The Great Traveling Textile Swamp


It was born in 1965 and multiplied at an
alarming rate, displaying its fertility so
unapologetically my ultra-modest mother
always blushed ferociously whenever someone
raised the subject. Someone always did within a
minute, maybe two, of opening the door and
coming in. It isn’t easy to ignore a rapidly
expanding wardrobe as it creeps across the
floor, however stealthy it deceives itself it’s
being, for the rate at which it grew did not
allow it to remain within the stationary limits of
a closet and whatever room it had invaded.
Even the entire second story couldn’t long
contain the clothing-and-accessory collection’s
escalation, which outpaced the conversations
we engaged in with respect to where to house
it, how restrain it, whether to inflame it, whom
to blame, and what, in general, to do about it—
conversations that became, eventually, the
same; and in the end we always had to find a
bigger house and move immediately into it, a
temporary fix that kept a lid on things for ten or
twenty minutes, what with advertising in the
classifieds and on the Internet, and then of
course the shipping, which consisted of the
actual transporting of apparel no one
happened to be wearing—early on, at any rate,
before the desperation phase, when things got
ugly and you had to Super-Glue your shirts and
pants and stuff onto your epidermis. (Note:
Extremely Dangerous. Do Not Attempt.)

On a muggy late-September night the cousins
went around the bend; insanity set in, some
kind of mania, authorities would later say. The
dénouement began when Cousin Dougie
drugged me with a few carafes of cabernet,
and then, while I was sleeping, all the relatives—
admittedly at wits’ end, all of them, with family
visits having gotten virtually impossible and,
when they happened, separated by a decade
at the very least—this band of renegade
relations knocked me out and packed me up
and shipped me, in a state of catalepsis, to a
famous nudist island supervised by lunatics, a
crazy South Pacific paradise of sorts.

Until a cure is found for my obscure disorder
(Insubordinate Apparel Syndrome, known
informally as Wardrobe Fever), I’m allowed to
travel on a visa for a week each winter—
luggage limited to slippers, skivvies, and
pajamas, plus a parka, scarf, and toothbrush.
Here’s a list of gifts I get for Christmas: coffee
and a pair of socks. Although it doesn’t sound
like much, it isn’t—well, except the coffee.
I receive, however, vast amounts of happiness,
enough to last millennia, because, when all is
said and done, the truth is: All you need is love,
caffeine, and underpants (and in a pinch, mere
love will do).

Tiny diction lesson

The entire second story: In British English, story gains an E and becomes storey. The ground floor is called “the ground floor,” the next one up is “the first floor” or “the first storey,” and the next one up after that—which would be the third story in an American building—is “the second storey” in Britain. Got it?

Catalepsis: Catalepsy. A physical condition characterized by a loss of sensation, muscular rigidity, flxity of posture, and often by a loss of contact with surroundings. —


Consider Me Discriminating

tarantulaPictured above is Terence—not that we got friendly enough to exchange names; he just looked like a Terence. He sneaked up on me at about 10 p.m. as I was walking purposefully toward my truck after an evening with Eli and Tracy. The Arizona midsummer temperature hovered in the mid-nineties, making me a bit annoyed that I’d parked more than four hundred feet away. Since Eli and Tracy live in the middle of the desert, I had my Maglite switched on.

Suddenly my world, already quite dark, went darker. Terence’s bulk blocked out the moon and the stars—a total eclipse of everything. The Maglite flickered, but it put out enough light for me to see that Terence wasn’t One of Us.

“I don’t recognize that guy,” I remember thinking, “but I don’t think he’s paying rent here,” and I wondered if it were legal under open-housing statutes to discriminate on the basis of supernumerary appendages. I hoped so. Judge me if you will, but when it comes to near neighbors I draw the line at seven legs per resident with no more than three segments per leg.

The house was closer than the truck, but hotfooting it to the truck seemed the wiser choice—although it was more reflex than choice that got me behind the wheel in 2.43 seconds, give or take. I gulped in a few gallons of air, supplying my brain with enough oxygen for it to calculate that Terence could dispatch the truck as far as New Mexico with a single swipe of a forward leg. When I turned the key, the truck’s engine caught on the first attempt. I pushed the pedal to the floor and didn’t stop until I felt safe.

I passed the “Casa Grande City Limits” sign and thought I’d probably look for a job and buy a house there right after I got done being treated for heat exhaustion and acute arachnophobia. If I learned nothing else that night, I think at last I understood why anyone would ever want to live in Casa Grande.

A Tiny Diction Lesson

Purposefully and purposely are not synonymous.

Purposely means “on purpose,” “intentionally”: “She purposely tripped her classmate as he walked toward the chalkboard.”

Purposefully means “in a way that shows confidence or determination”: “Bashful as she was, she managed to stride purposefully across the stage.”


Pizza or Salad for Lunch?

wicked witch of the west

A while back, I listened to Michael Neill explaining “our personal guidance system” on his program, Supercoach: It’s the guidance system that tells us we want pizza for lunch today and we’ll want salad for lunch tomorrow.

Michael Neill often uses wonderful, improbable metaphors that completely nail the concept he’s illustrating. On another Supercoach radio program he addressed a caller’s fears about a career change. He asked us—the audience and the caller—to imagine a child drawing a fox and then starting to cry because the fox is hungry.

One way to calm the child, Michael pointed out, would be to suggest that she draw a couple of hens for the fox to eat. I actually prefer this solution to the alternative: Helping the child understand that the fox isn’t real… nor, by implication, did the caller’s job-related fears represent a genuine threat. The caller had essentially, Michael is saying, made up a story about the dangers of changing careers—dangers existing only in her thoughts—and had reacted with heart-stopping fear to the phalanx of imagined catastrophic outcomes.

This metaphor I understand, even though I favor the hens-as-supper scenario. But I could not possibly trust a personal guidance system that would lead me to pizza one day and salad the next. This PGS is supposed to be intuitive rather than logical. Michael Neill often reminds us that our inner wisdom is more reliable than our thinking. But no actual person in the actual world who intuitively selects pizza on Monday is going to intuitively opt for salad on Tuesday unless pizza has suddenly become unavailable in the western hemisphere.

If a woman—I’ll call her Maxine—who owns a scuba-diving shop goes out to lunch regularly, and equidistant from her shop are a pizza place and a salad bar, and she likes pizza, she’s never going to “prefer” salad. Maxine never says to herself, “Yeah, that pepperoni with its seductive sheen of animal fat on top of cheese bubbling in its own oils, throat-paralysis-inducing jalapeños, and the greasy onions that cause water buffalo to flee from my approach—that was magnificent; but today I’m in the mood for watercress.” Maxine chooses salad on Tuesday only because of guilt or logic, not intuition. Guilt says, “You pigged out on pepperoni yesterday, darling. You can redeem yourself only by choking down some locally grown dark-green leafy vegetables today, with a smattering of almonds and a soupcon of lemon juice.” Logic says much the same thing but without the snark.

What can we infer from this about our PGS? Does it operate on intuition or by logic? If we tune in to it, will it lead us to our bliss except for now and then to the obligatory kale and hummus?

My PGS leads me unfailingly to yogurt and granola; guilt garnishes it with a few fresh strawberries. I even make the yogurt and granola myself, but by the time I’m finished with them they contain roughly the same nutritional value as rocket fuel.

When I remove my batch of yogurt from the yogurt-maker, it’s pure as the driven snow and tastes terrible, like skim milk laced with vinegar. I empty the jars of pure yogurt into a mixing bowl and add a quarter of a cup of stevia; the yogurt is marginally tastier and still virtuous. Then the fun begins. One package of instant vanilla pudding mix plus a half-cup of Cool Whip later, most of the nutrients have been canceled out by sugar, dextrose (sugar), high-fructose corn syrup (really bad-for-you sugar), disodium phosphate (Na₂HPO₄), tetrasodium pyrophosphate (Na₄P₂O₇), mono– and diglycerides (E471), polysorbate 60 (polyoxyethylene [20] sorbitan monostearate), and titanium dioxide (CI 77891).

I don’t mind saying, the resultant “yogurt” product tastes great, but if you don’t like it, you can probably use it to unclog your drains or clean your oven.

About high-fructose corn syrup

In a Huffington Post article titled “Why You Should Never Eat High Fructose Corn Syrup,” author Mark Hyman claims that “purging it from your diet is the single best thing you can do for your health!”[1] Because the way HFCS is made “allows the fructose to mainline directly into your liver,” it turns out that “high fructose corn syrup is the real driver of the current epidemic of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, and of course, Type 2 diabetes.” Add in the “dangerous chemicals and contaminants” used in making HFCS, and you’ve got a real toxic stew in your system. Mark Hyman doesn’t come right out and say that ingesting high-fructose corn syrup is worse than smoking cigarettes, but I have a feeling that if you lit a cigarette right after a hearty meal of HFCS with a side dish of tetrasodium pyrophosphate, you’d burst into flames or simply melt in place, like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy doused her with water.

With my having this knowledge, you’d think my personal guidance system would steer me far, far away from the lethal “yogurt” concoction I cheerfully produce on a regular basis. Logically, if there’s “yogurt” in my refrigerator, my body should be in Zanzibar. Michael Neill underestimates the mind’s capacity for self-deception. After a week of such meals, if I’m troubled by guilt buildup, it doesn’t propel me to the salad bar. A sprig of parsley is usually enough to quell any regrets.

Either my PGS is on the fritz or Michael Neill—like the Wicked Witch of the West—is all wet.


Beets or Chocolate?

vintage motel

Paean to Dairy Queen

I am not a complicated person. I have spent my entire adult life missing my mom. My moral code is simple and easy to remember: Rescue cats and be kind to buspersons.

I am physically small and for that reason I avoid crowds. I gravitate toward small, tidy rooms, ideologies, and boon companions. For aesthetic and ethical reasons, I patronize small, independent establishments. When I travel, I seek out small, slightly shabby inns and retro mom-and-pop roadside motels (TV! Air Conditioning! Swimming pool!). If there’s a $5-per-night price difference between the Belle Vue Court and the Lonesome Cowpoke Motor Lodge,[1] I’ll choose whichever is closer to the Dairy Queen.

Once or twice a week, I walk four blocks to the Dairy Queen and order, if I am flush, a medium chocolate malt. What kind of philistine walks on Fourth Avenue in Tucson past the Epic Café? The kind of philistine who weeps for joy in the presence of cow’s milk combined with obscene amounts of chocolate and sugar. Can the Epic Café supply this joy for $2.45? At any price?

Will the wait staff at the Chichi Pub blink uncomplainingly when I ask for extra chocolate—enough to turn the beverage dark brown, such that it might almost be mistaken for high-test Hershey’s Syrup or discarded motor oil? Will the food preparers at Hipster Hangout comply when I describe the desired consistency of my malt, which is as follows: Liquid. I don’t want to have to use my straw as a spear.

At DQ, the personnel don’t argue, they don’t charge extra, and they don’t seek revenge by spitting into the Product. You know this is so because the personnel never leave your sight until the malt is in your hands, which is an ephemeral event, to say the least, since it’s never been verified that the malt and my hands make actual contact.

Mindful eating

In Mindfulness Training, students spend forty-five minutes contemplating, discussing, and eventually ingesting three raisins. I can be mindful about raisins, and about most of the immunity-enhancing vegetables. I’m so mindful about beets it takes at least forty-five minutes for the image of a beet to work its way through my nervous system to my mental viewing screen. It’s like watching an overloaded computer displaying graphics one pixel at a time.

However long it takes to wrap my mind around beetness, the outcome never changes: I run screaming from the room. I’m constitutionally incapable of sharing breathing space with any representative of the donkey-dung family, I don’t care if it cures cancer or if nuclear weapons bounce off its electromagnetic field, which only proves what I’ve long suspected: Even atomic particles possess good food sense. Why don’t we turn all the beets over to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense? I, for one, would sleep easier in my bed.

With the ice-cream family it’s an entirely different story. There’s no “mind” to be “ful.” The mind has left the building. The only occupants of the planet, during a genuine ice-cream encounter, are the milk-sugar-chocolate concoction and my digestive tract, which, in some kind of quantum arrangement, instantaneously unite without moving through time or space. It does no good for my mind to warn, once again, of the pain and suffering to come. My mind is seven blocks away, wandering among the Hohokam Irrigation System exhibits in the Arizona Historical Society Museum and counting the minutes until full consciousness might be safely attempted.

And DQ isn’t even ice cream. It’s semifrozen cow-stomach lining whipped into submission and rewarded with sugar for its compliance. The Artificial Flavors are derived from cave detritus and scavenged from packrat middens. DQ’s unique flavor secret is an additive scraped off of the petrified excrement of prehistoric bats.

According to the booklet DQ Nutrition Facts, however, Dairy Queen “soft serve” is “a delicious reduced fat ice cream” containing “Milkfat and Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Whey, Mono and Diglycerides, Artificial Flavor, Guar Gum, Polysorbate 80, Carrageenan and Vitamin A Palmitate.”

(“Polysorbate 80” is artificial-food-product–speak for “the stuff that rattlesnakes use to paralyze their prey.”)

In my book, Dairy Queen has earned a lifetime exemption from reproach for all but the most heinous practices. After my lifetime, I don’t care what they do. Currently, if DQ discriminates in hiring practices or does business with child-labor-exploiting, toxic-waste-spewing, malaria-proliferating third-world factories built entirely from carcinogenic materials—if these factories specify on purchase orders, “All substances used in the construction, maintenance, repair, and operation of this factory must ooze brain-eating mucus”—I would probably have to limit my DQ outings to two a month, so just don’t tell me.

No, all right, criminy already. I’d put DQ on my “do not ever go there” list, but I wouldn’t be very happy about it and I’d want to know if there was Communist involvement. See? This is why I prefer all things small and tidy. At the mom-and-pop diner, recipes and employment practices aren’t protected like nuclear secrets. You don’t have to be an investigative journalist or CIA operative or John Grisham to get the inside story of what’s really behind the unlikely success of Linda’s Lavender Emporium & Massage. You just ask Linda. You say, “Yo, Linda, what’s in this tea?” and if she says, “Peppermint, filtered water, and methamphetamine,” you can be sure all the ingredients are locally sourced and inspected hourly by Linda herself. If there are rodents on Linda’s premises, they’re bilingual local rodents who probably know where you live.

Linda, oddly enough, takes most of her meals at Dairy Queen. Is there a better recommendation than that?


[1]      The word motel appeared in 1925. Related terms are motor inn, motor court, motor lodge, tourist lodge, cottage court, auto camp, tourist home, tourist cabins, auto cabins, cabin camp, cabin court, and auto court. –Wikipedia, “Motel”

When to Get an Editor

vintage typewriter

Do you need an editor? A proofreader?

You tell me.

  • Do you spell sleight of hand correctly?
  • Do you properly use an en dash rather than a hyphen in phrases such as “pre–World War II”?
  • Do you know when to set off an explanatory phrase with commas (as in “Claude Monet, the celebrated French Impressionist, was born in 1840”) and when not to (as in “Celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet was born in 1840”)?
  • Do you know whether to insert quotation marks before or after semicolons?
  • Do you know what’s wrong with the sentence “I only had chicken for dinner”?
  • Do you know the difference between a podium and a lectern?
  • Are you aware that if you have two sisters and one of them is named Susie you can refer to her as your “sister Susie” and no comma is needed, but if you have only one sister she’s your “sister, Susie”?

Do you even care?

Hardly anybody does, but there are self-confessed nerds in this world who care far too much. They lurk like trolls under bridges, waiting for a misplaced modifier or a sentence fragment to clump along so they can leap out of the gloom and exclaim, “Gotcha!” They are a miserable lot because they can hardly listen to a commercial without cringing, what with spokespersons’ announcing a sale on “select merchandise only” and “a savings of 50 percent.”

These nerds are called “proofreaders,” and their focus is on spelling, punctuation, typographical errors, and other mechanical problems with a manuscript. A good editor can do all that and more. His or her higher calling is to improve the style, tone, flow, and vocabulary of the piece. Editors also look for “fake facts” and inconsistent diction. They assess whether the work is appropriate for its intended audience, and they edit accordingly.

Even editors need editors. Serious writers put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and when they finish them, they don’t like people messing with them. They become wedded to every word, and an editor’s intrusion feels like betrayal. I speak from experience. I get cross with my spellchecker when it suggests a change, even when it’s right and I’m wrong—which is rare, but it happens.

A lot of writing goes on in this world, and most of it probably does well enough. Who really cares, or even notices, if someone mistakenly uses a hyphen instead of an en dash? I’d venture to say that en dash and em dash aren’t in the general public’s vocabulary. And that’s fine. They’re tools of the proofreader’s and editor’s trade. In fact, some editor probably made them up so that she’d have a reason to say, “You need an editor!”

So who does need an editor? You do, if you’re writing something…

  • that’s going to be widely read
  • that represents your company or organization
  • that you hope to have published
  • that for whatever reason needs to be perfect.

Your memoir, your annual report, your article on packrat middens, your speech to the alumni association—these are endeavors worth paying an editor to correct and polish.

P.S. One thing an editor probably can’t help you with is pronunciation, so if you’re giving a speech, read it to someone else first. Taking that step would have saved my good friend Tom McDonald from a lot of embarrassment. It was his job to introduce an emeritus professor to a large gathering of faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Tom was a smart guy—top of his class—but he pronounced emeritus as if it rhymed with hepatitis. I had to be the one to tell him. I still blush when I think of it.

Online-Dating Tip #1: Wear Your Teeth


To certain men who hope to attract women via senior online-dating sites: What were you thinking when you chose not to put your teeth in before posing for your photograph? Did you honestly believe that by not smiling you could disguise the fact that your dentures are in a glass beside the bed? Don’t you realize that, without teeth to hold them in place, your lips curl inward around your gums, making you look like a scowling goldfish?

What’s wrong with the people who take your pictures? Why did they let you wear a wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants that don’t quite meet in the middle? And the unshaven look, so fetching on Josh Duhamel, makes an old guy look like he’s been sleeping under a bridge. I have nothing against men who sleep under bridges—we all do what we have to do—but if you can’t afford a razor then you can’t afford to take me dancing, which is the only reason I’m browsing online-dating sites in the first place.

But my real quarrel isn’t with your photograph, although—sunglasses? Seriously? No, what I object to is your written profile.

In my two brief excursions into online dating, I’ve found two types of profiles: (a) the ones that say little or nothing and (b) the ones that say too much.

If you look like Robert de Niro, you can be excused for being a man of few words. If you look like Winston Churchill, you’d better be as interesting as Winston Churchill. But we’ll never know, will we, because all you’ve said about yourself is that you like to watch football on TV. Be still, my heart.

Here are some excerpts from actual profiles, along with probable translations:

  • Must be willing to let loose and have fun—life is too short at this stage. (Plan on putting out by the third date.)
  • My idea of a great evening is sitting by the fire just to watch it snap and hear it crackle. (Can’t afford to take you dancing.)
  • I love younger women that like to do spontaneous things, in shape and free. (Plan on putting out by the second date.)
  • Would like to find someone who accepts me and my family. (Deadbeat son still lives at home.)
  • Can’t travel much because I have to take care of the hogs. (No translation necessary.)
  • I’m a romantic, still searching for that special someone. (Seeking a partner with a pulse.)
  • I do cook. I love conversation over cocktails and appetizers, or coffee and pastries. (Plan on gaining ten pounds by the third date.)
  • I am interested in old cars and do own one. I’m in a club and am active with a club. (Brush up on carburetors.)
  • Enjoy golf spectator sports fishing and cooking. There are many other interests that I have but you will just have to wait and find out later. (Into S&M. Not into punctuation.)

Gentlemen! You don’t need to specify a woman “with height and weight proportional.” Just look at my photograph. If I’m too thin or too chubby for your taste, move on. And don’t tell me you’re “an intellectual.” Admitting that you like to read Nietzsche or Sartre will give me all the information I need on that score.

My guess is that there are quite a few more women than men on these sites, which is why the guys think they can get away with showing off their belly hair and still attract a “proportional” woman who will tag along to the car show or help them slop the hogs.

My advice: Lighten up! I’m already halfway in love with the guy who wrote, “I will warn you that I dance like a fool at weddings. Really. I will embarrass you. But if I do my job right, you’ll be laughing too much to care.” Sadly, he’s only half my age. But maybe, if I do my job right, he’ll be laughing too much to care.

Big-Money Blogging


The MinuetGiovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1756

There’s a 28-year-old woman who makes more money in a year than I’ve made in my entire life. I learned about her on YouTube. She brings in over a hundred thousand dollars a week blogging and freelance-writing about personal finance. She and her husband travel the country in their mega-motorhome. I want her life. So why don’t I have it?

(a) I have a blog.

(b) I can write.

(c) Everything I know about personal finance can be summarized in five words: “Don’t do what I do.”

I’ve got (a) and (b) working for me, but (c) is a deal-breaker. And I might have to revisit (b). Yes, I can write, but I don’t talk the talk of the blog-reading public. I’m not 28 years old. I’m twice 28 years old plus quite a few more years. I speak Baby-Boomer English in a Millennial world.

The dude who profiled this woman on YouTube—we’ll call them “Joe” and “Daphne”—described her success by saying that “she’s crushing it.” That’s Millennial-speak for “she’s doing well.”

I googled “Millennial-speak” to get an idea of just how hip I’m not. According to one of the articles my search turned up…

  • If I’m in a bad mood, Millennially-speaking, I’m “salty.”
  • If I want something—anything—a lot, I’m “thirsty.”
  • If I’m rude to someone online, I’m a “troll.”
  • If my lifestyle is ho-hum, it’s “basic.”
  • If I need to leave in a hurry, I have to “bounce.”

Back in the day, salty referred to salinity, thirsty meant “in need of hydration,” a troll was a gnome who lived under a bridge (or a human who looked like a gnome who lived under a bridge), basic was synonymous with “fundamental,” and bouncing was something you did on a bed. And this accounts for only five out of dozens, maybe hundreds of words I’m using wrong. But if I tried to adopt Joe and Daphne’s vocabulary, I’d sound like an idiot. Besides, I’ve never been hip, not even when hipness was hip. The only dance I ever mastered was the minuet. When I try to high-five someone, I miss their hand and lurch into a wall.

I watched another YouTube video on making big bucks through freelance writing. A very hip Millennial chick I’ll call “Tawny” made it clear that I shouldn’t settle for earning an effing ten cents a word writing for an effing content mill—a website that churns out online articles. That’s another thing that differentiates me from Millennials: their comfort level with the F-word.

Understand, I’m perfectly capable of spewing F-words in emergencies, and I’ve been heard to say, “Eff YOU,” when I’m, well, salty and someone pushes my buttons, but if I were marketing professional services on a YouTube video, I wouldn’t use the F-word unless it related directly to the type of service I was promoting. If you get my drift.

So good luck, Joe, Daphne, and Tawny. You’re safe from me… at least until I figure out a way to make money blogging about stress incontinence or involuntary public farting. Meanwhile, chicks and dudes, I gotta bounce. See you later, alligator.

Shall We Say ‘Shall’?


Shall we dance?

Who uses the word shall these days? In American English, at least, many of us say will or should, have to, ought to, or need to when our ancestors would have used shall:

  • AS A COMMAND: You shall pick up your toys and put them away.
  • FOR SIMPLE FUTURITY: When shall we expect you?
  • TO EXPRESS AN INTENTION: We shall have to prepare for the storm.
  • TO EXPRESS A STRONG ASSERTION: We shall survive.
  • IN CERTAIN QUESTIONS: Shall we have chicken or fish?

Shall is still formally used in laws and rules:

  • No one shall enter these premises between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Do you think that shall is archaic? To modern ears it might sound stuffy or old-fashioned… yet, though we’re not aware of it, some of us use shall quite often, though in an abbreviated form, pronouncing it like “sh’l” or omitting the L-sound altogether:

  • Where sh’l we go for lunch?
  • What sh’ we have for dinner?

Shall in its full form survives even in colloquial speech in suggestions such as

  • Shall we go?
  • Shall we dance?

Traditionally, in the future tense, shall was used in the first person, will in the second and third persons:

  • SINGULAR: I shall, you will, he/she/it will
  • PLURAL: We shall, you will, they will

I suspect, though I have no solid evidence, that British speakers of English use shall more frequently than Americans.


About That Itemthing…


A Bad-Hair Day

I like to think that I have some facility with the English language—reading and writing, understanding and communicating, teaching and even giving mildly humorous presentations to small groups of people who are easily entertained—in short, I am a capable English-language writer and speaker, and I can even curse an eloquent blue streak when the occasion calls for it. (See, for example, “The F-Word: A User’s Guide.”)

Other people tell me I write well. In fact, they pay me to say things for them. They ask me to write something about how they have a great product and they think everybody should buy it. A few days later, I email them a draft that says, basically, “We have a great product and we think everybody should buy it.” Within minutes I get an email response that says, “You’re a genius! I don’t know how you do it! Here’s two hundred dollars.” I email back, “Thank you. Any time. Really.”

But, for all my skill and experience, I am at a loss to decipher this brief missive from the eBay seller who mailed me a dark-brown wig when I had ordered a blond one some weeks back.

Dear customer,
Thanks for your time and message. There are so many items need to be dispatched resently
which is out of your imagination, maybe our sending department made a mistake, please accept our sincerest apologies. we have contacted Logistics center, ask about the itemthing. The shipping center informed me that the item was out of stock, as for the issue,we would like give you a full refund first, when we have stock, we will immediately contact your. How about that? we will contact our product department, find similar styles of wigs,i f we have similar styles, we will contact your.
your satisfaction is all we concern. Please let us know.
Wait for your kind reply
Really sorry for any inconvenience.
Best regards

Before you accuse me of making sport with persons whose native language is manifestly other than English, realize that if you are a native-English-speaker and you write me a silly letter, I will cheerfully make sport with you, too, and that very soon, probably later tonight, I will be making sport with English-speaking men who publish silly profiles on online-dating sites. Furthermore, you may consider this an open invitation to make sport with me when I unintentionally write, say, or do something laughable. And be assured that I have nothing but respect for the wig-seller, who is gracious (and practical) enough to communicate with me in English rather than requiring me to learn whichever of the hundreds of dialects in the five main Chinese dialectical groups she customarily uses.

Still and all—I’m not sure how to proceed, and it seemed more expedient to ask for other sets of eyes to examine the seller’s instructions than to learn Chinese. So what do you think? Since my objective is to get a replacement wig as soon as possible, should I ask for a refund? The itemthing I ordered is out of stock, but does she have similar styles? How extensive is her inventory—a few wigs, a few dozen, or a number out of my imagination? How likely is it that her sending department, having maybe made one mistake, will maybe make another mistake when I reorder? Perhaps I should explore the inventories of other vendors. How about that?

If I really want the skinny on these wigs, there’s always the learning-to-speak-Chinese route, but I suspect that the difficulty is at least as great as that of learning Japanese and that Dave Barry says no more than the truth when he writes that the best way to learn Japanese is “to be born as a Japanese baby and raised by a Japanese family, in Japan” (Dave Barry Does Japan, 1982). I thought I could hold my own in Spanish until I was humbled by a brief conversational exchange in my doctor’s waiting room, where I am frequently the only English-speaker. Catching the eye of a young woman holding an adorable infant swathed in pink, I asked her, in Spanish, how old her little girl was. “¿Quantos mesas tiene su niñita?” I said. She gave me a small smile and looked away, but the woman on my left leaned toward me and whispered, “You just asked her how many tables her little girl has.” Well, I thought defensively, that could have been what I meant to say. How did she know that I wasn’t a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on furniture distribution in Spanish-speaking households? Or that I didn’t intuitively sense that her child was a table-collecting sort of baby and simply wondered how many tables she had managed to acquire so far?

It seems impractical to invest weeks, possibly months or years, in learning Chinese so that I can ask an intelligent question about a wig. In the same amount of time I could grow better hair so that I don’t need the stupid wig. On the other hand, Chinese could come in handy if I travel to China or decide on a career in the Foreign Service, even though I turned 70 on my last birthday and the best time to make major vocational choices, especially those with steep learning curves, was probably 1968. True, at under ten dollars the wig was a bargain, but surely there are comparable deals available from English- or Spanish-speakers. The Spanish word for wig is peluca, which is perilously close to peluche (“cuddly toy”), so if you see me walking around with a Teddy bear on my head, try to be polite, okay?

Absent Again

Why I Didn’t Go to Church This Morning


St. Nicolaaskerk Church, Amsterdam, the Netherlands—Huffington Post

Every Saturday night I go to bed early, almost wriggling at the happy thought of waking up Sunday morning, showering a little longer than usual, dressing with a little more ceremony… ready, more than ready, eager for Sunday-morning fellowship, for brief but powerful embraces and heartfelt handshakes, for the well-loved litany, both ancient and evergreen… for the palpably mystical cadence of Scott’s sermon, so delicious to hear that one risks being enchanted by the voice and missing the message… for the brazen presence of Jesus that is somehow gentler than in solitude, if that were possible, among fellow worshipers and even those who have just come for the music… and, of course, for the music. This is my Saturday-evening ritual, and I feel then that I could simply will myself to church on Sunday morning on the strength of that anticipation, arriving without traversing the space between home and sanctuary, taking a literal quantum leap….

This is why Sundays become the saddest hours of my week, why my Sunday-morning ceremony is to bury the bright expectations so recently alive, so suddenly aborted. As free and light as I feel upon falling asleep is as heavy and inert as I feel upon waking, as if I have no agency, as if I am a stone expected to leap from its ages-old tomb beneath a streambed and propel itself to the moon.

Because I am so certain on Saturday night that this Sunday will be different, will signal my reemergence into the world of churchgoers, will witness the arrival that conquers inertia for all time, I am first surprised and then grieved on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning… as if my miscarried purpose were unprecedented, as if all this had never happened before. I wonder what went wrong. I am angry at, disgusted with, exasperated by my inaction. Entropy, I think, is the devil, the real one—horns, tail, pitchfork, and all—and I ponder with genuine bewilderment my body’s failure to obey my will.

For a while, I rationalize. I recall that I am “coming down with something” or “recovering from something.” I remind myself that I can’t afford the Uber expenditure and that I have shown myself too untrustworthy to ask a friend for a ride. I resolve to live more healthfully, to get more exercise, to sleep more soundly, and to manage my money more sensibly… all so I can do the one thing that, above every other, is to me desirable, enjoyable, necessary, and—in theory, at least— attainable: to show up at my beloved church on Sunday morning.

Asparagus regained

The penalty for failure is harsh. I am contrite and the Divine is all-forgiving, but out of the corner of my eye I see God smirking. The Holy Spirit is a faint breeze outside my window. Jesus is patient, but I fancy that he taps his toes. It would be easier to bear if, having failed once again, I could redeem the time with prayer, meditation, or Good Works. I should call my brother, write letters to my inmate correspondents, Skype with my out-of-town friends and grandchildren, ride my bicycle and smile at pedestrians, go to a nearby AA meeting, cook dinner for the friend who brought me food and medicine when I was sick. But I have worn myself out with shame, and torpor has set in. Of all the days of the week, Sunday is the one most likely to be spent playing marathon games of Words with Friends on Facebook, reading a John Grisham novel, or binge-watching The West Wing. I have spent entire Sundays without speaking to another soul, brushing my teeth, or walking to a destination more distant than the bathroom.

Originally there were semi-legitimate reasons for not going to church, but the reasons no longer apply, and all that’s left is remembered distaste and knee-jerk discomfort. When I was a little girl I hated asparagus, and for decades I avoided asparagus as if it were radioactive sludge. In my late twenties, at a banquet, I accidentally got a bit of asparagus on my fork, tasted it, and instantly regretted all those years during which I had deprived myself of asparagus ecstasy. Such is my regret at allowing unpleasant associations to interrupt the joy of churchgoing.

Temple Emanu-El

Temple Emanu-El, New York City—Huffington Post

For most of my life I have loved church and churches, but even if I didn’t particularly want to go it would be a Good Thing to do, a smart thing, a generous thing. When I’m not beating myself up, I enjoy my own company, and my pursuits are both solitary and sedentary. In my experience, independence too quickly becomes isolation and profound, toxic loneliness. At seventy years old, I occasionally wonder how much time I have to form good habits, healthful ways of being in the world, mutually beneficial relationships… to become a member of the Good Guys’ Club, that cheerful, active, productive, unofficial association of people who genuinely want to infuse the world with a little more beauty, more compassion, and—on a really good day—more fun. I want to work toward something noble or at least useful; I desire loftier goals than Not Being Depressed. The ambitions and expectations with which I began my adult life no longer call to me. A few have been achieved, but I think that I will never live on a farm, keep honeybees and chickens, or explore the Mississippi River on a houseboat. (I do, however, hold out for a year or two of travel in a mini-motorhome similar to the Chinook in which my boys and I spent many carefree hours.)

A change is gonna come

As to Not Being Depressed, one would think that I, having emerged from a place so blighted that I can conjure neither images nor words to describe it, would be in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. I know that, from that dark prison, I bargained with God, promising that if I were delivered I would be endlessly grateful and unvaryingly kind… that if I could once again stand in the sunlight and place my feet on solid ground, I would ask for nothing more. But we are made for bliss; God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with “comfortably numb.” If there’s a good thing to be said about Sunday guilt, it’s that distress motivates change.

I regard the world and its pain, I consider the relative difficulty of putting on shoes that match and traveling less than twenty blocks in an automobile once a week, and I realize that if I made going to church next Sunday morning the only item on my checklist I could do it. It’s doable, and I can do it. A few phone calls, a conversation, an arrangement… this is not a mission for the NATO Allied Command. Things requiring much greater effort are being done as I write, will be done tomorrow, and I will do some of them. One evening this week I will babysit three-year-old triplets, a task I challenge the NATO Allied Commander to achieve with the skill and energy that I bring to it. When the time comes, I certainly won’t wage an internal debate on whether to show up for the triplets. Such is the strength of simple commitment.

So I think that I will stop wondering why I didn’t go to church this morning—a mental exercise that predictably invites argument—and I will make a simple commitment. I will make that commitment to myself, I will make it to someone else, and I will meet it. I will go to church next Sunday. I will expect that, with my having stayed away, there will be a bit more strangeness in the experience than when I was a reliable churchgoer in a past life and going to church was like reuniting with a large and delightfully eccentric family. I believe I can handle it. Above the strangeness will be the open door; beside it will be the welcome mat. That’s why I choose to go. All are welcome there. And next Sunday I will go to church.


Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris—Huffington Post