Monday, January 30, 2012

Saturday at the post office

A fiction I tell myself is that the post office is closed on Saturdays, when in fact, the main branch is open.  I don't want to believe that the post office is open on Saturdays because I don't want to expose myself to that scene, ever.  It has, however, become inevitable that I make Saturday trips to the PO, and this Saturday was the day.  I had already been to Whole Foods---it is a measure of how far I have progressed  that I can now shop at Whole Foods on a Saturday.

Mailing a package ought to be pretty straightforward.  You present yourself to the counter, your package is weighed, you pay, you leave.  Two minutes, tops.  WHY then, are other people's transactions at the post office so protracted?  You'll be standing in line, there will be two clerks, one of whom will be dealing with a guy with a manilla envelope.  Beware people with manila envelopes!  Their transactions always take the longest. The other customer will be a guy who speaks only Russian.  He will have a huge, bulging, poorly-taped package that must  be sent to Irkutsk overnight and if it doesn't get there overnight, everyone in his village will be put to death and what do you mean you don't accept rubles?  The guy with the envelopes will finally leave, tearful, because whatever it was that had to happen with his envelopes can not be done and he is now financially ruined.  The next person in line will plop a moistly leaking package onto the counter and demand that it be delivered to Alaska before it spoils.   (I had a friend whose mother used to send her raw chorizo sausage through the US mail.)   I wouldn't be surprised if someone walked in with a live goat, expecting to mail it to Antarctica.  But a live goat isn't perishable, fragile, liquid, or potentially hazardous.

On this particular Saturday, the business that was holding up the line involved a young man, his two young companions and a huge box of cardboard tubes and assorted small packages that each needed to be mailed individually somewhere--a transaction of such breathtaking complexity that it required the attention of two clerks and multiple trips out to the car by the two companions.  I'm not saying anything against these people.  They have as much right to use the post office as I do.  It was just my bad luck that the day they decided to mail their multitude of cardboard tubes was the day I finally decided to brave the post office on a Saturday.

The other clerks were occupied with a guy with envelopes (envelopes again!), a Spanish-speaking woman, a woman attempting to pick up a registered letter that the clerk was unable to find, and a Pakistani family awaiting a package.  Their clerk emerged, panting, after a very long delay, from the back room with a huge, bulging, poorly-taped package, that no doubt had held up the line at the PO in Pakistan.  A nice symmetry.

I was uncomfortably conscious of the groceries melting in the back of my car. The people with the cardboard tubes finished their business at last--the clerk who'd been helping them abruptly left the counter and never returned.  The other clerk who'd been helping them was now free and the line moved faster.  My turn came, my package was weighed and payed for in under two minutes.

It's worth mentioning that yesterday was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of '77, which buried Buffalo, NY under 158.4 million cubic feet of snow.  Looking at that slide show, I can hardly believed I lived through a disaster of that magnitude, although I was, in fact, stranded away from my family for two full weeks.  It's also incredible that there were only twenty-nine deaths.  One casualty was our school crossing guard, a kindly man who helped us across Main St. on our way to St. Benedict's.  I urge you to watch the slide show below, for some unbelievable images.  That is a real winter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Involved Parent

Science Fair has come and gone.  A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I calculated the number of children I have times the number of school years that require science fair participation minus the projects my children had already completed and came up with an appalling total of fifteen science fair projects still to do.  And now, with Ian and Brigid in college and Grace nearly halfway through high school, we have just seven more science fairs to go.

This was Seamus' first science fair. His project:  to compare what happens when you deep fry a snickers bar, to what happens if you boil it in milk, to what happens if you boil it in water.  Lame?  Yes.  Parent friendly?  Absolutely.  (Unless you have a problem with allowing a twelve year old to deep fry things in your only saucepan, but I became resigned to that ages ago.)

Speaking of "lame" here's a public school parent's expose of what passes for science for first graders in her district.

Anyway, Seamus is not the only kid to do a project of dubious scientific value.  I remember the mother of one of Grace's classmates telling me she had to go home and help her daughter watch ice cubes melt.  I thought she was being sarcastic.  She wasn't.

I applaud that mom for not getting sucked into an elaborate, expensive, parent-driven project. Ever since I heard of it, I've been trying to pawn that ice melting project off onto my own kids, but they're not interested.  The expectation nowadays is for parents to be "involved" in their children's education.  We're told that the children of "involved" parents do better academically.  We're not specifically told to micromanage our children's assignments, but clearly, this is how many parents interpret the "be involved" message.  I've never been the type of parent to do my kids' projects for them, but I used to be "involved" in the sense that I participated in PTO--I was even PTO co-president of my kids' elementary school, an experience so traumatic that when it was over, I removed my kids from school and homeschooled for two years.

My kids did get better grades during the years I was "involved" but it's far more likely that this was because I was at home full-time and was able to provide a stable home life.  The years of nursing school and working as a nurse--especially when I was working night shift-- were utterly chaotic.

Now I carry a burden of suppressed rage against our school district--for various reasons-- and avoid most school events.  Sometimes the rage erupts (indeed, a pent-up volcano of rage is coming to the surface in writing this post) like the time Seamus had to write a description of his parent's occupation for a DARE assignment.  The idea was (I guess) that people who are gainfully employed are less likely to do drugs. How does this even make sense?  "Hey kids, find someone you know who has a JOB so that you won't do drugs." Anyway, the sheer stupidity of the assignment prompted me to make Seamus write "pushes narcotics" as my occupation --an entirely accurate description of my job at the time as an ortho/trauma nurse, if you define "push" as "IV push."

But do you see the conflicting message?  Parents are expected to have careers so as to be good role models for their children (so they don't do drugs!) but they must also have unlimited time to devote to fundraisers, field trips, classroom volunteering, sports, parent-teacher conferences and homework.

Before I became PTO co-president,  I edited the parent newsletter, was room mother for Grace's first-grade classroom, baked cookies, helped grade math workbooks, chaperoned field trips, and on one godawful occasion, assisted nearly forty 6-year olds in making gingerbread houses out of graham crackers, milk cartons, and frosting.

A constant lamentation of our PTO was that the less-privileged parents were not "involved."  In my innocence, I honestly believed that these parents ought to be involved.  I soon learned that PTO board members tended to pay for small necessary items--the stamps with which to mail hundreds of thank-you letters, for example, out of their own pockets.  Technically, one applied to the treasurer for reimbursement, but there was intense social pressure not to do so.  It's generous to willingly absorb these costs, if you can afford it, but I couldn't afford it.  Particularly odious was the spring carnival for which I drained my meager checking account buying bags of ice.  The little cash I had left went for tickets for my children.  I told them they could play games or eat dinner, but not both because I didn't have enough money.  So don't sit there from your vantage point in an exclusive, unwelcoming clique of parents and wring your hands about parental involvement.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Brief, Exciting Life of Delores Davoli

It was the after-dinner doldrums.  My sister Margaret and I were bored and I was irritated with Jon for going off to the house of a neighbor where he could smoke his cigar inside.  We decided to play a prank.  We decided to give him a stalker.

We sketched out our plan:  when Jon got home I was to casually mention that the day before I'd been approached at the grocery by a woman who claimed to know him, one "Delores Davoli," (my sister came up with the name) and--very odd indeed--she had called the house asking for him while he'd been out smoking his cigar.

He fell for it.  He fell for it hard, immediately grabbing the house phone and scrolling through the list of recent callers, and then dialing a number.  This was entirely unexpected.  I had to pretend to be engrossed in putting pots away in a lower cupboard in order to hide my face, and when I heard Jon say, "Hello, someone called me from this number?"  I had to insert most of my upper body into the pot cupboard to conceal my laughter.  Things were not going as planned.

Jon hung up the phone in disgust.  "That was 'Jerry,'" he said.  "He says he didn't call us.  Who the hell is Jerry?"  I was asking myself the same question, and as soon as I had the opportunity, I scrolled through the caller ID list.  There were no unfamiliar numbers on it, but there were several calls from Jon's own cell phone.  I retrieved the last number dialed--"Jerry's" number.  It was the same as Jon's cell phone, except for one changed digit.  Incredulous, I realizedv that Jon had seen his own cell phone number in the caller ID list, failed to recognize it (it's identified merely as "Virginia call") and then dialed it wrong, getting "Jerry" totally at random.  "Maybe Jerry is Delores' husband," I suggested.

Jon's blunder with the phone seemed to be telling us that the Universe WANTED us to prank him. Quietly gloating, my sister and I decided that Delores needed a Facebook page.  We created her account using images of a woman that we found on the internet. We decided she should be about four years older than Jon and we made her a graduate of a suitably random college--Alfred University--and Facebook obligingly gave us a list of people she might know.  Delores friended them all.

The next morning "Delores" logged into Facebook and got a stern message telling her that she had been friending people she didn't really know.  Nevertheless, she now had several "friends," and--most alarming--a personal message from someone.  I couldn't bear to read it without my sister, and we needed to play it cool for a while anyway, to give our prank some authenticity.  We didn't mention Delores during the course of the day.

That evening, my sister and I decided it was high time that Delores make a friend request to Jon.  We then read the message Delores got from one of her former "classmates":

Hey Delores, I think I remember you. Are you the person who approached me at that convention last month?  I'm not sure why you are trying to friend me now on Facebook.  If there's anything I can do for you, let me know.  Cheers.  

I was appalled.  Delores appeared to have developed a life of her own.  A little while later, Jon checked his Facebook and yelled out with alarm when he saw the request from Delores.  He called one of his friends to ask if he'd ever heard of this woman.  "Maybe her family owns that restaurant,"  I suggested.  "you know, Davoli's, up on 29 North."  (There is no such restaurant.)  Jon called a different friend, "Have you ever eaten at Davoli's?" he demanded.  "This woman who works there is stalking me."

We suggest he send her a message.  I went quietly upstairs to my laptop to reply.  Jon asked Delores how he knew her.  Delores replied that she had attended one of his mindfulness seminars and that he had touched her deeply.  Jon responded by saying that he had spoken to Jerry the other night--her husband?  Delores said that, alas, Jerry was her husband but she wished he wasn't.  Jon responded pointedly that he was married.  Delores said, "I do not like you wife...."  At which point Jon became convinced that Delores was out to kill me.  Another unforeseen circumstance was that Ian was now worried about Delores, this clearly unstable woman who might do herself harm when she realized her obsession with Jon was to come to nothing.  Our joke had gone too far.  I sent my sister a text message telling her that we ought to come clean, which we did to everyone's amusement and relief.  I think my sister's husband had suspected all along that Delores was a fake, but stayed silent to humor us.

I closed Delores' facebook account--she had acquired a few more friends by this time--and mentally apologized to the man who'd sent her the message.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment 1/20/12

I've had to turn to comfort literature lately.  Today's assignment is Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.  We've already discussed another of her novels, Some Tame Gazelle.  Excellent Women is about Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her early thirties, in London, around 1950.  Of course it's ridiculous now to consider a woman Mildred's age to be a "spinster" or to even use the word spinster, unless you are Bridget Jones.

Poor Mildred, even her name is dreary.  Her peaceful life is disturbed when Rocky and Helena Napier, a glamorous young couple, move into the flat below hers.  There are blushing references to the bathroom that the two flats share.  Soon they're sharing more than just a bathroom as Mildred becomes more involved in the Napier's lives than she would wish.  Meanwhile, her usual circle of friends is disrupted by the introduction of an attractive but pushy young widow.

Mildred may appear to be dull, but she has a sense of humor and Barbara Pym is marvelous about narrating her characters' thoughts. I feel ambivalent about the ending of this novel, although I can't really say why, without spoiling it for you.  To me, with my heavy responsibilities to children and husband, Mildred's solitary life seems like paradise.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Friday the 13th, or a Day in the Life of a Working Mother

I'm not superstitious, but a lot of unlucky things happened to me last Friday. My alarm didn't go off, and neither did my emergency back-up alarm.  Jon and I had one of those fights couples have when it's garbage day and you're both running late and you have to drag all your crap to the curb--which you should have done the night before, but didn't.

 No sooner was I settled at work, when I was confronted by stern-faced boss telling me I had not gotten my required flu shot and the deadline was some date in the distant past and I had to get down to employee health pronto.

"Are you feeling OK today?" the nurse asked, before giving me my injection.  I considered:  breakfast of double espresso and ibuprofen + fight with husband + severe stress over a work project and surprise IM injection = nausea, headache, chest pain, and palpitations.  I told the nurse I felt fine.

Then there was work craziness compounded by power outage, compounded by the non-stop keening of the emergency alarm that got triggered by the high winds--the same high winds  that knocked out my back up alarm.  There is no explanation as to why my cell phone alarm didn't go off, other than that I am cursed.

At 4:00pm I got a call from Brigid, who is back at school, telling me she needed $300 for textbooks and could I transfer it to her checking account immediately please, because her balance was zero.  It was a payday Friday afternoon followed by a Monday bank holiday.  As soon as I got back to my desk, Grace called to ask where the broom was.  You know, because since I was at work, I would know the EXACT LOCATION OF THE BROOM.

After work, I took the Trolley downtown to refill a prescription.  I spent the fifteen-minute waiting period picking up milk and other items at the grocery store.  Back at the pharmacy, they told me their computers were down and my prescription would not be ready for at least another twenty minutes.  I told them I'd return in the morning.  I walked home from downtown--it is nearly a mile--with the heavy grocery bag cutting into my bare hands which had nothing to protect them from the formidable windchill.

By the time I got home, I had no feeling in my fingers and I had to immediately start dinner, which had as its starting point a bag of frozen solid chicken breasts which the children had forgotten to remove from the freezer as requested.  I did manage to turn them into a respectable chicken pot pie and even got dinner on the table by 7:30.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: A Short Story about Short Hair

Gaah!  I am in a panic because I have been insanely busy at work, and have had something difficult and time consuming to do each evening after work so I have not given this week's Friday reading assignment any thought at all.  I am sitting in my bed with my laptop, eyeing my bookcase to see if anything suggests itself to me.  It ought to be something light, after last week's 779-page Tome of Doom.  Why don't we forgo reading an entire book this week and go with a short story instead?  "Bernice Bobs her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a story I've always liked.  I don't remember every detail of it, and I'm certainly not going to reread it right now, but basically plain, socially awkward Bernice spends a holiday with her beautiful, popular cousin Marjorie.  Marjorie thinks Bernice is a big drip and is embarrassed to be seen with her.  Bernice is resentful.  Bernice gets revenge.  The end.  Some of you may have been assigned to read this story in high school.  I believe that is how I first read it.  Thoughts?

Since we're discussing books, I'll tell you about what I'm reading right now:  The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  This book is irritating the dickens out of me.  Six friends meet once a month and discuss the novels of Jane Austen.  You probably saw the movie.  (I didn't.  Tell me if I should bother.)  I don't mind the parts where they discuss Austen and the characters themselves and their present-day stories are OK.  What's driving me crazy are the back stories.  Fowler insists on dredging up people from each of her characters' pasts.  Their stories are curiously flat and uninteresting.  Reading this book is like listening to someone go on and on about someone you don't know and don't want to hear about. 

I'm also reading The Middle East:  A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis.  Edifying, to be sure, but as dry and humorless as a dust pile in the Sahara.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pickles and other matters

Company Pickles

Our dear, dear friends came to visit us last weekend and besides their delightful company, they graced us with a jar of pickles, made by their aunt.  They were labeled Company Pickles.  Having special, extra-delicious pickles for guests implies that there are also inferior pickles for everyday use.  But why not make all your pickles "company" pickles and not bother with the inferior ones at all?  I asked my friend what was special about the company pickles and he said, "Cloves make it company."

Charlottesville in the movies

I watched Swedish Auto the other night, which was filmed entirely in Charlottesville.  I liked it, but I wouldn't recommend it to others without reservation--there's not a whole lot of action.  Still, it won some awards and if you're into indie movies or want to see January Jones before she was Betty Draper, this film is a good place to start.  It was fascinating to me because of the Charlottesville setting.  Much of the movie was filmed in places that I walk past or visit almost daily.  I half expected to see myself walking past in the background.  It is very recognizably the real Charlottesville, and yet different somehow as well.  The Charlottesville in the film seems sweeter and quieter, a true sleepy southern town.  In pondering what it is about the Swedish Auto Charlottesville that is different from the real Charlottesville, I realized that in the movie, you don't see or hear any traffic.

Girls on Film

My friend Jen on the Edge is doing a project, encouraging people to post real pictures of themselves.  The origins of the project was her realization that many women hate their own looks so much that they avoid being photographed.  I'm definitely one of that group.  Most of the time I look absolutely horrible in photographs and I'm so anxious about not looking horrible that I have a frozen deer-in-the-headlights look.   Anyway, as part of her project, I'm putting up a real-life, non-posed, no-make up picture of myself (and family) taken this weekend.  Since it's a candid photo I don't look posed and frozen. (And what I'm doing is trying to hit Jon.  I think it's brilliant that I was caught with hand upraised.)

Monday, January 09, 2012

Fun in Richmond

"Richmond is toilet," or so I told my children last summer when we moved Brigid there for school.  Calm down, I meant "toilet" in the nicest possible way, and anyway, I was being facetious.  I'm actually very fond of Richmond.  It's the closest real city to Charlottesville.  It's relatively big and impersonal, unlike Charlottesville, and nobody gives a shit about what you are doing or how you are dressed.

I like Richmond because it reminds me of Buffalo, NY.  Both cities had a grand past but are past their primes.  We were on Broad St. near VCU, in Richmond the other day, and the juxtaposition of trendy little shops and empty store fronts gives the impression that Richmond is a skinny old lady wearing a dress that is ten sizes too big.  It's a little sad, but it still has beauty.  And I like the Swedish crosswalk buttons at the corner of Broad and Belvidere.  It's jolly to find a Swedish system installed in such an unlikely place as Richmond, Virginia.  The buttons tick like a metronome, and when it's time for you to cross, they increase their tempo to a frantic pace.  So much more fun than Charlottesville's talking crosswalk buttons that alternately scold and exhort.

But I digress.  What's awesome about Richmond right now is that it is the first city to show Brigid's art.  She's had her art in Charlottesville galleries, but always in shows that were featuring the local public schools.  This is the first time she was invited to make a piece for an exhibit based purely on contacts she made independently which I think is pretty awesome for a first-year art student.  Even if I am her mother.

Brigid's final assignment for her space research class was to make six identical three-dimensional objects and give them to six different people--they had to be strangers--and record how the giving went.  Brigid made six stuffed people and walked into six random businesses and gave them to whoever happened to be working at the counter.  The recipients had varying reactions.  One person was deeply suspicious of the object, another--the owner of a little gift shop--promptly put it for sale in his window and asked her to make more.  A man in a coffee shop erroneously believed Brigid had made the gift for him, personally.  And one person, at the shop Quirk on Broad St, happened to be the owner of an art gallery that was putting on an exhibit of stuffed items.

The exhibit name is Grab It!  Each artist was given a vintage suitcase and told to fill it with soft objects that you would take if you were a child escaping from the apocalypse.

The artists' reception and opening night were last Thursday and the gallery opened to the public the next day for First Friday.  It was exciting to see Brigid's pillar.

She had less time than anyone else to get her pieces together and sewing is not her specialty.  She made her creatures from thrifted clothes and scraps.

So I'm sorry I ever called Richmond a toilet.  And the Quirk gallery is lots of fun, by the way.  It's also a shop, of the sort that people drive to the downtown mall in Charlottesville to see.