Train-Wreck TV

Two trains collided head on

It’s pretty common knowledge that I get depressed from time to time. (Just read my other blog, Bipolar Me, if you don’t believe me.) But there’s one thing I’ve found that I, well, not enjoy, but am drawn to when depressed, and that is what I call train-wreck TV.

What do I mean by that? To me, train-wreck TV is a reminder that there are people whose lives suck worse than mine does. I don’t mean shows like Duck Dynasty, Swamp People, or Mama June: Not to Hot. Those I dismiss as being the let’s-all-make-fun-of -the-hillbillies genre. Being from Kentucky myself, I object to the idea that all Southerners are stupid (or inbred, or racist, or other stereotypes). And just forget about shows like Seeking Sister Wife. I won’t watch that until there’s Seeking Brother Husband.

No, what I like are shows best described as People Behaving Badly. The last time I had a real bout of depression, I watched shows like Supernanny and even Wife Swap. The lives depicted there were worse than mine because at least I didn’t have screaming, disobedient children or a controlling or clueless spouse.

But this time around, I’m drawn to competition and “reality” shows, which have lots of People Behaving Badly.

I can’t really get my jolt of “Man, these people are really messed up” from the competition shows I normally watch. The contestants on Food Network competitions may get worked up enough to say, “I think the judges made the wrong decision,” but that’s not really behaving all that badly, merely having a snit. And the Forged in Fire people, even when they lose, generally talk about how much they’ve learned and the friends they’ve made. For people who spend their time hammering things, they’re remarkably personable.

I also haven’t been drawn to Gordon Ramsey cooking shows. Although he definitely behaves badly, I don’t really care to see people being degraded and abused. I feel too much sympathy for his aspiring-chef victims to truly enjoy his rants. Admittedly, their lives do suck worse than mine. At least I don’t have an obnoxious bully screaming at me when I’m trying to make my bologna sandwich for lunch.

Lately, the shows I’ve been drawn to are Bar Rescue and Inkmaster.

Bar Rescue is a lot like Restaurant Impossible, except with more yelling. A bar business is failing and host Jon Taffer shows up to straighten them out and make the place a success again. But unlike Robert Irvine, who does basically the same sort of thing for restaurants, Taffer shouts a lot and tells people to their face that they’re failures or losers or drunks or thieves or lazy or assholes (he doesn’t spare the swearing) or generally rotten people who shouldn’t be trusted with a lemonade stand, let alone a business like a bar.

And indeed, he is right. The bars they have featured have included one where a horse was allowed into the bar (it shat on the floor) and another where a porn video was shot in the bar while it was open to customers. Next to these, the over-pouring bartenders, demented relatives, and absentee owners seem like mere pikers.

Taffer straightens them out with what could be called tough love – a lot tougher than the family therapy that Irvine offers, though often with the same results. Then he remakes and rebrands the bar, which doesn’t always stick. Some of the clueless owners go back to their old ways, names, and decors, including a pirate bar in a corporate business district. (It might have done fine in Key West.) In one memorable instance, Taffer even helped an owner close down and sell the bar.

Inkmaster is altogether different. It’s a competition show where contestants vie to win $100,000 plus other goodies for doing tattoos. The lives-suck-worse-than-mine element comes in the behavior of the contestants. There’s a lot of X-rated language (thoughtfully bleeped but still identifiable). But the real attraction is the infighting, feuds, psychological warfare, and blatant manipulative behavior of the potential celebrity tattooists. Pronouncements like “I eat the weak” are mild.

The people who receive the tattoos (called “canvases”) are no prize either. They bicker with the tattooists over what their tat should be. They bitch about the results. They make impossible demands. (One canvas wanted a tattoo of a phoenix shooting fire out of her vagina. (The canvas’s vagina. I don’t know if phoenixes have vaginas. The judges’ critique was that the phoenix was poorly drawn.) Their lives suck worse than mine because they have to live with these creations for the rest of their lives, unless they are on a “cover-up” episode, which still doesn’t ensure good results.

I must admit that this show appeals to me because I also have some tasteful tattoos of marks of punctuation, and narrowly avoided getting semicolons where there should have been periods. Not that compares with a bad phoenix-and-fire vagina tattoo.

I suppose that by the time I hit another major depressive episode, there will be plenty of other, newer train-wreck TV to watch. It seems that there’s no end to people behaving badly or people whose lives suck worse than mine. Thank goodness.

Say What?

athalete Sh! Cherokees!

When I was a college student (approximately 100 years ago), I was an English major who also dabbled in linguistics. I can’t say that my liberal arts education left me with many skills that led to high-paying, prestigious jobs, though I never ended up flipping burgers. (I was a cashier in a restaurant, but that was while working my way through school).

But my education has left me with a few things that I treasure: a compulsion to read, a desire to write, skills for editing, and a nearly uncontrollable desire to correct people. I gave up on being a Grammar Nazi a while back, because I sensed it wasn’t conducive to making friends, and a lot of the old “rules” (like not splitting infinitives) make no sense anymore.

What I haven’t been able to shake, though, is a cringe when someone mispronounces a word. Ath-a-lete. Nuc-yul-ar. Foil-age. I’ve corrected my husband on that one so many times, when he’s reading seed catalogues to me, that I swear by now he’s doing it on purpose.

Once I even called up a radio station because the news announcer said Bo-GOH-ta instead of BO-ga-ta. Aside from my husband, though, I’ve given up correcting people’s pronunciation unless they ask me to.

(This actually does happen. A former boss of mine was talking about an article he read and was talking about a sarcophagus. He must have seen me wince, though I tried not to show it. “Is that how you pronounce it?” he asked, and I then enlightened him. (This incident indicates not ignorance on his part, but the fact that he had only ever seen the word written and was guessing at the pronunciation. But I digress.))

One of the common words that still makes me cringe is how people pronounce “chipotle.” Almost invariably, they say chi-pol-tay instead of chi-poat-lay. This is actually an understandable mistake, as there are few words in English that include the sounds tl together in that order. To get it, you have to smash two words together, like “hot links.” That’s easy enough to pronounce, but when the combo shows up in the middle of a single word it seems baffling.

I also dabbled in Russian in college. Among the peculiarities of the Russian language – and there are many, including the Cyrillic alphabet – is that there are letters that stand for more than one sound at a time. It’s like in English, where the letter z can stand for regular z (as in zip) or zh (as in azure). But Russian carries it to the extreme. They have one letter that stands for the sound ch, and another one for sh, and yet another one for zh.

But they don’t stop at that. There is even a Cyrillic letter that stands for four different letters in English: shch. (It looks kind of like a small w with a tail on the end.) The letter is useful (for Russians, anyway), as it occurs in the word for cabbage soup and the name of the Soviet Union’s former head, Nikita Krushchev.

When my Russian instructor was trying to teach us this sound, he had us repeat the phrase “fresh cheese.” That was about the only place in English where the sounds occur together naturally. (You can think of others, like “fish chips” or “harsh chimps,” of course, but those are harder to remember.)

One day I was explaining this to my husband, rather pedantically, I expect, and I said that there were no English words that had the shch sound at the beginning of a word or a phrase. He looked pensive for a moment, then got a smile.

“Sh! Cherokees!” he said. I surrendered. I was defeated. By a man who still says “foilage.”

Bacon, Eggs, and Salt

Once upon a time, bacon, eggs, and salt were thought to be bad for a person’s health. Now they’re all the rage in cooking. They come in all sizes and shapes and colors, and they go with everything from hash to steak to pizza.

Bacon, I think we all agree, is bad for us, but we love it anyway, and any way. And there are so many kinds of bacon to love, in addition to the regular kind that Mom used to make for breakfast. There is thick-cut bacon, slab bacon, turkey bacon, and varieties that sound like bacon but aren’t (Canadian bacon, which is really ham, and pork belly, which is bacon on steroids). Then there are the foreign kinds like pancetta and guanciale, which may not technically be bacon as they come from different parts of the pig, but serve much the same purpose in many recipes.

So, what do you do with your bacon? Make a sandwich of it (with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, please, on whole-wheat toast). Put it on a different sandwich such as a hamburger. Put it on pizza. Make it into jam. Candy it (or if you have Canadian bacon, pour maple syrup on it). Put it on a salad. Put it in an omelet. Drape an egg lovingly atop the crispy (not flabby, please) strips. Or go full Elvis and serve your bacon with peanut butter and bananas, on fried white bread.

There’s been some debate about eggs. For a long time, everyone ate as many as they wanted. Then suddenly they were bad for you. Then, no they weren’t. You didn’t have to avoid eggs anymore. What happened? Did the egg change? Did the human body change? No, apparently some dietary health commission somewhere changed.

Now the debate is how to use the egg, and the answer is as a sauce. No, not in a sauce, as the sauce. This is why you now see hamburgers and all manner of other sandwiches served with a fried egg – mostly sunny side up, but occasionally over easy – resting just under the top bun.

But, wait! (I hear you cry.) The minute you bite the sandwich, the egg will explode and run everywhere! Well, yes, that’s the idea. The egg yolk is the new ketchup or mayo for a burger. Voilà! It has become the sauce. Now you can use words like “unctuous” to describe it, if you want to be taken for a foodie.

Perfectly poached eggs (meaning runny) are used in this way too, or to top steaks, hash, stew, shakshuka, etc. Apparently, if they are sufficiently runny, they improve anything they touch. There is some debate on sunny-side-up eggs. Should they be served au naturel? Or cut out with little round cutters so that they fit more attractively on a biscuit (or whatever)? Personally, I don’t have an opinion, as long as the egg is cooked long enough that the white doesn’t look like snot. That’s ick, not unctuous.

“Farm-fresh” eggs are preferred if you want to get culinary. There are also quail eggs, if you want to get dainty, and emu eggs, which are dark teal and look like they’re going to hatch a dinosaur. “Scotch eggs” are soft-boiled eggs with sausage wrapped all around them and deep-fried. There’s some sort of trick to keeping the yolk unctuous and the sausage crisp, but I don’t know what it is.

And salt? I think we all know by now that salt intake is related to high blood pressure, which is a Bad Thing. But the problem with salt generally only comes up when you eat already-prepared foods like potato chips or cans of soup. Those are loaded with salt. Some ingredients, like cheese, also contain salt, but I think we can all agree that every food should come with too much cheese on it. If you avoid processed foods that contain salt, there is really no need to fear. No one adds enough salt to unprocessed food to be dangerous. Or at least we hope not.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of different kinds of salt to experiment with. In addition to good ol’ table salt, there are salt substitutes (which taste metallic because guess what? There’s potassium in it); kosher salt, sea salt, finishing salt, flake salt, THC salt (in CA anyway), and even Himalayan pink salt. (I own a lamp made of a giant pink Himalayan salt nodule with a light inside. No, I don’t lick it. I will, however, lick salted caramel, enthusiastically. But I digress.)

If you watch as much foodie TV as I do, you quickly learn that when someone says, “Needs seasoning,” they mean, “Needs salt.” Seems everyone puts in enough pepper. And they never mean rosemary or chervil or cumin or garlic, which are also seasonings. No, they mean salt.

My husband used to be of the “Never put salt on anything” school of thought. Every night when he cooked dinner and asked how I liked it, I would invariably reply, “Needs salt.” He at last grudgingly admitted that some things, like mashed potatoes, really do need salt to taste the way they should. But usually, he uses Mrs. Dash as he tries to wean me off salt. It doesn’t always work. Some dishes just need seasoning.

Living in a Post-Pandemic World

No, settle down. We’re not there yet.

You’d think with all the CDC mask roll-backs and the number of vaccinations you see on TV, that the whole national nightmare is over.

Well, it’s not.

We have not reached “herd immunity.” Herd immunity occurs when so many people in a population have been vaccinated that the virus has no place to go. Various estimates state that between 70% and 90% of the US population must have been vaccinated in order for that to happen. The US population is 382 million (give or take). Only 36% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and not quite half have received the first dose. I’ve done the math: that means to reach herd immunity, approximately 2/3 of the people in the US still need to be fully vaccinated. That’s over 250 million. We’re nowhere need herd immunity.

Sorry about all the math, but it’s important. Just because the CDC or your state government or whoever lifts mask and social distancing and sanitizing restrictions doesn’t mean that that’s a good, sensible thing to do. Why do you think states are offering incentives varying from a free beer up to $1,000,000 for folks to get vaccinated? It’s not because they’re comfortable with the numbers who already have.

The United States embodies a philosophy of rugged individualism (also one of not having paid attention in math and health class). But it also has a philosophy of helping one’s neighbor. Right now the rugged individualists are ahead. Those who refuse to wear masks put themselves in danger of contracting COVID. But, perhaps more importantly, they put at risk those who cannot take the vaccine for health reasons, especially the elderly and immunocompromised. And we’re talking here about real health reasons, not the phony-baloney fake “I’m exempt” cards that you can print up yourself or order off the internet.

(My husband, who works at a store greeter, meets many of these people every day. He says he’s always tempted to ask them what that medical condition is – rhinotillexomania? The store won’t let him. But I digress.)

It’s sad to think that so few Americans are willing to be in the “helping their neighbors” camp. Some are certainly stepping up. TV ads promote helping neighbors get to a vaccination site. Uber is offering free rides, and people are encourage to donate to Uber to help defray the cost. I have heard of buses that give free rides to those who are on their way to get vaccinated.

My husband and I are fortunate. We were able to get our vaccines at a Walmart within five miles of our house, with at most a 45-minute wait for the first shot. And Dan’s employer gave a $100 bonus to anyone who showed a valid vaccination card.

As to side effects, another reason that people cite as being a reason they don’t get the shot, I can report that in my case I had chills and fatigue the next day, but since I get chills and fatigue on a fairly regular basis, it wasn’t really a big deal.

And to the people who think their civil rights are being violated by COVID restrictions: You meekly go along with signs in every place of business that say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Why is “no mask” so much more oppressive? What’s the big deal about having proof of vaccination? Your kids have to prove they’ve had measles, mumps, diphtheria, and other vaccinations before they can be enrolled in school.

The post-pandemic world will be a great one. It’s inconvenient to wear a mask and socially distance (one would hope that hand-washing would not seem very onerous). It’s unpleasant at best not to be able to hold weddings and funerals and graduations without some precautions. And there are people who are genuinely afraid of needles, to whom I would like to say, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” But really, it’s hard for me to believe that 2/3 of Americans are so needle-phobic that they can’t get a vaccination.

And this is not even considering the rest of the world. Travel companies are starting to advertise vacations abroad (with cancellation and rebooking policies). But the real problem is that this is such a global society that even Zoom conferences can’t take the place of face-to-face ones forever (though they do perhaps point out how little business travel really needs to be done and how many people are quite capable of working from home).

But there are outbreaks in Brazil, India, and other countries. We may talk about not letting people from other countries into the United State, but there are still countries that won’t let US citizens into theirs without COVID testing or proof of vaccine.

For the moment, let’s not even talk about how the coronavirus may be (or is) mutating and what that might do to our social structures.

But just know that sometimes “rugged individualist” is a synonym for “asshole,” at least when it comes to matters of life and death.

A Gift for Mom

I remember what Mother’s Day was like when I was a kid. My sister and I always gave my mother perfume. Well, my dad bought it and my sister and I gave it to her. (We didn’t get much of an allowance back then.) We always got the same kind, a scent called Tigris. I rather think we got that one because it came in a cool bottle with a tiger-striped fuzzy cap. Now I don’t know if she liked it or even if she wore it much.

I wanted to learn about other people’s memories of Mother’s Day, so I asked my friends on Facebook what they gave their mothers. I also asked moms among my friends what were the best gifts they had ever received. I didn’t get many responses, but enough to establish a pattern.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book about The Five Languages of Love, five ways that people can share love with one another. The book was originally intended for spouses or those in romantic relationships, but I thought I’d apply it to Mother’s Day.

The five “languages” are

• words of affirmation

• quality time

• physical touch

• acts of service

• gifts

In relationships, problems arise when two people don’t speak the same “language.” For example, one person would like quality time together, but the other thinks giving gifts is the way to express love. Or someone who would like words of affirmation but receives only physical touch.

What surprised me from my unscientific poll is that the persons who gave gifts were mostly children. Usually they had no money, or not enough to buy anything nice, so they relied on arts and crafts. Many a mother has received the venerable gift of a loomed potholder or the neighbor’s flowers. But many of the answers I received showed real thought and imagination.

One guy, for example, said, “I started sewing as a youngster. I once made an apron, though she didn’t wear them as a rule.” One mother particularly remembered – and still has – an acrostic poem that her child wrote and illustrated for her. (For those of you not familiar with it, an acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, in this case “MOTHER.”)

Many of the other gifts fell under the heading of quality time or acts of service. For quality time, the clear winner was the mom who remembered, “For me it was my daughter surprising me and showing up at my church plus spending the day with me. We’ve also gone to movies or gotten massages/pedicures together. Mostly just time spent together.”

One response spoke of both affirmation and a gift. This mom remembers, “It was the first Mother’s Day after my son moved to England. Honestly, I don’t remember what the gift was, but the fact that he remembered the day (it is on a different day in England) meant a lot to me.” She added, “Last year, he took the time, from England, to arrange for a delivery of Brock Masterson’s Mother’s Day quiche meal for me. That was above and beyond, I think.”

The categories of food and service overlapped at times. One former child remembers, “I made her breakfast in bed. Usually burnt crap.” I’m sure mom appreciated the thought, at any rate. Another idea was given by a guy who, as a teen, did “some extra chores so she could have a day off.” Another person responded, “We took her out to eat,” which if you think about it, combines quality time, act of service, and gift.

The most comprehensive, and most touching, came from a mom who said that the best Mothers Day gift she received was “All of them because they honored me in so many ways.”

No one mentioned expensive gifts, like jewelry. Gifts of touch were also seldom mentioned, though I suppose the mani/pedi would qualify. And I’m sure a lot of the gifts and remembrances were delivered with hugs and kisses.

This is not to say that moms settle for little, but that the little things are the most fondly remembered.

The Lens and the Brush

Very meta: A photo of a painting of a photo

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

Ansel Adams said that when he was tired of hearing about people who liked a photograph say, “Wow! You must really have a great camera!”

Funny, nobody ever says to painters, “Wow! You must have an amazing brush!”

I have a story that involves both a camera and a brush. Here’s how it happened.

I wanted to give my husband a painting of his much-loved cat, Matches, for his birthday. I know a really great artist, Peggy McCarty, and asked her if she could do it.

“I’ll need a photo of him in natural light,” she said.

No problem, I thought. I took the cat outside, where the light is as natural as you can possibly get, and took a few pics of him wandering around the yard. (Including one with a super-blep, which was amazing, but just not right for a portrait.)

Those photos wouldn’t work, I was told. There was natural light, sure, but no contrast. This time Peggy gave me more explicit instructions. I should take the photo indoors, but somewhere that there was natural light, like by a window.

For those of you who think it would be hard to get a cat to pose by a window, well, you’re wrong. Matches was the most laid-back cat ever. I could pick him up, plop him down near a window where there was light shining through the slats of the blinds. He’d sit still, looking bored, while I snapped a few shots. Then he would get up and stroll away. I would follow him, pick him up again, plop him down by a window, and take a few more pics. We repeated this several times, and he never got annoyed.

I took the photos to Peggy and she deemed them all right in the lighting department. Then she surprised me. “Could I put some plants around his feet and lace over the window?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “As long as the cat looks like the cat, add anything you want to.”

It turns out that the plants were necessary because my photo didn’t show the cat’s adorable feet. And the lace curtain was because Peggy likes to play with textures in her paintings – and still does.

It was perhaps the best birthday present I ever got for my husband and, amazingly, it survived the tornado that hit our house, needing only a new frame.

As the years have gone by, Peggy has practiced her art until now she paints on commission regularly – and has regular calls for pet portraits.

And, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to use a camera better, especially since they invented the kind that cancels out the tremors from my shaky hands. The problem is that my husband has improved at photography too, and every good photo we have he claims he took, even if I know I was the one who took it. Unless he’s in the photo, of course. Then he might be willing to admit I snapped it.

But he’s never tried to claim that he took the photo of Matches that turned into the painting of Matches. That would be absurd. The proof is hanging on the wall.

Peggy McCarty has a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Peggypaintings/, where you can see more of her amazing art and get in touch with her.

To Do Or Not To Do

Most of you are likely familiar with the game “Never Have I Ever.” Versions of it have been floating around Facebook, with certain categories highlighted (Score 1 point for everything you haven’t eaten/farm activities you’ve never done/dodgy things you’ve never engaged in, et endless cetera.) Most of them only require that you report your number of points, but many people respond with which things they have/haven’t done, and often why.

I never play those games except mentally, but I am somehow intrigued by them. So, since no one asked, here are my answers to some of these categories and activities, plus a few things I’d like to do but just haven’t yet.

Food. I’ve eaten a lot of “gross” foods in my life, including sushi, snails, octopus, and curried goat, which tasted like curried pot roast. Other things I have eaten but regretted, including liver and onions, olives, and Pop-Tarts.

My mother tried to make me eat liver, but stopped when I literally gagged on it. I think it was a texture thing, not the flavor. Olives make my feet swell, probably because of the salt content. The very smell of Pop-Tarts make me wheeze. I have no idea why, but there you have it.

I have been expanding my dining repertoire. I still don’t really like onions, but I’ve found I can tolerate them if they’re almost invisible – finely diced and in something like spaghetti sauce, where they’re cooked through and not the main ingredient. And onion soup, for some reason (I think it’s the cheese). A slab of onion on a burger, though, makes me cry, even if I didn’t cut it myself.

Some seafoods I’ve been trying to acclimate myself to, through a process called fried, soup, sauce. That’s how I addressed clams, for instance – first fried clam strips, then clam chowder, then clams with bean sauce. I haven’t yet tried the theory out on oysters, but I intend to. I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way to raw oysters, but I’m betting I can make it from fried to oyster stew.

I’ve drunk any number of dubious beverages, the most dubious of which was called Swamp Water – one part green chartreuse and six parts pineapple juice. If you want to know why it’s called Swamp Water, mix yourself up a batch. It you want to know why it’s dubious, drink some green chartreuse straight.

There are also beverages I’ve never tried, but intend to. Not every new variety of candy-ass girlie drinks that bars and restaurants are always inventing. No I want to try a martini (with a twist – see olives and onions, above). And I want to try absinthe, but it’s way expensive, especially if you get the peculiar silver spoon that you’re supposed to use to melt a sugar cube into it. Maybe someone will give me some for my birthday or Christmas.

Activities. Dodgy or dangerous category: Yes, I have skipped school, whenever my father wanted to take a three-day weekend with his relatives in Kentucky. He’d write a note, but it was still counted as an unexcused absence. Yes, I’ve ridden a motorcycle, though only as a passenger. (I wanted a motorcycle of my own, but had a fear that as soon as I got one, I would get pregnant and be unable to ride. But I digress.)

Farm activities category: Yes, I’ve milked a cow and a goat. Surprisingly, the cow is easier. More to hold onto. I also rode a mule. I advise against this, at least bareback, because mules have the boniest spines this side of a stegosaurus. I’ve used an outhouse, despite the fact that I’m terrified of bees. I’ve also peed outdoors while camping or hiking. (I know, TMI.)

Amusement park category: I have a rule about amusement parks: I will not ride anything that turns you upside down or the floor drops out from under you. Yes, I know the physics of why it’s perfectly safe. I’m afraid I might throw up, likely on someone below me. (For years my mother wouldn’t let me ride Ferris Wheels on the theory that I’d get a nosebleed. This despite the fact that every nosebleed I ever had occurred when I was in my bed, at ground level. But I digress. Again.)

My friends got me to ride the Tower of Terror at DisneyWorld by A) telling me that the floor doesn’t actually drop; it’s pulled down by a cable, so no free fall, and B) they instilled in me the mantra “Disney isn’t going to kill me. They want me to spend more money.”

I’m sure that there are lots of other things that I haven’t tried, but should; things I haven’t tried, but won’t; things I’ve done once but will never do again; and, quite possibly, things I’ve never thought about that I will or won’t do. And I’m sure plenty of you have suggestions for those categories, or to do/not to do stories of your own. Feel free to share them here.

Feeling Grief

I hate it when people think that a person should be “over” grieving for a lost loved one by a certain time. There is no limit on grief. It lasts as long as it lasts, and there’s no speeding it up.

In years past, women were expected to wear mourning clothing and have limited social engagements for a year after the death of their husbands. It was an attempt to codify grief. Going back to regular, if still somber, clothing (“half-mourning”), I suppose, was a way to signal that the woman was again “on the market.”

Even back then, it didn’t work as it was supposed to. Queen Victoria, on the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, observed deep mourning until the day she died – forty years later. Presumably, no one suggested that it was time for her to “get over it.” She ruled a nation and an empire while still deeply grieving.

Nowadays, grief is internal. Oh, we observe funeral rituals, wear somber clothing, gather for support and prayer. We bring food or flowers for the family and gather to remember the departed.

But even when the rituals surrounding death are over, grief is far from over. My mother-in-law continues to memorialize her husband every year on the date of his death. Who am I to say that this is excessive? I remember my friend Bill, who died unexpectedly years ago, especially when I hear the music he played and loved. Do I enjoy the music? Of course. Does it bring back fond memories? Definitely. Does it make me sad? Oh, yes. Bill died very young and those who loved him have had years to adjust to his absence. That doesn’t mean we miss him any the less.

Today my heart is heavy with the loss of a dear friend. I will try not to dwell on her final illness and her death, so remote from me in these days of COVID but so present in my heart and memory. Everywhere there are the reminders of her generous heart – the red silk shirt she gave me, memories of a New Year’s Eve spent together, all the things she wrote, the effect she had on mutual friends. The birthday card she picked out for my husband long before she was incapacitated, which her family kindly and unexpectedly sent to him. We laughed together. We cried together. We shared joy and supported each other through the bad times.

Today I must find something to wear to her funeral. I know, paradoxically, that if she were still alive, she would lend – or give – me something appropriate. If necessary, she would go with me to the store to pick something out.

I guess that eventually these raw feelings will fade and most of what I have left will be the good memories. But right now what I have is the sorrow. The mourning. The grief.

I Love People Who Improve

One day, years ago, I saw a friend outside a function room in a hotel, trying to master bar chords on his guitar for a song he had been working on. I’m not sure if he got them figured out that day, but he has since mastered them thoroughly. He is now in great demand at music festivals.

Years ago, a friend of mine was studying art in high school. Many of her paintings were reproductions of record album covers. Now she teaches art, has had her paintings in gallery shows, and takes commissions for her artwork. She has experimented with different styles, and also has dabbled in quilting and jewelry making.

One of the things that I love about these people is that they took something they loved and got better at it. They put in the time. They made the most of their pursuits. They got better at them.

Too many people take up artistic or other pursuits and, if they’re not good at them immediately, give up. Closets everywhere are littered with sheet music, sketchpads, needlepoint paraphernalia, bolts of fabric, unused crochet hooks, skis and tennis racquets and bongo drums – remnants of their hopes and abandoned attempts. These are not failures, strictly, as their creators never really gave them a chance. They are relics of people who simply didn’t improve.

On my computer are files that record my attempts to get better at writing. There are poems that I submitted to contests. Stories that didn’t make the cut. Writing samples that were not selected for bigger assignments. But I like to think that my writing is getting better. One of my stories got an honorable mention. I have finished a novel.

True, the novel needs a rewrite, or at least the first four chapters do. I need to improve if I am to take my writing any further. And this I will try to do. I simply made the mistake of not realizing that I had more work to do to improve. It was not until I realized this that I had the impetus to improve.

It’s a fact that not everyone has the talent – the raw ability – to play the guitar well, to create paintings that people want to buy, to write a novel that sells. But there are things they can do to improve at their craft, to make a hobby more fulfilling or even a business. They can take lessons, for example. They can learn from the masters. At first a person may be copying someone else’s style. (That’s the way the Old Masters learned to paint. Some of them became so good at it that professionals have a hard time telling the difference. Then the fledgling painters left the nest and took their own commissions, developed their own styles.)

And I admire that tenacity in creative people, whether they be crafters or aspiring pros. It’s a daunting thing, and an audacious one, to think you can improve. There may be a natural limit to how much a person can improve, but even to try is a worthy thing. The pros have something in common with those who never make it. They all started from zero. Even the people who abandon their pursuit may have improved – just not enough or fast enough to satisfy themselves and their expectations.

One of my writer friends conducts seminars called “Leap and the Net Will Appear.” I’m not sure that I totally believe that.

But one of my favorite sayings is, “If you’re going to strike out, strike out swinging.” Who knows, after some coaching and practice, you may be hitting the ball out of the park. Or maybe my friend is right, and the net will appear.

Diverse Minds

The university I went to had something called “distribution requirements.” That meant that everyone had to take at least two courses that were outside their major. I was an English major, so I took History of Science in Western Civilization and Beekeeping (which turned out to be a horrible mistake).

I think Cornell had the right idea. It’s a good idea to step outside your comfort zone and expand your mind. Of course, many students side-stepped the requirement, choosing a course that most resembled their major. Science students took economics, on the theory, I guess, that they both dealt with numbers. Same with architecture students and life drawing. Or English majors and French literature.

However, one of my friends was a civil engineering student, and she took sculpture. She didn’t get the greatest grade, but I admired that she valued exercising her mind and exploring her talents more than pumping up her GPA.

I love people who have diverse interests. We all know people who have a single-minded fixation on a topic, vocation, or hobby. And that’s okay. The world needs specialists. But the world also needs generalists.

I enjoy the science fiction fans who also love Gilbert and Sullivan. I admire lawyers who also play a stringed instrument. I applaud nuns who also enjoy South Park. Microbiologists who participate in community theater. Artists who are big fans of the space program. Gardeners who study comparative religions. Police officers who explore photography. (I really know all these people.) And we all know about the astronaut who plays guitar and sings in space.

As for me, everybody knows I’m a word nerd. My hobbies include crossword puzzles. My spare time is spent writing blogs and novels. But I am also a closet science geek. I have been known to ask friends in the sciences things like, “Explain to me how epigenetics is different from Lamarckian evolution.” And mostly understood the (probably simplified) explanation. Apart from science (and reading about it), I also love travel and semiprecious stones.

I would have to say that most of friends are people who explore different areas of their personalities and different areas of interest. I seem to be drawn to them. One of my oldest friends, a restaurant manager at the time, spent his off hours learning how to scuba dive, developing his own photos, and reading science fiction. I know an aerospace engineer who practices yoga. A writer who loves trains and old postcards. An office worker who decorates elaborate birthday cakes. The combinations are nearly endless.

People argue which is better to use, the left brain or the right brain. The left brain is the rational, logical side, exemplified by scientists and mathematicians. The right brain is said to be the seat of creativity, non-logical thinking, and artistic expression. It has been argued that our world today is skewed toward the left-brained, leaving out those who function mostly on the right side of the brain. There are a lot of right-brained people who are stuck in a left-brained world, where business executives and doctors and people in other high-paying occupations rule. Right-brained people are too often looked down on as hippie-dippy, touchy-feely new-agers who don’t really contribute to society.

(I would seriously disagree with that characterization. Right-brained pursuits make life worth living. Who can live in a world without music, film and television, stories, and the decorative and performing arts? But I digress.)

I don’t know how many people remember Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It was all the rage in education a while back. It posited that there are many kinds of IQ, and that children learn best when taught in harmony with whatever their special style of intelligence is – visual-spatial or musical or bodily-kinesthetic learning or others, in addition to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.

Of course, the theory can be applied ridiculously and made fun of (suggesting that the McCarthy hearings be presented in interpretive dance). But it had some remarkable successes – children who learned their alphabet better when tracing letters in a sand tray instead of reciting them.

What I mean to say is that no one operates totally on one side of the brain or the other, or learns things in the same way. My husband, for example, is a more visual learner, while I’m more verbal. But I can’t count the number of times when we’ve explored the same content, him from a documentary and me from a book – an archaeological discovery, for example.

No one way of learning or experiencing the world is better than another. No one way of expressing oneself is intrinsically better than another. And while single-minded devotion is good in some respects, so is diversity of mind. And, in my experience, it makes for more interesting people, not to mention more interesting conversationalists.