Can we just pause for a minute to bask in the glory that is “Murder, She Wrote?” Thank God for Hallmark showing this on TV – several episodes, every night. My sons are even getting into it. They like Jessica Fletcher, played to perfection by Angela Lansbury. Well, really, Angela Lansbury is perfection, that goes without saying… But Jessica is just awesome. She doesn’t judge, she’s compassionate, she’s really smart, with an eye for the smallest detail that could be a clue, and she is deeply loyal to her friends.

And man, does that woman have a lot of friends. Distant relatives, old college chums, former neighbors – she’s got connections all over the world, and when she’s not in her home of Cabot Cove, she’s off visiting one of them. That’s the excuse to take her to the next murder, of course. But “Murder, She Wrote” draws you in, not just for the mystery itself, but for the unparalleled stable of guest stars. It’s a veritable “Who’s Who” of Hollywood.

I have actually bookmarked the “Murder, She Wrote” page on the Internet Movie Database, for quick and convenient reference – because God help me if I don’t have my phone handy and I get sucked into an episode.

“Oh, that guy,” I’ll say. Then I have to pause the show and go look him up. It’s Bo Hopkins, playing Lt. Ray Jenkins, in “Armed Response,” Season One, episode 19. And how do I know him? Well, let’s check the old IMDB… oh, looky here, he was on “The Andy Griffith Show” in 1967, in the episode, “Goober the Executive.” And then, of course, I have to take a minute to ponder the glory of George “Goober” Lindsay, because I loved him and that show. But I refuse to get sidetracked for too long, because here Bo is on “Bonanza” in 1969, playing Stretch Logan in the episode, “The Witness.” He was in a couple episodes of “Mod Squad,” but I skip over that because I never really got into that show – and may I point out, lest you think I am considerably older than I actually am, that I saw all of these early shows as reruns on after-school TV in the seventies and eighties.

But back to Bo Hopkins… how do I know him? Oh, he was on “Hawaii Five-O” – the real one, of course, with Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett. Nope… here we go: he was on a bunch of episodes of “The Rockford Files,” as a character named John Cooper. And on two episodes of “Charlie’s Angels,” one in 1976 and another in 1979.   And he was on “Dynasty!” Dang, he played Matthew Blaisdel.   He’s still alive and kicking, got a couple things in post-production. Good for him.

Whew! Now I can get back to the show. Holy cow, that was Eddie Bracken! God bless him, he was brilliant in “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” the 1943 comedy written and directed by the wonderful Preston Sturges. Betty Hutton was in that with him, what a hoot… No, I must get back to Jessica Fletcher!

Last night, my son, Josh, and I were watching an early one, Season Two, episode 1, “Widow, Weep for Me,” from 1985. I do believe this is the first one to feature the recurring character Michael Hagarty, an Irishman played by Len Cariou – who, I now know from IMDB, is actually Canadian.

“My God, that’s Cyd Charisse!” I said to Josh. “Who?” he said. “You remember “Singin’ in the Rain?” He vaguely did. Note to self: make him watch that incredible movie again. It’s part of his cultural heritage. “She was a dancer, and she could do this vertical split, it was just incredible. Her legs seemed to be longer than Gene Kelly. She was amazing.  The song was ‘Gotta Dance,’ and Gene Kelly was tossing this coin up in the air…” But in this episode, she’s secretly married to Mel Ferrer at this luxurious tropical resort.

Howard Hesseman was on this episode, too, as a shady cop. “He was on this show called WKRP in Cincinnati,” I explain to Josh, “playing a deejay named Johnny Fever who got fired for saying the word, ‘Booger.’” In an age where people routinely scream the F word, Josh found this hard to believe.

Oh, it’s a swirling vortex, that “Murder, She Wrote.” You think you’re just watching a simple TV show, but it’s actually a space-time-continuum wormhole, that simultaneously pulls you back and forward in time as you remember all these stars and then veer off down one path after another, looking at this show, and that movie, and this cast, and remembering, always remembering…

Mary Wickes was in this episode, too, as a wealthy widow who gets bumped off for her jewels. “I think she was in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’ as Katie, the maid, who says, ‘Cabbage has a cabbage smell,” I say to Josh.   Hold on, I must check to verify this. Oh, no! I was completely wrong – it was Marjorie Main! “Who was Marjorie Main?” And of course, this leads me to the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies, which spun off from “The Egg and I,” a great book by Betty McDonald… the movie starred Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, who of course played a bad guy in “Double Indemnity” but redeemed himself on “My Three Sons,” which of course brings me to the wonderful William Demerest as the big softy, Uncle Charlie… But back to Marjorie Main. There she was in 1946 in “The Harvey Girls,” another movie with Judy Garland, which featured that great song, “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”…

Yes, it’s a treacherous web, that “Murder, She Wrote.” One must tread cautiously. Let us remember Daedalus, the genius inventor from ancient Greece – who, among many impossible jobs, was tasked by King Minos to solve the unsolvable puzzle of stringing a thread through a conch shell (this in itself was part of a plot to trap Daedalus, but let’s just try to stay on the path here). Daedalus poked a hole in the conch shell, smeared it with honey, and tied a string to an ant. The ant wound its way through the spirals of the shell, taking the string with it.

So the moral to this story is, when you watch “Murder, She Wrote,” keep a tether nearby, lest you get drawn into the many twists and turns of Memory Lane and stay there for hours – or, at least, until the next episode.

 

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

It has taken me six months, but with the help of the Lose It app I have lost fifteen pounds. I’ve changed the way I eat, certainly the amount I eat, because apparently my daily calorie limit is about 1,200 a day. I did not know this. I thought if I just didn’t eat a lot of junk food, I was doing fine. I thought if I exercised more, I would lose weight. I was wrong.

Here are some of the other things I have learned.

First and foremost, pooping is a privilege, not a right. Who knew? Apparently, you have to have a certain amount of daily fiber, which I was getting back in the blissful days when I just ate whatever I wanted, didn’t think about it, and just lived my life. But then I got the Lose It app, and its slogan should be: “You now have to count your calories every day for the rest of your life, and you have to make every single dang stupid calorie count.” So until I figured out how to live within my caloric means, I had to make either-or choices, and I erred on the side of protein.

Protein doesn’t make you poop.  This I also did not know, so yeah, that was a cranky couple of days.  Another thing I learned: Protein also doesn’t feed your brain.

You have to have some carbs. Carbs are good for the brain. I thought I was being so virtuous and Paleo, just eating lean meats, and some fruits and vegetables, but clearly not enough (see above). Then I started having problems remembering words. I am a writer, and I could not think of words! I don’t know how to convey the horror of this, except maybe the gaping maw of the Sarlacc – the sand monster in the pit near Jabba the Hut’s place, in whose belly, as C-3PO explains, “you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” That’s how scary it is for me not to be able to think right.

I told my husband, Mark, this. Mark is a doctor. He said, “It’s the diet. You need carbs. Eat a cracker. Drink a Coke.”

Mark, a very wise husband in addition to being an excellent physician, knows my love of the Mexican Coke, which is made with cane sugar the way Coke used to be – not “Original” Coke (original, my butt!), which has high-fructose corn syrup, and not that crap with the green label and stevia. Mexican Coke is God’s Coke! I usually drink one bottle over the course of a day, a little shot at a time. But I digress. Mark was right. I was convinced I was doing the right thing, just eating protein and some vegetables and fruit (again, clearly not enough). And yet – in my job as a medical writer, I cover a lot of research on dementia, and I had myself all worked up, thinking: “Oh, God, it’s starting!” So I Googled “on a diet can’t think” and found all kinds of articles talking about how your brain needs carbs, and how the lack of carbs actually hurts your brain.  My daughter, Blair, has been telling me that I need to worry more about eating a balanced diet than counting calories.  I didn’t listen to her, either.  I now publicly acknowledge that she was right, too.

I started eating more carbs, and I immediately felt better and could think again.  I am considering stockpiling Tater Tots.

Carbs are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Actually, the greatest thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread. A nice ciabatta, or rustic Tuscan loaf with olives, or some sourdough, or my new favorite, jalapeño cheddar. With a little dish of olive oil, some salt sprinkled in there, and some herbs. Oh, sweet Lord, I’m salivating just thinking about it.

When I lost 10 pounds, the Lose It app sent me a congratulatory message, saying that 10 pounds is what an average watermelon weighs, and I had lost the equivalent of that. That made me feel really good. I imagined carrying a watermelon around, and how heavy that was. The weight loss has been so gradual, I haven’t really noticed that I am no longer carrying around a watermelon. I just feel better. I want to lose about three more pounds.

The thing is, the more weight I have lost, the more I realize, food is good. Food is really good. Out here in the mountains of Arizona, I think about water a lot, and at least once a day, as I’m watering my plants, the words “water is life” pop into my head. I put water in my piano, to keep the humidity up. I water my indoor plants. I water my outdoor plants. We even installed a mist system to cool down the back deck and help our plants with very tiny amounts of water. I had never seen such a thing until we moved here and went down to Phoenix, where they have them outside just about every store and restaurant. So, definitely, water is life. Go, water! But food is life, too, and when you don’t eat enough, you feel like crap. If you don’t eat the right kinds of food – just Cheetos, for instance, or just junk food, or not enough salt, not enough carbs or protein – you feel like crap. And take it from me: not enough fiber, you feel like crap. Oh, the irony.

 

© Janet Farrar Worthington

At 6:30 this morning, I was standing in the kitchen, dying laughing. Usually, I’m barely functioning at this time of the day, walking around like an old person, with a righteous bed head, just trying to make myself some iced tea so the caffeine can get in there and help me function.

But when the alarm went off today, I was in the middle of the craziest dream. And so here I was, trying to convey to my husband, Mark, the true hilarity of it – at least, it seemed like a laff riot to me. I was with my old boss at the Public Affairs office at Johns Hopkins. We were filming a commercial for the Department of Neurology, for which I am currently writing a book. A young Dan Ackroyd was there on camera. I could see the cue cards he was reading. With his best huckster voice, he was hard-selling something, and putting down the competition: “That’s nothing but pink sweevum, folks!” And when he said this odd word, he drew it out, like “sooey,” and his voice went up in pitch. The cue card spelled the word phonetically. I know this, because the first thing I did (after I got some caffeine in me) was write it down: “SOOOOEEVUM.”

I have no idea what this word is – I’m pretty sure it is not actually a word at all – but I kept saying it and cracking myself up.

It’s pretty nice to start your day with a laugh.

I think, the older I get, the more I appreciate Uncle Albert from “Mary Poppins.” Maybe you remember him, played by Ed Wynn, floating around near the ceiling, because laughter made him lighter than air. “I love to laugh,” he sang, “Loud and long and clear. I love to laugh. It’s getting worse every year!”

This is the opposite of what’s happening in our world right now. I think there are an awful lot of people who read the news and then their brain goes, “Hate, hate, hate.” Then maybe they get on social media, write nasty posts, get more fired up, and their brain goes, “Hate a whole lot, hate even more, grr.” It’s like eating something fried, putting ranch dressing on it, getting terrible heartburn, and then eating ghost peppers, and getting worse heartburn and maybe even fiery diarrhea. This is self-inflicted, people! It’s Orwellian. Seriously, in 1984, George Orwell wrote about the Two-Minute Hate, where every day, the whole society of Oceania had to watch a film that ginned up hatred for their enemies, and then express that hatred for precisely two minutes. This, in Orwell’s view, was hellish. In my view, this is what a lot of us are doing every day, for a lot longer than two minutes.

One of my relatives was a wonderful person. I loved her very much. But man, did she enjoy battling her enemies. She’d get all riled up about something, and then write letters, go to meetings, and just talk about whatever it was. Her face would get all red. My dad used to say “She runs on acid.”

I think the world runs on acid right now.

            I don’t want to run on acid. So, in my own way, I rebel.

On Facebook for instance, I don’t do anything political. I just won’t. All I post is either stuff about work (rarely), pictures of my family (also not very often), and terrible puns. I know they’re terrible! That’s why I do it. I just want to make somebody smile, and maybe inspire my friends to come up with bad puns of their own. That’s all I want to do.

I also look for the humor whenever I can. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t laugh at people; I’m laughing with them. There is an expression, “the human comedy,” although I saw a movie with that title, set in World War II with Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson, and oh, man! What a downer! So it’s not that particular human comedy.

My pastor’s favorite movie is “Pollyanna.” It is a wonderful movie, in which Hayley Mills looks for the good in people and finds it.

Well, I look for the humor, and I often find it. I don’t even deliberately try, but things just strike me as funny. I can usually find something that makes just about any situation seem not so bad. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to be yukking it up over a school shooting, or natural disaster, or bad medical diagnosis. Too many things in this world are just plain painful, or horrifying, or heartbreaking. Of course I know that.

There are a lot of things in this world that make me cry. But I laugh when I can.

For instance: A couple weeks ago, I was in the doctor’s office, waiting for a routine visit. I sat there for 45 minutes waiting for my appointment, which took all of five minutes. I had brought a book, but the people-watching was so good, it was kind of like a dinner theater, without anything to eat. Or drink. But really, it was like a show.

A lady came in, and said out loud for the benefit of the entire waiting room: “I’m late, I’m late.” Not only that, but she said it in this creepy singsong, little-girl voice. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. She continued, still for the benefit of the whole room: “First, I had to get rid of the satellite TV installer. My doggie didn’t like him.” If you’ve ever seen the movie, “The In-Laws,” with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, you may remember one scene where Alan Arkin, who plays a dentist named Sheldon, is just appalled at something, and he has one palm on each side of his face and his mouth wide open; he just can’t take it in. I sat there and thought about Sheldon. But not for too long…

… because about one minute later came another woman, who had the stage presence of Elaine Stritch, the Broadway grand dame. She was moving extremely slowly with her cane, and she stopped in the doorway and announced, “The mechanical door does not stay open nearly long enough.” But she said “dwoah,” and “lwong” with a New York accent. Just a captivating entrance. Bette Davis caliber.

And then, immediately after her – I don’t know if he was with her, or was a party of one – came an older guy, who said all in one run-on sentence: “There are plenty of places to sit but not anywhere to lie down and that’s what I really want to do is lie down.” He kind of reminded me of Mr. Carlin, one of psychologist Bob Hartley’s patients on “The Bob Newhart Show.” The nurse came at that point and called me back; I kind of hated to leave.

On the way home, on Willow Creek Road, our local version of a racetrack, this guy tailgated me in the left lane. I moved to the right lane, he gunned it and dramatically passed me. I then moved back to the left of him into a turn lane, and as fast as he had gone, we were sitting side by side at the red light. He turned his face away from me – yes, it is awkward, isn’t it, when you ostentatiously pass someone and then they catch up to you – but I could see his hands on the steering wheel. He was wearing driving gloves. I laughed. Clearly, if I had seen his face, I would have seen Dick Dastardly from the old cartoon show, Wacky Races. “Curses, foiled again!”

A lot of hassles in this world are nothing but pink sweevum, folks.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

 

 

I was watching a Hallmark movie, and an ad came on. I started to fast-forward, as I usually do, then I thought, “Did I hear what I think I did?” So I backed it up. A woman in her bathrobe says, “My She Shed has no rules… no shoes, no bra…” It’s an ad for Fiber One Brownies! So basically, “I take off my bra and eat fiber brownies!”

My She Shed has no rules, but it has a state-of-the-art toilet, plenty of scented candles, all the latest magazines and an industrial-strength vent fan, because I deserve it!

            Those tight-waistband pants? They hit the floor when I walk through the door.

            Then, I just go where the night takes me… maybe set out a little All Bran, some Benefiber.

            Sometimes I get a little crazy, wake up on the couch covered in Shredded Wheat. But what happens in the She Shed stays in the She Shed.

I made up the rest of it, but I think that ad is hilarious. I can only imagine it was thought up by some guy who saw some Pinterest pages on She Sheds and thought, “This is what the women want! We can tap into this market!”

I’m having a little fun with the idea, because I hope it will make you laugh, too. See, I think our humor needs to be more gentle, like the fiber-containing food products in the Fiber One Brownie She Shed, or perhaps as Activia, the probiotic-containing yogurt that helps Jamie Lee Curtis stay regular. And not harsh, like chemical-containing laxatives.

There’s a lot of harshness out there right now in the world of public discourse. Harshness and bloating. It’s agitating!

I have cut back on Facebook, I never watch the TV news, and if I could, I would prefer to read the news in print – because people who write letters to the editor can’t do it anonymously, thus they tend to have a little more self-control – i.e. maybe they actually read over it and think about what they said before they hit “send.”

Have you ever read the comments on the Washington Post, or LA Times, or basically any newspaper or news site? Most of them, first off, have trolls. Jerks. Sometimes, I understand, they are jerks who get money from somebody to demean anyone with an opposing viewpoint, but I think most of them aren’t paid. I think they like being mean, and justify it with self-righteousness because of course, their view is the only right one. They’re enlightened.

They’re not that enlightened, because they can’t tolerate even hearing from the other side. Also, I think there are a lot of people out there who might not be very nasty in public, but they sure let it fly in private.

There’s something undisciplined and unsavory about that. Have an evil thought? Fire it off in a Youtube comment or Facebook rant. Use plenty of F-bombs. Spread a little dirt, like Pigpen.

Maybe it makes people feel good, for about a second. Then that little burst of feel-good hormone goes away, and they do it again, like a hit of a bad drug.

It’s just unpleasant. I’m not going to bring you down with examples; I’m sure you’ve seen them, from every political party and pro- or anti- social viewpoint you can think of. The worst thing is, it incites others to behave just as badly – like the crowd shouting, “Boil that dust speck!” in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. It’s easy to get sucked into the group mentality.

As a culture, we’re getting sloppy. I’m picturing a bunch of military raw recruits, shirts not tucked in, poor posture, not knowing how to make their bed with a blanket so tight you could bounce a quarter off it, or shine their shoes, maybe badly in need of a haircut, too. That’s us. We’ve stopped making the effort to be civil. There’s nobody like Sergeant Carter on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” or Louis Gossett in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” to whip us into shape. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t want anybody telling me to drop and do 20 push-ups, or telling me that I can’t express my opinion.

But I do think there should be some standards of common decency that wouldn’t compromise anybody’s ability to put their point across.

At least one website out there has a policy I really like: “This is a salon, not a saloon.” Bad language is not allowed. Insulting other posters is not allowed. Crudeness is not allowed. A moderator makes sure of this, and deletes posts that don’t follow these simple rules.

Many people weren’t as lucky, as I was, to have parents and grandparents and teachers and Sunday School teachers and friends’ parents to set standards and expect you to stick to them. People to say, “Do you kiss your mom with that mouth?”

Maybe that’s part of the problem: If everybody talks like they’re in the sewer, why shouldn’t they be that way in social media, too? When even prime-time network TV shows have basically nothing that’s off-limits, when a lot of songs have bad words and crude themes and celebrities have profanity-packed diatribes in public, how would anybody know that’s not actually a good way to comport yourself?

I could go on, but you get the idea. I just have one simple suggestion: How about all those big newspapers, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., set a standard or two? No profanity. No personal attacks at the someone who doesn’t agree with you. Attack the ideas, instead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get your point across. But it also doesn’t mean you have to take the cheapest, lowest-class road to get there, either. H.L. Mencken eviscerated his critics; so did William Randolph Hearst, and William F. Buckley, and Dorothy Parker, and Jonathan Swift, and Juvenal, the ancient Roman satirist. Heck, they weren’t always gentle, either. But they weren’t as harsh as chemical-containing laxatives, and they didn’t resort to profanity. Maybe we could all just try to have a little more self-control – at least leave the bra on, until we get to the She Shed.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

It’s the start of the New Year, and I’m already stressed out – mainly due to constant harassment from technology. “Oh, really?” you may sneer. “Well, why not just turn it off?” It’s not that easy, buddy. Trust me. Here are just a few examples:

My phone: I’m tired of Apple constantly saying that my recently updated phone is not finished being set up because I haven’t done Apple Pay. I don’t want Apple Pay. If I wanted Apple Pay, I would have set it up. But it keeps asking. Stop bugging me!

My dishwasher: I don’t know why; I can’t explain it, but I feel just feel pure outrage and violation when the light comes on my dishwasher saying I need more rinse agent. I just filled it up! I bought a huge bottle of Jet Dry at WalMart. But why do they even sell a huge bottle of it? It should come in a little ampule and an eyedropper, because that’s all the dishwasher holds! But wait – there’s more! It takes a nasty turn. My “smart” dishwasher punishes me if I run out of Jet Dry by making the cycle 15 minutes longer. How dare this machine do this to me? Who’s in charge here? So I put in another micro-alloquot of rinse agent, all this expensive “smart” machine will hold. The dishwasher is pleased with the sacrifice. The digital readout that tells me how long it will theoretically take to wash my dishes – it actually never takes as long as it says – goes back to 2:15 instead of 2:30.

I don’t want my dishwasher to be smart. I want my dishwasher to be a dumbass.

My car: I get crap from my car, too. God forbid if I have to haul something like – oh, I don’t know, just say for a random example, eight feet of floorboard molding from Home Depot. It won’t quite fit. My car, Magnus – it’s a Highlander, so we gave him a name that would be appropriate for kilt wear – starts beeping. He starts out by just being pushy. Then he gets annoying. Then he gets the Red Mist – he quickly moves into rage at being ignored – and the beeping becomes increasingly louder and, frankly, unbearable.

I’m just trying to get home. I have the back door tied down. That’s not good enough.

I looked online, and there is no way to make it stop making this noise. Because it thinks it knows best. (I could stick some cardboard in the door latch, but that might mess it up, and besides, who carries around cardboard?)

The reason for this is that the arrogant designers – the same pompous, smug presumption we see all the time from Apple, which harasses you to update your phone, and then won’t let you actually update it (which I do, just to make it shut up) until you hit the “agree” button, agreeing to God knows what – don’t think I’m an adult who can actually make quite rational decisions, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to drive if the back door is not shut.

There’s a lot of that.

Guess why I don’t have a smart watch? I don’t want some machine telling me I haven’t exercised enough, or slept well. Duh! No poop, Sherlock! I know I haven’t slept well! I was there!   I know I haven’t exercised enough! Happy now? Now? I already have the health app on my Apple phone. I can’t make it go away. It won’t be deleted. If I could put my phone on the washing machine and have it think I was exercising more, I would. Just to make it shut up. I do what I can. Isn’t that enough for you, Apple?

Landline phone calls: I’m tired of robo calls with fake people. I got two this morning, both from spoofed local numbers, so it looked like someone from my town was calling me.

Some innocent-sounding, high-pitched female voice says, “Hello, can you hear me?”   I know what you want, you evil spammer robot hag. You want me to say “Yes,” so you can use that as taped permission to open some account in my name. I always just hang up.

“Hi, this is Angela from credit card services.” Hi, Angela. You’re a robot. Take a long walk off a short pier. Click.

Email: I’m tired of websites saying “We’ve missed you!” when I JUST MADE A PURCHASE. Literally, yesterday, I just bought something, with the 20 percent off and free shipping that you offered. What do you want from me, Williams Sonoma? Pottery Barn, cut me some freaking slack! Dillards, Nordstrom, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works – you’re downright needy. Amazon, I don’t even like myself for buying stuff from you, because I feel like I’m hurting actual retailers – except they don’t sell all the stuff that I can buy from you. Stop bugging me! I’ll come crawling back, the next time I’m looking for something I can’t get here in town.

It’s gotten to where, if I had any sense of humor left, I would laugh when I saw an email from a store with the words, “Last chance!” No, it’s not. Something else will go on sale tomorrow.

And frankly, I don’t need anything.

I Do Not Need Anything.  It’s important to realize this.

TV:  HGTV sells dissatisfaction, disguised as serenity and happiness and shiplap. I love HGTV, don’t get me wrong. But you know why all those made-over homes and rooms look so beautiful? First of all, it’s because they decluttered!  They’re crap-free!  More than anything, that’s what makes your home look good. That, and a coat of paint.

Get rid of all the clutter, and any place is going to look more Zen. Add a houseplant, paint the walls a lovely shade of white, and boom, it’s already more serene. But who can live like that? If I really followed HGTV’s advice, I wouldn’t have books double-stacked on my shelves. I would have just a handful, hard cover, matched by color, and maybe a nice Mason jar tealight candle. Actually, in Country Living magazine, I saw books placed on shelves BACKWARDS, so you couldn’t read the spine! It looked more restful that way. WHAT THE HELL! Hey, I want to read a book: I like this one. It has a nice width! Said no one ever.

Charities: I’m tired of pushy charities. If I make a donation out of a burst of goodwill to an organization, I wish I had as much money as I really don’t want to get envelopes in the mail with the words, “Your Account,” or “Membership Statement Enclosed.” I’m not a member! I just made a freaking donation! We don’t have a relationship! I’m sorry I ever gave you money in the first place!

One organization, which shall remain nameless but is located in upper New York State, has a bird app that is really cool. My son, Josh, loves it. I downloaded the app and from the get-go started getting online appeals to Save the Birds. I made a donation and thought, “Good, I’ve done my part.” Wrong! The emails doubled down! “Triple Match Alert! Give now and a donor will not just double, but triple your gift!” Emails several times a week, sometimes daily.

No! I’m not the dang bank machine.

Bah, humbug! And it’s not even Christmas!

© Janet Farrar Worthington

Every year at Prescott United Methodist Church, we put out an Advent devotional, a little daybook of stories written by people in the church for everyone to read.   It’s the other kind of preparation for Christmas – not Black Friday, or Small Business Saturday, or Cyber Monday, or Giving Tuesday, not online shopping or trudging around the mall, not gifting and regifting and decorating and baking and either sending Christmas cards or thinking of sending Christmas cards and somehow not getting around to it (I fall into this category).  Preparation of the heart, you might say.

This year’s Advent theme was a weird one: “Tear Open the Heavens and Come Down” and it must have stumped the congregation because, toward the end of November, there was an urgent call for entries. I thought about it, and I kept picturing that fourth wall in the theater – the invisible barrier that keeps performers on the stage from talking directly to the audience.

It used to be that, although God was always with his people, there was that distance. Nobody, for instance, dared to go into one secret part in the temple – God’s special dwelling place, blocked by a thick curtain. Clearly, the Hebrews knew God was with them; they’d have to be pretty dense, as they wandered through the desert for 40 years, not to notice the “pillar of clouds that went before them by day to lead them on the way, and the pillar of fire by night to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21). But this innermost sanctum was off limits. Trespassers would be prosecuted: think of that gruesome “face melting” scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant.

Jesus changed all that.   Right after his birth, the sky filled with “a great company of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13) – glorious angel songs of praise, with a message that didn’t get heard much in that brutal time: Peace on Earth.

The fourth wall was broken again right after Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:16): “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Some people thought it was thunder.

Later (Matthew 27:51), right after Jesus was crucified, there was another break in the clouds. A really big one: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.”

Maybe there are signs from heaven all the time, and we just miss them; maybe we just think it’s thunder.

Once, on our farm in Virginia, the air grew very still and the sky turned bright green. I had never seen anything like it. I called the kids to come outside and see; we sat on the porch and marveled at it for about 20 minutes. We brought out some popcorn and juice boxes. It turns out that what we saw was a telltale sign of a nearby tornado: nature’s way of saying, “Stop gawking and take shelter, you morons!” The sky was bright green because of all the vegetation that had just been sucked up into the air. Oops! My bad! Who knew? Apparently, a lot of people, just not me.

A few years later, right after my mom died, my dad and I were driving back from the funeral home. We had just picked out a casket and made the kind of arrangements that nobody ever wants to make. My mom had been in a coma, and although her eyelids were partly open and we could glimpse her beautiful green eyes, and although we talked to her a lot, she wasn’t really awake and she never responded. It was a cloudy, cold December day, about as bleak-looking outside as we felt inside. But suddenly, this little patch of sky opened up, the sun shone through it, and – I’m not kidding – it looked like a beautiful green eye. We took comfort in it.

The green sky in Virginia was a sign that I didn’t recognize. The green eye in the sky was a sign that we didn’t expect.   We didn’t really need it to know that Mom was with God, because, with that fourth wall broken, Jesus was right there with us. We knew. But still, it was nice.

In the Bible, Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! … Come down …and cause the nations to quake before you!”

Isaiah wanted his nation’s enemies to receive a cosmic butt-kicking, from a distant and mighty God. I wonder if he would have recognized the baby in the humble stable. I wonder if I would have. Maybe the fourth wall that needs to be open is the one in my heart, so that I can see the signs that God wants me to see.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

 

“If you could travel to any fictional book world, where would you go and what would you do there?” I have thought a lot about the Land of Books, and used to dream about jumping into one, like Mary Poppins and Bert with the sidewalk chalk paintings.

How cool would it be – just imagine – being friends with Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys, or Jupiter Jones and his Three Investigators and helping them solve a case!

Meeting Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, one of my all-time favorite books, and putting down her snotball sister, Elizabeth.

Watching D’Artagnan insult Athos, Porthos, and Aramis and make appointments with each for a duel to avenge his honor in The Three Musketeers.

Who wouldn’t want to know Heidi? If I could be there at Herr Sesemann’s house in Frankfurt, where Heidi is taken to be a companion for Clara, I would stand up to the awful Fraulein Rottenmeier. Rottinhell would be a better name.

I would help Mr. Rochester get some legal counseling, so he could divorce his nutso wife and marry Jane Eyre, and not have to go through the terrible fire.

Speaking of fires, I would tell the second Mrs. De Winter – give that poor woman a first name! – about the psycho Mrs. Danvers and spill the beans about his huge bitch of a first wife, Rebecca. I’m a big fan of open communication.

I would bask in the brilliant engineering glory of Cyrus Smith on Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Cyrus was so smart, he smelted iron out of the land, and made all kinds of tools and a great stone home, with some help from an old friend from another Jules Verne book.  I don’t want to spoil it.  The stuff he crafted was so sophisticated, he made Robinsin Crusoe look like a putz. Hey, I made a pot out of clay! Big deal, Crusoe: Cyrus made a telegraph!

I would be friends with Jane from Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, whose humor and spunk I just loved. Speaking of spunk, Caddie Woodlawn! Enough said. And anything by Rebecca Caudill or Jean Fritz.

But really go into the Land of Books? This is literally, pardon the pun, a tough question.   How real are we talking about here? Could I just be an observer, like the UN people who monitor elections, or the doctors who do telemedicine in prisons – seeing hardened criminals from the comfort of their home computer?   Could I have an Avatar do it for me? Or would I actually get swept up into the fictional world and maybe have unpleasant things happen?

For example: A Tale of Two Cities. I could get guillotined!

Pride and Prejudice: That society was brutal! I wouldn’t have the right clothes, much less suitable connections. Except for playing the piano, I would strike out on most of Mr. Darcy’s list of talents an accomplished lady should have. Also, I am so nearsighted, they probably didn’t even have the technology back then to make the kind of high-powered spectacles I would need, and if they did, it would be the early 1800s equivalent of Coke bottles.

Little House on the Prairie: You know I love the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. So maybe I could do this for a brief period, assuming the technical issue with the glasses could be worked out. But the parents worked like dogs all day long. Also, they bathed once a week, maybe, and did not change the bath water in between, so guess where the new person would be in the bathtub lineup? Gross.

And then there are some other considerations, which are not trivial:

Sudafed. Could I bring some? They’re very small pills.

Toilet paper. I’m flexible here. If I couldn’t bring my Charmin Sensitive with aloe, I would be willing to bring my Charmin Fresh Mates wipes for delicate situations. If we’re in an outhouse situation, the Sears catalog is not going to cut it. Much less a corn cob. Ouch, just thinking about it…

Also: OUTHOUSES HAVE SPIDERS!

But what if we were in a medieval setting, as in some wonderful books: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Red Keep, Catherine, Called Birdy, the Midwife’s Apprentice, any of your Robin Hood or King Arthur books, pretty much all of Shakespeare, including Julius Caesar (let’s face it, that was not ancient Rome – they had a clock!).

Yes, nitpickers, the Bard was more Renaissance/Elizabethan than Medieval, but speaking of nitpicking, even royalty had fleas and lice! Sewage ran through the streets! The Thames was disgusting, except when it froze solid in the winter and people cooked boars right on the ice. People emptied chamber pots onto the street below without so much as a courtesy “Look out below!”

Teeth were rotten. THERE WAS NO SPANDEX!  No Poopourri!

What about The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, a series of Chaucer-like tales, many of which are quite funny? They were written to take people’s minds off THE BLACK DEATH. Yes, the bubonic plague, which killed 20 million people in the 14th century.  No, thanks!

I could go back to Roman-occupied Britain, except for the wacko Druid/Caledonian tribe that would try to kill me in Rosemary Sutcliff’s gripper, The Eagle of the Ninth.

Gone With the Wind? The South was devastated after the Civil War. People starved for years. The slaves were freed after the war, but the Klan was there, and so were Carpetbaggers. And, of course, the lack of hygiene products discussed above.

All of Zane Gray. I would be at an enormous disadvantage, because unlike most of his female heroines, I do not have enormous gray/blue/green eyes with lustrous lashes, although I think my mascara does a fine job, and again, there is the issue with my glasses. Also, after hours in the saddle, I would just get off and moan incoherently, rather than be brave and shoot thievin’ lowlife rustlers.

I have barely tapped the surface here. Don’t even get me started on the Grimm Fairy Tales, which truly live up to the authors’ names. Even the Bible: what if I came in as a Hittite, or an Egyptian when Moses and the Pharaoh were having that large disagreement and God was unleashing the plagues?

The problem is, the Land of Books is not safe. Now, you might say, and I would agree, that books aren’t supposed to be safe. They’re supposed to make you think, and challenge your ideas, and inspire your creativity. Yeah, sure. But it’s one thing to be snug in your bed or a comfy chair or a hammock or an airplane or the backseat of a car on a long road trip, and read about exciting and maybe scary things. It’s another to think about actually being there. Note to self: Don’t put any Stephen King books on your bucket list of literary places to visit. Or Edgar Allan Poe, although it would be cool to meet Poe’s August “Purloined Letter” Dupin, the world’s first literary detective. And Sherlock Holmes, although actually I think I like Dr. Watson better.

I love Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh, and Marjorie Cunningham, and Dashiell Hammett. But I don’t want to be poisoned, shot, or stabbed. Also, everybody smoked back then. I’d be coughing and my hair and clothes would constantly smell like cigarettes.

Maybe the safest way to go would be an illustrated book, like Where the Wild Things Are. At least there’s a guaranteed way off the island: Max’s private boat. It might take time, over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day, but at least I could get back to the starting point, Max’s bedroom, where there might be a hot supper waiting for me.

© Janet Farrar Worthington