This one was written about 15 years ago. When I wrote it, I promised myself I would never do it again, but who knew I would live this long?

Trouble is, I’m in the throes of home re-decorating. The project keeps me pre-occupied and turns me into a raging bore. Unless you want to discuss track lighting or the advantages of berber carpet over plush, don’t talk to me.

Between the newspaper and my grandchildren, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to the re-do of the “flat house.” My grandson, accustomed as he is to the tall village houses of Granville, christened my new abode the “flat house,” and the name kind of stuck. It’s really a 60s ranch on a lot of flat land. The lady who lived here before me left the house in perfect, spic and span condition. That was 10 months ago; sadly, the same cannot be said of its condition as of even date. It’s now strewn with paint chips, ladders, uninstalled fixtures, and the remains of a life put on hold while the place is re-done.

The how-to books say you’re best off sitting in a house for at least a year before you jump into redecorating. Although not quite a year, I mulled it over as long as I thought necessary before I climbed the ladder and starting stripping wallpaper.

During the mulling time, I noticed that the previous owner had everything set up for low maintenance. The whole place is carpeted, even the kitchen and bathrooms, in a color that doesn’t show dirt. The walls are off-white and the woodwork is non-paneled and natural.

There’s an industrial strength air filter. It’s the only house I ever lived in that won’t get dirty. One can clutter it up to a faretheewell, but it will stay dust-free no matter what. So, my primary dilemma was this: do I want to pull up and replace ugly-color-but-non-dirt-showing carpet and cover the plain-jane-but-disappearing walls with fragile wallpaper? Why do I want to make work for myself? What’s wrong with me?

I spent the entire month of January while I was sick with bronchitis thinking about it. By February I knew what I had to do. The ultra conservative decoration had to go. It just wasn’t any fun. My Inner Child was screaming at me the entire time. It’s her fault that I don’t seem to be able to do anything unless she thinks it’s fun. The blandness of our new surroundings is anything but.
Cautiously pulling up a corner of the ugly carpet I found, to my surprise, genuine oak parquet flooring. Pulling it up in one of the bathrooms, I found lovely white tile.

“We’re having some fun now,” shouted Inner Child at the discovery.
My fear-of-upkeep protestations caused her to pout and chide me, “Just as I suspected. You’re a closet conservative!”

To appease her, I started stripping the patternless beige wallpaper in the foyer and hallway. The house was built in 1965 and the paper has been there since. There’s bare wallboard underneath. “Probably would have lasted another 35 years,” I grumbled to Inner Child.

She ignored me.

Now, after six weeks, the hall and foyer walls are finished. I told you I can’t spend all my time on it. Where once there was forgettable but easy-care wallpaper, there is now pewter and bronze-sponged green paint. At the ceiling line there is a border of my favorite flower, the Iris (Tennessee’s state flower), done in green, salmon, and metallic trim.

This week I hope to get around to removing the carpet and refinishing the parquet flooring. Maybe I’ll even stain it to match the reddish woodwork.
There’s one difficulty I might have to deal with. Inner Child is easily bored. She’s already accusing me of taking too long to finish the job.

“Do you plan to make this hallway your life’s work? We’ve a whole house to redecorate. Get on with it!”

Now, she’s pestering me about lingering over this column. She says it stopped being fun three paragraphs back. Guess I’d better end it and move on to something else.

When Freud discovered our Inner Children, I wish he had figured out a way to shut them up.

The Imperfect Storm

Can’t say I’d want to redo any of my lives. You probably figured that out already. The very fact I’m not living them any more is the first clue.

The sailboat life, albeit short – about a year – is the one I wouldn’t like to revisit the most. You’d think people who took to the high seas as a way of life would be inherently interesting as the teller of fascinating tales. If you think that, you would be wrong. In ports from Canada to Florida, I’ve listened to the hotly debated issue of whether Softscrub with or without bleach is the better product for scrubbing the decks. I bought both to indicate I was on the fence about that one and didn’t have an opinion either way.

Sometimes the conversational gambit switched to the only other issue our dockside companions were interested in. It was called “Storms I have known,” and a few of those were fairly provocative, but most were confined to, “All of a sudden this storm blew up, and we had to skedaddle out of there.” Not much better than the Softscrub debate. Having now dissed all my former dock mates for telling storm stories that were boring at best and stultifyingly boring at worst, I will proceed to tell you about a storm I knew.

But first, I’ll tell you about one aspect of our homeport, Sackett’s Harbor, NY, that I found very interesting. A big battle of the War of 1812 happened there. Right across the dock where our sailboat was tied up was a sunken 1812 warship. When the sun was at just the right angle, we could see the barnacle–covered bones of the wreck below the surface. Photographers from “National Geographic,” were on the dock, under the water, and all over the place in the summer we were there. They did a huge spread on the town and the sunken ship the next year.

There were 50 or so unsunk sailboats at our marina, but we were the only people who were there every day. The rest of the sailors showed up mostly on weekends. John had a great bit of sailing experience, and I had none at all.

We sold our house and moved onboard in May, planning to spend the summer practicing in preparation for sailing to Florida in August via the Intercoastal Waterway. Our practice field was Lake Ontario, the contrariest body of water outside the Bermuda Triangle on the planet. Many mornings we set out under sunny skies and calm winds only to run into an unpredicted and vicious gale five miles out. I guess it was good practice, but believe me, sometimes it was scary as “all git-out.” (That’s a down home Southernism.)

Down the dock from us was a 36-foot sloop owned by a retired engineer. He raced his boat in many weekend regattas and often came down during the week to take her out for a spin. Last Husband crewed for him for several races. Sometimes he invited us to come along to crew for a mid-week outing. We went gladly as the excursions offered valuable sailing experience. He always wanted me to take the helm while he and John hoisted the sail. I hated that part because the boat had a tiller rather than the more civilized wheel, with which our boat was equipped. Because of my right/left disability, I was always pushing or pulling the tiller the wrong way.

The retired engineer’s nickname was “Skip,” of course. He was in his late 70s, and fit as a man half his age. He was proud of this fitness and strutted about like a banty rooster when it was remarked upon by his fellow sailors.

One morning Skip showed up as we were eating breakfast in our boat’s cockpit. He bounced down the rattling planks of the deck to our boat. Following nowhere nearly close to him was an old guy who looked as though he may be on his last legs.

“How’d you like to go sailing this fine morning?” shouted Skip.

“Well,” I said, hesitating, “I don’t like the looks of those puffy clouds on the horizon.” I pointed toward Canada. Lake Ontario was bad enough under blue skies, but no one went out if there were even the tiniest clouds in sight.

“We’ll be just fine,” said Skip.

By this time the old guy had caught up with him and was humped over standing beside him on the narrower strip of planks separating the boats. He peered into the water behind him and inched his toes closer to the front edge.

“This is my old school buddy, Raymond Shelby,” said Skip, slapping the frail old guy on the back, causing him to lurch dangerously forward. “Actually, I should have said the Reverend Shelby,” he went on. “He’s a retired minister.” It was then I noticed the clerical collar underneath Rev. Shelby’s jacket. I couldn’t believe the two were contemporaries. There was Skip, as robust and “hail fellow well met,” as you’d ever want to see, and there was the reverend, bent and sallow, looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else as long as it was indoors.

“He’s never sailed before, and I’d like to take him out. I thought we’d have a picnic lunch on the island,” said Skip, holding up a picnic basket. “Come along and crew for me .”The island to which he referred was a good three hours out in medium winds. It was also situated directly under those puffy clouds on the distant horizon. Not wishing to be taken for wooses, we said we would come along.

“Great,” shouted Skip, as he dragged Rev. Shelby down the dock to “Black Pearl,” his sleek racing sloop. Before we followed them, we went below and gathered up our yellow storm gear, just in case.

“If it were anybody but Skip, I wouldn’t leave the dock today,” I said to John. He agreed. We wouldn’t have tried it on our own, but we felt confident a sailor with Skip’s experience could get us out of any trouble in which we might find ourselves.

We locked the cabin door on our boat and scooted down to Skip’s boat. The engine was already idling and Rev. Shelby sat in the cockpit, his hands clasped on his knees. He looked as though he were about to be fed to the lions.

We stowed our storm gear below deck and Skip backed Black Pearl out of her slip. The waters were calm under blue skies as we moved into the bay, the engine purring contentedly.The Rev. Raymond Shelby sat on the cockpit bench still looking uncomfortable.
The bay gave way to the open waters of Lake Ontario. I steered into the wind as Last Husband and Skip pulled the lines that raised first the mainsail and then the jib (the smaller sail).

“Cut the engine, Millie, and fall off to starboard,” shouted Skip. I turned the boat to starboard as the sails filled and the boat immediately heeled over, its portside raised slightly out of the water.
In case you aren’t familiar with sailing jargon, when a sailboat “heels,” it turns on its side. That’s what makes it go.
Passengers usually sit on the high side of the boat to help balance things out.
Skip had neglected to inform Rev. Shelby of this phenomenon. Seated on the port side, he was immediately dumped forward to the other side. I grabbed for him and apologized for not warning him as Skip laughed and told him he’d get used to it.
“Better hold on to the rail,” I said. We’ll tell you when we change tacks.”

“What?” asked Rev. Shelby, weakly.

Very soon after our first near-calamity, the water took on a definite chop. There were tiny whitecaps all around us. I didn’t like the look of it. We tacked several times. Skip yelled, “ready about,” before we did so, but poor old Raymond hadn’t got his sea legs yet, and he flopped about the cockpit piteously.

“This is the life, eh, Ray?” yelled Skip as robustly as he could. Rev. Shelby didn’t answer. Before long, the waves got bigger, the winds grew stronger and I had to keep heading into the wind to keep from heeling over too far. Next to splitting in two or being dismasted, the worst thing that can happen to a sailboat is to suffer a knockdown. The dreaded knockdown occurs when one has too much sail up for the prevailing wind conditions. The boat flops over on its side and the sail goes flat against the water. It’s not something you want to experience, believe me. Conditions were becoming way too severe for my comfort level, but Skip was loving it.

“If you don’t mind, Chester — er Skip — I think I’ll go downstairs for a bit. I have a nervous stomach, you know.” began Rev. Shelby.

“Sure,” said Skip, “go below and have one of those sandwiches in the picnic basket. It’ll make you feel better.”
It was a suggestion we were all to regret. Poor Raymond lurched from side to side as he made his way to the cabin ladder.
He was no sooner “downstairs,” than the skies opened up and dumped on us. Jagged lightning shot from the once puffy white clouds. They were now black and ominous; the thunder was deafening.

“I’m going below to get our storm gear,” I yelled as I began the trek toward the ladder. I reached the hatch and looked down. What I saw caused me to change my mind about going below. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was lying on his back on the cabin floor. Under him, around him, and over him was the undeniable evidence of mal de mer in the extreme. The man had managed to barf on every square inch of the cabin, including our storm gear.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’m already wet.”

“What’s going on?” asked Skip. “I think you’d better see to your friend,” I answered. “He’s pretty sick.”

Skip went below and I grabbed John by his shirt collar. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. “We’re way over our skill limit and poor Raymond is so seasick he’s going to die!”

Skip returned on deck. “He’s okay,” he reported jovially. “He’ll feel better now that he’s thrown up.”
Indeed, before long Raymond returned to the cockpit. But he definitely didn’t feel better. At least he didn’t look better. You know the thing about someone being so sick he or she is green? Well, I’m here to tell you it really happens. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was the color of split pea soup.
He joined me on the high side of the boat. I had a port rail in the crook of each elbow and I was hanging on for dear life. The starboard rails were not visible, being by now way under water.
“Maybe we’ll trim the sail a bit,” said Skip.
Last Husband wedged himself between the cockpit sides to help with the sail trimming. His ear was near enough to my mouth for me to speak into it without the others hearing.
“Tell that maniac to take those sails totally down, turn on the engine and get us the hell out of here,” I stage whispered.
“I can’t,” he answered back. “It’s his boat. He. . .”
I have no idea what else he was going to say. At that instant, a mighty gust of wind hit us and we went over. I watched in horror as the sail skimmed through the vicious waves. Even the mast rode on and under the water for what seemed like an eternity.
I got some kind of toe-hold around Rev. Shelby. My arms were clasped together around the rail. I knew if I let go, both of us would go into the water. Skip later told our dockmates the whole knockdown lasted for only a matter of seconds, but even today I would swear it was more like a couple of minutes.

At last the boat righted itself and by some miracle all of us were still aboard. While I was waiting to breathe again and while still hanging onto the rail, I realized that if we were to survive this disaster, it was I who was going to have to speak up.
Poor Ray was about as rational as a half-drowned rat, and the other two men sailors were as full of ego as they were full of water.

“Now, hear this,” I said, sailor-like. “Skip, take that sail down right now, turn on the engine, and get us out of here.”

“It’s just a little storm. We’ll be okay. Just. . .”

“No, we’re not okay,” I shouted. “You’re going to kill us just so you can show your old school chum what a big man you are. ”I let myself fall in the direction of the stern, and I switched on the engine. “Get that sail down. Now!”

“Really, Millie, I don’t think. . .” began Last Husband.

“Shut up!” I screamed. “Help Skip get that sail down. We’re going back.”

Raymond whimpered softly and gazed up at me gratefully. If Jesus had saved his soul, I had saved his body. “We motored back to Sackett’s Harbor in silence. I turned the tiller over to Skip, who never spoke to me again after that but once.
After we docked and we were leaving the boat, he said, “Don’t forget your storm gear.”
“No thanks,” I said, smiling. “Keep it as a souvenir, so you’ll have something to remember this wonderful day of sailing and picnicking.”

“Millie!” whispered John.

“Shut up!” I snarled back.

I climbed onto the dock and headed for the safety of our own boat. It sat bobbing gently in the water. “I could have told you so. But did you ask me? No-o-o-o.”

Who said that? Was that a grin on Bosky Dell’s stern? Was she giving me attitude? Maybe so. Worse things than that had already happened that day.

Hurricanes I Have Known

The autumn of 1988 brought with it hurricanes that literally tore up Florida, where we were headed in our maiden voyage aboard our 32-foot Freedom Sailboat, Bosky Dell. I have great personal knowledge of hurricanes, but they are nonetheless frightening. Charley 2004 is tied for scariest with Donna 1960. Hurricane Keith 1988, although potentially the most dangerous, turned out to be a pussycat as we rode it out in the boat.

I can’t help but think of all the Sunday sailors heading south whose boats are being blown into plate glass windows on the main streets of coastal towns.
When we spent our time on the bounding main, we learned a great deal about anchoring and tying up. We had to take tides into consideration, figure out the prevailing winds, and calculate which anchor (we had a choice of four) to use given the conditions.

Many an hour was spent leaning against a docked boat discussing ground tackle (that’s “anchors” to you landlubbers).

Last Husband spent weeks learning how to sail safely in treacherous waters, and the proper procedure to follow during a hurricane. Though he had his faults as a husband, John was a wonderful sailor who believed in safety first no matter what.

Much to our surprise most of our fellow sailors didn’t worry themselves with such boring book-learning. Many didn’t even own a tides directory. How they dared tie up or anchor without one was a mystery to us.

The tides near New Jersey can reach 12 feet every 12 hours. That means if you throw a short line over a dock post at high tide and go to your bunk, by morning your boat will be on its side and so will you.

Even more alarming, many first-time live-aboards didn’t even own a set of charts. They had no idea how much water was under them until it was too late.

“We’re hard aground,” we would hear them frantically shout to the Coast Guard over the radio. Really? Imagine that. That’s what usually happens if you run your boat with a five-foot rudder through water that is only three feet deep. Of course, not having a chart, you don’t know that.

As for hurricanes, the method was pretty straightforward. If you had time, you were supposed to find a protected creek narrow enough to securely tie the boat to large trees on either side. You were then to drop an appropriate anchor taking the bottom of the creek into consideration. Here again, without a chart you had no idea what was on the bottom. The anchor should be heavy enough to hold the boat in strong winds.

Our biggest anchor was called a “Luke.” We would only use that if the hurricane expected was a level three. This was a big trade-off. There was no problem getting the Luke over the side. Getting it back on board was something else again. It had to be hauled out hand-over-hand; it was much too big to be stored in the bow anchor compartment with the other three.

Fortunately, by the time Hurricane Keith reached us it was a tropical storm, so we didn’t think it was necessary to throw over the Luke.

We did use the third heaviest, the name of which I have long since forgotten. To be on the safe side, we lugged the Luke to the cockpit and had it ready just in case Keith grew stronger.

We were anchored between a row of condominiums and a mangrove mound at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Having prepared for the hurricane most of the day we were dead tired when darkness fell. Feeling fairly safe, we decided to turn in.

There were three or four sailboats in our anchorage and just as we were about to go below we discovered that one of them was floating aimlessly in the freshening wind. Its owner had abandoned it earlier in the day without leaving it properly anchored.

One of us had to stay up and fend it off when it came too close to our boat. Mother Nature didn’t pose much of a problem with her hurricane that night, but a careless sailor certainly did.

I couldn’t wait to give him an earful the next morning, but we pulled out before he arrived. Too bad. I had developed and practiced a really expressive salty vocabulary. I never got to use it.

I do have a funny story about anchoring. It wasn’t funny to me when it happened, but in the fullness of time it gave me a bit of a chuckle.

The first night we anchored was our fourth night away from our homeport in Sackett’s Harbor, New York. John studied the books for hours before we approached a rather large stream feeding into the Erie Canal. It was to be our anchorage.

Carefully maneuvering the boat into position, we dropped the correct anchor and fell exhausted into our bunks. Somewhere in the books I read that when anchoring, one should pick an easily visible spot on the shore and line it up with a spot on the boat. Reason being if one happened to look out one’s porthole during the night, one could easily ascertain whether or not the anchor was holding. If the two spots lined up, all was well. My shore spot was a V-shaped tree. It being my first night at anchor, I put enough pillows around me to be in a position to just open my eyes and peer out the porthole. I hardly slept at all.

Just before dawn after 7,000 position checks I fell sound asleep. As the sun rose directly into my eyes, I suddenly woke up. Horrified, I immediately looked out the porthole to line up my two points. The V-shaped tree was gone. In fact, the shore was changed completely. The horizon was different, the water’s edge was in a different place; everything was out of place.

I screamed into John’s ear, “Wake up, we drifted, we’re probably back out in the canal, we’re going to be run over by a barge, get up!” He jumped up and dashed into the cockpit where he immediately sat down and buried his head in his hands.

“What? What?” I shouted.

“I forgot to tell you the boat turns completely around when the tide runs the other way. I thought you knew that. We’re just fine.”

And we were. The V-shaped tree, formerly on the port side of the boat was now on the starboard side. I figure that experience took a few months off my normal lifespan, but that’s nothing compared to the years the entire boating life took away from me.

So, with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean, et al, beating up on all the boats headed south right then, I’m happy to be here on dry land. Our ornery midwestern weather is a light breeze compared to winds with names.

Thank Goodness for that.


The best Pizza in Long Beach
Featuring Millie and her guitar
This week, 9 pm to 1 am.

The above was a large, lighted sign out by the street in front of the establishment, where I worked. It had a cartoon rendering of a monk in his brown monk outfit with a rope tied around his middle. Both hands led the way into the parking lot in front of the The Merry Monk. The owner was going to post both my first name and my last name, but there were not enough Ms in his box of letters, so I was just “Millie.”

I wondered and I do so to this day if I fall into ruminating mode, if no one in the entire State of California ever met anyone with a southern accent. There is a huge naval base there, and it’s impossible that all the sailors were Yankees. But from the reaction of my folk club audiences in the four places where I worked over a period of two years’ time, you would have thought I was not only southern, but a visitor from South Mars or from the southernmost ring of Saturn or maybe from the south of the moon.

“Don’t sing any more, Darlin.’ Jest sat up thar and talk to us.” There would then be hearty laughter as I blushed and prayed for a hole to open in the floor and swallow me. If it got too loud and raucous, the manager would come onstage and say, “Okay, that’s enough. We paid this little lady a hefty sum to play her guitar and sing, and that’s what she’s gonna do. Ignore them, Millie. Go ahead and sing.”

The hefty sum he paid was the going rate for folk singer newbies anywhere from Los Angeles to San Diego: For a 45 minute set, we collected $5.00 and all the beer we could drink, plus dinner if the place served it.  When I was the only performer, I brought home a total of $20 as payment for four sets. I hated beer (still do) so that made me a slightly less expensive entertainer than the norm. I sang 12 songs per set. They were listed on a cheat sheet taped to the top of my guitar. I sang three sets and then repeated the first set for the fourth set. Most of the time, the clientele had changed, as we almost never had the same people there from 9 pm till midnight.

It was boring at best and downright dangerous at worst. The first place I worked after auditioning and being hired to begin that same evening was noisy and rude. They did the usual about the adorable southern accent. When I complained to the manager, during my first break, he told me if I didn’t like it to quit. The only food the place served was peanuts in the shell. If the audience didn’t approve of the singer, they threw peanut shells at him or her. The guy who came on before me asked the crowd to be careful not to hit his guitar. They took more careful aim then. That’s more careful aim AT the guitar. At the end of his set, he told the manager he was quitting.

“Sure, quit, but you had one more set to do, so I won’t be paying you for it,” the manager told him. “I also won’t be paying you for the set you just finished.” This creep was terrible. I was going to quit as well, but I desperately needed the ten bucks for two sets. It was my intention to see if I could get some work at a place down the street called “The Other Place.” I’d heard they were hiring. I also heard they treated their singers with a little more courtesy.

I had hung out at all kinds of places that hired guitar players. I knew what to expect. Unless it was an actual folk club, nobody listened to the singer. Some were better than others, but I knew not to take it personally when nobody listened to me. I played the guitar poorly, and that’s the best thing I can say about it. My children and I had no place to live. We stayed with Howie, whom I had met in Nashville. Howie and I were sure we were made for each other. Maybe we were. Maybe we’ll never know. But at any rate the story is too long and too sad to tell here. I’ll save it for the book.

Someone beat me to The Other Place, so I had no choice but to go back to work at the peanut-throwing emporium. I went back for a three-set night. “By the way,” said Mean Manager Man. “When a customer buys you a beer, you’re supposed to drink it. It looks bad when the beers are lined up on the edge of the stage.”

That did it. I had as much guff from this mouth-breathing bottom feeder as I felt necessary.

“Well, that’s just too bad,” I said. “You drink it or I’ll pour it out for you. If I drink it, you’ll find your high-class peanut chuckers covered in puke, to put it as genteel as I can. No offense.” Whereupon I switched on the voice mike and welcomed the scruffy crowd, promising them a bawdy good time. I switched on the guitar mike and broke into a too-loud, way-too-fast chorus of “This Land is My Land.” The audience stomped their feet and yelled. They loved it. Being quick learners, they picked up the lyrics and sang along with me. A lot of them got up and danced and a few tried to jump up on the stage with me. Even that was too rowdy for this place. The bartender grabbed them by the back of their collars and dumped them on the floor.

This was not my first professional gig. Howie and I went to New York the previous summer. Howie wanted me to sing in Greenwich Village. He was sure as soon as someone heard me, I would be offered a month-long gig and a recording contract. I knew that wasn’t going to happen. You couldn’t take a walk in the Village without stepping on a guitar player. Everybody wrote their own songs, sang quite nicely, and played the guitar like an angel. The only thing I had going for me was a voice, which I couldn’t even take credit for. I inherited it from my father, or Daddy, as I called him throughout his life.

Daddy taught me to sing and to harmonize on road trips. I hung my head on the back of his seat and sang. If I missed a note, we came to a full stop, and he made me practice until I sang whatever I missed correctly. I could harmonize by thirds when I was 4 years old. Daddy had a beautiful Irish tenor voice. I loved to sing with him.

In New York, Howie dragged me into The Bitter End on Bleeker Street. I was so impressed I could hardly speak. The Bitter End! I couldn’t believe it. I was hired for the night and I sat on the stool my idol, Mary Travers, had sat on to have my all-time favorite singers, Peter, Paul and Mary, photographed for their album cover. I was in heaven. In those days, the folk clubs didn’t serve alcohol. All you could order was Cokes and ice cream. So there were no disgusting drunks to deal with. I sang a song Paul wrote and Mary sang called “No Other Name.” It became my theme song. I must have sung that beautiful song and played my guitar badly to accompany myself thousands of times before it was all over. I also sang, “Come to my Bedside,” which is an ultra sexy song written by another folk singer, Eric Andersen. I had just learned “Gentle on my Mind,” written by my dear friend, John Hartford, who taught me to play it. There were some others, but they are lost somewhere in my memory weeds.

But that was New York, and we’re now in Long Beach, California. Too bad. I would have stayed in Greenwich Village for the rest of my life.

One night a big guy named Jerry came into the place where I was singing. Everyone seemed to know him. He walked up to the stage dodging the peanuts and said he wanted to talk to me at my next break. When it came I sat down at a table with him, and he said Mike, the owner of The Merry Monk had heard about me and wondered if I wanted to sing at the place. Yes, sir, I did. Even the money was better. A big $8 per set. Yowzee! Jerry said I could start the next night, and I told him I would be there. When I finished my next set, I had the wonderful pleasure of telling Mean Manager Man I quit. He was quite surprised and said everyone seemed to like me. If they did you’d never know it. I had peanut shells in my hair to prove it.

So, I came to The Merry Monk. It was a big place. They served pizza and the usual beer and other libations. Jerry was the bartender and the manager. Mike, the owner, wasn’t there all the time. I met him the first night and he said he had heard we had no place to live. He said he was living with his girlfriend, and he had an apartment near The Monk, and I was welcome to it, because everything he owned was at his girlfriend’s.

Life was looking up. I had a better place to work and the girls and I had a genuine furnished apartment to live in. The crowd at The Monk was way more polite. Lots of times they even listened to me. Some of them came to have favorites, which they would request, and I sang them. It played havoc with my scheduled songs, but I didn’t care. Sometimes I alternated sets with a boy and girl duet that were really good. There was also a stoner named Milo, whom I also liked. He did a solo and played the washboard. One night when he was really high, he played his entire set on the washboard. Before he finished, everyone was booing and Mike told him not to do that again.

Things went along swimmingly. The crowds grew and we all had a good time. One night, I noticed everyone was listening to me. The place was packed and the audience was quiet and most appreciative. Sometimes they requested a song, and they sang along with me. During my break, a large group of people at the biggest booth asked me to come sit with them. They were very nice and told me how much they liked my singing. It felt wonderful. About halfway through the second set, Jerry came on stage. He just stood by me till I finished a song. Then he came closer and whispered to me, “Mike wants to see you.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go see him in his office when I finish this set.”

“No,” said Jerry. “He wants to see you now, right now.”

“Before I finish this set,” I asked.

“Yes,” said Jerry. “Right now.”

I was mystified. I told the audience I would be right back, and followed Jerry off the stage.

Mike was seated at his desk.

“What’s going on, Mike,” I asked.

“Millie, you are a wonderful singer, and your audience is very attentive, but do you know why we’re in business,” he said.

“Sure,” I answered. “Same as any business. To make money.”

“Right,” he said, “Do you know how much money we’ve made during your two sets tonight?”

He didn’t give me time to answer.

“None,” he said. “Zero. It’s a great compliment to you, but Millie, you’re bad for business.”

“Do you mean I’m fired, because people are listening to me?”

“Exactly,” he said.

I was thunderstruck and speechless.

“Business has been falling off ever since we hired you and tonight the only money we’ve taken in is during your break. I’m sorry. I know you need the job, so I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m not happy with the pizza cook, so I’m going to fire him and I’ll give you his job.”

“But Mike,” I said, “I don’t know how to make pizzas.”

“Sure you do. It’s easy. I’ll show you, and I’ll also pay you minimum wage. You’ll make more money.

So, he showed me. He was right. It was easy. And I made more money.

My folk-singing career in Long Beach was finished, and my pizza cooking life began. Two months later I left for Los Angeles and did some brief stints at the folk clubs there.

And that, dear reader, is how I was fired at the height of my success. I never held a crowd like the audience at The Merry Monk ever again.

So, I left home a folk singer and came home a pizza cook. Go figure.

Happy Easter! Here’s Hoping You Have an Egg Cracked on Your Head!

We spent four Easters in Mexico, all of them in San Miguel de Allende and all of them unforgettable.

What a festival! The weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning are a whirlwind of ancient Indian activities and Christian traditions. It makes for an incongruity that is typically Mexican.

While ladies in mantillas are filing into the cathedral for the many masses said during the season, they may weave their way through a parade of half-naked Indians carrying platters of food for the gods. Everything quiets down on Good Friday for a while anyway. The townspeople go home to welcome visitors.The typical Mexican home is attached to the adjoining buildings on either side. It fronts directly on the sidewalk, just as city buildings do in this country. There is a heavy wooden door and maybe a window or two.Go through the door and you’re in an outdoor entryway leading to an open courtyard with each room of the home opening onto it.

The retired gringos have very elaborate settings, but the locals have much smaller courtyards and the rooms are either slept in or cooked in. No space, time, or money for rooms that don’t have a specific purpose.

I love the Mexican houses, especially the homes in the colonial towns. If you think it’s hard to get a building permit in your town, you should ask for one in San Miguel. The answer is no. Always, no.

A building permit can be had if you can replace crumbling stone with crumbling stone, but that’s about it. The city planners (there’s really no such thing) don’t care much what you do to the inside of your courtyard or your house, but if you’re going to make repairs to anything that shows from the street, you have to make them with identical materials. As the town has been there just as it looks today since the 17th century, that’s a pretty tall order.

Anyway, back to Easter.

About sunset on Good Friday, the homes are open to anyone who wants to stop by. The family decorates the entryway with an Easter scene and they offer refreshments to guests.

If it’s a very poor family (and that’s the norm) the flowers in the decorations are made of dirty plastic, the figurine of Christ is chipped and faded, and the candles are burned down to the point where they will hardly stay lit. The family is all there, dressed in their best bibs and tuckers and they are so gracious it breaks your heart.

“Welcome. Please have some water,” one of the children will say, offering a plastic cup of deadly E-coli.

“No, gracias,” we answer in our fractured Spanish. “Su casa est mui bella.”

The family smiles at us even though they have no idea what we are saying in our odd combination of Spanish, French, and Italian.

Every year we stopped at three of four houses and that’s all we could take. We were afraid we would hurt their feelings not accepting their “refreshments.”

When it gets dark, the kids are let loose from their home duties and everyone heads to the square, which in San Miguel is called the “jardin,” because it is truly a garden.

It sits across the street from one of the most curious cathedrals in the world where heroes of the revolution were baptized as infants. Its architecture is ludicrous, fashioned from French postcards, picturing the famous cathedrals of Paris. It’s also beautiful as the spires loom above the jardin.

The trees in the jardin are carefully shaved every month by men with hand clippers atop tall ladders. It takes three or four days to accomplish the job, but when the clippers come down from the ladders, the trees are shaped like huge hockey pucks.

The jardin is lined with iron benches beneath the green hockey pucks where no one sits at sundown because the trees fill with large grackles. The birds flood the town square with their squawks and the benches with their poop.

When the kids come to the jardin after Good Friday visiting, they come armed with colored eggshells filled with confetti. They all race about the square cracking the eggs over each other’s heads.

It’s considered a high honor for a gringo to have an egg cracked on his head. The Mexicans avoid any social contact with their neighbors north of the border, and the egg cracking custom is never bestowed on a gringo unless he has earned the trust of the Mexican kids. We gringas never ever get eggs cracked on our heads. It’s just not done to ladies.

Easter Sunday is a solemn occasion. Everybody goes to church, of course. Actually, most Mexican women to church everyday. There they are at 8 o’clock mass every morning answering the peal of the church bells.

Out on the ancient steps of the church, children and old women sell crosses made from palm fronds. All the shops are closed and there isn’t a sound all over town. Only when the grackles come at sundown is the silence penetrated.

Oh, how I do miss Mexico. It’s a country of heart-stopping extremes. I’ve seen things so horrible they’re etched on my memory forever. I’ve also seen sights so beautiful I wonder sometimes if I’m not unconsciously embellishing them. I hope not.

If you observe Easter, I hope you have a joyous one. I also hope you’re the kind of person who would be likely to have an egg cracked on your head by a Mexican child.


As the calendar creeps through March I try to prepare myself for the inevitable onset of Cabin Fever.

Here in Ohio, the snowdrops poke out of the ground, and the willow branches take on their amber hue. But that’s about it for tried and true harbingers of spring.

Back home in Tennessee, daffodils are already up and running. Of course, they’re not called daffodils there. We Southerners prefer to call them “buttercups.” Never mind there is a waxy little yellow wildflower properly called buttercups. We are set in our ways about lots of things and referring to daffodils as buttercups is one about which we are devout.

Considering my long sojourn here in the “Nawth,” it seems I would be more accepting of its weather patterns. But it has never been so. March should take seriously the vernal equinox instead of continuing to languish in the winter doldrums. I can remember the first winter I spent in Upstate New York. It just kept on snowing. The “survivors,” as the natives liked to call themselves, had already warned me about the snow starting in November or earlier and continuing for an indefinite time. I was then prepared for a thick blanket of snow from Thanksgiving through February, but March and part of April came and went and it was still snowing.

I very nearly lost my mind. Some say I did lose it. Some say it’s still lost. It’s just that it seems somehow immoral that winter clings on so long. I have to admit it makes me a little crazy. Not as crazy as my family thinks I’m crazy, but enough to make me occasionally wonder why I do what I do. I mean, sometimes I surprise myself.

During one especially worrisome episode of Cabin Fever a while back, I decided to build a solarium on the back of the house and move the kitchen into it; I ordered books on glass painting, commodity trading, polymer clay, and Zen; I made a commitment to learn “Pancho & Lefty” on the guitar, mainly because I only recently discovered its composer, Townes Van Zandt; I bought a 12-piece setting of gold-plated silverware in a faux mahogany box; and I toured the craggy hills of Central Ohio looking for a place to build a log cabin.

I resolved to exercise and train for the U.S. Open Senior Tennis championship. Martina was thereby served notice. It is I who would be kissing the trophy while she must be contented to hold the runner-up’s silver platter.

My daughter wanted to know if I had bought a book on “How to Perform Your Own Tummy Tuck with Hedge Clippers and Super Glue.” Well, perhaps an instrument less cumbersome than hedge clippers but. . .

It was during one of the Cabin Fever episodes that I went to Nashville to visit Best Friend Robert. We went out to see our buddies, Don and Jimmy, in the country. The boys raise those cute little Shih Tzu dogs. I had decided I wanted a dog. Mind you, I don’t even like dogs, but I had to have one.

As we watched the puppies romp and play in Jimmy’s and Don’s living room, I once again surprised myself when I withdrew my checkbook and wrote a check for $500. I bought two! I named them Shotzi and Maxi.

Daughter and family were shocked, but not nearly as much as I was. When this mood strikes me, it’s as though I step out of my body and fly around near the ceiling watching myself do the most outrageous things. As soon as I had the puppies in the house, there I was up there again watching in wonder.

“What the. . .she’s really done it this time,” I said to me. I always refer to myself in the third person when in shock mode, and sometimes I pretend I don’t know me at all.

The cute little dogs got right to work making me even crazier. They chewed, ripped, and tore up everything they could reach. They pooped on every floor in every room. They barked at me by dawn’s early light every morning. They wanted to go out, though God knows why; they always waited to come back in the house to do their business.

The crazy woman had made a big mistake.

The day I came home and found they had unraveled a two-inch strip of my brand new Berber carpet pushed me over the edge. As I stood looking at the ruined carpet I realized I liked the carpet more than I liked the little dogs. When I found in the bedroom my Italian leather boots in shreds, that did it. I gave the cute little dogs away.

John’s friend, Larry, said after the first forsythia blooms, there would be only three more snows. He had seen its yellow blossoms that very day. At this point, March 29, there have been two snows since Larry spied a blooming forsythia. Neither snow amounted to much. The first was about an inch and the second barely covered the hopeful green grass.

I will leave my snow boots at the bottom of the steps just inside the front door, where they have been since Thanksgiving.

After the next (third) snow, I will take the boots upstairs and put them in the back of the closet. Should there be another (No. 4) snow, I will go upstairs to retrieve the boots. I will put them on and wear them to Larry’s house. When I see Larry, I will take off one of the boots and use it to beat him severely about the head and shoulders until he begs for mercy.

Should Larry think I am kidding, I can direct him to several erstwhile friends who can attest to my sincerity when speaking about the duress under which I place people who play fast and loose with snow prognostications.

One must be careful about weather predictions. Don’t go looking up at the sky and saying it looks like it may be clearing. Don’t, under any circumstances, put away the snow shovel. Don’t even think winter has done its worst.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing. If you see my neighbor, Richard, bring out his golf clubs, rush to the IGA and buy every loaf of bread and bottle of milk you can find. Run home and batten down the hatches. Believe me when I tell you:  we’re in for a real nor’easter!