No. 1 Road Trip Rule: Prepare for delays

We always look at Google maps or MapQuest before taking a trip to see how long the trip is supposed to take—and then do our best to prove them wrong.

We’re no amateurs – we have gotten this down to such a science over the years that there are certain family members deathly afraid to travel with us. But since our family keeps growing (a son-in-law here, a daughter-in-law there, a new grandbaby or two every few years) we are still able to find the uninitiated willing to pile in the car.

Recently, we embarked on a 500-mile trip that was supposed to take 8 hours. Based on past experience, we were pretty sure that was wrong.

Our fellow travelers arrived at 6:40 a.m. We unloaded bags from their car, transferred two car seats from their vehicle to our vehicle, loaded a cargo carrier on top of our car, changed diapers, readjusted the carrier, inspected the car seat installations again (multiple times), crammed diaper bags, a cooler, snack bag (essential), assorted reading materials, one laptop and large bulky purses into our vehicle, then rearranged items in the carrier, put out an all-points bulletin for a missing pacifier, redistributed items in the vehicle six more times and then, using precision origami folds, crammed Grandma into the far back seat next to a car seat and departed at 7:30.

Whew. We were off.

We made our first stop at 7:32. We wheeled into a strip mall parking lot to deposit an envelope into a mailbox. Yes, the husband could have left it in our mailbox but, as he noted, we have had mail stolen from our mailbox. Once. In 1993. We are nothing if not paranoid.

We were back on the road and made our second stop at 7:36, pulling in line at a drive-through for coffee. There was no cream at home and the husband takes cream. Listen, you don’t want the pilot drowsy in the cockpit.

Back on the road, topping speeds of 32 mph, hitting every red light on the way to the interstate, someone asked if anyone was hungry. 7:40. Not to worry, we didn’t need to stop, as they brought food — a bag of chocolate-covered doughnuts. I argued that plastic-coated doughnuts were not a food and was met with strong opposition declaring them delicious and even claiming that they qualify as “eating clean” if you wipe your hands with a Wet One when you finish.

In the midst of the Plastic Doughnut Debate, a dark cylinder bounced on the road in front of our vehicle. Someone said it might have been a muffler—or a curling iron from a cosmetic bag in the overhead carrier.

Maybe we should pull over and check the carrier. Why not? It was 7:46.

It only took us an hour and ten minutes from the time our travel companions arrived and loaded until the time we finally hit the interstate. Given our current rate of travel, I calculated we should reach our destination by sundown. In two or three days. Once again, that 8-hour prediction had been way off.

Computers. They’re so unreliable.


I don’t need sorry, I need solutions

Can we stop saying we’re sorry?

I’ve been on the phone trying to straighten out some billing matters and every customer service rep I talk to is sorry. Sorry is epidemic.

“How may I help you today?”

“We’ve had a continuing problem with our bill.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I used to be sorry, too, but now that our bill has been $45 in your favor for three months, and an additional unauthorized $13 charge is appearing, I’m past sorry.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You’re the fourth person I’ve talked to about this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I talked to a woman named Melanie yesterday. She was sorry, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? Do you know Melanie? Should I have refused to talk to her?”

“No, I don’t know Melanie, but I’m sorry you had to talk to her.”

“It sounds like you have something against Melanie.”

“No, I don’t. Sorry for the confusion.”

“Could you quit saying you’re sorry?”


“I bet you’re going to tell me something different from all the other people I talked to, aren’t you? I get a different answer every time I call.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to competent. I want you to be sharp, resourceful, imaginative, smart and discerning,” I say.

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Look, Mark, is it? Why don’t we do this? For every time you say sorry, you credit my bill $10.”

“I can’t do that ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Could you agree not to say sorry one more time?”

“Yes, I’ll try.”

“That’s great. Listen, I’m not holding you responsible for this mess, any more than I am holding you responsible for the mess in the Middle East.”

“Thank you very much.”

“I know you didn’t write this convoluted bill, you just happened to pick up the phone today, but I don’t need you to be sorry—I need you to fix it!”

After 15 minutes, including several stints on hold, he did fix it. I thanked him for being of genuine assistance.

“If that’s all ma’am, I know you asked me not to say I was sorry again, but I would like to say—“





Once on a hot sunny day . . .

A few of the grands wanted to know if they could help write a column. I said, “It’s a lot harder than it looks.” I’m not positive, but I think two of them exchanged smirks.

They pointed out that they know their letters and can write upper case and lower. “You are qualified!” I said.

“What should we write about?”

“Well, you need a story to tell.”

“Sometimes your stories are about us. We could write a story about you. How about we tell how you killed the bee?”

“Wasp,” I said. “Accuracy is important.”

“Yeah, the bee.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but you can’t just say Grandma killed a bee. You have to set it up, like a real story.”

“I know,” one said. “Write this – once on a hot sunny day.”

“You’ve got the reader hooked,” I said. “Then what?”

“Once on a hot sunny day I told Grandma I saw a very big bug flying in the birdhouse that’s on the playhouse.”

birdhouse framed“Good, but you need to be descriptive. Paint a picture with words.”

“We get to paint? Yeah! Let’s paint!”

“No, you’re writing a column. It’s easy to get distracted writing, but a good columnist hammers out 25 words before getting distracted with something like painting or going to the ‘fridge.”

“OK. It was a very big bug and it had polka dots and it was flying and I said Grandma do you know much about bugs and then you said I know some and I said good because I don’t know much.”

“That’s a run-on sentence.”

“I wasn’t running.”

“Never mind. You can edit later. Or you can choose not to edit and give the editors something to do. Your story needs action.”

“Grandma looked in the birdhouse and it wasn’t a big bug, it was a bee. A bee with polka dots. Then grandma took the birdhouse off the playhouse and put it in the yard. Then I said Grandma I still hear buzzing in the playhouse so you came and looked and there were more big bees building a nest right on the playhouse. Did you type that the bees had polka dots?”

“That’s not so much true,” one says to the other.

“It is so. Didn’t it have polka dots, Grandma?”

“They weren’t exactly polka dots—but you could use your artistic license.”Rentokil Pest A-Z Artwork by

“Yeah, I want to use my lyin’-sense.”

“A lot of writers do,” I said. “Now end your story.”

“Grandpa came with a can to spray the bees and Grandma said no that will make them mad and Grandpa sprayed them anyway and Grandma and Grandpa were yelling and bees were flying and Grandma killed some of them with a broom.”

“We weren’t yelling.”

“You were yelling. That is true.”

“You can’t end a column with anger. That’s what the rest of the news does. Leave the reader with a smile,” I said.

“OK, write this: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Boo. Boo who? You don’t have to cry, it’s just a joke!”

“Good job, kids. Now let’s get a snack and go paint.”





Who moved my shade?

One of the five-year-old grands emerged from her bedroom the other night, stood in the hallway and announced, “I’m sweating bullets in here!”

It’s been that kind of kick-off to summer. There’s not much you can do about the heat (especially when you’re too short to reach the thermostat) except to go with the flow.

Naturally, the first rule of heat survival is to make no sudden moves, which would explain a recent get together.

There were 15 lawn chairs for adults and a half dozen or so chairs for little ones set in a circle under three large shade trees.

As is our custom, we talked and ate and talked some more and ate some more. The kids played, grew flush and downed juice boxes. Someone collected all the dirty paper plates. Someone else gave all the kids another spray of sunscreen.

Early afternoon melted into mid-afternoon and someone noted that they were now sitting in the sun.

“Looks like our shade moved,” someone offered.

“Sure does,” another confirmed.

It was quiet for a bit, then someone observed, “Suppose it will just keep moving.”

“Suppose so.”

Everybody looked up at the tree canopy, then over to where the circle of shade was slowly relocating.

“Maybe we should move the circle.”

That suggestion was met with stone -cold silence. The last thing anybody wanted to do was pick up and move. Except for those in the sun, and they looked too hot and dehydrated to pick up chairs and move. That’s the power of summer heat – people who are ordinarily hard working and industrious are gradually reduced to shapeless mounds of immovable goo.

“Seems like a lot of work to move all the chairs,” somebody said.

“Why don’t we just move the chairs on that side since they’re the ones in the sun?”

The group pondered in silence. And sweat.

“That would change the circle into more of an oval, but it’s better than everyone moving.”

Although there seemed to be general agreement, there was still no movement.

“A lot cooler when that breeze was blowing.”

Somebody came out of the house and asked if anybody needed anything. I asked for a glass of ice water. I would have waited on myself, but I was holding a sleeping baby, which is akin to holding a hot water bottle, which gives one a permanent pass from moving in the heat.

When it is hot enough, just sitting can constitute a heavy workload. No doubt this is where the expression “go work on my tan” comes from. How do you work at getting scorched? You just lie real still.

They say it’s going to be a hot one this year. The summer forecast shows most of the country in a big red swatch marked “higher than average temperatures.”

We’ll have a lot of time to work on our sitting in the shade skills.


Questions keep rolling mile after mile

car with questionsIf you overlook the 6-year-old demonstrating her best soccer kick, whereupon her shoe flew off her foot and grazed the side of my head, we had a good visit with two of the grands.

When our son and his wife, who live in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, had their fourth child (family motto: “Stack ‘em high and stack ‘em deep”), we drove up, admired the new baby, and then brought the 6- and the 4-year-old home with us for 10 days. Make that 10 days and six hours, but who’s counting?

Occasionally on long drives, I sometimes grow drowsy, but this was not even a remote possibility with our inquisitive passengers in the car.

“Where does gasoline come from, Grandma?”

“What’s the difference between a golfer and a gopher, Grandpa?”

I would have said the difference between a golfer and a gopher is an “l” and a “p,” but their grandpa is more patient than their grandma.


“What exactly is quicksand?”

They had a steady barrage of questions that could have kept the Google search engine busy for hours.

“What if hail comes down on your house?”

It was like a game show with only seconds to answer before another question was fired.

“How do the police catch bad guys?”

“You’re good conversationalists,” I told the kids. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, it means we’re good talkers.”

The good talkers came with, shall we say, an intensity.

“It’s going well,” I told a friend on day four. “Although it is a bit of a jolt to our systems.”

Two days later I considered instituting naptime. For the adults.

They were only small differences really. We gravitate toward conversational tones; the children were propelled by sudden bursts of shrieking and laughing. I’ve always like the piano on the west wall where it has stood for 20 years; they moved it perpendicular to the wall to create a fort.

“How is it going?” our son asked by phone.

“They’re angelic,” I said. (When they are sleeping.)

“Are they behaving?” he asked.

“Oh my, yes.” (Do not get out of that chair until I say you can!)

“Are they eating well?”

“Very well.” (If you count cheese as a food group.)

I was making calzones one afternoon when my garlic disappeared. I entertained the idea that I had finally lost my mind. Still, I looked high and low searching the kitchen and finally asked out loud how a woman loses six garlic bulbs in a mesh tube.

“Were they in that thing that looks like a sock?” one of them asked.


“I took it upstairs to play with it.”

It was wonderful to have them here for a lengthy stay. We feel like we completed a rigorous physical fitness training. Our reflexes have never been sharper, nor our response times quicker.

We called the day after we delivered them back home and asked how they had adjusted to one another again.

“It was sure quiet when they were gone,” our son said. “It’s great to have them back. It’s just a bit of a jolt.”

We understand.

Anniversary gifts leave them flushed with embarrassment

You might have heard that the husband and I are hopeless romantics, in which case you heard wrong. We recently celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary by buying two toilets.

Our house is younger than we are, but is falling apart at a far faster rate. Two of our toilets, original to the house, needed to be replaced.

That giant flushing sound you heard was us being sucked into the world of plumbing. A buyer is dizzy with choices these days – round bowl or elongated, a 12-inch or 14-inch set, one-piece or two-piece and so many GPFs (gallons per flush).

And then there are the names – toilets are now like fingernail polish in that they have names. There’s Glacier Bay, the Cimarron, the Cadet, and the Santa Rosa. Perhaps you’d prefer the Niagara, the Elliston or the Devonshire.

We bought two Wellworths – affordable and efficient and with installation on Tuesday. The installers came, removed the old ones, set the
new ones and sped away. All was well with the Wellworths until someone attempted to use the one in the half-bath off the family room. so closeThe bathroom door would not close. The new toilet stuck out farther than the old one—not much, but enough that the door couldn’t clear the toilet.

It was such a close fit, it almost looked like if you got behind the door and kicked, you would be able to send that door flying past the toilet. “Why yes, the bathroom is around the corner on your left. If you want privacy, get behind the door and try kicking it until it clears the toilet.”

We were now the proud owners of a toilet, bolted to the floor in the most visible high-traffic area of our home, that could only be used with the door fully open.

Suggestions for solving our dilemma were many. One wit suggested we remove the door and hang a shower curtain in the doorway. Another card suggested we hang hippie beads. Another proposed we cut a curve in the door to match the profile of the toilet. Someone else suggested we rip apart the door frame, then rehang the door so it would swing out instead of in.

I was pretty sure all we needed was a toilet one inch shorter from the front to the back. The husband questioned my math and went all engineer-y on me, drawing chalk lines on the bathroom floor tile to calculate the arc of the door closing in conjunction with the projection of the toilet.

Someone passed through the house, saw the chalk outline and asked if there had been a crime. “Yes,” I said. “Wellworth was murdered. We think the butler did it.”

We found a toilet that is 1 and 1/8 inch shorter from a plumbing supply house online. This one goes by the name Toto.

Wait ‘til you hear what we have planned for our 40th.


Care for veterans extends beyond Memorial Day at national cemeteries

There is a good chance you’ve not been to Marion, Ind. It is north of Indianapolis, past Elwood, but not all the way to Etna. Like the rest of our state, it is what people on the coasts call flyover country—towns and cities bordered by corn and wheat fields that look like checkerboards from an altitude of 36,000 feet.

There is a gem nestled in Marion. It is the Marion National Cemetery. Spanning 52 acres of rolling hills and towering shade trees, it was designated as a Soldiers Home in 1888 to care for vets in the region. Two years later the first funeral took place. Before that, this cemetery

was a farm. In an old photograph of a funeral long ago, a horse-drawn hearse is parked in front of a stable and a barn. The enormous red-brick stable with white-paned windows still stands.

It is quiet here this morning, all but for the hum of riding mowers and weed eaters preparing for Memorial Day. The dew is thick and grass clippings cover your shoes.

Yesterday they laid a female World War II veteran to rest. Patricia Brinkman is now beside her husband, Franklin D. Brinkman, Sr. A floral spray of pink carnations and lilies lies atop her fresh grave.

Three  Medal of Honor recipients are buried here, as is Thomas Jefferson. No, not that Thomas Jefferson, but a Thomas Jefferson. He is in section 1, grave 1, buried in the late 1800s.



Grave markers date back to the Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I, World War II and Korea. There are a few from the Gulf and they’re getting more Vietnam vets in all the time.

Sue Nan Jehlen is the director here. She is a hairdresser turned school psychologist turned Veteran’s administrator who loves her job. She is preparing for an Unaccompanied Vet Ceremony later today. They’ll be honoring 23 veterans who were buried unaccompanied by family or loved ones, and without military honors. The vet community in the area finds that unacceptable, so vets from Tipton, Kokomo and Indianapolis are meeting up at a nearby Meijer store and will come together to honor those who served. There will be a ceremony with the Posting of Colors, the Pledge of Allegiance, speakers, a high school choir, placing of wreaths, a 44-rifle salute, taps and a benediction.

Those who rest here are tended well.

Before Veteran’s Day last year, community members placed solar lights by nearly 4,000 grave markers to illuminate headstones at night. This year they are aiming for 10,000 lights.

While this cemetery is no Gettysburg or Arlington in scale, it honors the same measure of service and sacrifice. This, too, is hallowed ground.

As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, may we “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”





Here’s the skinny on Thin Privilege

Just when you think you are reasonably up-to-date on all the words, behaviors, attitudes, moral and religious convictions that are now deemed offensive by the politically correct, along comes another one to add to the ever expanding repertoire—Thin Privilege.

Thin Privilege is decried by self-described fat activist Virgie Tovar who, in my more unenlightened days, I may have described as curvy. Or maybe even fluffy. Fortunately, I now know that I should call her fat, embrace fatness, never mention the word diet or heart health and invite her over for three-layer chocolate cake to prove that I don’t care what size she is.

I don’t care. And I won’t care. Unless, of course, she cares that I am short. Then it could get ugly. Short sensitivities would demand that I play the Tall Privilege card.

The thing is, I think Virgie and I would be friends even though she thinks that I am probably bigoted and hateful because of her size. I have long maintained that the whole thing with food is incredibly backward. When you are a young child and have no appreciation for food, you can eat all you want and not gain weight. When you are mature enough to have discriminating taste buds, you just look at food and gain weight.

In the interest of full disclosure, know that I have probably lost a total of 200 pounds—never all at the same time, but more like gain two, lose two. As a matter of fact, if you are someone who can eat all you want and never gain weight, I’m not sure that we can be friends—you and your Fast-Metabolism Privilege.

According to Tovar, whose mantra is “Lose Hate, Not Weight,” fatphobia is rampant in white society where people seek to oppress people with larger body types. Dear Virgie, both of my grandmas were full-figure and every single one of their combined 49 grandkids loved every ounce of them. Few things were more comforting than to lean in and get lost in big loving arms.

Please don’t accuse people you don’t know of hating heavy people. If you persist, I’ll still invite you for cake, but you may be wearing it, not eating it (Cake Throwing Privilege).

What are we to do with all these privileges that we hold against one another? We have the Two-Parent Family Privilege, Not Living in My Parents’ Basement Privilege, the I Do Not Struggle with which Restroom to Use Privilege, Flat Abs Privilege and the despicable Good Hair Privilege.

It reminds me of that childhood song—which is now surely banned – “Everybody hates me, nobody likes me, guess I’ll go eat worms.”

Used to be we made gentle fun of self-pity. We acknowledged that life was unfair and leaned into the wind anyway.

Today we revel in self-pity and elevate carping, clawing and tearing one another down to art forms. Before long the only way we will be able to function as a society is to level the playing field by declaring that everybody hates everybody else.

Maybe when we’ve collapsed under the crushing weight of bickering and narcissism we can begin to regroup and rise from the ashes.

Or at least call out for pizza. Extra cheese.



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.

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.


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.