RSS Feed

Puzzle Without a Picture

Puzzle Without a Picture

I spent last week with my dear friend on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in a house perched on the sea. Each sunrise filled the sky with colors of increasing extravagance and the promise of a new day.

NH Sunrise I 5-21-19

At the beach house, we drank tea scented with bergamot, vanilla and mint, ate the very healthy regional specialty, Scotch Bonnet fudge, and stayed up far too late putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle called “Half Life” made with “whimsy” pieces.

Half Life Puzzle 5-23-19

Mornings, I searched the beach for what I called “non-worry” stones, smooth reminders to live in the moment as much as possible without letting fear crowd the mind.

Nonworry stones NH.jpg

Our freewheeling conversations ranged from lighthearted to sobering and sad. We laughed about memories of mild infractions we’d gotten in trouble for as children, crimes like unauthorized nail polish use and inappropriate aim of a garden hose. In exchanges about our long-gone mothers and fathers, we learned new details we’d never discussed in the 50 years we’ve known each other. Our talk shifted from these reminiscences to weighty discussions of dying, what happens to the spirit when the body isn’t here anymore, the loneliness of illness, the specifics of hospice and palliative care.

My friend has been living with metastatic breast cancer for two years. In many ways, she lives as she always has, with great fortitude, grace, generosity and kindness to everyone she encounters. Yet her life is profoundly altered as she manages cruel side effects of medication meant to slow the disease but not cure it, because there is no cure.  She must mete out her limited energy carefully each day.

Before I returned to California, my friend gave me the book, In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer, by Teva Harrison. Harrison’s illustrated memoir is dark, heartbreaking, funny, uplifting. Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 37, Harrison died last month at 42. Like Harrison, my friend is a gifted artist living fiercely each day.

In an apt metaphor, the company that created the “Half Life” puzzle also produces “mystery puzzles” carved in the same “whimsy” style, but with no picture of the completed puzzle on the box. Only the number of pieces is revealed, along with a general hint like “Impressionist painting.” Imagine trying to fit together a puzzle with no picture for reference, without knowing whether the piece you’re holding is a morsel of sky, a corner of a building, a snippet of flag or a bit of someone’s hand, and with no clue as to where it belongs in an overall scene.

None of us can divine the future, so in a sense we all piece together our lives unsure of how the fragments fit or when our time on this earth will be finished. But people like my friend who live with a terminal diagnosis shape their remaining time with uncertainty, frequent anxiety and a daily struggle to be here. There is no way to know how long the medication will work, whether side effects will become too burdensome to withstand and whether — or how much — to hope that a more effective drug will be found in their lifetime.

Tomorrow my friend will have her next PET scan. The fervent plea is that the scan will show stability, no progression in the disease. This result will purchase for her more sunrises, additional days that we pray are good quality, and for us, more chances to express how much we love her.

NH Sunrise II 5-23-19









Posted on

IRA Mural

I’ve just finished Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, a brilliant, devastating account of Jean McConville’s disappearance from Belfast in 1972. McConville was the young widowed mother of ten children. Spirited out of her bleak Divis Flats apartment by neighbors colluding with the IRA, McConville never returned. Her ten children were instantly orphaned when she vanished, their lives wrecked.

The IRA believed McConville was a “tout,” informing the British government about IRA members and activities. Keefe’s book suggests that she likely was nothing of the sort, but an impoverished, overwhelmed, sad woman wrongfully executed by the IRA for something she’d never done. McConville’s body wasn’t found for more than two decades when it was identified by DNA but more significantly, by the blue nappy pin, her signature mother’s implement, attached to a scrap of clothing clinging to her bones.

As I read this shattering book about murder, corruption, fanaticism, death from hunger strikes, imprisonment, car bombs, daily terror and shootings, I kept wishing my mother were alive to read it and discuss it with me. Say Nothing isn’t exactly a pleasant book to give or receive on Mother’s Day, but I know my mother would have found it as riveting and disturbing as I did.

Disappearances are on my mind this week before Mother’s Day—Jean McConville vanishing in The Troubles in the 70’s, my own mother gone for 15 years now and, sadly, my mother-in-law slowly fading from us as her memory declines and her personality becomes vague.

If you have your mother this Mother’s Day, I’m envious. Never mind chocolate or roses; give her a book she’ll enjoy, and share the luxury of reading it and talking about it with her.

Feeling His Oats

David and I hiked in the San Gabriels yesterday with the Saturday Morning Hikers group. Nicole, the volunteer who led the hike yesterday, snapped this picture of David and posted it on the group website along with other photos of our outing. I thought it was a fun shot, so I texted it to Christopher last night with the caption, “Your dad feeling his oats on the trail this morning.” He responded, “I had to look that one up.”

I thought, of course. No one uses an expression like that anymore. Once when Christopher was still a teenager and we were going somewhere in the car together, an ad came on the radio for $99 LASIK surgery. Christopher, who inherited both of our weak eyes, unfortunately, and has worn glasses since he was 6, commented that he would like to have LASIK surgery someday.

“But not for $99,” I said. “That would be bargain basement LASIK surgery.” He looked at me in bewilderment, having never experienced a descent into the basement of a department store and pawing tables of marked-down merchandise.

I can’t imagine how it happened that I became so old that I speak an entirely different language from the generation below me.

The Mass Is Ended

holy card

I went to Mass yesterday, invited by friends who were in town from Washington for the massive Religious Education Congress held every year at the Anaheim Convention Center.  As my mother might say, I haven’t darkened the door of a church in a very long time.

Like most people of Irish descent, I come from a long line of Catholics. I went to Catholic school for a time and practiced the faith for decades. There was nothing familiar about this Mass.

I read a headline the other day that said the dating app, Tinder, is like Long Island Iced Tea.  (Stay with me; there is a thread here.)  I didn’t read the article, but assume it meant that Tinder is too much of everything with no good result, like the drink with its mash-up of every kind of alcohol that deceives you by going down easy and then making you violently ill if you have more than one.

The Mass was like Long Island Iced Tea in that it was too much of everything—loud, crashing music that included terrible, Kenny-G.-style saxophone and drums, liturgy read in multiple languages which, while meant to be inclusive, had a disorienting effect, “liturgical” dancing that appeared as odd gesticulating and uncoordinated writhing, and applause, which gave the ritual a strange, game-show-like quality.  Cue the creaky old voice that says, “In my day, we didn’t clap in Mass.”

The sheer size of the Mass, in one of the cavernous Convention Center Halls that holds tens of thousands of people, was overwhelming, too. Not every seat was filled, but I’d estimate there were 20,000 people there, adding an evangelical, tent-revival atmosphere.

No mention of the abuse scandals and coverup that continue to plague the Catholic Church and that have damaged it beyond repair. It almost seemed as if the noisiness and chaotic style of a once sacred ceremony was an attempt to distract, drown out, and defer.

I sound irreverent and snarky, so I must say that I sincerely appreciated that my friends thought to invite me and wanted to share this time with me. They converted to Catholicism as adults and are very devout, kind, dear people.  But even if the efforts to hip up the Mass one day include replacing sacramental wine with Long Island Iced Tea, I won’t be darkening the door of a church again anytime soon.


Borrowed Dog and Other Capital Adventures

We flew to Sacramento last week to visit Christopher, who has been living there for almost two years. We borrowed his roommate’s dog, Kelsey, walking her in Christopher’s mid-town neighborhood.  An exuberant little canine, she seemed to love the extra exercise and I, who have not owned a dog in more than 50 years, really enjoyed her company, too.

Kelsey dog

We also borrowed a car, or Christopher did, tapping his phone to locate an electric Gig Car, using the phone to unlock it, fire it up and ferry us across town to an Irish pub where the crowd warmed up for St. Patrick’s Day. Who needs to own a car when you can borrow one? Rather than navigating parade and 10K race street closures in his own car, Christopher hopped on a Jump Bike to meet us once, too.

David and I toured the Capitol with Amari, an enthusiastic guide who reported that legislators once tossed coins from the balcony above this statue, aiming for Queen Isabella’s crown. Heads meant the bill would pass, tails signified it would tank. This practice halted in the 60s when a coin toss knocked a finger off Queen Isabella’s page.  Why do I imagine that our lawmakers indulged in several drinks before they flung coins?  Amari said cotton balls were considered as an alternative, but that idea was scrapped. Not  nearly as fun, and no way to discern heads or tails.

Queen Isabella statue

At the Stanford Mansion, “the handsomest house in Sacramento,” the early intercom system fascinated us. Stanford or his wife, Jane, would blow into a wall tube, which vibrated a color-coded bell in the servants’ quarters. They would then speak into the tube to request more sherry or whatever, and the servant would dispatch to the correct room based on the bell color. Pretty clever for the mid-19th century.

I knew little about the Stanfords, associating the university with wealth, privilege and conservatism. I was shocked to learn that Stanford University was founded in memory of their only son, Leland Jr., who died of typhus at age 15. Massive wealth and societal position afforded no solace in the face of that unutterable sorrow.

Stanford mansion

At the Crocker Art Museum Saturday, I developed a slight case of Stendhal’s syndrome. The huge collection is a bit much to take in at once, at least for me. We were intrigued by artifacts from Mexico, carved figures excavated from 10,000-year-old tombs.  No explanation of how museum donors came by them, and we wondered who really “owns” these relics.

We escaped the city when Christopher lead-footed us on country roads to Plymouth, an hour east of Sacramento, where we visited two wineries and sat in the sun with a splendid view of the snow-covered Sierra. It was a glorious, late winter day.

Iron Hub Winery Plymouth March 2019

Sunday was officially St. Patrick’s Day, although we marked the occasion starting on Friday. David gamely sported his Celtic glasses.

David St Pats 2019

Before our flight back to Long Beach Monday, we visited the California State Library, possibly our favorite spot. We admired Shepard Fairey’s work, wished we could reproduce a Maynard Dixon mural at home, and vowed to attend the next California State Fair, lured by historic posters.

Splendid poultry

California has been my adopted home since 1984. I’ve never considered myself Californian, although I’ve lived here longer than anywhere in my rootless Southern, East Coast, or Midwestern past . This capital junket filled me with renewed appreciation for liberal, powerful, gorgeous California.

Great seal of California


If You Have No Daughters

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns

It’s Ash Wednesday, but instead of thinking about fasting, I have hot cross buns on my mind.  The history of the Lenten tradition is murky. Some claim it began with a 12th century Anglican monk who festooned the buns with a cross on Good Friday, while others link it to a pre-Christian spring celebration of the Germanic fertility goddess, Eostre.

My mother loved hot cross buns, which may be why I’m longing for some, because they remind me of her. They used to be available in groceries during Lent, but are hard to find now. The ones I’ve bought in the past have been disappointingly leaden dinner rolls, absently slapped with a cross of overly sweet confectioner’s sugar icing.

The real thing should be not too sweet, studded with citron and currants, and best eaten warm with butter.

hot cross buns

I dug through the pile of recipes I’ve saved, and found a hot cross bun recipe I probably cut from the LA Times more than 25 years ago.  I’ve never made them, because I am remarkably inept at any recipe that involves letting dough rise and rolling it out.  I am invariably left with a sticky mess that cleaves to the floured board and rolling pin. The pie crusts, breads and cookies I’ve attempted in the past have not been what you would call a success.

Hot cross buns pic

But maybe I’ll give these a go this Lenten season, in the spirit of trying and learning something new, and of having a lighter touch.

Do you have any plans for spring, either to attempt something new or let go of an object or habit that no longer serves you?

Reply Me or What

Anyone play Words with Friends and experience vaguely creepy, aggressive opponents?

Below are screen shots of weird chat threads I’ve received lately. Usually the opponent resigns when I don’t reply, but not before upbraiding me for my failure to engage.

reply me madam

reply me mwk


reply me playing with me

reply me gonna reply me or what



Here are a few pointers for the bots and trolls and an FYI for their wives, if they’re reading:

  1. Never, ever, address any woman, above all not me, as “Madam.”
  2. “Girl” is no better.
  3. No response? Your opponent is out to win, not to chat electronically with a disembodied stranger.
  4. No need to get bellicose.
  5. A reference to “hugs” or “pretty” is of no utility with old birds like me.
  6. I will not be “playing with” you.

The fractured syntax of these messages suggests some senders are out-of-country hackers. If I answered, a sob story and a request to wire funds would probably soon follow.  Evidently this type of scam works occasionally.

At least two of my women friends tell me they’ve become very good, long-distance pals with people they’ve met by playing WWF but never encountered in real life. My guess is that none of their repartee has included the word “Madam.”

What about you? Do you have online friends you’ve never met?