Before It’s Over

novemberBefore it’s over I wanted to stick up for this month in which we still find ourselves. It was way back at November’s start that I made a last-minute dash to the supermarket and passed a house entirely decorated for the glow-fest known as The Holidays.

I have to admit my heart sank at the sight. “What about November?” I yelled, though I was totally alone in my car. 

What I meant was, “How did we go from Halloween’s wild and jokey motifs straight to reindeer and snowmen, without giving November her rightful moment on the stage?” 

Because November has a beauty all her own.

Maybe it’s dark as you read this. If so, close your eyes and picture what lies just outside your window:

  • The branches of the bare trees that make of the sky a span of leaded glass.

  • The leaves that still do cling to the trees dressed now in muted shades of bronze and copper.

  • The green of the grass that, somewhere in the last ten weeks, woke up from its heat-flattened August swoon and returned to the party, looking as fresh and springy as the grass of April.

Only it isn’t April. The grass knows it. We know it. Every living thing knows that one day soon we will wake to find that a hard frost has taken hold of the earth. Then, our long hibernation will have begun.

And that’s fine. It’s fine that winter comes each year. It’s fine too that the soil locks down tight and the temperatures dip so low they make your very fillings.

It’s fine because when winter comes it will bring us winter joys. We will make more stews. We will gather around the hearth, even if that hearth is just one of those nice fat candles that burns for hours. Heck, if we haven’t forgotten how, maybe we will do what they used to call “entertaining” and ask some friends over for a visit.

We have a good 14 weeks of such pleasures ahead, all of which will be ushered in by these bulbs and snowmen and reindeer that I was so surprised to see in the days just after Halloween.

I am more ready to see them now, though, and for sure I am seeing more of them every day on my route to the grocer’s. It was just that it hurt to think of November’s muted beauty going uncelebrated.

November feels to me like that quiet guest at a social gathering who draws no attention to herself and so maintains a silent presence at the edge of things. I guess I just kept thinking: if I were that guest, wouldn’t I want somebody to come over with a smile and greet me too?

bare trees

Just WASH Your Damn Hands, OK?

pigpenWe move through the world surrounded by a cloud of invisible stuff. Think of the Charles Schultz character Pigpen who has been brought vividly to life in the newly released Peanuts, The Movie.

I saw this movie a few days ago, and then went out for lunch to a restaurant in whose Ladies Room there hangs a sign identical to tens of thousands of such signs hanging in the rest rooms of the nation’s eateries and grocery stores.

“Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work,” it reads.

Now when I was a kid and the sign first started appearing, I at first thought “OK, so the management is saying ‘Yes, the people who work for us have to wash their hands after using the toilet but the rest of you? No worries about washing up! You just mosey on go back to your table and chow down!’” It was years before I understood that a person is totally nuts if he doesn’t wash his hands before leaving the bathroom.

Because it’s not just about how clean the facilities are or are not: it’s about how germy we ourselves are, with our same system of pipes as any animal – to say nothing of our habit of touching the dirty surface of the world and then bringing our hands up to brush our lips or touch our noses.

This new movie depiction of Pigpen with a moving particle-filled cloud of dust billowing about his feet looks queasily lifelike and makes you wonder: What exactly constitutes this cloud?

The answer is, the same stuff we’re all surrounded by:

  • Bits of lint and fiber from our clothing and bed linens.
  • Pet dander, if there are pets in our house.
  • People dander, in the form of dead skin cells, some large enough to come in flakes. (Yuck, I know.)

I once read a great book called The Year 1000 from which I learned that most people back then inhabited a two-tiered structure housing both man and beast, the animals sleeping on beds of straw on the earthen floor while above them, because the heat generated from their bodies would rise, the humans slept, on straw beds of their own.

This worked for them, in part because they had developed resistance to much of the ambient bacteria. It doesn’t work so well for us in the developed world, as it seems, we have been exposed to so many antibiotics that the germs consider it a fun game to keep morphing into ever more creative strains that we neither we nor the latest generation of antibiotics have power over.

It’s this new susceptibility that had me asking myself why, in the name of all that is holy, so many restrooms bearing the sign about mandatory hand-washing provide only cold water from both taps.

wash hands signs more like it

And the soap dispenser is so often empty. And the roll of paper towels has fallen from its now-broken holder and is teetering on whatever random surface will support it. It makes me want to write each establishment an impassioned letter, then try to get it printed in the paper.

I know that over the next 48 hours all my thoughts will be thoughts of praise and Thanksgiving, I imagine but today: Well, sometimes you just have to express your feelings, the way little Charlie Brown does.


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Table Manner Don’ts (In Living Color)

messy dining comoanionI’m sitting in a neighborhood restaurant, reading a book by Sarah Kortum called The Hatless Man, an Anthology of Odd and Forgotten Manners, a compilation of various guides to good behavior from over the centuries.

As I read along, a party of four noisily fills the booth in front of me, in the persons of one exhausted-looking mom and her three young children, all dressed in their best.

By the sound of it, they have just come from some sort of presentation at which they had to sit far too still for far too long.

They’re making up for that now.

I look back down at my book – to read both Florence Howe Hall‘s turn of the century remark that it is wrong “to put the spoon or fork so far into the mouth that bystanders are doubtful of its return to the light,” and George Washington’s frank advice, “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Parts of the Body not usually Discovered.”

And just as I’m thinking, “Who in the world needs to be told this?” I look up and see these children, one of who is even now doing exactly what the father of our country advised us all against.

It’s eerie. I watch them. I look back at my book – and one by one see these taboos enacted by all three kids: by this girl of six, her tights bagging and twisting at her skinny ankles; by her little brother who looks about five, and wears his little his suit jacket askew, in a rakish, off-the-shoulder way; and by the smallest child, tangled Alice-in-Wonderland curls scraped back in a headband and one wet finger hooked like an umbrella-handle deep in the corner of her mouth.

  • “Never turn your spoon over and look at yourself in the bowl: it is the action of clown.” And lo, this very thing happens before my eyes.
  • “Don’t make a wall around your plate with your left arm, as if you feared somebody were going to snatch it from you. And don’t I see this done, when the French Fries come.
  • “In refusing to be helped to any particular thing, never give as a reason that you are afraid of it.” This happens too, when the boy screams at the sight of his mother’s shrimp cocktail.
  • Do not “take up a whole piece of bread and leave the dentist’s model of a bite in it,” advises the book. And here is now is the boy child, who has decided to stand up to eat his bread, which he chooses to eat with mouth wide open.
  • “Nothing is less alluring than a smile flavored with parsley,” I read on. And yet here is such a smile, garnished too with a slippery finger.
  • “It is a breach of etiquette to assume a lazy lounging attitude in company.“ Now one child stretches out full length on the banquette, where, within moments, the bread course complete, the smallest child on his head.
  • “Cast not thy bones under the table,” one sage warns in the old book and surely something has been cast under the table, as Alice now slithers off her brother and dives down after it – bringing us to the rueful observation “A vacant chair at a dinner party is a melancholy spectacle.”

But I for one am feeling far from melancholy now, for I begin to see who the rules of etiquette are for: the child in us all at the great feast of life, who, tired and restless and cranky, would like nothing better than to slip beneath the table from time to time ourselves, as the below image from suggests. 😉

elegant dining conversations

For the Soldiers

afghanistanA strange thing will happen to you if you ever visit Gettysburg, where the largest battle of the Civil War was fought. When you ascend the eminence known as Cemetery Ridge, an eerie silence will envelop you and maybe a little wind will lift you hair as you stand looking out over those Pennsylvania hills. You will study the glass-encased photograph of the very spot where you are standing, taken within days of this ruinous encounter. 

“Look at these stone walls” you will likely marvel, “the very ones against which so many fell dead! And these trees with their branchings just so, the very same trees, alive and green and growing still!” But you will whisper, saying this. And you will feel astonished.

Because you thought you had prepared yourself for this visit, through the reading of many books and the viewing of the four-hour long film Gettysburg, shot here in great exception to the strict rule that preserves this place as holy ground. Yet in truth nothing could have prepared you for what you will feel in this place, where for three fierce days, more than 51,000 men were killed or lost or wounded, and the earth went spongy with their blood.

It’s so human: When we’re not in pain we don’t wish to even acknowledge pain’s existence. When we don’t feel threatened with immediate danger we try to forget that living is dangerous.

I went to Gettysburg last spring and in the weeks following watched that heartbreaking film for a second, then a third time, and sent away for four books and DVDs, all edited by William Styple of Belle Grove Press in New Jersey. The two DVDs show ancient footage of the battle’s very participants, in 1913 when they met as thin-boned old men, Yank and Reb, and shook hands across those same stone walls. 

The books, called Writing and Fighting from the Army of Northern VirginiaA Collection of Confederate Soldier Correspondence present letters penned by soldiers on both sides, just days or even hours after the war’s many battles.

So starting late yesterday, in order to understand the past, I watched and I read: “I am so tired and broken down” wrote one weary soldier. “We fought all day yesterday and marched all night,” wrote another. “I am still your own dear C.,” wrote a third, in what proved to be the last letter his wife would ever get from him. 

Then, in order to understand the present, I went to another site, where our men and women in uniform can post words of appreciation to all the volunteers stateside who get addresses from Operation Paperback and send along all the gently-used soft-cover books they can lay their hands on.

I’ll copy here the letter one young man wrote when he got back from his recent tour of duty:

“I am a soldier who is currently deployed here in the desert. I had some time on my hands and there was a whole shipment of books sent by your organization, and I read and enjoyed one of them. It helped take my mind off things and was solid tangible proof that there were people who had us in their thoughts. Thank you very much for your support of the troops.” (Signed) “John, one of the guys sent to the desert.”

All of our soldiers had friends and families, of course, and lives every bit as filled as our own lives are with that poignant mix of the suddenly dramatic and the blessedly routine.

Today I am thinking of those three men from the 1860s; and I will think too of young John, trying to find some sense of peace and equanimity as, in the desert, he sat quietly reading his book.

Learn more important details about Operation Paperback by going to 

GO to Your Reunion!

reunion get out of your caveI always tell myself “Go to the reunions!” but then this strange reticence overtakes me. Maybe it’s common to us all, the worrying that no one will talk to us but the classic what-do-I-wear dilemma weighs, I think more heavily on the females.

Take my case.  I’m pretty sure I’m no longer in danger of going in a tangle of long Country-Western-style curls and a fringed leather miniskirt, but what if I end up walking into a room full of evening gowns, only to look down and find myself dressed like Pinocchio? Because, you know, this has happened.

But then I remember what my 11-year-old said to me back in the late 90s when I was I fretting about what wear to wear to a certain wedding. “It’s fine,” he said not unkindly. ”Nobody’s going to be looking at you, Mum.” True enough! 

And so it was that on a recent Saturday night I started getting ready. I climbed into this caramel pantsuit I had bought in the spring of 2012 only to realize I looked like the last cruller in the bin. A mist of cold sweat bloomed down my back. 

Then I spotted the black dress I had just for $69 in a catalog. I threw it on and headed for the car with my husband.

That’s when the great realization finally came on me: This wasn’t my reunion! This was HIS reunion! I wouldn’t have to do a single thing but smile and listen as people spoke to him.

I figured he would have an easy time too, because as the Class President and Football Captain, he’s be remembered.

He was remembered him. But if people remembered him, they also remembered one another, after the quick peer-down at the nametag for the rapid calculation that aligned this older face with the face they had known at 18.

All night, people literally called out to one another in joy.

“THIS guy!” a burly ex-football player said to me, his arm tight around David’s neck. “THIS guy went in head-first every single time!”

“You know what it was like being in class with Dave here?” another guy said to me ten minutes later. “He’d walk in to class seconds before the bell and find the rest of us frantically studying. ‘Is there a test today?’ he’d go. He hadn’t prepared! Then, what do you think? I’d get a 95 on the darn thing and HE’D get a 98!”

In general, the expert remembers like these two carried the evening aloft, bringing people’s thoughts vividly back to the past. 

It took the woman who spearheaded this whole reunion effort to carry their thoughts back to the present, by arranging class gift of backpacks and bus passes for those current students at the school who could really use them.

People danced plenty, though not as much as they had done at earlier reunions. They drank plenty too, but again not as much which one could plainly see when the swarms huddled at the bar slowly morphed into clusters gathered around the coffee and tea.

Anyway, I myself had a super time at this reunion that wasn’t my reunion, and by evening’s end I saw how silly it is for any of us to ever worry about who will come talk to us, when it is entirely in our power, as members of the great old Class of 2015, to go up to anyone at all and get the conversation started our own selves.

it wont be the same