Thinking Out Loud

Stuff and fluff

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

It happens to me all too often, and even my daily dose of fish oil doesn’t seem to help.

A fragment of inspiration flits into my brain, and I don’t do the smart thing and write it down. Ten or eleven hours later, when I finally find a room quiet enough to share with my laptop, my thoughts, and my chronic tinnitus, I couldn’t tell you what the marvelous moment was. Poof! It’s vanished the way of so many earth-moving concepts that tickle the imagination for a fleeting instant and then move on. Why and how does this happen?

Brain function is a vast and vital area of study. Hardly a week goes by without an online article catching my eye about the latest findings collected by some brilliant research team somewhere — usually in Scandinavia — that reveal why we do what we do or don’t do. But I have my own hypothesis about how the human brain works.

It’s like a giant pillow.

Think about it. Because they’re so small and pliable, you can keep cramming feathers and down into a tightly woven fabric shell. The diminutive quills may prick you a bit, yet when mixed with a hardy supply of cloud soft down, you can get an enormous amount of the little buggers in a hollow cotton rectangle before they start to stick out and the seams begin to strain.

In my analogy, each feather and puff of down represents a morsel of information requiring storage. Faces and the names that go with them; an ever growing collection of phone numbers (we all have several, it seems); who played Tessio in The Godfather; ? is 3.14 when rounded; properly cooked chicken registers 160°F. The list goes on and on.

We accumulate thousands, maybe millions of these minute pieces of wadding over a lifetime. Sometimes, under extreme pressure, the case begins to bulge, the zipper jams, the seam gives way, and suddenly there’s an explosion of feathers that float away on the gentlest breeze, forever lost and wandering.

Fortunately, such cataclysms are fairly rare — regardless of how we may feel Monday mornings. No, what most of us regularly experience is stuffing shrinkage of a much less dramatic nature. The result of the ordinary wear and tear of daily life, this more mundane decline of volume is similar to what happens when you remove an outer pillowcase. There, on the inner sheath you find a dozen or so waifs have worked their way out, and before you can halt their feathery descent, they somehow wedge themselves deep in the pile of the bedroom carpet, mysteriously resistant to the reach of the mightiest vacuum. They’re still around, just not much use anymore. Try as you will, and try as you might to shove the runaways back into their proper place, they stubbornly refuse to cooperate.

Even when you are able to coax them inside the pillow again, it’s an imperfect repair at best. Like the snippets of our great unpreserved inspirations and those nagging incomplete thoughts, these resentful returnees invariably arrange themselves in such a way as to poke and annoy you all night long, as disruptive to proper rest as a forgotten line from a favorite song that haunts you throughout your waking hours.

Although my modest theory makes perfect sense to me, it isn’t terribly scientific or entirely original. Its truest and perhaps only proof, like its inspiration, lies in the claims of everyone who ever called me “feather brained.” It seems my own philosophy proves them right.

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Susan Writer pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Breakfast of champions

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Being a morning person isn’t something I am on purpose. I can’t help it. Like my parents before me, I’ve long known the secret of getting a jump on the day; of savoring that slice of “me” pie before sharing the daily banquet with everyone else. It’s kind of nice starting with a smackeral of dessert before the main course is served; a reality more precious than depicted in coffee commercials. Besides, those of us born with the wake-with-the-light gene don’t especially need caffeine to get going. It just happens.

My favorite teacher in high school, the bubbly Sr. Judith, would understand. I recall one of her sister Sisters rolling her eyes with unconcealed chagrin when one of my classmates asked if Sr. Judith was always “like that.” “Even in the mornings,” was the immediate response. I feigned mild disgust, anxious to fit in with my fellow teens, but in fact, saw nothing particularly wrong with a touch of ante meridiem chirpiness.

While country living was made for people like me, we worshipers of the dawn find ourselves in a very interesting predicament in more cosmopolitan settings. When they say “New York’s the City That Never Sleeps,” don’t believe it for a New York Minute. If you happen to hit the sidewalk at about 7 a.m. on a Sunday, the town is yours. You can bask in your own “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” moment pretty much anywhere in the five boroughs — but good luck getting much legitimate business done before 10 or 11. But that’s ok. My time in the Big Apple added to the many lessons in self-sufficiency I’ve picked up while the rest of the world slumbers on.

There are, of course, downsides to being an early riser.

I married a New Yorker, a night owl by both nature and nurture. In our newlywed days most Saturdays I’d be up, showered, dressed, finished my weekly phone conversation with my mother, and cleaned our entire one bedroom apartment long before my husband even considered stirring. Come midnight, he’d just be hitting his stride and the only thing I’d want to hit was the hay.

Then there are the times in our lives where necessity trumps inclination. For 10 years I did most of my “day job” at night. At 9:30 or 10 p.m. with the kids tucked into bed, I’d allow myself a quick power nap before beginning the bulk of my work. The schedule afforded me more daytime Mommy availability, but that flexibility didn’t come free. No matter how late I may have been working, once the sun was up, so was I. Living on a steady diet of four or five hours of sleep Mondays through Thursdays extracted a toll I’m still paying a decade after returning to mostly normal business hours. Traces of burning the candle at both ends burn-out persist and have become a permanent part of me.

Throughout my life, I’ve bumped into other morning folk. We tell many of the same stories — hardly ever needing an alarm clock; getting our best work done before lunch; a high level of alertness while all around us are fumbling for consciousness; how much we annoy still sleepy family and friends with our ability to talk cogently — often cheerfully — even after a late night. Our natural propensity sets us apart from many of our fellow humans and leaves us open to the interesting quandary: If the early bird gets the worm, is that really the most appealing way to start the day?

My answer: Works for me. I understand the little wigglers are full of protein.

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Susan Writer enjoys sunrises from her Woodsboro home, pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Updating me

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Over the years my home-based business has enjoyed a fairly even ebb and flow, growing some years, shrinking others. Recently the tight economy has caused some of my clients to rein in expenses, and with one kid in college and another a second semester junior in high school, now isn’t the perfect time to see our family’s income drop.

Being a notorious Nervous Nelly, with an obsessive urge to bash head-on into what life throws my way — or, according to my husband, panic — I’ve begun seriously churning around options for making an honest buck to supplement my slumping bottom line. One measure I’ve already taken is to do some marketing, which I fortunately haven’t had to do for a very long time. Word of mouth and faithful clients have previously kept things humming along at a comfortable level.

In case this new effort doesn’t pan out and things go in a different direction, I figure I should have something tangible to demonstrate I really do posses marketable skills and experience. Being self-employed all these years I haven’t had to maintain a resume; work samples, yes, but not a resume.

To that end I began poking around and finally found an electronically-stored, 22-year-old record of me that while obviously needing revising, saved me from having to recreate an employment history dating back to 1981.

It was fun rediscovering what I was up to at various stages of my checkered career. I’ve done some interesting things. Well, at least they read like they might have been interesting, and isn’t that largely the art of resume writing? On paper, I don’t look half bad. I might even hire me.

Still, I can’t help wondering how I stack up against my peers who continued to don their black pumps and smart suits long after my feet widened and my wardrobe became increasingly comfortable.

I also find it curious, or perhaps ironic, that the two shortest job descriptions of the more than half a dozen are my first straight out of college — glorified receptionist — and the one I’ve been doing most of my adult life — maintaining a small business I built from the ground up.

Does this most recent entry do me justice? Running my own cottage industry means it’s all on me. I’m CEO, CFO, most of the Indians, all the Chiefs, and the person who has to remember to switch the heat on and off weekdays, countless Saturdays, and most minor holidays. It’s been a huge part of who I am for a very long time, yet there it lies, 18 words out of the roughly 500 that summarize who I’ve been for the past 32 years. Have I said enough without saying too much? I don’t want to exaggerate or apologize. All my working life I’ve done what’s had to be done, and that’s something, isn’t it?

Throughout the past three decades, and particularly of late, I’ve often thought back on a woman I heard being screened in an employment agency, where I too was a client. She’d run her own business for 20 years, and I thought even then how hard it must have been for her to step outside all she knew, leave behind much of what she’d accomplished, and begin again. She clearly was in the process of reinventing and redefining herself.

It happens, you know. Seems we can all expect to require a little updating every now and then.

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Susan Writer pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Waste not

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving launches several weeks of nearly universal comestibles-centric living. In our house, the Christmas ham is nearly a memory (a few now frozen slabs will be featured in my next batch of pea soup), and many of the season’s bounteous gastronomic gifts have been joyfully devoured. Still various tempting, tasty treats linger — to my combined delight and chagrin.

Come early January, I’m ready to resume my normal diet, but what to do with the leftovers and currently unopened tins of cookies and boxes of chocolate? Unlike the more perishable cheeses and sausages that are shared with guests and served as part of quick in-between Christmas and New Year’s snacks, the items with longer shelf lives present a greater challenge — and danger — especially to folks like me who hate to see any victuals go bad.

This is no doubt at least partly the result of being raised by children of The Great Depression, who devoutly believed wasting food is sinful. Someone, even if it was one of the dogs, polished off the remains of every meal. I can’t remember much that was edible being thrown away. Not that we ate anything moldy or spoiled. We just ate all that was fit to eat, as long as it was fit to eat.

I have a real problem disposing of perfectly good grub. Deep-seated guilt drives me to digest more than I sometimes care to, or that’s particularly good for me. There are often occasions when I drain the dregs, so to speak, of items I actually don’t like.

For instance, rarely does my family leave a restaurant without doggie bags, the diverse contents of which will generally provide me with eclectic lunches over the following couple of days. While doing dishes I become a human garbage disposal and scarf down the last two tablespoons of side dishes left in the serving bowl or pot.

When the need arises, as it did just the other day, I will personally dispatch the last quarter of the last doughnut in the box. In this case I was left little choice. Growing crusty two days after all its brothers and sisters had been gobbled up, that lonely, red velvet remnant sadly peeked at me through the little cellophane window each time I passed by. Prior to its final passage, the mouth-size morsel had lain next to those unconsumed, least popular cookie bits that will continue to sit in the Rubbermaid container on the kitchen island for weeks to come until I finally, reluctantly, admit defeat and accept that no one, not even me, is going to put them out of my misery as I sadly dump them in the trash.

This holiday season may be heading into memory, but it’s not quite done with me yet, for I find I’m still faced with the delectable dilemma of waste not, want not versus waist more, want less.

Best wishes to all for a Healthy, Happy, and Prosperous New Year!

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Susan Writer pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

‘Tis the season

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to dread the holidays.

All the expense, cleaning, decorating, and schedule breaking; baskets of extra laundry and jacked-up fuel bills. Stores decorated way too early and incessant commercials reminding us it’s later than we think. The snarled traffic, neglected work, crowded malls, and constant nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something or someone.

When the actual days arrive there’s a guarantee of failed expectations; the panicked melancholy of another year passed; a dictum of disappointment in what was not done or not done right. Empty chairs around the dining room table, which were filled just last year, haunt heavy hearts yearning to grieve, while besieged with urgent messages of how jolly they’re supposed to be.

With so much stress and strain, it’s easy to see why many hate the season.

Of course, there are a few good things too. Like a glistening home, made festive with red and green, with snow globes, and elementary school Santa Shop bric-a-brac; a living room temporarily dominated by a tree crowded with ornaments collected over a lifetime, each one a precious memory. A kitchen filled with the warm odors of once-a-year treats; the bad for you, but oh, so delicious goodies clustered on glass platters etched with idealized versions of Christmas Past. Cookies and milk for the Big Guy and carrots for his reindeer ¬— even though there’s no longer anyone little enough to count the leftovers in the morning. Garland, greeting cards, peppermint bark; jangling doorbells, glad jingle bells, and carols on the radio. Candlelit renditions of Silent Night at midnight church services, and everywhere the soft glow of tiny, bright bulbs that may be lucky enough to glint off a perfectly timed blanket of new fallen snow. Old smudged stockings hung by the chimney with care, and It’s a Wonderful Life ¬¬¬— yet again.

It’s hard to deny the charm of eggnog topped with nutmeg, visits with friends, and happy homecomings. Without the holidays I’d miss the breathless excitement at the crack of a sleepless dawn; the donations to strangers and gifts to loved ones that, while perhaps not much in and of themselves, explode with the joy of giving.

And then there’s the big, often noisy finish, propelling us toward the infinite possibilities of a New Year.

The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to welcome the holidays.

From our home to yours ¬— may you find peace, joy, love, and health during this holiday season and throughout 2013.

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Susan Writer pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Eating smart

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

My mother often said, “Fish is brain food.” I assumed that statement was just an excuse for stinking up the house with pickled herring, like my mother-in-law still does when, in the name of guaranteeing good luck, she graces the New Year’s Eve table with smelly, slimy white filets.

It turns out the magic of fish is one old wives’ tale that might just float, having found considerable backing by countless learned studies. Those fabulous omega-3 fatty acids found in particularly high concentrations in the oiliest fish — like herring — have been linked with working such wonders as reversing the effects of traumatic brain injury, helping hyperactive kids and adults stay more focused, and even promoting better heart health.

Now, while a well prepared piece of salmon and a tuna sandwich constitute tasty treats and might be as good for your heart as they are for your head, I have a far more delicious secret weapon in the old preferred gray matter diet. And it may also prove a deliciously clever one.

A recent article on medscape.com discusses work being done by a New York physician and researcher. Dr. Franz Messerli was curious to see if there was a direct correlation between genuine smarts and the amount of chocolate eaten by a nation’s population on average. His investigations led him to conclude the countries with the largest per capita rates of chocolate consumption also produce the greatest number of Nobel Laureates. Powered by flavanols, a chemical found in the cocoa bean, an intrinsic ingredient in any true chocolate, this treat from pre-Columbian gods and kings is not only believed to sharpen your mental abilities, but also shows promise, according to Wikipedia, “to keep arteries flexible, increase small vessel circulation, reduce blood pressure, and protect against sunburn.” There’s even the suggestion of certain antioxidant properties.

By Dr. Messerli’s calculations, an annual intake of a modest four and a half pounds or so should do the trick. The caveat of boosting brain function with chocolate is, the more processed the final product, the lower the flavanol levels and the higher the sugar content are likely to be. The secret lies in what I already knew about my favorite food group. When it comes to cocoa-based treats — the darker, the bitterer, the better. This isn’t to say I’d turn my nose, and taste buds, up at a nice chunk of silky smooth milk chocolate. I figure all detrimental effects of the non-dark stuff can easily be offset. I’ll just have to eat more fish and drink more wine; and everyone knows how good an occasional glass of wine can be for you.

So by following the example of experts, I too can tailor findings of various studies to formulate a supposition that works for me. Just in time for the traditional season of gastronomic overindulgence, I can confidently claim that some of the best holiday “goodies” are, in fact, good for me.

Now, that’s food for thought.

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Woodsboro-based Susan Writer writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The FNP’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Techno bullied

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

I have a dumb cell phone. The device in itself isn’t stupid. It just isn’t smart enough to suit some folks’ tastes. It can make and receive calls and texts, and even take an occasional photo, which is about all I need. I don’t want to read a book or watch a movie on it. I don’t want to surf the Web, keep my calendar, find my way, or respond to e-mails through it. That it rings distinctively for each member of my family when they call from their equally limited mobile units is plenty clever enough for me.

While I’m fine with my “dinophone,” everyone else on our family plan is pressuring me to join the latest revolution and get “smart.” They’re all feeling the pinch of not receiving immediate notifications when classes are cancelled, or missing out on on-line dialogs people assume they’re part of since — well, doesn’t everyone have a smartphone?

Although I’ll drag my Luddite feet as long as I can, I know ultimately resistance is futile. The phone company will pretty much insist. While they play nice and pretend it’s ok for us not to have a data plan, they’re also taking increasing pains to limit our non-smartphone options.

I understand cell providers are in business to make money. I further recognize there’s certainly nothing new about the practice of techno bullying. I’m willing to bet it’s Thomas Edison’s greatest invention of all. Subtly, slowly, it usually starts and ends with whittling away on the patience of the people who pay the bills by steadfastly targeting the weakest, youngest links in the chain.

How many households were able to hold out against installing a telephone in their kitchen once the American Teen was invented? And which of us who didn’t have a color tv until the early 1970s can ever forget feeling slightly inferior and culturally deprived every time that dang peacock popped up in glorious half tones on an antiquated black and white set, rubbing it in that the following program was filmed in “RCA color?”

I’m pretty sure the day the color console came into our living room our parents were the same kind of larger-than-life heroes my husband and I were a few Christmases ago when the bow draped, 48 inch, flat screen magically appeared. Our children’s excited squeals undoubtedly echoed my father’s and his sister’s yelps of delight when their parents replaced the old buggy with a second-hand Model A Ford.

Wall phones to wireless. Typewriters to iPads. Books to e-readers. Letters to Tweets. There’s no end to the perpetual merry-go-round of progress, revolving at exponentially escalating and dizzying speeds — and often costs.

It’s exhausting keeping up with what a lot of people try to convince me I simply can’t live without. I no sooner get used to one way of doing things than another “better” and invariably a more expensive mode comes along, and this old dog has yet more new tricks to learn.

In the end, after fighting the good fight I’ll surrender. Battered, bruised, and bullied, I’ll curse my weakness and yet another frustrating learning curve as I take one more small step further into the 21st Century — ready, willing, able — or not.

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Woodsboro-based Susan Writer writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The FNP’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Cents sense

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

My son and I were reviewing the SAT vocabulary list he'd brought home to study. Right in the middle we hit the word "miser."

"Do you know what that means?" I asked. Without missing a beat -- or a chance to be a typically snide teen -- he turned to me and said, "Yeah, you."

Now, I thought that was rather harsh.

Clearly the boy's too young to appreciate the rewards of economizing; the thrill of the hunt for good deals; the lure of maximizing savings; the delight of rebates; the certain knowledge the emergency $20 bill tucked in the bottom of your bag will remain safe and unbroken yet another day, thanks to the buy-one-get-one-free iced tea offer rescued from the recycling bin earlier that very morning.

My need to be "careful" with money runs deep. I learned a lot about stretching a dollar from my mother, a woman who successfully managed a household of up to seven people, and a continuously evolving array of pets, on a cop's and a crossing guard's salaries.

In addition to those early lessons in economy, I have a painfully practical nature and enjoy a good challenge. I simply don't get the point of paying more for things than I have to, or laying out money just because I can.

For instance -- I've been known, much to my kids' chagrin, to go out of my way to use as many McDonald's mailer coupons as possible in one visit. After a quick, often heated consultation on how best to combine offers so everyone gets what they want, coupons and cash are divvied up and we each take our place in line. Like a big-game hunter who's just bagged a lion, a tiger and a bear, I smugly savor my trophy frappe for just a dollar -- the spoils of a carefully coordinated campaign.

Finally, there's the undeniable fact that I am a woman, and how many of the gentle sex can resist a bargain? What female is immune to the adrenaline rush of standing in line at 12:53 a.m. on an Early Bird Spectacular Saturday, heart pounding in her ears as she watches the three shoppers in front of her reap the benefits of those precious discounts she may lose forever if she doesn't get checked out before the registers automatically stop making their special deductions at 1 p.m. on the dot? Phew! I have personally known the agony of defeat as markdowns vanish mid-ring-up.

Am I wrong in my quest to save money and live within a budget when and however I can? Does that make me a cheapskate, a skinflint, a miser? I prefer to think of myself as a woman of purpose, principle and discipline as I proudly thrust my tight fist into the air and invite all my thrifty fellow "frugals" to do the same as we band together not to just pinch pennies, but squeeze the living daylights out of the little buggers!

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Susan Writer writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post's board of contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

The Venus to Mars local

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

I grew up believing I understood at least a few things about guys.

An only sister sandwiched between two brothers, I was equally adept at bullying my younger brother into playing house as I was hitting home runs in our three-way backyard baseball games. My father sometimes worried I’d turn out to be a tomboy. I loved tagging along when he did odd jobs around the house, and showed real promise handling a .22 rifle on the practice range.

My successful co-existence in a largely male world continued throughout college. With a better than four-to-one male-to-female ratio, I was an instant minority in my major; and although romance bloomed here and there, it was much more like a big extended family. In the days of still refining Women’s Lib, I was generally treated like one of the boys.

As a young married, I reveled in the partnership of equals into which I’d entered. Sharing views on just about every topic, I discovered to my delight, on most points we were in sync. I vividly recall my mid-twenty-something self listening with quiet disapproval to a group of middle-aged women at a friend’s bridal shower garrulously griping about their husbands. These last generation women of limited enlightenment were determined to perpetuate all the evil and inaccurate myths about the differences between the men and women. Didn’t they know we were living in a New Age of equality and mutual understanding? I would never complain about the men in my life the way these old wives did.

Just shy of my 30th birthday, the babies started coming; first two daughters, then a son. Bit by bit my view of the sexes began to change. In the time it takes a little boy to become a bigger boy, I went from judging a parent harshly because her “brutish” kid smashed his sisters’ dollhouse to pieces to quickly improvising a “wreck station” for a three year old, who seethed into my home office one sunny afternoon and said, his baby teeth gnashing, “I want to break something.”

Now that we have a teenage boy and a steady flow of college guy stories from his older sister and other sources, I’ve lost any illusion of innate comprehension. As a matter of fact, I frequently want to ask the so called “stronger” sex, “What are you thinking?”

Last spring friends of ours shared an interesting tale told them by their then freshman daughter. One fine day she and her roommates discovered water seeping through their ceiling. The cause: an ice-maker the guys in the apartment above hadn’t bothered to disconnect before dragging the fridge out of the kitchen and into the living room. They wanted to shorten the distance they’d have to go to satisfy all their cold food and beverage needs when hanging out watching TV and gaming.

Our own daughter — through her totally unbiased female perspective — related how the only sounds issuing from the boys in the dorm room across the hall were the 24/7 grunts of effort and shouts of frustration or triumph inspired by their video game consoles. Surrounded by fine, young, unattached coeds, these modern man cave marvels preferred the safety of their violent fantasy worlds to actual contact with living, breathing girls.

Here at home, our 15-year-old son constantly baffles me as he alternates, usually with whiplash speed, between sweet consideration and explosive anger. And they talk about female hormones!

It’s been a long, slow, stop and go journey through my personal solar system between Venus and Mars. While I’m certainly grateful for many of the more obvious differences between the sexes, I’ve concluded men and women truly do come from different planets. Most times I think this is a good thing. But at others . . . let’s just say the next sound you may hear is me scratching my head in an effort to massage my mystified mind as I witness yet another stunning manifestation of how the other half thinks.

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Susan Writer writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.