Saturday, December 24, 2011

Long, long ago and far away

All right, friends - it's time to see how well the memory works. I recently got an email from a teacher pal with a long lists of things we should remember from the fifties and the sixties. Sadly, I did recall almost every single one of them, but I thought it might do me some good, in the cathartic sense of the word, to recall some more specific moments or items of my own.

First Kiss: Of course, everyone wants to remember this one, but frankly it was less than memorable. His initials were R.M. and I was about 13. I remember thinking - "all that fuss over this?"

First Date: My mom actually set me up on a "movie date" with a fellow first-grader, thinking it was incredibly cute. His mom went along with the plan, and the two of us were somewhere between confused and embarrassed. The two moms sat a few rows behind us in the theater. I haven't a clue what the movie was.

First Home: For some their first home was the one they eventually grew up in. My first house was actually a remodeled chicken coop outside Pittsburgh, PA. My parents bought half of a defunct chicken farm, and we got the half with the house on it. The only thing I remember about the house (we moved when I was 4) was the coating of ice we would get on the living room windows - on the interior. There were blankets hung over the windows to try to keep heat inside, but you could scrape a good 1/4" or so off the inside in mid-winter.
There was an episode of "Extreme Makeover - Home Edition  once that rescued a family from living in a chicken coop. I vividly remember Ty Pennington yelling that no family, ever, should have to live in a chicken coop. I felt somehow cheated.

First Car: The first auto I ever drove was a green and white, 1956 Pontiac station wagon, with no power steering or brakes, or windows or anything else for that matter. It was a tank and I loved it. It was also my high school colors, so I was obligated to drive the cheerleaders to every football game. By the  way, it was stolen three weeks after my parents bought it, and found in a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. We had just returned from a vacation in the mountains, and my Dad and I guess a friend had to drive all the way back up there to retrieve it. I'm sure it was worth it. The first car I ever owned was a 1965 Chevy Impala convertible, champagne in color, and I wish I still had it.

First drink: Well it probably wasn't the first, but it was certainly the first time I ever got really hammered. I was fifteen, and went with a bunch of friends up to the top of a hill outside our suburban New York town. At night when it was clear you could see the lights of the big city, and I guess we considered this a perfect view to get drunk by. I got totally fried, and then totally sick, on a blend of numerous remains from numerous household liquor cabinets. The next day I went to a wedding, and had to chuckle a bit at my parents' pride in the fact that I didn't watch to touch the champagne. (One of my current readers was with me that night - do you know who you are?)

First House: Yes, I have purposely skipped over a couple of "firsts", mostly because they aren't anybody's business. My first house as a married adult is the one I'm still living in, still with the same husband. It's 110 years old, and we are the first folks on the deed. Bought it from the descendants of the builder in 1975 - it had been a rental property until then. It was definitely a handyman's special. In the first two years we redid a lot of the plumbing, put in a new furnace, rebuilt the roof, did some major rewiring, painted everything, cleared and dug out the yard, fixed the front porch floor and railings, went through three or four gallons of spackle, built a new kitchen, and put storm windows all over the place. Most of that needs to be done again, after 36 years.

First baby: She showed up a couple of years into rebuilding the house, and put a screeching halt to most of that activity. She is now 34 and nicely settled into her own place with a very likable gent. I knew nothing about child rearing when she arrived, and she taught me plenty. What she left out, her little brother added after he was born, one and one-half years later. They have provided my greatest joys and my biggest worries, and I continue to adore them both.

First Grandchild: Nope! Not there yet. I guess I'll have to keep you waiting and I'll finish this another time!



Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's that time of year!

Yes! It's that time of year! The trees are almost bare, the temperature is falling (though not very far at the moment), and people everywhere are decorating their homes with tissues. Tissues? Huh?

Yes, doggone it - it's time for the first version of bubonic plague to hit the Philadelphia area, and my whole family has it. We are going through cold medicine, cough syrup and tissues like crazy. Even Costco can't keep up with the amounts needed to serve this group. And whose job is it to go to Costco tomorrow in the pouring rain and load up once more on sneezing, hacking and sniffling supplies? Mine, of course!

I also am under orders to get more soup, and I think it might be time to make a huge pot of chili. Maybe that way the germs can be scorched out of existence. I did concoct a huge pot of chicken/vegetable/pasta soup yesterday, but that has all disappeared along with the very garlicky bowl of hummus (made that this afternoon!) and just about every kind of cracker I might have on hand. The fruit juice supply is almost depleted, and I've run out of lemons for the many cups of tea being ingested. Oh, and I probably need tea bags.

This is one part of marriage and motherhood I have never completely understood. Why, when the ills of the universe have descended upon my household, am I the one selected by some higher power to take responsibility for feeding and soothing the rest of the brood? It never gets put to a vote. I have not seen a single show of hands, nor a ballot box. It all comes down to a severe case of "mom'l'doit" syndrome, and I have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

If another member of my family has a sniffle, and I am running a fever of 110 and bleeding out both eyes, I will drag myself to the car and the pharmacy to see to it that enough tissues are available. The only break I can remember in the last 37+ years of this family's existence was last summer, and literal, when I broke my foot, had it in a cast, and wasn't allowed to drive. I was still somehow expected to create miraculous healing in my household, even though I couldn't leave the living room. I did make up a few chants just for the hell of it, but they consisted mostly of curse words.

Sadly, the foot healed remarkably well, and I soon was back to my existence as family healer. Frankly, for the level of trust my family hands to me, I am surprised the neighborhood hasn't started lining up at the front door. No, I know my little group - they won't tell anyone for fear of losing even a second of my dedicated services.
So, tonight I sit here, exhausted yet awake, listening to the choruses of coughing coming from the various bedrooms around me. I should be sleeping, but my clogged head won't yet allow it.

Tomorrow will bring one to two inches of rain, more coughing and blowing, lots of aches and pains, and a trip for Mom to the local "big box" store. The big boxes will be of Kleenex or Puffs, fruit juices (with and without arsenic!) and soup or chili supplies. At least I will be treated like some level of hero when I arrive home from my adventure, and when I'm done putting everything away and/or cooking up a storm, I will find a place to lie down, and stay put.

And then, with a healthy dose of blatant sarcasm, I will wish everyone a happy cold and flu season!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On the empty nest

Nobody's home except me! This is a circumstance which up until recently was only fervently hoped for every once in a while, as I was cleaning up someone else's dishes, or finishing their laundry, or picking up extraneous crap from various perches. Now my husband works 100 miles to the north, arriving home only on weekends (and sometimes every other weekend), and my son, who rejoined the household in August, is currently about as far away as he could get without heading slightly back toward our domicile. He is in Australia.

I have discovered that I like cleaning up only my messes, and enjoy the total freedom of bedtimes, wake-up times, and meal times. I go out when I want to, where I want to go, and come back when I feel like it. I leave my keys where I want to leave them upon entering the house, and I can rest assured that they will be where I left them the next time I feel the need to drive somewhere. I put things away where I think they belong, and, miraculously, they are in the same place when I go looking for them again!

I also feel an incredible level of freedom when it comes to trash. My version of trash is not always anyone else's version of trash, and I currently have no one complaining when I toss a batch of old newspapers into the recycling. These newspapers might not be considered appropriate trash, because their crossword puzzles have not yet been completed. I am the crossword addict in the household, and if I deem a puzzle unnecessary, then I should have the final word on when it disappears. By the way, I have a huge book of crossword puzzles next to my bed, and when I finish that, I may feel differently.

I can hang things up where I want them to be, and be secure in the knowledge that my warmest jacket is right where I need it, and not buried under eight or ten jackets donated by contractors to my husband at various jobsites. It is very nice that construction people feel the need to reward project managers with warm clothing, but I have lost count of the donors, and therefore the number of jackets and/or hoodies. Did I mention that our 110-year-old house has very few closets? Our poor downtrodden coat rack sits by the front door, groaning with the weight of  logo-laden winter wear. My stuff is somewhere underneath it all.

I can watch what I want to watch on TV. I can listen to music that I want to listen to. If I want to be on the internet for fifteen minutes or three hours I can do just that. I do not have to suffer through football games between universities I have never heard of, nor reruns of movies I did not care to see when they were initially released. There are no sounds of country or pop music wafting through my house, and I do not constantly hear about the latest "you tube" offerings.

However, when I wish to discuss a recent news event with someone, there is no one nearby. When I am greeted by a burned-out light in the cathedral ceiling of my family room, there is nobody willing to climb up a ladder and replace it. Large insects can rest assured they they will not be squashed while I am home by myself, as I prefer to leave the room where they live unoccupied. This also goes for small furry animals who like to make this house their home for the winter months. I will put out friendly traps, or even the occasional box of D-Con, but disposal is left up to the next person arriving home.

The things that go bump in the night will remain unexplored, and will tend to be the subject of my sleep-jarring obsessions. The electric bill will spike a bit, as this house when dark is far less friendly than this house with lots of lights left on all night. Other budgets might just be affected, too, as my ability to fix small household emergencies is pretty good, but the big stuff requires paid help. So far, since my husband started his job in New York, the furnace has needed repair, a major electric switch has decided not to work any more, and there is an issue in one bathroom that calls for replacement of the offending appliance.

Though I really hate to admit it, I am nowhere near as self-sufficient as I like to think I am. Though my time alone is enjoyable and peaceful, I admit to preferring the company of and conversation with at least one other human. Somebody had better come home soon, or the phone bill is going to go through the roof.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

To avoid hypothermia

It is officially cold outside. Last night the temperature hit the thirties. Today it is slightly above 60. I am officially freezing. As I have aged I have noticed distinct leanings toward low body temperature, or at least the inner certainty that I am slowly, as November creeps nearer, becoming a block of ice, only to be thawed out somewhere in late May.

This conclusion has now been reached, and along with it comes a considerable number of possible solutions to the permafrost that is slowly consuming me. For instance, I can simply turn up the heat in my house. This is deceptively simple, as my husband has now discovered his inner core of estrogen, and is too warm most of the time. Every time he walks past the thermostat he turns it down a couple of degrees. Actually this serves a dual purpose for him, as he also is what you might call thrifty.

This is the other problem with trying to depend on the furnace. It means depending on a reliable supply of heating oil, at approximately $4 per gallon. Our oil tank holds 250 gallons. That comes to $1,000 per fill. When I do the calculations, I also come to the conclusion that the thermostat needs to be turned down, maybe even off.

That leads me to the second option. Staying in bed. Last night I added a second blanket to the pile of heat-retaining covers that grace my bed. Should someone come looking for me late at night, I guarantee they would have a problem finding me among the layers of flannel and feathers. You would never know that in my daily life I am quite claustrophobic, as my nighttime regimen involves burying everything from the nose down. Staying under this batch of insulation is lovely, except for one thing. No, two things: I have to eat, and I have needs that take me to the family restroom. Neither is close by to the warmth of my bedclothes.

The third answer to my dilemma comes in the form of a sturdy old wood stove that sits in my living room fireplace. It cranks out an amazing level of heat, but takes maintenance and wood. The wood is kept outside; the stove in inside. Do you see a problem developing here? Once I have frozen all of my extremities during the trip to the woodpile, I can finally light the stove and curl up in a close-by chair, wrapped in yet another blanket and clutching a good book. All is well with the world until the inevitable calls of the wild show up - woodpile, kitchen or bathroom?

The necessary trips to the kitchen or bath bring me to the realization that I cannot carry twenty pounds or more of blanket along with me. Therefore, option number four. The exact moment that the calendar says October I happily bring out my collection of turtlenecks and sweaters. The bottom half of my anatomy is clad in jeans of various types all year, so I remain  fairly comfortable up to the waist. The top half of me, however, is sorely in need of extra padding come late fall, so the turtleneck supply must be accessed.

Even the pile of turtlenecks and matching sweaters is not enough, sometimes, to counteract the icy temperatures of Thanksgiving through Easter, so the final solution has to rear its ugly head. I have thence chosen to share my secret with the world of blog readers. I wear long underwear.

It's ugly, it fits funny, and I sincerely hope I don't get into an accident so emergency room personnel will bear witness to my choice of fashion. It does, however, keep me warm. Inside, outside, getting wood, getting groceries. Everywhere I am invited I can show up unchilled and not in need of a quick thaw. No matter what the fashion police and Joan Rivers have to say about my choices, I will be cozy and comfortable instead of goose-bumped and shivering. Come on, winter, do your worst. I'm ready!

By the way, don't be surprised if you come to visit and find me wearing my extra layers, curled up next to the wood stove, and wrapped in a blanket. The only time I will complain about being too warm is in August.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Writer's Block

It's been a little more than a week since I announced to the universe that I was going to try to write something here every week. My intentions were good, but my will power is in crummy shape. I am blaming it on what we folks in the business like to call writers' block.

As is the case with any creative project that involves a piece of paper (or a computer screen), the sight of one of these blank areas is guaranteed to induce brain-freezing terror in the individual responsible for bringing it's planned contents to life. Just coming up with the first word is a panic-producing moment, especially if you have a tendency toward perfectionism. Let's see, should I start with "The" or "Those" or even "What?" Maybe "Where" or "When" would be more appropriate.

That seemed daunting until I realized that I had no idea at all what I used as the first word in this little piece. I could have started off with "Lightning" and I would have just as easily have forgotten it. That, of course, means I have to find a word with such power and presence that I couldn't possibly forget it. Maybe something unexpected like "Maudlin" or "Execrable." Even a shocker like "Death-defying" or "Oozing" might work. The problem inherent in those is figuring out what on earth to follow them with.

I keep being told by experts (in print, of course) that I should simply start writing about anything and the prose would start to flow naturally, creating a memorable piece with little effort after the first sentence. If I were to write something like that, the first word would absolutely have to be "Bull****."

I am also told that writers' block has little to do with the piece being written, but has much to do with the general well-being of the author. That may hold a bit of water, as I find when I have too much time on my hands I get stuck between projects, unable to move much on any of them. I have some crocheting to finish. There is a half-finished painting sitting on my easel. The vacuum cleaner has been plugged in to the dining room wall socket for about a week, and the spider web still sits in the corner of a close-by window. The hope is that by writing this little ditty, I can kick my behind into gear to get moving on the rest of my endeavors.

I'll let you know if that works. Right now I am doing something decisive. I'm going to bed. See you next week!


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Has someone forgotten it's October?

It's my favorite time of year, when the leaves are turning to brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, the air has a cool snap to it, and the frost is on the pumpkins. Now I must qualify that statement. It is fall, which I love, but it's currently in the 80's, the leaves aren't doing a doggone thing, and the only item in the air is record levels of fall pollen and mold. I have a cough that sounds like it's coming from a rhinoceros, and it is accompanied by a constant runny nose and the occasional bout of uncontrollable sneezing. What has happened to October?

By the time Halloween rolls around, I fully expect too see trick-or treaters dressed as California beach bums, carrying their surfboards and wearing the latest in swimwear. No heavy Darth Vader costumes this year; it's way too warm. As for the obligatory pumpkins, many of them were decimated by the monsoon season we had during late August and early September. We had over 23 inches of rain, and pumpkins do not float well.

Any blooms that remain on my personal pumpkin vine are now being eaten by an extra-hungry woodchuck. He took up residence in my yard last year, and I never get to see him at a time when I can run out and scare him away from the blossoms. The result?  I have one fake pumpkin to put on my porch this year, and it killed me to spend $15 on the dumb thing. The woodchuck will someday go into hibernation for the winter, but it is not happening any time soon.  A thermometer that says 81 degrees does not signal "Time for snuggling up and sleeping." Rather it tells me, and evidently the local vermin, that it's time for a protracted last hurrah at the expense of my gardens.

At the expense of my physical comfort, there is a bumper crop of mosquitoes this fall, another leftover from the monsoons. One trip to the recycling bin (about ten feet from the back door) and I return to the house trailing a line of buzzing buddies, and sporting a minimum of a half-dozen itchy welts.

I recently got within a couple of feet of an extremely brazen rabbit, who looked at me carefully for a full minute, then ate a petunia. I admit it made me laugh, which only, I am sure, encouraged him further. Next it will be the zinnias. Oh, and speaking of zinnias, the combination of the rain, heat, and now unrelenting sunshine has created a monster in my zinnia patch. I have some sort of zinnia-beast which has grown to a height of about seven feet, and is hiding my beautiful new blue spruce from the passers-by. I am sure the radioactive spiders are next.

All I have to say is that when the month of October arrives, I am ready to stock the wood pile, rake up leaves, bring out the blankets, and get my stock of houseplants in off of my deck. Instead, this year, the houseplants will be enjoying the great outdoors for a while longer, growing more blooms and housing plenty of spiders. The blankets are still in the closet. I am resetting the air conditioning and wearing shorts. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why we have a city of animals

I'm glad I don't live in inner city Philadelphia. It's a beautiful place, but right now it's in big trouble. The level of violence, particularly shootings, is skyrocketing. In the last week, there have been eleven people shot in different parts of the city, including a two-year-old and a ten-year-old, and their 58-year-old grandmother. Those three were shot because some girls had a fight over a boy. The baby is still in the hospital, and still critical. The others have survived (some did not in other shootings), but at what cost?

I'm sure that lots of people in city government are having long conversations about the complex reasons why this is happening, but I can tell them one good solid way to stop it from continuing:

Put more effort into your schools, and do everything you can to lower the drop-out rate!


Philadelphia schools have had a drop-out rate of close to 50% for a long, long time, and the unemployment rate of young people who have dropped out is astronomical. When teens have no knowledge to use toward bettering their lives, and no income, the result is a desperate race to get what they can through any means possible. This includes stealing, dealing, and shooting people. When young males have no education to give them a sense of self-worth, they may decide that having a gun will make them feel powerful, manly. Using that gun becomes far too easy when there is no knowledge of other paths to manliness.

Having said that, the rate of pregnancies in the poorly-educated groups of teens is always high, as another way the boys in the crowd can feel like men is to be a father. Again, with no education to give them the knowledge of the responsibilities that fatherhood brings, they soon become absentee fathers, unsupporting mates, and at best poor role models. This can all be avoided, or at least diminished, when quality education is demanded for these children.

Philadelphia recently got taken to the cleaners by a woman who was charged with fixing whatever was wrong in the district's schools. She did, by most accounts, a terrible job. It cost the taxpayers nearly a million dollars to get rid of her, a million dollars that could have purchased books, art supplies, musical instruments, and more than a few teachers' salaries. I sincerely hope that an audit will be done of the district, so that whoever agreed to her hiring and then paying-off will be held accountable. Meanwhile, our school buildings are old and crumbling, there are no books in some classrooms, and teachers are afraid for their safety.

By the way, our new governor cut a huge amount from the money allocated for city schools, as well as slashing funds for state colleges. I can't help but feel like nobody gets it.

Gets what? The connection between successful education, for a minimum of 12 years, and an adult population that is able to find work, take care of themselves and their families, and who feel the need to be good citizens. When that education is lacking to the level it is in many inner city environments, we end up with a population of feral teens and young adults, existing on poor interpretations of animal instinct. If no one ever teaches peace, our only choices are different levels of war.

Please, Philadelphia, treat your children like your most important resource. Make sure they stay in school, and make absolutely sure that your schools are worth attending. It's very nice that we have a fifty-foot Claus Oldenburg paint brush statue on our Avenue of the Arts, but I'd rather see pencils and books and art supplies for the city's under served and under educated kids.