All the Days of Summer

“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”

–  Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

When I was a kid, summer was all about freedom – from school, from homework, from having to close the book and turn out the light too early every night, from bells ringing and chalk squeaking on a black board and being expected to sit for most of the day. And from staring out the window daydreaming about being out there, outside under the fierce sun and fathomless sky watching clouds scud across the blue like clipper ships with full sails.

Sometimes, I think I remember my childhood summers like stories Ray Bradbury wrote just for me. If you picked up my copy of I Sing the Body Electric or Golden Apples of the Sun, you’d find them there, my stories, like the thirteenth floor in tall buildings, invisible until you looked for them. And when you did, there I’d be in print – running with the neighborhood kid pack, riding my bike and going barefoot and wading in ditches and scooping polliwogs into pickle jars.

The summers I remember smelled of pine sap and honeysuckle and sounded like cicadas. There were water moccasins in the garden, gators in the bayou, and graveyards in the woods. All old homes were haunted, especially if they were built before the Civil War, and people said the river sang with the voices of a vanished Indian tribe. I wore cut-offs and drank water from the hose, got bitten by mosquitoes and deer flies and horse flies and ants, climbed trees and neighbors’ fences, and rode my bike around deserted schools and vacant ballparks. Sometimes I’d stay out until the bats swooped in the evening sky and the streetlights flickered on and my mother’s voice began calling me home.

If I was inside on a summer day, I was reading a book – Bradbury or Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke, stories where anything could happen and usually did. A trip to the Pascagoula Public Library to stock up on new stories was even better than a visit to the Pixie Pet Shop where we got our dog (a 12-pound miniature dachshund named Caesar) and where they kept a real piranha in a huge murky tank. The library was seemed dark when you first stepped in from the afternoon sun until your eyes adjusted and you could see all the daylight the old building let in, dust motes drifting in rays of light from walls of paned windows. The air inside was cool and smelled of aging paper and ink and glue. Its stacks were labyrinthine and had creaky wooden floors, high shelves, and secret corners perfect for reading. The librarians were traditional and enforced the quiet so it was easier to dive out of the world and surface in another where dinosaurs still lived or spaceships were real.

“He brought out a yellow nickel tablet. He brought out a Ticonderoga pencil. He opened the tablet. He licked the pencil…”

When Ray Bradbury passed away a few weeks ago, just before what would have been his 92nd summer on the planet, all I could think was – the world will be poorer without him but thank goodness for all the stories he left us –  The Martian Chronicles,  Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes. And especially for my favorite, Dandelion Wine. In that novel, he created the most magical summer I’ve read (or experienced) making me feel nostalgic about growing up in the Midwest in the 1930s though I was raised a thousand miles away and 40 years later.

So I might have semi-mythologized the summers of my own childhood and it might have been at least partly Ray Bradbury’s fault. I might have glossed over all the mundane details, and I’ve realized lately – I really owe him for that. Because what else are we but a set of selective memories we take out to re­-live, tell it like a story, polish it like a stone, and then put it away again? I’ve got some good stories now, and like dandelion wine, they get better with age. Thank you, Ray. RIP.

Roadside Relics: Old American Motels

I love old motels. We used to live in a mountain tourist town that had a leftover population of the old lodgings in various stages of decay. So for a time, I collected them – with my camera.

The cool thing about digital collections, besides the fact that they occupy very little space outside the virtual world (a handy fact that helps to keep me firmly on this side of the line that separates “collector” from “hoarder”), is that I can play with photos later. Lately, I’ve been trying to learn a little more about how to use Photoshop Elements, so I experimented on some old motel photos.

I thought I would provide a little history to go along with this bit of Americana: Motels evolved along with American car culture.

My car in another life.

 As the US highways sprouted in the 1920s, auto travelers needed handy places to stop for the night that were affordable and easily accessible. So the motor inn in all of its various incarnations (motor court, motor lodge, tourist lodge, cottage court, tourist cabins, auto cabins, cabin court, or auto court) was born.

Sadly, the Rockola was torn down not long after this was taken.

It might have been 1960 if it weren’t for the Coke machine.

The word motel was coined in the mid-1920s as a combination of the words motor and hotel. Motels were often a cluster of cottages or cabins with common parking area or a single building of connected rooms that opened on the parking lot which allowed rumpled, road-weary travelers to get to their rooms without trudging through stuffy lobbies.

One of my favorite motel signs ever.

Tropical bungalow style motel in the mountains 800 miles from Miami.

In the fifties and sixties, to get motorists’ attention, motels often featured colorful neon signs and themes from pop culture. Sadly, after the sixties, chains like Holiday Inn began to run unique, privately-owned motels out of business.

There’s still a few around, though, if you’re lucky enough to stumble across them.

Fifty-one Years and Counting

A year ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and I wrote this little essay for them. Since then Fork in My Eye was born, so I thought I would post it here to honor another year added to their tally:

June 24, 1961 – She had just finished high school and he had just graduated from the Naval Academy.

This is the story of an artist and an engineer and how they have weathered 51 years of wedded bliss including: parenthood to three neurologically atypical children, a multitude of pets representing at least 4 of the vertebrate phyla, 10 years living at the command of the US Navy, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on the road, a sandstorm, two earthquakes, 39 years of Mississippi heat and mosquitoes, and several hurricanes including a category five that washed their house away. Together they’ve witnessed the elections of ten US presidents, the end of the Cold War, and the doubling of the world’s population. They survived cars without seat belts, lead paint, asbestos, mercury thermometers, second-hand smoke, McDonald’s transfat French fries, Hare Krishnas at the airports, and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door.

During the Navy years, they spent more time apartthan together. While Kennedy and Khrushchev sparred in the news and the young  officer’s ship stalked a Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba, she was home in Norfolk, Va, caring for their firstborn infant son and still unaware that she was pregnantwith their second.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and she watched from home with their three young children, he was serving his country 9,000 miles away in My Tho. During these first 10 years of their marriage, they drove roughly the equivalent of the earth’s circumference, up and down the Eastern seaboard, then ocean to ocean and back again on shiny new interstate highways. And they did most of it with 3 kids and a dachshund in a Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning.

In the seventies, they settled in the deep South and upgraded to a Freon-cooled, blue Mercury station wagon with genuine, faux woodgrain paneling along the sides and a profile longer than some baby limousines. As the decade got rolling, the Beatles broke up, Nixon got caught, bell bottoms became hip huggers, Happy Days premiered on TV, and two men were abducted by a UFO from the west bank of the Pascagoula River just a few miles from the Gallaghers’ new home in the Mississippi woods.

Dad designed warships by day, went to school at night to earn his masters degree in business, worked most Saturdays, and served in the Naval reserves one weekend a month. He came to every softball game and soccer game and refereed a few of the latter. He would always play chess or Scrabble or gin rummy on request. And notably, he gave up smoking at the request of his youngest child.

Mom took art lessons and soon was giving them, planted beautiful gardens, decorated the house, joined the garden club and the Hickory Hills Country Club and the PTA. She sewed clothes for the kids and costumes for school plays and Halloween, attended umpteen swim meets in the sweltering Mississippi heat, read Erma Bombeck’s books, and listened to Paul Harvey every day on the radio.

The King Tut exhibit toured the US and everything Egyptian became an American fad. We saw the exhibit in N.O. in 1978.

Together they dutifully attended three years (one for each child) of beginner band concerts without once pointing out to each of their children the clear deficit of musical talent in our family. They took us to see Jaws and Star Wars and the King Tut exhibit when it came to New Orleans. The house was always full of books and art and animals. Their family expanded at various time to include not only dogs and half-feral cats that wandered in from the woods, but also tropical fish, parakeets, mice, gerbils, box turtles, rabbits, snakes the boys caught in the woods (these, our mother asserted, were temporary guests), and one mean duck.

The eighties rolled over. The boys graduated high school and left home for college. Dad took up jogging, read all of Dr. James Fixx’s books, and amassed an impressive collection of tacky t-shirts from 5K and 10K runs. Mom realized Father Cleary, the stern, sexist, philanderer of a rector of the only Catholic church within 15 miles had finally been replaced and dragged her youngest child back to mass, started arranging flowers for the altar, and then dragged the same child through fields full of fire ants, chiggers, briars and bull thistles in search of wildflowers (which the youngest child thought was way more fun than church). She taught a year of art at a Catholic high school and then went to work part time at a florist where the ladies always had the latest gossip because they did the flowers for every event.

Finally, the youngest child left home and they were alone. But not for long, because we came back – each one of us for some length of time over the next few years ran back to Mom and Dad. And then we didn’t for a while. Dad had to quit jogging because of a bad back so he focused on scholarly interests that come naturally to him – genealogy, history, world economics, politics, applied sciences, new technologies. He became active in local politics when their tiny community finally incorporated and became a city. He retired as a captain in the US Navy in the early nineties but continued to work until just last year because he said, he was still enjoying himself.

Mom began to sell her paintings at galleries along the coast and still does. Her gardens became even more extensive havens for local wildlife including, almost every summer, at least one water moccasin which she dispatched herself with whatever garden implement was at hand. Her house became a showcase but always a comfortable one. She was also active in local politics and always had her finger in a dozen community pies.

They took their first trips alone since their honeymoon posing for photos on a Canadian glacier, exploring Yellowstone, strolling through Stonehenge and Blarney castle (and yes, Dad kissed the stone). Their children finally grew up and grew more interesting, probably because one son travels the world and brings back cool stuff and stories and photos, and the other son and daughter acquired children of their own and by virtue of being parents themselves suddenly had more in common with their own parents.

After the turn of the new millennium, Mom and Dad decided that 30 years in one place was long enough, pulled up roots and moved 50 miles west to a charming artsy little community on the beach. A year later, Hurricane Katrina roared in with a 30 foot surge and washed their new house, and everything they had accumulated over 40 years together including all the family photos, away. In the months that followed, as they and their children scoured the debris field, they found no piece of their house bigger than half the staircase. They salvaged a few things in the rubble – some jewelry and silverware and knick knacks.

They have rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than before, and several feet higher – their new home is full of light and air with high ceilings, lots of windows, and big screened porches. Mom’s new gardens are maturing beautifully and the wildlife is coming back. The pool that was a festering swamp for two years is sparkling blue again and surrounded by new foliage. Visiting them is like staying at a beachy bed and breakfast  run by my own mom and dad and it’s is one of my favorite places on the planet.

And I wish I could be there today. But since I can’t be, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for any time I may have vomited on you, wiped my nose on your shoulder, or kept you up all night. I am also heartily sorry for years of making dubious noises with brass instruments in your home, any time I bitterly complained about helping out around the house, and especially for my late teens and most of my twenties.

I love you and miss you both. Happy 51st anniversary, Mom and Dad.

What My Dad Did

One of those Florida trips, circa 1978.

My dad, who has freckled, Irish skin that burns at just the thought of a summer sun, didn’t love the beach. He usually spent our time at the sandy edge of the continent in the shadow of a colorful umbrella in a shirt, hat, and dark glasses, squinting in the glare of the subtropical sun trying to read a paperback without sweating too much on the pages. He never complained and always seemed content to wait for my mother, my brothers and me to tire of the ocean for the day and to help carry all our sandy detritus back to the car, but he never looked terribly comfortable to me. Yet every year he took us back to the sunshine state to spend his vacation time with my grandparents (his in-laws) on the rim of the Atlantic.

I remember those vacations like a personal, idyllic mythology of big family breakfasts and packing picnic lunches in wicker baskets to take to the beach and coming home hours later to their little bungalow near the sea all damp and sandy and sunburned. It was a week permeated with the smell of Coppertone, the tang of icy lemonade, the rustle of palms trees and scuttle of chameleons in the courtyard, the bright towels perpetually drying on a line in the sun, and always the scratch and heat of sun-scorched skin that my dad was always smart enough to avoid.

It was on the way back from one of those visits, my family packed into our 1972 Mercury land yacht, the air conditioner on high, when I, already heavily dosed with Dramamine, informed my father, who had endured hours at the wheel on the interminable Florida turnpike, that if he lit another cigarette, I was going to vomit on him. Daddy took one look at my pale face and carefully tapped the unlit cigarette in his hand back into the pack. He would smoke when we stopped, he said. And for the rest of the trip, that’s what he did. Later he told me he would no longer smoke in the car on future trips. I was exceedingly grateful, and would have left it at that.

But my mother saw an opportunity. When we arrived home, she took me aside. I’ve been trying to get him to quit for years, she said. But he won’t listen to me. But you’re his little girl. If you ask, he’ll do it.

Every year at school, they showed us a film about the dangers of smoking. In it, a father was sitting on the couch watching TV at night after his family had gone to bed, when he nodded off for a moment and accidentally dropped his cigarette behind the couch. Then he goes to bed, the smoldering cigarette ignites a fire, and the house burns down while the family sleeps and the dog barks frantically from the garage. I don’t remember if they survive. It was really quite a horrifying little film.

Oh that’s good! my mother said when I told her about it. Tell him about that!  I was a little startled by how delighted she seemed at my account of the disturbing film, but I did what she told me and gave Daddy a week to taper down. Then he had to promise me not to touch another cigarette.  He gained 30 pounds over the next couple of years, but he never smoked again.

Daddy and me.

And that’s how I discovered, at ten years old, that my dad would do anything for me. He braved the sweltering heat and swarming mosquitos of June evenings, perched on rickety bleachers, surrounded by other parents who shouted and cussed the coaches or umpire by turns, all because his daughter was playing short stop. When I started jogging and Mom didn’t want me to run at night alone, he ran with me, though for the first few months, it was apparent, he would much rather be home sitting in his chair reading a Robert Ludlum novel. He suffered through beginner band concerts and refereed my soccer games and took me to play tennis even though I had the temper of John McEnroe but none of his talent.

Dad when we were stationed in Key West not long after I was born in 1966.

He had already spent years proving himself a dedicated father before I was old enough to notice. In 1971, when my big brothers and I had all reached school age, my dad gave up his career as an officer in the U.S. Navy and he stepped into civilian life to give us a hometown and a house to grow up in. Then, there were years of working late and on weekends and night school to get his MBA.

Dad, circa 1980.

Since I grew up and moved away, he’s traveled thousands of miles to come visit me where ever I’ve lived and spent half of each visit fixing things. He’s funded house repairs and dental work and dog surgery and many other things my partner and I couldn’t afford. He sent me cards every time he went on a business trip until he retired. And though he’s not a fan of sun and sand, he took us to the beach every year because he knew my mom and brothers and I loved it (and did it again just last year so we could all celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together).

Dad, the day after he retired in 2009.

I’ve left a lot of stuff out for brevity’s sake but I remember it all, Daddy. Just wanted you to know. Happy Father’s Day. Love, #1 daughter

Mother 1966

It was 1966. Dr. Zhivago was raking it in at the box office, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass put 4 albums on Billboards top 10 and troll dolls were so popular that even the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, claimed to own one. On a rainy afternoon of March of that year, a small woman stood in the middle of a dirt road in front of her house in Newport, Rhode Island, holding an egg in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other. She was almost 23, she was pregnant and she was stuck in the mud.

Anita looked down at the mud that held her boots firmly in place. She pulled her right leg slowly up until the boot began to slide off. Sighing, she stepped down again. It sank up to the ankle. She tried the same thing with her left foot and got the same results. She stepped down again, unwilling to walk barefoot through the cold mud. It began to rain again.

Looking over her shoulder, she saw her mother pass by the kitchen window inside her house. She was making the boys lunch. Anita had two young sons who excelled at mischief and mayhem. Normally, Anita did a pretty good job at keeping up with them, but now, in the last weeks of her pregnancy, it was a little harder. Her mother came to visit as often as she could get away to help her with the boys.

She passed by the kitchen window again. Anita waved the pliers. “Mother!” she called, though she knew her mother wouldn’t hear her through the closed windows. She didn’t. Anita sighed.

She looked ahead of her toward a small house across the street. An older couple, Irene and Al, lived there, the only neighbors she knew so far. They had been very kind to her since she had moved in.

She stared hard at the house willing someone to come out. And someone did! The front door opened. Al stepped out, whistling and jangling his keys, and strolled toward his car. He glanced her way, stopped and stared a moment. Anita smiled and tried to wave with the egg hand. Al started to wave back, shook his head and strode toward her. He stopped a few feet away, squinted at her boots and cleared his throat, covering what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.

“Mornin,’ Anita,” he said.

“Good morning, Al,” she said smiling brightly. Al looked up at the leaden sky.

“Miserable weather we’re having,” he noted.

“Yes,” she agreed. “It is.” Al stared first at the egg and then the pliers. He raised an eyebrow. “I borrowed an egg from Irene yesterday,” she said. “And your pliers.” Al nodded and rubbed his chin. The corner of his mouth twitched.

“Thought they looked familiar,” he said and studied the mud covering her feet. “Looks like you got yourself in a spot, Anita,” he finally noted.

“It would seem so,” she said and smiled again, this time a little sheepishly.

“Well, alright then, let’s get you out of there.” He stepped behind her, gently hooking his arms under hers, and struggled to drag Anita out of the mud. She curled her feet to keep the boots from slipping off and finally came free with a squelch.

Al walked her back to her house, lecturing her on the way about why young pregnant women, whose husbands are at sea, should probably not go out in the rain to return an egg and a pair of pliers. She smiled and agreed. He left her at her front door with the assurance that if she needed anything, all she had to do was call and he or Irene would be there, and walked back to his own house, shaking his head and muttering to himself about crazy pregnant women all the way.

Mom, me and my brothers on Easter Sunday, 1967.

My mother told me this story the first time a few years ago, and I laughed until my eyes leaked. The mother I remember was just so confident, so supremely competent, I couldn’t imagine her getting herself in such a predicament. Until I realized that at the time she first told me the story, I was already several years older than she was then.

And now, here I am, exactly twice as old as she was then in 1966, the year I was born. I’ve spent the last 12 years as a stay-at-home parent to my partner’s three sons. I feel incredibly fortunate to have as a parenting partner the woman who gave birth to the children and nursed them and stayed at home taking care of them before she handed off to me and went back to work.

She knows exactly what it feels like to spend all day taking care of young children with no breaks and no help so when she’s home from work in the evenings and on weekends, she is completely present and an active, involved mom.

But even with my partner’s help and support, there are times when I have felt overwhelmed or lonely or inadequate. So I called my mother, who unfortunately lived several hundred miles away, but still always made me feel better. Because that’s what good mothers do. They raise their children with all the love and attention they need and then provide emotional support for their daughters (or daughters-in-law or friends or sisters or partners) when they have their own.

So this story is for my mom and for her mother, my Nana, who I still miss and wish had lived to see me become a parent. It’s for my partner, the mother of our children, who also taught me how to be a mom. It’s for my mother-not-in-law who raised 5 amazing daughters and all my partner’s sisters. It’s for and my sister-in-law, mother to my niece and nephew, and all our friends who have raised their children alongside ours and all the talks we’ve had and stories we’ve traded. And it’s for our childless friends who have also loved our kids and supported us emotionally and understood when we turned down invitations for years because of the kids and came to see us when we couldn’t get away.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Four generations of mothers in my family. I’m the little one
sitting on my mom’s lap. And that’s my grandmother and
great-grandmother.(Also my brothers in back
and Willy and Junior in front.)

Past Halfway: Catching Up to Cyndi Lauper

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you call that unobtrusive age demographic between “high noon” and “dusk,” between “halfway” and “finish line”?  I’m at the front of the pack of Generation X, a late 60s baby, born just before the moon landing, just after the last of the Boomers. Those of us who came into this life at the tail end of that tumultuous decade led our generation up the mountain and now we’re kicking our bucket lists down the other side toward the undiscovered country, the summer land, the last exit on the highway to the hereafter.  (And no, I’m not talking about Florida. Not ultimately, anyway.)

I’m neither middle-aged nor senior citizen. I am exactly twice as old as my mother was when she gave birth to me and 17 years older than my dad was when he stepped off a plane in Saigon to begin his tour in Vietnam.  I’m 34 years older than my younger self the year I wrote my first poem and hit my last home run. I’m 27 years older than the younger me who fell for a girl who would become the woman I share my life with now.

At 46, I’m just past halfway. It’s a funny place to be.

I’ve found that gray matters – the soft organ in my skull and the hairs on my head. I’ve had a long time to add to the database in my brain, so I’m more knowledgeable and presumably wiser than I’ve ever been. I’ve developed a sense of humor. People listen to me, respect my experience, and sometimes even take my advice. Yet sometimes I still find myself waxing nostalgic for the oddest things – dancing zombies and fingerless gloves and phones with cords and Tina Turner’s legs, Mad Max, fictional man-eating sharks, angry gremlins, the fourth Dr. Who, and the original killer cyborg from the future.

When I was young, I found it odd whenever my mother went on about her childhood as if humanity had reached its zenith in mid-twentieth century America – a time when, according to her, people never had to lock their doors and raised happy, wholesome children without even trying. She spun a fairy tale out of the fifties like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Yet if there is an unlikelier candidate for the apex of human achievement, it might be the 1980s, but here I am, pining  for the Eagles and ET, telephones you didn’t have to carry around in your pocket, and a world with about 3 billion less people in it. And still, I wonder when the hell Cyndi Lauper got to be 58.

I call my mom at least once a week so we can gripe together about how confusing modern technology is and how we miss “good” music and taste and manners. And there are serious problems too, of course – the loss of the natural world, overpopulation, the rise of terrorism. But this essay isn’t about anything so momentous. It’s about childhood expectations and post middle-age angst. Is your life anything like you expected it to be?

Thirty-five years ago, I couldn’t wait to grow up. I fully intended to spend my time digging in Egypt like Howard Carter looking for another undisturbed tomb full of treasure and artifacts. Or maybe I would travel all of Africa as a wildlife photographer for National Geographic. I really had no idea that being an adult (once I finally gave in and became one) would have more to do with carrying a second mortgage than carrying a camera. It would have lots to do with getting root canals and taking the dog to the vet because he ate a sock and arguing with school principals about who really knows what’s best for our child, and not so much about ancient tombs or African wildlife.

But being an adult is also about open windows and the cool autumn breeze drifting through them. It’s about learning to appreciate all the things that make life worth living – the sound of the ocean or your child’s belly laugh, waking up next to someone you love, a book that scares the snot out of you when you’re alone in the house (oh c’mon, that’s fun), watching snow falling or the sun rising, the smell of coffee and the taste of chocolate, rocking a baby to sleep, holding a fossil in your palm, making someone laugh so hard they snort their soda. I could go on. But I have a point and I’m pretty sure I’m almost there.

My list of those things, the ones that make life grand, gets longer every year and everything on it ages like wine (or cheese. Let’s go with cheese. I love cheese.) So things that have been on the list since I was a kid – like petting a dog or looking for shells on the beach – are particularly potent. But I also keep adding things to the list. I was in my thirties before I lived in a place where the trees (and weather) changed in the fall. It was amazing and it made the list. It was just a couple of years ago that I first went swimming in the ocean at night. (And yes, I remember that scene in Jaws. Why do you think it took so long?) It was great fun and also made the list.

So here’s my theory about the difference between how I feel about things on the list and nostalgia. Nostalgia is about missing something that can’t be regained – a “simpler” time, our innocence, our youth. (Or in my case, Cyndi Lauper’s youth.) It’s all tangled up with those well-aged things that made the life’s-worth-living list when you were a kid so it’s potent stuff. (Writers love it. A few well-placed details can evoke powerful emotions. Ray Bradbury is a master at it. Read a few pages of Dandelion Wine and the next thing you know, the smell of freshly cut grass will remind you of your childhood growing up in middle America in the 1930s  – even if you were born 30 years later and several states away from the Midwest). In a story or book, nostalgia lends the narrative a bittersweet edge. But in real life, it’s just kind of painful really.

So I needed a concept to counter nostalgia, especially now that I’m past halfway –  something that reminds me I’m-happy-to-be-alive-right-here-right-now. And that’s where my not-a-bucket-list comes in. These are not things I want to do before I die, but things I want to experience every chance I get while I’m alive. They are not objectives. They’re things that bring joy or beauty into my life. It’s less about thrill-seeking and more about deep appreciation. It’s like a drawing of a sheep in a box.

Cover of "The Little Prince (Turtleback S...
Cover via Amazon

Has anyone here read Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince? For those of you who haven’t, the narrator is a pilot who is stranded in the Sahara. Out of nowhere appears a strange, charming little person (the little prince) who we later learn is just visiting our planet. He asks the pilot to draw him a sheep (so that he can take it back to his planet). The pilot makes several attempts but the little prince doesn’t like his drawings. Finally, the pilot draws a box and tells him the sheep is in the box. The little prince is delighted. So the question here is why?

And the answer, for me, is my not-a-bucket-list.

Vintage Science Fiction Cover Art

One summer day when I was about twelve, I complained to a friend that I couldn’t find anything interesting to read. My friend gave a little laugh and said, Come with me. Leading me to her garage, she flicked on the light, waited a moment for dramatic effect, and said, Pick.

I was in awe. One whole wall of the garage was covered by homemade bookshelves and those shelves were stuffed to overflowing with, what I would soon discover, were science fiction paperbacks.

They’re my dad’s, my friend said. He’s kind of a sci fi junkie. You can borrow anything you want.

I stepped forward and picked one at random. Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The cover art convinced me to take it home. And so began an addiction to science fiction that would last thirty years (and counting).

So a few years ago, when I was in the depths of my thrift store addiction, I began buying old sci-fi paperbacks. It gave me something new to hunt for, and I really liked the cover art, especially from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (If you read my last post you’ll know I have a fascination with yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.) But it was hard to display the covers if the books just sat on a bookshelf. So I decided to take on another craft project. I started collecting the covers, some cheesy ones and some of the classics that I had read as a kid, with the thought that I would one day try to decoupage them on the top of an old trunk.

Since I am not a particularly successful crafter and a great procrastinator, the covers went into a  manila envelope and have been occupying the bottom drawer of my desk for a few years now. But one day, I swear, I’m going to finish this project. In the meantime, they’re this week’s Thrift Pick of the Week.

Why I Hate My Cell Phone

An overall view of an LG EnV mobile/cell phone.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1977, Star Wars premiered in the theaters, gas cost 65 cents a gallon, Elvis (reportedly) died, and my sixth grade class hosted a student teacher with the boundless enthusiasm of a true zealot. We liked him because of his unusual lesson plans. He showed up one day, for instance, wearing a wide brimmed cowboy hat and a gun belt with an antique Colt revolver (unloaded but quite real) and reenacted the gunfight that took place at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881.

On another afternoon, he described in enthusiastic detail the technological wonder ground the world would become in our lifetime. By the time we were thirty, he predicted, we would all be carrying phones that required no wires and would fit in a shirt pocket. Because that sounded very much like Captain Kirk’s communicator, I heartily approved of the idea. I didn’t actually believe him, though. I mean, come on, no wires?

The young teacher went on to lament that the rampant changes to society brought on by the technological revolution would traumatize a whole generation (mine) as it was currently befuddling his own. He referred us to a book called Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. (Still on my reading list, for about 33 years now. See a future post for more on procrastination.) The gist, as he would have it, was that we were going to have some pretty cool gadgets but be stressed out and disoriented by the whole rampant change thing. I didn’t believe him about that either. I was ready for change.

I was wrong on both counts.

About three years ago, well after most of the rest of the country, I got my first cell phone. It was tiny, fit in a shirt pocket, and flipped open much like Captain Kirk’s communicator. I only agreed to carry it so my partner would let me go hiking alone. The problem is, when I carry the phone, I’m not alone. It can ring at any time and that’s one of the things that appalls me most about modern living. People expect to talk to you any time they want. Sometimes, they even hang up on the voice mail and call right back on the theory, I suppose, that maybe annoying the snot out of you will make you want to talk to them.

It’s that attitude, that assumption that the social contract now has a clause stipulating that you must speak to people anytime they choose no matter what you may be doing, that makes me fantasize about culling the gene pool. Because I have all kinds of reasons for not answering the phone – maybe I went hiking to enjoy the peace and solitudeand am currently sneaking up on a Tiger Swallowtail with my camera. (Actually happened. Butterfly got away.) Or maybe I’m writing and the infernal phone breaks my train of thought and makes me forget what may have been the most brilliantly conceived sentence I ever captured in print. (It’s amazing how many times my brilliance has been thwarted by a ring tone.) Sometimes, I don’t even have a good reason. Sometimes, I just don’t want to talk to anyone.

But now, even I am brainwashed that I mustn’t go anywhere without my phone or something bad might happen. What if it’s my partner or one of the boys’ schools calling? (I always answer for them.) It might be an emergency. They might need me. So I’m always on guard, ready to dash off to a loved one’s aid. But more often it’s just my dentist office calling to remind me I have an appointment or my neighbor wanting to borrow something. So I ignore it. It keeps ringing and frightens the butterfly (or the brilliant sentence) away before I can turn off the ringer, and I resist the urge to smash it with a rock. I feel stressed and disoriented. And mad at Alvin Toffler for being right.

So I really wonder how we all managed to get along for so long without being connected to everybody else all the time. It makes you wonder about the reasons that so many of us are taking antidepressants these days. Actually, I have a whole bunch of ideas about what should make that list, but what do you think? Should cell phones be on it (if only to keep people from talking on them while they drive)? Was life less stressful in 1977? Are those silly Bluetooth gadgets that people wear in their ears a sign of Armageddon? Was the original Star Wars trilogy obviously superior to the new one? (Just threw that one in for fun. My kids don’t get it.)

Sad Anachronism, the List

A dozen things I grew up with that would befuddle my children

1.  Shag carpets – I wouldn’t even know how to describe to our boys why so many homeowners decided that carpet that required raking was a good idea.

2.  Pet rocks – The dumbest or most ingenious fad of all time depending on your perspective. In 1975, for about 6 months, you could buy a Pet Rock for $3.95 that came with its own cardboard carrying case (with air holes and straw bedding) and an owner’s manual entitled, The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock. The man who conceived the idea became a millionaire

3.  Finding silver coins and wheatback pennies in pocket change – My dad was a coin collector, so in his honor, here are a couple of numismatic facts: Quarters and dimes made of 90% silver were minted until 1964. Wheatback pennies were only minted through 1958 but there were tons of them. So when I was a kid, combing through pocket change for silver and wheatbacks (and the occasional steel penny from WWII) was like hunting for treasure.

4.  TV rabbit ears – We got three channels, ABC, NBC, and CBS. And if you managed just the right antenna adjustment, you could sometimes coax PBS out of the fuzz on UHF.

5.  A percolator on every kitchen counter – My dad’s was shiny stainless steel with a glass knob on top. For years, the smell of coffee was linked with the gurgling of that pot in my memory. They were replaced by automatic drip coffee makers in the seventies. Now relegated to the camping supply aisles or kitchen specialty shops.

6.  Walter Cronkite – The man America trusted to bring us the news. When he said “And that’s the way it is,” we believed him because our parents did. He was in our living room every evening throughout most of my childhood.

7.  Movies with lousy special effects – Kids like my boys who have grown up watching movies like the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings, take computer-generated Hollywood magic for granted. It’s hard to explain to a kid who has never seen an old sci fi B movie why movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the original Star Wars, which still used models and stop motion, were such a sensation in the seventies.

8.  Telephones with dials and curly cords – Our boys will never know what it’s like to try to have a private conversation with a friend on a handset attached to the wall of the kitchen by a long curly cord while Mom cooked dinner and Dad and siblings came and went.

9.  Smoke-filled teachers’ lounges – I don’t know about your schools, but at mine, the teachers’ lounge always smelled of smoke even when clouds of cigarette fumes weren’t actually billowing out. I wonder what teachers now do to calm their nerves between classes.

10.  Chalkboards in classrooms – Another staple of our childhood. My boys’ classrooms have white dry erase boards which are already falling into disuse as their teachers transition to smart boards connected to laptops to display internet content. They have never been asked to bang the erasers.

11.  The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau – The wiry French diver who seemed to me like the last great explorer, traveling the oceans on the Calypso and showing us things that few people had ever seen before. Now with amazing videos of virtually everything under the sea available to them, my boys could hardly imagine how exciting it was to go Scuba diving with Cousteau.

12.  Sets of encyclopedias – Everyone had a set. Ours was the Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 volumes plus an index, full of information that was outdated almost before it was printed. A completely foreign concept to my boys growing up in the information age with much of the sum total of human knowledge available on the internet, just a few keystrokes away.

So what do you think? What else do you think should make the list? What fixture of your childhood is now obsolete or unheard of? What would puzzle your kids? Write a comment and remind us of what we’ve forgotten.

Twenty-first Century Parent or Sad Anachronism?

Here are some things my kids will never understand about me:

I once owned my own record player. It was red and had its own case and I had a little box of 45s. My family owned a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which, even with its onion skin pages, probably weighed more than a small pony. I learned to take photographs on a camera that used 35mm film. I am a child of the seventies and eighties – of Atari and Pong, of VHS or Beta, of TVs that got only 3 or 4 channels, and car trips with nothing but the radio or a cassette of Abba’s Greatest Hits to entertain us.

I never laid my hands on a computer until I was in college. I read books, made of real paper and ink. And when I had to research a project for school, I had to go dig through a card catalog and wander the dusty stacks of the Pascagoula Public library to find aging texts that were often already outdated by several decades. By contrast, when our boys have to research something for a paper or school assignment, all they have to do is sit down with their laptops and browse the internet.

Technophobe that I am, I have to admit to being awed by the information that is now literally just a few keystrokes away from their deft little fingers. What an exciting time for our boys to grow up. Yet they take it for granted, this whole universe of information just waiting to be summoned by the great Google genie. Until the router goes down. And they look at me to fix it.

So here’s my question. How did this happen? How can I, child of the seventies, bibliophile and technophobe by nature, be reasonably expected to maintain a network of 4 laptop computers linked by two mysterious boxes with blinking lights to a global web of interconnected computers that now digitally stores much of the sum total of human knowledge? The last time I walked through Best Buy, I didn’t even recognize half of the gadgets they sell. I’m pretty sure I’m just not properly equipped to raise children in the twenty-first century.

So when the wireless router began to misbehave, I just crossed my fingers and sent it good thoughts (kind of like I do when the car starts to make a bad noise. Except then I turn up the radio, too.) Predictably, it got worse. The boys got increasingly twitchy as they were repeatedly denied access to the internet by an ornery little black box with blinking blue lights. The middle boy assured me that he was going to fail the tenth grade if I didn’t do something soon. So I tried to fix the wretched thing. For days I tried, learning about IP addresses and selectively permeable firewalls. I ran troubleshooting software and replaced cables. I reconfigured things. Nothing worked. And soon I was ready to take my rock hammer to the infernal box and pound it into plastic shrapnel.

And then I remembered – it was still under warranty! I carried it back to Best Buy and talked to a nice young man who said a lot of things I didn’t understand, and then he gave me a new one. I brought it home, followed the easy set-up directions and magically, it worked. (Imagine the heavenly choir and ray of light shining down.)

So I’ve given up trying to understand the little black box. Sometimes, I go into the room where it lives and talk nice to it, because I want it to like me. I’m pretty sure that’s part of the magic, and I need this one to work for a long, long time.

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