Posted by: ktzefr | December 21, 2014

How to Buy the Perfect Gift in 5 Easy Steps…

Christmas house


I like to talk.  But I also like to listen — eavesdrop, that is — in coffee shops and markets and galleries.  Anyplace, really.  So, this is some gift-buying wisdom I’ve garnered from a lot of eavesdropping and a little bit of experience.

1)  Don’t buy what YOU want her to have.  Listen.  Has she ever mentioned that she wanted a silver bangle, always dreamed of seeing Paris, would like to learn how to make a souffle? You may think the incredibly expensive diamond bracelet you’ve found would look beautiful on her wrist.  It probably would.  Tickets for a weekend in Las Vegas could be fun, too.  And a “how to make perfect brownies” cookbook would fit nicely on the kitchen shelf.  Besides, YOU love brownies.  But…if you really want to buy HER a gift, take the money you would have spent on the diamond bracelet and buy the silver bangle and tickets to France.  She can pick up a great cookbook in Paris.

2)  Don’t ask other people what to buy for him.  If other people know him better than you do, perhaps working on that issue would be a good gift to consider.  Besides, other people will probably tell you what THEY would like for him to have, rather than what he wants.  What if the person you ask thinks he would look great in red, but he hates red?  Don’t buy the red sweater.  He won’t wear it, and you’ll consider yourself the victim and bring this up to him ad infinitum.  Perhaps he could stand to lose a little weight and a friend suggests getting him a membership at the local gym.  He, however, has never, ever mentioned an interest in the gym.  Don’t do it.  Just don’t do it.

3)  Don’t buy a gift for him because “everybody has one.” No. No.  And no.  If “everybody” has it, he would have already purchased one, or at least mentioned it — if he actually wanted one of his own.

4)  Don’t buy a gift because it’s prettier, better, or more expensive than the one her best friend, sibling, or great grandmother owns.  If she wants something just because it’s prettier, better, or more expensive than someone else’s…well, that’s kind of obnoxious.  Consider buying gifts for someone else.

5)  On the other hand, if he simply loves a particular designer or drinks good Scotch or keeps mentioning this new little gourmet chocolate shop around the corner (and doesn’t just want these things because his best bud has them), save up for the designer sweater or the good Scotch or the must-have chocolates and tie up the special gift with a pretty bow in his favorite color.

Final note:  Gift cards are fine and dandy as a last resort.  But don’t buy him a gift card to the movies because you want to see more movies.  Buy a Bass Pro Shop card instead, if you know he’d rather be fishing.  You should, however, ask for a movie card of your own and take a friend who’s also a fan of the flicks.

Posted by: ktzefr | December 11, 2014

Music, Memories, and Chickens at Christmas

I’m listening to Handel’s Messiah this afternoon and ordering chickens.  Must be Christmas!


Every year about this time I dust off and crank up the old stereo and set the records to spinning.  Highlights from Handel’s Messiah, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  This album is from 1982.  From the first measure of “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” to the last “Amen” I float through the house on a cloud of memories. 

Singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in my high school choir in Kentucky. 

Eating boiled custard and peanut butter rolls and chocolate fudge. 

Peppermint canes and logs and pillows. 

The sound of church bells and “Jingle Bells.” 

Chimneys puffing and the scent of coal smoke in the air. 

Fresh sausage in the morning, a chunk of side bacon in the shuck beans. 

“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” on the radio. 

Sometimes dreams came true, 

like the year I got a pair of real Bass Weejuns for Christmas,

or the blonde walking doll with the big eyes that opened and closed

or the books I would read quickly and never forget –

such as the simply-told 365 Bedtime Stories,

a book full of characters whose lives I would still recall years later

and read, again, their tales to my young son. 

Memories are the best gifts.

I always listen on an afternoon in December when I’m alone and can turn up the volume to the hilt so even the dog walkers and kids getting off the school bus might swivel their necks and try to figure out where the glorious music is coming from.  I sit by the window with a cup of darjeeling and a bowl of Harry and David’s Milk Chocolate Moose Munch and imagine what they’re saying…

What are their dreams?  What will their memories be?  


And now to the chickens…

I grew up with chickens.  They are wonderfully gentle, soft, accommodating creatures.  They are frightened easily, but they are never frightening.  I’ve gathered eggs from beneath a hen still on the nest, watched new chicks peck their way out of the shells and into the world, and witnessed the final moments of a hen’s life when my mom or Granny would wring its neck in preparation for Sunday dinner. 

A chicken is a gift that keeps on giving by producing eggs and more chickens.  A flock is a nutritious gift for a malnourished child or family in a poor country.  Money for basic necessities — clothes and medicine and education — can be earned from selling eggs.  Heifer International calls these “Opportunity Flocks” — “give someone a real nest egg” they say.  So, that’s what I’m ordering this year.  Chickens.  For $20 I can buy a flock of chicks or ducks or geese.  Or a share of a llama, two shares in a goat.  Thirty dollars buys a beehive or a share in a school of fish or a water buffalo.  But it’s chicks for me this year.  The girl in the picture reminds me of my younger self with my sweet chicken Bess who was bright pink on the day I got her (they used to dye baby chicks at Easter but, thankfully, that doesn’t happen anymore).  Helping people help themselves — what better gift?

Chicks for Heifer International...

Chicks for Heifer International…

Heifer International has been around for 70 years helping provide people with an opportunity to support and feed themselves.  Check them out online at



Posted by: ktzefr | November 25, 2014

Travel the world in a day — in DC

It may be hard to believe, but there’s more to the nation’s capital than politics.  And some of the best things to do here are free.

In spite of the chill last Saturday my niece Katey, my friend Laura, and I decided to head down to the mall and have a girls’ day at the museums.  The first stop on my list was  the Smithsonian’s American History Museum to see Sandra Cisneros’s installation of “A Room of Her Own: My Mother’s Altar” in the tradition of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). 

Sandra Cisneros's altar in honor of her mother at National Museum of American History in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Sandra Cisneros’s altar in honor of her mother at National Museum of American History in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Cisneros has been one of my favorite Mexican American authors since I discovered her wonderful little book, The House on Mango Street, many years ago.  After three decades, this book is still being taught everywhere, from elementary schools to universities.  This story, written in a series of vignettes about a young girl growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, inspired me to try the vignette style for my own book, To Come and Go Like Magic, about a young girl growing up in Appalachia.  

There was no way to get a photo of the complete exhibit with my IPhone without capturing a whole bunch of people in the pic, but you can go to the link above and get a better appreciation of this lovely altar with its flowers and candles and antiques and all the foods and photos of her mother and the people she loved.

cisneros altar2

People watching is always fun in the summer, but it was way too cold to sit on a park bench and imagine the lives of passersby.  We did stop for a few minutes, however, to watch the skaters in front of the National Archives.

Ice skaters at the National Mall in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Ice skaters at the National Mall in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Then we “danced” in the cold over to the National Gallery of Art to see Degas’s Little Dancer. The National Gallery has the largest and most important collection of Degas’s surviving original wax sculptures in the world. Its wax version of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is the only one formed by the artist’s own hands and the only sculpture he ever showed publicly.

Degas's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at the National Gallery of Art in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at the National Gallery of Art in DC; Photo:KFawcett

(Note:  This exhibition is presented in conjunction with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ world-premiere musical Little Dancer, which runs from October 25 through November 30, 2014.)

We strolled through the halls of the Dutch masters and then briefly visited my favorite “old friends,” the French Impressionists — Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet — before pausing to wave goodbye to Vincent on our way out.

Van Gogh at the National Gallery in DC; Photo:KFawcett

Van Gogh at the National Gallery in DC; Photo:KFawcett

The sun was going down and it was getting colder and we were lucky to hop onto the Metro right away.  By the time the lights came on we were drinking latte at the Starnut Gourmet.

Time to go home and flop, right?  Not tonight.  We finished the evening in Ecuador — traveling from the Andes to the Amazon with these terrific musicians at the Alden Theater.  Andes Manta…

It’s possible to spend a whole day in DC and not think about politics at all.  It’s also possible to travel around the world in a day.  That’s one of the things I love most about living here.  After four decades in this city, I still find new things to do and still enjoy revisiting favorite places.





Posted by: ktzefr | November 18, 2014

One Day Can Make a Difference…


trees with leaves


trees no leaves

Posted by: ktzefr | November 16, 2014

Squirrel Without a Coat, 2

Success!  We caught the squirrel.  Scrappy is off to spend the winter indoors with like-minded rodents.  He will be returning to our trees next spring as soon as he has sprouted enough fur and/or the weather is warm again.

Here he is in his new digs…


Posted by: ktzefr | November 14, 2014

Squirrel without a coat…

trees no leavesIt’s Friday, it’s freezing, and I spent half the day trying to trap a hairless squirrel.
He was born sometime in late summer and came down from the tree with skin as slick as a ribbon.  Head to toe to tail.  At first he was just something pink in the distance.  Something pink and moving pretty fast.  Skittish around the birds.   
I got out the binoculars and took a look.  Yep.  It was a squirrel.  And there was just the slightest powder puff of fur on the end of his tail.  Like a lion.  But not really.  With the binoculars I could see the ripples of his skin.  We named him Scrappy.  Scraps, for short.
Hairless squirrel; Photo:KFawcett
Hairless squirrel; Photo:KFawcett
Some people said he probably had mange.  I’ve seen mange — on dogs.  When I was growing up in Kentucky our dogs got mange in the summer and had to be treated.  Granny Wren, my mom’s older sister, made a concoction of lard and powdered sulfur.  She stirred it with a painter’s stick (the kind you use to mix paint in the bucket) and slapped it all over their bodies.  It was my job to hold the dogs while she performed this ritual. 
Granny covered the hairless patches with a thick layer of her “sulfur salve” and then I let the dogs go, whereupon they ran in circles in the yard and around the house and then they rolled and slid in the grass trying to rub it off.   I don’t know if it itched or burned or if it just felt yucky.  When I was a kid I wished the dogs could talk and say what they were feeling.
Today I was wishing the squirrels could talk or at least understand.  Through the local wildlife folks I found a squirrel rescuer and rehabilitator willing to take Scrappy for the winter so he can live indoors instead of face the arctic vortexes without a coat.  The image makes me shiver.
Unfortunately, we didn’t catch the squirrel.  He’ll have to spend at least one more cold night somewhere in the trees.  He’s quite domesticated, actually, as he comes to our door throughout the day and gets peanuts.  Today, however, I brought out the big guns in the nut world — hazelnuts (already shelled for convenience) and pecans (ditto) in order to coax him into the cat carrier.  It worked, but he was too quick for me.  Before I could slam the door he had grabbed a nut and slipped out like greased lightning. 
Tomorrow, we try again.  I have to get out early and buy a humane trap that will catch Scrappy and close the door automatically behind him.  The squirrel rescuer and rehabilitator says the little guy is likely to go bonkers at first.  There’s no way to tell a squirrel how much trouble you’ve gone to in an attempt to save his life or to calm him by saying everything is going to be all right.  He’ll have warmth — a real luxury for a wild animal in winter. 
I want warmth.  I want to go someplace the arctic vortex doesn’t go.  Mexico.  The islands.  Somewhere along the Equator would be good.  Tomorrow would be good.  I’m ready.
But, tomorrow, I’m going to be trying to catch a squirrel.  Wish me luck!


Posted by: ktzefr | November 6, 2014

My “travels” with National Geographic…



     In the late 70s a friend of mine was leaving for Saudi Arabia.  Her husband was an American engineer headed to Riyadh to “build stuff” and teach others how to do the same.  She, on the other hand, was trying to get rid of stuff she had accumulated over the years from an apartment that had to be vacated.  So she decided to have a sale, and I figured I should go and buy something.

     I didn’t expect to find a treasure.  But I did.  With my husband’s help, I lugged home ten years worth of National Geographic magazines that were otherwise headed to my friend’s trash bin.  More than 100 issues and thousands of stories and photographs for only ten dollars!

     Over the next few years I traveled vicariously around the world through those magazines and they traveled with us when we moved.  This was before personal computers and the internet, so when I had a question about some place around the globe or a natural phenomenon — hurricanes or tornadoes or earthquakes — I headed to the bookshelf to search through those yellow spines to find the issue that would have the answer.  I almost always found it.

     When our son was born in the late 80s I decided to be a stay-at-home mom.  During his afternoon nap times I immersed myself in far flung places and different ways of life.  All I needed was a cup of tea, a couple of chocolates, and an issue of National Geographic.

  from National Geographic, March 1967

from National Geographic, March 1967

     In the 90s we made scrapbooks together.  At first I hesitated to deface the magazines by cutting out pictures, but some of the issues were more than 20 years old.  I figured the learning experience for my son was worth it.  We “studied” about the red crab migration on Christmas Island and the daily habits of red-eyed tree frogs in the Amazon.  Monkeys were always a hit.  We clipped some photos and left others intact in the 1967 story of Snowflake, the world’s first white gorilla.  In that same issue we discovered “Squids: Jet-powered Torpedoes of the Deep” and they made the scrapbook, too.

     Later, more and more photos were clipped for school projects, and the stack of old issues dwindled.  I continued to subscribe to the magazine, however, and I kept some favorites, including the original copy of the 1988 centennial edition and the issue with that haunting photograph of the Afghan refugee girl on the cover.


     In hindsight, the purchase of those old magazines, which I did on a whim, was one of the best ten dollars I’ve ever spent.


Holiday gift catalog, 2014, National GeographicHoliday gift catalog, 2014, National Geographic

This holiday season consider shopping online at National Geographic.  They have interesting, unusual, and fun gifts and your purchase can make a difference in the lives of others.  Purchases support the National Geographic Society’s efforts in education, research, exploration, and conservation.  The Society often works closely with local artisans “to help bring critical income to indigenous communities all over the world.”



Posted by: ktzefr | November 1, 2014

Leaves, leaves everywhere…

Sunset on Dogwood Leaves; Photo:KFawcett

Sunset on Dogwood Leaves; Photo:KFawcett

My porch is strewn with autumn leaves.  It looks like yellow snow.

I give the leaf colors names — blood, pepper, lemon.  Tangerine, mango, plum.

What makes the red splashes on the maple leaves?  Why not red all over?  Some have specks of brown sprinkled like pepper.

You can feel the veins.  On the back of the leaf the veins stand out. I’ve read several articles lately about the possibility that plants feel pain.  The moment a plant is “attacked” it goes into defense mode, spewing out certain proteins that are aimed at repairing the damage and others that can lure predators to the “beast” that is attacking it.  It takes varying times, too, for vegetables to die.  Think about that the next time you eat a turnip.

The leaf tips die first.  They are the last to be fed.  A leaf tip is the end of the line.

I collect the autumn leaves and press them in a big coffee table book about lilies.  Between the glossy pages of red and orange and yellow lilies, I slip red and orange and yellow leaves.  Soon they’ll be as crisp as paper.  And ugly.

No two leaves are alike, even though every leaf on the same tree has the same shape.  In autumn they become even more unalike.  The same shade of green changes to all sorts of combinations on some of the trees.

And why does the oak tree’s leaves just turn brown?  It seems to skip the pretty stage altogether.

In winter the umbrella tree looks like an umbrella caught in a storm, turned inside out, with its bare limbs showing.  But it is always the last to lose its leaves and a few cling to the branches all the way to spring.

Leaves fall on the table, at my feet, across the porch.  They swirl in the air round my head and I stop working to look up.

I’m dressed as if I’m going to a Halloween party — old blue linen pants, a hoodie, and a floppy straw hat (to keep the setting sun out of my eyes).  Wrapped in a wool rebozo.  Mexican leather sandals.  Pink socks decorated with blue, gray, and green squirrels.

But I am not going to a Halloween party.  I’m not sure how I put this outrageous outfit together except that I’ve thrown everything in the laundry and just now in the process of changing closets from summer to winter.  Besides, I’m sitting on the back porch amongst trees still full of leaves of varying colors, and no one — except, perhaps, one neighbor — can see me.  And they already know I’m sort of different. 

I’m as happy as a squirrel with a peanut.





Posted by: ktzefr | September 26, 2014

100 dolls for a dollar…

The advertisement in the magazine offered 100 dolls for a dollar.  How could a kid resist? 

The accompanying blurb stated that the buyer would receive 100 dolls representing different countries around the world.  The artwork showed German dolls in pretty dirndls.  Spanish flamenco dancers with their dresses flying in the air.  Cowboys in big hats and Native Americans in feathered headdresses.  Hats were popular — sombreros, conical hats, and clown hats.  Women with baskets of vegetables on their heads. 

I was too excited for words when I put my dollar in the envelope and dropped it in the mail.  I was probably nine or ten at the time and didn’t think for a second that there was anything false about the advertisement.  My parents tried to prepare me for disappointment (this was not the first time I had fallen for an “amazing” deal that didn’t turn out well), but I wouldn’t be swayed.

dolls ad

(Margaret Gunning’s Blogspot)

I watched for the mailman.  I didn’t want to miss seeing him lug this huge box of dolls to the door.  I visualized those dolls in all their pretty “authentic” costumes.

The package came in our regular mailbox.  Wrapped in brown paper.  The size of one of those paper boxes that used to hold wooden matches.  If you’ve never seen a box of wooden matches, imagine the length and width of one and a half IPhones. 

Would they be sending the dolls one at a time?  That would take forever!

100 dolls for a dollar (Pinterest)

100 dolls for a dollar (Pinterest)

I tore open the package to see which one came first and found…all 100 dolls.  They were 2 inches tall.  Flat.  Pink plastic toys made in molds.  There were no colorful costumes; the “authentic” dress was shaped in the plastic mold.  I had also assumed (isn’t that an awful word?) that each one of the 100 would be representative of a different country, but what I discovered was that I had several of the same thing — a handful of cowboys, for example, and a whole bunch of Spanish dancers. 

I made the best of it and spent time sorting them into like piles or playing games of pretend that weren’t nearly as fun as I had imagined they would be.  It was a long time, however, and a few more mistakes made before I quit believing everything I read. 

Did you ever crack the piggy bank and order something from an ad that sounded too good to be true? 


Posted by: ktzefr | September 10, 2014

Five Treasures: secrets found in old books

I was browsing in the children’s section at the library the other day and saw this inscription in a book:


Fourteen years ago someone gave this book to her granddaughter.  Is the grandma still alive?  Was Katherine’s mom cleaning out closets after her daughter went away to college and tossed this tome in the giveaway bag?  Did Katherine even read the book?  Sad.

I buy old books.  I like the scent of bookstores that sell used books.  I peer through the glass cases at the “rare” and first editions, but I don’t buy those.  My loot includes mostly cheap copies of classics, short-story anthologies, memoirs and personal essays.   When a book has an inscription or dogears or notes in the margins it’s considered a treasure.

Some of my treasures:


1) “To my sweetheart, with love.” Signed —  Bill, May 26, 1942.  In Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked.  Did Bill and his sweetheart stay together?  Maybe years later her husband discovered the book, read the inscription, and donated it to some worthy charity.  Or perhaps it was found at an estate sale after Bill and his sweetheart/wife had died.

2) “Happy anniversary, and many more together.” Signed — Anna.  This is written on a business card, embossed with “Gus Blass Co.”  Gus Blass, I learned, was a department store founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1871.  The book — The Gathering Storm, by Winston Churchill.  A yellowed, glossy brochure inside with pictures of the “actors in this world drama,” referencing the 2nd World War with this quote: “How the English-speaking peoples of the world, through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”  Does history not continue to repeat itself?

3) A blue sticker inside the front cover says “This Book Belongs To Sidney Adams” with Sidney’s named typed.  I’ll bet he owned a lot of books and had someone type his name on a bunch of stickers.  It’s Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July.  Dogeared — “Katy Barlow, flushed and breathless, was so mad she could spit.  Tossing her hair out of her eyes…she drew her lips tightly against her teeth.  She wished she could turn into a man so she could do it all the better.  She thought of all the different ways she could spit if she were a man.”  Imagine that! 

4) This dogeared page got me to thinking about stuff.  Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living.  “I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness…”  Okay.  And a quote from another chapter, underlined in red, from Laotse, “Blessed are the idiots, for they are the happiest people on earth.”  Well, then…

5) I got a peek at my younger self in this one.  The book is The Hills Beyond by Thomas Wolfe.  It belonged to my in-laws.  There are no inscriptions or dogears or underlines.  I don’t know if anyone ever read it.  One chapter caught my attention — “The Battle of Hogwart Heights”  — Hogwarts?  I thought JK Rowling made up the name.  Anyway, my discovery was stuck in this book — a couple of letters.  One from me, one from my husband, written the same week, stuffed into the same envelope, four decades ago.  

We had just moved into an old house in Kentucky that had been divided into two apartments.  My letter: the house is very roomy, the furniture antique, and there’s a small yard for Quincy (the dog).  My husband’s letter: the temps dropped, pilots haven’t been lit, and we are cold; the enrollment at the college is down; he lost the beaters to our hand mixer and a second mixer (wedding gift) burned out the first time we used it.  The warranty has expired.

I’m still the optimist; he’s still the pessimist.  Some things don’t change. 


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