Loving Cars

I have always had a love affair with cars.  Well, perhaps I shouldn’t go that far.  But it certainly has been at least a crush.  My first car was a four-on-the-floor 1969 American Motors Javelin.  That’s a manual transmission, for anyone not realizing that, once upon a time, the driver had to shift gears.  At the time of my Javelin, a four-speed was a way to show off one’s ability to operate such a powerful vehicle.  I never was one to pop the clutch to spin tires and peel out, as we used to say.  Too frugal to waste tire rubber on the road.

  My Javelin was a lovely Willow Green Metallic, with a sleek low chassis and a long snout of a hood.  Very sporty.  White interior.  Yikes!  But the father of one of my best friends was the local American Motors dealer, and he must’ve contacted my dad when he found out I needed a car.  I wasn’t too thrilled by the white interior, thinking ahead to hours of having to clean the vinyl.  But my worst response–which I never voiced to anyone but my parents–was to protest the clock.  I wasn’t about to pay for such extravagance.  Arrogance, on my part.  My parents were quick to disabuse me of that.  The car was a good price, and had come in with some of the extras.  I kept my mouth shut.  I soon found out that the clock was a good thing when I was trying to get someplace on time.  But it was considered a luxury at the time.

I needed the car to get to my teaching internship in Bonduel, about an hour north of college.  The drive took me through more and more rural countryside, which was a delight to travel.  It helped me relax on a Friday, when I headed out after a week of hard work with kids and administrators.  Luckily, I was boarding with a wonderful old woman, who made the best Parker House rolls and…well, everything, really.  When she was 13, she cooked for the entire threshing crew on her parents’ farm.  Lots of practice made for perfection.  She lived in a former gas station, and I had a room off the living room.  She loved to crochet and knit, and her quilt frame was up permanently in the attic, accessed by an outside staircase.  She gave us a pair of pillowcases, edged in some of her lovely crocheted lace, for a wedding gift.

But I digress.

I really wanted to purchase my boss’s 1965 lemon-yellow Mustang convertible.  That car had a black leather interior.  Dr. Randerson, biology/genetics professor, was a generous guy, and I often borrowed his car, even when the trips were rather shorter than necessary for a car.  But I could tool around town, knowing I looked cool.  When I left for the summer of 1968, he was talking about wanting to buy a Triumph to replace the Mustang.  I emphasized that I’d need a car in the fall, and please contact me before he sold it, so I could put in an offer.  I left him with my address and phone number, and extracted a promise from him.  Which he promptly broke.  Because when I returned in the fall, he had his new Triumph, and I?  Oh, dear, he didn’t think I was serious.  Surely, he was able to see the steam that emerged from my nostrils.  I consoled myself that it didn’t have power steering or power brakes.  The steering wheel was huge.  It was a bit of a pain to get the soft top up and down.  And the years of winters would surely not be kind to the body.  And…that rationalizing didn’t work very well.  Even now, when I see a Mustang of that era–and there are still a few on the road–I get nostalgic.  I know, I know.  Those old Mustangs took a lot of work to keep them running, probably new engines, to say nothing of keeping the rust at bay.  Still…  Oh, get over it.

When we got married, Denny had a copper-colored Comet, which we called the Vomit.  That car lasted until my parents bought a new car and gave us their dark blue Buick, a really nice sedan.  When it started costing us too much in repairs, we sold it for a song to our mechanic, who gave it to one of his kids in Arizona, I think.  Shortly after that, the car crossed the border into Mexico, reborn as a real Tijuana Taxi, mimicking a popular song of the time.  I wonder just how long it survived, although I know it was a taxi for a good number of years.  (Which always brought me back around to that Mustang, wondering how long I could’ve kept that pony car alive.)

A van eventually replaced a smaller box-like Horizon.  The red van was replaced by a forest green one as our family continued to schlepp kids and stuff around.  The red van went to St. Louis to live with our son at medical school. He and his friends called it the People Mover, as he was the first one called on when a bunch of friends were heading out.  Sadly, it didn’t last long, less than a year, if I remember right.  But at least our son could recycle it at a junkyard.  Each of our vans made annual treks to Stratford, Ontario, to the Shakespeare Festival.  We’d pack students and another adult in, requiring everyone take only one bag.  No roof rack, so everything got positioned very carefully into the van.  I became the Queen of Packing.  Grand trips, each one, for 10 years.

When my mother gave up driving, she gave us her Aircraft Carrier, a big brown Buick Le Sabre that my dad insisted on buying as they got toward the end of their driving years.  He anticipated dying before my mom, and wanted her to have a heavy, safe car.  It was all of that.  The hood was big enough to land a fighter jet, while the trunk could probably accommodate a small helicopter.  Always good for a laugh.  We also received Denny’s mom’s car, a big green Ford sedan.  When Carolyn drove, we always hollered, “Here comes the Blonde Bomber!”  She could barely see over the steering wheel.  Those were the days before the driver could adjust the vertical lift of the seat.  Ethel was really too short to drive it, once she got her driver’s license after Harry died.  She was 55 years old.  I gave her lots of credit for learning something she was terrified of doing.  We persuaded her to buy a smaller car, more her size.  Perfect.

Now, we are into SUVs, as they give us better visibility, both for us to see the road and for others to see us.  We’ve gone from manual transmissions and carburetors to computerized…everything.  The seats are adjusted electronically, and can be set to respond to each separate driver.  With power steering, biceps the size of a weight-lifter are no longer necessary.  With ABS, Anti-lock Braking System, braking on slippery spots means no longer standing on the brake pedal and then having the brakes lock up.  The system “stutters” in order to provide the best traction.  I could go on and on.  I’m still learning the computer that sits on the dash, a personal aide that can tell me where to go and how to get there, that can turn on any radio station or bring up a world of music.  The best part is, I can talk to it and it talks back.  I could make phone calls, though I’ve never thought that a good idea, as I can’t drive and do much else at the same time.  I can, however, ask the car to read out any messages I get.  I feel so pampered.   Occasionally, I check to see that my hood ornament isn’t a Jaguar or the fancy-schmanzy Rolls Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy.”  Just kidding.  I don’t have a hood ornament.

In the 1960s, I could identify most cars by their taillights.  Or more often, tailfins.  Chevys with their lifted fins that looked like eyebrows.  Fords with fiery Cyclops eyes.  Cat’s eyes and oblongs, squares and rows of perfectly cut rubies.  So much personality.  Much of that is gone now.  Unless I see a top-end car, a Ferrari, or a Corvette (and even those are getting more generic), cars have subsided into some sort of average look.  Safety, as is only right, and environmentally aware designs are the norm.  Exterior glamour, for the most part, has passed away.  The glamour has, however, retreated to the interior, which is really where it should be.  We are, after all, driving for ourselves, and should be surrounded by safety and luxury.  Too much on the outside is distracting for others.  That’s my rationale, and I’m sticking to it.

I’m still waiting for the day when I tire of driving, or even of scanning the roadways (when I’m not driving) for attractive cars.  Someday…maybe I’ll see that lemon-yellow Mustang again.

From the Jewelry Store to the Fire Station

Arthritis attacked my ring finger, and I could no longer get my wedding ring off.  I tried everything: holding my hand in the air to maybe reduce the swelling, icing my finger, slathering on the slipperiest soap I could find.  Nothing worked.  The tissue was getting smothered, so I needed to get the ring cut off.  So off I went to the jeweler.  No problem, right?  Nope.  My jeweler sent me to the fire station.  Yes, the fire station.

The lieutenant met me at the door, having been warned of my arrival.  He took me into the heart of the fire station, the kitchen.  Well, okay, it was really a great room with comfortable recliners, television, tables, and more, in addition to the kitchen, all set up for lunch preparation.  Fruit salad, cauliflower…  But I digress.

He seated me at the table, and suddenly, I was surrounded by seven firefighters.  Seven?  Come on!  How many do you need to cut off one little ring?  You’re not amputating or anything…Or are you?!  Are they here to staunch the flow of blood?  They are paramedics and EMTs, after all.  They assured me that some recent hires had not been trained on this procedure yet.  And everybody else was just interested, I guess.  It felt like a teaching hospital, where students and interns crowd around to observe and commiserate.  They opened their handy-dandy tool box and pulled out what looked like a palette knife, not sharp or pointed, to slide under the ring so they could use the circular-bladed diamond-edged saw… a saw?…to cut through the ring.  Just as they went to plug it in, someone noticed the ambulance pulling in.  “They’ve got the best tool,” one said.  “Better than this saw.”  I exhaled.

The ambulance’s ring cutter is really nifty.  “Turn your hand palm up, please.”  A thin metal “tongue” slides under the ring.  Coming down on the ring itself is a torture device.  No, I’m kidding!  There is however, what looks like a medieval thumb screw designed to get people to confess to anything.  The lieutenant screwed down the device, lowering a thin blade onto the ring, which sliced through the gold band like butter.  Pull the ring’s edges apart and ta-da!, my ring came free.  Hooray!  “Good thing it was gold,” they told me.  “Gold is soft.  But some of those other metals, like titanium, are so hard, we have to crack the ring rather than get a nice clean cut.”

So why do they have a ring cutter in the first place?  Picture a car accident, or a farm accident, where a hand needs to be freed from…something, but a ring is impeding progress.  Hence, the ring cutter.  That little beauty lives in the ambulance, though, not the fire station.  So, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for those amazing men and women, buy a ring cutter for the fire station.  You can get them on Amazon for under $15.  (You think I’m kidding; I’m not.  When it comes time to cut your ring off, would you rather have a spinning drill bit or a simple protected blade come down towards your finger?)

What else do these wonderful folk do?  After all, the city had close to 9,300 callouts last year alone.  They couldn’t all be fires.  I had to go back.

After a phone call and a cookie delivery, I was talking with the firefighters again.  Turns out, fire stations have the equipment to do all sorts of things, things the general public are…well, generally unaware of.

Many of the calls are for industrial or mechanical extractions, which is just what it sounds like: getting people out of something or somewhere dangerous.  Like the person who cleans the snowblower auger without turning it off first.  That’s more than ouch!  Water or ice rescues too.  Kids get heads caught in fences or even highchairs, cats get trapped inside walls (there’s a snaky camera for location of said feline), construction workers get buried when trenches collapse.  Check your portable chair in the shower; does it have a slit in the center to drain water?  Cover it with a washcloth, please, so no…um, body part can get trapped in the slit.  Anywhere there’s a confined space, someone, or some animal, is bound to need extraction.  Yes, they do rescue animals too.  They showed me workers on a cell tower just outside.  If one of those workers has a medical emergency, off the firefighters go to rescue the individual.  As you can see, firefighters go from the heights to the depths.

They work with the police in tactical situations; hence, the helmets, body armor, and hazmat suits.  Unfortunately, those suits got a workout during Covid.  Especially challenging if the person had no pulse and wasn’t breathing…and had Covid on top of it.  Speaking of, did you ever wonder why they send out a fire truck and an ambulance?  If someone has chest pains, they need five firefighters, so out goes one truck and an ambulance.  If someone is not breathing and has no pulse, you get an ambulance and two firetrucks.  Is that not overkill?  Not at all.  Then they need both EMTs and paramedics.  Which means they need all those professionals.  EMTs can do certain things, such as monitoring things and helping stabilize, but paramedics can do medication for pain management, intubate, and insert IVs.  And now, they have a machine for chest compression, and another for breathing.  Everything is regulated to give the maximum effect needed.

Firefighters do lots of other stuff too, like bringing the trucks to community events and letting people peer into the innards.  They work with Waukesha County Technical College for training and ridealongs, as well as work with high schoolers interested in the field.  If any of us get into trouble on a grand scale, we know these are people in top physical form.  Just carrying all that equipment on a body already burdened with heavy safety clothing is tough.  But not only physically healthy, they must remain psychologically healthy.  After a situation, such as the devastation caused by a wild driver through a Christmas parade here in town, these folks have to power down and deal with the trauma that they carry back to the firestation.  I was very glad to hear them assure me of the services of a counselor, and laud the service as well.

So, the next time you see firefighters in the grocery store, say hi and tell them thanks.  Don’t think they’re not on duty!  Check out the radios crackling on their belt.  Notice the big red truck, with a waiting driver, out in the parking lot.  And get out of the way if they have to abandon their grocery cart in the middle of shopping, because they’re being called out to perform a service for…you, Citizen!

Write a Mystery?  Sure, No Problem.

Famous last words, no problem.  Setting out to write a mystery, I knew I had to determine, before even starting to write the story, the who, when, where, why, and, most important, whodunit.  Even though my writing instructor cautions against writing outlines first…  No, let me qualify that.  She says, “Don’t do an outline!”  Well, that doesn’t work very well with this type of story.  At least for me.

So, off I went, planning ahead.  Ha!  Good idea, bad execution.  No problem writing the “spine” of the mystery, but then I had only a bare bones story of maybe 50 pages.  Yikes!  Of course, a reader would have no idea what the characters looked like, because I neglected to write descriptions.  Okay, fine.  Go back and add.  No problem.  Right?

But there was no dialogue!  So, return to keyboard and, as Mark Twain said, “Show, don’t tell.”  That meant letting these people talk.  And talk they did.  I realized I had to build in the personality traits that would make one of them a murderer. But it was so much more fun to give them all something that would make each one a potential murderer.  That meant telling more than just the story of where they were at the location of the murder.  So…

Go back again and add in their backstories.  Who were these people?  Where did they come from?  How did they get to where they were all together, so one of them could be killed?  Yikes, again!  But it was interesting to create a life for each of them before they got to where they were.  Somewhere in there, I needed to drop a few facts that would lead the reader…astray…or not.

Of course, it turned out that the setting was important, so I went back yet again and ratcheted up the locale and what was going on outdoors too.  Too much?  Believable or not?  Adjust, adjust, adjust.  The setting was based on a real place, but I had to change some things to make it all work.  So, that meant research.  Luckily, I love to do research.  But then, my focused search turns into a wandering into tangents.  I could spend hours, which I try not to do, interesting as it can be.  But I want stuff I can incorporate into the story, not add something like how to repave potholes in New York City in the 1940s, intriguing as it might be.  Yet more re-writing…  You see where this is going?

After well beyond 100 pages, I started to see inconsistencies.  Wait!  Didn’t I put that character coming from…?  How did the killer get from Point A to Point B?  Oops!  I put the killer in two different places at the same time.  And where’s the victim?  I forgot to put them in the accessible spot.  Go back…  Oh, no!  Too many hints far too early.  Go back and take some out.  Well, sometimes I took out too many, and that meant, of course, going back again to move, rather than delete.  Luckily, over the years I have gotten more writing savvy.  Never ever ever totally delete anything!  It’s like cleaning drawers and closets.  Once it’s gone, about a month later, if it even takes that long, you’ll discover you need that very item that has already disappeared from Goodwill’s shelves, as someone else grabbed it, seeing the value you yourself missed.  So.  NEVER delete anything.  Copy and paste it somewhere else, perhaps in a Delete Folder, so you can retrieve when you realize the story can’t go anywhere without that tidbit.

The motives were the hardest.  I can’t tell you how many times I went back and forth, adding, moving, changing entirely. Of course, I can’t tell you another thing, because…  I was going to say that it would give too much away.  But, then again, maybe it wouldn’t give enough away.  Oh, the trials and tribulations of writing a mystery!

Would readers guess the murderer?  Or, if they did, would it be too soon?  How about all that description?  Too much? But it solidified the settings!  I don’t want to take that out!  The locale was very complex, so I went around and around, writing and re-writing, so readers could form a picture in their heads.  Would they see what I wanted them to see?

Finally, I shut off the voice in my head and just sent it off to a friend who’s a discerning mystery reader.  She’d tell me if it was believable, if it held her interest, if she guessed…  Well, you get the idea.  I attached the manuscript to the email, hit Send, and said to myself, “Never again!”

She got back to me, and fulfilled my wildest hopes.  She guessed…wrong!  Hooray!  But by the end, she could narrow it down to one of two, maybe both.  Perfect!  No, she loved the backstories, she loved the descriptions, she adored the mystery.  She could even figure out what that complex setting looked like…well, at least enough to go with the flow.  “I want you to write another one!” she crowed.  This first one still needed to be pitched to a publisher!

Really?  Another one?  Well…maybe I could start a tale in Europe, with a chase, and…  

Sparks of Light

Putting family to one side for a moment, and perhaps even close friends, I thought about people who left a little paint on my bumper, one way or another, over the years.  Not a sustained influence, but the momentary bump, after which we move on.  Intersections that occurred and then…were gone.  Sparks that flared momentarily, but left a crucial impression.  So, in no particular order—not alphabetical or chronological or order-of-importance or anything else, who were they?

Edna.  In her mid-90s she suffered a major stroke which did a number all along her right side.  A widow, she was this little bird of a woman, a former hairdresser and a creative crafter.  Because of the stroke, she rigged up a small drafting table so she could tape or pin down her current project.  Her damaged arm worked as an anchor, and she manipulated everything else with her good hand.  When asked, “How are you?”—the usual banal question after “Hello”—she always answered with a chirp, “No complaints!”

Elizabeth.  Our Girl Scout leader, she taught us how to handle a canoe, tie knots, build a campfire, pack for a “just-in-case.”  As in, what happens if the canoe capsizes?  Will we lose everything to the bottom of the river?  Not if it’s in waterproof bags and tethered to the thwarts.  She was the one who popped cans of soda into a mesh bag tied to the canoe and dropped it overboard to keep the cans cool.  She dug clumps of her wild flowers for my garden.  When the Virginia bluebells and Jacob’s ladder come up in the spring, there she is.

Jack.  The spider specialist at my college.  I took zoology from him, and also worked for him, mainly typing up his spider notes and his class notes.  Because he was so well-liked, students were always popping in and out of his office.  I learned a lot of science, but even more important, I learned never to turn away a student.  Even if he had only a minute or two, he greeted everyone as if he had all the time in the world.  People were that important to him.

Sister Ilduara.  I looked her up, already many years ago, and found she had died.  When she was my second grade teacher, I adored her.  I wonder how young she was then; she certainly didn’t seem to be much older than we were.  When time came for the annual picnic, mothers always drove the nuns to the site.  All but Ilduara.  She would hike up her skirts—these were the days of full nun habit—revealing black utilitarian shoes and black stockings, and walk the two miles with us.  She wasn’t afraid to be one of the gang.

Arnfried.  Whose name just now resurfaced.  A generous stranger, met through the internet, who shepherded my daughter and me around my great-grandfather’s hometown in Germany.  Who stood behind me in the little church where my ancestors married, and whispered, “I, Anton, take you…,” bringing personal history alive.  Who reminded me that strangers are often good people, friends waiting to be found.

Amsterdam woman.  We ordered fries, a specialty of the kiosk, and discovered too late they didn’t accept credit cards, and we had no local cash.  She turned back and paid for our order, telling us simply to “pay it forward.”  Which we did in the remaining days of our vacation, a couple of different times.  An unexpected delight to help out others when they didn’t expect it.

This is just a sampling, of course, because there are many more sparks of light.  I spent some time recently contacting a few others, thanking them for being my own personal spark.  In times of stress especially, remembering those who helped me and taking time to tell them, is such a joy.

Into a South American Summer

I found myself on an Argentinian coastline, a mile from the trailhead in one direction, and more than a mile from an overlook in the other, crammed up against a phalanx of folk, facing a similar group coming from the other direction.  We were waiting.  Waiting for a line of two-foot tall birds wearing tuxedos, who were nonchalantly running our improvised gauntlet.  They were totally impervious to our paparazzi cameras, and just kept waddling along until they cleared our path.  We were warned not to impede the Magellanic penguins, but we were certainly not ready for the 200,000 birds spread out over almost the square mile that makes up the Punta Tombo Wildlife Reserve.  Did you know these penguins dig burrows in the ground, as well as carve out depressions under bushes?  Wowza!  Also, only four of the 18 penguin species live in Antarctica; the rest are in sub- or temperate regions.

But I’m here to tell ya, the southern half of South America in the summer–December, January, February–is not warm.  At least, a day or two south of Buenos Aires, temperatures plummeted.  We were lulled by 60s and 70s in the city, but once heading for the penguin rookery, we folded up our shorts and tee shirts, never to be seen again.  Jeans and sweatshirts were de rigeur.  My Green Bay Packer zip-up sweatshirt got a full workout.  Who knew there are Packer fans all along the way, not just on the ship, but way down to the tip of the continent as well?  Fun to be accosted with “Go Pack!” from an Argentinian or a Chilean.  We’re everywhere!

A fun fact and quick aside: Buenos Aires is at 30º South latitude, about three-quarters of the way down the continent.  For comparison, we here in southeastern Wisconsin are at 43º North latitude.  New Orleans is about 30º North.  Interesting to note, Rome, Italy is about 42º North, same as southeastern Wisconsin.  Does that surprise you?  It did me!

After the delight of the penguins, we stopped at the United Kingdom’s Falkland Islands, which are way the heck out there in the Atlantic…with unpredictable weather.  Duly warned, we were fortified.  And then the skies turned a cloudless azure, and the winds wafted instead of wailed.  We could shed jackets, and even the next layer down.  What a great day to visit a sheep farm where watched the manager demonstrate how to shear a sheep.   Would the sheep then go back in the herd?  Nope.  That one was destined for the abattoir.  Read butcher.  Yikes!  Well, they get old and the wool isn’t good anymore.  Better to sell for mutton that won’t be beyond eating.  Ah, yes, the real world impinges.  Great fun also watching the kilpie/border collie dogs leap from ATV clear over the fence in order to get to work herding.  They do love to work.  Though the sheep look at them rather…sheepishly.  (Sorry.)  Actually, sheep panic easily, and the dogs can control them without freaking them out.  But if you look at my photos, those sheep are keeping a very close eye on the dog.  After a “smoke,” which is really an English tea, with about a dozen different little cakes and bars, we were shepherded (I won’t apologize for that one…) back to Stanley, the capital, where we sent postcards home.  Those took two weeks to arrive back in the States because mail first goes to England to be sent on.  Mother Nature was kind to us in the Falklands, but the day after we left, it stormed and blew so badly, they had to close the airport.

Next stop: Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.  If I were Magellan facing those currents and winds, I would have turned and hightailed it for home.  We had both of those, enough to cause the ship to list.  Bottles, glasses, and silverware slid right off the tables as we encountered the clash of Pacific and Atlantic Oceans currents, reminding us that the sea can be treacherous.  The angle of list called to mind the Titanic!  Ships do not really go around the Horn, but only sail close, then backtrack to slip along the myriad of islands that protect ships from the worst of the weather.  On that day, we were able to get close to the Horn, but there is never a guarantee that storms, winds, and such will prohibit getting anywhere near.  I guess that’s good luck, even if we did have to catch ketchup bottles and plates of food before they skated off the table!

We hiked at Tierra del Fuego National Park, going from the paved road to a gravel road, to a simple path: the terminus of the Pan Am highway, which begins in Alaska and ends rather unceremoniously on that trail.  The scenery, reminiscent of the US/Canadian Rockies was breathtakingly beautiful.  Lakes, mountains, forests and acres of bushes and flowers.  We even got to the post office at the End of the World.  Patagonia, the southern end of the continent, shared between Argentina and Chile, with the Andes as the border between the two countries, is well known for outdoor adventure, like mountain climbing, kayaking, white-water rafting, hiking.  But it is well worth a visit, even if you do none of those.  The history is fascinating, the food great, the wildlife fun (dolphins and whales, giant beetles, and more), the hiking opening out to one gorgeous vista after another.  Even better, the people are friendly and helpful.  They clearly love where they live, and are happy to share it.

We were in for some pleasant surprises as we headed up the west coast of Chile, which seems to go on forever.  Two small towns were German settlements from the 1800s, charming with typical German architecture and gardens.  As the weather warmed when we sailed north, we encountered volcano after volcano.  Chile is part of the Ring of Fire, the tectonic plates that circle the Pacific.  We drank Chilean wines, ate empanadas, and visited churches and small local museums, all of which held their own captivating flavor.

We ended our South American sojourn in Santiago, Chile, the capital, a city of about 6 million folks.  The excursion feted us with a four-course lunch, including local drinks and food, with plenty of singing and dancing, before we were deposited at the airport for the 10-hour flight north to Houston, where we flew the last leg to Chicago and home.  Fun fact: a simple four-hour drive east from Santiago would have taken us back to Buenos Aires.  But we took the long way around: by sea.

Shopping for souvenirs was not the primary focus on a trip like this.  The weather in the summer if it’s far enough south is generally not beach weather, and the distances between places can be far.  Rather, the towns are remote and the coastal harbors center on container ships, exports and imports.  The feel is of vibrancy, burly shoulders, and hard workers.  Visit, for sure, and visit soon, before it all gets too commercialized!

It’s a trip well worth taking.

What Was That Again?

I know, I know, language is continually in flux, but really, some of the stuff that words flux to…is that even a word?  Eons ago, when I was not yet as old as dirt, the meanings of words were clear as a bell.  When someone said, “I woke up,” you asked them what time did you wake up.  When someone said, “Cool!”, it referred to temperature.  Of course, so did “Hot,” but those both changed quickly enough.  Actually, they became interchangeable, depending on whether you were talking about something really special (I almost said “neat” there, but that shifted too…) or talking about that insanely handsome boy/gorgeous girl across from you in Geometry class.  See, I’m dating myself here, I know.

Some things have been totally absorbed into the culture, like AWOL.  Everybody knows that means Absent Without Leave.  But who remembers what SCUBA means?  Didja figure it out yet?  Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Device.  Both from the military world, where conciseness or speed necessitated shortening wherever you could.  Jeep is another one.  Lots of controversy there.  Some say G stood for that type of vehicle made by Ford, and the P for the specific model.  Most commonly, it’s said to mean General Purpose.  Either way, say GP fast, and it comes out jeep.  Much more efficient.

How many things of my generation have to be explained to the younger set?  Do they know what a manual typewriter is?  I’ve had to explain it’s not electric; fingers make metal letters leap up to create a black mark on paper rolled in by hand, which is moved to the next line by hand too.  My own old standby, until I went to college, just before which we could purchase an electric typewriter.  Gasp!  Such innovation!

As one who lived through three days of constant television when John F. Kennedy was assassinated…Wait, no, not that Kennedy, JFK…the president?  Just a name on a list of memorized presidents for many.  Anyway, I know from that what a catafalque is.  I’ll give you a minute.  It’s not a false cat.  I’d make a joke about it not being related to Peter Falk, but few remember that he was an actor.  Well, maybe they will know the name Columbo, as in the detective from the TV show.  No?  Well, he was very popular.  How about catafalque?  It’s the table on which a casket of a famous person is placed, in order to lie in state.

When I ask, “Who was that masked man?” if I see someone I don’t know, will anyone remember that it was a tagline for The Lone Ranger, a former Texas Ranger dedicated to bringing justice to the wild West?  I can still hear the theme song from the TV show in my head.  What?  Oh.  It was the William Tell Overture by Rossini.  (I confess, I had to look up the composer…)

Now, of course, language continues to evolve.  Although maybe devolve is a better name.  Things are happening as they used to in the military:  things get shortened.  Take LOL.  And therein lies a tale…

A fellow teacher left in a rush one Friday afternoon for a theater vacation out East.  Monday, 5 a.m. came and I checked email before heading off for school.  From the teacher: “Auditioned.  Got the role!  But they want me now, so I’ll see you in a month.  LOL.  LOL?  Lots of Love?  What was he talking about?  As department chair, I needed to make sure his classes were covered.  But he didn’t send any lesson plans.  I jetted off to school.  Once there, I could see the teacher’s door open at the end of the hall.  There he sat, calmly sipping tea.  “What are you doing here?”  “I work here, remember?” he said.  I shook the email at him.  “You signed it, Lots of Love.”  He laughed.  “Not Lots of Love.  LOL.  Laugh Out Loud.”  I wasn’t laughing.  “In my day, LOL meant Lots of Love.”  In my day…brother, I was getting old.  I AM old!

Now, here’s one–or two, rather.  What is a Swiftie?  Yes, yes, I know you’re going to say, “A rabid follower of Taylor Swift.”  You would be…wrong!  Well, yes, okay, I’ll concede that you’re right…for contemporary times.  But for those of us that go back a few more years, a Swiftie, as in Tom, is a pun between a verb and its adverb.  For example, “I like hockey,” Tom said puckishly.  Ha, ha!  Although, the difference is really more obvious, as a Tom Swifty is spelled with a y, not with ie.  Tom said magically.  See there? Spell? Magic?  That’s a Swifty, or Swiftie, if you prefer.  Confusing?  Never mind…

Then there’s cosplay.  That’s short for costume play, as in dressing up in costumes for a Marvel movie or convention, or like Dracula for a Dracula ballet.  How about ghosted?  Have you done that to anyone lately?  As in cutting off communication rather abruptly, leaving the other person wondering if you…turned into a ghost.  Woke no longer means surfacing from sleep.  It’s now an adjective, as in a person alert to social injustice.  We are finally woke people.

I must confess, one that grates on my sensibilities is the word passed, and not as in football.  When I first heard that someone passed, I asked if the old guy finally passed his driving exam.  Pshaw!  Imagine my…well, my dismay and embarrassment, when they told me he died!  Not in my generation.  That would be passed away or passed on.  But passed, by itself?  Nope.  That’s one shortening that may bother me for a long time.  I have, however, learned to keep my mouth shut.

What’s next?  Will Boomers no longer be a perjorative, a put-down, an insult?  Will Old People themselves need explanation??  Your guess is as good as mine!

Packing Away the Season’s Delights

It’s January, and one of these days I really have to put away the delightful decorations that give me such pleasure over the holidays.  Some of them are directly connected to Christmas, while others hang around the fringes.

Take the nativity scene.  I painted that–how many years ago now?  Many!  The camel driver and his camel were damaged beyond repair as time went on, but the main figures are still hanging in there.  I confess, I did have to take a mascara wand to the robe of one of the shepherds once, because that was the only color I could find that matched.  Must have worked, as no one has ever commented on a strange smudge on his hem.  To tell the truth, I can’t find it anymore myself.

When I unpack decorations, every single one holds a memory.  I suspect it’s the same for you. As a result, it takes me forever to decorate the tree.  I used to have two glass ornaments from my parents’ first Christmas tree, just a few months after they married in 1938.  The white and silver have faded, tarnished, turned translucent, but the basic forms are still there.  The fat little child figure succumbed to time, however, the glass getting so brittle is shattered in my hand several years ago.  We’ve still got the fish, silver-scaled and feisty, with his little black beady eye.  He’s lost the brush that was a tail, but he’s still clearly a fish.  And he now resides permanently in a blue velvet box.  He’s too fragile to hang on the tree.

For several years, we were the beneficiaries of beaded and sewn felt ornaments from my mom.  She and my dad would conjure up wonderful goodies for the annual Women’s Hospital Auxiliary Christmas Fair.  And what an extravaganza it was!  We were gifted with an angel, a single ice skate, Santa, a snowman, a startled-looking teddy bear.  Even George and Martha Washington, in full Revolutionary regalia.  But my favorites are the characters from The Wizard of Oz, all four Yellow Brick Road sojourners, including Toto, the dog.

Later, once the grandchildren arrived at an age to handle macaroni, glitter, construction paper, glitter, scissors, glitter, glue, glitter…well, you get the idea…we received a gingerbread boy covered in dried beans, and an angel with a rather quizzical look on her face.  I’m not too sure angels slathered their lips with ruby-red lipstick, but she’s pretty cute anyway with those googly eyes.  Ornaments made with love are the best.

Years ago, a close-knit group of women ruled the roost of the summer Girl Scout Day Camp, running an art barn, a nature hut, a super-organized kitchen, and various and sundry other areas necessary for a smoothly operating camp.  For several years after we retired from those jobs, we did a winter cabin camping excursion, just for the fun of cooking over a fire again, and being together.  One of the women was a super-duper knitter, and, when I gave her a pattern, she made a miniature Santa set, red and edged in white angora: pants, jacket (including belt with tiny gold buckle), hat, and, best of all, long underwear for those cold winter nights on the sleigh.  Yes, the long-johns even have a drop-down seat!

However, one of the very best things to “pack away” are the yummy concoctions we’ve stocked up on for the holidays.  Hughes Candy in Oshkosh makes the very best chocolate confections.  Snow on the Mountain–oh my!  Think of a turtle with a blob of fondant cream on top, then covered in chocolate again.  Sinful.  Cookies galore, of course.  The Betty Crocker white cutouts, frosted with a simple frosting and some colored sugar are tops.  We have chocolate Santa cutouts too, because we are a mixed bunch when everybody’s here.  My mother-in-law annually made bachelor buttons, and my Bonus Sister and I try every year to reproduce her ping-pong-round cookies.  She’s done it once, and so have I…but neither one of us knows what we did to keep them from flattening.  An ongoing challenge.  (Am I making you salivate yet?)

Bar none, the memories we pack away every year are the most highly cherished.  Memories we can come back to again and again.  When the New Yorkers have set off, when the Chicago duo gathers up the excited dog and heads out, when the Wauwatosa bunch have kissed and hugged their way out the back door…What is left?  The memories.  We can conjure up the laughter around the table every time we peek into the dining room.  We can smell the fragrance of food that seems to still waft through the kitchen.  Squint a little, and we can even see the bodies sprawled all over the living room, bathed in the soft lights from the tree, telling tales and remembering past visits.

As we enter yet another new year, I wish you the time to refresh, reconnoiter, and remember the best of the past year, as we all look forward to packing away the best of the year to come.

*Check out the Photos to see some of the ornaments I write about.

‘Tis the Season–Fa-la-la-la-la!

On the secular side of things, we’re coming up on the season of giving.  What to choose for a spouse, or a parent?  Or your siblings, to say nothing of their spouses.  Do they have children?  How old are they?  What do they like?  Not having seen them for several [insert appropriate span of time here], it can be hard to figure out what to give.

My family got a chuckle out of an early present from my husband.  An iron.  The typical I’m-not-paying-attention gift, right?  Wrong!  He spent an inordinate amount of time searching several stores for just the right iron.  Luckily, I waited for an explanation after opening it.  He was very proud of having found a lightweight iron meant for, as he put it, “someone petite.”  (From that, you can tell it was really a lo-o-o-ng time ago!)  That kind of attention was worth waiting for, iron or no iron.

Pair that with my dad’s gift to my mom: an industrial jigsaw.  This time, it wasn’t because she was petite, or even wanted a jigsaw.  It was one of those cases of her knowing what he wanted, but not knowing what to buy, nor how to go about finding one.  So, she sent him out to forage for his heart’s desire.  He returned the favor–sort of–by giving it to her.  A bit of convoluted thinking there, but I think the sentiment is clear.

Our daughter and her husband made up coupon books for their nieces and nephews.  What could be better than a weekend alone with the aunt and uncle who live in Chicago?  They could redeem coupons for such things as a visit to the Aquarium, or the Museum of Science and Industry.  One of the favorite coupons was to a gaming restaurant, where they could play video games while waiting for dinner.  One year, the niece, maybe 8 years old, requested a fancy night out to a restaurant with music.  They took her out for jazz and dinner, so she could dress up in her red satin dress and patent shoes.  A real hit!  Homemade coupon books are wonderful.  As our bonus daughter says, “You’re creating memories.”

Gift cards for car washes, grocery stores (especially for those fancy-schmanzy ones you’d never go to otherwise), gas stations, maid or window washing services.  Tree trimming?  Snow plowing?  Lawn service?  Gardening shop for spring plants?  How about a new garden shovel for the one so dull it won’t dig anything harder than snow?  A new paring knife!  One of those expensive ones from Chicago Cutlery or Williams Sonoma!  Maybe a flower bouquet delivered once a month!  

I’m starting to hyperventilate…

What’s the old saying?  God loves a cheerful giver.  It’s easy to be a cheerful giver this time of year, as we choose things for the people we love.

But there’s a flip side to being a cheerful giver.  And that’s being a cheerful receiver.  That, my friend, is not always quite as easy.  A group of my mother’s friends threw a bridal shower for me, and a kindergarten teacher gave me a cute framed picture of a bride and groom drawn in crayon by one of her little students.  It was charming.  And that’s said with the retrospective of many years.  At the time, I wasn’t too impressed, not being a person who really took to little kids.  I did my best to be thankful, and show it, but I don’t think I did a very good job.  I don’t remember her exact facial expression, but I do remember that it didn’t seem to be exactly what she expected from me.  The fact that I can remember that after more than 50 years, shows that it made an impression.  I needed to put out more effort, if not for the gift itself, then for the thought that went into choosing that particular thing just for me.  I’ve done better over the years.  I take the time to consider the giver far more than the gift.

Sometimes we want to jump in when we see a gift that perhaps isn’t what we would choose.  I know of a grandmother who gave her set of good china to her grandson when he set up housekeeping in his first apartment at college.  His mother, the grandmother’s daughter, made him give it all back.  He was broken hearted, and I’ll bet his grandmother was too.  Of course, there were a number of things going on here.  Partly, it was the mother not wanting to see her own mother seeing death on the horizon, and divesting herself of some of her worldly goods.  Unfortunately, that also took away the pleasure from the old woman of seeing her grandson’s joy at receiving something she cherished.  I’ve learned that I’d rather be around to see someone get something, and use it, instead of waiting until I’m dead, and can’t share in the fun. Downsizing can reinforce that feeling of cheerful giving.  What fun to see someone happily receive a piece of jewelry or a kitchen gadget that we no longer need!

This season, be not only a cheerful giver, but revel in being a cheerful receiver.  Sometimes it’s even more important to cheerfully receive something we’re not sure about, than it is to open something expected.

The Turning of the Seasons

This time of year, I get a bit nostalgic, if nostalgic is the right word.  Perhaps pensive works better.  Fall means all sorts of things, but for many people, “bare” and “dark” come to mind first.

The trees are bare of leaves, the skies are often bare of sun, the gardens are bare of tomatoes and beans.  The moss roses and impatiens are bare of blossoms and, truth be told, they look pretty funky, what with those fleshy stems frozen and shriveled up.  Blah!

However…there should always be a however…even though we have to do something about that two feet of leaves on the driveway, take the time to look at them, now that they’re on the ground.  The colors are spectacular, of course, especially if they fell from that nearby sugar maple that turned florescent just a week or so ago.  Yes, rain (or snow!) might have brought them down, sometimes all at once, but take a look anyway.  Every vein is visible, like a road map.  Whether you picture it as spreading out from the stem or coming together at the stem, it’s a vascular map.  It reminds me of my own journeys out and back, carrying all sorts of replenishment, or bringing sustenance home.  For the leaf, it’s like a delivery from the botanical grocery store to every lobe of a leaf.  Did you know that a good-sized tree can move a ton of water up to the leaves every day?  That’s a wow!

All right, I’ll grant that the tilt of the earth doesn’t do any favors for those of us in the northern hemisphere.  If you’re way the heck up there in the north, then maybe the deepening darkness seems more like a malevolent force that a simple change of seasons.  The equinox is still more than a month away, but I secretly believe that November is when we hit the 12-hours of dark mark.  When I worked, getting up at 4:30 a.m. meant the sky was dark, even if it wasn’t fall.  After I retired, I slept in until perhaps 7:00 a.m.  No problem, right?  Until fall.  When suddenly, that hour of the morning felt like the dead of night.  And then, the real dead of night came by seven in the evening.  What’s with that?

In the autumn, the daylight hours are shorter, but usually still very busy.  But when Mom Nature turns out the lights in fall, I’m forced into a slower mode.  I guess “forced” is too strong, considering I’ve learned to look around and slow down.  Consider the books I want to read.  Now is the time to get the fire going, curl up on the couch, and settle my mind for an enjoyable, yes, pensive, hour or two.  Time to read, write, bake bread…Ah!  Such a gift!

We blame it all on the sun.  We say the sun has moved south, rising later, setting sooner.  But shift your thinking.  The sun doesn’t move.  The earth turns away.  Still orbiting our sun, the earth tilts back, as if flirting with a lover who wants to steal a kiss.  We know that, come spring, the earth will lean in to accept that kiss.  Earth and the sun’s time is not our time.  We want fast, quick, spontaneous.  But the earth, dancing with the sun, sways and tilts, taking us, its passengers, along for the languid, but deliberate, ride.

Fall is a fine time to remember we are voyagers on a terrestrial ship following a solar map.  That’s the big picture.  Fall may be the time for things to fall, to decrease, but it’s also a time for things to rise, to appear.  So look around and see the small things too.  The veins in leaves.  The lone migrating bird, the sound of rain on dry leaves, the wooly bear caterpillar’s fuzzy band…the lack of mosquitoes!  Take time to be pensive.

Fall Purge

For me, Fall is the time to purge.  Not my stomach, or anything like that.  But time to purge the garden, among other things.  Once things finish blooming, or the vegetables stop producing, I take up my clippers and head out to provide haircuts.  I can’t bear to cut everything down to the ground, unless it’s the squash vines, which have withered away to rather slimy stems anyway.  But the flowers and a few other things really are due for a trim back.

Usually, it’s the phlox first.  Those gorgeous floral heads of fuschia, pink, white, and lavender have provided plenty of weeks of beauty.  But when they go to seed, they turn…well, rather gray and ugly.  So, I cut the flower stems back far enough so the greenery hides them.  I look around, and spot the peony leaves, which are turning a deep shade of magenta. But that will turn quickly to black within a day or two.  Yuck!  Snip.  Gone.

With a gentle tug, I pull out the remaining allium flower heads that I spray painted purple once the blossoms set seeds and dried a bit.  Some of them are so tattered that they need to be tossed in the woods.  But some are still pristine globes, worthy of a winter arrangement that will remind me that those long cold days and nights will eventually lead to a spring with fresh flower stalks springing up and reaching for the sky. 

I turn to the daisies, their stems and tips drooping in weakness.  They look pretty messy, leaning every which way.  Those too get trimmed off, but the greenery is still vibrant, so that stays untouched.  After I’ve snapped off the dead geranium heads, leaving the full blooms, which still look proud and full, I’m almost out of choices.  The Solomon seal have set berries for the birds, and the carpet of moss roses is glorious, a riot of color.  Overall, the garden looks a healthy green, with shades of emerald, celery, and kelly.  But…

I feel a wash of ruthlessness arise.  My arms akimbo, my clippers ready, I hunch over, lower my chin, and probably resemble something out of one of those serial killer movies as I contemplate moving in for the kill.  The plants are trembling, and I don’t think it’s from the light breezes.  They see the blood on my hands from their compatriots, and know their time is coming.  I want to mow them all down!

But not right now.  Too early.  I stand up from my crouch, let my arms hang loose, sometimes even loose enough to drop the clippers.  The fire in my eyes dies and I smile.  “Don’t worry,” I reassure them.  “Your turn may be coming, but I’ll allow my partner in crime, Jack Frost, to do his worst before giving you an appropriate burial in my compost pile.”  Dirt to dirt, as it were.  There’s an almost audible sigh as I turn away and head into the garage to hang up my clippers and lay down my leather gloves.  Saved, all of us.

Guess I’ll go in the house and…hmm.  Purge my closets!