Category Archives: Writing

The Inimitable Style of Len Cowgill

When the gardener and I lived in Michigan we were good friends with artist Len Cowgill. He specialized in a type of pointillism which was well-suited to the detailed nature of his subjects. We have a series of three pieces that showcase different stages of a man’s life. They are just stunning. Unfortunately, they are under glass, so I can’t really take photos of them.

Recently, I found his work online–in galleries and on Flickr. While his art has grown and changed, it is still recognizably his inimitable style. Using acid-free paper, he works mainly in  ink, graphite, white charcoal, and sometimes colored pencil. Len’s work isn’t merely decorative. He doesn’t turn away from difficult subjects, but focuses his eye on the human condition.

We haven’t seen Len in years, but hope to see him before too long now that we’ve reconnected.

When I really love a work of art, I get all revved up (jumping up and down in my chair, if you must know) and want to share with everyone. This is how I feel about Len’s art. He let me use these images from his Flickr account, but please do not copy them for public or internet use.

 

103 Secret Saints

 

 

Strangers Battling Through Eternity

 

 

Mermaids

 

 

Beatrice

 

 

We Are All In This Together

 

 

The Burden of Personal History

 

You can find Len’s work for purchase at the following galleries:

To contact Len, he can be reached through the contact page at Tamarack Art Gallery.
Just writing this blog post is giving me an idea for poetry: to write an ekphrastic poem based on one of Len’s pieces. An ekphrastic poem about a piece of visual art. Traditionally, the poet expands upon the meaning of the art within the poem, but it really can be any response to specific art. Use the artwork as muse or inspiration. Hmm, gotta get to writing. If you write a poem in response to one of the images in this post, please post a link or the poem itself in the comments!

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Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Inspiration, Poetry, Writing, Writing prompt

Memoir and the Construct of Race

My maternal grandfather loved to tell stories to whoever would listen. His stories were all based in fact and never ventured into the realm of fantasy. He never tried to catch our attention with a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He just told about the past, as he knew it or had heard about it.

So when he told me that we had African ancestry, I believed him. I grew up thinking that my white family was, in fact, “part black. I found this information fascinating. Maybe it was one of the seeds that led to me studying history and race in literature.

Imagine my disappointment when I got my DNA results and found zero African ancestry among my genes. Could Grandpa have been wrong? Could he have lied to me? I think he told the truth as he understood it. My theory: one of his cousins was married to an African-American man for a brief time, and that meant that her ex was now part of our family. Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.

Now think of growing up as a white girl in mid-century America, with a father given to racist expressions, and only learning as an adult that your mother was (legally) a black woman passing as white and keeping the secret from everyone! That is the case for Gail Lukasik who wrote a memoir, White Like Her, about her search for the truth about her mother’s roots.

The woman on the cover of the book is Gail’s mother.

Gail’s story was first showcased on Genealogy Roadshow, and afterwards Gail, a mystery writer, began to write this memoir. The book details the genealogical research she and others did to find Gail’s family’s quintessentially American story. I was fascinated in the story because I am so interested in family history, American history, genealogy, and mysteries. What a great text to introduce to those who do not know the one-drop rule and other stupid laws in the history of Jim Crow.

I did wonder a few times if some people might be put off by the who begat whom, but it’s presented in a very cohesive and interesting way. I’m not sure how the book is structured, although her appearance on the show is the glue for a large portion of the book–and then the final section is about meeting her “new” family members and building a relationship with them. What one comes away from the book with, more than anything, is that race is a construct, not a real thing.

This book reminded me of another book I read over ten years ago. Carol Channing’s memoir Just Lucky I Guess might seem to be as far from the story of introverted Gail Lukasik as possible. But it’s not because very early on in the memoir, Carol lets her readers know that she has biracial heritage. The way she found out was kind of shitty. When she was leaving for college (at the impossibly young age of sixteen) her mother told her that she was “part Negro” because her father was black, born in Georgia. Her mothers says she is telling her now “‘because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby.'” Then she made some statements about the large size of Carol’s eyes and her dance ability that were racist, at least by today’s standards. This happened in 1937.

Although a few readers rob Carol Channing of a star or two in their reviews of her book because the book is uniquely structured, I think the structure follows Carol’s personality. I found it an enormously fascinating and satisfying read. You can’t help but adore Channing after listening to her voice for any length of time. What a warm, witty, sweet, generous person. I had no idea until I read her memoir that her ancestry was biracial. After all, she made her living as a blonde! I wonder how many others don’t know this part of the Carol Channing story. If you want to be charmed, read Just Lucky I Guess.

I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day. I had two travel days, and I couldn’t write, but made up for those omissions on the other days. Woot! #amstillwriting A little poetry, a couple of short creative nonfiction pieces.

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Screws and Recipes

Last week wasn’t great. There were several reasons, but the problem with my car can summarize the whole week. Presumably somebody  spilled a huge case of big screws out of their truck at a major intersection that I drove through at noon–when it was super busy. By the time I got my car to Discount Tire, it was the 31st one that day with tires studded with the same screws (just at that one store so imagine how many cars were truly damaged!). Yup, all four of my tires had to be replaced. Luckily, we had bought them in 2008 from Discount Tire, and they provide a lifetime warranty. So the cost was well under my deductible.

Speaking of deductibles, I discovered that my insurance doesn’t cover “road hazards.” What the heck is that about? If a car stalls right in front me, and I can’t possibly stop in time, is that a road hazard? What if a big chunk of concrete comes down from the overpass onto my car, is that a road hazard? I don’t like sneaky loopholes, and that is what it sounds like to me.

I plan to call the police department to see if they have a camera and can see who littered the road and caused all this damage to so many cars. My reasoning is that somebody who doesn’t fasten down a case of screws doesn’t fasten that ladder either–you know, the one that falls off on the freeway, causing a fatal accident.

On a more positive note, I went through my recipe box. I don’t use it anymore. Instead, I keep my recipes in two binders. So the recipes in the box date back a bit. I’m on a path of very very gradually cleaning up some of the old stuff that litters my life. I want to get rid of junk recipes that I’ll never use again–and that serve no historical purpose. I won’t get rid of my grandmother’s recipes although they are mainly breads and cakes that I can’t make for the gardener because of his celiac disease.

I found several recipes that are impossible to make because a key ingredient is no longer sold. But I found three I wanted to make. One is a corned beef cream cheese ball, but when I got to the grocery store, I discovered that they don’t sell those packages of flaked corned beef any more, and if I get some from the deli it’s probably too expensive and the wrong consistency anyway. I don’t remember noticing when they stopped selling processed corned beef in those little packages. If we think about it, we could probably make a really long list of foods that are no longer available that we used to count on.

That left two recipes, and I did make them. One was an ice cream pumpkin pie. This recipe dates back to junior high, which brings back a lot of memories. I had typed the recipe after I got it from two girls in my class. It was a favorite since I always loved both pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream.

I had to make a couple of changes, though. The gardener can’t eat ice cream anymore because of the lactose, so I used vanilla almond frozen dessert for the “crust.” And I substituted Cool Whip for the Dream Whip (which I haven’t used in decades). I thought it was pretty good, but not as I remembered it. The gardener loves it (and he’s not even a pumpkin person), but since he can’t eat many desserts, he isn’t much of a judge of sweets.

The other recipe was for Coney Island sauce. When we were young, both the gardener and I loved to get Coney Dogs at the Coney Island restaurant in Kalamazoo. While we were in college, we worked at different retail stores downtown, and it was fun to meet at restaurants like this one and share our break. It looks like Coney Island is still in business. If you click the link, you can see the photos of the inside of the place, looking as it did when my grandfather and my mother and I were all kids!

I no longer eat beef (for the sauce) or regular hot dogs,  but thought the gardener would enjoy this blast from the past. The first thing I noticed is that the ground beef I buy is shredded into long tubes, rather than being the ground beef that crumbles in the frying pan. That meant I literally needed to chop the ground beef. Geesh. Then I tried to make it in my slow cooker because it requires 3-4 hours of simmering, and I can’t leave the flame on with cats all over the kitchen. I still simmered it on the stove near the end, but then the gardener told me I should have left some of the juice in. I don’t remember juice in the Coney dogs we ate as kids. He loved the flavor. The bun isn’t as good since it’s a dry gluten free bun and not one of those squishy cheap buns that are part of the fun.

Does it work to go back and try to relive the past by making old recipes? Sort of, but not completely, as you can see.

Even with all the screw damage and other stuff falling apart and causing trouble last week, I completed my writing resolution for the first week of 2018. I wrote every single day, at least 30 minutes. I will never be somebody who writes 4-8 hours per day, and I’m ok with that. But if I can write a minimum of 3.5 hours per week (excluding blog posts), I find that acceptable.

What about you? Did you have any resolutions or goals for the year? Have you made a good start on them?

 

 

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My Only Resolution

Ten months ago, we trapped Perry in our backyard. Since that time, I have written about him in 25 blog posts! It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve written about him so much.

But, in for a penny in for a pound, I guess. Here’s another post about Perry :).

He is still kittenish, although large–larger than the other five cats–and loves to play wrestle and energetically engage with these senior kitties that just want to lie around and sleep. He also still needs his daily cuddles with mom. I am constantly getting him away from the other cats. He wants to lie in Kana’s bed with her, but then he gets restless and starts to annoy.

His main targets to annoy are Kana and Felix, the other “big cats.” The three little ones–Pear, Tiger, and Sloopy Anne–are bitchy enough to him that he doesn’t mess with them much.

 

Tiger and Sloopy Anne waiting to hiss at Perry when he passes by

Perry and Kana are true frenemies.

Although the vet had told me she thought it possible that he was part Siamese, I (who have never had a fancy breed cat) didn’t pay much attention to that. But suddenly one day, as if the president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association had snuck up and slapped me upside the head, I realized that Perry has got to be part Maine Coon. After I looked it up and confirmed my brainstorm, I read an article that said that there are lots of Maine Coon mixes in the general cat population. If you wonder what I’m talking about google “blue and white Maine coon cat” and go to images. There you will see a stunning array of Perry’s possible daddies ;).

This explains why Perry looks different from the other cats. His outline is different, and his face is different. My son calls him “cartoon cat,” and my daughter agrees with him. The gardener calls him Curly (from The Three Stooges). I call him rat face and funny face. For all that, he’s gorgeous. The son of the man who installed our new water RO tank said he was a king of cats. His dad called Perry King Tut.

Perry has taken up all my writing time in 2017. I need to get back on track. Maybe he can go with me into my office and we can shut the door so he can’t bother the other cats. Maybe he will settle down into the cat tree and take a snooze while I work on . . . something. This month I need to get cracking because mom will be with us next month. I’ve been trying to imagine her staying with us with our six cats and all the unrest with Perry.

My only New Year’s resolution: write, no matter what and no matter what it is.

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The Day After Christmas

I usually post on Mondays, but this week’s Monday being Christmas and today being my father’s birthday, I wanted to post today. My father didn’t like having a birthday the day after Christmas. He felt he was shortchanged and overlooked. Maybe being a twin accentuated that feeling since he had to share a birthday not only (almost) with baby Jesus, but with a brother he shared his life with.

My father grew up quite poor with his twin, his older sister, and his single mother. I doubt there was too much hoorah for his birthday, although I’m sure Grandma would have tried to give them a good Christmas on Christmas Eve, in the German tradition. I imagine she made clothes for Christmas for all three children.

When I was a kid, my mother liked to make Dad feel better by celebrating his half-birthday on June 26.  We would go to Sears or Robert Hall and buy him a shirt and tie or something equally unimaginative and wrap it up in birthday paper. Mom usually made a cake, too, from a Duncan Hines box mix. (By the way, I just looked up Duncan Hines for the heck of it, and did you know he was a real man? Very interesting story on Wikipedia).

My father’s birthday always seemed a touch sad and anti-climactic, whether it was on December 26 or on June 26. An emptiness inside him wasn’t filled by whatever we did, and my mother was not one to prepare an exciting celebration. There were many wonderful birthday parties in their lives, but they were always planned by my extroverted father for my introverted mother.

I do think his favorite birthday gift was the year I made him a videotape of his life for his 80th birthday. The quality was appalling as I didn’t have the proper software or equipment. So much easier today to make a video! To make it, I had to watch hours and hours and hours of old videotapes (those hardcover book-sized videos) and digitize what I needed. It was painstaking work that took so many hours I wouldn’t want to try to count them up. This was pre-blogging days, needless to say.

The only thing that I didn’t get on the video that he would have liked was his bungee jump at age sixty as I couldn’t find a photo at the time. I always planned to add it in and edit the video when easier software became available, but I never got around to it before he died. Now it seems pointless.

Of course, when I went to look for the photo to post it here, it’s lost again. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Here’s an idea of how crummy the video was: this is the first 20 seconds. The reason that I chose this music is because my father used to put on a fake opera voice–much deeper than his speaking voice–to sing. He would sing “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Proud Mary.” This version of “Happy Birthday” reminded me of my father’s singing ;). Also, every year on my birthday (that we lived in different states), he would sing me happy birthday over the phone.

Very important: notice the post-it note next to the cake pan in the second photograph. That is my mother’s handwriting.

My father was always the one behind the camera, so it wasn’t easy finding him on video (which is why I had to use a lot of photos as in the sample above. When I watched him seeing the video for the first and second times, I noticed that he seemed happy and quizzical. The latter emotion was shared after the second viewing when he said, “I didn’t know I was so LOUD!”

Yes, he was. Dad was loud. And he loved a party. I’m just glad I made that video so that for once he had a really good birthday.

 

My father in his best role, Grandpa

At his favorite place, the lake (where he had to be quiet)

 

 

 

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the demise of Lord & Taylor

More from Roger about the subject I talked about a few months ago: the demise of the department store. The loss is particularly hard at this time of year.

Roger's Gleanings

Lord & Taylor's Lord & Taylor, New York City; photo by Roger W. Smith

The following is an exchange of emails from today between me and the poet and essayist/writer Luanne Castle, host of the popular website (of which I am a fan)

https://writersite.org/

*****************************************************

hi, Luanne

I am in the Lord and Taylor’s department store (great store) shopping for a pair of gloves, and I suddenly thought of your great post about the closing of stores.

Apropos this, see link to NY Times article from October below

“Lord & Taylor Building, Icon of New York Retail, to Become WeWork Headquarters”

by Michael J. De La Merced and Michael Corkery

The New York Times

October 24, 2017

best wishes,

Roger

*****************************************************

from Luanne Castle to Roger Smith

Ugh, I really hate to hear that (the article’s story). So sad. And what a beautiful old ceiling in the photo you shared. Thanks, Roger.

I…

View original post 550 more words

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Poetry Ancestry

Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.

Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.

I’m leading up to something here.

Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!

I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
  • Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
  • A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
  • Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
  • Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
  • classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry

Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.

I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”

Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Interview about Poetry and Genealogy

Jorie at Jorie Loves a Story interviewed me on the topics of genealogy, poetry, and Kin Types. Her questions were so thought-provoking, and I really enjoyed where they took me!

Check it out if you can.


Also, Amazon has 19 reviews up for Kin Types if you’re still on the fence about reading it.

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Submission Advice from Robert Okaji, author of FROM EVERY MOMENT A SECOND

Today I want to introduce you to Robert Okaji, poet and the writer of the new Finishing Line Press chapbook From Every Moment a Second. Robert’s poems are relatively short and seem simple. I said seem. Each polished gem is the kind of poem you fall into, without worrying if you will “get” it or not, and an array of meanings will wash over you without effort on your part, but the reward is great –an emotional and intellectual payoff.

Robert is published regularly in literary magazines. So I asked him for advice for readers about submitting to magazines. This is what he wrote for us.

 

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Newer poets occasionally ask me for advice on how/where to get published. What follows expands a reply I made to a comment on my blog in August, 2014. I can speak only from my experience, thus any advice I offer should be taken with a huge grain of salt. But here goes:

Determine who you are as a writer, and where your work has a realistic chance of being published. What, you say, how do I do this? Think about your favorite living poets, those poets you’d most like to be associated with, whose work has influenced your writing, and with whom you’d like to “converse” through poetry.

Where does their work appear? Look at their lists of publications, choose the smaller, lesser known literary journals first, and read them cover to cover. When you find in these same journals other writers whose work appeals to you, examine their publication lists. After a while you’ll notice that certain journal titles repeat. Compile a list of these, and consider them your “targets.” Read them. If your sense of aesthetics meshes, send them your best work.

This is not a quick process, but sending your poetry to publications that publish the poets writing the type of poetry you like is much more effective than haphazardly scattering your work across the poetic landscape. In other words, be selective. Think. And always read submission requirements. If a journal says “no rhyming poetry,” don’t send them any. You get the picture. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste theirs – most lit mags are labors of love. The editors earn no money, often, if not usually, bearing all publication costs. Be kind to them.

Also, look for newer publications calling for submissions. They may be more amenable to your work, and the competition may be a bit lighter. How do you find these? Read Poets & Writers. Check out New Pages‘ calls for submissions. Facebook’s “Calls for Submission” group is worth joining. Follow Trish Hopkinson’s blog. Join various writing communities on social media. Look around!

You might also consider subscribing to Duotrope, if only to determine what certain publications’ acceptance rates are. For example is it worthwhile to submit to a publication that accepts only 1/2 of one percent of submissions? Or would your time be better spent submitting to publications accepting 5% to 20% of what’s sent to them? One can over-think this, of course, but knowing the odds can increase your chances. Of course ego comes into play, and sometimes you just have to send your work to one of the “unattainables.” And hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Duotrope‘s “News” tab also provides links to new markets or those that have recently opened or closed to submissions.

When your work is rejected (and it will be – everyone gets rejected), look closely at it. Was it indeed as ready as you originally thought? If so, send it back out. If not, revise it. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending.

I submit my work cautiously, as if editors are looking for excuses to NOT publish me. This means that I take my time and ensure that every piece I send out is flawless in appearance – no typos, no grammatical errors, etc. Unless a publication specifically requests more, my cover letters are brief and say very little but “thanks for the opportunity” and might at most contain a sentence or two regarding biographical details or previous publications. Anything else is superfluous – I don’t want to give them any reason to not accept my work.

Again, this is just my approach to getting published. I’m sure that other, more successful writers have better processes. And of course I ignore my own advice from time to time. Send out those poems. Good luck!

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From Every Moment a Second can be found on Amazon.

 

The son of a career soldier, Robert Okaji moved from place to place throughout his childhood. He holds a BA in history from The University of Texas at Austin, served without distinction in the U.S. Navy, lived the hand-to-mouth existence of a bookstore owner, and worked in a library and as a university administrator. He lives in Texas with his wife, two dogs, some books and a beverage refrigerator stocked with craft beer.

He has never been awarded a literary prize, but at age eight won a goat-catching contest.

Recent publications include the chapbooks From Every Moment a Second (Finishing Line Press), If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press), two micro-chapbooks, You Break What Falls and No Eye but the Moon’s: Adaptations from the Chinese (Origami Poems Project), a mini-digital chapbook, Interval’s Night (Platypus Press), and “The Circumference of Other,” a collection appearing in Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks (Silver Birch Press). His work has appeared in Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, Boston Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Panoply, Eclectica, Clade Song, Into the Void, High Window, West Texas Literary Review and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges, at http://robertokaji.com/.

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Silly Happy

Blogger Theresa Barker has been posting about what she sees when she looks up (and down a bit, too). We were chatting about not noticing some things that we pass regularly and how we tend to miss seeing the same things over and over. I commented that I want to pay more attention to what is up and down and in the gaps.

That made me think of those things that I actually do see over and over and continue to appreciate. These are the things we miss when they go away.

For years I’ve been passing a house with a big cactus out in the big front lawn. It might be an organ pipe cactus. In the Sonoran Desert where we live, it can sometimes freeze at night in the winter. We usually get warnings, and then we have to cover all our flowers, flowering bushes, and cacti with sheets or other covers. Because this cactus is so large and has so many stems, there are many tips that can freeze. When I first saw this cactus it was in the winter, and each tip was covered with a styrofoam cup, which is the usual remedy.

Then the owners decided to put Santa hats on the tips, and my life was enriched. I love driving past the cactus that has been transformed into many little Santas. My face opens into a big grin.

Last year the house was vacant and being remodeled. I was worried that with a new owner, the Santa hats would be gone. It’s funny how empty I felt when I would drive past the house, thinking it was the end of an era.

But then last week the hats were back. Actually, these are new hats, not the same ones by the previous owner, and I like them even better.

I wonder if the owner realizes how happy people have been made with this simple and whimsical twist on a necessity.

Is there something that you have no control over that you see every week or every day that makes you happy? Something very small that seems to make life a little better.

 

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