“These Rooms”


Yesterday at church I sat behind a woman who doesn’t have a home. For a while she lived in a shelter, but she told me that she was now sleeping outdoors. I know her name and her age–early 60’s–and that she is clearly an addict. She was twitchy and shaking in the pew as Mass went on. My compassion for her was deep, but I thought about what I had learned in what those who know call “these rooms.”

Anonymous programs exist to provide people a chance to share experience, strength and hope with others. Some of these are for people who live with addicts, some for addicts themselves. I have spent hundreds of hours in such places processing and learning about the addicts I grew up among. Slogans are a key part of these rooms, and one in particular came to me as I sat behind and prayed for her. “You need to accept life on life’s terms.” It’s a counter message to the “visualize and it will come to be” so prevalent in much of the culture.

I had to accept that she was self destructing. I had to accept that her mind was consumed with needing a fix. I was careful to take my phone with me when I went up for Communion. Did that mean I didn’t trust her? Yes, it did. I care about her and I wish the best for her, but part of life on life’s terms is that in her need for a fix she might have seen my phone and taken it. Not because I wasn’t kind to her. Not because I don’t call her by her name(which I do.) No because she is an addict, kicked out of a shelter and not asking me for help beyond money. Our priest has asked us not to hand out money directly but put it into the poor box. He knows all these street people and can discern actual need.

It is extremely painful to watch people self-destruct. The only thing more painful is to mistakenly believe that I have magical powers to cure them. I didn’t have them as a kid and I don’t have them now. I learned that in “these rooms.” I am forever grateful.

“Why Read Biography?”

When I was in grade school we had to write reports on books with various topics and styles each year. Teachers were trying to make sure we didn’t stick to our preferred genres, but ventured out into other types of reading. I loved fiction and would have happily read only that, but I dutifully read from the list of other kinds of books each year. As a result, I read a biography each year as a kid. Otherwise I don’t think I would have been interested. After that required reading, I rarely ever picked up, much less read a biography.

Typical of what I read was a volume of the Landmark History Series, a story of Molly Pitcher, brave Revolutionary War heroine. (I just read about her and learned there was no such person!) Biographies for kids were, I think, meant to inspire us in the 1950’s to pursue patriotic, heroic, brave and outstanding lives. They didn’t present a rounded picture of anyone, and they seemed more propaganda than history. I made the mistake of never considering that adult biographies might be different, especially ones written in the last 40 years.

I read many autobiographies and memoirs throughout my adult years. At least they were first hand accounts, however skewed through the lens of the writer. But recently I noticed that I have read three lengthy biographies this year, the ones pictured above. What changed? I have become old and am intrigued with the long arc of another person’s life. I no longer demand simplistic accounts of people who have made a mark on their worlds. Instead I crave the complex reality of a long life with its failures and successes. A good biographer, working with countless primary sources, attempts to present such a story.

To all my friends who asked me over the years why I didn’t read biographies, this post stands as an answer. You were right. They are fascinating and I am trying to catch up with all of you. 600 pages at a time!

“Learn By Watching”


The internet gives us a mixed bag, including benefits, conveniences, trolls, disinformation and crude images. A friend years ago told me that WWW. stood for World Wide Waste of time, and it can certainly seem like that sometimes when I have wandered away from my original intent to smile at pictures of puppies. But with the advent of YouTube it has become possible to learn how to do many things.

I have always learned best by watching someone do something, whether it is cook or sew. But there is not always someone around who knows how to do something that needs doing. And I certainly don’t want to hire someone to make or fix something I could do for myself if I had the know how. Enter YouTube. In addition to endless videos of children making faces, cats falling down and people doing inane stunts, there is a treasure trove of how to films.

Among the things we have looked to YouTube for are how to prune blueberries, how to build a small shed, how to make a solar oven, how to sous vide, and  how to repair a leaking gasket on a freezer. I must admit that the last one was something I attempted. When the repairman came after all he remarked “did you try fixing this with the YouTube video?” Apparently so do many others, making his visits more profitable than they would have been without the DIY effort. Oh well.

Here’s to the corners of the internet where people share their time and talents, first among them YouTube. Mostly the advice is sound, and it is always free.

“A Timely Read”


Lots going on in the United States at the moment as our legislators debate the behavior of the President. Emotions run high, names are called, slurs are common, all decorum seems to have disappeared in places, such as the Congress, where it is most needed. I took a break these past few days and immersed myself in the book pictured above, Gods of the Upper Air. I saw this book at the library and thankfully didn’t mistake the title for a discussion of higher deities. The title repeats a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, but it doesn’t help a reader understand the purpose of the book. For that one must read the bottom description: “How a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex and gender in the twentieth century.”

Despite the hype of the subtitle, the book does an excellent job of presenting a group of anthropologists, including Franz Boaz, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Zora Neale Hurston. The early part of the American twentieth century was flooded with “scientific” proof of the superiority of Northern European people over the rest of the “races” of people. The concept of race was touted as eternal, supported by such various measures as head size, height and the newly invented I.Q. test. Social eugenics promoted sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and Margaret Sanger promoted birth control for  immigrants from Southern Europe.

The anthropologists mentioned refuted all this with field studies of their own. They asserted the value of many cultures and spoke of the “mind blindness” of many American scientists who could only see hierarchy between cultures rather than the results of different people living in different places with different solutions to human problems. Living among other cultures they realized and documented that while all people attach to others and bear children, there is no agreement about such arrangements. Some valued monogamy, others didn’t. Some encouraged the artistry of men, some of women. Some had set gender ideas, some found gender more fluid.

Intellectual history at its best, Gods of the Upper Air provided me with a solid refutation of the resurgence of white nationalism now cropping up with the endorsement of one of the top White House advisors. I am grateful that there are always people willing to speak truth to power.

“I Better Hurry Up!”

This past week I saw several of these books at the library. I am not sure who the market is supposed to be for them. I try to imagine reading one of the 1000 books on an airplane going to one of the 1000 places while avoiding the airline screening of one of the 1000 movies. I contemplated tallying up how many hours would be required to finish all these lists. Clearly unlike Methuselah I don’t have that many left.

Then I saw that the 1000 places to see before you die was in a revised edition. I pondered the poor person who was methodically working her way through the list only to discover that she had visited some places in vain.

I am looking for the series for women in their 70’s. Maybe five places within driving distance to see before you die–God willing.

“Easy As Pie?”


My granddaughter was doing homework over the weekend and talking it over with me. She was exploring idioms, explaining what they meant and using each in a paragraph to show she understood how to use them. As she called out phrases to me I started to wonder about their origins and also how much sense they would make to a urban student in 2019.

The first was “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” Living on a farm, a school child would have no trouble understanding that a set number of eggs didn’t guarantee the same number of baby chicks. That idiom would arise naturally from the chicken coop and be understood by anyone who heard it used in any similar situation. Now she was having to learn what it meant in order to use it. Similarly with “don’t put your eggs in one basket” a rural child would know the risk of putting all the gathered eggs in one place for fear of tripping over something in the yard and destroying them all. Now a child has to imagine a basket, the gathering of eggs and the possible peril.

Some still made instant sense to her. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” especially after Halloween, is easily translated to its corollary of don’t undertake a task too big to finish. In fact as she started making her science fair project she realized she needed an adult’s help. Otherwise the idiom could have been used to scold her.

Which brings me to one which has me perplexed “easy as pie.” I don’t think that this phrase is meant to be ironic, but I find nothing particularly easy as pie making. Pleasant, yes. Satisfying, certainly. Rewarding, absolutely. But easy? Not in my kitchen.


“A Partner in Pie”


Thanksgiving Day will be here in less than three weeks and I am beginning to buy the ingredients for our dinner. As I have written in past years, our dinner provides each person’s favorite dish including turkey and tofurky; cranberry sauce; broccoli and green peas; and rice and potatoes. In previous years the only pie has been pumpkin since it is everyone’s favorite. Everyone but me; my favorite has always been mincemeat pie. Sadly over the many years of hosting dinners, I have never had another diner want any mincemeat pie. I stopped baking them since I can’t eat a whole pie by myself.

Growing up I always chose mincemeat pie and now figure it was on the table because of a tradition coming from my English great grandmother. I loved its lattice top which I learned to make by age 12. I liked its bite, provided by the brandy. It wasn’t too sweet and it made a fitting end to the turkey dinner. Some other adults ate it also. The taste was too strong for my younger siblings, though.

This year I invited some friends to come over for pie on Thanksgiving. When I asked one of them what were his favorite pies, he replied pumpkin, pecan and MINCEMEAT! I was ecstatic. A fellow mincemeat fan. Now I had a reason to make the pie I had been missing for years. The only problem I immediately encountered was the lack of mincemeat in any local grocery stores. Apparently it has fallen out of favor in general.

I actually had to resort to mail order! A jar of brandy flavored mincemeat filling should arrive on my doorstep in plenty of time to make a pie. I can’t wait.