Friday, July 17, 2015

Wherein Grandpa Dave has a great idea

As you remember, when I was young, we were very poor and lived in a refrigerator box.  I told you about Sunday dinners and how I had some chores to do for those..

Have you ever seen a refrigerator box?  It's like a shoe box, but as big as a refrigerator.  Grandpa Dave had cut a door in one end so we could get in and out, but that was the only opening in it.

Having no openings, it was very dark in the dining room.  We couldn't afford candles, so one of my chores on Sunday was to take a bucket outside, fill it with sunshine and bring it into the dining room.  It took a lot of buckets of sunshine to fill the dining room, and the dining room was pretty far away from the door.  You had to go out of the dining room, through the family room, down the hall to the vestibule* and out the door.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, it was lots of work.  One Sunday, I had the dining room about a third full of sunshine, when Grandpa Dave walked in and felt sorry for me and all the work I had to do.  He said, "What if I cut you a small door above the floor, so you can just reach outside, grab a bucket full, and dump it in here?"

I liked that idea a lot.  So he did.

When he opened the little door, sunlight started spilling into the dining room and pretty soon, the room was full.  I couldn't have been happier.

As we ate, bugs and wind came in, which we didn't like.  Grandpa Dave put a sheet of glass over it to keep the wind and bugs out.

I said, "Hey!  We can see out of it like we do our eyes, and it keeps the bugs out.  Let's call it a bugeye."

Grandpa Dave said, "Bugs already have eyes.  Let's call it a windeye... nah, that sounds odd.  Window."

Pretty soon, our friends and neighbors saw how convenient it was not to have to carry sunshine into their dining rooms, and they put them in, too.

And today, everyone uses windows.

* In our family we have a ... well, not a tradition, probably more like a condition, of making up words.  For years, the kids thought we'd made up the word "vestibule."  One of them was astonished the first time he heard it from someone besides us.  Heh!

Wherein I lived in a refrigerator box as a child

One of the series of stories I enjoyed telling the kids was a set of tall tales about my youth. It involved violent incongruities to help exercise their imagination.  Feel free to adapt this story by substituting names from your own family.

When I was very young, my family was quite poor, and for a while, we lived in a refrigerator box.  It was from a fairly large refrigerator, so it wasn't so bad.  It was kind of like living in the forts you guys make.

My room was upstairs to the right, and your uncle Tony's room was to the left.  Our rooms were small, of course, being in a refrigerator box.  There was only room for a bed, a small desk, and a chair.

On Sundays, we had a family dinner.  Since we were very poor, it was usually something like Ramen or macaroni and cheese.  Uncle Tony and I each had responsibilities to prepare for dinner. 

Tony's job was to go to the china cabinet and get out all of the china and stemware for dinner.  He'd put a dinner plate, a salad plate, and a soup bowl at each place, then put the crystal glasses out.

My job was to get out the silver and polish it before we ate.  Of course, we had a salad fork, dinner fork, dessert fork, a knife, and a soup spoon, so it was lots of polishing.

The soup was vichyssoise - that's a fancy, cold potato soup.  We were too poor for hot soup.  The salad was dandelion greens, wild onions, and nasturtium petals.  The nasturtium petals made it taste kind of peppery.

After dinner, we had to clear the table and carry all of that down the long hall, past the billiard room to the kitchen.  We were too poor to have the kitchen next to the dining room.  We had all those other rooms in the way.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, after supper, we had to wash the dishes and put the china and stemware and silver away.  It was hard being that poor.

Next time, I'll tell you about one of Grandpa Dave's really neat inventions that people around the world use every day.


Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Undine who lived in the sea in a little village.*  She was lively and curious and mostly delightful.  She swam around and visited her friends.  She visited the schools of fish to see what they were learning, and she visited the reefs where some of the coral looked like a gently waving forest.

One place, she was not allowed to go.  Her father told her she must not go into the seaweed patch.  A nasty old octopus named Salaman lived there.

One day, she was swimming around looking for something new to do, and she found herself near... the seaweed patch.  She saw three little flowers growing among the seaweed - a red one, a yellow one, and a blue one - and she thought how beautiful they would look in her hair.  (Little girls think things like that, but I don't know why.)  Being a normal little girl, she didn't understand why her father told her not to go there, so she thought the reasons couldn't be that good.

She swam around for a little bit, working up her courage, and thinking, "If I just swim up quickly to the edge and pick a flower, I wouldn't be in the seaweed patch."  You see, Best Beloved, what she was doing there?  She was trying to see just how much she could get away with and still be OK.

So, taking a deep breath,** she darted over to the edge of the seaweed patch and snatched the red flower and darted back away.  She put the flower in her hair and looked up at the surface of the smooth sea to see what it looked like.  (Sometimes the underside of the surface looks like a mirror - it's pretty neat!)  The flower looked even more beautiful than she expected.

Well, she didn't know it, but Salaman was deep in the darky parts of the seaweed patch, and he'd been watching her idly.  After she picked the flower, he began to watch more attentively, and he moved closer to the flowers (octopi are cagey and opportunistic that way).  He stayed deep in the shadows because the sun hurt his eyes.

Undine swam around a bit more looking at those other flowers.  Yellow sure would look good with red.  So she worked up her courage again, skittered over, and snatched the yellow flower.  She put it in her hair and looked at herself again.  Gorgeous!

She thought to herself, "I don't know what Daddy was on about with the seaweed patch.  There's nothing here.  Besides, everyone knows flower arrangements look much better with three flowers than with two."

So she sauntered back over to pick the blue flower, and.... SALAMAN'S TENTACLE SHOT OUT AND GRABBED HER WRIST!.  She struggled, but he pulled her into the seaweed patch.

Salaman chuckled and said (in his best villain voice), "Aha! I've caught you, Undine!"  And he wrapped her in six of his arms and used the others to swim deeper in.

Undine cried, "What are you going to do?!"***

Salaman said, "What I do with all naughty little girls who disobey their Daddies: I'm going to make Undine stew!"

This puzzled Undine, so she asked, "What's Undine stew?"

Salaman said, "First, I'm going to make a roux.  Then, I'm going to chop up onions, green peppers, and celery and simmer them in the roux.  Then some okra, salt, pepper, thyme, shrimp and... Undine!  I'll serve it over rice."

Undine was even more puzzled.  She said, "Salaman, that's not stew; that's gumbo."

Salaman pondered a bit and said, "Fine, then: Undine gumbo.  Tomato/tomahto."

He went to his kitchen and started gathering up the ingredients while keeping one armicle on Undine's wrist.

Now, during their conversation, a passing, friendly porpoise heard them talking.  He knew Undine wasn't supposed to be in there, so he listened and grew concerned.

When Salaman's back was turned, the porpoise shot into the seaweed patch and butted Salaman right in the ribs.

Salaman said, "Oof!"

Then the porpoise whacked Salaman in the nose with his tail.

Salaman said, "Hey!  Quid id!" and held up all his armicles to fend the porpoise off, and when he let go of her wrist, Undine swam as quickly as she could out of the seaweed patch.

The porpoise joined her and said, "Just what were you doing in there?  I know your daddy told you to stay out of there."

Undine said, in one giant breath, "Idon'tknowIjustwantedtheprettyflowerssoIswamupandhegrabbedmeandsaidhewasgoingtomakeUndinestewbutitwasreallygumboand..."

The porpoise held up a flipper to stop her and said, "Okay, okay.  Let's go see your daddy."  So, they did.

By the time they got to the village, Undine had calmed herself considerably.  Sadly, she'd lost the flowers in the struggle.

They explained to her father what had happened, and he said, "Harumph.  You knew you were to stay away, but you went anyway.  I don't forbid things just to spoil your fun.  I do it to keep you safe.  I'll always explain the reasons if you want to hear them, but from now on, do what I say, OK?"

Undine sniffled and agreed.  She cried just a little, too, even though that's really hard to do under water.

From then on, she was a good little girl, and they lived happily ever after.

* I'm pretty sure this story came to be around the time of Disney's Little Mermaid.  I don't remember that story, so I don't know what, if any, similarities exist.  Undine isn't a mermaid, though. I mean, little girls can live perfectly well under the sea, but fins and tails instead of legs?  C'mon!

** Or whatever one takes under water.

*** We love interrobangs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wherein I was in the Mexican jail

(A tall tale to tell children)

When I was in college in Houston, we used to take road trips down to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.  We'd shop for Mexican blankets, ugly pottery, and bullwhips.*

One day, I was down there wandering around through touristy shops looking for tchotchokes, when I looked out the door of the shop, and I saw some robbers coming out of a bank across the street.  They had masks on and in one hand, they had a revolver.  In the other hand, they had big sacks with large dollar signs on them.  I'd seen this in cartoons, so I knew it was a real robbery.

As they ran out, I decided to follow them.  I kept about a block behind, as they weaved in an out of alleys.  After a while, they came to a police car parked in the shadows.  They put the money in the trunk, took off their masks,** and put on their police uniforms.  They were real, Mexican policemen!

Needless to say, I was outraged.  I went up to them and said, "Hey!  You guys are supposed to be the good guys - take that back right now!"  Also needless to say, I didn't always think before I spoke.  There might be a lesson there.

The leader said (use your best Mexican villain accent here), "Ay, stupid Gringo!  No one will believe you over us.  You are under arrest for loitering, vagrancy, and resisting arrest."

And they put me in jail.

Mexican jail is pretty boring.  I didn't have money for bail - just 15 cents in my pocket (you must particularly remember the 15 cents, Best Beloved)***- so I sat there for a week.  Each day for three meals a day, they gave me tortillas and re-fried beans.  After the first day, I was tired of it, so I put the leftovers under my bunk.

Then, I had an idea.  I took the tortillas and re-fried beans, and made a false wall on the back of my cell.  I hid behind it, and when the guard brought the next meal, he thought I'd escaped.  It was a beautiful false wall.

The guard shouted, "Hey, I think the Gringo has escaped!"

They all ran out to look for me.  I waited until it was quiet, then I ate my way out.  I went down the main street back to the bridge to Laredo.  Heh.  They thought I'd sneak down alleys.

The turnstile to get back into the US cost 15 cents, and I went home.

* The bullwhip plays a major part in other, true stories for another time.

** I advocate Oxford commas.  Despite what the definition says, it's not optional.

*** Read Kipling's Just So Stories to your kids, too.

Tales to tell children

When my children and I were younger, we lived in Fairbanks, Alaska.  One of the features of Fairbanks at that time was that there were not many activities available for children in the winter outside the house.  So I lied to them a lot.  People more inclined to blush than I call that telling stories.

We had many of the children's books that were available then, but the perennial darkness of the Alaskan night meant we also had lots of time.  Frankly, I got tired of those books*, so I began to make up stories of my own to break the monotony.  Some of them were moralizing stories exemplifying the effects of bad behavior.  Some of them were outrageous tall tales, just for the joy of them.  Some were adventure stories.  Some were a bit of all three.

Sometimes the stories were very short and interspersed into the events of daily life as opposed to just being told at story time.  Eventually, I realized that they may not always know that I was telling a story, so I had to tell them that they could always just ask, "Are you lying?" and I'd tell them if I were.  Actually, that rule still holds.

In terms of popular culture, I live under a pretty big rock, but some things inevitably make their way into my consciousness.  I'm sure that some of these stories resemble to an embarrassing degree things I've read or seen elsewhere.  I was striving for entertainment for my young children rather than for originality.  If I remember what influenced me, I'll try to credit that source.  If you see a similarity that I don't note, I'll claim that it's an homage.  Writers get away with that all the time, don't they?

I'm an engineer by training and by temperament, but according to my observations (and the painfully blunt comments of others), I'm not a standard engineer.  People on each side of that line frequently look at me and say, "What the heck are you talking about?"  So, you, Gentle Reader, won't be the only one to react that way.  Just saying.

I never believed in talking down to my kids, "treating them like children" as they say.  I like vocabulary; there's so much of it, it seems a shame to waste it.  So I always tried to use words just a bit over their heads so they'd stretch for those words and learn them.  They seemed to revel in that, and their friends did and still do ask why they use such big words.  Oddly, one of those words was "apt" - not even big; just expressive.  They've expanded their friends' vocabularies, too, so I count that as a win.

Words are the tools we use to build thoughts.  If you were building a house and only had an adjustable wrench, you couldn't do as good a job as if you had a contractor's job box.  Words give the same ease to building thoughts.  Give your kids good tools.

Some of my kids have expressed an interest in my capturing those stories so they can tell them to their kids.  I hope I do better finishing this project better than I did completing the trim in my wife's closet remodel.

I reserve the right to edit these stories as time goes on and as I remember better details.

* Except for Richard Scarry's I Am A Bunny.  Whenever I come across that book somewhere, I look for a little kid to read it to.  Not in a creepy way, though - no restraining orders to date.**

** First cultural credit: I shamelessly stole the asterisk footnote motif from 'Puter Gormogon.  Go read his stuff.  Srlsly.  But you might not want to let the kids read it.  He's salty.