No writer is purrfect all the thyme

You may not remember William Safire, but I lived in fear of him. He was a nationally syndicated columnist who wrote about other writers’ writing gaffes. Every Sunday, I would rip open the paper, read his column and exhale to find I had lived to see another misplaced modifier—as if Safire ever read family humor.

That was the effect the man had on me. Or maybe it was affect. Probably both.

Scribe Safire, who loved alliteration, died in 2009 but his spirit lives.

Several readers let me know I committed some flagrant fouls recently. Not wanting to accelerate the ongoing deconstruction of the English language, I would like to own my mistakes. You just heard the creak of the door to the confessional.

Forgive me Safire, for I have sinned.

After my column on Memorial Day ran, a veteran wrote to inform me that taps is not “played.” Taps is also never “performed.” Play and perform indicate entertainment and a bugle call is never for entertainment. Taps is “sounded.”

He was right. The Associated Press Stylebook and Pentagon back him up. “Sounded” is the correct verb to use with taps. Sounded may not sound right, but it is.

The thing that bothers me most is that taps is not capitalized.

After a column that referenced golf was published, a reader wrote to inform me that one does not “golf”—one “plays golf.”

Runners run, swimmers swim and skiers ski, but golfers do not golf—they play golf. Nor do they “go golfing.” At least not the serious-minded ones.

Both readers who emailed corrections were pleasant in tone. Whether the matter under discussion is writing, plumbing, cooking or learning computer code, correction is always easier to receive when it comes with a measure of kindness as opposed to a hard smack.

I think fast, write fast and edit fast. It is the last one that nips at my heels.

I learned early in my career that a good copy editor is a writer’s best friend, because a good copy editor makes you look smarter than you really are.

In a college news writing class, we were advised to “write short.” I am 5’ 2” so it has worked out well. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. Truthfully, I think we were admonished to write short because it minimizes opportunities for errors.

I’m reading “The Unexpected Abigail Adams,” a book that heavily excerpts from the 2,000 letters she wrote. Her letters are sprinkled with randomly capitalized words, creative spelling, contractions without apostrophes and a heavy smattering of semi-colons and commas used to create run-on sentences.

If you spot any errors in this column, no need to email me – just imagine that I am channeling Abigail Adams.

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Retirement bliss can be hit and miss

Our youngest was the ripe age of nine when she tacked a brochure, which she had pulled off a display rack at our neighborhood pharmacy, to her bulletin board. It pictured a smiling white-haired couple beside a headline that read: “Retirement: The Golden Years.”

When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, for months and months, possibly years, perhaps even on her college applications, she would answer, “Retired.”

Naturally, this was disconcerting not to mention somewhat embarrassing. Silly us, we had numerous ideas for her immediate future, none of which included walking hand-in-hand on the beach at sunset with an elderly white-haired man in need of a hip replacement.

The brochure painted a rosy—extremely rosy—picture of retirement that focused heavily on the social aspects, primarily the togetherness of a couple enjoying one another’s company, traveling together, playing golf together, sailing together, bicycling together, dining in vineyards together, climbing Mt. Everest together, sitting on a dock dangling their feet in the water together and enjoying hot air balloon rides together.

Clearly, the couple on the brochure had invested well.

There was no mention of how navigating doctor appointments, cholesterol levels, blood pressure diaries, reading glasses, hair loss, joint pain, fallen arches, cardiac stress tests, health insurance, finances and taxes, all become tantamount to an extremely frustrating part-time job.

In part, the brochure was correct: The upside of retirement is that couples can spend more time together. What the brochure neglected to say was that the upside can also have a downside.

Several years ago, a friend called and said, “I’m at the grocery store. Alone.”

“So?” I said.

“So?” she snapped. “It’s the first time I’ve been to the grocery alone in six months since my husband retired.”

Another woman said her recently retired husband was driving her nuts. Asked how, she said, “With all that clicking he does on his computer keyboard.”

Some have a lower tolerance for pain than others.

The old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” may have been written by a retiree.

Years ago, an older gentleman who was retired told me that he was a night owl who slept in every morning and that his wife was a morning person awake at the crack of dawn. “It’s the secret to our happy marriage in retirement,” he said.

How much togetherness is too much togetherness?

I couldn’t tell you. Every couple must figure that out for themselves.

What I can tell you is that it is 10 a.m. and my better half is still sleeping.

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We’re not the only ones watching our garden grow

Once again, we find ourselves at that time of year when we commence our annual tradition of cultivating $64 tomatoes, $20 garlic bulbs, $50 red potatoes and assorted herbs that run in the $20-$30 range.

This habit of growing produce at an exorbitant cost is a practice we cannot shake despite living within a two-mile radius of four grocery stores selling the same things we grow, at a fraction of the cost.

Presently, our main garden concern is not plants but rabbits.

Mopsy and Topsy have returned. Every morning the dynamic duo runs the perimeter of the backyard patrolling for invading forces, completely unaware that they are the invading forces. And every morning one of us flies out the back door chasing them, yelling at them and flapping our arms like wounded waterfowl.

They have nibbled all the hostas to the ground and eye every tender, green shoot, which is to say everything we planted. Their appetite is boundless. They enjoy sweet potatoes, Bibb lettuce, romaine, zinnias, peas, cucumbers and beans.

We have been using a humane live trap with hopes of relocating the rabbits. We baited the live trap for eight days and rabbits scored the win 8-0.

We have offered romaine, green leaf, red leaf, apple slices, cilantro and parsley. I’ve even added a small tumbler of apple cider of which rabbits are said to be fond.

Every morning the food has been gone, the trap door has been closed, but the cage has been empty. We suspect the rabbits partnered with a resident raccoon that reaches its clever paw beneath the trap and pockets the bait.

True story: Mopsy just came up to the French door beside the desk where I write and peered inside the house. Maybe she wants brussels sprouts. Maybe she is checking to see if we’ve given up and vacated the place so that they might move inside.

“We’re still here, Mopsy! Still here!”

Even our neighbors’ two yapping dogs do not deter them. The rabbits are fearless. They taunt the dogs with their puffy white tails.

Mopsy and Topsy have grown flopsy in recent days. They waddle when they leap. Their center of gravity shifts as they move. They have grown larger, rounder and fuller.

Our backyard will soon be a bunny maternity ward. Rabbits can have between five and eight bunnies per litter.

The score soon could be: Rabbits 18, Humans 0.

Rabbits can become pregnant again within hours of delivery.

Maybe we’ll open a petting zoo.

We already have a plan for next year – we’ll plant hostas directly inside the trap.

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I broke my own rule

I broke my own rule and took my husband to Costco to do some heavy lifting. It was a big package trip: toilet paper, paper towels, coffee in cannisters the size of bank vaults and chicken breasts requiring a forklift.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I calmly said, “When you throw cookies into a grocery cart at Kroger, it’s maybe $4. When you throw cookies into a cart at Costco, it’s more like $40. That’s how people rack up $500 tabs.

He looked at me with an understanding nod.

Maybe he had reformed. Maybe he was no longer an impulse-driven (“Yes! A 12-pack of croissants!”) shopper (“Yes! Industrial size bags of potato chips!”).

He grabs a cart, I flash my ID and we enter the store. I take 10 steps and realize he is not with me. I look over my shoulder. He is behind me, gesturing wildly, both arms flailing and yelling, “Look up! Look up!”

An enormous bright yellow 30-foot inflatable waterslide is dangling from the ceiling.

“We need this!” he shouts.

“You and I do not need a waterslide,” I say.

“The grandkids need it. The old waterslide is shot. This is great!”

“It’s $200,” I gasp.

“Can you think of a better way to spend $200?”

Actually, I couldn’t. And it did look fun. And they’re all growing so fast.

Maybe when they’re all grown up and scattered to parts unknown, he and I can inflate the waterslide and play “Remember When.”

Then he let loose with the closer: “It’s cheaper than golf!”

I’ve been hearing the golf line a lot lately.

We were going out for lunch on our anniversary, and he suggested a high-end steak house. I wasn’t sure about dropping that kind of money on an anniversary that didn’t end with a five or a zero.

“It cheaper than golf!” he said.

We had steak.

I was looking at vacuums online and mentioned they are expensive. He looked over my shoulder and said, “They’re cheaper than golf.”

He doesn’t play golf. I don’t play golf. The few times we tried golf, neither of us was any good at it—and it was clear we’d never get good at it. I can’t even do well at putt-putt golf.

Neither of us has the faintest idea what golf costs. So, I looked it up.

One answer said, “Golf costs one-third of your discretionary income.”

Another answer said, “Take what you have in the bank down to zero and that’s what it costs to golf.”

Maybe everything is cheaper than golf.

Another answer said if you bought used starter clubs at Goodwill, paid a sunset rate for time on a crummy putting green in a sketchy part of town, found an old golf bag, wore old golf shirts and found golf balls for 50 cents a pop, you could get started for a couple hundred dollars.

Guess who has a $200 razzle dazzle big-time wow factor waterslide for the backyard?

The man was right. A 30-foot inflatable waterslide is cheaper than golf.

Too bad we’re both over the weight limit for the waterslide (ages 5-12).



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The 24 notes that tap emotions

The bugle call known as taps is 24 hallowed notes long. My dad was a World War II Army veteran. At the close of his funeral service, a soldier stood on the crest of a small nearby hill and played taps. Each note rang with a piercing sorrow.

When taps is sounded, military members salute, civilians place their hands over their hearts, and loved ones of the deceased bite their lips, hold their breath and try not to cry.

Taps first gained a foothold during the Civil War. It signaled “lights out” as another day drew to a close.

Today if you are on a military installation, you may hear taps sounded in the evening, broadcast over speakers. If you are driving, you pull your car over and wait until taps is finished.

Taps is sounded every evening at 11 p.m. in Arlington National Cemetery. Notes linger above perfectly lined rows of gravestones that stretch as far as the eye can see, then ascend into the heavens.

Those interred in Arlington, and in every other large and small cemetery dotting the country, span time and history. Beneath the sod rest the remains of Union and Confederate soldiers, Doughboys of World War I, service members of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the Gulf wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were men and women of all ages, all races, and all different backgrounds and stories.

A few years ago, it came to light that 14 women from the legendary Six Triple-Eight (6888), a multi-ethnic, primarily all-black, female military unit from World War II, are buried at Arlington. Stationed in Europe, they tackled an entire warehouse full of undelivered letters and packages. The unit’s motto was “no mail, low morale.” These women, eager to serve their country, fought sexism, racism and the Nazis. What courage. What a legacy.

Loved ones of those who have died in military service hold on any way they can: dog tags, Purple Hearts, an old telegram, handwritten letters and maybe a folded flag presented at a funeral.

How do those of us who have never served, let alone come close to giving all, honor those who died in service to country?

We honor them by honoring the legacy. Ask your kids and grandkids if they know why we have a holiday called Memorial Day. If they don’t know, don’t lecture them, just help them connect the dots.

Help them understand that an incredibly long line of people stretching from the Revolutionary War to the present paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy.

They were ordinary people with hopes and dreams, just like yours and mine. They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance. So let’s do that. Remember.


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Two brides and a second grader walk into a playground

We just found out one of our granddaughters is planning her wedding. We were as surprised as anyone. She is 8.

Naturally, her mother was the first to know—as it should be. She became suspicious when Little Miss began wearing her best cardigan to school, the white one with pearl trim around the collar, over her best dressy dress, the one with the large floral print and billowing skirt.

“Why are you dressing up every day?” her mother asked on the way to school.

Giggle, giggle. “Because there might be a kiss at recess.”

“A KISS?” her mother cried, nearly veering off the road. (You can still see the skid marks.)

“And a wedding!”

Who’s getting married?” her mother asked.

“Me, my friend and the groom.”

Now her mother veered to the other side of the road.

It turned out the wedding wouldn’t be for all three—and don’t you know her mother sighed a great sigh of relief on that point—the wedding would be between the groom and whichever girl he chose.

The plot thickens and the competition stiffens.

Fortunately, the groom-to-be is the son of one of our daughter’s good friends.

For those who do not believe history repeats itself, our daughter was in kindergarten when she came home and announced she had spent free time in the kissing center.

I asked where the kissing center was. She said it was in the corner of the classroom, in the treehouse, and there was a curtain you could pull closed. I didn’t believe it, so I called another mother who confirmed there was no kissing center in either kindergarten classroom.

In essence, our daughter tossed the bouquet and her daughter caught it.

When our daughter texted the groom-to-be’s mother, asking if she knew anything about a wedding at recess, she said yes, her son told her that two girls had been chasing him at recess. He said when one of them asked who he liked best, he screamed “NEITHER!” and began running as fast as he could.

That was one week ago. The intended groom could be at the Florida state line by now.

The girls have been sternly warned there is never, ever, ever to be kissing or weddings or chasing boys at school.

They were fine with that and announced they have moved on to imaginary boys.

I imagine they will be easier to catch.

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The wonder of motherhood explained in under 500 words

The physical changes of impending motherhood are stunning. Though new curves and nausea can be dramatic, physical changes are only the beginning. The changes that create the deepest imprints happen in the heart.

The first change you notice is a depth of love you never knew existed. You cradle that newborn in your arms and a deep swell of wonder encompasses your entire being. That tiny nose, those perfect little lips, those delicate eyelids. Are you floating in a third dimension or is this real?

Your senses blossom into fuller measure.

A faint rustling or soft whimper awakens you from a deep sleep.

You go with your gut when it tells you something is wrong.

Even your vision changes. As your child grows, so does your ability to see around corners and behind your back.

One day, you find you have grown tiger claws—and instead of trimming them, you sharpen them.

Your level of patience changes. You run short. You sometimes snap, bark, growl, grow impatient and ask yourself, “Who is this crank?”

Some days it feels like you absolutely cannot do one more 24-hour shift. But you do. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night . . .  nor colic, nor teething, nor lost pacifiers . . . nor adolescence, nor a driver’s license . . .”

Over the years, your heart and emotions silently intertwine with your child’s. Your child succeeds, you enjoy the accomplishment. Your child suffers, you suffer. You even wish it was you suffering instead of your child.

God have mercy if you are a mother whose child dies before you do. Yet not even death can sever the tie between mother and child. A mother’s body is a child’s first home. A mother never forgets the life that once beat and grew within her.

I recently asked a friend about his wife, a mother of four, grandmother to nine and brand new great-grandma to one, the woman with snow white hair, an easy smile and clear blue eyes. She has Alzheimer’s and resides in a memory care unit now.

He said the deterioration is progressing. She was restless the other day, so a staff member gave her a baby doll to hold. They sent him a picture of his wife, calmed and at peace, holding the doll. Then they sent a second picture—she was giving the doll a kiss.

He shared the picture with one of their daughters who said, “Once a mom, always a mom.”

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Packing for a trip can be a clothes call

Years ago, we would pick up our son downtown after he took the Megabus home from college. He would get in the car and we would routinely ask, “Where’s your luggage?” He would respond by holding up a small brown paper bag most people use to pack a lunch.

The kid was a walking definition of “travel light.”

These days he occasionally travels internationally for work. To our knowledge he has never checked a bag. We’re not sure he knows how.

I had a grandma who gave up her home when she was in her 80s and went from one adult child’s home to another. She never brought more than one suitcase when she came to stay for weeks at a time.

There was a time I traveled light. In my younger days, when I went somewhere overnight or on a short trip, I could easily get everything I needed into a small green bag the size of a bowling ball bag.

All these years later, my husband and I are both fond of saying we travel light—but we don’t. We travel like we are heading out for the Oregon Trail.

Seems we take most everything we own with us except for salt pork, beans and a spare wagon wheel.

We took an overnight trip out of town last week and I packed four pairs of shoes—high heels for my speaking engagement, flats for when the heels became excruciating, flip flops, because I have a phobia about walking barefoot on hotel carpets, and running shoes.

I looked at that bag of shoes and realized I have officially become high-maintenance.

I also packed an entire cosmetic bag with nothing but moisturizers and lotions for my face, neck, arms, hand, legs and feet. What I really need is a showerhead that shoots out moisturizer, not water.

When I traveled with that little green bag, my only cosmetic was a tiny jar of Noxzema. I didn’t pack a blow dryer, curling iron, two hairbrushes, mousse, gel and hair spray years ago—I simply channeled Carole King.

My husband packs light in the way of clothes but weighs in heavy with all the extras. He throws in a computer bag, two cameras, a camera bag, a tripod, at least three hardback books, old issues of the Wall Street Journal he’s been meaning to read and several file folders with loose papers falling out.

He has finished loading the covered wagon, I mean car, when I yell, “Wait! One more!”

“What’s in this little lightweight bag?” he asks, tossing it into the cargo hold.

“My clothes,” I say.

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Students turn the table at homeschool

When our kids were young, I briefly considered homeschooling. Then I was teaching our son to play piano, found myself with the John Thompson Book for Beginners rolled up in my hand, ready to swat him on the arm, and realized I was not homeschool material.

We paid a neighbor for piano lessons. She taught all the kids in the neighborhood and never once swatted one of them with a piano book.

Here I am these many years later and homeschooling. Sorta.

For several years we have been homeschooling three of our grands on Tuesdays when their mother works.

We refer to our school as Old School. At Old School, we often begin the day developing culinary skills—as in making a coffee cake. Welcome to home economics. “Careful with that crumb topping, girls! It’s all about even distribution!”

Coffee cake won’t be on a standardized test one day but give these girls a box of blueberries and pantry staples and they will deliver the goods.

Following Baking 101, our three students heave their 90-pound book bags (which should count for P.E. credits) onto the kitchen table and unload books, books and more books.

Our primary function is to check their work. Their primary function is to check us checking their work. Then we check why they checked our work, and they usually go mum, which indicates they have had instructions from home that Grandma and Grandpa sometimes veer off the path.

Someone checked me this week asking, “What is a homonym?”

“You. Ewe,” I said.

“Me?” she asked.

“No, I said you. And ewe.”


“YOU-WHO!” She laughed and we had our first knock-knock joke of the day.

Humor is one of the many electives we offer alongside cooking.

She giggled but resumed quizzing me, asking me to define synonym and antonym.

“Why are you quizzing me?” I asked.

“I just want to see what you know.”

It’s always good to vet the language arts teacher, even if she is a writer.

Math has taken a sharp turn as two of them are into algebra. They are solving for every letter of the alphabet to the power of 6 or 7 or 12 with random parentheses and fractions thrown in to increase the fun in “showing your work.”

One of our students writes somewhat large; showing her work for one problem can fill an entire page.

The Old School superintendent (the husband) loves math and numbers. His handwriting is small, but he could fill 20 pages showing his work for the many ways to solve 5 plus 5. He helps the girls solve problems and then offers multiple variations of the problem until the girls crawl under the table to see if he notices they are gone.

I prefer doing problems in my head. That way nobody can check my work. I tend to be brief and succinct.

At Old School, we insist students demonstrate they have mastered a concept by teaching that concept to one of us.

One of the girls recently learned a new math concept, after which her detail-loving Grandpa said, “OK, now teach it to me.”

To which she said, “Can I teach it to Grandma?”


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Took the bait, hook, line and sinker

I took the bait and I’m not even embarrassed to say what the bait was.

It was a fishing scam. Not trout, bass, anything you throw back in the water, or cook on the grill—fishing with a “ph.” Phishing.

Phishing is when online fraudsters try to scam you out of money by enticing you to open an email or text without first checking the web address to see who sent it.

It’s a “too good to be true” concept. It’s the powerful lure of F-R-E-E.

The truth is, we can all be hooked with the right bait.

What’s your bait? Sometimes you don’t know what your bait is until it appears on a screen before you.

The husband, who frequently lectures others about not falling for scams, took a tumble himself. The email was from a chain drug store we frequent. The bait was a free Ring doorbell.

The doorbell we have doesn’t even ding half the time. Naturally, the thought of a doorbell that would ding, show who was at the door and record video of people not picking up their dog poo, was simply too good to be true. Is this a great country or what?

He clicked. And then he kicked himself.

A young man we know who is extremely sharp and very tech savvy, fell for free concert tickets.

You want what you want. Somehow fraudsters know exactly what you want.

A friend recently received notice that a package she sent could not be delivered because it was short $1.10 in postage. Concerned that she had sent a package to a loved one that would not be delivered without additional postage, she took the bait.

Hook, line and sinker.

The thing about good bait is that it can stir your heart, spark your emotions and create unquenchable desire that overrides your brain.

The bait that almost reeled me in? Tupperware.

That’s right. I could be bought for Tupperware. A 26-piece storage container set, to be specific.

If I would just take a short survey sent to me by a well-known big box store, I would receive a free set of Tupperware.

Be still my heart.

A 26-piece set of storage Tupperware meant I would organize my kitchen and my life. I would never go to a dollar store again. I would never have to tell grandkids where to dig for the cookies or pretzels again. They would be able to see the cookies and pretzels!

The first question on the survey was a giveaway. It asked how often I shopped at the store. I have their store credit card; they know how often I shop at the store.

After I glanced at the address of the sender, I knew there would be no free Tupperware. (A moment of silence, please.)

One of my most vivid memories as a teen is of my dad sitting at the kitchen table, saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Over and over. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Or a free doorbell.

Or free concert tickets.

Or free Tupperware.


Some lessons take a lifetime to learn

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