Cleaning a House – My True Ghost Story – II

My second paranormal encounter happened years later, about two miles from where I saw the ghostly apparition on Halloween night. This patch of town is charged with stranger things. I had a friend, actually he and his mother were friends of my family for years. Not quite sure how they met, or what sustained the relationship because they were so unlike my parents. They were secretive, tightfisted, aggrieved. The mother, Eleanor, had a sense of humor, but her son Thomas, not Tom, always Thomas, was a bundle of ticks and neuroses. They were not unkind people just troubled. Part of the glue that held this friendship together was, I would guess, that they and my family were residents of the area for a long time. I’m harping on this, but the relationship between mother and son, I believe, is key to the creepy things to come.

Thomas’s mother passed away after a long illness, and I was living at my folk’s place sort of in-between things. By default, Thomas and I would occasionally go to a movie, meet for a meal. I think I felt sorry for him, he seemed so dissolute without his mother – they were uncommonly attached – and he had never lived on his own. He remained living with Eleanor. He never seemed to have a girlfriend, had never married. What he did with his time was a mystery. Eleanor was quite wealthy and the property spanned 40-50 acres of prime real estate. Neither worked yet they lived well, traveled extensively. There must have been a significant coffer from which money was drawn.

During my time of hanging out with Thomas he asked if I would house-sit for him. He was going to Paris, Zurich, and Turin – for “business.” He had four semi-feral cats, to whom, he was uncommonly attached as well. I agreed to house-sit. Dumb.

Thomas’s house was traditional – I don’t know the style – it was attractive and there was a cottage (unoccupied) on the property. The house was situated on a hill with a beautiful view. No neighbors in sight. It was decorated tastefully yet fussily, a lot of white and Biedermeier. During Eleanor’s reign, if you were allowed into the living room for tea or a drink, you couldn’t relax for fear of spilling on the white damask and brocade, wriggling under Eleanor’s hawkish gaze. Good times! What’s the point of having stuff if you don’t use or enjoy it. More often, to my relief, we would congregate in the kitchen which was the only room that had any degree of warmth. It was spacious with an oak table by a stone fireplace.

The house had a strange vibe. It was hollow and a little sad – devoid of personality. Thomas told me that there had been a fire years ago and most of the house was rebuilt. Thomas’s mother was gone nearly ten years, but he tentatively moved around the house and agonized over moving or changing anything. He was an only child and had inherited the lot, but acted like he still needed permission from mom.

I go to get instructions on the care and feeding of cats and house. After all this time of “knowing” the family I had only seen the first floor. Neither upstairs nor down. When I got the tour I was barely allowed to see the upstairs but did get a tour of the basement which should, had I been a sensible girl, have sent me running. It was unfinished and ramshackle with many stone and dirt creepy crawl spaces wherein the cats would mysteriously disappear. The basement was the truth – the main floor the lie, and I was to discover, the upstairs was the awful truth.

I was told to sleep in the guest room on the first floor. It was inexplicably freezing cold. Since watching movies and shows about the paranormal that was a sign: cold spots. Teeth-chattering shivering cold. Thomas called from Europe and I told him about the Ice Station Zebra problem. He hemmed and hawed and finally said I could sleep in his mother’s room. Hallowed ground! I knew this was a big concession and something he didn’t want to do. Thomas’s bedroom was also upstairs, which I was instructed not to go into, and by glancing from the open door why would I? It was pitch dark and full of junk. A black hole. Across the hall was Eleanor’s room which resembled a Golden Age Hollywood starlet’s bedroom combined with Rebecca’s bedroom from the movie. Ultra-opulent and feminine. Boudoir. Which was strange because Eleanor was none of those things and quite unattractive. That was sad too. So I slept there. One night. It was slightly less frigid than the room downstairs.

The following morning I woke up and was cold. I hadn’t brought enough warm things so I went into Eleanor’s walk-in closet/room hoping there may be an old sweater handy, and I jumped. Among the rows and rows of negligees and fancy slippers was a mannequin head with a red wig on it. Everything was as if Eleanor would walk in at any moment and need a peignoir to entertain guests. Now I’m thinking Norman Bates.

I had enough and went downstairs to make a cup of tea and devise an excuse to get out of my obligation. I was in the kitchen and the sun was pouring in. Another sign – the sun would come in but it didn’t warm or light the house in the normal fashion. As I turned from the stove holding the kettle I see – Eleanor. Dressed in flowing white – but not a shroud. She glances at me and moves through the swinging door into the dining room. I froze. I couldn’t believe it. I put down the kettle and followed her. The door was still swinging and I caught a glimpse of her back as she turned the corner and vanished.

I got into my car and drove to my dad’s house. I didn’t say anything but I did call the girl at the vet’s office (who was the backup plan) to go care for the cats. I planned to leave it at that, but I called my sister’s Wiccan friend, Helen – I wrote about her in an earlier essay – and told her. I had to tell somebody, and Helen would understand? I made her day because she was amped and told me, “Clare, you have to clean that house! Thomas is holding his mother there and she wants to leave!” How did she know? Helen also had some choice observations about Thomas and his cats, but I’ll leave it at that.

Why did I agree to this “plan?” On the surface it’s pretty stupid, but I was curious and wanted see what, if anything, would happen. I have to say that Helen knew her stuff, she rattled off a list of things I would need which took me a day and half to assemble. Including a trip to Home Depot and a sizable length of thin copper wire which a kindly salesclerk cut into 4″ lengths. He looked at my quizzically at one point and I said, “Don’t ask.”

The day of battle arrived. I drove to the house fully equipped and with Helen’s written instructions because this was complicated business – I won’t go into detail. The first thing she told me to do was to light a white candle in a silver candlestick holder – in the room where I saw Eleanor. I placed the candle and holder on the kitchen table and went to light it and realized I didn’t have matches. I walked to the other side of the kitchen where they were on a counter, and the candle flies out of the holder at me. Like someone whipped it – hard. This was the moment where I should have reevaluated the situation. I had goosebumps but I kept on. I put the candle back and proceeded. The interior cleaning took time because it had to be done exactly as Helen prescribed. After that process, where I could feel myself getting physically exhausted, I was to extinguish the candle, close the door to the house and start on the copper wire.

According to Helen, the copper wire is an energy conduit, and as I had “cleaned” the inside of the house I needed to create a route out for Eleanor. Luckily there was a water source at the end of the long drive, and I was pushing the wire into the soft earth from the house all the way down to the stream. As I was nearly finished, it was a sunny cold October day, I looked back at the house and I heard what sounded like many doors slamming violently. More goosebumps.

Helen told me not to reenter the house, to let it rest at least an hour before returning. No convincing needed! Happy to see the place in my rear-view mirror. Later, when I had to go back to get my things, I talked my father into coming with me. I told him nothing, not because he wouldn’t have believed me, but he would have shaken his head and thought that we – I, Helen, Thomas, Eleanor and the cats – this is what we had time for? So we go, and as we’re walking towards the house glancing at two inconsequential garage doors, my father, who was a marine and feared nothing said, “You know, this place gives me the creeps.” Validation! From a sane person!

As Helen predicted, the house was different – better – and the cats were upstairs. Had Helen’s recipe worked? Still I didn’t stay. The cats were attended to by the vet girl and I went home. When Thomas returned, he called to thank me for house-sitting and at the end of the conversation he asked, “By the way, what did you do to the house?” Nothing, I said, and he dropped it. My guess is that he was weird enough to conjure Eleanor back, but I never returned, so I can’t say.

I didn’t see Thomas much after that. A couple of years later we received a postcard with a picture of a renovated cottage and a charming apartment. Thomas had moved to Geneva, why I don’t know. Maybe they have scarier ghosts there, or in the spirit of Swiss neutrality, ghosts without an agenda? I heard through the grapevine that Thomas had subdivided his sizable landholdings, made millions, and leveled the house.

Shortly after my “white magic” encounter, I was in a bookstore that specialized in theology, New Age and crystals. Something for everybody. It was a delightful store and the staff was knowledgeable. One of the last privately-owned bookshops. I was at the register and the woman who was checking me out did a double take and said, “You just did some major housecleaning!” I was impressed. We became friends until she died suddenly and unexpectedly.

As I close, remembering the experience and Eleanor’s and Thomas’s unhappy backstory – which I had to leave out because of length, I feel uneasy and a little sad. All those people, for better and worse, are gone from my life and so is any semblance of where they inhabited. Even so, I wouldn’t have changed a thing and am grateful I was shown something….unusual? And, maybe in some small way I helped Thomas move on.

Happy Housecleaning,

Clare

 

My True Ghost Stories – I

I will describe, as best I can, two events that happened years apart which defy explanation. The common denominator is they both took place in a remote area of New England, in the same town, and they occurred in the month of October. One on Halloween night. It’s Native-American ground up there, you can sense it, and I don’t know if the town’s founding fathers respected that. I need to channel Stephen King; I cannot do it justice. He is the master. I’m thinking about the Mi’kmaq burial grounds in his writings. The names of places in my story are all Native-American. We would find arrowheads in the woods, which we gave to the historical society, or if a tribal elder was passing through or we had an address, what we found was returned.

I was not a child who was afraid of the dark or had any issue with ghosts or monsters or things under the bed, so I tend to trust that my memory is reliable, if not definitive. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about believing, or not, in the supernatural, I am open to the idea and certainly there are things in this crazy world that are mystifying.

The first encounter happened when I was around 10. I had come out to the town to visit a family I knew and Halloween fell during my stay, so I went trick or treating with my friend Sara, her little brother Eddie, and her older brother Andy as our “escort.” There was a fair distance between houses, no lights on the road and it was dark. Halloween began as one would expect, knocking on doors getting candy. Then the weirdness crept up gradually like a music crescendo. By the fourth house, which was rickety looking – the local gossip was that the older couple who lived there were a bit odd – an unearthly feeling fell. No one was home. Candy was left with a note on the porch, but everything was a mess like a creature had run riot. We surveyed the disarray and decided to leave without partaking, when we sensed that someone was watching us – that someone was home in the dark house staring. Even so, we shrugged it off and continued.

Next was a house we knew. A lovely restored barn owned by a glamorous couple who weren’t around much. Above the front door was a beautiful carved horse’s head – smooth and elegantly realistic. We were familiar with the aesthetic because the couple had a marvelous swing that went over a steep hill, and in the summer months we would play there. We rang the doorbell, there was no answer and the house was dark. All at once we looked up at the horse’s head which appeared to be looking at us and at something in the distance; the pale moonlight gave it an eerie cast. That was when we started to get jittery.

We set out to the next house which was far away. The back of the country club golf course was between us and our point of destination. We were walking on the side of the dark road where the soft hills of the golf course were and a fine mist was hovering. On the other side of the road was dense wood. Not a house in sight. We were walking, talking, goofing around. Simultaneously, it seemed, we all looked towards the golf course and saw a silvery tall and slender figure of a man in leather skins – in profile. I can still see the image – no color just the moiré effect of silver/grey that defined him. Andy yelled, “Run!” And we did. As we turned to look, the figure was running parallel to us with long strides and keeping up with ease. As this point we were frightened and we kept on running until we got to the next house (which was owned by a woman who locals claimed was a witch – I think that was because no one liked the family much and they had strange ways). When we approached the house, Eddie asked, “What was that?” No one answered him. As we reached the door it opened and spilled out a flood of light. We scrambled in and were greeted by the witch mom. She seemed to sense we were rattled and she had an slight smile at the corners of her mouth (did she know?). She made us welcome while Andy called their mom to come pick us up.

We never spoke of it. Ever. And we remained friends and in touch over many years, until our parents fell ill and passed. They moved away and started their adult lives. I often wonder what it was we saw. I am convinced it was not a person trying to mess with us, but what was it?

In the last couple of years, I have gone back to visit the town and other people I know there, and I hear from them and the local teenagers that there are still strange occurrences. One girl told me that due north, where the woods are even deeper and there are no houses at all, there is a “Suburban Legend” that has been around for a time. The land is owned by the state and there are reservoirs and nature preserves so it’s virtually uninhabited. Except for one abandoned house. The legend is that a family of “melon heads” lurk there. “What do you mean melon heads?” I asked. A head like a melon with no face, no eyes, nose, or mouth.

She was on the cheerleading squad and told me that they were heading to a game with one of the mothers driving a Suburban 10-seater on this stretch, and the car just stopped. Dead. For no apparent reason. Cell phone service there is spotty at best, but they survived unscathed. I can imagine the piercing screams and shrieks that were coming from the car as they were stuck there.

Now that would have scared off just about anything.

In respect to indigenous peoples, to the land they hold sacred, to the unknown, to the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Clare

Coming Soon – My True Ghost Story II – Housecleaning. And I don’t mean vacuuming!

1942 – The Penny Dropped & Stargazing

Over Labor Day weekend I stopped at our local coffee place one morning. I used the drive-through, and while I was waiting in line I watched the person ahead of me pay by phone. I thought to myself we don’t touch many things anymore – paper, money – everything is on a screen. When my turn came I paid by cash and was handed two pennies. I rarely look at coins, that too is of the past, but one of the pennies look old and worn from time. And it was – it was minted in 1942. Pretty amazing that it was still in circulation these 76 years. I started thinking and realized it was about then that the US entered World War II.

Such a long time ago, and hardly anyone left from that time. I put the penny on the console of my car and kept it, thinking about how far it had traveled and how many hands had exchanged it. I enjoy seeing it there, in its little place of honor, every morning when I get into my car.

A few days after I received my window into the past, I decided to do some stargazing. It was a prime time to see shooting stars and a number of planets were visible in the night sky. I was looking at them from my deck and the view was fine, but there is so much “light pollution” that it is hard to compete. The next clear night we took the truck and drove inland about 10+ miles to woods and fields. Off road we went and there it was – the glorious starry night sky. I couldn’t find the old binoculars which worked so well, so I used the zoom lens of my camera for a closer look. I saw shooting stars, and what I think was a dancing star. Not sure. I should read up on astronomy, and while I’m at it pick up an old telescope at a yard sale because now there’s an app to see stars.

About a day later, the penny dropped as the saying goes, and I made the connection between the penny and looking at the stars. I remember my father telling me about his grandaunt Celeste, which oddly enough means heaven in Latin. I vaguely remember her; she was very old when I met her and I was little, but I recall she was an incredibly loving, affectionate, welcoming person with a wonderful sense of humor. She died shortly after; I don’t know how old she was. The details are lost since there is no one left to ask.

I thought of my great-grandaunt Celeste, “Celia” for short, and remember her remarkable story. She was a young widow when the war was going on – perhaps in her mid-30s. Her husband had left her a farmhouse in Tuscany which was unoccupied. Celeste decided, to the shock of her family I would imagine, to leave her young daughter in the care of her sisters, and boarded a ship to Italy, traveled to Tuscany, opened the house and moved in. Right in the middle of the war. She had gone to help with the resistance, and she spent the ensuing years smuggling American soldiers on their way north to battle that would eventually end the war in Europe. It’s quite a story and all true. My father said at the end of the war she was bestowed with medals from General Eisenhower and General Montgomery of Britain.

After the war she sold the farmhouse, came home and resumed her life here. I have seen photos of her – a pretty woman with a mass of lovely hair and a beautiful smile. There are pictures of her with a shotgun on her shoulder – she had a lot of land in the country. There she lived out her days and passed away surrounded by the many friends and family and people who loved her. 

Why didn’t I write down the salient details of this story as it was told to me? Oh well, I’m afraid it’s gone, and my imagination will have to do. As I looked at the night sky I thought of her all those years ago – almost a century. How remote and isolated Tuscany must have been, no wealthy tourists buying up and renting out renovated farmhouses for the summer. She was alone in that house, waiting for friend or foe to arrive. I imagine her looking up at the night sky which must have been crystal clear in those days. Was she afraid? She was risking grave danger: possibly rape, torture, execution. And, as she looked at the sky and heard a branch snap or a rustle of leaves, did her heart skip a beat as she went to the door and saw the relieved and grateful face of a young soldier?

Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams captivated me when I read it. There’s a chapter – and I know I’m getting this wrong – where all events in time are still occurring; we just can’t see or access them. So, when I look up at the stars and the heavens I think of Celia, young and idealistic, looking up at the same night sky, and I hope and pray that her spun silver courage, her sense of adventure, her belief in what is right, reaches into and lives in me.

In loving memory,

Clare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boyhood, Girlhood – Childhood

It’s been an odd summer. I was informed that significant planetary activity – retrogrades, eclipses, blood moons – is contributing to “the time is out of joint feeling.” Shakespearean, isn’t it?

Weather-wise summer never quite hit the target. I was out by the water days before the 4th of July and needed a fleece hoodie. Then we crashed into scorching heat advisory weather and thunderstorms…it certainly curtailed outdoor time. The flowers suffered, most weren’t all what they should have been, others couldn’t cope at all. Now the summer is winding down, not entirely, we often have a long Indian summer, but the flurried fever of back-to-school is in the air.

I was talking to a friend who has three boys, and I was marveling at  how she manages to organize and track their myriad activities. I think she would need a board bigger than what Eisenhower used for D-Day. She was ruminating over the brevity of childhood now, and remarked, “Remember when you would just lay in the grass for hours and look at the clouds and feel the earth moving beneath you…?” As she said this I saw the image (above) from the movie Boyhood – then other images flashed of my childhood experience: looking for four-leaf clovers, catching fireflies, exploring woods and fields, finding old horseshoes, arrowheads, swimming in the local swimming hole which had a huge old tree with a knotted rope to jump off from.

In my email inbox was an affirmation: “Today, I reflect on positive memories with genuine gratitude.” I regarded this as a sign to pen this post. While I was down by the sea I saw a childhood ritual in keeping with the eternity of things. There’s a small bridge that connects the island to the village and it spans a saltwater bay. High tide brings kids for the joy of bridge jumping. No equipment needed – just a swimsuit and some nerve. On my way home I saw two girls selling lemonade. I was transported back to doing that myself with my best friend on a quiet country road. The first foray into “commerce.” Our dads and friends would stop and buy a glass from us.

My mother used to read us a poem, “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” It beautifully captures that heavenly time of summer in childhood. I hadn’t thought about that poem for ages, I found it online and untarnished. Worth a read.

This afternoon, I returned to the lovely coastal setting because the weather gods relented and gave us some fine summer days. There was a girl blowing bubbles that traveled far in the sea breeze, and the kids were again at the bridge – fathers, sons, and daughters.

More memories came flooding back. Once the gate is open it is hard to close. I remember a boy I knew from summers out at my parent’s place. I have two lovely memories of him. We were leaving for Europe – gone for most of the summer  – and he had stopped my sister who was walking ahead of me. He was straddling his bike and I could only see his profile, but he was smiling and wishing us a good journey. Some years later, I ran into him at a train station – again in summer. He was all dewy and moist from rushing to catch the train. He had that high color and glow that only sweet youth doth make, and he was wearing a seersucker jacket. I found that charming. We started a friendship, a small romance, which was simply sweet. No tears, no recriminations, just ripe and happy that only the young can manage. I saw him once again five years later; he was the same pleasant intelligent person, and had newly become an attorney. I could still see the young flushed boy in him, yet something a little darker had claimed his spirit.

At the end of my reverie I stopped at the village shop where they make their own ice cream. While I was eating my Moose Tracks cone, I thought about all and more of summers past, and as happy as they are, for a moment, I break a little inside.

Let’s seize the day and enjoy the salty and sweet pleasures of summer – shut out the noise, listen to the cicadas, keep it simple, enjoy the ice cream. Sweet summer is there to grasp – the gossamer silk of now and then. As our older and younger selves, we look together up at the clouds and imagine.

Clare Irwin

 

 

 

N.B. The poem “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…” was written by John Tobias and is in an anthology of poems of the same title edited by Stephen Dunning et al.

Going to Costco with Eric Clapton

The idea for this essay came to me when I happened upon the documentary “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars” on Showtime. Then last week a friend took me to Costco which reminded me that I saved this idea in my drafts folder – involving both. I bet you’re wondering how I’ll manage to get Clapton and Costco to intersect. I’m wondering that myself. 

I re-watched the documentary last night. The first time I watched it I remember being engrossed in the story of this remarkable musician; at the same time, I felt annoyed and aggrieved, and totally overwhelmed by the gravitas of this man. I had to stop watching and it took three more attempts to finish it. Not because it wasn’t good, it was, but the level of intensity was more than I could handle in 135 minutes.

Forgive me if I am recapping what many people may already know, but most of this was new to me. Clapton’s life story is compelling and his childhood was deeply wounding. His talent emerged early; by 17 he was already part of the music scene in Britain, hanging out with members of emergent bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, et al. What a Renaissance! This quiet skinny kid who could play the guitar was right in the eye of the hurricane. On first viewing I thought, yes terrible childhood but he had so much too. I thought of Frank McCourt’s line from the first page of Angela’s Ashes, “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”

Clapton’s anguish was mother-related (what else?), his grandmother and aunt had a hand as well, so trust issues abound as well as a confused idea of women. The woman who he thought was his sister was, in fact, his mother who after giving birth leaves for Canada and starts a new family. Abandonment, rejection, cruelty: it’s all there. From stills and home movies one can see how this betrayal impacted the unsmiling little boy.

I was puzzled by my conflicting impressions of Clapton’s story. Let’s fast forward through the meteoric rise and get to the part, where upon first viewing, was where I had to stop. Perhaps this is Clapton’s story arc as they say in Hollywood: falling in love with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife and Clapton’s best friend. Bit sticky. Clapton’s obsession with her bore out some of his greatest work. The song “Layla” took inspiration from a Persian tale that Clapton had read, involving Prince Majnun who loves, unsuccessfully, a beautiful girl – Layla. It all ends in tears with Majnun in the desert giving his soul up to Allah and dying alone. The album — which includes the song “Bell Bottom Blues” also about Pattie — is momentous.

While I’m watching this part, the first time, I’m thinking, “there are girls stupid enough to think this is so romantic: this man is writing songs about how much he loves her and how lucky she was….” Boyd appears to have a fairly qualified reaction to this in the documentary. She seems like a nice enough person and someone who let two men push her around. I thought, you know after a week of this guy it’s got to get old, or completely exhausting. How can anyone live up to the ideal he has in his mind? It’s impossible. The pressure alone would kill you. And when they finally “do it,” forget fireworks and waves crashing on the cliffs – nothing less than a supernova – the death of a star – will do.

It wasn’t lost on me that even in all this pain the men have all the fun and all the talent. Apparently, Boyd was a famous model in the ranks of Jean Shrimpton, whom I have heard of, but not Boyd. That’s all very nice but it’s not nearly as good as being in a legendary rock band. So, you’re an ornament, an ideal, the long-suffering wife of the unfaithful George, and the other rock star down the road, literally, is writing you love letters.

Where does Costco come in? Well, I was thinking that as an affair this could work for a short while, but long term, and Boyd and Clapton did get married, how can this sustain itself? The mundane tasks that need doing, or delegating, they kill the perfect picture. I don’t know why I thought of Costco, maybe because I have an allergic reaction to the place, so the question came to mind, how do you go to Costco with Eric Clapton? Every little thing, every moment, has to be so laden with meaning, so pregnant with profundity, so fraught with significance – what happens? Does everyone’s head explode?

While I was at Costco last week, which gave me nightmares, they had on display an entire living room and entertainment center, all appointed as if a family could just walk in and occupy it. I thought, unkindly, that Clapton could buy a new birth family, equipped with a proper mother, and all would be well. Or would it – the prevailing theory is art is born from pain.

And, more pain is waiting. Boyd and Clapton marry, during the depths of his severe alcoholism, and inevitably it doesn’t work out. There’s a long period of isolation and affairs which bore one daughter and one son, Conor. The tragic death of his 4-year-old son is horrifying. Clapton was in New York staying at a friend’s apartment and Conor falls from an open window. I then remembered that my sister’s friend, who was at school in New York at the time, told us that she was walking home up Lexington Avenue near The Armory and she sees a man running madly towards and past her. In the flash of him she realizes that he’s Eric Clapton, and not until she was home and saw the news, that she put it together.

Through Clapton’s grief he creates an album that is a tribute to Conor. All acoustic, it wins six Grammys. More creating, more successful collaborations, awards and honors – they are legion. In an early interview in the documentary, Clapton claims he doesn’t think he will live long. He’s outlived many/most of his friends and peers: Harrison, Hendrix, Duane Allman, B.B. King…

Quite a journey and in some ways a happy-ish ending for a man who, I am sure, does not believe in them. In 2001 he marries his current wife and now has three teenage girls. At 73 he is outnumbered by four women. I wonder if fate has lent a hand here. Without exception, all the fathers of houses of girls whom I have known, especially during their teenage years, just try to get through the day without having a heart attack. Maybe Clapton in his older age can see women for who they are – perhaps still mystifying but definitely human. 

Christ, I’m at 1100+ words and I’m getting annoyed again. This guy is still in my head. I’m sick of this whole subject and am returning to my initial mean-spirited feeling which was: wake up and realize how fortunate you are! You have it all! There are millions of people who have it so unspeakably worse, and nothing good happens, or if it does it’s not of this Olympian magnitude. What a lucky man you are.

And ladies, get your own rock band, career, something – don’t just sit in attendance and/or nursemaid these talented men. You know all those romantic songs about “their lady loves?” Well, they are more about them than you. Get over yourself, move on and get a life! Cautionary coda: Google Pattie Boyd now, take a look at her website and attending articles. At 73 she’s living in the past and swiftly approaching an eerie imitation of Miss Havisham. 

After all this hammering at the computer I wonder why I ever did this. Life is hard and it’s wonderful and for all the horrendous shit you go through – if you like yourself now, then it was all absolutely necessary.

 

So, Mr. Clapton, I bid you adieu. Try to be happy, be a good parent and give generously.

Clare Irwin

PS I never want to talk or write about this ever again!

Plastics!

As I wrap up my graduation tour I’ve had time to ponder the current state of affairs for those who are about to enter the job field. While I was listening to one commencement speech – which I was called upon to “script doctor” – my mind wandered away to my undergraduate commencement speech and speaker. It wasn’t that long ago, at least not by my reckoning, yet it seems that even in the last five to seven years “life” has changed drastically.

The speech I was not listening to, because I knew what was coming, was somewhat cliché and self-congratulatory. I did my best to eliminate the “reach-for-the-stars- follow-your-dreams-you-can-do-anything!” triteness, with marginal success. At the same time, it would not have worked if I turned my hand to it more, which would have resulted in the speech sounding like Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot ghostwrote it.

Back to my graduation speaker. In my case the speaker was an alum of distinction. She came from a prominent American family of long pedigree, but she did not rest on those laurels. She has written seminal and acclaimed books on politics and history and has ventured into dangerous war zones to do so. Her words to us were powerful – they were only slightly congratulatory. This was a college that actually required hard work. All the more reason, in this woman’s estimation, that the privilege we had just been afforded required a greater responsibly. It was a rousing exhortation to all gathered that we had social, moral and ethical obligations to try in our way, large or small, to contribute in a worthwhile manner to the betterment of humanity and the earth. It was and is a tall order – a life-long duty and I applaud it.

Back to the present day where every “accomplishment,” however inconsequential, is celebrated. To be sure, there were many grads who did extraordinary work and overcame truly horrendous obstacles. Most are “dreamers” which is the only new word in the American lexicon that I like – amid all the ugly horrid ones. I’d like to think we are all dreamers. The word makes me think of the John Lennon song “Imagine.”

Of this current group of grads, as well as the teens I spoke to, their preeminent concern is getting a job after graduation. Teens are worried and they haven’t gotten there yet.  One reason, surely, is that college is so costly – even an organ donation won’t cover it – that the expectation must needs that employment immediately follow. This, sadly, turns college – in my view – into a technical school. Going to college to become educated, to have a “gentleman’s [or woman’s] education” is a luxury that is beyond most. When I talk about it people look at me like I’ve lost my mind.

Those grads who I know were fortunate to land jobs straightaway – all in STEM fields. Commendable to be sure, and I have no doubt they will do great things. But where, oh where, are our new crop of artists, poets, writers, dancers, musicians, sculptors, et al.? Will they be forced to forgo their creative bent and work for a Fortune 500 company that guarantees you some financial stability but kills your soul? Okay, that might be a bit much, but I’m campaigning for the “B-word” – Balance!!!

I had a professor, at this same college, who posited that the greatest ages were those where the sciences and the humanities were equal – e.g., the Renaissance, the 19th century. I suspect the 21st century will not be included on this list. The scale is tipped to science.

So, to recall a line from the enduring film The Graduate, plastics was the future. Fast forward 51(!) years, and we have this: 

Now the wave of the future is: Science, Technology, Engineering Math – STEM: the siren’s call to lucre, upward mobility, keeping up with the Jone’s, mortgages, 401Ks, debt. The American way.

Welcome to the machine.

 

 

 

 

Clare Irwin

Having The Vapors

The May 14th issue of The New Yorker featured an article on vaping, specifically Juuling, offering an insight into the vape culture that has emerged and skyrocketed. During my high school/college graduation and talking to teens tour, I learned that this phenomenon is uniquely theirs. They have claimed it. I know two people who vape who are in their mid-20’s, but the core group is high school and college –  middle school as well.

The article was startling. More nicotine can be put into a pod than what is in one cigarette, in fact kids are putting the equivalent of one pack’s worth (20 cigarettes) of nicotine into a pod. That’s terrifying – it could stop the heart! They’re young and invincible, but most are still seeing a pediatrician – do they know whether they might have a heart condition – mild or otherwise? The flavors sound disgusting, and God knows what harm the chemicals that create, say, Creme Brulee or Cool Cucumber, will do long term. Also, the off brands are using formaldehyde and other additives that are in cigarettes. It’s expensive too, not exactly a cheaper alternative to smoking.

Juul of course is in the forefront. The other point of interest to my teens was how much money the inventors and company make. Tons. I have written that I do smoke, so I’m not judging here…well not too much. I entertained the idea of vaping as a method to quit smoking, but the article and my teens discouraged that idea.

All of this annoys me and gives me a feeling of evil glee. Smoking has had a bad rap for ages, and virtually the only place you can smoke is in the privacy of your home: like it’s some dirty little secret. But vaping you can do anywhere: in class, on a bus – vapers have the run of the place! Why aren’t they in Siberia shivering with the rest of the smokers I see huddled together in winter, or sweltering in the summer?

The glee comes in because now vaping is the new smoking. Also sitting is the new smoking, So is marijuana. All can kill you and possibly faster than smoking which takes about 30+ years. I know it’s all bad and terrible and we should just stop. But I am pleased that smoking moved down a couple of rungs.

Finally, from a cinematic POV, vaping doesn’t have the same allure. How would it have looked if Bogart had lit(?) Bacall’s pod? Or Paul Henreid firing up two pods before handing one to Bette Davis?

I am reminded of a line in Fight Club “The only people who smoke in movies now are foreigners and serial killers.” I’m not sure if I have it exact, but in that wonderful anarchic film everyone smokes.

“We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

Take the power back and let’s, including me, make smart choices?

 

Clare Irwin

 

American Horror Story: Catholic High School

I wrote in the previous post that I had spent time with teenagers on the cusp of their senior year and the world beyond. Three of these teens attend a private co-ed catholic

school. As they opened up, and saw they had a captivated audience in me, they let loose.

I don’t know much about private catholic schools, and the ones I have a brushing acquaintance with are posh and single sex. So, this is new to me. Also, the school is in suburbia – that strange land. The tuition is crazy expensive. The kids I spoke to, two girls and one boy, are smart, funny, adorable – terrific. But they are in a weird school.

I am proposing to FX that the next season of American Horror Story should be Catholic High School. Jessica Lange could return as a sadistic principal. The faculty at this school are lay teachers. There is a priest on staff who, along with his duty of hearing confessions, spends his time chiding the girls for wearing their uniforms too short in a shaming and long-winded way.

I also learned:

You can’t use the drinking fountains unless you want to get chlamydia, herpes or other social/viral/bacterial diseases.

When I was with these three teens, they were in the midst of writing a theology paper. Thomas Aquinas? St. Augustine? Nope. The paper was on abortion and how they feel about it. Talk about a rigged game! This is where I abandon hope for the future of education. Yeah, I know it’s a touchy subject. However, where better to learn to listen to opposing views in an intelligent and respectful manner and create thoughtful debate? In the venerable run down halls of this institution for a start. This trio hasn’t a full-formed opinion on abortion, but they do know the paper has to be against abortion. Which is fine. But, it’s also not. They are not thinking about the issue, only that they need to give “them” what “they” want – or face the consequences.

The Spanish language teacher is not from Spain – he was originally a history teacher. He spent one year in Spain during college and is a self-proclaimed Spaniard. From what I can tell he acts like a hysterical maniac. He singles out students he doesn’t like and gives out detentions generously. And, he lives with his mother. One of the girls had detention with him – alone in a classroom with this guy. She reached for a book to do homework and he shouted, “No! Eyes straight ahead!” For 90 minutes. Prayer or mediation are not sanctioned? Maybe one could silently pray that the police finally uncover the dead hookers he buried in his mother’s basement.

The young man is deeply engrossed in A.I. and is building a “better Alexa*” as he puts it. I asked him about colleges he is considering with his guidance counselor. I received a confusing answer – not because this young man is confused – he knows exactly what he wants. I’m guessing the explanation he was given was muddled. The guidance counselor thought he should get three letters of recommendation instead of the usual two. I asked why and he said, “I don’t really know, because he (the guidance counselor) began by saying, ‘Jesus would want you to.’ And that’s when I stopped listening.”

Two of the three are involved in school theater. The most recent production was the musical Guys and Dolls  – catholic school material? Gambling, burlesque, unmarried couples…There was an awards ceremony – county or catholic-wide – and the boy was nominated for three awards. One of the “leading ladies” (Lady Gaga?), who had been overlooked, was furious and said, “If you win an award, I’ll kill myself!” There’s much to parse here. First, she’s perfect for the acting profession with that level of hyperbole. And, where are the Catholic/Christian tenets of loving one another, turning the other cheek? And the suicide threat! Isn’t that a major mortal sin? The tenets are not in evidence but the seven deadly/cardinal and mortal sins are. Nice work!

I’m not worried about these three – they have great families and once they leave this asylum – they will be fine. I don’t doubt there will be a period of time where they may eschew Catholicism and attending church. Can one blame them? My greater concern is that they will be turned off from learning, which would be a shame.

Maybe there is Life on Mars after all……the best-selling show…

Clare Irwin

*Since we’ve thrown decorum out the window, I’ll mention that I tried to convince the young man to name his “Alexa” after a French prostitute. He wasn’t buying it.

You are Sixteen Going on Seventeen – Baby, It’s Time to Think

I haven’t posted for a month, and I am disappointed with myself. May was incredibly busy: work was overwhelming, and I was invited and attended a variety of graduations and commencements –  both high school and college.

I spent some delightful time with 16 and 17-year-olds, and heard their perspectives. These teenagers are pretty grounded. Practical are they, and fairly realistic. Yes, there is the occasional delusional one. They are facing major rites of passage: getting into college, leaving home for the first time, and trying to afford college. We had numerous conversations about all this, and I am appalled at what it costs to go to college in this country. And, there’s no guarantee that you come out knowing any more than when you entered.

Three of the kids were in the midst of taking their SATs, and they showed me the “new” SAT “book.” A revelation. There are no grammar or vocabulary sections as in the past, just endless, grindingly dull reading passages that are more an endurance test than any measure of…whatever this is supposed to measure. I read a few and there were questions that I wondered, and am still wondering, what in the name of God does this measure? I couldn’t find any scholarly or intellectual connection. I’m reaching the conclusion that it’s preparation – education be damned – to turn unsuspecting young people into industry fodder. Drones. If you can get through the test, probably take it numerous times, and if you don’t crack – you go to college and then get a job working for The Man where you spend the next many years paying off loans.

I also noticed a fair amount of propaganda in some of the SAT passages. I read one on fracking that implied that it’s a good thing, that there isn’t evidence yet to connect it to earthquakes in areas where they were never earthquakes, or with tap water that comes out in flames or dark brown. It’s all great! Another was on big pharma and GMOs and how much good they do. Jesus! These sweet kids receive these messages, and how are they to know there may be another point of view? Aside that this is all crap –  it isn’t even well-written mind control. There is one nod to literature: the first passage. That’s it! From what I can tell it is usually 19th Century: Dickens, Stevenson, Trollope, Shelley…none of whom these kids know.

I found all this unutterably discouraging and felt sincerely sorry for our future leaders. Plus they live in the suburbs which I am beginning to think is not as wonderful as one would think. It’s too sheltered and sanitized. How does one acquire any life skills? I am so grateful to my parents and our upbringing: we saw the world, we lived in it, and the thirst and love for knowledge was for knowledge’s sake. I see more and more how rare our experience was and how fortunate.

Okay, so not everyone gets to have that. Well, I would pick one of these kids who demonstrates a little gumption, and hand them a pile of money (how I would have the money is not a detail in this fantasy), say nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which is what I imagine the average cost would be for four years including travel, room and board, etc. I would put the pile of money into his/her hands and say, “Here, go travel the world, have meetings with remarkable people, have adventures, shed your middle class morality, spend time in Paris, Hong Kong, a brothel in Tangiers, kayak down a Tibetan gorge. Live!”

And then come back and question authority. Now that is an education.

“You are sixteen going on seventeen
Baby, you’re on the brink…”

Clare Irwin

 

 

 

 

Lyrics from The Sound of Music, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

 

Is There Anybody Out There?

I caught a few minutes of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony on Capitol Hill. I found curious that this titan of commerce is somewhat unimpressive to me. Maybe it’s his boyish face and voice, and the veiled petulant stance he took with his questioners. I never used Facebook. I tried for about two minutes – it was too busy and noisy. Not to say that Twitter isn’t a frenetic sphere, but I was able to “get” it.

What amuses me, and worries me, is the data collected on everyone who uses Facebook, and how that information is used. Certainly, it is of great concern, but I am vexed because I found myself tangled in a competitive streak. I wondered: with all this watching, why aren’t they (who are they?) looking at my blog?! According to my analytics, I’m lucky to have a dozen people a day visiting. I know I should return to the “I-don’t-care-that’s-not-why-I-am-writing-it” attitude with which I began. That would be the wiser course of action.

I was helping a 20-year-old with a college transfer essay which prompted her to write about her academic and career goals. She was stumped – blocked. So typically, I related it to my experience and said, “Well, when I was 20 my goal was world domination.” I was half-joking and she laughed. Then she looked at me and said, “I can see that.” She just met me! I decided to take it as a compliment, but her comment made me think: what the hell kind of vibe do I give off? To consider that people see you differently than you see yourself was a valuable reality check. Duh!

As I have mentioned, I attended a rigorous rarefied prep school*, which I, for the most part, loved. An acquaintance once said to me that the only thing my school was good for was “breeding competitive little bitches.” He was just jealous that he’d never look as cute in the uniform.

I ran into this young lady the next day and thanked her for the insight. She was great and said, “You could definitely beat those old white guys’ asses.” How’s that for a morale boost?

Data collection, big brother, old white guys, whatever…come on people! Read this competitive little bitch’s blog! 

 

 

 

 

 

Clare Irwin

 

*See January 2018 post: “Be True To Your School.”