Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fond Memories of Licorice and Cherry

Jelly Beans are a significant part of the Easter Sunday candy menu.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

“How do you stay so thin,” a cousin asked me a few weeks back.
“I eat whole food,” said I, alluding to foods not stripped of many of their nutrients and "enriched" with chemicals designed solely to extend their shelf life or to makeup for a key missing ingredient such as fat. “The way we ate when we were growing up.” And I also reminded her that I have been thin all my life, plus I exercise in moderation. Then I embarked on a primer on healthy eating.

I’ve often since thought about that conversation because many people in Monroe are overweight. It’s also been on the brain the last week or so because of the myriad reminders that Easter is near. I walked passed an aisle fairly bursting with Easter baskets the day I should not have been in Wal-Mart. One sees signs of the day at supermarkets, malls/shopping centers, pharmacies, on television – just about everywhere one can buy clothes or food.

In my humble effort to make the world a better, healthier height-weight proportionate place through basic nutritional education, I offer some suggestions on how families can eat as healthfully as possible on Easter and any day of the year. Over the next few days, leading up to Good Friday, I’ll confine my remarks to chocolate, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), eggs, flour, trans fats and soft drinks.

But first some statistics. In its ranking last year of the most and least healthy states, United Health Foundation ranked Louisiana 47 based on such indicators as childhood vaccinations, smoking, cancer deaths and obesity. Vermont is ranked No.1, while Mississippi is 50. The top 10 healthiest states include all six New England states. On the other extreme only one state – Nevada – among the least healthiest is outside of the south.

Obesity in adults, a major indicator of health, is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater, according to the Centers for Disease Control. BMI is calculated from a person's weight and height and provides a reasonable indicator of body fatness and weight categories that may lead to health problems. Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. The definition of overweight is a BMI of 25-29.9.

According to a study published online on 13 January in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, 68 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. The obesity rate in Louisiana is 28.3, the CDC reports. The national average is 33.8. For young people ages 2 through 19, whose rates are calculated differently than it is for adults, the obesity rate is 16 percent.

Now some words about chocolate and HFCS:

This is pretty straightforward. Choose milk chocolate over dark chocolate. And make a buy of chocolate not associated with human rights violations. For more details, read

Oh, my beloved jelly beans. My favorites are the black ones, which taste like licorice and the cherry-flavored red ones. If only I can find some that do not contain HFCS.

According to Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th Edition, high fructose corn syrup is “a sweetener made by processing corn syrup to increase the level of fructose, usually to between 42 percent and 55 percent of the total sugar, with the balance being glucose. It is used extensively as a sweetener in processed foods and soft drinks, particularly soda and baked goods, but it is included also in many foods not normally thought of as sweet foods.” One of these is Heinz Ketchup, I learned one evening at dinner. It's also in some salad dressings.

Unfortunately, the medical community has not reached consensus on the ill effects of HFCS.

Michael Roizen, “The Enforcer” for Mehmet Oz of “Oprah”and “The Dr. Oz Show” fame, wrote on “One of the biggest evil influences on our diet is the presence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) ...

“The problem is that HFCS inhibits the secretion of the hormone leptin, which tells your brain that you're full, so you never get the message,” explained Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. “And it never shuts off gherlin (the other main hormone that controls appetite, which stimulates your hunger), so even though you have food in your stomach, you constantly get the message that you're hungry.” Both factors have contributed “enormously” to obesity, he added.

The American Medical Association, however, says HFCS has no more ill effects than cane sugar, and that overconsumption of either is not good.

Meanwhile, has a number of opinions. There are tons of references to HFCS on its Web site. Some cite the lack of conclusive evidence about its harmful effects, while others assert its harmfulness and still others suggest, as does the AMA, that it is no worse than cane sugar. The most dogmatic, however, advises avoiding it at all costs.

Here’s Christine Rosenbloom in an article titled “The Truth Behind 10 Diet Myths.” "There's probably nothing particularly evil about high fructose corn syrup, compared to regular old sugar."

Rosenbloom of Georgia State University (Atlanta) asserts that the myths date to 2003, when researchers noticed a correlation between the rise of obesity with the use of HFCS. "They speculated that ... maybe we handle [high fructose corn syrup] differently than we do sugar … there really isn't any evidence to support that," she stresses.

Christine Gerbstadt, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, is less sanguine. In the article, “What’s Haunting Your Kitchen,” she advises tossing everything that lists high-fructose corn syrup (or other sugars) as the first ingredient. "Sugar is not the evil when you control the amount in your food," says Gerbstadt. "The trouble is that most prepared food contains much more than you would add yourself."

In that same article Inger Stallmann is most unequivocal. The research dietitian with the Georgia Prevention Institute at the Medical College of Georgia says out with all foods containing HFCS.

Amen to that. Staggering anecdotal evidence suggests that virtually all obese people consume a fair amount of HFCS because it is an ingredient in the foods they favor, which are mainly processed. For the Easter cakes, pies, dinner rolls and other foods, why not real sugar – brown cane sugar – in moderation, of course? It's as simple as purchasing those food favorites, such as jelly beans and ice cream, that do not contain HFCS. They are all in the supermarket and often sit right next to each other. If not, management will stock them, especially if it's made clear that these are the only foods for which hard-earned dollars will be allocated.

I chose the ice cream that did not contain HFCS. For the same reason, I opted for the Smucker's strawberry "organic" preserves over the Smucker's peach preserves. As the example of Smucker's illustrates, many companies manufacture a "healthy" and "unhealthy" version of the same product. This is why it is important to read the labels, so keep those reading glasses within reach.

In closing, really, must we have sugar in our salad dressing?

Tomorrow: eggs and flour.

Learn more about any number of medical and nutritional issues at the following Web sites:;;;;;;;;;

Monday, March 29, 2010

Worshipping in my Spiritual Comfort Zone

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

AFTER just a few minutes a startling revelation: I felt comfortable – for the first time in six weeks. I was sitting on the fourth row of the center left pew of the House of Prayer International, a multicultural church in Monroe. It was yesterday, Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter Sunday.

I’d arrived a few minutes late, and parked myself in the pew during the middle of a praise song when I realized I felt right at home, though this was my first visit. What gives? I believe it is because I was in a multicultural church, rather than a segregated one. I’d given up segregated churches – specific to my experience, all-black churches – more than a decade ago. I arrived at this point of enlightenment after I began what I term my “lucid walk with God” – meaning my personal relationship – in the late 1990s.

Allow me to digress briefly: I proclaim proudly and without hesitation that I am a Christian, a Jesus Christ follower. I am on God’s team – the great “I Am,” Moses’ friend and the one whose own heart King David was after. When I identify as a Christian, I am merely stating that I am a sinner who daily falls short of God’s glory (worthiness) and who is in need of salvation/grace/mercy to get through each day and to get to heaven and avoid as much hell as possible, literally and/or figuratively. I don’t believe that I am better than anyone because of this association, but I do hope (and pray) that all will join the team. It is not my intention to convert or condemn anyone who believes otherwise and who may think me a fool. In the end – for heaven’s sake – I hope we are all talking about the same Creator because, man, God is awesome!

My lucid walk began one night in 1997 after I’d returned home from a swanky party in Boston. Strangely, I felt empty inside. Something was missing. There was a hole in my heart. I was hurting and wanted to die but didn't know why. However, I was too sensible to do something as stupid as take pills or slit my wrists. By all accounts I should have been on top of the world. I had a fabulous job as a newspaper editor and writer. My friends, colleagues and sources respected me. Generally, I was well-liked. I was good-looking. Had a nice apartment with a view of the beach. Nice car and clothes. Decent money in the bank. On my arm was a handsome, charming, brilliant Darmouth-educated banker boyfriend. My name was on the guest list of parties that were written up in the social pages of The Boston Globe and other major, local publications. I was an “It” girl. Absolutely fabulous – but only on the outside.

Inside, I felt worthless. And inferior, not because of gender or ethnicity, but because I had a recording playing in my head – implanted when I was around 12 by another who shall not be named. In a continuous loop it said, “You’re dirty, lowdown and no good.” Regardless how much I achieved or how congenial I was or how well-regarded, I always felt inadequate.

Stephen Johnson is the current pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Dedham, MA. Photo courtesy of Fellowship Bible Church.

Inexplicably, to soothe my ache I decided to read my bible. Even today I don't know why I turned to it. And I found my bible – in the booth in the back in the corner in the dark of my bedside nightstand. After giving it a good dusting, I opened it and started reading. I would learn life-changing truths that night and in the coming weeks such as the meaning of Passover and that the love of money is the root of all evil, not money in and of itself. I read numerous passages that were counter to the messages I heard from pulpits – mostly Baptist – during my formative years, which could be summed up thusly: “If you don’t stop sinnin', you goin' to hell.” The most startling revelation was that drinking in moderation was not sinful. I’d already given God to know that this Champagne lover could not go forward if she had to live without Veuve Clicquot et al. My jaw dropped when I read the account of Jesus turning water into wine at that wedding, his first recorded miracle, incidentally.

Now that I had straight some biblical facts and my heart was glad, I was ready to join a church. I grabbed the Greater Boston yellow pages in search of bible churches A cousin recommended such a one, owing to their focus on God’s word as it is written in the Bible – no additives and preservatives. Influenced by Galatians 3:26-29 (3rd Chapter of Galatians, Verses 26-29), which basically states that we are all one in Christ regardless of our ethnicity and should get along, I declared that I could not attend anymore segregated churches. I phoned every Bible Church listed within a 30-minute drive and asked about its racial/ethnic makeup. Based on this criterion I would later join Friendship Bible Church where I was a member until I quit Boston for Paris. I have not been a member of a segregated church since, not in Paris. Not in D.C. And not in New York.

It is not surprising, then, that in 2010 I might feel uncomfortable in an all-black church. It’s segregated and it was in the Black Church where I was initially misled. Of course, not every all-black church is guilty of misrepresenting/undercommunicating God’s words. Absolutely not. But a significant number are. (Ditto for many all-white churches.) Black churches have served a commendable role in society. They are where many blacks of a certain era learned social graces. The Church has produced countless black leaders and also served as educational and recreational centers and so on. Once upon a time they were the nerve center of Black America. I’m not advocating their demise, but merely noting the source of "The Biblical Miseducation of Vevlyn Wright."

Anecdotal evidence, personal experience and accounts from others strongly suggest that these “rogue” churches are thriving in Monroe, as they likely are in every city in the country. While Calvary Baptist Church is doing a commendable job, I cannot say the same for several others I’ve attended. The pastor/preacher starts off OK enough, reading the scripture. But too soon descends into showmanship mode. Regardless of the passage, the default phrase is “God is able.” Of course, this is true, but one needs a bit more substance when s/he is coping with a difficult teen, spouse, finances, coworker. Or a health problem and so on. There are specific passages in the Bible that address many such issues. Indeed, they provide instruction about how the Christian should handle them. But these showmen – and they are primarily men – fail to address such details, lest they interfere with their performance, which can be summed up in three words: "whoopin’ and hollerin’" accompanied by enthusiastic audience participation, all the while radiating abundant heat and no light. Imagine James Brown in concert or a church scene in a Tyler Perry movie. One Sunday, I leaned over to a friend’s father and said, “I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a good show.” He concurred. No doubt, this could also happen in a multicultural church, but that has not yet been my experience.

At House of Prayer International, the Rev. Ronald Brown, took his message, “Jesus is praying for you,” from Romans 8:34. To buttress the message, he borrowed a page from the experiences of the disciple, Simon Peter, specifically his bold statement that Christ was the promised Messiah, his chiding Christ for disclosing the latter’s impending death, his stated allegiance to Christ – even to the death, his denial of Christ and his restoration by Christ. (Read the latter chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the details). The pastor’s overarching point was that when we – like Peter – have failures Christ is still there for us, praying/encouraging/forgiving/restoring.

Yes, God is able, but if one has a setback or reverse, reading about Peter's experiences would be reason for hope. Interestingly, I remembered the sermon. With the exception of the message I heard at Calvary, it is the only one I could recall later in the day or the next day. Why? Very possibly because it had some meat and was not heavily punctuated and obliterated by theatrics.

Learn more about House of Prayer International at, Fellowship Bible Church at and Calvary Baptist Church at 318-323-0238.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Hardest Job on Earth Is a Mother!

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

THE other day when I was home for a quick bite and power nap before my next errand, I turned on the TV to catch the “Oprah” show, already in progress. Because the Big O has been on a mission for years to make the world a better place, I tune in to watch and cheer her deed du jour if I am near a TV. The day’s show featured interior designer Nate Berkus taking on the chores of a stay-at-home mom of three, to presumably understand whether he could do it and/or to show America what it entails.

Allow me to take this opportunity to assert that Motherhood is the most difficult job any of us will ever undertake. I am not a mother, but I have observed motherhood in action. I am in awe. Never, ever do I fail to declare to women who describe themselves as “just a housewife” aka stay-at-home mom that they are not “just” "a" “housewife.” They are demigoddesses: teachers, tutors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, general practitioners, pediatricians, personal shoppers, designers, seamstresses, policewomen, lawyers, judges, CFO’s, chauffeurs, chefs, maids and so on. Who else can take on all of these roles, except a good mother?

In any case, NB was the mother for an afternoon of three kids. Two of them were school age and one an adorable, well-behaved 2-year-old. To say he was SuperCrazyBusy is an understatement. I still marvel that he got through the day with his sanity intact, and so did he.
Nate Berkus and 2-year-old toddler B. Photo courtesy of Harpo Productions Inc.

Incidentally, NB is one of the “most nicest” guys you will ever meet – even when the cameras aren’t rolling. Last year, he kindly allowed me to sit at his table at a fundraiser hosted by Donna Karan et al. when he learned that someone took my seat at another table. He was a congenial host who put everyone at ease, and he included me in the conversation. After the event was over he saw me home in a taxi. I’ve since ran into him at a couple of events, and he was similarly as sweet as pie.

Watching NB swim against the tide as Mr. Mom got me to thinking about my situation here in Monroe. Since I got my driver’s license a few weeks ago, I have been running around like an Energizer Bunny – but with not nearly as much energy – trying to get things done for my mother and the odd errand for myself, like pay my Chase credit card bill. Mind, I don’t have children or a husband – only my mother who lives in a nursing home, thus relieving me of myriad responsibilities. I do, though, have a house to clean and alas, am only doing a barely passable job. I must confess to turning the oven into a receptacle for dirty pots and pans. My outside job is running VEVLYN’S PEN, which has been in the dark until very recently – a luxury I can enjoy because I am the boss.

Still, I am dog-tired. Sleep has become a luxury. I go to bed late and wake up early. Where do the hours go? Everyday, around 5, I realize with sadness and pessimism how much I did not get done. It seems that I only complete three or four errands a day. How is that possible for someone up and running at 7:30?

When I watch shows like “Ambush Makeover” and “10 Years Younger,” I am shocked at the appearance of the participants, mostly women. Most are either housewives, moms who also work outside the home and women who may or may not work outside the home but who also care for a sick or infirm loved one. They look bad. Bad! Countless times the reason is, “I let myself go,” because there was no time to do personal grooming when there were so many others to look after. While trying not to be judgmental, I was always saying under my breath, “Girlfriend, surely you can do better than this.”

The last few weeks have shown me that I am less sure that they can do better. I’m also not so certain that given the same circumstances I wouldn’t be a sight, too (not one for sore eyes). My edges have begun to fray. I have not been going to the gym because I tend to work out in the mornings, and that is when my errands must be done. By 5 o’clock I am too tired to think about step class. I’ve also worn a few garments that while, not dirty, are not clean. Thank God for dark clothes. And it’s easier to just gather my hair in a rubber band and keep it moving. I've taken to using my toothbrush to floss my teeth. My eyebrows really need some attention. I have not cooked in a week. At night, I forage in the refrigerator for whatever I can eat without much fuss. Red-pepper hummus spread on wheat bread, with sauteed cabbage and carrots on the side can hit the spot in a pinch.

I have far less to do than the aforementioned women. Yet, I can feel myself going and I can’t stop myself from going. It stands to reason, then, that if a woman has children, parents, a husband, house and an outside job competing for her time and energy, she may look frightful.

Like NB, I see the light.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Dozen or so Things About the Real World

Moms Mabley told it like it was in her own special way. Photo courtesy of UPI.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

THOSE of us who live in the swankier areas of New York City – that is certain neighborhoods in Manhattan – reside in a bubble. We’re more spoiled demanding, entitled and impatient, because the world is our oyster and we want it now. We have just about every convenience at our fingertips. We’re more liberal. And more nuanced in our politics. More educated. Affluent. More health-conscious and environmentally friendly. More passionate amount human rights and animal rights. We’re more hemmed in and uptight because land and space go for a premium. We walk more. Drive less. And watch less TV. And we’re more removed from the reality of who we are as a nation than are our fellow Americans elsewhere, except for perhaps, Los Angeles. In fact, many of us (me excluded) describe ourselves as New Yorkers, not Americans.

Often enough over the years – especially those spent abroad – I’ve declared to any number of people that New York and Los Angeles are not America. I’ve encouraged scores to visit the “flyover” states to get the flavor of the real America, probably the one that Sarah Palin often waxes about. I have been in the real America – where I grew up – for about six weeks. It’s a strangely wonderful place and a wonderfully strange place, or so I have observed:

1. A lot of fuel can be conserved, and it would benefit the environment if there were fewer drive-ins where motorists sometimes wait in long lines with engines running. The scene plays out daily at pharmacies, liquor stores and banks;

2. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, trucks made up 48.4 of passenger vehicle sales in 2008 (the last year for which statistics are available). Yet here it seems that every two out of three is a truck, CUV or SUV. Why so many trucks on the road? Hauling things? People?

3. Is it my imagination or is there a daquiri emporium on every other corner in the business district?

4. I have not imagined the lone Starbucks in town;

5. Nor have I imagined the payday loan centers and cash-checking stores at virtually every shopping center and strip mall;

6. At least two dentists have a thriving practice doing nothing but dentures. Only about half of their clients are senior citizens.

7. Plenty of reasonable folk will drive around a parking lot for as long as 10 minutes to get a spot three spaces closer to the door than the one they passed up;

8. It's disconcerting to run the car air conditioner on sunny days between about noon and 4 p.m. when the air temps are only in the mid to high 60s. In the car I’m burning up. Outside the car I’m chilly.

9. Sparkling wine (not Champagne) – my alcoholic beverage of choice – is costly, even the Korbels of the world. $12-plus in some quarters. Are you serious?! I’ve been kickin’ it with J. Roget and formerly, Andre;

10. The mall is still the new town square. It is home to merchants, shoppers, trees, flowers, plants, benches, ponds, waterfalls, walkers, etc. At Pecanland Mall, one can relax and enjoy the scenery with no interference from wind/rain/snow/heat/cold;

11. In busy, bustling New York, walk down the street and no one will likely notice or register that they do. In Monroe, walk amongst the public fully clothed but looking remotely “otherworldly” and you will be met by open, bald, shameless stares and whispers. Note to self: Next trip leave the boots and cropped leggings at home.

12. Some people don’t use voicemail. “Didn’t you see the missed call,” asked the cashier at Firestone Complete Auto Care when I inquired why he didn’t phone me (the subtext being that if you got my voicemail you should have left a message) about an issue with a tire. I saw the missed call and immediately checked my voicemail. Silly me, I didn’t phone the number because I concluded that it was probably someone who’d concluded they’d dialed the wrong number and hung up. This I explained to the cashier. “You not from here, are you?” he asked.

13. In Wal-Mart someone stole my shopping cart. The thief actually removed my items and made off with it while I was searching for plums. Serves me right for not living up to my convictions. I felt dirty, too, owing to my self-imposed boycott. Why? Because of the chain’s labor issues, mainly low wages and anti-union activities. And there is that business about requiring shoppers to show their receipts before they leave the store.

14. And finally this, which can happen even in New York, could not go unremarked on just because ...: My mother – bless her heart – was a cougar long before the term was coined. Methinks one of her mantra’s could be summed up in the words of the late great comedian Moms Mabley: "There ain't nothing an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one." … The other day she gave her late-30/early 40-something dentist to know that he was cute. “May I have a date,” the senior citizen asked as pretty as you please. Dr. P. did not say yes, nor did he say no. Hmmm.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two Proofs That She Is my Mother

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

That first day I saw my mother in the intensive care unit at Glenwood Regional Medical Center in West Monroe, Louisiana, I was struck by all of the tubes attached to her and all the equipment in the room. I also noticed how clear and smooth was the skin on her face, neck, chest and shoulders. Of all of the observations to make about someone who is very critically ill! Incredible, the workings of the human mind.

Over the last several weeks as she’s moved from intensive care and into a long-term care unit and later, on a brief return, into a regular hospital room and since her return to the nursing home where she resided before all of the drama and trauma, I have noticed her humor, too. It is significant that I would make these observations about my mother. Growing up and even into my young adult years, I was always on alert for signs that I was her daughter because I had convinced myself otherwise. That this woman, Leeunice Calloway Wright (LCW), was not my mother, until I had solid evidence to the contrary.

According to sketchy and suspect family lore, my mother became ill during labor and did not recall giving birth to me. She had very little to do with me when I was an infant. In fact, family lore continues, my mother was so incapacitated that my grandmother journeyed up to Saginaw, Michigan (the place of my birth) from Monroe to collect my brother and me. Apparently, eight "inside" children were not enough, for my grandparents would raise us, too.

My mother eventually relocated to Monroe, and I lived with her a few very unhappy years. To put it plainly and without further elaboration – she done me wrong. Because from my perspective she did not like me, I deduced that I was adopted. There was other anecdotal evidence, too. The first time I recall clapping eyes on her I was 8 and very wary of the meeting. “If she was my mother where had she been,” my child’s mind wanted to know.

THE WOMEN CALLOWAY: My mother, Leeunice Wright (left) circa mid-1960s, and Yours Truly circa late 1990s.

Further feeding my doubts was the fact that we do not look like kin. We do not have the same coloring. She’s darkened now to light brown but when I first met her she was high yellow and I was medium brown, as I am now. We have different body types. She’s curvy with bow legs and fat knees, while I am long and lean with an athletic build. My knees are not fat. She has the Chinese eyes of an ancestor in our diverse family tree; my eyes are round. Her nose is more broad and mine is more pointy. We do both have long, oval faces, full lips and high cheekbones, but they don’t translate into a resemblance. (Actually, I have more of a resemblance to my father, but that’s another story for another day.)

Moreover, no one in the same room with us who did not know us has ever thought we were mother and daughter. Over the years any number of my curvy, dark yellow/light brown friends were thought to be her daughter instead. Even when she was in hospital the surprise on the faces of the medical staff was evident whenever I introduced myself as her daughter. Most of the staff at the nursing home were under the impression that my mother’s roommate is my parent. Mrs. M has medium brown skin, high cheekbones and a pointy nose – her shorter face and squarer jaw – not withstanding, creating more of a resemblance. On the few occasions I have been asked whether LCW is my mother, I’ve said, “I think so,” because maybe – just maybe – she is not. Granted, I don’t have most of my mother’s physical characteristics, but I may have inherited her good skin and good humor.

Apropos to nothing one day, she said to all who had ears that her skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. And so it is, as I have observed since that first day in intensive care. I actually stare, studying its texture, wondering whether when I, too, am over 65 will my skin look so good. Since my post-acne years, people have been complimenting me on my skin. Often in high school, the girls would ask me whether I was wearing makeup because my skin was clear and smooth. I was not. Even today, as a woman over 30, my facial skin is blemish free with the exception of a few moles. The skin on just about every part of my body is silky smooth, with very few blemishes and bumps. And people notice, at parties, at the gym, at church. Makeup artists and photographers have their say, too. It’s flattering, and now I know one possible source.

Similarly, this may be the source of my quick wit and humor. Since I was a pre-pubescent, people have been laughing at my words. It made me self-conscious. “Were they laughing at me,” I often wondered. Was I considered an idiot? No. “I am not laughing at you, I’m laughing at what you are saying," I am often told. "It’s the way you say it that is funny.” This is true of my mother, too.

Before I ended my hospital visit one night, I turned on one of the lights in the room. It was a fluorescent light behind her bed, prompting me to say that I was going to give her some backlight, like a star. “I am a star,” she declared, provoking a smirk from me and a noise outside in the corridor. On my way out the nurse in the corridor was laughing and explained why.

Because LCW suffers from bi-polar, schizophrenia and dementia, it has become my habit to test her lucidity. I’ll ask her the day of the week or the year or discuss some current event. One day the “Oprah” show was on the television. When Oprah appeared on the screen I asked my mother to identify her. She lifted her head from the pillow, focused on the figure filling the TV screen and exclaimed with great annoyance and offense, “Oprah, shit!” Then she returned her head to the pillow, turned her scowling countenance away from the TV and slammed her eyes shut.

Recently, I inflamed her because I was interfering with her efforts to get the Coke she didn’t need to drink, owing to her diabetes. She stabbed me with a look of fury and said that she could not wait until I returned to – tilting her chin while she flipped through her mental rolodex to learn where I was currently residing – “New York City.” She spat out the name of the place like it was a bad taste in her mouth, causing the nurse practitioner standing next to me to collapse into a paroxysm of laughter.

LCW can toggle from joy to fury on the drop of a dime. In one breath she can praise and in the next, pillory. One moment I am beautiful, the next ugly. Lately, she's been telling me that I am po’ – Southern-speak for poor, that is skimpy/scanty, or thin. The other day when I had her outside wheeling her own wheelchair instead of bowing to her demand that I push her, she told me I was po’. “What do you mean,” I asked.

“Skinny,” she returned.

“What can I do to not be skinny?”

Scrutinizing me disdainfully, she said, “Gain some weight.”

One evening she was annoyed and expressing it in terms that would impress a sailor. In response I said she should be ashamed for using such language. “There ain’t no shame in my game,” she retorted, rolling her eyes for emphasis. Where did LCW learn such a phrase? …

I was privy to my birth certificate for the first time in the late 1990s when I applied for a passport. Even after I saw my mother’s name listed as one of my birth parents, I still doubted. Doubt was so normal, habitual and ingrained that it was difficult to overcome. What further proof would one need? “She does not like me; I look nothing like her,” I stubbornly reasoned in the face of irrefutable evidence. Interestingly, it is only in the last few weeks – watching and observing her – that I have begun to have belief.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Plain English Is Sometimes Greek to Me

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

THE differences between U.S. and UK English led George Bernard Shaw to famously remark that the nations are "two countries divided by a common language."

Having spent time in the UK and in France around a ton of Brits, I concur. Of course, they think we have it all wrong. In the United States, it’s a trunk; in the UK, it’s a boot. And there are many, many more: cookie/biscuit; can good/tin; period/full stop; line/queue; sex/shag; cigarette/fag (In the States, of course, the latter is an extremely derogatory and shameful term for a gay male) and so on. More common are elevator/lift; apartment/flat.

In other languages, meanings can be nonsensical, too. Ask someone’s age in French, and you are asking how many years they have – Quel âge as-tu – rather than how old they are. And if you are inquiring about a body’s general well-being, you’d ask him how he’s going, not how he’s doing – Comment ça -va?, Ça va? or more formally, Comment allez vous?

Back home in Monroe, Louisiana, I am discovering (or re-discovering ) that each region in the United States has its own sub-language. There are the usual different ways of saying the same thing. For instance, depending on where one lives a soft drink is a Coke/pop/soda pop/soda water/drink, etc. Similarly, a refrigerator is an ice box. A laudromat, a washerteria; a Po Boy is a hoagie is a sub.

There are days here like this morning, however, when things get really lost in translation. I walked into the office of an auto body shop and informed the young man behind the desk that I was there to get a new inspection sticker for my late aunt's car. He informed me that I was required to bring my driver’s license, proof of car insurance and vehicle registration into the office.

I was aware of this and had the required documents on my person. I was standing in the office, but to confirm that I was in the right place I asked whether I was in the office.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“I’m in the office and I have the documents with me. What’s the next step," I asked, clueless.

“You have to bring them into the office,” he repeated.

I looked around the room. It was the only office in sight. I was sure of it. “I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m in the office and I have the documents. What do you want me to do with them.”

“Give them to me,” he said as if it were the plainest thing in the world.

I had not yet recovered from that exchange when a few minutes later he asked “to see” my keys.

Dutifully, I took my keys out of my pocket and showed them to him.

He said with great patience and equilibrium, “Give them to me.”

Are you following? “Let me see” also means “Give me” i.e., “Let me see the knife; let me see your phone” and so on.

Also when someone or something is “going” it is not necessarily moving. It is often stationary. It is not in motion, understand? In pointing out one of her sisters in a family portrait, the daughter of a friend said, “There she go.” In double-quick fashion, I asked where her sister was going. She smirked and scrunched up her shoulders. I used that exchange as a teachable moment, informing her that perhaps a better construction would have been, “There she is.”

“She’s not going anywhere,” said I, pointing out the obvious.

Last week in Pier 1 Imports, the young salesgirl gave me to know that the flameless candles on huge sale – the very one she’d been talking up: "there they go over there." And I found them holding down space on a shelf a couple of aisles over. They were not moving, not even a little. By now I was hip to the lingo and didn’t bother with a reply.

And the conversation I had yesterday with a guy outside the nursing home where my mother is residing, I cannot begin to explain. As I said to him, “Individually, your words make sense, but put together I do not understand them.” Alas, he couldn’t help me, but did say I was “extra-ordinary.”

Now let’s consider “cut.” This one, I was once upon time guilty of using myself. There is the verb’s more common meaning of sever/slice/chop/crop and so on. It also means “turn on/off.” Countless times in the last few weeks I’ve heard, “Cut off the light” or “Cut on the light/TV/heat/stereo,” etc.

Many here speak thusly, regardless of ethnicity, education, socio-economic status and age. I’ve put it down to Southern-speak. Our regional differences in this vast country set us apart but also make us more interesting and endearing. When it comes down to it, perhaps one should not split too many hairs if everybody understands each other, and that appears to be the case in Monroe, except for the occasional oddball like myself.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Behind Wheel, But Not in Driver's Seat

Rotary along Route 3A in the Boston suburb, Hingham, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol Britton Meyer.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

IN the last week or so several people have asked me what it has been like driving again. I had a ready answer because I had been reflecting on it myself.

I haven’t driven since 1999 because I’ve resided in places where I relied on public transport. I’d become so brazenly liberated from driving that my Massachusetts driver’s license expired in 2008. It was unintentional and a second such lapse on my part.

When I returned home to Monroe, Louisiana in early February, I relied on others to chauffeur me around. However, I’d decided before I arrived that I would get a license, reasoning that it would be easier to do so in Louisiana than in New York. And I was required to do the full monty: driving school and vision/written/ driving test. About two weeks ago after some intensive study of Louisiana traffic laws, I earned my driver’s certificate. A really cool thing is that I walked out with the permanent laminated version instead of a temporary paper version, good until the laminated version arrives in the post. I do not plan to allow this one to expire.

I have a couple of observations about driving. First, to paraphrase an old chestnut: Once you learn how to drive you never forget. Behind the wheel, my driver’s instincts returned immediately. It was like flipping on a switch. And the more I’ve driven the stronger my instincts have become. After about five days I was comfortable.

That first day, however, was strange. Here I was behind the wheel of a car, driving down the street. Me! No longer could I stare insouciantly out the window or gawk at interesting people/places/things on the landscape. I had to pay attention. And that meant keeping my eyes on the road in front of me, and the traffic signs, and checking out the activity in the rearview and side mirrors, watching other cars, and cyclists, and any errant pedestrians. It was strange business indeed. And that night. Oh la la! It was too dark and, too bright on Interstate 20. I was in a mild panic because in the darkness the cars sounded like an unseen high tide about to take me out to sea. The white lights reminded me of the foam on the water. It was a bit traumatic.

The second observation is that I am a rather timid driver, paranoid of being involved in an accident. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of outrageous, egregious driving in Greater Boston. I declare, these are some of the worst drivers in the country.

A truncated list of their infractions: Routinely, they speed on highways/byways/country roads/in dangerous curves/during inclement weather/in parking lots – anywhere tires can meet pavement. The noses of cars waiting to enter traffic from driveways and parking lots seem to always protrude onto the road into traffic, requiring drivers in the far right lane to either stop and let them out or veer into the left lane to avoid hitting them. They tailgate and flash their bright lights if the car in front doesn’t speed up or move over to allow them to pass. Red lights mean go. Yellow lights mean go faster, rather than slow down and prepare to stop. Won’t slow down and allow fellow motorists room to change lanes for an exit or turn. Nor allow waiting cars to enter a rotary (aka roundabout/traffic circle). In fact, they’re more likely to speed up to prevent other cars from entering. These drivers often can’t be bothered with signaling a turn – other motorists be damned if their brakes are not in fine working order.

And the worst: A driver who wants to make a left turn against oncoming traffic. S/he does not have the right of way because the left-turn arrow is off. S/he now must wait until the coast is clear before turning. No matter how fast oncoming cars are advancing, no matter if the driver is blowing his horn, flashing his bright lights, giving the finger – s/he is going to turn in front of that car. With almost no time to spare ... If you are me, you are clutching your heart a la Fred Sanford. This I endured for almost a decade. It drove me batty.

In the main, Monroe drivers are a civilized bunch, only guilty so far of a bit of tailgating sans flashing bright lights. Interestingly enough, I should be more worried on the roads here because Louisiana has almost triple the number of fatal accidents of Massachusetts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There is no breakdown by city. In 2008, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 912 traffic accidents deaths in Louisiana and 363 in Massachusetts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana has a population of 4.4 million and Massachusetts, 6.5 million. Go figure.

Other motorists observing me on the road might say that I drive like an old lady – no offense to old ladies. I do drive the speed limit or a little slower. I also take my sweet time making turns. And when the light turns green, I have a one-second delay before I go, lest I collide with a fellow motorist running a red or yellow light. Perhaps it is out of habit, but when I am approaching a car signaling a left turn from the opposite direction, my back is braced against the seat, both hands strangle the steering wheel. I hold my breath. I say a silent prayer. Squint. Wince. And hope.

So far. so good.

Learn more about National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and general road safety information at


Happy St. Patrick’s Day … To help everyone have the luck of the Irish, some guidance from the mouth of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the ears of municipal officials:

*Coordinate with local bars to display “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” posters on the back of stall doors.

*Coordinate with alcohol retailers (liquor stores, convenience stores) to display “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” posters on windows, cooler doors, etc.

*Work with local law enforcement and emergency medical staff to stage a mock car crash, draft signs displaying 2007 St. Patrick’s Day fatality numbers. Invite media and local schools to attend.

*If your community has a St. Patrick’s Day parade, have the police department, community organization, MADD chapter, etc. enter a themed float emblazoned with a “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” banner.

*Partner with local companies to pay for/distribute “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” coasters, koozies, T-shirts, etc. at bars/St. Patrick’s Day parades.

*Recruit volunteers to dress as leprechauns and distribute “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” limerick flyers at bars/parades.

Get more National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tips about being safe on St. Patrick’s Day at

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Hot Mess, and It Isn’t Yet Spring!

The Pink Lake at Dakar, Senegal gets its color from lots of salt content and plenty of sunshine. In Dakar, where the latitude is 14, the sun shines around 300 days a year. Photo courtesy of

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

WHEN I returned home to Monroe, Louisiana for my 10th anniversary high school reunion, I was living in Greater Boston – Weymouth, to be precise. It was Fourth of July weekend.

The actual event was bittersweet, but what stands out most in my mind is the weather. I could hardly breathe. It was hot. It was humid. It was sticky. It was HELL on earth. After that experience I adopted the mantra, “I lost my immunity to humidity” living as I had in a number of cooler climates since leaving to make my way in the world. I vowed never to return to Louisiana between May and September. Further, I vowed never again to complain about the heat. And I didn’t. Even when I visited Senegal and Egypt!

Often enough in Boston, complaints would rain down like all get out if the mercury rose to, say, 85 degrees/76 percent humidity. Same deal in other places I’ve lived, including Paris, France and Washington D.C. And, of course, the Big Apple. My automatic rejoinder: “There is hot and there is sweltering.” I know the difference. I never get it twisted. Never.

A few days here in the last week – early March – reminded me of that aforementioned July way back when. Initially, I was excited after the Weather Channel forecasted highs in the low- to mid-70s. It has been unseasonable cool since my arrival in early February. In fact, it has snowed – a rarity. Naturally, the city shut down, further complicating my life and efforts to visit my mother in hospital, amongst other inconveniences. I was looking forward to spring-like weather.

What I’d not thought too terribly much about when the heat was on is what Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, reminded me of. Being closer to the equator, Louisiana will give off more heat than New York.

“Air temperature is hotter and humidity is higher in Louisiana than it is in New York and that impacts how things will feel on the skin,” KS explained. “Because you are closer to the equator, at noon the sun is higher in the sky and that means that the energy hitting each square inch on the skin is larger than if you are sitting in New York at noon.”

Of course, the location of a place in relation to the equator determines its relative warmth or coolness. This is measured in degrees of latitude. The latitude at the equator is 0. The closer a city/state/country/continent is to the equator the lower its latitude; the farther away the higher its latitude. The latitude of the North Pole is 90; South Pole is minus 90. In Boston, it is 42.3; Dakar, Senegal, 14; Cairo, 30; Paris, 48; Washington, DC, 38.9. In New York City it is 40.6; Monroe, 32.5.

“Imagine taking a flashlight and shining it on a table,” KS said. “If you hold the flashlight at an angle so it is away from the table the light is like an oval. If it is directly above the table it’s like a circle; it’s more concentrated” and hotter.

Driving in temperatures last week that were 73 degrees/70 percent humidity in a place at a latitude of 32.5, and thus more circular, the energy from the sun hitting my forearms and legs was unbearable. It felt like someone had struck a match to my skin. Luckily, I was wearing long sleeves, which I snatched down in double-quick fashion. On my bear legs, I used my purse as sunblock.

Hot legs! Not the kind Rod Stewart crooned about.

Learn more about the American Meteorological Society at Look up the latitudes of U.S. cities and cities around the world at and, respectively.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Bitter Reality at Home Sweet Home

A night view of Monroe, Louisiana and the Ouachita River. Photo courtesy of City of Monroe; Bill Russell photo courtesy of; ULM photo courtesy of

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

I have sustained a goodly number of shocks since I returned to the small city – Monroe, Louisiana – where I grew up and experienced many of the seminal events of childhood, adolescence and post-adolescence. This is the first time I’ve been back for any significant amount of time since I set out in the 80s for other pastures. The last time I was here before late December 2009 when I blew into town for my late aunt's funeral was for something like two days in October 2001. From development to demographics to disappearing neighborhoods, the landscape has been altered in some cases almost beyond recognition.

Monroe is the largest city in Ouachita Parish and the parish seat. Ouachita Parish was established in 1807 when the Territory of Orleans was sliced and diced. The TO was part of the gi-normous Louisiana Purchase and would become the state of Louisiana, which was admitted to the union in 1812. Ouachita gets its name from the (soon to be evicted) Native Americans who lived in the area at the time the various interlopers arrived on the scene.

Monroe and West Monroe, which is just across the Ouachita River that divides them, are often referred to as the Twin Cities. The twins were born when Don Juan Filhiol was hired to establish Fort Miro as a Spanish outpost on the north Ouachita River. Fort Miro became Monroe in 1819 in honor of President James Monroe and the first steamboat to journey up the river to North Louisiana.

With a population of around 53,000 (as of the 2000 census), Monroe is the eighth largest city in Louisiana. While it does not have the name recognition and sexy history of the Big Easy, it still has an interesting story. It is the home to Louisiana Purchase Garden and Zoo, as well as the University of Louisiana at Monroe (campus scene along Bayou Desiard pictured at bottom), formerly known as Northeast University. During World War II, the Air Force Flying Training Command used then local airport, Selman Army Airfield (now Selman Field), as a cadet training center. The airfield, at the time the country’s largest flight navigator school, was named for Monroe native Augustus Selman. The Navy pilot and lieutenant perished in 1921 in an airplane crash in Norfolk Virginia. The local crop dusting concern, Huff Daland Dusters, which serviced the area’s farmland in the 1920s would morph into a humble little air carrier called Delta Air Lines. And the city also claims sons and daughters as diverse as basketball great Bill Russell, (below) actress Parker Posey and Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton. In many ways now, Monroe is a stranger to me. I have been most struck by the development. Where heretofore were wooded areas and open spaces now stand eateries, shopping centers and sundry other enterprises. There’s also been a significant bump in hotels and motels, which attract tourists and business travelers. Jesus Christ, too, is doing brisk business based on the number of churches that have sprung up.

Another bit of change is population demographics. Once upon a time blacks and whites lived in amiable segregation. While I was friendly with some of my white classmates, I would not have white friends until my university days. My theory is that the segregation persisted here as it did in countless other towns across the country because that is the way it had always been. Why rock the boat, right?

Today, in addition to blacks and whites there are Asians (north and south), West Africans, Latinos and so on. The mixing among the groups extends to living, socializing and, worshipping together. In the past, north Monroe was predominantly white and south Monroe was predominantly black. While south Monroe is still predominantly black, north Monroe is predominantly integrated – a mix of mainly middle- and upper-middle income blacks, whites and the aforementioned others. In restaurants, shops and at the mall, different ethnic groups hang out. They count each other as best friends. Some date and marry. Several local churches have ethnically diverse congregations, rendering the Sunday church hour (or more) far less segregated than in the past.

What I find most disconcerting, however, is that the area I called home no longer exists, at least not the way it did when I was a child. The old neighborhood is called Renwick’s Addition. Back in the day, it was one of those old-fashioned black neighborhoods where the butlers, maids, bus drivers, doctors, school teachers, police, retirees, seniors and, a few welfare families lived in near perfect harmony. Within a five- or six-block area of where I lived were a significant number of retirees and seniors, including my grandparents who raised my brother and me. Virtually everyone owned their property. They held deeds, not mortgages. No one had an obscene amount of material possessions. Nor did anyone brag about what they had. No one cared about the Joneses. People were comfortable. And we didn't know anyone as poor as a church mouse. It was the village of African proverb fame. It was a simple, uncomplicated life. In New York, it would be described – as would the whole city – as a backwater.

For me it was an idyllic existence. Almost zero crime. And what there was might revolve around some trifle like bicycle theft. One year an older girl who lived around a couple of corners – she from a family of thieves – snatched my bag of Halloween candy when my cousin took his eyes off me for two seconds. Not exactly something for which one would get the cops on the phone. After school we neighborhood kids got our homework done in record time so we could play in the remaining light. Those interested joined clubs like Eastern Star and Jack and Jill or perhaps took piano lessons. On Saturdays, lawns were mowed and on Sunday everybody was sitting in church wearing their best. During the summer, there was the ice cream truck, camp, bible school and endless games, including softball and hide-and-seek. Summer also was a time of travel for me. It was a good life.

Recently, a cousin drove me back to the old neighborhood. What I saw devastated me. Previously well-maintained wood frame and brick houses were severely dilapidated, former shadows of themselves. Others were boarded up with weeds growing around them. A few years ago my late aunt sold my childhood home to a cousin who has rented it out to some people who could only be described as tenants from hell. The modest structure that my grandfather, uncle and others built from the ground up is a rundown hovel. The yard is a pigsty and a junk repository for several abandoned vehicles. Looking at it was a surreal experience. Where my swing once stood is a little wasteland. Ditto for where there was once a magnolia tree (the state flower) that we decked out each year with multi-colored Christmas lights. There is no evidence of the chinaberry tree near the street that I routinely climbed against my grandfather’s expressed desire that I not do so.

What happened? A number of things. Many of those homeowners died out and their heirs either rented the properties to bad tenants, abandoned them or simply aren’t keeping them up because they are absentee or uninterested landlords. The drug epidemic – particularly crack – that hit many cities reached Monroe in the late 80s is also a culprit. When girlfriend or boyfriend is trying to get the next rock, mowing the yard or painting the house can be damned ...

Sadly, this is the story of many such black neighborhoods around the country. Monroe is no exception. What to do about it? I am still pondering that question. Meanwhile, a part of my childhood is gone, taking a little part of me with it.

Learn more about Monroe, Louisiana at
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