Saturday, December 1, 2012

It All Makes Sense Now

We pulled up in the driveway of Granny’s house on a cold, moonlit Christmas Eve. Jumping and skipping to the front porch, we stomped our feet on the welcome mat to leave most of the snow outside, and opened the front door. Our cousins piled out of their own station wagon, and followed closely on our heels.
Strangely, Granny wasn’t dispensing hugs from her usual post just inside.  We slowed down a little, removing mittens and boots.
 “Good-bye Santa!” That was our grandmother’s voice, coming from the back of the house.
Like a herd of mustangs, we galloped through the living room, into the kitchen, and out onto the screened-in back porch. Granny was leaning out the screen door, waving. “Oh, my goodness. You just missed him.” Granny closed the door and wiped her hands on her apron.
We stood there for quite awhile, our noses plastered to the screens, peering into the starry sky hoping for a glimpse of the tail-lights on Santa’s sleigh.
 Granny’s loud farewell helped explain the fact that we were going to open presents soon after our arrival. None of this waiting till morning like most of the rest of the world. It was perfectly logical that Santa had to start his journey somewhere. We were just fortunate that Granny’s house was one of the first on his route.
A few Christmases later, I began to questions how Santa could sit in front of so many Christmas trees in so many parks and department stores across the country at the same time. This was my introduction to the idea of Santa’s helpers. I was perfectly happy giving my list of wants to an assistant, because I was confident they would be communicated to the big guy in plenty of time for Christmas. Still, there was always the chance that you would run into the boss himself.
One especially cold December day, my sister and I debated about whether this was the “real” Santa as we waited in line.
         “He’s not fat enough”
         “That beard looks fake.”
          “His glasses are too new.”
We hopped from one foot to the other, anticipating the candy cane and the cup of hot chocolate that awaited us after our brief visit. Just before I sat on his knee, the words from this velvet-clad man shocked me.
          “How are you, Jenny?” What? He knew my name?
          “I’ll be right with you, Toni.” And my sister’s name, too?
Okay, so this Santa’s helper might have been local. He may have known us from church, or he did business with my mom at the bank. The really strange thing though, was that he could tell us apart. Most people saw us when we were together, and didn’t bother keeping us straight. They said our name like one word, Toni-and-Jenny. But the real Santa would undoubtedly take the time to sort things out. Could it be?
As other kids my age stopped believing in Santa, I didn’t dare. After all, in all the stories and movies, the children who didn’t believe were very disappointed on Christmas morning. I couldn’t take the risk. Mom’s explanation made things easy for me. She said Santa was the Spirit of Christmas.  As far as I knew, a spirit wasn’t bound by normal rules, and used magic to get his mission accomplished. I was completely satisfied.
On a clear night long ago, a group of shepherds watched their flocks. Maybe the older men told stories around the fire. The younger ones probably scoffed at all the talk of a great king who would come to save their nation. Kings came and went, making rules and flaunting their wealth. What would make this king so special? One of the stories they’d heard even pinpointed the town the king would be born in. Bethlehem wasn’t a very regal place in those days.
Then, an amazing thing happened. The sky was filled with light and strange beings, singing praises to the Lord. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The men tried to hide in fright. But the angels told them that they had wonderful news. The long awaited king had been born, and a star would lead them to his birthplace. This was much more exciting than tending sheep!
When they arrived at the small stable in Bethlehem, everything was as the angel said. The tiny baby didn’t look much like a king. His mother and father were dressed just like regular people. Instead of a fancy bed in a palace, he was lying in a manger. It all made sense.
This is what was so special about the new king. He was just like us, just like those shepherds. This was the wonderful news that the angels had been singing about. The shepherds went on their way, telling everyone what they had seen. The great King had finally arrived!
May your Holidays be filled with joy as you remember the night that all of the pieces came together.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Our Regularly Scheduled Program Will Not Be Presented

For years, our clock radio was set to come on at 5:42 a.m. Hubby’s job was to hit the “snooze” button to allow 9 more minutes of gradual awakening, and then to repeat that process again at 5:51. When the persistent alarm came back at 6:00, it was time to drop feet to the side of the bed and begin a new day.
Timing was crucial. He wanted to leave our driveway ahead of school buses for his commute to the other side of our county. Once there, he liked to arrive with time to spare for perusing the newspaper and checking to see what work was on tap for the day.
I was content to wait until the big yellow vehicles were out of the way, since my trip was longer, and less predictable. If other drivers cooperated, the trip to downtown Little Rock took about 35 minutes. However, when Murphy’s Law was in effect, and everything that could happen did, the journey could take an hour, or even longer. So, I gauged my time by what would be happening when I arrived. On days when I was responsible for leading a class, I wolfed down a quick breakfast, and left right behind hubby. When the “action” was not starting until later, I enjoyed the quiet for a few minutes, drank a cup of hot tea, spent a little more time in the scriptures.
During those years, I was marking off days on the calendar, looking forward to that most important event: Retirement. Employment with the State of Arkansas came along with highly touted benefits, some of which were promised at the end of one’s career. “Hang in there,” they would say. “Your salary here is admittedly not what it would be if you had the same duties in a private sector job. But, after spending 28 plus years of serving your friends and neighbors, you will have a guaranteed income to count on which will supplement the long awaited Social Security check.” My role over the years was to help explain those benefits to others, so planning ahead was expected, and I was eager for each step along the way.
So, we continued our happily busy routine. Monday through Friday, our life was sometimes hectic, but for the most part, predictable. While the kids were growing up, our evenings and weekends were full of activity. As they grew up and away, trips to visit them were worked into our plans. Still, aberrations to our daily and weekly schedules were the exception, not the rule.
Strangely, as the date for my retirement approached, undercurrents of change disturbed our stability. Economic upheaval in the homebuilding industry caused a change in my husband’s job. For a time, he was unemployed, and though our finances were able to adjust, the familiar schedule was blown to bits. Now, I was the only one required to be up and out of the house at a certain time, and his days were spent scouring online ads and other sources for leads on a new work situation. This proved to be beneficial for me, as he took over housework and cooking tasks. I tried not to act too happy about this, as I knew he would be much happier to be employed outside of the house.
At the same time, we realized that my retirement date would not be the be-all and end-all of my own career. For years I had planned to have a part-time job once the daily commute ended, perhaps substitute teaching while I dedicated most of my time to fiction writing. Now, with the head of the household’s income in question, we had to begin to consider other possibilities.
Thankfully, my husband’s stint as chief cook and bottle washer did not last long. He soon found a new position, where he was appreciated for his obviously dedicated work ethic.  He settled in, and I continued to wind up my duties with the State, preparing once again to enjoy staying home most days. Recognizing that I would need another full-time job soon, we revised our plans to get an advance on the retirement nest egg, giving us a little bit of breathing room along the way.
So, here we are. The alarm clock is gathering dust. The Monday thru Friday commutes are over. I’m the one scouring on-line job announcements, sending off my resume, anticipating interviews. Since my hubby works most weekends, our outings may happen in the middle of the week. I’m picking up more of the cooking and cleaning duties. How long will this last? What comes next? I’ve learned not to be so concerned with not having all of the answers.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Comfort Begins at Your Dining Room Table

Although the weather man says we may have to deal with a few more ninety degree days, we’re all starting to look forward to grabbing a light jacket on the way out the door. Football games will be much more fun when we’re wrapping up in a blanket instead of fending off tropical storms.
The changing seasons will affect our eating habits, too. Instead of craving a slice of watermelon or a tall glass of lemonade, we can’t wait to set a pot of chili to simmer, and wrap our hands around a warm mug of hot chocolate. Ah, the comforts of autumn.

For me, certain foods prompt a flood of memories. We all have dishes that trigger thoughts of childhood, or happy times shared with friends. These so-called comfort foods have much less to do with their ingredients than with the familiarity, the easy association with our past, no matter where or when we eat them.

Now that I don’t have to rush off to join the daily caravan to the big city each day, I’m cooking breakfast for my favorite room-mate a little more often. For many weeks, I have cooked his requested memory inducing dish: eggs in a basket. I’ve experimented with different types of bread, and finally settled on sourdough. I use a drinking glass to carve the all-important hole in the middle of each slice. After browning the bread on one side in the skillet, I then pour in the egg before turning the whole ball of wax and continuing cooking to the desired “over-well” order. Unfortunately, he has informed me that this doesn’t quite measure up to the daily breakfast his Mom used to make before he headed off to school. This probably has to do with the type of skillet she used (seasoned iron) and the type and amount of grease (most likely a health dollop of bacon grease). The important thing- I give it my best shot.

My own comfort food is very specific. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had a one-dish meal on the table that I call simply macaroni and cheese casserole. Now that I’m cooking it myself, I find that it is most satisfying when I don’t stray far from the traditional ingredients: ground beef, big fat pasta noodles, longhorn cheese, whole stewed tomatoes and one hidden bay leaf. Recently, my uncle recalled that he’d always called this dish Spanish Delight. I will agree on the delightful part, but since it’s seasoned with marjoram and oregano, I’m not sure how Spanish it is. To use the vernacular of my southern friends, “We love him anyway, bless his heart.”

Traditional foods vary by the region one hails from. Our neighbors to the southwest may crave tamales, or something else wrapped in a tortilla. On the east coast, oysters or crab may figure in. During a recent trip to Cincinnati, we learned that they have a traditional type of sausage usually eaten for breakfast, called Goetta. This mixture of beef and pork was invented by German settlers who stretched their meat supply by incorporating pinhead oats. Interestingly, the taste for this delicacy has not stretched very far beyond the home of the Reds and the Bengals. I guess, for those who have moved away, it’s a good excuse to visit home now and then.

After all, it’s more about the picture in our head when we eat our favorite foods. I remember pancakes with carefully constructed smiling faces on them. Mom accomplished this trick with her own special artistry, sometimes adding remarkable details like eyelashes. My twist on this echoes an activity we learned on trips to Disneyworld: finding hidden Mickey Mouse faces. For my grandkids, the important thing is that Granny will keep the pancakes coming as long as they continue to eat them. A great way to start the day, not matter what the weather.

With some of our favorite holidays coming up, we’ll all do well to remember that traditions don’t require a lot of fuss. Smiles around the table with simple, traditional dishes make for happy and lasting good times. In the words of our friend Juila Child, “Bon Appétit!”



Monday, September 3, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I stood in front of a massive bed with a canopy and rich velvety draperies. The mattress was so high off the floor that you’d need steps to climb into it. I wondered if I could actually get away with spending the night in a museum, like the kids in one of my favorite books, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. My mom and sister moved on, so I reluctantly followed. After touring the rest of the Kansas City museum, we spread a blanket in a nearby park and enjoyed a picnic with sandwiches brought all the way from home.
No, dear readers, this didn’t happen in the summer of 2012. It’s one of my best memories from the gallery of vacations past. It’s interesting to think about why certain memories stick with us, and what it says about our personality. As you can see from this one, I enjoy history, have an active imagination and I’m an avid reader. Food is obviously very important in my life.
My husband shared that his favorite vacation memories involve spending time with his three male cousins on their farm in Eastern Texas. He also has great stories about the trips to and from in his dad’s pickup. I’m guessing he liked this because he grew up with a sister in his house and two female cousins who lived next door. The trips to Texas allowed some rough and tumble boy stuff. Great times.
My three children shared their vacations until they married, but different things stand out in their minds.
The oldest son remembers a trip to St. Louis where we stayed in a hotel close enough to walk to and from the Cardinals game. To this day, he loves blending in with the locals, instead of looking like a tourist wherever he goes
The middle son recalls a trip to Nashville where everything was included in the package we purchased, and we followed a schedule for bus tours to the local sites. He still enjoys the “canned trips”, and enjoyed his first cruise with his wife.
Our daughter remembers seeing most of the sights from the back seat of our car, always in the middle between her older brothers. Her current love of country music was fostered by the serenades her daddy and I provided as we sang along with our classic country cassettes.
What memories will our grands retain from the annual Granny Camps? The oldest continues to talk about a trip to the submarine docked in Downtown Little Rock, and now builds all manner of ships with his Legos blocks. However, this year, all four enjoyed sitting at my kitchen table with markers and paper, and balsa-wood models and glue. Do you think this will spark even more creativity in the Carlisle cousins?
 As a follow-up to last month’s column, an eight year old friend of ours will remember this summer as the one he spent at Arkansas Children’s Hospital getting a new heart.  As we’re writing this, he’s living at Ronald McDonald house, waiting for the go-ahead to head home. His mom says she never knew she would be so grateful to see pink fingernails and chubby cheeks. Of course, we realize that another family somewhere will look back on this time with great sorrow, but we applaud their courageous decision, and hope that the two families will meet someday to encourage each other in person.

The end of the summer drought has arrived, and we now look forward to county fairs, caramel apples and chrysanthemums. Though at times we doubted it, we have survived. At my house, I’ve been enjoying the life of a retiree. My alarm clock is growing dusty from lack of use. I get up a full hour and a half later than I did last spring. I have the option to cook breakfast at home, or relax at a local restaurant. Shopping means taking my time, checking out all of the choices, no rush, no fuss. I’ve actually stayed caught up on my laundry, kept an appointment with the dentist for the first time in years, and visited with dear friends- in the daytime on a weekday. This summer will be memorable as the first one without a Monday-Friday job. Changes may be on the horizon again, but Oh, what a summer vacation it has been.      


Monday, August 6, 2012

The Forest or the Trees?

Increasingly, I identify with the old adage that talks about how our perspective can be skewed when we are too close to a situation. Sometimes, it’s hard to look at the big picture. The small view may be so immediate that we just can’t get past it.

When I was in charge of teaching Cub Scouts about nature at Day Camp, I used an exercise that I renamed “Honey, I Shrunk the World”. This involved sitting on the ground with legs crossed Indian-style, and throwing a loop of rope down in front of ourselves. After all of our little “worlds” were formed, we took turns describing what was contained there. Many things were the same, but we noticed differences. Some had more green grass, or fewer rocks than others. Maybe there was even wildlife, in the form of an ant-hill. We might have been fortunate enough to lasso a lizard. The idea was to remind these budding ecologists of the complexity and detail of God’s creation. I think it also reminded our young campers that none of us have the same view of what happens around us. After all, the world we come from is a little different than our next-door neighbor’s.

At the opposite extreme, I’ve often been fascinated by the changing view as I’ve flown higher and higher in an airplane. Vehicles that are large enough to contain several fully grown humans began to look like the toys my youngsters played with. Eventually, they looked more like bugs scurrying about, and then disappeared from view altogether. Fields that had been cleared for farming stood out against the forested landscape. They started to look like patches in a crazy quilt, with bodies of water edging them like blue rick-rack.

From my semi-comfortable perch in the sky, I thought about the drama that might be unfolding beneath me. Families were going about their daily business. Happy times and sad times played out while I soared above, oblivious to the details.

During a recent brush-fire, we literally had a bird’s eye view from a distant mountain-top. From our balcony at Mount Magazine lodge, we could see the plume of smoke, and with binoculars, the flames that were consuming acres of trees and brush, and threatening lives and property. Residents and firefighters endured a nightmare. From our perspective, it appeared as an aberration to the beautiful landscape, but with the comfort of our air-conditioned room close at hand, it provided no real threat.

There are times in our lives when we focus on tiny details. During a crisis in our own life, or in the life of someone we care about, we can’t get past the next change of a bandage, the next dose of medicine, the last news we heard from a doctor.

A young mother who is a long time friend of ours currently sits at the bedside of her son, who is awaiting a heart transplant. She endures criticism from those who think she posts too many status updates online. They have no experience with the minutiae she deals with, and can only hope to never need knowledge of such things. Others who have been through a similar situation are able to interpret the confusing details for her, and offer concrete suggestions and encouragement. The rest of us simply promise prayers, and send gifts and postcards to try to provide a more cheerful atmosphere. Social media provides a lifeline, a way to reach out for a cyber hug when it’s needed.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, young people will be competing for medals in the weeks ahead. We won’t have to wait for a weekly tally of results, as technology will allow us to watch in real-time if we so desire. But, from our easy chairs, we can’t possibly have the same sweaty palms, butterfly laden stomachs and adrenalin charged heartbeats as those who are there in person. It’s all about perspective.

Whether you’re on the ground gazing up through the branches, or soaring high above the treetops, your view of life is unique and important. The rest of us will just do our best to understand.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Preparing To Launch

A nineteen year old, newly married Saline County girl drives her red Oldsmobile Cutlass to a job interview in a former church building on Kavanaugh Blvd in Little Rock, just a few blocks north of War Memorial Stadium. The beginning of one of my fictional stories? No. The day that changed my life forever.

To put this in perspective, this mostly windowless building housed the Office of Personnel Management, a division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, and this story occurred in the spring of 1977, just a few months before Elvis died.

Computers were still a science fiction dream in those days. They were mostly housed at NASA, and took up a whole room. We did have electric calculators with rolls of white paper that piled up on our desks as we added columns of figures in an effort to make sure everything in our sight was balanced.

One of the most important functions of the employees in that building was to approve the payroll every two weeks for the thousands of workers employed by the State of Arkansas. This involved someone from each agency carrying stacks of paperwork and actual checks from one place to another, collecting signatures and stamps of approval. One very famous incident occurred in the elevator shaft when a trusted employee lost his grip on the precious papers, which slid into the gap between the elevator and the third floor landing, and went all the way down to the bottom. That brought progress to a clunky, damp halt for awhile. Of course, due to the dedication and hard work of all involved, those employees were paid on time anyway.

My specific role involved opening mail to begin the process of accounting for health insurance premiums deducted from the paychecks of State employees. I was the backup typist in the office as well, and although I believe there was one photo-copier on another floor, carbon paper was still the preferred method for producing more than one copy of correspondence. An indelible memory involves a green felt-tip marker that my boss used to mark up a letter she had dictated. That wouldn’t have been unusual except for the pronouncement at the end: “No, I think it was fine just like it was.” No problem, just stick another triple-decker carbon paper sandwich back in the IBM Selectric and start again, right?

 Fast forward over thirty years to the tenth floor of another repurposed building, a former bank with expansive views of rooftops and parking decks. Here, I helped train the people who process the payroll for their agency’s employees. Their job mostly involves reviewing the work done by other employees in their division, running reports to be sure that every hour worked by every employee is properly accounted for. Then, they push the right buttons to be sure that money is transferred to the bank accounts of those employees in time for an ATM withdrawal to finance the weekend’s activities, and to enable transfers and online payments to take care of household bills. Paper paychecks, green felt-tipped markers and IBM Selectrics are all dim memories.

 One of my proudest moments was when we traveled to the Headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. My friends and I were chosen to prove our agency’s commitment to making sure that everyone who wanted to work for the State of Arkansas would be able to take advantage of the latest technology to perform their daily job. We represented all of the hard-working analysts and programmers back in Arkansas who took their work very seriously. I believe that the folks in Baltimore recognized this, and we all came away with the feeling that we could make things easier for all workers, regardless of physical limitations.

  Imagine how excited that nineteen year old young lady would have been to hear where her career would end up.

   Today at a retirement party, with hugs from her friends and family, she stands ready to take a new leap of faith. With all of the knowledge and confidence they have given her over the years, how can she fail? With God providing the wind beneath her wings, she’ll soar to all sorts of new adventures. The story is getting more and more exciting!


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Real Life Time Machines

This time of year, when spring and summer seem to be tag-teaming, we can never be sure what we’ll be facing. Some days start out cool and comfortable, and end up very warm. Most days, the humidity is not out of control, but sometimes, the build-up to a very summer-like rain shower can be stifling.

For some reason, weather like this kicks my memory banks into overdrive. Smells, tastes, actions transport me back to my childhood, or the time when my own kids were small. Looking around us, we can name thousands of things that have changed since those fondly remembered times. But, it’s the constants, the things that have remained remarkably the same that really “send me”.

 Watering the grass for some has become a no-brainer. They have pipes and spouts under-ground that respond to a timer, taking the effort completely out of this task. But at our house, we’re fortunate enough to still be dragging hoses and squirting, whirling mechanical devices around the yard. There’s a science (which I haven’t quite perfected) to placing them just so, and moving them every so often, so as to keep the green carpet moist, while not wasting too much water on the driveway and the street. Something about dodging the spray reminds me of my old jump-roping days. Wait, wait, run before you get splashed. Or, just slow down and get a refreshing surprise. Ha! The smell of the moisture in the air, and the  10 degree drop in the surrounding temperature is universal. It feels and smells just like the yard I grew up in, all those eons ago.

   The shaved ice stands that seem to be popping up on every corner are another old thing that has become new again. When I was a teenager working in the baseball concession stand, the ice in the snow cones was chunkier, and there were fewer flavors of sticky syrup, but oh how good they tasted on a hot day. My own kids enjoyed the first shaved ice, and they have happy memories of perching on a picnic table outside of a very small building with their favorite icy treat. Ah, summertime.

 Another edible time machine is a hot dog, but only if it’s sold at a baseball game. When our kids were small, I would cook the franks at home, put them in a bun and wrap them in an aluminum cocoon. If anyone at the ball field objected to my smuggling them to the game in my gigantic tote bag, I never heard about it. Today, the ones you purchase after standing in a long line or from a barker in the stands taste pretty much the same, and you still have to contend with mustard and relish that always seem to slide off, and never enough napkins to shield your shorts and/or t-shirts.

 Marketers of all sorts of things are savvy to our generation. Muscle cars of today are clever copies of the Mustangs, Corvettes, Challengers and VW bugs of the 60s and 70s. The new models include all the latest safety features, and much better gas mileage. Baby Boomers are suckers for the perfect vehicle to take us down memory lane. Michael J. Fox and his DeLorean have nothing on us.

Twenty-first century houses and subdivisions also appeal to those of us who remember the latter half of the 1900’s. Our fairly new house has tall ceilings, crown molding, gleaming hardwood floors. The cul-de-sac with its wide sidewalks provides a great place for kids and their bikes, scooters and skateboards. Déjà vu all over again.

 Folks whose hair is gradually turning silvery still love new things and great adventures. But increasingly, we find comfort in the familiar. Summertime provides lots of opportunities to close your eyes, feel the cool breeze and get a whiff of your youth. We’ll be right there with you.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

It's Where You're Headed That Counts

I’ve been accused by at least one of my readers of taking myself too seriously. So, just for you, dear Uncle, I’ll start this month’s musings with a joke.

Did you hear about the new T-shirt for sale at the Fayetteville bookstores? The back of the cardinal red shirt reads as follows: “If you can read this, my student-athlete development coordinator has fallen off.”

My apologies to those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few weeks. That comment refers, of course, to the recent motorcycle accident that caused a coaching change in the Razorback Nation. To loosely quote the University’s athletic director, that incident by itself would not have caused a huge problem. It was after further investigation, when the matter turned from personal to personnel, that the hog pooie hit the fan. One mishap along the road of life won’t derail a career, but the direction the leader of the team seemed to be headed became a much larger issue.

A favorite show at the Carlisle house pits accomplished chefs against each other with three baskets of mystery ingredients. They might be asked to cook something delicious with such combinations as Portobello mushrooms and M&Ms candies.  The judges are very demanding, even though the participants are given no advance notice about the ingredients, and only about 30 minutes to fix each dish. After each challenge, one is eliminated, until the best two battle by fixing a gourmet dessert. The final pair is judged not just on that one last dish, but by evaluating their whole day, all three courses of the meal. This seems to be a satisfying way of choosing the overall winner in this heated competition.

Recently, I finished a book based on a similar idea. A person is judged not by the individual events of his life, but an overview of all them. Deborah Raney’s “After All”, published by Howard Books and available soon at your local bookstore, finds our heroine dealing with a disturbing revelation about her husband that becomes apparent at the time of his death. Along with the grief, she also has to come to grips with feelings of anger and betrayal. The moral of this story seems to be that she must believe that given a little more time, the man she married would have remained true to himself, and to her. It’s a story that reflects real emotions and life situations, and I think you’ll enjoy it, just as you will enjoy any book with this talented author’s byline.

None of us will make all of the right decisions as we travel life’s road. We can only try to approach each intersection, each curve with care and a little consideration of where it will all end up. Enjoy the journey, but try not to derail it with actions that don’t represent who you really are.

Or- to paraphrase a blog comment from Arkansas 360: When you don’t beat LSU, you get angry. When you get angry, you buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle, when you buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle, you ask a pretty 25-year old to ride it. When you ask a pretty 25-year old to ride your Harley, you end up in a roadside ditch. Don’t end up in a roadside ditch. Beat LSU.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Connections: Six Steps to anyone in the World

Several years ago, there was a movie based on the premise that with only six steps(degrees) of talking to someone you know and then a friend of that friend, etc. you could be introduced to anyone in the world. Crazy? With today’s instant connections on online social networks, maybe not so crazy! We’ll define a connection as one of two things: Either you can verify a blood relationship to a person, or this person is someone you know well enough to expect a hug or at least a good firm handshake when you next see them. There are also what we will call second level connections- these are people you went to school with, or lived down the street from, or worked with at the same employer. They might need to be reminded of your name, but there would be that spark; that “Oh Yeah, How Ya Doin?” moment when your buggies pass at Wal-Mart.

So think about it- How are you connected to the Pope? Or Dog the Bounty Hunter? Actually, celebrities are fairly easy. I would start with the most famous person I’ve met. The circles those people travel in connect them to other famous folks, at least on a firm handshake level. Former President Clinton would fit the bill here for many in the Ouachita region. I’ve washed my hand many times since I shook his, but I worked in a building across the street from the State Capitol when he was our young and handsome governor, and had occasion to meet him many times. Just think of all the people that man has greeted, usually with a clap-around-your-shoulders hug instead of a handshake. If he hasn’t personally met Dog the Bounty Hunter, a friend of someone he’s met certainly has.

When we incorporate blood relatives, we can even use folks who are no longer alive to establish connections. In this way, I can get to the Queen of England without using Bill Clinton. Here’s how it goes: My Mom found a letter to my Granny’s brother from a friend named Carlos who knew him well enough to address him by first name. The letter included a picture taken with the Princes of England at that time- Edward, who abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson from America, and Albert, who became King George VI. This picture provided hours of fun for me and for my sister, as we researched this early 20th century globe-trotter. He turned out to be a very famous opera singer and Latin dancer from Chile. Our uncle probably met him there, as he was quite a traveler himself, and even married a lady from South America. So if my Granny counts as my first connection, Uncle Lo (Tony) is number two, his friend Carlos, number three, King George VI number four, his daughter Queen Elizabeth II number five. Voila!

Those who aren’t celebrities are harder. Could you pick up a phone book from Kenosha, Wisconsin or Tucumcari, New Mexico and randomly point out someone, and then find your six steps? In this instance, I would turn to geography. I would find someone who has lived closer than I have to one of these places, then make connections through the church they attended, where they went to school, etc. For the Wisconsin one, I know exactly where I’d start. Yep, still doable.

So what good is all of this babble? It’s mostly just for fun, really. But, sometimes, those connections can come in handy. If you’re searching for a job, connections can literally mean money. If you’re moving to a new city, or know someone who is, connections can open doors and make life immeasurably easier.

This week, a Facebook friend had a contact who needed something translated into a language that is rather obscure for this area. I just happened to know someone who had studied that language while he served in the Army. Less than six degrees later, the connection was made!

These days, while there are more humans inhabiting the planet than ever before, we are becoming more connected all the time. With this thought, we shouldn’t feel so lonely. That stranger you pass on the street is really the friend of a friend of a friend. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can automatically trust everyone we meet. We still need to keep our guard up. But, when we share an interest, like Ouachita Life in common, we’re already a big step closer to being friends. Who are you connected to, and how? I’d love to hear about it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spending Time Wisely

Time Wisely
One of our most
valuable resources is time. We’re reminded of that frequently, as everyone
seems to have a suggestion for how we should spend it. Once, my husband and I
were involved in a home based retail business that involved a lot of effort in
contacting others to earn what was called “point value” or PV for short. An
associate who invited me to her house had a sign taped to the remote control
that said “No PV in TV”. No rest for those in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
A speaker at a
luncheon I attended recently asked us if we were too busy to be productive. His strategy- be sure that each task you take
on is contributing to your ultimate goal, by either making a positive move
toward that goal, or researching and preparing for it. I agree that some of the
work we do is counter- productive, and we sometimes spend too much time with
our wheels stuck, throwing up mud. But, there is also value in down time.
Often, when it might look we’re doing the least, we’re actually accomplishing
the most.
I’ve heard that
puzzles like crosswords and Words with Friends are like aerobics for the brain.
So, if I walk around with a pencil (or my new I-phone) in my hand and a faraway
look in my eyes, maybe I’m really battling early dementia. I also have ways to let my mind rest by
keeping my hands busy with cross-stitch or creating a scrapbook page. I’ll
wager that when I’m called home to heaven, somewhere in my house you’ll find
one unfinished puzzle, one embroidered work in progress, and a group of
pictures laid out ready to be glued into a book. Busywork? Not in my opinion.
Our First Lady’s
initiative called Let’s Move focuses on 60 minutes of vigorous activity a day for
kids. That would mystify our grandparents. When did they ever have to coerce a
kid to go out and play? Somewhere along the way, playing outside was seen as a
waste of time that could have been spent on academics. So now, we have a generation
of very intelligent, obese people. On my way to work every day, I pass a track
next to a school that’s usually full of people of all ages and sizes, just out
there moving. Not one bit of wasted time there.
Sometimes, we
baffle others with the way we spend our time. A reader responded to last
month’s request for a love story with a
tale about a Valentine that took a lot
of her time and effort. It seems that she and her favorite beau were courting
long distance. She lived in Southeast Kansas, and he lived in Little Rock.
Always on the lookout for a new way to
spark his interest, she learned that a post office in Romance, Arkansas would
postmark a card and send it with a special commemorative stamp. Very creative, right?
She followed their directions, and got everything taken care of in time for
Cupid’s big day. Well, when the missive
reached its destination, the gentleman couldn’t fathom how and why she had
driven right past the city he lived in to drop a letter in the mail, instead of
delivering it in person. She, of course was not familiar with the geography of
his native state, and certainly didn’t mean to cause mayhem. As they looked
back, it was probably a good indication of what he was getting into. This was
no ordinary, run of the mill lady. Their relationship only got more interesting
as time went by.
When were
children, our time was controlled by others. Parents, teachers and coaches
scheduled every bit of our time. As adults, we make our own decisions. How we
budget our 24hours per day says a lot about who we are. Christians know that
their deeds brand them. A wise investment of time in this world will, we
believe, pay rewards in another world. Our inspiration comes from the Man who
said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, sick or in prison and you visited me.”
Time spent serving others is time spent serving Him.
You have
millions of choices, lots of ways to spend your time. What works for you may
not make sense to someone else. Give it some thought, and don’t waste a minute!

Monday, February 6, 2012

How you Know it's for Real- Hindsight is Always Best

How You Know It’s For Real- Hindsight is Always Best.
Young people seem to have a common concern: How can I be sure that this person is right for me? The most oft-repeated response: You just know.
Looking back, there were plenty of indications that this guy was different. For one, there were the notes he wrote me at school. I’d written plenty of giggly missives in my time, and received plenty back. But notes exchanged between teenage girls are mainly time-wasters. Much like doodling with words. There was a lot of “so and so just looked at me” and “Don’t you think he’s cute?” Very much the same as teenaged telephone conversations, except without the polite pauses to see what the other person has to say. The notes from this guy, however were very sweet, complimentary, thoughtful. The kind that make you go awwwww.
We really enjoyed each other’s company, and loved hanging out, with or without a group of mutual friends. When he took the big step of taking me to meet his family, it seemed they were instantly sure of the “rightness” of the relationship. One Sunday afternoon, we sat in lawn chairs just to the east of Thornburg Mountain with his parents and grandparents. During a short lull in the conversation, his Grandpa, who was literally a man of few words, piped up with “When are y’all gettin’ married?” A few minutes later, as a storm crept over the top of the mountain, his Grandma whispered to me- “Let’s go inside, the rest of them can get wet if they want to.” I was in.
My own magic moment is etched in my memory. I don’t recall what kind of date we were coming home from. It could have been the latest Burt Reynolds movie, or a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza at Ken’s on Military Road in Benton, or maybe both. We were riding in his Dad’s pickup, because he had wrecked his car on the way to pick me up for a previous date. He looked straight ahead as I slid in as close as possible while still allowing him to drive, and soon came out with a confession. He said he couldn’t imagine the rest of his life without me in it. I couldn’t believe he said it, and I couldn’t have agreed more. No ring, so the real proposal came later, but from that moment, happily ever after was a foregone conclusion for me.
Thirty five and a half years later, those first indications proved to be right on. He was the husband and father I had dreamed of since I was a very small girl. Yin to my yang, he balanced my creativity and impulsiveness with his desire for perfection and certainty.
Raising three kids was never easy, but together, we found the fun. We laughed and cried together, and now we stand back and smile as three happy little families form the next tier of our family tree.
We’re blessed with good friends that we’ve met and held on to over the years. When we spend time with those folks, I can hear the story he’s about to share before he gets it started, and we fill in the blanks for each other. I’m so fortunate to have my best friend to go home with when all is said and done. With him, I can be me, and he’s learned to put up with my annoying habits and contrary ways. I thank God daily for this amazing gift.
There’s nothing I love more than hearing a good story. So, I’m challenging you to recall yours. Post a comment on my blog at or send me an email at No computer connection? No excuse. Send good old fashioned snail mail in care of Ouachita Life at P.O. Box 147, Benton, AR 72018.
Valentine’s Day is set aside to celebrate the loving relationships in our lives. If you’re not in the middle of one right now, I hope you have happy memories to look back on, and a good outlook that will lead to something wonderful in your future. Regardless, my fervent prayer is that you’ll recognize and appreciate the unconditional love of your Heavenly Father on Valentine’s Day and every day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Life After the Glass Slipper

As a new year dawns, we wonder what it will hold in store. New beginnings always get our hearts racing a little bit, especially if we know that some milestone in our
lives is about to occur. Weddings, graduations, new houses all hold a shining
promise as we anticipate how wonderful our lives could become.

But even Cinderella must have had some modifications to make during her “happily ever
after”. After all, she was a common servant girl who suddenly became the focus
of attention, with attendants of her own to fulfill her every desire. Now,
instead of “Cinderella, scrub this, Cinderella, sweep that,” she would hear,
“No, Your Majesty, let me do that. Please Your Majesty, sit down and relax.”
It’s a problem we would all like to experience just once, but an adjustment
just the same.

When I was a small child, I dreamed of having a full-time Daddy living in our house. My parents were divorced, and I enjoyed the summer vacations with my dad and his
new wife, but I longed for what I considered to be a “complete” family. When,
in my teens, my mom met and began dating my future step-dad, it was literally a
dream come true. When they married, it started the biggest change I’d ever
lived through. My sister and I suddenly had a new house in a new state, and a
new school along with our new family. The high school was smaller than our old
one, and all of the kids tried hard to make us feel at home. But, what an
adventure! It was much more than I had bargained for in my little-girl fantasies.

Of course, my dreams continued, and I pictured in my mind what my own happy family would look like. Led by a strong, Christian man, with two or even three beautiful
children, I would fit right in, caring for all of them with love and occasional
home-baked cookies.

When a certain tall, smooth talking Arkansas boy entered my life, I knew this dream, too was on its way to being fulfilled. His upbringing provided the perfect example of
the stability I was longing for, and besides, he was really cute! So, after a
simply beautiful wedding with a wonderful assortment of family and friends in
attendance, we settled into our first home: a rented single-wide trailer
decorated in hip seventies fashion with wood paneling and harvest gold and
avocado green appliances. We soon learned that in order to afford the things we
wanted, we would need to hold down two full-time jobs. So after a couple of
false starts apiece, we both settled in to what would become careers, and began
the daily commutes. The three beautiful children arrived on schedule, each with
their own set of happy adjustments to make in our fairy tale.

Along the way, we realized that our careers would have advanced further if we had a little more education, but this idea was quickly pushed to the back burner in the
daily rush of coats and mittens and sack lunches for five. Opportunities
abounded, and we became involved in the activities of our own children, and
along the way had the chance to impact others in our community as well. The old
dreams morphed and developed into more excitement than we ever envisioned.

These days, the kids are all successfully independent, and our empty nest is still buzzing, especially when the grand-kids visit. We couldn’t have written a happier ending if we’d tried.

This year, another long-awaited event looms. Over the years, I was promised that even
though my job did not include a huge salary, if I stayed around long enough, I
could retire at a fairly early age, and enjoy the rewards of working through a
lot of headaches. This little dream has had plenty of time to develop, and it
mostly stars me at this computer, creating, editing and submitting for
publication the stories that have buzzed through my head for well over fifty
years. Surprise! The glass slipper comes with some complications. Because of recent
economic downturns, my husband and I are both looking for new jobs to either accommodate the lifestyle we’ve worked so hard to build, or trim it down a little.

We are both hopeful, and becoming used to the feeling of butterflies in our stomachs
once again. Hmmm- if all else fails, maybe we can find another two bedroom
trailer, this time with a workshop for him, and a wireless internet connection
for me. Hold our hands, Lord. This year will undoubtedly turn out far differently
than we ever could have dreamed!