The Hit Parade

Aside from encouraging small children to risk life and limb by dashing out in front of huge tractors or nervous horses to scoop up handfuls of candy, I don’t quite see the point of parades.

In summer parades, spectators who forgot to bring sunscreen swelter on hot street corners to watch neat lines of musicians sweat in march tempo and members of civic organizations try to simultaneously smile and keep their balance on lurching floats. In winter parades, spectators who forgot to put on long underwear clutch insulated cups of hot cocoa while they shiver on cold street corners to watch riders on illuminated floats try to simultaneously keep their balance and move closer to the strings of Christmas lights in search of warmth.

Maybe I’m just jealous, since my own opportunities to participate in parades have been limited.

As a college freshman, I did ride on a float in the homecoming parade. Not as a queen candidate or any other kind of celebrity, but as one of several girls representing female students through the college’s history. Since it was October, I did appreciate being chosen to wear the 1890s dress instead of the 1920s flapper costume. I even learned a couple of things: First, a thick towel folded over a cord, which is then tied around one’s waist, makes an acceptable substitute for a bustle. Second, historical novels and movies notwithstanding, sitting down in a ladylike manner while wearing a bustle isn’t easy.

Since I played the piano instead of the flute or the tuba, I wasn’t in marching band in high school, either. This didn’t bother me, especially after seeing how miserably hot the musicians looked in their uniforms for the 4th of July parade. At least most years they were placed in line ahead of the horseback riders.

One year, however, the town of Gregory, SD, in order to schedule an acceptable carnival, held its 4th of July celebration two weeks early. The date happened to be my mother’s birthday. Of course, the family joked about the big celebration in her honor.

Maybe that’s what gave us the idea. My sisters and I borrowed our aunt’s car, enlisted her help to keep our mother from wondering too much about why we weren’t watching the parade with the family, and joined the procession. There were the marching bands, local political leaders, VFW, American Legion, businesses, civic organizations, brand-new tractors, beauty queens in convertibles, and the steam calliope. And us—four girls in a 1962 Nash Rambler station wagon with a homemade sign on each side reading “Happy Birthday, Mother.”

We got some laughs, some puzzled looks, a few shouted “Happy Birthdays,” and some disappointed looks from little kids who had hoped we would at least throw candy. Most important, though, we got pleased surprise from our mother. She hadn’t guessed the secret even though she wondered “where the girls are.”

Maybe the whole parade wasn’t for her, but our part of it was. She deserved it, too. Many years and celebrations later, it’s still the best parade I’ve never seen.

Categories: Just For Fun | Leave a comment

Swim Suit Suitability

Once every 20 years or so, there are a few things a woman just needs to do. Like make a drastic hairstyle change. Remodel the house. Toss the old couch. Change careers.

Or buy a new swimsuit.

Over the past two decades I have bought three cars and one house. I have sold three cars and two houses. I have moved twice, updated one kitchen, and replaced several significant pieces of furniture. How many swimsuits have I bought in all that time? None.

You may think this is because I am overwhelmed by the whole process of finding one. Well, yes, I am, but that isn’t the reason. Really, it takes me years to wear out a suit. I rarely go to a lake. I live a thousand miles from the nearest oceans. I haven’t dipped a toe into a public pool for years. I don’t do any tanning. Not only did I find it too boring when I was a teenager, but I’ve lost any taste I might have had for it since the dermatologist starting freezing spots off my skin. About the only time I need a swim suit these days is to take advantage of a hotel pool or hot tub when I’m traveling. And that’s on the rare occasions when I have remembered to pack the suit.

So once I find a suit, it will last a long time. A good thing, too, given the stress of the whole swim suit buying experience.

First there’s the sticker shock. Eighty-five bucks for a scant handful of Spandex and a couple of straps? Really? Per square inch, that’s as expensive as a registered Chihuahua puppy figured by the ounce.

Then there’s the challenge of finding something suitable. Avoiding the barely-there bikinis clearly meant for women several decades younger and a few (Okay, several. Well, maybe ten. Okay, okay, twenty.) pounds lighter than me. Avoiding the suits with flowing tops longer than today’s dresses that are clearly meant for women substantially larger and somewhat (well, maybe a little bit) older than me.

Then comes the actual trying on. Taking three or four possibilities into a dressing room and making sure the door is locked. Stripping down, noticing every odd mark your socks and jeans leave imprinted on your skin. Struggling into a suit (discovering halfway into the experience that it would have been easier to don the top of a two-piece by stepping into it than by pulling it on over one’s head). Then, sucking in everything that can be sucked in, taking that dreaded look in the mirror and checking out the rear view.

During swim suit season, dressing room mirrors really ought to have stickers with emergency hotline numbers for Weight Watchers and the nearest available fitness center.

The last time I tried on swim suits, twenty years and ten pounds ago, the “tankini” had just hit the market and was the only style available in that particular store. I put one on, tugged the bottom of the top down to meet the top of the bottom, and looked in the mirror. The suit didn’t look too bad. Then I took a breath. The top rolled itself up my tummy like a window shade. It wasn’t inspiring.

This time around, I managed to find a two-piece suit that covered the things that needed covered but that stayed put if I breathed. It didn’t bare things that didn’t bear baring, but neither did it come down to my knees. It was reasonably comfortable. It was even semi-stylish enough not to scream “woman of a certain age who can’t keep everything sucked in like she used to.” Close enough; I braced myself and bought it.

Thank goodness, that’s taken care of for the next twenty years.

Categories: Fashion | Tags: | 3 Comments

Don’t Follow Good Advice Too Closely

As bike wrecks go, it wasn’t that spectacular. I was pedaling along with the rest of the family—not racing, not trying to ride with no hands, not doing anything except follow my stepdaughter along the bike path. Until she cut a curve too short, swerved off of the pavement, tried to swerve back on, and crashed. I jumped/scrambled my bike over hers somehow and crashed just beyond her.

Yes, I was wearing a helmet. But my cheek still connected with the concrete hard enough to make my ears ring. Until then, I always thought seeing stars only happened in cartoons.

While I sat on the pike path collecting myself and realizing that blood was starting to drip from my scraped wrist, a woman who had been behind us stopped to inspect the damage. She told me earnestly, “That’s what can happen when you follow too closely.”

In that moment, I learned one of those difficult life lessons that are so good for one’s character.

Oh, not the lesson about staying a safe distance behind another cyclist. (And why is it, anyway, that people who ride bicycles are called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers?”) Believe me, I had already figured that out for myself.

No, what was good for my character was realizing I had developed enough internal wisdom and poise that I did not swear at this woman or call her names. Not only because I was too shaken up. Not only because it might have shocked the children. But because a) it wasn’t worth the trouble, and b) I recognized that she was well-intentioned and even caring in her own way. Never mind that her way was interfering, pushy, bossy, annoying, and condescending.

Or, worst of all, that she was right.

It’s a good thing, all these years later, that I’m over it.

Categories: Living Consciously | Leave a comment

The World As Seen By . . .

Not everyone sees the world the same way I do. By now this no longer surprises me, though it sometimes leaves me bemused, baffled, or bewildered. I do understand, really I do, that having a perspective different from my own does not make people “wrong.” Of course, bless their hearts, it doesn’t necessarily make them right, either.

We are told that the best way to understand someone else’s perspective is to walk a mile in their shoes. Or at least to walk a few steps, if those shoes happen to be three-inch heels with pointy toes. So in the interest of broadening my perspective, here is how I imagine the world must look to some of the people whose point of view is different from mine.

Celebrity chefs: We all have plenty of time to cook and ample funds to buy only the finest organic ingredients. We all have convenient access to lavishly stocked grocery stores and markets selling local produce. Our kitchens all have generous pantry space fully stocked with exotic ingredients that are never past their expiration dates. We have a complete and well-organized array of cookware and utensils. Our knives are always sharp. We have no picky children who will only eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off. We know and appreciate the difference between quinoa and spelt, and none of our family members or close friends think kale is a NASCAR driver.

Fitness instructors: Everyone looks better in Spandex. We all have time to work out every day. And we all want to.

Anonymous online commenters: All politicians are corrupt power-grabbers. All public employees are incompetent and overpaid. All rich people are greedy, selfish crooks. All poor people are either (a), hard-working, downtrodden victims, or (b), lazy, addicted, cheating parasites. Everyone who disagrees with the commenter is stupid. The world is not only headed for hell in a handbasket; it’s hovering just above the flames and going down fast.

Home/decor/lifestyle magazine publishers: Our living spaces are creatively enhanced with art objects, old stuff repurposed into quirky new stuff, pops of fashionable color, and artfully placed heirlooms. We redecorate beautifully for every season and holiday. Our children’s toys are so cleverly sorted and stored that they are always neatly put away. Our closets are optimized and organized. Our socks all match.

And best of all, our homes have no clutter. No boxes of stuff stacked in the garage, no plastic bins bulging with Christmas lights that may or may not work, no guest rooms with under-the-bed stashes, no closets that are dangerous to open. The materials for all our creative ornamentation magically store themselves . . . somewhere.

Twitter users: Every opinion, philosophy, bit of life wisdom, or clever thought can be expressed in 140 characters—and should be.

Two-year-olds: Other people? Who cares how they see anything? It’s all mine!

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | Leave a comment

What Mother’s Day Cards Don’t Say

(I wrote this several years ago. It’s still true.)

I hate picking out Mother’s Day cards. Oh, not because I don’t love my mother. I do. I also like my mother, respect her, admire her, and enjoy her company (except maybe for all those times when she beat me by more than 50 points at Scrabble). I’m deeply grateful that she’s a part of my life. But it’s still hard to find a card that suits her.

Mother’s Day cards are generally divided into two styles. First there are the neutral ones, those with the carefully worded, noncommittal greetings. They’re generic enough for almost anyone. You might send them to your mother-in-law, or your neighbor, or your aunt—or your mother, if the two of you didn’t get along very well. Those don’t exactly convey the loving message I’d like to send.

Then there are the other cards—the soppy, sentimental ones. These must be produced by writers who are trained by attending a boot camp for greeting card writers. They spend six weeks locked in windowless rooms, where they are required for 15 hours a day to read and reread Little Women and the more sentimental novels of Charles Dickens. Only then are they considered qualified to write Mother’s Day verses.

The problem with these cards is that they aren’t written to or about real people. They try to invoke an idealized version of “Mother” who is endlessly patient, kind, understanding, loving, dedicated, noble, and self-sacrificing. This mythical creature is a mishmash of June Cleaver, Ma Ingalls, and the Virgin Mary, with touches of Florence Nightingale and Lassie thrown in for good measure.

Real mothers aren’t like that. Nor, in my opinion, should they be. Still, I love my mother, and I’d like to send her a suitable card. If I could find one, these are some of the things it might say:

For my mother—
• Whose walls are decorated, not only with her own beautiful quilted creations, but also with antlers of her own deer.
• Who patiently spent long-ago summer evenings helping small daughters fish when she surely would rather have been left in peace to tend her own line.
• Who taught me that preparing a meal for 25 or 30 people doesn’t have to be a big deal.
• Who took loving care of her own elderly mother and mother-in-law.
• Who taught me that, in times of crisis, sentiment might be noble but practical action is a lot more help.
• Who taught me that half the fun of playing Scrabble comes from knowing the meaning of the words you use—but there’s still nothing quite like using the “Q” on a triple word score.

And who taught me that being an adult—whether you’re a parent or not—means showing up, day in and day out, and doing what needs to be done. And if, in return, someone gives you a little chocolate once in a while, that’s not a bad deal.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Cold, Hard Realities of April

It’s spring in the Black Hills. The trees are budding, the daffodils and dandelions are blooming, and some rhubarb stalks are almost big enough for at least a quick tart, if not for a whole pie. And on this mid-April morning they’re all shaking their heads under a covering of cold white stuff and wondering, “What the hell happened?”

Snow, of course. Nothing to be surprised about. Perfectly normal and seasonal weather. Yet somehow, it still manages to catch us by surprise every spring. As in the following overheard conversations:

One robin to another, as they huddle together under a tree branch: “That’s the last time we use that lousy discount travel agent! Next year, I swear, we’ll go online and check the weather all the way to Canada before we even think about leaving Texas.”

Yearling deer, ditched by their very pregnant mothers, pawing through a couple of inches of snow: “Mom told me, ‘You’ll be fine; there’s new green grass everywhere you look.’ She never said I’d have to dig for it.” “Yeah, and why didn’t they warn us about eating ice-cold tulips? I’m getting a brain freeze.”

Mr. Finch to Mrs. Finch: “Hah! Guess you can quit fussing now about my watching baseball instead of spring cleaning the birdhouse. I told you it was too early.”

The back end of an earthworm to the front end: “Dig a little faster! I’m freezing our behind off up here!”

An unambitious amateur gardener: “I knew it wasn’t time to clean out the flower beds yet. But don’t those dry stalks look pretty in the snow?”

It’s a perfect spring day for things like baking, making soup, or curling up with a good book. Or, if you happen to be a procrastinating taxpayer, for getting down to the cold, harsh realities of Form 1040.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Leave a comment

Billboards I Would Rather Never See

“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.”
Ogden Nash

While I agree with my favorite poet on the relative esthetic merits of billboards and trees, I must point out that Mr. Nash never drove across western South Dakota on I-90. You do see many more billboards than trees there, not because the former are so plentiful but because the latter are so scarce. As a result, anyone making this drive regularly—even someone who appreciates the sweeping beauty of the prairies as much as I do—can’t help but develop a certain appreciation for billboards. By now I’m practically an expert on the finer points of billboard advertising. Such as:

For heaven’s sake, use a readable font in colors that contrast with the background.

Those signs printed on fabric-like vinyl and attached to a frame (technically, I suppose, they aren’t “billboards”) are probably much cheaper and easier to create than old-fashioned painted signs on boards. But western South Dakota may not be the ideal environment for them. Your brilliant advertising message is hard to read when it’s streaming in wind-shredded tatters from the bottom of the sign.

Entertaining humor is a great marketing tool. Just ask the people at Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug.

Tacky humor, however, is just, well, tacky. Two cases in point:

A relatively new restaurant in Rapid City has several new signs. As a frequent traveler, I appreciate the variation in the scenery, especially since the “Q” in the restaurant’s name is handy for the alphabet game. But I wince every time I pass their sign that announces, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid.”

Really? Never mind the minor detail of whether the nice people from Kraft Foods are okay with the use of their trademarked brand name on someone else’s billboard. I realize that, since the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a particularly tasteless way to describe someone’s blind adherence to an idea. But I wonder whether the marketing person who came up with the line for this billboard really knew where it came from. “Hey, let’s link our restaurant to a deranged cult leader named Jim Jones who led a murder-suicide of over 900 of his followers. What a great way to inspire people to come in for a pleasant meal!”

Then there’s the brewery/restaurant whose marketing people, apparently inspired by the old Burma Shave signs from the 1930’s and 40’s, have put up billboards with line-by-line limericks. However, I’m not sure the modern ones quite compare with the classics. Here’s one of the originals:

“If harmony
is what
you crave,
then get
a tuba
Burma Shave.”

Now here is the brewery’s attempt:

“There once was a farmer named Leer
Who owned a cow who gave beer.
Reds, stouts and others
Poured out of her udders . . .”

And the last line’s too tacky to quote here.

I’ll just say that it involves potty humor of a type to make five-year-olds giggle and adults with any taste at all cringe. And as if tacky and tasteless aren’t enough, the last word of the fourth line (I so wish I were making this up, but I’m not) is spelled “utters.”

Next time I drive across I-90, I really need to take along a good audio book and keep my eyes on the road.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

How Dry I’m Not

It’s fast. It’s loud. It starts at the wave of a hand and stops in an instant. It goes by names like “The Xelerator.”

This is not a sports car, a motorized skateboard, a video game, or a stomach-dropping carnival ride. It’s the latest generation of an invention that for decades now has gladdened the hearts of janitors and annoyed many of the rest of us: the public restroom electric hand dryer.

The basic idea is simple enough: dry your hands with a gust of warm air instead of a paper towel. Neater, more convenient, and maybe even cheaper. The originals have been around long enough that everyone knows the routine: Push “on” button. Rub hands together under warm air. Turn hands to dry front and back. Become impatient with how long this is taking. Wipe hands on jeans. (Preferably your own; using someone else’s is poor restroom etiquette and can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings.) Leave restroom with the dryer still running and your hands still damp.

The whole process is so last century. Hence, enter the modern super-dryer: sleeker, faster, and presumably more effective. I wouldn’t know, personally, because I’ve never been able to allow one to finish drying my hands. The old ones were merely annoying. The new ones are terrifying.

First, there’s the noise. The second you get your hands close enough to turn the dryer on, it starts to scream like a jet engine revving up for takeoff. The normal instinctive reaction is to clap your hands over your ears. This stops the screaming—well, the machine’s screaming, at least—though it leaves you somewhat wet behind the ears. On the brighter side, wiping your hands on your hair does help to dry them.

If you are brave enough to leave your hands under the dryer in spite of the noise, you encounter something even more frightening. The gust of hurricane-force warm air actually makes your skin ripple. The skin on the back of your hand slides away from the blast as if it isn’t quite attached to your flesh. It looks like something out of a third-rate horror movie: “Restroom Zombies,” maybe, or “The Creature from the Black Loo.”

If you are eight years old, you may think this is the coolest thing since Grandma accidentally stuck her fingers together with superglue. If you are a few decades older than that, you may have already noticed places where your skin seems to be getting too loose for you. Having this peculiar phenomenon dramatically called to your attention by a screaming machine full of hot air is neither flattering nor appreciated.

I have to say, though, that the new hand dryers probably do conserve a great deal of energy. Oh, not because they are so efficiently designed, or so much faster, or shut off automatically. Because, after trying them once or twice, countless numbers of us will choose one of two alternative energy-saving solutions.

One: Wash hands. Dry them on jeans. Make a wide circle around hand dryer as you leave the restroom.

Two: Don’t wash hands at all. It’s a small sacrifice, after all, to save the planet. Not to mention your hearing and your serenity.

Categories: Just For Fun, Odds and Ends | Tags: | Leave a comment

Last Straws In the Bottom of the Barrel

Sometimes, in search of brilliant and entertaining ideas—or even just adequate and mildly readable ideas—it doesn’t matter how diligently I scrape the bottom of that barrel. There’s just not much there but a couple of fragments of rust and an old paper clip.

Or maybe I should say a few grains of flour and a couple of weevils. I assume the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel” comes from the days when all sorts of food staples were stored and shipped in barrels, and if you were scraping the bottom you’d better hope the freight wagons would get in soon so you could replenish your supplies.

It’s an idiom best used carefully, though. I remember years ago, moving from one small South Dakota town to another, my then-husband and I were having a hard time finding a house to rent. In August, sleeping in a tent in a campground at the city park was temporarily doable (I remember watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on someone’s TV set there), but as a long-term housing solution it lacked appeal. We had gone from searching for a house to searching for a short-term rental apartment that would do until we found a house.

Desperation is sometimes a spur to creativity, and one day it occurred to us that the historic old hotel at one end of the main street might have apartments. We stopped in to ask. The man at the registration desk, who was on the older side of middle aged and obviously the manager if not the owner, was friendly enough in a dignified and formal way. I told him we were having a terrible time finding a place to rent and in checking at the hotel we were scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Not a good idiom to use. He informed us stiffly that the hotel was “hardly the bottom of the barrel.” I scrambled to explain that I wasn’t referring to the quality of their rooms but to what we assumed to be the small likelihood that they would have apartments to rent.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t have any. Not, after I had put his back up and ruffled his feathers, that he would necessarily have told us if they had.

He wouldn’t have gotten his knickers in a twist, forcing me to backpedal and eat my words, if I hadn’t used the wrong idiom for the occasion. What I meant wasn’t “scraping the bottom of the barrel” but “grasping at straws.”

Even in today’s world, where the only exposure most of us have to a barrel is hearing news reports about the price of oil, and we have only the vaguest idea of the actual size of a barrel of crude oil, it’s easy enough to make sense of “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” But what about “grasping at straws?” We use it to mean using anything we can find, even when it’s clearly irrelevant or inadequate, but where does it come from?

I suppose it could describe skinny cows or goats out in a field during a very dry year, munching at stalks of straw because there isn’t any real grass left to eat. Or a hungry donkey or horse reaching for the last few bits of hay in an empty manger. But that isn’t quite the same as “grasping.” And, of course, grasping at straws is not the same as the last straw, that final small bit of weight that broke the back of the poor overloaded camel.

When one is grasping at the straw in the bottom of the barrel, there’s just one thing left to do. Look it up. According to the idioms section of The Free Dictionary, “grasping at straws” comes from the image of a person in danger of drowning who clutches at flimsy reeds in a futile attempt to stay above water.

Now there’s a happy and inspiring idiom for you. Because if you are going under for the second or third time, grasping at some frail reed gives you only a slim chance. Will it be enough to save you? Fat chance of that.

Categories: Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Read-Fried Potatoes

According to our father, one of my sisters, as a teenager, made the best fried potatoes he’d ever eaten. The secret? She would let the potatoes brown until they were just thiiiis close to burning, which meant they came out perfectly, deliciously crisp. Here’s how she—and perhaps others of us in the family, who are certainly not going to admit who I am—does it:

Peel and slice however many potatoes seems about right for the number of people you’re feeding. Go ahead, toss in one more—these will be so good, people are going to take second helpings.

Chop an onion, or two, or half of one, depending on your taste.

Heat oil in an iron skillet.

Toss the potatoes and onions into the skillet, spread them around, turn the heat down to medium.

Sit down at the kitchen table with whatever book you are currently reading. Resume reading until you begin to smell potatoes on the verge of burning. Finish paragraph, mark place in book, put it down, stir potatoes.

Repeat as needed, until chapter is finished and potatoes are brown and crisp on both sides. Salt to taste (the potatoes, not the book) and serve.

See? So simple anyone can do it. There are, however, a couple of important secrets to success.

One is careful selection of the main ingredient. Oh, don’t worry about the potatoes. Red, russet, large, small, peeled, unpeeled—it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have on hand will work just fine.

No, what you have to choose wisely is the book. One with especially long paragraphs can be a problem. Even worse is a gripping mystery or thriller, especially if you’re near the end, and in just two or three more pages you’ll uncover the murderer or the hero will escape and succeed in saving the free world, and you just can’t put it down. Right and justice may prevail, but that’s small consolation in exchange for a skillet full of charred potatoes.

A deeply emotional story has its pitfalls, as well. Say the long-lost lovers have just been reunited, or the almost-villain has just redeemed himself with a noble self-sacrifice and is breathing his last, and you are reading as fast as you can, with a lump in your throat and a damp wad of tissues clutched in your hand. Even if you manage to come up for air and another tissue in time to keep the potatoes from burning, there’s a serious risk of them turning out soggy and oversalted as a result of overflowing tears.

The second secret is, no matter how exciting a scene you’re in the middle of, put the book down while you attend to the potatoes. Continuing to read while you stir might seem like a good idea, but like so many other methods of multi-tasking, it is less efficient than it seems. For one thing, you risk spattering hot oil all over your book or e-reader. Too many little blobs of grease on the screen, and not only is it hard to make out the words, but the device might not respond to your finger-swipes when you want to turn a page. (Please don’t ask me how I know this.) And you don’t want to be that library patron—the one who returns books splattered with yellow spots and smelling like the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant that barely passed its last inspection.

Besides, with your attention on your reading, there’s a good chance of serious stirring errors. Either you’ll miss half of the potatoes and burn the others—in which case you might just as well have sat at the table and finished the chapter. Or you’ll stir too forcefully and risk knocking the hot skillet completely off the stove. Then you’ll not only have a mess to clean up, but you might get a serious burn. Even worse, if the iron skillet falls on your foot you’ll end up with broken bones and have to be taken off to the emergency room.

If that happens, you’ll get no potatoes. Although, while you wait for the doctor, you will have plenty of time to finish your book.

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | Tags: | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers