Wednesday, December 31, 2014


I arose at five this morning and Swiffer®ed my glass-block shower walls.  Stroke of genius.  I don’t know what possessed me to arise at five and Swiffer®, but that’s what I did.  I felt so self-righteous that I proceeded to Swiffer® the floor of my 30-square-foot shower.  I don’t recall ever having mopped a shower floor, much less Swiffer®ed one.
You can’t imagine the power you feel when you Swiffer® your shower.
Thus invigorated, I decided to clean the rest of my bathroom. 
My bathroom is funky, but not funky in a bad way; funky in a good way.  When I bought this house (Don was taking a Sunday afternoon nap.  When he awoke, I said, “I bought a house while you were asleep.”  He said, “Oh.  Do we have any chips and salsa?”) I told the contractor, “I want a huge bathroom in my bedroom in the attic.  Tear out the tiny bathroom, the two little hallways, and the mini-bedroom and make one huge, funky bathroom.  Huge.  And funky.”
He said, “I have been building and remodeling houses for 40 years.  Nobody has ever told me that they wanted a funky bathroom.”
“Well, I do.”
“I don’t even know what that even means.”
“You’re an old white guy.  Of course you don’t know what it means.  I’ll teach you.”   
I handed him pictures cut out of magazines.  A clawfoot bathtub and a pedestal sink.  Walls a color that no one has ever named, but are a cross between watermelon and terra cotta (I call it meloncotta).  Purple towels hanging from hooks on the walls; no towel rods.  Suntube.  Hidey-holes. A glass-block o-p-e-n European-style shower: clunky glass walls that don’t go to the ceiling; no door or curtain.  Big as a ballroom.  Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey could waltz in it.
Antique furniture instead of cabinets. 
Because I live in the attic, my sloping ceilings are already funky.
I looked up funky in an online etymological dictionary. 
First known use of funky: 1620’s. Definition: having an offensive odor.  This was not the funky I was going for.  Used in French from the Latin fumigare.  Smoky smell.  Evolved into meaning musty smell, especially as associated with cheese. Not what you want when you remodel your bathroom.  Not at all what I had in mind.
But in the 1900s, funky began to have a positive meaning associated with jazz: strong, earthy, deeply felt.  Earthy.  That’s going the right direction.  I wanted my bathroom to proclaim me as earthy.  I wanted it to evoke strong, deeply-felt earthy emotions.
By the 1960’s, funky meant fine, stylish, and excellent.  My definition was building. Stylish and earthy.
The Oxford Dictionary defined funky as modern and stylish in an unconventional or striking way.  People from Oxford should know. 
Merriam-Webster added: odd or quaint in appearance or feeling; unconventionally stylish.  That completed my ideal bathroom plan: A fine, odd, quaint, earthy, unconventionally stylish place.  A Deeply Felt retreat where I could take bubble baths and feel free and unenclosed by shower walls.
And so it is.
So the New Year will be here in a few hours, and I will have a freshly-scrubbed bathroom. I commend New Year’s Eve bathroom cleaning to you.  Clean your bathroom.  Swiffer® your shower. Then get funky and take a bubble bath.  Unless you think that’s hinky, of course.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Confessions of a Carnivorious Lexophile

I am an omnivore.  I wish I were not carnivorous, but I am.  I’m not proud of it.  But there you have it.

I tried being a vegetarian twice.  The first time was thirty years ago.  After four months, I was invited to the home of a couple for dinner.  They served steak.  They didn’t know I was a vegetarian, and I hadn’t thought to tell them.  I guess I wasn’t a very good vegetarian because I ate the steak.  The effect?  Like I’d taken a dose of heroin.  I was hooked again.

The second time I tried being a vegetarian was in 2003.  Husband Don agreed with me (he doesn’t like beef, and prefers sweets or chips’n’salsa to most anything), and we set upon a year of being vegetarians.  Then I got sick.

I went to my doctor.  She sent me to an O.D. neurologist, a Dr. V. Radkar.  He spent fifteen minutes with me and didn’t order any tests.  He patted me paternally on the knee and said, “You’ll be fine.  You’re just a busy little housewife with a lot on your plate.”  I swear on my mother’s grave that he said that.  I wanted to kick him. 

I got sicker and sicker, so after filling my bedroom and wardrobe with pink things for three months (I’d read that seeing pink produced important neurotransmitters), I decided that maybe my brain needed amino acids found in meat.  After a year as a vegetarian, I ate a big plate of liver and onions.  Then a steak.  And the vegetarian life style was only a memory. 

(Actually, I had a brain tumor, but by the time my family doctor sent me for an MRI a year after I presented with symptoms, I was a full-fledged meat-eater again.)

I wish I weren’t a carnivore.  I wish I didn’t eat the flesh of dead animals.  But I am, and I do.

So this morning I started thinking about the word carnivore, and I came up with the following definitions.

Carnivore- one who eats animal flesh

Coneivore- one who eats ice cream in a crispy, handheld container

Cornivore- one who eats maize

Caulivore- one who only eats the white member of the brassicaeceae family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and kale

Cannivore- one who only eats food in tins, such as Spam or canned tamales

Caneivore- an aggressive older woman with an Electra complex

Coneyvore- one who only eats hot dogs or rabbits

Canaryvore- one who eats small, yellow songbirds

Colavore- one who only drinks carbonated beverages in the coca family

Callivore- one who tries to eat Old Dog Callie, which is pretty much limited to Baby Dog Woodrow

Carneyvore- one who eats people who work on the midway at travelling fairs

Cannyvore- one who eats clever people

Carinivore- one who eats rocks, but only if stacked in piles


I ran these by my dad. He suggested:

Clandivore- one who eats in secret.  Probably on a diet, but cheats.

Comavore- one who could eat even if totally unconscious

Crankivore- one who gripes about whatever is on his plate

Cleanivore- one who eats so fastidiously that when he is finished eating, his napkin is still creased

        I added: But sometimes when he finishes his tidy eating, he licks his plate clean and then eats his napkin.

I finished with:

Commavore- a high school English teacher who slashes through inappropriate soft stops on students’ papers.  The Commavore is the sworn enemy of the class of student known as the Commakazi.

Happy New Year, my friends.  You know who you are.

Your Old Commavore

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Young Fathers and Cell Phones

I sat near a father and his three children at McDonald’s last October.  The boys were maybe eight and ten.  The little girl, perhaps five.

The children ate quietly.  The young father, who wore a ball cap pulled down, hunkered over his cell phone texting or playing games.  The entire time.  The little girl repeatedly tried to engage her daddy, but he didn’t even look up.  The little boys didn’t even try.

I wanted to shake that young man and say, “Grow up!  Be a father! Put your toy away and talk with your children!”   But I didn’t.

Today I went to HFC for lunch: Higdon Ferry CafĂ©.  Tasty, inexpensive, country fare.  Local color.

When a young father wearing a necktie came in with his little girl, I perked up.  She was four or five.  I thought, Watching them talk and play together during their meal will be delicious. 

But as soon as they sat down, instead of playing with his little girl, the man grabbed his cell phone and started playing with it. 

When the waitress came, the child ordered.  I couldn’t hear what she ordered, but her father said, “No, she can’t have that.”  Then he ordered for her and himself, not taking his eyes off his toy.

I thought, He probably doesn’t have enough money to pay for what she wanted. He ordered what he could afford.  He’ll put down his phone in a minute and talk to her.  Ha.

When the waitress left, the little girl tried valiantly to visit with her daddy, but he ignored her and continued playing with his phone.  When she reached for him, he grabbed her arm and hissed, “Be still!”  She continued trying to engage him.  He grabbed her arm again and spat, “Stop it!”  Thirty seconds later, he grabbed her tiny wrist and snarled, “Shut up!”

Then she said something and he jerked her up and pulled his right arm back as though he were going to backhand her.  I gasped.

I knew not to make a scene.  She would suffer the consequences later if I embarrassed him.  But I had to interrupt this escalation.  So I plucked a small toy from my purse.  I walked over to him.  “May she have this toy?” I asked.  “It’s hard to sit still for a long time. I know because I’m an old first-grade teacher.”

He neither looked at me nor spoke.  His lips formed a thin, white line, but he took the toy.  He realized that someone- maybe everyone- had been watching him.

This afternoon, I have tried to see the world through that young father’s eyes.  What heartache could cause a daddy to ignore and then threaten his little girl so he could play with his cell phone? Had he just lost his job? His fortune? His love?

I don’t know the answer. 

But I do know the prayer.

Father God, turn men with children into daddies.  Make them patient.  Make them gentle.  Make them kind.  And teach them that their children are infinitely more important than fancy phones.  Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Circle of Life: The Red Fox

Until we moved to Arkansas, I only seen a red fox once.  He came through the back garden of the English cottage where I was staying. He was not the gorgeous fellow of fairy tales.  His hips, backbone, and ribs protruded.   Most of his hair had fallen out.  I tossed and turned all night.

I began studying about red foxes. I learned that December is the month when young females come into estrus and young males try to establish a territory where they can start a family.  I learned that red foxes live in Arkansas.  But I was living in a city in the Texas desert where no red fox had ever trod.

The first morning that I saw a red fox from my bedroom window here at my retirement home in Arkansas, I raced down the stairs to tell Husband Don.  Yes, I was sure.  A big, beautiful red fox.

My big red fox trotted by the house every morning about seven.  He stopped in the commons area behind the creek that borders our yard.  In the summer, I couldn’t see him through the trees, but when the leaves fell, I could watch him from my bedroom in the attic.

He would stand in the clearing and peer north and south, nose testing the wind.  Satisfied, he would head west.  The stuff of fairy tales.

Then, late last summer, I saw him lying in the middle of the road.  A turkey vulture was pulling his already-ravaged body into the gutter where it could feast safely.  It’s the circle of life, I said to myself.  It’s the circle of life.  But I grieved for weeks. 

Then, yesterday morning, Old Dog Callie woke me up when she leapt from my bed and began to bark and scratch at my bedroom windowsill.  Baby Dog Woodrow began barking and running in circles to help his sister, although he had no idea why she was excited. 

I looked out the window, but because of the quilt of red, gold, and brown leaves covering the ground, I couldn’t see anything.  Callie insisted that something was happening.  I let my focus go hazy and stayed alert for movement.  Then I saw it. In the trees, north of where Old Red Fox used to test the air, stood a young red fox.  He sniffed the air to the east and north for a minute and then headed west.  My heart thundered.

“It’s okay, Callie,” I said.  “He’s supposed to be here.” Yes, he’s supposed to be here.  I sat up on the side of the bed and thought, He’s the son of Old Red Fox.  He’s establishing his territory, filling the vacancy left by his father.  He’s looking for a vixen.   To mate.  To start a family.  It’s the Circle of Life.  The Circle of Life.

Old Dog Callie and Baby Dog Woodrow hopped up on the bed next to me.  I wrapped my arms around them both and hugged them close. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers: Green Beans

Last week I took my car to Little Rock for its 12,000 mile oil change.  The dealership sits on the east side of six lanes full of hurtling traffic.  A supermarket sits on the west side.  Although rain was falling intermittently, I was determined to walk to the supermarket to eat lunch while I waited because I like their fried chicken and tender green beans. 

I zipped up my raggedy bum-around jacket, took a deep breath, and then barreled into the traffic.  I dodged three cars to get through the first three lanes to the median, but I made it. 

I scrabbled over the stickery bushes on the median. No mean feat, that.

The second three lanes were easy after the first three and the median, and I reached the parking lot safely.    

The rain started pouring, so I ran the last twenty yards to the supermarket’s doorway.  By the time I got inside, I was a mess: wet, cold, bedraggled.  My bum-around coat was neither waterproof nor warm enough.  My white hair was plastered down on my head.  I suppose I looked like I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. 

A woman I had not seen before waited on me.  She had the leathery skin of someone who had worked outdoors all her life, or perhaps had smoked for years, or drank too much.  She didn’t have any teeth.  She’s had a hard life, I thought.  She looks like she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.  I wish I could help her.

“Lunch special, please,” I said.  “Fried chicken.  Dark.”

She dug through the chicken for a thigh and a leg.  “Sides?” she asked.

“Corn.  And green beans.”  She ladled me up a scoop of buttery corn. 

“What other side did you say you wanted?”

“Green beans,” I said.  “They look real good.”

She raised her head and studied me for a long moment. Then she served me a giant helping of green beans.  She paused, then dipped her spoon in the beans again and added a second big helping.  She looked up, and at the moment our eyes met, I read her thoughts.  She’s had a hard life, she thought.  She looks like she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.  I can do this to help her.

So that day, two old women touched each other’s hearts.  She and I saw in each other a needy stranger.  I knew I could do nothing for her, but she knew she could do something for me.  She ladled me a mountain of tender green beans.  And the gift of kindness to a stranger.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My First Cooking Disaster

For a week, I lay in bed at night and dreamed about preparing my first dish for my daddy.  Mother was a gourmet cook: people begged to be invited to parties where she served her Greek-style leg of lamb, the mouthwatering Onion Cheese Pie that she created, Cherries Jubilee.  When she gave me Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls for Christmas, I was delighted.  At the tender age of eight, I was being invited to become a princess in this realm that my mother ruled as queen.

She said that the following Friday night, I would be allowed to prepare a dish from the book.  A salad, perhaps, or a vegetable.  I decided that I would prepare a salad that would please my daddy.  (You might have to be a southern girl to understand this.)  A vegetable would be lost on the plate beside the starch, bread, and entree.  A salad would be a first course that would be the center of attention.  And it was.

Mother announced to Daddy that I was going to prepare the salad course for him on Friday night.  My brother, who was three years older, would be at a party that evening, so this would be a special night for me.  Daddy asked me what I was going to prepare.  I said, “It’s a surprise.”  And it was.

The recipe was Candle Salad.  I set the table beautifully and hid the salads in the refrigerator.  When Daddy and Mother were seated and grace was said, I went to the refrigerator and with great dignity carried Daddy’s salad to the table and set it before him.  Then I brought Mother's.  Then mine.

By the time I arrived at the table with my salad, tears were running down Daddy’s cheeks.  He was biting his lower lip.  He began to shake.  Then he started to roar with laughter.  “Daddy!  Stop that!” hissed Mother.  But he couldn’t. 

I was devastated.  My daddy was laughing at my salad.  “What did I do wrong?” I cried, jumping up from my seat wanting to correct my mistake.

“Nothing!” he shouted, trying to control himself.  “Absolutely nothing!  It’s the best damn salad I’ve ever had in my whole damn life!” he cried.

“Then why are you laughing at it?” I whimpered. 

“Honey, I’m not laughing at the salad,” he said trying to regain control of himself.  Then he snorted and laughed harder.  In spite of herself, Mother started laughing, too.  I was not laughing.

Finally he got out, “I’m laughing because I’m so pleased that my little girl is learning how to cook from her mother!”

Affronted, I said, “Mother didn’t teach me how to make this.  I learned it on my own from Betty Crocker.” 

Daddy howled.

I did not figure out until years later what was so funny.

This is the recipe from the book.  You might want to try it yourself.  Or not.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Adventuresome Sort of a Person

Madeline ran her thumb over the smooth bowl of the silver spoon in her pocket.  Then she slid her wrinkled hand back into her doe-skin glove.  She interlocked her fingers and twiddled her thumbs.  Bus 113 came and went.  Bus 847.  361.  When 431 pulled up, she knew it was the right one because the digits equaled 8.  She poked a ten-dollar bill into the slot and walked to the eighth row.  A seat was available, but the person sitting next to it was all wrong.  No seats were available in the ninth row.  The lone person in the tenth row was asleep.  The eleventh row was the right one. 
Madeline sat down next to a young woman holding a baby.  The woman wore a threadbare coat, but the baby looked warm. “Excuse me,” said Madeline as she sat down.  The baby smiled.
The woman nodded and smiled.  “Lovely child,” Madeline said.  She held one gloved finger out to the baby.  He reached out and curled his fingers around hers.
“Thank you. He’s eight months old today.”
Madeline reached into her pocket and held out the teaspoon.
“Would you like a spoon?” she asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Would you like a spoon?” Madeline repeated.  “This spoon,” she said, waving it gently.  “You could feed the little one with it.  It could be an eight-month birthday present.”
The woman raised one eyebrow and tilted her head.  She reached out and took the spoon.  Her hands are red and raw, thought Madeline.  She works hard.  Her life with a baby must be hard.   “You may sell it if you wish.  You might get $50 at a pawn shop.  It’s worth over a hundred. Perhaps two.”
The bus clanked to a stop.  Before the startled woman could answer, Madeline skittled out the door and was sitting on the bus-stop bench.
Madeline looked around.  Colors seem brighter, she thought.  This is what life must be like for adventurous persons.  From somewhere far away, she heard an accordion playing.  “I will find that accordion,” she whispered aloud.  “I will sit and listen to the accordion player, and I will drop twenty dollars into his monkey’s cup.” 
Before today, Madeline would not have given an accordion player the time of day, much less put money in his cup.  Then she wondered whether the accordion player might be a woman.  An old woman like herself. 
She wondered whether the old woman would even have a monkey.  Monkeys can bite, she thought.  She decided to google where one could go to see monkeys in the wild.  She did not approve of keeping a wild animal tied to a musical instrument.  But she would like to see one in the wild.
Madeline smelled warm bread and wondered if she would have even noticed it under ordinary circumstances.  She followed her nose to an Italian bakery with three tables.  She ordered a latte and a slice of Italian wedding cake.  She sat in the corner and watched people come and go.  A busty woman with a small child bought the child a giant pretzel.  The clerk ran a ribbon through the pretzel and tied it.  The busty woman slipped it around the child’s neck.
When she finished her cake and coffee, Madeline bought a giant pretzel.  “Tie a ribbon through it, please, like you did for the little girl.” The clerk handed her the pretzel and giggled when Madeline slipped it around her own neck. 
“Sorry,” said the clerk.  “I just thought you were buying it for a grandchild.”
“I did buy it for a grandchild,” she said.  “Do you think that I never had grandparents?  That I am not someone’s grandchild?”
The clerk blushed, mumbled, “Sorry” again and counted Madeline’s $5.75 change back to her. 
“That’s alright, dear,” said Madeline as she shoved the change back across the counter.  “Keep it.”
With her pretzel around her neck, Madeline set off to find the accordion player and her monkey.  What sort of person would play an accordion and own a monkey? Madeline wondered.  She had never known such a person.  She decided that such a person would most certainly be the adventuresome sort.
She closed her eyes and listened.  She held one hand over her left ear and cupped the other hand around her right.  She turned slowly in a circle, and when she located the direction of the sound, set off.  Two blocks later, she saw the accordion player, who even from a distance was indisputably male.  He did not have a monkey.  He did have the accordion case open on the ground.  People had dropped change and a few dollar bills in the case.
“Stop,” commanded Madeline.  “Stop playing.  Please.  I want to talk to you.”
The accordion player wore a grey beret on his greying hair that complemented the blue foul-weather fisherman’s sweater on his substantial frame.  Very handsome, thought Madeline.  Handsome and Italian. 
“Where is your monkey?” she asked.
 The man drew himself up to his full six-foot two.  “I am not an organ grinder,” he said.  “I am a musician.  I play the accordion.”
“I will pay you handsomely to come home with me and play for an hour.”  She dug two one-hundred dollar bills out of her purse and handed them to him.  “Come along,” she commanded.  She turned and hailed a taxi.  The taxi driver loaded the accordion player’s instrument into the trunk.  The driver blinked in surprise as Madeline gave him her address.  So did the accordion player.
When the taxi pulled up at Madeline’s building, a doorman stepped forward to open her door while the driver fetched the accordion.  Madeline tipped the driver a twenty. 
A nervous young man in an Armani suit rushed out of the building.  “Madam!” he cried.  “Where have you been?  I was terrified when you didn’t answer my knock this morning!  We have correspondence to attend to!”
“Do it yourself,” she said as she waved him away.  “For the next hour I will be unavailable.  I am going to listen to the accordion.”  She turned to the bewildered accordion player.  “Come,” she commanded.  Then she asked, “Are you married?”
After the accordion player finished his concert and drank a cup of tea, he left with a promise to return for lunch the following day. 
Madeline’s secretary rushed into her library.  “Madam, what is the meaning of all this?  You disappear for hours, you come home with a pretzel tied around your neck, and you bring an accordion player for tea?  Have you lost your mind?”
“Quite the contrary,” she said, “I have found it.”  She held out the half-eaten pretzel.  “Bite?” she asked.
“Madam, I am worried,” he said.  “I should call your nephew!”
“That is the last person you are to call,” said Madeline.  “I informed him yesterday that I have decided to leave my entire estate to charity instead of to him and his spoiled offspring.  He threatened to have me declared incompetent.  I am, I assure you, quite competent.”
She patted the couch next to her, and her secretary sat down.  “You know that I have spent my life penny-pinching and running this company.  I have always done what was expected of me.  Yet I have wondered about the people who live other kinds of lives: people who ride on busses, people who eat pretzels, people who stand on street corners and play musical instruments." 
She placed her hand gently on his arm. "I have wondered about people who go hungry at night while I sit alone and dine on soup from thousand-dollar tureens in hundred-dollar bowls with hundred-dollar spoons. I have decided that I am going to start giving these silly things away.   I do not need them.  And they can do some good feeding the poor who can either eat out of them or sell them for cans of soup they can eat with plastic spoons.”
“What I do need,” she said, “Are memories to keep me warm.  I need adventures.  I need to meet adventuresome sorts of persons who do not do what is expected of them, but rather do whatever it is that they themselves wish to do.  So I am going to become an adventuresome sort of person.  Tomorrow I will turn 80.  I will turn the company over to one of the vice presidents.  And I will have adventures for as long as I am able.  When I am on my death bed, I do not wish to wonder what might have been.”  She patted the secretary’s hand.  His mouth hung open. 
“Close your mouth,” she said.  He didn’t move.  She gave his leg a sharp slap.  “You look like a fool.”  Then she added, “Tell Cook to prepare a special Italian lunch for tomorrow.  And call my travel agent.  Tell her to arrange for the first possible cruise to some place where one might see a wild monkey.  Two tickets.  Captain’s suite.”
As the secretary turned to leave, shaking his head, Madeline added, “One more thing.  Tell the chauffeur to be available tomorrow after lunch.” 
“Where shall I tell him you wish to go, Madam?”
Madeline smiled.  “Tell him I am going to buy an accordion.” 

Addendum to My Taxonomy of Urination

Knowledge is dynamic; research constantly reveals new truth.  That which was once impossible is now a reality.  New species are discovered.  Old taxonomies must be revised.  Ergo, I am revising my month-old Taxonomy of Urination with this addendum. 
A few days after I posted my taxonomy, my “like a second dad to me” junior high band director called.  He said, “I have read and been thinking about your taxonomy of urination.”

“So what have you been thinking?” I asked.

“It’s good, but I decided that I need to tell you that you left something out.”

“What’s that?” I asked, grabbing a pencil and notepad so I could get every word down correctly.

Taking a piss,” he said.  “You left out taking a piss.  That’s an important omission.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I didn’t think about it at the time.  Talk to me.  I need you to do a semantic analysis to differentiate taking a piss from the other types of urination I listed.”

“Well,” he said, “When I was a young man, I could take a piss several times a day.  It’s what you do when you really have to go, and your stream is strong and vigorous, and you can pee a perfect arc up into the air.  You have a powerful feeling of relief.  You usually follow it with a big sigh and a smile.”

“It gives you great pleasure?”

“Oh, yes.  Taking a piss is definitely a great pleasure.”

“But you’re old now, Dad.  Can you still take a piss?”

“Only rarely.  Mostly I tinkle.  Sitting down.  But once in a while, I can take a piss, like after a long car ride.  And it’s glorious.”

“How does it make you feel now at your age?”

“Oh, it makes me feel like a young man again.  It’s a wonderful pleasure.”

“Got it, Dad.  Thanks.  I’ll update the taxonomy soon.”

So please add taking a piss to my Taxonomy of Urination. 

And thanks, Dad, for your contribution to science.  May you still be taking an occasional piss when you’ve turned 105.

Lessons My Band Director Taught Me: # 2 Never Be a Prima Dona

My junior high band director, Mr. Phillip Wilson, grew up in the moving business.  Founded by his late father, Wilson Transfer and Storage in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is still family-run nearly a century later. Mr. Wilson, who gave up his share of the business to be a band director, told me about one of the family's notable customers.

“When I was a little boy, we had three enormously rich and important clients: Mrs. Cyrus McCormick of International Harvester, Mrs. Frank Rand of Remington Rand/Sperry Rand fame, and Mrs. David Lippincott of the eponymous publishing company.

“All three were lovely women, but Mrs. McCormick and Mrs. Rand always came to the transfer to conduct their affairs in their chauffeur-driven limousines.  Mrs. Lippincott, who was probably the richest of the three, drove herself in her Studebaker.

“Once our foreman asked Mrs. Lippincott why she didn’t have a chauffeur drive her around in a limo.  She said, ‘I like my Studebaker because no one else likes them.’”  Then he added, “Mrs. Lippincott never gave a hoot about what other people thought.”

 Then Mr. Wilson told me a story.

“Because our house was on the property in front of the company headquarters and warehouses, we had an enormous driveway where the moving vans could come and go.  Addresses were not clearly marked on houses in those days, so taxi drivers would come to our house to find out where someone’s address was.  As long as they came to the door and knocked, we were happy to tell them what they needed to know.  But invariably while we were eating dinner, a taxi driver would pull up in the driveway and blast on his horn.  He expected us to come out of our house, go to his car window, and tell him what he wanted to know.

“Whenever that happened, one of my big brothers or sisters would stick their head out the back door and holler, ‘We don’t offer curb service!’  If the taxi driver got out of his car and came to the door, we were happy to help him.

“I was a little pitcher with big ears, so one day when I was about six, Mrs. Lippincott drove up to the loading dock in her Studebaker and honked her horn, I stuck my head out of the warehouse and hollered, ‘We don’t offer curb service!’

“The foreman across the yard came running as fast as his little short, fat legs could carry him scolding me all the way.  ‘That’s Mrs. Lippincott!’ he cried.  ‘We don’t say that to Mrs. Lippincott!  She can honk her horn for us to come out any time she wants!’

“Then Mrs. Lippincott climbed out of her car, and the foreman fell all over himself apologizing.”

“’Nonsense,’ said Mrs. Lippincott to the foreman.  “The child is right.  I am a perfectly able-bodied woman capable of getting out of the car to ask for assistance.  Don’t you dare scold him.  Leave him alone.’

“That endeared Mrs. Lippincott to me forever after,” said my band director.  “She was immeasurably rich, yet she was humble and never expected any special treatment.”

The point of this lesson my band director taught me?  You may be a first chair, but be an humble first chair.  Don’t expect special treatment and never be a Prima Dona.

Thanks, Mr. Wilson, for that life lesson.  Thanks, too, Mrs. Lippincott.  Rest in peace.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Gore Thanksgiving Ritual

My father, Harold O. Gore, Esq., was a devout Episcopalian whose profound Christian faith guided his life, so in 1980, he started a new Thanksgiving tradition in our family.  I am asking you to make it part of your tradition.

But first, a story that took place 21 years later.

In 1991, at the age of 80, Daddy knew he was developing Alzheimer's disease.  In 2001, on the night before Thanksgiving, my mother ordered a pizza from Papa John's for dinner.  My brother, Halbert, had arrived at their house minutes earlier from his 500 mile trip, and I from my 300 miler. The four of us sat down at Mother's tiny kitchen table.  Mom placed the pizza box in the center of the table with paper plates and napkins around it.

"Say grace, Daddy," she instructed.

By this time, Daddy was deep into Alzheimer's, but he always said grace before meals, so we four bowed our heads.  Daddy clasped his hands before his chest and closed his eyes.  But he couldn't remember how to say the "Bless this food to our use and us to thy service..." prayer that Episcopalians often use.  We sat quietly to give him time to think.

Then he opened his eyes.  Hands still folded devoutly, he looked at the pizza box and read from the cover, "Better ingredients, Better pizza, Papa John's. Amen."

Mother, Halbert, and I echoed Daddy's amen, chuckled, and then wiped the tears from our eyes. 

That has become a traditional Thanksgiving memory in our family, and sometimes, in reverence and humility, we actually offer it as grace over pizza.  God understands.

But that was not the tradition Daddy started in 1980 that I am hoping you will adopt.  The night before Thanksgiving that year, Daddy called Halbert and me into the living room.  "Children," he said, "I want us to start a new Thanksgiving tradition tomorrow.   We will each steal off quietly from the festivities and telephone someone to tell them that we are thankful that they are in our lives.  The person we call must not be a relative.  We will not tell each other whom we called or that we have made the call.  This is to be strictly between ourselves and that one other person.  Please think tonight about whom you will call.  We won't talk about this again."

Halbert and I looked at each other.  This was the way our daddy lived his life: quietly, humbly, thankfully.  And his tradition remains ours today. 

On Thanksgiving Day, we slip away from the festivities and call someone- not a relative- for whom we are thankful.  We do not have a conversation with that person.  When that person answers the phone, we identify ourselves and quickly say, "In our family, on Thanksgiving Day, we each select one person for whom we are thankful.  Then we call that person and thank them for being in our lives.  You are the person I wanted to call this Thanksgiving.  Thank you for your kindness to me."  Then we hang up.

Halbert and I agree: Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without our daddy's ritual. 

I know that he agrees with me when I urge you to adopt our ritual.  Your Thanksgiving will never be the same.

The High Cost of Pet Ownership

Saturday, Baby-Dog Woodrow ate a bar of soap for $140.75.  The bar of soap: 75 cents. The vet bill: $140. 

Our Woodrow is going to recover completely, perhaps because my soap is ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure.  (If you are over 60, you know what brand my soap is.)

Because of his Saturday indiscretion, Woodrow vomited three times on Sunday, so I fed him small amounts of rice and rice-water throughout the day. I skipped church to take care of him.  He slept most of the day, wanted me close.  I stayed on the bed with him for hours, whispering “I love you,” reading, and watching John Wayne movies. 

Although he woke me with lively kisses before dawn this morning, we were sitting in the vet office by 9:00.  
Woodrow’s Great Soap Escapade started me thinking (once again) about how much money adequate pet care costs.  And about how many people who have pets can’t afford to have them. 

While I was in the vet’s office, I overheard the receptionist talking to a potential client.  The woman had a voucher to have her dog spayed, and she wanted to know how much money she would have to pay the vet if she used it.  The voucher paid $45 for the spay surgery.  The owner would have to pay $20 for pain medication and $15-18 for something else (I couldn’t hear what).  The owner said that she didn’t want to pay for the pain medication or the required something else. 
The receptionist explained that the vet would not perform a spay surgery without pain medication. 

“Thank God,” I thought, having had a hysterectomy myself. 
Not only did I think about the cost of dog ownership at that moment, but I spent fifteen seconds wondering whether a lady who didn’t want to provide pain medication for her post-hysterectomy dog should even own a dog.

Please understand.  I personally know many people who dearly love their pets but who cannot afford their care.  I once knew a double-amputee military veteran who deeply loved his dog and almost died of a broken heart when she died. She died because he could not afford her monthly heartworm preventative.  Perhaps if I had known it before her death, I could have located a veterans’ organization who would have helped.  I hope she was waiting for him when he finally reached Heaven’s gates, and with his legs restored, he could run with her through sunlit meadows.
The truth is ugly, but people who want to adopt a pet need to understand that the cost of the adoption is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of years of significant financial commitment.  Anyone who carries a credit card balance can’t afford a pet.  Breaks my heart because disposable income should not be a condition of giving and receiving the love of a dog.  Or a cat.  But caring for a pet is expensive. 

Love ought to be enough.  But it isn’t.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tales of a Book Room Lady: A First-Class Man

I am The Book Room Lady at the local humane society thrift shop (or charity shop, as they say in Britian). 

As The Book Room Lady, I spend two afternoons a month sorting through books that people have donated.  I have to decide which books to put on the shelves and which ones to put in the "FREE" box.  Some I have to throw away because they are so mildewed or silverfish-infested that no one should take them home.  But that's another post.

For every newly-donated book I shelve, I have to discard one we already have.  We have limited space, so if I decide to shelve a newly-donated book, I have to remove a shelved one in that same category, eg. fiction for fiction, biography for biography, etc.  Simple geometry: I only have X cubic inches of space for each category of book, so one in, one out. 

I quickly screen the new donations for obvious faults you wouldn't believe I have to screen for: Does the book have peanut butter on it?  Are the pages water-damaged?  Cockroach chewed?  But once a book has passed my screening, then I have to examine it more closely.  That's when I make some wonderful discoveries because people tuck things into books. 

I've never found money, although I've heard stories of purveyors of used books who have.  I find lots of notes in nonfiction books, ideas the reader wants to remember, like "Good mutual funds for retirement," or "Possible paint colors for the kitchen."  Occasionally I find shopping lists or to-do lists and wonder whether the groceries got bought or the chores got tackled.  I sporadically find commercial bookmarks with insipid verses that make me cringe.  

Sometimes, though, I find notes that are remarkable.  Yesterday, in book on how to be a better father, I found two index cards.  A boy's name was written on each, and then what appeared to be the result of the father's introspection after interviewing each son.

Bruce- Spend more time with him.  Play video games with him.  Invite him to go to the gym.  Play basketball with him.  Why don't I do those things already?  Why did I not know that he wants to spend more time doing things with me?

Stephen- Praise him when he does something right.  Listen to him when he has a problem.  Don't try to fix it.  Don't criticize.  Just listen.  What makes me always criticize him?  Why am I acting like my own father?  He always criticized me, never would listen to my problems without telling me what a screw-up I am.  Why am I treating Stephen like my dad treated me?  Why haven't I learned from his mistakes?

I wonder whether those boys are fathers themselves now.  I wonder whether that man became a better dad than his own father was.  God bless him. I hope he did.

But the note I found that has moved me most was one I found last spring.  Written in an old book, on a yellowed piece of paper, in an old man's shaky handwriting, it read, "Dan Smith: a first-class man."  Then it had a phone number. 

A first-class man.   Wow.  To be called a first-class man is a thing devoutly to be wished. 

I thought about "a first-class woman," but something changed for me in the translation. 

I think of a first-class man as brave, strong yet gentle, humble, a man who spends time with his children and listens to them without criticizing, a man who would lay down his life for his family and friends. 

I think of a first-class woman as wearing an elegant navy skirted-suit and heels.  I see her directing a board meeting or speaking on behalf of endangered whales at a senate hearing. 

I don't know why I have those pictures in my head, but I do.

Sitting there in the book room in the thrift shop, I picked up my cell phone and called the phone number listed as belonging to the first-class man.  It was disconnected.  I wasn't surprised.  The first-class man probably died long ago.  The old man who wrote the note probably died long ago, too. 

The first-class man's name was so common that trying to find him or his family wasn't practical.  So I put the note in my wallet, brought it home, and tucked it in a book of my own for safekeeping.  To throw away a note with the name of a first-class man on it seemed... well... it seemed.... just WRONG.  Maybe some day after I am dead and gone, a book-room lady will find the note as she goes through my books in her charity shop. Maybe she will take it home and tuck it into her own book to continue to keep it safe.

All summer and fall I have wondered what kinds of things one need do in order to be called a first-class man.  I want to do those kinds of things, to be remembered in that way.  I want to be that kind of person. 

So tomorrow, and every tomorrow hereafter, I will try to do something befitting of my image of a first-class man.  I will try to live my life so that although I happen to be a heterosexual woman, after I die, someone will think of me and tuck a piece of paper in a book, a piece of paper that says, "Millie Gore-Lancaster: a first-class man."

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Prayer for Clean Underpants

I just threw a load of white cotton panties and tee-shirts into the washing machine.  They made me think about what Teacher Extraordinaire Jean Hoard taught me.
One day Jean said to a kindergartner, “Honey, let Mrs. Hoard help you.  You’ve got your tee-shirt on inside-out.”

He said, “That’s the way Mommy wants it.”

Certain the little one was confused, Jean pulled the shirt off over his head, turned it right-side out, and saw mustard smeared all over it. 
“I don’t got no clean clothes,” he told her, “So Mommy turned my tee-shirt inside-out.  Just like my underpants.  I been wearing them all week.”

“Why doesn’t your mommy wash them?” asked Jean.

“We don’t got no washer.”

“What about the laundromat?”

“We don’t got no car, and she’d have to walk and carry the basket, and bad drug people hang out between our house and the laundromat.  She’s scared to go.”
“I see,” said Jean.

“We got to wait until somebody who gots a car can take us.”

When you’re poor, washing clothes is an ordeal.  If you’ve got a washer, does it actually work?  Is your electricity turned on?  Your water?  Your gas to the hot water heater?  Do you have a dryer?  Or a clothes line, and if so, will the weather cooperate?  Got detergent?  Is a laundromat close enough to walk to, one basket at a time?  Will your toddler run into the street while you carry the basket?  Are you able-bodied enough so that you can walk?  Is public transit feasible?  Do you have access to private transportation?  Money to pay for it?  To run the machines?  Is walking down the street safe? Is the laundromat safe?  Are your clothes wrinkle-free, and if not, do you have an iron, ironing board, starch, and the physical ability, time, energy, know-how, and skill to iron them?
I never think about those things when I toss in a load of laundry.  I take clean clothes for granted.  For Pete’s sake, I can afford wrinkle-free clothes and fabric softener. 

People who lack basic clothing suffer.  They suffer.  They shiver and sicken when cold and wet and muddy.  And dirty clothing spreads disease.  Honest. 

The emotional tolls are high, too: children skip school because not having enough clothes is humiliating.  Other kids make you the butt of jokes:  Aren’t you wearing the same shirt for the third day in a row? I knew you were coming because I could smell you.  

We can help.  We can go through our closets and donate the GOOD clothes we don’t wear.   (Throw away stained, torn, or tacky clothes. Nobody wants trash.)  Remember the 80/20 rule: We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time.  The rest could clothe the naked.  Didn’t Jesus say to do that?

We could clothe the naked AND enjoy clean closets. 
Time for my whites to go in the dryer.  I’ll fold them with new eyes. 

So today, this is my prayer:

Thank you, God, for clean underpants.  Bless the poor who don’t have any.  Move our hearts to donate good, serviceable clothing to charity and to buy new underpants to donate, too. And maybe to throw in a few dollars more.  To clothe the naked like you said.  And to then appreciate our clean, organized closets. 
This week when I see someone whose clothes are dirty and who smells bad, remind me, Lord, how hard life is for the poor.  And that while I have two dozen pair of clean underpants in my drawer, they may be wearing their underpants inside out because one pair is all they've got.