Observing Observation

Mark Twain  was onto something when he distinguished in an essay between travelers who observe and travelers who absorb. He didn’t have much patience with observers because their minds stayed where they were before their trip and their subsequent opinions about a new place, culture or atmosphere were boring, and just generally dumb.

He liked absorbers, though, because those folks allowed a new place, culture or atmosphere to shake them up and reveal something about themselves they didn’t know before their trip.

This presidential election seems dominated by observers who decided what to think long before the race unfolded, before the debates were held, before the voting began.

As a journalist, this makes me sad because it means my profession isn’t doing its job of providing the impartial context that welcomes readers to absorb what they observe, to consider the outcome of their choice, to travel to that new country our votes will take us.



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Counter productive

My uncle was a snug fit at the soda fountain of Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Elmhurst, IL because it was built in 1966 to maximize the number of customers who sat there to order ice cream. His manly frame was built for something more substantial.

He found a way to board a stool, with care, like a spacecraft’s tricky docking with the mother ship. He reached a hand to escort my petite auntie onto her stool and smiled his best uncle smile at me on the first day of my first summer job as a waitress.

My uniform with fruit-of-the-month corsage (strawberries) stopped itching. My feet didn’t pinch, much. I owned this. I was smooth. Passed menus resembling stone tablets. Narrated daily specials (strawberries figured prominantly). Set napkins and utensils. Flipped order pad. Took order. Something with strawberries. Fetched two waters.

The next moment showed me that love is not earned but given for free. I plunked the supersize water glass with such a show of fake competence, it tsunami-ed  onto my uncle’s lap, a lap so tightly tucked under the counter, escape was futile.

He didn’t glance down. He didn’t flinch. His uncle smile didn’t dim.

Not one bit.


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Writer, actor, producer and director Garry Marshall passed away and took with him one precious example of entertainment’s best quality: sentimentality.

He was sheepish about the sentimentality of Happy Days, The Odd Couple, Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries, Laverne & Shirley, among others but he was not apologetic.

Why is it that sweet, sappy, naive, gentle, kind behaviors in art are perceived less valuable than harsh, skeptical, slick, angry and mean behaviors in music, books, television and film? Why is sentimentality maligned? It seems a perfectly nice emotion.

If art imitates life, and a good number of smart people believe it does, there is plenty of room for those sentimental moments of wonder, foolish hope and happy endings.

Alas, without Mr. Marshall, they will be a little harder to find.





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Reader ready

Recently somebody knocked on my condo door and I opened it to a woman carrying a plate of cupcakes. Bakery momentarily distracted me from noticing that the rest of her did not convey generosity of spirit. If frowns were clothing, I’d say she was dressed to the nines. Mine was not the locale for her book group meeting so I redirected her and her confections to the correct address.

I wanted to join her. I like to talk about books and I like cupcakes but she did not seem open to suggestion. I might conjecture, and I did, that she was not much open to any notion coming from anywhere except her own predispositions.

This is a quizzical stance for a reader because:

A book group might talk formally about the text’s themes. A book group might talk about the structure wherein elements combine. A book group might psychoanalyze to plumb the author’s subconscious. A book group might talk about archetypes to unearth universal villains, heroes, braggarts, damsels in distress and so on. A book group might talk about each reader’s reaction to the book. A book group might deconstruct the book to pretty much deprive it of meaning, or talk about its message through the lens of feminism, or Marxism, or some social theory.

But one thing  readers in book groups DON’T do is ignore suggestions from other readers that might be contrary to their own, might suggest a different way of understanding.

Why else do we read?


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I understand that Hillary Clinton doesn’t appeal to some folks but I wonder about the reasons.

If it’s because she has become familiar to a citizenry that assumes change means new and different, that’s dumb. Change accrues over time.

If it’s because she is female, that’s dumb. Many countries are governed by women with no ill effect.

If it’s because she failed to rage publicly at her husband after his actions suggested betrayal, that’s dumb. A relationship is not subject to judgment by outsiders.

If it’s because voters don’t like the notion they should vote according to gender, that’s dumb. Gender is a defining element of every person.

If it’s because she represents the struggle for women’s rights that occurred before some voters reached adulthood, that’s dumb. The history of struggle is timeless. Our legacy.

If it’s because she is a generation older than many voters and talks like it, that’s dumb. Age discrimination prejudices every human. We all age.

If it’s because she knows our political climate and culture and functions within it, that’s dumb. Until somebody comes up with something better, it’s all we’ve got.

If it’s because she is less qualified than other candidates, that is a smart reason.

I do not know who I will support but I know when we vote FOR a presidential candidate, we vote AGAINST other candidates. Logical. When somebody wins, somebody else loses.

When a candidate loses, it’s only fair that it be for the right reason.


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Well seated

Sofas are the most transient among furnishings. Some sturdy stuff has followed me since leaving home, mostly items of solid wood that refuse to die. Not sofas. I’ve had ’em and replaced them like takeout containers that endure only as long as useful.

Not long. But each one held an occupant of import.

The herculon monolith my parents bought on sale at Sears, Roebuck & Co. was stunned to find itself in the Victorian parlor of my first home. But on its itchy cushions our newborn son showed off his lifelong ability to make people laugh.

There was a pair of green checkered loveseats in the new suburban home where we moved. They were like chubby-cheeked cherubs and looked ridiculous. But my Mom visited on Friday afternoons and crocheted little pretties as she sat there pretending she was a country gal.

When the chevron pink sleeper sofa and loveseat combo arrived, I was pleased to have sofas akin to the current style: like teased hair and outlandish should pads. They were very feminine in an aggressive way and nobody sat on them. But my mother-in-law adored sleeping on the pull-out bed and I was delighted she was delighted.

The good sense to buy classic inspired purchase of a navy blue sectional that dominated the living room like a shoreline. Too big of course. But our son’s friends fit on it like the parliment of a small country. They hid behind it, made forts of its cushions, generally recycled it for their own joy.

Leather was the subsequent choice and whatever possessed us to install a grey-brown double recliner with a table in its tummy is beyond me. This elephant in the room, however, was the place I recovered from surgery, my husband recovered from surgery and our son recovered from surgery. Not all at once of course but it was a good sofa.

We next selected a brown leather sofa and loveseat that was overstuffed and looked like a daddy bear with his well-fed cub. This set was favored by my aging Dad who sunk into it and told stories. It was his favorite color, brown, which tells you a lot about my Dad.

We bought a cream leather set with sexy legs to stage the home we sold when we moved to our Chicago condo-home. Nobody sat on it. Strangers seemed to like it.

We stuck with leather. Carmel this time in our city abode. This is a succinct set. Two loveseats scaled down to fit the space. To date, guests talk to each other there. They can’t do much else.



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The porch of our 1950’s suburban ranch settled outside the dining room picture window like a stiff upper lip. Dad placed two canvas sling chairs there. They looked lonesome, like castaways on a concrete island. Our family of five used the space with the discretion bred in our time. Whatever happened on our porch was behavior accessible to anyone passing by so we acted accordingly.

On Easter Sundays we tested the photogenic promise of new clothes by posing for the camera on its steps. At Christmas, a tasteful wreath on the front door illustrated our festive spirit. Our mailman was careful to roll our papers like a sausage and tucked them into our brass mailbox. The man who sold household products we didn’t need had the unique privilege of ringing the doorbell.

After a good number of  years, our Grandma Lillian came for an extended Summer visit and our porch transformed its character. She took over the space in increments. At first she sat in one of the sling chairs, which seemed startled but up to the task of holding her small, round self. Then she brought her radio out with her and Dad acquiesced by threading its cord through the dining room window so she could listen to Chicago White Sox games.

Emboldened, she requested, and received, a little table on which to plunk her pepsi cola. This happy turn of events spawned a bold request; and, what do you know?  Dad moved our portable television set out there.

At this juncture, the rest of us often dribbled out to join her. The White Sox players did lots of funny stuffy, like spitting and scratching that the radio was apparently reluctant to describe. Soon, with Grandma leading the way, we all took to waving at our wide-eyed neighbors as they happened by. Even Chicago Cubs fans.

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Where the Twain meets

Three volumes comprise Mark Twain’s autobiography because he was a chatty man and had a lot to say. I am a fan so I enjoy reading his volumes very much.

I enjoy much less their heft. I didn’t weigh them but each one would be a deadly projectile if one had enough brawn to throw one.

More than 1/3 of each book, roughly 300 pages at the end, is explanatory notes and footnotes and acknowledgments and caveats and arguments and commentary. I think someone may have added some recipes in there just for fun.

I should applaud the care taken to verify his thoughts, put them within context, and display the kind of detail fixation prevalent among those obsessed with his work. But the book is so heavy, it should have its own lectern.

Considering Mark Twain dictated most of it while in bed or in a comfy chair, I suspect he would find this funny.



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Workman’s compensation

Across the street from our condominium, an 1894 brick warehouse is being re-imagined as a trendy apartment building. The architect’s design requires slicing huge slits in the brick facade to make way for windows. Lots of windows. Lots of trendy.

This also means that bricklayers are carefully replacing bricks around the openings so they are tidy and straight. Lots of bricks.

The bricklayers work solo or with one partner. Watching them work, carefully, brick by brick, reminds me there are still tasks that are worth watching.

I am sure the end result will be good looking and sleek and of course, trendy.

But the skill to make it so is personal, ageless, and simply beautiful.


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Book Looks

Folks read to learn or at least appear smarter, to be entertained, to escape, to understand, to stimulate, to get scared safely, to pretend, to remember. These are fun but the best part of reading is choice. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Here’s a few types of readers:

Multitaskers have piles of books, open them willy nilly, pause, move on. They challenge a book to capture their interest.

Guilt-holders leave any not-finished book nearby. They believe they owe every book they open a read.

Word-for-worders are people who also read maps just for fun. They hope to hijack something in the book no one else can.

Detectors are usually smart at something other than reading, like data mining. They are on a quest for a book’s flaws.

Page-turners are furtive about skipping the boring parts but can’t help themselves.

Plot chasers are alot like page turners, except they are on the hunt for the best parts.

Achievers read lots and lots of books. They really need a more public outlet for such ambition.

Scanners are a little egotistical in that they secretly believe they already know the book.

Fortunately, books are nice and they don’t mind at all, with the exception of critics, who of course should NEVER be allowed to read at all.



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