Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye and Good Riddance to 2011

As the year 2011 draws to a close, lots of people struggle with a list of resolutions for the new year.  Not me.  I never keep them and believe them to be a colossal waste of time and effort.  Instead, I offer you my hopes and wishes for the coming year.  These too can be yours.

To the person who rearranged the lawn ornaments:  you have an admirable sense of humor, but I wish you won't force the Virgin Mary to cradle Frosty the Snowman next year.

To the people who carry signs announcing the end of the world, please tell me it's just because you've maxed out your credit cards and are hoping you won't have to pay them.  

To the guys who offer to spot their weightlifting buddies at the gym....don't do it if you're not wearing underwear under those gym shorts.

I wish someone would confirm or disprove for me once and for all whether all Jewish people go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas.

I hope that no one pepper sprays me at next year's Black Friday sales.  Oh, I forgot....I shop online.

I hope someone gives me a pair of pants like the Incredible Hulk's.  Even when he goes through the change, they still fit.

I wish someone would explain why I'm not allowed to smile for my passport photo.  Am I more recognizable when I look like a mental health facility resident?

I'd like someone to explain "Bronies" to who collect My Little Ponies.

I wish I could go to whatever qualifies as driving school for people who ride around on elephants.

Just once, I wish I could ride on an airplane next to a man who doesn't splay his legs out at the knees and invade my pitifully small amount of space...and then have digestive problems.

Convince me that always-happy people aren't on anti-depressants or some other kind of medication.

Explain the difference between an atheist and a bitter Catholic.

Find the one kid who actually likes getting those miniature boxes of raisins for Halloween.

Explain why anyone in their right mind would ever watch a soap opera.

I hope to walk into the local Dollar Store and ask, "What's the most expensive thing in here?"

Identify the person who decided that apple pie would go well with a piece of cheddar cheese.

I wish people would stop telling me to not be so judgmental.  How else am I supposed to feel better than everyone else?

Bring back the 60's and 70's.  Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were all considered normal.  Now when I meet guys, it means they take high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes medications while listening to oldies music. 

Tell me you really believe that "bottled water from real glaciers" stuff.

And, finally, I hope I don't have to come up with another list like this until next year.  Happy 2012!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rock On, Barbie...You've Got Tats?

For a 52 year-old chick, Barbie has a helluva knack for reinvention.

Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, was inspired to both name and create the three-dimensional fashion doll in 1959 after watching her own daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls.  Her first outfits were the iconic black and white bathing suit with hair in the classic ponytail.  In the 1960's her styles morphed through the Camelot and then Flower Power years.  Is it a coincidence that she gained bendable legs during the Age of Aquarius?

During the 1970's, Barbie had a resculpted face and constantly changing wardrobe and hairstyles that swung from Mod to High Fashion.  The fitness craze and career woman phase in the 1980's gave her leggings and a credit card.  The first Barbie doll convention took place during this decade as adults became avid collectors.  Girls can now use their computers to design and print Barbie fashions.

But things haven't been all glamour for our wasp-waisted, outsized plastic boobs American classic.  She's long been criticized by womens' groups for her unrealistic body image.  And now, Barbie is sporting pink punk hair and tattoos.  Parents are in an uproar.  The streets run red with the blood of outraged rioters, crying for the downfall of an "overly-sexualized, inappropriate" doll.

Get a grip, people.  The Tokidoki Barbie is a collector doll, intended for adult collectors.  She sports dyed pink hair, rock fashionista clothing and tattoos on her chest, neck, arm and back.  Critics who self-righteously rail against the doll as a way to 'play on young girls' natural desire to appear older' are missing the point.  The doll was produced in limited quantities for collectors.  Sure, you can still plunk down a cool $378 from a seller on Amazon to procure one, but it was never marketed or intended as a way to foist prostitution as a viable occupation for young girls.

And since when is a plastic doll a role model?  Why not a pregnant, pro-life Barbie? Where is Jihad Barbie?  How about Divorced Barbie...she'd cost twice as much, but would come with Ken's house and car. If this Barbie is 'overly-sexualized' because she has tattoos and pink hair, why is it okay for her to wear bikinis and gowns with plunging necklines?

Personally, I'd be a lot more concerned about the fact that Tattooed Barbie has a small dog in a cactus suit named "Bastardino".  Now THAT is something to worry about!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Coming Soon to a Urinal Near You!

A trip to the Ocean City, MD boardwalk, the State Fair, or an amusement park with my granddaughter usually involves at least one round of the water-fueled horse race where we point our guns at a small opening in hope of winning a twenty-five cent toy in exchange for the six dollars we paid to play.  Somehow I never made the connection between this carnival game and the “We aim to please, so please aim” sign that compulsive-cleaning friends place in their powder rooms.   That’s one reason why I’ve yet to hit the million dollar mark in personal income.

But now a British company HAS made that leap and installed video games in the men’s urinal at a English pub.  They say these are the first “hands free” games (thank goodness), but I’m not sure I understand the reason behind this invention.  Is it intended to make peeing so much fun that pub patrons will drink even more beer to increase the frequency of their visits and, therefore, the number of games they can play?  Someone has figured out that It takes an average of 55 seconds for guys to whiz in and out of the loo.  That means they can insert a short advertisement before the game’s graphics begin to stream.  Players can choose between a ski simulation, trivia, and a penguin shooting gallery.  Is it supposed to reward the man’s aim accuracy with more points and thus less clean-up?

Once this catches on…..and it will….are competitive games far behind so guys can compete with their friends?  Pee-pong, urine-controlled versions of skee ball, space invaders, pac-man and donkey kong are on the horizon.  Just like the awe-inspiring classmate who could burp out the entire alphabet, the porcelain crown awaits the guy who can sustain his stream the longest.   And will it stop at the urinal or are new and more ingenious games just waiting to spring up for patrons seated in the stalls?  The bathrooms may become more popular than the seats at the bar. 
Then, just like the playground monkey bars of yesteryear, the games will disappear…falling victim to discrimination lawsuits filed by older male patrons with prostate issues, unable to reach high scorer status.   Let the games begin.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The New Horizons Band at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas may never threaten Hot Chelle Rae for space on most iPods, but the member-musicians aren’t all that concerned.  For over fourteen years the music department there has encouraged seniors to learn to play a musical instrument or re-learn long dormant musical skills. 
As odd as it may seem to see a room full of graying and white haired men and women coaxing dissonant squawks and screeches from assorted clarinets, flutes and other instruments, the pupils in the beginners band are determined to accomplish their goals.  The advanced band’s efforts actually can produce identifiable tunes.  One of those members, 63 year old Carl Backes, is reaching back through the decades to recapture the joys of music.
Carl learned to play the clarinet in fourth grade at McDonough 39 in New Orleans, LA.  As he moved into Junior High, he expanded his skills to include the bass clarinet.  Adding tenor sax while at Ben Franklin and John McDonough High Schools, he became one of the original members of the then-nascent Louisiana State University at New Orleans’ band, earning invitations to play in several All-City and All-State bands as well as the Pelican Boys State Band.
Finally, at age 17, Carl’s years of academic toil finally began to benefit him financially.  He got a job in a band on Bourbon Street, in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, laboring in obscurity to provide musical accompaniment for…strippers.  He even played in back-up bands for recording sessions and performances as well as the Navy band at NAS Memphis before losing interest in the 1970’s.
Life took up more of his time, adding the roles of husband and father, which necessitated more than the undependable monies that music provided.  And so it went as Carl worked first in the banking and finance sector, followed by the insurance industry.  Finally, in 2005, he retired with Peggy, his wife of 41 years.  Together they had planned to spend several years touring the United States and took possession of a brand new RV.  Then they ran into a little storm named Katrina.
Their home in New Orleans was destroyed, so their RV became their home, parked in a friend’s driveway for months, while they volunteered hundreds of hours cleaning up Ben Franklin High School before selling the gutted remnants of their house.  Carl and Peggy finally were able to embark on their journey across the USA, spending nearly three years discovering the West before deciding to build their new home in Denton, Texas.  They still spend part of the year traveling in their RV, making sure to always include JazzFest in New Orleans.
Like many older Americans, Carl does have a bucket list.  He takes occasional courses, belongs to clubs, and attends theater and concerts with his wife.  Several of his photographs from his travels have been published, and one was even purchased by National Geographic.  The musical score of his life has been full for Carl and tomorrow he will play in public – with the New Horizons Band – for the first time in 30 years.  Let the music begin.  Through The Lens: New Horizons Band « CBS Dallas / Fort Worth

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Own Private Penn State Was... Everywhere

The Penn State scandal is everywhere.  Turn on television, radio, open a browser, pick up a newspaper or magazine and there will be some mention of the sensational allegations of child abuse.  Most of us believe there is real substance behind the heart-rending accounts, but I use the word "allegations" as even Sandusky is entitled to his day in court. Hopefully it won't end with the injustice of the Casey Anthony trial.  Personally, I think we may never know the real number of boys whose lives were irrevocably damaged.

Sexual abuse is a silent killer that alters a child's sense of trust and self-worth.  It lays waste to the very principles that parents labor to instill in the minds and hearts of their children.  All of us still struggle to find a balance between teaching respect for authority and when to ring the alarm bell.

I find it hard to listen to reports and testimonies from anyone who has been victimized, and wonder if there is any adult out there who has been fortunate enough to have never been subject to some form of actual or attempted abuse.  We've seen the shocking number of priests whose crimes were swept under the rug as the church shuffled them from parish to parish.  It seems every month or so there is another account of a coach or teacher accused of some form of predatory activity.

My book, "Ednor Scardens", didn't start out that way, but eventually became a vehicle for purging some of my own experiences as a young girl.  And yet the anecdotes recorded there hardly scratched the surface.  Some will likely go to the grave with me, but I still find it hard to believe that these all happened during the 1950's and early 60's, a time that most people naively think of as a more innocent time.

Unlike some kids, my own exposures began soon after puberty:  Between the ages of 11-14, there was a flasher at the library, a guy with a hooded sweatshirt who appeared at the kitchen door, a bus driver at the end of his route (my aunt lived at the next stop....the first on the new route), two different men sitting in parked cars on the way to school, and the father of two of my neighborhood friends.  I know those girls must have wondered why I stopped coming to play at their house, but it came so closely on the heels of an assault by a man who worked at the ice skating rink near my home that I didn't go anywhere for weeks.  The other incidents will remain buried as the men responsible are deceased.  They are beyond reach and distressing their family members serves no purpose.

My parents never discussed improper touching, but most kids know instinctively when someone has crossed that line.  What they don't realize is that it isn't their fault and that they need to tell a parent or other trusted adult. I never told because I was afraid of losing the small amount of freedom I'd earned by virtue of my preteen and teen threshold.  And by the time I reached fourteen, I was no longer a quiet, trusting child.  I was athletic and finally capable of defending myself, or at least out-running someone.

So to those who lament the wounds inflicted on the mighty Penn State dynasty, your tears are wasted on me.  And if you are a parent, and haven't discussed this issue with your children, don't wait.  It is one that must begin early and be repeated periodically in age-appropriate ways.  We live in a sadly dangerous and confusing world, but it's always been that way.  We just didn't know it. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THAT ORANGE RUBBER BAG.....The Real American Horror Story

Ever since "Twilight" hit the book stores, we've been assaulted by a tsunami of books, movies and television shows that feature vampires, werewolves, zombies and assorted supernatural elements.  Some are better than others and I'm too ashamed to tell you how many times I've read the entire "Twilight" series.  I once watched the movie every day for thirty days in a row...but that's my problem (one of them, at least).  Some thngs are scarier than others, depending on your childhood experiences:  visits to the dentist, prostate exams for men, and the fear of what kind of comments health professionals make to relieve the tedium when we're out cold on the surgical table.

If you're wondering where I'm going with this.....well, I just got finished filling out a shaft of paperwork for a, um, oh christ, I'll just say it...a colonoscopy.  There, are you happy?  Can you sit there reading this and lie to me electronically that you don't have a little snarking smile on your face?  I don't want to go.  I hate it.  But I have a family history that is scarier than the prospect of undergoing the procedure.  And the 24-48 hours before the procedure are more frightening than the colonoscopy itself.  You can either drink a gallon of a foul-tasting powdered mix or endure a 32 to 40 pill regimen.  The recommendation is to prepare yourself to spend 1-2 days on a toilet.  Some wise-ass recommended stocking the bathroom with your favorite magazines or a book you've been meaning to read.  Avoid tear-jerkers as you'll be losing enough fluid already to cancel out all the anti-pollution efforts of the last two years for the Chesapeake Bay.  At least during the colonoscopy, you'll be sedated while the surgeon plays "Where's Waldo" in your plumbing.

Quite by coincidence, an email popped up in my inbox today from a popular company that specializes in customer reviews of local service providers such as contractors, repair men, etc.  Today's topic was, "Does colon hydrotherapy provide a healthy flush?"  Now I don't know about you, but I'm not all that keen on getting this advice alongside roofing repairs and lawn maintenance.  Apparently this practice is called a 'colonic' and people actually pay to have it done to rid their body of 'toxins'.


This is where my basic childhood fears come into play.  My mother wouldn't have known a 'colonic' from a hole (sorry) in the ground, but she was a big fan of monitoring her kids' bowel habits.  If you didn't poop for two days, she'd loom large in the hall with the.....drum roll, please....enema bag.  I hated that orange bag with the hose and hook and would go to any length to stay beyond the reach of that nozzle.  She didn't give a fig about toxins.  We knew what she was really after....and I'm not shi**ing you.

So, be kind to me for the next few weeks as I face down the gastroenterologic boogieman, the professional spelunker.  At least mom never had a camera and it was over quickly once she could grab hold of you and plant a knee in the middle of your back.  Just don't call me on the phone until its over because I'll be holding on desperately to my Kindle...and my voice might sound a little strained.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Living single tends to bring certain urges to the forefront.  Initially you go a little crazy at the freedom, but it's a scary world out there, fraught with danger and disease.  So you look for safer alternatives, weighing online reviews comparing power, options, noise level and price.  Some wax euphoric over the versatility of their purchase while others emphasize size and speed.  I agonized for weeks, wavering over whether to choose the less expensive utilitarian device, the Ferrari level beast or somewhere in between.  One thing it had to have was an extended warranty because if it performed as promised, I'd be using it frequently.  And it had to be quiet.  I've never forgotten the time I was settling into my seat on a flight to Boston and something started buzzing in my bag that I'd shoved under the seat in front of me.  Two twenty-something guys across the aisle started snickering as I dug frantically through the bag until I emerged victorious with an electric toothbrush.  I made a show of turning it off as my face flushed furiously.

I know what you're thinking...why in the world is she talking about something this private in a public forum?

Because I bought it.  It has been delivered to my doorstep by an unsuspecting UPS driver.  And I'm so crazy about it that I use it every day.  It's shiny, black and heavy, powered by a single auger drive.  This 6-in-1 model is the awesome Samson Masticating Juicer.  That would be a nasty name if it were actually what I know you were thinking it was.

Once I'd lived alone long enough for my cooking enthusiasm to wane, I realized that I wasn't getting enough vegetables and decided to do something about it that didn't involve regular stints at the stove.  On a visit to my daughter's she introduced me to something I'd previously dismissed when I saw 90 year-old Jack LaLanne exhorting audiences in his jumpsuit.

My 7 year old granddaughter happened to be at my home the weekend the machine arrived and we lined up carrots, apples and greens to shove into the thing.  I couldn't get it to start until she threw a long-suffering glance my way and said, "Nana, it won't start because you keep pressing the 'off' button."  Once that technical issue was dispensed with, we eagerly pushed veggies through the auger and watched as juice trickled into one container and brightly colored fiber poop dropped into another.  My initial concoction was a beautiful light green as we each took a sip before recoiling in horror.

She waved her hand at her mouth, pleading for water which I quickly supplied for both of us.  I later found out that mustard greens lend a very peppery result in juice.  The carrot, apple and pear nectar combo was much more pleasing to the palate.  I don't look twenty years younger yet, but I'm comforted by the fact that I'm finally putting some beneficial elements down my gullet.  Now I look forward to more adventurous combinations and concoctions.  Just no more mustard greens.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

EDNOR SCARDENS - From Semi-eulogy to Four Book Fiction Series

A cardboard box landed on my front doorstep yesterday.  As the UPS truck drove off, I felt a bit like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings...springing out the door, grabbing the box and withdrawing back into my house cave.  Opened the box and carressing "my precious", I sighed happily that the day I held my printed book in my hands had finally arrived.

The journey from first putting pen to paper - alright, hand to laptop keyboard - had been a long one, and I wondered how many writers had traveled the same road I had.  I was sure that none had started the same way.  Most begin with the intention of writing a short story, novella or novel.  They jot down ideas or carry a germinating story seed in their head for varying lengths of time until, like a baby, it just has to come out.  My own process didn't even faintly resemble that.  My creation was born of fear. 

Allow me to backtrack a bit in explanation.  Years ago, my parents began the sad journey from independent living to assisted living, to nursing facility, and I was afraid that I'd be called upon to put together a eulogy for one or both of them.  I'd been fairly self-centered as a teen, and when I married a military pilot and moved away from home, I missed alot of the everyday things that my parents did.  Long distance phone calls were expensive, and we didn't have the luxury of extended discussions.  The end result was that I missed the opportunities to delve into my parents' past lives, to understand how things really were for them growing up.  My mom had a penchant for spinning yarns about her life whenever she wanted to make a point or issue an obligatory parental warning "from experience".  My sister-in-law and I used to call it "The World According to Irene".  As an example, when she first entered an Assisted Living community, each new resident was welcomed in the facility's newsletter with a brief spotlight based on their answers to general questions.  Mom listed her favorite hobby as ice skating.  She was in a wheelchair, so you get the idea.  Even if I had gotten the time to delve into her past, I'm not sure the answers would have been dependable.

With each family member's passing, my original core of relatives grew smaller, and I had a recurring dream that when my turn came, there would be no one at the service other than my own children and grandchildren.  And they wouldn't know squat about my life before I became their mom.  The dream always continued with one of them standing at the lecturn, fidgeting, and then realizing that they knew very little about me.  It sounds selfish, but who can control their dreams?

So to save them this embarrassment and assuage my fear of an ignominious send-off into the great unknown, I sat down one evening in 2009, intent on typing out a half-assed autobiographic page or two that I could email them for safekeeping until the eventual time came.  What I hadn't counted on was how much I would remember.  As I wrote down little vignettes to keep the account from reading like a timeline diagram, I became possessed.  When I finally looked away from the computer screen, dawn was breaking through the window.  Without realizing what I was actually doing, I sat there, night after night, for three weeks straight, until more than 350 pages had been disgorged.  Surely, my kids never wanted to know that much.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards contest caught my eye, so I edited like mad, changed the names of people and schools in the story and entered it.  Although I didn't make it to the final round, I wasn't willing to just let the manuscript sit, so I passed it around to family and friends, unaware that they were actually serving as beta readers. More changes came, adding and deleting to better suit a story that some would actually want to read.  It wasn't strictly autobiographical anymore, but the emotions of the main character still glowed in my brain.  I knew I couldn't let the story and the characters end there.  So I kept writing about them through  books 2, 3 and 4.  By the end of the Charm City Chronicles as I've dubbed them, the characters have matured into adulthood, some married, some living through tragedies and some succumbing to them.

I sent out query letters to literary agents and was encouraged by the number of requests I got for fifty page samples, but without magic, vampires and the like, I didn't find one willing to take a chance.  Then one day I got an email from the head of a nascent group...Fantasy Island Book Publishing, and the result is what you see in the photograph.  One journey has been completed, yet the most difficult one lies ahead:  marketing, media, social networking, and sales. 

And although they'll need to clarify which parts of the book are fiction vs. nonfiction, I don't think my kids will have as much trouble delivering a eulogy.  Just don't let let the opening line be, "The World According to Kathleen".         

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I took my seven-year-old granddaughter to Disney World for her birthday.  Yes, it was a ridiculously expensive present, but this past year has been all about the birth and cuteness of her new baby brother, so I decided that several days dedicated totally to her would be better than another box of clothes or the latest doll to hit the shelves.

She excitedly counted down the days before we stepped on the plane together, and she plugged herself contentedly into her iPod after the thrill of the rush down the runway.  As we sped through the clouds, I heard her singing to herself, “Baby, baby, baby……oh….” and knew that Justin Bieber was capturing her attention once again as he often does during our car rides together.  Her ability to memorize lyrics has vastly improved in the past year, and the result is often disconcerting as I hear her recite the rap streams that she and her friends practice while riding the bus to school.  She mimics Ludacris with, “She woke me up daily, don’t need no Starbucks.” 

Part of this is my own fault, as I often have music on when she’s in my house or car, and at times the lyrics are not always G-rated.  Some songs that sound so bouncy and fun turn into something rather different when the words come out of a teen-in-training’s mouth.  She LOVES Katy Perry, but I drew the line when she piped, “There’s a stranger in my bed, there’s a pounding in my head…I smell like a mini-bar….“  from the hit “Last Friday Night.”  Even I have sung along happily to songs like Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” without realizing it was about a kid taking a gun to school to shoot other students.

She has one foot in childhood, running full speed to the Mad Teacups ride and pining for an visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, while the other is planted in an adult society where she’s bombarded with suggestive television ads and songs with questionable lyrics.  She paints her nails and frets over whether she’s too fat to wear a bikini.  The child in her wants to hug the performers dressed in Disney character costume, but she declines when I ask her to stand with Minnie Mouse for a photograph.

At the end of one exhausting day at the Magic Kingdom, we wound down for sleep by watching one of the funny video shows with clips of babies and animals doing silly things.  A commercial came on with a scene promoting an upcoming movie.  A couple kissed and then the young man pulled off his shirt before proceeding to do the same for his girlfriend.  I managed to hit the channel selector before hers came off, and my granddaughter looked at me and asked, “Nana, do people always take their shirts off before they kiss?“  I quickly assured her that they do not.  Without skipping a beat, she added, “Did YOU ever take your shirt off when you kissed a boy?“

I’m all for giving truthful answers to kids’ questions IF it is appropriate, but I paused for a moment.  I knew that like most kids, she’d walked in on her mom and dad more than once in various stages of undress, so I flat out lied and told her I might have done it a few times but only with her grandfather after we were  married.  A cop-out, for sure.

As I watch her move in quantum leaps toward the awkward preteen years, I hope she keeps asking those questions.  As embarrassing as they can be, I want her to hear other voices….caring adult voices…to counter the too-much-too-soon culture we live in.  And I need to change the play lists on my iPod.     

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Every year during the month of October, we are bombarded by pink ribbon efforts to raise money for breast cancer research. As 1 in 6 women will be diagnosed with some stage of this disease in their lifetime, this is a much-needed effort to eradicate a disease that has touched so many families.
Updates from research teach us that by not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a schedule of regular checkups, we stand the best chance of surviving if we are one of the unfortunate people to develop breast cancer.

But have you ever wondered how different types of cancer compare in their funding? Lung cancer, which is the most common form of cancer, receives less than half the amount that goes to breast cancer. When I checked a chart with survival rates, the 20 year survival stats for breast cancer stand at 65%. That same rate for lung cancer is 6.5%.

Pancreatic cancer, one of the most devastating types of cancer, isn’t even in the top ten for funding as it affects fewer people....1 in 76. But the survival rate for these patients for even 5 years after diagnosis is a stark 4%. It is a virtual death sentence, because it is such a silent disease. By the time symptoms appear, the disease is so far advanced that most treatment has little or no effect on its progress.

Cancer is also the most common cause of death by disease in children. One in 300 children will develop some form of cancer before their 20th birthday.

So should cancer funding be focused on the most common or most deadly forms of this disease? And what makes fundraising efforts so successful in the case of breast cancer vs. other cancers?

The recent passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs serves as a ugly reminder of how relentless this disease is. The lack of affordable methods to both screen for this disease and treat it effectively suggest that we should be asking Congress to pass the Pancreatic Cancer Research & Education Act for the funding necessary to make progress against this disease.

As a 16-year, stage 3 breast cancer survivor, I’m grateful for the research that contributed to saving my life. Let’s push for the same sort of support to fight forms of cancer that even the brilliant Apple innovator’s millions couldn’t save him from.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's A Nice Homeschooled Girl From Maryland Doing in Nairobi????

This might sound like just another slick, pick-up line....admittedly, one that you wouldn't get to use too often.....but I got the chance to talk with a young woman just like this recently.  Kaylie Sauter is a soft-spoken twenty-four year old woman from Baltimore County who until a few weeks ago was teaching Art classes in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa.  And she's going back to do it again.

I was struck by her strong convictions and her courage, as I'm uncomfortable at times just walking in downtown Baltimore.  So, I decided to ask her why she has chosen this path.

Let's start with a little background.  When you were growing up in Maryland, what kinds of things were you involved in that planted the seed for your current endeavor?

Kaylie:  I've lived in the same house since childhood, in Baltimore County, Maryland. I was homeschooled and then attended Liberty Christian in Eldersburg. In high school I switched around between homeschooling and Mount de Sales Academy while I also attended Carroll and Catonsville Community Colleges. Upon graduation, I went to Houghton College in Upstate New York where I double majored in Art and Communications with a minor in Intercultural Studies - which took me to Tanzania for 4 months.

I vividly remember going to an orioles game with my dad when I was around 9 or 10 years old.  And I saw the same homeless man begging for money on the street before we walked in and again when we left. I decided I wanted to help and convinced my dad to give this man some money.  Afterwards I remember riding back to our parking lot in a shuttle bus and vowing to the Lord that I would dedicate my life to help people. The memory of that man has stuck with me ever since.
My parents encouraged generosity and loving those who have less.

What drew you to what you did and where you were this past year? What made you decide to return?

Kaylie:  I was living in Charlottesville and working with an accomplished oil painter, Malcolm Hughes, while living with my aunt and working part-time at a cheese shop.  But doing all of this still left me feeling restless.

I heard about an organization called BuildaBridge in Philadelphia and agreed to go to an annual event called the Arts Institute that attracts artists world-wide to provide training, networking opportunities, informative seminars, and hands-on arts experience.

I sat down to breakfast one morning with one of the founders of the organization, Dr Nathan Corbitt, and shared with him that I was looking for a way to use my artistic talents in a tangible way that would help those who are most in need. This is when he told me about the position in Kenya. He didn’t say IF you go to Kenya, but used the phrase “when you go to Kenya…”. He told me I would be teaching an art class in the Mathare slum, networking with groups of artists needing support in adopting a community-service mindset, and devloping marketing opportunities.  I would run art camps that BuildaBridge had created, similar to those they've begun in countries all over the world, called The Diaspora of Hope Art Camp.

After being there for a year I've developed deep and meaningful relationships, and I've seen the receptive enthusiasm of children and artists alike. The personal fulfillment of knowing that what I do can bring hope and healing to those living in the slums makes it a no-brainer for me to return.

Did you have any fears about going so far away and to such an impoverished area? Did you have difficulty convincing your parents to agree to it?

Kaylie:  My parents have been great in their support and recognizing that as an adult I can make my own decisions.  They respect that.  I'm careful and take realistic precautions such as not traveling late at night or venturing deep in the slums. Initially, I was fearful of pickpocketing or stealing and was very cautious even walking outside my door.  Now I'm much more relaxed in general.

Have you had any close calls as far as your personal safety is concerned?

Kaylie:  I was mugged at gun point because some guys wanted my computer that I was carrying, but besides that, no!

Have there been any funny incidents or language-related problems due to the very different backgrounds that you and your students/co-workers have?  Anything that made your students look at you like you had three heads due to cultural differences?

Kaylie:  People in Kenya are charged by the minute for their phone use, so when you want to get someone to call you but you don't want to use your own money, you can call just so the phone rings and then quickly hang up… this then shows the person you called and they will feel compelled to call back. This is called “flashing”. In my language, however, flashing means taking off your clothes  So when people would say, “I will flash you”, I thought in my head- please NO!
Have there been any heartbreaks for you in your relationships with your students? 

Kaylie:  My students come from abusive homes, some even physically abusive, and both the mental and physical scars they carry are heartbreaking.
How do you sustain hope in the face of such deprivation and trauma that your students experience? 

Kaylie: I use the arts to teach the children about hope, even in this hard world they were born into. I encourage them individually every chance I get. I speak kindly to them, asking them to dream and challenge their thinking. I visit their homes. I initiate art camps during the holidays so they have something to look forward to. I point them to Christ, who offers himself as their eternal hope.

Anything you'd like to add.......especially if readers would like to make a donation to help support your work?  

Kaylie: Checks can be made out to "Kenya Project" and mailed to: BuildaBridge International, 205 West Tulpehocken Street, Philadelphhia, PA 19144    Anyone kind enough to help should include their name, address, phone number and email.  They should also specify whose work they are supporting (Kaylie Sauter), as we are volunteers.

Here is a link to the video which Kaylie created about her year in Kenya.  The images are gorgeous and unforgettable!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Five Dollar Love Letter

The story began sensibly enough, explaining how the U.S. Postal Service is going bankrupt.  Stop gap measures weren't going to help, said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in his Congressional testimony, as salaries and benefits comprise 80% of the organization's annual budget.  The rise of electronic mail has caused a dramatic decrease in revenue, he explained.  Ya think? 

Mr. Donahoe is the second highest paid government employee, second only to President Obama and one step ahead of Vice President Biden.  If first class mail volume has plunged, why hasn't the USPS behemoth shrunken accordingly?  Most of us communicate and pay bills via email and phone, using the mail service for things we can't handle in that manner.  The U.S. taxpayer would probably save money if the U.S. government offered free internet service and public computer stations instead.  Times have changed, but bureaucracy crawls, unable to adjust quickly enough.

He warned of the end of Saturday mail delivery.  I don't know about you, but I'm quaking in my boots at the thought of having to wait until Monday for my junk mail.  Cutbacks to three days a week delivery?  Bring it on.

The most bizarre part of the hearing came courtesy of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill who lamented the absence of handwritten letters from her children.  She groused that she had to impose a rule, forbidding her college-attending progeny to send her text message requests for money.  "I was getting this gibberish spelling 'need money 2day'.  It's ridiculous!"  Is this woman in the early stages of dementia?  Do you have any idea how much we just paid to have her parenting rant entered into the Congressional Record?  Even worse, is she representative of who is in charge of running our country's affairs?  Gather closer, dear readers, to hear her idea to save the U.S. Postal Service.  She wants someone to come up with a marketing campaign to promote the "value of the written someone you love".  She prosthelytizes that we would all be surprised how far it would go to stabilize the Postal Service's budget.  Senator McCaskill has simultaneously made me embarrassed to be both female and a boomer.  I'm surprised that she isn't a member of the Tea Party, spouting that kind of idiocy.

Can someone please force Jon Stewart to become Dictator Emeritus of the United States of America?" width="512" height="288" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowFullScreen="true" allowScriptAccess="always" base="." flashVars="">

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The whole idea behind air travel is that it’s supposed to be faster and easier than other modes of transportation.  In the early days of the industry, it was even considered glamorous.  People dressed up to take a flight….men wore suits and ties, women wore hats, gloves and heels.  You were allowed to take more than one suitcase without having to auction off your eldest child.  An all-female crew of stewardesses offered you a choice of lunch or dinner menus in addition to beverages.  Those times are long gone.  People dress one level above just rolled out of bed.  If your flight is delayed, you could starve if you unwisely chose an airline other than Jet Blue or Southwest, who still sling mini-packets of peanuts and chips to the masses.  You can expect to be felt up/patted down by people who are paid to do it.  Male and female flight attendants stalk the aisles, ordering you to turn off your phone/computer/ipod, close your tray table and bring your seat into an upright position.  Seating space is small, and I always manage to snag a seat assignment next to a man with an intestinal gas problem.   

Until recently, my travel experiences haven’t been too bad, and the only horror stories I knew were the ones I’d read about happening to other people.   I knew my turn would come one day, but I never thought my trip would rival the slave galleys of centuries past.  It’s an outrageous comparison, but I was impressed that I’d actually paid for the privilege. 

Welcome to FML Airlines.  If you aren’t familiar with the abbreviation, I invite you to google it.  I’d rather not start using the “F” word in my blog.  How silly of me to think that just because I’d forked over a couple of hundred dollars for a “confirmed” ticket and seat, that I’d actually get to the destination I’d booked. 

Has anyone noticed that there are still people working at the terminal counters even though we go online and make our own reservations, print our own boarding passes and haul our own small bags on and off the plane?  What do they do?  I can tell you…..they pick up little microphones and announce in garbled fast food drive-through lexicon that your flight no longer exists.  They have a stash of fortune cookies behind their desk from which they pull an assortment of reasons:  maintenance ‘issues’, weather delays, bird strikes, etc.  I fully expect to see a YouTube spoof to rival the wedding party rendition of Chris Brown’s “Forever”.  Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, I envision TSA and Airline workers singing, Lily Allen’s  ”Never Gonna Happen” as they waive bouquets of boarding passes for nonexistent flights.

My first brush with air slavery was a 4:30 p.m. nonstop flight from Birmingham, AL to Baltimore, MD that was supposed to take 2 hour flight.  To summarize it briefly, after sequential imprisonment at the gate and on the tarmac, I landed after 11:00 that night due to maintenance issues and plane substitutions.  I thought it was a fluke.  Ah, but this past Monday was a payback for years of trouble-free travel.  After leaving my home at 9:30 in the morning for a 12:15 flight (also to Birmingham),  I learned soon after that the flight was delayed due to the ubiquitous maintenance issues, which meant I would miss my connecting flight in Charlotte, NC.  The airways were clogged with passengers whose flights had been cancelled over the weekend due to Hurricane Irene, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy for the agent to find a substitution.  The only thing he could arrange was to fly from Baltimore to Chicago……six hours later……and then from Chicago to Birmingham.  I took it, but worried that I’d be stranded in Chicago if the rest of the day went the way it had begun.

As I waited in Chicago for the connection, I raged inwardly when I saw the gate agent pick up the P.A. microphone to announce that there would be a delay because the plane had hit a bird.  We did take off an hour later and I landed in Birmingham a little after 10:00 that evening….over 12 hours after leaving my house that morning.

That’s how long it takes to DRIVE to Birmingham from Baltimore, and if I had car newer than the 13 year old Honda that sits in my driveway, I would have done that…and saved about $300.  Just think, I’m only about 100 trips away from paying for a brand new Prius.  


Thursday, August 25, 2011


In 2006 I moved, returning to my home state of Maryland after spending 36 years in New Jersey, Florida, California, Virginia, Puerto Rico and Louisiana.  If you guessed ex-Navy  I repatriated to Maryland for two reasons:  family and New Orleans' weather.  For six months out of every year, I was a nervous wreck, watching weather forecasts over my shoulder from June through the first of December.

I'd been relatively lucky, and experienced just two partial house floodings that weren't related to hurricanes.  Both were related to excessive rainfall.  I'd lived in that house for years with no problems, but a combination of poor landscaping, fencing and a neighbor who installed an inground pool sounded the death knell.  After the first flooding, I put in new carpeting and decided to purchase flood insurance.  If you're familiar with flood insurance, you'll know that there is a 30 day period before the policy takes effect.  So, about 22 days after I purchased it, we had 21 inches of rain in 24 hours.  My kids still laugh at my futile attenpt to help the yard drain.....pushing water out of the gate with a broom.  I also knelt on the kitchen floor and cried, praying that the inevitable wouldn't happen.  God probably had too many other people to listen to that night.

Ever since then, my nerve endings would fire up whenever I heard anything approaching torrential rain.  I kept a list of things to pile into the car after having to evacuate twice in the path of hurricanes that missed us:  family photo albums, silver flatware and jewelry(looters), two dogs and a cat.  As August of 2005 came around with its stank heat and humidity, I watched the usual reports of yet another storm forming with an uncertain destination.  As the storm grew in size and intensity, heading toward the bullseye of New Orleans in the form of Hurricane Katrina, I joined the caravan of evacuees and headed toward Natchez, Mississippi to one of the few hotels that allowed animals.  Due to the scarcity of rooms, we were only able to secure a room with two twin beds.  You can only imagine being in that room for four days with the following:  me, my daughter, her then-husband, a 7 year old, 5 year old, 1 year old, two black labs, two cats, a Siberian Husky and a Malamute. 

When my daughter announced she would rather kill herself than stay another night, an old boyfriend of hers invited us to stay with him in Nashville, Tennessee.  I'm inclined to nominate him for sainthood as we stayed there for nearly two weeks before the authorities in Louisiana would allow us to return.   

As anxious as I was to return home, nothing could have prepared me for what I found.  Just a mile from my house, I asked my daughter where we were.  The devastation as we drew closer was unimaginable.  My own home fared far better than most to the south and east of me.  As I opened the front door, the smell of the refrigerator-freezer was stunning.  We bungied it up and hauled the entire unit to the curb.  There was no savlation for that appliance.  There was black mold piled several inches atop my favorite oriental carpet in the family room and forming on the baseboards.  We pulled up the carpeting and padding to join the refrigerator.  I'd had a new roof put on the house the month before (darn it!) which held up well, but lost several sections of the 6 foot privacy fence.  A possum had taken up residence in the garage.

Adding insult to injury, my insurance company denied my flood claim, but having worked in insurance previously, I knew they were wrong.  I argued policy wording with them for nearly two months before I wrote to the White House.  Within a week, the regional superintendant of FEMA came out to the house and decided that my insurance representative must be smoking crack.....of course, it was a covered loss.

So, I finally had the repairs completed, sold the house and moved back home.  Now, I sit at my laptop writing this blog while I keep checking the weather reports for the projected paths of Hurricane Irene.  I've raided my bathroom cabinet for sleep aids and leftover painkillers to suppress the anxiety which swells with each passing hour.  If I didn't have to babysit this weekend, I'd be cozying up to multiple bottles of rum on Sunday.  As far as I'm concerned, Katrina and Irene are both nasty bitches.  I hope God hears me this time.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Usuallty I read a book before I will see the movie based on that book, but I made an exception when I went to see "The Help".  As I sat in the theater, alternating between laughter and tears, I wondered what it is that makes people cry.  Well, I can't speak with any authority about anyone other than me, but I've come to realize that it is the human face and the written or spoken word.

When I was much younger, I didn't cry about much, other than tears of extreme frustration when I couldn't figure out how to do something...usually math.  To this day, I still think algebra sucks.  Once I reached adulthood and had a baby, something happened.  Some sort of biological switch was flipped.  After that and even today I cry over too many things and not all of them deserve the salty exudate.

I can't stand in a crowd and sing "The Star Spangled Banner" without feeling the moisture brim in my eyes.  This makes no sense to me as I'm not a USA-chanting zealot.  When I took a trip to Italy a few years ago with my sister-in-law to her ancestral home of Boiano, we visited a nearby cemetery and I was overcome, hurriedly wiping away tears.  There wasn't a soul there that I knew or loved, but the Italian custom of embedding photographs on the grave markers was heart-rending.  If the grave's occupant hadn't lived long enough to have a formal photograph taken, as was often the case with children, the photos were taken after death, with their little bodies surrounded by floral tributes.  All I could think of was the broken lives of the parents and families left behind.

Yesterday I drove to Gettysburg, PA to visit some old friends who were traveling the country in an RV.  We saw a film and visited a magnificent museum dedicated to the tens of thousands of soldiers who died there during the civil war.  The faces of the young soldiers, so many in their teens, whose bodies lay with diaries and pictures of wives, girlfriends or children in their uniform pockets tore my heart to pieces.

Sometimes the mind creates a visual, prompted by reading something sad.  You may think it ridiculous, but I can't read E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" to myself or aloud to a child without my voice breaking when I come to the part where the spider dies.  The first time I ever heard of this classic story was when my then three-year-old son watched the movie on television.  When Charlotte expired, he turned to me and asked in an unsteady little voice, "Did Charlotte die?"  I nodded numbly as tears rolled down my cheeks and he ran from the room, crying "I'm never watching television again!".  Even White, the author, wasn't immune to the power of his own writing.  When he narrated the audiobook of "Charlotte's Web", he struggled through seventeen takes before he could get through it without betraying his own emotions.  White paced in agitation, berating himself and mumbling, "This is ridiculous.  I'm a grown man, crying over an imaginary insect."  And yes, spiders aren't insects, but that's what he reportedly said.

Things don't even have to be sad to make me cry.  If something is funny enough, I'll laugh until I cry.  If you've seen or read "The Help", and recall the chocolate pie scene, you'll know a prime example of that.

So go something strange or unexpected that makes you cry.  Just don't expect me to sit here dry-eyed while I read it.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Until just recently, I kind of prided myself on keeping up with the news and current events in general, listening to national and local news broadcasts, reading the Baltimore Sun daily, and several weekly/monthly magazines. After all, the downfall of civilization begins when its citizens leave government to the crazies.

On a recent 1-1/2 week trip, I left my laptop at home to devote my attention to family and was rewarded with inboxes filled with 1500 emails that I’ve only recently recovered from. Now I’m getting ready to take 6 year old Emma to the beach for a few days and don’t know if I can stand going through that ordeal again.

It’s been a brutal week with the wild gyrations of the financial markets, the report of over half a million children on the brink of starvation in Somalia, and the devastating loss of so many Special Forces troops. The cup of human kindness is looking pretty empty, and I need a break.

There’s not much I can do about the Dow. I spent so much money raising kids and grandkids that the only assets I have now are my 401K, half of my townhouse and a 13 year old car. The first two are only worth about two-thirds of what they were just a couple of years ago, and the car....well, everyday that it runs is one more day that I don’t have to worry about replacing it. Several months ago, it used to cause me enough anxiety that I actually secured a job at a local department store, but I freaked out while trying to learn how to use the computerized cash register. The sales goals seemed so unreachable that my hair started falling out, so I quit after the one-day training session and bought a box of Little Debbie Zebra cakes..

Now I write novels and hope that someday I’ll actually see some of them in bookstores. Oh, that’s right, all the bookstores are closing.

When I saw the empty eyes of the Somalian children, I felt ashamed of my pettiness, and rethought my plan to re-enter the world in another body after death. I lucked out landing here this time around. Shirley MacLaine better be careful.

Newscasts of tearful parents pleading for the return of their missing and/or murdered children plunge me into temporary depression and make me pick up the phone to call my own.

So, I’ve decided to declare a moratorium on news, concentrating on packing for the beach. It would take me about five minutes to pack for myself alone, but with the six year old, I actually have to make a list, making sure to bring bread for the seagulls, a stuffed sleeping buddy (other than me), and a fully-charged iPod.

I think I’ll pack some of those for me too.    

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ARREST ME......Please!

How many times can I be arrested?

It’s pretty hard to read or watch the news without being alternately horrified and laugh-out-loud amused at the things that human beings do.

The blurb about the man who let his 8 y.o. son drive his truck on the interstate while the guy slept, intoxicated, in the back beside his 4 y.o. daughter left me shaking my head, but when you think about just the everyday things we do, it really isn’t all that difficult to be ticketed or even arrested. I wondered how many things I could do to bring it on purposely.

When I woke up, I turned my iPod/Bose unit up loud enough for my neighbors to call the police. I walked the unleashed dog and left his bag of poo on the sidewalk. I hate carrying that stuff! Since I only had one bag with me, when he poo’d again, I didn’t clean it up. After dressing for the day, I left the house to go to the post office, leaving my purse and driver’s license in the house while I exceeded the 25 mile an hour speed limit with an unrestrained child and a dog in the back seat. The package that I mailed contained a bottle of wine. I took the clerk’s pen.

I stopped by a local nursery and bought two tomato plants with a check from an old closed bank account. When I got home, I selected a spot in the common area of my townhouse development. Since we’re not allowed to raise vegetables on our own property, I planted one there too. The framing around my front door was looking a bit worse for wear, so I painted it orange….not an “approved” color., and hung my laundry out to dry (also not allowed).

After dumping some old paint down the street drain, I left the can in the paper-only recycle bin and decided that I liked my library book too much to bother returning it.

My errands left me feeling hungry, so I had lunch at a nearby restaurant and walked out without paying the check. After all, a crowd was gathering around the kid and dog who looked a little sweaty while waiting in the car. When I returned home, I could hear the garbage collection truck’s motor rounding the corner. I couldn’t miss it again, so I dashed out of the shower and placed the trash can by the curb. Why should it be such a big deal that I didn‘t have any clothing on?

Before heading home, I decided to cool off by tubing on the nearby Gunpowder River. After parking the car on some guy's front lawn (not my fault that there weren't any spaces left on the street) and renting a tube, I secured my cooler of beer, flopped onto the rubber surface and drained a can of beer. There weren’t any trash cans nearby, so I tossed the empty into the woods. Deer will eat anything, won't they?

It had been a trying day, so I decided that I needed a sleep aid. The stuff had expired, so I flushed the capsules down the toilet.

Ridiculous? Yes, for the most part, but for better or worse I did it as a small illustration of how closely our lives and activities are governed by those we vote into office. Let’s face it, the majority of laws are created in order to protect us from the criminal and thoughtlessly harmful acts of others. I’m thankful that I live in a country where citizens and lawmakers care enough to at least try to keep my food sanitary, my water clean and my neighborhood safe. It helps to remind myself when I send those quarterly tax payments….from the bank account that actually has enough money in it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


A recent report, based on the latest census figures, shows that more American women are choosing not to have children.  Twice as many older women are childless today compared to those in the 1970's, and those numbers are expected to rise significantly over the coming decades.  What has caused this shift?  Apparently education and economics are the primary movers, or it just means more of us have given in to the impulse to murder our husbands and drown our children.

The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to be childless.  Education provides more options for women, and children are seen as less important for a sucessful marriage.  Economics and the increasing costs of raising children certainly factor in to the decision to procreate as well as the number of times that we have unprotected sex after a drunken party.  In years past, childcare was often provided by members of the extended family.  But that situation is much rarer today, despite the high number of Baby Boomers.  Today's grandparents aren't as stupid as their ancestors.  As soon as the kids get married, we sell the family home and move to a tax haven state like Florida or Delaware, whichever is further away.  

This sea-change might be good if it actually resulted in a drop in population and, therefore, less strain on the nation's resources.  Yet the country's population continues to grow, thanks to immigration (both legal and illegal), and overall birth rates.

To me, the frightening part of all this is WHO is choosing to remove themselves from the future generational pool:  the more educated, more affluent women.  Does it mean that every woman with an advanced degree and money would be a great parent?  And, conversely, are poor, uneducated women bad parents?  Of course not.  But as academic test scores continue to decline, parents spend more time at their jobs out of economic necessity, and kids spend the dwindling family time attached to ipods and ipads, I'm afraid of the fallout.

Interestingly, if I were 20-25 years old again, I would choose to be single, pursing a professional career, and not sure if I really wanted kids.  So, yes, I'm worried about me when I return for my second life.  Maybe I'll even laugh when I read this then-prehistoric blog posting.     

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heat Wave of Memories

Even with the perspective of having lived approximately 20 years in the New Orleans area, my recent road trip from Boston to Birmingham, Alabama brought a mixture of both unexpected and forgotten memories. My youngest daughter and her husband were moving and I pitched in to help, since the process is never easy - especially when two dogs, two cars and a ten week old infant are added to the mix.

My role was that of back seat nanny: entertaining, feeding, soothing and praying that the inevitable diaper explosions would mercifully synchronize with periodic roadside stops. (Note that the between-the-legs infant carseat straps do redirect diaper deposits.)  As we traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line, it was surprising how far north the viney stranglehold of kudzu had progressed, enveloping trees, shrubs and even groundcover.

We shunned the ever-present cabinets of donuts at gas stops, preferring to hold out for an actual Krispy Kreme store, where the masses of round dough ride the rollers into a curtain of warm glaze. Breakfast had to be at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, where the pancakes are laden with fruit, syrup and whipped cream.  I've been away from the south for long enough to pass on the biscuits and pale, gluey sawmill gravy.  If you don't know what Cracker Barrel is, it's a large, wooden building that is usually filled with old white people.  The cashiers must be on commission there, because each one reminded me that the bags of candy were on sale, and at two bags for $3, I'd save nine cents on each bag.  They waxed poetic on the beauty of the featured counter item:  a battery-operated lightning bug in a mason jar that would beat the band on anyone's patio table.

We returned to yet another CB restaurant for dinner in an effort to avoid as much fast food as possible. I ordered a salad entree in a laughable attempt to hold down the calorie count, asking for ranch dressing on the side. When the waitress brought a small bowl of orange goop, I asked naively if their ranch was that hue. She had a momentary deer-in-the-headlights look before apologizing profusely, explaining in a thick drawl "Oh, I'm so sorry! I thought you wanted FRANCH dressing." There was no longer any doubt about where we were.

Every building was air-conditioned to a degree that the baby needed a blanket to prevent outcries of discomfort at the temperature transition. The frequency with which we passed churches multiplied rapidly. There were 50 foot tall lighted crosses outside of some warehouse-size places of worship. Men stood at intersections beside their parked vans, surrounded by homemade signs, warning passersby - via handheld microphones - to repent, as Judgment Day was coming soon.

The humidity slowly enveloped us like airborne kudzu as we located the green and white Krispy Kreme store. Our skin goosefleshed at the blast of cold air as we entered. We gripped our coffee cups as we bit into a piece of heaven and felt the glaze crackle like a fine veneer that enrobed the still-warm donuts. Outside, a family group sat at a small table and perused the menu while their infant - clothed only in a disposable diaper - sat placidly on the concrete sidewalk, picking up foreign objects and placing them in his mouth. My daughter recoiled slightly at the scene, instinctively clutching her daughter protectively. I smiled inwardly, understanding both the non-chalance of the seasoned parents and the alarm of the brand new ones.

Once we arrived in Birmingham and unloaded the cars, our footsteps echoed in the mostly empty house they'd rented.  The dogs were delighted to have a fenced back yard as we walked around, checking out the patio and marveling at the raucous evening chorus of the cicadas and other insects.  My son-in-law counted nearly twenty mosquito bites on his legs by the time we reteated to the cool interior.  The inflatable beds they'd brought were certainly better than sleeping on the wooden floor, but I couldn't put my finger on why I felt so cold at night.  The next morning, I realized that the air vents were placed at the base of the walls in every room.  I still haven't figured out why.....I mean, heat RISES, and cold air FALLS, right? 

Near the end of my stay, I babysat while the young couple enjoyed dinner at a recommended restaurant.  They marveled at the nearby garage that offered free parking (unheard of in Boston), and the half-price bottles of wine because it was Sunday.  My daughter forgot one of the cardinal rules of dining out:  never order a regional specialty when you aren't in that particular region.  In the excitement of an evening's freedom, she ordered a caprese salad and got tomato slices topped with grated Kraft mozzarella cheese.

We clung to each other and cried when it was time for me to return home, but I had to smile as I glanced over her shoulder to see an El Camino stop at the curb and drop off a man in seersucker pants. You gotta love it.