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The Girl Who Ignored Jim Morrison

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on March 17, 2013 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (224)

An old friend recently pointed out that I’ve achieved a kind of anonymous fame by having had my head included in a 1967 photograph of The Doors performing in Colorado Springs. Here’s the You-Tube link:


Other girls in the picture are staring raptly at Jim Morrison, but I (at bottom of picture) am looking elsewhere. My friend, who knows me all too well, suggests I was studying the refreshments table. Alternatively, I suggested, I could be thinking, “Where the hell did I leave my beer?” There’s something pensive in the expression. However, upon further reflection: it’s likely that I was there with the freshman boy I’d been dating that semester (my senior year). He had introduced me to weed, and it seems a dead cert that we had had a few tokes before the Doors party. In which case it then follows that about the time the band began to play the munchies were hitting. So: is that the cheese platter?


I was at that time in love with a man who had graduated the previous spring and gone to California, and was being absolutely faithful to him, so my freshman romance was based strictly on poetry and marijuana, not sex. The freshman was very companionable. I celebrated my 21st birthday that year with some friends of his in a battered, dirty student house, sitting on the floor talking about Life, music, drugs, all that stuff that’s so important in college. Having exhausted all those topics and our almost (but not quite) inexhaustible selves, we fell asleep, also on the floor. Waking during the night, I heard the mice amusing themselves in the kitchen. On another occasion, the freshman and I went out into the country and cuddled and smoked in a rock shelter – something akin to what folks were doing in Europe oh, say, 30,000 years before, only we didn't paint anything on the walls – while beyond the cave opening, snow fell on a piney Colorado landscape.


As for Jim Morrison, he was just too skinny, too grubby looking. I was after all a nice middle-class suburban girl, and I had my standards. One’s hair should be washed. Mine may have been utterly without style, but I'm quite sure it was clean. I did love the Doors’ music; “Light My Fire” was an anthem for 1967, mine and that of untold hundreds of thousands of other Baby Boomers, and I whiled away a considerable number of hours dancing to it, sometimes happy, sometimes in tears, but always dancing.


Speaking of dancing and bands, I was watching that hokey old movie (1953) in which James Stewart plays orchestra leader Glenn Miller, and there’s bit in which Miller talks about trying to come up with a sound “the kids” would like, something they could dance to. Ever since, through American Bandstand until today, 70+ years later, musicians who aspire to a mass audience have continued to try to earn the accolade, “it has a good beat and you can dance to it.” One recent incarnation of the ideal might be Maroon 5, for example.


Okay, Adam Levine isn’t Glenn Miller. The band is smaller. They don’t dress in matching outfits. No one plays the trumpet, the trombone, the sax, or the clarinet. Odd, now that I think about it: with far fewer instruments, Maroon 5 makes far more noise than the Glen Miller orchestra. By the way, the Miller orchestra is still touring. You can catch them next Saturday in L’Assomption, Quebec ( And the following day with a quick plane ride you can find Maroon 5 in Nashville (, if you can score a ticket to this sold-out performance. The purpose of the enterprise remains the same: getting “the kids” to dance, applaud, and buy your records.


It’s never been clear to me why people – maybe a lot of people - like only one category of music: country, but not counterpoint; Presley, but not Puccini; jazz, but not juju; Miller, but not Maroon 5. I myself have preferences: limited to one artist on a desert island, I’d choose Dvořák over Diamond. And different moods need different music. If I just purely want to be happy for a while, guaranteed, it’s “The Messiah” and/or anything Willie Nelson ever sang. But I’ll listen to almost any musical noise with pleasure or at least interest. Sometimes it’s the context that matters as much as the music. In a medieval church in Burgundy, a harp put the cherry on top. In a unused union hall in Akron, death metal seemed to make an inarguable statement.


If everyone gets one Forrest Gump moment in life, it’s okay by me that mine occurred during a musical moment beneath a vulgar chandelier in the Rocky Mountains at the foot of the Doors in October 1967.

Love Affairs

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on March 4, 2013 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (1)

Sex is nice, isn’t it? Like most people I’ve whiled away many a happy hour in the arms of someone or other, deep in the night or on a sunny afternoon, as sunset glowed orange or cool morning dawned, a someone I loved or someone I just happened to run into. Not that it always went well, in the long run, but that’s another topic. Now, post-60, sex has a different aspect. Not as compelling, perhaps, though no less interesting really. But, again, a topic for another day.


Next weekend we have here in town a Festival of Books, a kind of 2-day group orgasm for the obsessively literate right in the middle of a university campus, in front of God and everyone.  And it occurs to me that many nonsexual love affairs are at least as powerful and enduring as their biological counterparts. 


Such affairs have their disappointments. In the case of the book-lover, for example, there will inevitably be well-reviewed novels that turn out to be shockingly unreadable and authors who, in person, are unpleasantly human.  But the lover keeps coming back, lured by an undiminished hope and intermittent joys.  (For the bookish, the Festival adds the satisfaction of demonstrating that reading and books are not dead, no matter what obituaries the received wisdom pronounces over them.)  For two days we readers will mill about in our thousands, standing in long lines for salads and signings, and accumulating encrustations of volumes, catalogs and flyers like ships accumulate barnacles.


Why do I love? Why does anyone? Love books, trains, quilts, vitamins, modern art, birds, guns, shoes, baseball? What is this? Other creatures don’t seem to share these passions, although – come to think of it –a cat’s connoisseurship of warm sleeping spots may be something equivalent.  Ditto a dog’s discriminating devotion to a ball or a Frisbee.   But surely in no other species do individuals attach themselves to such a mad variety of love objects.  And there’s the indisputable fact that any given human being can find other humans’ love inexplicable.  I, for example, am baffled by folks who adore beetles. Really? They’re going to eat you in the end, you do know that, don’t you? I acknowledge the right of insects to exist, and I understand their importance in the ecological scheme of things here on Earth, but I prefer that they keep out of my personal space while I have breath in my body.


Thus we see that these nonsexual love affairs are actually much more eccentric and individualistic than sexual affairs, illustrating more vividly the amazing variety of human behaviors. Everybody thinks George Clooney is adorable and would like to collect him, but a passion for dung beetles is less universally shared. This is true even though, arguably, the DB is more universally useful than the GC.


Getting back to books: it bothers me that electronic media aren’t collectible. I download a novel to my Kindle or whatever and that’s fine and dandy, why not? Easy to read in bed, at times when the orange sunsets and cool dawns find me quite alone there. Ok, then what? Those words that enchant, annoy, frustrate, transport me don’t really exist in the device, right?. I mean, they’re 1’s and 0’s, right? Well, I’m not sure what they are. But I can’t put them on a shelf and contemplate them deep in the night or on a sunny afternoon. They don’t have any smell. It’s just not the same. But how to explain the emotion that I feel?


Maybe this is one of those aspects of life in which Why doesn’t matter.  Socrates famously said, “ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίοςοὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ,” but sometimes we can carry on nicely without having to examine every damn thing. So I’ll go to the Festival of Books, acquire my barnacles, and come home happy as a clam, and I just don’t care why. 



Posted by rebecca.mcswain on February 24, 2013 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

There’s a new book out about the Cuban missile crisis, that frightening moment 50 years ago when – as the story goes – we teetered on the edge of the nuclear apocalypse and were rescued – they told us afterwards – by the courage and wisdom of our national leaders: the Kennedy brothers, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, et alia.  The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory,  by Sheldon Stern, is based upon tape recordings of meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the fall of 1962.  In high school in Montclair, New Jersey, we knew nothing about those meetings.  What we did know came from announcements at school and from TV and newspaper reports.  We couldn’t google the crisis –  our technology was the intercom, not the Internet.  That mad prolific unsleeping source of unstoppable raw data, that great infosewer in which diamonds float alongside poop, didn’t exist then, not even as a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, and WikiLeaks was as yet no one’s nightmare or wet dream.  We were simple, then.  Perhaps especially in a Catholic school where the election of John Kennedy was a miracle beheld a scant two years previously and there was no inclination to be critical of him or anyone connected with him.  Well… yes, even in my little sheltered world there were rumors… a parent who was openly scathing on the subject of JFK’s infidelities (how did he know? but he did), for example.  But on the whole, we admired the President, his wife, his children, his family, his associates, his hair, his teeth, the whole parade.  And we were scared that fall.  Since grade school we’d heard about the Bomb, had the hiding-under-the-desk drills, seen the signs for public fall-out shelters go up, and now here it was upon us, maybe. 


Surprise, surprise. The ExComm tapes reveal a picture very different from the one we saw at the time and very unlike all the subsequent embellishments in books, memoirs, learned lectures, scholarly journal articles, etc.  In short, my dear friends, we were lied to, up one side and down the other.  By people we – some of us, anyway – admired.  Bobby Kennedy.  What can I say? Lots of people hated him at the time, of course, but I wasn’t one of them.  I was devastated when he was killed in that annus horribilis 1968.  I had admired his brother, and I admired him. 


This is not the only hard lesson I’ve had during my life about the pitfalls of admiration.  But as the examples accumulate over the years – the lies, the betrayals, the disillusionments – one really has to conclude that it just doesn’t pay to admire anyone one doesn’t know personally and fairly well.  Even then, it’s risky, but really, one has to retain some enthusiasm for one’s fellow humans.  (As for the people we love, well, we don’t need to admire them, though sometimes we do – we love them.  That’s different.)


Maybe what’s reliably admirable are moments of action rather than personalities.  A soprano must pierce a silence with one powerful and absolutely perfect note.  She does! And it rings true, clear, and resonant like the sound of a great silver bell, echoes in your head for hours and you want to preserve a personal silence into which that note can come.  A shortstop has to catch the ball – no silence here, but crowds roaring and shouting - and he does, he twists, he spins, he dives into the stands onto his noggin, and the ball ends up where it needs to be, a kind of triumph of human physiology and will over those exasperating laws of physics, and that night as you doze off, your mind’s eye replays it and you fall asleep with a smile on your face.  Such moments are constructed out of a perfect conjunction of opportunity, motivation, talent, personality, and luck, and they constitute a big percentage of life’s sheer pleasure.  Those moments, those conjunctions, never repeat themselves – they are for one time only.  Fortunately, while you live there are always more of them coming your way. 

But wait: what if the soprano was on speed and the shortstop was on steroids? Do I care? Remember, I'm admiring the moment, not the person.  I don't know.  Here I think, inevitably, of Lance Armstrong.  In a way, now, all the moments he gave us - The Look on the Alpe d'Huez as he burst past Jan Ullrich in 2001, that and all the other moments now seem to be part of a big lie he told for many, many years.  So it's all a bit spoiled, isn't it? 


Anyway, I admire Sheldon Stern for having written his book, but he’s not my new Hero.  I’ve given up heroes, don’t need them any more.  More than that: unlike the soprano’s perfect note, the shortstop’s perfect catch, which are just momentary joy, I think heroes might be dangerous. 


Comets and Popes

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on February 17, 2013 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (49)

A few days ago the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, announced that he would be resigning from his job.  Although the appearance of Halley's comet seems a rare occurrence, it is about 8 times more common than the resignation of a pope, the last such event having occurred some 600 years ago, give or take.  Today, J. Ratzinger (awful name) made what may be his last appearance as Pope before the crowds in St. Peter's Square.  This is all a most interesting historic moment to be living through.  I must admit, I have never been a Ratzinger-Benedict fan.  This man came to the papacy from leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern-day inheritor of the medieval Inquisition.  No witches have been burned in the last couple hundred years (that I know of); nevertheless I always experienced a vague ineasiness, perhaps a slight hot flash, thinking about that and other aspects of Benedict's personal history.  Actually, his taking this step may be a healthy sign of reality orientation, so kudos. Maybe Queen Elizabeth II should take a look at this option for herself and give poor Charles a break - and then if he's got half a brain (an open question) he'd abdicate in favor of Diana's nice son Wills.  Which reminds me of the saga of the first Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots - Elizabeth I cut off her head, but in the end Mary had the last laugh when her son became King of both England and Scotland.   

For 5 years of my own life I was under the watchful eye of the spiritual Order originally tasked with the Inquisition, the Dominicans.  All but one or two of my Dominicans were very smart and very normal women.  Didn't everyone have at least one weirdo teacher in high school?  I don't think the percentage of weirdos was any bigger in my Catholic school than anywhere else.  They just dressed differently in those days, the veils and wimples and rustling gowns with clanking rosaries, etc.  Inside the outfit, people.  It was a nun who explained to me the meaning of "torch song." I'm serious.  She was a petite young woman with a diffident manner and definite opinions, and in her opinion modern (1950s/60s) pop music was mostly "torch songs" - and she then had to tell me, age 14, what that meant.   

Anyone want to swap Nun Stories?  Really, I think for those of us growing up Catholic in the mid-20th century the nuns mattered a lot more than the Pope.  I still recall so vividly the struggles of our science teacher - what was her name? - to teach us chemistry.  I was a hopeless case and probably a clear and present danger to everyone in the chem lab, but that veiled wimpled lady with the rattling rosary beads apparently, despite her own frustrations (she wasn't much of a chemist, either), did such a good job that one of my classmates went on to a PhD and a successful career as a scientist. And by the way, there was never any question in her classrooms that life on Earth evolved along the general lines described a hundred years earlier by Charles Darwin.  No conflict between religion and science for those Dominicans, evolution being, presumably, just another manifestation of the infinite mysteries of the Mind of God.  Probably it has something to do with those nuns that 50 years or so later one jack Catholic has an irresistible urge to get ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday.  I can still see those women ahead of me down the corridors of memory, striding around a corner, hands tucked in their wide sleeves, the tips of their black veils fluttering.  Who cares who the Pope is? 

But, still, interesting history to witness.  Hope they pick one from Africa.  Before the next asteroid hits - another event we used to think of as rare but... maybe not so much. 

Beatles and Beach Boys

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on February 9, 2013 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (222)

Diary entry,  August 1965

           Meditating on the Beatle Phenomenon: a year and a half ago it all started, for me at least. A few days ago I took out, from my bottom desk drawer, the dozens of pictures and a couple of newspaper clippings I have of them. They are part of a change in me.

            They opened my eyes to excitement I never saw before, to worlds I never imagined, and made me dream like I never had – longings so hard and strong that I ached with them. I can’t help feeling that I grew up with them, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, plunged with them to the depths of depression and self-pity, and soared with them to the heights of hysterical joy to which they themselves irresistibly drew me.  They’re woven securely into the cloth I’m made of, and what they were to me will always be a part of me, and I think I’ll always love them.


I’ve been wrestling in prayer with iTunes for a couple weeks.  Specifically, I was forced to up date my iTunes version (don’t ask) and during the update the program saw fit to take every album I had ever imported into my Library and dump it Somewhere Else on my hard drive.  Where?  Ah, that’s the question.  As of this morning I’d spent about 8-10 hours trying to solve this “challenge.”  Also spent some hours ranting to my poor husband about it, and being depressed, so we have to count that time too, don’t we?  Why should such a simple pleasure, music, be so complicated?  Complicated by complications not only beyond my control but also beyond my understanding. I was engaged in the ongoing process of re-uploading every single album this morning when, on a whim while waiting for an upload, I went out to the Internet and googled the issue for the umpteenth time, and this time something made sense.  Went back to iTunes and in a total of 4 clicks – maybe 6 seconds – the problem was solved.  Sigh. 

During these dark days of struggle, I heard on my car radio two songs in sequence:  “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles, and “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys.  That got me thinking about the mystery of musical taste and music criticism, because a friend whose taste and knowledge about music I respect inexplicably prefers the Beach Boys to the Beatles.  That is, she believes the Boys are more important in the cultural and musical landscape and, of course, she just plain likes them better.  How can this be? 


Granted, the example of “Twist and Shout” is not the best basis for claiming the superiority of the Beatles – it’s an homage to the American music they admired and, as an American bluesman said about Cream, “These English boys want to play the blues so bad.  And they play it so bad.”  But let’s take an example where the Beatles were following their own star:  I’ll put “A Day in the Life” up against anything that’s come out of pop music, ever.  Just the fact that this song can be called “pop” is astonishing – the Beatles, their power, their cultural reach, and their talent, made it so, and they changed mass-market popular music forever with this kind of stuff.  Plus, I like it.  So here’s a band that wrote and made famous “Love Me Do,” which I adore, and “A Day in the Life” which ditto.  Huh?  Who WERE these people?  Whatever they were, they were that for a bright long moment, streaking across my generation’s sky.  Then, as one of them said many, many years later, “we grew up.”  So did we all, more or less, inevitably gaining and losing all kinds of things in the process. 


But we can see their music percolating through time in various permutations even unto my son’s generation.  The great jazz guitarist Bill Frissell recently released an album called “All We Are Saying” which recasts 16 Beatles songs into his own idiom.  This type of jazz isn’t my own favorite listening, but I love this collection, the familiar tunes reconfigured into a beautiful sort of cascade of sound, violin,guitars, steel guitar – yes.  Really sometimes I do think John, Paul, George and Ringo are immortal. And yes, I still love them.  It isn't "always" yet, but before too long it will be. 


And man, we’re lucky – we can call them up any time, once iTunes figures out where It put them on the hard drive. 


January 1975

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on January 27, 2013 at 3:10 AM Comments comments (86)

Diary entries from three days in January of 1975, in Boston.


All this writing is an attempt to save things that might otherwise be lost forever. Violet evening sky over Arch Street. Seen from the Red Line train, a flaming red and orange winter horizon, the Charles River velvet gray tinged with orange, an airplane tiny with blinking green and red lights just above the sunset in the blue-black sky, and the buildings of Boston all black  On the morning of the last day of 1974 I lay in bed for an hour with the cat, listening to BCN radio,utterly relaxed in the warm soft bed, rolling gently so she could come under the covers – she curled up against my stomach and purred and purred. In the morning, that was, and nothing else seemed to matter.


Changing desk calendars at work I came across a note S. had written on one of last year’s days. In the summer when it was warm and soft and I had felt light as air. A neat square of words in black ink, and I was very moved by it.  Stopped all my purposeful activity – suspended my resolve to work like an ant – and put my hand on the page. The warmth of summer and of him came into my fingers, a memory so strong that I was bemused by it as I was by his touch, his smile.


Today E. stood in front of my desk, and he was dressed in a jacket, shirt and blue jeans – dressed on the right.  They all have one, at least 99% of them do. This means life should be peaceful, full, sensual and toujours gai. It lies there in its blue jean nest, the little birdie. I almost have X-ray vision to see it behind the (rather faded) cloth, pinkish, slightly damp from the shower, slightly curled. Why, in use, does everything become complicated?


Other complications in Boston in January 1975: Admitted into the Boston Garden to buy tickets for a concert, Led Zeppelin fans rioted.  They trashed the Garden, wrecking and vandalizing the building, and caused some $20,000 damage.  The mayor of Boston subsequently refused to grant the band a license for their scheduled appearance, and the concert was cancelled.  I was not involved in any way: my personal discovery of Led Zeppelin came later, long after the peak of their success.  (In 1975 I was listening to Vivaldi and the Pointer Sisters.)  And appreciation of LZ is always somewhat distorted by the parody narrative of  Rob Reiner’s 1984 movie “This is Spinal Tap,” such that I sometimes feel an urge to giggle when hearing “Stairway to Heaven.” 


And on life’s bigger canvas, in January 1975 the Watergate masterminds John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and John Mitchell were found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury.  No giggles there, but I seem to recall feelings of deep satisfaction.


Brother Death

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on January 20, 2013 at 11:55 PM Comments comments (0)

I was recently thinking about death, our constant companion on the journey through life.  It's odd that death is personified in Western European culture - the figure with a hood and a scythe - while life remains a more amorphous concept.  "Life will find a way," says a character in "Jurassic Park," but do we picture life as a person? Mother Earth? Not really.  Life is most often thought of as a force, amorphous, multifaceted, not easy to capture in one image.  St. Francis of Assisi is said to have referred in his writings to "Brother Death," but at the site is a version of Francis' "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon" where the end-of-life entity is "Sister Death."  Is this a political correction of a 13th century original? I don't recall any feminists agitating against the traditionally sexist conception of death, but perhaps some of them did, and the Church listened.  That notorious woman-hater St. Paul doesn't always get the last word. 

In Terry Pratchett's wonderful Discworld novels, Death is a male creature with a strong commitment to duty; he is said to pride himself on his punctuality.  In these stories, when Death speaks his words are all capitalized and without quotation marks:  NATURE MUST TAKE ITS COURSE, he says in The Last Continent.  So in this world view, Death, like the rest of us, is bound to conform to Nature - he is Nature's servant.  In fact, Discworld's Death, though conscientious, sometimes seems a bit uncertain about what he should do.  Somewhere along the line he has, for example, acquired a human (more or less) daughter who tends to disrupt the previously predictable patterns of his days.  Nature - life - it seems, has plans for Death that he himself cannot foresee.  I know how he feels. 

A friend commented recently, "It's a privilege to be with someone when they die."  I had begun to feel that way, myself, several years ago, but had never expressed the thought to anyone.  After all, who doesn't feel honored to witness a birth?  One of the most treasured moments in my life was to watch a friend's son emerge into the world.  It seems logical, then, that to be present when a loved fellow human comes to that other definitive, unavoidable, and universal experience is also a kind of honor and privilege.  And what great good luck it is when the deaths of our companions and families come peacefully, in old age, after long, successful lives. 

I often find a lot to complain about in modern medical practice (friends have heard the rants ad nauseum), but I have to say now that the technologies, science, and techniques of modern medicine have provided us with miracles of comfort when it comes to dying: the morphine, the beds, the analgesic pumps, the hospice care, the social workers.  Strange that a culture which worships youth and strives mightily to deny that anyone might get old and decayed has somehow learned to manage death so skillfully.  I don't know how it happened, but I've had reason to be grateful for it. 

I'm not thinking here of the horrible deaths that so many suffer around the world and, lately, in our own society - dying of starvation, in wars, terrified, and young.  The next step in our modern management of dying needs to be working to be sure that most of the world's people leave life in old age, sent on their way in comfort and safety.  It's a goal we'll probably never achieve, but that's no reason not to move toward it when we can.  Meanwhile, in whatever manner people depart from this world, I like to think of the dead as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas did: 

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.

(From Twenty-five Poems, 1936)

By the way, the central theme of the poem comes from The Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 6, verse 9: "Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him."  So I guess Paul gets the last word, after all. 

Delights, disappointments

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on January 13, 2013 at 11:50 PM Comments comments (1)

In the 1953 movie "How to Marry a Millionaire" (Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable), a 56-year-old man (William Powell) says to the much younger woman who has just jilted him, "I'll recover... that's just one of the few advantages of age.  Disappointments become a normal part of life."

Yes.  By the time you've lived 50 or 60 years you know there will be disappointments.  At 25, you could still think, "I've been disappointed this time, but if I handle everything right, it won't ever happen again."  At about 50, you have at least begun to abandon that line of thinking.  You begin to understand that no matter what you do, the disappointments keep right on rolling across the landscape of your days, dismaying you, flattening your heart, and keeping you awake at night.  Someone doesn't do what you expected him or her to do.  Fine expensive machinery breaks down the minute you try to use it.  Rain falls all weekend at the beach.  All that, and more.  Your future holds disappointments you haven't even imagined yet. 

On the other hand, also lying in wait in the future are unforeseen delights.  Fantasies you have about good things that could happen are far outshone by the good things you never saw coming.  An affectionate voice mail from a distant offspring.  Desert mountains on a winter morning like great shattered slabs of chocolate dusted with powdered sugar and topped with whipped-cream clouds against a silvery blue sky.  In January, roaring water falling over Sabino Canyon Dam beneath bright yellow willows and cottonwoods and filling Sabino Creek below, where people play in the stream or perch, talking, on the rocks.

Each delight or disappointment shifts your world a tiny bit on its axis.  After all those emotionally rich experiences, things look slightly different. We can hope that the experiences will remain in balance, acting like a sort of cosmic gyroscope, keeping us pointed in the right direction until the journey is done.  I'm pretty sure that living either in fear of the disappointments or in expectation of the delights would be a mistake.  Philospher Eric Fromm put it this way:  "To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime." 

Going on

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on December 15, 2012 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)

It’s almost inexpressibly reassuring to spend time with young people. One knows in theory they’re there, coming along through their own lives, but the reality is richer than any theory.  This evening, feeling very sad, I went out to eat and drink with a small group of colleagues, and there they were, the 20- and 30-somethings, immersed in life, taking up the reins, foolish and wise, silly and serious, trying things out – school, sex, marriage, children, jobs – doing things I never did, in a world inexorably changing.  They're moving on, keeping the human race going toward its destiny.  The world won’t end on December 21 and the human enterprise won’t collapse when I and my generation disappear. 


For some, the world did end today, though.  One woman at our get-together tonight had in tow her 10-year-old son.  When she'd asked him if he minded hanging out for a few hours with a bunch of women, he had said no, and then asked, “are you going to talk about the shooting in Connecticut?”  We did, briefly; what can be said? Earlier, Obama had spoken for everyone. 


So there, in that school, were 20 children who will never get their turn to move along in life. That this happened at this time of  year is, of course, particularly horrible, inconceivable – how can we be consoled?  Maybe no consolation is possible.

I was glad that for a few hours, at least, I didn't hear any political rants on television or radio, this lesson or that to be learned, blah blah blah - for a while at least the pundits and the talking heads and the lobbyists seemed to be leaving a space for simple mourning.  It won't last, but the hiatus was something to be grateful for.


And I was very grateful to be where I was this evening, in the hopeful company of the future, women linked in the continuity of time and nature, talking, and a little boy, brown head bent over a cheeseburger and a game, listening, and when he walked away to meet his father a small dimple appeared on his smooth round cheek, alive and keeping life going.


Posted by rebecca.mcswain on December 8, 2012 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (48)

A friend alerted me to the death this past week of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, mother of Rupert the media mogul (although that designation seems somehow to understate the case).  The Dame was 103.  See the obituary in The New York Times, December 5; and this web site,, has some nice pictures of the lady and her gardens.  By coincidence, The New Yorker this week has a long profile of her granddaughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, who may be her father's (and grandfather's) successor in the Murdoch empire.

Elisabeth the grandmother was certainly born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, and her marriage at 19 to an Australian newspaper tycoon presumably added a lot of other valuables.  She became renowned for gardens and philanthropy, conventional occupations for her time, gender and class, but not to be despised just because (in certain circles) they are ordinary.  Within the scope of that time, Elisabeth was an achiever - what she was allowed to do, so to speak, she did spectacularly well and with an enthusiasm that, apparently, remained lively for more than 80 years. 

Elisabeth the granddaughter seems to be made from the same mold.  In keeping with social and cultural changes that have occurred over the past two generations, Elisabeth the younger has turned her formidable energies toward business.  Admittedly, like her grandmother, she has had a head start from a position of privilege, wealth, and connections.  But, again like her grandmother, she is apparently able to make the most of those opportunities. Two generations down, though on a path remarkably different from the one her grandmother walked, the second Elisabeth Murdoch is following in her grandmother's footsteps.

Maybe that's one of the secrets of a successful life: making the most of opportunities.  No matter what position you occupy, rich, poor, noble or peasant, and no matter who you are, at the core of yourself - driven entrepreneur, dreamer, intellectual, or whatever strange and wonderful combination of human traits - it is your duty, arguably, to seize whatever moments come to you, and run with them as fast and skillfully as you can.  This is not one grand gesture, but a lifetime of decisions made one after the other, some hardly noticeable, giving life your best shot. 



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