Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Career Advice

We live on a main street through our normally quiet west Provo neighborhood, far enough from the railroad tracks that we can hear the whistle wail in the distance. In the middle of the night, it has a certain romantic charm because it evokes memories of the great train trips I've had. It's Americana. It's exciting. It's pleasant.

On the other hand, because we live on a main street through our normally quiet west Provo neighborhood, we also hear every juvenile hotshot in a pimped-out ride who thinks the whole world also wants to hear his stereo played at the "deafening" decibel level. We can feel the bass beat while the vehicle is still several blocks down the street, and as it nears the house, we can hear the sound loud enough to cause pain and drown out our own music. I can't imagine what it's like inside that truck.

Being a fairly new resident of Provo, I don't know if there are anti-noise ordinances in town, but if so, they are among the most violated civil laws. I'm sure those drivers just want to share their music with me, but I have a right to refuse to listen to sounds so loud my ears bleed. People with an ounce of sensitivity ought to establish a personal anti-noise ordinance. Unfortunately, respecting air space is not considered by some to be an inalienable right for other people.

Noise is sort of like cigarette smoke. I don't want to breathe it because it nauseates me, and I don't want to hear the booming bass because it not only offends my ears, it's very possible that the decibel level can do actual damage to my eardrums as I hear it passing by. No thanks; old age is doing its own number on my hearing levels without the help of inconsiderate strangers.

So my advice is this: Anyone seeking a career that will never be modernized out of existence should seriously consider audiology—hearing aids, sign language education, that sort of thing. Listening to that high decibel bass long enough in that enclosed environment will make a lot of people deaf who just thought they were being cool. Whether they like it or not, they're going to need medical care in the future for deafness they've inflicted on themselves, and it'll happen much sooner than they think.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmases I Have Known

In 1995, we had no Christmas tree. It wasn't the first time we'd gone without, nor the last, and it wasn’t because the Grinch sneaked in and stole our holiday. Rather, it sneaked up on us when other things got a higher place on the priority list as the year came to a close. Dau # 2 married in September and moved to Logan, and Dau # 1 returned from her LDS mission in October and got married in December. It wasn't a surprise. It had been on the radar screen for several years, but she wasn't making very many decisions about it until she got home, and then everything happened fast. By the time we went out looking for a tree on Christmas Eve that year, there weren’t any. 

Lately I have been reviewing other Christmases I have known.

Guam, an island in the western Pacific, was the scene of our first two Christmases as a married couple. Like Utah, Guam has two seasons. In Utah, it’s freezing cold winter and burning hot summer. On Guam, it’s wet and wetter. Without snow or even a chill in the air, getting in the mood for Christmas in our island apartment was difficult. Real evergreens were simply too expensive, but we had some other representations and substitutes. We went caroling in the hospital with our church group, but not even singing "Jungle Bells," the island version of the old song, could make us feel the holiday mood. Our second Christmas was a different story. We had a six-week-old baby, and our gift to each other, and her, was a new rocking chair, delivered in Santa-like fashion on Christmas Eve.

Possibly the most unusual Christmases we’ve had were the two we spent in Iran, a long time ago, before the revolution. Dau # 1 was about a year old. Our landlord and his family had rented to American Christians before, and were sensitive to our homesickness at that season of the year. We socialized with our Christian friends, but it didn’t ease our heavy-hearted feelings. In a Moslem country, of course, little attention is paid to the celebrations of infidel religions. As we sat there on Christmas Eve, trying not to think about what would be happening back home that night, we heard some noise and giggling at the door, then a knock. I went to see what was going on, and there were the landlord’s children, tugging at a potted pine tree to get it through the door. It was decorated with colorful paper chains and handfuls of cotton. We were so touched that a Jewish family prepared this meaningful gift for their foreign Christian friends. More than a tree, or what it symbolizes, we needed to feel kindness and love, and they certainly gave us that.

Over the years we've tried some other traditions. One year we went out in the hills and cut our own Christmas tree (bad idea unless you don't mind pitch dripping on the carpet) and another year I got my husband a surprise gift  he didn't like because I hadn't cleared it with him ahead of time. (Yeah, that's how he thinks.) But we recovered and forged on. For a few years I experimented with fruitcake recipes to find the most amenable, for a while went through a chocolate dipping phase. Then there is the Christmas bear collection. I don't know when that started, but we now have a stuffed bear for every member of the family. I've tried to get the kids to choose one and take it home, but nobody wants to break up the set. For a few years, my sister and I would make and exchange ornaments, until we both got too busy.

However, the tradition that has stayed with us is the pudding prize. Danish Rice Pudding, an exquisite blend of rice and cream and transcendent bliss, is a tradition of my great- grandfather's homeland. You put one whole almond in the pudding, and whoever gets the almond in his/her serving gets a prize. We've enjoyed that, and the tradition has gone with the kids when they left home.

When the girls left home, our Christmas began to take on a different form of celebration, and if it weren't for our son, we wouldn't have had much at all. When we're not going to be together it's hard to keep up the traditions as enthusiastically as we would if we were going to share them. Son is best described as the Christmas Kid, and his philosophy is, "We need a little Christmas NOW." He'd get out some lights to put on the bushes in front of the house, and decorate the tree, and pretty soon I'd feel like making holiday goodies. Then he left home, too, and some years we didn't get out many decorations at all.

Now we are in transition again, having moved to a new house. I highly recommend downsizing. It's liberating. One good thing about a smaller house is that there's no place for a lot of extra stuff, like holiday decorations. After our first year here, I eliminated half of what I had, and we haven't missed it. So I got a wrought iron tree, about four feet tall, that's strictly for ornament display, and there's space for that in the corner of the living room--no lights, but it works for us. We have an olive wood nativity set and a couple of smaller ones to put on the piano, and the bears sit in the entry.

Through all of that, the ongoing question was "Why are we doing this?" Christmas got better when we released Santa with a vote of thanks and focused on the Savior. Each year it's a challenge to pay attention for opportunities to serve and help others, and we are reassured by the knowledge that, as the Grinch learned, Christmas doesn't come from a store. If Christ isn't already there, no amount of trappings will bring Christmas into our hearts. Over the years we have begun to understand more keenly what Charles Dickens meant when he says through his changed character, Ebenezer Scrooge, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December Bride... And Groom

It’s been 42 years since my husband and I were married, and having had a December wedding, and three children in the next nine years, the focus changed for a while to them instead of us. We never really sat down and talked about how we would celebrate Christmas, but as time passed we experimented to discover for ourselves what traditions offered by our culture would best fit our family. Some years the holiday came, and there were numerous family obligations and visits as we had time off from school, during which “our” day came and we nodded and smiled and said, “Yep, this was the day,” and went on with whatever we were doing. Some years we had time to celebrate by going to dinner, and after our nest emptied out, we even had brief getaway vacations when our schedule allowed. We always celebrated Christmas, but our anniversary received attention only if we got around to it.

This evolution of celebration has made me think back to that first Christmas Roger and I spent together. Actually, Christmas that year was five days before our wedding, and he went home to Portland with me to meet my parents for the first time. I knew I had made the right choice when I saw what a good sport he was. A photographer friend of my parents did our wedding portrait, and my mother held an open house for us. She was always a gracious hostess and a generous person. She loved to celebrate, and having a new son-in-law was her favorite Christmas present that year. We were 26 at the time, and I’m sure there were times she had despaired and wondered if I’d ever find someone to put up with me. Nevertheless, the first meeting with my parents was nothing if not memorable for Roger.

On Christmas morning, as we gathered for our gift exchange, Mother somehow lost her balance as she bent over to plug in the tree lights, and fell into the tree. It remained standing, even if she didn’t, and as my brothers helped her up, she laughed along with the rest of us at what a Laurel and Hardy thing she had done.

Mother always liked to have a special breakfast on Christmas, and this year it would be extra-special because Roger was there. We all took our places around the kitchen table, and as she hurried over from the stove with a pitcher of syrup she had just heated, the bottom dropped out of it. Our food got cold in the time it took us to clean up the mess. Permanent syrup stains on Roger’s slippers became a cosmic admonition for us to keep our sense of humor, no matter what we fell into, no matter what splashed on us.

We spent the following two Christmases on Guam, an island in the western Pacific. My mother sent us a box of Oregon holly to make a wreath, and some gold satin ornaments, which I piled up in the shape of a Christmas tree. Real trees were simply too expensive on our beginning teacher’s salary, and it's hard to celebrate Christmas in perpetual summer weather. For two years after that, we were in Iran, with a Jewish landlord who understood our Christian customs and kindly provided us with a living tree that we later planted in their garden.

We’ve had more ordinary celebrations since we settled down, and our children have enjoyed establishing and following the traditions we have had together. We all love following the tradition of our Danish ancestry with rice pudding on Christmas Eve--whoever gets the whole almond in their serving gets the pudding prize. It took the kids years to figure out that I manipulated the servings so the same person didn’t win the pudding prize two years in a row. As our children have left home, they’ve each had the collection of tree ornaments I started for them when they were very young. Now they do the same thing for their own children.

When the three of them got old enough to govern themselves, we'd go away for a couple of days and leave them home alone. Our rationale was this: "Before there was you, there was us. Some day you'll leave and it'll just be us again. We don't want to come to that place having forgotten what it's like to be us. So we go away to focus on each other and remind ourselves who we are."

Both of our daughters were married in the year we celebrated our 25th anniversary. When they celebrate their 25th, we’ll celebrate our 50th, and we have decided to get together and have a big party that year. For 15 years, we arranged and juggled Christmas visits between Vancouver WA and Decatur IL which took our minds off the subject of anniversaries. Besides, grandchildren are so charming, so delightfully distracting. Now two of our kids live in Utah and one lives in New York.

Through the years, we’ve seen Christmas and our anniversary take on different forms of celebration, and looking back over the mellowing process of time, I appreciate more and more the celebration of the birth of Christ, who did for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and who is the holder of the seal that binds our family together. To focus on his birth and his gifts helps us remember that he has always been a part of our lives and our marriage, that he is the ultimate marriage counselor, and that it matters to him that we have been true and faithful not only to each other, but also to him.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Overcoming the 'Thanks, But Gimme' Syndrome

When I was growing up, this transition between Thanksgiving and Christmas was an easy mental leap that I made every year without much reflexion. When the Montgomery Ward Christmas Wish Book came in the mail sometime in early November, I'd thumb through it, noticing all the nice Stuff I'd like to have. And then the week after Thanksgiving, I'd throw myself down on the living room floor, open to the toy section of the book and start making a list. My mother was very patient when I'd show it to her while she busied around the kitchen. "We'll see" was always her response.

Not such a clod that I didn't recognize skepticism when I saw it, I'd look at the list again, study the catalog some more, and decide which of those items I could probably do without. With a much more modest list redrawn, I'd approach her again. "We'll see," she'd say. It was a sort of game we'd play in the runup to Christmas, but in my naivete I didn't figure out for a few years that "We'll see" in our household was a way of letting you down easy. We were not a household of independent means, but I didn't relate that to my list.

One of the items on my "must have" list was always a bride doll. I don't think my parents ever understood the crucial nature of having this toy. Somehow, in my child mind, I identified with it and figured that if I didn't get one I'd probably never get married.  However, I don't believe that the fact that I never got one had anything to do with the fact that I didn't get married until I was almost 27. Lacking self-awareness had more to do with it than anything else. But we can save that discussion for a Pam Williams Retrospective some other time.

Does it seem ironic to anyone else that on Thanksgiving we list all the things we're thankful for, and then the next day we start making lists of more things we want to accumulate? That's the human race for you--never satisfied. Over the years I've learned that it’s spiritually and mentally a lot healthier to make lists of things to give other people. Whether or not it’s in our power to give them things we wish they could have, going through the exercise fosters the kind of insight about the human condition that selfish, greedy people never learn.

I don't make lists anymore, but if I were still tempted by that "thanks a lot but gimme more" trap, my list would be much different than it was in the days of the Montgomery Ward Christmas Wish Book. Now it would be tempered with realistically knowing that I'm not the center of everybody else's universes.

I don't remember exactly when the understanding came, but when I stopped gnashing my teeth over getting More and Better Stuff, I discovered that when we live with gratitude, we live with joy.

One gratitude rules and dictates all the rest--I'm grateful every day of the year that we can celebrate the birth of the Baby at Christmas, because if not for His birth, we would not have His sacrifice, making Easter the most important holiday of the year. If we live with continual gratitude for His tender mercies, every day is an endless thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hair, Not the Musical

Oy! Isn't the upkeep on the human body frustrating and time-consuming? Showers, teeth-brushing, nail-clipping, eating, exercising--you know what I mean. This week I had a perm, the every-two-months ritual to keep my hair in some semblance of order--stinky, tedious, soggy. Here's the problem: I have old hair. In fact, my hair got old before I did.

Some people have bad hair days, but I’ve had a bad hair life. I was born with fine, limp, straight, plain brown hair, with a cowlick in the front of a wide forehead. [Well, it was blonde for the first few years, but that didn’t last long.] It grows fast and will not be ignored. Before I started taking care of it myself, my mother kept it in a "Dutch boy" cut.

In temperate western Oregon where I was raised, in the days before portable hair dryers, you didn’t give a lot of thought to your hair. Washing it in the naturally soft runoff from Mt. Hood that came out of our water taps, I would comb it into place, maybe put a few curlers in it, and either sit by an open window to let the sun and breeze dry it, or in front of the heat of a roaring fireplace. When my hair was dry, I brushed it, and that was that--not a lot of fuss. I liked it that way.

When I got into high school curls became the trend, and the fuss quotient increased. I knew by then that I was fighting a genetic predisposition for straightness. Through high school I usually wore it collar length, no bangs, often in a French twist or a ponytail. My older sister had naturally curly hair, wore it short, done up easily in pin curls, and had what was then described as a tossed salad hairdo, very stylish. She pulled the hair pins out on the way to early-morning seminary, ran her fingers through it and she was set for the day. I was so jealous.

Until I went away to school in Utah, I had never used hand lotion or hair conditioner. Nobody warned me about the hard water and the dry climate in Utah. When I washed my hair the first time there and didn’t use conditioner (because I didn't know I should), I looked like someone who had never fixed her own hair before. It was embarrassing, and I still have the yearbook picture to prove it. Editors used your student ID picture for the yearbook in those days, for freshmen anyway. Lacking the natural drying elements I used at home--sun and fire--I got one of those portable hair dryers with a plastic cap that fit over my curlers so I didn’t have to go out in the cold with wet hair. During college I experimented a lot with hairdos. Some were pretty extreme, and observers might have assumed I was a rebel, but the truth was, I was just trying to make peace with my hair.

Over the years I have not managed my hair as much as it has managed me; sometimes all I could do was give in to its whims. I tried coloring it a few times when I was in my early 20’s, but that turned out to be a treadmill I didn’t want to stay on. When we lived on Guam, the tropical climate and the Hair With A Mind of Its Own conspired together to undo me again. This time, curl was impossible because of the humidity. (Believe me, the tropics are highly overrated; nasty organisms thrive--my husband had bronchitis for eight months.) I had collar length hair when I arrived, and when I washed it the next morning, there was a power outage that took out my portable hair dryer. Masterfully taking charge, I went to a salon the following week where my hair was coifed and sprayed within an inch of its life. “That’ll show you,” I thought as I inspected the finished product. I strode triumphantly out into the weather again looking fabulous, but again the hair had the last laugh. By the time I got home about 20 minutes later it was a sticky, back-combed, shapeless mess. Not long after that, I surrendered to a very short wash-and-wear hairdo known in those days as a pixie cut; yeah, think Tinkerbell. I have most often worn it fairly short, though not always that closely cropped.

To maintain some semblance of order, I have to get my hair cut every six or seven weeks. It laughs defiantly at curling irons, so permanents have been my only hope for an alternative to that look you see in cartoons when someone has touched a live electrical wire. With a perm every couple of months to give me a little height, and some softness around my angular face, things have gone along pretty well for quite a few years.

When we lived in Iran (before the revolution) and I went to the local hair salons, I was more than a little alarmed when the hairdresser put brush rollers in my hair and secured them--very carefully--with two-inch hat pins.

After my children were born, when I was in my late 20’s and mid-30’s, my hair turned a much darker shade of brown. Shortly after my son was born it began to turn gray, which has nothing to do with the fact that he was a boy and also my last child, but I wasn’t that far from 40. Actually, my hair took on a kind of mink effect, with gray ends and dark roots. People think it costs me a lot of money to keep that up, but I just smile when they suggest such a thing. I’m way too lazy for that.

My hair was almost completely gray by the time I was 60, and is well on its way to white. Yes, white hair is beautiful, as is gray that hasn't yellowed, (I am blessed to have attractive gray) but it is also curl resistant. For a while I surrendered and let my hair do what it wanted. I let it grow long and swept it up on top of my head, like a matronly silver halo hovering over me, suggesting to my grandchildren something otherworldly and mysterious. That didn’t last long--there's that upkeep issue. When I went again to a hairdresser to get it chopped off, I had only two requirements: I don't want to be a George Washington look-alike, and I don't want to frighten small children. Other than that, I don't care. I'm not the one who has to look at me all the time.

Some days it's grim, but as the years have passed, I've occasionally wondered if I can make some kind of quid pro quo bargain with the Lord, something in exchange for curly hair in the resurrection. Until then, I am giving serious consideration to hats.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Aftermath: Northwest Writers Retreat

Just came back from the best three days I've had in a long time--a writers retreat with talented, dedicated women who love and support each other and feel no jealousy or resentment when someone else has success. Left there feeling validated and affirmed.

Then I found this in a "scrap" on my desktop, if there are such things as electronic scraps:

From Pam 101—It is almost an affirmation to be an ordinary human being, gloriously flawed, willfully rebellious at the ridiculous things in the world, and curious with anticipation at the prospect of another new day. Everything passes too quickly and there's no money-back guarantee on breathing. Live in the moment, learn from the pain, and give thanks for the chance.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Confessions of a Halloween Agnostic

Halloween is by far the stupidest holiday of the year (unless you count Administrative Professionals' Day) and no convoluted rationale about its "religious" origins can convince me to buy into it. If I'm a Halloween "Scrooge" for refusing to cooperate with a custom in which I must give a treat to strangers in exchange for them not practicing some sort of vandalism on my property, and if that attitude is uncharitable, earning for me only a lowly rung in Purgatory, then so be it.

From October to February we have five holidays on the calendar for which candy or some other form of empty calories is recognized as a central theme. My blood sugar goes up just thinking about it. I've heard of dentists who keep their office open late on Halloween so kids can bring their haul of sweets and exchange it for some non-food thing that won't rot their teeth.

Something about being required to willingly suspend my disbelief in order to play this elaborate little social game brings out the rebellion in my soul. Every year we plan to be otherwise occupied somewhere else so we can avoid the shameless little blackmailing beggars. Sometimes we go to a movie or plan evening activities for dinner, shopping and running errands. If all else fails—like it's Sunday and we don't shop or go to movies—we turn off the lights and don't answer the door.

There you have it. I am a Halloween agnostic and likely to remain so. What about you?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

And the winner is...

Yeah, it's getting close to bedtime, so I'll go ahead and pick a winner for "Right, Wrong, and Risky," but I also found another book writers would like so I'm giving two prizes. "Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage" goes to *Runaway Bridal Planner* and (previously unannounced prize) "Spunk & Bite: A writer's guide to bold, contemporary style" goes to *Joan Sowards* Wish I had 30 more prizes to thank you all for playing the game. I'll keep the blog posts coming and let you know about how the publishing effort is going. Stop me and say "hi" when you see me at a writers conference!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Welcome to the September Blog Hop!

Celebrate the beginning of fall with me and my blogger friends by hopping around, visiting our sites, and entering our contests! There are no limits - you can enter the contest on every blog. With over 40 blogs participating, that's over 40 prizes you could win. Just click on the links below to move on to the next blog.

On my blog, you can win … Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's English Usage by Mark Davidson, professor of communications at UCLA and USC.

Would you like to win this prize? You just need to do two things. 1. Become a follower of this blog. 2. Leave me a comment in the trail and tell me why you'd like to win this prize. That's it! You are now entered. The contest ends on Saturday night, September 24th, at midnight MST, and the winner will be contacted shortly thereafter. Please either leave your e-mail address in the comment trail or make sure it's visible through your profile so I can contact you to tell you that you're the lucky winner. Now go visit my other friends ...
September Blog Hop Participants

1. Tristi Pinkston, LDS Author 2. Joyce DiPastena 3. I Am A Reader, Not A Writer 4. Mandi Slack 5. Michael D. Young 6. Six Mixed Reviews 7. Pam Williams 8. Laurie Lewis 9. Kristy Tate 10. Marilyn Yarbrough 11. Stacy Coles 12. Kristie Ballard 13. Lynn Parsons 14. Pushing Past the Pounds 15. Sheila Staley 16. cindy Hogan17. Jamie Thompson 18. Jaclyn Weist 19. Cathy Witbeck 20. Secret Sisters Mysteries 21. Tamera Westhoff 22. Tina Scott 23. Lynnea Mortensen 24. Danyelle Ferguson aka Queen of the Clan 25. Jeanette A. Fratto 26. Bonnie Harris 27. Melissa Lemon 28. Mary Ann Dennis 29. Stephanie Black 30. Jane Still 31. Janice 32. Laura Bastian33. Tamara Bordon 34. Betsy Love 35. Maria Hoagland 36. Amber Robertson 37. Debbie Davis 38. 39. Christy Monson 40. Carolyn Frank 41. Rebecca Birkin 42. Melissa Cunningham 43. Emily L. Moir 44. Ronda Hinrichsen 45. Lisa Asanuma 46. Joan Sowards 47. Jordan McCollum 48. Diane Stringam Tolley

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rearranging Priorities

Particularly after I perused the Daily Chronicle mistakenly inserted in the Deseret News this week, I was reminded that rivalries have very few positive outcomes. Rivalries desensitize, dehumanize, and demean. Some fans take rivalries as license for hatred and prejudice; the opposing school becomes the faceless enemy with no redeeming value, unworthy of sympathy, compassion or concern. “Love thy neighbor” is null and void on the run-up to certain games.

Restraint is not a hallmark of rivalries. In fact, rivalries inspire behavior unchecked by self control, giving fans permission to perpetrate breathtakingly dumb pranks in the name of loyalty. Rivalry impairs judgment because it takes counsel from immaturity and a false sense of personal and institutional righteousness.

It’s too bad there aren’t any laws on the books that would let the sheriff to charge overzealous fans with multiple counts of gross stupidity because whether one wears red or blue on game day, stupid is as stupid does. Painting the school colors on one’s face or body does not prove one’s loyalty; it proves only that one has no dignity, self respect or wisdom.

And I’m fairly sure that pathetic issue of The Chronicle didn't have its desired impact. It was more of an embarrassment for the University of Utah than an insult to BYU, kind of like seeing Michael Moore in a speedo—you had to look away.

It may come as a surprise to some die-hards, but game stats and rah-rah team loyalty are not part of the entrance exam into heaven. Get over it.