Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Christmas comes but every 24 months

My children have designated one particular day as the Holy of Holies; so special it only happens every two years and requires months of advance planning.  I am referring to the day that our cell phone contract expires.  This day is tomorrow and has even eclipsed Halloween as a day of excitement.  Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we're switching to a data plan.

We're probably the last household in the US that doesn't have smart phones. (Except for Grace, who is Ms. Moneybags and unable to wait for the Day of Cell Phone Reckoning, bought her own iphone and her own cell phone contract which she pays herself with her own online billpay from her own checking account.  It's adorable.)

Myself, I don't even have a phone on our family plan and use my work-issued phone.

Behold: the world's most embarrassing phone

I used to actually be ashamed to be seen with this phone, then I was a little pugnacious: "you wanna sneer at my PHONE?" but now I'm like whatever, I don't care, so what if my phone resembles a tiny hand grenade?  I own this phone, people. (But not really.) I have gotten adept at texting on the number pad and feel like I am preserving a lost art whenever I do so.  Since this is a work-issued phone, I have inherited my predecessor's saved texting vocabulary: 4real, GENERATOR, DRUNK, and other words unrelated to medical software.  Actually, "DRUNK" might be mine, texted to Jon in the middle of the night when he wasn't home yet.  But I only used it once and now it wants to populate whenever I enter a "D."

So anyway, I did not do the months of advance planning, despite my children's constant reminders and now have 24 hours in which to research the confounding world of cell phone plans.  Could they make them any more confusing?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is one of my favorite books.  It contains all the essential elements:  British, gently funny, sometimes ludicrous, poignant, similar to Barbara Pym's novels.  It was written in 1971 by Elizabeth Taylor.  Mrs. Palfrey is an elderly widow who moves into a residential hotel in London.  She has an overbearing daughter who lives some distance away and a grandson in London who she hopes will visit her.  The other residents of the hotel are a nosy bunch, and in an attempt to fit in and impress them, Mrs. Palfrey tells them about her grandson, who never materializes.  But then she has an encounter with a random young man, Ludo.  They become friends and Mrs. Palfrey passes him off as her grandson to the hotel residents while also adjusting to the petty social hierarchy within the Claremont hotel. Therein lies the comedy of this book, which is essentially a sweet, funny, and sad novel about aging.

Right after I read it, the book came out as a movie starring Joan Plowright and the beautiful Rupert Friend.  It was astonishing that an obscure book that probably hadn't moved off my library shelf for years before I checked it out, was suddenly a major movie.  It's a very good movie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

One girl, forty martinis, IV

We took the whole family to Bang, which is when I ordered the "Banghattan" a drink I was dreading.  The Manhattan and I have a long, troubled relationship.  It was the preferred drink of the nuns in my family, and were in evidence at all of our parties.  To me, the name evoked sophistication, the maraschino cherry implied innocence. The preferred cocktail of nuns, I was sure it would be delicious. When I finally got my chance to sneak a taste, I was bitterly disappointed.  You won't find too many ten year old girls with a taste for whiskey.

The "Banghattan" took me straight back to that childhood taste.  I'm sure it was a competently prepared cocktail, but I am so not into that dusty thrift store dresser drawer taste.  I made Jon eat the cherry because I was afraid of a whiskey explosion.

On a different occasion, I ordered the Battletoad.  This is a bright blue tequila-based drink, garnished with a salt rim and a pink plastic toad.

I liked this drink very much, which I realize is not a very helpful assessment, but it has been awhile and I can't remember exactly what it tasted like.  If you like margaritas and brightly colored tropical drinks, you will probably like the Battletoad.

A week later, I ordered the Black Cherry Cosmo.  I wish I'd taken a picture of it, because it was a lovely shade of pink, garnished with a lime wedge.  The taste was like a cosmopolitan (duh) with an extra layer of depth and flavor from the black cherry vodka.

Then this weekend (Friday nights at Bang is becoming a thing) I had the Boutineer, Bang's version of an Old Fashioned.  I'd never had an Old Fashioned before, but people always seem to order them in old movies and novels, so I was curious.  It tastes like a Manhattan, only sweeter.  Even my ridiculously childish palate was able to swallow it without shuddering.  Or maybe I am learning to like whiskey.  One thing about the Boutineer:  it will make you very drunk--even if you nurse it over five courses of tapas.

Street theater on this night provided by the couple in the monster-sized Chevy suburban with a Romney bumpersticker.  This was no ordinary suburban.  It was some suburban XXL that I've never never seen before.  We watched them pull into the South St. parking lot and then pull out again, having failed to find a spot they could fit their car into.  Thereafter we watched them mournfully circling the streets--like you could ever parallel park a behemoth like that.  Later, we saw them park in a private lot, taking up two spaces, of COURSE.  When people buy a massive car like this, do they ever think about how they will be able to park it?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Camping Trip

It was unfortunate that right before embarking on the only camping trip of my entire life, I had been reading The Scramble for Africa:  White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham.  I told myself that if David Livingston could explore vast areas of Africa before nylon was ever invented,  I did not need to purchase any special gear for a weekend at a campground in eastern Pennsylvania.  We had a tent, a teapot, a box of granola bars.  Surely nothing else would be required.

I did not grow up in a camping family, and I sometimes felt a little wistful when other kids talked about their camping trips.  My family's idea of roughing it was when my father pre-mixed martinis in jam jars for picnics at Fort Niagara.

It was a meet-up of friends from all up and down the east coast.  Jon was working so I went alone with the four kids.  This was about eight years ago when they were 12,11, 8, and 5.  It was immediately apparent that our tent was somewhat lacking, compared to those of my friends.  They had ground tarps, air mattresses, camping stoves and clever collapsing dishes.

Our tent smelled horrible.  It had been stored in various basements, unused, for approximately thirteen years.  I laid out our sleeping bags and hoped that by bedtime the smell would have dissipated.  It hadn't, although by bedtime we had other worries, such as the fact that it was pouring rain and Grace had tripped on a tent peg and gashed her head on a rock.  We were soaked and freezing and our tent was uninhabitable, although it smelled so bad I was almost relieved to have an excuse to sleep in the car.

There were hot showers and flush toilets just down the road,  so the five of us piled into my old Volvo wagon and drove 1/4 mile down the hill to the showers, which turned out to be coin-operated.  I had never in all my life heard of coin operated showers, and of course I didn't have enough coins for five showers.  We consoled ourselves by changing into dry clothes and taking advantage of the flush toilets. Back at the campground, Grace managed to slam the car door on Ian's hand before we all settled in to sleep upright for the night.

The next morning was sunny and after a hot cup of tea, my friends persuaded me to stay another night.  And we did have fun that day, and one friend suggested laundering the tent at the camp laundromat, which lessened the smell but did not entirely eliminate it.  Our sleeping bags were soaked, but I dried them on a clothesline.

Things were definitely looking up, until dinnertime, when one of my kids complained of a stomach ache and crawled into the tent early, looking distinctly pale and clammy.  Later, I had just dropped off to sleep when the sick child announced a need to throw up.  I struggled helplessly with the two sets of zippers which sealed our tent's entrance while said child was copiously sick all over the tent floor and his sleeping bag.  He dragged his body forward and lay with his head just over the tent threshold, retching, while I alternated between sobbing and begging him not to throw up in my shoes.

It was long past midnight, my child was covered in puke, had no clean clothes and the running water was 1/4 mile away.  The other children slept as a foul lake of vomit slowly seeped into their bedding.  I stumbled through the dark to the car and groped in the roof rack and found our last remaining item of clean clothing:  a pair of too-small boxer shorts.  These, combined with a towel, were what my son had to wear for the rest of the night.

Sleep was impossible now and I stalked the campsite with a lantern, snatching our clothes and bathing suits off the clotheslines and tossing them willy-nilly into the roof rack, determined to leave immediately until I remembered that my car was nearly out of gas.  I herded the other children to the car for another night in the Volvo.  About 4:00am, Seamus said he felt sick and I got him out of the car just in time to throw up on the ground between my feet.

We were ready to leave as the rest of the camp was just beginning to stir.  For the road, the sick child wore his bathing suit, which was at least dry, and not underwear.  On the way out, I backed the car smartly into a tree and stove the bumper in.  The tent was ruined and I threw it away as we left the campground, taking some small satisfaction imagining a future conversation in which Jon would ask, "Hey, where's my tent?"  and I would say, "In a dumpster in eastern Pennsylvania."  One of the other kids now announced that she felt sick and spent the four hour drive throwing up into a succession of plastic grocery bags.  The only one of us who didn't get sick was the one child who hadn't eaten a hot dog for lunch the day before.

What is the point of this story?  Maybe it is a lesson that it is not a good idea to read books about explorers before going camping.  We would at least have had a ground tarp otherwise, and Jon, to give him credit, had advised me to get one and I didn't listen to him, all because of David Farking Livingston.  It's also a cautionary tale about how one shouldn't trust hot dogs that have been stored in a cooler for 24 hours.  And finally, it is an illustration of how children can be counted on to choose the most inconvenient moment possible to develop a vomiting sickness.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Walk Safely and Carry a Big Stick

Friday, Grace was--very lightly, you must understand--hit by a car.  "Brushed" by a car is more accurate and she is not injured, thank God.  Still, it is very upsetting to get a phone call from your daughter telling you that a car actually came into contact with her person when she was in a crosswalk. I can feel my heart rate increase as I write this, two days later.

She had been crossing at a light at a small intersection in downtown Charlottesville (7th & Market, for interested locals).  She had a walk sign and she was in the crosswalk, when a car that was turning left from Market onto 7th sideswiped her.  Grace stumbled and just missed getting her foot run over. There was an instant of startled eye contact between the driver and Grace, then the driver continued driving and Grace continued walking.

I called the police because I had to do something.  I realize there is no chance the driver will be caught, but I felt that the incident should be reported, so at least the city can maintain accurate records of the number of pedestrians who are hit by cars.  We made arrangements to meet a police officer at the scene.

While we waited, we watched two women crossing Market St--they were in the crosswalk, they had a walk sign--and a turning car nearly plowed into them.  The driver's facial expression showed total perplexity.  You mean there might be people?  Crossing the street?  People who have the SAME GREEN LIGHT THAT YOU DO?

The police officer arrived, and as he walked to us, a driver who was backing up to parallel park nearly ran him over.  The upshot is that nothing is going to happen.  I explained to the officer my concern for statistics, and he rattled off a list of recent pedestrian vs car incidents, including one in which the driver was going 45 mph.  He said the report was likely to get "kicked out" because there was no injury, but we agreed that he would file the report, and that if Grace felt any delayed effects of the impact, we were to seek medical attention and call him.

I've been ranting about pedestrian issues for ages, and the turning-vehicle thing is a big problem.  A turning vehicle must yield to oncoming cars so why is it so hard to understand that they must also yield to pedestrians?  At some Charlottesville crosswalks, the actual walk sign is visible very briefly and then there's a countdown of seconds telling you how much time you have to get to the other side.  This is useful information for pedestrians, but some drivers seem to think that unless the sign actually says "WALK" they are justified to run you over.  The city has posted signs on traffic lights stating that turning vehicles must yield to pedestrians, and I see many drivers who respect this, but I see many others who don't.

One day, I was crossing Roosevelt Brown Blvd, at W. Main St.  The crosswalk was doing its flashing countdown and I had plenty of time.  I was nearly mowed down by a turning car and when I pointed at the walk sign, she indicated to me that I had no right to be in the crosswalk because it didn't actually say "walk."  She was wrong.  She was also a bitch.  Drivers, please disabuse yourselves of the notion that the only time a pedestrian may be in the crosswalk is when there is an active walk sign.  If you've ever actually crossed a street yourself, you would know that the walk signal doesn't last nearly long enough to get all the way across the street--not even for a fast walking person such as myself.

I also see a lot of stupid pedestrian behavior.  For a while--forgive me--I concluded that there are a lot of awfully stupid people in this town.  Then I realized that it's not stupidity but ignorance.  People no longer know how to cross the street.  We're so used to driving everywhere, that crossing the street has become a lost skill.  If pedestrians behave unpredictably, drivers will not know what to do.  So I realize that there is responsibility on both sides, but in a car/body collision, the car will always win, so the driver has the bigger responsibility.  Don't you remember being told in driver's ed to "look at the big picture"?  This means that when you are at a traffic light,  drivers are responsible for checking to see if there are pedestrians trying to cross before turning.

The most infuriating thing about a near miss with a car is the lack of acknowledgement.  You feel about as significant as a piece of litter.  On one day, I had two near-misses with cars.  In one instance, the driver sped on, apparently unaware or uncaring of the fact that he or she had nearly maimed a human.  In the other instance, the driver paused, waved, apologized.  That made all the difference.  That simple acknowledgement dissolved my rage and I saw a human who had made a mistake, rather than a faceless driver.

When Jon heard about Grace he was upset too, naturally, and suggested walking with a big stick to pound on cars that get too close.  I have to admit that I'm so upset that I think violence of this kind could be justified.  How much violence has been done to pedestrians by drivers?  You don't like the idea of a heavy stick cracking down on your hood?  Maybe I don't like it when your bumper barely misses my pelvis.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Butterflies and Ghosts

We went to Harper's Ferry for the weekend to visit our dear friends.  This is a delightful little town and less than three hours from C'ville, so a handy place to take your children for extracurricular history lessons disguised as a "vacation."

Saturday's activity was a hike, up Maryland Heights.  We all walked down the hill to the lower town.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia

We crossed the railroad bridge to Maryland and walked along the tow path next to the Potomac until we reached the trail, where we were greeted with this.

So, we're expected to hike without alcohol?  We suffered, but the view is spectacular.  That's Virginia to the left, West Virginia is the point between the two rivers, (Shenandoah and Potomac) and we were in Maryland.

The top was occupied by a group of reckless Asian youth.  The very first thing I saw once emerging from the trail was a girl clinging to the brink, laughing as if this were the must amusing thing that had ever happened to her.  Others in their group launched themselves down the cliff face, which was a sheer drop.  Some of them had difficulty dragging themselves back up the cliff and had to be shoved by their friends.  We maintained a more circumspect distance from the edge, but I took pictures of the Asians.

 We thought it would be sensible to start our return hike ahead of the Asians but no sooner had we gotten on our way, when we saw them coming behind us.  It was at that moment that Seamus got a stone in his shoe, and my friend noticed an injured butterfly on the path.  We stopped for shoe adjustments and to assist the butterfly.  The Asians were getting closer, they were nearly upon us and Seamus was having difficulty getting his shoe back on and the butterfly did not seem to realize that it was being assisted and not harassed.  At the very last second, Seamus got his foot back into his shoe and the recalcitrant butterfly was deposited safely out of danger of tramping feet.  We sprinted up the trail, laughing.  It was exactly like one of those tense chase scenes in a movie, where the hero falls or gets caught up on something or has to stop to save his weaker friend, while the evil villain with the flame thrower gets closer and closer.

The mountain from the bottom.  You might see specks of color where people are standing at the overlook.

The Asians were close behind us for a little while and then abruptly disappeared.  We stopped for lunch in town and detoured through the Catholic church on the way home to view the scary Jesus.  I was expecting an Infant of Prague sort of thing, like those mummified saints' bodies in Italian churches, but this was a nude wax figure, covered from head to toe with oozing bloody wounds in addition to being crucified.  The effect was more a bad case of chicken pox than "He suffered for YOUR sins," but I couldn't bear to take a picture.

I did take a picture of the ruined Episcopal church and a house of controversy which was built without approval and contains tacky non-historic windows.

That night I took Seamus and his friend to the Harper's Ferry ghost tour.  Harper's Ferry was a violent place during the Civil War and is a haunted place.  Our guide pointed out numerous apartments in which it is impossible to keep tenants.  Below is pictured the most haunted house in Harper's Ferry.  When the National Parks Service bought it, they planned to use it as a residence for long-term guests like visiting scholars, but the ghosts made it impossible for anyone to stay there for long.  Today it's used as offices, and our guide noted that there is never anyone in that building at night.

It's the white building on the far right--about 200 years old, but the ghosts seem to date from the 1860s.