Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

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Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

How Big Is Your Vehicle and How Powerful Do You Feel?                       

 

female trucker

 

My mind boggled when I heard an NPR report about a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science. Researchers found that most people feel powerful when they sit behind immense desks, in sizeable SUV’s, and on overstuffed chairs. So, evidently, while I’m sitting in a commodious recliner, I forget I’m a senior citizen with sciatica and think I’m Henry the Eighth.

Furthermore, according to the research, when we feel powerful, we tend to lie, steal, cheat and commit traffic violations. So my truck’s to blame for my tendency to park illegally? And my chair’s responsible when I assure Joel dinner will be ready in ten minutes when I know it will be thirty?

My head buzzed with questions: Does our tendency to abuse imagined power depart once we’ve exited our easy chair, six-foot desk, or four-wheel-drive vehicle? Or does it last until a week from Saturday? Also, does our own size matter? Who would be more likely to speed and ignore stop signs when driving a Humvee: Jennifer Aniston or Shaquille O’Neal? And finally, did all the research subjects lie, steal, cheat, and park illegally, or did some of them specialize?

I’d specialize. I’d lie. Or, better said, I’d resume lying. But while I’d like to blame a desk, car, or chair for the lies I’ve told during my lifetime, doing so would be like saying mountains make me feel small and insignificant; therefore they cause my overeating.

Is that the face of a liar? Couldn’t be.

When young, I never thought, “I’m feeling powerful today, so I’ll tell Mom that Bob made me eat all the cookies” Rather, I told lies to escape punishment. As I teenager, I lied to entertain, persuade, smooth awkwardnesses, and avoid hurting my friends’ feelings.

My worst lies flowed, not from power, but from weakness when I felt unimportant, disappointed in myself, or fearful of losing my parents’ approval. I regret those lies.

I forgive myself for social mistruths — my puffed-up term for little white lies. I’ll never tell a friend, “Yes, your butt looks big in those jeans, but, really, your butt is big.” A relative who habitually runs late will never know that while I wait for her, I want to scream, swear and attack her doll collection. And when an apologetic stranger runs over my toe with a shopping cart, I’ll choose to respond, “No problem; I’m fine,” rather than prolonging the encounter by telling the truth: “It hurt like hell, and I’ll have a bruise until Christmas.”

My regrettable tendency to ease situations by lying has decreased as my years have increased. I no longer tell my doctor that I followed her advice when I didn’t, the trooper that I thought I was going the speed limit, or my siblings that I don’t care if I lost the game because they cheated. Mostly, these days, I only lie to myself, and I’m ashamed when I do so.

One more confession: I’ve always been innocent of the claims made in the Journal of Psychological Science. I never, ever, told a lie because I was behind a large desk or sitting in or on any object of considerable size. Unless you count my posterior.

Rediscovering Summer

Summer: when parents push strollers through mellow evenings; laughter drifts across backyard fences; and multitudinous shades of geen shimmer in all directions.

Under the sun of summer, I’m less obsessed by what to fix for dinner and how well I slept. I stand taller, breathe easier and open more readily to spontaneity, idle chit-chat and stray dogs.

Yesterday while running errands, I stopped to visit with a friend well into her eighth decade. “I love this time of year; it makes me feel like a child again,” she said. “I used to spend my summers helping with chores mostly, but when I had time I studied anthills, watched butterflies, listened to bird song, scanned the night sky for fallings stars and walked barefoot on cool grass. There are few summers left to me now, and I like to spend them doing those same things.”

Later, remembering her words, I thought about my childhood excitement when the bus pulled away from our elementary school, and we chanted, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” School and winter were vanquished; summer would never end; and the rituals of a Lake Shore childhood could begin.

To pass a self-imposed test of endurance and nerve, my siblings and I walked barefooted outdoors in the heat of the day on all available surfaces — course gravel, asphalt, the sharp edges of salt grass, baked mud and the chicken run — hopping and complaining unthinkable. When not testing our bare-foot bravado, we timed each other to see who rode the bike to the end of the lane and back the fastest. When a treacherous rut toppled us mid-ride, we wore our scabbed knees and elbows as badges of honor.

We dove or belly-flopped into the chlorine-heavy water of Arrowhead Pool and swam as far as we could underwater, carefully marking one another’s progress. Riding bareback and double, we guided our horse along country lanes framed by sugar beets and alfalfa. Those who rode behind tried not to hold on to the rider in front, even during a gallop, but usually did. When eating watermelon, we saved the heart of our piece to eat last so we could mock those less disciplined whose last taste was gnawed rind.

We held buttercups under one another’s chins, checking to see who liked butter, and split the ends of dandelion stems with our tongues, sucking on them until they curled up like a slinky. We plucked petals from daisies to discover if he loved us or loved us not and made dolls from hollyhock blossoms, which, more often than not, we threw at each other.

When young, one day melted into another and summer seemed endless. But, inevitably, our childhood summers yielded to the responsibilities and restraints of adulthood. Then, as we busily accomplished stuff, June, July and August raced by like crazed carousel horses; and we didn’t notice.

Now, like my friend, retirement has restored summer to me. Once again, I have time to focus on the elusive smell of honeysuckle, the cool breath of an evening breeze, the sight of goldfinches jostling for position on a bird feeder and the voices of children riding their bicycles pell-mell to the pool.

My summer days will never again slow to the pace they kept during my childhood, but my pleasure in them has been renewed — and they are as delicious as ever.

In My Father’s Words

Dad young

“Your letter arrived just in time,” my father wrote after his retirement in 1977, “I needed something to do. You must hate it when I write back so soon. Well, anyway, here goes.”

He would then record family news, describe his day, or share anecdotes from his life: “So there I was, fresh off a freight train in Amarillo, Texas, sixteen, and broke. One day I saw an Uncle Sam poster that said, ‘I want you.’ Being very hungry, I thought the old boy could have me. That’s how I ended up in the army.”

His letters ended abruptly, sometimes in mid-sentence as though he’d run out of words. He signed off as Father, never bothering with sincerely or love. Once he wrote, “Your Father,” then added, “I must have been thinking you don’t know whose father I am.”

I had the foresight to save his letters; and last winter, missing him, I reread them and discovered bits and pieces that told a story.

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He frequently reflected on the “stellar qualities that made your dear mother a heck of a woman.” He mentioned her intelligence, “the smartest woman I ever knew,” and her skills, “She could make anything she put her mind to.” Once he delighted me with this: “Your mother left this morning with some friends to go to Salt Lake. She whipped up a fabulous pantsuit to wear. I swear she looked like whistle-bait.”

The following appeared in a letter for my birthday: “Your mother never had a single one of her nine babies when I had to miss work to be there. She always had remarkable self control.”

He respected Mom’s opinions, ideas, and most of her suggestions. “I’m getting my pension checks now, and I’m starting to feel like a bloated plutocrat. So I shined my alligator shoes, put on my $20.00 Hagar slacks with my brown sports shirt, and strolled Main Street with my stomach hanging over my belt ever so slightly. When I came home, your mother told me I had to do something about my belly. She’s my only boss now. I like it when she tells me what to do because she’s usually right.”

He enjoyed Mom’s company: “Your mother and I get along well. I seem to be laughing a lot. She’s either really funny or I’m turning daft.”

After Mom died, he continued to mention her regularly: “I’ve thought about moving, but I don’t think selling this house would be right. I can look anywhere in it and see something your dear mother made, and when I go to church, all the woodwork by the podium was stained and finished by her. How could I leave all that?”

He’d been alone for seven years when he commented, “I have good kids and grandkids. Even the ones with nutty haircuts would do anything for me. I’m living the life of Riley. Your mother being gone is the only fly in my ointment.”

Dad believed with all his heart that he and Mom would be reunited when he died — if he behaved: “I got Christmas cards from two old widows in town. They are both sturdy women, but I feel no need to call in the reserves. I’m fine by myself, except for trying to figure out how to quit swearing, which would increase my odds of getting back with your dear mother. Any suggestions would be appreciated.”

And finally: “I’d like to visit Barbara in Alaska again and go to Norway where my ancestors came from if I live long enough. And if I don’t, I’ll be with your mother. So it looks good for me either way.”

I wanted to spend time with my dad by re-reading his letters, and, in doing so, I discovered a love story written in his words.

Oh To Be a Child in Spring                       

It pleased me when winter finally gave way to spring and children came out to play. As daytime temperatures responded to an insistent sun, young bicyclists, wearing smiles, swarmed outdoors and turned my neighborhood into a colony of happy bees.

Two sisters pedaled along the sidewalk: both in dresses with bows in their hair, both on bicycles with the shine of Christmas presents, and both singing in clear young voices. Joel and I, discussing the green shoots battling winter’s silt in our flowerbeds, stopped talking and listened. Riding together, singing together, the young cyclists echoed happiness back to us.

Then three pre-adolescent boys hooted derisively when a fourth, the last to try, attempted to jump his bicycle onto our curb and nearly toppled. Shrugging his shoulders, the youngster laughed, accepted their judgment, then pedaled after them ready to try again.

A helmeted child, relying on the security of training wheels, rode ahead of his bicycling parents and, in response to their forceful and repeated demands, stopped at the corner. When I caught his eye, he gave me a shy wave and a grin, clearly communicating, “Look at me; I’m riding a bike!”

In addition to the bicyclists, I watched teenagers down the block, a boy and his older sister, playing a hoopless basketball game in the street and following their own rules. They dribbled aggressively, guarded illegally and made fun of one another. Laughing, bumping, yelling “No fair” and stopping only when a car invaded their court, they played all day.

In the afternoon, I walked by Breeze Park where newly installed playground equipment of many colors and tiers hosted children of all ages who swung, climbed, crawled and slid on its interconnected pieces. Some inhabited the playhouse where they filled their pretend play with intense conversations and indignant corrections of one another’s behavior.

Toddlers, plopped down to play in the soft fill below the equipment, and older children competed to be first to swing their bodies across long stretches of overhead bars. Those too young to have cars and too sophisticated to play on the equipment, gathered to sit on picnic tables and exhibit teenage behaviors. Parents watched, encouraged, coaxed and caught as dogs chased frisbees across the newly greened grass in the background.

When I was a child playing the first softball game of spring in our pasture, I got into a shouting match with my brother Bob about whether my foot had been on the base when I tagged him at first: an argument I was bound to lose. Finally, giving up, I told him he was stupid, smelled like a barnyard, and I wasn’t playing his dumb game. Then I stormed into the house, slamming the screen door behind me.

After a few minutes, Bob yelled it was my turn to bat. Face saved by this peace offering, I returned to the game. But I didn’t escape retribution: As I picked up the bat, he added, “You didn’t have to be such a big bawl baby, though.” This time, I quietly accepted his words because he was right; it was a nature-bursting day; and I couldn’t stay angry.

Children know how to welcome spring.

Things I Miss 

The fifties may have been a simpler time, but they weren’t all birthday cake and ice cream. I remember crouching under my desk, hearing my heart thump and my teacher’s hose rub as she patrolled the classroom during an atomic bomb drill. Then, the next day, she distributed iodine tablets my classmates and I obediently swallowed once a week to prevent goiters; we thought taking a pill was better than a large lump that bulged from our necks so that folks mistook us for turkeys.

That was fun?

My past wasn’t all cowering and goiters, however, and I miss many things that filled my childhood with pleasure. For example, I loved the shiny aluminum tumblers that crowded a shelf in our kitchen. When filled with cold beverages, the tumblers frosted over like windshields on a below-zero morning and made everything — grape Kool-Aid, tomato juice, homemade root beer, even water — taste better.

The tumblers also had the added benefit of being light and unbreakable; so when my siblings and I forgot our manners and hurled them at one another, they bounced off without inflicting I’m-telling-Mom damage. Best of all, their bright red, blue, green, and gold shimmer felt like holding a bit of Christmas every day.

I’d also like to hear the whirling clickety-click of a hand-pushed lawnmower again — though I wouldn’t want to push it. The soft, rhythmic sound of a rotary mower symbolized summer for me as much as bird song, butterflies, and sunburn. I even enjoyed the battles my brothers waged before the quiet clickety-clicks commenced: “It isn’t my turn. It’s yours. I mowed last week. I’m not mowing it, and you can’t make me!”

Sitting with my sister Barbara in our Radio Flyer

Sitting with my sister Barbara in our Radio Flyer

For more than a decade, a 1940’s-era little red wagon, a Radio Flyer, served as an all-purpose toy for my siblings and me. We pulled each other in it, dumped each other out of it, and threw snowballs from behind it. We used it to transport garden produce to the house and to parade Barbara, costumed as Betsy Ross stitching a flag, along our small town’s main street on the 4th of July. Periodically, we tried to give our resident dogs, cats, and chickens the pleasure of a ride in it so they’d return the favor, but the dogs were uncooperative, the cats mean, and the chickens crazy.

Five years later on the first day of school: same wagon, new Bray baby named Blaine

Five years later on the first day of school: same wagon, new brother named Blaine

Bob and I once spent an afternoon playing a delightful game of our invention with the wagon: I ran evasive patterns with it as fast as I could while Bob tried to ram it with an old lawn mower. Mom ended our fun when she saw us putting Barbara in the wagon to increase the excitement. I miss this indestructible wagon, though now I’d probably plant petunias in it.

I complained about cranking our Dazey butter churn as a child, but I actually enjoyed making butter. First, I turned the handle listlessly, thinking my life would end before the cream in the jar began to look milky. Then, when it did, I spun the handle with vigor, making its paddles whirl and blur. Soon, tiny, yellow specks danced by the glass before gathering into bigger and bigger clumps of gold until I declared myself a winner and proudly carried the churn to Mom.

Aluminum tumblers, rotary lawn mowers, a little red wagon, and a butter churn. Everyday items that enriched my childhood. But the thing I miss most from my past is my younger self. And she’s never coming back.

To see some of the interesting things people remember fondly and collect, buy, or sell go to: http://www.invaluable.com/collectibles/pc-BQWOG3FLWY/.

The Important Things

Happy Mother's day card with colorful tulips

I remember coming home from church on Mothers’ Day, looking forward to dinner and Mom’s surprise when she opened her presents — a cookie sheet, a three-pack of Dentyne chewing gum, and a boxed set of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs — gifts my siblings and I had purchased despite Mom’s claim that all she wanted was a day without fighting, screaming, tattling, or crying.

As Dad maneuvered the car along our potholed lane, I admired Mom’s bouquet: tissue-paper flowers we’d made in Sunday school, sprayed with Lily of the Valley perfume, and attached to pipe-cleaner stems. During general services, after selected classmates expressed appreciation for their mothers, the rest of us distributed the scented blossoms. “Your flowers are pretty, Mom. Hard to make, too. Did you like the speeches?”

“I did, but I hope if one of you is asked to speak on Mothers’ Day, you’ll mention things you appreciate other than the way I cook your meals, clean the house, and do your laundry. Surely there are things mothers do for their children more important than maid service.”

Unfortunately, I was never selected as a Mothers’ Day speaker and so never told Mom how grateful I am for the more important things she did for me.

My mother shaped me: She gave me her generous lips, sparse eyelashes, enjoyment of school, and belief that a day without dessert was a sad day indeed. Both of us could carry a tune, though no one in our songbird family expressed interest in hearing us do so. Public speaking, teaching, and napping came naturally to us, but a cheerful attitude before breakfast did not.

More importantly, Mom noticed and appreciated the detailed world around her. One of my earliest memories is of her teaching me to be in the moment: to swish my fingers through the cool pond where we gathered watercress, sniff the plant’s pungent aroma, and then sample a peppery leaf.

When we moved to Lander, Wyoming, I heard her marvel at the tilted red cliffs, rushing river, and towering pines of our new home and so paid closer attention than I would have if left to my self-centered teenage ways.

She once showed me a spoon she selected when she and her siblings were choosing keepsakes after their mother died. “Of all the things I chose, I treasure this the most,” she said, holding out a large silver spoon for my examination. “This was your grandmother’s stirring spoon for as long as I can remember. See how the curved edge on one side is worn flat from constant use? When I hold this spoon, it’s like I’m connected to her.”

My mother also taught me empathy. My sister and I both fled to her at different times when marriages we thought were forever crumbled. We arrived wounded, angry, frightened, and left with a sense of peace and resolution. Neither of us can remember Mom’s words, but we remember the gifts she gave us: our favorite foods, her undivided attention when we wanted to talk, and her tears when we cried.

Though my mother didn’t speak the words “I love you” easily, I never questioned her love for me. My siblings and I learned from her, enjoyed her, and appreciated her. Her home was where our hearts were.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You did the important things.

National Poetry Month

poetry month

My uneven experiences with poetry started with Mother Goose.

I admired the little girl who had a little curl; and when she was bad, she was horrid. But I questioned Little Jack Horner’s IQ: with an entire Christmas pie to himself, he ate only the plum?

Then, during a lesson on rhyme, my fourth-grade teacher at Lake Shore Elementary had us write a couplet using the word day at the end of the first line. Inspiration struck:

The sun was shining bright that day
To cheer the birth of Janet Bray

When I read it aloud, my classmates giggled, and I decided to become a famous poet.

I abandoned my career plans in 5th grade, however, when Mr. Ralphs corrected me for saying “poyme.” He told me to repeat his pronunciation, “pome” three times, and then had the entire class chant it three more.

In high school, my exacting English teacher, Mrs. Cornaby, wondered why her students from Lake Shore said “pome” when the word was correctly pronounced “po-em.” “Is there something in Lake Shore’s water?” she wondered with a smile.

A few days later, when I answered a question in class and said “po-em,” she winked at me, and I returned to poetry.

College brought weighty discussions about the symbolism, significance, imagery and universal meaning of assigned poems. Students volunteered ideas until someone said what the teacher wanted to hear. The chosen idea was then expanded on in a lengthy lecture, and the students stopped thinking.

I gave up on poetry again, until my junior year when my roommate, a literature major, rescued me with the poetry of E.E. Cummings. His unique phrases danced with musicality and fascinated me:

“Anyone lived in a pretty how town
and up so floating many bells down.”

I continued to read poetry on my own, but never tried to write it. Then, four years ago, I started meeting with a group of poets whose work made me laugh, reflect, and feel. These good people gave me the motivation to write poems of my own and the courage to share them.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month and my poetry group, I’ve chosen to conclude with one of my efforts. Don’t bother looking for symbolism or universality. To do so would waste your time.

Dismissal

On a sun-dominated day
we hiked in cadenced silence
above a long-nosed jump where
in a ski-town’s season
winter-bright birds swoop then
soar in flashes of neon plumage.

A squared-off snout
led two cautious eyes and attentive
ears through the undergrowth
ahead then peered both ways along the
path like a parent-programmed child.

In the absence of heavy traffic,
the bear’s considered judgment
discarded us as distant-harmless
and launched its shaggy bulk
into a bowlegged shamble
up the path where we held breath.

Before the source of our
amazement popped away
into the far-side cover
of inter-woven brush and tree
the creature sent its disregards
by mooning us for thirty yards.

Happy April Fool’s Day

Each year, as the optimistic and abundant personality of spring begins to establish itself, I think about a dear friend who had those same traits; a man who created April-Fool’s fun every day for everybody.

Ernie shambled into my classroom — gleeful smile, low-flapping ears, bulgy nose, blue eyes bleached from years at sea — and handed me the construction paper I’d ordered from the supply room. “My, my, my, aren’t you the busy one,” he remarked.

Though his droll manner amused me, I refused to be diverted and managed to catch him as he slid a box of multi-sized, multi-hued rubber bands onto my desk along with the paper.

“Ernie, that’s the third box of rubber bands you’ve brought me this month; I don’t need them; I never use them.”

“Well then, Missy,” he replied, grabbing the construction paper and clutching it to his chest, “You shan’t have this either!”

A previous custodian at Grace Bordewich School had purchased two cases of rubber bands, an item teachers rarely request. Boxes of the aging bands littered the storage room in untidy stacks and offended Ernie’s navy-developed sense of order.

No matter what a staff member ordered—penmanship paper, a box of staples, a set of Magic Markers — Ernie delivered the requested supplies along with a bonus: a box of rubber bands.

One year Mary, the school librarian and Ernie’s inventive equal, baked a lavishly frosted, chocolate cake for Ernie’s birthday and invited the staff to come to the library after school to share it with him.

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

Ernie praised the beauty of the cake, predicted its deliciousness, then seized the knife Mary offered, and cut — attempted to cut — the first piece. It was tough going: with each swipe of the knife, the rubber bands Mary had stirred into the batter wiggled, sproinged, and snapped.

When Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle; and, always, his gulping guffaws caused others to join in. Bedlam broke out in the library.

Eventually, the birthday boy, stifling snorts, carried the cake away to show others.

The next morning, Mary found a note on her desk. It explained that Ernie’s mom had taught him to never return an empty dish. Mary’s cake pan sat next to the note, filled with rubber bands of various sizes, many in pieces, and all carefully washed, though here and there a chocolate crumb lingered.

A few years later, when I went through a divorce, I discovered another side of Ernie. I sat in my sunlit kitchen, tears dripping from my chin, telling him about my hurt, self-doubt, anger, and fear as I faced life alone. He listened quietly, shook his head, and made no attempt to reassure me or tell me what to do.

He didn’t talk about his divorce, didn’t offer to keep my car running, didn’t suggest I work my way into the singles scene or get a new hairdo. Instead, he looked at me with concern and affection and murmured, “Oh, Janet. Oh my. Oh, Janet.” He understood I needed a listener, not an advisor.

Every year, as April breaks, I miss my generous, fun-loving friend.

Too Good to be True

S&H Green Stamps

My skepticism toward customer reward programs began with S&H Green Stamps. Along with colds, oatmeal, and Allen Nielson’s cooties, they burdened my childhood.

The stamps were given as a reward for purchasing groceries and gas. They came in gummed sheets that had to be glued into booklets, which were redeemed through S&H’s catalog or at its redemption centers.

Mom collected her S&H stamps in a shoebox. When it was full, she dumped stamps and booklets on the kitchen table and told her children and any strays to start licking. We argued about whose pages were the least misaligned and stacked our filled booklets in a moist tower. Speaking with difficulty because of our gummed tongues, we tried to convince Mom to trade the stamps for toys; but she held out for an iron or maybe pillow cases.

After I left home, I collected stamps of my own, but used a damp sponge to glue them — going to college evidently improved my problem-solving skills. I remember wandering around the redemption center in Reno as a newlywed, clutching my booklets, looking for Christmas presents to send to my family. But I didn’t have enough stamps for anything anyone would want. That was the year I gave my 10-year-old brother an imitation leather shaving kit.

He never sent a thank-you note.

coupon

Today, I experience similar frustrations with coupons. I diligently rip coupons from newspaper advertisements and magazines because I’ve read that people save hundreds of dollars a year with them. Not me.

First, I have trouble keeping track of the validity dates. I invariably present a coupon to the checker before its time or after its passing. Then, embarrassed by my inability to read numbers, I buy the product anyway.

I also have difficulty finding the products specified, even when I put on my glasses and bend double to examine the bottom shelves. If I do find something that matches a coupon, I’m so thrilled I buy it — even though I don’t need it and never have. Last week I came home with Triple Awesome Grape Kool-Aid.

voucher

Airline frequent-flier miles also make me crazy with blackout dates and limited seat availability: “Actually, ma’am, you can only use those miles on Tuesdays during the months of February and July of alternate years on flights to Detroit or Helena, and we have only three seats available on each flight so you’d better book soon. Thank you for flying with us.”

I was once included in a class action suit against an airline now defunct. If I could confirm my flights over a five-year period with either ticket stubs or a completed form detailing my flight dates, itinerary, and fare, I would be eligible for free flights.

After arduous hours of researching my credit card and bank statements, I submitted my evidence, dreaming of a free flight to Tahiti or at least Topeka. Eight months later, I received $100 worth of vouchers in $10 denominations that had to be used within a year. Only one voucher could be used per trip. Excluding blackout dates. Pending availability of seats.

Here’s an idea for all corporations wishing to reward my loyalty: could you forget the rewards and lower your prices instead?