Keep Calm and Carry On

Lately I’ve been seeing a flurry of posters, t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with a crown and the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  According to Wikipedia, this was a part of a “propaganda” campaign in the UK, started in 1939, to keep up morale during WWII.

This poster was to be used only in the event of an invasion, and consequently was never issued.  Here’s a website dedicated to the slogan:   It’s believed that most of the posters were pulped at the end of the war.  But a bookseller found one nearly 60 years later, and the rest is marketing history.  Now you can buy “wall art” at Target with the advertising slogan on it, not to mention mobile phone cases, tea towels and cozies at the website above.

The quintessential Britishness has its own appeal, stiff upper lip and all that, what?  But I think this campaign has taken off because the message resonates for a lot of us.  The past year was not a fun one in many ways.  The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class clung by its fingernails to a shrinking way of life.  Wars, disasters and scares shook us all.

Sometimes all we can do is keep calm and carry on.  Keep looking for a job.  Put up with disappointment and stress.  Just carry on.  And sometimes things do get better, good things come, happiness happens.  Life may never be the way it was before.  But it’s still a life.  And if we take it with a dose of irony and a side of laughter, we can carry on.


Another Auld Lang Syne

Ham hock and black-eyed peas, from Wikimedia
New Year’s Eve was not a big deal when I was growing up in Tennessee.  We generally went to bed early, and rarely even stayed up to watch the ball drop on TV.

New Year’s Day was the more important event.  Mother always cooked black-eyed peas with hog jowl or ham hock and made cornbread.  She put a dime in the peas, and whoever found the dime would come into money in the new year.  After my brother Gil and I shoveled out half the bowl while searching for the dime, Mother ruled that you had to eat everything you spooned out.

My friend Ed who is African-American has an additional tradition, eating collard greens on New Year’s Day.  The black-eyed peas are coins, he says, and the greens are folding money.

Many cultures believe in having pork on New Year’s Day.  Pork represents fat, plenty, and thus prosperity.  Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong–I guess turkey kielbasa doesn’t count!

Another custom in our part of the South held that the first person to cross your threshhold (come in your front door) on New Year’s Day should be a man, preferably a tall, dark-haired man, in order to have good luck in the new year.  Apparently this comes from Scottish tradition, and is called “first-footing.”  The Scots start at midnight on New Year’s Eve and go visit during the next several days, bringing small gifts that signify plenty like Scotch whiskey or treats.

I’ve had many New Year’s Eves that were pretty decadent.  New Year’s Day usually involved recovery and watching the Rose Parade on TV.  This year I plan to stay home and celebrate quietly.  But I will have black-eyed peas, cornbread, and some kind of pork.  And I plan to find a dark-haired man to cross my doorstep.  My neighbor Bob comes to mind.  It’s time for all the good luck I can get!

A safe New Year’s Eve to all, and a prosperous, healthy and Happy New Year!

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Like about one-third of the country, I’m traveling for the Christmas holiday.  So I’m taking a break from the blog for a bit, not wanting to monopolize my brother-in-law’s computer or laboriously post from the iPod Touch.  I want to experience Christmas with my family, not record it.

Before I go, however, I want to make a shout-out to last December in New York and New Jersey.  Mercifully, I put that disaster out of my mind until time to travel this year.  I got out before the storm came last year, but I couldn’t get back home.  Flying on Continental miles, I was at the bottom of the list for rescheduled flights and would have had to wait over a week to get back to New York.  So I rented a car and drove back from Ohio.  I stood in line with three other people who were doing the same.

The drive was not unpleasant, although the roads still had some ice in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  I sang along with the radio and my iPod, and stopped about once every hour or so.  Things got eerie once I got to New Jersey.  It was dark, and mountains of snow dwarfed the highways.  I got to Newark Airport, turned in the rental car, and took a shuttle van to the parking lot where I’d left my car.

The van driver stopped where I remembered my car was parked.  The plowed snow had made tunnels over the smaller cars.  My little yellow Hyundai Tiburon was buried to the roof.  The driver immediately pulled out a shovel and dug out my car.  I gave him $20 and thanked him profusely.  Left to myself, I’d have had to wait for spring to thaw it out.

So I’m hoping this year will not provide adventures.  I’m looking for quiet times with my sister’s family, sitting by their fireplace.  Best wishes to everyone for happy holidays, and more to come later on!


Bring Back “The Homecoming”

I’m making a pitch for resurrecting an older TV Christmas special, “The Homecoming.”  Do you remember it?  This is the special that became the basis for the series, “The Waltons.”

The great thing about the special was, it was darker, funnier and less heartwarming than the series became.  Viewers really saw the widespread poverty of the Depression and the desperation that drove their daddy to work many long miles away in order to bring home food and presents for that large family.

The mother was played by Patricia Neal.  She was harsh and loving, fearful and strong, less pretty, more rawboned and real than Michael Learned, who played the role in the series.

As these dark days of winter roll in and aftermath of the Great Recession refuses to go away, I find myself thinking about how my parents and grandparents endured poverty and hard, manual labor during the Great Depression, and how their lives did not change for the better until World War II brought factory work and higher-paying jobs.  I think how hard they worked so my sisters, brother and I could go to college and have more comfortable lives.

Things may not have always worked out as they hoped.  But I never had to hoe tobacco or eat biscuits and sawmill gravy for dinner because I couldn’t afford meat.  “The Homecoming” is a gem in its own right, but I love it all the more because it takes the viewer inside a world my parents knew–a world I hope I will never have to know personally.  Good night, John Boy!

Here’s a link to part of the special on YouTube:


Showing Up and Being There

Last year's table (not so different this year)

Showing up is 80% of life.–Woody Allen

Do you ever feel like you spend most of your time showing up, without really being there?  By “being there,” I mean paying attention, being involved, feeling and enjoying that particular moment, not racing ahead in your mind to the next thing to be done.

The first time I realized someone else felt that way was years ago when I first saw “Annie Hall,” which I still think is Woody Allen’s best movie (although “Midnight in Paris” is a contender as well).  The scene where Annie and the character Woody plays are in bed, and at the same time she’s sitting on top of the bureau observing–I thought, “That’s it!”

Journalists and novelists are like that, I think, and photographers as well.  Have you ever spent so much of an event taking photos that you don’t really take part in what’s going on?  I have boxes and boxes of old-style physical photos I took in countries all over the world when I was traveling with Ron and on my own.  I look at them now and think, where was that?  What was I doing?  What was I feeling?  The camera becomes a way to create distance and put up a wall.  I think psychologists call it “compartmentalizing.”

I’ve gotten somewhat better at “being there” over the years.  Yoga class helps a lot.  I used to smirk when the teacher said, “Be here now,” but now I know the teacher means “Stop your mind from running in circles and feel where you are and how you are moving.”  Easier said that done, but it can be learned.

I think Twitter is yet another way to not be here, and texting can be as well.  Have you ever wanted to strangle a teenager who is sitting right next to you, not listening or participating in what’s going on, and texting as fast as they can to a friend?  How about the dad who can’t put down his Blackberry or iPhone?  Is every email that important?

Sorry to be such a curmudgeon.  I’ve been guilty of all the above at one time or another.  But it came home to me that being there, really being there, can be fun sometimes.  One of my friends brought his guitar to the party I gave the other night and lyrics to Christmas carols and songs.  We all sang and laughed and banged rhythm instruments for hours.  And I didn’t even realize until the next day that I didn’t get out my camera or my phone and take any pictures of the group and the party.  I was too busy having a good time!

That’s really a good way to “be here now.”

A Beautiful Day

Here we are on Black Friday, having survived the feasting and football of Thanksgiving Day.  I’m not participating in the shopping frenzy this year.  I can’t stand crowds and pushing, and my gift-giving this year is limited.  So I have a radical proposal:  Let’s all just enjoy a beautiful day, especially if you don’t have to work today.

The sky is blue.  The last of the leaves are still clinging to the trees, golden, orange, red and brown.  Ignore the Christmas decorations and stay away from retail stores with jarring music and radio stations playing endless Christmas carols.

It’s still autumn.  It’s not too cold in most of the country.  Take a walk in your neighborhood or a park and relish the last of fall.  Eat leftover turkey and dressing — I love dressing, and this is the only time of year I have it.  DON’T WATCH CHRISTMAS SPECIALS.  If you spot a wild turkey, tell it it’s lucky to be on the loose.  Try to figure out which birds are still here and if your favorites have migrated.  I’ve been looking for the mockingbirds, and I think they have gone south.

Watch old movies with family and friends.  Play silly games with family and friends.  Stroke your cat, pet your dog, hug anyone you feel like.  Let’s give autumn one more day before the holiday madness begins.  Forget about Black Friday!

Holiday Cooking Disasters, or Almost

I’m always nervous when it’s time to cook a big holiday meal, or even to contribute toward a group effort at one.  I spent many years not cooking for big events, and I still happily go to my sister’s house or a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or any other big foodie holiday.

I have finally learned to cook that turkey and bake that ham.  But I’m scarred by previous experiences.  The first time I roasted a turkey, for a Christmas party some years ago, I used a cooking bag (highly recommended).  I did not stuff it, because my family believes in dressing, baked outside the turkey, instead of stuffing, baked inside the turkey, so that’s what I do.  The turkey came out beautifully golden brown, with a moist breast and nicely done drumsticks.  Then I went to carve it, and found the plastic bag in the cavity with the giblets and neck in it.  Woops!  I didn’t say a word, just carved away.

Hams are capable of error as well, even pre-cooked ones that you just have to warm in the oven for a few hours.  I discovered that when I baked a ham–years ago, I swear–for the residents’ dinner at my local YMCA.  I had peeled off the layer of thin cellophane or plastic the meat packer encases the ham with before I put it in the oven.  How was I to know there was a second coat, a red one to match the skin?  Fortunately I figured this out when the ham began to get warm and emit an unusual odor.

Then there was the year I dropped a giant pot of sweet potatoes (already sweetened and spiced, of course) in the sink.  That one broke my heart.  All that work down the drain!  And I burned my hand, which is what made me drop it in the first place.

Fortunately, making mistakes is a great, if painful, way to learn.  I can bake a lovely ham now, or roast a fine turkey.  Holidays are safe at my house, I promise.  And thank goodness someone else is cooking this year!


In My Dreams

Whenever I am especially worried, lonely or agitated, my father appears in my dreams.  This seems strange to me because he died when I was only 22 years old.  But he is still a powerful figure, and someone I look to for comfort or help.

Last night I had an odd dream about measurement.  I was being assessed by someone unknown, and I could see the computer monitor, and charts and graphs that were being generated as I answered questions.  Then Daddy appeared and the computer went away.

Why do our parents matter so much?  Is it that they form us when we are tiny lumps of potential?  Is it the genes that flow among us?  It’s hard to say.  Freudians would say the mother and father shape us beyond hope or repair.  I like to think we’re “Born That Way,” as Lady Gaga says, and nurture can influence nature but can’t change it.  No one really knows at this point.

Whatever the reason, my parents continue to haunt my dreams and shape my responses.  The other day I talked to my sister Glenda.  It was a lovely day, both here and at her home in Ohio, and Glenda said, “It’s a blue October sky, like Mother used to say.”  I remembered her saying that.  No doubt Glenda’s children and grandchildren observe the blue October sky, not knowing where the expression came from.

The depth of memory, feeling and compassion in the river of life is beyond measure.  Sometimes it upsets me when my parents visit me; other times it’s a comfort.  At any rate, I can’t and won’t forget.  Memory never dies.

Northern Depression

Northern Lights Over Greenland, from Flickr
Last year and early this year I took a deep dive into Scandinavian murder mysteries (translated into English, of course), sometimes called “Nordic noir.”  I read the Stieg Larrson trilogy (“The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” etc.), all but the latest Henning Mankell novels, and Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren books.

All of them share a bleak climate–not one was set on the beach in Denmark in the summertime, for example.  It is always winter, or spitting freezing rain in what passes for spring or autumn.  They are deeply cynical about politics and the motivations of the police.  Most of them are extremely well-plotted.  Sex varies from plenty and violent/kinky (Larrson) to nonexistent (Nesser).  The characters and stories are compelling.  But I started feeling the winter inside me.

I took a slight detour to Edinburgh, Scotland, with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries.  Again, it’s never a sunny day, it’s almost always cold, everyone is corrupt.  Rebus is a barely-under-control alcoholic.  I finally burned out and began re-reading Robert B. Parker and Donna Leon.  It rains in Boston and Venice, quite a lot in fact, but somehow those stories do not depress me like the ones set further north do.

Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote about Nordic noir, “The ground beneath your feet dramatically affects your worldview.”  Does a cold climate lead to cold temperaments?  That’s the stereotypical view.  Hot-blooded Latins and cold-blooded Swedes–but love, hate, families, money, envy and intrigue exist everywhere, probably even in the last remaining tribe that has never seen TV.

I’ve decided it’s not the weather that makes these novels so depressing, even though they are beautifully written.  In most cases, the detective (or main character, as in the case of Lisbeth Salander) is estranged from his or her family or has none, has no real friends, is alienated from any sense of community.  The only driving force in his life is sticking with the code of the law (the various inspectors), seeking justice, or revenge (Salander).

Nordic noir is a great place to visit, but I don’t want to live there.  Donna Leon’s Brunetti is deeply cynical about Italian politics and the police force.  It often rains (or floods) in her books.  But Brunetti comes home to his professor wife, a quirky, warm family and a delicious home-cooked meal every night.  That’s a world I’d rather inhabit.


1920's Halloween PostcardA Connecticut lawmaker wants to move the day Halloween is observed, so it always falls on a Saturday:

I feel compelled to speak up for my Wiccan friends.  OK, I don’t have any Wiccan friends, but Halloween used to be a religious holiday–Samhain, in the old Celtic religion.  Its original name in Christianity was All Hallows Eve, when evil spirits roamed about before being vanquished on All Saints Day.

Now it’s mostly the occasion for parties on or around the day, and closely controlled trick-or-treating.  It’s a time for innocent (or not so innocent) fun.  Still, Halloween should not  become the only weekend-mandated holiday.  That establishes a really bad precedent.  Do you want St. Patrick’s Day to become a Saturday-only holiday?  How about the Fourth of July?

Stand up, citizens of Connecticut, and quash this idea before it spreads!  And a Happy Halloween to all!

Just to celebrate, here’s one of my favorite Halloween movie clips:  “Most Horrible” from Meet Me in St. Louis.  Enjoy!





%d bloggers like this: