Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gingerbread House

            One of the things I wanted to do with my granddaughter while she was here after Christmas was make a gingerbread house. In anticipation I baked the gingerbread and cut it into rectangles. I bought candies for decoration and made sure I had enough powdered sugar for icing. Then I waited for an opportunity to make the house.
            The morning of the day my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter would be leaving, my son, Ela, said, "Now, what about that gingerbread house?"
            I had thought it wasn't going to happen, but now we flung ourselves into construction. I found a piece of cardboard for the base, then brought out the rectangles cut for the walls and roof. I whipped up some royal icing to serve as mortar. Ela cut out the door and gave it to my granddaughter, Kairos, to decorate, then started raising the walls. I slathered icing on the edges of the walls as he held them in place until the icing hardened and the basic construction of the house was done. The next step was the roof.
            That's when we realized our mistake. The walls had been cut the right size, but we were supposed to have put the front and back on the inside of the side walls. We had done the opposite. Now the roof wouldn't fit. We tried forcing the walls inward, but that was obviously going to break the house. I suggested string, thinking vaguely about tying it through the windows. Picking up on the string idea, using toothpicks pressed gently into the tops of the walls straight down into the gingerbread, Ela created "nails" to tie the string onto. Pulling gently, he was able to bring the walls closer together until the roof fit. The string was enclosed inside, icing covered the gaps, and the house was saved!
          Kairos decorated the front with multi-colored sprinkles, licorice, red-hots, a peppermint under the peak of the roof, and a Swedish fish over the front door.

 Ela made a house occupant from gingerbread, with a gumdrop hat, to stand next to the door. His mini-marshmallow snowman kept drooping, so we propped it up with toothpick arms. I decorated a side wall while my daughter-in-law worked in the back, putting a mandala on the wall and flowers along the base, so even though it's winter in the front yard, all you have to do is walk around to the back to be in spring already. 

Gummy bears cavort along the sides, some of them upside down, doing headstands. Kairos and I did the roof, shingling banana chips and placing gumdrops at the top when we ran out of banana chips. There is, of course, a chimney. The finishing touch was the peppermint fence my granddaughter made.   

            We took some hurried pictures and hugged good-bye, and they left in a flurry. I cleaned the kitchen and took down the Christmas tree, but I left the gingerbread house, the cutest gingerbread house ever made, on the dining room table. Pretty soon I'll take it down. 
             Or maybe not. Maybe I'll freeze it, as someone suggested, and bring it out next Christmas.
            Or maybe, as cute as the finished product is, the real value was not in the house itself but in the building of it, something which, like all good times, was a moment, a fleeting moment, the kind of things about which John Ashberry said,

            For although memories, of a season, for example,
            Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure
            That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;
           It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,
            Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
            Harsh strokes.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Don't Call Me "Miss"

"Thank you, miss."
"Can I help you, miss?"
"Have a good day, miss."
       Miss? I am 73 years old, and even though those men, those cashiers and salespeople, have no way of knowing my age, there is also no way they could mistake me for a young woman. 
       To be accurate, "Miss" really means an unmarried woman, but because when the word evolved, all unmarried women were supposed to be young (all young women were supposed to get married), the word implies, by obviousness, a young woman. If a woman was no longer young and still unmarried, she was still called “Miss,” in this case implying that the woman who grew old was still a virgin, the “old” “maid.” Miss Habersham, left at the altar on her wedding day and still dressed, after all those decades, in her wedding dress, now ruined with age, is, correctly “Miss” Habersham. Although I am in my seventies and unmarried, I am not a virgin, and I reject the Miss Habersham connotation of being called “Miss.” 
        I don't like being called "ma'am," either, but without linguistic justification for that prejudice. It's probably a rejection of my southern upbringing, when "ma'am" was a respectful title for one's female elders, the problem residing in that last word.
       Title designation was also difficult while I was teaching. I was neither "Mrs. Coogle” (married) nor "Miss Coogle” (virgin). I suggested students call me “Ms. Coogle,” using that marriage-neutral and age-neutral term, in parallel with "Mr." But some students felt awkward using it, by which I understood that it's a dated term, which is too bad because it fulfills a necessary linguistic vacuum. I said that “Diana” was all right, but such informality made some students uncomfortable. The problem was solved after I got my Ph.D., when I was, simply, accurately, and genderlessly, Dr. Coogle.
       I think that when the grocer calls me "Miss," he thinks he's flattering me: "I'll ignore the fact that you're an older (not exactly old) woman and call you by the title of a younger woman," thereby emphasizing the fact that I am not a young woman, so it comes out as a mild insult rather than a mild compliment. 
       Of course, this is petty stuff, miles from the legitimate and serious complaints from women about their treatment from men in the workplace. It isn't sexism but ageism that is the problem here. Using “young feller” with older men, as in "Can I help you, young feller?" makes the same age-related point as calling me "Miss." 
      This way of using a phrase that indicates its opposite is an unconscious use of a literary technique that Anglo-Saxon poets were fond of using deliberately, telling us how a thing was by saying how it was not. When the warriors at the Battle of Maldon encouraged their fellow fighters, they said not, “Warriors, be brave!” but “Warriors, don’t be cowards!” When the Phoenix poet described Paradise, he called it not a place of joy but a place of no lamentation. 
       Likewise today, when a man means, in his subconscious language, "You're old but doing pretty well," he says, "Have a good day, miss."

Thursday, January 4, 2018

New Year's Eve 2017

            Maybe 2017 was full of downers, politically. Maybe it had its ups and downs for me, personally. Maybe it had tearful days and disappointments among happy days and triumphs, but whatever else I can say about it, I can definitely say that it ended with a great day.
            I had suggested to Mike that he and I hike up Kerby Peak on the last day of the year, since there would be no snow (not in this lousy winter!) and the rattlesnakes that abound there would be asleep in their dens. My son, visiting for the holidays from Washington, said he would like to join us, so early on the morning of January 31 the three of us set off on the trail.
            Mike and I hike together a lot. We know each other's rhythms and habits. I usually hike in front. I hike less often with Ela. He was in the lead on the New Year's Eve hike. I could tell that he was holding back, containing his energy and his strength so we could all hike together. I was reminded of hiking the Horse Camp trail with him, years ago, when he was twenty and I was forty-seven. I was working hard to climb that steepest trail in the Applegate. Ela hiked ahead of me, so much at his leisure that he was talking, walking backwards, juggling pine cones. Now he is the age I was then, and I'm still twenty-seven years older, and the walking ratio has remained as constant as the age ratio. About a mile before the top, Ela let go of companionable hiking and strode on his long, strong legs to the top of the mountain, where he waited for Mike and me to catch up. I wondered if, were today's Ela to hike with the Ela of his younger years, his two-decade-different selves would have the difficulty-to-age ratio of his and mine. Or if, were my forty-seven-year-old self to hike with me now, it would be waiting for me on top of the mountain, as Ela was.
           The Kerby Peak trail is one of the steepest trails along the Highway 199 corridor, with an elevation gain of 2600 feet in the six and a half miles it takes to get to the top (at 5,545 feet). We hiked through beautiful Douglas fir forests, rock outcroppings (where the rattlesnakes, abundant on Kerby Peak, were sleeping!), low-lying manzanita, and some of the best stands of Brewers spruce I know of in the Siskiyous.
            The top of Kerby Peak rewards the hiker with a spectacular 360-degree view. On January 31, 2017, the peak poked above dense white fog, lying thick and unmoving over the circular landscape below us. 

Rounded green peaks humped here and there above the fog-sea. Snow-streaked mountains of the Siskiyou Wilderness rose in the distance. A strong cold wind pushed all around us. We ate lunch

 and admired the view 

until we were ready to escape the wind and head down the trail again.
            After the hike we stopped for coffee at my favorite coffee shop in Grants Pass. Then we all went back to my house for a good New Year's Eve dinner: chili, sauteed portobellos, chocolate eclairs, and champagne. We weren't sure we wanted to stay awake till midnight, but we played a game of Scrabble after dinner, then another. Then it was close enough to the new year that we entertained each other with more games of wit and words until finally it was midnight. We rang in the new year, Ela did a video chat with his daughter, and we went to bed.

            I stretched my well worked body horizontal in my bed and drowsed into sleep without thinking about the goods and the bads of the past year. I didn't need to. It felt at the moment that it had been a good year indeed and that the new year, with such a good start, would be a good one, too.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Appropriateness – or not – of Christmas Gifts

In one Christmas carol, the shepherd boy says to the king, “Do you know what I know? A child, a child, shivers in the cold.”
            “Let us bring him silver and gold,” says the king. Silver and gold, frankincense and myrrh for a baby born in a sheep’s stall?! What were the Wise Men thinking? They should have brought blankets, tea, and hot-cross buns.
            Thus began our long tradition of giving gifts for Christmas, which, all too often, reflect this origin with their inappropriateness. How many times have we given incense and baubles to friends who needed blankets and buns? But trying to figure out whether that friend would rather have gifts for a king even if he is shivering in the cold is half the fun of the whole tradition.  The other half is receiving gifts that by being so perfect tell us how well the giver knows us – a kitchen knife from my sister, some merino wool for a new knitting project from my son, a book of word puzzles from Mike. 
To help with appropriateness, some members of my family like to give out Christmas wish lists, which insure that the giver will have the satisfaction of pleasing the recipient and that the recipient will be relieved of the burden of unwanted gifts. Nonetheless, I’m not always fond of this method. It diminishes the element of surprise and deprives the giver of half the fun. Besides, if I put needle-nose pliers on my list, what’s to keep me from getting needle-nose pliers from every person who sees the list?
A few years ago I was invited to a Christmas party with close friends who all agreed not to buy gifts but to find things in our own homes to give each other. At first this sounded like a garage sale exchange plan, but I found I don’t want to give my friends what I don’t want, either. There is no spirit in such a gift. I won’t give away the bowl my father made or my great-grandmother’s tea set, either, because the feeling-bond associated with those items is strong for me and negligible for anyone else. But a pretty necklace an ex-boy friend gave me is just right for Myria (I don’t want to be reminded of the ex-boy friend, anyway), my library can be thinned of books if I really try, and I’ll let go of my stash of yarns to give to Louann, who is a weaver.
Maybe Mary accepted the gifts of the Wise Men thinking, “What on earth am I going to do with frankincense?” and if she didn’t quite manage, “Just what I always wanted!” she surely smiled and said thank you, responding not so much to the gift as to the feeling-bond the gift represented. And it is that feeling-bond, in the end, that is at the heart of the gift-giving tradition, for it is that that we mean when we give our gifts.