Friday, December 19, 2008

A Hitler by any other name is preferable

My daughter, an English teacher, says that every possible permutation of the human condition has been addressed by William Shakespeare. She's probably right. I just don't know if he had poor little Adolph Hitler Campbell in mind when he wrote, "What's in a name?"

The child with the unfortunate name, age 3, is at the center of a brouhaha in Holland Township, N.J. His parents wanted his entire name (again, Adolph. Hitler. Campbell.) inscribed on his birthday cake. The Shop Rite bakery near their bunker refused.

This wasn't Shop Rite's first introduction to the Campbell clan. For the last two years, the bakery has declined their request for cakes decorated with swastikas.

Shop Rite offered to sell them an uninscribed cake so they could write whatever they pleased but the parents - surprise, surprise - contacted the media instead. Turns out they also have toddlers named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie. Good grief.

Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet, the story has spread world wide. By Thursday morning there were over three quarters of a million Google hits for the child's name. Again, good grief.

My first reaction to the article was disgust. Naming a child is a sacred responsibility. Other cultures incorporate fasts, prayer rituals and clearly defined cultural expectations into the naming of a baby. In Iceland, one must choose from a list of approved names and any deviation requires consent from a government committee.

Here, sleep deprived new parents fill out a couple of forms and that's it. I'm convinced that's how I ended up with a pesky second "s" in my first name. After 22 hours of difficult labor, my mom just wasn't thinking clearly.

If you look to the upper right-hand corner of this Opinion page, you'll see the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For you online readers, here's a refresher: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That's what gives parents the right to name their children anything they please, no matter how stupid, insulting, racist or disgusting. And I'm in total agreement with that. No matter what, you just don't mess with the First Amendment.

But wait, I have an idea. It's none too well thought out and fueled by 6, but it's an idea nevertheless. I think names should come with an expiration date. How about if names were good for, let's say, 18 years? Then you would have to fill out a revised birth certificate, either confirming the name you have or selecting another. It could become a new life cycle event like birthdays, Bas Mitzvahs, Quinceañeras and registering with Selective Service.

Let's call it Name Day (hey, remember, it's 6 a.m. and I'm working with a deadline breathing down my neck.) Parties would grow up around it. There would be a whole new line of Hallmark cards ("You chose WHAT?" and "P. Diddy will be SO proud.")

Of course, some 18-year-olds have the judgement and maturity of, well, an 18-year-old, so you'll end up with a lot of Britneys, Beyonces, Bella Swans, Flava Flavs and Eminems. But at least it'll be their choice. I, for one, would drop that second "s" like a hot brick.

Armed with the new Name Day legislation, in 2023, if little Adolph Hitler Campbell so decides, he can become Filbert or Robert or Rasputin, for that matter.

I guess he could even decide to retain his name. After the indoctrination he's receiving that may be a distinct possibility. And a crying shame.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Teressa Glazer's Favorite Things, 2008

You can tell the season of the year just by checking TV listings. The channels are packed with offerings like "Frosty the Snowman", "A Christmas Story" and animated holiday specials featuring Charlie Brown, the Grinch and Shrek.

Another icon of the holiday season is Oprah's Favorite Things. Since 2002, there's been a yearly segment in which she presents items that she thinks are noteworthy or would make good gifts. There are usually some yummy food items from obscure regional companies that are promptly inundated with more orders than they could possibly fill in three years. There's a breathtaking display of jewelry and watches. There are cutting-edge electronics- cell phones, digital cameras, camcorders, GPS devices. Best of all, the lucky studio audience members get to take the featured items home with them.

I missed this year's episode, but I can just imagine the audience's reaction to the 2008 selections: "regifting" parties to swap unwanted gifts for other, more needed, items, gift baskets of fruits and vegetables you grew yourself (mine would consist of nothing but mint and rosemary), time with a love one, gratitude boxes with notes of gratitude from various people. Noble as Oprah's intentions are, I can just imagine the audience's reaction: "Where's my car? Where's my digital camera? Where's my pashmina shawl?"

I'm an Oprah fan, really I am, but being lectured on thrift by a woman who hasn't had a financial care in the world since 1986 is just a little weird. After all, 45% of the country's population wasn't born the last time Oprah had to comparison shop.

So, I wondered, what sort of Favorite Things list would I come up with? After all, I'm walking the walk, talking the talk and clipping the coupons.

After a little thought, I came up with Teressa Glazer's Favorite Things, 2008:

1. As the economy started it's free fall, the first thing to go was eating out. Then I discovered It's a website where you can buy discount coupons for area eateries. Right now they're running a special selling $25.00 off coupons for $3.00.And these aren't for just any old restaurants...there's the Oar House and Caruso's in Dahlonega, there's Scott's on the Square, Seabones and Pasquale's in Gainesville and Angelo's in Athens. There are lots of choices if you dine in the Flowery Branch/Buford/Gwinnett area.

It's so easy. You just buy a coupon online for the restaurant of your choice. Then you print out the coupon and go out to eat. Usually a minimum purchase of about $35.00 is required so with your coupon you get a feast for $10.00.

A few weeks ago Arthur and I had some of the most wonderful Caribbean food ever (chicken with mango chutney, yellow rice & black beans, fried sweet plantains and mango/passion fruit cheesecake) at Dante's on the Square in Dahlonega for all of $11.00 plus the tip. And we'd bought our coupon on sale for just $2.00.

Through Christmas Day, is running a program called Feed It Forward. Each day, you can send free $10.00 coupons to any three people of your choice. Then they can do the same. They expect to give away over $30M in coupons.

2. CVS Extra Bucks Some marketing genius had the inspired idea of making refunds easy. You scan a card at the register and not only does it keep track of your purchases and give you a 2% rebate coupon every three months, it also prints out discounts at the register. Some items are actually free- you purchase the item and then immediately get the purchase price back in a coupon. This week it's Powerade. There are lots of ways to use the card to it's best advantage and Debra Chavis, the manager of the Jesse Jewel location, knows them all. Just stop in and ask her for a tutorial. She'll be glad to help.

3. 129 Salvage Located just north of the State Patrol barracks on (need I say it?) Hwy. 129, this salvage store is always the first stop on my bargain shopping rounds. There's a little of everything- toys, electronics, cleaning supplies, office items, home decor, clothing, beauty supplies, all at greatly discounted prices. My favorite find was a beautiful blue and white ceramic tray for $10.00. It was only after I got it home that I turned it over and saw it was Limoges. Wow. Megabargain.

4. Just $2.00 This amazing little store is right in front of Wal-Mart on Shallowford Rd. My only complaint is that it isn't larger. The name says it all- everything in the store is $2.00. I get name brand beauty products for a fraction of the drug store prices. Like 129 Salvage, the inventory changes every day so it's best to stop in often. I treasure the appliqued University of Alabama fleece hoodie I found there for...that's right...$2.00.

5. This awesome service comes from the Music Genome Project. You program your own music station. Just type in the name of a favorite artist. For example, say you like Rascal Flatts. The station will start with one of their songs, then move on to artists with similar music- Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley,Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood. Choose Beyonce and you'll also get music from Destiny's Child, Rihanna, Alicia Keyes, Aaliyah and Mariah Carey. You can send links to your station to friends or find others online who are listening to the same music. It all free and they never try to sell you anything.

So those are my top five favorites. There are lots more- Rite Aid's rebate program, Dollar Deals and Discounts in Cleveland, the way The Times bundles two issues of the Sunday paper for the price of one so you get twice the manufacturer's coupons.

I hope the economy turns around soon. There will be lots of indicators- the stock market, interest rates, gas prices and falling unemployment numbers. I'll know for sure we're in recovery when Oprah's favorites again start including plasma TVs and UGG boots.

Shopping day signals season for optimists

It’s here. Today is Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the traditional Christmas shopping season.

My friend, Cheryl, takes this day very seriously. She, her mother and sister nap after Thanksgiving dinner and then are up and out of the house by midnight in order to hit the nearest outlet mall.

Their shopping is planned with military precision. They spread out among the stores then periodically reconnoiter at a predesignated location to advise each other on the best deals. Eighteen hours later, they’re back home, the majority of their Christmas shopping completed. If shopping were an Olympic event, they’d take the gold.

Black Friday has another meaning for me. It heralds the opening of the Optimist Club’s Christmas tree lot. Since 1956, the Gainesville Evening Optimist Club’s primary fundraiser has been the sale of Christmas trees and wreaths. For three weeks in November and December we take over a corner of the property at Gallery (Wolfman) Furniture on Browns Bridge Road.

The trees came in on Wednesday. They’re gorgeous Fraser Firs, personally selected from a mountaintop in North Carolina by Earl Odell, Harold Platt and Cheryl Hughes. Cheryl, Judy Kellogg, Yvonne Clarke and I are manning the wreath hut, turning the trimmings from the base of the trees into wreaths and swags.

When it came time to order trees, we were worried. In this Grinch-like economy, would people spend their dwindling discretionary income on live trees? Well, they don’t call us Optimists for nothing. We’re betting on the affirmative.

As we get the lot ready for business, it’s a good time to mention the Optimists who have done so much to bring us to this day.

Recently, our group was thrilled to have the opportunity to help the Hall County Optimist Club endow a scholarship in honor of Optimists J.H. and Margaret Holcomb and their late sisters, Mildred and Nelle.

Lifelong educators all, they influenced and encouraged three generations of area youth. J.H. and Margaret continue to do so through their Optimist work. They’re absolute treasures.

Soon J.H. will celebrate 50 years as an Optimist. J.H., who just turned 92, says he won’t be able to work at the tree lot this year. Carwell Odell, 94, won’t be there, either. We’re really going to miss them. It won’t be the same without them, but we’ll soldier on.

In the last couple of years, we’ve lost some of the tree lot’s mainstays: Jim Snow, Bob Holbrook, Mark McClure, Lowell Hipps, Virginia Ricketson-Wills, James Rowan and Haskell Stratton. These people left a legacy of happy-spirited service to the youth of Hall County. For decades they did the heavy lifting for the club. They leave big shoes to fill.

Buy your tree at a commercial location and your money goes into some anonymous corporate pocket, maybe here, maybe abroad.

Buy your tree at the Optimist tree lot and every penny goes to support Optimist projects in our area: oratorical and essay scholarship competitions, Youth Appreciation programs, Respect for Law dinners, youth golf tournaments.

So in case you’re the sort who needs an invitation, here it is: Come on out to the Optimist Tree Lot on Browns Bridge Road. Let the kids play hide and seek among the trees while you and your
better half pick out the perfect one.

Have a cup of coffee or cocoa with us and, if you ask, we’ll tell you all about the Optimist Club, the work we do and how you can become part of it.

I look forward to seeing you. I’ll be the one in the Hanukkah sweatshirt.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, November 28, 2008

Finding caregiver may come at a price

My mother-in-law, Claire, is determined to spend the rest of her days on Long Island. While most of the family migrated south to Georgia and Florida, she remained in her house on Peconic Bay.

I can’t say as I blame her. It’s idyllic there. The bay is on one side and she’s surrounded on the other three by a nature preserve teeming with deer and fox. Southampton, with its trendy shopping and exclusive restaurants, is only a few miles to the east. In the opposite direction is Riverhead, its roads lined with big box stores and outlet malls. She could take classes, perform volunteer work and play bridge to her heart’s content. Move? Never.

Three years ago things began to change. Claire had several bad falls. Well past 80, she became more forgetful, losing keys and neglecting to turn off the oven. The dings and dents on her Volvo’s bumpers told the rest of the story. If she was going to stay in her home she would need help.

My brother-in-law, Ron, was the only family member living nearby. The work of hiring and managing a caregiver fell upon him. He did everything right. He advertised and interviewed applicants. He checked references. He kept at it until he found the perfect person. We’ll call her Jane.

Jane was bubbly and funny and energetic. She lived nearby and could spend part of each day with Claire. She took her shopping and to medical appointments. Claire reveled in the attention.

She gave Claire a reason to get up each morning. We saw an immediate improvement. She was more alert and seemed happier. It was wonderful.

Thinking back, there were some hints that all was not quite right. Jane quickly insinuated herself into the family, calling Claire, "Mom" and Ron and my husband "bro." She would bring her young children over to play in Claire’s yard and encouraged them to treat Claire as a surrogate grandmother. It creeped me out a little, but I told myself I was being petty and jealous.

It made sense to give Jane a credit card. After all, she was doing a lot of Claire’s shopping and picking up prescriptions. We made a big mistake when we failed to insist on accountability in the form of detailed receipts from the start.

Each month the credit card purchases mounted. Mostly there were increased grocery purchases but the prescription charges increased as well. Later we found out that Jane was getting pain medication prescribed for Claire by asserting that she was experiencing severe back pain.

Since Jane was the person who accompanied her to medical appointments, the physicians knew her and took her at her word.

Strong pain medication was prescribed and filled but we’ve never seen any indication that Claire actually took the pills. We’ve never found a bottle of them in the house. Indications are they went home with Jane and from there, who knows?

As Ron’s suspicions grew, the grocery store proved to be an ally. I had no idea that they could retrieve every sale charged to Claire’s card. There it was in black and white. There were purchases for pork chops, beer, huge sacks of dog food. Charged to a teetotaling Kosher grandmother with a cat but no dog.

My brother-in-law acted quickly. Jane was fired and he made a police report. While never admitting any wrongdoing, she eventually made some restitution in order to avoid prosecution.

Echoes of Jane still reverberate from time to time. Recently Claire called to ask me if she had given me or her granddaughters a particular piece of gold jewelry. She hadn’t. I suspect I know who has it.

We’ve all been affected by this experience. Each of us felt duped and taken in, none more so than Claire. She was genuinely fond of Jane, and this betrayal is never far from her thoughts.

There’s a new caregiver. We’ve learned a lot from the Jane debacle. Expectations are fully outlined and receipts are routinely checked. Things have gone well for the last year.

What makes this story so sad is that it’s so common.

As the sandwich generation struggles to care for aging parents while maintaining careers and raising children of their own, there’s frequently a need to hire outside help.

All I can say is, be careful. Be very, very careful.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, November 18, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Days of Spooky Halloween Fun, Carnivals Have Faded

I've always loved Halloween.

I still remember my favorite house for trick-or-treating. Barbara Coker always put together goodie bags full of homemade treats: popcorn balls, those no-bake oatmeal cookies that transcended fudginess and Toll House cookies at a time when store-bought chocolate chips were still a novelty. Now that I think of it, I may borrow a child and swing by her house tonight.

I miss elementary school Halloween carnivals. One of the high points of my grade-school days was the year our class at Enota hosted the haunted house. Back then there were no euphemisms. It wasn't a fall festival. It wasn't an autumn extravaganza. It was a Halloween carnival. We all wore our costumes to school and they weren't limited to story-book characters.

Game tickets were a nickel each and every classroom hosted a different game. There was the beanbag toss and the cake walk. There was the fishing game, where a line with a clothespin on the end was dropped behind a curtain. There'd be a tug and when you reeled it back in there would be a cool toy, like a Chinese finger trap or one of those BB puzzles clipped to the end.

The very best venue of all was the haunted house. The desks were pushed off to the side and covered with black garbage bags. There were spooky black lights and, as you moved through the labyrinth, scary creatures would jump out at every turn. One or two little kids always wet their pants. One year, I was one of them.

My father was the werewolf. He bought a rubber mask from a costume shop in Atlanta, tattered up some old clothes and glued fake werewolf hair all over his neck and hands. He leapt around and made scary howling noises. I was so proud of him.

Tommy West, who went on to coaching fame at Clemson and Memphis was, for that night at least, the son of Frankenstein. His dad was taller than all the other fathers and, with his blank stare, lurching walk and bolts on the sides of his neck, he gave Lon Chaney Jr. a run for his money.

Sadly, my children have never attended a Halloween carnival. Granted, they've been to corn mazes, pumpkin farms, a fall festival where the principal kissed a pig and any number of Renaissance festivals.

But somewhere along the line somebody decided to do away with the Halloween carnival.

Maybe it happened when rumors started circulating about razor blades in apples and hospitals started offering to X-ray trick-or-treat goodies. Maybe it was when costumes became more gory than imaginative and all you needed was a hockey mask, a bottle of ketchup and a machete to be fully costumed.

At least our girls got to experience trick-or-treating. Our neighborhood used to be a grand one for that activity. Each house seemed to have more elaborate decorations and better treats than the last.

One young couple underestimated the amount of candy that was required and ended up handing out wax-covered discs of gouda cheese to the last few goblins who came around.

Drew and Susan Thomas would always have some sort of surprise on their porch. One time they rigged it up so a disembodied hand would skitter across the railing whenever anyone came up the steps. But by last year all of their boys were off at college and the porch was dark.

Now 14, our youngest is a little long in the tooth for trick-or-treating. Most of the kids from our neighborhood are grown, gone and thinking of starting families of their own. Since 2006 we haven't had a single trick-or-treater.

Just as Halloween celebrations have waned, I hope they will someday wax. Perhaps by the time I'm a grandmother, there'll be a resurgence of Halloween carnivals. I'll be the first to sign up for haunted house duty. After all, I already have the werewolf mask.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, October 31, 2008

Warning: Hamster for External Use Only

I think I was about 9 when I got my first hamster.

Every Saturday morning, my mother and I would go to downtown Gainesville. I'd try to sit patiently while she had her hair "done." That involved washing, rolling on plastic rollers and then sitting under one of those hooded dryers for about half a day. Then there would be lots of teasing with a rat-tail comb and liberal application of hairspray. So much hairspray that I'm pretty sure I know what really happened to the ozone layer.

While all these ministrations were taking place, I'd read Highlights magazine, finding the hidden pictures on the back page and learning proper etiquette from Goofus and Gallant. I knew if I'd just bide my time, there would be a payoff.

Lunch was at the counter at Woolworth's. The entrees were fairly average. It was the dessert menu that kept us coming back. To this day, I've never had a banana split that comes close to matching theirs.

After lunch, I'd drag my mother down the wide stairs to the basement and the pet department. There were colorful parakeets and delicate canaries. There was tank after tank of silvery guppies and graceful angelfish.

This was back before folks knew they were flirting with death by purchasing those tiny salmonella-laden turtles. I owned a couple of them myself and lived to tell about it. I guess it just wasn't my time to go.

What fascinated me most were the hamsters. They were just so cute and personable as they went about the business of stuffing their little cheeks full of pellets and running industriously on their wheels. Every Saturday, I'd beg for one, and every Saturday my mother would say she'd think about it.

Then finally there came that magical day when all the planets lined up properly. I started my usual plea, prefaced by, "I'll take care of him all by myself, I promise I will" and, wonder of wonders, my mother said yes. Just like that.

I had Stanley for a couple of years. He lived in a little wire cage on my desk. Each night, I was lulled to sleep by the whirr of his exercise wheel and the scent of cedar shavings.

So what has made me so nostalgic about hamsters? Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report advising families with children younger than 5 to avoid owning "nontraditional" pets such as hedgehogs, hamsters, baby chicks, lizards and turtles. Advice that sounded like common sense to me was apparently big news. I read it here in The Times, saw another item on CNN's Web site, even caught a mention of it on "Good Morning America."

So are there really parents out there who give baby chicks to toddlers who will put anything in their mouths that won't fit up their nostrils? And even if they are that clueless surely there's someone in their life who has the good sense to say, "Bernice, have you lost your mind? That Komodo dragon is gonna make lunchmeat out of little Travis."

I guess not. More and more we are officially reminded of things we ought to know already. We see it in press releases and on labels and stickers on packaging. Apparently whoever writes these caveats considers the shopping public a special kind of ignorant. Or, more likely, potentially litigious. They've taken CYK (Cover Your Keister) to a whole new level.

I think it all started when an elderly lady in Albuquerque upended a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap. Since gravity works all and not just some of the time, she wound up with serious burns, sued the fast-food emporium for damages and ended up with a $2.86 million award (which was later significantly reduced.) Now coffee cups all bear the notice: "Warning - Coffee is HOT." Well, I would certainly hope so.

Consider these actual warnings that have been found on consumer products:

"For external use only" - on a curling iron.

"Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage" - on a portable stroller.

And my all-time favorite: "Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly" - on a child sized Superman costume.

In the words of my idol, Harris Blackwood, "You just can't make this stuff up."

The codicil to those words of wisdom was provided by comedian Ron White when he said, "You can't fix stupid."

No, but you can try. I guess that's what press releases are for.

Originally published in The Gainesville Times, October 16, 2008

Pass Along Love of Reading at Readathon

I grew up in a family that loved to read. We received the Atlanta Constitution in the morning and the Daily Times in the afternoon. For decades my parents maintained subscriptions to Time, Reader's Digest, National Geographic, Life and Look Magazines.

When I was 6, they dug deep into their pockets to buy a set of World Book encyclopedias. When my daughter started school I dug equally deep to buy a home computer. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of my earliest memories is of listening to my father read bedtime stories. That nightly ritual went on for years. He had a soothing, expressive voice that would bring "Black Beauty," "Ivanhoe" and "A Little Princess" to life.

For my fourth birthday, I was given a subscription to "Best in Children's Books," sort of the elementary school version of "Reader's Digest Condensed Books." Each month I'd receive a couple of volumes in the mail. Mail is a big deal when you're 4. Over several years, I accumulated dozens of these anthologies. My mother gave them away when I was in high school. By then, I was far too cool to let my disappointment show.

About a decade ago, I was at one of Brenau University's used book sales. I spotted a weathered copy of one of the "Best in Children's Books" and picked it up. I felt like I'd stepped back in time when I saw the laboriously printed "Teressa Hamrick" on the first page.

Today, when I look at my daughters, I can see bits of my parents. One girl has my mother's flawless Irish complexion. The other has my father's laugh. And they both love to read.

When I became a mother, I vowed to remember the word "no." I would not give in to every plea for the latest video game or Barbie jeep or yet another doll. At the same time, I vowed to never say no to books. One of the resources that has helped me keep that promise is Hall Book Exchange.

It was started 25 years ago by Mary and Mac McKenzie. They parlayed Mary's enormous collection of romance novels into a used bookstore where customers can trade in their own volumes for credit toward other books. The idea was as simple as it was brilliant. There hasn't been a moment since 1983 that I've been without one of their credits in my wallet.

These credits ensured that our daughter, Rachel, read not only "The Wizard of Oz" but all of the other L. Frank Baum books as well.

They were a lifesaver as our Molly worked her way to a bachelor's degree in English.

I'm partial to their books on cassette and CD. I've listened to a lot of books I would never find time to read.

Mary and Mac are gone now but their torch is ably carried by Myra Meade, who bought the shop seven years ago.

To celebrate the shop's silver anniversary, she's holding a Readathon. For 24 hours on Oct. 17-18, there will be nonstop reading going on, with every penny of the proceeds going to the Gainesville/Hall County Alliance for Literacy. Readers are asked to collect pledges at the rate of $10 for each hour of reading. There will be local authors reading from their works and autographing books. They are donating their proceeds as well.

There will be snacks and coffee, children's bedtime stories and a morning stretch. Our girls will be reading children's stories. Rachel will be reading one of her favorites, Carmen Agra Deedy's "Martina the Beautiful Cockroach," in full cockroach costume. And you moms out there know how difficult it is to come up with a cockroach costume.

We've all seen the bumper sticker: "If you can read this, thank a teacher." I do thank them with all my heart. Here's a shout out to Marie Bennett, Louise Adams and Louise Davis, wherever you dear ladies are.

I thank James and Lee Hamrick for giving me an appreciation of the written word and Hall Book Exchange for helping me pass that appreciation on to the next generation. To show my gratitude, I'll be at Hall Book Exchange on Oct. 17 reading from (what else?) that "Best in Children's Book" from long ago.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, Oct.2, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Logged on for life; PC keeps links to the past

I'm convinced in each life there are a handful of milestones, junctures at which the decisions we make totally change the direction of our future. Some might be the choice of a trade or college major, the selection of a spouse (both first and subsequent in some cases), electing to have children or not and the adoption of a moral/religious philosophy or the failure to do so.

I would add to that list the decision to purchase a home computer. Maybe it doesn't change everyone's life but it certainly did mine.

I came to computing relatively late in life. I suspect I was one of the last students at the University of Alabama to complete a master's thesis without using a computer to tabulate the data.

I didn't really see a reason to buy a home computer until my daughter, Molly, started school in 1990. She was using computers in her classroom and I thought it might be nice for her to have one at home, too.

I purchased a Macintosh LCII with a 40 megabyte hard drive. That wouldn't be enough to run a modest word processor program now but back in those pioneering days it was a screaming machine. I spent hours playing solitaire so I could master the use of the mouse.

Then one day I loaded America Online, version 1.0. The service was in its infancy. There were a few chat rooms and I soon discovered my favorite. It was called Author's Café. It's hard to imagine today but back then literary luminaries like Amy Tan and Tom Clancy would log on to chat with neophyte writers and share valuable suggestions and insights.

It was in this chat room that I started talking with Arthur486. He was a writer living on Florida's Gulf Coast and writing for Sarasota Magazine and the St. Petersburg Times. He had just purchased his first computer and I was charmed by the way he expressed both his amazement and frustration with the new machine.

I wasn't looking for a boyfriend and certainly not a husband. I had my hands full aplenty with being a single mother, a small business owner and a fledgling computer geek. I had no intention of meeting this person, no matter how charming or erudite, face to face. As I told him at the time, "That's how people end up dead in dumpsters."

We all know the outcome of that resolution. We met in July, and by January 1994, I was Mrs. Arthur Glazer. Before the end of the year, baby Rachel had been added to the family.

Years later, my crafty husband created a shadowbox featuring both of our original modems. He said whenever anyone asked where we met, he'd just point to the shadowbox.

Since those early days, I've been through any number of computers. For six years, I used that workhorse of all laptops, the Dell Inspiron. It held every digital picture I'd taken since Molly's high school years. There was file after file of virtual scribbles, started but never finished columns, ideas for ad campaigns for the shop.

A day never went by that I didn't use that computer multiple times. Then one morning it just died.
There were no sparks or bangs. There was no dramatic death scene. It just stopped cold.

Not even Arthur, who has gone on to make computers his life's work, could resuscitate it. I'd neglected to back up any of the data and for a while it looked as though memories of Molly's proms and graduation (both from high school and college), Rachel's Bat Mitzvah and every award and honor each child had ever received would no longer have a visual representation.

Then a grouchy Arthur disappeared into his lab mumbling about people who just won't listen when they're told over and over and over to back up their systems. Hours later he emerged with the majority of the data retrieved. My hero.

So what if I hadn't purchased that first computer? There'd be no Arthur or Rachel. There'd be no Google to immediately answer any mused question, no Wikipedia to take the place of the set of World Book Encyclopedias in the bookcase.

I can't remember the last time I played solitaire with a real deck of cards. I usually find recipes online rather than in cookbooks. I shop and I sell online. Every aspect of my life is enhanced and complemented by this technology.

Not buy a computer? That's my road not taken and I'm oh, so grateful, that I didn't choose it.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Times, September 5, 2008)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bigfoot, my foot: I’m hunting Little People

Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.
I'd love to see proof that there really is a Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Hairy Man, whatever you choose to call him. I'm intrigued at the idea of a 7-foot hominid living previously undetected in the woods north of here. Anything to bring tourists to the area now that the lake's turned into a muddy pond with nothing but an adolescent alligator to inspire stories around the campfire.
Imagine for a moment, if you will. You've just made one of the most significant anthropological discoveries of the century: an unknown species, the missing link, the evolutionary Rosetta Stone.
So what do you do? You call a press conference and charge a couple of bucks a pop for reporters to see what looks a lot like a picture of Willie B. in a Westinghouse. Has anyone checked on Willie B.? I think I remember reading that he was cremated but it couldn't hurt to be sure.
Then you set up a poorly spelled Web site peddling Bigfoot tracking tours and T-shirts promoting Bigfoot for president. President? I guess creativity isn't a prerequisite for a marketing job with this outfit. Just chutzpah, lots and lots of chutzpah.
The international Bigfoot tracking community was subsequently shocked (SHOCKED!) at the revelation that the Bigfoot remains were not the first cousin of the GEICO Caveman but, rather, a frozen rubber ape costume. What I don't understand is how they can act blindsided and astounded with a straight face. Stop the presses, everybody.
Now that Bigfoot's been taken out of the equation, I think I'll buy the domain name
Most folks around here have heard of the Cherokee Little People. Ancient legend holds that they're a race of tiny people, about the size of a Cabbage Patch Kid. They live in rocky caves in remote locales like Blood Mountain and Mount Yonah.
They love music, and sometimes the sounds of their flutes and drums can be heard late at night.They don't like to be disturbed, and if a hiker comes across them they will cast a spell on him, causing him to become confused and wander aimlessly throughout the woods. Even if he does eventually make his way home he will remain dazed forever. So that's what happened to my cousin, Elmer. And I always thought it was the Southern Comfort.
Within the Little People species, there are subspecies.
The Laurel People are merry tricksters. When a baby laughs in her sleep, it's because she has been tickled by a Laurel Person.
The Dogwood People are helpful, sometimes performing farm chores under cover of darkness and then slipping back into their rocky caves as the sun comes up.
The Rock People are evil, stealing children and confusing hikers so they become hopelessly lost in the forest.
And if all that weren't enough to get the cable news outfits interested, it's also been rumored that they guard a vast treasure.
So here's the plan. First I'll build my Web site peddling poorly illustrated Cherokee Little People for elective office T-shirts and baseball hats. I'll offer Little People tracking expeditions for four-figure fees and promote myself as the Greatest Little People Tracker on the planet. I figure the field is fairly limited so the claim is not hyperbole. I just won't mention that I'm also the only Little People Tracker on the planet
If interest starts to wane, I'll borrow my daughter's Cabbage Patch Kid, Ivy Elizabeth. She's the one I was forced to purchase for a tidy sum back in 1991 because I didn't realize if a 5-year old is allowed to name a newly delivered CPK at Babyland, no way is she going to go off and allow said baby to be adopted by just anybody.
I'll snap a picture of Miss Ivy in our Igloo Cooler and make a YouTube video swearing up and down that it's a gen-u-ine Cherokee Little Person. For the soundtrack, I'll use Pink Floyd's "Money."
Then I'll just sit back and wait for the calls from CNN and Fox News to start pouring in.
(Originally published August 22, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Remembering two souls who inspired life, laughs

The other morning I woke up early, splashed awake by a wave of sadness. At first I couldn't identify where the feeling originated.
I did a quick inventory. I was OK. My husband and kids were OK. None of my friends were experiencing any more crises than ordinary. Why the despair?
Then I remembered. Randy Pausch and Jose Simon were dead.
By now almost everyone knows who Randy Pausch was. A stellar college professor, he was a standout in his field of computer animation and virtual reality. He was largely unknown outside of his academic sphere until September 2007 when he gave his "last lecture."
He had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer but the speech was not about dying. It was a reminder of how life ought to be lived, about how to achieve one's childhood dreams. Someone had the foresight to film the talk and the video went viral. To date it's been downloaded more than 10 million times.
I evangelically forwarded the
video link to everyone in my address book. I wrote a column about it. When the book inspired by the lecture was released, I bought the CD version and eagerly played it in the truck as I went about my day.
For a while, Randy was a daily companion, a cheerleader encouraging me to "break down the brick walls. They're just there to stop people who don't want things as badly as you do."
If anyone was deserving of a miracle, this was the man. I halfway convinced myself that maybe he'd beat the odds or there'd be a medical breakthrough. Something.
But no, this was real life, and on July 25, Randy Pausch, age 47, father of three, lost his heroic struggle with cancer. A person I had never met had enhanced my life and the lives of so many others.
I never met Jose Simon, either. I only spoke to him once and that was about something mundane like selling Seabiscuit racehorse memorabilia on eBay. That doesn't mean I didn't know him, however.
Jose's wife, Gail, owns a wholesale clothing business in San Francisco. I started shopping with her more than 10 years ago, purchasing in bulk to sell in my shop and on eBay. She has one of those delightful phone voices, the kind where she doesn't have to identify herself. By the third syllable, you know it's Gail on the phone.
Over time, we became friends and I learned all about her family. Her husband, Jose, was a comedian.He had come to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager and initially worked as a musician. He performed with Four of a Kind, which featured future Tower of Power vocalist Rick Stevens and a founding member of Santana, conga player Michael Carabello. Early on, he established a pattern for his life, unselfishly helping others achieve success.
Comedian Robin Williams was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Jose was a gift. He was the Chicano godfather of comedy. He will be missed."
A search of quotation
Web sites reveals that he's the originator of the line, "In Mexico we have a word for sushi: Bait."
Each year, Gail would invite us to San Francisco for Comedy Day, a daylong free festival of humor held in Golden Gate Park. It was founded by Jose in 1980 and now up to 50,000 people attend the annual event. What a wonderful legacy. At last year's celebration, Jose was presented with the Stand-up Comedy Legend Award.
There was always a reason why we couldn't make it. The airfare was too expensive. It takes place in September, making a cross-country trip difficult right after the beginning of the school term. Each year I said the same thing. Maybe next year.
I didn't talk to Gail for a few weeks and then one day in July she called with the news. Jose had died. Another remarkable life claimed by cancer.
So there I was, sitting in the predawn darkness, feeling bereft at the loss of two people I'd never met. They were gone but their message remained: Life's meant to be enjoyed. Laugh a lot and help others every chance you get.
As Randy Pausch said, "If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you."
(Originally published in the Gainesville Times August 8, 2008)

Being crafty just a work in progress

This morning I put a newspaper clipping about my daughter in the family scrapbook. Actually, scrapbook is a pretty glorified title for what we have. It’s really just a binder that contains any piece of newsprint with the name of one of the Glazers on it. It has always been my intention to someday organize it into volumes dedicated to each family member.
Our older daughter Molly’s book will be filled with programs from her high school plays bordered by red and white gingham ribbon and cutouts of trumpeting Red Elephants. Ensuing pages will feature the Gamma Phi Beta crescent moon and pictures of Uga VI, rest his soul.
Rachel’s volume will have green and white stripes and head shots of an intrepid Trojan warrior. Wait a minute. Didn’t the Trojans lose that war? Yeah that’s right. They chose not to listen to Laocoon when he said, "Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts." But after all, who can turn down free presents? Oh, well, I guess it’s too late to change the team’s name to The Greeks.
I’ll make a scrapbook for myself, surrounding clippings of my eight years of community columns with appropriate images. I’ve come to realize all of my columns generally fall into one of four categories: First, there’s my long-suffering family. Bless their hearts, they never know when their latest adventure is going to turn up on the Times’ editorial page.
Next there are the animal columns. I write about our critters, mostly, but also possums and rent-a-dog programs, too.
Third is mankind’s vast capacity for stupidity. I almost wrote this week’s column about the guy who traded naming rights to his unborn child for a $100.00 gas card.
Last, there’s that ambiguous category known as "other." "Other" ranges from the Hurricane Katrina relief debacle to garage sale etiquette and Dr. Seuss. Everything’s fair game. What fun I could have choosing clip art for that scrapbook.
My husband’s book will feature all of his computer columns (published twice monthly here in The Times) with little pieces of old motherboards and other geeky flotsam and jetsam cleverly pasted around the edges.
Yeah, that’s gonna happen.
I wish I could be crafty like that. I aspire to it. I try, I really do. It just never turns out like I envision it. The garage holds box after box of half-finished projects. Recently I sifted through them with almost anthropological detachment.
Here were the supplies from my Crochet Period (circa 1984) when, pregnant with my first child, I decided to make a baby blanket. I bought enough yarn to create a boat cover and ended up with a piece the size of a tea towel ... if tea towels were shaped like trapezoids.
Next came the Quilt Age (1986-1988) when I created dozens of lopsided patchwork squares but lost interest before I actually sewed them together. I’m leaving that task for my heirs.
The Grouting Busted Pieces of China Dishes to Clay Pots to Make Really Ugly Mosaics Era was thankfully short-lived (1989).
Next came the Dark Ages dating from 1990 to, well, now. I tried my hand at hair bow making. Every picture of poor Molly in her elementary school days features a ghastly clump of ribbons clipped to her head. There was bread baking, cross stitch, bead work, calligraphy. Nothing clicked.
I’ve had to finally face the sad fact that no one’s ever going to accuse me of being right-brained.
It doesn’t help that I’m married to a man who can wander off into his workshop and emerge a few hours later with a stained and leaded glass sidelight for the front door or triple matted and framed photos of all of the major waterfalls in North Georgia.
So I’ve decided to let the scrapbooks become perpetual works in progress. I figure as long as I don’t actually complete them, I haven’t failed completely.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Times, July 25, 2008)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Nigel lives, wiser for his brush with danger

It looks as though the tale of Nigel the possum is on it's way to becoming a saga.
Back in December, I wrote a column about a baby possum who showed up at our house four years ago, ingratiated himself into a litter of kittens and has been coming back every evening since for his helping of cat food.
We had been feeding Nigel on the front porch so there'd be no chance meetings with Lola, our Australian shepherd. Lola ruled the back yard and seemed to consider Nigel a potential chew toy.
We ran into a problem with this arrangement when some free-roaming neighborhood dogs discovered there were snacks available at our house. Their owners seem to feel leash laws are mere suggestions and couldn't possibly apply to their little darlings. These mutts began raiding Nigel's bowl each night.
One evening, I heard a curious banging out front. Peeking out, I saw Nigel bumping his empty bowl against the door. My husband thought he was simply foraging for stray pieces of cat food around the bowl. I prefer to think he was voicing his complaint at the poor service.
With reservations, I moved his bowl to the back deck. I was careful to fill it only after Lola was in for the night. This arrangement seemed to work for a while. Then one evening Lola needed to go out after bedtime. I checked outside and there was no sign of Nigel.
When I opened the door, Lola morphed from a big lovable pup into something from a Stephen King novel. Every muscle tensed and she was out the door, moving faster than I've ever seen her run. There was no barking, no snarling, just pure focus on her mission. That's when I realized what was happening. She was in a dark corner of the yard. I could hear muffled sounds and the rustle of leaves. I ran to her and saw she had something in her mouth: Nigel.
I yelled for her to drop him and she did. He lay in a furry mound at her feet. For the first and only time, I touched him. The fur that I had always thought would be coarse and greasy was actually heartbreakingly soft. I ordered Lola back into the house and spent the rest of the night in an uneasy sleep, dreaming of baby possums and dogs that suddenly became wolverines.
The next morning, my husband and I went out to bury Nigel. We had everything we needed: gloves, a plastic bag and a shovel. What we didn't have was Nigel.
It never crossed my mind that he might have done what possums do best: play possum.
That night changed everything. I still love Lola, of course. It's just now I've seen her feral side. I've seen the wolf, the hunter, that lurks inside every pampered house pet. Now I see her for what she is: a dog, not the third Glazer girl.
Nigel seems to have recovered from his encounter with the hellhound. He still comes around for his food but now he waits until much later, after the porch light is out and the house is dark. I miss watching him gobble down his dinner and then waddle off into the night.
While the lion may indeed lie down with the lamb, when it comes to the Aussie and the possum, well, I don't think so.

(Originally published Thursday, February 10, 2005 in the Gainesville Times)

Reach deep to help those our nation forgot

In even the most satisfying of lives, there are regrets. Lord knows, I have my share.
I wish I'd stuck with piano lessons. I wish I'd listened to my friends before I dived into that ill-advised first marriage.
I wish I'd jumped at the chance to buy a Clarks Bridge Road lake lot for $10,000 back in 1980. And I wish I'd lived, at least for a while, in New Orleans.
My roommate at the University of Alabama was from Bay St. Louis, Miss. It's about an hour from New Orleans and when we'd visit her family, we'd inevitably end up in the Big Easy, strolling down Bourbon Street with a "cup for the street" in hand.
There were beignets and chicory coffee at the Cafe du Monde and mufellatas at the Central Grocery Store. I once had my fortune told by a doughy old woman in a dim storefront off Canal Street. She dealt a few bent and grubby playing cards and told me I'd have a long life, two daughters, two husbands and would travel the world over. Three out of four is pretty good.
New Orleans spoke to what little artist there is in my soul. I could see myself in a tiny apartment three floors above a street named something like Dauphine or Ursalines, writing free verse and running a little gallery or maybe buying a deck of cards and going into the fortune business myself. New Orleans is my road not taken.
It breaks my heart to see what's happened to New Orleans. Like anyone who's ever spent time there, I'm taking this disaster personally.
I worried about Fats Domino. I watched scenes of desperation and looting until I couldn't stomach anymore. I had nightmares of being trapped in a stuffy, stifling attic with water rising around my ankles.
I watched my president give a speech that wouldn't have taken third place in a middle school oratory contest, a dismissive frat-boy smirk on his face as he tried to explain his administration's policy of too little, too late. Quit smiling, buddy. Ain't nothing funny about this.
I wonder what's happened to the albino alligators at Audubon Park Zoo. I wonder what's happened to the ashes of Everette Maddox, the gloriously drunken poet laureate of the Carrollton District who's buried beneath a flower bed at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street.
We were students together at Alabama and I always meant to pour a scotch on Rette's grave the next time I was in New Orleans. Someday I will, if it's still there.
As I write this, New Orleans has degenerated to the level of a "Mad Max" movie. It's not like we didn't see this coming. Anyone with a National Geographic subscription knew what could and probably would happen if a hurricane like Katrina hit New Orleans. The first four paragraphs of the October 2004 article "The Incredible Shrinking Bayou" were eerily prophetic. Would someone please send a copy to the director of FEMA?
It's time for everyone to step up. We naively thought we could depend on our government to look after its own people on its own shores. We were so wrong.
There are plenty of charitable agencies that will use your money to help the refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Pick one and figure out how much you can comfortably afford to donate. Then double that amount. Right now. Put down the paper and pick up your checkbook.
Consider it a debt of gratitude for the fresh water you drink and the dry bed you sleep in, for having children who aren't nasty and hungry and living in a stench-filled stadium, for not having to worry about alligators and crazed looters when you step out onto the street. It's the price of admission to the human race.

(Originally published Monday, September 5, 2005 in the Gainesville Times)

Law of the bus is worth preserving

Since they started kindergarten, my children have ridden on county school buses. At first, I assumed they would prefer to be driven by me. Molly set me straight in a hurry when she said, "I'd rather ride with Miss Diane, mom. She doesn't listen to National Public Radio."
So there it was. My girls spent about an hour each school day on buses.
I soon learned there was a method to all the early morning and late afternoon madness. Little kids were required to sit up front near the driver. The seat directly behind the driver was reserved for the rowdy kids who weren't yet considered trustworthy enough to behave at the back. It was a badge of honor and maturity to be allowed to sit in a seat of one's own choosing.
I've always had a problem with the whole "gold star" concept of rewards for kids. My girls would often come home bearing work plastered with stars and smiley stickers. There were exhortations of "well done!" and "good try!" penned all over even the sloppiest of efforts.
Rachel once proudly displayed a sheet covered in happy stickers and "good try" even though she'd missed most of the questions. When I asked her teacher about it, I was informed that children were rewarded for their efforts, even if the resulting answers were wrong.
Hmmm ... maybe it's just me, but I can't recall the last time I received an "atta-girl" for effort alone. In the world I live in, it's mostly results that matter.
That's how it is in school bus world, too. Some of the drivers reward good bus etiquette with a Friday afternoon prize. It's usually just a piece of hard candy or a small trinket, but it's hard-won and proudly displayed.
Molly's driver had an unerring memory for who was loud on Wednesday and who stood while the bus was moving on Monday. No amount of whining and pleading produced a prize for those offenders. They were just encouraged to try harder next week. Now that's how the real world works.
For the past 20 years, I've operated a resale clothing store. On many occasions, I've had bus drivers come in looking for warm coats or sturdy sneakers for some of their needy charges.
The most touching incident occurred on an icy January day. A driver noticed a stoic little third-grader trudging off to school in his big sister's puffy lavender jacket. It was the only coat available to him. Thanks to his driver, he was soon the proud owner of a like-new Spiderman jacket complete with a hood and those most prized of all embellishments: lots of pockets and zippers.
The recent vandalism at the county bus shop was especially disturbing to me. Windows were smashed, electronics destroyed, scores of seats slashed and graffiti (probably misspelled) sprayed throughout. What a slap in the face to the kind people who work so hard to keep our children safe.
The cost of repairs and the resulting rise in insurance rates will have to come from somewhere. I resent seeing my tax dollars go toward correcting damage propagated by a bunch of pea-brained losers.
There's a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of these reprobates. Anyone stupid enough to commit an offense like this is also stupid enough to brag about it. Someone knows who did this. Come on, drop a dime and collect $1,000. It's easier than a scratch ticket.
In the meantime, if the county decides to have a work day to help clean up this mess, just let me know when and where. I'll be there with a bucket and a Brillo pad.

(Originally published Monday, June 25, 2007 in the Gainesville Times)

When it was ‘jackass’ day at the zoo

Looks like there's another contender for the Darwin Award.
The Darwins, for those who don't know, are tongue-in-cheek awards given each year to those who do the most to improve the human gene pool ... by leaving it. There are idiot crooks who try to creep in via chimneys and are discovered months later.
My personal favorite is the guy who tried to steal gas from a camper but hooked his syphon hose up to the waste tank instead. I'll bet he's still trying to get the taste out of his mouth.
On Christmas Day, two young men were mauled and one killed by a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. The tiger was subsequently shot and killed. Gradually, the rest of the story is emerging. One of the surviving victims has admitted that they climbed the enclosure fence, taunting the tiger. A partial shoeprint matching one of the victims was found atop the fence railing.
A witness has reported seeing two of the victims roaring and making aggressive motions toward the tiger, so much so that nearby children were frightened. And, for the coupe de grace, a vodka bottle and marijuana was found in the victims' car and all three had both substances in their bloodstreams. Liquid courage, anyone?
Well, you don't have to be the sharpest crayon in the box to realized that it's not a particularly good idea to antagonize a full-grown tiger. I contribute it to the whole "Jackass" mentality that's become part of youth culture. You've probably seen the YouTube videos of kids doing incredibly stupid stunts: dancing atop moving cars and performing fiery antics in attempts to imitate the MTV show "Jackass." Me, I think the name says it all.
We've had our Amazon parrot, Spanky, for 12 years. The first question visitors always ask is "Does he bite?" The answer is always, "Yes, he does. He's a parrot. That's what parrots do."
He's sweet and talkative but he also has an innate need to periodically chomp down on something pliable like a finger or an ear. Multiply that need by about a million and the you have the danger presented by the big cats. Anyone who doesn't respect that is, well, a jackass.
I know I sound callous toward the human victims in this case. It's tragic, certainly, but it's also the result of man's bottomless capacity for stupidity. Forrest Gump was right: "Stupid is as stupid does."
The tiger was being ... well, a tiger. The humans, it appears, were being alcohol-addled, testosterone-fueled idiots. Also, the officials at the zoo seem to have failed to bring the enclosure up to current industry standards. There's plenty of blame to go around.
We all know how this is going to play out. Mark Geragos, erstwhile attorney of wife and unborn baby killer Scott Peterson, has elbowed his way to the front of the lawyer line. There will be lawsuits upon lawsuits. All the victims, including the family of the young man who was killed, will get a little money and their 15 minutes of fame. There will be endless debates over the safety and viability of zoos.
And periodically some substance-impaired jerk will decide to show off in front of his or her friends by antagonizing an elephant or an alligator or a hippopotamus and the whole cycle will begin again. Jackasses, every last one of them.
(First published Jan. 25, 2008 in the Gainesville Times January 25, 2008)

Celebrity mom’s how-to book is a how not-to

Stop the presses! Here’s a scoop for you. Lynne Spears, that paragon of parenting, mother of Britney and Jamie Lynn, has lost her book deal. This following the announcement that 16-year-old Jamie Lynne, the star of one of those interminable Nickelodeon teen TV series, is 12 weeks pregnant.
The book, “Pop Culture Mom: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World” was characterized by the publisher as “a parenting book that’s going to have faith elements.” It had been scheduled for a Mother’s Day 2008 release.
Drat. Guess I’ll have to take that one off of my Amazon wish list.
I was really looking forward to her explaining how to tell the difference between “edgy” and “soft core” when my teen girls start appearing in music videos. I’m sure she could give some great advice on shopping for rehab facilities and fashion tips on what to wear to custody hearings and court-mandated drug screenings. Oh, and just imagine the chapter on driver etiquette.
Mama Lynne, ever the lemonade maker, characterized her younger daughter as “always conscientious” and (one who) never violated curfew. Yeah, we all know babies are only made after midnight.
Don’t get me wrong. Every baby is a gift and every woman who chooses childbirth over abortion is, in my estimation, a hero. That said, I can’t think of any woman who’s had a surprise pregnancy in her teens who would recommend the experience for anyone else. It’s a blessing, yes, but it’s also very, very hard. Emotionally, financially, socially, educationally, you name it. Every aspect of life becomes exponentially more difficult.
For the past 21 years I’ve operated a resale clothing store that carries infant and maternity wear. For 21 years, I’ve met girls as young as 13 who were shopping for prom dresses one day and preemie sleepers the next. I’ve seen scholarships declined and quickie marriages fail in a matter of weeks. I’ve seen a lot of grandparents alter their life plans to allow for raising a grandchild or three.
These people don’t have the option of selling their baby shower pictures to a tabloid for a kajillion dollars or allowing a camera crew in the delivery room to “share” the blessed event with the masses. Actually, most of the moms I know have far too much class to do that even if the offers were made. They just soldier on, going to work and school, bleary from nights spent rocking colicky babies.
Jamie Lynn, I wish you, your child and your baby daddy well. I hope you persevere, deliver a healthy bundle of Cajun joy and manage to figure out how to salvage your career if that’s what you choose.
I’m sure your bottom-feeder mother will devise a way to capitalize on what should be a personal family issue. I expect there’ll be a line of Lynne Spears baby food or nursery furnishings available by, oh, say ... Mother’s Day 2008.

(Originally published December 26, 2007 in the Gainesville Times)

Parents, know that your kids are watching

I happen to be the mother of a child who loves to write. She's 13 and spends a couple of hours each day doing some sort of writing: short stories, poems, blog entries, essays. She's even completed a few chapters of a book.
When most kids were asking for iPods, she asked for a copy of the "AP Stylebook," an indispensable tool for serious writers.
She occasionally submits her work to competitions. In the past couple of years, she's won cash prizes, trips, medals and even a bonsai tree. I'm sure if she'd known about the essay contest to win almost-impossible-to-get tickets to a Hannah Montana concert, she most certainly would have entered. And she would have lost.
The child who won was a 6-year-old girl who wrote a heart-rending paragraph about how her father had been killed in Iraq. Gosh, who wouldn't want that child to win? After all, she and her family had been through hell and if this prize could do a little to distract them from their pain, then good for them.
There was one problem, however. The whole thing was a lie. Her father didn't die in Iraq. He was alive and well in another town. The whole scam started to fall apart when the winner was surprised with a Hannah Montana makeover at a kid's boutique in her hometown of Garland, Texas. I don't think her mom expected camera crews and when they started asking questions about the essay, she first tried to act like it was, oh, too painful to talk about.
When she was finally confronted with irrefutable evidence of the deception she tried to quibble, saying "We never said this was a true story. We do essays all the time. My daughter does essays at school all the time. It never did say it had to be true." Well, duh.
I ran the scenario past my daughter, Rachel. Maybe I'd missed something here. Maybe there was a way to justify this deception.
Nope, not in Rachel's eyes. She was disgusted by the whole thing and sad for the girl. Her take was, "If it's not true, its not an essay. It's a short story. No way should they win anything. What's worse, that little girl has been exposed to nationwide scrutiny and she and her mom have been shown to be a liars and cheats. All for a few concert tickets. How on earth does a kid recover from something like that?"
Good question. I don't know the answer.
One thing my mother taught me, long before I had children of my own, was that kids learn far more from watching than they do from listening. When you are kind to a stranger, your kids are watching. When a healthy mom parks in a handicapped parking spot, her kids see that, too. When a dad lies to get an undeserved refund his children are right there, taking it all in.
Years ago, a mother and daughter came into my resale clothing store. They were shopping for a prom dress, and the girl soon spotted the perfect one. I happened to be working nearby as they discussed the dress. The daughter bemoaned the fact that she'd only be able to wear it one time. The mother told her not to worry. They could always bring it back after the dance. That certainly caught my attention.
When they checked out, I made sure they were aware of the return policy, that the tags had to be attached for us to take an item back. Sure enough, a week later they showed up to return the dress. Of course there were no tags and there was a suspicious spot on the front that was probably punch.
When I declined to take the dress back, the mother launched into a monumental hissy fit, the kind that I'm sure had served her well many times before. I let her go on for a bit, then looked her in the eye and softly said, "I know what you did. You should be ashamed."
The mom gasped, snapped her mouth shut and scurried out of the shop. I sometimes wonder what became of that daughter. She was watching.
Just like that child in Texas was watching as her mother was humiliated and exposed as a liar. Watching as a glorious prize was taken from her and awarded to a runner-up.
Sad. So sad.
(First published Jan. 5, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

My 15 minutes on ‘Montel’ with a ghost dog

An era is coming to an end. After 17 years, "The Montel Williams show" is not going to be renewed.
As it happens, that’s one of the few daytime talk shows that I regularly watch. There’s a nice mix of self-help, entertainment and a bare minimum of "who’s your daddy" DNA testing.
It never crossed my mind that I’d ever be a guest on the show. I don’t have any cautionary tales to tell about stalkers or Internet predators. My children’s paternity has never been in question. But then, as John Lennon said, "Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans."
In February 2004, our elderly black Pomeranian, Yofi (that’s Hebrew for "beautiful") died of congestive heart failure. By the time she died, her eyes were clouded by cataracts and her muzzle had turned white.
About two weeks after she died, I was taking digital pictures of some Ferragamo shoes to sell on eBay. I sat them on the seat of a wooden chair and snapped some pictures. When I uploaded them to my computer, there was a curious blur in one of the images. Looking through the back slats of the chair was what appeared to be Yofi.
I showed it to my family and they thought it looked like Yofi, too. The most striking thing about the image was that Yofi’s eyes were clear and her muzzle was black, much like when she was a young dog. I e-mailed the picture out to some friends and then forgot about it.
One morning the following September, I walked into work and one of my employees said, "Teressa, what does Montel Williams want with you?"
There was a message to call a producer of his syndicated talk show.
Turns out, someone who had received my e-mailed pictures of Yofi had sent the images to the "Montel" show, where they have a weekly episode featuring psychic Sylvia Browne. The producer asked if I’d like to appear on the show and have Sylvia give her impressions of the picture. I was initially reluctant, but their offer to let me bring a companion clinched the deal.
They flew me and my daughter, Rachel, then 10 years old, to New York. We were picked up by a limo at the airport and put up at a charming art deco-style hotel, The Edison, near Times Square.
The usual plan would have been to fly us home on Friday after the taping. I asked if they could schedule the return flight for Sunday since my mother-in-law lives on Long Island and it would be a shame to be so close and not spend some time with her. Not only did they do that, they even hired a car and driver to make the two-hour drive out to the Hamptons and then deliver us to the airport on Sunday.
The taping itself was a blast. I was taken to hair and makeup and then to the Green Room to wait with the other guests. There was a creepy young man who’d taken some pictures of an old house in West Virginia and felt the "orbs" of light in the pictures might be long-dead ancestors trying to contact him. I thought it looked like the price you pay for using a cheap throwaway camera with a crummy flash. But, hey, I was there with dead dog pictures, so who was I to judge?
There was a woman from Minnesota who thought a guardian angel had helped her following an auto accident. It was her second appearance on the show, so these sorts of things must happen to her frequently. There was a sad woman who was searching for answers about who killed her brother.
I can’t start to tell how kind the producers were. They put us all at ease and explained what would happen, how Montel would introduce us, we’d tell our story and then Sylvia would give her impressions of our experiences.
We were wired with microphones and seated on couches throughout the audience. I was going to be the last one interviewed, so I had the most time to worry. Before the taping, Montel answered audience questions. Many of them were about his health, since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years before. He looked in great shape and talked about his grueling workout that helps him stay strong.
Browne was introduced and floated in swathed in pink silk and pounds of gold jewelry. She was earthy and funny and seemed to be having a wonderful time. She took audience questions, mostly about love lives and job searches. She assured folks that they’d find the love of their lives (two years seemed to be the favored time frame) or a dream job (six months or less).
Finally my turn came. Montel introduced me and I assumed what my daughter calls my "deer in the headlights" look and gave a quick rundown of the Yofi picture. Sylvia assured me that this was indeed our Yofi in spirit form, that dogs and cats have souls and are waiting for us in the afterlife. Then she announced that she’d just written a book about animal spirits and proceeded to promote the book. My 15 minutes of fame took about two minutes.
The show aired in February 2005, coincidentally on the anniversary of Yofi’s death. It is shown again from time to time, so I sometimes have people say, "I saw you on TV last week!" They’re usually too kind to mention how petrified I looked or how pronounced my accent was. Usually.
Was that really Yofi reaching out from the hereafter to let me know she’d arrived safe and sound? Or is that kid from West Virginia not the only one who can’t use a flash properly?
Either way, we have Yofi to thank for an experience of a lifetime. It’s especially precious since the "Montel" show soon will be no more. I wonder if Sylvia Browne saw that one coming?
(Originally published in the Gainesville Times march 6, 2008.)

True Optimist inspires young orators to succeed

Gainesville has a hometown treasure in the person of J.H. Holcomb. He taught Industrial Arts, better known as "shop" when I made my way through Gainesville Junior High in the late 1960s.
He was off my radar entirely since girls didn't take shop classes in those unenlightened times. It wasn't forbidden, exactly, just never suggested as an option. To this day, whenever I try to jump-start a car or use pliers in any fashion, I curse myself for being too shortsighted and not insisting on signing up for his classes.
Fast forward to 2000. My daughter, Molly, then a shy high school freshman, was required by her journalism teacher to write and deliver a five-minute speech. I don't recall the precise topic but it was something about making the world a better place. Her teacher selected the top three speeches and entered them in the local Optimist International Oratorical Competition. Our entire family went to cheer Molly on.
It was my first real introduction to the Optimist Club and J.H. Holcomb. The club members were so gracious. We were thrilled when Molly won. Everyone congratulated her including a tall gentleman with fading ginger hair and sparkling blue eyes. He was also there at the zone competition to commend her when she won again.
Then, there he was at the area competition. He always took time to give Molly some encouraging and congratulatory words. He also consoled her when she lost at the area level and elicited a promise that she try again the next year.
The following year, she did indeed try again and there was J.H., offering his own unique brand of motivation, quiet and heartfelt.
Molly never won at district but the oratorical competition started her on a path that led her to become one of the best high school individual event debaters in the country. She was a three-time National Forensic League qualifier (a really big deal in debate circles), spent a summer in the Governor's Honors program and was awarded a number of college scholarships. And it all started at the Optimist Club.
Now, as a college senior, she's a member of the Athens Luncheon Optimist Club. Do I need to mention how proud that makes me?
By the time our daughter, Rachel, began competing in 2005, I was a member of the Optimist Club, in part because of J.H. I wanted to be in a position to support other children the way he had supported mine.
Again, he was at each competition as Rachel advanced to the district level the last two years. I think he's become her own personal talisman.
At last year's area competition, Rachel anxiously surveyed the auditorium at Athens Technical College. I asked her what was wrong and she whispered, "Mr. J.H. isn't here." She was so relieved when he walked in. And then she won.
This year she'll again pursue that elusive prize, the District Championship and I know, God willing, J.H. will be there to encourage her.
What J.H. Holcomb has done for my children he's done for many, many more. This is a man of few words and endless compassion. He sets the standard for what an Optimist should be. I'm so honored to know him, so grateful that he's been a part of my children's lives and so proud to call him my friend.
(First published Feb. 8, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Venerable Jackson Building will bounce back

When I was in my late 20s, I thought I had my whole life figured out. I'd earned degrees in social work, counseling and criminal justice. I was working as counselor for the Department of Corrections. I'd be chief counselor by 35, assistant warden by 40, warden by 45, retire and then spend the rest of my working life teaching and writing.
As the Yiddish proverb says, Mann troche, Gott lauch -- man plans and God laughs.
I got pregnant. I miscarried. I got pregnant again. Again, I miscarried. It had never occurred to me that I might not be able to have a baby. Suddenly all of my priorities changed. I had to have a baby.
After months of tests by multiple doctors there was still no definitive reason for the miscarriages. But I knew. It was stress related. I was working with a prison population that was the worst of the worst; Reidsville sent its problem cases to us. So I took a leap of faith and quit my job.
Ten months later, Molly was born. Everyone assumed I'd return to work in Corrections. Everyone but me.
I simply could not leave my sweet baby each day to venture back into the belly of the beast. Safety concerns aside, I didn't want to miss a minute of her babyhood. So I came up with a ploy: I'd open a business. It would take it at least a year to fail and by then maybe I'd be ready to find a sitter for Molly and go back to a "real" job.
Since I was a lifelong bargain shopper, a resale business seemed like the logical choice. That's how I ended up in the Jackson Building. In retrospect, it was a poor business decision. It was, and is, located on Washington Street with virtually no parking, just a few parallel spots that were generally snapped up early in the morning by employees from the federal courthouse.
The space was 400 square feet at most. There was no way to display any signage other than a name on the window, but I didn't care. The lease was for just six months and utilities were included. Before Molly cut her second tooth, Next to New Resale Boutique was born.
The Jackson Building is an interesting edifice. It's nothing spectacular on the outside, just a five-story rectangle made of brick the color of Dijon mustard.
Step through the front doors, though, and it's a different story. The wooden doors are probably original to the building, at least eight feet high and solid in a way that's unheard of today. The marble hallway was the perfect place for Molly to scoot back and forth in her walker and the high ceiling caused her squeals to echo to her unending delight. I never rode the creaky elevator without having a moment when I wondered if it would actually make it to the next floor, but it always did.
The top three floors housed apartments ranging from efficiency to two bedrooms. They were home to a glorious mixed bag of residents. There were several retired teachers, a couple of divorcees and a college student or two. There were some elderly tenants who moved to the Jackson Building when the Dixie Hunt became Hunt Towers and no longer offered residential rooms, a down-on-his-luck drunk and a jailer for the Sheriff's Department, which helped insure that everyone behaved appropriately. If I were a sitcom writer, I'm sure I could fashion a hit from these characters.
They all became part of the village that helped raise Molly. We stayed in the Jackson Building for four years and then moved on to a location with considerably less charm but far more sales space and parking. The business that was supposed to last only a year is still going strong after 21.
The Jackson Building has been in the news of late because of legal wrangling between the current owner and the city of Gainesville. There are code violations to be corrected, and it looks as though the city is running out of patience.
I'm not worried, though. The Jackson Building made it through the tornado in 1936, and it can surely survive this little hiccup in the life of a grand old building.
I watched the Times' video of the owner, Lanier Bagwell, as he talked of the work that needed to be done. I'm pretty sure he'll do it, too. His love and admiration for the place was obvious. I know just how he feels.
(Originally published Feb. 22, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)