Sunday, December 30, 2012

Do People Really Not Know This?

A cousin of mine just posted an urban legend to her Facebook status. I first encountered this bit of misinformation 4 or 5 years ago, and was startled that anyone found it convincing:

In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu...
Many of the farmers and their families had contracted it and many died.
The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the bacteria, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

What jumped out at me back when I first heard this story was the country doctor examining the onion under a microscope and finding the flu virus (which did not mysteriously become a bacteria in the next sentence in the first version I heard.) Way back in high school, some fifty years ago, I remembered learning that a virus is too small to be observed with a regular microscope, and couldn’t be seen until the invention of the electron microscope. I can’t say that I recalled offhand when the electron microscope was invented, but 1919 sounded much too early, and even if labs had them in 1919, it would have been an exotic piece of equipment for a country doctor to have at his disposal.

So I did some Googling and discovered that the first electron microscopes weren’t available until the 1930’s, and they stood several feet high. Furthermore, it is only recently that an electron microscope that can be plugged into an ordinary household outlet has become available to the public - for $60,000. I don’t know what kind of outlet the standard electron microscope requires, but I’m pretty certain that there were country doctors back in 1919 who didn’t even have electricity.

I pointed this out (privately) to the co-worker who had sent us all the email revealing this interesting piece of information, which didn’t stop her from passing on other unlikely urban legends.

This time I decided to do a little more Googling. It turns out although in 1919 it was beginning to be known that flu was caused by a virus, it wasn’t until 1931 that Richard Swope found the family of  viruses that caused flu in pigs, and not until 1933 that the virus that causes human flu was isolated by Patrick Laidlaw. Our country doctor working in 1919 wouldn’t even have known what a flu virus would look like, and might not even have known that flu was caused by a virus and not by Bacillus influenzae (now known as Haemophilus influenzae), an opportunistic pathogen that usually is harmless until another infection (like the flu) gives it its opportunity to multiply. 

Now as I have pointed out, I did not learn all of this in high school, and wouldn’t have remembered it if I had, but I did retain that fact that a virus is really, really, itty-bitty, and can’t be seen in the kind of microscope we had in our school lab. It doesn’t take more awareness than that to see the holes in the onion story. Of course, as my son pointed out, even if the onion did absorb flu virus, it’s unlikely it could absorb enough to prevent humans from getting their share. Not to mention that if onions were this efficacious at preventing flu, doctors and medical journals might think to mention it.

I did not bother to correct my cousin. She has been going through a stressful time lately and a know-it-all post from her cousin is not needed. I just find myself wondering when I see someone fall for an urban legend like this, why they believe it. Almost always there is something in the story that sounds off, like the doctor being able to see a virus with an ordinary light microscope. 

There is something else I remember from my high school days, the question, “Says who?” I wish people would use it before passing improbable tales on to me.

A Mystery Solved

The summer before we left on our trip to Antarctica, which would have been the summer of 2008, I bought a new pair of prescription sunglasses. Sometime between then and the time we were to leave, I lost them. I remembered having them last at work, and searched my office diligently, but could not find them. I wondered briefly if one of my distractible little ones had stuck them in a backpack with other items, but figured if they had, surely a parent would be asking around for the owner.

Needing something to protect my eyes from the glare off the Antarctic ice, I bought a cheap pair of those wraparound sunglasses people use after cataract surgery to put over my regular glasses. I wore them for over a year, until the frame started to crack. By then I had a pair of prescription glasses that worked well with a pair of cheap clip-on sunglasses, so I bought those.

This past summer I finally got a new pair of prescription sunglasses, courtesy of hubby. I still use the clip-ons sometimes, when I don’t want to have to carry my purse to hold my eyeglass case, but I enjoy having a prescription pair again. I wear sunglasses year round when I’m outdoors, so they are not a luxury item.

This morning, my husband handed me an eyeglass case and asked, “Are these yours?”

“I don’t know. Let me look.” Shock and surprise, my old sunglasses.

“Where did you find them?” It turned out he had been emptying the container we use for wrapping paper because it was cracking at the bottom, and there at its cracked little bottom lay the sunglasses.

“They must have fallen out of your coat pocket,” said Detective Hubby. It’s a logical guess. The container has been sitting under the rack in the mudroom where we hang coats, since it’s handy to the back door. If I had shoved the case into my pocket before leaving work in the dark, which it would have been in early January, the case could easily have fallen out while I hung up my coat, and disappeared between the rolls of wrapping paper without making a sound. Since these are long rolls which we grabbed out of the container one at a time without ever having to look into it, it’s not surprising that the sunglasses sat there unnoticed. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to look there for them.

It has been four years and at least two prescription changes since then. The frames are still good, but my no-line trifocal lenses are expensive. I’ll see what it will cost to replace them with clear lenses and have a spare pair of glasses, but my hunch is “a lot”.

I am very glad I did not try to ask tactfully among my little students’ parents all those years ago about whether a strange pair of glasses had turned up in a book sack.  Tactful is not what I do best. Misplacing items in very strange ways is what I am really good at.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Standing Guard

D’Artagnan is now a little too chunky to climb the TV armoire like he did last year, so here he is standing guard over the new artificial Christmas tree, with a friend.

D'Artagnan Style

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eatin' Goober Peas

Yesterday my UMW circle held our traditional Christmas potluck dinner. I had signed up to make scalloped potatoes, but decided to make a similar dish, made with frozen hashed brown potatoes instead. The recipe is far from heart healthy, being made with butter, sour cream, canned cream soup, and cheese, but the potluck is only once a year.

As I grated up the two and a half cups of cheese, a ditty ran through my head, “cheese, cheese, cheese cheese, eatin’ cheddar cheese”. Those aren’t the real words, I immediately realized. The song is “Goober Peas”, and the lyrics run, “Peas, peas, peas, peas, eatin’ goober peas/ Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas.” I had learned the song as a child in summer day camp, on one of those endless bus rides to the beach or the lighthouse or wherever else we went. I had vaguely realized that the song dated from the U.S. Civil War, and that “goober peas” are peanuts, but standing in my kitchen grating two and a half cups of cheese, it hit me that the men who sang that cheerful little ditty were starving.

As wikipedia puts it,

The lyrics of "Goober Peas" are a fairly accurate description of daily life during the last few years of the Civil War for Southerners. After being cut off from the rail lines and their farm land, they had little to eat aside from boiled peanuts (or "goober peas") which often served as an emergency ration.
There I was, standing in my kitchen trying to fend off extra calories. I had made a few changes in the recipe, using light sour cream instead of regular and a reduced calorie version of cheddar cheese soup (which promised no trans fats) instead of the cream of mushroom soup. Since I was using cheddar cheese soup, I substituted Monterrey Jack cheese for the cheddar, and tried to find a two percent version with no luck. I also substituted green onions for regular, which had no effect on the calorie count but just seemed to go better with potatoes and sour cream. And stuck in my head was a cheerful song sung by men who had no idea where their next meal was coming from, or when they would get to go home, or even if they had homes to go back to. That wasn’t the sort of thing I thought about as a child. War was a game we played, when we acted out the original version of role playing games, the kind children played in their back yards by saying, “Let’s play Army”. We played a lot of those, Robin Hood and his merry men, pioneers going west, cowboys and Indians. Do children even do that anymore? I don’t think we ever played Yankees and Rebels.

Many versions of the casserole I was making  call for topping it off with crumbs, usually corn flake crumbs but I did see one version with Ritz cracker crumbs. We don’t have corn flakes, but we do have the crackers. I pondered leaving off the crumbs, but decided to go ahead with the whole shebang. It seems appropriate. “Shebang” is a Civil War term, originally a name for the lean-to’s that prisoners of war built themselves if they could. Otherwise, they went without shelter. I learned this in a visit to the National Prisoner of War museum in Andersonville, Georgia. 

I’m a cheery little Christmas elf. The casserole smelled delicious, though, and two thirds of it disappeared later at the dinner. Before dinner we stood in a circle, held hands and said grace. The woman presiding suggested we do like at Thanksgiving, and go around the circle and each name one thing she was thankful for. Most of us named something family related, particularly that family members were returning home for Christmas. I did not say that I am thankful that I am not living in the midst of war wondering where my next meal was coming from, much as I am. I said I’m grateful that my son, too, will be home for Christmas. And so I am.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Why do the Swarovski people put six inch long ribbon loops on their crystal Christmas angels?
And why don't I just cut the loops off and put regular hooks through the metal eye that holds the ribbon instead?

Why is it that even when I turn the hook the other way, the back sides of my Christmas tree ornaments always face out?
And why is it in over forty years of buying my own ornaments, I haven’t learned to buy the ones that don’t have plain backs?

Why is it that I can remember the place and year that I bought each of my souvenir ornaments, but can’t remember my computer passwords?
And why don’t I just make passwords like “drumAK2002”?

Why do the cats prefer stealing ornaments off the tree to playing with their own cat toys?
And why don’t I just put hooks on their cat toys and hang them on the lower two feet of the tree?

Why did I even buy the ornaments that I think are so unattractive that I relegate them to the back of the tree?
And why is the back of the tree more thickly decorated than the front?

Why am I keeping the picture frame ornament with 1988 on it that holds a picture of Neal even though I have to keep taping it together? (Oh, who am I kidding, even I know the answer to that one.)
And why does it bother me that he will never be 11 years old again when I’m actually happy that I won’t?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanks a Lot, John Metz

Back in the early 80’s, I left a violent marriage and was on my own with a six year old and two part time jobs. I responded to this change in my circumstances by becoming depressed, although how deeply depressed I only recognized when I finally began to feel better. There were days that I actually got through in ten minute increments. I’d tell myself I’d get up, take a shower and then decide whether to get dressed. I’d tell myself to get dressed and then decide whether I was going to go to work. Then I’d tell myself just get in the car and head for work and then decide whether to stay or tell them I was sick and go back home.

As you might imagine, this was not a good way to live.

My very smart son reacted to the break-up of his family and a depressed mom by having trouble in school. When his troubles were compounded by the death of one of his best friends, he began leaving the classroom and sitting outside “to think about Bear”.

During this depressed and gloomy time, I used to take the two of us to the nearby Denny’s for dinner from time to time. They had (maybe still have) an extremely inexpensive children’s menu, but even better, they had some of the kindest waitresses I have ever known.

Apparently these women could recognize a troubled soul. When I came in and my son immediately began wandering around with the excuse he was going to the restroom, I would hear, “Oh, he’s all right; now what can I get you to drink?” Whenever I needed mothering, I’d dig up stray pennies from under the couch cushions and head there.

One afternoon, I had a parent teacher’s conference before lunchtime. I took one look at my son’s report card and burst into tears. He was so obviously struggling, and I felt like it was all my fault.

After the conference, I went to Denny’s. I ordered a sandwich, I forget what kind, but whatever it was, they were out. I burst into tears again.

“Let me get you something else, no charge,” the waitress said. I tried to explain that I wasn’t crying over the food, but she refused to take payment for my lunch.

My life eventually improved. I got help for myself and my son, I met my husband, my son graduated from high school with honors and from college and has a good paying job he enjoys. When I have to think back on that dark, dark time, the waitresses at Denny’s are one of the few bright spots.

And now John Metz had to go spoil all that. John Metz is the owner of several Denny’s franchises who planned to add a five percent “Obamacare” surcharge onto his customers’ tabs, and suggested that maybe the customers could deduct that amount from his employees’ tips. 

"If I leave the prices the same, but say on the menu that there is a 5 percent surcharge for Obamacare, customers have two choices. They can either pay it and tip 15 or 20 percent, or if they really feel so inclined, they can reduce the amount of tip they give to the server, who is the primary beneficiary of Obamacare," Metz told The Huffington Post. "Although it may sound terrible that I'm doing this, it's the only alternative. I've got to pass the cost on to the consumer."
This did not go well for him. Unfortunately, it also did not go well for other Denny’s owners, even the ones who had no intentions of mistreating their employees or customers. Metz is a one man wrecking ball.
He even managed to wreck some of my cherished memories. Thanks a bunch.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


This year was the first time in a long time we haven’t had an invitation to M’s house for Thanksgiving. M had for years been holding Thanksgiving for her extended family plus friends like us who did not have family nearby and the occasional stranded student. I’m not sure if this year she decided to cut back, if some younger relative has now taken over the big family feast, or whether she just got tired of our faces, but I am grateful for all the past years’ hospitality.

So after weighing the pros and cons of cooking at home versus eating out we decided to drive down the river to Nottaway Plantation in Plaquemine Parish and have Thanksgiving dinner there. Back when my late mother-in-law Eloise lived in Baton Rouge, we would take her there for Thanksgiving dinner.

The reason that we chose Nottaway is that in those days they had menu service (a limited fixed price menu) rather than a buffet, and Eloise did not do well with buffets, as big, bustling spaces made her dizzy. The grounds were pretty, as was the drive there. Nottaway is on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 45 minutes from Baton Rouge. Every year we would remind Eloise that the restaurant is a 45 minute drive away. Every year as soon as we crossed the river she would ask John if he was sure he knew where he was going. We adopted that cheerful air of false patience that one does with elderly annoying relatives. “She’s getting older,” I counseled myself, “Naturally she is forgetful.”

It wasn’t until several years later that  realized I may have been making a big mistake. By that time, a retirement home was not sufficient for Eloise and she moved to an assisted living facility near her daughter in Tennessee. We visited at Christmas, and all of us picked up Eloise to take her to church with us. As we got outside, she turned to my brother-in-law and asked, “Do you want me to drive?”

The look on my sister-in-law’s face was priceless. She muttered something under her breath about her mother thinking she could drive. I thought to myself, “You mean you really think she is serious? She’s joking, for Pete’s sake.”

And then I flashed back to all those trips to Nottaway, when my MIL asked every year if we were lost. Maybe I was the clueless one. Maybe she was joking, for Pete’s sake. Okay, maybe not the best of jokes and maybe a little repetitive, but why did I ever take it so seriously?

It is a shame the way we stereotype the elderly. It is easy to forget that aging bodies contain the same variety of personality that younger ones do. I have a dry sense of humor myself, and frequently find myself thinking, “How could you think I was serious about that?” So why didn’t I recognize the same thing in Eloise?

And now I am getting old myself, so maybe the joke will be on me.

Meanwhile, as we drove south along Highway 1 approaching the city of Plaquemine, my husband asked, “Are you sure we didn’t pass it? Have you seen a sign?”

“It’s on the other side of Plaquemine,” I reassured him, but reached for a map just to be sure. Just then, we drove by a sign that said “Nottaway Plantation, 9 miles ahead.”

“See that? Nine more miles. Check your odometer,” I advised, as I refolded the map. “Oh, and you are definitely your mother’s child.”

Thanksgiving, 2012

A few of the many things to be thankful for, this year:

Neither of my cats has wandered off and got lost, like last year.

My family up north survived Super-storm Sandy, although my sister’s in-laws’ house was destroyed and they are still living with her.

My husband lucked into a part time job that he hadn’t even applied for (a former co-worker recommended him) and is saving up for new cars for us.

That a new job for him means saving up for new cars rather than finally being able to afford groceries.

My son should be home in a month for Christmas.

My mangy Christmas cactus is still hanging in (although the poinsettia that looked so promising last spring died of thirst while we were on vacation).

Although Hurricane Isaac ruined my plans to attend a friend’s wedding in Denver, I have friends scattered around the country who really did want to see me and were sorry when they didn't.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Since John and I hold season tickets to the LSU women’s gymnastic team meets, we get invited every year to an event at which the team members are introduced. There’s an explanation of the scoring system used at meets and usually food.

This year the event was held in the fieldhouse where the team practices, and they held a mini-meet to demonstrate scoring and introduce their new routines.

The practice facility is decorated with inspirational slogans, such as “WIN: Whatever Is Necessary” and “Who out there FEARS us?” As I looked for a place to sit, I passed by a small bulletin board/white board combo with “Tigers to the TOP” written on it, a letter from Wheels to Succeed thanking the team for helping out at a fundraiser, and two newspaper clippings.

The sign above the clippings says, "Happy people don't have the best of everything, They just make the best of everything."

The clippings were not, as I first thought, about the team. They were stories about Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakastani activist who had been shot. 

Gymnastics is an odd team sport. Every member of the “team” is actually competing against each other as much as against the opposing team at the meet. Furthermore, each team is competing against every other team in the country at each meet. Teams are ranked according to their scores, so it is possible to lose a head to head competition against one team and still move up in the rankings over several other teams. The LSU Fighting Tigers compete at a high level in college gymnastics, having been to a Super Six in the last several years.

Yet you can’t see a better example of sports etiquette than at a meet. Team members cheer for each other, even though they are also competing against each other. They offer comfort for a team member who falls, praise for one who does well, and at the end of the meet, they congratulate (with a hug)the members of the opposing team who win events. I’ve seen gymnasts look disappointed, but I’ve never seen one sulk.

So it doesn’t surprise me that these hard working, competitive young women can stretch their idea of team to include one more young tiger, fighting for her life and for all women, halfway around the world.

Friday, November 16, 2012

That Could Have Been Me

There is been a lot of talk since the election about how Mitt Romney’s supporters, some of them anyway,  seem to have been blindsided by his loss. Dick Morris, Peggy Noonan, and George Will among others were predicting a Romney victory, possibly even an electoral college landslide. (Well, they were half right.) Right-leaning pundits were un-skewing polls. The day after the election, the term “epistemic closure” began slipping into conversations that were also peppered with variants of “yo’ mama”.

I must admit, I started out feeling smug and superior to those righties who had posted how they were going to watch the election results on MS-NBC to watch liberal heads explode as the results came in, kind of the way I felt smug and superior to Alabama fans last year after the Alabama-LSU regular season game.

Except then I remembered how I spent the last three quarters of the BCS Championship game between the Tigers and the Tide hiding from the TV. I have to confess, the only reason I was actually paying attention to the polls, the un-un-skewed polls this go round, is because my guy was the one they favored. 

If the President had been down in those polls, trailing in most of the battleground states, would I have been devouring Nate Silver’s and Huffpo’s predictions every morning? Um, no. I would have been seeking out friendly sites to reassure me that the polls were badly skewed, that my guy was trending, that there would be a big upset in the end. “Epistemic closure”? When I need it, I got it.

I know this because that’s how I reacted in 1980. I knew Jimmy Carter was trailing Ronald Reagan in the polls, but I kept waiting for a turnaround, which seemed to have occurred a week or so before the election. I didn’t pay any attention to electoral college predictions. I reassured myself that the US had never elected a former actor or divorced person before (like that was some kind of guarantee). And when I got home from voting after work to find that President Carter had already conceded to President-elect Reagan, mine was the head that exploded.

I am willing to grant that most of the people criticizing Republican voters for having their heads in the sand and ignoring all the signs of an Obama victory are far more open minded than I am. I’ll take them at their word that they would have clear-sightedly read the signs of an impending Romney victory if one had been in the making, redoubling their efforts to get out the vote and making plans for next time. Everybody is not me. But no matter how much I want to reassure myself that I would be in that number, I know myself. I have many lovable qualities, but an unflinching ability to absorb the truth is not one of them.

So I feel for those voters who clung to reassurances from their favorite right-wing pundits. If things had been different, that could have been me.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Family Is So Much Nicer Than Me

Update on the home folks in New York:

My sister still has her house guests and no kitchen, and even though her power is back on, she has to do her laundry at the laundromat because there’s a hole in the kitchen floor where the washer and dryer used to be. So is she whining and crying? No, she’s making new friends at the laundromat.

I’ve decided to give her a Williams-Sonoma gift card so she can buy goodies for her new kitchen, once she has a new kitchen.

My niece who had power was doing childcare for another niece who did not. When asked why she didn’t just go to my brother’s house, second niece replied, “Because he’s busy with Mr. B”. It turns out that my brother’s next door neighbor and long-time friend was dying, and my brother had been given power of attorney to handle medical bills and care decisions, because the family is MIA. B died a few days ago, at home with hospice care and at least one very good neighbor.

Meantime, my cousin D has been whining about the lack of gas, but that’s only because she wants to get out and volunteer somewhere. She finally got her power back on and her furnace fixed, so she’s gone on feeding whatever family can make it to her house.

Finally, my cousin S, whose son was murdered last year, and who lives away from NY, has been collecting donated items and shipping them to her old home town, at her own expense, despite the fact that she is also caring for a new baby boy. (Yes, happy news.) 

I donated to Red Cross. Does that count?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Been There

I know I have said this before: I grew up on Long Island. I still have family there. My sister lives on the south shore a few miles from where we grew up, an older brother lives a little further out and not so close to the shore. Three of his four children, their spouses, and their children live near him.

Two weeks ago my sister was posting Facebook pictures of her about-to-be-remodeled kitchen. It was down to the studs and the subfloor. We teased her a lot. 

I don’t know which is worse, sweating out a storm that is heading your way or sweating out a storm that is heading toward your loved ones. In the last two months, I have done both. I am happy to report that my family members made it through Sandy okay. They are without power and gasoline is getting short, but no one is hurt, and everyone’s house is intact.

However, my sister has a sister-in-law, her husband’s sister. K and her husband W live right on the water. The day before the storm, as water was rising around her house, their cat decided to seek refuge under it. My BIL finally had to cut a hole in the living room floor and lower a board so that the cat could climb out. Then his sister, husband, and two cats headed to my sister’s house for the duration. Before it was all over, K and W had five feet of water in their house, and the hole in the floor was the least of their worries.

So now my sister has four adults, two cats and maybe a dog living in her house, and no kitchen. They do have a grill in the back. I imagine if they are at all like me when we remodeled, they also have a microwave and refrigerator in their living room, but with no power, that’s a moot point. 

My cousin D, also somewhere on LI, has just posted that barges are arriving in NY Harbor with gas, and that power should be restored to most of Manhattan by the 3rd and to LI by the 10th or 11th. As soon as D can get gas for her car, she plans to go volunteer somewhere. She siphoned what she had out to run her generator, so she can cook for family and friends without power.

I’m trying to think of something I can send my sister to help her out. Specialty foods are no help. She probably has food in danger of spoiling. A gas card is no help unless gas is available. I’m thinking a restaurant gift card if there is a chain open near her. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I feel bad complaining about this while on the East Coast there are people sitting without power and some of them without food. I’ve lived through the aftermath of hurricanes and tropical storms before and I know how slow it is to recover. The logistics of getting help to areas that are flooded, covered with debris, and without power, through traffic that is making its own way without traffic signals, while the people doing the helping are often worried for their own families’ safety, are difficult, to say the least. I am safe, dry, and well-fed, and cranky because a package got delayed.

But then I remember that some politicians talk about running government like a business, or even privatizing government services, and my minor complaint with a business that’s being run like a business takes on a more sinister cast.

As I mentioned before, I ordered a coat from LL Bean. LL Bean’s default mode of delivery, the one you get for no extra charge, is to ship UPS, the company that makes a big deal about logistics. The package was due to arrive on October 30, and since it was being shipped from Illinois to Louisiana, there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t arrive on time.

So that afternoon from 2 PM on, I made frequent forays to the front porch to look for a package. No package. By 6 PM I had begun to make dinner, when my husband came in with one of those notices from UPS that say they made an attempt to deliver a package but couldn’t leave it because it needed my signature.

Keep in mind, my husband and I had been home all afternoon. I went to the porch and checked the doorbell, and found it working just fine. We weren’t running the vacuum cleaner or any other loud household appliances that would mask the noise. I had a bad feeling that the UPS driver, rather than having to ring the bell and wait around for an answer and then a signature, just walked up to the house, stuck the already prepared note on the door, made a tentative knock and ran. 

I have already had a bad history with Brown. Several times in the past I have used their tracking site to track packages, read that a package had been delivered, and looked in vain around my porch and yard for it, only to have it show up the next day. So I called their customer service line and complained. I was home; I would have heard the doorbell. They tried to get the driver to come back with my package but he had gone home for the night. It would be delivered tomorrow.

So on the 31st, I stuck the notice of attempt to deliver back on the door with my authorization to leave the package without my signature, just in case, and remained vigilant. Around six I heard the truck coming down the street and ran to the front porch. A truck had just pulled up to my neighbor’s house. I watched the driver walk up to the door, drop (not place) the package, ring the bell, turn and leave in one fluid movement. Little kids who play the old trick of ringing your doorbell and running away would have been envious. I hope that package didn’t contain glassware.

Then he got to my house, handed me the form to sign and then my package without so much as a word.

So what’s the big deal, you ask? You got the coat. You live in Louisiana where it’s going to be 80 degrees this afternoon.

The big deal is, I know why this happened. It happened because businesses cut costs by cutting out a lot of the lowest paid jobs instead of trimming the higher paid jobs at the top. That leaves the drivers with longer routes than they would have if there were more drivers, and that leads them to cut corners. The big deal is, my coat was outside my house a little after 6 on October 30th and I was home to receive it but I didn’t get it for another 24 hours because someone was too rushed for time to let me answer the door, or even have a chance to answer the door. If customers complain about such service, it is just barely possible that Brown might wonder what they can do for me. If drivers complain, who is going to listen?

And this is the model some people want to use for government. This is what we are looking at when we privatize needed government services. Look at New York and New Jersey and ask yourself, what if it wasn’t a coat some old lady in Louisiana didn’t need right this minute? What if it was an emergency delivery of bottled water, or baby formula, or a coat some old lady does need right this minute because it’s cold and she has no heat? Do we want to run emergency relief like a business - like that business?

Like the ads say, it’s logistics.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Come and Gone

Halloween has come and gone and left a lot of candy behind. Unlike in most parts of the country, trick or treating around here is confined to a specific time on October 31, usually between 6 and 8 PM. That used to be the perfect time back before Daylight Savings Time became Practically the Whole Damn Year Around Time, because on October 31 at 6 PM it was just getting dark. Most of the trick or treaters in our neighborhood arrived between 6 and 7, with a sprinkling of some of the older kids showing up between 7 and 8. Now the peak traffic is between 6:30 and 7:30.

As part of an anti-Klan movement in the mid-1920’s, Louisiana has an anti-masking law that forbids the wearing of masks and hoods in public. The law can be suspended by public officials for holidays like Halloween and Mardi Gras, but it can also be invoked to restrict the hours of celebration.

One year, back in the 70’s or 80’s, the then mayor of Baton Rouge got the bright idea to move trick-or-treating to November 1, because there was an LSU home football game on October 31. He was afraid that the police force would be stretched too thin if they had to provide security both for the game and for trick or treaters. This rescheduling not go over well. Many parents decided to let their children trick or treat on Halloween anyway, reasoning that no one was going to bust a six year old for wearing a Cinderella costume. Citizens were unsure whether to prepare to give out candy on Halloween, the next day, or both. The experiment was not repeated.

Nowadays a lot of children don’t wear masks with their costumes anyway. They restrict vision and can be unsafe. I see a lot of children in face paint instead. The limited hours for trick or treating persist anyway, because people like them. You aren’t tied to your house from the time school lets out in the afternoon until the last hardy soul goes home and to bed, and it cuts down on the amount of candy you need to buy and distribute. It also allows time for post trick or treating parties, not to mention homework.

This year we had far fewer visitors than in the past. My husband always buys too much candy, but this year we have two unopened bags plus two half filled bags left. (We liked to open two at a time and give a mix of items.) In my working days leftover Halloween candy went to work with me to be given out as treats or got packed a bit at a time with my husband’s lunch. Now I think a lot of it is going to take up space in the freezer, to cut down on mindless consumption. Better that than taking up space around my waist. 

Friday, October 26, 2012


It’s a story so old it was told back when chariots of iron were the latest military technology. A stranger, usually a traveler, is in town. He is invited to stay by a person who takes the duties of hospitality very seriously. The townspeople suspect the stranger is a spy, an enemy. They demand his host turn him over to the mob.

There is no doubt the host has put himself in danger. In the old stories, the women of the family are used as bargaining chips. In Judges 19, a concubine is sent out to be raped and then murdered by the crowd. In Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the daughters of the house are offered to the crowd, but the offer is turned down. These episodes are often given as examples of how poorly women were treated in the old stories, and I won’t argue that they weren’t, but I think they were also meant to represent the utter sacredness of hospitality, the duty to protect the stranger, no matter what. 

In the movie Argo, the situation is a little different. The kindly host is also a stranger in the land. No one offers a woman to the angry mob, although the host’s housekeeper is in danger if she is found to have known about the strangers’ presence and not told on them. The main focus of Argo is not on the host, his duties and his peril, although that is a strong element, but on the efforts of the strangers’ homeland to get them out of danger. Yet while watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking that it was a Biblical story set in a Biblical land, because the twin impulses, to  bond with others for our own protection and to defend against them for our own protection, go back that long and even longer.

Argo is set in Iran in 1979-1980, starting with the storming of the US Embassy on November 4. Six employees of the US Consulate are able to escape and eventually make their way to the Canadian Embassy, where they are sheltered in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Given the situation in Iran at the time, the ambassador is putting himself and his wife at risk. Everyone in the house is in danger, and the CIA is called on to come up with a plan to get the six Americans home. The State Department, the CIA and the Canadians agree that giving the six escapees fake identities as Canadians and flying them out on a commercial jet is the best way to extract them, although the idea of giving them bicycles and maps is floated briefly. After rejecting what at first seemed like more plausible plans that had serious flaws, CIA agent Tony Mendez comes up with the idea of staging a fake movie and giving the escapees identities as members of a Canadian film crew.

The movie cuts from scenes of the hostages being taken and their treatment in Iran, to scenes of the CIA and State Department meeting and planning, to scenes in Hollywood with a deft touch. The horror of the situation in Iran is countered with humorous moments in Hollywood often enough to give the audience a break but not lose the overall suspenseful tone of the movie.

The cinematography was tweaked to give the movie a period feel. Not just the costumes and hairstyles, but the whole look of the film was just right for the time. That’s an amazing attention to detail, and it works.

All of the acting was excellent. If you stick around long enough for the credits, you get to see pictures of the actors in character next to passport pictures of the real people they are portraying. It’s astonishing how close the resemblance is.

And there is a resolution at the end of one worrisome point about one of the Iranian characters. I don’t know if it was true to life, but it was an important detail to me.

The only small flaw I can find, and it’s an ongoing complaint of mine, is the number of, let’s not call them “cliches”, but Hollywood conventions that make their way into the script. While Argo is based on a true story, it doesn’t strictly tell the true story. Wired has recently reprinted their 2007 article, which I would recommend reading. I don’t fault Argo for being a fictionalized account of true events. I suspect most viewers, familiar with Hollywood storytelling conventions, can figure out which parts are likely real and which are add-ons. I just think of the old advice given to me in my girlhood years about jewelry: look at what you have on and subtract one piece. I think filmmakers would be do well to adapt that advice to their storytelling conventions: look at how many you have added to the script and subtract one. Some days I have a suspicion that they already do just that and still go overboard. I think the ending of the movie would actually have been stronger if there had been one or two fewer instances of split-second timing.

But then, as long as this story has been told, it has been told with the storytelling conventions of the day. The tokens sent to allies to summon them to avenge a great wrong, as in Judges 19 and as in the story of Troy. The helpless visitors turn out to be gods, as in the story of Baucis and Philomen or angels as in Genesis 19. In our day, there has to be a car chase. Maybe it wouldn’t be a story without it.

It’s a story that will always be told, because like all social species, we need our own kind, and we fear our own kind, but in addition, as humans, we feel the sacred duty of hospitality. It’s a story that will always be told, and Argo tells it particularly well.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


By now, I am sure all of my readers have heard of Ann Coulter’s unfortunate tweet about the third Presidential debate, in which she said, “I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard”.

Her use of the word “retard” drew immediate and vociferous criticism, as one might imagine, including a well thought out letter from Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens.

Like many others, I was repulsed by Coulter’s use of the word “retard”. I think Coulter has every right to her opinion of the president’s intellect. Mocking presidents is a tradition that is pretty much as old as our tradition of having presidents. As I recall, President Obama’s immediate predecessor came in for a lot of it, too. I’m glad to live in a country in which we can mock our leaders. I just agree with those who believe using a word that is hurtful to people who are not in her line of fire is cruel.

But it isn’t her use of the word “retard” that has me most up in arms. What really drew my ire is her using the word “kind”.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean without getting both of my feet in my mouth along with whatever others I can borrow. I am certainly not suggesting that we should be unkind to people with disabilities, cognitive or otherwise. They get enough of that as it is. I like kindness, and think there should be more of it in the world, especially in the sense that I should practice it a lot more than I do.

But there is an underlying tone to phrase “be kind and gentle to the retard” that goes beyond just the use of the word “retard”. It draws a distinction between us of the three digit IQ’s and them, and makes it clear who are the actors and who are the acted upon. We get to choose to be kind. They get to hope we do. And there is something about that distinction that is patronizing, and condescending, and even unkind.

There’s a story I can tell that may explain what I am driving at. Back in my working days, I had a student, B. I worked with B on her language skills off and on from her baby days to her middle school years. B is what used to be called a slow learner. Concepts came hard to her. She needed to be drilled and drilled and drilled in them, but once she finally got them, she got them.

One day we were working on vocabulary. It was late in the day and I was having a hard time explaining what I wanted to explain. I said something snappish. I didn’t know it was going to sound snappish until I heard myself say it (that happens to me a lot), but it did. It was on the tip of my tongue to apologize when B looked at me curiously and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you okay?”

Who me? I’m fine except for that whole feeling about the size of a postage stamp thing I suddenly have going on. “I’m just tired,” I said, “but that was no excuse for me to sound mean. I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

We finished our lesson, and when I returned B to her mom in the waiting room, I told her the story, even though it meant telling on myself. I was proud of B for her skill in dealing with an uncomfortable situation and thought her mom should know. “Yeah, she’s like that,” her mom said proudly.

Some people are like that. You don’t have to be smart or mobile or otherwise “normal” to be kind. Ms. Coulter is not the gatekeeper of kindness to the world, and neither am I (and a good thing, too.) What you do need is to be able to feel like other people, no matter how different from you they are in superficial ways, are part of your tribe, part of your kind.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's a Sign

I have been looking for a winter coat. At the moment, all I have in the way of winter coats are the red down jacket I got on my Antarctic cruise, and a raincoat that is not really a winter coat, but that is perfect for most winter weather in our subtropical clime. It’s a size or so too big on me, however (and so is the Antarctic jacket) with all the weight I’ve lost, and not really suitable for the few really cold days we get, not to mention for winter traveling.

I looked at a few stores when I was at the mall yesterday, but didn’t see anything I liked. I saw a lot of double-breasted coats, but I find them too much trouble and frequently don’t button them correctly. I saw a lot of orange coats, too. I like orange, but when I buy a coat I prefer to get something classic that I can wear for years, since I’m not going to get my money’s worth in a single winter.

As luck would have it, an L.L Bean outerwear catalog arrived for me in the mail, and there on page 27 was exactly what I wanted: a single-breasted three-quarter length polo coat, shown in loden, a color that doesn’t go out of style (or in it, either) easily. True, the coat is a little plain, but could easily be dressed up with a scarf.

In fact, I had a scarf that would have been perfect with it, seeing as how I had bought it years ago for the last loden coat I owned, although that one was mid-calf length and cut like a Russian cavalry officer’s coat, with black trim on the cuffs and collar. I finally had to abandon it when the lining faded to an ugly grayish gold. Apparently I gave away the scarf shortly thereafter, because it was nowhere to be found.

What was to be found was a scarf I had forgotten, a turquoise, gray, black and white print viscose scarf I had bought in Paris two years ago to go with my old blue raincoat. I held it up to the page and tried to decide if it would go with loden, or maybe the navy? I didn’t want navy. After all, I could always buy another scarf, although, alas, not in Paris. 

I gave up trying to decide and turned around and tossed the scarf on the sofa behind me, to be put away later. The sofa is a dark green, more hunter than loden, but equally dark. Against the sofa, the scarf looked gorgeous.

So that settles it. I’m about to become the proud new owner of a three-quarter length, loden polo coat.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Time Travelers

The last day of our London trip we took the train to Greenwich to see the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, home of the 0 degree meridian and Greenwich mean time. I am familiar with Greenwich mean time because both Blogger and Flickr keep their daily statistics from midnight to midnight GMT, which means they end their day either 6 PM or 7 PM my time. It was odd being in London for two weeks and having the statistics collected from 1 AM to 1 AM each day, since London was still on Summer Time. Nothing makes me feel so out of whack as trying to figure out what time it is back home.

Before the advent of rail travel, there wasn’t a need for standardized time zones. People used local solar time to set their clocks by. The first attempts to standardize timekeeping were known as Railway Time, since it was used by railway companies using Greenwich Mean Time kept by portable chronometers. 

Now with even faster means of transportation and almost simultaneous worldwide telecommunications, time zones are taken for granted, as are adjustments such as Daylight Savings Time or Summer Time, depending on where you live. I was surprised to find out that even the state of Alaska adopts Daylight Savings Time, but as a merchant explained to me, Alaska is already two hours behind Pacific Standard Time. If they did not adopt Daylight Savings Time, they would be three hours behind, making doing business by phone or internet even harder.

We went to the Maritime Museum first. In addition to giving a history of shipbuilding, it also had displays that gave a history of British colonial expansion, tied to shipping as it was. One of the rooms we went into smelled to me like crab boil. It turned out it had an interactive display that allowed you to guess which spices came from which plants on display.

Cutty Sark, one of the last clippers built before the use of steam

Cutty Sark

Prince Frederick's Barge

Ships' Figureheads

Ships' badges eventually replaced figureheads.

The Royal Observatory was well worth visiting. Neal had a history teacher in high school who used to talk about the “Ooh - ee- ooh” feeling you get from coming in contact with historical sites and artifacts. Her ooh - ee- ooh moment came from seeing tracks in the Rockies left by wagon trains heading west. Mine was seeing William Herschel’s telescope.

View of London from outside the observatory

View of London from outside the observatory

William Herschel's Telescope

William Herschel's Telescope

William Herschel's Telescope

East is east, and west is west.

Straddling the meridian

The Royal Observatory also serves as a listening post for Longplayer. You are supposed to be able to stream Longplayer to your computer. I can't always get it to work, but I am listening now. 

Flowers at Greenwich market

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Day with the Bard, and without Aldgate

Once we returned from the coast, John and I were on our own for two days before flying back home. On Monday, we finally made it to Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, across the Thames and close to its original site. Then we spent some time wandering around the neighborhood before going back to the hotel to rest up before meeting Neal’s friend M at a tapas restaurant.

The reconstruction was the brain child of Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director who later said if he realized how long it was going to take to accomplish, he probably never would have started. There were no performances going on while we were there but we did get to take a tour and of course, take pictures.

The Theater


Stage, and stalls


Detail of stage canopy



Several times when we were sightseeing along the south bank of the Thames, we found it easier to get back to the hotel by walking across the nearest bridge and wending our way to Leadenhall and then to Aldgate High Street, which intersects Commercial at the corner where our hotel sat, than taking the tube. 

Southwark Cathedral

The Shards, under construction

Leadenhall Market

Leadenhall Market

That meant walking along Aldgate past St. Botolph Without Aldgate, otherwise known as Aldgate Church. I’ve read enough (bad) historical fiction to know that “without” in this context means “outside of”, but it puzzled my husband. “St. Botolph Without Aldgate? What do they mean ‘without Aldgate’?” I explained that they meant “outside of Aldgate” and opined that Aldgate probably was an actual gate at one time. According to Wikipedia, it was.

Aldgate was the eastern-most gateway through London Wall leading from the City of London to Whitechapel and the East End of London.

I have to admit, though, “St. Botolph Without Aldgate” does sound like a laundry detergent updated to remove some pesky, environmentally hazardous chemical. “Whites not white enough? Try St. Botolph, now without Aldgate.” We never went in the church, but I did take a few pictures outside.