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About Amphibians and Small People by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Children's Books

/ Stories

Two children’s books — one from the middle of the 19th Century, the other from the end of the 20th, have a special place in my heart, for different reasons. One was a gift to my grandmother from her mother; the other I read to my daughter almost a hundred years later.

My favorite children’s book is titled “Frog Medicine”, published in 1996 by Scholastic, and no doubt forgotten, judging by its four dollar price on EBay. Although beloved in our family, we have lost our copy. It tells the story of a ten-year old boy who keeps putting off writing a book report. His teacher selects “Frog Medicine” for him. He’s not impressed, and throws it in the closet. He awakens the day before it’s due to see that his feet have morphed into those of a frog, and his doctor recommends a visit to a practitioner of frog medicine.  Not surprisingly, this practitioner is a frog who takes our student on a ride through a non-threatening but Dante-esque Canto in a very wet underworld before it all ends happily ever after.

I remember little of the plot details, which ultimately don’t matter. The charm of the book, to me, is captured perfectly in the picture on the cover where the boy, his cat, and the frog doc are all captured perfectly, each with different expressions on their faces. To see all the art depicting this underworld, you’ll have to spring for the four dollars (free shipping!) and send it to EBay. This book is now enshrined in our family lore, although I cannot honestly say that our children were ever as captivated as their parents were, and still remain by this piece of children’s literature.

But I want to share another book which we all know to one degree or another. I have not read all of it, although I’ve seen a film version by Sacramento’s own Greta Gerwig.

I suspect that most women of our generation (my wife, certainly) spent hours reading and re-reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” in their childhood. I did not, (spending my time reading the Hardy Boys and other literary classics instead.)  I was entranced, however, when I saw Gerwig’s rendition when I watched it two years ago — entranced enough so that I went looking for an old copy that I knew was hidden somewhere in our house, its two volumes tied together with twine. And there in the top shelf of a secretary (with glass doors and books behind the glass) was the copy I was looking for. Its two green volumes were tied together. The first volume had glued to it a printed label with my great grandmother’s name, which continued, “from” and then in pencil, “Mama.” There’s also a penciled name on the next page that I don’t recognize, and glued to that page is a printed picture titled “Alcott House, Concord, Mass.” I got excited looking at the title page which at the bottom said, Boston Roberts Brothers 1869; and turning the page I saw a sentence attesting to the fact that it was “entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by Louisa M Alcott.”

The second of the two books, also in a green cover, looked nearly identical, but the title page also says “Part Second” and a date, 1870, is at the bottom of the page.

Significantly, neither volume (or “Part”) says anything about what printing or “impression” I had in my hand. We have a few old books, but all say what edition they are, or list several copyright dates. First editions, I know, don’t always say so. Perhaps it’s tempting fate or exhibiting two much hubris for an author or publisher to label a book as a “first edition.” In any event, a non-exhaustive internet search showed other books that looked exactly like the one in our house, complete with the same “Alcott House” pictured glued inside, although the one I saw online looked in better shape. The conclusion I draw from this is that I was holding in my hand a genuine first edition of this American classic. In perfect shape, on sale for $25,000. In my case, no doubt worth far less. But a wonderful discovery nevertheless, and a cultural link to the woman in the wedding dress I have pictured from 1920 hanging on our bedroom wall as reported in my earlier story, “A Picture, a Mirror, and a Copper Plate.”

Having enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation, maybe I’ll read the book. But in deference to the age of my copy, I think I’ll get a modern printing. Surely it must be out of copyright and not too expensive.

Of Stamps and Notes by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Hobbies

/ Stories

Part I:

My first serious hobby was philately . . . I didn't know it as "philately" until Tom Lehrer rhymed it with Lady Chatterley.

My first serious hobby was philately. At age 8, I knew it as stamp collecting. I didn’t know it as “philately” until Tom Lehrer rhymed it with Lady Chatterley in his song having nothing to do with philately, which, I suppose, was the point.  My brothers and I started out with my mother buying stamps from the H.E. Harris stamp company by mail, and “on approval.” That meant H.E. Harris would send stamps in glassine envelopes, and if we liked them, we’d pay 25 cents or so for the stamps in the envelopes that we liked, and send the rest back. When they arrived, my brothers and I would sit in a circle and select each stamp one at a time. I loved the U.S. stamps. Each one, to my mind, was a miniature piece of art that also told a story. So we put them in albums and learned a bit about the world, this country, its history, geography, and people.

One day our mother came home from a trip where, as best I can now reconstruct it, she returned from the Midwest after disposing of property from her mother’s estate in Illinois. Her return flight went through Kansas City, where she bought stamps for postcards at a vending machine and discovered that they were old commemoratives from the early 1950s. She thought we might like them, so she kept buying them until she ran out of coins. They all went into our collections.  Additionally, we’d buy each new stamp at the post office which, because they welre inexpensive at three and four cents each, we’d go to the next level and buy a “plate block” – four stamps from the corner of a sheet, with the “plate number” in the corner. It turned out that my father had collected stamps as a young man and had an impressive set of plate blocks himself. He’d collected the “famous Americans” series, which had stamps in 3, 5, and 10 cents – so he had plateblocks that had been purchased when 40 cents was more than an hour’s wages for working people in Casper, Wyoming. By the time I got them, these plate blocks commanded a hefty price.

Then, the proverbial “rich uncle” died. In this case, the rich uncle was a “Cousin Elta,” a nurse in Oakland who had never married. She knew of our interest in stamps, and, when she died in about 1960, willed her “American collection” to us. Her foreign collection went to a boy of Asian descent whom she had become friends. She had a lot of early American stamps, including a mint collection of almost every airmail stamp the post office had issued, beginning in 1918, or so. The collection was missing just three air mails – the famous “Graf Zeppelin” stamps which were issued to be flown on the German dirigibles, including the Hindenburg. Very few were bought, and Cousin Elta didn’t buy any. They were also expensive, going for $.65, $1.30, and $2.65 apiece.  However … she did purchase five “Baby Zeppelins” issued at about the same time. She got a block of four with the plate number, and a single stamp as well. Although not quite as special as the other Zeppelins, they’re also prized by collectors, and are now quite valuable. She also had an entire set of the “Parcel Post” series, a set of 20 or so stamps with various scenes of how the post office carried packages, in trucks, by airplane, etc. They’re all red, and beautiful as well.

My interest in stamps faded, in part because the post office went through a period of commemorating too many things or events, and no longer issued their stamps on the engraved sheets which had so mesmerized me when I started collecting. They switched instead to stamps that looked as if they could have been printed in a cheap magazine. In short, they, to my mind, were no longer carefully produced pieces of art, and I no longer got the same joy I felt earlier from them.

It’s not always just the stamps. Sometimes the envelope tells a story. One of my favorites is a soldier’s letter with a six cent airmail stamp. Attached to it is a typed note saying it had been recovered with about 4,000 others in 1945 from a wrecked plane that had crashed two years earlier in the Aleutian Islands in the “Territory of Alaska.” The last line laconically states “The foregoing explains delay in delivery.”

Stamps seem to have grown out of fashion, becoming more of an interest of the older generations.  Younger collectors have replaced philately with baseball cards and Pikachu. And neither I nor my brothers have progeny with an interest in the subject, so the best of the stamps are now in a safe deposit box. I always look at them when I have occasion to add or remove something from the box, and I have the rest in a few albums at home that I look through every now and then. When I die I suspect my heirs will sell the stamps. I have no bitterness about this turn of events. They were a part of my growing up and I look back at them fondly.

Part II:

Hobbies are defined in some dictionaries as a spare time activity that one does for pleasure. That now defines my relationship with my clarinet. Or I should say, my clarinets, as I have them in all different keys (A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat), and corresponding alto, bass, and contra-bass models. It may be erroneous to say they are a hobby; perhaps calling them an unhealthy obsession would describe them better.

Our parents thought properly brought-up children would benefit from an exposure to music, so we had piano lessons, which we tolerated but didn’t particularly enjoy. There were also a few musical instruments including a trumpet and two clarinets in the house, which we were told we could play as part of the school band once we’d had a few years with the piano. The trumpet came from my mother’s father. He was a man who built pipe organs as a profession but, sadly, died before any of us met him. The clarinets were my father’s – you can see him holding one here in his Casper, Wyoming American Legion band uniform. He would, on rare occasion, take the clarinet out and play the cadenza from Offenbach’s overture to “Orpheus In the Underworld”, which I would watch with rapt attention, and to which our dachshund (see my story about Bismarck) would howl in disapproval. I liked the sound of a clarinet, so that became my instrument; my twin brother got the trumpet, and our older brother got the other clarinet which he played for about two years. My clone still plays the trumpet, and I still play the clarinet.

I fell in love with the sound of the clarinet when I heard Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which opens with the clarinet playing a long and low trill, rising by a glissando to a high C, and followed by repeated arpeggios, then going down the scale, through a couple of trills, and then leaping to an F above the high C, and finally back down to a mid-range G. After hearing this, I knew I had to play this instrument. The description doesn’t do it justice. Here’s a recording I just made which I thought would illustrate it better:

The sound a clarinet makes is unlike that from any other instrument. This is because the overtones or partials which one hears in addition to the fundamental frequency of each note are only half as many as what one hears with most other instruments. Simply put, the odd partials are cut out — for acoustic reasons that have never been clear to me. All I know is that a stopped cylinder, such as the clarinet, produces this type of sound. Oboes, saxophones and trumpets, being stopped cones, produce all the overtones. I don’t know how this translates to string instruments. Suffice it to say, the sound of the clarinet, when resonating in my head, keeps me coming back.

Playing the clarinet has been with me since 1962; I played steadily through middle and high school, joined a football scatter band in college, and then pretty much set it aside until after law school when I teamed up with two musicians far better than I. One majored in bassoon performance at San Jose State, but thought lawyering would be more economically stable, and the other, a clarinet player, not a lawyer, played with us as well. I joined a community band in Berkeley, and got my first crack at the aforementioned Gershwin opening to Rhapsody in Blue. I must have played it a thousand times, literally practicing in a closed closet so the neighbors wouldn’t call the cops on me for harassment.

I think what kept me going throughout my affair with the clarinet is a combination of good friends and a belief that I was better than I actually was, thereby allowing me to take on music that challenged me, and to play it without embarrassment.

In the mid-nineties I found my favorite type of music: playing classically in small groups – generally referred to as chamber music. Sacramento is a good place to do this. My wife, an oboist, and I both played in an ad-hoc group at the Attorney General’s Office, conducted by a retired music professor of whom we grew quite fond. There’s also a Sacramento “chamber music workshop” where about 20 of us form small groups and rehearse a piece for six months and have a party where each group plays a ten minute piece. (It’s nice to play and rehearse in houses where Steinways are the piano of choice!) For the past dozen years, I’ve spent a week each summer at a program at Sacramento State (named CalCAP)  where about 50 musicians show up each morning at 8:00 a.m., find our names, the group we will be in, the coach, and the piece we’re playing posted on a bulletin board. We spend the day rehearsing a ten minute piece and perform it either before or after dinner. You can generally identify a diner who has yet to play – they are often too nervous to eat. I used to be nervous; not so much now.

I joined a group, “Beethoven and Friends,” with people I met at the CalCAP program. We’ve played a number of small concerts and also performed at several assisted care facilities over the years.  Here’s a recording of the second of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano, arranged for clarinet and piano that we performed a few years ago.

Last year, COVID cancelled the CalCAP program, so I spent much of COVID working on a solo titled “A Talk With the Unseen.” It is not for the faint of heart, prompting my teacher to say, “This is the point where you expect a snake to slither out of the piano.”

Two years ago I started my first regular lessons since high school. My teacher wasn’t sure she wanted any new students, so I lured her with the promise of working with her with a new clarinet pitched in the key of D that I wanted to use in playing what some believe to be the first concerto written for the clarinet, I n the early 1600’s. I wish I had done this sooner, progressing as much in the last two years as I did in the 20 previous. And lest you question my bona fide equine characteristics, my teacher greeted me today by singing the Mr. Ed theme song.

Hobbies are not without their downsides. I joined a new community orchestra in Rancho Cordova six years ago and was immediately asked to join its board of directors. Those inviting me hoped I could calm down a few feuding members, (I think I did) and I have been there ever since. I spearheaded the group’s incorporation and did the work to secure our 501(c)(3) status. I’ve made sure we’re up to date with our state and federal filings. It’s not fun, and a considerable time suck. All I wanted to do was play music!


A picture, a mirror, and a copper plate by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Anniversaries

/ Stories

A picture, a mirror, and a copper plate attest to my grandparents’ anniversary.

They were married 101 years ago June 2. I know this because I have a picture of my grandmother in her wedding dress.

There’s a mirror behind her, now hanging in our bedroom, although a bit worse for wear. The copper plate, originally used to make engraved invitations, attests to the date of the wedding.  The paper invitations are gone, but the plate has survived. It’s now folded up at the edges – I think they were given to newlyweds to use as a place for guests to leave their calling cards. I suppose if the marriage didn’t go well, it could be used as an ashtray, but there’s no evidence that was done here. The plate was necessarily a mirror image of the card stock for the printing process. You can now read it normally through the magic of iPhone editing.

It’s hard to read here — the text is “Mr. and Mrs Edwin [hence the “Ed” in “Mr. Ed”] F. Peirce request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Mary Ellen to Mr. Leslie Norman Leet on Wednesday June the second nineteen hundred and twenty at eight o’clock St. Luke’s Church, Chelsea Massachusetts.”

Looking at and writing about these things now, I wonder what my grandparents would think if they were to know that over a century later these objects would still exist, and be a reminder of a particular day at the beginning of June in 1920. Would they look back and remember the day fondly? Would they chuckle at the attention they’re getting? Or would they take some satisfaction that they set in motion lives not then existing who would look back and wonder about them?


The Rifleman by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Guns Then and Now

/ Stories

Guns were always around our family while I was growing up. My father, having grown up in Wyoming, would go hunting rabbits and snakes in his youth, and when his father died, several rifles and shotguns came with the estate. My grandfather had a rifle from his service in WW I that he’d outfitted with a nice scope as well. Somehow a German pistol was added to the lot, perhaps from my Grandfather’s estate.

My father would take us out shooting in the country a few miles from our small town and we’d go target shooting at balloons and perhaps some Coke bottles. But high on the list was his attempt to instill gun safety in us. The very first thing to do when handed a firearm was to determine whether it was loaded, and remove any ammunition. Then put on the safety, and never, ever, point it at someone. The mantra was always to assume that a gun is always loaded — even if you’ve just checked it.

I recall only one practical application of our guns. I was about 14 or so, and we were smoking out gophers that had made a mess of our front lawn by burrowing tunnels. The solution was to put a match to a smoke bomb which generated some poisonous gas (cyanide, I always thought, but I’m not sure why) and we’d insert the bombs in one of the open holes, thereby asphyxiating the gophers inside. Whether we killed any gophers, I don’t know – we had two cats that were rather adept themselves – but we did manage to smoke out a four foot snake, which, I discovered as I was inspecting it, had six rattles at the end of its tail. The snake just lay there, either sunning itself or dazed from the gases in the tunnel. Nevertheless, in a small tract of homes surrounded by undeveloped land, there were lots of kids to worry about. So my father went inside, came back properly armed, and shot it. I cut off the tail and kept the rattles for years. Someone commented to my father about his accuracy, to which he replied, “Hard to miss with a shotgun.”

In those days, the NRA was a useful organization, and sponsored “hunter safety programs” which we, as Boy Scouts, all attended. We probably got a patch or badge to certify completing it. And the YMCA summer camp we attended also had .22 rifles which we were all invited, but probably not required, to shoot. While I was making lanyards and the like, my twin (who I referred to as my “spare parts man”) spent his afternoons shooting the .22s. At the end of the week at camp, he came home with a handful of blue ribbons earned with his shooting expertise. I got a fourth place in the three-legged race I ran with my brother.

A few years later, the Explorer Scouts (Boy Scouts who were over 14 and wore dark green, rather than khaki uniforms) had an encampment at the US Army Camp Roberts in northern San Luis Obispo County. Explorers from all over the county attended. Naturally, there was a rifle shooting contest. Our group had the Explorer who won the year before, so I thought it would be wise to be in his shooting group. This turned out to be a good decision as he provided valuable advice, suggesting we all aim slightly higher and to the right of where the gun sight indicated we should. The former champ won hands down. But when the score sheets were tallied, I had tied for third.

So we had a shoot-off, but the initial set-up was that we would not use .22s, but be handed US Army regulation rifles. I probably weighed less than 100 pounds, and the person with whom I was tied was muscular and weighed at least 150. So they revised the rules and we went back to .22s. I doubt I could have picked up the regulation rifle and shot from a standing position. My opponent was not happy, and in retrospect, I suspect he felt, perhaps accurately, that the Scout leaders wanted to remove the advantage that my opponent, a Black Scout, had, because they’d rather the white boy won.

Which I did, handily.

Later that afternoon, when we were looking at the target sheets, it became clear that two of my shots in the first round of shooting entered the bulls-eye in nearly identical spots, creating a circle with an extra bulge at the edge. The conclusion was supported by the fact that without the second hole, there was a mystery as to how I could have missed the target completely, thereby scoring on only 19 of 20 shots that were possible. Had it been accurately counted, I would have received nine more points, leapfrogged the second place winner, and been awarded a slightly larger trophy than the one in the featured image. Thus, there would have been no need for the shoot-off, so I felt a little better at the change in the rules; which, of course, did not eliminate the conscious (or unconscious) racism in the decision.

I only have one firearm now – the others have been sold or are with my older brother. The one I still have is a small chrome-plated five-shot revolver, almost a derringer. The cylinder mechanism does not work properly, and it’s not been fired in the last 50+ years. I don’t think they make the .25 caliber ammunition for it anymore. My mother said an aunt or great-aunt of hers brought it with her “out West” for protection. I wish I knew more about it, but there’s no one left who can add to the story.

We Named Our Dog After the Iron Chancellor by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Naming Pets

/ Stories

… indirectly, of course.

In 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad located its terminus at the “Crossing of the Missouri” in the Dakota Territory which later became the state of North Dakota. The Railroad, as it and other railroads were wont to do, named the town “Edwinton” after its Chief Civil Engineer, Edwin Ferry Johnson. Retrospect readers know me as Mr. Ed, but the Ed in fact comes from Edwin, the name given to me by my parents. So this story has particular meaning for me.

Edwinton did not stick, and, in actuality, was really only the name of the post office. So it was not a controversial decision to jettison Edwinton, in part due to its high percentage of German immigrants, and in perhaps greater part, the desire of the founders to appeal to the Prussian government, secure good will, and raise capital for the transcontinental railroad. (The Northern Pacific Railroad was somewhat desperate.) So, as is retold on the City’s website, the town was named “Bismarck in honor of Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’ Prince Baron Otto Eduard Leopold Von Bismarck-Schoenhausen, a famous German statesman from Prussia, credited with the creation of the German Empire and serving as her first chancellor.” Unfortunately, all the Chancellor did was acknowledge his fledgling namesake with a heartfelt thank you note. No Reichsmarks  materialized. But the name stuck anyway.

What does this have to do with naming a pet? Seventy-five years later, a dachshund showed up on the grounds of Rapid City Air Force Base in South Dakota. No one knew for sure where it came from, but the generally accepted view – for reasons completely unclear to me – was that it was from Bismarck, 223 miles to the northeast, or 300 miles via highway. Hence, everyone knew it as Bismarck. Bismarck (the dog, not the thriving metropolis) made quite an impression, and the Air Force personnel took quite a liking to her (or him, I’m not sure). The most remarkable thing about her was her daily routine: wait in the morning for the town bus from the Air Force Base to downtown Rapid City, enjoy the day cavorting with civilians, both canine and human, and then re-board the bus for the return trip in late afternoon.

My father, a B-36 crewmember, liked dogs, having grown up with half a dozen or so as a child. For awhile, he and my mother had their own dog, named Hemingway, a very friendly dog, but with an annoying habit of biting Air Force officers. So Hemingway had to go, and I’m sure, as a result, my father became a strong Bismarck fan. Bismarck disappeared one day and no one was able, or willing, to say what had happened to her.

Fast forward five or six years, and we were living in Seattle. It was time to get a dog. We ended up with a dachshund. When it came time for a name, the parents suggested Bismarck. Neither I nor my brothers knew why, but we didn’t care. Nor did we get a straight answer when we asked, insofar as I remember. We wanted a dog, and Bismarck was fine. Looking back, I think if we were sticking to geographical names, Fargo would have been much classier. But the movie hadn’t been made, so I don’t think it would have been a strong candidate.

I loved (our) Bismarck.  I remember in particular taking him for walks in the Reseda, California neighborhood where we had moved – two parents, four boys, and a dog. I got an allowance of one dollar per week, and 15 cents of that went to an ice cream cone at the Dairy Queen. The employees there always put a little ice cream in a separate dish for Bismarck to lick. I kept the entire subject of going to the Dairy Queen a secret, as the parents thought I was saving money for college, or something equally worthwhile, instead of a frivolous mid-day snack. However, on a neighborhood walk with the entire family, my free-spending father purchased cones for everyone at the same Dairy Queen. The employees recognized Bismarck immediately and the secret was out. I was mortified, but, as it turns out, the parents were merely amused.

Unfortunately, Bismarck, like Hemingway, was a little too nippy, and the recipient of his no doubt playful biting was my two-year old brother. So we gave him to a nice couple who promised to take good care of him.

Peevish Pets by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Pet Peeves

/ Stories

My pet peeves center on grammar and word-usage. I feel uncomfortable about them, yet I revel in them.  Many years ago I was chastened when criticized for laughing at someone’s mispronunciation of a particular word.  I’ve long since forgotten the word, but  it was pointed out that those who mispronounce words often do so because they read, never having heard the word in spoken English. In the same vein, is recoiling in feigned horror or laughing at “improper” grammar or word usage equally elitist?


Or is it innate in my mental makeup?  Surely, it exercises the intellect – for example, when I’m attempting to determine whether someone’s usage of “me” instead of “I” is correct, particularly in a convoluted or recursive sentence featuring one or more embedded phrases and clauses. I enjoy figuring out what is the subject, the object, and which verb is controlling. The same mental gymnastics are required when trying to figure out the meaning of “I couldn’ fail to disagree less.”

Having apologized for what can be termed misplaced elitism, if such a thing exists, here are three of my linguistic Pet Peeves:

“Exact same”.  I claim ownership of this one, as I’ve not seen discussions of this term anywhere else. “Exact” and “same” are adjectives. I don’t know what an “exact” thing is. Is it measured with a micrometer? Is there something precise about it? I understand “exactly the same thing,” where “exactly” is the adverb it should be. I’m at a loss as to what an “exact same thing” is.  Recently, I reviewed a brief where the drafter made the point that a law firm had filed virtually the same brief in half a dozen cases, characterizing them as “near identical” briefs. I suggested changing the characterization to “nearly identical”, observing that the brief was “near” only if he’d printed it out and held it close to his glasses. He wrote back generally agreeing, but cited several published California appellate cases where the courts, surely aided by crack law clerks with Order of the Coif credentials, had used the exact same phrase. (Whoops.) To humor me, the brief was filed using “nearly identical” to describe the similarities.

“Chaise Lounge”.  This is a corruption of the correct “chaise longue”, from French. When I see this, I think of “lounging” in an airport lounge waiting for a flight, rather than the reclining seat next to the pool at the resort I wish were the termination of my flight. Merriam-Webster online suggests that English speakers were more comfortable importing this French term for a “long chair” as “lounge” because they wanted a word with spelling they knew and unambiguous pronunciation. I dunno. I once pointed out to a newspaper columnist his error in a column he wrote. He, an adherent to the belief that proper English is that which the people speak, acknowledged the etymology of the word, but disputed that he’d made an error.

Finally, “Nonplussed.” My favorite, because its common (incorrect?) meaning is the one almost universally used by current American writers, and it is used to convey the near opposite (whoops again) of the original meaning. I’ve never heard anyone say “nonplussed” in ordinary speech, but it comes up often in opinion columns and other popular writing. The original meaning, “Astonished to the point of being unable to speak”, or loosely, “perplexed or unsure of what to say” also comes from  French, non plus or “nothing more.” Now, in this country, at least, it signifies a state of being unimpressed, as in “I was nonplussed by the candidate’s speech.”

The nicely perverse consequence of pet peeves like this is that the more widespread the error, the more proper its usage becomes.  In France, I believe there’s a commission that certifies acceptable words. English speakers, of course, wouldn’t put up with nonsense like that. We’d be nonplussed by their suggestions.

Peculiar to the English Language by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Spelling

/ Stories

Misspelled words always jump off the page for me. How lucky I am.

Spelling problems are primarily peculiar to English language, based on its strength of incorporating foreign words. My Russian instructors said that spelling bees would make no sense for Russian speakers, but that indicating where the accent goes on a particular word is a challenge.

Although some say French spelling is awful, it is remarkably consistent. The French may not pronounce, at least to our ears, all the letters in a word. French speakers tell me they are there for a reason, and that they’re all perfectly placed.

RetroFlash/100 Words

Badges and Buttons in the Drawers and on the Shelves of an Addled Mind by
(13 Stories)

/ Stories

Buttons and badges are a way of preserving memories. They may not be the most important memories, for who knows why we kept them. But memories they contain, and through these buttons, and otherwise useless objects, we revisit them. It helps us remember and reconstruct our past, although in a discontinuous and incomplete manner.

For me, this week’s prompt led me, initially, to think of political buttons and badges, and I’ve got a few. Why did I save them? I wish I’d saved more of them.

Of course, badges are more than politics. Maybe I should talk about my Boy Scout Badges – I saved a bunch of them, too. All 21 of my merit badges are sewn on a sash – sewn by me because I was unsatisfied with how my mother attached them, having far less free time than I ever gave her credit for. Each badge was a work of miniature art, and each with a story to remember: the bridge six of us lashed together over a small ravine to earn the pioneering badge; the camp meals for the cooking badge; building and flying the gas-engine model planes for the aviation badge; and the strict oversight by the music teacher, who required me to learn an arcane clarinet piece for the music merit badge. I still remember his good-natured chuckling when I played the original “composition” I had to prepare as well.

My badges from politics are eclectic, and fairly recent. But they also tell some stories. One “relic” (it’s now over 50 years old) isn’t a badge or a button; it’s a crinkled bumper sticker with the message, “Target 70: Oust Reagan.” The bumper sticker was probably brought home by my father, who, as a state college professor and president of the local AFL-CIO chapter, went to battle against then-Governor Reagan’s policies and those he appointed to implement them. Later, I collected badges for candidates I supported, and sometimes worked for, in elections long after Reagan left California. Oddly enough, I have no Jerry Brown buttons. I have one that says, “Si Se Puede Brown 1994” but that’s supporting Jerry’s sister Kathleen, backed by the United Farm Workers. It was their slogan,  “Si Se Puede” — (yes we can); but Kathleen, as it turned out, couldn’t, or didn’t, exemplify “Yes I can,”  losing what many thought would be the triumphant arrival of the third member of the Brown family to the Governor’s mansion.

When I look at this button, I see, not her loss, but a long-run victory against bigotry.  I see Kathleen’s “Si se puede” badge as an ironic foreshadowing of the vicious anti-immigration stance championed by the man who beat her, Pete Wilson. Wilson’s triumph at the polls was momentarily good for him, but in the next quarter century, a generation of Hispanic voters with painful memories has been the difference in relegating Wilson’s party to almost an afterthought in California politics. And with the ascent of the Democratic Party, it led to some interesting and personally rewarding Gubernatorial appointments.

I walked precincts for Bill Clinton in two elections (1992 and 1996) and have some nice buttons from those efforts. And I have a great t-shirt of Bill playing the saxophone. I thought it would be a collector’s item – it isn’t, but it does exemplify the youth and energy that he brought to the campaign, and reminds me of the good time I had in that effort.




I’ve also kept a genuine badge and a bumper sticker related to Gray Davis, who appointed me to head an environmental department (Toxic Substances Control), and for which I got an actual “badge” because we had peace officers who investigated environmental crimes and arrested polluters as part of their work. My badge, although visually impressive, was in reality little more than a souvenir. It did get me out of the public line on the occasions I appeared in court, however.

Finally, I have done poll watching work in the last four presidential elections, first in Florida (2004) and then in Ohio (Columbus 2008), and Cleveland in 2012 and 2016. I can’t say I brought good luck to my favored candidates more than half the time, but, in line with this week’s prompt, I’ve got some nice memorabilia: a baseball  hat from Florida identifying me as a “voter protection worker” which never fit and I can’t now find, and some interesting credentials to be worn around the neck from Ohio. The credentials come from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which has reached out to lawyers across the country to give non-partisan advice to those working in the polls on election day, when tricky situations, primarily related to voter eligibility, occur. Although the work is “non-partisan”, it’s no secret who wants to ensure that everyone who’s eligible isn’t turned away, and, conversely, those who would rather make it as difficult as possible to vote. I think I can do more good in this role than outside the voting area. I remember in particular, in 2008, assisting a disabled man who wanted only to vote for Obama. Had I not been there to legally assist him, I’m not sure if the harried regular staff would have been able to help.

If I made scrapbooks, which I don’t, the buttons, bumper stickers, badges and pins would be there. So this story, and a few pictures will, for now, have to suffice.

More than Horseshoes by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Shoes

/ Stories

You would think that with the name Mr. Ed, I wouldn’t have much to say about shoes. What is there to say about U-shaped pieces of iron nailed to my feet?

There’s not a lot of variety in horseshoes, insofar as I can tell. But having grown up in the shadow of Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo, I will proudly note (or note the pride of the community) that Cal Poly was one of only two institutions of higher learning in the 1960s that taught horseshoeing as a college course. Every few years the professor in the Ag school would appear on To Tell the Truth or some other television show and dare the contestants to guess his occupation. We were so proud.

At the time, Cal Poly was trying to figure out what it was – an agricultural school, a technical school, or what? My father, who taught in the Mathematics Department (housed In a building proclaiming on the outside that Mathematics and Home Economics was taught inside), had courses that ranged from differential equations to …. Ag math. Oddly enough, Ag math was one of his favorites. The first thing he did was throw out the textbook where they discussed bushels, pecks, (not kopeks, God forbid) and hectares, and substituted instead real world problems of yields, markets, and maximizing allocations of inputs. According to him, the students loved it.

But back to shoes. I have a few distinct memories from my youth. I recall some trendy shoes with a mechanism on top that slid down instead of shoe laces to close them up. My brothers and I all wanted a pair. Our parents weren’t having any of it. We needed sensible shoes that would provide support. But come age 12, the summer Boy Scout High Sierra hike required hiking boots, and we got some. As I recall, they were Red Wing boots, and indistinguishable from work boots. They were very sensible, well built, and cost about twelve dollars. About a year ago, Red Wings came back in style for the cool 30-ish crowd. They now go for $150. My stepson, Ben, bought a pair. With his own money, of course.

I had a terrific time in the Sierra Nevada, and the boots served me and my brother well. It was upon returning home that the trouble started. One or two weeks on the trail were not even close to ensuring that we got the full value of our parents’ investment in our feet. The solution, of course, was to wear them to school. Talk about humiliation and being irredeemably uncool. At dinner, the question was, “Did you wear your boots today?” Never being good at lying, we’d fess up, and answer, most days, with a no. But the next day we’d have to go out again with the boots. I don’t know precisely how it ended, but I think somehow my father was reminded that as an even younger child, his mother made him wear long underwear to school to protect her precious child from the brutal sub-zero Wyoming winters. Although protected from the weather, he had no protection from his teasing classmates. His solution was to enter an empty garage on the way to school, change out of the embarrassing clothing, and change back on the way home. Perhaps reminded of this, the subject of boots was dropped, and my feet soon grew large enough to make them unwearable.

Then there were the tennis shoes pictured on the announcement of this week’s prompt – black, low-top Converse Jack Purcell shoes. The cool kids wore these with, oddly enough, light blue Levis. Unfortunately, the Jack Purcells cost about $10, a full twenty to thirty percent more than “perfectly functional” Keds. So we never got our Converse shoes, which now go for $65 or so.  And the specially colored Levis were out of the question. But somehow we survived.

Decades layer, these memories remain. My only intervening memories relate to wing tips and Bally Loafers for court appearances, the Birkenstocks that became de rigueur for a number of us government lawyers to wear in the office, and a gift of half a dozen pairs of assorted shoes from a friend of Ben, who had them gifted to him. The Birkenstocks were interesting because they were, to a degree, hip and trendy. Our agency General Counsel wasn’t happy about them, but he wore garish leisure suits to the office. We concluded that anyone who showed up in a leisure suit could not complain, as he lacked standing , no matter what shoes he stood in.  And as the years have passed, leisure suits are out of style (if they were ever in) and Birkenstocks have gone in and out of style and kept my feet reasonably healthy – although I certainly don’t wear them every day. And never to work.

As for the gift through Ben, I feel I had, for an instant, a collection of currently popular shoes, if only because they were purchased by the assistant to a Hollywood producer, who apparently buys most of the producer’s clothes. The ones he doesn’t like, or which don’t fit, he gives to other employees, including Ben’s friend. And if they were purchased for someone in Hollywood cool enough to have a clothes buyer, they must be cool, right?  I still have, from left to right in the featured image, the nifty green (not black) Jack Purcells, the Toms, the Black Nikes, and Clark’s Desert Trek shoes from that acquisition. (Should I name them Jack, Tom, Nicky and Clark?) I quickly threw away the ones that had individual compartments for each toe. And to the dismay of my trendy daughter, I wear New Balance shoes on the tennis court (not gifted) – apparently the epitome of uncool.

Cool or not?

Not So Beautiful, But Oh So Tasty by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By The Garden

/ Stories

Best of this year’s crop

Calling it a garden gives it (or me) far more credit than is due. Rather, we have a few spots bordering a swimming pool where my lazy inner farmer takes over.  When we moved into the house in 1992, the eastern edge of the back yard had overgrown rose bushes that hadn’t been pruned for years. I tore them out, and replaced them with citrus trees, primarily grapefruit, with a blood orange, a tangerine and a lemon tree added to the mix.

The lemon tree keeps us in lemons most of the year, as long as we don’t overdo it making lemonade. There’s plenty for squeezing on fish and an occasional lemon zest where called for. I favor grapefruit over oranges because I find oranges too sweet. The grapefruit have grown to the extent we now have fresh juice for breakfast about eight months of the year. We’ve got yellow, which the marketers call gold; pink, which are sold as ruby; and light pink, which we find in the market as just pink. The best visual presentation – crucial when impressing east coast guests — is adding the juice of a single blood orange to the grapefruit which gives a wonderful dark red color that doesn’t alter the taste at all. Regrettably, we planted only a dwarf blood orange, which is far less prolific than the regular trees, so we run out early and most of the juice we drink lacks the added dramatic dark color.

The other feature of our so-called garden is tomatoes, principally in a crescent area between the garage and the swimming pool. Originally occupied primarily by a large and unruly hedge which I tore out, leaving a bare patch of soil, I pull out the weeds that grow over the winter and plant tomatoes in the spring. On rare occasion, I’ve grown them from seed, but mostly I get small plants and set them within cages. Like the grapefruit, I don’t do much upkeep; so there’s a fair amount of weeds, and not much beauty. The beauty comes in the red, yellow, and orange orbs that grow in summer to mid-fall. The utilitarian nature of the plants makes me want to think of it as a farm, but farms are serious business and require lots of labor, which I’m unwilling to put in. I did enough of that in high school, picking beans, planting lettuce, and thinning Brussels sprouts with a short handled hoe.

Centuries of flooding from the Sacramento and American Rivers brought lots of minerals and great soil to our neighborhood, which, until about 100 years ago was deemed an undevelopable swamp. So not much fertilizer is required – although I add a bit of tomato food at irregular intervals.

The biggest help is the summer hot sun. Until this year, we never had any trouble getting hundreds of cherry tomatoes and an ample crop of larger fruit. Every year I’d pick a featured heirloom at the nursery, yielding large and tasty fruit. Or is it a vegetable? This year, for some reason, the cherry tomatoes, usually sweet, like popping bits of candy into the mouth, didn’t set very well, and the crop was disappointing. It wasn’t until mid-summer when the larger tomatoes made it all worthwhile – a tasty and beautiful crop.

Speaking of beautiful, we often have tomato hornworms that dine on the tender new leaves and can completely strip a plant.  The moth (or butterfly) is unremarkable, but the spiral pattern and spots on the caterpillar is, to my eye, beautiful. (You can draw your own conclusion – perhaps the photo will help.) With a horn-looking appendage, however, it looks a bit sinister and alien. It took me years to overcome my squeamishness and realize I could pull them off easily without being attacked. Yesterday, I realized I had an ally in my fight to save the plants. While looking for hornworms, I spotted a praying mantis on a plant, and upon closer inspection, realized it had the proverbial “half a worm” within its grasp, and, after puncturing it, was slowly lapping up the remaining half.I understand there’s a type of wasp that lays its eggs in the hornworm, but I’ve never seen any evidence of that here.



So … garden or not, pretty or not, in late summer the tomatoes beat anything I can buy in the grocery store, and a glass of truly fresh grapefruit juice most mornings is a great way to start the day.


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