Sunday, November 29, 2015

Gluten Phobia

This conversation is dedicated to you folks who find it amusing to make fun of people who don’t eat gluten. And you know who you are. You touch a loaf of bread and shriek, “Ohmygod, I think I came in contact with gluten.” You tell jokes like, “What is the recipe for a delicious gluten-free brownie? There is none, bwahahahaha.” So funny. You show pictures on Facebook of dinner plates infested with bedraggled asparagus and a naked, gray burger topped with a vomit-green pickle slice and label the picture “gluten-free dinner.” You share YouTube movies entitled “How to Become Glucose Intolerant So You Can Be Like Your Friends.” You speculate about the gluten and non-gluten properties of pancakes, soaps, sweaters, Ferris wheels, crescent wrenches, hamsters, and BBQ grills. You delight in sharing the photo series of famous paintings with the gluten removed. OK, yes, those are actually pretty funny, like the Vermeer below, but what does that prove?

We are not as far apart on this as you may think. I have as much trouble as you do with the gluten-free fanatics who blame everything from the melting of the polar ice caps to the popularity of the Kardashians on gluten. These gluten-phobes believe that consumption of bread caused Donald Trump’s psychosis. They attribute the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s to German Chocolate Cake, the British colonization of India on scones, and the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas on wheat fields. If they could erase the amber waves of grain from the “Star-Spangled Banner,” they would do it in a heartbeat. I swear on a stack of cookbooks that I am not one of these people. They give ordinary everyday gluten-free people a bad reputation and make us lose credibility. They are the Westboro Church of the healthy eating movement.

Thinking about those breads, pastas, and pastries you adore, you may wonder why someone would choose to avoid eating gluten. Please, stay with me here. Listen to the logic. Give me my moment on the soap box.

First, I admit that going gluten-free has turned into a popular fad spun out-of-control, much as fat-free became a fad several decades ago. A lot of people who could eat gluten without a problem shun it as if allowing a sliver of wheat bread into their house would cause the foundation to give way and the house to collapse. I can see why you laugh at people with no understanding of nutrition, and no clue as to why someone might give up gluten, becoming gluten-phobic. I don’t want to appear to have no sense of humor. I confess that it amuses me in a perverse way to bake super-delicious gluten-free breads and desserts and to bring them to potlucks and tell people to let the gluten-frees have first crack at them. Everyone there instantly appears to become gluten-free.

While many people can eat gluten quite happily with no evil results, there a lot of people who don’t fare so well on the stuff. Obviously, people with Celiac can’t eat gluten because the nature of the disease is such that they lack the ability to digest it. Also, gluten is inflammatory, so anyone with an inflammatory disease, such as arthritis, would feel better off gluten. Heart disease, fibromyalgia, and gout are other inflammatory diseases aggravated by gluten. Also, autoimmune diseases can be negatively impacted by gluten. Some people simply have a sensitivity to gluten that causes them to experience allergic symptoms when they eat it, like clogged sinuses, skin rashes, or itchy ears. It’s quite amazing how different each person’s body is from the next person’s.

Someone in good health who has no problem eating gluten has no reason to avoid it. And even those who discover they have a mild sensitivity to it can usually eat it now and then with no ill effects. But, if you eat gluten, beware. Here’s the big catch for everyone, whether genuinely gluten-intolerant or not. Commercial wheat contains dangerous chemicals that can make anyone get sick. Wheat is generally harvested (not everywhere, but in most places), by spraying it with glyphosate to desiccate the wheat to render it uniformly dry for harvesting. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s ubiquitous RoundUp, now banned in many European countries and proven to cause a host of diseases from Autism to cancer. So if you are good to go with gluten and you want to eat it, then only eat organic wheat, which, by definition is free of chemicals. The other issue about wheat, and all grains really, is that when they are refined they lose their nutritional value and become a burden on the human metabolism. Sugar and refined flours are the main cause of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a boatload of illnesses. That sentence should be in bold italics and underlined about fifty times. If you eat wheat (or gluten), eat organic only and eat whole grain unrefined.

I don’t eat gluten because it makes me sick. I’ll spare you the graphic description and the interpretive dance version of the explanation of what happens to me. Each of us is a unique ecosystem, an organism that functions in its own way. What works for one person will not work for another. The person who can best understand how a body works is the owner of that body. Each of us must pay attention and notice what happens as we munch our way through life, adjusting accordingly. Avoiding gluten helps me keep my system in balance. I don’t feel deprived. I eat well. We had a full table at Thanksgiving and nothing on it contained gluten. We had gluten-free macaroni and cheese as well as pumpkin pie. I have learned how to cook gluten-free. So don’t pity me, don’t make fun of me, and don’t dismiss me. Not everyone who shuns gluten does so because it’s a fad. Some of us do it because we’re in tune with what works for us. I love my gluten-free life.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


A terrific British expression captures the essence of good luck. If someone has remarkable luck, the Brits describe that person as “jammy.” It comes from the idea that good things stick to a lucky person as if they’re made of jam. I just finished reading John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway, which relates the story of his early life before he became one of the “Pythons” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame. As I read his account of his early career, I kept thinking that this man was about the jammiest comedy writer ever. The most astonishing opportunities dropped into his lap. I am jealous.

Cleese was a law student at Cambridge when he began acting and writing comedy sketches with the Cambridge Footlights, an annual revue put on by the Footlights Club at Cambridge University. He met Graham Chapman (another Python) at the Footlights, where they wrote comedy sketches together. Chapman was in medical school at the time. Shortly prior to his graduation from Cambridge, Cleese landed a job at a law firm, where he was supposed to start working after he graduated. But fate intervened for the jammy Cleese. Just before he started his new job, two executives from BBC radio appeared, took him to lunch, and offered him a job writing comedy at the BBC. They had seen his work with the Footlights and they headhunted him, offering him more than twice the salary he would have made at the law firm. How often does such a thing happen to a graduating law student let alone an aspiring comedy writer? It’s insane. Keep reading, he gets even jammier.

Early on, Cleese took a leave of absence from the BBC to go on tour in America with a production of the Footlights Revue (written during his last year at Cambridge), which was renamed Cambridge Circus. Days before the show closed, he received a call out of the blue from a producer putting together a Broadway musical called Half a Sixpence. He invited Cleese to audition for a role. Cleese found this hilarious since he could neither sing nor dance, and he went to the audition on a lark. At the audition, he informed them he could neither sing nor dance. They thought he was joking, but he reasserted, in all seriousness, that he was completely unmusical. They asked him to sing the British National Anthem and they stopped him several notes into his caterwauling because they couldn’t stand to listen to it. When he returned to his hotel room that night, he told Chapman he got the part, just to see his expression. The next day the producer called and offered him the part. He thought the producer had either had a nervous breakdown after hearing Cleese sing or was having him, on but he was sane and sincere. Jammy. The musical director assured him he could lip-sync the singing and that they wouldn’t put him in any dance numbers. (He was, in fact, expressly forbidden to actually sing during the production.) This leads me to ponder how excruciatingly hard real singers and dancers work to land a role in a Broadway musical while the tone-deaf, uncoordinated Cleese had a role handed to him on a silver platter.

Cleese’s jamminess continued through the chapters of his life. Approximately one day after Half a Sixpence closed, an editor at Newsweek Magazine invited him (yes, invited him) to take a job there as a journalist. They wanted to lighten up some of the articles and hoped he could turn his comic wit to the task. Soon afterward, David Frost (only the most successful comedian in Britain at the time) approached Cleese to invite him (yes, invite him) to work for him as a writer on The Frost Report. And not long after that, Peter Sellers, the funniest man in Britain, solicited Cleese’s comedic writing services. I mean, seriously? Cleese was a mere lad in his mid-twenties when all these invitations rolled in. Jammy, jammy, jammy.

Cleese certainly knows how to elicit a laugh, but a lot of excellent comedians who also have this ability have not had opportunities fall at their feet. The scandalously cheery Rhonda Byrne of Law of Attraction fame has made millions of dollars shaming us into thinking we aren’t trying hard enough to visualize success, to manifest good fortune, if we fall short of our aspirations. She is (pardon my French) so full of poo when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of achieving success. Success requires talent, hard work, and a touch of the jammy. The truth of the matter is that a lot of talented people never have the chance to fully utilize and reveal their talent. They may throw boulders of positive energy out into the universe and still not see any pathway to recognition, success, and the chance to use their talents to the max coming their way as a result. I think those who catch a lucky break often have no idea of the extent of their incredible good fortune, despite their efforts at summoning up sufficient gratitude. The universe is a mystery and randomness occurs.  

[Football reference alert.] At the risk of losing the interest of those readers who consider themselves above the plebeian allure of football, I wish to share one of life’s lessons inherent in this sport. As the season progresses (as it has at this particular point in time), and some of the hottest players go out injured, some of the replacements begin making their presence felt in a big way. This is how young men passionate about football, extraordinary athletes, who formerly remained hidden in the shadows, have the opportunity to step into the spotlight and shine. When a number-one player can’t play, and the coach sends in the backup, the fans wince collectively at the prospect of watching the backup get chewed up and spit out. But sometimes that backup defies all expectations and astonishingly takes our breath away with the outstanding ability he has within him, which has remained concealed from view merely for the lack of the opportunity to step up and show what he can do. I wonder how many tremendous athletes remain hidden in the shadows, kept from showing what they can do because the opportunity never presents itself.  

In one of his love poems, Kenneth Patchen compares his discovery of his beloved to “a boy finding a star in a haymow.” The more years I spend on this earth, the more I have found that nearly everyone is a star in a haymow. Some of us are jammy enough to get those lucky breaks that lead to recognition and opportunities to maximize the use of our talents. Others of us never get those chances. Some of us appear on a highly visible stage and achieve largescale success, like John Cleese and the football greats. Others of us forge our personal successes and count ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to do the things we love and the things at which we excel in our quieter lives in a small-scale way. Lately I find that I look for the passion in people like a heat-seeking missile honing in on a warm body (perhaps a bad metaphor since I don’t want to blow the person up, just hear them talk about what they love). If I can discover what a person feels passionate about, what gets them juiced, and then encourage them to talk about it then I feel like I have hit pay-dirt. I am dedicated to the narrative. Each of us has some time, some place, someone, something that was, is, or will be the great adventure of our lives. I yearn to hear the story of that great adventure. I search for that star in the haymow; and when I find one, I feel roaringly jammy.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stork in the Birdbath, or Blog Interrupted

There are only two kinds of interruptions. The first is the good interruptions, those endearing surprises that jump out at us on the path of life, such as when my husband pokes his head into my study and says “There’s a stork in the birdbath, come quick.” (He’s obviously not a birder.) The second is the unwanted and unsavory intrusions on our mental flow, such as the cold call from the telemarketer selling corduroy frying pans. Although quite different from one another, both kinds of interruptions will successfully murder genius.

As we know, humans only use a limited percentage of our full brain capacity. Some of us manage to use a higher percentage of brain function than others. I use most of my functioning brain to obsess about who to start each week in Fantasy Football. I blame Fantasy Football for the fact that I am not the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I suspect that the most significant thing preventing humans from using 100% of our brains is interruptions. At least this is probably the case for women; whereas for men, of course, interruptions run second to the distraction of thinking about sex. Bad interruptions top my list of life’s aggravations along with landscaping featuring gravel, fruity air freshener, yellow post-its, weeds, cat hairballs, beets, sticky price tags on new drinking glasses that require a flamethrower for removal, and Paul Ryan.

I spend a large portion of my workday writing and this requires concentrated thought. When the phone rings, I could ignore it, but it might be a client with a question, it might be the health club calling to inform me that they are loading my diabetic husband into an ambulance because he has dangerously low blood sugar, or it might be my son calling from the grocery store to ask me to read him a recipe out of the Joy of Cooking. All of these qualify as bona fide necessary interruptions. But when it’s a scam robocall from Bridget at cardholder services with an offer to upgrade my credit line to six billion, my hair stands on end and my best thoughts flee. 

I started pondering interruptions this week after a conversation I had with my son the web developer (the same one who calls me to read out recipes to him while he’s shopping). He sent me the link to an article about why even a seemingly benign interruption can destroy the productivity of a web developer. Here is the link to the article if you want to read more. The gist of the article is that there are two types of deadly interruptions that ruin productivity for web developers:  the random interruption (like Bridget) or the planned interruption (like a staff meeting). A lot of what web developers do is in their heads. I identify with this since it’s the same for writers. Web developers (like writers) must keep a football-stadium-sized volume of information in their heads at once in order to rearrange it and organize it and sort through it. An interruption can collapse the entire stadium into a giant dribble of a pancake. The article talks about web developers building a “mental model” and how interruptions destroy the model. It can often take an hour or more to get back to that point in the construction of the mental model, depending on how invested in it the web developer was at the time of the interruption. Random interruptions (particularly a string of them) can be so disruptive to this process that they can ruin a full day’s work. Planned interruptions can also be very destructive to web developers depending on scheduling. The article explains that web developers generally need about two hours of uninterrupted time to complete a standard increment of work (to implement that model they are holding in their head). So if they have to attend a meeting that starts an hour after they arrive at work or an hour after lunch, even though they can plan for it, the meeting can make it impossible for them to effectively utilize the hour preceding the meeting because they need two hours of uninterrupted time. As a writer, I fully identify with this construct. It leads me to contemplate how managers can so easily diminish the productivity of the doers they manage when they don’t fully understand the nature of the work that the doers do. Lacking a grasp of this, they inadvertently cause destruction, havoc, frustrational aimless web surfing, and the melting of the polar ice caps.

Interruptions are perhaps the greatest challenge facing moms. Children, by definition, are interruptions. Good interruptions of course; but interruptions nonetheless. When my children were young and I had a nine-to-five office job, I would sometimes experience those nights when my slumber was so hopelessly interrupted that I wasn’t fit the next day for anything more complex than sharpening pushpins. As teenagers, my children had a knack for making popcorn in the microwave in the kitchen (next to my bedroom) just when I was in the process of attempting to fall asleep. I could salvage a night’s sleep with one interruption, but nighttime interruptions seemed to stampede in herds. By way of example, first one of the children would wake me up because he had a nightmare and I would lie down with him in his bed until he fell asleep again. No sooner would I have returned to my bed and started to drift off to sleep when the battery in the smoke detector in the kitchen would go belly-up and it would begin beeping. So I would have to climb onto a chair and remove the battery. After that I would lie awake for another hour trying to calm down. When I finally began to drift off again, another child would wake me up because he heard a ghost in the tree outside his window. We would tiptoe down the hall together to investigate and I would discover an owl perched in the tree by his window hooting. The hooting sounded like a ghost to my small child. I would don my boots and bathrobe and go outside with a flashlight to try to flush out the owl. When that didn’t work, I would put my son in his boots and take him outside to show him the owl before settling him back in his bed. By then I would be desperate to get in a few winks before dawn. I would just have fallen asleep when a skunk would spray in the driveway, waking me up with the stench. I often wondered why all these things would happen in the same night. The real kicker to all this is that my husband sleeps like someone hit him in the head with a frying pan. So he would snooze blissfully through all interruptions, especially if he had a calming jumbo mocha espresso right before bed to relax him. Go figure.

Children are the supreme interrupters. Mine know that they have priority over anything else I could possibly be doing. “Yes dear, I’m giving my neighbor mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but as soon as I save his life I’ll see if I still have your kaleidoscope stored in the garage, love you sweetie, will call you back.” Once my son called me from high school in a panic because his chapstick had broken. I talked him down. All of my children have interrupted me with phone calls to ask me to look up their checking account number for them. I am information central. Before Smart Phones, they would call me to have me google things for them, like what time the movie at their local cinema started, where was the nearest Jewish deli with authentic bagels, how much does it cost to fly to Vegas, what happens if you put olives in au gratin potatoes, and what will the weather be like at Newport Beach on Thursday. All of these questions obviously required an immediate answer. When I was on a retreat with a group of women friends at a remote beachside condo, my daughter called in a crisis. While my friends went for a sunset walk on the beach, I played therapist until my daughter figured out how to handle her situation. One peaceful Saturday morning while I was sipping a delicious decaf and writing my blog, my youngest son called because he had somehow tumbled out of bed, tripped (probably on clothing, shoes, soccer balls, musical instruments, collapsible clothing hamper, coffee mugs, blunt objects, raccoons, waffle iron, etc. sprawled across his floor), and fell into a mirror leaning against his wall, breaking the mirror, and cutting his leg. He wanted me to help him find an emergency room near his house in Oakland. Did I mention he was bleeding? It was a small cut and we found an ER as well as someone to take him there. Now what was I saying?

We live in a supremely interrupting world. I don’t give people my cell phone number precisely because of my aversion to bad interruptions. I don’t want people to have the ability to call me when I am in the checkout line at the Coop, going for my daily walk (seriously, why do people bother to go for a walk in the woods while talking on their cell phone?), driving, thinking, making a pie crust, welding a spaceship, or searching in the garage for a kaleidoscope. Actually, even if they had my number, people couldn’t call me because I rarely turn my cell phone on.

There are many interruptions on beyond phone calls to jar me out of my thoughts when I am trying to string words together to actually write something of importance. The neighborhood bully tomcat saunters into my yard and I have to run around chasing cats so he doesn’t beat up my girls and cost me a fortune at the vet. I have meetings scheduled when I would prefer to be writing. The power goes out. My obsessed neighbor who must control every wisp of nature in his half-acre yard spends two hours running his gas-powered leaf blower, which sounds like Apollo 13 landing in his yard. The refrigerator stops working in the middle of July and I have to move all the frozen food to the freezer in the garage (and, unfortunately, I have to eat all the ice cream, so sad). My oldest needs me to find a copy of her birth certificate, scan it, and email it to her by noon. My middle one needs me to run interference for a broken chapstick. My youngest trips over a turtle and sprains his eyebrow.

Honestly, as a mom, I don’t mind those interruptions from my children so much, no matter how ridiculous. I can live with them. Sometimes they make for a good story. The bad interruptions, which I hate, are stuff like the scam artist who calls me, interrupting my flow, so he can try to convince me that my computer has been hacked and he is going to unhack it if I just give him my bank account numbers and all my passwords, the perky lady conducting an opinion survey on the relevance of safety pins, or (and these are the worst) the call to inform me that I am eligible for an upgrade to my weed-whacker and someone will be with me shortly but for now I am on hold listening to Yanni perform a mellow version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and my wait time is twenty minutes but whoa didn’t they call me so why am I on hold? Wha-huh? I hang up. What was I saying?

The next time I sneak off to the beach without telling anyone where I went, you will understand why. Uninterrupted time to meditate, reflect, contemplate, and, dearest of all in Amy’s world, to write. Sweet. 


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Country Childhood

I have a photograph on my shelf of my three children that reminds me why I chose to raise them on forty acres of forest in a small rural community. They are marching in their own little parade, with my daughter (the oldest) in the lead. She and her brother are both playing recorders and they are both barefoot. She is nine and he is six. Trailing behind them is their two-year-old baby brother singing and dancing to their tune. Although our ancient and very tall fir trees are not visible in the photo, I know they are there. I used to tell the children that those enormous fir trees stood guard at our gate and protected us from harm.

When we had lived in our country home for a short time, we went to my daughter’s elementary school one evening for a family night. She was in second grade. Her younger brothers had not started school yet (one was four and the other was a baby). We spread a blanket on the lawn with the other families. The school grounds included vast fields of green (this was before the dreadful drought) and overlooked hills and farmlands. The teachers gathered the children into a motley group, one of the teachers played a guitar, and the students sang a number of songs they had learned for the occasion. On the far right of the group of performing students stood a little boy with a goat on a leash. The goat was almost as big as the boy. It grazed on the grass peaceably while the children sang. Something about that goat delighted me. From that moment on I was in love with my children’s intimate rural elementary school. It was a K-6 with less than 200 students, many of them (about 20%) Native Pomo who lived on the nearby reservation. All the teachers knew all the children by name. When my youngest came home from his first day of Kindergarten he told me with amazement, “Mama, everyone at school knows my name.”

Country living meant living with critters too, of course (not just the friendly goat). We had a dog and several cats that we lived with on purpose. We also wound up living with many wild creatures by default. One of the most annoying critters we were forced to cohabitate with was the skunk. Skunks persisted in living underneath our house. One time we returned from a vacation at the beach to discover a half a dozen baby skunks lined up with our cats in the carport waiting for us to put the cat food down in the evening. Our neighbor had fed the cats in our absence and the skunks had made themselves right at home. When we put the cat food down, the baby skunks joined our cats, who didn’t seem to mind sharing, and chowed down like one big happy family. Those adorable Disney-cute skunks grew up and nested underneath our sons’ bedroom. Argh. We had to hire a trapper to trap them and remove them.

When our youngest child was in high school, a couple of skunks got into a fight under our house at three in the morning. We woke up to the horrible stench. There was no time to deodorize ourselves before work and school the next day. The teacher for my son’s first period class called the assistant principal when my son arrived at school and they removed him from the classroom because they mistook the skunk smell for marijuana. As the assistant principal questioned my son, it dawned on him why they had pulled him from class. He burst out laughing and explained about the skunks spraying during the night. His explanation was immediately believed because in our community everyone knows how much skunk smells like marijuana. And they knew he lived out in the woods. He was embarrassed to have to go through the rest of the school day smelling like skunk, but it made a good story and his classmates were sympathetic since a lot of them had had the same thing happen to them before. That night we washed his clothes with a de-skunk product we bought at the farm supply. (No, not tomato juice.)

My daughter had a college friend who had been raised in the boonies in Idaho. My daughter did not meet many people at college who grew up in the country. She and her friend told me about one of their first conversations when they compared notes to decide which one of them was more country. My daughter told her friend about the skunks that kept living under our house. Her friend claimed that their family had a bear living under their house for a while. My daughter, not to be outdone, asked her friend how many miles of dirt road she had to drive to get to her house. She said less than a mile. My daughter had her there since our house was down more than two miles of dirt. They compared wild pig stories, snake encounters, power outages, trees falling, how many peaches they had put up in a summer, how much wood stacked, getting cars stuck in the mud, frogs in the bathtub, and more; always trying to outdo one another for volume and breadth of country experiences (both disasters and wonders). I have overheard my daughter tell people that if she wanted to sneak out at night as a teenager she would have needed an emergency survival kit just to make it into town.

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound like growing up country is all about learning to live with wild critters. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. My children learned and experienced so many valuable life lessons automatically, almost as a given, as rural children. They helped plant the food they ate, saw it grow, and helped prepare it so we could eat it. We preserved gallons of food every summer. Some of it we grew and some of it we picked from other people’s orchards (like cherries) or bought from local growers (like apples and peaches). The first week that my daughter was away at college she called me and said, “Mom, I met this girl who has never eaten real cheese. She thinks Velveeta is cheese.” She couldn’t get over that. My children know what real food is, the work that goes into producing it, and how to prepare and cook it. They know how to build a fire and keep it going since we heated our house with a wood stove. They know that when you flip a switch and get heat, it comes from somewhere and that energy must be created (it doesn’t come out of thin air). They know that good water is valuable and shouldn’t be squandered. They have seen enough rattlers to be able to stay calm in a crisis. They have spent so many nights at home with their family that they value family time.

They have seen the night sky. It is estimated that 80% of American children grow up without ever having seen the night sky (Paul Bogard, The End of Night, 2013). The 80% may see a few stars, but they never actually see the Milky Way because they live in urban areas with so much “light pollution” that the heavens are not visible. They never experience true natural night darkness. (Or silence.) Perhaps some of these children will go camping or be taken into the country at some time and will have the chance to get a glimpse of the night sky. I hope so. My children saw it every night that wasn’t clouded over. A school assignment they did was to keep a “moon journal,” writing every night for a month what they noticed about the moon. Country living made my children resourceful, resilient, well-read, familiar with the habits of animals, helpful, unafraid of hard work, persistent, appreciative of the wonders of nature, yes I could go on and on. When you spend as much time in a forest with no TV as my children did, you become a pretty imaginative individual. (We got a satellite dish and brought in TV and internet after about seven or eight years, but they spent those first years with nothing but snow on the TV – we rented movies.) No wonder my children are extraordinarily creative, have a great sense of humor, and never get bored.

After my country bumpkin children grew up, they left our remote land and our hayseed town right away. They chose to go to the big city for college. Now the oldest lives in Los Angeles, the middle one and his wife live in conservative and congested Orange County, and the baby shares an apartment in a low-rent inner city Oakland neighborhood with three friends he met in college. All three are completely cosmopolitan these days and they love their lives. They remain outdoorsy people who go hiking, biking, and play sports. My son who lives in Orange County said a couple of months ago, “No one but us three will ever understand how amazing it was to grow up on the Ranch.”

I wonder if any of my city slicker children will move to the countryside at some point in the future. Raised in the suburbs, I lived in cities when I was a young adult. I loved those cities. In those years, I couldn’t imagine what country people did to amuse themselves. But then when we were faced with raising children, my husband and I decided we wanted them to grow up in the country. So we made the move. Sometimes I think we “shot the moon.” It turned out there was way more to do in the country than I could have imagined when I was living in the city. The things my children learned from living out on the land in a forest will last them a lifetime. I still see the powerful positive impact of that upbringing on them every day. Well, it stands to reason, because trees are remarkable teachers.

This is a photo of the photo taken by Ron Reed in 1993.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Old-Fashioned Halloween

Last week more than a few moms of girls complained on Facebook about the sexism inherent in the labeling of Halloween costumes available in the stores. One of the moms bought a Ninja costume labeled for boys for her seven-year-old daughter to wear. Apparently the girl costumes consist of a limited selection of princesses, female Disney characters, witches, and sex vixens; while boys get to be Ninjas, firefighters, pirates, superheroes, grim reapers, devils, ghouls, skeletons, and all manner of interesting creatures. Oh dear.

My children rarely chose a gender-specific costume. They masqueraded as fruits, vegetables, animals, insects, hippies, superheroes, and scary monsters; often using their pajamas as the basis for their costumes. For a few years my daughter was Pippi Longstocking, her favorite storybook character. She loved Pippi precisely because she was everything a well-behaved little girl was not. She was the mistress of her own fate, living with no parents to tell her what to do, she made pancakes for dinner, kept a pet horse on her porch and a mischievous pet monkey (Mr. Nilsson), wore mismatched clothing (oh those magnificent red-and-white striped tights) and wore her wild orange hair in pigtails that stuck straight out from her head (we had to put a piece of hanger-wire through my daughter’s braided hair to get the pigtails right), and she had marvelous adventures in which she often outsmarted evil-intentioned grown-ups. After outgrowing the fairy princesses of toddlerhood, the closest my daughter came to a gender-specific costume ever again was Pippi.

It surprises me how many people depend on store-bought costumes. Really? We never bought costumes, although my son once rented a Chewbacca costume for a fancy party when he was a senior in high school. Living in a rural community, and not having much expendable income, we (and our neighbors and friends as well) always made costumes from scratch. Many families are 4-H families who have farms or vineyards. Our children did not belong to 4-H because we were more involved in art, music, drama, dance, and team sports. Regardless of whether they belong to 4-H or not, the people in our community are do-it-yourselfers. Parents in our community often raised children who participated in sewing as a 4-H activity; but the costumes we (and many other families) produced did not necessarily involve sewing. I can sew, but not well enough to make a complex costume. No, we collected, assembled, and used our creativity. Clever, imaginative, and funny costumes are highly regarded in my neck of the woods. Sexy costumes? Meh.

One of the most amusing costumes I saw over the years was the woman with three children on soccer traveling teams who dressed as a soccer ball. The quintessential soccer mom, she probably felt like a soccer ball bouncing around three counties to take her children to games. When I was young, the urban Halloween “scares” about razor blades in apples and needles in candy bars started (was this an urban myth or did it ever actually happen?); and for a time the local hospital in my hometown offered to X-ray candy the day after Halloween to look for metal objects. By contrast, here in our rural community I remember once when my children received homemade chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven at one door. It was the home of the boys’ soccer coach so we knew the family. But even if we didn’t, I would have been so touched by homemade cookies that I would not have paused for a minute to worry about what was in those cookies. Love was in them.

The best Halloween was the year we took our children to our neighbors’ house across the road at the Ranch when we returned from trick-or-treating in town. Our neighbors, both retired schoolteachers, expected us and they had baked an apple pie from homegrown apples. They admired the children’s costumes (daughter as Pippi, one son as a banana and the other as a bumblebee) and then sat us down at the table for warm pie. While the bags of store-bought candy gathered in town stood idle by the coat rack, we feasted on apple pie. The children had no appetite for candy after that. Nothing you buy at the store can compete with a homemade apple pie.

Sugar is death and disease on a spoon. I use other sweeteners instead in my own homemade treats (mostly maple syrup or honey) and I prefer these for flavor and health, thank you very much. So I have struggled with trying to find the right treat to hand out at the door on Halloween. One year I gave out toothbrushes and another year I gave apples. I have given stickers, quarters, and small plastic animals. I have a friend who is a Ob/Gyn doc. She worked on a tribal reservation for a few years. When she was there, she gave the teenagers who came to her door on Halloween condoms! Fortunately, the parents thought this was quite clever and a bit hilarious. Way to go doc.

I have never been much of a fan of Halloween. I scare easily and can’t stomach creepy costumes, especially if fake blood or wounds are involved. I hid under the table whenever the Wicked Witch of the West appeared in The Wizard of Oz until I was twelve years old. It astonished me that my three-year-old daughter merely giggled when she saw the witch appear when she saw the film for the first time. Everyone in my family gets a kick out of horror movies. Except me. I can’t even watch Scary Movie (the Wayans’ total spoof, which is ridiculously fake and campy) without covering my eyes in parts. Call me squeamish. I don’t see the fun or humor in blood, gore, chainsaws, and terror.

My childhood memories of Halloween are not all that. They consist largely of getting lost in labyrinthine hedges, falling over lawn furniture, and being left behind because my thick eyeglasses steamed up under my plastic mask and I couldn’t see three inches in front of my face. I once had the fake hair on my mask get tangled in a blackberry bush and it took three Jewish moms, two Catholic moms, and an Episcopalian dad to set me free. Scary costumes spooked me and made me cry. Nowadays, I hate Halloween even more because people seem to act terribly weird in costume, many people have extremely poor taste (Ku Klux Klan and Nazi costumes are not amusing), and everyone (especially children) consume piles of toxic sugar-laced fake-food that makes them sick. It’s repulsive. I am an absolute Halloween Grinch. Do not approach me with your head under your arm and a bag of Snickers. Yech!

This year we were invited to a Halloween party and I was very brave and attended. It was good fun. Our hostess was a black cat and her husband was a caveman. Ron was a pirate. What else would he be? He has the lingo down and he looks great in his pirate headdress. It was sort of a theme because there were a few pirate wenches at the party who wore store-bought pirate wench costuming complete with push-up bras and low-cut dress-fronts that caused their breasts to burst out with vigor. It was hard to keep my eyes on their faces while talking to them with all those boobs popping forth. (Avast ye maties.) The men took an awful lot of pictures of themselves with these busty women. I dressed entirely in green and went as chlorophyll, which doesn’t have much to show in the way of cleavage, but it’s healthier than candy. I thought I was clever, but none of the men wanted pictures of themselves with me. Thus I survived another year of Halloween. Now on to my more favorite holidays.

My kind of pumpkin carving. (I didn't do this pumpkin--kudos to whomever did).