I’ve been reading History of the Great American Fortunes, a book published in 1909 by Gustavus Myers. Myers may well have been a Marxist, but his social commentary is right on the mark as he calls out the rich and powerful of the 18th and 19th centuries in this country.
On page 98 of the 1936 edition (though probably written for the first edition in 1909), he notes:
…a profound truth, the force of which mankind is only now beginning to realize, that the pursuit of profit will transform natures inherently capable of much good into sordid, cruel breasts [sic, I think was meant ‘beasts’] of prey and accustom them to committing actions so despicable, so inhuman, that they would be terrified, were it not that the world is under the sway of a profit system and not merely excuses and condones, but justifies and throw a glamour about, the unutterable degradations and crimes which the profit system calls forth.
History has proved, and continues to prove, how prescient this author is. He was condemning the actions of John Jacob Astor, whose minions used liquor–while charging outlandish prices for it, like $50 a gallon–to get Native American drunk and then rob them of their just payment for the furs he later sold to Europe at an immense profit.
And how much does this, from the same page, sound like today?:
Like all other propertied interests, Astor’s company regarded the law as a thing to be rigorously invoked against the poor, the helpless and defenseless, but as not to be considered when it stood in the way of the claims, designs and pretensions of property.
Wall Street, anyone?
Despite my resolution for this month (February), to avoid thinking, saying or writing negative things, I can’t get a recent Editorial Notebook from the New York Times out of my head. The title is “Last Things First for Patients With Bucket Lists,” by Clyde Haberman. It begins:
If a new study is correct, more than 91 percent of us have a bucket list — things we wish to do before we die. This revelation is interesting on several levels, including a question of what that minority of nearly 9 percent is thinking. Surely those people are aware that the chance of their kicking the bucket is 100 percent. Are we to believe that nothing in their basket of wishes is unrealized?
See, I’m in that 9 percent. I don’t have—or need—a “basket of wishes,” and furthermore, I know exactly what I am thinking: that a writer who dismisses anyone’s choice not to have a “bucket list” probably needs to find a job a day job that’s more in line with his intellectual abilities.
The whole idea behind such a concept is that, somehow, “doing” is important. Well, I am 68 years old, and I am retired, and I don’t have to “do” anything. Which is fine with me. I do have plenty to do, but what is most important to me now is not doing, but being.
I had the ineffable pleasure this morning of just lying in bed, my body perfectly relaxed, with no desire to move a corpuscle, much less any major muscle group. I was totally blissed out just being warm and comfortable and having nothing pressing to do, nothing on my mind.
Being = bliss.
It’s also important to note that by “doing,” we all become complicit in further degrading the resources of Earth. People answering surveys about their bucket list, Haberman notes, list travel as their most common desire. But it’s not exactly carbon neutral to be jetting off to your eco-vacation on the Galapagos Islands or the Outer Hebrides. Yeah, I’ve done some traveling and I’d like to travel more. But balance that with ecological awareness; the drawbacks of traveling with a disability; general inertia; and having plenty of places to walk and interesting things to do, think, and read at home in Portland.
Aside from Venice, there isn’t any new place I’d particularly like to see* Besides, with age comes the realization that basically one can’t do everything one would want to do. Stepping back into being, rather than doing, isn’t a constriction of my life choices, it is a revelation of how wide my humanity is even when I am just occupying the same few meters of physical space day after day.
OK, so the point of the Times’s editorial notebook is that a recent study found that having in mind the things they’d like to do before dying seems to help terminal patients focus more and live longer. Bully for them. But I am really, really happy with my life. I don’t need a phantom list of things I may or may not be able to get around to. I live in the present; I’m filled with gratitude; I love my life, my pursuits, my creativity, my family, my friends.
“A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” the poet Robert Browning wrote. My reach has caught up with my grasp; I have an intimation of heaven. I know what it’s for, and I am grateful.
*Well, actually I would like to revisit some of the places whose memories resonate with me. Yet one can never really go back…
My birthday is in a couple of days, January 1 to be exact. If this year is like previous years, I will get several dozen Happy Birthday messages on Facebook, most of them from people I know more or less tangentially. In previous years I’ve found them weeks or months later, say in March, because I only get around to looking at Facebook every few months.
I don’t like Facebook. Not because it’s evil, which it may well be, but that it is such an enormous time sink. Frankly, I’d rather be making quilts or baking cookies or having lunch with my friends.
I’ve been familiar with Facebook since its beginning, before it was even a commercial product. When my younger daughter was at Harvard she lived in the same residence hall as Mark Zuckerberg. Fortunately, she didn’t move in until a year after he had departed. She missed the “hot babes” game Zuckerberg invented (if one can believe the movie Social Network).
I thought then, back in 1998, that the facebook, a printed manual that showed the pictures and names of her classmates, was useful. I’m not great at remembering faces, so I can appreciate directories with pictures.
But Facebook the social network has grown unmanageable. It’s a terrible way to try to keep up with people. It’s so easy—too easy—to enter your thoughts or to point folks to a website or a cute animal video, or to post a notice that you signed a political petition or bought a particular product. I scroll through too many fierce polemicals, inane slogans, spurious bons mots, photos. Whatever. Too much dreck.
While I’m always touched that people do take the effort to hit the “happy birthday” button, it will likely be the only time I’m going to hear from most of them. So maybe, I think, I should let them hear from me. I’ll start to check out their Facebook feeds. But, overwhelmed by trivia, I usually get through just the first few names before I give up.
Once in a while I’ll check to see what one of my relatives is doing. But even there, I find pointers to videos or websites that the poster thinks present ideas he or she agrees with. To want to share is human, but I am cross-referenced out.
Curiously, the Harvard-educated daughter has never had an account on the Zuckerberg Facebook. I think she has the right idea. The only reason I keep my account is that the occasional business or Meet-up group or church will post news and information there and only there. And why not? It’s so much easier than having to deal with a webpage.
I think there’s a setting somewhere that posts my own webpage postings to my Facebook feed. It’s so easy—too easy.
Anyway, Happy Birthday to me! Remember me by email.
Just a seasonal reminder: if you are roasting seeds from your Halloween pumpkin, you don’t need to clean off all the pulp from every last one.
Separating the seeds from the pulp is messy but fun in a visceral sort of way. This is the point at which you don’t have to wash the seeds. You just don’t want large chunks of pulp remaining. So you push the slippery little guys through your fingers until most of the pulp is gone.
Toss the seeds with a bit of melted butter, say a tablespoon, or some olive oil. Spread them on a baking sheet, sprinkle them with salt, and roast them at 250° F. for about an hour. You could stir them every 20 minutes or so.
I suppose you could sprinkle them with some chili powder or curry powder, but I’ve never done that. I just love the taste of these pumpkin seeds with just butter. The roasted bits of pulp add quite a depth of flavor.
Seeds from squash also can be roasted this way.
Light through trees on my street filtered sunlight during the eclipse. Each of these light patches is an image of the sun with the moon partially covering it.
On her While She Naps blog, quilter and designer Abby Glassenberg describes a new project, a quilt with 99 hexagons, each one representing a fabric in her stash. “I’ve had some of these fabrics for more than 10 years,” she writes. I can beat that. I have at least one little piece that’s half a century old. And it has a history.
In 1968 or 68, I bought a full dirndl skirt at a thrift store in or near Tulare, Calif., when I was in high school. I took the skirt apart and used the resulting several yards of fabric to make an A-line knee-length dress. I sewed a wide band of ecru lace a few inches above the hem.
That dress is inextricably aligned with a memory of waiting in a house in Visalia (nearby college town, albeit junior college) to be introduced as the recipient of some sort of scholarship. The details of the award are murky–I think it was related to music, although while I was intensely interest in music and was soon to start at Berkeley as a music major, I really wasn’t that good at either violin or piano, and my singing was confined to the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tulare.
What I do remember is that I was wearing that dress, and the house itself. It was the first time I’d been in the home of a professor, someone who taught at College of the Sequoias, and I marveled at the neat landscaping, the clear oak floors, the built-in white bookshelves filled with colorful books. We had books at home, plenty of them, but our bookshelves were always brackets and boards. (Once, while we were still living in Bloomington, Minn., the screws anchoring the posts to which the brackets attached came out of the walls and the whole affair collapsed, spilling books all over the living room.)
But this house! There was such an air of refinement, of everything being in its right place. It had the solidness of good construction, good bones, so removed from my family’s cluttered modern ranch, with its drywall construction and wall-to-wall carpet over plywood floors.
I think that year, 1968-69, which I spent at College of Sequoias before transferring to Cal, was the first time I actually met anyone with a Ph.D. I was in awe of such learning. I wanted to be smart like that, well-read, cultured. And there I was in my homemade dress with my neat blond hair and glasses, smiling shyly and hoping I more or less fit in. I remember polite applause. I still can’t recall why.
I have only the small piece, a few inches, of that long-ago fabric left. Some of the little swatch I kept all these years has gone into various quilts, as in these crumb quilt blocks.
While I was looking for that little scrap, I found a few other old pieces, far older than Abby’s 10 years. This floral fabric was a gift from my brother Michael, and it went into a top I wore to work in my first days at The Oregonian in the mid-1970s.
It was sewn on my mother’s 1948-vintage Singer, which I carted off to college and kept till 2014, when I traded it in on a shiny new Pfaff. Even though I hadn’t used it in decades, I was instantly remorseful. It really was a beautiful machine.
And here are a fabric and its negative, pieces of a dress I made for Lyza when she was about 3. I was so proud of that dress, which I made on a treadle machine I had bought in about 1976–it was so much more relaxing to sew on than the Singer. The first time Lyza wore it, she slid and fell on an oil patch in the garage. Most of the oil eventually came out in the wash, however.
I still have a few snippets of penguins on green fabric that dates to the 1980s, when I made tea cozies for Christmas gifts, keeping the penguin one for myself.
So many of the hundreds of scraps in my collection breathe memories. Sometimes I’ll go through a box or two of them, rearranging the pieces and listening to the voices of the past.
Jessica Skultity at The Wonky Press (issue #39: Why I’m Writing a Book, Bright Yellow Quilts, and Some Great Links) has said some kind things about a little quilt I made earlier this year. Since it was for a baby, I used bright yellow and orange, accented with green. I had trouble with the photo, which is why Jessica had to run it too small. Here it is in a bigger format. The colors are a bit washed out in this photo, but you get the idea.
It was a gift for a baby, who surely won’t care about the wonky machine quilting.