CATMANDEUX and URSULA K LE GUIN

CatmanDeux, My Framing Assistant

On Saturday Catmandeux and I took the long trip across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Southwest Airlines has many advantages for flyers, including being able to change reservations without penalty, which is why I like it.  What Southwest does not provide is ample space for a 16-pound cat to fit comfortably under a seat.  Then somehow I forgot that Saturdays are when families—large families with lots of children—travel.  So between inadequate room for the cat and my feet and all the kiddie hubbub, it felt like the longest trip of my life.  And then this morning Catmandeux woke me up to feed him at 3:30 a.m., because he was still on East Coast time and thought it was 6:30.

With all that behind me, I decided to do something I enjoy, which in this case was framing large photos and prints.  I put on the news to catch up with the world while I was working, but after 15 minutes of conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide and horror stories about El Paso, Dayton and the Mississippi workplace raids, I turned to PBS for solace. The American Masters series has a new episode, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, about the life and work of the famous science fiction writer. 

 I have never read science fiction; it isn’t a genre that has interested me.  Well! After an hour of listening to and about Le Guin, I must look into her work now. And I hope you will, too.  She was so much more than a writer of science fiction; her work reflected her knowledge of cultural anthropology, Jungian theory and Taoism.  She is considered by Michael Chabon to be the greatest writer of her generation.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was the mother of three children, married to the historian Charles Le Guin for  65 years. During all that time, she wrote and wrote: short stories, poetry, many books of fiction and reflections on life.  I cannot begin to explain how complex and forthright she was.  You need to watch “The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” on PBS and listen to her yourself.  And did I mention she loved cats?  I’ll end with this wonderful Le Guin quote on the absurdity of denying your age:  “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.”

Have a good week!

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E. B. WHITE AND WEEDING

Japanese Knotweed

I have been taking time off weeding each day to read The Essays of E.B. White.  I have read that book many times but White can still make me laugh harder than any other writer, even David Sedaris. Consider this excerpt from the chapter, “Coon Tree,” about a mother raccoon and her kittens, who live in a hole in a tree just outside his second floor bedroom window:

If the kittens are young and quiet,…she finishes her bath without delay and begins her downward journey.  If the kittens are restless, she may return and give them another feeding. If they are well grown and anxious to escape, she hangs around the opening in an agony of indecision.  When a small head appears in the opening, she seizes it in her jaws and rams it back inside.  Finally, like a mother with no baby-sitter and a firm date at the theater, she takes her leave, regretfully, hesitantly.

Last week, while stabbing and yanking weeds, I thought that maybe I could write this blog about weeding in the manner of E. B. White–why not aim high?  Perhaps I could make the plucking and digging hundreds of weeds out of our driveway amusing somehow.  Maybe if I could get past the heat, humidity and biting insects, I could write something clever.  But weeding a long driveway in a New England summer is a thoroughly unpleasant task.  It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge– a process that never ends.  By the time I get to the end of the driveway, the beginning is weedy again.

Maybe weeding is better described through poetry:

Ragweed, Knotweed, Purslane, Plantain–
Don’t forget the Poison Ivy.
Prostrate Spurge and Hairy Crabgrass
Silly names but kind of jivey
Don’t forget the sexist labels:
Creeping Veronica—is she really?
Chickweed patches—don’t be silly.
Wipe that smile right off your face
‘cause you admire Queen Anne’s Lace.

This is the best I could do, given the sunstroke and all that….

Have a good week!

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MONKEY MIND

I took this photo at the Belize Zoo.

When I first heard the term “Monkey Mind,” I was pretty sure I knew what it meant and that it applied to me.  Here is one definition, from pocketmindfulness.com:

Consider that we humans have around fifty thousand separate thoughts each day, many of them on the same topic.  You might imagine that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your conscious mind, is indeed a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.

It’s no accident that the definition I chose is from “Pocket Mindfulness.” Its web address implies it would be a short definition, not requiring much time or attention.  That is the hallmark of monkey mind behavior:  trying to accomplish too much in a short time, seldom sitting still,  seldom giving a thought or feeling its due.  

The next time you are in a waiting room, look around and you’ll see that nearly everyone is looking at a cell phone. It seems that most of us are incapable of being with our own thoughts. Adam Conover (of Adam Ruins Everything) posted a video years ago about the difficulties of doing nothing for three minutes.  I often think of Adam’s video when I am sitting still, twitching while thinking of the next thing to do.  My thoughts swing monkey-like from branch to branch.

As readers of this blog know, my friend Amy diedhttp://alexisrankinpopik.com/remembering-amy/ in May. She didn’t expect she would not have a normal life span and neither did all of us she left behind.  It got me thinking—am I going to spend the rest of my life keeping my house tidy and the laundry folded?  Jumping from project to project that doesn’t really come to much? I have a plan.  It’s a modest plan but no harm in trying.  I am going to (1) set aside time during which I can’t be interrupted; (2) read more fiction; (3) watch less cable news;(4) spend more time with my family and friends (5) finish that short story I keep putting aside.

To quote Robert Reich—“What do you think?”  I truly want to know.

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FUN AND PHOTOS

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.

ENJOY YOUR SUMMER WEEK!
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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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SORRY I’M SORRY

A SORRY SIGHT*

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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HOUSES AND OSPREYS

Ospreys

“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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REMEMBERING AMY

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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ARE YOU DREAD FULL?

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 WANT TO GO BACK TO ALASKA!

*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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