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Old Friends, New Friends, New Old Friends

Alamo Heights ISD

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Do you remember The Fonz trying to say he was wrong and the words refusing to come out?

“I was wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r, wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r!” He looked like he
was passing a kidney stone.

I have somewhat the same problem, but when I’m wrong I do eventually admit it. I attended my tenth high school reunion and the 45th. In between I had very little contact with anyone I knew from high school, and that’s the way I wanted it. They were not good years for me, and those were not fond memories. If it weren’t for high school, what the hell would we have to talk about with our
therapists?
Thanks to the woman who ramrods the reunions, Ilene Arbetter, I was hunted down and practically dragged to our reunion in 2012. The supposed end-of-the-world apocalypse forecasted for December 21 may have had something to do with my decision. After all, what did I have to lose?
What I discovered was that I was wr-r-r-r-ong. Everyone was much older, a bit wiser, and we had all swallowed a good dose of reality in the ensuing years. I saw old friends who still seemed glad to see me and to be seen. Memories of good times I had completely forgotten returned, and for the first time in 45 years, I felt the pain and anger I associated with that time of my life ebbing away. I discovered a lot of the negative feelings I’d carried for so long had more to do with my relationship with my mother back then than they did with the kids I
blamed for them.
I am so grateful to Ilene for nagging me into going. I’m still reaping benefits from reconnecting with my schoolmates. It seems like every few weeks there’s someone new who takes the plunge and joins our Facebook group. And every once in a while, one of those people become new close friends, based on shared interests and politics, or friendly adversaries, based on opposite viewpoints and politics. It all stays remarkably civil, much more so than I would have believed
possible.
So now I have old friends, new friends, and new old friends. My husband has been caught in the fallout and has made a few new friends, too. He enjoyed my reunion because he likes hearing things about me I never told him. Also, he doesn’t have to remember anyone’s names since it’s not his reunion. There’s no pressure, and
occasionally he gets an illuminating tidbit about my teenage years to laugh about.

My point is this: when your next reunion comes up, give it a chance. If you make just one new old friend, it will be worth your effort. You might even discover that someone you despised back then isn’t so bad now. There’s something about life that mellows most people. Marriage, kids, divorce, illness, and deaths have happened to us all, and we carry the scars on our faces.

Most of us look like crumbling Greek ruins, until we smile. There’s something so touching about someone smiling and being able to glimpse that sweet young boy or girl again, even if it’s only for a second. Our younger selves are still inside us. That part of us never ages, never dies.

Flirting with Death–Growing Up Boomer

imagesRT5WAQE7If you grew up in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, it’s a miracle you’re alive. There’s a reason for the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In other words, raising your children with danger and bad medicine didn’t end with the discovery of seatbelts and penicillin.

I can hear my mother now: “If a little does a little good, a lot will do a lot of good.” This was her rationale for ignoring dosing instructions on over-the-counter medications. To her, a tablespoon was a serving spoon from the table. A teaspoon was the soup spoon. She cheerfully ladled out Pepto-Bismol to reverse my problem, then ladled out mineral oil to reverse the cure. I was almost grown before I knew medicine doses measured like salt and baking powder, not mashed potatoes.

My mother was a helicopter parent long before helicopters were invented. Maybe she was a spiro-gyro or hot air balloon parent. Worrying was a way of life for her, and we were first on her list. A sneeze or cough was enough to make her drag us off to the doctor, where we were guaranteed a penicillin shot. The miracle drug was dispensed for complaints big and small. After all, what’s the use of having a miracle drug, if you aren’t going to use it for everything? And if we were really sick, too sick to go downtown to the Medical Arts building to his office, the doctor would stop by our house on his way home, and he always had a supply of penicillin in his bag.

The bathroom medicine cabinet was full of over-the-counter remedies, too. Pepto-Bismol, iodine, mercurochrome, Little Black Pills, and Carter’s Little Liver Pills all played a role in keeping the family healthy. Bayer aspirin, and later Excedrin, were the cure-alls for headaches. Aspirin, hot tea, and dry toast was the treatment for cramps. Little Black Pills were for constipation, with Pepto for diarrhea. Cuts and abrasions called for iodine. Always. Period.

My parents would have fit right into the Stoics’ society. If there were no bones sticking out and no blood, you were fine. Suck it up and walk it off. Of course, first we had to annihilate the enemy of the Free World–germs. These little critters were a relatively new discovery when my parents were little, and their parents attacked them as if they were going after “Kaiser Bill.”

For a good part of my childhood, iodine was the poison du jour for medical germicide. Unfortunately, iodine felt like having lava poured into an open wound, probably because it had an alcohol base. Screaming because of the injury redoubled when I felt the cure.

There was a kinder, gentler antiseptic–mercurochrome. It didn’t burn nearly as badly, and much of the discomfort it caused could be eliminated by blowing on the wound until it dried. No one considered the fact that blowing germ-laden breath on an open wound was counter-productive. In addition, it didn’t seem to impress anyone negatively that the active ingredient was mercury. Yes, as in “permanent brain damage” mercury. Mercurochrome wasn’t banned as an over-the-counter product until 1998.

And speaking of mercury, we loved it when Mama dropped the thermometer while “shaking it down,”  shattering it on the tile bathroom floor. That provided a really cool, new toy to play with: mercury. We were fascinated by the way it “crawled” when it moved, and even more awed by how well it cleaned tarnish off dimes and nickels when we smeared it over the coins with our bare fingers.

Dental care was high on the list for “better living through chemistry.” When an Air Force dentist looked at my husband’s teeth and exclaimed, “Good grief, boy! You’ve got Cadillac teeth!” there was a brief moment of alarm, before Bryan realized this was a good thing. His hometown, Pasadena, Texas, was one of the first cities in the state to put fluoride in their drinking water. Consequently, cavities were rare, but their smiles looked like a “before” picture in a whitening gel commercial. The recipe needed a little fine tuning.

imagesQ4VRVBCKDDT trucks driving up and down the streets, spraying for mosquitoes, were also part of growing up in Pasadena. Bryan and his friends rode their bikes in the fog behind the trucks for fun.

If being endangered by your parents and health care professionals wasn’t enough, toymakers and Madison Avenue joined in, too. No cool kid would have dreamed of wearing a helmet when riding a bike. I remember my father saying, “Aw, she doesn’t have to wear one of those. Nothing’s going to happen. Besides, she can hardly see out from under it. That thing’s dangerous.” And why on earth would you need child-proof packaging on medications and drain cleaner? “Kids know better than to get into those.”

My brother had a chemistry set. He managed to make his room smell like dead fish for a month, but at least no one was killed. Early Gilbert Chemistry Sets included 56 chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient in homemade bombs) and the poisonous and flammable potassium permanganate. The “Atomic” chemistry sets of the ’50s came with radioactive uranium ore. They got a little safer in the ’60s but weren’t really reined in until the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

imagesHT8EWSF6As if the sexy men and women puffing away in movies weren’t convincing enough, we were encouraged to smoke by actors dressed like doctors on television. No one had even heard of secondhand smoke. And remember candy cigarettes? I used to get them in my Christmas stocking.

Car seats and seatbelts were optional. imagesZYTDNG9FAnd lead-based paint, which causes brain and kidney damage, wasn’t outlawed until 1978. It was routinely used on cribs, among other things.

I don’t blame my parents. They only knew what they saw on TV and in the newspaper. I do blame the scientists and advertisers who knew these things were dangerous, even if they didn’t know the full extent. They ignored the fact that people were buying and using their poisons, and it really hasn’t changed much over the years. It seems like every day something is recalled or declared unsafe, something we did to our newborns is now considered deadly, and some medicine our parents gave us is now used to kill roaches.

There are seven billion people on the earth, and the population is growing. How can that be when we are doing our best to kill ourselves off? Maybe it’s the underdeveloped countries, whose people don’t have access to our medicines, cleaning products, and chemical-infused food, who are overpopulating. They better hope the don’t catch up to us. That could be a real health hazard.

The Wisdom of Facebook

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I don’t usually make life decisions based on Internet advice, much less anything I see on Facebook. However, lately I’ve felt a need for a basic change, and strangely enough, Facebook has been flooded with seminal advice. Like someone driven to buy something after a barrage of advertising, I feel a need to get my act together, and this may be my last opportunity. I’m not on death’s door, but I’m definitely on the downhill slope of my life. I’ve decided to live this part differently from the rest.

Hopefully, with age comes perspective about yourself and others. Here are some of the conclusions I’ve reached about how I want to conduct what’s left of my life:

  1. Don’t drink anti-freeze. It’s toxic. Likewise, it’s okay to cut toxic people out of your life. You’ll live longer.
  2. Stop feeling guilty for not being able to like someone.
  3. Try to be happy. If it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, do it.
  4. For God’s sake, have an opinion on things that are important to you, the country, and the world. If you lie on the beach and just let the waves wash over you, you will die at high tide.
  5. You can’t save everyone or change the world in one lifetime. But it is our duty to try.

There are a few people in my life who are absolutely toxic to me. I get physically sick every time I have any contact with them. Some of them are people society tells me I should love/tolerate/suck it up and abide. I’ve tried. For years. Without success. These are people who literally drain the life out of me, and I just can’t afford to squander any.

I no longer feel guilty for not being able to like someone. Some people are just plain mean, and I have chosen, finally, to walk away clean. You can’t fix mean.

It is not a sin to be happy. Nor is it a personality defect or character flaw. I would never seek happiness from something that hurt someone else. It’s not that important. And it shouldn’t be something that actually hurts me in the long run, like eating pie every day. I confess I sometimes drowned my sorrows in a Hostess Fruit Pie. My name is Janet, and I’m a fructoholic. No stick and carrot for me. My stick dangles an apricot fried pie. Too much of a good thing will kill you, but so will too much of a bad thing (See No. 1 about that anti-freeze thing.) I refuse to spend the years I have left lying to myself. “Pie is bad for you,” is a lie. It makes me happy.

We are an opinionated family. My daughter called home just a few days after being dropped off at college to complain about her roommate. “Mama, she’s just not normal. She has no opinions on anything! She thinks I’m crazy for handing out flyers on the quad to stop violence against women. How am I supposed to communicate with someone like that?”

How can a sentient being not care about what’s going on around them? If a mother refuses to change her baby’s diaper because it is dirty and she doesn’t want to get involved, she’s arrested for child neglect. Well, America needs its diaper changed, and anyone who doesn’t want to get involved in politics because it’s distasteful and dirty is guilty of societal neglect. How did the Nazis take over Germany? Not enough people wanted to get involved.

Many people refuse to do even something as minimal as recycling, preferring to deny the existence of global warming and resource depletion. And so what if Dallas, Texas has suddenly become an earthquake zone? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with fracking ‘cause we need that oil.

And finally, we may not be able to save everyone, but how can we not at least try? Every great world religion teaches the same thing: help those less fortunate. It’s a sentiment that’s repeated in our music, our literature, even our fortune cookies. Seeing to it no one gets kicked to the curb, not our elderly, disadvantaged, disabled, or ill, completes us as human beings. How can you not care that some people are trying to legitimize neglecting those who most need the help?

I figure, if I’m lucky, I’ve got maybe another ten years of lucidity. I’m not going to waste that precious time on negative situations or people. I am going to learn how to say, “To Hell with you!” in many different languages, and I am going to eat pie when I want to.

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You Don’t Have to Be Patsy Cline to Do Crazy

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Invitation to My Last Family Reunion

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Don’t talk to me…I’m Isadora Duncan!

I like squirrels. I relate to them. Maybe I was a squirrel in a previous life.

Admittedly they have a reputation for being, well, squirrelly, but they’ve always
seemed perfectly normal to me. That should have been a red flag.

Crazy doesn’t run through my family; it saunters slowly and deliberately. My daughter hates going to a new doctor and filling out the medical history sheets. When she gets to the question, “Is there mental illness in your family?” she has to ask for extra paper.

And I’m not talking about eccentricity. None of my people were rich enough to be eccentric. The kindest term I heard applied to one ancestor was, “He was notional.” Right. This was the guy who fought for the Confederacy for three years and switched sides the last year of the war. That might sound pretty smart and not crazy at all to some people, namely those from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but context is everything. He was removed from the family Bible and never spoken of again.

My mother’s aunt, another example, was a complete loon. Her given name was Willie Polk Morgan, which she hated. The first chance she got, she had it legally changed to Pocahantas P. Morgan, which she considered a major improvement. I remember her well, because she used to remove her dentures at the table after eating, wrap them in her napkin, and then surreptitiously make the bundle move slightly, as if those choppers were alive. She would scare small children (mainly me) by grabbing the bundle, shoving it into their throats, and making Cujo growling noises. I had a stressful childhood.

Polk’s brother’s name was Robert Edwin, but he went by Pete. No one bothered to tell me he and his wife were dropping by from Tennessee one day, so when a strange man got out of his car and growled, “Come here, girl!” I screamed bloody murder and ran for the front door. Everyone laughed at me and acted like I  was crazy. That’s when I learned about “the eye of the beholder.” For the first time I realized I was the only sane one in my house.

My father approached normalcy, at least compared to my mother’s side of the family. But he carried a spool of tamale string in the trunk of his car in case he needed to effect repairs on something. He believed if it couldn’t be fixed with tamale string, it was broken beyond repair.

My mother was superstitious to the point of paranoia. It was bad luck to kill crickets, lay a hat on a bed, return to a starting point by a route different from the one by which you sallied forth, or walk around an obstruction on the opposite side from someone else without dispelling the bad luck by saying, “Bread and butter!” I remember many childhood hours spent in deep guilt because I had stepped on a crack in the sidewalk; my mother’s paraplegia was imminent. She used to make up superstitions if she didn’t have one ready-made to fit any occasion.  “You put those rocks back! Don’t you dare put them in the car. I had a cousin who came down with diphtheria right after putting rocks in the car!” It was years before I realized she just didn’t want my dirty rock collection in her Caddie.

I am not superstitious. I simply don’t believe in pressing my luck. And I can’t see letting those near and dear to me tempt fate, either. For example, my husband has a tendency to put hats on the bed. This is a community property state. That means half of his bad luck is mine! I have enough trouble forestalling my own doom without having to worry about a paranormal loose cannon.

We recently attended a party on a cold day, where everyone piled hats and coats on a bed. He motioned at me through the open door and asked, “Is it okay to put my hat on the bed if my coat is in between?” I made an executive decision. And I must have been right, because both of us survived the party and made it home safely.

I’ve heard that sane people are boring. I can’t confirm that because I’ve yet to meet one. I don’t even know where they are kept. If you find one, please let me know so I can judge for myself. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to relate to squirrels and my family as equals.