Tag Archives: core values

Alternative retirement planning

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Once upon a time I wrote a personal finance column for a South African daily newspaper. The column was called “Smart Money”, and every week I used it to yatter on humorously about stocks, bonds, money markets and such esoteric entities. It was fun. I got invited to insurance company shindigs and had lunch with movers and shakers like the head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and they would ask my opinion about the economy, and listen with interest as I repeated whatever I could remember from the last shindig or lunch I’d attended.

Fun, but also scary. I was constantly aware that, at any moment, I could lose my conversational balance and plummet like a sheep out of a tree.

My friends and family thought this was the funniest thing of all the absurd things I’d ever done. In fact, the only time I ever generated more whoops of appalled laughter was a few years later, after I’d moved to the US, when I got a job driving a school bus. According to the people who claim to love me, the only thing I do worse than manage money is drive.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and pondering how much easier it is to give great advice than to follow it. Take my “Smart Money” column, for example. I knew I was entirely unqualified to advise people where to invest, or to forecast economic trends. But I figured out pretty damn quick that many of my readers were people who had accumulated money by being good at whatever they did, but were as clueless as I about how to make their money grow. They were widget-makers and dream-sellers, not investors. So instead of competing with those much cleverer columnists who pontificated knowledgeably about this or that investment opportunity, I kept just one step ahead of my readers by hearing terminology I didn’t understand, getting boffins to explain it to me, and passing along what I’d learned at a rate of about 750 words a week.

Unfortunately none of this knowledge actually stuck, in the sense of me personally doing anything with it. As a result I’m now hurtling inexorably toward 60 – 70 – 80 sans safety net or parachute. The Hubbit is a fair bit older than I am, so when he retired we chose the larger-pension-for-the-rest-of-his-life option, rather than the very much smaller-pension-until-whichever-of-us-lives-longer-snuffs-it option. Not to be ghoulish about it, I’m expecting a decade or so of widowhood (preferably later rather than sooner). I’ve always assumed I’d be the merry sort of widow – like this one:

Seniorin mit Hund am Laptop, auf Wiese liegend

Okay, so she’s not merry, exactly. Poking around Adobe’s stock photos I found lots of beaming bints with gray hair, kicking up their heels or frolicking on the beach. But this is my kind of happy. Dog, laptop, solitude, trees. That’s plenty merry enough for me.

Not like this one…

Homeless elderly woman sleeping rough in a park

If I’m ever homeless, I hope I at least have a dog.

Only … a question that lately has been coming to mind with disconcerting frequency is, “How?”

I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with all the old farts you went to school or varsity with, way back in the Pleistocene … and they all seem so darn stable. Settled. Secure. A nice house in the suburbs, a holiday cottage here, an overseas trip there. How did they do it?

I seem to have lived my life just outside the masquerade ball. I can hear music and tantalizing scraps of conversations, I can smell food and perfume, I watch the dancers flirt from behind their masks and fans. I think I was invited but … ehhh … my mask makes my nose sweat. If I tried to dance I’d be like a sheep in a tree – baa-aa-aah, two, three, plummet.

Abandoning that strangely mixed metaphor and getting back to my point (I think I have one; I must just keep circling until I close in on it) … it’s clearly too late for me to spend my adult life preparing for old age.

For a while, until a couple months ago, I thought I’d get a job. After all, I’ve spent a lot of years doing a bunch of interesting things – not just journalism and tech writing; I’ve also started and run several businesses, a mission school and a dog rescue, some of which turned out well and taught me all sorts of useful skills. So now that I’m willing to let some plutocrat chain me to a desk for 40 hours a week in return for health insurance and enough money to pay down our mortgage, wouldn’t you think prospective employers would stare in awe at my résumé and exclaim, “Wow – you’re clearly a flexible, innovative problem-solver! We need you on our team right now!

We-e-ell, no. As it happened, their response tended to be more along the lines of “Seriously? WTF is this?” And, even more worrisome, every time someone turned me down I felt quite dizzy with relief that I’d evaded having to sit down at the same desk at the same time surrounded by the same people every day, regardless of whether or not I wanted to.

I’ve pondered getting back into freelance technical writing, but the problem with that is, you have to market yourself. Back in South Africa when I partnered with my bestie, Twiglet, she slapped on face paint, donned a pantsuit with a nice brooch and high heels, and topped it off with an elegant hairstyle, and clients had no difficulty at all taking her seriously. I, on the other hand, with my swirling caftans and my hair falling out of a bun? Not so easy to sell to go-getting executive types. Plus I hate it.

So the fruit of my recent ponderings is as follows.

First, the masquerade ball is almost over. The dancers are getting tired; some have already left. I didn’t want to go when it was in full swing; why would I go now at the draggy tail-end of the party? Baa-aa-aah-plummet – and then what?

Second, I kinda like what the Hubbit and I have managed to pull together in our small corner of the planet. It’s shabby and untidy and a tad heavy on the dog hair, but I’d rather spruce it up (or not) than replace it.

ants and grasshopper

Third, in nearly sixty years of rarely worrying about tomorrow, this grasshopper has never gone hungry. I guess God likes the sound of my fiddling; at any rate, He’s provided for me this far, and I continue to do my grasshopper best to please Him. (I understand the moral of the fable; I’ve just never liked it. Those ants are a miserable, self-righteous, mean-spirited bunch – why would anyone want to be like them?)

So I have decided: enough with the worrying and pondering. Definitely don’t start with the wishing and regretting. I’m grabbing whatever time I have left and doing what I love.

In other words, work on my book continues, y’all! It’s called “A is for Affenpinscher”, and it’s the first in a series of 26, which is enough to keep me busy for a while. This first one is going slower than I like because I’m having to take time to walk in circles and get acquainted with the various characters, and then make notes so I don’t get them mixed up. But it’s moving along quite nicely; I’m having fun with it and look forward to putting it out there.

Speaking of which, two months from today is the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The cost of attending is wince-worthy, but it provides an opportunity to meet with 22 – yes, twenty-two, that’s two hands plus two thumbs up – editors and agents, all a-tremble with their eagerness to sign up fresh talent.

In two months I can finish writing the first book in the series, map out the second, and maybe overhaul a completely different manuscript (a YA fantasy) that I set aside years ago when I realized it needed … oh well, I’ll spare you the details, but I have to do a shitload of research in the form of gaming, which scares me a bit because what if I get addicted?

So, anyway, that’s my retirement plan. If you think it’s a little nuts, you’re probably right. On the other hand, look what I found in my fortune cookie tonight!

Fortune cookie

It’s a sign, right?

If you’re a gamer, which game would you recommend for fantasy, quests and magic? And, regardless of whether or not you’re a gamer, how do you plan to spend your declining years?

The vicious absurdity of bathroom laws

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Last Sunday afternoon was breezy and bright, but I was too lazy to take the dogs for a walk so a friend and I drove into town to grab a cup of coffee. It was just your standard, laid-back, happy, Sunday-afternoonish sort of outing.

On the way to the coffee shop we swung by our local library. There were a couple of men – nice-looking grandfatherly types – standing near the entrance with a trestle table on which they had a couple of three-ring binders and some pamphlets. Attached to the wall behind them was a shiny sheet-sized poster featuring some message about “freedom and privacy for all” and a picture of a cute little blonde girl.

Transgender shocked girl (2).jpeg

Not this kid, but you get the idea. Who wouldn’t want her to be safe and happy?

As I ambled past them one man approached me with a binder, which he flipped open to reveal a sheet of paper about one-third filled with names and signatures. “Would you like to sign?” he asked.

“Sure!” I said – after all, we all like freedom, privacy and pretty little girls, right? I assumed it was a petition relating to the recent demise of internet privacy protections. I hadn’t really thought through what the little girl was there for … maybe protecting our freedom and internet privacy is a way to ensure her a safe and happy future. But to be honest, I didn’t think about it. There was a spring-like song in my head that didn’t leave a lot of room for logical analysis.

The man beamed at me, handed me a pen, and held out the binder for me to sign. “So what’s this about?” I asked, casually, just making conversation, and because even on a sunny spring day with a song in my head I am not a total idiot.

House Bill 1011,” he said, and when I looked blank, pen still poised above his piece of paper, he explained, “We believe people should have the right to vote when their privacy is affected.” I continued to look blank, but the song in my head was beginning to weeble.

I honestly don’t remember what he said next – he was still beaming and I think stretching his lips like that made it difficult for him to speak intelligibly – but you already saw the title of this post so you know what’s coming. For starters, the pen in my hand suddenly turned into a snake and bit me. “Oh my word!” I exclaimed, flinging it away. “You’re talking about restrooms? You’re trying to control how transgender people use public toilets?” He blinked and his beam wavered into bemusement. “Ugh! That’s disgusting! Your bigotry is disgusting!

Now I really don’t do confrontation. I mean, I do, but only under duress, and I need some sort of warning – time to work up a head of steam that will enable me to blast through my tendency to stutter when stressed and sob when angry. Under the circumstances I turned out to be as incapable of intelligible speech as he was, so I stormed into the library and slapped some books around.

When I stormed back outside the pair of them huddled together but stood firm, awaiting my next attack. I felt a bit sorry for them, actually – they were just a couple of gaffers doing their bewildered best to hold back the horrifying onslaught of … whatever it is they find horrifying. So I asked them some questions along the lines of “Have you ever actually heard of a case of a transgender person assaulting a little girl in a bathroom? Or of a predator dressing up as transgender in order to do so?” and they explained that they just wanted people to have the right to vote about something that affected their safety and privacy, so I asked, “And what about the safety and privacy of transgender citizens?” and … really, again, I don’t remember what they said. It didn’t have any logical handles that would enable it to attach to my brain.

So I shouted a bit and used the “bigot” word and waved my arms and didn’t make a lot of sense because another thing that happens when I’m upset and stressed is aphasia takes control of my tongue – sometimes it’s so bad the only word I don’t forget is “aphasia”. But this is what I wanted to say to them. This is what I should have said. This is what I’ll say next time.

First of all, just how does this whole transgender thing work? Well, I’m no expert, but as best I can figure it out from reading what various transgender people have to say on the subject, it seems to me that transgender people are the gender by which they identify. It’s not just a feeling, or a mood, or a phase. A person can have a penis and still be a woman, or a vagina and be a man. What, you don’t understand it? I can’t help you with that, because nor do I. But so what if you can’t? The older I get, the more things I find I don’t understand. Usually, in my experience, if I leave them alone and don’t poke at them with a pointy stick, they leave me alone and nobody gets bitten.

Secondly, this issue of who gets to use which facilities. Transgender women dress like women; I’m willing to bet most of them look way more feminine than I do. (Yes, that’s a low bar, but still.) Transgender men dress, walk, look like men. Republican dudes and duffers, do you really want someone in a dress and high heels standing next to you at the urinal? Or touching up her lipstick at the sink in your public restroom? Quit being dickish about this, and it won’t happen … because transgender people use stalls. Men with vaginas aren’t equipped to use urinals. Women with a penises will choose to wait … and wait … and, holy cow, cross their legs and wait in line for a stall rather than use the urinal in the men’s room.

Mind you … speaking as a woman who has, on more than one occasion, disdained the long line leading to the women’s room at a busy supermarket, preferring to dash straight into the empty men’s room right next door, I don’t really get why separate facilities are necessary. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner we switch to unisex restrooms the better. Although … yeah, they can tuck the urinals off around a corner somewhere … I don’t want to have to see that. (Sorry, guys, I know you’re awful proud of them and all, but they’re just not pretty.)

Transgender bathroom-police.png

I borrowed this cartoon without permission, because it says what needs to be said and it wasn’t clear where permission might be got. Please check out their website so they get some benefit from it.

Getting back to the point, thirdly, there’s the issue of enforcement. Are you going to appoint genital police to peek inside everyone’s underwear before we’re allowed through the door? Because I really don’t see how that will enhance feelings of privacy! Maybe this law will apply only to people whose community knows they have transitioned, like at schools. How’s that for a great way to encourage tolerance and civility – forcing a girl (with-a-penis) to use the same shower and toilet facilities as the tender-hearted fellows on the football team!

Because, of course, fourth point, let’s not forget that this all starts with concerns about safety. Those worried folk who are so anxious to strip transgender people of their peeing rights aren’t naturally mean, they’re scared. They’re scared of big hairy men putting on dresses and claiming to be women in order to invade their little girls’ potty spots and Do Nasty Things to them.

The thing is, rape is already against the law. So are assault, indecent exposure and harassment. Predators don’t care about restroom laws. When they are set on doing their predatory thing, they already disregard far more powerful laws, with harsher penalties than anyone could dream up for using the wrong bathroom.

I wish people like those two old gaffers would stop and think about who is really at risk here – the girls with penises and boys with vaginas who just need to pee, in safety and privacy, same as the rest of us! And then get the heck out of there, because no one actually wants to hang out in a public restroom!

That’s what I wish I’d said, in calm and measured tones, but instead I got loud and emotional, and when I realized I was about to start sniveling I whirled around and stomped off, and nearly slammed into a couple of young people – a tall girl and a short man – who were standing just a little way off.

The young man said, “Um, I just wanted to thank you.” He gestured in the direction of the gaffers. “For what you said there.” I mumbled something awkward and incoherent. He said, “They asked me to sign and I told them I couldn’t because it would mean I’d have to use the women’s bathroom, and they seemed to think that would be okay.”

Completely inappropriately, because I was still all discombobulated and upset, I hugged him. He didn’t seem to mind, but I wish I’d known what to say.

What do you think about legislation requiring people to use the restroom intended for their assigned gender? If you had been involved in this conversation, what would you have said?

 

A question of character

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So on Monday night we had this…

debate vs hillary donald

… which one could explain away as a combination of “the American political system at work” and, well …

Election 2016 gary johnson libertarian party

And one could, if one chose, simply leave it at that. But for some reason I feel compelled to say more, if only I could focus on the presidential election without perpetually being distracted by a need to hit something with a mallet, run out to the corral and shovel manure, or just, you know, bang my head against a wall.

Politics makes me go

snoopy-bleh

because I just don’t get it. Seriously, why would anyone want to be president? Here in the US you spend a year being alternately (or sometimes simultaneously) pilloried and on parade. You also have to spend a shitload of money – and I say “a shitload” intentionally, because to get it you have to kiss a lot of butt, not all of it clean. That gets you about three years to play the blame game while trying to unravel the mess your predecessor left behind. Then you pretty much put your presidential day job on hold for a year while you get back into pillory / on parade to win another three-and-a-half years in which to do the things you promised to do the first time you ran, when you were still fresh-faced and naive and thought the White House would be a cool place to live. Finally you have to spend your last six months in the job back on pillory/parade patrol, only now your party has chosen someone new to lead the parade and your job is to smile, smile, smile while they explain how they will actually do the things you said you would do only you were distracted by a war / tsunami / hurricane / plague of locusts. Then the voters pick the other party’s candidate and it’s your fault.

And that’s how it goes if you win.

Frankly we’d probably both have more fun if I just yattered on about the latest exploits of my favorite crazy goofball.

20160507_181128-2

Argos: focused, likable, and he probably won’t hurt you.

But I am a Blogger on a Mission to Fulfill my Civic Duty. I am going to discuss the US presidential election if it kills me because, notwithstanding all the noise and fuss and expenditure of obscene amounts of money, only one person can win it, and we the people have to decide who that person should be. And since clearly only an insane person could actually want the job, it’s very, very important that we take the time to understand each candidate’s particular brand of insanity, and determine whether it’s the kind of insanity that could result in us being blown up or obliged to live in cardboard boxes, because those are the kinds of insanity we should try to avoid.

Pretty simple, right? All we need to do is make a list and then cross off anyone who is untrustworthy, unqualified, unrighteous, undignified, unrestrained, unbalanced or in any other significant way un-okay.

dollary-clump

For the deluded and confused: Dollary Clump.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once we have eliminated the deplorable, whoever is left must be the true choice.

Look, I’m not going to discount the possibility that you might actually like Trump or Clinton and earnestly desire to vote for one (or both) of them. But in such a case I really don’t know what more to say to you. Let’s talk about something else. Have you read any good books lately?

On the other hand, according to RealClear Politics 55.1% of voters object to Clinton while 58.3% dislike Trump, so it’s statistically likely that you plan to hold your nose all the way to the ballot box before you sadly scrawl your mark next to one or other name. These numbers make perfect sense to me since I think they’re both horrors for so many reasons that I don’t have the space or the inclination to enumerate here. (The information is all out there, guys – no need for me to repeat it. If you’ve been vacationing under a rock, please go here, here and here for a few probably-incomplete lists of what’s scary about Trump, and look here and here for a glimpse into Clinton’s dark side.)

What doesn’t make sense to me is that people are still voting for them, apparently on the basis that if they pick one the other will lose. Really, guys, the best you can do for America is pick the least worst? You’re seriously willing to live for four years with your selected portion of the bizarre mess the DemRep Coalition has sicked up on the national carpet? Come on, you can do better than that! Go for the gold!

Yes, I said it: you have a choice, and its name is Johnson/Weld. Yeah, yeah – third party, wasted vote, spoiler, blah blah. Just stay with me a little longer, okay? Let me explain why you’re wrong. Well, potentially wrong … if you’re willing to stop believing the myths and being scared by the lies. And, most important, you have to be willing to quit thinking that choosing a president is like betting on a horse race. This is not where you assess the “odds”, pick a winner and hope for the best. This is a time to think long and hard about the candidates – their character and qualifications – and choose the one who can best be trusted to deliver on their promises.

johnson-weld-2016

Libertarians Bill Weld (VP candidate) and Gary Johnson (Presidential candidate). (Side note: Johnson may look like a shrimp next to Weld, but in fact he’s 6 feet tall at sea-level, and spends a lot of his time standing on mountaintops. This means that Weld is probably taller than Abraham Lincoln – whose legs went all the way to the ground – which may or may not be significant, in that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate to become the first Republican president. Lincoln would not like the sorry, self-indulgent mess modern Republicans have made of his party! In fact, I’m pretty sure if he were running this year it would be as a Libertarian.)

One of the problems with Johnson/Weld is that they aren’t well known, even in an election that has voters riled up and paying more attention than usual. The best way to get known – and possibly the only way to stand a real chance of winning – is to participate in the presidential debates. These are controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which is essentially a joint venture between the Republican and Democratic parties. The CPD requires that, for a third party candidate to take part, they must average 15% in five preselected national polls. Sounds reasonable? Tell you what, let’s get it into context.

  • Both Clinton and Trump won their presidential nominations, which the CPD recognizes automatically, on less than 9% of possible votes.
  • The polls the CPD chose to determine whether Johnson/Weld were eligible to debate have used some questionable research methodologies, such as interviewing only people contactable via landline. This means they don’t connect with younger voters, who tend to use only cellphones, and who strongly favor Johnson.
  • The CPD’s stated mission is to “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners”.
  • Various polls indicated that Johnson/Weld were unknown to around 70% of voters.
  • According to a report by the conservative watchdog Media Research Center, from January through August this year the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts gave Trump 1,773 minutes of coverage, and Clinton 1,020 minutes. Johnson received 11 seconds on the NBC Nightly News in May, when the Libertarian Party announced his nomination. The other mainstream media, both print and broadcast, have paid him minimal attention.
  • Johnson/Weld are the only third-party candidates who appear on the ballots in all 50 states. To get there, they had to win the support of nearly a million people, spread across every state.
  • A Suffolk University poll released early this month asked voters: “If a third party presidential candidate is certified for president by a majority of state ballots, should he or she be included in the debates this fall?” 76% of respondents said yes.

So yeah, Mr Trump, you’re right. The system is indeed rigged. Lucky you.

Anyway, under the circumstances it’s impressive that Johnson/Weld averaged 9% in the selected polls – a record high for a third party contender. But the CPD wasn’t impressed, and the first debate, last Monday, went pretty much as expected …

Animatron donald trump hillary clinton debate argue

… and nobody learned anything new … EXCEPT that laid-back, chill, ever-friendly Gary Johnson could get angry. Apparently that came as a surprise. Me? I’m delighted. Let me tell you why.

But first let’s backtrack a little. You remember that Aleppo debacle? The Great Gaffe that magically knocked all of Trump’s uglies and Hillary’s sneakies off center stage for at least five minutes, until until some new dreadfulness emerged about them? Here’s a reminder.

So the interviewer asked what he planned to do about Aleppo, and inside Johnson’s head a synapse misfired and his brain went, “Umm … ALEPPO … acronym meaning whut?” instead of instantly understanding that the conversation had shifted to the conflict in Syria. And the internet lost its collective marbles. Suddenly, people who on a good day could barely find their own way to the bathroom were bumping into each other and going, “Haw! Gary Johnson! Aleppo! Haw haw haw!”

How big a deal was this? Well, on the plus-side, his name recognition improved significantly. The downside was that the mass media (and, with them, the masses) jumped to the conclusion that Johnson didn’t understand foreign policy. Obviously it would be a very big deal if a potential Commander-in-Chief didn’t know what was going on in a war zone where American troops are engaged, and didn’t have an opinion about how to deal with it. But that’s not what happened here. For a moment he lost the bubble, but as soon as he regained it he was off and running again – and by the way, I love his ideas about foreign policy. (Essentially, they amount to: “Let’s get the fuck out of everyone else’s business and clean up our own shit.” I may be over-simplifying just a little – don’t you go labeling him isolationist – but I don’t have time to talk about that here, okay? I’m starting to realize this is going to take more than one post. Oyyy…)

A couple days ago it happened again. In an interview, asked to name a leader of any country in the world that he admired, he couldn’t think of one. Now it’s possible that he thinks they’re all flawed, and it’s also possible that he’s just not good at pop quizzes. Seriously, so what?

What matters to me, and what I took away from these “gaffes”, was how he handles a setback. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t deny. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t tweet, threaten and blame. After blanking on Aleppo, the first thing Johnson did was apologize to his supporters: “I’m so sorry. You all work so hard and I let you down.” For the week or so that followed, every time a reporter said the A-word he took responsibility and refused to make excuses. And when he couldn’t think of the name of a national leader he admired, he commented with wry humor that he was having “another Aleppo moment”.

He kept his chill until last Monday, when he was preparing to watch the first presidential debate of 2016. He was working Plan B, connecting with the press and active on social media, but it must have been heartbreaking to be muzzled, denied a space on the stage, when he had worked so hard to be there.

So when some reporter chose that occasion to ask him, yet again, about Aleppo, he came unglued. “I’m tired of innocent people being killed in these countries!” he exclaimed. “Hillary Clinton dots the i’s and crosses the t’s on all of the names … but as a result we have the foreign policy that we have right now that I have to tell you I think is horrible. Horrible!” He was angry, he said, that people were calling him out on the names of geographic locations and foreign leaders, while “the underlying policy has thousands of people dying! And that is unacceptable!”

And that, friends, is why I’m delighted. Push Hillary and she slithers behind a denial. Poke Trump and he shouts and calls you names. Put Johnson under enough pressure to dent his cool, and what flares up has nothing to do with his ego. What we see is anguish over the mess we’ve been making, and a passion to clean it up.

I don’t understand why anyone would want to be president, but I think I get why he’s running. He’s proved himself in government. He’s been outstandingly successful in business. He’s climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents. What else does he have left to do but save the world?

As for me, it’s a matter of personal integrity. When someone of such caliber asks for my vote, how can I throw it away on someone who would not respect me or honor my trust? I don’t care about his so-called “odds”. I’m in.

[All GIFs from giphy.com]

What are your thoughts on this election? What do you think is the most important character trait in a good president? Have you read any good books lately? Let’s talk!

Want to know more about Gary Johnson/ and Bill Weld? Go here and here to learn where they stand on the issues that are important to you. Wikipedia has good biographical information on both Johnson and Weld. Also, go browse their Facebook page and watch some of their online town hall meetings.

Contemplating Christmas without the crocodile

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I was over visiting Ms MPB today, reading her latest post, and it got me to thinking about gifts. She was pondering the changes that a baby would bring to her life, and one of the questions she asked was, “Will adoption make the rest of our lives messy?” Further down, in the comments, she commented on how much she dreaded having toys, especially plastic ones, all over the house.

After I’d done laughing, shaking my head, and murmuring, “Oh, honey, you have no idea how messy your life will become!” I found myself pondering the the stuff and clutter in my own life, and gifts given and received over the years, and which ones worked and why. It’s getting to be that time of year, people – Christmas is 101 days away, according to a nifty little countdown I have on my phone, and pretty soon the Crocodile of Christmas Present will jump up and grab you. We’ll need to have our wits about us to hold back the flood of cluttering Stuff – because if you don’t, it will suck you under, roll you over, and rip up the decomposing remains of your life just like a crocodile with its prey.

Well, you don’t have to be crocodile food or retail fodder. You can choose to break the cycle.

The thing about gifts for kids is, we’re always tempted by the Latest Shiny Thing – and the kids in our lives want it too. Oh boy, how they want it! They don’t just want it – they neeeeeed it to give meaning and fulfillment to their lives … right up until the day after Christmas. Or maybe it’ll last into the new year, if you’re lucky. But, guaranteed, the day they learn what their friends got, they’ll be dazzled and smitten by the Next Shiny Thing.

I rarely had much spare money when I was raising the Girl Child. Except for a few short years before the bank took it back, we didn’t ever live in a house we owned, and space was always limited. When she was very young she played mostly with the contents of my lower kitchen cupboards – pots and pans (delightful to thump with a spoon), plastic containers (they stack! They nest! You can put things in them and pour!), canned goods (they make towers and then they fall down and roll all over the floor, and sometimes make Mommy scream!) She had other people who loved her, though, so she accumulated some good stuff. She learned at an early age to entertain herself … and I learned, when I wanted to sleep late, to do so in a bed full of Lego.

But mostly I gave her intangibles. There was her own special china cup as soon as she graduated from a sippy cup, and for her third birthday her very first pillow in a bright yellow cover. (When I gave it to her, after several months of nagging, she exclaimed, “Oh! My pillow!” and hugged it tight. Some 20 years later I restuffed it with down off wild ducks Himself had shot, and she told me during her recent visit that she still had it, although it’s now a dog bed.) I know a cup and a pillow are tangible objects, but the real gift was the “You’re old enough for this now”. That’s a gift that lasts, because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the moment and the memory.

When she turned four I had a business trip that coincided with her birthday, so I gave her her first airplane trip, and she stayed with a friend while I was working. And the year she got her first bike, we packaged it in an enormous box. When we called her into the living room to open her gift she ripped off the paper then stopped, stared, and exclaimed, “A BOX!” because what could be better to play house in?

Best Christmas gift EVAH!

I got a robot instead of a baby. Perfect!

Himself and I have become pretty casual about gifts over the years. Last year I went all Fifties Housewife on him and requested a vacuum cleaner. This year it’s a replacement for my sick and sorry laptop. In both cases, I said, “Honey, what I’d really like for Christmas is…” and he ordered it a couple days later. The man has no self-control – he can no more wait for Christmas or a birthday to roll around than ignore that thumping noise in the left rear car tire.

He has surprised me only twice. When I married him there was no money for a diamond ring, so I told him that if I put up with him for 10 years he could give me diamonds then. Instead, he gave me a doberman. And then there was the birthday (I forget which, but it was one that made me grumpy and sorry for myself) that he kept asking, “Would you like your present now?” and I kept growling that no, I was busy. Eventually, near bedtime, I pulled myself together and mopily said I was ready. It was actually gift wrapped! I took off the wrap, and it was a beautiful jewelry box! “How lovely!” I exclaimed, while privately wondering why he’d give a jewelry box to someone who owned only junk jewelry. I opened it and … the box contained a string of pearls. No one had ever before given me anything so completely impractical and pretty. I am not someone who wears pearls. I don’t live a lifestyle, or in a place, that ever calls for pearls. But oh, how I love them! I wear them under my tees and sweatshirts while cleaning up after horses and dogs, and they’re like a secret between me and my skin.

By contrast, I love surprises, and although I’m hopeless at keeping secrets I’ve managed to surprise Himself a couple times. There was the year that he was grumpy the whole day of his birthday. I told him I’d give him his present when he came to bed (no, it’s okay, this is not where I over-share!) and he kept me waiting 45 minutes while he poked around reading the news online before finally stomping upstairs, to find me passed out and wearing nothing but a Stetson. (Oh calm down! The gift was the Stetson! This is not that kind of blog!)

Another time I gave him his gift before I got out of bed. He removed the gift wrap from a small box of shotgun shells, smiled awkwardly, kissed me, and said, “Thank you, honey … only … these won’t work in my shotgun.” I smiled coyly, reached under the sheet, and drew out the fancy new shotgun his best friend had told me to buy. “Well, will they work in this?” I asked.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, it’s okay to buy stuff and get stuff. Giving and unwrapping presents can be tremendous fun! But let’s not get dragged under by the Jolly Crocodile, okay? I think the worst, most dehumanizing insult the world dishes out to us these days is to call us “consumers”. I don’t know about you, but I am so much more than a consumer! I’m a maker, a doer, a dreamer and a rememberer. I’m a lover, a player of games, a friend, a defender of the vulnerable. a celebrator.

When I give gifts, they’re not just Stuff – they mean something. And if they don’t carry the same meaning to you that I placed in them, then please pass them along. Just remember the receiving of a kindness, an act of friendship. That’s really the best any of us have to give anyone.

Skin-deep storytelling

Standard

I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.