An Old Coot Ahead Of Time

I’m turning into a coot way ahead of schedule. 

First I had to look up that word to be sure it’s still the one I used to know and hasn’t turned into something dirty in the past little while.  Nope.  I’m safe.  A coot, according to Merriam-Webster,  is still a “harmless, simple person.” 

Back where I came up, in the Deep South, coots were a bit more complex than that.  I’m not sure they were all so simple, but they probably enjoyed being thought of that way, since it gave them greater freedom to observe the rest of us, without anyone giving a whit for their opinions.

It was a group of coots who gathered at the cafe in the morning, some of them with no place else to be and some who chose that perch because being a coot had become a full-time job and that was their workplace.

I’d call what they did gossip, except that most of them were men, and men don’t refer to themselves as gossips.  They might say they’re visiting.  Or getting together.  Or stopping by.  Or talking.  But never gossip.  

It was the old coots around home who often came up with the greatest wisdom and when they upped and said something smart, everyone acted surprised.   I don’t know why.  Certainly they’d observed more of human nature than most of the rest of us.  

My favorite neighborhood visiting buddy these days is a man and I don’t want to call him something he doesn’t want to own, so let’s just say we talk about nothing in particular.  Still, when our brief visits are done, I always feel better informed.  When he brings up a topic, he compares it to other things he’s witnessed in his lifetime of observing and then he draws conclusions.  Opinionated gossip is my favorite kind. 

Today I’ll phone him to ask what kind of trees are those on the corner that the trimmers are lopping off?  And does he think they’ll survive?  He’ll have an informed opinion about the way the tree-trimmers are handling the job.

Recently he asked,    

“Did you hear about the two widow ladies next door to each other who passed away one right after the other last week?” 

The second lady, he said, had just returned from a memorial service for the first and was still in the clothes she wore to the event when she expired. This week, two families are over there packing up two houses next door to each other, where two ladies who were friends and neighbors for decades both departed within a few days.     

We’ll drink coffee for a bit and then my friend will offer some pearl of wisdom about life in general based on these specifics and I’ll go back to my routine still mulling over the significance of those trees and those ladies around the corner.    

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

   

Toddler Focus Group

My favorite toddler arrived for a visit, packing her portable DVD player and a stack of choices.  Among the titles,

Barbie Mariposa And Her Butterfly Fairy Friends

Where the heck did that title come from? A visit to a Toddler Focus Group may shed some light. 

In the room with a one-way window, the table and chairs have been removed.  Twelve toddlers sit on the floor.  They’ll help marketing executives and manufacturers name a new product.  No adults are allowed in. Parents join executives looking through the glass and see that all toddlers have the perfect tool for making choices.  Each holds onto a remote with big colorful buttons.  Toddlers completely understand remotes.   They can delete anything within seconds.

A voice through speakers in the room coaxes the little ones to push buttons. Do you like butterflies?  They push the butterfly button.   Do you like fairies?  And on through a series of questions that correspond with pictures on the remote. 

Oops – some of our toddlers appear to be trying to push the buttons on a neighbor’s remote, but a few are still listening.

Do you like Barbie?  Yes.  How about friends?  That gets the biggest reaction so far.  Preschool and play-dates have already taught them that friends are the best new things of all.  They quickly push the button with the colorful outline of children holding hands. 

Wait now.  The group is drifting.  Only three toddlers are still interested in the remotes.  The rest wander around, poking each other, getting acquainted.

The voice continues to ask about magic toddler words, but all order has been lost and at the end of a session that only lasted five minutes but seemed to go on forever, advertising people string together a bunch of words and declare this new DVD title will contain several things kids seem to like. (How did “Mariposa” get in there?  I’m not sure.  I haven’t watched it yet.)  What does the title mean? No one knows.   And does it matter, really?

One very smart executive/parent asks shouldn’t we add ladybugs?  Toddlers like ladybugs even more than new friends.  Oh, all right then, maybe next time.  In fact let’s commission a script right now that includes the words Barbie and Ladybugs.   

Parents are allowed in.  A few toddlers run to them, while others act as if they’ve never seen these adults before, and continue what they were doing.  Somebody finds a Goldfish cracker in his mommy’s purse.  Now everybody wants one, but there aren’t any more. Crying begins. Another parent produces Cheerios from a baggie that will be carried everywhere until the toddler starts college.  All are pacified with the wholegrain O’s.

While the munching toddlers say goodbye or ignore each other, let’s consider a point that focus groups need to spend more time with.  What kinds of toys do grandparents want?

Here’s the Grandparent Focus Group.  Table and chairs are restored and a variety of diet and regular colas, coffee, decaf, and teas in all kinds of flavors are offered.  Treats are on a side table.  Some of the grandparents choose M & M’s while others go for the nutrition bars.  New toys to be tested are on the table.

The voice in the speaker asks, “Does the ratchety-ratchety sound of this toy lawnmower seem authentic to you?”

It does and is that absolutely necessary?

“How about the humming noise on this pretend-vacuum cleaner?”

That is way too realistic.  Here’s an idea.  How about you make this toy with a grandparent control, an invisible one I can push from way over here so the toddler can’t see it?  When a complaint arises from the shorter person in the room, I am prepared to lie.

No, honey, I have no idea why your toy stopped working just now.

Question from the Market Research team:

“How about this pretend-cellphone/camera that rings and also makes a loud clicking sound when the toddler puts it right in your face?”

A hidden on/off switch would be good.  I’m prepared to look surprised.  

Oh, your cellphone won’t ring anymore?  Really?  I’m sure the camera still works, honey.  It probably doesn’t feel like clicking every single time.

And what of the sad little toddler face?  

Darned cellphone.  Here, give it to Hammy.  I’ll fix it later.  Let’s go eat some strawberries.

 

Ó Anita Garner 2008

World Without Cars, Amen.

I’m thinking about cars a lot lately because I’m in them a lot lately.  When I’m not in one, I’m dreading the next time I’ll have to be in one.  I’m tired of automobiles.  The affair is over.

I have a very nice car that takes me places and plays my music and feeds me news, holds my coffee cup, warms or cools me, and does everything else a car can do to help a person get around, but there isn’t a car special enough to make me fall in love with driving again.

No offense to my perfectly fine vehicle, but I dream of a walking life – some modified version of the olden days when there was a central business district and houses began right there at the edge of town.  A person could walk to accomplish most daily errands.  For longer trips, there was a family car, but it wasn’t in use all day, every day.

We keep making more people and more cars, but no more space.  We’ve already covered so much of the space we have with highways that saturation is nigh.  I’m speaking specifically of my beloved state of California.  There’s no way we can keep up with the population and the multiple vehicles each family owns.  If we cover any more of the earth with highways, there’ll be no place left for us to drive to.  

It seemed so natural, the ways in which automobile travel evolved, how new vistas opened the minute we were old enough for a driver’s license, how we defined ourselves by what we drove.  Over the past decade or so, something’s changed for me and driving doesn’t resemble freedom in the slightest.  What feels free is not driving.  That feels independent and progressive and even adventurous.

Will there come a time soon when people will look back at single-person car occupancy as a quaint and uninformed period in our history?  Maybe our descendants will laugh at our naivete and wonder at how we ever thought it could work.

Is there on the near horizon a form of mass transportation we haven’t heard about, that can function without creating a new blight on our imperiled landscape?

I expect the future will include mandatory controls about who can drive alone in a car and when.  Of course we won’t let go voluntarily, so it will likely be made into law.  Giving up the right to drive is such a fraught topic, I don’t expect to live to see a practical solution.  Maybe my daughter and granddaughter won’t see a solution either, but I do believe one is on the way. 

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

 

No Good Deed

I gave away my favorite pants by accident last week.  It was bound to happen.  When I’m cleaning the closet in a self-righteous Spring-induced charitable mood, things move fast.

I piled clothes on the bed in categories:  Things I don’t wear, new things I wish I’d never bought, (A hanging price tag is a reproach) and the biggest bunch of all, things that don’t fit anymore.  

While bundling all of this together to donate to the Family Service Thrift Store, I spotted a blouse that was a maybe – a great color – it might still work.  Better try it on before giving up on it.  I grabbed my favorite sleek black pants from the closet and put on the blouse.  Nope, still not a fit.

So, two giant armloads of clothes into the back seat and two giant armloads of clothes dropped off, and I went about my other errands.

Next day I went to the closet for my favorite pants and they weren’t there. You can see where this is headed.  Back to the thrift store.  Since they were nowhere in the house, that’s where they were likely to be.  I had delivered my custom tailored pants for resale and not on purpose.  Who does something that dumb?

A lot of people do, judging from the reaction of the volunteers at the thrift shop.  I’m happy to buy them back, I said. They were sorry, but they had already tagged last week’s merchandise, which was now hanging in the store.  Just go out there and find them.

There was half a hope my pants would still be in the store.  I’m a tough fit – very long legs.  Those pants wouldn’t interest just anybody. I looked.  I’d know my pants anywhere, and they weren’t on the racks.   Already sold.  I started to grieve immediately.  A woman and her favorite black pants – that’s a serious relationship.  

Not only did I not get a chance to say goodbye, not only did I not leave them on purpose, but because they’ve now left me and moved on to another owner, they seem so much more important in retrospect.  I tell myself it’s best to let go of the past, forget I ever knew them.  But I know I won’t. Every time I pass a woman with long legs wearing sleek black pants with a certain fit, I’ll do a double-take.   Because by now, of course, those pants have become, in memory, the best pants in the whole world and I am convinced I’ll never love any other pants again in exactly the same way.

Ó By Anita Garner

Fine Day For Ducks

Near my house there’s a footbridge over Corte Madera Creek, where I say hello to the duck families.  The ducks appear whenever they feel like it at different levels on the water, depending on the rain. Some move right along without stopping.  Some swim in slow circles under the bridge, obviously accustomed to passersby,  and some glide to a strand of rocks that’s exposed in the creek, where they waddle around for a while.  Some days the ducks aren’t there at all and I wait in vain, wondering why they’re not anywhere near as interested in us as we are in them.

The bridge curves up slightly in the middle, like the ones in storybook illustrations.  I stop at the very center, in the best duck-watching spot.  Coming toward me on the path is a young boy with a white-haired lady close behind.  He’s small, with a mop of dark hair and a handsome face highlighted by Harry Potter glasses in a bright color, with a professorial band around the back to hold them in place.

He speaks up like a person very much at home in the world.  He says hello and takes a spot next to me at the railing.  I move over a bit so he can have the center.  I mention I haven’t seen any ducks today.  

He says, “My name is Oscar. The ducks were here earlier.”  He adds, in a wistful voice, “Maybe they’ll come back later.” He brightens and announces,  “We’re having burritos for lunch.”

The woman with the pretty white hair approaches and the three of us watch the water. 

Oscar says,  “We’re eating at the burrito place because they’re so big.  It’s hard to walk home with them.”

The lady nods, “That’s right.”

“Grandson?” I ask.

“Yes,” she smiles and Oscar says,

“Granny, we better get going.” 

He turns back to reassure me.  “Maybe the ducks will be here when we come back.”

For a second I’m puzzled at why such a young boy with a pleasant smile is so serious today.  It occurs to me that he’s repeating answers he’s heard in response to questions he must have asked many times.  Can we go see the ducks?  Can we eat at a table outside today?  Will the ducks be there when we come back?  Can we have one of the big burritos?

My granddaughter, who’s three, has questions every time we ask her to go get her shoes.  She’s learning that the world can be complicated.  Just because you set out on a walk with your grandma to see the ducks, that doesn’t mean the ducks will always be there.  Just because you like to eat at a table outside, where the birds will pester you for part of your lunch, that doesn’t mean an outside table will always be open.  

I ask the departing Granny, “Does Oscar live close to you?” She says yes, just across the bay in Berkeley.  I tell her how lucky she is and add, in the way that all fairly new grandmas do when talking to strangers, how much I miss the little girl who lives a few hundred miles away.  She says, “Yes, I am lucky,” and she makes a circle with her arms, “Oscar is close enough to get my arms around him a couple of days a week.”

Normally this would make me sad, but not today.  Next weekend is Easter and my girl is coming to visit.  The first thing we’ll do is put on our walking shoes and go looking for ducks.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

Writing Credits For Starbucks

Evidently my entire town runs on coffee.  With a population considerably less than 20,000, we have three Starbucks and a bunch of other specialty coffee places.  In the village alone, you can buy a different kind of brew every few yards.

I visit them all.  On days when I want comfort and no surprises, Starbucks is the place to be.  I like that it’s predictable.  It’s very clean and cozy.  The staff is kind and I like the music and the coffee tastes good and I like the way it smells and the small tables by the west-facing windows feature views of Mount Tamalpais.

A blogger writing about writing, cautioned “Don’t be caught with your laptop out, working at Starbucks.  It’s geeky.  It’s not cool.”  I have a couple of thoughts about that. 

1)  I’m not sure anyone,  anywhere can define what’s cool.  

2)  I don’t have a laptop.

However I am guilty of writing at Starbucks.  I’m writing this at the one around the corner from my house.  Writing it by hand on a yellow pad with my favorite Pilot Prestige pen with the extra fine point and blue ink.  When I’m done with my tall non-fat latte, I will tuck all of this back into my tote bag and meander on home and no one will have ever mistaken me for a writer. 

No one will say look at that writer with her laptop out in full view.  To the untrained eye, I am just another person making a grocery list.  Which is also true. But today I have, during the course of one latte, messed around with the outlines of several writing projects that are due, and I did it all right here, working undercover.

I’ll bet many writers owe a credit to Starbucks.  Geeky or not, my playbill should read:  The part of the angst-and-coffee-soaked location will be played today by the Starbucks at the corner of Miller Avenue and Camino Alto.  The part of the writer will be played by:  To-Be-Announced – when we discover his or her true identity.

Ó By Anita Garner

Netflix Guilt

My own private Jane Austen Film Festival took place in my living room over the course of several months.  It wouldn’t have been possible without Netflix.  I worked my way through every adaptation of Jane Austen’s work and then into obscure British television documentaries about her life.  As soon as the movie, “The Jane Austen Book Club” came out on DVD,  I watched it too.

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about not patronizing my local theaters.  We have several nice ones nearby, but I haven’t been lately.  I thought I’d miss the companionable experience of seeing a story unfold along with a roomful of other people, but so far I haven’t. 

It’s clear why fans of special effects blockbusters choose to see them on big screens,  and friends who work in the movie industry maintain that comedies are best seen in theaters, where communal laughter enhances the funny, still I find all kinds of rationale for watching at home. 

We’ve heard it all before – about how the inconveniences outweigh the once-shared theater experience.  I love movies as much as ever, but the theater experience itself has been diluted, with multiple (smaller) screens and multiple distractions inside, so it’s rarely an experience equal to the nobility of the old movie houses.  Theater owners blame movie-makers.  Movie-makers blame – well I can’t keep up with the list of all the people movie-makers blame. 

I worry about historic theaters and will do whatever I can to help preserve the architecture and honor their place in our nation’s history.  Once preserved, these buildings need to be re-purposed because the movie industry won’t be able to keep them alive.

Future media is here, with growing audiences who watch on various small screens, including hand-held devices.  Whatever comes next in the area of personal delivery of entertainment content, it doesn’t appear that traditional theaters will be a major force.  It’s an uphill battle.  They make much of their profit from concessions and we hear nothing but complaints about the price of the food and drink.  They add commercials to run before the feature, and we hear complaints about the commercials. 

We’re fast approaching the time when all new movies will be released simultaneously via several media, with theaters only one of the choices. It is crucial that everyone connected with creating entertainment – movies and television and music and all other kinds of performances and educational content – be compensated for all the ways we choose to watch.

Right now, waiting a few months for the DVD to come out works just fine for me.  When I hear about something I want to see, I immediately go to my computer and add the title to my Netflix Queue.  But on any given afternoon when I’m sick of my own company, there’s still the matinee around the corner.  I wonder how much longer that option will exist.

Ó By Anita Garner

Genius In The Details

I’ve just spent a week in Los Angeles working with Greg North, (Zerkle) the director of my play, The Glory Road. I’m back home with a notebook filled with changes.  Gramma K, an expert tailor, used to say “It’s easier to make a new one than to alter the original.”  But for many reasons, altering is often the chosen route to completion of a creative project.

The computer isn’t the best thinking place for me anymore.  I think elsewhere and come back to the keyboard to type.   The real work happens while I’m walking around the village or on the ferry going into the city, or cooking or folding laundry.  But when inspiration continues to avoid me, I have another plan.  

I go in search of genius, hoping that the trip will start ideas flowing again.  In the same way that reading biographies of overcomers opens a new window, so do these field trips.  It’s uplifting to walk where genius walked and talked and worked.  There’s always the possibility that if I stand where they stood, something might rub off.

I visit the workplaces of two undeniably brilliant individuals, at the Charles Schulz Museum, an homage to everything Peanuts, and the Luther Burbank Cottage, Mecca for garden lovers.  Both are in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of where I live.  Tours are a good way to begin, but guides by necessity deal mostly with the overview.  They speak of awards won, of the subject’s ties to other famous people, of the place where he was born.

I’m looking for more.  I want to see how they endured the days that were spectacularly nonproductive.  After the tour groups disperse, I look for the minutiae that tethered each of these famous men to earth.  Was he an early riser?  How many hours a day did he work?  What did he eat?  Did he have hobbies?  Who did he love?  Who loved him?

I want to know, did the realization of his goals offer even a small degree of immunity from strife?  Or did he bump into his own saboteurs; the insecurities and loneliness and even the near-crippling fears many of us encounter on the path to making something.

When we look at a creative icon who’s now departed, we’re always looking backward.  We see a whole lifetime of output, an entire body of work.  I want to know how he handled the chunks of time when things didn’t go right.  So I ask about the dry spells.

Charles Schulz used ice skating and long walks to cheer himself.  He built a rink near his studio and his visits there were a vital part of his routine.  Every day he sat at the same table in the snack bar, ate the same food, and watched the skaters.  Merchants at the nearby mall report that Schulz was a frequent visitor, not so much a shopper as an ambler.  They grew accustomed to the lone figure walking around, deep in thought.

Luther Burbank grew himself an escape route.  He took leave of his greenhouse in Santa Rosa and traveled the bumpy road to his experimental farm in Sebastopol to work and sleep in the modest cabin at the site.  He walked and thought and wrote in his notebooks and on his way to developing the Shasta daisy and the Burbank potato, he also documented some of the days when nothing bloomed the way he had planned.

Charles Schulz said he was driven to make cartoons because it was all he was good at.  It was his primary form of self-expression.  Charlie Brown, he said, was the manifestation of his own vulnerability.  At the museum, my favorite spot is the replica of his office.  The renowned storyteller’s drawing board shows the physical effects of his labor and I am more heartened by its worn wood than by the rooms filled with acclaim.

Luther Burbank didn’t consider himself a visionary, but rather a hard-working scientist who kept experimenting until something good came of it.  The museum in the carriage house adjacent to Burbank’s cottage is suitably informative, but I return to the tiny room at the rear of the greenhouse and to the desk where he kept his notes.

Both Schulz and Burbank fit my definition of genius.  I can feel it when I’m in the places they once were.  It’s comforting, on my own tedious workdays, to know that in the midst of lives filled with so many accomplishments, each of these men put great store by the one trait they prized above all others – discipline.  They kept showing up.  I can do that.

Ó By Anita Garner 

What Do Women Want?

Is it inevitable during this season of love that Valentine’s Day will end either in triumph or in tearful disappointment because of the gifts women do or don’t receive from a significant someone?  Sad to say – probably. 

What do women want?  Discussions persist among guy friends and girl friends.  For all our insistence on clear communications in our relationships, both groups agree that we send mixed signals.  If it’s any help at all, most of us are aware that we do. 

Here’s what we think we want:  A boyfriend to slow-dance with.  Here’s what we really mean:  We want to slow-dance until life turns serious, and then we want to wake up next to a grown-up who’ll go with us to visit a sick relative, and put on a suit when the occasion demands, and clean out the gutters before it rains, and pretend he doesn’t hate getting rid of whatever crawling thing scares us most.

Here’s what we think we want:  For our favorite gift-giver to read our minds.  Our significant other should have been paying attention all this time and realize we look best in yellow gold.  Here’s the reality:  Men have been telling us for ages that they’re not in tune with subtlety.  They say they don’t see or hear our hints.  Not only would they prefer that we stop expecting mind-reading miracles from them, they’d like it if we’d hand them the newspaper ad and a map to the store.

I’ve revised my definition of the perfect romantic gesture.  This one doesn’t rely as strongly on Victoria’s Secret but more on the qualities of friendship.  I learned this while eavesdropping in a cafe in Palm Springs.  I could hear the nearby couple clearly. They’d finished their breakfast and were going their separate ways for the day.

He:  “Let’s trade car keys.”

She:  “Why?”

He:  “I noticed your tank’s empty.  Mine’s full.  I’ll get your oil changed too.  See you tonight.”

I guarantee if every woman I know could hear something like that, every heart would flutter.  I’ve thought about that conversation many times and it helps answer the question, what do women really want?

Evidently we want it all.  We want you to surprise us with a token that says you find us desirable.  And then we also crave a practical demonstration of that, even if the distance you travel to show your devotion is only to the gas station on the corner.  It’s the kind of thing Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice would have done if they’d had gas stations in his day.

 Ó By Anita Garner

Generation Gap

I like the gap.  Differences between generations feel right to me.  I enjoy being with our children and then I enjoy being with people closer to my own age, who begin sentences with “Remember when?”

Remember when we danced to Motown?  And sang Doo Wop together?  Remember that first Bob Newhart album?  Remember when Richard Burton appeared on Broadway and all the women fell in love with him but Elizabeth Taylor got him?  Remember how our parents weren’t interested in Elvis, but then they were?  Remember when Ray Charles had his first big hit?  Remember our favorite kids’ shows on radio that turned into television shows?  It’s comfortable having history together.

When I was in my teens, we didn’t call the progression from child to adult anything at all.  We weren’t teenagers or adolescents.  We weren’t known as anything except somebody’s kid.  Since our generation didn’t have a name, we also didn’t call the spaces between us and others a gap.  The term “generation gap” began to be tossed around during the blooming season of the flower children when we were cautioned not to trust anyone over 30.

Too late.  I was already looking forward to being an adult.  In my teens I admired women who were 20 and 30.  I wanted to look like them, dress like them, and somehow achieve the mysterious sophistication those women seemed to own. 

Today, adolescence is so prolonged that sometimes the new generation doesn’t seem to get started at all, and it’s eaten away at what I consider a natural distance between kids and parents.  Terms like “rejuvenile” and “boomerang babies” describe people in their 30’s and 40’s going back to live with their parents.  But while their grown children were away, some of  the older folks were taking care of themselves, eating right, exercising, developing new interests, buying new clothes, and generally making it harder to tell who’s who.

I’d hate to see us close the gap completely.  What have we got to look forward to, if kids don’t want to grow up and parents don’t want to be their own age either?  Just a long, blurry couple of decades where each generation waits out the other to see who’ll blink first?

Ó By Anita Garner