Monday, December 31, 2012

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Image courtesy of  Simon Howden,
Homes, houses and apartments, have always fascinated me.

You know how there are archetype dreams? The dream where you realize you should have been attending a class, you need to pass it and now the final exam is being held … somewhere? Or the one when you are at high school and realize suddenly you are wearing your pajamas?

There’s also that dream of some childhood home – and now there’s a wing that you had never known was there and it’s filled with all kinds of stuff, even furniture covered in sheets like in the movies.

Even back when I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, as a 20-something, I’d head into an open house – just to see: a basement rental apartment or a multi-million-dollar brownstone – didn’t matter.

When we bought our own house, I am sure I drove our real-estate agent crazy. She showed me our file, which was about two inches thick with all the houses I had seen.

Here’s what I learned from my house-hunting:

A large percentage of houses, at least in our price range, smell strongly of cat pee;

If a house is advertised as being “professionally decorated,” there will be some bizarre mural in it. My personal favorite was of bigger-than-life-size organ-grinder monkeys, with evil expressions on their faces, on a living-room wall;

A surprising number of houses have secret rooms, usually as the result of a renovation.

Homes are such an expression of the people living there. And to be honest, I feel that the houses in the television show, “Hoarders,” filled to the rafters with crap and outright garbage that their owners just can’t deal with, are less crazy than the houses that the owners have hired an expert to rigorously decorate for them.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Schools Are Not Assembly Lines

And children are not widgets.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici"/
Education is the interaction between two people: teacher and student.

I went to Williams College, where a quote about Mark Hopkins, a professor and eventually president of the college, is often repeated: James Garfield, U.S. president and Williams alum, said that Hopkins was such a good teacher that the ideal university was Hopkins sitting at one end of a log and a student at the other.


My son spent his 2nd grade year at a public elementary school in Houston. This school has a good reputation, based entirely on the test scores of its affluent students. My seven-year-old son said it was easy, “all we do all day is fill in bubbles.” I walked in to volunteer once, to find the teacher doing paperwork at the back of the room while a boy gave a presentation to the class. She looked up only to tell the kids to be quiet. (They had been trying to ask him questions.)

I wanted to shake her.

Particularly because I know that school can be so much better than that. During my son’s kindergarten and first-grade years, at another public school, in New York City, teachers routinely sat in a circle with their kids, guiding the most astonishing discussions. On a field trip to a museum, the kids, encouraged by their teacher, were coming up with such astute observations about the modern art they saw that a man, who had been with an adult tour group, sidled up. “Your group is WAY more interesting,” he said. “How old are these kids?” They were six.

Everything we do to improve education – small class sizes top my list -- should be to support this intense, personal interaction between student and teacher.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Do You Believe In Ghosts?

Ask me that in the bright light of day and I’d scoff, “Of course not!”

But in the dark, late at night?

My parents live in a house that is 180 years old. My mother is the third generation of her family to live there. We know people have died in this house and their wakes held here.

And whenever a girl, teenaged or younger, sleeps in a certain bedroom, she will dream of being pulled towards the door that leads to the attic.

Both my nieces had these nightmares and, last time we were here, my 17-year-old daughter had them.

So I, ostensibly a grown-up, said I’d sleep in that room. I told myself that I was doing it to make my daughter feel better. I thought to myself she must have heard stories from her cousins.

But that night, I lie stiff as a board and wide-awake.

Now, the people we knew who died here? Maybe one wasn’t the nicest. Another was, shall we say, a bit eccentric and prone to making bad decisions. Uncle Tom would totally think it was funny to drag someone toward the attic. But none of them were dangerous alive. Why would we be afraid of their ghosts?

Interestingly, Halloween was originally not a scary holiday. People left out lights (jack o’lanterns) and food (the origin of handing out candy) to help the ghosts of the people they knew find their way in the day when the divide between the real world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. It wasn’t until the introduction of Christianity into Celtic regions, such as Ireland, that those ghosts were considered frightening.

Still, Uncle Tom, knock it off. You are scaring the kids. (And me.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

By The Book

In one of my volunteer stints at my kids’ schools, I helped a K-8 librarian get rid of old books to make room for new.

She gave me a list which showed the publication date of each book and how many times it had been checked out over the years. The books we were getting rid of were the ones that had never been checked out, some sitting on the shelves since the school opened its doors in 1956. These books stood right next to books on the same subject (I was in the nonfiction section) that had been checked out dozens of times.

Hey, if I could figure out what caused kids to pick one book over another, I could get rich – or, at least, be a successful book author, right?

I don’t know about that. One complication for books written for children is they have to please two audiences: the adults who buy them and the children who may or may not read them.

Here’s what I gleaned from being in the stacks:

Books about hamsters, dinosaurs and trucks are very popular and have been for decades.

Isaac Asimov wrote a number of books explaining math concepts, up to algebra, to children. Sounds great to me. Sadly, not one had ever been checked out.

The older the book, the more long-winded the author tended to be.

Apparently, back in the old days, your eccentric neighbor could pen a book about anything and get it published.  A large number of the books I was pitching seem to have been written about what the author saw outside her window or during his daily walk.

Apparently, the adult buyers were an easier sell than the kids.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Letters of Recommendation

Warning! You may need letters of recommendation from your child’s teachers.

We are applying to high schools, private and public, for our son.

It is an elaborate process. Essays (from both him AND us), interviews (again, both him and us), transcripts, report cards, utility bills. The poor kid is scheduled to take no less than four standardized tests in the month of January.

And also those recommendation forms that his teachers fill out and we supposedly never see.

Those forms have charts of desirable and undesirable traits that the teacher checks off.

On the form for Catholic high schools, at least here in Houston, there’s a question at the end,  “Is there anything about the applicant’s family you think we should know?”

Didn’t think about that when you fired off that hot email to the teacher, did you?

One school, though, instructed us to turn in the whole application packet at once. So, I gave the recommendation form to the teacher and she gave it back to me, per instructions, in a sealed envelope signed along the seal.

When I turned it in at the high school, the lady taking them ripped open the envelope before my eyes to staple it to the rest.

And I could see the chart with all the checkmarks. All of the checks, except one, down at one end.

When I got out to the car, I looked up the form on the school’s website on my phone.

Of course.

Had most of them been at the “good” end? Yes. Whew.

The outlier? “Is student organized?” Looked like the teacher had checked, “Sometimes.”

She was being generous.

Wish this wasn’t necessary. Wish there was a seat at an excellent school for every kid in the country, no matter what his test scores or her parents are like.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

No New Year’s Resolutions For Me

I have always been a BIG fan of resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise.

I could never limit myself to just one resolution. I’d have so many, I’d need to categorize them, maybe color-code them, put them a notebook, draw up to-do lists.

I was also, you may not be surprised to hear, a big fan of “productivity porn,” those books and articles that promise to make you more efficient. While you read them, you can feel like you are doing something, even though you aren’t. When you finish, you feel like you’ve eaten too much cheap candy.

And it’s not like they tell you anything that you don’t already know.

However, I’ve finally figured out that resolutions and other such efforts at self improvement are misguided.

It took me a while. I should have seen it when my daughter was small. Her teacher pulled me aside at pick-up to tell me that my daughter had cried that day. The teacher had asked the kids to write down their New Year’s Resolutions and my daughter had taken that to mean that something was wrong with her. That hurt her feelings. Also, I bet there was some anger in those tears.

Because to think you need to have a resolution means you think there is something wrong with you.

It’s a tough habit to break. Go to the gym more often, organize my office: I’ve been beating back resolutions, thoughts about where I am lacking, but they keep popping up.

Rather than yearning to live in the land of “Once I do X” and “Once I achieve Y,” I am going to be happy now, in the here-and-now, as messy and imperfect as it is.

Oh, no. Is that a resolution too?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

U.G.L.Y., You Ain’t Got No Alibi

So, not too long ago, I wrote here about a Christmas-tree ornament I had just purchased, which I was sure was the ugliest Christmas ornament ever made.

I no longer think this is so ugly.
But, then, last night, I visited a Wal-Mart.

(I was there only to pick up some emergency Scotch tape, honest.)

I turned a corner into another aisle – and my eyes hurt from the colors.

 Why would you ever, no matter how crazed from shopping, buy these ornaments?

The one thing a Christmas-tree ornament has to be is pretty.
And it’s not like you have to spend a lot to get them.

I can vividly remember my first Christmas tree, if only because it pretty much took up all of my first apartment. Truly. It was a studio apartment, and after hauling the tree in, I had a bad moment when I realized I wouldn’t be able to open up the sleeper sofa.

I had no ornaments, having spent all my money on tree, stand and lights.

(Can you tell that, at age 22, I wasn’t the best planner in the world?)

My best friend (hey, Jared!) came over for an evening of wine and making origami ornaments. That didn’t really work. We ended up crumpling up the origami paper and throwing it at the tree.

So then I made ornaments using that flour and salt dough you make when you’re a kid.

I still have some of these. They are hanging on my tree 25 years, a husband, two kids and seven moves later. And they make me smile when I see them in the ornament box every year.

It’s hard to imagine that happening with these Wal-Mart ornaments … although I am getting kind of attached to my ugly poodle ornament.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Let There Be Light

There is an entire industry, here in Houston, of companies that will come and install your Christmas decorations for you, the lights outside and, in some cases, the tree(s) and other decorations inside your house.

The houses these companies do are the gargantuan houses – some of them resembling, in size and style, municipal courthouses – surrounded, during the holidays, by 40-foot oak trees entirely wrapped from root to twig-tip with thousands upon thousands of tiny white lights.

I saw one that had two lit-up, glittering herald angels, 8 feet tall, flanking its front doors. A little self-aggrandizing, no?

Many of these big houses have lights strung in tight straight lines along their eaves, on all sides. This doesn’t say, “Peace on Earth” to me. It says, “Look how freaking big my house is!”

You should always look at your decorations from
all sight-lines, so a dirty-minded passersby
doesn't snap a picture with her phone.
I’m sorry. That just leaves me cold.

This is completely different from the hobbyists who get really into decorating their houses for the holiday, so into it they end up on the evening news. You know the ones: the owner covers every surface in lights and decorations and animatronic dolls and rigs up a system that plays tinny Christmas carols. Not my thing, but admirable in its way.
OK, so the do-it-yourself job may not always turn out “perfect.”

But it is always charming.

Here is an old bungalow in my new neighborhood, decorated with oversized bulbs that allude to the old days. The owner hung those lights herself.
Perhaps this house doesn’t have 6 bedrooms and 7 bathrooms, but it looks so homey and snug, like the house on a Christmas card.
I know where I would rather live.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Losing It

You know the scene in “The Hobbit,” when Gollum, realizing that he has lost the Ring, doubles over, keening and howling?

His reaction pales compared to what I do when I lose … well, anything … my keys, the top to the bottle of olive oil, my to-do list.

Oy, I become unglued when I lose my to-do list.

Because I hate to lose things so much, I check my pockets for wallet, phone and keys every few minutes when I’m out. I am always aware of our possessions. Where are they? Are they secure? Did someone take them out? If so, did they put them back? I feel like a border collie.

As a result, though, I rarely lose anything.

My husband and son lose things all the time. My husband left his wallet in a restaurant twice in the last week alone. This does not upset him, except for the prospect of telling me, because I will go nuts (see above).

When my son, who is very much like his dad, was in the fifth grade, his teacher told me about how my son looked for his homework in his binder, didn’t see it and said, with a casual shrug, “Oh, well, it’ll turn up.”

She said very gravely that we were going to have to work on that.

I’m not so sure.

Yes, my husband and son misplace things. But they almost always turn up again, usually quickly. If not, they are easily replaced. Meanwhile, they are not devoting precious bandwidth to worry.

And I would love to know how that feels.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Human Directionals

At a parents’ meeting at my daughter’s school, an administrator said she tells the kids, “Study hard. You know the guys on the side of the road, holding signs? You don’t want to be them.”

True, I wouldn’t want my kid trying to eke out enough money to live on being an animated sign post.

But as I drive, day after day, in Houston, I start recognizing the sign-holders. The guy who wore a deep rut in the grass, wearing a foam Statue of Liberty crown and holding a sign counting down the days till April 15th to advertise Liberty Tax Services, turned up further north after tax season, spinning a sign about selling your gold. Over and over again, an old man does robot-like dance moves, making eye contact and pointing individual drivers to the nail salon he advertises. For an open house at some new townhouses, one kid was throwing his arrow-shaped sign, spinning, up in the air and catching it behind his back or under his leg, like a baton. And the arrow always ended up pointing the right way. One kid simply holds his sign over his shoulder, obscuring his head. For some (probably evolutionary) reason, the sight of his headless body makes me do a double-take every time.

They are called “sign spinners,” “sign twirlers” and (my favorite) “human directionals.” Sometimes they are represented by agencies. Some have trained formally to learn tricks and take part in competitions. Here in Houston, their going rate is $10 per hour. Some cities have tried to ban them, out of concern that they distract drivers.

People try to find meaning in whatever job they can get. Whether we studied hard or not, isn’t that what we all end up doing?

Friday, December 21, 2012

How I Think Gun Control Should Work

I’m not a gun or legal expert, just a parent, who finds myself thinking of those moms and dads who ran to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, hoping their little ones were OK …

Of course, we should have a ban on assault weapons. The gun Adam Lanza used was designed for combat and could fire six bullets per second. An ordinary citizen has no need, whatsoever, for this. These guns should be illegal.

Other countries, when instituting bans on assault weapons, ran buy-back programs. That’s nice. But I’d be fine with, “These weapons will be illegal after this date. Turn them in or be in violation of the law.”

Other guns?  They and their owners should be regulated just like cars and drivers.

Guns should be registered. I think all guns should also be microstamped, so that guns used in a crime can be traced to their owners.

Gun owners should have to undergo periodic training and testing to be licensed.

But here’s the real key: gun owners should have to carry insurance. Because they should be held liable for the damage their guns cause.

Insurance companies are experts at figuring risk. As they do with life insurance, they might require gun owners to undergo a medical exam, this time to determine mental health. A hunting rifle might cost less to insure than a handgun. Small kids in the house? Your insurance costs more. Ditto, if you have a young adult male (mass shooters are almost always young men) in the house. But you might get a break, if you agree to store your gun off-site at a gun range or invest in a gun safe.

If it works for cars, why not guns?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Late to the Party

I know I am very late to this particular party, but I really like Jimi Hendrix. I recently came into possession of “Voodoo Child.”

Got it in an actual record store. (Remember those? Average age of the customers when I was there: 45-50. Sigh.)

I’ve been playing these two CDs, which contain the songs “Purple Haze,” “Are You Experienced,” and “Stand Next to Your Fire,” a lot in the car. My kids, ages 14 and 17, seem to like them too. The songs put us all in a pensive mood.

I met a woman once, a native New Yorker, who, as a small girl, saw Hendrix perform in Central Park. She was there all by herself, allowed to roam alone in the city, even though she was probably only 7 or so. “It was a different world back then,” she said. She didn’t know who Hendrix was, but she knew he was special. So special she ran up on stage, reached out a hand and simply touched him. No one stopped her or got mad at her, including Hendrix.

It is such a different world now and I wonder how much my kids (and I) are missing, them without even realizing it. They live in a world where kids don’t do drugs for fun but to keep their grades up, where they worry about their resumes, their grades, their standardized test scores, anxious not to mess up on the gauntlet we make them run.

The 1960s seem like they were such a blossoming of exuberance and fun. And now we live in an age of such fearfulness and anxiety. It makes me sad.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Nice Gesture, I Guess ....

These signs at my local grocery store, and the parking spaces they reserve, have always puzzled me.

One, the time that you really need this type of help is once the baby is out.

Two, notice the fine print. You have to register to use these spaces. I wonder if the supermarket plans to launch a marketing campaign at you.

No wonder these spaces are always empty.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I am inept about “doing” hair. Not only don’t I know how, I seem to have a mental block against learning.

I can’t remember the last time I used a curling iron, though I suspect I burned myself and repressed the memory. We have a blow dryer, somewhere around here, but only for the unlikely event that we ever have a house guest who wants one.

I have thick hair, coarse, with some curl. When I wore it long, I always tied it back. Left loose, it was so thick, it formed a pyramid around my head. (Roseanne Roseannadanna was based on truth.)

Sometimes, though, I have had Gene Wilder hair, from Young Frankenstein. Hair gets drier and frizzier as you age, you see, especially if you color it.

Think people who dye their gray hair are vain? I foolishly thought so too, until I got gray hair and suddenly realized it’s not about vanity, it’s about mortality.

Plus, judging from my roots, I’d have a gray stripe, like Susan Sontag or the villain from Josie & the Pussy Cats. And. That. Is. Not. Happening.

So, I was ecstatic when my stylist leaned in conspiratorially one day and said, “You know, you don’t have to wash your hair every day. And you shouldn’t brush it – ever.”

Huzzah! She was giving me permission to do even less!

I do use shampoos and conditioners from her salon, though, which apparently are worth more than their weight in gold. What am I putting in my hair? Fairy dust? Powdered unicorn horn?

My hair always looked better wet than dry, less poofy. One conditioner, combed through wet hair with your fingers, keeps it looking less poofy even when dry.

So, I am still doing nothing, yet I can pass for a normal person.


Monday, December 17, 2012

People Really Are Different

At a recent airshow, as a pilot was doing tricks in the air, including stalling his plane and letting it plummet toward earth, nose-first, the announcer interviewed him, his answers broadcast for all to hear.

They were mostly “Yee HAW!” and “WOO HOO!”

“That’s something that either there isn’t enough money in the world to get you to do or you would do it for free,” observed my 13-year-old son.


Our family is divided between introverts and extroverts. My son and I, the introverts, are currently curled up in the living room, in our pajamas, me writing and him playing a video game.

Soon, our two extroverts, my husband and daughter, 17, will come bounding down the stairs.

“What do you want to do today?” they’ll ask.

“We’re doing it,” we’ll reply.

My husband and daughter get jangly if they don’t get out of the house. My daughter does that classic extrovert thing: seeing someone quietly reading, bothering no one, she will sit close, stare intently, then ask, “Whatcha reading?”

Introversion doesn’t mean you hate people or are shy. It means you enjoy being alone; it’s how you relax. Conversely, extroverts relax by interacting with people. That’s why my friend Megabel hates being home alone but loves throwing parties and why I like her parties but am ready for a nap when they’re over.

In my 20s, I had friends who liked clubbing. I did not. I secretly worried this meant (a) I was an old fart before my time or (b) my friends were so desperate for a romantic relationship, they were willing to put themselves out there, in hell, to meet people. It never occurred to me that they could be enjoying themselves.

Now I say, to each his own.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Paranoid Theory of Shopping

This started as a medium-ugly dog ornament
and then they dipped it in a tarlike substance
in an attempt to make it look like a poodle.
My daughter and I recently had 20 minutes to kill and the only place around was Target.

We ended up in the holiday-decoration aisle, where everything sparkled and glittered.

And we temporarily lost our minds.

We exited the store $20 dollars lighter, the dazed, new owners of about a dozen Christmas ornaments, including perhaps the ugliest one ever made.

What happened?

I once interviewed the marketing person for a beer brand, for a trade-magazine article. She described her latest campaign, targeted at young men, ages 21 to 25. In the pause while I processed just how ridiculous young men could be, she said, “OK, so this one doesn’t target you, but we do have ones that would work on you.” She added darkly, “Everyone is influenced by marketing.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Not me.” But over the years, I’ve come to see that she was right.

Enter a mall and the lights, the crowds, the disorienting labyrinth layout, the lack of windows and clocks, the fast-tempo music, the bakery and coffee smells, all the colors and the piles and the racks are meant to discombobulate you.

I remember my mother in a store – it was a Marshalls, where the marketing message is, “You can find something good for cheap in this dump, IF you search.” She was flicking through a rack and pulled something out – maybe it was brightly colored or loudly patterned, it was certainly eye-catching – and she asked, “So, do I like this or do I hate it?”

Good question. Everything fights for your attention in retail and it can be difficult to keep a hold of your faculties.

Which is how I ended up with my latest Christmas ornament.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Being Santa

Image courtesy of Robert Cochrane /
The Christmas my daughter was two, old enough to be aware of Christmas, my mother-in-law really saved the day.
We were flying across the country to visit, so I was thinking, “Fit in suitcase.” We didn’t have a lot of money, so I was thinking, “Inexpensive.” And, I admit, I was thinking “Educational.”
What I wasn’t thinking about was the baby – and what she would think.
Oh, I thought I was. But the gifts I bought were small and not flashy. When I pulled them out of the suitcase and wrapped them, they made a paltry pile.

And that’s when my mother-in-law brought out her gifts. I don’t think they were expensive, but they were big – I’m talking size – and flashy. Just the things to make a toddler’s eyes shine on Christmas morning.

Every since that year – my little girl is now 17 – I have always been mindful of “the pile,” the visual perception.
People rightly decry materialism and spending more than you have and cheap plastic crap that ends up in the landfill.
But gift-giving doesn’t have to be that and it can be so much more.

When I was growing up, my family wasn’t wealthy and my sisters and I weren’t greedy. But I can still remember magic, even when I was well past believing in Santa. To look around after the present-opening and realize that my family knew me well enough to know what I wanted – and could even choose things for me that I hadn’t known to want, that was where the warm feeling came from, the feeling of being known and loved.

And sometimes that means knowing that a two-year-old will be thrilled by something big and shiny.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Make Work

Every time I pick up a prescription, I watch the clerk find the medication, which is in a little paper sack, stapled closed, rip open the staple, dump out the bottle, scan its barcode, then put it back into the paper sack and restaple. Sometimes, the pharmacist, working at a counter, will, before my eyes, fill my prescription, put the bottle in a paper sack, staple it closed and hand it to the person waiting on me – who will rip the sack open, as he or she walks toward me, to scan the barcode. Then, he or she will put the bottle back into the sack and restaple it.

“You know,” I want to say, “that’s stupid.”

My mind races with the possibilities: put the barcode on the sack rather than on the bottle, use a clear sack, though which you can scan, don’t use a sack at all (saving some natural resources in the process), at the very least, just fold the sack over and don’t bother with the staple.

But I don’t say anything because I don’t want to look like a crank.

Last year, one of my son’s teachers would take a piece of lined notebook paper, copy it 25 times, then staple it to his sheet of homework questions 25 times and hand this out to the 25 kids. Palm to forehead.

He could just tell the kids to use a separate piece of paper. Or if he really feels he has to supply it, he could just have a stack of paper in his room.

Again, didn't say anything. No good would come of it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finding What Floats Your Boat

My husband runs six miles a day, 13 at a clip on the weekends.

My husband's "toe shoes,"
worn without socks,
smell so bad, they live outside.
He’s into it, with those Vibram Five Finger shoes and an app on his phone. He reads about running.

If you ever see me running down the street, look for the person chasing me. He’ll be carrying an axe. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be running.

I’ve tried running many times over the years. It’s free, it’s convenient. And I hate it.

I’ve tried cycling. Here in Houston, you must have a death wish. Plus, I don’t like the little outfits.

I would really like to like swimming. But there’s the depilation, putting on a bathing suit, getting into a cold pool.

Some people, God bless ‘em, like to socialize while exercising. Not me.  So, exercise classes aren’t for me. Neither is exercising with a buddy.

However, perversely, I do want people around. If I had all the latest gym equipment at home, all of it would instantly become clothing racks.

Given all this, it might seem like I'd never manage to find exercise I will do. But I did and have been doing it for years.

This may sound sick to you (I can't get my husband to go), but I like going to the gym. I have a music player packed with very fast tempo songs (like the Hives). With that and the closed-caption TV and the people around me (with whom I have zero desire to interact), I’ve got just enough to engage my monkey mind.

The thing about exercise is that you have to pick something you like, or can at least tolerate. It may not be the free thing. It may not be the cool thing. But it has to be something you will do.

You might even come to like it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Being A Dog Person

I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs.

I also don’t trust people whom dogs don’t like.

Of course, my dog loves, loves, LOVES everybody.

So, she’s no help.

If you were to break into my house, the only risk you’d run is getting licked on, or preferably in, the mouth.

When a guy came recently to fix something, he had to get down on the floor and crawl into a cabinet to get to some wiring. I walked in to find Lola, our dog, in there with him, tail wagging. She was licking his face.
When I called her away, apologizing, he said it was OK. He actually sounded like he meant it. Which is when I knew he was a nice guy, Lola’s breath in there must have been fierce.

I often think of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Because Lola acts an awful lot like my daemon. In Pullman’s story, every character has a daemon, a creature who is always with them, who is actually part of them, somehow.

Lola follows me everywhere. She is, right now, in fact, lying a few feet from me, steadily watching my face. Not sure why she finds my doings so interesting. Not sure what she makes of my doings at all.

And if you look at having a dog, in a bean-counter kind of way, it makes no sense. They don’t serve a purpose. And they can be a pain in the ass. Stealing the food off the table. Getting into the garbage. Needing to be walked. Needing to be picked up after. Going to the vet, the groomer, to be boarded when you’re away. Some shed fiercely. Others drool.

Still … I am so happy to have her around.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I know a sweet person who, not wanting to be rude, will listen to a telemarketer’s sales pitch all the way through to the bitter end, even though she has no intention of buying. At the very end, feeling bad, she will apologize.

While she means to be polite, I wonder if this drives telemarketers (who I’ve heard are timed) crazy.

Other people (I’m talking to you, Dad) will try to talk sense to telemarketers, about why the caller shouldn’t be a telemarketer at all.

Maybe a lot of people do what I do, but since some seem to struggle, I’d thought I’d put my strategy out there:

Yes, I did register all our phones with the donotcall registry. But we still get some.

I do not answer the phone if I don’t recognize the number, period. If you’re a real caller, you will leave a message.

If I do pick up the phone and there isn’t instantly a real person, I hang up. I don’t say a second hello into the void. If you say that second “hello” or wait too long, you will be routed to the next available telemarketer or to a recording.

If it’s a recording, I hang up. Duh.

If I do end up with a live telemarketer, I say “No, thank you” and hang up. Yes, I cut them off. Yes, I hear them continuing to speak. I do it anyway.

Rude? Yes. The “No, thank you” I say is just a sop, a recognition that there is a person on the other end, someone who has possibly the worst job ever.

But telemarketers are one of those groups who “don’t take no for an answer.” They are taking advantage of people’s niceness.

Monday, December 10, 2012

To A Tee

I wonder what my taste in t-shirt slogans says about me.

For example, one of my all-time favorites is:

Jesus is coming. Look busy.

And I laughed out loud when a tough biker dude roared past on his Harley and I saw on the back of his t-shirt:

If you can read this, the bitch fell off.

 (Bad, I know.)
I MUCH prefer Life is Crap t-shirts to Life is Good ones. What does that say about me?
And I refuse to wear t-shirts emblazoned with a brand name. The other day, I saw a man wearing a “Hard Rock Café/Kuala Lumpur” t-shirt and all I could think was, “You went all the way to Kuala Lumpur and ate at a Hard Rock Café?”



Meanwhile, I would LOVE to buy this onesie as a baby gift for someone but I’m not sure I know a someone who would find it funny, particularly right after she gave birth to a baby.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about what people think. Or maybe I should stay away from t-shirts with slogans. I can’t decide.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Stuck in My Head

When I visualize my mind, I picture an empty … yup, empty … storeroom.

It’s not an unpleasant place. It’s a nice temperature, with good light, a ceiling fan going overhead and a wood floor.

But playing in the air, on some endless loop, are snatches of just a few songs. I’ve known them for 30 years but have never known all the words to them.

“Telephone Man,” Meri Wilson, 1977 OK, so I am not exactly high-brow.
“Navy Blue,” Diane Renay, 1963 At a summer job during college, one of the managers, a nice guy, made mix tapes that played all day long. This was from his tape (back then, really a tape) of 1950s girl-singer songs. (Renay recorded this when she was 17 years old.) He had another of '50s songs where every song was about teenagers dying, like "Teen Angel" (Mark Dinning, 1959).

"Is She Really Going Out With Him?," Joe Jackson, 1979 My best friend sang this in his a capella group in college. I heard it a lot.

And guess what? Even though I've now just looked these songs up, I still don't know all their words.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Inventions That Don’t Work, But We All Pretend That They Do

Swim Diapers: OK, you know when you’re at the community pool, maybe your kids are having their swim lessons, and all the pre-potty crowd are down in the shallow end, wearing their little blue swim diapers, per pool rules? Well, guess what? Swim diapers do not actually keep poop germs out of the pool!

Hand Dryers in Public Bathrooms: C’mon. These never get your hands dry. And while hand-dryer manufacturers have contested the findings, some studies have shown that hand dryers actually blow germs onto your hands and all over the bathroom.
The Air Circulation Button in Cars: By the time you realize there is a bad smell outside the car (because you smelled it) and press this button, the smell gets trapped inside with you.

Pop-Up Stoppers: These are the ones actually inside your sink or tub drain. By pushing and pulling a button, you close and open the drain. But these stoppers invariably – and regularly – get crapped up by what one plumbing website delicately refers to as “bio matter,” causing a clog. Then, you have to pull the stopper out of the drain and clean off said bio matter. Eww. Note to plumbing-fixture designers: Whatever bio matter I produce in the shower or at the sink, I want to put it down the drain and NEVER DEAL WITH IT AGAIN.

I am sure there are others ….

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Few Lines About Lines

In the supermarket, whatever check-out line I choose suddenly grinds to a halt as soon as I get in it.

What am I doing wrong?

I choose the shortest line.

I do not queue up behind old ladies. They write checks.
Or behind the person who keeps their coupons in a multi-pocketed organizer-thing, because you know that at least one of their coupons will not go through and they will want to know why.
But even with all my precautions, I get stuck.

The most common reason: the cashier will walk off with no warning, leaving us all to wonder if he or she will ever come back. (Helpful hint to all those cashiers out there who were apparently raised without human contact: if there’s some sort of delay, just say so.)
Or something won’t scan. “Do you know how much this is?” the cashier asks hopefully. The customer is never certain. When I am the one asked, I just pick a reasonable-sounding figure and say it with great conviction.

But other people won't do that. So, we all wait for someone to go find the item on the shelves. Which will take forever.

And I bang my head against the candy rack in frustration.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Naming A Dog

Someone in the dog park once told me that a dog’s name should be two syllables, ending with a vowel, but it shouldn’t contain the “o” sound because that sounds like “no.” Then, he took a look at Lola, my nut-ball standard poodle, bounding around with her tongue hanging out, and said that, for her, that last part probably didn’t matter.

I’d add that it has to be something easy to call: “Lola! Lola! Lola!” as opposed to “Forsythia! Forsythia! Forsythia!” And it’s nice if it’s something you’re not embarrassed to shout out. I am reminded of a cat I once knew, named Shit Face.

As with children, don’t pick something people don’t understand when they hear it.

Don't name them something stupid. They'll know.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
There just should be something light-hearted about a dog’s name. That’s why familiar, and maybe slightly silly, human names are so popular: Ruby, Molly, Lily, Sally. For boys, Rufus, Reggie, Sam, Dale, Tex, Toby.

Adults, unlike children, have a tendency to try too hard. Sometimes, they do too cute -- I am reminded of two Chihuahua siblings named Poochie and Pooter and also of a dignified Great Dane named Flopsie.  And sometimes, they try for profound/poetic, naming a dog Indigo, for instance, or Midnight. (How do you even call those last two names?)

I have met dogs named after rock stars and after obscure figures in the Bible. I am not generally a big fan of naming dogs like this, though I did once meet a pit-bull puppy named Bukowski, after the writer Charles Bukowski. Nickname: Boo. This fit.

My favorite dog name belonged to a sweet, feathery-coated black retriever: Glory.

... Though, of course, I am pretty partial to Lola.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where Am I?

To say that I have a bad sense of direction doesn’t begin to cover it.

It’s not even that I have no sense of direction.

I have a sense of direction that actively tells me wrong.

Invariably, if I think my destination is to the right, it will be to the left.

And trying to do that mental calculation – “If I think it’s this way, it must be that way” – either turn after turn or quickly, such as while driving, is impossible. The gears in my brain will grind to a halt, and I will, yet again, be lost.

How bad is it?

I get lost in office buildings. I get lost trying to make the block. Even when I lived in New York City (a grid would be easy, you’d figure), I’d have to stop on the sidewalk, face north and visualize the subway map, in order to know which way east or west was. If streets actually curve, forget it. Hell, I have used the GPS on my phone while walking in my own neighborhood to get home.

The GPS is, incidentally, in my estimation, the Best Invention Ever.

Here in Houston, a large percentage of small talk centers on where things are. I nod. I smile. I say, “Oh, yes: there.” However, people always seem to sense I am faking – and will keep trying to explain, sure they can clear it up for me. They can't.

This condition, I have recently discovered, has a name: developmental topographical disorientation. Some people have it much worse than I do, even getting lost in their own homes. In one article I read, the author said something like “Can you believe it? Some people don’t automatically know which way north is.”

To which I can only respond, “Everybody else does?”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bump It Up

I spend a lot of time in traffic.

And I have become fascinated with how people decorate their cars.

I’m talking bumper stickers, the car equivalent of tattoos.

Full disclosure: I am boring. Until recently, I had no bumper stickers on my completely unremarkable gray car. (Honestly, I can never find it in parking lots.) Then, my daughter stuck on one each for her high-school sports (soccer and rugby).
And I did put an Obama/Biden one on. I just had to, here in Houston, with all those crazy ones out there. For instance: “Secede.” When I see that one, I want to catch up to the person and say, "Really?"

Incidentally, when it comes to political bumper stickers, there is a number – I’d say, two – beyond which you shouldn’t go, no matter how reasonable you think your positions are.

And people argue, with strangers, through bumper stickers. The Christian fish and the Darwin fish, for example. Or all the answers to “My child is an honor student”: “My kid can beat up your honor student,” “My poodle is smarter than your honor student” and, sadly, “My child has more chromosomes than your honor student.”
I even saw this answer to those little stick-figure families:
Yes, they are doing what you think they are.
My parents never put a sticker from my college on their car. At the time, I didn’t understand. But now I do: it’s gross to boast about your kid’s school to everyone who happens to end up behind you. (There. I said it.)

I do, however, really like this bumper sticker:
And there are some that never get old:

“Don’t like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT”

“Mean People Suck”


“Please stop honking. Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Are You A Mean Person? A Quiz

Ever wonder how mean you are?
Be honest.

1.      In a store, when you are at the end of a long line and another cashier opens up, have you ever rushed over to be first, even though other people have been waiting longer?

If YES, award yourself a point.

2.      When driving, do you tailgate, hoping to bully the slowpoke in front of you into going faster?

If YES, a point.

3.      When you have been the slowpoke, was it a matter of principle for you to drive at or below the speed limit, no matter what the speed of the traffic around you?

YES? A point.

4.      Do you believe in hell?

If YES, a point.

5.      Do dogs and/or babies like you?

If NO, a point.

6.      Do you like them?

If NO, a point.

7.      Do you believe it’s OK to spank children?

If YES, a point.

8.      Do you give money to street entertainers?
If NO, a point.

9.      Do you think the latest generation is spoiled?

If YES, a point.

10.  Do you pride yourself on “not suffering fools gladly?”

If YES, a point. (BTW, here is my current favorite Wikipedia entry.)

11.  When someone is struggling, failing or unhappy, have you ever declared, as if you’re being helpful, that it’s because they are lazy and/or stupid? (This does not have to be to the person’s face.)

If YES, a point.

12.  Have you ever given someone a gift, for no reason at all?

If NO, a point.


10-12 points:           Congratulations! You are an asshole!
 4-10 points:             No one’s perfect.
0-3 points:               Perhaps you should apply for sainthood.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Fortunes of a Chinese-Take-Out Customer

You don’t believe in the fortunes you get in Chinese fortune cookies, do you?
Right. Because I didn’t either, until the day I got …
“Avoid compulsively making things worse.”
 The next time, it was “He who laughs last is laughing at you.”
Then, it was “Do not spend money you don’t have.” (Maybe on Chinese take-out.)
Then (we DO eat a lot of take-out), “Don’t ask, don’t say. Everything lies in silence” and “From listening comes wisdom and from speaking repentance.” In other words, shut up.

My fortunes
Then there was a series of admonitions not to be lazy: “Make your life a mission, not an intermission,” “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” and, my personal favorite, “Attend to Business today. Leave that side-street flower alone.”
It was beginning to get to me.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, but at the same time I was opening these, my daughter was getting “Fame, riches and romance are yours for the asking” and “Many new friends will be attracted to your friendly and charming ways.”
Even after I waited till everyone grabbed their fortune cookie from the pile, then insisted on switching with my daughter, she got “A cheerful message is on its way to you” and I got “Everyone needs to be loved, especially those who do not deserve it.”
Perhaps it is as yet another of my fortunes said: “A pessimist is a frustrated optimist.” 

My daughter's fortunes.
Did you know that Chinese fortune cookies aren’t Chinese? They were invented in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara. In China, where they are manufactured but not really eaten, they are called American fortune cookies.