How Taft may have gotten out of the tub

We are having lunch with several of the grands, eating on plastic placemats that feature the United States presidents on one side and the three branches of government on the other. They are old placemats, as the last president shown is Clinton—and it is Bill, not Hillary.

“Who is that one by Roosevelt?” one of the girls asks.

taft-2
The story that Taft got stuck in the tub is a slippery one.

“That is Taft. He was the heaviest President in history.” History with Grandma is fun because, one, Grandma is old enough she might actually have been there and, secondly, even if Grandma wasn’t there, she tells the story like she was. “The man weighed more than 300 pounds,” I say, as though I was there for the weigh-in.

Clearly they are disturbed by the news. Attempting to ease their anxiety, I say “He probably should have eaten more vegetables.”

“I’d like to know more about Taft,” one says wryly, insinuating that my claim about Taft’s bulk warrants verification.

“There is a story that he was so big he got stuck in the bathtub.”

“Grandma!” they shout in unison, as though I am telling such a whopper that lightning may strike.

“It’s true,” I say.

“I’d like to see the tub,” states the skeptic who will one day be a prosecuting attorney.

We look it up on the Internet and see that it was a tub specially built to hold four men and, in fact, four fully-clothed men are pictured sitting in the tub.

taft-tub

They are quiet, mulling over the dilemma. How could one man get stuck in a tub, when they have seen as many as four of their little cousins fit in the tub at a time?

“Did they have phones?” says the one, who at age 5 is the unofficial event planner in the group.

“Honey, not even a smart phone could have helped the man get out.”

“Why didn’t he just hold onto the bathtub and jump?”

“He was wedged,” I said. “The story is that they tried using butter — ”

“That wouldn’t work,” interrupts the event planner. “Curious George got his leg stuck in a trash can and at first the Man in Yellow used butter but it didn’t work, so they had to call the fire people. They had to use a saw to cut George out. Maybe they sawed the bathtub, spread it and then he got out.”

“Maybe,” I say.

“Or, or, or!” Her brain is at full-throttle and in problem-solving mode. “He must have filled the bathtub more because when you fill it with water—fill it up super high—he could go higher and take a breath and then pull up.”

The prosecuting attorney remains skeptical and unconvinced. She jumps off her chair and exits the kitchen saying, “I just wanted to know how he got out.”

The event planner, satisfied that either a fire department arrived and used Jaws of Life or that Taft dislodged himself relying on the mechanics of displacement, gazes at the placemat then ruefully says, “My favorite president was Washington, but now it’s this one – Tadd.”

 

 

 

 

 

Mom’s lesson: give generously

My mother was a giver. The woman loved to give. The occasion never mattered – weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, Ground Hog Day, Arbor Day or no occasion at all.

She was always thinking about who might enjoy what. She once bought a deluxe toy firetruck that had flashing lights, sirens and a ladder, and kept it on a closet shelf for months until a nephew retired from the fire department.

weekly-wrap32She always wrapped her gifts with loveliness and care. Sometimes she’d take wedding gifts to the gift wrap counter at the department store thinking they could do a better job. She didn’t really believe they could do a better job, she was just checking to make sure her own skills still rivaled theirs.

Thoughtfulness and creativity went into the gifts she gave and she appreciated a thank you note. Once she sent out a note to family members, her own deadbeat children and grandchildren who had not acknowledged gifts, stating that they were now on her “Fecal Roster” and would not be removed until she had received a proper thank you.

Even if you were a cad and didn’t send a thank you, she’d give you another gift the next chance she had. She figured bad manners were your problem, not hers.

The funny thing is, she didn’t come from a gift-giving background. She grew up in a large farm family during the Depression. She said she used to dread going back to school after Christmas because the teacher would always have them write about what they got for Christmas. Not being the sort to wallow in self-pity, my mother made up some fine stories brimming with an opulence unknown to the county.

She taught us to give, too. She told us not to be cheap or cut corners—and those weren’t suggestions; they were orders.

Every time Mom and Dad drove over to visit, there would be a ritual with all of us gathering in the driveway as they unloaded luggage and “a few things” she threw in for the family. There was always something for the kids, often a big container of homemade chocolate chip cookies or a couple of bags of candy that I said would rot their teeth and, quite frankly, was too cheap to buy.  They weren’t gifts for any particular occasion, they were simply “Isn’t life great?” gifts.

My mother wasn’t a schmaltzy person, but one spring when they came to visit, she handed me a gift bag billowing with tissue paper. Inside was an etching on glass that read: “A Special Daughter. So many of the good times we remember from the past happened because of you. You’ve brought laughter and joy to our lives and so much love to our hearts. The most precious things we can wish for you are the things you have given us . . . Happiness and Love.”

She mentioned that she’d given one to my sister-in-law as well.

Not long after that visit, Mom suffered a brain aneurysm and died.

Mom was a great gift giver, but the gifts we will always remember her for were her love for life and her love for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living life in a large way

Much of our flatware has seen the inside of the garbage disposal, which is why a number of our spoons can now double as grapefruit spoons. Some of the forks, also roughed up by the disposal, have become too dangerous to use and some of the knives have simply disappeared. I suspect they went on camping trips and did not return.

Being that our numbers have grown, and that there are frequently large groups here for meals, I was considering buying additional flatware. Flatware is not an exciting purchase. It ranks up there with dentistry—not something you enjoy paying for, but necessity requires it.

Surprised to see the exact same pattern of flatware I already own on sale, I bought a service for four, hoping to pad out the existing rag-tag collection at home.

When I opened up the new set, the pattern was the same, but all the pieces were bigger. It was Tour de France flatware, forks and spoons on performance-enhancing drugs. The new teaspoons looked like soup spoons and the soup spoons looked like serving spoons. The new salad forks were nearly the size of the old dinner forks and the new dinner forks were large enough to roast small game over an open fire.

I heard myself saying, “They didn’t look that big in the store.”  It was like cutting your own Christmas tree, getting it home and finding it doesn’t fit in the family room. “It didn’t look that big in the forest.”

Everything is supersized these days. Not just flatware, but dishes as well.

Someone mentioned juice glasses the other day and every woman over 50 laughed. Once upon a time juice was served in small glasses (glasses that had previously held pimento cheese, been washed out and repurposed); today we drink juice in the 64-oz big gulp.

And then I look at my coffee cup. Who am I kidding? My over-sized coffee cup holds two cups of coffee. If I have two cups some mornings, I’ve really had four. And the husband wonders why I’m sometimes irritable?

A salad at one of my favorite delis recently came in a big bowl the shape and size of those cones that dogs wear after surgery. Each time I leaned in for a bite, I couldn’t help but wonder how my sutures were doing.

Food itself has grown larger these days as well. A typical bagel is three servings of bread. “I’ll have a half a pound of cream cheese to go with that, please.” If muffins grow any larger they’ll need to be rolled out on dollies.

All of this is not without consequence. There is speculation that in addition to having height charts, we may soon need to keep width charts.

Even the tables we eat at and the chairs we sit in are larger—the Jack and the Beanstalk line of furniture. Our houses have grown larger, too. Note the high vaulted ceilings. Lovely. But who breathes up there? Nobody. Which is why you have to buy a large fan to force down large masses of heated air to warm the people sitting in the large chairs at the large table eating large portions off large plates with large flatware.

Is this what they meant by living large?

 

 

 

 

 

No Caesar salad on this list, but it rules!

The humble shopping list has finally been venerated to its rightful place in history. Archaeologists have discovered mundane lists written on shards of pottery dating back to 600 B.C. The lists may give new insight as to when books of the Old Testament were written, ancient literacy levels and, most importantly, what people were picking up on the way home from work.ancient grocery list

Is there anything as revealing as a shopping list? One of the ancient lists includes “wine, flour and oil.” This tells us that people centuries ago were drinking heavily, consuming carbs and fueling high cholesterol, which answers the question, “What would you do without the internet?”

It is a wonderful affirmation of humanity to learn that people have been making shopping lists for centuries. I, for one, always make a list before going to the store. Sometimes I even remember to take the list with me.

No doubt it would be harder to forget the list if it were written on pottery shards able to pierce my clothing or handbag and leave deep puncture wounds in my flesh. Perhaps those B.C. shoppers were onto something.

Often I leave the list on the counter, lose it in my purse or forget it in the car. I will find a crumpled list a month later and read it out of curiosity, only to discover that we are dreadful creatures of habit needing the same old wine, flour and oil again and again.

It appears the ancients had the same things on their lists over and over as well. One list called for “three baths of wine” and another for a “full homer of wine.” The lists appeared to be for items meant for delivery to a Greek mercenary outpost—their strategy being if they could keep them supplied with libations, they could keep them fighting. But hopefully not among themselves.

The most fun I ever had unearthing an ancient shopping list was when I put on a coat I hadn’t worn in several years and found a list in the pocket along with a twenty dollar bill. It was such an exhilarating discovery that sometimes I put on every coat in the hall closet hoping for a repeat discovery. Sometimes I even put on other people’s coats.

The ancient shopping lists recently unearthed appear to be written by men for men. I would venture to say that today it is women who most often write shopping lists for men. Few things are more dangerous than writing a short list for a hungry man. Write a shopping list for two dozen eggs and a hungry man will come home with two full grocery bags, both of which will be filled with nothing but tortilla chips, all things ranch and Sriracha. Lists were made to be broken.

This recent discovery is heartening on yet another front to those of us making the same old lists and often losing them. We are creating work for archaeologists of the future.

“Milk, lettuce and chicken breasts.” Wonder what they’ll make of it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E-books or print, same old story

There is no better way to stir a crowd than by asking whether they prefer reading books in print or books on a screen.

Lovers of paper will hold their noses high and claim there is nothing quite like holding a book in hand. You can highlight, underline, make notes in the margins and remember whether something you want to find later was on the left or the right.

Lovers of screens will hold their noses even higher and counter that they can make notations on downloads as well, and perform search and find functions.

Lovers of paper will then pull out the heavy guns and say, “Ah, but you can’t enjoy the smell of a book on a screen.”

Lovers of screens will snicker and say, “Ah, but the smell of a book is nothing more than the smell of must and mildew—for which there are numerous remedies you could read online.” With the ball in their court, lovers of screens will boast that they can carry an entire library on their person.

Lovers of books will say, “I thought you looked heavier.”

Lovers of books will question whether the lovers of screens value quantity over quality. At this point, you, having successfully stirred a heated debate, should excuse yourself to the appetizer table.

Personally, I am firmly in the camp that straddles the fence. I do the majority of reading online, but have a fondness for words on paper in my hand.

On my bedside table is a stack of theologians, philosophers, humorists and essayists—Audubon, Toqueville, Thurber and Twain. On the husband’s side of the bed there is no table. His stack builds from the floor up, books about photographers, artists, painters, the history of wars and the history of historians. I’ve said when his pile passes the height of the chair rail, he must thin the stack.

The man would sooner raise the chair rail than thin the stack.

Our grown children came of age with the digital revolution and the dawn of social media, yet they all prefer books in print. A Pew study recently found that the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29.

Of course, another study disputed the Pew study and said readers ages 18 to 29 just think they like books in print, but actually prefer reading in digital form.

At this conflicting juncture, the only thing for any of us to do is print out the study we find most disagreeable and then tear it up. It won’t change anything, but it is wildly satisfying to hear the sound of paper ripping.

The best selling point for traditional books is that they are cordless—the one thing we never need plug in at night. A book doesn’t go off, beep, chime or make noises of any sort.

A book is a quiet comfort. A book in hand becomes an extension of you, speaks to you, lulls you and quiets you. It slowly leaves your hands, nestles in the bed or tumbles the floor.

I rest my case. And my book.

 

 

 

 

 

No debate over cutting the cable

We officially became cord cutters—people who cut their cable television service. There are two types of cord cutters: those who are young and cool and hip and would rather livestream everything and those who are looking to save a buck.

Go ahead, guess which category we fall into.

I’m not saying the cost of cable is high, but we figure that with the savings we can take a nice three-day weekend trip somewhere. Or fund our retirement.

The truth is, our most recent cable service never worked. The television constantly froze and dropped the signal. It took the cable provider only a year and a half, three different modems and five line techs to our house to determine that the company never should have sold us cable, as we are 600 feet beyond their service range.

Being fairly easy going, we grew used to the cable signal intermittently dropping. It gave us time to do other things, like tidy up the kitchen, put in a small vegetable garden and read “War and Peace.” But the final straw was when the cable went out during the finale of Downton Abbey. We were left hanging. We’ll never know if Lady Mary was ever finally able to dress herself.

The only other itsy bitsy drawback to being cord cutters is that we may be getting a visit from Homeland Security. I wanted to watch the presidential candidates debate the other night (a glutton for punishment) and I found someone livestreaming them on YouTube.

When I eventually started paying close attention, I noticed a small inset screen in the top left of the big screen. It was the guy livestreaming the debates. He was crouched behind an open laptop, chain smoking and glaring. On the wall behind him were framed certificates I couldn’t quite make out, a flag of unknown origin and a large gun.

Suddenly, the man made the debate go small screen and he became large screen and began cursing a blue streak at the debaters.

“What’s going on in there?” the husband asked me from the next room.

“It’s not me,” I yelled. “I swear. No, I don’t swear. It’s not me swearing, it’s the man who used to be in the little picture, but is now in the big picture.”

“He sounds like an anarchist,” the husband yelled.

“I think he is. You should see his wall!”

Quickly, I tried to close down the livestream. I closed out the screen, but I could still hear the man ranting. I went from screen to screen, reopened and reclosed screens, but he was still yelling. (The man on YouTube, not the husband.)

“Shut that down,” the husband said.

Frantically, I clicked on screens. Closed them, opened them, closed them again.

“Override him with those old movies you’ve been watching. Do something.”

More clicking, more ranting. Eventually I disconnected from the site, but probably not before cyber intelligence took note of our ISP and labeled us as followers of the anarchist.

We’re going to put off the three-day weekend. We may need the cable savings for legal fees instead.

 

 

Chalk-free zones coming soon to a campus near you

 

There is no doubt as to what must happen following the Emory University scandal where students were traumatized after someone chalked “Trump 2016” around campus. Obviously, the time has come to ban chalk.

That’s right, Chalk Free Zones. No chalk permitted within 500 feet of a university campus.

Oh sure, I can hear some of you belly aching now saying, “Chalk doesn’t traumatize people; people traumatize people.” That line won’t fly. We saw them and we heard them. And Emory University President Jim Wagner saw them and heard them, too, which is why he invited them inside the administration building and gave them all milk and cookies (unconfirmed) to ease their distress.

It may have been Emory last week, but who knows where it will happen next. Breaking News! This just in – North Korea is dispatching regiments to chalk “Trump 2016” along the 38th parallel in an attempt to further intimidate South Korea.

Yes, we must ban chalk. Oh, put your pocket Constitution away, the right to keep and bear chalk is not in there. Until such a time as a chalk ban is in place, we will conduct chalk background checks (free eraser for saying that as fast as you can three times in a row).

What’s more, we will card those attempting to purchase chalk, although those under the age of six will still be permitted purchases.

Any schools that still have chalkboards in use must replace them with dry erase boards immediately. Governors, call out the National Guard if you must.

Furthermore, the makers of chalk must be held accountable. Senate hearings on the money-grubbing chalk producers must commence at once. It is time to drag their fingernails across the chalkboard. We will demand compensation for students traumatized by chalking and forced to seek their “safe place.” Makers of chalk must be fined heavily and forced to conduct chalk-safety programs.

Chalk aggression must end. Restaurants that chalk menus on the wall? Cease and desist. Hopscotch? No more, kids. All those crafters creating Pinterest boards on chalking? Delete.

What’s that? The President has just announced that mass chalking does not happen in other advanced countries.

No college student must feel unsafe—at any time or in any place – ever.

As for those of you howling that one in two people in some far away country have chalk and they have the lowest chalking rate in the world, I don’t believe the propaganda.

But I do believe that this group of students at Emory is our new reality. And so is this—some of tho se students may have a degree when they graduate, but they won’t have a clue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knowing everything is not enough

The first paper to run my column 25 years ago used to publish the Biblical text of the Resurrection every Easter on page one. Eventually, the text on page one was shortened and continued inside. Then the entire text moved inside. Soon, the text will likely disappear entirely.

Let’s be honest. We are outgrowing the need for faith. We’ve outgrown God. We’ve reached a point in science, technology and sophistication where many believe we can out-God God. We can do arm and face transplants. We can fertilize human eggs in petri dishes. We can erase portions of human memory. We revel in the triumphs of science. Behold the wonder of treeless paper.

We can now hear, know and see almost everything—into the far reaches of the galaxies and into the thoughts and minds of our fellow man. We can slip apps onto smartphones that allow us to access someone’s every move, text, email and phone call. Omniscience has been redefined by Silicon Valley.

Our ability to understand the human condition is unprecedented. We have a reason, rationale, therapeutic explanation, statistical analysis and talk show for every rotten behavior under the sun. The notion of sin is anathema.

A headline on the Salon website proclaimed Christians, evangelicals in particular, synonymous with bigotry and abject stupidity. (How’s that tolerance thing working for you, Salon?) Faith is openly disdained in many quarters, an embarrassing relic to be purged from the public square.

And yet . . .

And yet there are times we’re not nearly as omniscient and omnipotent as we thought. Sitting beside a loved one gasping for life’s final breaths, stunned by the news on the other end of the phone or engulfed by the unimaginable, every fiber of our being cries out. Those anguished cries are rarely for science or statistics, they are the deep cries of a human heart pleading with God to make sense of the mystery.

Likewise, in parallel moments of beauty beyond comprehension—the incoming tide, the sunrise, holding the loved one who survived or embracing the prodigal who has returned—our hearts burst with thanksgiving and wonder in gratitude to the God who is there.

Maybe we haven’t outgrown the need for God after all. Perhaps we’ve simply filled what French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal referred to as every man’s “God-shaped vacuum” with creature comforts, distractions, ease and entertainment.

In places where creature comforts are scarce and oppression is routine, the need is more palpable. Reports from Iran are that as many as one million Christians now meet secretly in underground churches, risking imprisonment or death.

Practice of the Christian faith may not be as safe as it once was, but there was never anything culturally safe about Christ. So why does the Christian faith not only continue, but continue to grow? Pascal claimed that the God-shaped vacuum “cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

This Easter, Christians circling the globe, in climates of both safety and danger, will celebrate with joyful voices and quiet whispers the cherished hope and promises of Christ.

 

How do you spell master communicator?

File this under our ever-growing chronology of amusing stories of the increasingly hearing-impaired.

I am making dinner and the husband is working on his computer at the kitchen table when one of the grands runs into the kitchen and breathlessly asks, “Grandpa, how do you spell Kate?”

She is clutching an index card and marker. Clearly it is a matter of great urgency. The kids are playing school and making a nametag for the youngest (the youngest in any crowd routinely having little-to-no say in the roles which they are cast).

“What was that?” he asks, looking up from the computer.

“How do you spell Kate?” she asks.

“I’m not sure I understood you,” he says.

His ears aren’t what they used to be, but whose are? To complicate matters, the girls have high-pitched voices that often sound like teeny tiny squeaky little mice.

I momentarily consider intervening and spelling Kate for the child, but decide it will be far more entertaining to let this play out on its own.

“How do you spell Kate?” she asks a second time.

“Cake?”

“No, KATE!”

Still not comprehending, he says, “Use the word in a sentence.”

“Ok,” she says. “How do you spell Kate?”

She’s got him now. He said to use the word in a sentence and she did use it in a sentence—and a fine one at that.

“No, no,” he says. Having perfectionist tendencies, and insistent on thorough communication (communication so thorough it can sometimes rewind to the previous 30 minutes, or even the previous two centuries), he attempts to illustrate.

“Let’s say the word you want to spell is car. OK?” he says.

“OK,” she says.

“When I say ‘use it in a sentence,’ I would say, ‘I am going to take a trip in my car.’ See what I mean?”

“Yes,” she says.

“OK, so use the word you want me to spell in a sentence.”

“OK. How do you spell Kate?”

His head is on the table and his shoulders are heaving. I think he’s laughing, but he could be sobbing. He can’t possibly make it any clearer. Or any more confusing. But that doesn’t mean the man will stop. He is about to illustrate with yet another example when her twin sister barrels into the room to serve as interpreter.

“Grandpa!” she shouts. She waits for eye contact. Good move. You can tell she has worked with the man before. “Grandpa — Kate like in KATIE!”

“Oh,” he says in a here-to-save-the-day tone of voice. “K A T E.”

A short while later, the youngest appears in the kitchen wearing a nametag that says Kate Love. Apparently they went out on a limb and spelled Love on their own. They’re fast learners.

 

 

 

Knowing when to step up

A poem fell out of the back of my desk calendar along with some sweet memories. “Somebody’s Mother” is a tender poem from long ago about a young boy helping an old woman cross the street. As a girl, my mother used to give a dramatic reading of the poem to her youngest sister, knowing full well that it would make her cry. My mother was satisfied with her job as orator once she saw the tears.

Some years ago (because quirky runs in the family), our youngest daughter and a friend, then in middle school, were hanging out for the day and I came across that poem by Mary Dow Brine. I told them I could read them a poem that would make them cry. They were game. I gave my best reading and by the closing line there were indeed tears. But the tears belonged to me, not the girls. Quite naturally, the girls were amused that I had made myself cry.

The poem is about the milk of human kindness, having the vision to see beyond ourselves and practice the not-always-so-simple “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Flash forward and that same daughter, a lovely young woman who was then in high school, had gone downtown one evening with six classmates to an Indiana Pacers game. The game ran long, and afterward they wanted to get something to eat. One of the boys suggested they go to Hooters, and “not just for the wings.” Our daughter and the other girl in the group said they were not going to Hooters. The girls determined they would go elsewhere and meet up with the guys later.

As they were about to go their separate ways, one of the boys stepped out of the pack and said it wasn’t safe for the girls to be walking alone downtown late at night, so he’d go with them.

That young man will never know what his actions meant to us as parents until one day he has a deeply loved, teenage daughter of his own. I should have written a poem titled “Somebody’s Daughter.”

Instead, I wrote the young man a note explaining the etymology of the word virtue. (Word people can be so dry.)  His actions had modeled virtue. I thanked him for exercising concern for the welfare of another at the expense of his own standing among his peers, not to mention forgoing the scenery at Hooters. I explained that virtue comes from the Latin “virtus,” the root of which is “vir,” which means man. By exercising virtue, he had proven himself a man.

How amazing that there was a time when even in language, virtue and goodness were inextricably linked to what it meant to be a man, to what it means for any of us—man, woman or child—to be fully human.