Saturday, December 18, 2010

Of Hamsters and Harleys

Here it is, the end of the year, when all we've done, and all we haven't, comes swirling down at us in one big whoosh of emotion, wrapping paper, and re-gifted Snuggies. Finish with a flurry of frenzied shopping, and we wonder why assault with a fruitcake is so common in December.

I was Christmas shopping in a pet store the other day when I noticed a burly biker guy getting increasingly agitated. That’s never a good thing, but it’s especially bad when it happens in the hamster aisle, and even worse when it occurs near me. Suddenly the man of many tattoos swaggered toward me.

“Do you know where the leashes are?”

“For h-h-hamsters?” I stammered, trying not to giggle.

"Guinea pig, actually," he corrected me (on the plus side, though, he let me live). I nearly bit my tongue, at the thought of this tough, tattooed dude walking a guinea pig…

"It's for my twelve-year-old daughter. It's a gift for her pet," he growled. “But I can’t find one.”

He was in Christmas pain - that achy place you endure when you venture out of your own comfort zone and attempt to fulfill a loved one's wishes simply because you want them to be happy, even if it means you might get miserably lost in a world of tubular hamster toys, suffer the stares of strangers, and run the risk of coming home empty-handed.
I softened a little. Even Harley riders need help sometimes. Besides, he could have crushed me with his pinky. Lola, the inked portrait glaring at me from his left bicep, seemed to demand that something be done. With the eye of a seasoned shopper, I scanned the aisle for our holy grail.

“Over here," I scurried down the aisle, pushing aside a few crinkle-tunnels and chew-cubes to reveal a virtual smorgasbord of rodent leashes. "Ooh, hey, here’s one with metal studs on it!” Biker Guy brightened. Lola winked at me. Whew!

After some serious musing, Biker Guy narrowed his decision down to either a pink one with rhinestones or a studded black one. Meanwhile I did my best to stay serious, helpful, and alive. I nearly suggested that the black one matched his leather vest better, but I held my tongue. He put the pink one back. It was then I knew he was going to make some bad-ass guinea pig very happy.

“That’ll do. Hey, thanks a lot. Merry Christmas.” Then he was gone.

In our quests for cheer, we brave the traffic, the malls, the mayhem. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we Snuggie. The time we take and the effort we make are symbolized by the gifts we give. Behind each gift is a story of bringing home the joy. The story is unwrapped with the present, bringing it to life, adding sparkle, and reminding us that while shopping for a gift can be a major pain in the patootie, it's all good.

May you not suffer too long in the hamster aisle, and may your checkout line be swift. Happy holidays.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wanted: Woman, or tractor in good condition

A friend of mine has decided that all she wants for Christmas is a cowboy (eyeroll). Since I'm a dutiful friend, I'm helping her shop online at some cow-themed matchmaking sites. I come across a guy who seems to fit the bill.Then I read his profile, or, as some of us prefer to call it, the 'warning label':

Well here it is ladys. I am a cowboy, Im not a rich one, yet anway, yes im around horses and cattle all the time and thats all iv ever been and all ill ever be, im looking for a good woman who can keep house, cook, shoe the horses, do the chores, cut and split firewood, mow the yard, fix fence, buck hay, and most of all is sexy and knows how to make love.

Then I notice that at 40, he's a widower. Wonder what killed his first wife?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sophie and the Silverado

The garage was a mess. Normally this would not bother me so much, except that it was not just any garage, but my garage, and as such, an unpleasant reminder of my current messy situation. If I could get a tidy toehold on one snippet of my life, I reasoned, the rest might fall into place, like so many obsessive-compulsive dominoes. Maybe not, but I had to start somewhere. So I started with a sigh. Nothing happened. I wiggled my nose. Still nothing. I kicked at a Lego block, sending it skittering toward the trash can. Sigh, wiggle, kick. It was a start.

Toys were everywhere, to infinity and beyond – a cluttered kaleidescope of cars, puzzles, and balls – a goofy plastic rainbow of great times. I thought back to when they first sat under our Christmas tree, waiting to be unwrapped by my frenetic, giddy toddlers, then waiting a bit longer until I had enough coffee and a sharp pair of scissors to clip the endless number of wires and ties that restrained them in their packaging, like so much fun had to be physically tied down or it would break loose and run amok.

And years later here they were, staring back at me as if to say, “We did the run-amok thing - now what?” My boys had outgrown them, but they still weren’t ready to throw them out. Over the years I would quietly move them from their bedrooms to the garage, hoping to someday, somehow move them out completely. (The toys, not the boys. Although if you step on enough Lego blocks, the second option does cross your mind.) The goal was to make the toys disappear without inciting a rebellion by the small people who would eventually choose my retirement home.

Would I be remembered as the mean mom who, by the light of a pale, cold moon, cackled with glee as she tossed beloved toys into the trash bin? Or perhaps as the creepy neighborhood toy-hoarding biddy, who kept toys stacked head-high throughout the house, with only a greasy, narrow path from the back door to the microwave so she could heat up soup? Not much of a cheerful outcome either way.

One of the bulkiest toys was a battery-operated pickup truck, a Mattel PowerWheels built to carry two kids at a time. Years ago the boys would drive it down the block, lurching and whirring, to get the mail. Once in a while they’d take it off-road, one driving and the other riding “shotgun” while attempting to lasso the dog. Mud would build up in its itty bitty wheel wells. Under its menacing plastic tire treads, several sprinkler heads became roadkill.
The Silverado, as we called it, was still in great shape. Too good a shape to be sitting around inside on such a lovely summer day.

Later that day I stopped by a local horse ranch that a friend of mine, Kristin, managed. Sundancer Ranch was a delightfully quirky place, full of horses, chickens, dogs, quail, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, even turkeys, parrots, goats, mules, and one lone ornery cow. Most people drove in and quickly left, spooked by the precipitous cliff off one side of the driveway, or the gang of tumbleweeds poised like so many dusty, rotound rednecks chillin' on the other side. But to a farm girl like me, it was heaven on earth. I figured the cliff and weeds scared others away, kept them from seeing the magnificent heart of this place, like a country camouflage that hid it from the outside world.
A few of us were standing near the barn talking about horses when Kristin's granddaughter walked over. Sophie was almost four years old, a barefoot barn angel in a muddy sundress, with long brunette waves of hair, and round brown eyes. I had grown up the same way, a bit of a wildflower, a free-range child. I even had the same long tresses and brown saucer eyes. I remember preferring the company of horses and dogs to that of people. Not much had changed.

As we talked, Sophie wanderly shyly in front of me, holding up a wild flower she had picked. “Thank you,” I said, taking the bloom. She smiled a bit and walked away.

“What’s with the flower, Mom?” my son asked when I got home. But he quickly became distracted by something else, and plopped the flower down right where he picked up his next thought - on the Silverado.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “Why not Sophie?” My son stared at me, weighing whether it was worth asking me to explain what I was talking about, or if it doing so might inspire me to seek his assistance in whatever wacky plan I was concocting.

The boys and I loaded the Silverado in the back of our truck and brought it over to the ranch. I knocked politely on the door of the trailer, asking if “Miss Sophie” was available. Her mom, Kelsey, informed us that she would be out in a moment after she “fixed her hair.”
Soon Sophie glided daintily down the three steps of the trailer, glittery hairclips perched on her head, her brown eyes blinking in the bright sunlight.

“Sophie,” I said, “Thanks for giving me that beautiful flower. We heard you are a hard worker, helping your mom and grandma feed all the animals. We figured you could use a good truck to haul the hay. Would you mind giving this truck a good home?”

Sophie looked at the Silverado, then back at me, then rubbed her eyes. She looked at the Silverado again. She had been napping, and wasn’t quite sure she had woken up.

“Go on, honey, give it a try,” her mom coaxed. Sophie walked around the little truck twice, lightly touching its sleek, grey sides, then carefully tucked herself into the driver’s seat. After carefull securing her seatbelt, straightening her sundress, and adjusting her hair, she held her mother’s arm in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, and hit the gas. The Silverado lurched forward. Sophie stopped, broke into a big smile, and cackled with glee. She hit the gas again, with the same response – lurch, stop, and cackle. She got out to clear some rocks away from her Silverado. Then it was back to lurch, stop, and cackle.

As Sophie fussed over a parking spot for her new ride, Kelsey lowered her voice. “She sees her dad once, maybe twice a year, tops. Last Christmas, he came to visit and we all went to the toy store. Sophie was looking at the PowerWheels, and her dad told her to pick out one and he’d buy it for her. She was so excited! She picked one out and he said, ‘No, sorry.’”

Kelsey shook her head. “She cried for months. I never shared that story with anybody. Then you show up out of nowhere.” She looked up. I think her eyes were misty, but I couldn’t see real well at the moment myself. “Things happen for a reason.”

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Update - 2010

Shocking but true - job hunting, book pitching, and master's degree-ing can suck the life out of a year. Then there's kid-raising, the usual single mom stuff, cranky parole boards, etc. Regardless, I shall return. Many times in the past few months I've wanted nothing more than to post humorous, obtuse rantings about tweens, terriers, and transfattys,but writing papers about data analysis and decision modeling saps the funny from my body like a giggle-adicted vampire and all I can manage is a weak tweet or two.

In college, I've quickly discovered that it's not an advantage to have a sense of humor. For example, here's the cover of one of last semester's books -

This happy shot of a union rep and management shaking hands teaches us that we can all find a way to get along. Upon further study, it also teaches us that the union rep has been speaking into the microphone using his er, shop steward.

Most students might miss that subtle point, but that's why I'm here - to ride the ridge between sanity and serenity.

The job search is over, the book thingy is doing well, and grad school ends in a few months. My funny bone needs a workout...stay tuned!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Flukes & Blooms

She was outside, looking at the flowers. “I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but one of my hobbies is taking photos of flowers,” she said, contemplating the few blooms left in my yard. “Let me get my camera.”

“Knock yourself out,” I replied, wondering why anyone would bother. I had not planted much this year, cutting back on nearly everything since losing my job. But if she wanted to take pictures….

It had been a difficult year. And it had all been entirely undeserved. Just when I thought I was done with the bitterness, it would all come rushing back. The last thing on my mind was flowers.

She aimed her lens at a rose. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years, since college in New York. So much had changed, yet we seemed the same. We could still party like old times, as long as we were home by eleven, wore comfortable shoes, and took a couple of aspirin and an antacid. And since we couldn’t see our crows’ feet without our reading glasses, essentially we were the same. Close enough, I reasoned.

I fiddled with the television remote. My laptop was on the coffee table, next to a magazine I was reading. That was me, doing a dozen things at once, packing everything I could into a moment. I was busy with graduate school, an arduous job search, and being the stereotypical valiant, strong, single mother of two boys. I’d have a chip on my shoulder, too, if I had any room for one.

She steadied herself near the azaleas, quiet and still, taking photo after photo. Eventually even the dog got bored with her endeavor and walked away.

Suddenly the sound of a song from Mary Poppins filled the air. I was pretty sure it was coming from outside my head. This day was getting progressively stranger.

“That’s my cell phone,” she remarked. “I set the alarm on it to remind me to take my medicine. "'Spoonful of Sugar’ – get it?”

“An alarm for meds?” I laughed. “Are we that old?” I still didn’t write grocery lists, insisting on carrying the list around in my head. I’d forgotten many things that way, but so what? It was the principle of the thing. I’ll get old when I’m good and ready.

Anger keeps me young, I thought. These days were bittersweet, my fury harsh but healthy. Time may not be on our side, but I wasn’t about to check into the geriatric ward, either.

“Strange looking pills,” I remarked as she pulled them from her purse.

“They’re for my liver,” she took a drink of water. “Actually, it’s not MY liver. I’m just borrowing it.” One corner of her mouth curled upward.

Every few hours, Anne took anti-rejection medication to keep her body from attacking her donated organ. Eight years earlier, she had been diagnosed with a rare liver disorder, one so rare that her doctor missed it completely. Somehow, though, she knew something was wrong. But she didn’t know exactly what.

“It was a fluke, really,” she said. “What are the chances of meeting a liver specialist at a party? And he was cute!”

She had a slew of flukes in her life. After her liver transplant, she came down with thyroid cancer, discovered by chance during a checkup by a doctor touching the base of her throat. “I told him he was examining the wrong end of me,” she giggled. She could giggle at the damndest things.

One day she felt dizzy. With her track record, her doctor sent her in for an MRI. “It’s no bigger than your fingernail, and it hasn’t grown at all, so that’s a good sign. After all, size is everything!” That was Anne – ever hopeful, giggling and fluky. Even a weenie brain tumor was something to joke about. I envied her attitude, but certainly not her situation.

She’d be leaving soon. I was just fine alone. It was great to have her here, share old times, but I was comfortable on my own. I didn’t need anybody.

With a hug, she was off. I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Later that day, an email popped up from her, taking forever and a day to load, especially to an impatient, moody grump like me. Sheesh, I huffed, I have things to do.

It was filled with her flower photos- still, clear, and beautiful. She had taken a few blooms and made them glow, made them perfect, made them timeless. Just a few raggedy flowers….

Damn, I thought. She had gotten past the anger, past the pity. She was on the other side, capturing giggles and picking flowers, making an incredible, everlasting bouquet while I grumbled and whined. That, too, wasn’t fair.

I wanted to be able to do that. Here I was trying to cram all sorts of events into my life so it would count for something, as she blithely took one moment at a time, polished it until it shined, and shared it with everyone. She made it look easy. Compared to many things in her life, I guess it was.

Quietly she was able to stop the world from turning, keep it still for a moment, insisting that it take the time to look at a single, lowly daisy. Even more extraordinary, the world would do it.

“Wow,” I wrote back. “These are incredible.” Lame, I know, but for once I was beyond words.

“Annie,” she replied, knowing what I was thinking. “We don’t know what tomorrow will be. Some of us don’t know if we’ll even have a tomorrow. So I choose to focus on today. That’s why I take pictures. That’s why I came to visit you. That’s why I’m here.”

I shifted my gaze to outside. I got it now. I was stubborn and thick-headed, but finally I got it. And I thought I was strong.

She’ll be back to visit again, I’m sure of it. Until then I have her flowers. Actually, I reasoned, I had them forever, which is longer than I’ll ever need.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Half a century. What a number.

Fifty years ago, my parents married. Mom says she picked Memorial Day for the big event so Dad would remember their anniversary. If he didn't, she was ready with a red-haired Irish glare to jog his memory. For fifty dang years.

A few times I remember Dad coming to me in a panic. "Quick, here's twenty bucks," he'd whisper. "Go get your mother something nice for our anniversary." It had slipped his mind, and it was too late for him to sneak out and get her something without being caught. So I was sent surreptitiously to fetch a gift.

At work, my dad dealt with less-than-honest subcontractors, some pretty dangerous heavy equipment, and dynamite. He was not afraid of any of these things, but the thought of facing my mom after forgetting their anniversary put a chill in his veins. He had utmost respect for that date, an exquisite symbol of respecting the relationship.

For a long time I didn't have much insight into how they did it. To a kid, it was pretty invisible. They were just Mom and Dad. I never saw them argue or raise their voice to one another. A disagreement was subtle - it might consist of a raised eyebrow, or a look held just a moment longer than usual. Whatever their conflict was, we kids didn't see it. Any disagreement was evidently handled outside of our view. It wasn't until later, trying to build a relationship myself, watching other relationships fall apart, that I realized how hard it really was. In a way I wished I had seen them argue so I could take notes.

Who does that nowadays? Women whine, guys run, and everyone takes a step to the left and starts over again. Putting a relationship first seems to be a lost art.

After seeing many couples together yet so very much apart, there is one thing my parents did that. to me, stands out. They respect each other. They don't always agree, but they don't play dirty, either. And they keep perspective. Because any disagreement pales in comparison to their love for one another.

So I stand here in the shadow of their unending love. In awe, in envy. They make it look so easy. i think they do that just to piss me off.

Here's to the next fifty years.