Jan 102014

Given the financial means and the opportunity, would you allow your bullied teen to have plastic surgery to correct a problem?

Several teens bullied because of looks were the focus of NBC News stories recently.Dateline spotlighted four teens who sought plastic surgery to repair problems with various facial features.

Dateline shared the story of 15-year-old Renatta, bullied by her peers. Renatta was one of four low-income teenagers who applied for free plastic surgery through the Little Baby Face Foundation. Run by Dr. Thomas Romo, who directs facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery at Lenox Hill and the Manhattan Ear, Eye and Throat hospitals, the nonprofit treated children with deformities globally. Dr. Romo offered the charitable service of the nonprofit to American children.

Renatta, who has been home-schooled for the past three years, told NBC News, “They (bullies) were just calling me that girl with the big nose. It really just hurts. And you can’t get over it.”

Interestingly enough, three of the four children profiled on the show had facial abnormalities, which others might not perceive as such. Turns out that some children with very large noses, small eyes or large ears are outside the clinical norm for physical reasons. According to the show, a deviated or twisted septum in the nose can change the shape of the nose as well as the entire face.

Some professionals say quiet the bullies

There are many in the medical community who don’t agree that plastic surgery is the solution. Dr. Vivian Diller, a well-known author on the subject, told Dateline,

Are we saying that the responsibility falls on the kid who’se bullied, to alter themselves surgically? We really have to address the idea that there should be zero tolerance of bullying, and maybe we even have to encourage the acceptance of differences.

I had an immediate visceral reaction to this story, one that came from a place long forgotten. While I agree with Dr. Diller philosophically, that didn’t stop me from being bullied or ignored as a child, nor has it stopped the more aggressive bullies of today.

As a parent, I am fairly sure I would allow a teenage child to have cosmetic plastic surgery under certain conditions. Had I been offered the opportunity to change my nose in high school, I would have signed on the dotted line and been under anesthesia before you could say Bob Hope’s nose.

Before you throw your coffee mug at the screen, hear me out.

When my son was born and the nurse handed him to me, after making sure he was apparently healthy, I checked his nose. Would he have the McVay nose, a legacy from my family that my father and I and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins shared?

He did not have the nose, and I was grateful. Only minutes old, the shape of his nose, mouth, and chin immediately resembled his father and paternal grandmother. (Little did I know that the size of his nose would later be the least of my worries.)

Ignored, bullied, and feeling bad about myself

Author in seventh grade.

Author in seventh grade.

When I was in the seventh grade, the growth of my McVay nose outpaced the growth of the rest of me. While family members and friends will vehemently argue this point with me, I did not feel good about my looks.
Would You Let Your Child Get Elective Plastic Surgery? I Would!

Junior high is, of course, a terrible time for most children. As a reasonable adult, I now know that my looks were fairly typical, though marked by a huge nose, funky glasses, braces and the hideous shag hairdo of the day. Did I mention my nostrils were the size of two olives?

Don’t get me wrong. I was a blessed child in many ways with things much more important than looks, parents in a long-term successful marriage and the accouterments of a middle-class Middle American home. I had friends, but when it came to members of the opposite sex, I was mostly invisible and I blamed it on the McVay nose.

A friend, a few years older, broke her nose early in high school. She begged her parents for a plastic surgery repair. What resulted was a nose that better fit her face, and a leap in her self-confidence.

Does this all sound frivolous? Perhaps, but I contend it is no different than getting braces or dermatological treatment for severe acne.

My life has turned out well, and I rarely, if ever contemplate my nose. Recently I’ve been going through my parent’s 35mm slides from the 1950s through the 1970s. I’ve been surprised at how cute I was as a child before my Pinocchio syndrome set in.

Having a nose job at fourteen might not have changed a thing about my life — where the rubber meets the road on the issue of elective plastic surgery for children takes me right back to that moment when I held my only child for the first time.

Any parent or any person who has dearly loved a child who has been bullied will understand this.

While I was so worried about my son’s physical looks at his birth, what I did not know then was that he had autism. Diagnosed at age two, he spent the first years of elementary school in special education classes. He returned to the classroom of typically developing students and was diagnosed with Tourette’s a year later.

Certainly, all of us have challenges in life. As parents, we hope that any challenges our child has will built character and resilience in him. For the children profiled on Datelineand millions of other across the country, that is not always the case.

Our son was bullied in junior high, pushed in lockers, mocked for the cadence of his speech, and generally made miserable. He was in Boy Scouts, and years later I learned his troop friends went to bat for him, getting rid of the bullies and helping restore his self-confidence.

Today our son is an adult, a college-educated man, who overcame many challenges to be where he is today, working in his field in a major east coast city. He still has challenges, as we all do. Had I been able to do anything to help him more when he was younger, I would have done it — surgery included.

Is it our job to judge others?

I don’t think it is fair to minimize or judge negatively what people perceive to be challenges in their lives.

For the last decade, I’ve advocated for persons with disabilities through a local rehabilitation agency. I’ve met some of the bravest people, young men who became quadriplegics through accidents, children who battle deafness, adults with post-polio syndrome, multiple sclerosis and ALS. I understand how a parent of someone with a profound disability could read this story and brush it aside.

But I also think when you appeal to the parent in all of us, we understand. We would do anything, within our ability, to make life easier for our children. And when that is not possible, we stand beside them physically and emotionally, helping them to discover inner strength.

Published January 10, 2014 at BlogHer. Please comment there.

Jan 042014

Flooded with cheery holiday lights, St.John’s sanctuary is a beautiful setting on this day before the Christian celebration of Epiphany, twelfth night.

A life-size manger scene and two towering Christmas trees fill the front of the room.  Above the altar are two massive east-facing windows.

The trees outside the oversized sanctuary windows are devoid of foliage, and rough against the dreary winter sky. I feel such a contrast between the warm, serene church and markings of a cold January day.

Today is Tommy’s funeral day.

Tommy was Jessica’s older brother. As a second grader in a new school, my son gravitated to Jess on the first day, and they were good buddies until high school.

When Junior crossed over from Webelos to Boy Scouts, Tommy was one of the big kids.

When Junior fell into the creek on his first camping trip, Tommy pulled him out. He helped him dry off and see that it was not a big deal.  They laughed, and my son’s confidence grew.

Tommy pulled a lot of other little guys out of many creeks, real or metaphoric.

The thing about Tommy is that he was not a bully himself; he had the biggest heart of any boy I ever knew,

His immense heart meshed with the cheesiest grin – and he managed to look out for the little guys and let the mean kids know he meant business, all with a smile.

On one particularly distressing day in seventh grade, Junior was stuffed in a locker by the Usual Suspects.  Tommy pulled him out and from then on, he had Junior’s back.

Without question, Tommy was the most popular of the Boy Scouts in his troop, with his leaders and friends. If there was a project, Tommy was the first one there and the last to leave. Because of his large frame, he usually did the most work.

Once the troop was building a deck for the local fire station, an Eagle project which took weeks.  Many of the boys helped, giving a weekend here or there.  Tommy came weekend after weekend and did a man’s work. It wasn’t his Eagle project.   He was fourteen.  The firefighters gave Tommy a fishing pole in recognition of his diligent work at the other boy’s Eagle ceremony.  He was humbled. Even then, it was obvious to everyone Tommy was raised to work hard and not expect a reward.

The oldest of three children, Tommy helped his single mother from a young age. If he didn’t know how to fix something, he learned.

I had not seen Tommy in a while.  Boy Scouts grow up and become men and go their separate ways. My son has not lived at home for five years and lives in a city a thousand miles away.

Last Sunday night Junior, who was home for a few days, was in the basement hanging out with a friend that he still sees from his childhood.  This young man, a year younger than Junior, lived across the road and shared the same Scout troop.

Like Junior, he was one of the “little guys” that Tommy bird-dogged.

Somebody knocked hard on the door, and I was surprised because it was a snowy, lazy Sunday and I couldn’t figure out who would be coming over on such a cold night.

It was Jessica, now married and a mother, with her husband.

She told me, my husband, and Tommy’s two Scout brothers the horrible news that Tommy was dead, killed early that morning in a horrific car accident.

After hanging with friends, Tommy was coming home around 2 a.m. and missed a curve on an icy road. His truck crashed into a house and killed an older couple asleep in their beds. Tommy’s truck went through the house, turned upside down, and killed him instantly.

Did he confuse the accelerator with the brake? Was he drinking? Was he speeding? How much ice was there? Was it black ice?  Was it visible? Did he fall asleep? Why did this happen? Did this actually happen?

We did not ask these questions to his beloved sister because it did not matter on that evening.

Three people are dead. One of them was the kind, beautiful boy who pulled my son out of a creek on a 110 degree July day.

Now in the church, three altar boys light the candles.  The congregation stands and faces the narthex as the altar boys lead the processional, one carrying a wooden cross almost larger than he.

The crisp, clear soprano of the cantor rises above the congregation, as six young men in suits and one odd fellow in a striped polo shirt accompany their friend on his last trip down the familiar aisle.

Behind the silver casket walks the family.

Father sprinkles Holy Water on the casket, and then the family spreads the white funeral pall over Tommy’s casket, a linen cloth that represents his  Holy Baptism twenty-plus years ago.

I’m surrounded by members of our Scout family in the center rear of this huge church. Two young men near me were in the same troop as Tommy and my son; both are outstanding young men making a life for themselves.

In my mind’s eye, I still see them as I do Tommy, perennially seventh graders, all scraped knees and bad haircuts and tan Scout shirts stuffed haphazardly into belted green pants.

Tommy has many friends here. His life was more than the eight years in Scouts; many young people come to honor him on his funeral day as one thousand people did last night at the wake.

I hear the comforting words of the Mass.  Even as a non-Catholic I can appreciate  the familiar liturgy and prayers.

I pray this familiarity brings comfort to Tommy’s family, something in their family life that has not changed forever.

The recessional duplicates the processional, but is so final and is so much sadder if it could be any sadder.

As a Christian, I believe in free will.  I do not believe in a God that plays favorites, and prefers the Patriots over the Packers.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, God created a beautiful, random, chaotic universe or multiple universes within multiple black holes, and in those endless stars,  all choices have consequences.

I do not believe things always happen for a reason, and when someone tells me that I want to punch them in the face. I do believe that God gives us the inner strength to deal with what comes to us.  At least, I hope that is a case.

In the end, what we have is hope.  Two thousand years ago, when the Magi looked in the sky and saw that lone, shining star, what drove them to meet the Prince of Peace was hope.

I pray to God that Tommy’s family can find a reason for hope, and will also find solace in the Prince of Peace.

Jan 042014

Despite all the attention southwestern Indiana received on the Weather Channel, my slice of the Hoosier state did not get what I call a blizzard Christmas week.

Thirty miles to the west of there was a State of Emergency and a small town just across the Wabash River in southern Illinois boasted a record 18” of snow.

A network so desperate for ratings that they called the storm “Euclid,” overhyped the storm in my area. At my house, we received about four to five inches of wet-pack snow.

Do you call this a blizzard?

Let me tell you about a real blizzard, way back in the winter of 1978.

I sound like my father, who reportedly walked two miles to school in three feet or snow, or three miles to school in two feet of snow.

What difference does it make?

He really took the bus, the jitney, the hack or whatever they called it back in the olden days.

The Blizzard of 1978 started on January 25, and left its mark on snowstorm history. As a junior in college, I worked for minimum wage on a student publication. Every other Wednesday was payday, and my compatriots and I cashed our measly checks before heading to some, shall we say, “eclectic” place to eat before hitting Bob’s Bottle Shoppe.

Five of us went to Mister Happy Burger in Elwood. Don’t ask me why. I can’t answer. I don’t really know.

Why do the swallows return to Capistrano? Because they can.

The drive over  took about 45 minutes. We never batted an eye at the widening gyre of the oncoming storm. As the state highways narrowed with the drifting snow, we kept on our quest in a big, rear wheel drive sedan owned by our friend B.

The five of us ordered our greasy fat food and milkshakes and ate our bi-weekly repast.

The first clue we might be in some trouble came when two people rode through the drive-up window on horseback.

Even in Indiana farm country seeing two people on horseback at a drive-up window is strange as in “four horsemen of the apocalypse” unusual.

Few cars remained outside the restaurant, only the five of us and the diner’s employees on the inside. Time to hustle back.

Back to campus in whiteout conditions, the usual 45-minute trip took a little less than three hours.

Did we return to our homes immediately? Of course not. We were newly 21 years old, and stupid. We stopped at Bob’s Bottle Shop for our most needed supplies, vodka, for the purely medicinal purpose of keeping us warm.

The winds howled and blew for several days. The snow drifted around the glass “fishbowl” entrance of my dorm. Classes were cancelled Thursday and Friday, and then for three days more the following week.

In a large dormitory across campus, the front door kept blowing open. This blew snow right up into the dining room reserved for international students. The food service transferred those students to another dining hall within the complex.

This dining hall was the one my future husband and his friends used. Our friend M didn’t want the huge lines caused by the additional 150 students eating in his dining room. He called the dining room manager and changed it back.

Not one to leave a job uncompleted, M set up two directional signs for the students of Shively Hall. As far as we know, he never got caught and enjoyed the stress-free shorter line of Hurst Hall dining.

My car was buried at the Catholic Student Center for three or four weeks. I caught a ride home about five or six weeks later, and the interstate highway still resembled a tunnel with snowdrifts on either side.

Now, that was a blizzard.

Published January 1, 2014 at BlogHer. Also to be published as an excerpt in my new book, A Piece of Her Heart, coming out in 2014.

Jan 032014

Much to the shock — and possible dismay — of fashion editors everywhere, last week Esquire named Pope Francis as “Best Dressed Man of 2013.”

Max Berlinger in Esquire‘s Style section noted “Pope Francis’ sartorial decisions have subtly signaled a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church.”

The LA Times dubbed the entire thing with “the whiff of a publicity stunt” and quoted church notables defending Francis’ predecessor expensive, hand-made Italian red leather shoes as a salute to “the blood of martyrs.”

I think there’s a deeper message here, one that reaches out to the everyman in the world.

Do you know him?  I have an every man in my life.  He’s gone about ten hours a day, sleeps in pajama bottoms with picture of Homer Simpson on them, makes me coffee and cinnamon rolls on Sunday mornings, and wears the same black, orthotic-looking shoes that the Holy See wears.

While my guy has never gone in for ermine robes or fancy gold jewelry (except for the leisure-suit years when he wore a gold chain around his neck), he can relate to the simple choices of the pontiff.

Does the Holy See refuse to wear khakis and chooses pants with a wide waist-band reinforced on the inside?

Does the Holy See mate his own socks?  If so, does he buy only black socks that are all alike so he is not confused in the mating?

I hope my guy can learn a few things from the Pope.  For example, when Pope Francis travelled to South America last year, he  fit right in.

This is unlike my husband who wore an Allis Chalmers hoodie from Rural King when we ate lunch at the fanciest restaurant in Lugano, Switzerland.

I’m guessing that His Holiness doesn’t wear tee shirts at all, or if he does they are those vee-necked kind like my father wears under his regular shirts.  I just can’t see the head of the Christian church in the world wearing a tee shirt he’s had since college that has a huge pink “Mister Bubble” on the front and a big hole under the arm.

I’m glad the new Pope chose to ditch the red leather shoes. His humility does make him more accessible, even to the non-Catholics of the world.  Maybe I’ll mail him a nice Homer Simpson shirt for his collection.

Pope Francis offers hope to every Rockport-footed male out there.

Dec 312013

I’ve been obsessed with the Titanic since I was a child and saw “A Night to Remember” in reruns. A White Star Line poster hangs in my living room. And I’ve visited many exhibits, read every book or article.  Obsession with disasters might not be the healthiest habit, but I know millions of people join me in fascination with the great ship’s journey.

As we ferried across the unusually placid Irish Sea toward Belfast, I thought of the HMS Titanic. Constructed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, more than a hundred years ago, the Titanic launched for her maiden and last voyage here on April 10, 1912.

Were the waters of the Irish Sea choppy, as usual, not calm like today? What did crew members think about leaving home for Southampton, England, Cherbourg, France, and ultimately, the North Atlantic beyond?

Anyone interested in the Titanic  will relish a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The city is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, after decades of religiously-motivated violence. As the building site for the HMS Titanic, Belfast opened an architecturally and technologically stunning tribute to the fabled lost ship in 2012. The opening of the museum came 100 years after the sinking in 1912.

The 150,700 square foot Belfast Titanic museum—whether first seen by air or on foot—steals your breath and your heart.  I could say it “makes your heart go on,” but that would be incredibly cheezy and I’m not a particular fan of Celine Dion.

From above, the building resembles a white star, a clever architectural nod to the White Star Line.  Thousands of 3-D aluminum plates reflect the northern capital’s long days of sunlight as well as the glimmering pools surrounding the base.

Industrialized Belfast was a global shipbuilder for centuries. The multi-level museum is the crown jewel in the Titanic Quarter, a diamond-like façade, reminiscent of the ship’s majestic bow. The museum is moments away from the Harland & Wolff slipways where the hulking boat was built and launched.

Today, the SS Nomadic berths there. She is the last surviving vessel, commissioned by the White Star Line in 1911. The Nomadic ferried passengers to larger White Star Line ships. She came back to Belfast in 2006, restored to former glory as part of the Titanic Quarter.

Visitors to the Belfast Slough area should plan a full day there, seeing the Titanic Museum and accompanying sites. While the other sites are impressive and unforgettable, allow at least four hours in the extensive museum. Even visitors familiar with traveling Titanic shows in the States and the Nova Scotia Maritime exhibit will require hours for the complexity and breadth of the exhibits. Northern Ireland touts the museum as the “world’s largest collection about the Titanic.” (Many of the survivors came to Nova Scotia, as well as many of the bodies discovered.)

Starting in the massive atrium (with all the usual tourist accoutrements including an overpriced gift shop), guests move up  a 124-step escalators through the vast openness of the central atrium. Many aspects of the museum, including the now-iconic outdoor visage and the atrium, reveal the size and scope of the great ship.

This area is a traditional museum space, with exhibits highlighting the Belfast of the second decade of the 20th century. From the beginning of your journey through Belfast, one cannot miss the pride of the Ulster region.

Moving up two levels, visitors encounter a ride similar to the Peter Pan ride at Disney Parks. Hanging from a small cubicle, visitors traverse through a replica of the powerful Harland & Wolff Shipyard. Work started on the massive boat on March 3, 1909, and Harland & Wolff had as many as 3,000 men working on the ship during the three years of construction. (The ride does not accommodate individuals in wheelchairs or scooters, and is easily bypassed.)

The real “money page” of the museum is on the stunning fourth floor and its galleries. Despite Americans’ familiarity with James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic,” standing inside a virtual ship is mind-blowing. Screens in three directions surround the viewer as high definition cameras move throughout a virtual replica of the Titanic on her fated voyage. Transported from stem to stern, visitors experience the ship as passengers did, from steerage up to first class and the now familiar grand staircase. The experience is humbling, startling and memorable.

Near the always-crowded virtual screens are some replica cabins with holographic images. Use of holograms gives the exhibits an ethereal look—visitors know that the Titanic only experienced its maiden voyage. We intrinsically know what happens to those who sailed; yet, seeing the reality of these passengers as holograms enhances reality.

My  family of five pondered how visitors move from the euphoria of the shipbuilders and first passengers to the horrid reality of shipwreck. I lingered over mementoes—including a precious menu from the last lunch served in first class hung in a tiny frame by itself.

We snapped photos by replicas of the surprisingly large lifeboats. The twenty lifeboats the Titanic had that night could not accommodate the 2,223 passengers on board. Only 1,178 people used the boats. The lifeboats were a grim reminder of what was yet to come.

No spoiler here, though the museum uses all the senses to recreate the terrible events in the northern Atlantic that began before midnight on April 14, 2012 and ended with the sinking of the gargantuan ship later in the early morning hours of April 15.

The visitor moves down a level to explore the immediate aftermath of the sinking as well as examine the myths and legends perpetuated for a century. The museum boasts this is the largest collection of official reporting about the Titanic; touch screens allow visitors to get detailed information about specific questions.

A large exhibit shares the playbills and posters from the many theatrical and television productions about the Titanic – including “A Night to Remember” —  as well as featuring the ship and its legends in popular culture.

The Titanic story, however, did not end in 1912, and neither does the museum. Explorer Robert Ballard discovered Titanic and her relics on the bottom of the north Atlantic in 1985. The museum gained access to exceptional high-definition footage that runs continuously in the two-story theatre.

The Titanic Belfast web site advises visitors to pre-order tickets online. Tickets are cheaper online than at the door, though a £1 fee is added. Prices are about £16 for adults and £8 for children, with family packages available.

Published at BlogHer Dec. 21, 2013. Please comment there.

Dec 302013

Year end is often a time of reflection, a time to regroup and make new plans. I rarely make resolutions for the future; I’m more inclined to study the past.

A reader recently asked me why I write so much about the past. That’s a fair question. I’ve been interested in history – in the micro and macro sense – since I was a child.

My maternal grandmother tracked genealogy on both sides and bequeathed me family documents and photographs. Each of these relics is a treasure – a puzzle piece in the family story of immigrants who came to a new country. On my mother’s side that journey started in England and Germany and ended in northeastern Indiana.

My parents took my brother and me to many historic sites when we were children. How better to understand the impact of the Civil War than stand in the cemetery where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address?

My family story is no better or worse or different than thousands of other immigrant families who came to Indiana.  Knowing our past can teach us much about ourselves and our world. Knowing the challenges that came from both sides of my family and how they overcame them is a great object lesson for today.

My ancestors came to Indiana behind a team of yoked oxen from the United Kingdom via Pennsylvania. I often think of that when we drive out east to visit our son. The mountainous areas of West Virginia don’t threaten two individuals in a small SUV. Imagine going over that terrain in a wagon behind oxen. Perhaps my ancestors felt they had no other choice than to push on; perhaps what was gained in Indiana was greater than what was lost in Europe. Their ultimate resolve makes me think I can accomplish anything.

A visitor to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., notes that “what’s past is prologue” is engraved on the base of a statue.

From Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” the full quote is, “And by that destiny to perform an act whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge.” Antonio was referring to a murder; in the centuries since the play was written the quote has come to mean that history can teach us what’s ahead.

None of us can know what the future holds. I’m not sure I would want to know, given a magic crystal ball. However, we can perhaps find a clue in our past and learn interesting stories along the way.

May your new year be filled with endless treasure!

Dec 272013

If you are planning on taking your children to
“Saving Mr. Banks” to recreate the feeling you had after seeing “Mary Poppins,” — forget it.

“Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t for the Janes and Michaels of today. I believe it is for us — the aging Baby Boomers — who were the age of the Banks children when the Poppins movie premiered in 1964.

Based on a PL Travers book, the original “Mary Poppins” movie is considered by many one of the top children’s movies. For those weaned on the pixel artistry in today’s animated flicks, Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews giant leap into a  chalk-drawn sidewalk doesn’t impress. In 1964, it was revolutionary.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is the  fictionalized story about Walt Disney’s quest to make the P.L. Travers book into a movie.  Emma Thompson plays the fussy, uptight, angry author  who flies to sunny Los Angeles from grey, dreary London to work on the screenplay.  During her two-weeks in LA, Travers does everything  to thwart the movie as a musical and steal the thunder of the writer and musical directors.  (We all know the outcome of that battle, and have multiple earworms from the award-winning “Mary Poppins” songs.  I’ll just leave it at that, in a most delightful way.)

Paul Giamatti makes the most of a recurring small role as her driver. Tom Hanks, who put on a pound or two and certainly had some cheek enhancements, is  good as Walt Disney. As my  fellow Baby Boomer husband said after the movie, “It’s difficult to play someone convincingly that so many in the audience saw for years on television.”

Interwoven into the story are scenes from Travers’ dramatic childhood in Australia, her fragile mother, her alcoholic father, and the last-minute appearance of an aunt who comes to make order out of chaos.  Spit.  Spot.

While it’s hard to know what is fiction and what is fact, the movie is about the past.  Anyone over thirty will find a piece of themselves in many of the characters as we all have a past.  The question the movie poses is — are we still living with our past?

The making of “Mary Poppins” is almost secondary to the plot going on inside PL Travers as she ponders how much control of the project to give up to the talented writers and musicians.

I said, “almost secondary.”  If it were a Broadway show, the end of the first act torch song would be “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”  But no spoilers.

The musical score is one of the best things about this movie.  Listen closely and you’ll hear “Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go” under conversation in an early scene.  The score helps the plot flow through several scenes that I found unbelievable, including one  where Disney takes Travers to Disneyland.  Implausible to believe that the Unhappiest Woman in the United Kingdom visited the Happiest Place on Earth.

The movie lasts exactly two hours — I thought there were several possible endings before the real ending, but my family disagreed.  They felt each scene after the movie debuted at the old wonderful Grauman’s Chinese Theatre tied the backstory from Australia to the California part.  Note: some of the scenes from Australia are why I don’t think it is a movie appropriate for children.

The movie is worth whatever your village holiday rate is — probably up a dollar or two to celebrate the season. We were afraid the theater would be packed; there was a long line, all waiting to see “Frozen.”

I did not read the PL Travers book, but I was seven-and-a-half when I saw the movie; I remember everything about the day I saw “Mary Poppins” in a theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Palm Sunday 1965 was a memorable day for other reasons, but it also seered the memory of the movie into my personal archive.

That day hundreds of tornadoes swept across the Midwest and killed dozens of Hoosiers and residents in nearby states.

We saw the first matinee of the afternoon, singing and dancing to the magic on the screen. I had never seen anything quite like it.  The colors were sharper; the animation wasn’t like Saturday morning cartoons but woven right in with the live actors.  The set — a word I didn’t know at seven-and-a-half — stuck with me until I went to London in 2011.  I was thrilled to see streets that looked like Cherry Tree Lane.

The Occupy movement closed down St. Paul’s Cathedral for the first time since World War II, and I was heartbroken at not being able to sit on the “Tuppance-a-Bag” steps.  (I am aware that my little fantasy was probably filmed on a soundstage in Buena Vista, California, but let me have this.)

I didn’t see the movie again until I rented a Betamax version years later. I remembered all the songs because  my parents bought me an album of “Marne Nixon Sings Mary Poppins” with music by the Sherman brothers.  Marne Nixon is the soprano who sang for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”  (Julie Andrews originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, a play which was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion.) Nixon also sang back-up for Andrews in the movie.

Published December 27, 2013 at BlogHer and chosen as a Featured Member Post and an Editor’s Pick. Please comment there.

Dec 262013

My favorite moment in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is when Mitty  (played by Ben Stiller) and an elusive photographer (played by Sean Penn) watch a rare snow leopard in the Himalayas.  Penn’s character explains to Mitty the  beautiful snow leopard is often called the “ghost cat” because he is rarely seen.  When Penn doesn’t take a picture, Mitty asks why and Penn explains  sometimes he just wants to be in the present.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” reminds us to live in our own beautiful moments, in the reality of the present, in our own lives. We may never climb in the Himalayas and witness a rare snow leopard, but Walter Mitty takes us on a journey in this film — both real and imagined — to places we can go.

Directed by Stiller, the dark comedy  is a remake of a 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye, that was loosely based on a 1939 James Thurber short story.

Mitty’s daily life is so mundane  he’s become a  daydreamer, prone to flights of fancy in his own mind. He sees an attractive woman, and becomes a superhero in his mind, rescuing her three-legged dog from a fire.

In reality, he is  a negative assets manager for “Life” magazine, a ironic  title that stirs up the imagination.  He works in the bowels of the Time and Life Building, processing and cataloguing  image negatives from “Life’s” famous photographers.

Shortly after meeting a new “transition team” at work, Mitty is summoned to a floor meeting. Unpleasant human resource hit men— the  “transition team”— tell the crowd of nervous employees  the magazine has been acquired. Soon, “Life” will publish its last issue, and many of the employees will be let go.

Mitty has worked with the photographer Sean O’Donnell, who leaves Mitty some negatives for the last cover of “Life,” what O’Donnell calls a “quintessential picture.”

Mitty is distraught; the special negative is missing. What Mitty discovers about life in his search to find the missing negative is quintessentially positive. But, that would spoil the plot, the adventure and being in the moment.

Kristin Wiig plays Mitty’s love interest, a single mom who works in the same department. And comedian Patton Oswald adds comic relief to this dark comedy as a representative of eHarmony, the dating site.  How to updating the story to  present day from a 1930s short story and a 1940s movie? Using eHarmony was a wonderful thread of today’s new dating normal in the film was genius and works well to advance the story.

God love Shirley MacLaine. She gives a strong but small supporting performance as Edna Mitty, Walter’s sweet mother. MacLaine was born in 1934, and whether her aged face is her own or enhanced, it is a joy for all aging women to see a superstar let herself be shown as an aging woman.

As the movie progresses, Mitty daydreams less and steps out of the clouds onto the solid ground of reality in some stunning, show stopping venues. Surely the Icelandic government has paid someone off. We’re ready to leave for Iceland on our next trip, what a gorgeous place.

One particular scene has Mitty longboarding down a mountain road  into a glorious valley that could be from “Lost Horizons,” Capra’s 1930s film about finding Shangri-La.

I recommend “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” though I’m not sure it’s Oscar-worthy with competition like “American Hustle” out the same week.  It’s a solid film with good casting, wonderful scenery, and all the knots are tied up neatly at the end.

Published December 26, 2013 at BlogHer. Please comment there.

Dec 192013

image from kidzworld

Except for the periodic manic episodes caused by more than one daily venti skinny mocha, I’m a reasonably happy positive person. I’ve written numerous essays on gratitude and in general I have a thankful attitude.

But there are some issues about this season of the year that really tick me off and steal my hard won joy to the world.  Here goes in no particular order.

1. I’m a Christian and Christmas is a Christian holiday. If I want to say Merry Christmas to other Christians, why does anyone care?  If I know a friend celebrates the Festival of Lights, I’ll say Happy Chanukah.  I am not going to wish anyone  a Happy Festivus as it is a made-up holiday.  (I know there are people who take “Seinfeld” as gospel, but that’s not my problem.)

This is my faith.  This is what I believe.  It’s not like celebrating, say, Arbor Day.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, who was born in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.  Yes, I also realize there were palm trees  instead of snow, and that Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25. And he was a Jew, and probably had dark skin.  Now get over yourself and move on.  And, by the way, Merry Christmas.

2.  The Post Office seems unfamiliar with the concept of gift-giving.  Today I accompanied my husband to the post office where we mailed four large packages and several mailing envelopes.  Our village P.O. has three windows.  Here’s a quiz:  how many windows were open at noon six days before Christmas?  If you said, “ONE,” you are correct!  I cannot wait for that three-cent postage increase in 2014!  And I’m so happy that we’re pre-funding all the retirements for people long after I’m dead.  Next year: Smoke Signals for Christmas cards.  And, by the way, I always mail my cards right after Thanksgiving, but I swear I’m never doing it again…..  (Yes, it is ironic that I lack Christian charity in the mailing line.)

3.  Regular Songs that Turn into Christmas Songs.  Okay, this annoys me. When did “Celebrate Me Home” and “My Favorite Things” become Christmas songs?  Why not just turn other songs into Christmas songs, like “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees?” Why not “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma?  That’s a heckuva song.  Makes no sense to me.

4.  Most people say they hate holiday letters.  People I send cards to fall into three camps:

  • Respond with joy, glee, and jumping around to our Christmas letter, and send one in return, which I enjoy reading. I like knowing that you’ve become a Franciscan brother in your seventies, or climbed Denali, or managed to raise four children and get them out of the house, educated and into meaningful jobs.  (All these are from actual 2013 holiday letters.)
  • Send a card but only sign their names.  How much work does it take to write “Stanley graduated from Harvard and Aunt Mabel was choked to death by a Burmese python?”  Yes, I do believe there should be an exemption for those with arthritis hands.
  • Don’t respond in any way whatsoever.  No email.  No card. No phone call.  Nothing.  My husband insists I used something called “The Three Year Rule,” which means that if a person hasn’t contacted us in three years, they are OFF THE LIST.  No Christmas letter from us, no perky mid-year note, certainly NOT IN THE WILL.  Off the list. Sometimes it is hard to accept; time passes and sometimes people just aren’t friends anymore.  It’s really nobody’s fault, but it is sad and annoying.

5.  The radio stations that play only the “novelty” Christmas songs.  First of all, there’s a difference between a Christmas “song” and a Christmas “carol.”  A carol is, I believe, a religious song such as “Adeste Fidelis” , while a song is a song like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or as I heard on an Evansville station this morning, “The Christmas Snake.”  During any given season, the first time you hear “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” it’s funny.  The next 346 times, not so funny.

6.   The last one is pretty serious.  Well, the first one was pretty serious as well.  Death sucks.  Cancer sucks.  Heart disease and lung disease sucks.  I’m 56 so I’ve known some loss, but I am astonished each year that goes by how many more people I know and love walk into the Light.  The Light is a good place, I believe. But those who remain miss those who are gone, terribly. The high expectations set by the media and the holiday hype pound loss repeatedly  into people’s heads like an anvil into the Roadrunner.

I’ve had multiple conversations with dear friends this year who have lost loved ones. No amount of preparation can ready a person for the loss of one so dear. And frankly, even if you have experienced great personal loss, it is very difficult to step into another’s shoes. Grief is like a thief in the night, stealing from hither and yon and different for every family.

The high expectations set for the holidays are wrong. That is not the message of Christmas.  In the end, we won’t remember that we heard “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs 187 times, or that we finally got our iPad this year, or that there was a long line at the Post Office.

What we remember is what is at the heart of the Christmas story — and that, my friends, is love.  And love — unlike our frail human bodies — never dies. And there’s nothing Grinchy at all about that.

Merry Christmas.  Move along now; nothing else here to see.

Dec 172013

The official start of winter is still days away, yet most of Indiana is cold and snow covered. Even my town in southwestern Indiana, which rarely gets the big snows, experienced an early December storm.

Last week was the kind of week that, in 1982, made me escape Indiana for the warmer weather of Pinellas County, Florida. Nineteen eighty-two brought multiple weather horrors to northeastern Indiana. Snow and ice pelted us for weeks, followed by the inescapable rise of Fort Wayne’s three rivers. Then, the 100-year-flood arrived.

I worked for Indiana-Purdue at Fort Wayne in University Relations. If managers were unavailable, I arrived early and called school cancellations to the local radio stations. The process then required using a special password—frequently changed so students couldn’t figure it out and call in their own cancellation.

My apartment was two miles from campus, and I was fortunate enough to have a garage. There’s a caveat, however. I couldn’t afford a garage door opener.  The garage went unused in the winter.

The inevitable west winds blew several feet of snow against the garage door. No city slow plow rounded the corner, with garage access behind my building.

This meant I usually left my stylish, suave 1981 maroon Chevette in on-street parking overnight, and shoveled it out, before traversing on the plowed front street.

Show me a person who likes to shovel snow, and I’ll show you someone who has a big tractor with a super-sized blade.

That winter did me in. I found a job in Clearwater, Florida, and I moved away, gray kitty in tow.

Six years later I was back with a husband, a canary, and the same gray kitty.

I am a Hoosier, and no amount of warmed blood and sugary-soft white sand between my toes will change that. It is, however, my birth right to complain about it.

Maybe it isn’t such a bad idea for the world to just stop now and then. I’m not suggesting we all move to an ice hut without heat or power, but recapturing some of the joy of a snow day in hearts as hard as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch might not be a bad idea.

Cold weather brings esoteric joys to adults, also. How about a warm, homemade hot chocolate (not from a paper bag with a mix) from the real thing?  Steaming in a favorite cup is best, with just a touch of peppermint schnapps for extra heartiest against the cold.  If the enhanced hot chocolate doesn’t work for you, how about a big bowl of homemade vegetable soup? Nothing tastes better than hot broth laced with carrots, potatoes, celery, peas and corn on a cold day.

May your holidays and your heart be warm with the love of family and friends.

Dec 132013

Tomorrow is the Newtown anniversary — a haunting, horrible day that America must never forget. I intended to write about it today. As I sat down, I turned on the television.

There’s an active shooter in a Colorado school. Hundreds of high school students are marching out of the school with their hands up — a protocol designed so that potential shooters won’t pull a gun in the crowd.  Certainly not a typical afternoon at an American school.  Or is it?

Nothing has changed.  And I’m mad about it, and I don’t know what to do, how to help. I don’t totally fault the guns,  nor do I totally fault the failure of our healthcare system in dealing with the mentally ill. It’s complicated. But, damn it, mentally ill young men cannot shoot up a school and potentially kill and injury dozens if they have no access to a firearm.

This past March, I wrote this:

When will it happen again? Will I be a victim when I am volunteering as I did this morning at our local rehabilitation center? Or will it be my husband at the university? Will it be our son, interning on Capitol Hill? Or my nephew in his Big Ten university classroom?  Will it be my father, listening to his Representative at his senior center?

Last year Americans experienced 12 mass shootings.  When the last one happened at Newtown, CT, and 26 people, including 20 young children, were gunned down in a public school, the phrase of “never again” rang for a few weeks.

This week, U.S. Senator Harry Reid announced that the Senate will focus on other priorities. Today if you listen to the 24/7 punditocracy, the assault weapons bill is dead despite the hard work of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for whom this is personal.  If you are too young to remember or didn’t see Sean Penn in “Milk,” Senator Feinstein was the San Francisco Board of Supervisors president when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in 1978.  Feinstein discovered Milk’s body.

Who is to blame for the untimely death of this bill?  Is it the right, the NRA, or the Democrats who won’t get on board?  The Senate–which the last time I looked was flying the Blue Flag above the Red Flag–lacks twenty votes to pass it.

Our own Indiana junior Senator, the Democrat who beat Richard Mourdock, will apparently vote against the assault weapon bill. Senator Donnelly holds an A rating from the NRA.

If you’d asked any American last December if now is the time to ban high capacity magazines or pass legislation for universal registration, most would have said yes.  Who could have believed after the horror of Newtown that a new gun bill would be dead on arrival just three months later?

Yet CNN posted the following several days ago, “A new national poll suggests that support for major restrictions on guns may be fading, three months after the horrific shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut.”

Although a majority of Americans favored major restrictions on guns or an outright ban in the wake of the shootings in Newtown when a heavily armed gunman killed 20 young students and six adults, a new CNN/ORC International survey indicates that support has tumbled to just 43%, as more time has passed since that December tragedy.”

The article explained that support has dropped in primarily two groups — older Americans and those who live in rural areas.

As a slightly-past-middle-aged American who lives in a rural area, I can speak to this. Many of us in rural America are steeped in gun culture from the time we are born. I came from a farm background.  Believe me, most farmers don’t cry at the end of “Old Yeller.”

Throughout history, farmers and cowmen tamed the wild and the west with guns.  Right or wrong, that is how America was built. My husband’s father hunted raccoons for sport and raised “coon” dogs for that purpose.  My grandfather enjoyed hunting pheasant (quail) with his friends. When my son was in Boy Scouts, it was a natural he would take shooting class for a merit badge.

I also know people who collect guns and other weapons for sport.  When I served on hospital management teams, I was twice faced with employees who demanded they be allowed to bring their handgun to work.  One was a secretary and the other was a night nurse. Both the secretary and the nurse feared something – the secretary feared walking to the parking garage at night in this rough urban neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, while the nurse feared walked in the country parking lot of this rural hospital in southwestern Indiana.  This was before the federal policy against weapons in hospitals kicked in.  I later learned that many nurses kept handguns in surgery locker rooms.

Today things have changed.  You can’t have a weapon in a hospital. You don’t need a thirty-clip magazine to shoot one of the two white-tailed deer your hunting license allows each fall.  But the gun culture still prevails. Drive around my town and you’ll see plenty of trucks with gun racks.

I have a modest proposal that might make everyone happy. Let’s follow the Constitution to the letter of the law and give everyone a gun.  Every man, woman and child in the United States.  While current gun owners have more than 300 million guns which is more than the population of the US, that’s not what I’m talking about.
I want the federal government to issue everyone a gun.

A musket.

And a stack of musket balls.

That fulfills the Second Amendment and we are then all equally armed.

Who’s with me?  If this modest proposal doesn’t meet your needs, how about this instead?  How about writing your Democratic Senator and making sure he or she will get an affirmative vote on a reasonable assault weapons ban, one that supports universal background checks and reduces the ability of purchasing high capacity magazines. Easy to do.  Click on this link to find your person.

Published December 13, 2013 at The Broad Side. Please comment there.

Dec 082013

Wisconsin Dells, Storybook Land, 1961 ( completed missed the Confederate flag hanging in the background at this amusement park, called to my attention by a reader. Makes me wonder WHY a Wisconsin park would fly/sell this flag in 1961? Tells us something about our history.)

My perennial snow day project is combing through the five boxes of Kodachrome slides my father took between 1953 and 1970. I’ve been working on the slides for about ten years, and I’ve decided to have all of them professionally cleaned, scanned and organized.

My method of using a small slide scanner that copies them one at a time hasn’t really worked. The same thing happens every time; I’ll start on the project and become overwhelmed. Left in the wake of doing this multiple times are files on three computers, two external hard drives, and random CDs.

The reason I’m so distracted is that looking at each slide is like traveling in a time machine back to a particular date. Exposed correctly and without a finger in front of the lens, the Kodachrome 35 mm. slide is a thing of beauty. Like the Technicolor movies of the 1950s, Kodachrome film could capture colors like newly-mixed oil paint off a master’s palette.

One slide I viewed yesterday – estimated time is 1954 – shows my grandparents at their farmhouse with my 22-year-old mother sitting between them. They all look bored but are accommodating the photographer, most likely my father.  My grandfather is reading “Better Homes and Garden,” which I find very funny because it is completely the opposite of what I think he would read. I expected, “Drover’s Journal” or “Indiana Prairie Farmer.”

My mother – who is dressed in a stylish, dark-brown fitted suit—looks exasperated and her body language affirms her disgust. My grandmother is wearing an apron and has the “Cat that chewed the canary” look on her face. The sofa is covered with the ugliest patterned throw I’ve ever seen in my life, and I remember it was still there a decade later.

What was going on in that house that day?

Another slide is undated but I know the date.  It is the day of my Holy Baptism, August 25, 1957, and I’m the star of the show. My grandmothers sit on either side of me on a couch at the farm; the ugly throw has been removed, perhaps for the sake of the picture?  My aunt who is my godmother along with my maternal grandmother is behind me, sitting next to my 25-year-old mother. Two interesting things about this picture; the table and chairs ready for lunch behind the women are in my living room. We used them for Thanksgiving dinner last week.  Second, all of the women are dressed in dresses that could be popular today. My grandmothers both wear sleeveless dresses. This slide is faded to a pinkish hue.

Finally, an undated slide shows my brother and me in the backyard of our new house. There’s no row of pine trees; they have yet to be planted. I’m guessing this is spring 1967. My brother looks like a junior MadMan and I’m wearing a nice red dress with a lace collar. What strikes me about this picture – and others – is how well we dressed. I know it was another era, but we never look like the Dickensian urchins of today. I’m ten years old.  What could possibly be in that giant purse?

The flowers are lovely, but I don’t remember a fence along the back of our yard. We moved into that house on Teacher’s Institute 1966. My brother and I were not allowed there when the moving van came – we were shipped to the farm with my grandparents away from the action.

Moving into a spanking new house was the most exciting thing in our young lives. Though it was a small, ubiquitous Indiana ranch house — we thought it was the Taj Mahal with not one, but two bathrooms! Our first Christmas in the house my grandparents bought us an RCA console color television, and we thought we were rich.

The slides also dispel some myths I’ve had about my own life – that my brother and I didn’t get along, that I was an ugly child, and that I was somehow less than others.  While every family has its issues – and we had ours – the slides dispel those myths in rich Kodachrome.

Dec 052013

DSC00757December 5, 2013

For several days, the weather prognosticators have had us in the middle of a winter storm bull’s eye.  The Weather Channel now names storms, and this one wreaking havoc in the west is “Cleon.”

We are in the ice/snow line, so we don’t know what will hit us. Take a vote, and most people will vote for eight inches of snow over a half inch of ice.

I’ve been to the grocery this morning and loaded up on essentials: Baked BBQ potato chips, Coca-cola in glass, and protein bars. When I drove to our local Schnucks Market about 9 a.m., the parking lot was as full as a Saturday afternoon.

I’ve called the snow plow man. Our driveway is steep and long, and even when our son lived at home the three of us could not shovel it without help. I’ve located the batteries, flashlights, and the Kerosene lamp I’ve had since the world was due to end for Y2K.

I downloaded an app from the electric company onto my tablet, until I realized that I couldn’t report we were without power if we didn’t electricity to fuel the wi-fi.  Duh.

Having blogged since 2008, I checked the vintage files and found three posts from the last ice storm in 2009.  I will never forget it because in the middle of the storm I lost my job. Pfizer let about half the sales force go, and having survived six or seven previous layoffs my number was up.

I didn’t mention this in my posts — I didn’t write about it for a few weeks. Here are a few notes and pictures from the last one.

January 29, 2009

Hence, the iceman won’t leaveth. Our part of the country is still recovering from ice, sleet, and snow that terrorized our area for about 36 hours and left half an inch to several inches of ice in its wake.

We are in a Level II State of Emergency, which as our local radio station explained, is the “one before martial law.”

“Essential Personnel” Husband had to work today and spent nearly thirty minutes trying to “get up the hill” to the highway, which really wasn’t much of an improvement. Except that the state highway is flat and the numerous potholes provide traction.

We have lived in The Country now for thirteen and a half years and we have yet to see a snowplow on our street.

After getting to the highway, Husband crawled for about another 45 minutes on the So-called Expressway to get to his employer. He is indeed a very well-read “Ice Road Trucker.”

Apparently the entire city resembles a bombing raid with many limbs and whole trees down.

We lost power Tuesday night but it came back on after about 12 hours. Unlike many of our friends, we have power now. Our local electric company estimates that half of its customers are without power.

That doesn’t account for the state across the Big River which was hit harder by the ice storm. We at least have four inches of snow to cushion the blow. We have company for the night – glad to share our Pot Roast with the neighbors who would do the same for us.

I took a few pictures, gingerly stepping out the front door and onto the back deck, (Picture this: pink, fuzzy slippers, pink fuzzy socks for cold feet, pj bottoms with big pineapples all over them, half glasses on a string around my neck, shirt that says “Art Lives” and mimics the Sgt. Pepper cover, only with artists…that scary thought will burn your retinas for awhile.)

In January I am always reminded of the January day 21 years ago when Husband and I drove up to this Frozen Place, moving here from the sunny south. While we both grew up in a More Frozen Place, our blood had thinned out over our time in year-round warmth.

We had an ancient gray Volvo filled with the things we didn’t put in the moving van and a bird named Tiki and a cat named The Bub. (We learned later, in an unfortunate and final way, that canaries don’t do well in cold weather.)

The Volvo’s electric window on the driver’s side broke on the drive between Louisville and this Frozen Place, and we were quite cold. Every January I ask myself this question, “Who moves BACK to this Frozen Place?”

Today I am warm – resplendent in my special Ice Day jammies – and looking forward to Pot Roast leftovers.  Quoth the raven.

February 3, 2009

Outside it is fourteen degrees and a wind chill factor just over zero. At various times over the weekend, our house has been about fifty degrees.

We have had three power outages, but I am truly not complaining (well, very much) as friends have been suffering much worse. South of us in the state my friend Julia calls “The Promised Land” many gas stations don’t have power and those that do are out of fuel. Her friends in Lyon County are without water and power.

Outage number three came like this: Husband and I  settled snug in our basement in front of the television as Random Pop Singer sang the National Anthem before the Super Bowl. (Dating myself, I know the names of no pop singers after Olivia Newton-John – whom my father once thought was a trio. The last pop singer he knows is Rosemary Clooney.)

Just as Random Pop Singer reached the high notes of The Star Spangled Banner, the power went off.


Thankfully the Super Bowl was broadcast on local radio.

Now remember, I am not complaining, but during this episode of Ice Road Truckers Midwest, I did not have coffee for five days. (There was an unfortunate incident on Friday with the coffeemaker when when had power and I was home alone. Refer to previous posts on my homemaker abilities.)

When I don’t have coffee, the world does not look good. Today is a new day. Seventy degrees in the house. A grande Mocha non-fat no-whip at the ready.

DSC00762February 9, 2009

Life is getting back to normal, despite the constant chewing sound of chainsaws in every direction around the neighborhood. Friday I used a shovel to dig out a 15-foot gutter extender from six inches of ice and reattach it to a critical drain. I am not much of an “outdoorsy” kind of person, but wanted to get this done in the daytime before Husband came home for work after dark. We are expecting intense rain in the next week.

Like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not often seen outdoors and somewhat afraid the neighbors might report me to the police as some kind of eccentric wandering the neighborhood.

When I was a child, my idea of going outdoors was sitting in my room and reading “The Secret Garden”, a cherished book given to me by my Aunt Donna.  As long as I had my imaginary view of Colin, Dickon and Mary in the garden, I was in heaven.

Sunday Husband and I played “pick up sticks” and the photographs above demonstrate our work as well as the tree that did not fall on our house or utility barn. For this we are most grateful. Quoth the raven.

February 10, 2009

Like some raving female King Lear, I tried to fix a potential problem outside where rain was coming off our roof in a heavy downpour. I dragged a plastic garbage can and a 10-gallon pickle bucket (not sure why we have this) out into the back yard.

Now as a warranty holder for an expensive brand of gutter “raincoats”, I expect that water should not be coming off the roof that fast but rather out the drainage system. And certainly not potentially down my basement walls or into the already-soaked ground.

According to manufacturer’s commercials, “you will never have to clean your gutters again.” Apparently in the contract’s teeny tiny print below it says “except when the gutter raincoat gets dirt on it.”

Why did our thousand-dollar-plus raincoat system have dirt on it? A portion of the apparatus came up during the ice storm and the wind blew it back down. The company does not take responsibility for the natural materials collected in the gutters during those four days since I called them, because their employee did not see the raincoat standing up. (And I paid $89.95 for them to tell me this, which is the “house call” fee according to the warranty.)

So taking matters in to my own hands, I went out to solve the problem. O Pioneer Woman that I am. First I thought Son’s Boy Scout tarp could be rigged up along the wall to force the water into the ditch. But how to attach the tarp to the wall? Despite it’s reputation as the “handyman’s friend”, duct tape would not stick to the brick. (By this time I was completely soaked from head to toe, and my hair was standing on end.)

Then, a revelation….

“A bucket, I’ll get a bucket.” It hit me that a garbage can would work, and I found the erstwhile pickle bucket next to it.

Now let’s review. We’ve had Hurricane Ike come through last fall (usually we don’t have hurricanes in the Midwest) and the worst ice storm in a 100 years last week. Tomorrow we are getting what Kansas got today, so I’m going to stay home, batten down the hatches, and prepare to drag my buckets well past the end of the drains and dump them (so the water doesn’t soak into the ground and go where it should not and end up in the basement).

And I did the annual sump pump test today. Nothing is as lovely to a homeowner as the sound of a working sump pump.

My Rodeo Cowgirl friend Pam Carter in San Antonio tells me that they are having a very bad drought and the hot spring winds are already bringing in skin-wrinkling air. Dear P.C.: wish I could run a pump under our town and ship all this melted ice to you! Wish Atlas could lift the earth and balance it out! Quoth the raven.

Dec 042013

Unless you are the grouchiest Grinch, your mailbox may be stuffed with cards, pictures and holiday letters over the next few weeks.

Call me old-fashioned but I still do the whole  Christmas letter business. Starting in October, I carefully select cards – Christian cards for friends who share my faith and cards for those who celebrate the Festival of Lights or nothing at all. I choose stamps that reflect the card’s message, and then I write one of those horribly obnoxious Christmas letters — complete with well-selected pictures.

Perhaps you roll your eyes and toss my letter in the trash. I hope not. I come from a long line of women who liked notes, cards, and pictures in the mail. My grandmother LeNore Enz wrote something annually called the “Enz-o-Gram.”

In her 1967 version, she refers to the ten-year-old me as a “sweet and loving child who is a good reader and student.”  She told about my singing in the children’s choir at the 450th anniversary celebration of the Protestant Reformation at the Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum. I remember singing in the choir; I don’t remember being particularly sweet and loving.

My grandmother’s letter has that certain air of hyperbole of many holiday letters. While her letter is not particularly braggadocio, it’s also not entirely truthful and may slightly stretch the truth by not offering the full picture. Our family then, as our family now, is far from perfect.

This way of handling information is known as the sin of omission.

For many years, I wrote something called “The Newburgher” (a nod to “Talk of the Town” in “The New Yorker.”) Long on words and short on pictures, I realized it was a snooze to everyone but me. Even my husband wouldn’t read it. I’ve considerably shortened the letter and added several pictures.

Like my grandmother, I am also guilty of the sin of omission. But who wants to read a holiday letter about the bad stuff? And everybody has the bad stuff.

For example, our 2013 letter highlights a once-in-a-lifetime trip that five family members took to Scotland and Ireland. We had a wonderful time and saw many interesting sites. With five aging bladders in our family, we also saw every bathroom, john, potty, outhouse, privy, loo, washroom and truck stop lounge in Scotland and Ireland.

For my money, I preferred the antiseptically clean bathrooms at the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Center in Ulster, Northern Ireland, to the tiny bathroom at Edinburgh Castle where you descended a  fourteenth century stone stairwell.

I included a photograph of our son in this year’s letter. He completed an internship at the House of Representatives. It’s a nice picture of him standing in front of the door of the office. Did I have a better picture? Yes, there is a photo of him outside the White House attending a Congressional event. His dress shirt is buttoned at the top, he has on no tie, and one jet black hair clump stands straight up. He looks exactly like Alfalfa, if the Our Gang Little Rascal stood in front of the White House.

I did not include several wonderful photographs from our spring vacation to Las Vegas, because then I would have been unable to include photos from the Big Trip. Why? Because the reader would then note my weight gain. Vanity, thy name is Raven Lunatic.

Every year, I say this will be the last time I do this. When I add up the cost of cards, stamps, and the time involved, it’s too much. I swear, I’m finished. Stamps are reportedly going up again. I now have arthritis in both thumbs. My husband signed all of the cards this year, and I did not include personal notes.

Despite the truth-juggling, I still defend the holiday letter. I enjoy getting them, and people tell me they enjoy receiving ours. Okay, so I left a few things out. I’m sure all the letters I receive include the absolute truth and full gamut of family life throughout the year.  I’m sure of it.

Nov 232013

For days now the Gourmet Cook in our house (that would not be me) has been planning his next moves. I can see the fire in his eyes — Thanksgiving is but days away and he is like Indiana Jones plotting to find the Ark of the Covenant. And then bake it into a tasty holiday casserole.

I’m the everyday cook, and I worked up to that title. After years of not cooking, I took the helm of the Monday through Friday routine. I’m getting better, although I still become mortified by some recipes.

Now that we have an updated kitchen, my Beloved and I sit down every Saturday morning and plot out the week’s meals. I eschew anything with more than ten ingredients, so when he wanted mulligatawny soup last week, I balked. What I did do was prepare the ingredients and materials needed so when he came home from work, it was all ready. I think they call this a sous chef.

Mulligatawny is an Indian soup full of curry, other spices, and vegetables in a chicken broth, which has a heavenly flavor. “Seinfeld” fans might remember it as Elaine Benes’ favorite from the Soup Nazi. (No, soup for you!)

On Thanksgiving morning, I’ll be his sous chef if you add just two tiny letters, an e and a d to the end of sous. I will be downing a few sips of mimosas between watching the Broadway promos in that hour before the Macy’s parade and taking orders from the chef. Soused chef.

It goes without saying that I’m one of the luckiest women in the world. He is a marvelous cook, with incredibly high standards (those of his dear late mother.) However, sometimes he is a little intense, like when I suggested he could buy a pie crust.

Our old kitchen didn’t have the counter space to roll out the dough, so he would spread it out on the kitchen table which wasn’t ideal. After years of this, he finally bought the famous “pie crust in a bag”.

Yesterday My Beloved reverted to his old ways, using the expanded peninsula we now have. He made six homemade pie crusts, and was delighted with the Crisco buttery-flavored sticks he bought at the store. I will not be shocked if he wants to mill his own flour.

Earlier in the weekend he made the pilgrimage (alone) to the grocery store, complete with a list – organized by category. How has he stayed married to me for nearly three decades when my idea of a list is an illegible scribbled note on the back of a used envelope?

This morning he was up again early, preparing some of the items needed for the big day. Oh, and in his spare time, he made banana bread with the aging bananas that I was saving to make penicillin.

We’ve only had one small spat during this Holy Time of Preparation. Our son, who lives a thousand miles away, is coming home and requested a Baked Potato Casserole. I told The Chef I wanted to make it, “No, I want to make everything.” While I was initially offended, who am I to argue with someone who obviously gets so much pleasure out of cooking?

I get pleasure from eating, so we make a great pair. And lucky for him, there are going to be a lot of other hungry people at our house on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Published in November 2011 in “The Raven Lunatic” newspaper column.

Nov 212013

4 Tips for Helping Your Child Make the Grade

Children sometimes bring home report cards that horrify parents. In a perfect world, “mom radar” should pick up the danger signals in advance. This is not a perfect world.

Do we throw up our hands? Or should we – as parents — look inward?

Helping children get better marks means we moms are always on the case, and anticipate issues long before the grading period ends.

Researchers at the 11th International Roundtable on School, Family and Community Partnerships suggested higher outcomes in reading and writing result from students with parental and school support.

Are you doing your part? Here are  four eclectic questions parents can ask themselves. Answers may shed greater light on an obvious concern, or reveal an unknown issue.

Have I consulted the expert?

This is a trick question; the authority on your child is not your child’s teacher. The expert is your child.

With all the pressures on moms, we sometimes miss the obvious.

Jack was a fine student, but suddenly his mathematics tanked into negative numbers. What happened?

After a poor report card, his mother asked him.

“I can’t see the screen, Mommy.”

Jack needed glasses.

Ask your child the obvious questions you think you know. Does she hand in daily assignments? What is difficult for her?

What’s the big mystery at school?

Going to Parent’s Night isn’t enough. If you can, volunteer in the classroom. But if your day  is too tight, schedule extra time with the teacher, talk with a counselor or in the case of a reading problem, consult the media specialist.

Do we have a plan, Stan?

At a certain point – different for every child – students need more personal discipline, a plan. Help her choose a goal, establish a routine and find a work area free from distractions.

Punishments and rewards can be powerful motivators; consider withholding the Wii or a treasured toy until homework is completed. Praise her for progress.

When do we seek outside help?

Many students need help apart from formal school. The high tech world provides a range of excellent online tutors in every community.

What is the bottom line?

As moms, we want our children to do their best. A student failing science may never make an A. But, if we strengthen a child’s resolve for improvement, that’s the greatest gift we can provide.

Resources in Education  April 2003
“The Impact of School Family Partnership on Parents’ Attitudes and Children Reading and Writing in First Grade
Authors: Rachel Hertz-Lazarowitz and Haya Horovitz

Nov 182013

Each generation has a formative moment. For the Greatest Generation and the Silent Majority, the moment was December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For my millennial son’s generation, the events of 9/11/01 are seared into memory.

For Baby Boomers, the day President Kennedy was shot is that moment.

An ordinary Friday at South Whitley Elementary School, teacher Jane Stump led 30 first graders in the Pledge of Allegiance at precisely 8:20 a.m.

We worked on an art project that morning, making Thanksgiving decorations. Using my chubby, oversized pencil, I traced my left hand on brown construction paper. With sticky Elmer’s Paste, I glued feathers of orange, yellow and red paper, and finished with my crayons. My 64-pack of Crayola’s – with the special sharpener – was still pristine in its yellow box.

Near lunchtime, Mrs. Stump marched us through the green-tiled hallway to the cafeteria. Balancing a yellow plastic tray with a glass milk bottle precariously to one side challenged any six-year-old. Twice that fall I dropped my tray, shattering my pride and the glass milk bottle.

That day there were no accidents.

Mrs. Stump prayed before our meal as she and every other teacher did throughout my elementary school years. Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s influence wasn’t yet felt in this small town in northeastern Indiana, even though prayer was officially removed from public schools that year.

Shortly after lunch our principal came to the classroom door and motioned for Mrs. Stump to come out into the hall. Returning, the shaken Mrs. Stump told us President Kennedy had been shot.

At six, I didn’t know what that meant. Every male over ten years old had a gun; boys started with a Daisy pellet gun for shooting tin cans off a fence, or other egregious things parents aren’t supposed to know. For adults, guns were for hunting, shooting deer or quail or an errant coyote.

Within minutes, the principal came on the overhead intercom and announced that President Kennedy was dead. The principal dismissed us for the day.

Just as I did every day, I walked unescorted the three blocks home from school.

My mother was watching our Dumont television when I arrived home.  She was crying.

The old black and white television — a box on spindly legs – was usually on only for the fifteen-minute nightly newscast. My parents preferred listening to Andy Williams, and Broadway cast albums on their RCA Victor hi-fi.

The television remained on for several days. I remember the televised funeral – the overwhelming, heavy, repetitive beat of Beethoven’s funeral dirge and the stark, sleek reality of “Black Jack,” the rider-less horse.

We could not yet how this public violence would change everything.

A military conflict in a steamy jungle halfway around the world would escalate, and three sons of this town would lose their lives.

The martyred president’s brother would be a voice of calm in Indianapolis five years later on April 4, 1968 when the crowd around him learned of the violent death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back in Indiana a month later for the primary, Robert Kennedy’s motorcade pulled off Highway 37 in Madison County near Duck-Creek-Boone Elementary School. Dozens of fourth graders, including my husband, rushed out to shake the Presidential candidate’s hand. A month later, another Kennedy son would be dead from a violent act.

Now fifty years since the unexpected death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, scholars and pundits have published works ad infinitum speculating on the crime and its meaning.

Is it a human trait to search for deep meaning in what may have been a random, crazy act?

Is it more acceptable if the murder was committed by Castro, the CIA, the mob or the Soviet Union?

Life can change in an instant. One moment life is good, the next the aneurysm strikes or the speeding bus hits or the land mine blows.

Whatever the reason, Kennedy’s assassination plunged us into a more violent society, the legacy of which we cannot shake with our gun-happy culture, brutal movies and video games, and near daily shootings in public places.

When I think of the events of that weekend a half century ago, my thoughts go to another little girl, a child born just four months after me.

Caroline Kennedy celebrated her sixth birthday five days after her father died. Despite her family pedigree and great wealth, she would not have her father on special life celebrations, or even the small ones.

He was not there to walk her down the aisle at her 1986 wedding nor later celebrate the birth of her three babies.

On that Friday afternoon I walked home, my construction paper turkey in hand. Two parents waited for me, along with my three-year-old brother. My father, a science teacher at the high school, was also dismissed early.

Our country lost a president, but Caroline and her three-year-old brother lost their father.

My parents praised my turkey, and my father proudly taped it on the white Kelvinator refrigerator in our tiny kitchen.

Nov 182013

Each October, I think about those few weeks in late 1990 when I felt as if I was being sucked down into one of those frequent waterspouts we used to see when we lived near Tampa Bay.

Now in the Midwest, we struggled at our jobs, tired from the sleepless nights of new parents. Though our baby boy was sometimes colicky, he was healthy and fat and five months old. Still, we needed time off, and planned a week off in Florida, where we lived for six years.

We paid for the two plane tickets on our Master Card, only two because of us could hold the baby. Within a week after buying the tickets, I found out I was pregnant again.

How did this happen? I wasn’t breastfeeding, and I popped that mini-pill out of its dial case every morning, religiously.

But it did happen. And I was about eight weeks pregnant.

We couldn’t afford another baby; we could barely afford to pay for the needed trip to Florida.

The week before our trip I started spotting, that horrible indication of hurtful things to come.

Before our son, I had two miscarriages. Worried, I hightailed it to my doctor’s office where I was a frequent flyer. After a quick vaginal ultrasound, the doctor gave me the grim news. Little Otto did not have a heartbeat.

When I found out I was pregnant again, I named him Otto for no real reason.

Little Otto had no heartbeat—only the remains of the developing fetus right there in black and white on a tiny screen.

I was going on the trip, and nothing was going to stop me. My doctor scheduled a D and C on Friday. Against medical advice, I got on the plane Saturday and flew to Florida.

The week was supposed to be relaxing, but it was not. Friends wanted to see the baby. We ran all over Pinellas County — every night coming back to our hotel room exhausted.

By Thursday, I was so wiped out I cancelled dinner with our friends, friends who sent a giant stuffed Peter Rabbit to the baby. I wanted to see these friends. But, something was happening to me.

I wasn’t in physical pain, but I could feel something pulled at me. It certainly was not an emotional pull – it was like a ghostly pull into a place, a downward drag somewhere I didn’t want to go.

The tugging and jerking lasted through the fall and winter and into the spring.

I’ve been thinking about those days and the spring that followed, days and weeks and months of being in darkness, unable to move. It was like being in a well where you can hear voices at the top—happy, chipper voices that have no idea you are close, and yet you lack the ability to reach up for them, and no help comes down to you.

For five months, I did not want to pick up my son when he cried for me.

For five months, I could not and did not want to eat, and I lost nearly half my body weight.

For five months, I could not show any emotions to my husband, who was providing all the childcare, taking the baby to the sitter, cleaning the house, and working his job as an instructor at the local college. He was two years away from an assistant professorship, five years from tenure, and we just bought our first house — above our meager means at eight percent interest on a thirty year fixed mortgage.

And I just didn’t give a damn.

One April day flowers bloomed in the front yard and I was better. Just like that. I had meds and treatment and friends and family and everyone pulling for me. I had a son who needed his mother, which seemingly by itself, wasn’t enough to pull me out of the well.

Now, it is the subtle light of the autumn day that reminds me of this deep place, a place I never want to see again. When daylight savings time goes away, darkness comes quickly. On some level, I am drawn into the vivid blackness of the night, tempted by the darkness.

I will escape the darkness; I will not go to that place.
I am as confident of my ability to fight off the depression demon as I am that the new spring will always bear new light and flowers

Nov 142013

Maria was exhausted. The store had been busy this Saturday with marathon runners and cyclists from today’s race. Even with four Kodak picture machines, there was a line since early this morning. Family members wanted pictures of their loved one at the 26-mile mark, a few blocks away.

Maria was doing much better than she anticipated. Only sixteen, she was a mother, a partner, and now had survived six months at the camera store. She got the job two months before the baby came and Mr. Ramirez gave her time off when Nicky Jr. was born.

Her Spanish was improving. Nicky worked with her every minute that they were together. Mr. Ramirez and his wife coached her as well, and many of the customers spoke only Spanish.

Things were hard at home now with the baby, but the young couple was surviving. Nicky worked second shift as a mechanic in one of the city’s remaining factories. He was so lucky to get that job right out of high school. The factory was close enough to his parent’s house, where the little family shared a basement apartment, that he could ride his bike to work. He was a tough guy, and could handle anything on the street.

Maria met Nicky eighteen months ago. She was a waitress in a dive bar. Maria looked a lot older than she was. She told Nicky that she was eighteen, graduated from high school out east, and came to KC to live with her sister.

Of all the lies she told him, that she lived with her sister was the only one he knew. She told him that her sister moved back home, but she liked her job and wanted to stay.

In truth, Maria was fourteen  when she met Nicky. Her real name was Melissa, and she was called Missy at home. Maria was about as creative as she could be with her limited experience from the rural prairie.

What she didn’t want him to know was that she ran away from a farm in the middle of Illinois. Her father had been visiting her attic bedroom in the drafty old farmhouse at night for about four years.

She couldn’t take it anymore. She was certain her mother and siblings knew about the visits, but nothing was ever said or done. She didn’t have the courage to go against her father, even as she fought him off viciously sometimes.

Sometimes she thought about killing him with the knife her dad and brothers used for butchering hogs.

Instead, she got on a bus to St. Louis, and then boarded another bus until she ran out of money that was in the next large city, across Missouri. She cut her long, brown hair short, and dyed it blonde. She had Nicky’s name tattooed in a heart on her ankle.

Initially, Maria only spoke a few words she learned in freshman Spanish. Uncertain about where to go,  she headed for an Hispanic neighborhood. That is where she met Nicky, who at eighteen had been a Boy Scout and just graduated from high school. His brother paid for a short course in mechanics and helped him get the factory job.

The part-time job in the photo shop gave the couple extra money they were saving to get their own apartment.

Out of the corner of her eye, Maria noticed a group of young people milling outside around the door. The store was closing in five minutes. “Damn,” she thought to herself. “They will probably want a stack of pictures.”

At 4:55 p.m. they came inside. She looked closer at the group and realized with horror that it was her two brothers and another woman she didn’t know. The woman wore running clothes and number 2366 across her chest along with her marathon medal.

Fear swept over her like a spring rain across the flat farm fields she left behind.

What if they recognized her? She was still not an adult.

The woman stepped up to the counter and asked in English, “Do you have any digital camera bags?” Even though Maria didn’t know who the lady was, she was terrified as the woman was with her brothers.

“No habla Ingles,” said Maria, trying to mimic Nicky’s accent. Maria pointed to the back room, and quickly walked away.

“Mrs. Ramirez,” Maria said. “I’m not really feeling well. Do you think I could leave several minutes early?”

“Of course,” she said, and Maria walked out the back door.

Nov 082013

Most of us met as teenagers through our college yearbook. Nearly four decades later we are still friends.

We have arthritis and adult children and growing grandchildren. Three times this year, most of us gathered for funerals – saying goodbye to two sisters and a father.  In the three years before 2012, we said good-bye to two fathers and a mother.

This weekend we met in French Lick just for fun.

From Evansville and Fishers and Corydon as well as Belleville, Illinois, we met in the yellow and red hills of Orange County.

Three of us showed up in red flannel shirts, generating an immediate rendition of Monty Python’s “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m Okay.”

None of our kids or nieces or nephews understands our jokes anymore. Did time freeze in the early 1980s?

I frequently get frustrated with my father who never seems to know any songs recorded after 1955, as if Pat Boone were the last Hit Parade.  He just doesn’t know rock and roll, except for the occasional song that became a standard like “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

But I understand now, for my cultural references are all stuck in a place thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure that Jay-Z is a grocery store chain, and I have no clue about Adele’s most recent songs.

Part of what is so great about gathering with old friends is that we get each other; we came from the same place and we understand.

No one argues because we all know that “Hotel California” was the best album ever.  Album, what’s an album?

Steve Martin was our guru, and perhaps Mel Brooks was our king.  Over the weekend we watched “Young Frankenstein” for the 900th time, calling out all the jokes before they happened.

“You take the blonde, and I’ll take the one in the turban.”

Life however has intervened and we’ve all earned our gray hair, even if some of us add a color now and then.  We’ve shared triumphs and we’ve cried over unexpected losses.  We’ve shared the loss of our parents, expected and unexpected.  We’ve watched our children grow up and find their way in a world much more complicated than the one we faced in the early 1980s.

We probably won’t meet again soon.  There are still aging parents who need us, children and grandchildren whose activities beckon, and retirement is a decade away.

The weekend was a dose of joy.

There is also no better medicine, despite the mutual complaint of arthritis and worse, as two days of laughter.