what takes your breath away?

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

A few weeks ago, as I was making a routine journey back and forth along the busy street I traverse several times a day, I couldn’t help but hear the leaves.  I heard them.  Yes.  That’s what I wrote.  I  h e a r d  them.

They were the deepest, most crimson red they’d ever be this year.  Saturated with beauty and singing their highest notes.  An opera for my ears, a crescendo of color.  Have you ever noticed that?  How autumn leaves are this most vivid, crisp color just before they begin to fade and fall to the ground?

There are so many things like this that take my breath away.

Yesterday marked the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, and at a time in which we find our world community tempted toward anxiety and despair, when I know so many of us are caught up in the tumult of life, it’s these moments of awe and wonder that fill me with gratitude and propel me forward in hope.  There are kind strangers holding open doors for you.  There are clerks smiling behind cash registers.  There are even drivers nodding and letting you in to jammed city streets, waving back at you, you’re welcome.

There are so many things . . . just listen.

By now the rains have come, and those beautiful leaves have fallen at our feet, a small sacrifice for the springtime flowers to come.  But it has me singing, welcoming the coming light into the world and wondering, what takes  y o u r  breath away?



Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells
And schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things




MERRY CHRISTMAS, from two or three little birds.


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when the gloves come off

warning: there’s some unflattering language up ahead

I think it’s just me.  Is it just me?  I mean, do you never cringe just a little when the diminutive mother with a toddler clinging to each knee stands next in line at the bank rifling through her handbag muttering to herself, Oh for fuck’s sake!  Where is that god damned check!  Shit damn MUHthurrrFUCKer!  If I lost it . . . Jesus H. Christ and holy fuck fuck FUCK!  Oh.  There it is.  She turns to look at you smiling for sympathy.  Fucking hate that shit when you can’t find things, dontchyou?  And she’s not toting a worn out pleather handbag and chipped nail polish, either.  She doesn’t smell like an ashtray or cry out for a root touch up.  Nope. Elegant as an English rose and cursing like a sailor.

sedarisflamesDavid Sedaris writes about a similar experience aboard an airplane in his essay “Town & Country.”  He’s seated next to a natty couple he describes as in their late 60s and looking as if they’d just attended a horse show,

him in a cashmere blazer and her in grey tweed jacket, a gem-encrusted shamrock glittering against the rich felt of her lapel . . . . as I stood in the aisle to let them in, I felt the shame of the tragically outclassed.  The sport coat I had prided myself on now looked clownish, as did my shoes, and the fistful of pine straw I referred to as my hair.  Excuse me, I said, apologizing basically for my very existence.  The couple took their seat and just as I settled in beside them the man turned to the woman saying, I don’t want to hear this shit. I assumed he was continuing an earlier argument but it turned out he was referring to the George Gershwin number the airline had adopted as its theme song.  I can’t believe the fucking crap they make you listen to on planes now a days.  The woman patted her silver hair and agreed with him, saying that whoever had programmed the music was an asshole.  A cock sucker, the man corrected her.  A god damned cock sucking asshole.  They weren’t loud people.  They didn’t even sound all that angry really.  This was just the way they spoke — the verbal equivalent of the everyday china.

This was just the way they spoke, but why is it so funny?  To imagine a tony couple, silver-haired and manicured talking like guests on the Jerry Springer show?  I wiped stinging tears from under my eyes and nearly peed my pants listening to this story in the car, but I’m acutely aware that it’s usually just me laughing hysterically.  I mean, is grandma and grandpa talking shit on the plane even really funny anymore?  Do we even cock our heads and tune our ears anymore?  Do we even raise an eyebrow?

Last quarter I had a particularly charming if not vocal student who dropped the F-bomb during class discussions, in peer groups, in general conversations with those around him.  I was repeatedly amused at his cavalier profanity, but then again, why should I be?  It’s indiscriminate and everywhere.  I’ve strolled back from the beach with our parish youth group and been just a few paces ahead of middle school students engaged in similar ribald banter, in front of their adult chaperones — on a church outing.  And even my daughter’s ten and eleven year old giggly classmates give chase on the playground, calling each other douche bags with the toss of a ball.  Most parents wouldn’t laugh nervously or cringe as I did when I first overheard my daughter use this word in the backseat of my car recently.  It really is just me.  I’m an English teacher, and well, you know, I’m judgy and keenly dialed in to irony and all that.  But more than anything, words have a way with me.

Do you even know what a douche bag is?  I asked her.  I mean, do you really KNOW what you’re calling one another when you use that word?  Because when you find out what it really means you might think twice about using it again.  “Is it a bad word?” she asked with concern, because truly, she doesn’t like what she calls “unflattering language” and shoots me sideways glances if my television shows contain an off remark or modest show of affection.  Well, not really, it’s kind of a funny word I guess.  And here’s where most people would stop.  They’d let it go.  I mean, come on.  The kid doesn’t even know what it means, so what’s the harm, right?  But see, I can’t let it go because that word is having its way with me and so I’m picturing four foot boxes of Summer’s Eve Feminine Wash running around on the blacktop, and on top of that I’m thinking about what kinds of women actually buy those boxes, too, and I’m giggling nervously and appalled at the same time and so I proceed to tell her, A douche is a vagina cleaner.  “A VAGINA CLEANER?!  GROSS!!!!”  And after a few seconds the laughter subsides when she asks, “But . . . what’s the bag for?”  Well that would be what you put the cleaner in before you squirt. it. in. to. your. vagina!  “GROSS!!” she screams.  “That is so DISGUSTING!”

I’m not sure what’s more disgusting, though, me describing this to my littlest love or the fact her friends blithely kick these terms around to our amusement.  It is funny to me.  I do laugh at my f***ing student, at my daughter and her friends.  But I’m also drawn more and more to Audrey Hepburn movies, to Nora Ephron and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  To humor softened with grace and dignity and charm . . . the gloves are off everywhere you go, the waltz is over, and suddenly I find myself that tsk tsking old lady shooing those rascally kids off the front porch with a sweep of her folded up Reader’s Digest.  I am THAT lady.  Me!

And yet can we blame our kids for picking up foul language when it’s become the primary means of artistic expression?  It’s woven into so much of our popular culture, in music and storytelling that seems more and more designed to shock and horrify than anything else.

This past week Showtime launched a media campaign for their new series, HAPPYish, billed as a dark satirical comedy starring the brilliantly deadpan British humorist Steve Coogan (A Trip to Italy, Philomena).  I love Steve Coogan, I love British humor, and I love quirky dark comedy (Election, There’s Something About Mary).  One quiet evening last week, while everyone was downstairs getting ready for bed, I popped a bag of microwave popcorn, settled myself on the couch and reached for the remote when I stumbled upon this show and didn’t think twice before . . . CLICK!

After a brief trailer promoting another Showtime series, the screen cuts away to an image of Mt. Rushmore.  A digitally drawn arrow points to one of the chiseled presidents and Coogan begins this off screen monologue,

This is Thomas Jefferson, founding father of my adopted home of America, which I love with all my heart.  But then, FUCK, he had to go and write that line: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Life, sure.  Liberty, I understand the basic concept.  But happiness?  I mean, What the fuck is happiness? . . . A BMW?  A thousand Facebook friends?  A million Twitter followers?  I wish he’d been more honest.  I wish he’d just said Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness whatever the fuck that is.  Just don’t keep us guessing Tom.  Guessing and pursuing and failing . . . FUCK YOU Thomas Jefferson!

And it was all downhill from there.  More bad, derivative writing.  More profanity.  So not funny.  Not even FUNNYish, but I’m not in the best position to stand by that assessment because I stopped watching after ten minutes.  That’s all I could take.  Coogan and Hahn play a progressive middle aged couple with what looks like a five year old son cast no doubt for his adorable inability to make Rs.  The opening scene has the family gathered around a birthday cake in their woodsy New England home, pissing and moaning about middle age with another equally whiny couple and their young son, who in the first few minutes both the dads call an asshole, a fucking asshole.  As they all laugh and contemplate his doomed fate, the boy’s parents eventually agree they’d be happy if he just turns out to be an average prick.  A run of the mill dick, the stepdad says.  When Coogan wonders if his own boy might turn out to be a pussy instead, his wife shrugs over the dishwater and says, Well. I would rather have an asshole than a pussy.  With the opening credits still fading in at the 3 minute 55 second mark, I’m cringing and wondering if the television isn’t turned up too loud.

Like the couple in the Sedaris story, this was just they way they spoke, about assholes and pussies and shit.  And I know the show’s supposed to be about disillusionment, the yawing malcontents looking around and wondering, is this all there is?  I get that.  And I suspect the writers want the show to be edgy and cool and shocking, but how miserable.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m no June Cleaver by any means.  I’m only sighing is all, and wondering if you are, too.

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we should plague everyone with joy, especially at the post office

We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?
Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras

If you’re trying to avoid tranquility spend some time at the post office around closing time and pray you don’t bump into me.  I found myself zipping around this burb at rush hour yesterday with a pocketful of errands to run, foremost of which was a mad dash for the post office to make the 5 pM pick up time. I glided through the service station car wash and looked down at my phone: 4:53. Could I make it? Oh, why not try? When I pulled into the parking lot and saw several others milling in and out of the open doors and a young clerk with a collection bin making his rounds of the blue mailboxes outside, I was overcome with YAY! Bon Voyage, my beautiful card for my special friends! Your ship is sailing and you’re just in time! YAYYY!

But I still needed to purchase a stamp. I had already quickly judged that young clerk and knew it would only take a smile to get him to take my letter after closing hours, so I just needed to get that stamp. A woman stood fumbling before the meter machine, and I stood back observing her transaction. A few seconds later and her postage fell into the slot below. When she began to sort out her mail and stand there at the machine addressing and posting her items, I kindly and I do mean kindly in the way I was beaming with glee to have made it there kindly and to have that young clerk to take my letter and to know my friends would get this card in time for Easter kindly. Super kindly I asked her, are you all done?


Just let me finish will you? she grumbled, as she stopped addressing her letters and returned to the computer screen to finish her transaction. Thank you, I smiled and stood back a little more. She poked around at the screen and let out another grumble. You don’t have to be so pushy, she said. And here is where I will stop and admit, I was breezing into that Post Office at closing time. I breeze into a lot of things with a joyful casualness that can be off putting. An alacrity that catches you off guard. But she humored me, and I couldn’t help smiling at her as I said, Well, you don’t have to be so grumpy!

Is it wrong to delight in humoring grumpy people? It might border on teasing, but sometimes I can’t help it. Despite what that quote above from Swami says, she was never going to smile back at me no matter what I said. But the man a counter over did, and as he and I shared a chuckle after she left, somehow the joy that passed between us mattered more.

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