Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Mysteries of Marketing

As the retail season stumbles to a close for the year, in this a global recession, an old thought rose up in my mind: If I had to sell anything for a living, I'd likely starve.

Advertising, marketing, salesmanship all require a persuasive art form that I simply do not possess. I know people who are in sales and are very good at it, but I simply don't have the knack. Long ago, thankfully, I worked for an advertiser and was surrounded constantly by salespeople. They were a fun-loving, gregarious group of people, and wacky hijinx often ensued. One of their favorite games was to have chair races in the parking lot, where they would duct tape themselves to office chairs and race down the slightly inclined parking lot with one of the other members of the sales team acting as the driver by pushing the taped associate. That ended on the day that one of the sales people decided to let go of his assigned chair.

A trip to the ER featuring sutures resulted, and it became company policy to ban chair races. That was easily the weirdest memo to ever circulate through an office, by the way. "In light of recent occurrences involving Brad's face..."

But that's not why I'm a terrible salesperson. I'm naturally introverted, but learned to overcome that. I appear to be very outgoing but am actually just a shy person who learned to compensate.

That and there was my first job at a drugstore which I am certain made me associate sales with wanting to vanish through a handy gap in the floorboards. The drugstore in question had a training technique, if a customer asked for a specific product and we didn't recognize the name, we were to ask what its use was as products were grouped by use. So the cold medicines were on aisle three, foot care items aisle two, etc. Doesn't sound like it would be fraught with peril but it managed to mortify me the very first time I tried it out.

A nice looking man of about 35 entered and spied me standing behind the counter. I was sixteen and, as you can see from my profile photograph, I have exceptionally dark hair combined with incredibly fair skin. This combination does not seem to broadcast "sturdy, unflappable, extremely practical" and it also means that when I blush, people seven counties away likely see a glow on the horizon. The man looked at me and hesitated, I smiled and he tentatively approached.

"Excuse me, miss, where are the prophylatics?" he asked politely.

Now, I'm reasonably well-read, and I was at sixteen also. I have a fairly extensive vocabulary and it is pretty difficult to stump me in terms of language use. It happens to this day, of course, but at sixteen I knew exactly what prophylatic meant; preventative. How peculiar, I thought, about fifty percent of all products in a drugstore are used to prevent something.

"What's it used for?" I asked with great cheer, and a confident smile. Then I wondered why the man was looking at me as if I was entirely deranged.

"You know, Trojans?" he offered.

I did, of course, who doesn't? Concealed in horses and all that. I stared at him as I pictured a Trojan Warrior in my head, clearly not comprehending his meaning. The man was staring at me as if I was extremely simple and then began the mortifying litany.

"Condoms! Rubbers! Ways to not get pregnant!!"

There ended my brief foray into being the super salesgirl. In fact, when I think of why I associate having to sell anything with dire levels of embarrassment, it has to do with that drugstore, and frequently with those blasted prophylatics. There was also the time I was busily affixing price stickers to a gigantic vat of condoms when before me appeared a Catholic Nun, who I'm still convinced the universe must have imported specifically to make me want to perish on the spot. I lived in Princeton, NJ at the time, a place not exactly stuffed with convents. I literally had the things piled around my feet, and onto my knees, so when I stood up to take the nun to the aisle she needed, I accidentally showered the feet of a bride of Christ with rubbers.

That killed off any sales, or marketing abilities within me. Yet, I've always been fascinated by the ability to sell because it is a skill I so decidedly do not possess.

Marketing in a recession is particularly tricky. For several years I didn't see many commercials because we have a digital video recorder, and at our old house, I couldn't see a TV from the kitchen. The only time I watched TV was when I was seated on the couch, fast forwarding capability at my fingertips. Now thanks to our new house, I can switch on the TV, access a recorded program, and watch while I cook. This meant exposure to commercials for the first time in years.

Trying to get people to buy anything in a recession is a challenge, and it seems that most companies settled for a vibe that can only be described as awkwardly uncomfortable. Target has a series of ads that are best termed the Passive-Aggressive Olympics with things like a young woman receiving a gift of jewelry from her (rather frightening looking) boyfriend. A terribly gaudy thing, which she accepts with a less than gracious, "I didn't know we were there yet." and her cringing boyfriend assures her it didn't cost much; cue Target logo. This is the advertising equivalent of my encounter with that poor man in the drugstore, who probably wished my father had donned a rubber, rather than produce me lo those many years before. That's just one example of the weird ads out there this year, but there were plenty.

I guess the thinking runs that people aren't comfortable spending money, therefore the commercials should reflect that feeling of discomfort. It's a strange way to sell. Smiling was also out this year, it seems, leading to things like a Levis ad with a creepy voice-over and nary a grin from the beautiful young people doing things like swapping their jeans.

So I sent my TV many a questioning glance in between pulses of the food processor, and occasionally even stopped to stare, whisk aloft, jaw drooping slightly. I had my head down, picking stems off of blueberries when I heard what I think was the 43rd bastardized rendition of Carol of the Bells, a favorite among advertisers. I used to love that darned thing, but it has several mutant forms that are rather unpleasant. When I heard the familiar tune, my spine stiffened as I de-stemmed, then:

One Foreign Yeti, Hikes with a Teddy

That was the line that got me to look up. The entire commercial was nonsense lyrics with accompanying images. I put down the blueberries, walked into the family room and rewound specifically to see the commercial.

Later I would see this:

Yipes! There's the clown!

You know, I may not know how to sell anything, I know that about myself. I'm also probably featured in a couple of tales told by other people as "That idiot clerk" but I do know something else: If you want to make me buy something, you're better off making me laugh, rather than reminding of the various uncomfortable situations in my life.

And indeed, I ended up asking my mother, "Hey, do you want a GPS, by any chance?"

She did, and way to sell, Garmin.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Missing Piece

Every now and then we run into a situation where one key piece of information can radically alter the meaning.

Many years ago, not long after my father had died and I was sixteen-years-old I was out for a walk. I've never been a religious person, but my father was and I've always liked old churches. In the course of my walk on a pretty Spring, Saturday morning I came to a church called St. Nick's. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day and the doors of the church were open. A divine invitation of sorts, I thought. Boy was I wrong.

I decided to go in, sit down and contemplate. I knew people who attended St. Nick's. It is, to this day, a Catholic parish, but I'd been to services there in the past since I knew people who attended church there.

It's a beautiful church, intricate stained glass windows, beautiful architecture done up rather lavishly. I walked in and took a seat in the middle of the church, prepared to think deep thoughts. I noticed a small group of three people in the front pew, but paid no attention to them.

When the organ struck up a chord, I thought it must be choir rehearsal. When I heard a rustling sound behind me and turned to see altar boys in full regalia standing at the head of the center aisle, I assumed that similarly, they were having rehearsal.

At this point I was being dense on the level that only a sixteen-year-old can achieve but it was entirely innocent. The organ launched into some piece at full volume, and again I heard sounds behind me, but I didn't turn to look until the priest strode to the center of the altar and began speaking.

Wow, they really rehearsed seriously, I thought seeing as the priest was in his full robes.

So when the coffin was wheeled up the center aisle, it came as quite the shock and there was a moment of panic for me, but I did the only thing I could think of that made sense. I grabbed a prayer book from the pew and sat tight. That's how I ended up crashing the funeral of some very elderly woman named Mary. If the mourners wondered who the heck I was, I never gave them a chance to ask. I did my turn of answering the psalms, and then I beat a hasty retreat.

On the way out I actually bothered to read the sign out front where the service time for the departed was listed. Oops. Hopefully Mary had a good sense of humor. Unfortunately there is one key difference between Episcopal services, and Catholic services: The words to the Lord's Prayer. The Catholic version ends sooner, the Episcopal version contains the "Forever, and ever, Amen." which I dutifully boomed out all by myself when the time came. Only if I'd been waving a sign that said "Interloper!" could I have stuck out more. Let me tell you, the acoustics in that church are quite impressive. My "forever and ever, Amen" may still be echoing around the rafters to this day.

Similarly, many years later when I had my first date with my now-husband I had a curious thing happen.

"Do you have any pets?" I asked, in the manner that we all do when trying to get to know someone.

"Yes, a cat. Do you want her?" He sounded thoroughly disgusted, and I was taken aback. What kind of jerk didn't like his own pet? Luckily for me, I decided to back burner the question rather than flee his animal-hating presence. He seemed a nice guy, despite the cat hatred.

As it turned out, Murphy, perhaps the vilest feline to ever live, was not his cat, not technically at least. Murphy was a rotund, ill-tempered Calico who liked to bite people, was so fat as to make grooming herself impossible (let us not even discuss her hygiene) and she remains the only cat I've ever met who had acne. Wherever Murphy lay, a Yeti-like patch of fur remained behind her.

The day I met her I found out the rest of the story. Murphy belonged to one of my husband's friends, a couple who had several pets, including several cats. Murphy became the main suspect in a repeated rug pooping incident, and Robin, my husband's friend announced that he planned to have her put to sleep because of this. Rob, my husband, was thoroughly appalled.

"Well, if it has come to that, I'll take her." He told Robin grimly, and that was how he became the main custodian of the world's most charmless cat. We had Murphy until the day she died, and although we both felt like ghouls, it was something of a relief when she passed on to the great beyond. She was filthy, and mean, but we took great care of her, and tried to love her, even though she had hate in her heart for all the creatures of the world.

But it wasn't her lack of winning characteristics that had Rob offering to give her to me during that lunch date. On the same day that she came waddling out and hissed at me, Rob began to sneeze. His eyes were watering, and he was clearly uncomfortable. He'd been fine before we got to his apartment.

"Hold on, let me take an allergy pill," he said as his eyes streamed.

"What are you allergic to?" I asked incredulously because a sneaking suspicion had entered my mind.

"I'm allergic to cats," Rob said, fairly miserably. That little missing piece of information that took him from being the jerk who didn't like his own pet, to being a man who couldn't bear the thought of Murphy being put to sleep, so he took her despite the fact that she was the most allergenic cat on the face of the Earth. He didn't hate animals at all, he was, and is one of the biggest animal lovers I've ever known.

It was this past weekend that my husband and I nearly scarred my son for life. Turn back now if you are exceptionally prim, by the way. My husband had just been upstairs taking a shower, and came down fully dressed. I was in my office, where the plantation shutters were all closed.

"Honey, I think I might have a hernia," he said, and I did what wives and mothers everywhere do, I swung into diagnostic mode.

"Does it hurt? Any redness?" I asked with concern.

"No, I'm assuming it was very recent, although I don't know what I did," my husband is no fan of doctors, but I knew he'd have to see one and said as much. Then I did what I consider to be perfectly natural:

"You'd better let me see," I prompted, and with a glance towards the well secured shutters, my husband proceeded to drop his trousers and boxers so that I could get a better look at his groin. Unsurprisingly, I've met the area in question before.

We aren't a casually nude family. No one here ever runs around in a state of undress but by the same token, we aren't prudes. We are, however, always dressed when wandering about the house, oddly enough.

So I was still seated in my office chair, my husband's bare butt was facing the door and I was leaning forward, peering intently at a slight swelling that would, indeed, need the attention of a doctor. It was at this moment that my son came bursting out of the basement, in full view of my office, and saw the examination.

Only he was missing that key piece of information, so he uttered a strangled scream, and disappeared back into the basement. For a moment I was completely baffled, what in the world had gotten into him? My husband looked equally befuddled and we exchanged a glance that clearly said, "What's up with him?" between us before realization struck as to what he thought he had just seen.

"Oh! Uh oh!" I yelped, and immediately went to the basement door. "Hello?"

"Nobody's here." My son yelled, in a strange voice. "Go away! UGH!"

"That wasn't..." I began, and then dissolved into laughter.

A couple of minutes later I did manage to collect myself enough to inform my son that he hadn't just interrupted some terrible reality program called Parents Gone Wild or something of that nature, but instead, a purely innocent moment wherein I was being Dr. Wife.

My son was quite relieved, to put it as mildly as I know how. Presumably he'll now have one less reason to be in therapy when he gets older.

But it got me thinking about all the times in my life that one missing piece of information radically changed my perception.

It also made me wonder what situations I currently have fixed in my brain, that are missing that one, completely altering bit of information.

Here is another example, I can tell you, with a completely straight face and without the whisper of lie, that I am godmother to the Baby Jesus. No kidding. Do you think I'm leaving something out? You'd be right.

On the day my godson, who is also my nephew, William was christened I stood and did my part in my brother's High Episcopal church back in Long Island. It was also the day the church in question had their annual Christmas pageant, and tradition has it that the newest infant plays the part of the Baby Jesus.

I hadn't been informed of this beforehand, but somehow restrained myself from falling over laughing when the baby I had been made godmother to moments before, was trotted out in swaddling clothes.

Sometimes the details are rather key.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Panic if you see a Krampus

In the course of getting to know our relatively new house I discovered something: It is capable of making the worst sound ever heard in the history of human hearing. I suppose I could make an audio file of the actual sound, but then none of you would like me any longer, and you might even wish me tremendous ill. I wouldn't blame you in the slightest. Houses should not make a sound like the one our alarm system made yesterday.

We don't use our alarm system. It isn't monitored, and in fact it took us four months to beat the system into enough submission that a chime would not sound each and every time someone opened a door, or window. The chime itself was mild enough, but at three in the morning, when my nineteen-year-old son would come and go, as is the realm of having college students living at home, it was less "mild, rather pleasant" and more "soon I will lose my entire mind to sleep deprivation". We had to dig through five different manuals just to find the existing master code, change the master code, and shut that thing up. The blessed silence that ensued was bliss.

I think it lulled me into a false sense of security. I had forgotten that the alarm system was actually my enemy, second only to that freaking carbon monoxide detector that commenced beeping every minute, in the depths of a box, which took me a full day to find, and then I had to drown it in the pool to get it to stop. Twice, since it came back to life after it dried out the first time. Blasted thing.

Anyway, we do take our smoke detecting seriously, and when the system began chirping, quite loudly, every single minute, we made great haste in dragging out the ladder and replacing the 9 Volt battery in what appeared to be the chirping culprit. This mysteriously caused every detector in the house to begin chirping in turn and we found something about our home: We had no earthly idea where the detectors are here. My husband and I would station ourselves at different points in the house, waiting for the chirp, and then trying to hunt the darned thing down. You'd think that would be an easy task but it's a very large house, with peculiar acoustics and one of the smoke detectors turned out to be in closet. So that took over an hour, and required a quick dash to the store to secure more 9 Volts.

When we were done replacing every battery in the house, the system decided it was "Not Ready" and continued to emit a piercing chirp every minute. Try this for an hour and you will find that it wears on the nerves. As my husband was replacing the ladder in the garage, I stood before the above panel and made a mistake of ear-splitting proportions. I read the buttons, and pressed the corresponding key. One said, "Off", the other "chime". I thought perhaps "chime" actually meant "chirp". I was very wrong, and was soon to live in a world of regret. Now if you study that picture you will see what I didn't, there's a nice little line connecting the off and the chime button. The line helpfully proclaims "Panic".

Wow. How entirely apropos. I didn't press them together, even I'm not that foolish, but I must have pressed them in close enough proximity that, indeed, it was time to panic. And pray for deafness, because, holy hell, what a noise.

Normally I'm good in an emergency. If you are in the mood to start spurting blood mysteriously, I'm actually a good pick to do that around because I remain calm in the moment. I wouldn't recommend the spurting, but I tend to rise to the occasion, and then have a massive nervous breakdown afterward. This evidently applies only when it is someone elses problem. If I caused it? It turns out that I morph into a cartoon character with a head as level as Daffy Duck, complete with spluttering.

The sound was actually beyond description. Sincerely, if someone broke in to our home in the middle of the night, I would much rather they steal every single one of our possessions, our cars, every jar of food and the light bulbs too, rather than hear that sound. I desperately hope that is not the sound the fire alarm makes or we're all going to perish in our beds as a preemptive measure rather than get up to investigate that sound. It is the sound that howling evil must make at the edge of the endless abyss. When and if the world ever gets sucked into a void in the universe, the sound beforehand will likely sound a great deal like that. Imagine the sound of every toddler throughout the course of time, shrieking as one, in the midst of tantrum of legendary proportions and you will have grasped about half the horror of that particular sound.

It was, to sum up, really and truly an awful sound, and its source was exactly four feet above my head. I managed not to simply drop dead as a means of escape. As my husband came flinging, wild-eyed, through the door, I began to ineffectually beat helplessly on the control panel, which if it is even humanly possible, made the sound worse. At which point I commenced with the Daffy Ducking by putting both hands firmly over my ears and whirling like a dervish in a tight, panicked circle while simultaneously my knees performed the Charleston.

"What made that happen?!?" My husband said, or rather, bellowed. For all I know he actually said, "Is that the two minute warning of imminent destruction?" because all I could see was his eyes bugging out of his head, and some wild gesticulating in the general direction

I turned and sprinted with great haste to the fuse box outside where it was at least half as horrible in terms of sound. I briefly considered never returning. Perhaps I could just keep running? Join the circus, pursue the life of a vagabond, sell my organs on some dubious market to make some dosh and live under an assumed name. Instead I turned off power to the entire house in less than two seconds.

It did absolutely nothing. My husband, hot on my heels (and presumably also considering life on the lam) stared wildly around.

"What the hell do we do?" He yodeled.

"I don't know!" I screamed back helpfully. "Move?"

We both turned and ran swiftly back into the house, my husband pausing to grab what appeared to be the manual for the alarm system as he sprinted through the butler's pantry.

Stopped short in the middle of the kitchen, trying to figure out what to do, I did the only sensible thing I could come up with: I ran into the closet-style pantry and closed the door after me. No, I don't know why. Struck me as the right move at the time. It was somewhat quieter in there but as I couldn't live amongst the oatmeal and pasta (although this was also a tempting option) I emerged and bizarrely did my dervish/Charleston/Duck routine once more before running towards my husband. So that he would not die alone.

In my haste I kicked the near life out of my cat, who was acting as if he was in the midst of being electrocuted. I'm sure he has permanent damage to his neurological system, but considering his everyday personality, I'm not sure we'll notice a difference. I stared in horror at him before taking another step towards my husband when peace and quiet crashed down on us all, and the sound of a billion toddlers cut off. It was like Nirvana.

My husband stuck his head around the corner, and I swear that one of his eyes appeared to be much larger than the other, and he had a decidedly mad scientist expression on his face.

"What happened?" He was clutching the manual to his chest, out of breath.

"I happened, it was me." I said, walking past him and lying down on the living room floor in the shape of a capital X. "I did it, I was trying to make it stop tweeting. Oh God, tweeting is so much better than that."

"That sound is more likely to kill us than save our lives. I hope it never has reason to go off."

"Yes, we'd be doomed, entirely." My heart was hammering in my chest.

"Oh happy dagger!" my husband yelled, and we both got an adrenaline induced case of the giggles.

"Thank you so much, honey. I'm so sorry. I promise I will never touch anything in this house again. I can't believe you didn't just hot-wire the car and leave me to my fate."

"I had the keys in my pocket, actually. From now on we need a clearly mapped out exit strategy, keep the passports in the glove box."

"Flee the jurisdiction and have Kimberly list the house as we make our escape." I supplied.

This was when I realized that in the four minutes that the worst sound in the history of hearing had been going on, I hadn't seen my son. I removed myself from the living room floor, miraculously without even the use of a person-sized spatula, long enough to shout down into the basement:

"Are you alive down there?"

"Yes," came a rather calm reply, "I'm hiding."

"Wise lad." I called back, and returned gratefully to the floor, this time as a Y.

It was an hour later, as I was lying limply on the couch, waiting to stop feeling as if I needed to jump directly out of my skin at a moment's notice, when I discovered via The Colbert Report on Tivo that if only I was an Austrian child, I likely could have handled that terrible fright with aplomb.

I've never seen the Austrian Krampus before, and if you've never seen The Colbert Report, please be aware that he's a comedian, doing a parody of a Conservative talk show host as a means of satire. At the end of his report, there is a bit that explains what the Krampus is. I've seen it before, normally it's an amusing looking devil-cartoon, who travels with St. Nick, and scares bad children. The Austrian version turns out to be, shall we say, a bit hardcore. Austrian children are apparently made of tough stuff.

As a full grown woman if one of these characters in costume broke into my house, I'd likely scream my fool head off in fright, and make great speed towards anywhere but where it was.

I'd also hit the pound and asterick keys in combination, because I have a feeling it is the music of his soul. That's got to be what that sound is, it's not a "Hit this Panic Alert to bring aid to your side" but rather, "When you are panicking, this is the sound your central nervous system makes."
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude - Hallmark & Krampus
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Smiling Monster

I had a dream last night about a monster who never stops smiling. I know what inspired the dream. Furthermore, I know the name of the monster. His name is Richard Cohen and he sat smiling when Rachel Maddow told him his words were being used to kill gay people in Uganda. He smiled, and corrected her, as if she was a child, suffering from a misunderstanding. As if comprehension was at the root of the problem, but make no mistake, this man knows what Uganda has done, and is doing. His tone was gentle and admonishing. He said he advocated love and understanding, but smiled when told he had blood on his hands.

Uganda is not the United States, you may say, and you would be right. Yet, discrimination still flourishes in our country, and the battle is being fought to bring equality to all. Currently our laws support inequality. We do not extend Civil Rights to all, we are still meting out Equality, as if it is earned, or granted, rather than a right.

"If you sit silent, you are complicit." The man in the dream was telling me, and I was terrified, locked into a horror-scape within my sleeping mind. I know that I was thrashing in bed from the state of my covers upon awaking, I was drenched in sweat when I awoke, too.

I will tell you honestly that I was eighteen-years-old before I found out that anyone thought there was anything wrong with being gay. I didn't realize I had been raised in a liberal version of the Episcopal church until I was older, but I had been. A young man I knew through some work I was doing in theater was talking to me about the girl he was dating, and I was astounded. I had been sure he was gay, and said as much:

"Oh! I thought you were gay!" I was laughing at my own misunderstanding. I didn't know then that anyone would try to hide that fact, or that it was a source of pain for anyone. Was I a bit naive? Absolutely, but I genuinely did not know I was saying anything that might hurt, or upset him.

"I'm not gay!" He said, rather ferociously. I was taken aback, he sounded angry. Beyond that he sounded, and looked frightened. I didn't understand why.

"I'm sorry! I was wrong." I was frightened in my own turn. What had I done wrong? I honestly didn't know, but from that day forward, I was very careful with what I said.

It will come as a surprise to no one that when I met that same man again, more than five years later, he was living openly as a gay man, and he introduced me to his partner. If he had any recollection of that moment between us, five years earlier, he gave no indication of it. I will tell you that he was no longer frightened, or angry. He was in love, and happy. He introduced me to his partner with ease, and a smile. I liked that man, by the way, I always had. I'd hated the moment when I had upset him, and I was very happy to find out that he'd gone on to a happier life than the one he was trying to live when I was in school with him.

Do you know, I can no longer remember his name? I remember his smile. He had the most gorgeous smile. It would flash across his face, and it was impossible to not smile in return. I didn't have a crush on him, as I said, I had known he was gay from the moment I met him, but I always thought he looked a bit like a Disney hero, only much shorter. It was no coincidence that he was often cast as the hero of the plays he was in. He was exceptionally handsome, and his smile was beautifully freeing for all who beheld it.

I've studied a lot of history. I know the true dangers of discrimination. I've studied a fair amount of the history of gender politics and know this to be true also: Where I was born in our time-line has greatly determined my rights as a citizen. That I can vote, own property, marry of my own free will, and end or continue a marriage based on my personal feelings, all of that was determined by a fight that went on before I was born.

This is not a political blog, it never has been, and is unlikely to be so going forward, but silence in the face of discrimination is akin to condoning it. At present Gay and Lesbian citizens of the United States cannot marry, have equal protection under the law, one of the basic laws under which I was born excludes people. As if they are not equal. As if they are somehow second-class citizens, unworthy of Civil Rights.

That's wrong, and it needs to change. Holding onto discrimination in any form puts us all in peril. If I sit silent in the face of discrimination, then I am participating in that discrimination. Long, long ago, when men sought to deny women the right to vote they called forth the bible as reference material. A woman's place was to be subservient to a man. Those that came before me, who fought before I was born, helped guarantee me rights that should never have been in question.

Equality that is parsed, or meted out, is not true equality. We are the ones living a lie when we do not fight for the equality, a basic right of our country, for all.

Richard Cohen claims to have been cured of being homosexual. He claims that he promotes love, acceptance, tolerance, but his book claims that people can be cured of their sexual orientation as if he is referring to a disease. I think back to my friend, living his lie, the one foisted upon him by others, and I think of his smile the day he introduced me to the man he loved. Love is not a disease. Sexual orientation is part of who a person is, something with which we are born.

I knew that at eighteen. I know it at forty-two. I will know that until the day I die.

In my nightmare a huge screen loomed overhead. Richard Cohen's horrible, monstrous smile, belying his words was ever present. People were dying, all sorts of people. I was trapped in some terrible, dark factory of death and I was trying to flee. Everywhere I turned, there was Richard Cohen's terrible smile. The same one he pasted to his face as he denied that Uganda was using his book as proof for why it was acceptable to murder gay and lesbians.

In the dream I was running away, through twisted corridors. From where do dreams come? Our world around us. Our subconscious mind. In some cases, our conscience. In others, all of the aforementioned.

I went tearing around a corner in my dream, desperate for escape, and a man grabbed my arm. I turned, terrified, and saw the face of the man holding me fast. It was my friend from so long ago.

"If you sit silent, you are complicit." He told me, his tone admonishing. I know from where the voices in dreams come, they come from me. I know that to be true. If you see something you know to be wrong, and sit silent, you are participating in that wrong. If I am silent, I am participating in that wrong.

Freedom of Speech is another basic right. It can be a difficult one, it means we will have to afford the right to people with whom we vehemently disagree. It is part and parcel of that right. Richard Cohen both frightened and sickened me. Saying he promotes love and tolerance, but completely at peace with the fact that his words are being used to justify the murder of those he claims to love and tolerate. It is not in this land, but it is one of the inherent dangers of government sanctioned discrimination in any country.

I know why my sleeping mind selected the image of my long ago friend. I know that I put those words into his mouth, but I know something else. After he said those words to me, he smiled, and I woke up. Free of the monster in my dream, a man my sleeping brain did not create. A man who will claim love and tolerance, but is urging you to view Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual human beings as sick.

I know he is wrong, and the only way to fight him is to say so.

This is not my fight, you might say. My fight was fought by those who came before me, and now it is my responsibility to fight for equality for others, who need more voices. Who need my help, so that those born into this world will have guaranteed rights under the law, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of sexual orientation.

If I sit silent, I am complicit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kevin Finds Mousey

In literature for children words have power. If you speak the creature's full name, you will invoke it. It is one of the rules of the imagined universe. A mere utterance can bring untold misfortune, and can have consequences beyond the wildest imagining.

Do you remember when you believed that? If Rumpelstiltskin's name passed your lips, he would appear. If you knew the right spell when attending a school for magic, your enemies would be frozen in place, unable to hurt you, or they in turn could paralyze you.

Some of us lose that sense of wonderment as we grow older, the ability to invest in the fantastical. To extend our belief to that which exists beyond our proven reality. Others of us became science fiction and fantasy fans when we grow up, because sometimes belief in things far beyond our current reality is the very thing that helps us cope.

"Let me tell you about the time we went to Mackinac Island," my husband began, "they had the best fudge in the world there..."

My husband's childhood has always rather fascinated me. A large family is as strange and fantastic a concept to me as being able to wave a wand to conjure wealth, or a rub a bottle to bring forth a Genie. My own family is very small, as both of my parents were only children. This is not a recommended marriage dynamic, by the way. Two people used to being the center of their own world did not a good match make, but that's a tale for another time, or not at all.

We were sitting in a hospital room watching over my son following a bad fall on the ski slopes. In the long run he was fine, and that's all that really matters now. My husband was trying to distract me, and it was working. I listened to the tales of the adventure on Mackinac Island, seven kids on vacation with their parents as told through my husband's memory.

Kevin is now 6'6" inches tall, but to my husband he will always be the little brother. Kevin was four at the time and his most treasured possession was a stuffed animal named Mousey.

It was ten years ago that I first heard the story of carriage rides, and children scrambling all over an island in Michigan, safe and protected.

"Then what happened?" I asked.

"Well, then Kevin lost Mousey," My husband explained who and what Mousey was. "We searched everywhere. We were a task unit. No corner of that island went unsearched."


"We never did find him," he finished, but it had worked, I was distracted, my mind taken off the worrying thing at hand.

"You need a better ending to that, you know." But I was laughing.

When my husband hung up the phone the other day he didn't need to say anything. As we get older, we find out the truth: Sometimes you need not speak the creature's name to invoke it. Sometimes the creature is conjured regardless. There is no magic phrase to ward it off, and you can only do what you can do.

Late that night we were both lying awake, staring at the unchanging ceiling above. My husband couldn't sleep, and neither could I. I reached for something that had become a joke between us, when times were tough.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Mackinac Island?" I asked.

"I think I know that one already."

There are stories common to simply being human, to having a life, and to loving people. The end of those stories is sometimes beyond our control, and we do the best we can. We try to be there for each other, in whatever small ways we can.

"No, you don't," I assured him, "in my version of the story, Kevin finds Mousey."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lighten up, Candide, it'll be okay.

It's been a long time since I first made that joke. When faced with grim circumstance, sometimes the best we can do is to simply ignore whatever dire outcome may result, and just keep on trying.

Denial gets a bad wrap. It absolutely can become a very dangerous tool in a life, we've all seen that happen around us at times. Sometimes though, there is no action that can be taken to head off disaster, and that's where a goodly dose of denial can be a sanity saving device.

I made my now oft used Candide joke to my orthopedic surgeon. Following a car accident, which had not been my fault, I needed to have a fair amount of surgical reconstruction performed on my right heel in order to stand much of a chance of walking again. My surgeon was a funny, placid sort of man. Unlike most stereotypes of surgeons, he had a dry wit. A gentle personality completely missing the cliched arrogance associated with surgeons. If there was a man you could trust to cut you open, he would be it. A bomb could go off in an operating theater and he'd mildly raise an eyebrow in the general direction of the disaster, and get back to the task at hand. It was my misfortune that this accident had happened just prior to Christmas, and that surgery would be performed on New Year's Day. It was not a particularly festive season that year, but all things considered, I had been exceptionally fortunate.

My surgeon was telling me, in his completely unflappable way, of the many and varied things that could go dreadfully wrong, as he was required to do. Informed patients aren't merely easier to treat, it helps head off future lawsuits. When he got to the part about the myriad of terrors associated with having a tourniquet just below my knee for hours, while I was completely unconscious, I told him to lighten up, Candide, it would be okay.

We got each other. We both understood grim humor, and in what was actually an amusing fifteen minutes, we took every possible dour outcome to a hilarious end. If I lost my leg due to the tourniquet, I'd just get an eye-patch and a parrot, while adopting a Salty Dog persona. That sort of thing. My surgeon knew that I really did understand the risks.

Why be so cavalier? I had no choice in the matter. Don't get me wrong, I could have skipped the surgery but my ability to walk would have been severely compromised, and the likelihood that I'd have severe circulatory issues was rather high. It was surgery or bust for me.

Everything turned out well. I was lucky then, and I tend to be lucky. My troubles right now aren't even really mine.

Voltaire's Candide never really had much turn out well, but he kept moving forward. If he was on a ship in the sea, he would naturally be swept overboard, but plucked from the drink. If he was foolish enough to drink to the health of a king, he'd end up being conscripted into the army and nearly flayed alive when he tried to do the sensible thing and desert. Candide had some rotten luck, epically so.

We all feel a little bit like Candide, at times. It's a very funny book, by the way, if you are a fan of satiric humor. If you aren't, it's fairly appalling, I suppose.

My mother-in-law reminds me of Candide. That poor woman, she once wanted to be a Rockette but instead she married my husband's father, and together they followed the Catholic family planning that led to seven children. This has been an adventure fraught with much peril. When her husband was suddenly killed seven years ago, on she carried. She just kept going forward. I'll spare you the many calamities that have surrounded her voyage through the sea of life, but the seas, they have been rough. Two children currently suffering from severe drug addictions. Some mental illness that are equally pronounced. One grandchild born with grim prognosis, predicting an early death from a condition for which there is no cure.

At the end of this week my mother-in-law will have surgery and later that same day she'll find out how far her recently diagnosed breast cancer has spread. It hardly feels like a time to make merry and a person less deserving of yet another crisis I'd have a hard time naming.

When we asked her what we could do, anything, name it! Her reply was simple, "I just want to act like everything is normal. Give me your Christmas Lists. I love the holidays, I love to shop!" and she genuinely means it.

My mother-in-law, a good soul who keeps stumbling forward into life, hoping everything will eventually work out. I truly hope she gets a good outcome this time, and I thought back to that time when there was no choice but to await whatever grim outcome may or may not be.

All she wants is a healthy dose of denial for a bit. She deserves it. Since there is nothing I can do but hope against hope for her, my husband and his family, it's time to embrace the denial. Slight problem: I had no idea for what to ask. None. Nada. Zilch. My mind was a yawning chasm and my list was due today.

I was standing in the shower, staring off into space, thinking of Candide and wondering what to tell my mother-in-law, whose request is so logical, and kind, "Please distract me. Give me something to do. Treat me like all is well. I love the holidays."

Hemingway, a writer I don't particularly admire, used to refer to a blank page as something like "The White Bull". Most of the time I want to commit Hemingway's prose to flames whenever I think of it, but a blank mind feels much the same. Having been given a task, the one thing that could genuinely help, I was covered in what my son would refer to as "epic fail".

All she wants is to have a happy holiday, I thought, think of something! Anything at all. Something that would make her feel festive and capable. Distract her, for the love of all that is good and decent. I couldn't think of a thing. It was vaguely amusing in a horrible sort of way, what in the world was wrong with me?

When someone actually tells you what you can do for them, it would be awfully nice to actually do it. Ease her mind a bit, but my own had seized like an overheated engine.

She just wants to celebrate the things she can. She just wants to wrap presents, and take care of the people she loves, I thought. I have a nimble mind, I've always had a nimble mind, what was wrong with me?

And then the blogs saved me.

I went tearing out of the shower, grabbing a robe as I went, and emailed my sister-in-law with the list my mother-in-law had requested by today.

You saved Candide, Jo, Kathryn, Jennifer, just to name a few. There are many more.

"Tell her I need Christmas decorations, please. Anything, the brighter, the cheerier, the better. Go nuts! Scottie shaped Santas, plaid snowmen, CDs of Christmas music. If it sings carols in an electronic voice? I want it to be mine."

If you wonder what good you have done in the universe recently, I will tell you: You helped a widowed mother of seven grown children, staring down the barrel of a bad luck once again, forget her troubles. Blog after blog talking about the season, featuring pictures of ornaments, and trees, talking about who made what, and from where your ornaments, and memories came.

She'll be able to surround herself with decorations, perusing them for hours, and looking them over carefully. I can't think of anything that will make her happier.

"That's perfect, I knew you'd think of something. That will make her so happy." My sister-in-law almost immediately replied.

Actually, it wasn't me. It was you. Yes, you.

May the blessings of the season be yours. Thank you all so much. What good do blogs do?

Today they helped poor, beleaguered Candide, indeed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thank the Water Bugs

When my husband was twenty-two years old he once spent an afternoon waiting in the basement of a near slum, hoping that an exterminator was actually going to keep a thrice made, and broken appointment to eradicate an infestation of what had been politely termed "water bugs". In reality they were cockroaches, and the apartment building in question housed only students at the nearby University of Ohio. As it happened my husband didn't even live in the building, but his closest friend Eric was the resident maintenance man. Tenants had been loudly complaining about the cockroaches, and were calling for both Eric's head, and his job.

Things in general had not been going Eric's way. He was on academic probation as it was, and the only way he could afford housing was to keep his job as the resident manager of the neglected apartment building. His rent was free in return for performing the building repairs, but Eric was unable to kill off the many roaches brought about mainly by the habits of the slovenly occupants of the building. A professional had been called, but had, up to that point, been wise enough to realize that the task was futile. No amount of bug bombing was going to do any good in a building where the average apartment was carpeted with half empty pizza boxes.

Still, Eric was trying. By the time the third appointment rolled around, Eric was unable to try and meet the man due to his class schedule, and asked my husband, his friend since high school, if he would await the technician in the basement. The main nest, it seemed, was located next to the furnace. My husband readily agreed, but hadn't anticipated waiting for hours.

Casting around for something to do he spied a milk crate full of discarded books and began to go through it, searching for something to read. Eventually he found Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy and settled in, reasonably content. The exterminator never showed up and my husband ended up reading for five hours as he waited for him. When my future husband finally gave up, he took the Hardy novel with him and finished reading it over the course of the next week.

That's how he ended up marrying me, by the way.

It would be nearly eight years later that I took a position at the same company for which he worked. I have no recollection of meeting him, although he remembers meeting me. It isn't that he fails to be memorable, it's that I must have met 75 people the same day I met him, whereas he met exactly one person; me.

I was a single mother, with a six-year-old son, rather jaded about love, I suppose. That might account for why I was reading Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy, during my lunch hours. I brought sandwiches for lunch, as I was trying to save money. I was always trying to save money then. Whenever there's a new girl at any company, and she happens to be single, chances are good she will spend the first two weeks of her employment life trying to run the gauntlet of ham-handed flirtation.

I was aware that the Controller kept trying to get my attention but I hadn't found him very interesting up to that point. He was almost an entire foot taller than I am. He was very thin, had a rather large nose and looked so much like Judge Reinhold to most people that several people at the company called him "Judge". He had such thick chest hair that it peaked over the collar of his undershirt and practically waved to a passerby. It wasn't that I actively disliked him, it was that at that particular point in my life, I was not interested in dating and men trying to flirt were primarily a nuisance.

"What are you reading?" He asked and I supplied the title while barely glancing up. He was blocking my light, and the first thing that caught my attention was that he immediately stepped to the side in order to stop doing that. "By Thomas Hardy?"

"Yes, by Thomas Hardy." I looked up again, and the Judge lookalike took this as an invitation to sit down next to me.

"I read a book by him, a long time ago..." he began, and started talking about Tess of the d'Urbervilles, getting most of the plot wrong, actually.

"Did you read it for a class?" I asked, because it was clear that he had read the book, but was mixing up the details.

"No, I read it because of bugs. Water bugs, in reality cockroaches."

What my husband remembers is that I suddenly smiled, turned the corner of the page I was reading down, and closed the book in order to continue talking to him, asking him how cockroaches had led to his reading Hardy.

He happily launched into a discussion of Thomas Hardy with me, and felt quite pleased that his literary knowledge had finally pried up the door he had been trying to get through all week.

Every single day of our lives we do small things, make tiny decisions, and go about our business never knowing exactly what each piece of our puzzle makes. Every now and then we can trace our actions, and our decisions back to key moments that made a huge difference in the course of our lives. That was one instance where it is easy to spot how that moment fit the puzzle.

By the end of that lunch hour I'd agreed to a lunch date with the tall, rather awkward Controller. I only stayed at that company for two months, and left to take a better paying job. I assumed we'd end up friends, and in many ways we did, but we also ended up married.

When people ask how we met, we generally say, "Through work." When friends ask, we usually talk about the irony of meeting ones spouse while reading a book that was considered a condemnation of the institution of marriage.

When my son asked not that long ago, I told him the truth, we met thanks to a water bug infestation eight years before we ever set eyes upon each other. It wasn't that my husband had read, and could vaguely recall the details of a book by the same author. It was that, generally speaking, men flirt with single women for a very slim set of reasons, and the moment the word "cockroach" left my future husband's mouth, I was struck by two rather important things. He was a terrible flirt, a truly terrible one. Who in the world brings up the most disgusting bug most people can name, when trying to get the romantic attention of anyone? He was so incredibly bad at trying to catch my attention, that he actually did.

The other thing was that he'd spent hours in a bug infested basement, trying to help his friend, and when he told me about that, it was as if he didn't even realize it was one of the most attractive things about him. It was said in an offhand manner, thinking he needed to get back to the subject at hand, the thing he was sure had caught my attention, Thomas Hardy.

But it was the water bugs, and I remain very grateful to those water bugs.

I did end up telling him that it was the weirdness of bringing up cockroaches apropos of nothing while trying to flirt that caught my attention.

"So I'd have been screwed if you were reading Kafka?"

I'm sure you can see why he's still one of my favorite people on the face of the Earth. We get each others weirdness.

Whatever seemingly mundane thing you do today, it may remain mundane and unimportant forever. Or it may end up making all the difference in the world.

That's one of the most wonderful things about being alive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Internet Problem!

Hello, this will very short, for a change of pace. I'm having an internet problem that's been plaguing me for a couple of weeks. Comcast technicians have come and gone, and are returning again today. Hopefully that will finally get it all sorted out.

I'm just mentioning this because usually I'm very good about touring around, reading other people's blogs, and leaving comments. I'll soon be able to return to that, I hope, but at present I can only hold a connection for five minutes or so.

Wish me luck with Comcast, and the gods of internet connection. I'll haunt your blogs when I'm able to, once again.

Edited to add: Well, it's back for a few hours! That's the good news. The bad news, it turns out it's the cable, internet feed for the entire neighborhood which they will start work on very soon. Estimated to be a work in progress until Tuesday. Here's hoping the entire neighborhood doesn't figure out that I'm the squeaky wheel that ended up meaning the entire neighborhood will possibly be without internet for three days.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If I could have one thing

"What if there's no point?!?" Jenny howled as I did my very best to extract her from some innocent stranger's shrubbery. "Really? What if there isn't any point?"

To say that Jenny was drunk would have been a massive understatement. I was twenty-years-old at the time, and living in Boulder, Colorado. An hour earlier I had arrived home from a shift at local restaurant, where I spent my time being one of the world's least efficient waitresses. Never let anyone tell you that waiting tables isn't a skill, it absolutely is, and from that day to this I can say with conviction that it is not a skill I personally possess. I was an abysmally bad waitress. I returned to my rather revolting apartment, that I shared with two other women, and found Jenny drowning her sorrows after a day spent, she thought, failing an Organic Chemistry exam. She'd sought solace in a bottle of Southern Comfort, and at 21 had no idea what her limit actually was. I highly suspect she discovered it that evening, as she had a savage hangover the next day.

Sodden, miserable, and a solid seven sheets to the wind, Jenny was experiencing the sort existential crisis that only an obscene amount of liquor on an entirely empty stomach can produce. My other roommate, Jenny's sister, asked for my help in marching Jenny resolutely through the streets of Boulder, in the entirely vain hope that the action might serve to sober her up a tad.

It was past midnight on a brutally cold evening, and Jenny had taken yet another tumble. Her sister Ronnie and I spent as much time heaving Jenny up from the pavement as we did actually helping her navigate it. This time she'd taken a header into a bush entirely denuded of all leaves. It must have been remarkably painful, it certainly was wading in after her.

"Then you're entirely screwed." I replied heartlessly. We were well into our second hour of the tedious game of Walk the Drunk. I immediately regretted my words when Jenny took this as a sign that she should grab me by the shoulders in order to make her next shouted remark. Whatever that remark was to have been, it was forever lost to the power of an ocean of Southern Comfort deciding to make a hasty exit. Scrambling backwards as quickly as I could, it was my turn to fall helplessly into whatever sort of bush our activities were busily decimating.

My reply was a hearty round of, "*Expletive deleted. Further expletives deleted. Expletive in the form of a verb, an adjective, and quite probably a noun, deleted* Oh my God, my shoes."

"Sorry." Jenny moaned from her now seated position.

Heartlessness had gotten me nowhere, and my shoes were goners anyway, it was time to head home with some reassurances muttered through gritted teeth. "You'll be fine, and there is a point."

Ronnie echoed similar sentiments. As we pushed and prodded the increasingly obedient Jenny home, she stuck to her theme. "I failed, I know it. There's no point to this! I don't even know what I'm doing."

We continued to reassure her, and guide her through the cold towards home, a shower, bed and the worst hangover I've ever seen anyone endure. For months afterward, in remembrance of my fallen shoes, I would menace Jenny with a bottle of Southern Comfort from time to time, laughing grimly all the while.

It was past eleven on Saturday night when a nearly giddy House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi announced that the health care bill had passed. She was so exhausted that she had to be prompted to bang the gavel, thereby making it official, the bill with the public health care option was through the House. When I saw the news clip the next day my husband and son were both with me.

"It's done? Is that it?" My son asked.

"No, it's not done yet." The feeling was almost entirely surreal. The public health care option had been removed, and although that was not what I wanted, I had accepted it as fact when it happened. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returned from the grave. Now it was through the House.

Joe Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut has sworn to filibuster any bill containing a public option. There is still no certainty for the fate of this bill. Meanwhile, millions of Americans unable to afford health insurance, or barred by private health insurance companies for any number of reasons, wait on tenterhooks to discover what their fate will be, and presumably hope that there is a point to all this. That it will come in time to provide them with the care, and options so sorely needed by so many.

"I hope there's a point to all this." My husband, a former Republican turned Liberal Progressive.

That's when I remembered Jenny's alcoholic crisis, and long walk home in ruined shoes as she questioned the point of effort, and of her own worth.

If I could have one thing today it would be to have this question settled and for people without access to health care to be guaranteed it. There will be a cost, I'm personally prepared to do my part. Lieberman's promises of being a fly in the ointment worry me. We're still not out of the woods, and even if this eventually passes, what we will have is a good starting point, not the definitive answer. Still, if I could have one things today, that would be it.

In my state a slick ad campaign ran last month, professionally done, visually stirring. I must have seen it six times, and that is remarkable because I generally only watch things via DVR, where I fast forward through advertisements. This commercial caught me enough that I paused after hearing its opening bid to find out what it was selling. This company assured me that they understood Coloradoans, and our needs. The spot talked about the strange weather conditions we often experience, and that everyone in Colorado knows exactly what a Rocky Mountain Oyster actually is. Images of smiling, healthy, gorgeous people against the backdrop of the Rockies assured me that Rocky Mountain Health Plans understood my personal needs.

It was the same month that same health insurance company made national news for refusing coverage to a four-month-old baby, deemed obese because he was above the 90th percentile in size, as babies frequently are. This particular company, who had such an expensive commercial produced to reassure people of my state that they would find nothing but welcoming arms from their company, hadn't noticed that this particular, sizable infant was the son of a local TV personality. All that advertising budget right down the profit drain. The only thing they ended up illustrating was what is wrong with private insurance companies today, where the insured are not people, but potentials for profit.

When my husband said he hoped there was a point to all this, so did I. I'd dearly love for Senator Joe Lieberman to fall into a bush and be unable to make good his threats of the bill breaking filibuster. I wish the man no harm, but I dearly hope he is entirely unsuccessful.

I remembered that cold night and Jenny's binge drinking as she questioned the point to even trying. What a messy, smelly, annoying evening that was.

It was long after the hangover had cleared that Jenny found out she had passed Organic Chemistry after all. She bought me a new pair of shoes, and life went on.

If I could have one thing today, let there be a point to this grim march towards health care for all. I know this seems a strange post for Veteran's Day. We honor those that have fallen, and think of their incredible sacrifice. There will never be adequate words to express the gratitude we feel for those who have died to protect us, and we hope there is a point to their loss of life. That we can continue on, stronger, ever evolving, until such time as we live in a world where war is no longer an answer.

That our answers to questions become better. For what did these men and women die if not to give us a chance to be a better country? Part of what brought this to mind was the conversation I had with my husband about health care reform.

The other thing was a piece on the Huffington Post, that that talked about the number of veterans who died in 2008 due to lack of health insurance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Phobias and fears

Do you have any phobias?

We all have fears, all of us. Whether we wake in the night, contemplating the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or the state of the world, we all have some fear nibbling at the back of our brains. We manage to carry on regardless. Some nights we roll back over and drift off to sleep, some nights our fear is the only thing keeping us occupied as we stare at the blank ceiling above, willing the fear back into the cave in our minds where it generally lurks.

For the most part we dwell outside that cave during the day. We carry on, we get things done. Many of the things we get done are the very things that stave off the fears. If someone is terrified of a loss of financial security, going to work and earning a wage is a way of combating that fear. We all have fear, but for the most part, we learn how to coexist with it. It can even be said that our fear can motivate us to do better, be better, and achieve. Fear can keep us safe, too. If you look down a dark alley while out for an evening stroll, shiver and decide to keep to the lighted path, then your fear may be keeping you safe.

Sometimes we get to prove to ourselves how brave we can be by overcoming a fear. Most fears have a rational base, and are coped with in a rational matter. We tell ourselves it will be okay, and most of the time we make it okay.

"Hello, do you kill things?"

It was, bar none, the strangest greeting I had ever received. I had walked into the room I was to share for a week with a woman I had not met before, thrown a bag onto the bed and turned to greet the woman in the corner. Before I could open my mouth, that was what she said.

"Do I...?" I began, unsure as to whether or not she was joking. The woman was about my age at the time, in her mid twenties, pressed into a corner, eyes the size of dinner plates, visibly shaking. I laughed uncertainly, "Not as a general rule, no."

She raised a trembling finger and pointed towards a closet. "I can't get past it. I can't move."

I glanced towards the closet and saw what she indicated. A not particularly large, and not overly small spider was on the wall. "Oh! Yes, yes! I kill things!"

I grabbed a tissue and dispatched the interloper, leaving the room to flush the spider down the toilet. By the time I returned, my terrified roommate had slumped down slightly, wiping tears from her face. She apologized to me, introduced herself properly. We spent a pleasant week in training, and she apologized several times for the manner in which we met.

People never choose to be terrified, in my experience, but it can happen to anyone. The genesis of a phobia is often hard to pin down. I used to be very afraid of birds, but solved that by taking a part-time job working with them when I was twenty-years-old. I know where that fear came from in my life. When I was a child a bird fell down the chimney, and as I exited the room, shrieking at the top of my five-year-old lungs the bird followed me through the house. It probably thought it was handy to have such a loud guide, but between that and the fact that my parents, quite by accident, let me watch the movie The Birds later that same month, I developed an irrational fear of them. Working with birds solved the problem, and I no longer have any fear of them but I well remember freezing at the sight of even a caged bird.

This subject came to mind because of my son's psych class. He asked me what my greatest fear was, and I was hard pressed to answer. Who doesn't have fear within them? I'm not fond of heights, but can overcome that. Similarly, crowds don't thrill me, but I can stand in them and overcome that too.

My biggest fear isn't a thing, it's a concept. The fear that I will face something I cannot find a way to overcome. When I lie awake at night, it isn't images of specific things that haunt me, but of scenarios in which I can reasonably see myself crumbling, and unable to overcome.

That's how I think a phobia forms. We, all of us, sometimes feel so helpless and being afraid of the possibility that we will be overcome is one thing we all share. I think a phobia is just a distillation of that kind of fear. I think that's why the actual, paralyzing terror people have when it comes to whatever triggers a phobic response has a tendency to be attached to things that can be avoided.

Water, things other people can kill, mountains that cannot be climbed, clowns at a circus. Things that are not encountered on a daily basis. I don't have any true phobias, I have fears.

I've always wanted to ask the people who have them, do you lie awake at night and worry? I bet some do, but many don't. They've given the fear we all have a form, a face in some instances. That lurking fear of the unknown that we all have has mass, and a name for them.

Ways of being defeated through avoidance, or the intervention of others. I've known a lot of people with various phobias, and oddly enough, they are often some of the bravest people I've ever met, in the right circumstances.

My son and I had our chat about fear, what makes it, what takes it away, how to combat it. Then he told me that Mr. Smith, who I mentioned in my last post, has a phobia of snakes. He cannot stand them, he'll scramble away.

Mr. Smith is a firefighter. He runs into the very thing that most of us fear to preserve our safety. He's a very brave man. When my son told me that, I stared in astonishment. I know for a fact this man has displayed what I would consider super human courage in the course of his work. Yet my son saw him unable to move when confronted with a tiny, green garden snake. As it happens, my son is also afraid of snakes, and whereas I'm sure he would have loved to boldly go where Mr. Smith could not, they both fled into the house, and stayed there until the snake had removed itself.

My son had a paper to write, and he asked me again, what was my greatest fear? I still wasn't sure of my answer. So he changed the question: What was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me?

I told him the truth. When I was twelve, I was in a house fire. To this day the smell of burnt wood bothers me. Until we had a gas fireplace, I didn't even like log fires within the confines of a wood burner. Sometimes when I'm near a fire, I'll hear a pop, and somewhere inside of me a nerve jumps. It's all I can do to stop myself from making great speeds away from there. To some, roasting a marshmallow over an open flame is a delight, but I don't like to get that close to fire.

"What did you do?"

"I called the fire department."

But for the record, I'm not afraid of snakes.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Dance We Do

As often happens, I will awake with something on my mind, and as I tour the blogs I read regularly I will see an echo of that thought in various posts. Replying to one such post elsewhere, it brought to mind something that happened a couple of months ago, as I attempted to help my son find the right balancing act, the correct steps to a dance of courtesy.

Mr. Smith (very clearly not his real name) is the father of one of my son's friends. My son is nineteen, the same age as his friend, and the Smiths are very fond of my son. They invite him to family picnics, boating trips, dinners, and evenings out at the movies. As it happens my son didn't make friends with the Smith's son, Joe (oddly enough, his real name, so common as to not need changing) until they were both old enough to drive. Therefore, I've only had minimal contact with the Smiths. Usually my contact with them has involved polite wrangling sessions in which I try, and fail, to get them to accept reimbursement for the things they have taken my son to do. I'm covered in failure on that particular mission, I've never been able to get Mr. Smith to accept a dollar, and even making sure my son has money with him has failed, they won't take his money any sooner than they will take mine. We've asked Joe to accompany us on things as a way of balancing the scales, but frankly, the Smiths have become so fond of my son that they invite him along, even now that Joe is out of state, at college.

So it came to pass that Mr. Smith, whose son was in California, needed help with a landscaping project. He called my son, and asked for his help, offering to pay him. My son told me about this situation and I cautioned him, "Buddy, you can't take his money. I mean, you really can't take his money. It's not right after all they've taken you to do, you need to just help him out for free."

Did I mention that the Smiths are not a particularly well off family, and that one of the bones of contention for me is that they can't well afford to take my son with them on the things they do. At least, not by my estimation, and clearly, it's not really my business.

Off my son went to assist in the project, and when he returned I asked him if he'd refused the money, he answered, "Mom, I tried, I swear. I said I wanted to help, and he insisted on paying me. I said I'd really feel more comfortable doing something for him, for a change...and he launched into a ten minute speech on how they love me like I'm part of the family, and I'm a good influence on Joe, and I had no idea what to do, so I thanked him for the money."

"Actually, you did the right thing. It would have been rude as all get out to refuse the money after that. Don't worry about it, okay? You get to a certain point in this dance we all do when it comes to being courteous, and it's rude not to accept an extended kindness."

"How do you tell?" My son asked, obviously confused.

"Eh, it differs from person to person. Someone offers, the polite thing to do is refuse, they offer again, and the only answer is to say, 'Are you sure, you don't have to." they offer again, and you have to accept. At that point it's just ungracious, and unkind if you don't."

"Oh yeah, nothing complicated about that," my son said, rolling his eyes. "How did you figure all that out?"

My son knows enough about my childhood to assume that no one taught me these things. It's a long story, and there aren't any villains, that's just the way it turned out.

"I don't even know that I have figured it out, hon." I said. "I hope I have. It's hard to go wrong if you set out not to hurt the feelings of others but that's no guarantee. That's really what it's all about. You let Mr. Smith off the hook in terms of any obligation, but when he insisted, he's offering a kindness...and know, just like what happened with you, you just get a sense for when you are supposed to push, and when you aren't. We still all mess up from time to time, and try again."

My son munched morosely on a strawberry as he contemplated this. I was in the middle of making shortcake at the time.

"Mom, who taught you how to cook?" he asked, changing the subject to thing closest to his thoughts at most points: food.

"Fannie Farmer and James Beard." I answered truthfully.

"Oh my God, you knew someone named Fannie? Did her parents hate her?"

"No," I laughed. "They're books. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks when I was a kid. Those were the two that were in the house. I did better with Fannie, than I did James, come to think of it."

"Too bad there aren't books on how to handle people." He said, the intended irony was clear. "People are complicated."

After asking when the shortcake would be done, my son went off to the basement where he doubtless plunged into a video game in which he saved the earth, or battled villains. The rules clearly outlined, the help menu just a click away. The steps of the dance much clearer.

I felt like telling my son that no matter what we do, there will be times when we feel like we are clog dancing through a minefield when it comes to other people, but I suspect he already knows that. Sometimes what we set out to do has to change dependent upon the person with whom we are dealing. Sometimes we accidentally blow things up in our wrong-footed ways.

What makes it worth it? Why do we try? My best guess is that we need each other.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Falling victim to 'isms

I grew up primarily with my father, and if he thought there was anything I couldn't do, he failed to ever mention that. As a result, it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized sexism was alive and well in some quarters. Truthfully, I'm not much of a feminist, but I do believe in Gender Equality as a way of life. Having all choices available to both genders. Equal pay for equal work. Not subscribing to traditional gender roles for society as a whole. I don't think it particularly matters what it is you choose to do, but having the choices is key.

Which leads me to my driveway, naturally. When we bought this house, with its three car garage, we looked forward to the snowy months when we would no longer be scraping cars in the early morning hours. We failed to factor in that, instead, we'd be shoveling the driveway. It was a trade-off and one well worth it. Shoveling snow is good cardiovascular exercise, whereas scraping off a car involves huddling miserably in the snow.

When we moved here, the people who owned this house before us gave us a tutorial on the pool, as well as telling me about our next door neighbors on both sides. Francine (not her real name), my neighbor to the East, is a widow. She's somewhere around seventy-five-years-old and her husband had died not long after they had moved in.

"We take care of her walks and drive for her when it snows," the former owner informed me, "maybe your husband or son could continue the tradition?"

I managed not to shoot the man a disgusted glare. In this household, I'm the one most likely to be home during the day. I'm the one most likely to be wielding a snow shovel. Hey, I work out. Lift with your legs, and all that. Goooooo endorphins.

"Sure, we can take care of that," was all I said in reply. I was rather proud of the amount of restraint I had shown. Normally I'd read someone the riot act over such an assumption, or at least let them know what was what. Why, I must be mellowing, I thought, with a self-congratulatory smile.

Today as the snow falls heavily, I've been outside shoveling on three occasions. My son is now home, and he'll be taking over, because this much snow calls for teamwork. On my second shoveling I began tackling Francine's walk.

The truth is, I've never really spoken to Francine much. She's a little bit hard of hearing, and will tell you that as soon as you meet. For the most part I wave heartily in her direction, rather than discuss things at a shout. As I made my way to her driveway, Francine popped out of her garage, snow shovel in hand.

"I've got this," she said, in a loud, cheery voice. Gesturing towards the snow with her shovel.

"Are you sure?" I asked in the accustomed increased volume.

"Oh yes! It's good training for my skiing, you know," Francine stooped to begin shoveling and therefore missed the startled look on my face. "We call it the Over the Hill Club. Isn't that great?" I allowed as how that was indeed, great. "I didn't ski when I was younger, but after my husband died, I didn't have a running partner any longer, so I took that up."

Well this was becoming mortifying.

"I'm sorry, David told me you'd need me to take care of your walk and drive." I said, feeling my already pink-face beginning to flush with embarrassment. I'm sure people in the next county must have heard me, as I might have been overcompensating to distract from how flustered I was.

"Oh him," Francine laughed. "He meant well, God love him, but between you and me? He was a bit of sexist."

I laughed ruefully and bid my very fit, very capable neighbor a good day.

The phone was ringing when I walked through the door, and it was my husband telling me he'd soon be home.

"What are you doing?" He asked.

For a moment I considered saying, "Being thoughtlessly ageist and sexist, what are you up to?" but instead I told him that I was making chicken and dumplings for dinner. Even if Crow Pie might have been more fitting.

I set to work chopping some vegetables and couldn't help but laugh. David might have been a bit of a sexist, but I think I accidentally won the 'ism trophy for the day.

After all, in one fell blow, I combined ageism and sexism. Well, I suppose the only way to work on ones faults is to go ahead and recognize them. Admitting them to the internet at large probably is a fitting enough penance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Day with Little to Do

Right now, even as I type, I was supposed to be sorting food for the food bank. However, the snow gods have been angered here in Colorado and I awoke to their expressed displeasure. The only bad thing about the food bank where I started volunteering is that it is rather far away from where I live now. Long drives in bad weather in Colorado aren't the best idea, particularly since it's still snowing as of this writing, and is likely to for the rest of the day. Ah, crumbs but that's the way of things, the best laid plans, and all that.

So I set about doing other things, throwing in a load of laundry, digging into some work I was saving for tomorrow, but I've also just been goofing off. Isn't funny that when we become adults we start to feel guilty about goofing off, having a lazy day, and accomplishing little?

When the snow fell from the skies when I was child every kid within the city boundaries of Kidom felt their hopes soar. Perhaps school would be called off! A day of nothing to do but play in the snow, perhaps watch The Price is Right --something considered far, far too boring to do in the summer months was an odd treat in January-- and be free from responsibilities of any kind. A day of eating soup and watching bad daytime television held as much excitement as the prospect of something truly wondrous. Our views of the world certainly do change as we become older.

A day where the unexpected happened was different when I was a kid, and different was often fun. It is now also, but I realized that there is a certain comfort in the expected. I suppose that's how we form our sense of security.

But it isn't that a change in plans can sour my mood as much as I was looking forward to going where I was headed today. When I checked the sky, and then the weather report that indicated that who knew what the roads would be like this afternoon, I felt disappointed in the same way I would have on a snowy day in my childhood, where school hadn't even been delayed.

I've still got plenty to do today, and I'll get it done but aren't we funny creatures? I stood and watched the snow falling, and it is truly very pretty. I'll get back to the food bank, too. I'll shuffle around the to-do list and make it fit at another time.

And today while I get things done, I've got bad daytime television blaring in another room to remind that having plans interrupted can be as much of a gift as I choose to make it. Yesterday afternoon I even made soup.

I suppose that today, regardless of interruption to what I had planned, is simply a good day of a different kind than I expected. Kind of like when I was a kid.

In other news, I'm driving myself nuts trying to add a video in a post, but that's just as an aside. On the To Do List? Go stark, staring mad, evidently.

Is that it? Did I do it? Did I get something done? I did! Well, now I didn't expect that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What are the Huron to do?

Everyone has their secret language with the people who know them best. Phrases, words, inflections that mean something only to them. It's part of how we feel connected. Whether it is referencing a specific memory of an event or saying something with, for instance, on outrageously bad French accent, we reinforce our ties to one another with cues about our history together.

My oldest friend and I can dissolve into a fit of giggles if one of us says, "Follow that Bug!" because that's all it takes to evoke a long ago escapade we embarked on together.

I sometimes listen to instrumental music while getting things done. I can't just put my iPod on shuffle because changing music tends to hold my attention. Instrumental music blends into the background and helps promote thought rather than demanding focus. I'd love to claim that I listen to the great composers, but I don't do that frequently, instead I tend to have the musical soundtracks for movies that I've liked. Why? I don't know. Again, classical music is something I tend to focus upon, soundtracks just exist in the background, pretty much by design.

Long ago when I met my husband I was listening to a soundtrack while compiling a project.

"What is this?" My now-husband asked.

"It's the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans."

My now-husband didn't know me all that well at the time and said, "I didn't think you liked cheesy romances."

I stared at him for a moment. Let's see, was the scene of Magua ripping out the heart of his enemy cheesy? Or the scene of Chingachgook practically vivisecting Magua what he thought was coated in fromage?

"Huh?" I replied, because no one speaks eloquently all the time.

"Stay alive, I will find you!" He quoted. "Talk about drippy."

"You've never actually seen the movie, have you?" He confirmed that he had not. I downed tools, went in search of the DVD and sat my action-adventure-loving then-boyfriend down for a viewing party. As it happens there are a lot of cheesy elements to the movie, but it's visually gorgeous, and it's actually rather violent.

"God, this is hardcore." My husband said, staring at a scene I'd rather not describe seeing as I don't have a mature rating on this blog. The movie segued into one of its cheesier moments when poor doomed Duncan translates the Chief at a speed only seen in movies, and envied by those who work for the United Nations.

"What are the Huron to do?" Soon-to-be-crispy Duncan translates at a breakneck pace, and in a very amusing French accent. My then-boyfriend started laughing and parroting him.

"What are ze Uron tu dew? What ARE ze URON tu DEW?", and then Duncan meets his incredibly grisly fate and that shut him up as effectively as throwing a switch. He switched tones, "Gaaaaaahhhhh! Don't mess with the Huron!! Don't mess with the Huron! The Hurons get things done!!"

Now over a decade later, we still say that to each other when trying to accomplish something. It doesn't really fit with the scene in the movie, but it's one of our points of connection. That personal shorthand we work out with the people who know us best.

Every October a blog called Tomato Nation rallies together and helps to fund public school projects through an organization called Donors Choose and I was fortunate enough to participate last year. Here's the funny thing, I don't read Tomato Nation. That's not any kind of judgment on my part, it's a good site, but there are only so many hours in any given day. I found the drive through a blog that is now defunct, but I still read Velcrometer, the blog of a humor writer whose work I've always liked.

It's a great feeling to be able to participate, but I understand that not everyone can. Still, it's a fun thing to check out because people get together, address the problem of under funded classrooms, and make a difference together. Shorthand on the internet for getting things done, and all that.

We all feel a little bit lost sometimes. We have things come up, we aren't sure how to solve some problems. Life is sometimes a difficult path, but there are other things that come up, things that make us feel as if hurdles can be taken on, and put behind us.

When I found that another blog I read was linking to TN's efforts, I went to my husband, who is the family accountant. He loves this project. Like me, he is a fan of direct impact charities. We're fortunate people, and grateful to be so, and we try to make a difference in the ways that we can.

Even if you can't participate, check it out. It's just amazing to see the "Project Funded" icon put in place through the efforts of people banding together to bring a problem down.

Sometimes we all feel helpless to our problems, and sometimes we get to feel as if no effort is wasted.

"Remember that school funding organization?" I asked my husband, as I entered his home office. He was busy doing something, I'm not sure what. He was playing music, the kind with those distracting lyrics, I don't know how he gets anything done.

"Hmmm." He answered, then he turned around and said, "Oh yeah, I do. Well, What are the Huron to do?"

Our personal shorthand. Sometimes we also say, "Release the Kraken!" and sometimes we actually communicate in fully intelligible sentences, just not in this instance. We'd been discussing a budget for this last month, and that we had done in actual, understandable English.

"Be the Halloween Cat, just be him." I answered because when you get right down to it, I married the right guy.

By a lot.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Return of the Magic Door

For ten years I lived in a house where, on any given day, the doorbell might ring and present an interesting scenario. Our neighborhood was located near a busy street with a lot of foot traffic. Our house was not far from a light rail station. On many an occasion, something I could never have predicted sought me out through my front door.

A friend of mine joked that I must have a magic door because the only people that ever visited her house were people trying to sell things. To offer a sample of the varied situations that ended up at my door: I once had a woman in active labor ring the doorbell. Another time a man seeking a blanket taught me more about the human decency we all possess than an entire childhood attending church did. A lost monk once sought direction. More than one lost pet found my front porch, and found its way home by being glimpsed through that door. Those are only a few of the situations that came into my life, over the course of a decade. The ways in which life came to my door and sought me out were many and varied for the simple reason that I was there to answer the ring of a doorbell, or glimpse a shadow on the porch.

In the suburbs the only time the doorbell rings is when something we have requested comes to call. Certainly when neighbors came by to introduce themselves, the doorbell rang. Visitors, friends came to call, but mostly pizzas, UPS packages and the occasional lawn service were the only things that found the front porch. We don't even use the front door, we mainly enter through the door in the garage. There's a swing on our front porch I've never even sat upon, and the two wicker chairs that decorate it were left by the previous owner. I missed my magic door.

I spent a lot of the summer fretting about two things: Health care and a soap opera taking place at my husband's work. Health care reform has taken a beating, and I've already done everything I can to participate. Now I just watch with an increasingly sore heart. The soap opera resolved itself with no harm done to us, but my view of basic human decency took a bit of a beating in more ways than one.

This is a planned community, in fact, this is a planned city. All of it is centered around the idea of a planned community. There are rec centers galore, paid for by a group of homeowners associations. The entire city is a homeowners association, I'm not joking either, I moved to a suburb with a lot of planning and approval committees. It's a strange, but tidy life where the doorbell never unexpectedly rings.

When I moved here I searched for a charity within the city to see if there was anything I could volunteer to do. In an entirely planned city it turns out that there isn't much need. Feeling a little let down, I wasn't sure what to do. This is an enclave of privilege, and whereas I'm very grateful for my life, I actually don't relate well to people who appear to be strangers to hardship. Appearances have always been deceiving though, and I'm old enough to know that.

In this house we have a large formal living room which is still almost entirely empty, and will remain so until I decide what kind of furniture to buy for it. Not exactly a heavy burden to bear, is it? We bought this house primarily because we wanted the pool.

I was standing in my living room, for no reason whatsoever beyond having paused there, when I saw a brown paper bag on my front porch. One with a white sheet of paper stapled to it. I knew what that signaled, someone was collecting for a food bank. I've always liked food banks. Direct impact charities are wonderful. If you buy a can of beans for a food bank, that very same can of beans will end up in the hands of someone who needs it. Direct impact. No sitting back and waiting, or watching for anything.

But it wasn't the average food drive run by the Boy Scouts, which was what I had assumed. It was from one of my neighbors, a man I'd never met, but who at some point during that morning had walked up on to my front porch and placed it there. He was collecting for a food drive run by his church, but he volunteered for the organization in downtown Denver also.

My son was nearby when I picked up that bag, and the attached paper listed the goals of the church's food drive, but also mentioned that the food pantry of the Denver charity was empty. Empty underlined twice.

My son went to the store with me, pushing a separate cart to make it easier to buy for our household, and the food bank separately. The haul exceeded the limitations of the brown paper bag, so I needed to contact my neighbor to arrange a time to drop off the food. Then it turned out that help was needed in sorting it. Then it turned out that volunteers were sorely needed at the downtown facility. What the heck, right? I had the time.

On Tuesday the public health care option took a terrible blow. Insurance reform seems the best we can hope for now, and whereas that is something, it won't address the needs of many. Having access to health care being tied so firmly to an individual's job is precarious, to say the least. Particularly in times of a recession, when the shelves of food banks end up empty for a reason. As that story broke, I was busy thinking about grouping protein sources, and thinking it would be helpful to people to have a list of what items aren't particularly helpful to donate. All the Hamburger Helper in the world doesn't mean much if a person can't buy the hamburger to put in it, after all.

Reading opinions on health care had made me wonder how it was that so many had come to care only about their own, personal concerns, but my front porch led me back to the knowledge that regardless of views on the role of government, people often do care very much.

There's nothing magical about the door, is there? That's what you probably want to tell me. My neighbor left those bags on everyone's front porch. Nothing mystical going on there.

You're right, of course. Only my very nice neighbor isn't a very practical man, in some respects. You see, there is one other thing about this community you should know, we're on high ground and the wind coming down off the foothills is intense. He hadn't put the bag underneath the welcome mat, or the box for our milk delivery. He hadn't secured it in the door either. He'd laid it politely on top of the welcome mat, and because he works at home during the day, he'd hadn't thought of how many people would not be home during those hours, and set them out early. Most blew away as mine was trying to do when I caught sight of it.

Nothing to that other than good timing. Again, you're right, of course.

But I do find it interesting that the charity I searched for when we moved here was a food bank. Anyone who knows me, knows I have a soft spot for food banks. When I do someone a favor, and they say they owe me one? I tell them to give a couple of cans of food to a food bank and we'll call it even.

I'm willing to accept that there is nothing magical about my front door, even though it saved me from fretting myself into a state of despair. Wondering what will become of our nation if we cannot learn to care about, and for each other would have likely plunged me into dark thoughts on Tuesday had it not been for a paper bag, and a well timed glance out of a window.

Nothing magical, but a stroke of luck, to be sure. At least in the timing, and I submit to you that there may have been magic in that timing. After all, after a summer of fretting my faith in people was beginning to be lost. On Tuesday five Democrats were key to voting down the public option. That public option was the best hope of many. Hope was lost in one area, and I was busy thinking about how to group foods for a food bank thanks to some good timing, and the return of my magic door.