Coloring Within the Lines

Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting.  I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so.  A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those!  I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.

My next most favorite angel of change is paint.  Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless.  When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint.  The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color.  The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean.  A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.

I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift.  I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it.  The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area.  I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.

Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover.  The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard.  I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him.  He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge.  A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.

As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me.  Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery.  After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish.  It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.

I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive.  My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming.  Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project.  The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky.  Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.

Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door.   Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash.  For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again.  Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.

By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor.  The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began.  They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves.  It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis.  Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go.  The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.

Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time.  He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below.  One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels.  By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch.  And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend.  I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time.  Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.

By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him.  He had painted everything:  the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops.  The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy.  In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea.  He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.

I had forgotten about Justin.  As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up.  Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence.  As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh.  The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations.  Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.

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Out of Bounds

A good player does not necessarily make a good coach, just as a good coach does not necessarily make a good referee.  I played lacrosse in high school and college and currently coach a JVC team for a lovely and civilized private school just down the road, and we have a great time.  We work on skills, we learn drills, we perfect plays, we grudgingly condition, we tease one another, we laugh a lot, and we are undefeated.

I have a tendency to overcommit, in ability, time, energy, interest, whatever.  Things I enjoy seem easier and closer, whereas things that I do not seem to be the opposite, and reality does not always follow these seems of mine.  In fact, oftentimes, I find myself in situations that I’d much rather not be in, doing things that I have no business doing.  Which leads me back to last week where I was asked to help officiate an eighth grade girls lacrosse game, and I happily agreed to be a second referee in a match that turned out to be unexpectedly competitive.

Being an enforcer of rules is not exactly a natural position for me, as I am a firm believer that generally there are just too many rules, most of which do nothing but hassle good people who normally make responsible decisions.  Rules encourage people to explore beyond them, to look for loopholes, they become benchmarks to work around, something to keep attorneys busy (I may or may not be projecting here).  Those who think we are under-ruled are the same who constantly propose new ones, and who insist on enforcing obsolete ones, and these are the most annoying people on the planet, and the world would be a much happier place if they would all go away and live on an island together where they could boss one another around endlessly.

I was determined to defy my rebellious and opinionated nature and to be the best referee that I could possibly be.  Who knows?  Maybe this could be the beginning of a lifelong career, traveling all over the world as a black and white striped portable judge and jury with a monogrammed silver whistle and a closet full of pressed identical track suits.  Maybe I could become so good that I could predict offenses a split second before they happened, and my razor sharp eye would pick up every infraction no matter how far away down the field.  I’d just sit in a chair reclined on the sidelines with one eye open, emitting a varying crescendo of chirrups and doling out yellow cards, free shots and turnovers.  But as I researched this science of field policing, I began to realize that I just may have over-committed myself.

I sensed my limitations closing in on me.  The rules are complicated and there are a lot of them, and they are accompanied by various sounds and gestures, an animated shorthand that enables you to communicate wordlessly, but as a talker I found this daunting.  All of this is designed to keep the girls safe, or so the enforcers say, but players still occasionally get hurt and it frequently has nothing to do with a rule infraction or ill intentions.  Feeling overwhelmed, I narrowed down the five most important, or most frequently called offenses, and wrote them out on an index card that I studied and repeated, and at the game I clutched it in my hand to reference, just in case.  I tried to remember other referees and their demeanors that I could perhaps channel.  I confessed to the main referee that I was out of my element, and offered her a preemptive apology.

The game began without incident, and as it rolled along I sprinted dutifully up and down the field, clutching my index card, never taking my eye off the ball.  I remembered the girls names, I studied their styles, I winced when they slashed and gasped when they crashed their sticks and the real referee, Shorty, was a busy bee; thankfully, she didn’t need my help.  I fought the urge to cheer when the draw was won, when a great shot was taken, and when the goalies made a save.  I clutched my whistle tightly as I ran, never missing a beat, watching every ball roll out of bounds and brought back in by the faster player, and if Shorty didn’t call it, who was I to argue?  I was the supportive referee, new-age with a Tony Robbins flair, encouraging players to be their best and congratulating them when they were, instead of focusing on the negatives.  I saw the three seconds, the shooting spaces, the face cradles, the empty cross checks, the cross in the sphere, the out of bounds, the restraining and holding, and the pushing, but it just never seemed right to blow the whistle and stop such marvelous action, that was Shorty’s job, and if she didn’t call it, well I certainly wasn’t going to second guess the pro.

The heckling occurred in the second half with three minutes left and the score tied, 11 – 11.  A dad in the bleachers yelled, Out of bounds, ref!, as if I didn’t know that.  Of course I knew, I was standing right there, I’m not blind.  A blind ref would make even less sense than one with anarchic tendencies and authority issues.  Why stop a perfectly good run for accidentally stepping six inches beyond an arbitrary white line?  It didn’t make sense to me.  Shorty smiled and laughed continuously and blew her whistle with precision, but mine was just ornamental.  She was the professional enforcer, and if I had been half as zealous, we would have been there for hours;  I had to counter balance.

Lacrosse is a marvelous sport that is fast and graceful, and is a joy to watch when well-played.  The game ended in overtime and half the parents were pissed, the other half were elated.  I thanked Shorty for her hard work and dedication, I thanked the coaches and the told all the girls what a wonderful job they did on the field, and then I ran up the hill to the parking lot as quickly as I could.  Parents do crazy things, I know, because I am one, and I wasn’t convinced that something wouldn’t be thrown at me.  I waved casually to the remaining spectators as I raced across the track in the opposite direction of the bleachers.  I got in the car and locked the door, then sank into the seat as a wave of nausea rolled through me from head to toe.  I unclenched my hand and peeled from my palm the worthless and soggy sheet of rules that I had so carefully crafted and threw it on the floor.  Then I made a mental note to cross officiant off the list of potential mid-life careers for me, not that I needed this experience to come to that conclusion, but sometimes the not-so-subtle reminders of our limitations help to redirect us to more gratifying pastures.

Rabbit People

Growing up, everybody had a pet.  There were cat and dog people, reptile and fish people, bird people (an odd group), and some people had hamsters or guinea pigs.   We were also constantly out catching things, like turtles and salamanders and worm snakes, and making them cozy little nests that we would craft in shoeboxes and aquariums.  Sometimes our beloved pets would deliver us prizes, little half-alive things of one species or another that we would try in vain to resuscitate and nurse back to health, only to be dropped on the veterinarian’s counter the next morning, tears rolling down our cheeks, please please save our field mouse, Oscar, we love him so.  The vet would reassure us that he would indeed do his best and then would whisk the box into the back room and Oscar would never be seen again.  Only the dogs and cats seemed to have any sort of longevity; everything else was either buried in the back yard, flushed down the toilet, or dropped off at the vet for eternity.  And all the while, I never, ever met any rabbit people.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons why rabbits were not popular pets, I am acutely aware of some of them now, but I’m guessing that reason number one is that most of us grew up thinking that rabbits were not for companionship, they were for wearing: rabbit lined gloves, earmuffs, collars and cuffs and scarves, how warm and wonderful!  For Christmas one year my parents gave me a gray and white rabbit coat that was so luxuriously soft that I felt like a movie star when I wore it, and so I wore it year-round.  Oh, how I loved that coat.  It was the warmest, most marvelous thing I had ever set my sticky seven-year old hands on.  There were two round fur puff-balls attached to either end of a string that when pulled would tighten the hood around your face and made you look like a Pomeranian, or you could whack your sister in the back of the head with them when she rode in the front seat on the way home from school, and infuriate her.  There was a valuable degree of entertainment and whimsical justice attached to the memories of that coat which provided an early appreciation of rabbit.

My husband had read that rabbits were allergen-free, low maintenance, ahem, trainable, kid friendly and had medium lifespans, all of which made them a perfect match for us, and it was on one cold Easter morning that we joined the shadow ranks of the rabbit people.  They were hatched at a friendly farm not far away, and they were Holland Lops, sweet and luxurious little designer bunnies.  The girls’ love for these furry little things was immediate and they were petted and rubbed and held and fed and loved and dropped and dressed up, and not one peep ever was uttered in either protest or acceptance.  Not a sound they made, they just sat in your lap for hours twitching their noses and nothing else, like a toy, only warm.  And, they even lived outside in a cozy little hutch: the perfect pet.

For such timid animals, rabbits are freakishly strong and aggressive. And sneaky and fast. And very high maintenance.  No matter how well we secured the hutch, they frequently managed to escape.  They have bionic rabbit fingers that unfold from their paws at night and make them able to achieve unbelievable feats of lock picking and latch flipping.  Since we were not forewarned of this proclivity, we found their escapes incredibly vexing.  Making the situation worse, the bunnies would break out and cavort with the raggedy wild rabbits who eagerly shared their wood ticks and botfly larvae in the honeysuckle with them.  It became a routine occurrence to glance into the back yard and see two small black and white fur balls darting around  at dusk (a perilous time for a prey animal to go for a run) with two panicked girls in hot pursuit, screaming and crying and flailing their arms.  

Catching a rabbit is incredibly difficult and requires either one generic predator, or a team of patient, energetic and agile humans.  For the latter, it goes something like this:

You get close, but most of the time not close enough.  You try to reason with it but its brain is about the size of a bitten off pencil eraser, and it just watches you, warily, in that weird sideways rabbity way, munching grass and mocking you. You crouch low, two feet away, cooing, Here sweet bunny here sweet bunny bunny bunny, kissing at the air until your lips are numb and dry, presenting a bouquet of fresh parsley until your arm falls asleep, and you feel stupid, and you hate your husband for buying the damn bunnies, and you’re terrified you won’t catch them before the sun sets, and your children are crying. You reach out gently so the rabbit can sniff your hand and recognize you as the one who feeds it, not the one who feeds on it. And in an instant, you grab it, lightening fast, but the rabbit wriggles away, magically, leaving you with a silky haunting on your palms and fingertips that lets you know that for an instant you had held it, and then lost it, again. The rabbit watches from the other eye from a safer distance now, perhaps four feet away. This can go on for hours until you feel you just may go insane, or cry, and you can only hope that you’ve worn it out enough for someone else to get their hands on it.  And deep down, a deeply-conflicted part of you, sees them as part of a wonderful, luxuriously soft, winter coat.

It was a frequent scenario in the Hereford backyard and so became a chief source of exercise for our family and friends, but it was just a matter of time until those bunnies found themselves on the wrong side of the honeysuckle when the sun went down.

Losing a pet is heartbreaking, indeed; finding it’s bits and parts scattered about the yard is nothing less than traumatic, for most. For others, who shall remain nameless, those who are more opportunistic and have a unique ability to compartmentalize, may take the finding of a rabbit paw as a sign of fortuitousness, like stumbling across a four-leaf clover in a field, a totemistic discovery to be kept in the garage for good luck. As most of us cried over and mourned the violent demise of our sweet little bunnies, the lone socio-optimist was planning on researching local taxidermists with a specialty in key chains. Luckily, none were found before said opportunist was shamed into properly disposing of said paw before it could be discovered by a curious child.  And oddly enough, as the resident fur advocate, whose first material love was a rabbit coat, I was deeply saddened by the loss of those sweet little bunnies, and most definitely not the one with the foot.

I learned a lot in the world of rabbit people:  that they are stranger than bird people, firstly; that it is way more poop cleaning than I ever wanted or expected to be committed to, secondly;  and lastly, that maybe my parents were onto something when they gave me a coat instead of a pet those many years ago;  or maybe not.  That coat outlived the rabbits by years and provided inestimable comfort, sure.  It didn’t require any level of maintenance at all, and it didn’t have bugs or diseases or medical issues.  It didn’t run away; and it never left me.  It didn’t have to live in an apartment outside braving the elements, and it couldn’t be eaten by a predator (although our dog was highly intrigued by it).  No, it was hung reverently in the closet next to my mother’s coat cousins, who were also its betters, and whom I’m sure it admired, like a commoner sitting next to kings and queens.

But caring for these peculiar creatures reminded me that you can find love in unexpected places, that bonding with an animal is something so very special, that no matter what it is, rodent or perhaps reptile, that it can lead you to to experience a deep joy that just can’t be found in something without a heartbeat.  The memories are richer, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes hilarious or tragic, but there is a fragile balance in life that is simply not quite understood without a sense of inter-connectedness, and sometimes even loss.  Our pets teach us a lot about ourselves and about others, and although I wasn’t always excited about the botfly extractions, the cage cleaning, nail trimming, ear treating, gland clearing, pricey small-pet vet visiting, they were still absolutely perfect in a perfectly flawed kind of way.  Oh, yes, and luxuriously soft.

Gray Is the New Black

I don’t want to have gray hair.  I feel young, for the most part, and I still make mistakes and laugh at fart jokes and want to dance all night.  I always thought that by the time my hair grayed I would feel gray too and I’d be wise and all-knowing and people would travel from all over the world to seek my advice on any range of issues, and that I would have grandchildren and a garden and drive a Cadillac and eat a lot of oatmeal and clip coupons and go for long walks holding hands with my husband while the sun was setting.  But, I don’t feel any of that and I don’t do any of those things.  And, instead of gray, I feel more like bright green with sparkles.

The dilemma is figuring out what parts of aging to embrace, and what parts are unjust and are to be challenged.  If I start dying my hair, will I then need liposuction, a personal trainer, a gluten-free diet, botox injections and a wardrobe overhaul?  Because that’s a lot.  If I dye my hair, will it be like painting one room, where before all the other rooms were perfectly fine, but now they look awful and you can hardly even stand being in your house?  Or, will it be like when you buy one new piece of furniture and suddenly realize how gross and outdated everything else you own is and you just want to go live in bungalow somewhere in the Caribbean? I don’t know if it will be like any of those scenarios, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it could be the pinnacle of a very slippery slope.

As a skier, I enjoy slippery slopes very much.  But here I feel like I’m poised on a precipice upon which I’ve never stood before, and I’m looking down and there is nothing below but cloud cover, it’s a temperature inversion, hiding every detail of the vertical. I could stay here, but I’m alone, alone and gray.  If I jump into this unknown, it could be a wild ride with hidden consequences and obstacles and I could end up looking like a total freak when I reach the bottom, marred by branches and ice crystals and lasers and needles.  And, I really hate to admit that I may be vain.  I’m okay with aging, but I don’t want to be unattractive, and I don’t want to look like I’m my friends’ mother when we have girls’ night out.  I can just see it: a handsome young waiter approaches our table, the six of us all dolled up and feeling fabulous, ordering wine and salads and laughing about something insensitive our husbands said right out of the Husbands 101 manual, and he says, Hello, ladies, I can tell it’s a special occasion, perhaps a birthday? He winks at me and pours a vanilla Ensure into a martini glass and sets it in front of me with a maraschino cherry on top…  

There is the option of going all out and embracing what is inevitable, that by the time I feel as old as I am I’ll probably be too old to get my ass to the salon to do anything at all with my hair, which I’m sure will be long and swirly and insane.  I could preemptively dye it all gray, or white, and come up with some story about waking up one morning and looking in the mirror and holy crap I turned white!  I could feign astonishment, and cultivate a New England snobbery accent, like a 1940’s actress, and call everyone dahling and start smoking.  I’d have to get silk pajamas and robes and a daybed and more furs, lots of furs, and walk around the house with a rocks glass filled with ice that clinks as I glide around avoiding my own trail of smoke telling everyone to shhhhhhh.  I would have to ignore my children, too, this woman doesn’t sit on the floor and pay Uno, she taps her fingernails on the new piano during the children’s three-hour daily lesson as a metronome.  And I’d have to stop cooking because silk is highly flammable and I’d be really skinny because I only eat ice and nicotine, and I’d burn up quickly if I caught fire, which means we would need a housekeeper who can cook.  And I’d need a driver for obvious reasons.  And some other things that I can’t put my finger on right now.

So, I guess my options are rather limited and both seem to require a lot of effort and financial commitment.  In the mean time, I’ll drag myself to the store on the other side of town to surreptitiously buy some brand of matchy-type color in the hair aisle and cover it up in my basket with a large bag of cotton balls that I don’t need.  And then I’ll go home and spend all morning reading directions and prepping and brushing and dying, telling myself that it’s not vanity I’m servicing here, it’s my inner artist who has been for years starved of a proper canvas.  And then I’ll rinse the darkness from my hair, careful not to let it linger on the white tiles, lest it stain and forever serve as a tattle-tell of my cosmetic deception, and then, voila!  I will have erased Father Time in one small way; but I look at my hands and my eyes and my boobs and I realize that the hair is where the deception stops.  He is winning this game of moisture and gravity; but I’m not competitive, I play for the fun of playing, and when it is no longer fun, alas, I will surrender and let him drape me in gray, because gray just may be the new black.  

That’s Like So Totally Racist?

A couple of evenings ago, I answered the doorbell to two bouncy, smiley middle schoolers, a blond, the older sister of the little girl who had been over playing all afternoon, and her Chinese friend.  I invited them in with a Hello, girls, how are you, and other general niceties.  The blond responded to my inquiries as such:  So, like it’s my aunt’s birthday? And we’re going out to dinner? And my friend from school is coming with us? So, like it’s time for my sister to come home now?   Was she asking me to verify these things?  I wasn’t sure.  Perhaps she had been studying the movie Valley Girl and was perfecting that insipid style of speech for a play.  One can hope.

As we waited together in the foyer, I asked them questions about school and the holidays and where they were going for dinner, and they responded in that singsongy answer-question manner.  I called to the little sister that it was time to go home, and here the chit chat lingered on dinner and favorite foods.   The blond said to her friend, You eat fried rice like because you’re Chinese?  They bounced and giggled, and the friend replied, Oh my god, like that is so totally racist? and they burst into a fit of shrugging and honking.

Witnessing this I started feeling itchy, and called downstairs, urging the sister to hurry, that it was time to leave, but she was too busy ignoring me.  The blond then said to her friend, You’re like always having rice when I’m at your house?  To which the Chinese friend retorted, I can’t believe like how racist that is?!  And, once again, they disintegrated into laughter that sounded more like three short wheezes and a squeal, over and over and over, and all the while the Chinese friend is shaking her head and rolling her eyes at her very funny friend.  Who she keeps calling a racist.

I study them with an expression that has been described to me as unpleasant.  It’s when I hear something that I do not like, or that I find disturbing, and it bothers my ears which makes my face muscles constrict into what appears to be a squinty scowl, just as it pulls my chin high into the air and with it up come my arms, who reflexively cross over my chest tightly in order to keep them from continuing over my head.  It’s an innocent reaction, contemplative, really, and completely autonomic and widely misunderstood.  I have an aversion to this type of speech pattern, one could say an allergy, to which the only remedy is total removal of the irritant.

I stand in front of the two sillies in said posture.  Girls, I say calmly, racist is someone who believes that one person or group is superior to another solely because of race, so those were not racist comments, they were just observations. Do you understand the difference?   They stopped wiggling and stared at me.  Waiting, just waiting, non-blinking, hollow staring without a hint of recognition and maybe a touch of fear.  Hurry or we’ll be in big trouble?  the blond yells down the hallway.  Did I not say that in English? I think to myself.  More than likely, yes, I did, but I couldn’t remember, and by the way they were looking at me I thought, perhaps not.  Just then, the little sister popped up, coat on, ready to go.  The girls did not disguise their relief as their eyes lolled about in their sockets and they began that hunched-back shoulder-rolling that seems to preface giggling and other inanities.  

I said good bye and thanks for playing and to enjoy their dinner and thank you for the interesting conversation.  The girls seemed to have already forgotten about the deep discussion that we almost had, and I had a sudden panic that in a mere six years they would both be eligible to vote…

I imagined the future:  Umm, I just want to say, that, like I’m really really proud of myself for all of my hard work ruining the fossil fuel industry?  And, like I think solar is really really awesome?  And, I think if we all ride bicycles there will be world peace because you can’t, umm, fire a gun from a bike? And if you like fried rice, you’re like totally racist so I’m leading a world boycott of it?  Heeheehee!

It reminded me of an interview I listened to the other day on NPR of a woman who works for the Environmental Protection Agency discussing the checkered history and industry projections of coal, and with the exact same inflection as these girls, i.e., a complete absence of gravity, and a smile behind every word, she said definitively that it would be dead..?  I thought it was a mock interview and laughed through most of it, until the end, when I realized it wasn’t a spoof after all; it was real, and that absurd woman was real.  And she was probably an absurd sounding middle schooler before she went on to be just as absurd in high school and then on to Harvard to double-major in Historical Blunders of White Men and Girl Power, and then proceeded get a job at the EPA to harass an entire segment of our energy economy out of business.  I imagined that woman in one of her meetings, eyes lolling about in that same girlish manner of indecision, shoulders rolling and bouncing, snort-laughing at some hilarious organic farming joke she heard over the recycling bin.

In theatre, and then later in debate (theatre’s aggressive cousin), I learned that people will judge you, whether you want them to or not, and they will do so first by the way you speak, and second by the way you look; it therefore was most important to learn to speak properly, without a noticeable accent, and to speak with confidence.  Confusing a statement and a question was unforgivable, an instant shave of twenty-five IQ points.  Using like and umm in  place of a thoughtful pause was always inexcusable, instant banishment from any meaningful conversations.  (One night in high school over dinner, my dad asked me about my day, and every time I said umm, he immediately yelled umm!  It was illustrative, and incredibly obnoxious, and aggravating.  I didn’t speak to my dad for a week or so after that teaching moment, which he found hilarious, and which aggravated me even more, but I must admit that it broke my umm habit.)  The worst offense, however, was the misusage of words, back to point, and these girls violated it, and violated all three with the determination of a pack of hyenas.

In summation, if you’re fortunate enough to not have been born in the Valley, don’t pretend that you were by adopting the accent; if you need time to collect your thoughts so that you can speak coherently, just stop talking, less is better; if you don’t know what a word means, truly means, especially if it is a lightening rod like racist, don’t use it, certainly don’t accuse your friends of being it, and don’t laugh at it unless you are a well prepared to defend yourself, verbally and physically.  We are the protectors of our culture, which we pass down via the instrument of language, and to abuse it so is more than an affront to our society, it is  like totally embarrassing?! 

Smelly Feet

My olfactory senses are not the keenest.  Certainly, there are particular essences that I absolutely love, that can transport me years back and to places far away, but for the most part, there aren’t many scents that move me.  The exception to this is foot odor.  Not my own, of course, to that I feel a kinship, a loyalty, an unpleasant attraction, even.  Other people’s foot odor, however, can bring me to the brink of insanity.  My oldest daughter has exceptionally ripe pedals, and on several occasions, has nearly caused an accident simply by  removing her shoes in the car.  That is a lot of power for a nine year old to wield, by the way.

Friday was an early-release day at the elementary school – because after a week long break for Thanksgiving, then two more for Christmas, and then another week for snow, it makes perfect sense to honor those pre-determined half-days, no matter what.  Anyway, we followed our normal routine after school: crash into the house; throw backpacks and coats on floor; fight over computer; reconcile; do homework; beg for snacks.  And then the friends start to ring the door bell.  Having wreaked sufficient havoc in their own homes, they follow innate signals which draw them to ours, similar to locusts.

Everything was moving along nicely this day.  All the little girls were sequestered downstairs in a controlled-chaos environment.  I ignored them completely and stretched out in another room, away and almost out of earshot, contemplating my quantum parallel universe which is always quiet and orderly.  It was a perfect arrangement, until the screeches, squeals and thumps suddenly stopped and all was quiet.  My eyes popped open.  I waited for the wail, but it never came.  The silence continued and hung in the air…   I swiftly tiptoed down the hall to listen more closely, to let it tell me what was amiss below, as every parent knows that there is nothing more foreboding than the paradox of a room full of soundless children.  I placed my ear to the door.  Nothing, not even the shh’s and ess’s of whispers.

Fear gripped me and in three bionic leaps I was in the den, whereupon I found four little angels perched carefully on a crafted nest of cushions and pillows, preparing for the start of a  movie, just patiently waiting.  I studied them suspiciously, but they seemed in order.  I studied the room suspiciously, and nothing was broken.  Everything okay down here? I asked casually.  No response.  The grating voice of Barbie suddenly broke the peace in the room.   That shrill voice and gumless smile were enough to keep me from lingering longer, and that’s when it hit me: a smell.

I couldn’t put my finger on it right away; something unnatural and putrid, but not immediately identifiable.  What on earth is that smell??  No response.  Great, I thought, Make a mental note to add another week to Latin camp this summer to counter The Barbie Effect.  I lifted my chin and let my nose guide me around the room, lifting costumes from the floor with the tip of a pencil, expecting to find something huge and moldy and unidentifiable, an Ah-HA! just waiting to leap out.

As physical evidence eluded me, there it continued to hang, the tart stench, lingering invisibly, taunting me, daring me to inhale deeper.  I ask again, a little louder, Girls, what on earth is that smell???  One of the girls quickly looks up a me, the big one with the knotted blond hair, and says, Oh, it’s probably my Uggs.  Uggs???

I do not understand Uggs.  Firstly, it sounds like ugly, which they are, and which I do not aspire to be, not even my feet.  Foot-haters is what they are, Vietcong-esque woolen sweat boxes.  Why torture them so, poor feet, trapping them in their own brine, marinating them in bacterial waste?  It’s just too disgusting to contemplate further.  When I see people walking around in them, I know they smell, without ever having to know them, or smell them.  And to pay a premium for a branding of stink is simply bizarre to me, maybe even insane.

If I pay several hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes, which I’m not opposed to doing, it will make me smarter, younger, thinner, and taller, and generally make the world a more pleasant place.  With the right pair of shoes, it’s totally doable, and then even the priciest of tags seems a great bargain.  The complete opposite seems to be the case with Uggs.  Even their brownness is an affront, like dirt or poop, and they’re not fooling anyone with the pinks and purples: underneath we know it’s just brown brown brown.  As if that’s not enough, they splay, which connotes Neanderthal, and it just doesn’t get more inelegant than that.  Australia, what were you thinking?

But this, this was too much.  A seven year-old with overpriced quarantine-worthy boots stinking up my basement.  Just then I looked down and noticed the offenders: purple, they were, all disguised to make them appeal to children despite their inherent unattractiveness; like a McDonald’s Happy Meal, that is neither happy nor a meal, and posing as both to those who do not know better.  These need to go outside, honey, I say in my Compassionate Mother voice.  No need to humiliate, she’s just a kid.  The little girls laugh and the big one with the knotted blond hair, laughs the loudest and cheerfully bounces from the pile of cushions and bounds over to her boots, at which point the smell intensifies ten-fold.  My eyes water and my face pinches, Dear god above, could that possibly be coming from her FEET???  It was.  The smell, all along, was feet.  Smelly feet, rubbing into rugs and smearing up and down stairs, in and out of rooms all over the house.  I moved into emergency mode: this is where crucial decisions are made lightening fast and you feel like a wizard.  I gave the little girl a fresh pair of socks and instructed her to take her own, stuff them in her boots and place them outside the front door, quickly.  Done and done, or so it seemed.

While Barbie droned high in the background I glided back upstairs to assume my repose. But that smell, that horrible smell, nothing at all akin to my running shoes or ski boots, oh no, that is special and earned, those smells have miles and memories to them.  This was the smell of willing entrapment, and there it was, stained on my smell receptors, burned into my cerebral cortex, and smudged all over my house.  It stayed with me like the sensory memory of an amputated limb.  I lit candles.  I vacuumed.  I walked around the yard.  I would have opened the windows, but it’s cold, so I sprayed white linen, and it all just managed to confuse me, and the last thing I needed was a cerebral short circuit.  I put the boots in a plastic bag and tied it, which seemed to do the trick.  Even my receptors know that little escapes a sealed plastic bag.

With that, I popped a huge pot of popcorn for the girls, to their delight, and all was well again as the house filled with the aroma of exploding kernels and melted butter.  Happy smells that canceled out all of the others, a short circuit narrowly averted.  And herein lies the moral:  that replacing something unpleasant (smelly feet) with something delightful (homemade popcorn) can be transformative beyond all reason, and it works both ways.  So, when you come to our house, we advise keeping shoes on at all times, and if you’re donning Uggs, expect a preemptive, fragrant bowl of buttered popcorn to follow your arrival.

Rabble-Rousing Rule-Breakers

As a kid, I got into a lot of trouble.  Not usually for major offenses, but constantly for stupid little stuff.  Some rules for me were more like benchmarks, or statements to be tested.  It didn’t make sense to me why there were so many rules for so many things, and it seemed like everything was against the rules.  Why could we not run around the pool?  Every kid runs around the pool.  That’s all we think about on a hot day: getting to the pool and running around it, running after our friends, running to the snack bar, running to be the first to greet a latecomer, running to burn off your sugar buzz, running away from your parents when they say it’s time to go home and you are no where near ready to go home.  Who wants to walk around a pool?   They say it’s so you won’t fall and hurt yourself, but not running doesn’t keep you from falling; and running doesn’t always end up in people getting hurt.  Where is the logic behind that rule?

They should leave the runners alone and blow the whistle at the kid who does get hurt.  That’s the kid who should sit out for five minutes, the one who wasn’t paying attention, crashed into the chair and skinned his knee.  The moral becomes, pay attention, or you may get hurt and will be forced to sit by the mean lifeguard and watch all of your friends having fun running around the pool.  Everyone else is perfectly fine, they shouldn’t have to suffer for one person’s misjudgment.  The trick here is to run as fast as you can around the pool, and the second they blow that stupid whistle, jump in the water.

Here’s another one: I cross the street whenever I want.  Any free human being in a free society should be able to make that decision for themselves.  If you cannot decide properly whether or not it is safe to cross a street, you should either be in a stroller, or in a home somewhere safe with padded walls and floors where you can’t hurt yourself, handcuffed to a chair.  Instead, somebody decides that nobody should be allowed to cross a street except where designated, because one person’s potential inability reflects upon an entire community’s competence; i.e., you are now no longer allowed to maybe get hit by a car.  That makes no sense to me.  Why would I wait for a blinking light to tell me what I can determine on my very own, that there are no cars on the road and that it is safe to cross a street?  Why on earth do I have eyeballs?  In part, so that I can make appropriate decisions regarding my personal safety, not just so that I can recognize my children and coordinate my outfits.  Street crossing is something that I have been doing successfully for many, many years, which makes me an expert.  Hence, I cross a street when I see fit, not when a non-expert computer who has never, ever crossed a street before, tells me it is safe to do so.

Which brings me to stop signs.  Why do we need to press the break and hold it for three seconds for it to count as a complete stop?  A rolling stop is fine if nothing is around that would require a full stop.  Either version of a stop could lead to an accident, because accidents happen.   If you’re not paying attention, the chance of an accident increases dramatically, whether you stop or not.  If you feel the need to make an unnecessary law, why not outlaw accidents, or not paying attention, and let us make our own determination as to what requires a big or a mini stop?  If you are the only car for miles and miles and miles and no humans are anywhere around and there is no chance of you hitting anything but the stop sign itself, why must you even stop at all?  I probably wouldn’t.

And what is up with parking meters?  Why do we allow these immoral metal nuisances?  My obsession with the immorality of parking meters begins here, where parking meter rates and taxes rise in order to cover the costs of the stupid parking meters and their overlords.  When meter enforcement is increased in order to collect more fines in order to pay for more meter enforcement, a government hamster wheel has been created that benefits no one, and harms everyone; this is why it is immoral.  It also means that the $500 dress you just bought in the new boutique is really $540, with taxes, and, if you take too long looking at yourself in the mirror, trying to decide whether you look ridiculous or like a fashion goddess trendsetter, you’ve acquired a $25 parking ticket, which in effect raises the cost of the dress to $565.  Or, how about you just paid $5 for a crappy cup of chalky coffee, see an old friend in line whereupon she regales you with her ten-point plan for finding perfect husband number-three, which took longer to tell than the dime you dropped into the meter granted you permission to hear.  Now, your crappy cup of coffee has cost you $30.  Who on earth would pay that for a cup of coffee?  So, we are forced into the protection of malls with “free” parking.  The poor shops and cafes with meters gradually go out of business or migrate to  malls where people can stay for long periods of time buying and perusing goods unmolested by sociopathic meter cadets and spending their money freely, while still contributing to the tax coffers.

In the mean time, the the city gets sued because only people who can walk get to write tickets (which is so much fun, a highly sought after position), and so in order to be an equal opportunity employer, the city has to buy little scooters for the parking ticket personnel, which means they all become obese because they sit all day, and now the health care and disability costs skyrocket for the city and taxes have to be raised, AGAIN.  But the cash cows, the businesses and shoppers, have moved to greener pastures, and so the numbers of parking meter payers and offenders drastically decreases, just as the demand for an increase in said payers and offenders skyrockets.  And why do cities not understand why they go bankrupt?  They are either run by kindergardeners or hamsters.  Dr. Seuss could come up with a system that makes more sense than this.  How about this: ditch the meters, fire the personnel, lower the taxes and let us all own, shop and eat in peace?  If I pass someone’s meter and it is expired, I drop in a quarter, which is against the rules, by the way.

Now, I get the reason why we have rules and laws, and I understand that we need them in order to have an orderly society that can prosper.  But freedom doesn’t mean that you are free from pain or discomfort or loss or injury; it means that we have the opportunity to make choices in our lives, and good ones are usually rewarded, and bad ones are sometimes punished.  If you desire rewards, you have the choice of whether or not you will do the work and make the decisions required in order to achieve those rewards, just as the converse is true, as well.  Buying an overpriced cup of coffee is not a behavior that should be discouraged by the financial punishment of a city government, it is a choice that I have every right to make all by myself.  Because I am a big girl.  Ultimately, laws and rules only effect those who choose to obey them, anyway.  If you desire a peaceful society, why harass good people? At the beginning, middle and end of the day, the choices are ours to make, and if we are all turned into a bunch of rabble-rousing rule-breakers, well, you get what you paid for, you over-achieveing rule-makers, and you are exponentially outnumbered.  Liberum arbitrium.

Looking for Inspiration

The first story I ever wrote was about a little boy whose parents were divorced. It was an odd subject choice, being a girl with married parents, but my teacher loved it and was curious as to my inspiration for the story.  I didn’t know, and I was embarrassed, did I even know what inspiration meant?  It popped into my head and I wrote it down and I turned it in, is what I was thinking, but instead I turned scarlet, shrugged my shoulders, and wished to melt into my chair and disappear.  My teacher gave me a proud pat on the shoulder, which was unusual, and dropped my paper on my desk with a big red A on it, and moved on.

I reread the story several times when I got home and wondered where on earth the idea for such a crazy, sad tale came from?  And I was accustomed to being asked questions that had right and wrong answers, and whose right answers were already known by all the grownups.   Usually, imagination wasn’t even talked about, and the kid day dreaming in the corner or doodling in his notebook got into trouble. Intentional exploration of the source of imagination was uncharted territory.

At that time, I was in the forth grade in a small classroom on the second floor of a sixteenth century Tudor manse that had been dismantled, stone and plank, in the English countryside, sailed across the Atlantic, and reconstructed in Richmond, Virginia. It was lovely and creepy and we were constantly recounting ghost stories, the library, basement and elevator all reputed to have aggressive spirits guarding their hidden treasures.

From our classroom at the end of the hall, there were two sides of small pane windows in diamond shapes held together with black lead.  They swung open easily by twisting the iron latch half way up the inside, and in the Spring we would clamor over one another to release the stagnant air from the room and replace it with a cool scented breeze from the gardens.

I will never forget this place:  the P.E./History teacher who threw erasers and chalk with startling accuracy at students who misbehaved; the teacher whose shoulders were always dusted in white flakes of skin, her hair piled high on her head in a Victorian bun, teaching children the elements of music and theatre with the patience of a saint; the mild-mannered Principle/English teacher who always seemed to enjoy my stories; the Math teacher who just didn’t understand why I just didn’t understand.  For many reasons this school was memorable, but the moment that I held magic in my small hand was by far the most, and it was an iris.

There were several colors to appreciate, but the particular one that I was drawn to was special, it was the most beautiful arrangement of colors I had ever seen. It was violet laced with white and yellow, brushstrokes of subtle hues of blue and purple, set against the purest white and soft as chalky silk.  The petals were long and curved like the panels of a gown, opened in vulnerability and invitation, the furls of ruffled pollen outstretched for all to behold.  I studied this iris: there is nothing more beautiful.  I inhaled its fragrance: there is nothing more lovely.  If I were a fairy, I thought, I would live here, in the iris, and at that moment, I believed that this place was indeed magical and that fairies whistled all about disguised as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

I picked it, oh sin.  In full bloom it was about the size of a child’s head, and I climbed tentatively into one of my favorite trees, the one with smooth black bark and low branches, careful not to crush my forbidden prize.  The  trees were draped in thick ancient vines that made climbing and hiding easy, and planted in a row alongside a mossy brick wall that disappeared into the foliage and followed the length of the lawn.  I settled in a well-worn crook that was out of sight and offered a perfect view of the green expanse, the roses that needed pruning, the boxwood maze that needed tending, and of the slated terrace with it’s scalloped staircase that led into this wondrous place.

Every day I climbed this tree by the hidden wall and memorized every shade and shape that revealed itself to me.  I sat in the back of the classroom and would catch glances at that mighty terrace below, wondering who could have created such a place?  From that moment, the intimidating halls and imposing paneled rooms, the secret staircases and empty closets, the basement and attic, none of it frightened me anymore.  There were stories about the crippled old man who was mean and cruel and who chased all of his children away.  And there was talk of hidden passageways and secret doors, of catacombs under the gardens.  Anyone responsible for that garden was no evil brigand or murderous father or merchant outlaw, that I knew for sure.

I continued to develop my lopsided education and dreamed of writing operas and painting canvases and singing duets, and longed to experience inspiration.  I needed to see it in the way grownups see right and wrong; I needed to know that it was the right answer and I wanted to understand it, to capture it, so that I could call upon it when I needed it.  I wonder if my meeting with the iris was a serendipitous one, one that provided an illustration of inspiration, one that showed me that some things do not fall into reason, that some things are unexpected and unconditional and unexplainable.  Perhaps it was a question answered, a resounding YES!  For, after all, what is inspiration but the planting of a seed?