My sister and niece were over the house to celebrate my daughters 16th birthday yesterday and, as usual, a bizarre bit of our childhood folklore floated to the surface of the conversation.

My daughter loves these glimpses into our past. Of course it never seems odd when you are living it, but it sure can sound that way thirty years later.

My sister and I were talking about my Dad’s various hobbies and I mentioned the Gee Haw Whammy Diddle.

Yes its an actual thing. A small propeller nailed to a stick with some notches cut into it. A second stick for making the propeller go right (Gee) and left (Haw). And there you have yourself one country boy, homemade toy.

It’s not like we were so poor we played with rocks and sticks, it’s just that my dad liked to make stuff. And he liked colonial era, boy scout, do-it-yourself from raw materials (possibly with the help of an expensive lathe) kind of projects most especially.

For a good stretch of my childhood he dabbled in leather goods (he had an account at the Tandy Leather Factory), and then he made candy dispensers out of mason jars (I still have one), and for a while he enjoyed working on wood-turning projects which meant everyone received wooden vases as gifts.

My all time favorite project of his was empty tuna cans with both lids cut off, spray painted gold and soldered together into a Christmas tree shape. He then attached a gold Christmas ornament inside each tuna can. That creation decorated the front door each Christmas for a couple of years and clanked impressively each time the door was opened.

Hard to beat the Gee Haw Whammy Diddle for sheer fun though. The name never fails to get a laugh followed by a  “Wait. What?”

Here is a link to the plans for how you too can make your very own Whammy Diddle. Impress your friends.






I woke up humming the chorus from a song my Dad used to sing when he was happy – “Honeycomb won’t you be my baby, Honeycomb be my gal” – an old Jimmie Rogers tune. What I remember of my dad’s musical taste consists of Tennessee “Ernie” Ford, Boots Randolph, and a lot of Henry Mancini.

I inherited some of my parents albums when they got rid of the giant record player console that dominated their living room for years. Before everything was ironic, I saved from the scrap heap  a Reader’s Digest Montovani boxed set, John Phillips Sousa’s Collected Marches, and the classic 1970’s albums Hi God and Hi God II.

Currently, music in our house is dominated by vinyl. A full circle from the first generation iPod that sits like a white brick in the bag of “someday soon I will recycle all these broken electronics”.

Albums never left our living room even when the record player no longer worked. Since being replaced by a fancy new record player more than a year ago, the albums progressively took over the bookcases and the floor until my husband made some judicious choices about what could be rotated out and stored in his office.

Then my daughter started buying albums.

Her eclectic taste in music is encouraged, expanded and indulged by her father who likes nothing better than spending an afternoon record shopping. Her taste for funk and 90’s club music she gets from me. The regrettable attachment to Bob Dylan is solely her fathers doing.

All joking aside, they share a passion for music in many forms and genres.  And they share equally strong opinions about the merits of various albums – “London Calling is better, obvi” – which makes for a very different definition of  “Dad music.” Which speaks to the truth of a tumblr I follow Dad’s Are The Original Hipsters.

Plus, I never have to change the album.

5917Check out the screaming girls in this Jimmie Rodgers clip.

My Dad died December 2, 1992. He was 62. He had cancer and treatments and it all seemed to happen very fast. The space of a year from diagnosis to the end. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

While my mother’s death anniversary makes me melancholy, each year the anniversary of my dads death makes me reflect on all that’s happened since he died. Big things like he never met my husband or child, and little things like he would have loved the world of gadgets we live in now.

For some reason I find myself measuring my adult life against his at a similar age. Getting married, having a child, buying and selling a house, burying my parents and brother, changing jobs, achieving  professional success – that’s where I am, where was he when he was 48?

It would have been 1978 and I would have been 13. A different world.

I don’t think I knew my father very well. I never understood what he did for a living until I was an adult (he was a systems analyst.) But then he wasn’t much for sharing personal stories from the past.

I learned more about him after my mom died and we had to sort out the house. I found he performed in plays in high school, was in the marching band, and, from his war ration books, discovered he either grew 5 inches between 1941 and 1942 or someone measured wrong.

Fragments and bits to weave into my memories.

This photo I happened across in an envelope in the attic shows my dad around age 10 or 11 with his sister Susie, and his brother Jack on the right. They look a bit grim, but maybe that’s just the posing. Although I swear that was the only expression I ever saw on my Uncle Jack’s face when I knew him.

Still when I look closely I can imagine my Dad’s grin lurking around the corner of his mouth in this photo. Or maybe that’s just my memory of a smile.

Till next year.

James, Sue and Jack Shaffer 1940?

As many people do we went around the table on Thanksgiving and everyone shared something they were thankful for.

There was a general consensus about being thankful for family, friends and health as we took turns, and then the kids start getting very specific with things like “Cows, because I like cheese”. The adults mentioned Obama’s election, ACA, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin among other things esoteric and mundane. When it was my turn, the first time before everyone started having fun with it, I said I was thankful for abundance.

Sitting around the table that night were adults who all had well paying jobs, two cars, big houses filled with electronics, warm clothes and all the food we could eat. That is abundance any place in the world.  

I remember the first time I realized I was not poor. I got into my car after grocery shopping and couldn’t remember how much I had just spent. I swiped my card, money was being debited, and I didn’t know exactly how much. I had only just recently gotten over my embarrassment at the parcel service, which is mandatory at this grocery, and stopped trying to carry all my bags to the car just to avoid having the high school kid wait on me.

I thought of this as I shopped at Whole Foods for expensive (worth every penny) goat cheese and fancy olives Thanksgiving day. What made me feel “not poor” then and now was the act of buying what I wanted at the grocery, rather than only what I could afford. I don’t use a calculator while I shop (my sister still does) and have a very loose food budget that accomadates organic produce and whims like fancy cheese. 

I say “not poor” rather than rich because its all relative. My husband and I have been middle class for more than 15 years now if you use the definition of “middle class” as those making anything from $30,000 – $250,000 a year. We are by no stretch of the imagination “rich”. On the other hand, while sorting my mothers papers after she died I discovered that my father’s highest salary was $35,000 in 1992, the year that he died. Using the inflation calculator that would be worth roughly $18,000 today. So by that standard, we are rich indeed.

Rich and poor are such interesting words. When I was truly poor as a kid I had no idea because everyone around me was too. Now that I am no longer in that category it gets kinda fuzzy. Richer than some, poorer than others, I still worry about money, cut corners, clip coupons and try to appease the warring factions in my head. The urge to share, treat and give gifts because I can is deeply ingrained.

Something that people who have grown up middle class or above sometimes don’t know is that most poor people, or I should say the ones I grew up with, are very generous with what they do have. They put money in the Sally Army kettle, give a stranger a cigarette and let people crash on their couch. Someones always got it worse. I’ve joked about my mother and her “Some people don’t have any legs” riff, but at its core its true.

Whatever your circumstances there is something to be grateful for. We live our lives in abundance.

My daughter has written a short piece about a conversation we had recently and is submitting it to an online magazine she adores. I guess this is only fair since she often figures into my writing, but still. She very generously makes me sound only half as crazy as I am in person.

She was talking about back to school and mentioned that there were YouTube videos of girls in her school fighting. I’m not surprised. School fights are dramatic and quick, so they are perfect for YouTube. She has never felt threatened in school, and is not someone who would either pick a fight or end up in one, but we have talked about how to handle yourself in these spontaneous school chaos moments. She is excellent at dodging, darting and throwing elbows to get herself through a crowd.

The problem is that it makes me furious to think that anyone would even accidentally hit my child. So I get a little strident when dispensing advice about self-protection. There was girl in 5th grade who was “jokingly” punching other girls in the arm, but it actually hurt, so I introduced her to the knife/gun fight theory.

I told her the next time the girl punched her in the arm to punch her back twice as hard. She did it and the girl never joked with her that way again.

I resurrected this advice the other day and inadvertently provided material for “My Mother’s Advice on How to Fight”, where I guess I said, and I quote her article, “Go ISRAELI ON THEIR ASS!” In my defense, my point was that if you immediately CRUSH any infraction the opposition will never mess with you again and you have established a reputation that will prevent further incidents indefinitely. Worked for me.

It is a wonderful thing that my gentle hearted daughter has two parents. Her father, while of Jewish extraction, has no Masada tendencies, and so is a more reasonable source of advice in this instance. Me, I have always loved the moment that Indi pulled out his gun and shot the guy with the fancy sword.

I freaked my husband out this morning.

I told him that my father refused to fill out the FAFSA for me when I wanted to attend college. In case you have not reached that point in your life yet, the FAFSA‘s the very long and intrusive document you complete to see if you qualify for student aid, scholarships and work study. Its income based and counts all sorts of parental assets.

The topic came up because the man of the moment, Mitt Romney, had remarked last March that if students couldn’t afford college they should “borrow money from their parents”. If this doesn’t officially qualify as Romney’s “let them eat cake” comment I can’t imagine what will. Obama correctly pointed out that not everyone has parents that can give them a loan for college.

Mitt’s parents paid for his college but not his living expenses. His hard work/hard luck story is that he and Ann lived by selling off stock that his dad bought him with his birthday money each year. They were frugal and had to suffer bad furniture. That is so very different than the consequences from reducing the amount, number and eligibility for Pell grants given to low income students and raising the interest rates for all other student loans.

My parents didn’t get into all that student loan stuff when I graduated from high school. They didn’t help me pick out colleges nor did they fill out applications. If I was going to college, which they fully expected, I had to figure it out myself and pay for it myself. My dad had a kind of queasy feeling about the federal government.

The feds obviously had his social security number and DOB and so forth because he was in the Air Force and the Army, and he paid his taxes, but he really didn’t hold with giving them any information that wasn’t required, and the FAFSA wasn’t required. My eldest brother also refused to fill out the FAFSA for his daughter but his only excuse is that he is an idiot.

I can kind of understand my fathers position, it probably stemmed from his upbringing in rural Pennsylvania. Family lore was that his beloved grandmother (for whom I am named) was a bootlegger during prohibition. That’s just one reason to be wary of the federal man.

My larger point is that as queasy as one might be with federal governments involvement in day to day life there are sound reasons why this is preferred over the Ayn Rand/Every Capitalist for Himself system. My parents tax return probably would have qualified me for those Pell grants that Republicans insist are the very milk that addicts you to the government teat, so really, they did me a favor. 

I don’t know what the qualifications were in 1983 but the ones that send R&R into fits are a family of 4 has to make $30k or less in order to qualify for ~$4,900, the student has to attend full time at a 4 year college and you can’t use funding for summer classes (which are shorter and cheaper). Why cancel funding to a program that excludes so many already?

The problem is the recession and lack of low-middle wage jobs. Because laid off/downsized workers need training and retraining to qualify for the jobs that remain in the US, people need to go to college. In 2006, 5.2 million low income students qualified for Pell grants and went to college. In 2010 that ballooned to 9 million. You see why R&R have to cut this off right now?

Those folks need to ask their parents for a loan to go to college not the government. Or maybe they could ask some republicans with off-shore accounts and foriegn corporation addresses (Eaton anyone?) to consider manufacturing in the US and paying their actual taxes.

Just a thought.

I recently returned from a (somewhat) electronics free vacation. I still had all my devices with me, I just resisted the urge to use them for work purposes. The iPad was for reading books, the phone was for the camera & maps. It helped that 1) the reception at the rental house was non-existent until you registered your device with the Wi-Fi, and 2) that I had turned off the settings for email and calendar the day before we arrived.  And they stayed off. This was a first for me.

It was also the first time we vacationed with another family. And this particular family is why I didn’t post to my blog during vacation – everyone got along great, we had fun together, kids only annoyed their own parents – in other words, no blog fodder. This is in stark contrast to my childhood vacations which have material I can mine for several years at least.

Both of my parents were scoutmasters which meant all vacations were camping. This is also the cheapest way to have a vacation with six children two adults and a dog. When I was about 10 or 11 my dad made friends with another scoutmaster who I will call “Mr. Perry” because that was his name. My mother became friends with the wife, who everyone called “Mother”, including her husband. That forced us kids to be friends with their kids who were roughly our ages.

My one brother stopped going on family vacations when he was 14 and learned how to run away effectively. My other brother was already married and expecting his first child, so that left me, my two sisters and my little brother to enjoy family vacation.

My first clue that we were camping with aliens was at dinner when one of the kids looked at the discarded corn cob on my plate and said “You gonna finish that?”,  snatched it up and started chewing it clean. The second was when Mother cut up all of Mr Perry’s food, including the corn off his cob, because he said “it was easier that way”.  No doubt.

We vacationed with this family several years in a row, and no one seemed happy about it but the dads who would canoe while smoking cigars. We camped one year at a park that had musical acts and got to see Eddie Rabbit (pre “I Love a Rainy Night”) among other country stars I couldn’t name then or now. We also went to Yankee Peddler, a festival of colonial living, food and fun. How subsistence living could be fun is still a mystery to me. I’d just like to say for the record that I hate both maple sugar candy and rock candy on a stick. Their olde tyme-ness does not improve the flavor or equal a colonial experience.

One night after we had returned from another stone drag potluck dinner at the Perry’s house, where their contribution was hot dogs and jello molds and my mother’s was lasagna and yellow cake with chocolate frosting, my mother started complaining about how for years they bring crap food and then eat all of ours and she was sick of it. My dad yelled back at her saying something like ‘well she’s your friend’, and my mom replied, ‘no he’s YOUR friend’, and within minutes they discovered that neither of them liked the couple but had never said anything. My sister said ‘none of us likes their kids’ and that was that, we never saw them again.

My family vacation 2012 did not include camping, extreme hardship to build character, or odious people. It was lovely.

And there was one photo we took that reminded me of the 1970’s. In a good way. You can almost see the Go-Karts at the end of the track…

My daughter revealed yesterday that her boyfriend broke up with her.

I am still not entirely clear on the concept of dating at her Middle School. It seems that a person is “dating” and “going out” with someone because they say so. There does not appear to be any actual joint activity required other texting each other and telling your friends that it is so.

Even while this is a bizarre, surface relationship I know her feelings were hurt by how it happened. The boy went to some party without her where a girl kissed him. He instantly broke up with my daughter in order to date this other girl.

I was tempted to reiterate her father’s advice – “When a boy asks you out, you say three words to him. Drop. Dead. Creep.”

It was really hard not to say nasty things about the boy, who I normally like, and the male species in general. I told her I was sorry that he was so stupid and that he didn’t deserve her.

What I wanted to say was that boys lose the ability to think rationally when all the blood drains out of their heads. And that some boys never grow up but continue to think that their desire for sex justifies all sorts of bad behavior to women (see Gingrich, Newt for source material).

Instead I told her my #1 rule for boyfriends, which was half a lie because I never called anyone I dated my boyfriend until I had to introduce my now husband to my family. That was the only relationship I ever bothered defining for obvious reasons.

My #1 inflexible rule for dating:

  1. No second chances. Ever. Someone who cheats on you, doesn’t respect you or themselves and its not your job to teach them how.

I have a few more rules but they wouldn’t resonate with her right now. I am sure there will be other bad boyfriend moments in which to share my scorched earth policies. For now it is enough that her friends all say he deserves to be beaten up for treating her this way. I don’t condone violence but her friends being bloodthirsty on her behalf was clearly cathartic.

For a more definitive closure to this boyfriend chapter I will recommend she requests Celo Green (the clean version) at the Valentines Dance and sing along at the top of her lungs.

My dad died 19 years ago today.

I thought of him as I walked to work and saw a mason repairing a curb & sidewalk. My father worked as a mason for many years along side my grandfather. He also spent those years in night school learning to be a computer programmer so he could get off his knees and into a white shirt.

While he never managed to finish a college degree, he was able to get into the computer field and put on a tie. He happily worked in an office for the rest of his life.

Seeing as we are so close to the holidays, I am re-gifting a previous post about my dad.

My parents had a unique sense of justice.

Pain, humiliation, defeat, failure – these were all gifts from God that were bestowed on you because of something that you did in violation of parental wishes. Fall off your bike and get bloody knees? – God getting you back for being a smartass to your mother. Lose at cribbage against an adult? – proof that you shouldn’t act like a know-it-all. Stood-up for your senior prom? – God is telling you that I was right that he’s a loser. (This one happened to my sister.)

No one should wonder why my “personal relationship with God” devolved into “there isn’t one.” Faeries are easier to believe in than a God who spends time smiting kids to help parents with child-rearing.

On the other hand, success, accomplishment, winning – were all flukes according to my parents. Accidents that would be righted in your next attempt at whatever. Got an A on the test? – you’ll just flunk the next one. Etc., etc., etc. My father had a more delicate touch when deflating a puffed-up kid. He specialized in subtle attacks on the value of the award, hints that the skills were so minimal it barely measured anything. Now I think he was jealous. Each success of his children shined a light on what he failed to attain, the accomplishments he lacked. He was probably a bitter man but it was hard tell because he was always so stewed.

My mother was cruder in her attempts to “rightsize” your pride. She went for the quick, pull-the-rug-out comment so you went down fast. I guess I preferred her style over my Dad’s. With Big Alice her comment smacked you and that was that. You get knocked down, you get back up and thumb your nose. My Dad’s comments infected, made you feel sick and lingered in the back of your mind.

Tricky stuff parenting.

I used to feel sad that my parents are both dead, and wonder if we would not have reached some better relationship as we all aged. But now, as I figure out how their warped ideas have influenced my choices ever since, I’m not so sad. At least with them dead there is a finite end to their nutty behavior.

How I choose to let the past push me now, that’s all my doing. That’s my justice.