A Cat By Any Other Name Would Still Purr as Loudly

Posted January 8, 2014 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

John Isaiah Owens and "Pekoe"

John Isaiah Owens and “Pekoe”

I have a confession to make.  Yesterday, when choosing a name for our new orange kitten, my daughter and I Googled “cute names for orange kittens.”  Then, we chose from the list yielded by the search.   I am not proud to admit that we agreed on the name of Pekoe, as in orange Pekoe tea, because we thought “it sounded cute.”  This, in spite of the fact that orange pekoe tea isn’t even orange, it’s black, according to my literary and literal-minded neighbor Betsey Maupin.  Betsey wanted me to name him Mr. Bates, after the Downton Abbey valet. I rejected Betsey’s suggestion for fear that someone might address an envelope to “Master Bates” before he reaches maturity, making him subject to teasing by other adolescent felines. But I digress.

What is shocking—SHOCKING—about the haphazard naming of Pekoe is that my husband and I are insufferable name snobs.  This doesn’t mean that we aspire to hang with the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers (although we did do some almost quasi-hanging with Senator Jay Rockefeller in our former professional lives in West Virginia.  Although I suspect that Rockefellers and Astors don’t really ‘hang.’  Perhaps they cavort.  But I digress again).  No, our name snobbery is manifested in the choosing of first names (or ‘Christian names’ as my homey J-Rock probably refers to them).  Meaning, give your child a first name with some significance, don’t just choose it from a dumb baby names book you threw into your cart at Safeway.  When your child asks how he got his name, you don’t want your answer to begin with, “So me and your dad was in the checkout line, see…”

It’s ironic that I, nee Betsy Jane Rogers, have become a name snob.  In fact, my mother chose my name, not for Betsy Ross or Jane Eyre, but because she just liked how it rolled off her tongue in October, 1966. It was between “Betsy Jane” and “Betsy Jill.”  Jane won out.  My cousin, born three months before me, was “Wendy Sue,” and the cousin before that was “Vicki Jean.”  My mother and aunts had evidently consulted the Cutie Pie Book of Naming, choosing from the chapter titled “Name your child THIS if you want her to grow up to bake cherry pies and fetch her husband’s slippers.”  I was all too happy to drop the Jane when I married my carefully-named husband, Paul von Hartz Owens, who  is the progeny of two unabashed name snobs, Joan and Gwinn Owens.  I guess you could say I am a name snob by marriage.

Paul’s first name was chosen for Gwinn’s two closest friends, and von Hartz is his grandmother’s maiden name.  It’s doubly ironic, actually, that my husband remains a name snob, after the grief his middle name has caused him over the years.  In German, ‘von’ is a royal surname prefix that means “from the line of.”  So, Paul’s ancestors way, way back were from the family line of Hartzes, whoever they were (royal purveyors of flea collars?). My husband has zero use for royalty, and even less for his middle initial, which no one can really pinpoint.  Is it lower case v?  Upper case H?  The combined vH? Standardized forms with a single square for middle initial make him seethe with resentment. He has chosen to leave it out of his journalistic byline completely.

Not only were Paul and his three siblings endowed with names of studied family significance, but this religious rule, with a couple notable exceptions, even extended to the naming of pets and cars.  Yes, cars.  In the 70s, Gwinn’s red Chevy Impala was named “Well Red.” As you might surmise, he was. When I came on the scene in the late 80s Joan drove a crappy Aries K-Car, elevated by its Latin name of Festina Lente (look it up.) Cats were dubbed “Emily” and “Heathcliff” for Gwinn’s favorite book, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Once, however, the family acquired a small fluffy kitten, which the young Owens children insisted on calling “Little Fuzz.”  This troubled my father-in-law, causing him to invent an elaborate story about the ‘real’ origin of the name Little Fuzz.  In fact, decades later, long after the demise of said feline, when the topic of Little Fuzz arose, Gwinn would insist that the moniker came from their indecision over whether the furball would bear the appellation of Castor or Pollux, the mythological twin brothers of Helen of Troy.  Gwinn would say “we debated…should we name him Castor or Pollux? C or P? COP? In the CB radio community, another name for a cop is ‘the fuzz.’  Little Fuzz it is!!”  This would elicit aerobic eye-rolling on the part of my husband.   When I first met Gwinn, he sheepishly introduced me to his dog Mandy.  “She came from the pound, you see, so she was already named.”  Gwinn would have just as likely have named his mastiff Mr. Barksalot.

In our married life, Paul and I have endeavored to carry on the rich tradition of meaningful name selection.  In other words, I signed a pre-nup that there would never be a Brittnee Dakotah Owens. Predictably, when we became parents we named our daughter Margaret Joan for her two grandmothers.  When we were awaiting the arrival of our son, still not knowing the sex, we discussed girl names.  I suggested the idea of “Mary Laura,” since Paul’s sister is named Laura.  Paul rejected the idea.  “Who the heck is Mary?” he asked.  My answer of “Uh, only the Virgin Mother of God” failed to satisfy his ‘the name must have direct personal relevance’ imperative.  Luckily, Jack (whom we had agreed would be named for my father) came along, rendering the discussion of the Mary moniker moot.

Knowing this history makes the fact that Paul acquiesced to our arbitrary naming of Pekoe all the more remarkable.  But it does leave me wondering if, decades from now, when we discuss fond memories of Pekoe, my husband will, like his father before him, invent some elaborate and apocryphal story about how the kitten got his name.  “Oh yes, darling Pekoe,” he might explain to Jack’s new bride, “named for the Ancient Chinese philosopher who delighted children with his cat-like whiskers.”  Jack will look back at me, roll his eyes, and  Little Fuzz will purr down from Heaven.

The Spanish Teacher Inquisition

Posted February 14, 2013 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

Image

At Winter Park High School, my girlfriends and I were hopelessly square, and didn’t go to the kind of parties “you didn’t need an invitation for”, i.e., keg parties.  This left us to make our own fun on weekends, which frequently consisted of making prank calls to our Spanish teachers.   Remember this was the early 1980s, well before the days of caller ID. We had a series of dialogues that we were forced to memorize in Elementary Spanish and recite so many times that, to this day, they are ingrained in my memory.  I will go to my grave pondering whether Lili is indeed la tia de Susana. We used these contrived dialogues as the script for our prank calls.

One evening, we were at my friend Page’s house and called Senora Petrunic.  Page was on the phone while Dana and I sat on her bed and egged her on.  Senora Petrunic answered.   Page began to prattle, reciting the dialogue as we had in class. “Quien sabe quando llega Eva? De los Estados Unidos? Yo Se! Quando, Adela? El Sabado!” giggled Page into the receiver.  Then, “Es Lili la tia de Susana?” After prattling on a bit with Senora Petrunic, who was actually a pretty good sport, Page looked horror stricken and hung up the receiver.  It seems her mother had picked up the extension in her room and barked, “Page Collins, who are you talking to?  Who is Lili?” As my own teens would say, we were so busted.  You can imagine how excited Page was to walk into Spanish class the following day.

I don’t know why it was always our Spanish teacher that bore the brunt of our teenage high jinx, but it was. Our senior year, we set our sites on our Spanish III instructor, Hilda Ferrero, who sadly, was not the brightest luz in the chandelier.  We called her one evening.

“Hilda?” I screeched, in convincing Spanglish.  “You’ll never in a million años guess who this is!”

Hilda, excitedly: “Who?! Who?!”

“It’s Carolina from Miami! Como esta?  It’s been so long!!”

“Oh!!! Carolina!! Carolina from Miami!!”

Not knowing what to say next, I lapsed into the memorized dialogues from Spanish I, about when Eva would arrive in the United States and going to the dog races.

“Quien sabe quando llega Eva? Vamos a la carreras de perros.”

No response.

“Es Lili la tia de Susana?”

Hilda finally figured out that she was the victim of a cruel deception.

“Wait…I don’t know you,” she charged.

This, of course, became the punchline in our jokes for the remainder of the year. “Wait…I don’t know you.”

Another ruse she never caught onto involved impromptu speeches, which the class dreaded.   When it was your turn to speak, you would go to the podium and pick a mystery topic out of a hat.  You’d read what was on the slip of paper, and place it back in the hat. Some of them were quite difficult – it was Spanish III after all – things like “Give directions from your home to school” or “Describe a picnic you’ve been on.”  However, one of the topics you could draw was “Wild Card” which allowed you to revert to kindergarten Spanish, stringing together anything you could say that happened to be in Espanol.  For example, “Me llamo Betsy.  Tengo diez y seis anos.  Yo vivo en una casa. Es Lili la tia de Susana? ”  As I mentioned earlier, poor Mrs. Ferrero was not shrewd to the ways of the American teenager.   It didn’t seem to strike her as a statistical anomaly that although there were twenty or so topics in the hat, about  7 of 10 people would approach the hat, extract a slip of paper, and disbelievingly but triumphantly announce “Wild Card, again!”

When I went away to college, I continued my Spanish studies, and indirectly, my torture of the Winter Park High School Spanish department through my younger brother, Geoffrey.  One March, when I was home on Spring Break, I helped my brother and his best friend, Lawrence Kolin (now a respected Winter Park lawyer) construct a phone booth out of an old cardboard refrigerator box in the driveway. They were building it for a skit they planned to perform in Spanish class the following day.  I told them it would be more authentic if they spray-painted Spanish graffiti on the outside.  They wondered what to put, so I spelled out for them some of the Spanish vulgarities I was now learning in college-level Spanish.  As you know, though, there are different levels of profanity.  There’s mild, PG-level swearing of the H-E-double hockey sticks variety, and then there’s the XXX rated variety.  I told them I was spelling out the former, when in reality I was having them paint messages that instructed the reader to do the unmentionable (think Clint Eastwood’s chair’s instructions to Mitt Romney).  When the phone booth arrived at school the following day, the Winter Park High School Spanish faculty were not amused.  They gathered around the offensive refrigerator box, scowling and tittering in Spanish, and decided that Geoffrey and Lawrence would not be allowed to perform their skit in class and would be given an automatic F on the project.

They didn’t believe Geoffrey’s excuse that his sister had told him what to write.

“I remember Betsy! She was such a well-behaved girl–an A student, not like you!  She never would have done something like this.”

Sister sister

Posted July 16, 2012 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

I didn’t tell my friends at home that I was going to a reunion of my sorority sisters from the University of Virginia. The images conjured by the “Greek system” – debauched keg parties, shallow sorority rush practices, secret handshakes—didn’t mesh with my adult image of open-mindedness, of living a life of purpose. The idea of attaching the word ‘sisterhood’ to a bunch of young women bound together by their desire to belong to an exclusive club so that they could cavort with other exclusive clubs – and whose parents were willing to finance it—seemed disingenuous.

But through the magic of Facebook, I had reconnected with my farflung ‘sisters,’ and a combination of curiosity and a genuine desire to reconnect with a couple dear friends compelled me to make the trip to Washington, D.C.  I’m not sure what I expected, but was unprepared for what I found.  Most people, as it turned out, had become distilled, improved, and genuine versions of their college selves.  Life experiences – love and loss, triumph and tragedy—had stripped away most of the superficial pretenses of their college personas, resulting in a group of strong and accomplished women.

There was Alex, the president of the University student body, and my first year R.A. Daughter of two Chilean immigrants, she was the main reason I had joined a sorority to begin with—evidence that there was room in the Greek system for people of substance. After graduation, Alex became a top advisor for Amnesty International, harnessing her charisma and political acumen to advocate for the downtrodden. This we might have predicted. That she wouldn’t find her true soul-mate until she neared 40, and would become a mother to a delightful, special-needs son (leading to her current passion of autism training for public school teachers) we couldn’t have known. But the challenges she’s faced, rather than defeat her, have clearly just honed her God-given passion for helping others.

My “big sister” (cue sarcastic throat-clearing), Leslie, was and is perhaps the most feminine person I have ever known. As coeds, she introduced me to Laura Ashley fabrics and Tea-Rose perfume. We double-dated to fraternity parties, and got into mischief belied by our flouncy attire and strings of cultured pearls. Now a wise and gifted clinical psychologist, Leslie lives the courage of her convictions with her longtime partner Lisa. Her abiding passion for beauty and adventure has led to an enviable resume of world travel, and is manifested in the objects d’art and Andalusian showdogs that share her Dupont Circle walkup.  And like an older sister, she was a sympathetic and generous listener to this embattled mom of challenging adolescents.

And there was Trish, the philosopher-chemist whose left and right brains still battle for dominance. Now an EPA consultant, wife, and mother of two boys, she lives in Ann Arbor (quote from another sister: “Are you allowed to live in Ann Arbor if you’re not brilliant?”) Still the antithesis of a bubble-headed sorority girl, she shared stories of her father’s childhood escape from Nazi-occupied Poland (who knew?) and her current work literally saving the planet.  Half-Polish Trish makes it seem O.K. to be Greek.

Finally I hooked up with Jenny, with whom I share a maiden name and a Christian faith.  As undergrads, Jenny’s purity and sweetness were saved from being cloying by the mischievous twinkle in her eye accompanying her throaty, infectious laugh. It was clear, even dressed in peach acetate and Pappagallo flats at our 1985 Spring Formal, that her love for Mike, now her husband of 25 years, would stand the test of time. What we couldn’t have guessed was that Jenny would go on to mother two boys, one with profound developmental difficulties—caring for them largely on her own while Mike worked out-of-state. And then, at age 47, she’d dust off her navy suit and pumps to buy and operate an insurance franchise. They say God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.  He clearly has a lot of faith in Jenny.

There were other inspirational stories: Rachel, raising three challenging sons on her own after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home; Anne, the gorgeous debutante who found love later in life and is now mothering two adopted children, one with mild Autism; Liz, who turned the trauma of a violent campus rape into advocating for victims’ rights, speaking around the world on the topic.

As my plane touches down in Orlando, I ponder the lessons of the weekend, and tears come.  Twenty-five years ago, as we primped for mixers with cute fraternity boys, fate held cards for all of us that it didn’t show. The blessed, blind carelessness of youth!  It’s a safe bet that the challenges and life events we’ll face between now and – Gasp! – our early seventies will be even more daunting. But one thing’s now certain to me: my sisters will embrace these challenges, learn from them, and harness them for the good.

iCrack for Babies

Posted September 26, 2011 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

I had a strange, visceral reaction to an article I read in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel. A new notebook computer has been invented, called the “Vinci,” designed for the 4-and-under set. Like the Ipad, it has a touch screen and can play music, videos and games. The Vinci, however, is encased in a rubber frame with easy-grab handles, so that a toddler can tote it along with him in the stroller, or drop it from his crib, without ruining the $400 device. This article alarmed me on a number of levels, but here’s what really made me wince: Engineer Dan Yang was inspired to invent the Vinci because her daughter had come to prefer Yang’s iPad to her baby toys before her first birthday.

I was trying to place the familiar shudder that went through me when reading this phrase, and realized that it was the same reaction I had on watching the viral YouTube video of a 2-year-old Indonesian child, sitting in a diaper and leather jacket on the front porch of his family’s one-room shack, chain-smoking cigarettes. His father supplied him with the cancer sticks—two packs per day–and encouraged him to perform tricks like blowing smoke rings for the British media that had come to film the spectacle. Here’s a link, in case you missed it:  

I would argue that both providing a child who is still in diapers with a tablet computer, and doing little to discourage her preference for the shiny, ever-changing, mesmerizing screen to toys that promote interacting with others, mastering spatial relationships and learning life skills isn’t really all that different than filling up her bottle with strawberry daiquiris instead of formula. Both daiquiris and computer games are colorful and alluring and go down easy, and if used in excess, are addictive and destructive. To use either one in moderation requires a level of self-control far beyond the capacity of a preschooler.

After reading the aforementioned article over my morning coffee, we headed to church, where my husband and I teach Sunday School to a class of 24 second- and third-graders. Following an introductory art project, the kids were asked to sit on the carpet and listen to the story of Adam and Eve and original sin. The behavior I witnessed—almost exclusively among the boys, who outnumber the girls 2-to-1 in our class–was truly appalling. While the teacher, one of the 6 (!) of us necessary to ride herd on the class, sat on the carpet and told the story in an animated and engaging way, there were at any given time at least 4 different misbehaviors going on among the class. Children were hitting each other, having loud conversations with one another, blurting out irrelevant statements often involving the word “poopy,” and thrashing around on the floor and annoying fellow classmates. At least half of the children seemed completely incapable of sitting still for a 5-minute story, even one involving a serpent and nakedness. Interestingly, when the parents came to pick their kids up, I noticed “Brandon”, who had been particularly ill-behaved, try to get his father’s attention while his mother talked with another mom about last night’s cocktail party. The father was focusing intently on the screen of his smart phone held 8 inches in front of his nose, and paid no attention to Brandon, who was jumping on top of Dad’s loafers and hanging on his elbow.

I thought back to when I was in second and third grade. Both years, in my class of 30 students (taught by 1 teacher), there was one ‘bad’ boy who was a frequent discipline problem. I remember going home each day and dutifully reporting to my mother, in a tsk-tsk tone of voice, what antics Theron Wynn had performed that day. The other 29 students, for the most part, strove for the teacher’s approval, and were capable of sitting in a wooden desk for several hours per day while the teacher spoke. Being scolded by the teacher was a horrifying event. I can still vividly remember the two times I was publicly reprimanded by a teacher in my 19 years of schooling. Brrrr.

Back to Sunday School, there are a number of factors that likely contribute to the poor behavior of our class. Admittedly, some of the kids had already been called upon to sit still in an hour-long church service. And the teachers failed to clearly state the consequences for misbehavior at the beginning of class…mental note for next week. Still, I don’t think it’s a stretch to postulate that at least some of these children’s absolute inability to contain themselves for 300 seconds is a direct result of our providing children, from the time that they are able to grasp an object, electronics that offer constant, easy, and addictive stimulation. Toys that require concentration, effort and creativity – block sets, art supplies, and books — are little match for the exploding colors and sounds of an LCD screen. It’s a scary problem, and it’s likely going to get worse, with the advent of products designed to get kids hooked before they take their first steps.

What’s a parent to do? For starters, we as parents need to stop allowing our children to consume large portions of electronic mind candy before they’ve eaten their vegetables. This is hard, and requires effort on the part of the parent, who will need to spend more of his or her own time filling the time gap that technology can easily consume. It means engaging with your kids on car trips shorter than 2 hours, rather than automatically plugging in a video. It means conversing with them when you go out for dinner, rather than pacifying them with a DS or PSP so that the adults can talk. And it means regularly spending time together in the evenings playing board games or sports instead of each family member retreating to a separate technological lair.

Please don’t think I’m being holier-than-thou. I could write an equally long blog post on all the strategic blunders our family has made in our own war on technology creep. At least we didn’t buy our toddlers cigarettes.

I just wonder if we weren’t all better off when Angry Birds were merely a threat to the family cat and the Super Mario Brothers were a fireworks company from Jersey.

Owens Family Update 2009

Posted December 24, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

Corry Owens and family

Happy Holidays! Grab a cup of eggnog, or better yet, a grande half-caf skinny two-pump peppermint latte, and I’ll give you the lowdown on the highlights of our year:

It’s been a busy year for me, but not in an Oprah Winfrey, “I’m Every Woman” kind of way. More like an “I’m chasing my tail, my kids are playing in traffic and how long can my dry-cleaning sit there before the dry-cleaner throws it away?” kind of way. In September, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Bach Festival Society Choir at Rollins College. It’s been a huge time commitment, but my family has been wonderful about picking up the slack, if not the toys, at home and not complaining when I serve them Chick-Fil-A for dinner again. Sightreading Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, which we will perform in February, surrounded by much more experienced choristers, is clearing the cobwebs out of my 43-year-old brain. I still love my job, though rental revenues at Casa Feliz have suffered with the economy, making 2009 a challenging year. At the same time, we were recently named to the National Register of Historic Places, which was a nice affirmation of all the good work that has gone into preserving the house.

This year, Paul has alternated between lamenting the decline of the newspaper industry and rejoicing that he still has a paycheck. We’re hopeful that there will be changes to report in next year’s Christmas letter. In the meantime, he’s found fulfillment in family pursuits: playing sports and following the Orlando Magic with Jack, watching scary movies with Meg, teaching Sunday School with me, and accompanying the three of us on family adventures. In February, we enjoyed our annual ski trip to Utah, spent a long weekend in New Smyrna Beach in October, and gathered with far-flung cousins in Amelia Island over Thanksgiving. Sad news to report: in March Paul’s beloved father, Gwinn, died at age 87 from complications with dementia. The six grandchildren sang a beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial in Baltimore, and Gwinn’s four children and Meg, in their tributes, spoke of the profound influence that “Pappou” had on their lives. Paul’s mother misses Gwinn terribly, but we are all grateful for her situation living with Paul’s sister and family, and are looking forward to her visiting us after the holidays.

One cannot talk to Meg for more than 5 minutes without hearing the term “CTY” approximately googleplex times. CTY is an acronym for the obnoxiously-named “Center for Talented Youth,” the summer camp she attends through Johns Hopkins University. It is called the “Center for Talented Youth” so that parents can casually drop in their holiday letters that their youth are indeed talented, probably moreso than yours. Anyhow, Meg absolutely lives for the three weeks she spends there each summer, surrounded by other kids who like to talk about vaporizing themselves into other dimensions and cryptology, or code-breaking, which is the course she took there this summer. This whole concept of doing something purposeful during summer break is new to me (I spent my middle school summers watching Love Boat reruns and making up pompon routines to Styx’s Paradise Theater LP), but we are very proud of her curiosity and desire to learn. Meg is in 8th grade at Lake Highland Preparatory School, which implies that they are preparing her for something. Although the school has an excellent reputation locally, Meg would argue that they are preparing her for success in the 4th grade, as they reviewed the definition of a noun in her Honors English class, and had her read “No More Dead Dogs” for her summer reading assignment, while her compatriots at “brain camp” were diving into Proust. In her spare time, Meg enjoys martial arts, photography, creative writing, and spending entirely too much time on Facebook.

Third-grade Jack enjoys life as Meg’s happy-go-lucky foil. He loves Park Maitland School, and prods me out the door in the morning so that he has time to socialize with his friends before class. He is on the go from sunup to sundown, and we keep him enrolled in some sort of sport (basketball, baseball, flag football and soccer) to burn up energy. Jack also has a lovely singing voice, and reluctantly sings in the church children’s choir, for which I am a parent volunteer. He will play Joseph in the upcoming Christmas pageant. I am in search of some leather sandals since his preferred gangsta-rapper-style hightops clash with his flaxen tunic. Getting glasses this summer initially cramped his style, but when he returned to school he discovered that three of eight boys in his class were also newly bespectacled. Jack became a cub scout this year, and he and Paul are looking forward to an upcoming “camp out” on a battleship in Charleston, South Carolina. Heaven for Jack (and for me, as well) is 50 miles north of nowhere in Northeast Georgia, where we spend six weeks each summer at the family farmhouse. Stomping through forests and streams with the trusty Corry by his side, shooting the rifle with Grandaddy, swimming in the “cement pond” (our pond-sized spring-fed pool that we share with a gazillion tadpoles) and watering the newly-planted fruit trees for money to spend at the toy store in town—this is a welcome contrast to his Wii-playing lifestyle during the school year.

Our holiday wish for you, and for ourselves, is that we are able to slow down over the holidays and savor time with loved ones, to start 2010 with a fresh perspective on what is precious in life, and to love one another as the one whose birth we celebrate this season loved us.
Xmas 2009

Almost Heaven & Sins of Omission

Posted June 1, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

Hawk's Nest State Park, West Virginia

 

A while back, I wrote an exceedingly clever blog post about our neighbors when we were newly married and living in an apartment building in Charleston, West Virginia.  In it, I talked about how one of them, sort of a halfwit, spoke “West Virginglish.”  Ha, ha! I also poked fun at the West Virginia Institute of Technology, calling its name an oxymoron. Get it?!

 

Evidently my friend Jessica, a lawyer who grew up in the D.C. suburbs but now lives in West Virginia, was not particularly amused. She wrote, only half jokingly, that I had violated the “Sacred code of former West Virginians,” which is to only relate positive things about the state to the outside.  Then, demonstrating the hospitality typical both of her and the state, Jessica urged me to come back and visit soon.  No hard feelings.

But I still felt guilty.  Not only had I tweaked my friend, but I had been hypocritical in doing so.  Like her, when I lived in West Virginia it annoyed the bejesus out of me when an “outsider” made fun of my adopted state. Years ago I remember mentioning to my Floridian brother that we had tickets to see the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.  He asked me if they would be playing “Turkey in the Straw.” I wanted to strangle him. And now I was committing the same crime, maligning the fair state that I know first hand has many, many things to recommend it. I knew better!

So, Jessica, to atone for my sin, I offer the following “Top Five Things about Living in West Virginia,” which I hope will undo any damage my previous posting cost the state’s reputation, among the eleven regular subscribers to my blog.

Here’s what I came up with:

5) Natural Beauty:  Anyone who has driven through the state can attest to the breathtaking beauty of West Virginia. And many people in fact have, since several major interstates cut through the state, thanks largely to native son Robert C. Byrd, U.S. Senator and former Appropriations Committee Chairman. Sadly, too few of those travelers get off the Interstate and explore.  I urge them to do so.  There are 48 state and seven national parks in West Virginia, each one more beautiful than the last.  You can’t drive 10 miles in the state without happening upon a gorgeous river, valley, lake or forest. And they don’t call it the Mountain State for nothin’.  People travel for days to enjoy the vistas I took for granted each day on my way to the Kroger.  Which leads me to number 4,

4) Outdoor playground:  West Virginia is a four-season resort, and we did our best to take advantage of the adventures each season offered up. In the fall, we loved to hike or bike the trails of the Kanawha State Forest, a ten-minute drive from our house—the leaves were spectacular, the air crisp and cool, the scents earthy and restorative. In the winter, we could pack our skis after work on Friday and enjoy two days of skiing at Snowshoe or Canaan Valley, before driving back to town on Sunday night.  A favorite springtime adventure is whitewater rafting on the New or Gauley River, both of which cut paths through the beautiful Appalachian mountainside. Not for the faint of heart, my 6’5”, 200-lb. husband was once ejected from the raft, Jack-in-the-box-style, on a rapid known as “Raging Hell Hole.” Nuff said. In summer, we often rented a pontoon boat on Summersville Lake, which evokes Lake Como with jagged mountains dropping into crystal water.  Jumping off the bow, or even from a rocky overhang, was a big part of the fun.

3) Big Fish in a Small Pond:  Most people with master’s degrees from prestigious universities head to the big city—New York, Chicago, Atlanta–to cut their teeth. Paul, with his master’s in journalism from Stanford, and I, a newly minted MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill, headed for the hills of West Virginia. Admittedly, this wasn’t by design. Paul graduated in 1990 to a saturated journalism market, and was relieved to find a statehouse reporter position in Charleston in 1991. When we married a year later I followed via the Kicking and Screaming moving company. But what a fortuitous move it turned out to be, for both of us. It didn’t take long for Paul to ascend the ladder to associate and then political editor of his newspaper. And eventually, I landed a job as the managing director of the West Virginia Business Roundtable, which had me, a 26-year-old, working side-by-side with the state’s leaders of business and government. When I had an idea that I thought would help economic development in the state, I direct-dialed the CEOs of the state’s largest banks, utilities and coal companies. We attended yearly retreats with the Governor, his cabinet, and business leaders at the world-class Greenbrier Resort. We dined at the Governor’s Mansion on multiple occasions. I don’t mention these things to brag, but to contrast to our current life and careers in Florida, which with its population of 18.3 million, is more than 10 times the size of West Virginia.  Here, we’re virtual nobodies.  If I showed up at the Governor’s Mansion in an evening gown I’d be escorted to the state mental hospital.  The closest to power I’ve come is shopping at the same grocery store as our former lieutenant governor, who is an acquaintance of my father’s.  I introduced myself to her the first three times I saw her.  I’ve given up trying, and have slipped somewhat reluctantly into anonymity.

2) Community:  When we lived in Charleston, we felt like we belonged.  No one cared that we were interlopers from the outside, with no history or “people” in the Mountain State.  We were embraced by the community, and developed a love for our adopted home that continues to this day.  My husband still roots for WVU Mountaineers each football season.  We used to joke about community gatherings in Charleston being like an episode of the Simpsons, with the same recurring characters.  Except instead of Apu the convenience store clerk or Moe the bartender, we had Danny the radio-show-host-turned- mayor or Donn the pharmacist. The latter once approached me at the ribbon cutting for the new science center to ask how my urinary tract infection was doing. No lie.  Boundary issues aside, we loved seeing people we knew every time we went out, and that people really cared about one another, and about the community as a whole. Also contributing to the sense of community was that when something was happening in town – the circus, a presidential visit, or the annual Sternwheeler Regatta – we all turned out.  Here in Orlando, on any given Saturday night, we could go to a Broadway-style play, a professional sports event,  a museum opening, or a rock concert.  But we hardly ever do.  Sometimes, too many choices are overwhelming, and it’s just easier to stay home.

1) Cheap:   On less than six figures, a family of four in Charleston, West Virginia, can live a very, very nice life.  $250,000 in Charleston will buy you a beautiful brick home with history and character, in a lovely tree-lined neighborhood a five minute drive from downtown.  A house of comparable quality and convenience in Orlando would cost, even in a down economy, north of $600,000. Here, $250,000 buys you a dreadful McMansion-wannabe of shoddy construction, about 45 minutes from the city in a dry, parched subdivision of lookalike houses, from which all the trees have been removed. Our favorite story of bargain Charleston living involves our daughter’s third birthday party.  For $50, a woman arrived at our home on a Saturday morning with a trailer-full of animals –including a donkey, goat, lamb, calf, goose and 3 rabbits –and Meg and 12 friends had their own private petting zoo in our backyard for the better part of the afternoon.  I tipped the woman $25 when she left and I thought she was going to weep with gratitude.  One time we hired a man to lay linoleum in our kitchen and two small bathrooms.  He arrived at 7 am, and finished up around 5 pm, and apologetically presented us with a bill for $95 when he left.  My husband hugged him good-bye.

Everyone in West Virginia knows the song by heart:  “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.  Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” Ironically, it’s said that the inspiration for the song popularized by John Denver was actually a drive in the Maryland countryside. No matter. For anyone who has lived in, or visited West Virginia, can relate to the sense of home that descends easily like twilight in the mountain valley, on visitors and natives alike.  Jessica, get the guest room ready.

Wisdom Confirmed

Posted May 18, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

Happy to be home

Often cited in support of historic preservation is the following quote by John Kenneth Galbraith: “The preservation movement has one great curiosity. There is never any retrospective controversy or regret. Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact.”

 

Indeed, one never hears of the Parthenon or the Coliseum, “That old thing? I knew they should have razed it.”

 

Such has been the experience, admittedly on a much smaller scale, with Casa Feliz here in Central Florida.  The facts of the case are by now well known to locals:  the signature Spanish eclectic house designed in 1932 by noted architect James Gamble Rogers II, was saved from demolition in 2000 by private citizens, who raised the funds for the move and restoration of the Winter Park landmark.

 

It’s important to remember that at the time, even though no taxpayer dollars were used for the project, saving Casa Feliz was extremely controversial.  Opponents worried about the implications of the city’s “stay of execution” on property rights.  They complained that Winter Park was being handed a white elephant that would never support itself and inevitably command city resources.

 

These complaints have been quelled by the unequivocal success of Casa Feliz, now operating as an historic home museum and rental location. The comment we hear more than any other when people tour the house is “I can’t believe they were actually going to knock this down.”

 

In numerous ways, the Spanish farmhouse has enjoyed a resurgence as “Winter Park’s Parlor,” as it was dubbed by original owner Robert Bruce Barbour.  Each Tuesday and Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon, the house opens its doors to visitors, who walk through this living monument to superior residential design and craftsmanship, and to the unique architectural history of Winter Park.  In March we opened the JGR Studio, which houses the architect’s personal and professional memorabilia, including his antique drafting table and tools and extensive collection of vintage architectural texts. 

 

Casa Feliz pays its bills through event rentals—weddings take place most Friday and Saturday evenings on the grounds of the aptly named “Happy House.”  During the week, the house is rented for reduced rates by business and community groups—yoga classes in the carriage house on Tuesday nights; a men’s bible study in the main house on Friday mornings; business receptions and fundraisers for nonprofit groups frequently take place on weeknights.

 

Casa Feliz has demonstrated that saving and restoring historic properties is a viable business model, in addition to being, like Quaker oats, “the right thing to do.”  But what of other residential properties, which, because of zoning or other restrictions, can’t pay for themselves through rentals? Study after study have shown the economic and intangible benefits of preserving historic properties, both for the homeowner and the community. Municipalities that encourage preservation enjoy increased property values and attract tourism, in addition to preserving their historical integrity. The manifold environmental benefits of restoring rather than replacing older homes are well documented.

 

In December of last year, the house that was nearly destroyed was named to the National Register of Historic Places.  It is the mission of the Friends of Casa Feliz that this success story will catalyze future preservation projects throughout our region.

 

 

Betsy Rogers Owens is the executive director of the Friends of Casa Feliz, the nonprofit group that restored and operates the property. She is also the granddaughter of the architect.

Ten Minutes in Heaven

Posted April 5, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

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My beloved father-in-law died recently.  To the good fortune of his family and friends, Gwinn was a newspaperman, and a prolific columnist. He left behind a treasure-trove of columns, on subjects as varied as the 17-year cicadas, his childhood Flexible Flyer sled, and his adored Baltimore Orioles.  One thing he didn’t write much about though, was his worshipful relationship with certain foods, and his religious adherence to mealtime rituals.  As a service to those who loved him, and particularly for the generations that follow, I will address these subjects here.

 

Gwinn was the ultimate creature of habit where food was concerned, and he loved certain foods so much that he felt no need to explore beyond them.  His son, my husband, Paul called this (only somewhat good-naturedly) “Dad’s Platonic absolute.” Gwinn loved chocolate-chip ice cream beyond all other flavors: it was inconceivable that anyone else would hold a different opinion, ergo Baskin Robbins’ “31 Flavors” had 30 superfluous offerings.

 

Every day started with oatmeal, with enough sugar heaped on top to send an elephant into insulin shock. Gwinn boasted, “I have eaten oatmeal every single morning of my life.” In his later years, Gwinn wrote to the good people at Quaker, perhaps with the secret hope that they would replace their white-haired-oversized-black-hat-wearing mascot with a headshot of him, or at least offer to put him alongside Wilford Brimley in a television ad.  Gwinn was crestfallen when they merely sent him a form letter and a 25-cents-off coupon.

 

After oatmeal, strong coffee, mixed part-for-part with more sugar, followed, and finally a cup of Tropicana orange juice, extra pulp (or as my young son once put it, nose scrunched, “with strings.”)   The day ended with similar predictability. Greek salad, with feta cheese and Kalamata olives, was served every night on his dining room table, in homage to his frequent travels to Athens.  And each dinner, as long as it was chosen from the handful of his favorites, was pronounced “the best meal I’ve ever eaten.”  At least, that is, until the next night.

 

One time, when Gwinn and Joan were visiting us in Florida, my parents took us all out to a fancy Italian restaurant for dinner.  The waiter presented each of us with a menu, which read like an epicurean’s tour of Tuscany:  antipasti of every conceivable variety; fresh seafoods delicately prepared with wine, olive oil, fresh tomatoes and cream; succulent chicken and veal scallopinis, osso bucco, homemade pasta carbonara…the list went on and on.  Gwinn closed his menu and addressed the waiter.  “Everything sounds delicious,” he said, “but I think there is no Italian food more glorious than spaghetti and meat sauce. Would it be possible for the chef to prepare that?” Naturally, the waiter complied. I think Gwinn was genuinely surprised that everyone at the table didn’t follow suit, after he had paved the way, so great was his love for spaghetti.

 

“Ten Minutes” was another of his culinary traditions.  The practice began almost 50 years ago, when he and my mother-in-law were raising their four young children.  After Gwinn got home from work each evening, he would insist on “Ten Minutes” of adult time in the living room, when he and Joan would share the events of the day over a martini—extra dry with half a cocktail onion.  “Stini Yasus,” Greek for “To your health,” they would toast, before taking the first sip.  Their glasses empty, they would refill with the melted ice and traces of gin that remained in the pitcher: the dividend, Gwinn would call it. A small wedge of brie and stoned wheat crackers were added in the years that followed.

 

When the kids became adults, they (and their significant others) were invited to join in this special time, which, while retaining the title “Ten Minutes” had morphed into more like sixty.  I say “invited” to join, but really attendance was compulsory—especially at the beach in Rhode Island, where the family vacationed.  And on vacation, Ten Minutes took place before both lunch and dinner.

 

Around noon, and then again at 6 p.m., Gwinn would start rattling around the kitchen, with Joan handing him the various drink-mixing tools like an ER nurse. Then, Gwinn would bellow, “TEN MINUTES!  TEN MINUTES!”  People were expected to stop what they were doing—reading, beachcombing, or, poor souls, napping—and hasten to the front porch where Gwinn would hold court.  

 

One evening, poor Gwinn had a terrible time assembling his family.  When the initial clarion call didn’t work, he shouted, “DOOR HOLDER!  I NEED A DOOR HOLDER!” because it was impossible to open the spring-loaded screen door onto the front porch while carrying the martini tray. I leapt to action, and soon he and I were seated on the front porch, but no one else had followed.

 

“I’M POURING THE DRINKS!”  he announced several times.  This roused a couple more lazy souls, but the full assembly still hadn’t materialized.

 

 “I’M CUTTING THE CHEESE!” he yelled finally, without any trace of irony.  “I’M CUTTING THE CHEESE!” This, of course, became a joke among the younger generations for years to come.

 

What would amuse me, and annoy my husband, was that Gwinn, no matter how often he was told–night after night after night on our longer visits–would offer Paul and me a martini, and then brie, neither of which we liked. Even evening three of our visits would go something like this:

 

Gwinn:  “Paullie? Betsy? Can I pour you a martini?”

Paul:  “No thanks, Dad, we don’t really like martinis.”

Gwinn:  “What’s that?”

Paul: (louder) “WE DON’T LIKE MARTINIS. The situation hasn’t changed since last night.”

Gwinn (shaking head):  “How could a son of mine not like martinis?”

A few minutes would pass, and then he would smear some brie on a cracker, and try to pass it to Paul.  Joan would intercede.

Joan:  “Poppa, Paul and Betsy don’t care for brie.”

Gwinn:  “What’s that?”

Joan:  (louder) “THEY DON’T CARE FOR BRIE.”

Gwinn:  “Don’t like brie?  How could anyone not like brie?”

I would smile and shrug and Paul’s eyes would roll back in his head.

 

Now Gwinn is gone, but of this I am sure:  as the years go on, whenever Owenses are gathered together, the tradition of Ten (give or take a few) Minutes will continue, though we will miss our patriarch terribly.  If we could have him back for just one more evening, no one would hesitate to rush to the porch when Ten Minutes was announced, and Paul and I would slurp martinis and chomp down brie without complaint.

 

And I also know this:  right now, in Heaven, just before supper, Gwinn is sitting with the angels, enjoying Ten Minutes, perhaps offering St. Peter a dividend. They’ll all be well trained when the rest of us join them. Stini yasus, Gwinn.

 

 

 

 

 

Grover’s Neighborhood

Posted March 7, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

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It seems that in American neighborhoods, the farther up the socio-economic ladder we travel, the more disconnected we become from our fellow man. Lower-income apartment dwellers share hallways, stairwells, and often laundry rooms with their neighbors. They pound on the ceiling if the teenager upstairs is playing his music too loud; it’s easy to tell through the air duct that it’s spaghetti and meatballs night at the Lombardis’ downstairs. The middle class is typified by rows of neat little houses, which often have a wall in common; though slightly more private, it’s easy to lean over the backyard fence to borrow a cup of sugar. In the upper-middle class, where I currently reside, it’s possible to go about your business and completely ignore the neighbors around you, separated by ample sideyards with artful landscaping, and entering the house in and out of the garage door.  At the top of the ladder, members of the upper class sequester their properties using iron gates with electronic keypads for entry. Presumably no one ever comes calling, which is probably the goal.

 

Fitting neatly into this pattern, never have my husband and I been as involved in the day-to-day lives of our neighbors as when we were newly-married and living paycheck-to-paycheck in Charleston, West Virginia. We lived in one of two upstairs apartments in an older, 4-unit building on Venable Avenue. Although we never got to know too well the tenants of the other three units (our building was somewhat transient), we got to know intimately–arguably a bit too intimately–the owners of the houses on either side of us and directly across the street.

 

On one side, a stone’s throw from our bedroom window, lived a 65-year-old man with the wonderful and typical West Virginia name of Grover Meadows. Like many West Virginians of his generation, Grover had been living for years on a generous workman’s comp settlement which enabled him to spend his days boating, fishing, gardening, and tooling around in his RV. We had only lived in our apartment for about a week when we discovered that Grover had serious boundary issues, long before the days when Dr. Phil was around to set him straight. We’d be fading off to sleep at night, with our bedroom window open since we had no air conditioning. “Paul and Betsy (BAY-yet-see)!” Grover would bellow from down below in perfect West Virginglish. We would eye each other and silently consider if we could get away with ignoring his overtures, but would usually conclude that Grover surely knew we were home from our cars out front. “Uh, yes, Grover?” Paul, head still on pillow, would shout back. I would reflexively fasten the top button of my nightie. “Want some tomaytas? I got some really nice tomaytas! Homegrown!” “Uh, gee, Grover, that’s awfully nice. Could this possibly wait til morning?” “Aw, sure thing,” he would say, retreating back through his screen door and switching on Walker, Texas Ranger.

 
Before I had a job, sometimes I would receive a call in the middle of the day. “Do you know who this (THE-yis) is?” “Yes, particularly since you’re calling from your front porch and my window is open,” I would answer.  What would follow was often some story concerning King Tut, his tiny white fur-ball of a dog, who was Grover’s constant companion and source of amusement. Or a story about some adventure that “me and Juanita” had had. Juanita was our across-the-street neighbor, a widow about Grover’s age, who kept him company on his RV excursions, but whose grown son had strictly forbidden her to marry Grover. Occasionally we would see Juanita scurrying across Venable Avenue in the early morning hours, clad in her housecoat and hairnet.

 
This was all a fairly tidy setup until Faruq (Fa-RUKE) and Parveen moved into the small brick house on other side of us. Faruq was a physics professor at nearby West Virginia Institute of Technology, which is actually not an oxymoron, but it ain’t Princeton either. WV Tech, as it is called, frequently hired professors like Faruq from Pakistan and India, whose opportunities were limited in their own countries, but who you can imagine didn’t fit in very well in Appalachia. Grover and Faruq quickly sized each other up. Grover told me at every opportunity that Faruq was one of those “damn Arabs who beats his wife.” Faruq had equal contempt for Grover and his hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and for West Virginians in general. He was quick to make friends with Paul, whom he deemed his intellectual equal. When Faruq learned that Paul was a columnist for the newspaper, he would lecture him that more international news should be included in the newspaper. “It’s pathetic! The people here just don’t know!” Faruq would chide, in heavily-accented but correct English. “You have to educate the Yahoos!”

 

Blessedly, I finally found full-time employment, which caused me to miss some of the daytime goings-on on Venable Avenue. A few months passed, when one Sunday morning Faruq hailed us departing for church. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked.  “My wife married the village (willage) idiot!” It seemed that Parveen had fled Faruq’s authoritarian rule and taken up with Grover, who was waiting with open arms. Faruq seemed faintly amused by this chain of events–he was clearly not devastated to have Parveen off his meal ticket. For his part, Grover was thrilled to have reeled in a woman 30 years his junior, even if she was an Arab. Left out in the cold was poor Juanita, who was given both the shaft and the consolation prize of Tut, since Parveen was highly allergic to her betrothed’s noble canine. We bought our first house and moved shortly thereafter.

 

Fifteen years later and three houses larger, there’s not nearly so much color in my neighborhood. We’re a pretty homogeneous group, ethnically and economically.  There are interesting stories and characters out there, but I have to work a little harder, or at least get out of bed, to discover them. And while it’s difficult to imagine returning to the forced companionship of Venable Avenue, I hope my children will one day venture out of air-conditioned suburban comfort to have similar experiences.  My life is richer for having had them.

ACK! Sticker Overload!

Posted February 25, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

angstickcarl2

Three in the afternoon finds me in the carpool line at Park Maitland School, sucking in the fumes of GMC Valdez in front of me, staring at their bumper stickers which, since I am driving a Prius, are at eye level.  On this day I spot a decal for a tony boys’ summer camp in North Carolina, and another for the sister camp in Virginia.  Just above that, on the flat area next to license plate which seems custom-designed for such things, is a sticker of Lacrosse sticks with the letters “LAX,” which anyone in the proper tax bracket will tell you stands for the sport and not for the California airport.  Moving up to the windshield, we find two more of those cloying white oblong stickers—the one in the left corner has the silhouette of a black lab (dog of choice for the private school set), and the one on the right reads “ACK” (the airport code for Nantucket, you rube). I guess I should be impressed, but it all makes me want to HRL.

 The other major category of vehicles in our carpool line, minivans, I find slightly less objectionable but no less predictable.  Many of these sport stickers with a child’s name scrawled across a silhouette of Junior’s favorite hobby. From this we can surmise that Brooke is a cheerleader par excellence and Justin is an All Star (#52!) Baseball Player.  Or, the minivan might have a windshield decal with stick figures—an ingredients label of whom we will find inside—a stick mommy, a stick daddy, a pigtailed stick girl, a cap-wearing stick boy and a diaper-clad stick baby.  Maybe a stick Fido, too.  I call these “smugness stickers.”  Above the little stick people should be a conversation bubble which reads “WE are the perfect American family!  Too bad YOUR husband ran off with a Hooters Girl six months into your fertility treatments!”

 Not to be outdone, my husband and I decided that we’d wallpaper our back windshield to show the world who we really are.  We patched together a giant blindspot of stickers from our undergraduate and grad schools, favorite charities, baseball teams and places in Europe we hope to visit, AIX and IRL.  Unfortunately, the next morning I backed over the MLKMN and was charged with DUI.

 Seriously, I ponder the sociological purpose of plastering your car’s tookus with labels.  The original intent of bumper stickers, back in the day of “I Brake for Animals,” was to convey your compassion (Practice Random Acts of Kindness), your cleverness (The Moral Majority is Neither), or to urge some sort of action (Kiss My Grits).  By contrast, for the moms in my carpool line, the purpose seems to be to turn yourself into an elitist caricature with four-wheel drive.  I could be plopped down behind a good 80 % of the  mega-SUVs in the line and be faced with essentially the same messages.  Oh, instead of ACK, the sticker may read BCK (Beaver Creek or Breckenridge, take your pick), and the dog might be a golden retriever, or better yet, a quarter horse, but you get my drift.  Why not just cut to the chase and etch on your bumper “My Husband Makes A Mint!” Or perhaps a vanity plate reading simply “SHALLOW.” How I long to sneak into their garages at night to apply more truthful stickers, such as “Follow me to the Botox clinic!” and “I’m Changing the Weather! Ask Me How!”

 Too cynical, you say?  Let me ask you this. If these stickers aren’t designed to declare how chic we are, then why is the silhouette dog never a bloodhound or the vacation spot never TOL (Toledo)? Why is the sport always LAX or FDH (field hockey), not DPB (Duckpin bowling)?  A thousand bucks to anyone who brings me a photo of a Range Rover with the silhouette of a pit bull.  You’ll know where to find me—I’m the one in the carpool line between HH-Hilton Head and OBX-Outer Banks with the unadorned rear.

My mother, Miss Sentimentality

Posted February 7, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

 

 

The Pegster with two truly prized possessions

The Pegster with two truly prized possessions

To know my mother is to love her.  A modern day saint, she gives and gives and expects nothing in return. When Paul and I go away for the weekend, she picks the kids up from school the day before, so I have time to get packed, keeps them and the dog while we’re gone, and, I am not making this up, has a HOT DINNER waiting for us on Sunday when we return, because, and I quote,”There’s nothing worse than having to run to the grocery store first thing.” Someday I will write an entire column, perhaps a book, on her good qualities. But not today.

 

Today I will expose to the world the single flaw of Peggy Rogers, or “the Pegster,” as we affectionately call her.  Here goes: despite her many praiseworthy qualities, this woman has no use for sentimental possessions or keepsakes–her own or anyone else’s.  Isn’t this a good thing?, I hear you asking.   Aren’t the righteous instructed to eschew earthly riches, and focus on building up our treasures in heaven? Yes, gentle reader, we are. But, I would counter, in the immortal words of Socrates: “Nothing to excess.”  (Don’t be too impressed. This and “Know thyself” are the only quotes I know by Socrates. And the second one may have been Plato. But I digress.)

My father will back me up on this.  The story goes that after my parents married, my mother moved into his house in Florida, and, in computer parlance, set about erasing his hard drive.  Before the bags were unpacked from the honeymoon, my mother attacked, ridding the closet of his hunting camoflauge (Those awful old things? I can hear her asking),  his polyester yellow pants (O.K., I guess I can forgive her this one), and his US Navy uniform (Now when are you ever going to wear that again? she would have queried, adding for emphasis her ‘disgusted’ laugh which, described brilliantly by my brother, is the raspberry sound followed by a quick expulsion of air, as if someone has just given her the Heimlich maneuver).  

Fortunately, my father, being a gentle soul, forgave his new bride, and over the years has come to accept these bursts of overzealous housecleaning.

But my father has not been her only victim. When I was young, I prized more than anything my collection of stuffed animals.  I kept a roster of them, complete with their full names and birthdays. At its peak, the collection boasted over 100 stuffed toys.  I had a running contest going with my best friend, Alice Leinbach, who lived across the street.  I remember a particularly fruitful vacation to Pittsburgh, that I took with my great aunt when I was about 10. Aunt Peg, for whom my mother was named, was a big softy, and had bought me seven (count ‘em) new stuffed animals.  I was so excited that I called Alice, long distance, to brag. “104!” I began our conversation. “Yes,” she countered, “but those three felt butterfly refrigerator magnets you have don’t count!” 

You can imagine my horror when I returned home to Florida to find that twelve of my animals had gone missing in my absence.

“Where is Pinky Bear?” I shrieked. “And Blue Morgan?”

“Oh, those old things?” my mother countered. “Marie must have thrown them out when she was here.”

Marie was our housekeeper, who visited once a week, and will go down in history as the world’s most joyful woman. Absolutely everything she said was followed by a long string of barely audible laughter. “Hi there, Miss Betsy! Ksh sh sh sh sh sh sh!” she would greet me. “Just moppin’ the floor here! Ksh sh sh sh sh sh!”  For Marie, exposure to someone like Jerry Seinfeld would have been fatal.

Anyhow, whenever one of our toys would turn up missing, it was poor Marie who took the blame.  It seemed odd, even to our young minds, that this kindly soul would take it upon herself to sort through our prized possessions and throw things out willy-nilly. Still, Pegster’s nefarious practice of making Marie the scapegoat went undetected for years, until one day my brother John caught the Pegster dragging his rock tumbling and wood-burning kits out to the trash pile.

A few weeks back, I dropped by my parents’ house for a visit.  “Stay out of the way!” my father greeted me. “She’s on a rampage!” I peeked around the corner to see my mother rummaging through large stacks of books.  “Aren’t you going to stop her?” I asked.  “Last time she threw away your wedding album!”  This, in truth, had been a mistake, because the album had been in a mismarked box.  My dad shrugged resignedly, knowing that you just don’t mess with certain forces of nature.

Flash forward to last weekend, when I was volunteering, as I do every few weeks, at the library’s used bookstore, which stocks its shelves with donations from the community.  When ringing up a customer, I flipped open the front cover of a charming book on C.S. Lewis’ England, to find the price. Instead, I found the inscription, in my aunt’s very distinctive handwriting, “To Jack, Happy Father’s Day, 1975!”  Twenty minutes later, another customer bought a lovely coffee table book–inscribed with the date and place in my late grandfather’s architectural script, “Hillcreek Farm, 1980.”  I spent the remainder of my three-hour shift frantically combing the shelves, convinced I would find the family bible or my baby book on sale for $1.50.

I guess, in the grand scheme of things, that if you’re only going to have one flaw, anti-sentimentality is a pretty good one to have. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that in my case, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.  True confession: I don’t actually ever read the sappy pre-printed poems in greeting cards (If I must open them in front of others, I just unfold the card, pause for the appropriate amount of time while I pretend to read, and then say, “Ahh. How sweet.”). On more than one occasion, I have been confronted by my daughter, teary-eyed, holding a wadded up item of her clothing which I had failed to sufficiently bury in the trash bin.  But, honestly, when was she ever going to wear that old thing again?

And then the Son of Man, he says…

Posted February 3, 2009 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

I have always been skeptical of people who routinely receive messages from God.  I’m not talking about people who “feel led” to take certain paths, or  perceive that God wants them to behave in a certain way.  No, I’m talking about people who claim to have full-on conversations with the Almighty.  Take, for example, this exchange that I had with a woman we’ll call Alice at my church last week:

Me:  Good to see you, Alice!  I haven’t seen little Charity or Grace in the carpool line lately.

Alice:  Oh, yes, the Lord told me that he wanted me to start homeschooling them. 

Me:  Really?  When did he tell you that?

Alice:  A few weeks ago.  

Me:  You mean right after tuition went up?

Alice:  What are you implying?

Me:  Oh, nothing. Did he happen to mention anything about the Powerball numbers?

Alice:  Well! Good day!

So you see, Alice and her ilk claim to receive very specific messages from God, often about subjects that I like to think are a bit too mundane for the Ruler of the Universe to be concerned about:  which city council member to vote for, what color carpet to choose, do they want fries with that?  It sometimes strikes me as, well, a bit flaky.  

Which is why I hesitate to tell you, in all seriousness, that I too have received messages from God.  Two of them, to be exact.  Unlike with my more favored friends, it wasn’t like he whispered in my ear, or sent me an e-mail.  No flashes of light, no burning shrubbery…although, come to think of it, this would be a good excuse for the blighted azaleas in our front yard.  But I will tell you, nonetheless, that I am convinced that these messages were divinely sent, as were the two children that the messages concerned.

In early 1996, Paul and I learned of a baby, still in utero, whose birthmother planned to place her for adoption.  While we were fortunate to know that, for medical reasons, adoption would be the only way we would be able to form a family, we weren’t ready to pull the trigger.  I wasn’t ready to have my world turned upside down by a 8-pound permanent houseguest.  Still, we suspected that our learning of this baby, who would be born in Louisiana in May, was more than a coincidence.  We consulted an adoption attorney, who was an adoptive mother herself.  We told Heidi our story, and how we felt we may have the inside track on this adoption, but that we were unsure if we were 100% ready to adopt this Caucasian, drug-free infant to be born to parents who met through their school’s gifted program. Heidi respectfully told us that we were freakin’ nuts. “This ship may not sail again,” were her exact words.  Still, I wanted more of a “sign.”

The Sunday following our meeting with Heidi, we went to church, and there was a visiting minister who was gifted at intercessory prayer. Following communion, he invited people who felt the particular need for prayer to come up to the altar.  It will not surprise those who know me to learn that I don’t typically–OK, ever–respond to altar calls.  I am a lifelong member of the Episcopal church, the frozen chosen. Most of us are about as comfortable with outward displays of faith as we would be breakdancing during the offertory.  But this Sunday, I was mysteriously propelled forward, and there was my equally frozen husband kneeling beside me.

What happened next was somewhat of a blur, and if Paul hadn’t been there to witness it, I would still have my doubts.  The minister lay his hands of my shoulders, and without prompting or asking what I needed prayer for, said “Dear God, I pray the words you give me to pray–a child–not knowing what they mean in this woman’s life, but that she may find peace in your plans for her life.” I was in tears, and returned to the pew knowing that I had my answer.

Five months later, we picked up our daughter Meg, 12 hours old, from a hospital in Louisiana.  What God worked in my life during those intervening five months, to prepare me for motherhood, was in itself miraculous.  I became singly focussed on this child.  I had no doubt that God had chosen us to be her parents.  We wrote frequently to her birthmother, who had received the same feeling of peace about us. Our journey to parenthood, even accompanied by four months of colic, was planned to the last detail by an expert travel agent.

About four years later we received a second message.  We had been trying to adopt a younger sibling for Meg for about a year.  We had put together a colorful scrapbook which told potential birthmothers about us, skillfully leaving out photos of my slumdog housekeeping skills and Paul’s 1970s-era wardrobe. I carried a cell phone whose sole purpose it was to receive calls from interested birthmothers.  I had fielded several inquiries, but contrary to the stereotype of infertile women desperate to adopt, none of the birthmothers I spoke with seemed like they were meant for us.  I remember one call from our incredulous agency caseworker, gently prodding me: “But ‘Janet’ really likes you.”  Although I didn’t verbalize it, or maybe even realize it, I was waiting for another sign.

Finally, in late May of 2000, the phone rang, and the stars seemed to align.  A birthmother from Texas was due in six weeks, and she liked us, and we really liked her.  And, she was expecting a boy, which was terrific, because we couldn’t see how a second girl could ever measure up to our first.  We chatted easily for an hour.  She loved this baby so much, she said, and wanted more than anything to keep him, but she knew that she wasn’t prepared to be a mother, yet.  She couldn’t provide for her son what she felt he deserved. What would I name the baby?, she wanted to know.  John Hamilton, I told her, after my father and Paul’s grandfather.  “If I could keep him,” she said, “I’d name him Isaiah.  I love the name Isaiah.” We had our “match,” in agency-speak, and put baby preparations on the fast track.

The first order of business was to move up my tonsillectomy.  The previous two winters I had had frequent throat infections, which had made caring for a toddler difficult, much less a new infant. I scheduled the surgery for a month before the due date, calculating that this would give me plenty of time to recover. Plus, I reasoned, first babies are usually late.

Not this one.  On June 14, six days after my surgery, I was still lying in bed, occasionally coughing up blood, unable to eat solid food and unable to talk above a whisper.  My mother had moved in to run the household and care for Meg while I lay around moaning, force-feeding myself Ensure milkshakes.  At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the phone rang.  I waited for my mother to pick up, but she was evidently out back with Meg, so I reached across the bed and whispered “Hello” into the receiver.  It was our caseworker. Our healthy baby boy had been born, three and a half weeks early, that morning.

The gears in my brain creaked to life…I needed to call the airline, get packed, call our attorney, ask my mom to stay for a few more days… “Not so fast,” I was told. There had been a significant legal hitch which threatened to jeopardize the adoption.  And although our birthmother was sure that things would be resolved, the agency had seen countless situations like these go south, and we needed to stay put.  “I can not advise you to come to Texas, yet.  We may need to put your portfolio back into circulation,” she said.  They didn’t want us to come to Texas and bond with this precious infant and then have to turn tail and go home empty handed.  

Ten minutes later, the phone rang again.  It was our birthmother.  “He’s here!” she said, jubilant.  “When can you get here?  I can’t wait for you to see him!  He is so beautiful.”  But, I rasped, the agency said… “Oh, don’t worry,” she said.  “That’s not going to be a problem. I promise.  Please come to Texas.”

Paul came home that evening, and we built elaborate decision trees, with branches of options sprouting from a trunk of indecision.  We wanted nothing more than to fly to Houston and surround that little baby with the love we already felt so powerfully for him.  But our agency, one of the oldest and most respected in the country, was telling us no.  Wasn’t this why we had chosen them?  To protect us from the kinds of adoptions gone wrong you hear about on 20/20?  We decided to sleep on it. I took two Tylenol PM and got back into bed, my empty stomach tied in knots.

The sun shone brightly the next morning.  I opened my eyes, with a feeling of overwhelming peace and a song we often sang in church on my lips.  “Here I am, Lord.  It is I, Lord.  I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart,” I hummed. The song of Isaiah. There it was. My sign.

We were going to Houston, even without the agency go-ahead, and despite all prudent legal advice to the contrary.  If it didn’t work out, it would be heartbreaking, but we were grown-ups, and we knew what we needed to do.

During our layover in Charlotte, I ate my first solid food in a week: strawberry frozen yogurt.  When we landed in Houston, we called the agency from bag check.  “It’s a go!” our caseworker said.  While we were on the plane, the legal issues had untangled.  “Come to Houston,” she said.  “We’re one step ahead of you,” I replied, and we walked outside to hail a cab to Texas Women’s Hospsital.

John Isaiah Owens is now eight and a half years old.  

I wish I could end this by telling you that after receiving such decisive signs, my faith has grown by leaps and bounds.  Alas, no.  I have dark days, even times when I wonder if this all can be explained by coincidence. There are days when my children’s behavior would indicate that they were sent by anyone but God. I’m ashamed of my infinitely-smaller-than-a-mustard-seed faith, but I’m human. I’m reminded that even the disciples, eye-witnesses to Jesus’ miracles, abandoned him on Calvary.  

 But deep down, I know that Meg and Jack were and are intended to be our children, just as we are God’s children.  We have adopted Meg and Jack just as God has adopted us all.  And I know that in the future, during our times of greatest indecision, if we drop our pride long enough to meet him at the altar, we may hear him calling in the night.

Owens/Owens Tickets Overlooked

Posted December 13, 2008 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

YEAR END POLITICAL WRAP-UP by Wolf Blitzen
I’ve heard the question asked time and time again:  with all the capable people in this country, why is it that I often despise both candidates for President? My friends, I’ve asked the same question myself.  And the answer is that sometimes the most qualified candidates can’t break through the media clutter to generate enough votes.  Take for instance, this most recent election, when we had two HIGHLY qualified but little-heard-of tickets, both from the State of Florida, and in fact, from the same household.  Consider Owens/Owens and Owens/Owens, both roundly defeated in November’s election:
REPUBLICAN TICKET:
Presidential Candidate:  MEG OWENS
Born: 5/9/96 in Covington, Louisiana
Major political advantages:  Just this past February, Meg demonstrated her patriotism when she won her school’s essay contest on the meaningful sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. She is shown below preparing to lay the wreath on the tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery, which was the prize for her winning entry.  You can’t buy photo ops like this, folks.
Owens in Arlington

Owens in Arlington

Also known for:  Stellar academic credentials.   Demonstrated compassionate conservatism, plus foreign policy expertise, by helping her mother run a fundraising effort to aid the children in the village of Bemba, Zambia. Her class raised enough to purchase 66 pairs of new Crocs shoes and two computers for the children, and learned about Africa in the process. Plus, she can practically see Cuba from her house.  Demonstrated political savvy by dressing as you-know-who for Halloween.  See below. You betcha!
"Drill, baby, drill!"

"Drill, baby, drill!"

Possible skeletons in closet:  Occasional John McCain-like outbursts of anger and frustration, but this is forgivable since her younger brother opponent is REALLY annoying.  She’s only human–who wouldn’t get frustrated when their favorite lip gloss is used on the family dog? Another potential difficulty is her increasingly active solicitation of pricey shopping trips funded by the RMC (Republican Mommy Committee).
Endorsed by:  Crookshanks the cat, all the sales girls at American Eagle, texting BFFs Allison and Lizzie.
RUNNING MATE:  Betsy Owens
Born: 10/5/66 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Political creds:  Routinely reaches across the aisle (at church) to wipe runny noses and poke sleeping children.  Hispanics like her work at historic Casa Feliz. Foreign policy experience includes expert knowledge of South American chocolate and European pastries.
Potential skeletons in closet:  Four words:  University of Virginia, margaritas.  Also, recently broke campaign promise “Read my lips: I will not buy my seventh grader a cell phone!”
Enthusiastically endorsed by Publix Supermarkets PAC.
DEMOCRATIC TICKET:
Presidential Candidate:  Jack Owens
Born: 6/14/08 in Houston, Texas
Political advantages include All-American looks, athletic ability; terrific at pressing the flesh. His best buddy Owen says that Jack’s Wii skills are second only to his own. 
Owens (right) with campaign manager & best buddy Owen Lillard

Owens (right) with campaign manager & best buddy Owen

Choir boy…literally. Healthy as a horse, although his opponent claims this is only because his failure to wash hands before mealtime boosts his immune system. Talk about your dirty campaigning!
Potential liabilities: Aforementioned lipgloss incident.  Also, Owens is a reluctant ladies’ man.  Frequently returns home from school with holes ripped in his uniform shirts by pigtailed playmates.
Endorsed by:  Corry the dog, the North Orlando Kiwanis Little League, and Park Maitland Dean of Students Bryan Clyne, who says “Jack has visited me in my office more than any other candidate. I know he’s a bit of a rabble-rouser, but you can’t help but like the kid.”
Owens visits a Senior Center

Owens campaigns at a Senior Center

RUNNING MATE:  Paul Owens
Born:  10/11/62 in Baltimore, Maryland
In his favor:  This man lives and breathes fiscal responsibility.  Although opponent would argue that “fiscally responsible” is just a fancy political term for “cheap.”  Also, this Owens is a real policy wonk.  Devours “The Economist” like you or I would read the Funny papers. 
Owens' wife's favorite photo

Owens' wife's favorite photo

On the other hand:  May have difficulty relating to the modern voter.  Last watched TV in 1973. Thinks Nickelback is what happens when you overpay for your Sanka.  Thinks Gucci, Prada and Fendi are the cup size options at Starbucks.
So there you have it, folks. Word on the Hill is that the Owenses are already assembling their teams for 2012–Karl Rove and James Carville have both been spotted munching boiled peanuts and slurping Cheerwine near the Owens compound in Sautee-Naccoochee Valley, Georgia. So next time you’re in the voting booth, scratching your head and wondering where all the true statesmen have gone, look for the Owens/Owens ticket (on your ballot, just after Nader), and cast your vote for real change!

Entering the Golden Years at 42

Posted November 21, 2008 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

I was checking out at the grocery store the other day, and overheard the teenage cashier describing a co-worker to the bagger.

“You know Carol.  Red hair.  Middle aged.”

I interrupted their conversation.  I turned 42 in October and had been wondering whether I classified as middle aged  yet, or if that was closer to 50. 

“Define middle-aged.” I asked the cashier. I hoped she would look at me, and say something like “well, clearly you’re not there yet,” before demanding ID for the wine I was buying.

Instead, she tapped her orthodontia with a black-painted fingernail. “Oh, I don’t know…maybe 30 to 45?” she mused. Dermatologically challenged bagger nodded in agreement.

Ouch.

I guess I should have read the warning signs. When I glance at the newspaper’s weekly countdown of the best-selling music artists, I don’t recognize any of them. I don’t know Li’l Kim from Li’l Abner. The last time I went dancing at a nightclub, my dress had shoulder pads and Michael Jackson was a black man.

But the checkout incident resonated. I have since mentioned it to several 40-something friends who have assured me that at worst, I am just beginning my “middle age,” but after last night’s baseball debacle I’m not so sure.

For my 8-year-old’s last practice of the season, Coach decided to stage a “Parents Vs. Kids” game.  I thought this sounded like good fun. Plus it would give me an opportunity to show Jack that his mom isn’t completely pathetic as an athlete.  But as he and I drove to the ballpark, I did the mental math.

“Let’s see,” I told him.  “The last time I took a swing at a baseball was probably in about the 9th grade, which was, uh…28 years ago.”

“Back in the nineteens?” he asked, astonished.  “The nineteens” are how he describes truly ancient history, since he was born in 2000.

Turns out, his skepticism was justified. I began play at third base. Almost immediately, the catcher hurled the ball to me for a force out. I reached for it, caught it perfectly, and sprained a muscle in my back that evidently hadn’t been used since the Reagan administration. 

My turn at bat brought more humiliation, even though I connected with the ball. When I turned to run, I tripped over home plate, twisted my ankle and hobbled to first base as if I were pretend galloping on a stick-horse.

So I’ve come to resign myself to the fact that I am, at the very least, entering the realm of the Middle aged. What I’ve had a hard time discerning, though, is why that bothers me. It’s not the number.  I was smart to select a husband who warms up each age four years before I sit down on it.  At least I’m not 46, like he is, I think. Now that’s old.

It’s not leaving behind youth, either. I don’t miss going to nightclubs.  I’m glad to be done with formal education. I like that the only written test in my future will be to renew my driver’s license.  And despite the hard evidence of my increasingly decrepit physique, I’m not hung up on looking older.

No, it’s not what I’ve left behind that troubles me.  It’s what I’ve failed to gain.  Namely, wisdom.

I look at photographs of my parents when my brothers and I were the ages my children are now, and what strikes me is how wise they seemed.  They had grown up in the 1940s, lived through three major wars, and had known hardship.  They even looked wise. My mother had that poofy hair that you can only get from going to the beauty parlor once a week; my dad wore thick, dweeby glasses. Surely these physical traits indicated that they had the answers to all of life’s mysteries.  As a child, I slept soundly each night knowing that like a barnacle I had attached myself to something much sturdier and durable than I.  

Doubtless you’ll point out that in reality, my parents weren’t really that much wiser then than I am now. Their supreme wisdom existed primarily in my child’s imagination.  I can see this now.

But all along I’ve had the expectation that when I became middle aged, I would have a lot more answers than I do. By now, I should be more than a bottom-feeder on Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualization. When will I start moving up? I’m only a couple years away from taking Geritol, for God’s sake. 

And then it dawns on me. Perhaps true wisdom lies in knowing that you don’t have all the answers.  That the more you truly know, the more you realize that you really don’t know. There’s little comfort in this theory, but I suspect it’s true.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided that I’m only as old as I act.  Later on, I’ll demonstrate my youth by playing some Wii tennis with my son. Then I’ll show off my cutting-edge technological know-how by TIVO-ing next week’s reruns of my favorite TV show. Matlock. Take that, bag boy.

Advice for President Elect Obama

Posted November 5, 2008 by betsyowens
Categories: Uncategorized

Dear President Elect Obama,

I am one of the millions of Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for you. It felt strange, because John McCain is the only political candidate I have ever donated money to–I sent him $500 during his 2000 campaign (and have been rewarded with weekly requests from the RNC and other right-wing candidates- Rick Lazio! – since then).  But McCain, by seemingly abandoning his principles, aligning himself with the far right wing of the party during this election, and by picking his vice presidential candidate to pander to the lobotomized voter, left me little choice.

At heart, though, I’m still a Republican, and as such, I hereby offer some advice, regarding what you should and shouldn’t do to make me and others like me regret my decision.

1 – First and foremost, heed this advice above all other.  It concerns one of the gravest issues of our time: don’t let anyone even remotely connected to the entertainment industry near the White House, much less the Lincoln Bedroom.  Learn from Hill and Bill. The American people do not want to see their president wining and dining Barbra Streisand, Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Hanks-Speilberg, or Alec Baldwin. You may invite Oprah, and only Oprah, to dine with you at the White House once.  If you do it more than once, don’t tell us.  And, for God’s sake, if the Thomassons come calling, turn out the lights and pretend you’re not home.

2 – A lot of Republicans voted for you because you are smart and willing to surround yourself with other smart people.  Continue to seek the counsel of people like Warren Buffet, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker. I don’t want to see “someone like me” running the country.  I want someone smarter and more experienced.

3 – This is for your wife, Michelle.  We love that you buy your clothes off the rack. It’s refreshing. Keep it up. Nothing says “I’ve forgotten where I came from” faster than a closet full of Dolce & Gabanna.

4 – Keep going to church.  I think this won you a lot of points with Republicans, who like to think that their president confers with the big man upstairs. Frankly, your religious faith rang a lot truer than John McCain’s, who seems about as filled with the Holy Spirit as, well, Cindy McCain.

5 – Finally, take it easy on all the big Lib causes.  You don’t owe them that much – they woulda voted for ya anyway! We elected you because you seem to have a grasp on the truly important issues really facing our country:  solving the budget crisis; regaining the respect of our international allies;  finding energy alternatives that make us less dependent on the Middle East.  Give Planned Parenthood, Code Pink and Michael Moore a VERY wide berth until you can point to some real progress you’ve made on more substantial issues.    

I guess that’s all for now, Mr. President Elect. You’ve definitely got your work cut out for you. But if you follow my handy tips, and only hire really homely interns, you will avoid the pitfalls of the First Bubba, and continue to garner Republican respect.

Sincerely yours,

Betsy Owens


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