Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Christmas Quiz

Deck the . . .
a)      halls with boughs of holly
b)      tree with ornaments your kids made 20+ years earlier
c)      delivery guy for leaving a large box under the welcome mat
d)     husband for flirting with Santa’s helpers

Tis the season to be . . .
a)      Jolly
b)      Chubby
c)      Busy
d)     All of the above

Don we now . . .
a)      Our gay apparel
b)      Our pants that have obviously shrunk
c)      Our coats (most likely)
d)     All of the above

Troll . . .
a)      the ancient Yule tide carol (or, sing it, if you prefer)
b)      for change
c)      for fish
d)      ahead! (as in the outraged cry of the Three Billy Goats Gruff)

See the . . .
a)      blazing Yule before us
b)      amazing number of presents under the tree
c)      weight climb on the scales
d)     All of the above

Strike the . . .
a)      harp and join the chorus
b)      match and light a fire
c)      right balance between giving too much and not giving enough
d)     Maybe all of the above

Follow me . . .
a)      In merry measure
b)      As I run around like a chicken with its head cut off
c)      Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s place
d)     On my blog

While I tell of . . .
a)      Yule tide treasure
b)      A jolly old man donning a red suit and riding willy-nilly through the sky
c)      Having to walk 10 miles to get to school through heavy snow
d)     Rudolph--he's been hitting the reindeer sauce a little bit too hard

Fast away the old year passes . . . No kidding!

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses . . . Make hay while the sun shines!

Sing we joyous, all together . . . even if you can’t carry a note in bucket!

Heedless of the wind and weather . . .
Neither snow, nor  rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep Christmas from your doorstep.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Speaking of Christmas

While growing up, money was scarce in our household. One year, there was so little of it that my family received a charity box from church; it was full of treasures, including a new tugboat dress my size—with two older sisters, I always wore hand-me-downs!—and a 45 record to match. Now, that’s something you don’t see every day, and I wore that dress proudly. 

Don’t get me wrong. My parents, hard-working farmers, always put food on the table. But, at times, they simply couldn’t afford luxuries. Because of that—and maybe due also to good, old-fashioned common sense—we children received one Christmas present every year. Picture me crying in the closet after receiving a chicken incubator in the seventh grade—not that it wasn’t nice of my parents to remember my admiration for someone’s Science Fair project the previous spring. But girls change a lot at that age, and the idea of raising chicks had flown the coop some months earlier! The disappointment was more than I could bear, yet I knew enough not to show it—thus, the closet. Unfortunately, the distress didn’t end there. Year after year as Christmas came and went, I had to endure returning to school where other girls listed their many acquisitions and wore their new sweaters.

Envy notwithstanding, later Christmas presents made up for that sad year: an electric blanket for a frigid bedroom one year, a coveted set of electric curlers another, luggage—I can only assume my parents were as anxious as I for me to move away from the farm—and, best of all because of its endurance and its origination, a cedar chest built at our school shop (by someone other than my brother. I wonder who?).  I still own it to this day.

That chest has seen me through many Christmases since my childhood with only one leaving me in tears—the year I had hoped for a diamond ring and received a mixer instead. Despite that temporary setback, I still have both the original mixer and the man who bought it for me. The chest, the Sunbeam, the marriage . . . I love things that endure.

Speaking of enduring,  my parents, married for nearly 60 years, never got the credit from me they deserved. They worked hard and talked little; being the middle child who moved away at an early age, I never really knew them. But I do know that they did what they could and they loved each of us. The thought they put into our single Christmas gift stands out as a tribute to that love.
And they taught me the important lesson of frugality. I generally hate shopping and dislike knicknacks on principle. But, just like many folks these days, I can’t claim complete restraint at Christmas. That in addition to the generosity of doting aunts and uncles, contributed to a mound of presents under the tree. Because of this, I'm not at all sure my children can say, “I remember the Christmas I got . . . ."
But, even if they can't, I know they felt the love.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dear Santa . . . .

Normally sunny here in Alabama, today’s sky has been reminiscent of an Ohio’s wintry day, i.e., drab gray. No cerulean blue in sight. While the weather outside was frightful, my interior 68 degrees wasn’t quite delightful, but it was doable . . . as long as I overlooked the deep freeze claiming my feet as I sat at my computer.

Speaking of frozen feet reminds me that I recently learned the delights of a hot water bottle bedside. We’d vacationed in western Virginia where, nestled in a valley, the chilly rental house provided lots of comforters and, yes, a hot water bottle complete with lambskin casing. Despite growing up in a house where ill-fitting bedroom windows allowed small snowdrifts to form on the wooden floor, I’d never tried using one.

How did I ever do without?

In the winter months, I snuggle in, pull the covers over my head, and hope that my cold feet warm up enough to let me drift off. But they often refuse to cooperate, even when I pamper them with socks or wrap them in covers. My husband, sometimes kind enough to let me put my feet on his legs, can only take so much abuse.

Yes, I’ve finally seen the light in the shape of a hot water bottle. Glowing from the warmth within, it has the potential to change my life. Happy feet, longer sleep, better sleep. Deeper dreams, creative juices, fabulous stories. Books on shelves.

You can surely understand the connection between a nice hot water bottle and certain fame and fortune.

Let’s just hope Santa sees it that way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvey saves the day

Harvey felt bad. The other phones were smart. Where did that leave him?

No text, no games, no internet. No fun. 

Susie played Scrabble with Tommy.

Johnny gave directions.

April spit out reminders.

Misty sent messages.

Jordan took pictures.

But Harvey was only good for one thing. Talking. He did have a red button, though—not that he ever had to use it.

One day Harvey and the other phones went to the park. While everyone else was playing games, texting, and checking e-mail, Harvey just hung around. What else could he do?

Footsteps pounded up the path.

“Ah-hah! Smart phones!” said the bank robber.

The robber picked up the phones and tossed them into his money bag one by one. But then he came to Harvey and laughed. “Hoo-boy! Nobody wants this piece of junk.”

He left Harvey lying on a rock.

Before the robber had a chance to run off, police surrounded the park.

“Hey, Officer, how did you know where to find me?” said the robber.

“There was a 9-1-1 call from this location,” said the officer. “I’m betting it was this little guy.”

He picked Harvey up and looked at the red button. It was glowing.

“Yep. 9-1-1.”

Harvey rang, and the Officer answered. “Yes, yes. I’ll tell him.” When he hung up, he said,  “Harvey, the Captain wants to congratulate you on a job well done.”

Harvey was so pleased with himself that he couldn't help but vibrate.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's national-write-a-letter-to-your-favorite-author day (well, I made that up).

All in all, I’m a matter-of-fact kind of a gal. I say this despite being the one who tears up at the National Anthem and the one who sobs uncontrollably at movies. (I’m speaking here of  the Valley of the Dolls, back when I was 23. I also read the book 5 times to the accompaniment of many tears.) And I hate to think that I’m the only one who cries at Dick Van Dyke reruns.

A scientific study claims that women cry 30-64 times per year. My eyes mist up on a daily basis--probably because I read everyday. There's usually something so sweet, or so tragic, or so beautiful in a story that I can't help myself. 

Despite the waterworks, I still claim that my feet are planted firmly on the ground. That’s why it surprises even me when I write the occasional fan letter. No, so-called stars hold little interest for me; they get enough recognition without my help. But sometimes, after reading a good book, I immediately send the author an email; I don’t expect anything in return. I’m just so amazed and appreciative of that type of ability that I feel compelled to share this with the author.

But imagine my delight when one of my all-time favorite authors, Betsy Byars, wrote me back . . . in longhand. Learning that she and her husband are friends of a friend of a friend, I looked her up online and found that we have a few things in common (in addition to the friend of a friend of a friend), so I was able to point these out in my letter to her.  And, yes, it was a letter sent to a physical address. Since I figured I had nothing to lose, I broke my rule of not expecting anything in return. I audaciously sent her one of my picture book stories, hoping for words of wisdom. While she didn’t get me magically hooked up to an editor, she gave me the next best thing: encouragement. She said I deserve to be published.

So when I get my next rejection, I’m just going to have to think “A lot you know!” . . . because Betsy Byars, the queen of dialogue, told me I have a knack for it.

I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Little Red Riding Hood vs. Mother

Evidently, Little Red Riding Hood got on her mother’s nerves. A lot. All I know is that I would never have sent my children into the woods alone, even on their worst days.

So what we’ve got is one screwed-up mom and a child that may or may not have been unbearably aggravating.

Let’s look at the facts:

Aggravation #1: Red Riding Hood gets distracted easily. What kid doesn’t? There’s a game here, a toy there, the TV’s blaring, and pretty soon, the kid’s hanging from the lampshade. Is it any reason to send the child to the wolves?

Aggravation #2: Red Riding Hood talks to strangers. We keep telling and telling our kids not to talk to strangers, but how will they ever get to know someone? Every single person is a stranger at first. And, besides, I do it all the time. Any time I’m stuck in a line with no People magazine nearby, I comment to the person next to me that I chose the wrong line. And, before you know it, I’m learning her life history.

Aggravation #3: Granted, Red Riding Hood shouldn’t be sharing her destination with the Wolf. That was just plain stupid, much like plastering your destination on Facebook before your vacation.

Aggravation #4: Red Riding Hood took the long way around. Now, really, if her mother really wanted her to make it to her grandmother’s house in a timely fashion, wouldn’t you think she’d have pointed out a shortcut? The evidence is mounting up against the mother, I’d say.

Aggravation #5: Once again, I’m holding the mother culpable. If that poor child could not tell the difference between a wolf and a grandmother, she needed: 1) her vision checked, 2)  her hearing checked, 3) her smelling checked, 4) her sense of touch checked—when she nuzzled her grandmother, couldn’t she feel the hairy face? and/or 5) an IQ test administered. Red Riding Hood was a tad young to be taking herself to the doctor. (Then again, her mother did insist she visit her grandmother alone.)

Aggravation #6: Maybe this is where the mother lost it. I wouldn’t mind hearing, “What big eyes you have,” but if I had a child tell me, “What big ears you have” or “What big teeth you have,” I’d be thinking the next thing out of her mouth might be, “What big feet you have” or “What a big belly you have,” and that would be just plain rude. I might throw her to the wolves, too.

Through the facts presented, though, Little Red Riding Hood was a young, innocent dupe. All in all, that mother was just plain lucky she didn’t end up behind bars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Just us chickens

I’m stuck on chickens right now. KFC is my favorite fast food restaurant—much to my chagrin when it comes to cholesterol level—and I’ve been eating egg salad on toast just about every day for 18 months. But what really strikes my fancy is their entertainment value.

I’m telling you, I feel pretty ducky when I go to bed with the chickens, probably because I’m no longer a spring chicken. I tend not to run around the next day like a chicken with its head cut off. Most people think I’m a good egg with a sunny-side-up personality, but others might tell themselves, “You have to take the feet with the feathers.”

During the day, I’m often home alone so, generally speaking, there’s nobody here but us chickens. I’m trying to build a nest egg, but I’m barely scratching out a living. I’m a mother hen when it comes to my chicks, and I’d get madder than a wet hen if someone crossed them. You’d hear me squawk, for sure.

I’m neither a dumb cluck nor a bird brain. Sometimes I'm a chicken; but, if I make up my mind to do something, I don’t chicken out easily.

I hope I haven’t laid an egg with this blog entry.

By the way, I will write for chicken feed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

It's about time

I’ve never let so much time lapse between blog entries. Prepping myself for another writing conference on the heels of my last took time; absorbing the great advice of successful authors, agents, and editors fueled my inspiration; and returning to my waiting computer with an active mind and willing digits all conspired against blogging, in favor of writing stories for (hopefully) a much wider audience.

Last week, I performed a cut-and-slash on my longer piece of work. Now it needs serious resuscitation. Fortunately, I fancy myself as a good health care provider. But the thing’s pretty sick and will suffer a long recuperative period. 

Last week, I also revised one of my picture books, started another, and wrote what I’m hoping is something Lola Schaeffer—author of 230 picture books and with whom I ate lunch not once but twice!—calls a “given.” (A given is one of those rare stories that just flows out, barely needing revision.) I’m sure to change my mind after the rejections pour in.

I love to write; I love to read—not only others’ work but my own. I read one of my stories aloud in church recently; the service covered evil, and this particular story featured Alice, the elephant, who overcame an obstacle to defend the jungle. Apparently, moralistic stories in today’s publishing word have one thing in common—they share the kiss of death. But I do love this story; it rhymes and it’s terribly funny. Fortunately for me (in an optimistically publishing sense), I’ve learned to get beyond morals and rhymes; my current tales, for the most part, focus on humor.

Reading aloud, as somewhat of an introvert, I’m still never sure how my body will react. Usually, I’m nervous and try to deal with it the best way I can—using my trembling voice to portray a certain character’s hesitation or fear, for instance. But other times, I completely surprise myself with my lack of fear. In other words, whether I’m nervous or not seems to be completely out of my control. But what I try to remember when my heart’s beating in my throat is the feeling I had, at age 17, playing Lily Dilly (one of the Dilly sisters in a play called Pick-a-Dilly). I was 17 years old, on top of the world, and frightened out of my wits about performing. But I memorized like crazy and approached the stage bravely. After the first couple of sentences, my fear dissipated, and I just had fun. How could I not? For part of it, I pretended to have a lisp. “I thimply adore big throng men like you!”

Writing. Reading. Acting. Sharing. Fun’s what it’s all about.

Monday, October 10, 2011

There are always two sides to every story

You remember Cinderella, the poor girl whose father had questionable taste in women. By the way, whatever was he thinking? Did Lady T emit powerful pheromones that he couldn’t resist? Or maybe there were health reasons; the best I can tell, he died shortly after his marriage. Did his health start to deteriorate before he even met her, causing him to hallucinate her warmth and sweetness? Or, in the final analysis, was he simply a dolt taken in by a woman a bit smarter than he? It does seem as if a good, healthy, conscientious, nondoltish father would have detected unfriendliness toward his daughter BEFORE he married.

But maybe Lady T hid her devilish nature. At any rate, Cinderella’s father up and died, leaving her with a stepmother and stepsisters, Ana and Drizzy, who teased her unmercifully, forced her to do their dirtiest chores, and tried to keep her from meeting the man of her dreams. But did you ever, just once, think about it from their point of view?

There was the trio, minding their own business—a bedroom slipper business by all accounts—when their main source of money (via Lady T’s husband/Ana and Drizzy’s father) just dried up. (By the way, I don’t think that was any accident. I can’t be alone in wondering what happened to him. No one ever mentions his death, which makes it all seem very mysterious and hush-hush. I think an investigation is warranted. Grown women don’t just turn cold and cruel overnight, you know.)

In my opinion, the evil widow, together with her equally wicked daughters, hoped to inherit millions from his demise so that they could sell their business and live comfortably thereafter. What happened instead was that, upon his death, they quickly squandered their inheritance and were forced to seek a new source of revenue. Voila! Cinderella’s father made a play. Business was going reasonably well when he kicked the bucket. (By the by, his death was minimalized and requires further investigation as well.)

But everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, so what choice did they have? They demanded Cinderella do all their nasty chores, but it was no picnic for them either. Just when they thought they could eventually sell their business and live comfortably off the proceeds, they found out Cinderella’s father had spent all their money on food and shelter, so they were forced to continue with the making, selling, and schlepping around of bedroom slippers.

Business was slow, though, so Lady T always made them wear their own products—except for Cinderella who had to wear boots that were always a little too tight.

When the King announced a ball for his princely prince of a son, Ana and Drizzy couldn’t help but hope that one of them would be the lucky bride. What’s surprising is that Lady T didn’t make a play for him herself. (After all, everyone knows that the third time’s the charm.)

Naturally, the business ladies forked over what little money remained to invest in some brand new ball gowns. But since the dresses reached the floor, they wore their bedroom slippers to save on shoes. On the night of the ball, they got themselves all dolled up and left Cinderella, a little young for a ball, in charge of the homestead. No one was no more surprised than they when they heard about the hoopla afterwards. A fairy godmother? Mice turning into horses? A pumpkin turning into a coach? Poppycock! But happened it did, as they discovered when Cinderella’s slim foot slipped right into the glass slipper. Girl meets boy, runs away, loses shoe. Boy tracks down girl, slips shoe on foot, and marries for no other reason than her dancing ability. Weird.

But there was a lot of money at stake, so the three of them bickered about it to their dying day.  The two stepsisters blamed Lady T, claiming it was her fault that their feet were wide. After all, she and her slipper business had forced them into comfort.

But, really, I’m guessing they were better off. Who wants to wear glass slippers when you can wear slippers like these?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Half my life is an act of revision" (John Irving)

Keeping a blog carries with it a certain responsibility. I have to jumpstart my creativity in a way that’s new and different from what I usually write. Beginning any writing project is not an easy feat, but I’ll tell you something else that’s hard: knowing when to quit.  

I’ve been revising several picture books for years. A non-author probably reads a picture book and thinks, “It’s so short—must’ve taken about five minutes to write.” And, really, maybe the initial jot-down doesn’t take a lot more time than that. But inevitably that first rendition doesn’t quite work; neither does the second; neither does the 50th. But maybe the 51st does. But what if I go on to revise 52, 53, 54 times? Will my work never get published because I inadvertently pass over the sweet spot? How’s a writer to recognize a finished project when she sees one?

The trouble with PBs is that each word matters, so I constantly run into dilemmas. Should I say, “Sure, you can,” or “Don’t be silly!” when a child says he can’t do something and you know darn well he can. As parents, we’re supposed to encourage our children, but doesn’t real life dictate that we cajole them periodically, and shouldn’t books reflect real life? They can’t all be sweetness and light, right? Or am I revealing something about myself that should just stay hidden?

I fear that my approach to writing simulates my approach to life; it’s in a state of constant revision because I possess contradictory opinions on just about everything (barring my liberal political views). Should I live in the city where everything’s near, including neighbors who are decidedly much too close; or should I move to the country where I can appreciate the nature that I love, understanding I could shrivel with loneliness and would have to drive everywhere? Should I serve my guests on paper plates--oops! serve FOOD to them (actual guests should always be served on real plates)--because of the convenience factor, or should I go for elegance and wash dishes? Should I eat an egg sandwich for lunch, or a tomato sandwich? Should I go, or should I stay?

Whatever decision I make, whether on the written page or in life itself, will very likely be revised at some future point.

Yes, the act of starting a story is no easy feat and knowing when to end eludes me.

Or does it?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A history lesson for innocents

This morning I watered our freshly planted grass seedlings in an area that had harbored a lovely hedge of privet bushes. (Previously threatened as remarked upon in this blog, the privets met their demise by my husband’s hands, rather than those of my neighbor.) At any rate, my vegetable garden lies nearby in a state of discontent due to its inability to flourish this summer.

While noting its pitiful state, I started thinking about contrasting my success with that of Mary’s. Remember:

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

The best I could come up was Bonnie, Bonnie, you’re quite fonny, but that didn’t really work as it didn’t make sense, or Bonita, Bonita, quite the Lolita—too many syllables and not at all true.

To remind me about the original poem, I googled Mary, Mary quite contrary. To my surprise, I found that the nursery rhyme didn’t refer to a garden at all . . . but instead the bloody reign of Mary, the daughter of King Henry VIII. The garden apparently alluded to a graveyard in which the Protestant bodies were laid out in a tidy little row after having refused to switch from their faith; the silver bells were supposedly thumb screws used to smash thumbs and the cockleshells—well, I won’t go into that here. The maid, a guillotine shortened from its original name Maiden, was, no doubt, a welcome relief for the executioners who previously had to deliver quite a few blows after chasing down their victims (which, by the way, reminds me of my own experience as a farm girl and witnessing dead chickens run around like chickens with their heads cut off—because they were—but these were Protestants running around like chickens with their heads cut off with their necks still intact).

Finding out nursery rhymes like this have hidden meanings could shatter all sorts of allusions I’ve held. Was Little Jack Horner actually a bad little boy? Did Little Miss Muffet share her curds and whey after all? What about Jack Sprat? Were the tables reversed and his wife actually the skinny one?

I’ll just leave you with a nursery rhyme that means what it says: 

Herold, Herold, you’re no Fitzgerald,
How does your garden grow?
With rain too little and heat too hot
And dead plants all in a row.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bingo Bonnie loves her groupies

After my dad passed away several years ago, I decided to do something useful for the elderly. But what? I thought about reading to them or keeping them company but finally decided that what they needed most was just plain fun. Now, granted, when I say the word Bingo, most of you don’t jump up and down with joy. But these folks don’t have a whole lot of visitors, and their faces light up when I enter the Morningside Assisted Living Center. Sometimes known as Bingo Bonnie, I’m greeted enthusiastically with “Hello, hello! We’ve been waiting!”

When I first started calling Bingo more than two years ago, I quickly realized the need to shout. Some residents hear clearly with or without the help of hearing aids but others not so much. Politics was a hot topic back then, so when Myra, one of the hearing unimpaired, said to me, “I’m so sick of hearing about Sarah Palin,” I said, “Me, too.” You gotta love the response. “B2? Did she say B2?” The chorus rang for a full minute before I successfully straightened them out.

Most of the residents applauded when I bought a megaphone although a few of the hearing unimpaired grumbled; for the most part, though, in caring for each other, they understood the need. The center finally just set me up with a microphone and moved me to a larger room so more residents could attend.

On rare occasions, I’ve had to tell them to play nice. Someone’s made a bit too much noise and caused someone else to lose her train of thought; someone else sat in Dick’s usual spot. My favorite comment happened in the hall on the way out the door. Another resident had warned me about this lady’s sharp tongue. I smiled and said, “Helen, I haven’t seen you for such a long time!” Her comment broke me up: “Let’s keep it that way."

I call multiple games with lots of opportunity to win amid good-natured accusations of cheating floating through the air. The winners crow with delight at their little pile of fake money with which to "buy" oddities at the monthly Bingo store.

Once a week may not seem like much to you, but it's often enough to promote some welcomed camaraderie. My visits evoke stories: the broken arm resulting from leading an exercise session, the head-to-toe bruises from using a walker to reach an out-of-reach object, the ecstatic resident returning home to live out her days, and the strangest of all, an 80-year-old couple separating because they couldn’t stand each other anymore.

I hug them, call them by name, and tease them; getting more involved would only break my heart.

When someone yells--as much as a trembling voice can yell--"Bingo!" for the final time, the room buzzes. Congratulations and good-natured grumbling--"I only needed one more number"--rumble around the room.

"See you next Monday!” elicits a chorus of thanks, and I leave with a smile on my face.

Everyone loves to be loved.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bravery takes guts

As a struggling, wannabe published author wishing to strengthen my craft, I attended an SCBWI Midsouth writing conference this weekend.

I could write about the revisions ahead of me, but the clock ticks. Doing trumps talking. After I limber these digits and stretch my mind, I’ll get right on it.

I could blog at length about the energizing aspect, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, I’m pumped.

After realizing that others work full-time, volunteer selflessly, mother their mothers and care for six children yet squeeze in time to write, I definitely won’t describe my feelings of inadequacy.

Instead, today’s topic covers bravery—the bravery it takes to talk with agents and editors, the guts it takes to anonymously submit work and have it read aloud by those same folks and not burst into tears if you detect rejection, and, most of all, the courage it takes to meet new people.

I liken the latter to a story my husband relates about my daughter. Entering her preschool the first day, Rachel chattered away but clung to his hand a bit anxious about the prospect. One of the teachers greeted them, and my husband stopped to say a few words. The next thing he knew, Rachel was no longer by his side. Looking around, he found her snugly safe in a circle of a dozen other preschoolers.   

Being somewhat on the shy side, I lack the confidence my daughter displayed so bravely. But I came prepared to this conference to wiggle into whatever circle would have me. This happened through sheer determination; and, believe me, it wasn’t always comfortable. Many people knew each other, as one would expect.

On dessert night, I walked in alone. My hands shook and my innards quaked. My nervousness caused me to splash wine all over myself as I talked with an editor, but, at least, I didn’t douse her. For a few minutes, I wasn’t any less nervous when talking to other writers. I was the new kid on the block, the one with the need to reach out or flounder.

Floundering stinks. Eating alone stinks, too. But, most of all, getting beyond one's self-consciousness increases one's enjoyment at a function like this. For those reasons, I reached out to others and I never ate alone.

I figure this prepares me for life in a nursing home. Make friends quickly, or else.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What I did on my summer vacation

I just returned from vacation, and it was everything a person could want: beach, family, great food, and gorgeous weather. The house was situated in a nearly ideal location—at the end of a fairly secluded stretch of Virginia Beach called Chicks Beach. While sitting on the balcony, we oohed and ahed over the playing dolphins and jumping fish. So what if the house cozied up to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? The price was right; and, with the windows closed, the trucks barreling by blended in nicely with the pounding surf.

Just a week earlier, Hurricane Irene had left her mark. In that area, she’d removed tons of sand but left the houses relatively unscathed. While vacationing, we witnessed Tropical Storm Katia leave her own stamp. At the beginning of the week, the waves gently lapped our toes; at the end, the high tide raged over much of the sand. With the churned-up activity at sea, each day introduced new sea creatures to the beach, both dead and alive. Twenty-one horse shell crabs, belly-up, covered a reasonably short stretch of beach. The next day revealed potato sponges—also probably dead, but who’d know? Large ghost crabs scurried sideways in hunt of food.

The entire area was a culinary paradise. After sampling the Seafood Mac and Cheese at HK on the Bay, I felt like kissing the chef. Being able to walk there and dine outside were such awesome experiences that we returned a second time. But even better, not a day went by without discovering yet another delightful eatery: the Sugar Plum Bakery, Chill Ice Cream Shoppe, the 15th Street Raw Bar, AW Shucks, Sandbridge Island Restaurant, the Public House, and Sirena Cucina Italiana.

We ended up the week at Virginia Beach with a kayaking trip on the Back Bay near Sandbridge. Just how cool is that?

But the fun didn’t end there. On the return trip, we visited Monticello to learn more about our amazing president, Thomas Jefferson. Afterwards, we stopped at a surprisingly charming eatery, the Pomegranate Restaurant, situated in the delightfully named town of Troutville, VA.

There was one tiny hitch to the entire vacation. As a huge fan of Living Social and its ilk, I opted to buy advanced tickets to a comedy club. Remembering my experience 35 years earlier at such a club, I anticipated a fun way to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.

Stop right there.

Thirty-five  years?!

Before we went, there was much discussion about whether I knew what I was getting into. My kids weren’t convinced. Nevertheless, my husband, son, daughter, her boyfriend, and I headed off with hope in our hearts. Oops! While three out of four of the entertainers left us laughing, the fourth regaled us with the most horrifyingly revolting, repetitively raunchy, unfunny drivel imaginable. Booing was discouraged by the 400 pound mountain of a bouncer. Walking out on the so-called comedian wasn’t  possible either; not only were we packed in like sardines, but I feared becoming a target if I tried. So I sat there stoically and hoped the end would come quickly.

Everyone knows that laughter’s good for the soul. But his idea of comedy can’t possibly be healthy for him, despite the fact that he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank.

I’ll take Gilligan’s Island any day. Especially since it involves a beach and lots of coconut drinks.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Maybe this explains things.

There's no place like home

We all have our stories to tell about growing up. When I compare my memories with those of others, mine seem so much more colorful.

Judge for yourself: My recollections include awakening to snow piling up as it drifted in through ill-fitted windows, running away from home at age 5 to be discovered eating fried rabbit at the neighbor’s place a quarter mile away, biking by a neighbor’s front yard with the kid yelling “Sic her!” to what can only be called his free-range sow, gawking at a chicken running around like its head was cut off—well, because it was.  

Really, can yours compare?

When you’re raised on a farm and educated under the protective umbrella of a village school, one of three things most likely occurs. 1) You hate it. 2) You love it. 3) You grow up and consciously decide which parts to hate and love.

Behind door number one, you’ll find the fact that everyone knows your business appalling. You’ll become terrified of werewolves in the darkness. You’ll long for indoor plumbing so there’s no chance of encountering one of those werewolves. More than anything, you’ll want friends nearby and enough money to join band.

Behind door number two, you’ll find the fact that everyone knows your business comforting. You’ll love it that street lights don’t exist, yet you can sleep under a brightly lit sky. You’ll enjoy playing with your siblings and getting in the car every Sunday to visit cousins. You’ll fall in love with books.

I choose door number three. Concerning my school life, I went through phases. For the most part, I loved my teachers in elementary school, as well as my classmates. I don’t remember ever not wanting to go to school despite my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Loader, being a hundred years old and a little on the mean side. But then things got harder—not academic-wise but social-wise—all part of growing up, but not welcomed. As time went on, my feelings vacillated between love and hate. After having a particularly rough senior year, I graduated, yet bawled my eyes out at the graduation and halfway to adulthood. I think I was already aware of what I had missed by carrying grudges and what I would miss by leaving. 

People often hate their class reunions. I’m not one of them. While I’d never live on a farm again, I do think that small town living has its place and that nothing can quite compare.

Recently, I’ve gotten sucked into a Facebook group involving my hometown. I know very few of the 350 members but delight in their stories. Like me, they have some pretty colorful memories. And, to quote a famous farm girl, "There's no place like home."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes . . . oh, my!

Felt as far south as Charleston, as far north as Toronto, and as far west as Columbus, the recent earthquake, with its epicenter in Mineral, VA, took everyone by surprise. Earthquakes usually do. So do tornadoes. Mother Nature has a way of whipping up wind-crazed fury at the last minute.

Some floods don't have the same effect. Neither do hurricanes. Sure, you have to be flood-wary when it's raining hard, but there are other floods that can be foreseen. And, thanks to the nature of the hurricane beast, there’s an increased amount of predictability there as well. Atmospheric scientists can tell us the time it's expected to hit; generally the course it's on; and, allowing wiggle room, how intense it'll be. Yet, there are people who choose to stay in the paths of both the flood and the hurricane.

During much of our lives, we’re slammed with the unpredictable. We don’t see what's coming, and we can’t get out of the way. On the other hand, there are certain actions we take that will quite possibly result in diaster, yet we choose to take the paths anyway.

This was brought home to me in the pharmacy. While standing in line, I studied the shelf. One of the products was a DNA paternity test. Enough said. Another was a home drug-testing kit. Would this be for the parents who distrust their kids, or the soon-to-be-tested possible employee? Either way, it’s a sorry state of affairs and one that can be avoided.

Why live your life tempting disaster? Get out of Dodge while you can. Life’s crazy enough with its unpredictability.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To clean or not to clean, that is the question

Big surprise here: I don’t like to do housework. I do everything to avoid it—exercise, read, write, watch TV, eat, nap, wash clothes. Yes, you heard me. For me, washing clothes is therapy, not housework.

This unusual philosophy stems from the fact that my family had a wringer washer when I was growing up. Laundry day was a HUGE deal, and I dreaded it. Heaps of dirty clothes literally covered the bath/laundry room floor. And, believe me, farmers deal in dirt. When I was old enough to help, I didn’t mind slinging the wet duds on the line; after all, the end result was air-dried clothing touched by the pleasant scent of the outdoors. When there was time and the temps were warm, I'd lie on the ground and idly watch the flapping laundry and identify the fluffy, overhead clouds as animals.
But I seriously objected to using the wringer.

One unfortunate event stands out clearly: as I inserted tab A into slot B—albeit, tab A being a wet shirt and B being the wringer—I panicked when the sleeve of the blouse I was wearing got caught! I started my inexorable move forward. Screaming and planting my feet, I anticipated being flattened like Wile E. Coyote! What ultimately saved me was the sensibility to yank out the plug. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but I felt it was a close call. What fourteen year old wouldn’t?

So now that I own a perfectly dandy washer, I use it . . . often. Even though there are only the two of us now, I find excuses to wash. And, if I could, I’d still hang my clothes outside. Unfortunately, I live in a neighborhood with a really weird covenant: Thou shalt not conserve energy; thou must dry inside.

Anyway, all this is a way to say that it’s time to do some housework. The filing is stacking up, and I have to clear my twelve-foot long workspace in order to see its surface and write in good conscience.

But maybe I’ll take a break in a bit and throw some sheets in the washer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Goldilocks: The True Story

Once upon a time, three bears lived in the forest and for a reason I’ll never fathom, they always ate porridge for breakfast. I’m sure Mama Bear thought her husband could handle the porridge, hot or not, but why she didn’t check the temp for the baby is unconscionable. 

At any rate, Baby Cub burned his tongue and flew out of the cottage in a panic—probably in search of a stream—and Mama and Papa took off after him. Quite safety conscious, they’d normally lock their door. Not this time. Big mistake.

Anyway, once Baby quenched his thirst, the family decided to enjoy the beautiful day and forget the porridge.  Who could blame them?

In the meantime, Goldilocks, the yellow-haired imp terrorizing the neighborhood—her wanted poster hung on a nearby tree—walked right into their house just as boldly as you please. She wouldn’t have anything to do with the porridge, but she took out a loaf of bread and popped a couple of pieces into the toaster. Taking the strawberry jam from the fridge, the young lady—if you can call her that—spread it liberally on the toast, dropping some on the table and floor. But the toast hadn’t filled her up, so she reached into the fridge again and pulled out a T-bone to fry and a half-dozen eggs. You can imagine the mess she made—grease splattering everywhere and shells crunching under her feet. Goodness.

So after a very satisfying breakfast—some would say gluttonous—she eyed the chairs but decided to nap instead and went straight for the beds. Once she tried Mama Bear’s, she figured the bears couldn’t afford a new mattress—it must be as old as the hills! Then she plopped face-first into Papa’s and got a bit of a nasty surprise when it didn’t spring back. After leaving jam all over the first two pillows, she dove for Baby’s. Ahhh!  There was just enough give to make it worth her while to go to sleep.

Finally, the Bear family returned. When they realized the door was slightly open, they looked at each other in shock. “Call the cops, Mother,” said Papa. Luckily, her cell phone was tucked into one of the pockets on her apron.

The cops arrived, sirens blaring, and Goldilocks slept through it all. When they swarmed the house and spotted the intruder, they shouted in joy that they’d finally caught the yellow-haired mischief maker. Despite the fact that she still slept soundly, they read her her rights and carted her off.

And Mama, Papa, and Baby Bear never left the house again without locking the door behind them.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

School daze

With all the "remember whens" going around these days and despite my own seriously spotty memory, I’m prompted to write something about my formative years. It can’t be helped. I attended the same small school for twelve years and had the same friends—meaning the entire class of 46 (more or less) kids. Sure, I had best friends and worst friends and even a few enemies along the way; but attending a small school like that has no equal, and some memories just don't fade. 

Don’t get me wrong: for the most part, I loved it.  But I also hated it at times. When a certain tattle-tale incident got the better of me, kids began calling me Bonnie B. (You can guess what the “B” stood for.)  The nickname spread like wildfire.

Okay. You deserve the whole story. From my sixth-grade point of view, Mrs. Woodmency walked on water. She praised us when we did well, she rewarded the perfect spellers—including me—with ice cream every Friday, she provided cows’ eyes to dissect. The best teacher in the world.

Science class began innocently enough. Warning us to be careful, my sweet teacher passed out cows’ eyes and scalpels and provided instructions on how to proceed. She walked around the room to make sure we followed directions. 

Teachers wore dresses back then. Always. Often, the dresses had full skirts. As she swished by my desk, her sudden yelp of pain caught my attention, and I looked down.  A scalpel stuck out of her ankle! The blood gushed from her wound; but I’ll never know who nursed her because, of course, it was all about me, me, me. What stands out, instead, is the memory that I cried and someone told me not to worry because I hadn’t meant to do it. Until that comment, it hadn’t sunk in that the scalpel belonged to me.

I do remember clearly what happened the next day. Mrs. Woodmency, on crutches, asked me to monitor the cafeteria line for the next week because she couldn’t. Dennis Light began acting like his usual ornery self in line, and I tattled as a by-product of my guilt complex. This didn’t go unnoticed.

The day after brought a comment from a friend: “I was taking a survey and everyone says you shouldn’t have told.”  Gee, thanks. Now you tell me.

When the boys started calling me Bonnie B, I had no idea how to respond. For a few days, I remained clueless as to its meaning. When I found out, it was no small deal.  I was crushed . . . even more so when I returned the next year and the name still stuck like discarded gum to the sole of a shoe. 

But don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. Sure, some people still called me Bonnie B at my fortieth reunion, but most others dropped the “B” by graduation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The perfect ending

I’m struggling with the ending of a picture book.  I have a respectable beginning and a robust middle.  But what comes next? 

This description reminds me of our station wagons.  They all had a front seat, a back seat, a backward-facing way back, and a rear, drop-down tailgate.  The way back was received with mixed feelings—fun until the time I let my 5 year old drink both chocolate milk and grape juice before we set out for a trip.  Ewwwwww!

My first wagon was a large, gold—my husband scoffs—Chevy.  After buying it used for $550 when the owner brought it to me, I possessed it for seven years.  When it became a burden instead of a joy, we sold it.  We even sealed the deal on the phone.  Before the prospective buyer arrived, my husband started the wagon to make sure it was running.  The new owner kicked a tire, handed us $200, and drove off.  I loved that car, but its time had come.

My next wagon was a little less dramatic in its looks, being baby blue and smaller, and couldn’t live up to the high expectations I set with my first.  Throwing up at the dealership didn’t help matters; at $5000, it was the first time I’d spent more than $1800 for a car.  I didn’t really want it and didn’t trust it either.  When clicking my baby daughter’s seatbelt into place—or so I thought—the belt released and dumped her on the floor!  After happening twice, I knew it was time to shed myself of the baby blue traitor.

My next and last station wagon took us places we’d never been.  With 65,000 miles on it at the time of purchase, we put another 55,000 on it in a few short years.  The monstrosity eventually took us all the way to California. When the need for a transmission arose, we converted to a minivan . . . way back seat and all.  Was that front-facing seat better?  I’m not so sure.  No more picnics on a tailgate because there was no tailgate.  It lacked the perfect ending.

And, as you know, perfect endings are everything.            

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Never say never

There’s an e-mail making the rounds—another joke directed at people over 50 refusing to keep up with the times.  I learned how to pump my own gas when doing so swept the countryside years ago, but I do lag a little behind in all things technology.  I e-mail, text, and even blog; but I’m not too keen on getting my own smart phone, twittering, or even playing computer games on-line.  (I never have.  And since I declared computer games verboten when my kids were growing up, they never even owned a Nintendo.  Gasp!) 

When I say “never” these days, I have to question my veracity.  I’ve learned this about myself through the years.  The “nevers” started way back when.  In seventh grade, I remember that friends and I were discussing a couple of mothers we knew; they dyed their hair.  Shocking!  I swore I would never do such a thing.  A few years later, I expressed my opinion that saddle shoes—remember those sturdy black and white shoes?—were ugly.  I became a cheerleader who wore them and loved them.  Never would I cut my hair; I did.  Never would I pierce my ears; I did.  Never would a touch of alcohol touch my lips; it did.  The list goes on and on.

As married adults, my husband and I moved from Madison to Novato, CA, claiming that we’d never move again.  We moved back.  Five years later, we moved from Madison to Cincinnati, claiming that we’d never move again.  We moved back.  Now my husband claims we’ll never move again.  I’m just not so sure.  At any rate, there’d better be a darn good reason.

You just never know, I may start twittering.  Or is that tweeting?  Anyway, there’s something I need to do first:  remember to take my cloth bags with me into the grocery store.  If I don’t, people may get the wrong impression.  I’m not saying they’ll question my commitment to conservation; everyone knows I’m the biggest recycling nut around.  I’m talking, instead, of a more personal issue.  I may be forced to answer the question “Paper or plastic?” in the same way as the author does in the e-mail joke making its rounds. 

“I’m bi-sackual.” 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Companion piece to following article

Mom or Dad makes three
Author: BONNIE HEROLD For The Times  
Date: May 20, 1995
Publication: Huntsville Times, The (AL)
Page: B 1

An aging America calls for care from its children

Growing old is never easy. Bones become brittle, eyesight fails, and events from 50 years earlier far override yesterday's.

As people age, they must often depend on others to care for them.

Jessie and Carl Poston have provided a home for her mother, Grace Schmidtlein, since July 1994. Then 95, she had previously lived with her granddaughter and her husband. Once they became adoptive parents, though, they wanted to start a home of their own--without grandmother.

Mrs. Poston says, "At that point, we children gave her the options of nursing home placement, hiring a live-in caretaker, or living with one of us." She chose Mrs. Poston's home.

Those first six months were joyful. Her mother remained relatively healthy. Still alert, she continued one of her favorite hobbies, writing. In fact, one of her articles appeared in a recent issue of Good Old Days.

"Mother also liked swimming at the Jim Williams Aquatic Center," says Mrs. Poston. "She had been a swimming instructor in the '20s and still appreciated the sport."

Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke in December which affected her entire left side. She cannot speak nor write but communicates by a type of sign language.

Mrs. Poston says, "Up until her stroke, we had always included her in our decision-making. We still do that to a limited degree. We ask her simple questions requiring yes or no. We hold her hand and receive a response. A sideways movement of her hand means no. Up and down means yes.

“If I hadn't been a registered nurse, though," says Mrs. Poston, "we would have had to put her in a nursing home." Instead, they adjusted their lives accordingly.

They notified the fire department of her condition. A visiting nurse comes three times a week. Friends and a group called Good Neighbors from the Madison United Methodist Church pitch in. Ms. Poston dedicates one afternoon a week to running errands. Friday nights belong to her and her husband.

"We've enjoyed Mother's presence and include her in as many activities as we can. She has recently begun attending church with us again. We also bought an RV and made it handicap accessible so she can travel with us."

Brenda Barnett, whose 72-year-old mother Nelma George lives with her and her husband Bob, agrees that maintaining one's lifestyle is critical.

"I've taken care of Mother since 1985. I had always been active. If I let her illness affect my lifestyle, I'd go crazy."

Mrs. Barnett becomes emotionally charged when speaking of her situation.

“My mother developed a brain aneurysm in 1985," says Mrs. Barnett. "From 1985 to 1991, I divided my attention between my home in Madison and hers in Huntsville. At one point, she had fallen and broken both arms. I stayed with her for weeks at a time while my husband took care of our teenage children." Her mother's personality had changed so much that she saw nothing unusual with this arrangement.

It became especially difficult for the few months prior to selling her house. Not only did Mrs. George require fairly constant care, Mr. Barnett's mother Nettie Barnett became terminally ill.

"I can't stand cigarettes, but my mother had so little left in life. I hated to take that from her. We didn't trust her with matches, though. There was a period of time when I'd drive to my mother's hourly to light her cigarettes, then I'd visit Nettie. My husband would stay with his mother on weekends, and I'd stay with mine."

It finally became too much, of course, to maintain two homes. Mrs. George suffered a series of mini-strokes. Since Mrs. Barnett had power-of-attorney, she felt it necessary to sell her mother's home. She hated to strip her of her independence but saw no other possible course of action.

"It would be a whole lot easier on us if my mother were happy. She's not. She can't communicate, yet still understands. That's difficult. We've stopped going to restaurants because she always cried over her inability to do the basics--cut food, hold a fork in the proper hand. I could tolerate the mess but not the tears."

Mrs. Barnett initially suffered a period of depression when her mother moved in with them. She took stock, however, and decided the only way to manage was to live as normal a life as possible. Her brother initially relieved them for short periods of time. When it became too much for him, they turned to their children for help.

"I wish there were more resources for respite care," says Mrs. Barnett. "I'd especially like to see more overnight services. My husband and I like to camp and canoe, and we need someone dependable for weekend care."

Some elderly, however, require little from their caretakers. Audrey and Bob Gustafson were luckier than most. Her 88-year-old father Marvin Halvorson remained relatively healthy until his death in April 1995.

Hailing from Minnesota, he spent winters with them for the previous ten years. When he visited the winter of 1994, they wouldn't let him return.
"His health was obviously failing, and I insisted he stay on. He agreed.

"He had driven until that point, but we felt it was out of the question for him to continue," she says. He remained independent, however, in other respects. He cooked and cleaned which allowed her to continue her volunteer activities. He never wanted to intrude. She knew he was really ill when he could no longer raise their flag, his daily job.

"He developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. When the hospital could no longer do anything for him, he came home. Eight days later, he died."

Their kitty, his constant companion for the previous year, obviously feels the loss as she contemplates the empty recliner and meows plaintively. His death left a void difficult to fill.

Copyright, 1995, The Huntsville Times. All Rights Reserved.

Some things never change (except the price of a nursing home stay doubles)

Caregivers struggle with nurturing role
Author: BONNIE HEROLD For The Times 
Date: May 20, 1995
Publication: Huntsville Times, The (AL)
Page: B 1

As a person grows older, sometimes roles are reversed. Your mother is no longer able to care for herself. You become the decision-maker, the nurturer.

Would she fare better in a nursing home? Does she need a full-time nurse? Are you able to provide sufficient care in your home? Deciding how best to care for her is just the beginning.

If you choose to welcome her into your home, do so with your eyes open.

"You're in it for the long haul," says Brenda Barnett who has been caring for her mother since 1985.

Mrs. Barnett suggests a sense of humor is paramount in saving one's sanity.

"I'll give you an example. The other night, we had baked potatoes. I asked my mother if she wanted one. She said, 'No.' The trouble is that often she says no when she means yes. I asked her again, and she still said, 'No.' Then my husband questioned her. He saw her aim her fork in its direction so he put the potato on his plate to fix it for her. Because of mini-strokes, she rarely makes sense when she speaks. This time, however, she looked devastated and clearly said, 'He took that. He took it.' She was crushed. We laughed and reassured her that it was hers."

You also have to have a lot of patience, according to Mrs. Barnett. "If she wants to help with dinner, you're going to have to start at noon." If she accompanies you someplace, says Mrs. Barnett, don't hurry her beyond her capabilities. Most important, keep cool. "If you become angry and want to say mean things, don't. Walk away. She may not be able to talk, but she often still understands."

Getting out of the house periodically will help you keep your patience. Take her with you when possible but also make time for yourself. Keep your marriage alive and take regular vacations. Depend on family members, friends, and local health services.

The Trinity United Methodist Church offers a daycare to people diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Ellen White, director of the daycare, states, "Our daycare reinforces positive behavior through routine and repetition. Although the minimum requirement to attend is two times a week, 60 percent come everyday. Doing so helps eliminate behavioral problems.

"The cost is reasonable at $30 a day. Our operating costs are twice that, but we receive grants from local businesses and private donations. We also provide a scholarship program so that anyone can come."

She says a fortunate few have insurance which covers the cost. Since people are living longer, she expects more and more insurance companies will provide that type of insurance in the future.

Mrs. Barnett also suggests changing insurance policies if you anticipate a need and are able to do so. "Even if the premiums are twice as high, it will save money in the long run."

Money, of course, is a critical issue.

"A good nursing home can cost as much as $2500 a month," says Mrs. Barnett. Even with expensive at-home health services, the money will go twice as far in a home environment.

More reasonably priced at-home health care needs to be made available, she says. More people would be willing to take care of their parents if they knew relief was in sight, both during the day and overnight. If just a warm body is needed, she proposes hiring a sympathetic teenager for short periods of time.

Mrs. Barnett also suggests becoming involved in a support group. "Most people in this situation would benefit from a support group. They need to be reassured that they aren't the only ones who've said in exasperation, 'If you do that one more time, Mother, you're going to the home.' They need to know they're not alone."

Copyright, 1995, The Huntsville Times. All Rights Reserved.