You talkin’ to me?

The odds of having an uninterrupted phone conversation with your grown children (who are now parenting your beloved grandchildren), are roughly the same as the cast of Duck Dynasty agreeing to shave their beards and wax their legs.

I was talking to one of the girls on the phone the other day when she abruptly asked, “Do you have to go potty?”

I was momentarily stunned. Perhaps she’d been watching some of those pharmaceutical commercials about problems that strike women of a certain age. I calmly said, “No, but thanks for asking.”

When talking on the phone, it is difficult to tell when a question is being directed to me or to someone else—say in the two- to five-year-old range.

“What are you doing out of bed? You’re supposed to be asleep.”

“If you thought I would be asleep, why did you call?”

Asking why I am out of bed is a close second to my all-time favorite: “Why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying. Why did you think I was crying? Should I be crying?”

Naturally, I understand our kids are often talking to their own kids, but I like to respond all the same, as it seems like more of a real conversation that way.

“We’re out of dried fruit snacks.”

“Thank goodness,” I say. “Those awful things taste like an old shoe.”

Other times we can be in the midst of discussing a matter when I receive unsolicited instructions on how to dress.

“You’ll need your coat—and zip it up!”

“But I’m not going anywhere!”

It’s not all bad. There are times I receive lovely compliments. “You look beautiful, sweetie.”

“Thank you. It’s probably that new under-eye concealer I’m using.”

Sometimes the admonitions are invigorating. “Stop somersaulting off the back of the sofa and put those cushions back on right now!” It’s wonderful to think they still think I am capable.

I also love when we are attempting to make family plans, and suddenly, with a great sense of urgency, one of them shrieks into my ear, “You didn’t put that in your mouth, did you?”

“I did,” I say. “It was an orange. There’s nothing wrong with oranges, is there? Tell me they’re not the new gluten.”

Other times I don’t take the interruptions so well and find myself getting defensive.

“Go get a tissue. You need a tissue.”

“You go get a tissue,” I snap back.

Other times our fragmented conversations are quite agreeable.

“You eat that right now! Don’t get up until you finish your plate.”

“OK, if you insist.”


Helicopter parents want to ground kids

For the past year, our social life has embodied the excitement of toothpaste.

Different work schedules, rotating work schedules, his evening work hours, my morning work hours, and out-of-town hours have meant that we are frequently ships passing in the night. Or in the kitchen. Or, worst of all, in the garage. Door up. Door down. See you soon. Did you pay the credit card?

And then it happened. My schedule lightened and the husband’s days off moved to Thursday and Friday. Our Thursdays and Fridays are now other people’s Saturdays and Sundays. It was confusing at first; we considered hanging a big flip sign by the front door saying, “Today is Monday.” All I knew for certain was that if we wanted to go to worship services together, being that our Sunday was now on Friday, we’d be evangelical Christians attending evening temple.

After a two-week adjustment, it began working for us. His Fridays off meant that the two of us could actually get somewhere at the same time, possibly even in the same vehicle. We booked five consecutive Friday nights like the rejuvenated socialites emerging from a forced hibernation.

The first week we had dinner with three other couples. It was wonderful, but somewhat jarring. We all sat at a table instead of standing at a counter. I may have said, “Pass the Cheerios,” before I realized we were having real food. Hot food. There was conversation. You said something and it wasn’t Pat Sajak answering.

Last Friday we met friends for dinner and then went to see a high school play their daughter had worked on. The play was fabulous. We drove home recounting the high points.

We walked in the house and the light on the landline was flashing, signaling that we had messages. The husband’s cell phone started ringing. I pulled my phone out of my coat pocket, took it off mute and saw a lengthy string of text messages. They all said the same thing: Where are you? Are you OK? Nobody knows where either of you are.

When our son in Chicago called earlier that evening and we didn’t answer, he called his oldest sister. She didn’t know where we were so she called their younger sister. Then the three of them had a wild Friday night leaving messages, sending texts, and speculating what might have happened to us.

“What’s the matter with you people?” I texted. “I told at least one of you we were going out.”

“I must have forgotten,” came the answer.

“That’s not my fault,” I responded.

“It is too your fault. It’s your fault because YOU NEVER GO ANYWHERE!”

They have seven small children between the three of them, but they found time to stalk their parents. Talk about people that need to get out a little more.

Pressed for a good reason to iron

A friend’s 2-year-old granddaughter was staying with her when my friend got out her iron to do some ironing.

“What’s that?” the little girl asked.

“It’s an iron,” my friend said.

The little girl studied it and then she asked her grandma to put the iron away because it was “scary.”

Irons are scary. Every time I see an iron, I want to run in the opposite direction. Ironing is my least favorite task—it vies for last place at the domestic fun park along with dusting.

How many people iron anymore? Clearly my friend’s daughter doesn’t. I know one of our daughters irons because her ironing board is always up. Come to think of it, she may just use the ironing board to hold clothes that need to be folded.

Whenever I knew my mother was coming to visit, I’d let the ironing pile for, well, let’s just say a long time. I was shameless. She’d be having a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and say, “So, do you have any ironing that needs to be done?”

“Let me check,” I’d say. Then I’d open the door to the laundry and two full baskets of ironing would topple out. I’d feign surprise and then I’d have the ironing board set up with the iron ready to go in under 10 seconds. It was a good shtick and she knew it was a shtick, but she played along. I don’t think she liked to iron either; she just liked seeing a job completed.

I learned to iron from my three great aunts who always washed on Mondays and ironed on Tuesdays. They ironed in the basement where it was cool. They let me iron their fancy handkerchiefs with delicate flowers and pillowcases with crocheted trim.

My friend says she’s never ironed a pillowcase.

If that’s the case, I tell my friend, you’ve never felt luxury.

Most people take permanent press fabrics and wrinkle-free everything as reason to stash the iron at the back of a closet and leave it there.

It’s a temptation, but I still iron pillowcases on occasion. And I still press handkerchiefs, too. I grew up when a well-pressed handkerchief was something every well-groomed man carried in his back pocket. My daughters tell me men don’t carry handkerchiefs anymore. They need to watch some old Cary Grant movies. Who knows, they might even see Doris Day ironing.

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Speech police leave some speechless

I confess I was once part of the speech police. That’s right; I had a list of banned words I imposed on others. Of course, the others I imposed my list on were our own children, all of whom were in training to become civilized human beings.

Check and done.

How fascinating that the speech police have found such a warm welcome on the University of Michigan campus with their $16,000 Inclusive Language Campaign. Bright pink posters proclaim “Your Words Matter.” One wonders if budget cuts prevented happy face posters screaming “You’re Special!”

A university campus is not populated by small children, but by high school graduates and beyond, most of whom wish to be regarded as adults. Their days of being scolded for potty mouth are in the past. Or maybe not. Maybe the speech police receive a warm welcome because it’s like having your mom go to college with you. BFF, and all that, right?

What is beyond comprehension is that college students are willingly signing pledges not to speak certain words. I don’t disagree that the words are crass. What I disagree with is kowtowing to another human being dictating what you can and can’t say.

Have these students never heard a single World War II veteran say, “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it”? Freedom of speech is one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, something those pesky Founding Fathers thought would be a good idea. And now the University of Michigan is asking students to blow their noses on the First Amendment.

Equally interesting are the words that aren’t on the banned word list. The f-word (now adaptable to all eight parts of speech), the word for a female dog (dogs have feelings, too) and either part of Ho Hos, a snack cake by Hostess. Those words are hurtful, crude and everywhere on a college campus, but they’re acceptable because they’re standard fare in the entertainment culture. Hands off the money train.

The first bad-word dictionary was issued by my alma mater, the University of Missouri, in 1990. Mike Royko, legendary Chicago columnist, penned a defiant column directed at the speech police. Using as many words as he could from the list of banned words, he made it clear that he would not go quietly into the dark night.

Few have that courage today. We go along to get along. We succumb to fear and the pressure of groupthink. We surrender basic rights and freedoms and are proud of it. We worry about threats to our freedom from beyond while threats to freedom on our own soil slowly wrap their long fingers around our necks.

There’s a word for any campaign that asks you to yield freedom. It’s a word that starts with a “b” and has an “sh” in it.


Is that word allowed? Too bad. I just used it.

In event of weather, panic

Every time I hear an announcement about another snow event, my first thought is, “Do we need tickets?”

I inform the husband we are down for an event this week and his first question is whether we’ll have to pay for parking. The man loathes paying for parking. I assure him that if the event is as fantastic as they’re predicting, parking won’t be a problem because all the cars will be buried.

If you’re wondering what to wear to a snow event, skip the little black dress and go for insulated anything and layers.

Snow “events” sound pompous for occurrences that happen with droll predictability. Snow follows winter like ham and bean soup follow a bone-in ham. It’s not like you didn’t see it coming.

Now, a Beatle Reunion Tour would be an event. Snow? Not so much. We know it’s coming, just like it came last year and the year before that.

I miss the days when snow was simply snow, light flurries, a snowfall, a snowstorm or even a blizzard. Of course, that was before weather was repackaged as climate. Do we have to package, market, hype and ratchet up every single, solitary thing?

Yes we do. Which is why we also have rain events, previously known as rain, showers, drizzle, downpours or thunderstorms.

Soon, we will turn our attention to a spring event, which no doubt will be interspersed with ice events, wind events, dew events, fog events, humidity events and changing temperature events.

We’ve hit the panic button and hyped tornado weather, also known as potential tornadic activity, for so long that a lot of people no longer take the warnings seriously. A genuine tornado threat should have you thinking Kansas, Dorothy and Toto, and seeking shelter immediately.

Now stuck under the gray skies of winter, I wouldn’t mind hearing about a big sunshine event: “We’ll have a sunshine event launching Friday and lasting into early May. Main floor seating is full, but the upper balcony is still available.” (Sweeping hand gestures in the direction of a large yellow happy face and weather forecaster wearing formal evening dress in recognition of the event.)

There’s something of a pandering nature about turning routine weather changes into events. But it simply plays to our attention span. We’ve been conditioned for drama. Everything has to be bigger, better and more spectacular than the one before. We up the ante and continually crank the volume on the panic and frenzy.

Bombarded by the constant stream of hype and hysteria, the senses become muted to the quiet delight of the ordinary. “We’re having a pleasant weather event beginning Wednesday and stretching into Saturday.” Yawn. Click. Flip the channel. Surely there’s a weather event promising doom and disaster somewhere.

Now leading the Kale Rebellion

I have a rebellious streak. I admit it. Recently my rebellious streak has been focused on kale. I’m sick of hearing about kale. Kale soup, kale salad, kale smoothies, roasted kale, steamed kale.

Kale Jell-O. Kale Pop-Tarts. OK, there’s no kale Jell-O or Pop-Tarts, but there probably will be. Everywhere you look someone is touting kale.

Kale pushers, that’s what they are. They’ll be forming gangs before long, wearing leather jackets with Whole Foods’ insignia emblazoned on the back, wheeling about on bicycles, forcing kale on virtual strangers. Children even.

I have a friend who pushes kale chips. I played along for a while, but now I’m here to say that kale chips are revolting looking. Kale chips looks like deep sea creatures that washed ashore, lay on the beach under the sun for 30 years and then were run over by a conga line of ATVs. Nonetheless, my friend insisted they were wonderful and that I would love them. So I ate one. It was edible the same way paper is edible. You put enough olive oil and salt on anything and it will be edible. Even my shoes. Here, have a slice of shoe. You’ll like it. It may not be much to look at, but it’s good for you.

This is what parents do to kids every night at dinner. I’m not a kid anymore. If I don’t want to eat kale, I don’t have to eat kale.

Frankly, I find kale to be self-righteous. Kale is a vegetable with an attitude. Any vegetable that’s supposed to prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, pump you full of vitamins, whiten your teeth, firm your flabby arms and eliminate your double chin is bound to have a big ego hard to squeeze through the door.

Yet the entire country is wild about kale. Two days after the historic blizzard that fizzled, New Yorkers were all atwitter – literally. Seems the Big Apple ran out of kale. That’s right, people who went to health food stores prepped for what was being billed as an epic blizzard by stocking up on kale. It was kale-pocalypse. One New Yorker tweeted that he was praying for a UN drop of kale. He was joking—I think.

People promote kale like a religion. They believe in the right to life, liberty and the promotion of kale. I am loathe to say it, but a lot of people promoting kale as the ultimate health food don’t appear to be all that healthy themselves. I know it’s winter and the sun’s not out, but for heaven’s sake people, get some meat on those bones. I say this as someone who hails from a long line of carnivores. Yes, eat some meat. Have some corn, too. A few carbs won’t kill you. See? Kale lovers aren’t the only ones who can push food.

I’m not against all greens, just those that haven’t been seasoned with a little bacon grease.

Out of my face, kale. I don’t mind you being in my ‘fridge once in a while, but get out of my face.

From rhubarb to dog biscuits, there’s a day for it

I know your schedule is full and I don’t mean to add to the pressure, but I’m guessing you missed National Compliment Day. You did, didn’t you? Me, too. Even though I received several press releases reminding me, I forgot to give five compliments in order “to make the world a better place.”

My money has always been on a strong national defense to make the world a better place, but a timely compliment can’t hurt either. “That’s a sharp shirt you’re wearing, President Putin!”

We have had such a proliferation of awareness campaigns and designated days that we now have some months that should be lasting for three years. We have far more special days, weeks and months than we have calendar.

The good news is, if you miss one special day or month you can always catch the next one. You may have missed National Compliment Day, but you can still jump on board for National Banana Bread Day, February 23. Of course, Banana Bread Day is also National Dog Biscuit Day. Don’t wait. Pick one and make your party plans now.

You also might want to make room in your calendar for: National Deviled Egg Day, National Paint Day, National CarKeeping Day, Rhubarb Pie Day and Irish Coffee Day.

Please, tell me you didn’t miss Correct Posture month. Of course you did. Look at you slouching.

Some of the days, by virtue of their calendar placement, are problematic. March 30 is Turkey Neck Soup Day. It seems like that one should be in November, but I’m no expert on turkey necks. Well, except for the one I began growing at age 50.

August is Don’t Be a Bully Month, which is all well and good, but when you designate one month as the month not to do something, aren’t you sending a message that the other 11 months in the year may be acceptable? Don’t bully in August, but March or April might be fine.

This is similar to Poverty in America Awareness Month. Think about poverty for 30 days, then go back to whatever it was you were doing. Obviously, this is called Unintended Consequences. There’s probably a month for that, too.

Other special months are simply obscure and, for obvious reasons, do not get a lot of publicity—like National Constipation Month. Did you know about it? Better yet, did you want to know about it?

There seem to be so many things I’d rather not know about today, yet so many others are intent on informing me. If I were to add a special day to the calendar, it would be Thanks, But No Thanks Day. This would be a day when telemarketers, purveyors of junk mail, PR firms and email spammers took the day off and refrained from contact. I’m smiling just thinking about it. I think it would be my second favorite day on the calendar next to Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.

Ma and Pa visit “Little House on the Property”

We had dinner out the other night. That’s out as in outside—in the playhouse. The husband built the playhouse when our children were preschool age. It has served as a fort, a bank, a drive-through, a bakery, a jail, an orphanage and sometimes even as a playhouse.

All of the preschool grands have been immersed in the “Little House on the Prairie” books. A couple of them were here and thought it would be fun to eat in the playhouse, which to them looks a lot like the Ingalls’ cabin.

Pa strapped on his boots, I secured my apron and the little ones began darting between the big house and the little house carrying supplies, swinging lanterns, toting dishes. One of them dropped the tableware, but since we don’t have livestock in the backyard we said, “Just pick it up, it’ll be fine.” I carried out a Dutch oven of spaghetti and wondered if Ma ever made spaghetti.

We squeezed around the little table and thanked God for hot food on a cold night. Then the milk spilled.

Ma dashed back to the main house for an old flour sack for cleanup. Actually, Ma grabbed a roll of paper towels. Paper towels would have revolutionized homesteading. If I am ever a homesteader, I will need paper towels.

Ma returned with an old Brawny flour sack, sopped up the milk and sat down just as the flame in one of the lanterns went out.

“Maybe we can make do with one lantern,” Pa said.

“But it was better with two,” the girls said. You wanted to Little House rough it, Ma thought. Ma kept it to herself. However, Ma did suggest that Pa show the kids how to rub two sticks together to make a flame to relight the lantern. Pa shot Ma a look. Ma wondered if Charles Ingalls got testy in the Big Woods.

Ma shoved back from the little table, crawled out through the little door and headed back to the main house for stick matches. Ma returned with an extra large aim-n-flame. This happens when you send a 21st century woman to do a frontier woman’s job.

Laura, or maybe it was Mary, spilled spaghetti all over her jacket and thought she was messy. “Messy happened a lot on the prairie. Pick it off and throw it back in your bowl. The Ingalls family did that all the time.”

They seemed satisfied.

Everyone was hunkering near the lantern, seeking a bit of warmth, when wildlife announced itself.

“Hoo! Hoo!” rang in the dark.

Laura and Mary’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads. We opened the shutters and looked around. Nothing but a crescent moon tucked behind a thin strand of clouds.

“Hoo! Hoo!”

Shivering, we gathered our dirty dishes. Ma grabbed the lanterns, Pa latched the shutters and we all headed for the main house. No owls, but we were welcomed by light, heat, plumbing and more paper towels.

It was good to homestead. If only for dinner.

Promotional gimmicks bare the bizarre

The husband was having morning coffee at his laptop when I asked if he heard Madonna was in the news again.

“She’s in the nude again?” he asked, without looking up.

“No, she’s in the news. But she could be in the nude, too. I don’t know. They’re kind of one and the same for her, aren’t they?”

“Oh, that’s right,” he said. “I heard she did something to her face.”

“She tied it all up in leather. And then she posted pictures of famous people with their faces tied up in leather—Jesus, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.”

“Why did she do that?”

“She’s promoting an album—and when you’ve already promoted yourself by showing everything you have to show, shaking everything you have to shake, and your cone bra is so old it’s headed for the Smithsonian, the only thing left to do is tie up your face. And if you don’t get a big enough reaction tying up your own face, then you start tying up faces of religious icons and civil rights leaders.”

“She’s not claiming they sing with her, right?” he said.

“No, it’s just Madonna being Madonna. I think if we all give her a nod, we can move on.”

“Move on to what?” he said.

“Justin Bieber. He’s in the news again, too.”

The husband was silent.

“I knew you’d be excited,” I said. We both yawned. Then we high-fived each other and the husband made toast.

“Bieber is under contract as an underwear model for Calvin Klein,” I said. “I wonder how that looks on a resume?” the husband asked.

“Maybe it’s the kind of thing you work in during the pre-interview chitchat,” I said. “You know, ‘I have dynamic business experience in the music industry. I can take your company to the next level with my background in special events and I can model underwear.’”

“If someone walked up to you at a park and said that, you’d call the police.”

“Naw, I’d probably pepper spray ‘em. Bieber’s already met the police,” I said.

“ I wonder what human resources does with credentials like that?” the husband asked.

“Probably flags them as potential lawsuit material. Bieber said he’s officially part of a legacy.’”

“Wearing boxer shorts now constitutes a legacy?”

“Apparently. Seems philanthropy, personal sacrifice, public service, devotion to family and friends just aren’t what they used to be. That’s sure something, isn’t it? A guy thinks walking around in his underwear will be a lifetime achievement.”

Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing at all. Move along, move along.

Genuine friendships can be genuinely mysterious

The seeds of friendships often grow in mysterious ways.

The friendship with one of my dear friends began years ago when a mutual friend, a young man with a lovely wife and two small children, was diagnosed with cancer. She often cared for their children and saw that the family had meals; I sometimes watched the children as well and lent a hand. Our mutual friend died, but a new friendship lived.

One of my oldest friendships began near an information table at the back of a small church. A woman recognized us as new (that bewildered look on my face wasn’t hard to read), introduced herself and invited us to her home. Over the years we have been welcomed into their home as well as their family.

I met one of my best friends in the neighborhood at the corner one day while taking the kids for a walk. She was walking with her children and said, “You bought that house down the block, didn’t you?” I was puzzled a stranger knew where I lived. “We were interested in that house,” she said, “but you were faster making an offer.” If you like the same house, you’re going to like a lot of the same other things as well.

You never know. A random meeting. A casual hello. An introduction.

I never would have known that an older man from North Carolina who emailed me a decade ago would become a genuine friend. He sent a note of consolation responding to a column about my mother dying. Later, from time to time, he would forward interesting reading material, consumer tips, links to engaging talks or presentations he had attended.

He is a remarkable man—retired military chaplain, constant learner, voracious reader. He grew up hard, with a suffering that yields compassion—genuine compassion—the authentic kind, not the made-for-TV kind.

One day the phone rang and a gravelly voice with a rich southern accent greeted me. He’d read a column I wrote about my nephew who lost his sight and had gotten a guide dog. He wanted to send a small check to that young man, a total stranger. “Enough to cover a big bag of dog food,” he said. I refused. He persisted. “I want him to know someone in North Carolina is thinking of him and praying for him.”

My friend is a dog lover, too, sharing space with Bucky, who weighs in at 73 pounds. So once in awhile, out of the blue, a check for dog food travels cross country. Daniel knows my nephew can easily provide for his dog, but money is not the point. The point is Daniel enjoys giving. And encouraging.

Whenever we speak by phone, I can count on Daniel asking me to do him a favor and look up Luke 6:38. “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”

Of the great things we often dream of and aspire to, extending the hand of friendship and small kindnesses may be among the truly greatest.