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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Post Holiday Report--Gift-Giving 101

Well, it was just a day or two after Christmas when I read an article, the definitive gift-giving guide. How’s that for timing?
Anyway, the article,
(Research suggests that you might consider giving gift cards — because the less specific the gift, the more it will be appreciated.)

claims what almost everyone really wants is—no, not money, not new clothes, not a new Rolex or even a Rolls, is, wait for it--a gift card. Certainly not gifts the giver has loving picked out. There’s just too much pressure on both the giver and receiver when actual gifts are exchanged. The giver has to really know the recipient. And the recipient has to act like the gift is perfect.

If the gift isn’t just right the recipient feels bad.  And even if it is, the recipient takes the perfection for granted and the giver doesn’t get much reward in having found that perfect present. Sometimes, if the present is too perfect, the recipient will already have it.

Even cash supposedly is not the prefect present since recipients will feel  they have to use it for something useful as opposed to buying what they want. Hence the gift card is the only perfect present. Or so says the so-called expert.

I’m wondering--was this article was sponsored by the companies promoting credit card gift cards? Maybe that’s my suspicious nature. Or maybe it’s my experience with other people who have given me the perfect gift.

I don’t know if my “giftees” wished I’d just bought gift cards. But I, for one, received the prefect gift, several times over. And I found those gifts offer an interesting commentary on how well, and how many different aspects of my personality, my family knows.

In addition to some lovely and particularly treasured presents, such as hand- made gifts from my grandchildren (the best presents ever), jewelry, hats and all things warm and cuddly (no, I didn't get a puppy for Christmas--we already have one), most of my family also gave me reading material for Christmas and my birthday which follows Christmas in short order.

The fact that they gave me books is not a big revelation. It’s well known in my family I was the type of child who went to the library once a week and carried out the maximum permitted number of books. And then couldn’t wait to return them after reading all, and check out another back-breaking load.

But the variety and range of books is what’s particularly of interest. From our older son and family I received a serious book, “The Sixth Extinction (An Unnatural History)” by Elizabeth Kolbert that has been described by David Grann as an “An epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller” and also a subscription to Harper’s magazine. That son recognized my interest in science and all things political.

My husband gave me mysteries, one by Dennis Lahane and another by David Baldacci. He knows how much I love to read thrillers and mysteries. There go some hours I should be sleeping and am instead trying to figure out the plot. My brother and his significant other gave me a literary novel as well as a subscription to "Poets and Writers". He knows my love of writing. And our younger son and his boo (as best I can tell that's young people talk for sweetheart) gave me a game, “Apples to Apples", a not too complicated but fun diversion for a small group involving word play. He recognized my joy in sharing fun with family and friends and also my love of words.

Somehow, each family member knows and tapped into a different aspect of my personality in their gift-giving this year when they chose my presents. And that, even more than the presents was priceless. If my gift selections were not as thoughtful and well planned as theirs perhaps my “giftees” would rather have gift cards next year. But I certainly would not.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Happy Holidays: The Spruce Report

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and New Year, and all the holidays in between and after.

There’s still way too much to do before any of the holidays can arrive.  Was it Noel Coward who said “Christmas now has us by the throat?” Well he should know—since he’s named for the Christmas holiday. As for me, I’m just in a mild panic. The presents aren’t ordered, the cards not yet sent and our Christmas tree is not yet up or decorated. If I were Santa’s elf I’d be on overtime or maybe out of a job. 

At least we have a wreath on our door. If we can get the outside lights up no one will be the wiser we’re so far behind. So this year we are multi-tasking: I’ve started this Christmas note while my intrepid spouse is looking for the timer for the outside lights. 

Real Time Report:  Was that Santa rushing by with presents as I typed?  No, that was my husband.  He was in the attic looking for the timer. 

Usually I report on the holly berries I can see from the window of my office. That is, in those years when we’ve not yet had cold and snowy weather. Once real winter arrives the birds eat all the berries. I could try to make some climate change point that the weather must be warmer this year since the birds haven’t eaten the berries yet.

Real Time Report:  Now my spouse is back from the basement, grumbling about things not being put in their place.  And then he’s dashing by to check the garage.  No timer in the garage.  

Instead I’m going to report on the astronomical growth of our blue spruce in the front yard. I don’t have any idea what that means as far as climate change. But I do have some idea of the practical implications for putting Christmas lights on a tree that has grown to be almost as tall as our two-story house.

        Real Time Report:  my husband has made another trip to the attic.  The timer was hidden in a   plain, unmarked bag.  The better to stay hidden each year.  But that means it’s time to start stringing those lights.  So I’m taking a short “break”.

Every year, for the past twenty-two, we have strung little colored lights on the blue spruce in the front yard.  When we first moved to this house the spruce was about ten feet tall.  My husband could easily toss a few lights around the spruce without any help and it looked fine.

       Real Time Report:  I’m back working on the lights. My job is to check the strands to be sure all the lights work.  It’s too cold to stay out here and do any more right now.  Maybe I better go back to my Christmas note, with a hot toddy so I don’t catch cold.

Now that damn spruce is nearly two stories high and twenty feet across.  So why are we still doing it?  First, there’s the satisfaction of knowing we’ve nicely decorated our front yard.

Real Time Report:  As we string the lights I discover my job also was supposed to include separating the polarized strands from the non-polarized strands.  Oops—need to unstring the last few strands.

 Then, there are the neighbors who start to say things in July, like, “Sure looking forward to seeing your tree all lit up again.”  Finally I suppose it’s the idiocy of not wanting to give up something we’ve done for years.  And the fact that a few years ago when I checked with a couple of those outdoor light-hanging companies they wanted $5,000 to string lights on our tree.  If we should get good at this light-hanging thing we’d have a new career opportunity for our old age.

Real Time Report:  We’re halfway there.  Time for the ladder.  And maybe another hot toddy break. 

Each year after we get the lights on we feel that wonderful sense of accomplishment.  Yeah, right.  Stringing this tree is more like a recipe for disaster than for a hot toddy.  Half the time the lights don’t work, the ladder isn’t tall enough and the jerry-rigged extension pole doesn’t extend like it should to reach those top branches.  

Real Time Report:  All that’s left is to flip the switch.  Fingers crossed.  Good thing it’s getting dark.  The better to be wowed by the lights.  And . . . we are.  Yippee!  They’re all lit!  Until we turn away.  When we turn back only the very bottom lights are lit.  Argh!

Tomorrow we’ll try to diagnose what’s wrong.  For now I’ll close by saying we’ve had a good year, and been healthy, happy, and lucky enough to see our family and friends, though not as often as we would like.  Best wishes for a happy, healthy and great holiday season.  

Don’t forget to drink your hot toddy.  It helps mellow out that Christmas decorating experience.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rabbits--Part 2

I swore I wasn't going to share the latest rabbit story until I could get a particularly gruesome image out of my head.  Not a Stephen King or “Fatal Attraction”- type image exactly, just what happens now and then in life.  The totally unexpected, like pennies from heaven.  Or in this case, a rabbit head from the sky.

My husband who had been working in the yard to get it winter ready, shouted to me he needed some help catching Blazer, our large adolescent, and I should say fast, collie, in the back yard.  Our dog had gotten some dead animal.  Blazer was racing around the yard, bunny ears protruding from one side of his mouth.  I rushed to help.

One word of background.  Those of you with dogs and who live where the wild things are may be thinking what pansies we city dwellers are—why not you just let the dog eat whatever he caught?  Well, for those of you who don’t have collies let me explain.  We've learned from a collective experience with six collies over more than fifty years that collies often have a digestive system reminiscent of your old maiden aunt who can eat only cream of rice most days.

Changing the diet of a collie is perilous, even if it’s from one brand of good dog food to another.  Our collie eats a selective meat-, gluten-, and grain-free kibble containing only fish and cooked veggies.  Rabbit heads definitely are not on his menu.  Maybe this is the result of over-breeding of collies. But we did not want to be the ones to make a stand for heartier collies at this point in time and experience the consequences of his dining on a totally new food group.

I knew immediately the two of us oldsters had no chance of catching our speedy collie.  My husband already had tried chasing, luring with treats, and verbally commanding Blazer to give up his prize.  Despite the fact Blazer had graduated with flying colors from two dog training classes, no way was he voluntarily giving up this prize.

The only chance we had was to try to outsmart him.  I ran back inside and pulled out one of the special treats that were saved for special times: a “Greenie” bone.

Blazer would not let me come near him if I ran towards him.  So I feigned a lack of interest in what Blazer had and was doing.  My husband and I talked as I laid the Greenie bone on our steps, my husband at the ready with a “poop bag” in hand.  Blazer approached, dropped the bunny head, and took the Greenie.  My husband swooped in and scooped up the rabbit head.

Blazer dropped the Greenie and looked around.  But he is an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of dog for the most part.  He appeared to quickly forget his prized treasure.

Then we were left with the task of trying to find the rest of the rabbit body.  We scoured our yard and under bushes without success.  We prayed to the dog gods that he hadn't already eaten it.  Since Blazer had been in the yard only a short time that seemed unlikely.

As we took Blazer to the park for his evening walk my husband recalled hearing a loud thump against the house earlier in the day while he was working.  And a gaggle of crows noisily flying off our roof at the same time.  Mystery solved.

Well, now that the image of our collie running wildly through the yard, a dead rabbit head, stiff ears sticking out of one side of his mouth, is out of my head I suppose I've given that image to you.  I hope the image does not stay long.

We also are hoping the rabbit whose head made a sudden appearance in the back yard is not one of the baby bunnies we had carefully rescued this summer after their mother built an ill-advised nest under a bush close to our house.  That’s one mystery I don’t think we will solve. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pulp Fiction Contest

I've submitted an entry in the New York Times pulp fiction contest. You can read it, and recommend if you like, at this link under the “Comments” section. You also can submit your own entry.

2 days ago ... ... a dame, a 1950s book cover: “Tough Kid From Brooklyn.” Tell us how the story begins. It's City Room's 2014 New York Pulp Fiction Contest.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Musical Week

If someone tells you it’s hard to find good live music in Louisville they haven't been looking in the right places.  In the space of about a week we attended three amazing, foot-stomping concerts, and no doubt missed some other good ones.

First, at the Palace Theater, a week ago Thursday, we were the geezers amongst a happy, mostly young crowd.  The Avett Brothers rocked out at the first of a three-night stand.  The Avett Brothers’ repertoire defies simple categorizations: western swing, bluegrass, Christian hymns, and calypso.  

The crowd seemed to know every word.  Three young women in the row in front of us, cute as any coeds I've seen, bounced, danced and sang along.  I wasn’t a big fan of the Avett Brothers.  At least until now.  The "kids" are ok if this is the music they are rocking to.

On the following Sunday, one of those gorgeous fall days where you can’t bear to stay inside, we went to the riverfront to see the riverboat festival.  A variety of music drifted towards the best viewing areas as we waited to see the riverboats take off on their race.  We didn’t care who won the race.  It was just a great excuse to be outside on a glorious day.

At the main stage we heard some jazz and also a band called the Billy Goat Strut Review, complete with a female torch singer, a slide trombone, a sax, and a washboard, along with the usual instruments, guitars and percussion.  They played some of the music my Mom use to play on the piano.  Some mixture of old-timey, bluegrass and honky-tonk.

As the Billy Goats left the stage and we were getting ready to head back to our car we were almost run over by the March Madness Marching Band from Lexington.  They marched right through the crowd.  The band members, dressed as pirates and gypsies, played all sorts of outlandish instruments, danced and marched.  Very fun.

To wrap up the week of musical fun we went to the Clifton Center this past Thursday to hear the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rhiannon Giddens belted out Waterboy, an Odetta song, covered Leadbelly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jean Ritchie, as well as singing a foreign language song, perhaps in Gaelic. The Carolina Chocolate Drops also did Sandy Boys, Hit ‘em Up Style, and Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig).

The “Drops” played a variety of instruments, including an 1859 replica banjo with an amazing sound as well as bones, some made of wood and some of actually bone, which brought an authenticity to the minstrel songs. Rhiannon talked about the history of minstrel music and how the banjo was one of the ways African Americans had shared music with white Americans.

The memorable opening act, Birds of Chicago joined the encore, which included Read ‘em John. By then, Rhiannon also had invited a tall, thin young man, dressed in bib overalls, who had been among the concert-goers dancing in the aisles, to join them on stage.  He said his friends called him “Long legs” and he danced like George Clooney in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”, only better.

“Wow!” the first word out of my mouth at the end of the concert.  My husband simultaneously said the same thing, as did the friendly stranger who had been sitting next to me.  We all were standing on our feet applauding after the encore, wishing for more.  

The next day, as my spouse and I ate breakfast, we both were singing the words to one song that had wormed its way into our ears:  “Corn bread, butter beans and you across the table…”

I capped the week of foot-stomping music by buying my own pair of foot-stomping boots for our next concert.  

*This column was written with significant contributions from my spouse who forty five years ago this Halloween took me on a first date to listen to a concert. He now has taken me to more concerts than I can count.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Allison Grimes vs. McConnell: Who is the Truth Teller?

Relying on her right, under the Kentucky Constitution’s guarantee of privacy in the ballot box, Kentucky Democratic Senate Candidate Allison Lundergan Grimes has refused to say whom she voted for in the last two Presidential elections. As a result, she has been pilloried by the media, including the supposedly liberal press.

However, Grimes refusal to answer that one question is not even in the same ballpark as the dishonesty and lack of candor we see from McConnell. The good Senator, who has fed at the public trough for the last three decades, wouldn't even meet with the Courier Journal to answer ANY questions. How about some editorials saying the public has a right to expect its public servants to meet with the press and answer at least SOME questions? I think this should be Strike One for McConnell.

And when McConnell does speak he does so not only with a lack of candor but an egregious lack of honesty. For example, our current Senator McConnell, who happens to be the Senate Minority leader, claims to be ignorant about climate change.  Probably the greatest problem facing our times. He’s either dishonest or grossly incompetent to do his current job.
Strike Two.

Senator McConnell, who has made his mission for the last eight years to try to bollix up Washington and our government to the point of deadlock, also claims that KYnect, the popular health care web site in Kentucky, that was made possible by the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed “Obamacare”, can continue even if McConnell’s is successful in “rooting out” Obamacare. Some have called McConnell’s claim “disingenuous”. It’s not. It’s such a giant lie that McConnell’s nose should be a foot long.

You see, KYConnect, is popular in Kentucky became it has resulted in health insurance for half a million Kentuckians. Obamacare, on the other hand, is still as unpopular in Kentucky as the President whose name it bears.  Go figure—since KYConnect and Obamacare are one and same in Kentucky.

McConnell’s claims are bald-faced lies. That’s Strike Three. 

Still, the media is trashing Grimes as if her refusal to answer an irrelevant question is the same as McConnell’s lies. Once again, go figure.

I think we need to get a grip on what is really happening.  McConnell is waiting to have one more “gotcha” to tie Grimes to the President because of his unpopularity in Kentucky. An unpopularity that is undeserved given his many accomplishments. Maybe it’s time we called things by their real names. And it’s long since time for us to call McConnell OUT.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Creative Problem Solving

I stumbled on a couple of interesting, apparently unrelated, pieces that got me to thinking we have been looking at problem solving all wrong.

First, on the way to an aerobics class at the gym I caught part of a fascinating story on public radio. The person who was being interviewed has written a book about his mathematical insights. He had been an ordinary guy, managing a futon store, and before that, a mediocre student in school. The latter achievement only because he paid a better student to do his homework.

Then, he was hit in the back of the head by two muggers. That was about 10-12 years ago.   Suddenly, on the way home from the hospital, he had these new insights. The world literally looked different to him.  And he now has come up with amazing mathematical innovations and insights. He goes around lecturing, developing curriculum for schools, and writing amazing books about math. Previously his least favorite subject.

As with most things on public radio, since I listened to it in the car on the way to run errands or go to the gym, I didn't hear the whole thing and may have gotten a few details wrong. I didn't catch either the math guy’s name or the title of his book.  But I suppose if you really wanted to find it you could Google the topic "smacks to head resulting in math genius". How many stories about that topic can there be?

When I got back from my exercise class and was trying to work up the energy to do something more for the rest of the day, I read a few articles in the New York Times. One title struck me—“How Exercise May Protect Against Depression”. Feeling smug, I had just exercised after all, and thus apparently had unknowingly kept depression away, I read the article.

The article was based on mice subjects. They are small and easy to keep, they get stressed like people, and although scientists are not yet psychoanalyzing them, at least I don’t think there are any mice psychoanalysts, the scientists can extrapolate when the mice are depressed from certain micely behaviors.

So using mice to run on little tread mills or whatever to see if the exercise relieves symptoms of stress makes sense. But, as I read further, I discovered the scientists did not make the mice run on little tread mills, or engage in some other sweaty exercise. Instead, the little mice subjects had not been exercising at all. The scientists took a short cut and got mice that already had the muscle chemistry of mice who had exercised. These lazy mice just sat around drinking sugar water since that's one of the behaviors of non-depressed mice. Sort of like a lot of soda-guzzling people.

At that point in the story I felt like I’d had a smack upside the head. Why were people suppose to go to the gym and exercise when you apparently can get muscles that already act like they’ve been exercising? And why weren’t scientists exploring whether people could bypass this whole sweat and fatigue thing at the gym and just jump ahead to the pre-exercised muscles?

Going back to the story about the new math genius, you have to wonder if a good “hit upside the head” (I picture a sort of  Gibbs-from NCIS-smack, typically given to Tony DiNozzo when he needs to have his attention refocused) might be just what the scientists need to get them thinking in a totally new direction.

And is that’s all anyone of us needs to utilize our full creative powers? Maybe I’ll just smack myself in the head rather than go sweat in the gym. No telling what insights I may have.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Southern Fried Old Birds

You know what they mean when they say an “old bird”. Some days I feel like one. Too much trouble to do a lot of cooking. After the kitchen and floors are clean you don’t feel like messing things up again. And besides, we are enjoying a lot of vegetables from our garden. So why heat and mess up the kitchen when you can eat a healthful meal without cooking. Nevertheless, on occasion I go to the trouble and make a time-consuming cooked dinner.
A recent night was one such occasion. A few days earlier we had stopped at the farmers’ market and supplemented our homegrown vegetable stash with some turnips, bell peppers and potatoes. And we bought a package of chicken quarters from a vendor we had not seen before: $22 worth of organic, free-range chicken pieces. The chicken pieces were frozen solid so we let them gently defrost in the fridge a couple of days.
Then I embarked on making that favorite from an old family recipe—fried chicken. My mother, although she never would have claimed to be a gourmet cook, could give old Colonel Sanders a run for his money. Her recipe was fairly simple, dip the chicken pieces in an egg batter and then in seasoned cracker-crumb and flour mixture.  To make the crust extra thick she usually double-dipped the pieces. And if you wanted to have the chicken tender as well as crispy, after frying the chicken crust to a golden brown you placed the pieces in an oven-proof pan and baked them for a bit.
I had to make a few modifications to the recipe to make it gluten free since I have celiac disease. But that was not an issue as I've adapted many recipes. This time I used a mixture of almonds and rice chex, seasoned with some fresh rosemary to boot, all ground into a nice crumb in the food processor. The egg wash was thinned with fresh buttermilk.
The chicken pieces were so numerous and the smell of chicken frying in the heavy cast-iron skillet so delectable I was tempted to make a few phone calls to see if I could round up some hungry friends who wouldn't mind the last minute invitation and mess of crumbs covering every surface. But some angel must have been on my shoulder as I resisted the urge.
When we sat down to eat our dinner of fried chicken, accompanied only by salads from the garden and baked potatoes, I couldn't wait to hear my husband’s reaction since it had been a long while since I’d made this favorite. Instead of “yum’s”, when I asked how he liked the chicken, he said “I haven’t been able to get a bite. We’re going to need steak knives.”
So we got out steak knives and tried to cut into the chicken. The little meat or tissue on the chicken, once you sawed through the chicken skin was so tough and fibrous it defied chewing. I tried to get a taste of one of the thighs. My husband tried three pieces and never found an edible bite.
I thought cock fighting was illegal in Kentucky. But these roosters must have given their lives in some combat. Or else they had died of old age and starvation. Their carcasses should have been buried, not sold. As Barnum reportedly said to Bailey, I guess I was one of those suckers.

We enjoyed my homegrown salad and baked potatoes. But we still had a crust-splattered stove, counters and floor, a large skillet and two baking pans to clean and a whole platter of inedible chicken to dispose of.  Next time I go to the farmers’ market I’m buying only from those farmers I know. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Have a Nice Flight or Fight?

I recently wrote about the “reclining controversy” on planes, “Reclining or Not, A Eureka Moment in Air Travel”, 9/2/14. Since I wrote that blog post, a total of three flights have been diverted over passenger disputes related to the reclining, or not, of seats.
Contrary to what has been claimed in the press, I did not believe that passengers suddenly had just gotten more surly and uncontrollable due to the stress of air travel. Though there’s no question air travel is stressful and unpleasant these days.
Rather, in my September 2nd post, I placed the blame for the recent spate of in-air fussing on the greed of the airline industry for cramming passengers like too many crayons into a box. I’m happy to report that I’m not delusional in believing the space allotted each passenger on planes keeps getting smaller.
According to Consumer Reports based on data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the airline industry is, to use Consumer Reports’ language, “shoehorning” us passengers into our seats these days.


Crowded flights and reclining seats don't always mix. Consumer Reports has tips on how to keep your cool at 36,000 feet.

Preview by Yahoo

The article notes that Ellen Bloom of Consumer Reports  goes on to say, “she is disturbed by media reports that frame these battles as problems between passengers, when in fact it's a no-win scenario deliberately created by the airlines. ‘It's like building a swing set in the middle of the street and then acting surprised when kids get hit by cars,’".

No wonder passengers are starting to fight over space. People like any other mammals, start to fight if you squeeze them too tightly together. Rather than announce: “sit back and relax”, the flight attendant should be saying, “squeeze in and hold your breath”. Maybe the flight attendant can come around with some knock-out pills instead of a beverage cart. Giving passengers drinks only provides something for us to throw at each other.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rabbit City or Blazer and the Bunnies

I never set out to live with rabbits. They just came.
We have a small, fenced yard with several enclosed or raised gardens. A vegetable and herb garden. A lavender garden, a sage garden, a parsley garden, and so on. We also have a couple of small statues in our yard. One of a bunny.
This year I don’t need a statute to see a rabbit in our yard. In fact, our yard is teeming with rabbits. This is the year of abundant, giant tomatoes and also an abundant supply of rabbits. But surprisingly, the multitudes of rabbits are not eating many of the tomatoes.
Early in the spring we spied a young bunny, casually eating the broad leaf of some type of weed that grows in our yard. We do not spray chemicals in our back yard, or on our small garden, so there are a lot of weeds. We thought the bunny was cute. And we were glad the bunny was eating weeds rather than our lettuce.
We figured the bunny and any hopping relatives or friends, would quickly scoot under or between the slats of our fence and be gone for good as soon as Blazer, our good-natured, 18 month-old collie, ran into the yard. Instead, this bunny headed towards our dog and sat under the forsythia bush inside the yard.
It became a daily game. The bunny would sometimes scoot out of the yard, apparently to tease Blazer into fits of barking as she sat just beyond the fence. Other times, this bunny, or another one, I can’t really tell the sex or identity of any one bunny, would run towards Blazer, then quickly scurry under a bush or an equally poor hiding place and wait until our dog was upon it to make a getaway under the fence surrounding the yard. We were not happy about the risky game bunnies were playing with Blazer but at least, as yet, no rabbit remains were found as a result of a bunny misjudging Blazer’s speed and hunting skills.
The heat of summer and abundant rain followed a cool spring and after a good lettuce crop, largely unmolested by rabbits, our herbs, tomatoes and peppers continued to do well. Soon the tomatoes threatened such an overabundance we were forced to seek new recipes and friends to find an outlet for our supply. I thought about putting out a small stand in our front yard. But we live in one of those neighborhoods where that would have resulted in a threatening letter from the neighborhood association. As well as a neighborhood-wide email warning against any such further vegetable stands.
The rabbits continued to frolic in our yard, in fact, throughout the whole neighborhood and the nearby park. But bunnies ate very few of our tomatoes. A bite here or there. Either they did not like our tomatoes or else they had some other abundant source of food.
In the dregs of summer we realized we had entered bunny nesting season.  Blazer furiously dug and barked under a bush close to the house. When we went out to check on him we discovered he had dug a little below the mulch to expose a number of tiny baby bunnies. He had not injured any of the bunnies so we left the babies in place.
My husband ingeniously devised fencing to keep our dog out but to allow the momma bunny in. That worked for a few days. Blazer was unhappy with the arrangement and spent any time he was allowed in the yard testing the perimeters of the bunny fence. We didn't want him to get a taste for rabbit so we limited his yard, and increased his walking, time in the park.  He did not get through the fence to inspect the bunnies up close again.
Then one day when we had friends over for brunch and Blazer had a few unsupervised minutes in the yard we discovered he was digging furiously in the lavender garden. He had dug all around one of the lavender bushes so that it sat cock-eyed. Running to the yard we pulled Blazer out of the lavender garden and inspected the place where he had been digging.
There, amidst the uprooted lavender branches, sat a very small bunny who was cowering and squeaking. We thought we’d gently put him back in the nest around which the protective fence still stood. But upon inspection that nest was now empty and apparently abandoned.
Not being bunny experts we improvised and dug a small hole in a mulchy area just outside the backyard fence. A place we thought momma bunny might have chosen if she had been a little smarter. The baby squealed as we carefully transported him with gloved hands, but settled down as soon as we added some lavender sprigs over the hole.
Meanwhile Blazer continued furiously digging in another area of the lavender garden. We tried to convince him the baby bunny was gone. But he knew better. As we looked in the area where he had been digging, we found another nest with many bunny siblings. We were not sure we could adequately fence this area. So we carefully dug them out and slid them into a large plastic cup filled with some of the nest coverings.
They all squealed as if we were Godzilla and they the Japanese tourists. But again, upon the addition of some lavender sprigs they settled down long enough for us to transport them the few feet to the nest we had just constructed outside the fence.
There’s a reason for the expression “dumb bunny”. I thought, if you live with rabbits for very long you see just how dumb they are. Why didn't momma bunny build her nest outside our fenced yard where Blazer couldn't go? Then I had another thought. Maybe momma bunny was the rabbit who had been playing games with Blazer all summer. Perhaps she trusted him to be gentle with her progeny and also keep cats and other predators away. In any event, we feared that whatever Blazer’s intentions were towards the baby bunnies, they would have been injured by Blazer’s big teeth and playful ways.
I don’t know what accounts for the abundance of tomatoes or dumb bunnies this year. I've resisted the urge to peak under the nest coverings. But now I see the babies starting to venture outside the nest a few inches. They look fat and well fed. Blazer barks at them furiously from the other side of the fence.
Much as I don’t really want another half dozen more bunnies running around our yard I’m happy momma bunny apparently has accepted her newly-constructed home and our efforts at relocating her brood. Since we aren't hunters, rather than enjoying hasenpfeffer in tomato sauce with oregano, we’re eating all manner of tomato-based dishes and hoping these bunnies go elsewhere when they are big enough, at least for awhile.

There’s one other lovely outcome for us. From all of his digging in the lavender garden to look for baby bunnies, Blazer, and our home, are as aromatic as a lavender bouquet. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reclining or Not, A Eureka Moment in Air Travel.

Recent travel-related news items caught my and a lot of people’s attention: the fight between passengers over leg space and reclining seats. See, for example,

(Two incidents between passengers on American flights over the right to recline their seats resulted in two diverted planes, one arrest and a heated, global debate.)

Please now allow me a short diversion, or circling of our destination, before I get to the topic of reclining seats.
I had been sitting at my keyboard trying to think of a eureka moment (or is that an eureka moment?) so I could write about it to enter a contest in a women’s magazine. Unfortunately, I've had no recent eureka moments. But thinking about the contest did cause me to think about my last true eureka moment, which came at about age seven.
I still remember the feeling—as if I’d been struck by lightning. Or by the seat back on an airline when the person in front of me reclined and smacked my knees.  Anyway, at the age of seven or so, like a sudden smack in the knee, it dawned on me that what adults were saying was not meant literally. I may have been a little slow until that point. Maybe I still am.
But at least since then I've know that God is not “up there” in church behind the stained glass windows. And when your guests say they are going “to hit the road” they are not going to go outside and slap the pavement. I've even progressed to the point of knowing that when someone tells you “the check is in the mail”, at best, they only mean they have an intention of paying you--sometime.
Getting  back on track to our destination, the reclining, or not, of airline seats, I’m firmly on the side of both travelers. I hate being squished in a seat where you can’t put your seat back. And I also hate having the person in front of me recline his or her seat. I've come away with bruises on my knees when a large passenger in front of me abruptly reclines the seat. Did I mention I have only moderately long legs? But they usually are touching the seat in front of me, even without the seat back reclined. No doubt because most airlines have crammed so many seats on their planes.
The only party in this little dispute with whom I do not sympathize is the airline industry. I expect they may use this recent incident to steal the “bright idea” of an economist who says we should negotiate for money over this space, essentially have the person behind us on the plane pay us to not recline.

I think the party who will make money from this idea is the airline industry. I can easily see them imposing another fee, as if there are not enough airline fees: an added charge for passengers who want to recline and/or to sit behind seats that do not recline. The airlines may even present this as a “safety fee” to keep passengers from fighting about the bit of space offered by reclining or not.
In addition to charging more fees for everything from checking to or carrying on luggage, food, drinks, pillows, headsets, WiFi, you name it, the airlines also are in the process of trying to squeeze more and more passengers into less and less space. Soon they will have us all standing up as we fly shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Such a “seat pattern” has even been proposed by some airlines. Why not just strap us to the roof of the planes? Mitt Romney did that with his Irish setter on his car. He says the dog loved it. Maybe we will too.
In our haste to our destination we should not overlook there is a eureka moment here. Probably the revelation hit the two arguing passengers, the pro-and con-recliners, sometime around the time the pilot announced he was landing in Chicago and they were tossed unceremoniously out on the tarmac.
What does one do then? Try to book a new flight to your destination? Will TSA let a passenger who just caused a plane to make an unscheduled stop back on another plane? Or does the still-angry passenger need to stand in line and try to rent a car? I wouldn't want to be in line with him or her at the car rental.
Maybe the kicked-off-the-plane passenger stands in another line for a restroom, looks in the mirror, and has a revelation. As miserable as air travel now is, it’s certainly got to be worse, stuck in Chicago’s O’Hara airport when that was not your intended destination.
Knowing that most of what adults say is not meant literally, even if they use the word “literally”, is still one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life in dealing with other people. When the airline says your plane will be on time, the airline hopes you enjoyed your flight, or that TSA security is keeping you safe, you know it’s a lot like saying “the check is in the mail”.  Good intentions at best.
But please, airline industry, and I do mean this literally, don’t come up with a plan to make all of us passengers stand up through the flights or strap us to the roof of the planes. Good intentions will not be good enough in the event you try to squeeze even one additional passenger or bag onto my flight. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alien Lights or the Ghost of George Vanderbilt?

It started with a long weekend trip to Asheville, NC. I was meeting two high school girlfriends there.  I've known them for more years than anyone--except those with whom I share DNA.
          Since I was driving some 250 miles each way, and being the safety conscious person I am, I took my thirteen year old Toyota—yes, you read that right—I drive a 2001 Avalon that’s traveled 117,000 miles and was built before Toyota started having recalls and “issues”—to the nearby Valvoline Center. After a short flurry of activity, my old Toyota’s oil was clean, her lights and tires checked out fine, and I had even treated her to a new air filter. As soon as I packed my bags I would be ready to go.
But on the drive home to pack, I noticed a strange light flickering on and off on the floor on the driver’s side. Since the light was near the hood release, I thought it might indicate the hood was not closed properly. I released the hood and tried to close it again. I even enlisted my husband in the project and asked if he’d close the hood tightly so I was sure I wouldn't have any trouble on the trip.
The drive to Asheville was uneventful except for delays on some highways due to construction traffic. After I arrived we started sight-seeing, enjoying the fine restaurants for which Asheville is famous, and drinking a little wine. We were having an all-around good time.
On Friday night, after touring the Biltmore Estate we stumbled upon an old-fashioned, outdoor concert by Tuxedo Junction. We bought a bottle of Biltmore wine and enjoyed the selections from three or four decades of music. People danced the conga line in the grass, couples two-stepped and waltzed, and little children chased each other, throwing handfuls of grass they had torn from the lawn.  
Driving back to the hotel afterwards, I was startled to suddenly see the very bright light reappear, on and off near my left foot. The flashing light was most distracting, pulling my attention abruptly to the floor of the car from the dark, twisty roads of the Biltmore Estate where I feared a deer or other animal might jump in the road.
Even though as we drove, we joked about this light being an alien manifestation or the ghost of George Vanderbilt, who perhaps didn't appreciate us concert-goers trampling his estate, I had concluded the flashing light was a non-alien, non-ghostly, real life safety hazard. By the time we were back at the hotel I had decided to research the problem and, if necessary, get professional help the next day before doing any more significant driving.
So when we arrived at the hotel I took the car manual in with me and read it from cover to cover. Don’t ask why it took me thirteen years to read the manual. I suppose I just never had the need before now. My old Toyota really has been a trouble-free ride.
I learned many things from the manual. Who knew my car had a button for overdrive? And what was overdrive? And did you know the front airbags deploy if you drive over a cliff? I guess that’s a good thing, at least if it’s a smallish cliff and you don’t crash on rocks.
There are lots more nuggets of information in the manual. But the significant point seemed to be that some Toyota models have interior foot lights. I hadn't seen any light fixtures on the car floor. But this still seemed the most logical explanation.
After further research on the Internet, I concluded a bulb or wiring could be loose or maybe there was a fuse problem. I was proud of my automotive diagnostic skills. You really can solve anything with an Internet connection, can't you?
My friends and I agreed on Saturday morning we’d try calling the Toyota dealer and visit a service station if the dealer could not tell us how to fix the faulty light.
On Saturday morning, after confirming online that my Toyota dealer was open on Saturdays, I called. Only to be greeted by voice mail. So I left a detailed message about the faulty interior foot light I had diagnosed and asking the service department to please call and help me figure out a solution to the distracting light. The dealer never called back.
Then off we drove, with Google maps’ assistance in hand on our cell phones, in search of a service station we hoped employed actual mechanics. After several unsuccessful stops we spotted a Valvoline service center and I pulled in.
 I explained in great detail how I had diagnosed the problem and added that the mysterious light had first appeared after I’d had my oil changed at a Valvoline. So maybe they had tripped a light or fuse somehow? In jest, we mentioned alien lights and ghosts. But, I added, in any event, I sure hoped they could find and fix the disturbing light problem.
The nice young Valvoline man said he’d look at it and see if he could help, even though they did not ordinarily service interior lights. He stepped to my door as I got out of my car and pointed to where I had seen the light. As I did, the young man said, “I see the light and I see your problem. It’s the flashlight next to your seat.”
A moment's pause to realize what was happening was followed by peals of laughter from all of us and everyone at Valvoline.
Years ago, my husband had gotten me a large flashlight for emergencies and slid it next to the driver’s seat. I had completely forgotten about the flashlight. The flashlight had been jarred slightly and now was turned so the on button was pressed every now and then. So much for aliens and ghosts.

We offered to pay the Valvoline service man for his time. But he assured us the hearty laugh, as well as the addition to his supply of “dumb blonde jokes”, was quite sufficient payment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Batting Averages in Baseball, Life and Writing.

It's summer time. Nearly every night my husband tunes in to watch a baseball game. And when he has the chance he goes in person,  sometimes with me tagging along, to watch baseball.  Since we are St. Louis Cardinal fans, if our team makes it into the play-off games we watch every night, and try to snag tickets to at least a game or two to root them on in person. The roar in Busch Stadium for a St. Louis home team in a play off or World Series game is like no other sound I've heard. Some of my incipient deafness no doubt the result.

There are no stadiums filled with cheering fans for novelists. Nevertheless,  instead of watching baseball last week and this week, along with nine other aspiring novelists, I'm at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival taking a two week course in novel writing. Our teacher, Amber Dermont, has published  to critical acclaim "The Starboard Sea" and, more recently, a collection of short stories: "Damage Control: Stories".

Yesterday Amber suggested considering sports as a metaphor in our writing efforts: for the story arc, the good or bad loser, the good or bad winner. No doubt in many life activities there is much to learn from sports, including when writing a novel.

Per the class instructions, my classmates and I came to the workshop with manuscripts of between 30,000 and 75,000 words. In some cases, even more than 75,000 words. The writers have worked on their novels for anywhere from a few months to a few decades. The novels are strikingly different in topic and tone.

Several of my classmates have remarked they are reluctant to tell friends, and even close family members, how much time and effort they have spent on their manuscript. How do you explain you spent months, or even years, working on a novel? Particularly considering that in today's publishing world, what are the chances a first novel by an unknown will be published? I can tell you: very slim. Unless, of course, we go the route of self-publication, which has become much easier now that electronic publishing is readily available.

I doubt that our teacher or even John Updike have ever been cheered by a stadium-sized crowd, at least for their writing.  So why do people struggle to write novels? Certainly writing a novel is a struggle. Why does anyone write, for hours, days, months and years, alone in a room? Why do we devote weeks of our time, travel thousands of miles, and spend thousands of dollars to attend a class? All in the hopes of perfecting our game? A very good question.

This morning I read the New York Times article, "In a .338 Lifetime Average, Every Day Counted", http://ms/T2FOy1, about Tony Gwynn, who died of cancer on Monday at the age of 54. Tony was known for his positive attitude towards the game of baseball. He loved the game and  tried every day to perfect his craft. Like Tony approached baseball, we writers who not only love the written word, but love novels, are here trying to perfect our craft.

It's one thing to love to read novels. You may even be able to tell good novels from bad. And good writing from bad writing. But being able to produce a good novel is something else entirely. I suggest it's a bit of a mystery why some  novels work and others do not.

Writing is essentially a solitary occupation. One usually sits by oneself in a room with a computer, or a pad of paper and tries to put coherent thoughts together into words, sentences and paragraphs. A little like Tony Gwynn spending countless hours watching game videos to try to become a better hitter. A would-be novelist could devote years of his or her life to work on a piece of fiction and not receive any validation as to whether the novel he or she is writing is of any merit. Let alone know whether the manuscript is publishable.

What's remarkable about a writing workshop is that each of the students, who have been laboring alone, then gets to not only hear feedback and suggestions. But also we would-be writers get to socialize with our own tribe of writers. And hope that our teacher who has conjured some of the magic of novel writing in her own life, can help us discover our own magic for writing a novel.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ladies Afternoon at the Bar

On a recent afternoon I sat at a bar. A number of women my age on either side of me. We all vied for the attention of the young men on the other side of the bar. 

But no, this was not a cougar bar with the ladies drinking apple martinis and slipping large tips to the young men. Rather, we were sitting at the Apple store's "Genius Bar", trying to figure out how to get our latest gizmo's to work. 

The Apple Store was one of Steve Jobs so-called inspirational ideas. Put a storefront at the mall where customers can buy all their Apple-related products and devices in one place. Customers can come in and browse, get help and, also, just play with the latest Apple products.

Some people scoffed: customers would never go to a mall to buy a computer. Turns out, the scoffers were very wrong: people come in droves to the Apple stores. 

And did you know--in the afternoons, ladies, of a certain age, flock to the Apple Store? I know. Because I was one of them.

My reason for coming to the Apple Store was a lack of memory. Not the human kind, though I often have that too. The laptop kind.

I thought I’d made an appointment with a “One on One” trainer. As it happens I was confused on the date I actually had scheduled my appointment. No problem. The young men (yes, there are some women who work at the Apple store, and even some older folks. But most of the personnel are young men) at the Apple Store said they could fit me in at the Genius Bar. So there I sat at the “Genius Bar”.

To my right an older lady was saying, “I have no idea what my password is for this…or that…”  To my left another lady was saying, “I can’t believe my laptop is out of warranty. It’s only seven years old.”  Another woman in my age bracket breathlessly pleaded for help, “I can’t find my play list. It was right here just yesterday.”

As I said, my problem was memory. When I repeatedly tried to update the software for my laptop I’d get messages that I didn’t have sufficient memory.

So at the Genius Bar, the nice young man helped me copy all of my photos onto to the thumb drive. You know how easy it is to take photos with an iPhone? And since there’s no film involved it seems you might as well take as many photos as you want. And keep them all. And with the Cloud all those photos were on all my Apple devices. 

The young man helped me delete all the photos from my laptop. After we made sure the photos actually were on the thumb drive. Then he helped me download the new software. While I waited, I browsed some of the latest clever devices--ooh, look at the new iPad Air. An even lighter version of what I already have. Cool.

The Apple Genius Bar gives new meaning to marketing genius and to the Cougar experience. Here we were, all of us older ladies. Sucking the brains and techno skills out of the young men, like—well, like, martinis through a straw. And ready to plunk down our credit cards for new techno toys.

All of this took most of the afternoon. So if any you husbands, are wondering  where your wife is all afternoon—you might want to look for her at the “Genius Bar” in the Apple Store. A least she’s not at some other kind of bar--drinking martinis with a younger man. But Apple martinis might prove to be cheaper.  You may have to watch what new Apple toys she's bringing home.