Illusion of Control – Feline Version


IMG_6206After 16 years, Calliope and I are about to be separated. I will miss our morning breakfast routine, a time when she talks constantly, and has an unerring instinct for being in the middle of the path from the kitchen table to the coffee pot or the refrigerator.  Her hope is that Kent or I will massage her belly or her head with a foot (be it shod or bare).  We do, of course, and have gotten quite adept at balancing on one foot while the other slides across her fur.

Our first meeting was a moment of perfect serendipity. 

A flower shop is not the kind of place you go if you want to adopt a cat.  But there, tucked among the seedlings at the Plantshed at Broadway and 96th Street in New York City, was a six-week old handful of white and tan fur, mewing in the thin, reedy and high-pitched sound I associated with a calliope.  She was cute, no doubt about it. But when I looked into her hazel eyes, I was hooked.  Without a second thought, I tucked her into my bag along with several exotic plants for my terrace and off we went.  

Our parting is an equally amazing piece of serendipity.  Kent and I are moving into an apartment building that will not allow pets, and for months we’ve agonized over what to do about Calliope.  She is too old for the adoption agencies to want her. And since she’s never spent a night anywhere except this house in more than thirteen years, I was sure any move would be intolerably traumatic.  Given her age, I couldn’t justify putting off decisions we had to make because of our age, but neither could I justify putting a still healthy and beautiful animal to sleep for my convenience. 

And then, when I didn’t think I had any more tears left, we sold our house to a wonderful family of five that wants to keep Calliope.  I know they will love her — as I write she is sleeping happily on one of the unwashed tee-shirts they delivered a few days ago, so she could adjust to their smell while Kent and I were still with her. And it seems that we can come and visit her from time to time, at least for a while.    

Control is a much over-rated phenomenon. Despite all my planning and organizing, Calliope came into my life on her terms and she is leaving that way as well.  No way I could ever have planned any of this.  Serendipity?  Luck?  Who knows, but it sure wasn’t control.  

Dictionary or Thesaurus?


file000278512533Do you prefer to use a dictionary or a thesaurus?

I’ve been pondering the question since I read John McPhee’s recent article in the New Yorker on what he calls “the search for the mot juste,” the perfect word. For McPhee, perfection may not be a word at all, but a short phrase that captures your meaning in a more nuanced way.

His article got me to thinking about the difference between denotation and connotation.  “Denotation” refers to the literal or specific meaning, while “connotation” captures the emotional and cultural values associated with that word. In a ridiculously simple example, Hollywood denotes a neighborhood in Los Angeles, while the connotation includes wealth, movie production, and celebrity status.  

Another example is the difference between “house” and “home.”  Both words denote a physical place where people live.  But “home” carries a host of connotations that do not attach to the word “house.”  One connotation of home evokes feelings of warmth, family, emotional security, and familiarity; another evokes place of origin and the roots of one’s identity.

Which brings me to my original question: do you use a dictionary or a thesaurus?

I‘ve used both, regularly over the years.  But what I realized as I read McPhee’s article is that I’ve fallen into the habit of relying on a thesaurus as I’ve begun the final editing of my novel.  A good thesaurus is priceless in throwing up a group of “related” words for the writer’s consideration, but only a dictionary forces you to consider what makes the relatives different.  And, as McPhee notes, a dictionary can provoke a wholly different way of expressing the mot juste … as an elegant turn of phrase rather than an accurate but perhaps uninspired word.

My dictionary is now sitting on the edge of my desk!  Where’s your’s?

World Book Night – April 21, 2013


IMG_7909What book would you give away if you had the chance?  And why?

For the second year in a row, I’ll join 24,999 other book-loving Americans to give away 20 books, as part of World Book Night (WBN).  It is, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding events of the year.

WBN is a global initiative to make print books available to people who aren’t regular readers. Perhaps they never found the “right” book that made them want to read more. Perhaps they love to read but can’t afford to buy books and don’t have access to a library.    

I’ll be giving away Bossypants, Tina Fey’s self-deprecating and laugh-out-loud memoir, to teenage girls who are struggling to establish their own identity, trying to juggle often conflicting social, financial, educational and sexual demands.  Fey’s opus seems an apt choice for adolescent girls in distress, in part because most of them will know exactly who Fey is and in part because the lighthearted tone and straightforward vocabulary will make it a delightful excursion for the most determined non-reader.

But here’s the real reason.  Fey’s book is chock full of lessons for getting through the hard spots of life, packaged as “aw-shucks” stories.  My favorite is Fey’s advice from her days at Second City, the Chicago improvisational comedy group that has been drawing standing-room-only audiences for more than fifty years.  

  • SAY “YES”: whether or not you agree with what you are being told, you can get a lot farther if you give your partner/opponent a respectful hearing;
  • SAY “YES, AND…”: move the conversation forward by adding your ideas and perspective.  Fey says, “Don’t ever be afraid to contribute;”
  • MAKE STATEMENTS: Questions are good, but statements are better. Be part of the solution, not a part of the problem;
  • THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, ONLY OPPORTUNITIES: In improv, as in real life, the unexpected opens doors to new avenues of thought, to new insights, to new opportunities. This is my particular favorite, as it fits so nicely with my own personal mantra —that stepping outside your comfort zone is the surest way to grow, personally, professionally, emotionally and spiritually. 

So share with us the book you think we all need to read!  And the book you’d like to give away as part of WBN 2014!


The Perks of Senior Citizenship


IMG_7620One of the more amazing perks of being a senior citizen is the ability to get access to the U.S. National Parks for $10.

Not $10 per day or $10 per park, but $10 for all federal national parks for as long as I live … or at least as long as I am physically able to get to a national park.

As a (long-ago) trained economist, this makes no sense.  In theory, the senior discount ought to start from the “normal” price and go down from there.  A year-long pass to all federal parks costs $80.  Thus, the tab for hitting one or two parks a year for five years would be $400. So a sweet deal for a lifetime senior pass might be $200 . . . or $100 . . . or even $80.

But $10? 

With the aging of our baby boomers, it strikes me that this will do far more damage to the economics of our national parks than the sequester.

PS #1.  Any senior who can afford to get to and stay at a national park in the western part of the United States can certainly afford to contribute more than $10.  

PS#2.  This is coming to you from Zion National Park where I am here courtesy of my $10 pass purchased a year ago.  I think this is wrong, and henceforth will pay for my entrance fees and/or make a donation to each park.  I wonder how many other seniors will do the same