Tuesday, June 27, 2006


When I was a very little kid, I used to amuse myself when my mother was on the telephone in the hallway (in those days the phone was a stand in the hallway) by rearranging all the books on the bookshelf, also in the hallway. Well, perhaps rearranging the books is not exactly correct. My mother said I like to pull them out, but didn’t do so well at putting them away.

I used to collect the Bobbsey Twins books. I think I probably had about 30 of them when I moved on to harder books. My poor mother had a hard time finding some library to take them when I no longer wanted them. Kids loved them, but I guess they are not considered fine children’s literature.

In my public school, books were included in the deal. Mercifully, I was not given the option of retaining my elementary and high school texts. I did manage, some years later, to get a copy of Dick and Jane, my first reader. Later, when I was a student teacher, I managed to acquire a copy of English Grammar and Composition – the 12th grade edition (the one that has EVERYTHING in it).

College textbooks were easily sold for the first couple of years, but as I got closer and closer to graduation and the books became more relevant, it seemed more important to keep them. I still HAVE them. Not that they are good for much anymore.

Graduate school texts – well, you never get rid of those, right?

Meanwhile, while I have been accumulating textbooks, the whole world has changed. It used to be necessary to hold information close to you, just in case you needed it.—even if it was outdated. Now, it is easy to find information just when you need it. So, why do I have all these old textbooks, mostly written by dead people?

Then there are the paperbooks. You pay good money for them, so why get rid of them? Well, at some point you know you have read them and will likely never read them again. I do manage to get rid of many of mine, but my husband never has, to my knowledge, parted with a single one. In his case, maybe it is excusable, as he often re-reads them.

This week, I have been thinking about books a lot. I just seem to collect them. I don’t really mean to. It just happens. I attend luncheons and conferences and authors speak. They autograph their books, and I buy one almost every time. Who could resist?

Then there are the medical reference books. True, they have come in handy over the years. I don’t know why I have a small shelf filled with them. Pre-Internet I had to deal with the prolonged deaths of both of my parents. I was hungry for information. So as a result I know more about obsolete treatments for lung cancer and heart failure than the average person.

Costco is a dangerous place for a book lover. They have all of these great books at very cheap prices. They have the latest and greatest in hardback that can easily slip into the cart next to the Feta cheese, underwear and towels.

Regardless of the reason, I have a lot of books – too many books! I should have been going to the library all these years. After all, I am trained as a librarian and worked as one for twenty years. You would think I would get the idea! Sure, sometimes I do actually go to the library, but not often enough. You see, all the books that somehow make their way into my life are there waiting in patiently in line to be read. I wouldn’t dare introduce a borrowed book to jump in line ahead of them all.

I did get behind on my reading. It has to do with eyeglasses. If you can’t focus on type, you can’t read books. It is that simple. It turns out that I am a polycarbonate non-adapt. That means that the expensive polycarbonate lens I spent good money on (because they are supposed to be better than plastic or glass) don’t work for my eyes. Now I have plastic lenses and can see again. That means I can read books again!

But, now what to do with all those books! I am going to give a bunch away. Maybe I will give them to the Rotary club to send to people all over the world. Sometimes I wonder what the people in Senegal really will do with my old psychology text from 1965. But maybe some person hungry for knowledge will dwell on every word and this book will change that person’s life. It gives me comfort to think that anyway!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


I first knew something was different about me when I was very small – maybe about three years old. We would go to Florida and I was not allowed to go to the beach between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. – EVER, even if it was cloudy.

My mother said that I “fair skin” just like my grandmother. My grandmother DID have very light skin and she didn’t seem to have any freckles – at least none that I noticed. She was born in 1890 and must have spent many hours wearing a sun bonnet and long sleeves. She said she used buttermilk on her skin to keep it pretty and white.

By the time I was full-fledged kid about 8 years old, I had freckles all over my arms, face and legs. I somehow thought if I used suntan lotion the freckles would magically run together and turn tan and I would be “normal.” Alas, it never happened! I would use suntan lotion and wait for the tan. Instead, I got sunburn. I discovered Noxema at a very tender age, later followed by Solarcaine. It was clear to me that I was condemned to a life a freckles, while all of my friends were turning gloriously tan.

As a teenager, I really started to hate my freckles. My friends were sunbathing and I wasn’t. I simply couldn’t without blistering. There was no sunscreen, just suntan lotion and it didn’t do anything much for me. The only thing for me to do was to stay out of bright sunlight for extended periods.

Then along came a miracle product—QT. All you had to do was to smear this stuff over your body and presto, you turned a golden tan. From a freckled kid who couldn’t tan, this stuff seemed like a miracle. But then I tried it and found that I was left with orange streaks that made me look really strange. It took a few weeks for them to fade and I swore – never again.

At about age 20, I was a Girl Scout camp counselor in southwestern Georgia. One camp director decreed that we would lead the kids on a “forced march” of about 7 miles over red clay back roads. The camp director euphemistically called it an “endurance hike” and there was no escaping it. The chosen day was 97 degrees in the shade. We staff members begged the camp director to cancel the hike, but she was determined. Some little girls passed out and were close to heat stroke. It was a nightmare, but I made it to the end. The back of my neck was SO sunburned that big water blisters lined the back of neck from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. My recovery took days and I could only wear a white T-shirt to reduce the risk of infection. I know if I ever get skin cancer that will be the place.

Steve and I took our honeymoon in 1969 to Puerto Rico and we even took a flight over to St. Thomas. Steve’s mother, who has always been knowledgeable in health matters, told me to buy a product called “sunscreen.” It had a magic ingredient called PABA. I did and it worked – this was the miracle I had been waiting for all my life.

I had long since given up on the idea of being tan. I just didn’t want to get sunburned – not because I was afraid of skin cancer. I just didn’t like being sunburned – it hurt and was messy!

Between sunscreen and care to stay out of the sun I managed to avoid sunburn for a couple of decades. In one weak moment, I was talked into using some “quick tanner.” They SAID it was different from the stuff when I was teenager. It would not turn me orange. Well, of course, it DID turn me orange and it looked awful. I felt really stupid and vowed “never again.”

At this point, I have resolved that I will never be tan. There is nothing that can change that. It was so nice to be in Scotland among lots of people with skin just like mine.

Last year, we took the grandchildren to an amusement part in Pennsylvania. We took a boat ride with a young black girl about ten years old. She was very chatty and told me with great excitement about her trip thus far. But I could see she was staring at me. Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she asked, “What are all those spots all over your arms?” I tried to explain about my ancestors from Scotland and “fair skin.” She smiled and nodded and was clearly still puzzled.

Not too long ago, I met some ladies who had gone to a store in Ocean City, Maryland and had their full bodies spray painted. The indignity of it all won out over the temptation . But I have a feeling if I were spray painted “tan” I would look downright strange and no doubt, orange! But it is an interesting thought!

This weekend we took the grandchildren whale watching off Cape May, New Jersey. The boat was to leave at 1 p.m. We joined the other tourists on the uncovered top deck with the best view. I came prepared with sunscreen and lathered us all up with the stuff, especially the back of my neck. But after about five minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and went below. The others soon followed. In my old age, I know discretion is the better part of valor.

At age 60, I am freckled and that is just the way it is going to be. I know that I am more vulnerable to skin cancer than the average person. I no doubt look my age, but I really don’t have a lot of wrinkles and my skin is in decent shape. I don’t get freckles on my face anymore—just mostly on my arms. I imagine this is because I wear foundation that blocks the sun enough to withstand regular activities.

These days they tell people not to suntan, and to always use sunscreen. Pale and pasty is still not “in,” but I don’t care. I am what I am, and I have learned to love my own skin. It is the only skin I will ever get, so I might as well be content with it.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Growing up in the South, chicken was mainstay of our diet. My grandmother could fry a chicken like nobody else, not even my mother, and certainly not me – not even using the same skillet and following her directions fifty years later. I think bacon grease was the key ingredient. We always kept a jar of bacon grease next to the stove and used in liberally for frying, supplemented by Crisco. Nobody thought about cholesterol. Bacon grease was perfect in green beans, although fatback is the more conventional artery clogging choice.

My grandmother died at 67 of a massive heart attack; my grandfather had “hardening of the arteries” and died at 86. Hmmmh….could there be a connection?

Of course, I loved fried chicken and I even hummed when I ate it, I loved it so much. I always had the drumsticks – that was my right as an only child. My grandmother or mother always cut up our chickens and did it a certain way so that there was a “pulley bone.” It as a pulley bone because played a game with it before eating it. One person pulled on one side of it and the other person (preferably a visiting kid, but an indulgent aunt would do) pulled on the other side of it. The person who got the longest section “won” and your wish was to come true. Now, of course, the pulley bone is just part of the breast unless you buy your own whole chicken and cut it up.

In those days, chickens didn’t have huge breasts. The white meat was moist and tasty. But compare that with today’s average “D-cup” size chicken. No doubt all the hormones they are pumping into chickens enlarge their breasts while doing a number on the taste, not to mention the nutrition.

Thinking of chicken parts, always brings to mind my sorority sister, Sally (not her real name), at Auburn University. She is a wonderful person, successful, bright and articulate. But, apparently she grew up without any personal acquaintance with chickens. One day I was working as a graduate assistant in the Curriculum Lab (educationese for library) and in came Sally looking quite distressed. She had just been kicked out of elementary school art and told not to come back to class until she had seen a chicken. Obviously, it was far easier to go up one flight of stairs and ask to see a picture of a chicken than it was to seek out a live one – even when attending an agricultural college (i.e. cow college). Sally explained that the assignment was to draw a picture of a chicken and she had drawn one with four legs. I patiently explained that chickens had two legs. Sally questioned that, “they have the long legs in the back and the short legs in the front, right?” In some parts of the South, drumsticks are referred to as “long legs” and thighs are referred to as “short legs.” Sally got no end of good natured ribbing and a few weeks later we happened to be out in the country and actually sought out a real-live two legged chicken for her inspection.

So much for fried chicken – let’s go on to other popular preparations. Sometimes my mother smothered chicken. You coated it with flour, added some water and butter, and put it in a heavy deep skillet in the oven. Another favorite was chicken and dumplings (reserved for special occasions because the dumplings were so much work). Sometimes we had chicken pie – vegetables, just chicken and pastry – yum! Sometimes we barbequed it (but never on Sunday). Roast chicken was a Sunday treat.

My mother loved to make chicken tetrazini (and frankly, so do I) because it is a great party dish. Whenever she made it, she made a second casserole which she froze. That way we had an extra dinner for some night when there was no time to cook. When she had her heart attack (yes, she had one too at age 59 and survived), she was in ICU and insisting that my father and I go home and heat up chicken tetrazini from the freezer. We would have been just as happy with 2 couple of Reeses and Coke from the machines, but we went home and dutifully ate our chicken “tet” (as we called it).

I remember going to Marshall Durbin with my mother and grandmother to buy chickens. They only sold chickens and it was widely believed that they had the best chickens in Birmingham. For my grandmother, shopping at the chicken store (I guess it would be properly called a poulterer) was a luxury. She used to tell of her days on the farm growing up and she had to kill the chicken in order to have it for dinner. They used to pick up the poor chicken and spin it around by its head, effectively “wringing its neck.” I have no idea how they kill chickens today at the processing plants, but wringing seems unusually cruel.

My father apparently went through a stage of wanting to “raise chickens. “ This was in the late 1930s I think. I can’t imagine what possessed him to do this. From what I hear, however, this was a fantasy many men shared in that time frame – perhaps an urge for a simpler life. From what I hear, the chicken raising didn’t last very long or involve many chickens. By the time I was born in 1946 there were no chickens and there wasn’t a lot of conversation about growing them either. I don’t think it turned out to be nearly as much fun and it was rumored to be.

At any rate, here it is 2006 and I had chicken for dinner. I bought it pre-roasted at Costco, along with a new tea kettle, plastic bags, vitamins and supplies for the office drink machine. Pre-roasted chicken isn’t bad; Steve will actually eat it and not complain and it lasts for a couple of meals. Of course, the best part is the part I am not supposed to enjoy – the skin.

That’s the thing—you are just supposed to eat the white meat; and if it is dry and tough, so much the better. In fact, lots of people buy their chickens in little frozen blobs of breast meat and when you cook it on the George Forman grill it has absolutely no obnoxious fat.

I don’t have fried chicken often, and when I do I feel positively decadent. Of course, I don’t save bacon grease and I don’t keep shortening, so I have to use Canola oil. It isn’t quite as tasty, but it is tasty enough to remind me of another time. And if I fry some okra along with it and maybe even fry some corn, I can pretend it is 1954 and Sunday dinner.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Garden Hoses

I grew up calling a garden hose a hose pipe. My husband thought it was a very strange and redundant way to refer to a simple hose. Obviously, hose pipe was a term that evolved. I can just imagine a time when there was no such thing as a garden hose. There must have been pipes for watering flowers. Then someone came along with a flexible rubber tube and the hose pipe was born. There is probably some relation with hosiery, but I am not going to go there.

My grandmother used to water her flowers every night and she let me help her. She showed me how to use my thumb to intensify the spray. Sometimes she used a nozzle. She would set it so that the water would spray out in a fine mist over all of her flowers. I don’t remember watering the grass very often, and there was no such thing as a lawn sprinkler. Somehow the grass did OK, content with rainwater.

We used to use the hose to fill the plastic wading pool, but the one thing I simply was forbidden to do was to drink from the hose. Somehow there was a connection between polio and drinking from the hose. Some of my more raucous little friends did sneak and drink from the hose, and fortunately they didn’t get polio. Of course, I was an obedient child and didn’t drink from the hose. I must confess, however, that I sometimes did enjoy a squirt from a water gun (which has been filled by the hose), applied directly to the mouth. Nobody seemed to notice. All of this became moot once the Salk vaccine hit the streets. From a kid’s view this meant – finally we can drink from the hose.

When I was a teenager, we moved to the suburbs and we got a big lawn. The big lawn required a sprinkler. We had one the kind that flipped-flopped back and forth; the kind you could easily dash through to get to the mailbox if you were fast. We had a special faucet at our house that allowed us to get high pressure. Apparently the faucet was somehow hooked up directly to the water line. My father would use it to wash down the driveway and the sidewalk, as with that big lawn came lots of pine needles.

There was a decade in which hoses were irrelevant to my life. I was in college and as a young married couple we lived in an apartment.

We moved to California in 1971 and got a sudden immersion all things related to watering. Our first home was in Highland, California, near San Bernardino. Without imported water the place would look like a desert. There were months on end without any rain. Some folks gave up and paved their front yards and painted them green; others opted for the Astro-turf effect. Our house, fortunately, came with built in sprinklers in the front yard, but the back required constant watering. Our sprinkler heads were “Rainbirds.” People in the know bought Rainbirds because they were high quality and wo rked great. The sprinklers were not everywhere they needed to be, so watering was a daily necessity for most of the year. Of course, brush fires are a way of life in Southern California. I recall once using the hose to soak our wooden fence and the wooden shingles on our roof, as a fire endangered us.

When we got to Maryland in 1976, our new house didn’t have any sprinklers built in. We found a Rainbird unit we could mount on a garden hose and endured 16 years of occasional watering when the rain was not sufficient. Mostly we didn’t do much with our hoses in those years. We would spritz off the porch or carport floor sometimes or wash the spiders off the house.

Thirteen years ago, we built a new house and we installed a sprinkler system. Yes, we used Rainbird heads. This sprinkler system is tied in with home automation unit. We can set the sprinklers to go on at a certain time every day, but there’s more! We can turn them on remotely from anywhere using a phone. Not that we ever do, but it is nice to have that capability I guess.

We put a hot tub room in the basement of our house. At first it was great! I had the room filled with lush plants and watered them using a hose with a spray gun attachment. Yes, we designed the room so that it used outdoor materials, so getting the walls wet is not a problem. Of course, the hot tub broke and is now on Steve’s to do list. The plants that didn’t die, got moved upstairs and the hose sits idle in its custom designed box.

This house came complete with lots of decks and they seem to always need cleaning. Just washing them off with the hose won’t cut it. We must power wash them. For years Steve insisted on doing all the power washing, but eventually I got impatient and asked him to teach me how to do it. Of course, now he has opened Pandora’s box.

I have to say I get a charge out of power-washing. I feel like an avenging angel setting the world right. Step by step I make the decks look brand new again. The power is great. Now if I could only have enough strength in my hands to connect the hose tightly enough so that it won’t drip all over the place.