Sunday, February 7, 2016

Call Waiting

How ironic would it be if the fall of civilization is brought about, not by greed or indulgence, but the cell phone?

Hey, now, wait a minute. Don’t go tweeting about what an idiot I am, or using my name in vain on a Facebook status. Hear me out. After all, I’m not confronting anyone in person, I’m doing it from a keyboard—just like the one on all our phones. I’m not a total hypocrite.

I think Mr. Bell might hang up on us if he had any idea of what we’ve done with his invention since Watson answered that first voice mail. But here we are, a hundred forty years later, driving around in Mr. Ford’s invention while we talk and text on Bell’s. It’s illegal to do those two things at the same time, by the way. Everybody knows that. Most people pretend it doesn’t matter.

But it does.

More teenagers die in car accidents as a result of driving and texting than die while driving drunk—that’s three thousand texters every single year. So far. Texting and driving is now the leading cause of death among teenagers.

But I’m not here to pick on teenagers. They’re not the only ones guilty—they just lose more years of life when they do it. Fifty-seven percent of adults admit to texting while driving, too. Forty-three percent don’t want to talk about it.

Now and then I take on an unscientific research project—usually while we’re in the middle of an eight thousand mile road trip—and begin counting the number of passing cars whose drivers are holding or texting on a cell phone. In general, it’s about one out of five. This means that multi-tasking is now a greater threat to your life than smoking. Or fast food. Maybe.

It’s one thing if we commit suicide while driving and phoning, but it’s an entirely different thing if we wipe out the life of someone else just because we have to answer that text. Okay. You get the point. You still think it won’t affect you, but you’re glad I brought it up and wish I’d shut up now.

But I’m not done.
We’re not going to bring about the fall of civilization by texting and driving. That’s just going to reduce the surplus population. I think condensing relationships to 140 character tweets, Facebook phoniness, and robotic text messaging is what’s going to take us down. We’re living in isolation and don’t even know it.

I’m fed up with texted conversations, including the ones I generate. (Just so you know I’m not only preaching to the choir.) I’m also over emails. As wonderful as the written word is, it’s a lousy substitute for face to face communication. You can send me every cute emoticon Apple comes up with, but if you weren’t really smiling when you texted it—punctuated by fourteen exclamation points—it’s all a lie.

On the other hand, if we’re sitting across from one another talking about our lives and you tell me you’re “fine” while tears well up in your eyes, now we’ve had a heart to heart connection. You were still trying to hide, but it’s harder to do in person.

I think we text because it’s fast. It doesn’t require time or attention. We can carry on multiple conversations with several people all at once without really focusing on any one person. But mostly, our dependency on cell phones is about us and our need to be entertained quickly and constantly.

This morning while my husband and I sat outside a restaurant waiting for a table, I watched an animated conversation between a mom and daughter as they played a game of checkers. Meanwhile, the husband and father sat two feet away from them with his face buried in his cell phone's screen. What’s the message there? Everyone else in the world is more important to that man than his family right next to him.

I used to have a telephone attached to the wall by a long, long cord. If I talked to anyone, it was a commitment, since I was limited to using it in the kitchen or about ten feet into the living room if I stretched it out really hard. When people needed someone to hear their hurts or share their joys, I got a personal phone call from one person who wanted to hear my voice and the animation it held. Now when someone has a prayer request or good news to tell, they send it in a mass text and, for the next two hours, my cell phone dings out the responses of people who have no idea if I’m even listening.

People are dying on the highway for sure now that texting has become such an obsession. But I’m convinced there are an even greater number of casualties all around us as relationships die a slow death at the hands of two sentence text messages.

I’ve seen pictures of crowded sidewalks in New York City where every single pedestrian’s head is down, scrolling through cell phone screens. I’ve watched groups of people out to dinner together, never saying a word—each of them lost in the latest and greatest info on the tiny handheld computer Bell dreamed up. I thought I’d seen it all when I watched a kid on a skateboard sail through my neighborhood with a three hundred dollar cell phone attached to his head. Wonder when they’ll legislate against that kind of moving violation.

But you should have seen my mouth drop open the day I rounded the corner near my rural neighborhood where it’s common to pass acres of cotton crops and view ranches dotted with cattle. Leaving the city is such a balm to my soul that I can actually feel my blood pressure drop once I wind up on the desert back roads that take me home. All the more picturesque is when I spot someone on horseback.

I stopped at the intersection to let the rider and his mount cross the road, but realized the man wasn’t watching my car at all. His head was down, half hidden under his Stetson, his horse waiting patiently for instruction, the reins ignored while the rider sat motionless. Every single illusion I’ve ever held of living here in the Wild West was destroyed that day at the intersection of Combs and Schnepf Roads.

That cowboy was sitting in his saddle, talking on a cell phone.

So I took a picture of him and posted it on Facebook, after I sent out a mass text message full of thinly veiled sarcasm, and then I called my husband.

Good thing I know how to use Bluetooth.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas Cookies!

It sounds a bit snooty, we admit it is true
But for this exchange, not just any cookie will do . . .
We’ll have prizes for beauty, for class, and for taste
Your extra effort will not go to waste . . .

Well, that’s different, I thought.

An invitation to a snooty cookie exchange. I couldn’t get through the door unless I brought “cookies that look and taste great” (what if I’m a lousy baker?) and “the kind you put on the TOP of your best cookie plate!” (Now I’d have to go out and buy a jazzy cookie plate, too.)

Holy macaroons. What if I showed up with one of those Corelleware plates we got for our wedding forty years ago, and only average looking peanut butter cookies? That wouldn’t happen—I don’t even like peanut butter.

Who sends out an invitation like this? I was betting there’d be a cookie bouncer at the front door, somebody I’d have to bribe to gain entry. 

“Hey, big boy,” I’d say, waving my cookie plate under his nose. “How’s about a little extra something delicious before Christmas?”

Yuck. That’s just all kinds of wrong. I tossed the invite aside.  How twisted can you get, I thought in aggravation. I mean, I think I make some pretty good cookies. My father-in-law told me once that I came home with the short end of the stick after one of those cookie exchanges. (I sure miss that guy and his fondness for my Mexican Wedding Cakes.) Still, I wondered who else got invited. What my competition looked like . . .

Good grief! What was wrong with me? Already I was lowering myself to the level of the snooty cookie invitation. But what if, instead of trading my favorite chocolate chippers for somebody’s hard as rock snickerdoodles, I came home with Paradise Bakery-worthy cookies! Maybe the RSVP was there to keep out the white cookie trash! Well, this was actually a compliment! And weren’t there going to be prizes??  Where did I put that invitation? What a great idea! This would be the best Christmas cookie exchange I’d ever entered . . . that is, been to!

With excruciating precision, I searched every tattered cookie recipe card in my files, read through cookbooks til my eyes blurred, considered and discarded one idea after another until finally—I found it! The Piece de Resistance, the one cookie destined to bring me greatness, my golden ticket to cookie stardom! Lemon Snowflakes! Even now, the very thought of them makes me drool. Delicate, buttery circles topped with tartly sweet lemon icing. Better than shortbread, yummier than lemon meringue pie, I knew they’d put me in the winner’s circle.

It had been a while since I made them, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. I knew I could whip them out after dinner that night. It was, of course, too late to sew a snowflake costume for myself so I could match my cookies, but I felt confident I’d get by the bouncer at the door and win the whole thing. One taste of my melt-in-your-mouth entry and people would think I’d been up all night baking.

Words I was destined to regret.

I forgot you need lemons to make lemon snowflakes. I’d already juiced the lemons my friends gave me, and I needed lemon rind anyway. Please God, I panicked, let there be ripe lemons at the grocery store because I don’t think Pumpkin Snowflakes sound good at all! By the time I got back from the store with the lemons, it was nine o’clock. But that was okay. All I needed to do was mix the batter with the softened butter?! And chill the dough at least ONE HOUR?!

Seventy-two dough balls and four hours later, the hand frosted citrus fruits of my labor sat on a new glass plate and I fell into bed at one a.m. There were no visions of sugarplums dancing in my head anymore. Just angry thoughts like how much I hate contests. And cookies. And Christmas.

Refreshed after five hours sleep (who are we kidding?) I got ready for the early morning “party” and headed out, arriving a little late. I would have been even later if the fabric store was open. I walked through the front doors of the hostess’s home and, instead of being greeted by the cool looks of competitive cooks, fourteen women sat in a circle howling with laughter. Did I miss something? I thought this was a serious competition. With relief I saw that no one had tried to sway the judges with fancy homemade costumes (how low could they go?) There were a couple of ugly sweaters in the room, but they weren’t that funny.

I sat down in exhausted confusion. I thought only dedicated, extremely gifted bakers had been invited. There was absolutely no mention of prizes for comical cookies. Anxiously I surveyed the entire room—yes, a table laden with platters of beautiful baked goods stood off to the side. But nothing had been judged, no prizes awarded, no cookies rationed yet.

So what was so funny?

Finally, as fragments of stories began piecing together, I realized that an entirely different contest had been taking place here for the last thirty minutes. One by one, each guest was given a five minute time slot to describe in her most painful detail the astronomical lengths she’d gone to in order to bake a Top Of Her Best Cookie Plate cookie.

I wasn’t he only amateur baker intrigued by the invite and finally defeated by a deceptively innocent medley of flour, sugar, and butter. Every single person had been so intimidated by the challenge that a few had even refused to come this morning! And now, the brave, if no so brilliant, few who did show up were so emotionally—some even physically—scarred from the experience that we all sat in a circle competing for the prize never even mentioned on our invitations—a Purple Heart.

Suddenly, no one cared anymore how good their cookies looked or tasted. The highest honor was now on the line for the cook with the most tragic story of baking gone amuck. As each of us waited to pour out our bitter tales, each successive narrative became more pathetic, more involved, and more hysterical.

This was a competition of unprecedented proportion. And I was ill-prepared.

I told my tale of late night icing and missing lemons, embellishing my agony as much as possible, but honestly, I’d given everything to forgotten snowflakes sitting on a plate in the corner of the other room. 

I sighed as humility overcame me. More than an hour after the Saddest Baking Experience trials began, the last competitor finished her tale. With an entry of Stained Glass Window Cookies hiding on the table somewhere behind us, she told us how the directions called for Lifesaver candies placed inside a sugar cookie dough. “Bake on parchment paper,” the instructions read.

“I didn’t have any,” she said, “but I figured wax paper would work just as well.”

She held up a mangled length of wrinkled wax paper with three or four cookies glued on in broken sections by the remains of Lifesavers baked at 375 degrees. It was the death knoll for every other woman in the room. The room exploded in laughter, women rolling on the floor as violently as the tears rolled down their faces.

She won of course, Wax Paper Woman. No one could begrudge her the honor. Hers had been the most humiliating episode any of us endured. That is until the seasoned judge/hostess made these closing remarks to our entire distinguished group.

“I can’t believe the way you’ve all carried on about a bunch of cookies for the last hour. You women need to get a life!”

Sour grapes, if you ask me. She didn’t have an entry.

With wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you, and especially Pete Hopkins who graciously allowed the use of his amazing cookie photo.  Thanks, Pete!  The original photo can be viewed at this link:

Friday, November 6, 2015

Looking Up

I have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. Today is Friday. I’m dreading it like it’s tomorrow. I always dread checkups. Because there are reasons I must be checked on by physicians. Some of them are the same as the reasons you have to go to the doctor, but this one is because I survived a cancer scare two and a half years ago.

I lost major body parts in that scare, as well as an entire factory of hormone producing organs. I miss them.  I wage a daily battle as a result of that change in my anatomy. 

On the up side, I’ve learned wonderful new words like adaptogens, probiotics and breathing . . . deeply. I only thought I was introspective before my surgery. Now I gauge my emotional well-being the way meteorologists check for cold fronts. It’s a tough balance sometimes between being proactive and counterproductive when it comes to heading off another meltdown.

I passed the two year mark last May.

“Two years is a big deal when you’ve had cancer,” my surgeon told me. “After that, you only need to come in twice a year for checkups instead of four times.”

It was really good news. And it feels like good news right up until four days before I have to see her again and walk into a cancer hospital and let her look under my hood and inspect my chassis. I hate it. And it makes me feel sorry for myself sometimes. Until I remember some very important facts:

  • ·         I didn’t have to go through chemo.

  • ·         I don’t have to get blood tests and check for cancer markers.

  • ·         I didn’t lose my hair. Or my breakfast, lunch or dinner. Every single day. The way many women do after a cancer diagnosis.

  • ·         It wasn’t a death sentence.

So let the tears fall. Let the fears fly. That doctor saved my life. And the same God who fought for me two and a half years ago still fights for me today. Even when appointments like the one on Tuesday remind me that once upon a time I had cancer.

They’re a blessing in disguise—they also remind me that I don’t have it anymore.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Playground Lies

I think I’ve been fat all my life. 

I haven’t, of course, and when I look back at photos of myself throughout the years, I realize I really only had one pudgy year in my childhood—third grade. Third grade, I think, must be the hardest grade.  I know that because a little third grader told me so.  It would take some work for me to remember what kind of trauma is typical on a Terrible Third Grader Kind Of Day, but let’s say you lost your lunch money, fell in a mud puddle in front of the whole class, threw up in the lunchroom and forgot to turn in your homework. All on the same day.  

I think that’s the kind of day Charity had when she dissolved into tears in my living room one afternoon and proclaimed,

“Ten is the hardest age ever!” 

On that particular day, I was twenty-seven, the mother of two small children, living in the foreign land of Florida which, everyone knows, is inhabited by child-eating alligators and giant mosquitos, and seldom saw my husband who walked into burning buildings for a living.

I had a little bit of trouble relating to a muddy ten-year-old.

But, now that I look back on being fat all my life, I realize Charity was right.  It’s hard to be ten, it’s hard to be a third grader, and it’s hard to think you’re fat whether you are or not.

When our kids were small, we had a list of things we taught them never to say to anyone, especially if they were trying to insult somebody. We didn’t say “shut up” in our house. We never told anyone they were stupid. And, worst of all, we never called anyone “fat” even if they were. Especially if they were. I knew from personal experience that being called “fat” is an identity  wound you may never overcome, and I didn’t want my kids scarring each other with the label or reminding another already scarred person of how they’d, no doubt, already been labeled.

Every one of those misdemeanors was a crime in our home and would get you sent to your room without dessert—so the punishment would fit the crime.

For a couple of years when he was about five or six, our son had an imaginary friend. And then he had two of them. We’d hear him talking in his room and find out later how silly we were to think he was talking to himself, when he was in the company of Roy and Ernie. Who could only be seen by our son.

Sometimes Lee and Roy and Ernie got into arguments. That’s a trip.  Watching your five-year-old arguing with his three-year-old sister is one thing. Watching him argue with two invisible kids can send you running to the Yellow Pages.

One afternoon we were all in the car—my husband, myself, our son, our daughter, and Roy and Ernie—only I didn’t know Roy and Ernie had come along for the ride until I heard our son, Lee’s, voice begin to rise from the backseat.

“No, I didn’t!”

“Yes, you did!”

“No, I didn’t!!”

"Yes, you DID!!”

His voice rose louder with every punctuated sentence, his head turning side to side as he took turns arguing individually with Roy and then Ernie and then Roy again. Until, finally, one of the two silent partners lobbed a pre-emptive strike voiced by our ventriloquist son:

“You’re fat!” we heard him say, and then he crossed his arms, put on his really mad face, and stopped talking.

“What’s going on?” I asked, with a mixture of amusement and anxiety.

“Ernie called me fat,” he said angrily.

Now, I don’t know if you have some inside scoop as to the ins and outs of a conversation like that, but since Ernie and Roy were kicked out of the car that day and never heard from again, I think it’s safe to say that problem took care of itself. I’m just telling you about it because calling someone “fat” in our house was paramount to an assault with a deadly weapon. It was a really bad idea and our kids knew it.

Unfortunately, no one told the people I grew up around how deadly it is for a kid to be thought fat in the third grade. 
“You’re so fat, I bet you wear a bra!” boys yelled at me on the playground.  They were right—that year my mom bought me a training bra.  Training bra.  What does that even mean? Do they still have those? I knew I was too young to wear one, but since t-shirts apparently weren’t doing the trick (do little girls still wear those, either?), the nice lady in the department store sold my mom a training bra for her little ten-year-old daughter.

When the class picture came out that year, I had, unfortunately, been seated on the front row instead of hiding safely on the back one.

“You took up two chairs!” the boys laughed again. And even though I didn’t really take up two chairs, in my mind I agreed with them that I sure didn’t look skinny where I sat in that photo.  What a shame that little kids can spend their childhoods comparing themselves to one another and grow up believing they’re not good enough.

So my mom took me to the doctor who listened to our fears of how fat I was and put my ten-year-old self on a diet of carrot sticks (which I hate to this day) and a half sandwich for lunch. No more cookies or hostess cupcakes to make the other kids jealous at school. It was all serious business for me to lose weight.

My grandmother, of course, had the perfect solution for helping me get thin.  It’s the same answer most people come up with today when they figure out I have some weight to “release.”  (I just heard that description of weight loss efforts.  I like the sound of it much better than Biggest Loser.)

“Just tell her no more seconds,” she said matter-of-factly.  

 I considered that plan for a minute, and then asked,

“Can I have thirds then?”

At least she had a good sense of humor, even though she had no idea how hard it was to be ten years old in the 1960’s. She grew up in the 1910’s when people washed their laundry in a galvanized bucket, scrubbed their own floors with horse hair brushes or something, baked their own bread in a wood burning oven, and chopped wood for the fire that kept them warm all winter.  If I’d been as lucky as her and lived at a time in history like that, I’d have been a skinny little kid, too.

My dad said I was fat because I watched too much television. I did watch as much television as I could, but that consisted mostly of I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Let’s Make A Deal, which came on once a week. Maybe I was fat in the third grade because we lived in a retirement trailer park where there were four other kids to play with. 

We made the most of what we had, though, and I got pretty good at kickball and avoiding the cars that interrupted our games. I rode my bike sometimes and skated up and down the rows of trailers. Sometimes we played at the playground with the two swings and a slide, and in the summer there was a swimming pool to swim in when it wasn’t sixty degrees outside where we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. I guess that means we swam once a week. If we were lucky.

So I went on the doctor’s diet at the end of the third grade. Then I went to summer school for fun during the month of June because I got to take an art class and a science class and a class on dinosaurs. But the fourth class was required of everyone—P.E.  I hated P.E., which I thought stood for Punishing Eula because she’s fat.  In P.E. I got to do fun things like jumping jacks and running around the track—over and over and over again. I still hate P.E., too.

And when I started the fourth grade, I weighed ten pounds less than when I left the third grade.  I also was several inches taller. 

 And that’s my point.   

What no one seemed to understand when I was a kid is that children—even babies—get growth spurts that begin with eating more than  normal, putting on a little weight and then growing taller and going back to their normal appetite.

If grownups don’t interfere with this natural circle of life, kids might grow up with a fairly healthy self-image. If all the adults in a ten-year-olds life agree with a child’s peer group of third grade authorities, then a growing kid may spend the rest of her life in a self-imposed prison of unworthiness.

Maybe I was born at an unfortunate time. It was the decade of Twiggy.  Ever heard of her? She made a skinny, boy-body famous by wearing it when she was a girl. Suddenly curves were out and boobs were a no-no.  With her bobbed, slick hair and androgynous looks, she most resembled, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Justin Beaver today. Only she was a girl and he isn’t.
And once a girl like me hit puberty, she couldn’t compete with Twiggy’s supermodel look. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t deflate the curves predestined for me by heredity and sexual orientation. And since I blossomed earlier than my friends who were doing a much better imitation of Twiggy than I was, I stood out like a sore thumb.A swollen, sore thumb. 

I was different than everyone, it seemed. I couldn’t compete with my mother’s cheerleader, Southern belle story of having a “twenty-one inch waist” when she met and married my dad at sixteen. I couldn’t compare with the Miss America pageant contestants we watched every fall on TV. I sewed for and dressed countless Barbie dolls who flaunted their lopsided figures and mocked my poor self-esteem.
And now, forty-five years after a doctor first put me on a diet as a ten-year-old, I’ve been on and read so many diet plans I think I qualify as the world’s most defeated professional dieter.

But do you know what’s really sad about that? When I look back over photos of myself between infancy and age forty-five, the only year of my life where I really was pudgy was that one year as a kid when I first believed the boys on the playground. 

I was slender on my wedding day when I felt I wasn’t. I was slender through two pregnancies and bounced back to a healthy weight, though I chased an elusive desire to lose “ten more pounds.”  I ate like a pig that whole, busy time my kids were growing up and never gained an ounce, but I hid behind everyone in family photos for fear someone would point out that I was “fat.” There’s hardly a single photo of me in all our family albums where it looks like I even have legs. I’m always standing behind someone skinnier than me.

How does a girl get over a lifetime of believing a lie?

By replacing it with the truth. One painful step at a time.

There were wounds that set me up to believe that third-grader lie. Many of them have been healed and many others are currently being healed. We all have them. We’ve all been hit by lying arrows that want us to believe we’re inferior, we don’t measure up, and we’re a disappointment.

But those are lies. Playground lies. I don’t know what lies you heard during recess, but make no mistake, they’re deadly.

The problem isn’t what we eat. The problem is what we believe. And it may be time to kick Roy and Ernie out of the car for calling me fat.

Out of the mouths of babes.

With thanks to Brian Talbot for the use of the wonderful picture seen above. Brian's work, including the site for this photo, can be viewed at