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

An Elder By Any Other Name

We older people get all worked up about what you call us.  You think you’re having trouble defining us?  So are we.  Maybe we’re sensitive about words because we’re still attempting to define ourselves for ourselves.  We haven’t always been this age. Everything old is new to us. 

It’s understandable that some people who are celebrating an important milestone that begins the last part of life, and that brings physical changes, and that implies fewer choices – would not want to acknowledge it with a name.  It’s as if refusing to agree on descriptions will allow old people to keep from actually getting old.   

We – and I include this oldest generation-and-a-half to take in pre-Boomers – were in the forefront of movements in the 60’s and early 70’s that were intended to do away with labels.  We fought the good fight but eventually none of us could stop people from calling us whatever they choose.  So we are sometimes called Senior or Old or Elderly or Aging.  Add to this the men who say “Call me anything but Grandpa” and the women who say “I love my grandchildren, but don’t call me Grandma.”

I’m not personally offended by any of these words.  They’re not epithets.  They’re mostly attempts to label who we are for the purpose of selling us stuff, marketing being the all-powerful force.  Whether the products are  cars or political candidates, a great deal of money changes hands according to how many of us fit into a specific demographic.

I don’t mind being identified with the older millions when it comes to advertising.  I made a living in advertising for years and I understand target audiences, but I also know of major ways in which advertisers and ad agencies are wrong in their perceptions about how elders think and feel and what we really want.  They’re turning old into a cliche and nobody wants to be a cliche.  There will be a price to pay someday for these oversights, I hope.

The older I get,  the more I resist being perceived merely as a person of a certain age. I know all the ways in which I am nothing like my peers with whom I have in common only the year of my birth.  I give up trying to come up with a word that will please everyone.  From now on I’m taking it case by case.  If a word makes me wince, I consider the intent.  If I feel it’s dismissive, I speak up.

I care very much about language that might diminish in any way the respect that should be paid to this very special time of life.  It’s our responsibility to set our standards high.  The words we’re willing to accept inform the ways we’re willing to be treated. 

Ó By Anita Garner

Grandparent Geography

My only grandchild lives in Los Angeles.  I live near San Francisco.  It’s a 400 mile trip.  I’ve checked flights and with travel to and from airports and renting a car when I get there, it’s easier to drive.  I love this place where I live but I also love that little girl, so I drive a lot.

From the time Caedan Ray was born, her mommy always said the same thing at the start of each visit.  As I scooped up the baby, she’d ask, “You got your Hammy?”  After Caedan learned to talk, when her mother asked the question, she answered with a big loud “Yes!”

During my drive south on I-5, her parents and I stay in phone contact and they tell her, “Hammy’s almost here.”  When I pull up in front, Caedan is waiting at the front door or outside, standing with a parent by my parking spot.  As soon as I’m out of the car, I hold out my arms.  So far she chooses to jump up.

At the end of each visit, after a sad goodbye, I head north toward home, already missing the little family.  At my halfway point, Harris Ranch, I feel a hint of “almost home.” The horizon shifts on the last hour of the drive.  Northern California skies always hold a promise for me.  That’s what I see when I look ahead.  

I live in Marin County, in the redwoods.  This is a place where the ratio of open space to developed land is astonishing and astonishingly beautiful.  Is it foolish to love and need specific surroundings so much?  Or is it something we’ve earned at this time of life?

During the last hour of my drive, traffic picks up considerably as I merge with drivers heading home from San Francisco, coming off the Bay Bridge and through several interchanges.  The skies shift again.  It’s usually late afternoon when I make this part of the trip, and fog rolls in.  I love fog.  It’s one of the reasons I live here.

From the top of the Richmond Bridge, I see ships alongside the dock. Welcome home.  The city shimmers in the distance.  Welcome home.  Here’s the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.  A commuter ferry coasts to a stop as I pass.  Welcome home. I approach my exit and see redwoods in the distance.  It’s familiar and beautiful and it’s blue and green and peaceful here.

But this homecoming is also teary.  As I arrive at home, I’m thinking of the greeting I received from my granddaughter when I reached her door a few days ago.  This time, she controlled everything.  She didn’t wait for me to hold out my arms.  Instead, as soon as I was out of the car, she leaped up and hugged me.  She didn’t wait for her mommy to ask the usual question.  Instead, she announced by herself for the first time, “I got my Hammy!”

It’s good to be home and it’s sad to be home.  This commute certainly isn’t getting any easier.

Ó By Anita Garner

Birds Of A Feather

Here’s a question that comes up a lot lately:  Do you still hear from her/him? I used to think it was a badge of honor to say I’ve had the same friends forever, but just as all of my old clothes don’t fit anymore, neither do all the people I used to know.  I still cherish friendships that have endured for decades, but not all the people I used to know are people I want to be with today.  When we were younger, we clumped together for various reasons.  We formed parent groups, church groups, hobby groups, business groups and volunteering-in-the-community groups.

Today I’m not so big on groups.  One size doesn’t easily fit all.  The friend who makes me laugh may not be the one with whom I want to discuss problems.  Neither does one size fit forever.  I now have a shorter list of friends and a more focused to-do list.

Recently my daughter asked, “Remember when we used to have those parties at our house and we’d have a hundred people there?”  I wonder, where did I get all that energy?  I look at photos and examine old memories and they point to the fact that indeed, fun was being had, yet it’s not a situation I’d be drawn to now.

Have you ever fallen out of touch with someone and then you reconnect and it’s just different?  These days I let an extra beat go by before deciding to restore the relationship.  A few sentences after “Hello again” we may no longer have anything to talk about.

Letting go of relationships doesn’t happen without guilt.  I ask myself why don’t I want to be with these people?  The answer’s right there, but I’m sometimes slow to accept it.  History alone isn’t enough.  Seasons change.  Values change.  People change.

My friend, Catherine approaches life in the most realistic way of anyone I know.  She believes we need different kinds of relationships at different stages in life.  Not only does she let go of the ones that don’t fit anymore, but she quickly replaces them with people who do.

A few months ago, she hosted a party to celebrate her 90th birthday.  I’m one of her newer friends, considering we’ve only known each other about twenty years.  I take her counsel to heart and try to be more aware of the natural ebb and flow, but there will never be another like Catherine.  When I mention any age-related problem, she says, “Oh honey, you’ll work it out.  You’re still just a baby.”  Where would I find another friend who’ll take the trouble to lie to my face like that?

Ó By Anita Garner

Old Dog, New Tricks

I watched my toddler granddaughter’s anxiety mount as she attempted a new task.  “I tan’t do it!” she announced and went marching down the hall with her head down, in the dramatic way she has of dealing with technical mysteries.  Her mother followed to offer encouragement and asked, “Are you frustrated?”  “Yes!” the little one agreed, “I am fuss-u-wated.”  Her mother urged her to try again.  The answer was “I don’t want to.”

Each time I visit, I see her learning so many new things and I wish I could help her understand a concept she’s too young to grasp – that experience makes everything easier.  The knowledge of how we learn can offer the assurance that we will get it if we keep trying.  

I’m reminding recalcitrant beginners of every age that new isn’t as scary now as it was when we were younger, because we already have experience at learning.  Older people can’t learn?  Nonsense.  Won’t learn?  Unfortunately sometimes true.

My learning process hasn’t changed much with added years.  I digest new data by going through it three times, and then, most of the time,  it’s mine.   First, when approaching something involving substantial motor skills, I like to see it demonstrated.  For other kinds of tasks, I  learn by watching it or reading it for myself.   Second, I need to write it down, making notes I can refer to later.  Third, I’m ready to try.  Eventually I’ll absorb some version of what’s being taught.

The biggest difference these days is that I’m selective about when and where to fire up the learning process.  I’m aware that I don’t have all the time in the world and I know what interests me, so I choose to learn first the stuff that I want  to know or need to know.

For people who’ve decided they don’t need any new data, there’s plenty of science at work to show that using our brain cells really does help keep us healthy while at the same time forming new brain cells.  

I wish people wouldn’t say “I can’t” when what they really mean is “I don’t want to.”  We don’t need any more negative myths about aging. 

Ó  By Anita Garner 

Is It Just Me?

I can’t believe it’s time to start a new year.  I also can’t believe this is me sounding exactly like every older person in the world talking about how quickly time flies.  

Days go by faster than I can mark them off on my calendar – or more accurately my Day-At-A-Glance appointment book and ever-present To Do lists.

There’s both good and bad about this.  The good?  We don’t have to wait too long for anything we’re looking forward to.  When we were kids, it seemed the day after tomorrow would never get here.  Now?  Just turn around.  Here it is.  The bad, of course, is that it’s possible for several days to slip past while we’re still deciding what to do about next week.

As inevitable as aging is (someone said if we’re lucky we’ll get old) so is the need to make time count for something.

I’m not a resolutions person, but I do have intentions that matter to me,  and one is to make better use of the time allotted.  That’s about the only thing I stand a chance of affecting.   There’s nothing wrong with a modest goal to ring in the New Year.

Ó By Anita Garner

Christmas Movies

It wouldn’t be Christmas without syrupy movies.  Along with fruitcake and continuous holiday music, nothing says ’tis the season like the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime.  With a remote and a DVR, it’s time to wallow in sentiment.  

My holiday viewing schedule is so packed, I’ve taken to recording all the Christmas shows.  Then I scan the plot synopsis offered by the cable company, pick a show, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and push “play.”  None of the plots are complicated, so I can leave and come back, leave and come back without missing a major development.

I’ll watch just about any Christmas movie, good or bad.  But this year there are so many, plus new ones arriving at the local theatre, I’ve been forced to be more selective.  I won’t  watch movies about a real-life earthly member of Santa’s family, whose personal complications may or may not affect the timely delivery of toys.  Santa’s family just doesn’t interest me much.  I’m also not fond of mean-spirited Christmas movies.  Hitting and yelling and blowing up things and drinking and cussing don’t feel uplifting, so I skip those.

There are at least two seasonal movies that stand out from the rest as memorable, each for different reasons.  My current favorite, which I watch every year, is One Special Night (1999) with Julie Andrews and James Garner.  I’ll watch those two in anything.  I love this movie most for portraying two mature people with full lives. 

The other standout took me a while to warm up to.  It’s Noel (2004) with a stunning cast, including Susan Sarandon, Alan Arkin, Penelope Cruz, Robin Williams, Chazz Palminteri, and others.  It’s an odd story and is very nearly not Christmassy at all, depending on your point of view.  But I haven’t been able to forget it, so I’ll try to find it again.  

Lest you think a couple of quality offerings make me a discriminating viewer, oh no, no.  Those two are the exceptions. Most Christmas movies offer only two basic plots.  The first involves someone whose beloved just passed away.  Along comes another someone or a young family missing a spouse and all are united after only a few minor glitches.  Summary of plot number one:  Completion of the family unit.

The other plot is becoming more popular.  These stories tell how the twin evils of ambition and technology conspire to rob our leading man or woman of their true selves, leaving them incapable of feeling the spirit of Christmas.  As these movies get closer to the end, cell phones are thrown away, major job promotions are turned down, snow storms create whiteouts that bring commerce to a halt long enough to force our hero/heroine to slow down and learn some Christmas lessons.  Synopsis of plot number two:  Dude, mellow out.

One favorite sub-plot involves removing these over-achievers from an urban area and plopping them down in bucolic settings where expensive wardrobes are ruined and hilarity ensues.  The movie unfolds in a charming cabin or a country house far away from the workaday grind that’s eating them alive.

There we have my thumbnail description of every movie that’s playing between now and the end of the year.  Add the every-year Christmas repeats from Charlie Brown and Rudolph and Dr. Seuss and Bing and Rosie and the gang at the Inn, and it’s a dash just to keep up.  

Of course I know what’s going to happen on TV this season, but that doesn’t mean I’ll quit watching.  Predictability is one of the joys of Christmas.  Only a Grinch would suggest otherwise.

Ó  Anita Garner   

Christmas On The Radio

I’ve spent much of my  life on the radio, playing music.  When the Christmas songs start, the radio station staff revolts.  Here’s a scene from a typical radio programming meeting, where on-air people wrestled with the Program Director,  in the good old days before a computer chose the music you heard.

PD:  So guys – and Anita – you’ll notice on your playlist that we’re rotating one Christmas song each hour starting…

ME: …Couldn’t we play more than one per hour?

EVERYONE ELSE:  No!

PD:  And then by week three of the season, we’ll play four an hour.

ME:  Couldn’t we play more than that?

EVERYONE ELSE:  Shut up!

ME:  Could I have more Christmas music on my show?

ON-AIR PERSON:  I’ll be calling in sick.

ANOTHER ON-AIR PERSON:  You can’t call in sick, because I’m scheduling all my dental work now.  I’ll be gone for a month.

The foregoing is only slightly exaggerated.  I haven’t met many radio people who like Christmas music as much as I do.  For me, Thanksgiving starts my own Christmas music marathon.  Give me a couple of songs and three lights that twinkle and I’m happy.

After years of local radio, I had the great opportunity to host a nationally syndicated show.  Something Special aired on stations around the U.S.  I was also writer and producer for this weekly four-hour radio magazine and it was more work than I could have imagined.

We began making our Christmas show while the weather said it was still summer.  Show prep (a rather unimaginative term that means exactly what it sounds like) included knowing a lot about the music we’d be playing.  We also knew many of the artists who wrote and performed the music and had been pre-recording their holiday greetings all year when they were in our studio.

For our first annual Christmas Is Something Special, we’d back-timed, to the second, all the music and scripts.  Radio people live by the second hand.  One of our pre-recorded “bits” for this show came from another broadcaster.  My family loved a song called Christmas Isn’t Christmas Without You, found on an album sent to me by a record company years before.  Researching the song for this show, I was surprised to learn it was written by a fellow radio person, Allan Hotlen.

Allan and I met when he was Program Director at (then legendary) KSFO in San Francisco, and now here he was, right around the corner at a station in Los Angeles.  I asked him to tell how he came to write this song and he sent over a perfect recorded “talk-up” to his own song.

John Schneider was the guest co-host for this Christmas extravaganza.  He’d appeared on my show and had become a friend.  Generally we featured a celebrity guest for only the first hour of each week, but this time, John would be with us for all four hours. 

John arrived with one of his ever-present dogs – maybe it was Smudge or, God rest her soul, Gracie.  Cathleen (my daughter worked on the show) baked Christmas cookies and brought a small plug-in Christmas tree. John contributed warm apple fritters he picked up at that place he knew in Burbank.  We took our positions at the microphones.  

One of our song-stories was about Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas from the movie, Meet Me In St. Louis,  about how the lyricist had written alternate words that didn’t make it into the movie.  At half-past-early in the morning, John, apple fritter in hand, sang the original lyrics and the mood was complete.  We sailed right along.  I don’t remember any re-takes.

It’s one of my favorite radio shows ever.  I’ll play it again in a few minutes, right after I plug in my desktop tree with the twinkle lights.

Ó By Anita Garner