Politics: Some Things Never Change


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I deliberately keep this blog away from politics. I’m told that writing about a hot-button issue is a sure way to increase blog traffic, but I’m not sure those are the readers I want to reach.

I am bemused, however, as I do historical research, how little things have changed over the years. We think our politicians today are so polarized and so unable to compromise that they can do nothing to try to resolve the major controversies of our day. Of course, the first “do nothing” Congress was the Eightieth Congress, so named by President Harry S. Truman in 1948.

But a century earlier, in the 1840s and ’50s, things were even worse.

In December 1849, Representative Robert A. Toombs of Georgia called the Thirty-First Congress of which he was a member, “the worst specimens of legislators I have ever seen . . . . There is a large infusion of successful jobbers, lucky serving-men, parishless parsons and itinerant lecturers among them who are not only without wisdom or knowledge but have bad manners, and therefore we can have little hope of good legislation.”

That same month, Representative Richard K. Meade of Virginia and Representative Joseph M. Root of Ohio started a fight between their supporters on the floor of the House, which the sergeant at arms had to break up by swinging a mace at the combatants.

Foote/Benton fight in U.S. Senate. Picture from senate.gov

Foote/Benton fight in U.S. Senate. Picture from senate.gov

One might think that was enough for our august legislators. Unfortunately, just a few months later, in April 1850, the Senate showed it was no better than the House.

Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi launched a verbal attack on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton went for Foote’s throat. Foote pulled and cocked a revolver and pointed it at Benton. Other senators tried to intervene, but Benton just dared Foote to shoot. Ultimately, Foote gave his weapon to another senator, and the crisis was averted. Foote was never punished.

And just a few short years later, across the nation in California, a fight between two politicians ended in a duel. In 1859, David S. Terry, the chief judge of the California state supreme court and David Broderick, U.S. Senator for California, fought a duel on a lake outside of San Francisco. Both men were Democrats, but Judge Terry was from the South, and Senator Broderick from New York, and they disagreed over slavery. Terry shot Broderick, who died three days later.

lrichards coverAt least our politicians today don’t fight duels over their differences. Yet.

There is an old French saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”—“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Politics is one of those things that really never changes. Nor does human nature.

(I found these incidents described in The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War, by Leonard L. Richards (2007), which contains many good stories about the development of California from the 1840s until the Civil War. It’s well worth reading, if you’re interested in U.S. history. The audio book is well done also.)

When have you been struck by the similarities between historical events and the events of today?

The Tao of Writing, of Geography, and of Clutter


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Tao of writingWhile browsing in my local library recently, I saw the book, The Tao of Writing, by Ralph L. Wahlstrom. I don’t know much about Taoist principles or philosophy, but I thumbed through the pages, and it looked interesting. Anything that might immerse me more deeply in the writing life I am trying to craft would be worth considering, so I checked the book out.

After reading the book, I can attest that the “twelve principles of the Tao of Writing,” as Wahlstrom denominated them, are worth thinking about.

But he lost me on page 41 when I read the line “When Mount St. Helens erupted in Oregon in 1980 . . . .”

Mount St. Helens, picture from Wikipedia

Mount St. Helens, picture from Wikipedia

Wait a sec! I said to myself. Mount St. Helens is in Washington. I’m a Washingtonian; I know this. My dad almost got trapped in the ash cloud driving from Richland on the east side of the Cascades to the Seattle area on the west side the Sunday morning when the volcano blew.

After I saw Wahlstrom’s geographical error, I read everything else in his book with some skepticism. What else might he have gotten wrong?

His mistake reminded how important it is for writers to be absolutely accurate in what they publish. When I am working on my historical novels, almost every day I have to stop to look up date or fact. If I can’t verify what I want to say, I cut it out of the novel.

Even so, I get caught occasionally by my critique group—particularly by the guys in the group when I’m writing about gun battles, or by the horse lovers when I’m writing about riding.

Still, I fought through my bias against Mr. Wahlstrom’s geographical sloppiness and read the rest of the book.

His twelve principles of the Tao of writing are:

  1. Writing is natural
  2. Writing is flow
  3. Writing is creation
  4. Writing is detachment
  5. Writing is discovery
  6. Writing is change
  7. Writing is unified yet multiplied
  8. Writing is clarity
  9. Writing is simplicity
  10. Writing is personal
  11. Writing is universal
  12. Writing is open-ended

All good points for writers to think about.

I won’t reveal any more about Wahlstrom’s book. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what he means by each principle and how he connects the Tao and writing.

My desk, as I write this post. Note how I file on the floor. It's worked for me for 35 years.

My desk, as I write this post. Note how I file on the floor. It’s worked for me for 35 years.

Wahlstrom also has a section on writing activities designed to foster creativity and provide some momentum to your writing. This section is also useful for writers who are experiencing writer’s block or who want to develop new ways of working.

And he talks about feng shui. In the chapter promoting a neat work space (“the Tao of tidiness”), he lost me again. It’s not that I believe offices shouldn’t be neat, it’s just that I’ve never been able to achieve the order he advocates.

Clutter may be extremely bad (“shar chi”) for a writer, but I’ve learned to manage it. I don’t even see it most of the time, as my husband would attest.

What principles do you use to set a path for your work?


Proof of When I Couldn’t Write


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20140530_201708I’ve mentioned before that I can’t remember not knowing how to read. I learned to read quite young, and I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t name each letter of the alphabet on the page. And as far back as I can remember, I knew the letters were put together to form words, though I certainly have increased my vocabulary over the years.

But I have proof positive that I had to learn to write.

I have my mother’s old Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy Cook Book, 1954 edition, which I think she received as a wedding present in 1955. She gave it to me about the time I got married.

Or maybe she gave it to my husband, knowing that he is the more ambitious cook in our household. He still uses the pie crust recipe she pointed out to him in this book. So does my daughter.

As I have confessed before, I don’t make pie crusts. I buy them.

The index of my mother’s old cook book is covered in pencil scribbles. My pencil scribbles, circa 1958.

20140530_201733Sometime during my toddler-hood, I decided I should write like Mommy and Daddy did. So I found the nearest pencil and the nearest paper—this cook book. And while my mother was otherwise occupied, I wrote.

I remember the incident vaguely. I think my mother was on the phone when I began my writing career. I knew as I was scribbling in the cook book that I was being naughty. My mother was a little disgusted with me when she discovered my transgression, though I don’t recall her getting too angry (and she could get angry).

I have wondered ever since I discovered the magic of erasers why she didn’t erase my pencil marks, but she preserved them for posterity. Perhaps out of affection for a daughter who wanted to write. Perhaps to preserve the evidence of my wrongdoing. Perhaps simply because she had too many other things to do.

As you can see, the cook book survived my indiscretion and is still in use. It is surprisingly clean, other than my pencil scratchings. But the spine is held together with tape now. Some of the spiral pages are torn loose, kept in place only by the good faith of those who open the slim volume.

Which is how all good cook books should look after almost sixty years in the kitchen.

What old objects in your home still have their usefulness?

The Summer I Knew Nothing—Studying for the Bar Exam


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law-school casebooksThirty-five years ago, in the summer of 1979, my husband and I moved to Kansas City to study for the bar exam. I’ve written before about our trip from California to Missouri, but I’ve tried to block the bar exam and the preparation for taking it from my memory. Still, that summer was a rite of passage, and deserves recognition as such.

Studying for the bar exam is both tedious and terrifying. My husband and I spent several hours each day at the law library at the University of Missouri—Kansas City, reviewing notes from our law school classes, reading through hornbooks (summaries of various legal topics), and trying to reduce entire shelves of casebooks into a few principles we could memorize.

And then we spent more hours each evening in a bar review course, where a paid lecturer tried to cram more information into our heads and the heads of our fellow sufferers, as well as providing tips on how to take the test.

All of this was designed to cram into six weeks everything we had learned in three years of law school courses—and then some, because no law student takes everything in law school that is covered on the bar exam.

The bar exam in Missouri at the time consisted of some fifteen legal subjects (contracts, torts, trusts and estates, and the like), on which we would have to answer arcane essay questions over a two-day period. In addition, there was the multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam that took another half day. Like most multiple-choice tests, the MBE gave a list of options that all appeared almost equally valid.

I went through the summer alternating between confidence and despair. On the one hand, the pass rate on the bar exam in Missouri at the time was around 80%. Surely I could do better than 20% of the people taking the test. I’d gone to Stanford Law School, after all, I smugly thought.

On the other hand, I’d never taken Missouri Civil Procedure (Stanford barely taught California Civil Procedure), which had its idiosyncrasies, and everyone knew that the bar examiners loved to catch examinees on the minutiae.

On a third hand, I talked to a bar examiner who was a partner at the law firm where my husband was going to work. He said he gave 70% credit if the test-taker managed to write a credible paragraph on a question. I didn’t particularly like this guy, but I was willing to take him as an oracle on this point.

On yet another hand (my husband was taking the test, too, so we had four hands between us), half-way through the review program, I took a practice Multistate Bar Exam, and failed it miserably. My complacency vanished, I decided I knew nothing about the law, and I redoubled my studying.

And I had to worry not only about myself, but about my husband. What if only one of us passed? We wouldn’t starve if at least one of us could work, but how dreadful for the other spouse! Could this marriage be saved?

It was a miserable summer, culminating in the three dreadful days in late July of the exam.

But both my husband and I passed. We found out we passed on Labor Day weekend of 1979, and started our legal careers the day after Labor Day.

Some thirty-something years later, our daughter studied for and took the Washington state bar exam. I think her exam was three-and-a-half days, and the subjects covered were a little different, but the experience was generally the same. Except she typed her answers on a laptop. (There were no laptops in 1979. Nor even any desktop PCs.)

Her comment after taking the exam, “Well, it’s over.” She wouldn’t talk about it further. “I’ll never do that again.”

Thank goodness, she passed her bar exam also. Let’s hope she never does have to do it again.

What has been a grueling time in your life?


To Wear Red or Not To Wear Red, That Is the Question


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054.2-3886-redOur pastor asked us all to wear red for Pentecost, which was Sunday, June 8, this year. The Feast of Pentecost, as we were taught as children, is when we celebrate the birthday of the Christian church, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. The priest wears red vestments on Pentecost, so our pastor’s request that the congregation also wear red was appropriate for this feast day.

Unfortunately, my daughter decreed when she was about eight that I was never to wear red. She was quite adamant—red did not look good on me. As a result, I have bought very little red clothing in the past twenty years.

I was in a quandary. Should I do what my pastor wanted, or follow my daughter’s sartorial advice? In matters of fashion, I tend to respect my daughter more, even if the priest is a man of the cloth.

Yet I was scheduled to be a lector (reader) at church on Pentecost, which meant I’d be at the ambo near the altar, where everyone could see me. I should try to comply with the celebratory nature of the feast and wear red. And my daughter wasn’t in town to go to church with me, so she’d never know.

I made my decision. I would wear red. But what did I have that was suitable?

I had lots of pink clothes, ranging from pale pink to deep rose. But pink wasn’t red.

I had lots of peach and bronze clothes, though orange was as off limits, according to my daughter, as red. So I had no bright orange clothes. (Besides, I don’t like orange.)

I could do purple, though lilac was about as dark as my violets went.

But what did I have that was a true fire-engine red?

The pastor had said that even a Kansas City Chiefs t-shirt would be acceptable in church.  (The Chiefs’ colors are red and gold.) But as a non-sports-fan, I don’t own any Chiefs paraphernalia.

I have one claret-colored cocktail blouse. It’s lovely, but is really too low-cut for church.

And I have an old Stanford University t-shirt that used to be my husband’s. Not suitable for church, though if Chiefs’ colors were okay, then shouldn’t Stanford’s cardinal red be equally acceptable?

I looked at a print sweater I have with a little orangy-red in its pattern. Too hot for June.

It was going to have to be the cocktail blouse. I tried it on. No. Too much cleavage. I’d have to go with peach or pink.

My choices -- peach, pink, or an old burgundy sweater

My choices — peach, pink, or an old burgundy sweater

I made one last foray through the depths of my closet.

And found an old burgundy silk sweater that I hadn’t worn in at least seven years. I think I purchased it in about 1997, and I used to wear it to work regularly. By rights, it should have gone to Goodwill a long time ago. I must have unconsciously saved it for this occasion.

I tried it on. It wasn’t designed for today’s low-rise pants, and was likely to bare my midriff if I wasn’t careful. But I could legitimately say it was red.

I donned my highest-rise black pants, and set off for church, appropriately garbed for the Mass.

As I stood at the ambo reading, I looked out on the congregation. Many had complied with the pastor’s request, and were garbed in red. But many must have had the same problem I had. There were pinks. And purples. And oranges. And prints. One woman was dressed in black and white, but sported garish red lipstick.

There was someone in a Chiefs t-shirt—a nun, in fact.

And there were many who either hadn’t gotten the instruction, or who had ignored it, or, who, like me, had daughters that told them to avoid red.

penteco2But who really cares? After all, part of the reading for Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11) states that people from all over the world heard the disciples:

We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.

Surely, all these visitors to Jerusalem were dressed differently, yet they all witnessed the coming of the Spirit. Hearing the mighty acts of God is why we go to church, not to show off our wardrobes.

Next year, I’ll wear peach.

When have you struggled with how to dress for an occasion?

Jim the Wonder Dog


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Jim the Wonder Dog, by Clarence Dewey Mitchell

Jim the Wonder Dog, by Clarence Dewey Mitchell

I wrote last time about Marshall, Missouri. Marshall does have one claim to fame—it was the home of Jim the Wonder Dog.

Owned by Sam Van Arsdale of Marshall, Jim was a Llewellin setter (an English setter) that lived from 1925 to 1937. Jim could allegedly understand human speech and even human thoughts. When asked to go put his paw on the blue car, for example, he went right to the correct car. He could answer questions in languages other than English, and he predicted the sex of unborn babies and the winners of horse races.

My brother and me, with our English setter Nick

My brother and me, with our English setter Nick

My father had an English setter when I was growing up, and that dog couldn’t do much. He did point out quail well, but didn’t have many opportunities to exercise that talent. He hated being in the house, until his old age, when he finally realized that warmth in winter was more important than fresh air.

In any event, I held a healthy skepticism about the tales of Jim the Wonder Dog. I learned about Jim shortly after I moved to Kansas City, on one of my trips to Marshall. My father-in-law had witnessed Jim perform. I used to laugh at the unlikelihood that a dog could manage all these feats.

“It’s true!” my father-in-law said, offended that I wouldn’t believe the legends of his hometown.

Jim is one of the most famous residents of Marshall, and was laid to rest in the human cemetery in town. In fact, his grave is visited more than that of any of the people buried in town.

There is a biography of Jim, entitled Jim the Wonder Dog, by Clarence Dewey Mitchell. It is now out of print, but we have a copy, and have given many copies as gifts (mostly as gag gifts, it is true).

1200px-Marhsall-jim1 JWD park Wiki

Jim the Wonder Dog park, Marshall, MO. Photograph from Wikipedia.

In 1999, Jim was honored with a park in Marshall named after him. The park is maintained by Friends of Jim The Wonder Dog, a nonprofit corporation. Jim even has his own website now, where you can learn more about his story and buy memorabilia.

Our kids were raised on Jim the Wonder Dog stories. When my daughter took her friends to visit her grandparents in Marshall when she was in high school, no trip was complete without a visit to the Jim the Wonder Dog park.

When my daughter was in college, she wore a Jim the Wonder Dog t-shirt to her crew practice one morning. But one of her friends misread the shirt, not seeing all the letters, and thought my daughter’s shirt said “I’M THE WONDER DOG”—which gave rise to peals of laughter. And so the Georgetown crew team learned of Jim the Wonder Dog. A few of them even got t-shirts.

My husband and his canoeing buddies, most of whom hailed from North Carolina, passed through Marshall on their way back to Kansas City from Ozark rivers. They stopped at the Jim the Wonder Dog park, all bought t-shirts, and now call themselves the Wonder Dawgs.

Old-time legends live on in new generations.

What stories come from your hometown’s history?

Which Ugliest Town in America?


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I first visited Missouri in early June 1977, before my now-husband and I were married. I’ve described that visit—the trip to Fort Osage and the making of gooseberry pie. But what I didn’t say in that post was that I thought his hometown of Marshall, Missouri, was the ugliest town I’d ever seen.

Saline County Courthouse, in Marshall, MO

Saline County Courthouse, in Marshall, MO

Marshall is the county seat of Saline County, Missouri. Like many county seats in the Midwest, Marshall has a courthouse in the middle of the town square, with retail stores around the square and for a block or so off the square. My father-in-law’s bank, originally named the Farmers Savings Bank before it merged into one after another of larger and larger banks, was on the corner of the town square.

But even in 1977, the Marshall square had gaps in it. Wal-Mart had moved in and drawn a lot of business away from downtown and toward the U.S. Highway 65 bypass.

I tried not to say anything disparaging to my husband or his parents. And, truth be told, there were similar small towns in the deserts of Washington and Oregon that weren’t any better. But I felt sorry for my husband, because he had grown up in such an ugly place.

Richland, Washington, from Badger Mountain

Richland, WA

Over the Fourth of July weekend that year, my husband came to visit me in my hometown, where I was working that summer. Richland, Washington, is on the Columbia River in the middle of the desert. There are a lot of tumbleweeds, and, if not for the Columbia, it would be pretty barren.

My husband-to-be flew into the small airport in Richland and I picked him up. When he got off the plane after flying across the desert, he said, “You poor kid. You mean you grew up here?”

I was quite offended. After all, Richland was better than Marshall. Despite the tumbleweeds, I loved the open spaces around town and the gorgeous sunsets. I loved the wide blue river that cut a green swath through the desert. I saw it with the familiar eyes of childhood.

I’ve since come to know Marshall quite well. The square still has vacant retail spaces, though the storefronts have changed in 35 years. Wal-Mart has moved to a newer, larger location on the by-pass, and is the best place to buy groceries in town. My in-laws built a lovely home on a golf course.

Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And both perceptions can change over time.

When have you been disappointed by a place you have visited?

Gold Fever: News of the Gold Rush Explodes


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Although James Marshall found gold on the north fork of the American River in late January 1848, and the news reached San Francisco by mid-March, the gold fever didn’t really start in San Francisco until mid-May.

Samuel Brannan, from Wikipedia

Samuel Brannan, from Wikipedia

Samuel Brannan was largely responsible for the delay in spreading the word of the gold find. Brannan owned The California Star newspaper, and he minimized the news when it was first reported in March 1848. He wanted to plan how he would capitalize on the coming gold fever—not as a prospector himself, but by becoming a merchant to those who would dig the soil.

But Brannan and Johann Sutter (owner of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was first found) could only delay history briefly, not halted.

On May 1, 1848, Sutter wrote in his diary

Saml Brannan was building a store at Natoma, Mormon Islands [near Sutter’s Mill, where the gold had been discovered], and have done a very large and very heavy business.

Already there were several hundred miners in Columa, Mormon Island, and other sites around Sutter’s Mill. A huge strike at Dry Diggins (near what became Hangtown and Placerville) brought more miners.

On May 12, 1848, his store open and booming with business, Brannan was ready to start the gold rush. He ran through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle of gold dust and yelling, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

Johann Augustus Sutter, from Wikipedia

Johann Augustus Sutter, from Wikipedia

Immediately, San Francisco emptied of able-bodied men. On May 19, just a week after Brannan’s act as town crier, Sutter wrote

The great Rush from San Francisco arrived at the fort, all my friends and acquaintances filled up the houses and the whole fort . . . . The Merchants, Doctors, Lawyers, Sea Captains, Merchants etc. all came up and did not know what to do, all was in a Confusion, all left their wives and families in San Francisco . . . .

Brannan was not the only merchant capitalizing on the influx of men to the gold fields. On May 21, Sutter reported that

Saml Kyburg errected or established the first Hotel in the fort . . . and made a great deal of Money. A great Many traders deposited a great deal of goods in my Store . . . . Afterwards every little Shanty became a Warehouse and Store; the fort was then a veritable Bazaar.

And on May 25, he wrote:

The travelling to the Mines was increasing from day to day, and no more Notice was taken, as the people arrived from South America, Mexico, Sandwich Islands, Oregon, etc. All the Ships Crews, and Soldiers deserted.

Lest we have only Johann Sutter’s word for the depth of the impact of the Gold Rush on San Francisco, on May 24, The Californian paper reported:

The whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the sordid cry of ‘Gold, gold, gold!’ while the field is left half-planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.

The Gold Rush was on! Neither California nor the rest of the United States has been the same since.

What events of history have affected you and your family?

Memorial Day and a Tantrum To Remember


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I described my son’s tantrum in my last post, so it’s only fair that in this post I describe one of his sister’s—her first tantrum, in fact. It occurred on Memorial Day, when she was just two weeks old.

My husband and I took our family to see his parents over the holiday weekend. With us were our two children—three-year-old son and newborn daughter—and my mother, who had been visiting since the baby’s birth.

My in-laws lived in a town about 90 miles from our home. Usually, the trip was an easy journey. But all the paraphernalia needed for a baby and preschooler made the logistics a little more difficult.

Still, we had a fine weekend . . . until we started back home on the evening of Memorial Day. We left our son with his grandparents for an extended visit, so it was just my husband, my mother, my daughter, and me on the return trip.

The designs of our sedan (a Mercury Zephyr of about 1981 vintage) and of our infant car seat were not compatible. The only place we could buckle in the car seat was in the front passenger place in the vehicle.

Today that would be an anathema, and if the Department of Family Services found out, would probably land our children in foster care. But in the mid-1980s, any place a car seat fit was fine—just having a car seat was an indicator of strong parenting skills.

My husband drove, the baby was strapped in her car seat beside him, so my mother and I were relegated to the back seat.

Just as we left my in-laws’ house, a Midwest thunderstorm began cascading from the sky. Lightning flashed brighter than the headlights of oncoming traffic, and thunder crashed almost simultaneously with each bolt. The car’s wipers whipped back and forth as fast as they could, but rain still coated the windshield and pounded the car roof.

We adults were all tense. My mother, not used to Midwest storms, startled at every crash of thunder. “Oh!” she squeaked, and again, “Oh!”

About ten minutes into the trip, the baby started screaming. This wasn’t just newborn mewling. This was an enraged fiend. She probably didn’t yet weigh ten pounds, but in the enclosed space of the car, she yelled at the volume of a fire siren and about the same pitch.

“Can’t you get her to be quiet?” my husband asked between clenched teeth.

“She’s dry,” I said. “I checked just before we left. And I fed her.”

“I can’t concentrate on the road.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what to do.” Of course, since I was the mother, the screaming was all my fault. And my problem to solve.

Over the back seat I tried everything short of taking her out of the car seat. I put a pacifier in her mouth. She spit it out and wailed.

I jiggled the car seat, trying for a soothing rhythm. No change in tone or volume.

My mother handed me a bottle of water from the diaper bag, and I stuck it in my daughter’s mouth. No dice.

“Click-clack, click-clack,” went the windshield wipers.

“WAANNGGHH!” howled the baby. “WAANNGGHH!”

“Oh!” said my mother. “Oh!”

“Should I take her out?” I finally asked in despair.

“No, it’s not safe,” my husband said, as we hurtled down I-70 toward Kansas City.

Now, this was our second child. You’d think he would have relaxed into fatherhood by now. But he refused to let me take her out of the car seat, so my options were limited.

I’ll say this, the girl had stamina. She caterwauled for the whole journey. The entire hour and a half. We were all exhausted when we reached our home, baby included.

Does this baby look like she could scream for 90 minutes?

Does this baby look like she could scream for 90 minutes?

Then she slept. Until her next feeding.

I didn’t blame my newborn daughter for her tantrum. I still have no idea what caused it, but you can’t really blame a two-week-old for anything.

There were many other tantrums that I did think she could have skipped. Until she reached the age of four, taking her to church or a restaurant was a risky business.

Over the years, she and I both developed more coping mechanisms. We no longer need to scream when trying to communicate with each other—a dirty look is sufficient on both sides.

What terrible travels do you remember with your family?

Needing a Boppy (Don’t We All?)


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Son and Boppy

Son and Boppy

My son and I were reminiscing about his childhood recently, and we got on the topic of tantrums.

“You didn’t have many tantrums,” I told him. “Not like your sister.”

And he didn’t. But I do remember one phase of tantrums he had.

My son was almost always a good sleeper, from infancy on. He started sleeping through the night (well, until about 5:00am) when he was six weeks old. As a toddler, he went right to bed at nap time and in the evening.

But shortly after he was a year old, he suddenly started standing up in his crib and crying and screaming whenever I put him down to sleep. He yelled at the top of his wailing young voice about something. “Boppy!” it sounded like.

Now what on earth is a boppy? I wondered. I had no idea.

This went on for several days. Then on Saturday morning I did a couple of loads of laundry. I was working full-time, and most of our laundry got done on the weekend. After lunch, it was my son’s naptime. I put him down and psyched myself for another bout of screaming.

Instead, he snuggled right into his crib. “Boppy,” he said with a huge sigh of relief, and fingered his blanket with one hand and put his other thumb in his mouth. He drifted right off to never-never land.

Being a logical person, I tried to parse through what had changed. Oh! It dawned on me. I had changed the blankets in his bed when I did the wash.

I decided to test a theory. That night I put him to bed with a different blanket than he’d had at nap time. He cried like I had abandoned him.

I gave him back the blanket he’d had for his nap. Magical happiness. “Boppy!”

So, Boppy was a blanket. A particular blanket. That he had to have.

And from that day forward until my son could understand the vagaries of our laundry schedule, we had to make sure that Boppy was always clean when he needed to sleep.

As his communications skills developed, we learned that “boppy” really meant any cloth with a smooth finish. A nylon windbreaker could be a boppy. My silk blouses could be boppies. The fringe of some of his other blankets were boppy-like enough to satisfy his need to stroke a smooth fabric.

But the preferred boppy was his beloved pale yellow blanket with a little fawn appliqued in the middle. This blanket was a baby shower gift from a work colleague of mine. It is pretty, but not so unusual as to inspire the devotion my son gave it.

Eventually (by middle school), Boppy found its way to a drawer in my son’s dresser, no longer needed at bed time.

Wrapped up in comfort

Wrapped up in comfort

All of us have certain items that brought us comfort as a child. For some like my son, it was because it soothed our sense of touch. For others, it was a familiar taste or smell or song.

For me, when I was a toddler, it was a stuffed duck I called Ya-Ya that I fingered like my son fingered his Boppy. Ya-Ya, though threadbare and worn, sits hidden in a box of my childhood memorabilia. (You can read more about Ya-Ya in my Family Recipe anthology, in the essay entitled “Gift from a Christmas Before Memory”.)

Because I sympathized with my son’s need for this sensory comfort (no matter how annoying at times), I’ll never throw his Boppy out. Boppy remains in my son’s dresser drawer today.

What’s your boppy—or your child’s, if you’re embarrassed to admit to one yourself?


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