Author Archives for Beth Allen

The Art of Stopping

Nothing’s taught me more about stopping than needlework, and particularly my new love — quilting.

When I look at projects I’ve finished, I can tell my mood-of-the-day by looking at the stitching. When I’m upset or tense, my grip the needle is too tight. My crochet needle will squeak because the yarn is choking the shaft. My needlepoint stitches look like uneven hillocks of wild grass, instead of a well-tended golf lawn.

When the world gets out of control, I try to control my artwork by muscling it into submission, literally, with both hands.

Art as Foe

COVID-19 brought out my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer girl. The desire to prove I could bake, sew, grow things, and raise poultry seized my brain. So, I decided to make friends with the sewing machine gathering dust in my spare bedroom/work-from-home-office. [Note: My condo homeowners association won’t allow chicken-raising so I bought a pair of parakeets. Which of course I absolutely will not consume, but they’re doing very well, thank you.]

I’ve always wanted to say I could quilt, and believe me, I had plenty of free time after work to learn while social distancing. I found a couple great video series that reminded me what a wonderful heritage quilting has in this country. My pinterest board of quilt blocks included styles from historical Amish and Black traditions.

It didn’t help I was stitching face masks, which were unobtainable if you remember at the start of coronavirus craziness. The phrase “first line of defense” was top of my brain. The only masks I had were a few hardware store dust masks. I was frantic.

It got so intense, I even bought an athletic headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes when I sewed.

Kinder, Gentler Workflow

Once I started on the quilt — which was three months ago — I had a stern talk with myself. Which I knew from experience was God saying, let me help you with this.

Slow down, Beth. Don’t force this. Let this quilt emerge. Take time to have fun.

–Voice of God

So I cut and pieced and sewed. I ripped a few seams out but in the end, decided to give myself a lot of leeway. Because I realized nine times out of 10, no one who ever looked at it would see the mistakes.

I would know they were there. But I could also see the learning progression as seams got straighter, as stitches were more even, as I learned how to press seams between appointments with the machine. I had a relationship and a building story with each quadrant of the quilt.

Needlework as Memory Keeper

Edge of quilt showing binding seam, on a fabric cutting board with a rotary cutter
Yeah, that seam skates around a bit.

As I enter the homestretch with this quilt — binding the edges — I found myself back in battle mode. I nearly ripped out the first edge I did last night. But instead I put it down, turned off the machine, and retired to the back porch to listen to a podcast.

This morning I looked again, and couldn’t figure out why I thought it was bad. Sure my needle slipped out of line a few times. But this morning, with better light, I saw I had mistakenly put the wrong color bobbin thread into the machine. So I was sewing with two different colors. But…whoa…that meant I had a dark color on the bottom, on the dark backing, and a light color on top, where I’m stitching on white.

By stopping, by waiting a day I stumbled on useful sewing technique.

So now I will have a quilt, which is destined to be a wall hanging because I kept it small. I didn’t want to put a lot of money in fabric if I really screwed it up, at the time I planned the piece. I will hand-sew a label on the back and call it my “COVID quilt.”

I’ll remember how imperfections taught me something. I will remember how a scourge of the pandemic helped me listen to God.

Take it slow

I’ll say this about COVID-19: I’m re-learning how to take it slow.

The beginnings of work-from-home in March were all at lightening speed. Suddenly I had to figure out where to get toilet paper, how to set up a functional home office, how to use both Zoom and Google Meet. It felt like I was navigating unfamiliar ground every ten minutes.

About a week into the new normal, I realized I was accessing coping mechanisms deep in my character that I’d developed when living in Bolivia, in the late 1990s.

I was a stranger in a strange land there, albeit with many friends as guides. Still, the onslaught of new experiences felt like riding a tidal wave. And one of the things I learned early on was, how to wait in a world where the unexpected slowed things down.

A new landscape

I learned in my South American sojourn to bring a book anywhere, because I may have to sit in line forever (this was in the pre-smart phone world). It’s not the same as multi-tasking; it’s completely exchanging one activity for another, and being content with the exchange. It’s contentment with where you are for the moment.

I became adept at people watching. That is, taking joy in observing people, immersing myself in the stories unfolding before my eyes.

It made me happy to walk farther than normal to buy green beans from the same green bean lady at the market. I absorbed the sights and sounds of my neighborhood along the way, delighting in small changes.

There were many times where an unexpected wait brought conversations with beloved friends that changed my view of life. I have a whole catalog of road closure stories, where we had to wait or detour, that enriched my being immeasurably.


Of course, I wasn’t always content with waiting. Sometimes it enraged me that others devalued my time. (That’s from my point of view. From their view, usually they had no control over my wait time.) And I can’t honestly say I carried my learned contentment with waiting, to my home culture again. In actuality I got even angrier with waiting in the US, because I had an expectation that all would be hunky-dory when I got back home.

That sense of injustice, “this isn’t right, I shouldn’t have to wait” has arisen again. The past few weeks have made it crystal clear that I’m still, at base, an impatient person.

But this week, it hit me I could change that.

I’d connected with the reality early in lockdown that I might have some coping skills from Bolivia I could transfer to this current life. Dealing with shortages, having to hunt for what I needed from store to store (when I just had to have that expat comfort food or item), constantly evaluating whether a situation was safe….all part of that former life.

And, I realized I could reclaim the situational contentment I’d learned. I think it started last weekend, when I spent a very long time simply sitting on my back patio and watching my parakeets play together. It made my heart very content. And I marked that moment of realization with a mental Ebenezer. If I’m capable of this now, in the midst of upheaval, certainly I can make a habit of contentment with whatever is in front of me.

The joy of waiting

I’m working on what I’m now calling my “COVID cardigan,” a crocheted cotton sweater I started in February. I just couldn’t find the style or color I wanted on the clothing store racks, as I tried to construct my yearly Easter outfit.

It’s nearly finished, after I ripped it out completely and started over three times. That’s a ripping-out record for me, usually I just barrel through. But when I tried it on for the first time a few days ago, there was a joy in realizing I’d made the right decision. It’s going to fit, because I ripped it apart and resized it.

I stayed up way too late on a work night last Wednesday, finishing a sleeve. Seeing I’d worked until nearly midnight while binge-watching the PBS documentary Asian Americans, I thought, this is ridiculous. When I work like that, too many hours, my thread tension becomes deadly tight. It got so tight the needle was squeaking. Crocheters worldwide know that sound, when you’re fighting with your needle and it protests. My stitches become ragged and uneven. That means the sleeve wouldn’t marry up with the shoulder when I tried to join them.

Slow down, Allen, I told myself. You’ve missed Easter already.

I did put the sweater away that night, with the sleeve unfinished, then ripped out the anxiety-laden stitching Thursday night. And started stitching again. The sleeve now matches up well with the armhole.

My next step is putting a border on the sweater and after working a few feet of border, I decided I didn’t like stitching the pattern suggested. So I’m going to get a cup of coffee or two, and look through some vintage border patterns books as a replacement. Some of my border books were gifts from by college roommate’s grandmother, so that’s a nice trip down memory lane.

I’m looking forward to the saunter and to some more profitable waiting.

Gray hair rant

Really, I’m not hung upon hair, despite previous posts about it.. But I just have to say something about people with gray hair and how they’re treated in the world.

Gray hair does not mean automatically that my knees, elbows, and hips are non-functional.

Gray hair does not mean I hate you because you’re under 30.

Gray hair does not mean I’ve never heard of Netflix.

Gray hair does not mean I’ve never eaten avocado toast.

I could go on. But what I really mean is, before you put me in a box, please take a moment to actually look at me. I have very few wrinkles. I walk so fast I regularly body-check people in the hallway. I experiment with literature and the arts where a bunch of hipsters show up.

My local Target seems to be a focal point for my ranting. The clerks there regularly assume I cannot work the credit card reader or the self-check. Hint: If I’m in the self-check line to start with, do you think perhaps I am able negotiate it successfully? Or am I wanting to subject myself to abject failure by standing in a line where I can’t be successful?

I once lit into the attendant at the self-checkout who literally took my credit card out of my hand and inserted it into the card reader. “Do you know how to code HTML?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I do. It’s just gray hair. I’m not brain dead. I don’t hate technology. I learned desktop computing on one of the first Apples. I can code in several computer languages. I ran a web site at one point.”

Hold on there, Bessie

So after that rant in Target, I saw the clerk again, the one who always makes sure everyone handles the self-check well.

I watched as I waited my turn. And I thought, she’s not profiling people for their appearance. It’s like she had a checklist for possible problems and just leapt into action when someone’s actions fit a profile. She said the same exact thing with the same exact expression to every customer. “Do you need help?”

I must have fumbled with my card without realizing it, the day she grabbed it out of my hand. And I didn’t hear her say “Do you need help?”

In fact as I actually looked at her and interacted with her, I thought, hmmm, she may actually be one of those people who struggles with the inability to read emotions well. To the point that, she is probably classified a person living with a disability, trying to make a living. In fact Target’s put her here because she’ll react in a predictable way, and just get the job done. And keep the line moving. And not react to rants like mine.

I wasn’t taking time to look at her, either. I just reacted to what I, well, didn’t see.

I always have trouble ending blogs. For this one, just, take time to see.

Why Creativity’s Better Now

I just hit the iTunes back button on Kashmir.

With that as your soundtrack, come with me down a creativity rabbit hole that’s only possible after five-plus decades of journeying.

Tonight I watched a Netflix documentary about legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. That led to dialing into Johnson’s work while I made dinner.

Which led me to some classic rock, which owes its life to guys like Robert Johnson. Which led me to Led Zeppelin and Kashmir, so I could look for Robert Johnson in their guitar and vocals. Which now that I’m a grown up, Kashmir is a really complex effort and much more interesting than most of what passes for today’s pop music (Christian or secular).

Hail the Treasure Trove

I can leapfrog creatively between decades and genres because of what I’ve seen, heard, known, and experienced throughout my whole life. There’s a pool of memories in my mental Rolodex to connect into a new, unforeseen whole.

We live in a world that celebrates the new and the entrepreneurial. That’s not bad. The entrepreneur is going to find a way cut Phoenix’s smog, with a cleaner way to transport us from point A to point B. The entrepreneur is going to cure cancer and the common cold.

I think the world needs both the entrepreneur with the blue-ocean brain, with synapses unsullied by lock-step problem solving, and the treasure trove brain.

I’m only half-baked

It can feel like those of us at mid-life are as done as a bubbled-over strawberry-rhubarb pie. We’ve lived a life full of sweet and sour and somewhere the innards ran over and charred the side of the pan, not to mention the bottom of the oven. What a mess.

But I’m really only half-baked. (OK, maybe three–fifths if I do the math right on average human lifespans.) I recently finished Anthony McCarten’s The Pope, a fascinating comparison/contrast of the path to the papacy of both Benedict and Francis. When Pope Francis was my exact age, he was exiled from Buenos Aires to a corner of rural Argentina in a leadership shakeup. I believe there was a line in the narrative about him sweeping floors at the end of the day at his new gig. In his late 50s. Somehow he persevered and ended up Pope.

If I go back to the beginning, I can remind myself that nothing is permanent. Even the biggest setbacks, the ones that left me discouraged and doing something menial, didn’t destroy me. Instead, the swerves from the life I imagined became building blocks I use to construct the life in front of me.

Sometimes that means I mentor someone younger, sometimes it’s walking with a friend my own age going through something I encountered years ago. And sometimes that’s just a piece of fun, like envisioning how I could pull up some classic rock and hear bits of the Mississippi Delta in the chord patterns.

Next up? I think I’ll see if speaking Spanish helps me understand Italian opera.

Don Juan, a hedge, and slowing down

I came home from an overseas trip, to find a back hedge that looked like a monster overtaking my back patio.  Scraggly two-foot branches whipped back and forth even in the gentlest breeze, as if taunting me to hack them off.

Normally I hire a guy named Manny to clip the hedges with his gas-powered trimmer.  But this time, I knew that sunshine is the best antidote to jet lag. So I pulled out the manual clippers and did battle with the beast.

At first I hacked at the hedge with view of ending early, so I could relax on the patio with a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade and the latest Real Simple.  Then suddenly, a vision of Don Juan popped into my mind.

A patch of grass and a tin can lid

Don Juan was the gardener at the Food for the Hungry office in Bolivia when I worked there in the 1990s.  We had a beautiful little courtyard where we could eat lunch on nice days.  There was one patch of healthy grass, and bountiful roses as big as cabbages.  Roses loved the cool nights and sunny days in Bolivia’s capital city, and the liberal sprinkling of horse or sheep manure helped as well. 

We think of the title “Don” as reserved for mafia chieftains, but in Latin America, “Don” is simply a term of respect for an older man.  Don Juan was small and bent, and I always picture him in a gray wool chompa (sweater) and dark pants.  It seemed to me in my thirties that he was an octogenarian, but it may be that he was in his sixties and life had been hard.  

I had trouble talking to him.  I think he was hard of hearing and he had the milky stare of a man with cataracts. My Spanish grammar is quirky, so no doubt he had trouble understanding me.  Mostly, I watched him work while eating lunch outside.

I’ve never seen anyone cut grass like Don Juan. He shaved the grass. 

Instead of typical clippers, he wielded a round tin can lid cut in half, with the straight edge honed somehow to razor sharpness.  Don Juan would grab a small fist-full of grass and saw at it, ever so gently with the tin can lid. It sounded like the razor my stylist uses to thin out my hair. 

Ripriprip, move two inches over,

ripriprip, move two inches over,

ripriprip, move two inches over,


After a few hours, Don Juan created an exquisitely manicured patch of green heaven nestled in a cement-bound city.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I’ve been re-reading Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It’s a series of essays on the Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. My first copy of this precious book is battered and worn, and pre-dated Peterson’s publication of The Message. I came upon an updated version last year, now utilizing The Message translation. And at the end, there was a new epilogue by the author.

The original book was published in 1980 and, in Peterson’s elegant writing style, decried society’s increasing desire for fast answers and easy, cost-free spiritual growth.  My newer version, published in 2000, contains an epilogue that I decided to read before I started working through the essays on the Songs of Ascent.  

I think you can guess, that in the 20 years since the book’s initial publication, Peterson observed that our culture’s desire for the fast fix had only worsened.

Slow down

I’m vastly oversimplifying the book, so please check it out for yourself. I’ve read it for years, in the weeks before Easter, because it’s thought that Jewish people sang the Songs of Ascent as they entered Jerusalem for Passover.  Jesus and the disciples may have sung these Psalms too as they climbed the hill toward the holy city.

But the repeated message of the essays is, take time to understand how much God loves you, and what is plan is for your life.

Read God’s word.

Let it sink in.


Repeat daily. 

Made me think I should live life that way not just when I’m doing a daily devotional, but also in other things I undertake. Slowly, carefully, thoughtfully.

Patio with plants and furniture surrounded by hedgeThe finished product.

I’m not just cutting a hedge. I’m creating a little piece of beauty alongside a public walking path that the whole community uses. My hedge is a haven for sparrows and small lizards that stay cool in its shade.

I took time to check the square on the edge of the hedge, and to create a more naturalistic curve to the top side that honors God’s original intent for this type of bush.

So I slowed down, in Don Juan’s memory.  And I started the next morning with some scripture and prayer. One foot in front of the other, ascending to whatever God has for me on this new day.



Your Father Has No Goats

I’m not married, and it’s my father’s fault.

Many years ago, when I was in my late 20s, I took my very first trip overseas to rural Kenya. Yes, I’ve always been a big fan of “go big or go home.” See my needlework post, I “learn” needlepoint with a 13 x 18 inch tapestry using a Swiss merino wool/silk blend you can’t buy at Hobby Lobby.

I do not get along with Larium. That’s key to this story. One of those things where God definitely had a plan and used modern science to cut my knees out from under me. God has a sense of humor like that.

Larium is a drug that prevents malaria. But in me, it also causes dizziness, hallucinations, vivid nightmares, and in my case, insomnia and vomiting. By the time I got to Dose #2, while in the middle of a place called Tharaka, I was a basket case. So instead of doing the typical short-term missions team construction work, like everybody else in my group, I was confined to a cot, unable to stand without reeling from vertigo.

young woman eating banana

Me on Larium. Trying not to barf up my banana. #miserable #missionaryjumper #skinnywhitegirl

By mid-week, my body hit the drug’s downward trajectory, and I could stand up. But I didn’t feel well enough to do construction, so I helped prepare meals.   I shucked things and shelled things and peeled things surrounded by a half-dozen young Kenya women, hired to cook for our team.

We swapped life stories as we shelled peas. Most of the women were in the mid-20s to mid-40s. They were fascinated by the fact that I was 28 and unmarried. One woman began to ask me about my family.

“How much land does your father have?” she asked.

“Less than a quarter acre,” I replied. “We have a nice house but not much land around it.”

We shelled more peas for a while.

“How many cows does your father have?” she asked.
“None,” I said. “My grandmother’s family had dairy cows but now we have none.”

More shelling.

“How many goats does your father have?” she asked.

“None,” I replied.

A good five minutes passed.

I know why you are not married,” announced the woman into the rural quiet. “Your father has…NO.GOATS.” Picture this spoken with the vehemence with which Lucy spits out an invective at Charlie Brown, and he somersaults backwards.


Inwardly, I laughed at the woman’s rationale, not wanting to diss her attempt at being relational.  I think I said something like, “In our culture, having goats isn’t important.”  Which of course left her even more confused because there was no explanation why I was educated, gainfully employed, and unmarried at the ripe old age of 28.

The other story I remember, perhaps from the same day, was showing the Kenyan women photos of the HEB grocery store where one of our team worked. There were photos of the bakery, including the artisanal bread racks in the store.

One woman near me shook her head.

“Why would anyone need so many different kinds of bread?” she said.

You know, there was wisdom there.  We don’t need several dozen bread choices.

These conversations with people I’ll only meet again in heaven some day, keep me grounded.  They’re among my most treasured memories.

God’s voice

On those days when I’m tempted to go travel down a road to nowhere productive, when I ask God, “Why am I not married?” God says to me, in a gently chiding voice that sounds like a Kenyan woman, “Because your father has no goats.” And it makes me laugh, and God continues, “You don’t need to have a reason for not being married. I love you just as you are, my precious daughter.”

Last week, I got a phone call from my HOA while I was seriously invested in a seminar that left me on a high, it was so good. I crashed down to earth when I was informed that my car was about to be sprayed with whatever the infernal chemical is that they spray on olive trees to keep them from olive-ing. “You didn’t move your car away from the tree. We put up a sign on Monday,” they said. “I was in Colorado Monday. It’s Wednesday. I’m still in Colorado,” I sputtered.

I finagled a neighbor to tarp my car to protect it. Then I spun into recriminations. I should leave my car key with someone even if I’m only gone two days. I should live in a place with a private garage. I should live somewhere with a higher-class property manager who gives more than 48 hours’ notice of maintenance requests.

Then I remember a gentle voice and a head shake. “Why would anyone need so many different kinds of bread?”

I have a roof over my head that I know, from experience, can withstand 60 mph wind gusts. I have electricity. My water is free of E.coli and comes in both hot and cold versions. When I call the cops they come within two minutes. I’ve tested it, unfortunately. I can sit on my patio like I did tonight, and watch an amazing Arizona sunset.

I’m so thankful for these voices from people whose names I regrettably don’t remember. Again, I take comfort in knowing I’ll see them in heaven, and because it’s heaven, we’ll recognize each other and won’t have any trouble communicating,  and we’ll say “Good to see you, my sister,” and I’ll share how they gave me lifelong perspective.

How Overseas Travel Changed Me

Just some random observations on how international travel changed me forever. There are more. This will probably have a Part II at some point.

I’m more patient.

At one point I was traveling from Texas to Bangkok quarterly. Which included a routine 13-16 hour flight to Asia from the U.S. I’ve done that flight in last-row seats (#nonprofitbudget) that don’t recline or the aisle next to the odiferous bathroom many times. Somehow, being assigned a middle seat next to a gangsta-rap-loving kid who can’t seem to find his earbuds for 2.5 hours is no big deal.

I kill at killing time.

Six hour layover? (Again, #nonprofitbudget.) Not enough time to leave the airport, really, and you arrived at 2 a.m. on your sub-optimal, low-cost itinerary, so a sortie outside of the airport is senseless. And I can’t afford to buy into the airline club. So…..people watching in international airports is a sport. Cup of coffee, sitting on a floor where people can’t see you….I can spend hours gathering material for my first novel. Or playing my own version of Airport Bingo (“Person wearing garish inflatable neck pillow while running between flights”).

Back-seat-driver calm.

So I’ve been traveling nearly 48 hours and I still have to take a cab to a hotel, in a city few Americans can locate on a map. And I have a cabbie driving like a bat out of hell. I have learned that unless I can smell liquor on their breath (and yes, I check), just relax, close your eyes, and let them drive. There’s a whole world of alternative driving rules out there that work just fine. I once conversed with a taxi driver in La Paz, Bolivia (where I lived for four years) about driving in that city. “The Americans ruined things when they put in traffic lights,” he complained. “Traffic moved much more smoothly when we all just went by the rules before the lights.”

Ugly American is a choice.  

We do not, my blue-passport-with-the-eagle friends, have a good reputation as travelers. We are, in general, a loud, demanding, and entitled bunch. We always have a choice to prove otherwise.

My first morning in Bombay, at an Indian hotel restaurant with a Mexican theme (that 14 hours is a whole blog post in itself), I ate breakfast. It was good. When I first sat down, the very young waiter adjusted the blinds to cut the sun streaming onto the table. I explained it was just fine. I needed direct sun to fight jet lag. “Oh,” he said. “I have never had a customer with blue eyes. I thought the sun would hurt them,” he offered with complete sincerity. (Hint, I may have been the first non-Indian ever to stay at this hotel). When the breakfast order got a little mixed up, and I was served an entire loaf of toasted white bread, I…well, just ate as much as I could. A bit of a translation mix-up.

At the very end, as he handed me the bill, the waiter asked if I had trouble understanding him. “No, no trouble whatsoever, ” I said. He teared up. I mean, tears welling up in big, beautiful brown eyes. Broke my heart. “I’ve never spoken with a native English speaker,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever understand me.” I’d already decided not to quibble about the entire loaf of bread on the bill, and his tears made me realize, you never know when you’re committing ministry. And if you’re maybe the first American someone’s ever met.

You don’t know what’s going on. Get over it.

It’s rare that I’ve felt in danger traveling in places one friend described as “two bananas past the Great Commission.” I did however feel really “out there” while on a jaunt to Jijiga, Ethiopia, which is basically Somalia with better security. Checking into a hotel one night, with two other Americans, the hotel clerk announced he would have to keep our passports, which you routinely show to hotel clerks overseas so they can copy your data into the register. (Otherwise you spend 45 minutes spelling words they’ve never heard of This time, my heart sank when he said, “I have to give them to the police.” No luck retrieving them, he had the passports in hand, I didn’t, and we spent the night worrying we were trapped, unable to travel without our ID documents.

The next morning, Mohammed (for that was his name) was sweeping the hotel patio. We decided to invite him for an orange Fanta when he finished sweeping. And as we Fanta’d together he offered up that the police ordered him to turn over the passports. Because, we’d managed to pick a hotel that was the site of a government opposition rally. (Ah, I thought, that would explain the raucous chanting well after midnight. That wasn’t partying, that was political slogans in unison.) The cops forced him to hold our passports so they could check our backgrounds. We were not agitators, they had determined. Just a couple of American journalists and relief workers. He handed over our documents, we got on our flight at the airstrip, and I had a wonderful morning finding out what it’s like being an 18-year-old Somali man with dreams for his future.

Say grace like you mean it.

On that same trip where I met Mohammed, I traveled in areas ravaged by drought. The cows were dead, so eating anything made from beef was out of the question. Chicken seemed to be really hard to find, perhaps because people needed the eggs. (I had eggs for at least two meals per day.)

In Ethiopia’s Somali region, spaghetti is the big normal meal. (I guess it’s a leftover from when Italy invaded the region in the 1930s but I’m not clear on that for sure.) At any rate, the two meal choices were eggs and spaghetti, which were both eaten with bare hands. And there’s usually some meat in the spaghetti sauce. When I’d ask what the meat was, I’d see the waitperson’s eyes go sideways. They wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Ahhh…..goat?” (Question mark obvious at the end.) I have no idea, to this day, what I was eating. Colleagues said, probably camel. Maybe donkey. The most drought-tolerant and the last beasts to die from thirst. I learned to say grace with all my heart and ask for protection against whatever it was I was ingesting.

How about you?

Would love to hear what you’ve learned from traveling overseas. Feel free to comment!


What I Learned at the Bounce House

I am utterly convinced that 15 minutes in the Halloween Bounce House will completely prepare you for life.

I’ve just returned from my first-ever Bounce House Referee experience. I was appropriately dressed in flaming orange, as a pumpkin, since it was, well, a Halloween bounce house.  So I signed up to “volunteer,” which apparently means standing next to the door and making sure things don’t get out of control.

I have never been a parent so I can be tentative to work kid events. But I volunteer with children because I love them and want to serve the next generation. So I’m a newbie on bounce house culture.  Friends advised me on a few key things and I forged ahead.

About five minutes in, after witnessing Neil Armstrong attack Woody the Cowboy from Toy Story with a WWE-style hold, and seeing princesses emerge with their tiaras on backwards, I realized this was a microcosm of real life.

  1. If you can’t climb up the ramp to get into the house, then, maybe you’re too small. Or maybe your princess tutu is too puffy. At any rate, at times you must reassess your fitness for the battle ahead and perhaps patronize the baby bounce house next store for a while, to sharpen your skills.
  2. Things will be spilled on the floor. That’s life, it gets messy. One can only hope that it came out of a water bottle instead of a human orifice.  Sometimes as a grownup you just have to get down on your hands and knees and clean up after someone you’re responsible for, before other grownups start complaining. (To the woman who did so this evening, I applaud you, way to “mom up.”)
  3. You will lose stuff. Your ninja hat will come off in the slide and you will lose a sock or two. This will render your costume incomplete, and you’ll be sad.  Get used to it. In life we try to wear masks but the hurly-burly of life rips the mask off. And in the end everyone who truly loves you still thinks you are way cute because they don’t remember what the full getup looked like to begin with.
  4. The bigger kids will take over. But only for a while. Hang out in the corner and they will eventually get bored and leave. There is always somebody bigger, stronger, and higher-bouncing. They make a bunch of waves in the floor but learn to keep your balance and wait it out.
  5. Only dumb-dumbs jump with DumDums in their mouths. Before entering a veritable mosh pit, check your equipment and preparedness.
  6. Remember what shoes you were wearing.  Because when you come out dazed and confused and the sun’s gone down, you have to find your sandals in the pile.  So, take stock of what’s important before you go into the fray so you can find it again when you’re done.

    Actually I had a flashback tonight, seeing the pile of shoes kids shed before entering the bounce house.  I have this recurring dream where I somehow lose my shoes. A few nights ago I dreamed I was down to only one shoe, for every single shoe in my closet. I suspect this is a variant of the “speaking naked in front of a crowd” dream.  Or it’s a dream about feeling hobbled, because there’s a limit to what you can do without shoes. (Too deep for a humor piece?)  Or it may be a memory of visiting Asian temples where you have to remove your shoes and put them in a pile with literally hundreds of guests, and worrying the whole time you’re looking at the amazing jade Buddha from the 15th century that someone is going to steal your $150 Merrills. (Lesson: Don’t wear expensive shoes while temple-visiting in Asia.)

    In any case, I just hope everybody found their own shoes after I left. It would not surprise me if some parents keep spare pairs of shoes in the car.

  7.  Listen to voices of reason.  When you’re curled up in a corner, and you’re too small to see the exit, and someone recognizable says, “Follow my voice,” yeah, that’s a very good time to do what they say. Always remember somebody loves you, especially when you feel like the only one out there who loves you is God himself, and follow that voice.
  8. Smiles go a long way.  To take up the story of Neil Armstrong and Woody, both smiled throughout the throw-down.  I think I know Woody’s grandma but I’ve never met him before. He smiled at me while being pinned and I laughed. He then became my friend for life, relating everything that he experienced. That is the way life should be. Friends made easily with a smile and a shared experience.
  9. Take time to wonder and adventure.  I commented to a friend tonight, “The littlest ones all have the same look on their face as kittens leaving the box for the first time.” I was captivated. I read an article this week about studies on infants following a parent’s gaze, and how important that is to human development.  If the parent looks at it, it’s gotta be important.

    My first-timer bounce house “kittens” would look at the door to the jumping extravaganza, then look at a loving parent, and the parent would look up at the door too, and point with a finger or their chins. The child’s gaze followed the parent’s and fixed on the door. And in an instant they’d decide. “Let’s go.” That, my friends, is the essence of life lived daily, on the edge, trusting in a guide implicitly and going for it, whatever “it” is. Just, be careful who your guide is.

As my shift ended, with no major injuries thankfully, someone I consider to be a super-mom tapped me on the shoulder and said “I’m your relief. What are the rules here?” And I realized that my inexperience was OK, that real-life moms make it up as they go along, that there’s really no cosmic, all-inclusive mom-manual, even if they have kids 24-7. Life moves fast for everybody.  Just make sure you know where you put your shoes.


Down Memory Lane: Good/Bad Hair Daze

I have an idea for a new party:  We bring photos of the worst hair we ever had.

An advantage of being in the middle years is you can laugh now — mostly — at what you did when you were younger.

I recently went down memory lane with my stylist, about all the bad things we’d done to our hair over the years.  She is half my age so she has a lot of ground to cover yet. But she is a stylist so she had access to some major hair enhancement chemicals I didn’t, so maybe we’re even.

The Modified Bowl

girl with collar

This is preschool, I think.  I’m really rockin’ that #RBG* collar by the way. I’m not sure what to call the style. We got our hair cut at the local Beauty School in those days.  Which #thanksmom, was a coping mechanism I have pulled out from time to time when I couldn’t afford haircuts.

Remember the late 1960s where the thing was long, straight, blonde Beach-Boy-Song hair? I was out of luck.  This was the decade of Lady Clairol bleach blondes.

But I saw the curls come back in eventually (see 1980s below). Lesson learned: Ha, take that American beauty products industry!

*RBG=Ruth Bader Ginsberg

The Shag


Note the combination here of the “America’s mom” Carol Brady shag and the John Lennon glasses, which by this time had last their “pinko pot-smoking hippie” associations.

The Dorothy Hamel Wedge


Here’s a contest: For those of you who were alive in the late 70s, and have a yearbook, let’s see who has the most wedge hairstyles on their school yearbook page.  They were everywhere.  Remember having to figure out how to get perfectly feathered bangs? I believe this era saw the invention of the round brush.

The Liberal Intellectual Wannabe

IMG_2572 2 copy


The college years. Yes, those years when I experimented with long hair. And I started going gray, actually. For some reason unkempt hair made you cooler. I voted socialist in college once, for someone I knew who I thought would make a pretty good city councilperson. But other than that I was pretty much a pretender.

The Star is Born Poodle Perm

This phase of my life was short and the photo is MIA. I lost an entire decade’s worth of photos in a move and my perm phase was among them.

The “Star is Born” move with Barbra Streisand came out in the mid-70s but hairstyles can take a while to work their way into the middle class.

Perming my coarse, graying, wavy hair left me looking like a poodle. Especially in my new home, San Antonio, where 80% humidity simply elicited comments like, “At least we’re not in Houston.”

Also MIA: My “Lila” Phase

Ah, the struggle of graying hair in your 30s and 40s.  I went red in 1995 as I prepared to move to La Paz, Bolivia, to live on a shoestring salary, because the gray at my part wouldn’t show as much.


I decided to save money by coloring at home, so I went shopping for hair color. That in itself wasn’t hard, hair color is in every store in La Paz. I ended up with a bottle of something that wasn’t exactly the red shade I wanted but hey, let’s adapt to the culture. I picked it from the photo.

The color was called “lila,” which they don’t teach you in Spanish class. (The Spanish speakers among you now know how this story turns out.)  I will say that the box, which because I bought it on the black market ,had undoubtedly crossed into Bolivia over the Chilean border, most likely without having paid the requisite duties. And having ridden into town on the back of a large open truck, most probably, it had seen both water and sun damage. So the picture was pretty darned faded.

A friend I met in language school, who had been in the country precisely as long as I had (that is, one month) helped me put in the color, over my red hair, and we chatted and waited. And then she started gasping as we rinsed.  “Lila” means lavender. Think “lilac.”  I had dyed my hair a wonderful light purple.

She gave me a baseball cap to cover my hair and I made my way downtown to look for a salon. I found one, walked to the desk, dramatically lifted off the cap, and simply said “¡¡¡¡Ayúdameeee!!!!” (Help meeee!).  And several lovely ladies gathered around to hug me and play with my hair and tell me it was OK. It took four hours of scrubbing and I went from a redhead to flat out black because that’s all that would cover the purple. (Ayúdame [Aye-YOU-dah-may] is a really, really helpful Spanish phrase to have in your verbal dictionary, by the way.)

I cut my hair short so it wouldn’t cost so much to color, and found a lady to take care of things in my neighborhood for a reasonable price.  Lesson: Never panic when hair is involved. Lesson two: Women “get it” when you have a bad hair day and will always be there to hug you.

The “They Raised My Rent 15%,” aka the Pepé le Pew


Eventually I went back to red, which involved a lot of scrubbing and frequent haircuts. During my first year in Phoenix, my landlord raised my rent nearly 15%, #rentalbubble. Something had to give in the budget so I finally said, screw it, it’s time to go gray.

So yeah, I went about eight months with weird red tinges on the ends of my hair, as captured in this photo next to an exit sign in Nairobi.  (I hid out for several weeks in East Africa with this hairstyle, another suggestion for when you want to go gray. Find another continent to do it on.)

So there you have it, the “how I went gray” story.  Several years ago I bought groceries at the Safeway at Shea and Scottsdale Roads.  A woman behind me in the checkout line tapped my shoulder. “Who’s your colorist?” she asks.

“God,” I said. I love saying that.



Pumping Gas Alone

The other day while I gassed up the car at Costco, an elderly woman pulled up to the opposite pump. She had a huge boat-of-a-Cadillac.

She was a beautiful lady, expensively dressed.  I heard a lot of clicks on the pump, over and over, and it was apparent she was having issues with the keypad. The gas hose nozzle banged on her burgundy fender, then clanged on the pavement when she failed to insert the hose correctly.

When the sharp-eyed attendant came to the rescue, she apologized profusely, tense and near tears, saying she didn’t know how to do this. And I thought, I’ll bet she’s a recent widow and she’s never had to put gas in her car…her departed husband always did it.

The attendant very gently helped her learn how to operate the pump. And I said a prayer for her.

Doing It All

I’ve been extremely independent for all of my five-plus decades. I pump gas, I do the bills, I invest, I’ve done basic carpentry. I kill all the spiders and cockroaches. I buy my own cars. I recently set up my own Internet, cable, and wifi network.  With two computers and a wireless printer.  The one time I’ve been admitted to a hospital, with pneumonia and a 103-degree fever, I drove myself there.

I’ve learned to let professionals handle most plumbing and electrical work by screwing things up. Nothing that required filing a claim on my homeowner’s insurance, but just, getting partway into a project and realizing how dumb I was.

Like when I was just dead on my feet tired after putting in my new flooring, and the pull chain broke inside the housing on my ancient bedroom ceiling fan at 1 a.m. on ultra high speed, and I was freezing, and I couldn’t shut it off. I was brain dead and just needed some sleep after multiple days of drama with a cut-rate flooring installer.

So I took wire cutters and wrapped a washcloth around the handle for extra insulation and cut some wires.  Without turning off the electricity. As the wires clipped successfully, my neural synapses began to fire and I realized I should have been electrocuted.  I should have had someone fix that fan years ago because the stupid pull chain was breaking every six to eight months. But I always thought “Eh, I’ll fix it myself. Some day.”

I now have an electrician.

I can see coming down the line, maybe more than ten years away, but certainly not less than 20, there are times when I’ll be forced to swap out my independence for more help. And not just for plumbing pipes and live wires.

I’m coming to that age of age-related health issue that requires a “procedure,” as Billy Crystal put it in City Slickers, where you must have someone take you home. Where driving at night is getting dicier on unlit streets. Where walking alone in dark parking lots is even more risky.

I’m not terrified of this because I’m allegedly “alone,” which for some reason is how our society tends to describe those who have no live-in significant other or children. I’m not alone. I have friends and family.  I am however afraid because I simply don’t know how act when I’m forced to receive help.  I really don’t know much about living in actual community with others who mutually support one another.

More Alike than Different

At this crest in my mid-life, I see a swap of lifestyles coming in the next few decades, between “single me” and friends with families, to a degree. They know how to live in close proximity to other human beings and run lives in tandem. I don’t.  I can learn from others about how to push aside my ego and just be in community, particularly when I’m helpless.

And hopefully I can walk alongside friends who may be newly single and need some self-confidence and practical advice in navigating everyday life.  Not to mention someone to laugh and cry with.

The world categorizes us as “single” and “married,” “alone” and “not alone,” “capable” and “helpless.”  The older I get, the more I see those categories as unhelpful. If I draw a bigger circle and simply think of everyone as “people needing people,” it opens so many doors to a “second act” of purpose and community.