Saturday, January 29, 2005


Well, here's a fun way to start a dreary Saturday.

Find out how much time you have left.


Friday, January 28, 2005

Endless Loop

Don't you hate it when you can't get a song out of your head? I've been bugged by one for the last couple of months. I finally get through a few days without it floating in from left field and then whammo, there it is again.

A couple of months ago, brother David steered me to a singer, new to me, named Cheryl Wheeler. She reminds me a lot of Mary Chapin-Carpenter (who seems to have forgotten how to write good songs since she got a husband). Cheryl Wheeler writes moving ballads and she writes comedic songs. One of the latter is the culprit. It's called Potato, set to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance, and the chorus consists entirely of the word "potato". The whole point of the chorus is to have each line end on a different syllable of the word and the last line ending properly on "to(e)". I can sing along with the CD with no problem. But let me try to sing it by myself and I cannot get the darned lines to come out on the right syllable. It sticks in my head and I endlessly try to start and end in the right place. Something of a tongue, or in this case a mind, twister.

Do you ever consider how many of our brain cells are tied up with this kind of pointless junk? I can't remember what I had to eat yesterday for lunch, but I can remember all the words to a stupid kid song, 40 years afterwards.

Great big gobs of greasy, grimey gopher guts,
Mutilated monkey meat,
Tiny little birdies' feet.
Eyeballs, eyeballs rolling all around the sink,
And me without my spoon!

Real valuable stuff taking up the memory circuits.

Do you ever think as the hearse goes by
That you could be the next to die?
They wrap you up in a clean, white sheet
And put you under about six feet.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout...

And let's not even go anywhere near I Found a Peanut.

Back in the dark ages, a.k.a. my childhood, we had a 45 rpm record that had a collection of great kid songs. How I wish I could find a mint condition copy of that record. One of my favorites was The School Cafeteria:

I've eaten in all of the diners, in hamburger places as well.
I've eaten in restaurants and drugstores alike
And some were the best in the town.
The last one's our school cafeteria; so nice, so clean, so neat.
But you'll wonder that we are still living
When you hear what they give us to eat:
On Monday we have bread and gravy,
On Tuesday it's gravy and bread.
On Wednesday and Thursday it's gravy and toast,
Which is nothing but gravy and bread.
On that day we went to the principal
and asked for something instead.
So on Friday, for lunch, and by way of a change.....
We had gravy without any bread!

Somebody stop me. I can do this all day. And come to think of it, maybe if I start remembering those old kid songs I can push Potato to the background and out of mind. At least for awhile.

There's a hole, there's a hole, there's a hole at the bottom of the sea....


Saturday, January 22, 2005

Time Travel

I am a recent convert to audiobooks. My daily commute to work is almost an hour each way and I’ve been making that round trip for 28 years. I cannot abide the glop that passes for commercial radio these days and even though I really enjoy the folks on National Public Radio, you can get tired of them from time to time. I have an extensive collection of music, ranging from classical to new age to bluegrass which has sustained me in the past, but when I’m stressed any flavor of music can grate on my nerves. And this has been a stressful year.

Awhile back I found a bargain on EBAY when a seller listed a complete set of the Harry Potter books on CD. The fifth book was due to come out during that summer and I thought it would be nice to refresh my memory of where the story had left off before I read the new one. The Harry Potter audiobooks are particularly well done and I enjoyed listening to them very much, for 2 hours a day for several weeks. But audiobooks are expensive, so I considered it a special case and didn’t think about buying more.

And then sometime last year I impulsively bought a Nero Wolfe mystery book on CD. And thoroughly enjoyed my commute time that week. The light finally dawned. I could relieve the boredom of 2 hours in the car every day and get some fiction in my literary diet as well. My reading time lately has been restricted to research, history and genealogy. I really missed reading the occasional mystery or best-selling novel. And that’s how it started.

Audiobooks are still expensive, but where there’s EBAY there’s a way. I have steadily built up a collection of audiobooks and have “read” books that have been sitting unread on my shelves in printed form for a year or more. I now routinely stop by Half-Price Books to check for used audiobooks and check the discount bookstores at the outlet mall in San Marcos. I’ve discovered some new authors that I like because their audiobooks were discounted to a few dollars at these stores.

And I’ve rediscovered some old friends. Yesterday I finished A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle, one of my favorite books as a child. How nice to discover that the writing was every bit as good as I remembered. I’ve finally “read” the Winnie the Pooh books that somehow slipped by me in my early days. I’ve refreshed my love of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, the dysfunctional family novels of Anne Tyler and the Navajo detective stories of Tony Hillerman. I’m thinking of tackling some classics that I never got around to.

Commute time is no longer boring. The time is passing quickly these days. I find myself sitting a few more minutes in the car to hear the end of a chapter and having to restrain myself from taking the CDs in over the weekend to finish listening to a particularly exciting story. To escape the stresses of my life by traveling for a few minutes every day to another time and place has been wonderful.

My next airplane trip (coming up in April) will include my new Walkman and a long book on tape. I don’t like flying and I’m hoping a good mystery will take my mind off my fears and speed up that 3 hours. I’m even thinking of taking a book along with me for that weekly trip to the grocery store that I dread so much. Books of fiction were always my escape and I’ve missed them. How wonderful to have good stories to look forward to again.

Audiobooks are like printed books. There’s good ones and bad ones. A lot of books on tape are abridged. Avoid them like poison because you miss a lot of good stuff. A good narrator is a delight. Jim Dale has a hundred different voices for the characters in the Harry Potter stories and makes them come alive in your mind. Likewise George Guidall who reads most of the Tony Hillerman novels. One of the best books I’ve heard is The Red Tent, narrated by Carol Bilger, and I highly recommend it (in print or audio) to any woman. Garrison Keillor narrates his own novels and is always enjoyable. Romance novels are hard to take. If you think the flowery, erotic prose is somewhat comical to read, wait until you hear it spoken. It’s hard not to burst out laughing.

I certainly hope more people discover audiobooks. The major drawback at this point is the elevated price when compared to their printed counterparts. Perhaps if the volume sold increases, the cost may fall. When I can buy the audio book for the same price as the printed version, I will feel a little less taken advantage of. Which reminds me; it’s time to go check EBAY for today’s new listings.


Thursday, January 20, 2005


While idly cruising around EBAY yesterday, for some reason I tried the keyword “shorthand”. It was quite a surprise just how many items involving shorthand were listed for sale, including a rare copy of Alice in Wonderland, published entirely in Gregg Shorthand. I pondered whether I would remember enough of my shorthand to be able to read the book.

Somewhere in the dusty annals of the University of Texas Interscholastic League, there is recorded a time in 1972 when I was State Champion in the disappearing art of shorthand. Granted I was State Champion in Class B competition, but my score rivaled and even bested the scores of many of the first place contestants from larger school districts, so I make no apologies. It was the first time a student at Smiley High School had placed first in State competition. Of course, thirty years later, I may be the only one who remembers that.

How times have changed. Many nights I sit working on a laptop computer, propped up in bed, connected wirelessly to my main computer downstairs. At the office everyone works on a computer now. There may be one electric typewriter left on site, tucked away in some remote corner. When I took my first typing course in 1970, I learned on a manual Underwood executive typewriter. Many of the kids I work with now have probably never touched a manual typewriter in their lives. Heck, they may not have even used an electric typewriter. I doubt they would be able to comprehend the need to monitor the right edge of the page in order to throw the carriage back to the left to start the next line.

Poor kids. I think they’ve missed something. I enjoyed those old typewriters. I didn’t enjoy the carbon packs and the necessity of correcting an error through multiple copies. But the rhythm you developed learning to type without jamming the keys was quite satisfying. My best speed on a five minute test on that old Underwood was 72 words per minute. Believe me, that’s nothing to sneeze at. We still hire folks who can barely type 50 words per minute on a computer keyboard with no reason to worry about where the words are going to fall on the page and where common typographical errors are automatically corrected as you type. (As long as I’m patting myself on the back, I once clocked 128 words per minute on a computer keyboard. Take that, you young whippersnappers!)

I think I knew then that I would be spending my working years at a desk pushing paper. I planned to get my business degree, work a couple of years as a secretary to get something on my resume and then decide where to head from there. With that plan in mind, I and a few other Senior girls talked the school into offering a shorthand class. There had been little interest in the subject and it had been dropped from the curriculum for several years. But our business teacher/principal, was agreeable and about nine of us signed up. I took to shorthand like a duck to water.

It was fun knowing a language that few others in school could comprehend. We could write notes to each other and blithely inform our teachers that we were taking notes from their lectures and practicing our shorthand at the same time. Who would know otherwise? One of the girls did get caught in her lie once. I think the giggling gave her away. She had been writing some kind of sappy observations about the cute young history teacher. When he challenged her, she airily informed him she was taking notes. He casually lifted her tablet and then stated his intention of checking with the business teacher to see if her story was on the level. She turned about 8 shades of red and nearly died on the spot. He took pity on her and gave the tablet back. I don’t think she tried that again.

It was not my intention to compete in shorthand at the U.I.L. meet, but since I was such an over-achiever I’m sure it was easy to talk me into it. Our teacher had taken another girl to State competition many years before, and he thought I had a good chance of winning. I was more interested in the Ready Writing composition category, but the two competitions did not conflict, so I was game. I had no problem taking first place in the District competition, and also placed in Ready Writing. Next stop was the Regional Meet.

Now I had a problem. I had qualified to compete in both events at Regional. But they were conflicting events, so I had to choose which one to pursue. I decided that Ready Writing was such a subjective competition that I would have a better chance to place in Shorthand. Plus I had a real feeling that my teacher would be crushed if I decided otherwise. So the decision was made and we headed to Blinn College in Brenham.

I expected to place, but I truly was surprised to take first at Regional. Holy cow, I was going to have to compete on the State level. That was not something I had really wanted to do. But now there was no avoiding it.

I was a Senior at a very, very small school in south central Texas. State competition was held on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Light years removed from my natural environment. I knew for a fact that I was in the wrong place when I sat down with the other girls for the dictation portion of the contest. I was competing on the Class B level, but the winners from all classes were taking the same test at the same time. We Class B girls felt like hicks alongside the girls from the larger schools.

The competition was a blur and I was relieved when it was over. I knew I had lost, but that was okay. I just wanted it over. My only regret was that my teacher would be disappointed in my failure.

My parents and I left for awhile to give me a break. We visited a brand new shopping mall in town called Highland Mall (now one of the oldest malls in town). I would have been glad to just head back to Smiley, but we were obligated to go back and find out the test results. I can remember getting back just before the awards were scheduled to be given. My teacher was standing in the hall waiting for us, with a glum expression on his face. Well I wasn’t surprised. But a few minutes later I was floored. My stern, unflappable, distant teacher had grabbed me in a crushing bear hug. It took awhile for it to sink in, I was so stunned at his behavior. I had pulled it off after all. The first State Champion from Smiley High School.

In my closet, high on the wall, hangs a plaque in the shape of a shield. It’s my proof that once upon a time, I was at the top of the heap. I actually got to use my Shorthand skills for a few years. As a Senior in college, I took a refresher course to prepare me for my upcoming job hunt. I even managed to push my speed up a few notches. As I began work as a secretary, I used it daily for about three years, even though some of the secretaries were beginning to rely on the dictaphone. By the time I moved out of secretarial work, the dictaphone was an accepted tool and shorthand was no longer a requirement for a secretarial applicant. Shorthand has since virtually disappeared from use. Only we old-timers still take an odd note here and there in those funny little squiggles that only a select few can read. I still use it occasionally at boring meetings to entertain myself by making disparaging observations about the proceedings. I’m pretty sure that no one else there will know what I’m really thinking.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Feeling Peevish Again

I made the mistake of hitting the grocery store near my office at lunch. I should have my head examined. Or I should just go down to the parking garage and beat my head against the brick wall for awhile. It would be less frustrating.

The Northwest Hills section of Austin has its own particular weirdness on display. This is not the kind of weird that we aging hippie types promote with our "Keep Austin Weird" T-shirts and bumperstickers. Northwest Hills is full of well-to-do (usually old money) types. This means teenagers driving Mercedes and little old grey-haired ladies behind the wheels of their block-long Cadillacs. And in between are the 2nd generation Northwest Hills citizens who are in their 30s and 40s driving SUVs and the occasional Hummer. This whole segment of the Austin populace is moving in its own little fogged sense of reality. And this reality is called "I'm entitled". Or maybe "Just call me Sun, because I'm the center of the universe."

It is really strange. Every last one of them thinks that nothing is more important in the entire world than whatever it is that they are doing at this precise minute. They are totally oblivious to the possibility that anyone else may not recognize their manifest destiny to be numero uno. If you can keep your sense of humor and restrain yourself from snatching them bald-headed, it's pretty funny.

A couple of weeks ago I ran up the hill to a local bakery to pick up a sandwich and cup of soup for my lunch. Should have been a 10 minute errand. But this is Northwest Hills. Mrs. Society Mom was ahead of me in line. First she gave her initial order. Then she proceeded to taste all of the samples on display, chewing slowly to savor each bite. Then she added more to her order already in progress. Meanwhile the line was building behind me. Of course she had questions about some of the items she was tasting. Which, by the way, she didn't buy. At long last, she moved on to the checkout register and allowed someone else, namely me, to place an order. Two minutes later and I was headed to the register myself. There she was, still adding more to her order. And then she had to root through her purse for her credit cards, spreading most of the contents of her purse out on the counter. Meanwhile, in an effort to speed things along, one of the clerks starting taking drink orders from those poor souls standing behind her shifting from one foot to the other. Finally she actually signed the credit slip and spent another few minutes putting everything back into its correct spot in her purse. At this point, you figure there's not much more she can do to stall. Ha. She begins to pick up cutlery, lemons, condiments, etc., asked for a sack to put all of this stuff in and spends more time getting all the stuff put into the bag. You would think she would move over a little and let someone check out while she's fussing with her stuff, but that would be against the rules of Northwest Hills CenteroftheUniversitis. She did finally make it out the door, with the rest of the line moving at a fast clip behind her. Yay, we escaped! Surely you jest. It took her another eternity to get her danged car backed out and moved enough that anyone else could leave. This is how a fast lunch plan becomes your entire lunch hour. This is life in Northwest Hills.

Today's trip to the grocery store was not unusual. The aisles were full of grey-haired folks visiting like they are at the country club. They are so wrapped up in their conversations that most do not notice (nor would they care if they did) that they have blocked traffic to everyone in the aisle and everyone attempting to enter or exit the aisle. If they are really good at CenteroftheUniversitis, they will manage to block the cross aisle, too. They finish their conversation or one dies of old age before they will move on. You can just stand there and watch your cart rust, for all they care. You learn to play demolition grocery carts to survive a shopping expedition. "Oops, sorry. Can I help you up?"

I managed to grab my 2 boxes of cereal and quart of milk and make it to the express line marked "10 items or less". Directly ahead of me in line was Mrs. Society Mom's best friend. I stopped counting her items on the belt when I hit 25. As tempted as I was to inquire whether she had a reading disability or if she had some reason to believe that the sign didn't apply to her , I kept my mouth shut. Another case of NWH CenteroftheUniversitis. It's epidemic in that area bounded by RR 2222, Spicewood Springs, Balcones Drive and Mesa Drive.

You probably think I'm making this up. I invite you to come see for yourself. Just be sure you get your shots before you do.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Advertising works!

Companies I will never do business with because of their advertising campaigns:

1. Geico Insurance. Sure the little gecko ads were cute at first. But enough, already. They now serve the purpose of exercising my willpower limits. Someday I’m going to lose and there will be a shoe inside my television set.

2. Progressive Insurance. Face it. These ads are just downright annoying as hell. My whole body goes into a massive cringe every time I hear that guy go “NOOOOO!”.

3. Texan Eye Mart. For some time now they’ve run an ad in the Sunday newspaper that employs an extra half sheet attached to the color comics section. They’ve finally made this a perforated sheet that can be easily torn off, but many years of removing the thing weekly have built up an tremendous level of ill feeling toward the company.

4. Likewise, the Stanley Steamer carpet cleaning service that for some time ran an ad on a half-sheet wrap around on the Sunday TV magazine.

5. Sylvan Learning Centers. Now granted I don’t have kids, so it’s not a company I would be doing business with anyway. But the level of schmaltz that gets forced down your throat when you’re too lazy to reach for the remote is as effective as a dose of ipecac. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is also guilty of this technique, but I cut them some slack because of the tremendous contributions they make to genealogists. (I’m not above making concessions when it’s to my advantage.)

I know the theory is that we will remember the name and forget the ads when we are out there shopping around. That’s probably true to some extent. (I’m sure I’ve voted for politicians I would have no use for if I knew anything other than I had heard their name before when I had never heard of their opponent.) However, sometimes advertising works to make me remember who I’m never going to call, simply because they’ve annoyed me to the point of seeking vengeance in any small way I can manage.

One positive aspect of these ads is that my right hand dexterity is in pretty good shape – at least the finger that operates the surf button on my remote and my ability to rip the flaps off the newspaper and score 2 points when I throw them at the trashcan.

Now back to our program, already in progress.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Shades of Light & Dark

Previously, on Woolgathering. The year 1963 was a dark grey splotch on my personal history. The summer events of 1963 were covered in the previous essay. The later part of 1963 saw the first defining moment of my generation – the assassination of President Kennedy. (Yes, I remember very well where I was when the news came. Our 4th grade class had just received our new Weekly Reader and I was reading an article on the Pennsylvania Dutch.)

Now let us explore some of the events leading up to the summer of 1963.

We moved frequently from the time I was born until I was nine-years-old, as my father received calls from various churches through south and central Texas. We were living in Sutherland Springs when I was born, but I only called it home for a short while. From there we spent some time living in the back yard apartment belonging to my great-aunt Fay on Springdale Road in Austin while my father ministered to a mission church in north Austin. Our next move was to Manchaca, just south of Austin and from there we went to San Gabriel in Milam County. After San Gabriel we lived for a couple of years in Oak Hill on the outskirts of Austin, where I spent the first two years of my school career. After Oak Hill, we lived for 13 months in Victoria. Smiley came next and we stayed put for the longest period of time in my father’s career—9 years. Until then we had averaged about two and a half years at each church.

Victoria has the dubious distinction of being the shortest period of time we spent anywhere. The church was a fledgling congregation just trying to get its collective feet off the ground. It did not take long to see that it was a losing battle and that we needed to seek greener pastures quickly. The church just wasn’t able to support a minister’s family and on occasion we were literally digging pennies out of the furniture to meet expenses.

The year we spent in Victoria I was in third grade. I had had a good start to my education in the first grade with Mrs. Tillman in Oak Hill. I didn’t have a decent teacher after that until we reached Smiley and I started fourth grade. My third grade experiences at William Offer Elementary in Victoria were, for the most part, unmemorable.

My teacher had an unusual teaching style. She divided the class into 3 levels and worked with one group at a time on reading while the remaining students worked lessons written on the blackboard. I honestly cannot remember one thing I learned from that woman. Any ground I gained that year in anything but reading was self-taught. We never learned one thing about cursive writing the entire year, which was a standard skill to be mastered by third graders across the State. (I ended up teaching myself when I got to fourth grade, since that subject had been covered thoroughly by my fellow students in Smiley the previous year.) I was fortunate to be a self-learner since we spent most of the year performing work on what was essentially second-grade level, which put me at something of a disadvantage all the way around the next year in a new school.

I was a smart kid and I guess I knew I was getting a lousy third grade education. To add insult to injury, the woman consistently pronounced my name wrong. Hearing “Lucindy” made me cringe every time and I was too in awe of authority figures to correct her. Fortunately at the first PTA meeting, my mother was able to set her straight and relieve at least one of my many stresses that year.

I normally have a great internal sense of direction, but there are times when I get a mental block about particular locations. The entire William Offer elementary school was in my blind spot. Every morning the kids were expected to line up in their classroom groups on the covered walkway and wait for a signal to go to class. I was never able to find my group and mornings became pure torture as I would arrive and helplessly cast about for my proper place. Eventually I found that I could arrive just a little late and go directly to my classroom. That I could find. Something about that faceless crowd out front had me stymied.

Once I gave myself an anxiety attack and ended up being sent home. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea which locker in the back of the room I had put my things in that morning. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt and ultimately I became genuinely sick with worry. A nine-year-old budding control freak can’t rationalize that all one had to do was go back and start opening lockers until you stumbled across the right one.

I was probably one of the few students that year that got an unscheduled visit with the cafeteria workers. Of course it was a major embarrassment, hardly an honor. I had perched on the edge of the slide, talking with a group of girl friends. It had rained the night before and there was a nice little puddle in the bottom part of the slide, so no one was able to play on it. Some boy, probably trying to get my attention, ran past and pushed me into the puddle, soaking the front of my dress. I spent the next hour sitting in the kitchen with my dress spread across an oven door to dry. I, who loathed bringing attention to myself. What a nightmare.

Even Christmas brought misery. We had little money that year, but we had managed a teacher gift of a set of sachets. I was quite happy to put my package under the tree, but when time came for the teacher to open her presents my gift was nowhere to be found. I was very upset, but by that time I was beginning to accept that things were just not going to go my way at this school. (No one ever figured out what exactly happened, but sometime during the spring that package mysteriously turned up in the teacher’s desk drawer. Perhaps someone’s guilty conscience or maybe it had fallen under a piece of furniture and the cleaning people finally found it.)

One thing that didn’t upset me would have had I any idea what was going on. The Cuban Missile Crisis played out during that school year. We third-graders didn’t have a clue how serious world affairs had become. My only memories of that period involve a couple of drills that involved the students walking home in the middle of the day. Shoot, anything that got me out of that school was cause for celebration. Thankfully, I was totally oblivious to the reasons why.

While things at school were pretty much awful, there are some pleasant memories from that year. We lived in a rental house on a tree-shaded street and most of the houses on that street had children. The street had little traffic except for the kids playing up and down, visiting each other’s yards. I was especially close to the girl next door who was one year behind me in school. We shifted back and forth between yards and houses and had a grand time. Her father had installed a true playground quality swing set in their backyard for his two girls and we spent many an hour swaying to and fro.

I learned to ride a bicycle thanks to Beverly’s mother. My mother spent that year fighting a chronic strep infection and was not the most athletic type at her best times. My father was seldom home. My friend’s mother wanted me to be able to ride like the other kids on the street and spent one afternoon trotting behind me on Beverly’s bike while I mastered the necessary balance to ride on my own. I’ll never forget that she gave me her time to teach me something I came to love for many years afterward. She also fed me many grilled cheese sandwiches and made me feel welcome in her home. That meant a lot to a shy kid who generally felt out of place wherever she went.

Beverly’s older sister Glenda introduced me to the Trixie Belden girl detective books, providing me with hours of blissful reading. She also owned the first Barbie doll I had ever seen. We were sometimes granted the privilege of playing with her dolls and her array of doll-sized appliances, which probably began my love of miniatures and dollhouses.

On frequent occasions all the kids on the block would gather in one yard and take turns presenting entertainments for the others. We sang, we danced, we performed tricks, we repeated half-remembered scraps of the television shows we had seen. We were truly awful, but we had marvelous fun and we never admitted those performances were anything but wonderful.

Our time in Victoria was short and stressful. We made our escape to Smiley after 13 months. Sometimes I wonder how different our lives might have been if we had not answered that call to Victoria. Perhaps those 13 months were necessary in order for us to find our way to Smiley and relative happiness for 9 years. I think fondly of my time playing on Alcoa Drive and try hard to forget the rest.

My world was generally a gray place in Victoria. But I learned that even in the dark times, you occasionally find a ray of sunshine to enjoy, however briefly. I learned to ride a bike. I made a good friend. I discovered some new interests that stayed with me. After awhile the rest didn’t matter so much.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Summer 1963

Last week’s essay “Musical Chairs” reminded me of another story from a funeral where I served as musician. Which reminded me of another funeral, which reminded me of another time in my life. So join me as we journey back to the summer of 1963 and a visit to Gladewater, Texas. A time that I pretty much blot out of memory, save for rare occasions like this.

I was a fearful child.

I don’t really know where it came from, but I always anticipated the worst case scenario. Some came from past experiences. One flat tire on a trip and I would fearfully await the inevitable flat tire on the next trip. Never mind that the flats we suffered were few and far between. I was convinced that only my vigilant worry was what protected us on the uneventful trips. Woe be to us if I forgot to worry about what might happen and leave the door open to a vengeful fate.

As each new family misfortune transpired, my list of responsible worries grew. I can remember feverishly enumerating every possible relative in my nightly prayers for fear that something would happen to the unfortunate soul I forgot to name. Needless to say, I lived in a state of almost continual stomach upset for several years.

My parents were not very sympathetic or helpful about my concerns. My worry was met primarily with impatience and irritability. And sometimes with secrecy when they knew I would over-react. Which only compounded the problem. After a couple of instances where I had been told we were going to visit my grandparents or other relatives (true), but not told that our first stop would be at the doctor’s office for shots, I learned quickly that I could trust no one – not even my own parents.

So I learned to be a listener. Thanks to good hearing and a nose for sniffing out conspiracy in the wind, I usually had a fair idea when something was up. I also learned to keep my mouth shut. If those around you didn’t realize you were catching on to the subliminal conversations in the next room, they kept talking. Not much of any importance slipped past me.

Which was why in the summer of 1963, my health began to suffer. That was the end of a miserable year spent in Victoria, Texas. My father had accepted a pastorate at a small church and money was tight. My mother was suffering with a chronic strep infection. I hated my teacher. All in all, everyone in the house was unhappy and Little Miss Worrywart started to lose weight and look pale.

My parents began to actively pursue a new church, which added more stress. To help reduce their load, they arranged for me to visit my paternal grandparents for a couple of weeks and hopefully get me “fattened up” and put the bloom back into my cheeks. Off I headed to Gladewater and the watchful eye of my grandmother. In some respects, their plan worked. I did gain weight (hard not to when your grandmother pours ice cream and sodas down you on a daily basis). However, it did nothing to alleviate my tendency toward perpetual worry.

In my parents’ defense, they did intend for the visit to be 2 weeks. But the search for a new church began to show promise and they were tied up traveling around visiting different congregations in view of a call. Who knew that the visit with Grandma and Grandpa would stretch into 6 weeks? Or what kind of events I would be exposed to in those 6 weeks.

Placing a 9-year-old, timid child in the care of two sixty-somethings has some inherent risks. My grandparents lived in a neighborhood of older people and I had no contact with other children for the duration. Except possibly at church. I have no memories of attending church or Sunday School while staying there, but my grandmother was a staunch Baptist so I’m sure I did. But I was pretty much left to entertain myself much of the time. I had my family of dolls with me and their “house” was set up in the corner of a spare bedroom. My aunt took me to the library several times to feed my reading habit. I assisted at a wedding shower for one of my aunt’s friends. And I accompanied my grandmother on her errands about town.

Two of these errands stand out in vivid memory. The first involved a visit to the home of a black lady who sometimes worked for my grandmother. She had been around quite a bit that summer, helping in the canning of an enormous amount of tomatoes. Canning tomatoes in a hot East Texas kitchen with no air-conditioner is an experience in itself. But I especially remember our visit to the lady’s home.

East Texas in the early 1960s was a place where blacks were treated as considerably less than equal. I believe I waited in the car while my grandmother visited in the front yard. At one point I remember her inquiring of a surly black boy about the bandage on his foot. I forget what he said, but his mother sharply reprimanded him for his conduct toward “Miz Wilcoxen”. He grudgingly responded as his mother saw fit, but it was the first time I had ever witnessed the underlying hostility between the two races. I wanted out of there in the worst way, even though I was aware that his mother would not have stood for any disrespect toward her employer.

Another errand of my grandmother’s had a much deeper, longer impact on my childhood psyche. My grandmother had the typical older person’s fascination with death and the accompanying rituals. It was my misfortune to be around when a teenaged boy of her acquaintance was tragically killed in a car crash. Until this point in my life, I had never been exposed to the death of a human being. My grandmother felt obliged to go to the funeral home and view the body, dragging my reluctant little body along with her. My half-hearted attempt to remain in the car was naturally deemed unacceptable. (I was in her care, after all, and heaven only knows what would have happened to me left unattended.) Now why I was not allowed to sit quietly in the funeral home’s front parlor, I have no idea. But along I went into the viewing room to be faced with the first lifeless body I had ever seen.

In my self-protecting way, I hugged the back wall of the room and tried not to look toward the casket. Not my grandmother. She had to stand over the casket and catalog every detail. A century or two later we finally made our departure and I thought I was safe. But no.. My aunt was also with us and my grandmother regaled her with how the undertakers had had to “rebuild” the body for viewing. My vivid imagination went to work overtime as she related how the car wreck had crushed his upper body and damaged his face, along with the other sundry details she had gleaned from talking to friends of the family. She was quite pleased with the accomplishments of the morticians, but I was aghast.

Those few moments in a funeral home and the trip home afterward marked me for months. I’m not sure how my mind put together the stresses of the day with nine years of religious teachings, but I was convinced the spirit of the boy was hovering around me. Why he should have been haunting me was irrelevant. He just was and I was petrified. The first few days I could not bring myself to sit calmly on anything that had an open area underneath. I guess I was afraid of what might grab my ankles. For months afterwards, I had to follow a ritual at bedtime that involved checking under the bed and in the closet. Don’t ask me what I would have done if I had actually seen something lurking in their dark recesses, but fortunately I never did.

(It was a very long time after that before I could be persuaded to attend a funeral and then only because there was a desperate need for a pianist and, more to the point, I would get paid for being there. As fate would have it, the funeral was at a little country church where the piano was on the dais and accessible only by climbing onto the platform very near the casket. That day I finally conquered my residual feelings from that early encounter with death. Partly because as an 16-year-old I was better able to understand that the body no longer contained the essence of the person. Partly because at some point during the funeral, a very large wasp nest fell out of the ceiling and bounced off my head. It was fortunately an empty nest, but I was momentarily stunned with the idea of how I was going to gracefully jump through the adjacent window without disrupting the service. The humor of the situation finally chased away any sense of uneasiness. I began to work regularly as a musician at funerals and never felt haunted again.)

Don’t think that my adventures in Gladewater ended there. I was to have yet another brush with death. Toward the end of my stay we attended a family get-together down the street at the home of my aunt’s in-laws. Again, I was a child in a forest of adults, but the hosts had a small dog and we became instant buddies. With the dog on a leash, I roamed around their large yard, quite content with the company I was keeping. My grandfather and a few of the men were at the far corner of the yard. My grandmother and the ladies were inside somewhere. I have no idea what caught the dog’s attentions, but he suddenly yanked the leash from my hands and ran toward the street.

This house sat at the end of Pacific Avenue, where there was an intersection with the main road into Gladewater, a road with consistently heavy traffic. In horror, I watched the dog head toward the traffic and what I knew would be certain death. I immediately plunged after the dog, running as fast as my legs could go. I’m not sure whether I was more concerned for the dog or for what would be my shame to bear if the dog were hurt or killed. But motivation and adrenaline can do wonders and I was overtaking the dog just as he reached the edge of the road. With a desperate dive I managed to grab the end of the leash and keep him from running into the road. It was then I heard the squeal of brakes and realized how close I had come to diving underneath a car turning into Pacific Avenue.

Nonchalantly, though with heaving breath, I pulled myself to my feet and headed back to the house with the undamaged dog in tow. And realized that my grandfather had seen everything. In my way of taking the blame for everything, I figured I was in deep trouble for letting the dog get loose. As I approached my grandfather, he only said “dog get away from you?”. Nothing more. But I heard him telling my grandmother about it later on. I spent a miserable day or two expecting to have the riot act read to me, but nothing came from it. So I figured they would wait and let my parents do the honors. Never heard another word. It was several years before I had the nerve to ask my mother about it. She had no idea anything like that had happened. It had never occurred to me until then that my grandmother had probably been terrified that she would get blamed for letting me have enough free rein to pull such a fool stunt. She had probably done her own share of worrying about what the consequences would be when I got around to spilling the beans.

There did finally come the day when my parents were able to get to Gladewater to take me back home. When they arrived, my brother and I latched onto each other and pretty much ignored my parents for awhile. My Mother found this a source of great amusement. But both of us had suffered for the company of another child that summer and we were more than happy to see each other, even though we would undoubtedly be fighting again by the time we endured the 6 hour trip home. After that my parents were seldom able to talk me into spending even one night away from home if they weren’t with me. Fool me once maybe. No way you’ll get a second chance.


Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

Last night I caught myself laughing my butt off and thought it would be embarrassing to admit why. But then again, don't we all have our guilty pleasures that we would prefer to keep to ourselves? So in the spirit of confessing my shortcomings, here are a few of mine, in no particular order.

1. Several nights a week at 9PM I tune into the Family Channel for an hour's worth of Whose Line Is It Anyway? It's an American version of a show that originated in England and consists of improvisational comedy. Some regular spots I really can't stand, but invariably there comes a point in every show that I find myself cackling hysterically. The true stars of the show are Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie. I swear they could come center stage and just stand there and I would start laughing. They are two gifted comics. I sometimes wonder if they drive their families crazy with their antics or if they are mild-mannered in their real lives. All I know is they make me laugh and I need that on a regular basis.

2. I was late in discovering the author Janet Evanovich. She's enormously popular and I'm now one of her fans. She has a couple of series available, but my favorite is the Stephanie Plum books. The main character is a female bounty hunter in New Jersey. From her cop boyfriend to her uncontrollable grandmother to her plus-sized ex-prostitute assistant to the mysterious hunk and fellow bounty hunter Ranger, it's a fun ride from start to finish. The language tends to be a little coarse, but who notices when you're having such a good time following Stephanie's exploits. Give it at least 2 books to make up your mind whether or not to join in the fun. I read all 10 books in the series back to back in about a month's time. Can't wait for number 11 to hit the stores. In the meantime, I'm beginning to make my way through her other series.

3. At one time I read a lot of romance novels. It may not be the highest form of literature, but for light, quick reading they can fill the need nicely. You can pretty much depend on a happy ending(eventually) and after you've read a few you can pretty much pick up any romance novel at any point, start reading and never miss a thing of importance. Over the past few years, however, the genre has taken a turn to more and more graphic, hot sex and in my opinion has lost its charm. What ever happened to the theory that the imagination can be stirred more by suggestion than by graphic prose? So a few years ago I pretty much stopped reading romances. With a few exceptions. I still like gentle romance novels set in the West in the late 1800s. (Feminine westerns, I guess you would call them. Think of a literary Dr. Quinn.) And I love the Christmas novellas that come out around Thanksgiving. Four stories to a book and all with the background theme of Christmas. I'm still reading this year's batch of Christmas literature. I happened across an Internet source running a holiday special and ended up with 8 volumes. Great for carrying along to doctor offices and solitary lunches. But for some reason, I usually make a point of keeping their covers "undercover". Lest I be judged by others as having such poor taste in literature. I would hate total strangers to think that my reading consists solely of such supposedly sub-standard fiction. (Whatever your opinion, keep in mind those women churning out this stuff are laughing their way to the bank.)

4. Lost. If you haven't found this new series on ABC, get with the program. At least this guilty pleasure is shared with a lot of folks at this point. One of the very few shows I make a point to be sitting down for at 7PM sharp and I pay attention to from start to finish. Their website is a lot of fun, by the way. You'll appreciate it a lot more when you become a regular viewer. And don't miss the recaps by the folks at Television Without Pity. They sometimes are more entertaining than the actual episode. Two rounds of enjoyment per episode of Lost. How many television shows can make that claim?

That's enough confessions for this time around. Don't want to lose all respect out there yet. Just rest assured that whatever your guilty pleasures may be, we all have some that are just as stupid. Enjoy yourself.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Newest Pet Peeve

To begin with, I have nothing against pickup trucks. I drove one for four years and it was one of the best vehicles I ever owned. But, my newest pet peeve concerns male drivers of pickup trucks in Texas.

For Pete's sake, boys. Stop opening your driver's side door when you're waiting for a light change and shooting out a load of brown spit. If you have to indulge in such a disgusting, filthy habit, have the decency to carry along a spit cup and keep your vices to yourself. Don't involve me by forcing me to witness your lack of couthness. Ick.

By the way, try dating a girl that chews and spits. Do you really find it an attractive habit when you find yourself in kiss mode? I'd sooner kiss the fireplace grate.

I've lived in Texas all my life, but until recently I had not been witness to so many different streams of spit flying out pickup doors. I'm all for letting folks march to their own drummer, but keep in mind who's around that might be watching or listening. Let's not lose our sense of common decency. Bleah.


Saturday, January 01, 2005

Musical Chairs

I’m enjoying my new keyboard immensely. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to play an “organ”. I’ve been making my way through several hymnals, my fingers automatically making the correct moves to play the songs I’ve played hundreds of times in the distant past.

I spent many years serving as a musician for the church. I enjoyed it, but I did feel a certain amount of resentment about being taken for granted. Whenever one of the other musicians felt like missing a service, they knew that I would more than likely be there to substitute. After all, I lived next door to the church and my father was the pastor so there was little chance I would be playing hooky from any service. Mostly I substituted as pianist, but sometimes I served as organist. Eventually I was playing on the first string, so to speak, when the usual pianist decided she was ready to retire from her weekly duties.

The organist was a lady who had taught just about everyone in the community at some point in their school life, including me. Everyone was a little in awe of her. When it came to her duties as organist, she lived by a couple of simple rules. No. 1 was that she wasn’t doing her job if anyone could hear the pianist. The louder I played, the louder she played. In fact, the only time anyone was really aware that I was actually making any noise at all was during the offertory, when she usually took the back seat and allowed the piano to shine.

Her second rule was that she refused to play in any key involving more than 1 sharp. Keys with 2 sharps or more were converted to a key in flats. Having played Beethoven sonatas for many years, I was capable of playing in just about any key, but I played the game by her rules. Two sharps were converted to 5 flats, 3 sharps to 4 flats, 4 sharps to 3 flats. It was automatic and an understood policy with all the musicians who played with her.

One of life’s embarrassing moments came as a result of this little conspiracy amongst the musicians. One day she was absent and we had a substitute at piano while I filled in at the organ. The visiting pianist was not a regular at our church, but she was a daughter of one of our members and had visited and filled in on one instrument or the other many times. It was just luck that one of the chosen songs that day was one written in 4 sharps. I had been making the required conversion to 3 flats for so long that I didn’t even think about it – just began playing the introduction in the customary 3 flats. Our guest pianist dived in, playing in the key as written. Needless to say, the resulting dischord was fairly awesome. And then we had the problem of which of us was going to shift to the other’s key. I have no memory of what happened then, but I do remember hoping that the earth would open up and swallow me.

It wasn’t the last time I would live to regret the day I started music lessons. My services began to be requested for graduation exercises and for weddings. It was expected that if a school program required a pianist, I would be available. I remember once being yanked into a rehearsal, having a piece of music plopped down in front of me, and expected to immediately play it flawlessly. It was a popular song, but I had never heard it and had no idea how it was supposed to sound, so I was feeling my way through the piece cautiously. The teacher in charge listened for a few minutes in irritation and then informed me that he had been told that I was the best musician available. Unspoken, but hanging visibly in the air, was his own opinion that if I was the best, he would hate to see the worst. I was a good child and resisted the temptation to tell him what he could do with the piece of sheet music. I stewed and felt humiliated, but it never occurred to me to walk away from the assignment.

One of my friends scheduled her wedding for shortly after our graduation and I agreed to play the organ. The services were to be held at the local Catholic Church. I had never been inside, but I felt no trepidation. My role was merely to play a little mood music at some point during the service, so I didn’t even need to attend the rehearsal. I was confident that whatever kind of organ they had, I could figure it out with a few minutes study.

I could not have been more wrong. Having no idea how Catholic services were conducted, I just assumed there would be an organ available that was somewhat similar to the ones I had played at the Baptist and Methodist churches. I was dismayed to discover that their “organ” was a small electric keyboard that barely functioned. Every few notes or so, the sound just wasn’t there. I have no idea how I managed to make it through, and I’m sure my reputation as a musician suffered another blow.

You would think I might learn my lesson eventually, but I continued to accept wedding and funeral assignments for quite awhile longer. One wedding stands out in my memory as the one that made me begin to think seriously of retiring my copy of the Wedding March.

The church was a historic building with beautiful stained glass windows and antique pews. It was really a lovely place for a wedding. But the antiquity of the building did have a few drawbacks. One of these was there was no plug in the area of the auditorium where the organ resided. So a long extension cord was run from the organ to the nearest plug, which was located at dead center of the dais, where the pulpit normally stood, hiding the plug. For the wedding the pulpit was moved aside, but since the plug was located on the riser of the step, it didn’t seem to be a big problem.

The wedding began, the soloist performed beautifully and I began the wedding march. My father, who was performing the ceremony, stood below the dais and waited for the bride to approach. Everything was proceeding according to plan, the organ was swelling as the bride entered the aisle and began her approach. My father stepped backward to move up onto the dais and kicked the plug out of the socket. There is nothing to describe the sound of an organ that has suddenly lost power. And the only thing worse would be the sound of an organ that has had its power hastily restored. The death throes of a water buffalo might come close. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do but continue as if nothing had happened, while the wedding guests all tried to keep from laughing. Not my finest performance.

My career as a church musician came to an abrupt halt thanks to the intervention of a new pastor. At the time, I was the only musician in the entire church membership. I had agreed to attend both Sunday services, but Wednesday evening services were just out of the question with my difficult work schedule. Our kindly pastor approached one Sunday evening and asked me if I could reconsider attending on Wednesdays. He was sure that if I were to pray on it, I would be moved to make the right decision in the matter. I mailed in my resignation the next day. God works in mysterious ways.

My days as community musician were long ago and I've never missed the butterflies that always preceded the dive into the wedding processional and I don't regret giving up my regular post on Sundays. But I do sometimes miss playing for the congregational singing. The occasional Sunday night when we had a service where the members requested their favorite hymns for an evening of song were my favorites. Most of the members were much older than I and many requested the old four-part harmony "Stamps-Baxter" songs that had gone out of fashion and that I might never have learned otherwise. The memories live on in my fingers.