you remember that pathetic indoor lemon tree I thought was dead a few years ago (see blog of May 16, 2016). The photo at the top of this pages shows it as it is now, in our garden in California, flourishing with age!

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IMAGES OF VIETNAM

Hoi An storefront.

We have just returned from a month in Vietnam.  Despite all assurances from friends to the contrary, I was concerned that Americans would not be welcome there after the long, bitter war that divided both our countries.  Boy, was I wrong!  For one thing, 70% of the population wasn’t born until after the war ended, so they have no memory of it and no more interested in talking about the Vietnam War than my adult children are.  The economy is on the upswing and, though Vietnam has a communist system of government, it surely has an entrepreneurial, capitalist spirit.  I will write more on this subject in the next few blogs, but meanwhile, here are some photos I took as we made our way around the country.

Hanoi child
Hanoi toddler

I was surprised, after two weeks in the south, to find that the weather up north in Hanoi was so chilly. Though it looks as if a concerned parent has overdressed this little person, I resorted to wearing several layers myself to deal with the chill.

This is a lucky shot with a good camera, catching
the exuberance
of these kids in a Hanoi park.

And no city photos would be complete without the obligatory rooftop alley cat. I don’t know why this kitty looks so sad.

Have a good week!


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GETTING AROUND VIETNAM

I was forewarned that traffic in Vietnam, especially in the cities, is chaotic. And yes, it is, though it’s organized chaos. Somehow it works. Buses, taxis and thousands of motorbikes carrying unimaginable loads maneuver beside and around each other like schools of fish. There is a lot of honking, to be sure, but I have not seen a single accident in the week we’ve been here.

The elderly do not seem to drive motorbikes but are often passengers. It isn’t as frightening to see a Vietnamese grandma clinging to her adult son’s back as it is to see entire families, including babies, zig-zagging along. Here are some photos taken by me and my friends.

Some people don’t mind the traffic at all.

For others, it’s a daily commute.

Family on motorcycle
This family is motoring along the main road through the Mekong Delta. That’s a baby, not a doll lying on the woman’s lap.

woman
Courage AND style!
Let’s not forget the egg delivery man….
(Photo by Joakim Wedjemar)
Or the box guy…but wait! There’s more!
guy on bike
And the granddaddy of them all–mattresses on the back and bedding on his lap.
(Photo by Darcey Quinn)

HAVE A GOOD, SAFE WEEK!

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