Dressed To Drive

There are two unshakeable passions in my life:  clothes and cars.  It occurs to me that I like them for the same reasons.  Both are style statements and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.   It is nothing to do with status or exclusivity.  It is completely to do with the joy of transport, literal and psychological.  They transform you when you wear or drive them, they provide a brief

escape into who you want to be that day as opposed to the person you might be by 5 o’clock,  frayed at the edges by everyday, quotidian stress.

The exhilaration I feel when I compose an outfit that works is the same sense of visceral satisfaction I feel accelerating through the gears of one of my cars.  It is a form of control, a statement of movement and an illusion of ownership that you power through the day.

So many times I’ll be getting dressed and think,  If this dress were a car, it would be . . .  .  It’s an aesthetic exercise I can’t resist.

One vivid example is my vintage yellow mod mini dress.  Its angular, crisp lines remind me of nothing so much as a BMW 2002, produced from 1968-1975.

Both from roughly the same era, the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, they are sporty without being overtly sexy.  Their tailored boxiness is revolutionary, shouting modern because they are pared down, without fuss.  Both are a world away from the 1950’s, refusing the voluminous curvature of huge skirts with crinolines and bullet bras, refusing the tail fins and protruding chrome of  luxury cruisers.  Both are small, lightweight and perceptual exercises in less is more, aimed at performance and practicality.  They exude power from what they don’t have as much as what they have.   In the BMW’s case, its original configuration was a 4 cylinder, 2 liter engine of 98 bhp, about 106  mph top speed.  At about 2,000 lbs, it was a small four seater with no frills. No earth shattering power, but the agile drivability and steering of this car set the stage for the BMW 3 series, the

driver’s car that changed BMW’s public perception forever.

Both mini dress and small sports coupe, in their quiet ways, ushered in a new era of casual, informal mobility. The round headlights of the little car are as iconic as a Vidal Sassoon haircut, staples certainly of Mod culture but evocative of an entire philosophy of post World War II modernism.  An affordable, practical performance car that was fun to drive.  A little dress with enough sartorial range for a woman to wear to work — something she increasingly did in this era — then out to dinner, a movie, or dancing afterwards.   Neither was drop dead dramatic or fast, but getting from Point A to Point B in both of them produces a youthquake of fun.

What do you think?  This inaugurates a new series in my IG and blog mimsywords.com about the parallels I see between design in fashion and automotive design. 

Credit to Four Story Vintage for the dress (@fourstoryvintage) and bmwblog.com for the  BMW photo which originally appeared 9/30/15  in a post about cars selling at  Sotheby’s Auction. This 1972 example in Golf Yellow features black leatherette interior. 100-hp, 2.0-liter SOHC inline-four; four-speed manual transmission. 


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Water World


(image credit the spottedtail.com)

“Our brains are hardwired to think in terms of place and to associate psychic value or meaning to the places we inhabit.” ― Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

A friend was talking about Shiloh and Haulover Canal, how the sheer beauty and the discovery of wildlife there — otters and manatees — were life changing.   This area south of Oak Hill is a stunning alchemy of land and water, part of the land undeveloped and owned by NASA, where the Indian River meets Mosquito Lagoon.

“Yeah, I know Shiloh,”  I said.  A bit of an understatement,  because I always think if my spirit leaves my body and inhabits a physical place it will go to Shiloh, one of the first places I visited when I returned to Florida.  Driving along State Road 3,  you can look out over a huge sheet of water and see small islands shimmering against the horizon.  Its beauty is picturesque and almost hyper real, like a Highwaymen painting, but it’s the real deal, defiant and breathtaking.  It always reminds me how Florida runs to two extremes:  really paved over and tamed with Denny’s and condos, or just totally primitive, green, and blue, backlit by dazzling light.

There was a time when I couldn’t wait to leave Florida.  But that’s exactly what it took — leaving — before I would claim this flat wet state as my home.  There were many years of ‘yeah whatever’ before I could rhapsodize about the river or ocean.

Growing up on the Indian River,  I can’t say I took it completely for granted.  There was always something going on down by the water.  Our turn of the century house was named Salt Aire.  The builder had drowned at sea. We lived right next to a drawbridge.  Amazing yachts slid through the water, headed south for the winter.  I would sit on the porch swing and watch them with binoculars.  Dolphins, manatees, and pelicans were common as squirrels.  The tide would go out,  sandbars would emerge,  and my brother, my friends and I ran barefoot.  Inevitably, one of us would come home wailing, hopping along the hot sidewalk and dripping blood from an oyster shell cut. 

History was packed into the sandbars.  Our house sat on the site of Fort Smyrna, and some amateur archaeologist pulled an old cutlass from the river muck at low tide.  It belonged to a northern lieutenant from the Civil War, it got lost in a Union-Confederate skirmish, and it was returned to the lieutenant’s descendants who were very surprised that they even had a Civil War ancestor. 

When kids absorb fragments of spiritual belief through parents or teachers, some imagine an afterlife and assign it a physical setting.   My idea of heaven was always the sky above the Indian River in New Smyrna.   So whatever the angels, or the devil, or Jesus in his sandals were doing, praying or forgiving sinners or spying on people,  they were doing it from the clouds right above where my dad taught me to fish and where a barge plowed through and destroyed our dock late one night. 

Nearly every weekend, we sailed on the river or cut through Ponce Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean.  My father preferred sailboats to speedboats, but I secretly lusted after the hull smacking speed of Scarabs and Donzis and the sparkle decked Glastron Carlsons throwing rooster tails.  Dad said speedboats were a dangerous and tacky waste of money.  That always seemed vaguely hypocritical coming from a man who, on land, was pulled over for speeding about every two weeks and regularly traded sports cars for muscle cars, and vice versa.

I pouted through my entire young relationship with water. I begrudgingly helped out on the sailboat — I spent most of my time reading and eating potato chips. I was a poor deckhand and a chicken shit water skier.  My dad tried and failed to interest me in surfing.  I’m still an average swimmer,  and my mom used to say I swam like a Cocker Spaniel, awkwardly,  with my blond hair and ears way out of the water.   I resented the way the salty wind tangled my hair.   There were screaming sessions of shampoo and spray bottles of Tame to comb the knots out of my hair after a weekend on the boat.  This ritual took a good chunk of Sunday evening, through HeeHaw and Wild Kingdom on television.

If you credit the idea of reincarnation, during a  hypnotic regression a few years back,   I discovered — supposedly —  that I was a British sea  captain about 1803 working for the East India Company who lost a cargo when the ship took on water and sank. (This is covered in my earlier post “Trip Down Past Life Lane” from 2012).  I apparently spent the rest of that life haunted by a thin specter of failure. In my current Mimi-life,  I still shudder at the murky,  unnatural sight of a boat underwater.   All my childhood boating adventures were tinged with anxiety.  Before we left the dock I’d already imagined us sinking and being rescued by the Coast Guard or getting chomped by sharks. I’d go up to the bow and silently pray Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s that I learned in Catholic school.  My parents had no clue what I was doing, just thought I was daydreaming into the wind.   

Still, my heart and mind were marked.  I’d grown used to looking out my bedroom window and seeing vistas of blue and grey and green,  to hearing the dull thrum of boat propellers shifting the water, to the faint roar of the ocean filtered three miles through the mangroves in the early morning.

I moved to Maryland for most of the 1990’s and I lived inland around the Beltway.  I was in my late 20’s and freshly out of my first, starter marriage. There were autumn leaves,  cherry blossoms, lush green farmland, fun hikes, and even the magnificent Great Falls, but never a large body of water where my eye stretched out to find the horizon. 

One winter,  my two best friends and I drove to Ocean City, Maryland for an off-season weekend getaway.  It was unseasonably warm, daylight was fading, and we had the windows rolled down.  For miles we drove across the wetlands leading up to the Chesapeake Bay.   As we rolled east across the Bay Bridge, the air hung dense with salt.  My mounting exhilaration outweighed the loud music we played or the girlfriend chatter going on between the front and back seat. By the time we reached Ocean City the sky was dark and ozone smell peppered the wind.  The street holiday lights were semi-magical in glowing bright shapes of starfish and dolphins.  Although I’d never been to Ocean City, I felt like I was home. 

I couldn’t see the ocean, but I felt it looming and waiting, its sturdy back rising and falling through the night.  When I woke the next morning, the ocean was clear and crisp against the horizon.  All the uncertainty, the lack of identity and displacement I’d felt for the past few years just lifted.  It was crystal clear in that moment that I would return to Florida and live by the water.  Everything was okay and everything was possible. 

Simple geography is, amazingly, so emotional.   My frustrating old childhood companion, the water, was now a potent, heady combo of excitement, possibility, and comfort.  It hits me every time I see places where the sky and water meet and mingle.  They are particularly compatible in parts of Florida where the sky hangs over the water like a desperate lover,  wanting so much to see its own brilliance reflected and magnified.

Any poetry I’ve ever written is suffused with water imagery.  I dream about houses that are washed away by waves, and I’m sporadically writing an Apollo-era astronaut romance that is physically  set between the ocean and river.  The physical setting is as much a character as the lovers themselves.

Whenever we drove to Ocean City, my friends and I hoped for a lot.  We were still young enough to think we could make some kind of impact, that there might be some purpose to our lives.   But our soul-searching was always tempered by worldly idiocy.  The first year we went to OC we started the weekend with a bottle of Goldschlager and a dance-a-thon competition.  We didn’t reach any spiritual plateaus of understanding. Year after year, we looked for meaning in jobs, books, men, foster dogs, academic success, running, diets, sewing, wine, therapy, cars. After awhile, we stopped searching so desperately and life just took over. 

And yet. Even if we’re not as successful or evolved or soul mated as we once thought we’d be,  years later, the three of us live in physical locations that are perfect for us, and that’s a good consolation prize.

One of my friends lives on some beautiful wooded Virginia acreage.  Her home is surrounded by trees and she has goats in her backyard.  She has beautiful children– something she always wanted.  My other friend lives in a big townhouse in one of the oldest,  antique jammed cities in Maryland — it is amazingly decorated and full of her eccentric wonders.  I could spend days going through her book shelves.

I live in a river house that hangs so far over the water that when I walk downstairs I see dolphin and blue herons before I reach the next landing. About this time of year, November, I can open the windows at night and fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping the beach.  And if I step outside and look up, it’s there in the clouds: the sense of possibility and peace hanging over the river somewhere between Shiloh and the Indian River Lagoon.  In this, I am really lucky.


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Be Colorful! Celebrating Pete Conrad

Pete racing on the weekendImage

(photo credit gettyimages.com)

“If you can’t be good, be colorful,”   said astronaut Pete Conrad (1930-1999).   This remark captures why this guy will always be my favorite astronaut.   He could do all the aviator hero stuff: hotshot test pilot, raced cars in Formula V and SCCA, flew Gemini V and XI, commanded Apollo XII, helped develop and flew Skylab, then went on to an illustrious career in private aviation industry.  “Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie,” said Michael Collins of his fellow astronaut. 

Pete was a badass while laughing at himself, because even though he was in a deadly serious business he never took himself too seriously. Simply, he was not an arrogant prick. I’ve always loved people who can pull off bravado without boasting, who can pull off snark-free swagger.   And if they can be funny while doing something amazing —  sheeeejuz!  Mercutio and Prince Hal: those are my type of guys.

Pete nearly fell asleep while sitting atop the Saturn V rocket before the Apollo 12 launch, leading everyone including Walter Cronkite to believe he was incredibly relaxed.  He later admitted he was drowsy because he’d lost so much sleep due to the inherent stress and yes, fear, involved in preparation for a lunar mission.  Then there was the time he claimed that he tried, really tried to get Deke Slayton, Neil Armstrong, and a bunch of other guys to slow down their wild Corvette stampede on the freeway before they got arrested, and they did get arrested. Sure, Pete. 

Out of all the pantheon of space heroes, I still flip to “C” for Conrad in the index of any new space book I pick up. My heart skips a beat if I find a story or photo of him that I’ve never heard or seen before. I swooned when I saw this shot of him (above) standing next to a Porsche 911 race car at Daytona International Speedway in the early 1970s. My favorite astronaut!  And my favorite car! Together! My circuits overloaded and fried. (And yes, space freaks, I had to take a moment to sigh, collect myself and switch SCE to AUX.  My admiration is no doubt muddled with some loving image of my own father, another gap-toothed, blue-eyed blonde whose general cruising speed in those days was 100 mph in a car or on a motorcycle.)

Pete Conrad could find the funny side of any situation.  Probably his best-known quip is the one he delivered as he stepped out of the Apollo 12 lunar module. By this time, Apollo 11 had flown and Pete’s colleague Neil Armstrong had delivered his famous “one small step” line. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci didn’t believe that Armstrong conjured this line by himself.   Pete argued with her that he could deliver a flip remark completely unscripted by NASA as he stepped onto the moon’s surface. The diminutive, 5’6 Conrad said, “Whoopee! Man, that might have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” Pete later said, “If I could get $500 off a Communist that was pretty good,” referring to the sum of money he bet the leftist writer. He won the bet but never saw his $500.

His sense of humor was not always appreciated. In fact, he didn’t make the cut for the original Mercury 7 because he was a smartass. After being subjected to the usual degrading and grueling physicals in the astronaut screening process, he decided to have some fun at a psychological test. After showing him all kinds of Rorschach ink blobs, the testers showed him a blank card. Pete deadpanned, “It’s upside down.” He also purportedly delivered his enema bag and stool sample with an extra flourish.   The selection committee deemed him “unsuitable for long duration spaceflight.”

A few years later he got a second chance to apply to the Astronaut Corps. This time he made it. There’s a shot from 1962 showing “The New Nine” as they were called, the next batch of astronauts who would form the backbone of the Apollo program. Pete, who became known for his sharp clothes and extensive hat collection, already displays sartorial originality. The other guys are eager and earnest looking in serious dark suits, while Pete flanks the group in a dapper light colored suit looking ready for a garden party or the Kentucky Derby.


 The New Nine, 1962  ( photo credit digitalprojects.libraries.uc.ed)

After nearly dying of boredom when he ran out of things to say to Gordo Cooper on an 8-day Gemini V flight, Pete insisted that crews be allowed to take music on their missions for the sake of entertainment.   Even without music, Pete provided his own soundtrack of tuneless humming, gum chewing, and profanities, which cracked up countless technicians, flight simulator operators, and other astronauts. NASA administration was a little apprehensive … what if he says stuff like this during the mission … like, on national television? He didn’t. Pete developed a very precise sense of how much he could get away with. He refrained from his plan to somersault across the deck of the aircraft carrier after Gemini V, when he spotted red carpets, admirals, and a brass band.  The recording loop of Apollo 12 is full of Pete’s unexplained laughter on the lunar surface.  Today we know that his buddies tucked pictures of Playboy centerfolds into his mission checklist with notes reminding him to “check the protuberances” — on the lunar surface, of course.  By that time, Pete knew enough not to explain his laughter.

His Apollo crew loved him. Pete, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean roared around the Cape and Cocoa Beach in a trio of matching gold Corvettes, throwing down the gauntlet to all the other crews hoping to express their solidarity through a macho display of horsepower. These 1969 models had four speed manual transmission and 429 cubic inch/390 horsepower engines. They were part of a sweet lease deal that astronauts had with GM dealer Jim Rathmann. At this writing, to my knowledge, only Alan Bean’s Vette has resurfaced as has been restored to pristine, Apollo-era condition.


The jester of the Astronaut Corps, Pete seemed to find happiness in everything he did, never waxing poetic, weepy, or profound about his moonwalk. “Super!” he’d say, “Really enjoyed it!” he’d tell inquiring fans about his mission, like he’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Sometimes space fans would feel cheated because they’d want more strum und drang, and he just wouldn’t give it to them. Wasn’t in his nature.

That’s not to say, however, that he always had an easy time. Born June 2, 1930, Charles Conrad, Jr. was born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, only to see his father’s fortune and his parents’ marriage crumble in the aftermath of the Depression.   During his school years, he struggled with dyslexia, then an unrecognized disorder. By sheer application and a systematic approach to study, he overcame his academic setbacks sufficiently to attend and graduate from Princeton. In perhaps the saddest chapter of Pete’s life, his youngest son Christopher died from lymphoma at the age of 28.


Apollo 12 liftoff   (photo credit aerospaceweb.org)

Crash!  On November 14, 1969, the launch of Apollo 12 was probably the scariest liftoff of the whole Apollo program.   The giant Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning, causing power in the command module to go haywire. “The flight was extremely normal . . . for the first 36 seconds,“ said Pete, “then got very interesting.” The crew was perplexed, until flight controller John Aaron suggested switching SCE to AUX. Luckily, Alan Bean knew the correct switch to hit and Pete’s hand never twisted the abort handle. The mission was on target and moonbound, as Pete guessed correctly that they’d been hit by lightning. Listening to a recording today, the crew’s sangfroid is remarkable.  

I’m not sure what I was doing that day, fifty miles up the coast in New Smyrna, but it’s likely there was a launch party on a Friday with lots of booze. Some of our neighbors worked at the Cape, and as a four-year-old rugrat I had a ringside, knee-high view of grownup hijinks and excitement. I remember lots of terrazzo floors and soggy cocktail napkins in those days.

After a pinpoint landing on the moon, a successful moonwalk, and while piloting the lunar module Intreped to rendezvous with command module Yankee Clipper, Pete asked “rookie” Alan Bean if he’d like to take the controls. Usually tasks were strictly defined — and monitored by Mission Control. Pete generously let the younger man handle the craft during a burn on the dark side of the moon, when NASA would be none the wiser, giving Al a chance he’d never get otherwise.   This is what I mean by badass: doing something so difficult yet being so relaxed and competent that you can make a generous, fun, and selfless gesture to another human being.

This post barely glosses the surface of who Pete Conrad was and what he did.  So many people actually met him, knew him, and have wonderful stories to tell that they’ve shared online. 

In 1999, Pete’s luck ran out and he died at the age of 69 after sustaining internal injuries in a motorcycle accident.  As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, he exited life the way he lived it:  having fun, moving fast, pushing the envelope.   At a memorial service at Johnson Space Center, his old buddy Al Bean pretended to “channel” his spirit, and claimed that Pete requested colored lights on his memorial tree at JSC.  And that’s what happened. The grove at JSC twinkles with white lights for astronauts no longer with us; except for Pete’s tree, which twinkles bright red. As Al Bean said, he was both good and colorful.

Happy Birthday, Pete Conrad! There are so many of us on this earth who will always miss you.



(photo credit arlingtoncemetery.net)


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Astronaut Shot Down By a Nun

Up for sale at Heritage Auctions (minimum bid $1,000) is a great series of letters between Apollo astronaut Jack Swigert (the cute swinging single one in Apollo 13) and actress Dolores Hart.  Hart was a successful and beautiful actress with a firm Catholic faith — so firm that she became a nun in 1963.  It is cute to see this tough aviator/astronaut write her a fan letter, then eventually work up his nerve to ask her for a dinner date.  She turned him down, and he backpedalled and acted like he wasn’t really asking her for a date.  I’m attaching notes and images from heritageauctions.com.   This was featured in one of my favorite space blogs, lightthiscandle.com.  Dolores had some DAMN strong faith.  I would not have refused a date with Jack Swigert!


Jack Swigert Archive of Letters to Actress Dolores Hart, 1961-1963. Jack Swigert was chosen as an astronaut in April 1966 as part of the fifth NASA group. Previous to that he was an Air Force pilot flying jet fighters in Korea and then a test pilot for Pratt Witney and North American Aviation. He is best known as the last-minute substitute for Ken Mattingly as command module pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Dolores Hart was a talented and beautiful young actress who made her debut in Loving You as Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1957. She later appeared with Elvis again in King Creole. After several successful movies including a part as a nun in Francis of Assisi, she actually did join a religious order in 1963, becoming a Roman Catholic nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Pilot and future astronaut Jack Swigert read an article about her in Parade Magazine in 1961 and, as a Catholic himself, was impressed with her religious views (and beauty, of course) and started a correspondence with her. These are the letters he wrote her over a two year period. Most are well-worn with notes written on them by Hart or her secretary. Also included in the archive are various clippings about his career. Overall good. Excerpts follow.


October 22, 1961, two pages handwritten, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Without a doubt you’ll get many letters but it is still a hope that this one gets by the many mail openers- and to you personally.
“Just wanted to express my thought on the fine article in Parade Magazine— especially about your views on religion and its place in your career. To be sure there isn’t much that reaches the public from that field which shows religion has much of a place-especially from the Catholic side. It is good to see that religion has the meaning and importance to you.
“In my case, the Jesuit education in Denver gave me the foundation and I think my test pilot occupation helps me to retain the importance of religion which sometimes escapes in a modern world… This wasn’t meant to be a religious letter. Impetuous as pilots sometimes are, just thought you might like to know someone from the other side of the country likes your ideas and wishes you well. Sincerely Jack (Swigert)”


March 31, 1962, two pages handwritten with envelope, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Have an airplane for the Easter weekend and will be westward bound. L.A. being only about 1½ hours from Denver should put me there sometime Saturday morning. If you have no plans for Saturday evening- or the afternoon for that matter it would be a most pleasant end to a long trip to have dinner and a drink together.
“Thanks again for the pictures and taking the time to answer my letter about the Parade article… With best wishes Jack Swigert”


April 18, 1962, one page typewritten (carbon), Hart to Swigert.
“Dear Jack: It was most thoughtful of you to include me in your Easter holiday plans, but, unfortunately, I am unable to accept your invitation to dine with you during your visit to Los Angeles… Sincerely. Dolores Hart”


May 9, 1962, three pages handwritten with envelope and clipping, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter must have reached Conn. Just about the time I was leaving California for Denver and points East…
“Imagine our two professions are much alike. There’s a challenge and, with something different all the time, it certainly never gets to be the 9 – 5 routine. But after Glenn’s ride it’s obvious where the future is in the flight test field… Sincerely Jack”


June 2, 1963, two pages with envelope and color photo, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter came while I was at the Manned Space Conference in Dallas…
“Have I been guilty of creating the wrong impression?… Remember- it was an article about you in Parade that prompted my letter way back when. Felt that an article which revealed high religious and moral values together with intelligence and femininity was too unusual a combination for modern Hollywood to go unacknowledged… Best wishes Jack Swigert”


Swigert, who died of cancer in 1982, never married. This was addressed in his New York Times obituary: “He was a lifelong bachelor, and some of the other astronauts, all of whom were married, joked that he was somewhat of a swinger. One of his sisters once said he had ‘a girl in every airport from coast to coast.’ He used to say that he was not a confirmed bachelor but that it was just that he had just not met the right woman. As an astronaut, Mr. Swigert lived in apartment near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which he had outfitted with a beer spigot in the kitchen and an elaborate stereophonic sound system.” Here is evidence that he did try to meet the right woman in the early sixties but things just didn’t work out. Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000.


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All Our Names

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a voracious reader, a lifetime book slut, carrying multiple books everywhere I go like a security blanket.   Here’s a review of the latest novel I’ve read.  I think just about anyone and everyone would enjoy it.  Originally written for the Friends of the New Smyrna Beach Regional Library website,  it is cross posted here by kind permission of Friends President Diana Bardyn.  (folnewsmyrna.org)

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells at least one love story. The ending made me cry, and it will probably make you cry, too. Now that I’ve got that out on the table, here are some of the other things this wonderful novel is: it ‘s a tale of friendship, of being an outsider, of losing and forming an identity. This is a novel of political and social upheaval as seen from the personal micro-threads of its main characters.

One narrator is a young man who leaves his family farm in Ethiopia for the busy city of Kampala, Uganda. We never learn his given name, although he alludes to a long string of family names and titles. He makes friends with another young man from similar circumstances, who calls himself Isaac. Both young men dream of achieving greatness in the heady days of post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. These are the days where the dream of Pan African freedom is quickly fading and corrupt leaders like Idi Amin have twisted the dream into a revolutionary nightmare.

Even though they are too impoverished to afford tuition, the narrator and Isaac gravitate to the university. Transforming themselves from outsiders, they gradually make their reputations as campus radicals. Isaac, the braver and bolder of the two, forges an identity by attaching himself to a revolutionary figure named Joseph. His transformation from a saucy student rebel into a deadly serious thug, and the personal sacrifices he makes for power, are heartrending.   The narrator’s friendship with Isaac endures, however, and both young men are forced into political exile after a violent coup.  Mengestu skillfully withholds just enough information to let us know that one of the young men escapes to America with the identity and passport bearing the name “Isaac Mabira.”

The second narrator is Helen, a young social worker in a small Midwestern town. Her job has eroded her idealism and she’s running low on compassion. She takes on the assignment of foreign exchange student Isaac. Not particularly curious about his background, she’s happy that by taking Isaac to the university library and helping him shop for Goodwill furniture, she can avoid going to the hospital to visit terminally ill clients, prison inmates, and boring staff meetings.

On the surface, Helen and Isaac have little in common but their youth. Helen, however, is as weary of her hometown as Isaac was desperate to escape his Ethiopian village. Although she still lives in her childhood home, Helen has little to say to her husk of a shell-shocked mother who has never recovered from the departure of Helen’s father.   Helen regularly packs boxes of belongings and puts them in the basement until her bedroom is nearly empty. She’s been leaving for years, even though she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Isaac likes Helen’s loud voice and she, full of misconceptions about Africans, is surprised that he isn’t tiny and malnourished. They share an offbeat sense of humor and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Isaac offers little information about his recent past, and Helen doesn’t ask.

Isaac forces Helen to see her hometown through an outsider’s eyes. As they grow closer, Helen is forced to reckon with a post-Civil Rights American town in the 1970s that is not quite ready for an interracial couple.   In one painful scene, Helen takes Isaac to a diner she’s frequented since childhood. As people stare and the waitress suggests that Isaac takes his food in a Styrofoam to-go box, Isaac insists that they stay put and finish their meal. Isaac, no stranger to the daily reality underlying “progress,” says, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces. “ Helen comes to realize that the Isaac she loves is just the tip of the iceberg; the parts he’s kept from her are dangerously vast, murky, and unknowable to her.

Mengestu cleverly builds suspense and keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. He achieves this disorientation partly through alternating narrators, switching from Uganda to the Midwest. Not only do we not know until fairly late in the novel which Isaac Helen is falling in love with, but also there’s a tense time constraint to their affair. Isaac’s student visa will expire in one year. One day, Isaac gets shattering news from Uganda. His identity unravels, and the only person who can help him weave a new one is Helen, if she can stand to hear the stories he has to tell.

Author Mengestu is listed on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of gifted young writers. He has written two previous novels about the Ethiopian diaspora, but this is the first book told partially from the perspective of a native-born American. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to America at an early age. Although he’s covered parts of Africa as a journalist, he has said that the story of the two Isaacs does not reflect any specific chapter of Ugandan history, just the general progression from idealism, to violent revolution, to escape and exile.  And love, as always, is universal.

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Mother of Reinvention

I haven’t posted since December! I’ve had some sadness and a severe case of blogger’s block. Every topic I thought of just made me go, “Meh!”


2014-03-25 14.19.54(Sculpture at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) 

A couple weeks ago I toured Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a friend for no other reason than we both love architecture and airplanes. A man on our tour asked, “Do you ladies have children or grandchildren going here?”  My friend, never one to shrink from male misassumptions, said, “No, we don’t. What makes you say that? Maybe we’re here because we’re prospective students.” Why not? I thought. Given the time and money, both of us could learn to fly and start new careers. While this might not happen literally, it’s a good metaphor for starting afresh, finding my wings, and flying again.

People, I have been SO depressed! My firecracker mother-in-law who lived with us passed away in January. Gloria was a sharp lady who loved fiercely but didn’t suffer fools.   She’d be the first person to feed stray cats and help those in need, but I’ve seen her say, “Go fuck yourself,” and slam the door in somebody’s face if she thought she was being swindled. Her death really flattened our household, and my husband and I had a couple of rough months where we woke up sweating every night reliving scenes from Gloria’s final days and wondering if we made the right decisions about her care.

I’ve had my own personal mortality lesson in the form of menopause. I have staunchly resisted writing about it because I’m embarrassed by it. I’m just so tired of menopause jokes, complaints, and stereotypes, many of which I lived through at work.  I remember so many coworkers having hot flashes and putting mini-fans on their desks.  They’d crank the air conditioning so low I’d be wearing three sweaters. I remember their snappiness and brain farts being chalked up to, “Well, she’s just going through menopause.” Part of me always thought they just needed to get some hormones, get their acts together, and quit making the rest of us suffer.

For the record, I’m now saying, “Respect, ladies! You were NOT kidding!” OMG. The horror is real: the mood swings, the energy crashes, the boob sweats, the 20-30 lb weight gain. I’m looking in the mirror and going, “Who the hell is that?” They say people start to resemble their dogs. Sure enough, I am getting jowls like one of my pugs or bulldogs that render me unfit for selfies. So you won’t be seeing too much of me on Facebook or Instagram. Just look at my pugs and pretend it’s me.

No energy. No joke.   One trip to the grocery store and I’d be down for a nap.  And by a nap, I mean a nap that lasted the rest of the day. The only thing I had energy for was Pinterest, to the extent that friends wanted to do a Pintervention. “That’s the only way I know you’re still alive — I see you pinning online,” they said. It was easier to gather images of other people’s accomplishments, their crafts, their clothes, their art, their lives, than repair my own underwhelming existence. Luckily, I had a few freelance writing assignments that kept me going.

Finally, bored by my own inertia, I found a way out of zombie land by finding a good doctor and taking hormone therapy.   I know there are risks, but they’ve changed my life. Without hormones I might seriously be wandering the house listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” wondering when and how and why I killed everybody in the house.



So, yep, on to reinvention.

My heroes are usually not other writers. Writers are too introspective and self-loathing. I like people of action, like astronauts, aviators and racecar drivers. I think what I like about them is that they are always striving, that they are constantly busy, they are always focused on goals, and they don’t let themselves stop moving long enough to get mired in torpor or self-pity.  In the depths of my depression this winter I read two astronaut autobiographies: Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins (1974) and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield (2013).



Collins, of course, was part of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and he, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon with Apollo 11. Canadian Hadfield just transitioned out of his career as a Space Shuttle astronaut and a commander at the International Space Station. He’s an endearing media personality, particularly famous for singing and recording David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on orbit at the International Space Station.

These astronauts come from two very different eras of spaceflight, but they share a great deal. Both guys are given to philosophical reflection, high scorers on the scale of astronaut-thoughtfulness. I was struck, however, that their trajectories were full of frustratingly small baby-steps. They sometimes took pilot assignments that seemed a universe away from joining NASA, career moves all over the world (that their families patiently endured) while they wondered if they’d ever go to space. Before Hadfield, there’d never been a Canadian astronaut, and he sometimes questioned if it were at all possible. But they kept moving, flying, persistently taking opportunities to learn new skills each and every day. Their careers serve as reminders to all of us, every day, to DO something towards being the person we want to be, to work towards the job we want to have.

I also had the happy experience of going to the Tico Airshow, something I’ve always wanted to do.  I was not just cheered up: I was ecstatic.  The sheer beauty of the planes and aerobatic feats was astounding,  and I thought, “Nobody here, whether they’re flying or watching, is just sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.” I became the four-year-old girl whose dad took her to the airport to see planes taking off, who wriggled with wonder at the speed, the noise, the surge into the air.

So it is time to be active and take steps every day. Be the mother of my own reinvention. I think my next few blogs will be dedicated to people who relentlessly (re)invent themselves– either by choosing a life of boldness or by making a midlife career change that catapults them into the bliss of doing what they love.

And just for the record: no, I am not giving up my Pinterest addiction. And yes, I actually do admire writers, too. Here’s one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

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April 8, 2014 · 12:32 am

Some Enchanted Evening . . . You May Meet A Yeti

When the weather gets nippy, I dream of sasquatches, or more specifically, the yetis of Tibet crunching through the snow of the Himalayan Mountains.   The reputed hairy ape man, the abominable snowman, haunted my imagination when I was young.


Can’t believe I just found an online image of this book! What a treat!  The Abominable Snowman by Eric Norman was one of my favorites.  This picture used to TERRIFY me.  Look at this psychologically tortured face.  Those teeth!  It evokes loneliness and alienation, a visual mashup of a caveman, polar bear, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a pulp manifestation of T.S. Eliot’s poetic moanings.  (And notice I did not mention Duck Dynasty.)  For an 8-year-old, it took some nerve to even pull this one off the shelf because the cover image was so disturbing.

The only person more terrified of the abominable snowman’s image and adventures than I was my younger brother Charles, nicknamed Bubba.  Out on the sun porch with cast off paperbacks  that were yellowed with sunlight and dog pee, I force-read him passages of The Abominable Snowman.  Upsetting my younger brother was a fringe benefit of  scaring myself.

There were lots of books on the shelves.  There were Lord of the Rings paperbacks, and I absorbed the hills and dales of Middle Earth maps before I actually read the trilogy.  There was also a grown up, titillating biography of David Niven who, among other things, recounted his first sexual experiences in England, which I barely understood.   But the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and David Niven paled beside those of the yeti.

The yetis, or abominable snowmen, were always leaving mysterious footprints, eating the dogs of trackers and tossing their carcasses, emitting unearthly roars at night that made villagers’ blood run cold, throwing trees around and leaving smelly patches of fur everywhere, breaking into monasteries and stealing food from monks,  leaving posters around for rave clubs that nobody could ever find (just kidding about the last part).  In short, this was just enough to tantalize and terrify everyone, and of course, nobody could catch a yeti on camera.  Many experts, however, attested that they were real, and that was good enough for Bubba and me.

“Stop!  Stop!” Bubba would scream.   When we could take no more of the yeti’s misdeeds, one of us would toss the book across the room like it was on fire.

Our favorite story was both scary and naughty.  It involved a man’s wife who mysteriously disappears for a few months.  Search parties can’t find her. But lo! One day she reappears on her own recognizance, as they say, walks through the back door, and explains to her husband that she had lived as the Yeti’s mate.   “I am expecting his child,” she said, as she rubbed her abdomen.  Or maybe it was belly.  (I haven’t read this book  in years, so I might have the exact words mixed up.)

I’m sure we looked up the word “abdomen” in the dictionary,  hoping it meant  something really nasty, and we couldn’t be more thrilled when we discovered it  partially involved the lower stomach.  Anything “down there” was fascinating, the regions of pee, poo, and sex, although we didn’t really understand what sex was at that age.  There was something more provocative about this story than any Playboy or Penthouse magazine that I found in my dad’s nightstand.  The lady had done IT with a yeti.  Whatever IT was.  Top that, Miss January!  Bet you never made love to a yeti in a hot tub.

“’She rubbed her abdomen’! Did you hear that?   ‘She rubbed her ABdomen’!”  I would intone, like an English professor teasing out the impact of Shakespeare’s lines to a freshman class.  Bubba’s hand would fly to his mouth in shocked horror.  Could there be anything naughtier, dirtier, more verboten?    Like all the kids in your class could pull down their underwear simultaneously, and it wouldn’t even be a runner-up to the bride of the abominable snowman rubbing her belly.

This lurid tale is the product of a prolific writer named Brad Steiger who now enjoys near-cult status.  A Midwest college creative writing professor, Steiger cranked out  fiction and loosely investigative non fiction about freaky phenomenon and unsolved mysteries to support his family.  He used the pseudonym Eric Norman when he wrote The Abominable Snowman in 1969.  Thank you, Mr. Steiger and whoever did the cover art.  What a thrill you gave us! And yes, we are screwed up to this day.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining why I wished the beast would just stay the way he was in Beauty and the Beast, rather than turning into a prince, but that’s another story.

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