Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Half A Life

I was the fortunate recipient of one of Kristan's book giveaways and received Darin Strauss' memoir Half a Life in my mailbox a few weeks ago. I love memoirs and quickly sat down to delve into the aftermath of a car accident Strauss had as a teenager. He was on his way to play miniature golf with his friends when a high school classmate riding a bike suddenly swerved into his path. He begins his book with this cold, hard fact: Half my life ago, I killed a girl.

Sounds gripping, no? It seemed like it would be, but it wasn't. If anything, Strauss spent 190+ pages telling us that he didn't know how the accident had really affected his life. At times, it seemed that he was pretending the accident had a more profound effect than it actually had. He often said he felt he was just playing the part that he thought he should be playing, and acting the way he thought people expected him to act. Interesting, and honest, but not that compelling. But it could be that as with all readings, I brought my own life perspective to the book and just didn't find the answers I was hoping to find through Strauss' introspection.

You see, my ex-brother-in-law, Steve, once killed a girl on a bicycle, too. I believe he was a teenager when he was driving his car -- drunk. And I believe that the girl he hit was younger; an adolescent girl, not a teenager who swerved into a car, like in Strauss' case.

Steve went to jail. That's all I know. He had already been released when I met him, and was a recovering alcoholic when I met him. But we didn't talk about that. We didn't talk about his drinking, or the accident, or his jail time. We didn't talk about anything with Steve. He was a very troubled, damaged soul with demons that I could not begin to imagine.

Steve was in and out of the picture during my marriage to his brother. He went from a zealous Bible-thumper with teetotalling views on sobriety to raging benders of alcoholism that lead to more bouts of crimes and jail time. Steve was an enigma to me. I was frightened of him, yet so curious about him. I knew so little and was afraid to ask.

And so I turned to Darin Strauss' book to shed some light on what might have gone through Steve's mind in the years after he killed a girl on a bicycle, too. But I think the similarities between Strauss and Steve ended there. Maybe Steve shared some of Strauss' anguish and 'what-if's.' He must have, mustn't he? But I'll never really know how that day, that moment of recklessness and tragedy, affected Steve. I don't even know where he is anymore. I never did.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Le Mode

Uh oh. It says here that purple is out. Turquoise is the new color this fall.
Where am I going to find turquoise tights?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Victory in Vevay!

I've mentioned before that I'm a big I Love Lucy fan. So when I learned that there was a Grape Stomp at the Swiss Wine Festival in Vevay, Indiana, I had to go.

Here was my chance to play Lucy. I'm referring to the episode of I Love Lucy where the Ricardos and Mertzes travel to Italy and Lucy is offered a part in an Italian film titled Bitter Grapes. Lucy being Lucy, she decides to do some research and finds a winery that still produces wine by stomping grapes. Lucy decides to "soak up a little local color" and pretends to work there. So she climbs into the vat of grapes with an angry Italian woman and begins to stomp. But Lucy and the other woman soon get into a fight and are slinging gobs of grapes at each other and wrestling in the vat of purple juice. Lucy arrives back at her hotel, splotchy and stained and too purple to be included in the film.

I was all set to re-enact as much of that episode as I could. First of all, I donned a peasant skirt and blouse like Lucy wore (so that she could blend in with the Italian women workers). I was even going to tuck my skirt up into my belt like Lucy and her co-worker did before they began to stomp grapes. But my experience in Indiana was a little different than Lucy's, so I didn't get to emulate as much as I'd hoped.

To begin with, the Vevay Grape Stomp was not composed of a large vat of grapes, but rather, four wooden buckets on a stage. That was okay. I didn't really expect that we would all be standing in a vat. I also didn't expect to look into the bucket and see brownish grape residue from the previous two days of the festival.

But then they added fresh grapes - green grapes, since those were local and were used to make local Indiana wines.

So I stepped into my tub of grapes, I barely had a moment to register that it was cold and squishy before the music began. We had two minutes to stomp grapes while our "swabbers" worked to clear the screen inside the bucket that lead to a hose that directed out juice into a plastic pitcher below. My poor husband. He was my swabber. What that really meant was that he had the disgusting job of putting his hands into the grape goo I squashed and had his face near enough to the bucket of grapes that he was squirted with juice as I stomped and kicked my little heart out.

I had the grapes and I had my Lucy costume. Now all I needed was a good fight so that I could "soak up a little local color". My mother was stomping in the bucket next to me. I considered giving her a little shove since she'd understand that I was just being Lucy, but when I looked over at her, she wasn't stomping all that hard; she was dancing! She was stomping to the beat of the music instead of trying to get the most juice. I couldn't pick a fight with her for that! For all I knew, she was throwing the competition so that I had a better chance of winning.

We (I) stomped for two minutes in front of a huge crowd of spectators. It was a little daunting to see them all watching so intently. Not cheering, but watching, with iphones recording the spectacle before them, and cameras out. I was very glad that I hadn't tucked my skirt up into my waistband like Lucy had. I was already afraid that my performance was soon to be on Youtube.

The music ended and so did the competition. We gingerly stepped out of our slippery, slimy tubs and walked off the stage with grape-skinned feet. The festival was kind enough to provide a hose behind the tent so that we could wash our feet off as they measured the amounts of juice each swabber had collected. We put our shoes back on and walked back around to the stage. Low and behold, we discovered we'd won! Lucy may have had purple-stained skin and hair to commemorate her grape stomping adventure, but we got t-shirts!

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Pretend this is ice cream.

When I was young, I remember being captivated by the premise of Richard Scarry's A Story A Day: 365 Stories and Rhymes. This book was for everyone! Every reader could pick out his or her birthday story and claim it as his own. I loved this idea, and realize now that it has played out many times in my life.

When I think about chunks of time, I think of it in days. I do things in daily increments, such as this blog, keeping a journal, reading the newspaper, etc.. One year, my New Year's resolution was to do something new every day. Not surprisingly, I then journalled my new experience. For a year. That's my second time chunk, or the culmination of my daily activities: the year.

I am quickly approaching one year of daily posts on this blog. It's a little overwhelming to think of tackling another 365 days. But I won't think about that just yet. I'll scoot back to just thinking about today, and share Richard Scarry's birthday rhyme for August 28th:

I scream,
You scream,
We all scream
For ice cream!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Watch

I'm an armchair weather junkie. Whenever there's a severe weather system affecting a place in the world, I am glued to my TV set for as long as the news stations air coverage. Hurricane Irene is approaching. I'm already up-to-date on evacuations and preparations for the storm. Now, I'm just waiting for her to hit land. It's sick, I guess, finding entertainment in damaging storms. I can't help. I'm in awe of Mother Nature.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Waiting for a Muse

Jack was stumped. He sat with his notebook open, reading his last paragraph to himself as he toyed with the salad remains on his plate. Something about his story wasn't working. It wasn't flowing. He couldn't translate his existential philosophies to the page in any coherent manner. Frustrated, he turned his attention to the tourists wandering along this back street of Belgium. He spied a group of Americans. They were easy to spot with their sloppy clothes and loud voices. He re-read his words. Would they understand what he was trying to say? Probably not. He took some satisfaction in that.

Two Germans sat down at the table near him and ordered beers. He listened to them for a while, intent on what they were saying. After all, wasn't this why he chose to write at outdoor cafes? So that he could absorb the world around him and extrapolate the meaning of life as it pertained to the masses?

He listened carefully to the Germans, digging deeper into their conversation in search of new material. Then a group of four young women sat down. Italians. Their presence drew the attention and stares of everyone else around, and suddenly the cafe was flocked with other passers-by who subliminally followed their beauty. Jack watched the girls and studied their effect on the rest of the population. He was as mesmerized as everyone else, but for different reasons. They were the tour de force he was explaining on paper. His muses had arrived. He flagged the waiter for another drink, then picked up his pen and began to write.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


She's 11 today.

It's not a big birthday; not a momentous one with the prestige of officially becoming a teen at 13, or turning Sweet 16. No, eleven is quieter. Subtle. A slight interlude between child and young woman. A cusp. Eleven catches in the throats of her father and I. She's not a baby anymore.

Her feet are the same size as mine.

Yesterday she cried. Soulful tears of a child because it was the last day that she could attend day care. Eleven is the cut-off age. Suddenly she's too old to be dropped off amidst preschoolers in the morning. She had to tell them all good-bye. She was 10, now eleven. She's on her own today.

She stood against the wall where pencil lines mark the start of every school year. She grew 4 inches.

She's 11 today. A beautiful girl who knows she's cute; who thinks she's pretty. She has no idea that she is heart-achingly exquisite. But we do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Worry?

A senior business leader delivered this message at the beginning of a conference I attended last week. He said, “If you’re going to worry, worry in general. Don’t worry about something specific, because that’s never the thing you end up needing to worry about.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I'm going to China! I have a business trip this fall. I'm excited, but nervous. I've read too many travel narratives that have made me believe that I am ill-equipped to travel there alone. I'm just not that assertive, and am already dreading the onslaught of aggressive street vendors and crowds I am sure to encounter. But unless I want to spend my very limited free time in the hotel, I'm going to have to get over that. I have got to see the Great Wall!

I decided there are two things I can do to help myself prepare for the trip to China. One, I can learn to haggle. This is definitely a weakness of mine. I can't even haggle at garage sales, but I'm going to start trying. Secondly, I can try to learn some key phrases in Mandarin Chinese. My husband bought me a Chinese-language CD to help me with that. I was amused to see that it warns people not to play the CD while driving. It was almost like a dare; naturally, I shoved the disc into the disc drive as soon as I got in my car this morning.

Here's what I heard:

xie xie nihao zooshanghao wanshanghao wan'an zaijian nihaoma wohenhao zheshi hengaoxing renshi ni

Maybe they don't want people listening to it while they drive because it makes listeners want to cry. The recording does not include the English translations for these words. For that, you have to refer to the phrase book itself, which makes me laugh. The words I hear and the spellings in the phrase book have very little in common.

I think that what I really learned is that I need to stick with "Do you speak English?" because even if I ask a question in Mandarin, I will have no idea how anyone responds. I will learn xie xie (thank you). And I'll mean it. Sincerely. I will thank anyone and everyone who helps me get to the Great Wall. Once there, I'll speak English, but I think it will translate:  Wowwww!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Friend or Foe?

Cincinnati Zoo

You decide. Are these alligators wrestling? Or cuddling?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Marketing & Childhood Obesity

The epidemic of childhood obesity rates in the U.S. has been forefront in the news for years. McDonald's usually takes the brunt of the blame. But I found these insights reported by Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD
for to be more relevant:

  • Research with children who watched TV with four ads for food ate 45 percent more Goldfish Crackers (100 calories more) when exposed to the ads for food as compared to when they watched four ads for games. The kids who liked the taste of Goldfish ate even more calories.

  • Foods marketed with a character (such as Scooby-Doo) sell better. Fifty-two percent of pre-schoolers said the character-food tasted better (as opposed to 38 percent who said it tasted the same, and 10 percent who said food without the character tasted better).

  • My two children do not struggle with weight issues, for which I am greatly relieved. I did. I know how difficult and long-lasting it can be. But despite my children's lack of weight issues, Nancy Clark's insights rang true. I've watched my children suddenly become "hungry" during food commercials on TV. My daughter insists that the Spongebob Squarepants-shaped macaroni & cheese tastes better than regular. So do the fun-shaped Spaghettio's, and character-marketed brands of Fruit Roll-ups.

    I'm jumping to a huge conclusion here, but I'd say watching too much television is a bigger cause of childhood obesity than McDonald's. At least McDonald's is offering healthier side options and has a playplace where children can burn off a little energy. Think about this last statement I include from Nancy Clark's report:

  • The food industry's bottom line is profits. When Pepsi started marketing more of its healthy products, sales of the unhealthy products dropped. The stockholders complained—and that puts the food industry in a bind.

  • Saturday, August 20, 2011


    Different people like different parts of the day.
    Some are night owls, some love mornings.
    I love dawn, when the day is full of promise
    and the world is quiet.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Write What You ___________

    "I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it."
    --- Toni Morrison

    Writers are often given conflicting advice:  write what you know; write what you love, and here, Toni Morrison says to write what you want to read. As a writer, I have tried all three approaches.

    Writing What I Know can be difficult. As someone who primarily considers herself a non-fiction writer, I find that I am often too close to my subject when I write what I know. I can't separate what should be included in my writing and what shouldn't. I assume too much or too little knowledge from my readers. When I write what I know, I'm better suited to gearing my writing for children so that I have the freedom to explain things from the beginning.

    For non-fiction, I'm much better at writing what I don't know. Then I approach the subject with fresh eyes and can see the gaps that need to be explained. However, I do incorporate write what I know in fiction. I think it adds authenticity if I write about a girl in Ohio, or a person who works at jobs I've done.

    Write What You Love was my focus when I wrote my first novel. It was a children's chapter book about two boys who wanted to grow up to be Marines. It was inspired by watching my son and I had plans to write an entire series; a sort-of Junie B. Jones series for boys. I wrote two books then moved on to other things, but those 9-year-old characters still run around in my head. I think I'll write about them again someday. I still have stories to tell about them.

    But first, I'd like to try Toni Morrison's approach of Writing What I Want To Read.  I believe her quote refers to her first published novel, The Bluest Eye. I loved that book and wondered how autobiographical it was? Morrison grew up in Ohio and attended a predominantly white school. Perhaps she combined what she knows with what she wanted to read.

    My problem is, I read across so many genres. My favorite books are memoirs, travel narratives, and contemporary fiction. I hope to write all three. I'd like to write a memoir, but don't think I'm all that interesting and don't think I can bare my life to the public. But a travel memoir -- ah, that would be a dream come true. That's what I love to read, what I know (since the travel experience would be mine), and what I love.

    Now that I think about it, it's all so obvious. Of course I need to combine all three approaches. They aren't conflicting pieces of advice at all; they're simply pieces of a larger whole. I need to write what I know, what I love AND what I want to read. I need to write a travel narrative! Now all I need to do is some extensive travel...

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Hunter and Prey

    Skin of a fox

    I met a woman today whose husband is an avid hunter. Now, I am not about to start a rant against hunting, though I don't think I could ever kill an animal myself, and am not a huge advocate of hunting, either. It bothers me to think about it, but at the same time, I can understand the thrill of the hunt. I'm just glad I'm not married to a hunter. I can't imagine what that would be like.

    The woman I talked to is a very mild-mannered office worker. I couldn't really imagine her married to a hunter, either, and asked her how she felt about it. She shrugged and said she doesn't have much to do with it other than cooking the meat and staring at the trophy heads mounter around her family room. I asked if she'd ever gone hunting with her husband. She has, though she's never stuck around when he's ready to shoot. What she has done is go out into the woods with her husband to check on his stand and to help him with the video camera he has mounted there.

    That phrase stopped me. Video camera? My mind immediately went to serial killers recording their kills. She must have seen some sort of shocked expression on my face because she rolled her eyes and said that they went out to get the SD card from the camera so he could watch the footage at home. Her husband tracks the deer this way, noting what type of deer come near his stand and from where. I tried to keep a blank expression, but I was appalled; absolutely appalled. I immediately pictured Sarah Palin shooting wolves from a helicopter. It's one thing to hunt, but at least give the animals a fighting chance!

    I thought I was going to lose it. My mind was frantically racing to think of ways to save the deer. Could I scour the woods for video cameras and smash them? Could I put deer repellent near every hunting stand I saw? (Not that I'm ever actually in the woods where hunters hunt, but still...)

    Then it got worse. She told me she was on a wild boar hunt with her husband down in Okeechobee, Florida where the outfit they were with promised a "guaranteed kill." It was all I could do not to clap my hands over my ears and start singing "la-la-la-la-la I can't hear you." She sensed my discomfort and changed the subject. We chatted for a while longer but I just kept studying her, wondering what it would be like to be her and sit on the couch beneath a boar's head, watching TV and eating venison stew? I have no idea what else she said that afternoon. I was too busy studying her as intently as a deer hunter with a video camera in the woods.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011


    This season they were the "Orange Crush."
    My daughter's soccer team this season will be wearing blue uniforms. The girls now have to come up with a team name. Two of the names on the table are "Smurfs" or "Blue Fairies." I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing when I heard these. I guess they don't get the idea of creating a team name that will intimidate their opponents. I love it.

    I am secretly hoping they'll go with "Blue Fairies" because it opens up all kinds of opportunities for cheering from the sidelines:


    I hope the ref's don't ask me to leave.  :)

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011


    Yesterday at work we had a team-building training that revolved around discovering our personal work styles. Usually I love this stuff, and left for work excited about exploring how I work and how my colleagues and I can work well together. But the day turned sour somehow, and I left there drained and depressed. Rather than feeling motivated, I felt frustrated and more misunderstood than ever.

    The session started off with a multiple choice personality test assessment. It quickly defined us each as one of four categories with varying scales of how intensely we scored in each category. I was pretty middle-of-the-road on all four which didn't surprise me; one of my greatest identified "strengths" at work is that I am flexible and adaptable. My other three colleagues scored very strongly in one category or other, and all of a sudden, I was cast as a "type", too, in the area where I had my highest (albeit, not all-that-high) score.

    The problem was, I didn't think this category described me all that well, or at least, no more strongly than I fit into the other categories. I said so, but they seemed intent on making me fit that characteristic. When I gave concrete examples of the disparity between that personality definition and my typical work style, they tried to find examples that could apply in those instances. We debated these things back and forth until I realized that they wanted me to fit that particular category whether I felt it was accurate or not.

    What made it worse to me, is that it was not the category where I wanted to place myself. I felt like I got pigeon-holed into an archetype that was only mildly me. Or was it? Was I in denial? Did I fit that category better than I thought I did? Bottom line: did it matter? It wasn't who I thought I was, and wasn't the person I want to be. But there I am, or there I find myself, categorized as the "Conscientious" person of the group who is detail-oriented, stable, resistant to change unless there's a reason for change, slow to make decisions without elaborate time to think things through, and a person who is summed up as a Perfectionist.

    So not me. And so not the person they have now learned how to work with more effectively. It was definitely disappointing.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Fifteen Minutes at the Army-Navy Store

    An explosion of ten-year-old boys burst through the door.
        "Oh, man, look at this!"

    The boys spread out, covering as much area as a dozen boys could. Loud spurts of "Dude!" and "Check it out!" fired across the aisles. Janice, the dark-haired woman behind the register came out from behind the counter and zeroed in on the only other woman in the store who was standing near the door with a cell phone in hand. "Can I help you?"

    The frizzy-haired woman snapped her gum and smiled. "No, we're fine." She punched in some numbers on her phone and raised it to her ear, sticking a finger into her other ear as the decibel level rose in the mess gear section. Janice had no choice but to go back and guard her post. A trio of boys approached the counter and began flicking the lighters. She snatched the display away and glared over toward the woman at the door. Perturbed, the woman turned away from her and leaned into her phone call with greater resolve.

    "Dude! Get these!" one boy called out to another. He held up a pair of flame repellent combat boots. Five or six boys came running and pulled boxes down from the shelf to try them on. The majority of the boys remained with the mess gear, rattling pans and tent poles before shoving them back onto the shelves haphazardly.

    Janice watched the action in her corner security mirrors. She noticed that one boy donned in a camouflage jacket was wandering around the store adding ribbons and medals as he went. The woman near the door remained oblivious. Furious, Janice locked her register and marched over to the woman.


    The woman held up a finger, motioning that she was still in the middle of a phone call. She turned away, but Janice tapped her again. "Ma'am. Are you with these boys?"

    Rolling her eyes and sighing loudly, the woman on the phone finally spoke. "Hold on a minute. Jim, I'll have to call you back. We're about to do cake, so about 20 more minutes."  She flipped her phone closed and turned to the clerk. "What can I help you with? I'm in the middle of my son's birthday party."

    Janice was taken aback. Birthday party? Wasn't she with these boys? A loud noise behind her demanded her attention. A gas mask and shield were hastily shoved back on top of a rack display. Janice stomped over to the boys and grabbed the equipment from them. She was about to tell them they had to leave the store when all of a sudden the cell-phone woman walked back in the door with a box full of cupcakes lit up.

    "Happy Birthday to you," she twanged loudly. The boys laughed and nudged the apparent birthday boy in the ribs. He elbowed them back and turned away from his mother, who continued to sing as she approached the boot section. Janice watched, open-mouthed as the procession continued. When the mother at last finished her song and the boy blew out his candles, Janice snapped out of her reverie and stormed over to the woman. The boys devoured their cupcakes like animals. Chocolate crumbs dropped to the floor and Janice watched in horror as a boot smeared icing across the gray tile.

    "That's it! Get out of here before I call the police."

    "What are you talking about?" the woman asked. "We're just shopping."

    Flabbergasted, Janice almost couldn't speak. But then more chocolate icing streaked across the floor as the boys began to tussle, getting icing on combat boots and camouflage fatigues. "You're going to pay for those, or I call the police."

    The woman looked in the direction of Janice's pointed finger. "Andrew, wipe those boots off and put them back. Kyle, did your mother give you money for those?" she asked the boy in the camo pants. Kyle turned his back to her without answering, but tugged the pants off and let them fall to the floor.

    "Mom, you're ruining my party!" Andrew wailed. "Besides, you said I could get anything I wanted. I want these." Andrew stood up with the shiny black boots still on. He stomped across the store and took cover behind a rack of t-shirts where he then pretended to shoot his mother and Janice with a machine gun.

    The woman shrugged at Janice and gave her a sheepish look. "The party's almost over anyway. The other parents should be here in about 15 minutes."

    Janice's mouth dropped open. This woman really had thrown a birthday party here in the middle of the store. Janice watched as the boys scattered throughout the shop again, taking cover behind various racks and using the military garb and equipment to stage a fake war. They made noises like bombs exploding and dove underneath Janice's inventory. She watched for a moment to make sure they weren't really dead, but it wasn't her birthday and she hadn't blown out the candles. The boys continued to run wild.

    "15 minutes, huh?" she asked the mother. She nodded. Janice walked back to her register counter and picked up the phone. "That ought to be plenty of time for the police to get here. "

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Shakespeare in the Park

    Last night we went to see Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed in a local park. The play itself was funny; the actors did a great job of modernizing Shakespeare and imparting the comedy so that even young children who probably didn't understand what was happening still laughed aloud at their antics.

    Even more than the play, I enjoyed being outside on a balmy summer evening, surrounded by people ready to be entertained. We all had chairs, coolers, blankets, pillows and snacks. Small children played in the grass off to the side. People moved about and picnicked, greeted acquaintances, walked their dogs, and appreciated a little free Shakespeare. The smell of bug spray and popcorn intermingled in the air. The actors projected their voices from the amphitheater, gradually competing against crickets and cicadas, the occasional squeal of children and dogs barking. A plane flew overhead. An old car with a loud muffler idled by. And still Shakespeare's words went on, as they have for ages.

    For more serious plays, I probably prefer an indoor stage setting. But for the folly of this comic play, I think the dreamy atmosphere of being outdoors on a midsummer night was perfect.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Skip the Line at the Louvre

    TRAVEL TIP:  You can skip the long line to buy tickets to the Louvre by entering through the Carrousel Metro station stop. The outside line takes hours to get through (I know from experience), and then you have another line for Security to actually enter the museum. But if you come up through the subway station, you can buy tickets at the gift shop, where there's hardly a line at all. It makes it more fun to look out the windows of the Louvre (as I did here) and watch the seemingly endless line snake around the pyramid.

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Southern Sandwich Speech

    Dana-Anne answers a knock at the door.

    DA: Well, Genieveve Turner! What brings you here?

    GT: Well, I wanted to return this pan that Charmay borrowed. She's a sweetheart for running all those bake sales, never mind that her rear-end gets bigger with each one, but she sure does know how to run a sale.

    DA: Yes she does. I told my husband that if she ever decided to run for mayor, though her campaign buttons might be bigger than an Olan Mills portrait, she might give him a run for his money.

    GT: I know a few men around town who'd keel over, which may ensure Charmay get those votes, if a woman ran for office in this town.

    DA: I think we should nominate her. Let's show her we support a woman running for office, after we get her a wardrobe that doesn't look like a Kmart sales rack, and let the men see that we mean business!

    GT: We'll get started by holding another one of Charmay's bake sales. Everyone in town flocks to those and we can spread the news, as thick as Charmay spreads butter, and she's sure to win.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Second Time Around

    Can a second cruise possibly live up to the fun had on the first?
    As I nervously give my credit card number to the reservationsist, all I can think is
    I hope so...

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Shakespeare & Co.

    Shakespeare & Co. has got to be the greatest bookstore on earth. While we were in Paris, we visited the crowded bookstore every day, usually after enjoying a gelato down the street. We didn't take advantage of the hospitality of the bookstore, but I hope to another time. You see, Shakespeare & Co. is not just a place to buy books; it is also a place that promotes literacy and writing. They offer a free place to crash for those willing to sleep on cots among the bookstacks, work in the store during the day and read a book a day - every day - while they are there.

    It sounds like the perfect getaway to me. I love being surrounded by books and have always wanted to work in a bookstore. Even better, you can walk across the street to Notre Dame and sit and read to your hearts content while you soak up the atmosphere of Paris. In fact, not only can you - you have to. It's the main requirement of staying at the bookstore.

    Next time...

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Simulating 'The Sims' Experiment

    Sometimes the inner scientist/psychologist/sociologist geek inside of me cannot be contained. I learn about an experiment in human behavior and I cannot help but test it myself. Such was the case when I began reading Chuck Klosterman’s book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. In it, he talks about the video games The Sims and Sim City, and how introspective, yet flawed, he thinks they are.

    Klosterman says that The Sims has been criticized as being voyeuristic, but he feels it is exactly the opposite. Klosterman uses himself as an example and says that he created a character that resembled himself as closely as he could. He made the Sim character look like him, act like him, and live a life very similar to his own. Contrary to being voyeuristic and getting an inside look at the (virtual) lives of others, he is actually watching himself live out his own life virtually. And he thinks it’s pretty mundane. In fact, he says that while playing The Sims, he’s forced to consider tedious tasks that he doesn’t give much thought to in real life, such as getting up for work or going to the bathroom.

    I’ve never played The Sims or Sim City and never saw the appeal of it for exactly those reasons. I barely have time to live my own life, let alone moving a virtual person through life. But my daughter plays, so I decided to sit down and watch her play and see whether Klosterman’s observations held true.

    This observation by Klosterman intrigued me the most: He says that while playing The Sims, he asked his 6-year-old niece Katie how he could have a house if he didn’t have a job? How could he afford to put food in his fridge? Where did he go to college? Did he have health insurance?  Katie tried to brush off his questions with answers such as “You just have money.” Klosterman asked,”But where did I come from?”  She replied, “You’re just here.”

    What struck him as curious about this is that “…If she had been playing with her Barbie Dream House and I asked her why Barbie had four pairs of shoes but only two decent outfits, Katie would have undoubtedly spent the next half hour explaining that Barbie purchased the extra shoes while shopping in Hong Kong with Britney Spears and planned to wear them to a cocktail party in Grandma’s basement…”  Katie is perfectly willing to make up back stories for her tangible toys, but not for the virtual world she has created in The Sims. Somehow, the rules were more fixed and she wasn’t as inventive playing this video game as she would be playing with physical objects.

    So, I had to test this. Would my daughter respond differently?

    When I got home from work, we went up to her room and there I saw her Barbies and various stuffed animals posed in play on her bed. I asked her what they'd been playing. She wouldn't tell me, but it was obvious there was plenty of back story and make-believe going on.

    So then I suggested she play The Sims. She readily agreed. But first she needed to know which game I wanted to play. Of course, I didn't want to play any game; I just wanted to watch her play. But she explained that she'd created different characters and different worlds. We could play with the Glee family she'd made (in which Emma and Schuster are married, and so are Quinn and Finn). Or we could play with the girl character she made who's a movie star. Or the characters that she and her friend made that are loosely based on themselves, but are living their fantasy lives.

    "You mean, you didn't make a character that's you?" I asked.


    I had to insert a leading question here, since this was, after all, a sociology experiment.  "Oh. Don't most people make characters that are like them?"

    She shrugged. "Sometimes, but it's more fun to make up people you want to be."

    I agree. And I noticed that all of her scenarios included plenty of back story. So, Chuck Klosterman, maybe The Sims is a little more imaginative and voyeuristic than you thought. Maybe you're one of the few, rather than the majority, who plays out your own life virtually?  I don't know. I only tested one subject, but in your book, so did you. What I've discovered is that my research did not support your theories. But I'm always game for another experiment.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Greens Are The Old Greens

    I credit Food Network and all the other cable cooking channels for exposing us to the wide variety of leafy greens. Ten years ago I probably only ate spinach, and might have heard of collard greens, but now I find myself becoming quite the connosieur of leafy green vegetables and am surprised by their distinctive tastes and textures.

    Collard greens are delicious boiled for hours with ham hocks and maybe a little bit of onion. Some people add bacon fat. They cook the leaves down until they're so tender that they nearly fall apart. My step-mother's mother makes some mean collard greens, but the best I've ever had was at Mrs. B's restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. I took two quarts home with me upon that discovery.

    Kale is a new staple in our household, thanks to Rachael Ray. She taught us how to wilt them down into a pan of cut-up bacon strips (with some bacon grease intact). Then we add sundried cranberries and a liberal dash of nutmeg. It's wonderful.

    Swiss Chard was something we'd never experimented with before, but saw at a farmer's market. The farmer selling it gave us a recipe that entailed cutting the stalks up like celery and sauteing them with red onion and garlic. To that, add for wine, lemon juice, and parmesan cheese. Wilt down the Swiss chard leaves until tender. The result was an earthy sweet-and-sour flavor. We'll try that recipe again.

    Spinach is one dark green that I like raw or cooked. A nice spinach salad with hard-boiled eggs slices, bacon, mushrooms and tomato is perfect when I want something both hearty and light. But we also like wilted spinach in our pasta with sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and feta cheese. Funny, we usually have left over pasta but we've always picked out all the spinach.

    Mustard greens and turnip greens are next on our list. We've found some interesting recipes for these, one of which includes cornmeal and Bisquick. Sounds like a twist on southern cooking. Oughta be good.

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Make Way For Robert McCloskey Statues

    A few years ago when I was in Boston, I had hoped to show my daughter Nancy Schon's statue of the ducklings that were immortalized in Robert McCloskey's book Make Way for Ducklings. Both of my children loved this childhood classic and listened to the story again and again. Unfortunately, on our one day in Boston, it was miserably hot, we'd walked for hours on end, and I had a terrible headache. We did venture into the Public Gardens where the sculpture was erected, but we were on the opposite end, and didn't have the energy to drag our then six-year-old daughter around to find it, especially since she was content to splash in the wading pool and I just wanted to sit in the shade. Still, I wish I'd seen that sculpture.

    Then, I learned that Robert McCloskey was born in Hamilton, Ohio - practically right here in my hometown. I couldn't believe it! I'd had no idea that such an accomplished author/illustrator hailed from Hamilton. He's a two-time Caldecott winner, for Pete's sake!

    Further investigation lead me to discover that a sculpture honoring McCloskey's work had been commissioned here in his home town. I went looking for the statue and was sure I'd found it at the end of the bridge crossing the river where there is a sculpture of two flying mallards. The ducks were here!
    Nope. Wrong ducks.

    I've driven by the sculpture hundreds of time, assuming that this was Hamilton's Make Way for Ducklings representation. But then as I was walking through Hamilton, I finally read the placard. It has nothing to do with Make Way for Ducklings at all. This wasn't the McCloskey statue! It was actually across the river on Front Street. And though it wasn't a sculpture of Make Way for Ducklings, it was a sculpture created by the same woman who had created the Boston art piece.

    Lentil and his dog, Harmony, walking through Lentil Park in Hamilton, Ohio.
    Hamilton's statue depicts another of McCloskey's works: Lentil. It's the story of a boy who wanders around town playing his harmonica and meeting people. I can't help but agree that Lentil is much more appropriate for Hamilton than the ducklings that settled in Boston. Surely McCloskey had Hamilton in mind when he wrote it. In fact, it was probably loosely autobiographical; McCloskey played the harmonica, too.

    I still wish I'd seen the ducklings sculpture, but am thrilled to know that another piece of children's literature greatness is practically right here in my own backyard.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Remembering Keith

    Thursday marked the anniversary of the death of my son's best Air Force buddy. He was killed last August in a car crash while on leave visiting his parents. He was a beautiful, warm, friendly, likable young man. I think his death shook everyone to their cores.

    When it happened, my son thought his colleagues and staff sergeant were trying to play some warped prank on him. He couldn't believe that Keith was dead. It didn't make any sense. He was home visiting his parents in Ohio. Mac had just talked to him. It was the middle of the day. It couldn't be true.

    But it was.

    Nearly the entire squadron travelled up to Ohio for the funeral, caravaning in cars with their dress blues encased in protective plastic. Mac's commanding officer was kind enough to let Mac come home and stay with us since we're all in Ohio. They knew Mac needed to be with his family. They probably had no idea how much I needed to be with Mac.

    We sat at the kitchen table and had a family dinner. We talked about Keith. Mac called his best friend from high school and he came over, too. It was a time to cherish friendships. I refrained from completely latching onto Mac, but wanted to. More than ever before, I wanted to hold on tight.

    Early the next morning, Mac and I headed out to the visitation. The services would be held in a small country chapel in eastern Ohio three hours away from our house. Mac talked about Keith the whole time, telling me story after story about him. I'd met Keith a few times and really liked him. He was a great kid. My heart went out to his parents and the closer we got to the church, the more nervous I got. I felt guilty that I could stand in front of Keith's parents offering my condolences; lucky me, with my son beside me.

    Keith's parents were just as gracious and warm as he was. Still, I could not imagine their loss, and sat frozen in place as a slide show of Keith's childhood and teenage years played on a screen. I watched it four times. I felt I owed him that, and more.

    In the back of the church, 25 young men and women in blue stood at attention. Keith's visitation lasted four hours. They stood through the whole thing, honoring Keith. The next morning at the funeral, they stood there again. Most of the mourners thanked them for their service. A handful of the airmen spoke at his funeral, Mac among them. I sat alone toward the back, feeling out of place as a stranger, and so guilty that I still had my son.

    I cried during T.A.P.S. I started to feel hysterical during the 21-gun salute. A mantra played through my head, Don't ever let this happen to me. Don't ever let this happen to me. We were laying to rest a 24-year-old young man. Everything about it was wrong. Keith's death changed us.

    Now a year has passed. Mac and I have made two more visits to Keith's grave this year. I always insist on driving him, partly because I have this irrational fear of letting him drive out on those same country roads where Keith died. Partly because I still feel like paying my respects to Keith and his family provides some talisman against the same tragedy happening to me. But mostly I drive Mac there because I can. We have such wonderful conversations in the car. It is six hours of talking about everything. It is time that I get to spend alone with my son. I always feel guilty that Keith's parents no longer have moments like that with Keith, but I feel incredibly grateful that I still do, and will never take them for granted again. I treasure our trips to see Keith. I just wish we were visiting him instead of his grave. We all do.

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Answer: I Am Oscar Wilde

    Back of my tombstone at Pere Lachaise Cemeterie in Paris, France.

    Okay, so I was flamboyant, eccentric, and more than a little misunderstood. I had enemies, to be sure, but loved many. My life may have been short, but not so short that I am not remembered. As I once said,
    Life is too much important a thing ever to talk seriously about it. You may quote me on that.

    Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
    It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.
    We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
    A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
    A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
    Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
    The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.
    There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.
    Ah! Don't say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
    I can believe anything as long as it is incredible.
    It is very easy to endure the difficulties of one's enemies. It is the successes of one's friends that are hard to bear.
    I often take exercise. Why only yesterday I had breakfast in bed.
    A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.
    Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    Who Am I?

    I spent 2 years in prison doing hard labor after suing my lover's father. When I was released, I wrote a long poem about prison life.

    My childhood sweetheart married Bram Stoker.

    In 1887, I became the editor of The Lady's World magazine.

    I am quoted as saying: Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

    I converted to Catholicism on my deathbed.

    My headstone is covered with lipstick kisses.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Hotel Desk Clerk Moments

    My sister-in-law works part-time as a hotel desk clerk. I did that, too, about 20 years ago. We were reminiscing about some of the crazy moments that come with the job. The job itself has changed very little in the past twenty years; neither have the antics of the people checking in. Some of them are crazy.

    She works at a hotel in downtown Dayton, Ohio. There have been many prostitutes and drug dealers at her hotel. There were at mine, too, all those years ago at a hotel near Kings Island Amusement Park. She's related stories of that action, but here's my own favorite: one drug dealer left $3000 cash under his bedside lamp. The police found it. He never got it back.

    One guest at the Dayton hotel started lowering his hotel room's furniture out the window. Hotel clerks are usually warned every year when Gypsies are in the area to be alert that this might happen. And finally, it really did!

    I had a guy come into the hotel one night asking for a room. We were sold out, but he was frantic. He told me he'd taken a lot of crank and needed to crash. For about 10 minutes, I was afraid he was going to crash right there on the floor in front of me. I didn't have Security that night. It was a little scary, but he finally left.

    Another night I had an irate man who argued and argued with me that I surely had one room available. This happened a lot. People went to Kings Island but didn't make a hotel reservation and then were shocked when the nearest hotel with rooms available was 50 miles away. Desk clerks know; they routinely call all the other hotels that night to check availability. We are trained in customer service, after all. But this man refused to believe me. He snidely asked me what I'd do if the President of the United States showed up? I guess I would have told him he should have made a reservation.

    On another night, the fire alarms went off at about 2:00am. All the fire doors shut and all the guests congregated in the front lobby. We can't turn the alarms off. Only the fire department can do that. They came and checked the building, but the alarms continued to ring for about 25 minutes. It was deafening. I made coffee and put out snacks in the breakfast area. All the guests had to evacuate their rooms. Still, in the midst of the blaring sirens, pajama-clad guests, and three fire trucks with lights on outside, a couple came in and asked me if I had any rooms?  There was really only one thing I could say:  Smoking or non-smoking?

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Medical Care

    During my mission trip to Haiti in 2008, we had the options of helping with construction, working in the orphanage, assisting women in labor at the birthing center, or helping in the clinic. Most of us quickly found our niche, though the experience wasn't always what we expected.

    My friend Heather, a nurse here in the U.S., offered her skills in the clinic. They were desperate for help. The outdoor waiting area was packed with people suffering all types of maladies. They'd come from miles around, usually on foot, though a few were able to get rides. Heather walked into the one-room clinic intending to help for a few hours, finally emerging half a day later badly shaken. She'd done things in there that she'd never be expected to do in the States. She stitched up machete casualties. She lanced infectious boils. She tended to infected wounds. And she did it all without the benefit of adequate supplies. The volunteer doctor finally released her from duty, though he would continue for hours.

    Heather described the horror of it all. The sink was clogged and filled with germy, dirty, bloody, infectious water. She only had one pair of rubber gloves to wear. They protected her from exposure to germs, but didn't offer any sanitary protection from patient to patient. That bothered her tremendously, and rightly so. Sometimes it's the small things that get us, and this was the breaking point for her. She thought of all the rubber gloves worn for a few seconds and then tossed back in the U.S.. We all made a conscious decision to send medical supplies to the mission compound when we got home.

    One day in the clinic was enough for Heather. The following day we set out for the countryside only to find that her reputation preceded her. When we got to the small rural village, there was already a demand for her services. Our host asked if she could attend to some of the people too sick to leave their homes. Heather graciously agreed and looked through the medical supplies available to her before setting off on foot with our host.

    She treated infections and very sick babies. Her examining room consisted of nothing more than a baby held by his mother outside, or poking her head into the tiny hut that was someone's home. By the end of the day, Heather was shell-shocked, but serene. She knew she'd made a difference. Her medical skills had been tested and she'd discovered that she was more capable than she'd ever had the chance to be back home. We all admired her for bringing such valuable skills to an area that needed them so badly.  I know she planned to go back to Haiti and help again. I know they needed her.

    Monday, August 1, 2011

    The Mystery of the Woman in the Blue Car

    Billie sat on the porch with her aunts, pulling the stiff green sleeve off an ear of corn. She tugged again and grabbed a few fingersful of the silky skein. Most of the fragile threads broke and stuck to the corn. The few pieces of silk she did manage to pull off floated on the breeze and littered the porch. Billie wasn't very good at this. She watched her aunts skillfully shuck the corn in a few quick motions. They made it look so easy. Billie clutched another ear in her hand and grabbed half of the green sleeves and pulled. Silk flew everywhere.

    "There she is!" Kay yelled out.

    The three aunts brushed their corn husks to the side and walked to the edge of the porch as a car approached. Billie waited for the visitor to pull into the driveway, but the car drove on. Her aunts didn't even wave.

    "That's the third time today," Maxine said.

    "Something's fishy about the whole thing," Susan said as she sat back in her chair and resumed shucking. Billie patiently picked at the threads stuck between the kernels of smooth Indiana corn. She hoped she was cleaning her ears well enough to be eaten. It was taking her much longer than it was her aunts and anyone could tell which ears were Billie's if they looked at the pile. Her corn looked like it had frizzy hair on a humid day. Guiltily, she vowed to eat her cobs herself rather than subject her aunts to the misery of all that corn and silk between their teeth.

    "We've already talked to Jim about it," Maxine said. "He followed her. She went down to the firehouse, turned around, and drove back this way."

    Billie couldn't follow this conversation. She knew her aunts sometimes talked in sister-speak that only they understood, but this seemed like something else. "What are you talking about?"

    "Well, we've got a real mystery going on around here," Kay said.

    "Yes," Maxine chimed in. "Did you see that woman in the blue car who just drove by?"

    Billie nodded and furtively retrieved her ears of corn from the finished stack. She ran her fingers down the rows of kernels again, removing a few more threads of silk. "I saw the car. I didn't see who was in it."

    "It's a woman. She drives by here several times a day," Maxine said.

    "Every day," Kay added.

    "Every day," Maxine confirmed.

    Since Billie wasn't a country girl, she thought she must be missing something in this tale. "So?"

    "Well, Billie, don't you think that's odd?" Maxine asked. "I mean, what purpose does she have to even be on this road? No one knows her. She doesn't have any business out here."

    Billie's forehead furrowed. "You mean, you and your neighbors have talked about this?"

    "Well, yes!" Susan said. "We all want to know what she's doing out here."

    "Driving up and down the road -- " Kay said.

    "Every day, Billie. Every day. For years now."

    Now that they'd put it that way, Billie did think it was strange. There wasn't anything out on this road but a few farms with fields of corn. It wasn't a heavily trafficked road at all. It didn't connect any other roads. It was true that the only people who usually travelled down this way were on their way to visit one of the road's residents.

    "Jim followed her?" Billie asked.

    "Yes!" Maxine answered emphatically. "She goes the same way, down to the firehouse and back, four or five times a day. And what business does she have out here in the first place? She lives all the way out in Middletown."

    Billie ripped the sleeve off another ear of corn. "How do you know that?"

    "Jim followed her home," Susan said.

    "Um...don't you think that's a little extreme?" Billie asked her aunts. "You're making a big deal out of her being out here, but you think it's okay to follow her all the way home?"

    "Well, what's she doing out here? For all we know, she's watching our farms, ready to rob us."

    "Or maybe she killed someone and she's coming out here to make sure no one has discovered the body," Kay added.

    "Maybe she's looking for a lost dog or something," Billie offered.

    "For years, Billie? It's been years!"

    Billie put her ear in the basket of corn. "You've got a point."

    "Maybe she's lost," Kay said. "Or maybe she has dementia and she keeps driving out here because this is all she remembers."

    The three aunts sat in silence a moment, dreaming up possible scenarios and shucking the end of the corn. When they'd finished, Maxine rolled all of the discarded vegetation into the newspaper where they'd thrown it. Billie noticed that hers was the only chair with corn silk beneath it. Her aunts hadn't left a trace of their work around their chairs.

    Maxine carried the basket of corn cobs into the house and started the water. She came back outside with a bucketful of green beans to snap. The three aunts grabbed a handful and set to work.

    "She ought to be back by in about an hour," Kay said.

    "I'm telling you, Billie, we have a real live mystery out here."