Monday, April 29, 2013

Make Your Own Omens

On our wedding night, my husband and I drove off from the reception in our little rental car. We were on a very dark, winding road in the Berkshires.

Suddenly, my husband slammed on the brakes.

Ahead of us, in the headlights’ glare, was a gigantic white owl – it must have been three feet tall – standing over the dried meat of some road kill.

That yellow-eyed bird stared at us and we stared back. Then, it silently unfolded its massive wings and swooped away over the roof of our car.

My husband and I sat there stunned, until he managed to stammer, “Umm … let’s call that a good omen.”

Yes. Let’s.

I am reminded of that now, in spring, when the world is bursting with new life, but not all of that life makes it. Judging from the sidewalks beneath the trees in our neighborhood, it has been raining broken birds’ eggs and broken baby birds.

And just the other day, as I came out our back door, one of the air-conditioning units began making a bad, banging sound, like something was knocking around in there. I peered in carefully, in case whatever was in there got tossed out suddenly by the blades. At first, I thought what I saw was a twig with some leaves on it. No problem.

Then it did get tossed aside by the blades. And it wasn’t a twig. It was the now-headless body of an anole lizard, one of those little harmless guys that live in Houston yards and breed like rabbits in the spring.

Kind of hard to think of a positive spin for that one.

Let’s just say it's not an omen of any kind, shall we?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Claw-Machine Motto

Most parents hurry their kids along when passing a claw machine, those
arcade games where you pay for the chance to maneuver its claw over a pile of toys, grasp one and drop it in a chute to win it ... You know, like the one in Toy Story.

I pull my kid along, though, because she will win a prize, often more than one.

My daughter has somehow figured these machines out. Sometimes, she will win multiple little stuffed animals and give them away to any little kids who happen to be around.

When I asked her how she was doing it, she said the trick was: “Don’t go for what you want; go for what you can get.”

Sounds like a nice bit of wisdom, but it doesn't work in all situations.

For example, I’d hate for this same kid, who has an incredible gift for drawing, which she uses constantly, producing dozens of little sketches a day on every scrap of paper she comes across, to apply it to career decisions. I'd hate for her to decide that a career involving art is too risky, that she'd better settle for something she has no interest in but which is more of a sure thing.

Well, since she's figured out how to win at a game that's been rigged against her, maybe she'll be all right.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ding Dong

When I was growing up, I learned, when the doorbell rang, to hit the floor – so that the person at the front door couldn’t see we were there.

You see, the people who came to the front door were generally, unless we were expecting them, never people we wanted to see: people trying to convince us that their religion was better than ours, and willing to spend the whole day doing it, others selling things like steaks out of their car trunks.

People we knew, most of whom were related to us, came to the back door and, often as not, walked right in.

My parents’ current house, which is very old, has its original doorbell. It’s mechanical, not electric, and looks like an extra old porcelain doorknob on the frame of the front door. No one knows how to work it – or even that it is the door bell. (Pssst, grasp the knob and pull it … not that anyone will answer it.)

The Fedex man knew, though. The first time he came to the house, he rang that bell – and my mother’s first words to him when she opened the door were, “How’d you know how to do that?!” He now comes to the backdoor like everyone else we want to see.

My husband’s family answers the door when someone rings the bell. No one ducks out of sight. They, in fact, get fully dressed as soon as they wake up (as opposed to the way my family favors pajama pants and old t-shirts), all the way down to hard-soled shoes. This is so they can, as Texans say, “visit with” people who drop by. "Visiting" involves sitting in the living room, hands folded, making small talk. This may seem like the more normal way of doing things; you see it in TV dramas …

… But I like my way better.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Horror Show in the Fish Tank

A guppy my daughter bought for her tank this weekend had babies this morning. My daughter netted all
I realize this is not a guppy.
© V-strelok
Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos
the ones she saw and put them in a clip-on tank meant for guppy babies.

You see, guppies, who give birth to live young, will eat them if given the chance.

But when I took a look mid-morning, I saw five babies, hiding around the tubes and wires for the tank’s filter and heater, where I couldn’t get them with the net.

When I tried, I flushed them out of hiding and the big fish got all excited. (Some of these guppies chase each other in little whirlwinds all day long. The fish-store guy said they were “playing.” I thought – and still think – they’re fighting, though now I think maybe they’re also thinking about eating each other.)

I fed the other fish at the other end of the tank, hoping to keep them occupied, but was horrified to see the currents in the tank flush the food toward the babies, who came out to eat it, even as the big fish bore down on them.

One bright-yellow guppy started chasing down a baby. It was like my own private “red in tooth and claw” nature show. He didn’t catch it.

Speaking of bright-yellow, some of my daughter’s fish have been genetically modified, one with squid DNA, to make them colors not found in nature. If you can make a fish purple, why wouldn’t you make a fish that can’t have babies, the guppy equivalent of a mule? Seems like fish breeders would benefit. The only way you could get more fish for your tank would be to buy them at the store.

Psst, if these babies aren’t there when my daughter gets home from school, mum’s the word.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Time Is Of The Essence


I have a friend who is always at least 45 minutes late. If she says she will be at your house at 1, it is going to be 1:45 at the earliest. None of us, including her daughter, remark on this to her. We just mentally adjust.

Likewise, I have some people in my life who are always 10 to 15 minutes early. If they say they are going to arrive at my house at 1, I need to be ready by 12:45 at the latest or they will catch me in the shower.

I tend to run on the late side myself.

It’s not for lack of trying, but it always seems like I am either 3 minutes late or 20 minutes early.

Part of my problem is Houston traffic, which varies wildly and unpredictably. A route that takes 20 minutes one time can take an hour or even more next time. Trying to calculate the variable of Houston traffic seems to require some form of algebra I never got in school.

Airports are hard to figure too, perhaps because my husband’s goal is “a photo finish.” He says perfect timing would be if we strolled from security to the gate and right onto the plane as they were shutting the cabin doors. This has never happened. We have, however, sprinted through the terminal, hoping the plane would still be there. Not fun. I prefer to arrive early and sit like a sack of potatoes at the gate.

But I understand. I too resent having to build in those extra pockets of dead time just to ensure I am on time. I could do something useful with that 20 minutes, even if it’s just sleep a bit more.

But then, of course, I end up being late.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Mother Lies

We had an elderly female relative, let’s call her Gracie, who had always been embarrassed that she was older than her husband. She always lied about her age. When Gracie died, my mom was the one who ordered her gravestone – and Mom gave the monument company the birth date Gracie had always claimed, rather than her true one.

Mom is one of the few people who visits another elderly female relative, let’s call her Helen, in her nursing home. Helen, at 94, doesn’t always know the difference between dream and reality. When my mom asks her how she is, Helen will sometimes say, “Oh, wonderful. My mother was just here to visit me.” To which my mother will reply, “Oh, that’s so nice, Helen. And how is she?”

The last time Mom did this, Helen reported that her mother had brought babka and shared it with all the nurses, who said it was wonderful. Maybe my mom isn’t the only one to embrace Helen’s version of truth.

In regular, daily life, I correct error without even thinking about it. I think most people do. But it’s good to remember that everything doesn’t always have to be 1,000% accurate.

In fact, sometimes being a liar is a wonderful thing to do.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Crank Comments

In the beginning, I clicked something that allowed web crawlers to find this blog. It sounded like a good idea.

Actually, I have no idea what web crawlers are.

I started getting comments on my posts! How exciting.

Except they were fake.

You can tell because they always have some bizarrely named link in them.

Some are just random text, like this one:

Therе iѕ no јoy such as the joy of harvestіng fіsh
from your oωn perѕonal backyaгԁ, not
only thе satiѕfaction of гаіsіng fish neverthelesѕ thе knowleԁge why theѕе fish arе сlеaner and heаlthy sourсe of protein.

Some, while staying general, try to be very flattering:

You ought tο tаke pаrt in a contest for one of the grеаtest blοgs online.
I will highly recommend thіs web site!

This one, though, made me think there was actually a real person at the other end:

Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.

I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and
said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She put the shell to her ear and screamed.

There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!

LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had to tell someone!

Blogger provides tantalizing, yet frustrating, information on the people (or whatever) who click on your blog, like what country they are from. (But not, for example, if those 25 hits from Israel are one person looking at 25 pages or 25 people clicking once and deciding it’s crap.)

And apparently, one of my most prolific spammers is from Sweden. Gosh, I thought Swedes didn’t do stuff like this.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hints I Might Be Getting Old

Police officers do not look old enough to shave. When I look in the mirror, I think I look like I always have. (Admittedly, I make a point not to look too close.) But it seems to me that everyone else looks younger. That’s why I find myself calling anyone under the age of 30 “a kid.” And why, when my husband and I see someone our age who looks ancient, we anxiously ask each other, “We don’t look like that, do we?” And we tell ourselves, “No, no, of course not.”

People call me “ma’am.” This is complicated by the fact that I moved to the South, where people routinely say “ma’am” and “sir.” (I’ve even heard people use the terms on their dogs. “No, ma’am, you will not jump on me.”) But where I come from, the Northeast, you do not call a woman “ma’am” unless you are trying to insult her by pointing out that she’s a lot older than you.

I do not shop at the same shops as my daughter. Sweet girl will be in a store meant for her age (17) – everything sparkly and tightly fitted and low-slung – and will ask, “Mama, don’t you want to buy yourself something?” Ha. I would look like a clown … a sad, sad clown.

I’ve begun doing that long-arm thing, trying to read fine print. And when that doesn’t work, I hand it to my kids to read. I feel like it’s not that my eyes have changed but that there’s some sort of conspiracy afoot to use smaller font sizes just to be difficult.

Luckily, whatever age I look doesn’t change what age I feel. Inside my head, I am still about 11 years old.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Define “Neighborly”

When my husband and I were house-shopping, we met a woman who gushed about her neighborhood, “We have regular block parties!”

As we walked away, my husband said, “She just put the kibosh on this whole street for you, didn’t she?”

I’m with Robert Frost’s neighbor. Good fences do make good neighbors. Just because we are close in proximity does not mean we should become bosom buddies. Since we live right next to each other, could you please not cause me to have to avoid you?

One new neighbor, the first time I met her, stood in her yard, pointed at surrounding houses and told me what she thought of each inhabitant. “That one’s fat and getting fatter by the day,” she said, “and that one’s crazy. I like that one.”

Another once rushed over, ostensibly to see if everything was all right. “You usually bring your kids to school, then walk your dog,” she exclaimed, “but today, you put everyone in the car and drove off!” My husband said she was trying to be friendly; I said she was succeeding at being creepy.

My husband envisioned living in a neighborhood where kids ranged freely. He never lived in such a situation, mind you, but he always wanted to. Well, in my experience, the only kids who wander around looking for company are the ones who have, and whose parents most often have, a serious lack of social skills.

The people in our new neighborhood all seem nice. Great. They also all have the sense to keep some reserve between us – and I happily return the favor. We wave, we chat, if a dog got loose or one of us were lying face down in our driveway, we’d help.

It’s all about boundaries.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What a Nightmare

Front-page story in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle:

“Despite lack of skills or knowledge, one forensic tech kept on for years … A forensic examiner in the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab in Houston was kept on the job despite years of low production, a high error rate on drug cases and a dubious understanding of the chemistry involved in the job …Nearly 5,000 drug cases statewide that were analyzed by forensic examiner Jonathan Salvador are in question because of his shoddy work.”

Can you imagine being Jonathan Salvador?

Yes, there are bigger issues here. His mistakes may have sent innocent people to prison. All the cases he was involved in –several thousand – have to be re-investigated. One local attorney general has adopted the policy that, if a case’s evidence was ever in Salvador’s custody, that case is dismissed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has overturned more than a dozen convictions because Salvador handled the evidence, reasoning, according to the Chronicle, “that any evidence in Salvador’s custody was ‘compromised.’”

But can you imagine being Salvador? According to the paper, he “scrambled” to handle the bare minimum workload at the department. He was a friendly guy and tried, so he was kept on, but he didn’t understand the science involved in his job.

The newspaper focuses, rightly, on why the department kept him on, but why would he stay, even if no one fired him? Why didn’t he take a class or something to get better at what he did all day every day for years?

Sadly, there are a lot of people who spend their entire lives doing a crappy job at their jobs, doing damage and sowing misery.

Horrible all around.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Testing, Testing

When you hit 40, all your medical providers suddenly start doing extra exams.

Even my dental hygienist started checking for oral cancer.

Already, I have had an ophthalmologist suggest follow-ups to rule out glaucoma (I didn’t have it), a dermatologist called me back in to make sure he had removed all of a mole that turned out to be "slightly abnormal" and I recently had two vaginal ultrasounds because, even though, at 48, irregular menstrual cycles are to be expected, the doctors still had to rule out cancer.

Even the hygienist is watching a bite mark in my mouth. (Ironically, I think I chew the inside of my cheek as a nervous habit.)

Recently, my voice became weirdly hoarse. My husband, a doctor, set me up to see his buddy, an ENT. He ran his little lookie-thingy up my nose and down my throat and saw that one of my vocal cords wasn’t moving. CT scan, here I come.

I swear I will never again look up a health concern on the internet. Because “paralyzed vocal cord” brings up throat and lung cancers and several horrible neurological diseases.

I was so scared.

CT scan normal. My vocal cord started moving again by itself.

I realize, someday, one of these medical providers may find something early enough so I don’t die.

I also realize I am damn lucky to have health insurance.

But these tests come at a psychological price. According to one study, women who had what turned out to be false positives on their mammograms showed signs of increased stress even three years later.

So, periodically (every 6 months in the case of the dental hygienist), I am going to have these reminders of my own mortality – and that terrible things can happen without warning.

I’ll just have to deal. After all, so far, I’ve been so lucky.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

With Labels, Less Can Be More

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old lady (I am, after all, old enough to have trouble reading fine
print), I am going to point out that the labels on over-the-counter medicines are freaking ridiculous and highly irritating.

Who were the geniuses at the FDA who decided they had to cram a bunch of boilerplate that no one reads on every medicine bottle, to the point that they made finding the dosage information (the only information you really need, the information that actually could keep you from hurting yourself) difficult? Sometimes, you even have to peel back the label and read underneath and on the flip side of it to find how much to take, how often.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Why Do Airlines Suck So Bad?

It may be because we don’t pay them enough.

Customer service has become so bad that I pay a travel agent to book all our flights, even the simplest. (Hi, Raman!) When an airline suddenly decided to cancel our flight and told us – and about 300 others – that it could get us home in a few days, Raman was able to see the available seats on all the departing flights and insist that the airline put us on one. He spent four hours on the phone that day.

A conservative of my acquaintance would like to blame the state of the airline industry on the government. However, the last time the airline industry was profitable was when it was regulated, before 1978. Customer service then was much better, too.

However, it was much more expensive.
In 1974 the cheapest round-trip New York-Los Angeles flight (in inflation-adjusted dollars) that regulators would allow: $1,442. Today one can fly that same route for $268. That is why the number of travelers has gone way up.
So we sit in crowded planes, munch potato chips, flare up when the loudspeaker announces yet another flight delay. But how many now will vote to go back to the "good old days" of paying high, regulated prices for better service? 
Ummm, me?

Well, wait … we can’t spend that much more. (We visit my family twice a year.)

One alternative, companies that sell you a (tiny) share of their jets, would be even more expensive.

Virgin Airlines has positioned itself as somewhat more expensive but better. But the concept isn’t catching on. And unfortunately, Virgin doesn’t fly where I go.

And I’m not even considering the environmental cost.

No easy answers.