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Ego absolvo nobis

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on January 14, 2019 at 1:35 PM Comments comments ()

Gobsmacked in November 2016, I fell silent.  Well, not silent exactly.  Spoke a lot (often in a shout), over the next 2 years, to the TV and Yahoo News, and around my head the air turned blue. 

Do young people (i.e. those under 50 years old) know what "the air turned blue" means?  I know what it means but I don't know where it came from, the saying, and apparently neither does anyone else.  See https:/ for some ideas. Language changes and that process is no more stoppable than the progression of aging - delaying tactics, yes, but in the long run, well, you know... 

It's not just language, though.  The whole damn culture changes.  For the last 15 years or so, I'm finding myself more and more isolated on a cultural island, and the sea is rising.  Don't know who the celebrities are in the magazines in waiting rooms.  I could wait forever (and sometimes do), studying their faces and their stories - the new projects, the weight gain, weight loss, divorces, pregnancies, vile secrets - and be none the wiser.  The vast majority of celebries I know are over 50, or maybe over 60.  Or dead.  They sneak off and die on me, like Tab Hunter last year.  That's not right.   And recently I met a young woman who did not know who Bob Dylan is.  OMG. (Does anyone use that abbreviation anymore?)

On the other hand, at my 50th college reunion this past fall I definitively noticed that I'm no longer nostalgic.  I wonder if this is a common phenomenon among people lucky enough to survive, marbles intact, past the biblical 3-score and 10 (Psalm 90, verse 10)?  I remain fond of my past, vaguely - that was nice, wasn't it? - but who cares?  It just doesn't matter any more.  In terms of things I need to atone for, I've either done it or the moment has passed.  In terms of pleasures, yeah, sure, glad I did that, but they're not things that I'm going to be doing again and even if I did, the pleasure would be entirely different if not nonexistent.  (I can go sit beside the Seine in Paris and it's swell to do that, if it's not snowing or too hot, and if the chair is comfortable, but the delight of doing it for the first time has happened and will not come again.)   My old college classmates are a current joy, their value, so to speak, based upon whom I see before my eyes today, their intelligence, their accomplishments, their craziness, their stories, their empathy, their talents - nostalgia has nothing to do with it.  As for all the stupid crap we've all done, forget about it.  I forgive everyone and also myself, and that's the end of that. 

Meanwhile, as a friend so succinctly puts it, we're Not Done Yet. 

May Memories

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on May 27, 2015 at 4:05 PM Comments comments ()



MAY 1971


May 27, 1971

“Dear Madam: Will you please mark X to vote for the following resolution? Resolved: Build a 100,000 seat auditorium with a 100,000 marked on the one hundred thousandth seat at the place where humanity breaks so that everyone is included in Congress and nobody excluded. Please used the inclosed return stamped envelope and ballot A for such purpose.

“Sincerely yours,

J. L. K****”

Letter, with typed ballot, dated 5/25/71, received by Ladies Circle.

[Ladies Circle was at that time published by Volitant Publishing, where I was working as an editorial assistant, and my job included opening the mail.]

May 28, 1971

Dinner with Richard in Chinatown – some conversation in his square, tiny fifth-floor walkup on Elizabeth. (The toilet, on a mound of plaster in a raised bathroom, is really a throne – commands a view of the apartment.) He is reluctant to share his pipe, yet wants me to sleep with him. Shows me the fabulous Puck Building on Broadway and Houston.

Mama arrives at 10:00 PM.

May 29, 1971

Mother here.

Disagreements, feelings of guilt and hurt.

May 30, 1971

Mother here –

Visit to the Museum of Natural history. I weigh 1,000 pounds.

We argue about many things, watch TV.

May 31, 1971

Mother to East Side Terminal at 3:30. As she got on the bus she hardly kissed me or said goodbye – was about to cry, I think. Muggy damp day. The apartment doesn’t seem to belong to me, when I come back at 5:15.


So there is the past, unedited:  a letter from a madman (not a "Mad Man") to a woman's magazine that otherwise featured things like interviews with Shirley Temple; a relationship with a relatively sane (although the toilet arrangement suggests a voyeuristic or exhibitionist tendency) and selfish impoverished man; and my fraught relationship with my mother.  A perfect encapsulation of what the past - and remembering the past - is like:  absurdity, education, sex, family.  Reading this weekend (in the New York Times Book Review) about memoir-writing, where I find this:  "A memoir is a shape given to the chaos of life."  Is it fair to impose a shape on a life?  Isn't the chaos the truth?  But as soon as it is written down (as by a graphomaniac such as myself), it is no longer chaos. 


One great benefit of getting old is the gaining of perspective.  When one has a diary of 55 years' standing to draw on, depicting the actual shape given to chaos at the time it occurred, new perspectives are always manifesting themselves.  I never understood my mother until I'd married and had a child of my own, and reading my diaries, I can see that very clearly.  I'm extremely grateful we both lived long enough for this shift in perspective to occur, changing our relationship.  (And I wish she'd kept a diary, because I suspect that after her divorce, when she was "going out," meeting men, she might have had a different understanding of me and my struggles along those lines when I was single.)


As for Mr. K. and his ballot, well, I hope he eventually got the right medication and also gained a new perspective on the world. 


Marching Backwards

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on April 9, 2015 at 5:55 PM Comments comments ()

I read a story in the New York Times yesterday about an apparently growing issue with Orthodox Jewish men who do not want to sit beside women who are not their wives on airplanes.  I guess they're just afraid of us, our boundless power to seduce, contaminate, corrupt and otherwise destroy them, or afraid of themselves, because the proximity of an unrelated woman (and "proximity" is the word in Economy these days) will cause them to lose control of themselves, think lustful thoughts, get hardons, attempt an assault?  What?  Granted, the way some young women (and not so young women) dress to travel these days, all belly buttons and boobs and buttocks, is pretty disturbing, but it's not that much more revealing than the way the female news anchors dress on Fox and even CNN, so we should all be used to it by now, no?  So what's a girl to do, when some guy in a black suit who has a lot of hair is looming beside her in the aisle, refusing to take his seat (even though it's a lovely window one and she's stuck in the center), 50 people stacked up behind him, and the whole stinking metal tube vibrating with the urge to take off?  Some women, according to the NYT story, agree to move.  Others do not.  Eventually, apparently, an accommodation is reached.  But really? really?  Are we going to accept this?  Do we have a choice?  I suspect fundamentalist Muslim men could have similar issues.  Surprising, really, how much those two religious extremes have in common, considering that they are hell-bent on obliterating one another and, perhaps, taking the rest of us with them. 


But if I refuse to move, I'm imposing my beliefs on those ridiculous men, right?  My views about gender quality, my feeling that religion should intrude as little as possible on public life, etc.  But either women are equal to men, or they are not.  Either men and women are sufficiently in control of their sexual lust to have civilized discourse in the office, on the street, and in public transportation, or they are not.  If they're not, well, maybe it really is just time for me to leave this planet and try somewhere else.


One airline source commented that they try to provide for all passengers' comfort (not that one can tell, but so they say), and so it sounds like a conservative man could specifically request, when buying a ticket, not to be seated next to a woman.  I feel sorry for the airlines who have to try to work this out, and feeling sorry for an airline is not something I do very often, but I can see this would be a royal pain in the ass, and probably costly, too.  Although maybe there's an algorithm for it, so a computer does the arranging, which would probably be cheaper, and as we know, when things are arranged by computers, nothing can go wrong can go wrong can go wrong.  So I've got a few stipulations for my next airplane seat.  I will not sit next to anyone eating any type of sandwich that drips any greasy substance or contains raw onions.  I will not sit next to a 6 foot 6 man whose elbows will be in my ribs and whose knees will occupy half my leg room.  I will not sit next to anyone weighing over 300 pounds, because I'm fat, myself, and there isn't room for the both of us.   Let's see, what else?  I will not sit next to anyone whose speech decibel level is over 80, and I'd appreciate it if the airline would determine that in advance by testing each passenger's voice loudness at Security.  Thank you.  Now, I'm comfortable. 

Raw Material: The Diary, 35 Years of April 7s

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on April 7, 2015 at 3:15 AM Comments comments ()

April 7, 1959 (Houston, TX; age 12)

Dear Diary, I wonder what has happened to me lately. It is funny but all of a sudden I feel so odd and almost excited inside whenever I see a handsome man.

I read so many frightening things about teen-agers, that I don’t know if I can live until twenty.

My back feels better today. I hope it’s all right for summer. 


April 7, 1966 (Colorado Springs, age 19)

Dear Al,

Progress report: I’m feeling better. Not because anything good has happened; except that Dave told M.J. that Bruce isn’t going out at all this weekend. Which didn’t evoke any particular response in me, frankly. I numbed myself to it, yesterday, and I’ve been studying (!).

I declared my major – political science. It doesn’t seem so bad anymore.


April 7, 1972 (London, England; age 25)

Disaster on disaster, the last days in Madrid. Still the dead numbness, which I hope will be shocked out of me by N.Y.  


April 7, 1975 (Cambridge, MA; age 28)

Woke this morning full of wrath at myself – must I accept self-hatred as an integral part of myself? At least occasionally, it seems.

The classical music station at the bottom of the dial is playing dawn bird songs – early dawn. Outside we have snow.

Once again I wasted a weekend. Except that I did my laundry.

Mark D was here for a week, filling the house with his pipe smell and man’s mess. Because I feel very ugly, I could deal with him directly and say anything I liked to him. We went with Sal to see “The Constant Wife.” (Bergman is so at home on the stage, she makes everyone else look slightly amateurish.) And after that to the Hillbilly Ranch, which seems to be full of misshapen people, very fat short women and small hunched men in raincoats. Sal was propositioned in the Greyhound Bus Terminal when he went to piss before the play. Next year MD will be an intern in Charlottesville, VA. He is hidden, like CL – his shield is a sardonic humor – he, like CL, mocks enthusiasm (CL is sometimes enthusiastic herself – but it leaks out of her almost against her own will – begins in a trickle, then if encouraged, increases to a small rocky stream – is never a flood, however).


April 7, 1993 (Portland, OR; age 46)

Worked for KAW all day – just time for a browse in Cameron’s before picking up Colin from school. Turned out to be a warmish day with some sun.

Very tired on the way home. No messages on our new answering machine – nothing from EG&G, the bastards.

Steve went kayaking with a buddy, all day, came home at 5:30 looking sun-and-wind-burned and very relaxed – did him much good.

Ate leftovers in front of TV, reading about mtDNA in American Anthropologist. Got rummage sale stuff together, so at least accomplished something. Also typed up notes from store.


April 7, 1994  (Louisville, CO; age 47)

Slept in seriously this AM, until after 7. Then Colin to school, long conversation with KK, then a last effort (for now) on the Preface. MS called at noon – had come home from work in between clinics for lunch and complained bitterly that whatever J had made in the microwave for breakfast had exploded and J had gone off and left it for MS to clean up before she could cook her lunch. Looks like J may go to Colorado College after all. Only interested in music and boys, says MS, and her grades have gone to pot this semester. Long walk, shopping at Walgreen’s, home, exercise, more tinkering with Preface (notes etc.), calls to women guitar players. Steve and I took Colin to karate together and then we all went to Pizza Hut, where the pizza was soggy.  

Raw Material: The Diary, 1958

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on April 6, 2015 at 4:45 PM Comments comments ()

The totality of diary entries for 1958, the first year I wrote it, age 11.

January 1, 1958

At Cornelia’s house. Cornelia and I stayed awake and went downstairs at midnight. It was snowing when we went to church. A beautiful church called Saint Peter in Chains.


January 2, 1958

At Cincinnati it snowed heavily. We went sledding and I lost my glasses! Our airplane flight was delayed until tomorrow.


January 3, 1958

We left Cincinnati. I was very sorry to go. It was dark as we left the airport. The flight home was very pleasant.


January 4, 1958

I am determined to study today for mid-term exams. In the evening I went to Mary's to spend the night. I went to the library with Ann and Mary this morning.


January 5, 1958

Mary went to church with us this morning. We had to stand up. Nothing much happened today,


January 6, 1958

Monday again! No tests today except for a few Arithmetic tests. I made 94 and 100.


January 7, 1958

Religion test today! Twenty-five questions! I made 100. Mrs. Pietrovalle was cross a lot today.


January 8, 1958

Science test today! It was very hard. I made 100. At the end of the day, about 2:40, Dennis, Jane, Patricia, DeAnne and I were fighting! Poor Dennis, he doesn’t have a chance, surrounded by so many girls!


January 9, 1958

History test today! It was simple! I made 100. A very uneventful day.


January 10, 1958

Geography test today! I stayed in from P.E. to study. Mrs. Pietrovalle gave us her correct answer book.


January 11, 1958

Nothing to write about today.


January 12, 1958

Another uneventful day. We went to 10:00 Mass.


January 13, 1958

English test on Nouns today! I made 94.


January 14, 1958

English test on pronouns today. I made 100. At recess I lost my watch. I think it is in my coat locker.


January 15, 1958

Girl Scout meeting. I was assigned to make a poster on the sixth basic food, meat. English test on Adjectives today. I made 100.


January 16, 1958

Mrs. Pietrovalle got sick and had to go home today. She gave us our Spelling test before she left and I made 100.


January 17, 1958

No school today! Daddy brought home the basketball this morning.


January 18, 1958

Sunday. Nothing exciting happened.


January 19, 1958

Monday and back to school.


January 20, 1958

Tuesday. What a day. At ten o’clock sister told us to go to the church for… Choir!


January 21, 1958

Turned in my poster at Girl Scouts. We practiced modeling our skirts.


January 22, 1958

Thursday. Nothing happened today except that Pepper finished her heat period.


January 23, 1958

Friday and the end of the week.


January 24, 1958

New girl moved into Valentinos’ house. Her name is Beckie Bean!


January 25, 1958

Today after church, we asked Beckie to come and play basketball at Marian High. She couldn’t go. She said that her mother was going to sell her bike because she had no place to ride it.


January 26, 1958

Back to school today. We’re going to have a Religion test tomorrow.


January 27, 1958

Religion test today. I made 97.


January 28, 1958

We modeled our skirts for the parents at Girl Scouts.


January 29, 1958

Science test today! I made 100.


January 30, 1958

Our satellite launched today! Yipee! The Army satellite Explorer.


February 1, 1958

Nothing to write about today.


February 2, 1958

Found out Pepper is mated.


February 3, 1958

Completed my ‘Reader’ badge in Girl Scouts.


February 4, 1958

I got a wonderful book from the Book Nook today, “The Little Lame Prince.”


February 5, 1958

No Girl Scouts today. Mrs. Marshall was sick.


February 6, 1958

No Coment [sic].


February 7, 1958

Got a terrible scare today. We had tornado warnings. Then we saw a big cloud, a low, whining sound came from it.


February 8, 1958

Cold today.


February 9, 1958

Religion oral test today. I made 100. Poor Beth! She made 0. 


February 10, 1958

Another religious test today! I made 100. Whew!


February 11, 1958

First meeting at Mrs. Burchell’s house. Our troop started on our “Glass” badges today. It was very interesting.


February 12, 1958

Got a letter from Cornelia today.


March 27, 1958

I went to Fanchon’s house today. We rode the bus. It was a lot of fun!!


March 28, 1958

Fanchon and I went to Meyerland today. I bought some beautiful handkerchiefs.


March 29, 1958

Fanchon and I stayed up until 1:30!!


March 30, 1958

Fanchon and I said goodbye this afternoon. I certainly enjoyed it!!


March 31, 1958

Two English tests today! I made 95 and 92. I didn’t understand what I did. I returned my books to the library. At 6:00 I went to Mary’s recital.


April 1, 1958

April Fool’s day! This morning Mommy scared me to death by coming into my room at 7:30 and saying, “Oh, Becky, you can’t wear that dress, it has a big hole in it”!!


April 2, 1958

Girl Scouts today. We worked on our Musical Appreciation badges at Mrs. Marshall’s.


April 3, 1958

Didn’t do much in school today. The dachshund got into our yard today!!!


April 4, 1958

Good Friday today! No school!! We went fishing today at North Jetty. Tim caught 3 catfish! I caught 1!


April 5, 1958

I had to clean up the yard today!!

Daddy built a pen for Pepper’s pups.


June 22, 1958

Our pastor is leaving today, dear diary. Our new pastor will arrive in about a week.  


Posted by rebecca.mcswain on September 22, 2013 at 4:20 PM Comments comments ()

           “This is Lord Peter Wimsey, my dear,” said Theophilus mildly.

            She was unimpressed.

            “Ah, yes,” she said, “I believe you are distantly related to my late cousin, the Bishop of Carisbrooke. Poor man! He was always being taken in by imposters; he died without ever learning any better. I imagine you take after him, Lord Peter.”

            “I doubt it,” said Lord Peter. “So far as I know he is only a connection, though it’s a wise child that knows its own father. I congratulate you, dear lady, on takin’ after the other side of the family.”  [Whose Body, Chapter III]

            Now that we’ve reached our 60s, my brother and I have many, many cousins – first cousins once removed, second cousins, third cousins, etc. First cousins share about 12%-13% of their DNA, as I read on the Internet, that font of information if not (usually not) wisdom.


            H.L. Mencken said, "Every man sees in his relatives, and especially in his cousins, a series of grotesque caricatures of himself."  Mencken was a notoriously grumpy man. I don’t see “grotesque caricatures” in my cousins.  Maybe they see caricatures in me, of course.  No, I admire 9 out of 10 of my cousins, on both sides of the family.  They’re endlessly interesting, a panoply of human life, the whole passing parade thing – rich and poor, educated and un, talkative and silent, handsome and homely, complainers and cockeyed optimists full of energy, skeptical contemplatives, wacky mystics, and conservative realists, who have good luck, bad luck, successes, failures, adventures, tribulations, religious experiences, and endless doubts – taken as a group, they don’t leave anything human out.  And I don’t even know all of them.  My very young first cousins twice removed, for example, remain mysteries – they’re still babies and I don’t see them, and their futures are yet to be determined (unless you believe in predestination). I only share 3.125% of my genome with them. I hope it’s the good 3.125%, not including, for example, the Fat Gene or the Whiner Gene.

            There is one cousin, who shall remain nameless, who does kind of fit Mencken’s aphorism. I don’t know him extremely well, but we’ve met from time to time, and I’ve heard the stories the rest of the family tells about him. He seems to embody many of the worst traits of one branch of the family tree, traits that are – fortunately – only weakly expressed in other twigs. Those are, to sum up, narcissism, greed, and lack of empathy for fellow-beings.  He thus does seem to be a kind of caricature, such as might be found in a Charles Dickens novel or a Thomas Nast cartoon. I’m sorry to say that his mother died giving birth to him. It seems to have been a bad trade-off.

            All these cousins and their lives and we and our lives are swept along in time, developing ramifications that seem more like the fractal convolutions of chaos than the offshoots of trees.  We’ll lose track of most of us.  We’ll forget the strange attractions that started it all and keep it unfolding. The biochemistry is always with us, but its manifestations are legion, and the human brain can only encompass so much memory. Nevertheless, in 10,000 years, inextricably mixed with everyone else’s cousins, we’ll fill the world.


Why do old women wear hats?

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on June 28, 2013 at 9:45 PM Comments comments ()

Old women, at least in the sunny climes and seasons of these United States,wear hats.


I’m not talking about clever cloches and stunning Stetsons reimagined, for example, by Chapellerie Tesi in Cannes. Don’t let your mind’s eye wander to the fabulous flying saucers perched on the aristocratic noggin of the Duchess of Cambridge.


No, I’m talking about the puzzling millinery sported by over-50 women who belong only to the aristocracy of age: vast white cotton lids drooping in meaningless wings over the ears, gay straw bowlers with paper flowers around the brim, blue polyester buckets and felt fedoras in dubious states of repair, ten-gallon toppers that hark back to 1940s westerns and are snapped up in wayside souvenir shops. And who can forget the immortal peaked cap, American ball-cap variant, adorned with signifiers connecting the wearer to sports teams, environmental movements, bird watching groups, beer brands – you name it, there’s no end to them.


We young fashionistas didn’t wear hats much back in the day. Why? Because our hairdos were basically incompatible with them. Who wanted to go through all that trouble setting, sleeping badly on rollers, teasing, spraying, mounding up, only to squash the whole masterpiece by pushing it down under the prison of a hat? Hat hair – not good. If you watch movies from the 20th century era when hats were commonly worn by women, you’ll notice that hairstyles appear specifically designed to accommodate headgear, flat on top and sides, artfully curled up in front and/or back to enhance the look of a brim. By 1960 that hairdo genre along with hats was going the way of the dodo bird.


Now here we are, in the Age of Lanky Hair, when most of the young women on red carpets appear to be in need of a good shampoo and blow-dry. They already have the equivalent of hat hair and it doesn’t bother them, so they could go ahead and wear hats, and sometimes they do, but not that often. Women have, apparently, mostly gotten out of the hat habit.


In those old movies I’m especially moved by the cocktail topper, a small naughty confection laden with sequins (often black) and feathers, and perched askew on a lovely young head. In fact, that seems to be one type of cranial decor that women still actually wear in real life – those women, that is, who go to fashionable cocktail parties, which I believe is currently a relatively small portion of the feminine population.


Returning to the question of hatted old women, not at cocktail parties but around and about on the street, at the Grand Canyon, pushing a cart in the parking lot: do we (of course, I’m one) wear hats because in our dotage we’ve lost all sense of style? The Senile Sombrero Syndrome? Vision bad, we can’t see well enough in the mirror to understand what we look like? Or is it a sweet personal nostalgia, recalling days of exciting Easter bonnets and taking us back to our pre-teen youth? Do we think the headgear is sexy? Maybe that Audubon ball cap with the cardinal on the front will so enchant the attractive gentleman in the Jag that he will follow us home?


Some old-woman hat-wearing might be accounted for by one or more of the above explanations. However, I can tell you for sure that one of us wears this particular article of clothing because if she doesn’t wear it religiously, her scalp soon becomes encrusted with the itching and flaking heartbreak of actinic keratoses, nourished by and flourishing in the sun. This dermatologic condition in a context of thinning tresses does little to add to the joy of living for her or for those around her, especially tall people who, perforce, must look down at the top of her head. And really, how much can I ask my genius hair-cutter to tolerate, aesthetically speaking, even with an enhanced tip by way of compensation? He’s a saint on earth, but everyone has limits. Eventually, the sufferer is compelled to visit the dermatologist and spend hundreds of dollars of taxpayer and/or insurance company money to have these nasties frozen off.  So, outside the house, a hat at all hours of daylight. Come to think of it, the moon has lately been extraordinarily close to the earth at its Supermoon June 23 perigee, only 221,824 miles away, and was blazing full in our clear sky... is there any data on the relationship between moonshine and AKs? 


As for the condition and quality of hats worn by old women, well, this is a time of life when money isn’t flowing freely for most of us. What’s a little grease stain on the old Panama, when you consider the expense involved in replacing it? If a new hat is necessary, Target has a fine selection for all occasions. And if any of our progeny look down on us for this lowering of standards, let them consider what a favor we’re doing them and their inheritance by electing not to fly to the Côte d’Azur to do our chapeau shopping.


Sure I'm Sure

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on May 27, 2013 at 12:45 AM Comments comments ()


He was distinguished for ignorance; for he had only one idea and that was wrong." - Benjamin Disraeli


About 24 years ago, on a sunny California morning, I was driving a blue Subaru station wagon down the Costa Mesa Freeway (California Highway 55) headed for Irvine. I worked there, transcribing medical reports for a company that contracted to LA County Hospital. In the back seat was my 4-year-old son, properly restrained. And we flew along, essentially bumper to bumper at about 60 mph. There in the midst of the oleanders and the fumes, and the other drivers applying makeup or even reading their morning papers (there were still newspaper readers then), my son, having apparently followed some internal musings to an impasse, asked, “Mommy, do we wake up again after we die?”


Around that time, we were all dealing with the terminal illness of my father. One day my son had said to him, “Grampa, I’m sorry you’re dying.” We were, as a family, several months away from acknowledging this reality, but the 4-year-old saw through all that and got right to the heart of the matter. Now he wanted to know (I assume): what would happen to his grandfather next?


So what do you say to this existential question, hurtling along a highway in control of a couple of thousand pounds of metal, the lives of a number of people in your hands? If some bureaucrat had ever thought about it, surely there would be a law against trying to enunciate complex philosophies while driving. My husband and I did not have, and had not given our son, any cozy, pat, simple, and positive answers to life’s big questions. So neither “yes, when Jesus comes we’ll all wake up” nor "yes, Grampa will wake up surrounded by 72 virgins"  was an option for me.


What I said was, “We don’t know, but I think God takes care of us.”


Now 24 years later, I’m still okay with that response. It leaves unanswered many deeper issues (such as what is “god”? what does “take care” mean?) but it works fine for a 4-year-old worried about mortality. It expresses my (possibly mistaken) idea that in the long run, all things considered, the universe is Good. Anyway, it was the best I could do – still is. Life is uncertain and so is death. I’m sure of that. Well, pretty sure.


This morning I sat on the back porch reading a good book called God’s Jury, by Cullen Murphy. It’s about the Inquisition. I feel no need to explain here what “the Inquisition” is – it’s one of the few cultural referents that everyone understands at some level. Such is the enduring fame (or infamy) of that 700-year system of absolute Church certainties played out in the political realm. Murphy points out that the roots of such systems are deep in human nature, and he notes the unsurprising connections between the Inquisition mind-set and the certainties that underlie today's modern security state. He’s not the first to make these points and he won’t be the last. Not that such point-making will have any dramatic effect on the unstoppable expansion of the security apparat. Nor will it change the minds of those who are certain that government should be based on the Bible or the Koran or Science.


In between reading I was watching birds in the backyard. This, it turns out, is the Year of the Great-Tailed Grackle in our little environment.The first summer we lived here was the Year of the Curved-Bill Thrasher. The second summer was the Year of the Bat: swimming in the evening, we’d be dive-bombed by our resident bats swooping down for their dinners. This year, no thrashers or bats in the yard, though I see and hear them elsewhere around the neighborhood. This year in our walled yard, it's all grackles. They’re a quarrelsome bunch. The males strut, black feathers gleaming, heads up, tails dragging like royal trains, beaks half-open, uttering their strange, very loud, squeaking cries and chasing one another. The females, who appear far more sensible in their modest brown dress, occupy themselves with pecking in the damp grass. Do grackles struggle with certainties and doubts? Not that I can tell. The males seem very sure that they’re doing the right thing, no hesitation, no cogitation apparent. Just the strutting and the squeaking and the chasing. "My territory, not yours," is probably the operational philosophy. Certainty must work for them, evolutionarily speaking. In this town, at least, the grackles are thriving.


For humans, maybe not so much. Frankly, certainty worries me, like my kid worried about death at age 4. I mean all brands of intellectual self-confidence, whether it be Bible-believing, genetics-believing, green-believing, foodism, Sufism, historical determinism, or blind faith in The Rolling Stones. Certainty is dangerous, like a loaded gun, or a deadly bacterium, or nitroglycerin. Some degree of certainty is necessary, sometimes. In order to live, we have to act, and before we act we like to be as sure as we can be about what we’re doing. But that doesn’t make certainty any less dangerous, and we ought to be as careful with it as we are with guns, bugs, and nitro.


Am I sure about that? Sure I’m sure. And if I ran the world and my eavesdropping on your phone calls and emails indicated that you didn’t agree, why, I’d just slap you into detention and waterboard you until you came to see things my way.

No, just kidding. I think.


Petty crimes present and past

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on May 5, 2013 at 10:30 PM Comments comments ()

About 10 days ago I suffered the minor (in the great scheme of things) annoyance of being burglarized. About 10 in the morning, while I was at work, a stone was flung through an aged slider, and off went my grandmother’s silver charm bracelet bearing the names of all her grandchildren, and the turquoise necklace with the mysterious silver inlay and heavy chain that my father gave my aunt 60 years ago, and the silver bracelet and ring my husband bought me during a vacation in Florida, and most of the gold jewelry I possessed. Not to mention my husband’s grandmother’s silver service which we idiotically stored in a closet in its own handy carrying case. It all didn’t amount to much, in money.  And the thieves missed my earrings, and a few pieces of the silver set that weren’t with the rest – they didn’t search very thoroughly. (Those pieces are now in the safe-deposit box.)  And they didn’t take many things of great value to us – our books, my journals, other items not amenable to instant pawn, flea markets etc. Strictly a smash-and-grab operation. The rock they threw through the slider gouged a piece out of our beautiful new rolling cutting board with its stainless steel racks and musically jingling hooks, and knocked loose a bolt I still haven’t found.


Oddly, the thieves carried a wine bottle (screw top, about 4 ounces remaining in the bottom) from the kitchen into the bathroom. Really? Why? And they stole one of my power cords, though neither of the computers. Huh?


So a few days of sweeping up glass (which I'm still finding in the oddest places). And I had to vacuum where their scummy feet had walked and launder all the stuff in all the drawers they pawed through. And so on. Had to get them out of my psychological house.


How spoiled we are, though. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world – lately, for example, in Syria - regularly have their homes destroyed and their families turned into refugees, because of the greed, power-hunger, and religious fanaticism of their fellow men.  All I need to do is negotiate with an insurance company and figure out the best choice for a replacement sliding glass door. Big deal. And yet I was dismayed – continue to be, really – by the trauma. But it’s clear that, trauma-wise, this little burglary is hardly worth thinking about.


But it’s a reminder that barbarity is always with us, in some form. We in the rich countries can hold it at bay for a while, but the threat is there, simmering under the surface in a dark place where people are poor, ignorant and uneducated, desperate, lazy, vicious.


I’ve been burglarized before, in India in 2001. In that case, I knew who’d done it, in a general sense: it would have been my driver, or his brothers or cousins, because the driver knew I had bought some jewelry a couple days before, because I was foolish enough to tell him about it. This in a place where men like that driver earned something like $2 a day. Maybe. The Indian thief took just that jewelry, and then rested from his labors by taking a nap in my bed. That time, I was more infuriated with my own idiocy than with the thief. And what would he get out of that jewelry? A few dollars that would essentially do nothing to alter his fate or that of his family. They would remain poor and trapped in their narrow world.

And my recent thieves, too, searching in my house and my neighbors’ for gold, guns, and video games - would they use the proceeds to, for example, pay tuition at the community college? Buy books and educate themselves? Not likely. More likely: drugs, something fancy for their cars, a television. Whatever. They, like my Indian driver, remain trapped in their lives.  I’m sorry for all of us that this is so, because those wasted lives damage us, damage the human community, far more than the theft of a few baubles.


Other crimes: A bad patch in Boston, 1973


            In an art gallery, working as a receptionist.

            Purse stolen.

The front room of the gallery is too open to the street in a bad neighborhood; a kid came in, asked me a question as I sat at the reception desk, then grabbed my purse and ran. I chased him out of the building and across a vacant lot, until I woke up to the folly of following him into the ‘projects.’


            I was walking over Mission Hill in the evening, dark on top, with a bag of groceries, when I was approached by three black kids with a knife. They knocked me down, were very excited and angry that I didn’t have any money. By way of getting something out of it, they prepared to rape me, pulling at my clothes. I was begging them, telling them names of kids I knew from the neighborhood, but the one with the knife, at least, didn’t care. A German shepherd came running up the hill barking furiously. His foolish human, further below, not able to see what was happening, was shouting, “He won’t hurt you!” However, the dog and the witness scared the boys and they took off. The dog and man walked me home. A day or two later a couple cops came to the door with mugshots, really wanting me to point to someone, which I could not, and greatly startling my roommates who, as usual, were sprawled in the living room smoking dope. For months afterward, if a black man came toward me on the sidewalk, my knees turned to water, a purely physical reaction,uncontrollable.


            In a prewar building behind the Museum of Fine Arts.

            Someone broke into an apartment on the third floor; I woke at about 3:45 to the old woman’s screams – “Help me, help!” Now it’s 6 AM, a misty, ghostly morning.

            The robber must have come in from the roof, onto this floor – the hallway lights were out, unscrewed. Came while we lay naively in bed, and unscrewed the two bulbs. How they love the dark.

            When I heard the screams I ran, from the phone to the door, and back again, several times, finally managing to call the police. The woman wasn’t hurt – her square face pale, but angry as well as frightened. The whole building came into the halls, nightgowned, in underwear, some pets in tow – others had called the police – but everyone had been afraid to run out immediately upon hearing the screams, as I was. …

            For weeks afterwards, I woke as if to an alarm clock at 3:45 a.m.and lay listening to the night.


            When I was walking home from work at ten after six, a group of six or seven boys were chasing a girl down the path behind the rose garden in the park near the Museum of Fine Arts – I heard her screaming, and saw the last two or three pursuers; then one of them saw me – I had come hurrying over the footbridge, too anxious to help for fear to come in – he yelled, “Let her go.” And they converged on me. It was cold, misty, hardly anyone in the park. I was about to start running. But a man was approaching,and I called to him, asking him to turn around and walk with me across the rest of the park. When he joined me (reluctantly, can’t blame him), the boys yelled a few obscenities, then veered off. This at ten after six, still broad daylight, of course.

            So events conspire to turn everything sour. It’s tricky to separate the evil from the good. Having your purse stolen, being mugged, being terrified … these are separate from making love, hiking in New Hampshire, reading Maupassant – yet it’s all one life. The same fight.

            The morning birds are wonderful, as in Vermont. So are the geraniums on my kitchen windowsill.



Posted by rebecca.mcswain on April 21, 2013 at 1:55 AM Comments comments ()

The terrible events of this past week in Boston have evoked a kind of helpless fury. Again. Just 4 months after another, even more horrific, slaughter of innocents.

Four hundred years ago the English essayist Francis Bacon warned against anger that can destroy its bearer, as some bees, stinging, are destroyed when the stinger lodges in the victim and tears out the insect's abdomen. But what other response is possible? What else could possibly be felt, for example, 12 years ago, watching the Towers fall? Immediately after the horror came the blind rage.

Almost exactly 43 years ago, on May 4, 1970, the National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State in Ohio. A few days later the Guard was bayonetting students in New Mexico, and before that summer was over, 6 more students had been shot and killed by police across the nation.  At the same moment thousands were dying in Vietnam. We were eating our own young, it seemed then. Yes, I was angry.  But it was, I wrote in my diary, a "moment of despair" as well. Death and destruction for nothing. Or death for some incomprehensible "reason" that has nothing to do with reason or rational thought. Death that, itself, comes out of anger. Apparently, in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, it was the by now all-too-familiar anger of religious fanatics against a world that they feel won't validate their beliefs. Adam Lanza may have been angry at his mother, killing her before going on his horrific rampage in Connecticut. The banality of such a cause, yielding such an effect, is incredible to contemplate.

So here's the thing: the anger that we feel at these events is twin to the anger than caused them in the first place. It's the same human emotion. Recognizing that, then, what makes us - the victims, the observers - different from the killers? Well, we don't kill, not the way they do. The suspect trapped under a tarp in a boat in a yard in Watertown could have been gunned down like an animal, blown up - revenge, that momentary thrill of satisfaction and completion. But the vengeful stinger, buried in dense flesh, might have torn out, killing us a little.  We would have no chance to learn why the brothers did what they did or what others might be planning, or what kind of strange sickness creeps into our body politic, manifesting itself in these insane murders. More importantly, revenge taken, we would have demonstrated our similarity to the murderers. Somewhere the cycle of violent anger needs to be broken. Rational thought must be applied, the human capacity for reasoning has to trump the human capacity for anger, or we are lost.

I'm not talking about forgiveness here. That's just too bloody hard, can't truly be done, not really. The murder of innocents can't be forgiven. (Which brings uncomfortably to mind the effects of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. But that's another topic.) I'm talking about reason, logic, and not destroying ourselves with our own fury.

And yet... a moment caught on video in Boston stays with me. Runners come toward us, almost home, dogged, triumphant - they've nearly made it. Suddenly, a blast, a billowing cloud of white smoke, and a runner falls, tumbles, his bare legs flying, smears of blood on the street. 


The British, Irish, and others around the world have lived with these kinds of horrors for many years, generations, but for us Americans, the world since 9/11 is frighteningly new on so many different levels. The anger begins to take root, a dangerous plant. What will the harvest be?

Boston on a different day, a collecting trip for the New England Aquarium: November 1, 1974

           I wheedled and cajoled the Boss into letting me go out with the Boys in the boat this afternoon. We had a beautiful time. They dove and I watched, rocking on the waves off Nahant. Warm day, haze on the horizon, but the sun was out until just before it went down, red over silver-blue water.They caught lobster and anemones; one lobster 7-1/2 pounds, B got. He – B –was shaking so with the cold - surface water was 45 degrees - that I had to put my arms around him.

            Just at the entrance to the inner harbor is a lighthouse, on a tiny pile of rocks ... When we came back at 4:30 the light was already working. That is one of the most reassuring sights in the world, a clear, strong beam of light at the edge of the dark.  Just before we passed Commonwealth Pier, going in, there was a powerful wave of odors – Chinese cooking (fried rice, soy sauce). Warm winds off the land as the sun was disappearing – the boat would pass through them as if in front of an oven, and the Boys and I would grin at each other and lift our heads to the warmth.

            Evening. Rain, and mobs on the Green Line – I was squashed between the door and two young Swedish men with bright narrow faces. To the movies in Harvard Square  – “Jeremiah Johnson” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Drizzling rain, young panhandlers, music, and the usual crowds... Pure delight.