Just Wondering . . .

Just in case you need some things to wonder about the next time you are out for a walk, stuck in traffic, or having trouble sleeping:

Why are they called “buildings” instead of “builts”?

Why do we have cool names like Triton and Europa and Ganymede for all the other planets’ moons, but ours is just “the moon”?

Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

Why is corn served as a vegetable instead of a grain?

Why does your hair always look its best on days when you are either in some remote solitary corner at work, or you have no plans to even leave the house?

Why do a “fat chance” and a “slim chance” mean the same thing?

Why are people who ride bicycles called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers”? And should the increasing numbers of the latter who are switching to three-wheelers be called “trikers” or “tricylists”?

Why do the shoes that seem to fit perfectly in the shoe store hurt your feet when you put them on at home? Do they shrink in the car?

I agree with Jonathan Swift’s assertion that, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” But who was the first brave soul who not only ate rhubarb in its natural state (as in, not sweetened and in a pie), but proclaimed it good and fed it to her children?

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Time to Put the Top Down

It’s a damp, chilly day here in the Black Hills, a gentle reminder that, even though tomorrow is supposed to be in the 80s, fall will be here any minute now. Time to hurry up and finish those summer projects like staining the deck and spraying the thistles. Time to consider closing the windows, and think about putting another blanket on the bed, and wonder if it’s too early to stash your sandals in the back of the closet.

Time, if you happen to own one, to put the top up on your convertible.

Of course, if I ever owned a convertible, I would leave the top up all the time. I’ve never seen the advantages of driving down the highway with the sun blazing down on the top of your head (which is bare because the wind blew your fashionable sun hat away several miles back), and the wind tangling your hair into snarls and whipping tears out of your eyes, not to mention the occasional contact lens.

However, since I try to be a nonjudgmental and open-minded person, at least when people are watching, I thought it only fair to focus on some of the advantages of driving a convertible. Such as:

Convertible owners contribute more to the local economy. Oh, not just through the money spent directly on the car, but in collateral ways. Like replacing contact lenses more frequently than drivers of conventional cars. Seeing the dermatologist more often. Buying more moisturizer, sunscreen, and eye makeup. Replacing hats and scarves regularly. More frequent visits to the hair salon. Even if you decide the best solution to the problem of “convertible hair” is to keep it short—say, about one inch long all over—you’re going to need a trim every couple of weeks.

If convertible owners lock their keys inside the car, they can just climb over the door.

Convertible owners don’t need protein supplements, thanks to all those bugs they inadvertently swallow.

A convertible is a mobile karaoke station. Want to share your musical talent with the world? No problem. If you’re singing along to the radio as you drive, everyone else at the stop signs will hear you loud and clear.

If you take a convertible through the self-serve car wash, and it’s a beautiful day, and you just happen to be thinking of more important things than remembering to put the top up—you can wash the inside of the car, your hair, your new leather sandals, the important papers in the glove compartment, and your emergency stash of chocolate all at the same time.

Of course, all these advantages pale beside the most important reason for wanting a convertible: the coolness factor. When you’re in a car that cool, people notice. Plus driving a convertible is great fun, or at least so I am told. Especially on those perfect days when the weather is just right for driving with the top down—not too cold, too hot, too wet, or too windy.

Here in western South Dakota, times like that occur from 5:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. on summer mornings from about June 31 through mid-September. Not only will driving a convertible at that hour be a lovely experience, but the two dog walkers, five serious joggers, and three sleepy newspaper carriers who are out on the streets are sure to be impressed.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel | Leave a comment

A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

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

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