A First and a Last

Copyright 2017 by Raunig-Graham

The fine sunny Spring weather that warmed us on Memorial Day vanished yesterday, and I found myself wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck sweater as I headed out on my daily walk to pick up a few groceries.  As I passed by the hot pink and ruby red rhododendron that brighten a walk on a grey day, I shivered. It occurred to me that I will undoubtedly end up being one of those little old ladies who wears gloves and a wool coat to stay warm even in Summer. (I hope I will be as sweet as they are.) That being the case, and with a birthday just days away, I realized I’d better get cracking if I wanted to write another piece while still 72.  This will be that piece, the first written this year, and the last before I turn 73.

Five months have evaporated since I have written a word.  That would seem to deserve some explanation. I have definitely given it some thought during the last few months.  I have blamed our November election for having zapped my creative energy, and indeed, because I believe in this country and in democracy, I have felt compelled to pay attention to news from Washington and from the rest of the world. However, I realize there must be more to it than that. My disappointment over an approach to governing that I disagree with has numbed me at times, but hasn’t left me completely paralyzed. So why haven’t I been writing?

Certainly, I have questioned myself during the last few weeks, especially as my birthday seemed to be approaching at the speed of light.  Had I given up on writing? (Doubtful.) Had I lost my edge? (Maybe,)  Do I have nothing to say? (Unlikely.) Haven’t I observed or reflected on anything that I could share with others? (But I have.)  Or has it simply been a case of slowing down? (Ralentir, new French word learned, meaning to slow down.) Am I showing my age? (Of course.) Have I spent too much time on other interests?  (Sure. I’m a dilletante. I have always enjoyed variety, from art to the study of French to reading to cooking to socializing.  The distractions are numerous in our lives, and in retirement they can be considered a part of one’s healthy lifestyle instead of as distractions.)

The urge to write and the ability to write are two different things though certainly connected. I don’t believe a person generally loses the latter, the ability,  unless there has been some physical or mental interference that causes an impairment. The former, however, is an ethereal thing.  The urge to write can surface and evaporate, arrive in spurts and move on. One can pay attention to it, or avoid it. It can fade, of course, if one’s focus is diverted or if priorities change. And it can be damaged by external circumstances. Too much criticism, for example, whether imposed by self or others.

Once we have learned how to write, have become writers, we are often warned to exercise our “writing muscle” or we will lose it. (People so often seem to focus on the worst.)  Writers who want to improve their writing are admonished to write daily in order to improve. Writing regularly and frequently does force one to consider the various aspects of writing that make it worthwhile. It forces one to think, and to organize one’s thoughts. It can enlarge one’s vocabulary and it helps a writer to develop an individual style. A writing practice is a discipline and also requires discipline. It is more about self than other.  Writing just to please oneself has never seemed quite enough to me.

But what of that urge to write?  In order to write, one must have that urge, a desire to create in language, to think reflectively and critically, and to express oneself in written words. Writing will occur only if one acts on that impulse to write.  So here I am this morning back in front of my laptop.

When I was paid to write, it was easy to proceed with an assignment. I had to produce in order to get paid, so my “urge” to meet a deadline was strong.  Blogging, being an unpaid approach to writing, needs a different motivation.  If as a blogger I have a few readers who appreciate what I have to say, I am pleased, but I admit I have asked myself whether that is enough.  I like feedback.  As a professional writer, feedback came in the form of a check.

Writing, for me, has always been about sharing, whether sharing information in a journalistic form, or sharing ideas and themes through an essay,  or to tell a story in a fictional or poetic form.  Yes, there’s been the need to explore the use of language, and the beauty of language because I have that ability, but it had to be more than that.  Language is about communication, and communication is about connecting to others. Bringing others enjoyment, or provoking in them a desire to think about something, to learn something, has always seemed at the core of writing to me.  Writing is an act of creation and if it is worthy, it is an act of love.

In short, I write for many of the same reasons that I read: to explore, to learn, maybe to laugh, to make connections, to share.  It’s never just about me.

–Judith R-G

















You Just Never Know

copyright 2016 by Raunig-Graham

“You never know.” Such a convenient little phrase.  Sometimes embellished, as in,Well, you just never know, do you!” Or, when made to sound more inclusive, “We just never know, do we?”

A phrase especially handy to use when you pick up your morning newspaper and learn, for example,  that your neighbor down the block has been arrested for allegedly siphoning off large sums of money from his place of business, bills that were then hidden in a Bahamian bank account.The act seems incomprehensible.  This is a man you often said hello to when out jogging.  You take a sip of coffee and mutter out loud, “Well you just never know, do you.” Of course you don’t.  How could you? You were taught to automatically think the best of people, not the worst, or cliche number two, to give people the benefit of the doubt. You never know.  A phrase as handy as your embezzler neighbor.

Those three or four little words prove convenient, too, when you surprise yourself and end up teaching English in Istanbul at age 30. Or marrying a vintner and having triplets. Or running for Congress. Or happily living a quiet life. But your mother knew well their  importance when back in your younger life you were lamenting an imagined dull life ahead.  She used them to encourage you. “You never know where life will take you,” she probably said.  Neither of you knew then what magical adventures might embrace you, so she grabbed the common phrase to cover the unimaginable.  It’s a phrase we use to cover our ineptitude, our inability to know everything, or everybody, and it cuts both ways.  It covers the bad, and the good. It sums the situation up for us when we are dumbfounded or stunned into silence, or when we are having trouble trying to sound profound or to be empathetic. Those three or four words make us accessible.

We can’t know everything because life is full of the unexpected.  That’s why we buy insurance.  We know instinctively that we can’t plan for everything that comes our way.  We realize that a measure of prudence might help us to meet some of life’s surprises.

We don’t always know, but sometimes there are clues, which is why I still read a newspaper, and watch the national news, whether on television or on the Internet.  I want to vote responsibly, to avoid what I know to be self-evident, that though all of us are created equal and deserve respect, some are more qualified to handle certain situations than others,  whether it’s to coach a high school basketball team  or to become President in a democracy or to report the news. Training and experience count.

Our English language is full of such convenient expressions.  “Who would have believed,” or, “If anyone had told me I’d end up_____________,” or, “I never would have believed he_____________,” blah, blah, blah.  We use such phrases  because at times life demands expediency. The common phrases also often spring from our mouths because they are egalitarian. We all use them at one time or another because we know we will be understood, and that we won’t have to explain our vulnerability to whatever the conundrum at hand happens to be.

We’ve been hearing a lot of “you just never knows” in this last year, both here in the United States and in many countries around the world, more, I fear in the negative sense than in the encouraging sense of the phrase. We’ve experienced so many major surprises that we’ve become almost shock-proof.

My hope for 2017 is that we will avoid those announcements from politicians, and pundits, and from friends and acquaintances, that tend toward an overuse of superlatives and language intended to incite. (Who would have believed we’d be subjected to “fake news,” but then you just never know.)

Like a lot of people, I prefer the cautionary tale to breaking news, especially breaking news that is advertised in advance. I want details, and insights, into our current, complicated world situation, and I want opinions labeled as such. I’m wary of people who say they they have all the answers.  It takes time to understand complex ideas and approaches to grave problems. Time may not always be on our side, but generally, we have to take the time to get a more solid understanding of a situation. Jumping to conclusions can be catastrophic for the world and in our personal lives.

She checks both directions

Silhouette against grey sky

Chimney sentinel.

     –Judith Raunig-Graham






















Their Lives, Our Lives

    copyright 2016 b y Raunig-Graham

We pick up a book for many different reasons at different times. Sometimes, it’s the cover that attracts us.  Other times, it’s the subject.  Sometimes, it’s purely to escape the humdrum of daily life, to lose ourselves in someone else’s world. Occasionally, we also find ourselves in our reading.  That’s what happened to me recently when I read Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970.  Nothing happened as dramatic as setting down the book and packing a bag to hop on a plane for France.  No, it was simply that Barr’s book put me back in touch with who I was and where I was at that time of my life. The full title of Barr’s book is Provence, 1970:  M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and The Reinvention of American Taste.  (Published in 2013 by CLARKSON POTTER/PUBLISHERS, New York)

I have never visited Provence, but French food has long influenced my cooking.  The evidence of that is clear on my cookbook bookshelf.  Like others of my generation, Julia Child was much in my life when I was young. (Still is.)  We watched The French Chef, and we bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” almost before the presses were cold.  Larousse Gastronomique  figured in as well. I remember how thrilled I was when I first leafed through this tome,  awed and inspired by its genius.

What prompted me to borrow Barr’s book from my local library was that it purported to be about a moment in time when Julia Child, her co-author Simone Beck, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and others of culinary fame, all converged in Southern France that autumn of 1970. There, they ate and drank and dined together in cafes and hotels, and in homes.  They cooked and partied and enjoyed great food together.  I had reserved the book without really knowing what to expect; I wasn’t disappointed, and I quickly became immersed in its sensual tales.

The stories Barr chose to include (and interpret) in Provence, 1970, reflect a time when each of his celebrated protagonists was in a transition period. Each had already acquired expertise, and each had gained the acknowledgement of same.  Consequently, the book was as much about their personalities and philosophies of living as about food, menus and cooking. Perhaps because each of their careers was moving into a new phase, which can cause disorientation, these well-liked luminaries seemed to have engaged in a good deal of sniping  —  rather unpleasant for an unabashed fan to discover.  Their pedestals cracked a bit for me.

Nevertheless, how this heady group worked and played together proved a fascinating read, and I certainly did lose myself in the narrative.  (Oh, yes. Baguette and Cafe au Lait every morning for breakfast in the Summer of 1965.)  The group’s parties reminded me of some I had attended.  (Oh, yes, fondue in 1968.  A fondue pot was a popular wedding gift in the late 1960’s.)  Restaurants?  (The first time I ate frogs’ legs in 1972. To my untrained palate, they tasted something like chicken.) Craig Claiborne, the New York Times restaurant critic?  (I consulted him regularly.)

Then there was the cooking, the attempts to express a personal style and perhaps a need to outdo one another. Details of some of those feasts and intimate dinners in France are preserved in archived letters that Barr discovered and shared with us.  (As I read, a memory of my own first Cassoulet popped into my head.  It had to be about 1973 or 1974 when my nephew lived nearby while he embarked on a master’s degree in engineering.)

Life in the United States, and in France as the decade of the 1970’s opened, was going through profound change. Society’s  mores were in transition and Barr deftly referred to some of the movements that affected everyone in one way or another then, including me.  In terms of eating habits, whole food and organically grown food, and vegetarianism, were beginning to attract attention.  Those interests eventually culminated a few years later in a desire for a healthier diet.

Today, we take good food, even great food, for granted in this country, as well as a vibrant, two or three-star, or sometimes even better, restaurant scene.  Celebrity chef shows on television are nearly as numerous as the detective shows that entertain us.  We tend to forget that this wasn’t always the case, or how it came to be.

M.F.K. Fisher was Luke Barr’s great aunt. He explains in his prologue that as a child he visited and ate in her California home, where she finally retired and wrote. He tackled his subjects in Provence, 1970 with an insider’s authority, but also with verve, and a reverence, I felt, for his great aunt.   Apparently, he also followed-up that partial knowledge of the food scene back then with voluminous research.

Barr’s contention seemed to be that these few culinary giants whose personalities and foibles he shared with us were largely responsible for the changing American palate. That seems a bit overstated to me. After all, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s represent a period of time in which many young Americans traveled widely and sampled the foods of other cultures.

Nor was the American diet completely devoid of “taste” in the 1950’s. In my own childhood, my mother prepared artichokes for our family table. Anchovies, avocados, and grilled trout appeared regularly on the menu. She also cooked sweetbreads.  A large garden in our back yard provided fresh vegetables throughout the summer months. My dad made head cheese and blood sausage, and he once  spoke of the pigeon soup, and dandelion stew, that he had cooked earlier in his life. Finally, I distinctly remember an outing with my parents when they drove into the country to pick mushrooms. Obviously, a lot of Americans ate more than jello salads and processed cheese in the 1950’s.

The stories Barr told in his Provence, 1970, give us an intriguing and very human picture of a handful of personalities who clearly influenced our eating habits through several decades. They became household names in the field of cooking in the U.S. and beyond; they deserve the minute attention he gave them. After reading his  book,  I felt grateful to Luke Barr for providing details that prompted my own memories of a time when the American dining experience was in flux.

Lose yourself in a book; find yourself in a book.

–Judith R-G











With millions of other Americans in front of the television on January 3, I was ready.  My bowl of pop corn, my glass of Port, my Grantham breakfast blend tea, my London souvenir mug — my props for a photo on Facebook before the first episode, season six. Soon, the handsome Hugh Bonneville was there on the screen involved in a pre-program countdown. And finally, after what seemed like weeks and weeks of hype, that somber music as the opening titles of “Downton Abbey”flashed by on the screen.

When it was over, I wasn’t smiling with satisfaction.  I wasn’t frowning either.  I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a terrific phase out and then I’m going to so miss this series that I have watched without fail and enjoyed so much for the past five Winters.”

As I snapped off the TV, my mind began to sift through questions and observations that had settled there during my viewing.   Why was I feeling this way? I had once again truly appreciated the superb acting, the delivery of lines, the clever bon mots, the facial expressions. And I adored Edith’s pale blue felt hat.

Was it the pre-season hype?  My local public television station saw the “Downton Abbey” previews as an opportunity to ask for money? More fundraising. Was it the seemingly endless discussions and reruns?  Maybe.  Too much build up and there’s bound to be a let down. Or was my reaction something to do with my own staying power?

Finally, it occurred to me that I had experienced a disconnect between my perceptions about life in 1925 and the way life was being presented as lived at Downton Abbey.  The characters in this story seemed to be living in almost the same way that they always had, despite that World War I, as we all know, changed everything.  The war had been depicted in earlier episodes as a major factor in the lives of the Crawleys  and those of their assorted household help. By turning their mansion into a civilian “hospital” and rest home for the wounded veterans,  they couldn’t possibly have not been changed by the experience. But this first episode of season six seemed to project a household little changed from season one, so their lives in 1925 didn’t quite ring true to me.  Wouldn’t Mary’s demeanor have softened by now?  The loss of her sister (in childbirth), and her husband (in a car accident), surely would have prompted her to feel a little closer to humanity? I realized that I was definitely annoyed by her smugness. Her cold distance from those around her had begun to override my interest in might happen to her. I eventually reminded myself that I was watching fiction.

Despite my misgivings after that first episode, I continued my Sunday evening routine, and with each new episode my fervour for the series returned. The ensuing episodes picked up speed and prompted a renewed interest.  I definitely wanted to know how the Crawley family’s story would end. Would Edith finally, finally get her man? Would Mrs. Patmore start wearing her spectacles again? Would John and Anna move to Australia? (That seemed a  plausible choice for them to me.)  And when this amazing series  did end this week, my Kleenex box was nearly empty.  So many relationships ended on a positive note. Unrealistic, of course, but I admit it; I like happy endings. I’m a Romantic.

When the “Downton Abbey” season began this year, I racked my brain for information stored there about 1925. Of course, I wasn’t alive in 1925, but my mother was.  In fact, she was graduated from high school that year, and one of my favorite pictures of her from that era was of her with other members of her basketball team. All the the young women in their basketball uniforms, looked strong and energetic and independent. Unlike the Downton Crawley women, they undoubtedly had no illusions about the hardships of life or the necessity of hard work. These young women were clearly more like the “downstairs” crew than the “upstairs” entitled.

Then,  Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald popped onto my mental screen, and other writers from the “lost generation.”  Of course, these references were to Americans, but to Americans who often lived in Europe. I thought, surely those sophisticated Crawleys would have been exposed to the new novels published with considerable fanfare, even then. Did they never venture out to the movies during their shopping sprees in London? Some of those movies might have empowered the “ladies.” Nary a word either from the more ambitious Edith, nor from Mary,  about University.  Surely one of them might have felt a twinge of regret that a higher education had been denied. They led circumscribed lives.

A few years ago, I discovered the fictional  British Maisie Dobbs, the protagonist in a mystery series written by Jacqueline Winspeare.  The ever plucky Maisie began her mature life as head of a detective agency after having been a nurse who served in France during World War I. Though she began life as the daughter of a servant, she was taken up by the masters for whom her father worked, so she understood the Upper Class. Part of the setting for the early novels was sort of a Downton Abbey household. An intelligent girl, Maisie read and got educated.

Maisie and Downton’s Edith represented different social classes, but in the end were closer in their approach to life.  They dealt with their grief by engaging with the world. They recognized their capabilities and got on with it. Mary, asserted herself by assuming a managerial role in the running of the estate,  but she remained coldly disengaged, it seemed, from the wider world. Her aspirations were all about saving the estate, fighting change. So it was entirely fitting that Edith, and brother-in-law Tom finally blew-up and told her what a fool she was, which finally forced her to change to the degree that she married a man without the class prestige that she had always assumed was her right.

“Downton Abbey” was a phenomenon, not just in England or in the United States, but around the world.  Millions of viewers watched, season after season, and laughed or smirked or cried. Many of us swooned over the gorgeous fabrics used in the costumes worn by the Crawley women though we knew of course, that women in the ’20s probably never looked quite that elegant.  Like many of those millions, I developed my own view of the various characters and wanted nothing but the best to happen for Edith, for both Toms,  for Anna and John, for Mrs. Hughes and for the others. The series also provoked a renewed interest in history and geneology and undoubtedly sent many of us to the library or to the Internet to do our own research on the period the series portrayed.

When the nightly news so often in recent years has caused real fright about the state of the world, “Downton Abbey” has provided a respite, a sense of stability. More than a longing for a a way of life that was true for a rather small slice of the British population, the stories engaged us because they took us away for an hour or hour plus from some of the grim realities of the 21st century.  We needed that.

How fortunate we are that writers such as Julian Fellowes, and actors and actresses such as Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith, continue to be willing to give us stories and performances that take us out of ourselves. I applaud all of them.

—Judith R-G