Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Secret of My Mother's Name

A cross-eyed girl
My parents were Bernie and Evelyn Schwartz.  

 Sounds simple enough since my father never had a middle name, and my mother’s middle name was May.  But at birth my mother was Evelyn May Kosoglad.   Koso what? you ask.  Can you say that again?   

No one ever gets it right the first time, but as one cousin said.  “It’s just ‘O-so-glad with a K.’”  

Sort of friendly, I thought, until I learned the true meaning.  In Russia, where all my grandparents were born, the odd moniker meant cross-eyed.  So what did this say about my family?  Did my great great great grandfather make his way in this world staring at his toes?  Why else would  he pick a disgusting name like that?  I soon began researching the origin of this nightmare.           

Most Europeans acquired surnames around 1000 A.D., but Jews weren’t assigned until the early 1800s when Napoleon came to power and was busy conquering the world.  I guess they suddenly felt the need for full identification to serve in the czar’s army, or more likely to escape it.
Before then, people only used first names, and further clarification was only needed when there were two Peters or two Charles in town.  In those days they either used the father’s name, like Peter, son of John, who became Peter Johnson, or they selected the family’s profession, like Charles son of the Goldsmith, who naturally became Charles Goldsmith.

But each last name changed in every generation.

So if Peter had a son John, he became John Peterson, but only until John had a child of his own.  If John named his own son William, the boy then became William Johnson.  In effect, each family created a totally different last name every twenty years or so, which got more than a little confusing.

I suddenly have empathy for cross-eyed people.

How did they solve this problem?   Russia, always the innovator, produced a new plan.  Everyone could pick a surname, but the prettier it was, the more you paid for the privilege. 
And that was the problem. 
My ancestors were obviously short a couple kopeks so buying a decent name was out of the question.  Unable to bribe the government officials, the poorest of the peasants were assigned nasty names—like the Russian equivalents of dumb, lazy, stupid, and (I sigh), a little cross eyed.

That was my mother’s inheritance.
My mother's family luckily emigrated to America in the early nineteen hundreds.  Born in the twenties, Evelyn May Kosoglad was one of six children, five girls and a boy, which made my Uncle Sol the only one stuck with his surname for life.    Married with three children, he solved the problem once and for all.  Sol petitioned a Michigan court and changed Kosoglad to Keller,  finally ending the tyranny of the czar and any future cross-eyed descendants.

And the moral of this story is:  Don’t take our freedoms for granted.  My family now owns stock in Lenscrafters, and our eyes see straight ahead.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Apology 150 Years Late

The crowd gathers at Gettysburg
Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, dedicating our country’s first national cemetery, 150 years ago on November 19, 1863. 

It wasn't an easy afternoon.   The day was cold and dreary, and Lincoln was ill.   Unbeknownst to him he was suffering from smallpox, but he sat and waited, along with the rest of the 15,000 people gathered.  

Senator Edward Everett spoke first, rambling on for over two hours.  Long winded to say the least, he finally sat down, and Lincoln rose and spoke his memorable words.  
Senator Edward Everett
The entire Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long--so quick that many in the audience missed the beauty of its brevity.  Others didn't get it at all, like The Patriot and Union paper out of Harrisburg thirty-five miles away.  The editor called the president’s words “silly remarks” and readily dismissed it.

That was 150 years ago, and I guess that negative editorial, which ran against the grain of all the other news at the time, had been bothering the folks in Harrisburg ever since.

A few days ago The Patriot and Union, with tongue in cheek, retracted their long ago opinion, and in the style of the Gettysburg Address printed this:

“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”

Within a day, the reaction to their retraction stunned the editors involved.  Every major news outlet carried the story, and thousands of comments and questions flooded into their offices, many begging for interviews.  Even SNL included a special presentation during their “Weekend News.

And after all these years...

I bet old Abe is smiling from his grave.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

And She Never had a Good Word to Say...

Hurricane Sandy

It seems that every time a calmly innocent person dies from a violent crime or natural tragedy, neighbors and family trot out from their houses to face the cameras suddenly crowding their street.   Through breaking voices they declare that the victim was the nicest, most caring, giving person they had ever known. 

“He was a saint,” they say.  “Always greeted us with a smile and would give the shirt off his back to someone in need.” 

Gee, I think, already sorry that I never knew him when the talker offers the clincher.   “You know, he never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

The last line always gets me.  Would someone ever say that about me?   Never in a million years.   Because I have to admit that lots of unkind words have passed my lips.  Like every day.
“Do you see how fat that guy is?” I remark, pointing to the TV while watching a massively obese man on one of the reality shows.  “If he doesn’t shut his mouth, they’ll have to remove him from his bedroom with a forklift.” 


Rush Limbaugh
 “You won’t believe what just happened,” I say to a friend.  “I talked to this guy on the plane yesterday who worships Rush Limbaugh.  Can you believe it?  Limbaugh wouldn't know the truth if it hit him in the ass, and his audience is so old, they say he broadcasts from Forest Lawn.”  

“So tell us how you really feel,” my friends ask, smiling widely. 

“Oh come on, don’t you agree?”

Most of the time they're silent.       

So I try turning a one-eighty, sounding sickeningly sweet, but too much sugar clogs my brain and tangles up my wires.  I can’t conceive a straight thought! I want to shout, suddenly fearful that I’m turning into Sarah Palin, one of the biggest dummies on earth.  

And in the aftermath, I wonder, what’s gonna happen to me? 

If I perish in a category 5 hurricane called Jeb—I’m not crazy about the Bush family either— I hope CNN skips my street and finds the family of an 85 year old  Alzheimer’s patient, who hasn’t spoken an unkind word in years because he hasn’t spoken at all. 
Alec Baldwin

Yet what’s wrong with having an edge, I wonder, or an educated opinion?  Why not tell it like it is?  Mark Twain became renown because of it.  So did Albert Einstein, Billy Crystal, Alec Baldwin, authors Philip Roth and Alice Munro, and thousands of others who thought and still think for themselves.   

On second thought I look around and nod.   I have a feeling I’m in good company here. 




Wednesday, October 9, 2013

All the Trivia You Never Need to Know

Thomas Jefferson
I read and listen to lots of books and remember all kinds of junk that I’ll never use in my lifetime—except for maybe last week.  Bob and I flew to Charlottesville and toured the University of Virginia—the venerable school fathered by Thomas Jefferson before he died on July 4th, 1826.
Yes, he died fifty years to the day he signed the Declaration of Independence.   So did John Adams.   Some of Adams’ last words were “Jefferson lives!"  He had no idea that his dear friend had passed only four hours before.

Fascinating, I think, but I digress--a lot.  Here’s the real story I wanted to tell.

Rachel, our exuberant blue-eyed guide and a senior at the university, led our group on a tour of the rotunda--the central and most historical building on the Virginia campus.  It was designed by Jefferson but burned in 1895.   
The rotunda at U of VA
It was then redesigned by the famed architect of the day, Stanford White.  I asked Rachel if she knew that White had been murdered.  She gasped.  (The girl had been giving the tour for years).  “How do you know this?” she asked. 

"I read it," I said, and told her that White was always fooling around with younger women, and a jealous husband of one of his mistresses shot him to death in 1906.  At the time it was called “the crime of the century.”  (And it makes a more exciting story than OJ).
Stanford White

“I’m going to use these facts in all my future tours,” she said.  I smiled.

Mark Twain came and went with Halley's Comet
When we arrived home a few days later, Bob and I strolled through a neighborhood art festival.  We entered a booth and admired the artist’s collection of retro jewelry.   She said that the pieces reminded her of her great grandmother who she never met.  “She died the night of Halley’s Comet in the early nineteen hundreds," she said.     

“So did Mark Twain,” I said.  “He was born during Halley’s Comet in 1835 and announced that it was only fitting that the two freaks, who came in together, would go out as a pair."  When the comet shot through on April 21st, 1910, Twain got his wish.

An elderly man standing next to me said that he never knew that before.  Neither did the artist.

I nodded, ready to add a little more but turned and left the booth.  Did they know that Ben Franklin had a bunch of bastard kids, that Coolidge was the first president to fly, that John Kennedy was the first president born in a hospital?

Okay, I hear ya.  Won’t say another word.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

On a Budget? A Wedding for a $1.56

the couple outside their barn
When I hear about people saving a ton of money on 
some-thing special, I’m always fascinated about how they did it.   For instance, these stories of women collecting coupons where they enter a supermarket.  They overload a couple baskets and then pay a mere $5.32 at the register.  Or United Airlines last week mistakenly offering flights for zero dollars all over the United States.  Crazy.

But how about getting married for under two bucks?   You can’t buy a dozen eggs, a half-gallon of milk, or a tuna sandwich at the deli counter for that.

Weddings are a multi-billion dollar industry, and the markup is unbelievable.   Yet a Scottish couple did just that.   

Georgina Porteous and Sid Innes had the works for their wedding day—the cake, the food, the dress, the reception, the rings, and the photographer. 

On a site called, Georgina found a 1960s handmade embroidered gown and paid $1.56.  The rest of the wedding was free.  The site also offered discarded chairs, mirrors, and lights, and the couple took many of these to decorate their barn and provide seating for their guests.

the couple's barn
Yes, their barn. That was the wedding site.  It’s where Georgina’s mother conducted the ceremony flanked by a minister, who volunteered his services just to make sure the marriage was official.

Georgina’s aunt made the three tiered cake topped with the couple’s initials, and Georgina’s father, a jazz musician, played saxophone for entertainment. 

And how about the food, you ask.   Each guest was asked to bring a bottle of spirits and a dish to the wedding.

rings carved from antlers
And one couldn't forget the rings.  Georgina carved the jewelry from antlers found near her garden.  She also picked her own wildflowers in a field close to home and fashioned her own bouquet. 

As for photos, the groom traded film editing services for the photographer’s presence that afternoon.

“I don’t see the point in these massive weddings," Georgina said.  "We didn’t want or need a big fancy affair.  We had a ball.  The day went beautifully.  People said it was the best wedding they have ever been to.”   

After their unforgettable moment, the couple splurged on a honeymoon in Berlin.  

They couldn’t be happier.







Friday, September 6, 2013

Squee! Miley's Twerking is Now One for the Ages

Miley doing her thing
Dear Friends,                        

Did everyone see Miley Cyrus twerking (dancing in a sexually provocative way) on TV?  I could just vom (vomit), but my sister’s fil (father-in-law) was walking into the room, so I logged onto my computer instead.  In the meantime I took a selfie  (taking a picture of yourself with a phone), and it came out great!   I sent it in when I enrolled in a mooc (massive open online course) because I heard the instructor was wild, and I have fomo ( fear of missing out).  Srsly (seriously), the class is supposed to be the best and all we have to do is byod (bring your own device) at the start.  The rest we can do at home.  The course begins next week because it’s running a/w (autumn-winter).

But enough of that.  Grats (congratulations) on your new jorts (denim shorts).   Apols (apologies) for missing your birthday.  I heard you had a blondie (small, square pale colored cake, like vanilla or butterscotch), but I was in an ldr (long distance relationship), and my life ended up in omnishambles (a situation that was completely mismanaged).  Everything was getting so dappy (silly, disorganized), that I needed a digital detox (a break from smart phones and computers), until I could get my mind straight again.


Not to worry, or anything.  I’m finally back online, and I read that The Oxford English Dictionary came out with the rest of this year’s newest words.  They release about a thousand in total, but in smaller quantities every quarter.  September’s was the last of 2013’s. 
You know I think a few of them made it into my letter.   Isn’t that squee! (expressing great delight).

I mean, you can see them for yourself at

Better quit now.  I don’t want to make this too long or someone will unlike me (expressing disapproval online).

Your friend,



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Most Influential People in the World? Not soFast

Colin Firth and his wife Livia Giuggioli

A couple years ago Colin Firth won the Oscar for best actor in the emotionally charged film, The King’s Speech, giving a dead-on performance as King George VI and his real-life battle against stuttering.  Shortly after the awards, he found that he had made the list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Surprised, he told his middle son, age ten at the time, and the boy gave him a long look and answered matter-of-factly, “You’re not even the most influential person in this house.”

Chuckling, Firth realized that his son had spoken the truth.
The list, for the most part, is a good thing.  Published by Time Magazine each spring, it names those that have made a positive impact around the globe, but have all of the 100 choices accomplished that goal?   

Naturally our president and his wife Michelle made the list, as did the pope, Rand Paul—who I think is a jerk—Justin Timberlake, Steven Spielberg, and Malala Yousafzal, the fifteen year old Pakistani girl, who while protesting that girls have a right to learn, was shot in the face by the Taliban.  Miraculously, she recovered and vowed to fight on.

Techno giants, medical researchers, artists, heads of states, designers, sports heroes, and many entertainers joined these notable numbers.  Jay Z, Daniel Day-Lewis, and even Jimmy Fallon to name a few.
Jimmy Fallon
Now I love Jimmy Fallon.  I love his razor-sharp wit, his quick impersonations, and his true inventiveness.  I also congratulate him for winning Jay Leno’s slot in late night TV.    But how much does Jimmy Fallon move a generation?  I don’t think he’s in a position at this time to claim that he does.  Maybe after taking over The Tonight Show he’ll turn comedy on its head, but I don’t see it yet.  

And Jennifer Lawrence?  Like Colin Firth, she won the Oscar this year for Silver Linings Playbook, but how does she impact us now? I asked a few people this morning who won for “best actress” this year, and no one remembered. 

And then there's Wayne LaPierre.  Rock star, Ted Nugent, wrote a glowing tribute about this monster, whom I guess he considers human.   If you don't know LaPierre, he' s the amoeba who represents the National Rifle Association and fought hard against closing any loopholes in the gun law--even after Newtown, even after everything.  And he's a positive influence?  You mean like Hitler?

While most of Time's influential people are readily seen as movers and shakers, I got to thinking about Colin Firth’s son again. His father might not be the most influential person in the house, but I bet this boy is funny, smart, and well-adjusted because both his parents have given him lots of time and love. 

Comedian Henry Youngman used to start a story with, “Take my wife…”  Then he paused, and said, “Please.”  What he really meant was, you want influential?   It all begins at home.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Our Family Reunion and We Talk Talk Talk

It's a serious time at the beach
In a few short weeks the Schwartzes we’ll be getting together for our annual reunion.  It’s me, my sister, brother, their spouses, kids, and one grandson.

My mother originally organized this tradition in 1982, and the only time we cancelled was the year she died.  Today her grandkids are grown, and all are scattered about, but everyone tries to make it into New Smyrna for our one week reunion at the beach.

It’s easy.  We all take condos in the same building and run in and out of each others' kitchens like we were next door neighbors during the fifties.   And all we do is talk.   
But we all have our roles.  Since I’m the only one in Florida, I’m the default director, which means I’m a tad more active than the others, who readily commit their souls into vegging in the sun.  We rise around nine or ten--no one’s in a hurry—to help shlep the chairs, towels, boogie boards, and snacks down to the sand where the guys are setting up the cabanas, and then collapse in their chairs like they’d been working since dawn. 

A few grab the boogie boards and head for the water, but most wander in one direction or another for our morning walk on the beach.   These walks are good.  They're great.  We save up the best stories--the most lurid, odd, crazy tales from the past year to entertain the others.  But these are only the initial fare.  We got another walk in the afternoon, and talk at dinner, after dinner, and the walks the next day and the one after that.
My daughter Barb and me

But we don't want to overdo.  By one, the group--about a dozen of us--surrounded by chips, crackers, cookies, fruit, and granola bars, is starving and orders are taken for lunch.  My sister, sister-in-law, and I receive the emphatic requests—either tuna—with egg or without, PB&J—creamy or chunky, an extra hard boiled  egg, or white bread instead of wheat. 

Since nobody writes anything down, and everyone's yelling over the din, we usually screw up.  Good thing somebody trades in the end, and everyone’s happy—or at least satiated for another hour or two.

By three o'clock most of us have had enough humidity and trudge upstairs for our showers and necessary naps.  The sun sure knocks us out, we say, aware of the deadline looming ahead.  In three or four hours we have to get dressed and go for dinner.  My mother used to make these big dinners, but nobody volunteers to cook.  "Yeah, the meals were great," we agree, climbing into our cars, hoping they'll hold our reservations a few more minutes.  
Eating for a change

After a huge feast  somewhere, we complain we're too full as we head back to the condo with the most seating and the largest flat screen TV.   There we talk and play Wii.  Yes, we're getting tired, but it's a major effort to get up  and go to bed.   The younger ones are still going strong, but it’s the oldies, the ones who remember where they were when JFK got shot, who are ready to fold. 
“So what happened with your friend’s divorce?” I ask my sister-in-law.    
“Sorry.  Saving it for the beach walk tomorrow.”

The look of disappointment crosses all of our faces, but a good story’s to be savored, and we all know we'll have to wait.
Wonder what happened? I think, heading to the bed.  Another beach walk, another day in the sun.  Nothing like our family reunions.