Newspapers are crammed with information, as they should be. I read a newspaper every single day. It’s usually the old-fashioned kind that must be held with outstretched arms, but if I don’t have the paper version, I go to the Internet.
Newspapers present a conglomeration of information that is important, alarming, pathetic, heart-warming, gut-wrenching, explosive, opinionated, bland, humorous, boring and more.
I think most of the articles should, in fact, be in print, but it might be a slow news day, so you never know.
One of my all-time favorite articles was about a python whose eyes were bigger than its stomach. (Do pythons have stomachs as we know them?)
The huge snake gobbled up a six-foot alligator in one gulp. Too much at once, it turned out, because the python exploded. (I’ll bet that was messy.) The article provided gory details of the blast as well as several speculations about why it might have happened.
Was the gator not yet dead, the writer pondered, and the reptile wreaked revenge from the inside? Did the gasses from the decomposing alligator cause the snake’s stomach to expand beyond capacity and burst?
Great breakfast table reading.
How’s this article for reinforcing a stereotype about motorcycle owners. It appeared in the July 14, 2012 issue of the Detroit Free Press.
41 Members of Motorcycle Gang Arrested
“Forty-one members of the Devils Diciples (sic) Motorcycle Gang have been arrested on charges of crimes including murder, drug trafficking and
robbery under a federal indictment unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in Detroit. Among those charged are Jeff (Fat Dog) Smith and national Vice
President Paul Darrah.”
The word disciples was apparently misspelled by the gang members, not the Free Press. Also note:
the word Devils has no apostrophe. I hope this was also the gang’s goof, not the Freep’s. And one of those arrested had his nickname in parentheses, in case his real name didn’t ring a bell with readers.
“. . . Besides the arrests, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade’s office said, more than 60 firearms and
more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition were seized during the investigation, and eight meth labs were
Think about the law-abiding motorcycle clubs which are trying so hard to get publicity for the good deeds they do. Some of these clubs work hard
for local charitable organizations. Other motorcycle clubs have provided security at funerals for soldiers whose grieving families have been threatened by fringe groups of anti-war protesters.
I once blogged about writers of death notices who seem to be addressing the deceased person as if he or she were sitting on a cloud, leisurely scanning the obituary page. I saw one obit recently that went on and on about how the deceased Mom would be someone you’d have loved because of her friendly, caring nature. I wondered, after a paragraph or two, if Mom had specifically instructed her children NOT to put any schmaltzy stuff in her death notice.
The kids did it anyway, but added, at the end, “Sorry, Mom.”
Finally, how about this icky little feature I found in last month’s Free Press? The headline caught my attention right off:
Belly Buttons Teem with Life
It seems our navels are tiny Petri dishes filled to the brim with bacteria. Everyone’s bacterial mix is different, just like DNA.
This conclusion was reached after a 500-person, 500-belly button study by the Belly Button Biodiversity Project, a study funded jointly by North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
If you’re a one-celled organism, the researchers claim, a warm, dark, moist belly button is THE perfect place in which to reside.
Most of these bacteria are harmless, it says, but the Belly Button Project’s purpose is to “educate the public about the role bacteria play in our world.”
A worthy mission.
I read it in the newspaper so it must be true.
Last month I wrote about some of the best books I read in 2012. I promised to write about the bad ones, too.
Why do I finish these less-than-engrossing books? Who knows? Sometimes I just want to see what happens, or how the writer gets her protagonist out of some complicated predicament. Sometimes I don’t have another really good book begging to be started, so I slog on. Sometimes I want to see how bad a novel can get. It helps me believe I can write one myself.
Here are six I wish I had never started:
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Three adult sisters gather at their parents’ home. All are at a low point in their lives. Rose, the oldest, has remained in the town where they grew up, apparently to care for their ageing parents. She's bored, unhappy. Bean, the middle sister, has been caught embezzling from the New York firm where she works. Cordy, the youngest, is unmarried/unpartnered and pregnant.
The three don’t get along, of course. They’ve come home because their mother is dying of cancer.
Finally, of course, they begin to see each other in a more sympathetic light, then change their ways for the better and move on to better living. Incidently, their father, a Shakespeare scholar, has named them after the Bard’s heroines: Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia. I finished this brick just to see what happened. The characters’ motivations were murky, it was not that well written, and much of it was not even close to ringing true. Eh. ★★ out of four stars.
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan. Talk about slow moving plots? This story schlepped along aimlessly and repeated itself over and over and over and over It was a disappointing book after reading O’Nan’s Emily, Alone, which I loved.
One summer Kim, a teenager in Kingsville, Ohio, goes missing. Her family does everything possible to find her – search parties, fundraisers, walk-a-thons, posters, TV pleas, etc. O’Nan gives the reader every single miniscule detail of every freaking bit of the search, dropping hints here and there about who might be the culprit – her boyfriend, her father, her sister, a drug dealer, a kidnapper/serial killer. By the time I was three quarters of the way through this dud, I didn’t give a flying fig who did it. Just get on with your lives, people.
O’Nan examines the family dynamics as the search goes on for more than a year, but the details drove me nuts. Ultimately, unfortunately, bore-ing. ★★ out of four stars.
The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian. Chip and Emily Linton and their twin 10-year-olds, Garnet and Hallie, move into a remote Victorian house in northern New Hampshire. Chip, an airline pilot, is suffering from PTSD caused by a plane crash in which 39 people died. He was the pilot, but was only able to save some of the passengers. He feels guilty.
This is a gothic ghost story. It’s plot driven. It involves ghosts, witches, gory descriptions of death scenes and all that goes with this kind of tale. I didn’t like it, probably because I don’t like ghost stories, but I kept reading to see how this disaster would end.
The end was unsatisfying. ★★ out of four stars.
Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock.Treacle. Sugary. ChickLitty. Romantic. Tragic. But too much so. Way too predictable. It reminded me of a Thomas Kincade painting – light and schmaltzy -- but with a nasty storm brewing in the background.
It’s the story of a breast cancer survivor, a woman with a high risk of the cancer recurring (it’s genetic, in her case). She falls in love with and marries a man with bipolar disorder.They’re in love, for sure, but oh my Gawd. Of course he has episodes of mania and depression. Of course her breast cancer returns with a vengeance. But to top it off, in spite of a tubal ligation to prevent their conceiving a child and passing along their terrible genes – she gets pregnant. It's her life or the baby's life. A 10-year-old could predict the ending.
The paperback version is 394 pages and Hancock
described more than 394 different ways to cry. Here are some direct quotes: “a film of tears in his eyes;” “I pushed tears off my cheeks;” “her face crumpled;”
“tears filled my eyes again;” “I was trying to hold back tears;” “I saw her wet-eyed concern;” “tears of anguish filled his eyes;” “a tear rolled down his cheek;” “new tears were brimming;” “I let my tears run freely;” “there were tears streaming down her face;” “tears fell despite my reasoning;” “my eyes
filled with tears;” “I sobbed big heaving sobs;” “seemingly endless tears blurred the scene;” “hot tears were running down my face;” “her eyes were moist with understanding;” “he gave in to tears that had been threatening.”
Are you bored yet? The last five or six chapters were
agonizing. ★★out of four stars.
Goldberg Variations by Susan Isaacs. A very
rich self-made woman, Gloria (Goldberg, but she changed her name to Garrison) invites the three grown grandchildren she has neglected for more than 20 years to her palatial home in New Mexico for a weekend, with the intention of turning over her multi-million dollar business to one of them. She hasn't decided which one. She’s built an empire by herself doing instant makeovers for women and men by suggesting make up, hairstyles, clothing choices, etc.
The three grandchildren, Rachel, Matt and Daisy, have their own careers, their own lives, their own strong personalities.
All reject her offer.
The grandchildren spend the rest of the weekend getting to know their cold, disapproving, nasty grandmother. Chapters alternate points of view among the four characters. The whole thing was flat. The characters didn’t act like real people, but like people an allegorical tale. Maybe it was intended
to be a fable or something, but I missed the point. I
usually like Isaacs’work, but this was underwhelming.
★★ out of four stars.
I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg. Kind of a silly story. Lots of coincidences and clichés. Lots of sappy sayings, which, I think, were meant to be humorous.
Maggie, a former Miss Alabama, is in her 60s and reduced to selling Real Estate in Birmingham, AL. She plans to kill herself. We know that right off. She makes elaborate preparations –pays all her bills, cancels her credit cards, closes her bank accounts, gives her clothes to the local community theater, changes the oil and fills the gas tank and cleans her leased car, puts ant traps under the sink, writes a “To Whom it May Concern” letter and places it on the kitchen counter. She’s a perfectionist.
Her attempt to commit suicide is sidetracked and postponed again and again until – who could have
guessed this? -- she realizes that things don’t have to be perfect and life is worth living.
Duh. ★★ out of four stars.
The year 2012 is old news. Between Christmas and
New Year’s Eve, recaps of Top 10 Everythings were as common as wire coat hangers. Every publication, it seemed, had its list of stuff -- the Top 10 news stories, the Top 10 weather disasters, the 10 sexiest men, the 10 most exciting new products, the 10 most heinous crimes and so on.
I have a list, too. These items are not newsworthy. They’re humdrum, often-overlooked things for which I was grateful in 2012. Ten of them. Give me a break. I’m getting older and I’m delighted by much simpler things than ever before.
1. Music, or lack thereof. I’m thinking about musical pauses. The University of Michigan’s alma mater “The Yellow and Blue” has a breathtaking pause at the end of the 12th measure, right after the word “Hail” that brings tears to my eyes when one hundred thousand people stand and sing -- and pause -- in unison. I get teary eyes when all those people sing the Star Spangled Banner, too. Here’s a link to “The Yellow and Blue” performed by the Michigan Men’s Glee Club and its alumni at their 150th reunion two years ago. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgpp9FEAhsA
Another lovely pause occurs in Samuel Barber’s
“Adagio for Strings.” The short orchestral piece oozes passion and pathos. The emotion builds. After a shimmery violin/viola stair-step crescendo, the
listener’s expectations are suddenly dashed! Egad! An exquisite, breathless pause. Nothing. Take a deep breath. The orchestra resumes softly and slowly recaps the original themes.
2. One tiny piece of dark chocolate, melting slowly on my tongue.
3. The aroma that slaps you in the nose when you open the door to enter a coffee shop.
4. The smell of little boys who have been playing outside in the fresh air all day.
5. Reading aloud to a clean, snuggly small child in his jammies. The smell of that small child’s freshly shampooed hair.
6. The excitement of airport terminals. The parking and waiting in line sucks. I do not like the idea that my purse and laptop must be scanned and that I have to schlep my carryon luggage from the parking lot to the gate. I get impatient with departure changes and boarding lines. But I love the excitement of airports. People are bustling. Some are running. Carts are beeping. Kids are crabby. Parents are either impatient or pushovers, just for the sake of tantrum-prevention. All the food for sale is loaded with fat, salt, carbs and sugar, so you’ve got to eat it or you’ll starve.
7. Leisurely Sunday mornings with a mug of black coffee and a thick newspaper full of brand new articles, updated stories, interesting facts, misguided and guided opinions, a new Sudoku and a new crossword puzzle.
8. Public TV offerings like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs and Call the Midwife. Most TV shows these days aren’t fit for the dumpster. Public TV has solved that dilemma. If my TV set only showed Public TV stations, the evening news and Frasier reruns, I’d be content.
9. Being so engrossed in a good, thick novel that I have to put it down occasionally to make it last longer.
10. Learning something completely new like how to play Mah Jongg. Or finding out that my Mom and Dad actually wrote love letters to each other. I just unearthed a stack of these. Both of my parents were born and raised in Cincinnati. Just after they got engaged, my dad landed a job at an advertising agency in Detroit. He moved here and she stayed in Cincinnati until after they were married. (This was the 1930s. Things were different then.) He was an artist, so his letters are enhanced with sketches and drawings and cartoons. She was a secretary, so her letters were typed on an old Underwood typewriter. I found the letters in an old chest that was transferred to my basement after they both died. Pretty tame stuff, actually, but I like to think of them as love letters.
My fifth grade teacher, Miss Schmidt, placed a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in my
hands, and said, “I think you’re a good enough reader to try this.” I’ve been hooked on reading for pleasure ever since.
Fiction is my preference, but I also choose some nonfiction and biography and certain kinds of mysteries. When I was younger, I felt pressured to finish every novel I started, whether I liked it or not. I slogged through some awful stuff.
Now that I’m in my seventh reading-for-pleasure decade, any book that hasn’t grabbed me by the lapels by page 50 or so gets tossed over my shoulder. I don’t have time to waste on mediocre. I’m not getting any younger.
I read lots of terrific books in 2012. Here are four of the
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. I rate this as a first-class Page-Turner. J.K. Rowling creates the English town of Pagford and peoples it with a cast of deeply flawed unlovable characters.
I tried to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
way back when the Harry Potter series was gaining momentum. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I understand Harry’s appeal for young readers, but I
didn’t choose to waste my time finishing that book.
The town of Pagford wouldn’t let me go.
Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town’s parish council, dies unexpectedly and sets off a race for his vacant council seat. The election campaign eventually involves some two dozen citizens, all with hang-ups, prejudices, petty grievances and family conflicts. Everyone is introduced in the first 50 pages or so.
I had to make a list of the characters on my bookmark, just to keep them straight. I often do this while reading a big fat Russian novel like Anna Karenina. Most of Rowling’s characters have nicknames too, just like those Russians. This makes keeping track of their exploits more challenging than ever.
Pagford residents include Barry Fairbrother’s wife Mary; Howard and Shirley Mollison; Howard’s business partner’s widow, Maureen; Miles and Samantha Mollison (Miles is Howard and Shirley’s son); Ruth and Simon Price; their son Andrew Price (nickname: Arf); Colin (nickname: Cubby) and Tessa Wall; their son Stuart Wall (nickname: Fats); Kay Bawden; Kay’s daughter Gaia; Kay’s significant other (hmmmm . . . this is debatable), Gavin; Dr. Parminder and Dr.Vikram Jawanda; the Jawanda’s daughter, Sukhvinder; Krystal Weedon; Krystal’s mother Terri; and Krystal’s little brother, Robbie. Whew.
The plot is intricately woven and gets more tangled as the story unfolds. Howard is a big boasting blowhard; Simon is a wife/child abuser; Gavin wants to break up with Kay; Kay is a social worker whose case includes Krystal and Terri and Robbie; Dr. Vikram is drop-dead gorgeous. And so on.
The kids -- all teenagers with hormones ricocheting off the walls like ping-pong balls --– are disdainful of their parents.
It’s a terrific book with interlocking, twisting plot lines and a drop-your-jaw conclusion. Use a blank piece of paper for a bookmark and keep a pencil handy. It’s worth it. Four out of four stars.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I was curious about Steve Jobs. I thought this biography would be one of those where I skipped whole chapters when the author got too technical.
First off, I never knew Jobs was so -- bipolar. I knew he was innovative, daring, perhaps a genius. But apparently he threw tantrums, insulted people, screamed obscene things at underlings and co-workers, took credit for things he didn’t do, changed his mind overnight, and treated all but a few trusted friends like dirt.
He was an inventor, a perfectionist, a vegan, a believer in holistic medicine, a visionary. He didn’t wear deodorant, in spite of the fact that friends repeatedly told him he should. This boggled me.
But he came up with some damn good ideas. This biography shows how Apple moved forward and didn’t stagnate under his watch. Three out of four stars.
The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler. Tyler has written nearly two dozen novels and I’ve read them all. The
Beginner’s Goodbye did not disappoint.
Aaron and Dorothy, two physically and emotionally stunted people, meet and marry. Aaron has a crippled right arm and leg. Dorothy is short, dumpy, and abrupt.
They hide their inner selves and true feelings not only from the outside world, but from each other.
Dorothy dies when a tree falls on their house (I thought this rather bizarre and hard to fathom. I could have dreamed up a better demise) and Aaron misses her so much, he imagines she comes back to talk to him. Three out of four stars.
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott is practically a day-by-day account of her first grandson, Jax’s, first year of life. I loved the details and descriptions and notes about babies and grandmothering and mothering and ordinary life in a weird family. Let’s face facts, everybody’s family is weird. I got the impression early in this book that Lamott wanted to control other people’s lives. Jax’s existence intensifies this trait. She often has to stop and repeat, slowly, to herself: “Oh. Yeah. It’s their baby.”
At first, she’s not thrilled that her son, who is not yet 20, and his girlfriend, who is barely into her 20s, are going to have a baby. They do not marry. In fact, they can barely
get along with each other. So what’s a baby going to do to their relationship?
It’s tough sledding for the parents and the new grandma as well. Lamott writes beautifully and with great, unobstructed, uncensored insight into every parent’s and grandparent’s greatest dilemma -- how to hold close, how to let go, and how to know which is the best choice for each situation. Three out of four stars.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I loved this book. I love books by British authors about plain, ordinary people Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, is one. The Tower, the Zoo, and the
Tortoise by Julia Stuart is another.
Harold Fry is Ordinary Man to a T. He is Casper Milquetoast. He lives a regimented, orderly life according to rules and routines and ingrained habits. He hardly realizes how bored-to-death he is. He’s married to Maureen, who is just as rigid and just as bored. She’s critical of everything Harold does, even the way he butters his toast. Together, they’re miserable.
Harold gets a letter from an old friend telling him she’s dying. He writes back. On the way to post the letter, he walks past the mailbox, then past the next mailbox, then decides to walk the full length of England -- some 600 miles -- to visit his old friend before she dies.
His journey changes him; changes his wife; changes the people who hear about what he’s doing. There are two surprises toward the end and both are believable. Three
out of four stars.
In one of my next blog postings, I’ll describe a few not-so-great books I read. (OK I lied about not finishing a book that didn’t grab me by page 50.) Sometimes I’m
hooked by page 50, but left dangling at the end. It’s a metaphor for life.
I’ll write about it.
Remember the multiple indignities of Junior High School?
The cliques. The boy-girl dances. The animated cartoon that was supposed to explain menstruation.
Gym class was the pits and team selection was particularly distressing. The teacher would pick two captains. The captains would take turns calling the names of girls they wanted to populate their teams.
The athletic, competitive, popular girls were chosen right
off. Next, the athletic popular girls. Next, the athletic but less popular girls. Next, the athletic unpopular. And last, the girls who didn’t have any friends and couldn’t throw a softball or catch a basketball in an oversized trash can.
Thankfully, I usually wasn’t one of the last-picked. I wasn’t popular or athletic. I was passable, probably because I was freakishly tall and looked like I might be strong or might be a tenacious fighter, even though I proved both suppositions incorrect.
But I felt sorry for those who knew they would be one of the last chosen. The overweight, the clumsy and the unattractive kicked the toes of their blue canvas Keds against the wall, pretending they didn’t give a damn. They slouched and shuffled and waited.
I was summoned for jury duty recently and was rejected, which brought those long-ago loser dud-like feelings back into focus.
I really really want to be on a jury. I want to see how the jury system works. I can be impartial. I can do it right. I can. Yes, I can.
But nobody picks me.
I’ve been called three times but never selected. The first time, the case was settled out of court. The second time, I got as far as an actual courtroom, answered the questions truthfully, but was dismissed.
Two weeks ago, I almost made it. As one of more than 200 people in the jury pool that day, I made the cut on day one for an armed robbery trial. Yay! On the morning of the second day, the assistant prosecutor had one more peremptory dismissal left.
I was it.
While spending a day and a half in Michigan’s Third Judicial Circuit Court -- the criminal court -- I racked up some 12-plus hours of people-watching, mostly while sitting on a hard wooden pew-like bench in a dimly-lit, grimy hallway on the fifth floor of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in downtown Detroit.
To make the experience even more frustrating, the drinking fountain was broken and we didn't have enough time to go out for lunch.
I observed people of all ilk. Some, nicely turned out. Some not. I was surprised at the blatant display of breasts, belly buttons, butts and dirty feet.
Were these people unaware they were going to be in a
courtroom that day?
I saw piercings in every visible body part fleshy enough to hold a ring or a stud. Some of the people roaming those gloomy halls wore rubber flip-flops, short shorts, backwards baseball caps, sweatshirts, sleeveless T-shirts and – well, I can’t list all the variations of unacceptible courtroom clothing.
What about dress codes? When I was in Junior High School, I’m sure courthouses had dress codes. People who were summoned to court were instructed by their parents or their lawyers or by the judges who ruled courtrooms to dress appropriately, for Pete’s sake. It's a court of law.
Jurors summoned to report on the day I was there had received a letter reminding them not to bring certain items into the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. These things included the obvious such as guns, illegal drugs, explosives, knives, brass knuckles and alcoholic beverages.
The two-page do-not-bring list also included cell phones, cameras, batteries, curling irons, combs, make-up, oversized purses, glass bottles, mirrors, highlighting pens, noisemakers, paints, pencil sharpeners, dental floss, safety pins and tweezers.
No dress code.
Am I showing my age?
Why weren’t these people told that beach attire was not appropriate or that when in court, as in church, one is expected to button up her blouse, pull up his pants and put on some shoes?
OK. I AM showing my age. But I’m not alone.
I Googled information about dress codes for the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and someone identified as A Google User wrote,
“OMG, I cannot believe this place. First of all who lets people come into a courthouse dressed the way some of these people are dressed? Most of them look like bums, hookers or straight up thugs. Second, security really needs to come up with a better system. I say this because people, or should I say thugs, were taking off their shoes and pulling out cell phones and small knives. Third, the benches are falling apart, bathrooms are filthy and it’s pretty much a dump . . . This place needs to make some serious changes.”
Hear ye. All rise.
American weddings are full of traditions. Examples: 1.) If the groom catches a glimpse of the bride on the day of their marriage – especially if she’s wearing her gown – it’s bad luck. 2.) The bride is supposed to wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. 3.) At the reception, the best man should offer the first toast to the newlyweds.
And one for mothers of boys: 4.) The groom’s mother
should wear beige and keep her mouth shut.
Russian couples have traditions, too. One in
particular sure was new to me.
During a recent cruise from St. Petersburg to
Moscow, our tour group chanced upon this peculiar tradition five or six times.
As we approached a point of interest, a bride and groom, dressed in their wedding finery, were posing for photos in front a statue or monument. Most of the couples had the entire wedding party in tow, and they also took turns having their pictures taken.
St. Petersburg's colorful palaces, various statues of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, elaborate fountains, war memorials and onion-domed churches all over Russia serve as backgrounds for photos in wedding albums.
Apparently, it goes like this: After the formal
wedding ceremony-- the bride and groom, the bridesmaids, groomsmen, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, the flowergirls and ring bearers – all pile into rented limousines. The limos are lavishly decked out with floral arrangements and oversized replicas of entwined gold wedding bands or doves or hearts. The names of the bride and groom are painted on the sides of the limo. Ribbons and balloons are attached to door handles and antennas.
The whole wedding gang rockets around the city
where they stop three or four times to pile out, and arrange themselves in front of landmarks that have special meaning for the newlyweds.
In Uglich, one of the oldest cities in the upper
Volga basin, we paused to admire a bride and groom as they staged a romantic scene for their videographer. They were on a raised platform for what I guess was a World War II monument. I couldn’t read the inscription on the base of the memorial, which of course was in Russian, but it featured the profile of a fairly modern-looking soldier and the numbers 1945.
The bride stood on one side of an open area
between two monuments, the groom on the other. They ran toward each other, arms outstretched, and embraced for the video camera. Their friends cheered and clapped. Then the rest of the bridal party joined them for the usual wedding photo lineups.
In St. Petersburg, on a Saturday afternoon, a
queue of limousines formed as several wedding parties waited their turns. One couple posed for photos, then beckoned to a man in a tuxedo, who ran across the grass and wedged himself between them. He opened a small box and released a pair of white doves. More cheering and clapping.
I imagine the vodka was flowing freely inside
the limos. In truth, vodka was everywhere. Russians are extremely proud of their national drink and most restaurants and bars offer dozens of varieties and
brands. Vodka tastings were common. We even had a chance to tour a vodka museum in the city of Uglich.
It started to rain one day as we witnessed one
of these wedding tableaux. As the next limo pulled forward, the doors flipped open, the bride and her entourage trooped out – oblivious to the rain. A kindly groomsman waved a huge black umbrella above the bride, but she ignored it and loped across the pavement beside her groom. The hem of her long white skirt with its three tiers of poufy ruffles dragged through puddles and wet grass. The bride’s hair drooped and her bouquet sagged, but the whole gang joined the newlyweds, posed, smiled, cheered, then trooped back to the limo and headed for the next post-wedding photo op.
After we witnessed this ritual three or four times, it didn’t seem nearly as odd as it did at first. It was rather charming. Everyone involved seemed to be having great fun.
Maybe the vodka helped.
Stay tuned for more about my recent trip to Russia. This blog is updated every two weeks. Or not.
I crossed “Travel to Russia” off my Bucket List.
Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel) is
a nonprofit organization that offers hundreds of international and domestic educational trips for people 50 and older. I recently returned from a two-week Road Scholar cruise on a Russian riverboat.
I grew up during the Cold War, so my impression
of the USSR was colored by US propaganda. The Soviet Union and the Russians were scary. They were Communists. The country was surrounded by an Iron Curtain. When I was in grade school, I thought this curtain was real. I pictured a gigantic theatre-type curtain hanging in thick folds and decorated with swags and tassels, but made of rusting iron.
If someone was meandering along a street in, say, Poland, and if he was walking with his head down, he might run smack into the Iron Curtain: Bam. He would bruise his nose. He would know for sure he was on the border of the Soviet Union and he would hightail it back to safety.
My late 1940s and 1950s vision of Russians: a
stern, unsmiling, military-minded mass of men dressed in storm coats and fur hats. Their counterparts were plump, dumpy women wearing babushkas.
The Kremlin was a scary place, a walled government compound.
I remember Movietone News clips of May Day
parades in Red Square that featured thousands of soldiers marching in square formations with their arms swinging in unison. They carried swords, bayonets and guns, and were followed by long lines of tanks, canons and military vehicles. A row of men with bushy mustaches, military hats and chests full of medals watched the parade from the roof of Lenin’s tomb. Even scarier: Lenin was preserved in
that tomb, pickled in formaldehyde and on display.
We spent four days in St. Petersburg; nine days
cruising down the Volga River and its tributaries; then three days in Moscow.
This was my fifth Road Scholar (Elderhostel)
travel experience and, as all the others, it did not disappoint. It was terrific.
After a day re-tuning our jet-lagged brains and
bodies at a hotel in the city of St. Petersburg, we moved to the M/S Vodohod/RUSS, a Russian riverboat with a capacity for about 300 passengers as
well as its all-Russian crew and staff. We unpacked and settled into our linen closet-sized cabin.
The cabin was so small. . .
“How small was it?” The audience of Johnny
Carson’s old Tonight Show might ask, in unison.
“Our cabin was so small, if one person was sitting on a bed, leaning forward to tie her shoe, the other person had to wait until she was finished before passing by. The bathroom was the size of a
cupboard in my basement where I keep my Christmas tree decorations.
We didn’t care. We were never there, except to
The boat stayed at the dock in St. Petersburg for another three days while we explored Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer residence; Catherine the Great’s summer palace, including the Amber Room with its six tons of amber decoration; a moving, but gloomy memorial to the survivors and victims of the Seige of Leningrad; the Peter and Paul Fortress, and (ta daaaaa! Something I’ve been waiting to see for a half century, at least!) the Hermitage Museum. We also attended a ballet performance in the city.
St. Petersburg is at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, a pouchy offshoot extending eastward from the Baltic Sea. We puttered along the Neva River through Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater lake in Europe, then through the Svir River to a village called Mandrogy.
We continued our northeasterly sail to Lake
Onega, the second largest lake in Europe, to the island of Kizhi.
Then we traveled southeast on Russia’s longest
river, the Volga, through Lake Beloye, heading south on the Sheksna River, where we stopped at a city called Goritsy.
We went through the Rybnsk Reservoir to the city
Then we backtracked to the main river and continued southwest to Uglich, another charming Russian
By the time we entered the Moscow Canal on
the way to Moscow, we had passed dozens of hydroelectric stations and a dozens upon dozens of piles of lumber stacked, ready to be loaded onto barges. The logs looked like birch. I think birch
trees are rampant in Russia.
We were lifted up on this journey through nearly two dozen locks as we made our way up the river from the Baltic Sea – upstream--to Moscow.
Our trip was enhanced by lectures about Russian
history, demonstrations of Russian dances and music, classes about the Russian language and discussions of Russian notables such as Ivan
the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and some of the most famous Russian artists and composers.
I was pleasantly surprised by the country and the people and by hearing some of the complicated and colorful details of Russian history. It will take two or three blog entries to tell all.
My next blog will deal with visits to the five villages, details of our all too brief visit to the Hermitage, information about some palaces and Russian Orthodox churches we saw as well as some nice things I learned from face-to-face encounters with 21st Century Russians.
I participated in a lip dub last week. Maybe it was a flash mob. I’m not sure. Maybe it was just a bunch of people singing one line of a song.
Neither lip dub nor flash mob has come into common use yet. At least not in the senior set I hang around with. Flash mob has been added to the latest online Merriam-Webster dictionary, but lib dub has not yet been deemed worthy of inclusion.
Rob Bliss is the award-winning producer of a lib dub that featured more than 5,000 people dancing and singing
American Pie in the streets of Grand Rapids. Participants in this, the longest and largest video lip dub yet, included the mayor, local celebrities, high school bands, a wedding party, kayakers, fireworks, dancers, even a helicopter take-off. If you’re interested in the Grand Rapids Lib Dub, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPjjZCO67WI .
Bliss came to the Detroit Institute of Arts last week to film a portion of a new Pure Michigan advertisement in the DIA’s Rivera Court.
I told a couple of friends I was going to the museum to be part of this filming. Their reaction was, “Huh?”and “What’s a lip dub?”
A lip dub is a video that combines lip synching and audio dubbing. It’s usually a large group of people mouthing the words to previously recorded music, but it's filmed in one continuous take with different groups of people entering and leaving.
I got the same “Huh?” when I asked if anybody knew what a flash mob was. A flash mob gathers (seemingly by chance – but No Way!) in a public place to perform a short, entertaining activity. The purpose, usually, is to merely surprise and delight passers-by.
Many readers of this blog have seen the You Tube video of more than 200 people dancing in Antwerp’s spacious Central Station. The loudspeaker begins by playing the first notes of Do Re Mi from the musical, The Sound of Music. The flash mob starts with one lone person, then two more join, then a line of dancers, then more and more until the center of the station is filled with performers dancing in unison.To see it, go to http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=767LG7NX
Some readers of this blog may have viewed the pillow fight flash mob in Toronto, filmed in 2005, or the Hallelujah chorus performed for unsuspecting diners in a Macy’s food court a few years ago.
Bliss is directing an upcoming Pure Michigan commercial and was midway through a week-long blitz to film portions of the video at 50 different Michigan locations. The DIA’s Rivera Court was one of them.
About 100 people -- volunteers, staff members and friends of the DIA -- showed up in DIA-themed get-ups and Detroit sports team T-shirts as well as shirts proclaiming all kinds of good things about Detroit and Michigan.
We spent 20 minutes practicing our lines, which were pretty simple: “Woah oh oh oh. Then Bliss and his crew filmed us. We’ll have a “starring role” of several seconds in the upcoming Pure Michigan promotion.
I’ll let you all know when it’s available. Bliss said it will be shown on Michigan’s official tourism Web site, PureMichigan.com and maybe other places, too. Readers of this blog in North Carolina, Florida, California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Paris and beyond – look for it. I’m wearing a bright blue DIA T-shirt standing next to the tall gray-haired man (that’s Skip) in the back row (of course) waving my hands back and forth, singing our portion of the song: “Woah oh oh oh” and proclaiming love for Michigan and the Detroit Institute of
To see how Bliss and his crew traveled around the state,
go to http://www.michigan.org/blog and scroll down to The Most Ambitious Pure Michigan Road Trip Ever.
If you have time and you’re interested, here’s another cool video of people all over the world, dancing:
Something I know the answer to, but never get to talk about because nobody asks me and the topic never comes up
Q: Can you tell from observing the statue of a horse
and rider, how the rider died?
A: Bingo. I’ve known the answer to this for ages. If the horse has its two front feet off the ground, the soldier died in battle. If the horse has one foot off the ground, the soldier died of wounds received in battle. If all four of the horse’s feet are flat on the ground, the rider died of other causes.
Nobody seems impressed that I have memorized this important bit of historical trivia.
Just for fun, I Googled it and found out from one source that the story is only true of statues of Civil War soldiers; from another source, who refers to dozens of horse-and-rider statues, including some from the Civil War, that it’s not even true of Civil War soldiers. Yet another source claims the whole thing is an urban legend.
Just for the heck of it, I looked for information about a statue of Peter the Great on horseback dubbed The Bronze Horseman, which stands in St. Isaac’s Square in St. Petersburg, Russia (where in a few weeks I’ll get to see it LIVE, IN PERSON.) The statue is a symbol of St. Petersburg, much as the Statue of Liberty is the symbol for New York City. The horse is balanced on its back two feet; its front feet are raised. So -- did PTG die in battle?
I found out that while Peter the Great fought and won many battles – hmmm, was that what made him so Great? – Peter died at the age of 52 of a gangrenous bladder.
From one of my Googled sources:
“In the winter of 1723, Peter, whose overall health was never robust, began having problems with his urinary tract and bladder. In the summer of 1724 a team of doctors performed surgery releasing upwards of four pounds of blocked urine.”
“Peter remained bedridden until late autumn. In the first week of October, restless and certain he was cured, Peter began a lengthy inspection tour of various projects. According to legend, while on the Finnish Gulf to inspect some ironworks, Peter saw a group of soldiers drowning not far from shore and, wading out into near-waist deep water, came to their rescue.
“This icy water rescue is said to have exacerbated
Peter's bladder problems and caused his death.
“The story, however, has been viewed with skepticism by some historians, pointing out that the German chronicler Jacob von Stahlin is the only source for the story and it seems unlikely that no one else would have documented such an act of heroism.
“This, plus the interval of time between these actions and Peter's death seems to preclude any direct link.”
So much for my smarty pants I-know-something-you-don’t-know attitude.
The painting on the top left side of of this blog is by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov. It depicts The Bronze Horseman statue. Catherine the Great commissioned French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet to create the statue, which took more than a dozen years to cast. It was unveiled in 1782, 57 years after Peter’s death.
This painting by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov depicts The Bronze Horseman, a statue of Peter the Great on horseback in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. Catherine the Great commissioned French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet to create the statue, which took more than a dozen years to cast. It was unveiled in 1782, 57 years after Peter’s death.
Following are seven short critiques of books I’ve read recently. Some were very good, some pretty good, one bad, one ugly. All are filtered through my decidedly biased 72-year-old brain.
Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan. The protagonist of this charming book is an 80-year-old woman who leads a narrow, predictable daily existence. Nothing happens. There are no great conflicts. Not much tension. Much of what happens is trivial and unremarkable in the grand scheme of world events.
It’s just Emily, alone. You can’t say the title is misleading.
But Emily is so human and so startlingly like me I kept reading. Emily makes lists, she worries, she plans ahead for worst-possible-cases, sets deadlines for herself, reads, listens to classical music, dislikes TV.
I read another of O’Nan’s books, Wish You Were Here, about five years ago, and I remember having the same reaction: nothing happened. Aren’t novels supposed to have conflicts and aren’t protagonists supposed to have goals they have to strive for?
I searched for Wish You Were Here on Amazon.com and discovered it’s the prequel to Emily, Alone. It’s about the Maxwell family’s last week at their cottage with all the disfunctions and disagreements and different points of view generated by a diverse, extended family. Just like real life.
I guess if you’re a good writer, you can discard the rules. I liked both of these books anyway and I’d give Emily,
Alone ★★★★ out of four stars.
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan.Talk about draggy! I was so hyped up about O’Nan, I bought this book, which was an extremely disappointing read.
Kim, a teenager in Kingsville, Ohio, who is about to go off to college, goes missing instead. Her family does everything possible to find her – search parties, fundraisers, walk-a-thons, distribution of pictures and posters, etc.
The reader trudges through every single detail of every bit of the searching. O’Nan drops hints, drags red herrings and gives clues about who might be the culprit. The person responsible for Kim’s disappearance might be her boyfriend, her father, her sister, a drug dealer, a
kidnapper or a serial killer. He examines the family dynamics in excruciating detail as the search goes on for more than a year.
The details drove me nuts. None had anything to do with the solution of the mystery.
Ultimately, unfortunately, the book was bore-ing. So much for a blanket endorsement of Stewart O’Nan. ★★ out of four stars.
Trust Me by John Updike is a collection of short stories that actually made sense. They were logical, well-plotted,
well-told, and understandable. Most were about couples and all the angst that goes with being part of a couple – the family squabbles, misunderstandings, break-ups, get-back-togethers.
And finally, in each case, it all boiled down to -- trust.
Each begins with an incident. The rest of the story gives the incident meaning or clarifies it. That Updike guy could really write. ★★★★ out of four stars.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. What a story!
And it’s true.
Louis Zamperini, a WWII Army lieutenant and a bombardier, survived a plane crash in the Pacific and drifted thousands of miles in a leaky rubber lifeboat. He endured thirst, starvation, shark attacks, enemy aircraft
and more, only to be captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison where, again, he endured beatings, starvation, humiliation and demoralizing treatment.
Unbroken tells the sordid details of the unbelievable
cruelty by a prison guard nicknamed The Bird. Apparently, Louis is still alive – now in his 90s – and he gives talks about his experiences. ★★★★
out of four stars.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This was a wonderful, perplexing book. Beautifully written. Concise,
spare, quite Hemingwayesque. It’s about Tony Webster, a man in his 60s who recalls experiences earlier in his life. His memories center on a group of friends from college, particularly Adrian, the smartest one in the group, and Veronica, the girl “with issues.”
The last few pages reveal a twist that makes you want to start reading it all over again. It’s short – more of a novella than a novel. ★★ ★ out of four
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. This novel is based on actual events. It takes place during the Siege of Leningrad (1941) and in the present day. Marina, a Russian woman in her 80s who now lives in America, recalls how she survived the siege.
She was a docent at the world famous Hermitage museum in Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg).
During the siege, in order to protect the art objects and paintings from the bombings and keep the Nazis from stealing them, docents and employees worked day
and night to remove and safely store the art. They lived in the basement of the museum. Many starved or died from disease or the harsh Russian winter.
Even though the paintings had been removed from the walls and rolled up for storage, the frames were left in place to serve as a pledge to eventually restore the galleries to their former state. Marina keeps the memory of the paintings fresh in her mind by taking tours of the museum and describing, in detail, each painting.
In the present day portion of the narrative, Marina has Alzheimer’s Disease. She can’t remember what season
it is and if she ate breakfast or not. But she can recall every detail of the Hermitage’s collection. Not only was this a good story, it was well-written and historically accurate. ★★★ out of four stars.
Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard. I’ve heard good things about Elmore Leonard. He’s a hometown writer – lives and works in Detroit. For years, I’ve heard people talk about how good a writer he is, how well-thought-out his plots are, how realistic his dialogue is, yadda yadda
yadda. I wanted to say I’ve read an Elmore Leonard novel.
Well, now I have and it was not for me.
I disliked the characters and I found it difficult to follow the plot. I probably missed a lot because I got bored. He is certainly concise – has a knack for picking the exact detail to reveal a person’s intent or thoughts or look or
whatever. He has excised every unnecessary word. I liked the Detroit references because it made it easy to follow the story line.
He does write good dialogue.
But I wanted to know more about his characters’ motives and backgrounds. Who was Mr. Paradise – was he a mafia lawyer or just a creepo criminal lowlife lawyer? Why did Chloe (the call girl)’s roommate Kelly know so much about literature? What’s the story behind the detective, Delsa, anyway? How can he be so stupid to fall for Kelly,
sho is at first a suspect, then a witness to a horrific crime. What about the killers? How did they get to be
No more Elmore Leonard for me. ★, barely, out of four stars.
Last Saturday evening I attended a special concert. A side effect that came out of this glorious evening: I crossed yet another item off my Bucket List.
It was a minor item, one I never thought about putting on the list until last Saturday. This is not the first time I’ve done this. I never knew I wanted to ride in a hot air balloon until I did it.
The concert was by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The full orchestra – nearly 80 people -- played selections by Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and other well-knowns. Nothing was deep or complicated. It was lovely, summery, familiar music. As the man in front of us pointed out, portions of most of the compositions were used in the sound tracks of Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The setting was special, too. The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House is located on 65 acres of a peninsula that juts into Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, MI. We carried folded-up canvas chairs, blankets and coolers packed with picnic food along a narrow gravel path that ended in a spacious grassy area between the back of the house and the lake. With a little imagination, it could have been the setting for one of Jay Gatsby’s parties. The night was warm and sticky at first, reminding me of summer evenings vacationing in northern Michigan when I was a child. But as soon as the sun dipped behind the slate roof and stone chimneys of the Cotswold-style mini mansion, a cool breeze had concert-goers reaching for sweaters. No mosquitoes or fishflies. No rain.
Our group arrived early and staked out our territory in the shade of a huge maple tree. We unfolded our chairs and hauled out the hors d’oeuvres. We sipped our drinks, ate sandwiches, passed cookies and fruit around and around, chatted about how good the weather was and how lucky we were to be there.
The orchestra was set up on the Ford House’s
lakeside terrace. Those who forked over a bigger chunk of change got to sit in rows of folding chairs, right in front. We were happy under our tree.
The setting was relaxed, casual. Guests showed up in everything from denim cutoffs and wife-beater T-shirts to flowered sundresses and wide-brimmed straw hats. Babies were wheeled around in luxurious Lexus-style strollers equipped with all comforts imaginable -- cup holders, canopies, storage units, changing tables, colorful mobiles. I wondered if some
of the perambulated tots might have hidden flat-screen TVs and minibars aboard as well.
Concession stands offered wine, beer and snacks.
More than a dozen bright blue portable toilets stood at the ready on a grassy area behind us, next to the lake shore. I hate those claustrophobic flushless
cells. The free-standing plastic structures wobble alarmingly when you close the door. The flimsy walls are so thin, I can monitor conversations of the people in line who are waiting for me to emerge. I feel like I’m going to the bathroom in the middle of a crowd of onlookers. Disconcerting, for sure.
The concert started promptly at 7:30 p.m.
Audience etiquette is relaxed in these outdoor
situations. It’s not necessary to sit still, hands in laps clutching programs. Clapping between symphonic movements isn’t as embarrassing as it is in Orchestra Hall. Whispering is OK. I heard an occasional forgotten cell phone jingle. Unwrapping crinkly hard candies was OK – not to mention un-burping Tupperware bins, un-zipping Zip-Lock bags and popping soft drink caps.
While the orchestra played, people mostly sat
still and enjoyed the music. But stretching out on a blanket was OK and children roamed in circular territories, watched by their parents. People strolled over to the bank of Porta-Johns whenever they wished. The concession stands were busy.
Eventually, even though I hoped to avoid it, I excused myself and moseyed toward the Port-a-John lineup.
And here’s where my Bucket List item was accomplished -– the item I never even knew I wanted to put on my list untl last Saturday at about 8:45 p.m.
I, Margie Reins Smith, peed while accompanied by a LIVE world-class orchestra.
Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien. It was wonderful.
We are a good group. We are a half dozen ladies-of-a-certain-age. When we meet for an afternoon of conversation, we start with a ritual.
I call it The Passing of the Pillows.
Each member of the group arrives, surrenders her coat, greets and is greeted, accepts or refuses food and drink. She is ushered into the hostess’s family room where
upholstered chairs, sofas, loveseats, ottomans and side chairs abound. Pillows and cushions of every ilk are scattered about on the furniture.
Small, rectangular needlepointed pillows claim Grandmothers are Mothers with Ph.Ds. Hand-stitched crewel-embroidered pillows decorated with colorful entwined leaves and flowers are tucked here and there. Big smushy down pillows are propped against arm rests. Small, hard-packed pillows provide decorative accents in colors and patterns complementary to the room’s décor.
Each person chooses a place to sit.
Two members of the group prefer straight-backed chairs, which the hostess usually drags in from an adjoining room. Another likes comfy upholstered chairs with footstools. One member scrupulously avoids deep,
low-slung sofas. Two members have back problems. Another has a new left hip. One member has a left shoulder that has recently been replaced and a right
shoulder with a torn rotator cuff.
We all claim those run-of-the-mill varieties of chronic achy breaky physical ailments which change from week to week, season to season.
After each has selected a chair, The Passing of the Pillows begins. It’s similar to Hearts, the card game. In the game of Hearts, after all the cards are dealt, each player gets to pass his or her three worst cards to the player on the right. Only then can the actual game begin.
One member of my group needs a small puffy pillow to fill the curve of her lower back. Another needs a firm cushion and a straight-backed chair to keep her from slumping. Another needs a scrunchy, smooshy pillow and a footstool to pamper an ankle. Another brings her own special orthopedic cushion, a device that supports her back. Still another member of the group needs a soft pillow to prop up an arm.
The Passing of the Pillows takes about five minutes, tops. Once it has been completed, the actual meeting
When my three girls were mere tots, my husband and I bought a 47-foot power boat – a 10-year-old Chris Craft double cabin -- in Miami, FL, and brought it back to Michigan via the Intracoastal Waterway. The whole family was aboard for an entire month bringing that freakin’ thing home. The girls were 9, 7 and 11
What were we thinking?
More specifically, what was I thinking?
Because I’m a writer, I kept a daily journal. The two older girls also kept journals. The 9-year-old wrote her own entries, but I recorded what the 7-year-old dictated.
You’d think we had taken three different trips.
What more proof do I need for the power of point of view (POV)?
My worries included (among dozens of ghastly catastrophic possibilities) the chance that one of the children would fall overboard. We made them wear
life jackets from the minute they emerged from the cabin until they went back down those stairs.
A16-year-old boy, a family friend, made the trip with us. Like most 16-year-old boys, he was focused on three things: (1) the desire to get behind the wheel of a car and drive (2) the progress of his tan and (3) eating.
He helped with docking, cleaning, engine-room
work and other heavy stuff. He turned out to be indispensible. We couldn’t have done it without him. But I had no idea how much food it takes to keep a teenage boy functioning. After many trips to the weird little grocery stores that exist near harbors, I finally caught on and started stockpiling cereal and sandwich meat.
My mother- and father–in-law joined us for one
of the early weeks and my husband’s business partner and his wife joined us for the final week.
The trip was a nightmare. From my POV.
We survived one minor disaster after another as
well as one major disaster. The day of our arrival, one of the girls slammed a hatch cover on her finger. The cut was so deep I could see bone. We spent a half
day at a doctor’s office getting stitches and shots and bandages. The doctor spoke Spanish exclusively, so we communicated with gestures and with the help of the receptionist in an adjoining office.
The generator broke. Stop, get it fixed. The air conditioning broke. Stop, get it fixed. Starter motor broke. Stop, get it fixed. Water pump broke. You get the picture.
Grandpa (a non-boater) was filling in as temporary pilot while my husband dragged the baby’s playpen from the back cabin up the stairs to the deck. Grandpa steered too close to the shoreline next to an inlet on the Intracoastal, ran aground, got stuck and lost one of the props. We spent a couple of days in North Carolina, where we had to buy a new prop and have it installed.
After a series of tearful meltdowns, I threatened to take the children and fly home. When it was time for my in-laws to go home, my mother-in-law kindly offered to take the baby with them.
It was tempting.
The baby learned to walk in spite of the unsteady terrain. The teenager ate everything that wasn’t wiggling or frozen solid. When we cruised past West Point one foggy morning, he was inspired. He eventually graduated from West Point Academy.
And when I recently re-read the two girls’ journals, I see they loved the trip. POV, again.
One daughter’s favorite memory was when Grandpa
went into the tiny V-shaped head (bathroom) which doubled as a shower. It was the middle of the night and – instead of flipping the light switch on -- he
turned the shower on himself.
Another remembers playing elaborate games with
Pet Rocks on the beach near one of the harbors where we docked.
We visited Williamsburg for a half day and
Hilton Head Island for a whole day. The harbor at Hilton Head has an 8-foot tide. When you leave the boat to go to dinner, you step directly onto the dock.
When you return, you have to descend 10 steps. We also had dinner at a fancy schmantzy country club in Charleston where the teenage boy set a new record at the buffet table with the peel-and-eat shrimp.
The children witnessed firsthand the process of going through a series of locks between the Great Lakes. They can also say they traveled the length of the New York State Barge Canal (formerly known as the Erie Canal). They saw the Statue of Liberty up close and personal and I have a photo of the twin towers taken from our boat.
We also survived the Mother of All Storms on
Lake Ontario. We set out one breezy, unsettled morning from Oswego, NY, headed for Toronto. The waves increased to six-footers, topped by angry foam. The wind, according to our anemometer, peaked at more than 55 miles-an-hour. While we were
navigating this particular nightmare, the main cabin began to fill with smoke and the engine room began to fill with water.
I was conscripted to pilot the boat while my
husband investigated the fire and the flood. The boat pitched and rolled as I fought to keep the bow at an angle into the wind. We all had our life jackets
on. One child was throwing up in a wastebasket. My mother-in-law, who was recovering from a recent mastectomy, had hoped the trip would be a time
for healing and resting. She was trying to be brave. My father-in-law was sitting on the deck cradling the baby on his lap with one arm, the other arm looped around one leg of the pilot chair to keep them both from sliding toward the stern.
I thought we were going to die.
No, I didn’t think we would die, but I thought we were going to be in the water and the boat would be a goner. My POV.
But the smoke was stopped. The flood was fixed.
My husband figured out what was causing both, which is another story. We made it – not to Toronto
– but to the Niagara River where we limped into our slip.
The inside of the main cabin was filled with
food that had spilled out of the refrigerator; pots and pans that had fallen out of the cupboards; dishes; books; charts; a TV set; children’s toys; and water. Lots of water. When the cabin is full of smoke, you open the windows even though water sloshes in, right?
Teenage boy, sweetheart that he was, said, “Mrs.
Smith, don’t go down into the cabin. Take the children for a walk. I’ll clean up.”
I loved that kid.
We made it home safely. We used the boat, happily, for about 8 more years, cruising Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and the North
The children loved boating and actually grew up to be responsible, well-adjusted people. I still have their
journals and mine.
Three totally different trips.
POV. It's all in the POV.
Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, gave an evening talk at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church last weekend. Her title: “An Evening of Hope & Grace.”
The sanctuary was packed, as were two side balconies and the choir loft. WDIV-TV anchor Devin Scillian hosted a Q and A with the author after her talk.
Lamott’s speaking style is conversational and chatty. Honest. Funny, too. She showed up in rumpled
jeans –the exact outfit my friend Judy said she changed out of because she was coming to hear Lamott in a church. I left my jeans at home, too.
Lamott’s light brown dreadlocks were tied back with a scarf, but a single dread hung directly between her eyes the whole time she spoke. I wanted to push it aside or hook it behind her ear, as I do to my daughters’ stray chunks of hair. Lamott is a 58-year old grandmother. Pretty. Unassuming. Charming.
She leaned forward on the podium and just . . . .talked. She started off with the best definition I’ve ever heard of the term, "grace."
She used a metaphor.
Does anybody remember Mr. Magoo? she asked. “Surely some of you out there are old enough.” The audience chuckled. Nodded.
Mr. Magoo was an animated TV character popular in the 1960s. He also starred in a series of short cartoons – the ones presented in movie theaters after Fox Movietone News or The March of Time newsreel, before the featured full-length movie.
Jim Backus provided Magoo’s voice. Magoo was a bumbling older man, a millionaire. Gruff. Naïve. Short
and plump. Bald. He had a big bulbous nose, like W.C. Fields. His most distinctive trait, however, was his nearsightedness.
Magoo wouldn’t admit his eyesight was less than 20/20. Instead, he stumbled and fumbled through various adventures in which he made mistakes, took wrong turns and got himself into – and out of -- incredibly dangerous
“Somehow,” Lamott said,“Mr. Magoo always ended up on top of a skyscraper.” Just as he was about to step off the edge of the building, a crane would swing by carrying a horizontal steel beam. Instead of plunging to his death, Magoo would step on the beam, which would then swing across the empty space between skyscrapers and deposit him on the edge of another building, where he continued to stumble along, oblivious to what had happened.
Or an airplane would swoop down beside the
skyscraper, he’d step on one of its wings to be carried aloft, deposited safely on the roof of another building. He would be saved again and again by incredible strokes of luck.
Because of his nearsightedness, Magoo never knew he was in danger. And never knew when he’d been rescued.
“That’s grace,” Lamott said.
Grace, she said, is undeserved luck. Divine undeserved luck.
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace,” she said. “Only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
Lamott's most recent book, Some Assembly Required, is about her first grandchild's first year of life. She has also written seven novels: Hard Laughter, Rosie, Joe Jones, All New People, Crooked Little Heart, Blue Shoe and Imperfect Birds; and five nonfiction books: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.
I own a beat-up tintype of two grim people, a man and a woman. Unsmiling, they are seated side-by-side. They stare dutifully at the camera lens. They look to be in their mid-30s, although it’s hard to tell ages in old photos. People not only looked older sooner, but they thought and acted old sooner than we do today.
When she was my age, my grandmother wore long shapeless flowered garments that zipped up the front, called housedresses. While she was working at home during the day, she rolled her stockings down below her knees and secured them with fat blue elastic garters. Stockings came in twos back then, one for each leg.
My grandmother didn’t own a pair of jeans or athletic shoes. She wore heavy black thick-heeled lace-up shoes and (nearly always, it seemed) an apron. When she got
dressed up she wore a black coat and a black felt hat with a small brim. She kept it from blowing away by threading a hatpin through it, then through her hair.
After her five children were grown up and settled, they all chipped in one Mother’s Day and bought her a mink wrap. It was made of a half dozen whole pelts -- complete
mink skins strung together in sort of a semicircle. The minks had beady little glass eyes, sharp teeth and leathery ears and noses. Each set of minky teeth was
clamped tightly onto the tail of the animal in front as if they were circus elephants, lined up trunk-to-tail, ready for a parade.
Mink wraps offered wonderful diversions for small children during boring church services. If the lady in the pew in front of you was wearing one of those mink pelt parades, you could wag the little tails and wiggle the little feet and poke your fingers in the little eyes and stick pencils up the little noses.
But I digress.
The unsmiling tintyped couple are probably my relatives. They aren’t particularly attractive or even interesting-looking. I have no idea who they are or why they were preserved in the boxes of stuff that settled in my basement after my parents died. I’m an only child, so I got it all: the good, the bad, the junk, the odd, the ugly. Most of it was unlabeled.
I don’t know what to do with these people. Their dark, shapeless clothing is rumpled. The woman’s hair is parted in the middle and gathered unattractively in little
circlets over her ears, like hairy earphones. She has dark shadows under her eyes. He looks like he needs a shampoo and a shave. Badly.
Should I toss them? Should I keep them? Should I sell them on E-Bay? Should I pass them on to my children, who are yet one more generation removed from knowing who they were?
There is a lesson here. If you have family photos and memorabilia, for God’s sake, label everything you can. Write down the names of the people you know and a short description of where they hang on the family tree, i.e. “The lady with the oversized shoulder pads and the bad complexion is Aunt Fritzie. She was Dad’s mother’s brother’s oldest daughter. Married to Grover, who died young. Fritzie remarried a traveling salesman named Big Al and moved to Walla Walla.”
From that same box of my parents’ treasured belongings, I uncovered an 8mm movie projector and several reels of film labeled simply, “1938.”
I had it transferred to DVD, even though I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it might be. To my surprise, I now own a conglomeration of jumpy, grainy, faded movies taken at
my parents’ wedding. I typed up a commentary for the whole string of scenes, naming all the people I was sure of,the places I could identify and every bit of family history I could recall.
Some day, my children will call this priceless. Maybe my grandchildren will, too.
Karen and I have been friends since first grade. First grade, for us, was 1946-47. I keep in touch with Karen and 12 other girlfriends who graduated from high school with us. We get together every two years for a long weekend at Susie G.’s cottage, but in between, we email each other.
We all received that ubiquitous email asking us to take an “Older Than Dirt” quiz about the 1940s. Did we remember stuff like 1. Blackjack chewing gum (yes; also Beemans and Juicy Fruit), 2. Telephone party lines (yes; my mother used make us be quiet so she could listen to the conversations of the other people. She tried to figure out which of our neighbors it was). 3. Studebakers (yes; ugly). 4. S&H green stamps (yes; it was my job to lick and stick those pesky things in books). 5. Howdy Doody (yes; not only do I remember Howdy, but also Phineas T. Bluster, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Chief Thunderthud, Buffalo Bob, Dilly Dally, Flub-a-Dub and Clarabell the clown). And 6. Mimeograph paper (I loved that juicy chemical aroma. Everyone sniffed mimeographed worksheets as they were passed down the rows. I wonder if this damaged our brains? Is mimeograph ink related to glue?)
I asked my high school girlfriends – via email -- to think of some offbeat memories – things that were unique to growing up in suburban Detroit.
Karen started it off. “My current house has a milkbox built in the brick next to the side door,” she said. “The guy I bought the house from had no idea what it was for.”
It was a milk chute, I emailed back.
Our friend Pris chimed in:“My mother shoved (her word, not mine) my younger brother, skinny little Geoffrey, through the milk chute so he could let her in the house when she forgot her keys.”
My grandmother’s house also had a coal chute. Periodically, a big filthy dump truck would lumber down her street, stop in front of the house and funnel coal into that chute. It landed in the coal bin, a small room in her basement. The cloud of coal dust took hours to dissipate.
I also remember when families on our street got new cars, all the neighbors would come outside to examine and exclaim over the new purchase. They took turns sitting in the driver’s seat. They remarked on the lovely new-car smell, kicked the tires, marveled at its new design features and gadgets – like fins and automatic transmissions and headlights with little eyelids that closed during the day and (!) turn signals. I remember when turn signals were newfangled. I had to memorize up means right; down signals left.
Karen also remembers having a crush on Space Cadet Tom Corbett’s copilot, Roger Manning; listening to a soap opera called Stella Dallas on the radio during the day; and putting her hair up in pincurls at night.
Sue G. remembered whimseys, airy little decorated net-like things that passed for hats when we had to wear hats. Yes, we wore hats. I wore one (or a whimsy) to church, along with clean white gloves. I had a dresser drawer stocked with white gloves, just to be sure I always had a clean pair. My friend Penny and I once stuffed our clean white gloves into our mouths to keep from laughing out loud when we found something to giggle about at a concert in downtown Detroit. We were in the audience of a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert with some 25 or 30 classmates. It was a field trip for a high school elective called Music Appreciation. I loved that class. We studied Mozart’s 40th, Beethoven’s 5th, Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Shostakovich’s 5th and a violin concerto by Sibelius. I still recognize these works, even when I hear just a few bars. The beginning of the fourth movement of Mozart’s 40th still brings to mind the rhyme we used to identify it: “Mozart’s in the closet; let him out, let him out, let him
The Curse came up several times as we emailed our reminiscences back and forth. We were warned not
to wash our hair or take baths when we had The Curse. Most of us ignored this rule. Some used a dry shampoo, which Sue G. said was called Minipoo.
Susie H. remembers the brands of socks we wore to prove our coolness. Wigwams were high woolen sport socks worn with penny loafers, which were stocked with nickels in case we needed to make a phone call. The other popular socks were only available at Gray’s, a sport shop in our neighborhood shopping center. The cool way to wear these socks was with the Gray’s label still attached. How did Gray’s manage to make that so cool? You can’t pay for advertising like that.
Karen reminded us that we stared at the radio while we listened. Her favorite radio program was called Inner Sanctum, in spite of how the stories terrified her.
“One program was about shrunken heads,” she said. “That night, my father put a grapefruit between the sheets at the bottom of my bed and my foot hit it.”
Five Ladies-Of-A-Certain-Age got together for
their annual Downtown Detroit Weekend last Saturday evening through Sunday afternoon.
Three hotel rooms: $400.
Five drinks: $50.
Five hors d’oeuvres: $75.
Five small salads: $130!
The looks on the faces of the crowd waiting for
our elevator as they gawped at the young man with his pants around his ankles: Priceless!
The five of us have been friends for decades but
we no longer all get together at one time except for this annual midwinter getaway. We have more to talk about than we can possibly cram into 24 hours.
Nevertheless, we try.
We booked three rooms at the Marriott Hotel in
Detroit’s Renaissance Center (Ren Cen), located at the foot of Woodward Avenue right on the river, smack in the thick of the action. Our views were of the Detroit River and the city of Windsor, Ontario.
Last weekend, Detroit was bustling. Don’t believe pessimists who say Detroit is dead.
People jostled each other amiably on the sidewalks of Greektown. Music and conversation leaked from open doors. Crowds snaked up stairways and waited patiently at People Mover stations. They clogged the elevators in parking structures. Families shepherded children and toted shopping bags loaded with purchases. Young people ice skated in Campus Martius Park. The People Mover rumbled overhead, packed with swaying passengers. A good percentage of the crowd wore jackets, shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the logos of Detroit sports teams.
The Red Wings were playing at Joe Louis Arena.
Autorama, an exhibition of custom cars, hot rods
and restored vehicles, was at Cobo Center.
The Michigan Pharmacists Association’s annual
convention and exposition was meeting at the Ren Cen.
The 17th annual Motor City Tattoo Expo was in Detroit for the weekend.
We planned a progressive dinner designed to give us a crack at new downtown restaurants. We met for drinks at dusk at the Coach Insignia on the 71st and 72nd floors of the Ren Cen, where we watched Windsor’s lights gradually blink on. We took the People Mover to Fountain Bistro, a small French-themed place at Campus Martius Park, for our first course: hors d’oeuvres. We walked to the Compuware building for a salad at Texas de Brazil. We planned to take our entrée at the Detroit Seafood Market, do a bit of gambling at Greektown Casino, then think about yet another restaurant for dessert.
As it turned out, we were too full for either the entrée or dessert. We played the slots and some video poker in the casino. Nobody struck it rich, but nobody lost much either. It’s hard to do either when you’re playing the 2-cent slots. We took the People Mover back to our hotel rooms, where we talked. And talked. And talked.
Sunday morning we rode the People Mover
to a hole-in-the-wall breakfast place called The Hudson Café. It’s on Woodward Avenue, across the street from the very spot where Detroit’s iconic J.L.
Hudson’s department store stood for 87 years. When we were growing up in Detroit in the 1940s and ’50s, Hudson’s was The Place to shop. This trendy little café across the street, named after the store, had excellent custom-made omelets, fresh-squeezed orange juice and steaming cups of black coffee as well as J.L. Hudson’s world-famous Maurice salad.
Now about the outrageous price of five salads.
And about our uh . . . encounter in the elevator.
When the check came for five small plates of salad from the salad bar, $130 seemed a bit over the top. We complained. “It’s our all-you-can-eat salad bar,” the waiter said. “One price. $25.”
We protested. We had no idea. We’d only been in the restaurant for a half hour, had one small salad each, and we were not given napkins, flatware or drinks. Nobody waited on us.
“Oh dear,” said the waiter. “Well, we do have a senior citizen rate.” He took our bill back and replaced it with another for $25.
Now, about the elevator. There we were -- five senior ladies standing in the back of the express elevator in our sensible shoes, leaning on our suitcases-on-wheels, hurtling downward from the 60th floor of the Ren Cen toward the lobby of the Marriott. A young man got on at the 40thfloor. He had two visible tattoos and a glittery pierced thing stuck in one nostril. He gave us a friendly nod.
One of our group (the boldest one) pointed to his tattoo and asked: “Does that hurt?”
“It hurts like hell,” he said. “Want to see my latest one?”
He turned toward us; his back toward the elevator door.“Don’t worry, I have running shorts underneath,” he assured us, as he untied the drawstring of his sweatpants.
His grey sweatpants settled around his ankles as he showed off an elaborate scene that had been freshly tattooed on his left thigh. It looked raw, red, and painful and it was tightly wrapped in something
that resembled Saran wrap.
We marveled. We clucked; tsk tsked.
“It really looks like it hurts,” The bold one said.
Our elevator shuddered and settled to the lobby
level. The door opened.
Two dozen people were waiting to ascend.
Their faces? Priceless.
The young man looked over his shoulder. “Oops,” he said, as he pulled up his sweatpants, tied the drawstring and glided off, disappearing into the crowded lobby.
We dragged our suitcases off the elevator and
doubled over, leaning against the walls, dissolving with laughter.
Detroit is alive and well. And fun, too.
How about an aunt (my middle daughter) who, while
driving, plays 20 Questions with her nephews, ages 11 and 9.
It was their turn to guess what she was thinking.
“Is it on you?”
“Is it something you’re wearing?”
“Is it inside you?”
“Is it a gas?” (giggle giggle)
“Is it liquid?”(giggles)
“Is it solid?” (more giggles)
“Uh, not really.”
“Is it a colloidal suspension?”
“Is it above your waist?”
“Is it inside your nose?”
“Yeah.” (much clapping and cheering)
Kids are so doggone smart these days. In my entire, long, long life, I never heard the term “colloidal suspension” until that day in the car.
Margie Reins Smith
I'm a retired journalist, a mother and a grandmother. Currently, I'm freelancing for a local magazine and working on a short play. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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