My daughter, Sarah, came out of the womb as her own person. Her independent spirit revealed itself before the age of two and a half. Psychologists I’ve talked to say this is unusual. But does it mean that this aspect of personality is inborn?

Here is an example of what I mean. When Sarah was less than two, she got confused because another little boy had the same name as her brother, David. I told her that the other David was Jan’s (the Mom’s) David, like your brother David is mine and you are mine. She was sitting on my lap. She pulled away from me and emphatically stated “NO! I MINE!”

Sarah at 18 months

That apparently shows an advanced level of separation as a distinct individual from the mother. This usually happens much later in a child’s development.

Another example involved bedtime. At eighteen months, my older son had always needed me to stay with him till he fell asleep. So that’s what I did with Sarah at that age. I stood by her crib and sang to her and told her stories. One night, after I had been with her for a few minutes, Sarah said “You can go now Mommy. I want to go to sleep!” I was surprised but thrilled that she could assert herself and tell me what she wanted. And that she could go to sleep on her own. She was always a self-soother. David never was.

A similar incident occurred with her Dad when Sarah was a little over two years old. Her father was tickling her while she played with his watch. She hated being tickled and asked her dad to stop. He kept tickling. She asked him to stop more emphatically. He didn’t. So she hit him in the face with the watch. Her father was stunned. He asked her why she had hit Daddy and hurt him.

Her answer – “I told you to stop”. Wow! That was a “Make my day” moment!

Sarah at two

Her father never tickled her again. He also treated her with much more respect from that day on. Sarah instinctively knew how to set limits and to protect herself and her space. I wish I had that moxie, even as an adult.

My son had a very different temperament. When I would tell my five-year old son that he had upset me by doing something I didn’t like, his response was usually “I’m sorry Mommy! I won’t do it anymore.” Perfect response from a mother’s perspective. When I said the same thing to my five-year old Sarah, her response was “I’m sorry you’re upset. But you’ll just have to deal with it.” Not exactly a mother’s dream child.

So is this deep sense of self genetic? Are we born either with a sense of boundaries or not? That seems to be the case with my kids. I’ve watched these personality differences continue into adulthood. David has always been more like me and Sarah has always been more like her father in this regard.

After having my own children and watching them develop over time, I now believe that nature may have an edge over nurture when it comes to certain basic characteristics and personality traits. I’m sure there are examples of nurture being the dominant force, but in my experience, I vote for nature over nurture on the basics of who were are.


I went looking in my files for a story — which I didn’t find. Maybe it’s on one of my backup drives. I’ll have to look. Meanwhile, I found this unfinished bit. I wrote it in 2006. Life is much better now. It is interesting seeing how far we have come in a decade and how, despite my pessimism and a lot of setbacks … we’re still here. These days, instead of dunning us for money, the banks want to give us more credit cards and keep raising our credit limits.

The message is SPEND, SPEND! My answer is NO, NO! But thanks for thinking of us. Please send cash, not credit.


My first call this morning was from Discover card, to which entity I owe some thousands of dollars. You can always tell it’s a creditor. Their calls have a special hollow sound. Probably caused by their always using a speaker or microphone.

“Good morning. May I speak with Marilyn Armstrong.”

“Speaking.” Sigh. Here we go again.

“I was wondering if you were intending to make a payment this month.”

“No. I have no money. My unemployment has run out. I have an income of zero.”

“Well, have you considered returning to work?”

I paused for a long moment, pondering the hundreds of resumes I’ve sent, the dozens of phone calls, the days and weeks searching employment websites.

“Actually,” I said, “I have decided I don’t feel like working. You see, ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be poor. Not merely a little short of money. Oh no. I wanted to be so poor that I can only shop at the Salvation Army on half price days. I want to be awakened in the early hours of my weekend by creditors dunning me for money. I want to make choices, like ‘do I eat or do I buy medication? Do I keep the telephone or pay the electric bill?’ You know, miss … what was your name? I didn’t catch it …”

“Tracy …” she replied.

“Well Tracy, even when things were going really well, I was always yearning for the day when I wouldn’t be able to go to the doctor because I have no medical insurance.  So I plotted and schemed until I found a company that was sure to go bankrupt while I worked there owing me three or four months back salary … oh and I also arranged for my husband to be abruptly jobless and for economy to tank… and voilà! I got what I wanted.” And I clicked off.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I’m sure my wit was lost on her, but at least recounting it to Garry made him smile. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s going to get better because it has to. Call me a skeptic. I bet that’s what they told the homeless families as the sheriff evicted them.

Being poor in America is considered a sin. If you are poor, people assume you are also lazy, stupid, and uneducated … unless they are liberals, in which case they assume that you come from a deprived background where your mother was a prostitute and your father is doing twenty-five to life.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

People like us, who were very good earners and lived a decent facsimile of the American Dream — until it turned into the American Nightmare — scare the pants off other people. Our ill-fortune might be contagious. What happened to us could happen to them. They could face ruin because the economy faltered, they got sick, worked for a company that went bankrupt, or were declared obsolete or too expensive  … or worst of all, they got old and were pushed out the door.

People can’t afford to be sympathetic. This is too close. Too many of us are living a paycheck away from financial disaster. In our dreams, we see the glittering eyes of the predators (oops, I meant creditors) watching us from the shadows. So we circle the wagons. Throw another log on the fire and huddle against the dark.

At this point, we’ve gone past that. No wagons remaining to circle and we’re out of firewood.

I have more of a sense of humor about this some days than others.



We are in better shape than we were. Not rolling in the big bucks, but mostly managing to get through the month. Meanwhile, though, too many other people have joined the “we’re poor” party. Which explains that’s why there are so many angry, hostile, hateful people around.

Someone told them they could have a new car or two, a house, and a job that pays a living wage. All they had to do was “the right stuff” to have The Good Life. It didn’t happen that way.

If the good life fails, it must be someone’s fault. It must be Those People. Black people. Hispanic people. Islāmic people. They stole the dream.

Someone stole the dream, right? It can’t be you were working in a business which became obsolete. Or you were under-educated and couldn’t keep up with the how the workforce has changed. Or maybe you just had really bad luck, a thing that can randomly happen to pretty much anybody — with no one at fault.

I know our problems weren’t because of Those People. Other struggling people are not our enemy.  

The rich guy with orange hair is not your friend and he isn’t going to make your world a better place. Maybe he’ll help you hate better, but that’s not going to improve the quality of your life. Maybe you’ve figured it out by now. I hope so.


I didn’t have to go to a dam or a park. I just stood on our damp, slightly rainy deck and took a few pictures. We don’t get brilliant autumn here because brilliant autumn requires maple trees. Sugar maple trees, actually. They are the ones that turn scarlet, then golden.

Oaks turn dark green, bronze, brown, very dark brown, and fall off. So the bright yellow trees are alder. They turn bright yellow very early, then lose their leaves.

Some of these are sort of painterly. I got creative.


Twenty-seven years. Twenty-seven long years. She looked down at the knives in her hand. Two simple steak knives … and he was backing up, directly into the knives. No one would believe the story, not for a minute.

“Hey! Stop! I’ve got knives in my hand. You’re backing right into the knives,” I said. The thought was just a tiny, momentary lapse …

“They’d never believe your story,” he commented as I put the knives in their sheathes.

“They have me in maximum security for the remainder, brief though it may be, of my so-called life.”

“The DNA alone would convict you,” he agreed. Good he hadn’t moved faster or it could have been all over before I had a chance to warn him …

Which bring me to what I bought for our anniversary

Garry doesn’t need clothing. Garry doesn’t need a tie or a watch. Nor jewelry, a book, a computer, or a cell phone. Garry doesn’t really need anything except possibly more hair which I promised I’d get him if I got rich from the proceeds of my book. I didn’t get rich and have not hit the lottery — unlikely having not bought any lottery tickets. Which means Garry still needs hair. Maybe in our next lifetime.

As for me, I don’t need anything anyone can buy. So, I figured there was nothing I could get that would be interesting, surprising, or unique. I was wrong.

It all started when we had Duke at the vet the other day. We got to postulating “what IS Duke?” The curled over the back tail, his funny scrunched in face scream some kind of Asian breed. Not the kind of dog you usually find roaming streets looking for a back alley girl dog for a quickie. Accidental backyard breeding? Intentional mix?

Something happened because we’ve got The Duke.

So, the vet says: “Maybe Shi Tzu? Not King Charles … no spaniel in this dog. Don’t think he’s any kind of herder … Okay. That’s it. You’re going to have to do DNA. I need to know what this dog IS,” said Dr. Marcie.

“I’d like to know too,” I said, “But those tests are pricey.”

“I think around $75 … something like that,” she admitted.

“Not this week,” I said. Although if she’ll pay, I’m up for it.

But this got me to thinking, so I looked up the DNA breed tests for dogs and indeed, they are in the $75 range. More pressingly, I have to get Bonnie clipped next week. She has reached the “stinking bag of black rags on legs” stage. Gibbs has a flat, smooth coat, so for now, he is okay. Garry pointed out that Duke is more a “hose him down” sort of guy. So rather than sending out DNA to discover Duke’s ancestors, I thought I’ll get Bonnie clipped.

But speaking of anniversaries, how about ancestral DNA for Garry and I? We may not need it, but it would certainly be different, right? Oddly, it’s less expensive to get the DNA for humans than for dog breeds. Go figure, right?

So. That’s what I did. DNA for we two lovebirds. In about four weeks, the mystery of our ancestors will unfold. The truth will be revealed! The veils of history will lift and all will be known. Or maybe not. We shall see.

As for Duke, I’m afraid he will have to wait until my curiosity goes over the top … or one of those lottery tickets comes in big.


My ex husband, Larry, and I lived through a very atypical evening in Florida many years ago. We were visiting Larry’s mother, Dorothy, in Pompano Beach, Florida. She lived in a fifteen-story condo right across from the ocean and had a magnificent water view.

My mother-in-law, Dorothy, with our son, David on her beach

One night, Larry and I decided to go to the movies. Dorothy decided to stay home. We got out of the movie after dark and headed home. We came upon a police barricade complete with flashing lights and multiple police cars. We were routed off the road and in the wrong direction.

A short ways down the next road, we came upon another phalanx of police cars with flashing lights detouring us even further away from the condo. What was going on?

Larry and me on Dorothy’s balcony in Florida

Larry decided to ignore the barricades and head back in the direction we needed to go. Suddenly we saw a tree uprooted and leaning against a house. Next we saw a car upside down on the roof of a garage. One whole side of the street was total chaos and the other side was perfectly intact. I could see a glass collection in somebody’s front window on the safe side of the street.

As we got closer to the condo, we noticed that there were no lights on in any of the houses. We caught sight of the condo and it was also dark. We started to pull into the car port outside the parking garage at the condo. But it was gone! The roof was off, smashed and folded in on itself, lying on the ground. The cement blocks that held the roof up were strewn around, as were several cars.

We left our car outside and ran into the building to make sure Dorothy was okay. Just as we got to the building, the lights went back on. That meant that power was back and we could take the elevator up to the apartment.

Apparently, while we were in the movie, a tornado had hit the town, going directly through the condo’s parking area. A tornado on the water is apparently unheard of. We were the exception that proves the rule!

There was extensive damage all around. It took months to fully repair the damage to the condo. Dorothy weathered the storm safely inside, but a lady in a nearby condo was sucked out through her patio doors as she tried to close them. She was killed.

It happened so quickly, we managed to miss the whole storm. We avoided what Dorothy described as a terrifying experience full of horrifying sounds and flying objects. We were pretty freaked out just seeing the damage a tornado can do first hand.

I’ve seen disaster footage on TV many, many times. But it doesn’t hit home until you see it in person. It gave me a new respect for Mother Nature. And a new fear for what climate change may have in store for all of us down the road!