Thursday, September 30, 2010

Carolyn Stanley Brunton Graham, 1922-2010

My mother passed away last Sunday evening. Her two weeks in and briefly out of the hospital were not easy for her, but gave us all time to be with her before she died, which was probably more helpful to us than to her. Although such serious subjects are not usually within the scope of this blog, a few of you have offered your best wishes to her, and as I felt odd just continuing here in the lighter vein with no acknowledgement of the heavier one, I thought I would take a moment to say a few words about my mother's life instead.

Or many lives, actually. Because as has dawned on her three daughters in the course of the last few weeks, the woman who uncomplainingly filled the stereotypical role of housewife and mother in the fifties and sixties had an adventurous past. During one of her college summers, she flew to Mexico to study Spanish at a time when few people flew anywhere, let alone young unchaperoned ladies. She and her cousin were taken in hand by the diplomatic community there, an idyllic time in which as she later confessed, "Oh, we didn't really study."

After completing her B.A. in English at USC, she joined the U.S. Navy during World War II as one of that groundbreaking group of women known as the W.A.V.E.S., an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. I learned recently that her first day as an official WAVE was in Washington D.C. on D-Day.

When the war ended, she returned to civilian life and got a second B.A. in journalism on the G.I. bill, as well as going to secretarial college.She did do a few interviews, including one with a U.S. Senator, but decided that reporting wasn't really her thing. She ended up working as a secretary for the oil man Carlton Beal, which led to her becoming acquainted with several movie stars, especially at the polo field. A story I only recently heard was when she found herself sitting in a cozy group in a V.I.P. tent across from Clark Gable, who patted the seat beside him and motioned her over. (For better or worse, she didn't take him up on the offer.)

My mom was a happy go lucky type, who seemed to sail through life without taking too much thought for the morrow. So she might have been perfectly content to continue in that life if her rather more ambitious mother hadn't taken the initiative to sign her up for an appointment with the Army Special Services one day. The next thing she knew, she was on her way to postwar Germany, where,as I sometimes like to describe it she "entertained the troops".But as a matter of fact, this is exactly what she did, planning shows and taking "the boys" all over Western Europe on tours. One great thing she did was bring her mother over for awhile, who stayed in the barracks and joined them on trips, and enjoyed the company of all those young men at least as much as her daughter did.

When my mother returned to California, she ended up getting a secretarial job with the RAND Corporation, a high security think tank. Not long ago she told me how she would be locked in a kind of vault with all these strategists who were playing war games, and no one in the outside world could get in. Her own role was more prosaic--passing messages and the like, but she did admit that it was a bit claustrophobic.

After awhile she decided to re-up with Special Services, her wanderlust getting the better of her. She wanted a hardship posting because it paid better and she was interested in Guam, but she ended up in Tripoli, Libya. My father was stationed there as a First Lieutenant in the Air Force. Post-Korean War, Wheelus Air Base was a refueling place for air transport. There was, I think, also a kind of expat environment, with so many Americans isolated in the midst of an at that time fairly friendly Arabic culture. Let's just say that it was hard to keep the beer cold there, so there were a lot martinis.

My parents married in Tripoli, before flying home. There was an economic reason for doing so, and I'm sure she sometimes wished for the big wedding she would undoubtedly have had at home. Her wedding ring was a plain gold band, which was supposed to have been an emerald ring, but they hurriedly bought one from an Arab street vendor because of some deadline, thinking they would replace it later. That never happened and I'm sure she sometimes mourned that emerald. I always thought this story was incredibly romantic and far better than emeralds. But of course, that's me, not her.

They returned to California rather than my dad's native Illinois, largely because it was a place of greater opportunity. She took to the role of homemaker with the same easy going style that she had brought to everything else in life. She and my dad made a lot of good friends through his work at the Division of Highways, and my sister and I were talking about those long ago days as we sat with her the night she died. The grown ups all drank and smoked and laughed and argued a lot but there were always kids and pets running in and out of the room till they collapsed on the floor somewhere and slept as the parties went on and on. Good times, I think, for everyone.

My mom went back to work yet again after we grew older, finding another life and circle of friends at the junior college where she worked in the faculty offices. This was in Oakland, and one of the people she met a few times there was Hughie Newton, though quite a bit after his Black Panther days.   

My mother was 87 when she died, and physically the years had taken their toll. She had macular degeneration, multiple joint replacements, and a heart condition that if nothing else had done it, would eventually have killed her anyway. But, as she frequently said to us, "I am so happy. I am happier than I have ever been in my life." We believed her, though even we found it hard to fathom at times. But it was only that, as she had done in many, many other incarnations, she had made yet another circle of friends, who laughed with her and loved her. We always thought of my dad as the joke teller, but once he died, she really came into her own. Here is one she told me recently. It seems both fitting and emblematic.

An elderly woman was visiting her doctor. "So how are you doing, Mrs. Brown?" he asked.

"Well," she said a bit plaintively, "I can't see very well anymore, so it's no fun going to the movies or reading. And I can't hear very well, so it's no use trying to talk on the phone. And I really can't walk too much, so I can't go out on hikes anymore. And I can't really taste anything, so food is no use to me. But luckily, there is one thing that still gives me pleasure."

"What's that, Mrs. Brown?"

"Thank God, I can still drive!"

Coincidently, my sister had a dream the night after my mom died. She was riding in a big green boat of a car we used to have, and my mom was driving, grinning from ear to ear. My sister realized that my mom probably really shouldn't be doing this because she was blind, but my mom was confident and unconcerned. "Oh, I think I can find my way," she said.

Drive on, Mom. And safe journey.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Okay, I already know that there will be dissenters out there who think this is the waste of a perfectly good song. But I have to admit that this is one of the most effective commercials I've seen in a long time. It shows you in a compact way the enormous scope and scale of a complex undertaking that most of us take completely for granted. And how is that undertaking accomplished? Logistics.

I think we all have a fair idea what logistics is (are?). It's the organization of a project or process in what is hoped to be the most effective or efficient way. It's the 'logical' way to get from point A to point B. But is there a science of logistics--is there something more rigorous behind our more casual use of the term?

... Well, of course it should have occurred to me that the original use of logistics was military. Before it was taken over by UPS, it was a term used in military science for the moving and supplying of troops. Military logistics had few thousand years head start on that of the global corporate world, I now realize.

Here's the definition of business logistics:"having the right item in the right quantity at the right time at the right place for the right price in the right condition to the right customer". Just switch in "gun" for "item" and "soldier" for "customer" and that's more or less military logistics as well.

The origins of this word are somewhat buried in the haze. On the one hand, some maintain that it goes back to the "art of quartering the troops", from the French loger "to lodge". But I've also seen it derived from the Greek logos, which gives us the logistiki who were apparently military officers in the Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Empires who were responsible for matters of finance and distribution.Never mind. No one ever said words have to arrive to us down a lineage that's uncontaminated by influences from other sources.

Logistics doesn't have to be about the movement of vast armies of UPS drivers, though. It can be about one person and one problem. As an illustration, I'll end with this link to a blog post on Funny Photos on Logistics. I should warn you, though, that I got sidetracked by the video link to the Smart Phone testing ads. What can I say? I'm easily distracted. If you are too, well, I'm sorry about that.

* * * *

Turns out the Smartphone ad doesn't show up every time, but am I going to forget the whole thing? No, I'm going to give you the link right here. Why, after all, should I be the only one to dribble away my days?

Also, I have no idea why this blog is only showing these clips half-screen. Just hit the picture again and it will take you to the full screen in another window.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My mom's been in the hospital the last few days--things weren't looking so good, but she seems to have turned a corner. In this somewhat more optimistic space, I thought I'd write up a word from doctor speak. You know how it is--they make their rounds, they talk to the interested parties. It's always interesting to watch just how they approach this. Sometimes they are actually concerned to communicate with the family and sometimes they are really just pretending to. One sign of the latter intention is when they speak in medical jargon.

I have to admit that I failed at this blog's mission in this circumstance a couple of days ago. One of the doctors was saying that something or other could happen since she was no longer febrile. It was my sister, not me who more forthrightly asked, "What's febrile?"

Of course, I've heard the word febrile before. But I've let other associations take hold without ever bothering to dispel vagueness. Sounding close to 'feeble' and also with a ring of "fibrullation", which I do know is about the heart, the main source of my mom's problem, I thought I had enough of a sense of it to pass it over. And for some reason, I also kind of picture the fibrous membrane around some fruit.

But febrile simply means "feverish". (Thanks, doc, would it really have been so hard to just say that? Well, he did say "Sorry.") It from the Latin febris, in other words, just another journey the concept took from the same beginnings.

Probably I should have known febrile. But what did he mean when he said "triatic"?

Yeah--I was afraid to ask.

Oh, the picture? It's actually the inner courtyard of the hospital, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. It's a pretty great place, as hospitals go. Too bad my mom isn't in much of a position to enjoy it right now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I know it's not a topic most of us want to dwell on, but it's been in the news recently and set me wondering. Why does the name sound like it means "little feminine salmon" when as far as I know, it has nothing to do with the valiant and selfless river climbing fish? I don't even know if it's a bacteria or what exactly.

According to the New Yorker, it used to be the case that salmonella was only found on the outside of eggs, but now apparently it's found it's way within. Perhaps I can find out a little about that transition as well...

Okay, the etymology is a bit of a let down. Salmonella is the name for one of several rod-shaped bacteria, and it takes its name simply from one Daniel Elmer Salmon, an American pathologist who studied animal disease. It was his assistant Theobald Smith, not he, who discovered the bacterium and named it in Salmon's honor.

Call me crazy, but this is the kind of honor I would happily forego.

So how does the salmonella get inside the egg? Here I was thinking somehow along the line of microscopic boring tools, but of course the answer is obvious, once you've heard it, as I did here. The salmonella is present in the ovaries of otherwise healthy looking hens and contaminates the eggs inside the hen before the shell has even formed.

Tricky little buggers, huh? Here's another item about their fiendish nature. According to Maggie Koerth-Baker over at, salmonella uses an inhibiting protein called AvrA to lure your body into thinking it's not under attack, meanwhile biding it's time in your intestines until it's multiplied into a formidable force. Only then does it punch throught your intestinal walls and wreak havoc.

As Dr. Jun Sun says in this article, "This changes the way we look at bacteria. We're beginning to realize that salmonella is a creature that has existed many years longer than us and they have skills we don't understand fully. It's trickier than we thought."

I do have to say that the coolest site I found in the course of my websurfing for this is one for giant plush microbes.Take a look at salmonella:

Come on, now--what's not to like?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


See where I'm going with this? Last post  was on doughty, right? And now I'm doing dowdy. Clever, huh?

Okay, maybe not so much. But one word did really lead to another. I do know what "dowdy" means. It's old-fashioned, unalluring, plain--hell, it's practically my dress code. But where does it come from? I certainly get no etymological clues from the word itself. Elwood P. Dowd, the Jimmy Stewart character in Harvey?


So what, then?

Here's the deal--dowdy comes from Middle English doude, which means "immoral, unattractive, or shabbily dressed woman".

Oh, really?

This one upsets me on multiple levels. It's not enough that a woman is not a streetwalker apparently. If she is unattractive or badly clothed, it's all the same to the vernacular.

And what about the word "drab"? Because it's really the same logic at work. On the one hand, it means "dull, commonplace or dreary", but on the other it means "prostitute".

In other words, women, be attractive, but not too attractive. You don't want to look too commonplace, but by all means don't look too uncommonplace.

"Even amid his drabbing, he himself retained some virginal airs."

Well, nice trick (ahem) if you can pull it off. That's Stanislaus Joyce speaking. I'd like to think it wasn't about his more famous brother.

But that's probably wishful thinking.