More or Less True Stories

Living the Life Befuddled

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life August 11, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 11:37 pm

Ah! Sweet mystery of life
At last I’ve found thee
Ah! I know at last the secret of it all!

Lyrics by Dick Scanlan

Murder mysteries are the morality plays of modern life. Instead of saints and sinners, you have cops and killers. Unless the cop is the killer, in which case you have an Everyman, or just as frequently, an Everywoman, to make sure justice prevails. Just like in real life.

That murder mysteries are strangely comforting is a conundrum I’ve given a lot of thought, just as I’ve given a lot of thought to using “conundrum” in a sentence. But it makes sense, after you have given it more thought than it probably deserves. The message in mysteries is 1) you just can’t go around killing people, and 2) things come out, if not all right, then just. That’s the comforting part, because in real life, well, it doesn’t. Not all the time.

The man of the place and I are addicted to mysteries. We bond every night by sitting in close proximity, watching Poirot, Morse, Foyle, Frost and countless others nobody has heard of but we love nonetheless. We slam through English television mysteries like they’re pints of luke-warm ale on a cold summer day, of which there are a lot in English mysteries, both pints and cold summer days, but not as many as in real life.

As many series as we go through, still more appear, in a sort of loaves and fishes way. God bless the British.

We’ve learned important life lessons from mysteries. Here is our own warped wisdom gained through not having real hobbies:

  • Don’t trust the ones who smile. Nobody can be that happy with a murderer on the loose.
  • Don’t live in small English villages, otherwise known as “Murder Zones.”
  • If there are minorities involved, it’s the white guy who did it.
  • White guys are creepy, especially the ones who smile.
  • Don’t get too attached to the really nice people. Two out of three times, the nice people did it, but they usually have a really, really good reason for offing someone. As if the rest of us didn’t.
  • Don’t trust inter-agency cooperation: for “outside law enforcement” read “buffoon, corrupt cop, obstructionist, and/or murderer.”
  • Nine out of ten people in wheelchairs don’t really need them, but use them as a cunning ruse to sneak around at night, getting revenge for being put in a wheelchair.
  • Nine out of ten people in wheelchairs forget to wipe off their dirty shoes.
  • Never tell the killer what you know, hoping he or she will “do the right thing.” You’ll be knocking on those pearly gates before you can say “bad idea.”
  • Never tell a cop you’ll give him an crucial bit of information tomorrow. Don’t make an appointment, for gosh sakes: you might as well wear a sign reading, “Slay me!” Instead of meeting that cop, again with the pearly gates.

The man of the house and I enjoy our time together. Speculating about who gets it next adds an element of surprise to our marriage. Musing on clues makes us appreciate the other’s intellect. Unveiling criminals adds a certain spice.

Add to that something that happens so seldom in a long marriage: now and then, we both get to be right at the same time.


Fritter March 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 10:16 pm
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Fifth grade is the fifty states. The boy chose Iowa, the state people forget when challenging each other to name all the states from memory. Iowa, sweetheart? Now, the “Fifty States Luncheon” loomed. Try googling “cuisine of Iowa” and see where it gets you.

The boy, in typical family fashion, meandered through Iowan food facts: acreage, pounds of fertilizer the state’s farmers use, acreage for silage, number of hogs, on and on and on. But the websites would not admit to a quintessential Iowan food.

Deciding that corn might be a cheaper alternative than pork for feeding the unwashed fifth grade masses, we tried again. When “corn fritters” popped up, we grabbed it, unaware of the gooey challenge that was fritter.

Deep-fat frying isn’t my thing, though I have a fine appreciation of the products of deep-fat frying. I suspected the oil wasn’t going to be hot enough, because the thought of boiling oil created a deeply atavistic fear in me that burning pain would be part of this cooking project. It made me sidle up to the stove top with a timidity usually reserved for approaching cobras or hormonal teenagers.

The boy stirred up the batter, which looked too runny to form any sort of mass. My dear child lost interest as soon as the batter swallowed a spoon or two and its resemblance to quicksand lost its novelty. He wandered from the room, out of harm’s way, leaving me all alone, the little twit, with the damn fritters.

The fritter batter struggled harder than quicksand would have, exerting itself more like an intelligent alien goo fighting for its life. I’d call it a draw: me covered in pin point oil burns and coated in corn batter, the fritters laying like dead things with a pall of paper towels soaking up the worst excesses of their oily demise. The damage done to them meant each fritter’s color ranged from the palest Iowan corn to the black of Hell’s deeper reaches. Not a pretty or dignified end for Iowa’s best.

But since the fritters involved fat, carbohydrate, and liberal splashes of syrup, the fifth grade gobbled them up. Iowa can rest assured that fifth grade Californians have the highest regard for its cuisine.

(The boy herein referred to is now sixteen. His way of doing things has not changed. I still fall for it.)


The Bad Mother Club January 10, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 5:20 pm

Some days, I have one life-saving thought in my head: I may be incompetent, but, by God, I’m not virtuous.

I was once howling over the short biography of a woman who had recently published something or other. I’m still not sure if I was howling in pain, derision, disbelief, jealousy or I-could-kill-her-for-ruining-it-for-the-rest-of-us. The bio ran something like this: “Agatha, besides writing fiction and essays, teaches at Wholesome Community College, publishes a quarterly literary magazine, runs a design business from her home, home schools her two daughters, and is a gourmet cook, soon to publish a cook book for organic foods.”

I kid you not.

And she’s not the only one. There seems to be a competition among some women to provide a resumé justifying their existence.

I, on the other hand, feel that nothing could possibly justify my existence. Wait, that’s not quite what I meant.

I, on the other hand, feel I don’t have to justify my existence, as feckless as it is. There, that’s better.

Or maybe, no matter what I do or don’t do, I still exist and that’s justification enough.

Besides, I would have slit my own throat if I’d felt I had to home school my children. Or they would have done it for me.

A friend of mine has formed a loose confederation of women she calls “The Bad Mother Club.” It has no meetings, no rules, no standards for membership, but you’ll know when you’ve paid your dues. When you come up against some form of establishment –- educational, medical, legal, resumé mothers –- that shows scorn for you because Parenting magazine would get the heeby-jeebies just thinking about you and your children, you’re ready for “The Bad Mother Club.”

My friend invited me to be in it when the family was going through a bad patch, and I was feeling beleaguered. She described the advantages of membership: you’re free to stop trying so hard, because you’re a bad mother anyway; you’re free to enjoy what’s good about your children, because you can’t do for them what it will take their own growing up to accomplish; and you’re free to go to dinner with your family on a Wednesday night and say, “Eh, well, maybe homework will get done,” because you can’t please everyone, or anyone, so you might as well please yourself.

The Bad Mother Club” is liberating.

I think most people could examine their lives and see if some equivalent of “The Bad Mother Club” would help them. You know, those areas of your life about which you feel a vague, constant guilt. How about “The-phone-works-both-ways-Mom Bad Children Association” or “The I’d-do-the-paperwork-if-I-wasn’t-doing-actual-work Bad Employee Union” or its sister organization “I’d-do-the-actual-work-if-etc. Union.”

My own personal organizations are as follows: “The Lazy Writer Confederation,” “The Good-God-It’s-Valentine’s-Day Thoughtless Wives Club” and “The Disorganized Sunday School Teacher Society.”

So, here, breath a sigh of relief and resignation. In spite of everything our culture tells us, our lives are not lived by template, with us squeezed into the blanks of a form listing our accomplishments. Life by resumé is a life bound for failure, because we can’t list all the unexpected, messy, horrible, glorious things we do and we are every day. Perfection is the enemy of the good. Something, somewhere has to give, and it’s okay.

Agatha Resumé, please take the day off. Home school your girls on the wonders of chocolate ice cream straight from the carton, read a trashy novel, say “Screw it all” and lay under a tree. Join “The Bad Mother Club” even for a day. Look in the mirror, your hair uncombed, and smile into your own face.

And to the charter member of “The Bad Mother Club”: thank you, my friend. Freeing ourselves from impossible expectations could be the best thing we ever do for our children.


Boughed Down December 23, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 2:23 am

The boy calls it “the scanky tree.” I’d tell him not to talk like that, especially since neither of us is quite sure of the full implications of the word “scanky,” except that this year’s Christmas tree is indeed scanky.

Along with scanty and sparse. Or measly and meager. Only in “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” have I seen such a sad little tree.

I spent an hour yesterday when I really didn’t have time — I had, after all, not done the crossword puzzle in the newspaper yet — trying to mold it into the harbinger of festivity that a Christmas tree should be. It sort of worked, though it took a new string of lights and garden clippers to do it. And a wall to hide the worst excesses of the bear that I presume gnawed away one side.

Its spindly little branches only support the most ethereal of ornaments. Even then, a glassine rose weighing, say, a eighth of an ounce, tired its branch out and left it drooping with fatigue. The resin cowboy Santa made our little fir positively suicidal.

We bought it in the service of a good cause, at least. Forestry graduate students were trying to lessen the depredations of the California state government by selling trees. It was obvious that they followed good forestry practice by taking the weak and diseased.

And when I say “we” bought the tree, I mean the man of the place. I take no credit for the good impulse to support higher education and no responsibility for the resulting weed in the family room. Good cause or not, the unanimous vote called for him to never, ever buy a tree on his own again.

It’s not the first time we’ve had a, let us say, less than traditional tree. One year, when the girl was about two, we left tree buying so long that we learned that all Christmas tree lots are closed by 3 pm Christmas Eve. Luckily, there are woods on our property. Unluckily, this being coastal California, we had our choice of oak, bay or madrone trees. We chose a whippy little bay sapling, which held about a half-dozen ornaments. Like our other meager little tree, it smelled good, though it was more the smell of a good stew than the smell of Christmastime. We have a picture of the girl spread-eagled underneath it, flattened with the effort of hauling it up the hill for her father.

Our sorry little tree has taught us a lot, of course, as such things do at Christmas time. We learned not to laugh too loudly at it in my husband’s presence, tact being a valued Christmas virtue, expressed sometimes with straight faces and sometimes in phrases like “pass the port wine jello.”

We learned good garden shears are worth their weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh, and brightly-colored lights cover a multitude of sins.

We learned that cats aren’t tree snobs, as long as they have ornaments to pull off and bat around.

We learned whatever promotes Christmas merriment is worth a lowering of esthetic values, at least temporarily.

We learned that boxes and bows lend a glow to anything they might be tucked underneath.

Those of you with lush forest nobility in your living rooms, congratulations. We hope to join your ranks another year. In the meantime, we’ll have ourselves a merry little Christmas tree and let our hearts be light.


Port Wine Jello December 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 2:38 am
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We circled the truth, hardly daring to admit it even to ourselves, until it came out in a brother and sister moment of truth in our late twenties: we loathed Grandmother’s port wine jello.

Grandmother’s port wine jello was a staple of every holiday meal, passed down from her mother before her. In fact, it was the only part of any holiday meal she made herself. Though she boasted that she had won prizes in two recipe contests (not with port wine jello), the nitty-gritty of holiday cooking was not for her. She left that to her daughter-in-law, my mother, and had no territorial feeling whatsoever for her kitchen.

We were dutiful children, and it really wasn’t that bad for the first few bites. It was pretty, made in individual-size molds, with a deep burgundy color from the all-important port. Celery and cherries floated in it like green and scarlet astronauts. A dollop of mayonnaise topped it off. And really, I repeat, the first bite or two wasn’t that bad. After that, it became a matter of how much you could squish down on your plate to make it look like you’d eaten more, or how casual you could be as you lay your napkin on top of it.

But, like arsenic, port wine jello has an accumulated toxicity. We had all reached our limit by our eleventh birthdays.

In particular my brother Chris had to guard the secret of our loathing, because my grandmother was convinced that he did not just like port wine jello, but downright adored it. As we drove to visit her one day, I gathered my nerve to ask him, “Do you really like the port wine jello?” My feelings for him could have been altered forever if he said yes.

But he responded with a blunt, “No.” He only gritted his teeth a little.

We tried to analyze the origin of Grandmother’s delusion, but he couldn’t recall any particular time he had made the mistake of raving about it. If you could rave about the port wine jello, he said, you were probably just raving in general.

We weren’t in her house ten minutes before Grandmother mentioned Chris’s abiding passion for port wine jello and her regret that she had none to give him. We made the mistake of glancing at each other, but self-control, or at least self-preservation, is a strong trait in our family, and we were not rude or disowned.

When my grandmother died at the age of ninety-eight –- a fascinating study would be the preservative qualities of port wine jello –- my mother inherited all of her recipes, prize-winning and otherwise. I would include the recipe here, but she claims to have “lost” it.

So when my family gathers around the holiday table, and clasps hands to give thanks for life and home and each other, we are port wine jello-less. We do not mention this in our prayers, although fervent alleluias can be read in our eyes. As with many families, unity comes in the form of a common enemy.

I’ll let you know if we find the recipe.




Pig December 11, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 11:32 pm

“What’s a legacy?” my nine-year-old son asked the day before Thanksgiving.

I rubbed my hands together and cackled, “Wah-ha-ha! You’ll find out this weekend, my pretty.”

My family has many legacies, most of them rich stories of our predecessors, an urge to write things down, and a goofiness that crosses generational lines. The hope I had for this holiday season was that one of the family skeletons — ahem, excuse me –- legacies would be passed on to the next generation.

I’ll admit my generation has been remiss. When I threw the word “Pig” out in the midst of the collected cousins,not a single one, not even the fifteen-year-old, had a glimmer of the deep emotional experience ahead.

The elder generation explained that Pig was like the card game Spoons, except we have only enough cards for each person to have a set of four and we pass to each other in a deliberate way, not full speed, the better to build suspense. We also explained that non-pigs couldn’t talk to people with pig or they were out.

They didn’t believe it when the first one of us told them about the blood. However, by the time their beloved grandmother, Ma, mentioned that the oriental carpet was a good color to disguise the spillage, they had begun to shoot nervous glances at each other.

We proceeded. About eight of us played with typical, silent Pig intensity. When the first spoon was snuck from the pile in the middle, it caught them flat-footed. But then, proper Pig spirit began to infuse the circle and the innocents forged ahead, jittery but game.

They began to understand the deep tribal bonding of Pig when my daughter showed first blood with a turned-back fingernail, and my mother and I carried her off, triumphant, to apply band-aids and kissies. When 5’3” Aunt Sally wrested the spoon away from 6’2” Uncle David as he wedged her to the floor with his shoulder, they understood the fiery strength of the family’s women. When Aunt Barbara, ejected in two games for speaking to the pig, kicked her feet in the air on the sidelines, screeching “The little one got it, the little one got it,” they recognized her precarious mental balance and the fact she’s a hopeless blabbermouth. Non-pigs found the fortitude to ignore the blandishments of pigs offering either pie or provoking insults.

So much of a legacy to carry our beloved children through life: joy in a battle well-fought, admiration for strong women, tolerance for the slightly unhinged, and resistance against impertinence and unnecessary pie. To quote Vin Scully, who must have been a Pig player himself, “When you get to Heaven, God won’t count your money or awards or your degrees. He’ll count your scars.”

Carry on, piglets.







Saint Mrs. Price March 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Barbara Coles @ 1:04 am
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Mrs. Price, my piano teacher, did the best she could, but she was contending with a child who told a friend, later in life, “Sure, we could knits scarves, but, really, bamboo shoots under my fingernails would be more fun for me.”

Fine motor skills were never my strength, but either my mother felt she had missed something by not learning to play the piano herself, or, in spite of her solid good sense, had been reading some sixties version of “What Every Kindergartener Should Know.”

I was a good child, I liked music. I have a vague memory of saying the good sixties child version of “Why the hell not?” to her when she brought up piano lessons. I may have shrugged my shoulders as well. Yeah, Mom, up for anything. I was seven. What did I know? Up to this point my mother had been trustworthy. And how hard could it be, right?

Mrs. Price played the organ at our church and was one of maybe two piano teachers in our small town. She was short and comfortably round and had a certain “je ne sais quoi” that was probably the result of simple good grooming, but looked to me at the time as more sophistication than I was used to. She wore her gray hair in a lovely cinnamon bun knot high at the back of her head, soft and intriguing, Parisian even, with bangs of short curls framing her face. She had a round face made sweet and lively by her smile. She was perhaps in her late fifties, an in-between age, not one of the ancient ladies in fur coats that occupied the fourth row, right side, at church, or one of the mothers in their thirties. She, unlike those two groups, seemed to burst with a convivial energy.

I entered Mrs. Price’s house for my first lesson the second week of second grade. Like Mrs. Price, her house was small, warm and elegant. Such a house was new in my experience. Mrs. Price’s living room carpet was not graced with the streak of red crayon that was an intractable feature of my mother’s interior decoration for ten years. I was a senior in high school before Mom thought it might be safe to replace a few tired things without imminent danger of Kool-aid spills making it all for naught.

In Mrs. Price’s bungalow, I saw that a house could exist without two to four children underfoot, without model airplane decals on the bathroom cabinets, without G.I. Joes hanging from the bottle brush plants in tortured attitudes, and without diminutive plastic horses that caused fathers to curse (under their breaths, of course) when stepped on barefoot at night.

Instead, she had wooden floors with a patterned carpet, a glass-enclosed sun room off the living room (where I would later wait with her other students before approaching the grand piano to screw up my recital piece), delicate china figurines, a simple yet stylish marble fireplace, and Mr. Price. He was a small, bent man who was never seen at church, who toddled in perhaps once a year during my lesson, but who nevertheless added a tone. Mrs. Price’s house was calm, and smelled nice.

I suppose I could blame my lack of musical progress on the fact that, unlike Mrs. Price’s cozy cottage, my house held no expectant hush, waiting for music to start. My house didn’t ask for music. My house asked only for the screeching to go outside.

Unfortunately for me, in terms of learning to read music, I had a good ear. When Mrs. Price introduced a new song, she would play it for me. So in general, I would know how it was supposed to sound, and for the ensuing four years, notes on the staff meant not “play this exact note,” but “here’s a vague clue about where you put your fingers,” and “not quite; try again.” After I began to sing four-part, a capella music with some dedication at age eighteen, it was still about fifteen years before I looked at a score and realized “reading music” was actual reading. Yes, that exact note on the score is this precise sound released into the world, whether by your voice or an instrument. You could hear it in your head if you learned to read well enough, just like you could hear words when you read. I felt both liberated by this insight and stupid for the lengthy delay in learning it.

Poor Mrs. Price. She must have been bored out of her chignon-covered skull. I think I was in the first red John Thompson piano primer for a year or longer, and her attempts to teach me theory –- well, the least said, the better.

And I hated the music. I wanted to play the songs I heard on the radio, not the ditties that all sounded like “Country Garden.” Dee-DEE-dee-dee-dee dah-dee-dah-dee-dah. Over and over again.

Over and over again, of course, because it took me four times longer to learn them than it should have. And I only learned them, even in my minimalist fashion, because my mother had greater strength of will than I did and made me practice.

How did this go on for four years, you ask? You got me. I don’t remember a single enjoyable moment playing the piano until about year three and a half, when Mrs. Price, possibly with tears in her eyes, said I was “over the hump.”

Yet somehow I agreed to another year of lessons three separate times.

Maybe that’s why I got the pony I’d been asking for since the moment I could first breathe — to free my mother of the duty of asking.

You have to choose,” she said.

You won’t have time for both,” she said.

Gee, pony or piano? That was a tough one.

It wasn’t a total waste. Now and then, I still play, dumbed-down classical pieces and simple songs from the nineteenth century like “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” and “All Through the Night.” I’ll practice enough to sing to my playing, enjoy it for a few weeks, and stop.

Besides, I got to sit next to Mrs. Price every week for four years. It wasn’t what my mother was paying for, but it was good value for money.