Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You Can Get There from Here -- But It Ain't Easy

It’s been awhile. For the past several years of my life, I seem constantly to have been in transit. Airport security lines, last minute gate changes, blisters on my knees from spending five hours with them pressed against the seat in front of me. These are things I took for granted, along with lots of miles in my frequent flyer account and an occasional and much welcomed upgrade to first class.

But it’s been awhile.

When I simply couldn’t stand not seeing my sister for another minute, I found the best fare possible and booked the flight from Seattle to Atlanta. So, after a nine-month hiatus, I’m back in the air. Not much has changed, except my tolerance. I’ve become accustomed to moving my arms now and then, to getting a drink of water when I feel thirsty, to turning the heat up if it gets too cold or down if it gets too hot. I’ve been living the good life.

As I write this I’m suspended at 34,000 feet somewhere over a landscape sprinkled with snow. And, let me tell you, it ain’t pretty up here.

Obviously, by the time you read this, I may be back on the ground – or, if you’re quick on the draw, you may be reading this while I’m still in flight thanks to a free trial of Delta’s snazzy new airborn wifi. Either way, here are a few tips you might want to keep in mind if air travel figures in your holiday plans.

Tip #1: You can’t always believe the signs at the airport:
Some of the directional signs don’t mean what they say. In Seattle, for example, that sign by the Delta check-in desks telling you to turn right to reach the S Gates? It’s wrong. You can get to the S Gates all right, but only after you’ve gone all the way to the other end of the airport, through the security line that doesn’t have a separate line for MVP/Medallion folks, and dealt with some pretty attitudinal TSA guys over whether the eye shadow in your carry-on counts as a liquid (it’s a powder, ok?).

Tip #2: To travelers who think they scored by booking an Exit Row seat:
On Delta’s 757, row 19 left is immediately at the door through which they load the plane. Nothing in front of it, no bulkhead, no nothing. No place to shove your purse or briefcase under the seat in front of you. There isn’t one. Sitting in seat 19C is like riding in the front car on a roller coaster. Be warned.

Tip #3: To travelers boarding a Delta 757:
You know that row of seats on your right as you walk through the door? That’s row 19 and the people sitting in it have feet. And that 49 pound roll-aboard you’re dragging behind you? It hurts when it rolls over feet.

Tip #4: To travelers who carry backpacks:
If the combined linear depth of your belly and your backpack exceed the width of the aisle, please don’t turn sideways. I think the guy behind me just lost an eye.

Tip #5: To folks who really have to use the lavatory during flight:
If there are already five people in line, you’re probably just as well off waiting until three of them have finished before you queue up. There’s not room for all those people to stand in that space. Or you could just sit in somebody’s lap in row 19.

Tip #6: To the guy who walked his wife to the lavatory and handed her a plastic cup before she went in:
I really don’t want to know.

Tip #7: To men who use the lavatories on airplanes:
Please take care of all your clothing adjustments before you exit the privacy of the loo. You probably don’t realize that your, um, clothing adjustments are at eye level of people in the aisle seats as you return to your row. Please. Check it out before you return to public view.

Tip #8: To the guy up in first class who keeps standing up every 15 minutes to stretch:
Dude, there’s a pillow case stuck to the seat of your pants. I’d get up and discreetly knock it off for you, but the seat belt light is still on.

Tip #9: To everyone on board when the plane gets to the gate:
Just so you know, you can't get off the airplane until somebody opens the door.  Sorry.

Tip #10: To everyone who’s ever boarded an airplane, or intends to:
A) Please don’t carry more than you can pick up and lift over your head. Please, just don’t. B) Please step into your row and let some people pass before you spend five minutes arranging your worldly goods in the overhead bin. C) All that time you spend blocking the aisles slows down the boarding process (but you knew that). What you may not know is that the flight crew and ground crew get nailed for a “late” if they can’t get you in your seat on time. If they get crabby, they’re due. You may be screwing up their performance reviews.

Tip #11: To the lady who spent a minute and a half trying to get the lavatory door open and finally gave up and went back to her seat:
You have to “Push.” There’s a sign on the door, right above that handle you kept pulling on. I tried to get your attention, but I wasn’t able to make you hear me over the roar of the engines. Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t go in. You might not have gotten out.

And finally . . .

BONUS TIP: To the guy reading this over my shoulder while he waits in line for the lavatory:
Look for it online at www.thatsmystory-martha/blogspot.com. Enjoy!

Friday, November 20, 2009

It slices! It dices! But wait! There's more!

Up until a few minutes ago, I was having a great day. Really great.

A walk downtown to enjoy the city’s lively energy. Great lunch with my favorite companion at an Irish pub. Terrific pre-Christmas sale. A lovely solo walk home, lost in my own thoughts while the city swirled about me. A patch of blue sky, a November rarity in Seattle.

All in all a wonderful day.

Until I made a strategic error. I picked up the mail. Four catalogs (it’s that season). A great big post card giving me 20% off on things I don’t need and hadn’t thought about wanting. A lovely, very touching fundraising letter (I should know, I wrote it – if you get it, you should definitely send a check). And . . . a letter offering me a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” (Their exclamation point.)

Oh, good grief.

I know, I know, we need to plan for things. The only certainty in our lives is that they’re going to end. But for goodness’ sake, I just had one of those birthdays. You know, the ones that put you in a different census track? The birthdays that make you check a different box on surveys and forms. The ones that qualify you for, um, discounts at lots of places. The kind of birthday that leaves you fearing that some waitress at a Denny’s or an IHOP is going to call you “Dahrlin’.”

When you’ve just had one of those birthdays, a cremation invitation is not the first thing you want to find in your mail box.

I admit it. I’ve written my share of letters offering people things – the “do this, get that” stuff that clutters up recycle bins all over America. I’ve done it. I’m darned good at it. And I made a pretty good living with it. But even I, who’ve sold everything from season’s tickets for the Toledo Mud Hens to around-the-world trips that started at $65,000 per person . . . even I have never tried to sell somebody a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!”

As a professional hack (and, mind you, I mean that in the most respectful way imaginable) I’ve got a huge problem with this offer. Let’s assume for the moment that I really was looking forward to getting a piece of mail offering me a great deal on my own cremation. It’s a stretch, but let’s make that assumption for the sake of argument. Let’s also assume – very safely, I might add – that I am highly suspicious of the funeral industry in America and consider most of them to be just shy of charlatans, making me somewhat susceptible to a sales pitch for an honest alternative. And let’s further assume – this one calls for a momentary suspension of disbelief – that I’m someone who’d actually make a decision for the final handling of my earthly remains based on a direct mail sales pitch.

Even if all those assumptions were true (and only one of them is), even then, I don’t think I’d enter a sweepstakes to win a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” That’s the deal: I just send in the little card with all my personal information (they’ve thoughtfully already filled in my name and address, but, darn it, they truly need my email and phone number in order to help figure out which plan is best for me – let me guess, it’s not the basic one) . . . and, presto, once a month they’re going to pull somebody’s name out of a hat and give the lucky winner a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” Such a deal.

I can’t quite get my head around the concept of “Free Pre-Paid,” but we’ll leave that for another conversation. I mean, how can something be “Free” if it’s also been “Pre-Paid”? (OK, now we’ll leave that for another time.)

These folks make several arguments that are probably sound – but, again, when you’ve just had one of those birthdays, they’re a little bit jarring.

First, they assure me, their pre-paid cremation service is a good thing for my family – it will let them give me a simple, personal service at their own convenience. I do understand that. But does anybody else pick up an undertone of “that way you can die without causing anybody to miss an appointment with their personal trainer” – or am I just being super sensitive?

Then they close in for the kill (if you’ll pardon the expression). They remind me that we live in a mobile society (no kidding – my sister just had to replace the “W” page in her address book – I’ve moved so many times she’s rubbed a hole in it). And then . . . I try to imagine a writer locked away in a cubicle somewhere trying to bang out this letter on a fast-turnaround deadline . . . they point out that because we’re all moving around, “placing a loved one in a ‘local’ cemetery may not be as functional as it used to be.”


OK. I get it. I’m going to stay where you bury me, but you may not be there to check up on me. You know, I don’t think either of us should worry too much about it. Really. My feelings won’t be hurt if you don’t drop by. And, let’s be frank, nobody’s going to come visit after this group drops my ashes at sea either.

These people probably mean well. I'm sure they do.  The P.S. reminds me that in case I die before I have time to plan for it, they’d be happy to cremate me then, too. See?  They're good people.  And right after the P.S. there’s a small italic sentence begging my forgiveness in case the letter reached me “at a time of serious illness or death in your family.”

I appreciate their thoughtfulness. Really, I do. But I honestly think this letter hits a new low in American consumerism. It certainly hit a new low for me when it comes to picking up the mail. Yep, it’s a free market. And, yep, everybody has the right to make an honest buck. But for propriety’s sake, can’t we save this kind of pitch for the kinds of products that keep America strong . . . the ShamWow, the Salad Shooter, the Bump It, and the Aqua Globe?

So I’m going to close now and try to resuscitate what remains of a perfectly good day. And hope that tomorrow’s mail contains something more pleasant, like a letter from the IRS.

What’s showed up lately in your mail box? To leave a comment, just click “ Post a Comment” below. I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blessings of the Heart

Urban Dictionary (the web site where you look up all those text message acronyms you can’t figure out) defines bless your heart as “a phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else.”

I first heard a commentator address it several years ago on NPR. As he extolled the virtues of a Southern heart blessing in a soothing Mississippi drawl, I had to pull over and listen because I was laughing too hard to drive.

While the subject has been milked by writers more gifted than me, I do feel called to pay proper tribute to two queens of the genre – my mother and my Aunt Evelyn. Both lovely women, perfectly lovely.

My mother was a gentlewoman. Beautifully mannered. Perfectly coifed. Wonderfully compassionate. Infinitely wise. But heaven help you if she blessed your heart.

Whenever an amply endowed female crossed our path, especially one who had crammed too many layers of adipose tissue into too little spandex, my mother would lower her eyelids ever so slightly, soften her voice to a reverent tone, and murmur, “Bless her heart.” Only a whisper of a smile crossed her face – you had to be quick to catch it.

Heaven help you if she turned it in your direction.

I am forever marked by one “blessing.” I was married, a professional editor, mother of two wonderful children, and pretty successful by all the usual standards. I had filed my last story and rushed to catch the plane for our annual pilgrimage to the family Thanksgiving, my children and husband having arrived before me (deadlines yield to no woman). I was tired, a little bit jet lagged, and very ready to relax. As I sat at my mother’s feet (there being not enough chairs in the room), she stroked my hair and in that sweet murmur said . . . wait for it . . . “Bless your heart. You used to have such pretty hair.”

There’s no place you can go with that.

Yet there were times when her heart blessings could break your own. Standing by my father’s casket, having lost the love of her life, she reached out and touched his face. “Bless your heart,” she said. She spoke a lifetime of love in those words.

Let’s face it. We’re all our mothers’ daughters. (Apologies to my own daughter – sorry, honey, but it’s going to happen.) And, well, yes, I'm just Southern enough to go to that place.

I recently finished a frustrating encounter with a Washington state bureaucrat. Walking away from the counter, shaking my head, under my breath, I blessed his flinty little heart.

Another time I sat at my desk following a particularly unpleasant call from a particularly unpleasant client. I had been staring at the phone for a while before I realized I had muttered, “Bless his heart,” as I hung up.

I’ve said it – and meant it – as I swooped up a toddler with a wicked case of playground road rash. I’ve thought it – with clinched teeth – as I watched my husband rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher I’ve just loaded. I’ve whispered it – resigned to the inevitable – as I’ve watched a friend plunge headlong into a disastrous relationship, after all of us who love her had tried to warn her off. And I’ve resisted putting it in writing – hitting the delete key a couple of times – as I responded to a request from corporate wonks who clearly thought they knew what they were doing.

I said it again recently – the first time I held my friend’s newborn son and thought about what a wonderful mother she’s going to be. And I was thinking it about an hour ago – as I read an email from a long-time friend who never fails to make me laugh out loud.

All cultures have their heart blessings. My Venezuelan son-of-the-heart taught me the all-encompassing, and often scathing, “Pobrecito.” (Look it up in Urban Dictionary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pobrecito.) And my colleague, who is probably the most un-Southern woman I know, has her own special version of, “Aw, honey,” that absolutely does the job.

But for the real thing, you need a Southern woman of a certain age.

And so we come to my gracious Aunt Evelyn. It is she who gets credit for the all-time best heart blessing I’ve ever heard.

We were at a family funeral and a particularly irksome bunch of cousins had fallen upon the ham and coconut cake like lions on a fresh kill. My sister was irate, ready to throw them out. My aunt reached out, patted her hand – and delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce. “You can’t hold it against them, honey,” she said in her sweet, soothing voice . . . here it comes . . . “Bless their hearts. They wasn’t raised. They was drug up.”

Truer words was never spoke.

Friday, November 6, 2009

When the Thin Blue Line is Breached

Normally, I don’t comment on public events. I started this blog simply to indulge my own interests in the hope of giving you a momentary smile.

Today, however, is different.

Today, just a few blocks from where I sit, the community of those whose lives are sworn to serve and protect us gathered to pay a final tribute to one of their own. While I write this, I can hear helicopters swarming overhead as the memorial service for Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton comes to an end.

The haunting echoes of the bagpipes, the polished boots of the honor guards from across the country, the crack of the rifles firing in salute . . . all these will soon fade.

But the reality remains. On Halloween night, as two Seattle police officers sat in their squad car discussing a traffic stop they had just completed, an old Datsun 210 pulled close to their car and fired shots. One officer was killed instantly. The other was wounded.

This was brutal, intentional slaughter. And it happened here, in a city that takes almost smug pride in our tolerance and civility.

I’m not here to write a treatise on societal violence – others can do that more thoughtfully and from broader points of view than I can. Nor am I here to comment on whether a city should have committed so many resources to honor a single man when so many others have died in so many ways (as a few malcontent bloggers have pointed out).

Timothy Brenton’s funeral today humbled me. Yes, he was one man. But from all reports, he was a good one. And whether or not he had shortcomings, he represented a lot of people I take for granted. People who make my daily life congenial. People who make it possible for me to fuss and worry about a lot of inconsequential things – because I am safe. I wish I didn’t think of these people only when something like this happens, but the fact is, it is because of who they are and what they do that I’m able to ignore their importance in my life.

I realized it in January, 1995 when four Seattle firefighters died in a warehouse arson fire. I was stricken by it, along with the rest of the country, on September 11, 2001. There have been other times when the sudden news of an outrageous tragedy shocks me into realization – and, unfortunately, there will be more.

It will happen again, because the people who have made it their business to keep me safe will keep putting themselves out there on my behalf. They’ll leave for their shifts everyday, never sure of whether they’ll reach the end of those shifts alive. That sounds dramatic, I know. But, in fact, it is true. And I don’t think about it until days like today.

I’ve only known one police officer in my life, my Uncle Wallace, and he wasn’t exactly the stuff of prime time TV drama. He was overweight, full of malapropisms, sometimes crochety, sometimes soft-hearted, and, always, a genuinely good man. I was his youngest niece and he took special pleasure in stopping by to see me at school when my class was out for recess. His leather belt full of eqipment squeaked when he walked, and he didn’t mind letting the boys in my class play with the lights on his police car (the siren was off limits). My connection to Uncle Wallace definitely enhanced my standing with my third grade peers (although not quite as much as that of my other uncle who owned the ferris wheel and gave free rides to anyone who showed up with me).

But that’s as far as my connection to what is essentially a closed community goes. I don’t know what it’s like to dread a knock on the door, or a late night phone call when my husband is supposed to be at work. I don’t normally flinch at the sound of a siren, thinking it might be about someone I love. I’m not a cop’s or a firefighter’s wife, or daughter, or mom.

I’m just an everyday, preoccupied, often ungrateful, citizen. When I get a ticket, I fume. When I dial 9-1-1, I expect somebody to show up and help me out. I’m not usually mindful that they’ve spent years of their lives training to be able to be there for me when I need them – that they answer my call not knowing whether they’re walking into a dangerous situation or not – that they have skills and knowledge I couldn’t even imagine needing – and that their whole purpose is to keep the rest of us safe.

Today, as Seattle fell momentarily silent, I remembered that they’re there. And that they’re there even when I don’t remember.

And that’s why today, I’m going to use this space to say thank you . . . to the firefighters who are willing to risk their lives to save mine . . . to the EMTs who know what to do when I need them to do it and who would rather come when I don’t really need them than have me not call when I do . . . to the Washington State Patrol, because even though I dread the sight of them and their radar guns along the highway to the beach, I know their real goal is to keep me from killing myself or someone else . . . and especially to the Seattle Police Department.  You are good people.

Thank you.

Friday afternoon, as I sat down to write and as the memorial service was ending, Seattle Police officers shot and arrested a man whom they believe to be Officer Brenton’s murderer when he pulled a weapon on them as they approached him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What’s in a Name?

If you’ve known me for long you’ve heard me say, “I’m not named Martha for nothing.” I usually toss it off shamefacedly after I’ve corrected someone setting the table (I have a thing about which way the knife blades face) – or refolded a towel (well, they fit better on my linen closet shelves if they’re all the same size) – or brought out my fish forks (they use them all the time in England, why not here?) – or the special little port glasses (I think the right glass matters, don’t you?).

I admit it. I have a Martha side. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

And while I am not a disciple of that other Martha (I’ve never created a plaid Easter egg and have not yet made my own marshmallows), I do think the feds got a little rough with her back when. I know she broke the law, but in the context of Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, I mean, c’mon.

Once in awhile, like yesterday, I break down and buy a copy of her magazine. November 1st is a sort of landmark in my year. Fall is in full swing and winter is definitely on its way. It’s legitimate to start imagining the holidays, but they’re still far enough away that I can fantasize about doing those things that look so pretty in magazines. So yesterday, as I stood in line at the beach rip-off grocery store waiting to pay for my box of corn muffin mix, I thought, hey, maybe I could actually pull off a full-fledged Thanksgiving feast this year with a little help from an expert. The magazine cover promises to reveal the secret of cooking a turkey in an hour. (Don’t fall for it – you’d need a veterinary surgeon to get that turkey ready for the oven.)

As my jiffy little muffins were baking, I sat down at the kitchen table to daydream with my namesake (actually, she’s older, so that would make me her namesake, right?).

And there it is, right on page 6, Martha’s November calendar.

Immediately, I realized that I am powerless. All those things that need doing, things clearly important enough to warrant coverage in a national publication, are just not going to happen in my world.

Obviously, unlike the “real” Martha, I’m not going to schedule any book signings or appearances on the Today Show. Nor did I spend November 1st taking down Halloween decorations, since I never put any up. Nor will I schedule any horseback rides – since I don’t have a horse’s back handy.

On November 6th, instead of organizing my spices, I’m going to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Let’s face it, I’ve moved twice this year and will probably do it again this winter (another subject for another blog) – if those spices haven’t gotten themselves in order by now, they’re not going to.

And although I’ve occasionally been complimented on my taste in fish forks, my gardening skills have never received rave reviews. That leaves significant holes in my calendar compared to the other Martha’s. My bulbs will have to struggle through without bone meal . . . my boxwoods shall go unstaked . . . my beehives unwinterized.

As she suggests, I will replace the batteries in my smoke detector. I live (part of the time) in a 120-year-old wooden house. Let’s just say that I am careful, if not paranoid, about smoke and fire. I shall also clean my oven, as the Big M plans to do, but I’m not sure she and I mean the same thing when we say that. Her “deep clean the oven” may not equate to my “mop up enough goo so it won’t set off the smoke alarm” (which we now know has fresh batteries). And sometime during this season I, too, usually polish up the family silver. But this year I’d have to find it and unpack it first. May not happen – after all, isn’t that why we cherish the gift of stainless steel?

Since I don’t own any little ceramic turkeys, ditto pilgrims, I won’t be decorating my home with them on the 15th – which means I won’t have to put them away on the 28th (see Halloween, above). Nor will I be setting the Thanksgiving table on the Tuesday before, or writing out tasteful little place cards. Not that I wouldn’t love to, mind you . . . but the folks around my Thanksgiving table tend to sit where they please, whether I tell them to or not.

By the time I got to the end of page 6, I was feeling inadequate. What kind of woman doesn’t plan to seal her stone terrace (if she had one) and clean the inside of her washing machine on Sunday, November 8th? I’m a failure, I tell you, a traitor to my name.

And then I got to November 28th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. AHA! I had her! There it was in black and white. Not until after she’s washed the gravy stains out of the tablecloth . . . not until she’s boiled the turkey bones for soup and updated all her friends’ addresses on her Christmas card list . . . not until the best month of autumn is nearly over . . . not until all that trivia has eaten her days does the other Martha “light the first fire of the season.”

What is that woman thinking? In my opinion, a beautiful, crackling fire is always in season. Why, if I waited until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to “open fire season,” I’d practically freeze to death. That 120-year-old wood house is on the North Pacific coast, way up in the corner of the country, and it gets chilly up here, even in July. The fireplace in the living room is original (although, for safety’s sake, the chimney has been replaced) – and every time I light it up I’m reminded of all the hands that have rubbed together in its warmth . . . all the stories that have been read and told in its glow . . . all the morning cups of coffee that have been sipped beside it, the evening nips of port (in the right glasses, of course) that have been savored at its edge.

So I think it’s my turn to give that other Martha some homemaking advice: My dear, the hearth is the heart of the home. Don’t try to harness it to a calendar. When a fire wants to be born, it will tell you. Be willing to light it, even in an August rain storm. It really is a good thing.

And now I leave you with this old Celtic prayer and go to light a fire to accompany my second cup of coffee (I shall use a crumpled page from my calendar as a starter) . . .

I shall kindle my hearth this morning
In the presence of Angels,
Without malice,
Without jealousy,
Without envy,
With the Holy Son of God
To shield me.
† † †
God, kindle Thou in my heart
A flame of love
To my neighbor,
To my foe,
To my friend,
To my kindred all.

-- Celtic Prayer for the Morning Fire

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When your B- is my A+

Not long ago I got a cryptic email from a friend. She wrote: “My day was a solid B-.”

Well, I try to be a nice person and I don’t like to see another soul in distress, so I immediately replied to her message: “I’m so sorry. What happened to bring down your day?”

And that’s when I realized a basic truth:  How the world looks depends entirely on how you’re looking at it. It’s a matter of perspective.

Turns out, she’d intended to let me know she’d had a pretty darned good day. What I read, however, was that her day had hit the skids. For her a B- is, to quote that other Martha, a good thing. It’s above average. For me, a B- means you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Why the big difference? It got me wondering.

Back in my world, a B- meant you’d slid by. You hadn’t really broken a sweat to get the job done and whoever issued the grade was on to you. That teacher looked at your work, sighed, took one of those big red grease pencils and slathered an ugly B- minus across the top, then handed it back to you with one eyebrow raised. You slunk home hoping nobody asked you how it went.

Apparently, my friend went to better schools than I did.

The kind of haphazard work that got me a B- would have landed her a D, tops. She had to work to get a B- and was proud when she landed it. In my school, you could nail a C just for showing up on time.

The folks in my school probably meant well. I’m sure they must have. But when the high school offers only one foreign language, and that one only periodically when they can find a teacher willing to take it on . . . when algebra is an elective, not to mention plane geometry (which was a one semester course) . . . when memorizing and regurgitating the last stanza of Thanatopsis is enough to get you an A in English all by itself . . . and when chemistry and physics are offered as electives only to seniors and only for one semester each . . . well, the bar is pretty low. (We won’t discuss their approach to punctuation and the rules governing the use of ellipses, now will we?)

If you go to a school like that you figure out early on that you’d better deliver some A’s. With so little to be had, you have to grab all you can.

In retrospect, going to that school has served me surprisingly well. By the time I graduated it had lost its state accreditation -- it took an intervention by our Congressman to get any of us into the state university. But I came out all right.

For one thing, I learned that “ok” is not good enough. And I learned that you can’t live your life to someone else’s standards. You have to set your own – not because other people’s standards are too high, but because they might not be high enough.

What little college prep I got came from the high school English teacher.

This is not one of those hymns to the English teacher who opened my eyes to Shakespeare and poetry and the joy of well-punctuated prose. Those teachers came later in my life. This is the woman whose most valuable gift to me may have been assuring me that I was both stupid and lazy.

She knew, you see, that I wasn’t prepared to enter the hallowed halls of learning our Congressman had opened for me. None of us were. And she made sure we knew that. In addition to being stupid, she assured us, we were lazy. She went on to allow as how that combination was a guarantee we’d all be home on academic probation by Christmas.

She ticked us off. Big time. I suspect it was her ulterior motive all along (although she really did believe what she was saying – that we were both dumb and slothful). She made us mad. And we were a stubborn lot, full of Scotch-Irish indignation. When we got mad, we got even. We succeeded in spite of her.

That small class produced a couple of outstanding engineers, several acclaimed civic leaders, more than a handful of very successful business entrepreneurs, at least one doctor, and some respected public servants. And I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key tucked away in my jewelry box. We sure showed her, huh?

(To be fair, I want to pause here and give credit where credit is due – to those teachers who knew what they were up against, both in a poor excuse for a school system and a lazy bum of a student like me who had a brain, but was frequently loath to use it. They deserve medals. The power of their sardonically raised eyebrows is what kept me on the straight and narrow. Not just in school, either. My first editor was especially skillful with her right eyebrow. When she applied it to my copy she didn’t even need her blue pencil. The look alone produced an instant rewrite.)

I’d left that town with my degree tucked under my arm and gone through several successful professional experiences, not to mention the rigors of parenthood, before I understood just how much those grades didn’t count. The ones in college were a little bit harder to get, of course, but there was still a formula to it. Figure out what they want, give it to them, and get the A. The grades were the easy part – the hard part was, and still is, gaining real knowledge.

To explore an idea, to grasp a concept, to understand a principle – to make those things a part of who you are and how you think – that’s the important stuff. And most important by far is to question what you’re being taught – not to take it all at face value just because someone else insists it’s true. You can rack up a whole semester full of A’s without getting there. I know you can. I’ve done it.

So I keep trying. Even though Shakespeare’s King Lear makes me weep for the sheer beauty of it, I still haven’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses enough times to make sense out of it. And even though I’m pretty proficient with Excel pivot tables, say “algebra” to me and my pulse starts to race.

It’s all just a matter of perspective.

So here’s to a new day – hope it is a solid B- for you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Family Traditions, or, Whatever Happened to the TripleNickleStickleDoublePopper?

About this time every year, my blood starts to rise. Like a dog shredding a newspaper and turning in circles, I nest. Maybe it’s the haunting of my ancient Celtic roots, stocking the cellar with cabbages and filling the beds with fresh hay. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m going to be rained into this nest for the next few months so I’d better make it comfortable. Or perhaps it’s just the quality of the autumn light that stirs my spirit.

Whatever it is, the most important things in my life seem to happen in autumn. We just celebrated (another) wedding anniversary – of course we knew two such stubborn people would stick that one. And, as I write, I’m messing around with my husband’s birthday dinner (we like to cram as much celebration into a single week as possible).

So once again, here we are. It’s October and I’m thinking about long-standing traditions, the kind families polish with sentimentality and pass down across generations. Where do we always take the first day of school picture? (On the front steps because I forgot the camera on the first first day and he had to wait there until I rushed back to get it. Thus are traditions born.) When can we play the first game of Hide in the Dark? (Third week of September, after the solstice, before the time change.) When will we come home and smell the first pumpkin pie? (Mid-October, around Dad’s birthday. Today, in fact.) When do we finally turn the heat on? (October 15th, come hell or high water. Even if I’m wrapped in a blanket on the 10th.)

This year, as I hunt down the furniture polish and change the bag in the vacuum cleaner, I realize that some of my own family’s traditions – the ones I grew up with, not the ones my husband and I created together – are now endangered species. My sisters and I buried our mother in 2007 and, with her departure, we became the keepers of memories. Because we live far apart, I’m afraid we haven’t stewarded the memories as well as we could have.

That’s why I’m worried about the TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper.

If my sister is reading this, she’ll know what I’m talking about . Nobody else will have a clue. I know this is true because I Google’d it.

The TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper (aka the TNSDP) was an autumn classic in our north Georgia bungalow. All my father had to do was say the word and the three of us would line up like well-tuned robots, ready to go.

The TNSDP was a special kind of ice cream bar, found only in amusement parks and county fairs. It was a cross between a square and an oblong, creamy vanilla ice cream coated in thick chocolate and rolled in salty chopped peanuts. The whole thing was skewered on a wooden popsicle stick. If you go to a fair or carnival today (see my September 25 post), you’ll find something that’s a little bit like it, but it’s only a ghost of the real thing, a teasing whisper of what once was.

An honest-to-goodness TNSDP is made on the spot – they don’t come out of a box, frozen so hard you could demolish a brick wall with them. They emerged from a little ice cream parlor on wheels that graced the Hamilton County Fair in Chattanooga every autumn.

And, no, that wasn’t their real name. That was their name only in our family. I have no idea what the real name of these heavenly concoctions was. Anything I’ve seen since childhood has been a weak imitation. There are things at the grocery store now, ice cream in a cone with chocolate and peanuts (http://www.icecreamplanet.com/bigkidstuff.html -- don’t go there if you’re hungry) – Drumsticks I think they’re called, but they’re not the real thing. And they still sell something called a Nutty Buddy at the fair, but it, too, is a weak second.

Why my family knew them as TripleNickelStickleDoublePoppers, I can’t tell you. The name probably came from some wry encounter my dad had at some time in his life, but it’s lost to us now.

That’s what I mean about being stewards of the traditions.

I’d give anything on earth for another hour with my father so I could ask him where he got that name, along with a million other questions . . . How did he come up with our nicknames: Rabbit, Skiels, and The Calf. Why were summer trousers known as ice cream britches. And why was it that we never lived in a house that didn’t have a basement or wasn’t on a bus line. I might need more than an hour.

I would definitely want enough time to hear a few more of his Spoonerisms (http://www.fun-with-words.com/spoonerisms.html). The man was a master at worning a turd.

No matter how much time I could bargain with my father, it wouldn’t be enough. There never is. And no matter how many of those lost family traditions I tried to recapture, I’d leave some out. So maybe that’s why, every fall, I start reliving them – the ones I brought with me, and the ones I’ve helped build.

Family traditions may be silly, limiting, short-sighted, and, quite often, embarrassing. But I believe they’re precious. After all, if I don’t tell you about the TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper, who will?

And, now, in honor of the late (and much loved) Herman Wilson, I will get back to my nesting, dig out the pumpkin pie recipe, and wish you a fond farewell as I say, “Yie Ball.”*

* If you’re from the South, you’ve figured it out. If you’re “not from around here,” it’s Spoonerism for “Bye, y’all.” Rest in peace, Daddy. Or, if you must, pest in reach.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What's on your list?

Playing around with words is one of my personal indulgences. Right up there with bright red toenail polish and strong drinks with cherries in them.

So this morning, while I was playing around, I ran across an online article by a writing teacher with a list of words she has vowed to stop using. I’m not sure why she feels so strongly about them. Perhaps because she felt she was overusing them – always a good reason. Perhaps because she doesn’t like the way they look or sound – justifiable, but somewhat capricious.

Topping her list is “shard.” Now, in my opinion, that’s a perfectly good word. If you’ve ever stepped quickly aside while a crystal goblet heads for a tile floor, you know there are shards in your future. You immediately understand that the word has an important place in the lexicon – you’re going to need it to tell the doctor what needs to be picked out of your foot. Next on the writer’s list is “smirk.” One of my favorite words. She thinks it’s cartoonish. Maybe it is. But hanging over my desk is a brightly colored drawing of the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. He was drawn by my favorite six‒year-old and on his face is a very delicious smirk. He makes my day. Without his smirk he’d simply be a lopsided conglomeration of parts. His smirk reveals his soul – and cheers up mine.

The writing teacher has also forsaken writing about any heroine who was “visibly shaken” or who has ever “gathered up her skirts.” I can only say that she never saw the look on my husband’s face when he realized I’d thrown out the last brownie to see “visibly shaken” take life. Or watched my mother bustle out to the car on her way to a formal meeting of the Eastern Star to recognize a true “gathering up of skirts.” When a group of words does the job, you need to be able to use them.

As I considered this teacher’s list, I wondered about my own. Are there words I want to eliminate from my keyboard, words I never again want to type, utter, or hear? Possibly.

First, I’d consider taking “should” out of commission. How much guilt, regret, and shame have those six letters produced? And I might put “can’t” on probation for awhile. I’m not one of those motivational speakers who believe anyone can do anything. I know, for example, that I “can’t” climb K2. It is not possible for me (or anyone I’ve ever known) to do so. As it is apparently not possible for me to stay upright on a pair of roller skates or wear size seven and a half shoes. These are things I legitimately “can’t” do. But it is a word I tend to use as a hiding place. "I can’t put up with this" is a different statement from "I won’t put up with this." So “can’t” gets a time out.

While I’m at it, I might give “that” a rest. David Ogilvie advised writers to try deleting every “that” and see how much their writing is strengthened. Not that I want to do that, but that might just be the thing that makes me a better writer. Ya think?

A few more might hit the bin, just because I don’t need them anymore. After a decade of writing copy for direct marketing campaigns, I’m probably through with “free” – more accurately “FREE!” And since I don’t sell cruises to Alaska anymore, I’m content to let eagles fly without “soaring effortlessly” and snow-clad mountains impress us without “stretching on endlessly.” And just for the record, I’ll never again promise anyone the “trip of your lifetime,” no matter how good it is.

But while we’re on the subject, there are some words I want to keep, wonderful words I’d like to hear-speak-write more often. “Happy” is one. Genuinely, honestly, I-can’t-stop-smiling happy. Along with “good,” as in good man, good job, good dog. And what about “true”? There’s a word we tend to be a little bit afraid of. We prefer to settle for things that are simply true enough; otherwise, we feel obliged to disclaim possible truth with pages of small print. But fact is, some things are true, some aren’t. I’d like to hear more true things – and more people willing to declare them so.

I’d also like to be able to say “I’m sorry” without having it sound trite or canned. I’d like to hear “How are you?” and think someone really wanted to know. And I’d like to be able to say “get well soon” and have my friend know how deeply I want her to be rich with health and energy.

So while I think it’s okay to have a words to avoid list, as this morning’s writing instructor so urgently recommends, I also think it’s important to have a words to embrace list. And at the top of mine is “content.” Content with what is in front of me instead of remorse for what is behind. Content with what I have rather than angry over what I’ve lost. Content with who I am, how I look, where I’ve wound up. And to understand the critical difference between being content and being complacent.

Friday, September 25, 2009

These Truths Should be Self-Evident (After a Day at the Fair)

If you’ve ever spent a September on my side of the Cascade Mountains (west of the snow and east of the water), you know the song . . .

You can do it at a trot,
You can do it at a gallop,
You can do it real slow
So your heart don’t pal-pi-TATE.

And a true western Washingtonian will automatically finish . . . Now don’t be LAAATE. DOOO the Puyallup!

Although the ad agencies don’t use it every year, the Puyallup Fair jingle is a northwest icon. You see the sign, you sing the song. And, if you’re a closet redneck like me, you also get out there and DOOO the Puyallup. You go to The Fair!

Let’s pause here in case someone doesn’t know (or care?) how to pronounce this garbled group of letters. P-U-Y-A-L-L-U-P Pronouncing it is the bane of rookie newscasters and AMTRAK conductors everywhere. Get it right and you earn your place as an erudite local: pew ▪ AHL ▪ uhp. Like most things in our neck of the woods, the name is from a native totem tribe. (See also: Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Skykomish, Suquamish, Swinomish, and Stillaguamish.) The town now famous for The Fair is named for the Puyallup tribe, meaning “generous people.” (They apparently weren’t thinking about the price of admission.)

The Fair is about an hour southeast of Seattle. It’s big. It’s blustery. It’s bawdy. And I never miss it. In fact, that’s where I headed on September 16, 2001, the first day of a vacation I’d hoped to spend in New York City. I wasn’t looking for normalcy in that eerie September. I was looking for consistency, reassurance that life goes on. And there it was – slicing and dicing, bumping and grinding, winking and whirring. Just like always.

And this year it’s back, although this year I didn’t DOOO the Puyallup so much as watch it being done. Don’t get me wrong, I still swept down the giant slide on my burlap mat. I’m drawn to that thing like a bug to a windshield, dreading it, but unable to resist it. And once again, I sat through the whole waterless cookware demonstration, waiting for my toothpickful of surprisingly juicy chicken and a nibble of almost cooked carrot. I ate Barbeque and real Washington Dairy Farmers’ Association’s (say that three times fast) ice cream, but passed up the scones and shortcake this year in homage to my husband’s newly minted gluten-free lifestyle. (Surprisingly easy to stay gluten free on fair food. Who knew?)
And this year, because I spent more time observing, I decided to catalog some of the truths that the Puyallup Fair and its cousins across our great nation prove to be self-evident:

Truth #1: Just because you can get into it doesn’t mean you should wear it, at least not in public.
If the amount of belly fat hanging over your waistband is greater than the amount of cotton candy hanging out of the sides of your mouth, change clothes. Please.

Truth #2: Just because you can fry it doesn’t mean you should eat it.
The line was long at the “Everything Fried” booth this year, as they hit a new high, or low, in food innovation. Featured on this dubious menu were the ubiquitous Fried Twinkies and Fried Pickles, along with Chocolate Covered Bacon and something called Redneck Sushi, which I never did figure out. I was mildly tempted by the Alligator on a Stick, but having once snacked on a Gator Bite at a fish camp in Ocala, Florida, I took a pass.

Truth #3: Just because it gets magical results for the guy with the microphone in the booth doesn’t mean it will work for you after you pay twenty bucks and take it home.
My cleaning closet is littered with gadgets a variety of dudes swore would take the film off the white vinyl floor in my kitchen (who thought putting a cheap white floor in a kitchen at the beach was a good idea in the first place?). I’m significantly poorer, and the floor still has a gray film. (Perhaps because it’s twenty years old and needs to be replaced?) And let’s not even mention the ShamWow. That being said, I admit that I did pause overly long at some stuff the dude swore would dissolve soap scum off a shower door.

Truth #4: Just because you have a lot of it doesn’t mean other people want to see it.
Although I’m not a collector myself, I hail from a long line of them. For my mother it was birds. All things birds. Books, porcelain figurines, fine china plates. And pitchers (the kind you pour out of, not the MLB variety). Tall ones, short ones, silver ones, crystal ones. All lovely. But even she never lined up all those things in a showcase and trotted them out for display among the livestock. Collector’s Hall at the Puyallup Fair is proof that the world has enough bottle caps, Star Wars figures, Barbie dresses, and crocheted doll house furniture. You don’t need to gather up any more.

Truth #5: Just because it seems like a good idea after your second beer doesn’t mean you should go for it. (Maybe especially because it seems so smart after your second beer . . . )
The Big Bungie, for example. What may look like a hoot from the ground may not be all that enticing as you hang suspended in midair, upside down, and barfing. Same for any ride that spins in horizontal circles. Alcohol does not enhance equilibrium, or so I’ve been told. The world has enough drunks draped over fences yakking. Like the crocheted doll house furniture, we don’t need more.

Truth #6: Just because you won it doesn’t mean you have to take it home and find a place for it.
The tall feathered bird that keeps bobbing its head into a jar of water? Let it go. The stuffed tiger that’s four times bigger than the nearest toddler? Leave it there. The ash tray that used to be a CocaCola bottle before the train ran over it . . . the neon velvet painting . . . the baseball cap with LED lights in the brim . . . move on without them and avoid being the middle man on their path to Goodwill.

To these Basic Truths I would add just a few more simple Rules of Engagement:
1) Don’t eat blue food. Nothing in nature is that color.
2) Try not to inhale in the cow barn.
3) Remember that the 5 Second Rule does NOT apply at The Fair. If you drop it, do NOT pick it up and put it in your mouth.
4) Do not purchase articles of clothing at The Fair. Nothing you purchase in a booth was meant to be worn in a civil society.
5) If you miss the Seattle Seahawk’s cheerleaders shaking their beautiful booty to “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Sexy Like Me,” try to catch Billy Hill and the Hillbillies’ rendition of “Rocky Top.” It’s not an exact match, but it’ll get you through a rough patch.
6) No matter where you park, don’t expect to find the route to the freeway on your first try.
7) Leave your credit card at home and carry only as much cash as you’re willing to admit you ate.
8) Wear shoes that are a) comfortable and b) can be washed out in the shower.
9) Don’t miss the Clydesdales. Also, don’t step in front of them. And, finally . . .
10) . . . at every opportunity, every hand sanitizer, every soap station, every rest room you pass . . . WASH YOUR HANDS!

The Fair ends Sunday, so get out there and do it at a trot. Now don’t be late . . .