The Soapbox Papers

The Soapbox Papers is my two-cents worth.

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Location: Beloit, Wisconsin, United States

I am a cross between Tinkerbell and Calamity Jane.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Real Men Cook...and Bake

As I write this, dessert is in the oven. While shopping a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a box of (here goes my image) cake mix -- but one like I had never seen before. The product is a Sweet Potato Pound Cake, and the company that offers it is Real Men Cook Foods. I didn't think much more about it, put the groceries away, and didn't find it again until this morning, when I decided my sweet tooth deserved some attention. The directions are wonderfully simple, and it took me less than five minutes to mix it up and get it in the oven. Then I sat down to read the box. (As I mentioned, I have been reading EVERYTHING lately!)

The cake mix box says the product I have in the oven is the inspiration of a New York bakery. The name and address is given on the box - even the name of the baker and his wife! Then there was a paragraph about Real Men Cook(R), which seems to be an organization. The paragraph mentioned twelve years of producing the largest family celebration of Father's Day - but I had never heard of such a celebration. The packaging mentions that a percentage of net proceeds of this product goes to Real Men Charities, Inc. On the side with the nutritional information is a short poem by a nine year old boy. On the side of the box with directions for making this cake are notes about sweet potatoes, how good they are and how good for you.

I tasted the batter before I put the cake in the oven and noted nutmeg in the mix. I do not like nutmeg - but this isn't like most nutmeg I happen across. This nutmeg tastes more like that I used to grate fresh for Techie Kid's pop's porridge. But whether or not I like the cake itself (If I don't, I have neighbors who will!) I do like the idea of the company, and when I noted the website on the box, I decided to go take a look around. Here I found something really wonderful and unusual. Real men. Cooking, caring for children, making a difference in their communities. Real men as family heads and nurturers. Wander around the website, as I did, and see if you don't smile to yourself. While the company and website have a definite African American bent, it is about real men of all colors and creeds.

I am disappointed that the Father's Day Celebration the website mentions has not yet come to the Tampa Bay area. I am from the other side of the street; all I know of father is that I did not have a good one. Father's Day usually passes by without even a nod from me - except that I think of the men who are the fathers of my children and salute them from the distance between us. One was an active participant in nurturing and child rearing, one was, by nature, not. But to make Father's Day a celebration that includes people like me, and includes those families who have no in-house dads -- that's a great idea that needs more exposure. I like the sound and feel of this organization, and hope that more men develop an urge to cook something more substantial than beans and weenies in the kitchen.

Cooking seems to be symbolic of a lot of things in this world, anyway. While Techie Kid was visiting, it was important to me to cook a great dinner as often as I could while he was around to eat it. It's a means of showing love, and I think especially in the times we live in, it is important for families to make it a priority to have dinner together - if not daily - as often as possible. To realize that your health and happiness is important enough to another for him/her to cook for you is a great heart-warmer. How can anyone be petty over a dinner of freshly cooked food?

My daughter recently told me that her brother, when home from work, traditionally makes silver-dollar pancakes for his family - a wife and two small boys - and I smile at such traditions. I remember staying with an aunt and uncle when I was small, and on his days off, when it was a Sunday, Uncle Frank, a former Navy cook, would make pancakes for the family. Now, Uncle Frank's family thought the burnt-on-the-outside-raw-on-the-inside delicacies were spectacular, but I remember being less than impressed. Looking back, that he would take over and make this special breakfast on a Sunday was rather spectacular in itself, and I imagine his children never tasted the burned parts.

As a grown woman, I know many men who cook - most out of neccessity. My friend Doug makes the best Fettuccini Alfredo I've ever had. My friend Michael sautees a mean chicken breast and can make any rice or pasta mix Lipton or Uncle Ben's puts out. My brother Bob (BBB) cooks for a living, but I have never tasted his own cooking since he's grown up. In the building where I live there are men who are accomplished on the grill and smoker in the courtyard - and many say their grilled fish and ribs are among the very best.

And now - the cake is out of the oven and I am having a slice of it warm with a dollop of whipped cream. Nutmeggy, yes - but not at all unpleasant. The texture is wonderful, the appearance is top notch. Can't really taste the sweet potato, though. I think I would go lighter on the nutmeg and let the sweet potato taste come through a bit more. But I'll buy this again. Maybe next time I'll add raisins or nuts or both to it. Or as the box suggests, add more sweet potato - either grated or canned and mashed up - and see if that doesn't cut the nutmeg taste down a little. By the way, the directions called for baking the cake in a loaf pan, but since my loaf pan is missing (who did I lend it to?) I baked the cake in an 8 x 8 cake pan, and adjusted the time. I like the crustiness of the cake this way, and I may make it the same way even when I get my loaf pan back from where ever it is.

So guys, put on your aprons, even when you aren't going outside to grill something. Cook for your families, cook for your friends, cook for yourself.

Real men do.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Whew. Busy busy busy....

Been very busy of late, and too tired to write something of substance -- although I have been reading everything in sight lately, and there are quite a few things brewing under the strangely curly hair on the top of my head. I'll get to that later -- but for the moment, let me share with you an interesting quote from Techie Kid, he of the fascinating blog:

"Democracy these days seems like a matter of voting for the people who will support the stock you own. Isn't that insider trading?" --Taran Rampersad

Still in the research coffers: isn't there some "Good Ol' Boys" club to which Mr. GW Bush belongs which deals with just that premise? It isn't widely known and is not an open membership organization, but if someone can get the details before I do, please let me know. It's been back burnered in my head for years...

I just finished annual membership job for a local sports club to which I belong -- The Browns Backers of Pinellas . I do their newsletter and get my year's membership. It's a good trade. Everything I know about (American) football I learned from my friend Doug, and the Cleveland Browns is his team, so it follows that I learned by watching Browns games and became a fan. And I am a fan of the club itself. The BBoP is far more than a bunch of people who gather at a bar and watch the game. The BBop has a personality and a heart, and it shows. BBoP supports a local program which provides free vouchers for low income women to recieve mammograms. BBoP feeds hungry families at Thanksgiving. In the past, BBoP has supported the local Humane Society. And more. And on top of all that, the BBoP has fun. The club participates in local holiday parades with a float volunteers toil over, each year exceeding the last. And a louder, more supportive fan team you would find nowhere else! Doug -- the club president (for who knows how many years) becomes the host, spokesperson, half-time leader, and the keeper of the "fumble helmet." Fumble helmet? Well, see, whenever the Browns score, there is this small nerfy football that appears. Doug cues someone on the side who turns on music, and he tosses the ball to one member who tosses it to another who tosses it to another until the whole room is looking out for it, because to have the football in one's possession when the music stops (at the arbitrary whim of the music person) means a coupon for a free beer or soft drink. If one fumbles the ball, however -- or if one is the worst fumbler of the ball during this round -- one gets to wear the fumble helmet - until the Browns again score, and the game begins again. The fumble helmet is an old but authentic football helmet, and the wearers of this helmet are photographed for the web page. Doug would also serve as head cheerleader, but BBoP already has one -- a pixie-brownie sized little woman named Judy B. Goode -- complete with costumes, props, toys, and an imagination that knows no bounds. If there are any Browns fans in Pinellas County without a place to gather with others to watch the game, come to a BBoP meeting for an experience in gamemanship and serious Cleveland fun. Drop me a note and I will get you information -- or just check out the website and show up. You will be warmly welcomed, and in no time you will recognize this is truly one of the absolute best sports fan clubs anywhere. I show up when I can -- never as often as I would like -- and holler "GO BROWNS" just as loudly as if I had been born in Cleveland.

Anyway, I was working on the newsletter for the BBoP for much of the last week. I'd done it before and had the template safely stored in Publisher -- but since the renovation of my computer late this past winter, Publisher was useless. When I bought this computer, I also bought The Print Shop, but never got around to using it or getting acquainted with it -- so it was a real challenge to get this newsletter out -- and learn the new program -- under deadline. Did it, though -- and I think it is more attractive than the previous newsletters, either due to the features of the program itself or the extra time I spent trying to make it all work. In the end, I had to reinstall my printer as well, and because of the Broderbund program, the act of printing on this computer just became more complicated. I have to straighten that bug out quickly! I did learn that Open Office, installed by Techie Kid earlier this year, is not compatible with anything else on this computer, and, in fact, it caused many of the frustrations I had trying to make deadline. I think the time will come when I will get a second computer and have it all done in non-microsoft tools -- but for the moment, if I expect to be productive, I will have to use what is most compatible - microsoft. Eeew. Bad taste in my mouth.

In the middle of all this, my friend called and asked if I could help a friend of his to get his new condo in order for the arrival of furniture. Sure -- an easy few bucks cleaning up a bit of dust and such in an empty condo -- piece of cake, right? Aw, when am I gonna learn! Things are never that easy! It seems my friend's friend had left the electricity off in the condo for a few months -- a few of the most humid months Florida has seen in years. There was mildew and mold everywhere. Everywhere. It had to be scrubbed and disinfected and I guess I gassed myself pretty badly in the process -- being in enclosed places like closets with chlorine based cleaning solutions nearly did this smoker in! What surprised me was that my ankles and knees didn't give out with all the floor sitting/scrubbing and the contortions one must pose in small places. What I thought would be one afternoon of work turned into three afternoons and a couple of hours more. I have finally gotten rid of the cough, and have been invited to stop by and see the condo now that the furniture is in place. I just hope the proud condo owner remembers to leave the air conditioner on low when he travels North again. I'd hate to have to do that all over again and have to work around furniture and personal effects! The extra money was nice - but there is a line of medical providers lined up outside my door just waiting for their share. I splurged a little and carried home Chinese one night, but mostly the extra funds just went - as it all does these days - to those who help me maintain the organism.

Anyway, that - plus my daily tutoring in the computer center downstairs from where I live, and recovering from what certainly must have been close to pneumonia, and the newsletter, and the sudden hunger I have to read everything everywhere, has kept me quite busy. It is the weekend, though -- and I have no obligations but to Liberty the Cat, who will remind me when it is time to eat or time to lie down so she can cuddle.

But I have started other entries - some in my head, and one or two in the DRAFT folder -- so I am nearly back to normal again here.

Be back soon....

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Swim Lessons

There are those who try
to help us learn to swim --
they unburden us of pretense,
name our sorrows,
hear the silent screaming.

They give us tools:
show us strokes
demonstrate breathing,
help us put ourselves
back together again.
It's what they do.

They know.
For fifty minutes
they nudge and tug at us,
answer us back in our own voices,
swim to the center of the gene pool,
tread water, beckon us.

On good days we follow.
On days when we cannot
they swim back to us,
patiently wait
for our water wings to grow.

(c) 2002 Smokey Combs All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Dark Waters

It was like learning to dive
before learning to swim,
fear the first emotion

Years later
the mother would mention
in casual conversation
how she'd go down the block
in the middle of the night
until she couldn't hear the baby
crying anymore.

When she had grandchildren
the mother used to say
how babies only cry out of need,
even if the need
is to not be alone in the dark.

So I learned how to dive
before learning to swim.
I floundered, I splashed.
I learned how to float.
I made it.

It wasn’t pretty and
there was no applause.
Dark waters run deep.

I guess you had to be there.

Copyright ©2002 Smokey Combs

All rights reserved

Monday, July 18, 2005

Pinnocchio's Last Stand

I am not where you left me,
not where you set me
aside in that cubbyhole
in your workshop.
I have left you, Gepetto –

and when you are done doing
everything you set out to do,
when you are finished
saying things and building things
and making old things look
brand new again – when you are
done with your list-making,
prioritizing and goal tending
you will reach for me

and when you do
all you will find is
a shaft of air.
You will shrug,
think you have misplaced me,
and you will say
so what

so what I am saying to you is
see ya, fare-thee-well,
happy trails and goodbye.

I am off to seek the fortunes
of the world on my own terms,
leaving you with your
labels and index cards,
classification tabs

and the knowledge
that you probably made a mistake
when you catalogued me
because the part of me
you could not sort
and could not understand
is my curious independence

and I am gone - gone - gone, Gepetto!
leaving you confused,
positively bewildered at the very idea,
the fact that my heart
isn’t wooden after all.

(c) 2000 Smokey Combs All rights reserved


For anyone who mght be curious --this is me. Well, this is sort of me -- the picture is a few years old, yet it is the closest to what I look like in real life than many of the more recent ones. There are a few platinum blonde streaks in my hair, and maybe a few more character lines -- but essentially this is what I look like.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Noah Webster

Noah Webster is an unsung hero in my opinion.

I would salute Noah Webster, but I doubt he could receive such a salute. I am as sure as I am sitting here writing this, the man is spinning in his grave.

Languages Evolve.

We add new words every day. Someone makes one up, or we derive from other languages or they just occur and fall into common useage. Normally they are assimilated into the language with little impact, and we carry on, expanding our vocabularies and understanding word by word. But with the onset of political correctness, American English has devolved into word games. Few of us use the word 'man' referring to mankind anymore -- as in the title of "Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl did not write about a single male human being. 'Man' refers to humankind. Could such a title pass a publisher's scrutiny today? Doubt it. The theory behind that is that women scholars would be offended by the 'sexist' title. Fiddlesticks. That opinion is sexist. Are we so certain that women who would read Frankl's book are more interested in being excluded as a gender via sexist wording than they are interested in the content of the book? We are pussyfooting around the language trying not to offend women who should be insulted at the act of our pussyfooting around. Do we not trust these women to understand that shortcuts in language require all of us, men and women alike, to assume that the word 'mankind' does not refer only to one gender? Give me a break. My sisters are smarter than that. And not nearly so petty.

We are, as a country, ruining our language. Grammar has gone out the window, the same window which we are advised not to toss the baby out of, along with the bathwater.

Example: Each of the children had his own idea about the dog.

Simple and clear, right? We know that each single child had an idea of his own regarding the dog. Most commonly heard now is, "Each of the children had their own idea about the dog." We take a singular (each=every ONE) and pluralize the rest. This happens so we don't use the generic 'his' - and the only other option in correct grammar is to add the cumbersome, 'or her' to the sentence. This is the choice I most often make because I cannot be sure how my reader will react. Unfortunately, even newscasters these days use the improper 'their' and 'they' pronouns rather than the the universal 'his' and 'he.' Used to be we were told to listen to newscasters and announcers because they spoke properly. Can't do that anymore.

What prompted this tirade today is thatI got bored last night and used the feature on this blogspot to go to the 'next blog.' There are so many fascinating things that people find to write about, it is usually a great pastime. I cruised around for several hours just reading and learning how other people think. There are blogs from all over the world here, one 'next blog' click away. They're random, so I started a list of the ones I enjoyed and will go back to for more entertainment or for more information. There were many I would have liked to read, but I was tired of the new language that is being used by many of the younger people today. I really want to know what they are thinking, what is important to them, but so many of them are writing in a new type of shorthand, composed partly of computerisms (easy ones like lol, roflmao, etc.) and a different sort of shorthand -- ppl for people, substituting u for you, that sort of thing. For someone like me, it is tedious, at best. Many of the young bloggers also used completely phoentic spellings - which I guess is okay if one has the patience to get through them. I don't. I was raised reading and writing the language properly, and for me it is just too hard to read a blog as though it was a second language - because, in fact, it is. The sad thing is these folks have something to say. I believe what they have to say, how they feel, what they think, is important. Really. There are great ideas out there in young minds and I don't like that I have this barrier in the way of getting to know them. And the barrier is of my own making

Language Snob

When I was in (I think) the 10th grade I had an English teacher like no other. He taught from a book I have been trying to find since. The premise of the book was the acknowledgemnet that we can all make ourselves understood in the spoken and written word. But the calibre of our lives, our education, of our plans for the future, our standing in the world and our own self-esteem is all tied up in the quality of our language - hence the case against Ebonics. Why do you suppose actors and speakers and even some politicians take classes to eliminate regionalisms from their language? To be salable. And that was the thrust of the 10th grade textbook. Proper language will win out over improper in job interviews, letters to the editor, complaint letters, and blogs, where we reveal ourselves at what is arguably our best. So it's okay, this 60s textbook said, to write and speak however one chooses - as long as one recognizes that those who know better -- know better. There are many of us who can fall into dialect and all its mis-grammar glory among friends or acquaintances. But when it comes to saying something in a forum that we hope will be read/heard with seriousness, when we actually want to be taken seriously, proper language will win every time.

I read the blog of a local man, wherein he applied to the editors of a local paper for space in their publication as a columnist. He claimed also to be a software developer, yet, aside from his mispellings and horrid grammar (far beyond colloquialisms and a personal 'style') he could not - and admitted he could not - figure out the simplest HTML. Folks, what is not believable here? Right or wrong, snob or not, those of us who read also, consciously or otherwise, make judgments of what we read - not just the content, but the care that goes into the act of communication. I've said it when giving poetry workshops, and I will say it again here: If what you have to say is important, you will bother to say it so it is important to the reader/listener. And who of us bothers to write or speak if what we have to share is not important to us?

Poor Noah. He tried. We seem to have come full circle, to where he began. We have nearly as many ways to say the same thing as young folks wanting to say it. Maybe they can understand one another, but I just can't see an amendment to the US Constitution written that way - or a good legal brief, for that matter. We clamor for 'small print' to leave out the 'legalese' and tell us in plain English what they mean and then watch the young folk complicate matters with their individual styles. I don't know. Maybe I am just too old, but I believe there are some things that should unite us, and language is one of them.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Liberty the Cat

Liberty the Cat was doing her morning relaxation exercise -- sprawled out at the foot of my bed, dozing in the filtered sunshine. I was in my usual place in the bathroom, able to see her through a mirror placed on the inside of an open door. As I watched her, she stretched and yawned and looked directly into the mirror.

I have watched cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, birds and even a raccoon look at mirrors. Kittens will actually peer into them, now and then -- but I was totally dumbfounded this morning when Liberty the Cat looked into the angled mirror through which I saw her - and saw me. Her eyes held mine - but I was reluctant to believe this cat had actually used the mirror as a tool, as I had, to see around a corner and down a short hallway. To make sure, I reached to the floor where one of her inevitable shoestrings lie and picked it up. Liberty can resist being called, being snuggled, even treats rattled in a can, if she has half a mind to, but Liberty cannot resist her shoestrings. I usually wiggle her shoestrings for her to leap and play with, then I ask her, "Are you ready?" and she assumes her pounce stance and waits for me to toss the string so she can retrieve it. This morning I raised the shoestring so it was in front of my face and wiggled it. Her eyes grew wide as they do when she is about to give chase, and when I waved it to and fro, her eyes were on the long end. Liberty the Cat was using the mirror. A cat can use tools.

Of course, cats have been known to use many things to their own advantage for years, but this, for some reason, amazes me. It also makes me wonder just how closely this little creature keeps tabs on me. And why...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Another Year

So here I am, on the second anniversary of my 29th birthday. A cursory inventory reveals a woman who is slightly better off than last year, a wee bit lighter in weight, a bit more active in things, but every bit as mouthy and independent in thought and action. I hope to bear up well, but as with all things, there are no guarantees.

Taran recently did a blog entry on legacies, and now is as good a time as any for me to think about them, myself. I do not stand to inherit a blessed thing. My father passed some years before with no notification directly to my brother or myself, but I suppose that was just as well. He is a subject best not discussed in polite company anyway, and all I would have liked, that had belonged to him, was his fountain pen. It is most likely in some collector's display now, simply for its age and condition. My wanting of it is complex. Having become a writer myself would do as a simple explanation. The fact that he had a beautiful handwriting is another. I cannot think of too many positive things about my father, and that some do exist helps me to deal with how few there were. And the fact that, in the third grade, lo, those centuries ago, I was never permitted to use ink because my own cursive handwriting had not progressed sufficiently to please the nun who made such decisions is another reason this pen is important to me. We (or those who had progressed sufficiently) used fountain pens because (deep breath here) there were no ballpoints, (certainly no stick pens, felt tip or other such inventions!) readily available at that time. And the fountain pens we did use typically did not have cartridges. They had on-board bladders which would hold a supply of ink that was nearly always almost sufficient for the project at hand. Still, it would have been nice to have. I remember how my father guarded his pen, not allowing anyone else to use it, because another hand would change the shape and thrust of the nib and affect the appearance of whatever would be written hence. It was exactly his.

My mother, who shares the same birthstone as I, wears a gorgeous ruby ring that she has repeatedly told me will not be mine, as she has promised it to someone else. I cannot think of anything Mother has that I would want, and expect nothing as a bequest.

There is no property, no land, nothing of any value I expect to come into at any time during the last half of my life. And there is no land nor property that I can leave to my children -- yet they still have recieved a legacy already that they shall always have. Intangible. We all leave legacies of an intangible kind. Most are unintentional, and while most are unconsciously left, I want to muse about them consciously for a time and make adjustments where I can.

The Robert Bly book, Iron John comes to mind. I read this book years ago and loved it, wrote reviews about it, even sent my note encrusted copy of it to my brother, who may or may not have read it. In the reviews I wrote, I always ended the same way -- that I recommend this book to anyone who is a man or who knows one. I stand by that. In this book, Bly uses a fairy tale as the basis for his explanation (and his recommendations) of the plight of men today. One of the most memorable things I noted in this book was the belief that a boy becomes a man beside a man. A father's legacy to his son(s) was what he was, what he held as important and valuable, his mannerisms, his reactions, his dignity and respect, his manliness. In earlier days it also included his profession; hence a carpenter taught his son to be a carpenter, a blacksmith taught his son to be a blacksmith and so on. These are things that are just "in the air" when men (or a boy and a man) are together, and the younger absorbs these as easily as breathing. Bly realized the value of mentors. Those of us who have no family associations seek out mentors of our own. You know the old proverb, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." We find what we need when we need it.

And -- men or women, aren't we all mentors of a sort? We all leave an impact on those around us, hopefully (but, unfortunately, not neccessarily) for the better. It amazes me that my daughter holds important many of the same things I do - albeit for different reasons in some respects. But I do not find it odd that all my children are very verbal, they all write well and speak well, and they all have, in varying degrees, a certain diplomacy that helps them do whatever they choose in this life with one less barrier than many others. My older two children have a certain joy, almost a giddiness regarding family that their father enjoyed. My younger son has his father's seriousness of mind (and stubborn-ness, which both define as "purpose") We are all leaving legacies.

I decided this year to bake a cake for myself. I have been invited by a dear friend to share dinner at his house, and I will bring it with me. The sun is beginning to peek out from the clouds, the bands of Hurricane Dennis are nearly passed now, here in St. Petersburg, so it looks like the dinner will not be postponed as I'd earlier thought. That means I had better get into the kitchen and get baking. It will be a vanilla cake, light and fluffy, baked in a bundt pan for easy transporting. I will divide it in half horizontally and, at my friend's house, add the finishing touch -- a layer of whipped cream in the center, covered with a layer of fresh strawberries, another layer of whipped cream. With steamy hot and creamy coffee, it will make a wonderful dessert, and I am pleased that I will be sharing this with close friends. They have seen the changes, over the years, and love me anyway. What more can one ask?