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.”