Martha Stewart and me

elephantnapkinI imagine that the first thing Martha Stewart does in planning a dinner party is create a guest list.  Of course it’s possible that, instead, she begins with an idea of some dish she’s been craving, say, pork belly and tomato aspic, and then goes through her mental list of friends, crossing off those she knows will hate tomato aspic.

Whatever Martha’s approach, it couldn’t be farther from mine.  I start with paper napkins, not any paper napkins, but those that catch my eye when I’m not shopping for them. A week ago, I was wandering through the gift shop of the Seattle Repertory Theatre and spotted napkins that featured a tastefully psychedelic, bronze elephant. The beast was in a garden setting that belonged to the India of maharajas and maharanis. I bought the napkins.

“Now that I have these napkins,” I told my husband, “we need to invite friends to dinner.” I could have entertained friends using napkins I already possessed, except that my other winter-themed paper napkins came from Iceland. If I used them, I’d run out before winter was over.  They featured the design of the Icelandic sweater. For me they are better than the real sweaters made from wool and presumably itchy. I’m meting them out very slowly, because it’s not likely I’ll find substitutes to bring back icelandsweaterthe same happy travel memories.

I pictured the bronze elephants matching my bronze placemats and could already envision my gorgeous Martha-style table setting.  That picture lasted until the day before the planned dinner, when my husband and I pulled the placemats out of the drawer.  Hmm. They weren’t really bronze, but rather a two-tone, indescribable metallic color. Oh well, the elephants were still beautiful even if they didn’t look quite right with the placemats.

“That’s not the only problem,” my husband said, “We have four placemats, not six.”  So I had no choice but to add two multicolored, multi-patterned placemats to the four metallic ones. And none of them matched the napkins.

The day of the party, we discovered another snag: we had only five bowls for the hearty soup

as a child

 to feed six hungry guests.

The only other obstacle to a brilliant Martha-Stewart table was the barely begun picture puzzle lying at the end of the dining room table.  I’d started to put the 750 pieces together a few weeks ago, when we were staying in a cabin in the snowy Methow Valley. The image on the puzzle was so complex that I didn’t get very far on it, so I brought it home.

I studied the table before the guests arrived: the mis-matched placemats that didn’t go with each other or the napkins, a picture puzzle filling a third of the table, and one missing soup bowl.

I asked myself what Martha would do if she found herself in a situation like this. Of course she wouldn’t find herself in this predicament, so I couldn’t answer my question.

After the meal was over, I explained to the guests that the napkins were what spurred me to invite them to dinner. They nodded, unfazed by this revelation, and urged me to keep buying napkins.




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2017 resolutions, goals, and life themes

imagesThe end of one year and the start of another is often a time for reflection and a belief that we can, at least symbolically, have a fresh start. When we choose what we want to do in the future, often we don’t spend enough time reflecting on our present situation. Is the life we’re living satisfying? Do we need to change ourselves or our goals to make it more satisfying? Is our current life synced with our values?  Without assessing our situation fully, we might point our future plans in the wrong direction. We might decide to make sacrifices to achieve goals that in the end won’t make enough of a difference to justify the sacrifice. For example, is looking better in a swim suit enough of a carrot to diet and change one’s eating habits permanently?

It could be time to approach our planning for the new year from a new angle. Recently, I heard a minister describe a modern tradition in Japan in which people are encouraged to vote for a word chosen from a list of words that would best embody the new year. Once votes are tallied, the winner becomes the national word for the year. In a similar vein, a writers’ blog asked the question, “What word will guide your writing for 2017?”  Different contributors came up with “enjoy” the process, “trust” my judgment and experience, “focus,” to stay on schedule, and “becoming” less hung up on worries about getting or not getting published.

If you were describing a life you aspire to in 2017, what words would you put on your list? Mine would include “give up,” the foolish idea that I can control everything; “create” art, music, and words; and “stop” imagining the worst is yet to come. Just saying the words won’t mean anything, unless I also reflect on what I would have to do to make sure they direct my actions.

Another approach to reflection comes from the website, which asks the question, “What Will The Theme Of Your Life Be in 2017?” by Kira M. Newman. The entire piece is worth reading, but for now, here’s the CliffsNotes version.  Newman says that from childhood forward, we create stories about who we are and the past experiences that shaped us. “Stories are the way we make sense of the world, and we’re constantly narrating and revising in our heads, sometimes without even realizing it..Although our life story is based on real events, it is also highly personal and subjective.” For example, two people might have lost a parent at an early age, but describe the impact of that experience on their own growth and development differently.

Newman goes into detail about three life themes “linked to well-being”: 1) those that revolve around social relations and community, 2) ones that emphasize personal achievement and status, and 3) those that focus on redemption. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one, because they can change over time.

And she talks about the need to weave together our goals and life themes.  “Goals and New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be isolated aspirations, failed and forgotten. Instead, they can contribute to crafting a life theme and an identity that endure.”

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Which is better, a city or a town?

9 am, that is

9 am, that is

Which is a better place to live, a small town or a city? That was the conversation my husband and I had while enjoying a white Christmas —  though not the single-digit temperatures — in Winthrop, Washington, population 415, or 1,916 if you consider the outlying areas.

I should clarify “small town” to mean a thriving small town. Sadly, there are plenty in the state with buildings boarded up, and the thrift store and food bank the anchors. Thriving towns often are those whose leaders have come up with a gimmick to keep the tourists coming, if not new residents. Winthrop, with its faux wild west architecture and its honest reputation as the nation’s largest cross country ski area is one of them. The excellent “Trail’s End” bookstore describes the town’s residents as highly literate outdoor enthusiasts.

After spending two days there, in a cabin in front of a gas fireplace reading, writing, snacking as well as soaking in our private hot tub, we ventured into the streets, the stores and onto the ski trails. At the bookstore, I had a long and pleasant conversation with a clerk about books we had both enjoyed.  At the ski shop, we waited a long time for an employee to listen patiently to streams of questions, doubts, and other insecurities from a potential ski shopper. When our turn came, we received the same thorough and thoughtful attention. When we discovered that the restaurant where we’d made an on-line reservation for Christmas Eve dinner was not where it had been a year ago, someone we talked to on our rambles gave us good directions on how to find the new location. At the same restaurant, the hostess and our server both spent time asking how we’d passed the day and actually listening to our answers, while also sharing local information, and just generally chatting us up.

In no way did these experiences match those of our lives in a city, where everyone is busy. Normally efficient, but always busy. The pace is wearying.  “Rush hour” is not in the vocabulary of people who live in Winthrop.  On the ski trail, we met a couple from a city north of where we live who were considering relocating to Winthrop. Too much traffic, too many people, and too much development were some of their reasons. They’re right. The Puget Sound region is experiencing enormous population growth.

We were quite content to spend five peaceful days in the quiet of nature, the only sounds being the swoosh of skis on the tracks, the hum of the occasional light plane overhead, and the gurgle of the jets in the hot tub.

But would we want to live here? After considering the possibility from different angles, we decided we wouldn’t. Why not?  The clinic there couldn’t do what the hospital a few blocks away from our home could.  Dining out options were good but limited. Making new friends might take time, and we would miss old friends who live near us now. We enjoy museums, art galleries, and lectures, which would be harder to find without driving some distance. We knew that all of these objections could be overcome. We realized that the biggest reason not to move was that we are fair-weather outdoor enthusiasts. When the man on the street gave us directions to the restaurant, he added that it would be easy for us to walk there.  As we drove the mile home in well-below freezing temperatures, we were happy we hadn’t taken his advice.



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Resolving the problem of extreme list making

Were you one of the gazillion readers who pushed sales of The Lifetime Magic of Tidying Up through the rooftop? For those who didn’t read the book, author Marie Kondo shared tips for the sport of extreme decluttering. Kondo gave one piece of advice I’ll never forget: “Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, ‘Does this spark joy?'” If an item doesn’t give you joy, she advises getting rid of it.  I tried to apply this rule to my efforts to declutter kitchen utensils, my underwear drawer, and linen closet. Although using the items in each of these locations does not make me want to clap and sing aloud, I  find them to be very useful and, consequently, felt compelled to shove the drawers closed.

I bring up this topic, because it reminds me of a blog post I just read about overcoming another bad habit, titled “How To Only Do Things You Actually Want to Do.” In this, writer Christine Carter takes on the topic of things-to-do lists. She says, “Ineffective task lists make us feel like we have too much to do in too little time, which makes us feel overwhelmed. Ironically, this makes us worse at planning and managing our time.” I agree with her on this point. But then, she asks list makers to highlight any items they dread doing, and delete or delegate these items. Cleaning my oven, a task I dread, seems to never make any of my lists. So far so good. But notice the next step. Delegate what you dread?

Even to delegate what I’d rather not do, as in shopping for groceries, doing errands, cooking and cleaning up the kitchen, would be impossible to achieve on a daily basis. I don’t want to try to push off anything more to my husband who does his fair share.  uke-and-gordonAnd Gordon the cat hardly has the energy to wake up from his long winter’s nap except to make it to his food bowl, and filling it every ten minutes is also a hard job to delegate.

Sure, I could pay someone to do everything I don’t want to do, but that seems more like hiring a household staff comparable to the one that reigned in Downton Abbey. Rather than resort to extreme editing and costly delegating, I believe I’ll skip list making. If on occasion I feel pressure to create one, I’ll do it the day of and fill it only with activities I love.


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Narrow escape from Grinchiness

family fun away from the shopping malls.

fun on the ice

I think I’m becoming a Grinch, the Doctor Seuss furry recluse character, who scorns the Christmas season in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

What has caused my grumpiness towards a holiday beloved by nearly all children and many adults? I guess it’s the ubiquitous push to buy more and more stuff. This comes as heaps of separate ads tucked in the daily newspaper, the catalogs that clog my snail mailbox, and the dozens of unwanted junk emails that arrive in my inbox every few minutes.

Yesterday, to try to get into the spirit of the season, I read through the “Shop NW” section of “The Seattle Times.” This issue featured suggestions for the late shopper: a set of four bottle stoppers in different geometric shapes for $49, an agate cheese board for $78, a $395 customizable pet blanket, and a custom pair of baggage tags for $81.

The “Shop NW’ gifts are not for the very wealthy. Shoppers in that class are probably considering one of the Neiman Marcus fantasy gifts, which include a walk-on role in a Broadway hit ($30,000), a week of luxury living at three English estates ($700,000), a one-day private quarterback camp with Joe Montana ($65,000), or an exclusive Grammy Awards appearance ($500,000).

But wait. There is more to Christmas than gifts.* Is there nothing that can stop me from sliding into total Grinchhood?  Hmm. Last night, we did enjoy watching kids and adults trying not to fall as they skated around a holiday ice rink.  A few days ago, I had lunch and exchanged gifts with longtime friends.  This week, I’m having lunch with another group of friends. We go to the same lovely hotel every year.  It’s a real tradition. Then there’s the annual gag gift party coming up; oh, and breakfast in a bookstore with fellow writers. Lots of affirmations of long-time friendships I hadn’t thought about as I thumbed through advertisements.

The other day, I saw some wonderful lighted decorations I’m taking my husband to photograph. We’re going skiing later this month. He even brought home eggnog, a treat we only allow ourselves once a year. And it’s not as if we’re spending much time searching for the perfect gift. We already have it: a cozy house complete with fireplaces and plenty of supplies for making hot chocolate, close friends, a large orange cat, and each other. Maybe I’m not becoming a Grinch after all. It all depends on how you look at the situation.

*Of course, it’s a religious holiday, but commerce has pushed that into the background.

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Reining in post-election anxieties

scan-2A few evenings ago, I was enjoying a music program by three baritones in an intimate setting, enjoying it, that is, until the singers descended upon the small audience in search of one or two women willing to join them for their next pieces. One of the performers strolled my way, pointed to me, and invited me to come up to the stage. Immediately, I blurted, “No!”

Friends who were there asked why I hadn’t been willing to play along with them.  “Control,” I said. “When I’m standing up in front of a crowd, I want to be the one in charge.”

After I said this, I started to consider my ongoing angst in response to the outcome of the presidential election and my utter lack of any sense of control. The feeling continued the next day when I attended a memorial service for a good friend.  Talk about one thing none of us can control.

Many commentators advised those of us dismayed by the results to stop worrying and to let go of negative feelings. They cited research that suggests that control is a human illusion and our spheres of influence smaller than we might think.

It turns out that feeling in control, whether it’s an illusion or not, is a very important mental condition.

From Glenn Croston, PhD., Psychology Today, “A persistent lack of control in a person’s life often leads to depression and anxiety.  Anything that makes us feel helpless, lacking fundamental control over our surroundings, can have a lasting impact…”

On another website, IQ Matrix, Adam Sicinski speaks to The Universal Law of Control “When we are physically, mentally and emotionally controlling the changes in our lives, then this naturally leads to higher levels of achievement, emotional satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.”

And from the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control,” three researchers conclude that, “…the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.”

After reading these, I reminded myself that when I was working I had a great deal of control over how I did my job, and even in retirement still have influence in my local community, and with my husband and friends. My sense of personal control hasn’t changed. It’s true that I can’t control the choice of a Supreme Court Justice, changes in health care laws, or immigration regulations, but then, I never could before.





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Old Year’s resolutions


Hiroshige’s Wave-public domain  from Wikipedia

I’ve been riding an emotional wave this month, sinking deeply into the troughs and rising skyward with the crests.  The trough came on election day, the same day I received a rejection letter from an editor who had acted very interested in receiving my manuscript when I spoke with her last summer. The gloom continued for days after. Then last week, I was swept up to the crest as I completed a huge volunteer project.

I’m ready to sacrifice the waves for smooth seas, to tackle small projects — the antithesis of the recent one involving coordinating a retirement party with 425+ guests — and move more slowly. I’m now dreaming about spinning a cocoon around me during the December days ahead, and finding my way onto a different path, one more tranquil and less hectic.

Is this possible with the parties, shopping expeditions, and holiday celebrations that are part of every December? The weather, the addition of a few more minutes of darkness each day, and on-line shopping will support my dream.

Heavy rains and high winds — hallmarks of this time of year — make staying home more appealing.

A few days ago, malls started to fill with not-yet-harried shoppers. Enthusiasm for thrusting myself into the buzzing crowd to achieve the goal of making everyone on my list happy, is already waning.  I can keep warm and dry at home and shop with the help of the internet.

Finally, the receding hours of daylight inspire inertia.

Yes. It would be theoretically possible to stop and smell the gingerbread. What could possibly keep me from realizing my dream of pulling a throw over my lap, sitting down with a few good books, and chilling now and then?”

I know the answer: I am the one who gets in my way. I’m the one who fills my calendar with a hundred and one activities, and who chooses doing an errand over sitting still.

Here’s my December experiment:  I’m going to cut back a little on my social life, go cross country skiing, read a pile of books, meditate, and do yoga. Not all at once and not every day, just enough to see what happens, find out if I change in any way.  Calendar control will be the biggest challenge. I also want to know if what I fantasize about is not the road to smooth sailing but the road to boredom.

There are no serious consequences if I fail. I can think of my experiment as getting my usual unfilled New Year’s resolutions out of the way in the old year, thus saving myself time in 2017.


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Stereotypes in travel writing

baileys-antiquesAfter reading a recent Seattle Times travel piece that recommended particular activities for Baby Boomer and Millennial tourists in and around Waikiki, I’m writing a rant. (FYI, According to U.S. Census Bureau stats, in 2016, Baby Boomers’ ages range from 52-70, and Millennials’ from 16-33.)  This activity also provided a welcome distraction from worry about the outcome of today’s presidential election.

Dear Travel Editor,

Way to go with managing to stereotype older people in your recent piece listing things to do on Waikiki based on your age group. Your article also stereotypes the young, but my gripe is what you’ve decided is good for the former.

Let’s consider the activities you believe best fit these two populations.
1. Millennials, go surfing; Boomers, sit in a bar and watch the Millennials surf.
2. Millennials, climb Diamond Head; Boomers, taken in a free hula show.
3. Millennials, tour a ukulele factory; Boomers, take a tour of an old Hawaiian Palace.
4.Millennials, ride a vintage bike to the beach; Boomers, get a massage.
5. Millennials, go shopping for cheap stuff and visit Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts; Boomers, head for an upscale mall to buy “high-end crystal or fancy clothes.”

In other words, Millennials be active. Boomers, move as little as possible except to lift a mai tai to your lips or pull out your credit cards and shop away.

On several occasions, my Baby Boomer husband and I (born just after WWII) have somehow managed to reach the top of the Diamond Head Crater. Along the way we spotted many hikers who appeared to be in their early fifties. Imagine the stamina it must have taken for those aging bodies to drag themselves up the 1.6 mile trail.

As far as your Honolulu tour recommendations, my husband and I also visited a ukulele factory (different from the one on in your list).  I’m thankful we hadn’t read that this type of adventure was for Millennials, or we would have missed hearing stories from the son of the company’s founder about his father’s first ventures into the music business after traveling from the U.S. to Brazil and Portugal — to avoid being locked up in a Japanese internment camp during WWII –and discovering ukuleles in those countries.

Before I finish, I have to bring up the subject of shopping.  Okay. I admit that when in Honolulu we have never missed a visit to Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts. My husband’s closet is a testimonial that their shirts are not just for Millennials. As for your shopping ideas for my generation…Travel to the land of palm trees and orchids, stunningly blue water, crimson sunsets, and psychedelic fish to shop for high-end crystal? Really?


Posted in personal reflections, travel | 1 Comment

What to do when we can’t control everything

fistBlog ideas and free time have been in short supply lately. However, something I found in my inbox today struck me as a worthy topic, especially as we’re still hoping that the eternal presidential election cycle will actually come to an end. The topic is how little in our lives we can actually control and how to respond to all that we can’t.

It’s not a new issue or a new solution. People have been using the Serenity Prayer for guidance for ages, praying for inner peace in situations over which they have no control. It’s no surprise that copies of this often sprout up in work spaces. How many of us have dealt with work situations where we felt like we had little control, yet found our hearts pounding in anger or frustration over the unfairness of it all, spent time complaining to others, losing sleep, and even gaining weight?

The piece I read, “Loosen Your Grip,” by Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute, asks readers to list all the things they don’t have complete control over. My list includes the weather, the stock market, the feedback I get from different critique groups, moods of people around me, my overall health, war in the Middle East, ISIS, and the outcome of the upcoming election. The latter is on my mind more often than any of the former.

Krech’s advice is to “Loosen Your Grip.” He says that as events in our lives spin out of control, “Often we respond by trying harder to control what we can’t control. We tighten our grip.” Unlike most therapists, he acknowledges that usually we can’t control our thoughts and feelings. He advocates the Japanese philosophy of “letting things be the way they are instead of trying to make them the way we want them to be.” Instead of “things,” substitute “people, relatives, friends,” and you’ll immediately understand his point. Since much of what happens to us is uncontrollable, Krech says: “You don’t have to orchestrate everything… Even your heart has found a way to keep its beat without your vigilant efforts.”

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Buying cars and studio portraits: same revolting experience

self-portrait in old car

for now, sticking to self-portraits and old car

I’m about to shop for a new car.  Ever since the “good Samaritan” jammed the gearshift in my 2004 Subaru in the process of towing my car, which had a dead battery caused by the body shop that left the back door open too long…  Oh, wait. That’s another story. This story involves car salespeople and my futile dream of shopping for a car without ever talking to one.

I hadn’t thought about the car shopping experience until this past weekend, after my husband and I met another kind of salesperson: the photography studio portrait salesman. Here’s how that meeting came about. We had agreed to be photographed for a directory for an organization we belong to. However, when I signed us up, I was picturing the directory as a collection of selfies, not studio portraits.

Weeks ago, I booked our 10-minute appointment for this past Sunday. I was surprised to receive a confirmation a few days before the date advising me that the process would take an hour. This isn’t possible, I thought. We’re not talking about a complete wedding and reception package.

When it came to the taking of photographs the first communication was right: ten minutes was plenty. But then the photographer said,  “We’ll move to the next room and I’ll have you look at the shots I took on my computer, so you can pick out the one you want for the directory. This one comes free, though some people like us to airbrush, remove age spots, fill in whatever needs filling in, and these changes do come at an extra cost. As we scroll through the photos, think of it as walking through a department store. You can look at everything, but you don’t have to buy.”

The process began like an eye exam. “Which of these do you like best, A or B? Now, between these, which do you prefer, C or D?  It had the same effect on us as an eye exam. “Could you show us C again?  D also?” Once we’d agreed on those choices, the sales pitch began. Displayed on a table and against the wall in the room were sample photos framed in heavy wood to make it easy for us to choose a photo or two or three beyond the free one for the directory. They came in billboard size, the size of the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel, and smaller — merely life-size — diptychs and triptychs.

“We don’t need any photos of us,” I said. “The directory photo is fine.” Ignoring me completely, the photographer then made suggestions of all the ways we might use any extra, framed ones we might purchase.

In desperation, my husband asked the cost of one simple, framed photo.

“Everything is cheaper if you buy more than one,” the photographer said, “so let’s look at some combinations first. If you buy these two singles with this threesome, you’ll be shocked at the savings.”

Forty-five minutes later, we were ready to buy every sample and all his equipment to get out of his lair. We settled on one framed photo, and after he made a point of doing a few trillion calculations — calculations which he probably knew by heart — which involved writing down all the amazing discounts we were receiving, we fled.

We almost went car shopping today, but memories of last Sunday caused us to do something fun instead. We needed time to forget the trauma of one salesperson before we faced another.




Posted in humor, personal reflections | 6 Comments