Not Cool

Nothing says cool like a red beret, n'est ce pas?
When I was 11-years-old I wanted nothing more than to be cool, Daddio.

So I read in the news that Facebook is not cool anymore.

Some of us had doubts about its coolness in the first place. But now it’s official, according to an article in a British newspaper which declared that Facebook is no longer the platform of choice for the critical 16-to-18 -year-old demographic.

You realize what this means, of course. We can all stop worrying about trying to be update our photos and liking everyone else’s. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a great sense of peace about this.

And it’s nice that this news comes out just in time for the traditional end-of-the-year lists of what’s hot and what’s not. Oh sure, it’s trivial stuff for the most part. I mean who isn’t sick of hearing about Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber?

But those lists somehow mesmerize anyway. You find yourself reading them in the same way you might take a quiz in a magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office, not because you care, really, but, you know, just so you’ll stay current. Hah.

The thing about currency is that it only works if it keeps changing hands. The same could be said of fame, another type of currency. The brilliance of yesterday’s stars dims in the shadow of tomorrow’s bright comets. It has ever been thus.

For my generation, the boomers who rode into town on a hip-shaking wave of rock and roll only to crash and burn when the conflicting forces of corporate greed and pie-eyed optimism left us stranded in suburban wastelands that register zero on the walkability meter, the cooling off period has been a bit humbling.

Still. We soldier on. Our freak flags may droop a bit, yet our pie-eyed optimism remains fruity and wholesome.

But cool we ain’t. Our cool days were long ago. Way before Facebook even existed. Yet I’m okay with that. I had a few cool moments. Now I’m more into warmth, sharing, kindness, puppies, etc.

Cool was hot in the early fifties, before most of the current “cool kids” were born. I imagine they have their own vocabulary for what cool meant to their parents. For us, it wasn’t simply Miles Davis and Alan Ginsburg. It wasn’t only Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Steve Allen and Nina Simone. It was a whole complex of ideas and energy and style that roared into the culture after the boys came home from World War Two. It was an awareness of how fleeting life is, and how fast it goes by, and a determination to make the most of every minute.

As another New Year’s eve approaches, new lists of ins and outs will circulate. Facebook will likely be nudged onto the out list by some new app. How apt.

Meanwhile, I’ll be updating my status with a glass of wine and a fine film, enjoying the serenity that comes from knowing I don’t have to try to be cool anymore. And that’s really cool.

Tinsel Town

Nothing says the '50s like a poodle skirt.
Nothing says the ’50s like a poodle skirt.

Tinsel. Is it retro, passé, or environmentally irresponsible?

Don’t ask me. I only know it ain’t what it used to be. But then, what is?

As another Christmas eve hurtles closer on a wave of emotional expectations and quiet dread, I am, as usual, engulfed by memories of Christmas Past.

I was born on Christmas eve. And, although I have no memories of that event, I do have a visual in my head, thanks to my father, who many times described that night he spent staring out the hospital window at the falling snow, while my mother was busy down the hall, bringing me into the world. This was back when fathers weren’t allowed into delivery rooms, much less permitted to video the entire proceedings.

Things were different. Christmas was different. The tinsel we put on our trees was actually made of some sort of metal, though I find it hard to believe it was tin. I do know it would get wrinkled and kinked. Some of us hung it one strand at time, savoring the process.

I loved everything about Christmas when I was a young child. I loved going up to my grandparents’ house in Erie. The snows were deeper up there, and more constant. Winter settled in for the season. It didn’t come and go like a fickle boyfriend the way it does in Virginia. The long and perilous drive through the dark tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike lent an aspect of adventure to the trip. And when we got to my grandmother’s house, I got to sleep in a room by myself, while my brothers took over the sleeping porch.

In the years since those times my feelings about Christmas have changed, as has the holiday itself. Some people, habitual ranters, complain about this. But it’s not Christmas’s fault. I’m not sure blame can be assigned. Because Christmas, with all its cookies and carols, its ribbons and wrappings, its greed and grace, is just part of the warp and woof of the fabric of time, blended in there with all the other calendar items, spinning round and round life’s crazy carousel. We try to grab the brass ring when we’re young. It’s not brass anymore; carousels have gone plastic like everything else. But we’re still spinning, and the older I get the faster it seems to go.

When I was a parent of young children myself, I tried to recreate for them the sense of comfort and mystery and joy that Christmas gave me as a child. Like so many parenting experiences, it made me feel inadequate and helpless. I wanted to give my children a sense of the possibility of miracles in this dark and uncertain life. Yet when I look back on it now, I’m glad I at least tried to keep the spark alive.

In ancient times pagans lit bonfires to warm the midwinter nights. We string colored lights on our roofs. Each generation creates its own magic. The longest night of the winter is past, but we have a ways to go before we emerge from the tunnel.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a safe journey.


Star Stuck

Even paper stars entice us to look up.
Even paper stars entice us to look up.

Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder when I stopped wondering what you are.

I was nine years old when my mother gave me a copy of “Mary Poppins.” I loved it. But some parts of it stuck with me more than others. In particular I recall the chapter in which Mary Poppins takes the children to meet a wispy old lady who makes gingerbread stars. The key magical element was the gold foil stars covering the cookies that (spoiler alert) the old lady, with Mary’s help, pastes to the night sky.

Of course I knew it was make believe, but I liked the idea. The hard-edged modern world has little patience for such whimsy. We know too much now. Or think we do, anyway. Once those spectacular photos from the Hubble telescope started showing up on the Internet, putting to shame all of George Lucas’s special effects, not to mention Gene Roddenberry’s best efforts, it became obvious that the stars are far more complicated and numerous than was once thought.

Back in the days when the Greeks and Romans were giving names to the twinkling lights in the night sky, and in some cases imagining origin myths and personal narratives for all that glow, the chance of anyone going up there and assessing the actual content and dimensions of the stars was remote. Now satellites clutter the atmosphere, not only bouncing signals back and forth and observing our mundane activities here on Earth, but allowing us to watch the exploding swirling dance of distant galaxies.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. And right now, what with the eggnog and the rum punch etc., I really don’t need any more confusion in my life. I used to enjoy the Christmas hoopla. But ever since the 12 days of Christmas turned into 12 weeks I’m too burned out on the whole marketing juggernaut to stop and smell the gingerbread.

I miss that simpler Mary Poppins sort of magic. I’d rather look up at the stars on a clear cold snowy evening than watch another sappy holiday special about the meaning of Christmas.

I think meaning is best when it’s homemade. Like gingerbread stars. And this holiday, I’ll be pasted.

The Santa Particle

Inside, Santa's just a kid himself.
Inside, Santa’s just a kid himself.

If Santa is the answer, what is the question?

More to the point, how did this man in the red suit gain such stature in our collective consciousness? Oh sure, he’s a father figure, a giver, a jolly old soul and all that. But does that explain how Old Saint Nick became so entrenched in our cultural cosmos?

I sometimes wonder if the modern Santa fixation goes back to Pepsi and Coke, our rival libations, who both used Santa’s image and beloved persona to persuade millions of folks that drinking limitless soda was integral to holiday festivity. The Claus the refreshes.

Yet the way the notion of Santa and his whole North Pole crew has percolated through winter traditions suggests that the character resonates with people of all ages, not just children. If anything, I suspect most children start out with a healthy skepticism regarding this old guy and his bag of toys who sneaks into the house and eats your cookies while you’re sleeping. But well-meaning parents (self included) encourage small children to believe in all sorts of impossible ideas – mice that talk, pumpkins that transform into gilded chariots, fairies that live under mushrooms, etc.. I’m not saying those things might not be true in some way, somewhere, but I used to feel a tad irresponsible when I was trying to maintain the Santa charade. I mean, belief is powerful, but if you teach kids one thing and then a few years later say, ‘oh, yeah, about that? Just kidding’, you may inadvertently cast a shadow of doubt that lingers long.

Yet there’s no denying the appeal of the Santa concept. The notion of a selfless soul whose sole purpose is to bring joy to others is deeply attractive. If there isn’t a Santa Claus, why not? And if there is such a person, wouldn’t it be great if each of us shared some of that joy-bringing elfness?

This message powers many of the most enduring Christmas films. Not only the relentlessly aired “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” but some of the more recent yet equally effective holiday films such as “Scrooged” and “Elf.”

Children who learn early that giving is as much, if not more fun than receiving, can grow up with an appreciation for what it is not just to “see” Santa.  In time they may come to treasure the experience of “being” Santa.

And yes, Virginia, I do believe there’s a little particle of Santa in each of us, just waiting to accelerate.

Mind Games

Get a clue.
Get a clue.

What do flightless birds and shy nerds have in common?

Both soar freely in the abstract realm that is crossword puzzledom.

Yes, I know, puzzledom is not an actual word, although if it were you could score a gazillion points with it in a game of Scrabble. But in crosswords points are not the point. Each puzzle is a unique mystery, or rather, a collection of small mysteries bound together in a two-dimensional grid. Not exactly a concept that sings like a winning contestant on “The Voice.” Yet, from its modest, unsung beginning as a novelty item in a December 1913 edition of the New York World, the crossword puzzle has hummed its way into the heart of our culture, converting skeptics from all walks of life.

In this past Sunday’s The Washington Post, crossword puzzle guru Merl Reagle wrote a fascinating article about the inventor of the crossword puzzle, Arthur Wynne, and how his clever idea stormed the country while not earning him a dime. In honor of the enduring popularity of crossword puzzles, the Post is sponsoring a special 100th anniversary contest which features four linked crossword puzzles and some other nifty surprises. The winner will get a thousand dollars, a sum which might inspire even scoffers of the humble word puzzles.

I admit, there was a time when I viewed crosswords as a waste of time, an occupation fit only for those who had nothing better to do. How little I knew. I learned a bit about the mania that crossword puzzle enthusiasts share from watching “Wordplay,” a funny, enlightening 2006 documentary film directed by Patrick Creadon. It features Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, Merl Reagle, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and other notable puzzle enthusiasts. After watching that film I decided to give crosswords a try.

I was also motivated in part by the sort of quiet dread of, you know, losing my mind. When it runs in your family, you start to grip the wheel a little tighter as you approach the curves in the road. So, although I was raised to consider doing crossword puzzles a waste of time, I read scientific articles documenting evidence suggesting that mental acuity, like muscle tone, improves with regular exercise. And a crossword puzzle is nothing if not an exercise in cogitation: a ten letter word that means thinking.

Of course, not all thinking is productive or constructive, but thoughtless action is unreliable in most situations, unless you are a Zen monk. I mean, sure, we can all learn something by trying to figure out “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But in my life I seem to be confronted more often with questions where the answers are true or false, multiple choice, or none of the above.

The beauty of the questions in a crossword puzzle is that there is always a correct solution. And, if you can’t figure it out, there’s a new puzzle the next day, or the next week. This system offers a soothing contrast to the baffling hydra-headed conundrums of modern life.

So if, like me, you find that neither yoga, nor meditation, nor even kick-boxing delivers the relief you seek from the stress of modern times, you could do worse than to pick up a crossword puzzle and give it a go. Just remember, all emus are flightless birds, but not all flightless birds are emus.

Check Mate

Ain't nothin' like the real thing.
Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.

In the early 1980’s, when we got our first tiny little desktop computer and my husband wanted to put it in our bedroom, I remember feeling strangely disconcerted. For some reason it struck me as a violation of my personal space. I had no idea.

Back then,  computers were still the stuff of geeks. Ordinary people had little truck with them. Now, of course, even trucks have onboard computers.

But for the generations which have grown up since the 90’s it must be hard to fathom how slowly things happened in the olden, golden days of, say, 1984. Hah. Orwell was close, but no cigar.

Last weekend I watched a quietly droll mockumentary called “Computer Chess” which evokes those awkward yet exciting years in the early ’80s when computers still seemed only dorky tools for the scientifically minded. It didn’t help that most computers then were the size of small refrigerators.

In director Andrew Bujalski’s cleverly understated indie black and white film, released this year, the plot centers around a small gathering of computer engineers in the then-new field of artificial intelligence who compete to see which of them has designed the best chess-playing computer program.

The tone and style of the film mimics a primitive home movie. There are moments of humor, and even suspense of a sort, but the dominant keynote is weirdness, and not simply the “oh aren’t nerds funny” type of easy target humor we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on shows like “Big Bang Theory” (and trust me, I am a fan). Rather, the film sustains a bizarre yet absorbing mood, as if Jim Jarmusch and Neil Gaiman had sketched out a plot together on a napkin in some dark after-hours cafe.

I found it entertaining and thought-provoking, in spite of its somewhat sinister undertones. Kind of the way I feel about computers now.

In fact, when I think back to my initial uneasiness about sharing my bedroom with that sleek little desktop all those years ago, I realize that, in dramatic terms, that sly seductress was no Mac. She was Maxine, a rival in tech clothing, and way too smart for me.

Ripple in Still Water

The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.'s painting.
The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.’s painting.

What is it about Florida that brings out the crazy in people?

It can’t be simply the beaches and the palm trees, the warmth and the flip-flop-friendly lifestyle. All those things are abundantly present in many other places in the world where the tendency to Nutitude doesn’t seem so lushly present as it does in some parts of Florida.

I’m referring mainly to the touristy regions, of course. Never having lived in the state, I can’t testify to the mindset of the populace as a whole, but during the numerous visits I’ve made to relatives in different parts of the sunshine state, I’ve been impressed by the free-wheeling attitude that seems to thrive in the tourist zones.

Of course, since the days of the earliest explorers Florida has attracted people with an imaginative streak. Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth springs to mind. Get rich quick types have been trying to squeeze the sweetness out of Florida since the first orange groves were planted. And Disney demonstrated that if you build a fake castle in the middle of the sun belt, you can get people to believe their dreams will come true there.

Well, although I was raised on the Mickey Mouse Club and the world according to Walt, these days Disney doesn’t do it for me. On a recent visit to the Tampa area I had modest expectations of some quiet exploration and perhaps a discovery or two. But I never imagined I would encounter world class artwork hidden away in the tiny town of Tarpon Springs, a place best known for its once-thriving sponge business. Nowadays I’d bet the merchants along the sponge docks sell more Greek pastries than sponges. The sponge history still draws people there. Come for the sponges, stay for the galaktoboureko.

However, when we wandered off the beaten path we came upon the cozy Unitarian Universalist Church and happened onto a tour of their prize collection of “mystically tinged religious works” painted by George Inness Jr.

I had never heard of Inness Jr. before, but soon learned that he was the son of famous American landscape artist George Inness.

George Jr. also painted landscapes, but his are imbued with a spiritual subtext that sets them apart. I was mesmerized. In particular I was enthralled by the last work he painted, completed three days before he died. It depicts an endless forest bathed in glowing light. It spoke to me. That, of course, is what all art attempts to do—to communicate an idea, a feeling, a sense of place or person. The painting beckons the viewer to walk in the woods, not to get anywhere necessarily, but to enjoy the trip.

I tried to imagine what Florida must have been like in 1926 when Inness Jr. was creating these paintings. Back then there were no gleaming hotels in Miami, no plastic castles in Orlando, no captive orcas giving two shows a day. And there wouldn’t have been the miles and miles of strip malls and retirement communities. It was a quieter, wilder Florida.

That quiet wild part of Florida is still there. But it’s being pushed out, paved over and polluted by the crunch of careless development. And that’s a shame. In the peaceful pockets of old Florida you can get a sense of the wonder and mystery of the place. Along the back streets of Tarpon Springs we discovered a lovely still bayou, where the only sound was the occasional puffing of a manatee, sticking its nose above the water’s surface to grab a breath.

Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.
Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.

In recent years the gentle manatees have become poster creatures for all that is precious and endangered in the Florida wilderness. As we were waiting to catch our flight home the newspapers were leading with the story of the invasion of green anacondas into the Everglades. Previously it was thought that Burmese pythons, which have been breeding at an alarming rate and decimating the wildlife in Florida’s wilderness areas, were the problem. Now it appears that green anacondas, which get bigger and are more robust than the pythons, present a much greater threat.

So, where does this leave Florida? Hoping for a miracle? Looking for a way to cash in and turn the problem into a revenue stream?

Anything is possible. Except for the Fountain of Youth thing. That’s total hooey.

You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.
You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.

The Facebook of Dorian Gray

Portrait of an honest face.
Portrait of an honest face.

How old am I?

None of your business.

Where am I now?

Who wants to know?

What is my hometown?

Oh please. One can’t go home anymore. And, really, isn’t home just a vortex of emotional needs that one carries wherever one goes?

Of course my literary hometown was London circa 1890, a time, I might point out, when intrusive so-called social mechanisms such as Facebook, Twitter and What’sNext didn’t exist. Neither did iPhones, iPods and Google.

In my day we had to construct our alternate identities the old fashioned way. We wore masks of civility in public, while in private we were—how can I explain this in millennial terms? Private. Think off the grid but with better hygiene.

And there’s the sting in the serpent’s tail. Privacy has become an endangered state. People with secrets are presumed guilty. Why else wouldn’t they publish every detail of their lives on public forums? The modern notion seems to be that only transparency can be trusted. We demand that the Emporor’s new clothes be see-through.

Naturally, being the sensitive aesthete that I am, I find all of this a bit distasteful. It’s not that I care about propriety. Heaven and hell forbid. But really, the essence of art is selectivity. There’s a reason cherubic angels are always pictured as babies. Naked babies delight the eye. Naked 60-year-olds, not so much.

Of course, there may be those who disagree. And everyone is entitled to their own tastes. But must we share every sensation, every thought, every opinion? The modern vogue for chasing the new is not new. We had the new in the 1890s. Penicillin would have been more helpful.

I suppose by criticizing the current fashion I’m showing my age. Well, I’ve got nothing to hide. You can see by my photo that I haven’t changed a bit. Still a barefoot goy with cheek of tan. Would I lie to you?

The Long and Winding Road

The winding Hawk's Nest Road overlooking a river and a railroad, offered the sort of scenic drive my Dad loved best.
The winding Hawk’s Nest Road overlooking the Delaware River and the Erie railroad offered the sort of scenic drive my Dad loved best.

For a mere century automobile road trips have been a signature element of the American experience.

Of course, humans have been on the road for a lot longer than that. Since the days of ancient Rome restless souls have followed the urge to go see what’s over the next hill, around the next bend, across the wide river.

But in this country, when we say road trip, we mean a couple of people or more, piled into a car (any car will do), driving for hours, maybe days, even weeks, having adventures, some planned, some not.

Not everyone enjoys such things, especially considering the way the modern highway system has been designed to increase speed limits at the expense of scenery. There was a time when the journey could be at least as enjoyable as the destination.

I was five-years-old on my first road trip. My dad, newly graduated from law school, had a job offer in San Francisco. So he packed up everything we owned in our new 1954 Ford station wagon and headed west with three kids and our mom, who was pregnant with number four. We stayed at National Parks all across the country—Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Dakotas. We traveled the Oregon Coast and camped in the Redwood Forest. I’ll admit, I don’t remember a lot about it. At that age you don’t have enough perspective to understand what you’re seeing.

Fortunately, my dad took a lot of slides, and in later years he took pains to remind us of what a big and beautiful country we lived in.

My brothers Jeff and Bill and I take the measure of Long's Peak in the Rocky Mountains in 1954.
My brothers and I admired Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains in 1954.

All his life my dad loved to get in the car and drive places. When, in his late 80’s a few years before he died, his vision and reflexes deteriorated to the point that he had to give up his driver’s license, I think it took a lot of the fire out of him. He longed to go on one more road trip.

But at the same time, as he grew older he lamented how the forces of increasing population and construction had altered the landscape. In Fairfax County, Virginia, where we ended up after the job my dad had driven across country to take didn’t work out (we turned around and drove back east), there were still cows and horse farms around Tysons Corner. There was no beltway. The day it opened people drove on it just to experience the wonder of it. It was supposed to free us all from traffic congestion.

Well, journeys sometimes take you places you never expected to go. And sometimes they lead you right back where you started. But nothing ever stays the same, so in a way, the journey never ends.

Some people waste their whole lives looking backward, wishing they could return to the way things were. Others miss out on the here and now because they’re in such a hurry to get to what’s next.

I’m grateful that my dad taught me to get out of the car and look around, to take the measure of each place and time and be thankful for what is, even while we work toward what could be. It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad. And sometimes, if you get off the interstate and wind into the heart of the country, you can see.

It’s a miraculous place. Take a deep breath. And keep going.

The Tangled Web

Say it with cobwebs: Happy Halloween!
Say it with cobwebs: Happy Halloween!

I have never been accused of being good housekeeper. My feeling is, our food grows in dirt,  therefore it stands to reason that a little dirt in the house won’t kill you.

Not everyone shares this view. I won’t name names. You know who you are.

It’s all about comfort levels. We all have our own personal thresholds for acceptable squalor. Also for anxiety, hunger, and fear. In the Halloween season fear freaks get their time to shine, or loom menacingly, if they prefer. But whether you enjoy a good scare or not, the gloves are off with modern Halloween decorations.

Nice kitty.
Nice kitty.

When I was a kid you could get by with one pumpkin, carved in the simplest Euclidean manner—all triangles. The really gung-ho neighbors might go so far as to tack a paper skeleton to the front door. Simpler times.

In the last few decades Halloween decorations have gone the way of Hulk, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. You can run, but you can’t avoid getting some of that sticky stuff on you when the deal goes down.

This is all fine with me, but I have to say that if anyone had told me back in the ’80s that designer cobwebs would one day be a hot trend in Halloween chic I would have scoffed at the idea. I mean, cobwebs? I’m supposed to buy cobwebs now? Not gonna happen, even if they do come in fetching shades of Day-Glo orange, neon purple and slime green along with the classic bone white.

And naturally, the cobwebs lead inevitably to the spider motif, which has been embraced big-time. Ginormous hairy arachnids scramble over the azaleas and dangle from the dogwoods. If this had been going on when I was young my teeth probably wouldn’t have suffered so much from trick-or-treats sugar coating. I approve of spiders in principle, but prefer them at a distance. Generally speaking, creatures with more than four legs give me the creeps. Clearly, mine is a minority view on this subject.

Along came a spider and gave me nightmares.
If Spider Man looked like this he would lose the franchise..

However, spiders and spooks notwithstanding, Halloween weaves a tantalizing web of possibilities for many of us. The chance to pretend we’re something we’re not, if only for a few hours. The freedom to put on a wig and a cape and skulk about laughing ghoulishly speaks to something deep inside us all. Or is it just me?

Rooted in our collective fear of Death, Halloween is a one-night pass to walk on the edge of the crypt and act like we aren’t scared witless. We may not fool anyone, but sometimes, when things are really looking bad, the only thing you can do is laugh and hope you get a few good shots in before it’s time to take a bow.