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Ancient Practices


For nearly eight months, I have been working a contingent job. Contingent is new corporate speak for temp.  I arrive daily to sit in a faceless cubicle and spend eight or nine hours peering at an endless array of slide decks, brochures, sales aids, and medication labels on the screen, picking out the errant “hydroxyl” when it should be “hydroxy,” flagging dangling modifiers, and spotting mismatched references.

Yesterday a woman who is considerably younger than me—which means she is not at all young, but not quite as elderly as I now am—came to my cubicle to drop off a vendor proof. She glanced at my desk and asked in a tentative voice, “You still use your Franklin?”

My organizer was open on my desk. For this job, I document job numbers and the amount of time I spend on each, which is how I get paid. It’s easier and quicker than logging on to the electronic timekeeping system for every job—I do that data entry all at once in a flash, using my written list. But in that moment I suddenly realized how fusty and outdated the Franklin must make me seem.

For an old bird, I’m fairly tech-savvy. I like to crack that I was on the internet before Al Gore invented it. I was part of a primitive online community called The Well that got started in 1985, long before even AOL was on the scene. In the interview for this contingent job last summer, I told my prospective boss that yes, I was familiar with the cloud-based editing system they use—I wasn’t. But I went home and I taught myself how to use it in less than an hour by watching a YouTube video.

I still like to write things down—snippets of phone conversations, my prosaic to-do list with exciting entries like “pick up dry cleaning,” and I am very dependent on my list of birthdays and anniversaries that I keep in my organizer. In another ancient practice, I still like to send greeting cards via snail mail.

I was suddenly embarrassed yesterday, though, when the woman remarked on my organizer. I felt defensive, and heard myself explaining that I don’t use it for everything, but that I still find it efficient to keep certain written records.

What about you? Do you continue with any habit or practice long since taken over by technology?

I am about to leave for today’s stint in my cubicle.  I think I’ll burst in and demand to know where the typewriters, mimeo machines and dial phones are.




M&M’s—My Idea of Heaven

I’m going to eat some M&M’s today in memory of my sister, who died 32 years ago on this date.

An enduring childhood memory involves a grand M&M scheme, which Mary plotted and carried out. I was a willing accomplice, but she was the mastermind. Our mother tried to limit the amount of candy we ate, and we made it a regular goal to get as much of it as we could behind her back.

On summer day in about 1964, we walked to the Rexall in our neighborhood. This was a frequent trip, a half-mile stroll down tree-lined streets in the Chevy Chase section of Lexington, Kentucky. We’d proffer a nickel for a pack of Fruit-Stripe gum or a large Tootsie Roll, or a dime for a Hershey bar to be snapped off into squares and savored.

At the time, Rexall also had gleaming glass candy cases, filled with spice gumdrops, chocolate covered raisins, caramels, licorice, nonpareils and other delicacies. I don’t know where Mary got such riches that day, or whether we pooled our resources, but she bought a pound of M&Ms for the enormous sum of 69 cents. I suspect we’d raided our piggy banks for two quarters, a Liberty head dime, a Buffalo nickel, and four pennies.

The woman behind the counter scooped the multicolored treasure and poured it into a neat white sack. We set out for home with the contraband. Mary hid it under her striped Danskin shirt, and we successfully sneaked it up the stairs to our bedroom.

A more hardened criminal would have known to hide the plunder, but Mary couldn’t contain herself, and poured the vast mound of M&M’s out on the rug to inspect the illegal goods. We’d never had such a pile.

Our mother’s footsteps on the stairs.

Mary threw herself across the forbidden heap in a frantic attempt to conceal it.

“What are you doing, Mary?”


“What do you have there?”


Of course, the pile was confiscated immediately, the great M&M plot foiled.

Mary died at 33. We didn’t talk much about childhood recollections — probably because we were both still young and hadn’t arrived at the reminiscing age yet. I don’t know if my sister would have the same memory of our failed caper. I guarantee that my mother would stoutly deny having seized the candy, because in her later, much mellower days, she often disavowed her former stern, almost authoritarian self. I wish I could ask them both what they recall about that day. If I could, maybe Mary and I would finally find out whatever happened to that stockpile of M&M’s, and we could laugh about it.

I hope there are candy cases in the next life.

Mary Taylor Colbert

August 24, 1954–February 7, 1988

Mom Mary EB 1980

Mary and Mom laughing, East Brunswick, circa 1980

Road Trip Data

David and I set out January 1 on a road trip to mark the milestone of his retirement. Here is a summary of the sojourn.

Days on the road: 18

Miles driven: 2,750

Miles hiked: 102

National parks visited: 7

National monuments visited: 13

States: 6

Coldest temp: 9 degrees

Number of days early we returned home: 2

Gallons of water swabbed this morning when the water heater blew up:  6 or 8

Damage: Minimal

Gallons that would have poured out if we’d still been on the road: 100

Potential damage avoided: Colossal

Number of years since we visited Bryce and Zion National Parks: 28

Ages we will be if we return in 28 years: 91 and 94

David’s immediate response when I asked if he thought we’d go back again in 28 years: “Yes.”

What he said a moment later: “We might have to get someone to drive us, though.”

Reading Too Much Into It


I’ve read only a few books on Top 10 lists issued by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other curators of such year-end click bait.  One was Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, a brilliant and devastating book I posted about earlier this year.

In a mix of choice and randomness, nearly all the books I read in 2019 shattered me. As I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a novel based on the true story of a Florida reform school where boys were tortured and killed, I kept having to stop, put the book down, and collect myself before I could continue. This was not ancient history — the school remained open until 2011.  A boys’ school is also the focus of Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McKinnon, which I read earlier this year, but this novel features the British variety of brutality.

I chose On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong at the recommendation of Mike, a librarian friend in our hiking group, who told me it was possibly the best book he’d ever read. His description of the book as “gorgeously written” proved accurate, but the account of immigration, poverty, and mental illness in Connecticut in the 1990s was nearly too much to bear.

Before I picked up the poet Carolyn Forshe’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, I had read only her poetry. Forshe traveled to El Salvador in the late 70s when she was 27, never having been there, leaving behind her safe academic world. She lived among terror, violence, and death squads, charged with telling the outside world about these atrocities through her poetry. I’m not sorry I read the book, but it weighed heavily on my heart and mind.

My book group picked Toni Morrison’s Beloved as its monthly selection in September. I read it shortly after it was published in 1987, but don’t recall finding it as crushing as I did rereading it at my age, and with the world in its current turbulent, divided state. I reread Beloved shortly after reading the New York Times 1619 Project, the reframing of U.S. history as plunder of enslaved people published in August. Together, Morrison’s novel and the Times’ contemporary account of our shameful history formed a potent, sobering mix.

My son and I sometimes chat on the phone about what we’re reading. Lately he favors biographies of wildly successful business titans. I told him recently I had just finished Once More We Saw Stars, Jayson Greene’s sorrowful story of the death of his two-year-old daughter, Greta, killed in New York City when a brick fell eight stories and struck her, a freak accident that took the child’s life and destroyed his world. My son got quiet for a moment.  “Why would you read something like that?” he asked.  I didn’t have a clear answer.

Now I am struggling through Girl, by Edna O’Brien, probably the last book I’ll read in 2019. This is an immensely painful story of Maryam, who was among hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted and brutalized by Boko Haram in 2014.  Maryam escaped. I’ll take that as a mildly hopeful note on which to end this year.

What did you read in 2019 that stayed with you? What’s on your must-read list for 2020?




Just Couldn’t Stet It


Proofreading symbolsI was proofreading an expansive, 52-page glossy magazine published by what we’ll call a Very. Large. Corporation.  In proofreading mode, I’m charged with finding the errant semicolon, flagging broken hyperlinks, correcting misspellings, and inserting missing hyphens in compound modifiers (unless, of course, the first word ends in “ly”).

In these instances my editorial judgment is not wanted, and I shouldn’t offer it, because the pay scale for proofreading is lower than for actual editing gigs.

But articles in this publication on school shootings, “toxic relationships” and climate change made me pick up my proverbial red pen. I’ve had this editing/proofreading client for more than 15 years, but I may lose the business after my comments are read. (I know, I shouldn’t use the passive voice.)

“Tell your children that adults are doing everything they can to keep them safe,” advised the column on talking with kids about school shootings.  “Consider revising,” I said in my electronic comment. “A generic reference to all adults is inaccurate.”

With our Congress mulishly doing nothing on gun control and many officials still feeding at the NRA trough, we can’t say “adults” in general are working to keep kids from being slaughtered in the classroom.  I didn’t write that last bit, but I hope my meaning was clear.

The chirpy, Cosmo-style article on “toxic relationships” referred to “bad boyfriends” and “frenemies” who were women.  I hated the tone of the article, and added a comment proposing a change from “boyfriends” to “partners.” I suggested using gender-neutral language about friendships so women aren’t portrayed both as victims and perps.

I was about to submit all my changes, but decided to get above my station once more and mark up the article on climate change, a cheery, first-person bit of fluff rife with misinformation.  The article crowed, “We don’t need legislators or laws that take years to implement! We can fill up our own water bottles, reuse our shopping bags and save the world!” There were no grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors in the piece, so I should have left it alone.

But I wrote a stern directive to “avoid implying that personal measures will be sufficient to limit the climate emergency.”  I attached a link to this NASA article as backup.

The red pen and proofreading symbols have gone the way of dial telephones. I may be relieved of my duties for my electronic cheekiness but if I am, refusing to stand for this corporate, Orwellian load of hogwash will have been well worth it.



Letter from Rand

Rand Paul

My husband says philosophically as he tosses the envelope on my desk, “At least I didn’t get a letter from Rand Paul.”

Yes. That Rand Paul.  Son of the nutty Ron Paul. Curly-haired physician with a daft look about the eyes. Junior senator from Kentucky, an odious counterpart to malevolent Moscow Mitch McConnell.

I picked the letter up as if it might detonate.  The back of the envelope says “National Pro-Life Alliance” with a Springfield, Virginia return address. I haven’t opened the thick envelope, and don’t intend to.  No doubt it’s an appeal for funds from the reactionary anti-abortion group.

I can think of only one reason I might have landed on a Rand Paul mailing list, and that would be that I contacted the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics last year to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. Unlike Paul who is a carpetbagger from Pittsburgh, I was actually born in Kentucky.

I looked up Rand Paul to see what he’s been up to lately, and learned that he recently underwent surgery to repair lung damage resulting from an attack by his neighbor two years ago. Depending on who you ask, the brawl was either a left-wing conspiracy or a dispute about lawn clippings gone terribly wrong.

Paul claims that mobs of left wingers wished him all kinds of harm when he announced his upcoming lung surgery.  I don’t go along with any form of viciousness, but here is what I do wish for the senator:

  1. Don’t send me any more letters.
  2. Understand that yes, I am extremely pro-life. Not the interfering with a woman’s uterus kind of pro-life. Access to birth control, reproductive freedom and oh yes, keep kids out of cages once they’re born kind of pro-life.
  3. Early retirement before your term is up. Let’s say 2020 along with Moscow Mitch when he is booted.

Bouncing Right Along

There’s a first time for everything, and this week’s firsts were unwelcome.

I’ve never bounced a check in my life, but I bounced two in two days. I haven’t suddenly descended into financial ruin, but stupidly gave the mason who is installing a new patio a check without verifying that money I’d transferred into the checking account was there (it wasn’t).

The mouse click implies that the transfer will be immediate, but evidently the money languishes for days. We’ve had a lot going on this week and I was rattled and distracted, but that’s no excuse.  Mortified, I had to explain to the brick mason that the check will be good in another day or so, but too late — he’d already put it through. No doubt it will come back to bite us both with fees, and me more so, with a feeling of disgrace.

The second check didn’t exactly bounce, but it may as well have. I put a check in a Christmas card to our niece. Apparently she just tried to cash it, nearly seven months later. The bank notified me that they declined to cash the check because it was “stale.”  I never heard of a check getting stale like a loaf of bread.

My niece is a Millennial, and Millennials don’t know from checks. Perhaps that’s why she waited so long. I told her I’d write her a “fresh” check and suggested cashing it before it gets musty.

My horror of bounced checks stems from growing up in a home with a constant, stressful undertow of financial troubles. Back in those old days, bill collectors called relentlessly and threatened deadbeats, and they weren’t above threatening their kids.

In particular I recall a bill collector for MasterCharge, as it was called in ancient times. If I dug out my diary from 1970, I could tell you his name, because I remember writing about him and how upset his calls made me feel. When I would politely say no, my father wasn’t home, he would accuse me of “lying.”  I remember his menacing tone when he said he knew I had been “trained” by my father to lie. “He’s got you all trained,” he would say in a deadly voice and I, age 13, would hold the kitchen wall phone receiver and shake in anxiety. He called every single day. Of course there was no caller ID then, so I’d foolishly pick up the phone each time, hoping for a call from a friend.

Thirteen-year-old girls should get calls about homework, parties, and trips to the beach, not about overdue bills. But the upside of this part of my youth is that I vowed as an adult, I would never get behind on my bills, never miss a payment and never, ever bounce a check. Until this week, that was true.

I’ve read that bill collectors today take a different approach, and try to be friendly and helpful, rather than aggressive and bullying. I’m glad to know that and thankful I’ve never had to take their calls, nice as they might be. I imagine Mr. Harassment from MasterCharge is long gone, and that’s good too. He’d never have made it in this new world where bill collectors ask, “Can we help you make a payment today?” and checks, like cheese, have a sell-by date.

bounced check