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.