mofembot in france & germany

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Thursday 19 March 2020

Remiss in the time of COVID-19? No.

For all that I have had ambitions to be a “real” writer—and yea, verily, even a blogger of note and great following (yeah, right), I haven't exactly been prolific in my output, and have failed to make even the merest mention of many important events in my life, whether personal or external.

I don't know if I will head back in time to cover what I missed in future entries, but I certainly want to talk a little bit about what is going on right now both in the larger world as well as in my circle of family and friends. The world is progressively going into lockdown mode with the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The virus itself is “novel,” without a cure, without a vaccine at present (and unlikely to have one for many months to come), without antibodies in human beings (at least for now), and with a fatality rate several times higher than that for even the most serious of the influenzas in my and my parents’ lifetime. (It remains to be seen whether the 1918 so-called Spanish flu, with its 50+ million victims, will remain in the lead.)

This past Sunday (March 15th), I returned to Europe from Las Vegas on what gate personnel kept referring to as “the last flight to Germany” (which it well might be for Condor Airlines). The flight was about 90% full; my connection from Frankfurt to Marseille was about 40% full. Monday evening, just as I arrived home (having stayed masked and gloved in the back seat of the car so as to give Mr Mo a little protection), French president Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation and announced that France and the EU/Schengen countries were closing their borders to non-EU/Schengen travelers as of noon on Tuesday (17th). In principle, this would not have affected my ability to get home, French citizen that I most thankfully am, except that other air carriers (including Condor, which had had a flight scheduled for the 17th) canceled flights right and left.

Anyway, I made it back to our village and have taken up residence in a small apartment about a block (however measured in a medieval-era village like ours) from our own house. In an abundance of caution, I am in self-quarantine until two full weeks have elapsed (and longer, of course, if I exhibit symptoms). I have been meeting up with Mr Mo in the late morning, and we—with our requisite forms in hand justifying our outdoor movement, and keeping at least 2 meters away from each other—take a walk. We have also met up at the “butt-boy” fountain in front of our house at some other time during the day for Mr Mo to pass on to me various items of food and clothing and such.

Clad in mask and gloves, I have been to the village store, but I feel uncomfortable doing so and I rather imagine that the very nice shopkeeper, to say nothing of the occasional customer, might not appreciate my presence there either. So no more of that for now.

My sleep is troubled. This is partly due to jet lag, but mostly due to semi-wakeful nightmares about maybe having the virus and thus exposing loved ones and neighbors to it. In this half-awake state, I feel physically awful—to the point where I am sure I must be sick, but when I get up, I feel fine. Very strange and disconcerting, particularly since I am not generally prone to nightmares (and hooray for that).

Of course I worry about family and friends. It was a very tearful leave-taking of my elderly parents on Sunday morning. My dad in particular is very fragile, and even if he does not catch the virus, I think it's unlikely I will get to see him again. Even though they have very kind and attentive friends and neighbors and church folk looking out for them, I worry about their new level of isolation, and hope that they will end up going up north to live with my sister. (Mom is resistant to this idea until her followup visit for cataract surgery 2.5 weeks from now, though I honestly wonder if that visit will in fact take place.)

We tend to see and accept silver linings when we come across them; for example, news out of largely deserted Venice, Italy (Italy having been absolutely overwhelmed by the virus, despite having one of the world’s best health systems—there are just too many patients in too short a time)—anyway, the canal water is now clear, one can see the fish swimming in them, and apparently dolphins are reappearing as well. Similarly, air quality in Beijing and other parts of China is the best it’s been in decades. (UPDATE: Apparently the business about dolphins in Venice is false, though the improvement in air quality seems to be genuine.)

Here in Q, with the exception of the church bells (I'm right across from them, and they strike the hour twice, 24 hours a day, and mark the half-hour with a single stroke as well… sigh), things are even more quiet than they usually are in the off-season. The local bar is closed except as a bread depot and take-away sandwich business (allowed under the current rules). Very, very few people are out and about.

Mr Mo and I have laid in a reasonable supply of TP and food, and we've ordered some grow lights as well as seeds for certain exotic food plants we like (edible chrysanthemum, for example, which we only very recently discovered). Mr Mo bought some soil and some pots and a few packets of ordinary seeds. I will consider us lucky if what we ordered arrives; Amazon and other delivery outfits are scaling back deliveries. So far, France’s La Poste is still operating, but obviously this could—and I think, likely will— change as the virus continues its inexorable spread throughout the world. We believe this situation will be of long duration, even though we hope that the heat of the summer months will buy us (and everyone in the northern hemisphere) at least some respite and time to prepare for another wave later on.

I think France and Germany and many other countries will manage to slow down the virus, hopefully enough to keep the urgent cases within the capacities of their respective healthcare systems. (Germany currently has many more critical care beds than France, but both countries are taking measures to increase capacity.) But the USA. OMG, the USA. Trump and his Republican enablers took foot-dragging to new lows, and that, along with the administration’s explicit instructions to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other agencies not to report real numbers, and its failure to test, to contain, to take measures similar to those in FR and DE and so many places elsewhere… sigh. Many more Americans will die because of this utter incompetence and callous disregard for life—for anything other than profit.

I can only hope that our loved ones—including our children and their circles of loved ones—are spared.

Friday 14 February 2020

The captured moments that totally escape

I keep coming across nests of photos—and surprisingly often, these photos are of events for which I have already scanned in (sometimes many) other photos. Case in point: I created an album in Google Photos a few months back of the trip to China that Mr Mo and I and the Bees took in May of 2002, and added hundreds of photos and relevant docs. Lo, and lo, and lo… I have just finished scanning in a couple hundred more photos from several small "best of" albums, only to discover yet ANOTHER bunch of photos that hadn't made the cut, but hadn't been kept with the others.

All in all, what with Mrs Bee's photos and ours, we have thousands of photos of this three-week trip. And I'd say 10-15% of them are good photos (in terms of image quality, subject matter, artistry). Some of these are still evocative, still bring to mind the intellectual and visceral responses we felt and shared while visiting that amazing country. But while at least echoes of the "grand lines" and the most impressive events and sights remain, I suppose it goes without saying (<=such a curious phrase) that an overwhelmingly greater percentage of the thoughts and feelings and stories and so on are simply gone, or subject to such extrapolation that everything ends up sounding generic and impersonal.

Another small "best of" album emerged from the heap—this time of Mr Mo's and my 1999 trip to Costa Rica. Again, the overall photo quality is pretty good for the most part, and yes, some of these photos took me back to specific events and places that I haven't thought about since at least 2010-11 (when our family traveled to many of the same places and did many of the same things). I was honestly surprised, however, at how many photos we (OK, mostly I) took of exotic plants. Yes, they are pretty (some even gorgeous), but… well. Especially considering that this was still the analog film era for us, it seems excessive. ("You don't say," I hear Mr Mo's voice in my head.) (Update: I've just found the enormous Official Album for the entire trip. OMG. But even better photos.)

I recognize that there's a fair bit of obsessive-compulsiveness happening in all this. I am planning on curating the various albums (shared and not yet shared)—I mean, after all, for example, who is going to want to see/revisit (nearly) every single piece of art I photographed in the art museums Mr Mo and I recently visited in Berlin? Not even me! And yet. While "the important thing" is arguably that we shared this visit and experience, not including at least some photos of the art robs the story of its context. At the moment, however, the "context" for trips and museum junkets and such often feels like just a lot of bloat.

One could argue (and I have argued with myself) that yes, I could select a photo of a painting and write about how it made me feel and what it made me think about when I saw it. And/or I could write some kind of treatise about, say, Expressionism and use these photos to illustrate my (honest-to-God not particularly educated) observations and opinions. But it seems less and less likely that I'm going to get around to doing this sort of thing. (Who knows, I may yet surprise myself.)

Not the greatest takeaway nor ending here, but, well—digital cameras and smartphones are a blessing and a curse: they're quicker and easier to use and it doesn't cost much of anything to keep the images and footage. But it can take a helluva lot longer to curate the exponentially greater output—time that likely would be better used writing about just some of what was captured, and why.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Sealed up unto death

I am the founder and principal administrator of a Facebook group dedicated to the "20th century" Mormon ward (congregation) in which I grew up from about 1965 to 1982 (in other words, from about age 9 until I got married, with breaks for out-of-state university study and a Mormon mission). Over a hundred people are part of the group, many of whom I grew up with. I will spare you, gentle reader, my sorrows at discovering just how many of my old pals and church acquaintances are in the thrall of Trumpian right-wingitude, as I want to talk about something else in this post.

The 20th century page seems to have two primary functions at the moment: sharing pictures of the Good Old Days and announcing deaths. One recently-announced death was of someone from my generational cohort, a man in his early 60s. What I have found—what, a little ironic? sad?—are the voices of those who have chimed in to express their sorrow and to praise Sam (not his real name=NRN) as a great guy. It's too bad that they didn't think that at the time we were all teenagers: Sam's dad, who served as the ward bishop (lay pastor) for much of my adolescence, once asked me to please make a special effort to be kind to Sam. (He wasn't asking me to do so because I was mean to Sam, but because I seemed to be among the kinder kids in the ward when it came to befriending or at least not tormenting outcasts. That may be because while I was never tormented, I was certainly not part of the tight clique of the most popular kids—but I digress.)

I have no idea how well I succeeded, nor even if I made much of an effort, in being kind to Sam. But some of his most unkind tormentors are the ones who seem most vocal about sharing their fond memories. I am only extremely thankful that Sam found someone to love who loved him, and that he seemed to have a happy marriage and family life.

For all this digression, it is the latest death that prompts this (too-rare) post. My mother left a voicemail yesterday telling me that a former member of the ward, and one of my parents' dear friends (one-half of a couple with whom they traveled quite a bit in their younger days) had died. This was not entirely unexpected: Lucy (NRN) had been doing poorly for a long time, and she and her husband only recently moved into an assisted living place not far from their home in SW Utah. As group admin, it fell to me to announce her passing.

I knew Lucy as a teenager, she being charged at one point with hauling us girls around to various stake (diocesan) basketball and volleyball games. We called her "Mama Gort" (I have no idea why), and we were Gort's Warts. She was a good sport and full of vigorous enthusiasm, and I am certainly not the only one who has very fond memories of her. I am grateful that while I was visiting my parents a few weeks ago, I had the chance to see Lucy on one of her last truly good days: she was lucid, fairly mobile, and seemingly not in a lot of pain (which obviously might have had to do with painkillers, given her disintegrating spinal column).

Anyway, when I called my mom back to find out a bit more, she told me that my dad and Lucy's husband had given her a blessing the day before in which they "released her from this life." I do not know the exact wording of the blessing, though I know of other blessings in which sufferers are "sealed up unto death." While I am no longer a religious person and have a hefty degree of skepticism about all of this, there is a part of me that likes to think that Lucy, unconscious as she was at the time, nonetheless heard those words and finally could let go. She was such a believer, you see, right up until she took her last breath.

May she rest in peace, and may her husband and family and friends be comforted.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Bad guessing

For someone who has drawn umpty-zillion faces, I am astonished at how poor I am at guessing people’s ages, especially (so it seems) kids’ ages… and, sadly, particularly our own kids’ ages. Some things are obvious, of course: I can tell baby teeth from toothlessness and adult teeth, and glasses v. no glasses, but I'm often abysmally stumped. At times I've been off on dating certain photos by years.

And yeah, I'm surprised. I do a little better when it comes to me and Mr Mo. But my “CK DATE” folder has a lot of files in it.

Another thing that has surprised me (and irritated me, truth to tell) is coming across programs that have the month and day (or day range) printed, but no year. (I'm talking about YOU, CMU drama department, and you, now-defunct New Group Theatre, and pretty much every damned airline we've ever flown on up until around 2008 or so.) I've been able to track down most of the drama stuff via (e.g.) CMU’s online archive of the Tartan student newspaper, reviews from the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press and not-defunct Pittsburgh Post-Gazette… but some date-tracking isn't going to yield many if any results. It may be that I will find some ticket stubs in the Great Bin of Ticket Stubs Yet to Scan, but… who knows. The best I can do is sort such stuff into broader categories and hope I haven't guessed wrong.

And good luck to that.

Sunday 28 April 2019

Not such a bad thing (placeholder)

I have begun about a half-dozen blogposts over the past several months, all of which I intend to finish writing, but I find that scanning is one of those OCD-type activities that tends to overpower other kinds of good intentions. This said, with literally tens of thousands of docs and photos scanned and either sorted or underway (let's not talk about the OCD-ness of sorting, OK?), I am going make an effort to "regularly" wrench myself away from the scanning and sorting and do some writing based on what I've been coming across—not just the events and memories, but also some reflections about curating and preserving and cataloguing.

Although I've labeled this entry as a placeholder, there's a complete thought here: the other day I observed to Mr Mo that our memoirs will read much like a travelogue — and this is especially true of our lives since we moved to Europe. I said what I did in a slightly disparaging way, as though there's something wrong with a "travelogue life." I take it back, particularly as I have come across photos of relatives who essentially have not ever really traveled or who choose not to travel. It's a cliché, perhaps, to say that travel is enriching, but I think it's true. But it isn't the lack of travel that is in and of itself impoverishing, but rather… the lack of travel physically + the lack of travel intellectually, by which I mean not reading books or materials that lead to imagination, that stretch the boundaries of one's experience and comfort.

(In fairness, I can't say I've spent enough time with some of these relatives, nor with certain friends, some “erstwhile,” so I'm not in a position to know how they pass their time—even if it is obvious that they do not or cannot travel. Moreover, while I suspect there's a correlation between this lack of travel/reading/etc. and their political and social views, that's both entirely too facile and completely inductive. I'd like it to be true, saith the snob.)

Well, that's a digression, to say the least. The point is that I'm no longer slightly embarrassed about all the places we've been and the things we've seen and done. And I'm grateful that we've been able to travel, grateful that we were able to give our children the opportunity to travel and experience a larger world. I'm grateful, too, to have had good teachers, to have learned to read and think and imagine and all of that.

More to follow, good intentions and a renewed dollop of self-discipline willing.

Friday 18 January 2019

Becoming (but not Michelle)

I have been reading Michelle Obama's lovely autobiography, Becoming, over the past few days. Normally I plow through books in one or two sittings, but I am enjoying—no, savoring— her writing style and story. She's a good writer, and tells her story in a way that induces me to pause at the end of most sections and chapters and reflect on the parallels and differences between her life and mine (among other things).

After writing "I expect that Michelle had a very good editor who helped her figure out what details to include and what to leave out" just now, I was curious enough to go to the Acknowledgments at the end of her book. She not only had a good editor, but an entire team of fact-checkers and friends who helped shape her book. But her words are her own, based on journals and transcripts and conversations with family and friends and staff. And of course she had Barack and trusted friends read her drafts.

I think I'll have more to say about Becoming in the coming days. But I bring up editing, of course, not just because that is a large part of what I do professionally, especially these days (writing this in the wake of having edited some 13+ camera-related reviews and several other ancillary photography-related articles over a relatively short time span) — but because I am discovering, as I sift through the files and (thankfully diminishing) piles of papers and memorabilia — how… transient and sometimes even untrustworthy memories can be.

Tiny case in point: I have a sheaf of papers with notes from calendar entries from various time periods sitting on the desk. The paper on the top of the disorderly, unchronological heap happens to list a few events from 1980 and 1981, when I was in grad school at The Lord's University™. As it has relatively few entries compared to other papers in the pile, I'll jot them down here— along with what I remember for each one, as an exercise in showing the need for an editor(!!!)… and to illustrate how many of my memories have disappeared, even with notes intended to remind me of the details of the events. Note: the entries themselves are also unchronological, and I've retained that (lack of) order.

DMBA (knee) 80225047, $1,547.05: This must refer to the knee surgery I had to have following my first time downhill skiing. My sort-of, mostly ex-boyfriend at the time was an expert skier and kept encouraging me to try more and more difficult runs. I was doing fine until I hit a patch of ice and did the splits from the knees down… and stupidly kept right on skiing. Couldn't walk the next day. As this was an official church activity, the ward's insurance paid for it and for physical therapy. (The DMBA + number was either the insurance claim number or the hospital invoice number—more likely the former, as "DMBA" stands for "Deseret Mutual Benefits Administrators," which is the Mormon church's insurance company.)

Especially for Youth, June 16–20, 1980 (crossed out, I don't know why): I was a counselor for all three EFY sessions during the summer of 1980. Not sure why I didn't include the dates for the other two.

61st Ward Talent Show, 8 Sept 1980 — MC (different costumes—full scale): I did indeed emcee the ward talent show, and there are a couple of photos of me doing so, resplendent in my curly-haired perm at that time. But I don't have any photos showing me jumping on top of the desks and being absolutely over the top (manic?) in the role. (I think I was also MC at our ward Thanksgiving dinner, and that may have been when I was desk-jumping, come to think of it….)

17 Aug 1980 movie — "Airplane"?: While I remember the movie (largely because I saw it more than once, and still see certain funny clips on Facebook and YouTube from time to time—favorite bit is still Barbara Billingsley’s "I speak jive"), I don't remember going to see it then.

8 Dec 1980 tuition refund: What this doesn't say, but only implies, is that I dropped out of… not sure. The MA program in English? The pre-nursing courses I precipitously enrolled in at some point, unhappy as I was with pursuing English? (I was back in school for a while in 1981, however.)

22,23,24 Oct, 1980 — Monroe, Utah: I think this was one of my stints as a teacher in training (I ended up fulfilling nearly all the requirements for a Utah teaching certificate before figuring out that I'd never be able to live on the starting pay).

Friday Night Live: No clue, except of course that it was an event that followed the format of Saturday Night Live—was I a participant? or just a member of the audience?

Orem Jr. High, "The King and I," Feb. 26-28, 1981, M2, w/Diane (roses): I have no recollection of the performance. I assume that "M2" is the seat. I went with Diane Cooper, whom I'd met at EFY the previous summer; I think she was student teaching there. As for "roses"— maybe we brought some for the actors? Again, no clue.

W/ Robbie—Talent show (Zing & Mame) (no date): "Robbie" was an elder in my mission (the leader of the touring musical groups); he lived at home in Orem at that time, while going to school and teaching French at the MTC (missionary training center). We must have reprised the "Zing" number—as a comical addition to our spring tour, I lip-synced to the recording of my mother singing "The Italian Street Song" from Victor Herbert's operetta Naughty Marietta; I assume Rob took on the role of the men's chorus. "Mame"? Well, I know the musical from having seen the movie, but I don't know what we would have performed from it.

12 Aug 1980—lunch for Tanya P—Old Dan Tuckers (icky soup), Tanya knowing Arabic: Tanya worked with me for a while at KBYU, and I think this was a farewell lunch before she went on her mission to… Italy, if I'm not mistaken. No recollection of the "icky soup," however. Though I didn't know it at the time, of course, she and a friend of ours from Grenoble days, Melinda, knew one another from high school in (I believe) Beirut. (I found that out after reconnecting with Tanya on Facebook a short time ago.)

10 April 1981: Marilyn Nagle & Warren Ricks married — @#! reception: I do not remember who these people are at all, and why their reception merited the "@#!".

Wakefield piano contract: I can only assume from this that I rented a piano (which I certainly would have done, and had done at least one other time when an undergrad at BYU).

RSM window: This entry is accompanied by a scribble of an angel Moroni blowing a trumpet; this was, I believe, something that I painted on a Wilkinson Center window—with permission—while involved with the Returned Sister Missionaries organization. And not only was there an angel on the window, but apparently this poem as well:

Another Angel has flown!
His message is plain:
To the world make it known
Christ is coming again!

Thus endeth the entries for this page. And now, dear reader, assuming you're still with me here—NOW you know why people need editors, especially when dealing with autobiographical material. Yes, I will edit out the things I don't remember. But there's clearly more to the job than just that. I could (and may yet) write out, flesh out a couple of the stories that go along with the entries here, but figuring out whether doing so for those specific entries is worth the time and effort… is something else again.

"To be continued" (but no, don't worry, I'm not planning on subjecting people to this same kind of thing again!).

Sunday 13 January 2019

Nemacolin Castle & Brownsville blues

Back in the mid-to-late 1980s and into the early 1990s, I used a printer down in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to produce the tabloid-sized monthly Greenfield Grapevine. I cannot remember if I did this with every issue, but I drove the galleys down to the printer at least a few times during those years.

Brownsville is one of several towns that dot the banks of the Monongahela River; it was founded roughly around the same time as the French & Indian Wars in the 18th century. As with so many places in SW Pennsylvania, Brownsville's prosperity was largely tied to heavy industry, and when the steel and associated industries left, so did most of the ancillary businesses, and with them, much of the population — dropping from some 8,000 in its heyday (in 1940) to fewer than 2,400 as of the 2010 census.

I drove Brownsville's main drag several times, and each time I marveled at all the boarded-up storefronts and shuttered businesses. I wondered then, as I wonder now, just how precipitously things changed there. How long did it take steelworker families to figure out that those jobs were gone for good? How long did the ancillary businesses try to make a go of it? When did area schools "consolidate" before closing down entirely? Did chain stores swoop in, or did they decide the investment wouldn't be worth it? What kind of a future was there in the mid-1970s? What kind of future is there now? ("Or anywhere in the USA?"… I add grimly. Sigh.)

For all that I was very affected by the sight of such a downturn from prosperity to poverty, from opportunity to hopelessness, it never once crossed my mind that I or any of our children would be dealing with this kind of situation: we are not, after all, blue-collar folk (which doubtless sounds a lot snobbier than it is meant). While neither my nor Mr Mo's mom went to college (more than a term's worth for the latter, and no more than just for an occasional “continuing ed" course for the former), both our fathers had bachelor's degrees, and my dad ended up as a CPA. Our fortunes have not been so directly tied to industry per se, though the dot-com bubble burst and other types of downturns have seriously impacted our pensions and savings plans: retirement seems like a pipe dream at the moment.

Anyway. Our kids were not going to have to deal with the local factory shutting down and destroying the town. They would find safe economic and working harbors in different venues that hopefully would prove more long-lasting and secure. (—To which I now say, ha, ha.) What do, what will the derelict downtowns of high-tech look like? We were thankfully able to spare our kids the hideous kind of higher-ed debt that has destroyed so many of their peers' hopes and dreams, but just as with nearly every parent on the planet, we simply cannot guarantee what their futures will be.

But back to Brownsville. A bit farther along the Monongahela is the town of Nemacolin, which belongs to "greater Brownsville" at the moment. Nemacolin is notable because of its brick castle. From the website:

Nemacolin Castle, also known as Bowman's Castle, was…built beginning in the late 1790s around the original trading post, which was built near the site of Fort Burd, the latter built by British colonists during the French and Indian War. Construction on the castle, including addition of a crenellated tower, continued through the Victorian era, when it was considered an engineering marvel.

I went to the castle at least once, and from the photos of the grounds, resplendent with daffodils, I would have had to have been there in April or May (of 1987 or 88, given the print date stamps). I regret that I didn't go inside; however, I almost certainly had daughter 2 with me in the car, and I probably needed to get back to Greenfield to pick up daughter 1 from half-day kindergarten.

We mostly build monuments to ourselves, I suppose, in moments of prosperity. Nemacolin Castle was a monument to prosperity. But not all monuments are. I am thinking, of course, of the WWI monuments in every French town and village and hamlet, no matter how small, with their impossibly long lists of names. How does one pay tribute to the 25% of Frenchmen between 18 and 45 lost in that ridiculous, hideous "war to end all wars"? I think that if France had not built such monuments in every single place affected, there would have been rioting in the streets, rather than the grim resignation and the hollowed-out spirit that (in my not so humble opinion) contributed to France's ineffective responses in WW2.

How do the bricks of the castle pay tribute to the natives, the traders, the former soldiers, the women who all contributed to Euro-America's domination and western expansion? Whose descendants even know about their ancestors’ presence and possible participation in building up Brownsville, in building up Nemacolin? And what about the ones who stayed for a while, and then moved on?

What castle do I leave behind — do we leave behind? At the moment, we have a small maison du village with a tiny remise (annex) up the street, nearly paid for. What will it be worth this time next year? Or five years from now, wherever we and our posterity may be then? In times such as these, it's hard to predict. But… if I had anything resembling a yard at the moment, I think I'd plant daffodils and maybe some tulips as well. That for me will suffice as the biggest takeaway: Nemacolin Castle would be in ruins today, if not razed completely, had it not been for the Bowden family's donation of the property to the Brownsville Historical Society, which has kept the property up and made it accessible to the public. Planting bulbs, planting flowers, keeping the garden and the castle intact — that keeps it (and Nemacolin, and to some degree Brownsville) alive.

This said, there is an intrinsic value to that property in Nemacolin, unusual as it is, perched where it is on a hilltop overlooking the Mon and its valley and its towns. I cannot claim that for our property… so maybe we need to find something different to leave behind. But where? And what?

Tuesday 1 January 2019


(Yes, hi, it's January 1st, and this may well end up being one of the few times I blog all year, but who knows.)

My in-laws are hoarders. They go around their neighborhood on a roughly weekly basis and buy up anything that they think has any kind of value. Their principal home is full-to-bursting with other people's detritus; their second home is filling up rather more slowly, since they aren't there very much these days. But again, it's other people's stuff taking up space. The prospect of helping my husband and sibs-in-law go through all of this stuff is daunting.

I am a packrat. I have accumulated a lot of stuff as well, but nearly all of it is something tied to me or to my nuclear family: my/their papers, my/their souvenirs, and… my rocks, my fossils, my shells, my techno-findings, my "someday these will make extraordinary assemblage sculptures!" wooden bric-a-brac. However, I have been having some Salient Thoughts about this packratitude, to wit: (1) if I'm going to do some assemblage art, I ought to do it, and do it now; and (2) I do not want to inflict upon my posterity anything resembling the time-consuming awfulness that awaits Mr Mo and his siblings once my in-laws die. Given the winter and my bum shoulder and all, the second activity is easier to manage at the moment.

Accordingly, I have been spending this holiday time in France doing a lot of sorting and scanning and tossing… mostly of loose, binned papers, with occasional forays into scrapbooks and photos and such. I kept a LOT of the kiddies' papers over the years (OMG, such a lot), most of which I suspect they would find of marginal value and interest. I'd already done a bit of triage a few years back, but now I'm being more ruthless, at least physically: I'm still scanning too many things, but I've been keeping only perhaps 5% of the papers themselves (official documents, awards & certificates, letters from friends, anything resembling a journal entry, that sort of thing). My aim is to give each of our children access to The Great Cloud in Which All Things Dwell Eternally (sort of), with maybe a backup USB key. They can delete or save as they wish, but the raw files will endure forever, Amen. That is the theory.

The loose papers have been something of a jumble-y mess: in a given daughter's bin has been, for example, a mini-masterpiece from the Children's School stacked on top of, say, an orientation brochure from X university, followed by a middle school grade report. I have pretty much scanned things as stacked and put each digital batch into an appropriately-labeled folder (along the lines of "Offspring-2-A").

But there is Overlap and there are Intersections. Offspring 1's bin contains a copy of the same program that I already scanned from Offspring 2's bin. One daughter participated, the other attended. Depending on the event and the year and all, Offspring 3 may also have a copy, and of course I probably kept a copy of the same program as well. I mostly just plow ahead, I confess, as there's no easy way to go back through the digital docs at this point, but I don't like the duplicate/triplicate/quadruplicate effort. Finding and copying the Overlaps would be harder.

When I get around to scanning in all the family scrapbook stuff, my ultimate aim will be to select the best photos and include the most interesting parts of the brochures (as appendices?) in some kind of Grand Year-by-Year Family History. It will look and read like a travelogue and a catalog of places and events and … well. We have lived a life of upper-middle-class privilege — one of (dare I say) educated good taste in matters of art and aesthetics and so on. And as simple travelogue and catalog, all this effort points toward a very shallow, self-indulgent, and even sort of snobby self-congratulatory product: Look at us! Look at all the amazing places we've been! Look at all the fun we've had! Look at all the great art we've seen! Look at all the things we've done!

… What I want to try to recapture in all of this, as much as memory will permit, is how these experiences, these excursions, these very privileged activities impacted our lives, made us (hopefully) better people, broadened our views, deepened our sense of connectedness with other people. Does it matter that we went to Virginia Beach (long before 3 was born)? I remember the alligator snapping turtle at the remote WV campground on the way down. I remember the boardwalk through the mangroves — the dark, brackish water, the Spanish moss hanging down… and somewhere, just somewhere in a scrapbook or another bin or even in some poor sad little notebook in which I sporadically kept a journal, there may be more to what I remember, better descriptions of the still air, the surprising lack of mosquitoes, the slight hope of spotting some kind of exotic-to-us bird or maybe an alligator (not sure alligators lived there).

At various points in time, I have been caught up in reliving the past. My current effort, however, is aimed at imposing order and putting the past in its proper place and in better proportion. Getting rid of the excess is part and parcel of (re)claiming what is important about these life experiences; and being able to pass on more than just Bins of Chaos is worth the time. My past, my family's past is my favorite hobby, and that idea — past as hobby — has been very freeing.

And now — to the bins and to the scanner! Away!

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Sixty dozen eggs and riding an elephant

Unlike my entry for Franconia Notch, my endless sifting through the plethora of brochures and photos and papers and so on doesn't always succeed in resurrecting memories. Two cases in point:

1. I found an early-1990s letter from Hunger Services Network in Pittsburgh thanking me for the donation of 60 dozen eggs. Um. I feel relatively certain that had I transported 720 eggs in our Honda Civic 4x4 from a farm to HSN's distribution center, surely I would have remembered it! — OK, maybe not, but I ultimately figured out what to me is a more likely and reasonable explanation: I was doing paid and pro bono production editing for HSN at the same time I was the Mormon rep on the One Voice Against Racism interfaith council. My best guess is that one of the other religious leaders let it be known that someone in their congregation had all these eggs, but didn't know what to do with them, so I provided the info about HSN, thereby facilitating the transfer of eggy goodness to those in need.

2. Before roughly two weeks ago, if someone had asked me if I'd ever ridden an elephant, I'd've said no. I was therefore completely surprised to discover a later-1990s photo of me (along with several others) on the back of a small (and not terribly happy-looking) pachyderm. A little more digging produced a map of the activities and attractions at King Richard's (Renaissance) Faire in the greater Boston area — and lo, yes, there was indeed an elephant ride there. I vaguely recall the Faire itself, probably because one of my AAVSO coworkers was part of a roving madrigal singing group there, but still no recollection of how it felt to ride an elephant.

(By contrast, I do remember how it felt to ride a camel in Tunisia, especially the bone-jarring dismount, which was unpleasant enough that I will likely never repeat the experience.)

Had I been a good journal writer — that is, had I written about more than just my Internal Frame of Mind and Soul and all (a.k.a. journal as therapist / punching bag), I'd have tried to capture these kinds of experiences: the smells, the sounds, the sights, the surroundings; perhaps musings about animal rights, and so on. I have been remiss about this sort of thing for most of my writing life, I think, except possibly when attempting to write letters (or emails) to other people in the hope of entertaining them.

The entire point of keeping memorabilia, of organizing scrapbooks, is not simply to catalogue the places we've visited, the shows that we've seen, the activities we've participated in — no, the point really is to have a means of capturing the stories associated with these things. What did we learn? What was the experience like? What was the takeaway? Why was it meaningful, or funny, or otherwise worth remembering?

As I keep discovering to my mostly minor dismay, so many stories are simply lost — I guess the synapses are recycled for other, more recent memories. For example, I have come across notes and cards thanking me for kindnesses and services rendered, humorous stories told, songs sung, lessons taught, and so on. Not only do I not remember these things (even when the thanks are reasonably explicit)… I often don't remember who the people are.

My takeaway from all this is — dear readers (especially my kiddies), if you're keeping a few things to remind you of various events, jot down the salient details while they're still present in your brain. Don't wait. Nor would it hurt to keep at least a bare-bones diary of the everyday events and activities in which you're engaged now and in the future. Sifting through papers and letters to … to recover and explain the course of your life long after the fact is hard. And you will not remember all (or even a small portion) of all of the things that you believed would be "unforgettable" at the time you experienced them.

Monday 30 April 2018

In memoriam, Odile (1960-2018)

My friend Odile died this past Saturday afternoon, April 28th, after a long battle with cancer. On Friday, I’d sent a couple of photos of me holding our first grandchild to Odile’s sister Christine, along with a few thoughts on “the circle of life.” Christine wrote yesterday that she was able to tell Odile the happy news on Saturday morning during Odile’s last lucid moments, after which she lapsed into unconsciousness and died a few hours later. (And yes, Christine used a close variant of the phrase “elle nous a quitté” — “she has left us.”)

I am glad Odile is no longer suffering, and that her loved ones are spared further pain in watching her suffer. She lasted far longer than I thought she would, and fought death like a tiger — not because she was afraid to die (at least such was her mindset when she and I talked so frankly about such things many months ago), but because she loved life so much. She had learned to live and rejoice in the moment.

She helped me when I needed help, going beyond cultural norms to do so. I know she thought of her intervention as small and insignificant, but just as the celebrated beating of a butterfly's wings in China potentially creates a storm in the Atlantic, her small acts of kindness, her frankness and honesty, calmed me and helped me make important progress in overcoming the painful storm in my soul, and I will ever be grateful to her.

I hope in my heart of hearts to see her again.

Sunday 29 April 2018


I've been a professional writer and editor since my senior year in college, which was… oh, golly, some 40 years ago now. My first real job came about because one of my English professors was involved in a Mormon church project that required simplifying the missionary discussions, with the goal of reducing them from 18,000 to 12,000 words and taking the reading level down from roughly 12th grade to 6th grade or lower.

He and the rest of his team were stuck, and the deadline was hard upon them: each of the discussions was at least 500 words above the maximum and they simply couldn't get any further. I was initially hired just to count words. After I reported the numbers, this professor essentially threw up his hands and out of sheer frustration or desperation, suggested that I take a crack at it. I did, trimming and combining and simplifying like crazy. When I gave that first discussion back to him, easily under the maximum, he read through it and was utterly gobsmacked, pronouncing my work beautiful and inspired and, and, and. The upshot was that I did the final versions for five of the eight missionary discussions that (so I understand) served as the basis for translation into other languages.

Yes, I know how to edit. And yes, I know how to simplify content (see The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon). There is an art to rephrasing, there is an art to abridging — to figuring out what content is essential to a work, to finding ways of making simple language convey powerful concepts in a way that is hopefully still… beautiful, or at least "better than adequate.” More challenging, perhaps, is the art of annotation — of adding material, usually as a footnote or endnote, that the original author has left out. Simple clarification or correction or expansion isn't especially difficult — adding, for example, notable information about a person to whom the author made passing reference in the body of the text; what is problematic is when the author is flat-out wrong (either carelessly or more seriously, deliberately), or has omitted information that is (in one's editorial opinion) essential to the narrative, but which the author felt was too embarrassing or personal to include.

I bring this all up because I'm currently typing in my mother's personal history, at this point a 62-page account all in longhand that goes up to 1990 or so. (I'm encouraging her to keep working on the rest.) I've found a couple of minor factual errors, such as the year our family moved from Canoga Park to Tarzana, and I've been adding a few things (photos of her elementary school, that sort of thing). But there are omissions in her account. Most of these I have no problem adding in (in square brackets), and I'm absolutely sure she will be fine with those additions, but there are a handful of other things that she left out, and I'm not sure what to do about them.

I already had a discussion with her some years ago about her leaving out some of the salient details about her first date with my dad. She felt that those details were not "uplifting," even if I found them hilarious. (Clearly I value humor over "uplifting," at least in this particular instance.) I… am still trying to figure out what makes the most sense to do with my mom's "untold stories.”

This all said, I'm trying to figure out what makes the most sense in telling or not telling my own stories. Some few years back I figured out that some fair bit of my writing, particularly my missionary stuff presented verbatim, was boring. There's very little depth in what I wrote down and shared with my family — mostly "this week we did this and that, taught x number of discussions, yadda-yadda." What I wish I had done, be it in letters home or to others, was describe events and people, paint word pictures of the places and experiences I had. I'm not sure if I can reconstruct from the bare-bones narrative style something that can convey the experience of serving a mission in NE France in the late 1970s. And what do I do about my missionary journal, laden as it is with punching-bag entries, hyper-religious self-condemning assessments, and so on? They reflect inner turmoil and lofty aspirations pretty well, but viewed 40 years later, and from a perspective far removed from the mindset I was in back then… it all seems over the top, and carries a different kind of distortion: there's a lot left out as well.

(I couldn't be as honest with my family, especially with my younger brothers, about what I was going through in the same way as I could with, say, Lianne, a missionary serving in Holland at the same time, but I have a lot more family letters to work with than I do letters to Lianne.)

In a different time period, all too many of my letters to Barbara and journal entries were very much in the "let it all hang out" style. And yet. I was very conscious of my audience — I wanted to impress Barbara with my … my what? Spirituality? Intellect? And I was too conscious as well that my journal was (per everything I'd been taught at church about such things) intended for Posterity to read — I was supposed to treat it as some kind of volume of personal scripture. So yeah. My mom's excising of the parts of her life story that she deemed unworthy of how she wants her descendants to view her is something I can understand pretty well, even if I lament the loss of those details of personal imperfection that make her story (and my own) more human and real. (And in some cases, funny as all hell.)

To be continued.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Waiting for “elle nous a quitté”

I received a note the end of July from my grenobloise friend Odile's sister, C, telling me that Odile's health had taken a turn for the worse and that she no longer fully recognizes her surroundings. And two months ago, C wrote to say that “parfois elle est consciente de son état, autres fois, elle espère encore” — “sometimes she is conscious of her state, other times, she still hopes” — a sentence I find so poignant that it still brings tears to my eyes.

I have not heard from C since, although she has said that my weekly emails are appreciated. As is so often the case for those suffering from long-term illness, no direct contact with anyone other than a tiny circle of intimate friends and family for many months means that it is easy to be — not forgotten, exactly, but no longer a focus of attention among one’s larger circle of friends and colleagues. This is normal.

I feel I owe Odile so much that I want her — or at least her family — to know that I have not forgotten her. I understand that C is the gatekeeper and conveys as much or as little of what I write, and the photos I share, as she thinks Odile can deal with. I also understand that the cancer has had significant and increasing cognitive impacts, and for all I know, Odile may not even remember who I am at this point. But I will keep writing until C tells me that Odile “nous a quitté” — “she has left us,” which is the French equivalent of our own “she has passed.”

Odile’s situation, along my father’s very recent serious health scare (and ongoing issues pertaining to home hospice, aging, disability, and so on)… has been very sobering. I don't mean in a depressing sort of way, exactly, though I have to say that being here at my parents’ and watching my dad struggle, and watching my mom flailing about trying to cope, has done nothing to sell me on the desirability of living to a(n over)ripe old age. Au contraire. I marvel, however, that despite discomfort and difficulty, and despite the fact that both Odile and my parents do not fear death (and quite honestly, I think Odile consciously came to terms more readily with dying than my parents have — or at least than my mom has done thus far) — anyway, despite all this, Odile lives on, my dad lives on (and much better now that he’s received a pacemaker). The will to live is very strong despite pain and disability and death’s inevitability.

As for my mother, she seems so stressed — not without cause — that I honestly wonder if she might precede my father in death. So far she has not figured out a way to cope with his infirmities (especially his deafness and physical slowness)… along with her own aging and slowly-decreasing auditory acuity. My dad hopes that I can help my mom change some of her habits and expectations. I am armed with some relatively straightforward suggestions that in principle, if she adopts, will make life easier. Straightforward or no, it is hard to change a lifetime’s worth of certain behaviors. I will try — it is disquieting and sad to see how hard this is for both of them.

Well. Back to Odile. I have no way of knowing if she will make it to Christmas this year, and of course even if she does, whether that would be a happy thing for her loved ones. The last time I saw her in person was in October 2016, and I have known for nearly a year that I will not see her again in this life. Her sister has assured me that Odile is not physically suffering, and hopefully that will continue to be true right up until the end. That being the case, my thought/prayer is that — if it is a comfort to them that Odile linger longer, may she do so; but if it is a continuing source of sorrow to see her in such a diminished state, then may she die soon in peace.

I don't know if there will be a funeral or memorial, and even if there is, I don’t expect to be able to attend. I have drafted a letter to C and to her and Odile’s mother expressing my profound appreciation for this very frank and kind woman’s help to me at a time when I was in such great need. And for as long as I am cognitively capable of doing so, I will remember her.

I will update this post when Odile is gone. Update, 30 April 2018: In memoriam, Odile (1960-2018)

Friday 3 November 2017

Meanwhile, back down in The Run…

Mr Mo, the Embot, and I spent a couple of days back in Pittsburgh at the end of August. It had been a while since we'd each visited, and of course no trip to da Burgh would be complete without the pilgrimage to our former homes there.

Accordingly, we went back to Greenfield and discovered that The Greenfield Organization (where I used to work) no longer exists (at least in the physical world — there is still apparently some kind of internet-based community entity), among other changes. After visiting Greenfield Elementary School, we headed down the hill to Lower Greenfield, a.k.a. Four Mile Run, a.k.a. The Run, where we'd lived for eight years, and where we were resident when all three of our children were born (albeit only briefly wrt Youngest).

I had already discovered via Google Earth a few years back, much to my enormous surprise, that one of the houses next door to us (the one on the uphill side) had disappeared. While some further googling informed me a bit about what had happened to the neighbors: the wife (whom we knew when she was a teenager and who had very occasionally babysat our kids) left that house — her childhood home, followed by an ugly divorce and custody battle, followed by the death of her loutish AK47-toting ex-husband at a young age … I couldn't find anything about what had happened to the house. In the interim, the next uphill neighbor had purchased the lot and essentially allowed the back part — where the house had stood — to turn into a little pond-like wilderness, complete with cattails. That neighbor was not home. Despite certain parties' misgivings, I went over to our other next-door neighbor's house and knocked.

Jeanne was home, and pretty much the first thing out of her mouth was to say that she had hardly recognized me, given all the weight I'd put on in the intervening years. I laughed and observed that she, by contrast, had lost a lot of weight.

As neighbors, we had remained simply friendly acquaintances over the eight years we lived there; in fact, we usually talked only when we happened to be outside at the same time hanging up our laundry on our respective backyard lines. Married to Leon (deceased for about 10 years now, I think), Jeanne had legal custody of her daughter's first two children, Missy and DJ. Missy was disabled — and my understanding was that Missy was disabled because her father had seriously abused her. In any event, Jeanne kept her grandchildren under close watch. There were occasional loud squabbles that emanated from their household over the years (of course, I'm not sure our own contretemps were all that quiet; and, too, the Embot hated getting her hair washed so much as a young child that she would scream utter bloody murder every time) — but it wasn't necessarily Jeanne vs. Leon: sometimes it was between her and her daughter, who lived across town; sometimes it would involved Jeanne's son Danny.

I think I went inside Jeanne's house only once the entire time we lived in The Run, and that was when I came to collect the Embot and the Ner: I'd received a call from Mr Mo's boss after lunch one fine day. "I think Mr Mo has eaten something that disagreed with him," said he. "Oh?" I replied. "Yeah, the paramedics are working on him now." Umm. I took the girls next door and asked Jeanne if she could watch them while I went to the hospital. (Verdict: Mr Mo cannot eat scallops ever, ever, ever.)

Anyway, after the emergency wound down, I went home and picked up the kids. Jeanne's living room was clean, the furniture a bit worn but conventionally so; there was a large TV,… and there was not one book nor magazine in sight. I perceived not too long after that that Jeanne was functionally illiterate, after she'd come over with some kind of letter from a utility company that she asked me to explain to her.

The last time I'd spoken with Jeanne — several years after we'd moved to Europe and all, I was pleased to find out that DJ had graduated from Allderdice High with honors and was successfully managing some kind of big box store. Given the mentality of so many people in the area, kids in particular (including DJ) — that becoming a sports star was the only ticket to success, I found his turnaround very heartening. This time Jeanne related that DJ lived in Florida with his wife and 4 (or 5?) kids and was still doing very well for himself. Missy, however, had been taken from Jeanne's custody and was institutionalized; and Jeanne's son Danny had been killed in a motorcycle accident just a couple of years ago. Jeanne now lives by herself and rather likes it, seeing her family (both near and far) when and if she pleases (though she seemed pleased that DJ flies her down to Florida every so often to see her great-grandchildren). She'd had a pretty rough life in a lot of ways, but she seemed in decent health and spirits for all that.

As for what had happened to the other house next door, it had burned down. Our former babysitter had remarried and apparently still lived someplace nearby. Whether she regained custody of her kids from her noxious ex-inlaws, I don't know. Jeanne's news about other neighbors that were from our time was a bit sparse, though we also learned that both the deaf man and his vicious dog had died; so-and-so was in the hospital; other folks with familiar names had died or moved away; the druggies down the street were druggies still, and their kids were even worse, etc.

Following all these revelations, we went down to the end of our old street and explored a bit behind Big Jim's (best pizza in town, at least when we lived there). Mr Mo and the Embot went up into Panther Hollow while I knocked on the door of what had been the Parish House attached to St Joachim's Catholic Church. The parish had been shut down some years before — swallowed up by St Rosalia's up the hill after many years of trying to stay afloat. The man who now owned both the parish house and the church (using the latter as a sound studio) had been our newspaper delivery boy all those many years before. He remembered us, these odd folks from the outside who took up residence in what had been a fairly tightly-closed enclave, particularly during its banner years (i.e., when the steel mills on Second Avenue were still operating). We never really fit in: though the Embot attended half-day kindergarten at Greenfield Elementary, both she and the Ner ended up going to CMU Children's School rather than to St Rosalia Catholic School; and apart from a nice young couple on Acorn St (who have long since moved to a farm about an hour north of Pittsburgh), we were never more than friendly acquaintances with a handful of other folks in that little blue-collar neighborhood. (Nor did we fit in "upper Greenfield" itself, for all that I worked for the G.O. and edited/produced the Greenfield Grapevine monthly for a good decade.)

—At the time, that was OK: we had friends at church with whom we're still close, and likewise we still have dear friends from Mr Mo's time at CMU. There is a little part of me, however, that wonders if we ended up missing out on more than we knew then — and now.

Monday 30 October 2017

OK, fine, typewriters.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through enormous changes — from starting out in the horse-and-buggy era to owning and driving automatic transmission cars; from seeing the first airplanes overhead to jetting from New York to California; from operator-assisted party-lines to private telephones (first rotary, then touchtone); from silent black & white films to color talkies to drive-ins to special effects (though wrt this last category, I went to see Star Wars with Grandma B, and she honestly had no idea how to interpret what she'd seen).

Anyway, they lived through some amazing technological transitions while experiencing the big events of the 20th century — two world wars (with voting rights for women and the Great Depression in between), the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, … and the list goes on.

When I thought about the technological transitions I've seen, baby-boomer that I am, my first thought was — honestly, my first thought was typewriters. I started out in the era of full-manual, push-the-damned-platen-back-to-the-left-by-yourself machines — of which my family owned two, neither of which I used very much, mostly because I completely and totally resisted taking typing lessons in junior high and high school. I was absolutely not going to be a secretary — but I hadn't realized that I'd need to type my papers in college.

So OK, I ended up taking a typing class in college, and by then America had moved forward through electric typewriters that still involved individual keys striking paper, but moved the platen (the carriage) back with the press of a button, to wholesale adoption of IBM Selectric-style machines that moved a type-ball instead of the platen itself.

The Selectric was a marvel: you could put on different type-balls with different fonts or italicized fonts — what a wonder! And painstakingly erasing errors with an honest-to-God eraser (or in the worst — and for me, the most common — case, giving up and typing the entire page over again) was replaced by eraser tape and white-out.

A greater marvel was the advent of so-called self-correcting Selectrics — machines that had eraser tape built right in. This was the pinnacle of the One True Typewriter right up until word-processing on desktop computers became affordable and commonplace. (I did work a little in emacs, but I'm going to forget that ever happened; the Mac came along in time to largely spare me.) To be able to look over and format documents and fix problems on-screen before sending something to the printer (aside: in the early 1980s, we borrowed from my in-laws the $3,000 that it cost to buy a LaserWriter), being able to print multiple copies without using carbon paper! — it was mind-boggling to me then, and I sometimes frankly envy my kids for never having had to deal with the more primitive technology.

I've yet to use much in the way of voice-recognition to set down my ideas and clever turns of phrase and all, though I've ventured a tiny way into machine-assisted musical notation.

There are obviously plenty of other changes I've seen — but honestly, unlike the changes in my grandparents' lives, most of what has come into my life seem to have been improvements, sometimes massive improvements, to existing technologies rather than outright innovations. (I recognize that I am not particularly privy to lots of cutting edges in the world at large, nor to all of the background innovation responsible for such vast improvements; I'm speaking simply about common daily first-world life as I experience it: computers, telephones, transportation, and so on.)

I have lived through the duck-and-cover of the Cold War, Kennedy's assassination, Vietnam, … all the way up until the present horror of America's downward spiral, of huge environmental degradation, of ever-accelerating climate change, of massive overpopulation and all that that portends. It is less and less clear to me that technology will be able to save us from our human-generated catastrophes, even if it makes it a lot easier to write about them. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Greatness and glory

I read a quote this morning taken from the brilliant xkcd comic (no. 896, “Marie Curie”), to wit: “You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.” I am also put in mind of a small laminated poster that was on my side of the large mirror in the bedroom I shared with my sister in Los Angeles: it featured Linus (of Peanuts fame), holding his blanket and solemnly proclaiming, "There is no heavier burden than a great potential."

… And I think the latter quote, that being conscious of the burden, can go a long way in short-circuiting the wisdom of the first quote. It's kind of like being too audience-conscious when writing: for many years I felt that whatever I wrote, whatever I'd intend to write, had to be done with the idea in mind of Leading People to the Church, and the result was… a lack of results — very little writing, and certainly what writing there was pretty bad overall (even my small efforts at sci-fi always had an LDS missionary undercurrent). Definitely not publishable.

Among the notable exceptions were The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon (ETRBOM), "Buttons" (Sunstone piece), and some of my Mormon feminist essays. I felt deeply about all of these things, about the importance of doing them. It helped that the audiences I had in mind were almost entirely LDS, yes, and that it was relatively easy to adapt some of the mofem essays for a non-Mormon audience thereafter. Simplifying but retaining the message of the Book of Mormon, trying to explain things, making arguments to promote or defend a point of view that seemed (and still seems) morally and intellectually just — I feel, in retrospect, that I lived up to my (writerly) potential with those projects.

Doing so, however, exacted a cost in other areas of my life (and no surprise there): with the ETRBOM in particular, I felt pushed and compelled such that I feel to this day that there were times I neglected my family, neglected myself, too. And at the height of my mofem-ness, the same was true. The satisfaction — the enormous satisfaction of writing, of receiving praise as a writer (I treasure in particular Mario de Pillis, Sr.'s assessment of my cool-headedness and logic when debating issues on-line with various shades of Neanderthals) — all this was in some measure undercut by hearing in my head/heart the church's insistent message that The Most Important Calling for Women in This Life is Motherhood, and that our kids were spending far too much time at the babysitter's or in front of the TV while I fanatically worked on the ETRBOM and/or engaged online.

…I would like to think, and indeed I hope that I didn't cause our daughters any permanent damage.

So here I am at roughly the start of the last quarter of my life — or, the gods willing and genetic trends upholding, the last third of my life — and I find myself a bit at loose ends. I have a few artsy things that I feel reasonably enthusiastic about doing this week (e.g., painting in oils while Mr Mo is away, odor be danged). I am all too conscious that my contributions to the family coffers have been fairly minimal since I parted ways with SAP … nearly two years ago now. I was too ill to work in any way approximating full-time for a long while — more ill than I or Mr Mo may have realized — but even though I'm sorta kinda pretty much back to normal, I've yet to find a focus. (It's true that I would have been and would still be totally fine with working for my Paris client a LOT more, but the volume comes and goes in fits and starts, and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, alas. My illness did not affect my translation and editing skills, thank the gods.)

A lot of people, myself included, joke about figuring out what they want to be when they grow up — but the joke is less and less humorous the closer and closer I get to my (wildly theoretical) retirement.

Well, time to get cracking. Awakening to "falling back" an hour was a gift this morning, as is the burst of sunshine right this minute on a day when storms and rain and gray are predicted.

Monday 23 October 2017

Ratting out Ludmilla

When I am old — I mean, so old that I can't hit the high notes and moving down to alto or tenor isn't a solution because I cannot hear the notes well enough to sing them on-key… well, may I perceive this all by myself and retire gracefully, rather than become a burden to whatever choral group I may belong to at the time.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's recent retirement at age 70 put me in mind of this, as well as in mind of hearing Beverly Sills’s performance when she was in the last stages of her career: her voice was noticeably tired at the end of the recital, and she was not quite on pitch with her highest notes, even if her coloratura runs were still light and silvery. But what really prompts this post is that I ratted out Ludmilla during choir practice in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and then interpreted her absence at subsequent rehearsals as a direct result of having done so.

I am often assigned during concerts to sing between two of the choir's oldest sopranos, Marlene and Ludmilla. Marlene has inconsistent vocal quality, with a noticeable wobble at times, and it seems clear that she doesn't study her music as assiduously as she ought to. She laughs off her mistakes — but sometimes so often and so close to performance dates that I want to snap at her that it's no laughing matter. (Yeah, I get that laughter is a cover for embarrassment, so I refrain. Besides, I am not perfect either — quelle surprise — despite consistent practice.) But it was Ludmilla's increasing pitch problems that finally induced me to talk to our section leader, Sabine. Although I usually hold my pitch and prevail, having a next-door neighbor consistently sing flat is distracting and grating.

(It's one thing, by the way, to belong to a choral group whose principal function is as much social as it is musical, as was the case with at least two out of the three French choirs to which I belonged in Grenoble. Local people pay their dues, they get together to sing, they enjoy chatting together. The essentially geographically-bounded nature of those two French choirs contribute to the sociality: these are people who often see one another in other venues throughout the week: they are friends before they are choir members together. A choir such as the one here in Berlin — one with pro-level aspirations and potential, one that draws singers from all over Berlin, one that requires a level of trained musicianship to belong — is quite another thing. Although friendships do form, thankfully, our goal is to perform, and we try to sing to a standard that makes the choice of venue, the Berlin Philharmonie, seem appropriate rather than absurd.)

With all that in mind, I went up to Sabine during the break and talked to her about Ludmilla (not for the first time, I confess, but this time with some real urgency). I am not the only person to have complained about her — which is why I ended up having to switch places with a less-dominant soprano at the last minute to stand between Ludmilla and Marlene just before a recent concert. But… Ludmilla. She is a lovely woman, kind and funny, a devoted member of the choir for many years, full of good works and fundraising efforts. A widow now, with no children nearby, the choir seems to have been her major social outlet for a long time. How do you put someone like that out to pasture, how do you tell someone that they're no longer good enough to sing, how do you tell them that they've become a detriment to the group's performance?

Sabine said she would talk to Johann, our conductor, about Ludmilla… again.

Who wants the job of breaking people's hearts? When I sang with a 110-voice semi-pro choir in Los Angeles years ago, the problem of aging voices pulling down the entire choir finally became such an issue that the founder-conductor made everyone reaudition. I was one of the principal accompanists for the reauditions, so I heard nearly everyone sing—and there were some truly noticeable problems with more than just a handful of singers. However, at the end of the reauditions, no one was asked to leave. No one. Even though the conductor’s own hearing was getting a little iffy, it wasn't because he couldn't hear the problems that he chose not to ask anyone to leave. One of the worst singers was the wardrobe mistress, followed by the social chairperson, followed by the choir secretary. How do you retain people filling such key non-musical roles if they are no longer allowed to sing?

When I was the choir director for our church congregation in Pittsburgh, I understood and accepted the idea that the choir was a way to engage people, and that that was reason enough to allow musically-interested but not especially talented people to sing. One man in particular, Chris, had an okay voice, but was usually on the planet Jupiter when it came to actually learning whatever music we ended up presenting during church services. People would occasionally perceive his off-the-beaten-track tenor warbling above (or alongside) the actual musical number. It drove some choir members crazy, and once in a while drove me crazy, too. But the overarching idea of giving this man a reason to come to church ruled out refusing to let him sing: after all, he showed up on a regular basis, so it's not as though I could have legitimately used attendance as a reason.

Anyway. Ludmilla has not been present at any rehearsals that I know of since I talked to Sabine. (I was away for three subsequent rehearsals, so I have no idea if she was there for those or not. I haven't seen her since my return.) The other night I expressed my regrets about Ludmilla’s absence to Sabine, who then told me that no, she had not talked to Johann about Ludmilla and that — I'm not sure I caught it, as Sabine was talking to me in German —that there was an altogether different reason why Ludmilla won’t be singing in the upcoming concert. So my semi-guilty conscience is assuaged. I still have to deal with singing next to Marlene, however, and I swear to God if she keeps laughing off her bad entrances or notes held too long or other errors, especially during the last rehearsals before our performance, … I’ll probably keep my mouth shut. Except when singing.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Um. I'm back. It's been too long.

I've been AWOL (or certainly "absent") from the blogosphere for nearly a year now. How time flies, and not just when having fun. I've had a fair bit of fun since my last mofembot blog post, done a fair bit of traveling… while processing and processing and processing and processing all kinds of $h¡† related to my last blog entry. Processing was hard and not always helpful while in the midst of it, but now that I've come out the other side… well.

My way was littered with more tears and more bottles of Red Stag and other powerful beverages than I would have imagined possible. I understand very well the desire — maybe the need — to feel numb when processing stirs up thoughts and memories and feelings that are too painful or embarrassing or otherwise overwhelming. "Lean into the pain" is good advice (and yes, a big h/t to Tara Brach's "Radical Acceptance" for the thought), but doing so too early or for too long seems frankly counterproductive, especially when someone (and that would be me) tends to obsess and have a terrible time letting go of whatever has captured my attention or interest at any given time.

Anyway. It is a relief to feel "normal" (or perhaps more accurately, "normally weird") again. I expect I'll be writing more often, and writing about things that are not quite so much navel-gazing in nature. So yeah. Hi.

(Update, 26 Sept 2018: I've been far more sporadic in my writing than I'd anticipated when I wrote this. I hope to do better.)

Wednesday 10 August 2016

What I want to say is this

A few months ago a Grenobloise friend of mine sent me a link to a long talk by a Québecois psychologist. I watched the talk — navigating through the ravaged "a" vowels of Québécois French — and came away with a number of helpful insights. The one that has stuck with me is this: "A large part of suffering is due to not accepting that which is" ("une grande partie de la souffrance est dûe à la non-acceptation de ce qui est").

It is well more than a year since I dragged my bleeding psyche out of Grenoble and headed home to Berlin, devastated by having lost the friendship and respect of someone I loved, in some ways most particularly because I had not had a clue as to why things had ended so horribly. I mourned this loss in much the same way as I grieved for the death of another important friend, Barbara, much earlier in my life. My Grenobloise friend kindly acted as a liaison and was able to furnish me with some reasons for the rupture with the lost friend. I didn't like the reasons I heard. I had a hard time accepting that my over-the-top behavior had turned me into someone too difficult, too toxic, for this friend to deal with. Despite the hard truth, I honestly shudder to think where I might be today if this kind friend had not intervened. Ignorance is not bliss — not at all.

I have gone through so many mental conversations, mental apologies, appeals to untoward circumstances (my being clinically depressed, etc.), recognition of various incompatibilities between us, rationalizations about the unlikelihood of a continued relationship even under the best of circumstances… and all such pretend conversations with the lost friend have been quite fruitless in mitigating my feelings of failure and regret. I am not capable of changing the situation. I cannot fix this. It is possible that the passage of time may prove me wrong, but for the foreseeable future, this friend is lost. I am dead to her, buried alive, a voice she cannot bear to hear, a writer she cannot bear to read. Accepting this without continuously beating myself up over it has been very hard.

But if I have not arrived 100% at acceptance, I am a lot closer to it today than I was before. Learning to practice self-compassion, forgiveness, coming to terms with an ugly ending in a way that does not promote bitterness, that does not require me to find fault with my lost friend… sigh. This episode was such an unexpected event in my life from start to … current finish. Some amazingly naive part of me thought that at my advanced age, there was little I didn't understand about relationships and friendship and caring — and about myself. Mon frickin' Dieu.

I owe much to several people, among whom are Mr. Mo first and foremost; to my American confidantes, "Ms Arizona" in particular; to Oldest, whose advice to "let go of the narrative" has been so helpful; and to this Grenobloise friend. After a few months of letting me vent, she finally lost patience with me, and understandably so: she is dying of cancer, and quite apart from whatever discomfort she may have felt by finding herself between me and the lost friend, she seemed to find it unbearable that I should waste so much precious time and energy stewing in my regrets and mourning someone whom I had to let go of — for my own sake, if not for her sake and for the sake of others dear to me.

Letting go takes a lot of effort, especially when what we want to hold onto seems so precious and irreplaceable. But hanging onto something hopeless makes it hard to hold onto what we still have that is equally or even more precious, and makes it very hard to reach out towards new experiences and possibilities.

I still have times when I wonder if I will ever truly get over what happened. Past experience is indicative that yes, I will. It will not be today, it will likely not be tomorrow, and possibly not for quite a while yet, but the passage of time does indeed help. If life allowed for do-overs… ah. But it does not. So forward we go, forward I go, grateful for all the good people and things I have in my life, less and less prone to look back with regret at the people and things I have lost. Accepting what is does, in fact, help to mitigate sorrow… Gott sei Dank.

Friday 26 February 2016


It has been just over a year since my last blog post, and… what a year it has been. As 2014 truly qualified as a turbulent "Z Cam" year, I'm not sure in which stellar category I could possibly place 2015 — perhaps a series of Type II supernovae?

The short (!) story is that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder while in Grenoble, brought on by a number of factors, including the resumption of choral singing and meeting someone who reminded me a lot of my late friend Barbara. That person became very important to me. Unfortunately, the PTSD had the effect of my becoming largely the same person I was 40 years ago — a teenager, with all of the same kinds of obsessive behavior and hyper-perfectionism and so on that the passage of time had tamped down (at least to some degree). I was able to be "myself" again during those too-brief intervals when I was able to go home to Berlin (and sometimes to Quinson, but mostly whenever and wherever Mr Mo was)… and then I'd relapse shortly after going back to Grenoble.

To say that this was upsetting and disorienting doesn't come close to describing my inner turmoil. After many ups and downs (a.k.a. the Z Cam year), things smoothed out emotionally for me during the first quarter of 2015; and then, unhappy with my job agency's chronically late payments and refusal to allow me to work from home even just one week per month, I accepted a different job that would let me go home and pay me 25% more.

The new job started the beginning of May, and since I could do it long-distance, and had invested so much time in the three French choirs I was singing with, I decided to stay in Grenoble until the end of the choral season. But pretty much from the moment I accepted the job (the end of March), I was once again in the thrall of PTSD, and this time overcome by feelings of great grief and loss. — I ended up reliving Barbara's death and all of the terrible aftermath… and by the end of my time in Grenoble, and in no small measure due to the intensity of my feelings, I lost my new friend.

It was a ghastly ending to my time in Grenoble, and I was completely shattered as I drove home to Berlin for good in mid-July. It was only thanks to the kind intervention of a mutual friend that I found out what had gone so terribly awry, as I was entirely blind to my own emotionally-intense behavior, and my friend never talked to me about what was wrong (and I could never ask her). It took about another month (after being tested for hyperthyroidism in Berlin) before I was able to accept a diagnosis of profound clinical depression. My psychologist in Grenoble had suggested I was depressed (I started seeing her at some point in May when I kept crying uncontrollably night after night)… but I couldn't believe it. I was working! I was still enjoying singing and playing piano! How could someone so active be depressed?

… It was exactly the same kind of behavior as I had experienced in Pittsburgh 30+ years ago after Barbara's death, but I had forgotten. Further, this time around, in a bizarre kind of emotional multi-tasking, I was experiencing overwhelming feelings of gratitude. I didn't believe it was possible to feel thankful and be in the throes of this insidious mental illness/affective disorder at the same time. (It is.)

Anyway, I began treatment right after the diagnosis. I cannot now remember if I had the same kind of problem with "neurological fog" 30 years ago as I did this time around, but it took me until roughly this past December to be able to see certain things with clarity in retrospect (which produced no little dismay and not a few tears) and to feel as though I was starting to think/process things normally again. The fog affected my ability to do certain parts of my job. It was very distressing to have to read and reread instructions again and again instead of remembering them as I normally would. (I grant that sometimes the instructions were not wonderfully written and that the procedures themselves were sometimes ludicrously complicated and not at all intuitive, but still.)

Up until mid-December, I believed there was a remote possibility of repairing the broken friendship. But then I heard again from the mutual friend, who essentially said that there was no hope, that this friend had "turned the page" on our friendship, and little wonder. It was so hard to accept that I was persona non grata, that even sending a Christmas card would be viewed as an intolerable intrusion. That hurt. Worse is having all avenues of communication cut off. (It has been my happy fortune in this life to make and generally keep friends fairly easily, so being in this position has been largely rough and unknown terrain to me.)

It took me some time to get to what I think is the final step in getting over Grenoble, in getting over this lost friend, in getting much further along in my recovery from this episode of PTSD and depression. I didn't plan it this way, but I ended up posting a farewell letter to my lost friend on the 31st anniversary of Barbara's death. I don't entertain much if any hope that she will read what I wrote. I needed to write it, and I needed to send it — mostly so I can tell myself that I did everything I could to try to apologize, to try to explain, to try to fix things. I am sad that our relationship ended the way it did. I am sad that some of the lessons I learned (listed below) came at the cost of this friendship, and that I was not the only one who ended up paying that price.

I do not need my lost friend to read the letter to provide closure, and I think that conclusion will stand even if she sends it back unopened. (Update: As she signed for it at the post office, I know she received it.) Of course I hope she will read it, which would be miracle enough (a positive response would herald the Second Coming). My mailing the letter was analogous to going through the exit door of a theater: it's soundproof, so once outside, pounding on the door and shouting does no good. There is no handle on the exterior of the door, and quite honestly, were the door to open from the inside, there is little appeal in going back into a dark place. The only healthy way forward is to let the door close entirely on this part of my life.

I have learned many lessons from all of this. In no particular order, here are a few:

• Love and appreciate the people who love and appreciate you. And do your best to show it.

• It is important to cultivate gratitude. In some ways I think gratitude saved me from the much darker and more quickly dangerous type of depression that I went through 30 years ago.

• There are some wonderful people in this world. I owe so much not just to Mr Mo, but also to a handful of very kind other people whom I love, and especially to that helpful mutual friend who was willing to listen and to talk to me frankly when I most needed it.

• Music is extremely powerful and evocative.

• Alcohol is not helpful.

• It is important to assess emotional risks along with everything else when making major decisions. Feeling detached and uprooted contributed to becoming depressed, and doubtless made me more vulnerable to PTSD.

• Forgive others. I thought about the few people in my life whom I hadn't fully forgiven and hopefully have finally done so now. And I thought about how little I know about what other people are going through that could explain behavior that I might find hard to handle.

• I also thought about and forgave myself for the one particular instance in which I had to cut off someone from my life. (I didn't have much choice — I was only 14 years old, and my parents and bishop and other adults insisted that I stop communicating with a very troubled girl who'd been my roommate at a BYU summer program… but I still lived that as a huge personal failure for many years after.)

• If someone, such as a psychologist, suggests that you are depressed, believe her/him.

• Being too busy, as in workaholism, can be a masking behavior, a way to avoid taking the time to truly look at what is happening (both inside and outside oneself).

• Stonewalling behavior is very, very damaging to both the one stonewalling and the one being stonewalled.

• It is never too late to say you're sorry, at least for your own peace of mind, even if the apology cannot fix things.

I may add to the list later on (I am sure there are other lessons I've gotten from this), but I will end for now with this: About 34.5 years ago I wrote a man a letter in which I apologized for my stonewalling behavior. Just before I started dating him, I had gone through two heart-wrenching romances, and the one with him seemed to have started in the same manner, with lots of obvious mutual interest and attraction right away. I couldn't stand the thought of being burned again — and this even though I'd had a very clear impression that I would end up marrying him! But instead of talking things over, I started avoiding the man, who ultimately got the message and went away.

Anyway, a year after I'd dumped him, I sent the letter to his last known address. I had no idea where he was, and for all I knew, he could have already been married — I was not writing to pursue him nor to try to renew the relationship. I simply and very sincerely wanted to apologize for not communicating and for having treated him so poorly.

He wrote back. It was and remains the greatest second chance that anyone could have ever hoped or prayed for. (It was only recently that I realized that he, too, must have wanted a second chance with me as well.) I remain grateful that the person who is and ever will be the most important person in my life, the one whom I love and appreciate more than my generally undemonstrative self tends to say or show — he wrote back. I cannot ask for more.

Monday 23 February 2015

Toujours en deuil? (Still in mourning?)

Today and tomorrow are both part of one harder-than-usual anniversary this year (multiples of 10 being tough on us 10-digited homo sapiens, so it seems): on this very day 30 years ago, my friend Barbara Clark died in a car accident. She was one of the most important people in my life, and truth to tell, I think she probably always will be, even though I think she would find the very notion surprising, were she still alive. (She'd like the phrase "il ne faut pas exagérer.")

Tomorrow will be hard because it was on Sunday night, February 24, 1985, when my mother called me in tears to tell me that Barbara had been killed. I was stunned, and as the days progressed, I became increasingly grieved over the unfinished business I had with her. The situation was all the more poignant because had life permitted, we seemed to have finally, finally been on such terms that we might have been able to talk about everything that I at least needed to discuss with her.

The consequence of such apparently never-to-be finished business (along with hormonal chaos during and after pregnancy, among other factors) was a depression so profound that I came very close to dying by my own hand. (Note to the kiddies: do not neglect unfinished business.)

Were Barbara still alive, she'd be 74 years old, retired, and… who knows. Given where life has taken me and mine over the years, I suspect that she and I would never have become any closer than we were when I last saw her just a few weeks before her death. — Which is to say, closer than ever before, but still not very close in a personal way, for all that we genuinely liked each other: up until then, there had been too much of a gap between our respective life stages to have had that kind of friendship.

Tonight I honored her in a more practical way than I did by dressing in black today — by diligently practicing several different piano accompaniments that I will play at rehearsals for one or two of the chorales to which I belong. Barbara was a wonderful pianist and served for several years as the associate accompanist for the Southern California Mormon Choir. I learned a lot from listening to and observing her play.

The one thought that has brought tears to my eyes yesterday and today and very likely will produce tears tomorrow is — how very much I have missed my friend over the years. Not every day, thankfully, not constantly, not at all like that, but sometimes when I sing I can still hear her lovely alto voice. (She was the alto section leader at the time I joined the choir.) And she had such a wickedly fine sense of humor. I find myself wishing from time to time that I could share a good joke or anecdote with her.

Barbara would have loved the internet, I think, though it is probably (no, make that definitely) just as well that I was no longer a teenager but rather a married mom with children by the time email became commonplace. She put up with a great deal of on-paper verbiage from the adolescent me (so helpful to me at the time I wrote them, I suppose, and yet all of those letters turned out to be such a huge source of distress to me after she died). I am glad she was kind and patient and apparently could see enough potential in me to treat me in many ways like the adult I so sincerely wanted to become.

I end this all-too-personal entry by relating what happened about a year or so after Barbara died, after I had finally begun getting treated for depression (yay for Western Psychiatric Hospital and its experimental programs that made it possible to trade my body for "free" medication and therapy). One night, I was just coming back to bed around 4 am after dealing with one of the girls… and Barbara came to me (unseen but very present). Yes, yes, I am well aware of the brain's ability, of the human psyche's propensity to manufacture what it needs to survive, but peu importe: for the rest of that night and well into the daylight hours, she (whether real or manufactured) went through all of that soul-killing unfinished business with me, went through everything that made the phrase "to die of embarrassment" so literal in my life at that point. It was a very healing experience. Nor was it the only episode of its kind during the months and years to follow.

I am pushing 60 with a vengeance, and even after 30 years, the grief is still fresh and present at times like these, but there are nonetheless moments of grace: during that initial experience, Barbara told me that she had been allowed to come to me because my need was so great. And for 29 years that was my principal interpretation: she came because of my need. But a few months ago a new friend of mine, on hearing this story, responded that "she must have loved you very much." The truth of that observation took my breath away: yes, my need was acute, but Barbara came to me because she loved me. That belatedly-received insight has meant a lot to me, skepticism and agnosticism notwithstanding.

In memoriam, Barbara Clark (September 18, 1940 – February 23, 1985). Her (Utah) grave marker reads "beloved daughter, sister and aunt"… and there are many of us who loved her who were sorry that "and friend" was not part of the epitaph. May she rest in as much peace as the Mormon view of a totally frenetic afterlife can permit. (And yes, she would have appreciated the ironic tone of that last sentence.)

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