Tuesday, February 22, 2005

When in Rome, February XXII, MMV

I have an obscure talent with absolutely no market value. I am highly proficient at deciphering Roman numerals. As you can imagine, my abilities in this area are seldom required. Aside from the odd clock face and the numbering of document outlines, about the only time I use this talent is to decipher the copyright dates that flash by at the end of television programs.

I acquired this claim to fame during a 6-week period in the fourth grade, courtesy of the high school football coach. Attending a small school had some interesting aspects. In Smiley, the entire 12 grades shared the same campus. Teachers had multiple duties they performed and our fourth grade teacher was also the faculty sponsor of the high school drill team. During football season, she spent one period every day working with the girls on their next Friday night performance. In her absence, our math classes were conducted by the high school football coach.

The idea was that we were to learn long division. For reasons known only to Coach, we tackled the subject of Roman numerals. Rome may not have been built in a day but anyway you look at it, Roman numerals don’t take six weeks to conquer. But we were drilled day in and day out on the various components and how to use them to construct the Roman numeral representation of any number.

None of us knew any better, so we were perfectly happy to while away our math lessons for that six weeks. But sooner or later the piper will always demand his due. When our teacher returned to our math class, she expected us to know long division. What followed was a crash course to bring us up to speed. (As I recall, she wasn’t at all impressed by our ability to handle Roman numerals.)

Thanks to the general lack of teaching I had received in the previous year at another school, I had a much harder time catching on to the requirements for long division than did my classmates. It nearly killed my soul to be kept in at recess to practice math. I don’t remember how many of those sessions it took before my brain finally comprehended the necessary concepts.

That year probably marked me. I was never comfortable in math classes for the rest of my educational career. I managed to maintain my generally “A” average through college (with one unfortunate lapse to a “B-” during a miserable 6-week period in Algebra II), but it was only when I began to work with computers on the job that I came to enjoy and appreciate the mysteries of mathematics. Now I sometimes wish I could go back and take all those upper math classes again without the “fear factor”.

Be that as it may, my Sunday School teacher warned us about hiding our lights under a bushel. I may be lousy at Algebra and Trigonometry, but I can show you some fancy footwork when it comes time to translate a copyright date. Now if I could just figure out a way to get paid for it.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Memory Snippets

The land where my grandparents lived when I was a child recently came on the market. There are a lot of good memories tied up in that acreage. I went so far as to contact the realtor for the details and briefly pondered the possibility of bringing the old home place back into the family. However, after several days’ consideration, I decided the negatives outweighed the positives and I dropped the idea. But not before a jumble of memory clips made their way through my thoughts. To mention a few:

1) Hot summer days during the watermelon harvest. There was always a pile of perfect watermelons under a tree in the side yard. I don’t think I’ll ever again have access to watermelons as sweet as those grown by my grandfather. We would gather under the tree with a knife and salt shaker and split watermelons, eat the sweet hearts while juice ran down our arms and dripped off our elbows, then toss the rest into the pig pen. Now when I see puny watermelons in the grocery store, priced at $5 each, I just can’t bring myself to buy them.

2) Spending winter nights in the country in a house where the fireplace in the front room was the primary heat source. It got mighty cold in the bedrooms and we would pile my grandmother’s handmade quilts on top of us until we were weighted down, barely able to move. It would be so cold that the sheets would feel wet, and once you got a spot warm you tried to stay put. Then in the morning, heading for the fireplace to warm up. My grandfather would always have it started and would be on his second cup of coffee by the time we dragged ourselves out of bed.

3) The cow pens where my grandmother went everyday to milk. I even tried milking once upon a time. It ain’t easy and it feels weird until you get used to it. After the milking I would watch her run the milk through the cream separator that was mounted to the kitchen cabinet. She made great homemade cottage cheese (or curd) and regularly churned butter. I took a turn at churning, too. I doubt I ever contributed much to the process, but I can truthfully say I’ve milked and I’ve churned.

4) One summer my aunt and I whiled away a good bit of time constructing a dirt town in the field back of the house. We piled dirt up into a small “mountain”, constructed roads, and made up stories about the folks that lived there. As we created our town, we sang a song of our own creation:
A little bit of white and a little bit of brown
All go together in a little dirt town.
We had a lot of fun with our imaginary town. It was a little disappointing when my grandfather plowed it under later in the season.

5) Another time my aunt and I were hanging out at the tank. (That’s a small body of water, kids.) We watched as a large cloud of black insects settled on top of the water. My aunt cracked me up by observing that it was undoubtedly a Billy Bug Crusade.

6) One day I was walking backward on the dirt road, talking to my aunt who was riding a gentle mare. I just happened to turn around, seconds before I would have fallen over an armadillo that was shuffling across the road behind me. My aunt found it humorous. If I had actually come into contact with the thing, we probably would have had to go home so I could change my clothes.

7) My grandmother would usually have a huge platter of chicken fried steak ready when we got there. One of the side dishes would be Ranch Style beans. It was many years later before my brother realized that those beans weren’t a special recipe of hers. She also would make a roasting pan full of cake doughnuts, coated in sugar. I’ve learned to cook a decent chicken fried steak and I make doughnuts using her recipe, but they never taste as good as my memories. (It might have something to do with her use of lard. That was before we knew to watch our cholesterol.)

8) Since there were witnesses, I’ll confess to getting in trouble one time in her kitchen. I’m not sure what artistic impulses caused me to park myself in the middle of the kitchen table, where there was a big bowl of newly made curd, and to proceed to fling handfuls against the far wall. For some reason, no one else appreciated my creative efforts.

That’s it for this round of memory vignettes. No wait, one more. Whenever I think of my grandfather, I can hear him call me an “old hen”. Maybe he used that peculiar term of affection with all his grand-daughters, but I prefer to believe it was just for me. He seemed to find me amusing. I know I found him to be a standard by which I’ve always judged the men in my life. My grandparents were good people. I hope I measure up to their example.


Friday, February 11, 2005


So the Prince and his ladyfriend are going to get married. At this point in time you have to wonder what on earth for. I guess this is an example to give an exception to that old saw that you shouldn't expect a man to buy the cow when he's getting the milk for free.

Actually I can't think of two people who are more ideally matched. Prince Ick and Lady Ugh. Too bad they didn't get together back 30 years ago and make it legal. Instead they messed up the lives of two innocent (maybe) bystanders.

It really boggles the mind that in all likelihood he's going to be sitting on the throne one of these days. Maybe the Queen should hold an "Apprentice" competition. Maybe some fresh blood in the monarchy is what is needed. Badly. I have nothing against the Queen, but I feel her country will someday understand well how devastating the past election was for those of us who still think for ourselves and haven't become passive little sheep being led to the slaughter. Incompetent leadership is a real downer. At least we get to try again in 4 years to rectify our mistakes. Those poor folks are stuck.

Oh, well. This sudden decision to act like moral, upstanding members of the community doesn't change a darned thing. History will play out just the same. I just hope that any televised episodes of the nuptials will happen in the middle of the night. There's enough dreck on television in prime time.

Ok, I'm stepping off my soapbox. For now.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Good Medicine

When you're feeling punky and the weather is the miserable wet/cold mixture we suffered through yesterday, a good place to head for lunch is Las Palomas Restaurant on Bee Caves Road. Anything you order will be delicious, but when you're sick, try the Caldo Tlalpeno. It is better than Chicken Soup for what ails you. Come to think of it, it is chicken soup, Mexican style.

Imagine if you will a delicious chicken broth to which is added shredded chicken, rice, onion, fresh tomato chunks, cilantro and avocado with an underlying chipotle pepper flavoring. It is mmm, mmm good.

Then drop by next door at the Great Harvest Bread Company for dessert. Their cookies and sweet rolls are a nice little booster to the medicinal effects of the Caldo Tlalpeno. (Too bad I was dieting yesterday. Had to skip that stop.)

Seems to be working, too. The hip is gradually improving. Today's lunch will probably be Tortilla Soup from Central Market and a stop by the bookstore. I know how to treat my bruised little body. Tomorrow...maybe Cheese Soup from The Kitchen Door. Mmmmm. I think I've found the silver lining to being sick.


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

You're only as old as you feel

Maybe so. Today I feel all of my 50 years. You can be bouncing right along, your internal age hovering somewhere around 35, when it happens. You bend over to pick something up and you can't make it back to a standing position. The pain that grabbed my back was swift and intense. It was all I could do to shift around and sit down, and I didn't accomplish that quietly.

But I'm tough, I said. After a few minutes I managed to make it back to my feet, gritted my teeth and went on to work. I lasted until 2:00 and headed home, my back twisted into a painful pretzel. Tuesday I stayed in bed. Every time I got up, my hip clicked audibly with each step. It may have been a pinched nerve and it may have been a slight dislocation of my hip joint. Whatever it was, it hurt like hell. Nature's way of reminding you that you're not a spring chicken anymore.

Wednesday, the third day after, my main complaint is an arthritic ache in my hip. By the end of the week I may be back to more or less normal. For a 50-year-old.

This aging thing sneaks up on you. I don't mind the "50" part. I've never had a problem with admitting my age. In ways, I’m actually enjoying the feeling of achieving middle age. Throughout my 20s, 30s and 40s, I seemed to constantly battle for acceptance and recognition in my work. Despite the achievements of women during the last 30 years, it is still an ongoing struggle to maintain a semblance of equality in a male-dominated workplace in the private sector. At this point in my life I’ve decided that I’ve either got respect or I’m never going to get it. It’s a big relief to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my past accomplishments and watch the younger folks scrabbling for a toehold in that rickety ladder of success. If they knew what I knew, they would stop battering their heads against brick walls and take up yoga. Unfortunately, you have to nurse a lot of bruises before you realize that life’s short and time lost flinging yourself against a brick wall is never going to be regained.

I can remember when I was about 9 years old calculating what my age would be when Halley’s comet came back around in 1986. At the time 32 seemed old beyond belief. For someone in the third grade, it seemed unfathomable that when Halley’s arrived I would be (a) done with school, (b) probably married with a passel of kids and (c) wrinkled with old age. I would never have guessed that I would hit 50 with school a distant memory, no marriage or kids in my past, a few wrinkles here and there but still holding up fairly well despite it all. The odd spell of back trouble notwithstanding. My inner 9-year-old would reel in disbelief, but I may very well decide to go back to school one of these days since I think I’ve finally figured out what my major should be. And it’s not Business Administration.

That’s one of the pleasures of hitting middle age. You finally begin to get a handle on who you are. And you make no apologies to anyone for who that person is. If you want to accept me as is, swell. Otherwise, the door’s thataway and don’t slam it behind you.

So, even with the creaky knee and hip joints, the eyes that won't focus on the small print, the extra 10 pounds around my middle, my thermostat that has gone completely haywire, and my sudden inability to eat spicy foods after 5PM without serious repercussions, I really don't have any desire to be 20 or even 30 again. I prefer the wisdom that comes with my present stage of life.

But I think I will try to be a little more careful of how I bend over to pick things up from now on.