Monthly Archives: March 2012

Flim Flam Man

I stood at the corner, waiting for the light to change, a cold march wind whipping around me, blowing under my coat. I pulled my collar up around my cheeks and ears and willed the red hand to change to the white walking stick figure on the post in the median.  It was noon, walkers darting around and between each other on their way to or from lunch or a meeting.I was conscious of the growing crowd gathering around me at my corner and tucked my shoulder bag closer to my waist.  This is the big city with pick pockets and all.

I felt a tug at my elbow and looked down to see a man in a tattered wheelchair, wearing a flannel shirt, frayed at the collar, and a sweater too thin for the brisk spring weather.

“Can you spare a dollar?” he asked loudly as he pulled his moth-eaten hat down far enough to cover his ears.

“Homeless AND a wheelchair,” I thought.  “What were the odds.”

“Just a dollar, for coffee,” he said. “I’m cold.”

By now I was conscious of the eyes around me turning to look in my direction. I had just come from church so guilt and “the least of my brethren” stuff was all fresh in my mind. So I reached for the buckle of my bag and pulled out my wallet.

“I only have a twenty,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Not to worry, mam, I’ve got change,” he said, sticking out a gloved fist to prove it.

Now this was slick, I thought, a beggar with change.

“Why don’t you give me the twenty and I’ll give you say sixteen or eighteen back, ” he added with a smoothness that was beginning to get on my nerves.

By now the welcome walking man was beckoning from mid-street but to my dismay, half the crowd stayed transfixed on the the curb beside me, all focus on me and the homeless man in the wheelchair.

Daunted by the pressure of the Obamaland eyes,  I handed the man the twenty and waited for my “change.”

Grinning with surprisingly gleaming white choppers, he handed me a wad of sticky hot bills, stuffed the twenty under his hat and used both hands to turn the chair in the opposite direction, practically doing a wheely as he disappeared into the closest alley.

Drama over, crowd dispersed, I shoved the money ball in my pocket and crossed the street to my garage, sure that “T-A-K-E-N” blinked in neon across my forehead.

I pushed the button for the floor named Cubs and listened to “Take me out to the ballgame” as the elevator, and my blood pressure, rose to the third floor.

I got to my car, slid under the wheel and reached in my pocket to pull out my “change.” I slowly unfolded four one dollar bills.

Not even enough to get me out of the garage.

He’s the kind of guy that gives homeless people a bad name.






Recipe of the Week: Skillet Cornbread

Thinking about my childhood grade school, got me thinking about home and family.  When she wasn’t my first grade teacher, my Aunt Jeannette was a lovable, warm, and very funny human being. All the Kyles (my mom’s side) were funny.  Not, let me tell you a joke funny, but witty and quick in a subtle conversational way that you could miss if you weren’t paying attention. In the early 1930’s, Aunt Jeannette attended Columbia University in New York City to prepare to be a teacher.  She had read the Bible at least twice cover to cover, word for word, before she died at 96. She loved nature, especially birds.

I called her once about a bird song that was haunting me. As soon as I started to whistle the tune (yes, I can whistle a tune;that’s from my dad’s side) she knew exactly what bird it was. She was a gem and I miss her. But before I go all Tom Brokaw on you and tell about the husband she lost to a fluke jeep accident in WWII or the one she raised four adopted children with, let’s get to the point at hand, Skillet Cornbread.


Seeing Aunt Jeannette here in my Aunt Ruth’s kitchen, made me think about Kyle women and cooking. One of their best recipes I am sharing only because I am feeling especially generous today and the nostalgia is clouding my brain. Normally, I keep these family secrets to myself so the whole world can’t start making cornbread as well as we do.

Aunt Jeannette, and all her sisters, basically followed the recipe my Grandma Kyle used. Before you even attempt this cake-like, sumptuous bread, you must have a 9 inch cast iron skillet.  You can get an inexpensive one at Target or most hardware stores. In West Virginia, they sell them at the grocery store. I use a fancier Le Creuset one with brown enamel coating that I received as a wedding gift and like it very much, but any cast iron will do.


1 cup white corn meal

1/4 cup flour

1 heaping tsp. baking powder (that in Grandma Kyle terms is spilling off the edges)

1 rounded tsp. salt (in her terms, high but not spilling off the edges)

2 Tbsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 1/4 c. buttermilk

1 large egg

2 Tbsp. Crisco (yes Crisco, not butter flavored but plain old used to be Paula Deen’s favorite Crisco)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix corn meal, flour, baking powder, sugar and salt  in a medium mixing bowl. In another smaller bowl, mix baking soda and buttermilk together and let sit for a minute or two. Beat egg with a fork until combined but not frothy and stir into buttermilk.  Pour wet mixture into dry and mix with fork until smooth and not lumpy.

Heat on top of the stove until hot but not smoking, 2 Tbsp. Crisco in a 9 inch iron skillet. Pour cornbread batter into skillet and remove immediately from heat.  Batter should sizzle around the edges. Using an oven mitt, (I have made the painful mistake of omitting this little detail) place skillet in hot oven and bake for 20 minutes or until bread pulls away from the edges of the skillet and top is golden brown.  (Again, use mitt to remove from oven.)

Allow to cool for five minutes.  Gently loosen edges of bread with a knife.  Cover the top of the skillet with a dinner plate and (if the cooking gods are with you) slowly, gingerly flip the skillet onto the plate and the cornbread will slide out upside down and in a perfect mounded circle of golden brown.  If you feel it’s stuck to the skillet anywhere, use the gentle prodding with the knife trick again.

Cut into pie shaped triangles and butter (real butter) while warm. Serve immediately as anything–appetizer, dinner bread, with soup or drench it in honey and serve as dessert.

Or eat it for breakfast as cereal with milk like my Uncle Bill used to do.

Martin School was magic…

Martin School was a two-room schoolhouse in West Virginia where I grew up. Built in the early 1900’s by my Grandpa Kyle, three generations passed through its doors before it was closed in 1968 and was used to store something far less important than young minds.

I attended Martin for first and second grades.  My aunt, Mrs. Jeannette Hale was the first grade teacher and the principal. Mrs. Phelan taught second grade across the hall.  My favorite employee come lunchtime was Mrs. Gregory, the cook.  Her tiny kitchen, about the size of a small closet, was at the end of the short hall between the two rooms.

She cooked a hot lunch every day which she served at our seats in the classroom, pulling the pastel plastic trays into our room on an old squeaky rolling cart, four trays at a time.  The menu varied but her personal best was tomato soup, grilled peanut butter sandwiches (squishy white buttery bread, of course) and chocolate cake with milk chocolate icing, warm from the oven and made from scratch.

Each room had a cloakroom at the back.  Only about two feet deep, it had a peg for each child’s coat and a small wooden shelf underneath for boots in the winter.  It didn’t have a door but a calico curtain that gathered on a rod across the entire wall of wraps and shoes.

Sometimes if a person talked too much or too loud during subtraction, Mrs. Hale would send you behind that curtain to stand until you could “regain your composure.”  I wasn’t sure what composure was but I didn’t have it in the classroom and had many visits behind the curtain. I would always make sure to stand close enough to the curtain so that my nose and shoulders and knees made the outline of my body on the classroom side, just in case anyone forgot I was there.

The curtain always felt slightly damp and smelled like the old string mop that leaned in the corner of our basement laundry room.  I could hear my aunt’s crackly voice as she slid the chalk across the blackboard.  I always hated it when I knew the answer to her subtraction question and Charlotte Legg was saying eleven take away five was four, for God’s sake. But curtain standers were never allowed to participate.

When my mother, now 88, attended Martin is had six grades divided between the two rooms.  She also had her aunt, Ina Kyle, as her first grade teacher. When my sister, who is six years older, went to Martin, there were three grades.  Martin had five grades in those two rooms when my brother, nine years older, went there.  He only stayed for four years, though. He skipped second grade, perhaps to get away from my aunt.  She was always harder on the nieces and nephews, probably for fear of showing favoritism.  If she didn’t send you behind the curtain, she would shake you until you were sure you could hear your brains rattle.  I had a habit of twirling my shoe with my toe in the heel.  Aunt Jeannette stopped that by taping my shoe to my foot and my foot to the floor. At least taped down, she couldn’t send me to the cloak closet.

Warm, home made lunches, the sounds and smells of chalk, crumbly gum erasers, fat yellow lead pencils and the comfort of family, recall a time of  childhood and innocence and make attending Martin School one of my sweetest memories.

But the true magic of Martin School reached far beyond its two classrooms.  The playhouse under the front steps had an earth floor and cement walls.  Old quilts divided the rooms. The kitchen stove was made of red bricks, no doubt left over from when the school house was built several decades before. The small playground in front was not covered in gravel but cinders, a by product of the state’s main industry, coal.  The simple swing set had two regular and one trapeze style swing, three feet off the ground, and later a multi-tiered metal jungle gym.

The real playground though was the forest covering the hill behind the school.  Some trees had Indian markings, large white knobs that stuck out like eyes, peering down as children played hide and seek behind the trunks.  But the best trees were the ones closest to the back of the schoolhouse.  They had thick woody vines that hung from their branches.  The bravest swingers would grab a vine, take a running start, jump off the hill and cross the small drop off that separated the hill from the back of the school.  The most expert of swingers could meet the school with their feet and push off with enough force to land back at the base of the tree.  Most of us, though, let go mid-swing and landed in the mixture of moss and dead leaves at the bottom of the shallow ravine.

The only rule of the playground was to stay within earshot of the sound of the big brass bell with the long black handle that Aunt Jeannette rang on the front porch when recess was over.  We all remembered the day Mike Means walked up that hill and disappeared over its crest.  He never came back to school.  Some kids said he ran away from school or maybe home. Even Aunt Jeannette didn’t know for sure what became of him. I suspect he had failed enough grades he was old enough to drop out, but we were all more careful to stay together in the woods after that.

At the end of recess, after my aunt rang the bell, Mrs. Gregory would step out onto the front  steps and pass out a snack as we filed by to return to our rooms. Sometimes it was salted cabbage, sliced, served raw and icy cold from a huge stainless steel bowl she held perched on her hip.  She always wore a cotton printed apron with a bib and lace trim.  If you complimented the color or style, she would smile her big gap-toothed smile and say she had made it herself.


Aunt Jeannette, Mrs. Gregory, Mrs. Phelan and Martin School are all gone now. But  the lessons they taught, the love of nature they inspired, the magic they created still live in my heart and the hearts of every student who attended that rare and precious school.

As for lessons learned,  maybe if I had taped my foot to the floor, it wouldn’t have taken me two days to write this post.


Chick Flicks

So I was flipping through the TV channels late last night, too restless to sleep and too sleepy to read. I came across Sweet Home Alabama.  It was two thirds of the way through the movie, on Bravo, so no fast forwarding through commercials. But I had to stop anyway.  I love any part of that movie and I could watch the beginning, middle or ending, or the entire movie, a thousand times. And I may easily have.

There are many aspects of the movie that draw me to it.  It’s southern.  I’m southern. It’s sappy, romantic, predictable and funny. I’m sappy, romantic, most times predictable and sometimes funny. Most importantly, Reese Witherspoon is adorable and Josh Lucas is Paul Newman hot.  In the closing scene, Melanie yells across the bar, “Make it a slow one, Stella,” and Sweet Home Alabama blasts.   Be still my heart.

There are about five movies in this category for me.  The category of “once you see a nano second of it, you have to stop and watch.”

Dirty Dancing is one of those.  Even if I don’t happen upon it until Frances/Baby is flying through the air in Patrick Swayze’s hunky outstretched arms, I stop.  (Oh and by the way, a friend asked me about the origin of the quote “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” that was in a few posts back. I told her it was from Dirty Dancing and forgave that blip on her screen because I like her and she is an architect, not a vapid late night TV zombie like me.) The movie is bitter sweet to watch now that Patrick Swayze is gone, but all the more reason to indulge. Ghost still does it for me, too, albeit now almost too prophetic at the end.

Pretty Woman sucks me in again and again. Even if it is the picnic on the lawn part where we have to look at Richard Gere’s pasty white feet instead of his not-one-feature-is-good-but-all-put-together-he-is-very-handsome face. Especially if I haven’t missed her infectious belly laugh when he snaps the necklace box shut or when she knocks the hell out of the awful,slimy, greedy partner.

Some Kind of Wonderful I adore.  It’s Mary Stewart Masterson young and adorable and vulnerable. She’s some kind of wonderful but not as great as she is in Fried Green Tomatoes but everyone is great in that. Another stopper.

Pretty in Pink is the kind of  Cinderella story that I can’t pass up.  Love Ducky. (John Cryer of Two and a Half Men fame). How can you resist his version of Try a Little Tenderness?

Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best character actors of all time, is great as the dad.  Molly Ringwald is wonderfully quirky and honest. James Spader (Boston Legal) could not be more James Spader in his white linen pushed up sleeves to high school jackets. It all works. And works. For nearly 25 years.

I mean, I could go on with a few more and include my favorite holiday chick flicks ( The Holiday and Family Man to name two) but it is time for Masterpiece Theater. And I never miss it.

Just kidding.  Never watch but heard the new series Downton Something What’s It Called is great.


When you give a mouse a cookie…

My son in law sent me an article about choosing children’s books written by a father of young kids.  I found the article very entertaining and full of sound advice. I was especially interested because my grandson adores books. I sent him pop up valentines and he handed them to his mother over and over to be reread at bedtime.  Gotta love that kid.  He is either going to be a nuclear scientist or a very erudite mailman.  Jury is still out since he just started pre-school.

Want to share some highlight’s of the father’s advice from his article.  He sorta makes you want to run into him with a kid and book by the fireplace at Starbucks…

He wrote:  As you may have heard, Jan Bernestain, the lady who co-created the Berenstain Bears series died. Now it’s terribly crass and rude to rip into a poor old woman who just passed. But those books are really shitty. They are way too long and the bears never kill any campers ot steal Molson from a nearby tent.

I have two children, and I have spent a lot of time reading to them. When you have the right book, reading to your kids can be tolerable, even fun. But with the wrong book, reading to your kids is painful. They squirm. They half-sit on you, half off and wrench your back out of place. They get too close to the book so that their big fat baby heads block the text. Or worst of all, they demand you read the same awful book night after night after night. There are kiddie books that you will be forced to read literally hundreds of times to your children. You need to make sure that they don’t suck. Here’s how.

1. Check for length and textual density.
Before you buy the book, open it. Are there large swaths of text on each page? That’s not a kid’s book. That’s a medieval torture device. My kid once brought a book about beagles home from the school library. This thing was a goddamn reference book. It must have contained 20,000 words, all of which were useless facts about the beagle. Did you know beagles are the smallest of hunting dogs? Did you know that information serves NO fucking purpose?

You want a book that features, at most, five or six lines of text per page. Any denser than that and you are on the dark side of the Reading Rainbow. If you get caught reading a book that’s far too long to a kid, do what I do and just start skipping entire sections of copy. And if my kid notices that I forgot to read part of the book and wants to go back? NO DESSERT. THERE IS NO GOING BACK.

2. Make sure the text rhymes.
I have no idea why rhyming books are more fun, but they are. If a book rhymes, then I can really get into the performance of reading it to my kid. I can figure out the rhythm of the text (though it can take a couple pages to sort it out– “Oh, I see! It rhymes every THIRD line! TRICKY!”). I can sing it. I can do voices. I can become mellifluous. I can PERFORM. It’s really a parent’s time to shine when the text rhymes. If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s ass.

3. Avoid one-trick ponies.
One of the best-selling children’s books of all time is Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The story is basically a set formula. If you give that mouse a cookie (Who gives a mouse a cookie? You know what you should give mice? GLUE TRAPS.), he’ll do X, which make him do Y, which will cause him to do Z, which will make him want a cookie all over again. Very cute.

But then Numeroff wrote a shitload more books, all of them deploying this exact same formula. There’s If You Give a Cat a CupcakeIf You Give a Dog a DonutIf You Give a Pig a Pancake, and even—I shit you not—If You Give a Moose a Muffin. You think I can’t see what you’re doing, Numeroff? You think I can’t see the creative rut you’re in? Maurice Sendak was right to trash you. THE ANIMAL ALWAYS ENDS UP EATING TREATS.

4. Avoid repetitive books.
Repetition helps children learn. Unfortunately, it also contributes to Daddy’s alcoholism. There are few things worse than children’s books that are structured to be essentially like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with a growing laundry list of items that you have to repeat over and over and over again. Even Green Eggs and Ham, one of the greatest children’s books ever written, makes you say plane and train and house and mouse and fox and box a million times over. It will destroy your love of reading. It’s like being hit on the head with a hammer repeatedly until you finally submit. That fucking Gingerbread Boy. Do you know how happy I am when that fox finally chews him up and shits him out after he’s outrun the baker and the cow and the dog and every other incompetent idiot trying to catch him?

5. Do not buy fancy pop-up books.
Oh hey, look! Someone took the time and care to craft an elaborate pop-up model of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai! You know how long it takes your kid to render that page to shreds? Four seconds. Congratulations, you now have an empty book. And be careful with books that have flaps. Some flaps are hard to pry open, and your little child’s fat fingers won’t be able to get underneath. I am a big fan of scratch-and-sniff stickers. Our copy of The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about 30 years old. But I swear the orange sticker still smells kind of orangey. The magic of BOOK MOLD.

6. Buy any book that features textures.
Feel that bunny’s tail! It really IS soft! I could feel a copy of Pat the Bunny all day. The best thing about texture books is that they have to make the pages extra thick in order to embed the fabric, and that means the book is that much shorter. You know how gratifying it is to turn a page that’s three inches thick? I feel like Speed Reader:  Shorter reading time equals earlier bedtime equals more time for drinking and watching violent Korean movies. NICE.

7. Do not buy any Amelia Bedelia books.
She’s awful. I hate her. She takes everything you say literally, so when her boss is like, “Make the bed,” she literally makes a little bed out of craft supplies. What a moron. Kids are too young and too stupid to understand the concept of figures of speech, so all the jokes go right over their heads. They’re the lucky ones. If this woman existed in the real world, she’d be arrested and sent to prison and then she’d die from swallowing bleach by accident and she would DESERVE it. Every time she gets fired in these books, I cheer. And when she gets rehired, I want to vote Republican. STOP BAILING OUT THESE PEOPLE.

8. Never buy any book that’s a movie or TV tie-in.

Most of these books don’t even list a proper author, mostly because they were conceived and executed during a conference call between brand managers. None of them has any value. You’re essentially buying an advertisement.

9. NEVER buy a children’s book written by a celebrity.
You already knew this. But just in case you were walking by I Already Know I Love You and thought, “Hey, maybe that one won’t suck,” SHUT UP. You should know better. Celebrities write children’s books because they’re too stupid to write full books and they think anyone can write a children’s book.

10.The truth is that only a few people in history have managed to create great lasting children’s books: Seuss, Scarry, Sendak, Rey, Eastman, etc. Stick with those, and you and your child will have a happy reading time together. Or try these 10 titles:

• Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems
• One Witch, by Laura Leuck
• The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
• The Olivia books by Ian Falconer
• The Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney
• Iggy Peck: Architect, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
• The Paper Princess, by Elisa Kleven
• The Amazing Machines series by Ant Parker and Tony Mitton
• Noisy Nora, by Rosemary Wells
• Little Pea, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Couldn’t have said it better myself which is why I didn’t.

Only thing he left out was the bloody lip and bruised shins you get when a child tries to squirm out of your lap during a reading of say Nobody Wants a Nuclear War or The O’Reilly Factor for Kids given as gifts by left and right wing childless aunts and uncles. In that case, you deserve what you get for even cracking the binding.