my life right now...

pushpinWE DON'T JUST BURN BOOKS

Banned Books Week is just ending and soon it will be Halloween. There may not seem to be much connection between the two, but thinking of banned books made me think not of jack-o-lanterns and bowls of candy (or of the pirates and princesses who regularly turn up at my door), but of witches. Not the cartoon witches on the broomsticks with the cat perched on the back, but of all the people through the ages accused of being witches (or demons, or the devil disguised as a handicapped child). Accused and persecuted. Accused and murdered. Accused and drowned  – and sometimes burned.

Here we are at what’s meant to be the pinnacle of civilisation – the so-called triumph of science over nature and superstition; the so-called triumph of a global community that celebrates diversity and inclusion over a nationalistic community that promotes division and isolationism. But what we really have is a new age of intolerance. Intolerance comes from one group believing that its way is the right way – the only way. What they believe is what everyone else should believe. And anyone who disagrees with them, any idea that challenges them, is not just wrong but evil. An offense and affront that has to be destroyed, no matter how. My way or no way. Burn the books that tell stories you don’t want to hear. Bomb the places that do things you don’t think should be done. Kill the people who disagree with you.

And where does this rabid, scorched-earth-policy of intolerance come from? A line from a novel by Howard Jacobson comes to my mind: “…prehistoric ignorance of which irrational fear is the child…” And, I would add, of which irrational hatred is fear’s sibling.

Happy Halloween.

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pushpin2IF YOU FOLLOW ANY ROAD LONG ENOUGH WILL IT LEAD TO WHERE YOU WANT TO GO?

Silvi and Angie were taking a walk one evening when a stranger stopped to ask directions. “Excuse me.” The stranger leaned out of the car window. “But I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to Ridermill Road.’

Both Silvi and Angie had lived in the village for eighteen years. It wasn’t a large village.

‘Absolutely,’ said Silvi.

‘No problem,’ said Angie.

‘Go down to the end of this street and turn left,’ directed Silvi. ‘Then go straight on till you come to the hedge that’s cut like a spade-’

‘Hang on,’ Angie interrupted. “It’s not a spade, it’s a shamrock. And, anyway, you’d be a lot better off turning right on Hillock and then making the sharp left after the second petrol station.’

‘It’s the third petrol station,’ corrected Silvi. ‘You always forget about Mason’s.’

Angie objected. “Mason’s is closed in the Summer. And it isn’t a real petrol station, it just has the one pump.’

Silvi got that look on her face. The just-try-to-move-this-mountain look. ‘It sells petrol. That doesn’t make it a post office.’ She turned back to the stranger. ‘Make a right at the spade. Not the first right, but the one just beside it, and go along there for a mile or so.’

‘Silvi,’ said Angie, ‘he wants the first right, not the second. If he takes the second he’ll hit the fork by Wynot’s. People always get confused at that fork.’

‘He won’t get confused if he remembers that he wants to go as if he’s taking the road to Huntleigh Little, and turns off right away on to that dirt track.’ She smiled at the stranger. ‘You don’t mind bullocks, do you?’

The stranger’s own smile had started to fade. “Mind them?’

‘Once you’re past the bullocks you’ll see a tiny lake on your left-’

Angie sighed. ‘You’re going to get him totally lost, Silvi. You give the worst directions of anyone. Remember the time we were going to London and wound up in Brighton?’

‘Are you blaming me?” Silvi was indignant. “That wasn’t my fault. It’s because Archie never listens. He nods away while you’re reading from the map, and then he tears off the wrong way. And besides, London’s not all that far from Brighton. It’s an easy mistake to make.’

‘I’m sorry I mentioned it,’ said Angie. “But the point is that there’s a lake on the right, too.’

‘But the lake on the right doesn’t count,’ argued Silvi. ‘It’s only the one on the left that matters. Once he sees that he knows he has to keep a sharp eye out for Trellis Cottage.’

‘Holly,’ Angie corrected.

‘Holly?’ repeated Silvi and the stranger together.

Angie nodded. “Yes, Holly. Ridermill runs right behind Holly Cottage.’

‘Ridermill?’ asked Silvi. She turned to the stranger with a frown. ‘I though you said you were looking for Ridgehill.’

Eventually, they managed to agree on how to get to Ridermill.

‘Got it?’ asked Silvi.

The stranger nodded.

‘No other questions?’ asked Angie.

The stranger shook his head.

He put the car in gear. He took off the brake. He roared off in the wrong direction.

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pushpin2A TRIP TO THE MUSEUM

The class is excited. Usually their lessons are outdoors – discussing life the universe and everything with each other and with the rest of their world, from the dirt under their feet to the sky over their heads – but not today. Today the class is going to a museum; the only one on the planet . Every five hundred years, they send a ship across the galaxies to check the progress of a tiny planet in a one-sun solar system. They call this planet Little Sister. They call it Little Sister because, although it has always been primitive by the standards of , the planet is not only very like their own, but the inhabitants are physically like themselves. Besides that, there have occasionally been signs of a sophistication and intelligence in these creatures that gave the ians hope that they might someday be intellectually and spiritually like them, too. And so the ship is sent to check on Little Sister’s progress. But it’s never been all good news.

The museum is dedicated to Little Sister, and is filled with artefacts brought back over the millennia. An expedition has just returned. “This, sadly, will be the last visit to Little Sister,” says the class guide as they approach the museum. “According to the data gathered by Commander Xyi and the team, Little Sister will be a barren wasteland in another five hundred years – its cities rubble, the planet empty.” Everything is dying. The land, the oceans, the forests, animals and birds. “It’s all downhill from here.” The guide sighs. “Which means,” continues the guide, “that they have reached the pinnacle of their civilization. You are about to see what will be their final legacy. When their paintings and music and poems and even their bombs have long been forgotten, this is the one thing the rest of the universe will always remember them by.”

The guide opens the door to the museum, and leads the class to a display that takes up the entire main hall. The students gawp at it in silence. What colours. What shapes. What a multitude of objects – bottles, bags, boxes, toys, cutlery, cups, plates, and on and on. All of them bright and shining – sparkling like stars in the sunlight streaming in from the skylight overhead. On every wall are images taken by Xyi and the crew of these things as they are on Little Sister. Caught in the branches of trees. Cluttering the streets. Bordering the highways. Clumped in the rivers. Forming islands in the oceans. Hunched like mountains on the earth.

“It leaches into the land, the water, even the food they eat,” explains the guide. “Soon there will be more of this in their seas than fish.”

At last, one student has a question. “What is it?” asks the student.

“Plastic,” says the guide.

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pushpin2NOT BAD FOR A GIRL

Some of us are confused about the difference between sex and gender. Basically, sex is one’s physical characteristics and physiological makeup. Gender is how the society you live in defines that sex. What it says you can do, what you can become, how you think, feel and act, and even how you should dress. But because of the way our society has defined women, we tend to think of them as history’s great spectators and dish washers. While the men have been out there building empires, civilizing worlds that already had civilizations and inventing the wheel, the women were at home stirring the stew and darning socks. Or were they?

It’s July, which I believe we all know is the month America celebrates its War of Independence. Fireworks, barbecues, fire pits and picnics. And a lot of remembering all the heroes of the American revolution. Who are all men, unless you count Betsy Ross, the flag maker, who, I assume, was at home with her needle and thread not sitting in a battlefield.

Among the most famous heroes of the American revolution is Paul Revere, whose legendary ride to warn the colonists that British troops were fast approaching, apparently saved the day. But here’s the thing. Paul Revere wasn’t the only one who rode through the night to raise the alarm – one girl rode even further.

Sybil Ludington was sixteen in 1777. On the night of 26 April, her father, Colonel Henry Ludington, got word that the British were attacking Danbury, Connecticut. Computers and cell phones being some years away from invention, the only way to alert the militia to what was happening was in person. It was Sybil who rode forty miles in the rain to alert the countryside of the British attack.

Not only was Sybil’s ride recognised by General George Washington (and largely forgotten by history), but she continued to serve as a messenger through the war.

Not bad for a girl.

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pushpin2THE FAMILY VACATION: PART 1

In the last several decades, the Family Vacation has become a fixture in our culture – as if, not satisfied with arguing for fifty weeks in the relative privacy of our own homes, we want to give the rest of the world a chance to see us at our worst.  It strikes me as somewhat ironic that a group of people who can’t go Christmas shopping together without shouting, tears and festive violence (i.e., my father throwing the Singing Santa onto Route 110) would want to go away together to someplace where they can’t lock themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to come out, but Life, as they say, is strange.

“But a family vacation’s supposed to be vacation the whole family enjoys,” wailed my sister. “Like going to Disneyworld or someplace like that.”

My father, who was wiping several years’ worth of dust and small insects off the portable gas stove he’d bought for power cuts in hurricane season, didn’t look up. “Exactly. The whole family. Which, I believe includes me.”

My father had put his foot down, and crushed firmly under its heel was Cinderella’s tiara. He was tired of spending his precious vacation driving from one child-friendly venue to another. Up and down the East Coast we went, my parents in the front seat (bickering) and my sister and I in the back (bickering), every night the four of us crammed into one cheap motel room with our electric coffee pot, a hot plate and an ice chest (so that the only meal we had to eat out was lunch) and arguing about what to watch on the TV that was bolted to the wall. We’d been to Storybook Land and The Mountain Game Farm. We’d been to Pioneer Land and Cowboy World. We’d been to Water World, King Arthur’s Realm and Fairy Town. He was drawing the line at Disneyworld. This year, said my father, he wanted to really relax and enjoy himself. He didn’t think that was too much to ask.

My sister, as you will have guessed already, disagreed.

“But everybody goes to Disneyworld,” she moaned. “All my friends have pictures of themselves with Goofy and T-shirts and really cool key chains and stuff. And they all say how great it is… They think we’re weird because we haven’t gone. They think there’s something wrong with you.”

My father, however, was impervious to the ridicule of eight-year-olds.

“A real vacation isn’t about T-shirts and key chains,” said my father. “It’s about experiencing all life has to offer. It’s about challenging yourself and pushing your limits.” This was why we were going camping. According to my father, life’s offerings included tents, sleeping bags and getting pretty intimate with nature. It would make us more rounded people, like Boy Scouts. “Wouldn’t you rather have your picture taken walking an old Indian trail than standing next to some college student dressed as a cartoon character?” he asked.

My sister said, “No.”

“My friends all stay in hotels,” said my mother. Wistfully. So long as we went somewhere, she didn’t care where we went but she would have liked to stay in a real hotel. The idea of room service appealed to her.

“Where’s your pioneer spirit?” demanded my father. “It wasn’t staying in hotels that made this country great.”

“It wasn’t sleeping on the ground either,” snapped my mother.

You may have noticed that my whining voice hasn’t yet been heard in this discussion. That’s because I was at the age when I would rather have gone to prison than go on another family vacation, and that went for one that included Mickey Mouse. If my sister’s ideal holiday consisted of spinning around in a giant teacup, and my mother’s of calling for a turkey sandwich and a bottle of beer to be brought to her room, then my ideal holiday would have been if they’d all gone to Timbuktu or even the Jersey Shore and left me home by myself.

Which is why I now said, “I don’t see why I have to go at all. I could stay home and look after the dog.”

My mother made her mouth into a flat line. “Over my dead body.” In her opinion, I was of an age when the only way she would leave me at home by myself was with a police escort.

“The dog’s coming, and you’re coming, too,” said my father. Finished with the stove, he reached for the Coleman lantern (also bought for hurricane season). “You’ll see, we’re going to have a lot of fun.” He beamed on his own flesh and blood and their mother. “This is going to be a vacation you’ll never forget.”

It was already dark by the time we pulled into the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds. Or, to be slightly more accurate, it was already dark by the time we found the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds. Day one and counting.

Things hadn’t begun very well. Loading the car had taken roughly three hours more than my father had allowed for. Every time he’d tied what he thought was the last bundle on the roof or managed to close the trunk despite the laws of logic and physics, one of us would hurl herself from the house with something else that had to come no matter what. When we finally did manage to get out of the driveway, we were back in twenty minutes when my mother realized we’d left the dog behind. (My sister and I, hoping to break our father’s will, had agreed to wait at least two hours before sounding the alarm.) Then we got a flat. By the time that was fixed my mother needed a restroom and my sister and I needed food. Then my mother, who was navigating, sent us thirty miles in the wrong direction. Then she and my father had a fight about whose fault it was that we’d gone the wrong way and my mother (firmly establishing the new family tradition started by my father the Christmas before) threw the map out the window and told him to do his own navigating if he thought he was so smart. Then the dog threw up. And then (perhaps as we should have known) the Red Tree Falls National Campgrounds turned out to be a closely kept government secret, hidden away over wooden bridges and down nameless dirt tracks that were all as similar as crocodiles from any main roads or obvious landmarks  - and even from the knowledge of locals (“Can’t say that I do…”), as though it’s whereabouts had to be kept from enemy agents. God forbid the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds should fall into the hands of the Soviets.

We arrived at campsite 48 (“You’re in luck!” the ranger congratulated us. “We have one tent spot left”) about five minutes before the rain.

“You can’t be serious,” said my mother as we staggered out of the cramped car and the first drops fell on us from a tar-black sky. “We can’t put the tents up in the dark and the rain.”

“Of course we can,” said my father. “The ground’s not mud yet, is it? I’ll leave the car lights on and we’ll be home and dry in no time.”

It may surprise you to learn that none of us had ever erected a tent before. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that it hadn’t occurred to my father that he might want to do a dry run (literally) in the warmth and comfort of his own house – rather than wait till nine o’clock at night in a storm to discover that he had no idea which pole went where. I have since seen tents that pretty much put themselves up, but ours weren’t like that. Ours needed human intervention. My mother (and the dog) refused to get out of the car, which left my father to grapple manfully with their tent on his own, which used quite a few words we’d never heard him use before. My sister and I would have happily stayed in the car, too, but we’d been packed in the back with the dog and the supplies for nearly ten hours by then, making stumbling around in a downpour blindly banging pegs into the ground seem almost pleasant.

Just to prove that miracles do happen, by ten thirty both tents, though listing noticeably, were up. Outside the rain poured down in what can only be described as a Biblical way, but we were snug and dry, happily eating peanut butter and crackers together in my parents tent by the light of the Colemans.

And then a new sound joined the thudding of the rain, and the dog jumped on my lap, getting peanut butter all over his ears.

“What was that?” whispered my sister. “Was that a wolf?”

“Of course not,’ said my father, with all assurance of a man whose experience of wild animals pretty much started and stopped with the rabbits who annually ate his vegetable patch. “There aren’t any wolves around here. It’s just the wind.”

Another new sound ripped through the night.

This time my sister nearly jumped in my lap. “Then what was that?”

My mother spread peanut butter on a cracker in a philosophical way. “I think you’ll find that was your tent being blown across the campgrounds.” The lantern light made the smile she gave my father slightly sinister. “This certainly is going to be a vacation we never forget.


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pushpin2THE DARK SIDE OF HOME EC

Mrs Pataki, my next-door neighbour, is something of a celebrity on our block, famous as the mother of Snookums (a grumpy tabby cat the size of a canister vacuum cleaner) and as owner of the most impressive collection of Volkswagen Beetle memorabilia this side of the Rhine. Mrs Pataki used to be content with these two areas of glamour and expertise, answering questions about the time Snookums wedged himself in the front gate and whether or not the VW on her ring actually moves with constant grace and good humour. But, as we know from all the actors, rock gods, models and reality TV stars who have gone on to create perfumes, write books, design clothes and end global poverty, celebrity is not always enough. It may be great topping the charts or possessing one of the few miniature VW Beetles that doubles as a bar in the Western World, but the human soul needs more. Mrs Pataki has worked out how to overcome the economic crisis.

“It’s simple, really,” Mrs Pataki confided. “What we need to do is bring back Home Ec.”

An image immediately formed in my mind. An image nightmarish enough to make strong women weep. This image was worse even than the image that forms when I’m reminded of the Summer The Family Went Camping or the Day Mrs McClusky Can-Canned Down the Beach with a Transistor Pressed to One Ear. In this most horrific of images, I saw sewing machines and cutting boards and dress forms. I saw model kitchens, complete with stoves, sinks and Formica tables where six girls who were no longer speaking to each other were forced to eat together. This was the home economics room of my junior high school. I hated Home Ec. I hated Home Ec even more than I hated Gym, and I hated Gym as only someone who was always assigned to a team and never actually picked for one could. [I have to point out here that my hatred of Home Ed had nothing to do with my feelings for either sewing or cookery. I like them both. But I wanted to make intricate patchwork quilts, not A-line skirts; to make tacos and Paht Thai, not pancakes and macaroni and cheese.] I’d just as soon bring back Feudalism as Home Ec.

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” l squeaked.

“Because we live in a throw-away, ready-meals society, that’s why,” replied Mrs Pataki. “Home Ec taught useful skills. Skills we all need. Skills that could save one a lot of money and help the environment.”

“But not everyone’s good at Home Ec,” I argued. “Some people find it as big a challenge as climbing Mt Everest.” While wearing stilettos and a tutu.

“Are we talking about you?” asked Mrs Pataki.

Yes, we were. I actually failed Home Ec.

Mrs Pataki, apparently under the illusion that I was joking, laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody fails Home Ec. It’s impossible. It’s like failing lunch.”

Or so they’d like you to think.

In the Home Ec class that I saw so clearly in my mind, I was there, in Group Four, with Kitty Keller, Ginny Lidel, Barbara Shopenhauer, Glenda Cross and Edie Meckler. We were all wearing simple aprons that we’ve made ourselves with a yard-and-a-half of cotton (and bias tape for the neck loop and ties). Kitty, Ginny and Edie’s aprons were in solid colours with contrasting trim, Barbara’s was blue with white stripes and white trim and Glenda’s was a delicate floral print framed in black. They were all so perfectly done that they didn’t look homemade, they looked like they’d bought them in the kitchen department of Macy*s. Mine looked like it was made in a home without electricity, at night, probably by a goat. Possibly because, as was frequently pointed out to me (and not only by my parents), I was a peculiar child, the material I chose for my apron was decorated with lizards. That would be my first mistake. My mother had shown a little concern about my choice of fabric (“Do people really want to look at reptiles while they’re cooking?” she’d mused), but I was not to be dissuaded. I loved lizards, but although I’d had a lot of things decorated with dogs, kittens and flowers over the years I’d never had any item of clothing that featured a chameleon, a gecko or an iguana. This was my big chance. Sewing was going to unleash my creativity after all - and free me from the restraints and limits of the Girls’ Department. Personally, I hold the general reaction to my lizard material (a combination of hilarity and hostility that eventually lead me to wearing it inside out) at least partially responsible for the fact that the finished product was both too wide and too long, the simple apron shape mutating into something that bunched at the top and swirled out at the bottom like a crumpled candy bar wrapper. Because of the difficulties threading a bobbin gave me, I’d wound up holding the ties on with safety pins. Mrs Lewis, whose job it was to impart to us the useful skill of sewing (and who never hid the fact that I didn’t meet her standards of what it means to be a girl), claimed that in twenty years of teaching she had never seen anything like my apron. “If we’d depended on you to make the first wheel we’d all still be walking everywhere,” declared Mrs Lewis. Though that, of course, was before she saw my skirt.  

“Skirt?” echoed Mrs Pataki? “What was wrong with your skirt?”

Just about everything.

“And that’s why you failed Home Ec?”

It contributed. Because I also couldn’t master zippers or buttonholes it, too, was held together with pins, but the main reason I failed Home Ec was the Candle Salad.

“Candle Salad?” Mrs Pataki was curious despite herself. “What’s that when it’s at home?”

Sadly, I hadn’t done any better in the cooking part of our class than I had in the sewing part. My baked eggs looked like infectious phlegm. My macaroni and cheese set off the smoke alarms. My spaghetti and meat sauce turned a peculiar shade of grey not in keeping with Sunny Italy. Our final exam for the semester was for each group to plan and make a complete meal. Without much consultation, my co-chefs decided that I should make the salad. “You can’t possibly mess up the salad,” said Edie. “That’s right,” agreed Glenda. “What can go wrong with a handful of lettuce?” But the human capacity for error is, of course, limitless. Once again I saw this as my big chance. I could redeem all my mistakes (Ginny Lidel throwing up all over herself, the damage done by the fire extinguisher, the damage done to Italian cooking) simply by producing something truly special. Not just some lettuce and tomato with grated carrot sprinkled over it. Something that Caesar himself would have envied.

Mrs Pataki eyed me warily. “And that was the Candle Salad?”

Indeed, it was.

I got the recipe in one of the cookbooks for kids that my mother, who didn’t like cooking herself, bought to encourage my sister and me to take over the job – and lighted on it because, although unusual by the standards of Long Island, it was largely composed of very usual things that came well within the class budget.

“You mean it was made of candles?” ventured Mrs Pataki.

No, bananas – amongst other things. You placed a mound of cottage cheese on a bed of lettuce and into that you set a ring of tinned pineapple (this formed the candle holder). Into the ring of pineapple you stuck half a banana (the candle). On top of the banana you put a spoonful of mayonnaise or something like mayonnaise (that was the dripping wax). On top of that you put half a maraschino cherry, to represent the flame. And there you had it: the Candle Salad. I made six and lined them up on the counter, stepping back to view them with a certain amount of pride.

Mrs Pataki shook her head. “And for that you failed? Didn’t it taste any good?”

I have no idea what it tasted like (although I assume it largely tasted like cottage cheese, pineapple and banana, which aren’t tricky tastes like natto miso or snails). No one ever got to eat any of it. As soon as my co-chefs turned from their own tasks to see the row of salads (one or two with a cherry flame starting to slip from its moorings) they started laughing. I’d never understood the phrase “die laughing” before, but from the way they were bent double, clasping their sides, and gasping, it seemed possible that they might. Needless to say, this hysteria caught the attention of the other groups. They, too, started shrieking and honking as thought they’d just discovered laughter.

Besides the laughter, I was aware of movement and chatter around me, but the events of the next, say, ninety seconds is a blur. I just stood there, transfixed in much the way I froze when, on the one occasion that I ever wore my Home Ec skirt, the pin opened as I was modelling it for the class and it fell to the ground. And then I heard Mrs Lewis (who had been bent over examining something in an oven) say, “What in heaven’s name is going on?” What was going on was a food fight (brought on, it was later decided, by delirium). As Mrs Lewis’ head rose from the oven, someone got her square in the face with a banana.

“But it wasn’t you who threw the banana.” Mrs Pataki, as well as being a celebrity, is innately fair. “I don’t see why you failed.”

“Mrs Lewis didn’t care who threw the banana. She held me responsible. She was convinced I’d done it on purpose.” Like my mother, Mrs Lewis seemed to think I had a peculiar sense of humour.

“But you didn’t do it on purpose,” said Mrs Pataki. “Did you?”

Not all of my memories of Home Ec are like revisiting Elm Street. There is also the one of Mrs Lewis standing in the middle of Group Two’s Kitchen with a cherry stuck to her nose.

“No, of course I didn’t,” I said.

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pushpin2THE BIG BUNNY BLUES

I believe it was the great novelist Leo Tolstoy who claimed that all happy families are the same, whereas unhappy families are each unhappy in its own way. I can’t help feeling, though, that Count Tolstoy was simplifying things for the sake of a really good line. It seems to me that all families – happy, unhappy or in between – are tiny worlds onto themselves – different and distinct. Worlds with individual cultures and customs. When you’re little, you think that everything that happens in your family is normal. Everybody eats macaroni and cheese on Friday night. Everybody’s grandmother has an altar in her bedroom. Everyone’s father bursts into songs from musicals without warning. That all mothers have pet snakes. That in every family there is an Uncle George who hasn’t spoken a single word for the last twenty years or an Aunt Cotilda who wears a helmet made of aluminum foil to bed. It isn’t until you get older and spend more time out of the house than in it that you begin to realize just how unique and special your family really is. My sister was five.

It happened on Easter. Our family ritual was that as soon as we got home from church on Easter Sunday, my father would hand my sister and me each a basket containing a handful of cellophane “grass” and a piece of paper and a pencil, and set us on the trail of The Big Bunny. The idea was that The Big Bunny, a rabbit with a mischievous sense of humor, had hidden our Easter stuff hither and thither - and we had to find it, filling our baskets piece by piece. Our candy could be anywhere. Upstairs or downstairs. Inside or out. It might even be in the mailbox or the trunk of the car. The pen and paper was so my father could keep track of how many hiding places we’d discovered. If we missed any, we’d be sent back on the hunt. There was no such thing as a Free Easter Egg in our house.

“None of my friends have to go through this,” grumbled my sister. “Why can’t we just get a basket filled with stuff like everybody else?”

“Because this is more fun. Besides, it’s the way we do it. It’s a tradition.” My father sounded so totally reasonable you’d have thought he was actually making sense.

But my sister, though young, caught the flaw in his logic.

“Whose tradition?” she demanded. “Nobody else has this stupid tradition.”

“Of course they do,” said my father. “All over the world they have Easter egg hunts.”

You’ll notice that I wasn’t taking part in this conversation. I was there, of course. Like my sister, I was all dressed up in my new Easter outfit – the patent leather shoes, the pastel party dress, the seasonal bonnet – but I was a little older. I no longer had the heart for this argument, since we’d had it so many times before. I’d already figured out that other parents were not like ours.

Egg hunts, Dad.” My sister’s hat was white with tiny rose buds along the crown and a pink bow that tied under her chin, which made her look deceptively sweet. “They just have to find a couple of hard-boiled eggs. All they have to do to get the candy is get out of bed.”

“They don’t know what they’re missing,” said my father. He handed us our baskets, glancing at his watch. “You’d better start hopping, you two.  The Big Bunny’s outdone himself this year. It could take you a while.”

We both groaned.

“Don’t worry,” said my mother. “Dinner’s not for a few hours yet.”

 

There were always a few easy finds. The small foil-covered eggs over the doorsills. The plastic egg filled with jellybeans in the soap dish. The hardboiled egg in the magazine rack and behind the drapes. The chocolate rabbits in the laundry hamper. We swooped on these with cries of girlish glee, and after an hour in which we completely forgot what an ordeal he was putting us through, reported back to my father, The Big Bunny’s personal representative on Bluff Road.

He was reclining in His Chair, reading the paper and eating a chocolate chicken. “You haven’t even started yet.” He laughed in the warm, affectionate way people who are sitting in comfortable chairs stuffing their faces with chocolate chickens do. “You’ve got at least another dozen to go.”’

A dozen!” wailed my sister.

“You can’t be serious,” cried I.

“Chop, chop,” said my father. “See you two later.”

We trekked through the yard, rooting through the mint patch and the barbecue and peering through the lilacs. We combed every inch of the lawn. We left no stone or garden ornament unturned. We uprooted every pot plant, rummaging through the dirt for something wrapped in Saran. My mother waved to us from the kitchen window. I shoved my sister up the oak tree at the back of the yard; my mother came out with the stepstool to get her back down.

I know that somewhere in that afternoon we had baked ham and candied sweet potatoes and a cake cut to look like a rabbit, but I have no actual memory of the meal. My sister and I bolted down our dinners in an unhealthy way, now in the grip of an obsession.

As soon as we were allowed from the table, we resumed our search with the single-mindedness of an adventurer looking for a lost city. 

We dug through the linen cupboard and prowled through the living room like spies. I came out of the chimney covered with soot. My sister caused a major avalanche in the hall closet. We tore our own rooms apart. We left not a drawer unmolested or a wastebasket standing. We emptied closets and shelves. We discovered things we never knew we had and things that had been missing for years. Leaving quite a lot of devastation in our wake (“Carpet bombed” was how my mother unsmilingly described it later), we returned to my father with the latest statistics.

“You’re still short.” My father rubbed his hands together. Gleefully. “Don’t forget – whatever you don’t find belongs to me.”

We combed the garage like a CSI team.

My sister took the car. She was thorough and methodical. She checked the glove compartment and the floor. She pulled out the movable seat, rummaged through the trunk, dove into the spare tire – got stuck in the storage space behind the back seat.

I took the garage itself. I looked in every jar of nails, washers and screws on my father’s workbench. I bravely peered in all the dark and dusty corners. I got out the ladder and climbed up to the high shelves. We found the necklace I’d accused my sister of stealing from me, a dollar in change, my mother’s ancient ice skates, a foot stool made out of coffee cans, what was left of the badminton set after the dog got caught in the net the summer before, and two chocolate lambs.

We returned to the living room, convinced that we must have found everything by now.

My father said no. There were still two things missing.

“But we’ve looked everywhere in the house and in the yard,” moaned my sister.

“You haven’t looked in the basement yet,” said my father, licking chocolate from his fingers.

My mother went into the basement to do the laundry, and my father went down there to yell at the boiler and fiddle with fuses, but my sister and I never went there if we could help it. Chill and damp, the basement was the kind of dark, uncivilized and treacherous place where ghosts, monsters and criminals on the run were likely to be hiding. At the very least, it was a place mice and spiders would be happy to call home.

My father shrugged. “It’s your call, girls. But I thought you were particularly fond of white chocolate.”

Clutching our baskets and each other, my sister and I tiptoed down the dusty, creaking steps to the concrete chamber of horrors under the house.

“It’s too big,” said my sister as we hovered at the bottom of the stairs, our eyes scanning the landscape of furniture, boxes, cobwebs, crates and luggage. “There’s too much stuff.”

There was too much stuff. The shattered remains of past lives – ours, our parents, their parents and people they probably had never known - all coexisted in out-of-sight, out-of-mind exile in the cellar.

“He’s old and lazy. He wouldn’t hide them anywhere really hard to get to,” I reasoned. “They’ll either be kind of in view or somewhere obvious. He’s not a masochist, he just likes to tease us.”

My sister looked around the room. “I don’t see anything.”

“What about the washing machine?” I gave her a nudge. “Go look in the washing machine.”

She nudged me back. “You come with me.” The washing machine was at the far wall, in the wilderness behind the stairs.

It was a long walk across the concrete floor. Step by tiny step. Even though we barely breathed, we could feel the dust of decades shifting in the air. Every little noise – even ones we knew came from over our heads, like our mother dancing around the living room while she watched the holiday musical - made us dig our nails into each other and jump.

The washing machine, raised from the ground on a wooden platform, was a top-loader. We put down our baskets and I lifted my sister up so that she could reach the lid and tilted her forward. She leaned in. “I think there’s something down there, but it’s too dark to see. Her voice was muffled. “Isn’t there another light?”

There was a light over our heads.

“Try and brace yourself,” I ordered. “I have to let go with one hand.” I reached up to pull the cord that would turn it on.

Something ran across my feet. It was bigger than a spider but smaller than a horse. I thought I saw something glowing. I felt sharp nails. It may have growled.

I screamed and something else – something dank and slimy - threw itself against me, touching my face. I screamed again and ran, knocking over our baskets as I fled. I pounded up the stairs and, gibbering and hyperventilating, hurled myself through the door and into the kitchen where my mother was fixing herself a sandwich. “Ghosts and rats!” I gasped. “Ghosts and rats touched me!”

My mother put down the mustard knife. She only wanted to know one thing “Where’s your sister?” 

My sister was still head first in the washing machine. Though by then, of course, she was crying fairly hysterically. 

Later, when she was kissing us good night, my mother said, “You know, you really have to hand it to your father. Not many people can combine Easter and Halloween like that.”

As the door shut behind her my sister whispered, “So they’re both crazy, right?”

“I’m not sure it’s just them,” I whispered back.

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pushpin2AHEAD OF HIS TIME

My sister took a break from swimming with dolphins and hugging orangutans on the tropical island where she lives to visit me in the damp and grey of London. On Sunday morning, wrapped in jumpers and thick socks so as not to waste energy by actually turning on the heat, we huddled together on the sofa reading the papers.

“Wow,” said my sister. “Did you see this article on saving money and beating the recession?”

I tore my eyes from the piece I was reading that explained how forty-thousand-pound lunches, three-thousand-pound handbags and eight-hundred-pound shoes were now so yesterday. “Let me guess,” I said. “It reminds you of Dad.”

“He was practically a prophet. He was totally ahead of his times.” My sister shook her head in wonderment and awe. “If I didn’t know it was impossible, I would’ve thought he wrote it.” The article was full of practical advice on using leftovers, making packed lunches, making gloves out of old socks, recycling greeting cards, mending things rather than throwing them out, making do with last year’s coats and your old kettle. “I mean, really. Look here! They even tell you how to darn socks!”

My father darned socks. He knit my sister and me scarves that we jammed into our schoolbags as soon as we were out of his sight. He turned off lights almost as soon as they were turned on, often leaving his nearest and dearest sitting in the dark. He saved string, brown paper, wrapping paper, jars, bottles and boxes, because you never knew when they’d come in handy. He patched sheets. He only bought new shoes when the old ones started leaking. He did hose repairs and his own mechanics. He built a barbecue (legendary) and a “Florida room” (slightly impractical for New York State). He was always asking us if we thought he was made of money.

“Remember the time he decided to turn the back yard into a farm?” I asked.

My sister rolled her eyes. “Who could forget?”

 

It all started innocently enough.

My mother came in singing a song from the radio, her arms filled with groceries.

She stopped rather sharply when she reached the dining room. “What are you planning to do with that?” asked my mother. She was gazing at the packets scattered across the table as if they were grenades.

“What do you think I’m going to do with them?” My father, who was sitting a few feet away in His Chair (the one he only got to sit in when my mother was either out or otherwise engaged), laid down the book he was reading on root vegetables and looked over at her. “They’re seeds. I’m going to plant them.”

From the look on my mother’s face you’d have thought he’d said he planned to run around our neighborhood in the dark of the suburban night, throwing the grenades into people’s swimming pools.

“Plant them?” My mother’s laugh was as sharp and high as the sound made by a musical saw. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

My father explained that by planting the seeds we could grow our own vegetables – be self-sufficient and feed ourselves. “Like people used to do,” said my father. “We can get back to nature. Isn’t that one of the advantages of not living in the City?”

My mother, a city girl by both birth and temperament, felt that nature had been adequately represented by Central Park, and would have preferred to get back to Midtown. “I thought we moved out here for the schools and the clean air.”

“And to have a little land to call our own,” said my father.

“That doesn’t mean you have to grow tomatoes on it,” argued my mother. “Why do you think they invented the supermarket? Everybody else around here just grows grass.”

In this discussion you can see one of the basic differences between my parents. My mother enthusiastically embraced progress and technology – whether it was an electric kettle or a box of instant mashed potatoes. She loved the modern way of using something once and throwing it away. My father, on the other hand was wary of too much progress and technology. He hated waste (waste not, want not) and extravagance (a penny saved is a penny earns.) What was wrong with the way his parents had done things? Or his parents’ parents? Or the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia for that matter? How much effort did it take to mash a potato, for heaven’s sake? And as for putting a motor on a can opener? Putting a motor on a can opener simply meant there was something else that could go wrong.

My mother’s eyes narrowed with wifely suspicion, “This isn’t about getting back to nature, is it?” she demanded. “This is about saving money.”

And here we have another basic difference between my parents. My mother (who, perhaps, was also slightly ahead of her times) believed that money was to be spent, often on things you didn’t actually need and/or couldn’t afford, while my father had a tendency (as my mother poetically put it) to hang onto every dollar so tightly that the eagle screamed.

“What’s wrong with being frugal?” asked my father.

“You’re not frugal,” said my mother. “You’re cheap.”

 

As soon as the ground was soft enough, my father spent his days off digging up the lawn and turning the soil. He bought compost and manure from a local farm (a real farm, not one in someone’s back yard). He borrowed books from the library with titles like GROW IT YOURSELF and SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN THE SUBURBS. All Spring he raked and hoed and planted. He put stakes in the ground to mark the rows of cucumbers and pumpkins, corn and tomatoes, beans and peas, and ran strings from one end to the other, tying rags along them to frighten the birds.

In all of this he had the help of his own clutch of farm laborers – me and my sister. We dutifully opened the packets and gently covered the seeds with earth and ripped the rags into strips and ran back and forth turning the sprinkler on and off. We were given the important job of weeding, and officially deputized to do the watering when my father was at work. My mother, of course, refused to take part. She sat in the sun porch, reading magazines and singing “Old MacDonald had a farm…” under her breath.

My father was unfazed. “You’ll be singing a different tune when harvest time rolls around.”

My mother turned a page. “Don’t count your turnips before they’re grown,” she advised.

Either my mother had prophetic talents the rest of us never suspected, or one of her friends had warned her about what would happen when the vegetables started to grow. My father and his laborers, however, were unaware that, unseen by us, a clever and deadly enemy was patiently waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground.

“I can’t believe it!” wailed my father, standing by the stake marked Lettuce. “The slugs have eaten every last one.”

The day before the baby lettuces were grown enough that even my sister and I could tell what they were. Today they were ravaged stumps.

“Didn’t I say I heard something in the garden last night?” asked my mother. “It was probably them chomping away in the dark.”

My father tried pellets. My father dug trenches. My father scattered sand and broken eggshells and ashes over the soil to make it hard for the slugs to move. He put plastic bottles around the seedlings like fortress walls. He made traps filled with beer and milk. But still they came.

“You’re becoming obsessive,” said my mother.

My father looked up from his latest acquisition from the library: KNOW YOUR SLUGS. “I’m not obsessed. I’m just not going to be beaten by a creature that doesn’t even have feet.”

And then, one moonless, rainy night we were roused from our beds by a heavy knocking on the front door. My sister and I shot out of our rooms the way you do when you’re a kid and you know that something unusual, exciting, and possibly horrific is about to take place.

My mother had also shot out of her room, pulling her robe around her and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Go back to bed!” she ordered.

We followed her down the stairs.

“Maybe some mad killer’s escaped from prison and the police have come to warn us,” whispered my sister.

“You are so melodramatic,” I hissed back. “It’s probably just Mrs Houlahan again.” Mrs Houlahan lived next door. The year before, when raccoons got into her attic, she’d arrived on our doorstep at three in the morning, convinced she was being burgled.

My mother, whose hearing improved in direct proportion to how much you didn’t want to be overheard said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Your father’s locked himself out of the house. Now go back to bed!” She opened the door.

It was the police – Officer Kellogg and Officer Schultz. Needless to say, with Officers Kellogg and Schultz was my father.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mam,” said Officer Schultz, “but we found this gentleman prowling around your backyard. He claims he lives here.”

My mother stared at my father in. My father was wearing his rain jacket, his fishing hat and his old galoshes. He was carrying a flashlight in one hand and a bucket of slugs in the other, You could see her thinking What’ll happen if I say “no”? Every light in the house blazing. Bags of new socks. Lunches at the diner.

“For Pete’s sake,” pleaded my father, “tell them who I am.”

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” said my mother.

My sister burst into tears.

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pushpin2MY SECRET ADMIRER

As an example of one of those rare, unnatural phenomena – like a blue moon or a shower of miniature orange frogs – I found myself in conversation with Sonya Upjohn at the school bus stop one snowy winter morning. When I say that I was in conversation with Sonya Upjohn what I mean is that Sonya was talking and, because of the weather, I happened to be huddled more or less under the shelter with her and her friends - which made me (at least technically) part of the group. Although Sonya and her pals normally paid as much attention to me as the rest of the world pays to small, random particles of dust, and I have no memory of ever being spoken to by Sonya (unless you counted laughter), I nodded along with the others, smiling like a cheap doll. 

Sonya Upjohn only lived around the corner from me, but she might as well have lived on another planet. Sonya was one of the most popular girls in my high school. I was not. I was one of those girls for whom February is all about groundhogs. Sonya was one of those girls for whom February is all about hearts and valentines.

Which is what the talk was all about as the snowflakes fell romantically around Sonya’s pretty head, making her look like an angel on a Christmas card (and my nose turned bright red the way it does and I lost all feeling in my toes). Not only had Sonya been asked by three different boys to go to the Valentine’s dance, but with days still to go till the Big Fourteen, the Upjohn mantel was already sagging under the weight of all the heart-shaped cards she’d received.

“I mean, my God, can you imagine being one of those poor losers who never gets a Valentine’s Day card or gets asked to the dance?” Sonya’s voice was high with horror, her lips drawn together as if she was about to blow bubbles. Compassion was never her strongest quality.

From the sounds made by Sonya’s friends it seemed likely that there was only one poor girl on the bus stop that morning who could easily imagine going through life always restless and unhappy because, no matter how much else she achieved in her life (not even if she discovered a cure for cancer or brought about Permanent World Peace and ended poverty), no one would ever send her a Valentine or ask her to the Valentine’s dance.

“I mean,” Sonya shrieked on, “it must make you want to move to Bulgaria and grow potatoes.”

I was still smiling like a painted piece of plastic, pretending I was part of the group – the invisible part. But then they all suddenly looked over at me and it was obvious from the embarrassed, pitying expressions on their faces that they’d forgotten I was there. If they’d ever known.

Sonya started talking about what she was going to wear to the Valentine’s dance and, as if she and her friends were worked by remote control, they all turned their backs on me at the same time.

On that frosty morning, Bulgaria didn’t seem nearly far enough away.

The Valentine’s conversation haunted me all day long like a particularly irritating ghost. It sat with me in homeroom, moaning softly. It nearly got me concussed playing volleyball in gym. It distracted me so much in history that when Mr Streb asked what Manifest Destiny was I blurted out, “Being an Old Maid!”

As soon as I got home that afternoon I threw myself down on the sofa and burst into tears.

My mother (happy in the knowledge that she would get a card, a box of chocolates and a present for Valentine’s Day because she had already frog-marched my father into town to buy them) cha-chaed into the living room carrying a basket of laundry. She stopped short when she saw my limp form sprawled over the couch.

“Now what’s wrong?” asked my mother.

I didn’t usually confide in my mother, but I was in a weakened state from hours spent picturing my empty life with nothing to comfort me but a couple of cats and the Nobel Prize so I told her.

My mother said I was being ridiculous (which is what I knew she’d say, and was one of the reasons why I never liked to tell her anything).

“Good Lord!” said my mother. “You’re fourteen. You have your whole life ahead of you! You haven’t even started to bloom yet.”

“Maybe I’m never going to bloom!” I wailed. My grandmother had a wisteria that she planted twenty years before and it hadn’t seen a flower yet.

“Never’s a long time,” said my mother. “You’ll see. There’s someone for everyone. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Although this was another occurrence as rare as chickens with teeth, it turned out that on this occasion my mother was right. Two days later I got home from school to find an envelope addressed to me on my desk. There was no return address and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. It bore a cancelled stamp. I opened it warily. My mail was usually restricted to reminders from the library about overdue books.

It was a Valentine. It was simple but tasteful. Nothing gushy or over the top. Just a plain red heart with an arrow through it on the front, and inside the message Be My Valentine – signed, Your Secret Admirer.

“What was that letter you got today?” asked my mother over supper.

“Nothing,” I said, my eyes on my plate. “Just a reminder from the library.

The smart thing to do would have been to stick the card in my dresser and forget about it. But I didn’t do that. The image of Sonya and her friends suddenly realizing that I – a poor loser who’d be better off farming in Eastern Europe than going to high school on Long Island – was standing with them kept flashing in my mind. I wanted them to know that (unlike my mother) they’d been wrong about me. I had a Valentine. I had a secret admirer. I wasn’t going to have to dedicate my life to root vegetables after all.

But of course making them aware of all that wasn’t as easy as it might sound. I couldn’t just arrive at the bus stop, waving my card, “Yoohoo, Sonya, look what I got!” They’d think I’d sent it to myself.

As I saw it, the only way I could wipe those pitying looks off their faces was to go to the Valentine’s dance. With a boy. A boy who liked me but was too shy to show it. A boy who wouldn’t collapse into hysterical laughter if I asked him out.

It didn’t take long to narrow down the list of Possible Secret Admirers to one. Halliday Flock. Halliday was my lab partner in biology. He was smart, odd, about as cool as surgical stockings and so shy that whenever he had to speak in class he turned the same shade of red as canned tomato soup. He was also the only boy who spoke to me on a regular basis (mainly stuff like “Not like that”, “What are you doing?” and “Here, give it to me”, but we did once have a pretty interesting conversation about the Iroquois Confederacy). He not only spoke to me, he had been known to laugh at my jokes, which was more than most people did.

I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy for boys because, Leap Year, Sadie Hawkins Day and feminism notwithstanding, the burden of asking someone out is usually theirs. I’d rather carry a backpack full of bricks around for a month. I figured there was only way to do this humiliating task that made you as vulnerable as a baby bunny at a convention of hawks, and that was to do it. So, as we left class together the next day, I dropped my books on his feet and when he bent down to help me pick them up I said, “Halliday, do you want to go to the Valentine’s Day dance with me? Just answer yes or no.”

Halliday turned the colour of several cans of tomato soup and said, “Yes.”

I suppose it would be nice if I could say that Halliday and I went to the dance, had a fantastic time, made Sonya and her friends eat their perfect little hearts out and fell madly in love. But, sadly, none of that would be true.

For openers, neither of us knew how to dance.  If either (or, better still, both of us) had known how to dance, we would then have had to face the fact that I had a good four inches in height on Halliday, making slow dances difficult if not impossible. We stood together at the Wallflower side of the room, having to shout at each other to have any kind of conversation over the music and laughter of the others. I’m pretty sure that Sonya never saw us (and that, if she did, she had no idea who we were since I was wearing a dress for the first and last time in my high school career and Halliday was wearing a suit jacket that seemed to belong to someone else and had done something faintly horrifying to his hair).

And then we had a fight because we were both so bored and uncomfortable and would much rather have been anywhere else shelling peas.

Halliday wanted to know why I’d had the stupid idea to come to the dance in the first place.

I screamed back that I wouldn’t have had it if he hadn’t sent me that card.

Halliday said, “What card?”

The moral of this story is: never trust my mother.

The good news is that once we realized there was no reason for us to be there, Halliday and I went to the diner on Main Street, had hamburgers and fries, and talked about the Mohawks for the rest of the night.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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pushpin2HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Can you believe it? You just about get used to one year and another one galumphs along. I don’t know about you, but I find this a moody, thoughtful time of year. As soon as the Christmas trees start appearing at the side of the road (which in our neighbourhood is on Boxing Day, when most of us haven’t even ironed out the wrapping paper from our presents to reuse next year), I feel a certain wistfulness descend. Perhaps it’s the bedraggled strands of tinsel clinging to those browning branches like shipwreck survivors hanging on to scraps of wood, but I find myself taking stock of the old year and wondering about the new one. Where have I been? I ask myself. Where am I going? Will I know when I get there?

When your brain begins functioning again after all that celebration, you find yourself gazing in the mirror in a solemn, what’s-it-all-about? sort of way, thinking about life and things of that ilk. Questions about the meaning of LIFE, the FATE OF MANKIND and the NATURE OF LOVE stampede through your mind like a pack of wild horses fleeing a landslide. Can the planet be saved? Is true love real? Will Donald Trump build his wall? Will Brad and Angelina ever speak again without a lawyer present? And then your thoughts narrow. What have I done to halt global warming? You wonder. What have I done to better the world? To improve myself? To make ME a better person?

But that, of course, is what NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS are all about. Giving yourself direction. Purpose. Making the new year more productive than the old one turned out to be. And if you didn’t have the sense to throw it out on January second, this is the point at which you dig out your list of resolutions from last year. You may have an extremely strong will and an enormous amount of character, self-discipline and determination. If you do, then when you read through last year’s resolutions you get a warm glow and allow yourself a humble but happy smile. You got a black belt in karate, just like you said you would. Also like you said you would, you mastered the violin, did Yoga on a beach in Bali, fostered a small child in Africa and an orphaned orang-utan. You got your carbon footprint down to the size of a mouse paw and you joined Greenpeace.

On the other hand, you may be like the rest of us. You know, weak… easily distracted… really forgetful. If you are, then when you read through last year’s resolutions you wind up clasping your head and screaming out loud, OH MY GOD, I DIDN’T EVEN MANAGE TO READ ONE PAGE OF JAMES JOYCE!

Most of us do worry about the melting ice cap and the rather alarming rate of species extinctions from time to time. Most of us would be really happy to bring about world peace, feed the starving masses of the world and offer sanctuary to the millions of people forced to flee their homes because they’ve been bombed to rubble. Most of us are not, after all, oil companies, arms dealers or the CEOs of multinationals obsessed with profit no matter what it costs someone else.  But let’s be honest here. Most of us find it easier to focus on concerns that are closer to home. The Why can’t I button the jeans I bought in November? sort of concerns.

So instead of trying to stop the construction of another pipeline, or working in a refugee camp, or even reading the label on that pack of biscuits to see if it contains the ubiquitous palm oil (which is in 40-50% of household products, and which, because of deforestation to raise the plantations, is pushing many species including the orangutan and Sumatran tiger to extinction), we go on diets. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with going on a diet (though you might want to think about the fact that many of us become serial dieters, going on a diet, losing weight, putting it back on, going on another diet, and so on and so forth). And I’m not suggesting you should get in a boat and launch yourself into the ocean to remove the islands of plastic that are polluting and killing the seas. But I am suggesting that while you’re in the supermarket, reading the number of calories in a rice cracker, you might also check the detergents to see which ones harm aquatic life (it’s right on the label, in all that small print) – and check the labels of everything you buy from baked goods to cosmetics for palm oil – and not buying them. It’s a small thing to do, but, as we all know, every little bit helps. 

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pushpin2THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS

2016. It’s been business as usual here on planet Earth. The sun rises and sets, the moon smiles down on us, the amazing creatures that live in what’s left of our forests, seas, deserts and jungles carry on their lives. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the wars go on and the refugees keep fleeing. Inequality and injustice march arm-in-arm across the globe, and more species die out for ever every day. There’s more plastic in the oceans and more corruption in governments. There is more pollution in the air and more money in the pockets of the rich. But somehow this year seems worse than many of its predecessors. We’ve lost quite a few people who made humans look good, of course, but it’s not just that. We seem to be regressing. Returning to old ideas and old hatreds – and old ways of dealing with them.  

I reckon that’s one of the interesting things about humans: we don’t really learn from our mistakes. Every year we continue to do the things reason says we shouldn’t – things we know are going to end badly either for us personally or for the planet as a whole – and on we go. And then, as the new year pokes its head over the pile of presents and bills that are Christmas, we get out our hats and horns and prepare to celebrate. A new year! Hope fills our hearts. Everything’s going to get better. Someone’s going to sort it all out.

And someone could. But who would that wonderful someone be? That someone is us. We are our own hope. We are, after all, very clever, we have big brains. And we often have the big hearts and imaginations to go with them. So if anyone can sort things out, we can.

“Enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things” -  Kurt Vonnegut

Merry Christmas
and a
Happy New Year

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pushpin2REASONS TO BE GRATEFUL

November, of course, is the month when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the holiday that marks the original English colonists’ celebration of their first successful harvest. The continent hadn’t beaten them; they were going to make it.

From the European point of view, it also marked the beginning, for the seeds had been planted not just for the corn and the squash but for what would eventually be the United States as well.

If you were a Native ‘American’, however, it pretty much marked the beginning of the end. In less than three hundred years your land would have been taken, and your way of life, your culture and your history would have been decimated. Your people would have been slaughtered, demonized and impoverished. The new occupiers of the continent would make you promises and break them, make treaties and break them too. The old spirits would have been banished, replaced by the spirit that today are known as corporate interests. The old spirits made people responsible for protecting the earth, the skies, the water and the creatures that lived in them. The new spirit said that people can do what they want; their only responsibility is profit.

And so here we are in 2016, almost four hundred years after that first Thanksgiving. Right now the American government is in the process of breaking another treaty with the Sioux Nation, by allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to go through their land, through what the Native Americans consider sacred land (which doesn’t seem to be a European concept in any way), over their very strong protests about the dangers the pipeline poses to the water of the area and about the disregard of their rights.  Over two hundred protestors have been arrested so far.

Dogs, helicopters, heavily armed police, the National Guard, Tasers, tear gas, concussion grenades and pepper spray have all been used against unarmed men, women and children – in order to protect not the land nor the people but the interests of Energy Transfer Partners.

Here’s what we have to be thankful for. That the Standing Rock protestors – who consider themselves protectors and guardians of the Earth – are continuing the fight for all of us. It’s one planet; we can’t live here if it’s destroyed.

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pushpin2MAN'S BEST FRIENDS

One of the most endearing human traits (at least to us) is our love of our fellow creatures. We spend a fortune on our pets. Not only for food and medical care, but for grooming and clothes and accessories. We put Santa hats and antlers on them at Christmas and throw them birthday parties. We show them off and give them prizes. As we do with horses, the non-house animal to which we feel closest. But arguably the most popular YouTube videos are of adorable kittens and puppies; and of the astounding and humorous things done by cats and dogs. Show us a duckling or a fawn and we’re full of sighs and ahhs.  It doesn’t bother us that we keep birds in cages and fish in tanks and rabbits in hutches, or that we breed cats and dogs to the point where they can barely breathe - because we love them.

Of course, we also love animals we eat. And we love animals we hunt, whether we eat them or not (rhinos and elephants, for example, aren’t hunted for food but that hasn’t protected them). And we love wearing animal skins and sitting on sofas and chairs made of animals skins and carrying out phones and our keys in a bag made out of animal skin.

Most of all, of course, we love making money from animals. We make money from domestic animals, and from wild animals as well. Recent studies suggest that perhaps in that way we love animals too much. The number of African grey parrots in the wild has dropped to 1% of past levels because of the pet trade. But what is happening to them is also happening to hundreds of other species (both animal and plant), including the African elephant, the tiger, the gorilla, the lion and the pangolin (the most hunted mammal in the world, so if you don’t know what a pangolin is you best try and see one now while you can) – all of which are facing extinction in the wild, possibly within a human generation. These are the animals with the highest profiles, but they are far from being the only ones in danger.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what happens when we have no friends left.

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pushpin2DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

I’ve been having a few of those moments lately when reality seems a little unreliable. Confusing. Elusive. Not particularly real. Those moments when you wonder where you are and how you got there. Everybody has them now and then. The best friend you thought was like a sister goes off with your boyfriend. The sister you always relied on borrows your best and irreplaceable boots and gives them to someone she met on a train in Italy. Where am I? you ask. What happened?

I had one of those moments recently when thirty French municipalities banned the burkini from their beaches. Once upon a time (and not that long ago), a woman’s swimming costume was more or less a dress with baggy leggings (rather reminiscent of the basic burkini, actually). You could show your feet and your hands, but that was about it. Suddenly, a mere hundred odd years later, a woman sitting on a beach fully clothed is surrounded by armed men. What happened to the world? What sense does that make?

My next I-seem-to-have-fallen-down-a-very-deep-hole-and-landed-in-a-world-that-looks-familiar-but-isn’t moment came when I read that Specsavers has applied to have the word “should’ve”, which they use as an advertising slogan (“Should’ve gone to Specsavers”) trademarked. Facebook has trademarked the word “face” (“book” still pending, apparently). Really? Common words you find around the house – and even in your own sentences – can be trademarked? Apparently not!

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pushpin2THE FRENCH DON'T HAVE A WORD FOR IT

“I have the best news! You’re not going to believe it!” Tobia leaned forward, earnestly, her eyes bright with excitement.

“Don’t tell me! You’ve found a way to end global poverty? You’ve succeeded where Bono and Sir Bob failed?”

“No, not that.” She shook her head, disappointed in my lack of vision. She picked up her cup. “What I’ve done is, I’ve finally decided what I’m going to do with my life.”

This was good news not only to Tobia, but to all her friends and family who had been wondering for some time whether or not she was ever going to do anything.

“That’s great,” I enthused. “What’s it going to be? Doctor, lawyer, marine biologist, physicist, head of the IMF?”

She shook her head again and took a sip of tea. “No, none of those. Those things aren’t me.”

I resisted the urge to groan out loud. “You haven’t gone back to the idea of being a celebrity, have you?” Although, almost magically, “celebrity” has become a job description in recent years, most of Tobia’s family and friends had spent a lot of time making her aware of the downside of celebrity. The massive amounts of plastic surgery. The twelve hours in the gym every day to stay in shape. The photographers living in the trees and dustbins outside your house. The global criticism and condemnation if you wear the wrong shoes, put on a pound, or forget to shave your legs.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Tobia assured me. “I know what a competitive field it is. I understand that even though you don’t need any qualifications or skills like you would to be a plumber or something it isn’t really easy to become a celebrity.            
No, this is much much better than that.”

No plastic surgery. No paparazzi. And, presumably, no skills or qualifications. It sounded ideal

“Keep me in suspense no longer,” I begged. “What is it?”

“I’m going to become one of thos— one of those—” Tobia frowned, searching for the word that was skittling round her brain like a panicking bird. “You know. That thing the French don’t have a word for.”

I said I was under the impression that the French had a word for most things.

“Not this.” Tobia was still frowning. “Don’t you remember? That American president everybody used to quote. He said, the French don’t have a word for this.”

We had to be talking about George Bush. There were not only books but desk calendars of his quotes once upon a time.

“You mean entrepreneur?” I suggested. 

“That’s it!” She snapped her fingers. “Entrepreneur! I’m going to be an entrepreneur.”

Because I am sometimes accused of being fussy and petty I didn’t point out that entrepreneur is, in fact, a French word. It wouldn’t be the first time either President Bush or Tobia was wrong. I said, “Wow. Well that’s really something.” I poured more tea. “So what’s it going to be? Boutique? Café? Bookshop?”

Tobia’s expression became thoughtful, almost musing. “Actually, I was thinking of launching my own perfume.”

“You what?” I’d picked up the milk but put it back down “Perfume? Your own perfume? Is this before or after you launch your own satellite?”

“You’re being sarcastic, right?” Her expression was less thoughtful than suspicious. “Are you saying you don’t think it’s a good idea?”

I said that, yes, that was what I was saying. Because, unless she’d been holding back some information on her general education, I wasn’t aware that she knew how to make perfume. Assuming, that was, that you could make it in the kitchen or the bathroom.

Tobia’s laughter spluttered like a damp match. “I’m not going to make the perfume. I mean, do you think Mariah Carey makes her own perfume?  Get real, people like her probably don’t even make their own beds. I’m just putting my name to it. Like they do.”

I took a slug of black tea. “What are you going to call it? Tobia Blackthorn’s Impossible Dream?”

Undaunted, she said, “Well maybe not perfume, then. I could do a clothes line like  Beyonce. Or cosmetics like Katie Price. Or even jewelry or shoes.”

“Tobia,” I said. Calmly. Patiently. “Tobia, you don’t have a name. That is, you have a name, but it isn’t a name anyone but your friends, your family and your doctor recognizes. Those people can only get away with launching their own labels because they’re celebrities.”

Tobia leaned back, her smile serene or, possibly, slightly demented. “But don’t you see, that’s the beauty of it. Only celebrities can put their names on something. So I put my name on something and, bingo!, I’m a celebrity! And I don’t even have to go on some reality TV show to do it.”

“You know what?” I finished off my tea. “I think you’re right. I don’t think the French do have a word for it.”

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pushpin2NOT BAD FOR A GIRL

It’s July, which I believe we all know is the month America celebrates its War of Independence. Fireworks, barbecues, fire pits and picnics. And a lot of remembering all the heroes of the American revolution. Who are all men, unless you count Betsy Ross, the flag maker, who, I assume, was at home with her needle and thread not sitting in a battlefield.

Among the most famous heroes of the American revolution is Paul Revere, whose legendary ride to warn the colonists that British troops were fast approaching, apparently saved the day. But here’s the thing. Paul Revere wasn’t the only one who rode through the night to raise the alarm – one girl rode even further.

Sybil Ludington was sixteen in 1777. On the night of 26 April, her father, Colonel Henry Ludington, got word that the British were attacking Danbury, Connecticut. Computers and cell phones being some years away from invention, the only way to alert the militia to what was happening was in person. It was Sybil who rode forty miles in the rain to alert the countryside of the British attack.

Not only was Sybil’s ride recognised by General George Washington (and largely forgotten by history), but she continued to serve as a messenger through the war.

Not bad for a girl.

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pushpin2DON'T JUST SIT THERE, DO SOMETHING!

Most of us work on the principle that it’s pretty difficult for the average person to change the world. There are exceptions, of course. If you happened to be the one to notice a stone rolling down a hill and thought, Hey! What about turning that into a wheel? Or the one who worked out how to start a fire. But, in general, the big change-makers – like repeating and automatic firearms, the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear bomb and open-heart surgery – have not been brought about by ordinary folk. So we go about our daily lives, and listen to the news – which is almost always bad and getting worse – and think there’s nothing we as individuals can do to make it better.

But what if we’re wrong? What if one person can make a difference?

When she was twelve years over Mary Grace Henry learned that girls in Kenya and Uganda had little access to education. Mary Grace decided to do something about that. She taught herself to sew, discovered the garment district in Manhattan, and began making reversible headbands and hair bows to sell. Her original idea was to make a difference for one girl by helping her go to school. Six years later, Reverse the Course, the foundation she founded, has provided school fees for seventy-nine girls. 100% of the profits from sale of Reverse the Course products are used to fund education for girls.

Check out the Reverse the Course website to learn more: www.reversethecourse.org

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pushpin2DON'T JUST SIT THERE, DO SOMETHING!

Recently I learned about the Churchill Club, which has to be one of the most fascinating pieces of history I’d never heard of. It seems that when Nazi Germany invaded Denmark in 1941, there was no resistance from the government or the people. A group of teenage boys decided to do something about that. Their leader was a boy named Knud Pedersen, and together they committed twenty-five acts of sabotage before finally being arrested in May of 1942, but not before  they had inspired further resistance.

What amazing kids. And then I started wondering if their bravery, determination and sense of right was at least in part because they didn’t have computers or mobile phones to keep them busy and those long northern winter nights.

So I started looking around to see what teenagers today are trying to right a few wrongs.

That’s when I discovered Boyan Slat. He’s old now, almost twenty-two, but when he was nineteen he came up with an idea to clean the oceans.  Why would he want to do that? Because he cares about our planet and its survival, and is well aware that they need help. Eight million tons of plastic find their way into the oceans every year; leaching toxins into the water and killing fish, plankton, seabirds and mammals by the thousands if not millions.

Boyan invented floating booms and processing platforms to collect rubbish while leaving the oceans’ residents unharmed.  It seems to be a very feasible idea. More than that, Boyan has received backing (as well as awards) to make his idea a reality, and has set up a project called Ocean Cleanup.

Find out more at the Ocean Cleanup website.

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pushpin2BICYCLES AND BANKS

The other day the bus I was on passed a narrow side road whose only significant feature was the fleet of rental bicycles along one side. Where I live, the rental scheme is sponsored by Banco Santander. (It used to be they were sponsored by Barclays Bank, but Barclays sponsors the Premier League, which obviously keeps it pretty busy).

So there I was on the bus, and I saw all these bikes with their red and white Santander logo on them (lest you forget) and they made me think of the white bikes of Amsterdam. In the 1960s a young man named Luud Schimmelpennick came up with the idea for non-polluting, sustainable urban transport. He and his friends collected several hundred bicycles, painted them white and left them around the city. The idea being that you would ride off on one to where you wanted to go, and leave it for someone else. People being how they are, even in those less rapacious times, it didn’t work that well, but you couldn’t fault it for its sense of communal spirit; its selfless and camaraderie. Its idealism.

But a good idea never dies, especially if someone can get something out of it. Despite the drawbacks of the original scheme, the white bikes of Amsterdam became a model for community bicycle programmes all over the world.

Only now, of course, they’re not free and only technically rise up from the community. Now they’re another face of corporate sponsorship. Such is the twenty-first century.

What worries me, though, is the potential for confusion here. A visiting alien, seeing that row of bicycles with their red and white Santander name tags on them – there for whomever to use and to keep the planet from further fatal pollution - might smile to herself and think of the benevolent and altruistic nature of the finance industry. It’ll all be all right, she’d say to herself. The Earth’s in safe hands. Which would give her a false idea of what to expect not only from bankers but from the rest of us as well.

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pushpin2INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

Among other things, March is International Women’s Day. This is the day set aside to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But it is also a day to mark the prejudices and obstacles that still stand in the way of women and girls across the globe.

Years ago, in the dark ages of the twentieth century, there was a slogan for a brand of cigarettes targeted at women: You’ve come a long way, baby! This was in America in the 1960s, and, compared to even the beginning of the century, women certainly had come a long way. They could vote. They could go to university. They could wear short skirts. They could work outside the home. They could even have a profession. They didn’t have to get married to have a life.

But unless you believe that having a cigarette made especially for your gender is a massive achievement, women still had a long way to go. And still do. Violence against women is endemic, which is not something you can say about the rights to education, autonomy, respect or independence.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Gender Parity. Meaning that women and men should be treated equally: in the home, at work, in the world – and in our minds. We are all people, and we’re all on this planet together.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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pushpin2THE FRENCH DON'T HAVE A WORD FOR IT

“I have the best news! You’re not going to believe it!” Tobia leaned forward, earnestly, her eyes bright with excitement.

“Don’t tell me! You’ve found a way to end global poverty? You’ve succeeded where Bono and Sir Bob failed?”

“No, not that.” She shook her head, disappointed in my lack of vision. She picked up her cup. “What I’ve done is, I’ve finally decided what I’m going to do with my life.”

This was good news not only to Tobia, but to all her friends and family who had been wondering for some time whether or not she was ever going to do anything.

“That’s great,” I enthused. “What’s it going to be? Doctor, lawyer, marine biologist, physicist, head of the IMF?”

She shook her head again and took a sip of tea. “No, none of those. Those things aren’t me.”

 I resisted the urge to groan out loud. “You haven’t gone back to the idea of being a celebrity, have you?” Although, almost magically, “celebrity” has become a job description in recent years, most of Tobia’s family and friends had spent a lot of time making her aware of the downside of celebrity. The massive amounts of plastic surgery. The twelve hours in the gym every day to stay in shape. The photographers living in the trees and dustbins outside your house. The global criticism and condemnation if you wear the wrong shoes, put on a pound, or forget to shave your legs.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Tobia assured me. “I know what a competitive field it is. I understand that even though you don’t need any qualifications or skills like you would to be a plumber or something it isn’t really easy to become a celebrity. No, this is much much better than that.”

No plastic surgery. No paparazzi. And, presumably, no skills or qualifications. It sounded ideal

“Keep me in suspense no longer,” I begged. “What is it?”

“I’m going to become one of those— one of those-” Tobia frowned, searching for the word that was skittling round her brain like a panicking bird. “You know. That thing the French don’t have a word for.”

I said I was under the impression that the French had a word for most things.

“Not this.” Tobia was still frowning. “Don’t you remember? That American president everybody used to quote. He said, the French don’t have a word for this.”

We had to be talking about George Bush. There were not only books but desk calendars of his quotes once upon a time.

 “You mean entrepreneur?” I suggested. 

“That’s it!” She snapped her fingers. “Entrepreneur! I’m going to be an entrepreneur.”

Because I am sometimes accused of being fussy and petty I didn’t point out that entrepreneur is, in fact, a French word. It wouldn’t be the first time either President Bush or Tobia was wrong. I said, “Wow. Well that’s really something.” I poured more tea. “So what’s it going to be? Boutique? Café? Bookshop?”

Tobia’s expression became thoughtful, almost musing. “Actually, I was thinking of launching my own perfume.”

“You what?” I’d picked up the milk but put it back down “Perfume? Your own perfume? Is this before or after you launch your own satellite?”

“You’re being sarcastic, right?” Her expression was less thoughtful than suspicious. “Are you saying you don’t think it’s a good idea?”

I said that, yes, that was what I was saying. Because, unless she’d been holding back some information on her general education, I wasn’t aware that she knew how to make perfume. Assuming, that was, that you could make it in the kitchen or the bathroom.

Tobia’s laughter spluttered like a damp match. “I’m not going to make the perfume. I mean, do you think Mariah Carey makes her own perfume?  Get real, people like her probably don’t even make their own beds. I’m just putting my name to it. Like they do.”

I took a slug of black tea. “What are you going to call it? Tobia Blackthorn’s Impossible Dream?”

Undaunted, she said, “Well maybe not perfume, then. I could do a clothes line like  Beyonce. Or cosmetics like Katie Price. Or even jewelry or shoes.”

“Tobia,” I said. Calmly. Patiently. “Tobia, you don’t have a name. That is, you have a name, but it isn’t a name anyone but your friends, your family and your doctor recognizes. Those people can only get away with launching their own labels because they’re celebrities.”

Tobia leaned back, her smile serene or, possibly, slightly demented. “But don’t you see, that’s the beauty of it. Only celebrities can put their names on something. So I put my name on something and, bingo!, I’m a celebrity! And I don’t even have to go on some reality TV show to do it.”

“You know what?” I finished off my tea. “I think you’re right. I don’t think the French do have a word for it.”

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pushpin2AND SO A NEW YEAR BEGINS

“This year’s going to be different,” said Leila. “A brand new me.”

She had her eyes on her phone but I could only see words on her screen, so I was pretty sure I was the one she was talking to.

“You’re dyeing your hair again?” The last time it was orange, which wasn’t as good an idea as you might think.

She shook her head. “No. Everybody dyes their hair. I want a really brand new me.”

“You mean you’re changing your image again?” Leila changed her image more often than some people change their sheets. From hip-chick to goth, from cowgirl to neo-punk – and everything in between. You could consider her a victim of the choice society. “What’s left?”

Leila sighed. “I don’t mean superficial things. I mean deep down.”

“You’re taking up yoga again?” She always fell asleep in savasana.

Leila gave her phone a triumphant smile, which I assumed was also meant for me. “I’m going to start really paying attention, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m thinking about everything I do and how it affects me. And about everything happening around me. I’m not going to be a passenger in my own life any more. I’m going to be the driver.”

Strong words from someone who never learned to ride a bike.

But this time Leila really was determined. Dedicated. Fanatical.

 She stopped shopping (“It’s not like I really need more than twenty pairs of shoes”). She started reading newspapers (“I know what the Kardashians had for Christmas dinner but I don’t know what’s happening in Syria”). She began reading food labels (“Who knew artificial sweeteners are dangerous?). She spent hours asking questions online. Are sausages and red meats really carcinogenic? What exactly is in my eyeliner? If the world were a village of one hundred people, how many of them would have three meals a day and an indoor toilet? How much does it cost to make a pair of trainers? How serious is climate change? Are we winning the war on terror? How much plastic is in the oceans? Does the government really read my emails? Is Amazon taking over the planet? And on and on and on.

I didn’t see Leila for three days (“I’m way too busy. It’s lucky my shampoo has something toxic in it because I don’t even have time to wash my hair.”).

On the fourth day I ran into Leila at the mall. She was in a popular hamburger restaurant, eating a double-cheeseburger and drinking a diet soda, surrounded by plastic bags. It was as if the new year had never come.

“What happened to the brand new you?”

“She gave up,” said Leila. “It was too depressing. Every minute of the day terrible things are happening somewhere in the world.”

“Well,” I agreed, “I reckon you can’t worry about everything.” I eyed her lunch and the threat of shopping bags. “But I thought you were also going to pay attention to everything you do and how it affects you.”

“Ohgod,” groaned Leila. “That’s even worse than worrying about everybody else. There’s hardly anything you can eat. The water’s polluted, the air’s polluted and the oceans are dying. Almost everything we use for cleaning could kill you.” She bit into her burger.  “You can’t even have your clothes dry cleaned. You might as well wash them in toxins.”

“So you’re just going to go back to not paying attention? Isn’t that risky?”

“Not as risky as paying attention,” said Leila through a mouthful of red meat. “The stress of all that anxiety was going to make me ill.”

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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pushpin3HAPPY EVERYTHING! 

This time of year there are always a lot of stories in the press about (of all things) Christmas! What to cook. What gifts to give. Where to go afterwards to recover. The other day I read one about people complaining that they can’t even use the ‘C’ word any more. According to this article, it’s become festive this and season’s that. Happy holidays and Winter celebration… No Christmas cards. No Christmas lights. No Merry Christmas. I don’t know where these oppressed people live – it’s certainly not like that around here – but it’s hard to imagine how schools manage to put on their nativity plays without mentioning the Christ child. (Perhaps they just call him The Baby and skip over the details.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about this time of year.  Diwali happens a little earlier, of course, but basically this is the season of festivals of light at the darkest time of year. Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Hanukkah. Christmas. But something odd has happened to Christmas. It’s as if there are actually two Christmases on the December calendar.

The first is, of course, the celebration of the birth of the man who symbolizes hope and who taught love, forgiveness and brotherhood. The man who threw the money changers out of the temple. The man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The man who is the Light. That’s Christmas number one. 

Then there’s Christmas number two. That’s the one that seems to gear up the day after Thanksgiving (though it starts warming its engines sometime in August nowadays), when crazed shoppers trample each other to be the first into a cheap department store to buy yet another big screen TV. The spendspendspend, buybuybuy, IwantIwant Christmas. The how big is your tree and how many cards did you get this year? Christmas. The one that seems to have very little to do with babies in mangers or messages of redemption and hope.

Personally, I’m not in favour of using the ‘C’ word in the context of Christmas number two. And I think I’ve come up with the solution. All we have to do is change the name of Christmas number two to a more appropriate label. Then people who are celebrating the birth of Jesus can wish each other a Merry Christmas. And people who just want to shop can wish each other something else. Happy Shop Till You Drop Day. The Festival of What Did You Get?  I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime:

Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

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pushpin2REMEMBER THE WAMPANOAGS 

My Aunt Lillian was the family radical. My other aunts and uncles all voted Republican and went to mass every Sunday and considered garlic in food A Step Too Far; the women were all fulltime housewives and the men all worked in suits. Aunt Lillian not only always worked and cooked with garlic with gay abandon, but in her youth she’d been briefly married to an artist (that nobody liked on principle) and lived in Greenwich Village (which they also didn’t like on principle). She was the first person in the history of the family to get a divorce. And then, instead of having learned the error of her ways and marrying someone proper and moving to the suburbs, she went traveling (or “gallivanting” in the words of her sisters). When she came back, she was married to Aaron the Anarchist poet and declared herself a Buddhist. They lived on the Lower East Side, and they didn’t drive a car like everyone else in the family, they rode a motorcycle (“And it doesn’t even have a sidecar,” complained her sisters.) They listened to jazz. They marched on Washington. They had friends who (according to her sisters) looked like “Communists, atheists, or beatniks”.  But even worse than all that, Aunt Lillian was outspoken in her views and opinions, of which there were many. As my father put it, “Lillian always had ideas.” As her sisters put it, “Lillian never knows when to keep her big mouth shut.” 

Because she always had ideas and never knew when to keep them to herself, Aunt Lillian hadn’t been included in a family gathering since the Big Fight in Baldwin. By then Lillian and Aaron had two children and lived in Queens, but even if they’d had thirty children and lived in the Vatican it wouldn’t have been enough to make them fit in with the rest of the family. Family legend doesn’t recall exactly what the Big Fight in Baldwin was about, but it was more likely to be about politics or religion (Aunt Lillian’s two favorite topics; guaranteed to get a rise from her siblings) than the onion dip. There was a lot of shouting and name-calling; a deck of cards was thrown on the floor a chair fell to the floor; and a glass of ginger ale was flung across the table at Uncle Seb. Aunt Helga ran upstairs, crying. When Helga was safely locked in the bathroom, the cousins all went back to the head of the stairs and peered over the banister again, Lillian and Aaron were putting on their hats and coats even as Aunt Loretta was opening the front door. Their faces all looked frozen; not cold, just solid as stone. “Thank you for such a delightful evening with such enlightened people,” snarled Aunt Lillian. And Aunt Loretta said, “You’re very welcome. Let’s not do it again.”

But this wasn’t the first argument my aunts and uncles had had in all the years they’d known each other (or the first time Lillian threw something at her brother, Seb).  Eventually, tempers cooled and Christmas and birthday cards were exchanged, and the sisters continued to talk on the phone to one another every week. But, although it was never said in so many words, it was understood that the only thing Aunt Lillian and her brothers and sisters agreed on was that they didn’t want to be in a confined space together for the foreseeable future (“confined space” being defined as anything smaller than Texas).

And then one of the older cousins got married and everyone was invited. The wedding went off with no major scenes, and the next Thanksgiving Lillian and Aaron invited us all to their house for the feast. “It’s been so long,” said Aunt Lillian. “We’d like to hold it here. Do something special.”
Presumably everyone else assumed that by “special” she meant adding orange rind to the cranberries.

All was well for the first fifteen or so minutes. Drinks were served; bowls of nuts were passed around. We cousins were all in the TV alcove off the living room, watching the parade on TV. And then Aunt Loretta suddenly raised her head and sniffed. “I don’t smell the turkey,” said Aunt Loretta.

Aunt Lillian set a dish of popcorn on the coffee table. “That’s because there isn’t any turkey.”

The adults broke off their conversations and looked over. Heads with a vested interest in drumsticks and stuffing turned away from the sight of Mighty Mouse being buffeted by the New York wind. The uncles all laughed as if this was the funniest joke they’d heard in a long time, hohoho, but Aunt Helga said, “What do you mean there isn’t any turkey?”

Aunt Lillian smiled. “I mean that there isn’t any turkey.”

“But there has to be a turkey,” said Aunt Dorrie.

Aunt Lillian was still smiling, but it was the smile of a woman who’s about to ask you a trick question. “And why is that?”

“Because it’s Thanksgiving,” said Aunt Sophie.

My cousin Lila turned off the TV and we all shuffled closer to the living room.

“So? Who says we have to have turkey just because it’s Thanksgiving?”

“It’s a tradition,” said Aunt Loretta. “An American tradition.”

“Because a handful of Englishmen ate turkey a few hundred years ago?”

“I’m going out to the porch for a cigar,” said Uncle Aaron. He looked at his brother-in-laws. “Anyone coming?”

“Yes, because a handful of Englishmen ate turkey a few hundred years ago,” said Aunt Florence.

“And what about all the other millions of people who came here?” demanded Aunt Lillian as the men all shambled out the door. “What about the immigrants from Europe and Russia and Asia. What about the slaves? What about their traditions? Why don’t we have borscht and paella and chow mein and peanut stew to celebrate our nation? Why don’t we remember all those people and all they did for this country?”

Not in a frozen way, but coldly, Aunt Sophie said, “Lillian, maybe you’re forgetting, but the Pilgrims were here first.”

You could see Aunt Lillian get taller. “Oh no they weren't.” She sounded pretty firm on this question. “I believe if you check your history books, Sophia, you’ll find that there were people here a long time before the Pilgrims showed up to boss everybody around and take their land.”

“I should have known!” croaked Aunt Loretta. Her glass hit the coffee table like the crack of a rifle. “You can’t miss an opportunity to make one of your points, can you? You have to turn everything into one of your crusades.”

Aunt Lillian ignored her. “For instance, the Wampanoags. Why don’t we remember them? If it hadn’t been for the Wampanoags your precious Pilgrims would have perished in the first snows.”

“But they didn’t perish, did they?” piped up Aunt Florence. “They survived and built this great country.”

“On the blood and tears of everybody else!” roared Aunt Lillian.

My own mother, who had been unnaturally quiet through all of this, suddenly spoke up. “So,” said my mother almost sweetly. “If we’re not having turkey, what are we having?”

“Venison. I believe that’s what the Wampanoags brought to the feast.”

“Venison?” Aunt Dorrie was frowning; this wasn’t a word that got a lot of usage in our circle. “You mean deer?”

My sister burst into tears. “Oh, no,” she sobbed. “We’re eating Bambi!”
 
Personally, I’m convinced that if my sister hadn’t got all upset about tucking into Bambi, the meal would have been a success. Or less of a failure.  After all, we ate Tom Turkey and Porky Pig and Karen Chicken and Bessy the Cow all the time, and nobody ever made a fuss. But none of the children would touch the venison, and Aunt Loretta obviously saw this as a cause to champion, so she wouldn’t touch it either. The other aunts went along with her. The men ate small portions, sheepishly.

“Well,” said my mother as we drove home later that night. “That’s certainly a meal I’ll remember for a long time.”

“What I don’t get,” said my father, “is why she just didn’t make fish. Surely the Wampanoags fished.”

“Maybe you can suggest that for next year,” said my mother.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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pushpin2A TRUE TALE FOR HALLOWEEN

All hallows night,
When witches roam,
And restless ghosts
Search for a home.

Tis wise to stay safe in your bed,
The covers drawn above your head.
For you never know just what they’ll do –
And how it may come out for you...

My mother got the ouija board in a yard sale. Twenty-five cents, never used and still in the box. If there was one trait that my mother, my sister and I all shared it was the never-pass-up-a-bargain trait. We’d buy anything so long as it was on sale – biplanes, baby elephants, pre-Colombian fertility gods, doughnut-hole cutters. Even ouija boards. “Those things are just a lot of hokum, just as useful for connecting you to the spirit world as a piece of old rope,” said my father when he saw the board. “That’s twenty-five cents thrown away.” It was not a trait he shared.

Grandma Madge (my mother’s mother) read tealeaves and had a crystal ball and, in general, was a woman of many legends, myths and superstitions. She agreed with Hamlet that there was more in Heaven and Earth than met the eye. My father’s family didn’t go in for that kind of thing. If you couldn’t see it, then that was probably because it wasn’t there.

“That’s not the future,” my father would say, staring into the cup in which Grandma Madge had just seen a tall, dark stranger and a long journey amid palm trees and happy singing. “That’s just used tea.”

But although my sister and I were, of course, fascinated by fortune telling and communication between realities and longed to have a paranormal experience, my father’s cynicism had its effect on us. Rather than risk his ridicule and have him walking around for days saying, “Didn’t I tell you?” and “What did I say?” because all his negative energy sent every spirit on Long Island flying off to Connecticut to see what was happening there, my sister and I decided to wait for Halloween to try out the board. Halloween, the night of shape shifters and unquiet souls; the night when witches ride the wind and ghosts pass among the living like dreams. On this night you can talk through time and speak with the dead as easily as you pick up a phone and call your best friend. All you need is a deck of tarot cards, a bag of runes or – if the spirits have finally provided one for you – a ouija board. We were ready.

We decided to have a sleepover, and we chose our guests carefully. I invited my friend Kammy, who had once seen a ghost sitting on her front porch when she got home from school. (Kammy thought it was someone interested in renting the upstairs apartment. She did wonder why the woman was dressed for a funeral in the 19th century, but there was a lot of amateur theater in our town so she put it down to that. She asked the woman what she was waiting for. The woman said, “Ebenezer,” and promptly disappeared.) My sister invited Luane Clearwater, who claimed to be related to Pocahontas, on the grounds that the natives of the Americas traditionally had a good working relationship with the spirit world.

The only place we could have our “séance” was in the kitchen, because that was the only place with a table we could all sit around. Major white appliances and cabinets filled with canned vegetables and boxes of cereal aren’t really what you think of when you think of calling other realms, but my sister and I did our best. We lighted the room with candles and covered the window with her signs of the Zodiac bedspread so we couldn’t see the swing set out the back.

My father poked his head in as we were setting up. “If you happen to run into him,” said my father. “You wanna ask Oswald if there really was another gunman?”

None of us had ever tried a ouija board before. But we figured we knew what to do. Put your fingertips on the planchette; ask a question; shut up and concentrate; wait for an answer.

Kammy thought we should start with a simple test question.

We closed our eyes. “Is it Halloween?” we asked.

Nothing happened for a minute or two, and then the planchette started very slowly to move.

We all opened our eyes.

‘Luane, stop pushing!” ordered my sister.

“I’m not,” said Luane.

“Yes you are,” said my sister.

She was.

We started over.

We spent at least forty-five minutes on the simple test question, but always one of us, perhaps subconsciously impatient to get on to something more interesting, would start shoving the planchette towards YES.

“Why don’t we just skip the easy question and try one that has to be spelled out,” I suggested.

“And one none of us knows the answer to,” amended Kammy.

We asked the ouija to name the ghosts in our neighborhood.

But, again, the only time the planchette moved was when one of us made it move. L. A. Z. C.

“It looks like the name of a drug company,” said Luane.

Q. B. S. X.

“Maybe it doesn’t speak English,” said Kammy.

My mother came in and made some tea. “No luck yet?” said my mother.

My father came in and made himself a sandwich. “Maybe all the spirits are busy tonight,” said my father. “Getting candy.” Then he laughed like that was the best joke he’d ever made.

My sister decided that the problem was the doorbell. It kept ringing because of the trick-or-treaters. My sister said, “How can we call up an ancient spirit with all these little kids constantly interrupting?”

We took a break for snacks and replaced several of the candles that had burned out.  We waited till the trick or treating was over and my parents went to bed. And then we tried again.

When Luane fell asleep sitting up, we agreed that it was probably time to give up and go to bed.

“Dad was right,” grumbled my sister. “It’s all a load of hokum.”

“Maybe we should lie,” I said. “So he doesn’t gloat.”

When I woke up it was still dark and the others were sound asleep. But I was wide awake. I don’t know if I really thought the ouija would answer us, but I was disappointed that it hadn’t. And I really didn’t want my father to be right. I decided to try by myself.

I opened the kitchen door. There was a woman sitting at the table, staring down at the planchette. She was dressed all in black. Even her bonnet was black. The planchette was skittering over the board like a mouse being chased by a cat.

I spoke without thinking. I said, “What are you doing?”

She looked up. “I’m waiting for Ebenezer,” she said.

And then she disappeared.

 

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!!

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pushpin2MY FAMILY TAKES A VACATION - PART TWO

There was a flying water bug in the showers. More specifically, the flying water bug was in the shower occupied by my sister. Her screams, which could not only curdle blood but had undoubtedly curdled every container of milk within a ten-mile radius of the campsite, brought two rangers, a vacationing policeman, and a very large man with a knife thundering into the ladies’ washroom, thinking (not unreasonably) that someone was being murdered. Because of the delay the ensuing chaos, hysteria and pandemonium caused, we were late setting off for our evening meal.

By the time it was becoming obvious that we were not going to arrive at our destination within the next twenty minutes, dark had fallen over what was left of the ancient woodland. Night birds called, crickets chirped, and bats swooped over the fields like phantoms. Like nicks in the forest, the lights of distant cabins shone – assuring us that, contrary to how things seemed, we weren't the last people left alive on the planet. Inside the car, where polite conversation had long since ceased, my mother peered through the windshield like a cavalry scout looking for Sioux war parties, the dog snored, my sister rhythmically kicked the seat in front of her, my father rhythmically told her to cut it out, and I wondered, as I sometimes did, if there was any chance that my Aunt Georgia, who taught Art and lived in Greenwich Village, would be willing to adopt me.

Suddenly my mother straightened up. “What’s that? What’s that?” shrieked my mother, jabbing the air in front of my father and narrowly missing his nose. “Look! Up there! It’s a gas station!”

My father didn’t glance over at her, or slow down. “We don’t need gas.”

“Pull in there,” ordered my mother. “Pull in there and ask for directions.”

“We don’t need directions,” said my father. “We aren’t lost.”

Among the many things my father was known for (the honeymoon salad joke, his gag of pretending someone was choking him from behind the door, the horse shadow puppet he could make with his hands) was a pathological refusal to ever ask for directions. Even if we’d been driving for several hours, had been over the Brooklyn Bridge five times, a hurricane had started up and one of his children was crying and the other was throwing up out the window, my father would not ask the way. It was his version of the Code of the Samurai.

On this occasion, after the unprecedented success of our canoe ride (no major arguments, no tears and less than twenty mentions of Disney World) and my mother’s miraculous cure (she couldn’t have gotten back to the rental dock faster if she’d had an outboard), we were on our way to the slap-up “real” meal (nothing from a can) at the “real” restaurant (no burgers, no pizza) recommended by the owner of Charley’s Bait and Tackle. We’d been on our way there for over an hour, but, despite the fact that it was only “a few miles straight up the road after the boulder that looks a lot like a raccoon”, we hadn’t found it yet. 

“Do you know where we are?” demanded my mother. “Because if you don’t know where we are, then we’re lost.”

Recognizing from her tone of voice that if my mother had been the commander of combat troops she wouldn’t be taking any prisoners, my father eased his foot off the gas. But not happily. “This is ridiculous,” he grumbled. “I bet you it’s just around that bend up there.”

“Five bucks,” said my mother.

Because of the time in Philadelphia when my father went into the news store and pretended to ask for directions when all he did was buy two packs of gum and a Hershey bar, my mother insisted on going with him. Seeing this as an opportunity to at least get a soda, I insisted on going in, too. The dog needed the rest room, so he came along. And my sister, still traumatized by her water bug experience, wasn’t going to sit alone in the car even for a few minutes, so we all trooped into the station with my father.

While my mother stood beside him with her arms folded in front of her and a scowl on her face, my father put four cans of soda on the counter and said conversationally to the man at the till, “You wouldn’t know where the restaurant is around here?”

The man behind the counter rang up the sodas. “Which one?”

“Well, that’s the thing…” My father chuckled. “I can’t remember the name. But I think it looks like a log cabin.”

The man chuckled. “Everything up here looks like a log cabin.”

My mother sighed.

“Guy at the lake said it’s on the same road as the boulder that looks like a raccoon.”

“Raccoon?” The man frowned. “You sure he didn’t say coyote?”

“Raccoon,” repeated my father. “I’m sure he said raccoon.”

The man was shaking his head. “Raccoon, huh?”

Aware that, beside him, my mother was starting to paw the ground, my father searched his mind for some other relevant information. “Oh, I know!” He snapped his fingers. “He said there’s a stuffed bear outside the entrance.”

“Oh, stuffed bear! Why didn’t you say?” The man handed my father his change. “That’ll be Links. Best darn steak house in the state. Big as a platter. Melts in your mouth like butter on a griddle. Then there’s the onion rings and the scalloped potatoes… I’m telling you, you haven’t tasted onion rings or scalloped potatoes till you’ve had the ones at Links. And if you don’t like steak, there’s the chops - chops to die for – or the chicken….” He shook his head. “Well, the chicken’s just out of this world.”

“Considering how long it’s taking us to find this place, it probably is,” muttered my mother.

The man beamed on my sister and me. “And wait’ll you see the desserts… People come from miles just for the homemade ice cream and blueberry pie.”

“Well, I can believe that,” said my mother.

“It isn’t far, is it?” My father’s voice was bright with hope. He pointed out the window. “I bet my wife it’s just around that bend.”

“Well kind of…”

 You went around the bend, then turned right on Luke Skyler Road. About three miles later, when you came to all the mailboxes, you did another right onto Sagwa. When Sagwa forked you stayed on the left. About half a mile past the second white house on the right you made a right. You’d cross a stream and pass a church. The third left after the church was Shortcut. The restaurant was four miles down on the right.

My father’s head bobbed up and down, either with understanding or with the effort of trying to shake the directions into it.
 
“Thanks!” said my father. He turned to go, and we turned with him. “Right… right… left… right… left… right…” he mumbled as we all shuffled towards the door.

“I’m getting blue berry pie,” said my sister.

“You owe me five bucks,” said my mother. 

“The chicken sounds good,” said I. “And those potatoes…”

“Steak. I’m having the biggest steak they have.” The car keys jingled in my father’s hand as he held the door open for us to file through.

“Course, it’s closed on Mondays,” called the man at the counter.

Desperate as a man who knows the crowd around is looking for a rope and about to get ugly, my father turned around. “Well what about one of the other restaurants?” He was close to begging. “One of them must be open.”

“Nah…” The man shook his head. Sadly. “There aren’t any other restaurants round here.”

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pushpin2MY FAMILY TAKES A VACATION - PART ONE

My mother (claiming that she couldn’t take a turn with the paddle because she once strained her back rowing at summer camp when she was twelve) sat at the back of the canoe, the dog on her lap, her delicate skin protected by a large straw bonnet tied with a strip of bright pink organza. “By the shores of Gitche Gumee….” she intoned. “By the shining Big-Sea-Water…”

Normally, on family trips, my mother sang. She usually tried to match the song to the locale. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or the song about the church in the wild wood should we pass a party of knights or a religious building. “Old MacDonald” if we passed a farm. “We’ll Meet Again” when a cemetery hove into view. Today, however, as our canoes huffed and puffed their ways over the serene and woods-encircled lake, she was reciting Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” (the two verses that she remembered from school). Fortunately, my mother didn’t know any songs about Native Americans, and even if I could have paddled and sung at the same time there was no way I was going to fill in that gap in her knowledge by sharing the song about Running Bear and Lovely Little White Dove with her. “Hiawatha” was bad enough.

“What’d I tell you?” shouted my father. “Didn’t I say this was going to be a vacation we you never forgot?” He and my sister were in the lead canoe. He was doing the paddling and she (having already dropped an oar into the water once) was sitting behind him, slapping the surface of the lake with her hand in a way that suggested she might be wondering how much force it would take to capsize the boat. “Look at that view. Isn’t it spectacular?” Water splashed over my father and his passenger as his blade pointed at the view. The jade-green, glasslike lake below us. The enormous, silent sky above us. The huddle of old-growth forest that encircled us. “This is what this country used to look like before we invented strip malls,” my father informed us.  “Wild. Raw. Throbbing with life. Just as Nature made it.” He pulled up his oars, letting the bright red canoe (number 18) drift while he took in the untamed beauty all around us in our rented canoes with our life jackets on. “It’s like going back in time.”

“I’d rather go to Disney World,” grumbled my sister. My sister hadn’t been in favor of this vacation to begin with (well, no one was except my father), but since discovering that campsites didn’t have private bathrooms or TV, I’d rather go to Disney World had become my sister’s theme tune. “They have Frontier Land, you know.”

“Be that as it may,” my father placidly replied. “But it’s all pretend, honey. This is much better. This is the real thing.”

“I bet the real tribe that used to live here would be a little surprised to find all those white people swimming in their lake.” I was in one of my rebellious phases, which three twenty-four-hour days (and counting) with my family was doing nothing to diminish. “Not to mention the speedboats and the café and the bar on the other end.”

My father looked back at me. “Cynicism is not attractive in one so young.”

“Stop giving your dad a hard time,” ordered my mother. Which, if you asked me, was pretty rich since she’d done nothing but give my father a hard time since we left home – starting from when she threw the map out the car window. She not only refused to paddle, she also refused to help set up the tent, to blow up her air mattress or to cook on the ground, and usually stayed at camp, reading a book, while my father took my sister and me on walks to disprove her predictions that we would break out in poison ivy or contract lyme disease. But being ferried over what amounted to one gigantic scenic overlook obviously agreed with her. This was a part of getting out in Nature she could go with. “This place is inspiring. Truly inspiring.” She peered over the tops of her sunglasses to be even more truly inspired. “God’s country. That’s what they called it. God’s country.”

“No it wasn’t. They called it Algonquin country.” I told you I was in one of my rebellious stages.

My mother, however, wasn’t about to be baited. One of the reasons she was in a good mood was because tonight my father had agreed that we could eat in a restaurant instead of having yet another meal of canned beans and canned spaghetti (which, with canned soup, canned ravioli and boiled water, were just about all you could expect to make on our stove). Even Wilderness Dad had his limits of just how far back in time he was willing to go. “It’s so quiet and peaceful,” she went on. “It really makes you think.”

“All it makes me think is that I’d rather be at Disney World,” said my sister.

“It’d be cool if we could see an eagle or an elk or something like that.” I sighed. “But I suppose we exterminated all of them, too.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said my father. “The Ranger told me there’s plenty of wildlife left in these woods. Deer… raccoon… coyote… even bear.”

“Not down here with all these tourists around.” Rebels aren’t easily persuaded. “Somebody’d shoot them.”

“Let’s pull in over there and have our lunch,” said my father.

We pulled in “over there” and dragged the canoes up on the shore (my sister grumbling about not having to do this at Disney World and my mother and the dog, both exempt from this labor - she because of her old camp injury and he because of his paws – looking on.)

Interestingly, although a woman who considered crossing the supermarket parking lot a hike, it was my mother who suggested we go further inland to find a “sylvan glade” where we could have our picnic. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou…” Still obviously inspired, my mother was on a poetic roll that day, even if she’d changed continents. She beamed at my father. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

My father (though more a piece of cake and can of beer kind of guy) said, “We’re not going too far in. We have to keep an eye on the boats.”

 Without going too far in, we actually found the perfect spot, secluded but unspoiled by the litter that dotted the shores of the lake. It was a small clearing in a natural circle of trees. There were logs to sit on and a leafy roof over us through which the sun streamed down in halo-like light. Around us branches creaked and birds sang and tiny forest creatures rustled in the undergrowth – just as they had for thousands of years. As we ate our bologna sandwiches and sipped our iced tea, I think I can say that each of us was touched and moved by the timeless grandeur of our surroundings.

“It’s so serene,” murmured my mother. “Like heaven on Earth.”

Even my sister went through the whole meal without any mention of Disney World.

And then, folding up his sandwich bag and gazing over my mother’s head, my father said, “I don’t want anyone to panic. The best thing is to stay calm. But if I’m not mistaken, there’s a black bear watching us from right behind your mom.”

My sister and I both screamed, “Where? Where?” and launched ourselves at my father. My mother scooped up the dog and ran.

 My sister opened her eyes first. “I don’t see any bear,” said my sister.

I opened my eyes. Still holding tightly to my father’s arm I peered through the trees behind the spot where my mother so recently had been. “I don’t either.”

“Don’t you?” My father shook his head, gathering up the fallen picnic fare. “I guess maybe I was mistaken after all.”

By the time we got back to the boats, my mother was yards out on the water in the blue canoe, paddling with a speed and grace that would have made Hiawatha proud.

“You see?” My father winked. “I knew that shoulder must have healed by now.”

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pushpin2THE TIME I WAS STAYING AT MY AUNT'S AND WE WENT SHOPPING - PART TWO

Picking up where I left off, after a drive to the mall that was more like navigating a raging river in a bucket, my Aunt Grace finally got close enough to our destination to land the car in Parking Lot F.

My cousin Penny was less overjoyed to have stopped moving than I was. “I don’t know why you couldn’t park closer,” she complained.

“I couldn’t get any closer,” snapped my aunt. “None of the roads around the mall actually go to it. They all go somewhere else.”

Somewhere far away.

“This is great,” I assured Aunt Grace. By then, I wouldn’t have cared if we’d parked in Alaska. “Look! You can see the mall really clearly from here!” There in the distance, shimmering in the haze of pollution that comes with being located in the middle of an Expressway, was the temple of shopping itself.

Penny climbed out, and kicked the side of the car. “I don’t believe this!” she wailed. “Now we have to walk miles and it’s hot and everything.” She kicked the car again.

“Don’t do that!” ordered her mother. “Do you know how much this car cost? I’ve a good mind to turn right around and go home.”

I reckoned this was an idle threat. After the trouble we’d had getting here, it was unlikely Aunt Grace was going to want to attempt the return journey just yet. But just in case she was serious, I tried to lighten the mood a little. “Come on, Penny,” I coaxed. “It’s not really miles away. And it’s not as hot as it would have been a couple of hours ago.” When we should have arrived.

Penny wasn’t listening to me. “I’ll do what I want!” she roared at her mother, giving the car another swift kick. “And you can’t stop me!”

“Oh no?” shrieked Aunt Grace, swinging her handbag in Penny’s direction. “We’ll just see about that!”

Just then (and this definitely was divine intervention) a pink vehicle with the words Mall Bus over its windshield appeared at the end of our aisle.  “Oh look,! I screamed. “We don’t have to walk!”

As soon as we stepped into the air-conditioned paradise of the mall Aunt Grace and Penny cheered up so much you wouldn’t have thought they were on the verge of coming to blows not ten minutes before.

“Let’s go look at shoes,” said Penny, heading off in one direction.

“Let’s go get a cold drink first,” said Aunt Grace, heading off in another.

This may sound really twentieth-century, but I’d never been to a super mall before. A super mall is to the regular old mall I was used to what a cruise ship is to a rowboat. There were fountains. There was music. There were people dressed as gorillas, rabbits and bears (albeit in colours that nature never thought of for them), handing out cards, coupons and free samples of sugar disguised as food. And there were people. There were so many people I wondered for a second if we’d really taken a wrong turn and wandered into a disaster movie.

“Isn’t this fun?” laughed Penny.

It wasn’t fun. Penny had the maniacal look of deranged hunter – someone, for example, who’s spent decades hunting the white whale and is about to close in on it. I should have gone with my aunt, but it was too late. She’d already disappeared into a forest of shoppers.

“Come on!” Penny grabbed my arm. “Let’s shop.”

I lost count after the fifth shoe store and the sixth clothes store. I couldn’t tell them apart. It was possible we kept going in and out of the same ones. Which at least would explain why Penny was so hard to please. Nothing was right.

“I need to find something that’s me,” she kept saying. “Something that tells the world who I am.” Sixteen pairs of shoes would be tried on, and sixteen rejected because they weren't her. The seventeenth would be rejected because nobody was wearing that style any more.

What seemed like several years later – tired, bedraggled, and staggering under the weight of the several skirts, tops, jeans and sandals that (though made on the other side of the world by people who had never met her) were my cousin Penny, we set off in search of Aunt Grace. She was sitting at one of the indoors-but-outdoors cafes, sipping iced tea. She was surrounded by shopping bags. She, like my cousin, seemed pretty happy.

“Wait till you girls see what I got!” she cried.

I reminded her that she said she wasn’t going to buy anything. “You said you were just going to look.”

Aunt Grace laughed. “But I didn’t buy anything,” she assured me. “It was all on sale.”

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pushpin2THE TIME I WAS STAYING AT MY AUNT'S AND WE WENT SHOPPING - PART ONE

I can’t remember why I was spending a few weeks at my Aunt Grace’s that summer was our house was being rebuilt? Had the bathroom collapsed into the basement? Were my parents tired of the bickering between my sister and me?), but I was.

On the second morning I woke up to find my cousin Penny lying across the foot of my bed.

I said, “Penny?”

There was no sound from the prone figure with her face in my mattress.

“Penny?” I sat up and gently shook her shoulder. “Penny, are you okay?”

“Umbiffled,” mumbled Penny.

I said, “What?”

She raised her head. Her eyes were dull and dark. The corners of her mouth hung down in a way that defined the word misery. “I’m depressed,” announced Penny. Her voice was hoarse and choked.

“What’s the matter?” I was full of cousinly concern. “Do you want to talk about it? Is there something I can do?”

Penny rolled over on her back. “I want to go shopping.”

“Now?” It was a beautiful, sunny day. “I thought we were going for a walk today.” I’d been looking forward to it. It was still pretty rural where my aunt lived; I was hoping to see otters. Or at least a few deer.

“Shopping’s the only thing that will cheer me up,” said Penny.

I guess that, in a world where the answer to the question What can I get the billionaire who has everything? isn’t Several thousand homeless children, it isn’t surprising that Penny (a girl who, as my father would have said, had enough clothes to open her own shop) would consider buying another T-shirt with some designer’s name on it an antidote to sadness and despair.

We went to the new, super mall. Aunt Grace drove and Penny navigated. Aunt Grace couldn’t drive and work out where she was going at the same time because she had to concentrate so intensely. This was because it was Uncle Luke who taught her to drive, which had made her nervous and insecure. Loud noises made her jump. Honking horns made her flinch. The sound of a male voice shouting brought her instantly to tears.

We passed the mall four times without ever finding a road that actually lead to it.

“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” muttered Aunt Grace. “Penny, isn’t the entrance around here somewhere?”

Penny, who’d been leaning out of the window, checking her make-up in the side-view mirror, turned to her mother. “How should I know? I’m not the driver.”

“But you are the navigator,” snapped Aunt Grace. “And you come here a lot more than I do.”

A horn sounded behind us. Someone had obviously become impatient with Aunt Grace’s tendency to head towards a possible exit then suddenly veer back.

“Oh, shut up you imbecile!” shouted my aunt. “What do you want me to do? Fly?”

Penny leaned out of the car and gave him the finger.

Slumped in the back seat, I began to recall car rage incidents I’d heard about. I was starting to feel pretty depressed myself.

Aunt Grace finally chose an exit, because if she hadn’t it was obvious that eventually we’d be run off the road by a car driven by someone with a minimal amount of patience.

“Look!” I screamed. “There’s a sign for the mall!

Frowning with extremely intense concentration now, Aunt Grace sailed past the turn-off for the mall. The next thing any of us knew, we were headed towards Albany.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Aunt Grace shouted at Penny “Why didn’t you tell me to take that turn-off?”

“Me?” Penny shouted back. “How did this get to be my fault?”

We were picking up speed. “You were supposed to tell me when to  get off!”

“Aunt Grace?” I said “Isn’t there a speed limit on this road?”

We overtook a truck with the legend Hell on Wheels painted on the door. I clutched my seatbelt. God Bless Ralph Nader, I thought.

Penny folded her arms across her chest and turned her face to the side of the road. “You always blame me for everything. Everything is always my fault.”

I tried to find something positive and cheering to say. I said, “They must have a mall in Albany.”

At exactly the same second, Aunt Grace and Penny both burst into tears.

Eventually, through either dumb luck or divine intervention rather than skill or intent, we somehow landed in Parking Lot F. From where you could see the top of the mall in the distance.

To be continued…

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pushpin2WHEN MY SISTER RAN FOR PRESIDENT

Here in the UK, we are about to have an election. Leaflets keep coming through the letter box. Some of the party leaders have been having television debates. Sound bites and slogans fill the air. Every time you turn on the news there’s some politician visiting a factory or eating a sausage roll. They visit schools that are nothing like the schools they attended and they spend a lot of time telling you how much worse things will be if someone else is elected.

It’s because of our election that I suddenly remembered my sister’s campaign. Not that she was running for President of the nation. She was running for President of her high school. In the statement each candidate had to write before the campaign started, my sister said that she was running because she felt it was time to give something back to the school that had given her so much. She had a duty to serve her fellow students. “Ask not what your school can do for you,” wrote my sister. “Ask what you can do for your school.”

Our parents were thrilled. At least one of their children had a sense of civic responsibility. Leadership potential. The selfless desire that, obviously, all politicians have, to make the world a better place.

I was more sceptical. “A duty to serve your fellow students? You don’t know most of them, and you don’t like a lot of them. What’s really going on?”

“Promise you won’t tell anyone,” said my sister. “Especially Mom and Dad. I don’t want to disillusion them.”

The primary desire that motivated my sister’s decision to run for public office was the desire to beat Nancee Ottlie. Nancee Ottlie and my sister had a lot in common. They were both pretty, both clever and both popular. And they’d been rivals since Kindergarten, when Nancee got the role of Mary in the Christmas play and my sister got the role of cow. It went on from there, year after year. Small things, big things, things no one else would notice. They always went after the same things – but only one of them ever got it. It was bad enough when it was an award or a competition or auditioning for the cheerleaders or the school orchestra, but then my sister got a crush on Charley Priest – and the next thing she knew he was dating Nancee Ottlie.

“I can’t let her have the presidency, too,” said my sister.

It was risky, but I asked the question that was in my mind. “What if she wins?”

“Oh, she’s not going to win,” said my sister. “Not this time.”

As far as I knew, my sister had never read Machiavelli’s The Prince or the memoirs of any great statesmen or businessmen – pragmatic (some might say ruthless) men who knew how to build empires and keep them. But she seemed to have an almost uncanny natural talent for the political process.  She knew that if you were asked a question you didn’t like you answered some other question. In debates, you kept repeating the things you knew people wanted to hear. You made fun of your opponent at every opportunity. You spread rumours and half truths. You lied with a straight face and a sincere smile. She spoke like a candidate who deserved to win.

“I’m impressed,” I said, as Election Day approached and the informal polls suggested that my sister was in the lead. “Where did you learn to be a politician?”

My sister winked. “I watch TV.”

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pushpin2NOT ABOUT ME THIS MONTH

This month I’m writing about Terry Pratchett, who “took Death’s arm” (as he would have had it) this past March. I never knew Mr Pratchett, and I never met him or attended a signing or reading of his, although I did once think we passed each other going into and coming out of my local bookshop. It might have been he; it might have been some other bloke in a black hat. (But I’m choosing to believe that it was Terry.)

However, the fact that we weren't acquainted doesn’t mean I don’t feel his absence. The planet is emptier and sadder without him, and has a lot less to laugh about. Not only that, but it has lost one of its greatest assets. With all the awful things that people do to one another and to the Earth, I’ve always thought that if we had to defend ourselves, to come up with a few reasons why we don’t deserve to be ploughed under by the Vogons, for instance, then Terry Pratchett would be one of those reasons. “Look at him,” we’d say. “How bad can we be when we produced someone like him?”

For Terry Pratchett was not only a brilliant writer and peerless satirist, whose books entertained and inspired millions, he was also a great humanist and mensch. You didn’t have to know him personally to know that.

Terry Pratchett

[Sir] Terence David John Pratchett

1948-2015

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pushpin2MY FATHER'S MIDLIFE CONTINUES - PART ONE

My father’s midlife crisis started one Christmas. He had a Moment of Truth while being frog-marched through the mall by my mother to buy presents for (as he put it) ‘nieces and nephews I don’t know as well as I know the dog’. This moment was later described by my mother as “That time your father saw the Virgin Mary picketing the five and ten”, but whatever you called it, it lead him to think deeply about the meaning of that holy day. The result of all this thinking was that things like singing chipmunks, dancing snowmen and serial spending were banished from our celebrations. But those of us who hoped that a few homemade presents and a modest Christmas dinner would mark the end of my father’s Crusade against Constant Consumption were sadly mistaken. Not satisfied with taking Santa Claus and a supporting cast of cartoon characters out of Christmas (and putting Christ back in), in the New Year he declared a Ban on Clothes Shopping until Easter. Nowadays a lot of people are reforming their shopping habits - buying things secondhand; joining groups that exchange unwanted goods; scrounging through garbage cans for still-edible food; going for months without spending any money except on the barest necessities - but back then the idea of not ceaselessly buying new things whether you needed them or not was virtually unheard of, and when it was heard of it was considered insane if not incontestable proof of a Communist Conspiracy. 

Needless to say, my mother, my sister and I didn’t see my father for what he was - the Advance Scout for the Anti-consumerism Army that was to come - but as a reactionary killjoy; a man who only got new clothes when we gave him socks for his birthday or someone accidentally burned one of his three dress shirts and who, therefore, had no understanding of how the real world worked.

Not that we were overly worried. Not at first. My father might be the Head of the Household, but in many ways this was an honorary title that had very little to do with how the house and family was really run. He had his rules – If you take one of my tools, put it back where you found it; Don’t ever use my razor to shave your legs; Don’t borrow anything of mine without asking; No eating in bed unless you’re paralyzed from the waist down; Don’t buy anything from catalogues, newspapers, or magazines - and we would listen patiently as he set them down, nodding seriously as though we had every intention of obeying. But we didn’t. We knew how to work around them. Don’t tell your father… Dad’ll never notice… and He doesn’t need to know… were our watchwords. We sent away for everything the catalogues, newspapers and magazines had to offer, we mislaid his tools, we used his razor, we borrowed the few things he had that a wife or teenage daughter might feel an overwhelming need for (and on one unfortunate occasion put the image of a hot iron on the back of his favorite shirt) and covered our sheets with ketchup stains and crumbs - safe in the knowledge that he was too tired by the time he got home from work to count his screwdrivers, spot the new cat and dog egg cups, or wonder at how quickly his razor blades went dull. “There’s nothing to worry about,” we assured each other after the Mall Moratorium announcement. “He can’t tell a tank top from a T-shirt. How’s he going to know if we buy something new?”

But on the day after my father’s chilling declaration he answered that question himself.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” My mother stood in the doorway with her arms folded in front of her protectively, eyeing my father with the same suspicion she had shown the summer before when she went out to get the mail and found Mr Capriniano next door (wearing a shower cap decorated with ducks and a plastic raincoat) painting his house Pepto Bismol pink.

Confronted by my mother, Mr Capriniano had explained that he was camouflaging his split level so the aliens wouldn’t find it when they landed on the local beach at the full moon.

Confronted by my mother, my father, a pencil stuck behind one ear and a clipboard in his hand, stopped in the act of opening their closet door and said simply, “I’m making an inventory.”

“An inventory,” repeated my mother. “An inventory of what?”

“An inventory of every item of feminine apparel in this house,” replied my father. He waved the clipboard at her, revealing that many of the pages it held were covered with the details of the contents of my and my sister’s dressers and closets. He’d been saving the best for last. “And that includes shoes, slippers, socks, tights, scarves, hats and belts.”

“I knew it!” cried my mother. “You’re just like Mr Capriniano! You’ve completely lost your mind.”

“I’m nothing like Mr Capriniano.” My father wrote the word “dresses” on a clean sheet of paper and underlined it. “I’m not doing this because I invested my life savings in a company that manufactures electric rocking chairs and I’m having a nervous breakdown. I’m doing it because I know how you three operate.”

My mother, my sister and I all exchanged a look. It was a look the late President Richard Nixon would have recognized instantly. Shifty. Wary. Ready to lie. Exactly how much did he know?

“And you’re going to do what?” My mother smiled in a way President Nixon would also have recognized: the bluff. “Count every article of clothing we own every night before you go to bed?” She laughed her I-don’t-think-so laugh.

“Once a week should suffice,” said my father.

“You can’t be serious!” If my sister was accomplished at something besides optimism, it was indignation. “We’re not criminals.”

“That’s right!” I chimed in. “The way you’re treating us, we might as well live in a totalitarian regime where all the phones are bugged and the secret police is always breaking down the door to search the house!”

“And that’s another thing,” said my father. “Don’t think you’re going to buy things without me finding out. I know all about your hiding places.”

Now the look the female members of the family exchanged said: attic… toy chest… bottom of the hamper…

“Well, girls…” My mother was smiling again, but now more like Crazy Horse getting ready to meet Custer and his men at Little Big Horn. “I guess you’re father’s got us over an empty barrel. It looks like we now live in a no-shopping zone till Easter.”

“I told you I was serious about this,” said my father.

My mother, my sister and I all nodded. “We know… We know…”

The war had now officially begun.

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pushpin2KELLY’S KEYS (OR WHY I SELDOM CARRY A HANDBAG)

Kelly and I had gone out for pizza, and then went back to her flat to watch a film.

We got to the front door of Kelly’s building. Kelly opened her bag.  Kelly was seriously addicted to designer handbags and this one was large enough to double as a suitcase. She reached in for her keys.

After a few seconds, she said, “Would you mind holding a couple of things for me? I can’t find my keys.”

I held out my hands. Kelly placed two small packets of tissues, half a packet of biscuits, a comb, a brush, a torch and a bus map into them.

“That’s better.” Kelly went back for a second dip. She smiled. “I think I feel them.” She was wrong. She felt two small jars of jam, a pair of scissors, a miniature spanner and a spring coil (she had no idea). “Hold these,” ordered Kelly as they reached the light.

“Are you sure the keys aren’t in your pocket?” I asked.

“Of course not.” She sounded certain. And annoyed. “But since you’re looking at me like that, I’ll check.” She checked. ‘You see? I told you. I always put the keys in my bag. Usually in the change compartment.”

I had to ask. “And they’re not there?”

Kelly shook her head. “I have a packet of needles, two spools of thread and some beads in there tonight, I couldn’t fit the keys in, too.”

I was about to ask for more detail on the needles, thread and beads and why she’d brought them with her to the pizzeria but at that moment she took a light bulb socket, several envelopes of artificial sweetener and a fork from her bag.

“Let me have a look,” I suggested. “Maybe it just needs a fresh eye.”

Kelly handed me her bag. “Knock yourself out.”

I put the mound of things I was holding on the ground and peered into the depths of Kelly’s bag. You wouldn’t have thought she’d already taken so much out. I took a deep breath and stuck in my hand. Bravely. Or foolishly, depending how you look at these things. Out came a small container of orange juice and several batteries.

Kelly shrieked with excitement. “You’re brilliant! I knew those batteries were in there somewhere!”

Next out was a plastic cup, a jar of instant coffee, the bottom half of a bikini, a scarf, two wallets and a bar of chocolate.

Kelly snatched the bottoms away from me. “My God! I’ve been looking for those since last summer!”

“Ouch!” I screamed as something bit my finger. “What the hell is that?”

Kelly laughed. “It’s a mousetrap. What’d you think it was?”

I looked down into the dangerous depths. “Is there a mouse in there, too?”

She laughed again. “Of course not. What a ridiculous idea.”

I removed a tiny stuffed squirrel, a make-up bag, another make-up bag, a shower cap and a paperback book.

Kelly leaned against the wall. “You must be able to see them now.”

I gave the bag a shake full of hope and desperation and looked in. “You’re right!” The joy of relief made me shout. “I see them! I see them!” I pulled out a set of fifteen keys.

“Those aren’t my keys,” said Kelly.

“They’re not?” Maybe this wasn’t even her bag. “Whose are they?”

She shrugged. “You got me. I’ve had them for years.”

“That does it,” I decided. “I’m dumping everything out.” I dumped. Gloves, two old mobile phones, several postcards, four memory sticks, a packet of Happy Birthday serviettes, quite a few empty wrappers, a hat, two chargers and a picture frame spilled over the ground.

“I don’t believe it,” said Kelly. “I was sure they were in there.”

“No you weren't,” I corrected. “You were sure they weren't in the change compartment.”

A look Sherlock Holmes would have recognized came over Kelly’s face. She took the bag from my hands and unzipped the change compartment. “Well what do you know?” She smiled, holding up the keys. “They were in there all the time!”

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pushpin2 A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PLANET EARTH

Things started slowly. First there was nothing, just another piece of cosmic landscape with the usual quantum carryings on; and then there wasn’t. Life began. It wasn’t brought in someone’s luggage, it just happened. Though not too fast. It is Man, not Nature, who is always in a hurry. With Nature it’s one cell here, and one cell there. Then two cells, etcetera. Then diversity became popular. Diversity and adaptation. One day pond scum, the next day the reptile. Things continued apace.

During its Golden Age (when those from other galaxies interested in taking a break might have considered visiting the Earth for its scenic views and breathable air) life here was pretty balanced and harmonious. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t bloodshed; there was bloodshed. That doesn’t mean there weren't times of stress and argument; there were those times. All things have to eat, after all. Even plants can be territorial. But, on the whole, things progressed in a peaceable way. Everything fitted together. A lot happened, but there wasn’t anyone to write it down and no tabloids to which to sell it. Everybody just got on with living. This period is known as prehistory.

And then along came Man. History began.

The story of most life forms can be summed up in one word: survival. Man, however, because of what he thinks of as his superior intelligence, had survival pretty much sewn up from the start. He whizzed through the basics – shelter, heat, agriculture, domesticating other animals to work for him – while everyone else was still looking for somewhere to get out of the rain and gnawing on bark.

Man went almost directly from survival to civilization; to power. From power, it was on very small step to unbridled greed (aka pleonexia), and its close friends violence, corruption, treachery, hypocrisy and abject terror. And has continued apace ever since.

Happy New Year!

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