Digesting Everything I Needed To Know

Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but I didn’t. Possibly because I never went to kindergarten.

But I did learn, not quite everything I needed to know, but a lot of useful and interesting stuff from Reader’s Digest.

In a household where both parents and all four daughters were avid readers, there was a lot of competition for the fat little magazine when it showed up in the mail every month. My memory is that it often had the bad timing to arrive on housecleaning days, which meant Mother would stash it somewhere until the work was done. There it sat on top of the fridge, out of sight but not out of mind, its unread jokes and stories a distracting temptation while we vacuumed and dusted. It was a strong incentive to be the first one to finish, of course—though, oddly enough, quite often the person who got to it first was Mother.

Reader’s Digest was a predictable mix of material that was mostly condensed and republished: a long excerpt from a nonfiction book, at least one story of a dramatic rescue or recovery, short pieces of insight and observation, and, of course, the jokes scattered throughout the pages like chocolate chips in the cookie.

I read the whole thing. It’s a bit surprising, all these years later, how many things I remember. (None of which I can think of right this minute, but I could call you later when they surface in my brain. Would two a.m. be convenient?)

I do recall the awfulness of one story about a girl who was about 11 or 12 (close to my own age at the time) and dying of leukemia. During her last days in the hospital, her parents told her if there was anything she wanted, they would do whatever they could to get it for her. She had just one wish: to see her brothers and sisters one last time. But hospitals then didn’t allow kids under the age of 14 to visit, and rules were rules. As I remember it, the parents didn’t even ask. The best they could do was sneak the oldest sister in for an illicit visit. The unkindness and unfairness of that sad story made me angry at the time. It still does.

As an adult, I continued to subscribe to Reader’s Digest for years. While its formula didn’t vary much, the content did evolve over the years as society changed. This was brought home to me once when I bought a box of books at a garage sale. In it was an aging little paperback of “Playboy Party Jokes.” I opened it, prepared to be suitably shocked. But the book was even older than it looked; I had already read most of the jokes in Reader’s Digest.

One of my high school teachers warned us not to use Reader’s Digest as a source for any assignments. Always go back to the full version of an article wherever it was originally published, he said, because “they chop off the ending to make room for all the jokes at the bottom of the pages.”

This was sound enough advice as far as it went, but even as a teenager I knew he was mistaken about the editing process. The Reader’s Digest editors may have made lots of cuts, but they used their red pencils more like scalpels than hatchets. It’s an example I try to follow as an editor myself. Possibly some of my current or former clients may disagree. Unfortunately, their comments had to be deleted due to lack of space.

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Lighting Up the Neighborhood

Christmas lights, for me, are like beautifully wrapped gifts or elaborate holiday cookies and meals: I’m not up for doing them myself, but I’m happy to enjoy the results of other people’s labors. After all, somebody has to be the appreciative audience.

The lights on some houses in our neighborhood are familiar year after year. There’s the one with a waterfall of tiny white lights along the eaves, the one with a little train that appears to be moving, and the one with several lighted reindeer who often provide a glowing backdrop to evening meals for their living cousins.

One nearby house on a major street used to get more elaborate every year, highlighting every horizontal or vertical line on their house, draping lights over every tree and shrub, stringing lights and ribbon the length of the fence, and filling the large yard with lighted reindeer and artificial trees. Then one fall the yard was decorated with a “For Sale” sign, and now the new owners merely put one line of lights along the roof. My theory is that the previous owners decided to sell because they just couldn’t keep up with their own Christmas-lighting reputation. I imagine them now, having sold all their decorations at a garage sale, living happily on a dark, inconspicuous dead-end street.

One yard features a small light-draped bush and a slender sapling with lights wrapped around its trunk and several large flashing snowflakes in its dainty branches. This is quite attractive from one direction. If you approach from the other side, though, an unfortunate alignment of shrubbery means you see what appears to be a lighted reindeer whose head, no doubt whirling with the pressure of getting all around the globe in one night, is about to explode.

My favorite light display, however, isn’t the most spectacular or elaborate, but the one that makes me chuckle every year. Two thick bushes in the yard are simply decorated with strings of colored lights—arranged horizontally in precise, perfectly spaced, perfectly straight rows. I always imagine the homeowners out there doing their decorating with the help of a couple of rulers and a level. My inner perfectionist approves of the symmetry; my inner anarchist wants to sneak over there and impose some randomness.

And my inner underachiever is just grateful that our house isn’t very visible from the street, so we have a perfect excuse not to put up Christmas lights at all.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | 2 Comments

Thankful for Small Things

When it comes to being thankful, of course what matters most is family and friends—those wonderful (well, most of the time) people who make life such a joy (well, most of the time).

But I’m grateful for plenty of minor things, too. Such as:

Bathrobes. On a cold morning, nothing quite matches the cozy pleasure of slipping into a soft, fleecy robe that wraps you in warmth from chin to ankles. Then there are luxurious silky robes that make you feel like a Hollywood star from a lavishly costumed 1950’s movie. Cool cotton robes just right for summer mornings. Practical terrycloth robes. Given enough cash and closet space, I could easily become the Imelda Marcos of bathrobes.

The taste of a crisp slice of apple with peanut butter on it. And the fact that grocery stores now have so many scrumptious varieties of apples—Gala and Fuji and Honeycrisp and more—besides the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smiths I remember from childhood.

Peanut butter itself, for that matter. (Hint—try it in oatmeal.) Thank you, George Washington Carver.

Seeing deer in our yard. Sometimes, like this morning, it’s the flash of a white tail disappearing into the trees. Sometimes it’s a browsing mule deer that acknowledges us with the twitch of a big ear as we walk past, but who isn’t even concerned enough by our presence to stop chewing.

My African violets that bloom so beautifully year-round, in spite of the haphazard care that they get.

Colored pencils and calligraphy markers.

The washer and dryer right there in our very own laundry room.

Bad puns and wordplay. Such as the editor’s favorite breakfast, synonym rolls. Or the fish in schools who sometimes take debate. Or, perhaps appropriately to the season, the fact that the roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. Who got that way, of course, from too much Pi.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Too Much Reality for Reality TV

What might happen if a TV reality show followed you around for a few weeks and filmed everything you did? Could your life compete for viewers with the lives of celebrities like the Kardashians?

If a reality show camera crew visited our house, here is what I imagine they might report back to the producer:

Do we have to follow her every day when she takes a walk? How come a woman with 17 grandchildren walks so fast? Easy for her to go marching along like she has a drill instructor inside her head—she doesn’t have to carry a camera. It’s a lot of work to lug this thing back and forth to get different shots. Not that there’s anything much different to film—once you’ve seen one deer or one flock of turkeys, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

And why do these people get up so early? He’s supposed to be retired, and she works at home, which as far as I can see means she sits in front of her computer and writes a few words now and then, in between playing solitaire and checking Facebook. It’s not like they have to beat rush hour traffic and get to work by 8:00 a.m. But there they are, all bright-eyed at 5:30 in the flipping morning. Today, I kid you not, they were lying in bed at 6:00 a.m. talking about what Shakespeare sounds like in the original Klingon! I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

And the way they spend their evenings. Boooring. Mostly, he sits in his chair with his book and she sits on the couch with hers. Once in a while he reads bits out loud about people nobody’s ever heard of, like some old general named Marshall, I think it was. So that gives us five minutes of sound, at least. Otherwise, whoop-di-do. We’ve had to resort to close-ups of how fast her eyeballs move back and forth across the pages—I’ve never seen anybody read that fast. Sometimes they play some domino game called Mexican Train. But nobody cheats, nobody argues, nobody throws dominos when they lose. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the drama? Where’s the viewer interest?

When a couple of the grandkids came over, we thought we might have a chance for some conflict and maybe a temper tantrum or two. Not so much. Where’s the drama when she never tells them no? And let’s face it—little kids are cute, but you can only use so many shots of the expression on a one-year-old’s face when he eats a dill pickle. Besides pickles right out of the jar, she fed them peanut butter by the spoonful, so that at least gave us a little bit of “yuck factor” footage. But aren’t grandmas supposed to bake cookies? And if I have to listen to Hop on Pop one more time, I swear I’m going to throw this camera through the nearest window.

Last week they took a road trip. Hallelujah, we thought—finally, something to see. Fat chance. You know what passes for scenery across the whole western half of South Dakota? (We’re in South Dakota, right, not North Dakota?) Anyway, the “scenery” is prairie. All the way to the horizon. With pretty much nothing on it but cows. There’s a tree every mile or so, and you have to drive for miles and miles before you see what they call a “town.” What if you had car trouble out there? Who would you call? Ghost Town Busters?

But today was the last straw. She was actually cooking for a change, but at the same time she was dancing in the kitchen to Johnny Cash, twirling around and waving a sharp knife in time to the music. I think she was doing a polka. The Kardashians never did anything that embarrassing.

This is way too much reality to ever attract any viewers. Let’s go with Plan B. Have you heard back yet from that woman who trains boa constrictors as service animals?

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Gross! You Really Eat That Stuff?

Given any control over the remote, I wouldn’t have chosen to watch a television show about “bizarre foods.” But stuck in a crowded waiting room, with no reading material, in a seat close to the mercifully muted TV set, I didn’t have a lot of choice.

The show featured closeups of food in the process of being caught, cleaned, or cooked—all of it artfully arranged for maximum grossness by some luckless intern food designer. The limp tentacles of octopi dangled over the rims of bowls, squishy shellfish oozed slime, and various sorts of crabs displayed their eyestalks and claws to best advantage. These shots were interspersed with closeups of attractive young women whose busy bloody fingers were gutting fish and skinning piles of songbirds the size of robins. All this culminated with closeups of the intrepid reporter tasting various completed dishes and commenting with his mouth full.

All in all, it was enough to make me vow never again to forget to charge my Kindle.

Really, though, for anyone familiar with butchering chickens or cleaning fish or pheasants, there wasn’t much about the foods on the show that was truly bizarre. Well, maybe except for the tentacles.

“Bizarre,” would be a better description of some of the things that creative cooks, with strong imaginations and even stronger stomachs, do with sausages or spaghetti or frosting for Halloween parties.

But all those things, disgusting as they might be, aren’t half as bizarre as plenty of the stuff you can buy in any grocery store. Such as items so processed that the manufacturers feel obliged to clarify on the label that it’s intended for human consumption, with descriptions like “processed imitation cheese food” or “meat product.” Or “fruit” snacks that are made primarily of sugars, starches, and filler, but that are touched by actual blueberries or strawberries somewhere on the assembly line.

Then there are the weird forced marriages of substances never meant to go together, like jalapeno bacon ice cream or chocolate pumpkin pie.

And let’s not even get into the secret home-alone comfort foods we might enjoy in private but would never eat in company. (I promise not to ask about yours, and I’m certainly not telling you mine.)

Of course, whether food seems normal or weird depends mostly on what we grew up eating. My own limited middle-of-the-country palate recoils at anything spicier than a green bell pepper and thinks “curry” is something you do to horses. One of my friends, raised in the Southwest, thinks green chili is a basic vegetable but is repulsed by rhubarb. In truth, I suppose, almost every dish that is someone’s “bizarre food” is someone else’s “just like my mama used to make.”

Note to anyone who grew up eating my cooking: please, be nice and keep your comments to yourselves.

Categories: Food and Drink | Leave a comment

Toasted Dust and Toasty Toes

There’s nothing quite like the cozy pleasure of turning on the furnace for the first time in the fall. Oh, you can postpone it for a while, even when the mornings are getting cool enough so you wake up and are tempted to pull the covers up to your neck and stay tucked in for another few minutes. You know that during this “shoulder season,” you might need to put on a jacket to go out and get the morning paper, but it’s still likely to get up to 80 degrees before lunch time.

But eventually comes that first genuinely cold morning when you know the time has come. You get out of bed, reach for your short summer bathrobe, and realize your goosebumps are telling you it’s time to scurry over to the closet and get the heavy winter robe instead. You put it on, then perch on tiptoe to minimize the contact between your bare feet and the cold floor while you rummage through the clutter in the bottom of the closet for your slippers.

Wrapped up but still shivering, you go down the hallway and nudge the thermostat up from 50 to 70. Almost immediately the furnace, which has been hibernating since the middle of May, comes to life with a soft rumble. Warm air begins flowing out of the vent in the bathroom, bringing with it that distinctive autumn aroma of toasted dust.

When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee, you linger at the counter while it brews, your toes stretching in the delicious warmth coming out of the vent below the cupboard. You curl up in your chair under an afghan, cold fingers wrapped around your first cup of steaming coffee, contemplating the cold-weather pleasures of soups and sweaters and bread baking in the oven. The house begins to surround you with comfort.

And you didn’t have to do anything but adjust the thermostat. No chopping wood, no carrying coal, no building fires. It’s practically a miracle. All you’ve had to do is wave your magic wand—er, pen—over your checkbook and pay the gas bill.

*By the way, it’s much easier to celebrate the joys of crisp fall mornings on a late-October day when the predicted high is 70 degrees.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 2 Comments

The Unlocked Room Mystery

All I meant to do was change my clothes. Really. I didn’t mean it to turn into a big drama.

First, a little background. The family was gathered at my youngest sister’s house the day before our father’s funeral. Now, any time you have a houseful of a couple of dozen people who are sad, stressed, and exhausted, there’s potential for plenty of drama. Especially when it’s right before lunch.

I took the slacks I had just pressed into the guest room, closed the door, changed my clothes, and started to leave the room. The door wouldn’t open.

At first I assumed I had simply locked it by mistake. But no matter which position the lock was in, or which way I turned the knob, or how much I jiggled and pushed and pulled on it, the door stayed shut. The knob turned in my hand, but the latch didn’t move. Apparently, something was wrong with the mechanism.

I was acutely embarrassed. Here we were, in the middle of a sorrowful family occasion, with everyone grieving, and I had to divert people’s attention from taking care of difficult and important things because I couldn’t, for God’s sake, get myself out of a room that I didn’t mean to lock myself into?

But finally I had to admit it was time to summon help. The next time I heard someone out in the hallway, I knocked on the door, got the attention of a passing niece, and explained my predicament.

And the family, in our own particular way, sprang into action. Warning: here comes the drama.

My niece went and told my sister the homeowner, “Your sister is locked in the guest room.” Her response was “Which sister?” I guess I should consider myself lucky that, when she found out which sister it was, she didn’t opt to just leave me in there.

A self-appointed committee of problem-solvers gathered outside the door. Now, you’d expect these first-line rescuers to work together in a helpful, courteous, and cheerful manner—after all, one was an Eagle Scout and three were civil engineers.

But other family members chimed in, as well, helpfully and just a trifle too cheerfully. Here is a sample of their advice and support:

• “Should we make some pancakes to slide under the door?”
• “It’s a good thing somebody brought that thin-sliced ham; it would fit under the door.”
• “Don’t panic in there: heavy breathing will just use up the oxygen.”
• “We could get one of those chocolate brownies under the door if somebody stepped on it first to mash it flat.”

While the problem-solvers pondered outside the door, I explored inside the room. Where I discovered:

• If this turned into a long siege, quilting magazines were the only available reading material. However, there were board games in the closet.
• The piece of plastic that someone slipped under the door didn’t work to budge the latch. Too bad it wasn’t a credit card; while I was waiting for rescue, I could have done some online shopping. Oh, but I didn’t have my phone. Never mind.
• Despite all the mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, I don’t know how to pick a lock with a nail file, a bobby pin, or a knitting needle.

After due pondering, the rescue committee came up with a solution. My brother-in-law slid a screwdriver under the door and told me to take off the doorknob.

It takes a long time to remove a couple of two-inch screws which are threaded along their entire length, too stiff to turn with one’s fingers, and close enough to the doorknob that you have to reposition the screwdriver every half-turn. Especially when there’s way too much laughing going on outside the door, interspersed with moments of silence when you begin to wonder if everyone has forgotten about you and gone off to have lunch.

Which, of course, they didn’t. Once I got the screws out and took the doorknob off on my side, they were right there to remove the lockset on the outside.

The door still wouldn’t open. One of the engineers figured out the problem: a broken or jammed thingamabob inside the mechanism that kept the latch from moving. He popped loose the offending part, the latch shifted, the door opened, and I was free. Just in time for lunch.

Of course, the meal was garnished with more good-natured smart remarks. But as one of my sisters said, “We needed that laughter.” It certainly was better than yelling, blaming, and hysterics. Some families may do drama with more, well, drama—but this method works for us.

I do think, though, that somebody could have slipped me a squashed chocolate brownie.

Categories: Family | 2 Comments

King Midas and P. T. Barnum Walk Into a Museum . . .

I so hoped this was a hoax. It sounds like a hoax; it looks like a hoax; for all I know, it even smells like a hoax. Apparently, though, it isn’t one. There really is a new art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum which is a toilet: functional, flushable, and open to the public (no, not that kind of open; it’s in a private bathroom). Oh, and it’s made entirely of gold.

This is not merely plumbing, ladies and gentlemen; this is Art.

According to the Guggenheim’s website, the installation provides “an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” True enough, I suppose. Visitors to art museums aren’t usually allowed to even touch the exhibits, much less encouraged to drop their drawers and plop themselves down on top of one.

This particular bit of plumbing-dressed-as-art was created by an Italian artist named Maurizio Cattelan. Its title, “America,” seems a bit rude to me, though the Guggenheim explains that the exhibit “evokes the American dream of opportunity for all.”

The gold was provided by an anonymous donor, whose taste may be debatable but whose wealth must not be. Though the actual cost of the raw material has not been made public, one estimate cited in Fortune magazine put it in a range of around 1.4 million to 2.5 million dollars. I suppose it would be crass to point out the many other ways that this amount of money might more effectively evoke “the American dream of opportunity for all.” Founding a company or two to create jobs, say, or funding college scholarships, or supporting addiction treatment programs. But, of course, nothing so mundane can compare to the uplifting and sublime opportunity to have an “intimate, private experience with a work of art.”

A guard (now, there’s a dream job for you) is stationed outside the door of the bathroom. Since there isn’t much danger of someone pulling up a heavy gold toilet and running off with it, maybe the guard is there mostly to make sure no one jumps the line of waiting users or settles down in the bathroom with a book. But what if someone, safely inside with the door locked, takes out a pocket knife or a fingernail file and starts scraping bits of gold from the inside of the rim? Is the guard supposed to check it after every use? And what about flash photography? Are selfies allowed?

Or maybe, like most museum guards, this one’s primary function is to respond to the most common question visitors ask: “Where is the bathroom?” Which might be necessary, since apparently the door to the restroom art is simply and tastefully labeled with only the name of the exhibit.

P. T. Barnum might have done something a bit more creative. To keep visitors to his American Museum from lingering too long, he put up signs saying, “This Way to the Egress.” People who didn’t know “egress” was just another word for “exit” would follow the signs in search of this strange creature, only to find themselves outside the door. Maybe, when the first flush of interest has worn off and people are no longer willing to wait in line for a couple of hours to see a gold toilet, the Guggenheim can renew the public’s interest with signs like “This Way to the Excretorium” or “See the Golden Throne.”

Or maybe—one can always hope—this particular bit of Art will not turn out to be a classic masterpiece. Maybe the Guggenheim will chose not to make it a permanent exhibit. After all, even King Midas found that turning everyday objects into solid gold wasn’t quite the good idea he thought it would be.

In the meantime, wherever he is, P. T. Barnum is probably chuckling. Even he probably couldn’t say just who is the butt of this particular joke. But as he well knew, the best possible source of solid gold is a gullible public looking for novelty.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | 2 Comments

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

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