Lesson From a Master

                    December 1954 with Laurie

     Thanksgiving dinners were always a Big Deal in my family, with massed generations of far-flung aunties and cousins all gathered for a formal sit-down feast on linen-covered tables at one or another of our homes. Yes, the food was uniformly delicious and the tables were bountiful, but they produced a buttload* of dirty china, silver, and crystal to hand wash and dry afterwards. Inasmuch as I was the oldest girl-child and supposedly the most “responsible,” the task always came to me to wash the trays full of expensive tableware while the adults enjoyed their after-dinner libations and conversations in the living room. 

     My younger sister, Laurie, detested the annual chore almost as much as I did, but she was far more devious in finagling her way out of it. Whining worked for the first couple of years, and then she tried employing outright defiance— with limited success. Somehow she always ended up “persuaded” to get out into the kitchen and pick up a dishtowel. Now! 

     Finally, the year she hit puberty, she’d had enough. At meal’s end, when Madre gave the signal to start clearing the table, Laurie jumped up from her seat and began gathering Aunt Sally’s Limoges with suspicious alacrity. 

     Delighted to have her help, I set to sudsing and soaking the silver while the womenfolk cleared the table and carefully stacked the dirty dishes and stemware on the counters for us to wash. Then we two were left to the kitchen chores while the little kids went outside to play and our elders retired to their various topics and turbulences. 

     When Laurie was sure all the adults had left the kitchen, she picked up a Baccarat wine goblet, twirled the stem between her thumb and forefinger, and then with a little flourish and flick of her finger dropped it to the tile flooring where it shattered at her feet. The tinkling of expensive crystal sent several aunties running into the kitchen. “Oops,” said Laurie. “Here, let me have the towel,” said Madre. And with a sly wink that only I could see, Laurie took off for the library and whatever book she was currently engrossed in. “That’s how you do it,” she smirked to me on the way back home. Damned impressive was all I could think. 

Happy Birthday to my most remarkable and dearly beloved sister, Laurie Downs Publicover, M.D.; Humanitarian, and wit extraordinaire. 

*Buttload (n) Measure of wine or spirits equal to two hogsheads or approximately 126 gallons—giving the word an amusing flair when used in this context.

©Allena Hansen. Chomp, Chomp, Chomp




   It’s been suggested that in addition to their basal function in preventing our eyeballs from turning to potato chips, tears are a signaling mechanism for social support, a way to get rid of accumulated stress hormones after an intense bout of emotional arousal—good or bad—and even a means of triggering the endorphins that make us feel better. But so many were shed in the aftermath of Robin William’s unfortunate meet-up with destiny, that we’re reminded of the commonality in our tears—one that diffuses a greater anxiety and ties us all to the ineffable. 

   On the surface it seems paradoxical that someone who made us laugh so hard and so often would also bring so many to spontaneous tears at his loss, but as the old saw reminds us, “Comedy = tragedy + time”. The emotional basis for both laughter and tears is spawned from the same need for community, and whether we’re rolling in the spasms of our guffaws or huddled in those of our sobs, the mechanics are essentially the same. Indeed, we can literally laugh until we cry—or cry until we laugh—which brings us back around to our widely-lamented friend. 

   There’s something very special about those honest souls who can lift us to hilarity, and even more special still about those with whom we associate that joy. For with laughter comes a sense of safety–even if we’re under intense pressure, and even if only for that brief moment it takes us to snatch back our bearings and carry on. Battlefield humor, ER humor, gallows humor; when we’re laughing, we join something timeless, something stronger than ourselves and our terrors. “I get it” brings us to inclusion—and a return the safety of the group.   

   Through his very outrageousness, Williams assuaged those fears of ostracism and “aloneness”; he touched our inner nerd, and gave us outliers blessing. So when someone we’ve trusted with that enormous vulnerability leaves us—especially intentionally—there’s a sense of mutual betrayal, as though we, personally, could have helped him stick around—if only

   Yes, we cry when we remember the bullies, the rotten lovers, the trusted friends who’ve let us down; but Robin Williams never hurt us, he just brought us back to our humanity when we were feeling alienated and excluded. From the very beginning, when he careened off the stage and up and down the aisles of the Ash Grove, bouncing off those fabled walls while railing against Nixon, Vietnam, aliens and Hollywood in general, he was our avatar of release. Another generation came to love him as Mork, and another still as “Genie” in Walt Disney’s “Alladin”. Then there were all those hankie-wringing turns in Garp, Dead Poets, Fisher King, Good Will, PatchDoubtfireJackandonandonandon…. 

And now he’s gone—like the djiini in the lamp—leaving us to grieve, however briefly, for ourselves.  

RIP Little Monkeyman. Sure wish I could have helped (sniff).


 Here’s a link to Robin’s seminal album, “Reality. What a Concept!”  Well worth a(nother) listen and quite possibly a tear or two–tears of the very best sort.


Why Is This Man Laffing?

     Exactly forty years ago Richard Milhous Nixon announced that he would be resigning the Presidency of the United States of America “effective noon tomorrow”. No flowery preamble or obfuscation, just that curt and typically self-righteous, I’m outta here, suckers.



    Nixon’s many misdeeds (and Watergate was just the latest in a career-long pattern of arrogance, pettiness, and dishonesty) may seem quaint by 21st century political standards, but for those of us whose lives had been wrenched by the criminal and ultimately pointless war he prosecuted in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the near-civil war his administration fomented at home, the announcement was cause for great rejoicing and the lighting up of many celebratory doobs.

   But whatever one may think about Tricky Dick in retrospect, (and let’s face it, most of us remember him mainly for his legendary punch line: “I’m not a crook”) let us not forget that this is a man who managed epic political comebacks—from utter and humiliating defeat—not one, but three times in the long career he inflicted upon us all. 

  – First with his “Checkers” speech after the 1952 Presidential campaign was nearly derailed because of his financial improprieties. 

   -Then after his humiliating defeat by Pat Brown for Governor of California when he famously sniffed, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference”. 

  – And yet again after losing the Presidency to JFK—utterly alienating the Republican Party hierarchy in the process—when he reemerged to stoke enough bigwig egos and kiss enough political ass win the office eight years later. 

   Arguably, even after resigning in disgrace, he fashioned himself as something of an elder statesman, managing a best selling memoir and several well-regarded books in addition to advising (quietly, of course,) both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on matters of foreign policy. When he finally left us for good (and I do mean “good”), it seemed something of an afterthought—as though he absolutely knew his zombie legacy would return again and again to haunt us all and eat our brains in the night. 

   So despite the lasting enmity I hold for what he did to my country at large and my generation in specific—and for just being an obnoxious prick in general, I was inclined to listen when he said, “A man is not finished when he is defeated. A man is finished when he quits.” 

Given all that’s been thrown at America in the intervening years, those who’ve survived Nixon and his legacy know there is a certain redemptive grace in these words. Typical of his sneaky, occult intent, that grace isn’t readily apparent (and when grasped seems ironic in the extreme), but I think we can all afford to set aside a small space in our hearts to appreciate the sentiment.

I know I certainly have.







Klass Reunion

    August is the month for class reunions—that decennial ritual wherein otherwise rational people contemplate (voluntarily!) returning to the same social spawning pool they’ve spent so many years trying to forget.


     If you’re like me, you approach the prospect with a horrified fascination –perverse curiosity toying with the wholly natural desire to run like hell from one’s cringe-worthy past. Education may be the “great equalizer,” but class reunions are its snarky handmaiden—for “X” can be a major movie star or run a billion-dollar conglomerate, but he’ll always be “Stinky” to those who of us knew him when.

     Then there are the timeless questions—whose import is only exacerbated when run through the filter of our long-repressed teen angst:

     What if I don’t recognize anyone? What if they don’t recognize me? What if they do recognize me but pretend they don’t and I have to sit off in a corner by myself all night long? How did my butt get so BIG?

     Still, the call of reunion is compelling, and we answer if only to note the veneers and the dye jobs giving way to pot-bellies and crows-feet. To gawk discretely at the full-on throat ropes and mottled scalps until those of us left without a shard of our self-consciousness stumble into the Catalina Room with our walkers and our mumbled reminisces to congratulate ourselves on our longevity—united at long last by our common decrepitude.

     It’s for those of us who never quite know where we fit in that I wrote this…

…Reunion Story:

     Every class has its Princess. Ours was (let’s call her) Shelly Anderson—the cheerleader all the girls wanted to be, and all the boys just wanted. Smart, sweet, gorgeous of face, bodacious of figure, Shelly was a fixture in every honors class and homecoming court, every awards banquet and civic presentation; her presence on campus more the stuff of myth than of actual substance. For although she walked among us, there was something otherworldly about her—as though her celebrity somehow defined us all.

     We lessers gawked, our small hearts filled with a combination of awe and unbridled resentment as she strode down the hall and bounced up the stairways attended by her entourage of hot guys and unattainable girlfriends. I cringe to recall that some of the less evolved among us— those bedeviled with social demons and imperfect complexions –even had a pimple pool to bet on which days she might show up with so much as one teeny blemish on her lovely face. As I recall, no one ever collected.

     The teachers were enchanted by her too, and Shelly always got A’s—even from the notoriously hard graders. For many of us, she was a first sobering encounter with the essential injustice of the cosmos. No matter how hard you work, or how excellent you become, no matter how many hurdles you jump or what sacrifices you’ve made, there will always, ALWAYS be someone’s brother-in-law or beautiful girlfriend waiting in the wings who gets the job, the award, the part, the promotion, the heartthrob…. It was hard not to hate her, but nobody did.

     Fortunately, we nerdesses had our own Prince Charming as an offset. “Mark Chen” was tall and exotic, a graceful athlete possessed of a truly sterling mind—which he didn’t mind sharing on calculus exams. Best of all, he was never less than fully competent at anything he attempted–and he attempted a great deal. A real life karate kid who sparred with Chuck Norris, Mark was also a pilot, a musician, ballet dancer, lab whiz, sly wit, and ironic poet who crafted his pieces en Francais. He was, in short, one perfectly-faceted gem of a nerd. OUR nerd.

     I nursed a secret crush from the moment I first saw him, but figured I could always get a boyfriend. A friend, however, was something altogether more rarified and precious– and friends we remained. I felt a kinship with Mark—as did a lot of us. Yes, he donned his letterman’s jacket on Friday along with the rest of the jocks, and yes, he belonged to all the right clubs and societies, but he seemed to prefer the company of us outliers—the ones with pocket protectors, and mismatched wardrobes, and an enthusiasm for intellectual mischief. Mark was one of us.


     Twenty years later, our class was in its ascendancy. Law and medical schools behind us, brokerages and businesses established, albums and articles published, marriages in full swing with children popping forth, we’d risen with the 80’s and endured our first few hard smacks at the hand of our aspirations. The air was heavy with the certitude of our legacy — a fine time to reconnect and congratulate ourselves. With the 1990’s lurking on the horizon, reunion organizers sprang into action.

     And boy oh boy did we turn out for that party! Such a glossy, ambitious group of privileged kids, now become privileged adults. Like most of the rest of the country, we were pretty full of ourselves back then.

     I ate dinner with Mark and some of the old gang that night, and got a huge kick out of how our high school personas had morphed into our grownup pretenses. Mark was a doctor now, with the self-assurance of office, but he still had that same amused sense of ironic befuddlement that had carried him through the High School Experience.   As I looked around the room at all the groomed and polished, the confident and accomplished, I felt a familiar apprehension. Although I’d danced with the stars and dined with presidents by then, I was still terrified by the kids I’d gone to high school with. In retrospect, I think maybe we all were.

     But Mark’s easy laughter and snide banter brought me back to center.   With him watching my six, I could face anything my social peerage had to throw at me. I took a deep breath, and set off to mingle.

     It turned out to be a terrific party. I danced, I drank, I laffed myself silly, and at one point I think I even sang. As the evening drew to a close and I prepared to leave, I chanced upon Mark on my way out to the bathroom. Giddy, his eyes alight, he grabbed my arm, whirled me about, and steered me into a corner.

     “Allena,” he said, his mouth agape in mock wonder. “The most amazing thing just happened! I think my life has finally been validated.” A bit tipsy, I scanned his face to see if he was kidding. He was– but not entirely. Then, his voice tinged with awe and quiet solemnity he said, “Shelly Anderson… just spoke to me!”

     All I could do was snort in delight.

     On some level, it was a benediction we had both been awaiting for nearly a quarter of a century. I was thrilled for him, and me, and for all nerds everywhere. Yes, there was hope! With the passing of time, the Shelly Andersons of the world may deign to bless us all!

     For years after, my lasting memory of Mark was that shining face, that elegant bearing, that goofy schoolboy grin as he turned and walked back to the table to gather his things to leave.

     Flush with the magic of this epiphany, I again started for the bathroom—and nearly stumbled into a breathless Shelly Anderson. Heartbreakingly beautiful, those gentle eyes still dancing in their sweetness, she flashed her fabled smile at me, and I was hypnotized once again. How could anyone be this perfect? “Oh Allena,” she gushed. “The most wonderful thing just happened to me”– and here her voice lowered as if she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

     “I just spoke with… MARK CHEN!”

     While I picked my jaw up off the carpet, she paused for a moment as if to let the enormity of this revelation sink in. “You guys were always so smart, “ she continued, “and I would sit there in class thinking I’d never fit in and you were only just humoring me. I was always so intimidated by everyone, but now– now that Mark has talked to me– I finally feel like I’ve been accepted.”

     Every now and then, life graces us with a moment of symmetry so clean and so perfect it defies our poor attempts at dissection. Of such stuff is poetry born.   Suppressing a whoop of karmic irony, I could only smile and watch as this lovely woman took the arm of her adoring husband and glided off through the hotel lobby and out into the starry August night.

     It was one of those evenings.


Requiem for a Honey Badger


HoneyBadger, the feral gentleman cat who befriended us in his last months, died last night under our screen porch, considerate enough, even in the end, to do so at the opening so I didn’t have to crawl underneath the stem wall and brave the black widows to pull him out.

I dug him a proper grave and buried him in the front lawn where he loved to gather with us at twilight to watch the sunset and play with the puppies.


The evening HoneyBadger came down from his lair and introduced himself.


(For several years he’d been skulking the property, pissing the doorways, and terrorizing the ranch cats, but he never got quite close enough for me to shoot him–though I’m ashamed to admit I tried. Then two nights after I brought the puppies home to join the Stomach Collection, he just walked into the middle of our conclave, rolled onto his back, and lay there daring anyone to make him leave.)


HoneyBadger’s death hit me pretty hard, but instead of staggering around the house all day sobbing, I decided to walk the fence line for distraction, missing his company with every step. You see, the Big Guy identified with the German Shepherd puppies, considered himself one of the litter, loved to hike the hills with us, slept with them every night and ate out of their bowl with them every morning.


He even liked to tussle with them in the grass



The walk depressed me even further; the creek hasn’t seen water in two years. The meadows where the wildflowers once grew up to my knees are barren and sere. And the grassy hillsides where bees used to gather and birds used to nest are desert now, little more than sand and stubble. I didn’t even see a rattlesnake.

So it was with a start of real poignancy that at the very top of the property up by the rocks where nothing grows at all, I found a tiny stem of wildflowers with three delicate purple blossoms –blossoms that should have bloomed and died back in March—poking up by the side of the trail. I’m not sure if it was a Sign, but I’ll take it as HoneyBadger’s benediction, and a reminder that you never know where grace is going to come from….

I returned to the house teary and sweaty, showered off, and came back outside only to find that the puppies had dug up the grave in my absence.


Cursing under my breath, I stumbled down to the barn to get a flat-edged shovel so I could refill the grave, and noticed the turkey hen chasing after something in the flight cage. It looked like a squirrel, but on closer inspection it proved to be Ma and Pa Pheasant.

For the last month the turkey has been sitting a clutch of eggs she commandeered from the pheasants after their last brood fell prey to a weasel. The pheasants went shrieking back to their pine tree and the turkey went back to the nest. But when I looked under the coop to see if she was okay, here’s what I saw:


Yep, the turkey hen had hatched out the pheasant chicks and actually appeared to be defending them. (And trust me, she is a formidable presence when piqued.)

So now I’m vacillating between hope and heartache, anger and elation– and it’s not even noon yet. Thankfully, there is still a pint of mead out in the storeroom. This evening I’ll crack the cork and toast to the memory of a kindred soul—and marvel at the irony of the Universe.





RIP HoneyBadger. Huge Respect.