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All of me

img_2799Like most of you, I’ve been finding ways to amuse myself during our COVID-19 quarantine. The picture attached to this post shows you one thing that’s been occupying my time. This puzzle is a compilation of covers from the first 56 Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured these books as a kid and am surprised at how many of the plot lines apparently have been nesting in some obscure corner of my brain for the last several decades.

This paragraph is a complete tangent, so if you want to stay with the main theme of this post, just skip on. No offense taken. But as much as I loved Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective is still Judy Bolton. The Judy series ran roughly contemporaneously with ND, although it differed from its more successful sister in several ways. One difference that I always appreciated was that Judy, unlike Nancy, was not a perfect person. She had a temper, acted impetuously, and bickered with her older brother. She also grew older and changed. We meet her in high school in the first book, The Vanishing Shadow. By the time the series ended, Judy had graduated from high school, worked as a secretary, gotten married, and started to take on issues such as the plight of many Native Americans (The Spirit of Fog Island) and anti-Muslim violence (The Search for the Glowing Hand). We had to go see the Dragon’s Mouth at Yellowstone since Judy had traveled there in one of her books. 🙂

Back to the Nancy covers now! I’m loving the puzzle. Putting each piece in place is satisfying. That’s because the picture is only complete when all of the pieces are there. It takes all of them to make the picture perfect. I’m reminded of the old song, “All of Me.” You may already be familiar with it, but this song is worth another listen. I know it mostly from the Willie Nelson version, but the Billie Holiday rendition grabs me like no other. The song may be on the old side – it was written in 1931 – but its wise message endures. Give completely. If you’re in a relationship, give yourself fully to another person. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, commit yourself. When you read or listen or admire, focus.  “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not take all of me?”

Given that perspective, I’m taking this song as my anthem for our COVID-19 experience. I’m all in on lockdown. There’s no cheating to run out and look at the sunset, even if the police are nowhere in sight. There’s no quick run over to a neighbor’s place for a chat, even if the neighbor is in my building and the visit would be undetectable. We all have to do this to protect ourselves and everyone around us. As with my puzzle, if one piece is missing, if one person cheats – the picture is imperfect. And with COVID-19, imperfection could be disastrous.

We will get through this time and look back on it, perhaps, with a weird fondness. Most of us have never experienced anything that binds us so much, that shows us how we truly are all in this together. Remember that “All of Me” became a hit during the Depression. This was another time when we saw how interconnected we are and rose to the occasion to weather it. We can do this. It just takes all of me. It just takes all of us.

 

 

 

 

Zest

img_2802When I was a kid, I watched wwaayy too much television. Most children like to play outside, but Southeast Texas’s humidity and mosquitoes discouraged that desire in me. So I read, played dolls, and watched TV. I may in fact have been the only kid whose main concern the day before kindergarten started was that I would miss my soap operas, “The Edge of Night” and “The Secret Storm,” while Mrs. Tompkins was teaching us colors, numbers, and how to stand in a straight line to walk to the playground. Happily, my mother volunteered to keep me up to date, so it all turned out okay.

Of course I’ve forgotten most of what I saw, which is probably good. But the power of Madison Avenue is evident in what I do recall, because my memories are mostly of commercials. The award for the most obnoxious ad goes to one for Bold. In it, an unsuspecting housewife was on trial in front of a male judge. She was charged with “improper laundry,” which “wasn’t clean and white, when you could be washing bright” with Bold detergent. This makes me cringe even now.

There were happier commercials, though, and one of them was for Zest soap. Do stores still sell this brand? The ad I remember came with a snappy little jingle: “Zest has changed! Zest is zestier! Now feel cleaner than you’ve ever felt before!” Now, I never actually used Zest. My mother claimed I had sensitive skin and therefore only could tolerate Camay. (Having sensitive skin and naturally curly hair were my two most feminine accomplishments as a child.) But skin notwithstanding, I begged for the mysterious wonder soap. Its name was the key. What a great word is Zest! It means enthusiasm and vigor and love for life. Who wouldn’t want to bathe in that? I wanted to be zesty.

Imagine, therefore, my surprise when, as an adult, I learned that flecks of citrus peel were also called zest. Still loving the word, although no longer craving the soap, I even bought a zester for my kitchen. It’s a tiny grater on which I’ve skinned many a finger trying to generate enough zest for a recipe. (Before you ask, I do take care not to bleed on the food.) My zester currently resides in Texas, so in Spain, I cheat and use the food processor. And we have such gorgeous citrus here that I’ve become, well, obzest. The pictured muffins were made with lemon zest, and I put orange zest in my cereal most mornings. We have a lot of celery left over from a batch of soup, so I’m making a celery pasta sauce that’s topped with orange zest. Waste not, want not, right?

Yet there’s another kind of zest that I need right now, that we all need right now. Being hunkered down, even in the best of circumstances, can bring on a bit of melancholy. That’s why we need zest, enthusiasm, love of life. Mark and I are trying to invest time in activities that we love and which bring us joy. Our plans for hearing an opera at La Scala are scuttled for the time being, but the Met is streaming past performances that are really amazing. We spent an evening with MacBeth and his lady the other night, and the production was fantastic. It brought us joy. I’ve baked muffins and bread and made vegetable and creamy celery soups. This makes me happy. And since there’s no one currently living in the other two apartments on our level of our building, we’ve taken over the elevator lobby as a dance floor. Mark hooks up the speaker to his iPod, and we swing dance and two-step on the terrazzo while light filters in through the frosted glass window. This makes us both really happy. It puts zest into our days.

So maybe today will bring you television, or muffins, or a swing dance. Who knows? Whatever the day holds, I certainly wish you safety, but I also wish you joy. May there be much zest in your life.

 

 

 

I’ve got a little list

Mark and I are fortunate to share a lot of interests, one of which is opera. We have seen lots of opera and operetta performances over the years. But among those that stand out in my memory is The Mikado, which we saw at Houston Grand Opera many years ago. The fact that we were seeing Gilbert and Sullivan’s clever composition would have been great in and of itself, but we had the added pleasure of watching Eric Idle of Monte Python fame play the role of Koko and sing his version of “I’ve Got a Little List.”

A little G&S background may be useful here. Koko, who was scheduled to be executed for flirting, finds himself instead to be appointed as Lord High Executioner. He’s ordered to execute someone – pretty much anyone – by the end of the month or face dire consequences. Lacking an obvious candidate besides himself, Koko sings a famous and much-parodied number with a list of people he would consider executing. The original list includes people who interrupt quiet conversations, play the banjo, or laugh in an irritating way. Tradition allows Kokos to substitute more contemporary concerns for the ones the original Koko articulated. So, in due time, tabloid editors, subprime lenders, elderly aunts who insist on being kissed, and Bill O’Reilly’s dermatologist have made the list.

I honestly don’t remember what was on Idle’s list the night we saw him perform, but the song has stuck with me. That’s probably because I’m a list person. My mother instilled that in me; she always had lots of lists going. The grocery list, for example, lived for as long as I can recall on top of a half-wall between the kitchen and breakfast nook in our house. My favorite of her lists was the one of Thanksgiving preparations I found when my sister and I were cleaning out my parents’ house after they’d both died. Item 1 was “Shampoo Kathy.” I guess she was more interested in making lists than updating them. Fair enough!

My most recent list springs from my need to find some control and order in the unstructured, uncharted territory of COVID-19. Many of my Facebook friends are noticing how different life feels without the routines of school, job, church, volunteer work, meetings, and the like. I feel it, too. And So here’s my response, i.e., my daily list:

1. Do a devotional reading

2. Exercise for 30 minutes

3. Do something creative (The pot you see below is full of improvised bean soup – that’s today!)

4. Have social media time (But not too much)

5. Write an encouraging Facebook post (This is today’s)

6. Practice Spanish on Rosetta Stone

7. Make donations (Check out animalrescuesite and freerice)

8. Pray, meditate, or do both

9. Listen to music or sing

10. Read, play games, put together jigsaw puzzles, or do some combination of these

11. Organize tomorrow

12. Be grateful

Some days I complete my list; some days I don’t. It’s not there to beat me up. It’s also not exclusive. For example, the apartment mulishly refuses to clean itself, and every time we eat a meal some gremlin puts dirty dishes in the sink. But my little list is a starter, something of a touchstone in an unusual time. So here’s the question: what’s on your list?

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A hell of a thing

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Before you ask, no, this isn’t where we are. We’re back in Spain, tucked up and locked down in our cozy apartment. But this is my favorite picture from our recent stay in the USA; I took it in New Hampshire in February. We had a big snowstorm while we were there and spent a few days nestled in another cozy apartment, reading and watching movies and being all hygge. So at least we’ve had some practice for what’s going on now!

Much of our time in New Hampshire was occupied with attending candidate rallies in anticipation of the early primary in that state. Trust me, there was no social distancing going on there! But it was fun to be packed cheek by jowl with other folks out to see the candidates. Amy Klobuchar was our favorite, and it will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. After New Hampshire, we flew to Texas and our beloved home in the Hill Country. We had a great visit. There’s nothing like seeing family and friends, eating barbecue and Tex-Mex, and shopping for used books at Half Price.

All of those normal activities now seem like they happened to someone else. The world is experiencing a pandemic that is killing many people and sickening many more. This experience has brought to mind something our daughter Jane used to say when something happened that was important but hard to describe: “That was a thing that was a hell of a thing.” This pandemic is a hell of a thing.

COVID -19 has changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, for all of us. We’re now in a country where time outside is limited to trips to get food or medical care and to work. Oh, and people with dogs may walk them briefly outside. (Is some enterprising soul renting out dogs?) After we flew in yesterday, I made a quick run to our nearest grocery store for essentials. Happily, the store was fully stocked. The one difference in the store’s operation was that customers are not allowed in the produce aisle. Instead, you tell a store employee stationed in the aisle what you want, and they get your items and hand them to you. Everyone was kind and patient.

But today we’re in our apartment, listening to the sound of the waves crash on shore. No chatter from the restaurants and bars below interrupts the hypnotic rhythm of the sea. That part is actually quite soothing. I’m doing laundry and unpacking. Mark and his friend Rick just finished a videoconference in which they rewrote the lyrics of “I’m a Believer” to deal with COVID-19 issues. We’re lucky to be here.

Why are we in Spain instead of the USA? It certainly was a lot of trouble finding flights here; we had several cancel on us and ended up in cramped coach seats instead of our typical, more spacious Economy Plus ones. We also had a seven-hour layover in Toronto and shelled out for a sojourn in one of the airport lounges. We saw people everywhere with face masks and plastic gloves on, and restaurants and bars were mostly closed in the airports. It was a tiring trip, although for the most part people were kind and patient. Let’s put it this way: I was so jet-lagged by the time we got home that I failed to finish my glass of wine last night before heading to bed for 12 hours.

So why did we choose to return to Spain? It’s because of, not in spite of, COVID-19. Health insurance in the USA is so expensive that we don’t maintain an ongoing policy and instead buy travelers’ health coverage for our stays there. But our policy for this trip was expiring on March 22, and re-upping coverage was not an option. Our Spanish policy covers us up to about $30,000 in the USA if we get sick or injured there, but that amount will buy you about half an emergency room visit.  We figured that if you need to ride out a pandemic somewhere, you might as well do it in a country with one of the best health care systems in the world and complete health insurance. And while Spain is reporting many cases of the virus, it’s also taking strong steps, such as the ones described above, to flatten the curve. So here we are, and here we’ll be, at least for a while. And isn’t this a thing that is a hell of a thing?

Grab bag

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After Christmas, I got to thinking about all of the wrapping paper I’d used over the years. We give a fair number of gifts, so our contribution to the world’s paper waste stream has no doubt been a large one. Of course we recycle what we can, but it occurred to me that using gift bags would be better. Unfortunately, conventional gift bags are made of paper, too, and really can only be reputably reused a couple of times. I therefore decided that making cloth bags for at least most of the presents would be a project for me in 2020. I don’t have or even know how to operate a sewing machine, but this little cutie above is the first of my hand-sewn efforts. I’m rather proud of myself!

Truth be known, I really like opening bags, boxes, and the like to see what’s inside them. I love looking through attics and garage sales and jumble tables to see what’s there, assuming no objectionable creatures make an appearance while I’m searching. Finding a bit of this and a couple of thats can be fun and, often, useful. It’s amazing what can be handy.

I’m finding the process of learning Spanish to be similar. My Spanish definitely has seams that are not quite straight and an amateurish top, but, like my bag, it’s remarkably functional. I can shop, read most signs, ask for rudimentary directions, and find the bathroom the vast majority of the time. Of course, it helps that many people here in Torrevieja speak at least some English. Both the Spaniards and folks from other parts of Europe generally have enough English to do about what I can do in Spanish, if not far more. It’s a point of pride to have several languages.

To work on our language skills, Mark and I do Rosetta Stone lessons online and practice Spanish in two language groups. One meets on Tuesday and is fairly basic, but the people are great, and I always learn something and have lots of fun with friends in the process. Our Thursday group is a bit more serious. It has a theme of the week, sent out over What’s App by our leader, Mara. Each participant (except for one lady from Wales who never says a word, but she seems very nice) prepares a small response to the theme in Spanish and English. For example, one week we talked about a risk we would take. (Mine was going inside the Great Pyramid at Giza, in case you’re interested. I don’t like dark, enclosed places, but this would be worth the inevitable bad dreams that would follow.) Several of the people in these groups know multiple languages. Inevitably, little conversations in Spanish, English, French, Italian, and German pop up, and those are just the languages I can identify. People are rightly proud of being polyglots and want to learn more.

Which brings me to something that happened on Facebook a while ago. I’m still thinking about it. There was a discussion on a friend’s page about speaking English in public in the USA. A friend of my friend- not someone I know – argued that it was justifiable to demand that people speak only English in the USA, because “If you were in Italy they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Italian, and if you were in Spain they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Spanish.” I normally don’t argue with strangers on Facebook, but I just had to respond. I said that this had not been my experience while traveling in Italy and most certainly was not my experience spending lots of time in Spain. He never replied to my comment, so I have no idea whether it had any impact at all.

All of this makes me wonder why such a big, diverse population as the American people would include so many folks who espouse the English-only stance I saw on Facebook. Is it actually a big deal if you can’t eavesdrop on the two women in front of you in line at the grocery store? Kidding aside, are we really that insular? Do we dislike education that much? And do we honestly think that the world shares our opinions on this subject? People generally are proud of what they know. Why aren’t we proud that people in our country know lots of cool things, including languages other than English? It beats me.

I’ll close this post on the grab bag of language with a fun factoid about a dead Mediterranean language. No, it’s not Latin; it’s Sabir, a Mediterranean lingua franca used from the 11th century up into the 19th century. It was apparently originally a commercial language used by merchants and sailors who needed a common tongue to do their jobs effectively. Later it was used in diplomacy and even shows up in a play by Moliére. Sabir borrowed from Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, Genoese, Venetian, Catalan, Occitan, Berber, Turkish, and Arabic to create a tongue that was understood and used throughout the Sea’s many cultures. Apparently you can take free online lessons in Sabir on Memrise.com, but we’ve mostly lost this useful tool. That’s a pity and a cautionary tale. How grateful I am for the many beautiful languages around the globe!

 

 

Dear Meghan and Harry

So you’ve decided to become a two-continent family! Welcome to the club, friends. And since Mark and I have been doing this drill for a year and change now, let me share some tips with you about living in Europe and North America.

First, be ready to enjoy what the local culture has to offer. You’ve chosen Canada as your home in the New World, and it’s a lovely country. You will need to learn to love the local cuisine, though, which for us has meant delicious tapas and paella. As for you – well, I hope you like poutine. And Tim Horton’s has very good doughnuts. You’ll also need to get up to speed on local sports, so you might start learning the rules of hockey, to the extent there are any. We have come to enjoy fútbol, although the rules still make no sense to me. There are yellow flags and red cards, and players get called offsides when the referee is annoyed. That’s about what I’ve learned thus far.

Second, you’ll have to learn the local language. Theoretically, Canada and England both speak English, although I’ve got to admit that with some Brits I really don’t understand much of what they say. I wish people came with subtitles. My tip is just to smile and nod and hope that the other person is not telling you about their cancer diagnosis. If they look worried, dispense with the smiling and instead murmur noncommittally. You can get a lot of mileage out of “Huh” or “Oh, my” in these situations. If you head to Quebec, you’ll need to learn some French; Harry, you have ancestors from Normandy, so this might come naturally to you. And of course for all of Canada, as far as I can tell, it’s important to be able to throw in the occasional “Eh?” at the end of a sentence. If you want to practice outside of the country until you get the hang of it, go to Maine. They say that there, too.

Third, and finally, don’t worry too much about shipping lots of stuff. Credit cards work all over the world. If you have something you really love, like a favorite bathrobe or paring knife, just get one for each continent. It’s way easier than trying to remember where you left it. And if you end up with three identical vegetable streamers and four pairs of tweezers in one country and zero in the other, don’t worry. Just make a little pile of things to cart across the Atlantic next time you go. Surely it enlivens the otherwise dull day of an airport security worker to speculate on why you have a vegetable steamer packed in with your ermine robe or Order of the Garter. And remember, when friends come to visit, they can bring you things. Lovely folks have brought us multivitamins and a good solid American vegetable brush. It’s the little things that count.

So enjoy your new life, and let us know if you need further counsel on the bi-continental thing. Oh, and one last reminder – in Canada, they’re diapers, and not nappies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

assorted color intermodal containers
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

The bucket list

img_2427-1As part of my work to improve my Spanish, I use the Freerice  app each day. This app quizzes me on Spanish vocabulary words; for each correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme. Those grains are literally a drop in the bucket, but they are something. Everybody wins.

The big problem with Freerice is that I can’t control the vocabulary on which it quizzes me. Words that haven’t proved to be terribly useful to me yet pop up regularly. For example, Freerice almost always asks me about the words for needle and thread, aguja and hilo, even though my sewing is pretty much limited to reattaching buttons. Likewise, I often encounter the word for basement, sótano, even though we don’t have basements in Torrevieja, because we are next to the sea. But my favorite unuseful word is cubo, or bucket. I get this word almost every day, which is a great deal more often than I use a bucket, much less have a discussion about one. This part of the Freerice enterprise reminds me of the scenes in “Love  Actually” where Colin Firth learns Portuguese in order to propose to the woman he’s fallen for. He mutters his new lingo in class and out of it, apparently hoping to cobble together a romance with some helpful phrases about that being his blue pencil and how he’d like to purchase a fish.

In fairness, having the word bucket on my Freerice list has gotten me thinking about my own bucket list. In my very charmed life, I’ve had the opportunity to check off lots of items that most people, including me, have on their lists. I’ve stood on the Great Wall, floated under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola, and walked the terraces at Machu Picchu. I’ve craned my neck up at redwoods, snorkeled among turtles, and peered (from a safe distance) at flowing lava. I’ve visited many of the great cities and seen the world from a hot air balloon and a parasail. How lucky am I? Lots of people who are kinder, smarter, and harder working than I am have not had these opportunities.

And that’s just the things that lots of people want. Of course, each person has items that might not appeal to everyone, and that’s true for me, too.  Living abroad, for example, was on my list and Mark’s, but it’s not for everybody. Riding bikes through Central Park and poking through bookshops on Charing Cross Lane  were fun for Mark, but those were more for me than for him. And spending time in a museum in Berlin gazing at part of Priam’s Treasure from Troy (see picture above) was definitely a me thing. I got interested in Heinrich Schliemann’s haul when I was a kid and read Elizabeth Peters’s madly fun novel, “Trojan Gold.” We know now that the Russians have some of the booty that they took from the Germans at the end of WWII (and boy, are the Germans still angry about that!), but Ms. Peters’s account of a search in the mountains of Germany for Priam’s gold conducted by one of my favorite fictional couples, intrepid American historian Vicky Bliss and charming thief John Smythe, is an absolute delight.

Back to the list. Many items remain. Some of them are in process: we are scheduled to travel to Jordan and Israel this Spring, and we’ve booked an apartment for 10 days in June in Florence. We are hoping to go to an opera at La Scala. Other items will have to wait their turn: Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, Egypt, and Greece are ahead of us, God willing. There’s more on my list, but you get the idea.

But there’s another aspect of buckets yet to ponder. A couple of years ago when a friend and I were participating in the Reading Buddies program in a school in Austin, the girl I read with introduced me to yet another wonderful book. Carol McCloud’s adorable “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” shows us how being kind and friendly can make others feel better and, in turn, make the world a better place. In other words, we try and fill other people’s buckets with good feelings. It’s a simple idea, but the book treats it with great care and good humor. And when I’m living my life the way I should, whether at home or out of a lark, filling other people’s buckets should, in fact, be the top item on any list I have.

So here’s to Freerice and cubos and Trojan gold and little kids and everything that fills our buckets. I hope yours overflows with joy and love today and that this post added a tiny drop to the deluge.