Friday, July 25, 2008

Temptation, Thy Name is Cable

Every once in a while, Ed will make a wry observation that my blog continually veers from the subject of “journey to simplicity.” Of course, that’s absolutely true, but I took some time this week to think about why.

I’ve been posting to this blog almost 2-1/2 years. I started it when we had decided to downsize, the first step being to put our huge house on the market and all the decisions that came with that. These were hard decisions - giving away/selling a lot of our stuff, trying to figure out what was important in life, what was truly valuable and meaningful. As reflection usually does, my introspection broadened and soon our adventures in downsizing were expanded to include my coming to terms with aging, my frustration with my co-workers, my procrastination, and my relationships with family members (hence this year, the birthday posts). I eventually learned that a journey to simplicity encompasses all this and more - because it gets to the very core what one considers to be life’s priorities and the kind of person one wants to be.

However, the main reason for expanding the blog is that, although we will never reach the goal of perfect simplicity, we have done rather well in these 2-1/2 years and on the whole I am pleased with our progress. We moved to a smaller house. We cut down our quantity of “stuff,” and what we have left we treasure. We have gotten used to low water pressure, shoveling snow off the cars, a cramped sewing room/office, and small closets. We have cut expenses. We try to buy most of our food local if we can. I gave up coloring my hair. I let some magazine subscriptions lapse. We go to the library more frequently and borrow books instead of buying so many. In essence, we are traveling fine, not much hassle, and there’s not as much to report in the journey as there was at the beginning. But without a doubt the hardest things we had to adjust to (sometimes kicking and screaming, I assure you) is s-l-o-w dial-up Internet and no cable TV.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of times I am trying to download pictures from family and friends and it takes forever - so long that I have to leave the computer altogether for 5-10 minutes for each picture because I can’t abide sitting here and watching that blue status line creep along. Paying bills online is a nightmare. Ordering things online is likewise frustrating. Getting updates from Apple is virtually impossible - even overnight is not long enough to download them. I can’t watch videos - even a 1-minute video of Charlotte singing or Caroline reading is off limits. My medical transcription sites take so long to just to download one thread that I just avoid them unless I have plenty of time. I have access to an interesting blog with incredible pictures from a lady on Prince Edward Island who posts daily, but the download takes forever, so I don't visit as often as I'd like. I can’t use my Delicious Library software to scan and catalog all my books because it has to access for the information on each book. The list of why I miss my high-speed Internet grows longer by the day.

The TV part is harder on Ed, since he stays at home all day and has to fill his time after I go to bed at 7 p.m. five nights a week. His favorite shows used to be the cooking shows, history shows, and travel shows. My favorites were medical shows, TLC’s What Not to Wear, Designed to Sell, and any old reruns I could find of shows from my childhood. We’d hardly ever watch sitcoms, but give us a good biography and we’d be glued to the TV. Of course, it became a habit like anything else, and the TV would be on more and more hours a day. We’d start with the local evening news and keep it on until the late evening news, then I’d turn it on in the morning while I was getting ready for work, and Ed would turn it on when he got up and sometimes it would stay on until 10:00 in the morning. Ever since we moved, we’ve managed to get two channels with our rabbit ears - ABC and PBS, with at times inadequate picture and sound quality. We refused to get satellite for a variety of reasons, and took our chances on what we could get free. Needless to say, the TV is not on much around here anymore, unless we are watching movies from the library, the rental store, or our stash on the weekend.

I give you this detailed background to set the stage for a drastic change in our near future. Ed has always said that blessings carry curses and vice versa, and neither category is unadulterated. Well, we are about to get the blessing and curse of Time Warner cable access for TV and Internet. They are just finishing up in our neighborhood (after starting a full year ago and working on and off), and I actually have a real order number for installation in the coming few weeks. “How exciting!” you say. “Whatever is the problem? This is what you’ve been waiting for - the breakthrough - the ultimate luxury - the things you sacrificed when you moved out of town!” Aye, but the curse always accompanies the gift, does it not?

I love the sign that says, “Lord, lead me not into temptation; I can find it myself just fine.” And therein lies the curse: Are we ready for these old temptations to return to our lives? Have we been put on a diet for 2-1/2 years, only to wake up at one of the biggest buffet tables we ever saw? Have we learned enough in our journey to simplicity to handle this? That’s the temptation - that’s the fear.

Ed is afraid if I get high-speed Internet, I’ll hole up in this tiny office and he’ll never see me again. I worry if he gets cable TV, he will waste too much time when he should be doing more constructive things like cutting wood and walking the dog. (It also should be noted that I can “veg out” in front of the TV just as easily, justifying that I’m simultaneously doing quilting or reading, and he can now get on the Internet and look up stuff he wants to order, so these temptations are not exclusive to either of us.) There is no question that cable TV offers some great educational and life-enriching programs. But anyone can watch the “good stuff” 24 hours a day if he/she has a mind to. Then where does real life go? As far as the Internet, I tell Ed I will spend a shorter amount, not longer amount, of time on the computer because things will get done faster. Yes, he says, but I will use the time I “save” to go to more places and spend more time visiting with my online MT friends, etc. Activities expand to fill a time vacuum. It's as if you go to the store to buy a pair of pants for $50, they are on sale for $25, so instead of pocketing the extra $25 you saved, you spend it to buy something else. Your spending has expanded to fill your wallet vacuum. (The frustrating thing is, he’s probably right.)

I also know we could arrange to get the cable Internet without the cable TV, but I’ll bet there will be a package offer with a tempting price and besides, I would love to see some football this fall, and, oh yes, getting to watch the Macy’s Parade live instead of, on the day after Thanksgiving, watching a VHS tape recorded by Rachel the day before would be such a treat! Did I mention all the quilting and sewing shows I used to watch? Yes, but will I end up watching quilting shows instead of actually spending the time quilting?

Maybe we can just “try” the TV with an introductory offer and cancel later. Uh-huh. Right. On the other hand, maybe we have grown wise enough to handle what used to be out of control.

Do you see the dilemma? We have worked hard along our journey to simplicity, and now all of a sudden, temptation has moved into our neighborhood and will be knocking on our door any moment. Are we prepared? It is possible to regain cable TV and Internet without losing ourselves in the process? Have we gained enough wisdom in the last 2-1/2 years to be able to hand these two “gifts”? Are we up to a difficult challenge? Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Apostrophe Has a Tale

(Today I'm sharing a story I wrote for 5-year-old Caroline. By the way, thanks, Matt, for the inspiration!)

There was once an apostrophe who was confused. He knew he was important, but he wasn’t sure where to go and what to do. So he went to the question mark to ask her opinion. “Where do I belong?” he asked. Well, the apostrophe soon learned that question marks can’t answer questions - they only ask them. So he didn’t get any help there.

Next he went to see the exclamation point. But the exclamation point was just too excited to help out the apostrophe. All he did was shout, “TRY THE PERIOD!!!” So the apostrophe went to see the period, who wasn’t any help, either. Every time the apostrophe started asking his question, “Where do I belong?” he could only get out the “Where do” part before the period said, “Stop.” Oh, my, that seemed a bit rude to the apostrophe.

He tried the comma next, but the only clue the comma gave him was, “We look alike, my friend. Where do you belong? All I know is that I belong down, and you belong up.” The semicolon was too confused to help the apostrophe, because he couldn’t make up his mind if he himself was a period or a comma. But the semicolon did say cryptically, “I think your purpose is to show something belongs to someone, and I think you work a lot with the letter S.”

Frustrated by his experience, the apostrophe started wandering around. He soon came upon a sentence. Hey, it thought, that sentence looks like it could use an apostrophe! The sentence was this: A bird fell out of its nest. The apostrophe thought that, since the nest belonged to the bird, it must be right, and without even asking for permission, he just hopped right into the sentence, and landed between the T and the S. The new sentence now looked like this: A bird fell out of it’s nest. The apostrophe was so happy that he finally found a job. But the other words were upset. “You don’t belong here!” they shouted, and they pushed him right out.

Poor apostrophe picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started searching for a new sentence. It wasn’t long before he saw a good possibility. The sentence was this: The dog chewed its toy. “Oh, boy!” said the apostrophe. “Surely this sentence needs me! The toy belongs to the dog, doesn’t it?” And he plopped right down, again between the T and the S, and the new sentence was this: The dog chewed it's toy. Before he could relax, though, the other words became indignant. “You don’t belong here!” they said. Then they shoved the apostrophe out.

Soon he came across this sentence: Cats are for loving. “All right!” he exclaimed. “I can work with the letter S!” and he jumped right in, so the sentence now read like this: Cat’s are for loving. But it wasn’t long before the letters were saying, “Hey, that word is plural (more than one cat) and doesn’t need an apostrophe! You don’t belong here!” and they gave a big shove and he fell across a whole page until he landed just short of yet another sentence.

The apostrophe heard tiny voices, and when he looked up at the sentence where he had landed, all the letters were speaking at once. “Please help!” they said. “We just can’t be seen like this! It’s not right! Please, won’t you help us?” they asked. The apostrophe looked at the sentence. It looked like this: Its going to rain. The apostrophe had made enough mistakes for one day, and he didn’t want to jump in and get all comfortable if he would get kicked out. But the letters were insistent, so the apostrophe closed his eyes and jumped with all his might and landed right between the T and the S, so the sentence now read: It’s going to rain. “Yay!” cried the words. "We are happy now! You fixed everything! Now we are not ashamed to be seen!”

“But I’m not showing belonging!” he replied. “We aren’t using you for belonging,” the letters all explained. “We’re using you to make a contraction!” The apostrophe soon realized that his job was not to jump in every ITS that he saw. He should wait until he found an ITS that meant “It is,” and he could make it a contraction, which means one word made from two words. So “it is” becomes “it’s.”

The apostrophe was content, but he still wanted to show belonging. “Can’t I ever be used to show belonging, or am I just stuck in contractions?” he wondered. Then the word RAIN spoke up. “Oh, yes, little apostrophe!” she answered. “Why, look at me! I can have several jobs, too! I can be spelled RAIN or REIGN or REIN and pronounced exactly the same way!” “Hey, that’s cool!” said the apostrophe, appropriately impressed. “But what else can I do? Am I only able to make contractions?”

The word RAIN giggled. “Silly apostrophe!” she laughed. “Of course you aren’t used just for contractions! Why, look here!” And she pointed to all the wonderful belonging ways that apostrophe, with his friend letter S, could do. Caroline’s vocabulary. Charlotte’s new bed. Mommy’s books. Our family’s car. Papa’s pipe. Nana’s cookies. Grammy’s quilt. Daddy’s computer.

Finally the apostrophe realized that he could be used in so many places correctly that it didn’t matter to him that there were some words where he didn’t belong. At last he felt useful, and he lived happily ever after.

If you read a lot, you might come across the apostrophe sitting calmly in a word where he doesn’t belong. Maybe he’s just forgotten what he learned, or maybe he’s trying to trick you to see if you notice! Just tell him to move on to a word that really needs him. Then the sentences won’t be embarrassed, and the apostrophe will feel valuable for all his days.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Happy Birthday, Joy!

Everybody has funny, embarrassing stories about their siblings, right? Well, I thought I did, too. Until I gave it some thought. I tried to think of an instance where my only sibling, Joy, stood alone and did something amusing. The problem is, every time I think I’ve got one, it’s not Joy alone - it’s Joy and me together.

Being the only two children, sisters at that, and less than two years apart in age, raised in a family where the mom stayed home, made it inevitable that we would do almost everything together. Add to that the fact that we always shared a bedroom and always shared a small closet - well, we might have been twins. By the time I started school, and two years later Joy started school, we had formed a lasting bond which only strengthened as we grew. After all, we attended the same school, the same church, had many of the same friends (and were familiar with each other’s friends). We watched the same TV shows. We took piano lessons from Miss Vuille. We shared the same wonderful parents and grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins. The see-saw picture above tells it all. You can’t ride a see-saw by yourself.

This is not to say we never fought. Of course, we argued (but really, not much!). And I’m not claiming we were virtually identical. On the contrary, at bedtime Joy kissed posters of Davy Jones and I kissed posters of Abraham Lincoln. We could be very different. But we were raised as two peas in the same pod, sharing a remarkable assortment of memories.

I’ll bet we spent a third of our lives together in the back seat of the family car, back when gas was cheap. From our early years when Daddy was teaching Mama to drive a stick shift in the fairgrounds parking lot (“You’re gonna KILL us!” we screamed as the car jerked around), to later years when we travelled on memorable family vacations as teenagers, the back seat of the car was our second home.

Now, I’m telling you straight - you can’t share a back seat with a sibling for this much time without learning to get along. These were the days before iPods and DVD players for the car, before cell phones, before laptops, before all the modern distractions which can enable two kids to sit side by side yet be light years apart. Heck, we started out before there were seat belts! So we became creative. Remember the old Bingo game for car trips with the little “windows” to close over things you see - like cows, trains, etc.? We loved those! We played word games, sang songs, learned the French alphabet, counted license plates, asked truckers to honk their horns, and even took “notes” on our journeys. Of course, our snack-filled “goodie box” was kept in the back seat, too. Yes sir, on vacations, the back seat was the place to be!

Around town, it was a different story. Our ride to church was about 20 minutes long, and when you go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, and every other Saturday, you can sometimes get bored. But not us. That’s because we usually had to pick somebody up. You wouldn’t believe how many people we could squeeze in the family car! Even today I can’t believe it. Daddy was a choir director, and to make sure all the members had a way to get to practice, he’d go pick a few of them up himself. He would have tied them to the roof if he had thought they wouldn’t get to practice otherwise. So Joy and I would be squeezed into the back seat with, at various times, women who smelled like smoke, perfume, mints, or lemon and oatmeal cookies. We could always squeeze in another person. Little Mary Pat (a soprano’s daughter) was so skinny, we could always fit her in and never even know the difference.

Every other Saturday, we would get our grandfather and drive a couple of hours away to see our grandmother, who was in a state institution (she was anorexic before the medical community knew much about that disease). So we’d be riding with Paw-Paw, a simply marvelous man who smelled like chewing tobacco and Listerine. On those trips, Daddy would drive (sometimes Paw-Paw’s huge ocean liner of a car) and Paw-Paw would sit in the front seat with him, and we’d share the back seat with Mama - a real treat for us, not to mention the fact that she’d take out a piece of Juicy Fruit and give us each half. Unfortunately, on those trips we also shared the back seat with Paw-Paw’s precious cans - one for his spittoon and one for his worms. (He’d sometimes try to get in a little fishing back then.)

Sometimes, on our way home from church on Wednesday or Sunday night, after we dropped off the myriad crammed-in passengers, we’d beg Daddy to drive us to Dairy Queen before we went home. “Dairy Queen?” he’d usually say. “What a waste! Those cones cost 10 cents apiece, and I can go to the grocery store and buy a whole half gallon of ice milk for 42 cents!” Occasionally, though, we would catch the car going in that direction, and the whoops and hollers coming from the back seat filled the car.

Did you know you can get drinking water from a faucet in a car? When the back seat got too tiring and we’d get thirsty, we’d start whining for something to drink. Daddy would turn on the fan, put an imaginary cup up to the dashboard, and hand it back to us, which we would pretend to drink in the spirit of the moment. Funny, it actually could quench our thirst.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the twin boys who lived next door. Mama volunteered to take them to school with us, as if we didn’t have enough strangers sharing our back seat at other times. Their names were Ronald and Donald, and one of them sat up front with Mama, and the other one shared the back seat with us. These were, let’s say, boys who were not boyfriend material. Luckily, the ride was not that long.

Sunday is Joy’s birthday, and I just wanted to go down memory lane (in the back seat, of course) to remind her that we have lived a third of our lives together a car, sharing the back seat just like we shared a room, a closet, and a whole host of fantastic memories. Happy birthday, dear Joy! I love you!

Friday, July 04, 2008


I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school and high school, but alas, no one could teach history very well. I really don’t blame them; they probably had lousy history teachers, too.

History can be the most boring subject you ever heard of (think dates and places and battles to memorize), or it can conversely be the most exciting subject in the world. A good history teacher realizes that history is more than dates and places and battles - it is mystery, intrigue, successes and failures, aspiration, greed, sacrifice, suffering and sorrow, anxiety, pride, and everything other experience that makes up the human condition. History is about people - and when the personalities and idiosyncrasies, the defects as well as the admirable characteristics of those people get lost in all the boring “facts,” history gets lost as well.

I certainly did not become animated about history from textbooks. I owe my fascination to my dad, who insisted that family vacations were not complete without several stops at historical places. That brought history to life for us.

I’m more into American history, and Ed is more into world history (especially ancient history), but I’m glad we both enjoy learning about the past. Many of the books I read aloud to him are historical nonfiction. For the last year, it seems, we’ve been “stuck” in the 1700s. We started out with the book about our second president, John Adams by David McCullough, which focused especially on his remarkable relationship with his wife, Abigail. It was very well written and enjoyable to read! Then we watched The Adams Chronicles (a 1970s miniseries which had its moments but was somewhat disappointing, so we donated it to the library). Last month we finally got to see the HBO miniseries based on McCullough’s book, which was splendid, and now we are almost finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Sometimes when we wake up in the morning, we have to reorient ourselves to the 21st century!

Back in school, my history teachers implied that the American Revolution was led by old men who all respected and liked each other, who had one common vision, when in fact, most of the men were young, and there were, as to be expected, intense feelings in the group - envy, disdain, annoyance, impatience, and vitriolic hatred as well as respect - and that sometimes given grudgingly. Each man had a vision of independence from Britain, but each man had his own ideas of how to accomplish that and what his individual role would be in the new country. And the characters! If one of my history teachers had told me that Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son who fathered his own illegitimate son who fathered yet another illegitimate son - well, history class would have been a lot less dull. And if my teacher had mentioned the fact that old Franklin enjoyed playing chess with women while both were lounging together in a bathtub - well, that would have sparked some interest, too. Who knew that Thomas Jefferson had money problems because he was a shopaholic? One of the reasons he sold his library to the Library of Congress was because he needed the money to pay debts. He wanted the finer things in life, especially for his beloved home, Monticello, and he managed to obtain them, regardless of the financial consequences. Ah, at last we understood the Louisiana Purchase! Jefferson saw 828,000 square miles of territory and said, “Hey! I want to buy that!”

So today, July 4, is the first Independence Day for me when I actually appreciate all the history bundled up in it. Memorizing dates and battles has never been my area of strength...but I can tell you that Adams and Franklin and Jefferson and others were crossing the Atlantic ocean in ships that had to carry livestock that they could slaughter for food during the voyage. Nothing like watching your dinner walk on board your vessel with you, huh? Happy 4th!