Category Archives: Coffee Corner

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?

Festival Magic

If you’re a normal Midwesterner, you have attended or will have attended a festival this summer.

If abnormal, you saved lots of money. And added years to your life.

Still, we who joyously hand over cash and longevity wouldn’t miss these hometown Mardi Gras for anything.

Not long ago, I helped staff a booth at the Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Indiana, my former hometown. Not a novelty. When we resided in Plymouth, I sold soft drinks to fund my children’s activities. I also joined most of the town’s population (10,000) in parking cars that annually brought 350,000 people to the party.

This time, however, I signed books I’d written, including The Return of Miss Blueberry, set during this festival.

Yay! I didn’t sink into melting asphalt. Nor did I, like dozens of stand owners, hover over sizzling stoves. Instead, I perched inside the souvenir/information booth, yakking with old friends. I even met Miss Blueberry, whose golf cart graced the park.

My privileged position, however, brought new challenges.

If you stand behind book stacks, people think you know something.

Thankfully, after 28 years of Blueberry Festivals, I could answer the Number One Question: “Where are the bathrooms?”

When 350,000 people need to go, they mean business.

“Paid restrooms across the covered bridge,” I recited. “Free portable johns near Jefferson School.”

By the 177th inquiry, a tiny inner voice whispered, “For this you achieved an English degree?”

I quashed it (See, the degree didn’t go to waste!), glad I could, um, serve humanity.

Question Number Two: “Where are the blueberry doughnuts?” The seekers’ eyes mirrored the restroom hunters’ urgency.

Yes, people came to scream themselves into spasms on carnival rides, to applaud bands, crow in rooster contests, paint faces, reenact battles, cheer Little League, rassle pigs, and test testosterone with sledge hammers and souped-up tractors. They scoured craft tents for quilts, stained glass, handmade furniture, John Deere china and marshmallow shooters.

But whether attendees wear polyester shorts, Amish attire or tattoos with little else, food sends them to festivals. All year, everyone dreams of favorites:

  • Corn popped in an enormous black kettle.
  • Thanksgiving-platter-sized tenderloin sandwiches.
  • Deep-fried elephant ears, butter, Pop-Tarts® and Kool-Aid.
  • Plus, all things blueberry: doughnuts, pies, sundaes.

“If you buy here, neither of us starves!” read one stand’s caption. Watching the line at his window, I doubted any danger of either.

Back to booth duties. I was not only expected to know all, but to locate all: lost eyeglasses, car keys, phones and preschoolers.

I also was to ensure good weather for the hot-air balloon launch.

I had no idea that booth would grant me such cosmic power. But that’s what festival magic will do for you.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What is your favorite festival and why?

In Purse-suit of Perfect Understanding

My husband doesn’t understand why I need more than one purse. Or why I carry a bag at all. One skinny billfold meets his needs.

My answer: has anyone during a business meeting, church service or ski run asked you for Kleenexes? Tylenol? A spare outfit? Extra skis?

Hubby also bemoans how they clutter an entire closet:

  • The pastel-striped birthday surprise from my best friend. Salivating, she offered, “If you don’t like it, I’ll take it.” I wouldn’t think of hurting her feelings.
  • The look-alike brown and black leather bags. Hubby, who took me Christmas shopping, rejoiced at the 50-percent-off sale. “Yay, I’m saving money!” My take: “Woo-hoo, I can buy two for the same price!” Guess who won.
  • The clutch I ordered for my daughter’s wedding. Silvery and pretty, it’s nevertheless a gutsy little bag; when 9/11 struck, it found its way to Indiana in time, despite the grounding of all planes.
  • The light brown, patterned purse my mother gave me. I repeat: Mom gave me this purse. She adored trendy bags she bought at garage sales and rarely surrendered her finds. I took this as a sign from God I should never toss it.
  • The straw clutch I carried Sunday mornings, along with diaper bag(s) and one or more children with car seats. It still contains a Happy Meal figure and petrified Cheerios. My kids puked into it. All the more reason to feel sentimental.
  • The purple purse my daughter gave me. Do you know what a big, shiny, purple bag does for a 60-something woman? Wrinkles retreat as she struts her stuff. Even the Bible says every woman should own a purple purse.

Okay, that’s stretching it a little. However, the first European convert, Lydia, sold purple items. As a woman entrepreneur, of course, she created purple purses!

My large collection’s very abundance provides protection unmatched by deadbolt, alarm system or Lab. No robber will know which one contains money and credit cards. I don’t, either, but he might finish digging through them by Christmas. The only other alternative: stealing them all. First, few burglars want to be caught carrying cute purses. And, as Hubby says, the poor wretch would wreck his back.

A purse provides other protection. Once, a mouthy young man shared my airport shuttle when I was suffering from jet lag.

“What a huge purse!” he trumpeted. “Why would you carry a big ol’ purse like that, lady?”

I swung it in a small circle. “It makes an excellent weapon.”

Not everyone understands my purse fetish. But I think that kid understood perfectly well.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Fess up. How many bags do you own?

Escape to the Circus

I used to threaten to run away to the circus. But Mom refused to drive me there. So, I gave up.

Decades later, I decided to attend one. Not just any circus. This one starred kids — Little Leaguers, 4-H ribbon winners, teen hamburger flippers — who reside in a town nestled among cornfields.

I’d known about the Peru, Indiana, Amateur Youth Circus all my life, but never went. Research for a novel sent me to this circus’s spring practice.

As I entered the arena, unicycles nearly ran me down. Diving into a restroom, I considered changing my novel’s setting to a hospital.

I peeked out. No more unicycles. No one swallowing swords. Just everyday children carrying gym bags. I followed them inside.

Adults clustered on bleachers, talking and helping kids with homework. A gold-scrolled wagon — the concession stand — emitted a fragrance of hot, buttered popcorn. Research can be wonderful.

Above, adults climbed webs of ropes resembling the work of overachieving spiders. Below, teens and children hauled equipment without once mentioning child labor laws.

A herd of little kids wearing leotards lined up to turn “somersaults” — mostly belly flops. But they didn’t quit.

Neither did grade-school jugglers practicing with Hacky Sacks®. The “old guys,” who had shaved maybe once, flipped clubs under legs and high in the air, missing most of the people climbing around the ceiling.

I greatly admired the jugglers. From afar.

When more kids hung from the ceiling than clothes in my closet, I white-knuckled my seat. Children swung on trapezes and spun on cables. One teen girl shinnied up another walking a wire 10 feet above the floor. The walker shuddered. The long pole she carried shuddered. I shuddered.

But the walker regained her balance. The climber slowly rose above the walker’s shoulders, legs shaking — then dropped.

I nearly swallowed my grandma fist.

The climber fell into a net. She bounced nonchalantly then dismounted.

A few more practices, and the paramedics and I were on a first-name basis.

That July, though, Hubby and I returned to see the actual show. Would these super-spangled young circus stars live up to their billing?

Did they ever. No belly flops for the little tumblers. They somersaulted and cartwheeled. Bigger children soared above trampolines and flipped friends onto each others’ shoulders. Performers balanced on bicycles, unicycles, enormous sparkly balls. They hung from hoops, rings and trapezes. Some spun, hanging by ankles, necks and teeth. The jugglers tossed fiery clubs. We watched high wire walkers perform a seven-girl pyramid act.

My buds, the paramedics, stood by.

I didn’t faint once. And I couldn’t wait until the next July.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What are your favorite circus memories?

Tell It to the Telemarketers

Lately, I’ve been inundated by phone calls. I must be very popular — far more so than when I was in high school.

Some callers vibrate with the enthusiasm of an over-caffeinated game show host. I’ve won cruises, resort stays, free lunches at a funeral home! If I promise to die soon.

I also receive helpful calls from Tibetan yak milkers named Paul: “Your com-pu-ter sick. Do what I say.”

Goodbye, Paul.

When a caller uses impressive cyber vocabulary, I apply my husband’s astute observation: we can’t reach IT when we need them. Now they’re calling us out of the goodness of their hearts?

Charity calls often are made by ladies who sound like my third-grade teacher. I’m so sorry, Mrs. Daugherty. But, unlike Congress, Hubby and I stay within our budget.

Other callers sound like Al Capone. Because I’ve hidden huge assets from the government, the IRS has custom-designed cement shoes for me. Unless I grant immediate access to my bank accounts, I will take up residence at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

So far, I haven’t had to develop gills.

Occasionally, though, I experience shortness of breath when asked to take “two-minute surveys” that morph into interrogations.

The worst part? They never want to take mine.

This year, my birthday generated a gazillion new phone fans: Medicare supplement companies. Some representatives get right to the point: “Are you breathing?”

“No.”

Click.

 I’ve declared myself dead to a hundred insurance telemarketers. Still, they call.

Representatives whose mothers taught them manners inquire, “How are you?”

Since they’re nice enough to ask, I tell them.

“This weather bothers my knees something awful, though my aunt Tildy’s ankles gave her even more trouble. Goose grease worked, but it made her socks slide down. …”

Or, “I’m so upset. My garbage can blew away. Finally found it. But one step into that yard, and a Doberman big as a pony licked me like I was a giant doggy treat!”

When glum telemarketers call, I make every effort to cheer them: “I feel like singing! Hey, let’s sing together! A-one, a-two, a-three …”

Sadly, few join in belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Despite their lack of patriotism — and my membership on the no-call list — phones keep ringing. Not only do telemarketers inundate my landline, but using local numbers, they now call my cell phone.

I’ve considered answering with heavy breathing.

Friends advise, “Don’t pick up! Ignore a number you don’t recognize.”

But such rude behavior would lower me to their level.

Besides, free speech is granted even to telemarketers. As long as they don’t use abusive language, they can call me.

(snicker) If they dare.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite turn-off-the-telemarketer technique?

Lilies of the Field

Near our yard’s edges, orange lilies accentuate the breathtaking beauty of street signs: speed limit, street name, even dead-end.

Surely, no one deliberately planted flowers of such pathetic pedigree. These gangly commoners share none of the refinement of day lilies, their aristocratic cousins.

Whoever nurtured mine did not stop with signs. She/he invited them to surround the patio, where an army of orange sentinels stand at attention. Neither horizontal rain, windstorm, nor hail beat them down. Nothing short of a nuclear blast prevents their annual return.

I know this because their anonymous planter also nurtured them around our mailbox — until my husband, replacing it, obliterated the lily bulbs.

Undaunted, the invaders returned, only to be mowed down again and again. And again.

Stubborn? Worse than a gang of telemarketers.

Why, then, did I transfer orange lily shoots to a spot near our front door?

Um … maybe the gardener who introduced the lilies wasn’t so dumb. Perhaps, like me, she/he was desperate. I had nicknamed that flower bed the “Sahara.”

Morning glories, petunias, zinnias, marigolds — none of my usual stalwarts had survived it. Would I have to comb the Internet for Martian cacti?

Instead, I planted lily shoots. Three days later, they had not shriveled.

Gasp! What had I done?

Yet, I could not yank them. I just … kind of forgot to water them.

Finally, the hopeful sprigs disintegrated into yellow July dust. I could forget my embarrassing temporary insanity.

Until the following March. Tiny, green leaves stuck out, na-na-na-boo-boo tongues that grew into spindly plants.

How could I pull them? They have flourished unpampered.

I rarely talk to the lilies. Other plants do not socialize with them. We all fear they will take over the yard — maybe the world.

Though I wouldn’t mind if they conquered the crabgrass.

Vases chock full of lilies do brighten my mantels. My dining room table. My piano. …

All right, so my deep, dark secret is out.

I have plebian tastes. I like orange lilies.

These flowers scorn Better Homes and Gardens ratings. They grow in vacant lots, parking lots, behind Big Lots. Their determination to cover their world with beauty knows no limits.

I must have passed down my plebian tastes to a daughter. Scorning roses for her senior picture, she held a cluster of orange lilies.

Funny, her people bouquets consist of the unsung, too. She gathers needy children, cherishing beauty bypassed by others. Maybe the wealth of orange lilies edging her fence inspire her days.

As mine should.

Anyone blessed with orange-lilyfied street signs — even a dead-end one — is bound to see her world in a beautiful way.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What “plebian” flowers do you like?

The Bouncy Life

When I was a pre-schooler, jumping on a bed made perfect sense. Sleeping? Resting?

Bor-ing.

Why flop like an emptied-out Raggedy Ann when I could soar like Peter Pan?

Boom-ba-boom-ba-boom-ba—

My parents, official killjoys of the universe, decreed I take naps, not turn somersaults. Lying still took 10 times more energy.

Why did those fun monkeys stop jumping on the bed just because of the doctor’s orders? The doctor also gave shots. Who in her right mind would trust him, anyway?

Despite adult meddling, children continue to jump on beds — until they graduate to trampolines.

In my first up-close-and-personal encounter with one in high school gym class, little-kid instincts came roaring back. This magic trampoline would morph me, with my uncoordinated-octopus body, into a graceful gymnast.

I climbed aboard. My P.E. teacher droned instructions.

What? I had to jump straight up and down? Teachers showed no more imagination than parents.

She called, “Try a knee drop.”

In order to wow the world and the guys’ class across the gym, I bounced …

Higher.

Higher.

HIGHER.

“Take it easy,” she cautioned.

What did she know? Boom-ba-boom-ba—

PLOP.

Ouch.

I had just demonstrated before God — and the boys’ gym class — the land version of a face-busting, ego-crushing belly flop.

They all smothered grins.

My teacher didn’t smile. She checked to see if I was alive. Then she did her best to kill me.

Grandma took this pic while still safe on the ground!

Maybe the bouncy life wasn’t so great.

Fast-forward 40-plus years.

“Grandma, jump with us!” My grandsons, ages four and seven, bounce on their trampoline.

My jump-on-the-bed instincts pop up. Shedding shoes, I stare at the trampoline. Don’t these things come equipped with stairs now? Escalators? Cranes?

“Climb up,” one grandson urges.

The little one offers, “I help you, Gwandma!”

I hoist and heave. The boys yank on me like two ants with a watermelon.

Finally, I sprawl over the edge.

“Ya-a-a-y! Jump!” Both shoot into the air like twin rockets. Boom-ba-boom-ba—

Bleeeaaah. My stomach jiggles. So does my bladder. My internal organs love gravity way, way too much.

Still, I play bounce tag with my grandsons for a few minutes. Will my body parts ever return to their original location?

Soon I resort to the usual grandma functions: applauding, refereeing and preventing the destruction of the universe — at least that of my grandchildren, their backyard and adjoining properties.

Finally, they flop onto their backs and I with them. We discuss why God made the sky blue and trees green, instead of the other way around.

The bouncy life is fun. But know what? This looks like a really good place … for a nap … zzzzz.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever tried to return to the bouncy life?

Soda Fountain Magic

Entering Zaharakos Soda Fountain as a preschooler, I knew magic was for real.

I spotted curlicue iron tables and chairs my size. Glass cases held hundreds of chocolates, hard candies and jelly beans. Had I reached heaven early? The adult friend who brought me confirmed this with ice cream I didn’t have to share.

Tired of the rock-hard chair, I pattered across the gleaming black-and-white floor to the counter’s red stools. They turned round and round! My friend’s objection didn’t surprise me. Even if a stool was designed to twirl, grown-ups always said you shouldn’t.

An enormous 1908 orchestrion — a self-playing pipe organ with drums, cymbals and triangles — fascinated me. Did jolly ghosts fill the high-ceilinged room with music?

Occasionally, Mama took us to Zaharakos. How I longed to dig into that pile of roasted cashews! But even a small packet cost too much.

My mother’s generation had frequented the place during their teens, so we cool adolescents of the 1960s avoided the fountain as if it radiated fallout. Still, celebrating my first job, I treated my little sister at Zaharakos.

I said grandly, “Order whatever you want.”

We ate huge sundaes. I played the orchestrion and bought cashews, toasty and delicious beyond belief.

Later, newly engaged, I chose fabulous Zaharakos candies for my future in-laws’ Christmas gift.

Fast-forward a few years to a visit by my mother. Adulting had drained away my coolness, so we visited Zaharakos. The mirrors gleamed, but the near-empty soda fountain’s stained counter, dull woodwork and damaged tin-patterned ceiling didn’t brighten our day.

“Everyone came here after school. ‘Meet you at the Greek’s!’ we’d say.” Mom gazed at the broken orchestrion. “The fountain’s dated now. I guess I am, too.”

Decades later, I shared a similar feeling when visiting the area. I stopped for a treat, but Zaharakos, a landmark since 1900, had closed. The orchestrion? Sold to a California collector.

Not long ago, though, as I traveled past my childhood hometown, something sent me off the interstate.

Miracles do happen.

Inside Zaharakos, red stools flanked gleaming, marble counters, and mirrors glimmered amid rich woodwork. Pint-sized curlicue tables and chairs again held little diners. The original orchestrion played, grand as ever.

I sent yummy birthday chocolates to my mother.

She no longer remembered events of five minutes ago, but she recalled Zaharakos.

The soda fountain had worked its sweet magic once again.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite soda fountain treat?

Want to travel back in time? Visit Zaharakos on the Web or plan a trip to experience the magic of their old-fashioned soda fountain: http://www.zaharakos.com/

 

Summer Driving: Going Crazy

Is road construction a good thing?

During my pre-driving days, I liked it, especially on long family trips. Bright-colored signs, flags, cones and barricades broke up eternal stretches of highway. Huge trucks, bulldozers, and graders growled and spouted smoke. Burly men (there were no women road construction workers then) drove the heavy equipment. Jackhammers appeared to enjoy breaking up Planet Earth. Lines of traffic snaked along roads, semitrailers’ air brakes whooshed and horns honked — all very exciting.

Road construction kept Dad and Mom occupied. Flapping maps, they forgot to monitor my siblings and me. When who-was-looking-at-whom crises arose, we kicked each other freely.

Dad’s mutterings soon graduated to addressing aloud the sins of fellow drivers and construction workers. A pastor, he did not swear. Instead, he called them Zeke, Pete, Cedric and Mephibosheth:

“Zeke and Cedric, are you going to yak all day? Or actually work?”

“Look out, Mephibosheth! Somebody else, take the wheel!”

He addressed irritating women drivers as Gertrude. Unless he was really mad. Then they became Sister Shumpett.

“Sister Shumpett, are you trying to send us to Jesus?!”

We kids loved the drama.

As an adult, I’m not so thrilled. Traveling anywhere during summer, I go crazy. Hostile plastic barrels target my car. I drive in reduced lanes that can’t accommodate a skateboard, let alone semis rocking around me.

Other drivers go crazy, too. Construction zones become existential: “I drive. Therefore, I am.”

Our Visa bills for gas support that mantra. But that’s all we know in construction areas, as highway signs become mere mirages. Drivers rocket past at warp speed. Others meander across skinny lanes as if they are middle-schoolers riding bikes on a summer afternoon. Pete, Cedric, Mephibosheth, Gertrude and Sister Shumpett are alive and well on summer highways in this millennium, too.

So how can I ask a stupid question like, “Is road construction good?”

Before you add my name to the above list, consider this: The only thing worse than road construction is no road construction. In the Bahamas, Hubby and I nearly drove into the sea because no one had bothered to barricade a washed-out road, let alone, fix it. In Ecuador, we smacked our skulls repeatedly on a bouncing truck’s ceiling, following la calle para burros (the road made for burros).

We’ve also driven in Michigan, a state whose annual highway repair budget is $15.83.

Unfortunately, for family reasons, we continue to drive in Michigan. I may soon pull our pop-up camper, as Hubby insists I learn to spell him.

Look out, Zeke, Pete, Cedric, Gertrude, and Sister Shumpett!

And you thought you already were going crazy.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: So … is road construction a good thing?

This Old Thing

For antique buffs, the past is sacred. They bypass brand-new merchandise. Instead, their eyes light up when encountering objects covered with dust, rust and mildew. “This old thing” comprises a compliment, not a deprecation.

Me? I don’t intentionally collect antiques. It just sort of happens.

Psst. Don’t tell anyone, but I own a VCR. And boom boxes with cassette tape players. I even own a turntable. Our ’70s vinyl records sound scratchy — and the singers somewhat constipated when we forget to flip the speed from 33 rpm to 45 — but the low technology still works, and the music’s awesome. Why relegate these to a garage sale so a stranger can buy them for a quarter, have them appraised a decade later, and sell them for $500?

Such a prospect also inspires me to inventory my kitchen utensils. No doubt, some will decorate a trendy person’s walls.

Think about it: Lunchables packages and Pringles® canisters we toss into recycling bins will someday fetch exorbitant prices. A coffee table may display your Crock-Pot® or the toaster that shoots users on sight. Why? To give a living room “that certain ambiance.”

Other decorators might prefer fan-shaped groupings of power tools or venerable weed whackers. Such future interior design is not unthinkable. Current homeowners display scythes, wagon wheels and horse collars over their fireplaces. Perhaps their descendants will hang milking machines from lighting fixtures to capture a “simpler time.”

For the ultimate feng shui, they will find an honored place for an ancient riding lawn mower.

So, hold onto those valuable future antiques. My heart breaks, remembering a certain yellow polyester dress. My babies applied numerous bodily fluids to its sunshiny folds. As children, they rubbed green Jell-O, snotty noses and Happy Meals (with extra ketchup) into it. Still, the dress survived. I finally dispatched it to The Salvation Army. Like a too-cheerful relative who calls at 6 a.m., it probably will live forever. Some archaeologist will dig up that dress 2,000 years hence, value it at several million, and hang it in a climate-controlled environment far from Happy Meals.

I should have kept it. And a gazillion other valuable items.

Sure, these future antiques we amass make a mess. But consider the legacy we leave our children: pieces of history to cherish. Opportunities to relive the grandeur of the past.

To put everything into a garage sale for a quarter.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Which of your present possessions will someday wow an antique buff?