The Suitcase Lady

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April 20, 2021, 10:27 am

When our family gets together, we invariably tell stories about our cars, past and present. These tales are usually about breakdowns and other misadventures, and, in many, a Volkswagen is involved.

Our son recently told a great story that my husband and I hadn’t thought of for decades. It was about the time he and I bought, and then immediately unbought, one of the world’s strangest cars, a Pacer. It was a moment of insanity, but well-intentioned.

Our two growing kids needed more room in the backseat. So, as our son tells it, “they bought an upside-down fruit bowl on wheels.”

Buyer’s remorse set in the day after we signed on the line. Fortunately, in those gentler times, we had a short grace period in which to renege.

The first ad for the Pacer proclaimed, “You only ride like a Pacer, if you’re wide like a Pacer.” It was made by a Wisconsin company, American Motors in Kenosha. The designs of their various automobiles can be described as flamboyant, motley, weird or pathetic. The company folded in 1988. I think we dodged a bullet.

Be prepared to laugh. Here are two brilliant television ads for this doomed auto.

Pacer Prototype

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April 13, 2021, 9:29 pm

When our children were little, we bought them a book called Fifty State Capitols. With little text, it consisted of big, super-colorful pictures of all the magnificent Capitol buildings in America. We wanted to show them as much of their country as we could before they grew up, and that little book sparked their curiosity.

I thought of that booklet the other day as we were on a road trip out West and hit the jackpot of five state capitols in six days. They still impress. Here are the five, each with unique stories to tell.

Madison, Wisconsin- My own state Capitol sits proudly on a hill, and its massive dome is only 3 feet and 1/2 inch shorter than our nation’s Capitol in D.C. The dome is topped by a bronze statue of a woman named Wisconsin. Created by Daniel Chester French, she wears a helmet upon which is sitting a badger. This is not because our state is overrun by badgers. Rather, it is a tribute to our early lead miners who were derisively called “badgers”.

Madison, Wisconsin

Topeka, Kansas- The Kansas Capitol was completed in 1903, but discussions about what would top its dome continued for decades. The solution for many years was a lightbulb. Finally, in 2002, it was topped by a statue named Ad Astra (to the stars) which portrays a Kanza warrior with a bow shooting the North Star. The motto of Kansas is “ad astra per aspersa”, “to the stars through hardships”.

Topeka, Kansas

Des Moines, Iowa- When I first viewed the impressive Iowa state Capitol (they call it the statehouse) from I235, I thought it was a Catholic basilica. A huge central dome is flanked by four wings with four smaller domes. The central dome is covered with thin sheets of pure 23 – carat gold. The gold leaf has been replaced 5 times, the last restoration to the tune of $170,000.

Des Moines, Iowa

Santa Fe, New Mexico- At 7,000 feet above sea level, the New Mexico Capitol is the highest in America. It is also the only circular Capitol in the country and is affectionally known as “the Roundhouse”. The building is designed to look like the Zia sun symbol when viewed from above. There is no dome, but a rotunda in the center of the building is three stories tall with a skylight that mimics an Indian basket weave.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma- The Sooner State’s Capitol sits atop the massive Oklahoma City Oil Fields. Twenty-four oil wells dotted the Capitol grounds in the 1940s. One well on the front lawn sat in the center of a flower bed and was nicknamed Petunia #1. It was capped in 1986 (after earning one million dollars for the state), but the derrick still stands as a monument. Another unique feature of the Capitol is its dome. It didn’t have one until 2002. Although the building was completed in 1917, squabbles and money problems held up the dome’s completion for 85 years.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 1969 Pre-Dome


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April 6, 2021, 9:03 pm

Note: I wrote this blog last year, just before Covid hit. All road trips were ended, and I put  the blog in my saved pile. A few weeks ago, with vaccinations and hope on the rise, I retrieved it. And then, last week, this sad news appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

“Larry McMurtry, a prolific novelist and screenwriter who demythologized the American West with his unromantic depictions of life on the 19th-century frontier and contemporary small-town Texas, died at his home in Archer City, Texas. He was 84.”

Ironically, I recently read a book about road travel while flying in an airplane. The book was a serendipitous purchase found on my library’s sale shelves.

Entitled Roads by Larry McMurtry, the book was calling to me. Mr. McMurtry is one of my favorite authors and Driving America’s Great Highways (the book’s subtitle) is one of my favorite things to do. I quickly parted with the fifty-cent purchase price.

Lonesome Dove, Terms Of Endearment and The Last Picture Show are among McMurtry’s many highly acclaimed novels. Book lovers also know him as an avid collector of rare books. At one time, he ran four bookstores in his tiny hometown, Archer, Texas. His travel books number 3,000, and he has read every one.

He explains his rationale for Roads as follows,” I merely want to roll along the great roads, the major migration routes that carry Americans quickly east-west or north-south. What I really want to do is look.”

His method for doing this consisted of flying to a distant city once a month for ten consecutive months, immediately renting a car and driving home, mainly on interstate highways and logging between 800 or 900 miles a day. For example, San Diego to Tucson to Archer City on the 8, the 10 and the 20. Many people would consider this insanity, but for some of us nomads, happiness is a clear sky and an open road.

I’ve driven many of his drives or major portions of them myself. Some are so familiar to me that I have the routes memorized. But what fun it was to see these trips through someone else’s eyes and mind. McMurtry reveals the history of the land he traverses as well as the literary giants who were formed by the varying American landscapes. The book is a vicarious road trip with an extremely erudite driver.

These words he uses to describe his massive travels are, to me, absolutely perfect.

“Being alone in a car is to be protected for a time from the pressures of day-to-day life; it’s like being in one’s own time machine, in which the mind can rove ahead to the future or scan the past. When I’m getting ready to start a novel, I’ve always found that driving across the country for a few hundred miles is a good way to get ready. I may not be forming scenes or thinking about characters – indeed, may not be thinking of much of anything on these drives. But I’m getting ready, all the same.”

I so agree. The open road is a great muse.

Photo: Mary Tooley

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March 30, 2021, 8:54 pm

Easter is almost upon us, and rabbits are on our minds. What better time to talk about a recent scientific discovery, a rabbit-like creature that glows in the dark. For real.

Getting a glow on in the animal world is not uncommon. Fish and other sea creatures in the dark zones of the ocean do it all the time. And summer night skies are lighted up by fireflies flashing signals to their potential mates. But mammals have never been known to be flashy…until now.

Jonathan Martin is a biology professor at Northland College on the shores of Lake Superior in Ashland, Wisconsin. One night he was flashing a U.V. light around while taking a nighttime hike. Much to his surprise, a flying squirrel glowed bright pink.

This serendipitous discovery led him to start shining his U.V. light on other mammal species to see if they would fluoresce as well. He soon discovered that opossums got a glow on, too.

A trip to the Field Museum in Chicago to check out their preserved specimens followed. One of Dr. Martin’s associates, Professor Paula Spaeth Anich, describes the outcome. “We pulled the monotreme (egg-laying mammals) drawer, and we shined our ultraviolet light on the platypuses. And they were incredibly, vividly fluorescent green and blue.”

More drawers were opened including one that contained preserved springhares, a rabbit-like African rodent. Their fur glowed a bright pink-orange color. Wanting to know if living springhares also glowed, the team contacted zoos that had them in residence. Black lights were shined, and the springhares put on a light show.

Now the next big question is why do these nocturnal mammals shine? Theories abound, but the answer remains elusive. What is known is this…nature never fails to astonish.

Photo: Orlando Sentinel

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March 24, 2021, 12:27 am

When I checked my calendar to see which date Easter fell on this year, I did a double take. “Not fair,” was my first thought. Easter is on April 4th which is also the date of our wedding anniversary (number 57). I felt like the kid whose birthday is on December 25th.

I immediately found my husband to give him the news. “Perhaps we will have to get up very early on April 4th so we can have breakfast and fit in two dinners,” I said. “Otherwise, we will be cheated out of one of our celebratory meals.” We both laughed, as we are not early risers or fans of overindulgence. We vividly remember those Christmas holidays when we were newly married and had to eat two holiday meals in a day, one at his parents and one at mine.

We immediately started considering our options. Since Easter is not a fixed date but one of those moon-oriented holidays, maybe we could just choose another Sunday for the Easter dinner. There’s nothing sacred about April 4th and Easter.

Another thought was to celebrate our anniversary on Saturday night, April 3rd, which would be our anniversary eve. This idea seemed like the best solution as we are both romantics and romantics know that Saturday night is date night.

With the dilemma resolved, we turned our thoughts to the important matter of what would be on the menus. Good food and the time to enjoy it are two of the critical components of any holiday.

Pasta Primavera, Spaghetti Florentine, Cheese Fondue and Julia Child’s Spinach Turnover are the top contenders for the entrees. Dessert for Easter is a given: every year we  make cut out bunny cookies from Scotch shortbread dough.  The anniversary dessert is still under discussion, but the wine is a certainty. Proseco is always our pick when we need celebratory bubbles.

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