The Ghost in the Gate


By Elizabeth Speth

This is a true story.  A ghost story.

It’s a story about a woman aged enough to have an old-fashioned name like Harriet.  Harriet was also old enough to have experienced losses in her life, some significant, some her fault and some not.

She lived alone — sometimes sad — far, far away from the city.  Her old house was a family place, built a century before on a grassy plain under a wide blue sky.

She had several cranky old horses, and a naughty barking dog.  Horses and dog destroyed the garden Harriet planted every year, greedily tearing up carrots and lettuces, trampling and digging, until she wanted to give up on the garden.

She was old enough to know about giving up on things.

But she loved warm, sweet tomatoes in September.  So she did not let the garden die.

Instead she built a fence.  It was crooked, loopy and drunken-looking, but it blocked the garden from those who would do it harm.

She found that she needed a gate.  So she bought an old one from a neighbor.  Rusted, bent and blistered, with a tiny metal plaque affixed to it that said in faded words:  “Black Hills Fence Co.  South Dakota” under a faint buffalo silhouette.

A gate is a point of entry, or it can be an impediment to the same.  So the woman brought home that old gate, bouncing around in the bed of her truck, watching it through the mirror as she bumped over rutted dirt roads.

With some difficulty, she mounted the gate to a wobbly post, smashing her thumb in the process.  No one knew about her smashed thumb, how it throbbed for days.  There was no one to share that information, to cluck over the blackened nail, or roll eyes when she complained about it too much.

The gate hung crookedly — it had been hard to hang by herself — but inexplicably it swung freely.  This pleased and surprised her.

The naughty dog, a small, fat, white terrier, dug a hole under the gate and passed smoothly through it like a chute, in and out of the garden at will.

But the gate kept the horses at bay, and the carrots, lettuces, cucumbers and mostly the tomatoes grew.

There was, Harriet saw immediately,  something strange about the vegetables.  Every morning, she came out to find the soil beneath them cool and damp, though she never watered.  The leaves stretched and grew and budded, and not an insect molested them.

Sometimes, she would spend the afternoon out in the garden, because she felt at peace there.  She would pick a few stray weeds — there weren’t many — and listen to birds.  Though there wasn’t the faintest hint of a breeze, and nothing else moved in the stillness, the gate would rattle itself at her periodically.

Not in a hostile way, Harriet thought.  It was more like a dog shaking itself.  She didn’t understand it, but it soothed her somehow.

One morning Harriet came out to the gate, and she found all the horses’ manure piled neatly in her wheelbarrow, the old pitchfork leaning up against the fence.  She looked around her at the clean pasture, as if trying to see who had told a joke.  The cranky old horses pricked their ears at her, a new friendliness in their eyes.

On another day, harassed by the heat, Harriet approached the gate with her arms full of tree branch trimmings.  She was tired and sad, and thinking of things she regretted, and her loneliness made a kind of hollow sound in her brain.  She didn’t like trimming trees, and the branches scratched now at her eyes and arms.  But she meant to stack them in the back of the garden so the horse wouldn’t get at them, eat them, and grow sick.

She drew a long, tired breath, preparing to drop the branches and open the gate.  But the gate rattled then, and the chain lock fell away.  And then it swung open for her, soundlessly.  Harriett was taken aback.

She was also deeply grateful.

Harriet began to notice other things about the gate.  On days the wind did blow, it coaxed a deep, moaning sound out of the posts, like lowing cattle.  Occasionally it sounded like a piano, warm, honey notes of a saloon ballad that plunked happily into the dust at her feet.

Her naughty barking dog stopped barking, though he was still fat and usually dirty.  Harriet watched him pass back and forth through the hole he’d dug under the gate, and the bottom rail scratched his bristly old back as the dog’s eyes half-closed in bliss.

On winter mornings, wind and rain brought the smell of coffee and bacon through the gate.

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Of a warm summer morning, the faint smell of baking biscuits lingered there.

In the evening, there was woodsmoke and whiskey, spiraling up into the sighing trees.

During thunderstorms or other catastrophic events, the horses gathered around the gate as if for comfort, and wild vetch twined purple flowers around its rusted corners as lavender bunched beneath it.

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And Harriet understood that her gate was haunted.  She also knew that all signs pointed to the fact that her ghost was a cowboy.  Not the young, firm-jawed, lean-hipped rodeo variety of cowboy, but rather an older version, with busted-up, poorly-healed bones, sun spots, and eyes the pale blue of soft, faded denim, hidden in wrinkles he’d earned staring past wide horizons.

He was the kind of old cowboy who opened gates for a lonely, tired woman, who kept gardens watered and manure picked up.  He convinced the dog to behave, and comforted horses with gnarled old hands.

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She knew that, though her cowboy was a kind ghost, he was not an angel.  She was old enough to know no good cowboy was ever an angel.

And so Harriet came to understand that people who have lived long enough to be sad, without hope of circumstances ever really changing — without a miraculous happy ending — can get through somehow.  They can learn to watch for moments of warmth and consideration.  She understood that not all good things can be seen.

She learned that she was not alone.

As I said, this is a true story.  A ghost story.


A Few Thoughts on Women — None Original

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  • Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
  • And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
  • Well done,  Sister Suffragette! — Mrs. Banks

By Elizabeth Speth

A woman of a certain age — let’s say she was just about to turn 48 — was walking through a deep woods, enjoying the loamy smell of undergrowth, and flecks of blue sky visible through ancient treetops.  She breathed deeply, eyes closed, and nearly squished an enormous frog directly in her path.

The frog fixed intense, bulging eyes on her.  His throat throbbed as his wide mouth opened, and he exclaimed:  “Kiss me!  Kiss me, and I’ll turn into a handsome prince!”

The woman’s own eyes widened.  “You spoke!” she marveled.

“Of course I did!”  said the frog.  “I’m a handsome prince.  Kiss me and release me, and I’m yours!  Hurry up!  Let’s get on with it!”

The woman just stared at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” demanded the frog, and he seemed to snap his tiny webbed fingers at her.  “What are you waiting for?  Kiss me, damnit! Don’t you want a handsome prince?”

“Truthfully?” said the woman, “At this point in my life, I’m really more interested in a talking frog.”

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“I can’t decide whether I’m a good girl wrapped up in a bad girl, or if I’m a bad girl wrapped up in a good girl. And that’s how I know I’m a woman!” ― C. Joybell C.

I am, unmistakably, a woman.  There is just no hiding the fact.  There have been times in my life when I have regretted it. When it seemed that men were having all the fun.

I am older now, and smarter, and fortunately, I live in a world where that is mostly no longer true.  There are still some holdouts — places, people and situations try to cast femaleness as synonymous with misfortune.  In my life, though, there is an H.R. Department that takes care of holdouts.

The thing that I eventually figured out is that men don’t really have all the fun.  ‘Fun’ doesn’t belong to anyone — it is actually just a matter of permission.  We have to give it to ourselves.  Permission to say and do what we like.  To have opinions that may ruffle or surprise.  To sprawl, to occupy and claim a space.  To be loud sometimes, vigorous.  To take risks.  To take time for ourselves.  To protect ourselves.  To put ourselves first. To say no.  Or yes.

It has taken me the majority of my life so far to learn about permission.  Which is fine.  Having fun toward the end of the party is better than having no fun at the party.

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“It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman. Phenomenally.” ― Maya Angelou

It cheers me, looking at our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters and our daughters, to see that women are coming into themselves a lot sooner with every generation.  We have hundreds of years of women before us to thank for that.  Knowing full well they would not see change in their own lifetimes, they grimly did battle for us.  We owe it to them to own what they won.

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Now, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, touting equality while occasionally batting my eyes to get what I want.  I love a door opened for me if my hands are full, and I usually won’t take a seat when it’s offered, but I appreciate the gesture.  I may need it someday.  I suspect I am still entitled to first rescue from a sinking ship (although I share a lifeboat with the children).

But I know there is a quieter, gentler way to get where I am going, because that is who I am.  Thank goodness for red lipstick, and hats with flowers on the brim.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being womanly.  Many men adore us for a reason.


 And I love them back.  Boy, do I.  They are wonderful.  I love how they think.  I love their deep voices, their vigorous humor.  I am pleased about all the ways they are different from me.   They certainly make life more interesting.  We go fairly well together, men and women, once we learn to synthesize ourselves.  Once we figure out the choreography.

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She listened to her heart above all other voices.  – Kobi Yamada

But thank goodness I know trying to be a man is a waste of a good woman.

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“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ― Roman Payne

Passing Through the Shadow of the Valley of Mean People


By Elizabeth Speth

I love Sundays.  In my mostly beautiful life, they are a high point.

On Sundays I saddle up my horse Cake, and we ride through beautiful places like this:

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And this:

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There is a little scotch in my flask.  I take pictures.  I enjoy the rhythm of Cake’s breathing and Mother Nature’s too.

On a recent Sunday, I hurriedly loaded my horse in the trailer at home, drove for a bit, unloaded him at a trailhead overlooking the American River Canyon and the famous Western States trail network.  I unloaded my saddle and began brushing Cake as he munched grass.  And then I saw blood on his flank.

I looked everywhere to find the source, and finally did.  The underside of his tail, hidden to the casual eye, was a bloody pulp.  It could have starred in its own horror movie. Further frantic examination revealed large swollen spots on his belly, possibly lymph nodes.  Maybe abscesses.  I couldn’t tell, and it was Sunday.  A day my veterinary clinic reserves for emergencies.  I needed help determining whether this was one, so I called the clinic on the spot and got the vet on the phone.

While I was describing Cake’s symptoms,  a man parked his car next to me.  A lean, sinewy, older fellow, dressed for running.  He looked at me and my horse, and asked what was going on, even though I was clearly conversing on the phone.  I held up one finger, and continued to explain my situation to the vet.

Running Man peppered me with a few more questions, which got tangled in my worried mind with the vet’s simultaneous queries.

Running Man:  “Is your horse sick?  Is he lame?  What’s the problem?  It’s a great day for riding.  Are you going to go?  Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, can it?  Oh, blood on the tail?  That’s not a big deal, can’t your wrap it?  Why don’t you just wrap it?”

I held up my finger again as my vet, a sweet and patient woman on her day off, asked me to snap some photos of the tail and belly, and then text them to her, so she could decide whether he should be seen emergently.  I hung up, trying to figure out how to hold a now-dancing Cake, lift his tail, and snap pictures in enough light so they could be seen.  Also, Running Man was beginning to frustrate me.

He asked again what was wrong, I told him briefly, and added that I was in the process of dealing with it with the vet.

He offered his opinion that we coddle our horses too much, it didn’t sound that bad to him, maybe I should just try this, or that, or maybe this other thing, which in his experience always worked …”

I was flustered.  I said:  “Sir, thank you, but I’m actually a bit distracted right now.  The vet is waiting for pictures so she can help me determine what to do.”

“What to do is obvious,” he replied, even though he hadn’t actually seen the problem for himself.  “You just blah, blah, blah.…”

“Sir,” I said.  I really need to focus on this.  “I’m getting veterinary help.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your run.  It’s a beautiful day.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m going to run a bit in the canyon, maybe eight miles or so, although I’ve got this sore hamstring, but I think I can make it to that spot at the….blah, blah, blah…”  That went on for a bit.

Meanwhile I”d dropped my phone twice, smeared it with blood, and finally managed to get the tail up to snap the picture by holding Cake’s lead rope in my teeth so his rear end was facing the good light.

“That doesn’t look too bad,” said Running Man.  “Probably been rubbing it.”

(Because horses always rub themselves bloody for fun! Everyone knows this!)

He continued:  “What you want to do is…”

I took a deep, deep breath.

“Listen.  I’m in the process of figuring out to do with a veterinarian.  Who is waiting for pictures.  I’m flustered, and worried about my horse.  I’m just having a little trouble giving you my full attention right now.  I want to devote it to this.”

He drew himself up.   “I finished Tevis (hundred mile equine endurance race), you know.  It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

What I wanted to say:  “Good for you.  I had no idea they handed out veterinary degrees upon completion.”

What I said:  “Good for you.  I’m going to call my vet now.  Please excuse me.”

Running Man’s face hardened.  His eyes narrowed meanly, right before he slowly and deliberately swept them over my flushed, sweaty,  addled, disheveled self.  I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.  I both saw and felt it coming.

“Maybe,” said Running Man, “now that your horse is laid up, you can take up running.  You look like you could use some exercise.”

My mouth dropped.  The phone rang — my vet had received the pictures.  Running Man said a few more things I did not hear because I turned my back on him.

My vet said:  “That actually looks pretty awful, Elizabeth.  Let’s get him in.”

I don’t remember when Running Man actually disappeared (hopefully forever).  I loaded my horse and headed to the clinic.

I won’t leave you in suspense about poor Cake.  He had an extreme allergic reaction to something he was grazing on in the pasture.  Many daily scrubbings and ointments and medications later, he is on the mend.

My wounds, however, have been slower to heal, and I am stuck in the shadow of the Valley of the Mean People.

Because I don’t meet many of them, to tell you the truth.  Very few people in my life exert themselves to annoy, irritate, aggravate, provoke, inconvenience, or wound me.  The opposite is in fact the case.  Even at work.

If your life is full of annoyers/irritators/aggravators/wounders, I am so very sorry.  What a horrible, toxic thing.  I wish you strength and  courage.  You can stop reading this now, because you are likely thinking I’ve been a naive idiot, living in a fool’s paradise on a fatty diet of illusions.

I started gnawing on this as soon as I knew Cake would live.  Driving home from the vet clinic, a few dollars lighter, there were voices in my head.

My grandmother’s — I could hear her clearly — repeating one of her favorite phrases: “Well.  He doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose, does he.”  This was never a question for her.  It was a statement.  No question mark.

I thought about my grandfather, a big man with a booming voice who would have cold-cocked the goose senseless had he behaved thusly toward my grandmother.

As I turned into my driveway, my memory replayed one of my dear friend Stefan’s oft-repeated and much-beloved character summations:  “What an ass-hat!”

It made me miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and Stefan, but it marginally comforted me.  Stefan is the only one of the three I can still talk to about these things, grandmother and grandfather being long gone, and so I did.  He is an incredibly articulate fellow, with a surgical precision when it comes to defining social boundaries and reasonable human interaction.  I am a proud graduate of the Stefan Murphy Finishing School of Professional and Personal Excellence, and my diploma is treasured.

I know Stefan would have leveled the man with one polite phrase had he been in my scuffed-up riding boots (but his would be polished to a fine sheen, and manufactured for him personally by Ralph Lauren).  Stefan would never have let the dialogue degenerate to the level of personal insults.  He’d have sent Running Man packing definitively after his second ill-timed question.  I know this about Stefan, but I can’t think fast enough on my feet to replicate what he does.


Stefan is the opposite of mean. If he is your friend, he will write impassioned letters on your behalf to people who wronged you in childhood. He jots down limericks on difficult days to cheer you up. He will devastate your enemy with a graceful insult.

So I decided to ask him instead how he copes with the aftermath of a mean person.  Does he dismiss it?  Let it go?  Namaste his way through it and move on to bigger and better things?  Or does he dwell on it, let the experience form an ulcer of angst in his soul?  Because I was working on one of those.

“Oh I’m a dweller,” he assured me after I told him my sad tale, and we agreed Running Man wore an ass for a hat.  “An Olympic caliber dweller.  I could medal in the Dweller Decathlon.”

All right.  I felt better.   But I still had the spiritual hazardous spill to clean up.  The ulcer to heal.

As the song says, there’s so much in this world to make us bleed.  And, I’m sorry, I have to believe most of us in this world don’t really want that.

Sometimes, when I am stumped in the Compassion Generation Department, it helps to look at the world from the other guy’s perspective.  Cover a mile in his proverbial running shoes, as it were.  I thought of Running Man, and figured it was safe to conclude he is oblivious to social cues.  He is self-involved, attention-demanding, and has a bit of a temper.  He lashes out when he doesn’t get his way.

Overlooking the personal insult, he invaded my life at a time when I was terribly worried about my horse.  He hijacked the situation and demanded an ego stroking.  People rarely only do this now and then, to my way of thinking.  It’s got to be a lifestyle, right?

So, when he interacts with people, they must respond to that fairly uniformly.  When he executes his signature Running Man moves, people are likely often outraged and offended.  So what does Running Man see then?

He sees narrowed eyes.  Hard faces.  Jaws set against him.  He sees a hard, angry world, and it is possible he has no idea that he started all of that.

Of course, I don’t know his struggles.  Maybe they are enormous. Maybe I would weep if I knew his hardships.  There’s so much in this world to make us bleed.

These are the closest things I have to answers.  Unlike my grandmother, some of my observations end in question marks.   At least for a while.

I’m not excusing the ass-hat.  He is going to have to get himself figured out, squared away.  Or not.  I’m just trying to get past him.

But first I want to say something to him.

Running Man:  On the off-chance you read this, and it provokes/irritates/aggravates/wounds you, I want to paraphrase one of my favorite authors by way of explanation.  If you want people to write/think fondly of you, you should have behaved better.

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?  This is Cake.  Feeling better.

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mean 3     mean 4

An Interview With My Husband

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By Elizabeth Speth

It was a risky proposition, corralling Neil with a series of probing and provocative questions.  I knew it could skid sideways at any point.  There was the possibility of profanity, of inappropriate and suggestive responses.  Political rants were likely.  If his critics are to be believed, Neil can be counted upon to gauge what is expected of him, only to execute an immediate and opposing course of action.  He might have clammed up completely.

We have all heard the stories — the mismatched shoes at work, the crumpled hat, the sleeping at the desk.  The inappropriate texts accidentally sent to his children.  Who is the man behind the mess?  Was finding out worth the almost inevitable fiasco?

After a long negotiation process, several cancellations and no-shows, he arrived late on a cloudy morning for our interview at the dining room table.  He declined to remove his sunglasses.  He was restless, edgy.  Periodically, he stared into space, and several times he rested his forehead in his hands, closed his eyes, and appeared to sleep briefly.  I had hoped a glass of wine would help.  Or whiskey.  Neil is famously fond of a good bourbon.  He declined those offers, and requested espresso.  I knew we were in for a challenging discourse.

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Elizabeth:  Thanks for sitting down with me, Neil.  First let me just say that there are no right or wrong answers.  However, I do expect  you to give me the answer I want.  If you don’t get the answer on the first try, I’ll ask you again, and eventually I’ll just change the answer to my preferred response.  So there’s no pressure on you.  My first questions is:  Can you give me a three-sentence biography? Only the high points, please.

Neil:  Born in New York.  Happy Childhood.  Married well.

Elizabeth:  Describe your life in one sentence?

Neil:  All itches scratched — no holes.

Elizabeth:  Uh.  Ok.  What is your philosophy as a father?

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Neil:  As a father?  Lead by example.  Of course I’ve fallen woefully short.  My intent is to provide a secure foundation, support their decisions.  I’m a kind of loosely authoritative figure.  Just this side of arbitrary.  Maybe the other side of completely arbitrary.  It doesn’t matter, because they never pay attention to my parenting.  So don’t expect me to tell you if it works.  I guess my parenting style is ‘be ignored’.  

Elizabeth:  Perhaps it’s still being formulated….

Neil:  The truth is, I spent too much of my parenting time thinking about the wrong things.  Stressing about work.  I should have spent more time developing my parenting style. Don’t write that down — that’s off the record.

Elizabeth:  Of course. Next questionYou are not a vain man, not overly-encumbered by ego.  Yet you do allow yourself a couple of small vanities.  You are meticulous about your weight,  and you never leave the house without cologne. Discuss.

Neil:  I don’t think I take myself too seriously.  We all have ego.  Mine was spent in achieving my professional goals.  That was enough impetus to get me where I needed to go.  Ego should be used to motivate you to achieve goals.  It should be harnessed, like a work horse, but then you should be done with it.

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Elizabeth:  What defines ‘manhood’ for you?  You have sons.  What would you like them to know about being men?

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Neil:  I don’t put much stock in manhood.  I believe in being a good person.  Politically, I’m a conservative, and sometimes people like me are accused of waging war on women.  But I don’t think in those terms.  I believe in good human values, man or woman.

Elizabeth:  Name a time you were horribly, woefully wrong about something, and I was right, but you never admitted it.

Neil:  Can’t think of anything.

Elizabeth:  Take as much time as you need.

Neil: Well, I can tell you one time you were very, very right.  You signed me up to coach youth basketball without asking me first.  If you’d asked, I’d have said no.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.  A great experience.

Elizabeth:  I feel that you dodged the question, but we can come back to it.  What is your favorite thing?

Neil:  Weekend horseback rides.  The American River Canyon.  My childhood.  Good health.

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Elizabeth:  What is your least favorite thing?  

Neil:  Waking up at five a.m. to go to work.  Feeling rushed.  Feeling hustled.  Feeling rushed and hustled by my wife.

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Elizabeth:  What is a thing it has taken you a long time to learn?

Neil:  Two things.  One, how to get rid of the slice in my golf swing.  That took thirty years.  The other thing you taught me.  You told me that we are never, ever going to change anyone’s mind about religion or politics when we argue with them.  Can I apply that to the horribly, woefully wrong question?

Elizabeth:  I guess.  What is the one, only, teeny-tiny only complaint you have about me?  

Neil:  You are headstrong.  You also —

Elizabeth:  That’s one.  Next question:  Do you have a system in place so you will not go to work anymore with mis-matched shoes?  

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Neil: As long as they match closely enough, does it really matter?  I have eight pairs of shoes I wear to work.  It’s really hard to get that many shoes matched up.  I look at my shoes like my children.  As long as they are being cared for and given equal amounts of attention, it doesn’t matter if they are mismatched.

Elizabeth:  Your shoes are like your children.  Got it. Goals?  Other than to raise good shoes?

Neil:  I‘d like to sleep more.  I’m looking forward to growing a garden this year.  I want to retire so life can really begin.

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Elizabeth:  Speaking of retirement, what age do you feel you are?

Neil:  Depends on the time of day.  I used to feel perpetually 35.  How old are you?  You are old.  You’ve got a birthday coming up, haven’t you?

Elizabeth:  I’ll ask the questions, Neil.  What do you feel was the greatest accomplishment of your parents’ generation, and your generation, and what would you like to see your children’s generation accomplish?  .

Neil:  My parents’ generation…  Putting a man on the moon.  It was a feat of discovery beyond all knowable borders.   A dream fulfilled.  My generation?  The internet.  That changed everything.  Suddenly all knowledge is possible.  

Elizabeth:  And your children’s generation?  What would you like to see them do?

Neil:  I’d like to see them focus more on self-reliance, on family and community.  (Note:  Neil said some things here that were very politically oriented, which I have edited out.  I will save those for when I start a blog titled:  Mostly Strident and Argumentative Things.)

Elizabeth:  What is your favorite one-liner?  

Neil:  That’s easy.  It’s:  ‘Orally.  How do you take yours?’

Elizabeth:  (…is speechless…)

Neil:  That’s in response to the question:  ‘How do you take your coffee?’  I have another one.  ‘Lying down.’  Which is what you say when someone asks you how you slept.  

Elizabeth:  That’s really all the time we have now, Neil.  Thank you very much.  

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Neil:  I have a lot of jokes like that.

Elizabeth:  We’re good.  Thank you.

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Neil posing with the author, post-interview, to show there are no hard feelings.

Parenting — a Short Story

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By Elizabeth Speth
Once upon a time, two people who were mere children themselves decided to have children.  Or they did not decide.  Either way, it happened.
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Babies were born and they were wonderful and terrible things.  Tyrannical, foul-smelling, inconveniently spewing.  Riveting, too.  The exhausted parents couldn’t tear their bleary eyes away.  Suddenly, the babies were everything.  Something had sprung up out of nothing, and taken over the world.
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The infants stretched into toddlers, and then pre-schoolers, and that took about five minutes, give or take.  The parents watched closely, and it was a time of fear.  The ‘What if…‘ time.
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What if… something happens?  What if… there is illness?  What if… someone hurts them… ?  What if…
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Holidays were fun, though.  There was squealing, and the slap of little feet in the hallway.  In summer there was the chlorine smell of swim lessons (to eliminate a ‘what if…’) and flushed early sleep while crickets throbbed, and the sun hovered low in the sky.  The lawn mower choked on army men hiding in the grass, and died.  Even that was amusing.
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Then a tooth or two went missing, and the children changed.  They looked different.  Elongated.  Angles replaced curves, there was some awkwardness.  They kept secrets, whispered to their friends in the back seat, eyes sliding away when a parent looked a question into the rear view mirror.
parenting         parenting 3
Elementary school a blur, a little time in the classroom for the parents, a ride on the bus to a science museum, the underlying disapproval of their presence emanating from the children.  The beginning of the Time of Hostility.
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Which stretched into junior high school, the first dance, don’t ask them too many questions, don’t look too long, don’t love too much, don’t worry (but worry!) because they look like adults but they still have tantrum-throwing, unreasonable, magical-thinking toddler brains behind those braces.  And they are still heartbreakingly beautiful.
High school.  The ‘Whatever‘ time.  Each child a little different, all of them preferring the cool teachers as parents, and it’s all about the friends.  The parents watch them drive off alone for the first time.  Pick a college.  Pick a career.  They are terrified.  They make poor choices, and the rest of the time they make no choices at all, it seems.  Somewhere in there, despite the parents’ subtle surveillance, they sneak their milestones.  First drink.  Maybe first drug.  First sexual fumblings.  Maybe heartbreak.  The only clue is that they grow more or less surly, inexplicably.
parenting 10      parenting 21
A last summer of separation.  Which they feel passionately about spending with friends.
parenting 17     parenting 14
College.  A terrible wrench, some internal bleeding.
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After a long pause, a stony silence of independence, the calls start.  They miss the parents.  They appreciate the parents.  Home for the holidays, which are joyful again.
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The parents think:  “Well, we can do this.  We like these adult children.  They are pleasant.  And we can turn our thoughts to other things.”
Then things don’t go according to plan.  The ‘What the…?’  time. Courses of study are changed.  Schools are changed.  Someone has decided he doesn’t really want to go to college at all.  Maybe a ‘gap year’.  Maybe trade school.  Maybe get a dog and hike for a few months.
Dad, tuition-drained, a child suddenly gray at the temples (when did that happen?), asks in exasperation:  ‘What the hell is going on in our kids’ heads?’
Mom:  “As if they should have it all figured out somehow. By the late teens and early twenties? Please.”  But she is very worried.  This is how things stand, as she sees it, with the children:
1. They are poor. Which is appropriate.  Isn’t everyone at this age?  Some of them will struggle with poverty for only a short time, some forever.  The world is made up of both types of children.
2. They want adventure. This is a great time for that. They are children, yes, but with no children of their own.
3. They also want the world to be quiet, so they can think for a minute, so they can figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
The parents decide to be quiet.   With difficulty, they try not to hold youth against itself. That would be the height of hypocrisy.
They mutter, they grumble.  They work to be grateful. And be quiet.
Someday, though they are but wrinkled, waning children themselves, there will be grandchildren. They want in on that.  And they want to see the process repeat itself.   They figure they’ve earned it.  The ‘What did we tell you?‘ time.
parenting 1       parenting 20

The ‘L’ Word

By Elizabeth Speth

Love hurts.  Love scars.  Love wounds.

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Love is a many-splendored thing.

dino love

All you need is love.

Love is the moon, jealous of the stars.

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Scientists have confirmed that both good and bad things happen to our brains when we love.  Or when we think we love, but maybe we just want to have sex.  We produce dopamine and ocxytocin, which make us feel pleasure.  They are the biological reward for mating.  Cocaine addiction, of course, does much the same thing to us chemically.

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The early stages of romance are linked with diminished levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and of a serotonin receptor, which, to some degree, mimics the chemistry of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.

It’s wonderful and magical, and makes us write songs and sonnets.  It also makes our stomachs hurt, soaks our palms in sweat, dries out our mouths and makes us do stupid things.

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Love is agony and ecstasy.  We know all this.

We know that love takes up both spectrums of human emotion, but, as a society, have we allowed it to lay claim to everything in between?

Do we love too much?

I’m talking about the fact that ‘love’ may have become a useless concept, stretched and strained, overused and flabby.  Because we love everything.

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We love coffee and fast internet connections.

My son loves pickup trucks and old movies.  I have lots of friends who love cats.  I have even more friends who love cat videos.

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These days we love food trucks, but we still love restaurants.  We love social media.  If something is ‘trending’, that means we briefly love it.

As a pre-teen I loved disco, and I tried to love all of the Bee Gees equally.  Even though everyone knew Barry was the cutest. The first time I ever tasted prosciutto, I thought:  What wondrous love is this?

I know words mean things.  I respect the power of words.  As a writer, I try not to use the same one twice in a paragraph.  I agonize over exactly the right, the best, the most effective selection.

But I invoke the word ‘love’ a lot.

How can this be?  Can I truly love as many things as I say I do?

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If I love my children, can I also love dry martinis?  Is it okay that I love my husband, religious and political freedom, the great outdoors, and also Sriracha sauce?

Do I really love Downtown Abbey?  Actually, I don’t.  That family is exhausting.

love 1

Am I lying when I say I love, at least a little bit, every one of my friends, a number of my co-workers, and also the fellow at the grocery store who gives me such good advice about wine?

I remember when I was in second grade, huddled with my best friend on the outskirts of a Catholic school playground, sneakily splitting a Snickers candy bar, despite the fact that Sister Joseph Adrian wielded a yardstick in the cloak room for such offenses.  Even then, a girl had to have her chocolate.

I told Felicia, around a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts and caramel, that I loved Snickers, and I was shocked when she sneered:  “Well, why don’t you marry it?

Though I was offended at the time, I got over it.  I realized she was repeating something she’d heard.  But the admonishment stuck with me.  The message she’d received from someone at some point, and passed along to me, was:  Hey!  You there, with the chocolate dribbling down your chin! It’s not okay to love too much! Rein it in, Nougat Breath!

The thing was, though, that I really did love that contraband candy treat.  I was passionate about it at that moment.  I cared about it as much as I cared about anything in my tiny life.  It was a real high point, and I’m not sorry I said so, Felicia.

I mean, if we have to avoid over-loving, who gets to decide what is love-worthy?

Where do we draw the line?

What if you are only allowed to love, say, the person you can legally marry?  And nothing else is allowed to be called love?  Ugh.  What a tragedy.

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If the list of things I love is miles long, albeit ever-changing, it would follow that I will neglect the list of things I hate.  There are only so many hours in the day, and I have a lot less energy than I used to.  Isn’t that a good thing?  In my case and also in the larger picture?

Ah, you say.  But the absence of love is not hate.  It’s indifference.

Well, maybe so.  But I still think love looks better.

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If I do a kind thing for a stranger on the street, I’d rather feel that small, temporary bridge of love than indifference between us.

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”  Mother Teresa said that.  Are you going to argue with Mother Teresa?  Don’t, because I love her.

Historically, hate and indifference both get us into trouble.  And trust me, you won’t have mass sales on discounted chocolate the day after a holiday celebrating either.

I’d rather have a world full of shallow, shifting, transient (or deep, passionate, lasting) love than the alternative.  I really would.

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I think you were right, John Lennon.  All you do need is love.

Vincent Van Gogh was kooky, but he was right when he said:  “The best way to know God is to love many things.”

Happy Love Day, my friends.  I think you know how I feel about you.

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