Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Sun

It’s officially summer and it has been too darned hot in the San Francisco area. Now I know all you sun worshippers have been waiting impatiently for the warm weather but some of us delicate flowers prefer the coolth to the warmth or if you ask me, the hotth. (It’s my blog and I can make up words if I want to, right?)

What better card in the Tarot deck to show us summer in all its glory than The Sun? Who wouldn’t want to feel like a happy toddler with a pony in a flower garden and play all day? Me, that’s who. OK, happy, check. Toddler, check. Pony, as long as it doesn’t stand on my feet, check. Flower garden, check. Ah, but check the wardrobe on our happy sweetums. That’s going to burn for sure.

I know about sunburn. I grew up half convinced that it was me in that Coppertone ad and not Jodie Foster. I had a black dog. I went to the beach. I scorched. Add sand in your britches and scream all night. Nothing like trying to peel out of a swimsuit that feels like wet sandpaper over boils and blisters at the end of a perfect day!

And yet the beach remains my favorite place, rain or shine, summer or winter. I love the smell, the sound, the aquatic life, the differences between soft sand and hard sand, the way you sink into hard sand with each little wave. I love seashells and fish. I love shorebirds running up and down the tides, playing tag with the waves, digging for critters. I love watching a storm cross the Gulf of Mexico and cloud-to-cloud lightning, all before it hits the beach. I love the phosphorescent sparkle at night, the growing hum in the morning, the blazing glare of noon, the cooling breeze of evening. I love losing track of time, except by the tides and the sun. But I hate sunburn.

Of course, you don’t really need to be at the beach for sunburn. One humdinger of a sunburn peeled not once but twice. I was babysitting two semi-angelic little boys, which is pretty good if you think about it, out on their deck under the trees on a breezy afternoon, reading a good book and watching the little darlings romp in the back yard. Like so many sunburns, I didn’t realize I was having an “off-color” experience until the day was over. Then I had the luxury of regretting my folly for days.

My first California sunburn came after a lovely hike on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County to enjoy outdoor theatre at the Mountain Play. The cool breeze and dappled sunlight through the trees were so inviting. Liar, liar, pants on fire! I don’t remember the play at all. I remember later that night, rolling over in bed at 2 AM, gently, ever so gently, hoping my blistering arm would not fall off in the process of rubbing against high-count cotton sheets that were suddenly as rough as a country road.

“Stop, kitty,” I whined weakly, pitifully. The kitty must be having a heck of a good scratch to make the bed move that vigorously. Any movement at all was agony and I vowed never to leave the house again, knowing I would break my vows. The kitty had no mercy for me. The bed moved more violently.

Ka-boom! A noise like a semi-tractor-trailer hitting the house sent the bed and all occupants an inch off the floor. I sat up.

“What’s happening?” I bellowed in my best horror queen voice which must have echoed off the hills north of Sonoma where I lived. It was an earthquake, a shallow one, my very first in California. Its epicenter was reported the next day as being “in a remote area in the Napa Valley.”

“Remote, heck!” I said in disgust, still nursing my burns which surely must be third degree especially after having been ground down by the sheets. “It was under my house!” It took me an entire week to find the two things that tipped over.

Like a lot of people I grew up with, I still have a sneaking suspicion that a little sun exposure gives your skin a healthy glow. I love those sunshiny freckles across their cute little noses. I had only a few freckles but I was sort of hoping they would merge and become a tan someday. My swords-y logical self knows better, knows the dangers of sun exposure in a family with Irish roots. But there are still some fond memories of trying to get an all-over tan in New Mexico one summer without much success due to probably appropriate modesty. And one summer I spent so much time out on Crab Orchard Lake in my friend’s boat in my favorite chocolate brown bikini (this was a long time ago, remember) that my long hair bleached palest blonde, my tan actually lasted a month into the fall semester at college and I developed a new sign of the sun’s unfriendly effects: Skunk hair.

If you’ve never had skunk hair, consider yourself lucky. That darker, normal stripe close to my head was the final proof I needed to stay out of the sun. It wasn’t considered fashionable when I developed my skunk hair. I had put a lot of time into growing it out past my waist, trimming those split ends, giving up on any hope of a wave or a curl. I caved. I became bottle-blonde although my original color isn’t that far from the bottle. It’s just that now, after so many years, I’m not sure what color my hair is. There’s this funny pale stripe from ear to ear across the top of my head someone once called the Crown of Wisdom. OK, that's new.  I generally estimate that my “real” hair color is somewhere between “mouse” and “mold,” a sort of greenish-dust bunny color not found in interior paint palettes. I guess the sun’s bad effects saved me from a life of mouse and mold or something. And it’s given me the perfect excuse for saying silly things with the thought that I resemble that remark.

Skin cancer and overexposure to the sun isn’t funny though. I have friends who have lost family to melanoma. My own father thought he could treat his own skin cancer with athlete foot’s powder. After about ten years of that, he went to the doctor, had surgery including a fairly painful skin graft. It was something that could have been avoided with early treatment or wearing the right protection from the sun. (Note to self:  Skin cancer is not the same as athlete's foot.)

For Summer Solstice time, the Sun rules. But when you ride that pony around in the garden, bring your sunscreen and hat along. Your life is longer than a day so make your summer SPF-y.

Best wishes.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pursuit of Happine$$

The bird feeders just fell with a crash. The pole they were on wasn’t strong enough to hold the full load of bird seed, 8 finches, and a lovely old copper bucket with squirrel treats. Gotta get a new pole. My husband is delighted with a new project especially if it has the slightest hint of an engineering or design aspect to it. In the meantime, my critter watch is on hold.

When we get it figured out though, I have some new fruit-and-nut treats from Amazon that just arrived and my husband found a new mix at the feed store that the squirrels are bound to love. We think we’ve arrived at the perfect mix for our finches. So we have supply and demand; we just need delivery and fulfillment.

I was thinking that’s like a lot of things we have here in my comfortable western world, lots of supply really and certainly a lot of demand. My country based a lot of what it’s about on an individual’s rights, especially to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In our ever-abbreviating world, I sense we often leave out a couple of words in that phrase, specifically, “pursuit of.”
Picture Postcard Tarot
(c) copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

Is that what makes us Ugly Americans? That we forget that we have the right to pursue happiness rather than the right to happiness? We skipped a couple of words and the concept of striving and landed on the goal immediately? If we have a “right” to happiness, do some have that right and not others? Are some more deserving than others because they are able or young? Or because they have worked long and hard for it? Or because someone told them they were better than other people because of accident of birth? Is happiness limited? Is the pursuit meant to be restricted?

We get a lot of ideas about what “happy” means from our childhood of course. Chocolate does it for some of my friends, not a bad definition as they go. One of my closest friends in high school figured out that happiness meant a happy home and family, close loving ties, without harsh requirements for Ivy League connections or political aspirations. He has a bunch of kids, an unfashionable job seldom the topic of TV dramas and an address not aspired to by the rich and famous. But he figured out what happiness means to him. He pursued it. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. But he is my idea of the best success I always wished for him. His own family while he was growing up were people too concerned with appearances, achievement and monetary success and not enough for just plain love and acceptance. They could never set aside their worldly pursuits to allow a crack in the armor, to let a little humanity in. They would reject their own child because his goals were not their goals. I knew them. I did not like them. I did not like how they treated him, even if he was just a rebellious teenager, too clever by half.

I’m not sure my friend defines himself as successful because we are taught the measures of success here as a dollars and cents thing, as a material possessions thing. Oh, we teach other things, to be sure. But the evidence we see so often is the brute’s golden rule: Them’s that’s gots the gold makes the rules. There is some big ugly truth to it. Depending on whether you feel a greater affinity with the Rich and Power-wielding or the Poor and Kind, you tend toward one extreme or another. And most of us hope to be somewhere in the middle, making enough money, whatever that is, and being human enough, whatever that is.

Back a few years ago when Disco was still being played on the sound systems at Happy Hour, I worked for one of the larger telephone companies. I was new in town, newly divorced, newly transferred to the Home Office, new all over almost like being reborn. I had the chance to concentrate, finally, on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Yes, I knew I was a little older than most people making those decisions. I joked that I was going to be “this old this year anyway” and there was some advantage to having made some mistakes to help put the next steps into a realistic context. I made the decision to get another college degree.

It was hard, one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. But my idea of happiness was to “make it” on my own without being alone. I wasn’t pursuing prestige or power or the “M.R.S.” degree people joke about.

Like my friend, it had a lot to do with the traumas of childhood and family dynamics. My parents fought about money and hopelessness and helplessness, depression and abandonment, lack of personal choice. I saw they were also limited by their ideas of what they could do about it. I wanted to learn from that.

In the misunderstanding of the Pursuit of Happiness, some people might think that this kind of happiness, a kind of stability, should be given to them as a right. Again, that leaves out the important words, “pursuit of.” I had the right to make the most of my talents and opportunities, to work days and go to school nights around the clock for three years. I had opportunities to quit, too, and lots of pressure from peers. I was too old (late twenties), I was working too hard, I was burning my candle at both ends, good Aries that I am, I was making the other clerks at the telephone company look bad, and finally I was being selfish. I ignored it all and kept going, through parking tickets and derisive teasing from teachers and co-workers. I kept going, knowing that my mother was dying of cancer and knowing that I could not stop that. I wanted a better life. I wanted to Pursue Happiness.

The Knight of Pentacles is the tarot card that represents that dogged pursuit of the material world. Even I frown at the Knight of Pentacles because focusing too much on the material world creates awful human dynamics, like my friend’s family who valued only that his older brother was going to Yale or that his father was a leader in his political party. Focusing on that Pentacle can cause you to lose your soul. But ignoring it can do the same.

Like the Knight of Pentacles, I had the right here in this land that’s known for freedom to try to make things better, not the right for things to be better. I had the right to try because I was able. The time was right. I could figure out how to make it work. I could select a field that, unlike a B. A. in English, was more marketable and likely to get me a job where I could sustain myself without having to be dependent on someone else’s income: My idea of happiness.

It worked. I’ve had the opportunity to pursue financial stability, an opportunity few women in the world get, despite all our progress as a people. I had the opportunity to work so hard that I thought I would fall over, to be laid off in tough economic times and to recreate myself to find another job. My version of happiness broke up a date once with one guy sputtering in shock and dismay after learning about me, “But, you don’t need a man!” I explained patiently, fruitlessly, that I wanted a relationship where I wanted my partner. I wanted to marry for love, not necessity. My Knight of Pentacles may have his hand on the prize. His head and heart and soul are then free to be where they will go.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Choices, Choices

The helicopter has stopped circling my neighborhood so I’m assuming that whatever or whoever it was, they weren’t in my yard and it wasn’t my fault. After twenty-some years of living in California in a moderately densely populated area, I still have trouble getting used to the fact that there might be crime against person or property that would come anywhere near me. I’m like a lot of people that way.

I’m convinced some towns here promote their own reputation for being a scary place to live, if only to keep the housing prices low enough to be entry level for people from the Middle. My town has a bit of a reputation. I happen to live in the most racially diverse county around and in my town no one ethnic population is actually the majority. I know there are some people who would be horrified by that. I like it. I’ve lived in other places. I liked them too, truth be told, but they had their pluses and minuses.

We’ve had a bit of the “ick” factor in the news lately from places where people aren’t expecting people to dance on the tables and shoot out the lights like they expect in my town. Seriously, the economy has been down here for a while that if you can find a bar with tables and lights and the table is sturdy enough for you to dance on it, I say go for it. Most everyone here is trying to get by.

But the news does make you ask yourself the same question you might ask of junior high kids when you already know the answer, “What were they thinking?” What made it seem like a good idea to take photos like that and send them to, well, to anyone? There was a funny Facebook video I ran across yesterday where a score of attractive women had created a sort of public service announcement making it clear, if it weren’t already, that we’ve seen enough photos like that. I am aware there’s a certain market for things like that. Most women I know would actually be more impressed by men who pick up their discarded underwear, don’t splash, know where things are in a refrigerator and who have the good grace to say that you look lovely in that outfit and that your gorgeous friend would not. My husband fulfills most of these and has never sent me a photo that I wouldn’t show my mom. I’m talking my mom here. Your mom may be different but mine had a pretty narrow definition of what was acceptable behavior in public and in private, actually a little too narrow for my taste, but it’s a pretty good rule.

But seriously, Dude, what were you thinking? Like the junior high kids, nothing at all? Without investigating further because, well, because I may not really want to know, I prefer to accept the “nothing at all” answer and move on, kind of like that helicopter did.

Certainly I’m not above making stupid choices myself. Flashing back to my first wedding, if some small voice had whispered, “Run,” while I was walking up the steps to the church that summer day, I would have. I should have, as it turns out. I did get a really great best friend out of the deal, so it wasn’t a total loss.

And then there was a particular drive from one well-known spot in a Middle State to a lesser known spot in that Middle State where, on a dare, I drove without benefit of wardrobe. I didn’t get caught. Or at least I didn’t actually suffer any consequences other than feeling like an idiot and enjoying it a little. I am thrilled, however, that telephones were not mobile then and did not have cameras and that videos were never viral in that decade. Some decades have their advantages over others. And I have no political aspirations either. I’m glad to have survived most of my own foolishness; not everyone does. And remember, that was pre-California.

Also pre-California, however, was the time I had my wallet stolen by two traveling Bible salesmen from Texas. Nope, that’s just stuff you can’t make up. Yup, they caught them, just one town over about to enjoy a sandwich at a local motel restaurant. Yup, the younger man was convicted of using my credit card to buy gas and my driver’s license as identification. He was blond but seriously the resemblance ended there. They couldn’t arrest or convict his “mentor,” the older Bible salesman who talked him into it. Apparently the really big mistake was the forgery part. Law is funny that way. I just wish they hadn’t thrown out my photos.

But also pre-California were the two muggings I endured, a few assaults on dates that the times would have chalked up to “missed signals” as in what-part-of-no-do-you-not-understand and sadly child abuse at the hands of a family friend. These incidents resulted in no more dire consequences than my sliding scale of irritated-to-horrified. These were all in the “safe” places where people live and send stupid photos on their cell phones.

It boils down to no matter where you are, what neighborhood, how safe you think you are, how secure, how trusting or vigilant, how amused or disgusted, you have choices. If you’re having trouble deciding whether drugging yourself or your friend is a good idea, if you’re having trouble deciding whether you should take care of your child or get high, if you’re having trouble figuring out whether to go to college or join a gang, if you are having trouble figuring out whether the wallet you just found in a theater seat should be returned to its owner empty or full, these are all 7 of Cups things. You have choices. You may not realize it, but you have lots of choices. Even if you are the victim of a bad situation or a crime, you have choices and sometimes the outcomes are not going to be clear.

For instance, say your department at work has a structural reorganization and you are unhappy with the way things turned out. You still have a job, but it’s not the job you used to have or hoped you would have. Something about it feels wrong. Maybe you don’t know your new boss. Maybe worse, you do. Maybe nothing looks clear to you and when you talk to the new regime, they don’t seem very clear either. You have choices.

Oh, sure, you can bail out. That’s an obvious one. But in these “Be happy you have a job,” days that might not be the best approach unless you like living in a culvert or an old car. You can deny that anything at all happened, but that’s not going to serve you either. Something did change after all.

If you are presented with what looks like chaotic circumstances, you can choose to be angry, sad, depressed. You can broadcast your unhappiness to the world or share it with just a few. You can decide to be overwhelmed by chaos and wait for someone to rescue you or you can view chaos as an opportunity to start over, redefine everything and make things work better than before.

Sure, not all of our choices are even that easy. Sometimes we have to pick between two awful situations. And maybe that’s the most important time to choose what’s positive, even if it’s just the acknowledgement that you had a choice at all. At least you’ll know what you were thinking.

Best wishes!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Underwear: Revenge of the Lycra

I found myself watching one of the Underworld movies while the hubby went to check on the rugby team and the pitch. He gets a little agitated when I watch scary stuff. Sometimes it's his concern over nightmares. He can have some humdingers. Sometimes it's the believability factor. It reminds me of my brother when we were little. I would thrill to One Step Beyond just as long as my older brother could take it. Then he would turn the television off to my protests and my mother, good mom that she was, backed him up saying no one needs any more nightmares. Very disappointing at the time. No 9 of Swords for me, nightmares, then waking up from nightmares. If I had nightmares, they happened during my waking hours.
Victorian Trade Card Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

It did spark my interest in finding good scary stories though.

A little later when my brother was less prone to nightmares and entirely too proud to turn off the television, we both loved Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He liked "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes." I liked that one, plus one starring Richard Thomas called "The Sins of the Fathers/You Can't Get Help Like That Anymore." There was something about customs from a time untouched by television or cell phones or even indoor plumbing that was fascinating, even if it was fictional. My favorite, though, was "Silent Snow, Secret Snow."

I wasn't sure then why I liked it so much. It was more eerie than anything else. There were no Kate Beckinsales with tossled hair and color-changing eyes. There were no ghosts to speak of, no monsters, no otherworldly dripping jaws smiling and sniffing while your hero perspired in fear and determination. There were no cute dragons or gremlins, dry or wet. There were no fangs or claws, no decapitations or suddenly animated inanimate objects. But it was scary to me, scary and delightful.

There was just a little boy whose fighting, bickering, battling parents were terribly concerned because the little boy would not wake up. He drifted in and out of consciousness, in and out of reality, preferring the quiet and cold of the snow to life on his parents' battlefield. The snow was so ordinary and yet so seductive. The frightening part was that it was so ordinary and to me so familiar.

I realized that the scary stories I liked the best were those where nearly everything was normal. Even my favorite non-scary stories were those where nearly everything was normal. I loved Edward Eager's Half Magic, so much so that I still own at least two copies of the childrens' book today. The children had a normal life, but not quite; they found a nickel that wasn't exactly a nickel and made wishes that sort of came true. Halfway. And I loved the Barbara Sleigh Carbonel series, two children and a cat whose language they could understand with just a drop of magic.

Over the top movies with a gorefest never appealed to me. My apologies to Freddy and Jason, but they just never were my cup of scream. And I generally preferred reading to movies anyway. If I wanted over the top stuff, all I had to do was dip a toe into H. P. Lovecraft's New England. Now something about Howard himself wasn't quite right either, but he was deliciously weird, a guy who stayed up all night and lived with his aunts, a guy who married another author and then agreed they should continue their relationship "by correspondence." We even have a cat toy I call Baby Cthulu for its combination of cute and, well, Lovecraftian yumminess. Gotta love that Howard. I figured if he wrote it, I "Dun-read-it." I even wanted to do post-graduate studies on Lovecraft but my English department wouldn't go for it. Such is the stuff of turning points in a life.

It's not that I can't be scared. I can. Reading Blatty's The Exorcist I had a case of goosebumps that would have impressed James Michener's Onkor the Goose in Chesapeake. By the time I saw the movie, either all my friends who wanted to see it had done so already and those who hadn't didn't want to. So I went by myself. I sat in the back row. Oh, I remember the stories of people running screaming from the theatres during the movie. Nope, not me. There were only a few of us there that afternoon and I sat in the back and laughed. Yeah, that was me. And I apologize to the other eight people at the movie that day wherever they are. The pea soup scene was especially funny because, well, because it wasn't ordinary enough for me.

I know everyone loves that darling little girl saying, "They're back!" in Poltergeist, but my favorite scene was the steak scooting across the counter. Aside from being sadly misnamed as a movie for the most part, I was a little disappointed in the goofiness of the medium (although she was cute) and most disappointed at the depiction of the ghosts. Seriously, just seeing something or someone that isn't supposed to be there is scary. They don't have to make them oozy skeletons. What if they had strollers and wore hats with flowers and carried umbrellas and woke you up while you were trying to get a decent night's sleep just to talk? What if Super 8 were just a scary motel with bedbugs or amorous neighbors instead of alien technology? What if the bugs started talking to you or worse, the sweethearts next door started calling your name? OK, that's scary.

One of my favorite ghost movies is Ghost Story where people connected to the callous treatment of someone they supposedly cared for suddenly became the victims of a very purposeful haunting. Normal stuff becomes abnormal. People start remembering things they wish they had forgotten. What first seems to be the "bad" ghost becomes a sympathetic character whose actions are at least understandable, well, until things go a step too far. Then you're glad to switch your loyalty back to the hero.

So for one of my very first comparative literature papers in college, while I had the chance to pick what I wanted to read instead of what they wanted me to read, I wrote about Conrad Aiken's Silent Snow, Secret Snow and one of his lesser known stories, comparing them. Both concern the wish of the child to escape his parents' terrible fighting, but while the child chooses escape in Snow, he chooses to move past this trauma and become his own person in the other story. I could relate. And I realized what was frightening about Snow was that the child chose to bury himself in his own mind, to become lost in the snow. Well, that paper got my teacher's attention and it wasn't to send me to therapy, thank goodness.

I'm older and wiser now. The things that scare me are wardrobe failures and departmental reorganizations. They are almost normal. Almost.

OK, so the really scary part is while I was writing this, the University where I wrote that paper on Conrad Aiken called me up as one of the alumni and asked me if I wanted to donate money to their English department. I laughed and told the student that when I went there, there was no such thing as an English department there. It was engineering only and I could only barely declare a major in English. Why, oh, why did my parents think that having me living at home while trying to major in English at an engineering university was "safer" than letting me go up the road to the next university where there was actually a college of liberal arts?

"So you're a student there," I tortured my caller, turning his interruption into my entertainment. "What's your major?"

"Electrical engineering," he said tentatively. It's not so much fun when I pry into your life, is it?

"Ah, not English. But Double-E is OK, right? You guys are usually pretty smart but not as swell-headed as the Chem Engins or the Ceramics." He snickered. So after determining that I was more interested in donating to the university radio station where I spent most of my free time while attending that respected hall of learning, we bid fond adieu.

I laughed. Coincidence, right?

Best wishes.