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Semper Gumby

Anjelica Huston and Gumby have been on my mind.  An unlikely pair, but they’re connected for me this week.  Anjelica Huston played the lead in the beautiful movie adaptation of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” set in 1904 Dublin on a single, shattering January evening when “the snow was general all over Ireland.”

A blizzard has brought Ireland to a standstill right now, a rare weather caprice that shelved the trip I was supposed to make. I should have been sipping a Guinness now—it’s already cocktail hour in Cork—but here I sit. I’ll make do with my cup of Long Beach coffee and fight feeling sorry for myself.

I’ve been channeling Gumby in an attempt to model his flexibility.  Its flexibility?  Is Gumby a boy or a girl?  I don’t know.  I never watched it much as a kid. I did some quick research before I sat down to write this, and learned that his creator, Art Clokey, made Gumby green because the color is racially neutral and symbolizes life.  This week, I’ve decided Gumby’s green means that he’s Irish.

What about you?  Did you watch Gumby when you were young?  What do you do when plans collapse?





Pleased to Inform You

Do you use the U.S. Postal Service “Informed Delivery Daily Digest” feature? If you sign up for this service on, you get a daily email with a sneak peak at the mail that will be delivered that day. Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 7.59.29 AM

I have mixed feelings about the daily mail alert.  On one hand, I’m delighted to see a photo of a handwritten envelope, letting me know that a letter or card will arrive later in the day.  Such correspondence is a rare treat, as so few people communicate this way any more. Knowing in advance lets me anticipate and savor the pleasure a bit longer.

Today, for instance, I see that I shall receive a Valentine, along with a flier for a sale at a store I never frequent.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 7.59.36 AM

Some people like to bash the U.S. Postal Service, but I’m a big fan. Yes, things occasionally go astray or arrived damaged, as when our son’s college diploma, in a cardboard mailer emblazoned with DO NOT FOLD, was forced through our mail slot and crumpled.  I was quite annoyed at the time, but have since decided that it’s a fun part of the story.

Crumpled diploma.png

We framed and hung the diploma in what was once Christopher’s room here in the house, and there it sits in its place of honor — a very expensive and rumpled piece of paper.   But 154.2 billion pieces of mail are processed and delivered each year — most of which gets where it’s supposed to go just fine.

If you see your mail carrier today, give him or her some love.  On Valentine’s Day, that bag must be even heavier than usual.  And I hope something special arrives in the mail for you soon — a card, letter or package from someone you love.

It’s Going to Be Hairy

One-twelfth of the year has vanished already.

I have two beautiful 2018 calendars, one by Brian Andreas, a gift from my dear friend of nearly 50 years, Linda. She, like Andreas, is a gifted artist.  I love this calendar’s whimsical observances.  On February 26, I will bring an invisible friend to work, and address her in a serious tone during a meeting, nodding in assent at everything she says.


I received Erin Vaughan’s “North American Flowers” calendar for my birthday from Carla, a playwright and friend whose deadpan sense of humor never fails to crack me up. I was delighted to discover yesterday that February’s plant is “Hairy Wild Indigo,” or Baptisia arachnifera.  I take this as a very good omen for the month, a sign that it will be exciting indeed.


We’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday the same day, which offers an interesting choice:  mortify the flesh with fasting or stuff ourselves with See’s chocolate?  Lent begins that day, but rather than waiting until then I’ve decided to go on a media diet starting today, and will leave off scrolling through Twitter and Facebook for a few weeks.

While I love keeping up with friends on FB and the news on Twitter, I let both activities eat up precious time. What will I do instead? Write more, eat more chocolate, talk with my invisible friend, take more hikes and look closely at the plants. I’d love to spot a hairy wild indigo, but looked it up to learn, sadly, that it is rare, endangered, and limited mostly to the southeast.

As I do every February, I’ll mark another year that my sister, Mary, has been gone. Here we are in 1965, all decked out in Danskin.  At 8 and 11, which one of us was reading the Nancy Drew and who was smoking? It will be 30 years next week and, as irrational as it sounds, I still have moments of stunned disbelief when I simply can’t fathom that she’s not here. I’ll light a candle for her that day, and savor a chocolate-covered cherry, her favorite, in her memory.

Avon Inn, 1964 (Nancy Drew on the table) 001

How about you? What’s in store for February? If you take part in the Lenten tradition of giving something up, what do you forgo? I also like the idea of adding something to your life during Lent, rather than sacrificing, whether it be more service to others, more prayer or meditation time, or more phone calls and letters to people we miss. Whatever is added or withdrawn from your February, I hope it’s a hairy and wild month in the best possible way.

Katherine (sic) The Great Mistake

Strange and disconcerting to learn at age 61 that your name is not your name. I’m known by my middle name, Treacy, which was my grandmother’s maiden name.  That part is still good.

I’ve always thought that my first name was Kathryn, and believed that was my grandmother’s first name, too.  I never knew her; she died four years before I was born.  For decades, my driver’s license and passport have said Kathryn Treacy Colbert.  I’ve often joked that nobody but the DMV calls me Kathryn.

I let my passport expire years ago.  The renewal process, which I started last week, requires two government-issued IDs. That’s where the fun and the total confusion began.

I fished out my baptismal certificate and my hospital birth certificate, neither of which I ever scrutinized very carefully — a very black mark on my record as a proofreader.  Both say “Katherine.”

I was so sure that my first name was “Kathryn” that I thought, “Oh, those are typos,” convinced that hospital and parish workers weren’t careful with details.  So I sent for a certified birth certificate from the State of Kentucky and stared in shock when I opened it and saw, “Katherine.”

Apparently I’m not alone in goofing up the spelling of this name.  A recent New York Times article about the movie, “The Post”, included a correction at the bottom that publisher Katharine Graham’s first name was misspelled as “Katherine” in the original version of the piece.

In this account of the Treacy family,  my grandmother’s name appears there as both “Katharyn” and “Katherine.”  I searched for her grave on and see that it says “Katherine.”

Along with wondering how in the world I managed to get a passport and driver’s license that say “Kathryn” when I have no documentation to substantiate that name, I want to know what happened to Ashland Farm.  I could sure use 1,000 acres in my name, whatever it may  be.

KTC Grave


The Face of Retail

I wrote this piece back in 2014.  A friend’s comment about working her “retail slave job” and her reminder about being nice to salespeople made me dig it out and post it here today.

When I heard the customer’s angry voice on the phone, I laughed instead of feeling nervous, the way I usually would. She’d asked me about the store’s holiday hours. I said the store would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving and stay open for 25 hours straight, until 10 the following evening, Black Friday.

“I won’t be there,” she said angrily.  “That’s disgusting.”  I laughed and replied, “Well, I can’t say anything more, but I’m with you.” And I didn’t even mention that all employees were required to work a 12-hour shift during those 25 hours, because she hadn’t asked about that, and I doubted she would care.

I spent the last 23 weeks working in a part-time retail job, in what struck me as appalling conditions. Last spring I went looking for another job to supplement my income and keep pace with the high cost of our son’s college tuition. I showed up at what I thought was a “job fair.” I didn’t realize right away that it wasn’t a “job fair” at all, but a lure put out by this high-profile retail store that sells pricey, high-end goods. The false pretense should have been my first clue about the company.

“Tell me about your retail experience,” an earnest, beautiful young woman said to me that day, before it dawned on me that there were no other employers present at this so-called “job fair.”  My last retail job was 41 years ago, when I rang up Afro picks, 10-cent skeins of embroidery thread, and 2-cent chocolate covered mints on a heavy old cash register at J.J. Newberry’s in the Mid-State Mall. It’s been awhile, I said evasively.  Nonetheless, she took my resume.

A few days later, I got a call and a job offer to be a “sales associate” for an hourly wage that I’ll call modest.  Why not? I thought. I needed extra money to cover the times when writing or research jobs lagged, or when payment for a job I’d finished languished, unpaid, a common occurrence among freelancers. Tuition bills don’t wait.

Aside from the fact that the job was stressful and underpaid, I was repeatedly struck by the ongoing demonstrations of how very little the employees were valued.  The most graphic example of this was the requirement that every employee find a manager and open his or her bag or backpack before leaving the store for a meal break or at the end of a shift. Although a background check was part of the hiring process—which should reveal priors for shoplifting or stealing on the job—this policy showed that everyone was presumed to be a thief.

And presumed to be a thief on your own time, because employees had to clock out before showing their bags.  When the store was busy, which was almost always, a manager was often not available for several minutes, forcing employees to cool their heels, unpaid, while they waited for this daily inspection and humiliation.

There was never a “thank-you” or a “job well done” to the team of sales people. There were, instead, repeated hectoring, warnings, and threats of “documentation,” which I guess is the new corporate speak for what used to be “written up.”  We were sternly advised to “remember that this is a luxury brand, and to revisit the dress code.”  I loved the irony of this reminder and felt like scrawling on the memo posted in the break room:  “Ain’t nobody buying luxury clothes on these shit wages.”

Opening my paycheck was a regular exercise in dismay. Long days, arriving home dirty and frazzled after 11 p.m., even after a week when I’d been scheduled for 39 hours, the check was meager, especially after I deducted having to pay to park each time I went in.

There was a weak and patronizing display of corporate benevolence during a storewide sale. During the sale, which lasted for nearly a month, all employees were scheduled for very long hours. The steady stream of customers, some of whom were very unpleasant—designer bitches from Newport Beach, you know who you are— and the incessant ringing of the phones made for extended, stressful days.

Management provided the worst, cheap junk food in the dirty break room.  I guess this was supposed to signify appreciation for the extra work and stress, but to me, it demonstrated the reverse:  cheap sugary sustenance so people could work longer, and the idea that the employees were low-income and uneducated, and would like this horrible, prepackaged food.

“This is all junk,” one young man said dolefully one day, surveying the random pile of ramen, Pop Tarts, Red Vines, and microwaveable mac and cheese which, unaccountably, sat next to a large can of Lysol.

As you shop throughout this holiday season, please think about the people who work in these retail settings. First, please mind your manners, and don’t get impatient or shout at the people working in these stores.  What you probably don’t know is that too few people are scheduled to cover each shift. It’s not that the retail workers are lazy, indolent, or go slowly in order to create long lines and interminable waits, it’s that the corporations want to shave labor costs.

Take a good look at the person who rings up your holiday toys, decorations, clothing, or greeting cards. He or she may not have seen a doctor or dentist in years, because retail jobs are part-time and offer no benefits.

As you browse the aisles, remember that retail companies schedule their employees for multiple shifts when the store is busy, and then abruptly cut hours or send employees home when store traffic slows down. There’s no warning or predictability to these boom-bust cycles of part-time hours. When hours are suddenly sliced, these low-wage workers hock their belongings,  dip into what meager savings they may have, cadge extra money from family or friends, or use credit cards to cover these income gaps.

There’s no commission on anything they sell, they are rarely given a word of encouragement or praise, their break room is dirty, and any “incentive” or reward is likely to come in the form of store gift cards, funneling the money back into the corporation, of course. If the corporation offers a retirement plan, the low wages don’t allow workers enough of a margin to contribute to it.

Do enjoy your holidays.  ‘Tis the season, after all.  But be nice to the people who are helping you in the stores, and remember that many of them work two or three jobs and barely squeak by. And by the way, it won’t kill you to put something back neatly on the shelf, in the box, or on the hanger after you look at it. The more you toss things carelessly aside, throw them on the floor, or separate them from their packaging, the longer a low-paid worker has to stay after hours to clean up your mess. Your extra kindness and courtesy won’t result in a raise for anyone and can’t fix the dismal state of retail employment, but at least you can make someone’s day slightly less discouraging.


An Ordinary Pumpkin

. . . won’t do. We stopped at a farm stand in Sloughouse, CA (pop. 154) on our way back from Sacramento last week.

2017 10 31 Sloughhouse MuralThere were all manner of hybrid gourds and pumpkins, the likes of which I’d never seen.  David and his mother relaxed for a few minutes in front of the pyramid.

2017 10 31 Sloughouse Pyramid

We chose a “Lunch Lady” gourd, pebbled and parti-colored. I usually buy a pumpkin or two every year to put on the porch or near the fireplace, but this exotic specimen has spoiled me for the common and familiar.

2017 10 31 Lunch Lady

Cairns and Moleskin

These were two saving graces on our hike to Palisade Glacier in the John Muir Wilderness. The trail ends before the glacier, so you have boulder the last three-quarters of a mile to reach the top. Other hikers thoughtfully mark the way with cairns; I’d never have found my way without them.


The last training hike we did to get ready for this climb dug a nasty, quarter-sized blister into my right heel and made it impossible to wear a shoe for a week. It was so painful that I thought it would sideline me, but I slapped moleskin over it, cemented it with tincture of benzoin, and thankfully that was enough of a temporary fix.


It was the final weekend of summer 2017, and the meadows were still partially in bloom.

Film star Lon Chaney Sr., the original Quasimodo and Phantom of the Opera, had this cabin built along the trail in 1929. Designed by architect Paul R. Williams, it’s unmarked and unused today, except for hikers who lounge on the deck and survey the stream. When the 12,400 feet nearly felled me with a severe bout of altitude sickness on the third day of our hike, I joked that I needed to ride the ghost of one of Lon Chaney’s burros back down to the trailhead.


Some hardier souls make this roughly 19-mile hike in one day, but we broke it up by camping one night near Black Lake, named for its ebony sheen, and making the rest of the trek the following day.


This view made the very tough hike worth it.


The perfect little ledge perched at the glacier’s edge looks like God decided to put a park bench there.


David and Vernon toasted our accomplishment with a snort of Bushmills over snowfield ice.

We witnessed nature in all her gloriousness, but returned to the sobering specter of all her destructiveness with more earthquakes and hurricanes.