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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Something better than happy in the new year

New Year

I don't know anybody who isn't glad to see the door shut behind 2009. Or who isn't, with cautious hope or a lot of it, praying for all that to be over so we can get back to where we were before we were forced out of the garden of innocence and prosperity.

Or was it ignorance and illusion? Maybe some of both.

It's not that I don't want you (and me) to be happy this year. But if happiness means returning to business as usual, then I'll have to say no thanks.

What prescience Paul Simon had when he wrote the lyrics to American Tune in the mid 1970s:

And I don`t know a soul who`s not been battered
I don`t have a friend who feels at ease
I don`t know a dream that`s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it`s all right, it`s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we`re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can`t help it, I wonder what went wrong

Sometimes, we try to get out of the painful place so fast we don't have time to figure out what went wrong. That usually means we keep traveling on the same road that got us there.

If you tried to have a conversation with my grandmother about happiness, she'd have thought you were daft. Happiness wasn't any sort of goal. Godliness, cleanliness, duty: those were what life was about. Happiness was just a condition that happened along, more or less often depending on the temperament God and your genes blessed you with. Or on whether you belonged to one of the serious cultures or one of the more joyful ones.

I come from the stock Garrison Keillor calls "Dark Norwegian." The kind of people who eat lutefisk on purpose. Who first set foot in South Dakota in winter and thought it was a nice place to stay. The kind of people for whom "well, that's not too bad," is as close to a declaration of glee as you can get.

Of course, living in the decades of unusual prosperity with the other indulged Baby Boomers has softened me. I'm as preoccupied with  personal ease and comfort as the next person.

But it seems we've entered a time of regrouping and deliberate change. The joy and happiness in doing that is considerable. It's just not the kind of happiness we usually think of when we say "Happy New Year."

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age`s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it`s all right, it`s all right
You can`t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow`s going to be another working day
And I`m trying to get some rest
That`s all I`m trying to get some rest

Tomorrow's another working day. May you be blessed with some rest, clear vision, and resolve for whatever good work you can do in making America live up to its greatest promise.

Which is, I'm pretty sure, something deeper, richer (in the spiritual sense), and better than a nation of people with granite countertops and jobs with benefits, and people. . . without them. We seem to have slipped, those of us on both sides of the equation.

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It's not uncomplicated. . .


”There's a surprising fondness for the double negative in It's Complicated, starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Consider it a grammatical hint that things will get a bit messy,” said the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy.

I mention that because I’ve been getting a lot of heat for grammatical quirks, including my love of the double negative. Which isn’t about anything if it’s not about the notion that life is complicated.

Of course I loved It’s Complicated.  It’s a shrewdly targeted bit of whimsy by and for women my age. As critic Michael O’Sullivan pointed out, “Women of a certain age are going to love that. They won't know which is sexier: that Jane is lusted over by two handsome suitors or that she's finally getting her dream kitchen.”

The story: Jane is a wildly successful yet impossibly charming and down-to-earth baker of posh pastry for the residents of Santa Barbara (who, being professionally thin, must buy it as kitchen props, not food). Her three children are in the last stages of nest leaving. She’s been divorced for 10 years from wildly successful yet charming, earthy if not down-to-earth lawyer Jake (Baldwin). He left her for Angess (Lake Bell) of the tight abdomen who is Much Younger, Hotter, and More Challenging. And with absolutely no observable other good qualities at all. Which is really quite satisfying for those of us whose character is better than our bodies.

Still, some male critics say “get real” when Jake finds himself irresistibly drawn back to Jane. But we know why.  Who wouldn’t love Streep and her astonishing, wonderful food? Certainly Steve Martin, who plays a nice guy so quiet and self-contained that I can’t remember his character’s name, does.

You know the screwball comedy routine. Jake, the scalliwag, pursues Jane the way he probably did when they were 23 and in Paris. Aside from being much more sexually generous and fulfilling than Angess, which of course is totally true about older women (in this case, same-age women), Jane has the perfect house even though she feels the need to make it more perfect (that’s where Martin’s character, the architect, comes in).

And it’s quiet. No demanding wife and horribly behaved child named Pedro around.

(Apparently Agness, whose biological clock is still ticking, cuckolded Jake five years earlier, so now she gets to yell “YO!” at Jake and order him to put the adorable yet unpleasant offspring of that affair to bed while she works on her laptop. This part doesn’t make any sense except as part of the long and never successful Karmic process of beating some awareness into Jake. And to set the stage for another laptop scene. But you’ll have to see the movie for that.)

Anyway, the question is what does Jane want, besides a kitchen that is beyond imagining fabulous, witty loyal friends to drink chardonnay with,  the love of her successful and pretty if tremulous children, and the joy of making scads of money baking beautiful food for rich people?

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Food for the winter soul

Food, Winter

The first snow shoveling yesterday was a delight. The snow was light and swiftly dispensed with. But the second one, starting around 11:30, was a different matter.

The snow was wetter, heavier and blowing sleetily. Snowglobe lovely, but hard on these old bones. The plows were resting or elsewhere, and only my shovel and the sudden deer were making tracks.

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Good eats at the Cosmos Cafe

Food, Cosmos Cafe

Tonight, son George and I decided to go out to celebrate his acceptance at the UW-Madison Business School. Feeling both carnivorous and thrifty, we headed to the Cosmos Cafe at 72nd and North Avenue. Geo had already eaten there and declared it the only place he'd bother to go to for gyros anymore.

And I'd been wanting to try it, having watched the ongoing renovation and being a big fan of Greek food. Helen Tselentis, whose family owns the place, was a student of mine once upon a time. And I knew from the wonderful fish fry at Sts. Constantine and Helen not far away that Helen's hubby was one heck of a cook.

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Schools, Wauwatosa, Milwaukee

Driving west on Watertown Plank Road, I stopped at the red light at Highway 100. Behind me an impatient driver talked on his cell phone, tapping the steering wheel faster than any song I'd care to listen to. A speedy kind of guy.

From the corner of his eye, he must have noticed a flash of green and instantly laid on the horn, again and again, urging me to go, and slamming his fist against the dashboard in that damnwomandriver sort of way.

Of course, the flash of green was the left turn arrow. Those of us going straight had to wait for our green light. I bet it wasn't even 20 seconds.

I can't imagine why anyone would be in such a hurry to get to Brookfield. Or why you'd want to make yourself irritated with drivers who aren't doing anything wrong. There are so many who are, if you need your blood boiled.

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I'll know the recession is over when. . .

Economy, Recession

". . . I get a job."

". . . I stop putting up with two malfunctioning keys on my piano and finally call in the tuner."

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How to make people crazier

Age, illusions, war, economy

I had entered through the front door not but thirty minutes earlier.  Preparing to exit I was certain I had returned to the same place.  There was the same gas fireplace, the same television and the same bookcases.  There were mostly the same residents sitting there too.

I could see the great outdoors through the windows.

Pausing for a second or two I'm thinking - where the heck did the door go?

I can't get this out of my mind: blogger Tom Gaertner's experience with his father's new assisted living environment. The older gentleman had moved because it was no longer safe for him to live alone. He'd taken up "exit seeking behavior," also called "elopement" or wandering, which gets you in trouble in northern winters, especially if you live on a highway.

An aide piped-up – Son; it’s directly in front of you.  Painted to match the bookcases.  See it?

Aha!  A secret passage through the bookcase.  I get it.

But I don't.

Imagine yourself confused and frightened, compelled by something you don't understand to keep moving, to get away. Then you find yourself in a room that defies the rules of the universe, or at least architecture, as you have known them throughout your entire conscious life

A room with no exit. Jean Sartre, the famous French existentialist, wrote a play about that. No Exit from a  room with no doors -- and no windows, no mirrors, and lights that are never turned off -- was hell, and the people who occupied the space each other's unwitting tormentors.

No one knows why some people with dementia wander. The responses range from medication to using trompe l'oeil, or fool-the-eye artistic deception, to hide the exits. According to one respected medical journal, "visual agnosia, the inability to interpret what the eye sees, may be utilized as a tool in managing wandering behavior of Alzheimer's patients."

Something about that's not right. I asked a friend, Steph Kilen, about the practice. She works with Action Pact, a Washington Heights-based business that creates culture change in institutions that house and care for older people. The idea is to create real homes.

Steph said:

There are so many things about the institutional model that make people crazier. So many things are so unfamiliar/unnatural and un-normal that a lot of the natural cues are missing and it is harder for people to figure out what to do. Hiding things from people (even, having the kitchen "hidden") is really confusing. How can you settle down and want to stay anywhere (in a long-term sense, but also in regards to dementia-type "wandering") when a place doesn't seem like any place that you have ever lived?

You don't have to have to move into a secure facility to feel the anxiety of being in an institutional model room with no exit. People far smarter than I have wondered whether Afghanistan is a dilemma with no exit. Or whether there's any exit from saving financial giants that are too big to fail, and grow larger as we feed them.

I don't know the answers. But I do know that if you keep telling people the reality of their experience isn't true, if you keep replacing doors and windows with pictures of them, they aren't going to feel any better about being there.

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Save the County AND live happily ever after

Milwaukee County, economy

Eliminate Milwaukee County government to save money and reduce taxes? The Pubic Policy Forum's proposal to do just that will be greeted with jeers on one hand and applause on the other.

As a more moderate sort, I fall closer to the "not so fast" end of the spectrum. But that doesn't mean the "do nothing different" end of the spectrum.

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I, Karl Rove--a deep secret revealed!

Obama, George HW Bush, Karl Rove

I don't tell many people this, but I was once a Goldwater Girl, and I belonged to Young Americans for Freedom. Which was, or is, a sort of proto-neo-conservative training ground for eager young folks who then considered themselves to be Republican. This was back when Republican wasn't a bad word, and conservative was just an adjective to describe their philosophy. 

I did this mainly to meet boys, especially smart boys. What I learned there I have not had cause to reconsider much: in politics, ruthless trumps smart most every time. This applies to both parties.

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