Where Was I . . .

Janice Palko

 . . .Being ThemMay 2018

By Janice Lane Palko

“What is that on your foot?” I was around seven years old when I asked my mother that question. “It’s a callus,” she said. “You’ll have them when you’re older.” No way, I thought. My feet are never going to look like that.

“What’s that thing?” I was around eight years old when I asked my grandmother that question. “It’s a needle threader,” she said. “I can’t see the eye of the needle anymore. You slip this little metal loop through the needle’s eye, and then put the thread though the loop. Then you pull the loop through the eye, and it threads the needle. When you get older and can’t see as well, you’ll need one.” No way, I thought to myself. My eyes are never going to get that bad.

“Oh, my leg,” moaned my great-grandmother as she came down the steps. “What’s wrong with your leg?” I was about 10 when I asked that. “Things wear out when you get older,” she said. “I hope you don’t get knees like mine.” No chance, of that I thought. I’m never getting old.

Never say never.

Flash forward to today where I regularly remove calluses from my heels, and I now use a needle threader. By the time, you read this, I will be home recovering from knee surgery. I tore a meniscus in my left knee seven years ago, and after babying it and enduring pain off and on, an MRI recently revealed that I now have an acute meniscus tear and insufficiency fractures, for which the surgeon plans to perform a subchondroplasty. The procedure entails drilling into my leg bones (yikes!) and injecting them with calcium phosphate, which will then harden and repair my bones.

As I was limping down the stairs the other day after receiving that diagnosis, I felt a stab of pain in my knee. “Oh, my leg,” I reflexively yelled, and then stopped in my tracks as I flashed backward four and half decades and realized that I have now become my great-grandmother. And not only her but my grandmother and my mother.

But then it occurred to me that maybe that is not so bad. My vows to never to turn into them was a revulsion to aging, which I don’t think anyone embraces, and not the people they are and were. My mom, grandmothers, and great-grandmother were all loving, kind and giving–women who would sacrifice anything for their loved ones.

So yeah, even though I don’t like getting older, I’m okay with turning into them because being them is a pretty admirable way to be. Happy Mother’s Day!

 . . . Ah, The Perfect Wedding! 

By Janice Lane Palko 

Television shows, magazines and the wedding industry all tout the dream of “The Perfect Wedding.” While there is nothing wrong with desiring to have a perfect wedding, the reality is that just like life, often weddings, no matter how we may try, often fall short of perfection. But that’s OK. Sometimes the things that go wrong become the things we remember most about a wedding. I’m not talking about those sensational wedding bloopers like finding the groom in the bathroom making out with a bridesmaid. I’m talking about the garden variety goof-ups that thrown a monkey wrench into the best laid plans for perfection.  

I remember attending one wedding where the bride mere days before her nuptials had her appendix removed. I’ll never forget how she hobbled down the aisle and endured the reception. Or how about the wedding party that got food poisoning from the meal served the night before at the rehearsal and were downing Pepto-Bismol in hopes of staving off the trips to the bathroom to get through the ceremony.  

Many years ago, I attended a wedding where the band failed to show, and the desperate bride and groom ended up going home and getting their record player and records to provide some music. I’ve seen a 6’4” usher pass out in church and go down like a might oak creating quite a stir. My sister-in-law had a friend who worked for a car dealership and offered Lincoln Continentals to take the bridal party to church. In the days before cell phones, half the bridal party got into one Lincoln and pulled away with the keys to the other one. My sister-in-law ended up coming to church in the photographer’s van.  

The wedding of my good friends Donna and Bill stands out in my mind for a mishap. During Catholic marriage ceremonies, it is often the custom for couples to represent the uniting of their lives by having the bride and groom each take a lighted taper and then jointly light a “unity candle.” When Donna and Bill lit theirs, a spark fell onto the altar cloth setting it afire. I can’t forget the image of Bill and Donna beating the flames out. 

My own wedding was not without a flaw. The ceremony and reception went off without a hitch. Near the end of the evening after taking a staged photo of my husband and me waving goodbye like we were leaving for our honeymoon, we actually said goodbye to our families and headed out the door. Outside the reception was a stairwell in which several of my little cousins and a few of the other kids in attendance were playing. As we told them we were leaving, the little girls, chanted, “Pick Jan up.” They wanted my husband to carry me out of the hall.  

“Want me to?” asked my husband. 

“Oh, all right,” I said.  

As they cheered, my husband moved toward me, bent and scooped me up at the same time that he stepped on the hem of dress. As he lifted me, he put his foot through the lace band on the bottom of my dress. He stumbled, and we fell up the stairs, landing in a pile of yards of taffeta.  

Horrified, the little girls cried, “Are you OK?” 

As I straightened my headpiece and my husband extracted his foot from my dress, we burst into laughter. We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and headed out the door to our new life together. More than 35 years later, that mishap stands out because it was probably the best metaphor for married life. Just as the perfect wedding is an illusion so is the perfect life. Things go wrong, you stumble and fall. The key is to keep laughing, keep picking yourself up and always keep looking to your future together.  


Where Was I . . . Irish and More 

If you’ve been reading this column, you know that last August I visited Ireland. It was everything I had hoped it to be and more. Since we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this month, I thought I’d share some of the “more” that I discovered during my trip.  

In Ireland, they don’t speak Gaelic; they speak Irish. Gaelic is a language with branches, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx, which is spoken on the Isle of Man, the small island in the Irish sea between Ireland and Great Britain. 

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, spent his boyhood in Macroom, Ireland at Macroom Castle. It was also in Macroom where Penn converted to become a Quaker, which was against English law, and landed Penn a stint in jail. King Charles II was indebted to the Penns and to settle the debt, the king gave William Penn land in the new world where the Quaker would be free to practice his religion.  

The Irish have one of the highest incidences of Celiac disease, an intolerance for gluten, in the world. The Ireland Coeliac Society (they spell differently in the Emerald Isle) estimates 1 out of every 100 Irish citizens is gluten intolerant. They are not sure why the disease is so common among the Irish, but if you have Irish ancestry and have digestive disorders, you may want to check to see if you have Celiac disease.  

If you are Irish, you also may have Viking blood coursing through your veins. The first Viking raiders attacked the east coast of Ireland around 795 and created the settlements of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford The Vikings were defeated in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, but when they weren’t pillaging, the Vikings did marry into Irish families. Today, in Dublin you can visit Dublinia, a museum devoted to the Viking history in Ireland. You can also take a Viking Splash tour, the city’s version of Just Ducky Tours, where passengers wear horned Viking helmets and roar at pedestrians. 

The west of Ireland is mostly unspoiled. The Viking penetration there was very limited, and the Romans never invaded. As such, there are archeological sites all over. It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 castles and castle ruins alone. There are prehistoric sites that are over 6,000 years old and predate the Pyramids in Egypt. On our way to Slea Head, the western most part of Ireland and Europe, our tour guide asked if we wanted to stop at the house of his friend, Gerry, to see a ring fort. Gerry met us on a sloped hill side near his farm house and lead us to a prehistoric site in his backyard. He told us that the stone fort had a souterrain, a passage into the hillside where these early inhabitants of the island would retreat when attacked. Gerry also told us humans were also sacrificed on the site. 

The Irish take leprechauns and fairies seriously. We may scoff at that, but Gerry said something that made me think. He told us to imagine it’s the year 300 A.D., and you’re living in Ireland. Your crops fail, the cattle are ailing and your baby dies. There is no medicine or science to explain it, so it doesn’t seem that far fetched to blame your misfortune on “little people.” Especially when you have a stone settlement in your back yard that no one knows how it got there and which has a small doorway leading into the earth.  

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! 


Ah, Romance!

Since February is the month in which we celebrate love with a holiday—St. Valentine’s Day—that got me to thinking about romance. As many of you know, in my spare time I write romantic comedy and romantic suspense novels. According to the Romance Writers of America’s statistics, romance fiction sells more than other fiction genre, amassing more the $1 billion in sales annually. The next genre, Crime and Thriller, garners approximately $782 million in sales.

Clearly, we have an appetite for romance, and though I write them, even I when I asked myself what is romance? I wasn’t quite sure. Romance is one of those enigmatic you know it when you see it” type of thing. One dictionary definition defined romance as a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life.”
My great-grandmother, Cornelia Ledergerber, whom we called Grandma Leder, died in 1975. I was only a 15 then, but I helped my mom and grandmother to clean out grandma’s belongings. Among her things, we found a stack of postcards tied with a ribbon. They were the correspondence sent from my great-grandfather to grandma before they married. In the early 1900s when they were dating, there was no phone, no email, no text messaging, no Instagram or Snapchat. They both lived in what was Allegheny City, and they sent each other messages through the mail. The gist of the post cards was what you would expect from two people dating, but what wasn’t expected was a little note at the end of the card that said: P.S. Look under the stamp.
When you peeled up the stamp, which was easy to do because grandma had done it nearly 60 years before us, was a message which either said something like: I love you! Miss you, darling. Two days more until I see you. Or simply the whole squares were covered in X’s and O’s. A far cry from today’s sexting!
Grandma Leder died at the age of 78; she married grandpap when she was 20. That she kept those post cards all those years—nearly 20 years after his death—indicated how much their romance meant to them. An ordinary postcard carried the mystery and excitement of love and made their everyday life special. This Valentine’s Day, I hope you know that type of romance and love.

Where Was I . . . Old Dog, New Tricks 

By Janice Lane Palko  

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.  

Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”  –Henry Ford 

This time of year, two themes occupy my brain—the passage of time and education. It is now 2018. I remember reading the novel 1984 when I was a teen in the 70s and that date seeming like a time from the Jetsons. Now that year is long gone in our rearview mirror.  

Because this is also our education issue, learning is always on my mind in January too. With the passage of time, I’ve gained some self-knowledge, and I’ve discovered that one thing that revitalizes me is to learn something new.  

I thought it was just my weird little brain that got excited when learning new things, but apparently medical researchers are discovering that one of the ways all of us can remain young is to challenge our brains by learning something new.  

Sometimes that can be a bit scary. 

After publishing my last novel, I was contacted by several readers who said, “This book needs to be turned into a movie.” Well, before you can make a movie, you need to have a script. So, at their urging, I enrolled in a Screenwriting course at Pittsburgh Filmmakers last January. I have taught several courses, but it has been about 20 years since I actually sat at a desk as a student. It was certainly a learning experience. 

When classes began at the end of last January, I donned my best jeans, new sweater and boots and headed off to class to find that all my other classmates were college freshmen—five years younger than my youngest child—and that I was way overdressed. They rolled into class in pajama bottoms, sweatpants and T-shirts. I smiled and tried to catch an eye to make a connection, but they were all swiping through their phones.  

The class was very informative. Our teacher, who thankfully was my age or older, knew her stuff. Our assignment each week was to watch a movie, and with our new “screenwriting knowledge” give a critique the following week as well as writing a brief scene and bringing it to class where we cast our fellow classmates in roles and had a reading of the scene. 

The first week, I gave my review of Hidden Figures, the biopic about the black, female engineers at NASA. My fellow classmates critiqued such screen gems as 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Seven Psychopaths—and those were the ones that were mainstream. But where the generation gap really became apparent was during the reading of our scenes. I wrote one about a mother and daughter on her wedding day. Most of the other students wrote ones laced with F-bombs and which featured gruesome reenactments of rape and dismemberment. Naturally, when reading, I was always cast as the old woman or mother. Talk about typecasting! 

In addition, to learning the techniques of screenwriting, I learned that no matter how much you try to remain informed, relevant and be youthful, time marches on. I am not 18, nor do I want to be again, but I still like learning—even if it’s sometimes about psychopaths and dismemberment.  


December 2017 

Second Chances 

By Janice Lane Palko 

 I don’t know if you saw it, but recently an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune about actor and former rapper, Mark Wahlberg. The article detailed an interview Wahlberg granted to Cardinal Blaise Cupich, and that article has spawned numerous other articles. Publications from Rolling Stone magazine to Maxim ran versions of Wahlberg’s response because in the article Wahlberg stated: “I just always hope that God is a movie fan and also forgiving, because I’ve made some poor choices in my past.” When pressed if he’d ever prayed for forgiveness for any movies, in particular, he added, “Boogie Nights is up there at the top of the list.” In the 1997 movie, Wahlberg played a porn star, a role that helped him successfully transform from rapper to serious actor. 

Although I’ve enjoyed him in several of the movies he’s been in like Patriot’s Day, Lone Survivor, and The Departed, I didn’t know much about Wahlberg’s life. He’s only been in my peripheral vision. I knew he made music, was a Calvin Klein underwear model and had a checkered past, but I didn’t know just how checkered it was until I read the Facebook comments posted in response to the article. They detailed his crimes—and I do mean crimes. A gang member in Boston, Wahlberg by the time he was 13 he had a cocaine habit. When he was 16, he was charged with attempted murder after viciously assaulting two middle-aged Vietnamese men. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served 45 days of a two-year sentence. 

That experience scared him straight. He got in touch with parish priest and turned his life around. He is now married with four children and attends mass daily hence the reason for him speaking with the cardinal. 

Wahlberg’s conversion is commendable, but I found something distressing when reading those nasty Facebook comments about him—nearly every commenter discounted the possibility that someone could change their course. But what was even more distressing was that almost no one believed in granting anyone a second chance.  

I can understand people’s hesitancy to grant mercy. No one wants to be played for a fool. It’s difficult to assess whether someone is seriously intent on turning a corner or is merely conning you, but that doesn’t mean we should pass entirely on believing in second chances. Second chances are risky. Sometimes people fail at them, but it’s glorious when they succeed. 

This time of year, we celebrate Christmas, but it could easily be known as the great second chance. After botching things in the Garden of Eden, those of us who celebrate Christmas believe that Jesus came to earth to save us—give us a second chance. This year, maybe you can grant someone a second chance or better yet, be like Mark Wahlberg. If you need fresh start, now is the time to seize the opportunity and take advantage of our Divine Do-over.  

November 2017

Whoah, Somethin’ Bad 

By Janice Lane Palko 

It was the fourth of July, and I was probably six years old. We’d bought a flag for our new house, and this was the first holiday to come along to display our new purchase. As my dad assembled the flag pole, we kids pulled the flag out of the plastic bag.  

“Careful,” my dad said, “you should never let the flag touch the ground.”  

“Why?” I asked. 

“Because it’s the symbol of our country; and it’s disrespectful.” 

“But will happen it if touches the ground?” 

I’m sure by this time my dad was wondering where he’d gotten this little inquisitor. 

“Bad things. Just don’t let it touch the ground.” 

“What bad things?”  

“I don’t know. Just bad things.” 

I was still at that age where magical thinking colors your world. I did believe that my clapping real hard saved Tinkerbell’s life. I did believe that Miss Sally on Romper Room could see me through her magic mirror. I did believe that my tongue would turn black if I told a lie. Therefore, I never, ever let the flag touch the ground.  

But as I grew older and the magic faded. I learned that fairies weren’t real, that Miss Sally’s mirror was only a piece of glass, and when I told a fib, that my tongue didn’t turn black. 

I never tested disrespecting the flag to see if bad things happened. I didn’t have to. I spent my childhood in the 1960s and my teen years in the 1970s, and people only a few years older than me put the flag to the test. They burned flags in Central Park, on college campuses, outside political conventions and wiped their feet on it. From those acts of desecration, I learned that the flag had no power, that it was only a cloth, that nothing bad would happen if you abused it.  

At least I thought so back then. 

During the 39 years since I was a teen, I’ve seen a lot of a lot of “thou shall nots” fall, things you wouldn’t dream of doing only a few years ago become the norm, and I’m don’t think we are the better for it.  

The website ushistory.org keeps a list of legal cases involving flag abuses. And from 1943 to 1968, there were no federal cases involving flag desecration. But from 1968 until the present there has been an explosion of legal cases regarding desecration.  

Like a slow-growing cancer, I think our disregard for everything that is sacred is finally catching up with us. Did disrespecting the flag cause bad things to happen? No, it is just another symptom of a deadlier disease, the result of tossing out everything held dear. What we are witnessing with the NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem is the trickle-down disintegration of civil society. Every institution in our nation is under attack and being disassembled. Our country is fraying because the cords that once bound us are snapping one-by-one. Let’s hope we find a way to knit this country back together before something truly bad and irreversible happens. 

October 2017

Where Was I . . . 

As my husband, one of our traveling companions, Maureen from Milwaukee, and I stood before the painting in Ireland’s National Gallery of Art in Dublin last month, a thin, balding, elderly Irishman charged with guarding the paintings in the gallery, sidled over to us and said softly in his charming brogue, “It didn’t happen that way, you know. They’re trying to put a good face on it.” 

We’d just spent a week touring the Irish countryside with 36 other Americans getting a crash course in Irish cuisine, culture and history. Mere hours before, our tour director, Dennis, had told us that if you polled the Irish people today as to whom is the most hated man ever in Ireland, the choice, even more than three centuries later, would be Oliver Cromwell. 

As we stared at the painting called An Interview Between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell by Daniel Maclise, we assured the Irishman, that we knew all about the two men in the painting, that Cromwell, an Englishman, had imposed the Penal Laws on the Irish Catholics. The laws among other things prevented Catholics from practicing their religion, buying land, owning valuable property, running for office, receiving an education. The intent of the laws was to crush the Irish. While Cromwell was no friend of the Irish, he was ultimately no friend to the king as well. After doing the crown’s bidding, Cromwell would also go onto sign the death warrant for the man sitting opposite him in the painting, his King, Charles I, who would be beheaded after the English Civil War. 

In the painting, Cromwell looks handsome and heroic, while King Charles is portrayed as calm and pious. He is surrounded by two little girls as they read to him from the Book of Common Prayer. Even the dog looks placid as he rests his head on Charles’s leg. Cromwell and Charles appear quite comfortable together. Who knew this was a painting of an embattled king and a dictator who would usurp his monarch’s power and send him to his death?  

We did. Because the Irish told us their history. 

The next day, we returned home to Pittsburgh to discover that there is a debate raging over the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland because it has a black man seated near Foster’s feet. Some regard this statue as racist and want it removed. While I can understand that, I think it is a mistake to remove every offensive statue, picture or monument. Because to do so erases history. It makes it seem like it never even happened.  And if it never happened, no one can ever know how evil was defeated, how indomitable the human spirit is, how far a people have risen above their oppressors. It’s easy to remove monuments, but it takes effort to pass on your history. But easy isn’t always the best way.  

I like the Irish approach. Vikings, Normans and the English had all to come Ireland over the millennia. Some came to conquer the Irish, some came and assimilated with the Irish and some were defeated by the Irish. Some came and experience a little of each. Artifacts from all those times remain. There are Viking long boats in the museums and churches that they founded in Dublin. The ruins of Norman castles dot the landscape, and famine cottages, from when the Irish were nearly starved out of existence under English rule remain in the countryside.  They do no provoke offense but pride for the Irish that they have endured so much. So, keep the paintings, the statues, the monuments, but most importantly, keep the truth, keep the history. Take pride in what you’ve overcome. Every relic of oppression is a chance to tell your story. It’s worth the effort.  Don’t erase, educate. 

October 2017 issue

No privacy. Chips! 

Back in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live featured a recurring skit called the “Olympia Café” that starred the late John Belushi as Pete Dionasopoulos, the owner of the Greek cafe. What made the skit such a hit was that no matter if a customer ordered fries, Pete always shouted, “No fries. Chips!” Everyone got chips. There was no choice. 

I’m afraid that we may be approaching a day when “chips” are no longer funny. 

On August 1, Three Square Market, a technology company in River Falls, Wisconsin, gave their employees the choice of having a microchip inserted into their flesh between their thumbs and index fingers or not. More than half of the company’s 80 employees opted to have the microchip, which is the size of a grain of rice, embedded. The company makes cafeteria kiosks that it hopes will replace vending machines and says the chips will eliminate the need for employees to swipe to get into a building or pay for food in their cafeteria. All that will be accomplished by a wave of the “chipped” hand. 

I can understand the employees agreeing to this as an example of “practicing what you preach,” but I wouldn’t be so keen on this. The company says it has no GPS capabilities imbedded in the chip so it cannot track employees, but this could be just the first step to the greatest loss of privacy and independence ever known to humankind.  

As with most innovations, there comes the duality of advancement and abuse. The invention of cars gave us greater mobility and convenience while at the same time creating pollution, noise and traffic. Television opened the world to us, but also has seduced us into spending countless hours watching mindless shows. Cell phones allowed us to remain in touch wherever we go, yet when we are face-to-face with an individual, many of us still stare at our screens. 

I can see how “chipping” someone would have benefits. But I can see many more problems. What if it becomes “beneficial” to chip you with your medical information? What if it becomes “beneficial” to chip you with your passport information? 

I’m not just wary of governmental abuse, tracking citizens whereabouts and what they are doing. What about employer abuse? Could they track how many bathroom breaks you take? How long you spend on the phone or sending emails? What if Joe can sell as many products as Jane but he does it with less minutes spent on the phone or with fewer emails? Can Jane be let go for that? 

With the government playing an even bigger role in health care, I’ve felt the nudge by my insurance carrier to be more accountable to them. This year they’ve introduced “wellness activities” that persuade subscribers to do certain things to receive a discount on monthly premiums. This month I’ve been tracking the fruits and vegetables I eat. But what if they insist on having their customers chipped as a condition of being insured? The possibilities for abuse are endless. 

While there may be good reasons to embrace this technology, I can think of many more bad ones. So for now I will have to say: No chips! 

What are your thoughts about being microchipped?