Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Say It With Flowers

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, summer arrived a week or two after spring, which generally started a few days after Valentine's Day (although you could often get a tan while it was officially winter, if you had some "sick" days saved up).

In case that explanation makes no sense, what I'm trying to say is that, by early June, it's blasted hot and wicked humid in my hometown. The high temperatures start hitting the 90s in April and don't drop back to the 80s until September or later. The humidity is suffocating for most of the year, even in winter (Jan 1 - Feb 15), when 50% humidity makes a 45 degree day feel like a bone-chilling weather emergency.

Departing from the real topic of today's discussion, allow me to show you the calendar I developed during a recent bout of ADD, which clearly describes the type of climate I'm describing, in simple yet technical terms:
















That's south Alabama weather. I enjoyed it for 34 years before moving to central Indiana to discover why we were taught about four season in grade school. There really are four seasons, and we get to experience them all in Indiana.

In my hometown, spring is a beautiful explosion of color, as the azaleas, camellias and dogwoods put on a spectacular show. I've never seen anything to rival Fairhope, Alabama in full bloom. Between the trees lining the streets that lead in and out of town, and the hanging flower baskets on all the downtown corners, it's one of the prettiest places you'll see in spring. But owing to the sub-tropical latitude, this profusion of flora is rather short-lived, quickly followed by heat and humidity so stifling, only a masochist would voluntarily go outdoors to see the flowers after Memorial Day.

Emerging crocus - the first bloomer in my yard
But my adopted home knows how to do spring. Our winters are pretty harsh, but that just makes the arrival of spring more momentous. First, the bulbs start sprouting - crocuses, daffodils, tulips, followed soon after by shoots from hyacinth and irises. Early and late bloomers stagger the color over the course of a few weeks, while we await the end of snow, the last freeze and the greening of the grass.

Early spring view of the backyard, just starting to go green

Some people have huge clumps of spring flowers in bloom, enough to cut for big bouquets indoors and still have great color outdoors. I never seem to get that volume of blooms, and have to decide whether to leave them out or cut and bring them in to enjoy. I usually cut all my blooms, unable to stand the knowledge that they are in the yard where passersby can enjoy them, but I can't. I ascribe to the selfish gratification school of thought - they are my flowers, so I should get to enjoy them.
Spring flowers in a special vase set crafted by Lynne Tan

Summer blooms in my yard begin with the prolific daylilies. I have several colors and varieties, and their aggressive spreading helps fill in the inevitable voids after the spring bulbs are nothing but droopy green and brown leaves.

Some years I plant lots of annuals, like vinca, impatience, geraniums, begonias, petunias, celosia and other splashes of color and texture. I always use hanging baskets on the front and screened porches, plus I usually have some potted herbs each year for my culinary requirements. I enjoy dirt and digging, so I almost always feel compelled to put in some kind of bedding plants. But my real joy is perennials. I love knowing that a plant that appeared to die away in the fall or with the first frost, was actually just biding its time beneath the surface, waiting for sunny days, rain and warmth to signal the time to re-emerge. 

In my early years of gardening, trial and error was my greatest teacher. If you've ever gone to a garden center with some money and ideas, but no experience or facts, you probably know what I mean. Some plants I learned early on to avoid: mint, pampas grass, trumpet vine, butterfly bush and English ivy, just to name a few.

I also had a lovely neighbor who was always giving me cuttings and transplants to "try." She had a way of making her backyard jungle look like a deliberately whimsical garden paradise, but I couldn't pull off that look. I just became an expert at the slash-and-burn method of mistake-management.

One plant I learned about in my old home in Columbus, IN was roses. The previous owner of our house had a gorgeous selection of roses planted in a bed along the back of the house. As I recall, there were ten or fifteen shrubs when we moved in, all with gorgeous leaves, enormous blooms and devoid of visible pests. A few short years later, I knew I was doing everything wrong, because the plants looked awful, except for the blooms. Despite extensive research, natural, organic and toxic solutions and even an attempt at hand-washing each individual leaf of the affected bushes, I decided that God intended my roses to be ugly, diseased producers of gorgeous blooms. It seemed that roses, while beautiful and unparalleled in the fragrance department, were not meant for the likes of gardeners like me.

More than a decade has passed since I first accepted that I would never be immortalized on canvas, wandering through my rose garden with a basket in the crook of my arm, looking like Elizabeth Bennet pondering her unceremonious rejection of Mr. Darcy's proposal. I would have to make do with less romantic, but more carefree blooms if I wanted to be a flower-gathering waif.
Coreopsis - in May and June I could gather a new bouquet every day

Azaleas in a flattened bottle vase over the kitchen sink

Among my floral successes I can count coreopsis, shasta daisy, azalea, columbine, snapdragon and clematis. With a couple of new beds in the works, I'm planning to add some aster and sedum for more fall color, and hope that the heirloom peonies start to give us some blooms next spring. After six years in this house, I feel I've begun to make some progress getting the flowers I love to bloom where they belong. 

A couple of years ago, in the fall, Eric and I ripped out some landscaping plants that had taken over the garden in front of our house. We planted some shrubs and an evergreen with an eye toward height, texture, camouflage and balance. We were immensely proud of our planning, budgeting and the immediate results. In a moment of weakness, I asked if we could try one of the knockout rose bushes that the nursery owner assured me was fool-proof, fail-proof and fun to grow. Eric got a look on his face that I normally associate with my bad perms of yesteryear, but he can't say no to me in public, so we got one.

Knockout roses growing up right next to the front porch

Carpet rose bunches are perfect for little vases in odd places,
like the powder room

I was disappointed by the anemic performance of the plant last year, and figured that I just had a black thumb where roses, even "Roses for Dummies" roses, are concerned. But this Dummy is also an optimist, which is why I asked for, and received, another rose for Mother's Day. It's still small, but it is already a pretty strong bloomer, which gave me the courage to grab another rosebush, this time in coral, from a end-of-season sale at a local greenhouse last month.

I thought I killed that plant by not getting it in the ground before we went on vacation. The week we were gone was the hottest of the summer and bone-dry, so the rose was a brown, crunchy, shriveled mess when we returned. I babied it, pruned it hard, watered it excessively and put it in some heavily-improved soil; it is recovering nicely so far.

Maybe next summer I'll have a picture
of this coral rose in bloom

But the "never give up on roses" thrill came this morning. In the driving rain, I walked onto the front porch, leaned over the railing without getting the least bit wet, and clipped this small, fragrant bouquet:

So far, 2012 has brought a mild winter and a warm spring, while late summer has felt, at times, like fall. Unseasonable weather can make me confused, but at least the plants in the garden are behaving nicely, reminding me that we are still in the season of sunshine and flowers.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Blog Olympics: Legos Beat Kardashians

I haven't been blogging much lately, for reasons that wouldn't interest anyone but the terminally bored. I've been involved in the normal range of activities that most people find manageable, but I, for some reason, don't. I've got the usual number of piles and projects deposited around the house in varying states of incompleteness, attesting to the fact that blogging hasn't lost out to productivity just yet.

I can't blame "not blogging" on the Olympics, either. I'm apparently a lousy American, because I barely watched 10 minutes total. And I followed the preparations in London like the sad Anglophile I am, thinking I'd finally watch "The Games" this year. I always think that, but then the coverage actually commences and I find I'm not interested. I watch highlights and recaps with the sound off, but beyond that, I'm content to look at Wheaties boxes to find out who won.

The competitive activity I've been glued to is the statistical analysis of my neglected blog. I have been trying to look at what I'm writing that "works," and what I post that falls flat. Blogger, the Google blogging platform I publish through, makes it very easy to analyze the impact of my writing. Studying my statistics, sparse as they are, is usually a pretty dull experience. As regular readers know, some months ago I attempted to build my readership by invoking the most trendy word I could think of: Kardashian. I used the name multiple times in a blog to see if the Google search insects would calculate that, based on the frequent appearance of such an important word (Kardashian), my article must be important and should therefore be featured high on any keyword search.

At least this is how savvy bloggers claim to get more traffic - choose trending keywords and execute careful keyword placement. So I gave it a go a few months back, writing not one, but two articles about the Kardashian phenomenon and how it has personally affected my family. If you missed them, the one about Eric's notorious extramarital affair with one or more Kardashians is here, while the recap of my blog's influence on the Kardashian's endorsement deal with Sears is covered here. Feel free to go back and read them, since you are really not missing much here.

Aaaaanyway, it was fun, and I'm sure a few random teenage girls stumbled on my blog before hurriedly clicking the "back" button, but other than a brief spike in hits on the day I published those two, I detected no lasting increase in traffic. I decided to let the Kardashians to go find another housewife to do their publicity. I was clearly not cut out for such a glamorous assignment.

So I went back to the tried-and-true philosophy of "Write What You Know," cranked out a few articles that were probably examples of better writing, but still my same predictable housewife schtick. Google Analytics showed very steady, undramatic charts and graphs to indicate a small dedicated readership, with only the occasional "Kardashian" search.

Real life continued to get in the way of meaningful writing, spring turned to summer, and one day I decided to look at my stats again, to see who or what was going on behind the scenes at "Polite Ravings" while I was ignoring it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a different Registered Trademark had overtaken the Kardashians in keyword search frequency in my traffic analytics? I'd always hoped the gushing odes to my Keurig or Dyson would finally draw in some random readers (or advertisers), but the magic product that attracted so much attention was one I don't even own:


I wrote about my introduction to today's microscopic building sets in a fun blog you can find rat-cheer. The post was really about how much I enjoyed the job of babysitting a charming 5 year old, owner of enough Legos to construct a mid-sized strip mall. Looking back, I'd have to say I was writing about how Legos brought this little boy and I closer. The catalyst could have been confusing baseball cards or a violent video game, but fortunately, we bonded over wholesome building blocks.

Legos, and their ninja subsidiary, Ninjagos, have propelled me to the highest number of search hits in my 2.5 year blogging history. If you include my favorite Ninjago character, Kai, in the keyword search data, the collective impact of Legos on my blog traffic is a staggering three times the total of the Kardashians!

I now see which side my bread is buttered on.

Oh, the Kardashians haven't heard the last of me - I'm sure they are shaking in their stilettoes as they read that promise. I browsed their trashy, poorly-made Klearance racks while at Sears yesterday. Not surprisingly, there were more Kardashian Kollection fashions on Klearance than there were new product. I could have left that store with four complete slutty outfits and a scarf for under $100, which is not a bad bit of shopping by my standards. But the stuff is hideous. That's just an opinion, but the racks echo my sentiment. It warms my heart to think that there are more sleazy clothes than sleazy people to buy them. I'm sure I'll be forced to bring up the Kardashians from time to time, just to keep them on their toes.

But what does it mean, that more people search "Legos" than "Kardashians?" What does it portend for hopeless, imitative bloggers? Do I have a future in toy reviewing or babysitting? How can I capitalize on my unintended success with Lego shoppers? Is there some way to combine the concepts of chin hairs and toys for profit?

Yes, these questions provide ample opportunity to think more and do less, which may have become my personal motto by default. In the medal count, I may not get any gold for blogging, but I'm clearly a world-class procrastinator.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Evil Chin Hairs and Other Signs of the Coming Apocolypse

It's been a while since I had a good rant about the ravages of age.

Don't pretend you hadn't noticed. You were secretly wondering why I've haven't been on my whiny soapbox for awhile. Your long wait is finally coming to an end. I need sympathy and attention, so I'm wound up for a good whine that will earn me an online pity-party.

My family is too preoccupied to give me the audience I crave. Between the London Olympics, the Presidential election, "Sherlock," college searches, violent blockbuster movies, summer school, budget concerns, and "the weather," no one at my house seems to have time for my semi-annual mid-life crisis. So I'm bringing my whinypants self to the blogosphere where people truly care about my issues.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my personal characteristic that are getting worse with age:

chin hairs - My chin hairs have developed subcategories and supercategories. In fact, the category has to be broadened to include hairs of all colors and textures that appear at random on almost any part of the face. I currently have to play "search and destroy" on practically every inch of the bottom two-thirds, from the brows to the neck folds. I guess this is nature's way of compensating for my lack of a mustache. Because of the fact that I have droopy, fleshy eyelids (see separate rant below), I often have to pluck stray brows from just above my lashes. I mistakenly thought long nosehairs were the province of the males of the species, but a new glasses prescription corrected that notion in short order (retroactive embarrassment). I also have one hair that randomly appears near my jawline, growing 3-4" overnight for no apparent reason; I pluck it and it doesn't come back for months or years. When it shows up again, it is as if it literally pops up full-grown. I keep expecting to grow some nice green warts to showcase these lovely chin-sprouts, which come in black and silver and feel as if they are connected at the bone. I've had to get a tug-of-war team to help yank them out. I'm not sure what the evolutionary purpose of sparse stubble on an otherwise smooth face is, but clearly, God wants me to grow a beard.

eyelids - Although I've never had deep-set eyes or a prominent brow bone, but for most of my life I liked my big blue eyes. Only nowadays they couldn't be described as big. My eyelids have "gained weight" in recent years, and seem to cover too much of my eyeball.  They droop so far down that they fold over themselves to make a little hood over my 12 transparent eyelashes. My worsening vision seems to be due (in part) to the obstructive effect of "double-eyelids," which are like double-chins, but may eventually qualify for me corrective surgery. A mini-facelift covered by insurance - what a concept! Except that I can't countenance the thought of someone, even a skilled surgeon, slicing at my eyelids. Looks like I'll have to live out my days with puffy, droopy, raccoon-ringed eyes. Try to control your sympathy.

short-term memory - I like calling my curmudgeonly husband "Al." This derisive nickname is short for the Alzheimer's which seems to strike whenever he is called upon to remember important facts about anyone but himself and Peyton Manning. But lately the girls have whispered "Allie" behind my back (bet you thought I didn't hear you, treasonous children). I seem to be forgetting things with greater frequency of late. The fact is, I forgot something extremely important the other day, something I really needed to tell someone else, and I've already forgotten what it was. The effect of age on my memory function appears to have changed from linear to exponential around the time the girls hit the teen years. The details and minutiae of their busy lives started to crowd out the few available brain cells that remained after I ushered them over the threshold of puberty. I've been warned by people in-the-know that this condition only gets worse. I could offer countless examples of this problem, in the form of embarrassing stories where I get lost on the way to the grocery store, or call an old friend by their sister's name, or asked for a restaurant check after I've already paid it, but I've conveniently forgotten most of them.

varicose veins - I didn't have this condition, at least as far as I knew. Then a friend started discussing her upcoming surgery, which led me to take a closer look, and I got a shock. With my new, improved reading glasses trained on my inner ankles, I discovered intricate roadmaps of red, blue and purple. Later, using a hand mirror, I inspected the back of my thighs and calves. (I don't recommend this if you have a weak stomach or are prone to fits of uncontrolled hysteria.) Not many visible veins on my thighs, because they are protected by a thick layer of cellulite. But my calves - oh, dear - why didn't someone warn me? Delicately framed between shiny stretch marks there were several oddly-shaped purple bulges. I guess we'll have to add this indignity to the growing list.

Creaking/cracking joints - Before I can creep, sloth-like, out of bed each morning, I must first rotate one foot for several seconds until my ankle cracks. I've found that, if I don't,  the whole leg mysteriously gives out while I'm trying to get to the bathroom. I don't know why this is or what it portends, but it can't be good. A few minutes later, my first trip of the day down the stairs sounds like a bag of microwave popcorn just warming up - a noisy cadence of pressure-relieving pops. Friends who've heard me crack my neck know that I can produce a blood-curdling sound that could be dubbed into a horror movie where the killer breaks someone's neck bare-handed...it's pretty gruesome. I wasn't expecting to have such noisy joints at my age. It seems only fair that I should  be "officially beyond childbearing capability" before I have to sound this old.

Forgetting - Not to be confused with short-term memory problems, I'm talking about forgetting names, birthdays, directions - facts I've known all my life which now routinely escape my grasp. Sometimes there's someone on hand who can fill in the blank ("Mom, why don't you just get our phone number tattooed on your wrist?"), but often I've lost an entire afternoon researching some mundane factoid (July 4, 1776) that I would have thought impossible to forget. This may be the inevitable fallout of a lifetime of collecting and storing trivia in order to impress people with my Jeopardy skills. It would be nice to do some selective defragging and purging of overcrowded or malfunctioning areas of my brain. Does anyone know how to achieve this kind of de-cluttering? I read a self-help article about it once, but I guess I forgot what it said.

I had planned to "rave on" about this until I reached ten unpleasant aspects of age, but I'm already somewhat demoralized at the ones I've discussed here today. As I've often said, I'm very lucky to be healthy, well-fed and sheltered and surrounded by people I love, so I realized that these are rather minor concerns. Compared to most of the folks I share this planet with, I have nothing to whine about. But that never stopped me before.

So I'll stop with the rants above for the time being. Unless someone is desperate to hear about bladder issues, hearing difficulties, thick toenails, lactose intolerance and my new fascination with Lawrence Welk reruns, I think I'll stop and grab a nap or something.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Morning Musing

I love thunderstorms. I enjoy the assault on my senses that a robust storm provides. And we had a nice one this morning - a sort of off-and-on event starting before daybreak and seemingly ending right about now with the lifting of the clouds and a burst of sunbeams on my porch.

We're in a drought in the Midwest, and many people are hurting because of it. The crop reports are abysmal and I don't know if the recent rains will help the farmers, livestock, crops, etc. at this point.

The extent of my suffering has been watching the lawn and my plants suffer. That's not much of a problem, in the scheme of things, especially since I've got a sprinkler system and time in my schedule for daily watering. I can't say I've been much affected by the drought so far this summer, except that this morning, I realized I have been in a writing drought, of sorts.

Not that my negligence toward this blog coincides precisely with the drought conditions. But let's just say there could be a connection. Or not.

But this morning, for whatever reason, the writing synapses started firing with the approach of thunder, and by the time the lightning was close enough to see, I'd cranked out a chapter of my novel. Not my novel that I started on vacation. And not my novel turned into a nonfiction essay. But the novel I started last summer, quite possibly during a thunderstorm.

It's been sitting, neglected, under one of my many piles of books, for months. Every time I looked at the outline and character sketches, I thought, "Who cares about these people? What difference do they make?" How to build on the essence of human goodness distorted by the corrupting influence of daily life has been a difficult problem. What would motivate a character to dig deeply beneath their most closely-cherished beliefs to find the seeds of their own wickedness? What makes a person go from blissfully unaware and unintentionally damaging to fully conscious of actions and consequences?

Somehow, that answer came to me this morning. It actually came from the dogs, if you want to know the truth.  Joey is terrified of thunderstorms, and develops uncontrolled tremors from his fear. Gus gets mad at thunder, trying to drown it out with his pitiful little barks. And Grant, ever the follower, barks at whatever Gus is barking at. Because of their lack of understanding of the cause of the noise and sensory disturbances, they respond in fear and ignorance. And I don't think they are even conscious of their responses.

Fear and ignorance are primary factors in the story I want to tell. And fear and ignorance describe my feelings about writing a story for an audience. Fear and ignorance are also the main components of my feelings about trying to get a book published.

But I don't fear blogging anymore. I know my audience - you are so small, it's not difficult - and I know my platform. Even though the last few entries have generated hate mail, I have to keep writing.  I wrote to complain about the President and my disdain for Fifty Shades of Grey, but fortunately I haven't even had my house rolled. Hate mail is a pretty small price to pay for having a place to air my views.

My brain has been wilting, parched, waiting for some inspiration to get me back in bloom. This little storm may have been too little, too late for the nation's farmers and such, but it was extremely refreshing for me.

Bring on the rain.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Fifty Shades of Wasted

I frequently apologize and/or make excuses for my old-fashioned tastes, limited understanding of current trends and cluelessness as regards popular culture. I could never be mistaken for a person who knows what's new, what's hot, what's in. I'm pretty stagnant in my interests and don't usually explore "the latest" of anything. 

And I'm usually satisfied being out of the pop culture loop. I'm okay not knowing who is the latest favorite on American Idol, or what color is the new black, or the wedding plans of Brangelina.

The only niggling doubt I have is when it comes to books. Sometimes I just can't resist the urge to read the latest bestseller that everyone is talking about. I almost always regret that decision. I know what I like - why do I let myself get talked into reading something that doesn't interest me?

That's what happened this week. I finally broke down and bought Fifty Shades of Grey for my Kindle - at $9.99, the most expensive e-book I've bought - and began reading immediately.

Many of my friends have enjoyed this book, I assumed I was just being a stick-in-the-mud and missing out on a good story.

Note: What follows is purely my opinion. I am not trying to influence anyone. It's just a rant.

What a complete waste of my time! I'd give anything to be able to get back the hours I spent trudging through this juvenile, redundant, predictable excuse for a novel. I'd rather have a refund on the time than the money, and if you know how cheap I am, you know that's saying something.

The narrator and ingenue, Anastasia Steele, is only fractionally more likeable than Twilight's Bella Swann. She's a about to graduate from college with honors, is a dutiful daughter, a Brit Lit devotee', shy, gorgeous and a virgin. If she had ever 1) made one single intelligent decision during the course of the story or, 2) pulled the plug on her continuous stream-of-consciousness narration, I may have been able to find something about her to like or admire. But Ana quickly changes the very core of her character in order to be able to become sexually involved with Mr. Hottie Hot Hot Rich Gorgeous Stud. She's about as admirable a role model for women today as a certain aspiring Dallas Cowboy cheerleader named Debbie was to my generation. Completely unbelievable character development, in my opinion. 

The male love interest - I cannot call this character a hero with a straight face -  is Christian Grey, a 26-year old self-made telecommunications billionaire  who is frequently described by his physical beauty (redundantly and ad nauseum). He is also an accomplished pilot, classical pianist, has impeccable manners and speaks like he reads Lord Byron for breakfast. He's a bona fide sex god, whether indulging in his obsession with BDSM or just dabbling in "vanilla" carnality. In other words, he's off-the-chart implausible, which made it very difficult for me to give a rat's derriere what his emotional problems stem from.

I wish I'd listened to my own "inner goddess" and skipped this tripe. I'm doomed to remember this sub-par story and these annoying whiners for years, until the inevitable dementia sets in and I can hopefully forget this book. Meanwhile, I can't escape them in my head. I can't un-read the story or erase the memory of their kinky goings-on.

Let me be clear: I'm not opposed to the sexy aspects of the novel. It's just that the writing was so bad, the characterizations so infantile and the narrative so annoying that I can't see how anyone could enjoy any aspect of the story - sex, dialog, "inner goddess," what have you.  I was warned that it is poorly written, but I couldn't believe that something selling millions in hardback could be as bad as all that. I was mistaken.

Next time, if I think I don't want to read what everyone is reading, watch what everyone is watching or go where everyone is going, I hope I can remember this experience. I'm a boring, middle-aged woman, the perfect candidate for this mindless titillation, but I pray that next time a "can't-miss" opportunity comes along that truly doesn't appeal to me, I have the sense to save my limited time, money and brain space for finer, worthier things.

On the bright side, I'm feeling much more confident and ambitious about my own writing!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Yes, I'm Prejudiced...

...if you mean that my brain prejudges situations based on previous experience, facts in evidence and in advance of specific actions. But that's probably not what you mean.

"Prejudiced" usually describes the attitude or actions of one who prejudges another on the basis of an assumption about them based on a single or limited human dimension. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition is:

  • having or showing a dislike or distrust that is derived from prejudice; bigoted:people are prejudiced against usprejudiced views

In that context, the connotation is negative, but using the literal translation from Latin, prae meaning "before" and judex meaning "judge," it does not have to be applied negatively. It is possible to judge someone as having positive qualities associated with only one dimension (i.e. beauty = goodness). But the term is rarely applied to that sort of judgement.

Normally, we talk of prejudice as applied to race, gender, sexual orientation and a few other categories. When society discusses prejudice, the reference is usually to a person or persons who use narrow character assessments to make broad assumptions about groups. But are there other ways to prejudge people? I think there are. I prejudge people based on how their actions affect themselves, those around them and the whole of society. The actions which cause me to do that rarely have anything to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I assess individuals by how they treat others. Does that qualify as a prejudice?

If so, COLOR ME PREJUDICED. I am guilty.

Because, all other things being equal, this is how my brain thinks:

I prejudge cashiers who can't make change as deficient.

I prejudge people who speak poorly as being ignorant.

I prejudge children who are publicly rude as having negligent parents.

I prejudge people who drive aggressively as obnoxious.

I prejudge people with multiple junk cars in their yards as being lazy.

I prejudge people who scream and curse at their children in public to be bad parents.

I prejudge people who wear pants with a waistband around their hips to be slaves to prison fashion.

I prejudge people who wear clothes that tightly cling onto and in between their rolls of fat to be legally blind and/or lacking in honest friends.

I prejudge people who leave their Christmas lights up all year as lacking in the most basic level of motivation.

I prejudge people who buy flashy cars and overpriced toys as having more money than sense.

I prejudge people who throw their trash on the ground to be lazy.

I prejudge people who buy junk food with food stamps as irresponsible.

I prejudge people who use illegal drugs as plain old stupid.

I prejudge people who drink and drive as criminals.

I prejudge people who vote strictly according to their holy books and leave their God-given brain at home as under-informed.

I prejudge people who have surgery to fight the natural effects of time and age to be in denial.

I prejudge people who cut in line as rude.

I prejudge grown-ups who wear t-shirts featuring cuddly cartoon characters as childish.


Allow me stress this fact: I have been guilty of many of these acts myself.  As such, I expect you may have judged me similarly when I committed those acts. And I don't blame you for that.

As humans, we are each in possession of a brain that makes thousands of observations per minute. I draw from past experience to find data that applies to present circumstances.

I judge first with my eyes, but I don't stop there. My ears vote almost simultaneously. I don't need to interact with you in order to form an opinion, and if I don't have that interaction, my knowledge is stunted at the opinion stage.

If I do interact with people from groups that are different than my own demographic - white, middle-class, college-educated, middle-aged, married, straight, Christian - I will likely find other areas of commonality that bridge the initial gaps in similarity. Though that interaction, I gain the opportunity to see beyond our differences in religion, education, skin color or choice of partner. We may bond over gardening or sports or a book we both read. The world of possibilities for similarity is huge, compared to the narrow categories in which we may differ.

I believe that it impossible to think without prejudging. However, that is not the same as "passing judgement." To "pass judgement" on another person is discouraged, but I think that, at least in the literal sense, it is very difficult to assess facts associated with a person and not come to some kind of conclusion. It needn't be a conclusion of good or bad, right or wrong or any other pair of opposites, but we can be aware of a fact and judge that that particular fact doesn't change our overall assessment of the person.

Prejudging a person or situation is an unavoidable function of a working brain, and is only bad if it is where we stop thinking. Prejudging should only be the first stage in an assessment, and is best followed up by more information. The trick is to go beyond initial, limited impressions, the opinions of others and our gut reactions, to discover a whole person. I don't want to be judged by my demographic profile or a single trait any more than you do. If you must judge me, try to do so by observing how I treat my fellow man.

And I will try to extend the same courtesy to you.

Friday, April 27, 2012

How Can Playing With Legos Make Me Tired? (and other burning questions)

Sometimes I get down on myself for not doing more with my life professionally, not using my intellect or talents in a way that would bring security and financial gain to me and my family. For reasons beyond my limited understanding, this has not been the path for me.

After years of staying home to raise kids and keep house, I've had a few part-time jobs, but none have turned into a mid-life career. I regularly apply for jobs, usually entry-level office positions, but so far nothing has panned out.

In my dreams, I have the makings of an impressive "Girl Friday"-type of administrative assistant. I don't know how build a website or run Outlook, but I'd bring my real-world experience and common sense to thorny inter-office relationships, remember my boss's anniversary several days in advance, and always have my Shout stain-removal pen handy. I think I have much to offer, if you like a slightly younger, slightly thinner Aunt Bea-type of secretary.

In my nightmares, I picture myself as a myopic, incontinent Lucille Ball trying to run new product development at Apple - total overwhelmance. I'd probably be a disaster in any workplace. (Exception: Dairy Queen - I'd give that a try.)
As long as there are 200 applicants to each job for which I apply, it's safe to assume I won't be working full-time in the near future. So I continue to make my halfhearted efforts at "working" part-time,during the  few hours that I am not needed for kid transport, meal preparation, dog feeding and coffee drinking with neighbors.

Right now, I have an interesting job taking care of a 5 year-old boy, just a couple of days per week. (Please don't forward this to any of your friends in the IRS, if you get my drift.) Since my youngest is 14, it's been a while since I've been required to conduct discussions with a preschooler for any purposes other than my own entertainment. I've always loved hanging out with kids this age, but all the occasional 30 minute visits over the last 10 years did not prepare me for the hours-long demands of a 5 year-old who wants to know everything about everything.

And I'm not complaining. It's a gas, and I spend most of my time with him either smiling or laughing. But after a few short hours, I'm exhausted!

This should be balm to the souls of you mothers with toddlers. In all honesty, as mothers we get swept so quickly into the next stage of our kids' lives, whatever it is, that we forget to notice that the annoying stuff from the previous stage is no longer annoying us. For example, when you are done changing diapers, you don't get to have a "whew moment" and just enjoy saving diaper money and burning the ugly diaper bag and turning the changing table into a toy shelf. No, you are too busy chasing around after a potty-trainer, which involves lightning-quick reflexes, expanded psychic powers and pockets discreetly stuffed with toilet paper, wet wipes, a change of bottoms and hand sanitizer at all times.

My point being, once you've moved on to the next stage of development, it is possible, in a matter of only weeks, to find yourself thinking back longingly to the previous stage. It's a sophisticated nuance of programming, designed by God for the continuation of the species. Without this special ability embedded in our brain folds, our foremothers would have headed back to the treetops at the first sight of green poop, leaving the scary baby wailing on the forest floor for lesser mammals to take care of.

As the mother of two teenage girls, I know of what I speak. Have faith, mothers of toddlers. Your days with the smug group of carefree moms at the bus stop, in workout clothes and steaming coffee in hand, are closer than you think. The years of preschool drudgery will be a dim, sweet memory long before you have mastered the stage that follows.

But I digress...and don't I always?

My friend, my charge, is a young man who goes to pre-k and will be in kindergarten in the fall. I make his breakfast, get him ready for school, drive him there, have 3 hours on my own, then pick him up, and stay with him until 3:30 or so. In all, we are together for about 5.5 hours. But we cover an huge amount of information in that short time. And we usually construct no less than three original Lego masterpieces each day.

In the interest of protecting his innocence, I will refer to him by the name of his favorite Ninjago (ninja Lego) hero, Kai. Here is a sampling of a few of the questions that Kai posed in a mere 40 minutes yesterday before school:

Why can I only watch that show at 8pm7Central?*
Why doesn't the syrup melt the peanut butter?
Did Mary sit in my booster seat?
Why doesn't everybody live in Florida?
Do you ever let your kids go to bed without brushing their teeth?

I'm relieved to report that, on most mornings, I am not required to furnish believable answers, due to time constraints. But by midday, Kai and I are both engaged and at our leisure, so I try to address his questions with the seriousness they deserve. Like this one:

Did Darth Vader know he was going to turn into a bad guy?

What an opportunity! Time to clear my throat and assume my lecture-hall persona. But wait: this is not Mary, who likes to talk about archetypes in mythology, or Camille, who enjoys analyzing ethical questions; this is Kai, who is 5, and Darth Vader is just a bad guy in movies and on toy shelves. Struggling mightily, I formed the shortest, simplest answer my normally long-winded mouth could construct:

Not at first, but I think he knew later.

This seemed to be all he needed to know. I was dying to say more, but I just pinched myself and held my breath. Years of putting my kids to sleep with explanations they didn't ask for about things they didn't care about had finally taught me something. Just answer the question, then stop. Wow, that was powerful.

And because Kai is 5, he had another, totally unrelated question, a few seconds later:

So when your grampa gets old does that make him the great-grampa?

Other interesting points of discussion in the last few days:

Why do you only have old goldfishes?

Why can't we use a fish net to catch butterflies?

What animal is salami? (If it's warthog it would taste bad.)

Could you really live in a house built of Legos if it had a bathroom?

Do you think it's weird that snakes can wrap around each other and not get hurt?

Why didn't you ever buy your kids Ninjagos?

Do you think a mulch monster could beat up a pine cone monster?

I know I'll always be older than Danielle, but will she ever be older than me?

And this is the most profound question I've been asked by anyone in quite a while:

Why do you need three dogs?

We talk quite a bit about sports, since he is a seasoned hockey, soccer and t-ball player. He pulls for IU and Notre Dame sports teams equally, and did not want to address the possibility of who to root for when these teams meet. He's just a fan of both, end of discussion. My lesson in sportsmanship. When I told him I graduated from IU, he asked,

Did you have to go to college to be a babysitter?

So it would seem, my little ninja, so it would seem.

*all one word

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dear Kardashians: I'm So Glad I Could Help!

I received the award on the right in an anonymous email, but I think I know where it came from.

And I would never want to be accused of exaggeration or hyperbole, but please allow me to indulge myself for a minute.

Thanks in part to me and my blog, the Kardashian sisters have hit what some may call the pinnacle of success.

They have arrived.

Before, they were just rich, beautiful, cleavage-y celebutantes with a reality show.

Then, after allegations that one or more was involved in an affair with my poor, innocent husband, they suddenly achieved the creme de la creme of retail deals.

I refer, of course, to the new line of home decor merchandise being purveyed by the pouty, touseled trio via that edgiest, trendiest, coolest of mercantile giants,

Yes, Sears! Where the Brady Bunch went to celebrate after saving Hawaii from a shark invasion! Or was that the Partridge Family celebrating after playing Carnegie Hall? I'm confused. I think therefore I digress.

Anyway, those Kardashians are on the path to respectability with this enviable design/endorsement deal. From stodgy old Sears, they stand to gain much-needed stodginess, while Sears may just become the place to get sheets and towels with that tousled look I've been trying to achieve since Joan Collins and "Dynasty" first introduced the mussed bed.

Gentle reader, I write for myself and my own fulfillment. I don't look for fame or money or even guest spots on local radio. This is an altruistic endeavor and I don't mind being totally unknown, unloved and unrecognized.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, glancing at the Sunday circulars, I saw the unmistakable blur of eyes, lips and hair that, after closer study, turned out to be a Kardashian grouping. These girls, with no discernible intelligence or talent, have developed a following and created a brand that is inescapable. I don't begrudge them for achieving celebrity, and I can only assume they don't begrudge me whatever attention I can gain by using their name a minimum of 8 times per 500 words for maximum search engine optimization.  It's a win-win, right?

But I am somewhat upset about one aspect of this laudable achievement on the part of these girls. Their name, Kardashian, has become their brand. They've all got first names that begin with "K," which ups the "exoticness-per-syllable" quotient. Kim, Khloe and Kourtney realized they could kapitalize on the kuteness of their brand if they kept with the "K" motif. Herein lies my complaint.  This is the logo for their new Sears merchandise:

Yes, America, the kombined marketing/branding geniuses at Team Kardashian/Sears decided that kitschy kommerce trumps korrect spelling in the battle for your clothing and home decor dollar.  My milk glass, your stamps, your kid's Beanie Babies - those are collections. But correct spelling isn't good enough for the Diva Klass - they have to have a "Kollection." I fault them for turning their teachable moment into another konquest for kapitalizm. But I do wish them success in their endeavor.

EXTRA! EXTRA! I hope you are sitting down for this news flash. While over at the Sears website to copy the above logo, I discovered that they have officially named this "Kardashian Week." Why am I only just now hearing about this? If I mail a card today, will they get it in time?

(I should clarify: their clothing line was launched in 2011. This home line is what is "new" and deserving of its own special week.)

I'm wondering how this partnership between the beautiful young trendsetters and the once-great retailer will fare. According to my fashionista neighbor, the venture is off to a slow start. As she said, "It will take more than trashy clothes to get me to shop at Sears." But some celebrity-retail alliances bear long-term fruit: I'm thinking Jaclyn Smith and KMart, I'm thinking George Strait and Tractor Supply Company, and ... many others that I don't have time to think of. So how do the experts see it?

Well, I tried to do some online research, but got so distracted by the stories of the girls and their men that I completely lost track of the original articles on Investors Business Daily and The Motley Fool. Suffice to say that experts espouse the dire prediction that Sears is a retail dinosaur and the Kardashians can't stop them from going the way of T-Rex and becoming a fossil in the near future.

Now I do shop at Sears. I get replacement vacuum cleaner bags and filters for my old canister there, once every year or so. And because Sears is strategically located in my local mall, I park in their empty parking lot and look at stuff on clearance as I pass through on my way to somewhere else in the mall.  I am usually one of the youngest people in the store whenever I go to Sears, and most of us shoppers are alone rather than with kids or teens. When I see a couple shopping there, the wife is usually holding the broken lawnmower part so the husband can manage his walker. Even with a Land's End shop inside the Sears store 2 miles from me, I still sometimes have trouble spending a $300 gift card there.

But now that the Kardashians signed on, Sears is gonna ROCK!

Wait until Eric sees what the Kardashian sisters suggest for our room:

And who among you would not be bursting with pride to think you'd played a part, however small, in bringing this scrap of frippery to market? 

This may be just the thing to get your hubby/man/sig-o interested in shopping, ladies.
Well, I just had to toot my horn, since I know Kourtney, Khloe and Kim are much too busy being billionaires to toot it for me. Speaking of which, I'd better get busy myself. Errands to run, a house to clean, dogs to walk...I may not live the chic and komfortable life of a Kardashian, but I'm rich in the ways that count. And tonight I have a special outing planned with my husband. Not a glitzy, glamorous evening on the town a la K, K and K, but one befitting the suburban matron that I am: dinner at Golden Corral, followed by a romantic walk through the intimates department at Sears.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Write or Sleep? It Depends on the Chair

I composed this masterpiece one day a few weeks ago, sitting in a recliner with the laptop on my lap. It afforded me a short walk down memory lane, thinking of my typing teacher at Fairhope High School (Miss Thomas), and the buns-numbingly boring job of calling out individual letters of the alphabet for the class to translate into keystrokes on paper. She was a nice lady and I possess one of my few useful skill thanks to her efforts.

But I couldn't turn it into a blog, or a poem, or anything else useful. Reclining in the La-Z-Boy, with two dogs sharing my lap with the laptop, the old typing exercise didn't cause the juices of creativity to come gushing out. In fact, shortly after composing "asdfjkl;," I think I dozed off.

A few days later I was stationed across the family room in my overstuffed chair, with a dog in my lap, a dog on the ottoman and the laptop perched awkwardly on the edge of the chest next to me. At my feet lay another dog, next to my sewing basket. A pouch containing supplies for a much-needed manicure sat on top of a huge stack of books I'm supposedly reading. Surrounded by so many competing interests, I sat with my blog composition page open for several minutes, before typing this:

"You will not make me do that. There is no way you can make me do that. Under no circumstances will you force me to do that."

For some reason, that paragraph was one I always practiced before typing tests. I don't know where it came from, but after 30 years it just sprung from my fingertips.

It's pleasant to type, but it makes for a pretty dull blog entry. Unsure of what to do next, I think I took a short nap.

Inspiration is a fleeting thing. Some days, I have to open five or six tabs to handle all the writing ideas I have. Other days are just "asdfjkl;" days. Sometimes I'm distracted by my surroundings, other days I'm distracted by my thoughts, and occasionally (but not often), I have something better to do than sit at the computer.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on an idea for a blog that I submitted to a website. I was very excited at the opportunity to write for a different audience, one full of strangers who aren't already tired of my schtick. I put myself under lots of unnecessary pressure and yelled at people and dogs who tried to talk to me while I "worked." I finally moved upstairs to the big library desk in my bedroom. Sitting on a hard wooden desk chair, I quickly made several pages of hand-written notes, gathered some pictures and began to write the piece, beginning to end, until I was done.

A few days later, I sat down to start selecting blogs for editing to go in a collection for a book. Mary and Camille were both writing on their respective computers in the living room, so I decided to set up shop in a huge, overstuffed chair we have in there. I wanted to chat with the girls while I worked, since we were planning spring break activities. I got a comfy blanket, a cup of decaf , a dog to warm my feet, my laptop and a notebook. Not only did I not get any work done, I don't think I talked much to the girls, and I also fell asleep there and spent the entire night, fully clothed, upright, my laptop keeping me warm in that cushy chair.

While I was in Virginia on spring break, I took my trusty notebook and favorite pen out on the deck of the rental house. The beautiful scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded me, there was a light breeze, the sun was warm overhead, and I had an Adirondack chair and stool set up to enjoy the vista. I made some notes about our vacation activities up to that point, watched some bird activity through the binoculars, ate a cup of yogurt, and pondered blog topics. The combination of physical relaxation and mental effort made my eyes close, and soon I was...you guessed it...napping.

This pattern has been emerging for months now probably evident if I'd been paying attention. I make a plan to do some writing, get nice and comfortable, and then don't write, because I haven't figured out how to write in my sleep. I think I've figured out the culprit in my occasional writer's block:

Comfortable chairs

The last few days I've been very productive. I've worked on several of my long-term commitment projects, set up my new blog, and cranked out a few pieces I've been working on for weeks. I've done all this writing at my kitchen counter, on a straight-back barstool with a small cushion. The laptop doesn't sit on my lap, but on the counter, and my feet aren't pointing at the ceiling, they are underneath me, perched on rungs and cold from lack of dog heat.

I think it is ironic that it took me this long to realize that what applies to others should apply to me as well. I encourage my kids to do their homework at a table or desk, with minimal distractions, with an attitude of attentiveness and a goal of getting it done. Why did I think I could undertake the "job" of being a writer slumped in a club chair, covered in animals?

My new approach will be to use each of my comfortable chairs for specific activities. The club chair is ideal for reading and sewing. The recliners are nice for watching TV. The overstuffed chair is perfectly situated for visiting with the girls in the evening, away from the kitchen and the TV.

And my current perch, the kitchen island, allows for quiet background music, monitoring the progress of the meal I'm cooking, and offers a view of the kitchen sink, some streaky windows and the gorgeous expanse of my backyard.

I think this spot works for me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Term Turnaround, v. 2

The blockbuster yet awkwardly-titled series returns after taking a week off for spring break. Now I'm back, well-nourished and ready to introduce some words that need to disappear from use in their currently misused forms. I'm depending on my brilliant and literate reading audience to assist me in achieving that goal.

There have been thousands of articles and blog entries devoted to the topic of word overuse, which means I didn't have to look very far to discover some candidates for this week's list. After you read mine, go here and here if you want to see some real effort. I'm pretty haphazard: I scratch my head, think about my personal pet peeves and start writing.  But some of these people devote their whole professional lives to creating complete and useful lists of words they want to bury. I wonder if that pays well.

If you still don't know where I'm going with this post, please look at the first installment of Tuesday's Term Turnaround, where I explain why "perhaps a vocabulary tune-up is in order."

For the rest of you, let us begin to examine some truly overused words.

basically - adverb
Here's an example of how people like to use "basically" to start as sentence in which they'd like to sound sincere, although the facts dispute this:

Man: "Basically, I'm a one-woman man."
Date: "How many times have you been married?"
Man: "Four. But only to one woman at a time."

This guy wants his date to believe that his fundamental nature is monogamous, so he precedes his statement with "basically." But "basic" is not a perfect replacement for "true" or "accurate."

Another abuse of "basically" is when the speaker wants to convey they idea that they are only sharing part of a more complex or lengthy story, as in:

Prisoner X: "So what are you in for?"
Prisoner Y: "Murder, robbery, possession, speeding and illegal lane-change."
Prisoner X: "What happened?"
Prisoner Y: "Basically, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Notice how "basically" spares the listener of the sordid details leading to Prisoner Y's incarceration. By saying "basically," he suggests unnamed, complicated circumstances which are central to the truth of the story, but unrevealed.

It is best to use "basically" sparingly, and to apply it when only one feature, factor or variable is being measured or analyzed. It should refer to something in the base form, i.e. simple, essential, primary. If you need to discuss something complicated, don't confuse the issue by introducing the idea as simple.  For example:

DON'T: "Basically, an anti-quark is just a really small part of an atom that is the opposite of a quark."

DO: "I am incapable of describing a quark or an anti-quark in terms you can understand. Basically, you should look it up."

totally - adverb
Another adverb, (for those of you keeping track), "totally" is like fingers on chalkboard for me. When it is used to confirm attendance at something ("Are you going to the party?" "I'm totally there!"), I clench my fists and grit my teeth.

Other abuses worthy of a citizen's arrest, and some suggested substitutes:

"She totally shouldn't wear those skinny jeans because her butt is totally hanging out and she basically just looks like a totally flat slob."
Instead, try:
"Those skinny jeans aren't very flattering to a size XXL figure. Her mother was completely justified in suggesting she wear something else." 

"The Patriots will totally dominate the Giants."
Instead, try:
"The Patriots were completely dominated by the Giants." 

"If I'm crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will be totally about stopping global warming before it totally kills the Earth."
Instead, try:
"If crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will devote myself to the awesome cause of ending global warming, since that is guarantees lots of publicity." 
Think of "totally" as a word reserved for statements of mathematical precision. If you can quantify your response at or above the 99% threshhold, you can totally use "totally." And in the name of all that is sacred, please apply that same rule of thumb to the word "absolutely."

This word shows up on many overused word lists. "Amazing" must be the go-to substitute for people who were told they say "awesome" too much.

Ending in -ing, you'd expect it to be used as a verb. Something that is amazing should cause amazement to occur. But in this sample exchange which passes for polite conversation:

A: Hi! How are you?
B: I'm amazing! How are you?
A: I'm awesome, thanks for asking.
B: No problem.

you'll notice that neither person mentioned any experience or activity that would inspire awe or amazement. They just referred to their current status as being capable of doing so. ("No problem" in place of "you're welcome" is a peeve for another day.) Referring to the capacity to amaze without specifying how you achieve this effect is inconclusive. If you never describe a person, including yourself, as "amazing," you are safe.

Since grammar is never far from the mind of any of my devoted readers, let's pause to hurriedly open another tab and find out exactly what part of speech "amazing" generally functions as, in lazy daily speech. Since it often describes or modifies a noun, but ends in "-ing," it must be a present participle. As such, "amazing" cannot be the main verb, much less the lone word, in a sentence.

"Amazing" is usually applied liberally when discussing issues of beauty and fashion. Examples gushing from the red carpet commentary prior to an award ceremony might include:

"Jennifer Aniston's dress is an amazing shade of gunmetal grey that does absolutely nothing for her complexion."
"Check out the number of ripples on Ryan Reynolds' abs. Amazing!" 
"That Kardashian sister is going to have slit her skirt much higher if she wants to compete with Angelina's amazing thigh exposure."
If you want to use "amazing" correctly, reserve it for situations where something truly caused amazement. "To amaze" suggests an extreme level of surprise. The original meaning actually conveyed fear, as in an alarming or terrifying thing or event. The word has evolved to connote a lesser affect, but should still be used for exceptional cases, not just a modifier of exaggeration.

Miss Aniston's dress was probably a "pretty" or "dull" shade of grey. The color of the dress probably didn't cause astonishment; the dress probably didn't impress or astound the audience purely by virtue of the "amazing" color. Sometimes an "amazing" dress is simply a "nice" dress.

Last time on Tuesday's Term Turnaround, I dissected five words, which took much too long for the limited appeal. I decided to stop at three this week, which means I'm done.  Next week, I'll be whining about the misuse of the following words: diversityaddictiveneed and possibly exhausted. I'm also taking requests for this Hit Parade, so if you would like to suggest a word or term that drives you crazy, post a comment and let me know, and I'll try to find something annoying  and overly-complicated to say about it.

So what's left to say? Basically, go have a totally amazing day!