My Ten Books, In No Particular Order

I have my feelings hurt, you all, and here’s why.  I don’t live on Facebook, but I check in almost daily and I will admit to taking the odd quiz from time to time. You know the ones, those are little tests from places like Buzzfeed.com, with titles like, “How Posh is your Vocabulary?” How Many Famous Artists Can You Identify?” “Which Harry Potter./Hunger Games/Game of Thrones Character Are You?”

long buzzfeedThey are fun little diversions but I almost never post my scores, and sometimes my scores are quite noteworthy. It’s enough knowing I can identify twelve of the fifteen world capitals from a single picture.

For the past several weeks, though, there has been circulating on Facebook a challenge to “name the ten books that have had the most meaning to you”, or something like that. I don’t know the exact wording because no one has shown the slightest interest in my ten books, and therefore no one has posted this to my page.

No one.

I have friends who have posted their books and then challenged several of our other friends to list their ten books. I read their lists with interest and enjoyment and, finally, disappointment when I realize my name is not on the new challenge.

Fine.

It doesn’t bother me, but my pals should know that I have 750 words, every week, right here to do with what I please.

Uh-huh. That’s right.

Here, then, in no particular order, is a list of ten books that have significance for me.

1.  “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion. This is a series of essays and articles she wrote during the Sixties. Every essayist should own this book. Non-fiction writers should include her in their  evening prayers.

2. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Besides sounding so cool when I say his name, it was this book and Marquez who introduced me to magical realism, and he did it so deftly that I didn’t even know what was happening until someone explained it to me.

nancy drew book cover3. Any Nancy Drew mystery. Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a pseudonym for a host of ghostwriters for the series. Nancy had it all-a roadster, freedom, talent,  two pals and a sometime boyfriend to mess around with her and help her solve crime.

4. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Harper Lee. I knew, even as a kid, that in this book every word worked. It was a big story, too, although when I first read it I was too young to fully appreciate that.

5. “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read this as the secret garden gate with birdan adult, but loved it like a child, reading to myself but hearing my grandmother’s voice.

6. “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I read it almost every Christmas season. It is a joy to be able to finish one of his books in a span of less than a month.

7. “101 Famous Poems.” My mother had a slim and leather-bound copy in the living room bookcase, and I read it cover to cover and back again. I loved the poets’ pictures, set in ovals like cameos. When my siblings got on my nerves or I got on my own, I retreated to the living room and spent a quiet hour reading poems and thinking deep thoughts.

8. “The Inheritance of Loss,” by Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved this book, even before I knew it won an award. I have recommended it to many friends, most of whom have tried to read it and didn’t like it, at all.  Which might explain why it is no longer in print. Even so, I found the story compelling, with threads of India, Great Britain, Nepal and New York City running through it, and the writing breathtaking. But that’s just my opinion.  Apparently.

9.“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen. It was one the few books in which I have underlined passages and I return to them again and again. Sometimes it is just a sentence. Sometimes a paragraph or more. Just stunning writing.

Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen

10.“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” by David Sedaris. Because it made me laugh, out loud, and all over the place.

That concludes my list of ten books. Let’s hope something interesting happens for me to write about before next week, because there is also a challenge circulating about one’s twenty favorite movies. I’d like to spare you that.

Sitting Is the New Smoking

If you have been paying attention at all, you know that sitting is the new smoking.

Wow.

It doesn’t take a mental giant to know that sitting too much is not good for you, but the new smoking? That is extreme. Except that maybe it isn’t.

When we think about the soaring obesity rates among children and then think about how much time children spend in front of video games, it makes some sense. I know what you are thinking, you are thinking, Greta, it is because they are not exercising, period, not just because they are sitting.

But new research suggests otherwise. According to recent studies—and there have been a slew of them—sitting for hours a day will shorten our lives, age us, and make us vulnerable to all sorts of health issues, from cancer to diabetes to obesity. And further, even if you run regularly, exercise hard, you are still at risk if you come home and flop of the couch after your hour run.

Sitting for periods of time triggers signals in the brain to reduce telormerescertain enzymes, it messes with our insulin, and it frays the little end caps of our chromosomes, called telomeres, and this  speeds up aging and disease.

Even working out regularly at the gym is not enough, since many of us are sitting for hours on end at the office, at home. When our big muscles, like our legs, aren’t working, then our metabolism slows down. In essence, we are built to move much, much more than we do, and the fix is actually easier than you think.

Stand up more. Just that. Make yourself do it. Standing for just three hours a day for a year can have the same calorie burning impact on us as running ten marathons.

marathon runners legsTen marathons, people!

One British journalist decided to stand for an entire month, all day long, every day, unless she was involved with something that absolutely required sitting, like driving her kids around. She lost two dress sizes, although she reported that she made up excuses to take the kids places, just to sit for a little bit.

Her doctor said that she was silly to attempt that all in one fell swoop, because it can be bad for your back and joints and feet to shock them so, but still, she made her point.

I wrote in this space a few columns back, about all the fitness bands I have purchased and I gave the impression I wouldn’t buy another one. Well, I lied. A week after that column ran I went out and purchased the Polar Loop because my friend, John, has one, and I thought it was cool, and my friend, Susie, also has one and I think she is cool. This really is the fitness band for me for these reasons.

It is super light and comfortable, and I think it looks really good, not so obviously sporty, although upon seeing it, someone asked me if I was on house arrest. What I like about it is this. It gives me  non-athlete, information I can embrace. It tells me when it is time to move, and it also gives me suggestions for reaching my fitness goals for the day.

I can jog for 45 minutes, I can walk for an hour and a half, or…wait forpop dress standing on raileit…I can stand UP for three hours and fifteen minutes. That’s right. Just being upright chips away at my goal. The little manual that came with it even gives suggestions—dusting, cleaning, baking.

Baking! Part of a legitimate fitness regime! When I sync my Loop to the computer, it shows me how much time I have spent in bed, sitting, walking, running, and upright. It is shocking to see how much I sit. Even on days when I am active, all that sitting.

I have a colleague who has rigged up a standing desk and I am working on doing the same. I can’t quite figure it out, but I will. I have been whittling away at the number of hours I spend sitting, but it is harder than you would think. It is liberating to think that doing even light chores is part of my fitness plan. Research has told us for years that we are built to move, walk five miles a day, eat what is naturally provided, get some sun. And now we we can all be marathoners without  ever actually running one.

Sign me up for that.

The Happy Valley Effect

Right now I covet her boots. Those boots, the black boots she wears as she goes about her duties as the cop in charge of Happy Valley…a valley that is beautiful, but not so very happy, populated as it is withCatherine head shot folk–mostly young ones –living lives of drug-addled desperation. I have spent hours on line trying to find the exact boots that my new hero, Sarah Lancashire, as the no-nonsense, middle-aged police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, wears to work in Calderdale, nestled in west Yorkshire.

It is Calderdale that gives us the ironic name, Happy Valley, something the local police call their town because of drug problems there. “Happy Valley,” you must know by now, is the newest offering on Netflix and was the most talked-about show in Great Britain when it first aired in April, 2014.

It is now one of the most talked-about shows this side of the pond and with good reason. It is so very, very good. Or to use their word over there, brilliant. This six-episode BBC production, written by Sally Wainwright who also writes “Last Tango in Halifax,” had over six million Brits tuning in and biting their nails each week, and now, lucky us, we can binge watch it to our hearts content and bite our nails, too.

The main character, Catherine, is a 47-year old grandmother, raising her dead daughter’s child, a responsibility she shouldered at great cost to her marriage and relationship with her surviving son. Lanchashire in the starring role will be familiar to us as Miss Audrey, in “The Paradise” and as Caroline in “Last Tango in Halifax.”

ad_136301444Catherine is raising 8-year old Ryan with the help of her sister, a recovering heroin addict, Clare, played by Siobhan Finneran. What I love best about the character Clare, besides the fact that she spends her time volunteering in a homeless mission, gardening in the allotment, and preparing meals for her sister and nephew, is that she is played by the same woman who gave us that awful O’Brien on “Downton Abbey.”

In this role, she is sweet and supportive, loving and sometimes at a loss, and I am thrilled to have a reason to really like her—the character and the actress–after all the torment O’Brien put us through.

The plot of “Happy Valley” centers around Catherine and her life eight years after the suicide  of her daughter. She gets up every day and does a difficult and physical job, and she does it as a strong woman, not the caricature of the strong woman we are often treated to in the US entertainment industry.

She is kind, funny, and a good cop. She can also knock open a door with her shoulder and runs after a drug-selling ice cream truck, which of course she doesn’t catch, but she looks like sCatherine and Twiggyhe might, were she a bit younger. She pulls smart aleck smack-heads out of their cars by the fronts of their jackets, young males bigger than she.

And we believe it, believe it all, because this is not a jiggly kind of cop show, because Sarah Lancashire as Catherine is substantial and fierce in her fleece jersey and hi-vis vest. Then she goes home, worn out, and reads to her grandson, and we believe that, too. She carries the show on many levels, because, ultimately, it is her character’s story. She gives us Catherine in a package we want to receive.

catherine at cemeteryIn a strong but nuanced performance she shows us how Catherine moves through her day with competence and good humor, and we see with the subtlest of expressions the grief she still carries and the obsession that burns for Tommy Lee Royce, the man she blames for his part in her daughter’s death.

Tommy Lee Royce

And we we understand it, or want to, because we care about her now, and we feel a little like Clare, making pizzas while holding our breath, hoping Catherine can keep it together when she discovers that Royce is now out of prison.  Even so, this is no stoic repressed cop.  Catherine is all business.  Yet, when life’s events overtake her, she cries, and freely,  and she is a more compelling character because of it.  She cries as she should, as we all would.

Many reviews of “Happy Valley” refer to Catherine as a flawed woman. Too easy, I think. Catherine as Wainwright has written her and Lancashire portrays her is this–deeply human, a person suffering and persevering.

Heroic. catherine and daughter-in-law

In pain.

But living.

Committed, ultimately,  to doing the right thing.

I’d like to think that Catherine Cawood is out there keeping me safe. And I’d like to know where she got her boots.

 

 

I’m So Bored

blank page with ???For the first time in a long time I am sitting in front of the computer with a mind as blank as the page before me.  Everything going on in my life right now bores me.

It’s hot and I complain, even though in summers past we have been treated to this miserable weather for weeks on end, unlike this summer where it has had the good grace to show up right at the end, and isn’t all that awful, longevity-wise.

It arrives just as I rededicate my life to walking, so a new plan is in order.  I have mapped a little chart that has me walking four blocks, then six, followed by eight, until such time —along about February—when I can clock a couple of miles, no sweat.

Even so, I wait until almost dark with I think it will be cooler, but, of course, it isn’t.  If I were totally honest—which I hate to be, by the way—I might confess that I walk at dusk so you can’t see me, huffing and stumbling a little.  I tell myself I am old, and need to pace myself, and so far it is working.

All two days of it.

I have devises sort of my own little “couch to 5K” program, tailored around my slovenly but comforting ways.

Also, I am bored with books. At least the ones lying about around here.

On a hot and steamy car ride my pal, Janice, mentioned a couple of Icelandic mystery writers.   In my ennui IIndependent People Book Cover summoned up Amazon and ordered three of their  books, due to arrive later today.  The ordering gave me no pleasure.

Nor does the prospect of a package excite me  and I feel like a character in a Fellini film, all dour and drab in black and white, who sits around and discusses the existential angst of the postal service with someone just off camera, instead of a little kid who rushes toward the brown paper box resting on the doorstep, the one with her name on it.

I’ve even stopped shampooing my hair.

I know, I know, you just had a little rigor right there, didn’t you?  So did I when I saw the first articles pop up on-line about celebrities and ordinary folk who haven’t shampooed their hair in months, years.

For all the scintillating titles, as you delve into the article you will discover that it isn’t that these women—for it is always women—are not washing their hair, it is that they are not shampooing their hair.

Shampoo, apparently, is a vile and destructive thing, with ingredients like paraben and sodium lauryl sulfate, which is found in industrial chemicals, and all of it wreaks havoc on our hair and scalp.  Shampoo strips our hair of natural oils and that necessitates the use of conditioner to vainly attempt to replace them.

Then, according to the “no poo” web sites, this sets up a vicious cycle in our systems with our bodies over-producing oils to make up for the damage we have done, and if we just left everything alone, our heads would produce, after a time, the perfect amount of oil to give us luxurious and voluminous hair.

Frizzy hair will be tamed, lank hair will be revitalized and bulky with body.

So, yes, in my boredom, I have done this, am still doing it, in fact.

The thinking goes like this.  We need to restore the proper pH balance and this is achieved by the use of two available–and cheap–household products, baking soda and apple cider vinegar.

First, make a mix up soda and water in a glass and work that into your hair.  You won’t  get suds, obviously, but done right, your hair will feel, if not squeaky clean, at least squeaky.  That right there is your alkali.

apple cider vinegarFollow this with the same amount of apple cider vinegar and water, rinsing as you go, keeping your eyes closed because vinegar is an acid.  If you should forget and open your mouth, no worries, it tastes a little like salad dressing.

They say it can take a while to see the full effects but I don’t know.  I had dinner with my mother the first day I tried it, and she said she thought my hair had more body.

To be exact, she said, “I’ve looked  at that hair for years and I think it looks better.”

Thanks, Mother.  Perhaps my boredom is paying off.

Better Living at the Bottom of a Bog

summer

Here we are at the dead end of summer. Never mind that summer isn’t officially over until sometime in mid-September. It is over for most of us when school starts up.

And cruelly, school began for some of us in the first week of August.

Queen Walking at BalmoralJust as the Queen is heading to Balmoral for her summer vacation with lovely hikes in the highland hills, teachers and children here are heading back to classrooms and smart boards and lunch money and those odd little pouches of milk.

August was the month of swim lessons when I was a child, not that I ever mastered the sport. Lessons began after the pool had closed for the day and I remember long rides home wrapped in a soggy towel, lips blue and teeth chattering from the sudden coolness of evening.

When did we make the back-to-school switch to early August from after Labor Day? Is there any chance of going back? I need just one month more.Swim Lessons

Toward that cranky end, let me share with you some things I discovered this summer to help us all make little changes in our lives or perhaps see the world differently. The new school year is a great time to turn over just one more leaf before the dark days of January when we make resolutions in earnest.

Dr. Robb Rutledge of University College London says that the secret of happiness is really quite simple.

Lower your expectations.

He and his research team have discovered that our day-to-day wellbeing does not reflect how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected.

Then, being scientists who are compelled to do what scientists do, they wrote a complicated mathematical equation that can accurately predict people’s happiness.

It makes some sense, really. Remember the old saw, “he who expects nothing is never disappointed?” It’s sort of like that.

New school years, new resolutions are fine and dandy, but perhaps we will have a happier time of it if we just sit back and let it happen, calm-like and wise.

And this. New research, and, of course—a new product–is on the market in Great Britain promising the fountain of youth in an attractive little jar. It seems that a Bill Kenny, from Croghan Hill, Ireland has launched new skincare products made from peat bogs found on his property. The thinking goes like this.

If the peat in these bogs can beautifully preserve the skin of a 9000 year-old body, why couldn’t it stop our skin aging dead in its tracks?

Why, there is no reason, no reason at all.

ime-mummies-around-the-world-7I have seen bodies mummified in peat bogs and I can tell you they look fabulous. Creepy, but fabulous. Their skin is almost frozen in time, with laugh lines and little furrowed brows, and they are burnished to a lovely hue.

An analysis of the material in Mr. Kenny’s peat bogs has been shown to contain high levels of antioxidants and antiseptics. He even tells his own story from childhood when he severely burned his hand and his mother thrust it into a peat bog, where, miraculously the pain ceased and his hand was restored to health, almost at once.

His product line is called Ogra, and the 100% peat face and body mask sells for a mere $66.00. I don’t know if it is available in the US yet, but when it is, I am getting some. Kenny’s bog is only fourteen acres and how long can it last, once the secret is out? OGRA products

Now I know you may think I have given with one hand and taken with the other here, what with that early talk about low expectations. But honestly. While we are going about our day, expecting very little and achieving happiness in the process, there is no reason why we can’t look good while we are doing it.

Hiding From the World In Hindman

th-2

At the time of this writing, ISIS was on the move in Northern Iraq, heading toward Baghdad, cease-fires were not holding in Gaza,  Malaysian flight 17 was still not recovered, spread over a nine-mile swath in the sweltering heat of a Ukrainian summer.

The weekend came and went and a new work week started, and still I refused to watch the news, broadcast or cable, and I turned my attention instead to old reruns of “The Middle”  and “The Andy Griffith Show.” And sometimes even Andy was too modern and I settled in for long evenings of British mysteries set in the 50’s, or costume dramas set in distant centuries.

Because I simply can’t take it anymore. The news is as distressing as I have ever known it, and I have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, natural disasters splayed all over every channel  on a continual loop, wars, famines, outbreaks of plague.

But never do I remember so many distressing things, so close together,  and a feeling of such utter helplessness and…I don’t want to say it…but hopelessness, too, on really bad days. Each crisis seems to beget another crisis which backburners yet another crisis that stews away until it boils over and some invisible chef rearranges the pots on the stove and it starts all over again.

My mother, who was too young to remember the depression but recalls clearly the war years, says right now is as distressing a time as she can remember. The worst, maybe. She will tell you, though, that they only saw the news at the movies, on carefully controlled newsreels, but the newspapers, big thick things with tiny print, were full of accounts as were the news reports on the radio.

As it is,  the 24 hour news outlets have done me in. I can’t watch any more. I can’t listen to one more “ping” as I receive a push notification of some on-line outlet updating me with news. I want off this ride.

So, I watch “Endeavor” and “Lark Rise to Candleford,” and maybe a Vera Stanhope mystery here and there. And yes, they are murder mysteries, but nothing gory or gratuitous and the plot just clicks along with Vera hurrrumping from one place to another in her baggy coat and unflattering hat.

th-4She calls everyone “pet” or “poppet” but she says things like, “aye, you might be the murderer.”  You gotta love Vera. She’s got issues but she is good at her job and all she wants to do is go home and put her feet up and enjoy her pint.

She looks out over the bleak Northumberland landscape and she seems, if not content,  at least resigned.  But we don’t live on the edge of the North Sea, where I am guessing television and cell reception is poor, and they are spared some of the bombardment of the news.

So, I have turned off the television. I allow myself visits to well-selected and respected web sites of new outlets where I read detailed reports and fair analysis of world events.

And I am looking forward to a week in the mountains, which might as well be Northumberland, at least as far as phone service goes,  And there are no televisions. None.

At all.

Do you know what a rare and lovely thing that is? Not just now, but in general?

I will be at the writer’s workshop at the Hindman Settlement School thand I should be learning a lot and reading good work, and laughing with my friends. We will make up things to laugh at. I call my mother a couple of times, check in with my messages off and on, and then don’t look at the phone for hours, days, because everyone I want to talk to is here.

I am looking forward to silencing the outside world more this year than any other I can remember. I might have reached my capacity for understanding world events. It’s all just too much, too complex, too something.

The forecast for Hindman is this. Temperatures in the 70’s, rainy but still, people, the 70’s. That has never happened. Almost every one of our group will be there, which also almost never happens. We haven’t seen each other in a while so that means pent- up stories begging to be told.

We will serve all our local delicacies at our impromptu late night th-2soirees, things like pickled bologna and fresh-made pesto.  I bring the hot olive cheese spread from J’s, and it goes quick.  I always take extra but they are just pigs, what can I tell ya.

Maybe if the music is fine and the laughter loud I might be able to come home and face the news. Let’s hope.

We’re Going to Graceland, Graceland…

Graceland signMy first visit to Graceland was over thirty years ago.  My sister and I were driving up through the Delta in the middle of a heatwave in my little un-air conditioned Datsun, and she was, I must say,  tad tetchy.

We had been in Greenville, Mississippi where it was 100 degrees at ten o’clock at night, and during the day the heat from the parking lot radiated up one’s legs and lingered, oh, about knee high.  It was an awful sensation and scary.  I had never experienced such a thing.

While we weren’t at each other’s throats, we were soon about to be, so in the spirit of detente, we agreed to take the Memphis exit and go visit The King.  Memphis in the middle of the summer is a hot and sweaty place, and this was an exceptionally hot and sweaty day.  In line with us was a young couple from Scotland, very fair, very red in the face, fanning themselves feverishly, with the look of the doomed about their eyes.

Scotland, remember, is a land of summers in the sixties, with heat waves topping out about 76 degrees Fahrenheit.  I thought it possible we might lose them altogether, and they were sweet, too.  Looked like newlyweds, maybe.   They rallied, though, as they linked arms and half-swooned, half-dragged themselves to the front door.  They were, after all, on a pilgrimage, and that requires sacrifice and discomfort and pain.

They had come to give homage to Elvis.  The King.

Not much has changed at Graceland in thirty years, at least not Graceland itself.  I discovered this back in June when my pal, Alice, and I took her two granddaughters on a pilgrimage of our own.  We talked about taking the girls last summer and it didn’t work out, so this year we got it on our calendars early.

We packed the car with iPads and pillows and took off early one Wednesday morning, the day already hot and humid, as it should be.  The girls giggled in the back, sometimes erupting in outrageous laughter at things only eleven-year olds find funny.

We arrived in late afternoon, too late to tour Mud Island, so we decided to hit Beale Street instead.  How to describe it?   Perhaps a BB King ClubPG-rated Bourbon Street, but it also reminded me a little of Broadway in Nashville, but more cramped, with tiny shops stuffed to the gills with Elvis and blues memorabilia–shot glasses, trinkets, caps, t-shirts and ties.  Just store upon store, and tourists everywhere. Where else but on Beale Street can one score a Bessie Smith postcard as I did?

Nowhere else, I tell ya.

While I took pictures of a metal studded bra through the window of a shop, Alice and the girls wandered down Beale, goofing around with the street performers who paint themselves all in silver paint, stand on boxes and act like statues.  Oh, but I never tire of that spectacle.

Mercifully, the girls were ready to go back to the hotel and swim, and I was all for that, knowing we had a big day tomorrow.

How to describe Graceland, the house?  I really like it.  There.  I’ve said it and I am not apologetic for it.  The joke is to hate it, talk about how tacky it is, and to roll your eyes a little, an indication of your superiority and good taste.

Of course it is dated, DSCF2981 stuck in an early sixties decor, but even thirty years ago Kathy and I agreed that it had a livable look to it, not our style, perhaps, but comfy in its way. Human-scaled, humble.  A house for having friends over to hang out.

What strikes you about Graceland, besides the modest proportion of the house itself, is the near-reverence of the tourists churning through it.  It is quiet.  People talk in hushed tones, not like church, but respectful.  I think it is because Graceland really was his home.  It doesn’t take long to view the house, and then you are in the memorial garden, moving toward the horseshoe of ground where Elvis, his stillborn twin, his mother, father and grandmother are buried.

It’s quiet here, too, out in the sunshine, and the girls are quiet.  Thereare still airplanes to tour, fancy cars to ogle, and t-shirts to buy. A museum to tour with his hundreds of gold and platinum records, his Vegas costumes.

But for a moment, we stand at his grave and think about Elvis. Even the eleven-year olds.

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