Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Swan (or Happy Valentine's Day!)

Why are swans accepted as such romantic symbols? In my own Couple's Lexicon, they are creatures of dark intent, savage stubornness, and malicious persecution of the weak. I admit, however, that I might be a special case: I got chased out of my boots by a flock of geese when I was little.  In any case, here's my Swan Song.

It was dark. Strains of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drifted on the wind, hampered slightly by a misty rain. The benefit concert was outdoors, but the VIP ticket holders had a tent to drink under, so the show went on unchecked.

After finishing my shift as a volunteer bartender to the rich and famous Hamptons crowd, I prepared to enjoy the chance to see a live concert for free, which suited my college student budget perfectly. I heard my name, looked around...ah, the love of my life was waving at me from beyond a barrier of orange construction fencing. With a sigh, I gathered my things and left the concert grounds.

It seems my darling had a problem. His apartment came with chipmunks in the walls, the coldest bathroom on the East End, and free access to a canoe and a flatbed ferry disguised as a kayak. During a recreational paddle earlier that day, he had been forced to abandon ship by a pair of nesting swans. While they didn't seem to mind him leaving the kayak in the reeds, they were adamant that he stay off the water.

After a wet slog home, he cleaned himself up and went to class, then had dinner and probably watched a movie with his buddies in the infirmary before coming to find me to help him retrieve the lost kayak. I was touched.

So we took off in the canoe by starlight. It was a warm moonless summer night, and the rain was little more than an occasional drip condensing out of a low lying cloud. He told me the history between him and the swans and shared his assumption that the birds would be snug on their nest, rather than diligently patrolling the entire inlet this late at night. The plan was to paddle to the kayak, which he would paddle home while I captained the canoe, which I was more familiar with at the time.

Well. It was a good plan.

And it sort of worked. He got out, got into the kayak, and headed for home. I turned the large empty canoe around, a somewhat cumbersome procedure, especially considering the wind that was kicking up. I was in no hurry, making a slow arcing turn rather than trying to fight the water and the wind. I had made it about ninety degrees, so my back was to the shore, when I heard it.

A hiss like ten thousand cobras having their tails run over by a caravan of camels cut through the background vocals from the nearby concert.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump...a rapid percussion of wings in the dark, flying towards me with all the rage of Smaug.

It was headed straight for me. My mind flashed back to a childhood memory, helping collect a black swan from a friend's pond, the strength in the neck and wings and the heavy beak, clacking and hissing until the fathers present slipped a pillowcase over its head.

I had no pillow case with me, so I paddled like hell, straight out into the bay. The hissing and chest thumping stopped, and I turned the boat so I could look shoreward over my left shoulder. I couldn't hear any bloodcurdling screams, so I assumed my beloved hadn't been eaten by the vicious birds. Surely I would have heard that over the Heartbreakers' twangy guitars...there, a light, bobbing along the shoreline. He had gotten the kayak and was trying to signal to me. I flashed my flashlight in return, and shouted, something pithy, I'm sure, like, "Over here!" or "The swan chased after me!" I hoped he would head back before they realized he was there. I sat quietly, straining my eyes for a glimpse of the bird I could sense was out there, awaiting my next move. The rain began to fall in earnest. I watched his flashlight slowly make its way to the left, towards home.

Dipping my paddle into the water, I began to turn the canoe to follow.

The explosion of froth and hollow beating wings and wet-cat hissing a few yards off my port bow didn't startle me so much this time, but only because I could see it coming at me, and therefore knew it wasn't in the boat with me. Yet.

I turned back to starboard, away from home and paddled into deeper water. The swan returned to its silent watchfulness. I could see the beam of a flashlight, waving back and forth, flashing intermittently, but only just. There was no way my much smaller light would be visible, especially as he had no way of knowing where to look. I called out. "Swans!" All I heard in response was Tom Petty. Again, "SWANS!" A hiss in the dark, much closer than I'd been expecting....

"I'M GOING TO THE LOBSTER INN!!!" I screamed over my shoulder, hoping to God he heard me, since all I could hear was the muffled base from the concert. I dipped my paddle into the water and headed away from the swan. It didn't seem to appreciate my guesture as an admission of defeat and leapt to the pursuit again. There was a restaurant with a boat dock a few miles down the road from the college. I don't know how far it was by water, but the wretched beast chased me the entire way, hissing and beating its chest if I slowed down, herding me like a sheepdog.

By the time I dragged the boat into the mud and reeds by the restaurant, by arms and shoulders were burning. I was soaked to the skin, covered in mud, and (I can only assume) looked as though I'd been chased for miles in the dark by a heartless attacker. I would have sat on the dock and collected myself before going inside, but I could see the swan at the edge of the dark, waiting for me to let my guard down.

Sometimes I wonder if any of the people enjoying a pleasant dinner out remember the bedraggled college kid who edged into the restaurant.... I asked the first waitress I saw for a quarter so I could use the payphone. After giving me the hairy eyeball up and down, obviously wondering if I were likely to disrupt the dinning room more if she refused, she handed me several and went to wash her hands.

Yes, a pay phone. I had no cell phone at that point in my life. (Imagine that kids....COLLEGE and no cell phone!) I rang my beau repeatedly, no answer. I finally left a message, using up one of my precious quarters, and tried to think wildly of someone else to call. Most of my friends were at the concert, or a party, or had no car. I tried again. And again. And again. And finally he answered.

He had to bring his work truck to get me, since his personal car had no roof rack for the canoe. The extreme discomfort at misusing Town resources and risking his career were mollified, somewhat, by the state I was in when he finally got there to collect me. Luckily we were in an off-again phase anyway, because I'm certain that night would have strained any relationship to the breaking point (I've never listened to a Tom Petty CD since).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Simpler Days

My two-year-old is at the peculiar stage of innocence where she really likes the sensation of hitting different substances (the couch, the wall, toys, her sister...) but harbors no ill intentions. Coupled with her knowledge of tools, she seems to believe that everything can be fixed with a hammer, so there is no artifice in her response to horrified questions like "Why are you hitting your teddy bear with that drumstick?" She is truly and honestly "fixing it."

It's hard to keep this in mind when she has also adopted the "Finding Nemo" seagulls' mantra as her own. She justifies snatching toys from her sister with a cheery "My turn!" and rejects her peas for the ones on my plate when they are the exact same small green butter-less balls. I remember drinking my mom's soda as a teenager, and my husband still (after six years of marriage!) refuses to share a drink with me at the movies because of the size of my "sips," but I certainly don't remember filtching food of the plates of the rest of my family. It actually repulses me somewhat, even while the Toddler Feeder in my is glad to see her eating some veggies.  It reminds me of the biography of Helen Keller that I read as a child which described the terror tactics Anne Sullivan witnessed in her first meal at the Keller family dinner table.

I remind myself on a daily basis how fortunate I am to have two healthy, intelligent girls, a willing and able partner who supports and loves his roles as husband and father, and extended family who will drop everything and come a'runnin' if we ever need them. All my respect goes out to all the men and women who are raising their children with any less of a support network.

While I wouldn't give up my technology-based life, there is a rosy-glow-of-nostalgia part of me that mourns elements of simpler days that are forever lost: when families were closer because it was rare to leave one's hometown; when there was less concentration on the motives and intentions that surrounded one; when so many more things could, in fact, be fixed with a hammer.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Five Things I Learned Working Retail

I spent six years working in a retail environment. It started out as a flexible position that allowed me to work a full time job and finish up my Bachelor's degree. Then I got comfortable and made really good friends and found myself taking on more responsibility instead of devoting myself to finding a "real" job until, six years later I wasn't having fun anymore and had lost most of my professional self-respect in the process. It's hard to take pride in your work when The Boss eliminates all elements of creativity and makes it abundantly clear that they think a monkey could do your job (which might be preferable because monkeys don't ask questions).

I learned a lot during that time in my life, whether I was enjoying it or not, and it certainly changed how I behave as a consumer. Here are five of the most outstanding lessons that I carry to this day.

5. Letting frustration dictate your behavior relinquishes all power to the source of your pique.
From behind the counter, I dealt with individuals who irritated me. If I let it get to me, which I sometimes did, then I found myself irritated with completely unrelated people or circumstances. Resenting the loss of my good mood, I tried to regain some of that power by taking it out on other people. I finally realized I control my emotional state. Allowing others to influence my mood gave them control over my behavior, and no matter what, my actions would only reflect on me, not my back story.

4. Misuse of sarcasm makes you sound stupid.
You never know who you're actually dealing with on a bus, or in line at the grocery store, or at the mall. That salesman may very well be smarter than you. It's safer to keep your snark to yourself, or accept that they will make fun of you with their friends and family, possibly for years to come depending on how big an ass you make of yourself.

3. Your procrastination is not their problem; it's their bread and butter.
If you want something done right, you plan, meet your deadlines, and leave plenty of time for circumstantial delays. If you want something done NOW, especially if you want it done well, you'd better be willing to pony up the dough, because (just like in shipping) priority service is going to cost you.

2. The customer is not always right.
Maybe they were in centuries gone by, but in today's society, too many people fall back on that line to cover their own glaring ineptitude, get something for free, or just to enjoy some sort of power trip. We have made it socially acceptable to be an absolute prat, and inexcusable to ever be wrong.
People make mistakes, right? No. YOU make mistakes. Every single one of us is wrong sometimes. If you hire an expert, accept that they know better than you. Be aware that your righteous indignation may be misplaced, and double check all the facts before you start slinging around the "I must be right because I'm paying for something" nonsense.

1. If you need someone's help, don't be a jerk.
Violators of this simple, obvious rule never cease to amaze me. Why do some people think that they get better service by being snarky, sarcastic, rude, aggressive, disrespectful, obstinate, or even simply unpleasant? If you need something done, especially if you're in a hurry, you better be polite to the person you're asking to serve you. Polite language, realistic expectations, and a healthy awareness that you are not the only person in the room will go a long, long way towards getting your problems addressed without body fluids being introduced to your lasagna, dry cleaning, wedding programs, or whatever you happen to be asking someone to make or do for you.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One Headlight

Our Civic has been a padiddle for several weeks, and since we enjoyed a beautiful 60-degree day today (a thing to be cherished in January, even if we do live south of the Mason-Dixon line...) I finally got around to replacing the low-beam light bulb on the driver's side. As my father's daughter, I take pride in any little mechanical fixes that I can do myself. As my mother's daughter, I am remarkably stubborn and unlikely to admit defeat very early in a challenge. So, the story goes a little something like this:

As a prelude, I initially attempted the repair several days ago, on a less pleasant day (read 40 degrees and rapidly approaching dusk). I left my husband inside, warm, cozy, watching the girls (one of whom was napping). The hood release didn't let go entirely and I spent about five minutes getting increasingly frustrated and cold, going back into the house for gloves and a coat, and finally asking my man for help. Hardly a valiant send-off for an independent woman of the world.... He got the hood open, though to be fair, it took him a little while and some finagling. After identifying which bulb needed to come out (of course it was the one wedged against the far exterior wall of the hood space, tucked neatly behind the wiper-fluid bottle), I spent several minutes trying to wedge my fingers into the crevice well enough to rotate the bulb housing in order to remove it. Already in a fairly bad mood from my unsuccessful attempts to open the hood all by myself, the cold, the swapping of gloves from hand to hand, the onset of night, I gave up and stomped back into the house, feeling like a total doob and half-inclined to take the car and the light bulb to Midas and ask a nice mechanic to do the job for me. *eyelashes batting wildly*

Today, I went shoe shopping with my Mother In Law (and to all of you women out there who just shuddered and clutched at your hearts in sympathy, you can keep your pity---I have the best MIL in the world and I love her dearly). Leaving my husband and children in the doting care of Gran and Pop, I decided today was the day and took the replacement bulb, still in its protective retail packaging, outside to do The Deed.

Hood opened on the first try: already a better day! After wedging my hands into the narrow space behind the grill of the car from a variety of angles, I went back inside to swap out my long sleeves for a T-shirt (yes, it was that warm) and get a hat to keep my hair from dangling on the engine block. While I was in there, I gathered up two screwdrivers and some WD-40, knowing from watching my dad that those three tools are the base code of the universe, took off my engagement and wedding rings, and changed my shirt.

Back outside, I approached the car with purposeful stride, wind whipping my hair behind me as I had forgotten a hat. I bent down, spritzed a little lube on the screws that hold the bulb housing in place and nearly dropped a screwdriver into the fan belt**. I found a better spot to set the tools and let the WD-40 do its job. At the sound of a horn blast in my very near vicinity, I jump, startled, and come close to singing my arm on the hot lump of metal that has something to do with making the car go. Irritated, I poke my head out from under the hood to find my weird-old-guy neighbor in his car behind my car.

"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yep," I answered, "just fixing a headlight."
"Well, as long as you know what your doing," he said, driving off with a shrug and a roll of his eyes.

So I had a good long chuckle to myself as I considered what kind of a chauvinist jackass would think a female incapable of changing a light bulb. Granted, it's a very inconveniently located light bulb that you have to rotate, remove from its lantern, disconnect from a wire connector, and try to avoid touching the glass of the replacement as you get it in place, but still...just a light bulb. As I mentally mocked this man for his well-intentioned neighborly concern, I got the old bulb out. The new bulb didn't go the little port at the end of the wire as easily as I was expecting. My hair kept blowing in my face. I was actually sweating. I was beginning to want some lunch.

Then, with a horrible sinking sensation, I realized that I had spent the entire time WD-40ing, wiggling, working loose, and removing the wrong bulb.

Crap, I thought. This was the EASY one to get to? Double crap.

I set the new bulb to the side and put the old high beam bulb back in place. The final step, rotating the housing so that it was locked into the lantern twisted my arm in such a way that I dropped the new bulb into the cavernous recesses of the hood.

Triple crap.

I could see it there, on the ledge, within an inch of having fallen straight through to the ground. I was torn between glad it wasn't smashed on the asphalt and concern that I wasn't going to be able to get my hand into the frame to retrieve it. Well-founded concerns, as it turns out, because I had to push it from above with a collapsible tent pole, relying on a wool hat from the girls' car seat stash to cushion the fall.

Once I had the bulb back safe and sound, I turned my full attention to getting it into the appropriate lamp. Even though the posture required to get into the low-beam lantern on a Civic is reminiscent of certain pages of the Kama Sutra, and resulted in more scraped knuckles, I managed to do it much faster than the high beam. A practice run is always useful! I also figured out that disconnecting the wire from the bulb while it was locked in place in the lamp was easier than trying to fit both hands into the tiny space and wrangle it blindly apart with no leverage or maneuverability.

All in all, I was outside in the sun, enjoying the wind in my hair and the smell of engine grease, which always reminds me of my dad. That particular half hour of my life, while not my most graceful or well-organized, was full of laughter, sardonic and self-depreciating as it may have been. And since the kids were in the house having fun with Gran, Pop, and Dad, I was able to curse without feeling guilty in the slightest. I can think of worse ways to spend a sunny day in January.

**Please note, any and all terms more technical than "hood" or "bulb" are rough guesses based on knowing that there are parts in there somewhere with that name. Please don't comment saying "A Honda Civic doesn't HAVE a fan belt, you idiot!" because that would waste your time and mine.

***Mind you, this is the man asked my husband and my husband's best friend, who at the time was recovering from a surgically repaired broken arm, to help him move a gigantic, old-fashioned console TV down three flights of steps on a dolly with two flat tires. They told him no, the delivery guys who are bringing your new TV can remove the old one, and we haven't heard much from him since.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Epiphany: American Society

Too many Americans today operate with the same sense as my two and a half year old, as follows:

"Mom, I want a lollipop."
"You ate all your lunch, but it's kind of late for a snack. Do you promise to eat your dinner if I give you a lollipop?" Little fingers curl together in the uncompromising grasp of a pinky swear.
"I promise to eat my dinner."
Holding out her choices, I ask, "Do you want green, red, or purple?"
Long pause. Careful consideration. "I want green."
Several moments of professed enjoyment later, a soggy (empty) lollipop stick is pressed into my hand.
"I didn't want green. I want red."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

I can't say I'm sorry to see the end of 2011. For a lot of people, it was a pretty crap year. A few very personal highlights brightened up a long string of seemingly Biblical international plagues: recessions, floods, tornadoes, wars, Justin Bieber....

They say that time flies when you're having fun, but even though this year wasn't a laugh-a-minute, it was over before I had a chance to dwell on any of the negatives. That may seem like a good thing, but as I reflect on the year behind, I realize how many great moments I missed or nearly forgot.

That is the lesson I'm taking forward: every day will have highs and lows. Every day has the same number of minutes passing by, and each one deserves to be lived. Every day will see my children grow and develop, and somewhere heroes will save lives, villains destroy them, and politicians will make and break new promises and laws. The economy and the climate will continue to cycle through their natural ebb and flow around us, despite all attempts to bring them under control.

I can't control the weather. I can't control international policy. There are days that I can't even claim to control my children... I can determine my responses to the world around me, and where I focus my attention. I will continue to listen to the Dalai Lama on Facebook, and take great joy in hearing my daughter sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" with her father in the bathroom. In 2012, I will try to appreciate the good moments, knowing that they will give me the strength and inspiration to get through the bad. I'm going to make 2012 my year for appreciation and gratitude.

Oh, and I'm going to lose weight and get in shape.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Young Readers

An avid reader myself, I read to my kids almost fanatically. One of my favorite memories of the first day we brought our firstborn home was unpacking my hospital bag and hearing my husband start reading the first chapter of "The Hobbit" to our daughter, knowing as he did that it was my very favorite childhood book.  I think he secretly wanted me to cry a couple happy, post-natal emotional tears. I obliged.

Our eldest is now two and a half, and knows all her letters and the sounds they make, but has some difficulty pronouncing "L" correctly--most often, it comes out sounding like a "Y." She has also reached a point where she knows how several books go, especially favorites like our Eric Carle books. Today, I overheard her reading "Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?" with a little twist.  Brown Bear also sees, but Polar Bear leads a book of animals hearing other animals' noises "in their ears." Her rendition of "PB,PB,WDYS?" went a little something like this....

"Monkey, Monkey, what do you see?"
"I see a sea turtle looking in my ear."
"Sea Turtle, Sea Turtle, what do you see?"
"I see a sea yie-yon looking in my ear." (That would be sea lion for those of you who aren't fluent in kidspeak....)

I remember the little kid voice from watching my nieces and nephews grow up. Kid giggle is one of my all time favorite noises, but the memory of hearing my daughter "read" herself a story will always bring a smile to my face.