Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Speed of Life


I was making a call on my cell phone while driving some place last week (I know I shouldn’t but I do.  I need to get a hands-free, but even with  that, calling while driving results as the same level of distraction as being impaired by alcohol or other drugs.  Another bad habit I need to change—calling while driving, that is, not alcohol or other drugs). As I was making the call, I thought that with the technology we have now we don’t even have to wait until we reach a phone to make a call.  We basically don’t have to wait for much these days (waiting for babies to be born is a notable and happy exception)—we download songs and documents in seconds; we use the “express lanes” for everything from groceries to banks to fast food.
And so because we can do more faster we do. We multitask and drive ourselves crazy with speed, speed, speed.  It becomes harder and harder to slow down and not be driven and anxious.
The pace of technology slowed life down in the past.  It took weeks to sail from Europe to America; people traveled by horse (4 mph at a walk to 25-30 mph at a gallop but only for a mile or so) or on foot (about 3 mph on average; letters took weeks to arrive; and when people visited they stayed for a long time because any trip was lengthy and arduous.   
Now, instead of preparing a horse and carriage for a journey (or having one’s servants do it, which meant waiting for them to do it), we open our cars remotely, jump in, fire up the engine and drive off.
When trains were first introduced in England, some people feared that the speed at which they traveled (about 30 mph) would drive the passengers insane.  Maybe, in a sense, the speed of our lives has driven us all a little crazy.  Excuse me, I’m going to write something by hand and then take a nice leisurely walk.

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Things Happen in Threes

At least that’s what they say and they’re always right.  I never knew who they were, but they seemed to have an anonymous authority that not even my teachers had when I was growing up and believe me, they had a lot of power. One word about the slightest deviance from the straight and narrow on my part and I was in trouble both in school and at home. Maybe that’s why I became a teacher: I wanted some of that power they wielded over the poor unfortunate charges in their care.  Then I became a teacher and I learned not so much, as the kids say. Actually I never had a mean-spirited or unkind teacher until I had a certain lady for chorus in eighth grade who was the teacher from the Bad Place.  I won’t go into what she said and did.  It still makes me shiver.  But with my other teachers, just the knowledge that they could ruin our lives was enough to keep us in line.  But I digress.

I was thinking about things running in threes the other day, and they seem to do so. Take our recent spate of disasters: earthquake, hurricane and flood. Coincidence that we had three natural disasters and no more?  I think not, Smilin’ Jack. Or that people we know in the church and community seem to die in threes. And then there are airplane crashes.  We flew to Charleston, S.C. the same week that the Concorde crashed in Paris and a smaller plane went down.  They delayed our flight for mechanical troubles and I was worried, but we got to Charleston and came back without mishap. It wasn’t our time.

I wrote about appliances and house systems and cars communicating with each other and failing one after the other.  Probably just coincidence again, but as I wrote yesterday, our dryer stopped drying and then my dad’s Impala that I drive started making a loud and annoying clicking sound from the dashboard, even after the engine was turned off (the mechanic said it was the “blend door actuator motor” or something like that). Both were quickly fixed but I waited for the other shoe to drop.  Sure enough it came last night when I wanted to finish a blog that I had started about noon.  My computer was comatose and couldn’t be roused so I had a forced shutdown and it shut down all right. It restored itself to its noon time state and the work on the day’s blog was lost.  I didn’t want to redo it since it had some detail in it so I did a simpler one about my dryer breaking. Then my color printer was affected by the computer’s misbehavior and kept insisting it was out of ink after I had installed four new cartridges.  This is the printer I want to throw out of the second story window every so often because it misbehaves like this every so often. Then my good old reliable laser printer kept trying to come on and making horrible groaning sounds that caused the lights to dim. I was able to set things right with my computer, but I hope I won’t have to deal with any group of three disasters again any time soon.

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Drying Times

 Last week I was drying a load of laundry and went off and left the dryer running.  This is not a good idea for a couple of reasons: the less serious one  is that if you leave the clothes in the dryer after it is done, the clothes wrinkle.  Then you have to iron them. That’s no big deal for me because I love to iron but most clothes these days don’t need ironing if you get them out of the dryer shortly after it does go off.  In fact, I love to iron clothes so much and rarely have the chance to do so you can bring your wrinkled clothes to me and I will iron them and talk to you at the same time!  Amazing, I know.

The more serious reason that I should not leave the dryer running is that it can catch fire and burn the house down. This I would not enjoy. We know someone who had their house burn down from a dryer fire, and we ourselves had the lint in a poorly designed lint filter catch fire.  Fortunately all it did was burn up the wiring inside the dryer which meant we had to get a new one which was OK because we hated the old dryer about as much as I hate my color printer which is clicking and groaning and burping right now and telling me it needs more expensive color cartridges when I just replaced them. Excuse me while I throw my color printer out of a second story window.

All done. I feel better now. Anyhow, I came back to my running dryer after about three hours of supporting the local economy and found that it had not burned anything, including itself, up and that it was still running after three hours.  That was because the clothes were not dry. The dry clothes fairies that live inside the dryer had noticed that the clothes were not yet dry and had not used their magic dry clothes fairy powers to shut the dryer off and wrinkle the clothes.  The clothes were wet because the dryer wasn’t heating up. So it wasn’t a dryer. It was a spinner and a darned fine one at that. I guess it would have eventually dried the clothes by spinning them but that would have taken billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity and ruined our planet forever. And I would have been responsible.  Glad I didn’t hit that last bookstore. Sometimes you just get lucky.

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.069 Tons

Readers of a certain age may remember a song called “Sixteen Tons” which went to number one on the Billboard charts in 1955 in a version by Tennessee Ernie Ford (readers of a certain age may remember him). I always thought the song was written by Merle Travis (inventor of “Travis picking” on the guitar, a finger style way of playing) who recorded and released the song in 1947, but George S. Davis, a folk singer and songwriter who had been a Kentucky coal miner, claimed on a 1966 recording for Folkways Records to have written the song as “Nine-to-ten tons” in the 1930s.

I was thinking of this song when, as part of my insulating the attic project (see yesterday’s blog, “Hot, Hot, Hot”), I decided to take down all but last seven years of tax return records. We moved into the house in 1988 and I think the earliest records date to 1981.  There might be earlier ones buried beneath the others. I found it interesting that the assorted documentation associated with a tax return first fit into a shoe box, then a Girl Scout cookie box, and then a letter-sized storage box.  That’s what I used last year, and I think I’m going to have to go to a legal-sized storage box this year.

Of course, I just can’t put tax records out with the other recycling: they need to be shredded or otherwise properly disposed of.  We have a pretty good crosscut shredder, but it is an arduous process to shred thousands of checks (they used to be sent back with your monthly bank statement). My father (who I wrote about last week in Bring Him Home”) is staying with us in between a stay in Manassas Rehab Center after an illness which put him in the hospital and a place in about a month at Caton Merchant House assisted living.  He wanted something useful to do so he offered to shred the contents of as many boxes as he could until he moved to CMH. I took him up on his offer and he’s done about three boxes in two days.

I investigated what it would cost to have the documents shredded by a company and the answer was about a dollar a pound. I weighed all the boxes and they came to 138 pounds (or .069 tons).  I told my father I would pay him a dollar a pound to shred and he said he wanted time and a half for overtime. We are now conducting contract negotiations.I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Hot, Hot, Hot, or, Great Idea #453

One of my favorite “new” Christmas movies is The Polar Express, with Tom Hanks voicing several characters and lending his facial features to the conductor of the magical train. I had never read the children’s book by the same name, but had seen the beautiful artwork that graced the cover.
Once I had seen the movie and read the book, I found both charming in a one sense but also dark and disturbing in another.  Most of the characters appear distorted and many of them menacing, so the story is not exactly “The Night Before Christmas.” (Quick note: I am not” jumping the season” like many retailers, although I should note that Target (I think) had Christmas presents and decorations on display of September 1. This post does pertain to the present time of year, as I hope you will see.)
The Polar Express has an outstanding soundtrack, with some songs by Alvin Silvestri, including my new favorite “new” Christmas song, “Believe,” sung by Josh Groban. One other standout is a cartoonized SteveTyler singing “rockin’ on Top of the World,” complete with elves and choreography. The rest of the music, once the kids reach the North Pole, consist of Christmas “standards” by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Dean Martin.
The connection with the present time comes with the song “Hot, Hot, Hot” which is sung by the Hanks character and waiters on the train as they dance and fly down the aisle while hot chocolate arcs in glorious streams through the air to land in waiting cups.  The children appear to be either amazed or terrified by this spectacle(there is sometimes a thin line between the two).  Here are the lyrics to the song:
[bass solo]
Hot! Hot! Ooh, we got it! Hot! Hot! Hey, we got it! Hot! Hot! Say, we got it! Hot chocolate!
Hot! Hot! Oh, we got it! Hot! Hot! So, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yo, we got it! Hot chocolate!
Here, we’ve only got one rule: Never ever let it cool! Keep it cookin in the pot, You’ve got-
Hot choc-o-lat!
Hot! Hot! Ooh, we got it! Hot! Hot! Hey, we got it! Hot! Hot! Say, we got it! Hot chocolate!
Hot! Hot! Oh, we got it! Hot! Hot! So, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yo, we got it! Hot chocolate!
Here, we only got one rule: (Here, we only got one rule:) Never ever let it cool! (Never ever let it cool!) Keep it cookin in the pot, Soon, ya got hot choc-o-lat!
[drum solo]
Hot! Hot! Ooh, we got it! Hot! Hot! Hey, we got it! Hot! Hot! Say, we got it!Hot chocolate!
Hot! Hot! Oh, we got it! Hot! Hot! So, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yo, we got it! Hot chocolate!
                         
Here, we only got one rule: (Here, we only got one rule:)  Never ever let it cool! (Never ever let it cool!) Keep it cookin in the pot, Soon, ya got hot choc-o-lat!
Hot! Hot! Hey,  we got it! Hot! Hot!  Whoa, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot!
Whoa, we got it! Hot! Hot! Hey, we got it! Hot! Hot! Whoa, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot! Whoa, we got it!
[key change]
Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot! Whoa, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it! Hot! Hot! Whoa, we got it! Hot! Hot! Yeah, we got it!
[instrumental solo]
Hot chocolate!
You might be wondering what this song has to do with anything, particularly since it is a Christmas song and it is now late September. The connection is that I’ve been singing it while I add insulation to my attic. The reason I’m singing it is that the temperature in an attic on an 80 degree day is above 110 degrees. I could wait for cooler weather, but where’s the fun in that? In order to not itch to death from the fiberglass in the insulation I wear jeans, socks, old shoes, a nylon jacket, goggles, a mask, a hard hat and surgical gloves.  So it’s very hot. But I’m increasing the R-vale of insulation in the attic to about 6 so next winter the gas company will pay me. So I’m not now.  In only ten years my heat savings will pay for the 26 bundles of insulaton I bought. Now that’s hot!

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Death of a Cat

Death of a Cat
I originally wrote this in late July of 2010 as one of my columns for theNews and Messenger  I had titled it “Death of a Cat..” The headline changed to head line to “Writers and thet  Cats.” More than one person told me how surprised they were to find out what the writing was really about.
There’s a special relationship between writers and cats, although having a cat doesn’t make one a writer any more than owning  a baseball bat makes one a major leaguer. To this day, Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West has about 60 cats, some of them with extra toes. We have always had at least one cat since we set up housekeeping nearly 37 years ago.  They have been a succession of domestic short hairs with the exception of the first one, Poco, a fiery-tempered Siamese who was a little too much for us. They had, by and large, a succession of names ending in “O,” and most of those names pertained to music. There was Mickey, Gizmo, Alamo, Largo, Arco and the current two, Nacho and Trio.  

 I should say the current one since Trio, a grand dame of a calico, passed on this week. She was about a month over twenty-one years, which made her roughly 106 in human terms. She had a good life and a long one. There was no question who the alpha cat was when she was in the house. She was low-maintenance in a cat sort of way, visiting us and climbing on Becky’s lap as she grew older.  Her coat and eyes were bright right up until the very end.

Even late in life when she was deaf and apparently arthritic although she was capable of jumping to the top of a six-foot-fence from a sitting position. The two cats intertwined themselves in our lives, begging for scraps from the table, sleeping on our bed (or anywhere else they wanted), sitting by patiently as we read or wrote or played the piano or watched television.
She was sent on her way as most older pets are, by a rather sudden kidney failure. We had been out of town for several days, with a relative and friend to look in on our cats in our absence. Our friend called to say she could not find Trio on Thursday and that she seemed to be ill. Our nephew Josh came over that evening and found her.  She appeared to be all right.  When we got home the next day, she was weak and barely able to stand. We took her to Prince William Animal Hospital, where Dr. Teresa Brown and her colleagues and staff have taken wonderful care of our cats as long as we’ve had them. Dr. Brown made the diagnosis of kidney failure and started us on a course of treatment. Trio revived somewhat but not enough. She lasted one more day.

  Up until the end she loved to lie in the sun in the back yard, even on the hottest days.

People who have faithful pets know the pain of loss when one dies. We tell ourselves it’s just an animal, but that thought cannot assuage the real grief we feel on their passing. Knowing that we have given them a good and comfortable life, particularly if they are a rescue animal, lessens our sorrow somewhat. I’ve noticed the phenomenon I’ve experienced with deaths of people, of expecting to see them in familiar places.  In this case, I expect to see a calico cat in the warmest (or coolest) place in the house or calling for food or begging from the table.
I believe we all have our roles to play in life.  Trio’s role was to be a constant presence, a bundle of  idiosyncrasies that cats are. She was a serious cat, and a good one.
Emily Dickinson had it right: “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” Into our lives that are filled with all kinds of activities and busy-ness come reminders of the basics: births, graduations, birthdays, holidays and deaths. We can learn much from cats, from how they patiently wait and watch, how they are faithful and undemanding.
As I was digging the hole for her grave, a song came into my mind, an unexpected song since it ce
lebrates the wonder of life. Maybe it was a reminder that life goes on in spite of loss.
           
All things bright and beautiful
            All creatures great and small
            All things wide and wonderful
            The Lord God made them all.
Good-bye, Trio. Rest in peace.

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The Wonders of the Cardboard Box

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a thought or idea or question that you believed was so original and thought-provoking that it would immediately occasion a raging discussion that would last for days or dissolve the conversation into rapt silence as your listeners sat there in awe, blinded by your brilliance. Well, I haven’t either, although I thought I had a winner a couple of weeks ago.
I had received a package from Amazon,com that day and it came in a cardboard box. As usual, it was carefully packed and the item arrived in excellent condition thanks to the little airbags companies are using now or the stupid styrofoam peanuts that are the instruments of Satan. You know what I’m talking about—they fall out of the box, they cling to each other through static electricity and they are totally useless for anything except for cushioning breakable objects.  That, I will grant you, they are very good at. One young woman told me that they are useful for filling in bottom of pots she puts plants in.  She uses less expensive potting soil that way/   But the usefulness of styrofoam peanuts pales in comparison to the extremely common and exceptionally useful corrugated cardboard box.
I wondered to myself if boxes were found all over the world in all cultures. I thought they might, and when I couldn’t find an answer on Google I asked Amy and her bf Chris while we were hacking lunch together one day. “Do you think that the cardboard box is universally known throughout all cultures of the world?” I asked, and they promptly looked at me as if I had jst  landed from another planet.
“Noooo…” they said slowly and almost in unison. “I would think that there are some third world cultures that have never seen a cardboard box,” ventured Chris.
“They’re more likely to be made from indigenous materials,” said Amy. “And they wouldn’t be very useful or durable in a wet climate.”
I had asked the question because somewhere in this piece I wanted to say that cardboard boxes are known universally, all over the world.  Now, thanks to my young friends, I have to say that they’re widely—but not universally–known and used by most people in many parts of the globe.
I suppose I like cardboard boxes because they are useful and wide-spread, but I also like them because I can make things from them with a precision and art that I can’t do with wood.  It’s just that cardboard creations, except among the experimental art community, are not considered art.  I have a lot of experience working with cardboard.  I used to make little airplanes out of cardboard and they would “fly” because I threw them much as a rock would. I made little houses and buildings for my HO railroad and they looked dilapidated (it was the best I could do at age 10), so I made a deserted village for my train to run through. I even made a cardboard aircraft carrier about a foot long that floated nicely until the cardboard became saturated and the boat sank.  My crowning failure was a cardboard model of an experimental Air Force predecessor of the Space Shuttle called the Dyna-Soar. I made a nice model of it, about a eight inches long, except I forgot the detail of gluing a piece of aluminum foil in back of the little rocket engine called a Jet-X  to prevent the assembly from catching fire from the hot exhaust. I took the model out one fine spring day to see how it flew. I lit the fuse to the engine, and when the fuel pellet caught, launched the Dyna-Soar into the air. It took off for the heavens like a scalded hog, but then the exhaust caught the plane on fire.  It flew along, burning merrily for awhile, and then the flames reached the glue which I had used to join the parts together.  This kind of glue is extremely combustible, even explosive under the right circumstances. The tiny ship exploded into a fireball that filled me with ambivalence.  On one hand I was sad to see many hours’ work go up in flame; on the other, it was a cool explosion. As ashes from the craft drifted slowly downward, my mother looked up from the flower bed she was weeding. “What was that?” she asked. “Oh, just a little science experiment,” I answered and went back into the house.
That was pretty much the end of my cardboard builder’s career until a few years ago when a children’s musical production at our church needed an ark. I was asked to build one, and, short on gopher wood, built one out of—you guessed it—cardboard.  It was about ten feet long and looked like a ten-foot-long ark.  It might still be in a closet somewhere. Some members of the choir went down to look at it one night after rehearsal, and even Bob Wine, master cabinet maker, said it looked like it was made of wood. Of course, he was at the back of the sanctuary looking at my creation in poor light while squinting, but I’ll take any compliment I can.

So can cardboard.  The humble box made of layers of paper might not be much to look at, but try to imagine the world without it. I wouldn’t want to.

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