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 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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

All in a day's work, Primate Technician-Style.

The whispered words “country drive” right before lunchtime could bring chills to your spine and goosebumps to your flesh. Especially on a warm spring day, when the smell of the blossoming trees and plants and damp earth told you simply had to move, to explore, to do more than just sit at lunchtime. Of course we would end up sitting, because a country drive involved cramming into Fred’s ancient rust-fused yellow sedan and taking in whatever sites happened along the way.

There was always the promise of a “Deliverance” style country store down the gravel edged secondary roads. If we found one we’d stop, go in, and buy Moon Pies and a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. We’d covertly observe the obligatory homage to America’s hunting heritage: perhaps a glass case of rattlesnake’s head earrings, stuffed rattlesnakes coiled around ashtrays, or a variety of cobwebbed animal heads on the walls. It seems those of us who have been in the animal keeping vocation have a morbid fascination with how far humans will go to exploit animals. While we don’t condone it and will sign petitions, walk in protests, and give our own pets the most intensive loving care, we can’t help visiting roadside zoos in Florida with a sad, tired tiger panting in his cage with a rusty metal coffee can filled with dirty water. We then try calling the Humane Society, or ASPCA, feeling like we’ve done our duty as watchdogs of the unprotected, but somehow, those roadside zoos never seem to get closed down. As for the country stores, no one ever really seems to want to save the poor rattlesnakes. We just made a point to look at their dried out, frozen fangy faces and acknowledge that they once were alive, once they could have bitten the crap out of any idiot who tried to grab them and stick them on a belt buckle.

When our booty was duly purchased and we had made a mental survey of the store’s inhabitants (clothing, number of teeth missing, whether they were playing checkers, eating pork rinds, or just sleeping), we would jump in the car to digest our lethal snack food and to seek out other roads in the area that might lead to anything, anything of the slightest interest. From gigantic Muffler Men dethroned and reincarnated as Paul Bunyan in a farmer’s field, to abandoned old mills or pump stations along creeks, we sought out the camp, the historic; it really didn’t matter as long as we saw something worth discussing on the long drive back to work. At some point, some idiot in the car would start jabbering about how much they had to do today, or how this drive was taking too long. We would soon thereafter pull into the dusty and furrowed parking lot of the center, the magic spell of the country drive broken. An occasional burp from your beer or moon pie as you raked up lemur poo would bring back fond memories of a lunch worth remembering.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Always wash your coffee mug.

The dull muscle aches are setting in from yesterday’s hike up Occoneechee Mountain. I guess it’s officially a “hill,” since the only thing I recall from eighth-grade geography is that a mountain must be 1000 feet or higher in elevation. I’m going to call it a mountain anyway, since everybody else does, and 860 feet above sea level is high enough to give you breathtaking views and incredibly tired legs.

We crested the gravelly mountain trail and were looking for an optimal viewing spot to rest when my daughter gave the inevitable “I have to pee” call. I nervously directed her over the leafy forest floor, on the lookout for any happy snake families that might be enjoying an outing as well. We finally reached an optimal tree for screening our shiny white rears from the hikers on the mountain top above. I wiggled her pants, panties and shoes off and directed her to go facing downhill. “Why did you take my clothes off?” she inquired. “So that you won’t accidentally get them wet,” I replied. “Why do I have to face downhill?” came the next probe, to which I answered, “It will help the pee-pee to go away from your feet.” With all of my planning and Girl Scout cunning, my four-year old proceeded to release a yellow stream directly down her leg and onto her feet.

I became angry. Inwardly angry. Not at her, bless her heart, but at the poor mechanics women have for voiding anywhere, be it in the woods or on the commode of our own bathrooms. It is absolutely not fair to be equipped with sub-par relief systems. I’m not envious of the equipment of the opposite sex; I just want my own to perform without dysfunction. How many times have I done the very thing my daughter just did? How many times have I stood over a plague-laden public toilet seat, only to soak my underwear and legs when I missed the target? How many times have I ended up in extremely awkward situations after the call of nature hearkened at inconvenient times?
Read on, if you really must know.

Awkward Life Scarring Incident Number One:
I am twelve years old. I am camping with my father on a daddy-daughter outing, and have tried to ignore the late-night pain in my bladder to no avail. I follow the purple-white light of the bug zapper that serves as the outdoor light of the cinder blocked bathroom. I find both stalls occupied with grown-up women discussing grown-up things that both frighten and intrigue me. I stand against the bathroom wall quietly and politely until I am at the point of no return; I must go somewhere this very minute. I quietly tread into the shower stall, squat over the drain, and proceed to water my very stiff and very blue jeans. Perhaps a drop actually makes it into the drain. To my horror, one of the women now exits her stall and waits along the very wall I had been leaning on minutes before. Their scary mystifying discussion continues. Something about “histerektomees” and other things that my brain erases out of concern for my well-being. The other woman remains in her stall and I remain squatting in the shower, legs burning with lactic acid pain. I finally can stand it no longer. I am wet, tired, and want to be free of their marathon discussion. I stand up, emerge from the shower stall and walk with my head held high past the leaning woman. She watches me with baffled raccoon-eyes, thick with mascara. As I exit the shower and walk over the dewy wet grass to my tent, I hear her exclaim, “What the?!” “Some kid just walked right out of the shower, with all of her d*#! clothes on!!” I quickly zip myself into the tent where my father lay snoring. I drift into a wet, cold, and yet satisfying sleep.

Awkward Life Scarring Incident Number Two:
I am in my mid-twenties. I am staying with a friend for the weekend. We have gone to her grandmother’s house at the beach to take part in their family reunion. We swim, eat seafood, and socialize as new people keep arriving by the carload. By Saturday night, the house is so packed that I am relegated to sleeping on the floor in the laundry area. I sleep comfortably until late in the night, when I find myself again in a sleeping bag with an aching bladder. There is only one bathroom in the house. It is accessible only two ways: 1) through the grandparent’s bedroom, or 2) through the den and back hall, both filled with sleeping bags and sleeping bodies. I try to quietly open the laundry door to the yard outside but find it dead bolted no key in sight. The front door exit is blocked by a sofa-bed. I am trapped and yet I must go. I scan the washer and dryer area, hoping to find a bucket, or Mason jar, or anything to serve as a chamber pot. I spy a coffee mug on the lip of the stainless steel sink; it’s now or never. (The sink was too high and tight for access; believe me, I thought of it.) I grab the mug, lift my nightshirt and squat as tightly on the mug as I physically can. It’s not tight enough, however. I end up wetting the floor, my nightgown and my sleeping bag. And now I’ve peed in grandma’s coffee mug. I’m going to hell. I dump the mug’s contents into the sink, rinse the mug with a trickle of water, and mop the floor with paper towels. In the morning I wake early, scrub the mug like a madwoman and throw the damp sleeping bag into my car trunk. I shower, put on clean clothes and take a walk on the beach. When I get back to the house I decline coffee with breakfast.

Awkward Life Scarring Incident Number Three:
I am in my early thirties. I am pregnant with my first child. It is late in the evening. My husband is trying to wrestle his money out of a 24-hour bank ATM that doesn’t want to give it up. I watch him excitedly tap buttons on the keyboard, set his hands on his hips, and then throw hands up in the air, over and over. The baby decides to stand on my bladder, which makes the calling far stronger than that time in the campground shower, or the time at J.’s grandma’s house. I am in my car with nowhere to go to the bathroom. (The bank is closed.) I wave my hands frantically at my husband, who waves his hands frantically back at me and then turns around to resume his money-machine rain dance. I focus my watering eyes on the car floor to see a plastic souvenir cup (acquired at my husband’s alumni picnic). Without hesitation, I ratchet my car seat back and slide my body forward to the edge. I grab the plastic cup, shove it under my maternity dress and try to form an air-tight seal. I am rewarded with a mocking trickle down my ankle that wets my Birkenstocks and soaks the carpeting. My husband returns to the car to see me dump something out of his college cup and into the parking lot. I tell my tale with deadpan face; my husband gulps and starts the car. He drives home silently despite the wafting ammonia. I toss the souvenir cup into the outdoor trashcan before going inside to change my wet muumuu. After all, his alma mater and my alma mater were rivals. Maybe I could have held it if the cup had been from *my school.

Friday, March 05, 2004

The naked lunch. (Actually, it was supper.)

Let me begin with a testimony; I detest the type of restaurant we keep finding ourselves at these days...Those restaurants that have huge food bars of pasta, vegetables, and heart clogging fried entrees. They usually have a basket of obese yeasty rolls waiting at your table, dripping with bubbly butter slime. Yet this is the most convenient restaurant option; our toddlers like to forage from various tiny samples off the food chain. The noise levels in these places accommodate the unexpected rousing verse of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” quite well.

What I loathe is the organization and coordination it takes to survive in one of these sneeze guard jungles. You usually have to start in a line at a cute little soda fountain of sorts where you get drinks, trays and utensils. Strike one. Holding a tray of multiple drinks in one hand and a child’s hand in the other is a recipe for a soaking of lemonade napalm, or sticky red fruit punch. If you successfully juggle the tray and toddler past the cashier, you now get the patronizing “Let me help you” offering and smirk from the person waiting to seat you. Strike two. Now the death march to your table; the toddler will buzz frenetically around adjacent tables and the thirty-pound “baby” will try to use his weight leverage to dump out of your arms and into someone’s dinner. Strike three.

Let’s say you make it to your table without disaster. You now get to test your Scout knowledge of knots on the broken seatbelt of the baby’s high chair. You get to compete with the toddler for a seat next to daddy. And then, it’s time for the part I dread the most; the hunting and gathering of the food. You can: A) take the toddler and spend a lifetime getting her to choose from the smorgasbord, or B) fill a plate for baby and return to feed him immediately before the screams reach ear splitting decibels. Either way, you aren’t going to get to eat anything but scraps off the baby’s plate, if you’re lucky. If you do get the chance to slip out to fill a plate for yourself, you’ve left the other parent alone with the kids, vunerable.

That’s where I found myself one evening recently—left to conduct the traffic of mashed potatoes and spilled milk on the table while my husband desperately tried to find sustenance. Enter Murphy ’s Law. “I have to go to the bathroom,” my toddler whined. “Just wait, sweetie,” I pleaded, “Daddy will be back in a minute.” “No, I have to go NOW!” Any seasoned parent knows better than to let this statement go unheeded. I looked at the macaroni and cheese crusted baby and knew I didn’t have time to extricate him from my knots, nor could I leave him alone. “Okay,” I sermonized, “You’ve been in this potty a million times and you know which one is the girl’s, right?” “Uh-huh,” she murmured, legs crossed and eyes roving nervously. “I want you to go straight to the potty and straight out; do you understand me?,” I directed. “Okay, mommeeee,” I heard in a diminishing Doppler effect as she ran to the correct bathroom door and disappeared within.

Hey, thought I, that was easy! Wow, she’s just so grown up, I don’t give her enough credit sometimes. I shortly diverted my attention to the floor to retrieve my son’s pacifier and returned my eagle’s gaze on the woman’s bathroom door. “Hon!” I heard whispered in my direction. “Honey!” I heard my husband bark, concealed for the most part behind a wall of salad fixings. He pointed at the far side of the restaurant, where my daughter was walking around with undies and pants around her ankles announcing, “Mommy, Mommy, I need help!” Time came to a standstill. Something was out of place here. A half naked child just doesn’t walk around a restaurant... But mine did. Time hitched back into motion as I pondered why my husband wasn’t running over to snatch her from the guffawing crowd? My scanning eyes detected him crouched behind the salad bar, frozen in battle. “Go watch the baby!” I hissed in my most disgusted voice as I ran over to my daughter, slung her into my arms, and dashed for the bathroom.

I can’t even remember what her reasoning was for the peep show. I know I asked for an explanation and that she gave an answer, but it’s all a blur of recollection. What I’ll never forget was that feeling of pure mortification, and the snapshot of my poor husband, a prisoner of his own discomfiture behind the crudités. You gotta love the guy.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Jasmine, the killer microcebus.

Jasmine was no bigger than a hamster. She had chocolate brown orbs for eyes with huge black pupils, a petite mousy nose, and thin perky little ears that looked like shiny paper. But Jasmine was no mouse or hamster, she was a primate. (Species Microcebus Murinus to be exact; the gray mouse lemur.)

She was a “prosimian” primate, which meant she looked nothing like the monkeys and gorillas on the other side of the taxonomy tree. Sure, she had fingernails instead of claws, and tiny opposable thumbs on her tiny hands, but for all intensive purposes she looked like a run-of-the-mill mouse. A blood craving, psycho-mutant mouse from hell, that is. At least that’s how I viewed her after I’d been painfully indoctrinated as her caretaker.

I encountered Jasmine’s wrath shortly after I started my job as a Primate Technician. (See "Zookeeper for a while, Cynic for life” if you’re giggling at my job title. No, we didn’t use wrenches on monkeys!!) As a biology major fresh out of college, I had stars in my eyes. How noble I was, nurturing endangered species at this wonderful facility. Noble my tuckus. A firm chomp on the finger was my reward the first time I presented Jasmine with her lovingly prepared lunch of chopped fruit and monkey chow. (Yes, Purina Monkey Chow. No fooling.) So began my ill-matched relationship with Jasmine; she terrorized my days, while my ragged fingers satisfied her lust for dominion.

I would actually tremble when the time would come to open her cage door. She’d freeze in the optimal ready position, waiting to grab some flesh. Then she would either get down to the business of eating her food, or she’d bounce Matrix-style off the food dish and into my face. Passers-by to the window weren’t likely to see Jasmine—they were likely to see me thrashing and flailing about the room in my St. Vitus’ dance. If you think catching grasshoppers is a challenge, try shortstopping a bouncing furry vampire with opposable thumbs.

Jasmine’s reign of terror was finally rear-ended by a blessed event; the birth of her twin daughters, Nutmeg and Cinnamon. She took to the role of motherhood right away, sitting protectively in the nest tube with her precious charges. I wasn’t prepared for my complacent reception at feeding time; where were the teeth? Where was the sound and fury? Alas, an end to an era had come, and Jasmine the terrible was no more. From then on, I didn’t have to wear a garden glove to open her cage door. My blood pressure didn’t soar to skin prickling heights when I needed to clean her cage. It was a relief, and at the same time a letdown. I didn’t get to affect an air of superiority when I entrusted her care to a junior technician later in the year. I couldn’t say, “look out for that one” or, “I’ve got a few tips and tricks I’ll need to show you.” Jasmine left my care without ceremony or goodbyes, but maybe it was better that way. The bonds of fingers bitten and fur flying are strictly between Jasmine and me.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Big Brother is watching you.

We bit the financial bullet and bought a digital video camera this year, hoping to capture shining family moments to burn for posterity on DVD. We’ve captured the shining family moments, now if we can just figure out how to beat a PC into submission to burn them to DVD. (Yeah, yeah, I know, get a Mac and iMovie; I would love to do nothing more, but transferring files from home to work is easier if we to stick to one platform.)

I’ve taken note as we’ve filmed the kids at various stages of cuteness; the mild-mannered one-year old is never in a frame for more than two seconds before the whirlwind four-year old blasts on scene, pushing said baby brother out of view. Ah, the recollections spring forth of times I’d asked my mother to see our home movies of me as a child. She’d set up the movie screen and we’d watch amidst the whirring of the movie projector. I would ask, “Where was I?" "Where are the movies of me?” “That was you right before your brother popped in,” Mom would say, referring to the five-second little white blip. “Aww, look at him in his little cowboy outfit...” The circle of life grinds on today as it did back then.

I think it just goes with the territory that the oldest sibling expects more attention—after all, their birth and safekeeping is the focal point of their inexperienced parents. Subsequent siblings realize that there are multiple chicks in the family nest and live accordingly, having never known any other way. Subsequent siblings are also prone to a phenomenon I’ve experienced personally; hero worship of the eldest brother or sister.

I’ve watched my son grin toothily as my daughter grabs his hand, trying to squeeze the blood right out of his fingertips. I’ve seen him laugh heartily as she banged on his “busy table” with his favorite plastic tractor. I’m sure he’d squeal gleefully, even if she burned his beloved stuffed whale on a pyre of his “Baby Einstein” tapes. That’s just the way idolatry works; your idol can do no wrong. Which is why I thought my brother was the coolest thing since the EZ-Bake oven when he tied me to a tree, told me I needed to learn about Houdini, and walked away. I really did learn how Houdini escaped his cords, albeit by coincidence. I clenched my fists and held my arms stiff as boards when he tied me up; upon relaxing my muscles I found the rope was loose enough to slip out of with minor rope chafe. Voila!

I also handle elevator breakdowns with peace of mind thanks to his claustrophobia experimentation. Brother would open up the den sofa bed and encourage me to climb through the horizontal gap between the mattress and the sofa back. This would dump me into a little 6’x 3’ “cave” that had absolutely no room for anything but laying flat down on the cold linoleum floor. He then would proceed to stuff the sofa cushions into the gap above, blocking out all light and escape routes. He would talk to me in hypnotist’s purring voice, saying things like, “just breathe deeply,” or “just relax” as my tension built and a freak-out became imminent. He would pull back the cushions in disgust after a minute or two of me banging and yelling from my upholstered coffin, my failure to thrive a strike against me. Eventually I could no longer fit under the sofa; at that age I secretly wished I could go down there to see how long I could last.

Teen hood brought an end to the mad scientist bond we shared, with both of us preferring the company of our peers. Sometimes brother would ask me to help him decode the notes of a guitar chord, or he’d play his “Tommy” by The Who album for me, but our time together was infrequent and low key. The days of brother worship were gone, but a mutual tolerance had developed that I could live with.

As my brother grew older and moved on to college, marriage, and eventually parenthood, our time together grew slimmer yet more precious. I would go to his house once or twice a year to visit, our time often spent enjoying good food and sharing cd favorites. Our canoe foray down a murky Dismal Swamp canal has become a highlight of fond memories. We didn’t end up anywhere of note and we didn’t see anything spectacular, but it was time together, to talk, and laugh at or with each other. That’s where I hope the wobbly circle of life takes my two children; to a point where they’ll cherish each other as adults, despite the tumultuous “experiments” along the way.

I used to get emails from my big brother with the cryptic number “1984” at the end of them. I finally called him one day to get the scoop, and he indignantly replied, “C’mon, Vick, the book '1984'—'Big Brother'...Get it?” I thanked him for clearing up the mystery, and noted to self that he was on a cerebral plane that I will never likely reach in my lifetime. But it doesn’t matter. I used to love him just ‘cause he was my big brother, now I love him ‘cause he’s my big brother.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Won't you be my neighbor?

Good fences supposedly make good neighbors. Yet you’re supposed to love your neighbor as well, according to the robed one. I can unequivocally state that I love my neighbors; I adore my neighbors. I must have moved into Beaver Cleaver’s old neighborhood, because the kids say “please and thank you” and the adults look out for each other’s homes and well-being. My old neighborhood was a swell second; I had steadfast friends to the left of me, and seasoned parents to the right of me who were ripe with good advice and helping hands. (I knew we were kindred spirits when they brought my vacation mail to me in a cardboard Miller Lite box.) Sure, our tiny crammed-together houses were identical save the house paint, but it was a good neighborhood nonetheless.

Apparently the good neighbor vibe mostly applies to home-dwellers with little grassy patches of buffer zone. I always made a point of being polite to my neighbors back in the “apartment days,” but the paradigm changes somewhat in the face of population density and lack of soundproofing. My husband and I chose “Pinegate” to be our first apartments of wedded bliss. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment, our ferrets Barney and Scooter in tow, and proceeded to live a compact yet comfortable life. We never expected our neighbor across the breezeway to be a part of that life, and yet he was, with knife and liquor bottle in hand.

Our first encounters with Dan were nothing more than mumbled exchanges of “hi” as we opened or closed our respective apartment doors. As time progressed, his greetings evolved to the point of “how you doing-”, or “how’s it going?”. They evolved to the extent that we noticed his slurred speech, his flamingo-pink bloodshot eyes and cloud of alcohol vapor that seemed to surround his person. Yet Dan was a nice guy. We obviously learned his first name, he learned ours, and we began to knock on each other’s doors if we got locked out and needed a phone, or needed jumper cables, or whatever.

One day Dan knocked on the door as my husband and I were hunkering down to dinner in front of the TV. “What’s that you guys eatin?”, he inquired with hungry eyes. “African Fire Pork Stew,” I remarked sheepishly, feeling somehow embarrassed being a white girl eating food from the homeland of my African-American neighbor. “Is it good?” he inquired. “Try some—” I replied, the little Samaritan in me feeling good that I could feed our tawny scrawny neighbor. He was headed out, he said, so I fixed him a bowl and told him to refrigerate it and eat it later. Same time, next day there was a knock on the door. Dan stood there with a hefty woman to his left, empty bowl in hand. “What’s this stuff again?” “It’s good! ” “Can we get some more?

And so we were introduced to Dan’s girlfriend, R., and began a bizarre relationship based mostly on them coming over to eat our food, or “borrowing” beers. (Yes, looking back, it probably wasn’t prudent to give an alcoholic his fuel, but we were poor at the time so we didn’t have much to share anyway...) A story in itself would be the night we were invited to Dan’s party, where I met “Zeke the m.f’ing freak”. He slurringly threatened to kill me within the first five minutes I arrived, and ended up dancing to the “Gap Band” with me before it was all over. But I digress.

The days with Dan were without incident for the most part, so I didn’t have a second thought when my big brother suggested he’d come over one Saturday for a visit. Which is the exact day that Dan went berserk and my brother decided his sister was insane for living in a crack world. It started with the typical knock on the door. Only it was a pounding; I should have paid attention to the pounding. But I opened the door like a dimwit, and R. barreled past me in a sweaty shove, saying “Dan gone crazy!” “Dan got a knife and he gone crazy!” Oh crap.

I agreed to let her use the phone as I locked the door with chain, deadbolt and knob lock. I didn’t know she was going to call Dan. My heart went into my stomach as I heard her taunt, “You better let him get his money!” “No, I ain’t telling you where I am!” “You can’t do nothing to me!”. It turned out Dan owed R’s “little” brother some money, and now had cut the young man with a knife in lieu of payment. As I peered out the peep-hole, I saw a streak of blood on Dan’s door. “Go get him, baby!” I heard R. scream, as I saw to my horror that she had moved to my outdoor balcony. She was encouraging her brother, who had returned from his car with a crowbar. So much for the secret of her location.

The crowbar gashes on Dan’s door and the dripping of blood on the stairs and second-floor landing created a graphic symphony of sights for my brother, who pulled into the driveway as the police led Dan away in handcuffs. (R. and little brother took possession of his apartment like feudal lords.) I give my brother credit for not shrieking in horror and driving away—instead he gave me a casual, “Sis, what gives?”, and walked to my apartment amidst drops of blood and door paint flakes. I lamely came up with a watered-down version of the story, and we went about our day as if nothing ever happened. But I couldn’t help staring at the metal slashes and scrapes on the door across from ours, even when Dan quietly moved out the next week. They never fixed that door, and we never got to know our new neighbor well enough to explain what had happened to it.

Monday, March 01, 2004


Back to a slightly more normal week of work and living after snow and sickness altered the norms for a while. The snow was a letdown, alas. The streets were never blanketed in white and the grass tips pointed through what did stick to indicate this was a failed attempt at a winter wonderland.

When we do get a decent snowstorm, I love the way the snow covers the ground and all surroundings to erase as many manmade interventions as possible. Pavement and street markings, sidewalks and parking places all disappear under a duvet of white, almost allowing your imagination to envision that "this is what it looked like around here a hundred years ago"--before we developed the heck out of every nook and cranny and strung phone lines and electric cable allover the daggone place.

I tend to get a time-travel sensation at night when the snow is whirling down from fog white mists. I almost expect to see a horse drawn carriage appirate out of the veil, white powder dusting the coachman's top hat. When the fading dusk light makes snow glow an eerie blue, to the dark of night when snow appears brown but beautiful under halogen lights, I think that snow is god's way of saying, "Look--this is what it used to be like here. See how pretty it was before you littered it with all of your mess?"