Lizards

I’ve got to say, there are some really cool things about living in the South. I’m talking specifically about reptiles here. Not snakes, so much, though I love them, too. But lizards. We had a pet iguana when I was a teen, and a couple of small brown anoles named Gandalf and Eowyn. Of course, they should have been Gandalf and Eomer, but never mind. We had them. They ate live crickets, which had a bad habit of alternately escaping into the house or dying of old age before  G&E got around to turning them into meals. And I have a lifelong fondness for lizards and other reptiles that started well before even this acquaintance.

My mom, maternal grandparents, and I used to go to Florida every year when I was small. My sister came too, after she was born. We’d spend at least a month in Naples, first in the camper, and later in the condo. I don’t remember the camper days. Too small. Mostly, I remember condo number 14, walking down to the pool, the air heavy with humidity and sulfur, and the skinks and geckoes scurrying out of the way as we came. I wanted to catch one of those little lizards so badly. I have conflicting memories of my mother’s response. Logic says that she would have encouraged me to look without touching, but I can’t imagine my mother utterly resisting the urge to capture an insect, amphibian, or reptile, at least long enough to study it. In any case, these particular critters were in no danger from me. They all skittered faster than I pounced and thus escaped without even having to even perform their  famed tail break even once.

The anoles were small and brown, or small and green, and I called them chameleons, because they could change colors slightly. The skinks were shiny with blue, black, orange, or yellow stripes running the length of their bodies. They were my favorites, because they came in such an unexpected range of colors. I liked the geckos, too, because they looked like extensions of the stucco walls where they spent most of their time. They were usually brown and bumpy, with big eyes and fast tongues. The ones I saw as a child didn’t much resemble the current Geico spokes-creature. The anoles and skinks showed up all day long, but especially at sunset, when the insects came out. The geckos were awake after full dark, darting across the sidewalks and under the rocks ahead of us.

Since we’ve lived in Alabama, I’ve seen skinks and anoles, but no geckos. Which is not to say we don’t have any, just that they haven’t presented themselves in my line of vision. They don’t seem to coat the ground in Montgomery like they did in Naples, but sightings are by no means rare. Not all our visitors stay long enough to be photographed, but those who do usually leave an impression.

A couple of years ago, Scott and I were eating a late dinner and there was this whump outside on our window screen. We jumped up in time to see this guy 

 enjoying his ten o’clock snack. He only stayed long enough to be photographed from indoors, which is unfortunate, because I did get to see him from the outside, and he was an awesome anole, having a sneaky after dark snack. I imagined him as a lizard superhero, flying through the air, hunting insects, thunking onto people’s screens, then vanishing into the distance, his work done for another evening.

Then back in March of this year, I was trying to get something out of our back room (it’s an extra storage area behind the patio, attached to the house, but with no inside access) and this little brown anole darted in across my feet, nearly tripping me as I danced to avoid stepping on him. In the process of trying to shoo him out again, I caught him, fulfilling a childhood dream entirely by accident.

I trotted him inside to show the kids, and to my surprise, he let himself be transferred from my hands to theirs. He had been so fast in the back room, but he acted entirely tame in the house. At last, Sam carried him to the yard, where we released him.

Only he stayed. He decided his best strategy for safety lay in camouflage.

He had started greening up in our hands, but as soon as we put him down in the pile of still-unraked autumn leaves, he began turning brown again. And he stayed there, motionless, vanishing into the underbrush. I rushed in to grab the camera, and when I came back, Sam had to remind me where the lizard was, so thoroughly had he changed his hues. But he remained as docile as he had been when we were all holding him, allowing me to crawl right up beside him, then zoom in noisily on top of that. I thought maybe we had accidentally caused a tiny reptilian stroke, and that he might die in place. And indeed, it took a long time for him to depart. He was still there later, when I brought Scott out to see.  I looked in on him for several hours, each time taking longer to find him in the leaves. He ultimately went away between my checks. I guess he survived the adventure with a story to tell the little grand-lizards back home.

I look forward to our lizard encounters. My mother instilled in me a fascination with nature that came from growing up in the country, surrounded by the stuff. I could never quite access her depths of delight over insects and arachnids, but I love the reptiles and amphibians, and I want to pass this to Caroline and Sam. As the matter of fact, I rather think they have far more potential than I ever did as budding naturalists. Pretty soon,  Caroline is going to eclipse my knowledge of flora and fauna and have to be turned over to her grandmothers. That’s OK. I’m sure they’re both ready to share their knowledge with the next generation.

Dawn

Good day ladies and gentlemen. I’m on my soapbox this morning, and I’d appreciate your vocal support. I have a friend named Dawn – she’s my step-sister-in-law, in fact – who is getting flak for being an outspoken straight ally for same-sex marriage. She deserves support from every corner of the globe, and I’m asking my friends here to chime in on Facebook and my blog comments on her behalf.

OK, let me back up, because this gets complicated. First, let me explain who this person even is. My husband’s parents divorced some years back, and his Dad has since remarried. This created a family of blended adults, because Scott’s stepmother has a son of her own, named Andy. Andy went on to marry Dawn, and Scott went on to marry me. So. Dawn is my step-sister-in-law. If there’s even technically such a thing. That’s the short version. We don’t see nearly enough of Andy and Dawn, who are awesome people with a couple of amazing daughters, but I’ve connected with them on Facebook.

More back story. Scott comes from a Presbyterian family. So, for that matter, do I, but I’m pretty agnostic when nuts come down to bolts. Andy and Dawn are also Presbyterians, and they are, in fact, both attending Louisville Seminary.  (There are two branches of Presbyterianism, and Dawn and Andy are PCUSA, for anyone interested.) Dawn has been in seminary for what must feel like the last thousand years or so, and she is heading into the final days as a student and on to her first days as a confirmed minister.

Last year, or maybe the year before (I’m not up on my all-things-Presbyterian lore here like I ought to be), Dawn attended the church’s General Assembly and stood up to tell the entire body why PCUSA ought to support same-sex marriage. That alone is brave. There are certainly other straight allies in the church. Many others. But not so many willing to face down a room full of heated opposition from Leviticus-wielding right wingers and milquetoast un-support from allies who thought the time wasn’t right to bring the issue up for debate. She faced immediate backlash, in the form of dirty looks and mutters for the rest of the convention, though she certainly also received rallying support from friends and interested others.

Fast forward to now. Last year, the General Assembly had some important vote that allowed partnered homosexual ministers to be ordained. I’m not exactly certain on the technicalities here, but it wasn’t full equality. Yesterday, that full equality in ordination came about. I know there’s a ratification period when a certain number of churches have to favor an Assembly decision before it becomes church practice. So I don’t know if that voting period came due yesterday, or if the General Assembly did something different yesterday, but the upshot is that sexual orientation is no longer a bar to ordination in the PCUSA, and openly gay pastors can now be ordained. Some right wing feathers are majorly ruffled.

And oh, by the way, Dawn’s candidacy meeting was yesterday, too.  Yeah. Talk about timing.

She endured a shouting match that derailed what should have been a routine procedure. She should have left that meeting with her committee’s full support. She should have been recommended and sent to the floor of the presbytery for full confirmation. Instead, right wingers attacked every aspect of her life, and her instructors shouted around her while she sat and listened. She left the meeting in tears.

It wasn’t a total loss. She is being recommended. But to protect her from further attacks, her committee decided to wait before sending her to the floor for confirmation. She is pretty sure the whole thing boils down to her standing up at that General Assembly. And she’s right, no question. But it also very clearly boils down to timing. The right-wingers lost a major battle yesterday, and they lashed out at a convenient target in Dawn. This is a woman who embodies everything good about that church. I’m no big fan of organized religion, but what Dawn has is something special, and it’s not something to be ignored. Her gift is being delayed for absurd political reasons, and I’m outraged on her behalf.

Which brings me to my own friends and supporters. It sounds like justice will eventually prevail here, in the long run, but  Dawn still deserves a rallying cry. Can I see a huge show of support for her here and in my Facebook comments? I’m not tagging because she’s kept her own Facebook page tactfully vague, but Dawn, you know who you are. You’re one of the fighters, whose heart and mind are filled with beauty and purpose. You keep right on rocking their Presbyterian boat.

Da Mac

I’ve had some hellaciously bad office jobs. The kind that make The Office and Dilbert alike pale by comparison.  I’m not talking about my present employment situation, for the record, but about past workplaces. Employers I had to pick myself up and drive to see five days a week, just about every week. Currently, I teach college English online. It’s a work from home job, and that “work from home” factor outweighs a lot of potential negatives. Thus, not only am I not talking about my present job, I won’t be talking about it until or unless I move on to something else. While I’m very good at biting the hand that feeds me, I do have at least some common sense. No, I’m talking about the past right now. In fact, I think I’ll narrow this to discussing one specific past job. About half the people reading this know exactly where I’m talking about.

Let’s start this off with Once upon a time, even though the story is completely true.

So. Once upon a time, in Lexington Kentucky, there was a squatty building with a warehouse and some office space. There were no cubicles in the offices, so no privacy, the parking lot flooded in every heavy rain, and the bathrooms stank like yesterday’s black-bean burrito after lunchtime. I worked in a wide-open room, where the door did very little to screen us from the warehouse. The warehouse manager spent her time screaming at her employees, and the company once lost seventeen of those warehouse employees simultaneously when they turned out to be in the country illegally.

Another manager, this woman in the other half of our room, spent her time making mistakes and blaming them on others, then accidentally e-mailing the pay raise list to her entire department. She refused to admit to her own errors, instead blaming them on her employees (when talking to upper management) and her managers (when talking to employees). She was far more interested in her next vacation to China than in the people who worked for her.

The foul environment and foul managers combined to run a decent company into the ground. Here’s an example of the kinds of things that would happen daily around there. A crate of our goods got returned unopened because of a supposed error on our part. The screamer-manager wrenched open the lid, where she discovered the container to be full of maggots. Yes. We had left the material in storage for so long (this through no fault of our own, I will admit) and in such lousy conditions that it had developed maggots, then shipped it to the customer without checking the product first (it’s this second part we could have controlled pretty easily).  The buyer never knew about it entirely due to a fluke.  The screamer-manager took matters into her own hands and threw the crate into a nearby dumpster, only to find herself criticized by one of the veeps for failing to save the box’s packing list. Can I get a witness here? I am not making this up.

 Oppressive doesn’t even begin to describe the place.

As a final example, the company president painted his own office deep den-red and lined the walls with exotic animals he had killed. There was a buffalo head, among other things, to give you a sense of the place.  He had a ghastly taxidermied exhibit consisting of a zebra-rug being trampled and eaten by some scavenger, I think a hyena. And these were all animals he’d shot on safaris and other expeditions and brought into work.  Because he’d run out of room at home. Seriously. The employee unlucky enough to have to visit his office couldn’t help but imagine human heads on those mounts.  I never had to go there, and I’d have probably been too stupid to be intimidated if I had.

I worked there for five years, rising as far as assistant manager before I outed a jackass manager who had been caught soliciting sex from a police officer. Using the justification that the manager was gay and suggesting I was a homophobe, though I’m pretty sure the real reason was that he knew some pretty dark company secrets, I was the one who got demoted and transferred. But it was just as well. I had been working under the blamer-manager, and was on the verge of quitting at that point anyway.

In fact,  I only stayed in that job for one reason. The manager who hired me, the one they transferred me back to after I was demoted, was possibly the best boss I’ve ever known. I’m talking about Carol Macmann here, and there is no irony in my speaking. Carol carried the weight of our department, deflecting the worst of the bullshit handed down from on high, and helping us achieve job fulfillment when doing so was all but impossible.  She brought in a sense of humor and a willingness to see situations in the best light. Her positive attitude defied everything those upper managers and her fellow middle managers dealt out.

Morale at that place was unbearably low. People clocked out in the middle of the day, then worked through lunch anyway to avoid having to go sit in the break room. The area where our product was stored had not passed EPA inspection for human occupation. The part the EPA had deemed safe for us to work in regularly failed fire code, and the company just kept paying fines rather than fixing the problems that led to the reports.  Dead birds periodically showed up in the totes of work that arrived on our desks, freshly ferried over from the condemned part of the building. We dreaded the almost daily dictates delivered by safari-boss and his underlings.

And Carol came to work every day prepared for those same dictates. She came to defend her employees and run her department. She fought for us, spoke the truth to us, and worked together with us to make a truly appalling job tolerable. She had a knack for finding out what a person’s greatest skill was, and then turning that person loose to develop it.  She was a constant whirl of activity. When she spun past my desk, I was guaranteed to pick up a new project along with some of the innate enthusiasm she brought along. Her presence was a blessed source of chaos in a dehumanizing environment.

Some days, she would walk through the door with a certain set to her shoulders and purpose to her stride, and we’d look at each other and say “Carol’s loaded for bear today.” And that was never a cause for fear among her employees. Rather, we waited to watch her at work, because she considered it her job to clear the hurdles upper management threw in the way of our jobs.  ‘Loaded for bear’ meant she had discerned one of these blockades and was on her way to disassemble it single-handedly. Now, if one of us stopped working to potential, she took care of that, too. But her employees wanted to please her, and we did our jobs well in spite of the asshats above her. She stayed with the business until the end, leaving only after the company’s relocation to Illinois had been announced and we all had to find other positions anyway.  

Carol and I are Facebook friends now, and I love hearing about the things she enjoys as the manager of a public library. I think she’s finally found employers who do for her what she does for others, allowing her to maximize her strengths and turn  that enthusiasm and creative energy to a happy fulfilling workplace.

She’s started an online book group that I’ve joined. Besides all the great reading ideas, it allows me to see her incorporate technology into her job and maintain that cyclone of excitement around her it. I have no doubt that her employees want to come to work every morning and feel secretly disappointed when she has a day off.

In closing, there are horrible bosses who can ruin a good job, and there are awesome bosses who can turn even a bad job decent, then make a good job into a dream-come-true. Carol Macmann, you are surely knit from the latter wool, and my hat is off to you.  May you and those you love live happily ever after.

Biker Girl

It felt so good to get back on a bike. I haven’t ridden in years – since before I got married at least. Callaway Gardens had these awesome tandems called trail-a-bikes for adults to ride with kids. Caroline and Sam had actual pedals, and it helped them gain confidence. It also gave them some much needed time apart, because they were at each other’s throats yesterday morning. We started out with Caroline on Scott’s bike and Sam on mine, then swapped in the middle.

The bikes were amazingly easy to ride. The tandem part was like a unicycle style trailer, so it had its own cornering ability, and I wasn’t having to be constantly aware of my vehicle’s length. My passengers, in addition to their helmets, had an actual seat belt of sorts, and very, very strong opinions about my speed. Sam wanted to go faster, and Caroline wanted to go slower until I really got moving.

“Go faster, Mama!” Sam would order me every third pedal or so. Which wasn’t so nice when I’d just hopped off the bike to push it up a particularly steep hill.

“You sound like one of those drill sergeants in aerobics, Mister!” I’d tell him. And he thought it was hilarious.

I really only had to push a couple of times, thanks to a well oiled gear system, and I mostly controlled my speed because I didn’t want to jackknife and tumble my passenger. Helmet or no, it wouldn’t feel good to land on the asphalt. Mostly, I pedaled up the hills, and I could feel the burn from my calves up through my thighs. It required some serious exertion. But oh the coasting down afterwards made it worthwhile.

Caroline started the first big coast with a wail of terror. “Slow dowwwn, Mommmmm!” that morphed into a shriek of delight “Heeyyyy, I’m happyyyyyy!” as she realized we weren’t going to crash. I could feel her relaxing into the pedals, instead of fighting me on them, and I knew I’d finally gotten through to her a concept I’ve been working on for months. Biking is much less scary when you pick up the pace.

 I remember the summer I was twelve, riding my ten-speed like that. We lived in the middle of a sharp curve at the top of a hill. Ours was a busy road, a state route that connected US 50 and US 68, and it probably wasn’t safe for me ride on at all. My parents were always after me to go with the flow of traffic and stay as close to the side as possible. But even with mirrors, I felt like the cars could just creep up behind me, and the median was tiny. I hated that white line. I didn’t have the best coordination, and I’d gotten myself a number of skinned knees crashing the bike as I skidded off the road. And no, I didn’t even own a helmet. So I always crossed over and rode facing the traffic. Or, better still, planted myself close to the middle of the road, and stayed there, to my father’s consternation. (And in retrospect, I realize that if it could consternate my Dad, it was probably pretty alarming. I can’t imagine what I would do if I saw my kids doing that, today.)

But, I digress. By the end of the summer, I could pump to the top of all the hills in fifth gear, then coast to the bottom. I was an expert in fixing a popped chain, and the tips of my toes were alternately calloused and bloodied because I rode in flip-flops and they periodically scraped. It was the best feeling in the world. And yesterday, pedaling first with Sam, and later with Caroline, I felt that way again. I had given in and worn my hated athletic shoes, but the wind was still the same in my face, the burn still the same in my calves and thighs. I wanted to stay on that bike forever.

Getting off to try Geocaching was almost a let-down.

We had packed along our GPS and the coordinates of some supposedly easy-to-find caches. The first one was supposed to be practically right in the chapel, with a clue that made it sound like it might be in the organ. But there’s an organ concert on Sundays, so even after we’d combed the countryside, we couldn’t exactly check in the pipes. We spent nearly an hour on that hunt, and had no time for another, because the butterfly gardens awaited us, but we actually had a grand time doing it.

We’re getting a few new tools before we try again, though. Like an actual compass. And maybe one of those electronic Geocaching compasses that actually has the coordinates built in. Because our GPS absolutely did not help. It had crappy satellite reception, so we’d be standing still, and Samantha would still be running through a variety of tenths of degrees of latitude and longitude, trying to catch up to where we actually were. (Yes, our GPS has a name and gender. And when she’s feeling bitchy, she gives the directions in Afrikaans. Seriously.) And then, we’d return to a spot exactly where we’d stood before, and she’d have us at totally different coordinates. Or we’d head in one direction, and the degrees would drop instead of going up, so we’d spin around and go the opposite direction, and the numbers would continue to go down. It was maddening.

Scott and I spent a lot of time handing the GPS back and forth trying to use Sam and Caroline as human markers (you can imagine how that went) traipsing through the wilderness between two roads getting nasty little ticks in our hair. Even though we never did find anything, we all got a taste for the pirate’s adventure, and I think we’ve found a new family hobby. I also think that with more experience and a better system, we’ll start actually finding things.

Overall, it was the best Mother’s Day ever, even speaking as one who completely disdains the holiday. If I could reciprocate on Father’s Day, I’d do it by sending Scott off to enjoy a round of golf alone. But I know he won’t go. So I’ll have to start thinking now about what he would do, because he’s the one responsible for our whole family having such a glorious time today, and I’d really like to return the favor.

Geocaching

Everybody else seems to be all on about Mother’s day, but quite frankly, it’s a holiday that doesn’t inspire me much. Some kid thought it up in the early 20th century, and Hallmark caught on soon after.  To me, it’s one in a string of mall-o-tron birthdays hyped to increase the sales of overpriced dust collecting knickknacks. We don’t really keep with Mother’s Day in my house, nor Father’s Day Either.

That said, my family got me some kickass gifts for Mother’s Day this year. The best one is the half hour Swedish Massage Scott got me, but even the kids’ crafts are pretty adorable. Sam glued tissue paper all over a baby food jar, Miss Terry dropped in a tea light candle, and Sam traced his name on the card. Caroline made me a ceramic coaster. Well, her teachers did. And made an adorable thumbprint vine for me to set my drinks on. I guess this means I’d better start thinking about Father’s Day, even though Scott will tell me not to.

We’re also going to Callaway gardens, where I plan to make Scott let us rent bikes and try out Geocaching. Or at least try out Geocaching. Unless they rent trikes or kiddie-wagons to go with the bikes, we wouldn’t be very effective bikers, since neither Sam nor Caroline will ride.  If they won’t, this means I’ll have to engage in my least favorite activity, walking, to get there, but I think it may be well worth it.

We’re eternally seeking free family activities, and we’ve kind of run through all of Montgomery’s options. Several times over. We recently found Callaway Gardens, and we fell in love with the butterfly gardens. We bought a membership, and I’d love to add to the free things we can do there. (And I’m totally excited about the upcoming treetop adventure that hasn’t opened yet.)

In any case, happy mother’s day to all. If we have a good time, I’ll blog our experience tomorrow.

Talking To Myself Again

I talk to myself. Most of us do. But me, I answer back, argue, and have entire animated conversations, usually at a mutter, that can’t be disguised as cell phone calls. If you’re ever in an intense debate with me, or Godhelpyou an argument, my lips will be moving the entire time, even when you’re speaking, giving the alarming impression that I already knew what you were going to say.  (I didn’t. I was just working out my own response while you said it.)

Lately, all my internal dialogues have been about aerobics. Those classes make me self conscious, especially the “dance party” atrocities, where the instructors act like we’re at boot camp.  I feel awkward for three reasons. One: My boobs are so big I have to let them in the room one at a time. Two: I dance barefoot. And three: I don’t do some of the bouncier stuff, like jumping jacks.

Seriously. When there’s a crowd of women jostling back and forth in the entrance, half of them trying to get into the gym and the other half trying to escape it, just about the only way for me to get through without causing bodily harm is to turn on an angle and use my right breast to part the crowd. People don’t mind pressing up against each other’s thighs and stomachs. But you throw a titty in there, and they get out of the way fast. But then I’m turned crabwise and the only way to proceed is by shoving the right boob on through the door and following up with the left. Sorry ladies. Two big ones coming through.

So then, once I’m in the room, I take off my shoes. I figured this out after the third Zumba class was still leaving me with the urge to vomit. I get nauseous when I’m hot anyway, but there’s something about hot feet that pushes me right over the edge and into pukesville. I think it may be that my feet don’t sweat, but it could just be that I’m a crackpot. Anyway, when I suddenly realized that the whole problem with my stomach was my shoes, I ditched them and have been keeping up ever since. But this means that every third class or so, some helpful soul tries to sell me on her shoes, which she assures me breathe well, and will give my feet the oxygen they need. Then doesn’t understand when I have to explain that, among other things, I hate shoes. I wear Birkenstocks in public out of respect for the Health Department,  but my shoes are the first things to come off when I hit the door at home and in the car. Yes, I drive barefoot too.  Anyway, I’ve learned that acting interested gets me rid of the well intended folks faster than trying to explain. So I ask questions like “Do they breathe well?” and “How’s the arch support?” rather than trying to politely say that I could not care less.

The one valid point these people make is that doing aerobics barefoot can be rough on the lower back.  Even without Mt. Vesuvius (pre Pompeii) and Mt. St. Helens (pre 1980) bouncing around on my chest, having bare feet would turn the bouncy stuff into jolty stuff. But the solution is easy. I don’t bounce much. I do the little hops, especially the irresistible ones in Zumba, but when it comes to the big leaps and those hellacious jumping jacks, I pull back. And that’s where I start talking to myself.

When the whole class is doing jacks and I’m back there doing my little step-touch-touches, I feel watched. Particularly as I’m only even a little coordinated at this when I’m following the group, so doing my own dance invariably leaves me off the beat by at least two counts. Which is why I talk to myself. Now, these instructors have pretty much figured out I don’t like to be singled out and they leave me alone. When one of the dance party leaders told everybody to give her some “attitude” in a particular little catwalk twist, I suddenly stopped moving, crossed my arms across my chest and scowled. Hey, she asked for attitude! Apparently she meant  “lengthen your stride and bare your teeth”. She herself kept randomly growling like she thought she was the queen of pouty tigers, and the other women in the class flipped their shoulders and growled back. Who knew. Attitude is just looking sexy in dance class.  The instructor just tried really hard not to look at me, and I eventually pulled together and rejoined the routine, which felt about as much like dancing as those damned cardio machines, except I could do it without the shoes. (I actually should have left that particular class right then. She had us lifting bloody weights for our cool down. I left a nastygram at the front desk suggesting she study up on the difference between Body Pump and Dance Party.)

But the fact that the instructors have never called me out has not reduced my desire to explain myself to them. I don’t do so for fear that bare feet are prohibited in dance classes, and because, quite frankly, I prefer to be invisible in there. So instead, I talk to them in my head. Driving down the road, I’ll be gesturing to my breasts and feet explaining to someone who is simply not present that I have no intentions of putting on running shoes, but I’d really love it if somebody could find me an exercise bra that stifled the flap-flaps.

“They’re G cups,” I’ll explain. “G cups! When I lost fifty pounds for my wedding, I actually gained a cup size, and I haven’t lost it since I added two kids and put the weight back on. I presume they’re going to only get bigger since I’m exercising more now. Yes, I know that should actually shrink them, but it goes the other way for me.”

“Mom, who are you talking to?” Caroline will ask from the back seat. “What are ‘G cups’?”

“Nobody. Never mind. It’s about bras”

And Sam will add “Can I see your bwa?” leading to an increase in my under-the-breath tirade.

I don’t know exactly where the behavior comes from. It seems like something like this would have to be learned, but I can’t recall anybody from my childhood who did this except me, and as far as I know, I’ve always done it.  It seems to act as a check on my desire to burst out with a response in every conversation, even those that have nothing to do with me, and to contain my need to talk incessantly in social situations. (If you’ll know me well, you’ll also know that this “containment” is seriously minimal.) But it means that I have to warn you, if you run into me talking to myself in the grocery store, you should at least double check to be sure I’m not really deeply engaged in deep conversation with a six foot tall white rabbit. Because you know, people, Harvey is out there, and it’s the ones like me that can see him.

 Jester Queen and urchins

Pandora

I’m in a relationship with Pandora radio, and it’s complicated. Not just the relationship, but the entire system. In theory, Pandora only plays music you like, and it determines your desires by keeping track of your “like” and “dislike” clicks in “stations” you create. It sounds simple, but it isn’t in any way ingenious, even when attached to something with the name “The Music Genome Project”.  

Here’s how it works. When you first login, you search for an artist or song you like. Based on that search, Pandora plays a song it thinks you’ll enjoy, not necessarily the thing you actually searched for. Somehow, copyright law prohibits formal playlists. Whatever. Let’s say I search for Belle and Sebastian. I love them. So then, if I “like” the song that pops up (probably by someone else entirely), Pandora adds its identified characteristics to my “Belle and Sebastian” station. Which will, in the end, have almost no Belle and Sebastian in it, but will, instead, be populated by songs Pandora thinks are similar to things Belle and Sebastian might play. Which means that somehow all roads lead me to the blandest songs of the70’s and 80’s, because, as far as I can tell, Pandora thinks ALL the bands I enjoy engage in the same three behaviors: mellow instrumentals, intricate melodies, and vamping.

Vamping. Let’s talk about that. I don’t think this means what Pandora thinks it means. Vamping is musical improvisation.  That’s oversimplifying it, but anyway, it’s something that, depending on how you consider it, pretty much all artists engage in or one that only live performances can really achieve. In either case, it’s a completely useless criterion for deciding what type of music someone enjoys. About the only thing it excludes are symphonies, and even some of those include improv (though I’m thinking the term ‘vamping’ is a bit too mod for the classical world).

The other criteria are equally lacking in worth, although it would really seem like they would be more helpful. To continue my Belle and Sebastian example, qualities like mellow rock instrumentation and intricate mean I should, at the very least, expect only soft rock on the Belle and Sebastian channel, right? RIGHT? I shouldn’t have anything by, say Aerosmith or Tom Petty creeping in there, should I?

Well I do. Why? Because Pandora  dropped in some Sara McLaughlin, and I made the mistake of “liking” it. That added the qualities of her work to my list. And she led to another artist I enjoyed and so on. Simply by “liking” the music I heard, I inadvertently turned the Belle & Sebastian station into the “Sting, Police, R.E.M., Eagles” station.  And the same thing happened in reverse to my Aerosmith station, as it slowly shifted from heavy rock to mild 80’s.  You don’t even want to see what Pandora came up with for my Philip Glass request. Now, I like Sting, the Police, R.E.M. and the Eagles. But I do not want to hear “Witchy Woman” or “Losing My Religion” a thousand times (or waste skips on them). To regain any semblance of the station I originally wanted to create, I had to start DISliking songs.

Clicking “dislike” on a song leads to it being dropped entirely from the station with a stupid message about never playing that one again. None of the criteria associated with the song are dropped, though, and it can still crop up on other stations. So adjusting Pandora based on “dislikes” is a much slower process, and it’s an annoying one, too. This may be just a matter of semantics, but I don’t want to click “dislike” on a song I enjoy. I do realize that doing so only bumps it off of that one station, and that I can create pretty much an infinite number of stations. But, quite frankly, I want to reserve those “dislikes” for songs I hate. Because I hate a lot of songs, and Pandora only gives me a certain number of skips based on the fact that I don’t pay for their services.

If I paid, I could have more skips (but still not an infinite number), and I would not have to endure insipid health insurance commercials every third song. But I’m not likely to pay for a service that I find of limited utility. Of course, I could just take off my headphones and suffer through the hated tunes, then click dislike AFTER the fact, thus getting the song off the station while retaining my skips.  But if I’m listening to the radio, it’s usually because I’m so stressed out that my own rather enormous collection hasn’t got what I need, meaning I’m unlikely to sit through annoyance music just to save a skip.

I have friends who love the service, and I can’t decide if they’re just less picky than I am, or if they have some secret “like/dislike” magic that will control the process more effectively.  I find Pandora chaotic, probably appropriate for something named after the mythological woman who opened the jar that released evil into the world.

My overall conclusion is that I want Sirius. Satellite radio has a lot more options, and I’m willing to pay for a service that, from what I’ve heard, really works.

Flight of the Preschooler

Sam is the kind of child for whom clichés like “look before you leap” mean exactly nothing. He is very much a leap-then-look kind of boy. I’ve got some ideas about where this tendency came from. Scott and I were both pretty cautious kids. But my Dad has these reel-to-reel tapes, extremely early home videos, that show him wearing a sheet for a cape while he leaps off of a picnic table. There’s no sound on this  footage, but I’m pretty sure the boy in those pictures is yelling “Superman!”.  Which is just one of the things Sam likes to shout before he pitches himself forward into the unknown. Or, sometimes, the altogether too-well-known.

Mostly, he doesn’t say anything at all. He just jumps, and I either turn around just in time to see it, or just a second too late to see it. If I do turn in time, I invariably squawk something like, “Sam!” or “Sam, no!” or, if there’s enough time, and as I’m running to prevent the damage, “Scott Allen Merriman, Jr., don’t you dare…!” I try not to give him the satisfaction of these reactions, but the things he does have the potential to be so deadly that my shock invariably overrides any rational restraint.

And he’s not the type to call out “Mom, look!” either. For all that he’s an attention hound, stuntman Sam appears to be acting entirely on impulse. Yesterday morning, he leapt across a three foot gap from his sister’s bed to her rolling, revolving office chair, bringing himself to within a hair of crashing head-on into the corner of her desk.  Last week, he climbed to the top of the kiddie slide at the pool and jumped straight into the air. I had time to shout, “Sam don’t you…” before he was in flight. He came down in the middle of the slide, where his feet shot out from under him and his back and head bounced as he finished his ride down the inclined plane. The lifeguard and I reached him at the same time. His face never submerged, and he skidded to the bottom screaming in agony .

But this did not stop him from standing on the slide again the next climb up, as if he could have the experience painlessly if he could just stick the landing. That time, I was watching more closely and treated him to my dragon voice “Sam Merriman, you sit down now!”

He has a yellowing bruise on his cheek right at the moment and three stories of how it got there. Any of them could be true. “I fell in McDonalds” refers a recent episode when he was sitting on his knees in his seat, violently twisting it back and forth and suddenly lost his balance, ending pinned between the chair and the play-area window. “I landed on a stick” happened in the backyard, when he was zooming back and forth between the tree house and the swing set. And “I went splat in Miss Amber’s room” addresses a gallant escape he made from his own class into the one across the hall that would have been perfect except for the face-first landing.

And yet it was his sister, who is careful to a fault, who fell off the monkey bars and broke her arm on her first day at a new school last year. Go figure.

I think the hardest part of all this for me to accept is that natural consequences have no effect whatsoever  on this child. He knows that jumping in the air on the slide leads to cracking your skull on the landing. He knows that running on slick floors leads to falling down hard. He knows that sharp corners mean painful bruises. And it doesn’t stop him. As soon as the initial pain has passed, he’s ready to resume whatever daredevil stunt led to his getting hurt in the first place.

I prefer to be the kind of parent who lets her kid learn by interacting with the world. Even Caroline has a basic instinct to avoid repeating activities that get her hurt, and she learns a lot faster from doing than being told not to do. But Sam seems to need a parental reality check before he gets hurt. “Sam honey, remember last time? Remember when you stood on your trike? How you fell and hit your head on the concrete.”

“Oh. That didn’t feel so nice.”

“No dear.”

“OK. I won’t do that.”The classic "oh" face

This time. But next time? He probably will.

When he was two, he jammed his finger into a hanger hole in a metal dustpan, then jerked it out again when he saw the panicked look on my face. Twenty two agonizing stitches later, he had genuinely learned not to poke his finger into small places. But seriously, I hope he learns some of these other lessons without the reinforcement of the lidocaine immunity he shares with me. (He didn’t have to be sedated for the twenty two stitches, and the numbing agent kept wearing off, leading him to chant “Ow, ow, ow,” in a monotone until the doctor put on more. Which is about like a typical dentist-filling trip for me.)

The finger

Gruesome, isn't it?

 I’m not looking forward to his first broken bone. (And if Caroline got one, he’s sure to do so.) Or his next set of stitches. Or the tearful call from school when one of those things happens on a loving teacher’s watch.  I honestly don’t fear for his life in these situations, but I certainly do fear for my sanity.

An anachronism in The Sound of Music

Oddly, nobody else made this mistake...

A few weeks ago, I went to my first Sound of Music sing-along. Several people described it as a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show for the post-college set, and they were quite right. Of course, that meant it was right up my alley.  My friend Star dressed as oldest daughter Liesl after she found the perfect pleated skirt in Goodwill. Star’s Mom went as Mother Superior, and her friend Diane was a nun (Sister HollyWood).

I went as a drunken pirate. Oops.

I loved The Sound of Music as a kid, but I only saw it maybe twice all the way through. And then, too, I had no idea the sing-along was coming to Montgomery until the day before, when I attached myself to Star’s party. I didn’t have a costume, so I ran through the songs in my head, scanned a website, and looked over some of the pictures on Star’s DVD set. And then, the next morning, still without any ideas, I thought of the song that goes:

What do you do with a drunken sailor,

What do you do with a drunken sailor,

What do you do with a drunken sailor,

Ear-lie in the mornin’

I completely remembered a scene from the movie with this song in it. It was part of the marionette section. Julie Andrews had to maneuver the puppets by herself for some reason.  Of course, the marionette sailors wore the white navy-boy uniforms, but I thought I could work with that. After all, I had a bandana and my Gypsy-Pirate-Jester-Queen Halloween costume, and I thought I could run with parts of that, striped socks, and three-quarter pants, and that it would be cute to change the sailor to a pirate.  Yeah.

I have no idea what Star thought I was doing, but she totally went along with it, helping me find a striped shirt and roll the white pants, and even dropping by Target, where I snagged the striped socks.  In Hobby Lobby, in addition to the finishing touches for her Liesl, we grabbed me the supplies to make it look like I was a string-puppet.

This last bit was possibly the only true-to-the-movie piece of my costume.

We got to the Capri theater, where I got some weird looks. I did notice that I was the only drunken sailor. But I went up for the costume contest and acted silly onstage. And I felt it my duty to act my part, since the Capri was selling champagne and I wasn’t driving.

Besides, the nuns were drinking, too. Mother Superior assured everyone that this was completely historically accurate. “Where do you think they got the word ‘habit’?” she asked.

The Capri’s owner, a surly fellow if ever one walked the Earth, said he hated The Sound of Music and Rocky Horror, and pretty much anything he had to clean up after. The event was a benefit for the Montgomery Chorale, and I got the real sense his arms had both been twisted to get his theatre’s involvement.  We laughed at him, too.

The movie began, and so did the interaction. We sang along, we talked to the screen, we booed the baroness, and had a generally glorious time. I kept waiting for my scene. The “Lonely Goatherd” came on and went off again, and I thought, “Oh, that’s right. The drunken sailor part isn’t until Act II, in the second marionette show.” I was still convinced that I remembered this.  However, by the middle of Act II, it had become clear to me that there was no drunken sailor to correspond with the lonely goatherd.  I was, in fact, a total anachronism.

I went home and Googled the drunken sailor only to find that it was an old American folk tune. While Burl Ives appears to have covered it, Rodgers and Hammerstein do not. I have no idea where I got the idea that it was in Sound of Music. But I can still hear the song in Julie Andrews voice. And I can still see her maneuvering a sailor puppet down the hatch of a puppet ship to the tune of “Put him in the brig until he’s sober”.

Oh well. Until next time, Way-hay and up she rises…Gotta give me credit for crazy creativity...

In cars

We’re getting ready to buy a car, and I feel awkward admitting it, but we’re comfortably enough in the middle class that we can afford to buy the vehicle brand new.  Until I met Scott, a “new” vehicle to me was “less than ten years old with fewer than 100,000 miles on it”. I grew up in a family of used cars, and the only new one we ever owned was obscenely expensive and broke down more frequently than the used ones it supposedly outclassed. 

The first car I recall us having was a 1968 Oldsmobile. I may be wrong about the car’s year, but that’s how I remember it. (I was born in 1976, to give you some perspective. ) It was the kind of gas guzzling vehicle that, today, would be an open invitation to pimping out.  But I’m pretty sure it was just a rust bucket in our hands. The gas gauge was broken, so Mom tried to keep its tank pretty close to full. But we still ran out and had to rely on strangers and friends to rescue us from time to time. She called it the Millennium Falcon, and I loved that car.

Our other car at that time was Dad’s green Dodge truck. Its color was too dark to be properly considered a John Deere green, but entirely too violent to be the color of grass. Instead of anything like a booster seat, I rode around in the truck sitting on top of an old silver toaster oven I called my box.  Hey, at least I had on the seatbelt. Most of the time. Except when I was riding around in the back, often sitting up on the wheel wells.

In case you hadn’t guessed, we were rural.

With the exception of the brand-new disaster, a truck that replaced the Dodge when I was about ten, all of the subsequent cars my parents owned were used. My first car was used. Very used. In was a 1972 Plymouth Valiant given to me by my grandparents. (Again, I was born in 1976.) I hated that car. The heater coil didn’t work, so I froze in the winter, and it would have laughed at the idea of an air conditioner, so I broiled in the summer. I loved the freedom it gave me, though, so I’m not complaining now. Much. I kept waiting for it to die so I could replace it with something functional, and I thought that when the engine block cracked, I was home free. But the mechanic, God love him, told Dad “This car’s a classic. You won’t see another one like it”, and a neighbor with a broken down Dodge Dart (which ran on the same engine) sold us the part we needed. The ball joints in the steering column couldn’t hold up to the strain of actual use, and I guided it by driving very slowly using a combination of controlled weaving and wild-eyed panic that served me well when I got pulled over like I was some drunk.

“Officer, I’m going so slowly because I’m weaving and I’m weaving because the ball joints are out of alignment again.”

I was so glad when the second engine block broke on that thing.

My next car was a deep blue 1987 Toyota Corolla SR5. It was a standard shift with those awesome pop-up headlights that they don’t make any longer.  And I loved it. I loved the stereo, and the fabric upholstery (the Valiant had cracked vinyl and duct-tape seats), and especially the way it shifted gears. So smooth.  When I got into an accident that bent the frame, I was devastated and replaced it with the next best thing, a white 1990 Toyota Corolla SR5. Also standard shift.  That car lasted me through a rear ending and quite a lot of grad school before its engine started giving out.

By that time, I had what I considered a real job, paying me ten dollars an hour as an administrative assistant. And I was living with Scott, who was also in the market for a new vehicle. He convinced me that buying new was more money efficient because there were rarely any added costs outside of scheduled maintenance, which was good for budgeting.  He liked Mazdas. For my part, I wanted to test drive a VW Golf, but the sales ass pissed me off and I decided Mazda was fine.  So we bought matching Mazda Protégés, his in blue, mine in green. A few years ago, we traded his in and bought a Honda CRV, because our family had outgrown the compacts for long travel.

And mine has just now, some eleven years later, reached the end of its useful life.  I really didn’t like it much when it was mine, so I wasn’t sorry to see it become Scott’s “around town” car when we moved to Montgomery. But he was definitely right about the maintenance. We kept up on the routine stuff, and the only cost outside of that came when the A/C went croakers on us right before we moved to Montgomery. The Lexington mechanic who fixed it gets full marks for craftsmanship, because the air in that car is still superb.

So now we’re looking at new vehicles. Test driving them and combating the new car stink that dealerships spray in because they think we like it. It looks like we’re going to have to go with an automatic, which annoys both of us standard lovers. And it looks like we’re going to have to either compromise on space for gas mileage or surrender gas mileage for space, neither of which makes for fun decision making. But it will be another new car. The third to have my name somewhere on its title. And considering my roots, I don’t know whether to find that delightful or appalling.