Friday, November 20, 2009

It slices! It dices! But wait! There's more!

Up until a few minutes ago, I was having a great day. Really great.

A walk downtown to enjoy the city’s lively energy. Great lunch with my favorite companion at an Irish pub. Terrific pre-Christmas sale. A lovely solo walk home, lost in my own thoughts while the city swirled about me. A patch of blue sky, a November rarity in Seattle.

All in all a wonderful day.

Until I made a strategic error. I picked up the mail. Four catalogs (it’s that season). A great big post card giving me 20% off on things I don’t need and hadn’t thought about wanting. A lovely, very touching fundraising letter (I should know, I wrote it – if you get it, you should definitely send a check). And . . . a letter offering me a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” (Their exclamation point.)

Oh, good grief.

I know, I know, we need to plan for things. The only certainty in our lives is that they’re going to end. But for goodness’ sake, I just had one of those birthdays. You know, the ones that put you in a different census track? The birthdays that make you check a different box on surveys and forms. The ones that qualify you for, um, discounts at lots of places. The kind of birthday that leaves you fearing that some waitress at a Denny’s or an IHOP is going to call you “Dahrlin’.”

When you’ve just had one of those birthdays, a cremation invitation is not the first thing you want to find in your mail box.

I admit it. I’ve written my share of letters offering people things – the “do this, get that” stuff that clutters up recycle bins all over America. I’ve done it. I’m darned good at it. And I made a pretty good living with it. But even I, who’ve sold everything from season’s tickets for the Toledo Mud Hens to around-the-world trips that started at $65,000 per person . . . even I have never tried to sell somebody a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!”

As a professional hack (and, mind you, I mean that in the most respectful way imaginable) I’ve got a huge problem with this offer. Let’s assume for the moment that I really was looking forward to getting a piece of mail offering me a great deal on my own cremation. It’s a stretch, but let’s make that assumption for the sake of argument. Let’s also assume – very safely, I might add – that I am highly suspicious of the funeral industry in America and consider most of them to be just shy of charlatans, making me somewhat susceptible to a sales pitch for an honest alternative. And let’s further assume – this one calls for a momentary suspension of disbelief – that I’m someone who’d actually make a decision for the final handling of my earthly remains based on a direct mail sales pitch.

Even if all those assumptions were true (and only one of them is), even then, I don’t think I’d enter a sweepstakes to win a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” That’s the deal: I just send in the little card with all my personal information (they’ve thoughtfully already filled in my name and address, but, darn it, they truly need my email and phone number in order to help figure out which plan is best for me – let me guess, it’s not the basic one) . . . and, presto, once a month they’re going to pull somebody’s name out of a hat and give the lucky winner a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” Such a deal.

I can’t quite get my head around the concept of “Free Pre-Paid,” but we’ll leave that for another conversation. I mean, how can something be “Free” if it’s also been “Pre-Paid”? (OK, now we’ll leave that for another time.)

These folks make several arguments that are probably sound – but, again, when you’ve just had one of those birthdays, they’re a little bit jarring.

First, they assure me, their pre-paid cremation service is a good thing for my family – it will let them give me a simple, personal service at their own convenience. I do understand that. But does anybody else pick up an undertone of “that way you can die without causing anybody to miss an appointment with their personal trainer” – or am I just being super sensitive?

Then they close in for the kill (if you’ll pardon the expression). They remind me that we live in a mobile society (no kidding – my sister just had to replace the “W” page in her address book – I’ve moved so many times she’s rubbed a hole in it). And then . . . I try to imagine a writer locked away in a cubicle somewhere trying to bang out this letter on a fast-turnaround deadline . . . they point out that because we’re all moving around, “placing a loved one in a ‘local’ cemetery may not be as functional as it used to be.”


OK. I get it. I’m going to stay where you bury me, but you may not be there to check up on me. You know, I don’t think either of us should worry too much about it. Really. My feelings won’t be hurt if you don’t drop by. And, let’s be frank, nobody’s going to come visit after this group drops my ashes at sea either.

These people probably mean well. I'm sure they do.  The P.S. reminds me that in case I die before I have time to plan for it, they’d be happy to cremate me then, too. See?  They're good people.  And right after the P.S. there’s a small italic sentence begging my forgiveness in case the letter reached me “at a time of serious illness or death in your family.”

I appreciate their thoughtfulness. Really, I do. But I honestly think this letter hits a new low in American consumerism. It certainly hit a new low for me when it comes to picking up the mail. Yep, it’s a free market. And, yep, everybody has the right to make an honest buck. But for propriety’s sake, can’t we save this kind of pitch for the kinds of products that keep America strong . . . the ShamWow, the Salad Shooter, the Bump It, and the Aqua Globe?

So I’m going to close now and try to resuscitate what remains of a perfectly good day. And hope that tomorrow’s mail contains something more pleasant, like a letter from the IRS.

What’s showed up lately in your mail box? To leave a comment, just click “ Post a Comment” below. I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blessings of the Heart

Urban Dictionary (the web site where you look up all those text message acronyms you can’t figure out) defines bless your heart as “a phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else.”

I first heard a commentator address it several years ago on NPR. As he extolled the virtues of a Southern heart blessing in a soothing Mississippi drawl, I had to pull over and listen because I was laughing too hard to drive.

While the subject has been milked by writers more gifted than me, I do feel called to pay proper tribute to two queens of the genre – my mother and my Aunt Evelyn. Both lovely women, perfectly lovely.

My mother was a gentlewoman. Beautifully mannered. Perfectly coifed. Wonderfully compassionate. Infinitely wise. But heaven help you if she blessed your heart.

Whenever an amply endowed female crossed our path, especially one who had crammed too many layers of adipose tissue into too little spandex, my mother would lower her eyelids ever so slightly, soften her voice to a reverent tone, and murmur, “Bless her heart.” Only a whisper of a smile crossed her face – you had to be quick to catch it.

Heaven help you if she turned it in your direction.

I am forever marked by one “blessing.” I was married, a professional editor, mother of two wonderful children, and pretty successful by all the usual standards. I had filed my last story and rushed to catch the plane for our annual pilgrimage to the family Thanksgiving, my children and husband having arrived before me (deadlines yield to no woman). I was tired, a little bit jet lagged, and very ready to relax. As I sat at my mother’s feet (there being not enough chairs in the room), she stroked my hair and in that sweet murmur said . . . wait for it . . . “Bless your heart. You used to have such pretty hair.”

There’s no place you can go with that.

Yet there were times when her heart blessings could break your own. Standing by my father’s casket, having lost the love of her life, she reached out and touched his face. “Bless your heart,” she said. She spoke a lifetime of love in those words.

Let’s face it. We’re all our mothers’ daughters. (Apologies to my own daughter – sorry, honey, but it’s going to happen.) And, well, yes, I'm just Southern enough to go to that place.

I recently finished a frustrating encounter with a Washington state bureaucrat. Walking away from the counter, shaking my head, under my breath, I blessed his flinty little heart.

Another time I sat at my desk following a particularly unpleasant call from a particularly unpleasant client. I had been staring at the phone for a while before I realized I had muttered, “Bless his heart,” as I hung up.

I’ve said it – and meant it – as I swooped up a toddler with a wicked case of playground road rash. I’ve thought it – with clinched teeth – as I watched my husband rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher I’ve just loaded. I’ve whispered it – resigned to the inevitable – as I’ve watched a friend plunge headlong into a disastrous relationship, after all of us who love her had tried to warn her off. And I’ve resisted putting it in writing – hitting the delete key a couple of times – as I responded to a request from corporate wonks who clearly thought they knew what they were doing.

I said it again recently – the first time I held my friend’s newborn son and thought about what a wonderful mother she’s going to be. And I was thinking it about an hour ago – as I read an email from a long-time friend who never fails to make me laugh out loud.

All cultures have their heart blessings. My Venezuelan son-of-the-heart taught me the all-encompassing, and often scathing, “Pobrecito.” (Look it up in Urban Dictionary: And my colleague, who is probably the most un-Southern woman I know, has her own special version of, “Aw, honey,” that absolutely does the job.

But for the real thing, you need a Southern woman of a certain age.

And so we come to my gracious Aunt Evelyn. It is she who gets credit for the all-time best heart blessing I’ve ever heard.

We were at a family funeral and a particularly irksome bunch of cousins had fallen upon the ham and coconut cake like lions on a fresh kill. My sister was irate, ready to throw them out. My aunt reached out, patted her hand – and delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce. “You can’t hold it against them, honey,” she said in her sweet, soothing voice . . . here it comes . . . “Bless their hearts. They wasn’t raised. They was drug up.”

Truer words was never spoke.

Friday, November 6, 2009

When the Thin Blue Line is Breached

Normally, I don’t comment on public events. I started this blog simply to indulge my own interests in the hope of giving you a momentary smile.

Today, however, is different.

Today, just a few blocks from where I sit, the community of those whose lives are sworn to serve and protect us gathered to pay a final tribute to one of their own. While I write this, I can hear helicopters swarming overhead as the memorial service for Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton comes to an end.

The haunting echoes of the bagpipes, the polished boots of the honor guards from across the country, the crack of the rifles firing in salute . . . all these will soon fade.

But the reality remains. On Halloween night, as two Seattle police officers sat in their squad car discussing a traffic stop they had just completed, an old Datsun 210 pulled close to their car and fired shots. One officer was killed instantly. The other was wounded.

This was brutal, intentional slaughter. And it happened here, in a city that takes almost smug pride in our tolerance and civility.

I’m not here to write a treatise on societal violence – others can do that more thoughtfully and from broader points of view than I can. Nor am I here to comment on whether a city should have committed so many resources to honor a single man when so many others have died in so many ways (as a few malcontent bloggers have pointed out).

Timothy Brenton’s funeral today humbled me. Yes, he was one man. But from all reports, he was a good one. And whether or not he had shortcomings, he represented a lot of people I take for granted. People who make my daily life congenial. People who make it possible for me to fuss and worry about a lot of inconsequential things – because I am safe. I wish I didn’t think of these people only when something like this happens, but the fact is, it is because of who they are and what they do that I’m able to ignore their importance in my life.

I realized it in January, 1995 when four Seattle firefighters died in a warehouse arson fire. I was stricken by it, along with the rest of the country, on September 11, 2001. There have been other times when the sudden news of an outrageous tragedy shocks me into realization – and, unfortunately, there will be more.

It will happen again, because the people who have made it their business to keep me safe will keep putting themselves out there on my behalf. They’ll leave for their shifts everyday, never sure of whether they’ll reach the end of those shifts alive. That sounds dramatic, I know. But, in fact, it is true. And I don’t think about it until days like today.

I’ve only known one police officer in my life, my Uncle Wallace, and he wasn’t exactly the stuff of prime time TV drama. He was overweight, full of malapropisms, sometimes crochety, sometimes soft-hearted, and, always, a genuinely good man. I was his youngest niece and he took special pleasure in stopping by to see me at school when my class was out for recess. His leather belt full of eqipment squeaked when he walked, and he didn’t mind letting the boys in my class play with the lights on his police car (the siren was off limits). My connection to Uncle Wallace definitely enhanced my standing with my third grade peers (although not quite as much as that of my other uncle who owned the ferris wheel and gave free rides to anyone who showed up with me).

But that’s as far as my connection to what is essentially a closed community goes. I don’t know what it’s like to dread a knock on the door, or a late night phone call when my husband is supposed to be at work. I don’t normally flinch at the sound of a siren, thinking it might be about someone I love. I’m not a cop’s or a firefighter’s wife, or daughter, or mom.

I’m just an everyday, preoccupied, often ungrateful, citizen. When I get a ticket, I fume. When I dial 9-1-1, I expect somebody to show up and help me out. I’m not usually mindful that they’ve spent years of their lives training to be able to be there for me when I need them – that they answer my call not knowing whether they’re walking into a dangerous situation or not – that they have skills and knowledge I couldn’t even imagine needing – and that their whole purpose is to keep the rest of us safe.

Today, as Seattle fell momentarily silent, I remembered that they’re there. And that they’re there even when I don’t remember.

And that’s why today, I’m going to use this space to say thank you . . . to the firefighters who are willing to risk their lives to save mine . . . to the EMTs who know what to do when I need them to do it and who would rather come when I don’t really need them than have me not call when I do . . . to the Washington State Patrol, because even though I dread the sight of them and their radar guns along the highway to the beach, I know their real goal is to keep me from killing myself or someone else . . . and especially to the Seattle Police Department.  You are good people.

Thank you.

Friday afternoon, as I sat down to write and as the memorial service was ending, Seattle Police officers shot and arrested a man whom they believe to be Officer Brenton’s murderer when he pulled a weapon on them as they approached him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What’s in a Name?

If you’ve known me for long you’ve heard me say, “I’m not named Martha for nothing.” I usually toss it off shamefacedly after I’ve corrected someone setting the table (I have a thing about which way the knife blades face) – or refolded a towel (well, they fit better on my linen closet shelves if they’re all the same size) – or brought out my fish forks (they use them all the time in England, why not here?) – or the special little port glasses (I think the right glass matters, don’t you?).

I admit it. I have a Martha side. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

And while I am not a disciple of that other Martha (I’ve never created a plaid Easter egg and have not yet made my own marshmallows), I do think the feds got a little rough with her back when. I know she broke the law, but in the context of Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, I mean, c’mon.

Once in awhile, like yesterday, I break down and buy a copy of her magazine. November 1st is a sort of landmark in my year. Fall is in full swing and winter is definitely on its way. It’s legitimate to start imagining the holidays, but they’re still far enough away that I can fantasize about doing those things that look so pretty in magazines. So yesterday, as I stood in line at the beach rip-off grocery store waiting to pay for my box of corn muffin mix, I thought, hey, maybe I could actually pull off a full-fledged Thanksgiving feast this year with a little help from an expert. The magazine cover promises to reveal the secret of cooking a turkey in an hour. (Don’t fall for it – you’d need a veterinary surgeon to get that turkey ready for the oven.)

As my jiffy little muffins were baking, I sat down at the kitchen table to daydream with my namesake (actually, she’s older, so that would make me her namesake, right?).

And there it is, right on page 6, Martha’s November calendar.

Immediately, I realized that I am powerless. All those things that need doing, things clearly important enough to warrant coverage in a national publication, are just not going to happen in my world.

Obviously, unlike the “real” Martha, I’m not going to schedule any book signings or appearances on the Today Show. Nor did I spend November 1st taking down Halloween decorations, since I never put any up. Nor will I schedule any horseback rides – since I don’t have a horse’s back handy.

On November 6th, instead of organizing my spices, I’m going to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Let’s face it, I’ve moved twice this year and will probably do it again this winter (another subject for another blog) – if those spices haven’t gotten themselves in order by now, they’re not going to.

And although I’ve occasionally been complimented on my taste in fish forks, my gardening skills have never received rave reviews. That leaves significant holes in my calendar compared to the other Martha’s. My bulbs will have to struggle through without bone meal . . . my boxwoods shall go unstaked . . . my beehives unwinterized.

As she suggests, I will replace the batteries in my smoke detector. I live (part of the time) in a 120-year-old wooden house. Let’s just say that I am careful, if not paranoid, about smoke and fire. I shall also clean my oven, as the Big M plans to do, but I’m not sure she and I mean the same thing when we say that. Her “deep clean the oven” may not equate to my “mop up enough goo so it won’t set off the smoke alarm” (which we now know has fresh batteries). And sometime during this season I, too, usually polish up the family silver. But this year I’d have to find it and unpack it first. May not happen – after all, isn’t that why we cherish the gift of stainless steel?

Since I don’t own any little ceramic turkeys, ditto pilgrims, I won’t be decorating my home with them on the 15th – which means I won’t have to put them away on the 28th (see Halloween, above). Nor will I be setting the Thanksgiving table on the Tuesday before, or writing out tasteful little place cards. Not that I wouldn’t love to, mind you . . . but the folks around my Thanksgiving table tend to sit where they please, whether I tell them to or not.

By the time I got to the end of page 6, I was feeling inadequate. What kind of woman doesn’t plan to seal her stone terrace (if she had one) and clean the inside of her washing machine on Sunday, November 8th? I’m a failure, I tell you, a traitor to my name.

And then I got to November 28th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. AHA! I had her! There it was in black and white. Not until after she’s washed the gravy stains out of the tablecloth . . . not until she’s boiled the turkey bones for soup and updated all her friends’ addresses on her Christmas card list . . . not until the best month of autumn is nearly over . . . not until all that trivia has eaten her days does the other Martha “light the first fire of the season.”

What is that woman thinking? In my opinion, a beautiful, crackling fire is always in season. Why, if I waited until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to “open fire season,” I’d practically freeze to death. That 120-year-old wood house is on the North Pacific coast, way up in the corner of the country, and it gets chilly up here, even in July. The fireplace in the living room is original (although, for safety’s sake, the chimney has been replaced) – and every time I light it up I’m reminded of all the hands that have rubbed together in its warmth . . . all the stories that have been read and told in its glow . . . all the morning cups of coffee that have been sipped beside it, the evening nips of port (in the right glasses, of course) that have been savored at its edge.

So I think it’s my turn to give that other Martha some homemaking advice: My dear, the hearth is the heart of the home. Don’t try to harness it to a calendar. When a fire wants to be born, it will tell you. Be willing to light it, even in an August rain storm. It really is a good thing.

And now I leave you with this old Celtic prayer and go to light a fire to accompany my second cup of coffee (I shall use a crumpled page from my calendar as a starter) . . .

I shall kindle my hearth this morning
In the presence of Angels,
Without malice,
Without jealousy,
Without envy,
With the Holy Son of God
To shield me.
† † †
God, kindle Thou in my heart
A flame of love
To my neighbor,
To my foe,
To my friend,
To my kindred all.

-- Celtic Prayer for the Morning Fire