Monday, December 27, 2010

We do silly things

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. Ours was nice, thank you very much, and I fully recovered from my illness on the 23rd. Our best present, aside from health and family, was Brigid getting an acceptance letter to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then, on Christmas Eve, they sent her a second letter awarding her a $44,000 dollar merit scholarship.

The tradition of our family Christmas pyramid started way back in the mists of time when cell phones with cameras were a novelty and sending pictures via phone was the cutting edge of technology. Remember this? We called them "camera phones" and we were duly impressed. A phone that can take pictures? What will they think of next? That Christmas Eve, we were in Virginia with my sister and her husband and all the rest of the family were in far away Buffalo, NY. We sent them a picture. They responded with a picture of their own. Soon the pictures were flying back and forth and each time we wanted to pose in a more outrageous way, so the Christmas pyramid was born. Here is a movie of the 2010 version.

We don't just make pyramids. We also dance. Here is one of my all-time favorite Christmas dance movies from two or three years ago. It's short but it will probably make you laugh.

This year, we didn't film ourselves dancing, but I do have some static photos of us doing rock and roll hair tosses. That's my sister Margaret and Brigid and Grace in the first photo, and I'm on the end in the second one.

Seamus, looking cool in some new Christmas clothes.

Oh! An update on the bear story. A full week after the bear was seen in our neighborhood, Grace and her friends spotted a large bear track in the snow on the downtown mall.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Better living through slacking

Having teenage children has certain benefits. For example, they no longer believe in Santa. When Grace asked me if she could wrap the Christmas presents for her siblings, I thought, "Why not?" So Grace wrapped Ian, Brigid, and Seamus's presents, and then Brigid wrapped Grace's presents. Guess who won't be wrapping a heap of presents at midnight on Christmas Eve this year.

The teens were bugging me to put up the tree, something I usually do with Jon's help, but Jon was out of town, so we managed without him. We dispensed with "making a fresh cut in the trunk" and I also dispensed with putting any water in the tree stand.

Q: But Patience, won't your tree turn into a dried out stick and drop needles everywhere?

A: It turns into a dried out stick and drops needles everywhere even if I do water it, and now I won't slop water everywhere when I drag the tree out of the house next week. And I didn't have to wrestle with a tree saw and a six-inch diameter trunk that won't stay still. Awesome!

Yesterday, December 23, was the day I had designated to do my grocery shopping for the big Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, which I am cooking for guests. But I woke up with a headache and rapidly felt worse and worse until I could hardly lift my head off my pillow. After napping for a few hours, I managed to achieve a vertical position, and still feeling rotten, went off to Whole Foods with Grace, her friend Sophie, and Seamus. It had been my plan to get there at 08:00 and beat the crowd, but due to feeling so sick, we didn't get there until after 11:00.

During the drive, I started feeling worse. "Feliz Navidad" was playing on the radio--the worst Christmas song of all time. I used to think "Grandma got Run Over by a Reindeer" was the worst Christmas song, but no, it is definitely "Feliz Navidad." Especially where he sings, "I wanna wish you a merry Christmas." I felt outraged, insulted, even. Why can't he go ahead and wish her a merry Christmas instead of whining about 'I wanna.'

Whole Foods was a zoo, of course, and I was feeling so sick that I thought I should just turn the car around and forget about shopping. But then Grace suggested that she and Sophie go into the store and do all my shopping for me and I could just show up at the last minute to pay for everything. Seamus, meanwhile, would keep me company and be in touch with the girls via cell phone to answer any questions. An excellent plan!

My shopping list was sophisticated and I had to explain the meaning of several items. Sophie said, "It's so exciting to go shopping by ourselves!" (Oh honey, just wait until you are married with kids.) Soon after the girls left, I felt worse and worse and worse and then threw up into a beer bottle carrier bag--the only receptacle in the car. I threw up three times. A car alarm went off right next to me, and at first I thought, "really?" but I was too sick to be truly indignant.

Q: Wow, wasn't that embarrassing, throwing up in public, in your car, in the Whole Foods parking lot, of all places?

A: Surprisingly, no. Being sick enough to actually vomit is like being in childbirth. You just don't care.

I felt much better after that, and then I remembered that we needed more wine and that it would probably be frowned on for two fourteen year old girls to be unsupervised and pushing a shopping cart full of wine, so I braved Whole Foods. I spotted Grace in the produce department deep in conversation with a complete stranger. This was a very surprising sight. "Who was that man?" I asked. He was helping her find the chives. She had asked him if scallions were chives and he had told her, no, they weren't although they were in the same family, and then he actually found the chives and gave her a package of them. It turns out my sophisticated list and the pushing crowds were a bit much for the girls and Grace coped by saying, "My mom is sick in the car and we're doing her shopping for her, " and then several people helped her. Christmas brings out the best and worst in people. Thank you to the anonymous scallion/chive man in Whole Foods yesterday and the other people who helped Grace & Sophie.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Attack of the coffee table

Should have sprung for the white glove delivery.

My new coffee table was delivered last Monday. LOOK AT THIS FABULOUS COFFEE TABLE!
This image is from the catalog.  It's allegedly a French industrial factory table. The delivery man gets here, he's all, "I just started this job, I don't know what I'm doing, blah blah blah." I lived in Buffalo, NY for most of my life and I am an expert on wind chills and the wind chill on coffee table day was about five degrees Fahrenheit. So I'm standing there in the five degree windchill watching this guy fumble with the back of the truck, which was too big to back down our steep driveway so consequently was parked up in the street. The lift from the ground to the level of the truck bed went up very reluctantly and the driver confided that the battery was about to die and he sure hoped it would last through this, his last delivery of the day. It took multiple micro adjustments of the coffee table, the pallet it was strapped to, and the dolly to fit them onto the lift. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the lift descended. Then came some difficult maneuvers to get the whole package off the lift and onto the ground, at which point the whole thing wanted to roll rapidly down the hill and crush the delivery man.

Meanwhile, I was stamping my feet and jumping up and down and squeezing my hands under my armpits and doing all the other things people do when they are about to die of exposure. I hadn't quite gotten to the stage where I become delirious and tear off all my clothes and dive into the bushes, but it was coming.

The coffee table got stuck on a rock halfway down the driveway and nowhere near the house. "That's OK," I said. "Just leave it, my husband and I can get it from here." The delivery man was worried. Was I sure? Oh, I was sure. I felt that if I ever got warm again, I would be able to do anything. He said, "I sure hope that lift goes up," and I said, "Me too," and I sprinted for the house and once inside, twirled about and held my hands against the heat register and stamped my feet and tried to restore motion to my frozen cheek muscles.

Seamus said, "Mom, the delivery man is at the door." The battery on the lift had died for good. It wouldn't go up, and apparently, you can't drive a truck with a metal lift dragging on the ground behind it. He said, "I called my boss and asked them to send someone to get me, but they want me to see if I can just get a jump start here. Do you happen to have jumper cables?"  REALLY? REALLY?  I said I thought we might have jumper cables and I walked back out into the freezing wind to my car, ridiculously peering in the back seat window--like I was unfamiliar with my own car and wouldn't already know if there were jumper cables in the passenger area, which of course there weren't. I did find cables in the back. The truck had been completely blocking the driveway, but he pulled it up into the street a bit and I was just able to squeeze my car between his truck and the neighbor's hedge. I couldn't even open my door and had to climb across to the passenger side to get out of the car, which I had to do because the little stick that holds the hood up is broken. I had to stand there and hold the hood up with my bare hands (facing into the wind, naturally) during the entire jumping procedure.

I did not have a lot of confidence in this delivery man, who was a bit of a bumbler. Still, I could appreciate how utterly mortifying this must have been for him, so I tried to be a good sport. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" I asked and he assured me he did, but I used the hood of my car to shield my face, just in case the battery exploded. I am a nurse on a trauma floor at a level 1 trauma center, and believe me, there is no limit to the type of freak accidents that happen to people. The battery didn't explode and the lift went back up and the delivery driver departed and now there was just the little matter of my new coffee table, stuck on a rock, far from the house.

It was actually the palette to which the table was strapped that was stuck on the rock. I cut away the packaging to expose the table. Here was the problem: French industrial factory tables are heavy. I thought, "I'll take out the drawers. That will lighten it up." The drawers each weigh about three pounds, so I'd effectively reduced the table's weight from 600 pounds to 594 pounds. From the picture, you can see that the table is on wheels, but at delivery, the wheels were packed neatly into the drawers. There was also the matter of the wind--my coffee table lust had blunted my suffering from the cold--but a neighbor spotted me chasing down bits of packing material that were blowing about and he helped me gather them and also helped me carry the table as far as the front porch.

Why didn't I just wait for Jon? Because Jon was on his way home from a trip to Buffalo and do you think he'd want to arrive after a nine-hour drive to be told, "You need to help me with this 600 pound coffee table." Grace and I managed to drag it into the house. There was one scary moment when it seemed it was not going to fit through the door, but we managed slide it in with about 1/8" clearance on each side. Next, the assembly. The directions say, " the [coffee table] on a raised surface so that all the four corners are on air for the castors to be fitted." First of all, where am I supposed to find a "raised surface" just the right size to support the coffee table with all four of its corners hanging over the edge and secondly, how am I supposed to lift a 600 pound table onto it? Grace and I improvised and we had the table fully assembled by the time Jon got back from Buffalo. It's a gorgeous coffee table, but it caused me more suffering than of any of my other furniture--and I've assembled bunk beds from Ikea.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Bear Went Over the Mountain

There we were, settling down to watch the Christmas episode of The Office. Just as Dwight was pummeling Jim with snowballs, I heard a soft whump outside. It sounded like a drunk beggar falling into one of our porch posts--an event not inconsistent with this neighborhood. I glanced at the front door, expecting to see a bleary-eyed face peering in at us, but there was nothing there and the dogs seemed unconcerned so I turned my attention back to The Office. Soon I was distracted by an odd play of lights outside in the street and then I noticed a car pulling down the driveway--a cop car. "Ah," I thought, "Now the whump will be explained."

Jon had barely started out the door to talk to the cops, when the phone rang. It was the next-door neighbors. The usual method of communication with the neighbors is text message or facebook. An actual call to our home phone + cop car in the driveway meant something very serious indeed and I answered the phone fully expecting to hear about rape, murder, or fire. Not even a robbery would warrant this much excitement. My neighbor said, "Patience, there is a bear outside." I thought, "How strange. She must have said 'rapist' only I heard 'bear'." I asked her to repeat herself and this time there was no mistaking the word "bear." An actual bear, a big black bear was not only in the neighborhood, but had been seen going down our driveway.

Beehive, who lives at the corner, saw the bear at the bus stop, and the cops were already there. Meanwhile, the next-door neighbor stepped outside to see what the cops were up to and just about ran into the bear who was now headed down our driveway after which he may or may not have approached the porch and banged into something (the whump) before blundering through our other neighbor's back yard and damaging a fence after which he took to the streets again. The cops' strategy seemed to be to use their lights to shoo the bear back to the mountains, although all they succeeded in doing was to drive him further into town. The bear was last seen outside a fancy pants restaurant in the "downtown" section of my neighborhood. Where the bear went after that is anybody's guess. He was never caught and I suspect he just wanted a night on the town and maybe a little tapas. There are, in Charlottesville, enough wooded areas to conceal a bear for a good long time.

As you can see from my photos--one is of my street, the other the view out my bathroom window--the mountains are close to this side of town. On the other hand, we do live in the city and while this isn't the first time a bear has found his way to the city, it's still very unusual.

In a way, it's a lame story: a bear passed my house, made a whump that I didn't even bother to investigate because I was absorbed in a TV show and I never even saw him with my own eyes. The funny part is the collective tizzy into which it sent the neighborhood. All our cell phones started buzzing simultaneously, while the house phone rang as everybody called everybody else to warn each other. Facebook lit up like a firecracker as everyone who was adjacent to the bear that night posted a status update about it.

Beehive was stellar. The next morning, at the school bus stop, she stopped every single car that passed the corner and warned them about the bear. When the school bus came, she got into the bus and warned the driver and she posted this sign in the bus stop.

So don't say you weren't warned.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Everyday absurdities

The Smart Chicken

Today I purchased a chicken that wore a sticker announcing that it came from an "enriched environment." Indeed, all the chickens that are privileged to be sold at Whole Foods now come from the gifted & talented chicken track. What do you suppose "enriched environment" means in the context of chickens? Do they go to Waldorf school? Have Suzuki violin lessons? Geometry tutors? Does someone recite Shakespeare into a megaphone over the incubators? Is classical music piped into the nesting area? Are there root-word flash cards glued to the bottom of the feed pans?

No Pizza for You

My son Ian ordered a pizza to be delivered to his dorm. A campus public safety officer decided the pizza delivery man was suspicious, pulled him over, searched his car, and then arrested him. Ian, meanwhile is standing at the dorm entrance, observing all this, and just wanting his pizza. Here's the thing: the public safety officer would not allow Ian to have the pizza. The pizzeria had to supply a new pizza, along with a different driver. The original pizza was confiscated for some dark purpose of campus security.

Credit card-less at the holidays

The day before Thanksgiving my credit card was denied when I was buying gas, a disconcerting and somewhat embarrassing event. Of course I immediately went home and called the credit card company while simultaneously logging into my account online so I could look for suspicious purchases. There were none. My balance was nowhere near the credit limit. There was a note saying that I should call customer service immediately and that a new card was already on its way. The customer service representative I spoke to went over all my purchases for the past day or so before the card was canceled. I verified that all were valid. She agreed that there appeared to be no problem with my card and that she would fix the problem immediately so that I could use it. Later, at the grocery store, guess what? Denied again!

It was my only credit card. I used to have a Visa, but I accidentally shredded it in grief-induced confusion when George-the-bunny died last April. At that time, I didn't bother to send for a new Visa, since I could just use my master card. But now I didn't have either and it was time to start Christmas shopping. That was November 24th and the last fifteen days have been such a freaking pain in the ASS. Jon and I use our credit cards for practically everything and then pay the bill in full each month. Now I had to procure these strange green papers and use them to make purchases. Sometimes I used my debit card. This involves keeping track of all purchases in my check book, i.e. it's a pain in the ass. Worst of all, I couldn't buy anything online except with paypal which is just like using a debit card, i.e. a pain in the ass.

My new credit card arrived today--it took fifteen long days. I do have the satisfaction of knowing that all the presents I've bought so far are already paid for, but I never want to live without a credit card again.

I never did figure out why the company canceled my card in the first place. It's true that I had bought a number of things, including an amtrak ticket for Grace and upgrades to all our cell phones, not to mention stocking up on wine for the holidays. Still, if the credit card company is going to issue me a credit limit large enough to buy a new car, for crying out loud, they shouldn't freak out when I spend a little money.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Soda Statement

I hate to be "that mom" but I volunteered to bring two bottles of soda to Seamus' orchestra concert tonight. I had to go to Whole Foods anyway, so I thought I'd get the soda there. Naturally, Whole Foods does not carry plastic, two-liter bottles of unwholesome soda. They have lots of interesting drinks in glass bottles, and for a minute I was tempted--plastic is so bad for the environment! But I knew that if I showed up with something European and fancy in glass bottles I wouldn't be "that mom," I'd be "who does she think she is?". I settled on some organic lemonade. What was I supposed to do? Make a separate trip to a different grocery store just so that I could show up with unpretentious drinks? Another mom might deliberately go to Whole Foods just to be seen donating European-fancy-glass-bottle soda or organic lemonade because she wants to make the statement that she is all perfect like that, whereas I felt I should make the statement that I don't use donated eatables to appear holier-than-thou. Yet much of our food comes from Whole Foods anyway! Maybe I AM that mom. Maybe I am the only mom who even thinks about the statement she is making when buying beverages. (I doubt that, actually.) What crazy contortions we put ourselves through over the stupidest things. Maybe what society needs is a nuclear winter or a plague so people like me will stop attaching massive significance to bottles of soda.

Speaking of plague, Seamus' pox are percolating ( I hope) and we should see a rash by Sunday. I realize--vaccine/no vaccine issues aside--that deliberately exposing an 11 year old child to a disease is not without some ethical issues. It's one thing with a two-year old, who doesn't understand what is happening, but when I told Seamus I had arranged for him to get chicken pox, his peculiar facial expression showed that he was thinking, "Hey--wait a minute!-- my mom is deliberately making me sick." In nursing school, we learned that the age of medical consent for children is really young--8 or thereabouts.

I changed my tack. I said that if it was alright with him, he would play with this chicken pox child, and after two weeks he'd feel a bit sick and have an itchy rash that he mustn't scratch and that as the rash cleared up he'd look scabby but would eventually look perfectly normal again. I pointed out that the disease was likely to pop up during his last week of school before Christmas break, thus extending his vacation to three glorious weeks and wouldn't that be fun? And he would get to take lots of lovely baths! And eat his favorite foods and generally be coddled and treated like a prince.

He consented, and I have stocked up on Tylenol. Watch him not get sick after all.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Road to Oxiana

I assumed, when I got this book that "Oxiana" was some sort of allusion to the classical world, or maybe Oxford, so I thought that The Road to Oxiana would be an Oxford man's account of his travels in Greece, or possibly Turkey. Surprise, surprise, "Oxiana" means the geographical area roughly contingent with Afghanistan and bits of Iran and Robert Byron's diary of his journey there in the 1930's is considered one of the classics of travel literature.

I'm not really recommending that you all go out and read it, because then you will think that everything I read is impossible and you will never take my book reviews seriously ever again. Still, in between long, dry, (yet edifying) passages about Persian architecture are some gems. It is Robert Byron who came up with the "glucose doormat" description of carob that so tickled me last week.

Then there's this, after he first arrives in Persia:

Here we changed cars, since Persia and Irak refuse admission to one another's chauffeurs. Otherwise our reception was hospitable: the Persian officials offered us their sympathy in this disgusting business of customs, and kept us three hours. When I paid duty on some films and medicines, they took the money with eyes averted, as a duchess collects for charity.

I remarked to Christopher on the indignity of the people's clothes: "Why does the Shah make them wear those hats?"
"Sh. You mustn't mention the Shah out loud. Call him Mr. Smith."
"I always call Mussolini Mr. Smith in Italy."
"Well, Mr. Brown."
"No, that's Stalin's name in Russia."
"Mr. Jones then."
"Jones is no good either. Hitler has to have it now that Primo de Rivera is dead. And anyhow I get confused with these ordinary names. We had better call him Marjoribanks, if we want to remember whom we mean."

For the rest of the book, the Shah of Iran is written as "Marjoribanks" which is pronounced "Marshbanks" if I am not mistaken, and if I am, perhaps a British reader could enlighten me.

The thing about this book is that it shows how absolutely amazingly beautiful Iran and Afghanistan are. Of course, tourism in those countries is impossible now, and probably much of what Byron saw there has been bombed into rubble. Did you know that there was an artistic and architectural renaissance in Afghanistan in the 1400's?

I've read a number of travel books about Afghanistan--the most recent written in the 1960's by Dervla Murphy who rode a bicycle from Ireland to India. It seems it has always been a very dangerous place and the wonderful movie, The Man Who Would be King (based on a Rudyard Kipling story) bears that out. I doubt that travel there will be possible in my lifetime.

Generally, when picking travel destinations, I gravitate toward the safe: Italy, Ireland, Iceland, Canada. If I were to ever plan an adventure destination, I think it would have to be Afghanistan. If you could travel somewhere dangerous, where would you go?