Sunday, February 25, 2007

Not my Idea of a Cruise

I read an Associated Press article yesterday on the precautions taken by astronauts to deal with the onset of severe paranoia or psychosis in space. “What would happen,” asks the writer, “if an astronaut came unglued in space and, say, destroyed the ship’s oxygen system or tried to open the hatch and kill all aboard?” He went on to say that nothing of the sort has ever happened, but by one of those quirks of co-incidence or synchronicity, I had just finished a book in which a participant’s mental instability came close to jeopardizing an expedition.

The author of the book, John Haslett, would be the first to admit that, because there was a shortage of volunteers to join his crew of four who were intending to follow the route of the ancient ManteƱo across five thousand miles of open ocean on a balsa wood raft (imagine that), he allowed an unknown German to join the expedition in spite of his misgivings. Haslett was swayed by Frederick’s claim that he had “lived in the jungle”, though I don’t quite see the transferable skills. Look at the size of the raft and imagine the nightmare of sailing for days on end on a few square feet of balsa with a psychotic companion. This photo shows the second boat used by the expedition: the first landed up on a beach in Panama, partly due to Frederick’s antics.

It’s an aspect of adventure I had never thought of. Haslett tells the story of the US Navy’s expeditionary team in the Antarctic that had to build a padded cell and lock up one of their members. In 1929, Admiral Byrd took only two coffins with him to the Antarctic, but twelve straightjackets.

The book covers two separate expeditions, three or four boats and a varied crew of extraordinary men. Also a great deal of seawater. It is a great piece of escapist literature, especially when you are thinking that a bit of snow and ice amount to intolerable conditions.They didn’t make it to Hawaii, but something tells me they will try again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Postscript to my Organization Post

When said I was “pretty organized”, I deliberately excluded socks and photos. (There’s “Tupperware” too, but with the exception of the woman called Maud, who glues her cows together and appears to have a cheese fetish, no-one keeps plastic containers organized.)

I can explain the problem with socks. When I go to work on my dresser, I start with the big drawers and by the time I have sorted out underwear and sweaters I am too tired to deal with the little drawers where the socks reside. I keep vowing I will start with them. Maybe next time . . .

As for photographs, I’m working on it. For about the tenth time, I admit. I have to admit that there is one form of photo organization that I just don’t get—and that’s scrap books. The goopy, gimmicky kind where you spend $10 on stickers, paper, punches and embellishments to jazz up one small photo. Having said that, I admit I can see something most attractive in the work of Ali Edwards. Her archives are lovely and her site is also worth a visit for her posts on her autistic son and on her husband who has just been elected to the Oregon State legislature. Even she would admit there is something intriguing about a pursuit which in theory organizes photos, while requiring the perpetrator to buy (and organize) so many supplies with which to organize them.

Just wondering.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Welcome Visitor

This little guy keeps appearing in our back yard. I don't think he's the first robin of spring: can he have been hanging around all winter? My ignorance of ornithology is showing. I can see he is a fat little guy and seems to have weathered the winter better than most of us.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Need to Organize

When we were in Chicago we visited The Container Store. It’s Ernie’s favorite store: Al’s too. Al indoctrinated us by taking us to the store near the Clarendon Metro station. He’s done a good job with keeping his stuff organized and it paid off when he found out that his Honda was part of a class action suit. By being able to put his hands on all the necessary paper work, he has made himself eligible to recoup $5,000 worth of repair bills. Ernie has not been quite so successful. Although he has bought containers for “stuff” and then containers to organize the containers, he’s not quite got the whole thing mastered.

I have no business being critical. I’m pretty organized, but after living through a friend’s nightmare as she attempted to assemble all her treasures in a meaningful way in preparation for her move to a retirement community, I decided to spend some time thinning, organizing, labeling and reviewing my current “system. “ Because appliances have a habit of breaking down, I have been religious about keeping files with the instruction booklets and assorted literature. There were too many for one file so I divided them into “Small Appliances” and “Large Appliances.” But there were still too many, so I moved on to “Mid-Sized Appliances.” But how to classify things? Is a garage door opener a “Mid-Sized Appliance” or a “Small Appliance?” What about an electric fan?

So it isn’t so much doing the job as deciding how to classify things that’s the problem. Right now I am working on bookmarks on this computer. I had at one time made a fine—but significant—distinction between “journals” and “blogs” and had labeled folders accordingly. But then people like Eliza and John switched from their previous format to blogs. Should I leave the link where I was used to it and let the redirect take me where I wanted to go, erase the journal link and use a new one in the blog folder, keep both? You don’t really care, do you? Another computer related problem is my ability to add tags to blog entries under the new Blogger (known to Blogger users as the “bad” Blogger as opposed to the old “good” Blogger.) I’m not sure if I will ever use them: some bloggers are adding 10 or more to each post. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Of course, some things are really easy. By my sewing machine I have containers marked “Tape” and “Buttons” and “Zippers” and I have a fine old time labeling them with a splendid hand-held label maker Andrew and Marcie gave me a couple of Christmases ago. There is always the question of whether I should use different colored labels for different categories . . .

But the Container Store hasn’t given up on me. I’m on their mailing list now and they sent me a catalog with this stunning illustration. This is a garage. A garage, folks! It is cleaner and neater than any closet in my house. Cleaner and neater than any room in my house.

Maybe I need help. Organizers Anonymous. I’d like to think Organization with a capital “O” is a fad. But apparently it is not. I ran across an article citing the work of anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who advocated neotony, the idea that human beings are built to grow and develop their childhood traits rather than minimize them. He cites 26 of these traits. They include joyfulness, a sense of humor, curiosity, the need to know, the need to learn—and, surprise, surprise, the need to organize.

Of course, we must not forget the most esoteric of all organizational schemes, feng shui. Did you see what that’s being used for these days?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Birthday, Liesl

Five years ago our first grand-daughter was born in Washington. We eagerly anticipate our visits to Maryland and Liesl's visits here and miss her imagination and bright conversation when we are not with her. Not to mention her blond curls and her mother's big brown eyes. Have a great day, Liesl.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Charlie is Seven Today

The third oldest of our grand-children, Charlie, is celebrating his seventh birthday today. We will be going over later for dinner with him and the rest of his family and I plan to post a few photos of the event on Flickr. There are a few photos of him and his sibs up in on of the sets already. Here he is, shovel in hand, after clearing off our front walk on Monday.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Another Hallmark Moment

This morning’s Detroit Free Press carried an Associated Press article on Hallmark’s latest venture. I stopped buying cards at the Hallmark shop a long time ago, mainly because all I wanted was a pretty card saying “Happy Birthday”, and I had to wade through shelves marked “To my step-son’s mother” or “To my cousin’s wife’s aunt.” In fact, after a lifetime of buying and sending birthday cards, it only recently struck me that it was a dumb thing to do in those cases when I enclosed a long letter that mentioned the birthday in the text anyway. For years I had been subscribing to the marketing ploy that kept Hallmark afloat.

But there are times when a card won’t do, though Hallmark is determined to fill that niche:

The new line includes cards tackling cancer diagnoses, quitting smoking, caring for an aged parent, miscarriage, anniversaries of loss, loved ones in the military and traumatic loss, such as someone dying in an accident or homicide.
There are 176 such cards, so that when someone is suffering from eating disorders, you can assure them, “All I want for you is to be healthy—healthy and happy with yourself. Please take it one day at a time until you are”. Or how about: ”Cancer is a villain who doesn’t play fair… but it can’t dim your spirit, and it can’t silence prayer”? All at around $3 a pop.

I know it is often hard to find the right words in difficult times, but this is not the answer. To all school superintendents I say, “Find a spot in your English curriculum to teach written human communication. Include journals, e-mail and, yes, even blogging. Explore thank you letters, sympathy letters and plain old newsletters. Of course the relevance of literature to the student’s life is important, but teach the relevance of a few well chosen words.” And to parents I add, “Teach your child the power of a note that simply says, “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry.”

And to the CEO of Hallmark I say, “Don’t count on me to contribute to your $4.2 billion empire.”

Thursday, February 15, 2007

February is a Bonanza Month for Birthdays

Today it is Marcie's turn. She got an unexpected birthday present thanks to the weather. Andrew's school is closed yet again thanks to the snow, ice and cold in Maryland, so the five of them can enjoy a day together. I love this photo of Marcie and Linus taken on Christmas Day. With any luck he'll be needing those sunglasses soon.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ah Yes, I Remember It Well

Last year I lamented the absence of snow. We had had no snow to speak of this year, until last night. Down it came, and schools in Grosse Pointe were closed today. By 9:30 this morning Ron and the kids were over to shovel the front walk for us. The three boys shoveled, while Eleanor came inside in the warm. Not in deference to her gender, you understand, but in deference to her age. After a while, everyone trooped inside for hot chocolate.

So what is it I remember? Not how truly helpful children can be, not what fun they can have in the snow—but what a royal pain boots and snow pants and mittens and caps and jackets are. However well you dress children before they leave the house, they come in with dripping pant legs and with boots full of snow. Snow has seeped under cuffs and into gloves, and as soon as the small folk pile through the doorway, the floor is littered with sopping garments. All that explains the contraption that Ernie built and which remains in our furnace room. It is a rack with dowels protruding from every cross bar, perfect for drying small snowsuits. It hasn’t got much use of late, but Elizabeth, remembering its function, requested one from her dad last year. It stands inside the door from her garage, ready for another generation of small children.

But the memory that is truly burned into my brain—spending ten minutes bundling a kid in snow gear, sending him outside with a sigh of relief and having him (or her, I should add) bang in the door fifteen seconds later, saying, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Winter's Vocabulary

The gods of winter have talking points. Theirs is a vocabulary designed to make us believe this truly is a magical time of year. If they just make us hear the right words enough, we will be convinced.

You know the deal: words like glisten, sparkle, crunch, fluffy . . .. Trees are “frosted” with snow, not drooping under big globs which threaten to turn to ice and break every power line in the vicinity. It is ponds that are frozen, never batteries. And small children, usually in scarlet sweaters, glide over them, their joyful voices ringing out in the still, crisp winter air. When Jack Frost nipping at your nose becomes frostbite attacking every inch of exposed flesh, you know you have passed from Mel Torme to Ernest Shackleton.

Eventually even the deities get tired of this corny winter wonderland and bring their shenanigans inside. They have their inside voices too. Fires crackle and the glowing flame always dances, usually on burnished copper. Curtains “banish” winter’s gloom and the words hearty, fragrant and flavorful attach themselves to the content of pots on the stove. Cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg are abundant. Boredom, chilblains and drafts are not in the nostalgic vocabulary of winter.

It takes a woman poet to capture the stark reality of winter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Christina Rossetti hit the nail on the head. To heck with greasy Joan and Dick the shepherd and that silly owl. I’m going to re-read Men of Salt and remember nostalgically those days when I was complaining of the heat.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Quick, Where's the Airbrush?

Ronni Bennett wrote an interesting post yesterday, contrasting AARP’s mission statement with the cover of the latest edition of their magazine. Airbrushed or beat up, which do you prefer?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unabashedly Plagiarized

I always welcome Friday as the day I can read what John Copeland has been up to in the past week. His weekly post is regular as clockwork and summarizes not only his own life, but also the events of the past seven days in England. This week he cites an excerpt from the BBC web site of February 3. I can’t figure out the BBC archives, so here is John’s account:

As I so tiresomely remark, although there are great miseries in living in a country in terminal economic and social decline, there are some amusing moments. On today's BBC web site, for example, a Home Office minister has suggested in all seriousness that people should "distract" potential criminals, including terrorists, while waiting for police to arrive by jumping up and down. Have you ever heard anything so funny, encountering a terrorist and then jumping up and down whilst waiting for Mr. Plod to eventually turn up, presumably saying during the gyrations to the evil one: "Turned out nice, hasn't it?" Jump, jump. "Have you come far?" I am convinced the country has gone totally barking mad.
I learned yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security has the lowest morale of all the Government Agencies. Maybe Michael Chertoff should lead them in aerobics every morning.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Maggie Hadland and the Plate of Plain Spaghetti

Anyone who read my post on Richard Dimbleby and the great spaghetti caper, and tracked down the links to the Panorama site which included the passages I quoted, may have been taken aback by the supercilious, but none the less true, comment toward the end of the story:

Lending the hoax credibility, was the fact that spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain in the 1950s and was considered by many to be very exotic.
During that period my brother and I ate our “school dinner” in the middle of the day and when we arrived home from school, my mother would ask, “What do you want for tea?” Before we could make any meaningful request, she would embark on the daily litany, where each suggestion was followed by ONTOAST, as in bakedbeansontoast, scrambledeggontoast, friedeggontoast and maybe the disgusting sounding, but probably more nutritious, sardinesontoast. Then, of course, there was spaghettiontoast. By spaghetti, she didn’t mean the long, white strands of pasta, cooked al dente and served with a tasty red sauce. No, she meant short, flaccid, worm-like objects, swimming in a sea of tomato sauce. Their descendants are now marketed as “Spaghettios”. My mother, along with the other housewives of Enfield would have nothing to do with the real thing, so blatantly Italian, so close to the end of the war.

Obviously when I arrived at college I had much to learn. I lived in Lindsell Hall, a hall of residence in Swiss Cottage converted from a row of houses that in their former life could have been the backdrop for a slightly shabby Upstairs, Downstairs. We lived under the eagle eye of the Dean, Dr. Leslie, and her cronies, Matron and Cook. During the week Cook was responsible for breakfast and dinner and we were expected to eat lunch in the college dining hall. But on those days when we had no lectures, or (can it now be told?) played hooky, we had to fend for ourselves in the efficient little kitchinettes found on each floor of Lindsell. It was here that I encountered Maggie Hadland cooking pasta. A pan of boiling water, a hand full of spaghetti, a little butter and parmesan cheese, and she had a lunch fit for a king. I thought she epitomized sophistication. How did she ever learn such culinary expertise? Didn’t she come from Northampton? This was one of the defining moments of my undergraduate career.

Here we are lined up in the garden of Lindsell Hall. I think there were more people off to the left, but the photo I have was truncated. The third person down from Maggie is Matron and that’s the Dean sitting next to her. I am not sure where Cook was. Probably scouring Mrs. Beeton for a recipe for spaghetti.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Time Waster on a Freezing Day

Remember I said I wouldn't waste time on silly computer tricks? I sorta meant it, but I found this via The Usual Suspects.

If you have a blog, give it a try.

Monday, February 05, 2007

For Better or For Worse

No, I am not going to write a homily on the estate of Holy Matrimony. For Better or for Worse is the name of a comic strip I have read with enjoyment for at least sixteen years. It chronicles the lives of the Pattersons of Toronto: dad John is a rather dull dentist, mom Elly is an erstwhile bookshop owner and coffee drinking mother. Son Michael is a budding author, married to pharmacist Deanna. They have two kids, and in the period of the last couple of weeks, they have been burned out of their apartment and Michael has sold his first book. Daughter Elizabeth is a newly qualified teacher with some bumps in her road to romance and her sister April suffers from the normal teenage angst. There’s grandpa Jim and assorted hangers on. Anyone who wants the low-down on them all can go to the official website, where I admit I learned a lot more than I really cared to know.

As I noted, I enjoy this comic strip. There are a number of comics I do not enjoy (and their numbers are multiplying), but I simply ignore them. I do not get vituperative. I recently discovered, however, that there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to bashing the Pattersons.

Now I admit that Anthony is a bit of a wuss, but I can’t believe someone went to all the work to write a whole article entitled “Why I hate Anthony,” using a lot more research than the writer ever used for a college essay on The Faerie Queene. So what if Anthony has a creepy mustache. Only a sick person would think “porn star”.

The insiders tell us that Lynn Johnston, the creator of the strip, is not well and the Patterson saga will soon end. I’m not much of a dog person, but when smelly old Farley went to the big kennel in the sky, I choked up a bit. So I go on record. If we have to say good-bye to the Pattersons, I for one will shed a tear.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I read Obituaries. The writers have a few short sentences to sum up the life and legacy of the deceased. An obituary in today’s Free Press caught my eye. First it was the photo: a handsome man, a casual, comfortable pose. Then it was his birth date: a year to the day after I was born. His brief biography inferred an interesting life, but without details it would be supposition. What I can say with certainty, and I am sure the family of Randy Eaton will not object, is that the final words of their tribute leave no doubt that he was a special man:

In the spirit of Randy’s life, the family requests well wishers, in lieu of sending flowers, to simply hand a twenty-dollar bill to a total stranger.

I’m sorry I never met him.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Happy Birthday, Eleanor

Eleanor is three today, and all the usual Detroit suspects joined her for a birthday dinner. Cassoulet and salad for the over-9 group, chicken strips and fries for the little guys. There were eight in that category, and it is amazing how well they all play together these days. Eleanor is now the proud owner of a bike and can't wait for the warm weather to try it out.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-jog

We just returned from a few days in Chicago and a mini-reunion with Ernie’s siblings. It was an exciting place to be this weekend, with everyone, including our three-year-old great-nephew, Jack, interspersing their conversation with “Go Bears.” Apparently Jack also proclaimed this in church. Loudly.

We have been making this trip on I-94 for over 40 years, so I am always looking for ways to enliven the journey. There is usually something interesting on the billboards. I marvel as we approach the cities with radio or TV stations: there are pictures of a series of interchangeable media “personalities”, all with the same hairstyles and veneered teeth. Usually at least one is called Biff or Buzz. He’s generally the weatherman. I mean, meteorologist. Accu-weather meteorologist.

This trip a billboard caught my eye.


When we got closer, I saw it was a Chase Bank advertisement, which continued, “our ATMs are twice as fast.” There are lots of things banks could do faster, but I am not sure of the theory behind speedy ATMs. I mean, first you have to enter your PIN. You don’t want to do that quickly, because if you make a mistake, the machine is liable to eat your card. Then you have to stipulate whether you want the money from checking or savings. Exercise care, because if you remove money from the wrong account, we could be looking at bounced checks. Enter the amount with caution. If you want $20, you could land up with $200. Or vice versa. Then when the money comes whizzing out of the slot, you need to take your time. Put the money in your wallet, remember to take the receipt, put the card away carefully. Haste means dropping your cash or losing your card.

So why does Chase boast about faster ATMs? I use their machines regularly because my Credit Union doesn’t have ATMs dotted around Grosse Pointe. How could Chase make me happier? By removing their $2 fee for non-members of course. That’s an advertising slogan that would excite me: