Friday, December 22, 2006

"More Centrally American"

This may be my last post for a couple of weeks, for Groom and I, some months back, bolstered by a few shots of whiskey slammed down during a State of the Union address (by the end, we were channeling David Byrne, chopping on our arms, and slurring, "This is not our beautiful country"), decided to take Wee Niblet and Girl to



*Guatemala* for two weeks.

Really, what better place to let The Kiddles have their first international adventures (not counting Thunder Bay) than a country recovering from a civil war? If they're going to make it in this world, they need to know early and young that good coffee comes from countries where indigenous people have been "disappeared" through guerilla warfare.

We haven't even been teaching them any helpful Spanish or Mayan phrases but instead have been honing their pronunciation of a single French term: "coup d'etat."

Last weekend, for further preparation, we took them to see Mel "I hate Jews, but only when I'm drunk" Gibson's APOCOLYPTO. There's nothing sweeter than hearing my three-year-old son's voice, piping up in the darkness: "Mommy, what's a human sacrifice? Is that like the time I lost my Martian Manhunter action figure?"

All right, so actually we're planning a rather-benign family vacation to visit my sister, who teaches at an "American-style" Guatemalan school in Guat City ("So, as long as we're reading Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, would anyone like fries with that?"). We'll travel to a waterpark, a volcanic lake, and the town where my sister gets her eyelashes tinted. I predict, as well, that many a local market will benefit from our desire for gorgeous, colorful fabrics and folkart.

Along the way, I'm sure I'll take a header into some lava or mangle my Spanish attempts and end up asking a waitress for "more green knuckles in my shoehorn"; in short, when I get back, you can be assured of a few new Jocelyn As Traveler Dork tales.

(Them ain't puffs of smoke coming out of those volcanoes; them is word balloons in which Jocelyn is screeching "YEEEEOOOWWW, but lava stings my suppurating sores!").

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"The Best You Can Hope for in the Hoosegow is a Sealy Posturpedic"

Consider this story of misdirected holiday hopes, broadcast last week on NPR:

Richard Perez of Lake Station, Indiana, wanted to impress his beloved wife by giving her a plasma television this Christmas. The rub was that he didn't actually feel compelled to *pay* for the TV.

At this point, a little Grinchian ingenuity kicked in, and Richard brainstormed: "Hear me out on this, brain: I work as a security guard at the Radisson, and that's a company, right? And it's companies what sell stuff, right? And sometimes they don't even sell stuff but even give it way, right? Plus the really good companies sometimes call that giving away dealie 'a holiday bonus,' right? And can I even help it if the Radisson Company Place is too busy or cheap or confused to sort out its holiday bonuses this year? Well, I can kind of help it, I suppose. I could help them bonus me because they are, after all, a Company Place, and I do work there. Has anybody seen my box of wine? I got the Peachy Reunite' the other day on clearance at the Chug 'N Drop."

Enjoy the wine, you criminal genius; that job at the Radisson? Not for long, Poor Richard. Not for long.

His mind made up, Perez punched in at work ("If I'm on the property, I'm on the clock, baby. Hey, how long 'til my break? I need a Marlboro but bad") and shortly thereafter, forgetting all about the hotel's surveillance cameras--as a security guard, why *would* he remember?--he enlisted the aid of his favorite righthand man and best friend: an empty luggage cart.

Entering an unoccupied room, Perez loaded up Best Friend with a 42-inch plasma TV and a Sleep Number bed system (one of those doohickies that can adjust mattress position and firmness). Knowing that a plasma TV and a Sleep Number bed system might, *cough cough*, look suspicious on a luggage cart, especially as he rolled them out of the hotel and up to his idling van, Richard cleverly disguised the cart by draping a sheet over it. ("In all my years here at the Radisson as a security guard, I know I've never stopped anyone and asked 'em, 'Yo, what you got under that sheet on your luggage cart, Mortimer?' I don't dis people like that, and plus also the customer is always right, and some people might just need a sheet over a luggage cart, like me tonight as I bonus myself.")

On tiny cat feet, he then slyly hoisted the goods into his getaway vehicle, drove home--gunning it to 80 mph all the way--and wrapped up the TV for his wife (in my mind, she is named Carlene), sticking it under the tree with a card that read: "To Mom, Honeybunny, from Big Papa, Daddy." Then he retired to the comfort of his newly-positioned and firmed mattress, watching the old TV and hollering, "NOOOO deal" at Howie Mandel, until...

...the police showed up, warrant in hand, to cuff Big Papa (reading him his Veranda Rights), ruin Carlene's Christmas, and take a quick joy ride on the Sleep Number. In true Spinal Tap fashion, they were overheard directing Newbie Officer David St. Hubbins, "Crank it to Eleven!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

"An Acceptional Tail"

I read and grade papers for a living. While I was recently compelled to poke a hole in my eardrum with a mechanical pencil when I read the 9,543rd paper on "why bow hunting rocks," for the most part, my job has its perks: a great schedule, lots of autonomy, and an office door that locks.

One of the non-contractual perks, though, is cackling at student errors. If you are one of my students and are reading this right now, rest assured I would never chuckle at *you*--no you are all that is triumphant luminosity and startling genius; it's all the others to whom I'm referring. Most certainly, you would *never* struggle with subject/verb agreement or rely on spellcheck over what your human instincts might tell you.

I used to keep a comprehensive list of these nuggets, but then, after the time a student wrote an essay, quite tearily, about how her family had just buried her grandmother with the things most important to her--her Peekapoo (euthanized) and her bingo dauber--my spirit for list-keeping sagged like K-Fed's Calvins.

Nowadays, I keep a casual Hall of Homonymic Fame jotted down onto my gradebook:

"I hate it when they put someone up on a pedal stool."

"Chris found a rancid note, asking for a thousand dollars, or his hamster would be killed."

"The mother had many paternal feelings for her child."

"The veranda rights suck."

"All my life, I've wanted to attend the Super Bowel."

"Americans have no work ethnic at all."

The jokes make themselves, really, don't they? In fact, my reactions to these errors morph into a kind of sound-alike story problem: "If we put the kidnappers up on a stool and then pumped them up really high, how many stench-filled threats could they throw down? And if your mother is both a cop and a tranny, how many hours does it take her to gently cuff the perps while also serving them mint juleps? Further, if we add in one person worshipping at a colon, can we then arrive at a country that has built itself on the backs of its working ethnics?"

Today, however, I had to reorder the trophies on the Hall of Fame shelf, clearing a space in the center for this one:
"Victoria's Secrete hasn't done this country any good."

Hmmmm. I dare venture the opinion that many, many people are grateful for Victoria's secretions, even now, in cold and flu season.

As I ponder the possibility of models, doing the slinky walk and oozing from all orifices, even those covered by their million-dollar lingerie, all I know is that I'll take reading error-littered student work anyday over a job as the mop-up guy after Vickie's televised runway show.

(EWWW. Just look at the work awaiting Mop-Up Dude #3; the floor is slick with it)

As I return now to my grading, I find myself

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"Downward-Facing ADHD Doggie:
Frantic Yoga"
I may pride myself on being a hearty soul, but the truth is that I host a puny inner wuss, a very small person who lives inside me and who doesn't like scary or creepy things like:
people knocking on my front door wearing crisp white shirts and neckties, travelling only in pairs, wielding a fistful of "literature";
headless Barbies;
leggings underneath dresses;
lots of shots of Jagermeister;
J. Lo's ghoulish husband Marc Anthony (leader of the Latin Vampire Cadre--"now serving blood-based salsa in the Green Room; all those with backstage passes, prepare to meet your fate");
Texan housewives, with their big red mouths continually yacking and shellacked hairdos never moving, even under the duress of rhetoric blown at high, unthinking speeds out of their husbands' mouths;
gaggles of Red Hat Society Ladies, out for tea, having rented a limo for the afternoon;
alligator on-a-stick (attendees of the Minnesota State Fair know whereof I type)

Such things make me shriek like Nicole Ritchie, all smoked up, seeing flashing lights in the rear view mirror. And then we both grab our cell phones and call our publicists (Nicole: "Um, yea, so I smoked some pot, and then took a little blue pill, and I really had to drive because I absolutely had the munchies, but I can't actually eat anything cuz I already had my tic-tac today, so I thought maybe I'd just go stare at the Hollywood sign and think about how it looks like it could be made of Twizzlers." *** Me: "Omigod, I totally just slapped that Texan housewife when she told me I should wear more gold. How can we spin this to The Duluth Tribune?").
But what if my publicist is out for cocktails at PURE with Pamela Anderson and Jamie Foxx and doesn't pick up? What to do then?
Well, I could assuage my fears by attending a calming yoga class, right? I mean, through controlling my breathing and working through a series of sustained poses, I could cleanse my chakras and free myself from the willies engendered by women who wear too much make-up; I could re-center; and I could get back to what's important (like how the Hollywood sign looks like it could be made out of Twizzlers).
So one day, after a run-in with a headless Barbie (that'll teach me to vacuum under the beds), I was forced into an emergency visit to yoga class--all I needed was that reliable, gentle atmosphere and a few warrior poses, and the mantra of "no head, no head, Skipper had no head, no head, no head, but she had on excellent pumps, but no head, no head, no head" would be banished from my brain.
Upon entering the room, I noticed the teacher had not yet arrived, so I spent a little time sniggering at a couple of the other class attendees (not so very yogic of me, I concede), especially the woman in full make-up, sporting a sternum full of jewelry and one of those off-putting coordinated gym outfits. What the pajeebus is up with women like this? Naturally, I assumed she was a Texas housewife, visiting the city to see how we do our downward dogs north of Ye Olde Mason-Dixon line.
Suddenly, however, this woman reoriented her mat and welcomed us all to class. Wait a Mary Kay minute, but she was the teacher! After a few words to greet newcomers and a couple tips on how to use a flatiron for best effect when straightening hair, Mary Kay Yogi started class.
What ensued made me long for more quiet, quality time with Headless Skipper; at least she and I could stay focused on each other for more than ten seconds at at time. Mary Kay Yogi, though, moved through each pose in rapid time--we barely held "Free Pink Sedan" pose for a nanosecond-- keeping us moving at a staccato pace for an hour while we held each pose "for five breaths" (if those breaths were coming out the mouth of a mouse in Mile 18 of a marathon). I would no sooner hit a pose than she'd dismiss it, calling, "Okay, let's shake it out."
I don't know much, but I know this much is true: in yoga class, the words "let's shake it out" are antithetical to everything that the holding and breathing and shaking and sweating are supposed to be about. No, no, no "let's shake it out."
Normally, I leave a yoga class feeling refreshed and cleaned out, ready to face the Red Hatters of the world, but that day, after my mandatory post-class makeover, during which I learned the proper application of false eyelashes, I felt, well,
Go, um, Spurs?
(shout out to Rocco)

Monday, December 11, 2006

"East Or West, My Couch Is Best"

More adventures from the "Jocelyn As Idiot Runner" Files:

I am the kind of person who can get lost between my house and my job (where I've worked for six years). I can take a wrong street on my way to Cub Foods and end up doing an 18-point turn to back myself away from a creek I never knew existed. I can head out, confidently, to find the mall, only to discover that I'm in a small touris town 26 miles north of here.

In short, I'm severely directionally challenged. It's so bad that my Wee Kiddles, small children who can barely get themselves onto a toilet without help, are able to call out, as we drive, "Maaaa, you were supposed to turn right back there." Yea, whatever. At least I can myself onto the toilet unaided--knock wood.

So it was with no small trepidation that I challenged myself to undertake a new sport last year: orienteering. An overview of orienteering would go like this: throw yourself out into the woods with only a confusing map and a compass and try to find small, hidden flags as fast as you can. There is a reason why all competitors are required to carry a whistle: HELPPPP, I'VE FALLEN, AND I CAN'T GET OUT OF THE LUMPY HUMMOCK!

Before starting my first orienteering race in Big Woods State Park, I made darn certain that my husband was acquainted with the sound of my particular whistle, so he could come find me after 10 hours had elapsed and before my need for a hamburger and chocolate caused me to wring the neck of a squirrel and cobble together a spit on which to roast it.

And then I was off. The clock started, I copied the "control" points onto my topographical map, and I dashed, with great enthusiasm, into the woods.

Several moments later, I re-appeared, turned in a circle several times, scratched my head, and then dashed off into the woods the opposite direction.

And then, for the next hour, I stopped, scratched, and dashed with regularity, looking over the map and cross-referencing what I was seeing in the woods with the symbols on the map. Was I standing in a "dry ditch" or and "erosion gully"? Was that mound in front of me an "earth bank" or a "small knoll"?

Eventually, I managed to find all seven control points and punch my little orienteering card each time (and I am big enough to admit that I only found a couple of the control points by tagging behind other muddy souls who were in my same race).

At the end, when I came blistering out of the woods into the bright sunshine, I felt as though days had elapsed, not a mere hour; the journey had been that complex. I was a new woman, one who had learned deep lessons while under the canopy of the oaks: nature is confounding; some people either "got it" or they "ain't" when it comes to directionality; and I should never again leave the safety of my couch.

By the way, if you have any extra time today, please come find me. I'm lost.

All I wanted to do was walk to my kitchen after writing this, but now I'm in a really small, dark place...wait a minute, I just pulled a Batman action figure out from my armpit...ooh, and there's a Blue's Clues camera resting on my clavicle...and some legos stuffed up in my nostrils...I guess I'm in my kids' toybox.

Bring food. And a compass.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Tell Me I'm Pretty, Then Watch Me Cling: Lonely Hearts and Icy Lungs"

Yesterday on the Western Waterfront Trail:

-10 degree wind chill + an hour of trail running = me, in the clearance bin at the Lunacy Mart

That's the new math.

Three minutes into the run, I was giving myself a serious dressing down: "Okay, this blows like Mt. St. Helen's. This sucks like a Dirt Devil hand-vac. This bites like a curry powder donut."

Then I sneezed, and all my teeth shattered, so the rest of my ravings were just gummy mutterings. Suffice it to say, I would rather have been one of Britney Spears' neglected children (well-dressed and warm, if illiterate) than out in that cold.

But I was determined to continue, as I have a complex and semi-deranged mental process through which I "earn" late-night sweets by moving my body during the day. And I knew there were warm brownies coming my way at 10 p.m. So I continued to run. And curse. And feel like the wind was a State-Fair-demonstrated Ginsu knife, cutting and piercing and peeling and flaying my bits, all to the amazement and applause of the onlooking trees.

Changing tack, I decided to try role-playing, something normally best saved for dominatrixes and couples therapy, but essential in this situation. So I pretended I was Will Steeger...and then Anne Bancroft or Liv Arneson...and then Robert Scott...and then I had a revelation: pretending to be a polar explorer, about to die of scurvy, hunger, and frostbite, was some pretty dumb motivation. Rather, I should cast myself in the role of a down comforter or a pair of fleece underwear.

There, that was better. I was a pair of fleece underwear, nestled in some Scandia down. Much better. I was even able to admire the amber weeds, frozen in the bay, and the enthusiastic lone hockey player out on the ice next to me; he'd set up his own goal and was skating, shooting, and then raising his arms triumphantly in the air with each "GGGOOOOAAAAALLLL!" Yea, this fleece underwear business was going okay.

And then I yawned, and my jaw broke in twelve places. The coldness had not receded...and did not until I started paying attention to the NPR story playing on my headphones, a story about a new book compiled by David Rose (They Call Me Naughty Lola), excerpts from which had me cackling to the point that the icicles dangling from my nostrils finally cracked and fell to the ground with a melliflous tinkle. The book relates the phenomenon of personals ads in The London Review of Books; these ads have become a showcase for clever people who, instead of writing notices that detail their love of long walks on the beach and dedication to playing Scrabble, portray themselves as idiosyncratic, even repugnant, misfits:

'They call me naughty Lola. Run-of-the-mill beardy physicist (M, 46).'

'I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest comedown I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34.'

'List your ten favourite albums... I just want to know if there's anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35.'

'Employed in publishing? Me too. Stay the hell away. Man on the inside seeks woman on the outside who likes milling around hospitals guessing the illnesses of out-patients. 30-35. Leeds.'

'I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out and covered in too much tahini. Before long I'll have discarded you on the pavement of life, but until then you're the perfect complement to a perfect evening. Man, 32, rarely produces winning metaphors.'

'My ideal woman is a man. Sorry, mother.'

'Your buying me dinner doesn't mean I'll have sex with you. I probably will have sex with you, though. Honesty not an issue with opportunistic male, 38.'

'Not everyone appearing in this column is a deranged cross-dressing sociopath. Let me know if you find one and I'll strangle him with my bra. Man, 56.'

'Are you Kate Bush? Write to obsessive man (36). Note, people who aren't Kate Bush need not respond.'

'Stroganoff. Boysenberry. Frangipani. Words with their origins in people's names. If your name has produced its own entry in the OED then I'll make love to you. If it hasn't, I probably will anyway, but I'll only want you for your body. Man of too few distractions, 32.'

'Ploughing the loneliest furrow. Nineteen personal ads and counting. Only one reply. It was my mother telling me not to forget the bread on my way home from B&Q. Man, 51.'

'Mature gentleman, 62, aged well, noble grey looks, fit and active, sound mind and unfazed by the fickle demands of modern society seeks...damn it, I have to pee again.'

'Slut in the kitchen, chef in the bedroom. Woman with mixed priorities (37) seeks man who can toss a good salad.'

'Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.'

'Romance is dead. So is my mother. Man, 42, inherited wealth.'

'67-year-old disaffiliated flâneur jacked up on Viagra on the lookout for contortionist who plays the trumpet.'

'Looking for a man who doesn't name his genitals after German chancellors (not even Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, however admirable the independence he gave to secretaries of state may have been).' [sidenote: this woman, a 38-year-old local government arts official with an interest in Bismarck, said that she been inspired by a disastrous experience with a date who announced over the tiramisu that he called his private parts "Asquith," after the late British prime minister. "I'm fairly easy-going, but I specifically didn't want another dessert-spoiler," she said, explaining that the only thing she could think of worse than a wartime prime minister was a pre- Weimar German chancellor.]

'My favorite Ben & Jerry's is Acid- Boiled Bones of Divorce Lawyer.'

'I wrote this ad to prove I'm not gay. Man, 29. Not gay. Absolutely not.'


My first reaction to hearing these ads was, "Wow. These people sound like bloggers! I would totally read their posts." My second reaction was, "Wait a minute, is that my car over there? I'm done already with this trail of frozen tears? Wahoodlie!"

I sprinted towards the car, tripping over a train track in the process; and the sound of my iced-up tibula splintering when I fell was a dark melody in the still, white, frosty air.

As I slowly crawled to the car over the course of the next hour, I stopped occasionally and patted together little sno-cones to suck off my gloves--what refreshing hors d'oevres!

It was getting late, and I was dragging my carcass through the snow with my shards of teeth, broken jaw, and fractured leg, but my heart remained warm, thanks to the wit of strangers. May they all meet and marry...and bring me warm brownies in the hospital.

"Suffering From Twinklementia: Color Me Ronnie"

Zoom in on 1997:

One day, having just slammed a triple-shot mocha in an effort to fight off a marauding hoard of the late-afternoon grumps, I made a new friend.

As I exited the coffee shop, a woman--a stranger to me--came up and said, "I see you all the time around here, and you always have such a twinkle in your eye. I know that means you are a naturally happy person, to have that sparkle. I can just tell from the way you smile. It's just like the twinkle Ronald Reagan always had in his eye; I mean, I always knew we were in good hands with him, not like nowadays with those guys they've got going. Yes, you're just like Reagan. But I don't even want to think about how he is now and whether or not that twinkle is gone. He just made me feel so safe and secure, but now when I think about it, I just feel so sad and as though it's the end of my world. What will I do when that twinkle is gone forever?"

Nervously, I pointed to the sky, shouting, "Look, it's, um, a satellite with military capabilities, and I'm late for a date with Leona Helmsley to discuss trickle down economics, so gotta dash!"

Then I hopped in my Honda hatchback and gunned it for the Arby's.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Ehhhh? I Cain't Hear You 'Lessin' I Turn Up My Hearing Aid"

Here's a statement that most everyone--outside of perky cheerleader Homecoming Queens, Buzz Lightyear, Paris Hilton, Lassie, and Barack Obama--can agree with: "I've spent a large part of my life feeling not cool but wishing I were."

Certainly, my desire to be "cool" has steadily and mercifully waned since high school ended, and my standards of "cool" have also evolved. Twenty years ago, "cool" was tied into what I did on the weekends, who I hung out with, and what shoes I wore. Nowadays, though, my idea of "cool" has little to do with any of those things (except for the shoes part; I mean, a *foin* pair of shoes will always rock my personal runway). I can sit on the couch all weekend, watching THE WIRE with my husband, wearing my favorite Keen shoes, and that keeps me plenty hip, in a I'm-clutching-onto-age-39-by-the-cuticles-of-my-scraggly-fingernails way. So I haven't seen Coldplay or Moby in concert. So I've never had a Cosmopolitan or an Appletini. So I can't remotely claim that anything in my life is "avant garde."

The grace of being almost-damn-forty is that I don't care one whit about my lack of cool, and what a glorious release that is, compared to the days of age sixteen, when my friend Charlene and I would stand in the halls of West High School between classes, raising our arms up for each other, instructing, "Sniff me. Am I pitting out?"

Recent decades have brought the peace that comes with believing "pitting out" is just another weapon in my charm holster. Frankly, I just can't be bothered to go all Anna Nicole just because I actually smell, look, taste, and feel like a human being rather than an artificial overlay of one.

In short, there's a whole lot of ease that accompanies the attitude of "So what?" More often than not, the people who actively strive to stay "with it" strike me as the uncool ones, the ones to feel sorry for. I can do without that whole game, really.

Or so I thought.

Then the other week, in the classroom with my college students, my "I'm Living the New Kewl" house of cards toppled. Until the toppling, I was fine with not being "cool" because I felt, way deep down, that this lack of caring actually made me cool (check the DSMV-IV under "James Dean Syndrome"). But as that mental deck of cards wafted to the table, I epiphanized: how much do I genuinely not care about being up-to-the-moment if I remain careful to toss out offhand "I'm still with it" references around members of the Millenial Generation?

"Man, I can't believe Nickelback is actually popular. They're so lame. Give me Insane Clown Posse anyday."

"I know what you mean about Ugg boots. Since when does comfort equal style?"

"Did you see that crazy giggling baby on You Tube today?"

"I love your ringtone! I swear you *are* Fergilicious!"

"Is that a Go-gurt? How clever is yogurt in a plastic tube? I mean, you're doing shots of food right here in the computer lab, multitasking as you write your thesis statement. Now that's just smart food."

"Check you out! You are a text-messaging, Web-surfing savant. Who knew you could add people to your friends list on Myspace while also telling your boyfriend, 'i wnt out.'?"

"Wow, you're into hardcore? Are you a straight-edger? Do you thrown down a little 2-step?"


The Sobering of Jocelyn began with one comment at the beginning of class, "Man, nobody is here today. What's going on? I know it's the end of the term and a Friday and all, but wassup, homefries?"

In response to my questioning, Helpful Student Cory piped up with, "Everybody's been camping out all night in line for the PS3."

I didn't miss a beat. Oh, I came right back at him: "Hey, when did Duluth start naming its schools like New York City? Is there a new Public School 3 opening today? I would have thought I'd have heard about that, or at least the fact that PS1 and PS2 had opened, too, right?"

From my lofty perch, I peered down for affirmation. All I saw were bewildered eyes. My interpersonal expertise kicked in; I read the body language, and I realized I was waaaaay off base. So I soldiered on: "Oops, so it's not a school. Is it a new class the college is offering? Are students lining up to register for it?"

Bewilderment gave way to guffaws, as bravehearted Kasey horned in with, "It's PlayStation 3, and maybe you should try leaving your house sometimes, so you'd know when something huge is happening."

At this juncture, I squeaked, "And PlayStation 3 is, um, one of those things people, hmmm, play on, like it' s a station, and now there are three of them?"

In quick time, the growing crowd of onlooking students, heady with the rare feeling of possessing knowledge, gave me a mini-lecture about the galaxy of gaming systems and how people, that day, were purchasing the new PS3 and then selling it on E-bay (...which, in my defense, I *have* heard of. It was bombed by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941.) for upwards of $1,000-$2,000.

So, dang. Zoom in on me, the nerdina in the center of the lecture, smart enough not to confess in the face of their chiding, "Horsefeathers! I *did* play Pong back in 1976 and used to watch my next door neighbor play Space Invaders for hours on end. It's not like I'm some Dumb Dora; I'm the Real McCoy, no Joe Palooka."

But they had caught me out: cool no more, for evermore. Backing away, I begged my sources to, in the future, keep me informed if significant world events were underway. Since I don't have a cell phone, they couldn't phone or text me with the news, though. But they could crank me up on the old wall-mounted telephone (my ring is two longs and one short--but careful of the party line listening in!) or, in a pinch, they could start a bonfire and use their hoodies to send me smoke signals.

After a big group hug, I told them all they were the cat's pajamas and the bee's knees, but I had to 23 Skidoo.

Then, on my way out to the Model-T, I fell and broke my hip.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Will Shortz and a Gold-Lame' Bikini"

Speaking of why parents worry that the schools won't be able to unlock their kids' particular gifts...

Yesterday, my three-year-old son, Wee Niblet, draped me a big poncho of goosebumps, with one, random comment.

We were getting out of the car, on our way to a running store to buy Groom's birthday present (how Norwegian is this birthday desire: "I don't need much, but I would like one or two new water bottles with straps to use when I'm running." My reaction to this modest request was, "And how about something frivolous and fun and totally impractical so that you really know it's *your* day? How about a fuzzy cover for the car seat? Better yet, for the toilet seat? Or maybe you'd like a pair of those ten-toe socks, multi-colored? Or how about a perm?")

But no, water bottles it was. Okay, and so I also got him a copy of Heat and some chocolate bars and a new game to play with the kiddles, but I fooled him by wrapping them in water-bottle-shaped paper.

Anyhoodle, Niblet and I were exiting the car, when he looked up at the strip mall next to us, at one business specifically--"Plaza Hairstyles." Without stopping to think, he noted, "If we could take down those letters off of that green and pink sign there, we could use some of them to write 'Star Wars.' Well, okay, not the whole thing of 'Star Wars' because there is no 'W,' but we could use the 'S' and 'T' and the 'R' and the 'A' to write the first part of it."

Because I dote on Niblet and am looking for any excuse to hold him up to the world as Wee One, Boy Genius, I stood there, agape. Why, yes, we could spell most of "Star Wars" with the letters in "Plaza Hairstyles." Crikey.

Outside of a general feeling of awe, I was also struck, again, by how pervasive and breath-takingly effective marketing is towards kids--that my lad, whose exposure to "Star Wars" has come through hanging out with the six-year-old boys in the neighborhood, is learning to read at the knee of George Lucas....well, it puts a whole new spin on The Force.

Later, after we went home and broke out the toy light sabers, doing an interactive, interpretive, modern sword dance of joy in tribute to Niblet's smarts, I informed Groom that our kid, who has never wanted to sit down and "learn" the letters of the alphabet, has apparently internalized something during all those games of Clifford Bingo and in all those readings of The Superhero ABC's.

Groom and I did a mental high-five, had a quick saber duel in the living room (Qui-Gon Jinn versus Darth Maul), and then mused that Niblet's quirky intelligence may never find a place in the schools. This is the boy who, while running at high speed through the kitchen, sees a Cheeto on the table and announces, "That looks like a scarecrow." This is the kid who unfolds a cardboard french-fry container and exclaims, "Hey, I made an angel!" Additionally, he wants nothing more than to grow crystals and carry out other science "conspiriments," all while waiting for Santa to bring him a rock tumbler so that he can find and polish agates. And he most profoundly does not have a brain that thinks through rote, worksheet channels.

So maybe he'll stay home with us in a few years, if we discover that he and his body guard, Darth Vader, don't find their niche in a traditional classroom (Darth's cape would look very dramatic there, in the cloakroom, on its little hook, with his Charlie's Angels lunchbox hiding underneath it...and just imagine him mopping up the linoleum with the opposing team during dodgeball). If we do end up homeschooling Niblet, we totally plan on hothousing his anagrammatical talents and turning him into a crossword puzzle rockstar; he'll do us proud in 16 years when he goes to Stamford, Connecticut for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and becomes the youngest-ever winner of the weekend's challenges.

Look for us there, in 2022: Groom and I will be the two in the front row of the finals, weeping on each other's shoulders, clutching our mechanical pencils to our breasts, taking photos when Niblet--harkening back to what he remembers of the bloody 2005 championship puzzle, with its Draconian clue of "stark and richly detailed, as writing" (answer: "Zolaesque")--reads the clue of "to exist in a tortured state of light-tinged darkness" and easily fills in "V-A-D-E-R-I-A-N."

After the room of crossword (and, no doubt, Star Wars) geeks quiets its ovation, I shall harken back to that day outside Plaza Haircuts and know, for certain, that witnessing my child's achievements has been a pleasurable trip on a slow-moving cargo vessel to a galaxy far, far away.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Every Rose Has Its Thorn"

My freshman year of college, I watched 40 people recoil in horror when I announced at the first floor meeting in my dorm: "And I really like heavy metal, especially Ozzy."

Soon enough, after four years of being exposed to the folksy Midwest, I outgrew my good-ol' hardcore Montana musical roots, but the truth is that the roots of my hair remained heavy-metal challenged for at least another 15 years. At the time, I called my penchant for getting spiral perms "a tribute to '80s hair metal glam bands." Now that I've let my hair enter the new millenium, having stopped the perming and bought a hair dryer, I refer to that dark period as the "why the hell did I think looking like that nutter Dee Snider from Twisted Sister was cool?" era.

I might have continued, unabated, frying my hair in slavish devotion to Geddy Lee, Ronnie James Dio, and John Bon Jovi, but one afternoon a small-town beauty parlor gave me a wake-up call I couldn't ignore. Two clacking beautologists in Spamtown, MN, underscored for me how my Cool Metal Hair was, in fact, just a wad of trash existing in a state of frizzy balloonification (much like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley nowadays).

Before I entered the Spamtown Salon that day, I was actually feeling a renewed commitment to my Cool Metal Hair--I mean, on that day, I was sure I was tired of the old half-hearted waves and was completely ready for Bic-lighter-during-a-ballad, standing-ovation curls.

Thinking ahead, I parked in the 12-hour lot outside the salon, knowing that I have many hanks of hair and that perming all of them would require a longer time than writing the comprehensive exams for my graduate degree did.

Walking with briskness, I entered the salon. Within 4 minutes, Karen and Chere', hair stylists (recognizable by their lack of natural eyebrows), were clucking with great consternation at my DAMAGED and POROUS and PROTEIN-LACKING hair, and soon the perm was declared a moot point--"I mean, look! If I grab her hair, it just breaks off! Look here! And here, when I grab it! Snap! Snap!"

Indeed, in good conscience, as licensed operators, they could not perform their craft on my limping tresses. If I would hope to some day have a perm again, they first would have to perform emergency, life-saving measures on my locks, beginning with me drawing up a living will. As I squirmed under the tightly-neck-velcroed plastic gown, they began to whisper to each other. They searched each others' eyes--deeply and repeatedly.

Then Karen, shop owner, turned decisively to me and declared, "You will need at least a double PPT treatment--under the dryer, mind you--before you leave today. The first PPT treatment will be done in conjunction with a dose of Climatress. Then, as you exit the shop, you will need to purchase at least three of our specialized products, including the protein Tiger spray, to be used liberally just after gentle towel drying every time you wash your hair for the next month. At that point, we may be able to downgrade you to spraying the Tiger three times a week, but know you will need to come in and let us look at your progress first. Once you've made it successfully through our protein-restoration program, we can then re-open the issue of the perm. But before beginning any part of your haircare, we must first lop off a minimum of three inches. We also reserve the right, once we have PPT-ed you, to add layers and trim even more of the damage. This is the only way we can relieve you of the flyaway frizzies that now plague your look. Do you agree to our conditions?"

At this point, Chere' needed to go have a smoke and field a phone call from Tony, "the Mexican guy who was in my wedding and who used to come in for the flat top."

I weighed my options and realized I had none, for what could I, English instructor, know about the many moods of hair? Following my brief nod and choked acquiescence, the PPT began. It involved heavy slathering followed by a plastic-bag headwrap and half an hour under the dryer (during which I read BAZAAR--the one where Meg Ryan was grabbing her left breast--and ALLURE--the one in which the fact that grey was that year's black, whereas the year before brown was black, received heavy coverage).

Then we rinsed and repeated, this time leaving my head in the sink for ten minutes, thus allowing for natural drainage. Following the PPT, my head underwent a second round of firm "if we grab it, will her hair break?" tests. I passed with at least a C+. (Looking at my hair, Karen mused, as though I weren't right there, "You know, she *could* have pretty hair; I mean, the color's not bad, and there is some shine up by the scalp. Her friend Pamm said this girl had as much hair as she. That's a good one! This girl doesn't have one half the amount of that Pamm!").

To cement the deal, however, I needed to agree to the aforementioned layers and extra trimming. After that, I was to spend another half an hour under the dryer and then five minutes under the hand-held hairdryer (with diffuser). At this point, my hair was still wet, but I was assured that, despite the -20 windchill, since I did have a hood on my jacket, it would be okay if my hair froze and underwent the rigors of a cold front. And, they mused, did I notice how much more of my natural wave was coming through now that they had amputated the gangrene that had been my hair?

At the front counter, the ladies lined up my new array of haircare products, with Tiger front and center, and watched benevolently as I wrote out my check for $64.75. Two-and-a-half hours after entering, four inches of hair shorter, I suited up to face the outdoor hair freeze.

Saving the day for me was the man waiting to have his hair done, who said to me as I zipped up my head in multiple layers, "Do you climb a lot of mountains? Cuz you have incredible calves. They look really strong."

Yes, sir, thanks, it *is* a new haircut.

But then I turned around and looked at him, and when I realized it was Ozzy Osbourne himself, there for his own PPT/Tiger treatment, my day was redeemed. I had him autograph every bottle in my bag, even though he couldn't quite remember how to spell his own name or why he was in Austin, Minnesota, in the first place ("MMMbblll, Sharon dropped me here...the gel is off to have sumping nipped or tucked...where's the dog poo? Jack climbs things now, ya know.")

Later that night, after Ozzy came over to my humble digs and ate tamales and Moose Tracks ice cream with me out of hand-me-down dishes from my grandmother, we each sprayed each other's hair with The Tiger and spent an hour in front of Ally McBeal, detangling with our Afro-picks, humming "Crazy Train" and occasionally shouting "SHAAARRROONN!"

Monday, November 20, 2006

"The Original Cheap Date"

A couple of weeks ago, on October 31st, The Groom and I volunteered to be readers at our daughter's school; the school celebrates a "Harvest of Literature" that day because to actually say the word "Halloween" would have meant that the place was run by Satan worshippers looking to inculcate the small minds into the world of Beelzebub. So "Harvest of Literature" it was (does anyone else think Scarecrows and cornstalks are every bit as evil as vampires and ghosts?).

When we received a call that we had been scheduled to read *together*, for 35 minutes, in Girl's first grade classroom, my gut reaction was one of joy:

"Oh my gosh, we actually have a date! You and I will be doing the same thing at the same time in the same place! How romantic! Love hangs in the air! And it will just be us, one teacher, and 28 first graders--that's so intimate! Groom, you and I are going to rekindle our flame right there in front of the weekly spelling words!"

And then I realized that my thoughts, at age 39 with two kids, of what a "date" is compared to my ideas, at, say, age 13, of what a "date" was (a rumbling Chevy idling by the curb, dinner at a steakhouse, candlelight, a little Everclear, holding hands by a bonfire, some making out on the vinyl seats of the car)...well, they'd become more modest but ever-so-much-more satisfying.
These days, give me a hard, straight-backed chair, a tote bag full of Robert Munsch books, 56 upturned eyes, a sea of hands waving in the air, and Groom next to me, and I feel like I've just been to Prom (theme: Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling"). It didn't hurt that I had about four shots of Everclear before staggering into the classroom, either.

photo from (KDern)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Daytime Pain and Nighttime Soap"

Call me predictable, even stereotypical: I dread going to the dentist. Sure, Dentist Person may be a very nice individual, well-qualified, and gentle of touch, but I still don't like him/her. Me no want to see Dentist Person.

The deal is that Dentist Person has tools--tiny pickaxes, long needles, shrill drills, and that weird Mr. Thirsty, who tries to suck my tongue right out of my head. All I will say is that, as a rule, I don't need tools inserted into my skull.

What's that, you say? Oh, yea, the drugs. Why do I dread Dentist Person when there are so many nice gasses and shots I can get there to dull my pain? Well, #1, I don't like needles stuck into my dainty pink gums; and #2, I can still hear and smell what's going on, even when I can't feel it, and trust me, the mere sound of the drill, coupled with--get this--the SMELL of burn coming out of my mouth (what are they burning in there, when smoke comes out? This has happened the last couple of times I've gone to the dentist, and it makes me rip at my cuticles with great vigor)...well, my senses get overwhelmed, and I'm forced to resort to deep yoga-like breathing to get through the appointment.

So you can imagine the trauma when, last year, I had my first--and, knock enamel, LAST--root canal. To give him his props, I will say that Dentist Person and his Minions tried to make my experience pleasant; they covered me with a fleece blankie and gave me a polka-dot kneck pillow. Dentist Person even told me a heart-warming story of how he is such a chicken in the dental chair that when he needs work done, he literally wears Depends. The thing about empathy, though, is that it feels hollow when one's jaw is being cranked open for almost four hours by a metallic claw. Dentist Person needed to stop telling me about his "I'm-with-you-sista-undergarments" and just set me free, so I could spiral off into the night and go ice skating at Rockefeller Center with renewed joy in my heart, like Britney did this week after she filed for divorce from her personal root canal, The Federdud.

But he didn't set me free at all.

In fact, the D.P. strapped on his tool belt and started sharpening nutcrackers and nunchucks and screwdrivers and ice axes on a whet stone, and I started breathing shallowly and rapidly, alternately closing my eyes and opening them to let my eyeballs roll around, unable to find distraction in the understated humor of the Dilbert sticker that had been applied to the bright light above me.

What I would have given for a "this last season of Dallas was actually all a dream" escape hatch right about then--COME AND CONVINCE ME IT'S NOT REALLY HAPPENING, BOBBY EWING! But Bobby was out romancing his new wife, that Pollyannaish Pamela Barnes, not caring one whit that she was the daughter of his father Jock's archenemy Digger Barnes or that I was squirming in a reclining chair, panic-stricken. No, he left me there to suffer. But there is justice, I can say, now that I see Patrick Duffy's recent resume features stints on Reba and The Bold and the Beautiful. How far you have fallen, you multi-talented actor, since your triumphant run on Step by Step with the luminous Suzanne Sommers!

Three and a half hours later, heartened by the knowledge that Bobby Ewing was just as much a cad as his brother, JR, I emerged from Dentist Person's office, my wallet much lighter (a little Texas gold would have helped right then), my jaw aching like a sledgehammer had been pounded into it, my face still numb from all those drugs. Four days later, I was still sipping soups and eating overboiled beets in an effort to stop my stomach from growling...just waiting for the day I could again rip into a big ole chunk of longhorn with gusto.

In fact, my tooth was so tender from all Dentist Person's ministrations that it throbbed with a steady beat for several days, much like JR Ewing's oozing chest at the end of Season 3, when his mistress (and wife's sister) Kristin shot him and tried to frame poor, drunk Sue Ellen. The thumping in my tooth, and his heart, was palpable, visceral, yet I knew my misfortune came from genetics more than my decision to sleep with and impregnate my wife's sister. If only Dentist Person wore a big Stetson and some Justin Roper boots along with his Depends! Ah, then I would have felt justified in driving him away from my personal toothy Southfork that day, forcing him into a sanitorium with Sue Ellen...while I remained behind at the ranch, drinking soothing mint teas on the veranda with Miss Ellie and playing Marco Polo in the pool with Lucy and my new boyfriend Kit (who will NOT turn out, next season, to be gay).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Twenty-Eight First Graders, the Lone Teacher, a Slew of Specialists, and One Shy Girl"

Anne Lamott once wrote of a type of situation so taxing it could "...make Jesus drink gin from the dog dish." This is how I often feel, as the parent of a school-aged child. It's surprisingly hard to let my kid go off all day to be manhandled by the world. It makes me want to go hit six-year-olds who might say even one mean thing to my Wee Nibben of a girl. It makes me want to creep down corridors wearing a locker costume as camouflage, just in case she needs a pencil sharpened and can't do it herself. It makes me want to hop in the mini-van and follow the school bus all the way into the parking lot (sheepish confession: I've actually done at least one of these. I could probably hook you up with a really novel costume for Halloween next year, by the way).

Frankly, though, when I first had kids and sussed how intense the early years are--from quirky newbornhood to colicky infanthood to irrational toddlerhood to no-separation-at-all-costs preschoolerhood to how-can-you-be-an-adolescent-already kindergartenhood--I couldn't wait for them to start going to school fulltime. Yea, that's right: I was counting the years until my kids would go away for a large part of the day. This is not an uncommon sentiment among parents, either, I'm here to tell you. Anything that can reap huge, awe-inspiring amazement has to suck in equal measure. It just does. Ask the guy who carved out Mount Rushmore. Giving birth to, and raising, those heads pretty much killed him. But they were worth every minute of his sweat. He created a masterpiece, but he was probably pretty flippin' happy on those days he didn't even see or think about whether Roosevelt's moustache was overshadowing Lincoln's nose. It was okay for the heads to go away from his head for awhile.

Such is the case with kids. Hence, when our first kid headed off to full-time school this year, I was astonished that it actually, gulp, hurt. All those hours of freedom we'd been anticipating in a state of mental high-kickery (sing the song "One" from A CHORUS LINE here)--you know, time to sit down while drinking coffee instead of slurping from the mug while trudging back upstairs to find size 5T pants that were "softier, like fleecier, for my tenderyish leg skin, not scratchy like these"--well, they also meant that we'd just lost the best hours of the day with our girl.

Now, she gets off the bus at 4:30 p.m., when it's already getting dark, and she's ravenous and needy and wired. And some days, when our attempts to sit down communally at the kitchen table and help out with her homework have degenerated into her sobbing and yelling because she doesn't understand contractions or what an apostrophe looks like, we end up in retreat, in the basement, cowering behind the dryer. Around nine p.m. we then stick out a tentative ear, listening for any rustling sounds up at the table in the kitchen. If we hear only muffled snores, then the coast is clear--we can stop snacking on the Bounce sheets sprinkled with Tide crystals and creep back upstairs, careful not to wake the Exhausted Scholar.

In short, having a kid go off to school for eight hours each day hasn't delivered the anticipated bliss. Even worse, we're now wracked with the concerns and questions about her education that mark us definitively as middle-class-white-overly-educated-liberals: "What curriculum are they using? How many times will she be pulled from class for assessments during the year? What's the average class size?"

This last question has created the most discussion for us, as we hover behind the dryer, night after night (on the plus side, we've figured we can accept pizza deliveries through the dryer vent; the delivery dude just shoves the pie down through the bendy tube). The dilemma is that we have not sent the Wee Gel to our neighborhood school but instead, she attends a public "magnet" school further from home, one that offers intensified music opportunities. And, because I was raised in a musical household, with a father who was a voice professor and a mother who was the Executive Director of the city's symphony, I value what music education can do for any kid, whether or not she is gifted in that area. Cripes, I just want a child who can read music and who stands a chance at identifying Mozart when it plays on public radio. Modest goals, right?

Because this school is considered a "good" one, I actually had to scramble around like a Manhattan parent four years ago, when our daughter was not yet two, and call the school to get her on a waiting list. At that time, when she was 18 months old, she was twelfth on the waiting list. Thus, we were jubilant when she reached kindergarten age, and we received the call from The School, saying they had an opening for her. It was, as those youngsters these days say, the bomb diggity.

Kindergarten passed without a hitch; she painted and cut and counted in her class of 17 kids. The fact that she is a very reserved child (often mistaken as shy...but she's more, as my friend from Texas put it some years back, "a no bullshit baby." She's quite confident and actually sees no reason to open up to someone who's never invested in her--it's the old "you get what you pay for" with our lass, which I quite respect) made no difference; it simply meant that our parent/teacher conferences would open with an exclaimed, "I would like to have twelve of your daughter in this class!"

And first grade now is going swimmingly for her, except that we worry. We do. You see, her class has twenty-eight students in it. That's a lot. Especially when we have a kid who doesn't really ask for help. This is the kid who fell off a dock into a lake two summers ago, caught in the chest-high water, buffeted between a pontoon boat and the dock itself, and she just stood there, no peep made, until someone looked down a few minutes later and saw her holding silent court there with the lily pads. So trust me, I was not a whit surprised this year, in school, when her homework--diligently completed within two hours of it being assigned and carefully put into her special folder in her backpack, ready to return to the classroom the next day--accumulated because she didn't know where she was supposed to turn it in. So the completed homework kept coming back home with her, day after day, until it had worn a groove into that special folder. "Did you take it out and show it to Mrs. A and ask her where you should turn it in?" The answer was no, a woeful no, because "Mrs. A is always so busy with the other kids around her desk, and I didn't know how to get in there."

This reality of too-many-kids-on-one-teacher stands in stark contrast to the pretend classroom that this same daughter has been overseeing in our living room for the last three years--she has 26 dolls as students, and every one gets her individual attention, from Astrid, who made the Principal's List for being able to sit upright unassisted, to Kobe, whose mom sometimes drops him off late because she had to go to a meeting at a factory in China.

(The "art specialist" demonstrates the dolls' weekly project. The kid in the front row wearing yellow, Kiki, is a bully and a troublemaker and can't follow directions for anything.)

The difference between our living room and the real-life classroom, however, is that the unengaged dolls remain benign and passive, but in the real world, the unengaged kids either clamor around the teacher even harder, looking for attention, or else they start sticking washable markers in the pencil sharpener, or else they, like our girl, sit quietly at their desks, clutching a homework folder.

Once I realized that homework--in the first month of first grade--was becoming an emotional issue, and once my husband and I remembered the frozen feeling of being painfully shy in elementary school, I chose to hop into this particular issue. Even though I want my child to learn to cope, to be self-sufficient, to figure things out in the world, I stopped by the classroom, casually, one day ("I was just, er, here in the school because, em, I needed to get fitted for my new camouflage locker costume...and so I thought I'd pop in"), and mentioned to the teacher that at least one of her students was feeling confused about the process of submitting homework. This was news to the teacher, and she easily and gratefully handled the problem. Girl's homework is now handed in where it's supposed to be, when it's due.

But the behind-the-dryer discussion about "do we keep Girl in the class of 28 at this good school with a fine teacher, or do we pull her and enroll her in the neighborhood school that has 18 students in the first grade classes?" took on steam. I ended up emailing my sister, a kindergarten/first grade/second grade teacher herself (and who isn't a fan of the Shift key on her keyboard), someone who has handled anywhere from 18 to 31 students in a class, and her pragmatic reply calmed my gut:

"and honestly, with a class over 25, no, you really don't get to spend individualized time with every kid or really get to know them. especially the quiet ones. you're just thankful they're not being a pain and can stay on-task by themselves while you deal with the "big" personalities...which is why i've loved looping, by spending more than a year with the same kids i feel like i do get to really get to know the kids better, personalities and strengths and i think you have to weigh what you want for Girl's education. if she's making the academic and social progress you want for her, then she might be fine or more than fine where she is. plus being exposed to the variety of cultures available at her present school prepares her for the real world... if you want the opportunity for her to receive more individualized attention so that she can move faster in all areas, then maybe the smaller class school...BUT i'd strongly recommend visiting all the classes for a min. of 30 miutes each at the new school to see how the teachers might end up swapping a big class, good teacher, for a smaller class, not as good teacher...i think it's great great that the teacher realizes she needs parent involvement AND help with a large class. i know many teachers who do not like to have parents in the room for extended lengths of time, so plough through everything on their own...with that many kids,you do need regular help. i've had classes with 27+kids and no aide and it can be killer at times...depending on the day, the kids, you, the activity...oh, and here's something i realized in denver, the kids in my smaller classes had a harder time learning to work independently and where to find information if it wasn't available cuz i was always available. i really noticed that the kids in my larger classes HAD to learn to work on their own and wait their turn and learn to ask friends who were experts for help if i was busy, where with the smaller classes, i was always available to help them...which is not a bad thing, but when i needed them to work independently, they seriously couldn't cuz i hadn't had to train them from day one how to...weird, huh?"

Yea. Weird. Huh.

The issue is settled for us for this year: good teacher, large class, Girl who copes. She luuurrrves her school and teacher and hordes of classmates and computer time and the Christmas and Spring concerts and Boost-Up gym time and art and choir and music and field trips to the Children's Museum and class visits to the school's cultural center and............

So the cost may be her never having a teacher who has the time or energy to sit one-on-one with her and unlock her talents, character, personality. I guess that's up to everybody else in her life, starting and ending with her parents, who currently find themselves on their knees, crouching behind the dryer, eating "stuffed" pizza, drinking gin out of the dog dish.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"Not So Much My Saviour After All: The Pompous Lord"

I feel it. Pulsing towards me through cyberspace, I sense your desire to read more of my rambling adventures in other countries. Or maybe what I sense is just my computer trying to stream this week's episode of Ugly Betty to me, but I'm choosing instead to read this communication from as a psychic connection that you and I share. And either or someone else out there is telling me that more travel stories would be okay. Yes?
I'll take your silence as a hearty and resounding "yes!!!"

Now, I know you want to read about when I was 17 and attended a weekend biker ralley in Denmark (all the hardcore bikers from around Europe converged on a farm for the weekend), but since some of my unmentionables went missing that weekend and later showed up nailed to a clubhouse wall, I shan't relate that story, lest I blush and find myself unable to make eye contact with you in the future when we bump into each other near the holiday hams at Cub Foods.

And I could regale you with a story about camping around Iceland for ten days, my body sucking up around-the-clock arctic light; upon return to the States, my body's internal clock was so confused that I ended up with a surprise pregnancy--a daughter now six!--out of the deal. A quick summary of that part of my life goes: "Whee. Whoa. Wow. Whoops." But again, if you'd read a detailed account of such a happy, but personal, mistake, how could we chat superficially at the Cub Foods after running in to each other in the cereal aisle? We'd be fake-smiling, trying to come up with things to say, mindlessly loading our carts with heaps of unneeded Quaker Oats, while your brain would be spinning: "Oh, man, I know way too much about this lady to even pretend to care about the weather. But just keep smiling, Skeeter. Just keep smiling. And nodding. And making those affirmative noises in your throat."

Or I could tell you a story about being in the airport in Chisinau, Moldova, when I tried to crack a joke about how I was visiting the country with the intent of drinking lots of their famous wine and then standing on the corners to sell Levi jeans for a huge profit (hey, it was after the Iron Curtain had fallen, so I thought the place might have lightened up. Who knew 70 years of Soviet influence wouldn't just melt away into good humor and that I would be pulled out of the baggage area and made to stand aside and be scowled at while my passport was "taken to another room"?). But again, if I told you this story, there you and I would be, standing stiffly in the Cub Foods cookie aisle after we reached out simultaneously for a package of Keebler Merry Mints, taking turns retreating and saying, "No, really, you go first" and then lurching out again at the same time and clunking hands, making you think to yourself, "Honestly, I swear this woman is the type of annoying person who would think making jokes to uniformed officials in crumbling countries is appropriate. And she probably plans to serve these cookies at a neighborhood party, passing them off as homemade. 'Oooh, look at me: I worked for hours, trying to get the icing just so!'"

So I guess I'm left telling you another story about Ireland, where even poor behavior seems only "naughty" at worst, and it's the uniformed officials themselves who are cracking the jokes at the airport.

When last you left me in Ireland, I was cursing at a pony and muttering "Never again...Never again..." The good news is that I hitched up my chaps, tucked my spurs into my backpack, and got over my pony trauma before deciding the next thing to do was explore, on foot and by car, Co. Donegal--a remote place with sparse bus service, which left me asking my B & B hostess, "You're really sure it's safe for single women to hitch-hike around here?" Assured that hitch-hiking was common practice in the area, I began relying upon it to get me around the county.

After warming up my thumb the first day with an intricate exercise involving balancing jelly beans on my thumbnail and then flipping them into my mouth (repeatedly), I set off for the coastal mountain/hiking area of Slieve League, scoring four rides whilst to-ing and fro-ing.

The first guy was a handyman who hollered, "Ya don't mind sitting in back with the tools, do ya?" Not at all. I made off with his monkey wrench.

The next husband and wife were very prim, venturing so far as to ask me if, indeed, everyone in the United States carries a gun. Upon exiting the car, I blasted them with my Supersoaker.

After my muddy, awe-inspiring, 3-hour hike at Slieve League, I was picked up by Liam, who asked me to sit up front and cradle his Sunday paper on my lap. Sensing a fetishist, I obliged, but I managed to steal the crossword puzzle and leave him, undoubtedly, bereft of the sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing which 1970's rock group performed "Mr. Blue Sky" and filling in the accompanying three-letter answer.

Finally, I hitched a ride with an enthusiastic 19-year-old who was incredibly happy to see me--or anyone else, for that matter. This lad never met anyone or anything he didn't like...especially MacGuyver, with whom he was obsessed. "Lawse, but that man can do anything! Give him a rubberband, a spatula, and some brown sugar, and he can make a bomb! And what about his hair? Isn't it cool? Didya notice my hair? I had it cut and bleached to look just like his--you know, that actor Richard Dean Anderson. Doncha think I look like him?" Not having the heart to tell him that highlighted mullets had gone out of style, well, before there ever was style, I remained mum. But I did show him how to make chewing gum out of tree sap, a match, and tire tread before he dropped me off.

Heady with the power of The Hitch, I set out again the next day, this time walking to the local strand (aka "beach"), where I intended to take artistic photos of fog and throw rocks at seagulls. On my way back to the B & B, as I walked the narrow road, I was almost body slammed by a careening Mercedes Benz, driven by a buck-toothed weasel named Justy, who looked and acted like Dr. Frankenstein's sidekick, Igor ("Yessssss, Master..."). Next to him, in the Seat of Command, was a 63-year-old florid man named...

"Lord Hamilton, my dear, and so nice to have you aboard. Do sit in the back, and I'll tell you about myself." This he proceeded to do for 20 minutes, detailing his family's pedigree, handing me a gold business card that had the weight and heft of a credit card, inviting me to stay at "the manor" next time I was visiting, and cautioning me off "the natives," saying, "They're animals and gypsies, every one of them." Speechless in the backseat, and not by choice but because I couldn't get a word in edgewise, I mentally reviewed the history of the Republic of Ireland: English landlords driving the native peasants to destitution and starvation...and there I was, sitting with one such modern "landlord" who'd not had the good sense to update his thinking or to really look at the substance of the native inhabitants of the town of Killybegs. Later, after he dropped me off with a shouted warning not to socialize with a soul in the town, I recounted his monologue to my B & B hostess, a native herself, who laughed herself silly and dismissed him with, "Ah, you were in a car with Himself! He's quite a toff, eh?"

I still have that gold business card, and I still think often of how Lord Hamilton prided himself on being above the reality of the people who surrounded him. His pomposity created in him a crisis of character, one of which he'd never be aware--such was the state of his arrogance.

Even now, eight years later, I feel confident that if I ever run into him in the coffee aisle at Cub Foods, I will crack open a bottle of Torani's Hazelnut syrup on his head and dump its contents into his declaiming maw, just to make him cease babbling about his importance. (You can hover down by the tea bags, gawking and assuring your fellow bystanders, "Trust me, I've read her blog, and I can tell you this is just like her.")

And I guess I won't be staying at the manor.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Scoundrel Cabbies: So Unfare"

This past weekend, I had to don a big mohair sweater of The Happies, as I spent four days in the mountains of Colorado, celebrating past, present, and future with two of my best galpals from college. To even divulge how long it's been since I first met these women requires that I sit down and put my head between my knees for at least four breaths before I can gasp out, "Twenty-one years." I am examining my crow's feet in a magnifying mirror as I type those words, remembering how unlined and dewy we all were when we first encountered each other on 4th Goodhue (our dorm freshman year) at a floor meeting, where one of these friends stopped the show by announcing, "And I have this new thing called a CD player in my room, so if any of you want to stop by to listen to a little Peter Gabriel, that'd be so rad."

In the ensuing four years, we drank a wheelbarrow full of Long Island Iced Teas, danced to The Gear Daddies and The Wallets and Modern English until sunrise, and occasionally even stayed up all night writing papers about "Meritocracy and Hegemony as Evidenced by Thomas Pynchon." Them's ageing activities, folks, and we might have engaged in them more sparingly, had we known that the real wrinkle-causers (committing to love, having children, and weathering dithering Demoncrats and a bellicose Republican administration) were still to come.

At any rate, this past weekend was our second official galpal weekend, wherein just the three of us gather together, away from kids and partners, to gab, eat, drink, reflect, and review. I have to say, my life ends up feeling completely inventoried by the time we're done, and I have a renewed appreciation for all the mundane things in my daily life that seem blase without the benefit of such an external processing. By the time we're done with our weekends together, I'm again awed that my husband has a chai tea waiting for me by the back door every morning as I dash out to work; that the shoes I bought last week are versatile and cute, simultaneously; that I live in just the right house for me; that I live with someone who reads and likes to talk about it. I get all oogie about my life, thanks to these benchmark weekends.

Even further, when The Ladies and I headed out for the weekend's big splurge dinner at a place called Samplings, I had cause to appreciate how the idea of "crisis" is a state of mind and mood more than an incontrovertible reality.

Here's what happened: we had a reservation for Samplings on Friday night, but then those wacky Colorado skies decided to dump snow for almost three days straight (someone should capitalize on that and build up some sort of skiing culture around the place, really; then developers could come along and clear cut all the beautiful trees on the mountains, making room for fifty thousand high-priced condos--you know, paving paradise and putting up a parking lot and all. Just an idea for any entreprenuers who spend their weekdays perusing this blog), so Friday night featured snowplows on the road and cars getting chains put on. This was not the right night to head out for a few bottles of wine and general gustatory celebration; rather, we decided to stay in and drink margueritas and eat a homemade chile with a mole sauce ("What, so the recipe tells us to add chocolate to our pork? It's so rare one has permission to act out one's most private dreams in a public arena!") .

Happily ensconced in the--you guessed it--condo, we moved the reservation at Samplings to the next night, when it was still snowing, but much more lightly. But the issue of driving coupled with bottles of wine still reared itself. It was time to tap into cab culture. After about eight phone calls, my pal Hoo learned that there are two companies that run in the area, each with roughly ONE taxi. The rates they quoted varied dramatically, so we decided to go with Cheap Guy Cab Company instead of Twice the Fare Cab Company.

But when we tried to nail the Cheap Guys down about a pick-up time, they slithered through an actual committment, giving us the "Call us back in 45 minutes, and we'll let you know." Eventually, we decided taking the free shuttle into Frisco would be the best idea, even if it did take an hour to traverse the ten miles from condo to restaurant. After dinner, now that's when we'd need a taxi, when it was late, and when we didn't feel like transferring from free shuttle to free shuttle back up the mountain.

The restaurant was terrific--just the right combination of relaxed and chi-chi. True to its name, the place offers either a tasting menu or the option of ordering multiple "small plate" dishes to share at the table. We went with nine small-plate choices--(get this, you foodies out there: roasted garlic and leek soup with fois gras butter; butternut and apple soup with pepitas; organice baby lettuce salad [with a Roaring '40s blue cheese]; roasted shiitake mushrooms with truffle oil; bruschetta with an eggplant spread on olive bread; duck confit ravioli with butternut squash and brown butter vinaigrette; top sirloin with roasted garlic and pearl onions in a red wine reduction; duck confit on a bed of wild rice risotto; and venison on a fig-laced quinoa over top of a roasted orange slice...all of which was followed by the Chef's choice dessert platter, including an espresso panna cotta that had me leaping into the mug to bathe in the velvety this was my kind of all-body exfoliant)--and let the sommelier hook us up with a terrific chardonnay and pinot grigio. There was talk, a toasty fire, and the usual Colorado "dude" vibe, provided by our snowboarding waiter who "got in 80 days last year on the hill."

Thus, when we finally staggered out of Samplings and into the snowstorm, the world was softly lit with pleasure and very tiny belches. We'd called a half an hour earlier and talked to Cheap Guy, who promised to pick us up at 9 p.m. When he didn't arrive, we just kept talking, ate snowflakes, and eventually started shivering. The toasty glow was threatening to wear off.

And half an hour after that, a feeling of crisis threatened to show up when Cheap Guy still didn't. Further attempts to reach him and discover his whereabouts resulted only in a rude busy signal. Feeling strung along, wondering how we'd ever back to our Aveda haircare products and leftover mole chile, we allowed a smidgen of "So what the hootenany are we gonna do?" to enter our minds and conversation. Eventually, we decided to show him who was boss and call the rival company, Twice the Fare Price Gougers.

TtFPG listened to our tale of stranditude with great interest and then assured us that, although they were currently on a call, and it might take them some time to get to us, they definitely would eventually show up, unlike the "scoundrels" over at Cheap Guy who would promise us the world, only to leave us standing decked out in winter white at the Samplings altar.

As the Cold War between cab companies gained heat, we glanced down the street and saw, emerging from the flakes, swaying and creaking towards us, the free shuttle. Hollering a quick "thanks for the update on mountaintop transportation relations" into the phone, we hoofed it to the bus stop and gratefully hopped aboard the shuttle, realizing that it only takes one solid option (and two bottles of wine) to neutralize a potential crisis...

...especially when that option, as it lurches up a mountainside for an hour and a half, covering its trusty ten miles in that time, blares from its speakers tunes-for-39-year-old-women-on-reunion. We had a group singalong to Four Non-Blondes ("And I say hey/yay/yay...What's goin' on?") while the weary bus driver announced each imminent stop: "Library." "Elementary school." "Wal-Mart."

It occurred to us to protest the need for stopping at the elementary school at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night (you'd have to get busted for doing more than simply giving little Skeeter Bejeesus a wedgie before you'd be kept that long in detention, right? Being kept after school for an extra day and a half would demand, at the very least, some serious cheating and fouling in the tetherball tournament. And then you probably wouldn't need to catch the bus home, as your mom would be waiting outside in the two-tone station wagon, spewing out at the sight of you and your Nikes dragging towards the wagon: "So you think cheating is fun? Let me tell you what's fun: laboring for 24 hours in sweat and agony, only to have the fruit of those labors, ten years later, turn into a big cheaterpants who's kept after school for a day and a half. Yea, that's really, really fun. Now get in the car. We're going to Grandma's for tuna casserole. And you better not have forgotten your homework.").

Yet we didn't need to protest unnecessary stops. Instead, we remembered:

We were safe.
We were moving.
The snow was lovely.
And we were together.

Monday, October 16, 2006

"Metallic Love"

I guess it started the night I met my husband, a very dreamy evening. It wasn't meant to be dreamy, for we were set up, meeting each other "blindly," as the rhetoric goes. But we were matched by my cousin, who had asked each of us if he could serve as our "agent in the field." Feeling agreeable, we met over a 5-hour dinner in a log cabin (my cousin's house), with the aforementioned cousin, his wife, and their two daughters present. We definitely weren't dealing with the nerves that accompany meeting a stranger in an intimate, romantic place. Tripping over Sleeping Beauty slippers while asking, "And you went to college where?" kept things light-hearted.

However, in one quick moment, things took on weight. Because Blind Date (aka My-Groom-of-Seven-Years) is of Norwegian descent, he does enigmatic pretty well, so it definitely struck me dumb--a rarity--when he announced, after a discussion of his love of cooking, "I've decided I'd like to get married so that I can get a KitchenAid mixer."

Frankly, I had to pause for a beat or two, just to be sure that he wasn't actually proposing something there. But then I realized he was making a general comment--wanting to highlight that the best way he saw to afford such a big-ticket purchase was through a wedding registry. Hey, wait a minute, he might be funny, methought!

Fast forward some months, and you'll see us, fresh after our wedding reception, opening gifts at a brunch the next day. Jehosephat, but there it was: the KitchenAid mixer. A large group of friends had each pitched in some bucks, coming up with enough for not only the mixer but for a few attachments, as well. My Groom's machinations had paid off; sure, he had to take me as part of the bargain, but he got his mixer, and leavened and unleavened breads alike would be his! Ha-ha-ha!!!

Keep your fast forward going, now, to Wednesday of this past week, when Groom-Cum-Stay-At-Home-Dad was feeling very tra-la-la at the prospect of a morning in the house alone (we'd sent both kids to a kibbutz or something, to learn the value of hard work). First, he would corral some of the dust bunnies, scour out the small family of five living in our toilet bowl, and do the bi-yearly changing of the sheets. After that, he'd read some gossip on the Web and prepare for a lurvely Fall run. Oh, and somewhere in the middle there, he'd make a couple loaves of foccacia, his donation to a friend's birthday party later that evening.

Because he's well aware that we're living in the "oughts" now (those antiquated 1990's are's a new millenium), he was multitasking, but instead of listening to his I-Pod while IM-ing his ten best friends and updating his MySpace "friends" list, he was hoovering, scrubbing, and letting his beloved KitchenAid knead. When an enormous crash echoed from the main floor, Groom knew it was too much to hope that our crusty, old, dark kitchen had just hatched itself off the back of the house and finally slid into Lake Superior.

Rather, the KitchenAid had developed feet during the kneading and walked itself right off the counter. I posit that its actions were snit-based, and it had seen its chance to take out all of its main competitors on its way to the floor. You see, a year-and-a-half ago, we invested in Miss Silvia--a sleek bombshell straight from Italy who happens to be an espresso maker (my love for her made me realize I am open to a marriage of three). Her paid companion is the burr coffee grinder, who lives next to the glass cookie jar (home of more love), who is neighbors with the snooty and smug French Press (that minx!), who, suprisingly, tolerates the O.G. of the countertop: the bashbox for the coffee grounds.

Actually, I should have used past tense verbs in my listing of some of those countertop residents, as Walking KitchenAid and her travelling cord cut them down in their prime. RIP, French Press.

Indeed, the KitchenAid cut an impressive swathe that day, using her long tail to tip over Miss Silvia, who then emptied her reservoir of water onto the floor, where it formed the base of a coffee grounds/broken glass/cookie jar/foccacia dough slurry.

True to her workmanship, though, KitchenAid held on, her cord remaining married to the socket, even as she dangled there over the slurry, realizing she'd gone too far in her spite. When Groom spied K.A. hanging there, looking a little overwhelmed by her work, he rushed to her side, pulling her from danger, taking her vitals.

Woefully, K.A. was out of commission; even Groom could not turn her on. At this moment, even in the retelling, I fear for my marriage--if the basis of our marriage is broken, well, then, what do we really have together?

After taking an hour to clean up K.A.'s temper tantrum, intrepid Groom gently pried K.A. apart, fiddled with some sprockety-knobby things, and had her back to humming in no time. She, and I, would not need replacing.

For me, I can't help but think that KitchenAid was sending us a health-conscious message that day, protesting the best she could, telegraphing her message of love: "Get rid of the caffeine. You don't need carbs. Spend your years watching me twirl, and get rid of these other bimbos."

Perhaps the most inspirational part of this mini-crisis is the fortitude of the coffee-grounds-encrusted Foccacia That Almost Was. Even after it was tossed in the trash, it continued its yeasty imperative and grew, grew, grew into the evening. We'd stop by the garbage can occasionally, opening it up and hollering encouragement down the hole: "Way to go, FTAW! You're getting really plump down in there, Junior!!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"But We Don't Wanna Go Out For Sushi":

What To Do When the Kids Aren't Game

Short answer? Yank them along anyhow. It's a lesson in character building, right? But then they make that event--whatever it is--miserable: "I want to go home now." "When can we be done?" "Do they have any toys for me here?" "I don't like this food. And I'm hungry and thirsty." Many times, I would rather have kids with no character who just stay heshed up.

The more devious approach taken by many of us clever Big People when we want to do something that will result in whining protestations? Fool, fake, bribe, strategize. There is a small window in their lives when we parents are actually smarter--or at least more in power--than the kneebiters. We can use our adult-type smarts (albeit smarts that are riddled with brain holes due to three decades of drinking aspartame and Nutra-sweetened beverages...) to make the kiddles participate in our desired activities.

We took a low-key approach to this conundrum during this past summer, when we went on a family vacation to Canada--putting on toques and riffing on our favorite Mackenzie-Brothers-on-SCTV lines after the border crossing.

Thunder Bay as a city was a miss for all of us (after an hour of driving in circles, looking for an interesting restaurant, we conceded that McDonald's, indeed, was the best the city could do), but things looked up during our days camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. The kids were thrilled with the sandy beach and relatively warm water (being Northerners, we rate water according to a three-star "How Big Are Your Goosebumps" system: one star: minor, low bumps...they feel a little like the bottom of our bathtub mat but not much more; two stars: moderate bumps...we could put a piece of paper over them and rub a crayon sideways to make a fine transferred picture of the bumps; and three stars: big-old-hoary bumps...we could shave them off the body with a cheese grater), and we had caribou in the campsite during the night, sniffing the fatty remnants of our grilled steaks in the fire pit (who knew caribou were carnivore wannabes?), which thrilled the wee ones. Spirits were good, and we didn't need to wrangle them into anything.

...until we wanted to go canoeing. Now, our kids do enjoy canoeing, certainly, and have been known to kick into a pacific, mellow mood, mesmerized by the whooshing noises. But for my husband and me, an afternoon in a canoe is a good time. For the kids, fifteen minutes is more than enough time for them to size up the adventure of it all--the water, the sky, the rhythm of the strokes--and then be ready for the next thing ("Is it time to practice somersaults yet? And when can you hide in the tent and then jump out and yell 'Boo' to scare us? And could we put a sleeping bag over the picnic table and make a fort now?").

So how to keep them entertained enough to satisfy our efforts of driving the canoe to another country and then hauling it into the lake? In other words, how could we get 20 minutes out of them? Distraction was the answer.

We excitedly pointed out some Great Blue Herons...and, whoa, looksie-loo, a beaver dam! And not far away, lily pads! And cattails! This is way better than BLUES CLUES, right?

Yes and no. We kept their brains off the idea of boredom for 29 whole minutes, getting an added three minutes out of the deal by singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Lake" at the end. By the time we got back to shore, each of us was at least tepidly satisfied with the outing. Sweet Snoopy on a Cracker, but we had canoed.

Since that outing, we've become even more organized in our "we'll get you guys out there and make you have fun without your ever knowing it, and Mom and Dad will be doing The Running Man with glee when you're not looking" efforts. This Fall, as the leaves have reached a fevered pitch before dropping, and as the kids have shown signs of sensing the oncoming winter weather by becoming rammy, we've lured them out on mini-hikes by packaging these expeditions as "scavenger hunt adventures." I bag up a few cookies, fill each kid a canteen, and then grab other sundry items (i.e., a dog leash, not that we have a dog [see earlier post about dogs off leashes for more insight], a spider made out of pipe cleaners, and a plastic horse) from the house on the way out the door.

When we get up to the Superior Hiking Trail at Hawk Ridge, one of us takes a turn running ahead and hiding the various items along the path. The kids then haul their motivated selves through the Route of Hidden Temptations, looking for toys and goodies, all the while actually covering ground on a hiking trail. Once they've found all the treasures, they then want a turn to do the hiding, and so on. Before we know it, an hour or two has passed, and we've managed something that might be called, in greehorn circles at least, "a hike."

And I fully expect that one day my kids will head off to college (if we can fool them into going by hiding a dog leash in their dorm room and urging them to "Go find it!") and write papers for their Freshman Comp class entitled "My Parents Thought They Were Sneaky and Tricking Us, But In Fact We Knew What They Were Up To and Figured Out That There'd Be Cookies Involved If We Pretended to Rebel."