Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Treasures in the Tree

Tommy braced his leg against a limb. His knee dug into his chest, but he was securely in place. He sat in his usual spot, staring down at the hole in the tree across from him. He could almost make out the shiny metal of the gift he'd left inside, but he didn't think anyone else would notice.

Reassured, Tommy continued work on the picture of the owl he was carving into his spot in the trees. He'd begun crafting it more than two weeks ago when he first started hiding treasures for his secret friend.

It all started with a rubber-banded set of firecrackers that he wasn't supposed to have. His mom would have killed him if she'd found them. So he hid them in the hole in the tree back in the woods behind their neighborhood. When he went back to collect his treasure, he found a valentine card tucked into the hole instead. At first he was mad. Someone had stolen his firecrackers just when he and his friend Greg had planned to set them off. But later, as he turned the valentine over in his hand, he discovered words written lightly in pencil. Who are you? they read.

A few days later, Tommy decided to leave something else in the tree. This time, he slipped in a quarter that had a hole through the middle of it. His friend Scott said that the hole was made by a pellet gun, but Tommy wasn't so sure about that. He left it there anyway, and then decided to climb the tree he sat in now and watch. He'd sat there for hours each day, waiting to see who was taking his gifts and leaving others in exchange. So far, he hadn't seen anyone but a couple of teenagers who walked right beneath him without ever noticing that Tommy sat perched above them.

The quarter disappeared and in its place Tommy found a purple geode. It was the coolest thing he'd ever found. He wouldn't have left that for someone else. He was more curious than ever about who was leaving things for him. He imagined it was a girl and that he would marry this girl someday. He didn't want to meet her, but he did want to know who was leaving things in his secret tree.

Today he'd left a treasure map. It had directions to Tommy's secret lock box, hidden down the path a little farther. Attached to the map was a key. Tommy could barely see the key from where he sat, but it was still there. He'd only been waiting twenty minutes or so today, carving the final feathers on his picture of an owl. He hoped the girl wouldn't arrive too soon. He wasn't finished yet. For inside the locked box was another map. This one led to the very tree where he sat. He told the finder of the map to climb the tree. And there she would find the owl he'd carved for her, along with his own question: Whooo are you?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Poor Little Sissy

Poor little Sissy had a rough morning. She wasn't allowed to sleep on her mommy's bed. She had an accident while she was playing rough-and-tumble with her brother. And then she was banished outside without a treat. She was too forlorn to even chase her brother when he trotted by with her favorite rawhide in his mouth. Poor little Sissy.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lost in Translation

I believe my mother officially won the "Best Grandma in the World" award on Friday. She called me and said that she was on her way to my daughter's school because she'd received a call from Izzy. My aunt answered the phone and relayed this message to my mother:

"Izzy called and asked if you could bring 17 hot pads to her school for a contest for Ronald McDonald House. They need 17 hot pads so her class can win."

My mother, thrilled to come to Izzy's rescue, hopped in her car, went to the dollar store and bought 20 pot holders, and was en route to Izzy's school -- 40-minutes away. She called me, gushing that Izzy thought her grandma could save the day. But I was confused. We get emails, memos, and constant messages from school about events going on and I'd never read anything about hot pads for Ronald McDonald House. But I did know that the Ronald McDonald House collects pop tabs.

Hot pads... pop tabs... It was starting to make sense.

"Mom, do you think Izzy said pop tabs?"

"No, Linda said hot pads. I didn't know why Izzy thought I'd have 17 hot pads, but if she thinks she can count on her grandma, I'm not going to let her down. I bought 20 just in case."

"Let me call the school and I'll call you right back."

Sure enough, they were collecting pop tabs. I called my mother back. She was getting ready to pull into a Walgreens and buy a case of pop so she could remove the tabs, but I told her to swing by my house instead. I had a whole bag full of cans to recycle, so I hurriedly pulled the tabs off and sent her on her way to the school with a baggie of pop tabs and a bagful of hot pads. Grandma to the rescue!

We laughed all day about it and have since made phone calls to each other in which we misinterpret other messages. She's already warned us that we're all getting hot pads for Christmas.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Manatees In The Wild

When we stopped at the Manatee Viewing Center near the Big Bend Power Station in December, 2002, I had no idea how endangered our experience was. I’d lived in Florida for years but was now returning on vacation with my family after being away for six years.  As we drove north from Sanibel Island to Tampa, we stopped to see manatees swimming in a natural setting. They winter in the water near the power plant when the temperature of Tampa Bay drops below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
We saw dozens of manatees gracefully swimming and bobbing in the water as we walked along the platform. A speaker attached to an underwater microphone let us listen to them as we watched these creatures warm themselves in the water. The best part of all? It was free; it was natural; and it was magnificent.
But I’m not sure it can be replicated today.
Oh, the manatees are still there. They congregate in a few warm spots around Florida when their natural habitat gets too chilly. They must to survive. But now dozens of tourist attractions have sprung up. Now it’s not just a matter of walking along a wooden pier and gazing down into the water. If you look down into the water today, you’re likely to see kayaks, scuba tours, and tourists who have paid to swim with the manatees.
Luckily, environmental groups are fighting to end this. Manatee supporters want Florida to start enforcing rules for observing manatees, which are protected both as an endangered species and a marine mammal. There's a big controversy brewing about manatee tours around Crystal River, FL, that harass and corner manatees and even let patrons sit on them. 

I can understand the attraction. Manatees are beautiful creatures and I would have enjoyed having the chance to swim alongside them, too. But I was thrilled just to watch them; to be a voyeur as they swam freely in the warm water. I just didn’t realize how lucky I was to have had the chance to see them that way. Opportunities to view nature naturally are becoming more and more extinct.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Steffi sat at the window, staring out at the peacock in her backyard. She'd never imagined that her grandmother would actually grant her wish and give her a peacock for her birthday. They'd been so beautiful at the zoo, strutting around and fanning their feathers while people crowded around them, snapping pictures. A few raucous boys chased the peacocks down the walking path, pulling at their feathers until their mothers screamed at them to stop. Steffi understood their attraction; she asked for a peacock feather at the gift shop before they left.

On the drive home, Steffi's grandmother asked her what her favorite animal had been. Steffi told her she'd never seen anything as beautiful as the peacocks and she brushed her souvenir feather across her cheek. Her grandmother smiled and said, "Imagine what it would be like to look out your window and see one every day."

Steffi drew in her breath and did imagine it. "That would be like a fairytale dream," she exhaled. Then forgot about it.

A month later, when Steffi's grandmother pulled her away from her birthday party games and told her to look out the window, Steffi couldn't believe her eyes. Her grandmother squeezed her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "Looks like your fairytale dream came true," she whispered to her granddaughter.

Everyone at the party exclaimed that no gift could top that one. Steffi agreed. But as she watched the peacock lurch across her wooded backyard, its feathers snagging on branches and its feet sinking in mud, she wasn't so sure this was a fairytale after all. The peacock cried a mournful, confused cry as it ran from one end of the yard to the other. One of the boys at the party pleaded to go out into the backyard to see if he could get a feather. Steffi listened to his mother tell him he'd have to ask the birthday girl. Steffi turned her back to her guests and stared out the window at her bird.

Minutes passed and it was time for cake. Steffi's guests sang 'Happy Birthday' and Steffi stared at her flickering candles. She drew in a deep breath, closed her eyes and made her wish as ten candles extinguished. Then she rose from the table and went back to the window to see whether peacocks could fly.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Plan

Are any of these plants edible? I don't know.

I wasn't always supportive about my son's plan to join the military. I should have been. He'd dreamed about it since he was five years old and never had interest in doing anything else. And yet, I questioned him even as he talked to recruiters. I asked him whether he'd really thought it through, which in retrospect, was laughable. He'd thought of nothing else.

He took all of his required courses early in high school. Then he added military history courses, joined marching band to master marching (not play the trumpet, which made sense in hindsight), and loaded up on weight-lifting courses and track in his junior and senior years. He was preparing for boot camp. He'd thought it out years earlier.

He loved basic training when he got there. He thrived on the physical tests and has since become a P.T. and hand-to-hand combat instructor. His knowledge of military history, protocol and regulations also landed him a spot on the Honor Guard. He plans to test for Special Forces this winter and wants to pursue a role as a survival specialist.

So now he has a new plan. He's still increasing his physical strength and skills, but he's also refreshing his first aid training and will take a botany course. I laugh now when I think about how foolishly I'd doubted him. He's always thought things through. I know he'll ace his tests and succeed in this next new chapter of his life. After all, that's always been the plan.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Do not let this picture influence you. I visited San Antonio
a few years ago, but do not have a picture of San Diego.

Heuristics is a psychological thought process in which people solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. By thinking heuristically, people can shorten decision-making time and function without constantly stopping to think about the next course of action.

Consider this question posed to students at the University of Chicago and the University of Munich:

Which U.S. city has more inhabitants:  San Diego or San Antonio?

My gut response was San Diego, but then I thought about it. Yes, San Diego was big, but so was San Antonio. I’d been to San Antonio and saw how sprawling it was. Plus, there are two Air Force bases there. It didn’t seem like the most logical answer, but I thought this might be a trick question. We were likely to guess San Diego, weren’t we? And then we’d be surprised to find that San Antonio was the correct answer.

Here’s how the study played out:

62% of the University of Chicago students correctly guessed San Diego
100% of the University of Munich students correctly guessed San Diego

It seems like the U.S. students would have a better idea of these two cities and could correctly determine which had the greater population, but like me, they over-thought it. The University of Munich students relied on a simple heuristic approach: they’d heard of San Diego, but hadn’t heard much about San Antonio and so inferred that San Diego must be bigger.

A lecture on heuristics explained that recognition for heuristic tasks infers that the recognized object has the higher value. More often than not, we should go with our gut.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Freckle Face

I like freckles now, but that wasn't always the case.

I was thirteen years old when I first got contacts. I remember sitting in the Super-X drugstore learning to put them in. It burned a little, then my eyes got watery. I blinked and wiped, blinked and wiped, and then suddenly I started to be able to see. I could see across the store! I could read the signs above the aisles! I could even read the packaging on the shelves. I couldn't get over it.

The colors seemed so vivid. I stared out into the store and marvelled at how clear everything looked. The world had been so blurry for so long. Then the optometrist handed me a mirror and I held it up to my face. I think my eyes started to water again. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Freckles. Lots and lots of dark brown freckles. They were all over my face. I was hideous.

I honestly wanted to take my contacts right back out. I never wanted to see myself again. I hated those freckles. And then it occurred to me that everyone else saw them, too, every time they looked at me. I was mortified. They'd seen them all along. The whole world knew what I looked like; it was I who didn't have a clue.

Before I got contacts, I did see freckles when I looked in the mirror, but they weren't that dark, and there weren't that many. They were more of a brownish smear on my face. They certainly weren't distinct. My mother (whose freckles I loved, go figure) always told me they were "kisses from the sun." I didn't fall for that. They were ugly. They were horrible. They were spots, and I didn't want any part of them.

Naturally, I tried to remove them. Like Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch, I rubbed lemon juice on my face despite the fact that it didn't work for her. It didn't work for me, either. I knew there couldn't be an easy cure for this curse. The best I could do was try to hide them with make-up. Still, they were always there.

I resigned myself to the fact that I'd have them for life (since my mom did, and she was in her thirties!). Then I forgot about them. Until my children were born. They each got a smattering of the cutest freckles ever across their cheeks. I boasted that they got them from me, though more and more, my freckles have faded as I've aged. I don't even see them when I look in the mirror anymore, unless I've been out in the sun. Oh, they're still there. I just don't see them. And of course, now I love them.

But oh, how painful it was to have them as a young girl. I'll never forget sitting in that chair with a mirror in my hand and seeing myself - really seeing myself. Freckled. Freaky. Ugly. Thirteen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Digital Sustainability

As much as I try to be environmentally responsible, I pick paper over electronics almost all the time. Part of that is because I prefer the texture, appearance, and ease of paper. I would rather hold a book in my hand and read it than download it onto a Kindle and stare at another computer screen. I would rather fold back a newspaper and clip my favorite articles than scroll down a website and get mad at pop-up ads. And I would rather shuffle a stack of photos than run through a digital slide show.

I always attributed my choices to being technically-challenged and just plain old-fashioned. And that's partly true. But there's more to it than that. One of the biggest reasons I stay out of the electronic age is because I can't keep up with it. It seems as soon as an 'advancement' comes out, it's obsolete. Think about all those cassette tapes, VCR tapes, floppy disks and heavy, dense computer monitors. Garbage now. And I mean that, literally -- garbage.

I found it interesting when I listened to National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore talk about digital sustainability, or rather, the lack of it. While it's fine to take digital pictures, he still relies on printing them out so that he will always have access to them.

Joel says, “These days, I only use digital cameras. They're great because the feedback is instant, allowing me to experiment a little more than I might with film. The downside is that the equipment is more expensive, and digital files are costly to archive. The other problem with digital is that there is no surefire way to store the images. The only way to be absolutely certain you'll be able to view an image in twenty years or more is to transfer it to paper or film.”

That's exactly how I feel about books, newspapers, and every other electronic media that seems to replace paper. How do we know we'll still be able to read e-books on e-readers twenty years from now? How do we know we'll still be able to access newspaper stories, pictures and other documents that we've stored to obsolete forms?

Technology scares me. I've taken myself out of the running. I want to save the earth, but not at the expense of giving up paper. I need my books, my magazines, and hard-copy pictures of my family. It may not be the most earth-friendly option, but my paper trail is definitely sustainable.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dear Ms. Kitty

Dear Ms. Kitty,
How can I un-train my cat? He used to be an indoor cat, but now he insists on tomming around the neighborhood. He spends all day and all night outside, howling at the neighbors and enticing dogs to chase him home. I can usually find him stuck in a tree, meowing for help. I don't know why that cat can't manage to get down; he climbs up the tree with no problem.

Usually, after about an hour of waiting for him to figure it out, I give in and climb the tree to get him. Then he does the darnedest thing: he runs inside, uses his litterbox, then runs back out and tears through the neighborhood all over.

Ms. Kitty, he's driving me crazy. He spends all day outside and then comes in to use the litterbox? It doesn't make sense. Why doesn't he just do his business while he's outside instead of stinking up the house? And why can't he figure out how to climb down the tree like other cats do? How can I un-train my cat? He's developed some very un-catlike habits.

Frenzied Feline Friend

Dear Frenzied:
I don't know whether you can untrain your cat or not. I'm actually more impressed with how well he's trained YOU!

Ms. Kitty

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Six-year-old Joanie kept a secret box under her bed. After school, while her mother cooked dinner, Joanie excused herself to go play alone in her room. She rushed up the stairs and quickly shut her door, then dived under her bed and pulled out the worn cardboard box. Every time she lifted the lid she held her breath. Relieved to find the snowmen just where she'd left them, she exhaled.

She gingerly lifted her friendly winter family out of the box and set them aside. Then she removed the fluffy white blanket that she pretended was snow before arranging her snowmen on their wintery landscape. While she played, she softly sang "Frosty the Snowman" and let the snowmen celebrate Christmas no matter how warm the sun shone through her windows.

Joanie's mother sometimes tiptoed to her daughter's room and eased it open just a crack. She bit her lip as she watched Joanie re-enact her favorite Christmas moments and then she silently pulled the door closed again and gave Joanie a few more minutes before she called her down to dinner. She considered placing a small wrapped gift under the bed for Joanie to find. What would she think? Would Santa get credit? She wanted to prolong Joanie's joy with her snowy make-believe world, but she didn't want to ruin the magic. The snowmen were wonder enough.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Erhu

Ever heard of the erhu? That's what these two girls are playing. As part of an Asian Heritage Month celebration, performances included a musical number in which four young girls played "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on the erhu - more commonly known as the 'Chinese fiddle.'

The erhu dates back to the Song dynasty (~ 1104 A.D.) It has a long neck, small body, and two strings played with a bow inserted between them. Believe it or not, this seemingly simple instrument has a range of three octaves and sounds very similar to a violin. It is typically played while sitting, as the girl in the background is doing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Top Of Mt. Rumpke

I spent the morning touring the Rumpke landfill. What surprised me the most was how clean it was and how little garbage I saw. Actually, the only garbage I saw was on the back of a truck as it rolled toward the "cell" where it could dump. It was all a very intensive, multi-layered, well-thought-out and regulated process. If I hadn't known I was at the dump, I wouldn't have guessed it. I couldn't even smell the garbage. Orange-colored cables were strung around the landfill provide odor protection.

I learned all sorts of statistics and facts, but I won't post those here. I don't remember most of them anyway. Here are the few human interest facts about the landfill that I will remember:

1. Rumpke was founded by two brothers who were in the business of delivering coal in 1932. They also owned some hogs and picked up garbage and food scrap as they made their deliveries. They used those scraps to feed their farm animals. They later began picking up garbage as garbage collectors and Rumpke was born.

2. Rumpke owns a hundred or so houses in the area and rent many of them out to their employees. Is it just me or does that smack of coal-mining towns?

3. I had to ask whether they ever had police coming to search through garbage for evidence. Yes, they do. But they don't have trucks dumping garbage in certain areas like you see in some TV shows and movies. Rumpke operates on a 24-hour schedule, so what they can trace is which truck brought it in, what time they logged in, and approximately where that garbage would be based on that information. They do, at times, take a GPS picture like some smaller dumps do, but not always. Discarded mail is the best clue that they're searching in the right spot.

4. And no - they have never uncovered any bodies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Guest Post: The Flower Pots

by Joann Storck

      The stacks of empty flower pots laying on the floor of the barn unnerved me.  The open door washed them in sunlight and dust motes hung in the air of that forgotten part of the nearly abandoned, old barn.  The containers were separated in varying sizes and I knew that they had been placed there by worn, experienced hands with the intention that they'd be used again next spring and summer.  Well, that was the plan. 
      The suffocating truth that gripped my throat as I stood and looked at my husband’s most enjoyable pastime – potting plants and starting vegetables from seeds – was that he was never going to get back to what he loved to do.  The tattered-looking pots were still here in his beloved barn, but he was gone forever.  When he had placed them, sorted and stacked on the wood pallet, he thought he would come through that door again and resume what he was doing:  what he did so expertly. 
      I felt like I had found a half-written symphony or a nearly completed piece of art though I’m sure that sounds overly dramatic.  But, you see, this simple task of turning tiny seeds into beautiful, bountiful things was his joy; his passion.  And that’s why the empty flower pots my heart broke all over again and my eyes welled with hot tears of disbelief and anger at this turn of events. 
      There are what I call “land mines” all over this farm; they are reminders of a life too soon extinguished.  Every time I run across one I plummet into what feels like a choking, surprise step off a mountain.  These extremely personal pieces of who my husband was are what I call his soul.  I don’t think “souls” are translucent, transparent, feathery wisps that leave our body when we die and go sit on a cloud forever looking around.  I think they’re what we leave behind like a melody that won’t be ignored or forgotten.    

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Tom Swifties

An icon from the 60's
In the 1960’s, a series of books featuring a character named Tom Swift were quite popular. These books included a writing style that incorporated clever adverb puns. These are known as “Tom Swifties.”
Some examples are: "'I lost my crutches,' said Tom lamely"; and "'I'll take the prisoner downstairs', said Tom condescendingly."

Here is the second set of Tom Swifties that I’ve concocted during idle moments at my desk. (The first set can be found here: http://juliewetz-dailysnapshot.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html )

“I got my pom-poms today!” she said cheerfully.
 “This cement is hard as a rock,” he said stonily.
“Let’s say you owe me four dollars and three cents,” she said figuratively.
“I have no idea where the children are,” she said absently.
“I was scared tomorrow,” he said tensely.
“Do you want to know the answer to the clue?” he asked mysteriously.
“All of these quotes came straight from the book,” she literally told me.
“Let me give you a piece of advice,” she said suggestively.
“Too many spices in one dish can be overwhelming,” she said sagely.
“This red, green and orange Hawaiian shirt is my favorite,” he said loudly.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Florida Wheels

“No. No, no, no, no, no.”
“Ah, come on, Melissa. Why not?”
Melissa folded her arms across her chest. “Because I’m not 90 years old. That’s why.”
Geoff walked closer to the row of golf carts lined up outside Milligan’s Seafood. He examined each one appreciatively, nodding his head and grinning at various gadgets affixed as decoration. “Dude, these are sweet! I’d take this one.”
He motioned to a golf cart that sported miniature Playboy mud flaps across the backs wheels. A silver Playboy decal lounged across the short hood of the golf cart. Fuzzy dice hung from the rearview mirror.
“It looks like it belongs to some perverted old man,” Melissa spat as she turned away and headed down the empty sidewalk. Most of the stores had CLOSED signs displayed in their windows. “What, does this town close up at five, or what?”
Geoff continued to make his way down the line of golf carts. He conceded that one of them was lame, just like Melissa said. A jumble of golf clubs covered with multi-colored crocheted covers hung from the back. An “I Heart My Grandpa” mug rested in the cup holder, and more crocheted covers stretched across the seats. Geoff moved on.
“Hey, Mel. Look at this one. You’d like this one.”
Melissa grudgingly moved closer and gave the golf cart a swift glance. It was covered with pictures of golden retrievers. She did like dogs, but found this tacky. “Can we just go inside?” she asked Geoff. “I’m thirsty.”
The bar at Milligan’s was already crowded; the restaurant packed. “Oh my God,” Melissa said as she surveyed the crowd. “It’s only 5:15 and these people are already eating their dinners, Geoff.” Geoff shrugged and hiked his leg up on the bar step as the bartender moved toward him.
“Geoff, these people are eating.”
Melissa continued to stare with her mouth agape. Geoff collected their beers from the bartender and handed one to Melissa. “It’s okay. We should be able to get a table soon.” Geoff started toward the hostess, but Melissa blocked him.
“I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. It’s 5:15,” she enunciated loudly. “Half of these people are already ready for dessert.”
Geoff pulled on his beer and nodded. “So?”
“So?” Melissa looked at him, flabbergasted. “So, I’m 27 years old, Geoff.” Geoff stared at her and took another drink as he eyed the busboy clearing a table. Melissa followed his gaze. “I don’t want to eat early bird specials. I don’t want to live in a town that closes up at 5:00. And I don’t want to drive around in a golf cart.”
“Why not? That would be so cool!” Geoff said.
Melissa set her nearly full bottle on the bar and shoved toward the door. Sunlight streamed in and Melissa lowered her sunglasses back over her eyes. “I am not moving to Florida, Geoff. If you want to turn into a senior citizen and drive a golf cart around town, then do it yourself, but count me out. I’m not going to live here. I’m not moving to Florida.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Richie Baker

When my 5th-grade daughter and her friends play, I can't help but think how young they are. They seem younger than I did at their age, but perhaps that's just a mother's delusion. Perhaps I see them as more naive and innocent because I want to see them that way. I may be deluding myself, but they don't seem as worldly as we did long ago when I was a 5th grader in a much faster crowd.

Some of the girls in my 5th grade class were already becoming sexually active. Many were smoking. I'm sure some were doing drugs, though I didn't run in those crowds. It was all heresay. One indisputable fact is that some of the 5th grade boys were playing with guns. That's how Richie Baker died -- playing Russian Roulette with another 5th grade boy.

I remember hearing the news the next day at school. My friend Lisa had had a crush on Richie. Back in those days, we said they were "going together," though I don't know what that loose definition meant. I do remember Lisa crying and missing school. I do remember that she seemed changed after that; a little more reckless and further distanced from my circle of friends.

I don't know how many people remember Richie Baker. His death was announced and then we never spoke of him again. There was a picture of him in the yearbook and a dedication "in Memory." But he was never spoken of. There were no grief counselors setting up shop to help the rest of us make sense of his death. I think it was soon followed by the tragic Who concert in Cincinnati and all seemed a sign of the times. So different than today.

My daughter and her friends seem so much younger than we were at that age. They're so much more sheltered and unworldly. Thankfully so. They seem more immature, but perhaps I actually have it backwards. Maybe my class was the one that was naive and immature. I don't see today's 5th graders playing Russian Roulette and smoking at the bus stop. Or perhaps my rose-tinted mother goggles are thicker than I realize.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


In the movie "Blue Car," teen poet Megan writes about how how she felt when her father left. But when her sister dies, she does not write about it. Below I've written that poem for her.

we were eating Spaghetti-O’s when
I said that you looked like our father.
you have his same chubby cheeks.
if I’d kept my mouth shut
you might have kept yours open
your fork down ,
you began a hunger strike
but I ignored it,
so angry
at Daddy’s blue car,
unaware of how hungry you were;
how much you wanted to be an angel
like you were in your baby picture
with Daddy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who Am I?

Can you guess who I'm talking about based on the picture and clues below? (The picture shouldn't be taken too literally. It's just imagery.) I'll post the answer tomorrow.

I was a champion wrestler in high school and college.
I took part in a CIA-sponsored study of the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, AMT, and DMT on people.
My friends and I, the “Merry Pranksters,” took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed “Further.”
I served time in California’s San Mateo County jail.
I delivered the eulogy at promoter Bill Graham’s funeral while the Grateful Dead played.
I wrote a book about an Oregon asylum.
I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992 and died following liver surgery in 2001.

Answer: Ken Kesey

This straw basket for sale at a Kentucky rest stop looks like a nest to me.

Blogger went down today and I see that the comments from yesterday's post disappeared. But an Anonymous poster guessed correctly. The person I was referring to yesterday was Ken Kesey, best known for authoring One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Kesey was inspired to write the book based on his own experience working with patients under the influence of psychedelic drugs at Veterans Hospital. He felt he could relate to them because he'd participated in CIA-sponsored studies involving use of these drugs, and he felt that many of the patients were misunderstood or misdiagnosed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962. In 1963, it was made into a stage play starring Kirk Douglas. Following that success, it was produced as a movie in 1975. Kesey was not happy with the choice of Jack Nicholson in the lead, but everyone else was. The movie earned five Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Picture.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


What I love about travel is that first breath-taking moment when you are suddenly aware that a foreign place exists. The air smells different. The language around you is different. You are viewing a scene that you may never see again. You wonder who lives behind those windows and whether they ever get tired of this incredible scenery. Who are they? Where will they go on their bicycles? What did they eat for breakfast?

When I travel to a distant spot, I can't help but stop and realize that those people are all living their lives alongside mine. The universe becomes enormous, and smaller at the same time. Forevermore, I can look up at the sky and think about my own place in the world, but I can also imagine the lives that might be unfolding here, because now I know that this place exists, and these people are riding their bikes and eating breakfast behind windows.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sweet Spot

As part of my work plan, my manager has encouraged me to incorporate Marcus Buckingham's idea of playing to your strengths. In his studies, he has found that people perform better when they are given tasks that come naturally to them, or ones that energize them. His theory is that by demanding that employees work on their weaknesses, nothing is gained. The employee gets frustrated and discouraged, and what takes him/her hours worth of effort could be easily done by someone who does have a passion for that task.

Hallelujah! Finally, someone has said what I've always believed. Even in high school, I never understood why I had to take so much gym and math and science when I obviously excelled at Language Arts and foreign languages. Those stupid Chemistry and Algebra courses did nothing but bring down my GPA and make me yearn for graduation. Why did I need to be so well-rounded?

Now, here's Marcus Buckingham telling us to build on our strengths in order to find the sweet spot between our daily work and career goals. We'll be happier and more productive employees.

He gives an example in which the Gallup Organization tested two groups of readers. One group had below-average reading speeds and the other above-average. After taking a speed reading class, the below-average readers went from reading 85 words per minute to reading 134 words per minute; a 50% improvement. But the above-average readers went from 300 words per minute to 1800 words per minutes; a 600% increase, which nicely demonstrates the idea that a person grows most in the areas where he's already strong.

So, I was assigned with this homework: for one week, I had to write down what tasks I did during that day that left me energized and which left me drained or unmotivated. I thought I knew myself pretty well, but some of my discoveries surprised me. For instance, I never thought I was a person who liked the feeling of crossing things off a To-Do list. In fact, I rarely keep a To-Do list. But I discovered that I do like the feeling of accomplishing something tangible that I can consider completed at the end of the day.

I also learned that I'm not as much of a people-person and collaborator as I thought. I seem to feel much more satisfied working on projects independently and realized that the 'team approach' demotivates me. The things that excited me most about my day were the opportunities I was given that enabled me to learn something new, whether it be a new skill, hearing a new concept, or reading. That shouldn't have been a surprise except that I never thought about those things as working because they don't seem like work to me!

Now my manager and I have to figure out how to marry some of my strengths and passions with future career opportunities. Which, as I've already stated, is an entirely new concept that excites me. I can't wait to work more toward my sweet spot.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On Display

Jon dove into the water; sank into another day of work. He listened to the sound of his own breathing and peered through goggled eyes at the crowd of people pressing themselves against the glass of the aquarium. Some of the children pounded on the glass. The fish darted away. Jon watched people point to him and wave; their arms outstretched and their focus entirely wrong. Was it really such a thrill to see him? Weren't they there to see the fish?

Jon floated in his peaceful domain, glad to be apart from the noisy hordes. He much preferred the bubbling sound of the sea world and the company of the silent fish. He'd much rather be here than in the fishbowl of pushing, shoving spectators that he watched every morning. He emptied his food container. The various species swam quickly for a nibble and then hurried away. With a flip of his fins, he did, too, swimming away from the make-believe shoreline.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Perfect Mother's Day

Yes, I've been to the "Gone With The Wind" museum in Atlanta.
I don't need fancy Mother's Day brunches, dinners, or fanfare. This Mom isn't looking for jewelry or flowers to "let her know you care." My perfect Mother's Day is much more simple and can include any or all of the following:
  • a trip to the used book sale (which includes having my husband carry my box while I fill it)
  • lounging and watching one of my favorite movies (Gone With the Wind is always a winner)
  • having my hair brushed or my shoulders massaged
  • not doing any chores AT ALL
  • getting a paper rose and card that my daughter made for me at school
  • sitting and reading to my heart's content
  • being with my own mother, my husband and my children
  • eating crap that I shouldn't (but feel entitled to because it's Mother's Day)
This list is my plan for today. I hope all mothers have the Mother's Day of their dreams.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mr. Soup

This can of soup is on display at Jungle Kim's in Fairfield, Ohio.
It is not really intended to be a babysitter.

"Evan, sit down and listen to Mr. Soup tell a story." Evan's mother spoke in a cheery, singsong voice. The teen-aged store attendant stood nearby, not fooled for an instant by the false sweetness in her tone. A few of the other children began squirming on the floor. One toddler began spinning in circles on the dirty tile. Another, watching him, started to do the same with his sticky little hands pushing his body back and forth on the floor.

Evan started to whine and held his hands up for his mother. "Evan, Mommy's going to get some yummy food for dinner, alright? You stay here, okay? And I'll get us some yummy spaghetti, okay?"

Non-plussed, Evan began crying. He kicked his legs against the floor as Evan's mother cajoled him some more. "Maybe Mommy can get some of those ice cream pops you like? If you stay here and be a good boy, I'll bring you a surprise." She gingerly pulled her son's grip off her arm and stood up. She hoisted her purse over her shoulder and hurried away, seemingly searching for the aisle she needed, but the teen-aged Children's Activity Director was not fooled. Evan was going to be a handful. But then, most of them were.

Suddenly, Mr. Soup revved up and began rocking back and forth on his trapeze as an animated song and voice came through the tinny speakers on his can.

"Hello, Boys & Girls. I'm Mr. Soup! Would you like to hear a story today?"

Six toddlers froze in their spots, transfixed by the gigantic can of soup swinging above their heads. Then Evan let out a blood-curdling scream and the rest began to follow. Six toddlers sobbed at her feet. The teenager shook her head. It always happened.

She didn't know whose bright idea it was to have a can of soup babysit kids while their mothers shopped, but whoever it was, was a genius. She decided she was never having kids. She checked her watch. Mr. Soup Storytime took 20 minutes. She had nineteen more to go.

Friday, May 6, 2011

From the Sewage -- A Nugget of Wisdom

 Yep. You're looking at it. Raw sewage.

I swear, when I hear the words 'lecture', 'tour', or 'conference', it evokes a Pavlovian response in me. I absolutely love learning opportunities; the more obscure, the better. Which is the only way I can explain how I ended up touring a wastewater treatment facility last week.

I know this will sound idiotic, but the stench of the place came as a shock. Imagine a muddy elephant house at the zoo, where a diesel truck with burning rubber tires is idling. Now imagine smelling that while viewing machines and pools of deep brown sludge. Seriously, what was I thinking?

To make it worse, I was on the tour with seven scientists. Thankfully, our tour guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about his work. His enthusiasm was contagious, but that didn't change the fact that I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. Pumps, intake valves, blah, blah, blah. I was trying to listen, but I felt like I was on the verge of laughter. The absurdity of me touring a wastewater treatment plants with scientists hit me. What in the world was I doing here? Why do I keep signing up for these things? What is wrong with me?

And then, he told us about the micro-organisms they use to process the water. He joked that they "eat poop and die." He laughed and said that's what he tells the school groups that come through on tours. He calls his job being a "Turd Herder" and the 5th graders love it. That got my attention. I asked him what kinds of questions the 5th graders ask when they come on a tour. (Because I knew it couldn't be anything like the questions the scientists were asking!)

The Turd Herder, more commonly known in adult circles as Henry, vaguely said that kids asked good questions. But he added that he uses a lot of potty language in his talks with them and they eat it up. He said the kids suddenly get to talk about Thomas Crapper, who invented the flush toilet, and no one reprimands them for saying 'crap.' I immediately thought of the "Captain Underpants" book series. When I worked for Scholastic Book Fairs, those books flew off the shelves. The 4th and 5th grade boys devoured them.

Then Henry imparted this wisdom. He said he once watched a late night talk show host interviewing a rapper and asked the rapper if he feels like a bad influence on his young listeners because he uses so many cuss words. And the rapper said, no; that he uses the same words that the kids are hearing and saying and that by talking to them in their language, they can then filter that out and hear what his message really is. But they wouldn't hear that if he didn't frame it in their language. So Henry employs the same tactic and uses a potty mouth and plenty of crude humor in his tours with kids.

That's when the whole thing clicked. My a-ha moment. A nugget of wisdom that I knew I'd come away with that day. It wasn't the wastewater treatment process or even collecting the sensations of being there. It was remembering that as a writer, I must relate to my reader, much as Henry geared his talk to the scientists. And as a children's writer, I must relate to children. I need to frame the stories and words in their language.

I don't think that's what I was supposed to learn during my wastewater tour, but that's what I gleaned from the sludge. I wonder what I'll learn on my trip to the Rumpke landfill? Because I have, of course, signed up for that tour, too.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Meet The 'Mayor of Dumpsterville'

Selling my house and travelling around full-time in an RV is a dream of mine.  Linda Lehmkuhl (70) is living that dream. She RVs full-time, spending much of the summer in Ohio, the winter in Florida, and taking trips all across the country whenever it suits her.

Linda at home in her RV

Me: How long have you been living on the road?
Linda: I started out in 2005. Originally, it was only going to be for a year, but here I am.

Me: Do you travel alone, or do you connect with other RVers and travel with them?
Linda: No, I travel alone. I meet up with friends I’ve met along the way and it’s like re-joining with family, but we don’t ever travel together.

Me: And it’s just you?
Linda: Yes. Sometimes I take a trip with a friend. Or I get my grandkids and we go somewhere for a week. That’s more like a vacation. That’s fun. But I like being on my own.

Me: Are you ever scared?
Linda: I’ve only really been scared two times. The worst was when I was leaving Long Island. I made a wrong turn and ended up in the Bronx. Then I got back in the southbound lane and got stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge. I thought I was going to run out of gas and I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to pull off the highway.

The other time I parked for the night at a Wal-mart. It was the only time I ever did that. A drunk started bothering me and banging on the door, but since I have a Class C (cab is similar to a truck, with a bunk above, plus a rear bedroom) I just moved up to the driver’s seat and started driving. I didn’t have to get out of the RV.

Me: Are there other things you have to worry about, traveling alone?
Linda: Not really. I don’t have a car, so I don’t have to deal with hitches or anything that I can’t handle. People used to ask me if I was going to get a dog or a gun, but I’m okay on my own. What’s funny is when I pull into a park and all the men see that I’m travelling alone. They come and stand around and watch me back the thing up.

Me: Can you back up? I thought you’d pull straight through.
Linda: No! I’m really good at backing up.

Me: How much physical work is there?
Linda: Not much. Just electricity and water hook-ups.  It only takes me about 15 minutes to set up.

Me: What’s been your favorite trip so far?
Linda: Probably the one I took the first year when I went from Florida to Padre Island, Texas. Everything was so new to me. I left there and went through Arkansas, Missouri, and stopped at all these neat little places. I wasn’t in any hurry to get home that year and spent a lot of time sightseeing. I didn’t have any real plan. People recommended places to me and I went.

Me: What trip wouldn’t you repeat?
Linda (after a long pause): I probably wouldn’t repeat the trip to Tucson unless I stopped a lot along the way. The drive was too long with nothing much to see.

Me: And where do you want to go that you haven’t gone already?  (Linda has been across the southwest, up through the northern states, Canada, and to Alaska, and has travelled from Florida to Maine.)
Linda: I’d like to go to Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada. I have friends there now that I could visit.

Me: So how’d you get the nickname “Mayor of Dumpsterville?”
Linda: Every winter I go down to a park in Wildwood, Florida and I always take the spot closest to the dumpster. Everybody has to go to the dumpster, so I get to meet everybody and then they dubbed me “The Mayor of Dumpsterville.” They even made me a sign.

Me: Do you ever miss having a house?
Linda: No. I have a houseful of furniture in storage, but I’ve found that you actually need so little. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a house again.

Me: So why not get rid of your stuff?
Linda (laughs): I can’t. It’s like I have a whole other life I’m clinging to, but don’t miss.

Me: It’s a whole different lifestyle, isn’t it?
Linda: It is. You know me; I’ve never met a stranger. RVers are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. You pull into a place and pretty soon you know everybody. License plates are a real conversation starter. You start talking about where you’re from and where you’ve been.

Me: Do you think you’ll ever stop?
Linda: Eventually I’ll have to. I’ve thought about not being able to do it physically or mentally. I’ve driven over 80,000 miles so far. I’m always excited to get going again, but I do get anxious to get home again, too.

Me: I'm hooked. I can't wait to get on the road someday myself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

No Punches Back

“Pink-blue-yellow-green punchbug! No punches back!” 
Ted slammed his fist into his brother Frank’s arm as they passed a Volkswagen bug passing them on the highway. The car jerked to the left for an instant before Frank corrected the wheel, cursing under his breath and checking his sideview mirror to make sure he hadn’t narrowly missed hitting another car.
“Dammit, Ted. I’m driving!”
Ted hit his brother’s arm again. “Ooh, stop. My name is Frank and I’m a wuss who drives like an old lady with two hands on the wheel.”
“Jesus, Ted. What are you, five?”
In response, Ted turned in his seat and began punching Frank in the arm with one fist after the other. Frank batted his hand away as the car swerved right and left between yellow lines. Another car zoomed up alongside and honked its annoyance. Startled, Frank righted his car again, over-correcting and sending their car onto the rutted shoulder of the road.
“Would you just stop it, Ted? Why do you have to be such an ass?”
Ted continued to pound his fist into his brother’s arm, all the while mimicking his brother’s plea in a high falsetto. Frank held his arm rigid and flipped on his blinker as he slowly started to pull to the side of the road.
“That’s it. I’ve had it.”
Ted punched him again and laughed. “Lighten up, you big sissy. Grow some, why doncha?”
Frank put the car in park. “Get out of the car.”
“Quit being such a wuss. It’s just a game.”
“I said, get out of the car.”
“Who’s going to make me?” Ted taunted Frank as he sat solidly in his seat. Frank unbuckled his seatbelt and checked his sideview mirror again. A white Volkswagen was approaching from about 500 feet behind them. “I’m warning you. Get out of the car.”
“Or what?”
Frank drew back his fist and slammed it into the side of his brother’s balding head. The right side of Ted’s face smashed into the window.
“White punchbuggy. No punches back,” Frank said as he turned the key in the ignition and flipped on his left-turn blinker. “Jesus, 60-years-old and you still think you can beat me at this game?” Frank pulled into traffic. “”Next time I won’t put the child-safety locks on. I’ll let you fall out of the car and let your stupid head hit the ground. Now wipe that blood off your lip and keep your hands to yourself. We’ll tell Mom you bit your lip. She’s going to have a nice Mother’s Day with both of her sons and then I’m going to punchbuggy your ass all the way home. You got it?”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Merry-Go-Round Museum

This carousel is actually at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
My Merry-Go-Round Museum pictures didn't turn out.

There are only so many times that I can spin, whirl, and dive down the breakneck hills of a rollercoaster, so one day at Cedar Point Amusement Park was enough for me. I wasn't sure what else we could do in the quiet, little town of Sandusky, Ohio until I saw a brochure for the Merry-Go-Round Museum. A quirky, one-of-a-kind museum? Calliope music to my ears! I'm a sucker for museums.

We pulled up to a picturesque building across the street from a beautifully maintained town square. The museum is housed in the old Sandusky Post Office building, complete with grand columns, marble floors and rotunda. What better place to find an old-fashioned merry-go-round? I felt like we'd walked into a picture-postcard of small town Americana.

The museum director took us on a tour of the one-room museum. She started in the lobby where she proudly showed us the 1988 U.S. carousel postage stamp collection. One of the Cedar Point carousel horses was included in its design, so the town held an unveiling of the new stamps and were surprised when more than 5,000 people showed up for the event. Spurred by the interest in Sandusky's carousel history, the decision to use the post office space for a Merry-Go-Round Museum was launched.

Once we stepped beyond the lobby we were invited to watch the artists at work carving horses. We learned that there are actually several different types of carousel horses. In the days when carousels were packed up and moved from town to town for county fairs, smaller horses were used. Those horses usually look like they're running, with all four legs bent in motion. This made the horses easier to stack and store in the off-season.

Larger "Philadelphia" horses stand with three or four feet on the ground. They are sometimes decorated as war horses and are exquisitely detailed. We saw one in the making during our tour of the museum.

And then there are horses bedecked with jewels or flowers in their manes. Picture a white horse with a powder blue saddle and a jewel-studded harness. That would be a "Coney Island" horse -- glitzy and showy to attract a crowd. Some of these horses even had real horsehair tails, but that practice became obsolete over the years.

As the tour ended we were invited to ride the antique carousel housed in that beautiful rotunda. I couldn't resist riding a horse named Gwen who sported a real horsehair tail. We whirled and twirled on the surprisingly fast merry-go-round and felt as giddy as the music that played. Of course, anyone who travels to Sandusky is sure to enjoy the thrills and excitement of Cedar Point. But I was thrilled to enjoy a quieter afternoon at the Merry-Go-Round Museum on Day 2.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Another Burst of Patriotism

I was never particularly patriotic until the aftermath of 9/11. Then, like everyone else, we ran to the store to buy American flags. Remember? They were everywhere -- decorating cars, front porches, lining streets and yards -- everywhere. We couldn't even get a flag the first time we tried to. There'd been a run on them at the store and we had to wait for the next order to come in. I wonder if that will happen again now that Bin Laden has been killed?

In the days following the terrorist attacks, I felt my first stirrings of patriotism. I teared up at the sight of the flag and felt a community with my fellow Americans that I'd never felt before. The Star Spangled Banner immediately prompted a lump in my throat. The waving of the flag was suddenly one of the most beautiful sights I could behold.

Since September 11th, I've become a sentimental patriotic fool. I cried everytime I heard the first few notes of our anthem during the Olympics. I was beside myself when I saw my son's Air Force unit march with flags during their graduation ceremony. I broke down when I saw the flag draped across the coffin of one of his Air Force buddies. I tear up when I hear children pledging allegiance to the flag. I cannot stop being a proud American now.

The flag is waving again, on the streets, on TV, and all over America. I get chills when I see it. Not because I'm celebrating the death of Bin Laden, but because I am, simply, an American.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

24 Hour Short Story Contest

This weekend I took part in a 24-hour short story contest. At noon on Saturday, contestants were emailed this topic and had until noon on Sunday to submit a 900-word story:

The fruit vendor smiled at her through sightless eyes, enjoying the warm
breeze and salty air. During casual banter with his customers, he seemed
to remember the smallest details, even ones they couldn't remember
sharing with him in the past. The girl had been coming to his stand
daily for as long as she could remember. As she turned to leave, she
patted his hand and said, "I'll see you tomorrow morning, friend."

Still smiling, he replied, "No, you won't..."

My immediate reaction was to write something sinister. I thought about having the fruit vendor give the girl fruit that she was allergic to. My daughter thought up a similar idea, so I ruled that out as a plotline that too many people might follow.

Other ideas that I considered were:
  • The fruit vendor remembers that the girl will leave for college the next day, but since he's blind, he doesn't realize that she is 8 months pregnant and her plans have changed.
  • The fruit vendor remembers that tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of the girl's mother and she will go to the cemetery. But the girl he thinks is in front of him is not the same girl at all. It's his granddaughter. (I'd have to figure this out.)
  • The fruit vendor is clairvoyant and foretells doom for the following day.
  • The fruit vendor and the girl argue about details he remembers from her childhood.
  • The fruit vendor is suicidal or thinks that he will not survive the night for some reason.
  • In one plot idea, I had both of them being blind, and arguing about whether or not she would literally "see" him tomorrow.
Many ideas ran through my head, but the story I eventually wrote and submitted was none of these. I wanted something that would stand out from the pack and chose to focus on the setting of my story rather than the two characters themselves. We'll see how it goes. Angela at Writers Weekly usually shares a recap of common themes that appear in submissions. I'm hoping mine doesn't get lumped into that.

At some point in the future, I'll post my story here.