A Reading Addiction

Reading is more than a hobby for me. It is an addiction.  I read at train crossings and long traffic lights. I read to go to sleep, and sometimes while I am blow-drying my hair. I read acclaimed memoirs and trashy beach novels, best sellers and quirky sleepers. I read cereal boxes and instruction sheets. And I have read my car owner’s manual from cover to cover.

Reading for Meaning.

I can clearly remember when I had my first taste. It was the dawning of the 1960s. I was about four and my older cousins were already established school kids. They went to Lutheran Elementary School and were picked up by a Volkswagen micro-bus every morning. More than anything, I wanted to go to school.

And so we would play school when they got home. Kathy would be the teacher and sometimes Gary, the principal.  Kathy had old copies of the entire pre-primer series of Tip, Tip and Mitten, etc. She had even somehow managed to get her hands on a discarded  spiral-bound, teachers edition of The Big Show, which was the follow up to the Tip and Mitten series.

While Kathy was a kind and motivating, six-year old teacher, her older brother was not so patient. It seemed his role was to  grade my tests and threaten “licks” with his mom’s paddle-shaped, wooden cutting board should I fail. I never got a “lick” but looking back, this may be why I have a touch of test-taking anxiety nearly fifty years later.

But I digress. I loved the scruffy dog, Tip, in the book. And his friend, Mitten, the cat.  And their people, Jack and Janet. And their friends, Penny and Tommy and Willie. And most of all, I loved the power of reading.

And I wanted more. By the time I was in first grade, I was reading chapter books. My aunt was the librarian at the city library, and I checked out every one of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children books multiple times.  Do you remember The Boxcar Children?

Okay. I have to go off in a tangent here. I just Wikipedia’ed The Boxcar Children to be sure my memory served me correctly and yes, (Warning: Spoiler Alert) the storyline has a family of orphan kids who run away rather than move in with their grandfather  who, though they have never met,  they believe might be terribly mean. They live in an abandoned boxcar and furnish their abode with broken dishes from a nearby dump. They take in a stray dog, who was abused by a wealthy woman. The oldest brother takes on odd jobs for food for the family. And somewhere along the way, they finally meet up with the rich grandfather who is not a bad guy after all, and they move in with him, but not before he moves the boxcar into his backyard. The series continues with the siblings living with Grandpa and solving mysteries. (Since they were evidently so good at solving the mystery of the mean but wealthy grandpa).

Anyway, those early sips  led to more and more as my habit grew stronger. My childhood best friend, Kate, and I fell in love with a comprehensive reading program in elementary school called SRA, I think. And I have no idea what those initials stand for. But we could come in to the room early before school or finish our work and get to pull a reading card from a box. We would read about dolphins or Ireland or percussion instruments or hundreds of other topics. And then we could take a test and prove that we understood what we’d read. We’d “self-grade” our tests and check that card off on our chart, and move to the next one. They were categorized by grade levels, and I think Kate and I were reading at grade level 13 in the third grade. I loved SRA.

The school library was almost as fabulous as the public library. We read periodicals and memorized the Dewey Decimal System,  which I continue to greatly prefer over the Library of Congress classification.  We didn’t have magazines at home, aside from the occasional grocery store splurge of a Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal, but my Aunt Robbie was a member of the  National Geographic Society (one did not subscribe -but had to be a member of this elite organization). She saved their monthly magazines like precious thin golden encyclopedia in rows and rows in glass fronted oak bookshelves.

The library had Life and Time and Reader’s Digest and Boy’s Life. The doctor’s office had Highlights for Children. Does anyone remember “Goofus and Galant?” My first paid subscription was to My Weekly Reader.

I remember the first time the written word moved me to tears. I was about ten and the book was Toby Tyler, or  Ten Weeks With the Circus – and it was the part about the chimp, Mr. Stubbs. I won’t spoil it for you. But it was really sad.

Grandpa Hinkle gave me a Webster’s Dictionary for Christmas one year when I was about nine.  It was heaven.  A giant, hardbound book of words. I kept that big book under my pillow and would read it in bed at night. After lights out, I would read it under the covers. My mother just shook her head and rolled her eyes and pretended not to notice the flashlight glow coming from under my door.

Today, I am grateful for my cousins and all the reading teachers who came after them.  I am thankful to come from a family of readers, who allowed me to escape into a book and curl up in a corner and read from start to finish.   I savor the scent of a new book, and like to hold it in my hand and look at the cover and read the  flaps and the introduction and dedication.  I appreciate fine paper and readable fonts.

I love computers, but miss real card catalogs  – with little oak drawers filled with index cards with carefully typed  descriptions of each book and Mr. Dewey’s secret code number pointing  to its rightful place on the shelf.

My literary heroes include Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb and  Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, and all who can bring characters to life and lead me to wonder “what happened next,”  long after reading the last page.

And I am okay with this addiction. I have admitted it. But I don’t want to quit.  I have a stack of books next to my bed, and a book in the car, in case I get stopped by a train or tied up in traffic. Something in my handbag to read if I arrive at the restaurant early, and a stack of “need to reads” on the coffee table.

Today, a half-century after we met, I hope Tip and Mitten and  Jack and Janet have lived long and happy lives. I hope Harper Lee found happiness in her privacy. And Melvil Dewey got the credit he deserved.  And Pat Conroy is working on a new book.

Here’s to hardcover books with smooth dust jackets.  And epic paperbacks that swell up on beach vacations with salt water and sand. And My Weekly Reader. And readable fonts.

For now, I don’t need an iPad or a Kindle. But please don’t take away my library card.

Hello. My name is Diana. I am a reader…

Listening to: Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”

Spring Cleaning

This dreary, misty week has given me a chill.  And maybe the oak pollen casting a yellow cloud over everything in the Texas hill country has something to do with it. But I am not thinking very clearly this week.

For instance, I am obsessing about Spring Cleaning.  Here.  Now.  Get-‘er-done.

As Mark plans to watch Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four this weekend, I am making a To-Do List.  I am bound and determined to get things in order. And I am making a plan.

As I grow older, I think I am showing signs of early-onset hoarding.   I like stuff. I have a hard time letting go. I need to nip this in the bud. This weekend.

What was Patrick’s room until he fled the nest, is now completely empty unless you count the new permanent home for the ironing board, which I quite honestly have not used since the Bush Administration.  HalleyAnna’s room still has a few things in it.  I will  make a schedule and start at that end of the house.

Should not take long to pick up the remnant rolls of Christmas wrapping paper,  the Scotch tape and scissors and ribbon left over from the holidays – trimmings that transformed Patrick’s room into the  holiday staging area. Two stray Christmas stockings are still tossed across the ironing board. Somehow, they missed getting packed away in the attic with the other holiday trimmings. So I’ll  stash them somewhere,  and wonder where the heck they are next December. 15 minutes.

Then I will take another run at excavating HalleyAnna’s room. She has taken everything she wants for the new digs in Austin. The Weezer poster and her high school letter jacket didn’t make the cut. Well-worn CDs that long ago lost their jackets are dealt like a hand of cards on the floor next to an old jam box. Kacey Chambers. Cake. The Best of Hank Thompson, Vol. II.  No time to dilly-dally. I can come back to reminisce later. 15 minutes.

Next up, my office. It looks like a cyclone hit. Receipts and tax forms are still sorted and piled, waiting to be filed away. But clutter reigns in a cozy way in this little corner of my world. I’ve been meaning to go through the stuff in that footlocker… and organize my CDs… and, is that my Flannery O’Connor anthology? Ah, so that’s where I put that box of Aunt Helen’s old letters and pictures.  Been meaning to read through those letters. Maybe I will save this room for later.

On to our bedroom. Open the windows. Dust and vacuum. Fluff the pillows and swifter the ceiling fan blades. 30 minutes.

And then into my closet.  Really, does a political t-shirt ever become a collector’s item?  How many San Marcos High School Band Booster Mom shirts do I really need?  Do I really think I am ever going to fit into that “skort” again – or want to wear it?  What was I thinking when I bought that awful  linen cropped pant suit?  And that short denim jacket was on triple markdown sale for a reason.

But I am not throwing out my dream jeans.  My skinnys.  No, not those trendy “skinny” style jeans of today.  Just a faded pair of old favorites that I can’t bear to think will never fit again.  And exactly when does a single digit dream become fantasy?  Enough. Forget about the pile o’ shoes for now – it’s time to move on. 45 minutes tops.

What do you call the bathroom counter? The Vanity sounds so – well – vain. Dump the drawers and sweep off the counter top.  I am giving it 10 minutes and a large garbage bag.  This accumulation of product has got to go. I have seen how I look when I leave the house. It can’t possibly take that much product to get there. Open drawers and dump.

And then, back to the office. Take a break time. A frosty Topo Chico with a squeeze of lime will be in order.  Shove that pile of stuff off the sofa. Stack those magazines in the corner.  5 minutes.

Crank up the iTunes and settle in with Flannery for a while. Enough is enough.

Listening to: Bob Seger- “Old Time Rock N Roll”

Walking Wisdom and Quality Time

Yes. I wear these in public. (Reebok ZigTechs) And I have two pairs.

Historically, I am not a big fan of exercise. I admire people who do it. And I was pretty good at it back in the day.  Okay, that “day” is sort of a fuzzy dream like when middle-aged men sit around drinking beer and talking about their championship high school football team.

Now, I was not ever an athlete of the catch-a-ball/make-a-goal/win-the-game-at-the-buzzer sort, but I liked to dance,  and was completely caught up in the aerobics fitness era. I even owned Jane Fonda tights and big shirts and leg warmers,  and wore such fashion statements in public, like to the grocery store after class. And I clearly remember “feeling the burn.”

But that was then. We are talking last century.  Jane Fonda is going to be 74 this year.  (Can that be right?)

Indeed, a lot of water has gone under that bridge… and along the way, if cooking had been an Olympic sport, I coulda been a contender. I have never seen a food store I didn’t want to hike through – or a recipe I wouldn’t tackle, no matter how challenging.

Through the years, I have joined gyms and bought treadmills and exercise bikes and cute fitness clothes, appropriate for the  activity…. and dropped the memberships and used the treadmills for laundry racks and sold the exercise bikes in garage sales — and outgrown the fitness clothes.

But this year, I took up walking.  Okay. Yes. Walking. I know it’s not exactly an extreme sport.  One foot in front of the other. Left right left right. I started on January 2 with a new free app for my iPhone called Runkeeper.  My sister-in-law, Karen, told me about it on New Year’s Day. Not one to rush into things without forethought, I waited until Sunday to jump in with both feet.One at a time. I dug around and found my walking shoes. And two good cushy ankle socks that matched. And dug up the headphones that came with my iPhone.  And made a mix-tape (they call them playlists now) for walking.

I have learned a lot about walking in these first few months. It’s a lot more than just getting there. It is decadent, self-indulgent, me time, free for the taking. No sign-up fee, no monthly charges. Just step by step. Breathing deep cleansing outside unfiltered air.  Getting tired and a little out of breath. It’s good for the soul.

My first goal was 60 miles in 2011. Lofty? No. But if nothing, I know my limits and weaknesses – and lack of staying power when it comes to something that makes me sweat. But I did it that day, and the next, and the next. One mile, and then a little further, and a little more.

We have a good walking neighborhood. Not much traffic.  Friendly waves from neighbors I know and  even folks I don’t.  A few hills and lots to see and hear and smell. Streets I have driven for years with the windows rolled up, in climate controlled comfort. It’s funny how my senses have become more aware of all that is out there.

And today -a little more than  midway through March, I have walked more than 125 miles.  And it has become kind of addictive.  Early on, I decided to try to walk  seven miles a week — and passed my 60 mile mark sometime in mid-February. I found that some weeks seven miles turns into 10 or 12.   I am averaging 45 miles a month.

I have walked in freezing weather and  blustery wind, but I draw the line at precipitation. I have not walked in scorching heat yet. I usually walk in the afternoons, but I like the crisp cool mornings that weekends allow.

The music is good. I have literally thousands of songs on my iTunes account – some I have downloaded and some I have uploaded from cds.  While I have background music playing pretty constantly through my life at work and in my home office, and in my car, and in the kitchen, lately,  I had not had time to really listen.

But, wow! Walking is a great listening room.  No one talks over the music. No one walks in  and asks for something during the chorus, or calls in the middle of a great instrumental lead.  I  can listen to Walt Wilkins and Tony Bennett and ABBA and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Loretta Lynn and no one questions my format. And I can play a favorite over and over and over – and even sing along, because no one really listens to someone walking down the street.

I like walking with friends. Melissa has walked with me a lot. Mary Mikel and I catch up when our schedules allow. It’s a great way to visit, vent and laugh, albeit sometimes we do get a little out of breath on a steep grade.

But most of those miles have been solitary. That is when it is  completely, selfishly, totally my time. To think, listen, wonder, dream, and yes, even pray. There is much to be thankful for when you give yourself time to just be. Uninterrupted time with nothing required beyond putting one foot in front of the other allows mercy and grace some breathing room.

There is much to learn about our neighborhood. I have figured out who burns real wood and who warms the hearth with gas logs on cold days. I know who gets up early to mow their grass on Saturday mornings, and who has fresh fertilizer waiting to be spread.  Who rakes their leaves and who leaves them for the next strong wind. And who puts their garbage can out the day before, and who recycles. I know who grills on propane and who uses charcoal or mesquite or live oak  to cook their  weekend supper.   And the hoarder in me has fought the temptation to poke through the boxes of stuff at the curb when a trendy upscale neighbor moved to Dallas.

Along the way,  I got some trendy new Reebok ZigTech shoes. My friend, Dr. Bob Pankey,  is a “gait” expert  (yes, that’s a thing) and he told me to get my walking shoes a size larger than my normal shoes.  No kidding. But I set my vanity aside and did as he instructed. They looked sort of like clown shoes at first. But he was right, and they are perfect. No shin aches or blisters or knee pain.  He showed me how  to tie them like a marathon runner so the heel is tight and doesn’t slip.

And so it goes. 125 miles. Next goal, 200 miles by summer. Along the way, I have shed a few pounds, but more importantly, I have gained some personal space and quality time  that I didn’t even know was missing.

Try it. And if you have a smart phone, get one of those apps that tracks your distance. I like the accountability – and how the steps add up to miles.

Take a walk. To the mailbox or the street corner or around the block.  Make some quality time for yourself. When was the last time you did that?

Listening to: Walt Wilkins – “The Shape I’m In”

The Obituary Club

I am not quite sure how it came about, but I am a charter member of a small but unique organization, The Obituary Club. We are an unlikely group of women. Men are not discouraged from joining our group, but none have yet to actually step forward. So for now,  Jenni and Janice and Joan and Denise and Lana and I make up this odd group. Our ages range from early 30s to mid 50s.

We meet regularly via email. Our mission is to make note of the passing of important, infamous, or otherwise notable people. Bonus points are given to the member who breaks the story, but I don’t think anyone actually keeps score.  Sounds a little weird – maybe looks a bit morbid at first glance, but bear with me here.

Most of us have done time as “professional” obituary writers at some point in our careers. One of Jenni’s first assignments on the college newspaper, of which she later became editor, was writing the obit for the beloved dean. (Challenging since she didn’t know him, but so moving that they blew it up displayed it). Radio professional Janice has had to announce deaths on the air – breaking the news of celebrities’ demise.  And Joan has the most world-wide acclaim: having written some of the most memorable obit essays about celebrities for radio’s Voice of America.  My favorite: her obit for Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary fame.

I didn’t just fall into this club by accident. I come from a long line of obituary aficionados. My grandpa used to hand deliver funeral notices all over Lockhart. Is anyone old enough to remember those?  Small town funeral homes used to print funeral notices on little squares of paper with black borders,  and take them around and put them on peoples’ doors.  In towns that only had  weekly newspaper, that was the only way to be assured that you got the word out in time for folks to attend the service.

While she was not a great fan of death in general, my (great-)Aunt Robbie was a true fan of funerals and well-written obituaries. She would say, “Did you see Miss Jackson’s obit in The Paper, this afternoon? It was a good one.” Or, “Pennington’s sure did a nice job on Marjorie. She didn’t look plastic. I’d hate to look plastic like some do.”

And, of course, “You know, he was a good Methodist. So we all went back there after the service. Lois made those chicken salad sandwiches I like so much. Only white meat and real mayonaise.”  And, “Someone took them a bucket of store-bought fried chicken.  Umm. Umm. Didn’t even put it on a platter. I swan…”

And, as has become a family saying, my favorite expression that Aunt Robbie used to use, when I drop by her house after work -and before the paper hit the street, “Did anybody good die?” (Good in this interpretation was not actually referring to the heart and soul, of course, but newsworthy.)  My mother still asks that sometimes, when calling from Houston – wondering about the goings-on in San Marcos.

When I was the features editor of The Paper, obituaries were on my beat. Sometimes, I would be asked to write the obit, but most came pre-written by the families- through the funeral home.  I know a good obituary when I see it.

The information superhighway is a long way from walking door to door in Lockhart delivering the news. Random death announcements pop up during the day. We stumble across something in the online edition of New York Times or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A couple of our members even subscribe to an online Celebrity Death Watch that notifies them directly when somebody good dies. My husband helps me. If he sees a death announcement in his web-surfing, he will instant message me and say, “Did anyone post Dandy Don Meredith yet?” And sometimes, just as news pops up on the evening news, my iPhone bings with a message from one of the club members. Drat! I missed being the “first to know-first to tell.”

Every obituary we post is not necessarily one of celebrity status. When Mr. Hada died in San Marcos, I had to tell the group about him, because he was the only chicken sexer I had ever known.  Janice posted one recently about oldest guy in that “We’ve been to every Super Bowl” club, who was too weak to go this year. She thinks he may have died from heartbreak  for having to miss the game.

Nearly forgotten celebs whose names conjure up memories are always newsworthy. Mitch Miller and Jack Lalane, Barbara Billingsley, Sargent Shriver…

Sometimes these posts take us off on tangents. When Jane Russell died, most of our group were of a generation who didn’t think of her as a voluptuous movie star as much as the “Cross-Your-Heart bra” spokesperson who touted the Playtex 18-Hour Bra “for us full-figured gals.”

We all swapped emails about bras for about a week. Department store fittings, appropriate foundations, when they should be discarded, car wreck concerns,  etc.  (Maybe this is a reason we don’t have a rush of men in our numbers.)  But Jane was not our first bra-related obit.

The New York Times has some of the best obits in journalism today.  Their ledes draw you into the life story of the departed, whether you’ve heard of them or not.  Take Selma Koch, for instance:

Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B.

Now, that is a good one.

Oh yeah, and  they really do go in threes. Aunt Robbie had heard the Indian legend  that people die in threes because it takes three to paddle the boat across the waters to the Happy Hunting Ground.  And that does make sense. So we try to count. Or we say, “There you go – he would be the third.”

Elizabeth Edwards and Dandy Don were in the boat with Barney Miller actor Steve Landesberg. I’ll bet that was an entertaining canoe trip. I hope Elizabeth got to laugh a lot.

Listening to Shelley King’s  “Welcome Home.”

Time-Lapsed Ramblings: Jan. 2021 Update

January 28, 2021- Listening to Seth Walker’s “Leap Of Faith.”

I have been meaning to come back and freshen this blog with some new material but it was on the “fixing to” list – until I wrote a story about my friend, Kimmie Rhodes, and she shared it on her blog and posted this as my website.

I do have a “real” website – that also needs a little sprucing up, but for now, in true Texas lingo, I am fixing to fix this one. Here goes.

ICYMI: My husband, Mark died in January of 2017. Two weeks later, the 45th president of the United States was sworn in. Suddenly my world had been turned upside down and what was bad was good and what was wrong was right, but the world kept turning and carrying me with it, in spite of my greatest efforts to get off.

Fast Forward to January, 2021.

I commemorated the fourth anniversary of Mark’s untimely death with the realization that I was no longer taking Xanax and waking up sad every day. In fact, I had not opened my eyes to a heavy sigh and the weight of the world in- well – I can’t remember when. Hmm. I checked my bathroom scale.

Nope. I’m still carrying my grief weight. Okay. One battle at a time.

But the good news is that things felt different. The sighs had turned into smiles and we crammed so many great memories into the time we had together that I am forever grateful.

But it had been a long four years. Seventeen days later, I got up at crack of early to watch the Pomp and Circumstance of the Inauguration of our 46th president, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. And something clicked. I felt okay again. Just. Like. That.

I am not writing about politics as much as bookends. I needed bookends for that devastating grief. I had a definite line of demarcation on January 3, 2017 at 4:46 pm. Everything in my world was defined as Before and After that date. But on January 20, 2021, I felt something more. I had bookends. Parenthesis. Brackets. A Finish Line.

So here we are today. January 28, 2021.

Enjoy this new blog about Adventure and Boldness. Rats and Bicycles. Courage and Good Wine. Resilience and Suitcases. Hand Tools. Road Trips. Music. Art. And Friends.

Sometimes all it takes is a “Leap of Faith.”

An Original Introduction.  March 1, 2011

Okay. I’m here. I’ve been meaning to come here for a while but have been dragging my feet. I need the exercise and discipline of a journal.  And I love blank books and good pens that glide across the page.  But the reality is that I don’t sit down and write on paper for pleasure much these days, unless you count grocery lists or post-its. 

So a blog might be a solution.  My friends have them.  Janice, Mary Mikel, the Susans (Hanson and Albert).  I am a loyal reader. A subscriber.  I “take” their occasional blogs, as folks say in small towns when talking about The Paper.

Yes. If you are reading this, you probably know that I spent a long time as a  journalist, photographer and jill-of-all-trades. I spent about a decade as the Features Editor at an almost daily newspaper.  Actually when I took the job, I was called the Neighbors Editor (which management thought was a modern-day  step up from Women’s Editor,  but I kind of wanted to sound a little more uptown than that, and since I designed my own section, as part of the small-town newspaper job, I changed it from Neighbors to Features and no one noticed, or minded if they did.

That job was sort of like writing a blog or a multipage gossip column.  In addition to posting the engagement announcements and editing submitted wedding write-ups (who knew Alencon lace could be spelled so many different ways), and getting the obituaries in on time*, I had free rein with filling the rest of the section. And so we wrote to amuse ourselves, and garnered a few loyal readers and some state and national writing awards along the way in spite of ourselves.

(*I was once accused of RUINING a man’s funeral because he died after the deadline for the Sunday paper and we did not publish on Mondays. He was buried on Tuesday morning and did not have much of a turn-out.  Lesson: “Part of being a hero is knowing when to die.” – Will Rogers) 

“All the news that fits, we print,” was an in-house saying among the three of us who made up the Features Section. Gardening, adventures, book reviews, photo essays, interviews with famous or not-so-famous people, and self-indulgent columns about whatever popped into my mind were the order of the day. It was the best of….

I left that gig to take a dream job as editor of an edgy alternative newsmagazine. Politics, entertainment and social commentary was the order of the day. It really was the best of times,  great staff,  incredible writers (including the gang who came with me from the almost daily)  and an appreciative publisher who savored every word. After a while, the economy sunk that paper and began hitting print journalism in general. I fell into the most unlikely day-job. (Stop The Shooting, April, 2011)

Somewhere along the line, I quit having deadlines for writing off on tangents and rambling about whatever crossed my desk or my mind. And I miss it.

And so. Okay. I’m here. I am not promising much in the way of regular writing  or deadlines- or even much of interest to the masses. In sort of a stream of consciousness, I plan to write about  the most ordinary things like  backroads and graveyards, great love and baseball bats,  good music, quiet moments,  keeping score, getting the shot and taking a chance.

Once in a while, I might stumble across something that catches your eye. And you are more than welcome to hitch yourself to my wagon and come along.

Listening to: Guy Clark – “Maybe I Can Paint Over That.”