Tuesday, August 17, 2004

You can never go back again (you’ll get tetanus.)

Our annual beach trip has come and gone in a freakish accelerated time warp. One minute we were frantically packing, the next minute we were back at work. Ten days vanished into thin air, though I can only recall sitting on the beach once or twice. What the heck happened?

At least we made history this year; one ill-fated event will stand out in our minds for years to come. This was the year we returned to the O. Resort, where my family vacationed when I was a child. I wanted to show my husband and children the place where I had frolicked on the playground, eaten free outdoor breakfasts, and splashed in the wonderful pool and ocean. The resort even had a fishing pier with a game room and grill! We planned to spend a weekend at Mommy’s old stomping grounds before checking in at Grandma and Grandpa’s beach condo on Sunday evening.

At least I had the presence of mind to warn my husband about the potential squalor of the rooms.

You have to realize that this motel was built in the fifties, so the rooms are cinderblock and industrial carpet. I assume they’ve gotten mildewed through the years, but we won’t be spending much time in the room anyway.”

I couldn’t have possibly envisioned that our room would be a safe haven amongst the barrage of peeling paint, rotting wood and jagged sharp edges.

We glimpsed our first view of the place Friday evening, as the car crested the island bridge. The motel’s pale green towers still bore the resort name on top, spelled out in huge orange letters. As a kid, those orange letters had spelled out a Hollywood-like greeting to the North Carolina coast. As an adult, I was incredulous that the structure was the same “sea foam” green, and that the resort name was still aloft in its orange grandeur. “There it is, guys, there’s the motel I stayed at as a little girl!” I chirped. My husband whispered under his breath, “A Mo-tel. Yep, it’s definitely not a Hotel...” I cuffed him on the arm and began answering my daughter’s flow of questions regarding the number of pools at the motel, the size of the playground, and who would sleep in which beds.

Here’s the synopsis I gave of my beach experience at the O. Resort:
-I began staying at the resort with my mother, brother, aunt and cousin in 1968, when I was three. (Our extended families had shared a nearby cottage in the years before.)

-While the kitsch motel was not a “resort” in the traditional sense, it provided a number of resort amenities. There were “watermelon parties” every Saturday, where supercold slices were doled out beachside for a messy yet refreshing treat. White uniformed cabana boys clamored to serve you a free poolside breakfast. They’d also set up free beach chairs and umbrellas, or monitor playground activity. (The family lore relates how “Jesse,” who must have been fifty or sixty, would take my hand and help me find my motel room when I’d get lost.)

-The beachside playground was akin to Disneyland, as far as we kids were concerned. There was a paved bicycle course and plenty of tricycles, Bigwheels and bicycles to ride. All play structures were painted a jaunty blue, red and yellow. There was a cinderblock playhouse called the “Sand Castle” that beckoned for you to come inside and do puzzles, or read books. Oceanfront, long chained swings with red wooden seats swayed lazily. A tall wooden fortress equipped with metal “spyglasses” served as a lookout for pirate invaders by sea. The playground was flanked by a kidney-shaped pool that included a walled off area for babies. (The pool even had a slide, oh my gosh, no other pool I’d been to had a slide!) The de rigueur shuffleboard was next to the pool for moms and dads, though mischievous lads might joust or fence with the aluminum cues. Various kiddie toys dotted the lawn to fill out the feast of youthful playtime.

-Moms and Dads could rest easy, despite the young'uns dashing to and fro. Surveillance cameras located throughout the resort beamed video of children at play to parents resting in their hotel rooms. You tuned your TV to a certain channel, and ‘Voila’--you could make sure Billy and Cindy were playing nicely with each other on the playground.

My reminiscing wound to an end as we parked in front of our room. Clotheslines with rainbows of various swimsuits hung along the breezeways, as they had when I was small. And surprise! The room was clean (and clean smelling), though the artwork on the walls had obviously been there since 1959. We quickly dumped the bags in the room and went to explore the grounds.

I was dumbfounded. No, make that flabbergasted. Many of the toys, rides, and play structures I remembered were still there. I don’t mean similar ones, I mean the same freakin’ ones. The “Sand Castle” playhouse was still there, yellow flags aflutter on the roof, and a plastic gray Bugs Bunny moldering on the outside wall. The other wall housed a mildewed Mickey Mouse knock-off that weirded me out as a child—it was even weirder thirty years later. The playhouse had a broken puzzle and few scattered books, and the kids found it interesting for half a second or so. We moved on towards the bicycle path.

Or should I say, paved pothole path. Rusted trikes, some with seats, some without, lay strewn about for orphans to risk life and limb on. (I hope no parent would have let their kids ride on those deathtraps.) We moved towards the brightly painted playground with fear and trepidation. My daughter could not bear to leave the multicolored structures untouched, so we would run a few steps ahead of her, looking for rusted metal or splintered wood. The playground seemed to be in surprisingly good shape, so we relaxed our guard a little and let the tykes scramble and cavort.

All seemed well until my daughter climbed to the top of a spiral slide that appeared to be homemade. You heard me—a wooden, spiraling slide thirteen feet tall, with sections that didn’t join together evenly. A drunken eighth-grade shop class drop-out had gotten the contract, apparently. My daughter whooshed down the monstrosity before we could warn her to stop. She caught air on the first turn, threatening to fly off the contraption entirely, then rolled like a pillbug down the spiraling disjointed planks. She plopped in the sand with wails and tears, so we headed towards the beach to escape and soothe.

Our perspectives brightened a bit after that, and the evening continued with moderate success. We strolled on the pier after dinner, with the warm breezes lulling the little guy to sleep in no time. We headed back to the room to put him down for the night, and were greeted by the sunburned family lounging next door. Their twanging chatter outside our room precluded the baby’s sleep, so we headed back to the pier for some more salt air opium. By eleven p.m. the yokels and our children were asleep, so we breathed a raggedy sigh of relief and quaffed beers outside our room in tense silence.

Day Two confirmed my worst fear: we were in hell. Let me rephrase that; this “resort” had gone to hell, and probably was going to take us with it. The fun began with the “free breakfast” served poolside. (I had fond childhood memories of getting up early and going to the outdoor buffet to gather a plate of gooey cinnamon rolls.) Alas, the free breakfast had been reduced to kiddie cereal and rancid yogurt. Oh and by the way, don’t you DARE take a foil topped cup of orange juice back to your room, or try to make off with one of the cracked, putrid green trays—there were two signs declaring the punishment for such infractions:

Sign #1:
Guests seen taking extra orange juice or milk to their rooms will be asked to check out immediately.”

Sign #2:
The breakfast trays are inventoried each morning. Trays are to be promptly returned to the breakfast area.”

The sign-happy rulemakers missed one important detail; how about a sign that reads, “Parents, rest assured; our high chairs are inspected at least once a decade!” (Maybe that sign fell down?) ...My son immediately let out a wail upon being inserted into his faded plastic high chair. Apparently, his hand grazed a gaping, jagged-edged hole in the chair armrest.

The dive bombing of yellowjackets ensued shortly thereafter. Though I caught the most threatening wasp midair with a napkin and squished him, my husband gave me a rolling-eyed look that said he’d had enough. His gaze remain glazed over the rest of the day—as we wallowed miserably in the smelly pool edged in mildew, as we numbly chased our sleep deprived toddler wailing miserably across the beach. By dinnertime, two anaconda-mad children were spitting and hissing at a war torn Daddy, who was valiantly trying to cook hamburgers in the fire-ant infested grilling area. Big kudos to Mommy for sharing this magical place with her family, eh?

The nightmare drew to a bleary end Sunday morning, after a second sleep-deprived night. Rain battered the motel when we awoke. By the time we had packed the car, the little ones had a big dose of cabin fever. No worries. Checkout completed our parole from this Bastille of insects and rotten wood, sweet freedom at last! Since children are blessed with evaporative memories at times of great stress, perhaps the kids weren’t overtly scarred from the experience...perhaps they saw the place through the optimism of a child’s eyes? (Perhaps the memories will surface in adulthood therapy?) As for my husband and I, we certainly found a new appreciation for Grandma and Grandpa’s rented beach condo.

But have we really learned our lesson? Only time will tell, since Daddy has fond memories of a vacation spot called “White Lake.” His boyhood summers were spent swimming in the crystal clear waters, and toting shiny quarters to a waterside “pinball arcade”. We’ve talked about renting a cabin at the lake, so the children can experience the joys that Daddy experienced, way back when...

Who knows? We may have a ball! Or, we may need a family discount at the psychiatrist’s. I’m willing to take the chance, if only to get his mind off Mommy’s failed attempt to relive her childhood.




Nota Bene: In retrospect, we certainly could have demanded our money back the first night and spared ourselves the experience. Indeed, we endured way more than we should have, in the name of “family fun.” The only defense I can offer, is that I was in denial...

“That which does not kill us, only makes us stronger”, right? Which reminds me, I need to get our tetanus shots up to date before we visit White Lake. -vj

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling on the River

What can make a perfect day even more perfect? Just add water.

For starters, Fourth of July weekend was a flurry of happy activity, though it wasn’t overly patriotic, I’m embarrassed to say. I never found the time to unwrap my fading “Old Glory” from its tightly wound state on the front porch flagpole. I didn’t buy a cute banner to festoon my mailbox.

I bought matching Fourth of July outfits for the kids on sale last year, but could only find my daughter’s. (It turns out that the boy’s outfit was funkified in the back of the minivan. Apparently, he’d yakked on it the one time I let him wear it prior to the Fourth.) The Day of Independence went on nonetheless-- I sent the lad out into the world in his red, white and blue baseball pajamas. At least my disaster recovery skills are pretty sharp.

Thanks to our neighbors, we know the best fireworks-viewing spot in town. A number of savvy citizens tailgate in a business park near the State Fairgrounds. There’s plenty of parking lot space to set up your tables and camp chairs, and there’s a huge field for shooting off legal and illegal fireworks. The park is on a hill, so you have an elevated view of the Fairground fireworks display later in the evening. Best of all, you are avoiding the Fairground traffic. We had our exhausted bairns in bed before the Fairground suckers even got to the main roads. A festive Fourth was had by all.

Since the Fourth was on a Sunday this year, having Monday off was extra icing on the cake. The morning began with blissful sleep until 8:30a.m. (Sleeping until eight-thirty with kids is equivalent to lounging in bed until noon *without kids.) Little did we know that we’d spend more energy on our “recovery Monday” than we did the entire weekend.

We produced a hearty breakfast in record time; in less than an hour we cooked and consumed waffles, eggs and bacon. We were in the van and off to Fred’s house by 10:00a.m. (Fred is one of my ex-zookeeper buddies from the Primate Center.) We picked him up and drove to the Eno River, a beautiful glorified creek flanked by meandering forests with hiking trails. Turtles laze on mossy logs in this river, red-eye bass lurk in stony pools, and raccoons leave emptied freshwater clamshells as proof that the water is clean. The Eno gets wide enough and deep enough in areas to attract canoers, kayakers and swimmers.

We were headed to “Bobbit’s Hole” to show the kids the wonders of playing and swimming in chlorine-free water. “Isn’t it pretty far to the swimming hole?” queried my husband as we extricated the baby-carrier backpack and bottles of water from the minivan. “Nah, it’s about a twenty-minute hike,” I countered. Fred packed his signature bread baguette in a canvas tote bag for a snack, and we were off to the trailhead.

The first fifteen minutes were filled with wonder and discovery. We saw scads of sunning turtles, examined beaver-chewed stumps, and played with the tiny toads criss-crossing the forest trail. Fred cast a fishing lure into the murky depths now and then, but the river nymphs entangled his lines rather than giving up their fishy wards. The boy giggled as he bobbed up and down on Daddy’s back, while the girl held my hand tightly as we traversed rocky terrain and Eagle Scout engineered bridges. “Mommy, where are we going?” she asked as I helped her over a tangle of tree roots. “To a swimming hole,” I replied, explaining that we were going to a place where people had been swimming for generations. “Grandpa probably went swimming in a place like this when he was a little boy,” I added.

Well I want to go to the pool today,” she sniffed haughtily. I thought back to the advice I’d read in a book on family hiking and camping that recommends diversionary tactics when young’uns get bored on the trail. “Hey, look!” Daddy called just in time. “Here’s a big spider’s web!”

Ewww. I don’t like spiders!” came Nature Hater’s reply. “Mommy, why did Daddy show us a spider’s web?”

Because normal kids think they’re cool, I thought hotly to myself. Chapter something-or-other in my hiking book eventually came to mind; kids are not adults, so don’t expect them to act like adults on the trail. “Daddy just probably thought you’d be interested in the patterns in the spider’s web,” I offered. “I hate spider’s webs,” she whined. “Tell Daddy not to show me another one.” I sighed and racked my brain for ways to keep her occupied for the rest of the hike. Alas, it was too late; a rat-a-tat of kinder brain spew soon erupted: “It’s hot.” “I’m thirsty.” “I’m hungry.” “Can we stop?” The book had now become my survival guide, and it suggests frequent rest stops for children. So I opted to stop for fuel and water, hoping it would break the cycle of negative attitude. “See the fish down there?” I asked and pointed at a finned shadow hovering beneath the water’s surface. “I want to watch TV,” she pouted, as she munched on pretzels and sipped water.

Daddy and Fred somehow remained strategically out of sight during most of this duel. I was left to my own devices and my own exasperation. I had definitely over-estimated the length of the hike, and now I was paying for it.
[Editor's Note:
This set-up sounds waaaay too coincidental. Daddy, Fred, did you strand me with the whiny one to teach me a lesson about dragging kids on lengthy hikes? Burning bamboo spikes under the fingernails will soon divulge the truth…]

After the break, we continued down the trail in search of watery paradise. Soon the protests returned: “I hate this.”

We don’t use the word ‘hate’—that’s not nice.”

I *really don’t like this. I want to go to the pool, NOW!”

I screeched the procession to a halt. “We might go to the pool this evening, if you can behave. For now, we are going to the swimming hole. There’s even a beach with round river stones that you can play with.”

Thank goodness that comment bought me a little more time. Of course, I had to answer twenty questions about the rocks; what size were the rocks, what color were the rocks, and many more rock-y questions. It was worth it. Like the Fountain of Youth revealed for the first time to Ponce De Leon, we rounded the corner to a serene lagoon complete with miniature waterfall. We had finally reached Bobbit’s hole!

Fred and Daddy had appeared by now, and spirits lifted. Children’s laugher filled the air. “There’s kids here!” my young explorer exclaimed. “I want to play with them!” Hallelujah. We had survived the hike and lived to tell about it.

The next few hours were filled with a bliss I have not known since I was a kid on the James River in Richmond, Virginia. I drifted on my back and watched the birch leaves sway and twirl in the trees above. I savored the chilly cool of river water beneath, while the shimmering sun tried to bake me in vain. (Viva the miracle that is sunscreen!) We floated, we waded, we threw rocks and watched Fred fish.

Little brother Bo-Bo found fascination with paddling around in a life jacket. His legs splayed out behind him in imitation of the little trail frogs we'd seen earlier. He drank a few cups of river water, but no worries; the Eno is one well-loved and protected watershed.

Big sister flitted between the small pebbled beach and the river boulders along the falls. By the end of the adventure, she was confidently dog paddling in the shallows with her water wings. Fred finally caught a fish that made the trek seem wholly complete. Mission Accomplished. “I don’t waaaaant to go!” arose the mournful wail when I announced it was time to head for home. My citified daughter had become a certified river rat.

The hike back to the car seemed much shorter, somehow. Perhaps it was because both children were silent and dozing, toted along by loving Daddy and dear Fred. When we reached home, Daddy and little brother napped while big sister and I filled up her baby pool. We ended our perfect day lazing in the cool, clear water, looking up at the trees above with a new appreciation.


Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Pain and the Pursuit of Childhood.

Owww, dagnabbit, owww! I can’t believe I’ve done this.

I have a sports injury. A kickball injury, to be exact.

You can laugh and giggle all you want, it’s already been done. By my husband, of all people:

Heh; years from now, when you groan about the arthritic pain of your old kickball injury, folks will assume you did it when you were six or seven years old, not thirty-eight!” (Followed by a snort of laughter)

Very funny, laughing boy. I’ll remember this the next time you pull your groin playing “Ultimate Frisbee.”

Then again, I kindof deserve the jeers. Apparently, I’ve developed a habit of injuring myself in the pursuit of a second childhood.

Exhibit A.
I bought my first mountain bike at the age of twenty-three; thrilled that my zookeeper’s salary would allow me to purchase such a cool new toy.

I immediately took the bike to Duke University, where our Primate Center softball team had a game against Campus Security. (I played second base.) Rather than warming up with the team, I rode my new bike around to pre-flight my “Wheels of Thunder”...
-I popped a tiny wheelie over the edge of a sidewalk; Check.
-I maneuvered without falling over knobby tree roots; Check.
-I rode down the steps of Gilbert-Addams residence hall; Fail.

I never pulled it off. I perched at the top of a marble stairway, enthralled with the anticipation of extreme stair-riding. I rode the bike down two or three steps, and then felt it slide out from underneath me. In an effort to keep my skull from smacking on stone (no, didn’t have a helmet on,) I put my right foot down. I felt my ankle flip sickeningly over a step’s hard edge, then, POP. Groan. My ankle lay twisted underneath the bike and now I was immobile, in agony, on the residence hall steps. I had owned this new bike for less than thirty minutes.

Needless to say, I couldn’t walk, let alone play in that day’s softball game, so the team was mad at me. At work the next day, I was relegated to permanent dish-washer status. I got to sit on a stool in front of an industrial sink full of bleach water and wash animal food dishes and water bottles. Unfortunately, lemurs often consider their food dishes to be nifty toilets, so I spent my convalescence navigating poop nuggeted water and getting chapped hands.

Exhibit B.
established the sad fact that I was not destined for the X-games.

My husband and I purchased our first inline skates and decided to christen them in an empty parking lot. I rolled along confidently, proud to see that my childhood ice-skating lessons had paid off. My poor husband was bent at the waist, ankles at 45 degree angles, slowly and carefully making his way across the flatter parts of the pavement. “Watch this!” I shouted as I leaped in the air, landing on a brick paved sidewalk. That was the cool part. Then came the uncool part. The sidewalk was on a hill. I was on wheels, and had no clue how to put on the brakes.

I know how to stop in figure skates, for goodness sakes, you jab the jaggy front end of your blade into the ice and ‘Voila’, you stop. I now realized that this knowledge would not help me in any way, shape or form on inline skates. I found myself blazing down the hill, each brick thumping rhythmically under my wheels, with a set of concrete steps looming in front of me. I would soon plummet headfirst down the stairs, or slip the surly bonds of Earth entirely and swan-dive directly into the parking lot.

I opted to bail the sidewalk entirely, but I was going too fast to gently crumple to the ground. I used my new leaping skills to hop off the brick path of death, onto the paved patch of pain. Rather than landing on my two feet, my left ankle swept on its side, crumpling my body into an awkward splitz of tendons and ligaments. Ta-da! Massive ankle sprain Number Two. Different foot, but same dumb conclusion; I was an athletic wannabe with bloated ankles.

Prior to Exhibit C, I thought my days of athletic injury were over. I mellowed out, fattened up, and narrowed my sports interests to inline roller hockey. The league consisted of gentle Canadian hulks who were terrified of smooshing a five-foot woman, so I skated freely amongst them. (It helped that I wore enough padding to deter an attack dog...) I assumed my days of embarrassing sports injuries were over.

Exhibit C.
I thought it would be a hoot, joining the corporate kickball league. Just crown me the Queen of Poor Judgment.

I began my day with a cardiovascular workout; walking up a gazillion stairs to my fifth floor office. (Okay, so it’s only one hundred steps; that’s enough to make you suck wind.) I continued the trend throughout the day, spurning every opportunity to ride up or down the elevator. How fit I was going to be! The tops of my legs were a little tight and wobbly by the end of the workday, but I looked forward to a rousing game of kickball. I dressed and headed to the field.

Our kickball league is in its infancy. This first season was inspired by an “exhibition game” that proved to be wildly popular with the corporate recreation crowd. Just like the game you cherished (or dreaded) as a kid, the field consists of a home plate and three bases. Infielders and outfielders take positions mimicking softball or baseball, with a pitcher, catcher and so on. The big difference is in the ball that is used. Kickballs are inflated rubber balls that resound with a “boooiiiinnnngg” when you kick or punt them. They have to be red to be kosher. No self-respecting adult reliving their childhood would play with a kickball of any other color.

Game play mimics softball/baseball as well; the pitcher rolls the ball to the “batter,” who kicks the ball with all of his might and runs to first base. Here’s where the best part of kickball comes into play; you can throw the ball at the batter as he runs between the bases. If you hit him, he’s out! (No throwing at the head, of course.) Our adult version has two twists on the kid’s playground game; 1) we play with varying sized balls, and 2) base runners alter direction each inning. The game begins with a standard sized ball, but as innings progress the balls get larger. By the fourth inning, you are playing with a ball five times the size of your head. This wobbling blob is nearly unpitchable or kickable, resulting in an equal challenge for little women or big men. It’s also a challenge to run the bases in reverse order every other inning. Believe me, when you’ve been conditioned to run to first base all of your life, it’s nearly impossible to train your body to run directly to third base after kicking the ball. Base coaches add to the confusion trying to help; “Run to third base, which is really first base...Aww, you know what I mean!”

In the field, I found myself at third base. I surprised myself (and the team) by bobbling a fly ball and catching it before it hit the ground. I got someone out! Hurray! On my first “at bat” I kicked the skidding red ball and took off running. I heard the rubbery orb “boooiiinnng” and felt it mold around my back. I’d been hit on the way to first. I was out. My mood rekindled in the next inning when I tagged a runner out. (He was confused by the reversed base-running direction.) Before I knew it, it was time to kick one of the big balls, one of the mondo-balls. I stood behind the plate, gauged the timing of the huge blob barreling towards me, and planted my toe directly in its soft underbelly. WHOOM. I ran towards first base as the ball pulsated towards the short stop. Wonder of wonders, he missed it! I was safe on first base. But I was in serious pain. I felt like I had been riding a horse with razors on his saddle. The muscles running up and down the insides of my legs were knotted and screaming. What the heck? By the time I reached home, I was puffing in pain. At the house, I downed ibuprofen and sat in bed with a heating pad. I was embarrassed and humiliated. I was so out of shape that a simple game of kickball had rendered me helpless.

I stumbled to work on ibuprofen the next day after a restless, uncomfortable night. As I headed towards the stairs, my legs screamed “No! Take the elevator!” I obeyed, and hit inspiration as the doors opened on to the fifth floor. Had my stair stepping zeal the day before contributed to my downfall? Sure enough, a search of sports-injury web sites confirmed my suspicions;

“If you over-train your quads but ignore your adductors and hamstrings, quick starts and stops will overly tax unprepared muscles. ”

Ah hah! My stair marathon had stressed my quads (tops of my legs), which left my adductors (insides of my legs) vulnerable to stress during the quick starts and stops in kickball. Mystery solved! I was not a kickball wuss, I was a stair-climbing kickball wuss! One activity or the other at a time is fine, but the combination of the two is crippling for a couch potato.

I found minor gratification after limping towards the softball field that evening. (My softball team had a game, and I was going to do my darndest to play.) One of my teammates, who had also played kickball, moaned on the sidelines. “Ohhhhh, my leg...” She wailed. “Did your legs hurt after the kickball game?” I winced in sympathy and shared the wonders of my anatomical catastrophe. “At least you have an excuse,” she wailed. “I haven’t been climbing any stairs!”

Our sacrifices in the name of reclaimed childhood did not go unnoticed. The softball coach is considering renaming our team “The Limping Wounded” in honor of the ailing kickballers. At last, I’ve found kindred spirits. :)

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. II

I find my happy place.

So I found myself on a quest when I recently visited Minneapolis; I was determined to find “the place” that would make me fall in love with the city. (See “Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. I” to find out why I was so gosh-darned determined.)

My quest produced a brief glimmer of the sublime when I found a scenic spot on Lake Calhoun, but a cigarette-puffing intruder snuffed the purity of the moment. I resumed walking along the paved lake path, attempting to divine where to head next.

My eye caught a sea of white on the hill across the street, and I paused to scan a cemetery flowing down towards the lake. This was no ordinary cemetery with rows of boring granite squares; instead, towering statues of angels intermingled with varying heights of obelisks and monuments. I love old cemeteries; I examine the sculpture and typography of the tombstones, I read the personal sentiments engraved there, and I take note of the architecture of mausoleums. Thus I was torn. The cemetery had no obvious entrance on the riverside, so it was going to take some serious hoofing to find the gate. Should I leave the lake to explore the cemetery, or should I stay on the lake path and check out the beach and yacht house at the far end? Could I do both?

I waited for a break in the throngs of runner, bikers and rollerbladers and hopped across the fitness lanes towards the cemetery. I crossed the street and began the long climb up a sidewalked hill that crested in a quaint neighborhood with meticulously landscaped yards. The sidewalk ended at an intersection, to the right laid the entrance gates to the cemetery. “No cars beyond this point except for funeral processions,” one sign read. “Flowers in urns only,” another mandated. “No live plants on graves except between Memorial Day and June 4,” dictated the last. For cripes sake! Could I put live plants in the urns on Memorial Day? Could I put artificial plants on the graves before Memorial Day?

I forged past the gates and headed towards an unusual pink church/chapel with red terra cotta domes. Stone and bronze Celtic crosses adorned the structure on rooftop and wings. Was this a deranged attempt to unite Latin and Irish Catholics through architecture? The closer I got, the more intrigued I became. The elaborate front doors were locked, but a peek through their elongated windows revealed an arched, mosaic interior—curses! Was this fascinating structure only opened when the most venerated of the city kicked the bucket? As I stepped back to view the chapel as a whole, I noticed a brass plaque on the side steps. This magnificent building was on the National Register of Historic Places; “Lakewood Chapel” was constructed in 1910. Surfing the web later, I confirmed that I’d wandered upon a rare gem:
"The Lakewood Memorial Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the architectural focal point of the Cemetery. The building was designed by prominent Minneapolis architect Harry Wild Jones and was modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The Chapel interior was created by New York designer Charles Lamb and is the most perfect example of Byzantine mosaic art in the United States."

It turns out I could have gone inside, alas, if I’d gotten there before 3:30pm. At the time, all I knew was that my heart was warmed and my brain was inspired by a glimpse of this grand edifice. I’d found my happy place in Minnesota; my quest was fulfilled!

Greedy for more good vibes, I scanned the grounds to see what lay ahead. I was drawn across the chapel path to a courtyard of sorts, surrounded by a boxwood hedge. A closer inspection yielded brass plaques in the ground and on surrounding marble slabs. These were the cremated remains of married couples, apparently. Most markers indicated that the deceased duos were intact, though a few displayed birthdates of a loved one yet to pass. I wondered if they were looking forward to joining their partners in the courtyard of eternal marriage? Noting that the sun would set in an hour or so, I decided to move on.

I was smacked in the face by another breathtaking view when I exited the courtyard: a glass-faced mausoleum loomed out of a sunken basin in the grass. Within the sunken grotto, a reflecting pool magnified the building’s gray-white gleam. The visual was a stark contrast to the graceful curves and colors of the chapel on the hill above. As I walked aside the reflecting pool towards the mausoleum, footsteps echoed periodically behind me. Oh no, not again! Was my peaceful reflection time going to be invaded by another smoking yokel? A quick look over my shoulder revealed…nothing. Nobody. My mood promptly swung from “annoyed” to “creeped-out”. Common sense and denial quickly took the reins as I convinced myself that I’d heard the echo of my own footsteps.

As I continued towards the citadel-like building ahead, the huge stained glass windows reminded me of the Lutheran church I’d attended as a child. Abstract forms in pale color flowed up and down the glossy panes. Inside, ambient light illuminated crypts stacked from wall to wall. The facility looked modern and formal--admirable for its beauty, but void of the warmth inherent in the chapel. The creepy sensation flowed back like icy water as I turned towards the reflecting pool.

I realized I was alone in a cemetery, in a sunken area, out of view. The sun would be setting soon. Visions of “Night of the Living Dead” came to mind as I imagined black and white zombies stumbling down into this isolated basin. I hopped onto the pristine grass and quickly scrambled up the tree-lined slope next to the mausoleum. (I thoroughly expected the Landscaping Police of the Dead to tweet their whistles and yell, “No walking on the grass, Ma’m!”) I emerged from behind a holly tree and stepped onto the meandering paved path, strolling casually as if I’d been on it all along.

I was in the cemetery proper, at this point. Ancient trees formed a dense canopy over rolling hills of elaborate monuments. I went from plot to plot, admiring the artistry in the carvings and the humanity of the inscriptions. Mysterious Masonic symbols graced some monuments, while others brandished military emblems or icons. There were more obelisks than you could shake a stick at. (Perhaps their heights and widths varied according to the prominence of the Minneapolis son or daughter sleeping underneath?) A wanly staring goddess appeared to be recycled on statuary from time to time; she grasped a wreath atop one grave while she waved an olive branch over another.

The serene beauty of the place was matched by a melancholy atmosphere. The shade from the trees created an artificial dusk in the cemetery despite the surrounding pinkish sunset. I couldn’t shake the notion that I was a sitting duck; fenced in and alone in a graveyard miles from any living soul. By the time I reached the iron-fenced perimeter and looked down upon Lake Calhoun, I had the overwhelming notion that someone was watching me.

Looking back, I must have looked like a right twit, whipping my mobile out to call my husband. (How pompous, chatting on a cell phone in this Place of Eternal Rest.) In my defense, I wanted to make it obvious to any onlookers that I had lines of communication. Granted, the undead wouldn’t be deterred by a 911 call, but any live aggressors might be... plus, I was truly moved by the beauty of the spot, and wanted to share my unique find. My husband answered and soon googled online photos of the place. I felt somewhat better as we chatted about the cemetery’s charm. By the end of the call my heebie-jeebies were sated and I strolled down the long paved path back to the entrance gates. I finally glimpsed another human being when I came across a security vehicle parked at the main drive. I shook aside my shy nature and strolled over to ask him about the best taxi-nabbing strategy. The cornfed security guard gave his advice and then chuckled, “You’ve walked quite a way, haven’t you?” His amused grin confirmed my suspicion that he’d watched me gracelessly galumphing all over his cemetery. My spidey-senses had been accurate after all.

But what about the footsteps? The security guard had conducted his surveillance from the comfort of a car. Did a more permanent Lakewood resident guide me around my favorite spot in Minneapolis?

It turns out that entertainer Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury is laid to rest in this cemetery. Who better to show off the wonders of Lakewood than the man best known for his rendition of "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips?"


TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIPS(Al Dubin/Joe Burke)

Tiptoe to the window, by the window that is where I'll be
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me!
Tiptoe from your pillow, to the shadow of a willow tree
And tiptoe through the tulips with me!
Knee deep in flowers will stray, we'll keep the showers away.
And if I kiss you in the garden, in the moonlight, will you pardon me?
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me!


Thursday, June 17, 2004

Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. I.

Last week I descended upon lake-filled Minneapolis, home of wacky web jester James Lileks. I requested to go to a usability conference in the “City of Lakes” partially due to an urban study I’d seen on lileks.com. I was fortunate enough to have my piton well embedded in the peaks of the departmental budget, so I received approval to attend the annual broodings of the "Usability Professional’s Association".

I must say I was a bit disappointed my first night in the city when I found myself on Nicollet Island, in the middle of the Mississippi River, as a rainstorm broke loose. (I had wandered there from my City Center hotel at recommendations of the concierge.) Perhaps the island was a bit more inviting on sunny days, but now I was stranded in no-man’s land except for the blockish Nicollet Island Inn, which didn’t seem the sort of place a wet drowned-rat person should slog into. Nor did the island park seem to offer refuge from the tempest, so I ran across the bridge to the St. Paul riverside. Sophia’s cafĂ© welcomed me with canopied outdoor dining; I delighted over crispy-skinned duck as the storm drenched fellow passers-by. I hoped that my clueless tour of the city would continue to have such happy endings.

I’ve made an effort to get out in the cities I visit on business, despite my reluctant nature. I am a tremendously shy person cloaked in an introvert’s disguise. I’m capable of witty and interesting banter, yet I’m often uncomfortable socializing with strangers. I tend to find the conversation trite and strained--how often can you discuss your hometown’s weather or that of your conversation mate’s? “Oh, it’s very cold in Denver in the winter, huh? I can imagine! Brrr...”

My conference strategy entails avoiding the evening mixers and getting out and about to see the sights. Rather than hiding behind a book at a restaurant corner table, I sightsee and try to chat amicably with those I encounter. I’ve been richly rewarded for this self-abuse; my attempts to overcome shyness have left me with a treasure chest of memories. I’ve frolicked with nuns, I’ve gotten bear hugs from the gnarliest of homeless persons, and I have experienced breathtaking views from many a vantage point.

And so I found myself at the end of the second conference day, pondering my evening agenda. I logged onto www.lileks.com to see what gems of the city might await. Between J.L’s nostalgic review of the Chain Lakes and the second chance I gave the concierge, I decided to hail a cab and head for Lake Calhoun.

I was on a quest to find somewhere quiet, beautiful and serene amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. From Maritime Museum Beach in San Francisco to San Callixto in Rome, I’ve found spots where one can sit, observe, and think, “This is what you folks love about your city. I understand, and I love it too.” When the cabbie dropped me off at windy, nondescript West Lake Park, I knew that I hadn’t found my happy place yet. I spied the yacht club and beach far to the right side of the lake (far, far, FAR across the lake), and started walking briskly just to get my body heat up a degree or two.

As I walked, I thought about how often I get myself into this kind of situation. By forcing myself out in public to combat shyness, I’ve ended up walking a million miles because I haven’t planned the outing very well. The worst was the time I sought the wild parrots of San Francisco; I ended up lost and exhausted in a labyrinth of stairways near Coit Tower as the sun went down. (I never did find the little buggers.) This time, I was desperately trying to find the quaint side of Minneapolis, but I was destined for an earache due to the squalls on the lake, or being flattened by the frenetic joggers who were trying to make up for a long, harsh winter.

And then I found it; “the spot.” A lone little wooden bench on a pier provided rest and a view of the many white sailboats whipping across the water. The sun came out and the wind died down. I was meant to sit here, and take it all in. Here is where I would find “what Minneapolis was all about.” I sat down, breathed deeply, and became mesmerized by the beautiful dance of windsurfers and yachtsmen.

Then I heard footsteps, a pause, and a “thud” on the bench to my right. Peripheral vision alerted me that the man was looking in my direction every minute or two. My view of the lake became targeted, focused. I didn’t want to turn my head in any way that would give him an opportunity to make eye contact with me. It’s a protective device I’ve developed as someone who likes to wander alone, and it works fairly well. The minute you make eye contact with someone, the sooner you will be approached for money, or perhaps for “help”--a million ruses exist to take advantage of a woman on her own in public.

I continued to scan the horizon mechanically, making a point to consult my watch at one point to give the impression of “Boy, my Big Strong Husband sure is late! I will be angry with my Big Strong Husband when he gets here...”

Then came the whoosh of a lit match, and the whiff of burned paper and tobacco sweepings. Great. My outdoor sojourn is being enhanced by a Marlboro moment. I was sensitive to the fact that an immediate departure would indicate my distaste for the smoke, and I was not in the mood to fuel a potentially threatening person’s anger. So I sat a few minutes longer, consulted my watch, then sighed and stood up. I walked away as if a no-show interrupted my bliss, rather than cancer sticks. I took a quick glance at my dockmate and noted that he looked slightly scruffy, but not particularly aggressive.

I strode a confident pace towards the marina when I detected heavy plodding steps behind me. He was following me! My heart pounded out of my mouth and dribbled on my lips until the jogger overtook me and loped past. I was ashamed to have labeled my bench-sitting neighbor as a potential mugger.

I dug deeper and eventually came to the conclusion that I wasn’t on the defensive because he was a man, but simply because he’d dirtied the pretty picture I’d unveiled on that bench by the lake. I acknowledged that my adventure was not over; I’d have to search elsewhere. I took stock of my surroundings, took a deep breath, and continued on my quest.

Part II; I find my happy place.

*Nota Bene:
Up until this post, I've excluded hyperlinks to external sites. Just this once, it's okay to be joyously distracted by the musings of James Lileks. :)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Ms. Altruist and Ms. Selfish go to Rome.

How can you describe in words the overwhelming experience of spending a week in Rome? So many sights, so many sounds, so many sensations. Too many to describe with justice, but yet, I have to try.

When I was a child, my mother first told me her dream of going to Rome. I always kept that in the back of my mind, expecting her to tell me one day that she and Dad were heading off to Italy. Her trip never took place, even though I had been to Europe several times by the time I graduated from college.

When my father retired, I assumed the time had finally arrived. Yet, when I would ask Mom when she was going to Rome, she’d say, “Your father doesn’t want to go.” When I would ask Dad when they were going, he’d say, “Your mother doesn’t want to go.” Perhaps it was too daunting or overwhelming to think about how to actually get there, where to stay, and how to deal with a different money system, language and culture? I quietly accepted the paradox, assuming that mom enjoyed thinking about her dream trip more than trying to make it come true.

My grandmother dreamed of travel as well. She wanted to visit Hawaii for as long as I could remember. Getting to Hawaii was a Quixotic, impossible dream in her younger days. She’d been the wife of a farmer and they had lived frugally. Money became less of an issue in time, but Grandma still handled the dream with kid gloves, taking it out every now and then to examine it. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii,” she would exclaim if someone won a trip to Waikiki on “The Price is Right.” “I’ve heard they give you a necklace of flowers as soon as you get off the plane,” she’d croon.

The closest Grandma ever came to Hawaii was eating at the Polynesian Resort luau when the family went to Disneyworld one Christmas. She was in a wheelchair most of the time, and had horrendous pain from the arthritis that twisted and crippled her fingers. The opportunity to travel long distances had vanished, leaving her clutching a dream that no longer could become a reality. Grandma passed away this year without ever seeing the land of pineapples and hulas.

Thus I became obsessed with taking my mother to Rome. Not because I’m worried about her dying anytime soon, but because I’m a product of more progressive times; I view dreams as a “to do” list. Whereas Grandma found satisfaction in simply nurturing a dream, I writhed in agony because she didn’t actually pursue that dream. I admit it; I wanted Mom to go to Rome for selfish reasons. I couldn’t bear to watch another magnificent woman in my family miss out on her dream, especially when she asks for so little, and gives so much to others. (She is the consummate altruist.) So I told her we were going to Italy, no protests allowed. She laughed and said “okay,” before she realized that I meant it.

I researched everything I could possibly research; from how to book the trip, what airline to fly, what tours to take, and where to stay. I became an internet hermit. (Which is why I stopped blogging for so long.) I ended up letting a travel agent book our air and hotel so we would could back out at the last minute if sickness or other emergencies interrupted our plans. (I told the agent what flights and hotel to book.) I found a tour company online that had excellent references. (They are affiliated with the city of Rome, so they get front of the line access to popular sites like the Colosseum and Vatican.) We booked the whole schebang, and before I knew it, we were headed to Rome. We spent six magical days in the city, one amazing day in Florence, and one picture-perfect day at San Callixto (Via Appia Antica and the Catacombs).

I am putting together a day-by-day journal for mom with all of the trip details, and I’ll post some stories here about the things we saw and did. For now, I’m going to skip the granular details. The trip boiled down to this; my mom and I shared a million wonderful moments together. We laughed, we nearly cried, we were scared, we were thrilled. I believe Mom fulfilled her life’s dream and then some. As for me, I had the privilege of watching her live that dream. Sometimes it is totally worth it, being selfish.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

I know, I know...

I've gotten few yelps of protest from the handful of wonderful folks who read my blog...

I apologize for not posting lately; I've been preparing for a trip to Rome and haven't had time to write. I have the privilege of accompanying my mom on her "dream trip" to the land of La Dolce Vita. We leave on Mother's day for a weeklong trip.

I've brushed up on a few Italian phrases, and even learned how to deal with the kiss on the cheek thingy; I accidentally kissed a seventy-something man straight on the lips trying to figure that one out a few years ago. Mom and I are going to stomp around ancient ruins and get our pictures taken with Gladiators. I'm stoked.

I promise to finish up the two or three stories I've been working on while I'm away, and I promise to gather new fodder as well. (Let's see how masterfully I embarrass myself and those around me in an international setting.) We'll be escorted our first day by a buddy of mine who is a story in himself, so there's bound to be a thing or two of interest to write about.

Sorry to make such a "bloggy" post, but I wanted to let you guys know what I'm up to. Until then, Ciao, Arrivaderci, Buon Giorno! -V

Monday, April 26, 2004

Miss Rachel’s Flowers.

I want to believe in Bigfoot, but he probably doesn’t exist. I don’t want to believe in ghosts because I’m a big chicken, but there are plenty of folks who will tell you they exist. Go figure.

My husband and I went on a “ghost walk” in Wilmington, North Carolina, last weekend, in search of a little eerie entertainment. We spent ninety minutes crisscrossing “Old Wilmington” taking in stories about those who linger on after death. We came away from the tour with an appreciation of the historic architecture in the city, but experienced no creepy crawlies thanks to the milquetoast delivery by so-called “local actors.”

I do get the creeps from a story told by one of my co-workers. G. lives in a beautiful house in Raleigh, North Carolina, close to N.C. State University. She awoke one night to find a large African-American man in overalls standing at the foot of the bed. He had a tool belt on hip and a worn driving cap on his head. Her terror transitioned to sleep-fuzzed acquiescence once she determined that his style of dress was way too old-fashioned for a home invader. “I’m looking at a ghost,” she resolved, and rolled over in hopes that feigned disinterest would send the lost workman elsewhere. She fell back to sleep soon afterward.

Then next morning, G. recalled the event and assumed that she’d been imagining things. She nonchalantly asked her husband if he’d slept well; he hesitated and then said “No.” When she asked him why he slept poorly, he quizzed, “Did you see a guy standing at the foot of our bed last night?” When she nodded in affirmation, he proceeded to describe the man exactly as G. had observed. After sharing their story with friends and neighbors, they learned that their house sits on the site of the old state fairgrounds(1873-1928). They speculate that one of the crew is still doing his job, late at night at the foot of their bed. That’s dedication.

Dedication to the living can preoccupy the dead, according to family legend. I don’t want to believe in ghosts, but when your maternal grandfather goes around like the Welcome Wagon after death, you have to give a little. “Grandy” was the sweetest, gentlest, most loving man I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. His devotion to his wife was renowned throughout their rest home. Grandy’s frailty betrayed his deference in the end, when he died one afternoon after a prolonged illness. My grandmother Nanny grieved into the night, reading her Bible for comfort before drifting off to sleep. The Bible fell to the floor at some point, with the orderly noting to self that she’d pick up the book on the next round. The orderly was surprised and concerned to see the Bible on Nanny’s bed table soon afterwards; no one was supposed to enter patient rooms without authorization. (My grandmother was alone and bedridden.) The next morning, when the orderly asked my grandmother who had picked up the Bible, Nanny said “Marvin got it for me.” Nanny insisted to the orderly and my mother that Grandy had appeared, replaced the book and given his last loving goodbye. A grieving widow’s tale that is easily dismissed, right?

Wrong. Fast forward to the day after Grandy’s funeral. I called my Mother to hear the details, since I chose to attend the wake instead of the graveside service. “It was quite interesting,” she measured carefully. Mom related her emotional encounter with R., a close friend of the family. Nanny and Grandy met R. when she was selling perfume in a local department store; they visited her weekly as a social event. They adored R., and R. conferred the title “adopted Grandma and Grandpa” on them. Nanny and Grandy feted R.’s shining moments from marriage to adoption of a delightful baby girl.

Daddy came to her the afternoon he died,” Mom choked. “R. heard the baby stirring from her nap and went to the nursery. Grandy appeared and said he was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to watch the baby grow up. Then he was gone.” R. said the moment was reassuring and touching, not frightening.

Perhaps those good vibes linger when a good person passes? Take for instance, the abandoned house adjacent to my mom and dad’s subdivision. The homeowner passed away at the ripe old age of ninety and the retirement community bought her property. Residents are allowed to collect and transplant perennial plants from the jungle of an overgrown yard. (The house will soon be demolished and the property bulldozed.) Mom and I walked down the weed-choked lane a few days ago to see if anything was left to salvage.

The evening was still warm as the diving sun lit up a whitewashed, but ramshackle ranch house. Ancient oaks and sweetgums towered around the house to provide cool spots of shade. Three small fiberglass Quonset huts surrounded the house; one had been a greenhouse, one a potting shed, and one a tool shed. Mom and I gingerly stepped over fallen branches, thistly vines and clumps of dead-grass mole hills to examine the greenhouse. Rotting wooden tables held rows of potted dead ferns. They must have followed their caretaker in death; abandoned to wither without the wrinkled elderly hand to water them.

After paying our respects at the greenhouse, we picked up fallen branches to tap on the ground as we circumnavigated the house. (I never saw any snakes, but the yard was a likely candidate for Reptile Disneyworld.) Red-trumpeted Columbine flowers bowed their heads to the ground below. Purple tufts of Adjuga glowed in the evening sun beams that slashed amongst tree trunks and bushes. (Adjuga is aptly named “Carpet Bugle” in garden-speak.) Mom and I used our “Snake-Away” sticks to dig and pry up clumps of both plants. We were careful and methodical in our removal; we left plenty for others and tried not to leave gouges in the soil. Somehow it was important to us to acknowledge that this had been someone’s yard. The potting shed conveniently contained black plastic flats and terra cotta pots, so the end product looked like it had been purchased from a garden center.

On my last reconnoiter around the house, I noticed that the side porch door was open. I peeked inside. Pale white light cast through the windows onto a clothing rack filled with hanging garment bags. I walked inside to find dusty dresses and coats in the bags; most were faded and worn. The stairs leading to the inner house seemed solid, so I tested them and then motioned to my mother to follow. We entered the unlocked door into an austere bedroom. An iron bed with mattress and coverlet angled towards a second door. Behind that door lay a maze of wood or linoleum floored rooms, all smelling of old cedar, dust, and time.

The rest of the house was empty of furniture. No pictures or decorations graced the walls. The kitchen was an odd mirror of itself; at both ends there were double sinks underneath large picture windows. One picture window looked out into the tangled front yard, the other window revealed a sunroom built adjacent to the rear kitchen wall. An excess of cabinet space around the rear sink led me to believe that the stove had been moved from that location, over to the front space where the other double sink was installed. I got the impression that she added on the sunroom, then moved the kitchen the front of the house so she could wash dishes and look out into the front yard. While standing and pondering the kitchen, a question crossed my mind. Why wasn’t I unnerved, trespassing throughout a dead woman’s former domain? Where were the cold gusts of air, the heebie-jeebies, or the sensations that we were being watched?

Perhaps she didn’t mind our curiosity, I told my mother. Maybe she appreciates the fact that her plants will live on in new homes, Mom conjectured. We walked out of the darkening house and back up the gravel lane to pick up our containers of plants. As we popped out of the jungle onto the city maintained sidewalk, a fast moving pedestrian almost bowled us over.

Are they giving plants away?” she inquired. Assuming that we looked like guilty trespassers, we explained our justification for being on the property. “Miss Rachel was a very sweet person,” the woman commented. She went on to say that she’d known the homeowner, Miss Rachel, very well. “I’ll have to come by and get some plants to remember her by, even though I don’t live in your subdivision,” the woman whispered as we parted ways.

I get the feeling that Miss Rachel is content to live on through the gardens that harbor her perennials. I sure don’t need her to make an appearance to say “thank you,” or to introduce herself. The good vibes from that day’s adventure, and the plants in my yard are thanks enough.

Addendum: A Child’s Take on Death and Dying.

I was playing with my daughter in the back yard the other evening, when our eight-year old neighbor called to us over to the fence.

“Did you hear about Nellie?” she inquired, in an excited voice that seemed a bit surprising, considering the circumstances. Her aged beagle Nellie suffered from multiple cancers and had been euthanized the day before.

“Yes, darling, I’m so sorry she passed away. I know you’ll miss her,” I said sympathetically.

“She didn’t pass away, we put her to sleep!” the child singsonged happily as she pumped back in forth in her swing. “We buried her over there under the dogwood tree, ‘an we painted seashells to go on her grave, ‘an I’m gonna paint some rocks, too!”

“My dog, Wiley, died too!” my daughter chirped. “She fell off the sofa and died.” (Actually, she died of liver failure.)

“Yeah, I remember!” said our neighbor. “Hey, wanna see Nellie’s grave?”

And so, my daughter trudged through the garden gate to behold the painted seashells on dearly departed Nellie the Beagle’s grave. No tears were shed, no words of grief were spoken. The two little girls simply shared a moment, recognizing that Nellie once was, and that she was loved. Little kids rock.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bigfoot Dreams, Part Two.

I’ll begin with an acknowledgement: I know that there’s a book entitled “Bigfoot Dreams” by Francine Prose. I have read the book. I have re-read the book many times. (I can’t remember if I purchased it, or if I lovingly adopted it from my roommate’s voluminous library of paperbacks.) I do know that I was intrigued by the title, since I have been having dreams about Bigfoot since I was a little kid. [See “Bigfoot Dreams, Part One.”] It turns out that the protagonist’s Bigfoot Dreams were nothing like my Bigfoot dreams, but the book was charming nonetheless.

The fact that I’ve had recurring Bigfoot dreams (nightmares, actually) is no surprise. I was a child scholar on everything Sasquatch; I was both fascinated and terrified by Bigfoot. By day, I watched Bigfoot movies and documentaries, or read anything I could find about the Giant Hairy One. By night, I trembled in my bed, wondering if he was tall enough to look in my bedroom window. (I slept on the second floor above a sunken patio; that would have to be one honkin’ Sasquatch.)

From my readings, I became familiar with every state that claimed Bigfoot sightings. I was reassured to know there were none where I lived, in Virginia. I sure as heck knew I didn’t ever want to visit the Pacific Northwest, wherever that was, because Bigfoots were loping all over the place there. One summer, the Big Guy was spotted in Ohio while I was there visiting my grandparents. My mom confided much later that they had hidden all newspapers from me during the trip. Good thinking. If I had known about the sightings, I would’ve thumbed a ride back to Bigfoot-free Virginia, pronto.

My nightmare was inspired by the documentary “In Search of Bigfoot,” where a woman sees Bigfoot through her kitchen window as she’s washing dishes. (I insisted on closing all kitchen window curtains after dark from then on.) In the dream, Bigfoot is standing on the front porch. I glimpse him through the wide kitchen bay window. Sometimes it’s the Abominable Snow Man or Yeti, who’s white instead of brown. Sometimes he rings the doorbell, sometimes he just stands there; glaring. I usually wake up before the dream gets much further than that.

So why has Bigfoot gotten the boot in my recurring dream? (He’s been replaced by the rock band KISS.) It might have something to do with the book I’m currently reading: “Bigfoot; the Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality” by Bigfoot expert John Napier. (I’m no longer a rabid scholar of “Bigfootia”, I just happen to like reading at bedtime.)

In what I’ve read so far, Napier has found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. Napier debunks alleged sighting videos and dismisses a number of footprint photographs. He even explains how Himalayan Sherpas manufacture “Yeti” scalps out of goat skulls and fur. (He asserts that they aren’t trying to deceive anyone, they’re just culturally motivated to please and satisfy those in search of the Yeti.) I’ll have to keep reading to see if Napier ever presents concrete evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. It would be pretty frustrating to be an expert on something that you can’t prove exists...Then again, priests aren’t asked to present photographs of God, are they?

I don't know much about Napier, other than he seems to have expelled Sasquatch from my nightmares. Or, has my subconscious simply matured beyond the grasp of childish fears? When I was a child, I believed in Bigfoot without question. As an adult, I’ve not thought much on the subject. I no longer digest Bigfoot factoids, I don’t surf Sasquatch websites. Perhaps Napier’s book was the icing on the cake of my gray matter. My adult brain can’t justify the existence of Bigfoot without proof. So welcome, KISS, goodbye Bigfoot. I’m think I’m going to miss you.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Bigfoot Dreams, Part One.

I don’t often document my dreams because I’m just not that kind of person. I enjoy dreaming, mind you. I find it highly entertaining. I just don’t think my dreams are significantly more interesting than anyone else’s, so I don’t tend to write about them.

Last night’s episode got me thinking, however. It was a variation on a recurring dream I’ve had for years. It usually unfolds like so: Bigfoot is at my front door. He wants in. I am scared as beejeezus when he glares at me through the windows. In a retro twist last night, the band KISS was outside my childhood home, trying to break in. (As in the band that painted their faces with black and white makeup and sang such classics as “[I wanna] Rock and Roll all Nite.”)

I first noticed KISS lurking on the driveway when I went out to the attached two-car garage for some reason. I peered at them through the horizontal garage door windows; the cat guy (Peter Criss), the hairy chested guy (Paul Stanley) and the girlie looking guy (Ace Frehley). Scarlet-tongued Gene Simmons (devil looking guy) was nowhere to be seen. (You’d think Gene would have been there, ‘cause Kitty Man and the others don’t really strike me as silver-lame’d troublemakers.) But here they were loitering, sans Gene, outside my garage. I realized I’d been spotted when their heads whipped in my direction. I locked the garage door and ran back inside the house as they made menacing faces and gestures in my direction. I ran from door to door throughout the house, checking the locks. The band members were always one step behind me, rattling the knobs or gesticulating through the windows.

I had just finished my security check of the kitchen when the band walked in (still sans Gene). I don’t recall if their appearance denoted my shoddy door-locking abilities, or if they simply materialized into the house. Either way, I yelled to them, “I am calling the police!” and dialed 911 on the cell phone that was suddenly in-hand. The band cockily preened in the kitchen as I spoke with the police dispatcher; yet the three in makeup didn’t speak a word. The scene closed as I calmly stated, “Yes, officer, one of them has a gun.” Peter Criss, cat-faced crooner of the ballad “Beth” sneered as he held up a gleaming cowboy pistol with white plastic grips. I suddenly awoke to my son’s morning mantra of “Uh-Oh,” “Uh-Oh,” which means he’s dropped his pacifier. Thank goodness he rescued mommy from “Glam Gone Bad” before things went too far.

So why was this dream worthy of note? Was it more unusual or creative than my previous dreams? Nah. The big revelation is that Bigfoot is no longer the sole antagonist of this recurring dream. He’s been replaced, or else he goes on vacation sometimes. Read more about “Bigfoot Dreams, Part Two” in the next installment, coming soon to a blog near you.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Space Girls, Frog Girls, and Frog Boys.

Post-dinner playtime constitutes a mixed bag of activities. The baby wanders around in opiate denial of his sleepiness, while the toddler buzzes around on a residual sugar high from dessert. Last night I found myself on the floor with denial-baby on my chest; his fat little fingers probed my front teeth and then crammed a pink rubber frog into my eye. I lifted Mengele-boy onto the carpet with a gentle “No-no,” then flopped into the sublime puffiness of my leather recliner.

My daughter walked up to me with a square plastic storage box on her head, and a colored pasta necklace draped across her shoulders. Enter “Spacegirl” to make her debut appearance. (I’d never met this toddler-inspired personality before.)

I am Spacegirl, and I have my helmet and safety necklace on so I won’t fall and break my neck on the slippery Moooon…” she boomed in her deepest voice.

Break your neck? How morbid, I reflected. On the slippery moon? Who decided that the moon is slippery? Come to think of it, the moon does look like it was made out of modeling clay, or gray mud. Maybe it is, indeed, slippery. Behold the brains on Spacegirl.

Check out the confidence on this chick, too. She dubbed herself “Spacegirl” easily and naturally. The word “girl” doesn’t connote weakness or frailty for her generation. She’s surrounded by a world of Powerpuff girls, Spicegirls, IndigoGirls and webgrrls. The banner of “girl power” has inspired her to playact as a superhero, a “scuber diver,” and now an astronaut.

Then again, it’s not like I grew up in the suffragette era; women had saturated the workforce by the late sixties. I grew up knowing women could be doctors as well as nurses, and that my destiny’s options were open. That’s probably why I scrawled “Frog Girl” as occupation of choice in my Dr. Seuss “Book about Me.” On TV, I saw deep-sea diving “Frog Men” swoop around on “Johnny Quest.” I wanted to swoop around, too, but I sure didn’t want to be called a “Frog Man.” So, I created the label “Frog Girl” and fantasized about replacing Jacques Cousteau as Custodian of the Undersea World.

Frog Girl’s dream became reality when I learned to scuba dive in college and later became a part-time instructor. I morphed from Frog Girl to “Lemur Girl” when I landed my dream job as a zookeeper/primate technician. (Doesn’t every girl go through an “I love animals” syndrome?) I met and married the man of my dreams, so Lemur Girl gave way to “Mrs. Lemur,” a woman with a decent list of accomplished dreams.

Unfortunately, the buoyancy of dreams can be hissingly deflated when you find yourself raking lemur poop day in, day out, for six dollars an hour. I ripped up alumni newsletters that came in the mail, recounting the lives of classmates who were now successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen. I started raking lemur poop in my sleep at night. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Scoop, scoop. Dump in bucket. Repeat.

Raking lemur poop may dull the ego, but it sharpens the mind. (You tend to do a lot of soul searching when you spend hours cleaning animal cages.) Many a zookeeper has lifted a dustpan of dung and questioned, “Why am I here?” For some, it’s simply a philosophical question that leads to the conclusion that they’re raking poo for a greater good.

For me, however, the question was literal; "why am I here, right now, raking this foulness?" I thought about my life’s aspirations. Did my childhood brew of “Dream Jobs” comprise my true goals in life? I sure hoped not, since I currently found myself in a silo of poo-slinging prosimians. The blinding realization smacked me; my current livelihood and lifestyle fulfilled a short-term dream, rather than being part of a life-long goal.

My thoughts turned from “What will I be?” to “Who will I have been?” I wanted people to look back upon my life and say that I was fun to be with, and kind. I wanted to be remembered as generous and giving. I also pictured a woman who’d loved a husband and children to the best of her abilities.

Up until that moment, I had not committed to the idea of myself as a parent. I’d been enjoying an adolescent adulthood filled with parties, adventures and freedom. But right there in that silo, I had a vision. A vision of me raking lemur-doo, with a child slung over one hip. I seriously doubted that Child Protective Services would condone that, nor would they consider electro-fenced woods be appropriate daycare. If I was going to entertain the possibility of having kids, I needed to leave the option open. Thus the time had come for a change.

I closed the chapter of Mrs. Lemur’s life, and said goodbye to the animals, my keeper compadres, and the smelly uniform. I didn’t have a specific career in mind this time; I simply started carving out the rough draft of “who I will have been”. A family ultimately became an achievable and desirable option, so Spacegirl and a frog-wielding little brother climbed on board. I’ve been trying to keep my options open ever since.

I hope Spacegirl will grow up to see the value of both short-term dreams and life-long goals. I certainly want her to think about who she wants to be in the future. But I also want her to be interested in who she will have been, in the end. It all adds up. That goes for you too, Frog-Boy.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Behold, the shelf life of cheese puffs.

I’m vaguely interested in the hobby of geocaching, but there’s been no luxury of time to wander around town lately. (Geocaching involves hiding containers of stuff in a variety of locales, then posting the global coordinates on the web.) There’s a free software swap box sequestered in a nearby park, and a tub of toys in the park somewhat farther away. Maybe this weekend we can spend our Saturday trek looking for local goodies stashed in bee hives and sewer pipes.

Human nature compels us to hoard things. The Germans even have a verb to describe the behavior. “Hamstern” means to stockpile, e.g. “Uter und Greta hamstern das bier, ja?”. I always loved that verb in German class—it reminded me of my hamster walking around with lumpy cheeks full of sunflower seeds. My brother was the "hamstern King" in our family following every Halloween. He would fling his shopping bag of goodies under the bed, assumedly nibbling on bits under his sheets at night via flashlight. He didn’t realize how often little sister surveyed his room, however. Kindergarten recessed for the day before elementary school let out, so I had plenty of time to bask in the greatness of my older brother by nosing around his room. Thusly the bag of Halloween candy was discovered in December. I boldly opened the bag and examined its contents. There was nothing unique compared to what had been in my Halloween bag, except for one thing; a wax-paper bag of cheese puffs. Oh, what a treasure! Why had he haughtily ignored them? I slowly opened the pack to avoid tearing the glued and crimped closure. I retrieved an orange-dusted nugget and stuck it in my mouth—stale styrofoamy goodness was my reward. The satisfaction of besting my brother overshadowed the not-so-fresh condition of the cheese puff. I carefully closed the bag and returned it to its place. I would return periodically to repeat the process. The day in June when I finished eating the cheese puffs was a day of triumph. I threw the empty waxed bag into my trashcan, relishing my cunning feat. I was the Artful Dodger of ancient Cheetos.

Which may explain why cheese puffs were my first contribution to a neighbor’s super-secret forbidden-food hiding place. M. lived next door and interacted with me on a roller coaster basis. We’d play together as steadfast buddies for months at a time, then she’d move on to the neighbor kids across the street who went to her school. I pitied her, though, because her mom was a devout Weight Watcher’s disciple. Poor M. and her little sister ate skinless chicken and sprinkled butter-flavored salt on their corn. They ate parmesan popcorn for “snacks”. Dessert consisted of an apple or an orange, or homemade yogurt. Their mom cultivated two little girls starved for chicken skin, candy and anything else forbidden. M. came up with the idea to stash gum in her driveway’s rock wall after hearing about school chums who’d done the same. I was not a fan of gum or candy since no one denied me of them, so I chose to insert Ho-Ho’s and cheese puffs in the shoe-box sized hole. We positioned a stone in front to disguise our holy tomb of sugar and starch. The next morning before our respective school buses arrived, we sidled over to the cache and prepared to consume contraband. A teeming brigade of ants up my arm clued me to the fact that wax paper bags don’t deter ants any better than they do little sisters. The ants had tunneled into my Ho-Ho’s and Cheetos, leaving me with no prize as M. smacked her bubblegum. Her mom discovered the hoard soon afterwards, so our pirate days came to a weight-watching halt.

Nowadays, I have the privilege of working for a company that does the stashing for me. We have break rooms on every floor containing endless containers of crackers, peanut butter and M&M’s. Soda, juices, teas, and coffee flow freely. There is a plentiful supply of food available to those who work through a meal or stay overtime. (Good work strategy, I might add.) Yet a number of my co-workers still maintain "goody" caches. A whole box of Ritz crackers here, a box of Better Cheddars there, a whole jar of peanut butter with knife in the dark of a file cabinet. It seems that some folks aren’t satisfied with retrieving a handful of goodies at a time. Better to open the break room storage cabinets, grab a whole box “to go”, and gleefully bask in the soon-to-be-stale trove. Here lies Exhibit A in our case study of "Human Hamstering". (I personally would rather hamster the beer with Uter.)

Monday, March 29, 2004

Don't tread on me...

Oh, good googly-moogly. Every time I get the confidence to declare that I am indeed a “grown-up,” I go and do something that points tragically to the contrary. Tonight I digressed from savvy mother of two to an abashed teenager in the seconds it took for a treadmill to suck up a Pilates ball.

My Mom and I have been exercising in her retirement community’s gym to prepare for an upcoming trip to Rome. (We came to the disturbing realization that Rome really does exist on seven hills, and that Roman sightseeing can outrival a stairmaster workout.) Mom isn’t big on stamina, and I am big physically, so we’ve commited to getting in better shape before we head for “La Dolce Vita”. (The sweet life, that is.) Which is why I found myself huffing and puffing on a “healthrider” this evening, wondering if the Spanish invented this machine during the Inquisition. Mom was plodding away on the treadmill, which was hypnotic to watch as endorphins surged through my punished body. Pre-war blues oozed out of a CD player to bolster the effect; I’ve developed intense respect for these silvered athletes who sweat to such eclectic tunes.

I tottered off the “SuperHernia-matic” when I reached my pain tolerance level. As I ambled towards my speed-walking mother, I noticed a cute little smiley-faced orange ball on the floor. “What’s that?” I quizzed Mom.

A pilot’s ball, or something,” she replied flippantly. “

I think it’s called a Pill-lot-tees ball
,” I corrected, as I nonchalantly kicked it towards a tub containing more smiling ball-brethren. I kicked it towards the tub, but it chose to ignore me completely and scudded under the moving runway of the treadmill. “Mom! Turn it off!” I yelled, afraid that the ball would grab the rubbery strip and send her flying.

What? Why?” asked Mom, as the engine slowly ground to a halt.

Please, just turn it off and unplug it,” I begged as I crept towards her, praying that the ball was simply wedged underneath. I coached her to help me turn the treadmill on its side. There lay the distended, bulging ball; entangled in the belt and rollers of the machine. My heart sank and my stomach rose. I envisioned an octogenarian ambling in for his six a.m. constitutional, only to find out some resident’s adult daughter had vandalized the gym.

“Oh my,” Mom sighed in her “You've screwed up, but I’m too Southern to tell you” voice. I urged her to call my father and tell him to bring a knife so we could pop the ball. “I sure hope no one hears what I’ve got to tell him,” Mom fretted as she went on her way.

I stood awkward and silent in the room for a few seconds. The sensation of being a naughty child, waiting for Dad to come home, swept over me like a wave of nausea. Mental video stills rolled of me sitting on a padded bench outside the Principal's office. I hopped back on the Musclegrinder 2000 to distract and occupy myself. I noticed a sticker on the seat stem that read “Questions? Call our hotline!” and wryly considered doing just that. Rattling doorknobs startled me as a security guard opened the door to peer in the room. (I guess it was uncommon for music and lights to be on in the gym after eight p.m.) “Hi,” I warbled lamely, as I pumped slowly back and forth. She mercifully withdrew from the room before noticing the dismal carcass of the treadmill. I increased the pace and rythym of my efforts as I played out the scenario of my father’s arrival in my head. He would walk over to the machine and scrutinize it for dragging minutes, eventually rising from his knees to grumble, “There’s nothing I can do.” As a kid, when dad couldn’t ride in and bail me out, I knew I'd blown it. Big time. (When something *was "dad-fixable", attention could benignly shift from my misdeed to dad’s prowess at repair.) Dad entered the room with my mother to end my grim penance on the healthrider.

Oh goodness,” was his Southern gentleman’s version of “You moron” as he yanked on the frozen and immovable belt. He produced his handy-dandy, everpresent mini-Swiss army knife and slit the gibbous orb. With a reassuring hiss the ball deflated, and Dad extricated the rubbery mass.

I love you, Dad!” I gushed, as I whisked away nightmares of indentured servitude to pay for a new treadmill. Dad swung the machine back into place and plugged the power cord into the wall. He turned the treadmill on, cranked the belt speed up, and hopped on to make sure the motor hadn’t burned out. Satisfied, he powered it down and stepped off the whining runway. Mom deftly snatched up the smiling rubber blob and attempted to bury it in the tub of healthy Pilates balls.

No, no, we’ll just throw it away,” Dad growled as he yanked the ex-ball out of the tub and folded it clandestinely into his jacket pocket. My parents had become the Bonnie and Clyde of their retirement community gym to save their adolescent adult daughter. Bless their hearts, y'all.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Oompah, Loompah, Doopity-Doo...

I found out from my lunch buddies yesterday that Johnny Depp will be starring in a Tim Burton remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I am heartbroken; why didn’t anybody tell me before they started casting? Is it too late for me to fulfill my lifelong destiny to be an Oompah loompah?

I figured out that I was short early in life. It only takes a few school pictures of classmates towering over you, and your mom hemming up every daggone pair of pants you own to realize you’re horizontally challenged. I felt like someone special when Randy Newman’s song “Short People” came out on the radio, until I started listening to the lyrics. “Short People got no reason to live??” “Don’t want no Short People round here??” If only that rat bar-steward knew what a living hell that song made for me! They sang it to me on the playground, in the lunchroom, whenever and wherever it was time to rag on the short kid. I took the mockery in stride, however, as time went on. I recognized that most of my tormenters were either ugly, stupid, or both. Let them boost their egos on the short kid--I figured they might work for me some day, and revenge could be sweet.

Then came prepubescence, and the weight gain that often accompanies that awkward, nay, miserable stage of development. So now I was short and chubby. I admit it; I was putting away the Big Macs and fries at the time, but my normal-sized big brother was, too. I was just keeping up with my mentor. What I didn’t take into account, was that I was short, chubby, and somewhat red haired. The life-defining moment premiered at Girl Scout Camp. I was frolicking after lunch in a wooded glen with several other girls. One of them turned directly towards me and started bobbing up and down. Then she began to sing, “Oompah, Loompah, Doopity-Doo...” (For those of you that have seen the movie, that’s all the detail you need.) Within seconds, the entire group of girls surrounded me, bobbing and singing the Oompah loompah song. In a stroke of psychological well-being, I chose to celebrate the moment, rather than mire in it. Yes, I was short and chubby and red-haired. Yes, I was an Oompah loompah! They were all singing about me, focusing on me, and I reveled in the attention. I bobbed and danced about the circle, shouting, “I am an Oompah loompah!” “I love the Oompah loompahs!” My totem as an Oompah loompa was bestowed that day, and I have cherished the song, the movie, and the stubby wee auburn characters ever since. My body slimmed as I moved into teenhood and my hair went blonde-brown, but my limited stature ensured that I was an Oompah loompah for life.

As time has marched on, I’ve gained weight and have become more of an Oompah than ever. Last month I chose the wrong hair color to cover my gray, so my brassy short curls simply vibrate the Oompah Loompah song. The time is now, or never. Johnny, if you’re reading this, please, please call me. This time around, the movie needs some female Oompah loompahs in the mix. Just imagine it; I’d be your little Oompah wife and we’d share Oompah-love and have a little Oompah baby. I could handle the day-to-day chocolate making, so you could show those wacky golden ticket winners a good time without worrying about the biz. Oh, Johnny, call me, I’m telling you, I was born to be your lovin’ Oompah loompah lady. It’s my life’s destiny.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

I warned you , didn't I warn you?

Oh, woe is me. Being sick stinks. I am tired of having throbbing sinuses, a clogged nose and a throat that feels like it’s been sandpapered. Bleah. I took a hike with “Uncle Fred” and the family to get some fresh air, hoping that might clear my mind of antihistamine fog. It didn’t really work too well, since my nasal passages are on strike. I looked like a fish out of water, gasping fresh air loudly through my open mouth.

I pondered upon topics to write about during our trek; nothing came to mind until we came upon an unusual tree beside the woodchip padded trail. The trunk was blistered with huge galls that synthesized in a ladder-perfect pattern. I called my daughter over to the tree and told her with enthusiasm that this was the best climbing tree ever—to which she promptly replied, “I don’t wanna.” The tomboy in me was flabbergasted. This tree simply oozed the desire to be climbed. We owed it to the tree to scale its mesmerizing goiters! So, my husband used the tried and true weapon against resistant toddlers everywhere; reverse psychology. “Oh, that’s okay, you’re too little to climb it anyway,” was the only comment required to lure her to the tree’s base. She stood defiantly in front of the lowest lump and with a hoist from mommy, scrambled up to a modest height. She’ll be on to our shenanigans in the near future, I thought to myself. We won’t be able to elicit such a rapid response by telling her she can’t do something. Kids figure that one out pretty quickly, I mused. Everyone but me, that is…

Flash back to the days of art school; I was in my mid-twenties when I threw aside my zookeeper’s boots and took up an artist’s brush. (I came to the conclusion that drawing primates would be much more fun than cleaning up after them.) I quickly settled in and cherished both the challenges of art school and a new group of friends. One of my new buddies was Henry, a cutie with brains and a great sense of humor. He had long blondish brown hair, sparkling blue eyes behind schoolboy glasses, and no bellybutton. Seriously. We would marvel at his navel-less stomach when he took off his shirt to play hackey-sack with us on hot summer days.

I can’t blame Henry for what I did; after all, he told me not to do it. It all started when we were the sole occupants of the photography room, waiting for the others to arrive and class to begin. I absentmindedly tossed my camera flash from one hand to the other, tapping the strobe button every now and then. “The only thing I know about flashes,” Henry said, “is that you don’t ever want to put one in your mouth.” “What?” I asked, perplexed. “Don’t ever set a flash off in your mouth,” he said again, “red lasers will shoot out of your eyes.” “Yeah right.” I scoffed, just before popping the flash head into my mouth and repeatedly depressing the strobe. “Stop!” “Stop!” Henry laughed and yelled at the same time. “I’m serious!” “Vickie, oh my God, Stop!!” I took the flash out of my mouth and gave him an irritated, “What?!” as he looked at me incredulously. “I swear to God, Vickie, red beams of light shot out of your eyes every time you hit the flash! Your eyes are going to hurt really bad—mine looked bloodshot after I did that,” Henry reprimanded. As the rest of the class slowly filtered in, Henry related the story over and over. Classmates worriedly came over to peer in my eyes, which were indeed, beginning to burn a little bit. I excused myself to go to the restroom, where I faced the mirror image of a poster girl for Visine. Thready blood vessels gave the whites of my eyes a cotton candy pink hue. Henry had been telling the truth.

It took several days for my eyes to lose their rosy tint; thankfully I didn’t damage my eyes or impair my vision. Henry and I acknowledged the powerful allure of the warning, “Don’t put a flash in your mouth.” Terribly true, yet terribly difficult to believe. He had succumbed when warned not to do so, and I in turn had fallen victim to the bewitching caveat. Human nature compels us to desire things too good to be true, and to deny things too bad to be false. Which leaves me with an awkward ending to my saga; I feel compelled to warn you about the dangers of oral flash experimentation. But I can’t, you see…you may have already headed to the closet where your camera bag is stored, you may be rummaging for the flash at this very moment…reverse psychology rears its ugly head.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

It's not easy being green.

I never wanted to hurt anybody. I never meant to foster ill will. I just wanted to be the greenest person in my college dorm on Saint Patrick's Day.

Back in my those days, our school actually budgeted for beer as a part of the social agenda. You could count on keg parties in the dorm basement on any major or minor holiday, as long as school was in session. The St. Patrick's Day party was greatly anticipated since the time was ripe for spring fever; trees were blooming, skin started showing, and beer needed drinking. Sophomore year, I decided to claim the green day as my holiday. After all, my Irish grandmother was born on St. Paddy's Day, and I like beer. (Okay, I looove beer.) So what better way to celebrate my Irish heritage than to win the "Greenest Person" contest at the Saint Patrick's bash?

My quest for victory began one weekend in February. I drove to Mom and Dad's for home cooking, clean laundry, and to find my old Cadette Girl Scout uniform. My green poly-cotton slacks became all they could be when paired with a dark green turtleneck. The green felt beret and vest topped off my leprechaun outfit. On the way back to school I purchased green face paint, green food coloring and green spray-on hair coloring. I was ready.

St. Patrick's Day fell blissfully on a Saturday. That meant my best friend could drive down from her school to take part in part in the revelry. While the dorm party commenced downstairs, our beer-fueled “project green” began upstairs. I donned the leprechaun garb, then coated my hair and shoes with the vaporous green spray. By this point, I was looking green and feeling green. I smeared the face paint all over to complete my "Incredible Hulk" look. After the green beret came my piece de resistance; I poured the entire bottle of food coloring into my beer and quaffed.

Enter one very green and wobbly leprechaun-Girl Scout into the St. Paddy’s party. A very scary leprechaun-Girl Scout, with no substrate or orifice showing that wasn’t green (except for the reddening whites of my eyeballs). The crowd embraced my viridity, however, and cheered when they saw my green teeth, tongue and mouth. The host of ceremonies shouted that I was the winner of the contest, and handed me a humongous Heineken mug as the trophy of honor. He then mumbled something about there actually being two winners, nodding towards a somewhat forlorn girl in the front of the crowd. She had a green plastic top hat, a green sweater, and green buttons on the sweater that probably said something like “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” No green skin, no green hair, and certainly no green teeth. She was holding a clump of green balloons. Apparently, she had been crowned the contest winner right before I walked in. I nodded and smiled at her, then toddled up to my room to shower my green sheen away. My buddy and I probably went out on the town that night; I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that I had my trophy, which I still have it to this day.

Or at least I thought that was all that mattered. It turned out that the green-sweatered young lady felt much maligned by my storming of the contest. She stewed about it and festered my name in her soul until our senior year, when a mutual friend discovered that this person hated my guts. She hated my guts because I sauntered in and stole her 15 minutes of fame. She bitterly assumed that I hated her in return. In reality, I was mystified by her enmity when I barely even remembered her. Thus transpired the long-distance peace talks between us; she would talk to our mutual friend, then he would relay her messages to me. My enemy eventually became a compatriot, once she realized that I hadn’t intentionally rained on her parade. I breathed a sigh of relief that my potential psycho-stalker had been appeased. I’ve come to the conclusion that Kermit the frog was right: It’s not easy being green.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Tartar free hair, anyone?

I brushed my hair with a toothbrush this morning, for real. I got in the car to go to work, looked in the mirror, and realized I had forgotten to tame my snarly head of hay. I had no hairbrush in the car, but found a grungy toothbrush in my makeup kit. (I use the toothbrush for shaping my eyebrows.) I keep the kit in the car so I will actually have time to put makeup on; I try not to impale my eyes with an eyeliner pencil while my husband drives us work. I'm not proud of the fact that I brushed my hair with a toothbrush; it's just an eye-opener as to how chaotic my life has become, and how I've adapted in order to cope. Better to tame your snarly head with an Oral-B, than with nothing at all, I guess...

I've developed a few other shortcuts in my coping strategy. A handheld shower spray nozzle is a great tool when you want to smell clean, but don't have time to wash and blow dry your hair. Simply pour shampoo around your neck, then use the handheld sprayer to shepherd foam down to your nooks and crannies.

Here's a wardrobe hint: alternate wearing the same two pair of trousers for a year; there's no time wasted choosing what to wear. (One of my two pairs of pants has needed hemming for a year. The turned under cuffs have permanently creased themselves to the point that I don’t need to hem them anymore.) Another hint: Buy one style of shirt in as many different colors as you can. You can wear them every day of the year if you frequently switch out your watches and jewelry. No one will notice, right?

Last week I used masking tape to seal a huge hole in the toe of my favorite chenille socks. It worked well, but haranguing visions of my mother floated around my head until they convinced me to throw the socks away.

My four-year old thought I was tres cool when I taught her this tooth brushing trick: fill your mouth with toothpaste and water, swoosh the minty liquid in your mouth for a few seconds, then spit. No, it’s not a replacement for dental hygiene, and no, it doesn’t really get your teeth clean, but at least it fools your mouth when time has run out for morning ablutions. Now that I think about it, I’ll have to do some toddler deprogramming on that one. (“Oh no, honey, mommy just did that to show you what *not to do....")

I don’t usually worry too much about looking and smelling like a bag lady. It gets me a round of sympathy and free food every now and then. But when I look at my twenty-something, ninety pound, neatly coiffed co-workers, I tend to get a case of the frumpys. Until I go back to my office and look at the pictures of my kids. My mood is automatically buoyed by seeing their fresh little faces, wearing fairly clean clothes and matching socks. I’ll live vicariously through them until they can dress themselves in the morning. At that point the fashion will probably be “grunge” again and they’ll dress like vagrants on purpose. Then I’ll have all the time in the world to brush my hair with a real brush.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The scoop on poop.

I’m well aware that I frequently write about dung, in both figurative and literal senses. So please excuse the topic, or move on to wilwheaton.net if you’d prefer to read entries most likely not to involve poop…

Having been a zookeeper of sorts and now being a parent of two humans, I have lots of experience with the stuff. Anyone raising kids has dealt with dirty diapers, so there’s not much I’ve encountered there that’s unique. However, being a Biology major and having been a primate keeper, I’ve come across the Good, the Bad and the Ugly offal of the animal world.

I once had the pleasure of observing a dung beetle (Scarabaeidae deltochilum gibbosum) at work in a local state park. He painstakingly rolled a foul little ball of excrescence along the Piedmont forest floor. (Some d. gibbosum bury balls of dung with their larval offspring inside. Both larvae and adults feed off the yummy “brood ball.”) He was so intent on getting his burden to its destination that I couldn’t fault him for his stinky addiction. Friends and family didn’t share the enthusiasm when I described my fascinating study; it’s hard to rally respect for a bug with a crappy moniker.

A quaint name, or even better yet, a quaint shape, can refine some scatological elements. One of my college biology professors related a story in class about wombat bowel movements. Apparently, wombats leave cube-shaped blocks of waste on rocks throughout the Australian outback. Professor W. found this lore difficult to believe, which spurred an Aussie colleague to collect and mail him a sample of the square stuff. Apparently airport security was confounded as to the contents of an incoming package labeled “one fumigated wombat scat.” Professor W. was delighted to report that wombats are indeed, capable of producing cubic ordure.

Delight is not a term I’d use to describe my frame of mind in this last indelicate narrative...
Shell-shocked is more like it, since I was the target of a carpet bombing mission of sorts. I was a primate technician responsible for the care of several outside "silo" cages of red ruffed lemurs. (Lemur varecia variagata rubra; similar in appearance to fluffy, medium-sized dogs.) The metal-gridded towers were tin roofed and stood several stories high. All silos contained a nest box, a huge tree stripped of bark and several dried vines. The varecia would caper from branch to branch at feeding time, eventually gathering at ground level platforms to eat. Feeding time was a piece of cake, compared to daily cage cleaning. I would enter a silo’s outer door with bucket, wirebrush and rake in hand. I could then walk down a short safety run and through an inner door to access the main silo area. Upon opening the inner door, it was common to hear the "plop plop" of stool ammo blasting the entryway. If I survived the gauntlet to make it to the silo’s center, I could look up and gauge the location of each buttock aimed at me. The challenge was on, however, to rake up the contents of the sandy cage floor before the bombers above could strafe my general direction with foulness. If victorious, I would escape unscathed, or simply with a stained shirt that I could change or wipe off. If defeated, I would slowly stomp my way to the facility shower, covered from head to toe in lemur pudding studded with decaying fruit. "Ohh," the perfumed front desk receptionist would utter with both sympathy and repulsion. I never encountered the center’s director during my “Trail of Smears,” but I fantasized that I might get hazardous duty pay if discovered in my humiliated state.

I never really came up with a foolproof solution to the silo-cleaning dilemma. I even had to chalk up a final victory to the red ruffs the day before I ended my career at the center. If there was anything to be learned from my experience under the "guns," it was this:

Don’t look up with your mouth open, unless you’re really certain what’s overhead.

Words of wisdom from an ex-zookeeper.