Monday, October 31, 2011

A Streetcar Named Depressing

We have season tickets to our local Little Theater performances, as I may have mentioned before. This year, the second performance is of A Streetcar Named Desire, a show I had no desire to see. I read the play when I was in high school, and have seen snippets of the movie on TV, although I have never wanted to watch it all the way through. I can’t imagine why not: domestic violence, rape, slut shaming, stigmatizing of mental illness, what’s not to like.

John wanted to see it, so I went along. “There is not one likable character in the entire play,”  I grumbled, “And the general theme seems to be ‘Eat or be eaten’. Not that I want to bias you or anything.” (Later he was to comment, “The doctor seemed nice at the end”.)

Back when I lived in New Orleans, I tried to work out the streetcar route Blanche Dubois took to get to her sister’s house, although by then all but one streetcar had been replaced by buses. As I’m sure many a tourist has found out, it can’t be done. Tennessee Williams selected the real New Orleans street names for their symbolic value, not the accuracy of their transit routes. So our play arrives already loaded with three streetcars’ worth of symbolism. That makes it hard for our characters to function as real people. 

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the characters. I really do. Blanche’s story is heartbreaking. Stanley finds himself paying for the extended visit of a woman who has said she finds him subhuman, and who he believes may have cheated his wife out of a small fortune. Stella is putting up with their feuds while pregnant through a New Orleans summer. I can sympathize, I just don’t like any of them. 

I remember discussing the play with some friends back in high school. Somehow the question was raised of whether you would rather be a Stanley or a Blanche. I am ashamed to say that I did not know back then to point out that those aren’t one’s only choices in life. The play’s ambiguous treatment of violence leaves me wondering whether Williams knew those aren’t the only choices, either. Williams gives a chillingly accurate depiction of domestic violence in Stan and Stella’s marriage, right down to the way everyone except Blanche shrugs it off with, “They’ll be okay. They’re crazy about each other.” Blanche’s sexual activity is presented as far more shocking and deserving of censure than is Stanley’s willingness to use his fists on his pregnant wife. 

Friday, October 28, 2011


Since I broke my foot I have lost around 12 or 13 pounds. I haven’t been on what I call a “real diet”. I’ve just cut down on portion sizes and cut out sweets and fatty snacks. I’ve actually added more nuts, fruit, and yogurt to my diet after seeing the study on foods that are associated with gaining and losing weight long term in adults. 

I’ve also been gradually increasing my exercise, but I did have a set back one week when my right foot started hurting. I was afraid I may have broken it, but right around the time I was getting ready to call for an appointment with my foot doctor, it stopped hurting. I’m doing one day a week bike riding and one day walking with a friend at the mall and am about ready to add some light weight training. 

So I have been shrinking. I now have five pairs of jeans I can wear: the two new ones I bought plus three I had outgrown. More importantly for my budget, I can now fit into a misses size 16 again instead of a woman’s size 16, a change that not only expands my selection of clothing but also saves me around $5-$10 per item of clothing in the places where I shop. The corduroy 14 wale pants I just bought would have cost $5 more in plus sizes. A pair of ponte knit trousers costs $10 more for plus sizes. A cashmere cardigan costs an extra $20. 

I suppose the rationale for the price difference is that plus sizes use more fabric, but  that doesn’t explain it once you start looking at numbers. A misses size 18 is actually slightly larger than a woman’s (plus) size 16, but costs less. Tall sized pants use more fabric than petite sizes, but don’t cost more. The size difference between a misses size 2 and a misses size 18 is the same as the difference between the misses size 18 and the plus size 24, but the size 2 doesn’t cost any less. 

Besides, the price difference doesn’t hold for men’s clothing. A pair of Land’s End men’s chinos costs the same price whether you buy a waist size 30 or a waist size 46. That 16 inch range is about the same as the difference between a Misses size 12 and a Woman’s size 26 in women’s chino pants, but the woman’s size 26 will cost you $5 more ($10 for some styles). It’s true that a men’s cashmere sweater in Tall sizes costs $20 more than the same sweater in regular length men’s sizes, but it’s strange that men pay a price penalty for being tall whereas women pay a price penalty for being wide.  When you consider that some research shows that height correlates with higher income, there’s a least a possibility that taller men can afford the extra cost. For what Precious Ramotswe would call “traditionally sized women”, that explanation doesn’t work.

So it’s not fair that my reduced size is saving me money, but I’m not sure I could drum up interest in an “Occupy the Garment District” movement. Although if I did, I’d at least have a few things to wear.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Walkin' After Midnight

I go out walkin' 
Out in the moonlight 
Just like we used to do
I'm always walkin' 
After midnight 
searching for you.
                          (Alan Block and Donn Hecht)

I have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing my cats. I hold whole conversations with them (both parts) and attribute to them all sorts of knowledge and common sense. Then when they go ahead and act like cats, I’m frustrated.

When I first got Truffle, I had to sign an agreement that he would remain an indoor cat. Truffle, however, never put his paw print to the page and when he saw Poppy going in and out, he decided to follow. I tried to keep him in, but he could slither pretty fast. So my compromise was to make sure he was in at night before I went to bed. For a few weeks that meant I was searching the neighborhood until the wee hours, but he finally started coming in on his own by ten, most of the time. Every three months or so, he’d stay out until 2 AM, but mostly he was in by what I jokingly referred to as his curfew.

Then we got D’Artagnan. D’Artagnan is a young cat and still loves to play, and his favorite form of play is wrestling with Truffle. Truffle will put up with D’Artagnan for a while, before smacking him one or chomping on him, but he’s also spending more time outdoors. Over the last week or so, Truffle has been staying out late (and probably smoking nip with his deadbeat friends).

One night he didn’t come in at all. John woke up at five and went out looking for him with the flashlight. A few minutes after John gave up, Truffle appeared at the window. Mama was not happy with him.

That night, D’Artagnan decided to go outside, too. We got D’Artagnan in, but Truffle was still outside. Around midnight, I slipped outside to look for Truffle. I walked around our half of the block and didn’t see him, but a few minutes after I came in, Truffle again was at the window.

So the next night, I tried again, this time around ten. Sure enough, about two minutes after I returned, Truffle was there.

“This is easy”, I thought. (Always a bad thing to do. With Truffle, nothing is easy.) The next night Truffle came in early on his own, but D’Artagnan was still out. I was in my office playing a computer game when I heard John calling D’Artagnan. “I need to go tell him to shut Truffle in the back when he opens the door”, I thought, only too late. D’Artagnan was in, but Truffle was back out. So I put on my shoes and went walking. Truffle came up to me and headed home with me. Problem is, when I got to the door, he hared off in another direction.

I finally got him in at 2 in the morning, after two more walks. If this keeps up, I’ll at least get my exercise. I had a calm, reflective talk with my husband on the subject of being more careful with the cat.

Last night, Truffle was in by 9. He’s mama’s good baby. He knows when his curfew is.

Foreign Exchange: Part Two, Anders and the Technology Revolution

I don’t think I mentioned in writing about my first student, Chan, that it was during her stay with us that we finally got cable TV. Chan liked to watch movies, so my husband rented a few each week, and finally decided it would be cheaper just to get cable and a movie channel. I don’t think it was, but it was more convenient. Besides, mama finally discovered Home and Garden channel, and hubby’s life hasn’t been the same since.

Our second foreign exchange student, Anders, brought another technological change to our lives: high speed internet access. We had been making do with dial-up service and two phone lines, one for the house and one for the internet. I did actually have a wireless router so I could use the internet with my laptop, but John’s modem was plugged into the extra phone line the old fashioned way.

When Anders arrived, he brought his laptop with him. He quickly discovered that if the second phone line was in use, he could always plug into the first one. People started complaining they couldn’t get us on the phone. Since we already had cable TV and a wireless router, getting a cable modem seemed like the next logical step.

Naturally, these changes led to good-natured grousing on the part of my son, Neal. “I never had cable and high speed internet when I was in high school.” I just looked at him and asked, “How are your friends doing paying back their college loans?” He got the point.

Anders is from Denmark, and spoke almost perfect English. Months into the school year, his fellow students still thought he came from somewhere in the Northern Midwest. He was also far ahead of his fellow students academically. Since he had already been informed he was going to have to repeat his junior year when he got home anyway, he took a lot of elective subjects like photography and coasted through most of his core subjects. He was sort of Neal’s Danish twin, come to think of it.

We got an interesting view of life in a US high school as seen from a European student. There was a stretch of a week or so when someone set off a fire alarm every day. Anders spoke about it like a visiting anthropologist studying the quaint customs of a long lost tribe.

Anders liked cooking more than our other students and could be relied on to start dinner if asked. He really liked making salads, and would cut ingredients three different ways to make designs in the salad bowl. Best of all, he was 6’1 and able to reach all the little household gadgets I couldn’t. 

Anders also had some quirks. He decorated his room with some of our Christmas lights strung under his bed, and didn’t take them down until he was ready to leave. We had a large bulletin board in that room for students to use to post pictures of home and new friends and to keep up with assignments. Before he left, Anders arranged all the thumbtacks to spell “AFS”.

Anders had some older siblings, but was the last child left at home and thus used to hanging out with parents. Whereas Chan usually had weekend plans with friends and left us with a lot of free time, Anders was happy to tag along with us to dinners, movies and the occasional party. He did play soccer with a community group and his high school team, but that didn’t seem to lead to friends to hang out with. He apparently kept up a lot with friends at home over the internet. 

He did get a job as an extra in a movie second semester. That led to a lot of ferrying him around on John’s part. AFS students are not allowed to drive while they are in the US, and most of ours didn’t have a license at home yet, anyway.

It was while Anders was still with us that we went to Thailand to visit Chan. We had wanted to wait until August when I had a two week break, but she was starting college then and it would have been inconvenient. I got my boss to add four days to my Easter break and that gave us two weeks. It meant pulling Anders out of school, but school was easy for him anyway.

We were going to pay Anders’ way to Thailand, since it was our idea to go and we felt that it would be unfair to expect him to come up with the money, but his dad insisted on paying us for his airfare. We also checked with US Immigration to make sure he could leave the country and come back in, and were assured he could.

Anders and Chan got along well right away. It was funny to hear them speaking English to each other. While we were there we met one of Chan’s mother’s friends who told us that her daughter had a foreign exchange student in her class that year. “Does the student speak Thai?” I asked. No, she replied, they just speak to her  in English.

We were lucky to be in Thailand for Songkran, the Water Festival. Chan’s father’s family lived in Chang Mai and that’s where we went to celebrate the festival. We had fun tossing water on passers-by with plastic buckets and getting doused ourselves.

When we got back to the US, we discovered that what we had been told about Anders being able to get back in easily with his student visa was untrue. After a half hour or so of discussions, he was issued a standard 90 day tourist visa that more than covered the time he had left before he was due to leave at the end of June. We learned our lesson about taking students out of the country.

We still haven’t visited Anders in Denmark. He is one of my Facebook friends and we keep up a lot that way. Maybe now that Neal is living in London we can get up to Denmark on our next visit.

(Part One of my experiences as a host mom is here.  Part Three is here.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foreign Exchange: Part One, Chan

Other people’s husbands, when they have mid-life crises, buy themselves motorcycles. Some of them buy fancy sports cars. Of course, some of them dump their wives for a newer model. So maybe I shouldn’t complain about my husband’s substitute for a motorcycle: foreign exchange students.

I had just become used to our nicely empty nest, especially the part where I could run around the house in my underwear, when my husband first broached the idea of getting a foreign exchange student. I was not enthusiastic. I wasn’t even sure that agencies would place foreign exchange students in homes where there weren’t other children. It turns out they will.

We decided to look for a student through the American Field Service. AFS started out as an ambulance service during World War I. After the war, a group of AFS members decided to explore ways to foster world peace, and they came up with the idea of sending high school students to live in homes in a foreign country for a school year. High school students. World peace. It was a simpler time back then.

Our first foreign exchange student was a girl from Thailand. Chan was outgoing and friendly, important qualities in a student who was going to have to make friends in school on her own with no host sibling to help. Her ideas of high school in the US, however, had been formed by watching Bring it On. Tara High School was a shock to her system: not only in that it did not conform to her movie driven ideas of life in the US, but also in that it was very different from high school in Thailand. After her first day at school, Chan came home to ask me if it is common in the US for 16 year olds to have babies. I told her that it does happen, but that most people don’t think it’s a good idea. In Thailand, she told me, people her age did not even have boyfriends and girlfriends. Just holding hands with a boy was considered seriously intimate.

On the other hand, Chan was accepting of other aspects of sexuality. She showed me pictures of her friends (before we had the no boyfriends/girlfriends talk) and I asked her if one boy was the girl next to him’s boyfriend. “Him? No, he’s gay,” she said, as if she were saying, “He’s left handed.” 

Chan also had some dietary requirements. As a Buddhist, she did not eat beef. She also did not eat vegetables, not for religious reasons, but because (she claimed) she couldn’t digest them. She found our eating different foods at breakfast from what we ate at other meals puzzling, although she quickly came to love bacon.  We learned how to cook fried rice for breakfast, and it was a breakfast favorite of ours for years afterward.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Need More Jewelry

As I mentioned, I am in the process of writing a will. I have a will questionnaire to fill out, which one would think would make it easy, but I still have decisions to make. One question asks about making special provisions for “family heirlooms, jewelry or other items of special value to be distributed to friends or relatives”. I do have a few items of real jewelry, and since I don’t have a daughter, I want to leave them to my nieces.

Since the items are of unequal value, I decided to rank them in order of value and leave them to the oldest first and on down the line. My wedding and engagement rings are going to my son, though, for him to treasure as a remembrance, give to his future wife or daughter, or sell at the nearest flea market. Leaving those aside, I have four other pieces of real jewelry: a diamond and sapphire ring, a string of pearls, a gold charm shaped like an elephant’s head, and a gold heart with four diamond chips. I have four nieces: my older brother’s two daughters, my younger brother’s daughter, and my sister’s daughter. So it works out nicely.

Except that my husband has a niece, and I have spent more time with her in the last twenty years than with my own nieces. I’ve already sort of given her a family heirloom, a locket that had belonged to my MIL that no one else seemed to have noticed or claimed at MIL’s death so it fell to me. But that’s not like leaving her something of mine.

Then there are my nephews. I have five of them, and it seems unfair to leave them out, but the point of leaving the jewelry to my nieces is that the jewelry is something with a high replacement value and low resale value, so it makes more sense to give it to people who might wear it than to lump it in with more liquid assets. I don’t have any “items of special value” that would be of interest to my nephews.

There’s also the small ivory carving of a mastodon that my husband gave me for the birthday we spent in Alaska. I want to leave that my former foreign exchange student from Thailand, because  the elephant (the mastodon’s modern relative) is the symbol of Thailand, and because it’s small enough to pack and ship easily. I have two other former foreign exchange students and no similar trinkets suitable for them. Not that it’s likely that they are going to come to the reading of my will.

One would think these decisions wouldn’t cause such angst for me. By the time these objects get passed around, I’m going to be dead and beyond caring. It’s just that I’ve seen how families react to wills. Wills are read when people are grieving and emotional and hanging out with those favorite targets for sibling rivalry, siblings. Decisions that were made on a practical basis, like, “I’ll just start with the oldest and work my way down” or, “M is going to inherit her mom’s opera length strand of 9mm pearls anyway so she doesn’t need my trinkets” get looked at as judgements of worth. 

I have a whole new appreciation for the vineyard owner in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. “It’s my money [stuff]. I can spend [leave] it however I want. If people want to be whiny ingrates, that’s their lookout.” Except that I know how people behave. I especially know how people in my family behave. It’s not fair to light a match and pretend nothing’s going to catch fire.

So the obvious solution is that I need more jewelry. A gold bangle that I can leave to M. A really nice cameo brooch to leave to our other female foreign exchange student. A sapphire and diamond necklace that, once I’m gone,  can be broken up into individual gemstones and divided up among my nephews, John’s nephews, my son and our male foreign exchange student so they can make manly cufflinks or pinkie rings.

I tried to explain this to John. His response was, “Wait, what?”

He has no concept of family values.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chain Reaction

Recently my husband and I began filling out will questionnaires, as preparation for making new wills. In the course of listing our assets, I remembered that eight years ago, when we paid off our mortgage, I had intended to check at the Clerk of Court’s office to make sure there were no remaining liens on our property, but had never actually done so.

When I first bought the house we now own jointly, I was a single mother unable to meet the requirements for a conventional mortgage. One of the conditions of an FHA loan is having to let the mortgage company escrow your taxes and insurance payments. I was disappointed at losing the interest I would have earned saving up on my own to pay taxes and insurance, but that’s the way it was.

My mortgage was with Semi-Local Mortgage Company, but after a few years, they sold it to Ginormous Mortgage Company with Tentacles Everywhere. By this time, I had married John, he had made a pre-payment on the mortgage roughly equal to my equity in the house and in return I made him a joint owner of the house. The prepayment saved us about 13 years of mortgage payments, so we saw no need to refinance.

After a few years in which miscommunications between Ginormous and my insurance company, Rockhead Insurance, meant that my insurance went unpaid for most of a year without my knowing, Ginormous sold my mortgage to Bit Off More Than It Could Chew Mortgage Company. BOMTICC, as I was to find out, had gobbled up mortgages in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, more mortgages than it had the staff to handle. The taxes that were due in December of 1996 still hadn’t been paid by April of 1997. I kept getting demanding letters from the Sheriff’s Department  threatening to sell my house if the taxes weren’t paid. When I called BOMTICC to complain, their answer was some variation of “we’ll get around to it”.

In the meantime, hubby and I had just paid off a line of credit from First Avatar Bank but not closed out the account yet. The amount of the LOC was just short of the amount needed to pay off the mortgage. If I could get it increased, we could pay off BOMTICC and be done with them. By this time, First Avatar had been bought out by Second Avatar Bank, and the person I spoke to had a better idea. We could close out the line of credit and refinance our mortgage with them for $125 in closing costs. It would be a conventional mortgage, meaning we could pay our own taxes and insurance. As I kept telling people, nobody was more motivated to pay my taxes and insurance than I was.

BOMTICC finally paid our taxes about two weeks before the threatened sheriff’s sale (and one week before I would have paid them myself.) We refinanced with Second Avatar, and in April of 2003, paid the mortgage off completely. Second Avatar sent us a letter congratulating us and promising to send the necessary information to the Clerk of Court’s office removing the lien on the house. 

And I really meant to check that it had been done, but forgot. Fortunately, what I did remember to do every year is pay insurance and taxes.

So this morning (only eight years later), we finally checked with the Clerk of Court, only to find that while Second Avatar had removed the lien on our house, as had Semi-Local, Ginormous, and BOMTICC, the line of credit from First Avatar still showed up as a lien.

By this time, First and Second Avatar banks are now Third Avatar Bank. I carried all my paperwork for the LOC, the Second Avatar mortgage, and the copy of what the COC’s office has showing the lien and went to Third Avatar to get them to confirm that the LOC is paid in full and closed. The nice bank employee dealing with me was a little perplexed but gamely looked up account numbers, to no avail. He called Bank Services, and they gamely looked up account numbers to no avail. To me this means, “yeah, the account is closed”, but I need something official in writing.

Finally, he was referred to the bank’s Home Equity Services department, who can research the account and  (if all goes well) confirm that it is closed and paid in full. It will take a week to ten days to hear back from them, but I am assured by bank employee that he will keep after them. Bank employee is about the size of Shaquille O’Neal, so I suspect that having him keep after someone is very effective. Still, we have his card in case we need to call and nag. 

Because otherwise by time this all gets sorted out, the bank is likely to be Fourth Avatar National Bank.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Burning Down the House

My husband and I live in an older middle class neighborhood, nothing fancy but a safe and comfortable place to live. Every once in a while, one of the houses goes vacant. Several years ago the house next door to us went vacant when the owners built up some gambling debts. They took out a second mortgage for all they could get and fled. The house stood vacant for a couple of years while the two mortgage companies fought over who would get what from a sale.

At one point my husband heard meowing inside the house. He peeked in the front door and saw a black kitten. We have no idea how it got inside. Hubby tracked down the mortgage company and called to tell them there was a cat trapped in the house. Meantime he managed to find a space in the door to toss pellets of dry food into the house for the cat.

When days passed and nothing was done, we decided to take matters into our own hands. The back windows were boarded up, but it would be easy enough to unscrew one of the boards and get the cat out. (“Honestly officer, we were just rescuing a cat.”) As it turned out, all we had to do was loosen the corner of one of the boards. The window behind was open and kitty squeezed out and made a run for it.

Eventually the two mortgage companies made nice and put the house up for sale. Thanks to us, the house was not pervaded with the smell of decomposing kitty and eventually sold to our neighbor, a single dad with a motorcycle which he sometimes rides to work at 5:30 AM. Did I mention the driveway is parallel to my bedroom wall? Of course, I’m sure my cats have been up on his roof pounding around a time or two, so I can’t complain.

Then another house went vacant about 4 or 5 blocks from us, just a block from the elementary school. Apparently there was a similar situation with multiple mortgages and owners who left saying “Not my problem”. Neighbors painted “Sell Me!” on the plywood covering the carport entrance and took turns cutting the grass. Finally there was good news. A realtor took an interest in the house, found a buyer, managed to track down the mortgage holder, and began negotiations over the price. The mortgage holder was holding out for more than the buyer wanted to pay, but we had hopes.

So that’s where things were one night about six months ago when hubby and I came driving home from an outing and spotted a few fire trucks in the street by the school. We parked the car at home and strolled down to see what was going on. A fire had just been put out in the vacant house. The exterior looked intact, but we couldn’t see the interior. So the next morning, we walked back to see it in daylight.

The entire roof was caved in, and the windows were falling out of their frames. We were puzzled. Had it been that bad the night before and we just couldn’t see it? Had the back part of the roof been damaged and the rest caved in overnight? A neighbor soon came by with the answer. A second fire had broken out at 5 AM. We later learned the fires were the result of arson. The case is still unsolved.

So there was a burned out vacant house, sitting one block from an elementary school. The vacant house was bad enough, but this was worse. Of course, the city-parish* had the power to condemn it and either force the owner to tear it down or do it themselves and bill the owner. The problem is, money. The city-parish is months if not years behind on clearing properties that have already been condemned.

A month or so ago, we saw a notice on the door proclaiming that the owner had a certain time limit to clean up the property.  Hubby was pessimistic. He believed the owner would promise to do it, would have some song and dance about why it couldn’t be done right away, and would drag the process out for months, if not years.

Monday John drove by and saw a city-parish inspector at the house. We drove by today to see what was going on, and the house had been bulldozed and workers were loading the debris into bins for removal. As of this evening, all the debris is gone, but the carport and a small outbuilding are still standing. (Friday, October 21 edit: all the structures are now gone.)

So that’s one hazard gone. There’s an election coming up Saturday, but the council members aren’t running, and the council elections are the ones usually preceded by street signs and potholes being repaired. I suppose someone in the city might have been alerted to the hazards of having a burned out house sitting a block from a school, but it didn’t seem to worry them before. I’m glad they did something about the house and guess I shouldn’t fret about the reason.

What really puzzles me is the behavior of the mortgage holders on both these properties. It took years in each case for them to stop wrangling with each other and put the houses up for sale. That had to cost money. The mortgage holder of the second house, who held out for more money, now only has a building lot to sell instead of a house. The house may have been insured, but what insurance company is going to pay out in an unsolved arson case? 

I think there is a proverb about not cutting off your nose to spite your face, and another one about not needing to burn down the house to get rid of rats. Maybe some people need a little more proverbial wisdom.

*Louisiana does not have counties, we have parishes. Usually each parish has its own government, but since the city of Baton Rouge takes up most of the parish of East Baton Rouge, the governing body has been merged into a city-parish government.

Monday, October 17, 2011


I have a cold. I caught it from my husband, so for the last two days, I have been uttering, “I hate you” at 2 hour intervals. Fortunately he knows better than to believe it, and agreed to stop at the drugstore on his way home from getting his flu shot to buy me some more Allegra-D. I told him either the 12 hour or 24 hour, whichever was cheaper.

He came back with a tale to tell. Of course, my husband can take out the trash and come back with a tale to tell. Anyway, he had to take a card from the shelf and bring it to the counter to get the medicine, because it contains pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make drugs that do more than cure your sneezes and stuffy head. The woman at the counter demanded to see his ID. (“Demanded” is his word. I suspect she asked politely.) “Why do you need my ID?” he asked.

“It’s the law.” Hubby didn’t like it, but he complied.

Then she gave him a form to sign. “What’s this?” he asked.

“It says you aren’t going to use this drug in an improper way.”

So, hubby says, he took it over to a seat to read it. (I'm sure he reads all 42 pages of the user agreement every time he upgrades software. Me, I could have promised someone a lifetime interest in my house for all I know.) It didn’t say anything of the sort, according to him. He brought it back to the counter and said, “It doesn’t say that.” (Am I the only one who is feeling sorry for this poor clerk at this point?)

“Yes it does.”

“Where does it say that?”

“Sir, you have to sign it.”

So he signed it, and she gave him the price. They didn’t have the packet of ten, just the packet of 20 for $21.

“Well, how much is the packet of ten 24 hour tablets?” he asked.

“I can look that up for you. I just need to see your ID again.” Yes, she made him show his ID and sign another form, just to check the price. I don’t know if that’s really the law or if she was just fed up.

The ten 24 hour tablets were $16 so he got me those.

At this point in the story I asked, “So can I have one?” He got me one with some ice water. It seems to be helping.

But I have to agree with him. That was weird.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


To Branson from south Louisiana is a long trip. With stops, it takes about 13-14 hours. The bus we took on our recent trip was new, only 90 days old, and equipped with plugs at each seat for charging electronic devices, and monitors every few seats for playing DVD’s. So for most of the way there and back, I was able to amuse myself with games on my iPad, music on my iPhone, and an occasional glimpse at the movies everyone else was watching. Even though I only watched the last half hour each of  The Pacifier and RV, I had no trouble following the plots.

The one movie I was happy to watch all the way through, even though I’d seen it before, was The Blind Side. As I have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for sappy sports movies, and The Blind Side is better than most. I had forgotten the line toward the end, though, when Leigh Ann Tuohy talks about the murder of a young man from the same project where Michael Oher grew up. The young man had played football back in high school, just like Oher. She concludes, “That could have been anyone. That could have been my son Michael.”

That was my cousin Al. No, he didn’t grow up in a housing project and I don’t know if he ever played football, but on June 28 of this year, three months short of his 20th birthday, he was shot to death. It was a premeditated homicide; the shooter arranged with a friend to set up a drug transaction with my cousin and then shot him. The motive for the shooting had nothing to do with drugs. Al wasn’t the one dealing; he was making a buy so he and some friends that were with him could party. It’s the same thing many of my peers did in their younger days before they got some sense and grew up to pretend to their kids that they never did anything of the sort. I suppose if drugs hadn’t been the lure he could have been shot going to church. The important thing is, he did not deserve to die.

So when I heard the forgotten lines about the murder in the projects, I was blindsided.

I don’t think I ever met Al. Technically he is not my cousin. He’s my stepmother’s great-nephew, the son of her younger brother’s older daughter from his second marriage. My family doesn’t bother with such picky distinctions, though. We’re like the Olive Garden, if you’re here, you’re family. 

I’m not sure I ever met his mother, although I have met her younger sister. By the time my uncle remarried I was living far from home and contact with him was slight. I grew up with my uncle’s children from his first marriage, but I’ve lost touch with them over the years, too, although one of them is a Facebook friend. The impact Al’s death has had on me, other than the shock produced by anyone being murdered, and the sorrow of anyone dying so young, has been indirectly through its impact on the siblings and nieces and nephews I know and love. They were blindsided, too. This was someone my nieces and nephews grew up with just like I grew up with his aunt and uncles. This is something they are still trying to make sense of. This was very close to home.

I’ve known other young people who died. We’ve known three young men around my son’s age who died in car accidents, one of whom was the son of a co-worker and a schoolmate of my son. My boss’s daughter died of an aneurysm. Another co-worker’s son died of a gun accident. The father of one of the young men who died in a car wreck said something that will stay with me forever. “You worry about them whenever they go out the door, but you never really expect to hear that something bad happened to them.”

You may worry about crime, but you never expect murder to happen to someone you know. When it does, you’re blindsided.

Noah, the Musical

My husband and I just returned from a bus tour to Branson. The trip was sponsored by an organization of state retirees, and was quite reasonably priced: $600 each for transportation, all breakfasts, three dinners, and tickets to five shows. There was also a winery tour and trips to other area attractions. 

There was also the benefit of not having to do the driving, find a hotel, or research all the shows and decide what to see and then figure out how to get there. The disadvantage of leaving all the planning to someone else was that the show selection was not always what I would have picked. Specifically, it meant that we wound up seeing Noah, the Musical

Noah the Musical is a production of Sight and Sounds Ministry. Sight and Sounds Ministry was founded in 1976 and owns theaters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Branson, Missouri. The ministry is not affiliated with any church denomination or other organization. According to their website, 

It is our goal to visualize and dramatize Biblical truth through live stage productions - to illustrate truth in the same way that Jesus did, by storytelling. Our desire is that our audience will gain clear understanding and inspiration through these presentations, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and deepen their relationship with our Father through Him.
Statue of lion and lamb. I call it "Saying Grace".

Lobby of Sight and Sound Theater

In some ways, I’m glad I got to see Noah. It’s in its last week, soon to be replaced by Joseph, not to be confused with Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. The performance was packed. I heard there were only three empty seats in the entire theater, which seats 2,000 people. 

The size of the theater led me to be somewhat distracted throughout the entire production. Due to an accident when I was in my teens, I  fear being trapped in a fire. There were maybe fifty people in my row between me and the fire exit, which did not lead directly to the outside, but to the large lobby and from there to the outside. The show included several pyrotechnic displays, which kept me glancing nervously to the exits more often than to the stage. I kept reminding myself that the place must have passed a fire inspection at some point and that the show had been running for five years without incident, but I was happy to be safely outside again when it was all over.

I might have relaxed sooner if the show had been more compelling, but it was not. The acting was competent and the music was forgettable. I think I forgot some of the tunes while they were singing them.  The staging is the real draw of this production. In addition to the pyrotechnics, there is the sheer size of the stage. The stage can present sets up to 40 feet high and that wrap around 300 feet. That meant that an almost full-sized ark sat onstage for much of the first act, and that the second act opens with the audience sitting in the ark, as the cast leads live animals to the stage. (Oh, goody, more competition for the fire exits.) Most of the animals, and all of the large ones, like elephants, were animatronics, but there were a good number of live animals, plus two cast members in chimpanzee costumes. The opening to the second act was a truly impressive visual feat. 

Unfortunately, the staging also led to skeptical thinking on the part of at least one viewer, my husband. “You know,” he said in all earnestness, “You can just look at that boat and see that the center of gravity is much higher than the center of buoyancy.” (He does that during science fiction movies, too. “Willing suspension of disbelief” was not a concept taught in his high school.) I suspect that even if you don’t know what a center of gravity and center of buoyancy are, if you’ve ever seen ships on a river or even watched a few episodes of The Love Boat, you’d know there was something wrong with the design of the ark. Not that I see that as a problem. I didn’t critique the ship design watching Jason and the Argonauts in my youth, and I didn’t see it as the point of the Noah story, either. I was perfectly willing to accept Noah, the Musical as a retelling of a beloved Bible tale, not as a history lesson. 

The Sight and Sound people, however, see Noah as a history lesson. They did admit up front that they added episodes and characters that were not in the biblical account. The musical ends with the ark changing into a cross while the announcer tells the audience that Jesus is the Safe Ark for us. An actor playing Jesus appears to quote Bible verses, including the one about “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”.

That is the major problem I had with this production of Noah. Throughout the entire story, we learn how different Noah is from the other people of his day.  He and his family continue to worship Jehovah while all their relatives and neighbors have abandoned him. His insistence on building the ark leads everyone else to reject his family as peculiar. At one point the eldest son asks, “Why do we have to be so different?” and Noah breaks into forgettable song explaining why.

It’s true that some of the added episodes involve Noah trying to get his friends and relatives to join his family on the boat, and them rejecting his offers. For the most part, though, the production emphasizes how different Noah and his family are from those mocking unbelievers. So to get from that to “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”, well, I don’t know how you get from that to “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”. There may be a way you can tell the Noah story and do just that, but this wasn’t it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Difference Between My Husband and Me

Recently we took a trip to Branson. We take a lot of trips. In 2004 we went to Thailand to visit our former foreign exchange student. With us was our 2003-2004 foreign exchange student, a young man from Denmark.

While we were on the Branson tour I heard my husband telling the story of our flight to Bangkok to some of our fellow tourists. It occurred to me that if you want to know the biggest difference between my husband and me, you can listen to each of us tell that story.

The way my husband tells the story, we got to the airport in Narita, Japan and waited for our flight to Bangkok to be called. And waited. And waited. Every time we asked for information about the flight, we were told an announcement would be made soon. Finally, an announcement was made. The flight had to be cancelled due to mechanical difficulties.

At this point my husband will add that there had been other flights leaving for Bangkok, and if they had cancelled the flight earlier, we could have been on one of them, but by time they told us, all the other flights had gone, so they had to put us up in a hotel until the next day. The three of us were dressed for the weather in Louisiana (mid-80’s) and Bangkok (low 100’s). The night temperature out there in Narita was 40 degrees. Then when we finally got to Bangkok, our luggage wasn’t there and we had to wait until the next day for it.

All of that is true. Most of that would also be in the story as I tell it. However, the story as I tell it includes details he leaves out.

The airline put us up in the Narita Hilton, a hotel we would not have been able to afford on our own. The break in our travels meant we got to take a shower and sleep in a bed for the first time in something like 18 hours. We were also given vouchers for a phone call to tell our friends we wouldn’t be arriving until the next day, and for dinner and breakfast. So as I tell the story, we got to eat real Japanese food in real Japan. The hotel also had a beautiful garden, and on the way back to the airport, we saw cherry trees in blossom.

Garden at the Narita Hilton

Furthermore, we snagged business class tickets for the six hour flight from Narita to Bangkok. As compensation for our being inconvenienced, we later got three $200 vouchers for future flights, which we used on Memorial Day weekend to go to St. Louis for the Louis and Clark exhibit I had been hoping to see.

It is only next to my pessimistic husband that I look like a sunny natured optimist. My husband’s ability to feel aggrieved, however, accounts for the business class tickets. When we got to the airport, we were told to wait by the ticket counter for an airline official who would give us our tickets. John, being fed up with the whole situation, looked over at the counter and saw a clerk at the business/first class counter. He politely explained our situation to her, she said “I can find you tickets”, and gave us not only the tickets for the flight, but passes to the business/first class lounge as well. If he had listened to Little Miss Look on the Bright Side instead, we would have had another hour of waiting in the waiting room for the flight and six hours of being crammed into the cheap seats we had paid for.

So if there is a moral to this story, it’s that we are good for each other. Hubby benefits from my relatively more optimistic outlook on life, but I also benefit from his capacity to feel righteous indignation and act on it. 

Still, whenever I hear him tell the travel story, I wonder if we were on the same flight.

Elephant Ride in Thailand

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters

I have an irrational dislike of writings that are titled “An Open Letter to _______”.
I say “irrational” because I usually read them even though no one is making me, and because some of them are well written and make good points, and if they were given a different title and didn’t begin with “Dear President Obama” or “Dear Teabaggers”, or dear whatever person is being criticized in the letter, I might not dislike them. So what is it about the open letter format that irks me so?

To start with, an open letter is pretty much an admission that the person being addressed wouldn’t know the writer if s/he tripped over the writer in the road wearing a name tag. I know that isn’t always true, as sometimes well-known authors have resorted to the open letter technique, but the open letter format is generally an admission that the person being addressed isn’t taking your calls, so the likelihood that s/he is going to read an open letter in the newspaper or in the blogosphere is also remote. That means the person being addressed is not really President Obama or Sarah Palin or Hank Williams Junior, it’s the rest of us poor slobs. So why not admit that up front?

Also, with rare exceptions, an open letter is going to be critical of the person it is nominally addressed to. I can understand the appeal of being able to address criticisms in the second person rather than the third person, but to me it sounds less thoughtful and nuanced and more just plain mean. 

Not only that, but it also sounds like bragging. I not only want the person I am nominally addressing to have my brilliant insights into the problems facing him or her, I want anyone else with access to my open letter to see what brilliant insights I am offering as well. Okay, it’s true that the reason I have a blog is so that I can offer my brilliant insights to people who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in the road wearing a name tag, but even I don’t think that I am such a special snowflake that not only does Hillary Clinton need my input on foreign policy, but also that other people need to see what fantastic advice she’s missing out on by not inviting me over for tea. Although if she did I could wear a hat.

So, dear writer of open letters, I know you don’t know me and aren’t reading this and don’t care about my opinion on open letters anyway, but I have some advice for you. Please stop.

Very truly yours, 
Obscure blogger

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dolphin Tale, a Review

I had a plan today to take the curtains off the French doors and scrub them before the man from Acadian Flooring comes around tomorrow to measure them for new blinds. That was the plan, then my husband asked if I wanted to see a movie. Housework, movie . . . housework, movie. Oh, how to decide?

The movie he wanted to see was Dolphin Tale, a movie based on the true story of Winter the Dolphin, who was rescued in Florida and given a prosthetic tail after her own had to be amputated. I first encountered the story of Winter in an edition of News-2-You, a newspaper for young readers who need picture support published weekly by Unique Learning Systems. Back when I was working, I got all my news from News-2-You. I first learned about Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to the US in News-2-You. Winter’s tale (you saw what I did there) is a fascinating one in its own right. It would have made a terrific movie all by itself.

I say “would have” because while Winter’s story is the basis of the movie, it’s not the only plot point. I’m fairly sure that whoever conceived of this movie jotted down a dozen or so movie cliches on little bits of paper, put them into a hat, and then had the writers pull out four or five to add to the true story. So in addition to Winter, we have Sawyer, the struggling young pre-adolescent (in his first two scenes I wasn’t entirely sure he could talk) who blossoms through his friendship with the dolphin; his cousin Kyle, the athlete turned bitter wounded veteran turned athlete again; Dr. Clay, the director of a non-profit facility which is about to be closed down and sold to a developer for a new hotel; and the crusty businessman with heart of gold. Really, who needed all that? It’s as if Kate Middleton had worried that her wedding dress wasn’t flashy enough and decided to dress it up with a feather boa, a dozen silk calla lilies and a large lapel button that read “Hot damn! I’m getting married!” And then wore it with roller skates.

Keep in mind, I love sappy movies about triumphing over adversity. I was at the movie theater the second it opened to buy tickets to Miracle. I made my husband take me to Huntington , West Virginia after we saw We Are Marshall*. So if a movie is too sappy for me, you can start boiling up maple syrup.

So should you go see this movie? I don’t know. It does have some good moments. Me, I kinda wished I’d stayed home and washed the doors.

*It was on our way home from Ohio and we were on our way to visit his sister in Tennessee, so while it wasn’t the most direct route, it was barely out of the way, and now I can add West Virginia to my list of states I’ve been to. Eleven more to go.


I had my last visit with Dr. S about my foot on Thursday. We discussed exercise and I am allowed to do my Strong Women routine, minus calf raises but including squats. I’m pretty much banned from calf raises forever. I can live with that. We didn’t discuss deadlifting but I have decided to wait until next spring before adding those to my routine, by which time it will be a year since I broke the foot and it should be as healed as it will ever get. So my plan is resume walking once a week with my friend D, go to the Y once a week with hubby and ride the exercise bike, and weights at home starting with one time a week and working up to three times a week. I may eventually resume the Little Old Lady Exercise Class, or I may see what they have at the Y, since we’re paying for it anyway and it’s closer.

Dr. S actually proved to be a font* of information about exercise, especially bicycling. He agreed with me that squats should strengthen my knees and reduce knee pain. He also gave some tips for how to set the seat on my bike to reduce the wobbling in my knees when I ride, leading to less pain. As much as I sometimes wanted to throttle the man, I’m grateful for his help.  

So I guess I am officially All Better. That means I no longer have an excuse for ducking the housework, but on the bright side, it means my shoe choices have expanded from one pair to four, so I can at least look better while doing it.

*Font? Fount? I looked it up online to figure out which it should be and it turns out no one else knows either.