Sunday, December 23, 2012


It's already the day before Christmas in Bangkok and in Hong Kong. In Seattle daylight is just beginning to brighten at a little past ten am on the 23rd. At this time of day, the sky outside my window belongs to the birds--sometimes seagulls the size of small puppies soar rather menacingly past my view. They're big enough to smash through the glass if they wanted to. Fortunately they seem to be bird brains.

This time of year for me is a festival of light and love. I wish I lived somewhere that would allow me to build a bonfire. Instead I light candles and jam clear lights, along with glittering, multi-colored balls, into a jar. I bake things that make my small apartment smell of ginger, cinnamon, and dark molasses. I wrap gifts for people I love with a lot of enthusiasm and very little artfulness. All of this is what Christmas means to me.

In Bangkok, New Year's is the time that all of this happens and that for me that makes complete sense. One year a friend invited me to her house on New Year's Eve. Her entire extended family was there, including a baby; we ate to the point of coma-risk and I was home well before midnight. It was the perfect way to end a year.

Somewhere not too far from my quiet little neighborhood, credit cards are flashing brightly and cash terminals are blazing hot. This holiday has become a retail frenzy, something I'm grateful not to be part of. I'm content to watch the light and be as quiet as possible as the year ends.

Calendars create artificial divisions to time. What does it mean that 2012 is over and 2013 begins? What counts is the fading of light and its slow rebuilding of strength. We fill our shortest days with attempts to grant each other's wishes, while our real wish at this time is that the sun will come back.

In Thailand, during an eclipse, people make offerings to Rahu, the god of darkness. Black food is put with candles and incense to appease his ravenous appetite so he won't devour the sun (or the moon, as the case may be.) In this part of the world, we send out light and love and as much joy as we can muster. Without those offerings, who knows if the sun would ever return?

My array of food on the 25th won't include a black chicken but I hope it will still pass muster. In my window, candles will gleam into the darkness, asking for a longer, larger light for the whole world.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fixing What is Broken

In a weekend filled with grief and horror, questions arose. When did weapons made for warfare become a consumer item? As someone who grew up in a "gun culture," where a 30.06 meant food on the table and I learned to handle a 22 by the time I was ten, I have a respect for rifles and people who know how to use them properly. That respect doesn't extend to hand guns and automatic and semi-automatic weapons; the only reason why they have become part of our social fabric is money, big money. These firearms don't come cheap--somebody is profiting heavily from their sales, and the almost 95,000 people who have been shot by guns this year are paying the price.

It isn't yet 10 am PST as I write this and 144 people have already been shot by guns today. By the time I finish writing this post, that figure will have increased. It is found at and it's a figure that should be reported over the radio and television news just the same way as the Dow Industrial Average is. It is an indicator of who we are and what we are letting ourselves become.

In my mediocre local paper was another horrible statistic. 45 million Americans use Medicare, and the costs of that program are sinking the national budget, even before the full wave of Baby Boomers have hit the system. The reason? Escalating health care costs, especially the cost of prescription drugs, in what has become a medical industry..

I have no health insurance. I haven't for over twenty years. The last time I went for a physical examination, it took almost two hours, what with the Pap smear and the litany of questions about my personal life that the doctor was required by law to ask ("Are you in danger of physical abuse in your home?"). Fortunately I'm rarely ill.

The last time I was truly sick, I lived in Bangkok. A virus had settled in my chest and my temperature refused to go back to normal. I lurched down to a neighborhood clinic where I was given a shot of an antibiotic, more antibiotics in pills, and something to help me sleep. Total cost? Right around twelve dollars for everything--and the doctor provided the pills--I had no need to totter on to a pharmacy. Done.

This is the medical care of my childhood. It is no longer what we receive in the U.S. Our healthcare involves high priced drugs that pharmaceutical companies persuade physicians to prescribe and high-tech machines that may or may not be useful. (See my earlier post about the baby who contradicted the fetal monitoring equipment.) Once again, big money, high profits, and we're the ones to get a kick in the teeth.

Pharmaceutical companies battle against generic drugs, and cheaper pricing for third-world countries. Doctors charge over $100 for an office visit. This is madness.

Six-year-old children were cut down in a school by semi-automatic gunfire; the killer was someone who needed psychiatric care and didn't receive it. This is madness.

And the insanity is related by profits. No matter what the NRA and the AMA assert, it's time for regulation, price controls, and a full measure of sanity. Let's work on this.

(And by the way, that figure of how many people have been shot today? It's now at 151. It's 10:30 am in Seattle.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012


When I was much younger, I spent a fair amount of time observing people at Book Expo America, the annual gathering of people in the book business. Publishers took center stage at this event and women were prominent among them. What intrigued me was that the pretty women were almost all on their way up--or hoped they were; the women who had real clout had moved far beyond the issue of how they looked. The ultimate sign of power seemed to be how much physical weight a woman carried while still wielding clout. Their words and actions were significant enough that they needed no other attractions. They fascinated me.

At about the same time, I read a resonant sentence written by Nora Ephron that said something along the lines of now that she was in middle-age, she noticed her pretty friends complained about losing their looks while she on the contrary was finding hers. I interpreted that as an encouraging message: that bone structure and eyes and enthusiasm and engagement with life would outlive more conventional forms of good looks. The truth was sadder than that; both Nora and I still were preoccupied with how we looked, far beyond being neat, clean, and well-groomed. I was pulled in by any department store cosmetic counter that caught my eye,and Ms. Ephron?

In an essay about beauty and cosmetic treatments in the current issue of Marie Claire, a woman who was a "family friend," divulges that "Ephron had often shown up at a dinner or party looking younger than the last time I'd seen her." At this stage of her life, Nora Ephron's every word was assured its publication, she had written, directed, and produced a number of wildly popular movies, she was a force to be reckoned with on both coasts of her native land. If any woman (other than Hillary Clinton) had the power and privilege to age naturally, Nora was that woman. The author of the essay salutes "her refusal to let her appearance slip and fall short of her youthful curiosity." Me? I tend to agree more with Isabelle Rosellini, quoted in the same essay as saying, "Is this the new feet binding? Is this a new way to tell women, You are ugly deep down, you should be this and this, and give a lot of other standards that are impossible to reach because the main problem is misogyny?"

The irony is not lost on me that I came across this provocative bit of examination in a fashion and beauty magazine that I bought to cheer myself up on a grey winter afternoon.

Perhaps it's easier to age for women who have never been pretty to begin with; we have had to develop other ways of being attractive, features that don't require Botox or a surgeon's knife to maintain. In fact, attempting to hang on to youthful charms is not just a waste of time and money--it's a source of incredible dissatisfaction. As every woman knows, those youthful charms were based upon being new, shiny, and relatively untouched; it's the irresistible attraction of a field of freshly fallen snow that holds no footprints.

Experience. Humor. Intelligence. Love. Talent. Generosity. Enjoyment. If I had a daughter, this is what I would teach her to carry into age. Clothes? Makeup? Of course--but for fun, for amusement, not because, as the essay in Marie Claire concluded, because those things will make us "the generation that simply will not be put out to pasture." Power doesn't come from an unwrinkled face--just ask Georgia O'Keefe.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What a Drag It Is Getting Old (but does it have to be?)

My mother-in-law was a woman I loved and admired and still do, years after she died. We didn't always agree on many things--"His imagination could use some stunting," she told me once, when I said that TV would stunt my little boy's imagination and my candy-free Easter baskets (filled with many other delights that weren't edible) were rendered useless when she showed up with baskets for each of my children overflowing with sugar and green slime in a toy garbage can. She followed this up by immediately showing them disgusting things they could do with the slime. They loved it and I continued to love her.

My mother-in-law slowly lost her memory. Her husband had to face the death of their oldest son alone. "You'd think all those flowers would tell her something," he grumbled in frustration and heartbreak. She rarely spoke but she laughed often. Even locked in Alzheimer's, Wanda Brown loved life.

I think of her often as I grow older. When she was middle-aged, her equanimity and humor and joy made me know at twenty-five that forty-five didn't have to mean becoming Whistler's Mother. And I hope I can savor life as jubilantly as she did up until the end.

Wanda Brown went from being a beautiful girl to a chubby little snowball but when I tried to keep up with her once in an aerobics class when she was in her fifties and I in my early thirties, I was crippled for a week. She was just fine. We both loved to sing but she had the guts to sing in public behind a microphone. She divorced her handsome husband with the wandering eyes and remarried him a decade or so later after he had learned his lesson. She made lemon cookies and bootleg Kahlua and one Christmas sewed gaucho pants for all of her daughters. I got a pair too. "I'd rather gain one than lose one," she said about her children's choice of spouses. With eight children, some of whom married more than once, she gained quite a few extras.

She loved to read. She loved to dance. She loved the Easter Egg Hunt in the snow that she put on every year for her grandchildren. Her legacy is one of generous, unconditional, motherly love, given by a woman whose own mother died young.

She stood beside me when I was in labor with my first baby right up until I went into the delivery room. My second came unexpectedly; the fetal monitoring machine refused to acknowledge his imminent arrival and Wanda left me to go back to work, I asked her to call her son to come to the hospital right away and she did. "I should have known the baby was coming when you told me to call Jimmy," she said later.

We are very different and I can never hope to be the woman Wanda was. But I can damn well try to follow her example as much as I can. Maybe I should start with baking lemon cookies...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Unabashedly Sentimental

Yesterday I was rushing to the post office when I tripped on an uneven bit of sidewalk and fell on one knee, my weight twisting the booted ankle of my other leg. My slacks were torn, I was embarrassed, and passersby walked around me, not seeming to notice but actually sparing me further humiliation--after all, I was clearly unhurt.

As I walked on, I was relieved to find that my ankle hadn't become sprained or strained and the graze on my knee wasn't very deep. It wasn't until I completed my errand and began to return home that I reached in my pocket for my apartment keys. They were gone--apparently my balance wasn't the only thing I'd lost a few minutes earlier.

I hurried back to the scene of my spill which had taken place near the large glass window of a residential hotel. Elderly ladies frequently sat in the lobby and watched the world whirl by. Perhaps one of them had seen my keys rocket away and had picked them up--but she would have shouted the news to me as I hobbled away. I began to scan the sidewalk with little hope, telling myself silently precisely how idiotic I had been not to zip the keys into my handbag.

They were gone. There was nothing metallic gleaming on the cement where I'd fallen. I raised my head, feeling a little sick, when a man working nearby, small, smiling, Southeast Asian, asked "Did you lose your keys?"

"Yes," I admitted and he said "I found them. I've been waiting for you to come back so I would be sure that the right person got them." He pointed to a sign tacked to a tree at the side of the street; hanging from one of  the tacks was a set of keys that belonged to me. He handed them to me. "When you lose your keys, you're in big trouble," he said and I thanked him with every particle of gratitude that I possessed.

I took a few steps away, then turned back with five dollars in my hand. As I approached him, he backed away. "No," he told me. "You are so kind," I said again, and an old man walking past smiled and said "Vietnam people are good." We all three smiled at each other and once again I felt a deep sense of joy for being lucky enough to live in my neighborhood.

Merry Christmas to all. May we all care for each other as much as the man on the street did for me yesterday.