Fish Trees

It’s spring and the fish trees are in bloom. Other people call them Bradford pear trees, I now know, after asking a friend who is versed in horticultural matters. You can’t help noticing them, of course. Beautiful white flowers, planted everywhere, and a distinctive fishy smell to the blooms. Without knowing the formal name, I had to call them something, so I’ve always referred to them as fish trees. My kids picked up on that, and fish trees they will always be in our family discussions.

We also use sprinkle cheese in our house.  My daughter coined this term for the grated parmesan stuff in a can. Another family I know calls the same food feet cheese, because the mother thinks it smells bad.

I’ve always been fascinated by those apocryphal stories of twins who invent their own secret languages. I know there’s been debate about whether this has ever really happened, and if so, to what extent.  My personal experience tells me that wherever two or more people are gathered together for any length of extended contact, at least a few privately used words and phrases will spring into being. As my son once pithily observed, “Every word is a made-up word.”

Amazing and flexible thing, language. It can be so personalized and so universalized at the same time. I started thinking about this because I noticed the first fish tree blooms the same day I read that the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English will be published this year. This dictionary, according to the publishers, “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States–those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.”  

Big news for language geeks. I can’t wait to lose a few hours over it at the library.

Book List: Coffee and Tea

While we’re trying to get used to the clock change getting us up an hour earlier in the morning, this might be a good time to indulge in some caffeinated reading.  To that purpose, a list of books about coffee and or tea, or set in coffee/tea shops:


The Art of Making Tea: an Album of Recipes, Portraits, and Other Rituals
Elizabeth Jones Hanley

Teahouse of the Almighty: Poems
Patricia Smith 

Graphic Novel:

The Haunted Tea-Cosy: a Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas
Edward Gorey (Note: I love this book, and Edward Gorey in general. If you have a dark sense of humor and you celebrate Christmas, you should remember this book come December.)


Black Coffee: A Hercule Poirot Novel
Agatha Christie

Coffee, Tea or Murder: A Murder She Wrote Mystery
Donald Bain

Coffee to Die For: A Professor Teodora Morelli Mystery
Linda French

Decaffeinated Corpse
Cleo Coyle

Espresso Shot
Cleo Coyle

French Pressed
Cleo Coyle

Irish Coffee
Ralph McInerny

Latte Trouble
Cleo Coyle

One Coffee With
Margaret Maron  (note: I didn’t leave words out of the title)

Tea Shop Mystery Series
Laura Childs

Other Fiction:

Coffee and Kung Fu
Karen Brichoux

Coffee in the Morning
Roz Denny

Coffee Rings: Three Women, One Tragic Event
Yvonne Lehman

The Coffee Trader: A Novel
David Liss

Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty
Jody Elizabeth Gehrmen

Barti Kirchner

Fresh-Brewed Love: Four Novellas Share a Cup of Kindness With a Dollop of Romance

High Tea
Sandra Harper

Stupid and Contagious
Caprice Crane

The Teahouse on Mulberry Street
Sharon Owens

The Teahouse Fire
Ellis Avery

The Various Flavors of Coffee
Anthony Capella 


The Art of Tea-Leaf Reading
Jan Struthers

Cappuccino/Espresso: The Book of Beverages
Christie Katon

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee and Tea
Travis Arndorfer

Confessions of a Coffee Bean: The Complete Guide to Coffee Cuisine
Marie Nadine Antol

Eat Tea: A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes
Joann Pruess

The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World
Alan MacFarlane

God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee
Micheale Weissman

The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living With a Grande Passion
Leonard I. Sweet

The Green Tea Book: The Science-Backed “Miracle Cure”
Lester A. Mitscher

Green Tea: 50 Hot Drinks, Cool Quenchers, and Sweet and Savory Treats
Mary Lou Heiss

The Harney and Sons Guide to Tea
Michael Harney

Healing Herbal Teas: A Complete Guide to Making Delicious, Healthful Beverages
Brigitte Mars

A History of the World in Six Glasses
Tom Standage

Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival
Kenneth Davids

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
Michael Gill

Start and Run a Coffee Bar
Thomas Matzen

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
Mary Lou Heiss

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee
Bee Wilson

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire
Roy Moxham

The Tea Ceremony
Sen-O Tenaka

Tea Cup Reading: A Quick and Easy Guide to Tasseography
Sasha Fenton

Tea Cup Tales: The Art of Reading Tea Leaves
Margaret McWhorter

Tea: The Drink That Changed the World
Laura C. Martin

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time
Greg Mortenson

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
Mark Pendergrast


Drink in the words and enjoy! 




Peanut Butter Again

I know the major brands of jarred peanut butter are not on the recall list. I still have this “thing” about buying them, rational or not. I really wanted peanut butter again, though.  My solution for now is to buy Eastwind Peanut Butter. It’s produced and processed organically and not too far down the road from me. 

Ideally, this type of food would make up the bulk of my grocery purchases.  In the real world, I have house payments and braces to buy for one of my kids.  It’s a dilemma.  I want to buy local/organic and pay workers what they’re worth.  What I can afford is often something else.  It’s not because I’d have to give up the trip to the Bahamas.  I already don’t have that; I’ve taken one vacation in the last five years. 

I do what I can. In the summer we have a small garden. At the store, I buy a few expensive grocery items for the health and environmental factors and most of the rest consists of store brands for the financial factor. I’m guessing a lot of people do the same.  It depends on which items are priority.  Peanut butter had been a store brand thing. Now I’ve added it in the column with the local bgh-free milk and the free range eggs.  

It does feel good to know my family and I are eating healthier foods. So long as I can keep us out from under the bridge, I’ll try be grateful for the availability and not complain too much about the cost.

The Meaning of Life – Updated

Update:  Tracfone has responded to my e-mail, and I have to give them credit for quick answering. The issue, as they explain it, is two different double minutes plans, one for life and one for one year.  They believe I purchased the one year double minutes plan and I was sure I purchased double minutes for life (since I didn’t even know the other was an option.) Unfortunately I can’t find any documentation from when I bought it.  I’m pretty sure it was in an e-mail, which I lost a lot of upon switching computers. I do remember my husband and I both purchased double minutes at the same time and having much discussion beforehand about whether to spend the money, and clearly remember we believed we were purchasing double minutes for life.  It’s completely out of character for me to have spent so much money only for one year. I also remember my husband dropping his phone in a lake and then being informed his double minutes were only for the life of the original phone (my understanding) and not the life of him having *a* phone from them. Of course, me saying “I seem to remember…” is a far cry from having saved the receipt.  So if there’s a lesson in this, it’s the importance of saving receipts. 

Having looked at other cell phone plans, Tracfone is still the best option for me. I don’t use my phone that often.  I have it in case the school needs to reach me if one of my children is ill, or if my car breaks down.  Being able to purchase the minutes in advance and not worry about a monthly bill works for me.  I think I’ll pass on the double minutes card for now, though. Apparently, one of us – it could be either – has a history of doing that part wrong.



I discovered the meaning of life today.  It is one year.  Tracfone (you know, the cell phone company) explained it to me via e-mail.  When I bought double minutes for life, that was good for one year. If I want double minutes again this year I’m supposed to buy a second double minutes airtime card, for my second life presumedly. I don’t know if I’m required to create an avatar to use it.

I’m a bit stubborn about holding onto my first life, however, so I haven’t let the matter drop.  Here is the text of my response to their response:

Thank you for your prompt reply.

I thought that double minutes for life would mean the life of the phone, at least. If I had realized “life” was so fleeting, I would have adopted a Carpe Diem attitude and spent the money elsewhere. Please advise me where life is defined as one year in your fine print. 

I look forward to hearing back from you about a resolution of this issue within this lifetime.  In this case, lifetime means the next week.




In praise of unstructured being

Haven’t gotten much writing done lately. A cold has been working it’s way through the family, so lots of having the kids home from school. I’m trying to look at it as an opportunity to enjoy having some time with them, though the proliferation of snotty tissues detracts a bit. As soon as both kids were well again, school let out for a teacher work day. I’m off work from my steady paycheck job on Fridays, and I usually try to get in at least a morning worth of writing.  But again, I decided my kids won’t be around forever. They’re 13 & 10 right now, and the older one especially is gravitating more toward friends than parents. But yesterday, I had them to myself.

Besides, the weather did a turn-around.  Tuesday’s overnight low was around 6 degrees F.  Friday’s daytime high was around 67 degrees F. The 10-year-old needed a haircut. Since the salon we used is next door to a sandwich place, I decided we should pick up some lunch there.  My daughter (the teenager) suggested taking our food to a park for a picnic.  It was at this point that I realized how easy I am. All it took for me to swoon with joy was finding out she still wanted to do such a thing with her family.  

It was one of the happiest afternoons I’ve had in a while, a day at the park with the kids. We had no pressure, no agenda, no school or other activity for which we had to rush off, no goals to accomplish, nothing to do except enjoy the weather and be with each other.  We ended up at a creek that was still thick with inches of ice, despite the warm day. It doesn’t get a lot of sun, so the thaw was slow. The three of us spent a good hour sliding rocks and sticks on the ice, then throwing rocks to see if they’d break the ice, and occasionally examining rocks for fossils. 

Did this activity educate us in some way? Don’t know.  Did it improve their chances for future employment? Probably not. Was it worth the time we spent on it?  Absolutely. At the end of the day, I was in a better mood than I have been for ages. The evidence shows the kids were, as well. 

My favorite memories of family time all involve unstructured, unplanned, informal hours  of doing not much more than hanging out. We all recall with fondness a night we set up an indoor tent using bed sheets tied to furniture, then took turns sitting in it while other family members made designs on the top with glow sticks. I can’t remember who first thought of doing it. It’s not something you’d find in a magazine article about enrichment activities for your child. It’s the kind of thing that can only happen spontaneously. 

Sometimes I think we tend to get so scheduled and so concerned with development or enrichment or improvement or whatever that we don’t leave ourselves time just to be. But it’s okay sometimes not to be able to give a list of accomplishments for the day.  Sometimes it’s okay, and even preferable simply to hang out, to spend some time enjoying our existence.

Book List: Funny Money

I’m tired of reading about the economy. How about you? Yet I can’t seem to get my mind off of money. How about you? Can’t stop thinking about money, but need some cheering up? Try a selection from the following Funny Money Book List. All of the books have to do with money, and they’re all supposed to have some humor. I haven’t read most of the books, only the synopses, so I make no guarantees. 

Funny Money Book List


Bermuda Schwartz  by Bob Morris – Mystery
Das Kapital: a Novel of Love and Money Markets by Viken Berberian
Ladies with Options  by Cynthia Hartwick
Ladies with Prospects  by Cynthia Hartwick
Making Money: a Novel of Discworld  by Terry Pratchett – Science Fiction
Old Money  by Elizabeth Palmer
Plum Lucky  by Janet Evanovich – Mystery
Prizzi’s Money  by Richard Condon
A Royal Pain  by Rhys Bowen – Mystery
Walking Money  by James Born


Dave Barry’s Money Secrets: Like, Why is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar?  by Dave Barry
Eat the Rich  by  P.J. O’Rourke
How to Profit from the Coming Rapture: Getting Ahead When You’re Left Behind  by Ellis Weiner
The New Yorker Book of Money Cartoons  by the New Yorker Magazine
The Official Filthy Rich Handbook  by Christopher Tennant
The Serfitt & Cloye Gift Catalog: Just Enough of Too Much  by Bob Woodiwiss with illustrations by Andrea Jensen
The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit  by Jill Connor Browne

And one bonus kids’ book because I enjoyed it so much:

Lunch Money  by Andrew Clements


Sestina: Example and Form

It’s not about peanut butter, but here is an example of a sestina. I wrote this poem a couple of years ago:

Wasps In Fact

I know the facts of the story.
I was there as witness, of course
and more than that, one of the saved
during the slaying of the wasps.
My father played the hero role
armed with a spray can and ladder.

Not sturdy, it shook, the ladder
as he climbed to the top story.
I never questioned my dad’s role,
the labor of knocking off course
any homesteading plans of wasps,
nor doubted if I would be saved.

The nest was enormous; he saved
it, carried it down the ladder,
proof that the multitudes of wasps
matched the large claims of his story.
The stings he received in the course
of battle also served this role.

He insisted they played no role
in making him sick, the stings, saved
that blame for the flu cutting course
through the city. That the ladder
needed fixing fit the story
well, too, but not illness from wasps.

Now it falls to me, fighting wasps.
My children have filled my old role.
I saw right through my dad’s story
long ago. The spin he used saved
his ego I thought. The ladder
held steady later on, of course.

Raising children has been a course
in hindsight relating to wasps
and the sturdiness of ladders.
Less a character trait than role
requirement, dad’s bravado saved
us from fear; that’s now my story.

Over the course of time, the role
of wasps did not change; also saved:
the ladder’s part in the story. 


I’ve seen variations on the form, but they all involved using 39 lines and repeating the same six end words. I took my guidance from The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco. 

You can read more about the sestina here:

The Great Peanut Butter Tragedy

I assume everyone has heard about the salmonella outbreak by now, and the advice to cut out the peanut butter for the time being. Believe me when I say that a ban on the eating of peanut butter products will go down in my family history as a disaster worthy of its own title.

What am I supposed to throw into a school lunch when I’ve overslept and have only three minutes prep time? How can we live without our peanut butter chip granola bars? I went to the grocery store this morning, and it was really only then, as I cruised the aisles wistfully bypassing one desired item after another that I realized the extent to which my gustatory life revolves around peanut butter.  Couldn’t buy my favorite breakfast cereal. My daughter will have to forego her usual bed-time snack. 

I’ve relied on peanut butter to be an easy, affordable, yet surprisingly guilt-free way to assuage hunger within my family. I’m not all that great at domestic stuff. (In fairness to myself, I do know the rules for writing a sestina, so I’m not useless.) Without peanut butter, I’ll be forced to put thought and effort into meal planning, and even snack planning. I’m not sure I’m up to the task.

Book thoughts: How having a stroke is like going to school

Note: This isn’t a review. It’s a summary of some random thoughts I had while reading.

I began reading My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor after watching the author’s speech on TED . Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a stroke at the age of 37.

I’ve never been in the hospital with a stroke. So why did her experience seem so familiar as I read about it? The answer revealed itself with this sentence: “I wanted my doctors to focus on how my brain was working rather than on whether it worked according to their criteria or timetable.”

Aha! It was much like having a kid in school, I realized. Substitute a few words and you have a sentenced uttered by some parent somewhere at least once every day, especially if that parent has been through the IEP process.

“I wanted the educators to focus on how my child’s brain was learning rather than on whether it learned according to their criteria or timetable.”

I may have uttered those exact words. I know I’ve said something at least very close. 

There’s also this sentence from the book: “My ability to cognate was erroneously assessed by how quickly I could recall information, rather than by how my mind strategized to recover the information it held.” 

Familiarer and familiarer.

Taylor credits many thoughtful healthcare professionals who offered her real assistance and compassion. Nevertheless, it’s clear they were working within a strong institutional culture that made it difficult to operate outside the proverbial box. Likewise with teachers. Most of the ones I’ve known are great individuals, working within a strong institutional culture that allows teaching to a narrow range of learning styles and not much more.

We parents are asking them to meet our children’s needs, while the boss – the institutional culture – is requesting them to get the children to meet the needs of the system. This is why left-handers used to have to be cured. They smudged the paper too much; it caused problems with institutional efficiency. 

In the chapter titled What I Needed the Most, the list again seems like one that should be sent to educators as well as those working with stroke survivors. For instance: “I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.”

Some of the other needs she mentions – love, encouragement, dreams – are things we all need. May we all grow, learn and recover from our lives’ traumas if we remember to supply these to each other.

I encourage everyone to watch the talk on TED, even if you don’t read the book. It’s got good information on stroke, things we all should know. But it’s more about life and love and compassion, things we all should know as well.