Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Equal and Opposite Reaction

Little Sister is three years my junior. Because she considers herself more worldly (having always been more popular than I) and she's married, she seems to think this entitles her to airing her grievances/delivering the catalog of my sins whenever she's feeling peckish over the holidays. The air of superiority is thick enough to set one's teeth immediately on edge.

She cornered me Christmas morning in our bathroom at Chez Airedaleparent. Yet again, she's declared herself my editor-slash-censor; I received the Canonical List of Those Things About Which I Shall Not Write in the coming year due to her opinion of their relative levels of egregiousness.

In the fine old tradition of older siblings, naturally, I'm ignoring it. Since I was standing there applying my makeup, there was no chance I could cut and run during this little diatribe. She concluded with all the offenses I've committed toward our parents, including a little gracenote about how I'd offended our father by posting a Facebook status a week or so ago that he was sick. I finally lost my temper about halfway through that particularly stinging insult and said, without turning toward her or altering my facial expression, "Of course I didn't know. He's only my father." With that, I threw the last item back into my makeup bag, zipped it, and walked out the door.

The night before, I mentioned that Hopkins' younger sister was worried about the condition of the roads and its effect on her travel plans for the holidays, and she snapped at me, apropos of nothing, "You need to not worry about his family. Stop talking about her. Now. I don't want to hear it." Oh, if I really felt like slinging dirt here, I could, but I was so taken aback that I pulled up short. I was just so angry and exhausted that I let her flay me alive.

Seriously, though, whaaaat? When is this her business? It was an aside that I'd picked up from my Facebook feed. I was equally glad that Wayne didn't have to work on Christmas, because he's in satellite TV installation and frankly, we'd had about three inches of snow when this conversation took place (we've had probably seven or eight inches altogether, but it's warmed up twice and melted the bottom layers, making the total depth less than that). I stood there, gritting my teeth, sincerely wishing I'd picked Wayne for smalltalk instead.

FTR, last I noticed, R. and her children had crossed the state line safely today and were en route to Smalltownland, a remaining distance of roughly sixty miles, give or take. Perhaps in Little Sister's estimation, I shouldn't give a $#*!, but I do. I've liked the girl ever since she was roughly the same age as her youngest is now. Whatever my sister's logic for cutting me up over it, I'm damned if I let her dictate about what or whom I care.

Since it was snowing again today, I didn't dare depart the Chez for my house, lest my mother have the proverbial conniption. I'm going tomorrow come Hell or high water, but by God I'm hiding from the Nearest and Dearest until I can make good my escape...before anybody else tries to tell me what to think, say, or do. You'd think they'd have figured out exactly how useless that is by now, though, wouldn't you?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Do You See?

When I was a sophomore in high school, the Superfecta of All Hideous Things happened:
  1. The dog/crying towel I'd had since I was an infant died in December
  2. My aunt lost her battle with cancer at the end of February
  3. My beloved maternal grandmother died of a stroke at the beginning of March
  4. and, the boy I'd been dating since the previous fall dumped me four days after my grandmother's funeral, resulting in:
  5. My suddenly having no date for the prom

The only good thing to come out of any of this, other than not having to go to the prom with Jeff, who was kind of a twit at 17 (later, as an adult, he was my best Brownie Mom when I was a Girl Scout leader), was that my folks got me a new dog.

Sunny was a Smooth Fox Terrier, unlike my previous dog, who was a Wire Fox Terrier. She was supposed to be the family dog, but I immediately latched onto her and claimed her as mine. I spent all of my spare time at home playing with the new dog, napping with the new dog; well, you get the idea. She was about a year old already, well-past the puppy stage, but I didn't care. My grandmother had owned a Smooth Fox named Kitty when she was about the same age, who went everywhere with her. I decided that Sunny would be my Kitty.

She had some quirky little behaviors that came out over time, the longer we had her. The first Christmas she was with us, we noticed that she loved to go into the living room to listen to Dad's records of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Christmas carols. Sometimes, she'd just disappear and we'd find her curled up in one of the formal wingbacked chairs, watching the lights on the tree. She never disturbed the gifts, tore up ornaments, or made a mess...she just sat there and watched the tree.

My father was quite a shutterbug, so when I asked for a 35mm camera for my birthday, I got one, and it was a pretty nice one, too. It was a step up from the 110 I'd had, and the little 126 cube-flash camera that had been my mother's that I had before it. I was allowed to take as much film as I wanted, and my folks would get it developed without making me pay for it. One day, during the holidays, I got an extremely good picture of Sunny settled into the living room. It became my conversation-starter with new friends in college; I'd hand them the picture and ask them if they could tell what it was a picture of...invariably, they'd say it was a photo of the Christmas tree.

You had to look closely, but it was actually a picture of my dog. Sunny had gone into the living room after my parents had laid out our "Santa" gifts in the wingbacked chairs and burrowed down between mine. They were undisturbed except for the small brown-and-white dog planted artistically dead center- she looked like a stuffed toy. She was just so pretty, sitting there in the middle of my stuff.

I recently ran across a small envelope of pictures from college, including one of my senior dorm room. There, on the shelf directly above my head, is the picture of Sunny. That's how I choose to remember her, long before she became old and cranky, when she was still my reasonably happy little dog.

Friday, December 24, 2010

I (heart) My Bathroom

My mother designed the Chez herself, and as a particularly tall woman for her era (5'10", at a time when most women were 5'3" or shorter), she made one decision for which I have always been thankful:

In the 'big bathroom', which is huge in comparison to most bathrooms prior to the 1990s, when they took on epic scale in new home construction, there is an extra-long bathtub...and it has a sloped reclining surface at the back end. Mom has a bad back, and her logic was that in the days before in-home Jacuzzi bathtubs and so forth, she could soak in a hot bath.

I have a slight sciatic nerve pinch that plays up after I walk or stand on hard surfaces for long periods of time. Last night, I had to make Mom's last-minute WalMart run amongst the frantic Christmas crowds. By the time I got back to Chez Airedaleparent, my left hip was throbbing- two hours of marching around Wally World didn't do me any favors.

It was around 11:00 by the time we got all of the groceries stored, but I dragged myself up and ran a tubful of hot water anyway. Today, my sister and brother-in-law will arrive and I won't have a moment's downtime between the gift wrapping and cooking for the next seventy-two hours. It was my last chance to commune, uninterrupted, with my favorite bathtub.

If I am ever lucky enough to own a home, I'll definitely look into installing a tub like it. The old standard 1950s number in my current house is one of the most uncomfortable bathtubs in the world, leading to its primary use as a shower. Of all the things in the Chez, it's probably the cleverest fixture here...

Nixon Christmas

Many years ago, a friend of my sister's who had a rare molecular-genetic disorder died on Christmas morning.

One of their classmates phoned on our unlisted home phone number, and the call was intercepted around 6:00 a.m. by our father. Determined to not let it "ruin Christmas", our parents elected to conceal the information from her- but not from me. I was told. I disagreed with their decision; I knew she would implode like the aftermath of a supernova when they did tell her.

Our paternal grandmother was still alive then. Dad, a still photography buff, had never taken to videotaping, although the many foibles of our childhood are more than adequately recorded on old 8mm film from his little handheld movie camera. Since there was no video, Dad decided to make audiotapes to mail to his mother in Phoenix. This led to weird running commentary on the gifts, the dogs' behavior, and general activities. He also taped the conversation during the meal, from the blessing of the food until the tape ran out.

For a couple of hours, we gritted our teeth and opened gifts; I gave an Oscar-worthy performance of 'happy family Christmas' until the last scrap of torn giftwrap went into the trash bag. Dad shut off the tape recorder and in his best physician-informing-the-family voice, announced, "Matt died this morning."

They probably heard my sister's screams in the next county over. She burst into tears, and still screaming, bolted for our shared bathroom upstairs. I heard the lock click firmly into place as I returned the kitchen phone to its receiver- Mom and Dad had taken it and my father's office line off their hooks so no one could call until they were ready to tell her the news themselves.

We didn't see her again until it was time for dinner. Understandably, everybody was pretty subdued. Dad noted Matt's death as the audiotaping resumed, and we had to fight to come up with any conversation around the table. Until the dog fight started, that is...

At the time, our parents had our first Papillon, Didi; Ethel, Didi's half-Cocker Spaniel daughter, and Sunny, my ancient, belligerent, blind and deaf Fox Terrier. Sunny hated everyone and everything in the world except her people. At some point, she perceived that Ethel was jockeying for prime begging rights under the table, and WHAM!

For an old, sick, obese dog, she moved remarkably fast. Dad jumped out of his chair and tried to separate the dogs, and Sunny mistook his hand for something other than what it was- she clamped down on his right palm and refused to let go. Dad was a.) a Navy brat, and b.) in NROTC for three years, so yes, he can curse like a sailor, a talent which he suddenly invoked at the top of his lungs. He stomped out of the dining room trailing blood from a laceration that was probably about three inches long- Dad is right-handed and doctors do a lot with their hands. It was NOT good.

In the ensuing silence, I realized there was a faint whirring sound, and looked down in horror. The tape was still running. In my best Republican National Committee fashion, I shut off the recorder, rewound the tape several minutes, and didn't restart it until Daddy returned a little more composed.

It was the perfect capstone to the Worst Christmas in Living Memory at Our House.

The denouement is as follows: my sister's friends, who normally would never have been let into the house on Christmas, were allowed to come sit with her until after midnight. They were still in their late teens, most of them sophomores in college at the time, so it was an especially hard blow. Matt was the first of their classmates to die. His obituary is in the side table in the guest room, where my sister stays whenever she's visiting.

My grandmother also inquired about the gap in the tape in her next letter to me. I gave her some disingenuous reply, although when asked later by one of my aunts, to whom she had also mentioned it, I told the entire story. Nobody wants their mother to know how fluently they can swear, especially on Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

She Gave Me a Pen

Growing up, I was largely broke as a joke. I got a small allowance about which I got quite squirrelly at spreading very thin, and had brief, sporadic seasonal jobs with the local jeweler and florist. One of my other small enterprises occurred every year around Christmas: the Annual Selling of the Parasitic Plant.

That's right, kids, I'd go mistletoe-spotting and then drag my father out into the woods to shoot it down out of trees for me.

Given that the little packets of mistletoe that the local dimestore sold ran about a dollar a pop, by underselling them at fifty cents for a bigger clump, I could make a right tidy profit. (I guess I'm lucky that my father didn't make me pay him back for the ammunition it took to get it harvested.) I'd learned in junior high that if I personally stood under a clump of mistletoe the size of, say, a head of broccoli, it wouldn't do any good- but that didn't stop my profiting from others' belief in its properties.

For those who got the small, inexpensive gifts I gave at Christmas in high school, well, that's how I paid for them. I was hoofing it especially hard at Christmas in 1985, because I had several graduation presents to purchase the following spring and one of them cost more than others (the engraved Cross pen that went to Hopkins).

During late November, after marching band competition season concluded and when I had more time on Saturdays, I'd sit at the kitchen table, carefully cutting off little pieces of mistletoe and tying them with red, green, and silver ribbons. As December approached, I'd bag up my efforts and haul them off to school to sell to anyone willing to part with two quarters.

I was making a neat profit in '85, with only one minor setback: that's the year I was shacked up with Hopkins, i.e., we were sharing a locker. This had already led to some rather embarrassing moments, like the day he accidentally dumped out my band practice clothes in the floor during a class change, or the afternoon that a compass fell out and almost skewered my foot- but none quite so awkward as the bag of mistletoe. I'd been careful to conceal my little enterprise, lest he think the presence of the offending plant be directed toward the sixteen year-old approximation of seduction- but, as luck would have it, a strong yank on our somewhat stubborn locker door dumped a paper-sackful of mistletoe on the hallway carpet.

I was probably ten feet away when it rolled out, in all its glory.

If you've never seen somebody go from blanched to flaming blush in under three seconds, it's scary. I also don't know who was actually more mortified, him or me- I think this one was pretty much a dead heat.

Since things like this generally left me tongue-tied and miserable, I didn't even try to explain; I just dropped to the floor and began sweeping the tiny bundles into the sack. I rolled the top down tightly, tossed it back into the locker, jammed my books into my designated space (the locker floor), and walked away very quickly.

I managed to eventually compose myself enough to retrieve the mistletoe without further incident, although it did put a bit of a damper on my sales since I didn't dare store the inventory there after that. Between that, my jobs, and the bare scrapings of my allowance left over after I paid for dance or movie tickets, I did manage a few sort of okay graduation gifts. As I said, the greatest fruit of this labor was the pen.

A couple of years later, I was mortified when I finally saw the movie "Say Anything" and heard the line everyone remembers from it: I gave her my heart, and she gave me...a pen.

I promise I've become more adept at gift-giving since then, and none of my current efforts are funded by the sale of mistletoe.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Let it Snow

I love snow, though, as long as I don't have to go anywhere in it, and no one about whom I care does, either. It's beautiful, magical in its own way.

There was a moment, a few years ago, that proved a sad little deal breaker in a relationship for which I had high hopes...one for which my parents had some vague hope, too. I was dating an attorney from Tennessee whose family owns the controlling interest in a small banking corporation in the area where I live. I could tell that he was fond enough of me, but it never, well, you know, went anywhere.

As usual, the easy default is to blame my weight, which I think is part of it, anyway. I tried not to let it prey on me until one night, while I was in the city where he lived for a jazz concert, an acquaintance with whom a friend had once tried to fix him up blurted incredulously, upon being introduced to me, "Oh, you're here together." It hit me hard. She was shocked to think that I could possibly be the competition.

But I intuited this before...

A couple of weeks earlier, I'd met him for dinner at a little place in the small town, not unlike the one I'm from, where his mother was born. As we were walking out to our cars (the bank board had convened in town for an all-day meeting) in the late autumn darkness, it started to flurry.

Being a dork, and ever so slightly romantic (yet loath to show it, lest I look like a fool), I let myself get a bit giddy, spinning a small circle and looking up into the sparkling snowflakes. My reverie didn't last long. It was dragged back to reality with the leaden demand, "What are you doing?"

I managed to rein it in, glad that the darkness hid the dull flush of embarrassment creeping up past the collar of my coat.

And I knew...it was the beginning of the end.

One of the ridiculous romantic notions I'd always entertained, from childhood, was that falling snow had the ability to make anybody look pretty- that it had this magical quality that might transfigure even those of us who feel homely and awkward most of the time into nearly attractive beings. That feeling died that night.

Girls like me don't get to keep the lawyer anyway, you know. Not that it matters, really.

Sometimes I still watch the snow swirling in the street lights and wish I still believed. Maybe it works for other people, just not for me.

Next Time, Bring Your Own Vodka

My cousin Lucifer, whose visit with the Davidson County Corrections folks in Nashville last year was the subject of an earlier blog, turned up on my porch last night. This is after I told him repeatedly over the phone that I had to be at work early today and did not want him to stop by.

He has a little hearing problem, especially when he's less than sober, and he was considerably LESS than sober. He was deposited on my porch with the help of our intrepid police force, who threatened him with a DUI until he said he was just trying to get to my place to sleep it off on the couch. The only problem is that I know something that they didn't: he doesn't go to sleep right away when he's drunk. He wants to drink some more so he can pass out.

I would prefer it if he did his passing out elsewhere. He has a habit of letting himself out either late at night or in the wee, small hours of the morning, which has resulted in his letting my dogs out. Since the yard's not fenced, this is a problem. Due to his refusal to leave, my Airedales were crated overnight against the possibility of his drunkenly liberating them.

It wasn't a misplaced precaution. There's a trick to catching the lock on the side door, and he doesn't know it. As I was shoving him out this morning so I could get ready for work, I noticed that the latch wasn't caught. I'd already found evidence that he'd gotten up from the sofa and had a few drinks during the night, so I wasn't too shocked when I found that he'd rifled through the liquor cabinet and stolen both a fifth of vodka and a fifth of tequila. I think he probably went out overnight and stashed them in the car, hoping I wouldn't notice until after he'd left. At least he was too drunk to get all the way to the back for the bottle of boutique, small-distillery single-malt Scotch that I brought back from my last trip to Scotland. Just trust me on this- that would constitute a felony. Literally.

About forty dollars' worth of booze and a sleepless night were the price of getting rid of him for the time being. Years ago, I caught him trying to take my credit cards, so the first thing I do when he foists his presence off on me is hide my purse and any firearms that are immediately to hand.

When he was playing ball for Old Man Fulmer down at Tennessee, I'm sure these 'madcap drunken antics' were considered par for the course. Thing is, though, Lucifer is now 35. This routine is past stale, and I also noticed that he had his Nissan employee badge clipped to his waistband when he staggered through the door. When he's sober, he works for them as a design engineer, at which he's really quite talented- but the former qualifier sort of obviates the latter. Last night, he was in a local bar (he phoned me three times) trying to pick up a girl from Ohio who made the mistake of insulting Michigan football, which, God help U of M, is where he got his masters' in engineering. Ferris State is the guilty party on his bachelors', and we here at the community college were responsible for his automotive tech diploma and ASE certification...after he quit Tennessee eight weeks shy of finishing his English degree.

Encouraging him to go to detox is useless. While he was incarcerated the last time, he was put in the jail's detox program and forced to attend AA meetings, emphasis on "forced". You can guess how well that worked...his eyes were bright pink and swimming when I turned on my porch light.

I've really hit my limit. I can't drunk-sit him anymore. I wish the fuzz would get wise to his slick, fast-talking BS and lock him up again. That way he'd have somewhere to stay and I wouldn't have to worry about my liquor or my dogs disappearing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sandpainting

Whenever the Dalai Lama visits a place, he is preceded by a small group of monks who construct a sand mandala prior to his visit. After his departure, the mandala is ceremonially dismantled, the sand gathered up into a silk bundle. The bundle is taken to a nearby body of moving water, preferably a river or large stream, where it is released back into nature.

Sometimes, our relationships resemble the sand mandala by default. We assemble them carefully, and when the time comes, we dismantle them and offer their basic elements back whence they originated.

About a year ago, I began putting together a figurative sand mandala. It was born of memory, and took shape over the course of several months before it fixed in place on May 15th. It only survived a couple of months before the lines of the figures began to blur, and I found myself frantically sweeping at the edges, trying to keep the image from distorting into an indistinct lump.

Around midsummer, it became obvious that it was a fruitless chore. I put far more effort into avoiding the impending disruption of this fragile thing than was merited; it was superficial, something transient that represented a long-abandoned reality. It's December now, and a year has passed from the first moments when I gathered the elements together to the point at which my little stab at recapturing something I wish I'd never lost was no more than a pile of sand.

It slipped through my fingers against my will, but grasping at sand never yields much. I'm torn between sweeping what's left of it up and pouring it away, or jealously guarding the vague remains. In many ways, I am as much the sand as the keeper of it, allowed to slip away again.

The third time is the charm. It's time to accept my irrelevance, fold my tent, and nurse my bruised feelings for the last time. Well, that's what I tell myself, anyway.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Bright Lights of Home

When the time came to go home for the break at Christmas of my freshman year of college, I expected it to be the typical annual family endurance contest to which I'd always been accustomed. Without a car of my own, I desperately hoped that my best friend would rescue me during the bleak, cold weeks before we returned to our respective campuses.

My father's idea of decorating the house for the holidays consisted of a wreath on either side of the double front door, under the carriage lamps, and another small wreath on the door at the side porch. I'd long admired the homes with small, twinkling white lights on the bare trees and clear-bulbed electrical candles in the windows, but my father eschewed these things as overkill. Unable to mount my annual campaign from far away at dear old SFU, I expected things to be exactly as usual.

As my mother turned onto our street, I beheld a jam-packed yard with standing Christmas decorations, one of which was an angelic choir that was wired for sound. Santa and his reindeer adorned the lady's rooftop. While Mom lamented the traffic snarls it caused, we took a slow circuit of the streets so I could see our other neighbors' decorations. The Chez faces the top of the circle drive; I was admiring some rustic log reindeer and a hand-painted creche when my mother stopped the car opposite our house. Confused by this, I turned to look forward.

Thousands of tiny white lights glittered on the trees lining the driveway and the front walk. Electric candles blazed in all of the front windows, except my sister's room, which was directly above the front door: in her window, there was a miniature Christmas tree with white lights. The wreaths still hung to either side of the door under the carriage lamps, but now there were matching brass hunting horns on each door.

When I was small, before things soured, I decided that my father could turn the night and stars on and off. I would dance by the back door and chant, "Daddy, do! Daddy, DO!", demanding that he perform his magical feat. I was probably no more than three then, so it took him fifteen years to make another stab at it.

My father would have rather died a thousand deaths than to say that he'd missed me at all, and yet here was this strange testament that despite all the misery that had passed between us, my emotionally repressed male parent might actually love me. Much like the letters sent by our Cocker Spaniel (who mysteriously shared his handwriting) when I was studying abroad a few years later, he'd executed an elaborately planned gesture instead of simply telling me.

Anyone who thinks I'm obtuse needs to back up and take a long, hard look at Dr. AiredaleParent. That's where I learned it, and he's a pro.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Um...Soylent...Green???

Yesterday, I stayed home from work with what turned out to be a migraine. Usually when these hit, I can't read or watch television, so I have to find simple, uncomplicated tasks to perform when I'm not trying to sleep it off. I decided that I'd clean out the freezer a bit.

Ice cream is the worst. I like ice cream, but I don't eat it that often. I prefer chocolate, but I keep vanilla on hand for the dogs. I'd allowed a couple of partial containers to get a bit freezer-burned, so I dragged them out into the sink to thaw. This was a national brand that touts its "natural ingredients", so I expected it to melt into a milk-like consistency so I could pour the contents out before throwing away the cartons.

Wrong.

About three hours later, what I had was a viscous, gelatinous semi-solid glop that sort of scared me. So I guess that's what all these rosins and stabilizing agents do...if the milk used is skim (this wasn't diet ice cream) it probably needs something to give it a little body, but this bordered on ridiculous. This wasn't food; there was a reenactment of The Blob going on in my kitchen sink!

Ever since my parents put me in SFU's nutrition class behavior-modification diet in grad school, I've been an avid label-reader, but I just didn't realize how much gummy crap there was in this ice cream or what it actually did under certain conditions like, say, melting. If it won't melt to a completely fluid state, my first thought is that it's just this side of indigestible. Being from the country and having taken part in more than one church ice cream social in my lifetime, I know that most ice cream should be comprised of the following: milk, eggs, sugar, and flavoring, with rock salt and ice used in the ice cream freezer's outer compartment to bring it to a solid state.

Nowhere in my experience does a homemade ice cream recipe include, say, guar gum. There are some things we just weren't meant to eat, people, and I strongly suspect that guar gum is one of 'em- where would you even GET guar gum for home cooking? Oh, wait. You don't need it when you make your own.

Dr. AiredaleParent worked for the FDA as a manufacturing inspector before he went to med school- that means he's the guy who checked for rat poop and spider eggs in food and drug manufacturing plants. He can still quote the permissible insect particulate matter percentages for ketchup off the top of his head, so you can imagine that I've heard a lot about what's in our food. My favorite teacher, Marie Bloyd, also insisted that I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the novel that galvanized Teddy Roosevelt to push Congress for regulatory oversight of the food and drug industries. After reading it, I hit Dad up with about a million questions...which is how I was able to gross out one of my least-favorite English teachers as she prepared to wolf down a hamburger.

I also cook, which is why all these bizarre expanders and stabilizers offend me. If I don't know what an ingredient is, chances are most other people won't either. It's food, not a chemistry experiment! After the pet food protein scandals, one of my Airedales developed a skin condition related to grains in dog food, so I also started reading dog food labels really closely (I switched to an expensive grain-free brand that's made mostly from duck and brown rice. Yes, my dogs eat better than I do). If I wouldn't eat it, you guessed it, people, I'm not gonna feed it to my dogs. Little did I realize when I reached that conclusion that this would include ice cream intended for humans. You learn something new every day!