Thoughts on the Man I Married and Other Odd People

Joel Sheridan

I’m often surprised by the habits of others: My mom and dad ate pickled pigs feet and beef liver with gusto. That’s abnormal. My sister doesn’t collect anything: no quilts, snow globes, Madam Alexander dolls or baseball cards. That’s odd. In college, it boggled my mind when my roommates postponed studying for a test until the evening before and then pulled an all-nighter. I shook my well-rested head in disbelief as they stumbled into class, bleary-eyed and confused.

My uncle wrote a weekly column for his local paper. Each week he sat in front of his typewriter the day before the column was due and waited for inspiration. When I picture him—sitting, waiting, clock ticking, deadline looming—I fight hysteria. I don’t know how he found the time to debate using a instead of the in the third sentence of the fifth paragraph of his ninth revision.

The man I married twenty years ago has his peculiarities as well, one of them being the way he watches TV. When we’re watching a show together, he invariably surfs other channels during every commercial. By the time he finds his way back to the show we’re watching, we’ve missed a pivotal segment and so watch the remaining segments in a state of confusion.

Another bone of contention we chew on is the amount of lighting necessary for happy living. As darkness falls, I busy myself drawing blinds and switching on lights and lamps. Then Joel wanders in, starts a diverting conversation, dims the lights and turns off the lamps.

Even the kitchen where I chop, sauté, and simmer his dinner is too bright for him. If I drop my guard, he extinguishes the overhead lighting, leaving only the glow of the under-counter lights to illuminate my cooking. It’s difficult to chop vegetables when I can’t distinguish my thumb from a parsnip; sometimes, when bending low to check on the soup’s simmer, I blister my nose.

My husband believes the best defense is a good offense, so when he senses my irritation with his choice of lighting, he says, “Why do you have to have it so bright all the time? The house looks better in low light.” He could be commenting on my housekeeping, but I prefer to think not.

We also have our smaller issues: I put things away. He likes tools, clothes and potato chips left where he won’t forget them. I sigh when he questions my tendency to take things to the thrift store. He grits his teeth when he expresses a preference, “I like the chair better in front of the window,” and I respond dismissively, “I know you do, Joel.”

Despite these differences, we usually accept one another’s oddities as minor nuisances, insignificant when compared to the many important values we share and the many ways we like each other.

But the next time we go to a movie, and he interrupts an intense scene to ask what other roles the lead actor has played, I plan to insist on a fair share of the popcorn. That’ll show him.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_0341

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?

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/.

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?

With My Eyes or a Camera?

“Are you taking lots of photographs?” my friend Mary asked during a telephone conversation with her granddaughter, Melissa, who was traveling in Italy.

“No, Grandma, I’m not taking photographs,” the experienced, young traveler replied, “I decided on this trip I’d be in the moment.”

Her response highlights my dilemma: I don’t travel with a camera and rarely take pictures with my phone. I tell myself I prefer to use my senses to soak up sights and experiences, that a camera would require me to frame, focus, consider lighting, and tell people where to stand.

Seeing with my senses rather than a camera has advantages. A few years ago, Joel and I drove home to Craig from Denver and saw a tower of gentle flame on top of a mountain pass at dusk: a great pillar of rainbow standing tall among snow-glazed trees, its vivid hues illuminating the the shadowed sky and mountain. I focused on the sight for several long moments, memorizing its details and capturing its splendor.

I still see the vibrant column; and it’s brighter, bigger, and more colorful in my mind than than in the photographs Joel took with his phone. Photographs sometimes disappoint.

tower of flame on Rabbit Ears

On the other hand, I spend long minutes studying the excellent photographs taken by others; and I enjoy the glimpses of a photographer’s mind my blog friends provide when they explain their planning, processes, and problems. I happily peruse pictures my friends post on Facebook and treasure the photographs I have of my family and friends.

Photographs record more accurately than my mind. Too often, when I look at an old photo, I discover my memory deceives me: The battered family car my sister and I stood in front of was blue not green; and, though I smiled as I held Barbara’s hand, it was not the sweet moment between sisters I remembered: instead, Barbara was acting like I was Godzilla: struggling to escape my iron grip and scowling defiantly.

Frankly, old though I am, a few years ago when I saw the photo, I wanted to pinch her.

Photographs also allow me to experience sights I will never see.Without family picture albums, I would have no idea how Mom and Dad looked during my early years. I have a sense of them — their presence and voices — but it is through photographs I see the people they were when young. I used to scrutinize the photographs of my parents, looking for signs of myself in them, so I could be sure I wasn’t adopted. Like Barbara.

I seem to need both photographs and the freedom to exist  in the moment. So I’ll continue observing as keenly as I can and spending time reflecting on the photographs taken by others.

One Person’s Comfort Food

Gourmet Peanut Butter Pie on a background

After eating dinner in a Reno restaurant with a group of female colleagues, I ordered peanut butter cheesecake for dessert. A fellow diner laughed through her thick lipstick and announced to everyone within range, “I guess Janet’s taste buds didn’t make it out of junior high.”

Because my Uncle Gus advised me to never argue with a jackass, I smiled sweetly, but I thought, “Who made you the judge of desserts, Ms Snooty-Tooty? Why don’t you nibble the piece of bitter Belgium chocolate you ordered, smear lipstick on your glass of red wine, and let the rest of us enjoy ourselves?”

Then I ate my cheesecake.

I consider peanut butter in all its guises a comfort food because I ate as much of it as I could during my childhood: straight from the jar, mixed with honey or jelly on bread, and in the best-textured cookies ever created.

But products of my mother’s kitchen dominate the list of foods that make me feel good: pot roast with vegetables and gravy, baked winter squash with lots of butter, macaroni made with hamburger and tomatoes, beans cooked all day with bits of ham, frosted cinnamon rolls, raisin cake with caramel frosting, pies with unfashionably thick crusts.

Much as I enjoyed these favored foods, my young self also chased food fads, yearned for store-bought products, and wished Mom believed in snacks and fancy appetizers.

When I could get away with it, I swigged copious amounts of Kool-Aid and a sugary breakfast drink called Tang, popular because it voyaged into space with the astronauts. I preferred Campbell’s soups to Mom’s homemade versions and, after a lifetime of slicing homemade bread, considered Wonder Bread a special treat.

Home-made white bread

I liked to visit friends who had sugary or salty snacks readily available; Mom usually told me to go eat an apple. I remember a glorious day when a friend’s mother, trying out appetizers for a party, fed her daughter and me a mixture of deviled ham, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles on saltine crackers then followed that delicacy with pigs in a blanket, which we daintily dipped in mustard.

That evening, when I suggested to Mom that she start serving appetizers before dinner, she raised an eyebrow and spoke not a word.

Fortunately, I soon outgrew my foolish notion that processed food was better than homemade — except for cereal. I’d still choose Cheerios or Cornflakes over a bowl of oatmeal — a breakfast standard Blaine called glue and Barbara decorated with dead flies so she wouldn’t have to eat it.

I suppose, like most people, my comfort foods have always been the foods I ate surrounded by my family when my appetite was inexperienced and unconstrained, my happiness easily won, and my future unlimited.