Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Those three little words...

As if things weren't already wonderful enough, in the arms of a man on the dance floor, moving with eyes closed to some throbby Aaron Neville song... and then my partner said the three words it turns out I've been longing to hear. "The New Yorker," he said. "I read The New Yorker."

Blogs I Read

See that little box down on the right that says "Blogs I read"? There's just one on my daily reading list: Time Goes By. It's Ronni Bennett's blog, and discovering it was worth getting into the blogging business. Take a look.

And in addition to her basic site, she has a Storytelling link which features today a story by me! I'm thrilled and honored to be published in a place I like so much. My story is titled, "In the Mood to Be Beautiful."

Hey all you storytellers, go visit Ronni and Time Goes By, and send her your own stories.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Before she moved to Seattle, Mary was a columnist for The Port Townsend Leader. This was published there in early 2008.

Being single is somewhat like being pregnant -- though less obvious, I hope -- in that everybody has advice for you. And believe me, I’m all ears. They told me eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day ensures good luck, so I ate three helpings.

But I’m not just trusting to luck. While Robin cut my hair recently, for example, she mentioned feng shui principles that had made a difference to her success. She suggested I evaluate my own feng shui, then offered to make a home visit.

Feng shui, as you may know, is sort of like decorating for life change. Chinese restaurants don’t have tropical fish tanks just because they like the look; aquariums enhance prosperity. There are principles to enhance relationships as well. The prognosis for me, sadly, was not good. “Why is there only one chair on your porch?” Robin said. “Does that look friendly?”

Pairs, she says, I need pairs: of candles. Of paintings -- “but why is there just that one piece of fruit in the still life?” Of plants -- “but not with pointy leaves, Mary! You need jade, with its round, luscious, succulent, soft-green leaves. I’ll give you cuttings.”

Worst of all, my “relationship corners” -- and there’s one in every room -- are not only furnished wrong, they’re structurally wrong. The ceilings slope downward. Sure, I can mitigate this by hanging crystals and mirrors and bamboo doodahs, but do you honestly see me doing this?

I did, however, fix my porch. Two chairs now, and a table between them with last year’s amaryllis on it, with its pairs of strappy (rounded) leaves. My hopes are high, but still, it does seem a little nippy for the porch....

I’m doing anecdotal relationship research too. At a party the other day, I met face-to-face a man now married to his princess. He met her via his newspaper personals ad, which is not so unusual except that she was not only not looking for a man, she doesn’t read newspapers. The only reason she happened to have one was that she’d won a complementary ten-week subscription. (And people wonder if there is a God!)

At the very same party, I met a woman, there with her sweetie, who told me she’d picked him out the first time she saw him, across the room at a political event with a date on his arm. A few weeks later, somebody set her up with a blind date, who turned out to be -- him! Oh, and the couple giving the party where I heard these great stories? Met on match.com. And got married.

I was reassured by these real-life situations because, though I usually believe fiction to be at least as true as non-fiction, I just finished a novel almost too encouraging to believe. I’m not talking about a trashy bodice-ripper either. It’s a novel called Consequences, written by Penelope Lively, for heaven’s sake, who won a Booker Prize. I have three yellow sticky-notes in the middle of it marking the good parts -- and I mean love, not sex. Three generations of women who find The One.

Molly, for example, meets Sam Priest (hmm, what do you suppose that name is meant to imply?) First they’re both tongue-tied, these middle-aged accomplished people. They just stand and stare. Later (but soon), “talk comes rushing.... In retrospect, the exchange would seem more like one of people who had lost sight of each other and needed to catch up than that of those who had never met before.”

I’m trying to stay open, but honestly that’s exactly what I have in mind. And, you see, it happens. Soon, it could happen to me. Because I ate the peas, and my feng shui, though imperfect, is certainly improved, and now all I have to do first, Ann says, is write an extremely specific description of who I’m looking for, and then, according to Beryl, stop looking, because it always happens when you’ve given up. When you’ve practically forgotten all about that ad Robert says I ought to put on Craigslist.

The Things that Lure Us

I think it was C.S. Lewis who defined an intellectual as a person who reads a book more than once. Usually I can’t slow down enough -- I’m sixty, for heaven’s sake, and there are so many books.

But I read Tim Winton’s Breath: A Novel
last week, then sort of speed-read it again. This morning I finished Scott Spencer’s Willing: A Novel (P.S.), then went back to figure out what he was trying to do, and how.

Surprisingly, since both novels involve weird sex, John Gardner’s assertion keeps echoing in my mind: that, to be a writer worth reading, you must, yourself, be a person of character.

In Breath, narrator Bruce Pike, 50 or so, is an EMT. He is called to a home where a teenage boy has just accidentally killed himself. This event initiates memories and reflection about the years when he and his buddy, both young teens, fell under the spell of an older, elite surfer in Western Australia, who mentors and pushes them. It’s a novel about thrill-seeking and fear and figuring out what it is to be a whole person.

Pike muses,

Most people don’t like being afraid. You can hardly blame them. Thriving on risk is perverse -- unless you’re in business. Entrepreneurs are valiant but BASE jumpers are reckless fools. Solo sailors are a waste of rescue resources and snowboarders who leap from helicopters are suicidal showponies. War correspondents, as we all know, are creeps. Some risks, it would seem, are beyond respecting. Meanwhile nearly everyone is terrified that this, whatever life has become, is it. And what’s worse, it’ll be over soon.

And this, about surfing:

How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared....We talked about skill and courage and luck -- we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death -- but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.

I guess what seems related to me in Breath and in Willing is the question of the essential nature of man, the product of something instinctual plus, perhaps, something eternal. A soul? Certainly something that makes choices beyond the physical.

Ever since I read Endless Love decades ago, I get excited when I see Scott Spencer has a new novel. With his National Book Award finalist Ship Made of Paper, and now with Willing, Spencer seems like a voice not only for meaning, but actually for rather old-fashioned values.

In Ship, adultery ends up looking mostly sad. Willing revolves around an international sex tour. Men wealthy and successful enough to have $135,000 apiece to spend on a 10-day tour believe they ought to be able to realize a fantasy of having the attractive, willing women they “deserve.” But it all turns out to be tawdry and pathetic and dangerous -- and very funny.

Reading these novels, Winton’s and Spencer’s, also brought to mind a newsletter written last November by my brother-in-law Bart Campolo, who lives and works urban ministry in Cincinnati (http://thewalnuthillsfellowship.org). I had the idea that the people he works with want to escape their scary conditions.

But Bart wrote:

Inner-city street life now is like crack cocaine was back in the 80s: So potent that almost anyone who tastes it becomes an instant addict....

To paraphrase the title of Chris Hedge’s book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning about the narcotic nature of war, street life is a force that gives them meaning....their gun battles and fistfights, their ceaseless movement from house to house, their ready money and easy sex, and their constant vigilance against the police and the other gangs, create for them a sense of immediacy and camaraderie that no classroom, sports program, or regular job can match.

The forces that give life meaning. We need a Winton or a Spencer or a Hedges -- who, after all, is no longer a war correspondent -- to present a larger, deeper truth. Based on what Bart has experienced, we need it desperately, and soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who Am I, Again?

A week ago, I had a sort of match.com meltdown. Just too much of my energy going to men and dating. (Not that I was necessarily dating so much, but I was certainly thinking on it a lot.) I had eaten -- Dutch -- an over-priced, Westernized Indian buffet lunch with another nice-enough guy I never wanted to see again. I was disheartened.

I walked home from lunch a new, circuitous way, through neighborhoods of old cottages and big Queen Annes with spring flowers coming on, the crocuses and daffs. I was off kilter. I needed some time alone with that Mary Davies.

So, when I got home, I read my new Atlantic until it was time to go tutor at the elementary school. I walked down to my library afterward, then to the food co-op for chard to go with dinner: spaghetti and meatballs from scratch.

While I ate, I listened to the podcast of Washington State Poet Laureate Sam Green’s recent reading at the Seattle Public Library. (http://www.spl.org/Audio/GreenStafford2009.mp3) I attended it two weeks ago; I cried through half of it there, the best kind of tears, because you’re in the presence of something beautiful and true. I cried through the podcast as well.

Then I made a hot fudge sundae with salty toasted pecans and ate it while I watched Zefferelli’s Hamlet, with Mel Gibson. Then -- it was already 10:30 -- I picked up Mike Tidwell’s Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities. (Is this really wise just before bedtime? I pushed away the thought.) I’d recently read Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, the Louisiana book in which he predicted what we now know as Katrina, so I had a lot of background. I speed-read my way to the end of Ravaging Tide, well after midnight.

I went to bed determined to get busy on combatting global warming. How could I have written so breezily here about turning on my heat? Shouldn’t I be picketing the bottled water aisles at my new local stores? When did I last hear the phrase “global warming” from the lips of my new president?

What about a slogan: “Global Warming: What are you not doing today?” (Yes, I see the double entendre, and I mean it, both.)

So. Walking. Service. Food. Poetry. Theater. Politics. And then writing, writing this.

Deep breath. I'm back.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dear AIG: I Quit


Did you see this piece in the New York Times this morning? An AIG VP, Jake de Santis, is resigning, because he feels unsupported by Liddy, his boss, who had promised to retain and reward his valued employees who had nothing to do with the AIG misconduct and in fact, are essential to resurrecting AIG so the taxpayer money will not all have been spent in vain.

They've closed the comments there, so I'm adding mine here.

Outrage: What a waste of time. It blinds you. As I read the "outraged" letters of people who can feel no sympathy for the poor AIG employee with his enormous bonus, I'm thinking of the billions around the world who live on less than a dollar a day, a dollar that has been eroded by the economic downturn. I'm thinking of the kinds of comments they might write to the reaction to Jake de Santis' resignation letter.

Because we're all so much richer than anybody else in the world! I thank God I'm not homeless, but even the homeless in America live way better than billions. Say de Santis didn't pay enough attention to what the bad guys in his company were doing; are we paying enough attention to how the policies of this country are resulting in starvation around the world?

People wrote back to de Santis: 'Oh boohoo; I could live for 15 years on your $700,000 bonus!' So say that's a $50,000/year salary. Just keep in mind that billions could say to us, I could live on $50,000 for 137 years!

Just a little perspective, to keep the outrage under control...

And, thank God, the Obama administration is trying to change things, focusing on a foreign policy where the needs of hungry people are put ahead of US strategic goals.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Urban Biker Dater Woman

“I’m an urban biker, I’m an urban biker, I’m an urban biker, and I’m still alive!” I’m singing this, to the tune of “Ring Around A Rosie.” You should have seen me out there today, claiming my lane, finding my place in a long line of traffic, nodding casually at passing bikers, just like I belong here. True, I got completely lost trying to exit Discovery Park where my cue sheet said I should. And honestly, cycling with a cue sheet clutched in your fist is not that easy anyway; I need one of those handlebar holder things.

But as I was stopped and stymied outside the park somewhere, along came a young cyclist who turned out to be named Chris, who gave me some helpful instructions which I honestly believe I could have followed. But then he said, “Wait, I can go home your way; follow me.” Already in Seattle I’ve learned that even without a biking buddy, you don’t bike alone. Cyclists are everywhere, and they’re friendly and willing to help.

So far, the rides I do start at the bottom of my hill, so the most difficult thing I do on a ride is get back home: my final half-mile is seriously up. The first time I biked up Fremont Hill, last week, I was barely doing 5 mph; now I take it at a reckless 7! Stand back, Fremont!

That first time, I was on an Urban Biker Date. I can’t think there was anything even vaguely attractive about me -- well, okay, if you like butts, you couldn’t miss mine in the biker tights -- with my balaclava pulled over my head so I looked like a snake; my old round glasses because, folded over in biker pose, I look right over the skinny modern ones; no mascara because, why bother? But my date didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed like he could hardly believe he’d met somebody who actually wanted to bike 30 miles on a rainy, cold morning. I myself could hardly believe I’d met somebody who wanted to talk about religion and economics while we biked along.

Three “dates:” coffee with 90 minutes of comfortable conversation. Seattle Art Museum. Bike to Alki Bakery for coffee and pastry. Coming up: A Sunday afternoon choral/orchestral concert at Seattle Pacific. Honestly, if somebody had asked for a list of my dream dates, those would be it.

But what about dates with dancers, you ask? Well, I like to dance with a lot of different people. I’m not sure I really like a date for a dance. Scrabble? So far, there’s so much to talk about, I keep forgetting to ask about Scrabble. And doesn’t that say quite a bit?

A lot of people will tell you dating is hell. And I may find that it’s true, but at this stage, doing fun things with nice people in my exciting new town? What’s not to love?

Single-Mindedly Biking Port Townsend

Before she moved to Seattle, Mary was a columnist for The Port Townsend Leader. This was published there in spring, 2008.

Last fall when I was in the entry tent buying my ticket for the Wooden Boat Festival, the man selling it to me said, “You’re that woman who writes for The Leader, who wants a boyfriend so bad!” I was a little taken aback, but he seemed nice, excited, in fact, he behaved as if he was meeting a celebrity. So I said, “Well, I don’t consider that the chief topic of my column, actually, but since you mention it, are you single?” He quickly introduced his wife, who was waiting to take the ticket he was selling me. Then he said, “There’s a guy I work with at Fleet Marine though. He’s single. You ever go in there?”

You folks don’t believe finding a man is all I think of, do you? I’m too busy for that. For one thing, I’m spending most of my time on my bike. It’s the gorgeous Royal blue Bianchi road bike flying between Uptown Port Townsend and Quilcene. You won’t recognize my face, of course, scrunched under a helmet, headband covering me to the eyebrows. The bike looks great though, and one of many things I’m learning about bike culture is that it’s the bike by which we bikers recognize each other.

That was me though in Chimacum, at On Common Ground, thawing my face after a ride through the sleet. Or the next week, barefoot, with my wrung-out socks drying (if only!) on the back of my chair, while I devoured a warming cup of chicken stew. This spring has not been kind to bikers, but weather is by no means the worst of my bike issues.

Getting comfortable on my new bike has been oddly harrowing. After all, the reason I got it is because I so loved riding my old hybrid Trek. I could hang a rack on the back of that baby, and bungee on my old jacket when it got too warm. I could hang panniers on the rack, to hold a novel, a lock, chapstick, a cellphone, and my Tupperware sandwich container.

But the whole point of a fancy road bike like my new Bianchi is to ride light and fast. You don’t want a bunch of stuff hanging on it. So I spent $18 (!) on a thing called a Bento Box which holds ... half a sandwich. Another teensy bag, comparably priced, attaches under my bike seat and contains my spare tube and changing tools, plus xeroxed copies of my driver’s license and medical insurance card, reminders all of my vulnerability on the road. I have a prepaid account at On Common Ground so I won’t have to carry money. I tried carrying it in my sock, which explains the $5 bill somebody must have found on the Larry Scott Trail just before Christmas.

Now I’m grappling with the underpants issue: Must I be bound -- or more accurately, “be unbound” -- by the biker standard that nothing must come between a biker’s butt and her shorts? It turns out that nothing broadcasts “novice biker” like a panty line. Unless maybe it’s when your posh bike glides to a halt, but you’ve failed to detach your feet from the pedals they’re clipped to, and bike and rider fall slowly and inexorably to the ground, sideways.

But that’s all incidental to this: I’m training to ride 450 hot hilly miles in a week in mid-September. So who has time for dating? I did ride along a little way recently with a biker man. But as I said later to my friend Jane, what are you supposed to say? “Hey, nice riding with you. You single?”

No, Jane says. Say, “Your wife bike with you?” I won’t be doing that, but in a blinding flash of optimism I did picture a day when a man will bike up alongside me and say, “Your husband bike?”

Not that this is in any way all I think of....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Will Somebody Please Pick Up that Phone?

Before she moved to Seattle, Mary was a columnist for The Port Townsend Leader. This was published there in early 2007.

I know I’ve written before about how much I enjoy my Monday cleaning days. And how Port Townsend weather doesn’t get me down: I handle it. But honestly, I’m not having the best Monday today, as I write. It’s rainy and cold and I’m lonely. And the phone never rings.

I do my things. I dance around to the zydeco on the stereo while I Brillo the burners. I take a lovely tea break. When my house is clean, I go out for a walk. I return with pretended nonchalance: Oh, I almost forgot to check and see if I have phone messages. But no.

I get the snippers from the drawer and go back out. I cut holly for my big pitcher to go with the white lilies. I come back in to arrange my bouquet. Oh, I almost forgot to check and see if someone might have phoned while I was outside. Nope.

Now that I live alone, I hate to tell you how excited I can get when the phone rings. I usually run to the stereo and turn the music down, phone in hand, before I click the answer button, getting all ready to chat. But lately it’s unsolicited calls, mostly. I used to collect clever ways to respond to those telephone sales people. For example, you interrupt and say, “Sorry I can’t talk right now, but if you’ll give me your home phone number, I could call you back. What time do you eat dinner?”

Or you can respond in a foreign language (except Hindi, of course). “Pardonnez-moi, mais parlez-vous francais?” And then we can continue the conversation in my pathetic French, or the caller will give up.

I don’t do this really. I’m too nice. I always thank God I don’t have to be an unsolicited phone caller, for one thing. So it really burns me when they hang up on my actual pleasant responses.

I’m thinking today, if they’d only try me, I’d probably want to keep them on the line instead of figuring out how to get them off. “No thanks, no new credit cards for me, but would you like to chat for a bit? Where are you calling from, anyway? How on earth have you come to such a pass that you’re doing work like this? How many people are mean when you call, and how many are nice? Do they train you not to take it personally?”

I quite enjoyed my time recently with the telephone interviewer for the Washington State health survey. They warned me it would take fifteen to twenty minutes: hey, no problem. But then they started asking the sex questions. What bugs me is not that they ask these prying questions, but why not start out with a question that narrows down the categories? Instead of asking me endless questions about who I’ve had sex with -- needle users, Africans, same-sex folks, whatever -- why don’t they just say, Have you had sex recently enough that you could remember anything at all helpful about it if we asked you further questions? Then you could say no and move on.

My sister Marty, with a husband and two teenagers, used to say she wouldn’t mind having a phone machine except she was afraid people would leave messages on it, and she’d have to respond. She just wanted to screen calls.

I, on the other hand, have had some exciting moments with my phone machine. At this very moment, I have a phone message from writer Wendell Berry! And if that doesn’t excite you, how about this? A message from zydeco star Brian Jack! Once upon a time when I was “seeing” someone, I actually preferred to be out when he called, because then I could keep his messages and play them over and over. Ultimately I erased him, and even Brian is long gone. But it gives me a good feeling to know that if no one else calls today, I can always give Wendell a few reruns.

Note: I really did have a message from Wendell Berry, responding to an invitation to speak at a local forum on Faith and Environment. Makes me wish for the old days, when there were tapes on phone machines, and you could keep your message collection.

Say Anything

I think I’ve been blogging for two whole weeks now! I can still remember way back when I was considering the question, “Should I allow comments, or will I be simply overwhelmed with them and feeling obligated to respond to each one?” Well, as you see, I’m not overwhelmed.

My commenters are shy, I guess. Some email me personally to describe their own adventures with butternut squash, say, or this from another friend, responding to my post on The Illusion of Purpose:

I was inspired to comment on your blog but even though I subscribed to posts and comments (choosing Google) it wouldn't let me post a comment.  Here is what I wanted to post:

I think about "purpose" frequently in my work as a Life Coach and have also thought about this idea of filling up our lives with activities that substitute for true purpose. I loved this blog and after reading it I keep thinking about Martin Seligman's Three Roads to Happiness: Pleasure, Flow (or Engagement) and Meaning. I think Meaning is what you might mean by purpose - he defines it as using your highest strengths in service to something larger than yourself. But the other two roads also generate happiness and life satisfaction (although pleasure brings the least of the three) and I do tend to think a healthy balanced life includes all three in abundance!

Well, after receiving such a helpful post, I immediately got into my blog backroom and enabled every kind of posting I could, and I think it’s working, but it’s hard to tell from you shy readers. Dashing to my computer to see if anybody commented is reminding me of Port Townsend days when I dashed, equally fruitlessly, to my answering machine to see who called. So I’m going to post this, and then I’m going to post what I wrote about that. And then you’re going to comment, if I'm lucky.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cozy Food for Seattle’s Chilly Spring: Butternut Squash Ziti and Molasses Crinkles

The plums are beginning to flower, the crocuses are at their peak, and the daphne is beginning to fade. Nevertheless, we woke up to snow again Sunday morning. Refrigerated as it is, this Seattle spring seems likely to last forever. Fortunately, I’m still enjoying the cozy meals of winter.

Last fall, I, a single woman, bought thirty-five pounds of organic butternut squash when the harvest was new and the price was low. I have two left. I’ve finally remembered to get the most out of my oven by roasting them at the same time I bake my daily bread, an hour-long process at 450 degrees. I simply peel and halve them and scoop out the “guts,” lightly salt them and give them a quick spray with Pam.

In addition to just eating the baked squash as it is, I’ve been making a simple pasta dish: Butternut Squash Ziti. I boil up a batch of ziti or some other substantial tube pasta. When it’s almost done, I drain most of the water off, leaving a half inch or so in the pot. I add an amount of roughly chopped roasted squash equal to the pasta, a generous teaspoon of dried oregano, and a handful of the grated Cabot’s sharp cheddar cheese I keep in a bag in my freezer. Stir well, add a little milk if you want more sauce, and eat.

When I still lived in Port Townsend and had lots of fresh sage in my garden, I skipped the oregano and instead, sauteed sage leaves in butter until they shattered when hit with a fork. I slid them out of my saute pan and onto the top of my pasta. Whether you’re using sage or oregano, top your pasta with a handful of chopped roasted pecans. (I do mine in the microwave: two minutes on a paper towel.)

If chocolate is an irresistible indulgence for unhappy people, it may explain why I seem to be off it lately: I’m too happy, here in my new Seattle life. Since I got here, I’ve eaten a batch of oatmeal cookies and a coconut cake. Last week I got a hankering for molasses cookies, and pulled this recipe from my recipe card file, in my mom’s handwriting: “Molasses Crinkles, from the kitchen of Aunt Marilyn.” As written here, I’ve reduced the fat from 3/4 c shortening to 1/2 c soft butter. Next time I bake them, I plan to try reducing the sugar to 3/4 cup.

Aunt Marilyn’s Molasses Crinkles
Thoroughly combine 1/2 c soft butter, 1 c brown sugar, 1 egg, and 1/4 c molasses. Separately stir together 2 1/4 cups white flour, 2 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cloves, and 1 tsp each cinnamon and ginger. Stir the two mixtures together, and chill the dough.

Roll dough into balls the size of large walnuts. Dip tops in sugar. Place, sugared side up, 3 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Dribble a bit of water on each cookie from your fingertips (this produces the crinkles). Bake at 375 degrees just until set, but not hard, ten to twelve minutes. Makes about 4 dozen. These get better as they age (like me and my friends!). They’re chewy and bendable, perfect for packing up and mailing away to deserving friends and family.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Cost of Living

February is cold in Seattle. This year, we’re still having snow and freezing temperatures, even now in the middle of March. But I didn’t turn the heat on in my apartment from February 2, when I moved in, until this week.

Back in Port Townsend, I had reduced my daytime thermostat level to 64 degrees, from my accustomed 68. (Having spent some freezing vacations in English homes and inns, I told friends I was ‘going British.’) Then when I got to Seattle, I discovered that my second-floor apartment must borrow heat from its upper and lower neighbors. Sixty-four degrees was average with the heat off. Or 62. I’d wear two long-sleeved cotton tees with a fleece zipped up to the chin. And a scarf. Sometimes a second fleece. Occasionally I pick up my four-pound weights and do some curls to get my blood running.

I thought all this asceticism probably had to do with taking my share of responsibility for global warming. But then last week, I finally found renters for the PT apartment I left behind, and the temperature in my Seattle place dropped below 60, and -- I turned the heat on. Just for an hour, but I turned it on.

I wasn’t feeling worried about money, at least not consciously. True, when I ran out of my vin ordinaire, I bought a box of wine instead of a case of bottles. And I had started a financial record-keeping project. I always have enough, and some left over, so I don’t really budget, but I wanted at least a better notion of what it was costing me to live.

I remember as a kid trying out an idea I’d read, to note every single thing you bought, no matter how small, for a period of a week or a month. Payday candy bar: $.25. Marbles: $.25. Tithe: $.10. I wrote it all in a little notebook ($.25).

Now I’m tracking, for two weeks so far, groceries -- $100, and entertainment -- $53, and transportation: $20 for a tank of gas, $21 for a book of bus tickets. I spent $32 to buy books at a (free) poetry reading, and $50 on Age Repair Serum, which I eke out over a year or two.

So what’s going on with me? Already my fixed annual income, which looked so large just a few years ago, looks more modest. The economy is uncertain, and I want to know how little I can get along on, just in case. That’s the way my conscious mind is looking at it.

But apparently, getting my Port Townsend apartment rented was a big deal for my unconscious, which is on a spree. True, the heat is off again in Seattle, but I paid somebody $10 yesterday to change a bike tube, something I can do perfectly well myself, but hate doing. It was worth every penny.

Thoughts for the Thrifty on Spending Big,

Mary was a regular columnist for the Port Townsend Leader before she moved to Seattle. She published this column in November, 2007.

I’m going to spend a bundle on something I don’t technically need, and it’s got me thinking about thrift. I thought about it this morning as I cut aspirins in two to fill my weekly vitamin dispenser. I believe you only need about 167 mg a day for heart health. Unfortunately, the cheap stuff comes in the 325 mg size. But you know this; you cut yours too, don’t you?

I thought about thrift as I added the socks with toe holes to the pile for making potholders. And as I cut up my neighbors’ windfall apples for applesauce: 14 quarts!

I thought about things I might have bought, but didn’t. How I don’t belong to a gym. How I drive a 1996 Corolla that gets 35 miles to the gallon. How I’m not going to Seattle to see a play I love, since the seats are $29. The cheap seats! The good ones are $79. Maybe I can rent it on DVD, and make popcorn at home.

Thrift and I, we have a history. In Paris in the early ‘80s with my ex, we stayed at a cheap hotel out at blue-collar Place de Clichy. The guidebooks warn you about the hookers, but we just called it atmosphere. True, there was a soupcon of sewer gas in the air of our fifth-floor walk-up, but you could buy lilacs on every street corner, and we did. We hardly spent any time in the room anyway, too busy spending our savings on the transitory pleasures of food.

Which is the opposite of another sort of thrift, where you pay a lot for something that will last. The people who buy Mercedes will tell you they’re thinking “price per use.” Similarly, I invested, in my executive days, in a vanilla raw silk blazer at Saks Fifth Avenue. It dressed up everything I pulled it on over, and by the time I wore it threadbare, it amortized out to about a nickel a wearing. The ads for sheets and posh mattresses that say, “you spend a third of your life in bed”? Think of it as cost per hour.

But advertising generally has nothing to do with thrift, especially the “you deserve” pitch. You deserve: a break today. Wamsutta luxury. In America, just about anything you want. Of course the folks who really deserve something are not us. We who own cars are among the richest 2 percent in the world; the others are the deserving ones.

So I don’t deserve it, but I’m planning to get myself a new bike. My local bike shop has been keeping me on the road on my hybrid, replacing a derailleur and putting on the skinniest tires possible. But the real riders are on road bikes. I got to ride a 30-mile loop last week with some serious local biker women. When I asked Jane if she thought my bike was slowing me down, she said, kindly, “I can tell you’re strong, or you couldn’t have kept up with us as well as you did.”

My friend Amy years ago bought what her children refer to as her “$10,000 binoculars.” Of course they weren’t that pricey, but they are good ones, and she says they’re worth every penny, because of the hours of pleasure they give her. I love biking like she loves birds. I told Mom last year in Michigan, “If I die on my bike today, know I died happy. When I throw my leg over that saddle, I feel like I’m ten years old, and I’m strong, and nobody cares if I’m pretty. I want to go and go.” And I want to ride with the big kids.

My mom thinks I’ll be glad I invested in a good bike. Amy agrees, and so does my biker brother-in-law Bart.

So whose is that snotty little voice inside that I’m writing this for?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tutors Wanted

“Volunteer Tutors Wanted.” I saw the blue poster on the bulletin board at Markettime, my corner grocery store. “Working with kids” was high on my Seattle To Do list. And they wanted tutors at BF Day, the public elementary school just down the street.

Somebody always wants to modernize schools, but BF Day is the school that lives in our hearts: three stories high, brick, tall multi-pane windows, broad staircases, heavy doors. I couldn’t wait to get in there.

Tutoring is after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with 40 minutes for homework, 20 for reading, then 15 to play a game. The first day, I got Nipesh. His homework was to write a sentence using each of about twenty words from his spellling list. He wrote correct, boring sentences. It wasn’t until I got home that I thought, We could have built a story together on that list. Maybe next time.

But on Thursday, I got Lincoln, a third-grader. “No homework,” he said, and suggested I write him some multiplication problems. He wanted them horizontal: 10 x 15 = __. Which is all very well when you’re doing “tens,” but what happens when you get to, say, 15 x 15? Lincoln nailed it: 225. So I tried 14 x 16. “225,” he said, like, “Duh.”

“No,” I said. “224,” he snapped back at me confidently. 13 x 17? I asked. “One more less,” said Lincoln, bored.

“You mean 223?” I said. “Let’s check it,” which was when I needed to set up my figures one atop another and multiply up and across and then add, a procedure apparently new to him. Or don’t they do it that way anymore?

But what an interesting idea, that where different pairs of figures, if added, would make an identical product, there must be a consistent relationship when you multiply them. (Is there one, and nobody told me? I didn’t learn that, if you add the two digits in the results in the nine tables, you always get “nine,” until my youngest sister was coaching her own son.)

Our homework time is up for the day, and he needs a better tutor! Later, I call the school and get some multiplication information; resources will be waiting for me when next I come. And yes, they’ll put Lincoln with me.

On Tuesday, he’s accidentally sent his homework ahead of himself on the bus -- don’t ask -- so we go to his classroom for a dupe, where his teacher says she wants him to write. Back in the hallway at our desk, I say, “Perfect: I’m a writer.” He’s interested. What have I writtten? I tell him my theme is real life and I plan to write today about how I finally turned the heat on for the first time in my new place; he decides to write about a power outage. I ask about his process for getting started. We check the clock, set a deadline, then begin.

He finishes first, and I say, “Did you read it over?” He looks at me blankly, and I explain that he’ll want to make sure it makes sense, that he likes his lead, that the spelling and punctuation are good. He looks it over, makes no changes.

He wants me to read mine first. I say, “Oh, I almost forgot. We need to say what kind of feedback we’d like.” We can ask for specific things: Does it make sense? Is it funny? Does the lead make us want to hear the rest? Does the end feel like the end?

I read, and he seems to like it; no real objections. He reads, and I say I like his idea; I want to know more. “You were in bed when it went out?” I say.

“So how did you know?”
“My nightlight went out,” he says. “And my clock started flashing.”
“Put that in, Lincoln! I love those details!”

He’s glad to talk about it, but not to write more, and our time is nearly up. Time now to read for fifteen minutes. I tell him what I wrote in my Tutor Log last time: “Lincoln missed several words on each page, but he uses good strategy to figure out the words; I’ll bet he’d read it much more smoothly on a second time through.” Let’s see if I’m right, I say now.

A couple of times I have to slow him down, but he does well. Near the end, I say, “Lincoln, you’re brilliant!”

“I don’t want to be brilliant,” he says.
“Why not?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t want to.”
“You know what?” I say. “That’s a wonderful lead for your writing next time. And let me warn you, once you decide on an idea, a lead, your mind will be working on it even when you don’t know you’re thinking about it. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

And then we went back downstairs to the gathering room, and he beat me at Checkers again.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bus Stop Pickup

When the sun came out last week after a morning of rain, I walked over to Wallingford to pick up a couple of Shakespeare plays at the library for my next OLLI course. I’m not used to my library open hours yet, so I got there ten minutes early, and there was a guy standing on the corner, as I was about to do. I smiled; he smiled. I said, “Oh, are you another library loiterer?” At which point my eyes shifted upward, and I noticed the bus stop sign above his head. Duh. We chatted a bit until he said, “That’s my bus coming. Would you like to have a beer sometime?” I gave him my email address. (Who needs Match.com?!)

He did email me, and we had a witty sort of correspondence going. A week later, we met for coffee one morning. It only took a few moments to realize this wasn’t going to be anything. Why not? He didn't say anything "wrong." Just different from me. For example, one of the first things he mentioned was flipping off a driver who came too near him as a pedestrian; whereas I’ve always wished we had nice hand signals, to say ‘sorry’ or ‘my bad’ or ‘slow it down, sweetheart, willya?’

Then as I looked around the neighborhood cafe/bar where we met, I wondered aloud what the Happy Hour signs meant about Wednesdays being “bird night.” Drinks with bird names? (What would those be?) Thus we discovered we like to drink differently, me trying to keep to the single glass of wine with a meal, he liking more. He went on to tell me about dreams he'd had but never pursued; he's working these days at a new job he doesn't like.

Not much, really, but as I walked home, I was thinking, What are the words to say, “No, I don’t want to see you again.” I didn’t need that perfect phrasing -- apparently the disinterest was mutual -- but I imagine I will someday. I don’t yet know what the nice words are, but I’m feeling my power, as they say, about trusting myself on decisions like this. I don't want to be judgmental and too picky and never giving anybody the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes you just know.

Don't you?

Figuring Out What You Want

Mary published this column in The Port Townsend Leader in June, 2006, but it's oh-so-relevant today.

“Read the personals,” my friend said the day The Port Townsend Leader came out. “There’s your man.” The ad was easy to find. There were only two, and the other one was addressed to “Bali gal.”

When for whatever reason -- graduation, divorce, retirement -- you’re moving on to a new stage of life, it’s nice to have even one foundational point of complete clarity about who you are and who you are not. For me, it’s this: I am not a “Bali gal.” Fly for hours -- and worse, make your way to and from Sea-Tac -- to enjoy forsaken beaches, when you can instead hike on over to Glass Beach here at home? Not me.

No, my friend meant this ad: “50 year old women, I have landed. The answer to your dreams.”

Okay, it’s a little strong, but I like a man with confidence. Then, “A real man,” he says. Hmm. I should be thinking “Gandhi,” but instead, cowboys come to mind: too many Marlboro billboards in my past.

“Will treat you like the lady you are.” “Lady”? I love it, honestly, when a man opens a door for me, puts a gentle hand on my back, and steers me in. But is that what Real Man is thinking? Because there are indications he might be hoping for someone who wears pantyhose. For example, where you list the things you like to do -- and I like his list -- he prefaces it with “lady who knows how to dress for.” What’s that about? Doesn’t he get that this is Port Townsend?

On the other hand, what are you supposed to say? I signed up for Match.com for three months early this year, after The Atlantic (naturally) did a cover story on e-love. What a production. First I had to think who I knew with a digital camera. Then I had to ask her over, mid-day, while I put on makeup and hair goop, and dressed up in my dancing clothes, and then my favorite jeans, and practiced facial expressions in the mirror, my precious mind occupied with questions like, “Will taking a photo in the kitchen convey the right or wrong idea? And will viewers be able to read the cover of the book I’m holding? Then would Brothers Karamazov be better, or Blink?”

Later, I grasped right away that my website photos would need to be turned right side up, which took quite a while to correct. (“Will guys think I’m charmingly non-high-tech if I leave them upside down? Will they want to help me?”)

Then friends and family, to whom I had proudly forwarded the photos, said I needed new eyeglasses -- “too dated.” That was time-consuming, and expensive. And still there was the matter of the text.

I want people to believe I’m easy-going. I do love to laugh, and in some ways I’m pretty flexible, but the truth is, I get awfully annoyed by inefficiency. Also, because of my new dancing life, I’ve learned that some men are easier to get a grip on than others. And I want a man who’s smart. So what am I going to say? “Secretly judgmental woman with intellectual pretensions seeks 5’9” dancing man”?

Of course not. It’s not exactly a seller’s market, Port Townsend. So I went with vague and boring. “Easy-going. Likes to laugh, hike, bike, dance, read. Long-time subscriber to The Atlantic.”

Real Man, by contrast, is out there. I am so into this part: “Street smart. Book Smart. Two degrees, UW. Financially Secure. Honest.”

But he also says he’s 6’6.” I know a few tall guys; none of them is asking me out. And if I haven’t met him, I’ll notice him when I do. So I don’t have to answer that ad. Anyway, given the male-female ratio in Port Townsend, he was probably already taken by the the time I picked up the paper at noon.

Nevertheless, on behalf of the “50 year old women” and the “Bali gals,” I want to say, thank you for figuring out who you are and what you want. Thank you for advertising. Do run another ad to let us all know how it turns out.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Illusion of Purpose

Several years ago when my now-ex and I were on our 18-month RV odyssey, I said to him one day, “You know what travel gives you? The illusion of purpose.” As travelers, our goals were to get somewhere, and to experience that place, and then to go somewhere else. And we met those goals, and felt it a job well done. But what was the why of it?

He was taken with the idea, and we decided to write the phrase on a card and stick it on the RV fridge. What else might provide the illusion of purpose, we wondered? We figured we’d end up with a list on that card. We didn’t add a thing.

Today I want to add “moving house,” but actually, how different is it from RV life, where the rig is your house and you’re moving it all the time? In any case, I have felt mighty purposeful lately, with my long to-do lists, now satisfyingly complete. Moving is done. I’m here. I’m home. Sure, I have my Phinney Ridge game night moments of elation. And then I have my moments where I’m trying to talk myself into how badly I need a nap at ten o’clock in the morning. “Needing a nap.” Add that to the illusion-of-purpose list.

Why did I move? I’ve been asked that a million times. Twice at Seattle bus stops, by people in their thirties, I’ve heard, “I didn’t know people moved from Port Townsend. I thought they only moved to.” My short-hand answer has been, “I want a bigger life.” One of my ideas was to sign up for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, brief classes at UDub for folks over 50.

My first one, which started on my Day Nine, was “The Best of CS Lewis.” I’ve read a lot of Lewis, but not lately. What would the prof consider “the best”? What kind of students -- my new friends? -- would be attracted to the course? Some of them had no idea that Lewis was a Christian: I guess you could go to the films of his Narnia books and see Lewis as simply a spiritual guy. For me, Lewis has always made Christianity more appealing than the Bible does. This worries me. I don’t want to be part of a Lewis cult, and all I know of him assures me he wouldn’t want it either. But he always raises essential issues for me, just when I need them.

For example, here I am in Seattle, in search of my bigger life. In less than a month I’ve seen two plays, gone to three dances a week, finished an Osher course, taken a walk in the Arboretum’s Winter Garden to smell the witch hazel in bloom, and so on and so on. I’m busy. And yet. There’s still a sort of longing. Am I on the wrong track? Or, as Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity,
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world....I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I’m carrying that idea around with me.

Scientific -- but Simple! -- Secrets of Happiness

Mary was a regular columnist for the Port Townsend Leader before she moved to Seattle. She published this column in March 2008, after a daytrip to Seattle.

On a recent Elliott Bay Books ramble, I saw a book called, The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People -- What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It. What a premise, that you could be happy at this very moment, in fact, you would have been happy, if only certain secrets had not somehow evaded you.

And scientists! No matter how happy you are, wouldn’t you respond if someone in a lab coat, with a clipboard, walked up and said, “Wanna be fifty percent happier?” Few would say, “Thanks anyway, but if I were any happier I’d burst!” What we’d probably say is, “How much will it cost me?”

But this paperback with a smiley face on the cover, once $12.95, was only $3.99. Still, I have a small house, my bookshelves are already overflowing into teetering piles, and I didn’t want to have to lug one more thing back home in my already weighty tote bag. Besides, didn’t I know most of the stuff in the book already?

Ultimately, I bought it. According to the back cover, over half a million other people did too. In fact, books on happiness are proliferating, as my sister Marty pointed out to me, gloomily. I hadn’t talked to her for awhile; Mom told me Marty was in her usual February funk (“Usual?” Why didn’t I know that?) so I figured I’d phone her up and give her the easy happiness tips she could start on immediately.

“Hey, Mart,” said I, “you’re in luck. Mom says you’re blue, but I have a book on how to be happier.”
“So do I,” she said. “There are millions of them.”
“Oh. Which one do you have?”
“It’s called Stumbling on Happiness. Basically it says no matter how careful you are about making decisions, some of them will work out and some won’t.”
“Well,” I said, “my book is scientific.”
“So is this one,” she sighed. “Based on studies.”
“Mine is practical,” I said. “For example, Eat fruit. People who eat fruit are 11 percent happier.”
“Than what?” she said.

True, the math is tricky. For example, take the three secrets relating to television: “Turn off the TV.” “Don’t accept television’s picture of the world.” And “Keep reading.” If, as the author asserts, personal contentment goes down 5 percent per hour watched each day, and you reduce your viewing by three hours, and spend the time reading instead (“Regular readers are about 8 percent more likely to express daily satisfaction”), you should be 23 percent happier. But then how do you factor in that “TV can result in unrealistic and damaging conclusions reducing our daily satisfaction up to 50 percent”?

Obviously, you can’t put too much stock in the numbers. It can’t be easy for scientists to quantify happiness. After one hour of not watching TV, people volunteer that they’re 5 percent happier? Hard to picture, since back when I was married and my ex and I agreed to a six-months-on, six-months-off TV schedule, it took him at least a week to get happier. Initially, he was pretty darn grumpy about it.

Still, I picked up some helpful tips. “Use a strategy for happiness.” Stop doing the stuff that makes you unhappy, and do more of what makes you happy. And articulate your life goals; vague ideas aren’t enough. Unless your goals are clear, how will you know if they’re achievable, or if they conflict with each other, or if you’re making any progress? For example, if the only things on your goal list are “clean house” or “put in more hours at work,” you’ll feel guilty on the way home from the park after the picnic and the frisbie with the kids. Put the family on the list.

But that’s the advanced stuff. In the meantime, have an apple.

All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies