Monday, November 17, 2014

Fashion "Disasters" ... or Maybe Not

Thinking maybe it was time I participated in a Throw-Back Thursday on Facebook, I grabbed a box of old photos I'd found recently. Many Throw-Back photos focus on fashion disasters, and there was no doubt in mind I could find a photo of one of my own fashion disasters. After all, I turned 18 in 1975. The seventies and eighties were frightening years for fashion in oh, so many ways.

Thumbing through the photos, I noticed for the first time that there aren't many of me. Guess that can happen when you're more comfortable taking the pix than being in them.

In the few photos of me, I often didn't look half-bad. Gasp. That I looked just fine astonishes me. No, I'm no narcissist, but low self esteem and I do have more than a passing acquaintance.  Not labeled the "pretty sister" in the family, I never had a positive body image, and in those days was resigned to being what I considered decidedly chubby. I didn't absolutely hate my looks back then, but I certainly didn't love my image in the mirror in those days.

Most of the pix show me in jeans and a sweater, or short-shorts and a cotton top. Not really what I'd call total fashion disasters. I was even rocking hoodie jackets before they were hijacked by hipsters. A real trend setter, bwah-ha-ha--not really!

With the few scraps of wisdom I've gained since then, I see in my earlier self a young woman who was in her prime, slim, with a pretty smile and sparkly eyes. Decidedly not chubby, and if I had been chubby, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, now would it?

Too bad I didn't enjoy and celebrate my appearance more back in my teens, twenties, and thirties! What time I wasted worrying about my appearance!

Finally, at the bottom of the box, I found the photo that qualifies as a fashion disaster. It's a red plaid dress, buttoned up to the neck, with a skinny black grosgrain ribbon tie. That 1984 dress hadn't crossed my mind in 30 years, but once I saw it, I remembered I indeed thought it was pretty. It was a nice quality dress that I wore for many years, and I felt good about myself when I wore it. Nowadays it looks vaguely Little House on the Prairie or perhaps a garment a "sister-wife" would wear. The bobbed hair was not my best look, either. Slightly cringe-worthy, but sheer youth and good health can make up for most any fashion faux pas.Some other photos in the box show me in the garb I wore while I was a commercial fisherman. One of only two women on the island who worked crab pots, there's a shot of me looking like the Gorton fisherman. But I look happy, even though my jacket is stained with fish blood. Surely many people would see the goofy red visor and grubby slickers and judge this the ultimate fashion disaster.

For once, looking at that awkward girl that I was, I feel nothing but pride. Happiness, youth, health, and a smile can make a fashion disaster seem trivial in comparison.

So yellow rainslickers are okay with me. However, you can bet I won't be tying a grosgrain ribbon around my neck again in this lifetime.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ernest Hemingway: The Joys and Dangers of Reading

Depending on the day I’m having, I blame, or thank, Ernest Hemingway.

Reading his books as a teen was dangerous. For Whom the Bell Tolls did me in. I followed it with everything he’d written. Hemingway made me think that it was possible for a kid from the suburbs to have an adventurous life. That the adventurous life was worth seeking. That there was more to me than a studious, meek, naive homebody.

So instead of going to college at 18, I embarked on the twisting, turning, jumbled journey of this life.

I went to work in an auto plant, making cars on an assembly line. An unintentional trailblazer, I was one of the first women autoworkers in the 1970s.

As a member of the UAW, I got an education in unions, learned to question authority. I found out what sexual harassment is, observed what alcoholism can do to people at a young age, and grasped how mind-numbing factory work can be.

I’m thankful someone wants to do that work; I respect factory workers immensely, but I could not survive the assembly line. Chrysler Corporation was floundering and laid me off from time to time, leaving me time to discover the next phase.

After breaking up with my high school boyfriend, I dated. Dating sucks. I pray I never have to date again. Family members introduced me to a fishing guide on an obscure, hurricane-lashed island, accessible only by ferries that sometimes didn’t run.

Hemingway whispered in my ear, told me that islands = adventure.

Yep, before I knew it, I was living under primitive conditions on Ocracoke Island, and married the fishing guide. I learned to cook in a fledgling gourmet restaurant, trained by a rebellious, classically trained female chef. Years passed, and I became a real estate broker, discovering I didn’t have to be paralyzed by shyness.

The marriage ended as I opened my own real estate firm and beach-clothing store. Just as the businesses began turning a profit, a commercial dredge crashed into the main bridge needed to get to our island ferries. With the bridge down, the businesses were ruined.

I parted from the island I’d loved for 13 years. My new man and I sold a few remaining assets, bought an old van, and refurbished a 1964 Holiday Rambler camper. We set out on a 2 year odyssey around the United States, logging 40,000 miles along the way.

We’ve had a few more adventures since then. Enough to agree with Hem that "life is a moveable feast."

And through it all, with each wild twist and turn, each heartbreak, each top of the world, look at that green valley below moment, Hemingway smiled.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Many Paws and a raffle for a free book!

If you agree with me that menopause bites, then it may not be too much of a stretch to go from menopause to Many Paws. Woof.

Don’t hate me because I love puns. 

Many Paws is a new “altered book” by writer and artist, Susan DeGarmo. She loves puns, too. From the flaming red-orange cover to the detachable last page of purple irises that can be converted to a hot flash fan, DeGarmo acknowledges the pitfalls that many of us experience during “the change.”

Many Paws is Susan’s adroit way of disguising the subject of the book, since “no southern lady is going to have a book laying round that  says ‘Menopause.’”

However, if you leave the book on your coffee table, the ladies from church may be startled to flip open the pop-up book and see artwork of a reclining female nude, covered in strategic places with long-eared white “hares,” since “Now gray hairs are everywhere!”

But, honestly, church ladies aren’t as easily shocked as they used to be. Especially if they are struggling with changes of their own.

What it is: Many Paws, Susan DeGarmo's altered book from Meaux Books that is customizable. You can put your own photos, or those of a loved one, over the heads of some of the figures in the book. If you give the book to a friend, for example, you can put her face in the book.

How it came to be: DeGarmo was teaching a class about making altered books while having a hot flash, and Voila! Many Paws came to be.

What makes it unique: It’s a pop-up book for adults! It has moving parts! It has (tasteful) nudity! It socks menopause a big one in the kisser!

Conclusion: A great gift book for anyone in or approaching menopause. Even those women who are having an "easier" time with the change will appreciate the humor and pathos. The art work is fun and inspiring!

Make a comment below to be entered in a raffle for a free copy of Many Paws. One entry per person, please.

Disclosure: I was provided copies of the books, but the opinions expressed are my own. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wolf Hall, I Can't Quit You

Wolf Hall, a 2009 historical novel by Hilary Mantel, takes place in the time of Henry VIII. She won the Man Booker prize for her work.


Mantel is driving me crazy with her distracting use of the pronoun "he" without adhering to the rules of pronoun usage.

If we use he, we are usually referring to the last man mentioned. For instance: Norman carried a hatchet. He took it with him everywhere. The "he" means Norman. Not Thomas Cromwell!

"He" is the narrator of Wolf Hall, and Mantel plays games with the pronoun "he" so that I'm constantly re-reading to figure out if her "he" is Cromwell, Henry VIII, or another one of the dozens of males who populate the book.

Now that I have that off my chest, here is an intriguing passage from early in Wolf Hall. The first speaker is Norris, an attendant of the King; the other speaker is "he," Thomas Cromwell, who has served the now diminished Cardinal Wolsey.

"You know my lord cardinal is indicted under the statutes of praemunire, for asserting a foreign jurisdiction in the land."
"Don't teach me the law."
Norris inclines his head.
He thinks, since last spring, when things began to go wrong, I should have persuaded my lord cardinal to let me manage his revenues, and put money away abroad where they can't get it; but then he would never admit anything was wrong. Why did I let him rest so cheerful?
Norris's hand is on his horse's bridle. "I was ever a person who admired your master," he says, "and I hope that in his adversity he will remember that."
"I thought he wasn't in adversity? According to you."
How simple it would be, if he were allowed to reach down and shake some straight answers out of Norris. But it's not simple; this is what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him. Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that's what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey's unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Are you still with me? Damn, what awesome prose! So despite the annoying confusion over which "he" is "he," I'm still reading on page 400 of 500+ pages. I've tried to quit you, Wolf Hall, and I can't.

Le sigh.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Poem Made for Menopause

What’s that Smell in the Kitchen?

All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria; it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago
tofu delight in Big Sur; red
rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning
food they're supposed to bring with calico
smile on platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined
but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything
it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly
ticking like the heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.
--Marge Piercy

Just as T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” character ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") measured out his life in coffee spoons, Piercy’s speaker measures her life with Tupperware leftovers. Sometimes you’re the roast duck—others you’re the Spam. Relationships and aging are not for the cowardly. Men, be very afraid.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Want an easy way to follow Is This the Middle?

Bloglovin is the way to go!

I follow an obscene number of blogs there because they make it so easy to read my favorites. They even suggest blogs based on your history. (Totally un-sponsored plug.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and Joe Went to the Store: And an English Teacher Weeps

Me and Joe went to the store.

This line in a student essay sent me freefalling over the edge today. I’d only finished grading a short stack of essays, but all of them had too many basic errors like this one.

Most of my community college students this semester don’t know that it should be “Joe and I went to the store.”

The thought hit me hard and made me angry. Steam-out-of-the-ears angry. Then, sad, very sad.

How could these students think “Me and Joe went” was a proper construction?

I want to blame someone for shortchanging my students, for not teaching them the basics that were drilled into me at school so young that I don’t even remember learning them. Even at home, Grandmother, Mother, Dad, and older siblings automatically corrected my grammar. I was lucky.

But my students apparently didn’t get that instruction at school and at home. Or, if they did, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t listen.

These students range in age from 17 to 45, and because we are in a military town, they were schooled at different places, at different times, all over the country and sometimes in other countries. They are not a homogenous group of local 18 year-olds, so the local public school system can’t be scapegoated here.

Yet they were robbed if their education did not teach them the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment, a comma splice and a coordinating conjunction. We had devoted 2 full class periods to a review, with in-class exercises and homework to these particular basics. I called it a review, since I was sure this was information they already knew, and they looked bored. They should have looked scared.

Now that I’ve read their essays, I wonder if there is enough time left in the semester to bring their grammar up to a passable college level. I’m not really supposed to be teaching grammar and punctuation. Students who arrive in this class are presumed to have these basics mastered—it says so in the state-mandated course description-- and to be ready for me to teach them how to write a college level essay. This is the essay writing class.

Well, ha and double ha.

Of course I never find all my students equally prepared, but this semester is different. They are just as bright as always, but they are going to have to struggle more than any class I’ve seen in my twelve years teaching. To bring their basic grammar and punctuation skills up to a level that will allow them to pass any curriculum classes that involve written assignments will be a challenge. They will have to scramble, to work their butts off.

Further, do I tell them they were robbed? Do I ask them if they slept through middle school and high school? Do I read them the riot act about listening more carefully to my grammar advice?

Do I exhort them to become community leaders, state senators, members of the U.S. Congress so they can work to make an American education something to be proud of? (I’ve been known to go off on this topic in class before, but hadn’t got around to it yet this semester.)

Some of these students are hanging by a piece of dental floss already.  They tend to be fragile. They are not the golden boys and girls of America, for the most part—not many silver spoons at our school. They are the ones coming back to school after having children young, or who had dropped out of college previously, or who’ve recently left an abusive relationship, or who are wounded combat veterans trying their damndest to ease back into civilian life.  Some of my students don’t even have much food in the house. Some work two jobs. My students are not overflowing with confidence that they will make it to the end of the semester, much less to the end of their degree or program.

Some days I have to remind myself that I’m an English teacher, not a psychologist or a social worker, although our dedicated campus counselors know me by my first name. I want to make it right for my students. I don’t want to make them feel any “less-than” they already do. Some of them are skittish as rabbits, looking for any reason to bolt from school. So I favor the gentle approach. I want them to do well. I don’t want them to feel ashamed. Or blamed. Or heaven forbid… dumb.

But the time we will now have to spend on basic grammar will take away from the time normally spent on some of the finer points of transitioning from high school to college writing. This first college English class is really considered a “service class” to the other, non-English college classes students will take that require writing papers. They aren’t taking this class because they want be English majors. That doesn’t mean I will expect any less of them, but realistically I keep reminding them that what I teach will help them write better papers for sociology, history, biology—any class.

We’ll try to make the most of the weeks we have left. I will do what I can to help them, to prod them, to get the ones who aren’t afraid to work hard ready for the next level English class.

They won’t all make it; even the ones that pass will have much more catching up to do. And that makes me angry all over again.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Am I Radical Enough For the Challenge?

Some nice person over at keeps nominating me for “Health Blog of the Year” and “Menopause Blog of the Year.” Guilty after not having posted anything since September of 2013, I shall try to revive my blogging muse. Thank you, kind anonymous reader, for the prod.

My last post was gloomy, followed by months of gloom. While I haven’t shied away from writing about some of the sadder parts of midlife, the past months didn’t seem like anything I wanted to impose upon my readers. For me, sometimes writing about depression doesn’t do anything but make the depression more real and makes it harder for me to masquerade as a healthy, happy person. Not that anyone seems particularly fooled into thinking I’m in the best mood EVER.

There’s also that little voice that says, it could be worse, you don’t have the right to be sad. Schmutzie does a good job of refuting this notion here. If I’m sad, I’m sad, even if there is food in the pantry and the electric bill has been paid and I have a job. I can still be sad, even if I have a good credit score.
It’s not just me being moody for no reason. 

People I care about keep getting sick, people keep dying. Friends are being hurt and abandoned by their partners. My husband and I are basically alone in caring for both of our elderly mothers. Then the Menopause-from-hell, teaching for a living, and tight finances don’t lower my stress level at all. Although I have been known to have a gallow-ish sense of humor, humor can only take you so far in the face of some of life’s tougher months and years.

The stress is really getting to me. It takes a lot to admit this.

In a recent article about Anne Lamott, long one of my mentors, she said she was going to practice “radical self-care.” Geeky me started researching this term. Is this what I need? What exactly is it? Radical. Self-care. Would I allow myself some radical self-care? This feels like a life preserver thrown to me by Anne Lamott.

Meanwhile, a routine visit to the dentist revealed I’d been walking around for at least a month with a wisdom tooth that was broken in half. Could a stress injury be any more symbolic? A wisdom tooth, cracked from stress-clenching my jaw so tightly that I broke one of my own body parts?

“Stress can kill” is such a cliché. No woman wants to think that stress can kill her. That if she doesn’t, no really, if she DOESN'T take care of herself in a BIG way, in a RADICAL way, she may die from stress. The needs of my body and soul are calling, pleading, screaming, for change. I’m afraid.  I’m afraid that I don’t know what self-care is. I’m afraid I don’t know how to make radical self-care a priority.

I did manage a half hour walk tonight, I ate black-eyed peas and collards for dinner, and here I am writing about self-care.

Maybe these are the first steps to making it happen.