Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Memories

It is strange how holidays evolve for year after year; then suddenly everything changes radically.

I have memories of live trees, fragile ornaments, and lights that always seemed tangled and never worked when we plugged them in. My job was to put the tinsel on the tree. Those silvery metallic threads in my impatient hands began a tangled mess, and I am not sure I ever mastered the art of tinsel application.

Those childhood Christmases were happy times. I lived with my parents and my grandparents, and my great aunt came to visit for Christmas, as did close family friends. I believed fervently in Santa and the power of good behavior and my wishes were rewarded with a tricyle at age 3 and a real Schwinn bicycle with training wheels at age 6. Other Christmases brought dolls and cap pistols, and even a Davy Crockett hat.

I remember wrapping presents lovingly at the dining room table and shipping them off to my uncle and his family in Germany. He was in the air force and was stationed there in the early 1950s.
In 1952 my mother had her first big Christmas party. My Christmas present was a black cocker spaniel puppy named Twink. The president of the gas company (where my father worked) came to that party and his wife accompanied him. Twink greeted her and the president’s wife picked her up. Twink wet all over her!
One year my father (and my mother and I got to go too) got to ride in the Ensley Christmas Parade. I think if was because my Dad was president of the Rotary Club. This was the same Rotary Club that had a Christmas party each year and Santa (the REAL Santa was a Loveman’s department store, of course) gave all the boys and girls gifts. I got a plastic tea set each year. I wasn’t into plastic tea sets any more than I was into the fine china demitasse cups I “collected” and often got as presents from relatives.

In December 1958, we moved into our new house in the suburbs, and we were so excited about our first Christmas in our new house . The basement was what they called “unfinished” and Twink’s new home, when we were out, was the basement where she could “run free.” Christmas Eve morning my mother had been busy making her signature fruit cake, heavily laden with raisins, nuts and fruits, and soaked in Bourbon. In the afternoon, we went to the cemetery to put a wreath on my grandmother’s grave. I insisted on stopping at the grocery store to buy a gift for Twink to open. When we arrived home, we went into the basement to catch Twink before opening the garage door. We had left her leash on her to make it easier to catch her. She was nowhere to be seen. Then, as we passed the stairs leading to the upstairs, we saw her hanging by her leash. Her leash had caught under the door frame.

My mother shielded my eyes, and my father took her down gently. We called the veterinarian, who was still at the office, and raced down the mountain. My father massaged Twink’s heart with his hand, but her neck was broken. Nothing could be done! When we finally went into the kitchen that night, much of the fruitcake had been consumed. We speculated that Twink had gotten tipsy from the Bourbon and lost her balance on the stairs.
Just this year I learned that raisins were lethal to dogs! Now I wonder, if it was perhaps the raisins that made her sick and unstable on her feet. I’ll never know, but I do know that my guilt about her death is very real, even more than half a century later.

But life went on and by 1959 our family got with the new Christmas decorating trends. We got a silver tree and put pink ornaments on it. At night the tree came to life when the floodlight with color wheel turned the tree in sequence blue, green, red, and orange. No more conventional Christmases for us!

That was same Christmas that I got to see what it was like behind the scenes for adults on Christmas Eve. Now, at age 13, I got to stay up late and I watched the neighbors (who has younger kids), put an assortment of bicycles and toys together. It was almost magical! I felt so grown up.

In the 1960s Christmas decorating, at least at our house, was anything but traditional. One year my mother and I were into making trees out of whipped soap flakes. We would make a wire frame about 18” tall in the shape of a tree, stick in dowel rod, which went into block of wood. Then we would stuff the “tree” full of newspaper. We use the mixer to whip up the soap flakes with water (I think it was an Ivory product) until they reached the consistency of meringue. Using spatulas, we covered the “tree” with pastel colored soap flakes. We would decorate the “tree” with a variety of things, but mostly I remember the silver balls that you use for decorating cakes. The “tree” was stand proudly in the entrance hall.
From 1959 until her death in 1988, almost every year my mother had a big Christmas party. It became part of our family tradition. Her sausage balls with sour cream and chutney became legendary . I serve that recipe myself each holiday season to friends, and it is always a hit!

Only my mother would be brave enough to serve egg nog to 100 plus people in Birmingham in December. The deck became her cooler for vast amounts of whipped cream, egg whites and egg yolks. If it was a warm December, she chilled it down with ice. Her recipe had only ½ cup of Bourbon per 10 eggs. We still love her egg nog and have it each holiday season. I am teaching the grandchildren to make it. Actually, I think it was my grandmother’s recipe to begin with, so now we have five generations who have enjoyed this calorific treat.

When I was in high school, my mother felt it was important that I invite my girlfriends in for a holiday party. Each Christmas my mother and I (mostly my mother) would set out an array of cookies, along with cranberry punch, and I would invite about 20 of my friends. They would arrive wearing high heels, their Sunday finest, and, of course, the requisite white gloves. One friend learned the hard way that it makes sense to remove the gloves BEFORE sampling the cherry tartlets.
When I was in college, coming home for Christmas was very special. The absence from home made it all the more important. My mother went all out to make sure everything was just perfect. There was always a traditional tree, a holiday party, and a festive Christmas dinner.
In 1968, the week before Christmas I flew to New York City to meet my husband-to-be’s family. But I didn’t stay for Christmas. I was not about to miss Christmas at home in Birmingham!
Even after we were married, for a couple of years, we continued to come to my parents’ house for Christmas. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Then in 1971, everything changed. My husband’s work took him to Southern California and our son was born on December 7. That was our first of five California Christmases. In those years, my parents came to us. My mother’s brother lived nearby and we all got together for Christmas at their house. I had a holiday party each year except 1971-- with some help from my mother, of course!

When we moved to Maryland in 1976, we resumed our tradition of Christmas in Birmingham. About a week before Christmas, we would get up early in the morning and drive straight through to Birmingham. We would arrive about 10 p.m., tired and hungry, and my mother always had sandwiches waiting for us. We always tried to get there in time for my mother’s party, usually a few days before Christmas.

A decade later, we were still trekking to Birmingham. The last Christmas party my mother had was in 1986. She wasn’t feeling too well, but she managed to have her annual party anyway. On January 13, 1987, she was diagnosed with having terminal lung cancer. Her last Christmas was in 1987. By then she was very weak. We went out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve, but we had Christmas Dinner, as usual and exchanged gifts. What stands out in my mind is that my mother pulled herself up from her chair, and made the gravy—as clearly I was not doing it properly.
That Christmas, the azalea by the back steps bloomed. Azaleas bloom in Spring, but this one I think bloomed just for my mother. She saw it on the way out the door shortly after Christmas. She was headed to the hospital and never came home again. She died on January 13, 1988.

The next couple of Christmases my father spent with us. In 1991, we had a big family gathering on New Year’s Day and all of his nieces and nephews came to our house in Maryland. He entertained us all with stories of the old days. By June, he too was gone.

It has now been another two decades and we have fallen into the pattern of having Christmas at our house, with our son and his family. I have eased into the role of holiday party host and cook for Christmas dinner. The decorations are silk and the lights LEDs.

About a dozen years ago we added a new family tradition of Christmas Eve oyster stew with our son and his family at their home. This has become a new favorite part of the holiday season, probably has become a tradition that the grandchildren will continue.

Today is the day after Christmas. For dinner we will have leftover turkey, dressing, etc. with egg nog and left over cake for dessert. The tradition of leftovers on the 26th is as strong as having a festive feast on the 25th. With every bite, I will remember Christmases long ago.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Back to the Beach

Back to the Beach

I just got back from a drive along the Florida coast between Panama City Beach and Inlet Beach. The sand was still sugar white and the Gulf still roared, but what about the rest? I knew there had been changes – what hasn’t changed in 40 years? But I wanted to see for myself and my husband indulged me.

I have many happy memories of summer beach vacations with my family and their friends. Panama City was (and I guess still is) called PC and spoken of in that special tone of voice that evokes good times. For residents of Birmingham, Alabama, Panama City was the summer beach destination, as well as where everyone went for AEA (that Alabama holiday called Alabama Education Association). Our poor teachers were stuck in meetings while the rest of the state was having fun at the beach.

Today, as we rode along the coast, I tried really hard to align what I saw with what I remembered. The lack of similarity was striking. The names of the beaches were the same – Panama City, Laguna, and Sunnyside. The feel of the areas was somehow the same, though the buildings were different. Panama City was the crowded, more commercial end; Laguna was a mixture and Sunnyside had more private homes. It is odd how an area can retain its character, yet be changed in every detail.

I saw one older two story motel that looked like a place we once stayed at Laguna Beach, and a dozen older homes that look like one we once rented in Sunnyside. By today’s standards the two story wooden beachfront apartments would not measure up as well as their modern stucco counterparts. I wondered aloud if any of those stucco buildings that seem so fresh on the surface are really underneath that outer shell, the old wooden structures I remember.

“Going to Florida,” as we called it was special and sometimes it was even a surprise. My father would come home and say “I have sand in my shoes.” And quickly we would be in the car headed south along the Florida Short Route through rural Alabama until we hit the Florida line at Florala. It was almost magical when the road broke through the pines and the ocean appeared.

In the 1940s and very early 50s we stayed at cottages in Laguna Beach. They were across the road from the beach and one had to be very careful of the sand burrs that stung like fire when they attacked tender young feet. I remember vividly sitting on the front porch at night listening to the adults talk about strange things – like the woman who was allergic to her husband and a popular brand of dog food being made of horse meat. It is funny what you remember!

The older I got, the further we moved down the beach and we went from the cottages across the road to the apartments on the beach side. In retrospect, I suspect this migration toward the Gulf side and further down the beach was driven by my parents’ improving financial situation.

The best part of coming to the beach back then was going to sleep listening to the roar of the Gulf and from the apartments on the beach side of the road, you could hear the roar quite clearly. Last night, as we walked to a restaurant, I came within earshot of that glorious sound. I stopped in my tracks – just listening and remembering a simpler time.

Once in 1961, we stayed at a small motel called the Siesta Motel in Sunnyside. It was my parent’s new favorite place to stay, as it was quiet, the beach pristine and the facilities very nice. I was particularly excited because a neighborhood boy was vacationing a few houses down the beach and at 15, I anticipated the perfect summer vacation with him as my companion. The first morning we were there, he and I went crabbing with a net and actually managed to catch a blue crab. Not a dozen, but just one. Never having seen one before, we weren’t sure what to do with it. My mother said we should boil it until it turned red. We did, and then beat it with whatever tools we could find and extracted the sweet meat. (Little did I know I would eventually live in Maryland where crab picking is a required life-skill.) The next morning we got a call that my grandfather had fallen and we had best come home. It was the custom to tie your wet bathing suits to the radio antenna the morning of departure, telling the world of your beach vacation. We just got in the car and left with no swimsuits on the antenna. My grandfather died a few weeks later.

When I last came here, it was 1971, a few months before our son was born. My mother made me a bathing suit to wear, as a regular bathing suit wouldn’t fit. My husband and I drove down from Birmingham with my parents in my mother’s big, yellow, 1966 Dodge Polara. That trip we stayed at one of those two story wooden frame motels, ate a lot of fried seafood and talked excitedly about the baby’s arrival and our move to California. It was the end of an era in all of our lives, but at the time it just seemed like a nice beach vacation.

So here it is 2011 and all that is left of more than two decades of beach vacations is memories. The time share condo, while much nicer than the beachside apartments, is air-conditioned, across the highway from the beach and a few towns over from the beaches of my youthful memories. The ocean is roaring, but I can’t hear it. I haven’t taken the time to walk to the beach and feel the sand in my toes and the waves splashing at my ankles. It is December and the beach is mostly deserted. I am eating fried shrimp and oysters, but regretting it later, as now my system is accustomed to lighter fare. My parents have been gone for decades and our son is married with kids of his own. In the interim, new beaches have captured our loyalty – Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman and Rehoboth, DE, close to our home in Maryland.

You can’t go home again, and you can’t go back to the beach you remember. Maybe some memories are best left alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


My mother used to refer to “rat cheese.” I know it was yellow and I suspect it was some kind of inexpensive cheddar. It was the food of choice for mousetraps and the mice did seem to love it.

As a child, I remember cheese in just a few forms. My mother would buy sharp cheddar and hand-shred it using a Mouli grater (I still have hers). There was the American cheese kids ate for snacks or on sandwiches. My father liked Roquefort, but it was too strong for my adolescent tastes. We kept Swiss cheese for sandwiches. Cottage cheese was for dieting and tasted great with pineapple. Parmesan came in a green can and we sprinkled it on spaghetti. Cream cheese was for use in recipes, but not for regular eating.

As a young adult I discovered more and more cheeses. Brie, Muenster, Havarti, and gorgonzola, I learned that real lasagna was made with ricotta and my husband to be introduced me to mozzarella on home-made pizza. Decades ago my mother showed me that cream cheese was great with Pickapeppa sauce or pepper jelly – instant party food.

Eventually, I tasted fresh Mozzarella. And in recent years, I have come to love goat cheese. Feta has become a household staple, and parmesan and Romano now comes into our refrigerator in big chunks. Manchego, a delightful Spanish hard cheese, has become a favorite. Conventional yellow cheddar has been replaced on my shopping list by Vermont white cheddar.

European vacations have let us taste delightful cheeses we never heard of before or since, but have loved as appetizers and desserts. We have also stopped in cheese shops along the road, and picked up some remarkable cheeses to eat in our hotel room with some crackers and red wine. Whether the city be Paris, Naples, or Berlin – this is still a treat!

These days when I go to the grocery store and I admire the selection of expensive cheeses – sometimes I bring something new home to taste. A good chunk of cheese is really an investment, given the price, but the pleasure is in savoring each taste. Cheese is truly one of life’s great pleasures.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Notebooks and Carrying Books

A highlight of my elementary school days was touring the plant in Birmingham where they made the Subjects Book notebooks. They were made by the Nifty Company – am surprised I remembered that. What a thrill it was to see how they manufactured the notebooks we kids used every day! We watch ed how they made the spiral binding hold the books together. It was almost magic!
These spiral bound workhorses came in bright colors and you could write your name and grade on the outside cover. The insides were ruled with the medium sized line spacing appropriate in pale blue lines. There was a red line for the margin. I think I must still have one around here somewhere – a remnant of grammar school.

In grammar school we carried our books and notebooks in something called a book satchel. They were plaid or solid colored and they had a compartment for pens and pencils.

In junior high, we learned about three-ring binders. They were always covered in blue canvas in those days, and we took delight in decorating them our ink pens. We still had our ever faithful spiral bound notebooks – one for each subject. But by then we were too sophisticated for book satchels.

Our notebooks actually served as our platform for carrying around our textbooks. We would set the books up so that they were two abreast, stacked three of four high on each side. The English Composition book was always the smallest, so it rode on the top. Nobody had book bags or brief cases; we just carried the books around from class to class stacked on our three ring binders. We girls carried them in front of us with both hands (I don’t know how we opened doors). Perhaps the boys, who carried them under one arm stacked the same way, would open them for us. Of course, the theory was that we could stash our books in our lockers and stop by during the school day and pick them up as needed. But somehow that theory didn’t work in practice. We just carried them around all day, quickly reassembling our stack of books right before the bell was to ring for each class.

By high school, our notebooks were thicker because we had more subjects and more spiral notebooks, and we always had to carry around “notebook” paper for essays, homework, pop quizzes and the like.

I really don’t remember doing anything different in college, except that we didn’t always have our classes back to back, so it was possible to go back to the dorm between classes. I have no recollection of a bookbag or anything like that and certainly never a backpack! It was great freedom when you could take one book and a notebook to class.

The notebooks of our college days got thinner lines and they were divided into subjects – so that all of our subjects could be in one notebook. And it seems that in college note-taking became a big deal. There was no way to record lectures and I can’t recall that anyone ever taught be how to take notes. Handouts were rare. Much of learning was regurgitation of what was delivered in lecture format. I wonder if undergraduate instruction is the same today.

In college we were also introduced to the “Blue Book,” a booklet consisting of bound notebook paper with a soft blue cover. We used to have to buy them and bring them to class to use for taking essay tests. With these booklets, there was no starting over or changing your mind and you had to write in ink. In retrospect, it was awful!

In graduate school in 1968, there was more room was personal choice and some tests were even open-book. The whole experience was less about memorization and more about reflection, research and drawing conclusions. Fewer textbooks had to be hauled about. On the whole, I preferred graduate school.

Graduate school led to real life and I became a yellow tablet and file person. In my early professional life, I rarely used a notebook and certainly not any three-ring binders. I wrote everything on yellow pads and gave them to other people to type. I kept files organized in ways that made sense to me and my whole life was sorted into manila folders.

In time, I discovered hanging files, and became a hanging file fanatic. Each company or organization I worked with had different colored file folders. I will NEVER have to buy any more hanging file folders again because I have boxes of them at my storage unit.

A few years ago, I discovered sheet protectors were cheap and I could use them to keep related documents together. They don’t require tabs or labels and if I put them in a three-ring binder I can flip through them in seconds. And when they do have to be saved they can be dropped easily into handing folders.

Today, I made good use of notebooks, filled with projects held together by sheet protectors. For now, they work, but my use of paper is shrinking daily and what I will end up retaining will be very little soon. Today more and more is digital and that is fine with me. I have a speedy scanner that makes quick work of documents.

For those times when I must take notes, I often use a special pen that records while I write. I use something that looks like a spiral notebook, but the paper is specially treated to work with the pen. What magic! I can go back and replay anything I am not certain of. I wish I had, had that in college.

Meanwhile, I see my grandchildren carrying their books around in backpacks. I am sure they would be totally baffled at the sight of a kid with a three-ring binder with a big stack of books on it. I suspect their children will just carry around a tablet computer and no books or paper or pens. Maybe this will lead to a generation of kids with better posture not to mention no bony bulge on the middle finger of whichever hand they write with. I just noticed, my bony bulge is actually almost GONE! I can still write – really I can – I just don’t do it very often.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maps to GPS

As a child in Birmingham, Alabama, I always had a good idea of where I was. Vulcan was forever there at the top of Red Mountain. With that single point of navigation, there was no need for a compass. It was almost impossible to get lost in Birmingham. Everybody just knew where they were going and even as a very small child, I could have easily directed an out of town visitor to downtown or any other destination like Ensley, Five Points West Shopping Center, and Birmingham Southern-College. And if one went over Red Mountain, you were in Shades Valley, with Shades Mountain looming to the South.

Basic topography doesn’t change, though they did chop a big chunk out of Red Mountain a few decades back to build the Red Mountain Expressway. In fact, Birmingham is now laced with expressways, just like any other US city. Fundamentally, however, getting around town is still simpler than in most places because of the mountains and Vulcan is still watching over the city.
I never saw my parents look at a local road map, but when we traveled, maps were essential. My mother would serve as map-reader and chief navigator. In those days, maps were free. You simply picked them up at the gas station. We had a collection of maps from mostly Gulf and Standard Oil. And since maps were free, from about the time I could read, I was also given my own map copy so I could follow along and make suggestions.

My first job, summer of my freshman year in college, was a transportation “coder” for the Alabama Highway Department. For a special project, in summer of 1965, they hired a bunch of college girls to work on coding the results of an origin-destination study. Basically, they stopped people traveling down main roads around Birmingham and asked them where they had been and where they were going. Our job was to take those tickets, look at a special map that was divided by zones, and write in the zone for both the origin and the destination. The Highway Department then sent this data to a big computer in Georgia (guess that was the nearest one) to convert this data into a report they could use for planning new roads. It wasn’t difficult work, and our team of rising sophomore co-eds completed the project about two weeks early. For the remainder of the summer we arrived at 8 a.m. each morning at our work place (an old house scheduled for condemnation) and playing cards each day for $1.25 per hour (minimum wage). They wanted us there in case they needed anything, but otherwise, we were to keep ourselves amused!

I graduated from Auburn and then married a New Yorker. He knew his way around the city on the subways. He clearly had a subway map in his head and seemed to navigate by some mysterious force that I could not tap into. He knew which trains went where and even where to stand on the platform. To this day, I just surrender and tag along like a lost child. Of course, they have changed a few things about the NY subways system since he left there in 1964 and he now requires a map.

When we lived in southern Illinois a few years later I was continually lost. There were no mountains to navigate by; just endless cornfields. What I would have given for a GPS!
Navigating in Southern California was not that hard because we once again had mountains to guide us. But we maintained a collection of road maps to use exploring the surrounding areas – mountains, desert and Pacific coast. Cross-country trips home to Alabama and New York, made us quickly gain expertise in reading maps. We always kept a big road atlas in the car, along with our vast collection of gas station maps.

When we moved to the Annapolis, Maryland area in 1976, my husband’s new employer gave him a local map. It was a single sheet of white paper with a hand drawn map of key roads. Unfortunately, it omitted what then called “the New Severn River Bridge.” We had a hard time getting around in our house-hunting efforts until a realtor suggested we buy an Anne Arundel County map book. Once again, we were in sync and able to function.

We always had a rule – never throw a map away. So we continued to collect maps – gas station maps gave way to AAA maps and our collection gained fancy maps with glossy stiff covers. I kept them all in a filing cabinet in alpha order. The years went by and the collection grew.
Then a few years ago, we got a GPS and that changed everything. I have to admit a love-hate relationship with Nigel. I should add that we picked Nigel because he seems to approach it more in a subservient role than does Jill, his US alter ego. Jill always seemed to have an attitude when she said “recalculating.” And of course, that is whole problem with the GPS concept. The GPS is telling you what to do. If you use a map, you are looking at the whole situation and making an informed decision about your route. These are two fundamentally different mindsets and for someone like me, who likes to be in control, listening to a GPS is an annoyance.

I wish I could say that Nigel was 100% reliable. He lost a lot of credibility the other night in DC when he took me through bumper-to-bumper traffic in totally the wrong direction and made me late. I think it is because he took a tumble from the dashboard in a sudden stop and somehow was directing me in a confused state. His head, however, now seems to have cleared, though yesterday I think he was having some cognitive trouble, again in DC. Of course, he is not the only one!
This summer I got rid of many of our maps. We always go the AAA store and pick up new ones for any new road trip anyway. I still like to look at a map when planning a trip. Of course, we will also bring along Nigel and his alter ego, Jill, and our iphones with their bouncing blue ball navigation. Getting “lost” used to be a real possibility. And I still have my built in sense of topography that allows me to “intuit” my way around and to just know when we are approaching our destination.

I just read about a hot new thing that people are doing called geo-caching where people hide stuff in the back country and others seek out the cache using their GPSs. I don’t think I will take this up. Just finding restaurants in DC using my GPS is adventure enough for me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Candles are in many ways an odd remnant from another time. We all have them in our houses and sometimes light them for parties, a decadent bath or a power failure. But most the time they just sit there unlit on tabletops in holders, in candelabra and even on stands in fireplaces.

My personal reluctance to light them is that they have the potential to burn down the house. But they do have a certain elegance about them that makes me feel good when I do light them. A party becomes more festive when the candles are lit.

From my childhood, I recall a few candle rules. The most important one is don’t light them in the morning and for a fancy evening event they are required on the table. When I think about it, that makes sense if the candles were all about providing supplementary light.

When I was growing up, if the power went out, we always used candles to pierce the darkness. We didn’t have any kerosene lamps, until I discovered them as young adult fresh from camp counselor experiences. A few years ago I bought electric lanterns, and these battery powered wonders produce clean, non-dangerous light good enough to read by.

My grandfather’s chifferobe sits in our entrance foyer. Behind one of the doors, I have several shelves filled with candles. I have boxes of red candles and green candles for holiday gatherings, all never lit. I inherited candles from my mother, a vast array of white and ivory tapers. I also have some boxes of dark blue and dark green candles purchased maybe a decade ago on a Williamsburg excursion. I also have two boxes of black candles, which were all the rage in the mid-80s. I also have a collection of “used candles” that we are saving for the power failure that goes on for weeks and runs down the batteries in our electric lanterns.

I keep a box of white candles in glass jars to use on tabletops for events, but have recently learned that they are prohibited in certain historic venues – for the obvious reasons. I have a lot of those small fake window candles that run on batteries, suitable for all just about anywhere.
I like the artificial candles that you can switch on and off. No muss – no fuss and you pretend they are real candles.

I also have a few candle accessories that I especially like. My favorite is the glass rings that go under the candle based to catch the dripping wax. Since candles like to flop around, I have a small container of sticky stuff that goes into the bottom of a candle holder and it keeps the candle stable.

I wonder how many decades more candles will be a part of every household? Or will they gradually lose their relevance? Will the next generation skip the candles and just crank up the lights in the dining room so people can see what they are eating?

Sunday, November 06, 2011


My grandmother had a washtub and a washboard and she kept it on the enclosed back porch. She actually used it to wash her clothes – even after we got a washing machine. I am not sure why – maybe because she didn’t think the washing machine was reliable. I can barely remember NOT having a washing machine. The first one we got had an external wringer on it. My mother used Tide in the big orange box. When washing whites, they adding something call bluing to make the whites whiter. And, of course, there was Clorox bleach for the tough stains on whites. Some items like outer garments, tablecloths and sheets were always starched by dipping them in starch before drying.

I remember my father, who at one point in his life, moonlighted with an appliance repair company, telling a horrific tale of going out on a service call for a washing machine. A very unfortunate woman had gotten her breast caught in the wringer and could not get it out. I can only imagine the pain! Something like a mammogram but MUCH worse. She survived the accident, but I never heard any more details. Our next washer did not a have a wringer – wonder why!
My mother and grandmother used to hang the laundry out to dry on a clothesline in the backyard. I wasn’t tall enough to help, but I remember handing them items to hang on the line. In Alabama, late afternoon thunderstorms are common, so it was not unheard of the rush home from shopping time to pull clothes off the line.

The sheets dried on the line somehow captured the sweet smell of sunlight. The towels felt rough to the skin and the underwear felt stiff. Jeans are hard to iron and tended to wrinkle when dried on the line. There was popular stretcher for drying jeans that was a metal frame that you put the jeans in and then dried them on the line.
I think we ironed everything but towels. The process for ironing involved taking the dried clothes off the line and wadding them up into little balls and sprinkling them with water. Sprinkling was the term used to describe this process. We used a sprinkler top inserted in a coke bottle.

The actual ironing was arduous work and took hours and for some reason was left for the afternoon, but one might start ironing right after lunch and not stop until 5 p.m. Our iron was electric and it got very hot, so ironing burns were not that usual.
In our household certain kinds of ironing (the most boring kind) were left for the cleaning lady. She ironed the sheets, tablecloths and napkins. The term “rough dry” used to describe clothes that have not been ironed and “nice people” always had crisply ironed sheets, tablecloths and napkins.

My grandmother taught me how to iron, and I was lucky I had her for a teacher, as she was known to be an exceptional ironer. She started me off with handkerchiefs (yes, everybody used them instead of tissues). I graduated to blouses, skirts, and slacks and by the time I was ten I could iron passably well. While I have never been a great ironer, I can still iron well enough. My grandmother taught me how to iron well, but it was my mother who taught me how to iron fast. I don’t think my father ever touched an iron in his life.

My father and grandfather both dressed in coat and tie to go to work. Their suits always went to the dry cleaner. Their shirts were sent to the laundry and were delivered to the house. They went in a bag, but came back folded around a piece of cardboard, with a paper band across the front and a cardboard insert around the next. They were still starched and really looked like new each week. My job was to rip open the brown wrapping paper and deliver the shirts to my father and grandfather’s chest of drawers. It was easy to tell them apart because my father’s shirts were always white and my grandfather’s were usually striped in different shades of blue or gray. For me, the best part of the whole sending the shirts to the laundry process was the excess shirt cardboard. I had a never-ending supply for small arts projects and school assignments. "Shirt cardboard” was the term commonly used for these sheets of cardboard that were about the size of piece of legal size paper.

Our home laundry capacity grew with the addition of a gas dryer when I was about 5 years old. There was no more need to hang clothes on the line, though the sheets often found their way to the line because line dried sheets smell terrific.

In the early 50s my father acquired an ironing machine from my uncle. I think he might have gotten it surplus from a laundry who was upgrading its equipment. I only recall it being used once when we first got it. It moved with us to our new house in 1958 and we disposed of it when my father sold the house in 1989.

When I was in high school, I wore a lot of wool skirts and sweaters, which has to be sent to the dry cleaner, but I also wore oxford cloth blouses. By then my grandmother was gone and my mother did not share in her love of ironing. The oxford cloth blouses were dispatched to the cleaning lady for ironing. My mother referred to them as those $#%^& oxford cloth blouses.

In 1964, when I went to college my laundry became my problem. My mother made me a red laundry bag that said “Duds for Suds.” Suddenly I became much less picky in deciding that something was ready for the laundry bag. As I recall, there was a washer in the basement of the dorm. But like most co-eds, I soon discovered that doing laundry was much easier at home and those weekends I came home, I always brought laundry. I am sure my mother and her friends complained to each other, but I think they were glad to see us – even with laundry.

The last couple of summers of college, I spent as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout Camp. There was no way to do laundry at the camp, so when we got a day off – every two weeks, we could take our dirty laundry into town to the Laundromat. On one occasion I recall leaving a trail of dropped laundry between the car and my platform tent. I got some good-natured ribbing the next day from my fellow counselors.

In graduate school, I had to use the Laundromat and in a college town that was not easy because the washers and dryers were always in use. I was going home less often by then and living in an apartment. Of course, I also had a car, so I could drive to the Laundromat. I was engaged to my future husband at the time, and he is not a sports fan at all. That year, I missed all the football games. Instead I went to the Laundromat – deserted of course!

When I got married, I ended up with my husband’s laundry as well as my own. That it something I didn’t think about when I accepted his offer of marriage. He was in the Air Force, so in the early years of our marriage, he wore a dress blue uniform which mercifully had to be sent out to the dry cleaner. But in a couple of years, the Air Force discovered permanent press shirts and they came in light blue, short and long sleeved versions. They WERE permanent press, but still required ironing. I was not happy, but soon they came out with the dark blues shirt with long-sleeves and it needed to go to the cleaners. From time to time, he was required to wear fatigues because he was doing something dirty (as an engineer that can happen). I drew the line on fatigues and had them sent out to the Base laundry. It was the Base laundry that forced me to learn his social security number. It was necessary to recite it aloud to pick up laundry. Can you imagine the uproar today?

We bought our first washer and dryer in California in 1971, right before our son was born. Houses in southern California don’t usually have basements, and our house was no exception. The laundry room was between the kitchen and garage. I was still doing my own laundry, but the oxford cloth blouses gave way to polyester. I rarely ironed! Everything was permanent press, even the baby’s clothes.

Our move to Maryland in 1976 coincided with the popular demise of polyester and I think probably California was more into polyester than Maryland. At any rate, I found myself ironing again. It was not a weekly ritual, rather more on an as needed basis. My husband was only in the Air Force as a Reservist, so Air Force clothes were not so much of an issue. He wore permanent press dress shirts and suits to work. The house in Maryland had it laundry room in the basement and I hated to go down there. We still had the same washer we bought in California in 1976.

In 1989, we did some remodeling and were able to bring the laundry room upstairs to the main floor. I was delighted not to have it in the basement a I hate bringing laundry up and down stairs. We bought a new washer and dryer and life was good.

We built a new house in 1992 and included a second floor laundry room. We have been married 32 years and are still on only our second washer and dryer (Kenmore has good genes I guess). Sometimes I wish they would break so could get the new front-loader kind that looks so cool.
Laundry is a Sunday ritual for me and I rarely iron. I do a load of whites and a load of coloreds. I use high efficiency detergent and I never, ever line dry anything. My sheets and tablecloths are all permanent press. I have a magic potent, Downy Wrinkle Releaser that I spray on shirts, cotton tops and slacks and the watch the wrinkles fade away by smoothing out the garment with my hands. The cleaning lady washes and dries the sheets, towels and tablecloths.
Well, I have to stop writing about it and start doing the laundry! And get a bag to together to take to the dry cleaner. So much has changed, but so much hasn’t.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cooler and Water to Go

The best part of traveling as a little kid was helping my mother fill up the cooler. Our cooler was big, green and made out of metal. It had a tray in it for things that we didn’t want to get wet (a fantasy that they would stay dry). The ice came from the ice house where we bought it big blocks that the men who worked there lifted with giant tongs. My mother broke it apart with an ice pick. We filled the cooler mostly with Coca-Colas and loaded the tray with things to use to make sandwiches and for snacks.

We also always took a water jug with us. The water jug was also metal and had a spout on the top. My mother would keep the water jug on the floor in the front seat and each time anyone wanted water, she would lift up the cooler and hold it precariously above her lap while pouring into a paper cup.

Maintaining the cooler and water jug was just part of traveling. Once each day we would have to refresh the ice in both. That required finding an ice house and buying ice, emptying the cooler and draining it and refilling it with ice, as well as refreshing the ice in the water jug.
Whether our destination was Panama City, Florida, a day trip away from Birmingham, or the west coast on a multi-day marathon, the cooler and the water jug were essential. Even driving through the Mojave Desert in summer in an un-air conditioned car, we always had a Cold Coke and some cheese (albeit sometimes a bit waterlogged) to nibble on. If the radiator overheated, our water jug was always ready.

As I grew older, the ice house gave way to the ice machine at the motel or hotel or sometimes bagged ice from the convenience store. The cooler went from metal to plastic and grew a drain on the side at the bottom. The contents remained the same. And I was no longer a child, but a teenager, then a young adult.

When I married, we got our own cooler. It was plastic and orange and it served us well. The Cokes gave way to Diet Coke and Ginger Ale, and cheese went from slices to blocks of cheddar we cut with a cheese cutter.

When we drove cross country in 1972 with our infant son, we used the ice chest to help create a “nest” for him in the backseat. In those days, carseats were not required, although we had one on one side of the backseat. But when he was in his “nest” (created by making a upholstered and padded plywood floor to slide in between the passenger seat and back seat cushion), he was free to move about and play with his toys. About 2/3 of the way through our three week multi-stop route that took us from California to New York, to Alabama and back to California, he discovered how to fling himself across the cooler and steal my sunglasses. Somehow we made it home.

About that same time, we discovered a water jug that was a quantum leap over all of the water jugs of the past. You pressed a button on the top and pumped the water up. We got two of them, one for us and one for my parents. My mother was growing frailer and lifting the water jug was too hard for her. My parents have been gone for more than two decades, but we still have their water jug and ours!

We also discovered the solution for short trips. It was an armrest cooler that sat on the bench seat of my 1977 Pontiac. We still have that one too though we never use it. We don’t have a car with a bench seat. But you never know...

The orange cooler eventually developed a leak, as did the green one that came after it. We then bought a blue cooler and a big red one with wheels on one end. We also bought a couple of those smaller coolers. One had a long life between the bucket seats of the Dodge caravan as a repository for maps. Sometimes on the road cooler crises required us to buy Styrofoam coolers. There is nothing quite as annoying as a squeaky Styrofoam cooler. But you never know when you might need one, so we keep any that enter our lives.

We have our collection of coolers and it sits atop the cabinets in the garage. For parties we fill the blue one with sodas and water and the bigger red one with beer. The rest sit there and wait in anticipation.

Somewhere along the way, we acquired two very large plastic water jugs with spigots. I think they were leftover from my camp director days – bought with my own money because the camp was too poor to buy them. Sometimes my daughter-in-law borrows them. For the last hurricane, we filled them with water – just in case.

But times have changed. Now we have bag coolers on wheels and bag coolers in different sizes as shoulder totes. I use my coolers for various events that I host, either personally or for my clients. I fill up coolers with iced drinks for bus tours and picnics. All of this stuff also comes in handy when the power goes out, which seems to happen all too frequently. I also find the bag coolers on wheels are great way to carry trade show items onto the floor.

Our approach to road trips has changed. We no longer head cross country for three weeks. Instead we fly someplace we want to be, and it is often a foreign country, and we rent a car. We don’t take a cooler with us. If I am thirsty, I will grab a bottle of water at the gas station when we gas up the car. Eating and traveling by car are no longer simultaneous tasks. We would much prefer to stop for lunch at local place that gets good reviews—which is easily determined by checking the Internet on my phone.

I admit to having an assortment of small bag coolers and when we do travel in our own car, I confess to chilling down some bottled waters and sodas. I get some ice from the freezer section of the refrigerator by sticking a plastic bag under the chute. I might even put some cheese and crackers in another small cooler bag. So, two small bags, some ice from the freezer and I am good to go. I could have left it at that.

During the last power failure I bought an ice chest that plugs into the cigarette lighter on a car. It seemed like a good idea at the time. What I didn’t count on was that in order to keep the cooler, cool, I had to keep the car in motion. It wasn’t like I could chill it down on a short trip, load it up with stuff from the refrigerator, and keep everything cool. I didn’t take it back. Instead I put it in the storage unit.

I have to say that my parents’ lives would have been a lot simpler with such an amazing device. They could have plugged it into the cigarette lighter and then carried it into the motel room each night and plugged it in. We could have had cold Cokes and our cheese would have never been waterlogged. So I solved their soggy cheese problem. It only took 60 years!

But the old pump top water jugs-- maybe I should use one of those on our next trip? I realize that bottled water is environmentally unfriendly, but it is so convenient. But I could take that old water jug, fill it with water and ice (filtered, of course, through our reverse osmosis system) and bring along some paper cups and make time almost stand still.

But the real question is, will a cooler filled with sodas and cheese and a water jug bring back the wonder of travel that I experienced as a small child? That is, sadly, gone forever.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Denim Jeans

Denim is a strange fabric – not because of its characteristics as a fabric, but because of how it is perceived. In some ways it is ubiquitous. I would venture to say that most Americans own some clothing made of denim. But don’t try to wear denim to the local Country Club or private school, the last bastions of the dress code.

From Wikipedia…
“Denim (French town of Nîmes, from which 'denim' (de Nîmes) gets its name) is a rugged cotton twill textile, in which the weft passes under two (twi- "double") or more warp threads. This produces the familiar diagonal ribbing identifiable on the reverse of the fabric, which distinguishes denim from cotton duck. Denim has been in American usage since the late 18th century.[1] The word comes from the name of a sturdy fabric called serge, originally made in Nîmes, France, by the André family. Originally called serge de Nîmes, the name was soon shortened to denim.[2] Denim was traditionally colored blue with indigo dye to make blue "jeans", though "jean" then denoted a different, lighter cotton textile; the contemporary use of jean comes from the French word for Genoa, Italy (Gênes), where the first denim trousers were made.”

I am not sure how those institutions that ban denim define denim. Personally, I would hate to the enforcer of such dress rules. I would also not want to show up in anything that looked like denim, even if it did not meet the technical definition. And does denim have to be blue to set off the alarms? And even if it is blue, it might be fake denim made out of cotton and/or polyester.

Of course there is the whole question of what makes a pair of slacks “jeans” rather than just pants. Jeans used to be put together with rivets and have patch pockets. Now jeans are made out of all sorts of fabric, including cotton duck. In fact I have two pair of “jeans” that are black with black stitching, have patch pockets, but are of a softer fabric than denim. I bet they would “pass” if I were brave enough to wear them to a Country Club. Life is sure complicated.
When I was a kid, the little boys wore denim jeans to school (I went to public school). The boys’ jeans were conventional and blue, but the jeans were lined with flannel in bold plaids. The boys wore them with the pants rolled up so the flannel cuff would show.

Being a girl, I only wore jeans after school and on Saturdays. Most of my jeans were blue and made by Wrangler, but I especially loved my red jeans and my green jeans. They were bright, bold colors with white stitching. I remember waking up on a Saturday morning and jumping into my jeans so I could help my grandmother in the garden. And I guess, that says it all, I was WORKING in the garden.

Levi Strauss brought blue jeans to hard-working miners. Hence, jeans became associated with manual labor.

Suburbanites of the 1950s and 60s wore jeans, but mostly for work around the house. My father had a pair of jeans my mother bought him, and he wore them to clean the gutters and cut the grass. He would never have thought of going anywhere except perhaps the hardware store wearing them.

I can’t recall that my mother ever wore jeans. She made most of her own clothes and was known to be always fashionably dressed. She rarely wore slacks until the 1970s and 80s, but never jeans.
My grandparents, who lived with us, never wore denim or jeans. In fact, I don’t think my grandmother, who died in 1957, ever wore pair of pants of any kind. She wore a “house-dress” for working around the house or in her beloved garden. My grandfather, who died in 1961, always seemed to wear a suit, even after he retired.

While the teenage boys of the 1950s wore jeans and T-shirts, James Dean style, the teenage boys at my high school wore khaki and navy colored dress pants, oxford cloth shirts, dark socks and highly polished Weejun loafers. We girls wore plaid shirts, oxford cloth blouses with Peter Pan collars, and the same highly polished Weejun loafers as our male counterparts. Blue jeans may have banned, but it could just have easily been that the boys just shunned them for the “ivy league” look. For sure, girls were not allowed to wear slacks of any kind. I think, however, that some denim wrap around skirts may have made their way into the classroom without comment.
Being a co-ed at a state university in 1964 required adhering to a dress code. Blue jeans were strictly forbidden except within the quadrangle (a cluster of girls’ dormitories and a dining hall). In fact, slacks of any kind were prohibited in the classroom. Of course, we were partial to cut off blue jeans and delighted in wearing them off-campus. The problem was jeans were banned even downtown. Most of us kept a raincoat handy at all times for covering up our cut-offs. (Of course, our cut-offs were not cut in the sense of being hand-cut with scissors and raveling threads.) Our cut-offs were neatly hemmed and were the length of walking shorts. We loved going to the farm supply store, buying blue cotton workshirts and pairing them with our cut-offs.

The hippies were wearing jeans in the late 1960s, so those of us who were not hippies moved away from jeans. In our young married lives, jeans were reserved for the messiest jobs around the house. There is one picture of me in a sweat shirt and jeans covered in barley cereal while watching our son feed himself for the first time.

In the 1970s the jeans had bell bottoms and hip hugging waists. I mostly ignored the whole thing and didn’t buy any jeans again for another 20 years or so. I kept the ones I had, however, thinking that someday I would fit into them again. It never happened!

Back in 1992 I bought some jeans for sailing adventure in the Bahamas. For a few years I wore them for working around the house and for trips to Shenandoah Park and hiking in the woods. Then I outgrew them, but hope springs eternal and they stay in my closet.

In the mid-1990s I noticed that my more fashionable contemporaries were wearing jeans with blazers or even with fancy jackets. I tried unsuccessfully to fit into my jeans again, but never went so far as to buy any new ones.

In the 2000s I marveled at how the young girls and women managed to cram themselves into skin tight jeans worn below the waist. I figured they had to lie down to zip them! I was not prepared for that much contortion, and besides my figure does not do well with clothes that show every bulge.
A few years ago I found some jeans on sale in a size that fit me and I bought them. Turns out the NEW jeans fabric is stretchy. Ah, that explains a lot. My jeans are mostly black, but I have a couple of beige denim jeans as well. I am OK wearing the black ones for work-related meetings, but not sure I would try to pass the country club test.

Right now, aside from the two pair of jeans from the early 90s that have no stretch, I have two pair of real blue jeans. Both of them are stretchy with orange stitching and they actually fit. Still, I am a purist and I only wear them around the house, on weekends or hiking. I can never figure out what to wear with them. I have a jeans jacket, but it is a darker shade then my jeans so it sits in the closet. I have this orange jacket…that is only thing that really goes my jeans. I know these days you can wear jeans with almost anything, but I just can’t bring myself to be that free of convention. I am not sure what I will do when my orange jacket wears out – for sure, the jeans never will.

For our parents’ generation, denim jeans were the uniform of the working class. That must be the generation that wrote the rules banning them in country clubs, private schools, and a few classy restaurants.

For my generation, denim jeans bring back emotionally charged memories – but they are just pants. And as with any other pants, it would never occur to us to cut them with razor blades, scrub them with acid, etc. We are the children of the children of the depression and for us, deliberately making something look worn out is just plain strange. Unlike our parents, we are willing to wear jeans in public, but we are not about to deface them.

Now if I were going a ban a fabric, it would be "fat polyester." But that is another story.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


The mailman of my childhood showed up around noon every day except Sunday. He took the letters from that the grownups clipped to the outside of the mailbox with a clothes pin. He left letters inside the box, which was just outside the front door. When the dogs yelped, we knew the mail had arrived.

Being a child, I rarely got any mail, with the exception of a postcard from a traveling classmate or letters from my cousin, Mac. We are the same age and corresponded through the challenges of childhood and the awkward teenage years. My name was always preceded by Miss and his by Master. We used our best handwriting on onion-skin paper tablets with see-thru lines. As we aged we went from pencil to fountain pens and finally to ball points.

The adults were happy when they got Air Mail letters. You could tell an Air Mail letter because it came in an envelope with a red, white and blue border. The paper and the envelope were lightweight – I guess to reduce the freight load for the airplane. Air Mail came from far-away places like California or even Germany.

The adults also go bills in the mail, but in those days there were few bills to be paid. There was a monthly mortgage payment and perhaps a car loan and an insurance bill.
There were no credit cards bills or offers, but my mother and grandmother had something that was called a “charge-a-plate.” It was I guess an addressograph plate about the size of a “dog-tag.” It had its own little leatherette sleeve. I believe that it had numbers on it that indicated which stores you could use it at, and I think for us that included all of the downtown Birmingham department stores. This, of course, resulted in bills via postal mail and my first acquaintance with “charge it.”

The mail also brought catalogs, but mostly the BIG ones from Sears and JC Penny. We looked in the catalogs and kept them for reference, but if we wanted to buy anything we went to the store.
My parents were big magazine subscribers. We always had Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies’ Home Journal, Southern Living, National Geographic and for my Dad, Fortune and US News and World Report. My mother’s favorite magazine was American Heritage. It was a hardbound magazine about American history and she devoured it every month. Like most of my classmates, I got Highlights.

In college mail was mostly letters from my mother, the occasional greeting card or postcard and my monthly bank statement. There were no bills because I had no credit cards. The mail came to a central post office on campus where each student had a mail box. In those days, mail was not a big part of my life. I didn’t like to write letters because I was too busy. Much to my mother’s chagrin. I would prefer to pick up the phone. Of course, long distance calls were more expensive than stamps, so I go some grief over my preference for the phone.

About my senior year (1968) the postal service set up a kiosk on campus where you could buy stamps and mail packages, all from a vending machine. That was a big deal!
Once I was out of college and married, we started to get more mail. There were credit cards and credit card offers. There were progressively more catalogs and junk mailings. We subscribed to more magazines. Long distance got cheaper and letters got fewer, though my mother still preferred to write a letter over making a phone call.

We move to California is 1971, and my parents were always sending us packages by mail. My parents discovered this really cool way to save money on sending packages. There was this little known company called United Parcel Service and they had this warehouse where you could take your packages and mail them. A guy in a brown truck would deliver them a few days later. What a concept! We all know, of course, the rest of that story.

The volume of mail coming into our house over the years has gotten to be so great that I had to come up with a quick and efficient system of dealing with it. For years, I have kept a trash can next to the table where the mail comes in. These days it is a wicker hamper.

Today I guess every household must have a mail handling protocol or we would all be drowning in it. I have a mail table set up in the family room. It is basically an oval shaped end table with a small drawer. On it I have a really large flat round basket from Senegal. Also on the table there is small napkin holder for my husband’s mail and, a pewter cup for pens. Next to it I have a plastic lined wicker hamper for the trash. My husband brings in the mail each day and reviews each item carefully. He takes the mail he wants, including the bills, and scurries off with it to his downstairs office, leaving me with the rest of it. I promptly throw most of what remains away. If I should happen to bring in the mail, I put his mail and the bills in his holder. I leave a stack of magazines and a few selected catalogs on the table for reading later. The rest of my mail I take upstairs and review. I keep a trash can under my desk for empty envelopes and more mail disposal. I also have a shredder under my desk for shredding those ubiquitous credit card offers.

But that is just the system for the household mail. Because I have work virtually, I also have to deal with business mail. The postal business mail comes to a mailbox at the local UPS store. Either I or one of my contractors picks it up almost daily. It goes right upstairs with me to my office and much of it also goes directly into the recycling and or is shredded. In our house we use blue for office paper recycling just in case we ever have to “go through it.” There are always payments to be processed and bills to be reviewed and approved. I have a letter tray that I use for items to be taken back downstairs and distributed to other members of my team. Some stuff I scan in and send to others via e-mail.

For years, I have been tearing the stamps off of envelopes and sending them to my friend, Ethel, in Leesburg, FL. She belongs to the Leesburg Women’s Club and they collect the used stamps to build houses through Habitat for Humanity. I am not sure how that all works, but I know it does and am glad to help.

I could talk about postage, but all I can really say is that I remember $.03 stamps, and how periodically the price would go up. Escalating postage prices have been a reality all my life. What I can say with certainty is that I was very pleased when the self-stick stamps came along.
Today I keep a stock of notecards and a supply of stamps. I can’t recall the last time I handwrote a letter to anyone, but I do send out a fair number of notecards. I have a supply of them for personal correspondence, but also for my companies and a few of my client organizations.

Similarly, I don’t send many real letters any more. Mostly I send letters via email and sometimes follow up with hard copy – if at all.

We have USPS online account and we use it for sending important documents and books. Priority Mail and Express Mail are great services and we take full advantage of them.
I suppose I should mention the fax machine, as it is a mail substitute and one that I have come to hate. Back in about 1978, when I was working for a newspaper, I first encountered a device they called the Mojo. It was pretty remarkable in that a reporter could write a story and send it to the office through the Mojo – almost magic. Decades later, the office fax came along with rolls of thermal paper. For a while, before email, it became an essential office tool for important documents.

Today the fax machine uses plain paper, which is a good thing. It takes up a phone line, which is bad thing and it also receives mostly junk mail. BUT, I can’t get rid of it for two reasons. First, it is the only secure way to send and receive confidential information (like credit card information). Second, everybody expects an office to have a fax machine. The good news is that it doubles as a back- up copier.

Of course, today we don’t just have mail and faxes to deal with we have e-mail and Tweets and messages sent via social media. These days I get about 700 emails each day and that doesn’t count all the wall posts and Tweets. It is exhausting just thinking about it. We are truly living in the Information Age and it is giving me a headache.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Threads in My Life

It is odd how certain places thread through our lives. These are odd threads that really seem to make no sense in the great scheme of things.

This week I found myself in Atlantic City at a carwash industry trade show. I stayed at the Taj Mahal, as that was where the show was based. I looked out the window of my hotel room and I saw the Claridge Hotel. In 1964, I went to Atlantic City with my parents to attend a conference and we stayed at the Claridge. In those days, Atlantic City was vastly different than it is today and the Claridge was an elegant hotel. There were no casinos. The town’s claim to fame was the Miss America Contest, wicker carriages along the Boardwalk, and the famous Diving Horse at the Steel Pier. In 1964, I rode my bicycle alone, along the Boardwalk and was entranced by the fact that the real-life streets seemed to parallel their relative values on the Monopoly board. If you had told me then that many decades later I would return each year to Atlantic City to an annual carwash industry trade show, I would have been incredulous. But that is the reality!

Another thread got started with that trip to Atlantic City in 1964. We took a bus trip from Atlantic City to the New York Worlds’ Fair in Flushing Meadows in Queens. I marveled at the Unisphere and the exhibits that predicted the world of the 2000s. I don’t remember how much of it they really did right, but I do remember the energy and promise of that day at the Fair.

I went to college; I got married to man from New York City; his family lived in Richmond Hill in Queens. In 1978, their home burned down and they bought another house in Rego Park, also in Queens. This house was in walking distance of Flushing Meadows Park. I remember often taking our young son there and seeing the Unisphere still standing proudly, surrounded by a park that was very much in the present, complete with NYC graffiti. But those days are gone now, as are Steve’s parents and the house in Rego Park. All that remains in my life of the 1964 World’s Fair is disparate memories decades apart.

Back in about 1958, I took another trip with my parents to a convention. This time our destination was Boston. We found ourselves in desperate need of motel as we approached Baltimore from the south. We saw a motel called the Annapolis Terrace Motel on US 50, just north of Annapolis. We got the last room in the motel. It was on the second floor and had an octagonal window. It cost $30 for the night. I kept looking out the window thinking I might catch a glimpse of a Midshipman, as we were so near the Naval Academy and I was secretly annoyed that that we didn’t have time to go to Annapolis.

In 1976, Steve and I, with son, David, moved to the Annapolis area. I ended up running a school summer program, and that involved finding a rental swimming pool. We checked out all of the local motels, and determined that the best deal was, you guessed it, at the Annapolis Terrace Motel. So for several years, we took busloads of summer campers to the motel for swimming. The motel is gone now, replaced by a Jaguar dealership. So unless I buy a Jaguar, this thread is ended. But there is one thing that remains – the octagonal window in our guest bathroom.

Are we drawn to certain places? Or is it just fate? Or does it matter?

The Joan Baez song, “Strange Rivers” says it all very well. “There are strange rivers, rivers that you cannot see; there are strange rivers that know our destiny.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Old Age

I guess is should be no surprise that the older one gets, the older “old age” becomes. At 65, I don’t feel much different that I felt at age 25. For me, “old” starts to kick in at about 80, or maybe even 85 or 90.

When I was a kid, “old” people were easy to spot. The ladies had lavender hair and wore housedresses as home and shirtwaist dresses for shopping, and when they got dressed up they wore suits, hats and gloves. The men were bald and gray-headed and wore khakis for casual and pin-stripes for dress-up.

When I was middle-aged, “old” ladies had unnatural colored hair and wore polyester pants with elastic waist bands; when they got dressed up they wore sequins and high heel shoes. The men wore polyester and white shoes and let their gray hair grow longer.
Now “old” women dress pretty much the same way I do. The color for slacks is black and tops can be bright colored or patterned in distinction prints. Shoes are black and low-heeled. Gray hair is in, as is dyed hair, provided it looks natural. Old men wear khaki slacks and sport shirts- - a throwback to their 50s counterparts.

I realize that I am now Medicare eligible and quickly approaching Social Security age. My will is made, as is my living will and durable power of attorney. I have written “When I die” instructions to my family, and I have good life insurance in place. My organ donor box is checked. So, I at one level, I am “good to go.” I have done what I must do to deal with the inevitable.

But the reality is, I am not ready to go yet. In fact, I would like to live another 30 years – that is not that long after all. But that would make me 95, and most people don’t live that long – most especially overweight people with a family history of heart disease.

I know that I am well over the age where I could go live in a retirement community. I never have been much of one for organized activities, and I don’t think that will change at some magical point in my life. I hated that kind of stuff in kindergarten and I still hate it today. No thanks, I will stay where I am – aging place as they call it. If the time ever comes when I can’t live on my own, I am fine with assisted living. If I can’t take care of myself, I guess I won’t be fit enough to participate in those dreaded group activities either.

I have a hard time envisioning my own death. There is a part of me that somehow thinks that I will be one person who will beat this whole death thing and maintain the status quo forever. The days keep going by, day after day and I keep waking up each morning.

There will be a day when everything changes. Maybe I will be in an accident or go the doctor and get some horrible diagnosis or maybe be the victim of some criminal. Or maybe I will just die without warning (my preference.

But for today, that is all someday far away. I can’t think about death for very long, for I have to focus on living. I just hope that when the day comes that my affairs will be in good order and I will not have left a big mess for others to clean up. I also hope I will have accomplished a few things that will outlive me and that I have given my son and his family some valuable insights. I hope I will have solved more problems that I have created and that I have helped make some happy memories for someone else.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I learned to tell time by the clock in the kitchen, and since that day my life my days are forever measured. There are set times for eating and for sleeping, and all the other things that punctuate my life; there are appointments and conference calls, meetings and TV shows. I am always racing the clock and traffic to be where I am supposed to be. I guess that is how it is for everyone.

Before I could tell time, I lived in the moment and I just “was.” There was day and there was night. There was “before”, “now” and “later” --- amorphous terms for existence. The adults were in charge and they talked about “o-clock” with a certain reverence.

When I cracked the code, with a little help from my grandmother and mother, time was no longer a mystery; it was for real and it mattered. The patterns of my life and my family’s life started to make sense. Daddy went to work at 8 and came home at 6; we ate lunch at noon. When I was six and went to school, it started at 8:30 and ended at 3:00. My life started to have its own independent rhythm.

I only recall that clock in the kitchen with its electric cord tail, but the adults all had watches that they wound up every day. Having a watch seemed to be something that came with maturity and responsibility.

When I was about six, my uncle sent my grandmother a fancy clock from Germany. It was called an “anniversary clock” – I have no idea why! It was gold and you could see all the gears turning around in it and the whole thing was covered by a glass dome. It sat proudly on the mantel for years. Not too long ago, I went to the local thrift shop to drop off some donations and there were six “anniversary clocks” all lined up in a row – all selling for $30 each. So much for the fragile treasures of another generation.

My mother got a clock-radio when I was about 8. It was dark brown plastic and the hands glowed in the dark. At night, she would listen to a local phone-in radio show called “The People Speak,” hosted by a fellow named Dave Campbell. I would lie in bed with her until the radio turned off automatically.

My grandmother had an electric clock next to her bed. It was a gift from my uncle; perhaps a BX purchase. It was round and was designed to look like a ship’s wheel. The adults said that the clock stopped when my grandmother died in 1957. My grandfather took that same clock with him to the nursing home and it sat next to his bed. When he died in 1961, that clock stopped again. I am not sure what happened to that clock and its magical properties.

I got my own clock radio in 1958 when we moved to the new house. It was white plastic and never seemed as sturdy as my mother’s, but it was MINE. It told time, but it also played music. I could play rock and roll music on it late at night if I kept the volume really low!

At about age 13 I was given a watch. It had a cloth band and you had to wind it. The business of being an adult had a downside. Remembering to wind a watch was not high on my list of fun things to do, though it only took a few minutes.

When I was ready to leave for college, I was given an electric alarm clock. My mother would not be there to wake me up to go to class. It was plastic and it was inexpensive, but it did the trick. We still have it. It is next to the bed our granddaughter sleeps in when she comes to visit. She has no idea that it was bought in 1964 and what a leap forward in independence it represented.

When we got married in 1969, our fanciest wedding gift came from my father-in-law. He was a clock lover, so he gave us the most impressive clock he could find – an Atmos LeCoultre mantel clock. It still sits on our mantel today. What is special about this clock is that it tells time using barometric pressure; it never needs winding. About once every 10 years it needs maintenance and we have to seek out an expert to repair it.

1969 was also the year of the battery operated wall clock, and we got two of them as wedding presents. One had a sunburst pattern with strips of wood, alternating with metal rods with balls on the end. It was iconic, but seemed to fit with our avocado and harvest gold world.

Most of my adult life I have had battery operated analog watches. The downside, of course, is that you have no idea when your watch battery is going to go. Suddenly time just stands still. It happened to me the other day. My watch stopped at 11:30 and I had to be at a meeting at noon. I was almost late. Fortunately, I was able to quickly get a new battery from a local jeweler for a mere $7.95.

My husband wants to know EXACTLY what time it is. As you might expect, he has an atomic digital watch that resets itself if pointed to Colorado. For me that seems excessive and obsessive, but he is definitely the person to ask if you want to know what time is really is.

I am reminded of the time my husband, son and I went to the Greenwich observatory. We arrived in the late afternoon and if one hurried there was just time before closing to climb a tower. I generally have no interest in climbing towers of any kind, and most especially towers without elevators. So instead of climbing the tower I waited outside and paced along a white line that was painted in the sidewalk. There was a big clock there, so I took the opportunity to set my watch. My husband has always chuckled about my response to “what did you do while we were gone?” It was simply – “I set my watch.” For that one brief moment in time my watch was right!

Today, we are surrounded by clocks, including the ubiquitous digital clocks that require cracking a code to reset. My phone knows what time it is all over the world. My computer also seems to know and they both say it is 9:24 a.m. – no doubt in total agreement with my husband’s watch. The wall clock in my office says it is 9:23 and the bank give-a-way clock in my desk says it is 9:40 (I kept that one fast because I fall for it every time and it helps me get places on time). The digital clock radio beside my bed says it is 10:40. That one hasn’t been right since the power failure and I can’t seem to figure out how reset it. Surely my grandson can help! There is nothing like a power failure to remind you just how many clocks you have around you. We have about 15 clocks in active service and most of them are not in agreement on the time.

Today I read in the paper that our public school system is buying $500,000 worth of classroom clocks and that is not even enough for all of the schools to get new clocks. They say they have to all be aligned with the bell system so that all the clocks in all of the classrooms say the same thing. By contrast, I remember buying clocks for my beloved Chesapeake Academy about 30 years ago when we moved into our new building. I bought ten clocks for ten dollars each. Our total investment was $100. I don’t know if they still have any of those cheap clocks left, but will check the next time I am there.

All I can say with certainty is that the seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years of life go faster as each year goes by. We should savor each moment as we age, but that is hard to do when we are surrounded by clocks reminding us of duties and obligations.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


When I was a kid, I used to love to go to Panama City, Florida with my family. We would stay a place on the beach and each night we ate seafood. Everything was fried in those days and only the most finicky of eaters and, of course, Yankees would think of eating seafood that was broiled. Some nights we would have fried red snapper, other nights, fried shrimp or oysters. For me a real treat was snapper throats – white succulent meat like nothing else! We had our rotation of seafood joints, including my favorite, Jessie Cooks, down on the dock in downtown PC (as Panama City is affectionately called by people from Alabama). Cholesterol and calories – who cared --- fried seafood was involved!

Our next door neighbor in Birmingham loved to fish, but I don’t think they much cared for eating fish. Many a night, my mother and father would come home to find our friendly neighbor had dropped off his catch, and they were swimming in the kitchen sink. No matter how late the hour, my mother would clean them right then and there. She chopped their heads off while they were still squirming and within a matter of minutes they were gutted and ready to fry. Crappie, bream and freshwater trout – a tasty assortment fried to perfection in corn meal.

Today catfish is plentiful and an aquaculture favorite. My family, however, always did like catfish, as long as it was “river cat” not “mudcat.” I am not sure what the difference is, but I know eating “mudcat” was something that “nice people” didn’t do. Being Southern by birth and training, I knew early on that I was expected to be one the “nice people.” That required adhering to a number of standards, including not wearing white after Labor Day and eating “mudcat.”

For all of my comfort with watching Mama clean fish at the kitchen sink, I was totally disturbed when at about age 12, at a fancy restaurant, I was served a brook trout with head still attached. This was in Boston, where people were more sophisticated and used to such strange customs.

That same trip to Boston, we went to Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod and stayed at little motel up on a hill. Across the street there was a restaurant where they had the most amazing bay scallops – fried, of course. For my family, it was love at first bite. Down south, we only had the big scallops that it was rumored were really cut from shark fins using a cookie cutter. On a recent trip to Cape Cod, we spent about an hour riding around looking for that restaurant. As far as I can tell, it is long gone, along with the small motel. But after all, it has been more than 50 years!

Another childhood favorite was salmon croquettes, made with left-over potatoes and canned RED salmon. We may not have been wealthy, but we always were able to afford RED salmon, as opposed to pink salmon. After all “nice people” ate red salmon! I never saw a fresh salmon until I was grown.

I grew up taking fresh seafood pretty much for granted, and even in college at Auburn, it wasn’t too hard to get one’s fill of fried seafood. When I was student teacher in Columbus, GA in 1968, my mentor teacher introduced me to the whole fish camp idea. My fiancé and I were treated to our fill of fried catfish and snapper throats.

A favorite memory from graduate school was when a friend and her husband, whose family lived outside of Auburn, drained their pond and had the most incredible fish fry. The fish was great and so were the hushpuppies.

My roommate and I invited a friend down from Birmingham for the weekend, and we decided to broil a snapper. By then I had become more sophisticated and come to realize that broiled seafood could be very tasty. So we prepared the huge red snapper with stuffing and herbs, and put it in the broiler to cook. But after half an hour, that snapper was still only warm. We consulted our houseguest (whose father worked for GE). She opened the oven and asked where the fish was. I said it was in the broiler. She opened the drawer under the oven and explained patiently that we had been trying to broil the fish in the pots and pans drawer.

When we moved to Illinois, I discovered that fish was not so plentiful. In fact, in her rural Illinois town, nobody really sold fresh fish. One time I bought a fish the bakery (they just happened to have a fish), but I ended up throwing it out because it smelled so bad.
If you wanted seafood, it came in the form of a can of tunafish, or from chain seafood chain. I remember one day we were in Belleville and wanted to get seafood at the Cape Codder and didn’t have much money. We dug through the bench car seats and in short order found about $6, which was enough to buy a seafood dinner. For real seafood, we went to St. Louis!

When we got to California in 1971, fish was not exactly plentiful in the Inland Empire (San Bernardino area). One night we went to fancy restaurant called the Castaways and I ordered trout amandine. I wore an opal ring that night – it had about a dozen very small opals. When I got home, I discovered one opal was missing. We called the restaurant and they checked through the vacuum bag, but no luck. I think I ate it, and thought it was just a crunchy almond.
We found ourselves craving fresh seafood and would often take a long drive to Balboa Island and go to the Crab Cooker. They had wonderful grilled fish – and I understand they are still in business. I want to go back there – well, next time I am in Southern California that can go on the ”to do” list.

Maryland is a great place if you are a seafood lover. After 35 years of living outside of Annapolis, I find myself never tiring of local seafood -- crabs, rockfish and oysters – a all delectable, if not periodically endangered. Because this is a “seafood town” there is no shortage of seafood from all over – grouper, tilapia, catfish, salmon, scallops (both kinds), and supermarket and seafood market staples.

I love our periodic forays into New England and I overdose on lobster. A treasured memory is the lobster roll on the front porch of the National Hotel on Block Island. Nothing else comes close! Though I have to say that for more than 40 years I have fondly remembered that lobster supper at St. Ann’s Church on Prince Edward Island.

We also spend a lot of time in Grand Cayman. One or our favorite things to do there is to go out with Captain Ebanks for the day long snorkel trip with beach picnic. The snorkeling is fun and time at the famous Stingray City is special, but the highlight of the day is the conch salad and barbecued fish, freshly caught that morning and cleaned on the back of the boat while we are snorkeling. I remember when Stingray City was just the “sandbar” and we would stop there to look for sand dollars. The captain would clean the fish and the conch in preparation for our lunch; he would throw the entrails over the side of the boat. One year, we noticed a few stingrays, and were told not to worry – they were friendly. A few years later, we returned and by then, Stingray City had been featured in National Geographic. We asked about going to Stingray City, and quickly learned that was the “sandbar” we had been going to all of these years.

My other favorite thing to do in Grand Cayman is to eat at the Grand Old House. That is, hands down, my favorite restaurant – not just in Grand Cayman but in the world! Dinner there is a trip back in time and the food is incredible – especially the grouper. Following dinner, you can walk down to the end of the pier and watch the tarpon. Oh, the memories.
When David was a baby he used to love the song Molly Malone and Steve used to sing it to him regularly – you know, “cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.” I always wondered about cockles were, but decades later we went to a gathering of the McNeill clan (my grandmother’s family) on the island of Barra, off the coast of Scotland. We took the ferry, but there is a once a day flight on British Air. There is no paved runway and the plane lands on the beach at low tide. The rest of the day, the area of open for people to harvest (I guess that is what you call it) cockles –small tasty shellfish. If you go to any one of the islands restaurants (there are several) cockles are on the menu, with a notation that they are from the local airport (and they mean flown in) daily.

When I think of Greece, I always think of seafood, so when we found ourselves on a small Greek island looking for dinner, we sought out a waterfront seafood restaurant. I looked at the choices and determined that what I wanted to order was something called “white bait.” My husband assured me that it was a mild white fish. Nobody discussed size, though the name should have cued me in. What I got was a plate piled high with what appeared to be minnows, beautifully fried, complete with heads and tails. I pinched off the heads and the tails and ate the middle part, probably much to the amusement of the wait staff. The bones were too small to see.
For our last day in Athens, we chartered a cab for a full day trip. At lunchtime, we had our choice of restaurants and we opted for a place on the waterfront. Our driver knew the place, otherwise we might not have gone there. Somewhat ominously, we were the only diners. Upon arrival, we were asked what we wanted to eat and we said “fish.” We were taken to a cooler and asked to select a fish. The fish was actually wonderful, thought I think it cost about $50 just for the fish. After that, we focused on other less costly Greek specialties.

I went to the grocery store yesterday and I bought two nice group filets. They weren’t cheap, but I know they will taste terrific. Obviously, I could fix them in some gourmet way and fall short of the Grand Old House for sure. I could broil them, now that do know how to use the broiler. But my Southern roots have won out. I think I will fry them with an egg batter and panko – my new favorite ingredient. Of course, I will use olive oil and blot them carefully on a paper towel. After all, fish IS healthy, right?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Power Failure

The lights used to go out when I was a kid, but it was not a big deal. Late afternoon summer thunderstorms are a part of life in Birmingham and some days the fierce winds would knock down trees and power lines. Sometimes devastating tornados would race through nearby communities. No doubt the victims of these horrific events lost power for many hours, but for us power failures were rare and passed quickly by candlelight.

When I was a teenager, Birmingham experienced some harsh winter ice storms and the power went out for days. It was more of a grand adventure than a disaster. My father worked for the gas company, so we had a gas stove and grill. My mother would host a power failure party and invite all the neighbors.

More than two decades after I moved away, my mother was terminally ill with cancer. It was January and she was hospitalized for the last time. I got the call to come home, and managed to fly in on the last flight before the Birmingham airport was closed due to an ice storm. That same storm took out the power at my parents’ house. My father and I stayed at the hospital at my mother’s bedside until she passed away. That night, we went home to a dark and ice cold house. It was like walking around in death. My mother’s things were there, just as she had left them. The darkness was palpable and the cold, bone chilling.

In Maryland, power failures are common in summer storms, hurricanes and winter ice storms. We have talked about getting a generator, but haven’t yet. Somehow it seems once the storm has passed that it is hard to think about the next one.

The winter power failures are the worst; they go on for days. The cold is intolerable. It chills the soul and it reminds me of the night my mother died. The last time we had an extended winter power failure, we went to a motel.

We just finished with a 6 day power outage due to Hurricane Irene. What is scary is that by the 3rd day I found myself falling into a power-less existence. The restlessness passed and calm set in. I became accustomed to not having TV and finally stopped switching on lights when entering closets. I came to enjoy sleeping with the windows open and reading myself to sleep by electric lantern.

The electricity is back on now. Life is back to normal, but I am not. I keep thinking that I have lost something special that I was just beginning to grasp in the quiet and darkness of the power failure.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Computer Revolution and Unemployment

Yes, I think they are very much related. Computers are finally coming of age in offices all over the world, and the result is a shift in how companies staff.

When computers came on the scene in the early 80s in regular offices populated by people with no technical expertise, the buzz was that computers would help us do everything easier and quicker! Yeah, right! Not for at least for another 30 years.

Computers are finally living up to the hype. Or perhaps we low-tech humans with 30 years of dealing with them are finally more competent to use them. The truth is now we are getting a lot more done than we did 30 years ago. Personally, I think every day that I am doing the work that six of me could have done in 1981.

Remember what it used to be like? You would go to work in the morning and review the papers in your in-box. You would look for little pink slips of paper for phone messages to return. Then you would start to work. If you wanted to write a letter, you would take a yellow tablet and write it out in long-hand or if you were a big-shot you could have your secretary take dictation (I never experienced that). In any event, you didn’t type it yourself. Chances are that the letter would have to be retyped because of a typo. A letter I could zip off today in a few minutes via email would take two people several hours.

If you wanted to write a research report, you would gather all of the materials you needed around you. The magazine articles you might cite would come from your personal stash. You had a bookshelf in your office because you needed the books to do research. If you really wanted to get serious about research you would have to get in the car and go to an academic library. A thorough report might take days. And then somebody still had to type it.

If you wanted to do a slide presentation, you had to shoot the slides with a camera, get them developed; and spend several hours putting the slides in the right order in the Carousel tray and setting the timing. Obviously, PowerPoint is a great time-saver!

Our Boomer generation knows how to type and that has probably been our salvation. We didn’t learn to type in anticipation of computers, however. That was a fortuitous accident. My mother, like many others of her generation, made me take “personal typing” in high school so I could type term papers in college and letters when I was a functioning adult. I was in the college prep course, so there was no time in my academic day for regular typing. Besides, I was never going to be a secretary. In retrospect, typing was by far the most useful thing I learned in high school!

While doing anything before the office computer came along was harder than it is today, nobody talks about that decade from 1981 to about 1991 when computers seemed to make productivity go DOWN, not up. Nor do they consider the negative impact of SPAM and viruses on productivity that followed for another decade.

Why would all of these wonderful machines make things harder? The answer is that people had trouble using them. In the early 1980s, to type a letter you had to memorize a bunch of control codes. To add a column of numbers you had to create a spreadsheet and use formulas that reminded you of algebra class. I am not a fast typist (especially back then) and I could type faster than my computer display could show the letters. File names had to be short and have no spaces. In most offices there were a few computer-phobics and it was their secretaries who had to adapt. I was what some of my colleagues called a “computer person.” That meant I could turn it on and competently type and print a letter. I could even create a spreadsheet!

When the computer broke, I was still pretty helpless. There was no “tech support,” but I was lucky that my husband and son are both way more computer savvy than I am and could usually solve the problems. But all of that takes time.

For a whole decade we had offices with a handful of people who could deal with computers and a majority who could not. It wasn’t especially cost effective, but it was a way of life.

By the early 1990s many who simply could not handle computers at all had retired or moved to other careers where computers were not essential. The lingering computer phobic executives had competent administrative assistants who could do their computer work for them. At last we were beginning to realize some of the promise of what computers could do for us. They still broke, but they were easier to use. We still, however, had no access to information in real-time.
Enter the Internet and e-mail – BIG TIME! At first the Internet and its sister e-mail were novelties in the office. I remember having ten workstations in the mid-90s and only two of them had an Internet dial-up connection on shared line with fax machine.

Soon it became clear that everyone needed the Internet we got an Internet hub and DSL and thought we were hot-stuff. Now that everybody could get e-mail, we started using it to communicate. Everyone could get online, so we started using the Internet to research things and order stuff. It was pretty cool!

But everyone else also discovered e-mail and our e-mailboxes filled with SPAM. People started sending dumb jokes around via e-mail and employees, who lacked e-mail at home, started having personal e-mail come to the office and using the Internet to shop.

The bad guys also discovered that the Internet was a great way to wreak havoc, so we started getting debilitating computer viruses – not to mention big bad Trojan Horses and evil worms. Countless hours of productivity were lost in most offices.

But things are different now. We have SPAM filters so much of the distraction of SPAM is gone. Employees have computers and Internet access at home, so there is little temptation to waste company time on personal shopping or sharing jokes. The workflow is fast and furious!
We now have good virus protection software and a computer virus is a rarity. We don’t lose time to unraveling computers tied in knots by Trojan horses and the like. The computers mostly just work. And we have learned what to do when they don’t.

In order to work in an office today you have to be competent with basic office software. That means just about anyone can type a letter, create a spreadsheet, create a Powerpoint presentation, send and receive emails, and use the Internet. And, of course, everyone is self-sufficient. There is no longer much need for lower level employees to provide services for the higher ups. There is a culture of “do it yourself” – even if you are the boss!

I submit that there are thousands and thousands of jobs lost to increased computer productivity. In a tough economy, simply getting the work done is a top priority. Reducing payroll costs for a company may be the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. It is unfortunate that many people are not able to find jobs – competent, skilled people who are very adept at using computers. That’s the point – just about everyone is able to use computers well these days.
So what will be the differentiator of the future? I submit that it might just be creativity and problem-solving and the ability to work with little or no supervision. Of course, that assumes there is money to hire anyone new, and that is, of course, the challenge of our times.