Thursday, December 29, 2011

Do You Love Me Now That It's 2012?

Michael's holiday Butter Ball Turkey at the beach
    What is your theme song for the new year? Have you chosen one yet? You need a theme song. You need to choose a song you know all the words to, so that when you are happy, like the way you feel at the beach on a stunning clear day, you can sing your song loud and well into the wild surf. When you’re in a rough spot, say sitting in the dentist office waiting room, for your turn in the chair of certain torture, you can hum it to yourself, or whistle it into the dark when you walk past the cemetery.
    What will you do with next year's turkey leftovers? That’s a question I need to answer before Thanksgiving, 2012, which is just around the corner. What will we do with those damned turkey leftovers? I need a recipe to completely disguise that funky turkey flavor. My husband, who always seeks out the biggest turkey in the store, and fancies himself to be an expert at holiday turkey preparation, says “Yuck” when I begin turning the holiday turkey carcass into turkey soup.
    “Can you at least find another name for it?” he asks. “Country turkey chowder? Bistro turkey bisque?”
    Is this the year you join the gym and get into shape? My friends just bought a gym and say this past week has been the most lucrative one yet. People with flaccid muscles and sagging self images are lining up to sign on for a year of self-improvement. The year ahead will be different from the one behind, they hope.
Why can't every night be New Year's Eve?
    What about money? The Internet news is warning of a very rough economy in the year ahead. I can’t imagine things getting any worse, but, according to those in the know, they may. I am thinking of cutting out the land line phone, and canceling the Comcast cable TV. But Michael needs the news. “It’s an election year!” he says. Cut out the land line? Crazy talk! Sometimes, he argues, you need a land line, to send a FAX. And so, we stand at the ready for any and all avenues of communication, from the Macintosh or the Kindle or the iPhone. We also pay accordingly and absurdly.
    Like most people we have considered eliminating meat from our diet as a money saving measure. But replacing meat and chicken with fish and vegetables yields no real reduction in the grocery bill. Vegetarian cooking relies on esoteric stuff, like miso, grapeseed oil, and pricey spices, like saffron and imported curry powders. Organic ain’t economic. 
    Aside from the myth of the economy of the vegetarian diet, my spouse and I have other food issues. Michael, who is inclined to remain trim no matter how horrifically fatty his diet, grew up in South Carolina eating streak ‘o lean basted vegetables, buttery grits, and chicken-fried everything smothered in gravy. He tries to be a good sport, but finds little satisfaction in a hearty bowl of beans and brown rice. He accuses me often of using too much apple cider vinegar in my cooking, which in Nova Scotia, my home base, is about as exotic as it gets in most thrifty households. Will the battle of tastes reach a truce in 2012? So far, I’m losing badly. I was a vegetarian when I met this man, 25 years ago. Nowadays, to my utter disgust, my mouth waters at the thought of a fatty ribeye steak sizzling on the grill.
    We have agreed to stop buying bacon. A small, but important, victory. Our friends, the same ones who now own a gym, are eating turkey bacon these days. I cannot go there. Not now. Maybe never. I prefer to keep turkey in its place. And I’m certain turkey bacon costs more than pig bacon.
    I recently told my son that I’d decided to make a conscious effort not to talk so much in the new year. Instead, I explained, I want to try very hard to listen to what other people have to say, which is truly difficult for me to do. Frankly, I’d rather do the talking, or at least lead the conversation, manage the direction and the flow.
    “Mom,” Miguel said, “Do you really think you can change your personality at this point in your life? Why not work on a goal you might reasonably expect to accomplish?”
    He’s right. It’s too late for me to stop talking. I can quit eating sweets. I can give up bacon. I can give up the “Housewives of -- name the city --” on Bravo TV. I can quit trying to reinvent uses for leftover turkey. But I certainly can’t shut up, any more than I can stop singing or dancing, or needing to be loved.
    So here, with heartfelt thanks to the fabulous Contours, is my own personal anthem for 2012. Call me if you would like to discuss my choice. We'll talk . . . uh, I'll talk.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Judy Garland in "Meet Me In St. Louis"
At Christmastime a songwriter dreams of writing a Christmastime hit, a yuletide standard, with an eternity of holiday seasons ahead and a lifetime of regular perennial hit royalty checks. Think of Mel Torme’s "Christmas Song." You know it: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . .  .”  or Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.”  How about "Blue Christmas?"  “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you . . . " sung by Elvis, the king. These are the songs that make their creators well, which in country music talk is another way of saying flush with cash.
   My husband, who with his Nashville partner, Dave Lindsey, has written a currently number one hit on the bluegrass charts, is yet to pen his yuletide standard. But he’s still trying. Michael is an intellectual sort of songwriter. He doesn’t sit around strumming a guitar and trying words on for size like a regular sort of songwriter. He studies the business of songs, their structure, their power and their writers, like a stock broker studies the market. His research has turned up a fascinating array of facts and figures, many of which lend themselves to interesting conversation, none of which have made us particularly well. Yet.
Noshville Cafe, Nashville

   A couple of months ago we were having breakfast at the Noshville Cafe in Nashville, trying to remember the words to The Lovin Spoonful’s song “Nashville Cats,” which was parodied by Bob Weinstein into the very funny “Noshville Katz.” To pursue such trivia means never to be bored with your longtime companion. There is a portrait of Judy Garland on the wall at the Noshville and Michael was reminded that he’d just read that Hugh Martin, the writer of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” had recently died at the age of 96, which means he had a nice long run of being well. Then Michael said that the original words to the song were so dark that Garland refused to sing them in the film “Meet Me In St. Louis.” The words were modified for the film. When the great Frank Sinatra got around to performing the song, he too, found the words depressing and asked Martin to further modify the next to the final line. Martin did. Instead of, "we'll have to muddle through somehow" it goes “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Today, it’s the modified version we hear, not the original, written during the era of the Second World War.
The Lovin' Spoonful
    As Michael and I were attempting to recall the words to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” our waiter came ‘round to refill our coffee cups. Overhearing our conversation he volunteered, “Do you want the revised edition of the song, or the original words that Garland refused to sing because they were too depressing?” Those Nashville Cats!
    So now, for your edification, here are the original words to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas":

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
                                                    But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
                                                   From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
                                                   So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

    As we do indeed muddle along, somehow, the original words seem to ring true again. That line about living in New York? Truly tragic. Have you checked the weather up there lately?
    Besides lots of lively conversation about music, there’s another benefit to living with a songwriter, his head ever aswarm with song lyrics, past, present and future. He is oh so pie-eyed optimistic. He expects everything to turn out all right. Yesterday, for example, he bought a pound of chestnuts, paying homage to Mel Torme’s suggestion of the same roasting on an open fire. No, we don’t have a fireplace. And how the hell do you get those chestnuts out of their hard little shells? Did you know there’s both an outer and an inner shell on chestnuts? All of these small details are beside the point for Michael, whose heart is light, his troubles always out of sight. We have chestnuts. We have palm trees and sunny skies. We’re gonna have ourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

Paste the link below in your browser to see Judy Garland sing the movie version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Easy Come, Easy Go. My Recycled Life

The find of the day on my last day at Secondhand Sam's.
Vintage. Terra cotta. Divine.
Tis the season to be jolly, but how jolly can I be as the glorious era of Secondhand Sam’s, Key West’s most grandiose thrift shop, dwindles down to its inevitable, lost-their-lease, demise?  What will our island's legion of thrifters do with those long, hot afternoons of summer we once spent in sweet and meditative joy examining each and every cast-aside object sadly outgrown its purpose for someone? For many years Sam’s has inhabited a cavernous warehouse, that previously housed a carpeting business, across the street from where the infamous Key West Dog Track once operated. Lots of “once was” and “used to be” places on the island these days . . . Now, the dog track is history and at Sam’s the ancient showrooms are busy with activity, as workers scurry about, shoving furniture and massive bins and boxes full of every imaginable thing, into better merchandising position for last chance bargain shoppers. Some items are destined for the warehouse’s loading platform, where they are lifted onto trucks headed for who knows where. And then it happens again; the stuff someone once wanted is no longer useful to its newest owners.  It’s doubly unwanted.
Elmira Leto, Executive Director of Samuel’s House.
Money raised at Secondhand Sam’s goes there.
Shopper Maggie told me she doesn’t read much. These
books are for her mom, Callie Morehouse, a private chef,
who reads anything non-fiction. “What will we do without
this place?” Callie said.

The fact that you are unlikely to find something sensational for the man in your life on the racks at a secondhand store had lead me to understand that men do not recycle their clothes. They wear them until they fall apart.  Or they forget them on the bus.  Or until the rats shred them. Or, like my husband, they store them in dusty drawers or closets for the remainder of the owner’s natural life, awaiting that one special event — a trip to Alaska perhaps? — when they will become useful again.
Ashleigh waitresses at Jack Flat’s and shops at Secondhand Sam’s.  Just look at the selection!!! She and her bud Jennifer were shopping for ugly sweaters. I didn’t ask why.
Hair design genius Jackie Gray, a devout Saturday morning yard sale maven, models her double-purposed, hand-stitched Christmas tree skirt. She wore it to host her Christmas party. After the party, it went back beneath the tree.

    The younger people in my life are far too impatient to dedicate long hours to treasure hunting in thrift shops. They have not lived long enough to appreciate that secondhand clothes are fully engaged, washed, dried, survivors of wear and tear. Sturdy. That’s one reason to love recycled clothes. They’ve stood the test of time. No more heartbreaking “it shrunk in the wash” moments for this recycler. My clothes are mature, seasoned. And if they take themselves too seriously, expect special treatment, they go into my ever-present recycling bin and back to the thrift shop. 
Recycling fan Mary Pfund re-purposed her family’s warehouse
in Key West as her home and studio. One of her customers
abandoned a storage unit full of awning material, canvas and
vinyl. On her trusty sewing machine, which she bought second-hand twenty five years ago, she makes these Key West boat bags, sturdy enough to outlive us all.
Musician Dan Simpson posted the following on Facebook Wednesday morning:

I'm doing sound for Fantazimo – A Jolly Ole Burlesque Odyssey @ TSKW (a great show BTW), and need a suit, at least a jacket and tie. Yes, I have never worn one in KW (since 1978), so I figger it's a good occasion to bust one out. I also don't want to spend a whole lot, so I'll look at the good old Salvation Army, maybe Ross... any other suggestions? Actually, I'm envisioning a Miami Vice style... HAR! Styling Gel?!Not much to work with :) Hopefully I'll remember the ol' tie knot...

Dan posted the picture above with this on Wednesday afternoon:

RE: Suit Quest. Second Hand Sam’s comes through.
    Many years ago my roommate Eileen bought a secondhand lamp to use in her room at my house. She left it here when she moved. And here it stayed, for several decades. About a year ago my super-organizer friend Tina and I did a massive purge of my house, making several hefty deliveries to Secondhand Sam’s. Among the give-aways was Eileen’s lamp. Several weeks later another friend, Jane, feathering her own temporary nest in Key West, told me about a great lamp she’d purchased at Sam’s. “I think I know that lamp,” I told her. Sure enough, it was Eileen’s lamp, which had lived with me here for the past 25 years. Jane moved up to Sebring, to her boyfriend’s house there, and took the lamp. Then she broke up with that boyfriend and returned to Key West. When she relocated to Colorado to care for her ailing mother, she stored a stash of items in my loft to await her return to the island. Among those things, yes, Eileen’s lamp.
    I paid my final visit to Secondhand Sam’s yesterday. I shopped for many hours. I spent $18. Among other treasures, I bought a vintage suede jacket for 50 cents. From the moment I laid eyes on it I knew we were destined to be together forever — or at least until it needs to be dry-cleaned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Bound Woman

The other day Michael and I walked over to the cemetery for a look at my favorite grave marker, the Bound Woman. She marks the burial place of Archibald John Sheldon Yates, who lived between 1911 and 1966, a time that covers some very interesting history. His wife put that marker on his grave, and I’ve never stopped wondering why. What does it mean? Michael thinks it’s obvious. The man who died was a woman trapped inside the body of a man. Online somewhere I read that this statue of a naked woman, her hands tied behind her back, is an effigy of his wife. Did Yates sculpt this piece? I don’t think that’s the case. His wife, buried next to him, died after he did. So she made the decision to use this stark portrait of stifled beauty.
    The bound woman, whose body is youthfully graceful, appears to be in distress, pushing against the constraints of her bonds. Her face, in a searching grimace, is worn with sun and time as she gazes into the wide, blue sky above the rooftops of Old Town.
    What will we do with our bodies when we die? There’s no more room at the Key West Cemetery, that’s for sure. And yet walking among the stones and markers and pictures and quotations, you have to wonder what you’d have written on your monument, were there room here for you. “She Quit Smoking” was the epitaph I thought of for myself for many years, as it was, for a long time, the most difficult achievement of my life. Lately, the most remarkable thing I’ve done is get through cancer. But “She Survived Cancer” would seem silly on a grave. Maybe “She Survived Cancer  — For a While.”
    I had a childhood friend named Janet. We lived in the same little New England town; our families attended the same church. It was an old church, with a hillside of ancient graves, some of them dating back to the 1600s. We loved wandering through that cemetery, noting dates, babies buried next to their parents, sometimes whole families, fallen victims to some epidemic, born before the age of antibiotics. Heartbreaking. Some stones marked the graves of soldiers who’d fought and died in the American Revolution. Some in the Civil War. Some names we knew, their descendants lived among us. It was a special thing between Janet and me, a way of passing a brilliant autumn or spring day. Then Janet died. I went to her funeral but I am sad to say I don’t know where she is buried. So shocking was her death, at the time the last thing I wanted to imagine was her beautiful young body buried in the earth. But now I wonder where her grave is. I would like to visit it. And yes, place flowers on it. Or a poem.
Austin Griffin was born Nov. 23, 1864. His bride, Tina, was born June 22, 1862. They died the same day - Sunday, Oct. 6, 1907.  Austin shot his estranged wife, and then swallowed a bottle of carbolic acid, surviving Tina by one hour.  So they're buried under one stone? Who made that decision? Who would want to spend eternity next to a guy who murdered you?
Janet's senior prom picture May 11,1968, was also her 18th birthday.
    At the Key West Cemetery there is a famous grave of a husband and wife, Austin and Tina Griffin — their story a grizzly one, of murder and suicide. Janet also died by her own hand, a victim of a virulent form of insanity that came out of nowhere and drove her out of her mind. When I read about Hemingway’s final days, his steadfast determination to kill himself, I think of Janet, because that’s the way she was at the end, too. Determined, her brilliant and wonderful mind tattered by madness.
    I think of Janet when I hear Ravel’s "Pavane for a Dead Princess," so sad, and yet hopeful at the same time. I will always think of Janet when I read haiku or see a particularly evocative watercolor painting, because Janet was an artist and a poet, too. But lately I’ve begun to understand why that Key West monument speaks to me so profoundly. In my heart, and in my mind, Janet’s memory is just like that Bound Woman, warming in the sun, alone with the dead and her unfathomable secrets.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thankful At The Beach

Hal's last Thanksgiving.
Our big holiday is Thanksgiving. For years we’ve been setting up our traditional feast on the beach, on picnic tables, with lovely tablecloths and silverware and flowers. We always bring the turkey. Michael cooks it and I make the gravy. By doing this we are always assured of those precious leftovers. This will be our 15th year at the beach party we call the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Michael: Hey, where is everybody with the food?
    Hal Walsh was a guy who came to Key West via Connecticut and New York, where he’d spent the first half of his life going to the right schools, then working as a stockbroker, doing just what his stuffy parents expected him to do. At around age 50 Hal learned his heart was winding down pretty quickly. And so he decided to spend the remainder of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. He moved to Key West. He got two cocker spaniels, and treated them like the children he never had. He was unapologetically cantankerous. He loved history and got a job managing the Truman Little White House, which he performed with true grace. He was single, and so we always spent Thanksgivings together, in somebody or other’s home. One year I had the idea of Thanksgiving at the Beach. Hal loved it; I think because it was so very different from how he’d always done it before, up north. Hal brought the cranberry sauce.  For Hal Walsh, Thanksgiving on the beach was a rebellion.
    Hal’s heart finally gave out just before our second Thanksgiving on the beach. He’d phoned to assure me that he was bringing his famous cranberry sauce. He added that he was having some problems with a new heart medicine. “I hope I don’t drop dead at the table,” he said. But he didn’t make it to the Thanksgiving table. He died that night. We learned from his sister, when she came to town to manage his affairs, that he’d told her several times about how much he cherished Thanksgiving on the beach, and about how much he was looking forward to our next Thanksgiving. And that’s why we call it the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Rocky, Mom, Paula, Merle, June
    Of course the year Hal died, we didn’t have cranberry sauce. Then, for years after that, somehow the cranberry sauce didn’t make it to the feast. And, as everybody knows, you can hardly call it Thanksgiving dinner without a bowl of cranberry something on the table. Somebody forgot to bring it. Or somebody didn’t get the word they were supposed to bring it. And whenever that moment arrived when we once again realized that we’d somehow not arrived with cranberry sauce, I swear I heard Hal chuckling at us.
    Through the years we’ve had quite an assortment of people at the Hal Walsh Thanksgiving at the Beach party. A regular part of the gathering was Rosie Jones and her daughter Aja. They came because Rosie’s husband Michael, the singer, always worked on Thanksgiving. Now that he’s a senior staff member, he gets Thanksgivings off. And prefers to have his turkey at home with his little family. My mother joined us a few times, too. One year she yelled at one of our guests, an oncologist, because her sisters had both died of cancer.  Many of our guests have come and gone from Key West, that is they've moved on to other places and other things. Mom is with Hal now, in the great beyond.
Thea's last Jersey blizzard!!
    This year my son is going to New York City for Thanksgiving. A week ago an old friend from New York called to ask if she might invite herself to Thanksgiving on the beach. Hell, yeah! Come on down! The joy of sharing the day with someone I’ve known since kindergarten has relieved the sadness I feel at not having my son with me on the holiday.
    Our summertime neighbor Thea, a teacher retired at last and finally ready to live forevermore in her Key West house, just arrived in town. It’s so good to have her back because there’s nothing gloomier than an empty conch house except perhaps the sad e-mails that come from the homesick owner of said house, stranded in New Jersey trying to sell the house she owns there.  This will be her first Thanksgiving on the beach.
    I just made the cranberry sauce. Here’s the recipe: 2 cups whole raw cranberries, washed. 1 small onion. 3/4 cup sour cream. 1/2 cup sugar. 2 tablespoons horseradish from a jar.  Grind the raw berries and onion together in a food processor. You want it chunky. Not pureed. In a bowl combine this raw mix with everything else. Put it in a plastic container and put it into your freezer.  On Thanksgiving eve take it out of the freezer and place it into your refrigerator to thaw. Serve it cold or at room temperature. The relish will be creamy and bright pink and absurdly delicious with turkey and also good on turkey sandwiches the next day.
    Today, as I was grinding cranberries, I wondered what Mom and Hal, my favorite rebels, might be doing for Thanksgiving this year. I had a vision of the two of them, in a Chinese restaurant, sipping martinis and enjoying the air conditioning.

 To see Hal's 5-minute tour of the Little White House paste this address into your browser:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing, Baby

Claire Lynch. She's sweet. She's sassy. She's always on pitch.
When it comes to music, there’s nothing like the real thing, live musicians, on a stage, performing live music. That’s what we saw last Friday night when we went to see the Claire Lynch Band in concert in Bradenton.
Bluegrass fans are a genial sort. That's my man in the blue jacket waiting on line.
    Although Claire Lynch falls in the category of Bluegrass Music, her repertoire ranges far beyond the standard bluegrass stuff. And her players, tap-dancing bass man Mark Schatz, sizzling fiddler Jason Thomas, and young and thoroughly modern guitarist, Matt Wingate, all award-winning bluegrass and acoustic stars in their own right, turn Claire’s bright light up to dazzling brilliance. My old friend and boss Richard Heyman, former Key West mayor, once told me that one of his keys for success was to hire good people. Since then, America has grown lean and mean and competitive. I’ve noticed that bosses are not always interested in hiring stars who might distract from their greatness. But Claire Lynch is apparently beyond all that pettiness, and she is all the better for it, a wise woman indeed. 
These oranges had a cold weekend! Come on Florida Sun!
    Bluegrass fans are a friendly bunch. They smile a lot and behave while waiting on line or arranging themselves in seats.  It was a cool night in Bradenton and we were bundled in jackets, coats and even blankets. There were heaters, those great tall units that emit fabulous and far-reaching warmth. I was hoping there would be funnel cakes or deep-fried potatoes, like you find at big bluegrass festivals. I once waited on a long line at a Nova Scotia bluegrass festival for the most popular treat of the weekend: an Idaho potato, peeled with a machine into a long, curled ribbon, then deep fried in oil. Delicious! But no such treat at this concert. Only coffee, sandwiches and popcorn. Nothing really insane or even deep fried.
    Our nearby hotel, in Ellenton, a town we’d never heard of, was right on the Manatee River. Our room overlooked the river. Just outside our window a mighty oak tree, festooned in Spanish moss, swayed in the wind. Next to the hotel was a tiny trailer park, with funky, happy looking trailers. Then, a riverside bar and restaurant called Woody’s, where we ate great fish and chips. After the concert, we went back to Woody’s to find a live rock ‘n roll band with a lead singer every bit as old and wizened as Keith Richards. Surely he’d been at it since the '60s. He wore a big cowboy hat and during breaks sat on a huge speaker and smoked cigarettes, while a DJ played dance standards and urged us all out of seats and onto the floor.  It was never empty!
    On the way home we listened to Claire Lynch’s greatest hits album, which sounded even better after seeing the band perform live. Even the old guy in the cowboy hat singing "Honky Tonk Woman" was pretty cool. There’s nothing like the real thing.
The great Claire Lynch and the guys who make her even greater.
    I’ve come a long way since the day, many years ago, when I met my husband and he told me he was a fan of country music. My heart sank ‘cause I knew for sure there was no way we two could be a match. But we were. We are. I’m even looking forward to our next bluegrass concert.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Everybody's Talkin' About Fantasy Fest

Once upon a time this was writer James Leo Herlihy's house on Baker's Lane
I was 19 years old the first time I saw the film Midnight Cowboy and decided I had to get out of New York City. The film’s opening musical theme, “Everybody’s Talkin’” suggested a magical place “where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain” and “where the weather suits my clothes.” Ah, yes, I wanted to escape to that place. And when handsome, sweet-natured, generous, blue-eyed blond Joe Buck headed to New York, the greatest city on earth, only to find delusion and relentless loneliness, I related to that too. So I came to Key West. And never looked back.
   Since then, we’ve watched Midnight Cowboy many times. It is a family favorite. The first time my husband Michael heard the song “Everybody’s Talkin'” in 1969 he was a businessman, in a city on the mainland, yearning for the freedom he heard described in those freewheeling phrases. He immediately went out and bought the record. Thirty years later, when he heard it for the first time, our son Miguel downloaded the song onto his iPod.  I’ve noticed that songwriters (my husband and now, too, my son) will listen a hundred and ten times to a song they find particularly intriguing, analyzing it, examining it, deconstructing every line in search of the magic button.
    Key West is like that. We come here for something magical, something we cannot name, something we are oftentimes in too big a hurry to find until it’s too late and we rush back to the safety of the tried and true of our hometowns. But what remains, the broth of humanity reduced again and again, is a rich soup indeed.
Fred Neil in New York City, where he wrote "Everybody's Talkin.'"  He died in July 2001, one month before Jack Maple.
    Singer/Songwriter Fred Neil, who wrote “Everybody’s Talkin,’” traveled to the end of the road to spend the '90s in comfortable seclusion on Summerland Key, where he died of cancer in 2001. After "Everybody's Talkin’” Neil's best-known song is "The Dolphin." In 1970 Neil and marine biologist Rick O’Barry founded The Dolphin Research Project, an organization dedicated (according to Neil himself) to stopping the capture, trafficking and exploitation of dolphins worldwide. After that Neil progressively disappeared from the recording studio and live performance. I have heard that Neil was such a recluse that he hired taxi drivers to pick up his prescription drugs from the pharmacy and deliver them to his house. He lived alone. He died alone. But he’d made it to where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain. He died having written songs that will live as long as time.
The flap over the peep hole at the front door
    I wonder if he knew that James Leo Herlihy, the guy who wrote the novel Midnight Cowboy had lived on Baker’s Lane in Key West? I wonder if he ever visited the house with the peace sign gingerbread and the peep flap over the window on the door that you lifted so see who was knocking. On it, Herlihy had written: “God is at the door. Let us see what face He is wearing today.” We walked over to Baker's Lane this morning and met the new owners: the Antonis, from Freeport, in the Bahamas.  The Antonis graciously allowed us to see the door and peep hole. My friend, writer Stacy Rodriguez and her famous crime fighter boyfriend Jack Maple, rented the historic place for a while in the ‘90s. Herlihy spent the '60s in Key West, but later returned to Los Angeles, where he took his own life in 1993.  He was 66 years old. I wish he’d stayed longer.
Turn the flap and read: "God is at the door. Let us see what face He is wearing today."

    Jack Maple, a New York City native, loved exploring the streets of Key West, and when someone on a bike or in a car got in his way, he quoted the famously improvised line by Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy,  “I’m walkin’ here,” he’d say.
Jack Maple, always dapper. He died in NYC, one month after Fred Neil died here in the Keys.
     It’s Fantasy Fest week, and outside my door the streets are teeming with tourists, in mass pursuit of  that magic button they have only heard about, the mystical thing that quiets that yearning to belong, to live true to your dreams, to feel alive. It resides here, that magic, I’m sure, but I think it leaves town for Fantasy Fest.

Scenes from Midnight Cowboy. Oscar winner for Best Picture 1969.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rainy Day Woman

A rainy day on Duval Street won't stop these tourists from enjoying their vacation.
This week it rained in Key West. It rained for days. It flooded the streets, trapped people in their homes, closed the schools and got us on the TV news. At the beginning of the rain, when the temperature dropped a few degrees and the air was heavy with dampness with salty breezes tossing the palms, it was sweet—a welcome change. But then it turned dark and relentless. Enough! The five-day season of rain reminded me anew of why I live in Florida.

Con Leche, rehearsing in the kitchen.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, to promote tourism, the Key West Chamber of Commerce promised to pay $5 to the library fund for any day the sun didn’t shine, at least for a little while, on the island of Key West. The announcement was made in March. It was not until the following March that they had to honor their vow and pay the first $5. That’s the norm for this place. The average annual rainfall in Key West is around 38 inches. It’s twice that in Miami. It’s a benefit of living on a coral island, a hundred miles out at sea. 
Miguel. My baby. Singer. Songwriter. Teacher.
    People in Key West remember big rainstorms the way people up north remember historic blizzards. Sometime around 1980 I was home alone with my baby when the rain was so overwhelming I called a taxi to bring me diapers for my baby and cigarettes for me. When the cabbie, a woman, arrived I invited her in. We ate. We drank. We chatted. We had a great time. That’s the way it was back then.
    On Wednesday, Day Five of the deluge, I decided to work on my project of downloading my CDs onto my computer. All went well until I came across a Raul Malo album, and a song that touched my heart. The song "Remember" reminded me of many sad things: the way it always seemed to be raining in the autumn when I lived up north, and of how I fought an annual depression from fall till spring year after year. I thought of my mother, and of how much I miss the woman I feared and adored in equal measure, of when she was young and beautiful and magnificently nuts. I thought of my friend, wheelchair bound, recovering inch by painstaking inch from a stroke that happened over a year ago. I thought of the swift passage of time, of how fast life goes, and of how, in spite of how rich you make it, in the end, it always ends the same.
For the street or the reef!
    Then I did what I always do when my sprits sag. I cooked. Chicken soup, with lots of veggies. I called my son, my baby, grown into a man who teaches school and plays in a band and loves Key West as much as I do. I told him I was bringing soup. He was home from work as school was canceled for the rain.  He and the band were rehearsing. The guys played a command performance of their hit song, "Keys Disease." I photographed them, while outside the rain fell mercilessly.
    Con Leche, the band, is playing at the Pegasus Hotel on Fantasy Fest weekend. This, Will, the guitar man told me, is a “rare opportunity” to see the band live—and to buy their album. Why rare? I asked him. It’s a marketing thing, he told me. Oh. Like the Chamber of Commerce, and the sun.
    Today we’re heading to the beach to celebrate the return of the sun, our long lives, and the passage of time. In Paradise.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Heaven Can Wait -- But Not for Carla

My recent PET scan revealed that my body is free of detectable cancer cells. My future today looks far brighter than it did a year ago. And I certainly feel a whole lot better than I did back then. It looks as if I may live beyond the reach of those diabolical renegade cells.
    An article in the New York Times recently reported that throat cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) Type 16, which is precisely the virus found in my (now gone!!!) cancer cells, is becoming “a major epidemic.” Throat cancer is on the rise, although still relatively rare. There are fewer than 10,000 new cases a year. Most people with HPV don’t develop cancer. Researchers now believe that infection from the virus is usually fought off by the immune system. In an unlucky few, like me, the virus causes cancer. My husband is certain that my immune system was gravely injured by the stress of watching my mother die a slow and terrible death from a brain disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.
    When Mom died, ten days after my final chemo treatment, I was relieved that her suffering was over. Her disease, which to me resembles Lou Gehrig Disease in slow motion, is uniformly fatal. My disease is often not. In fact, median survival in HPV 16 throat cancer patients who manage to make it through the horrific treatments of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, is 131 months. That means I’m probably good for ten more years on the planet. Old age, here I come. Heaven will have to wait.
Carla Zilbersmith was a singer, comic, writer, actress, teacher and mother. She had a whole lot of living going on. Then she became ill and died, in May 2010, of Lou Gehrig's Disease. She was 47 years old.
    In the meantime, I have been inspired deeply by Carla Zilbersmith, a funny and adventurous woman who, before she died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, created this bit for you and me. Having had the experience of watching a loved one die from this type of brutal and humiliating illness, I have deep empathy and profound respect for the courage exhibited by Carla, who is beautiful, energetic and gutsy enough to prepare this video to be shown at her funeral. See you soon, Carla and Mom. Meanwhile, I've got some living to do.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Two For A Nickel, Three For A Dime

Laura's Toiletry Party: Always a hit!
I have a very smart daughter (she’s from my husband’s previous marriage; she got her mother’s brains) who is quite accomplished at saving money via couponing and savvy shopping. Whenever our family gets together Laura stages the toiletry party, where she dumps onto the floor a satchel of helpful items like toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, aspirin, muscle salves, razors, shaving cream, deodorants and all manner of drugstore stuff, from which we get to choose, and keep, whatever item catches our fancy. It’s big fun. It doesn’t always go smoothly, of course, as occasionally more than one person is interested in a product. Sometimes you have to fight for your favorite dental floss. And sometimes Laura gets stuck taking back less desirable items like, say, four tubes of Bengay.        
There's something for everybody in the toiletry pile
    We all know we don’t need to pack toiletries when visiting Laura’s house. She’s got it all there, somewhere, in her impressive stash of products, purchased for pennies. Sometimes she gets stuff for free, or in her words “they paid me to take this out of the store.”
    Lately there is a new reality show on TV about over-the-top couponers who head into the grocery store armed with looseleaf notebooks full of clipped coupons, stuff six or seven carts full of groceries, and then nervously head to the check-out line where they describe to the camera the terrible, stomach churning agony of hoping and praying their calculations are correct and they really will get $1400 worth of groceries for only $2.49, which, of course, they do. The bargains are stunning, and they maintain tremendous stashes of food in their homes.  Nonetheless, I have to wonder how those women plan to use 108 jars of mustard in this lifetime.
    How do they do it? Laura says the first thing to do is to join the store savings clubs. Get the card. Use it. At CVS, for example, you get extra bucks. And those extra bucks add up, until eventually you’re barely paying for anything. Of course you’ve got to work your way up to the major leagues. You don’t become a super saver over night.
    There are many coupons to be had on line. Laura gets a bunch of hers there. But when I tried to hook up with some of the online coupon sites they wanted information I am unwilling to give. I don’t like junk mail, which you get a lot of when you let people know you’re interested in saving. I asked Laura if she’d found a away around that.
    “No,” she admitted. “It comes with the territory.”
Uh oh . . . No cream or deodorant in the hot tub?
    Laura, who is thin and only mildly interested in food, does not coupon for groceries. She has nothing to teach me about that.  From local smart shoppers I have learned that to save on food you’ve got to go to every store, and make bargain buys at each of them. Last week I really did cut my shopping bill just about in half. But I spent many hours in the stores, and often found that the real bargains were shopped out—like canned black beans. They went on sale at Winn-Dixie on Wednesday and were gone by the time I got there on Thursday. Sometimes I discovered that the coupon deal was actually not as economical as simply buying the store brand. I also found some subtle trickery. In a colorful circular, for example, you might see three quarts of orange juice, tantalizingly posing for an ad which reads: “Orange juice! Buy one, get one free.” Or, in the store, a sign that says “50% OFF - the second item when you buy 2.” Or, “10 for $10” which used to make me think I had to buy ten of the thing to get each one for $1.
    Clearly there is a learning curve to this. It’s hard work, and often frustrating, but it’s fun, too. The old rules about grocery shopping still apply: Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Take a list to the store or you’ll overspend. My rule: don’t take your husband shopping. Men shop with their stomachs, not their brains or their wallets. 
    Publix is where I see people I haven’t seen in months or years. My favorite checkout guy works at Albertson's. Winn-Dixie is near Ross, and I can’t go within a block of Ross without stopping in for a peruse. At Fausto’s you see tourists with sunburns and cameras around their necks, with that crazy, happy vacationer’s sparkle in their eyes.
    Nowhere in Key West do you find double couponing. I’ve checked.
    As for those super shoppers on TV, wherever they are, I’m impressed with their dedication. I’m envious of their huge closets that resemble the bomb shelter stashes of the ‘60’s. But I gotta wonder where in hell they’re gonna find a recipe for mustard soup.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

From Russia With Love

Sweet. pretty Natale
My friend Natale was born in Siberia and came to America as a young widow with a teenaged son. She was nearly penniless and determined to put together enough money to pay off the mortgage on the house she’d shared with her beloved husband. She barely spoke English. In Russia Natale is a nurse. But, as happens with many emigres to this country, her credentials did not travel with her. She’d heard there were jobs to be had in Key West, Americans are paid far better than even the nurses in Russia, and so, based on information from Russians who’d come before her, she came to Key West. She worked in the bustling kitchen of a busy downtown restaurant. Her employer, an immigrant himself, was kind and supportive. She also worked as a caregiver. She worked many hours, usually seven days a week. She does still.
    It is difficult to imagine the challenges Natale faced seeking to find her place in the new world around her. She understood mere snatches of English, though she learned quickly and ultimately she learned well. Her son attended high school. He made friends. Nonetheless, it must have been harrowing to be not only a stranger in a strange land, but a 16-year-old stranger, with a dead father, and a mother who worked nearly every waking hour.
    I met Natale nearly a decade ago when we worked in the same place. We weren’t introduced. I did not know her name. I saw her infrequently, but when I did I was charmed by her ready smile. I was also impressed by her beauty, which is quite startling. I had no idea where she was from, what she did, or with whom she was associated. I did not know if she was married. I knew nothing, except that, via eyes and smiles, we were acquainted.
I took this pix of Natale for her sister back in Russia.
    Now Natale and I work side by side. With time, we have become good friends. She has honored me with her friendship. I know her story. And just about every day I spend with Natale, I learn something new from her about the art of living. And for me, a world-class know-it-all and poster child for Attention Deficit Disorder, that’s saying something. Natale is one of the people in the world for whom I can shut up and listen. I always come away richer for it.
     Natale is quite beautiful. She has long blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin and a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure. The overall impression of her looks is not va-va-voom, but rather wholesome. She is not photogenic.
    Incidentally, I have two very beautiful women friends. In both cases, that beauty simply does not translate into photograph imagery. I will attach photos of Natale here, but they won’t do her justice. And besides, what’s most beautiful about Natale is her spirit.
    One day, when she was 16 years old, Natale arrived home from school to find her grandmother there, with the news that her parents had both died in a car crash. She walked out the door. It was April, bitterly cold, and there really was no place to go. But she remembers walking fast, as if relief from the pain was somewhere she could get to with enough determination. There was no such place.
    She and her sister were raised by their grandmother. Then came love and marriage. A son. He was still quite young when her husband died of a heart attack. As a widow in Russia she struggled hard to make ends meet. Then, the move to America, where she really has found a better life. Natale is an American citizen now, and we are lucky to have her and her practical wisdom.
Barb and Natale, my great friends.
    One day a co-worker of ours talked about her plans to retire one day and move to a house in Georgia, where she planned to have a garden, grow potatoes, can tomatoes and bake her own bread. Natale listened. Someone said that our co-worker’s vision sounded truly wonderful.
    “I have had a garden and grown potatoes, and canned tomatoes and baked my own bread,” Natale said. “But now I am in America and I go to Publix and buy whatever I want, anytime I want it. I’m happier now because it’s much easier to go to the store.”
    Yesterday we ate lunch at our friend Barb’s house. Barb is from Kentucky, part Cherokee, warm and wise. She is also a great cook. Her home is rich with handmade quilts, beautiful rugs and homey, earthy furniture, like you find in a country home. Over lunch I told Barb that on my bucket list is a visit to Kentucky. In the car, on the way home, Natale told me that I didn’t need to travel to Kentucky. I only needed to drive up the road and visit Barb’s house.
    As for my illness, and the accompanying drama of my self-pity, Natale listens quietly to my musings on life and death with great patience. She does not tell me to not worry, that everything is going to be fine. She does not tell me stories of other people’s cancer. She just listens.
    More than once she has explained to me her survivor’s philosophy. When bad things happen she works hard to accept them as they are, put them behind her and move on. Simple, I know, but she manages to put her wisdom into action. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t grieve. But she’s learned to keep grief in its place. And she understands the power of humor.
    The other day the phone rang just when I was having a hot flash. It was Natale.
    “Natale!” I said. “I’m having a hot flash!”
    “Did you think it was your boyfriend calling?” she asked.
    I attribute it to her Russian aesthetic, but I have learned that Natale doesn’t do things half-heartedly or sloppily. If she folds a napkin, it will be beautifully folded. If she gives a gift, it will be a perfect gift.  When I had surgery for throat cancer she came to my house, bringing cream of wheat, a potted cactus, and a green house-gown. She cooked the farina and served it in the prettiest bowl in my kitchen. She taught me that the trick to lump-free farina is to stir it constantly, always in the same direction, as it cooks.
    Natale is married to a man who adores her. She has a three-legged dog, who speaks Russian—or so I hope, as Natale always talks to her in Russian.
The Kremlin in vivid technicolor.  Who knew Russia was so beautiful?
In elementary school in New York we practiced air raid drills. We huddled on the shiny, tiled halls, against the concrete walls, on our knees, with our heads wrapped in our arms, until the drill was over. This was the position we’d use when the Russians attacked. For a long time the word “Russia” evoked dark and frightening images in my mind’s eye. My husband says when he was a kid he thought of Russia as a foreboding place of guns and tanks and missiles. We marvel at how brainwashed we were back then.
    Natale has shown me beautiful photos of Moscow, where the subway stations are bright and beautiful and so clean you could eat off the floors. (“Because Russians spend a lot of time waiting for trains,” she’s explained.) Still, I dream of traveling to Russia, to see Moscow and the Kremlin for myself. But for this lifetime, my visit to Russia will be my friendship with Natale—a sweet trip indeed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Can't Be Dying If I Look This Good

         Life should NOT be a journey to the grave
         with the intention of arriving safely
         in an attractive and well preserved body,
         But rather to skid in sideways,
         chocolate in one hand,
         wine in the other,
         body thoroughly used up,
         totally worn out and screaming
         "WOO HOO what a ride!"

     I gave up chocolate and candy two years ago when I had 37 blasts of radiation designed to destroy renegade cancer cells located between my ears and my shoulder blades. I’d read that radiation could wreck my teeth, and I really want to keep them, such as they are.
     As for wine, I gave that up, too, long ago. It stains the teeth, and so does chemotherapy. And truth to tell, drinking the stuff often led me into awkward situations in other people’s beds. It’s been over 25 years since I’ve touched a drop. Or awakened in a strange bedroom.       
Respectably attired a few Fests ago
     Nonetheless, this sober and sugar-free body of mine is nowhere near well preserved, and sometimes feels frighteningly close to being thoroughly used up and totally worn out. Am I getting close to the end of the road? If I am approaching the end, is it really the end, or a transition from one plane to another? Is it time to sign on for the Social Security check, or should I hold out and hang onto my job, for the health insurance? Should I cash in my IRA and head to Italy for a very grand finale? What if this is my last Fantasy Fest? And if it is, should I join the scary league of over 60’s who march, nearly naked, in unabashed joy through the streets of Key West? How will I know when it’s time to wrap things up?
    The PET scan. That’s how I’ll know. 
    The PET scan is the ultimate test for detecting new cancer after you’ve done everything you can to put the original cancer to rest. When you get a clean, or as my doctor calls it, “normal” PET, you are in remission. Get clear PET scans for five years and they call you cured.  That’s not to say that the cancer won’t rear it’s miserable and conniving head at some future date, but the scientists had to draw the line somewhere, right? So five years is the golden stop. I’ve got four to go.
    After my initial diagnosis, and the resulting chemo and radiation, I flunked my first PET scan. Which means I had more cancer, which was treated with surgery and four rounds of intensive chemotherapy. I finished in August, 2010. Three months later my PET was normal. Six months after that my PET was clean again. Now it’s time for another, and I’m a basket case.
    During the past two years, as cancer has kicked the stuffing out of me, not once, but twice(!!) people around me have been remarkably candid. Shortly after I was diagnosed, as the word got around, one of the bosses at work said to me “how can you be here?” like I should have been at home dithering in despair.
My favorite picture of my mom. I miss this woman.
    I have realized, during this cancer journey, that many of us do not truly grasp the concept of our own deaths. Yes, we will all die. Everyone you know will die. Some of them before you. Some after. Being born is akin to sailing out to sea on a ship destined to sink. It’s the other thing, besides taxes, that we middle class citizens can count on.
     Death, mine or anyone else's, but particularly mine, is so difficult to imagine. When my mother died, she took with her a memorable singing voice, her kooky sense of humor, her recipe for the world’s best lasagna and the words to every nursery rhyme ever written. Where is all of that good information now?
    Which reminds me of something insanely sweet my son said to me. I told him I wanted to film myself and leave behind a video for his children, my grandchildren, who are yet to be. Miguel told me that wasn’t necessary.
    “But I want them to know who I was,” I said.
    “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re in my heart, and you always will be. I’ll tell them who you were.”
    Being forced to recognize your looming mortality brings different responses from different people. A Key West friend has been diagnosed with bone cancer and refuses to even discuss the possibility of treatment. I envy his resolve. I don’t see myself ever choosing that route. I’ll do what the doctors tell me to do. I like it here on Planet Earth.
    The other day, at the Salvation Army store, I found a pair of Donna Karan jeans, size 8 and a glove-perfect fit.  Five more pounds and they’ll be history, but for now, they’re sweet indeed. My husband thinks so, too.
    “I think we should go to New York for a week,” I told him, “just to show off my ass in these jeans.”
    Good PET. Bad PET. Today I’m booking flights. Cause today, it doesn’t matter.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mosquitos and Roach Clips

Young Rocky country cruising in one of his many very cool vehicles
When I was a kid, the star of my family was my little brother Rocky, a fearless and funny kid, with an unerring eye for the absurd. In spite of the difference in our ages, I was seven years older, we got along famously. When our adult cousin Maryanne told her toddler son Wayne to pull up his sagging pants, Wayne tugged at his pants, muttering “I are. I are,” while Rocky and I rolled on the floor laughing hysterically.
Rocky today
     Back in those days, the big kids in the family cared for the little kids while the parents worked. For many summers I was Rocky’s babysitter.  Which meant that Rocky did what I did, age appropriate or not. We lived on a lake, and spent just about every day at the dock in front of our house, swimming with neighborhood kids. One day Rocky and I decided to swim across the lake. Rocky was almost five years old. The lake was not wide, and Rocky was a great swimmer. I thought it was very cool that Rocky and I could swim across the lake and back. Wow! That night at the dinner table I proudly told my parents what Rocky and I had done that day. My mother dropped her fork. As it clattered into her plate she said “You did what with your 5-year-old brother?” I said it again, unsure this time, suddenly sensing the scene turning dark. “Rocky and I swam across the lake. And back!”  Suddenly I was in deep trouble, a sadly familiar place for Rocky and me in those days.
    One fall, in honor of football season, a gas station handed out plastic football helmets to the kids of parents who filled up their tanks with gas. Rocky got a helmet, of course, and immediately set out to test its strength. He donned his helmet, then ran, as hard and fast as he could, head down, into the side of the house. My mother heard the crash and ran outside to find Rocky, spread eagle, knocked out cold, in the autumn leaves. That helmet wasn’t so great, he said, when he regained consciousness. And I was thankful that the crash had occurred on Mom’s watch, and not mine.
Michael, Rocky and me in Nova Scotia one bright summer day
    I had a friend back then, who also lived on the lake. Janet would ask “what is Rocky up to? He’s such a funny little guy.” And I would entertain her with stories of Rocky’s latest antics. We were in a contest to see whose little brother could do the craziest thing.
   Janet’s own little brother once jumped into the washing machine, while it was going, and broke his leg. While he recovered, Janet’s mother would have us come to their house after school to play with him, as much as that was possible—it was like trying to get a kitten to stay put—as he languished for weeks on the couch in a massive cast. Rocky’s casts, and he had plenty through the years, never rendered him immobile. Even a broken leg and cast did not keep him from riding his motor bike around the yard or from hiking into the woods, on his trusty crutches.
    Today’s parents keep a much better eye on their kids. Kids don’t play outdoors, unsupervised, for hours on end, and they learn to read before they learn to swim.  They are far worldlier than we were, and suffer way fewer broken bones. But they are still funny.
    One early summer evening, my baby grandson watched as his father tilled the garden patch.
John and Will catch a fish
    “Will,” his father said, “do you remember last summer when we had a garden here and we grew cucumbers and tomatoes?”
    Yes, he did, Will said.
    “And do you remember all the other good food we raised here in our garden?”   
    Again, Will remembered.
John and Will
    “Will, what would you like to grow in our garden this year?” his father asked.
    “Cake,” Will answered.
    The same kid, now 8, went to chess camp this summer. He came home, sat down with his father to a game, and beat him in three moves. Later that night, at the dinner table, Will’s little brother John, 5, announced that when he grows up he plans to be a fireman. His parents nodded their approval and then asked Will what he wanted to be when he grows up.
    “A professional football player,” Will said. “What would you want your son to be? A big star who brings home the bacon, or a guy who gets cats out of trees?”
John & Will with their amused parents
    John, 5 now, and, like his brother Will about as smart as a little kid can be, started a new school this week. On day two of his school career John ran into trouble for talking at a time when he was supposed to be being quiet, and for not taking a rest at nap time. When his mother asked him about his misdeeds, John reasoned them away. As for talking on line—he was “only telling a couple of knock-knock jokes.” And at naptime, “the teacher wouldn’t even let me get a book.”
    My friend Stephanie, who lives up the Keys, told me this about her little boy.
    “The mosquito truck is coming by,” Stephanie said.
    “Oh Mom,” he said, with a heavy sigh, “don’t we have enough mosquitos yet?”
    A little Key West kid, around 5, whose parents shall remain unnamed, had to have stitches. The doctor patiently explained each step of the procedure, and the kid did well. A week later, he was returned to the doctor’s office for the removal of the stitches. Just like before, the doctor patiently explained to the little guy what would happen next.
    “This is what I'm going to use this to remove those stitches,” the doctor said, holding up a shiny, silver hemostat.
    “A roach clip?” the kid gasped.

 A new funny kid story: Grandson John, 5, is a genius at remembering maps, states and capitals. You have to know that to understand why Michael and I were howling with laughter when this arrived from Michael's daughter Meredith. 

Meredith:  John, WHAT is that on the couch?

John:  I don't know.

Meredith: You are the only one in here. What is that on the couch?

John:  Idaho.