1. Distilled water in iron. When I was a teenager, one of my occasional chores was ironing. My mom taught me to pour distilled water in the iron, and I remember asking her why the water had to be distilled. She made a face and laughed a little and said, “Huh. I’m not really sure. That’s just the way I was taught to do it!” This would have been in the very late 80s, so there was no easy way to look it up, and I filed it away in my brain with the many unknowable, pre-Googleable things that were part of life.
This memory leapt up at me recently, out of the blue, the way memories will. I Googled it and the answer is that distilled water has no minerals so the iron won’t get clogged. Clogged? With minerals? I think this just means the salty deposits that can form around things, which you can just wash off. My mom bought special water at the grocery store her entire married life–she was an upper-middle class woman with an education and enough wealth to afford drycleaning, but she was an all in housewife who did her own ironing–without even knowing why. And she was okay with that. She died in an accident some years later, and I wonder all the time what she’d be like today, with the internet at her fingertips. She’d use it, that’s what she’d be like. She’d see it’s wonderful, horrible potential, but she’d use it, to look up movie times and recipes. I think she’d have a little business of her own now; she was so smart and creative. She’d probably have stopped putting distilled water in the iron, but I bet she’d still do her own ironing.
2. Kinds of Crepe Myrtle Trees and Pinky Tuscadero. My husband thinks the huge maple in our front yard is not long for this world, and the only thing that gives me comfort about this potential loss (and the kidney one of us will need to sell to have it taken down) is that we could plant a crepe myrtle tree. I fell in love with these marvelous pink and purple beauties in 1987, when we moved here from Evergreen, Colorado, a place of majestic rockies and pine trees. Northern Virginia seemed to be a place of traffic and allergies. My first spring here, it wasn’t the cherry blossoms that impressed me, it was the hundreds of crepe myrtle trees people had in their yards, the smooth, dove-gray trunks giving way to puffy pink blossoms that burst out in a riot. They are girly and gorgeous and they seem to say IN YOUR FACE, WINTER! SPRING IS HERE! Turns out there are fifty kinds of these, Latin name Lagerstroemia, and I have to be careful when we get one because they’re all lovely but I want a specific one called the Tuscerora. Tuscarora reminds me of Tuscadero, as in PInky Tuscadero, Fonzie’s girlfriend in Happy Days. I was five or six when my sister and I saw Pinky, with her Daisy Duke shorts and that shirt tied way up high. We were scandalized. And fascinated. When I tied my nightgown high above my belly button and pretended to be Pinky Tuscadero, my sister told me I shouldn’t do that because Pinky was “trashy and not a nice person.” I was ashamed and puzzled: Fonzie sure seemed to like her.
3. Can you survive on 500 calories a day. This is an interesting one because Google’s answer was something along the lines of not really; your body will go into starvation mode and your metabolism will shut down and you’ll get very sick and die. However, if you google can you survive on 600 calories a day, increasing the caloric amount by the number of calories in eight baby carrots or one hardboiled egg, the answer is: you bet! And you’ll feel great and live longer, too! There is so much conflicting advice on the internet about dieting that I’m sure if I wanted to find a chocolate chip cookie diet that was great for weight loss and healthy too, I probably could.
4. Was Joseph Pulitzer a bad person. Every theater nerd knows all the words to this catchy musical, and some people who shall remain nameless may have even memorized the entire script from the 1992 movie with Christian Bale because he was so dreamy. (He was even dreamier two years later in Little Women, the much better movie than the recent one.) Pulitzer is the Newsies villain, the monocle-wearing newspaper publisher who hikes up the price the newsboys must pay for papers, sparking the famous strike of 1899. He’s rich, so he’s bad, and basically a child abuser, but we named a huge prize for intellectual endeavors after him, so how bad could he have been? Wikipedia’s answer is that he was good and bad: he was responsible for putting crowd-pleasing garbage in newspapers, but spearheaded many philanthropic projects and was by all accounts a solid family man. He did indeed raise the price of newspapers and refuse to lower them, but it was after the Spanish American war when all papers raised their prices. He was against child-labor and didn’t think children should be selling papers in the first place, and said he wished parents wouldn’t send boys out to do men’s work, though of course that was easy for him to say from his mansion. His daughter, Katherine, may have been spunky but she does not seem to have been an aspiring journalist.
5. Lloyd George Knew My Father Song. This got stuck in my head, I have no idea why, and I suddenly had to know why there was a song about a prime minister knowing someone’s dad, and if there were any more words to it. Turns out the song is as nonsensical as it sounds and has no more lyrics than those in the title. But it lead to a search about Onward, Christian Soldiers (same tune), my parents’ favorite hymn when I was growing up, and an inspiring hymn in hard times; I wish it were in Catholic hymnals, and I have a whole other article about that. Turns out the lyrics to the hymn were written by Arthur Sullivan, the greatest lyricist of all time. He’s half of Gilbert & Sullivan, the duo who wrote comic operas like HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. I was in a professional production of Pinafore once, but I’ve kind of forgotten about Gilbert and Sullivan for two decades, and suddenly I am sad that no one seems to know what it is anymore. Those songs used to be part of pop culture, and now pop songs are mostly trashy. I’ve heard rated R songs blasting away at the grocery store and doctor’s office like it was no big deal, and it makes me cringe and think: who are we? The US would be a better place if we played better music in stores and offices and all public places. I’m convinced this is why everyone is so happy and well behaved at Disneyland; they play big band music in the streets.
6. Wiper blade movie. There was a movie I watched years ago when all four kids were little and went to bed early, and we had time to watch a grown up movie in the evenings but were too tired to stay awake or remember it later. This movie had Greg Kinear in it, and I’d had a crush on him since his Talk Soup days when I was in college, which my husband knew, but he agreed to rent it anyway. I think it was one of the last movies we rented from a Blockbuster. It’s a true story, about the guy who invented intermittent wiper blades for a car and pitched his idea to Ford, only to have them use his invention on the latest Mustang without giving the guy credit. He is so distraught, he checks out of family life and temporarily lands in a mental institution. But really it’s a story about pride: when Ford eventually offers him thirty million dollars to settle, but without admitting wrongdoing, he won’t take the deal. His family has crumbled and thirty million would pull him out of crushing debt and set them all up for life, but he won’t take the deal, because he wants justice. His own way. It’s called Flash of Genius, and it reminds me that God wants us to follow our principles, but not everything is a moral issue; we sometimes mistake principles for foolish pride, or let perfect be the enemy of good. Sometimes, I think God is telling us take the deal, you idiot, take the deal. (If you like Greg Kinear, the remake of Sabrina is a better bet. He’s adorable in that, and Julia Ormond is even more adorable.)
7. Mrs. Beasley doll. There was a TV show I watched in my very early childhood, all sepia-toned and blurry in my memory. It had two children, a boy and a girl, and the girl had Cindy Brady ponytails and a strange-old lady doll in a polka-dot dress whom she called Mrs. Beasley. I was fascinated by this girl (perhaps Buffy?) and coveted her curls, and even though I had a good father and a lovely family life of my own, I had a strange dad-crush on the father figure in the show. So I Googled Mrs. Beasley and discovered the show was called Family Affair, already in reruns by the time I watched it. The kids were Buffy and Jody, and the doll is even stranger than I remember, and you can buy an Ashton-Drake replica of her for a hundred bucks. (The father-figure, it turns out, was played by Brian Keith, the John-Wayne-like dad from the original Parent Trap movie and I do remember the dad-crush I had for him in that. I think we all do, am I right?) In hindsight, I can see why I wanted to be like Buffy, and it wasn’t just the curls. She was winsome and beloved and smart, like Shirley Temple. (I also wanted to be like Shirley Temple. And when I got older, Hayley Mills, and then an obscure actress named Amanda Peterson who played Sunny on a TV show I watched with my mom called A Year in the Life, and then Jennifer Connelly in that white dress in The Rocketeer, and then Meg Ryan with that cute haircut in You’ve Got Mail, and now Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary.)
8. Why is Jesus’ Passion called Passion. I should have known this but I didn’t. Of course I knew the definition of the word: a strong emotion, or deeply felt enthusiasm, etc., but not really how it applies to the days before Easter. Turns out the etymology of Passion means suffering, and it was mainly used as a noun that meant Jesus’ crucifixion until Shakespeare came along and toyed with it a bit, like he did with all words, so that it could mean a deep affection for something or a mild agitation, or anything in between. He even used it as a verb, the way people will take a noun and verbify it, like incentivize, and dialoguing, and trending. Now we associate passion with either romantic love (sometimes tawdry romantic love), or a strong affection for something, like cars or silk scarves. It’s strange that someone can say they are passionate about pugs, for example, or environmental issues, but if I say I’m passionate about Jesus, or my family, it would be kind of weird. People would smile and back away real quick. Although, I think we can all agree that it’s okay to be passionate about dark chocolate.
9. Mulligatawney stew. Heard this in a novel I was listening to (Amy Snow, by Tracy Reeves. It’s like Jane Austen meets Rosamund Pilcher, and it was perfect for listening to). I lived in England for a semester of college and have been there a few times since, but never eaten this very English take on an Indian soup, so I Googled recipes and discovered there are more variations on it than any dish I’ve ever heard of. The stew in my novel involved beef, but of course it wouldn’t have had beef in India. The name is a version of a Tamil word (had to look that up to; the language of the Southern third of India) that means “pepper water,” but the recipes I saw only had a shake or two of pepper. Think of chicken soup with rice instead of noodles, with coconut milk and curry powder, and you’re close. Since I love coconut milk dishes, I made some, and the result was so wonderful I wondered where this soup has been all my life. It’s pretty popular in Ireland, too, I think because the name sounds like an Irish village or type of thick-yarned sweater, or maybe a Celtic dog breed. It’s the best comfort food ever, and I’m going to make it a tradition for some cold weather holiday. I just haven’t decided which one.
10. Texaco Star Song. My dad was born in 1941 and went to high school in the 1950s, so when he sings and whistles songs from his youth, I’m fascinated. Everything from that time is just dripping with nostalgia; we may have been recovering from a terrible war and approaching the mess that was the 60s, but the music of the 40s and 50s is wholesome and catchy and somehow heartbreaking for it’s bye-gone-ness. One of the things Dad will occasionally sing while walking or tinkering with something is Fire Chief, fill up with Fire Chief… I assumed this was a commercial from his childhood, maybe even on the radio since his family didn’t own a TV until he was in his late teens. Turns out it was part of the theme song of the Texaco Star Theater Show, which started on the radio in the late 30s and was on TV until the early 50s. Fire Chief was a type of Texaco gasoline, and Texaco was the sponsor of the variety show, so the opening song featured four guys in gas station uniforms singing about how great the service was at Texaco stations. They ran out and filled your tank when you pulled up, especially if you were female or elderly, which didn’t offend anyone back then, and they wiped your windshield or checked your oil for free while the gas pumped. There was a gas station near my house that did that until a few years ago, and when they stopped, my heart broke. Not because I can’t pump my own gas, but because of what they’d represented; a gentler time. I think it must be hard to be seventy-nine years old like my dad; to remember a time when even the most “racy” pop-culture was pretty tame; when men wore nice hats and women wore gloves to go out to the store or a movie. When everyone held doors for everyone else and pop music, if it was played in public places at all, didn’t make you cringe and cover your twelve-year-old’s ears, and the half-time show at football games didn’t make you send kids out of the room and feel ashamed for women everywhere. I hope when this is over–I know I said I wasn’t going to write about this pandemic, but–I hope there are some changes. I hope we think about the public good a little more, and I don’t mean by washing our hands and sneezing in our elbows. I hope we hold doors. I hope we clean up after ourselves more, and try harder to help people who need it. I hope we make more TV shows the whole family can watch, and stop associating trashy vulgarity with “empowerment.” And I hope I never hear Beyonce in the doctor’s office again.