Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Princess of CandyZonia

The only entertaining thing about spring cleaning is that I tend to find things that have been lying around forgotten for years.

Last week, I came across a manila envelope that contained a fairy tale I’d written back when I was about 14. I still can remember the day I wrote it. I’d just returned from my annual dental checkup …and the dentist had found 11 cavities. Had I just been given the death sentence, I couldn’t have felt more miserable.

So here is the story, just as I wrote it.

THE PRINCESS OF CANDYZONIA

Once upon a time in a kingdom called CandyZonia, there lived a young princess named Caramel Almond Nougat Doublemint York (Princess C.A.N.D.Y. for short).

The unusual thing about the kingdom of CandyZonia was that the people who lived behind its great walls ate nothing but candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For breakfast, they ate big bowls of jelly beans instead of cereal. For lunch, they feasted on candy-bar sandwiches instead of ham and cheese or tuna. And for dinner, when most kids in other parts of the world were eating mashed potatoes, chicken and peas, the kids in CandyZonia were dining on fudge, marshmallow Peeps and green M&Ms.

Growing up, Princess Candy hadn’t minded eating only candy for every meal. In fact, she thought she had to be the luckiest girl on earth. There was no disgusting liver or broccoli to choke down, no threats from her mother, Queen Good ’n Plenty, to eat all of her Brussels sprouts or she’d have no dessert. Life was just one big dessert every day in CandyZonia.

But then one day, Princess Candy was invited by her father, King Raisinets, to accompany him on a trip to another kingdom called Healthytopia, many miles away.

Healthytopia was a shocking place for Princess Candy to see. All of the women there were thin with smooth skin, pink cheeks and pure white teeth. They drank juices squeezed from fruits and ate greens that sprouted from the ground. The men were muscular with flat stomachs and liked to lift things a lot, even when there seemed to be no reason to lift them.

Princess Candy stared at her reflection in the looking glass for a long time that night. Her face was as round as a plate, her skin was dotted with blemishes, and her teeth were full of holes. And her figure! Suddenly she realized why her father affectionately had nicknamed her “Princess Tootsie Rolls.” She did not look anything like the girls her age in Healthytopia…and this disturbed her.

“Father,” she said to the king, “do you think I am pretty?”

“Of course I do!” King Raisnets flashed a toothless smile at her and moved to slip his pudgy arm around her shoulder. “You are the loveliest young woman in the land. And one day soon, you will marry a prince who is as handsome as you are pretty.”

“You mean a prince who looks like the men in Healthytopia?” she asked.

“No, silly girl, one who looks like me!”

A month later, Princess Candy ran away to Healthytopia. There, she learned the ways of its people. She ate salads, apples and fresh fish. She worked hard toiling in the gardens and orchards. She made frequent visits to the village dentist, who miraculously filled the holes in her teeth and gave her a brilliant white smile. Her skin cleared and her cheeks glowed. Her figure slimmed and her rolls of fat disappeared. Soon, she looked just like all of the other lovely young women in Healthytopia.

“I am going to return to my kingdom now and teach my people how to live as your people live,” Princess Candy announced to the Healthytopians one day. “I shall miss all of you deeply, but I shall never forget you.”

Upon her return to CandyZonia, Princess Candy was not recognized by anyone there, not even her parents.

“What on earth have they done to you?” King Raisinets asked. “You look terrible! Were you held captive? Did they starve you? I shall go there and have all of them beheaded!”

“No, Father,” the princess said. “I have been learning the ways of the Healthytopians. And I intend to teach them to the people of our kingdom.”

“There is no time to discuss such nonsense right now,” the king said. “There is a prince here who eagerly has been awaiting your return. His intent is to make you his bride.”

Before Princess Candy could comment, a tall, dark-haired young man with deep brown eyes and brown velvet clothing entered the room. He approached her, made a sweeping bow, then took her hand into his and placed a kiss on the back of it.

The first thing Princess Candy noticed about the prince was his scent. It was absolutely heavenly. In fact, it made her mouth water.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the prince said. “I am Prince Hershey. I wish for you to become my wife and return to Pennsylvania with me where together, we shall rule my kingdom and feast on mountains of delicious chocolate every day.”

Princess Candy accepted his proposal so fast, she surprised even herself. “To heck with the ways of the Healthytopians!” she shouted as she and the prince headed hand in hand out of the castle door. “Let them graze like cows! Long live chocolate!”

And she and Prince Hershey lived very happily (plumply and toothlessly) ever after.

THE END

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Dream House

I truly believe there’s not a person on earth who hasn’t fantasized about what his or her dream house would be like. My husband is no exception.

Actually, he’s always had some fairly modest “musts” for his dream house: a finished basement, a big walk-up attic, a wrap-around front porch with a rocking chair on it, and a three-stall garage with a mother-in-law apartment upstairs. Of course, our current residence has none of the above.

A few years ago there was a company called Key-Loc about three miles from our house. We were aware that Key-Loc specialized in the construction of manufactured homes (pre-fab, as they were called back then), but we never really paid much attention to the place…until the day the company erected a model home on its lot.

The house, a three-story mansion with three dormers, a balcony and a terrace, seemed to appear overnight, as if some fairy godmother had waved her magic wand and “poofed” it into existence. I’ll never forget the day my husband first spotted it.

“It’s my dream house!” he exclaimed, acting as if someone had constructed the house especially for him. “We’ll definitely have to go tour it this weekend!”

Touring the model home turned out to be a big mistake. The interior had been exquisitely decorated by a professional designer. There even was a grand piano in the living room. The place was breathtaking.

My husband’s eyes lit up like 100-watt bulbs the minute we stepped inside. He immediately pointed to the ornate staircase that rose from the center of the living room and said, “We can get a big, 8-foot Christmas tree and put it right there by the stairs! And look! There’s even a fireplace where we can hang Christmas stockings!” He acted as if we’d just signed the papers on the place.

He ran through the house as if he were a kid on an Easter egg hunt. “I’d put a secret panel right here,” he said, waving his arms in the direction of a wall in the wide hallway upstairs. “It would lead to a hidden room that’s totally soundproof and has thick steel walls, like a bank vault!”

“Why?” I asked. “Are you planning to hide out from the law?”

Before I’d even finished asking the question, he disappeared into the master bathroom where he “oohed“ at all of the gold-plated fixtures and the private vanity with a mirror that was long enough to allow the entire Brady Bunch to comb their hair at the same time.

When my husband reached the third floor, he suddenly let out a pain-filled cry. I bolted up the stairs to see what was wrong. There he stood, breathing heavily and clutching his chest.

“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned. “Your cheeks are all flushed. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken the stairs so fast?”

“Look around you!” he said, leaning against the wall for support. “I think I’ve just died and gone to heaven!”

It was the biggest attic I had ever seen. Ballroom dancing could have been held in this attic. Four bedrooms could have fit into this attic. The Jolly Green Giant could have stood upright in this attic. No doubt about it, it was the king of all attics.

“Just think of my model train collection!” my husband said, his pupils enlarging as his eyes made a sweep of the massive space. “Not only could I store all of it up here, I could set up my trains and have a workspace for building a layout for them, too!”

It took me 20 minutes to drag him back downstairs. On the second floor, we passed a room that had been decorated as an exercise room, complete with weights, an exercise bicycle and a treadmill.

“Hey, neat!” I said. “Just think, if you had this room, you could look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in no time!”

He frowned. “I’d convert it into a den with a big-screen TV.”

Armed with floor plans and brochures, we headed home. My husband studied every inch of the paperwork. He sketched floor plans and arranged imaginary furniture in the imaginary rooms. He even had me go back to the model home and take photos of every room in it. No doubt about it. He was obsessed.

We returned to the house several times during the next few weeks. My husband would race through each room and point and say things like, “A nice big, mahogany desk should fit perfectly right there…and a bookcase will look great against that wall.”

That did it. Somebody had to burst his little fantasy bubble. Unfortunately, that somebody had to be me.

“Uh, honey…” I began as we were standing in his imaginary future den. “I hate to be too realistic here, but this house, by the time you buy a big enough piece of land to put it on and have a foundation dug and an artesian well and a septic system put in – not to mention your three-stall garage – it will run you over $500,000. Don’t you think you’re getting just a little too excited over something we can’t afford…ever?”

“I’m going to win the lottery,” he said firmly. “It’s fate. This house will be ours someday. I can feel it in my bones. It was made just for us.”

I will never forget the day Key-Loc went out of business. Suddenly, everything was gone and the factory was silent and empty. But worst of all, the display house was taken down. When my husband drove by and saw his dream house being disassembled, he nearly flung himself across the front steps in protest. He was so devastated, I had to talk him out of wearing a black armband. For months afterwards, he stared longingly at the pictures and brochures of the house and cursed the state lottery.

Just the other day, he came home from work all excited. “Have you seen the fantastic model home they have on display at Epoch Homes on Route 106? We have to go check it out this weekend!”

Here we go again.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Most embarrassing moments

I was watching a TV show the other night where some friends were having a few drinks in a bar and after they’d “had a few,” began to discuss their most embarrassing moments.

One couple confessed that they’d once forgotten to hang up the phone and inadvertently had allowed the person on the other end of the line to hear everything going on (and I DO mean everything) in the room. Another guy admitted to singing a sappy love song and crying on videotape and then sending it to a former girlfriend…who allowed everyone, including her new boyfriend, to watch it.

Naturally, the show made me think about my own most embarrassing moments, which probably could fill a book the size of “War and Peace.” Way back when I was single and dating, just about every date involved something I did that made me want to crawl under a table and hide.

For example, there was the date who was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, and when I, wearing new high-heeled shoes, started to walk down them, I slipped, fell, and slid all the way down on my back, landing right at his feet…with my dress hiked up nearly to my ribs.

And then here was the time I was invited to play tennis, which I’d never played before, and I accidentally sent the tennis racquet flying like a missile at my date and nearly gave him an ear-ectomy.

There also were plenty of embarrassing moments that didn’t involve dates, such as the time I once was a presenter at an awards banquet. I’d forgotten to bring my reading glasses, so when I opened the envelope and announced, “And the winner is…” I couldn’t read a single word on the card. Dead silence fell over the audience as everyone stared wide-eyed at me and waited to hear the name of the winner, while I stood there smiling feebly and praying that someone with good eyes would come to my rescue.

Another time, my friend and I auditioned for a variety show by performing a modern-jazz dance we’d spent weeks choreographing ourselves. “Great! You’re in!” the director shouted up at us from his seat in the crowded auditorium. “But you, on the right, please do something about your bouncing body parts. They’re very distracting!”

I have to confess, however, that one of my most embarrassing moments happened very recently. In fact, I still get red just thinking about it.

For a year, I’d been taking care of a baby snapping turtle I’d found injured along the side of a hiking trail. The turtle, which I named Snippy, grew to be a big turtle, too big for me to keep, so a few months ago, I contacted a woman who specializes in rehabilitating turtles so they can be released back into the wild, and she said she would take him.

The day before I was supposed to deliver Snippy to the woman, I lifted him out of his aquarium and gasped. It looked as if his innards were hanging out from beneath his shell. I flew to the phone and called my veterinarian, who referred me to another doctor, a reptile specialist. In a panic, I dialed his number. He said it sounded as if Snippy had a serious condition called an intestinal prolapse, and to bring him right in.

When I, carrying a big snapping turtle, walked into the veterinarian’s waiting room, I heard people chuckle. There they were, surrounded by cute little dogs and fluffy kittens – and there I was, carrying a turtle that I’d haphazardly wrapped in a long length of dripping wet, paper towels (the vet had told me to be sure to keep the innards moist).

Finally, after what seemed like years, Snippy and I were escorted into the examining room. The vet carefully unwrapped the turtle, flipped him over on his back and just stared at him.

As I nervously awaited the verdict, the vet, biting at his bottom lip, said, “Um, Sally…those aren’t his intestines…that’s his…well, let’s just say he’s a male turtle…very male.”

My face felt as if it might burst into flames. The vet took one look at my embarrassed expression and couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer. “Have you thought about calling “Play-Turtle’ magazine?” he teased. “Or maybe a turtle escort service?”

As it turned out, poor Snippy’s situation wasn’t normal and he needed a couple stitches to prevent him from becoming an unintentional habitual “flasher.” It cost me over $100.

I’m happy to report that he now is doing just fine and is thriving in his new home.

The problem with living in a small town, however, is that if you tell someone an embarrassing story, which I did about Snippy, word spreads like wildfire. Now, at least twice a week, someone will come up to me, smile and say, “So-and-so told me to ask you about your turtle story!”

I have the feeling that, unlike my many other embarrassing moments, I’m never going to live this one down.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The big chill

I feel as if I’ve just returned from spending a night stranded on Mount Washington. My fingers are cold and stiff, my nose is dripping and I’ve lost all feeling in my toes.

A half-hour ago, the electricity finally popped back on after being off for over 10 hours. I can honestly say that they were the longest 10 hours of my life. I know that many people throughout the state had to suffer a lot longer without power than I did, and believe me, they have my complete sympathy.

I didn’t believe the weatherman when he warned everyone that winds so strong, they could knock over King Kong were on their way and that everyone should go outside and tie down anything lighter than an 18-wheeler or it would end up as a tree ornament. That’s because I’d believed the weatherman the weekend before when he’d said a snowstorm was headed our way that would dump so much snow, we’d have to build igloos…and we got barely three inches.

The wind actually woke me up on Friday morning (um, make that afternoon). I could hear things bouncing around outside and against the house, and as I lay in bed, I found myself trying to remember what I’d left outside that might have been transformed into a deadly projectile. I also hoped that one of the things bouncing around out there wasn’t my neighbor.

I finally got up, got dressed and headed outside to look. I found the lid to our big trash container, the kind that has wheels on it, lying out back near the woods. I figured that the container probably wasn’t too far from the lid, so I checked the area. There was no sign of it anywhere.

Visions of my trash container rolling like a race car down the center of the highway with cars swerving into trees to avoid it, caused me to intensify my search. Twenty minutes later, I finally found it lying in a driveway down on the corner of our street (at least I hope it was OUR trash container). I dragged it back home.

Chilled to the bone, I went back into the house, heated some water for tea and turned on the TV. The cable box popped on, then off…and stayed off. It was official. We had no power.

Not having power during the daylight hours wasn’t so bad, mainly because I still could see and even read without the benefit of artificial lighting. Also, we have a gas stove, so I still was able to heat up stuff to eat and drink.

But the minute the sun went down, things changed. The house got colder and darker…and really boring. I was forced to drag out our assortment of lanterns. Two of the three battery-operated ones had dead batteries, and both of the oil lamps were so old, the oil in them practically had disintegrated. There also was enough accumulated dust on the wicks to cause a major bonfire if I lit them.

Later, as I was trying to cook supper in virtual darkness, I made the mistake of mentioning to my husband that the house was too quiet.

“I can fix that,” he said. I thought he was going to go search for our portable radio, but instead, he belted out a chorus of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” followed by “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

“Christmas was two months ago,” I told him.

“Yeah, but I’m so cold, I feel like I’m at the North Pole.”

Before I could comment, he added, “Something smells like old tires burning.”

It was our supper, but it was so dark near the stove, I really couldn't tell if it was the meat or the squash that was burning. It turned out to be both.

Not crazy about eating cinders, I finally heated up some tomato soup and we ate that. At least it was hot. I would have made grilled-cheese sandwiches to go with it, but somehow I didn't think that producing golden, perfectly grilled sandwiches would be even remotely possible by penlight, which was about the only light source in the house that had fresh batteries in it.

“I think I’ll have a couple pieces of toast with my soup,” my husband said.

“Sure, just pop some bread in the toaster and with luck, it’ll be ready in about five hours,” I said.

Right after supper, my husband crawled into bed to keep warm. I, however, sat bundled up on the sofa, listened to my portable CD player and drank at least six cups of hot tea. I was determined to stay up until the power came back on.

The only problem with drinking six cups of tea is that sooner or later the tea has to come back out. All I can say is that I never knew the true meaning of the words “painfully cold” until I sat on that toilet seat. In fact, I may have to seek counseling just to get over the trauma of it.

Just after midnight, I held the penlight up to our indoor thermometer and saw that the temperature in the living room had dipped to 46 degrees. I decided I’d better go crawl into bed with my husband or my stiff blue body would be found lying like a giant Popsicle on the sofa in the morning.

That’s when I heard our answering machine beep and the furnace pop on. I did a few celebratory dance steps over to the thermostat (even though I barely could bend my knees by then) and cranked up the heat to 85.

But it’s still really windy outside, so I’m not taking any chances. I’m quickly writing this before the power goes off again. And if it does, I’m making a beeline for a hotel…preferably one with a hot-tub…in Miami.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Just keep smiling

A few years ago, my husband and I both decided to take the plunge and get vanity (initial) plates for our cars.

Only six letters were allowed back then, but we didn’t mind. I wanted my plate to read, SMILE, because I was working as a photographer at the time and was saying, “Smile!” about hundred times a week. I also was writing humor.

My husband wanted WIMPY (as in Popeye’s buddy) for his plate because of their shared fondness for hamburgers. So we needed only five letters per plate.

Our cars each were registered in both of our names, so I headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the plates for both cars.

“Sorry, SMILE is already taken,” the clerk informed me. When she saw my look of disappointment, she added, “But USMILE is available.”

I figured that USMILE was better than no smile at all, so I took it. I then asked about WIMPY for my husband. “Sorry,” the clerk said, “but that one’s been taken, too.” She checked a few things on the computer and then suggested WIMPY with a number one after it.

I debated for a moment, not really certain what to do. Finally I agreed to WIMPY1.

My husband was not pleased that night when I showed him his temporary plate.

“WIMPY1?” he whined. “If I can’t be the original WIMPY, I don’t want to be WIMPY at all!”

“Do you know how silly you sound?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, like it or not, you’re stuck with WIMPY1. I wasn’t crazy about getting USMILE either, you know!”

He gave me a look that clearly told me that I shouldn’t have bothered to get the plates at all. Perhaps. But still, I figured that once we’d had the plates for a while, we’d end up loving them.

Once again, I’d figured wrong.

My husband soon discovered that not everyone knew who Wimpy, the Popeye character, was. They did, however, know the definition of the word “wimp” and assumed that my husband was calling himself “Wimpy One” because he was a big sissy. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased.

And I discovered that most people were reading my plate as “U.S. MILE” rather than “U SMILE.” Too frequently, people were asking me if my plate meant that I liked to jog or run marathons. One look at me should have told them that the only “run” in my vocabulary was the kind I got in my pantyhose.

Even worse, I was parked in front of the post office one day and a mail carrier came by and said, “I like your plate! U.S. MAIL!”

As soon as it was time to renew his plate, my husband gave a swift, decent burial to WIMPY1 and got a regular old boring license plate. I, however, decided to stick with USMILE. A few people actually had read it correctly and said they liked it, and I’d even had some drivers pass me on the highway, point at my plate and flash big, toothy smiles at me.

Still, the “U.S. MILE” comments continued. And that’s why one afternoon my husband came home from work to find me, green permanent marking-pen in hand, drawing a hyphen after the “U” on my license plate.

“What are you doing?!” he practically gasped.

“I’m turning my plate into U-SMILE,” I said, coloring the hyphen even darker.

“You can’t do that!” he said. “That’s illegal!”

I shrugged. “It’s only a teeny dash. No one will even know the difference.”

Within seconds, he, party-pooper that he was, used some paint thinner and a rag to transform my plate back to USMILE.

Years passed and I kept the plate, mainly out of habit. It was easy to remember, and whenever my car was parked amongst a sea of other cars, I could find it in a flash because the plate stood out.

Then this past December, I was backed up in traffic and happened to read a vanity plate on the car in front of me. Realization suddenly struck me…it had seven letters!

“How long have the New Hampshire license plates been up to seven letters?” I asked my husband.

“Quite a while, why?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?! I finally can get a hyphen!”

The next month, January, just happened to be the month I had to register my car. Impatiently, I stood in line at the DMV. “I want a hyphen added to my vanity plate,” I blurted out when I finally reached the clerk.

“Where would you like the hyphen?” she asked. After I told her, she said, “Let me check to see if U-SMILE is available.”

I held my breath.

I’m pleased to say that I now have U-SMILE for my plate, and I haven’t been asked about running marathons since I got it.

But the other day in a supermarket parking lot as I was putting groceries into my car, two teenagers walked by and one said to the other, “Cool plate! U-SLIME!”

I can’t win.

Monday, February 6, 2006

Pass the Pepto

I was reading the school-lunch menus in the newspaper the other day and I couldn’t help but envy the kids of today.

Listed were such delicacies as pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, barbecued ribs and French fries. They sure sounded a heck of lot better than the stuff I had to eat back when I was in grammar school.

Back then, the cafeteria routine was much different. We kids would enter at lunchtime and immediately sit at our assigned tables, which already were set with plates, napkins and silverware. Also on the table was a stack of bread and butter “sandwiches,” each made from half a slice of white bread and half a slice of wheat bread stuck together with butter. The corners of the bread usually were curled up by the time we arrived.

Our desserts, in tiny white bowls, also were next to our plates. These desserts always consisted of either pudding (butterscotch or chocolate), Jell-O, a square of cake, or canned fruit in syrup.

As soon as we were seated, six to a table, the cafeteria workers would load a cart with casseroles and bowls of vegetables and then come around and plunk down the food on each table. Everyone ate the same thing. There were no choices to make. And we never carried food or trays anywhere. We sat and stayed sitting. There was a lot less to clean up that way, both on the floor and on ourselves.

At the head of each table sat an upperclassman, usually a seventh or eighth grader, who acted as the server. The responsibility of these servers was to dish out equal portions of food to each of us so there would be no fighting or hair pulling (not that any of us actually WANTED a larger helping of most of the food anyway). They also acted as pseudo mothers and made certain that we were nutritionally fulfilled. This usually was accomplished by yelling at us to eat our vegetables and not touch our desserts until we did.

All I can say is that my parents wasted a lot of money paying for my hot lunches because I hardly ever ate them. That’s because some of the meals the school served back then probably would constitute a criminal offense nowadays…endangering the digestive tract of a child.

One of my least favorites was what the cafeteria ladies affectionately called Welsh Rabbit. A large square of four saltine crackers sat on our plates, over which the servers poured thick, lumpy melted cheese. And next to it, as a finishing touch, they added a big plop of stewed tomatoes.

The end result was something that looked so disgusting, just the mere sight of it made me want to upchuck. Even scarier was the fact that I was convinced that the concoction really did contain “rabbit” somewhere in the depths of all that cheese, and I wasn’t about to eat the Easter Bunny.

And then there was the canned Chinese chop suey sitting on top of some kind of crunchy noodles that looked like bird’s-nest material. I didn’t even recognize half of the ingredients in the chop suey because everything was the same color...gray. It smelled even worse than it looked.

There were a couple dishes that I didn’t mind too much. The macaroni and cheese was pretty good, and the American chop suey wasn’t bad, as long as I ate around the rubbery hamburger. Ditto for the shepherd’s pie.

The boss of the cafeteria, Mrs. Ludwig, didn’t take kindly to kids who didn’t eat her gourmet fare. As we sat there eating, she would walk around carrying a huge spoon and checking everyone’s progress, or lack thereof. If she caught us picking at our food or trying to bury it in our napkins, she would bang the spoon on our table and shout, “Eat up!” in a voice that invited no argument.

I was terrified of Mrs. Ludwig. Every time I’d see her approaching my table, I’d shove a big spoonful of food into my mouth, even if I hated the stuff, and pretend to be happily chewing when she passed by. Then I’d spit everything into my napkin as soon as she turned her back.

Using what I thought were deviously clever means, I managed to escape the wrath of both Mrs. Ludwig and my server for quite a while. Then came the fateful day in fifth grade that still gives me nightmares.

All morning, I’d had a nagging stomachache, and on top of that, the orange juice I’d guzzled during morning recess had given me a bad case of heartburn. By the time I entered the cafeteria at lunchtime, food was the last thing I wanted.

There, plopped down in front of me was a big plate of canned corned-beef hash surrounded by hot beets, complete with the beet juice soaking into the hash. One whiff of it made me want to crawl underneath the table and die.

I didn’t touch my food. I didn’t even fake that I was eating it. In fact, I pushed my plate away so I wouldn’t have to look at it.

That’s when I heard Mrs. Ludwig’s voice behind me. “Eat your hash!” she said. “Your parents paid good money for that meal.”

“NO!” I blurted out, surprising everyone at my table, but most especially myself. My eyes widened and I bit at my bottom lip. I pretty much figured that my life, as I’d known it, was over.

“Well, I am going to stand here till you eat,” Mrs. Ludwig said, folding her arms and still gripping the ever-present giant spoon. “So if you want to hold up everyone else and keep them from going out for recess, then so be it.”

As dozens of beady little eyes glared at me, I knew that I had no choice. I choked down a good portion of the hash, and even a couple of the beets.

And then I went outside for recess and threw it all up. In fact, I spent the next three days throwing up. My parents told me they’d never seen a greener-looking kid.

From then on, I brought my own lunch to school and never bought another hot lunch.

And to this day, if you want to torture me into telling you some deep, dark secret, all you have to do is open a can of corned-beef hash and I’ll spill my guts (literally).

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sob story

I just saw a commercial on TV advertising the release of the new movie “Bambi II.” It immediately made me think back to when I was young and saw the original “Bambi” movie. I cried my eyes out when the hunter shot Bambi’s mother. I think the movie emotionally scarred me for life.

I’ve always cried over sad movies. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been too embarrassed to show my mascara-streaked face in the theater lobby after watching a real tear-jerker. I also can’t count the number of times my husband has relentlessly teased me about it.

For some reason, he and my mother always have had a knack for finding the humor in sad movies and spoiling them for me. In fact, there have been plenty of times when they have caused me to want to slide underneath my theater seat and hide there.

For example, back when I was a kid, my mom took me to see the Disney classic, “Old Yeller.” It was a movie about a beloved dog that ended up saving the life of the boy he belonged to and then dying of rabies at the end of the movie (the dog, not the boy). The name “Yeller” referred to the boy’s slang pronunciation of the yellow color of the dog.

Well, my mother suddenly started to laugh in the middle of the movie. As heads turned toward us and eyes glared at us, I asked my mother why on earth she was laughing. She explained that the lead actress (Dorothy McGuire) had such yellow teeth, she’d thought that SHE was Old Yeller, not the dog!

Then there was the time I took my mother to see the movie, “Romeo and Juliet.” I’d already seen it once and had been so touched by it, I wanted my mother to experience the same intense emotion I’d felt.

My mother was fine until the scene in the square where Juliet’s nurse, wearing a huge, puffy skirt, came looking for Romeo. The guys in the square began to taunt the nurse, making faces at her and dancing around her. Then one of the guys, Mercutio, lifted a corner of the nurse’s skirt, stuck his head underneath it and came out holding his nose and gasping.

That did it. My mother dissolved into fits of laughter. She laughed through the wedding scene. She laughed through the death scene. She laughed all the way out to the car after the movie had ended. And to this day, whenever I mention the movie to her, she still bursts out laughing.

I’m pretty sure we made a lot of enemies in the movie theater that day.

When my husband and I were dating, I convinced him to take me to see “Love Story” at the Rex Theater in Manchester. About 15 minutes into the movie, I could tell from his sighing and eye rolling that he probably would rather have been sitting in a Laundromat and washing his socks.

He managed to keep silent, however, until Ali MacGraw’s death scene. It was supposed to be romantic and touching, a real Kleenex moment. But the minute Ali said to Ryan O’Neal, who played her husband in the movie, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” my husband could remain silent no longer.

He burst out laughing. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”

“Shhhhh!” I said. “This is the sad part! She’s going to die!”

“If we’re lucky,” he said, “he’ll put a pillow over her face and help her speed things along!”

I heard a few other men in the theater start to laugh.

An irritated-sounding “Shhhhhhhh!” came from the woman who was seated behind us.

Once again, I had to hide my face behind a box of popcorn as I left the movie theater.

When I sobbed through “Wuthering Heights” and the ending of “Funny Girl,” my husband mercilessly razzed me. And when I cried buckets over “Brian’s Song,” he called me a marshmallow, even though I thought I detected him swallowing against a lump in his throat.

But then came the day when Hugh Beaumont, the actor who played one of the world’s most popular dads on TV, Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, passed away.

Leave it to Beaver always had been my husband’s favorite TV show. He watched all of the originals when he was a kid and then all of the reruns when he grew up. When my husband came home from work that night, I casually mentioned that Hugh Beaumont had died.

His face immediately paled, and to my shock, he burst into tears. “Not Ward Cleaver! It can’t be!”

He spent the rest of the night sobbing over poor Ward. I honestly had never seen him so emotional about anything. The man practically needed a sedative.

The next morning, my husband really looked embarrassed. “Gee, I don’t know what got into me,” he said. “I mean, after all, Ward Cleaver was only a TV character.”

Ever since then, he hasn’t teased me much at all when I’ve cried during sad movies.

Could it be that maturity finally has softened him?

Nah. It’s because he’s afraid I’ll tell all of his buddies about the Ward Cleaver incident.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Just call me crinkles

I opened the cabinet under the bathroom sink the other day and nearly broke my toe. About 400 jars of foundation makeup came bouncing out onto the bathroom floor.

For years, I wore Cover Girl Moisture Wear makeup. I have dry skin, so Moisture Wear, which contained oil, was perfect for me. It slid smoothly onto my face, soaked into all of the crinkles and uncrinkled them, and gave me a “dew-kissed” glow.

Then one day, I was in a closeout store and spotted a big rack of Moisture Wear for only $2.50 per jar. I couldn’t believe my good luck and immediately stocked up. Unfortunately, I was too clueless to see the writing on the wall. I should have known that when a product ends up in a closeout store, it’s only a matter of time before it goes to that big warehouse in the sky.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, Cover Girl stopped making Moisture Wear.

Panicking, I contacted the company and asked why the product had been discontinued. I half expected the woman to say, “Because YOU like it!”

It seems as if all my life, whenever I’ve said I liked a product, I’ve unintentionally given it the kiss of death.

From what the woman did say, in a roundabout way, I got the feeling that Cover Girl’s bigwigs thought that only old, wrinkly people were buying Moisture Wear and that the time had come to target a younger, more baby-faced clientele.

“Try our new tinted moisturizer,” the woman suggested. “You will love it just as much as you did the Moisture Wear.”

So I bought the tinted moisturizer. In retrospect, the minute I saw “Oil Free” on the label, I should have known better. It made my face so dry, I actually could see the peels forming five minutes after I slapped it on.

Frustrated, I went to the cosmetics department in a store at the mall and told the clerk that I wanted foundation makeup with oil in it – the oilier the better.

“We actually do have one with oil in it,” she said. “And it also contains a wrinkle reducer.”

She had my full attention. She tested a few shades of the makeup on the back of my hand until she found the perfect match. I had to admit that it looked pretty good on my hand. And it felt nice and creamy, too.

“I’ll take it!” I said.

The clerk smiled. “That will be $50.”

After my heart started beating again, I forked over the money, then muttered all the way home about how I could have bought a year’s worth of Moisture Wear for what I’d just paid for one jar of the fancy stuff. I also silently called the people at Cover Girl a bunch of not-so-nice names.

When I told my husband about the new makeup and what I’d paid for it, his expression clearly told me that he thought I’d finally lost what little mind I had left. “Couldn’t you just have bought some cheap makeup and mixed it with baby oil or WD-40 or something?” he asked.

I’d never even thought of that.

When I put the expensive makeup on my face the next morning, I expected to look into the mirror and see a reflection that resembled fine porcelain. Instead, I looked embalmed. Even worse, I didn’t like the smell of the stuff. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d tested it on my hand at the store, but when I smoothed it on my face, especially right underneath my nose, it smelled terrible – kind of like a cross between skunk oil and a lilac bush.

Thus began my marathon quest to find another foundation makeup. I ended up trying just about everything I could find…liquids, powders, creams, mousses, gels. Most of it I used only once and then tossed it under the sink, never to be seen again (until, that is, it fell out).

Then I heard about Rite-Aid’s policy that allows customers to buy makeup, take it home, try it out and then get a full refund if they decide it doesn’t look good on them. I bought and returned so much makeup over there, the clerks must have thought that I either had some kind of a fetish or I’d enrolled in clown college.

Finally, I turned to Ebay. No one was more shocked than I was to actually find a precious jar of Moisture Wear up for bid. I didn’t care how much I had to bid for it. My crinkly, pasty skin was so desperate by then, I would have mortgaged the house to win that auction.

I won the Moisture Wear for $13. It wasn’t even my usual color, but that didn’t matter to me. Walking around with my face three shades darker than my neck wasn’t as important as having my dew-kissed glow back.

I did manage to find and win three more jars of Moisture Wear on Ebay. But alas, for about a year now, no one has put up any more for auction. That’s probably because any of the makeup that might still be lying around is so old, it’s become fossilized.

So here I am, still searching in vain for a suitable replacement. In the meantime, I’m going to head out to the tool shed to look for some WD-40.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Confessions of a Germophobe

I hate to admit it, but I’m just a tad on the phobic side about germs.

It’s not completely my fault, however. When I was about six, the pediatrician scolded my mother for keeping me too clean. “Let her get dirty now and then,” he told her. “Let her build up some immunity to germs. She’s too spotless.”

So maybe if I had been a grubby little kid with a crop of potatoes growing in my ears, germs would be my friends today instead of my enemies.

People who fear germs see everyday occurrences in a totally different light. For example, when my husband and I go to a restaurant, he usually will say something like, “Oh boy, I’m in the mood for a nice, juicy cheeseburger!” while I, on the other hand, will be wondering if the cook is out back using the burger spatula to swat flies on the kitchen wall.

And when I see a couple kissing on TV, instead of thinking, “Oh, how romantic,” all I can think about is whether or not they just ate lunch and have tuna salad decaying between their teeth.

Public restrooms always have been a source of heart palpitations for me. Every time I enter a bathroom stall and look at the toilet seat, I envision the germ equivalent of Woodstock gathered on there, dancing and partying. If I could stand up on the seat and do my business, believe me, I would.

Recently, however, I went into a restroom that had this nifty little gizmo attached to the commode. It automatically dispensed a circle of paper that covered the entire seat. And then when I stood up, it sucked the paper neatly back into the machine.

I thought it was a clever invention till I told my husband about it and he laughed and said, “Yeah, the paper probably goes back into the machine so they can recycle it for the next person!”

The man is a sadist.

Because I’m a germophobe, I think the greatest invention of the past century has to be liquid hand-sanitizer. I carry little bottles of it with me everywhere I go. I also have a large bottle of it in my car and three even larger ones in my house. I swear, if I passed away, the manufacturers of hand sanitizer probably would have to file for Chapter 11.

There’s been a commercial on TV lately that tells you that if you want to avoid catching the flu during flu season, you should go hide on a deserted island till spring. I hate to say it, but I am tempted. I was in the supermarket the other day and there was so much coughing and sneezing going on in there, the place sounded like a refuge for wild geese.

Even worse, the checkout clerk looked as if he should have been picking out a headstone instead of working.

“Sick?” I almost was afraid to ask.

“Yeah, I’ve had this lousy cold for over a week now.” He sniffled for effect. “I’m beginning to wonder when the heck it’s ever going to go away.”

My first impulse was to whip out the travel-size can of Lysol from my purse and spray the entire contents on his nose, but I refrained. As I watched him scan my groceries, however, I cringed, thinking of all of the germs his sneeze-covered little paws were depositing on each item.

“I can disinfect the outside of the bottle of juice and the jar of mayonnaise,” I found myself thinking. “But the sack of flour might not be so easy.”

When Typhoid Tommy handed my change to me, I took it with only two fingers. Then the minute I got outside, I doused it (and my hands) with hand sanitizer.

Nothing on earth, however, is more torturous for me than having to sit in a doctor’s waiting room with potential bubonic plague and Ebola-virus carriers facing me. If I could do it without suffocating, I’d zip myself inside a plastic garment-bag before setting foot in the place.

I do think my germ phobia has improved slightly over the years, though. I no longer wear a Hazmat suit when I clean the bathroom. And I don’t cook meat so long, it turns into jerky. And the last time my dog licked my hand (after licking herself), I waited a full 20 seconds before I rushed to the sink to scrub myself with disinfectant soap.

Maybe things would be easier if I just took my former pediatrician’s advice and allowed myself to get good and germy now and then.

Perhaps I’ll go dive into a dumpster.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The gift of creativity

Every Christmas season, I come up with what I think are unusual gift ideas. And every Christmas season, I end up having to return a few gifts before I even give them.

This Christmas season was no different.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from past disasters. For example, there was the wood carving of a buffalo that I had specially made one Christmas for my husband, the buffalo collector. Unfortunately, the carver had never carved a buffalo before, so the end result looked like something that had been in a horrible, disfiguring accident.

Still, the artist was so proud of his masterpiece, I ended up forking over a wad of money for it…and then hid the buffalo in the back of the closet, where to this day, it still remains. I can only hope that a nest of hungry termites has attacked it.

And then there was the round tablecloth I had a woman crochet for my mother. The center of the darned thing wouldn’t lie flat, no matter what my mother and I did to it. We tried stacking books on it, ironing it and starching it, and still the center continued to rise as if it were part of Houdini’s magic act. We were tempted to bring it outside and beat it with a stick.

Another gift disaster occurred when a glass blower at a mall told me he could make a set of miniature bowling balls and pins for my mother. At the time, I thought it was a great idea because not only was my mother an avid bowler, she also collected blown glass. The final result looked like a clear-glass turkey drumstick surrounded by skinny baked potatoes. When the glass blower first handed it to me, I honestly thought it was a replica of someone’s lunch.

This year, however, I wasn’t quite as creative. Still, I had problems.

We have a dear friend who collects pocket watches, so I bought him a pocket watch that had wood trimming encircling the face. It came in a matching wooden case. I decided to have the back of the watch engraved with, “TO BILL, CHRISTMAS 2005.”

A week before Christmas, I picked up the watch. The back read, “TO BULL, CHRISTMAS 2005.”

Then I bought my mother a pair of dainty pearl earrings. When I went to wrap them, I noticed that they were lying in the bottom of the case instead of attached to the velvet backing, where I’d last seen them. I picked up the earrings and discovered that the little slip-on backs were missing. I finally located them, loose in the case, and slid them back onto the earring posts. They immediately fell off.

I rolled my eyes. The earring backs obviously were way too big. I shoved everything back into the case and decided to head back to the jewelry store. That’s when my search for the sales receipt began.

I searched everywhere for that darned receipt, even outside in the trash barrel. By then, I was so frustrated, I was flinging trash onto the ground and shouting, “Come on! You’ve GOT to be in there!”

I could only imagine what the neighbors were thinking. Probably, “There’s Sally on her diet again, looking for stray M&Ms.”

I never did find the sales receipt, but I decided to be brave and return to the jewelry store anyway.

The female clerk seemed overly pleasant until I told her I had a problem with some earrings I’d purchased. Her expression immediately changed to something that looked as if I’d just told her I was dating her husband.

I explained that the backs of the earrings were too big and kept falling off. She opened the box and removed the earrings…and only one earring back. The other one was nowhere to be found. The clerk even turned the box upside down and shook it over the counter.

“It was in the box when I left the house,” I said. “Honest, it was!”

Her suspicious look told me it was highly unlikely that she was buying any of my story. I guess I really couldn’t blame her. After all, there I was, a complete stranger with no sales slip and a missing earring-back…a 14K white-gold earring back. I may as well have been the long-lost daughter of Bonnie and Clyde.

The clerk stared at me a moment, her eyes boring into mine. I suspected that her years of working with fine jewelry had made her develop a sixth sense, a built-in lie detector. I didn’t dare blink.

Finally, she silently walked over to a drawer, pulled out a small box and brought it back to the counter. The box contained earring backs of all sizes and shapes. She pulled out two and slid them onto the posts of the pearl earrings. They fit perfectly.

“There you go,” she said, her lips forming a taut line.

I got out of there, stopped and breathed a sigh of relief. Things, I told myself, definitely were looking up.

That is, until I decided to order a musical clock with little moving dancers in it for our friends in New York.

But that’s a whole other story…