There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. You Don’t Know Why She Swallowed a Fly? I Do.

Collage by Lisa Congdon

Collage by Lisa Congdon

I know why she swallowed a fly. She was a woman, past her physical prime, aches and pains increasing, counting the days as she aged. And she was pissed.

At first she didn’t realize she was pissed. She thought the people around her were getting more annoying and stupid, whatever common sense and humor they once possessed draining away by the second.

For example, if she saw young women, who obviously spent hours on their hair and makeup, gossiping, giggling and strutting their stuff in shopping malls, she wrote them off as dim-witted, self-centered idiots. As for the men, they were worse. They spent all their time staring at women.

Riding on the bike trail, she went by a queue of children headed the opposite way, chattering and careless of her passage, nearly knocking her over. She wondered why they weren’t in school where they belonged. Better yet, isolated in boarding school or juvenile hall until they were able to function like adults.

As for television, films, print, Internet, the people featured seemed to be in a never-ending competition to show the most skin and selfishness. First extolled, then rewarded with heaps of money and attention, they repaid their perqs by modeling behavior for those around them to ever-increasing extreme behavior.

When she thought about the respect given to older people in other times, other societies, she had sworn previously that she would function as if she expected and received the same today. She wouldn’t fall into the error of the marginalized seniors she’d seen since childhood. People ignored, treated as simpletons, overlooked in stores and restaurants, talked over and around when in a group. However, she was learning the impossibility of fighting an entire culture on her own.

So when a fly flew by, she snapped and caught it.

Swallowing a fly was nothing compared to the bile she had to hold down. She was becoming a grouchy old lady, replete with negative attitudes. But since she still possessed her wits, if not her young looks, questions kept arising. Why was she angry constantly? What had happened to the good will she used to extend to all humanity? Was she going crazy or was the world around her doing so?

In the slow process by which she always seemed to learn about life and its truths, she began to probe her emotional responses. Questions, always her guide to self-discovery, arose. Why the negative reactions? She uncovered jealousy, regrets, fear, anger, a heaping load of damage. Now the real work had to begin—to use these as the stuff for constructive growth. Or to be an old lady in truth as well as appearance.


East, West, Home Is Best, But Where?

When I walk to the Y to exercise, I sometimes pass people on a corner next to a church. By and large male, they are also scruffy, stinky, poorly dressed. They block the sidewalk with their duffels, backpacks, bikes, grocery carts. They gather on this particular corner because the church distributes free sandwiches at lunch. These are the homeless in Denver, but they could be anywhere (

My initial feeling whenever I pass, or try to pass, is one of annoyance, for they block access to the sidewalk, spill over to the parking strip, perch on stairs, walls and courtyards, blow cigarette smoke hither and yon. Some have dogs as mangy as themselves, many tote items that should be in junkyards—a frayed and torn sleeping bag, a shower head, a battered water jug, rope, a small ironing board. I wonder why the church officials or city authorities don’t demand compliance with public nuisance ordinances or common courtesy.

Then I question when and how I moved from sympathy or even mere apathy to hostility. These are people with no roof over their heads, few resources for health care or decent food, little access to opportunities for learning and entertainment. They don’t ask me for money or any sort of help. All I have to do is side-step them.

I don’t categorize myself as a “bootstrapper,” those who claim the homeless should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as if they even had boots with straps on them. Perhaps I’m getting numb to social problems. Perhaps I’ve seen too many programs to help the indigent and ill that fail, or I’ve listened to too many leaders claim they have the solution, and that never happens. Perhaps I’m tired of even thinking about the issue of homelessness. Perhaps I’m sick to my stomach at the thought that a country as blessed as this one cannot and will not care for those who can’t manage on their own.

As I sit in my home and consider, I realize what I feel is remorse that I can’t fix the problem. When I pass a homeless person, I can’t avoid the collective guilt we all share, whether we admit this or not. So I choose to be annoyed, not accountable.

(One group trying to do something is the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless,

Strange Bedfellows

bed In my rabid youth, I judged my friends by their politics and philosophies. I figured if someone wasn’t at least a left-leaning semi-socialist, they neither cared about the good of society nor read literary novels nor hugged trees. I didn’t want to be around them. I’m sure I had acquaintances who didn’t fit, but I carefully side-stepped discussions in which certain issues might come up.

Fast forward post-marriage and babies, and my outlook changed. Radically. Perhaps it was the consistent disruption of my nights by noisy if anti-war neighbors or the littered mess similar folks left in the wake of their parades and demonstrations. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical attitude of clerks in natural foods stores and cafes, who placed more importance on chatting with their friends than providing service.

I’ve come to believe that walking the walk absolutely over-rides talking the talk. Courtesy is critical, the kind of courtesy rooted in respect, not necessarily in etiquette books. Does an individual cut me off in traffic? His numerous bumper stickers supporting the candidate of my choice don’t prevent my knowing he’s a rude ass. The advocate for the homeless who dumps construction materials from his remodeling all over the alley gets zero points from me for his philanthropy.

This is especially true for people who make hard and fast stands on ethical issues. Puh-leeze. You’re not going to convince me by screaming. Just because you think the system of tipping service staff is patronizing and outmoded, you can’t force me into neglecting a gratuity. So what if you love dogs and want them prancing leash-free around the park? I’m scared of them, and I’ll continue to scold dog owners who don’t restrain their pets. And if I want to snitch a few fronds of dried greenery at the end of the summer from a neighbor for an arrangement, don’t excoriate* me as a thief.

To my surprise, I’m finding some of the nicest, most thoughtful people I know are ones whose choices on the ballot wouldn’t come close to replicating mine. Yes, people should express their opinions. Yes, they should live their lives and conduct their personal affairs as they wish. But as we struggle to walk, run, jog or crawl the rocky road through life, we’d be wise to value the oil that keeps our society functioning smoothly. The most important thing to bring along on the trip is human consideration and compassion, not opinions.

While politics can make strange bedfellows, civility brings even stranger fellows into bed. But to my way of thinking, at least the sheets are clean and the blankets tucked in properly.

* Excoriate: to criticize harshly, condemn

Dark Futures

What’s your vision of the future? I think we find it nearly impossible to believe life as we know it will continue past our own deaths, so our pictures tend to be catastrophic and depressing. Think of 1984, Brave New World, The Road.

This certainly is true with the current spate of dystopian novels targeted to young adults. Over the past year or so I’ve read four, beginning with The Hunger Games trilogy, continuing with Article 5, Legend: Day and June, and Divergent.

Some interesting points appeared as I reviewed the quartet:
• They all were written by women. When I began reading scifi years ago, few of these novels had female authors, and it was not uncommon for a woman writer to use a male or androgynous pen name.
• They all feature very strong female protagonists. To a greater or lesser degree, they don’t depend on men to get them out of trouble.
• The works all envision a future so wretched I’d certainly entertain the idea of suicide to escape.
• Violence is common, and the women indulge nearly as frequently as the men.
• The heroine has a male companion who verges on being a strong love interest. These are YA books, so the couples don’t have sex.
• There is hope at the end of the book (or the series) that the current order will be overthrown, and freedom, equality, and peace will prevail.
Unfortunately, the sub-genre is becoming formulaic, so I hope writers will start throwing in some surprises. . .NOT including zombies or vampires!

Why do these books appeal to teens, and to adults who don’t rule out the protagonists in their books by their ages? Yes, the tomes are escapist and entertaining, but I think there’s a little more at work. Consider this:
• Humans want perfection or as close as we can get in our everyday lives, but we also long for challenges. These plots provide thought-provoking trials
• We need contact and love, but we also seem to lust after violence and hate. As long as we’re not in danger. Stand-ins for brutality, cruelty, and sadism thrive in the narratives.
• It’s kind of nice to think the world will go to hell after we leave it. Like a mother saying, “I told you so” to the child who burns himself with a match.
• Through these books, we can explore the paths our society might be on, as well as eternal questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, individuals and groups, albeit in greatly simplified approaches.

I think I’m close to my limit on this type of novel, primarily because their visions are restrictive and repetitive. But I have something up my sleeve. My own dystopian novel entitled Emancipation. Whether it ever sees the light of day will depend on my reaching an Utopia, in which publishers are beating down my door to release my work.