Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Childhood Prank

            Yes, there is only one prank I pulled in childhood.  At least one that I choose to share.  And this one I pulled with my friend, Nan Slaughter, when we were both about 13 years old.  In those days, had there been personal computers and Pinterest, this idea would have been on there.  But it wasn’t.  We’d simply heard of a grand, craftsy project, which was to dye your old clothes—and even your underwear—to give them new life.  You could have a whole new wardrobe for just pennies!   The key ingredient was RIT dye.  You know the familiar little boxes, still a bargain in every grocery store.  We chose navy blue.  Then we gathered T-shirts, camisoles, slips, you-name-it, filled a sink with hot water and RIT, then squished the clothes down into the murky liquid and waited.


            Nan, to her credit, was the brave one.  She reached into the abyss, pulled out the garments, and wrung them out, rinsing them again and again with cool water.  And they were a dazzling success.  There was only one problem: Nan’s hands were now bluish gray and it wouldn’t wash off.  (We should have timed this for Halloween and she could have been a corpse in a spook alley!)  Alas, nothing would budge the tint of her newly-dead-looking hands. 
            And so the wheels began turning.  We decided to wrap her wrists with bandages, hop on the city bus, and ride around town telling onlookers about a terrible accident she’d had, to see who would believe us.  I borrowed white hankies from my dad’s dresser drawer, and we pinned them carefully to look like real bandages. Then off we went to keep straight faces as she told all inquirers (and there were many) our sad tale.  She concocted a wonderful story about helping her brother lift a heavy stereo up some stairs (yes, stereos were heavy in those days), when suddenly it fell, crushing her hands and causing the veins to burst, filling her poor hands with blood.  Then we would both look especially sad, not really sure if she would ever recover.
            Luckily our victims got off at various bus stops and new recruits boarded, giving us the chance to re-tell and embellish the story every few blocks.  I seem to recall saying that Nan was a hemophiliac and needed a transplant at one point.  Oh, the sympathy!  Oh, the shock!  People were genuinely sorry for us.  Well, sorry for her, but I chose to bask in that pity a bit myself.  Finally one woman offered us a dollar!  And suddenly we realized we were great actresses surely destined to win Oscars one day.   We also realized that maybe this thing had gone too far.  About one dollar too far.  Lying our heads off was one thing, but accepting money under false pretenses was just over the line of decency as we defined it.  So we headed for home. 
            But our creative talents kept flowing, and though we didn’t hoodwink the public again—at least not intentionally—we went on to become other things. I became a writer who, uh, accepts money for making things up (hmm…) and Nan became an amazing quilter/cook/author/artist/wedding floral designer herself.  We’ve now been friends for more years than I admit to being alive.  She's been there for me in countless ways over the years, and last August traveled from Seattle to Sacramento to help me enormously with the wedding reception for my son.  Her blog, www.potsandpins.com, has 5,200 followers and when you check it out, for you must, don’t think about my airing of this laundry, okay?  Or at least, if you do, picture it navy blue.
Here we are in a photo booth at the mall, about a year later and still-- thankfully-- not in jail:
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Friday, April 26, 2013

GIFTED in New York


            I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking I’m talking about being gifted while in New York City.  Nope.  It’s something better.  My play, “GIFTED,” is being performed this Sunday at the American Globe Theatre in Times Square as part of the 19th Annual New York City 1 5-Minute Play Festival.  This theatre has produced more than 100 Shakespeare productions and it’s a huge honor to have a modern comedy included in their festival. 
It’s about parents who have three gifted teenagers and the synopsis is “Dan and Julie discover that having gifted children isn’t much of a gift.”  Yes, it is based on my outrageously smart, but thankfully hilarious children, and my equally brilliant and funny husband, Bob.  I am totally jazzed that the amazing Jason Marr is not only directing it, but starring in it with his wife. I wish the entire cast and all audience members broken legs.  You know what I mean.
But I thought I’d tell you where this idea came from, besides the fact that my children’s trying antics are virtually begging for their own reality show.  It came from the local zoo. 
Here in Sacramento, grade school kids get to spend a night at the zoo.  I think it’s in 2nd or 3rd grade, but you know how I am with numbers, so I’m not sure which.  One parent comes along for each kid, they hunt for clues, and then they attend a discussion about the differences between nocturnal, diurnal and crepuscular.  I find these words disturbing because two of them make me think of urinals and the other of muscular pus, but I keep it to myself because my daughter is here to have a good time.

Then we set up our tents.  This means hiking back to our cars, a good distance away from the lawn where this mini tent city is to materialize.  We are to haul in our gear, our ice chests, and our sleeping bags, with the help of 7-year-olds in the Gifted and Talented program.  I say this because these are not the husky jocks who could actually be of use just now, but the skinny, bespectacled kids who would rather look up into the trees for an owl’s nest than wrestle with a tent and its stakes.
As soon as I get to the exit gate, I notice a zookeeper (or at least someone in a zookeeper costume; are there zoo rangers?) and I ask if he could find me a cart of some kind for hauling in our gear.  We have more stuff than most people because St. Bob knows how I feel about camping and has included an inflatable mattress and pump, a fitted sheet, and every other thing he can think of to help me forget I am sleeping on the ground with snakes and spiders. These accoutrements will later cost me dearly in the form of sarcastic comments from other parents with pup tents who think there is intrinsic virtue in “roughing it,” but I care not.
“Sure,” the guy says, and soon returns with a gigantic white wagon which I pull over to my trunk and begin loading.  Soon Nicole and I head back to the lawn, choose a spot devoid of sprinkler heads, and begin to set up.  All around us I hear chatter from other parents about their precocious children, the insightful questions they asked during the discussion, and the mature observations they made about cheetahs on our earlier tour.  Parents of young gifted kids sometimes brag like this because they haven’t yet learned that these same children are one day going to become adolescents who explode chemicals in their kitchens, start the house on fire, and become known to the local police force.  Teachers will bristle at being corrected, science fairs will rewrite the rules about rocket propellant, and suddenly these same moms will wonder why they ever took prenatal vitamins.
“Hey,” I hear one of the moms say.  “How did she get a cart?”
And this is the moment when I think, Well, Marla, there’s gifted, and then there’s highly gifted.  And, after raising three such boys I have learned that common sense and forthright requests will get you a lot further in life than knowing about string theory.  So I tuck away that line for future use, and this weekend it shows up in a play in Times Square.
I finish up with my cart, return it to the kind fellow who helped me, then settle in for a night in which everyone learns that the reason zoos are filled with lethargic, sleepy animals (see above) in the daytime is that most of them are nocturnal, thank you, and placing the lions next to the flamingoes means you will hear roaring and squawking ALL NIGHT LONG.  

 Somebody gifted needs to rethink this zoo layout.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

When You're Desperate for Tech Help

            I am about to tell you about two miracles, so hold onto your mouse or your seat or something, assuming you’re sitting at the computer.

            I have TWICE been asked for tech help.  If my four children are reading this, they have no doubt fallen off their chairs, in shock, and hit their heads on the floor.  While they wait for ambulances to arrive, the rest of you can keep reading.
            It has long been known in my family that I occasionally say things 90-year-olds say, including “I have Face Mail,” “the Inter Web,” and the redundant, “Youtube Video.” My knowledge of things electronic and computer-related could fit inside a thimble with ample room left over for my interest in these matters.  If truth be known, I miss the Selectric Typewriter and the carefree days when I could turn on the TV without rummaging through a basket of remotes and then asking, once again, how to work them.  Be honest: Don’t you think the GoDaddy logo looks like a goat?  And doesn’t it bother you that the Windows logo shows a hummingbird zooming in on leaves?  Leaves!  And don’t even get me started on how much I want Samsung to say “Sam sang.”
            So it was no small miracle (and I SO wish I’d had a videoish thing running) when the women at my Book Club asked me how Twitter works.  I had barely signed up, myself, and only with the enormous help of one Karen Hansen from my church, who is an absolute wiz at these things.  Yet there I was, surrounded by hopeful faces, putting their entire trust in my technical wisdom.  What I wouldn’t have given for my kids to witness the glorious scene.  I found myself parroting the instructions Karen had given me, and the women nodded, lapping it up.  I felt as if I could move to India, call myself Barbara, and advise any number of callers with computer trouble, that very afternoon.
            And I knew such a surreal moment might never repeat itself.  But then I had a layover in Las Vegas last week, coming back from Mississippi.  I was waiting for my flight when a gal about my age sat down beside me, pulled out her cell phone, and asked if I knew how she could listen again to a message she had already played.  Of the throngs of people crowding around, she selected ME from the group, with perfect faith that I would know the answer to her question.  ME!  I must look like a genius, even from a distance. 
            I put my hand on her knee and told her I only wished my children could be there to witness this miracle.  Then I told her that, of every person in the terminal, I was the absolute last one who would know what she was talking about.  And this would include non-English speakers and infants in their carriers.  We became immediate friends, joined by our mutual inability to master the intricacies of cell phones.  We sat together on the plane, and now we’re planning to get together for some girlfriend time.  I don’t know if she has figured out her cell phone yet; this is what children are for—you call them and after they’re through sighing and rolling their eyes they impart secret information that they get from trolls in the forest because I sure as heck don’t see it available elsewhere. 
            If Bob had been there, he would have known the answer, but he was staying behind a week.  Bob has a new phone gizmo called a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and it feels like holding a paperback book up to your head when you try to speak on it. 
            I expect him to hang onto this gadget for another couple of months until the next big—or small—breakthrough is offered at Apple or Verizon or wherever people with those interests congregate.  Then he’ll swap it out for the Sabertooth or the Platypus or whatever they call the next one. 
            My sister-in-law in Mississippi seems comfortable with technical matters.  But she also says that no one in the South has Siri, because Siri can’t understand their accents.  Hilarious.  And I thought I had tech trouble.

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Open Letter to You Math Types


            I am hereby calling for the return of all the letters of the alphabet that you math types have stolen.  Yes, you heard me.  I discovered this blatant disregard for property in the 8th grade when I found a little lower case y hiding under a line, next to a 4.  Shivering, probably.  The teacher, who should have been dialing 911 if they’d had 911 in those days, hadn’t even raised his eyebrows at this wrongdoing, and was in fact urging us to guess what number it stood for.
            And why a y?  Was he trying to make a pun?  Math types are not known for clever puns (though they think they are), and this possibility only served to introduce another distraction to math class, next to a rattling air vent, underarm stains in the teacher’s shirt, a tapping pencil three desks back, and a tiny fleck in the window (possible bullet hole?).  Wasn’t it hard enough to combine numbers the right way without having yet one more reason to jump off the track and think of something else?
            It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of symbolic substitutes.  You could use hearts, stars, squiggles, and a plethora of other graphic options before resorting to sacred letters!  Above all, why use x so often?  X means “multiplied by” and thus slipping it in where you don’t mean that seems especially cruel.  Soon there were m’s, a’s, b’s, d’s-- virtually a dozen evidences of larceny on one page alone. 
            You people cannot come riding into Alphabet Land like masked marauders, snatch a little lower case n from her crib, and then gallop off into Math Land and stick her next to an equals sign.  Not on my watch. So I’m blowing the whistle. Put all the numerals you like in brackets and label it a set if you feel better.  Do not mix this set with alphabet letters.  This is akin to pouring ketchup on ice cream, or frosting on a steak.  They do not go together any better than your plaid, polyester pants and your cotton gingham shirt.  And if you can’t group like objects, don’t you need to go back to kindergarten?  Even they can tell you not to wear an orange shirt with a maroon tie.
            Admit that you made a mistake.  Apologize to the word people.  We are forgiving types.  Well, mostly.  We certainly don’t substitute numbers for letters, if that’s any sign of character, and I think it is.  We don’t talk about Alice in 1derland.  We don’t write 2morrow or 4ever.  We follow the rules and leave you in one peace.  We also make better puns.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Gotta Love the South

               I just got back from a trip to Jackson, Mississippi where Bob and I were visiting his brother, Ken, and our sister-in-law, Sherri.  And all this time it turns out they’ve been holding out on us, not telling us about Kroger’s Supermarket.  At least the Kroger’s in Madison, the suburb where they live.

                Holy Hamptons.  Before I go on to describe it, you need to see its photo.

                Kroger’s Palace is more like it.  Turns out the mayor of Madison insists that every building there reflect the opulence of the South and that goes for the post office, car washes, and even Walgreens, which has Corinthian columns and I kid you not. 
                Inside Kroger’s it’s candyland for a foodie.  First of all, it’s ten times the size of supermarkets everywhere else, so wear your walking shoes.  And the selection is enormous as well.  Since Bob is from Louisiana and grew up on crawfish and shrimp, we headed straight for the seafood counter where they also had mounds of crab and lobster. Check it out:

                And then get this: Not only do they have a magazine aisle, but comfy chairs where you can “sit a spell,” as if you’re in Barnes and Noble!

                Next up, Blue Bell ice cream, a Southern favorite. 

I’m telling you, a person could live at Kroger’s and never come out.  This makes our local Safeway look like our local 7-Eleven.   But best of all are the signs above the cashiers that say, “About 15 items.”

 Are you kidding me?  Ours say, “9 items at most or we’ll count them and throw you out.”  At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what they say.  And good luck if you get in line ahead of someone holding only two items, because you’ll see their lips moving as they count what’s in your cart (and a bag of 3 lemons counts as 3 items in their opinion).  Grocery Nazis evidently do not exist in Mississippi.  It’s so easygoing that 15 items, give or take, is just fine with them.  I mean faaan with them, y’all.
So, Kroger’s, if you’re listening, you need to open a store in Rocklin, California.  I’m wearing my tennies, I have 16 items in my cart, and I am waiting.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Luncheon with Drug Dealers

Not long ago I emailed our children and said, “Ask Dad about his luncheon with drug dealers,” just to see how they’d respond.

And I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to have one’s children take this in stride, as if it happens all the time, not even the sort of thing to elicit a response. Here is the only way I can see their silence: One, they know me too well and know there’s more to this story, or Two, they are themselves having luncheons with drug dealers (thus no big deal) and I need to go into hysterical Mom Panic.

So, despite my own children not grabbing the phone to call at once, I shall share this story with people who actually care: My blog readers. You.

It all started with a good deed. Before Bob and I even met (so, back when Lincoln was President) Bob put his Man Purse on top of his car and drove off. He would not call it a Man Purse, but this was when guys were all carrying those leather pouches and believe me, it was a Man Purse. But even more incredible, he had $1500 in it! Excuse me? Who does this? Not my husband, let me tell you.

Still, my lovable Scrooge McBob evidently had big bucks in those days, so there it was. And a guy found it and returned it with every dollar intact! Bob was hosting a game show and a TV talk show in L.A. at the time, and was so impressed that he had the guy on his show as a guest, and commended him for his honesty. He also gave him a hundred bucks as a reward.

Flash forward thirty years. We are now living in northern California and if I had $1500 in my purse it would be the 8th Wonder of the World, but out of the blue, the good Samaritan calls. He’d found Bob on the web, noticed that Bob now has a company called Nova Green World that sells environmentally safe chemicals to big industrial clients, and wants to meet with him to talk about it. The guy flies up to Oakland from L.A., meets a buddy of his there, and the two of them drive to Sacramento and take Bob out to a swanky restaurant for lunch.

Well, of course, not having seen the guy in a few decades Bob has no idea what he looks like, and just gives his name to the maĆ®tre d’ who points him towards a table in the middle of the room where another man is seated. As Bob approaches the man looks up, smiles, and says, “Hey, you must be Bob!” and holds up a gigantic book with the word, MARIJUANA across the top in huge lettering. 

Bob’s eyes bug out and he quickly sits down, glancing around to see if anyone in the restaurant can see this giant prop, still in plain view. Then his buddy, who was outside smoking who knows what, comes in and joins them. Bob is feeling prickles of sweat around his collar, now, as they explain that they are at the forefront of the entire marijuana industry and they want Bob to market the environmentally safe pesticide they’ve been using on their massive marijuana operation. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall! What I wouldn’t have paid to be in disguise and to walk by at that exact moment and say, “Hey, aren’t you the Bob Hilton who used to be a TV news anchor here in town?” Well, I wouldn’t have paid $1500, but I would have paid twenty-five. Had I only known what this luncheon would entail! We could have gotten the restaurant to play some Bob Marley music, or something by the Grateful Dead!

So, of course Bob tells these guys there is no way on God’s green earth (green with legal crops) that he can get involved in this shady (shady with giant marijuana plants) business. They understand, as kindhearted crooks often do, and part as friends. Then Bob scoots home, hoping nobody saw him. Of course, the wife has a blog, so good luck keeping that one a secret.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Springtime for a Few Minutes

            I love Springtime.  I love daffodils, tulips, bird nests, little kids wearing galoshes, ducklings, kites, the whole enchilada primavera.  I love blossoming trees, frolicking lambs, gentle breezes, and weather that stays in the 70s. 

            And that’s a whole lotta love to pack into the 10 days or so of Spring we get in Rocklin.  Rocklin is a suburb of Sacramento, so named because it used to be a gigantic granite quarry.  Why they couldn’t call it Rockland and keep me from having to spell it over the phone so often, is anyone’s guess.  Please don’t say laziness.  I hate laziness.  But don’t say it’s a misspelled version of Rockland because I hate misspelling even more.  Either way, it’s a Fred and Wilma Flintstone kind of place, with streets named Lava, Cobblestone, Pebble Creek, Blackrock, Granite, Onyx, Crystal, and the like.  I could easily learn Wilma’s giggle and wear a leopard-print dress and a necklace of ping pong balls, so I’m okay in a rock-themed town.
            But I digress.  I was talking about Springtime (cue the music), and was just getting to my complaint that it fades all too quickly into summer here in Rocklin.  One day it’s balmy and blissful, and you have this in your front yard: 

which makes you remember singing “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree” as a kid, and you still sing it every Spring, only now you sing it quickly, because the next day the blossoms fall into what look like piles of soggy shredded wheat on the walkway and the next day summer hits like an open furnace.
            In addition to rocks, Rocklin also has meandering wetlands and meandering hillsides of weeds that will pose a fire hazard soon, so people bring in herds of sheep to munch it down.  (Although, correct me if I’m wrong, does that not also fertilize those same hills and perpetuate the problem?)  No matter—it’s fun to step out on your porch and pretend you’re in Switzerland, as you hear a chorus of baa’s just a block away.  Here’s the latest batch:

            Few things are as adorable as a baby lamb, but let me tell you that few things are as icky as grown sheep.  Okay, pigs are.  They win.  But grown sheep are not part of my Springtime Fantasy and I’ll tell you why:  I have actually sheared one.  I know, I know, this is very un-Joni-like, but it is true, and here’s how it happened.
            When I was in college, living in L.A., I was friends with a newspaper photographer and he asked me to write up a story about what it was like to shear a sheep, probably just to fill space.  So we headed out to a local agricultural college in Woodland Hills, called Pierce College, where he had arranged for me to have this delightful opportunity.  Baby lambs were promised, so of course I consented to go.
            But soon the baby lambs were whisked away and I was inside a barn with an electric shearer, a grown ewe, and no clue what to do with either one.  Turns out you straddle the poor animal, trying to hold it between your legs so it won’t run away, and then you wrestle the shearer, which writhes from a cord resembling a boa constrictor, and try to shave off the wool in large, clean strips.  Contests in Australia, they tell me, yield champions who can do this in two minutes.  I am looking at two hours. 
            At first I am scared (dare I say sheepish?) that I will cut the ewe into bits, so I barely touch the clippers to its wool, and little feathery wisps fall onto the ground.  Over and over I try to do it carefully, and within minutes I am exhausted, if only from trying to hold the animal still.  I finally realize I will be here for the rest of my life if I don’t get brave and just dig in, so I press the shearer against its skin and now the wool is falling off in giant chunks.  It still looks like the worst haircut known to man or sheep, but at least I’m making progress.  
            Until I notice the bleeding.  “Oh, no!” I shout.  “Am I cutting the sheep?” There are flecks of red all over its skin. 
            And now get this:  The person in charge (the shepherd?) says, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  Those are just ticks you’re cutting in half.”
            WHAAAT?  Ticks?  As in the one insect even more disgusting than spiders?  I look closer and sure enough, the sheep is covered with hideous little black pests scurrying about under its wool, and I have been shaving right through them.  I no longer worry about cutting the sheep; my biggest worry now is whether I will faint, throw up, or be covered with ticks myself before I can get out there.  It’s all I can do to finish scalping this poor, flea-bitten creature, and let it scramble out into the sunlight.  I follow her on wobbly legs and stagger to my car.  The things you do just to be a published journalist, right? 
            So now I listen to the sounds of Springtime in Rocklin with a little bit more information, a little speculation about why the sheep baa so much.  You would, too, if you were covered with ticks.  And believe me, I think twice about pulling on a wool sweater now.  Lucky we’re heading into summer.
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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Shark Story

            I don’t know how many of you can say you’ve been awakened by a shark, but I’m guessing somewhere around zero.  I, on the other hand, have joined the ranks of Ahab, assorted pirates, and possibly the Little Mermaid, because the other night I was awakened by a shark.

            I heard a high-pitched, fluttering sound, almost a whine.  I opened my eyes, listened to be sure I wasn’t dreaming, and then did what any good wife does.  I woke Bob up.
            “Do you hear that?  What is that?”
            Bob groggily came back from a deep sleep, listened, and then got up to investigate.  This is yet another reason why I refer to him as St. Bob, because he tolerates a wife who does not get up to investigate herself, but who tugs on his arm and sends him out to meet any number of armed robbers who might have come in through the doggie door.
            “It’s Brandon’s shark,” he calls from the hallway.  “It was up by the air conditioning vent.”  Apparently a fin got sucked up into the vent and was rattling, so Bob pushed the shark back into the guest room where it has been from Christmas until now.
            This would probably be a good time to explain.  For Christmas we gave our second eldest son, Brandon (grown and living in San Diego but always home for Christmas with his Great Dane in tow) an inflatable shark.  Filled with helium, these life-sized balloons float through your home, office, or the subway station they show in the video, powered by a little motor on their belly, not unlike the Goodyear Blimp.
            They arrive in a box, you take them to your local party supply store for a gigantic injection of helium, and then dash home as other drivers stare into your car in disbelief.  Once home, you carefully attach the motor and then these babies fly through the house waving their tails and fins.  Add one Great Dane and a Chihuahua, and you have the recipe for Christmas hilarity, if you ask me.
            Except the motor didn’t work.  Naturally it took the better part of our holiday for Bob and our grown sons to tinker with it, switch out the batteries, blah-blah-blah whatever men do, and still we got nuttin’.  The company wouldn’t send free replacement parts, but they were more than happy to sell me some.  I decided to fork over more cash, resist the impulse to accuse them of the numerous reasons why anybody else would see them in court over this, and decided to wait for the new motor.  Meanwhile, we left the enormous man-eater in the guest room, which seemed the decent—or at least the most amusing—thing to do. 
            Eventually the new motor arrived.  Sadly we deflated the poor creature, stuffed him into a box and mailed him to San Diego.  I doubt you could do this with a real shark, so as they say, “Don’t try this at home.” 
Then we called Brandon.  This was during the very same week when his little sister, Nicole, had departed for a church mission to Norway.  Brandon said, “So I’m not so much losing a sister as gaining a shark.” Yep, that’s the cheery perspective I have always tried to teach my children.
And I’ll simply have to wait until next Christmas to scare the daylights out of our dogs.       


Subscribe before a shark nudges you in the night!  Look for the box on the right where you can type in your email address.  And be sure to swim around my blog for info on my radio show and my latest novels. 
AND... my East Coast readers, don't miss my new play, GIFTED, coming to Times Square in New York City. It will premiere at The American Globe Theatre later this month. The best way to order tickets is to go to www.brownpapertickets.com- and on the home page, punch in either Fifteen (not 15) Minute Play Festival or American Globe Theatre (re not er), hit enter or the icon that looks like a magnifying glass and it will take you right to the link. Tickets are $18 plus a minimal service fee.  This festival sells out fast.