A Book By Any Other Name


I'm starting to feel like a literary dinosaur, or maybe like a forty-year-old size 10 feels in Hollywood. Why? Because the world of books as I know it is changing.

My hat is off to Rebecca Yarros and J. K. Rowling but, frankly, I don't have any interest in reading OR writing about dragons or wizards. I like to read and write about normal people with normal lifestyles. (Well, actually, I like to read and write about Southern people with Southern lifestyles which, to some, is weirder than wizards, but that's only if you didn't grow up eating grits and collards. Not together, mind you; that would be weird.) I appreciate an old Star Trek episode as much as anyone, but when it comes to literature, I like my plots to revolve around familiar things and my characters to come from Planet Earth. (Okay, I admit that Douglas Adams did lure me into paranormal places and I enjoyed it, so I get points for being a little flexible.)

Furthermore, I do not want to cozy up with a Kindle; I want to curl up with a book. I get constant sales pitches telling me how wonderful Kindle is. Maybe so, but I'm not interested. I like my tales to come with pages and covers and pictures and blurbs that help me decide if I'm going to invest myself in that story or not. I like to walk by and touch old favorites on my bookshelves and remember the first time I read them, or how significant they've been in my life. Some of those books I loved as a child wound up in the hands of my children and I am eagerly and carefully preserving them for my grandchildren; what joy!

In my wildest dreams, I can't envision a world with no books. Is it possible to have the same relationship with a cold, hard, soulless techno-toy as one has with a beautiful first edition? I think not. Are turned-down corners and beautiful bookmarks destined to go the way of the formal dining room: fondly remembered but rarely used? One of the sillier justifications I keep hearing for the Kindle is that it can store text for up to a thousand books. Since the average person reads barely five books a year, that "benefit" seems a tad overblown--kind of like calling up a 747 to go buy a gallon of milk.

It was inevitable that technology was going to impact the world of publishing, and I'm certainly enjoying some of that impact: I wouldn't think of embarking on a road trip without an audio book, and I most assuredly would not want to go back to creating my manuscripts on a typewriter. But it makes me sad to think that some toddler in 2050 may never get to Pat the Bunny or ask Where's Spot? and find him. It makes me even sadder to think that a generation raised on shape-shifters and warlocks might dismiss Huck Finn or Anne Shirley as hopelessly dull in comparison.

I'm trying to be open-minded, but here's the bottom line: I'll take a REAL Trixie Belden over a virtual Top 10 any day of the week!

My Llove for Llamas is Over

I am SO over my llama phase.

Once upon a time, I thought llamas were the most wonderful animals on earth. I had dozens of stuffed and ceramic ones. I had llama earrings, llama clothing, and accessories made from llama wool. Then, for a "significant" birthday, I decided I would treat myself to a llama trek. Instead, I ended up BUYING a llama from the woman who owned the llama trek company. Actually, I bought two; because llamas are herd animals, she wouldn't let me have my sweet little Smore unless I took his not-so-sweet buddy, Pongo. The bell that went off in my head as Pongo looked disdainfully down his nose at me (quite a feat since, at that point, I was taller than he was!) should have been a warning.

Three sons, two dogs, and two llamas made for a great life. We live in the country where there's plenty of room to romp and play, and llamas are the world's best pets: low maintenance, curious and clever brains, great eyelashes. Though my furry little fellows had great bloodlines, I quickly discovered I did not have the patience to go the show route (for their one appearance in a local parade, it took four hours a piece to brush and groom them!), and as a busy mom, I didn't have the time to pursue breeding them. Thus Smore and Pongo were left to enjoy life as "gentleman llamas"--lounging in the pasture, entertaining neighbors, sneaking out for an occasional stroll across the yard. We found out they loved guacamole taco chips. We found out they liked Christmas carols. We found out they love to sunbathe on scorching hot days. (Go figure!)

A couple of years ago, my beloved Smore passed away. He was twelve years old and had lived a happy life. As we buried him, I worried about Pongo, in spite of the fact that he had done little over the years to endear himself to me. Did I need to find him a new buddy? Did I need to find him a new home? I was worried he'd be sad and depressed. Ha!

Sweet Smore was barely in the ground before the pompous, arrogant beast I'd always suspected Pongo was revealed himself in full force. He snorted, he bucked, he charged--and, oh, yes, he spat--with great contempt and greater enthusiasm. He broke out of the pasture and headed straight for our back door, where he left a mound of "calling cards" then pranced around as if to say, "C'mon, cross that line. I dare you!" Once out of the pasture, it was almost impossible to get him back in. As long as Smore was alive, pasture breaks were no big deal; we'd lead both llamas right back in with a bucket of grain. But now, if any of us dared to leave the house while Pongo was on the loose, he'd come charging across the yard with malice in his heart, a look in his eyes declaring, "You want a piece of me? Huh? You want a piece of me?" Then he would GIVE us a piece: a hearty helping of stinky, slimy spit delivered with machine-gun force, and woe be unto whoever happened to be in his line of fire. As long as I was watching from inside the house, it was pretty darn funny to see this shaggy, 500-pound son of Satan terrorizing my 6 foot, 200+ pound guys. Not nearly so funny when I was the one running for my life--uncertain whether Pongo's goal was to kill me or claim me. I had no desire to experience either one.

For the last few months, ol' Pongo has been pretty docile. It's been really cold, and he likes cold weather, so maybe he's been in a better mood. Or maybe he's getting old and worn out. In any case, apparently he woke up this morning and decided it was time for a reminder about who's in charge. When my husband and son and I started to leave for work, there was Pongo in the front yard, looming like a long-necked, horizontal Abominable Snowman. I swear his eyes were twinkling; I know he was grinning. Forty-five minutes, four boxes of cereal, two ropes, and a Ford pick-up later, he was back in the pasture. His heart wasn't in this escape, I could tell, because one buck, one snort, and a few half-hearted charges were all the protest he offered. I think he just needed to show a little attitude for old times' sake.

But as I stood out there shivering in the cold, waving that bucket of corn flakes (a sorry substitute for guaco taco chips, I might add) and wondering if my life should be flashing before my eyes, I thought, "Lord, it's time You call this llama home." And then, I'm sorry to say, my next thought was, "Wonder what kind of pet a miniature donkey might make?"

I am truly my own worst enemy.

Alphabetical Escape

I should be doing laundry today. Or ironing. Or taking advantage of the beautiful sunshine and happy 50s temperature and working in my garden. But I have been sick for a week and am just not quite ready to be productive, thus, my activity of choice at the moment is reading. A novel. Reveling in its ability to take me away from my living room and into someone else's. Just like that--in just a few well-crafted sentences.

I have loved reading for as long as I can remember--longer, actually; I can't ever remember not reading. My earliest memories are of books--sitting with them at my mother's feet, or pondering what to select as I searched through shelves in the library my childhood church was blessed to have. I read at home, in my car, on vacation, at meals if I have no companions, at night till I can hold my eyes open no longer. It fascinates and, perhaps, annoys, my husband; "Don't you ever just want to sit?" he asked one time, coming back to the car from a quick trip into the post office to find me with my head in a book.

I do other things, of course. I can watch old movies for hours, can spend all day in the kitchen conjuring up creative foodstuffs, can get happily messy planting a garden or attempting some craft. But books are the passion I return to day after day: when I finish one, if there isn't another waiting, I feel bereft, at loose ends. As with my choice of music, my taste in books is broad--although I have an admitted preference for happy endings and a strong aversion to gore. I choose books based on what I've heard or read about them, because I like the author's previous work, because the cover or title catches my eye, because the overview intrigues me, sometimes simply because the book is the "right" size (an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick, which means I can read it within a week) and the pages have lots of white space with appealing, easy to read type (though those selections must also have one of the previous attributes, as well!).

One of my greatest joys as a mother is that all three of my children love reading. I suppose I took that for granted until I realized at some point during my early carpool days that all children don't. What a sad discovery! I can understand how a child who struggles with language skills would find the act of reading a chore, but why on earth would a child who can read choose not to? Who would want to miss out on those glorious excursions of the mind? Just as I find people who think they hate poetry have simply never been exposed to enough of it, or had an unpleasant encounter with it, I suspect people who don't read--especially children--have suffered the same fate. What a tragedy to miss out on one of life's greatest pleasures--one that requires no work, no expense, no equipment, and no payback!

Okay, maybe some payback: as the new year starts, I encourage you to join me in taking every opportunity to celebrate and share the joy of reading. We've all heard stories about people whose lives have been changed because of reading a book; who knows what impact you could have on a child's life by introducing him/her to Charlotte's Web or The Little Engine That Could? And if reading doesn't bring you joy, I urge you to make an all-out effort to find it--in the pages of a novel, a memoir, a biography, a poetry book, or even a magazine. Join a book club, befriend a librarian, meet an author, do a search for "best books ever written," track down your high school English teacher, whatever it takes, because I promise you, it's worth it. Reading can take you places nothing else can and leave you with a feeling of satisfaction that nothing can take away...not even an election year.

Favorite Memories of My Brother

My big brother was 18 and a senior in high school when I was born; I can only imagine what an upheaval in his life that must have been. For the first couple of years, I stayed in a crib in my parents’ bedroom but, eventually, I ended up sharing a room with my sister—9 years my senior. Our room was right next door to Roger’s, and the three of us shared a bathroom.

My earliest actual memory of Roger is of hearing him come in from a date, or whatever evening activity he’d been involved in. Vera and I would have long been in bed, lights out. But when he got settled in his room, locked the door, climbed into bed and spread out his cheeseburger and fries from Knight’s Drive-In, I would tiptoe to the kitchen, get a knife from the silverware drawer, and proceed to pillage the locked door that stood between me and that midnight feast. To his credit, Big Brother always shared. (The price I paid for those unauthorized entries would be exacted years later when, as a teenager, that room became mine, and any hope of ever locking that poor mangled doorknob was long gone!)

At some point in my early childhood, my brother had a Corvette. I don’t remember the color; I only remember standing in the passenger seat, grinning, my left arm wrapped around Roger’s neck. (No seat belts required back then.) In that memory, we are sitting in the driveway of our house, so maybe he never actually suffered through having to drive around town with his chubby baby sister holding on for dear life in his very cool car. In my mind, though, I was a regular passenger. About that same time, I developed huge crushes on my brother’s friends. I was four, they were 22, so the best I could hope for was a friendly smile or indulgent pat on the head. They could have viewed me as a total pain in the neck, but they didn’t seem to, and I appreciated that.


When I was five, Roger had a bulldog named Zipper. He decided to enter him in the dog contest of the Hardee County Fair, and he said I could be the one to walk Zipper out in front of the judges and show him off. I don’t remember if he won the contest or not, but I still vividly remember walking across the outdoor stage on that chilly November night, holding Zipper’s leash and smiling at the people out in the bleachers.

We always had music in our house when I was a child: Lawrence Welk on the TV, Guy Lombardo on the stereo, Mother whistling or playing her violin, Vera on the piano or organ, friends and family gathered around singing. Things really got fun when Roger sat down at the keyboard for some rousing rock and roll, or his duet with sister Vera of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”—the latter an annual and always anticipated holiday event (In later years, Roger’s soulful rendition of “Ol’ Man River”, accompanied by Vera, became an equally anticipated event.)

When I was about 13, Roger put me to work one day answering the phone at his furniture store. When I protested that surely there was something else I could do because what customer was going to want to talk to ME, he gave me a stern lecture in self-confidence: “The person on the other end of that phone has no idea how old you are. Be polite, get your facts straight, and you’ll do just fine.” That advice served me well during my adolescent years.

About that same time, or maybe a year or two later, I begged Big Brother to teach me how to drive. He agreed, and drove us in his turquoise El Camino out to "Wauchula International Airport" (pretty much just a big cow pasture), where he put me behind the wheel and proceeded to show me the ropes of shifting gears, pushing the gas pedal, using the turn signals and, most importantly, how to brake!

The summer I was sixteen, I wangled an opportunity to be a stringer for The Tampa Tribune, doing interviews with country singers. I spent the summer living in Nashville with Roger and going with him every day to the booking agency where he worked. I remember us having lunch at Morrison’s downtown on one of my first days there; famous faces were scattered around and as I wondered how I would ever be brave enough to take up these people’s time, Roger gave me another self-confidence lecture: “These people put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you do.” It was a glorious summer; Roger took me backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, introduced me to so many talented people, and the Tribune published every interview I sent them. I went home feeling like a celebrity myself!

Our father having passed away many years earlier, it fell to my brother to give me away on my wedding day. As we stood in the vestibule of First Baptist Church in Wauchula, Roger looking handsome in his suit, me in my wedding gown thinking, “Oh, my gosh, am I really doing this?!”, he smiled, squeezed my hand, and gave me the soothing words I needed to hear before walking down the aisle.

You delivered a lot of soothing words over the years, Big Brother. Thank you for all of them; thank you for everything. I'm going to miss you. A lot.

Words, Take Me Away!

 Forget bath salts. When I want to be whisked away from reality (as I do this afternoon!), nothing offers a speedier getaway than books--specifically, novels. I enjoy reading nonfiction, too, but when things like broken A/C, weeds/endless weeds, piles of paperwork, an overloaded to-do list (isn't it always?!), and sundry undone-and-impending tasks are pecking at my brain like angry bluejays, it's to fiction that I fly.

At the moment I'm reading Pamela Duncan's Plant Life, and while Laurel Granger's life makes my mine look positively serene (even in my current agitation!), the Carolina surroundings soothe me and and the family banter makes me smile. But I'm no Southern snob: Lorna Landvik's Minnesota settings lift my spirits, too. In fact, I hate to see Landvik's novels end; even though her plots are typically contemporary and realistic, they transport me far away from my own reality and into a "happy place" in my brain that is truly divine.

Words have done that for me since I first discovered the joy of the alphabet at age four. There is simply no level of fatigue, despair, or frustration that can't be held at bay by a good tale. Most recently, I've fallen under the spell of old "Gunsmoke" shows. Good/evil, black/white, love your horse/punish the gunslinger...what a blissfully simple code of ethics! Makes me wonder in these turbulent times (and would we feel quite so turbulent if we stopped listening to the news?) if we wouldn't all benefit from a daily dose of Fannie Flagg or Carl Hiaasen (now THERE's diversity for you!). I'm thinking we'd sleep better at night if a novelist had the last word instead of a talking head.

Just a thought.

All I know is I can't WAIT to get home and see what happens next at Pamela's plant in Russell...

Who knew a squirrel could be cuddly?

During Vacation Bible School at my church recently, to inspire everyone to dig deep into their piggy banks and support our designated mission project, I invited a local animal rescue organization to bring some of their critters and talk about their work.

To say that the ladies who came made an impression would be an understatement. The children were mesmerized by the chance to see and touch a sugar glider, raccoon, and squirrel up close, and we adults turned into big puddles of mush--begging to hold and cuddle these wild things that fate has domesticated. (Okay, calling Buddha the Raccoon "domesticated" would be a stretch, but he was amiable and accommodating, if not docile!) Hazel the Squirrel, brain damaged at an early age due to a fall from her nest, was an angel, happily nibbling nuts from our palms and snoozing contentedly on our shoulders. Splenda the Sugar Glider was cordial and curious but, being nocturnal, fell asleep and pretty much missed the party.

While we ogled and petted and cuddled these animals that were fortunate enough to be rescued from their sundry disasters, the rescue reps shared staggering statistics and sobering stories: the fifteen volunteers of their organization took in 11,500 injured, abandoned, abused, or endangered animals from nine different counties last year. (Do the math: that's almost 770 animals A PIECE--2 a day, every day for a year!) So where do these animals come from? Sometimes they're exotic pets that people get bored with or tired of. Sometimes they wander into dangerous or inappropriate places and someone calls for help. Sometimes a neighbor reports another neighbor who's tried to turn a wild thing into a pet. Sometimes someone sees an animal being abused and asks the rescue team to intervene. Sometimes a park ranger calls to say "the mama's dead and we have no way to take care of the babies." So off goes the rescue team, superhero saviors of the furry and the four-footed. Of course, these volunteers don't just show up, save the day, and drive away; many times they take these animals into their homes and nurse them back to health, give them a home until one can be found, or care for the animal until it can be released back into the wild.

Did I mention that these are volunteers? As in, they offer up their time, gas, resources, and homes for FREE, with no compensation whatsoever, purely because they have hearts made of solid gold? We were happy to bestow a week's worth of Bible school donations on them, but what we gave doesn't even begin to make a dent in what they need. So if you'd like your hard-earned money to go to something besides the gas pump for a change, toward something that is human kindness of the purest kind, consider sending a few dollars to support your local animal rescue effort. (And, yes, even a few dollars really helps!) If you can't spare cash, consider giving some time or supplies; these organizations are always in need of runners, clerical help, vet services, food, etc.

It's getting harder and harder to make a difference in today's world; here's an opportunity that's guaranteed. Buddha and Hazel thank you!

Remembering June in May


Who’s your favorite mother? Well, besides your own, of course. Or maybe you always wished you had the mom down the street instead of the one God gave you—the one that let her kids come and go as they pleased, never issued all those pesky rules and ultimatums, and was SO much cooler.

While I greatly admire the wise and wonderful Marmee from Little Women , I must confess that my favorite mom is June Cleaver. A fellow mother of sons, June offered the perfect blend of intelligence, humor, assertiveness, skepticism, modesty, graciousness and spunk. During all those years when I watched faithfully every week as Mrs. Cleaver capably dealt with crisis after crisis, I had no idea I’d have a Beaver and Theodore of my own someday. Thankfully, my days as a mom never brought forth an Eddie Haskell or a baby alligator to deal with; even so, I feel certain my sons benefited from lessons my subconscious surely retained as I watched June carry out her role as Arbiter of Domestic Harmony without ever breaking a sweat.

In contrast, my own mother sweated a lot to keep me on the appropriate path to adulthood. Working in the yard was always her favorite way to reduce stress; let’s just say our yard looked TERRIFIC during my teenage years! While our living room looked just like the Cleavers', our confrontations weren’t nearly as polite--and occasionally involved a ruler, flyswatter, or switch to help focus my attention. Because I loathe confrontations and learned early the power of words, my favorite battle tactic was to leave a note on Mother’s pillow detailing her horribly unfair assessment of my sin du jour, her ridiculous overreaction, and the depth to which her wrath had grievously wounded me. It’s too bad she didn’t save any of those notes; they would have made great reading all these years later.

I worry about the moms we’re watching on TV and in movies today. Are they instilling/demonstrating essential traits such as honesty, compassion, and integrity? Self-respect and self-control? Do the Real Housewives of Wherever even know those terms? And if new generations aren’t being taught basic values, where exactly is civilization headed?

Be proactive this month: tell a good mom she’s worth a lot more than she realizes. And next time you vacuum, put on your pearls; maybe June knew something we don't.