Thursday, September 24, 2015

The whole kit and caboodle about cliches

            I grew up on clichés. In fact, our family’s foundation is based on clichés. Growing up, I didn’t know what those familiar sayings meant but I heard them enough to know they carried significance.
As a kid, whenever a grown up tried to teach me something, they’d say “this is as easy as falling off a log.”
I saw logs in the river once after a flood. They were banging into each other, crashing and smashing their way through raging waters. Nothing about that looked easy to me.
In today’s cell-phone world, some of the clichés probably don’t make sense to young people unless they can Google it on their phone and get Siri to explain the trite saying.  We live in a Netflix and cell-phone world, and the time has come to update, or at least explain, our clichés.
For instance, “kill two birds with one stone.” I’ve never seen anybody kill a bird with one stone much less kill two with one stone. In fact, I don’t think it’s physically possible to kill two birds with one stone unless you tie one bird down, hit it with a huge rock and then get a second bird, tie it down and hit it with the same rock.
            Then you’d face the wrath and ire of PETA and the vegans.
Then there’s:  A rolling stone gathers no moss. Thanks to the acres and acres of concrete all around us, I doubt most of our young people have any idea what moss is.
Most have never seen a rolling stone because our stones are rocks we import from the gravel yard along Interstate 10 and they stay put in our manicured yards.
 “All in a day’s work” is another one that probably makes no sense because we work round the clock. If you’ve got a problem with your computer or cell phone, you can talk to an operator in India or Arkansas any time of the day or night. Those customer service reps never sleep.
One of my aunts loved saying “he has an axe to grind.” First of all, most of us only remember axes if there was a lumberjack in the family or our grandparents had one hanging in the shed. Grinding is something we yuppies do at night because of all the stress we face during the day.
They make $1,200 mouth guards for that malady.
“A baker’s dozen” only makes sense because we go to Panera Breads where you can get 13 bagels and the sign tells you it’s a baker’s dozen.
I’d bet money that most people under the age of 25 don’t have a clue that a baker’s dozen was when the baker slipped an extra cookie or doughnut in your white box to thank you for your business.
“The whole ball of wax” is another cliché that goes right over our heads. When we think of wax, we think of Ripley’s Wax Museum where we can see life-sized wax statues of movie stars. Or we think of ear wax, and to think of a whole ball made out of that gunk is just gross.
Another favorite was “like white on rice.” In these days of saffron rice, whole-wheat rice and aromatic rice, that cliché doesn’t make sense any more.
“Look before you leap” still rings true, especially for this generation looking to upgrade their computer’s operating system. Can we say “Windows 8?”
We still have to “wake up and smell the coffee,” but this generation would probably understand “wake up and smell the espresso” better.
And that, as my mom would say, is the whole kit and caboodle about clichés.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Two stamps = price for redemption

The pricey SUV pulled out in front of me even though there weren’t any cars behind me. That selfish maneuver’s nothing new, but what the driver did next infuriated me.
She held her hand out the window and gave me a “finger wave,” the kind that says “ta-ta – I’m ahead of you in my expensive car and I’m more important than you are.”
I saw red.
When I pulled up behind her at the light, I mouthed a few choice words about her heritage, her stupidity and her ignorance. She went ballistic, giving me a one-finger wave instead of her frivolous finger wave.
I turned into the parking lot of the store 15 minutes later, but the encounter left me sad instead of angry. She didn’t see anything wrong in what she did, but I reacted badly and made the situation worse.
As I walked through the grocery store, I grew more troubled, wondering why I was rude back to someone who didn’t deserve a second thought. I came around the corner and found myself face to face with another shopper.
She looked to be about my age, and she was alone. For some reason, I said I needed to talk to somebody.
This woman smiled and said “talk away.”
And I did. I not only told her what happened, but I told her how stressed I was and I felt I was chasing myself most of the time. I couldn’t remember the last time I struck up a conversation with a stranger in the store, and that’s unlike me.
Surrounded by the specials of the week, I was spilling my guts to a stranger who listened to everything I said. When I stopped talking, she smiled.
“You sound like you don’t slow down very often,” she said. “What that woman did was rude and it’s okay that you’re angry. It also sounds like maybe you’re angry about a lot more than this one incident. “
 “Give yourself a break,” she added. “That woman’s not worth it. Now go get some chocolate and you’ll feel better.”
We laughed, and I thanked her for listening to a complete stranger vent.
The underlying emotion for my anger and frustration, I realized, was feeling disconnected from other people. For the past few years, I’ve been so caught up in working, housekeeping, chores and laundry that I’d let friendships and conversations fall by the wayside.
The next morning, I was in the post office, and there were about 10 people in front of me. The last time I’d been in the post office, a mom was in front of me with two young children.
She told the postal clerk she was new to the area. And even though I knew about fun activities in the area, I didn’t say a word. I was busy, I told myself, but the shame of not talking to her stayed with me.
But this time, I started talking to the woman in front of me. She was happy to have someone to chat with and said she only needed two stamps.
“I have those in my purse,” I told her, and pulled out the stamps. She started to protest, but I told her I needed to do something nice for somebody.
In that long line, I felt myself reconnecting to the human race, all because of a chance encounter with a rude stranger and one with a kind heart.
I drove away from the post office with a smile on my face, grateful that two stamps was a small price to pay for admission to redemption.

This column was originally published in The Fort Bend Herald. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Reading a map, old-school style

          My phone stopped talking to me. I don’t know what I did to make that electronic device so angry, but angry it was.     
            Without warning, the phone’s navigation system clammed up on a recent trip, and I didn’t know how to reach my destination. That electronic hissy fit cost me an extra hour on the road.

             In these days of cell phones that can do practically everything, I’d come to rely on talking Google Maps, and as a result, got a bit lazy when it came to planning a trip in advance.
            But after this last silent treatment, I decided to give my paper maps another shot. There’s a half dozen in the glove compartment of my car and I hauled them out after turning off my phone.
            I can handle a map because my dad taught me how to read one before he taught me how to drive a car. But I don’t think this current electronics-driven generation has a clue how to read a road map that doesn’t talk to them.
            Using a paper map’s not as simple as typing in an address and letting a voice tell you where to turn. Map readers have to learn about grids and finding a street when it’s located at Q and 19 on the map. They have to know why one road’s colored red and why another one is yellow.
            The hardest part about using a paper map is learning how to fold it back up the exact same way it came from the state’s visitor’s center.
            Those who don’t know how to read a paper map are missing out on the adventure associated with a road trip. The challenge starts with spreading a paper road map out over the kitchen table and looking at an entire state or city in one glance.
             Novice map readers have to figure out where they’re starting and where they want to end up and make decisions ahead of time about stops and alternate routes.
            A friend told me to write the directions down on an index card and tape the card to the dashboard. That probably sounds ridiculously old fashioned to those accustomed to a voice telling you to turn left in 500 feet.
            But there’s a sense of accomplishment when you take the big-picture view of personally figuring out how to get where you want to go and then getting there.
            Even if you get lost, you can pull out the map – folded in a way so just your route shows – and find a different way. Nobody’s the wiser because a paper map never electronically sighs and tells you “rerouting.”
            I’ll admit paper maps can become outdated, but major roads and freeways seldom move. Besides, there’s a lot of excitement in taking your finger and tracing routes from your house to your destination, dreaming about all the sights you’ll see along the way.
            If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Rand McNally road atlas, the sky’s the limit. You can trace a route all the way from Alaska to Texas and, best of all, plan to see all the natural attractions along the way. Your phone can do the same, but the cynical side of me says they only call out the sites that pay to advertise their location.
            A map and your finger lets you choose your own adventures, and they’re there for you to discover if you know how to read a map and aren’t afraid of some old-school fun.
Happy paper trails.

This column was originally published in The Fort Bend Herald.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sometimes a warning is all we need

         The first day of school is always an exciting one. Teachers, like students, have a backpack filled with new supplies, from pencils to glue sticks. There’s nothing like getting to school a little early to catch up with people we haven’t seen all summer, and I’m no exception.
            I was so excited the first day that I didn’t watch my speedometer on Airport Avenue. Until I saw the Rosenberg police car and the blue and red lights started flashing. I was the only vehicle on the road, so I knew the officer was after me.
            I usually don’t speed for two reasons:  first, it’s unsafe and somebody could get hurt. Second: I’m too cheap to pay a speeding ticket. The last time I got a ticket was in Louisiana about 15 years ago, and that one set me back over a hundred bucks. No telling what a speeding fine costs these days.
            When I came to a stop, my heart was pounding, and I was beating myself up for not paying more attention to my speed. When Officer Kraus came up to the window, he asked for my insurance card, explaining I was exceeding the speed limit.
            Nervously, I tried to explain why I was speeding but then stopped talking – I was guilty. As he ran my plates, I wondered how I’d fit defensive driving into my week and how much my insurance rates were going up because of my ticket.
            Officer Kraus came back to the car and said he was going to give me a warning. What? No ticket? I was flabbergasted. He wished me a good day and told me to watch the speed limits, especially in the mornings as youngsters were now on the road.
            As I drove off, I was grateful yet mindful of my speed. The warning was what I needed to get my mind back on driving instead of my to-do list. But I couldn’t say I was as good to others as the officer had been to me.
So many times, we’re quick to throw the book at someone. We curse and swear at someone who pulls out in front of us and we honk and tailgate someone who’s driving too slowly.
We question the IQ level of a co-worker because they lost an important document or spell a few words wrong. We seldom give that person the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they’re going through a tough time or lost their concentration for a few minutes.
            Instead of bringing the hammer down on someone, maybe a warning is all we need to get us back on the right path. A doctor’s visit that finds our cholesterol count is higher than it should be is enough to get us into an exercise regimen where we’re counting calories and our blessings.
            A warning is often all we need to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing; and because we get that lucky break, we’re grateful and more careful as we move forward.
            With the recent horrific and senseless tragedies against our police officers, I want to recognize Officer Kraus for being one of the good guys. He’s not the only one out there. Day after day, police officers in countless cities risk their lives every time they put on their uniform.
Thank you, Officer Kraus and the rest of the officers in our midst who watch and protect us. The next time I see an officer get out of his or her squad car, I’m going to keep an eye out for them and, if I see anything suspicious, shout out a warning.
Sometimes, that’s what we need.
This column was originally published in The Fort Bend Herald.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dr. Shock title is deceiving

          He’s been scaring the bejesus out of me since I was a teenager.

            Not the boogie man.

            Or the monster in the closet.

            Those nightmares are run-of-the-mill.

The one who haunts my dreams is Stephen King.

            And I love it.

            The first King book I read was “’Salem’s Lot.” The story line is familiar for long-time “constant readers,” as King describes his fans. A flawed hero joins forces with a young person to combat evil.

But that’s like describing World War II as a back-yard snowball fight.

            One of my favorite scenes in “’Salem’s Lot” is when a young vampire, Danny Glick, comes to one of the heroes in the book, Mark Petrie, and scratches at the window screen, wanting to come in.

            King builds on Petrie’s curiosity and fear and his sadness over seeing his former friend floating outside his second-story room while never losing the terror about a hungry vampire scritch scratching at a screen, hungrily whispering to come in.

            In all of his novels, King gets right to the point without wasting time with boring passages about spring meadows, unnecessary love triangles or people’s wardrobe.

With an economy of words, he quickly reaches into eye sockets, grabs the reader by the eyeballs and never lets go.

            In “The Shining,” I remember being too afraid to turn the page when young Danny Torrance opened the door to Room 237. I didn’t want to turn the page because I was so scared, but I had to because my curiosity was stronger than my fear.

            My curiosity was answered when Danny found a dead woman in the bathtub that comes after him.

            Let’s not begin to mention those moving topiaries from “The Shining.”

            The murdering clown from “It.”

            Or, shudder, the return of toddler Gage from “Pet Sematary.”

            By isolating those scenes, it’s easy to dismiss King as a shock writer. If a reader looks deeper, though, they’ll find King is the ultimate character writer.

Too often, I’ve read books where the main characters accomplish unbelievable feats. While wounded, they can kill the bad guy with one bullet while hanging onto a moving train.

The women are long legged with flowing hair who seduce a man in one scene and save the world in the next, all the while keeping their make up in perfect order.

King’s characters are fleshed out as real people, with flaws and virtues, and that includes the women. He artfully describes the battles they wage with inner demons, from alcoholism to cowardice to a lack of identity.

            Some of my favorite King characters are from “The Stand,” his epic novel about the end of the world. Stu Redman is the main hero, and the constant reader pictures him as a regular guy in a flannel shirt who’s called on to save the world.

            I also like the way Jack Torrance in “The Shining” is written. The movie, starring Jack Nicholson was awful. In the book, though, we see Torrance as a young father who wants to stop fighting his demons yet can’t overcome alcohol’s stranglehold on his life.

            And in all of King’s writing, we eagerly go on a literary journey with him. We might find a dead body in “The Stand,” see a sadistic teenager get the tables switched in “Apt Pupil” or feel the anguish of John Coffee – “like the drink, only not spelled the same” in “The Green Mile.”

            We come to understand hope when we read how Andy Dufresne survives in “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”

            When a writer makes us believe in redemption, that writer is a true American treasure. And for me, that person is the prolific and incredibly gifted novelist Stephen King.

This column was originally published in The Fort Bend Herald.