Asphalt Siding

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This morning I lingered long enough waiting for a train to take the above picture with my phone. The house is the lone survivor of several demolitions on that block, and the number of homes with asphalt siding in Lima is dwindling.

I lived in a home with asphalt siding for several years while I was growing up. Spotting a similar house this morning somehow reminded me of something my mom once told me about ghosts. She said what may seem to be ghosts may actually be impressions left by people who are living. I myself believe that God allows us to see anything he feels we need to know, and it is possible that in his wisdom he may show us images of the living or the dead.

If our old house were haunted by our living selves, someone would see us as we were back in the mid-80’s. My hair would be bleached from a summer in the city pool, and the home perm I’d gotten on top of it would have accidentally given me Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” hairdo. Likewise, my sister would be studying the fallout from her home perm and wondering how soon she could rid herself of Barbara Streisand’s look from A Star is Born. My brother would be watching He-Man while my mom wondered how we were going to survive the rubber plant strike. My dad would be standing at the fridge, eating peanut butter straight from the jar. His cuticles and eyelashes would still be stained black from his work in that factory. My mom would be wearing the navy blue dotted shirt she wore most days for a whole year.

If I had the chance to see an echo of that scene, I’d know all over again that those were the days that made me. I’m happy with a working class job. No matter how many shirts I own, I usually end up rotating just a few of them until they wear out. I’m grateful that my growing up taught me that less can be more.

Spring Photo Walk, April 22

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I had the day off from work. I tried to resist the urge to document the unfolding of the season in favor of catching up on housework, but I failed, as those who know me best could have predicted.

As I cropped these pictures at home, I decided that some Air Supply songs would be the ideal soundtrack for that task. The name “Russell Hitchcock” floated to my mind, and I considered that it may possible that I have problems retaining new information because of the trivial old bits that have clogged my memory. Wherever Russell Hitchcock is these days, I wish him well and hope he can still hit the high notes in his songs and fit into those Sergio Valente jeans.

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Cold Pop


Today I spotted a man who looked like a cross between Sammy Hagar and Gallagher the watermelon-splitting comedian. Really, he had Sammy’s crinkled “I Can’t Drive 55” hairdo and Gallagher’s mustache. His face equally resembled both of these 80’s icons. Oddly enough, he looked young enough to have been born after they peaked in popularity.

This corner pop machine looks to have the vintage of a time when almost everyone would have known who Gallagher was, yet no man would have wanted to hear that he looked like him.

I admit that some of my mental math that determines resemblance is a little faulty. Last year I saw a long-haired young man with a Van Dyke beard, and I privately called him Flemish Jesus. From the shoulders up, he really looked like what I’d imagine a Little Dutch Masters portrait of Jesus might look like.


On Generic Foods, Infant Formula, and Other Random Memories This Morning

This year my daughter’s week-long spring break coincided with my medical leave. Between my continued recovery from back surgery and her goal of catching up on slumber, this week we have primarily indulged in what Van Morrison would call heavy rest.

My daughter was born in the Puget Sound area of Washington, and I suspect that her natural circadian rhythm matches Pacific Time, despite that she lived there for such a short time. If I let her wake naturally, she will arise late in the morning in Eastern time. As I type this post at 9 in the morning, she shows no signs of awakening any time soon.

As I follow random thoughts about motherhood, I fall back to a memory of the very end of the 70’s, when my younger brother was almost brand new and we lived in suburban Indianapolis. In my mind’s eye I can see my mother doing five things at once in the kitchen. She is making a pizza, heating water to warm my brother’s bottle, tutoring my sister in phonetic reading and reassuring me that, yes, my drawing of the letter A in red is wonderful.

I remember the flick of her wrist as she turned on the burner to heat the water and how she pulled out a weighty tin of olive oil embossed with a Rococo-looking design and poured a bit of it to grease the sheet pan for our dinner pizza. On the third burner was a drained pound of hamburger that would dot most of the pizza, with a little left over in the skillet for Dad to pick and savor, the meaty taste unfettered in the small remainder of grease that seems impossible to drain completely.

In the flurry of all of this cooking, Mom would listen to my sister read aloud from the kitchen table. My older sister has dyslexia, and I’d be in awe of all of work she and Mom did as she solidified her reading skills. What an epic battle that was for my sister, to be a dyslexic student when that mode of perceiving the world was so little understood by the very people who were supposed to be teaching her at school!

This is why I have memories of my sister reading from the kitchen table as my mom readied our dinners. I secretly liked it when Mom would chime in to pronounce a few of the words, especially the word grass (“gr-ass”). Since I’d sit rapt at the dinner table as my sister was tutored, I knew how to read when I started school.

On that particular evening, I watched Mom fetch my brother’s bottle from its water bath on the stove and test a few drops of the formula on the inside of her wrist to see if it was the right temperature. Next she slid the homemade pizza into the oven and fed my brother as the pizza cooked. He finished the bottle and was burped just in time for the pizza to be done just right.

More than 30 years later, I am still mystified at how well my mother timed out all of these tasks. When my daughter was a baby, I’d feel totally flustered at juggling her feeding with cooking dinner, and I had just one child.

I ended up bottle feeding, too, despite all the best intentions at nursing my baby as nature intended. Even though I had the assistance of a doula and multiple lactation consultants, my milk did not flow much beyond the initial colostrum. I’m not entirely sure why this happened. Maybe after all the sciatica, anemia, protracted labor, and a surgical birth, my body refused to yield to what I think of as the fourth trimester of pregnancy.

So like many mothers I surrendered to artificial feeding, but I took time to read on the subject. I think I retrieved most of the white papers available online at the time on infant formulas, understanding at best half of their contents but fascinated nonetheless. I also become aware of how controversial infant formula can be, especially in the developing world where a consistent clean water supply is not dependable. I learned that though I felt like I was poor back then, the fact that I could safely fail at nursing and depend on formula for my baby was a sign of privilege.

I also wondered about the history of infant formula. The promo materials on formula circa my daughter’s birth made it sound as if these products were growing ever closer to mimicking the benefits of breast milk, and I imagined that such products started in a form that needed improvement. I called Mom and asked her what baby formula was like when she was growing up in the 50’s, and she said it was boiled evaporated milk diluted to an amount that was doctor prescribed and specific to the heartiness of the individual infant, with vitamin drops added.

Most of these babies thrived despite this distant imitation of breast milk, which is a living substance that cannot be cloned even with today’s technology.

I have just one antique that I have added to my home. During a visit to Kentucky, I found an old infant formula tin:

I am still stunned at the radically generic title of this product, Soluble Food, despite that it has a brand name (Canrick’s). It takes me back to another moment of my childhood, in the early 80’s when I was depressed at the recession phenomena of generic food with white labels and block letters plainly proclaiming the contents inside, free of the taint of any brand at all. For instance, peanut butter was laid bare, with no maternal slogans or elves to lull one into thinking it was more exciting than itself. I recall a brief food stamp interlude during that recession when my mom made sure we had enough by filling her grocery cart to the brim with such generic items. All but the produce, milk, and fresh meat had black-and-white labels with Helvetica letters in caps on them. I felt like we had hit rock bottom.

By the way, I don’t believe the hype that the economic downfall of the Rust Belt is anything new. I remember when the factories starting closing and the work began drying up, back in the ’70s and ’80s. My family lost it all for a while, and I discovered that government cheese and generic peanut butter make a dynamo sandwich pair.

Back to my infant formula tin, I hope that the product inside did as it claimed to do, sustain infants, invalids, and dyspeptics alike. It reminds me of how those of use who are most vulnerable sometime must rely the most on processed food. I also think of how vital it is that we have standards in product claims and purity.

And now my mind wanders again in looking at the side of the tin with instructions translated to German. When I was doing family research this year, I heard that some of my now-departed relatives of German ancestry still retained traces of a foreign accent into the Depression era, despite that their families had been in this country for two centuries. This product label from the early twentieth century could be a reflection of immigration in that time or the retention of that language in German-American communities. I wonder how many generations that language endured in this country in some of my family lines.

Over time, my maiden name transformed from Sch├╝tz to Schutz to Schitz to Sheets. I would guess that this line forsake German around the 1840’s when they became Sheets. When my siblings and I were growing up, each one of us was nicknamed Shits at various times, and the latest child who dreamed of this would have that look of astonishment on his face, as if he were the first person on the planet to have ever considered how close Sheets is to Shits.

When I first looked at the Sheets family history, I told my brother and sister that if I were to make one of those customer printed family tree books, it would have the following title in gold leaf on the cover, We Were Schitz!.

And now I will close this post, as I really should wake up my daughter. It is time to get up, even in the Pacific time of her birth.

Eight or Twelve for a Penny: Columbia House Memories

Some of my Columbia House bounty . . . I wish I could claim the cheesier titles were unsolicited selections of the month, but, alas, I cannot.

When I was a kid, I’d look over magazines and the Sunday paper, noting the trappings of what I’d imagine would make a perfect adult life. The lighter side of me would dream of building a country estate based on model homes depicted in the real estate ads. I’d imagine driving home up a winding lane in a MG convertible, wearing some smart outfit from Penney’s in a mail-order only color, eager to set up the filet mignon for dinner. The part of me that secretly rooted for Darth Vader plotted what kind of vices I’d choose in later days, so I also dreamed of owning a penthouse where I’d smoke Benson and Hedges and sip Riunite while listening to a hoarde of albums from the Columbia Record and Tape Club.

I was able to forego the indulgence of nicotine and alcohol for several more years, but I fell prey to Columbia House as soon as I felt I could write my address as well as an adult would. When I was 12, I taped a penny to the order form, checked off the box that declared I was at least 18 years old and waited for my box of tunes. By the time I actually smoked a Benson and Hedges (which tasted like minty dust instead of something worthy of Remington Steele, by the way), I had signed up for the deal four times, at least once under an assumed name. I was able to pay for these tapes and CD’s first with allowance money and later with minimum wage pay until the recoil of this scheme would hit me: the forgotten selection of the month billed at full retail. A collection agency pursued my alias by the time I was 14.

This scheme did not portend a life of crime. I did an online search on this topic and discovered that this scam was so widespread that the company factored such losses into its business model.

I will close this post with a few links to some articles on Columbia House:

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