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How Old Are You?

When I started out as a journalist, which was about a zillion years ago, give or take a century, the question I always hated asking someone was how old he was.  It just seemed so personal, so prying, so impertinent.  I’d always apologize before I could even bring myself to ask the question.

As I say, that was a long time ago.  These days, I’m different.  How old are you?  I ask everybody that.  It’s terrible, shameless.  I don’t even have an excuse, since I’m usually not writing an article.  I just want to know.

“Tell me somebody’s age and where he grew up — and I already know a lot about him,” somebody told me recently.  Who?  I don’t know.  I’ve already forgotten.  Ask me tomorrow.  I’ll probably remember by then.  But it was somebody smart.

Ask someone’s age and you find out the music he grew up with, the presidency that shaped his early years, the politics, the wars, the economy, the culture, the fashions.  Where is she in her life?  Past college and early-career struggles?  At a point when, most likely, she still feels invulnerable?  Or have the casualties in his life — the illnesses and deaths, the physical slippages, the sheer randomness of the events and years that have passed — forced a certain kind of humility and fatalism?

Did you ever wear hot pants or leisure suits or — if you’re a male — a gold chain around your neck?  A pixie cut or sideburns?  Where were you when JFK was assassinated?   Can you hula hoop or do the twist?  Did you reallly believe the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking, or did you keep puffing so you could figure it out?

What do you remember and what formed you?  Where are you in your life?  That’s what I really want to know.  Maybe it’s the rudest question on earth.

But there’s a certain symmetry to it: The older you are, the freer you are to ask.  The older you are, the faster you forget.  So you ask again and again and after a while, it doesn’t even seem rude any longer.

Tell me who you are.  What could be possibly rude about wanting to know a thing like that?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Meditations on Being the Kind of Woman Who Never Inspired a Rock’n’Roll Song

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This is What a Drought Will Do to You

[blogger's note: I came across this post from a few years back and had to re-publish it. It's my impassioned ode to Tropical Storm Edouard. Droughts, you see, make us all crazy.]

Oh — Edouard!

I watched you from a distance for days. You were big. You were strong. You were masterly. I had such great expectations for what you could do for me. I saw you grow.  I liked the way you moved — slowly, but powerfully.  Coming, inexorably, in this direction.  Promising relief from this dry, parched season that’s left us all desperate and thirsty.

Can I help it if a tropical storm — rumored to be on his way toward official hurricane status — has this effect on me? 

Of course not.  I’m from West Texas.  I worship clouds, rain, winds, lighting, thunder.  People in West Texas pray for rain, even when they’re agnostics, like me.  Have you ever heard the saying about how there are no atheists in a foxhole?  Well, the same is true about a drought.  Parched, we all turn pious.

I watched the weather reports, with their estimates of 90 percent chances of rain, their flood watches, their eager warnings of an imminent deluge.  I didn’t even feel as guilty about the crackling dryness of those withered little flowers I planted since, after all, Edouard was on his way.  He’d save us from this interminable summer of triple-digit temperatures, blazing skies, and threatening wildifres.

The skies darkened a little.  Clouds passed through.  I watched the Weather Channel, surfed to the Doppler radar, agonized over your not-quite-hurricane status.  “We don’t want the people on the coast to get hit with too big a hurricane,” the TV weatherpeople announced sanctimoniously.  “We just want some rain for Central Texas.”  Well, ha.  We’re all so desperate for rain — what did we care?  Bring it on!

But, no.  You disappointed, Edouard.  You left us all bitter and dry and untrusting.  You didn’t so much hit landfall as break apart and deflate and dissipate, your little rings of clouds shrinking into feathery marks.

We wanted something big, something massive, something powerful to cool our fevered faces and nourish our brown lawns.  And all we got is you.  Face it, Edouard.  In the end, you were nothing but an impotent drip.

 

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read The Saga of the World’s Worst Houseguests

 

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Indifference and Beauty

There’s a scene in Three Days of the Condor that’s always haunted me. The world-weary hired assassin Joubert, who loves classical music and longs for the civilized ways of Europe, advises the hunted American, Joe Turner, that Turner’s time is short. As a CIA employee who knows too much, he will never be safe.

“Here is how it will happen,” Joubert says (and I’m paraphrasing, because my memory’s not that great). “It will be a beautiful spring day and you will be out walking. A car will pull up. Someone you know and trust will be in it.”

Joubert shakes his head sadly, because on that beautiful day, Turner will be betrayed and murdered because he has become an embarrassment to the agency.

But — the beautiful spring day, the leisurely walk, the lightheartedness of it all, the innocence, the betrayal, the ultimate indifference of the universe.  That’s how it can happen.

Here is how it happened to me: September 8, 1995, was a beautiful autumn afternoon, with a blazing sun and clear blue skies.  There was a breeze coming in through my office door.

The day had passed without my hearing from the doctor’s office about my recent biopsies. So I called the office myself. I was put on hold.  I waited and waited and sat and stared and drummed my fingers and felt sick to my stomach.  I hadn’t been able to work for two weeks, ever since a suspicious mammogram had come back.

The line clicked and I heard someone clear his throat. “Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you,” he said. “The biopsy was positive.”

I can’t really describe what it’s like to hear that, except to say that a bomb goes off inside you and nothing seems real and it’s as if you’re a character in a bad movie who keeps mouthing lines that don’t make sense. Because, of course, this can’t be happening. You — that strong, healthy person — can’t possibly have been betrayed by her body.

The months pass quickly, crazily. Surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation and follow-up exams come and go.

Then years pass.  Planes fly into buildings and the buildings collapse. Children you thought you’d never see live to adulthood graduate from high school and college. Wonderful, brave friends sicken and get worse and die. You get spared for no particular reason – not because you’re a better, stronger person — but simply because you have been more fortunate than others.

This isn’t a matter of logic; it just happens. Remember, the universe is ultimately, heartbreakingly indifferent.

So many years pass — 19 now — that it takes you till mid-morning to realize what day it is.

Nineteen years!  You’re old enough now to realize a gift when you get it, whether you deserve it or not.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Are You Feeling Lucky Today?

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This Year, I’m not Falling For It

It’s September! It must be fall!

I know this because you can’t raise an eyebrow right now without hearing about football games or school starting or the latest fall fashions. September’s on the calendar, in the newscasts, planted firmly in the zeitgeist.

Thinking about it — this new, exciting season! — I get a little shiver. Isn’t that a nip in the air I just felt? No, it’s just the air-conditioning going full throttle.

You see, September is a highly confusing month if you live where I do, in the middle of Texas. September promises so much, but it delivers hot air.

At the end of the heinous, hellhole summer of 2000, if my fried brain cells recall correctly, September served up an endless furnace of triple-digit heat day after relentless day — 113, 115, 110, and so on. I’m pretty sure those were Fahrenheit temperatures, but come on, who knows and what difference does it make?

The triple digits were excruciating, but really, it was September itself that was the coup de grace. We expected better! We had been misled — by the calendar, the national media, the endless hype of autumn. Year after year, we learned the same bitter lesson that no, we weren’t all in it together.

You were basking in the gently slanted sunlight and breathing in the crisp, cool air; we were blinded by the merciless sun and shake-baking in the inferno. You were getting out your cashmere and longer sleeves and darker colors; we were staring disgustedly at our limp, sweat-soaked shorts and T-shirts (which, frankly, should have been incinerated and/or fumigated in July), wondering if we could bear to wear them again.

But, it’s always been like this. I should have learned. But, oh, no.

Growing up in West Texas, I was the overly bookish sort of kid who got her ideas about life and seasons at the library. I’d bring home piles of books that assured me that autumns were glorious, teeming with brisk days and cold nights that turned the trees fiery red and orange and amber. You could rake leaves and jump in them, you could shiver by the fireplace till it warmed you.

Sometimes, I looked up and out the window, sometimes I even opened the cranky venetian blinds. It was always a big mistake. I was usually eyeball-to-eyeball with whatever spindly tree had been planted close to our house. The tree was always staked to the ground so it wouldn’t blow away in the fierce winds.

(The wind — oh, the wind! It blew every season, spreading red dust under the doors and windows, smacking you in the face when you went outside and hitting you so hard it almost seemed personal. The wind, I should tell you, is why so many Texas women layer blast half a can of hair spray on their hair every morning; what other choice was there if you wanted a perky bouffant?)

But, anyway, nothing said fall like the West Texas wind, even though the wind also said winter, spring, and summer. And you know the rumor about leaves turning color? Well, ha. That’s all I have to say. Ha. The only trees that could make it in West Texas were mesquites — gnarled and low-lying and tenacious, which is kind of similar to West Texans themselves; that land molds you if you’re going to survive.

Yes, you're right. This is not beautiful.

Mesquites were unbeautiful, but by God, they were ours. I was 40 before I ever heard the term trash tree applied to mesquites. It shocked me so much, I almost took to my bed. I had spent my youth in the company of those maligned trees, marveling at their greenness, their existence, how they broke up the flat landscape and provided visual interest. Calling them trash trees was a sacrilege.

But, you know, mesquites just didn’t deliver when it came to foliage. I had to move to Central Texas to find leaves that turned lovely colors.

Not that they turn in September. Nope. We have to wait a couple of months. We do have September in Texas, but we call it November. It’s like I said: The land molds you if you want to survive.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read The Day the Possum Escaped From the Zoo

 

 

 

 

their seasons are not our seasons

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My New Squeeze

 

Sometimes I wonder about my own sex. How can women be so fickle?

They abandon, they discard, they switch — like it’s no big deal, like the words commitment and loyalty meant nothing.  I always shake my head when I meet them or read about them. Don’t they know how significant their relationships with their purses are? I guess not.

I’m the old-fashioned type, faithful as a dog. When it comes to purses, I am a serial monogamist.

I buy a new purse once every several years. Usually, I spend too much, which cements the relationship immediately. I have to recall what Pat, my late mentor, said about amortization: The longer and more frequently you wear or use something, the greater bargain it becomes.

Or something like that. Every time Pat explained it to me, I was in some kind of shame spiral about a recent purchase and couldn’t concentrate too well. But she always explained her amortization theory with so much conviction and verve it was like being slapped in the face. You know, the female friendship version of tough love. It hurt, but it worked.

I miss Pat and I miss her tough love. But sometimes I can still hear her talking to me. Stop whining and start amortizing.

My current love object/purse is a well-worn black Tod. My Tod and I have been together through droughts and downpours, the better part of a two-term presidency, West Texas and the Amalfi coast, a cool housing market and a market so hot it blisters your digits.

We have bonded completely. I hardly recognize my arm without my Tod on it. But we are having problems together. We are both looking a little shopworn and shabby.

Don’t get me wrong: My Tod is still a very attractive purse with many years of service ahead of him. It’s not his fault; it’s mine.  I have changed — or at least part of me has. My damned shoulder is giving out, carrying this heavy purse around all the time, with its interior load of everything I might need if I were ditched on a desert island for all of eternity.

My shoulder slants, it aches, it’s screaming for me to stop. (Don’t tell me to change shoulders.  I’m talking about my good shoulder. I’d have to be hospitalized if I carried it on my right shoulder a/k/a the bad one.)  I am now officially lopsided, sloping to the left both physically and politically. I would do a lot for my purse, my faithful companion of so many years, but it’s not like I’m a sherpa or something. Enough!

So, with the help of a sharp, energetic saleswoman at the Washington, D.C. Babette branch, I found my new squeeze.  Smaller and lighter and — yes — younger.  This new purse, a Lupo, understands me and my needs.  It won’t slow me down.

photo 4

Carefully, deliberately, I transfer items from my old, trusty Tod to my new Lupo.  This time, I tell myself, I will only carry necessities.  I will lighten my load.  I won’t make the same old mistakes.  I’ll make new, different, better mistakes.

The first 24 hours pass lightly and blissfully.  But when I go out, I realize I need to expand my definition of “necessities” to include my compact.  And a pen.  And a small writing tablet.

“I’ll bet,” my husband said, quite unhelpfully, “that your new purse is going to end up weighing as much as your old one.  Wouldn’t that be funny?”

No, that would not be funny.  Not at all.  When you’re in a new relationship, you never need to be reminded that you carry your own baggage no matter who you’re with.

Besides, I remind myself, what do men know about purses?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read So You Think Your Friends Are Tough? Try Mine

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