It’s summer–a time to kick back and enjoy the good weather, freedom from routine and the leisure to take new photos and review past ones. I think of most of these as funny photos, but maybe “unusual” or “weird” might be a better description. Some of them are unusual simply because they are from other cultures; others just struck me as I was walking by and had my iPhone at hand.

Photo of Catman stuffed into an airplane carry-on.
This is what it looks like to take a cat on an airplane.
Photo of sign for a dog-washing company.
Is the dog wicked AND clean? Who would want a wicked dog? However…this is Massachusetts, where “wicked” is a good thing, as in “wicked good beer.”
Gilda Downey outside her jazz club.
This is Gilda. She is 94, owns and operates a jazz club and has a song written especially for her by the Southcoast Jazz Orchestra. The band ends each of its club performances with her song, which she accompanies by performing a wicked good pole dance.
Man enjoying a summer night on a Saigon thoroughfare.
This man obligingly posed for me one warm summer night in Saigon. He is actually wearing bermuda shorts, but you’d never know it from this picture.
Sign on a Belizean bus that was anything but "express."
I believe this is what is called an “oxymoron.”
Photo of a sign in a toilet stall in Vietnam.
What is there to say?
CatmanDeux watching a TV  show made especially for cats.
Whiling away a summer day, CatmanDeux style.

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What’s So Funny?

People Laughing

“Talk Dirty to Me,” the funny sign read. I burst out laughing, alone in my car as I drove past the new town business—a cleaning service. Later that afternoon, I came across a letter in the local paper complaining about the sign. A second entry noted that others had also complained that the message was inappropriate and not in keeping with town signage.  The author didn’t think it was funny at all.

This little controversy got me thinking about how what one person considers funny can be viewed as offensive by another. On an entirely different level is Roz Chast’s recent cartoon memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” A chronicle of the decline and death of her parents, Chast’s story manages to be both moving and funny—or, at least, funny to some of us. I shared the cartoons with my sisters and friend Heidi and we laughed so hard we literally (and I do mean literally) cried. To me, that summed up our mutual bittersweet experience of being with our mothers in the long month before they died.

Many people are put off by talk of death (note the name of Roz Chast’s piece), especially in the context of humor, but when a very old person has lived a long, fulfilling life, death may be sad but not tragic and even, at times, funny. An example: Chast’s mother’s health was declining rapidly and she visited her at the nursing home, expecting the worst. Instead, one day she found her mother dressed and sitting on a couch, eating a tuna sandwich.

“I knew her retreat from the abyss should have filled me with joy, or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: ‘Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?’”

I know exactly what Roz Chast means. After months or weeks, when death is imminent, when you’re prepared to lose your mom and you’ve had the most intimate, heartbreaking conversations of your life, when she wakes up, as our mother did, and asks for a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs, you are at once delighted, dismayed and even (shamefully) let down because all that painful emotional preparation for death seems wasted. But when it happened, when she asked for the eggs, we all burst out laughing, our dying Mom included, because it was just so darn funny.

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Have you noticed how often women say “I’m sorry?”  There are lots of studies that prove they do and multiple opinions as to why women do it. My sister Chris and I noticed we apologize so much, we turned it into a routine:  “Sorry.  I’m sorry for everything.  I’m sorry I exist.”

Inside Amy Schumer’s sketch about the common tendency of women to apologize frequently and unnecessarily is funny—sort of—but mostly uncomfortable to watch because it rings so true.  I tried to find a working link for the three-minute video for you but I couldn’t download one (sorry). You can read a description of the sketch here.

One positive explanation for why women apologize so much is that we are more sensitive to what offensive behavior, though that doesn’t explain why we apologize for the inoffensive.  For many women, “sorry” is as common a verbal tic as “you know.”  Just listen to conversations around you or—better yet—pay attention to how many times a day you apologize.  It will happen more often than you imagine.

A necessary, heartfelt apology is a very good thing, though some consider them signs of weakness.  In researching the subject, I found articles advising women not to apologize at work because it will diminish their authority.  One article quoted Bill Clinton, apparently a master of the art of apologizing without saying “I’m sorry.”   Yes, it is inappropriate and even sad to overdo apologies.  But those who make it a point never to apologize?  I feel sorry for them.

*Photo by Junior Mascari via Unsplash

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“Our” ospreys.

Returning to the Marion house is always a pleasure. I have loved this place for more than a decade, painting each room, moving furniture around, planting a garden, bringing to it bits and pieces of things that appeal to me. Walking in the door is like reuniting with an old friend:  when I’m not here, I think of it often and wonder how it’s doing; when I return it’s as if I’ve never been away.

The first thing I did was check on the osprey nest outside our windows. The ospreys winter in the southern United States like most of the summer residents of Marion, and they return to the same nest every year, also like their human counterparts. The nest platform we built is only three years old and was unoccupied when I arrived, though there seemed to be more sticks and moss than last year.  I stood at the window for a while, wondering if the pair who had been here before had found better digs someplace else. And then they showed up.  They stood facing each other on the nest, swiveling their heads back and forth as if they were checking out the Woman at the Window.  I swear they were discussing me.

This morning one of the pair has been building up the nest, bringing sticks, grass and  shiny things she fancied in trip after trip and then rearranging the chosen materials each time.  It’s a painstaking task to move furniture when your only tool is a beak. Meanwhile, the other bird is sitting atop a nearby post eating a large fish.  In the hour I have been spying on them, the pattern has been the same:  fix up the house, eat a snack.  Based on personal experience, I decided the nest decorator must be the female and the snacker the male. He likely also brought in the food. I know this is anthropomorphizing, but it was too easy to ignore.  Alas, I was wrong.  According to Cornell ornithologists, the male usually gathers the nesting materials and the female arranges them later.  Apologies to my spouse.

I hope the ospreys will come to love their house as I love mine.

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My friend Amy Robinson died last month and yesterday I attended her memorial service with a jam-packed gathering of her friends.  I write “friends” rather than “those whose lives she touched” because it seems as if everyone there considered themselves to be Amy’s true friends, even if their initial connection was through her husband and family, her work, or her many other endeavors.  That is a gift.  You could say that Amy “had the gift of friendship” or you could say that Amy’s friendship was the gift she gave to each of us.  

In the last several years, my main contact with Amy was through taking long walks up Asylum Street to Elizabeth Park.  By the time we reached the park, we had caught up on whatever had happened recently in our lives; halfway around the long loop, we had covered the pleasures and frustrations of living with a retired (and well-loved) husband—the “venting” part of the exercise. The walk back home was devoted to concerns about our grown sons.  I worried about safety (one son is a rock climber, the other an underwater cave diver).  Amy worried about her sons’ relationships. Eventually, the eldest “boy” married his long-time love, and Amy was—“ecstatic” is the word that comes to mind—about it.  She told me, “Now I have a daughter!”  And then one of the last e-mails I got from Amy (because now we live on opposite coasts) was to tell me the great news that her younger son was marrying his wonderful girlfriend as well.  All I can say is, I am so glad Amy knew before she died that both her offspring are well loved by good women and now she has two daughters.

I came away from the memorial resolving to spend more time with the people I love, like Amy did, and to call my friends rather than text them.  I seldom use the phone any more but written words don’t compare with the sound of friends’ voices.  Finally, today I read a graduation speech James Fallows gave at Ursinus College’s reunion in 2008, and this advice is what reminded me of Amy Robinson’s life and what I hope to change in mine:

“Get in the habit of being happy.  We all have problems, which we can’t control; what we can control is how we look at them.  Get in the habit of being excited.  It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored….Take every chance to tell your spouse, when you have one, and your children that you love them.  When in doubt, phone your mom.”

If I could have one more walk-and-talk with Amy—and how I wish I could—I would tell her, “Don’t worry about your three men.  You loved them well, they will miss you a lot, and they are going to be fine.”

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From the archive:

Cat full of dread.

                                         Dread of Getting Up

I dread going to nearly every event on my calendar. Hartford Stage: “Can’t we just skip this play?” Eating out: “Do we have to dress up?” Just about any party: “Will they even notice we’re not there?” I even dread daily walks with my friends. The corollary to this is that once I get out, I always have a wonderful time.

This isn’t “social anxiety,” which results from fear of interacting with other people. I can talk to anybody any time, friend or not. I don’t get nervous around strangers. It isn’t “existential dread,” a pervasive feeling that life is pointless. It is an irrational reluctance to put myself “out there.” What’s more, I’ve asked around and many of my friends feel the same way. That is a biased sample, but still….

As is my practice, I turned to “The Google.” It seems that many people experience dread of leaving their houses, but some of the advice for “conquering” the feeling is ridiculously obvious. I’m not going to name the sources because they are well-meaning, even if the advice is plain as day: “Reframe” your thoughts so that ‘I don’t feel like going’ is reframed as, ‘I know I’ll be glad I went.'” I remind myself that I always have a good time.   That affirmation, plus a good deal of guilt, gets me out and about, but it is no cure for pre-social dread.

What about you?  We could discuss this over a cup of coffee, but I would dread our meeting.

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ALASKA! Part 2

SE Alaska after a storm.

Alaska is too beautiful to be captured in photos, but I’m trying. Last week I posted a few pictures from a recent trip. Here are some more, all but two concerned with Humpback Whale Bubble Netting.

The BBC has an excellent short video* explaining how the Humpback Whales of Alaska (and only Alaska) catch herring by Bubble Netting. I had never heard of Bubble Netting, so the first time five whales blasted out of the water not far from our boat, I screamed. It’s an unforgettable sight. Here’s how it works:

The lead whale dives first. She (or he) is responsible for finding the fish. She is also the bubble-blower. The other whales follow in formation, with each whale taking the same position in every lunge. The lead whale locates the fish and blows a net of bubbles that completely encircles the shoal. Another whale calls (underwater) to synchronize the group.

Panicked by the eerie sound and the fizzing bubbles, the fish won’t cross the bubble curtain and the whales rise to the surface with their mouths open, swallowing the fish. The whales’ rubbery-looking lower jaws can expand to hold lots of water and fish.

This closeup of three whales in the circle shows the baleen in their mouths. It looks like very long, stiff hair. The whales push out water and air through the baleen, which acts like a sieve, and swallow only the fish.

Once that meal is completed, the whales move on to another group of herring and do it all again…

…while Smokey the Brown Bear watches from the shore.


*I can’t link to the BBC site but the video is on You Tube, dated January 2, 2015, and called “Whales’ Bubble Net Fishing/BBC Earth.”

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Last week Bill and I joined six strangers and the crew of the Northern Song for a week-long cruise of the Frederick Sound and its environs in Southeast Alaska. We left from Petersburg, a bustling small town that looks like something out of Northern Exposure minus the Main Street moose. I had high expectations for the trip and they were exceeded on the first day.

Dennis and Toni Rogers own and operate the Northern Song; we heard about them because some of their cruises are sponsored by photography groups. The idea of being on a small ship rather than a giant ocean liner was a big draw. What I hadn’t imagined was how stunning Alaska is, how terrific Captain Dennis and his wonderful, knowledgeable crew is and how delicious Chef Therese’s food would be. After a week of deprivation at home, I still have two more pounds (out of five gained) to shed. The other guests were all good people: interesting and interested. We traveled well together and made what I hope are lasting friendships. It was also wonderful to be out of cell and internet access for a week. Here are some photos from our journey.

The seals in Petersburg Harbor provided hours of entertainment. The guy in the water wants a spot on the buoy; the others are having none of it.

After a lot of barking and belching, he finally managed to clamber onto the other side of the platform but, as you can see, he was a little too chubby to rest comfortably.

Gained a bit of weight over the winter.

We awoke one morning to this glacier. The ice is blue because it is very old. (Bill can give us the scientific explanation for why that is so.)

Despite the glacial ice, these sea lions appear quite comfortable, if a little disgruntled by the intruders. They have their babies on the ice floes and the eagles snatch up the placenta. Nothing goes to waste.

Whale breaching

This whale breached surprisingly close to our boat. It was like watching an apartment building rise from the depths.

I’d like to think that this was a farewell wave, but I know better.
Alaskan sunset.

Have a good week!

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 I spend too much time thinking about TV advertising because there is so much of it, and most of it is bad.  For example, Choice Hotels ads feature a pompous guy who promotes the slogan, “Badda Book, Badda Boom.”  That irritating phrase sticks in my head but not the name of the hotel service being advertised.  That ad is somebody’s idea of memorable, but to me it’s unsuccessful.  If I were going to make a hotel reservation, what good does remembering “Badda Book, Badda Boom” do?

The very best ads are jingles–advertising set to music.  Some of them were so good (or so annoying) that they have remained in my brain for decades.  And that’s exactly what the advertisers intend. Consider “I Wish I Was an Oscar Meyer Wiener,” one of the ten most popular jingles in U.S. advertising history (and also grammatically incorrect).  A logo company writes that “All it takes is being a wiener to ensure the love of those around you.” [Who knew?]

These days, the ditty “One Eight Seven Seven Kars 4 Kids” runs through my brain day and night.  Whenever we’re driving and my granddaughter hears it, she chimes in.  If she expects a car when she’s 16, she’d better start singing a song that has stuck in my brain for years:  “Tell Me Somethin’ Good!”

Last week, while barely moving in one of Oakland’s many traffic jams, a men’s underwear ad came on the radio.  I started thinking about what kind of society spends money on ads for men’s underwear.  Just ahead, at the clogged intersection, two guys were holding up “Homeless” signs and trying to collect money in coffee cans.  They weren’t having much luck, but then “Homeless” isn’t a catchy pitch. What a world.

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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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