Wednesday, January 9, 2008


When I was in elementary school and chronically ill from asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, you name the lung ailment, we were moving several times a year and I seldom saw the same pediatrician twice in a row. I didn't get prescribed an asthma inhaler until I was eight, not sure why -- maybe they weren't developed until then. The first one was called Isuprel, which came in a glass and metal canister, the glass covered with a thick rubbery membrane, and a plastic mouthpiece that had to be attached to the canister each use. This was dispensed to me by Mama with voluminous instructions each time as to how I was to suck it back into my chest -- delivered by her one-handed because she always had a long Salem lit in her other hand.

Living with contradictions
Going against the grain
Making my life work for me...
(from Alix Dobkin)

Anyhow, after seeing the doctor we'd have to go to the nearest Rexall to get prescriptions filled, and Mama would take me into the store because she didn't like leaving me in the car. Bill wasn't with us on these trips; I guess he was at home with a neighbor or my older brother. While we waited for the pharmacist to put together my medications, Mama would cruise the magazine rack and I'd scope out what they had in the way of books or periodicals for kids. Usually the books were limited and I'd read them all anyhow -- I read every single Bobbsey Twins, Janet Lennon, Donna Parker, Trixie Belden, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Five Little Tuckers book ever printed. (Not Nancy Drew, though -- hated her.)

I generally had more luck with magazines. I disdained Highlife, and my favorite, Jack and Jill, only came out once a month. But there was a series of puzzle and word game books, magazine size, that were produced during those years (early 1960s) which I adored, and there was often a new one out that I could always persuade Mama to buy. They kept me raptly entertained for a long time.

I learned a lot of world geography from these books, because I was drawn to the map puzzles. Is my memory faulty, or did they really spell Timbuktu as Timbucktoo in those days? I also liked the rebuses and forerunners of the logic puzzles I'd be addicted to in my 20s. But my favorite of their games was deciphering addresses like this:

Jane Smith

Which I'd eventually translate as
Jane Smith
100 Underwood
Overland, Kansas (this was before zip codes or state abbreviations, of course)

Years later, I'd draw on this memory in constructing an elaborate practical joke I played on my roommate Lava. She and I lived together for several years in San Francisco, and we were extremely close. Over a decade later, I realized I'd been in love with her -- I think she was in love with me, too -- but while we were both extremely sexually active elsewhere and also physically intimate (platonically) with one another, we shied away from ever becoming lovers or admitting the depth of our feelings. One of those regrets I've not yet released into the void.

(Lava and Maggie at Maggie's Pirate Birthday Party, Lake Merced, San Francisco, August 1984)

When the Bay Guardian started up and was more interested in lesbian readers than it is now, they began running personal ads. This was completely new to us in the dyke political community, and we'd read them in amazement. But of course we'd never use them -- we had meetings where we could troll for girlfriends, we had a thriving community then.

Lava, however, was between involvements and decided she just wanted sex, no strings. So she astonished us all by writing and placing a personal ad stating she wanted women to fuck with, with her basic requirements (no smoking, no drugs, no racists, as I remember it). AIDS had arrived by that time but it didn't pertain to us because in our social circle we stuck to sleeping with women-identified-women who did not use IV drugs and, well, blood and semen are the carriers, you know.

The process involved renting a "box" at the paper where you had to write a letter reply, and Lava had to go there personally to pick up any responses. She was quite worked up about her adventure, and began "checking her mail" almost daily, with no replies for a while. At this point, I'm sure there was some part of me that was jealous, but at the time I believed it was strictly in humor that I decided to write her a fake response.

Lava still has my typed letter. I knew her well enough to zero in on the buttons that would most intrigue her, veering at times into what I thought was a ridiculous zone to make her doubt my sincerity, then coming back to an enticing line. I pretended to be a rich, married woman of society, involved in San Francisco city politics (alluding to Dianne Feinstein) who had to be closeted but my marriage was for display only, I just needed a regular romp-in-bed woman to keep me happy. The only parts of the letter I clearly remember are these: I stated I wanted to eat Baby Ruth bars from her ass (do not ask me where I got this idea from, it shocks me still that I came up with it), and my clever return address.

There's a street on Bernal Hill named Andover, where a friend of mine lived. So I gave my return address as 21 Andover. Get it?

Lava didn't. She came home from "checking her mail" that day waving the letter in wild excitement and burst into the kitchen to read it out loud to me. I managed to keep a straight face until the end, when she mused about the address and wondered if the first block of Andover was at the top of Bernal or the base. That was when I lost it.

She felt cruelly tricked, and disappointed. (Though she had NOT been attracted by the Baby Ruth notion.) I was not able at that time to sort out my feelings about her and understand why I'd felt compelled to mess with her attempt to get needs met. A decade later, we were able to talk it out. By then we lived in different parts of the country and, well, I'd have considered moving to reconnect with her but she wasn't interested.

The unresolved question from this musing is: What was the name of that series of puzzle books? And does anyone else remember them? I'm not even sure how to start a search on E-Bay; I don't remember the covers, just that the inside paper was not glossy and the whole shebang was similar to the size and shape of our school workbooks.

And, while I'm reminiscing -- did anyone else out there ever use Cuisinaire rods in elementary school? Let's talk.


letsdance said...

For all of us former smokers, I apologize for your mother......

Since I quit 15 years ago, I have come to understand that for me, smoking was a very selfish act. (and disgusting)

May you always breathe clean air.
p.s. I am NOT a puzzle person.

kat said...

Are the rods that you refer to part of the set that has little unit cubes, long "tens" rods and "hundreds" squares? If so, yes, we use them at the school where I work.

If not, and you're talking about something totally different, then I apologize and crawl back into the woodwork....

kat said...

Wikipedia tells me that cuisenaire rods are slightly different from what I'm thinking of, but has a handy picture.
Indeed, we use them at work. They're called "reglettes" in french and were invented by a Belgian, so they play a larger role in french schools (like where I work) than they might in 2007 american elementary schools.

They're super useful.

kat said...

oops, we're in 2008 already....whatever...

Anonymous said...

What?? No Cherry Ames or Judy Bolton on your reading list?? Judy was my favorite. Nancy Drew only became an obsession in my adult years. I have a huge collection, foraged in yard sales over a period of years. I've got Trixie Belden, and all the others as well.

Whenever I'm feeling agitated and can't calm down I pick up a Nancy Drew. She's a tonic.

Of course you are familiar with the Mabel Many series, Nancy Clueless and the Hardly Boys. Super.

Let's go for luncheon at a quaint little tea room.

shadocat said...

My mom used to drive me waaaay out in the piny woods (this was about 1960) to a little old woman's house, where she would buy this gooey brown liguid that was sprayed down my throat through a glass atomizer. This was the closest thing to an inhaler that I ever had until I went to college. (The funny thing is, that stuff worked GREAT!)

As far as practical jokes go, sometimes the victim wants what she wants so much, she doesn't pick up on the obvious clues...

Oh and the rods? Used them in education classes, but they were never available in real-life teaching situations (sigh)...

Maggie Jochild said...

I accept your apology on behalf of my mother. I am now so allergic that if I see someone on TV smoking (rare, thank goodness), I start to wheeze. Mama smoked almost 3 packs a day, Daddy almost 2, and when my older brother turned 16, he started smoking too. In those days, standard treatment for asthmatics was to keep us still and indoors, with a vaporizer running. You can just imagine the soup this produced in my prison cell...

Kat, my wonderful third grade teacher (Miz Davis), in Midland, Texas, agreed to "try out" Cuisenaire rods with us. She was an innovator in lots of ways. I wound up being able to do algebra by fourth grade as a result. And let's just reiterate here, my mental excellence is NOT usually mathematical, it's heavily skewed to the verbal end of things. In researching it, there were almost no schools in the U.S. at that time (1963, the autumn that Kennedy was assassinated) using Cuisenaire rods -- hence, my question. I wonder who else received that same advantage.

Liza, I likewise couldn't abide the original Cherry Ames. I did read a couple of Judy Bolton but didn't find them easily on library shelves -- maybe it's regional? But lordy yes, Mabel Maney made me re-read Cherry and Nancy both with a new eye toward their humor. She's from San Fran, you know, a star in our world there. I have all her books. And I adore her quote: "For a long time I thought I wanted to be a nun. Then I realized that what I really wanted to be was a lesbian." Of course, she's from the generation before the backlash which produced a generation that can't seem to tell the difference.

I, too, have shelves of vintage children's books. The discussion in Ginny Bates where they are painting murals in the kids' room mentions mostly books I own and re-read regularly. Especially Edith Nesbit (I love Oswald Bastable), Trixie and Honey, all of Marguerite Henry, the Golden Stallion series, anything by Troy Nesbit (who was an old commie agitator, as it turns out), and Madeleine L'Engel -- always good for making me sane and happy again.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to be introduced to Maira Kalman by my godson at age three; she now ranks up there in the top five of all time. For anybody who hasn't read Maira Kalman, go right out and get, oh, Hey Willy See the Pyramids, then go on through the Max the Dog Poet series (remember Max's bleu period?), the genuis of Next Stop Grand Central, and then the perfect heartbreak of Fireboat. If you are already familiar with her work, check out Liza's website for PSAW, her gallery -- click on Artifacts, then Mannequins, and you can view gorgeous photos of five unmistakeable Maira Kalman mannequins.

I'll join you for the luncheon but first we must coyly describe our attire in fashion terms I have to go look up to be sure of the meaning.

I need to write a post about kid's books, I can tell.

Maggie Jochild said...

Omigod, I was just reading more about Mabel Maney and she's started a new series, a parody of James Bond about JANE Bond -- titles include The Girl with the Golden Bouffant and Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy! Combining two of my obsessions into one! If you ever wonder about a gift for me, here ya go.

Maggie Jochild said...

Shado, I wonder if that liquid was the main ingredient in Isuprel?

The other asthma drugs I took regularly (3-4 times a day, some of them) were: a precursor to Triaminic as a decongestant; Tedral, a vile yellow syrup that was mostly phenobarbital (lots of hallucinations for years from that one), and cortisone. The latter counts for my seriously fucked up adrenal system now.

But hey, the asthma drugs available now are truly good news. Last week I ran out of my Flovent for three days and kids, it was kinda scary. Within 30 minutes of a new dose when I finally got the prescription filled, I could breathe again. And Serevent lets me sleep eight hours without waking up short of breath; Zyrtec is g*d's gift to allergies; and my albuterol machine is loud but baby it does the trick, without making my heart race or my brain go on the fritz. Sometimes Western medicine is the cat's meow.

shadocat said...

Maybe Liza can shed some light on this, but I've heard the first "Nancy Drew" books were quite different fom the books we knew, with Nancy portrayed as a much more adventurous, independent girl. Sure would like to know if this was true.

shadocat said...

Just called my mom---the brown stuff was called "Selrodo". Ever hear of it?

Maggie Jochild said...

Shado, Selrodo is not in any of my drug indexes, either current or the one that covers expired medications (and I have good reference materials for my job). I found a mention of it on Google from another person who used it way back when, but there's no indication what was in it. Maybe it was herbal -- there are good remedies in that realm, too.

Re Nancy Drew, Shado, I think you're onto something. I remembered a docu on PBS last year about a woman who wrote for the Stratemeyer syndicate, the folks who produced Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, etc. I just found a bio of her online, Mildred Wirt Benson. She was an extremely independent and adventurous woman, and imparted that apparently to the first 22 Nancy Drew books under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (forced on her by Stratemeyer).

An article at Wikipedia outlines some of the revisions and changes that took place, which may have altered the tone enough to make them not interesting to me, I'm not well-versed enough to say. Somebody else have a look and give your opinion, eh?

shadocat said...

Maggie, after looking at the Mildred Benson link, I would love to read one of those early, unedited "Nancy's" when she was a bit less "genteel"---I'm off on another internet search!

Anonymous said...

Nancy was adventurous, independent and genteel. That was her appeal. She'd chase crooks in her zippy blue roadster, then stop for a delicious luncheon at a quaint tea shop with her best girlfriends, George and Bess.

The bad guys were always dark and swarthy - how else would you know they were bad. I suppose this is a lot of what got revised.

Nobody ever got hurt. Good always triumphs, there are enough clues to keep the young reader engaged, and in the process, you learned to be free spirited and socialized into middle class life. Neat package.

little gator said...

Nancy had two types of outfits, party frocks and sports dresses. And we must never forget that her roadster was snappy.

shadocat said...

But in the article, it says Nancy started out as "less genteel"--I'd like to see what they mean by that. Oh, and they took away the roadster, and gve her a convertible.

kat said...

Shado, the car switch may be so as not to confuse readers. The "roadster" seems to have disapeared from car vocabulary at some point. You only see roadsters up to about the '50s (that's an estimation...) so maybe they wanted to stay current.

Much less stylish, of course, but whatever....

Maggie Jochild said...

One of the dykes who lived as an "honorary" member of the land collective in Durango in 1977 had a dark green Honda named the Toadster.

What makes a car snappy, I wonder?

Liza, you're sure right about the dark and swarthy descriptions -- anyone not Aryan was automatically suspect. It permeates all of those books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, but it was particularly pronounced in the Tom Swift series, I guess because Tom was always working on secret inventions for the government. The names of the "bad guys" were either Italian or Eastern European/Jewish, and the worst thing you could call someone was anarchist. Fortunately, my amazing mother pointed this out to me and explained why it was crap before it took root in my impressionable mind. And yet she voted for Goldwater.

What I most longed for, after reading all these books, was not a roadster or frocks but a twin, preferably identical. Maybe I'd been born with one, but for some reason (national security-related) we had to be separated at birth and she was being raised by another family. Her name began with M, too -- and I'd find her someday, and we'd realized we'd been in psychic connection all these years...