Continuing Education

Recently, I attended a virtual class on the subject of humor, as found in written pieces, stand-up comedy, and movie scripts.  It didn’t take long to learn that I was the dullest person in the class.

From the appearance of some classmates, I couldn’t tell if I was the oldest, though our time together proved I had the longest uncomplicated history. 

The format of the class consisted of the instructor asking a question or set of questions and then calling on each participant for an answer. The point was for her to show how each answer could be turned into a humorous incident.

Question one: “Tell us one thing you’ve done that few people know about you.” 

Right away, I regretted having signed up for this course. From my perspective, when only a few people have a particular piece of information about you, there’s a reason. And while taking in-person classes might allow you to sit in the last row and confess to everyone’s back, Zoom gives you no such option. Everyone is staring at you and if they can’t hear, they can turn up the volume on their speakers. 

Several responses to this question stood out for me:

“I financed my college education by selling drugs.”

“When I turned sixty, I decided to become a pole dancer.”

“I talk to my mother once a month, and only at noon when she’s drunk and I’m stoned.”

I realized then that my reveal that I’ve been baking cookies every week since the start of the pandemic had little promise of entertainment value. 

As each subsequent question became more difficult, panic ensued and my struggle led to more and more innocuous answers.

Question two: “Tell us a little white lie you told recently.” 

I can’t remember any of the lies told that day, including my own. Given the kind of truths people were exposing without a second thought, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the class would want to waste our time with a little white lie.

Question three: “What seems not worth paying attention to?”  

Phew. I didn’t have to struggle for an answer to that one, just repeated the answers of other students who named a variety of professional sports.

Question four: “What have you done recently that you pretended to care about?” 

The only answer I remember was not mine.  It came from the student who said she had just had a mammogram. The instructor wanted to know why she pretended to care about that.  After the woman said, “My breasts are my strongest feature,” she had our attention. What did it matter to anyone if she didn’t care about a mammogram?

Question four continued: “What have you done that you’re overly excited about?”

“I’m a recovering addict.”

That ended any hopes I might have had of bragging about my progress on the third draft of my novel or the fact that next year I’ll be celebrating my fiftieth wedding anniversary.

As the clock ticked, blessedly, toward the final moments of class, it occurred to me that the instructor had found nothing in my answers that would form a basis for a humorous blog, as she had with most other students. She did say our lives were filled with small stories that lead to something good, such as a new learning. 

I’m just grateful that the class provided me with this small story.

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Blogging during a pandemic that sent us indoors in March 2020 and barely let us out until March 2021 has been a challenge. And in the months that followed, I’ve done little more than exercise, go to the grocery store, see a few movies and a couple of friends.  

A few blogs back, I decided I wanted to write only humor and signed up for a class coming soon. But humor needs to attach to an incident, a life event, something other than eating, sleeping and writing. That is the challenge I’m setting for myself for future blogs: find more humor in a low-key life.

Meanwhile, I’m going to share a recently renewed interest that dates back many years, namely, a curiosity about labyrinths. And what are our lives like now, but a labyrinth of vaccine and mask mandates and limited social gatherings? 

Dingle, Ireland

Years ago, Lawrence Durrell’s novel, the Dark Labyrinth, introduced me to a group of British travelers on a cruise to Crete, who explored the labyrinth that once held the mythical monster, the Minotaur.  It’s been years since I read the book, but more recent occurrences have kindled a new interest.

This past summer, I attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for a labyrinth at the National Nordic Museum. This event reminded me of a friend’s labyrinth and a labyrinth we walked around two years ago near a church and former convent in Dingle, Ireland.

Why do people build labyrinths? To expand on the inspiration for Durrell’s story, according to Greek mythology, in the labyrinth on Crete, King Minos held captive a Minotaur, a human-devouring monster part man and part bull, whose appetite was satisfied by the seven men and women sent to him to feed on every year.  

The labyrinth itself was such a confusing jumble of pathways that no one who entered escaped, which left few volunteers willing to step inside to seek out and kill the monster. Finally, a young man, Theseus, volunteered to be one of the seven men to be sacrificed. Instead, he killed the Minotaur, and with the aid of a thread given him by the King’s daughter, Ariadne, eventually found his way out of the cave.

Our Minotaur is the pandemic and Ariadne’s thread, the vaccine.

More recent labyrinths lack the mystery and history of the one on Crete. Most are above ground and they’ve been built in and near churches, in gardens, fields and backyards. Some are encircled by grass, others by stones, seashells, candles, plants, or trees.

Why build a labyrinth if you don’t have a monster to hide?

My friend Sylvia, who hosts guests in need of a place “to rest, restore,” and renew,” in her woodland garden, added a labyrinth to her offerings of special experiences to enhance her guests’ stay. Her labyrinth encourages walking meditation. She says, “I’ve noticed that the guests who do walk it are intrigued by its promise — a way of gaining insight without thinking too much — or they are familiar with its intention and find a sense of relaxation from the experience of walking a defined path that requires nothing from them but one foot in front of another.” 

She added, “I was personally a bit dubious about the idea of an uninvited inspiration, but after experiencing a very welcome, even important insight myself, it’s easier for me to recommend a labyrinth walk to others.”

All labyrinths have a center, which is the destination, and reaching it is sometimes described as a goal, a place for self-discovery, a point of “turnaround.” Walking the labyrinth is a form of meditation, a way to think about one’s life, a religious requirement. As labyrinth expert Gernot Candolini puts it, “…a labyrinth is a masterful tool for self-knowledge…it is our path to the center, a search for life, for the self.”

If we can’t find enough humor to see us through the end of pandemic restrictions, perhaps a quiet walk through a labyrinth is the next best medicine. Follow this link to a worldwide listing and find your labyrinth.



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Tech troubles

Technology is not my friend and neither are gremlins. I had reason to pick on both this past week.

My troubles started with my new Fitbit, the wrist monitor that keeps track of steps walked and more.  After reading the “Product Information” booklet in English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, a Scandinavian language I couldn’t identify, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Portuguese, I knew not to submerge it in water or wear it with a pacemaker, but not how to set it up or sync it with my phone.

I proceeded to the directions on-line, accomplished all of this, and patted myself on the back.  On day three my Fitbit was so busy tallying exercise points, sending me congratulatory messages, and pushing me to move my body more my husband decided he had to have one of his own.  

Unfortunately, when Fitbit 2 arrived, I’d forgotten whatever I’d done to set up Fitbit 1. Weird messages about water scrolled across the screen and the device wouldn’t sync. After struggling for part of a day, I begged a friend for help, someone out of state who’d never owned a Fitbit himself. Hours later, after he became hoarse from repeating Inspire, I said, No, I bought the Versa model.  Or did I? 

No wonder I couldn’t repeat my success of a few days earlier. I was trying to install the wrong model. OK. I admit it. It’s hard to blame technology for that problem. Working with the directions for the correct model helped immensely, and soon my husband was grinning over the number of steps he’d accumulated that day. 

And having just learned something about my tech expertise, my friend bought a burner phone, which was wise, because on day 4, Fitbit 1 crashed. Although I’d promised I wouldn’t bother him again, I sent out a new SOS, but after a short and failed consultation promised again I would figure out how to correct the problem and not ask for help. Another half day passed, despite desperately wanting to break my promise, I turned off the Fitbit. Two days later I turned it on, followed the on-line directions and voilà. My Fitbit returned to its functioning state, leaving me to believe my technical challenges were over.

However, the following day, our TV started acting strangely. We had turned it on to record a movie, and suddenly were viewing a detailed description of every action of the protagonists accompanied by spoken subtitles. “He held up a newspaper to show her. He threw a punch. She laughed in his face.” The features helpful to the visually impaired had been activated. We’d not touched anything to cause this. Gremlins were responsible. 

The next day, we discovered one new television quirk on the Seahawks-Titans football game. The broadcaster kept shouting “Si, Señor,” and many words we couldn’t understand. If we’d been visually impaired Spanish speakers, the situation would have been ideal. 

The least the gremlins could have done that day was hide the final score.

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It’s not corn. It’s sorghum.


Ever wanted to know more about sorghum*, besides wondering if it’s a dental disorder?

I didn’t either, until I found some growing in my yard.  I’ll point out that my yard is located much closer to city skyscrapers than to any fields in Kansas, Texas or Nebraska, the top producers of sorghum in the U.S. 

A few months ago, we thought we were growing corn. What appeared to be a corn stalk poked out from the bad soil between our yard and our neighbor’s in an area where only weeds have had success in the past. Coming so late in the season, we were sad that it would never have time to grow as high as an elephant’s eye, and since the weather is cooling, would likely linger for another month at its current height of two and a half feet.

Hours of gazing at small photos of corn stalks on the internet led me to conclude that while our plant has leaves like a corn plant, it’s not corn. 

In an attempt to be encouraging, a neighbor, who’s grown corn herself, suggested we might be growing feed corn for livestock (useful for a neighborhood with many small dogs and one orange cat), or possibly something we could pop and slather with butter.  But it’s neither. What’s appeared most recently is not silk, but growths that look like feather dusters of tiny seeds. 

Sometime this year, I read a headline that said, “Sorghum making a rebound in Europe thanks to climate change.” That news meant nothing to me a few months ago, but today it’s bristling with significance.  

The European sorghum is thriving because of warmer, dryer weather. This past summer set records for hot, dry weather on the West Coast of the U.S. Our thermometer hit 108 in June. Wherever the seeds for our plant came from—a windstorm blowing in from the Midwest or a bird dropping— they found the right climate to thrive in for 2021.

The last time neighbors congregated on our block was to watch the power company install two new street lights. Having already had conversations about our plant with a few neighbors, it appears our sorghum has the potential to become another roadside attraction. The local bird population already shows keen interest and may help build a flourishing local crop starting in 2022.

*Sorghum is a grass grown originally in Africa and used for animal feed, alcohol production and a biofuel. (Wikipedia)


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Decluttering as a solo activity


My husband and I are at the age when we start to think about a future different from the present, one in which we might not spend the rest of our days in our two-story house, might not even live in a private residence. These thoughts are not appealing, which is why we only entertain them for a few minutes at a time. Even if we moved to a one-story house of our choosing and never had to leave it, the fact remains that we cannot take all our stuff with us. 

This is why I came up with the brilliant idea of discarding five items a day.  In five years, we could pare down enough of our possessions to cram what was left into a twelve hundred square foot house, like the one we lived in for thirty-two years, before our parents died leaving everything they owned to us.

I decided to start out small and not yet bother with big items, such as skis,  a set of grandmother’s china, or the cat.

Day one of my plan worked well. I exceeded my goal. I found a pair of shoes, ten sets of earrings, a bracelet, and a pin.  These went into a paper sack designated for giveaway that my husband kindly carried upstairs for me.  He considered that the equivalent of finding five items of his own.

Day two also was easy. I pawed through a drawer in the bathroom filled with dried-up mascara and four teensy makeup samples, gifts given by the clerks at the department store makeup counter that I’d never used.  My husband never answered when I asked him which five items he had chosen.

I opted to look for midsize items on the third day and found five books I could donate to the library bookshop, once it re-opens.  Meanwhile I’m keeping the books safe in a piece of furniture already stuffed with books I decided to donate earlier, though this doesn’t exactly count as a discard.

Next, I looked in my closet for clothing I’d never wear again.  Two ancient bathrobes –one for summer and the other for winter–jumped out as obvious choices. Two pairs of jeans winked at me from the closet, knowing I would never give them up despite the likelihood that the habit I developed during the quarantine of baking cookies once a week was one I’d established for life and the jeans would never fit again. Silence again about progress in decluttering from the other resident of the house.

A few days later, I recognized the error of getting rid of two bathrobes: I needed to replace them, which I did the day this occurred to me. 

Day six, I rested, the work of choosing which possessions to eliminate too exhausting to continue, especially since I was the only one working on this project.


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It’s a date

I predict that in 2022, I’ll never miss an appointment, and even better, every single day I’ll  be surrounded by fuzzy animal babies and birds with wingspans of 747’s. All thanks to the National Wildlife Federation, Earth Justice, The Wilderness Society, National Park Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Humane Society, and Audubon Society, who’ve seen fit to honor me with their calendars. And in some cases, not just one, but two calendars. A new one arrived yesterday, bringing my total to ten.

I admit I sent small donations to three of these organizations, who, as soon as they saw my check, whipped a wildlife calendar into an envelope and raced to the post office. They then shared my name and address with other organizations, all of which believed I couldn’t keep track of the days of the month. In some sense they’re right. Since retiring I have a terrible time remembering whether I’m living through a Tuesday or Wednesday, much less the actual date. But that’s where phones and computers come in handy.

My new calendars are wall calendars, which means all but the bathrooms can have their own. And when it comes to acquiring 2022 calendars, 2021 is still young. I anticipate the arrival of several more before January.

The only solution to my overabundance of calendars is to treat them like neighbors treat their homegrown zucchinis and leave them on porches in the middle of the night.

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Nothing normal about these days

other cultures’ masks for purposes other than pandemic safety

Last week, Washington’s governor lifted most Covid-19 restrictions and pushed us out of our protective nests into the post-pandemic “life is nearly normal” world. For the fully vaccinated, no masks, no social distancing, and hugs are allowed.

This is what the new normal looks like: cooking something new for dinner guests after having eaten the same three meals for the past fifteen months; preparing a dish for twenty-five instead of two for a neighborhood potluck; adding lunch dates to the calendar after such a long period of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at home; entering a shopping mall for the first time since Christmas 2019; filling the calendar with upcoming appointments for teeth, eyes, limbs, and other body parts; and putting on makeup every day instead of once every six months. Already, the changes are stressing me out.

These aren’t the only stressors. Psychologists say it takes ten weeks to break a habit. We’ve had nearly a year and a half to add a new one: mask wearing. Will it take another ten weeks to throw off our masks? 

I figure there are at least three levels of adjustment to the new normal.

I put movie theaters in the non-risky category.  We went to movies when theaters could allow twenty-five percent capacity, which was less than the Senior Tuesday audience before the pandemic. Then, finding ten people scattered around the auditorium would have been a crowd. 

The easiest adjustment is having guests in your home. Last week, we invited a couple to dinner with whom we had dined on our patio a year ago.  At that time, they stocked their car with enough goods to live in the wilderness for days. Traveling the mile from their home to ours, they packed suitcases of ice, water, utensils, plates, hand sanitizer, and napkins. This year, they trusted us to handle these basics. 

Public places where people are packed together, as in the produce section of my grocery story, represents one more level of difficulty. You’ve worn your mask for months. It’s protected you. For several days after the governor’s announcement, anyone walking into my local grocery store and looking around at the customers would be certain the mask rule was still in place. Who knew if the person fighting with you over a cantaloupe had been vaccinated? 

Harder to adjust to than a trip to the grocery store is one to a shopping mall.  Yesterday, I made a trip to buy socks.  I didn’t put on a mask, but the whole experience of stepping into such a large indoor facility with so many people wandering loose was very disorienting. I couldn’t even remember what stores were there the last time I looked and where they were located. I stopped at the first store I saw with exercise clothing on display, paid more than I’ve ever paid for a pair of socks, and dashed out. 

I estimated about two-thirds of the shoppers wore masks.  

The highest level of anxiety for me would involve going to a large event unmasked — no, even going with a mask — to a crowded event where I had to sit next to strangers.  A photo in the local paper of fans packed into a sports stadium made me shiver.  Concerts?  Plays? Large events? I will adjust to not covering my face—and putting on makeup—but it will be a long time before I’m ready to greet a fellow baseball fan or music lover face to face. 








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Stop sticking out your neck and stand up straight

I expect nearly every mother in this world has said to her child, “Stand up straight!”

My mother warned me about my bad posture at the beginning of seventh grade. Back then, I had no excuse. Today, I’d be off the hook by blaming my cell phone or computer.

Not only do I still slouch, but when in front of a keyboard, I stick my neck out like a giraffe.

Perhaps I first rounded my shoulders because I was the tallest girl in my class. While my friends didn’t seem to notice, their mothers did. “You’re growing like a weed,” they’d say. What girl age thirteen wants to look like a dandelion? I wanted to be mistaken for a shorter flower. By the time I realized my height put me at an advantage in many ways, my shoulders had already made the downward journey.

Maintaining good posture takes work, hard work. And most days it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

It’s much easier to relax and mimic the neckless Great Blue Heron when it’s resting.

“New Yorker” writer Patricia Marx also thinks about posture. In the March 19, 2021 issue, she reports on all the different devices we can use to pull back our shoulders and whether they work. She used a whole army of equipment testers to try out what she calls, “restrictive braces, harnesses, shirts and bras…or small electronic gizmos, the size of brownies, that ping or vibrate at the inkling of a slump.”

Her personal researchers didn’t come to a conclusion about which tool worked best for improving posture, because by the end of the day their backs hurt and they gave up their devices.

Are there good reasons not to slump?  Marx quotes a professor from the University of Pennsylvania who says, “In the early nineteen hundreds, hunching over was said to cause ‘sinking organs.'” While that information might not lead to behavior changes in contemporary bi-peds, I believe posture still makes a difference in how you’re judged in job interviews (though not Zoom interviews) or by potential dates. Besides, Royals always had good posture, so if becoming a Royal is on your wish list, you know what you have to do.

For almost two years, I’ve been undergoing physical therapy for a rotator cuff tear. One reason it’s taken so long was that months of PT were done during Covid-isolation via the phone, making it harder to picture my homework: “We’ll start with shoulder external rotation and scapular retraction with resistance before moving into standing bilateral low shoulder row with anchored resistance.”  

Recently, I figured out that all the exercises I’m doing to reduce shoulder pain are actually changing my posture. I’ve reached the point where I can do a quick shoulder roll and my shoulders stay back, at least for a while.

The volunteer researchers were right. My shoulder pain is lessening only to be replaced by upper back pain. Changing your posture hurts, whether it’s from using the “upper-back brace, or the padded panel that pushes a metal plate against your lower back,” or the physical therapist’s tools of hand weights and rubber tubing. 

But I’m not giving up, even without a mother to nag me. I love looking sideways in the mirror and seeing that my neck and shoulders would not remind anyone of a Great Blue Heron. And perhaps my sinking organs also are grateful.

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If the shoe fits

Our attention spans are shortening.

An average attention span— the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted — has decreased to just 8 seconds. This is 50% less than 17 years ago!”

I can vouch for the truth of this claim, based solely on my own experiences. In the time it’s taken me to write these sentences, I’ve answered one email, followed a link on another, gone to the kitchen for a Graham cracker, researched lawn care services, and complained about this new WordPress format a hundred times.

The topic of paying attention on the job and in school is well-covered on many web sites, as is paying attention to others and to the world around you.

Equally important is paying attention to everyday situations, and that’s where my examples come in.

A few months ago, my husband and I bought new running/walking shoes. We happened to choose the same style shoe. The clerk had not checked our foot sizes, perhaps because to do so would require her to be closer than six feet from our faces; instead, she relied on our word for what sizes we wore. The first shoe I tried on was tight, so I went for a larger size than I’d ever worn before and hoped I’d judged correctly.

After wearing the shoes for a couple of days, I decided I had made a mistake. On my walk around the track at the local Y, I knew exactly what clown’s shoes felt like. How did circus performers manage to navigate in these floppy, wide-toed monsters? And what was I going to do about my obvious mistake? After a few days of complaining to my husband, he noticed another pair of shoes sitting near the fireplace and said, “Did you know you’re wearing my shoes?

No. I didn’t. I hadn’t paid attention.

Not long after this event, my wire whisk developed a problem. I use a whisk often, and always found this one a little short at twelve inches, because my hand became very warm in the course of stirring it in a pan on the burner. I began a search for a new one. In the kitchen shop the whisks were even shorter than mine. After much research, I finally found one on-line. Not thinking about anything but the fact that my hand would not overheat using this one, I ordered it right away. When it arrived, I had to ask my husband, “What size pan do you think this twenty-two inch whisk would work best in?”

“A cauldron,” was his answer. And that sums up why I have to start paying more attention.

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For what are you grateful?

For this blog— on the topic of gratitude— I’m returning to the same source that inspired my previous post called, “Every day is Earth Day.” The source is the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, professor, writer and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in New York.

For the past few decades, researchers have been studying the effects of gratitude on our mental health. In their book, The Psychology of Gratitude,” Emmons and McCullough have concluded “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible, is  one of the most neglected emotions and the most underestimated of the virtues.”

According to Harvard Health publishing, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

The problem with ordinary notions of gratitude is that often  gratitude is all about us. If things are going our way, we feel grateful, and if they’re not, we struggle to find something we genuinely feel appreciation for, apart from our families. During a year of quarantine, we might feel gratitude that we had escaped the virus, but not that we had also missed our friends, dining out, entertainment, and travel.

Kimmerer writes of a different approach to gratitude observed on the ancestral homelands of the Onandaga Nation in New York, now the home of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This gratitude is expressed as a Thanksgiving Address by members who were instructed by their ancestors to “stand and offer these words wherever they were gathered.”

Speakers, who in the book were schoolchildren, take turns presenting a portion of the address, each of which ends with, “Now our minds are one.”

The address begins with, “Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We each have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with all living things.”

The next recitation gives thanks for Mother Earth, and the ones that follow for all the waters of the world; fish life; plant life; food plants; medicine herbs; trees; animal life; birds; the four winds; thunder, lightening, and the sun; the moon and the stars; enlightened teachers, and the Creator.

When taken together, the recitations of the Address are long. They are not a prayer, but “greetings to all who sustain us.”

Even if I feel no gratitude for the events of a particular day, expressing appreciation for what sustains my life, comes easily.

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