Saturday, October 22, 2011

The things families do to get candy!

Jerry Seinfeld says the only thought in his brain for his first ten years was, “Get Candy.”

I felt the same way.

On a holiday when everyone hands out candy, a kid says, “I’ll wear anything I have to wear, do anything I have to do to Get Candy.”

Jerry wore a Superman mask with a defective rubber band.  In my town of 193 people, costumes were less sophisticated.

For drama productions or parades, Mama went all-out.  She created a tableau of the  “Miracle of the Seagulls” for the 24th of July Parade: One child was dressed in tan, with bundles of yellow wheat artfully attached, representing the crops of  struggling Mormon pioneers; another, the villain of the tale, was a sinister black cricket, pestering the grain, and a third was a white seagull who flapped up in time to save the harvest.

We had a cute Little Bo-Peep outfit with a bouffant skirt and crooked staff.  I always thought my little sister should be Little Bo-Peep—but certainly not me.

Mama loved to attempt to develop her children’s’ talents. But at Halloween, she let us do our own things.  She didn’t care about candy.

Finding costumes didn’t bother us. We spent the year playing dress-up, imagining scenarios from cowboys to pioneers to King Arthur in our older siblings’ cast-off clothes.  On Halloween, we wore our favorites.

With a touch of black eyeliner, I thought I looked like Cleopatra in a Nile green chiffon gown with silver trim and a delicate silver crown, though what the neighbors saw was a skinny kid with mousy brown hair and freckles, tripping along in a very long dress with black stuff all over her face.

And whatever our costumes, we wore winter coats and sometimes hats over them—October 31 is cold in Eastern Idaho.  Neither rain, nor snow, nor wind kept us from tramping all over town, and we were satisfied with our take. In those idyllic days before candy tampering, we got apples, cookies, cupcakes and popcorn balls along with candy.

As a mom, I lived by Erma Bombeck’s philosophy: “Put a paper bag over your head and tell them your Mom has the flu.” Since my kids inherited my love of candy, they cobbled costumes together well enough to rake in a lot of sugar.

My daughters and daughters-in-law are creative—our grandchildren have been Darth, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Cupid, a seven-foot alien and Strawberry Shortcake, among others.  This year, we’ll see Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess Peach in one family.

My husband never dressed up, other than occasionally getting a new pocket protector for his spooky “city planner” costume.  Then last year, we watched the BBC Robin Hood series, and it was as if he wanted candy again.  We shopped the Halloween stores that, like a toadstool, appear on October 1 and disappear by November 1—and found a Robin Hood costume, a bow and an arrow.  Though my maiden days are past, I fixed myself up as a not-very-convincing Maid Marian. 

What are your family traditions to Get Candy?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

“Hear no evil, speak no evil”—or was that “herniaville, spacey weevil?”

While teaching a class on writing family histories recently, I admitted that I know little about voice-recognition software.  Two days later, my husband needed to quickly transcribe many pages of family history—we never typed it up because it had been damaged in the Teton Dam Flood—and we decided it would be easier to read it out loud than to type it.

We acquired “Dragon Dictation,” a voice recognition program for our computer.  Other programs include IBM's ViaVoice, e speaking Software, and Voice Studio—which is somewhat cheaper and not as smooth, according to reviews, but with a fun “create your own skit” feature.

I anticipated that besides taking care of this job, I could sit Cousin Ted down next to the computer, get him rambling about his cowboy days, and have a print-ready family history story with little to no effort. It turns out, I would have to get Ted and the software well acquainted before going far.

It takes awhile to “teach” a computer to recognize a voice and its nuances. My husband spent hours doing this, and now, like the RCA dog, our “dragon” knows its master’s voice.  I’m working to teach it mine.

Learning to understand what people say is one of the most complex tasks faced by human beings—a task that starts early in life. 

We hold a baby and murmur, and he or she can tell from our vocal tones whether we are happy or sad, relaxed or stressed.  Over time, babies learn the whole range of language—phonology, or the way words sound; tense, number, gender, and so on.  Much of what we think is “cute” in the language of toddlers is just their way of figuring all this out. 

For instance, when a two-year-old says, “My do it!” we laugh and say, “You mean, ‘Let me do it!’ ” Soon the little one has all the words in the right order—whether he or she speaks English, Chinese, Greek or Russian.

In my college linguistics class, our professor had no mercy. He’d cover the board with foreign-language verbs to conjugate or nouns to change in gender or number, and when we complained, he’d say, “What’s wrong with you? Any two-year-old in Peru (or Finland, or Sumatra) can figure this out!”

That’s the job faced by a voice recognition program, with the added problem that it can’t tell voice from background noise.  We spend a lifetime chatting over the sounds of lawnmowers, television, other people, car engines and the like.  This unfortunate software has to learn what your voice sounds like AND what sounds aren’t your voice.

But once it learns, what a blessing! Most of us speak approximately 140 words a minute, but can only type about 40 words per minute. My husband churned out pages of material in record time, inserting words like “period” and “new paragraph” so the document was punctuated.

And just like it’s fun teaching a toddler to talk, it’s fun teaching a program to recognize your voice.  I talked about a date I had with my husband.  Dragon Dictation translated, “He took me to ‘The Nutcracker’ ” as “He kicked me to the neck cracker.”

Then I tried to dictate a recipe for doughnuts.  Poor software—to never have sunk its teeth into one of my Dad’s soft, tasty, cinnamon-y (it thinks cinnamon is “sentiment”) doughnuts. It rendered the word doughnut as: “go check, go not, donor, Don Knotts” and my favorite, “go nuts.”

When it got it right, my husband said, “Thank you, you’re a genius.”  It rendered it, “Thank you, Eurydice.”

It thinks its master is so smart! 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I Eat, Therefore I Garden!

“I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes.  “I eat, therefore I garden,” says Debbie.

Gardening gives us a relationship with our food. It’s soul-satisfying to watch it grow and then harvest it, wash it, prepare it, and eat it—sometimes within minutes. This is “the local food movement,” but in the past, it was just life as usual.

On our Idaho dry farm, a loose barbed wire fence kept cattle, horses and wildlife from munching on our peas, corn, lettuce, swiss chard, onions and potatoes.

Dad plowed it with the tractor and helped us plant.  He had a rhyme for counting the four corn seeds that went into every hill: “One for me, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow!

Mama made us weed, but she wasn’t very strict, so our garden was sometimes weedy.  It was watered with a leaky hose strung from the well across the dirt parking area; moving the hose around the garden was another job for Mama and for us.

I was always willing to pick the green peas, still my favorite vegetable, followed closely by vine-ripened tomatoes. 

When my grandchildren ask, “Grandma, did you ever tell a lie?” my mind flies back to the first of many.

I was about six years old. My sister Jeanne, about age 14, wanted to cook creamed peas and red potatoes, in a white sauce made with plenty of cream from our brown Swiss cow—is your mouth watering yet?

When the peas disappeared, Jeanne came unglued—she probably had to make the dish for a 4-H project, making this an even more heinous crime.

Cornered, I denied the theft unequivocally, several times.  She produced evidence in the form of pea pods and I was tried and convicted. 

The trouble with having lots of older siblings is that it’s like having extra parents.  But I preferred Jeanne’s tongue-lashings to anyone else’s!

Aunt Saville—the 4-H leader—had a beautiful garden with few weeds.  When I helped my cousins pick peas and raspberries, they weren’t allowed to eat any, or at least, very few.  I ate too many.  Aunt Saville didn’t mess around asking if I was lying, she could see the guilt all over me (and all over my face!)

I thought that was a terrible way to run a garden. I must’ve planned to graze my way through life, so it was a good lesson for me.

My husband had been raised on a potato farm, so in 1977, a small garden plot sounded much easier than the acres of potatoes he’d weeded, sometimes while listening to the sounds of the Basalt, Idaho, 4th of July parade.  His father and my Aunt Saville would’ve hit it off, the way they broke the child labor laws!

Since we lived in a tiny apartment in Caldwell, we helped a widow lady, Verna Waansgard, cultivate her garden. When the vegetables were ripe, Mrs. Waansgard and Norma Norris (later Egelund), and Norma’s daughter Anita (Bake) helped me re-learn the canning skills Mama had tried to teach me. 

No matter how long we’d been working, no matter how tired we were, Mrs. Waansgard, in her 80s, and Norma, in her 70s, just kept on going ‘til the job was done.  They could’ve taught the Energizer bunny a thing or two.

We’ve had a garden ever since. This year, we planted a new squash that became as bad as a Brazilian rain forest or even a pumpkin, choking out cucumbers, butternut squash and summer squash. 

When it started on the tomato vines, I got my machete and rubbed it out. Nothing comes between me and my tomatoes!