Saturday, February 27, 2010


Would someone who has children kindly explain to me when it became wise or appropriate to dress one's primary school-aged child like a tiny streetwalker? When did heavy cosmetics and elaborately bleached/dyed/styled hair and spandex hotpants become de rigueur for eight year-olds? This is not costuming. This is 'dressed and out in the public eye'. Shall we blame The Media or Bratz dolls? Personally, I'm going to trot right out there and blame the parents.

I feel so completely old and crusty writing it, but I can also recall seeing a child of about the same age in the WalMart back home a few years ago in a midriff-baring stretch-velvet outfit with enough makeup on to make Marilyn Manson cringe. The whole look was completed with miniscule clear plastic stripper mules. It was utterly macabre.

Last weekend, The Boyfriend and I were dining at an Italian restaurant when I noticed a four year-old at the next table who was wearing knee boots with 1" kitten heels. She'd first caught my attention because her little outfit was otherwise cute, and then the full horror of it hit me. She had on more cosmetics than I generally wear to a formal event. This child was kindergarten age. She hadn't just come from the Miss Tiny Tot pageant; she'd just come from church. I was brought up Presbyterian, aka God's Frozen Chosen, but we're not that uptight (particularly not the congregation back home)- where do those people go, Church of the Infant Hooker?

I understand that things have changed, and there are those who will light into me over this because I don't have children (ergo, I am not really entitled to an opinion). However, this is just wrong. Folks, your daughters will have enough to face when they hit high school and college. Let them be children while there's still opportunity. You're in more control of this situation than you might think. Don't lock them up or hide them under a rock or anything, but don't let them turn into Pimp-Me-Barbie before they hit fourth grade!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Of Course I Don't Know What I'm Talking About

My mother, to whom I am devoted, phoned me recently with an urgent computer problem. It was Valentine's Day and I was in the Big City. As she explained what was happening and I tried, in vain, to walk her through a fix from the shoe aisles at T.J. Maxx, I realized that the best thing to do was fork the phone over to The Boyfriend and let him deal with this.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a parent with a computer problem is in want of someone other than their child (regardless of expertise in this area) to fix it.

The Boyfriend listened carefully to the problem, politely repeated what I had just told her, and hung up. A couple of hours later, I called her back to see if the computer was working. Of course, The Boyfriend got all of the credit. I turned to him after I hung up and said, "Clearly a case of PEBCAC." (Problem Exists Between Computer And Chair) Telling my mother to shut down and reboot usually fixes most of what's ailing her aging Dell desktop, it's just that when *I* say it, I don't know what I'm talking about.

I learned this little parental loophole years ago when my mother got her first computer and it's been pretty much the order of the day ever since.

Another recent computer emergency involved the death of Mom's wireless mouse. As many times as I've explained that she has to either turn it off or replace the USB antenna in the bottom to keep the battery from running down, she doesn't pay much attention. (After all, I'm her daughter and what the *bleep* do I know?) I drove sixty miles to their house, brought the mouse to her, cracked it open, put in a new battery, closed it up, and wow, suddenly it was working again. The expression on her face was on the order of my having just invented the wheel or discovered fire.

Unfortunately, the original situation also included a problem with her laptop that I have yet to figure out. That one may actually be software-related and she may have accidentally foxed the router. Tactfully explaining that the relative slowness of the laptop is probably due to the fact that it's pulling signal from the neighbors' router rather than her own results in the "dog hearing a high-pitched sound" expression. I told her not to worry about that one and I'll deal with it the next time I'm home. As long as the desktop is working, I'm not driving sixty miles to do a battery pull on her laptop.

I suppose I should be thankful that Dad doesn't even try to weigh in on computer-related topics. He won't go near one. He believes computers are of the debbil, although we went a couple of rounds over the purchase of Mom's laptop. That concluded with my demanding his credit card and shooing him out of the room. Dealing with one of them over technoliteracy is about all I can stand.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

It's customary to present one's friends with a gift on the night that their show goes up, and although flowers are traditional, that can get a little expensive if you have several friends who are theatre majors. The flipside is that because it's theatre, you can afford to be, well, creative when cash is in short supply.

Once, when flush, I presented a friend who was a fan of The Shining with a bottle of Red Rum. A pox on the R.A. who forced him to ditch the empty bottle, which was a beautiful shade of crimson, since it violated the dry campus rule! Another time, I presented a different friend with a prismatic paper mobile for his room because it was slightly trippy and I was broke.

The best one, however, was the cheapest, most-brokest present of all time. (You have to keep in mind that it's ALL about the presentation, too.) We were SO broke that three of us went in together on this gift, along with the huge ribbon we put on it.

Perfect for the scenery-chewer amongst you, whose upstaging is consistently worthy of Tallulah Bankhead and who would do Gloria Swanson proud: a giant economy-size package of squeezably soft Charmin Bathroom Tissue.

At the appointed moment, as the cast was taking its bows during the curtain call and other friends and family clamored at the apron with their offerings, one of the guys strode forward and handed up the bale o' TP with its gloriously flowing bow.

Fortunately, the recipient has a sense of humor, or he'd still be in prison for systematically strangling every single one of us. Besides, if you've ever used institutional toilet paper, you'd probably be glad to get your hands of fifteen rolls of Charmin's finest...but probably not onstage at the conclusion of your opening night.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Memento Mori

It is the eleventh hour, and this is something that's difficult to write. I typically veil the subjects of my blogs by using oblique references and pseudonyms. I won't conceal this one because he had the guts to be out when it wasn't fashionable or safe.

Fourteen years ago today, my friend Stacy Wayne Wright died of pneumocystic pneumonia, a complication of full-blown AIDS. He was twenty-seven years old.

Stacy was always good for a laugh, and there was an air of mischievousness about him that broke the surface with wild irregularity. He was irreverent, funny, and extremely talented. He was one of the most daring rifles I've ever met, throwing tosses that would injure the less-gutsy or -skilled. He was also a good musician. Put him in uniform, and the grinning, freckled prankster gave way to one of the most focused performers I've ever known. His intensity concentrated itself in a way that could be almost frightening.

How I've have wished in the years since that it was enough to carry him in his everyday life...

A mutual friend once joked, in the years after high school and before his death, that I was in love with Stacy. No, there's a difference between loving someone and being in love with them. I did love him, very much; still do, in fact...he was one of the handful of people I was willing to let in. There were people who knew me, people who thought that they knew me, and people who really did know me...and he knew who I really was because I let him. He was one of the precious few.

I have joked that Roseanne Barr was right, and that if it weren't for gay men, fat girls would never go anywhere. I would've spent a lot of dances holding up a corner if he hadn't dragged me out on the floor. I would've rotted at home a lot of Saturday nights if he hadn't come to my rescue, especially my junior year after two other close friends with whom I'd done most of my running around graduated ahead of us and went off to college.

A few years ago, several blocks of the AIDS Quilt were brought to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, about forty-five miles from where I live. It was an open-request exhibition, meaning that if one contacted The Names Project in time, one could request specific pieces of the Quilt for the exhibit. I wrote to the coordinator at Names and explained that the exhibit at Centre would nearly coincide with the tenth anniversary of Stacy's death. Could they send his square? She wrote back that my request had moved them and certainly, they could include his block.

My friend and colleague Shane, who knew the story, went with me. We attended Centre's production of The Yellow Boat. Afterward, there was a ceremony during which the blocks of the quilt were unfurled one by one in the lobby of the Norton Center for the Performing Arts. Each one opened, until finally, one remained. I knew Stacy's quilt because I keep a picture of it in my office- and it was the last to be unfurled.

It was like seeing him in the casket all over again. I am generally very controlled, especially with regard to public displays of grief or affection. To put it bluntly, I lost it.

I am grateful to the staff of The Names Project for honoring my request. I volunteer with AIDS service organizations in his memory. I honor World AIDS Day. I think of him constantly and I remember him on this date...but if I had my choice, I would rather have him here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Red Shoes

My parents are a little older than my peers' parents; in fact, my folks were approximately the same age as Hopkins' grandparents when we were in high school. They were children of the Great Depression, whereas most of my friends' parents were Baby Boomers. It made for some weird discrepencies in values, although not as much as I realized when I reached college. For all our airs and graces, we were still in the rural South. Every once in a while, something strange would pop up to reinforce the fact that my folks were a bit old-fashioned and VERY strict.

My mother felt a high degree of guilt after circumstances (the size of the scholarship and the lack of parental funds) forced me to attend State Flagship U. instead of any of the smaller, more prestigious schools to which I'd been accepted. Because there was little else she could do to make it up to me, she suddenly gave me a $50 a week allowance- tenfold what I'd gotten in high school. Since I had no car and my other expenses were covered either by the scholarship or housing contract, the money kept accumulating in my checking account.

One day, a guy friend asked me to help him pick out a pair of slacks for his upcoming fraternity formal (I chose grey flannel, insisting that khaki was too light for winter). While we were shopping, I discovered that the big city department store had a Women's World, i.e., big girls' department full of expensive, beautiful plus-size clothes from the same designers whose fashions my thinner friends wore. My parents had always been of the opinion that clothes, for me, were a waste of money; up to that moment, my dorm closet was embarrassingly empty compared to every other girl I knew. With $50 a week in my pocket, access to good clothes in my size, and a couple of friends who'd take me to the mall, I became a clotheshorse overnight.

Because all of my college girlfriends were accustomed to buying a special dress for Christmas, I followed suit. Freshman year, I found a black velveteen number with an elaborate damask and lace collar. Sophomore year, I bought one with a huge platter collar and a little sweater patterned with festive red and green Tyrolean flowers. Since I wanted the whole thing to match, I also purchased a pair of cute little red grosgrain flats with bows on the toes. I wore it to an Honors dinner and a fraternity Christmas party and received a lot of compliments, particularly on the shoes. I thought nothing of it.

When I got home for the break, I was asked to be an acolyte for the community choir service in which I'd sung before I graduated. I put on my new dress and shoes and headed for the door only to hear my father roar, "STOP RIGHT THERE!"

I pivoted to find him pointing angrily at my feet. "What are those?" he demanded. I didn't want to make him angrier, so instead of replying, "Uh, shoes?", I stammered, "I don't know what you mean."

"You will march yourself upstairs and put on some decent shoes right this minute!" he snapped.

I remained frozen to the spot, not grasping the source of his fury.

Finally, he added, "Red shoes are for WHORES and CHILDREN! As you are neither, you will change those shoes immediately. I never want to see them again!"

My mind traveled back to a similar eruption a few years before, when my mother had inadvertently bought me a pair of high-heeled tap shoes with an ankle strap instead of an arch strap. My father banished those as well, because he said that they resembled shoes he'd seen on prostitutes near his army base in Germany.

I scurried upstairs and exchanged the red shoes for black ones, stuffing the red flats into the back of my closet where my father would be less likely to look. I was nineteen years old. In the intervening twenty-one years, I have owned a LOT of shoes. I have four pairs of boots that would probably put my father in his grave, but I have never owned another pair of bright red shoes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Never After

There were several reasons behind this blog, not the least of which is an effort to gain catharsis about some things that recently welled up out of my past and clamped down squarely on my posterior. It started around a year ago, when I learned, quite tangentially, that Hopkins had gone into a diabetic coma.

Despite the fact that we have been more or less completely estranged for twenty years, I felt my heart drop into my shoes. I spent my time waiting for his sister to post something to Facebook or send me a message about how he was doing. My sister is a brittle Type I diabetic, so been there, done that, sent the postcards. When he was in the clear, no one was more relieved...but I tempered my relief with the knowledge that I shouldn't feign too much interest in his recovery.

Two things have jumped out at me in the last few days about the 'last conversation' on the night that he graduated: first, that in my desire not to sound trite, my admonition that everything about his life to that point was worth remembering if for a single reason- it had made him who he was- sounded more like I was ignorant or dismissive of the broader context. It would've been simpler if I'd gone for cliche' and said that whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. You'd have to know something about both of our lives in those days to grasp the full gravity of it. I knew wherefrom I spoke. I don't say things like that lightly.

Second, my gracenote; I have a flair for the melodramatic and an affinity for the Classics. My parting words as I stepped out of the Mouse, I kid you not, were from Plutarch's Morals: "Come back bearing your shield or on it." It was the instruction of Spartan mothers to their sons as they went forth for the glory of Greece and of Sparta. I embraced that stoicism because he had left me no choice.

God, I was such an ass.

It's just as well that I haven't really seen him in this long. I'm the one with the nostalgia problem. Maybe I'm part of the shadow world of childhood that he'd just as soon forget, and it's best that I not know-perhaps my attempts at being the shock value and comic relief fell a lot flatter than I care to realize. Part of me wants to know, yet another part realizes that my memories are fragile. They hinge so much on my inherent belief that he could do damn near anything, and I don't want to lose that.

So many questions, and so few answers...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Intelligence and Common Sense Are Not The Same

Yesterday's shootings at the University of Alabama- Huntsville pointed up several things. One is that you can graduate with your doctorate from a prestigious university and still be a failure. Another is that one's problems should NEVER be solved with violence. Thirdly, being highly intelligent is not the same as having one iota of common sense.

The tenure process in academe is very stressful. I promoted from assistant to associate professor in 2003, and am currently completing my dossier for promotion to full professor, which I don't really expect to get on this go 'round. When I was on my "up and out" (promotion with tenure), my health suffered. By the time the process was over, my nerves were shot, I couldn't sleep, and I was having random nosebleeds all the time. Failure to get tenure means you typically have one year to find another job as you complete your terminal contract at your current one. It happens more than you might think, and a lot of people believe it's such a black mark against them that it's a career-ender. Sometimes it is, but rarely so. As with so many things, it really means you have to pick up the pieces and move on.

I received tenure just before I turned 34. My father, who had given up hope of my ever achieving anything significant academically again, finally forgave me for not "producing" quite as he'd always planned. Being able to say that his daughter is a professor is a relief to him. It was a relief to me, because I didn't need to find a new job.

It never remotely crossed my mind to blame anyone on the committee had I not received tenure, let alone to roll into a meeting and kill them in cold blood. In fact, as someone who holds a concealed deadly weapons permit and has been shooting since I was a child, I know better than to point a loaded firearm at someone who is not posing a threat to my own life. Killing your colleagues is not the answer. They didn't reach this conclusion lightly or without some consideration, independent of evidence regarding the candidate's suitability for tenure, and they did NOT deserve to die for it.

I don't know what else to say. I support the right of individuals to bear arms, and I believe that the traditional process of promotion and tenure is valid and in most cases, carefully considered. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the dead and with those who are alive but injured.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Everything You Know Is Wrong

I'm roughly a third of the way into the first of the quantum mechanics/cosmology books...and tra-la, tra-la, it's clear that everything has changed dramatically since I bombed the intro astrophysics class at dear old State Flagship U in the fall of '87. On another note, the professor who taught that was chosen as teacher of the year last year, and he studied at Princeton under one of the co-authors of this book. Whee. The superfecta of feeling kind of stupid...

My interest in string theory was piqued last fall when I ended up in the ER with what they're pretty sure was a kidney stone. After I was released, we trotted across the road to the all-night pharmacy at Walgreen's to fill my prescriptions for antibiotics and painkillers. While we were waiting, the boyfriend struck up a conversation with the pharmacist...who turned out to have a PhD in physics- he'd discovered, after the fact, that pharmacy tends to pay a lot more than college teaching, and thus left the wonderful world of theoretical physics for filling pill orders. The boyfriend is currently underemployed as the parts manager in a diesel garage; his degree is in social work.

I was standing there, slightly mellowed out from the IV pain meds still coursing through my bloodstream, as they discussed the Big Bang and trailed seamlessly into string theory...and it became patently clear that the boyfriend HAD to go back to grad school. I didn't care what in, exactly, but I couldn't stand the idea of him letting his brain atrophy while ordering tires and gaskets and widgets, etc. He's probably taking the GRE this summer; he's looking into a masters' in counseling. Mind you, I'm not pushing this, but it drives me nuts to see someone's brain pretty much run out their ears from underuse.

Which really got me thinking about how intellectually lazy I've let myself become. I don't tend to do a lot of academic reading anymore; I lean toward historic mystery novels and then get aggravated when the detail is botched (those two history degrees, you know). So here I sit with book number one (of five), trying to cram the new quantum theories into my head, and realizing that I might just have killed one grey cell too many during the period that Jim Beam was the light of my life. On top of that, I've decided to explore pedagogical applications of statistical behaviors to redesign our library instruction curriculum. I may run screaming out the door before I'm through...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Still Life with Goldfish

Driving lessons were not terribly fun at our house. I'm almost completely ambidextrous, but teaching me to drive a manual shift was more than my parents could manage. My junior year, they promptly enrolled me in Driver Ed because the Driver Ed car was an automatic...and my dad being my dad, there was an insurance discount if I did okay in the class. My parents' lessons were administered in my mother's car, which was what Honda euphemistically referred to at the time as "Japanese gold", i.e., metallic orange. It was an Accord hatchback that we'd surreptitiously dubbed 'The Goldfish', and I came to hate that car with a passion, not only because I couldn't get a handle on driving it, but also because I burned my leg twice on the tailpipe while trying to unload groceries from the hatch.

The simplest thing I could've done to solve this problem was hit up Hopkins to teach me to drive the Mouse. Since I was thoroughly humiliated by the fact that I was apparently too stupid to learn in the Goldfish, my overriding teenage-girl angst trumped the necessity of a driver's license. I never said a word to him about being unable to drive a stick-shift. It was just too embarrassing.

(For the sake of brevity, the local driving test administrator was an old bat who passed all the boys and generally failed all of the girls on the first try. Since I am in possession of a uterus, I naturally failed. I decided to wait for her to retire.)

I ended up getting my license sort of by accident- the Tuesday before I was leaving for college, some of my parents' friends got me drunk and made me agree to take the driving test the following morning. I took it with a hangover, two days before I departed for freshman orientation, and passed with flying colors. The Old Bat had retired and was replaced by a very young female state trooper who graded the test fairly.

Meanwhile, back at Chez Airedaleparent, my sister learned to drive the Goldfish without any problem whatsoever. She later inherited it, after Dad used it for a while as his fishing car -only after he applied the irremovable '1-800-Alert/Report a Poacher' bumpersticker, which looked like it read '1-800-a-Fart'. Eventually, the clutch went out, so we took it in for repairs. We were told that the undercarriage was so completely rotted out that there was no point in replacing it. The Goldfish was donated to the Volunteers of America so my parents could get the tax credit.

One day, about two years ago, an ancient orange Honda Accord hatchback whizzed past me while I was in town for a workshop at my alma mater. On the rear bumper, as it caromed around the inner ring road, I saw '1-800-a-Fart'. It was the Goldfish. Someone had repaired it, and at 25-plus years old, it was still going strong...and it was still hideously orange. To quote Gosford Park, "The ones we hate never seem to die."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Graduation Night: The Wrath of Big Bird

In high school, I had an 11 p.m. curfew that I'd strategically negotiated to 1 a.m. on the night that Hopkins graduated. Those negotiations went something like this: "But MOM, I have a daaaaate. For the graduation party. With HOPKINS! I wanna goooo, how can you embarrass me like thiiis? Eleven? That's like, a baby curfew! C'mon, MOM, puhleeeze, I will NEVER, EVER ask to stay out that late EVER again! PLEASE!"

The selling point was that it was Hopkins. Had it been any other boy in the solar system, I wouldn't have succeeded in wheedling the extra two hours. My mother trusted him, plus she knew he was intimidated by her- and he knew if she thought there was any of what she termed 'monkey business', she would be on the phone to his mother like a shot.

All in all, the party was sort of dull. Around midnight, everybody started clearing off, which was fine except for a few things no one had taken into consideration earlier: the ground was soft, we were parked in the yard in high, damp grass, and there was a sharp incline to get to the driveway from there. While trying to manuever the Mouse (a stick-shift, battleship-grey 1970-something Honda Civic) out of this predicament, Hopkins backed into and tapped the bumper of the girls' basketball captain's new Mustang. I stood there, ankle-deep in cold, wet grass, as I argued that the Mouse didn't weigh enough nor was it going fast enough to have damaged her car. On closer inspection, she agreed, and we were soon off to Chez Airedaleparent.

We made it to the house a little before my curfew, so we decided to sit there and talk for a while. In the course of the conversation, the weather conditions and the Mouse conspired against us, resulting in foggy windows. We saw the porch light flip on, and a blurry creature that looked for all the world like a determined Big Bird bore down on the Mouse. There was sharp knock on the passenger window. I rolled it down.

Looming there in her bright yellow bathrobe was my mother, tapping on her watch. "Do you have any idea what time it is? Oh, hello, Hopkins, shouldn't you be leaving soon? You have fifteen minutes and then I expect her in the house." She pivoted and flap-flap-flapped back inside, mercifully without comment about the steamed-up windows. The porch light went off. I put the window back up; we started talking again.

I'm not really sure how long it was, but it was more than fifteen minutes later, because this time we were so engrossed in the conversation that we failed to notice the ominous harbinger of the porch light. Before we clued in, Big Bird was at the driver's side, knocking on the window. Hopkins rolled down the window and my mother confronted him. "Young man, do you have any idea what time it is?" I heard him swallow dryly before he answered, honestly, "No, ma'am, I'm not wearing a watch."

"Well, it is considerably past one o'clock and I am quite sure your parents are wondering where you are at this hour. I expect my daughter inside in fifteen minutes."

He nodded mutely. She turned and flapped off again. A few seconds later, we were talking again, and pretty soon, was nearly dawn. The porch light came on. Big Bird was on the move once more.

"You'd better go in this time, or she'll call my mother," Hopkins stammered. "Besides," he added dismally, "I have chores."

This time she opened the passenger door and announced, "This is IT, young lady, it's 5:30 in the morning. You have exactly five minutes to say your goodbyes and get inside. Your father is awake and you do not want me to send him out."

I was inside before the five minutes were up. Except for the requisite phone call to Hopkins' parents to determine that in his sleep-deprived state, he'd made it home okay, she never said a word to me about it...which proves that she was pretty cool despite the Big Bird bathrobe.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A little part of me died...

My favorite breakfast is sausage and biscuits. What most people probably don't know, though, is that I rarely ate breakfast in high school because my parents had me on a constant diet. Every mouthful of food I ate was measured and controlled, unless I was on a school trip. Every once in a very great while, Mom would take us to school instead of forcing us to ride the bus. Even more infrequently, I could put the con on her to buy me something to eat at what eventually evolved into the local Dairy Queen.

Early this morning, the DQ burned to the ground.

In a tiny town like ours, the opening of a fast food place is a biiiig deal, and no offense to anyone who has ever worked there past or present, if I'd had a choice of which restaurant to burn down, I would've picked Pizza Hut...ask me if you really want to know, but I'm not getting into that right now. Our very first fast food chain was Lee's Famous Recipe, a fried chicken place. Second was the lovely Pizza Hut (grrr). Third was Burger Queen, which in its third incarnation became the Dairy Queen. McDonald's hasn't been there all that long, and Snappy Tomato Pizza is the newest chain in town.

There's this longstanding tradition in Smalltownland of bringing home your wayward college-age kid and putting them to work in fast food to meditate on the sins of bad grades (xref:Pizza Hut)- thus my sister did her time at Dairy Queen as an Ice Cream Girl. She has a lot of great stories, most of which I shouldn't post in a public forum, although the autistic boy who called our dad a tightwad is probably the best. That, and the one about learning to do the trademarked soft-serve cone shape- which would probably result in a sexual harrassment suit nowadays.

When I was working at the nearby Baptist college and living at home, I would streak out of the house for work with my mother yelling, "But you didn't EAT anything!" It was one of my little rebellions against being back in the fold that I'd stop at Dairy Queen for breakfast on the way out of town. My best friend's husband, who is a North Carolinian, praised the DQ's coffee when they were in town over Christmas. His wife's first job was at that very restaurant; I remember how much she hated having to clean the grease traps on the fryers.

We all have a lot of memories tied up in the place. It was where the old folks gathered to gossip and drink coffee. It was just down the block from one of the two funeral homes, so it's where you took the kids when they got punchy from five hours of meet-and-greet in front of Papaw's casket. It's where the marquee broadcast good fortune to the various school clubs, teams, and the band. It's where we always stopped for lunch on our whirlwind day-long Christmas concert tour of all the elementary schools every winter.

I've heard already that they'll rebuild, but it will be a Dairy Queen for a new generation. Everything changes, right? I'm not sure I was ready for this one.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pavlov Would Be Proud

I have two Airedales, Sister and the Hairy Fiend. They're both of the Oorang strain, i.e., they're both much larger than a standard Airedale. As large dogs, they not only take up more space, eat more food, etc., they just do everything bigger.

Sister decided tonight that the optimum place to pant is about four inches from my ear. She's on the couch right now, doing just that. It sounds like a steam locomotive, and it's about that warm to boot.

Hairy's usual sound is a combination of the jingle of his tags and his ears flapping as he flips his head from side to side- think of a girl tossing her hair and mentally add the sound.

I've exacerbated this noise by using Poochie Bells, "The Original Doggie Doorbell". These things are two sets of sleigh bells on a yard-long grosgrain ribbon with a loop at one end for the doorknob. You train the dog to go up and nose the ribbon to give you a sound cue to let them out. Airedales, however, are highly intelligent, so mine have been working on modifying my behavior through the magic of strategic bell-ringing.

Sister rings the bells for one of three reasons: she's thirsty, she's hungry, or she wants out. Hairy rings the bells if he's bored or wants to go outside, whether it's to go potty or simply investigate what's going on in the yard (e.g., if the cats from next door). I can also tell who's ringing from the technique: Sister gently noses the bells, while Hairy wraps them around his head and keeps slinging them in circles around the doorknob.

Poochie Bells are a pretty good thing, since I couldn't hear when they used to nose the doorknob. Variously, my parents' dogs have scratched the door, nosed the doorknob, or, in the case of our Wire Fox Terrier, stood there and groaned plaintively until someone let them out. Unfortunately, we're on our second set of Poochie Bells because the bells on the first one rusted from dog snot. They're in constant use, if nothing else.

Anyway, I have to sign off for now. The bells are currently in orbit, which means Hairy probably wants something. Who knew I was that trainable?

Fifteen Minutes

There's a Nightline crew on campus interviewing our celebrity biologist about his upcoming National Geographic special. That brought back memories of my big TV appearance in high school.

It was nothing so glamorous as National Geographic. It was a quick recall contest sponsored by the state's PBS affiliate. We were brought in as fresh blood, the only one of the three competing teams that day that had never appeared on the show. We were expected to lose.

We arrived to find that of the teams scheduled for that day's taping, we were the only one that didn't have uniforms. The previous year's Grand Champion team had blue blazers and matching regimental neckties. I noticed immediately that I was the only girl out of the nine players on-camera.

One of the blue blazer boys made a comment about girls' inherent inferiority in quick recall.

Hopkins rose slightly from his seat. I eased him down, leaned around him, and flashed blue blazer boy my biggest, syrupiest smile. To his credit, Hopkins shuddered; he knew that I had just made eye contact with my prey. I patted him reassuringly on the arm, gave him a real smile, and turned toward the cameras.

We were barely leading as the moderator announced, at the end of the taping, "Today's lightning round category is...opera." A soft groan rose around the studio- what sixteen year-old kid knows anything about opera? All three coaches slouched hopelessly in their seats.

My father is an opera buff. I grew up with the "Marche Triomphale" from Aida thundering through the walls of the living room late at night. Hopkins looked stricken but gradually registered that I was tensed up like a jungle cat just before it pounces. The moderator got in one deep breath before I went into the zone; he ran out of questions before we ran out of time. I don't really remember exactly how it went down- I was so far gone that it was basically a blackout. I got to hear Hopkins tell that story a few times and I did see the show when it aired, but as for being there in the moment, I wasn't. Still, not bad for a girl.

The promotional photo is the best picture ever taken of me in my life. We're all grinning like idiots, including our coach. I looked like I'd just hit the lottery. It was a good day- no, it was a glorious day- in our odd little world. I made sure to give another big ol' saccharine smile to blue blazer boy as we were leaving, too. The show was single elimination; they wouldn't be back until next year.

I'd love to say that our second TV appearance went equally well. It didn't. We had a good day, but not a great one. We finished second and were eliminated. That wasn't fantastic, but it was okay. We'd proved our point the previous round; we weren't anybody's goats. If I'd distilled that first taping into a jar, it would've carried me through a lot of very dark days that lay ahead. I still remember the sheer joy of it, the sort of heady dizziness that we'd accomplished something truly special. My father recorded it on a Betamax- the tape is in the top drawer of my bureau at their house. Maybe someday, further down the road, I'll make an effort to have it transferred to a new format, but not now. It still cuts too close.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhogs Are For Target Practice

Punxutawney Phil has prognosticated for the next several weeks. The little monster saw his shadow. Six more weeks of winter. Ugh. Where I come from, though, he wouldn't have too much of a shelf-life. Come spring, some teenage boy would pick him off faster than you can blink. See, in Smalltownland, groundhogs = target practice.

Some people also eat them. I'm told that they're greasy, having not had the pleasure myself. My mother says that they're gamey-tasting, too.

When I was eleven, my bachelor uncle married him a bonafide city gal. She was a nurse of German descent whose concept of cleanliness was at near-OCD levels. Ever tried baking cookies with somebody like that? She practically had us wearing surgical gloves in the kitchen.

Aunt Joan had some difficulty adjusting to life on the farm. Some things baffled her: she didn't like the idea that a cow she helped my uncle feed in the barn would soon end up in her deep freezer. Being the family smartmouth, I responded with, "Well, where did you think your food came from? The store?" *slap*

The greatest City Gal moment came, however, on a day when we were making cookies. After we had already made the dough, she began scrambling around looking for her cookie sheets. They weren't just any cookie sheets, either; they were special, expensive ones from Williams-Sonoma that she'd gotten as wedding gifts. We dug frantically through the cabinets before she decided to take a break. She marched us down to the basement to check the deep freezer for something to serve for supper. I'd wandered away for some reason, but her shriek of horror brought me running.

She stood, pointing into the freezer, repeating "My cookie sheets! My good cookie sheets!" When I arrived at her side, she grasped my arm and demanded, "What is that on my cookie sheets?" I leaned over, assessed the situation, and said calmly, "I think they're groundhogs."

There was an eerie stillness for a split second, and then she exploded: "GROUNDHOGS ON MY GOOD COOKIE SHEETS!"

My uncle had used her cookie sheets to lay out his hunting trophies for freezing. If ever there'd been cause for divorce, this was it, and what she did next caused me to think it might come from either side of the fence: she snatched up the offending carcasses, rushed up the stairs, and hurled them into the woods behind the house. Next, she ran the water as hot as she could get it, brought out the Ajax, and began madly scouring the pans.

By the time my uncle got home from work, she'd probably scalded and/or chemically burned off most of the skin on her hands. As he walked through the door, she wielded a cookie sheet at him like a Spartan hoplon. "MY COOKIE SHEETS," she roared, shaking it angrily, "YOU PUT GROUNDHOGS ON MY COOKIE SHEETS!"

"Well," he said, "just where are my groundhogs now?"

She was so livid that she couldn't speak, so I answered helpfully, "I think she threw them in the trees out back."

Uncle Ben drove us into town in stony silence, dropping us off at my grandmother's apartment. After he left, she asked me why he was in such a bad mood.

"Aunt Joan got mad at him because he put groundhogs on her cookie sheets, so she threw them out in the woods. Now he's mad at her, too."

Granny thought about it a second. "He knows better. The pans for the groundhogs are under the sink. Just like a man. Hmph."

I don't know about you all, but my granny is the only person I ever met who had a separate set of pans for groundhogs...