All posts by Rebecca Nolen

I blog about many things.

On Almost Being Arrested, and other things to do on Wednesday night

Downtown Houston

As if nothing else in the world was happening at the Nolen household.

Today the house framers were hard at work on the garage apartment in the back yard. They completed the second floor. The roof was framed. I got an almost frantic call from the contractor. The engineer had called him and told him that on re-calculating the plans he discovered a mistake. This is after everything has been inspected and passed. He had a fit of conscious of something. He explained that they should use two by eight boards for the ceiling on the second floor instead of the two by six.

The contractor told me, no, insisted to me that it was their mistake and I wasn’t to be concerned. But they were going to have a slight delay with taking part of the framing down. I asked what the difference in price for the materials was and I insisted on paying for that.

After all, the house plans had passed city inspection on all counts. And they were willing to stop construction, deconstruct and start over again on their dime. That is integrity.

The air conditioning man showed up around this time. Our air conditioner worked part of the time and the furnace worked part of the time. We’d been spending a lot of time and money having parts and pieces fixed. With a lot of pounding and grating the air conditioner man removed the old electric furnace and air conditioner from our downstairs utility room.

The grand baby slept through it all.

At one point I heard some yelling and high-pitched man-screams and went outside to investigate. The air conditioning man had been under the house (we are on pier and beam so there is a crawl space beneath us for easy access to pipes), he was wiping his brow. His shirt was muddy. All work on the garage apartment in the back yard was suspended as the guys crowded around. Apparently from what I could understand Victor thought there was a bear, or a monkey, or a chupacabra under the house. It had frightened him. He couldn’t get out from under fast enough.

I calmed them all down and told them that my cats were serious hunters of dangerous under-the-house creatures.

Turns out when the other guys used flash lights and investigated, it was our Siamese cat (they called her the “kitty-kitty”). Of course Peanut can look like a bear, or a monkey, or a chupacabra, depending on her mood.

The process of removing and replacing the old rotten air condition and furnace took all day. He and his two workers stayed late, finally leaving after dark. The only thing left undone was hooking everything up.

Immediately, I mean minutes after they left, my daughter said, “Oh look! The police have pulled someone over right in front of our house.”

I looked and it was our air conditioning man. I thought perhaps he had run the stop sign. But while I watched the situation didn’t LOOK like a simple traffic stop.

There must be some mistake.

I went outside and stood inside the fence. I called out to the air conditioning man, “Victor, is everything all right?”

A policeman on the other side of the car (I didn’t see him before this) came around the car and yelled at me that I was interfering with a police investigation. Yelled at me.

What? I stood there, shaking my head. “These guys were just at my house. Did they run the stop sign?”

“No ma’am.” The officer approached me. “You need to leave this alone. It is none of your business.”

“I’m just asking if they are okay.”

“No you were NOT! You are interfering! You need to get back! You are making this a dangerous situation! This vehicle came up as a suspicious vehicle. It has nothing to do with a stop sign. You are being disrespectful.” He was angry. Incensed even.

Disrespectful? I felt like reminding him that he was the one standing in the middle of a busy street. Dangerous situation indeed.

I turned around and went in the house and got a piece of paper and came back out and took the plate number of the police car. (from a respectful distance) I then went and stood far enough away but near enough that the officer could see me. I caught his eye and smiled at him. (How’s that for respect?) I asked him what his name was.

He called to me, that I was to come across the street to him and talk to him. (Now, this is always a safe move in a traffic stop of a suspicious vehicle where the suspicious vehicle’s occupants could be killers escaping from the long arm of the law.) I joined him and he told me that he and his partner felt the occupants of the vehicle were suspicious characters who could have guns and that my interference was clearly wrong and I could be killed.

These guys just spent the entire day in the mud under my house fighting chupacabras why would they shoot me?

I stared through the front windshield of their van. Our a/c man had already been hand-cuffed and put in the police car. The other two guys looked frightened and defeated.

I want you to know that I did apologize for interfering with what the officers were doing. Normally, I would never get involved with a traffic stop in my neighborhood. I’ve seen officers pull a car over and draw guns just like you see on “Cops”. I live a mile from downtown Houston. It’s more of a “duck and run” kind of area than an area where you would pop over to the officer and say “hey, what’s going on?” during a traffic stop. But I had just bid these guys a good evening. I felt like defending them.

Thankfully the officer and I parted on speaking terms. He apologized for getting angry at me. He gave me his card so that I can call him if I see crack smokers or miscreants hanging about.

This is good.

Sometimes it’s hard getting through on the non-emergency line to report misdeeders. The last time I tried the woman kept asking me to “back up and repeat my description of the guys”. By the time I’d finished my descriptions so that she could get it down, the bad guys were long gone, and I’m talking about fifteen minutes of backing up and repeating, honey. Two police cars passed by during that time and she wouldn’t let me get a word in without backing up and repeating it several times.

Here is a side note: The “suspicious vehicle” thing couldn’t have happened quite the way they explained it.

First, they pulled them over as soon as the van pulled away from the curb beside our house. They couldn’t have run plates in that amount of time. Which means they had to have spotted the vehicle before this and run the plates. Second, the vehicle was not the problem. Turns out our a/c man had a warrant for his arrest. Before you get all excited about that – it only means that he missed a court date. Third, if the vehicle had been a problem they would have taken it and they didn’t. They asked our permission to leave it on the curb beside our house so that one of the guy’s wives could come drive it home.

And Fourth, (only because one must have a “fourth” if there is a “third”) I’m without an air-conditioner and furnace downstairs at the moment so excuse me while I go pile on some blankets and enjoy the Wednesday night line-up on television.

Cultural Differences: The Vietnamese Wedding Reception

Please forgive me.                       English: A wedding in Annam (Middle of Vietnam...

While getting a pedicure the other day I found out I have made a grave mistake.

About fifteen years ago my family was honored to be invited to our neighbor’s daughter’s wedding and reception. Our Vietnamese neighbors were quiet, and neighborly but we did not really get to be close friends until our children were in their teens.  Their children were a little older than ours, which when your child is a toddler and their child is in grade school seems a lot more than a little older.

I like to be neighborly – you know – take a casserole over when someone is sick, etc. But I decided early in the relationship that no one could “outnice” the Nguyens. I would offer a solution to a garden pest problem, I would get cookies, I would take cake, I would get chocolates (the kind filled with liquor, YUM!) and so on. One Chinese New Year I received a banana wrapped steamed rice dish (a Vietnamese specialty that takes a lot of work to make) for no other reason than sheer niceness.

The Nguyens were simply wonderful neighbors. We went through sickness and health and several joyous times together. Especially memorable was being invited to their daughter’s wedding.

The Nguyens were Buddhists. Their daughter converted to Catholicism and married in the Catholic church. We went to the wedding and sat on the bride’s “side”. Besides her immediate family and a few other neighbors, we were practically the only ones sitting on that side of the church. The groom’s “side” was full. We were sad for her.

We went to the reception which was held at a large Vietnamese restaurant downtown. When we walked into the banquet room I was astounded. It was huge. there were probably fifty round table all set for eight. There was a stage, and lights, and no people. The Nguyens were there, a few neighbors, the groom’s parents, the band, and no one else.

Now we were really sad for them.

Wow, throw a big party and no one comes. The small group of us from the neighborhood quickly gathered at one table and sat awkwardly staring at each other.

For two hours.

Exactly two hours later someone must have yelled “go!” because the doors opened and people flooded in. Apparently, we hadn’t read that invitation very well. There was a time printed clear as clear that the reception began at 7 P.M. The wedding had been at 4. Needless to say, we were starved. As our children were young we were used to eating early. (We still do – only now we call it the AARP eating schedule.)

Soon the music started and so did the arrival 0f the food. Course after course. I’ll never forget the lobster dish with the giant “lobster” made of vegetables sitting in the center. So much food. So many people. A DJ and entertainment. It was a grand party. And we ate like royalty.

I was relating this story to the Vietnamese man who was working on my toes.

I don’t recall how we got on the subject. I was with my mother. She loves getting a pedicure so I take her every four or five weeks for one. It does not fail that she asks each person what country they are from. I want to slip under the big massage chair, because my generation assumes that a lot of young Asians are second or third generation American, but I just concentrated on the suds around my ankles.They didn’t get offended. I’m always amazed that they don’t get offended. I think because my mother looks so old and sweet.

So on this day the conversation got around to Vietnamese food – We could smell wonderful things cooking at the noodle house next door – of course we’re going to talk about food. I remembered the delightful show and flavor of the nine-course meal at the wedding reception so many years earlier.

The conversation turned to how much such a thing would cost and the pedicurist said, “you helped pay for it.”

“I don’t think so. How could I?”

“You put money in bucket. It was passed to your table.”

“Bucket? No, I don’t remember a bucket.”



“You were supposed to put money in bucket. That is how the reception is afforded. If you only an acquaintance you put fifty dollar. If you good friend, you put two hundred or so in bucket.”

“What!??” I’m horrified. “I didn’t know.”

Why doesn’t anyone tell about these things. I remember early on the day of the wedding the procession of costumed bride and groom marching from the end of the street to the Nguyen’s house. They told us it was a custom to formally introduce the bride to her in-laws. No one said anything about contributing toward the wedding reception, that it was a cultural thing. Vietnamese wedding receptions are always elaborate – just to different degrees, and the one we were at was big-deal-elaborate. I’m sick. I asked the pedicurist what should I do? and he said that it would be embarrassing to bring it up now.

So I ask you.

After all these years what do I do? Any suggestions? I have not lived near the my former neighbors for about ten years but am still in contact.

All the Bang

Fireworks #1
Image by Camera Slayer via Flickr

New Year’s Eve I listened to the pop of fireworks in the parking lot across from my mother-in-law’s abode. I was in bed but awake. It’s hard to sleep in a strange bed. I think it must have been my fault because I forgot my pillow. No matter what bed you sleep in if you take your own pillow you will sleep. It’s true. I’m the world’s worst sleeper, so I think I have a vote in this.

Speaking of votes, I am NOT listening to the play-by-play of the Iowa Caucus. I’ll see the news tomorrow. No amount of nail-biting will change what will be.

There will be very little bang for the buck here.

We took the itty grandchild to Arkansas with us. I believe my mother-in-law’s face actually had a healthier hue when we left. I’m praying she and my father-in-law soon move to Texas where they will be closer to their children (and great-grandchild) – and better medical care.

Can you believe that baby slept all the way up there (six hours)? What a pleasant and wonderful and brilliant baby during the entire time we spent there. It can not possibly be on account of all those arms wanting to hold her . . . Well maybe it could be. She sure has a lot of fans in southern Arkansas at the moment.

Looking back at the past year all I can say is “good riddance”. In 2012 I think we are a little wiser. There will be no more house purchases. We will be a little less crowded – if and when the garage apartment is completed. And I will learn to be thankful again, get my mo-Jo back, lose the apathy.

I did say goodbye to the twenty pounds I needed to and only gained back three during the holidays.

Already thankful.

Happy New Year!

2011 in review (A Good Start)

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Christmas 2011

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...
Image via Wikipedia

This year Christmas came early in the form of a perfect grand baby. Her birthday in September felt like summer – weather wise. Here it is December and the leaves have turned color. So we have a lovely Fall for Christmas. And grand baby has doubled her birth weight into a dimpled little round thing with great lungs.

Thankfully this old house has extra thick walls. This doesn’t help my daughter to sleep because baby sleeps  in her room.

Christmas brought activity that didn’t involve a tree or lights. Amongst many calamities, serving a hot meal, making sure the dog got outside occasionally, or staying calm took priority rather than a trip to the attic, decorating, un-decorating, and then re-stocking the attic. Call me Scrooge. Seems we are spending the important holiday moments at someone else’s house with someone else’s decorations anyway.

Besides, I am feeling Scroogish.

Perhaps I feel this way because we didn’t drive around looking at lights in the neighborhood, or because I didn’t turn up the volume to endless holiday songs whilst wrapping gifts, or the fact that we visited Santa at the mall with the baby before Thanksgiving. Christmas just snuck up and walked past while I was looking the other way. I suddenly realized it while singing carols in church last Sunday. Whoa! It’s Christmas.

When I was very young and living in South Houston, Christmas was a big affair. Huge. My parents went all out with the decor. Lights, the tree touched the ceiling, streamers from corner to corner of the living room like a used car lot. We had a cardboard fireplace taped to the wall with a tin electric fire. It didn’t put off any heat. The nearby gas heater did and that was enough. Some Christmases the warm weather outside made even the fake fire warmish. That’s weather in Houston.

We didn’t receive gifts or toys during the year, ever. Instead my mother bought what she bought all year long and saved them, wrapped, in some t0-this-day-secret place until Christmas morning. What good, I ask you, were three brothers if none of them could discover the secret hiding place? Was there not a curious bone in any other them? Humpf!

I learned years later from my older brother that we were poor! I never knew. I thought we were kings and queens living as we did in our yellow asbestos shingle home with the white rock roof. I was inordinately proud of that canary yellow house. Even if the rock rained off the roof when the wind blew and the tar would drip when the weather got really hot. There was a pot of tar in the back yard that I would play in when it was soft.  I grew up happy in my world of dolls, lizards, mud pies and climbin’ trees. My brother Jon and I went fishing in the summer, caught crawfish in the flooded ditches in the spring with a string and a piece of bacon, (it was the novelty capturing these alien bug-like creatures – we didn’t discover eating them until we were grown), and we rode our bikes to grandma’s house every season of the year for more trees to climb and her chocolate chip cookies. Life was good. Poor? No way!

Maybe that’s why my mother used the same tinsel every year (and scraping it off the tree after Christmas was tedious) and she cut napkins in half throughout the year (also tedious).

There is something about being appreciative of things when you are small, something about seeing value in everything outside of the presents under the tree. Like enjoying the box more than what was in the box.

Maybe my parents had the right idea about not giving us anything (new) all year. Maybe the anticipation was the really special thing about Christmas. These days it is all too easy to give and get all of the time. What else are those shelves of items along the check out lines for? For you to suddenly realize what you needed. Or for the kids to scream and throw tantrums for. (The only time I ever shop-lifted was a package of Chiclets from the line. My grandmother caught me chewing the gum and made me take a hard-earned nickel to pay the store manager. I seriously never stole a thing ever again.)

Our grand baby doesn’t care about Christmas presents, decorations, or tinsel. Though she does love shiny things – her eyes get huge and she has that way of smiling that melts me. This year she doesn’t even care about the box. All she wants for Christmas is us – those who love her.

And that’s what she is getting.

Merry Christmas Y’all!

The Lamp Incident

Two lamps with lampshades.
Image via Wikipedia

The husband decided to replace the temporary paper blinds. I don’t think the paper blinds look so bad. From the outside, in the dark, and if you shut one eye they do look like those expensive pleated blinds. But no, he wanted to put something real up. He went and got some mini-blinds, which are okay in my book but not great. I like the expensive pleated blinds.

He was working on getting those mini-blinds installed. Beneath possibly fifty coats of paint the hundred-year-old window casings are made of petrified wood. At least that was what it seemed like around all the objects dropping and bad language coming from my husband as he tried numerous ways to get the parts and pieces screwed in place.

Different sizes of ladders were called for and produced. Different screw drivers. “Why is my cordless screwdriver never charged?” he asked me.

“We lost the charger three moves ago.” Was the correct answer but I hemmed around that with “I can’t find the charger, use this nifty T-shaped screwdriver I got you for your birthday.”

He cursed the T-shaped screwdriver and used it anyway.

He finally figured it all out and had the study’s blinds installed in a short hour and a half. Two windows down. Four to go.

He did the dining room because that only required moving the baby’s changing table, an old dresser, a lamp and a few dozen miscellaneous breakable things.

Now the living room seemed like it would go the fastest because the only thing to be moved was the couch. It’s a small couch. I left the room and when I came back I found him at the top of the ladder leaning forward with the drill poised to go at it. He had moved a side table, the one with the lamp on it. The lamp that wobbles because the lamp shade is so heavy. The ladder’s legs were straddling both the drill’s cord and the lamp’s cord. The lamp, a tall, rusted iron affair with this old, stained-glass lampshade. The lamp’s cord was stretched tight. This didn’t look like it would turn out well. I turned off the lamp and went to unplug it.

“I need that light.”

I looked up at him on his ladder. “But it will fall,” I said.

“I’m being careful!”

Best not argue. He is after all putting up blinds, which is one less thing for me to worry with if I were to ever get around to finding a way to sneak the expensive pleated ones into the budget. A far, far better thing for me to do was to walk the dog.

Back home, the dog and I walked in on the husband holding a broom and dustpan. “What’s up?” I asked because I hadn’t see the mess on the floor. Yes. It’s true. The nice, stained glass lampshade, bent and broken into unrepairable pieces. “Oh,” was all I could manage.

I didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he felt bad about it. I found a spare linen lampshade and stuck it on the iron lamp. It was a little crooked, but keeps the light shaded and that’s all a lampshade is for.

The next day I took the glass bits and crooked copper-works across the street to my neighbor, Joan Son. ( She is an origami artist. I asked her if she knew of anyone who could use the old stained glass. She did. I’m glad to recycle old things into new ones.

I thought that was the end of that. I have more things to worry about purchasing than a new lampshade so I didn’t worry about the lamp after that.

Except it was my birthday this past weekend and my husband walks in from work with a sack from Pottery Barn. I love Pottery Barn. And you guessed it – it was a new lampshade. It was a good-looking one. But honestly Pottery Barn isn’t known for their lampshades. And when you buy a lampshade for a room you should buy the exact lampshade for all the matching lamps, right?

He could tell I wasn’t enthused. And I was sorry when my daughter came home from work and my husband asked her her opinion. “It’s pretty,” she said. And then paused. “Wait. Wasn’t that the lamp that you broke? You bought a lampshade for mom’s birthday gift?”

All of which didn’t make him feel any better. I apologize dear husband for how badly you felt about the entire lamp incident. Accidents happen. Let’s forget about it and move on.

I have to admit the mini-blinds do look better than the paper blinds.

Snakes Alive Part 2, and My Brother’s Early Embalming Efforts

I’m not a crazed snake handler. I don’t long for a pet snake. I’ve never even rehabilitated a snake. I tried once. I found a snake twisting itself in knots to scale the bird bath, a green grass snake. There was a dry spell at the time so I realized it was trying to reach the water. I picked it up and put it in the water. It seemed to soak it in, lolling in the water, opening its mouth. I then placed it at the edge of the wooded area where it could get under cover and safe from the cats. I walked away but heard a PIFTH and turned up in time to see a hawk scoop the snake up and carry it away. What could I do but let nature take its course?

I learned early to educate myself about things I was afraid of, the things I was constantly coming into contact with – snakes, bugs, arachnids. I grew up in the country with brothers and a lot of snakes, bugs and arachnids.

Many years ago, while traipsing through the woods in Cedar Hill, Texas I came close to stepping upon numerous Copperheads. They were everywhere. It was Springtime when they gather in clusters to mate and when they are especially irritable at being disturbed. More recently a Copperhead brushed against my hand when I was moving a rock in my Sugar Land garden. With I say “brushed” it isn’t with the same as coming into contact with something furry that the word “brushed” implies. Instead, it was more the sensation against the skin of something smooth, dry, and weirdly cold. I stood back and watched it slither out of sight, and caught my breath before slumping to the ground.

I’ve had numerous encounters with rattlesnakes – also in Cedar Hill, Texas. A wild and wooly place, full of dry limestone shelves which make good hiding places for snakes and scorpions and tarantulas. I sighted a three-foot long canebrake rattlesnake while walking along a sandy creek bottom in Brenham, TX. Canebrakes are very aggressive and highly dangerous. This one paid no attention to me at all. It was one of those shuddering moments of full clarity when every nerve feels exposed.

I’ve seen more dead rattlesnakes than live ones. Once my brother, Jon, brought home the stiffening body of a good-sized timber rattler he’d killed at the cow pond behind our house. He arranged its body on a board, super-glued it down and injected it with formaldehyde. (I have no idea where he got the formaldehyde – isn’t that illegal? And hypodermic needles?) And thirty years later, he still has the shriveled thing, coiled in a striking position, mouth open and fangs extended. Did he realize how dangerous those fangs were? Dead snake venom doesn’t lose its lethality.

Not bad for his first attempt. Generally he would skin the snakes he killed and salt the hides, that is he would scrape the hide free of flesh and rub salt into the wet side, over and over until the skin was dry but supple. He still has the six-foot hide from a diamond-back water snake – the thing is as big as a boa constrictor.

Most snake stay clear of humans. Pit vipers can, with sensitive heat seeking “pits” at the front of their head, determine the size of the warm-blooded creature before them. If they aren’t in danger of being stepped on or have not already been stepped on they really would rather not waste their poison on something too big to eat. Snakes get away from any contact with humans as soon as possible.

With one exception.

I save the scariest for last.

Like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the water moccasin or “cotton-mouth” (named for the white mouth-lining that it displays when threatened) grows into a sizable snake. They are both thick bodied snakes, with large fangs and a good quantity of poison. And like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the poison of the cotton-mouth not only kills muscle tissue, it also destroys blood cells and damages nerve cells. These are snakes that can kill humans.

Now, with a rattlesnake you have an early warning system. Their rattle is unlike the sound of the baby’s rattle. It is more like a buzzing not much different – though maybe louder – than the sound of cicadas. But water moccasins do not have an early warning system, unless you count their smell. Because they do smell especially when disturbed. They smell like death.

The water moccasin swims with its head above the water. It moves through the grass and tall weeds the same way. The reason is though a pit viper, they use their sight to much greater advantage than any other snake. In this way they remind me of what I’ve read of the black mambas of Africa.

Another thing different about these vipers is that they eat dead things. Maybe that’s where they get the smell they carry.

It is my experience  water moccasins are scarier than any other snake because they do not run away. Every other snake will disappear, or steer clear of humans. No so the water moccasin. They not only do not back down but will approach. I can’t attribute them some human trait like curiosity to explain this behavior. There are only two explanations. Either they are so prehistoric in their “programming” that they have to follow their path of migration, or they are an aggressive snake.

When we moved to the house next to the muddy-bottom Oyster Creek, we didn’t count on the water-moccasins. The first week after we moved in two of them tried to get into the garage, at the same time. They would not back down. I wasn’t sure they were water-moccasins because I’d never seen one up close so I carefully draped them on the end of a shovel and flung them into the woods nearest the water. After several more encounters I know now those two copper-eyed reptiles were fully grown water moccasins. And the thought give me the creeps.

They come in different colors as per their age. Young ones have diamond-back markings and are as lethal at birth as the adults. The older the water moccasin gets the more the markings on their back fade to dark brown. Their sides retain some markings that fade to cream on the belly with a little yellow sometimes along the length of the body. Their eyes, like other pit vipers, have a slitted pupil, which squeezes into near invisibility in the sun.

Many more water moccasins tried to enter our home. The strange behavior of the cats warned us. It was a particular action they did. Obviously spooked, the three of them jumped like cat popcorn.  I would find a water moccasin curled to strike behind a potted plant or the garden hose. I killed quite a few. I didn’t just kill them. I chopped off their heads. People have been bitten by dead water moccasins. Why is this? Because these snakes are programmed to strike. It’s primitive. It’s primal. I didn’t make this up because every one of my headless water moccasins continued to “strike” with their bloody stump, the head opened and closed its mouth with fangs dripping venom.

There are two things that give me the willies – the large palmetto bug (a giant cockroach common in the south) and the water moccasin. The willies is defined as “the shivers”, the “heebie-jeebies”, and a shuddering fear.


Here is a picture of me with a headless snake, which is still trying to strike at me.


Snakes Alive! Part One

I miss snakes. Since moving to the city, I haven’t seen but one snake. When we lived in Sugar Land I spotted them weekly and sometimes more often. The dearth of big city snakes hasn’t always been the case. Accounts of the Allen brother’s landing in the swamp included malaria-carrying mosquitoes and poisonous snakes amongst the many dangers. But we’ve become civilized, no more cannibals or quick-sand (except perhaps at the downtown courthouse) and not many snakes.

Growing up in South Houston I enjoyed catching copper-colored grass snakes. I would try to keep them as pets. “Try” because my mother would figure it out and empty my catch-jars. My brothers and I would catch glass-eels, and pipe-fish at the back-water fishing cabin near Galveston, and at home we would find flat-worms under rocks, the kind we would later cut up in biology class. And there were the earthworms.

Once I listened to a hysterical woman describe the reason she could never garden. “It’s those pink snakes everywhere.”

We had good healthy (earthworm laden) soil in Sugar Land.

Earthworms are God’s gift. If it weren’t for them the world would stink something fierce. They eat organic material and turn it into pure, sweet-smelling earth. Thank God for them!

Unlike the flatworms, they do not regenerate if cut in two. They die. An earthworm is intricately made with a gizzard for grinding food because like chickens, they have no teeth. They have a five chamber heart with red blood. Their liver takes up over three-quarters of their body, their stomach and intestines take up the rest. So be careful fellow gardeners with your spade. If seen on the sidewalk, carefully move that earthworm to the grass and out of sight of the early bird. Please.

My first and only sighting of a snake in Houston happened while visiting Rienzi. Rienzi is a mansion like something from an Agatha Christi play, all white limestone curved lines and art deco. They give tours. The gardens are designed by someone famous, but I can’t recollect who. The gardens are proud to be called “very European”. Staircases that lead to avenues, with views at every turn, from clipped lawn to sculpted bushes. All very fancy.

My husband and I had ended our walk through the greenery and were taking the stairs to main-floor ground level when I saw a flash of red out of the corner of my eye.

There, slinking from a raised bed and wiggling across a cement walkway was a coral snake.

In Texas there are garter snakes that are banded with the red, black and yellow so we have a little saying to distinguish between a coral snake (lethal) and the banded garter snake (harmless). All snakes are beneficial, like wine taken in moderation. My thing is that if you kill all the snakes you see you are only leaving more room for the poisonous snakes because there are far more non-poisonous snakes in Texas than poisonous. So chances are the snake you see will not be a poisonous snake. My best advice to you is: if you see a snake, don’t engage it in battle, just run away.

So as I watched this gorgeous red and black and yellow banded snake pass by within a few feet, I recited my little saying. “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black safe now, Jack.” This little guy’s yellow bands touched his red bands. This was a genuine coral snake, one of the most lethal of all the poisonous snakes.

I was so thrilled.

I’ve never seen one in the wild. And the ones in cages at the zoo look so washed out and “beat-down”. This one was active and perfectly glossy. Its red was red and its yellow yellow, the colors so bright as to hurt the eyes. It was about twenty inches long, and about as big around as my finger from tip to stern. They can reach as long as three feet but it is rare to see a coral snake much less a really long one. Unlike pit vipers they remain a very slender snake throughout their life, eating small insects and vermin that they can get their tiny mouths around.

There are two types of venomous snakes in America, the pit viper group includes the Copperhead, the rattlesnake, and the water moccasin, and the coral snake. The venom of the pit viper group attacks muscle cells (though some have nerve attacking properties) effectively rotting the cells and doing horrible damage that can lead to loss of limb and even death, the coral snake’s venom like the cobra in other parts of the world, will shut down the nervous system. The Texas Coral snake has two fixed fangs at the front, which means that those fangs can reach just about any part of you that you get near it. The pit-viper’s fangs are hinged. They stay flat with the closed jaws but swing forward when the mouth is opened.

Coral snakes are shy, which is why I was so thrilled to see one. When threatened they curl up and hide their head. I didn’t get near enough to my rare coral snake to make it feel threatened. It squiggled across the walk, up the side of the raised bed of another garden where it disappeared beneath the leaves. Gone forever.

And that’s okay.

Not So Important Baby Equipment

As the grandchild’s arrival grew near we got busy with equipping the house with what we thought would be important.  Two showers of wonderful gifts left not many holes in the list. For every new gadget and every improved gadget I remain amazed. How had we survived all these generations without?

Here are some things as grand baby’s caregiver I’ve discovered were unnecessary. And also some things that can’t be done without.

Number one unnecessary: The co-sleeper. As my mother-in-law told me take out a sock drawer and line it with a waterproof pad, it works just as well. The idea is that you put this little container in the bed next to you (the new mother) because, well if you’re a new mother you know the because. The co-sleeper we bought was awkward and the baby never got comfortable enough to sleep in it. It’s in the closet now.

Number one necessary: Besides diapers, waterproof pads, light-weight blankets for swaddling, and onesies, a swing is essential. Back in the dark ages I had one for my children, too, a clunky wind-up thing. The ones now are so far superior with mobiles, and music, and a really comfortable-looking seat that baby can and WILL sleep in for hours (thank you baby-swing inventor wherever you are!)

Bassinets are just pretty. Enough said.

One surprising new piece of equipment (wish I could find one in an adult size) that looks like a lounger and is made of memory (ahhh) foam. It is called a Nap-Nanny and has the child sleeping in a slight recline so that burp and spit up doesn’t do any harm. Spit-up is really scary with a newborn. It comes out of mouth and nose so that the baby is choking if she is flat on her back. How horrible is that? A baby flat on his/her back is the recommended position these days to prevent SIDS. But what about drowning? Yuck.

Baby clothes in sizes 0 to 3 months are nice, but not necessary by the truckload, this coming from the grandma who couldn’t resist.

Baby gyms are cute and seem to make sense except to the baby. What needs to be invented is a “tummy-time” blanket. Something water-proof that has bright colored textured geometric shapes for when baby is on her tummy practicing holding up her head.

An important piece of equipment to purchase if you have a dog is a play-pen. The baby bouncer, Nap-Nanny, etc fit inside and baby can nap or bounce without the dog licking her face. Note: Bouncers are great but newborns look really uncomfortable sleeping in them.

And my daughter points out that the Boppy pillow is an essential for nursing moms.

There are a lot more essentials like diapers and formula (a tricky road paved only by trial and error) and the car seat. We went with a Chicco because of its simplicity. All of them are awkward to get into the middle of the backseat with a sleeping baby nestled within. This is back twisting stuff so exercise to strengthen lower back muscles beforehand.

A lot of available things aren’t necessary but many are so by trying out different things and reading reviews you may be able to come up with the best options for your baby without breaking the bank. And it helps to have friends with older babies willing to lend their advice, tips and that baby swing (Thank you, Emily!).

Welcome to Utopia

English: City Hall of Pearland, Texas Español:...
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This book Welcome To Utopia: Notes From A Small Town is a good read. The perspective surprised me, a native Texan, because I grew up in that small town atmosphere. This account comes from a New York City girl, Karen Valby, who moves to Utopia, Texas for the purpose of writing this book. She follows some regulars at the Utopia General Store “The coffee drinkers” branching out to all the people who intersect them in life.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering, life-changing book, just a good read for someone who has been there. I’m not one of the “Coffee Drinkers” in life but my father was so I guess I’m one of those whose life was impacted by that little Texas ritual. My father always found time to sit and drink coffee and chat about anything and everything. Wherever he was or whoever he met, it was the next question after his greeting…”Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”

The dictionary says that Utopia is an imaginary place described as perfect or ideal in all aspects. Karen Valby points out that Utopia is definitely not perfect. Most of its young folk want to leave but many find themselves pulled back into what they know to be familiar and then learning to like it.

I remember going to school in Pearland and how I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t want to grow old with the Texas twang snarling my speech, and a dead-end job at the local insurance agency. I didn’t want to have a husband and two point five children.

I did, too. I went to Chicago almost immediately after high school. It was an exhilarating experience. After a few years and dozens of people falling asleep listening for the END of a story I was telling, I learned to speak faster with more clipped non-accented words. Now I’m hard pressed to come up with Texan words, though I do “dish up” folks from the stove, and I usually am “fixin’ to” do something, most of my “Texian” has disappeared from my vocab-bank. I completely lost the “R” in the word ‘wash’, as in “I’m doing the warshing up.” It’s gone. I don’t say it anymore and I blame Chicago for that. While living there I was once asked to please spell ‘wash’. Then that person asked “where is the ‘r’ then?”

I’ve run into people I went to high school with who still live in Pearland. I had good friends I’ve reconnected with. I’m glad for that but just as glad I’ve had the experiences I’ve had, too.

And I’ve come full circle – in Houston with a husband and two point five children (I count the dog as the point five).

Still not Utopia. But it’s all good.