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)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Freedom should come with a dose of caution

Like a lot of kids, when I chose a college, I picked one far from home. In my case, it was the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The early 1970s were a heady time to be a young woman in college. The women's movement assured us that we could have it all, be anything we wanted to be; there were no limitations. I bought into that philosophy without reservation.
Every few weeks, my grandmother would send a letter. There would be a short note reassuring me of her love (as if there had ever been any doubt), a much appreciated money order for $10 and the newspaper clippings. They were mostly from what was then The Daily Times. There were articles about assaults and break-ins, rapes and murders. Some were local incidents, some were from wire service reports from around the country.
While everyone one around me was telling me the world was my oyster and the sky was the limit, my grandmother sent a very different message: Be cautious, there's evil in the world.
At the time, I was bemused by what I perceived as her small-town paranoia. Today, I wish I could apologize and tell her how right she was. There is evil in the world and we should be careful.
Now our daughter, Molly, is the age I was then. She's about to graduate from college and is interviewing for a fellowship several states away.
When she enrolled at the University of Georgia, her father bought her a stun gun. Really. A 200,000-volt stun gun. He found it somewhere on eBay and presented it to her. The expression on her face was identical to mine when I read those newspaper clippings years ago. I suspect if I were to ask her where the weapon is now, it would take some searching to find it.
Once she was having a minor problem with a boyfriend. Her father came in during the conversation and misunderstood the seriousness of the situation. He thought there had been a physical component to the altercation. His face turned stony.
"Did he hurt you?" he demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "because if he did, I'm not afraid to go to jail. You just tell me what happened."
I suddenly realized my sweet, laid-back husband was dead serious. You mess with his family, you mess with his life.
In the past few months, we've lost so many young girls to subhuman beasts, lowlife scum willing to kill for a car and an ATM card. Meredith Emerson, Eve Carson, Lauren Burke - a roll call of lost potential, destroyed promise and senseless waste. I don't want my daughter's name or anyone else's added to that list.
I try to get across to my daughter that there are true predators in the world and her responsibility is to be aware of that and not allow herself to become prey. To always be aware of her surroundings, to think two steps ahead and anticipate problems before they arise. To sometimes realize that while she may have the right to go where she wants when she wants, it's not always wise. She must learn to temper her independence with practicality.
I suspect most of this advice is of the in-one-ear, out-the-other sort. But, like my grandmother's newspaper clippings, it's advice I have to give just so I can sleep at night.
As our Molly ventures out into the world, I pray that she finds a balance between freedom and fear, tempering her hard-earned independence with caution. And I hope she keeps her stun gun charged.

(originally published March 20, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Do some of us have a radar for evil?

In all, I think I've been pretty lucky. Over the years, I've come across all sorts of people. Some were sweet, funny, endearing, brilliant, downright adorable. Some were rude, obnoxious, creepy and offensive. Only on a few occasions, though, have I come across someone who I felt was absolutely evil.
A few years ago, our family dentist stopped accepting our dental plan. It felt much like being dumped on the eve of prom. We scrambled around to find a practice that would honor our plan and ended up at a storefront outfit with plastic lawn chairs in the waiting room.
I made an appointment for myself and my then-high school-aged daughter, Molly. I went first. The dentist was a tall knobby young man with a soul patch, one of those clumps of hair sprouting from under his lower lip. He was brusque to the point of rudeness. He performed a quick exam and loped out of the examining room. I missed my sweet chatty dentist so much that I felt nauseous.
Next was my daughter's turn. She wasn't in the room long, either, but when she emerged, she was in tears. I was horrified. What on earth had happened? She couldn't explain it precisely; she just said, "He creeps me out. Please don't make me come back here."
The dentist? Barton Corbin. Seven months later, he shot his estranged wife and then attempted to make it appear a suicide. He left her body to be discovered by her young sons. It was later revealed that in 1990 he had killed a former girlfriend, disguising her murder as a suicide. He is now serving two life sentences after pleading guilty to both murders.
So here's the question: Was my nausea and Molly's tears a normal reaction to a bad experience with a ham-handed dentist or was it something more? Do we have an internal radar that responds to the black core of depravity inside some soulless individuals?
I suspect we do but it's often ignored. It's only in retrospect that we recognize the feeling for what it is, a visceral protective response to very real evil.
I thought about that when I followed the tragic events in the Meredith Emerson case. I imagine I can see it now: a beautiful mountain trail on a bright winter day, two friendly dogs and a young woman making casual conversation with a grizzled old man. It would be so easy to ignore those vague feelings of dread, not wanting to appear rude by making a hasty retreat.
Sometimes I think a lot of survival instincts have been civilized out of us. We worry too much about appearing impolite or paranoid.
I try to teach my girls to listen to their guts as much as their heads and hearts. If something doesn't feel right, assume that it's not. If you're wrong, you can always apologize or laugh it off later. If you're right, it might save your life.

(Originally published April 4, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Doggie for a day? Better to save one instead

Years ago, when my Manhattan brother-in-law was single, he discovered the ultimate chick magnet: a dog.
It never failed. He'd simply take his Boston terrier, Ralph, for a walk in Central Park, sit down on a bench and wait for women to strike up a conversation about the so-ugly-he-was-adorable doggie. I don't know if he met his fiance, Carolyn, that way, but it wouldn't surprise me one little bit.
Now that ruse has been taken to some really creepy extremes. Flex Petz has brought the concept of rental to the canine world. That's right. For those of you too busy or irresponsible or just plain shallow and uncaring to give a full-time home to a dog, you can now rent a pet for hours, days or weeks.
It works like a time share. The company is currently in New York and Los Angeles with plans to expand to markets in San Francisco and Boston soon.
Members are charged a monthly fee of $279.95 and a surcharge of $45 a day for all doggy time in excess of four days per month. The company tries to put all sorts of positive spins on the situation. The dogs, they assure us, are all rescues (better FlexPetz than dead, right?) and the members receive training in the proper care of their rentals.
Forgive my cynicism, but I suspect the training consists mostly of demonstrating the ability to sign a check.
Here's what the Humane Society of the United States had to say: "The HSUS is critical of the concept of renting a pet for the day. ... Dogs form attachments to their families and instinctively learn to protect their packs. Frequent and abrupt changes in location, routine, discipline and attention are confusing and are likely to lead to stress-induced behavior problems. Dogs are not like cars or furniture. Moving them from person to person, home to home, can induce problems such as anxiety and depression."
This business model strikes me as so wrong on so many different levels. Living, sentient beings are not fashion accessories. I remember an old slogan, "A dog is for life, not for Christmas." Certainly a dog isn't for an afternoon, either.
Contrast Flex Petz with another Web site I came across recently: Dogs in It features pictures and descriptions of shelter dogs, and a countdown to when each one is scheduled to be euthanized. You can search by zip code.
Bingo is a 7-month-old border collie mix in Meriweather County. He's great with kids and other dogs but he hates goats. Unless someone does something, he'll be dead by April 22. Sadly, the site also has a lengthy "In Memorium" section for the dogs who weren't rescued in time.
If I had an extra $279.95 a month to throw around, it's a no-brainer as to who would get my money. I'd send some to Dogs in Danger and the balance to the Humane Society of Hall County. Charity -- and rescue -- begins at home.
And if I were a dog-lover whose schedule or lease or other lifestyle factors precluded full-time dog ownership, I'd give Rick Aiken at the Humane Society a call; they always need dog walkers, and I'd be in good company - no pretense, no superciliousness, no ostentation. Just animal lovers doing everything they can to make life better for homeless dogs.
Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way it's animals are treated." I really don't think pimping puppies qualifies as moral progress.
(Originally published April 18, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Mom’s advice includes home cures, common sense

Most moms are a repository of knowledge, both the book and folklore variety. Lately, it seems every time I open my mouth out comes my mother's voice. After all, she gave me some of the best advice I've ever received and now that I'm a parent, it's time to pass it on.
She told me, "wear an old coat and buy a new book," and "it's only a job if you'd rather be doing something else," and (particularly apropos in these hard economic times) "if money can fix it, it's not a problem."
I once heard her say about a family friend who was in a bind, "I'm willing to bet that at least 95 percent of the decisions people regret the most in life involve drugs or alcohol." Wise woman, my mother.
She came from a long line of wise women and a few who might even be called "conjure women." Her mother had the ability, demonstrated on many occasions, to witch warts and draw fire. The latter involved reading a secret Bible verse over the person who had painful burns. Invariably, the pain would lessen.
The power of prayer? The power of suggestion? Faith and psychology working hand in hand? I dunno. I just know it always worked.
For generations, White Countians would bring babies with thrush to my great-aunt. She was known far and wide for having the ability to conjure the oral fungus infections.
My daughter Molly's gift is the ability to look at a pregnant woman and predict the sex of her baby with 100 percent accuracy. She grew up in our resale clothing store so there were always pregnant ladies coming and going. When she was just a toddler, she would ask the expectant customer what she was going to name her little girl (or boy). It took us a while to realize how right she was but when we starting tracking it, the results were amazing.
She even predicted twins, and their sex, before the ultrasound. She's never missed. Unfortunately, her talent doesn't carry over to lottery numbers. Believe me, we tried.
Apparently these metaphysical talents skipped my generation. My only contribution to keeping the conjure woman tradition alive is my use of home remedies.
I'm a steadfast believer in the curative properties of chicken soup. My husband calls it Jewish penicillin. The secret is knowing when to serve just the hot broth (major congestion with coughing) and when to add noodles and vegetables (sniffles and muscle aches). I bring out the big guns (matzah balls) when the other symptoms are accompanied by unbearable whining.
I was pleased to see the Mayo Clinic has posted video and instructions on nasal lavage, another of my favorite home cures. It's not as nasty as the name implies; it just involves sniffing salt water up the nose. It clears stuffy sinuses in a snap.
Other home cures are of a little more questionable purview. When my daughter had a slight fever, I Googled home remedies for those symptoms and up popped the suggestion that I slice onions and cover her feet with them, held in place with thick socks. The entry was followed by this disclaimer: "We always recommend consulting a doctor before trying any of these cures at home."
Hmmm. So here's the scenario: I make an appointment, hand over a $40 co-pay and sit for an hour in a waiting room packed with people who all seem to be doing their best to cough out a lung or two. When I'm finally ushered into my doctor's presence, I say, "Dr. Bob, Rachel has a 100-degree fever. I'm thinking of chopping up some onions and fastening them to her feet. What do you think?"
Yeah, that's gonna happen.
It's important to know when to use the home cures and when to seek professional medical advice. All things in moderation. That's something else my mother taught me. Thanks, Mom.
(Originally published May 2, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Once a sweetheart, now a celebrity thief

Poor Lindsay Lohan just can't catch a break.
After traffic imbroglios, episodes of public intoxication to the point of unconsciousness and stints in rehab, her life's a train wreck rivaled only by Britney Spears. I get the feeling second place isn't a standing that sits well with Lindsay. Watch out Britney, she's gaining on you.
Back in January, she attended a birthday party for "shipping heir" Stavros Niarchos, a young man whose only occupation appears to be dating one troubled celebrity after another. A partial list includes Lindsay, Paris Hilton and that skinny-scary Olsen twin who dresses like a bag lady.
The party was at a place called 1Oak in Manhattan. Also in attendance was a young woman named Masha Markova, a student at Columbia University. Of course, when you're hobnobbing with camera fodder like Lindsay and Stavros, you pick your wardrobe very carefully. Forget the Gap pea coat. It's time to pull out Grandma's $11,000 blonde mink.
So little Masha sashayed in wearing Grandma's heirloom coat, checked it at the door and proceeded to party. At the end of the evening the coat was nowhere to be found. There's no report of her reaction, just that she went home never expecting to see the coat again. I wonder what she told Grandma. "Hello, Grams? Remember that coat you gave me? ..."
A few weeks later, Masha was thumbing through one of those tabloid magazines that delights in showing pictures of celebrities doing things like picking their noses and grocery shopping. There, in all her skeevy magnificence, was Lindsay Lohan, wearing Grandma's coat. A little more research revealed photos showing she had been wearing the coat all over town for the past few weeks.
Masha did what any red-blooded American would do: She called her lawyer. Who called the club and Lindsay's lawyer and before you could say, "I have Entertainment Tonight on Line 2" the coat was returned to its rightful owner, albeit a little worse for wear. It reeked of booze and cigarettes and there was a rip in the lining.
Masha has mentioned it might be nice if Lohan were to pay a rental fee for the three weeks she had the coat. Masha and her attorney think $10,000 would be fair. Oh, good grief.
One component seems to be missing from this cautionary tale. I think if $11,000 worth of anything belonging to me went missing, I'd be hollering loud and long for Sheriff Cronic to come and do something. Of course, if someone were to make off with that much of my stuff, it would involve a U-Haul and a couple of guys with strong backs. I'd be missing a freezer, a refrigerator and a whole passel of computer equipment. Throw in a couch, a red S-10 pickup and a roll-top desk, too.
In all of my Googling, I haven't read one mention of law enforcement's involvement in what's obviously a case of theft. Everything was treated as if it was one big misunderstanding. The Lohan camp has said that a member of Lindsay's entourage picked the coat up by mistake.
Oh, hey, that happens to me all the time. I go to an event and check my London Fog raincoat. At the end of the evening, my husband goes to the coat window and they hand him eight pounds of dead animal pelt with a champagne satin lining. It could happen to anyone. Except in my world it crosses my mind to say, "Excuse me, that's not the right coat."
In 2003, I took my daughter and some of her friends to see "Freaky Friday," a cute little Disney remake starring a teenaged Lindsay Lohan. At the time I was impressed and charmed by her talent.
Five years later, that talent's been eclipsed by her skanky escapades. She's become one of those obnoxious celebrities whose excesses and sense of entitlement know no bounds. What a waste. What a shame.
(Originally published May 16, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

The TV show you don’t want to watch at dinner

When I first read the press release, I thought it was a late April Fool's Day hoax.
G4, the 24/7 network devoted to all things video game, has a new show in the works. I'll let them tell you about it:
"G4 is taking competitive eating competitions to the next level with a new series that combines speed-eating with intense physical challenges. In each episode, five brave contestants attempt to consume the largest quantity of food in a short amount of time and are then immediately subjected to a series of challenges designed to shake them up. The one to hold his or her food down the longest claims victory and walks away with a cash prize, the Iron Stomach Award, and more importantly, serious bragging rights. The half-hour series, ‘Hurl!' premieres summer 2008 on G4."
"G4's mission is to be a multimedia destination that's ‘relevant' and ‘authentic' to the interests of today's young male demo," said Neal Tiles, president, G4. "‘Hurl' is really an idea that is inspired by the world of viral video which has proven to be massively popular with young guys today."
In a word: Ewwwwww!
I'll be the first to admit I don't have a very strong stomach. I get nauseous just watching someone else brush their teeth. I doubt I'd make it through the opening credits of this show. Even tied up. With a gun to my head.
It absolutely astounds me that this project isn't the work of one addle-brained individual. It takes a whole cadre of people working in unison to bring such an effort to fruition. How one earth do you phrase a help wanted ad to locate these folks? Words like boorish, crass, vulgar and vile would be indispensable.
The press release quoted a Neal Tiles, the president of G4. I did a little research and found that Mr. Tiles is a graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in advertising/marketing. He started his career with ad agencies in New York and San Francisco. He then moved on to ESPN. In 1997, he was hired by Fox Sports and earned a shelf full of kudos for his work there. He also earned subsequent praise for his work at DirecTV.
So far, so good. It looks like the usual ad exec resume.
Then in September 2005, he made the leap to president of G4 and the rest is hurling history.I wonder what his friends and relatives think of his current project. Really, what do you say when a beloved family member makes a career move that's embarrassing or unbelievably stupid?
"Robert was doing quite well at the Centers for Disease Control, but he's much happier now that he's an armpit tester for Proctor and Gamble," or "Mary finds all those years of ballet training are certainly paying off now that she's a pole dancer."
Mr. Tiles' advertising background will come in handy when they pitch the show to sponsors. I'd suggest they give preference to Pepto-Bismol and Listerine.
What really keeps me awake into the wee small hours is the realization that these shows aren't created in a vacuum. They're a response to a demand, validated by endless focus groups and research. There are people out there who actually want to watch this drivel. Who program their TiVos to record it in case the Xtreme Fighting Championship runs late. Who invite their friends over to watch with them and cheer for their favorite hurler.
Again, ewwwwww.
Just when I think modern day culture has finally bottomed out and can sink no further, along comes the likes of Neal Tiles who digs a hole so the bar can be lowered even more. It makes me want to hurl.
(Originally published May 20, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

School saga could actually be worse

To distract myself from all of the drama unfolding around the Gainesville City School Board, I turned my jaundiced eye toward Clayton County. I have no vested interests in Clayton County. I don’t know anyone in or with the school system there. I’ve never lived or worked there. Heck, I’m not even absolutely sure if I’ve ever been there except to possibly drive through on the Interstate.
What I do know is that its school system is run by a bunch of the most pompous, arrogant, self-aggrandizing goofballs the good Lord ever blessed with belly buttons.
Last February, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools voted to revoke the system’s accreditation unless drastic changes (mostly related to policy and ethics practices) were enacted by September 2008. The clock was ticking. Starting in 2009, graduates would not be eligible for the HOPE scholarship and would have difficulty getting admitted to many colleges.
So what did the board do? They hired a new superintendent, John Thompson. During the consideration process, he demanded a $2 million consulting budget, a Lincoln Town Car with a driver and money to pay a personal bodyguard. A real man of the people.
He started work (to the tune of $284,000 plus some pretty amazing perks) on April 28th. He immediately got busy. He kicked an established mentoring group of over 200 parents out of the county’s schools, ostensibly because they had not all had criminal background checks. Excuse me, but I’ve been volunteering in public schools for 18 years and I’ve yet to be asked for my fingerprints. I suspect it didn’t help that some of the parent volunteers were also vocal critics of Thompson and his dingbat Board.
Mark Twain said, "First, God created idiots. That was just for practice. Then He created school boards." Case in point: in the midst of all the ruckus, the Board decided to spend about $120,000 to change the seating arrangement in their meeting room. They apparently felt the elevated table made them seem aloof and out-of-touch. Well, duh. I seriously doubt a new table will make a bit of difference.
And then there were the diplomas. Now remember, Thompson’s been on the job for what? A month? The 3,000 diplomas were ordered in December. They were printed with the signature of the former superintendent. So Thompson ordered them destroyed. Destroyed and reprinted at a cost of between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on whose estimate you choose to believe. That’s not counting the cost of packaging and mailing out the new documents since the students who graduated were given blank sheets of paper instead of their hard-earned diplomas. Why? Because Thompson felt it was imperative that his name appear on the diplomas. Like anyone gives a rat’s...neck. Don’t they have Wite-Out in Clayton County?
A few days later, it was announced that the diplomas weren’t destroyed after all. I guess Thompson was just kidding about that part. He’s a real joker, that Johnny Thompson.
Subsequently, a national printing company offered to reprint the diplomas for free. But that’s not the point. Their offer wasn’t on the table when Thompson threw his hissy fit and trashed the original documents. As far as he knew, the taxpayers were footing the bill.
I took it upon myself to perform a very unofficial survey. I spoke to fifteen people. The youngest was 22; the oldest was 67. They were all high school graduates. They had also earned a total of 18 college degrees. No one could recall a single name on their diplomas other than their own and that of their school principal or college president. Nor did they care. The only name on the diploma that concerned them was theirs.
So here’s Clayton County, facing an educational crisis that’s the equivalent of DEFCON 1 and they’re worried about tables and signatures. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.
It puts what’s happening in my own county in perspective. Despite the ongoing intrigues and daily disappointments associated with the Gainesville City School Board, they pale in comparison to our neighbors to the south. At least they have so far. That could change any day now. Stay tuned.
(Originally published June 12, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Pesky passwords and a long-forgotten pet

One recent morning, I tried to log on to my online banking account. I needed to check my balance since the dryer had suddenly decided to stop drying and I wasn't sure if I had enough in the account to cover the repair bill.
You'd think I'd be a wizard at this online stuff since I'm married to Arthur, the computer savant. But sadly, no. I forget passwords. I put documents in folders and then forget where the folders are (this being cyber folders, although I do roughly the same thing with the manila ones, too).
So here I am, just trying to see if I can pay a repairman or if I should start digging under the sofa cushions to find change for the laundromat when suddenly a screen pops up on my laptop that reads, "As a security measure, please answer the following question: What is the name of your favorite pet?"
Huh? I guess at some point I'd given them an answer to this query. Programs are always asking me to provide my mother's maiden name, the town where I was born, the name of my first school or some other such information. It's usually a no-brainer since each of those questions has only one correct answer. But my favorite pet? That's like asking me to pick my favorite child.
First I typed in "Lola," the name of our Australian shepherd. She's our only dog, so it seemed best to start with her. Nope. Not Lola.
OK. Maybe I'd set this program up several years ago, before we'd gotten Lola. Back then, our dog was Yofi, a little black Pomeranian. I tried "Yofi." No go.
So it was time to start with the cats. Our Alpha cat is Tovah, a grand dame of a tortoise shell who survived antifreeze poisoning as a kitten and having most of her tail skinned off in a run-in with a fast closing door. She loves her humans unconditionally and though I know I shouldn't play favorites, she's mine. Except, apparently, when I set up the stinking online banking program.
So maybe it was Louie, our black and white tuxedo kitty who's the bane of blue jays everywhere. Wrong again.
I knew it couldn't have been Rusty, the Garfield look-alike. I found him abandoned in the drive through at the same bank that was giving me fits with the security prompt. I guess his former owners grew tired of his clawing up cabinets (upholstered furniture is not a big enough challenge) and eschewing litter boxes for softer, carpeted spots.
He's an unrepentant delinquent but we keep trying. Love the sinner not the sin. No way would it ever cross my mind to put Rusty's name in a favorite slot.
(Here's an aside: It's astonishing what I learn in the process of writing these columns. A group of lions is a pride. So what do you call a group of cats? Turns out it's called a clowder. Really. Now back to the column ...)
Our most recent addition to the clowder is Jack. I found him as a kitten, wandering the sidewalk in front of my shop. He was trying to follow people out to their cars. He's the only cat I've ever known who will go for walks and actually heel. Arthur strolls with Lola on one side and Jack on the other. It's a cool quality but, it seems, not enough to have earned him favorite status. I still couldn't access my account.Having run out of cats, I tried typing in Spanky the parrot. Nada.
We never named the fish so I was out of ideas.
At last, defeated, I closed down the program and reopened it. It immediately took me to my account.I was pleased to see that we could afford to fix the dryer but I still don't know who my favorite pet is.

(Originally published in the Ganesville Times, June 26, 2008)

Cards for the incarcerated send tough love messages

Half a lifetime ago I worked as a parole officer. One of my duties was to interview the families of prospective parolees. I'd get information for a narrative about the inmate's personal life, their background, education, community support and postrelease plans.
I'd sit on plastic-covered sofas in tidy living rooms straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and hear stories that would curl your hair. There were the parents who, when their son was 9, installed a deadbolt on their bedroom door. That was after they woke to find him standing over them with an ice pick. And it was downhill from there.
I heard endless variations of "I don't know where we went wrong" and "we did all we could" and "he/she got in with the wrong crowd." I decided early-on if we could just rope in that particular wrong crowd, we could cut crime by 50 percent.
I'd leave an interview exhausted from the emotional workout, wrung out by the pain and heartache the family had experienced. I quickly learned that it was not just the inmate who did time. Parents and spouses suffered right alongside. They struggled to pay attorneys and made lengthy drives for visitation at distant institutions. They sent money for commissary accounts and accepted astronomically priced collect calls just so they could hear their family member's voice for a few minutes. I often felt they were being punished almost as much as the inmate.
All those experiences came back to me when, in the process of researching something totally unrelated, I stumbled across the
Web site for Three Squares Greetings. It's a line of greeting cards designed for inmates and the people who care about them. Talk about niche marketing. The cards are straightforward and nonenabling.
One birthday card reads: "It's your birthday and I know that you'd rather be almost anywhere else right now. Hopefully, one year older will really mean one year wiser for you. Take care."
For New Year's, a card exhorts, "It's that time of year again. While doing your time, resolve to make better choices."
A Christmas card reads: "You had the choice to be ‘naughty or nice.' And you chose ... oh well, now you have to do your time. But, Christmas won't be the same without you here. Stay safe. Merry Christmas."
There are cards for Father's Day: "It is probably very difficult to be away from your kids today. But, try to remember that they love you more than you know. They send their love for Father's Day and every day."Even though the number of incarcerated women is growing every year, I noticed there were no Mother's Day cards. They're probably in the works right now.
There are tough love cards: "When you called recently, I wasn't very sympathetic. I guess I've heard your promises to change too many times. Please - stop promising to change and just do it."
And messages of faith: "I wish I could get you to see that anger isn't the answer. God is the answer. He will help you get past the anger. Ask for His help in prayer."
Studies have shown that inmates who have strong family support are up to six times less likely to reoffend than those who do not. These cards help give words to difficult emotions.
"Parents are profoundly embarrassed when their kids mess up. Families are hurt. Friends don't know what to say ... You have someone who's broken the law, done something awful. This is a way to reach out, tell them you care, without ratifying their conduct," says Terrye Cheathem, the California attorney who designed the line.
She knows the feelings. She came up with the idea after failing to find an appropriate birthday card for a brother-in-law behind bars.
With 2.2 million Americans incarcerated, there aren't many of us who don't know at least one person in prison. One of my close friends in college, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who worked for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, is serving a life sentence for murder.
I never wrote because I didn't know what to say. Maybe I'll send a card.

(Originally published July 11, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Books on a Budget

If you're a reader, you know how expensive books, even paperbacks, can be. When 13year-old Rachel started her Language Arts class last year she brought home a reading list of over 200 books. That adds up to a bundle when you start purchasing them new. Of course the library is always an option but to find a book there when you need it is always a gamble. At about the same we started looking for books on the list, a friend told me about Paperback Swap. I guess Confucius was right: When the student's ready, the teacher will appear.

Paperback Swap is an amazingly well-organized web site ( ) You simply list any books you don't need anymore. It's easy. You just input the ISBN numbers and then wait. When someone requests one of your books, you print out the label and ship it media rate (currently $2.19 for most paperbacks.) When your book's received, you get a credit. You can use your credit to request anything on the site (one credit for print books, 2 credits for books on tape and CD) There's even a wish list so you can ask for unlisted books and the site will notify you when they're listed. Your only expense is when you ship out books that have been requested from you.

I've used PBSwap to find all of Rachel's required reading, textbooks for her big sis Molly who's an English major at the University of Georgia, cookbooks and mysteries for me, audiobooks for listening on the long drive to grandma's house, even computer manuals for my techie husband.

When I'm browsing at thrift stores or yard sales, I always pick up paperbacks if they're priced under fifty cents and in good condition. Even if it's a topic that doesn't interest me, I list it on PBSwap- usually it's just what someone else needs.

It's been my experience that parenting books, histories (the more obscure and specific the better), cookbooks, health topics and religious/inspirational writings go in a hurry. Very popular authors such as James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and Johanna Lindsey don't go quite as fast-there are usually lots of their volumes listed already.

An entire community has grown up around PBSwap- forums, chat rooms, recipe spots, games (20 questions, sudoku), maps so you can track where your books have come from and where the ones you sent out went. There's a place for writers to submit original work and for readers to critique it.
It's a great site that's run by a couple of kind souls from Duluth, GA. There's no charge to join or use the site and they're currently anticipating the listing of their 2,300,000th book.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Theatre for a Song

There's something so special about experiencing live theater, sitting in a darkened auditorium as living, breathing actors perform at their very best. Tickets to performances at venues like Atlanta's Fox Theatre can often rival prices on Broadway.

Sometimes it's worth every penny, like this October when "Wicked" comes to town. But as a regular activity for my family of four, the Fox is way above our pay grade. That's OK, though. There's wonderful theater to be experienced right in our hometown, at local high schools and universities.

During the 2007-2008 school year, our family saw live productions of "High School Musical" (twice), "Butterflies Are Free," "Oklahoma," "The Curious Savage," "Once Upon a Mattress," "Crimes of the Heart," "Oliver" and "Seussical the Musical," all for about $5 a ticket. We saw GTA's "Metamorphoses" and "Into the Woods." There was Derrick Ledbetter's brilliant "Compleat Female Stage Beauty."

With eight area high schools (and their corresponding middle schools) and three universities within comfortable driving distance, there's always something playing. The Times does a great job of publicizing the productions; just check for arts events in the Get Out section. Coming up later in this current school year is "Footloose," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Miracle Worker" and "Godspell."

And that's just at Gainesville and North Hall high schools. Sure beats sitting at home watching yet another repeat of "Law and Order."

There are also the Georgia Mountain Players, Gainesville Park and Rec's summer plays, Gainesville Theatre Alliance and the Sautee-Nacoochee Community Association ... the list goes on and on.

There's the Holly Theatre in Dahlonega, a 1946 gem of a movie theater that's been transformed into a community performing-arts center. I would be remiss as a drama mama if I didn't mention that our Molly is currently appearing as Annelle in the Holly's production of "Steel Magnolias" and her sister, Rachel, will be an evil stepsister in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" later this fall.

One result of 15 years of playgoing is that our two girls have grown up with a love for and appreciation of theater. The expression on my then 5-year-old Rachel's face was priceless when she realized the bag boy at the grocery store had also played one of the lead roles in the play we'd seen earlier in the week. Talk about making theater accessible.

She's gone on the appear in plays at her middle school and I have no doubt she'll continue in high school. I suppose she's spent so much time in darkened theaters watching other kids perform that stepping from the audience to the stage was a natural progression.

This week, Molly and I attended Gainesville High School's production of "The Savage Dilemma," a comedy that's the sequel to "The Curious Savage." We've come to expect extraordinary theater from Gainesville High's Pam Ware and, as usual, she and the cast delivered.

There are a couple of standouts who bear watching. Ariel Thilenius and Chandler Darby are talents who change and shine in every role they're given. I can't wait to see what they do next.

It's just a shame there were only a handful of people in the audience, maybe two dozen at the very most. I'm pretty sure we were the only patrons who didn't have a blood relative on the stage. Work of this quality deserves a full house.

For less than the price of a combo meal at a fast food restaurant, you can have a great evening at the theater and show support for young people and the arts at the same time. That's what I call a win-win scenario.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Times, September 19,2008)

From Scratch Fer Shur!

Last week I was all set to make granola bars when I realized I was missing a key ingredient- sweetened condensed milk. I did a Google search and, miracle of miracles, found a recipe for it! I tried it and was pleased with the result- I couldn't tell any difference between it and the canned variety. Here's what you do:

In a heavy saucepan, combine 1/2 cup water, 2/3 cup sugar and 1 cup plus two tablespoons nonfat dry (powdered) milk. Bring to a boil and stir until thickened (about 15 minutes). Then you're good to go...another plus- this recipe's fat free!

Here's the granola bar recipe:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cover a large cookie sheet with foil and spray with Pam.

In a large bowl, stir together 2 1/2 cups oatmeal (not instant), 1 cup coconut, 2 bags Planters Nuts, Seeds and Raisin Trail Mix (or 3 cups of unsalted nuts, seeds and raisins), and the sweetened condensed milk.

Spread evenly on the cookie sheet and bake 1 hour or until browned. Cut into bars, cool and peel off the foil.

3 Indispensables

Leanne at Being writes: "The three ingredients I always have on hand for cleaning are baking soda, vinegar, and Dawn dishwashing detergent. You can clean almost anything with these three items."
here to read more.

Is Google a Noun or a Verb? is a great source of cutting edge cyber info. I'm no computer expert (although I am married to one) but I still find some amazingly useful links there. Their latest article is well worth reading and bookmarking: "Top 10 Obscure Google Search Tricks." Be sure to check out the reader's comments at the end of the article- some of the best tips of all are there! Click here.

While you're at it, Arthur wrote an excellent column for the Times about search engine tips in June. Click here to see it.

My favorite quote: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
-Mark Twain

Friday, July 4, 2008

Be Outstanding In Your Field

After publishing the Next to Newsletter for over a year, I decided it might be a good idea to start publishing a blog. That way, I'll have an ongoing repository of the goodies I come across every if you show up at Chick-Fil-A on June 11 dressed as a cow, you get free food. Who'd want to miss out on that? Now if I can just remember where I put my hooves....