Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Buttermilk Christmas

My mother had chronic pains in her neck and head. She often had migraines, “sick headaches” she called them, and she’d have me mix her a “headache cocktail” — a barbiturate called Doriden with two Empirin Compounds (an analgesic mix) into a paper napkin, crushed by a heavy coffee mug into a fine powder and then shaken into a fruit-juice glass.

The final step was to add one teaspoon of spirits of ammonia, bought from the pharmacy in small bottles, to the mix, stirred with a dollop of water. Stinky stuff.

Doriden, a wonderful barbiturate, helped, haunted and hurt my mother and our family for years. It’s still around today, but used sparingly, in a classification along with cocaine, morphine, PCP and injectable methamphetamine.

It didn’t always help the pain, but if anything would, this would. It also usually put her to sleep. Unfortunately, in December 1955 the kind doctor prescribing the drug decided Mom should not have it anymore. The results were alarming.

In truth, doctors in those years didn’t really know all that we do now about addictions and how to handle them. I had just turned 10, and all I knew was that in December my father asked me to sit on my mother’s ankles. She had fallen to the floor in the living room and was convulsing from classic barbiturate withdrawal. He could hold her head, but he needed me to try to contain her legs.

He was calm during these episodes, as he was calm during almost everything. It was a tableau that typified our behaviors — Dad was quietly making everything all right, Mom was the focus of our attention, I was the helpful boy.

Over the next few weeks, Dad and the doctor arranged for Mom to be admitted to a hospital in Oklahoma City for experimental treatments that might help her back and head pain. Dad and I packed up the ole Buick and headed north from our hometown, Houston, with Mom sitting in the back.

That’s how Dad and I found ourselves alone and hungry in Oklahoma on Christmas Day of 1955. Mom had been set up in her hospital room and basically medicated to an extent that kept her from being alert. About the time it got dark, Dad said: “Son, let’s hop in the car and leave the hospital. We’ll go downtown for a special Christmas dinner, eh?” I was all for it.

Turns out downtown Oklahoma City on that Christmas Day offered very little. All of the chain restaurants and fast-food places that now dot every American town didn’t exist back then.

As we drove up and down the deserted streets, I began to think we wouldn’t be eating. In fact, we should have had a cheese sandwich in the hospital cafeteria … again.

“Isn’t this great,” my dad said, “it’s like a modern ghost town, and we’re the only ones here. Makes this Christmas special, almost downright mystical, just by its emptiness.”

After a few more turns we saw what seemed to be a diner. It was in the middle of a downtown block, and it appeared to have lights on. We parked on the deserted street and went in, filled with hope and hunger.

Sure enough, it was a diner open for business. We were the only customers, and Dora — a middle-aged big-haired waitress with a white apron, a wide smile and sensible shoes — met us right away and with a sweeping arm gesture gave us our choice of seating. We selected a red-leatherette booth by the window, letting us watch for any other vehicle that might happen through the streetlights.

Dad had sliced ham with sweet potatoes; I went for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Of course, Dad let me steal the melted marshmallows off his sweet potatoes.

We enjoyed the meal unencumbered by the noise of any other diners, and then I asked Dora if by chance they had a slice of pecan pie. “You know, Sug,” she said, “we do have one back in the kitchen, made right here with two kinds of Karo syrup and with extra pecans. We’ve been holding it for a special 10-year-old customer.” “I’m 10,” I almost shouted. Doris smiled, raised her eyebrows and said, “Well then, I think it’s your’un.” She then looked at my father and said, “What about you?”

Dad said: “Gosh, what I’d really like for this Christmas meal is a small glass of buttermilk, but I bet that’s not something you offer, is it?” Doris pulled out the pencil from her hair, used it to scratch a spot just above her ear, and said: “You know, I think we have one small glass left.” She went back to the kitchen.

“Why’d she call me ‘Sug,’ Dad,” I asked. “That’s short for ‘Sugar,’ I think,” he said. I was about to ask him how he could stand to drink buttermilk, that horrid-looking lumpy stuff, when I looked out the window and saw what seemed to be the backside of Dora, wearing a jacket and scurrying away from us down the sidewalk.

A few minutes later I saw her coming toward us, with a lit cigarette in her mouth and a small, uncovered glass of buttermilk in her right hand, held out in front to smooth out her steps.

Right after that she appeared at our booth, minus the jacket and the cigarette, to deliver a huge piece of pecan pie and what to Dad was a glorious glass of buttermilk. He sipped and smiled as I greedily devoured the pie, certain that I tasted two kinds of Karo syrup.

The treatments didn’t cure Mom’s pain, but the time in the hospital allowed her to stop using barbiturates for a good while. We would spend other holidays in other hospitals in the years to come, always hoping for the right cure. But the magic of that feel-special Christmas night in Oklahoma City didn’t happen again.

It was truly special, almost downright mystical.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Suck it in

Actor Burt Reynolds once retired from acting, and replied thus when asked why: “I’m tired of holding in my stomach.”

We’re an affluent country, and we tend to be, well, let’s say “large.” But often we have thin, young and muscled celebrities looking quite different from us. That tends to make us normal (as in not sculpted) people want to suck in the tummy, no?

I’ve always held in my stomach. Almost always, anyway. Until the 7th grade I was painfully skinny, so when I first started showing some tummy, I happily distended it to the fullest, paunch-proud.

Since then, though, all the time … almost. If I really held in my stomach all the time, it might actually create some muscle tone. That’s not the goal. Hiding is the goal.

To state it precisely, I hold it in whenever anyone’s looking. Or seems to be looking. Or could begin looking.

There’s something of an art to that kind of hiding, you know. If you stand casually, with your tummy hanging out at full flop, you can’t quickly suck it up when someone glances your way. That’s so obvious that it looks ridiculous.

No, the way to do it is this: When the other person begins to glance your way, turn your head, as if being almost startled by something off to one side, stand up extra-straight and rein in the ole tum-tum at the same time. The head can serve as a complete misdirection, which is good. Even if it doesn’t, the change in posture makes the abdominal suck-in seem almost natural, as if that part of your body naturally belongs in there anyway. Try it.

A middle-aged friend and his wife go to the beach a lot, and a common activity is comparing their bodies to others that are displayed there. The goal always is to discover people who are even larger than they themselves are.

His concern, of course, is the stomach; hers is more generalized, in that women often care about things other than just their stomachs. (Men have other body parts they’re obsessed with, but this is a family newspaper.)

They set up beach chairs, lie back with an opened book or magazine and pretend to read as they peer through sunglasses at the parade of bodies. “How about this one?” is the usual code, meaning look at this person approaching and tell me if I’m fatter than that. The best answer is, “Be serious,” and the worst begins with “Ummmm …”

Many people joke about the middle part of the body, of course. The urban word “dunlop” is popular. It means that the belly is so big, it done lopped over the belt. And comedian Bill Cosby used to do a routine that pondered why men with 40-inch waists still wear 32-inch underwear. He might have used different numbers, but the idea is valid: We men often continue to buy the size we used to wear, even when that size is too small. Is it frugality, lack of awareness or downright self-delusion? Don’t ask.

Here’s a question I do ask … every day. When I see someone, let’s say a male, happily living with a really huge middle, I always wonder: Is he completely at ease with his size — a very good thing from a mental, if not physical, health standpoint — or, and this is the scary part, is he holding that sucker in right now? After all, it might be twice that size if I look away.

Whichever, I’ll bet he’s wearing 32-inch underwear.


Mike Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Greensboro and provides daily language tips on Twitter (twitter.com/writermike). He can be reached at writermike@bellsouth.net.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Is it just me?

My favorite Charles Manson quote (all right, my only Charles Manson quote) is this: “Is it hot in here, or am I just crazy?”

Yes, that’s just a joke. But have you ever been in a situation where you wonder if you’re the only one who’s aware of something, bothered by something? Is it just you, you might wonder. It happens to me. A lot.

Say you call a company about an account you have there, and a recording says, “In order to expedite your request, enter your account number now.” So you do that, then you wait. When you finally get a real person, the first thing that person says is, “What is your account number?” What? I just entered it. Isn’t that idiotic, or am I just crazy?

It seems to me that every magazine scent sample — the kind you scratch to sniff — is the same smell. Have you noticed that? “Lift here to experience … the smell.” I don’t need to; it’s the same as all the others.

Let’s say a friend of yours requires knee surgery. I’ll bet you right now that he didn’t hurt his knee, he didn’t break it or rupture it or smash it. You know what he did? He “blew out his knee.” Right? Isn’t that always the phrase? And it’s funny, that one, because you always blow out your knee, but just your knee. You don’t blow out your shoulder. Or your hip.

Of course, you’ll always use “one of the top surgeons in the country.” Am I crazy, or is almost every surgeon in the country — you know, the ones your relatives and friends use for their blown-out knees — said to be one of the top in the region?

This one’s equally irritating and predictable: Videographers zoom in extra tight anytime someone on camera is about to cry. I think they’re trained and certified in tear-zooming. Don’t zoom in, we take your camera away and give no severance pay. Zoom in and you go national. After all, what is grief for if not to be made public, with an extreme close-up.

While we’re on camera things, am I crazy, or has the once-revered National Geographic TV channel gone tacky? In the (good) old days, that brand, that name, meant class. Now it can be almost as low-class as any other cable show. Even the name has become Nat Geo. Say what? Yes, that’s how the promos go: Nat Geo.

Cell phones. Many, many times I’ve noticed cars with four businesspeople, all suited up and on their way to business doings, and each of them is on a cell phone. All four in the same car, wearing ties and talking … not to each other. Unless, of course, they’re calling each other.

Sometimes names make me shake my head, thinking I must be crazy. They simply strike me as beyond belief. I just heard a bird expert on national radio: Dr. Dove. You know who the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is? Dr. Hamburg. Where we used to live there was a dentist named Dr. Pepper, and tonight I saw a cook on TV — Mary Cleaver.

Tell me this: Am I crazy, or are those new-fangled envelopes a mess? I’m referring to the ones that say you MUST remove the side panels first. First the side panels, then at this perforation, then stand on your head and tear here. They take forever to open and the carbon-lined inside is ugly. I hate them.

Oh, am I the only one who’s noticed that every alarm in the house — carbon monoxide, smoke, whatever — is designed to work our last nerves? The batteries always go bad in the middle of the night. At first you hear a quick beep, but it’s so, so loud. And you deny that you heard it: Oh no, it was nothing, it won’t happen again BEEP. So you have to get out of bed — always on a night before some really important activity requiring extra lucidity and strength the next day — and you get a ladder from your neighbor’s garage and you try to stop The Beeping.

That means that you need to discover a way to get to the bad battery, hoping that you’re not deafened and knocked off the ladder while cursing. The alarms are all different, so there’s no point in trying to remember how to do it. I’ve always found it best simply to use a hammer and then replace the whole unit the following weekend.

I don’t know how Charlie Manson would do it.


Mike Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Greensboro and provides daily language tips on Twitter (twitter.com/writermike). He can be reached at writermike@bellsouth.net.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I’ll go first, I’m old. It happens.

This is weird. It’s been happening more and more lately, too. I’ll be walking, usually indoors, and people will step out of my way. Here’s why: I’m now old.

I’m not pushing my way through a crowd, I’m not stumbling or scowling or walking with a cane, but evidently I now look old. And interestingly, it motivates people to step aside in restaurant aisles, to hold the door, to smile and say, “Go ahead.” That feels strange to me. It’s also, if I ever get used to it, rather pleasant.

A lot of my jobs have been high profile, so I’ve been interviewed through the years. The descriptions in those have gone from “athletic” to “active” to “spry.” Wait a minute — “spry”? And I was 55 at the time.

It happens.

The joke is that we all have three ages: youth, middle age and “You’re looking well.”

You learn that over time, things go wrong with your body. By middle age you understand how it’s possible for some elderly to have serious medical problems that they leave untreated. After all, by their age, they’ve gone through decades of enduring countless aches, an array of pains. Life becomes: “Oh, I’ll just put up with it and it will go away eventually.”

Here’s the way I see it about our bodies. When you’re young, the question is “What’s wrong?” When you’re middle-aged, the question is “What’s wrong now?” And when you’re old, the question is “Can it be fixed?”

When I was 12 years old I made a three-fold vow to myself: I would never be bald, I would never get hemorrhoids and I would never talk down to a 12-year-old. So far, I’ve kept two out of three.

You know you’re old when you when you pass an attractive dog-walker of the opposite sex and then realize you were checking out the dog.

The hard part at my age is on a day when you feel young, but then someone says, “You’ve had a good life.”

It’s also hard when you realize that you’re doing the very things that you’ve always noticed about the elderly (you know, those who really ARE old). You find yourself humming. You find your mouth opening sooner than it needs to when food is incoming. When you climb into a car, you moan. You find that you really have forgotten to zip the ole zipper.

It happens.

Then we have the Senior Citizen Discount. When I was 49, I ordered some chicken at a KFC. The clerk said, “Do you get the senior discount?” I left.

A version of that still happens. My wife and I grocery shop on the seniors discount day every week, and the experience would be much more enjoyable if the clerks would ASK me if I qualify. They never do.

Oh, I meant to tell you. If you’re a senior and you eat at Chik-fil-A, they give you a free drink. It’s called a “Senior Drink,” and it’s slightly smaller than … wait a minute. I wonder if they have a kiddie drink, too, that’s smaller. Is this a kiddie drink?

That’s the problem, isn’t it? As we get old, we start to resemble the children, then the infants, we once were. We begin to eat like them, we cry easily, we walk like them. It’s fascinating.

Eventually, as you live in the Years of Discounts, you start to think in terms of Lasts: This will probably be my last house, my last dog, my last car. And the older you get, the shorter-term the lasts are. My last house is easy to live with, but then you reach your last suit, your last vacation trip, your last … banana?

It happens.

If you’re lucky.

Mike Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Greensboro and provides daily language tips on Twitter (twitter.com/writermike).