?`s and ANNEswers

Ten minutes to write. Less time to read.

No Smiling Still in Effect

When I first started blogging twenty years ago, I wrote about going to Walgreen’s for a passport photo. That post said:

I went to my local Walgreen’s yesterday to obtain the two photos required by our government to have one’s passport renewed. Sure enough, in the photo department a woman waited with a Polaroid camera and a pull-down screen that provided the obligatory white backdrop. She propped me up in front of the screen, made furrows in her forehead, and said, “Don’t smile.”

I obliged, although I wondered why smiling, or lack thereof, was part of the process. It wasn’t necessary to ask aloud, since the woman’s explanation was forthcoming. “We’ve received new government guidelines,” she said. “Applicants are not to smile since it changes their appearances.”

Her sincerity could not be doubted, but her answer made me wonder where this idea originated. I also wondered how much money the government spent sending the guidelines to every Walgreen’s as well as to every other place that offers passport photos.

I can see a variety of consequences to the “No Smiling” order. Airport security personnel will add another item to their burgeoning checklist. Anyone who currently possesses a passport with a smiling photo will be asked to replicate the smile before hearing an official say, “Yes, it’s you. Go on through.”

Then when American tourists are asked to show their passports in other countries, we’ll all appear as a somber bunch. This might be interpreted as proof that we don’t like living in our country. We’ll all look older too, since smiles tend to de-age the face and our photos will be smile-less.

I wonder if those who issue drivers’ licenses will follow suit.

Today I returned to Walgreen’s for an updated passport photo. This time, a young man the size of Hulk Hogan had the Polaroid and  the pull-down screen. But I beat him to the punchline about not smiling.

“Yes,” he said, “It’s still in effect. Please look straight at me.”

A few minutes later the updated, non-smiling, two-inch square, 2024 version of my passport photo was in my hand. It cost almost twice as much as it did in 2004. Come to think of it, that’s not the only change. There’s been continuous war, mass shootings, global catastrophes, social media explosions, and political chicanery.

Perhaps those government officials who issued the No Smiling Edict twenty years ago were clairvoyant, because there isn’t a lot to smile about these days.

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Super Bowl Commercials

I found a website this morning that rated the best and worst Super Bowl commercials from yesterday’s extravaganza. Since there was only one commercial of those I’d seen that really caught my attention, I wondered what the website would say.

So I spent half an hour viewing commercials that had aired last night and that really went over my head. The one that Earl and I liked best was deemed one of the worst.

Commercials were rife with cameos from Hollywood types: Martin Scorsese, Christopher Walken, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Anniston, Ben Affleck, et al. 

There were definite themes: extraterrestrial challenges, promos of coming movies in theatres, lots of mayhem regardless of the situation.

As I viewed a commercial without its accompanying commercials, I saw more of the content and intention that I didn’t see when the commercial segued into another that segued into another.

Without intrusions, the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale commercial made me smile. Like me, the Clydesdales are “over the hill” and don’t appeal to younger beer drinkers. But the horses delivered to the younger generation in the ad.

As for our favorite commercial that ranked at the bottom of the list, I still think seeing Eagle and Raven football players flying away because the season is over is pretty funny.

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Super Bowl, Ho-Hum

The game is over; I’m weary and heading to bed. But before I hit the pillow, here is my assessment of tonight’s game. Tomorrow you’ll get everyone else’s.

I had no real investment in who won. Both teams had excellent quarterbacks; both teams had won before. I would have been more invested if Detroit and Baltimore were playing.

I had no real investment in the commercials either, although I read that a 30-second spot cost $7 million. That seems like an excessive amount to spend for being ganged with a bunch of other $7 million thirty seconds for a three to five minute barrage of commercials. Nothing stands out in that situation.

As for the halftime show, I didn’t watch it attentively. Instead, I fixed our snacks and occasionally saw Usher dancing and skating. It reminded me of the openings to various Olympic games, where it seems important to have an many people on the field for the grand number. It’s not a performer’s moment; it’s a group spectacle.

Some people wondered if Taylor Swift would swoop down into Usher’s halftime world. That didn’t happen; nor did a proposal from Travis to Taylor happen either. Thank goodness.

As for my snacks, the hot wings took the trophy while the ribs were second, and the Frito pie was a disappointing third. The focaccia bread and blue cheese hadn’t applied for trophy status, but they were both solid.

By the way, the actual name given to the first Super Bowl in 1967 was the “AFL-NFL World Championship Series. I’m not sure how it could have been a World Series when most of the world doesn’t play football, but I have this issue with baseball’s playoffs too.

I think it’s time to retire.

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Grade School Reunion, 2013

“Where are you going?” the shuttle driver asked as he drove me from the economy parking lot to Chicago’s Midway Airport.

“St. Louis,” was my two word answer.  I’m not prone to chatting with strangers.

“Business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure.” I could see my driver was prone to chatting with strangers, so I expanded on the subject for his benefit. “I’m going to a reunion.”

“Family or school?” If this were “Twenty Questions,” there were seventeen to go.

“School.”

“High school or college?” This driver would not be dismayed.

“I’m going to my grade school class reunion, the first ever.”

He twisted around in his seat and looked at me.  His eyes did an analysis, but he was kind enough not to ask how many years ago I’d graduated from eighth grade.

“You mean you kept up with those kids?”

“Only one on a regular basis.”

By then we’d reached the terminal.  I grabbed my luggage and stepped out of the shuttle bus as the driver said, “I don’t know anybody I graduated from grade school with.  I don’t even know anybody from high school. I hope you have a great time.”

“Thanks,” I said, silently hoping the same thing.  After all, it was fifty-five years ago that the thirty-two of us who represented St. Louis Cathedral Grade School’s class of ’57 were together for the last time. If my life was any indication, a lot happened in those fifty-five years.

* * * * *

Carol, the friend I’d kept in touch with all that time, and I had talked back and forth for years about trying to find our former classmates.  But it never went beyond wondering where everybody was.  I’m still unclear what changed this past January, but Carol contacted Kathi W, with whom she had stayed in contact.  Soon they were planning a get-together in St. Louis at the end of April and suddenly the get-together became a reunion. The two of them searched Facebook and contacted various high schools around the city looking for classmates.

It was definitely a hit or miss approach.  Back in the day, women took their husbands’ names when they married; so finding the girls was problematic.  If it had been a high school or college reunion, we might have met the intended spouses; but in eighth grade none of us was seriously attached.  We started looking for the boys instead.

We found Andy in Washington, D.C.  We found Jim there too.  And Bob R. in San Antonio and Bob D. in North Little Rock. I don’t know how we found Tony, but when we did he had stayed in St. Louis all his life and had also stayed in touch with some other classmates.

Our email list grew. By the time April arrived, we’d found almost half the class. Considering that many reunions are a year in the planning, this was amazing. However, finding our friends didn’t mean they could all come to St. Louis.  A couple were gravely ill; others had previous commitments.  But they all were glad to be back in touch.

* * * * *

Back then, we were a ragtag bunch of kids with mostly working class parents who wanted better for their offspring. Some of us were smart and some were not. Yet we found solace in each other’s company as we approached adolescence. We listened to Elvis and learned the Bunny Hop and discovered Spin the Bottle. We listened to the Everly Brothers and dreamed.

St. Louis Cathedral Grade School in the mid-nineteen fifties was defined by the nuns who taught us and the regimented Catholic upbringing they imposed on their charges.  We learned to obey, because not doing so meant being singled out and possibly punished in a way that would get a teacher into hot water today.

I remember in seventh grade how the nun took Jackie G’s head and banged it against the blackboard for some infraction.  His father had just died, and surely he was still distraught.  But Sister paid no mind.

I remember our eighth grade nun, who was also the principal.  On one occasion she took each student into the coat closet, grilled that person about a potential offense, and then administered what she thought was an appropriate punishment.  I, who was mostly obedient and quiet, received several wraps on the legs with a wooden rule.

Today, we are a ragtag bunch of solidly senior citizens with families of our own. Our parents are dead, and we are involved with our own children and grandchildren.  But somehow we remain connected. Maybe we should thank the Everly Brothers.

* * * * *

I loved St. Louis Cathedral Grade School and felt a sense of belonging never felt before.  It was the fifth grade school I’d attended; so I was fairly adept as being pleasant enough to make friends, but also fairly adept at leaving them.  This school was an exception.

I met Carol and joined the Grade School Eight, that elite group of girls who hung around together constantly.  We spent weekends losing sleep at Mary Nina’s, knowing her mother would make breakfast in the morning; we held graduation parties in eighth grade and have photos to prove it.

After graduation, eighth graders vied to go to various Catholic high schools throughout the city.  This might have meant a loosening of our bonds, but on weekends we were as close as ever.  We continued to party with the guys we’d known and probably forsook new friends in favor of old ones.

* * * * *

As we began finding classmates and planning the April reunion, I was as enthusiastic as Carol and Kathi W. But as the time approached I fretted.  There were so many wonderful memories crowding my mind that I wondered if seeing these friends years later would obliterate how I remembered them back then.  I hoped it wouldn’t, but you never know.

Would Kathi W’s smile be the same?  And what about her absurd sense of mischief?  She was the one who put a cigarette in the hand of the statue of Joan of Arc.  She was the one who took the ladder away when Carol G. was dusting the top of one of the larger statues in the church..

And Mary Nina?  Would she still have those same hand gestures where both arms stab the air in front of her?  Would she still be the thinnest of us? And the sharpest?

Everyone one of the Grade School Eight had distinguishing characteristics, and I hoped they would still be intact. I was afraid they wouldn’t be.  Which is why I made my airline reservations and answered the shuttle driver’s questions in a pensive mood.

* * * * *

The first night of the reunion weekend we met at the Courtyard by Marriott near the airport.  The object was to meet casually, have some drinks, and reminisce while those who’d traveled a distance that day could retire early and rest after getting re-acquainted.

We started at 5 PM.  Carol and I were in the Bistro waiting.  It took a moment to focus on each classmate as he or she walked into the hotel.  But Carol was really good at recognizing everyone, and she would call out their name.  Then the classmate would be greeted with screams and hugs.  Not very subtle for people our age, but then I believe we resorted to our old eighth grade behaviors.

Bob D. and his wife, Ginny, arrived first. All these years, Bob had kept two portraits of our class, and he brought them to the reunion.  The first was taken on May Day 1957, when all the girls wore white dresses; the second was our formal eighth grade graduation photo taken on the steps of our school in cap and gown the same month. That night at the hotel we pored over those photos to recognize other classmates.

We were still going strong when the bistro that fed us and provided libations closed. I wondered why we didn’t keep in closer contact all these years, especially when the reunion felt so natural.  But in the nineteen fifties, there were no cell phones or computers or emails or Facebook.  There were only telephones for immediate contact and stamps for letters sent afield. I might have been more sensitive than most to this since my mother accepted a job in another town after my freshman year of high school and we moved three hundred fifty miles south to Little Rock, Arkansas. I dearly needed to rely on stamps after that.

But maybe we lost touch because eighth grade, even then, was not a pinnacle of academic achievement.  At the very least, we were all expected to finish high school.  Some of us were also expected to attend college.  Women in particular were on the cusp of expanding their options. So in this framework, grade school got dismissed.

* * * * *

Carol L. hosted a luncheon the next day for the women only.  Of the Grade School Eight, seven attended; and the lone absentee, Kathi M, called while we were enjoying appetizers. Over lunch we went around the table and provided a Reader’s Digest condensed version of our lives during the past fifty-five years.

Enough of us had been divorced to mirror the national statistic that one in two marriages fails.  All of us had children; most of us were on friendly terms with them. We’d all moved around – some in the St. Louis general area, others to different states.  I suspect I took the record for the most moves, since I’ve lived in thirty-four places in twice as many years.

Through our stories we were reduced to laughter and tears, thankfully not in equal amounts.  We’d all buried our parents. Some of us had also buried siblings. Connie S and Kathi W. lost many of their possessions in fires; Carol L. and Mary Nina had experienced traumatic situations with grandchildren. Still, laughter won, because you need laughter if you’re going to face being almost seventy.

* * * * *

Culpepper’s on Euclid Avenue. When we all lived in the old neighborhood – it wasn’t called Central West End then — Culpepper’s was known for its wonderful pizza. Searching the Internet, Carol and I were surprised that the restaurant was still there; and we salivated at the idea of pizza. So for the final event of our reunion, Carol reserved a room there.

We gathered as old friends and continued to share memories of eighth grade and stories of our lives since graduation, as Ginny snapped photos from every angle.  We finally ordered and – if anybody else besides Carol and I noticed – they didn’t mention that pizza is no longer on Culpepper’s menu.  Wings and mozzarella sticks and trendy salads have replaced it.

At first, I was disappointed; but then I thought Culpepper’s is a metaphor for our little group.  None of us is the same as we were in 1957; we’ve changed with the times, but we’re still here too.

The next morning I reversed my travels, and when the shuttle driver took me to my car, he didn’t even ask where I’d been.  I was glad, since I was still savoring the weekend.

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Dutchy

In freshman year of high school, Robert Dutchik was my main crush. We called him “Dutchy” then, but the obituary I read a couple days ago referred to him as Bob.

High school was a long time ago, and I don’t remember much about that romance other than the kiss we shared in the alley a block from my home. When school let out, I was fourteen and headed to Europe for the summer. His family moved to Arkansas. By autumn, it was over.

Until 2013.

We didn’t reconnect as a romantic item that year. Rather, we reconnected at the first-ever Cathedral Grade School Reunion which some of us organized fifty-seven years after our graduation. Bob and his wife, Ginny, were the first to arrive and he brought two class photos from eighth grade that stirred memories in all of us. But they were about our adolescence.

I learned a lot more about Bob the adult from his obituary. He and Ginny were married 51 years. He never moved from Arkansas, but hunted all over the states and Scotland. He had one son, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and five siblings. He worked for Capital Welding and Airgas until he retired.

We’re all pushing or pulling eighty at this point, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that one of our classmates passed away. But it did, and I’m glad we got to reconnect a decade ago. Thanks for the memories, Dutchy.

 

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Dive Bar

A friend and I had lunch at a new restaurant this afternoon. When I asked where she wanted to go, her response was “Surprise me.” That’s hard to do when we both eat out regularly.

Additionally, many restaurants don’t open for lunch anymore. Given what’s happened to the restaurant industry since the pandemic, it probably isn’t very financially remunerative.

But I’d heard of AJ’s Bar and Grill from various sources; had checked the vibe on its website; and decided that a dive bar in the otherwise very conservative community of Berrien Springs was just the thing.

It was dark and quiet when we entered the door, and the bartendress broke the quiet by calling out for us to sit where we wanted. We passed up the back of a modified pick-up truck and chose a high-top halfway down the wall across from the bar. The place had “Country” written all over it, down to a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance on the wall and ads for the upcoming acoustic country star’s weekend performance. I doubt the recently deceased Toby Keith ever played there, but he would have felt right at home.

The bartendress doubled as our server and brought menus promptly without being overbearing. As is typical in restaurants these days, our choices brought a barrage of questions: How did I want my burger cooked, what did I want on it, what side did I want, what about a beverage besides water?

And when my friend chose chips to go with her patty melt, she had to choose between house made and commercial. I almost wondered if we had to choose the type of plate we wanted: plastic or a basket?

As we sipped our beers we waited for the moment of truth to arrive. Would our order meet our expectations and garner return visits? Or would this be a one visit relationship?

There was no question. My burger was cooked exactly as I’d requested (medium rare, which is often hard to come by), while her patty melt looked like something Earl would have loved. We both agreed our guys would like AJ’s and that this surprise – since I’d not been there before either – was a great one.

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More on Macy’s

My displeasure with Macy’s is long-standing and didn’t begin with the current credit card issue. In fact, when Macy’s purchased that Chicago department store icon, Marshall Field’s, in 2005 I vowed I’d never set foot in any store with Macy’s name on it.

And I haven’t. Well, actually I have, but I’ve never purchased anything there until this past January. I found the merchandise cheesy, the displays tacky, and the staff uninterested in service.

But I’d been looking long and hard for joggers – that contemporary term which has displaced sweatpants. Joggers that fit and were reasonably priced. And I happened across some on the internet, paying little attention to the source of the product.

Which is how I came to order three pair from Macy’s, all of which confirmed my original opinion of the store. I sent them back, expecting the same kind of refund I’ve gotten from Wal-Mart, Joseph A. Banks, and my local grocery store (which certainly operates on a smaller margin than Macy’s).

Instead, I got a gift card. It is bright red with the phrase “Happy Returns” printed across the bottom. In four point print (which is barely readable) the various provisions for using the card are explained. And one of them says that the only way to use it is until the cash value is exhausted. There is no option for going to Customer Service and asking for my money in cold, hard currency.

Earl and I once opened a new jigsaw puzzle we’d ordered and proceeded to put it together. After a frustrating week, it turned out there were 21 pieces missing. We slipped white paper under the puzzle, and I wrote the numbers in the white spaces before photographing the entire thing and sending it to the puzzle company. I wanted my money back, but the puzzle company sent a mealy apology instead and gave me a certificate for another puzzle.

Macy’s has used this same tactic, but my reaction is the same. I bad mouthed the puzzle company ad nauseum and plan to do the same with Macy’s. What I do about the gift card in the end remains to be seen.

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Buyer Beware

It’s that time of year where I return items purchased for Christmas that didn’t make the grade. There’s the shirt from Joseph A, Banks and the three joggers from Macy’s. I was very pleased with how the former handled a refund, less so with the latter.

Joseph A. Banks wasted no time in crediting my charge card. Case closed. But Macy’s doesn’t credit your card; instead it gives you a credit for a purchase that is the amount of the items you returned. Actually, I don’t want to purchase other items from Macy’s based on the experience I had. I want a refund.

But today I received in the mail the credit card loaded for the amount of the items I returned. I’d planned to go to my closest Macy’s and purchase something under the amount involved and then ask for the remainder in cash. But the fine print on the credit card says it’s only good for merchandise.

We’ll see.

But, if I can’t redeem the card for cash, you can be sure I’ll never shop at Macy’s again. And I’ll let the company know. In fact, this blog is the first salvo.

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Mondays

I have always loved Mondays, even when I worked. Most people think of them as the start of a long week, after a weekend off. They dread returning to work with five days ahead filled with meetings, reports, and confabs at the water cooler.

My take is that Monday is for organizing what you do the rest of the week. It’s like an extension of the weekend where you focus on what needs to be done in the next few days. But it isn’t really about accomplishing anything; it’s about getting organized.

Case in point.

I’ve spent most of the past five weeks dealing with pneumonia. So things have piled up. My passport needs to be renewed; there is a suspicion charge on my credit card; the appointment with my tax accountant is looming; and I need a permanent.

So today, I made a list of things that need to be addressed this week. There are 23 of them, which means I need to do about five a day to stay on target. Did I do any? Given it’s Monday in my world.

Yes, I did. But I chose the most benign and easy to accomplish lest I defy my opinion that Monday is for organizing and not doing. With pneumonia still lurking in my background, I don’t want to exert myself too much.

That said, Tuesdays are for really doing.

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Writer’s Block (Originally Published in 2001)

The dog-eared paperback caught my eye.  It lay on the shelf at shoulder height, so that I couldn’t miss it, as I searched for something else on my jam-packed bookcase.  Seeing her book, Writing Down the Bones, made me realize I hadn’t read Natalie Goldberg in a long time.  I wondered what she’s writing about these days, or maybe she’s taking a break.

I hope not, because I need a good example right now.

My friendship with Natalie is one-sided.  I am simply one woman in her larger reading audience who has found a friend, a supporter, for writing.  Write every day, she urges.  Even if it is only for ten minutes, just to keep the wrists supple and the creative juices flowing.  Write everywhere, she encourages.  Great words hang out near coffeehouses and park benches and window seats.  Use a writing instrument instead of a computer, the better to feel the process.

Write about anything.  The dirty collar on the shirt of the man in front of you on the bus.  The ending to the dream you were having when the alarm shrilled reveille.  The happiest moment of your life.  The most miserable.

Mostly, forget about being famous and write as if your life depends on it.

Once I spent a whole year writing like that.   Got one of those blank books with lines in it and filled them with ten minute blocks.  Every day.  At first the blocks consisted of neatly arranged words that resembled a carefully planned flower garden, each letter just so.  But soon, more like weeds, they filled the pages. Finally, clinging like kudzu, the words spilled over from one page to the next, choking the lines.  According to Natalie Goldberg’s instructions, they were uncensored, unedited, unfettered.  I even gave my book a title that reflected where I was in life: Halcyon Days.

Halcyons are mythical birds that nest on the sea where it is peaceful and calm during the winter solstice.  And that’s what my life was that particular year.  By choice, I was alone.  My problems with my second ex were more memory than reality, and no one else had vied seriously to take his place.  There were no obligatory television shows to watch together or after-work dinners to share.  No commitments either.  Only long evenings on my hands.

So I turned inward for company and spent hours reading.  I renewed my acquaintance with authors who were old friends and took up with some who were new to me.  Even when I didn’t fully appreciate their work, I admired their tenacity; for if reading is a solitary experience, how much more so is writing.

I’d always struggled to find both the time and energy for it, especially when I was emotionally involved with someone.  The interest was always there, but often it lay fallow for months at a time.  Several spiral notebooks are crammed on another shelf to prove it.  All of them start with the following entry or some variation on the theme:

“Today is [Fill in the date; it doesn’t matter what date] and I am launching my writing career.  I know I’ve said this before, but this time it’s for real.  I can do it.”

A couple notebooks are painfully empty beyond the first few sentences.  Others have several pages filled with my curly handwriting.  But none is more than half filled.  What they really proved was that I was miserable at meeting self-imposed writing deadlines and the years were slipping by.

That’s when I decided to follow Natalie’s advice.  Among the several books she’s written is Writing Down the Bones, which I had given my mother in paperback as a birthday gift.  As was her habit, Mother gave the very same book back to me for a Christmas gift a couple years later.  What could I do but accept that Natalie’s book was really meant for me?  I read it in a minimum of sittings and, filled with inspiration, tried once more.  The first entry in Halcyon Days reads:

May 30  “Memorial Day with Kevin and Elizabeth.  Golden Nugget.  Breakfast.  Montrose Harbor.  Sun.  Jade Dragon. Tattoo.  Leona’s.  Pizza.  Home!   . . . and summer begins.”

This time there were no promises of filling notebooks.  It wasn’t about wanting to be a writer as much as it was simply starting the business of being one.

That was five years ago.  I’ve done a lot of writing since then.  I’ve had several essays published and many more returned.  I sent the novel that represents another year of my life to an agent, only to have it rejected too.  Soundly rejected, with a whine in the voice that I’d bothered her in the first place.  And that’s the reason I’ve used for not sitting down and writing this past month.  Besides, the seasons are about to change and I’m not inspired.

Until now, when Natalie’s book caught my eye, like a former teacher you run into on the street who silently reminds you of your potential.  Who rejects that old excuse called Writer’s Block.

Ah, Natalie, you are here when I need you.  I don’t even have to take the book off the shelf.  I know what you will say.

You will tell me to begin again.

 

 

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