A Good Presidency Spoiled

I have reviewed over thirty books since I started the Dr. Bookworm blog last year. I have discussed all sorts of books: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Lesley Stahl’s Becoming Grandma, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, The Little Prince, War and Peace, Donna Leon’s The Temptation of Forgiveness and Richard Power’s The Overstory, to name a few. All this time, I have stayed out of national politics. I have stayed away from Trump. UNTIL NOW.

It’s not as if I’ve lived in a cave since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. I have been intensely interested as the TV images tumble and jumble together in my mind: toddlers in cages, blue tarped roofs, piles of uncollected garbage, dejected farmers, tiki- torch-bearing marchers. Trump’s actions toward other nations are equally dizzying: leaving the Paris Climate Accords, cozying up to North Korea, Mohammed bin Salman and Putin, shrugging off the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, snubbing NATO, and insults to Justin Trudeau, the Australian Prime Minister and everyone from a “shit hole country.”

I have listened to Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, John Kelly, Maria Bartiromo, the guys sitting on the couch on Fox and Friends and assorted current and now-fired enablers justify the indefensible. I have heard reporters and ex-officials on TV and the radio tout their tell-all books: Michael Wolff, Omarosa, Bob Woodward, the Team of Vipers guy, James Comey, Andrew McCabe. On and on. 

I haven’t wanted to review a book about Trump for two somewhat contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the hanging fruit is so low: gold escalators, porn stars and Playboy bunnies, the Tweets, the Prince of Whales and Covfefe. He’s a boor. 

The other reason is the fire hose of misdoings, so many that it’s boring to have to list them. And the lies! How to keep up? It’s already past 10,000 according to the Washington Post. I quote Rick Reilly, the author of the book I am reviewing this week “Sometimes the gap between the truth and Trumps (sic) is so great you couldn’t cross it with a Cessna.”

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But I can’t ignore the orange elephant in the room forever. At some point, I have to tackle Trump. I chose Rick Reilly’s book, The Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, because I like Rick Reilly and I like to play golf. I discovered Reilly, an award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated and ESPN,  about twenty years ago when I was struggling to learn golf as it was the passion of my new boyfriend (Bill). I found the game stultifying in every way. There are rules for how you hold your shoulders, wrists, elbows, fingers, hips; how you dress; where you can walk; when it’s your turn to play. 

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Rick Reilly

Reilly’s 1997 novel Missing Links, about a bunch of golf die-hards at an unkempt public course, humanized the game for me. And it was hilarious! It seems to me that the author of such a book has to be a person of humanity, insight and humor. (All traits that Trump lacks.) However depressing the message, I would enjoy the read because of the way Reilly writes. I was not disappointed. I got a chuckle out of his description of a Trump golf course in Scotland. “Take the lighthouse. It used to just sit there by the 9th tee, looking a lot like Melania, gorgeous and lonely.”

Reilly’s point isn’t just that Trump plays golf and builds and promotes his golf courses the way he runs the country — all of which is true — but that we all could have seen this coming had we been paying attention to Trump on the golf course. In Reilly’s words, “Golf is like bicycle shorts. It reveals a lot about a man.”

In golf and in the presidency, “Trump operates as though the rules are for other people.” “[T]he way Trump cheats at golf, lies about his courses, and stiffs his golf contractors isn’t that far from how he cheats on his wives, lies about his misdeeds, and stiffs the world on agreements America has already made on everything from Iran to climate change.”

Trump’s bad behavior on the golf course is personal for Rick Reilly. He quotes his father, Jack: “Remember, Ricky, golf is a gentleman’s sport.” And according to Reilly, “Somebody who makes his caddies cheat for him to earn their tip is not a gentleman. Somebody who bullies and manipulates and yells that his courses are the best in the world when that world absolutely knows otherwise is not a gentleman.” He adds, ‘I’m glad my dad didn’t live to see a Commander in Cheat like Trump. It would’ve turned his stomach.”

“To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.” This line by PG Wodehouse begins the book. My husband Bill, who has played golf since he was a teen, shares this view. He definitely would not do business with you if you cheated at golf.

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Bill

Golf is a game where one polices oneself. You can improve the lie of your golf ball with just a twist of your club without anyone seeing you. You can kick your ball out of the rough. (Trump does this so often that the caddies call him Pele.) You can drop a new ball down and pretend you’ve found the one that’s lost in the woods. In the 25 years I’ve played with Bill, he has never done any of these things. It’s the ethic of the game.

In a way, Bill and Rick Reilly are more appalled by Trump’s golfing antics than I. Not that I cheat, but I have often found many of the rules surrounding the game too stuffy, and dare I say, “gentlemenly.” Even these days, someone like me, an Asian woman, has a hard time finding my place at the golf club. I am a couple with Bill or I am relegated to the Thursday morning Ladies League.

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Me

I have often scoffed at the United States Golf Association’s Rules of Golf, a 500-page tome 41GbrAbF5UL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_that covers every contingency. It’s sort of like the Mueller Report. You really should read it, but it’s too damned long. Nonetheless, I do have my own verities that I live by: Truth, Science, Justice, Fair Play. And they are not far from the Rules of Golf’s Code of Conduct: “All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play.” (italics mine.) Disobeying the rules can get you disqualified. 

Even for someone who operates on the basis that rules are for other people, the extent to which Trump would go to “win” is extreme.When playing the game, Trump’s golf cart is rigged to go twice as fast as the others. That allows him to get to his ball first so that he can move it to his advantage. In order to hype his golf courses (and be able to charge more for membership,) Trump lies about their ratings by golf magazines. To take things

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FAKE!

one step further, Trump cheats about his own accomplishments. At several of his golf courses, Trump hung photos of himself as the cover of a 2009 issue of TIME magazine. Except that TIME did not publish any cover with Trump on it in 2009! Cheating at sports is usually a spur of the moment decision. These actions required planning and forethought. 

Rick Reilly interviewed many of the caddies at Trump’s courses — first names only. Just as Trump counts on his caddies to abet his cheating, at the risk of losing their jobs, he now has a whole Cabinet of such people. At Cabinet meetings, folks like DeVos, Carson, Zinke, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tom Price, Kirstjen Nielsen, Wilbur Ross, Elaine Chao earn their caddy’s tip by stroking Trump’s ego. The Congressional Republicans, like Trump’s caddies, go along with the Trump agenda even when they know what the real rules are.

There is even a golf equivalent of the Trump supporters, the Trump base, the 38%. (I have some in my family too.) They remind me of the people Trump plays golf with: professional golfers like Tiger Woods, sports celebrities and announcers like Mike Tirico, politicians like Lindsey Graham. They all know that he cheats, that he’ll always win, but they don’t care. They enjoy the banter, the attention, the company. A fun day, just not golf.

What this book tells me is not just that Trump behaves badly in golf and in life. It tells me that these traits are his character and he isn’t going to change. As long as he’s in office, the cronyism, the nepotism, the corruption, the casual cruelty, the lying, the demonization of the press and other perceived enemies will continue. For the sake of ourselves, others and those not yet born, Trump needs to be defanged, declawed and his power neutered. Or as the Rules of Golf would so drily put it, he should be disqualified. 

Tell me: Trump — a great golfer or the greatest? (apologies to the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert who always asked, “George W. Bush — a great president or the greatest?”)

 

To Be Old and Useful Is a Happy Thing

Even though Texas in 1870 is very far in time and space from my life in 2019 St. Louis, Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel News of the World, touches on subjects very close to my heart. The story is about an old man who transports ten-year Johanna four hundred miles through lawless Texas territory to her family near San Antonio. Three themes in this slim novel speak directly to me

  • how the old cope with physical and emotional challenges
    Paulette Jiles
  • the relentless human need to communicate
  • and a belief that every personality is made up of all their past: things that happened to them, people in their lives, memories, beliefs.

I read about Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd turning 72 three days before my 72nd birthday. His thoughts on aging ring true.  Physically, there are days when “he hurt in all his joints.” I don’t hurt in all my joints, just my right hip, across my lower back and when I step funny on my left foot. Every time I get up, I lumber a bit, like someone getting off a ship. Kidd felt that “[h]e could for a brief time work as hard as a younger man but it always took much longer to recover.” I know. I know. I still play hard at tennis, but afterwards, I need a nap. I’ve become aware that I sit down and rest after such minimally exertional activities as dishwashing or even yoga, the last ten minutes of which is lying still in “corpse pose.”

When the Captain knew he had to take a dangerous action, he acknowledged his age but said, “I am not a cripple and I am not stupid.” I admire his grit. Ten years ago, when husband Bill and I were both in our sixties, my dad had a serious stroke causing right-sided weakness and impaired speech. He had been the caretaker for my memory-impaired mom. They moved in with us. Caring for them for what turned out to be over three years was the most physically challenging thing I have done before or since. I remember telling Bill I felt like we were in a crucible and I wasn’t sure if we would come out of it intact.

For almost a year we didn’t have hired help. (At first, I had hopes he would significantly recover.) One of us had to sleep in their room, which had been our bedroom, every night to accompany Dad on multiple trips to the bathroom. We had to sleep with one eye open because he just took off despite his weak leg and falling risk. (Later, when he wore Depends, he would still head for the bathroom, like a reflex.) We cooked their accustomed Chinese meals. We kept hot tea available at all times. We checked dad’s blood sugars and gave appropriate doses of insulin.

Bill and I had part-time jobs at the time, our plan to ease into retirement. Fortunately, we were able to stagger our schedules so that one of us could always be home. I drove them to physical therapy. I accompanied Mom to Mass. Once a week, friends came over for mahjongg. The physical exhaustion weighed on both Bill and me. At night, lying on the air mattress next to mom and dad on our king bed, I could feel the achy tingling in my feet.  I started taking Ambien on nights not on duty because I couldn’t afford even one sleepless night. We had experienced similar conditions – lack of sleep and ridiculously long working hours — as medical residents. But we were young then.

Son Alex, Dad, Mom, me at Physical Therapy

Small glitches – a power outage or car trouble or an appliance malfunction (the dryer, the stove and the microwave all broke during this period) – became major crises. Then my beloved son decided to have a destination wedding in the Virgin Islands. Bill’s mom, who lived near her daughters in North Carolina, died, and Bill had to go there. Then, Bill had what we professionals called “acute urinary retention.” In layman’s terms, he couldn’t pee because his enlarged prostate blocked his bladder. For three weeks, he worked and carried out all his parent-care duties wearing a catheter and pee bag. After the wedding, and as both the parents’ health deteriorated, we got caretakers who spent the night. Still later, hospice workers helped with care, especially bathing.  To the very end, we never found anybody who could do Shanghai cuisine, however.

I think Jiles got it right about being old. You can never be sure if the challenge this time will be the end of you. Unlike the young, who see every setback as reversible, the old can never be sure that they will recover. I am happy to report that, as far as I can tell, we were not permanently broken.  This February, we trekked the Milford Track in New Zealand, a four-day, 33.5-mile hike with packs over boulders, streams, fallen trees and one mountain. Bill did carry catheters with him just in case.

Jiles explores the relentless drive of humans to communicate with others through the Captain’s story. Captain Kidd’s love of the written word began early in his life in an odd way. In the War of 1812, the teenage Jefferson Kidd was a runner in Andrew Jackson’s army, “carrying information by hand: messages, orders, maps, reports.” Kidd became a printer and headed out to San Antonio. There he opened his own print shop. “He loved print, felt something right about sending information out into the world.”

After losing his business following the Civil War, Kidd decided to make a living by reading the news to the residents of Texas frontier towns. He excerpted articles from US and world newspapers. He read to the people about electromagnetism, Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, Hottentots, Lola Montez, the British colonial government’s census in India, the Franco-Prussian War.

It was a living but also a calling. When Kidd was younger, he believed that “if people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places.” He didn’t believe that any more. Still, he felt he could be useful by escorting the listeners’ minds “into the lands of the imagination, far places, crisp ice mountains, falling chimney pots, tropical volcanoes.”

I am drawn to Captain Kidd’s love of stories and of the written word. His choice of stories to read, curating, really, shaped his listeners’ perceptions and feelings. I, too, have this urge to send my thoughts and feelings into the world. I’m not really sure why, but when I look around, the need to communicate seems nearly universal. In dictatorships where writing is a punishable offense, authors persist.

I, too, had an odd start to my writing life because I didn’t even know English until I was eight. Yet, I soon realized that I could move people just by how I put words together. In fifth grade, my essay of the battle of Marathon won the class’s vote!

“Guilty Pleasures” book signing at Left Bank Books, St. Louis, 2003

Even though my academic studies were in other fields, I continued to write. I put out a Xeroxed newsletter to my fellow medical students with such articles as Nestle’s push to get Latin American mothers to use infant formula instead of breastfeeding and opposition to the closing of one of the St. Louis County health clinics. I joined a writing group, and in 2003, our book Guilty Pleasures was published. I wrote op-eds printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And now I write gonzo book reviews.

It is not just my wanting others to understand my point of view. It is also to pay homage to all the stories that have moved me to laugh, cry, think. Until three weeks ago, when I picked up News of the World, I knew nothing about the Captain or the girl Johanna. Now they are so dear to me. Jiles’s description of spring coming to the Texas countryside made me acutely aware of the changes in the weather, the rivers, the trees and the birds in St. Louis this spring.

Kidd felt that everything he had been through – battles in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, being a Southerner during the Civil War, a happy marriage to a San Antonio woman from a Spanish land-grant family, owning a printing company, being the father of two daughters – had made him the person he was in 1870.

Like Kidd, I am the accumulation of my experiences, my thoughts, my dreams and even my imagination. Captain Kidd believed that “Every thing you ever did stayed with you, every horse you ever saddled, every morning he awoke with Maria Luisa beside him, and every slap of the paten on fresh paper, every time he had thrown open the shutters in the Betancort house, and his captain dying under his hands, always there like a tangle of telegraph wires in the brain where no dispatch was ever lost.”

I time-travel every day, thousands of times. My memory travels to the days when my parents taught me how to be a Chinese person in America. Rather than chiding me for some behavior, Mom would say, “We Chinese do such and such this way.” I remember how much I ached for an unattainable boy. I can feel the excitement ofwhen my girl friends and I celebrated the last day of high school by going to see the movie Tom Jones. I still see myself making hospital rounds with my young son in tow. I remember the faces of the bean counters who took my medical practice from me. I relive the hours Bill and I sat on my living room loveseat making out, unable to keep our hands off of each other, even though we were both in our forties. Nothing and no one is lost. It is a comfort to me.

Bill and I on the Milford Track

I hope, at 72, that I, too, can rise to the challenge if I am called upon to take on a dangerous and important mission. But, in the meantime, just like Captain Kidd, I am “still in one piece, alive and unaccountably happy.”

Tell me: Have you a favorite place where memory takes you?

Guardians of Being

I can’t say if April really is the cruelest month. From my position here throughout April and into May, it feels pretty shitty. I am a cheerful person — some friends might say, relentlessly cheerful — yet, I feel edgy, unsettled, depressed. My next book review was going to be the redacted Mueller Report. But, as the days passed, something always came up to keep me from opening the ebook version of the report that I had downloaded. There is a disturbance in the force, methinks.

Why might this be? There have been a lot of deaths and serious illnesses among my friends this year. And we’re not that old! We are not yet the advanced elderly. My friends have been felled by drop-dead heart attacks, dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer. Other friends have gone under the knife for leaky heart valves, possible cancers in the lung and in the belly, and an array of ortho procedures. OK, I expected the hip, spine and foot operations, but the life-threatening stuff? Not yet! I thought I had seen what illness was about in my decades as a doctor, but seeing my friends and their families go through such suffering disheartens me.

Even the pets are sick: lymphoma, seizures, pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease. 

Then there’s the political climate. So much lying. We all know it. The Mueller Report only gave the chapter and verse. What does it say about the state of affairs that I think it’s even odds between our President and North Korea as to who is telling the truth about the two million dollars for Otto Warmbier’s release? 

You know when you’re down and everything that bothers you seems connected? Well, years ago, I had a very bad run-in with a relative. They were litigious, quarrelsome and twisted every fact to their own self-serving interpretation. Seeing some politicians unartfully spin lies and browbeat others is like re-living the emotional trauma of being abused by my relative. And other politicians who, opossum-like, do not protest such treatment of their citizenry, remind me of the relatives who were afraid of the temper-tantrum throwing one.

The proliferation of racist hate crimes upset me. There have been so many shootings in churches, mosques and synagogues. I never thought I’d worry about my grandchildren because they are Jewish. 

Also, the melting Antarctic, immigrant children ripped from their parents, transgendered folks being forced out of the military, millions in fear of deportation, people going broke from medical bills,  farmers going broke sitting on tons of soybeans, factories closing, black men getting shot by cops. So much misery, and much of it societally self-inflicted.

Even getting HBO this week to watch The Game of Thrones hasn’t gotten me out of this funk. I knew something was wrong when I didn’t get excited about the running shoes I had ordered online that were even more comfortable than the ones I had worn out. Instead of dancing a jig, I muttered, “Okay.” It may be my imagination, but I think my cat Lily has been looking at me with concerning glances. 

Or maybe, my mood is just a drug side effect. I started on Zocor for cholesterol less than two months ago. It could be something as simple as that. A good friend suggested that possibly I was let down by the Mueller Report itself. We had waited for so long, and in the end, the wrangling continues. So, perhaps it’s not so mysterious that I never got around to opening the redacted Mueller Report.

IMG_7710Looking on my shelf for another book to write about, I found The Guardians of Being, with words by Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, and pictures by Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the comic strip Mutts. My son gave me this book a couple of Christmases ago. I enjoyed it at the time, and then I put it away. This time, I found great solace.

Through full page illustrations, some of them in the style of Japanese woodcuts, Tolle and McDonnell gently nudge us to get out of our minds. They advise: “Be still. Look. Listen. Be present.”

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“raindrops falling” in Japanese woodcut style

Being present requires stillness — to tune in to Nature: the sound of rain, the song of birds, to really see a flower. Taking the book’s suggestion to heart, I decided to take a walk in my neighborhood. I let my surroundings come to me. I just took them in. It was an overcast, coolish day, typical for this rainy April. Everywhere I looked, vistas of lawn IMG_7682and trees in soothing shades of green met my eye. A spot of color would pop up like a birthday surprise: dogwoods in white and pink; azaleas in red, white and light purple;

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Dogwood

cherry blossoms. In close ups, I notice the miraculous “lobster claw” bud that would

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Iris bud

become a full-blown iris in about a week, the flashy, tarty tulip and the insouciant lilac bushes with their cloying scent and circling bees.

Nature was going on, oblivious to my swirling thoughts. In fact, at least for a while, the swirling slowed considerably. So much so that I was absolutely delighted when geese parents hissed at me when I ran into their little familial gathering. IMG_7724

Another part of Nature lives with us. Our pets! According to Tolle and McDonnell, “When you pet a dog or listen to a cat purring, thinking may subside for a moment and space of stillness arises within you, a doorway into Being.” They also say, “The vital function that pets fulfill in this world hasn’t been fully recognized. They keep billions of people sane.” They are the Guardians of Being.

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Guardian Patsy with Jean
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Guardian Charlie with Cindy
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Guardian Theodore with Caleb
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Guardian Lily and me

When I got home, I cradled Lily in my arms and took some deep breaths. As Eckhart Tolle says, “I have lived with many Zen masters, all them cats.” IMG_7709

Tell me: Who is your Guardian?

 

Help Me, Marie Kondo!

41F9o66qNTL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Marie Kondo is an international phenomenon. She is the Dalai Lama of decluttering, the Dr. Ruth of neatness, the Oprah of organizing. In her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and on her new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, this young, petite Japanese woman gives tips on organizing every item in your home and tells you her philosophical basis for doing so. 

The KonMari Method, as she calls her process, feels a bit cultish. The rules are rigid. Things must be tackled in this order: clothes, books, papers, komono (a Japanese term variously translated as miscellaneous items or accessories or gadgets but which includes dishes, linens, appliances, CDs, etc.) and sentimental objects. Purge first, then organize. The organizing principle, the rationale, is simply whether or not the object “sparks joy.” All items of the same sort must be stored in the same place. 

And like a religion, the promised reward for following the rules is paradisiacal and eternal. “If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly, and completely … you’ll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after (italics mine). Marie Kondo also writes, “As you reduce your belongings … you will come to a point where you suddenly know how much is just right for you. ‘This is just the amount I need to live comfortably. This is all I need to be happy.’ … Interestingly, once you have passed this point, you’ll find that the amount you own never increases.” (Italics mine.)

Okay, okay. Before going any further, I want to come clean. I am not going to tidying heaven, at least not this go-round. I couldn’t stick to one of the very basic tenets.. I couldn’t drink the Kool Aid. I couldn’t do it.

Other than being petite Asian women, Marie Kondo and I couldn’t be more different.Kond_9781607747314_epub_001_r1 Guess which of us said, “My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five.” You’re right. It’s not me. My earliest experience of tidying up was in grade school. On Friday afternoons, our teacher had the kids clean out their desks. The storage space was under the seat. I would fill the space and still had a book left to put in. I’d stack the books with the top going in first. Nope. Then, I’d put them in with the spine facing me. That didn’t work either. I took the extra book home.

I asked an Asian-American friend whether she had read the Kondo book. She gave a dismissive look. “I don’t have to. I already have the genes.” Well, I have the genes too. My parents were very neat people. Mom would slip dad’s newly laundered undershirts in the bottom of the stack in the drawer. She figured Dad would take them from the top, as that was most convenient. That way, each shirt would get worn in rotation. Dad, on his part, took his shirt every day from the bottom of the pile, thinking that it’d be easier for Mom to just put the clean shirts on the top. The pile was so neat that neither noticed for months. So, I can’t blame my genes or my upbringing. 

When I decided to read and review The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I had not realized the rules were so cut and dried. Nonetheless, I hoped to follow the rules at least through the first  of the five organizing categories in the mandatory sequence: IMG_7641Clothes. This would require me to gather all my clothes — from the coat closet, from my half of the bedroom walk-in IMG_7638 2closet, from my off-season clothes closet and from my chest of drawers — and my shoes and belts into a big pile. I needed to pick up each one and decide if it “sparks joy.” If not, discard. But, before discarding, thank the shirt or dress or coat for having done its job for me.

IMG_7640Even though she didn’t explicitly say so, I think that one reason Marie Kondo insists on putting everything into a great big stack is to shock you with the volume of your belongings. I was doomed when I realized that I couldn’t have a huge pile of clothes sit in my living room or family room or the bedroom for, I don’t know, a week? I just couldn’t do that to my husband. 

So, I went to each place and went through the ritual of touching, assessing the joy level and thanking the tossed items. I first did my closets, then my drawers, then my shoes and belts. And even though I did get rid of a fair amount of stuff, I was already doomed. “Tidying by location is a fatal mistake,” Marie Kondo says.“This approach is fatal,” she repeats in a different part of the book, in case you missed it the first time. 

Let me tell you what this mini-purging felt like for me. I had a hard time deciding what “sparking joy” means exactly. I had a pair of shorts that were baggy and wrinkled. BUT, it had roomy pockets, enough for two tennis balls. That’s why I have them. (Usefulness can spark joy but Marie Kondo doesn’t want you to start down the rabbit hole of analysis. Hold an object and wait for the feeling.). I have golf clothes, birding clothes, Symphony clothes, Latin dancing clothes. I have clothes that are older than Marie Kondo. I decided to part with my wedding getaway dress, from my first wedding in 1972. It’s still cute, but I didn’t feel the joy. 

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Even though I only experienced the tip of the KonMari iceberg, I found it a positive experience and learned a lot. Here are the most useful take-aways:

Be grateful to your belongings and your home. Multiple scientific studies show that gratitude improves physical and psychological health. Marie Kondo’s approach to her house and her belongings is all about gratitude, even if on the anthropomorphizing side. She says, “It is precisely because we have a home to return to that we can go out to work, to shop, or to interact with others. The same is true for our belongings. It is important for them to have that same reassurance that there is a place for them to return to.” I am reminded of one of my favorite arias in La Boheme where the philosopher Colline praises and bids farewell to his coat when he has to sell it. 

 

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My sock drawer

Store everything vertically. Marie Kondo feels that most

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Underweardrawer from above

clothes will be “happier” folded and placed vertically in a drawer. They are certainly easier to find. As I’ve only watched the first episode of her show, I only know how to fold socks and shirts and underwear. I look forward to learning how to store pants. She recommends vertical storage for paperwork as well. That will be a formidable challenge.

 

 

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T-shirts

Reduce the effort needed to put things away. Marie Kondo says that it is a mistake to place things for ease of getting to them. Her point is that we are willing to go to great lengths to dig out some object when we want it. What we need to do is to find places that are convenient when it’s time to put things back because that’s when we lose steam. This assumes that every object has its place in the house. It’s our obligation to the thing that serves us. 

Practice deciding. It will get easier and easier to know your own mind and heart the more you make the “sparking joy” decisions about your stuff.

Clean clutter to lose weight. Marie Kondo makes the observation that her clients tend to get slimmer when their house is tidy. She admits, “I have no scientific basis for this.” (Well, actually, there are studies. One of them shows that people in a chaotic kitchen tend to eat more snacks, about two-hundred-calories-an-hour’s worth. The theory is that clutter = stress = impulse eating.)

Marie Kondo is a winsome person. She writes with total sincerity. She’s found out through trial and error — she’s been thinking about these issues since age five, remember — what works for her. And she just wants to help you. I absolutely believe her when she says that she takes everything out of her purse at the end of every day and puts her wallet, receipts, train pass and business card holder in their designated places. I also absolutely believe that I am never going to do that.

Nevertheless, I plan to continue the KonMari Method. I will tackle books next, then papers, komono and sentimental objects. I may not always follow the rules exactly, but in tidying as in life, it’s never too late for redemption.

Tell me: What’s your system for organizing your things?

St. Louis Better Together and “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_003_r1The town of Frip is “three leaning shacks by the sea.” The combined population of St. Louis City and St. Louis County is 1.3 million people. What the tiny fictional town and the Midwestern city have in common is that conditions are not working for the people. Something needs to change.

I grew up in the southwest part of  St. Louis City, a section called St. Louis Hills. Driving east on Watson Road (part of the fabled Route 66) into St. Louis, I watched the “Welcome to St. Louis” sign’s population number tick down from over 750,000 to less than half that number. I myself am one of those who left, moving first to the inner suburb of University City, and then to the bedroom community of Creve Coeur. 

IMG_3543One way St. Louis’s loss of stature struck home to me happened when I was in New Zealand last month. No one had heard of St. Louis. As I watched the blank, puzzled looks on the Kiwis’ faces, I tried Missouri (no), the Midwest (nope) or the Arch (not really). I finally settled on “300 miles south of Chicago.”

In addition, I realize that our region has real and substantive socio-economic issues: among them, racism, loss of manufacturing jobs, unequal school funding and unequal policing. I also realize that there are huge human costs attached to these dry sounding issues: loss of income, loss of hope, loss of future, health, life. One reflection of these inequalities was the months of unrest that unfolded in one of the County municipalities: Ferguson.

The fragmentation of the St. Louis area among the City and the eighty-eight municipalities of the County present formidable challenges to cooperative action in solving regional problems. For forty years, I have driven by boarded up buildings and leveled lots when I go to the Symphony, the Botanical Gardens and to see the baseball Cardinals, all located in the City. There have been improvements, for sure, but very piecemeal: a grocery store here, a rehabbed block or two there, a medical clinic elsewhere. I know I am emblematic of the problem. I go to the City for entertainment and culture but I pay my taxes to the County.

In 1876, St. Louis City officially separated from St. Louis County. At the time, the City’s population and wealth overwhelmed the County’s. The tables have turned and the City has become the impoverished partner. Now, a proposal to combine the City and the eighty-eight County municipalities would make the new Metro City the tenth largest city in the country. Because of the 1876 “divorce” and because of the huge number of municipalities that have their own police forces, municipal courts and sales tax structure, this is very complicated and contentious. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the status quo has not worked for decades.

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_cvi_r1In The Very Persistant Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and illustrated by Lane Smith, the human residents of Frip, all ten of them, are also in an untenable situation. The Saun_9780812989649_epub3_051_r1
very persistent gappers of the title are bright orange, baseball sized creatures with multiple protuberant eyes and little intellect. They shriek with happiness when they find a goat to glom onto. They are loving the goats of Frip , if not to death, then to the point that the goat lies “on its side with a mortified look on its face.” They quit making milk when covered by gappers. The three families of Frip all count on selling goat’s milk for their livelihoods. 

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_010_r1

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_005_r1It is the tradition in Frip that the human children brush the gappers from the goats eight times a day and dump them into the sea. The gappers love the goats so much that they climb back from the sea bottom, up the cliff and back onto the goats. All the children are exhausted, but only the girl Capable has the imagination and the guts to try doing something different. Through her wits, her courage and her kindness, Capable shows all the others how to make a change. In the end, even the gappers change. 

What I love about this modern day children’s book is that there are no bad guys: no witches, no ogres, no meanies. The adults, like most of us,  are pre-occupied with themselves. Mr. Ronsen spends his time shaving and trimming his nose hairs. Mrs. Romo’s passion is singing: ”She sang in a proud and angry way, as if yelling at someone.” Capable’s father is paralyzed by grief due to the death of Capable’s mother. The Ronsen girls only think about boys. The Romo boys spend all their time fighting with each other. 

Just like most of us, the residents of Frip are a tad selfish, a tad self-absorbed, a tad self-righteous.They ascribe good luck to their own virtue and others’ bad luck to their inferiority. When the gappers temporarily left the Romo goats alone, Bea Romo crows, “God has been good to us….Why? I can’t say….I suppose we must somehow deserve it.” The Ronsens and Romos send a joint letter in response to Capable’s request for help. They write, “…although we are very sympathetic to your significant hardships, don’t you think it would be better if you took responsibility for your own life? …it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us.” For as long as I can remember, the more affluent municipalities have assumed very similar attitudes of condescension toward their less well-off neighbors.

I also see similarities in the narrow viewpoints and self-serving attitudes between the people in Frip and the different stakeholders in the debate to unify the St. Louis region. Most people, myself included, only worry about the direct effect on their own day-to-day lives. Blacks, as reflected in an editorial to the St. Louis American, are worried about dilution of their political power. They will make up a much smaller percentage of population in the newly united area than they have in St. Louis City now. Local municipal leaders and judges are loath to give up power even if it’s power over a small fiefdom. I wonder if the united police department would come and check on our house while we are on vacation which the Creve Coeur Police Department does. 

There is also opposition to the actual process. My very conservative neighbor, an Ann Coulter fan, who has an opposition sign in her yard and a very left -leaning IMG_6955friend, a fan of Noam Chomsky, both oppose this unification plan. Both complain of lack of transparency and  lack of input. What bothers me is that the one of the more visible supporters is Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy local businessman who has made out-sized political donations to anti-taxation bills and Republican politicians.

On the other hand, the supporters are an impressive group. The City Mayor and the County Executive vigorously support the plan. They have the backing of businesses and organizations, such as the BJC and 43VM2vd4_400x400Mercy Hospital systems, Emerson Electric and Washington University. They have a catchy name, Better Together. Most importantly, they have the populace’s sense that what we have been doing isn’t working. The official report gives projections of savings of scale in aligning the area’s taxation structure, courts, policing, infrastructure. That certainly makes sense.

Why so much opposition? There is concern that the money saved is going to line the pockets of those who already have clout. A tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor suggested how streamlined  bribes would become if there were only one set of  government officials instead of the near hundred we now have.

In Frip, Capable decides that “it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.” I venture that most St. Louisans agree with Capable in their heart of hearts. 

This is what Better Together needs to do. They need to convince us that we are

IMG_7636
Me, too! (It’s a Molina shirt)

better than we really are. They need to buoy us up, get us to buy into the future of the entire area and convince us how we are intertwined with the fates of our neighbors. They need to exercise leadership! Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team could be a part of that. Have you noticed that in almost every news cast—a fire, a car chase, a festival—when regular people are interviewed, they are wearing a Cardinals cap, or T-shirt or sweatshirt?

It is a good thing that the St. Louis region is starting to address the fragmentation, the disunity, the distrust. I think this proposal is a first offer. And for inspiration, I recommend the example of Capable in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

Tell me: What fictional character inspires you?

The Bear on the Stair: Tales of the Prairie, with Paintings

Journalist Susan Caba wrote this book review. She first published it on her blog: http://www.resaleevangelista.wordpress.com. Susan is one of my co-authors of the book Guilty Pleasures.

“As I was walking through our house one night, a smelly, fierce, roaring black bear appeared out of a dark corner and chased me up the stairs. He almost caught me.”

The bear in question had quite a few teeth and a long, pink tongue which he waggled as he roared at the bottom of the curving staircase.

“I ran as fast as I could, slammed the door on his nose, and leaped to safety deep beneath the covers of my bed. The bear made one last horrible roar and left.”

Bear on the Stair

The words belong to Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, recalling a tale told to her as a child by her grandmother in a little house in South Dakota. The vivid watercolor of the bear is hers, too, painted by Catherine many years later, as she grew old.

“Even now, I get goose bumps when I think of that bear. Mom’s sister, Aunt Clara, told me that I had a wild imagination. She did not mean it as a compliment.”

Though Catherine died in 1996, her “wild imagination” lives on.

Her watercolors and stories have just been published in a book, Glorious Fourth of July and Other Stories from the Plains. Catherine recounted the tales to her two daughters so they would sit still while she braided their hair. Later still, she made what she called “memory paintings” of these childhood stories. They were exhibited, in 1992, at the Mitchell Museum in Mount Vernon, Ill. Her friends told her she should make a book.

Catherine never got around to following their suggestion. But her daughter,  renowned St. Louis artist Mary Gibson Sprague, kept the paintings and remembered the stories. Finally, in honor of her mother, she gathered the work, researched the stories for historical accuracy and, two years later, the result is Glorious Fourth.

Glorious Fourth cover

I remembered the stories and did not want them to end, I owed it to her to pass them on,” says Mary, now in her 80s. “Mother taught me to see creatively…from baseball to gumdrops, she paid attention to the world around her.”

Each of the 32 paintings tells a story, recalled from Catherine’s childhood in the early 1900s, about life on the plains of South Dakota and Montana. Glorious Fourth is sure to beguile children, but will also be appreciated by historians, art enthusiasts and anyone who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilders Little House on the Prairie books. In fact, Glorious Fourth is published by The South Dakota Historical Society Press—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s publisher.

“The coyotes were so quiet and thin that it was creepy. Shep barked harder and we walked faster. The coyotes drew closer. Finally, Shep laid his ears back, faced the animals and bared his surprisingly large, white teeth.”

The book tells tales of menace—a circling pack of coyotes, cyclones, and an Indian who showed up unannounced, but only wanted to borrow a needle. There are stories of everyday entertainments—dancing the Mazurka on the parlor rug, telling ghost stories during a thunderstorm, ice skating on empty lots flooded by the Watertown Fire Department. And then, of course, there was mischief—but I’ll leave that for you to discover.GranPa's beard

Catherine was a master of composition and color. These watercolors, painted between 1986 and 1989, are edgy and fresh—a mash-up of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, with a dollop of Keith Haring. They are as alive as stained glass windows on a sunny day.

She studied art at the University of Minnesota, met and married her husband, Verne Cyril Gibson, and graduated in 1929. Verne—known as “Gib”— took a job as an engineer with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard. With two daughters in tow, the family followed his assignments to lighthouse stations around the country, finally settling in San Francisco. Catherine painted when she could and joined the artistic community in every place they lived.

When Gib retired, Catherine could finally paint full-time. And, during the last few years of Gib’s life, when he was ill and housebound, she made her memory paintings to pass the time and cheer him up. In doing so, she created vivid images and stories that made the past come alive—and seem magical.

“During the making of this book, I realized these stories are more than a collection of one family’s anecdotes,” says Mary Gibson Sprague. “They belong to any family that ever had the imagination to move from place to place in search of a better life.”

If there is one trait that defined Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, it was imagination.

“One day, Dad came home (and) the back seat of his car was soaking wet, while, oddly, the front half was completely dry. He said he had driven home so fast that the line storm could not get past him…my daughters decided that I made this story up. I finally painted a picture to show them how it happened. They said I made the picture up, too.”

granpas storm art

Glorious Fourth of July is available from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, South Dakota 57501, www.sdhspress.com

High resolution images available.

The paintings of Mary Gibson Sprague can be seen at marysprague.com

Tell me: Who is the historian (writing and/or painting) in your family? How about you?