Category Archives: Coffee Corner

Look Out, I’m Pulling a Camper!

Pulling a camper is like being followed by a shadow that’s gained 2,000 pounds.

Sure, I’ve spelled my husband en route to nearby campgrounds. When straight roads send him to Lullaby Land, I save our lives by driving short stretches on state highways.

But brave roaring, dragon-like semis on interstates? Motorcycles whipping in and out of lanes at Star Wars speeds? Hans Solo, I’m not.

Especially as the rearview mirror is rendered useless.

My husband installed extended mirrors. However, they warn that reflected objects are closer than they appear.

That’s nice. Even humble, and I admire humility. But sorry, nice mirrors, when changing lanes, I want accuracy. And if up-close-and-personal encounters with construction barrels throw you off, I really don’t need views up my nostrils.

Especially when parking. We often need to stop for gas, food, and/or restrooms. Those paltry reasons pale, however, as we focus on more profound questions: Will we find a place to park the camper? Afterward, can we get out?

Once, as I contorted truck and camper in my 100th effort to leave a convenience store, Hubby lost all hope. “Will we spend the rest of our lives behind Kwickie Mart?”

Not exactly the retirement we’d envisioned.

I tried to console him: “Living on Little Debbie® cakes and beef jerky wouldn’t be so bad.”

My attempts scared traffic to a dead stop. A hundred yards away.

Thus, we finally left Kwickie Mart.

Hauling a camper never bores us. Once, while I was driving down South, purple-cloud giants charged us. They spit lightning and smothered us with avalanches of rain that drowned car taillights ahead. If I had risked pulling over, my flashers would have disappeared, blown out like candles.

Did I slow down? Not much. Storm or no storm, drivers who never drive less than 85 mph — on roads, shoulders and in parking lots — can be found everywhere. Even in easygoing Mississippi.

My prayer life shot up several notches.

Hubby’s, already flourishing, set new records.

Jesus took the wheel.

Afterward, when He had guided us to sunshine, Hubby tried to talk Jesus into taking all my shifts.

He smiled and said, no, we needed to grow in faith. Together.

Though Hubby still had theological doubts about Kwickie Mart experiences, and I struggled with mirror-nostril crises, we indeed have learned to depend on Jesus and each other. With His help, we and our 2,000-pound shadow return home, safe and sound.

We will hit the interstate again soon.

It’s only fair I give other drivers advance warning: Look out, I’ll be pulling a camper!

Prepare to grow in faith.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever pulled a camper? Driven an RV?

Happy October (I Think)

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy October. Also, Happy Sun-Dried Tomatoes Month!

October’s traditional holidays — Columbus Day and Halloween — have recently come under fire. The Internet graciously supplies us with alternatives, so now we can venerate these dehydrated fruits? — vegetables? — this month.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in July, when tomatoes truly become one in spirit with plump, red humans who also roast and wrinkle in blazing sunshine?

Just sayin’.

October is also Class Reunion Month. However, we do not have to begin emergency diets, because has anybody ever held a class reunion in October?

In a related issue, October offers a chance to enjoy Be Bald and Free Day.

But wait just one politically correct moment. Does this imply people who are not bald can’t be free on October 14? Sorry, but I doubt mass servitude of hairy people will fly as a holiday. Not even with Hallmark.

Neither do I celebrate Reptile Awareness Day (October 21). Are we supposed to kiss a crocodile? Snuggle with snakes? Once a family in my town discovered their new home’s previous owner had bequeathed them his pet python, who popped out of heating ducts to say hello.

I lived a half mile away. That’s as close to reptile awareness as I want to get.

If anyone wants to take up a better cause, I suggest he lobby to remove the bad-mood stigma from my favorite month.

True, our stressed society could benefit from the International Moment of Frustration Scream Day on October 12, releasing pent-up feelings toward TV political coverage, souped-up leaf blowers and motorists who honk at stoplights. Following up with National Kick Butt Day on the 13th might, paradoxically, prove a bottomless delight.

But October has gone overboard with National Grouch Day (the 15th) and Cranky Coworkers Day (the 27th). It has even been chosen as National Sarcastic Awareness Month. Gre-e-eat. We’re supposed to cheer every 16-year-old who rolls her eyes? Maybe even crown Miss Supreme Sarcasm?

We also are expected to choose a Menopause Queen to celebrate World Menopause Day on October 18. Riding a parade float, she and her royal court will throw plates at cowering crowds while a band plays “We’re Having a Heat Wave” and hot-flash drill teams fan each other with flags.

October used to be a nice, simple month.

I’d hoped November would improve the holiday outlook. But, no. November begins with Plan Your Epitaph Day (November 2). I see that on the 19th, we are to celebrate Have a Bad Day Day.

How about we skip ’em all?

Instead, let’s celebrate Thanksgiving every day!

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite way to celebrate October?

Touring Away from Other Tourists

If you’re like my friends and me, you’re still mulling your summer trips. Whether traveling by plane, train or hang glider, or staying in tent, hotel or castle, we all agree on one issue: We try to avoid places where other tourists go.

We require hotels much quieter — and cleaner — than our homes. Campers hope no one will locate within a mile of their Winnebagos. Both kinds of vacationers pray their rowdy, late-night parties will not be disturbed by some other rowdy, late-night party.

Patrons at both rough-it and refined ends of the getaway spectrum seek restaurants that attract no screamy children but their own.

We want to fill cyberspace — especially the pages of envious relatives — with amazing photos of eye-popping attractions. Attractions that should never draw other visitors, yet must include:

  • Infinite-sized, free parking lots.
  • Plentiful, pristine restrooms with no lines.
  • Classy, dirt-cheap souvenirs.
  • Educational adventures even grandmas and insurance companies consider safe.

Children, however, have long considered “education” and “vacation” a contradiction in terms. They love tourist traps.

Hubby and his brother, who as children stayed at their grandparents’ Wisconsin lake cottage, could have fed their morning cereal to deer peeking in the windows. Still, no vacation was complete without visiting nearby Diddly’s Delightful Deer Farm.

Today’s media-soaked children still reverence such attractions. Admission fees are in direct proportion to their pointlessness, reflected in souvenirs, e.g., oozy green livers from Mutant Body Parts Wax Museum and litter-shaped candy from Pretty Kitty’s Cat Condo.

Even teens welcome such enticements — if they can ditch parents.

Surprisingly, our college-aged daughter once asked me to journey with her in Honduras, where she’d spent the semester.

My airplane seatmate, a native who had moved to Texas, advised me to remove my necklace before we landed: “Pickpockets jerk them off.” She also counseled me to avoid taxis if I didn’t know the driver personally.

Long and scary story short, my daughter and I did rendezvous, enjoying a tropical paradise together. We also shared a bus ride along a favorite hijacker route to another seaside town. A town where bank security guards carried automatic rifles and strips of ammunition crisscrossing their chests. There, we unknowingly risked our lives watching a tribal dance at night.

At our mountainside 1950s-style hotel, a white cat with malignant eyes kept vigil on the front desk. Sen֮or Blanco listened to our complaints about no locks on our door. The often-AWOL owner didn’t.

But we never had to stand in line.

My daring daughter is currently planning a South American visit. Her husband will go adventuring with her to places tourists never visit.

As for me? Diddly’s Delightful Deer Farm, here I come.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite away-from-the-tourists vacation spot?

Confessions of a Mystery Writer

Did you read mysteries as a child? Saturdays often found me at the library, lost in Nancy Drew’s dangerous world.

I shared one bathroom with six others, but Nancy introduced me to the exotic world of an only child.

Nancy’s father rewarded her for solving mysteries with lots of money. Five dollars, even. My dad made me hoe the garden and gave me a daily quarter for school lunch.

Cool stuff happened to beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed Nancy. Nothing cool happened to geeky, brown-eyed, brown-haired Rachael.

Besides, Nancy wasn’t afraid of anything.

Conversely, my parents nicknamed me “Chicken Little.” The sky fell daily and hit me on the head. Which explains a lot of things. …

When a newspaper reported a huge monster loose in Detroit one summer, I locked all our windows, broiling my family like Fourth-of-July hamburgers.

My parents tried to monitor my reading material and television, including “The Twilight Zone” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” My teenage secret: Oz’s Wicked Witch still sent shivers up my spine.

Now, when creepy movie music slithers into the family room, I barricade myself with sofa pillows. I’ve spent far more time under theater seats than in them.

I read and write mysteries during broad daylight or when Hubby’s home. Otherwise, I lie awake, counting nighttime noises traceable to chain saw and ax murderers, respectively.

How can I read — let alone, write — mysteries?

Detectives intrigue me, especially Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who matches sharp old wits against naïve criminals who underestimate her. Other favorites: Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and TV’s Adrian Monk. I celebrate Sherlock Holmes’ strange genius.

I love piecing together mysteries like jigsaw puzzles, to be solved by strong, funny women who eat pie without gaining an ounce.

However, I prefer that muggers attack imaginary people in dark alleys and that murderers enter elevators elsewhere, not in my hotel.

Research alone rattles me. Once I hiked through a for-real, p-p-pirate cave alone. Gulp.

After investigating weapons online, I receive pop-ups with way too much (shudder) information. My Internet history probably has put me on a CIA list.

Fine. They can find me hoeing my garden.

Mystery writers’ spouses also face unique challenges. Once, at a local restaurant, I asked my physician husband about intentional drug overdoses.

“Keep your voice down,” he hissed. “I don’t do that!”

Hey, living with him isn’t easy, either.

However, as I consider how to kill my latest victim, I wish Hubby wasn’t gone. That it wasn’t nighttime, with sinister shadows lurking outside.

I’m not Nancy Drew.

And they never did track down that monster in Detroit. …

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Who’s your favorite mystery writer?

Waking Up

If you’re reading this, you woke up today.

If you’re reading this, but didn’t wake up, please contact me immediately. I’d like to ghostwrite your best seller.

Waking up has changed since our childhood years. Do you remember when you and Teddy jumped on your parents’ bed to help them celebrate morning?

Later, Mom wreaked vengeance by dragging us out of bed for school, scrubbing our ears and necks before we escaped her clutches.

People have been awakening us ever since.

At college, I assumed I would decree my wake-up time. My dorm, however, housed 500 girls, all armed with high-voltage stereos and supersonic hairdryers. Exercise classes met outside my room — at 1 a.m.

Those years prepared me for apartment life.

“Someday, I’ll own my own house,” I said. “No more party animals. No more percussion teachers upstairs.”

My husband and I did buy a house — and filled it with babies, aka, screaming meanies allergic to sleep. Especially ours.

Not content with that, Hubby delivered babies — and took care of sick people. I frequently awoke to discussions of blood sugar readings and stool reports. And advice on how to kick insomnia.

Occasionally, I slept through his wee-hour departures. His returns? Not so much. Most sleepers might awaken if a shadowy guy joined them in bed at 2 a.m. — particularly if his body temperature equaled an arctic seal’s. If he was tall, thin, and bearded, though, I turned over and dozed off. If short, fat, and/or clean-shaven — Houston, we had a problem.

While Hubby cannot claim my levels of martyrdom, he occasionally lets me awaken him for less compelling reasons, e.g., suspicious sounds in the laundry room at 4:30 a.m. I demanded he defend our dirty socks with his life.

One night, in a hotel room, I awoke, convinced Communists were monitoring us through the sprinkling system.

He also insists my snoring awakens him, but he’s upping my stats so his don’t look bad.

My brother has long been the family mischief maker.

However, neither of us will ever achieve my brother’s dastardly wake-up call. During a solo visit, he had buttered me up with a wonderful meal, fascinating tales of his Middle Eastern service, and (!) chocolates. Such behavior should have roused deepest suspicions. Instead, I thought he finally had grown up.

That night, I savored dreamless sleep — until the enormous clock in my room lit up like a carnival ride. An Arab voice belted out a call to prayer that probably awakened Atlanta.

I thought Judgment Day had arrived.

Eventually, I realized it had not yet come for me. But Judgment Day came for him.

Little Brother, if you’re reading this, my offer to ghostwrite your best seller still stands.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What is your least favorite way to wake up?

Summer Campus Cycling Queen Abdicates

Recently, I made the mistake of riding my bike on a nearby college campus, as I had all summer. I ruled the empty sidewalks during July and August, zooming between buildings, rocketing out of parking lots.

Once I surprised a faculty member who fled for his life, open briefcase snowing hundreds of papers on the ground. There also was that time I barged into a band camp, when my bike took out an entire row of tubas.

For the most part, though, no one challenged my reign as Queen of the Bike Routes. Even football camp guys, forever headed for the dining hall, knew better than to dispute my supremacy.

However, as of the beginning of the school year, I have decided to abdicate. Biking to a writers’ meeting on campus, I encountered swarms of young pedestrians who, just because they paid tuition, thought they deserved to use the sidewalks. Some clumped into bunchy obstacles. Others joined in two-way snaky lines that condemned me to following them at three miles per hour — or shaking my liver loose by riding alongside them on the grass. Couples — chained together by a love so strong, even a bulldozer couldn’t separate them — meandered directly in front of me.

As I rode, I ran nonstop evaluations as to whether approaching walkers were in their right minds. Were they tethered to iPods, glued to cell phones or tapping texts to aliens several solar systems away? Such mindsets (or the lack thereof, due to the absence of brain waves) threaten the safety of cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Frisbee golfers comprise a different threat. Deep inside, I cannot condemn these young whippersnappers who, snapping their arms, whip Frisbees so close they trim my nose hairs. My son, studying at a different college, was a member of that club. But when fleets of Frisbees, like the fighters in Star Wars movies, chase an old lady biking to her writing meeting, I say, “Enough is enough.”

Having resigned my position as Queen of the Campus Bike Routes, I have resorted to walking. Now moving at the speed of life instead of lightning, I hear words I didn’t while glorying in my cycling omnipotence: “Excuse me,” “Pardon me,” “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,” and plenty of smile-filled “Hi!”s. They remind me that the college pedestrians in our area rank among the most courteous in the world.

It’s the wild, crazy cyclists who worry me.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary:  Have you lived on/near a college campus? What changes did September bring?

End-of-Summer Reflections

Do you like that word, “reflections”? When young, I identified it with the forced reading of smarmy poetry, staring at my navel, and/or listening to some windbag.

I will never inflict such harm on my readers. I keep my lousy poetry to myself. I never coerce anyone into studying her belly button. As for my being a windbag — perish the thought!

Having dispelled these unfortunate associations, let us return to my profound end-of-summer reflections:

  • Regardless of propaganda touting it as the ingredient for pizza, smoothies and cheesecakes, nobody likes kale.
  • My husband’s “short” bike rides require a passport.
  • Grandbabies’ discriminating palates prefer four summer food groups: sand, mud, gravel and sticks.
  • My palate also dictates four summer food groups: butter pecan, salted caramel fudge, chocolate almond, and Moose Tracks.
  • A related reflection: Skinny, beautiful people on TV drool over yogurt, but they never, ever will convince us it can replace ice cream.
  • I sleep with only a sheet, but still need a quilt on my feet.
  • If we water gardens to induce rain, the clouds know.
  • Also, the probability of rain is in direct proportion to the amount we spent on Cubs tickets.
  • If not for relatives’ summer visits, would the carpet get swept from June through September?
  • Nobody really likes an ecologically diverse yard. Or wants me to preserve the prairie.
  • Morning glories I plant always shrivel as if my trellis were radioactive. Yet a thousand healthy, nasty lovelies strangle my cucumbers.
  • Deer who scavenge neighborhoods never eat crabgrass.
  • Scratching sounds in an attic mean raccoons have started a summer obstetric ward there — or mosquitoes have grown bigger than I expected.
  • While rainy days ruin human vacations, my fern, Carolyn, considers steamy conditions a five-star experience.
  • If you live by a lake, visit kin who live by a different lake. Hurry, because it’s almost fall, and that’s the only way you’ll get a free vacation, too.
  • I and other Stain Queens should be forbidden by law to wear white pants.
  • People who grill only vegetables are not to be trusted.
  • If a certain age, never shop the weekend before school starts. You will park in a different zip code. You also will return home with 143 15-cent notebooks.
  • Ferris wheels at county fairs still fill me with six-year-old wow.
  • After a lifetime of watching people voluntarily buying cotton candy, I still haven’t figured out why.
  • Finally, when police know campers next to your site on a first-name basis, pitch a tent in your backyard instead.

Yes, summer will fade, but never fear. I soon will supply my readers with a whole new set of reflections — autumn reflections.

Not that I’m a windbag, or anything. …

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What end-of-summer musings fill your mind?

Grandmas Shop the Sales

For years, my friend Dana and I have met every shopping challenge known to womankind. Blessed with two daughters apiece, we survived the daunting task of finding clothes for bloomers, early and late. Dana and I practiced motherly glares and “Because I said so!” drills for prom season. When the girls all married, we scoured stores for mother-of-the-bride dresses that wouldn’t age us on contact or ready us to dance on the reception tables. Together we played, grayed and prayed through decades of shopping.

Little did we know our retail history would prepare us for the ultimate shopping experience: buying for grandchildren. Serious business, right? We prepare for action by regularly polishing our credit cards.

We go in Dana’s car because she has fewer accidents. Also, her car features dual heating controls so we don’t hot flash each other to death.

First things first: Grandmas, in their feeble state, need energy to stimulate the economy. At the restaurant, our waitress brings extra rolls, dripping with butter, along with hypocritical salads.

At the mall, we try to take interest in clothing purported to fit us. But what grandma wants to face her body in fitting-room triplicate?

Much more fun to buy clothes for grandchildren. Like well-trained hounds, Dana and I follow the sales scent to 80-percent-off signs. We scout baby departments, hungry for the softness of little sleepers and onesies.

We’re such a seasoned team that we don’t need phones. If we chase our prey into separate departments, we rendezvous for critiques and/or celebrations at exactly the right moment. Like Vikings, Dana and I methodically plunder each store until salespeople tremble. The whole retail world is at our mercy until—

Until we encounter racks of lacy velvet dresses at 80-percent off.

Our daughters prefer practical clothes for their children.

Don’t they understand grandmothers do not live by denim alone? We want pictures of little princesses clad in scratchy Cinderella gowns. We want grandsons to wear ties they will soak in ketchup. We covet fairy-tale photos we can show off to friends, relatives and strangers at convenience stores.

But our children frown. Sigh.

To console ourselves, Dana and I make a beeline to the cookie store. After several rounds of favorites, plus diet Pepsi, we agree we are blessed, Cinderella or no Cinderella.

We drag our bags outside. After sociable trips through the parking lot, greeting others who cannot find their cars, we remember we entered through Appliances, not Intimates. Dana hits her remote again. Her car grumbles when we load it till it barely clears the ground.

Grandma sales mission accomplished.

For now.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Can you recall a favorite shopping trip?

Where a Writer Goes

Some compare a writer’s life to a monk’s: starved, withdrawn from the speaking/smiling world and — like author Annie Dillard — incarcerated in a closet-like room decorated only with a picture she drew of a cow pasture.

I’ve experienced hermit weeks, although starvation doesn’t enter into the equation. Because I can’t draw cows or anything else, I allow myself a window.

I’ve also holed up in libraries, more exciting than most imagine. Take the Notre Dame library, where I did research for a biography of St. Augustine. Entering the skyscraper bearing its gigantic “Christ the Teacher” mural (known to football fans as “Touchdown Jesus”), I dared not speak to anyone, as even janitors appeared to be Fulbright Scholars.

I fought with a computer catalogue, then hunted for an elevator, which I finally rode to the philosophy and religion department on the 14th floor. Encountering a locked door, I rapped on it.

Silence.

I banged until my fists hurt.

Ditto. I’d spent forty-five minutes for nothing?

A brave aide on the elevator ride down asked if he could help.

“The philosophy and religion department is locked,” I griped.

“Which floor?”

“Fourteenth.”

“The philosophy and religion department is on the 13th floor. Father Hesburgh lives on the 14th.”

Taking a break from libraries, I traveled to story settings. Non-writers assume a publisher arranges free, first-class flights to exotic spots with four-star hotels. Instead, halfway to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, I stayed at my daughter’s. Having been hugged, mugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids, a dog and a cat, I slept on a sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.

Afterward, I drove to the enormous cave on the Ohio River where, during the early 1800s, enterprising pirates ran a tavern. They lured flatboat pioneers with “Last chance for a hot meal and mug o’ grog before the Mississip, matey!”

“Guests,” however, ended up at the bottom of the Ohio.

Climbing alone around the cave’s mottled walls, I listened to dead voices while the I-don’t-know-nothin’ river flowed past.

Maybe the Notre Dame library wasn’t scary, after all.

Rachael Phillips, Eileen Key, Cynthia Ruchti, and Becky Melby sampled the popular Door County sundaes.

Many of my stories, though, take place in pleasant places:

  • I’ve watched children in Peru, Indiana, defy gravity, homework and other laws of the universe by participating in their annual Youth Circus.
  • I’ve visited all 31 covered bridges in Parke County, Indiana.
  • I’ve ridden in an Amish buggy whose GPS consisted of the horse’s memory.
  • I’ve traveled through Door County, Wisconsin, researching that Martha’s-Vineyard-of-the-Midwest setting, including exactly how many yummy cherries are used in their famous Door County sundaes.

Currently, I’m staying close to home. But not for long, because we writers are a brave, daring breed.

Maybe I should set my next story in Hawaii.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: If you were (are) a writer, where would you place your story?

August: the Not-So-Special Month?

My daughter once wished for a different birthday month. I referred her to God for further discussion.

I do see her point, however. August boasts no holidays — not even a fake holiday like St. Patrick’s Day. Nobody throws big parties on the eve of August 1, as they do in January.

The hotter the weather, the more we chill. Dressing up is wearing matched right and left flip-flops. Days pass before we turn the calendar page.

When we do, though, a tiny tadpole of awareness wiggles into our days.

It’s August. Something’s different.

Outdoor projects delayed till warm weather now have been postponed till fall. Yards need extreme makeovers, but we’re so sick of yard work, we pay 4-Hers to release goat herds on our premises.

August presents an end-of-summer reality check. I purchased a “miracle” swimsuit in May. Now I realize the only miracle is that I paid big bucks for it.

August affects mothers in peculiar ways. They buy pencil boxes, though no one in human history has ever proved pencil boxes serve a useful purpose. Kids talk Mom into buying cool new backpacks, though 23 uncool backpacks languish at home.

Mothers also obsess about imminent changes in schedules: “Go to bed now so you’ll be ready when school starts.” My mother, who had five kids, did this. As of August 1, we went to bed at 4:00 p.m.

Even the sun listens to Mom and retires earlier in August. Yet during daytime, it unfurls golden rays as if leading an everlasting summer, ticker-tape parade. While eating home-grown, ice-cold watermelon in the backyard, we experience a different kind of reality check:

It’s been a great summer.

By August, every able-bodied person in the Midwest has ridden a Ferris wheel and consumed a warm, crisp elephant ear.

While still recovering from that gathering of DNA-related strangers known as a family reunion, we rendezvoused with cousins who long ago sneaked into drive-ins with us. We kissed sweet baby kin’s brand-new cheeks and gave grandmas and grandpas a smile.

In August, homeowners stop vying for the Yard of the Year. Instead, we concede the grand champion ribbon to God for His spectacular pastures of goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace and Sweet Williams.

He treats us to evening concerts by cicada choirs that sing their best in August. Fireflies, now veteran presenters, perform spectacular light shows at dusk with few technical glitches.

Whether we own farms or only farmers’ tans, the ripe cornucopia of gardens, tasseled cornfields and leafy rows of soybeans reassure us: After harvest, we will celebrate with plenty of food on our tables.

All during August — the not-so-special month.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What do you like best about August?