Monday, June 30, 2008

DIVINE PERSPECTIVE

Last December, one very icy night, I found myself on the corner of 8th Avenue and Roosevelt Street with my car wrapped around somebody’s mailbox. I didn’t have the cell phone along with me, and there I stood in the sleety rain, my poor old Buick immovable, its front fender buried in a snow bank.

I guess the feeling I had could be best described as despair and self-pity. Poor, poor me . . . I was alone, I was cold, I had no phone, I had to go to the bathroom, and my car was irretrievably stuck.

So I did what I try to remember to do in those situations (well, I did what I do after I first cry and kick a tire). I said to myself, “Twenty-four hours from now, I will not be standing alongside the road with my car buried in a snow bank. Something will occur that will make this situation change.” Then I start the backward count: “Twenty-three hours from now, I will not be standing alongside the road with my car buried . . .” Eventually, I get to the point where I can say with a degree of certainty, “An hour from now, I will not be standing alongside the road . . .” And then I said the only prayer I trust in difficult times, “Help me, help me, help me.” What I’m asking for is a little divine perspective.

Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies offers this opinion about prayer: “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’” (Evidently she believes that you must say each of them three times—Father, Son, Holy Ghost, you know. They demand equal time.)

I sometimes fall into the trap of being very bossy about what I pray for. “P-l-e-a-s-e, God,” I might have said on that sleety December night, “please let me be able to back my car out of this snow bank. Please let there be miraculously no damage to either the car or the mailbox. P-l-e-a-s-e reverse time, change the sleet to plain old snow, and let me make it around this corner safely.”

Of course, that wouldn’t happen. Instead, because I had no idea how to fix the situation myself, I just said: “Help me, help me, help me.” Within minutes, three cars stopped to offer help, the owner of the mailbox reassured me that he had never really liked that mailbox anyway, and somebody with a cell phone called a tow truck. Sure, the mailbox had a broken crossbar, the tow truck cost $50, and my car had $400 worth of damage; but I made it home to the bathroom on time and nobody died. (“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”)

I have found that God never pays any attention to my very fervent, very directive prayers in which I outline exactly the way I think a situation should be handled (i.e., my perspective on a situation). In fact, I am a little cynical of people who claim success when they pray to win the big game, pick the correct lottery numbers, heal their Aunt Gertrude’s gouty big toe, or make their dead cat come back to life. That implies that they looked at what was wrong, outlined to God what needed to be changed, and God boomed in his best James Earl Jones voice, “Wow! My mistake! Thanks for helping me realize what needs to be done here.” And presto, change-o! The score of the game is 89 to 90 in overtime, their PowerBall number is 10-15-21-39-42-08, Aunt Gertrude’s gouty toe stops hurting, and little Frisky rises from the dead.

I’m much more inclined to agree with Ann Lamott: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A little humble praying for some divine perspective rather than offering a prayer with specifically outlined instructions based on my own perspective works out better every time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

MAMA’S GOT A NEW PAIR OF SHOES

My daughter has been home visiting, and on Tuesday, she turned her running shoes over to show me their soles. Evidently, according to her, the worn spots on the bottoms of your running shoes are like a road map of your good and bad athletic form. Kind of like reading palms, I guess.

Curious, I picked up my own walking shoes and turned them over to examine the soles. Oops . . . busted! The soles were so badly worn that not only were they treadless, I was actually walking on the bottom of the shoes’ inner cushions. “You’ve got to get new shoes immediately,” my appalled daughter scolded.

The next morning, she went with me to the shoe store where I gazed in amazement at the dozens of athletic shoes displayed on the wall. I longed for the old days before I started walking 2 to 4 a day when I could just go to a discount store and get a pair of cheapo tennis shoes to walk to the refrigerator and back. Now that I’m the seriously athletic type, the choices have become much more complex.

A sales associate about six inches shorter and forty years younger than I am politely asked if he could help. “I need a pair of shoes,” I said cautiously, eyeing the dozens of shoes on the wall.

“Running? Training? Cross-Training? Tennis? Skateboarding?” he asked, glancing doubtfully at my lumpy Baby Boomer physique.

“No, just walking,” I said apologetically. “Just some shoes to walk in.”

“Hmm, walk,” he said a little disdainfully, I imagined. He began giving me a spiel about the differences between the brands of shoes that I had been examining on the wall display. “I want Nikes,” I interrupted tentatively. “They’re the only kind that really fit my foot. It’s shaped a little weird,” I apologized.

“Okay, Nike,” he sighed, disappointed he couldn’t educate me. He pointed to the sale table where a pair of conservative blue and white Nikes sat with a huge orange mark-down sign on them. “You could try those,” he said kindly. Then he pointed to the Nike display on the wall, “Or any of those would work for walking,” implying that anything, including wrapping my feet in duct tape, would work for such a lowly activity.

I scratched my head in confusion as I looked at the soles of the majority of the Nikes—some kind of brightly colored, weird cushion coils called Shox Turbo that made the shoes look like those pogo-antigravity shoes we used to see in futuristic cartoons back in the 1950s. Maybe if I had been thirty years younger . . . but there seemed to be something desperate about a woman in her late middle ages walking around in orange and white Shox Turbo soled shoes. At least the soles wouldn’t flash red lights when I walked . . . maybe.

I finally chose a pair of conservative-looking white with blue trim Nike Trainers off the wall display--and the pair of equally plain white and blue Nikes off the sale table. “I’ll try those on,” I said cautiously, hoping the little sales associate wouldn’t disagree. He dutifully went to the back room to pull them out in my size.

The sale table shoes turned out to be last year’s model (in fact, my daughter told me they were just like the shoes she used to run cross country in when she was in junior high, back in 1994). The ones off the wall display were $15 more expensive, so I did the old side-by-side walking test. I put the sale shoe on my left foot and the full-price shoe on my right foot and walked around the shoe store. The full-price shoe, of course, felt a lot better, as it always does. There’s a reason that sale shoes end up on the sale table.

“I’ll take these,” I said, pointing to my right foot. The sales associate beamed (he must work on commission).

“Excellent choice,” he said and whipped the other shoe out of the box. “Here’s the advantage of this one,” he explained. “Not only is this an excellent running shoe,” he said, pulling the inner sole out of the shoe and showing me a secret compartment in the bottom, “it also comes with the capability to install a Nike + iPod Sport sensor which will connect with your iPod nano, providing you with instant audio feedback of your time, distance, pace, and calories burned which are uploaded by the receptor to your site on nikeplus.com where you can set and track goals.”

I just stared dumbly at him. The secret compartment reminded me of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone—although I’d probably just use it to store a couple of peanut M&Ms in case I got hungry on my walk.

“Very cool,” I replied, trying to look enthused. “I see . . . I just hook the sensor up to my iPod—er, nano, did you say? Sure, I’ll be sure to hook ‘er right up so I can, um . . . track my audio feedback.” I wonder if the nano spy-shoe would rat me out if I stopped to listen to a tree frog along the trail.

As he rang up the purchase, the sales associate and my daughter had a lively discussion about the benefits of Double-Dry technology, wicking, anti-microbial, back-tabbed, blister-reducing athletic socks. I just nodded with one of those glazed over blank looks, trying to hide my over-the-calf tube-socked feet behind the Crocs display.

I walked out of the store as athletically as I could, hoping that I would look like I deserved such a fine pair of Nike Women’s Air Pegasus+ shoes with built-in iPod nano technology. I was also a little worried that the sales associate had planted a bug or a computer cookie in my shoe that will allow him to monitor my walking habits on his iPod nano.

The indignities we athletes endure to pursue our sport.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

POPPY, THE FOSTER CAT

This is the story of how Poppy, the foster cat, came to live with us on Nissen Street.

I probably have never told my daughters this, but we are grateful that they never came home, told us that they were pregnant, and then ask if we would we please raise a baby to adulthood for them. I know this happens in the best of homes to the nicest of people; I am just glad it never happened to us. However, we do have a daughter who has left her cat to stay with us temporarily—and it’s been temporarily about ten months now.

Poppy was originally a farm cat from the Bird Island, Minnesota, area. For the first couple of years, she lived a rural life. Even after she came to live with my daughter (who lived on the edge of town near an open field), Poppy was a small-town cat who needed to be outside. She didn’t just need to be outside, she NEEDED TO BE OUTSIDE.

However, when my daughter moved to Des Moines, Iowa, in August 2007, she found a place to live on the second floor of an old brick apartment building on a very busy street. The intention was to train Poppy to be an inside cat; however, Poppy did not want to be inside cat.

Poppy lived in Des Moines a total of one week, at which time my daughter threw the cat into her pet carrier, hurled her into the backseat of the car, and drove six hours to our house. Poppy was making everyone crazy. The man in the apartment below had taken to pounding on his ceiling with a broom handle when the yeowling got too loud, and my daughter was getting two or three hours of sleep a night trying to keep her quiet. Poppy wanted OUT and she wanted out NOW! Second story apartments and busy intersections be hanged! No inside cat was she. She was a prowler and a hunter and a warrior. What was she going to do cooped up inside a second-floor apartment 24/7? She needed to get out to spy on birds and capture bugs. For several hours a day, Poppy was Rambo-Cat, the primal beast.

So Poppy became the foster cat in our home, which already had a Queen Mother cat—Hobie, the scaredy cat, the lazy cat, the unquestionably inside cat. Poppy invaded Hobie’s queendom with a vengeance. When Poppy gets bored, she harasses Hobie until the old cat growls deep down in her very bowels. Then Poppy flops over on her back and stretches, trying to look cute, as if to say, “Just kidding, big girl. Can’t you take a joke?” Hobie definitely cannot take a joke.

Well, our daughter is moving again, back from Des Moines to the Twin Cities. She will be looking for an apartment that takes cats so that Poppy will be saved from her pathetic second-class foster-cat life to being the legitimately reigning cat of her own home.

I will not miss Poppy’s cabin fever in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside and she personally blames me for that situation. I will not miss her walking across my face at 2 a.m. to play with the cord on the blinds above my bed. I will not miss her flying off a chair in a sneak attack on Hobie, causing the old lady to have a near heart attack.

But I will miss Poppy and her friendly little personality as she climbs up next to me in my chair and snuggles down for a nap. I will miss Poppy’s warm gray little presence in the house when Tom is gone. I will miss how she can identify the opening of the deli turkey wrapper three rooms away. And I will miss her little rough tongue as it licks and licks and licks my hand with companionship.

Maybe Poppy can still come back for a short visit once in awhile. I’ll just get some kitty tranquilizers for Hobie, and just like old times, we can all be together again.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

THE DRUG SHELF

We have a small shelf at our house where we store all of our over-the-counter medications. You can almost do an anthropological health study of our family based on the contents of that shelf. A quick inventory finds:
  • A bottle of generic children’s aspirin (orange flavored) that a doctor suggested we take daily as a heart attack preventer. Obviously, no one followed instructions very well at this house; the nearly full bottle has an expiration date of May ‘04. The bottle is kept only as a reminder that we don’t listen to doctors.
  • A bottle of Murine Wax Remover Ear Drops, expiration date April 2003. No wonder it didn’t work last year when I tried to use it to remove some waxy yellow buildup on the kitchen floor.
  • A bottle of Acetaminophen Diphenhydramamine HCl which sounds like it would be used to blow up bridges and take out enemy machine gun nests. Who cares what it does—it’s the first bottle I found that hasn’t reached its expiration date yet. All right!! We have a fresh drug!
  • A bottle of Noproxen sodium tablets, unexpired; a bottle of acetaminophen, unexpired; a bottle of Ibuprofen (oops, expired in January ’06). I believe these are all pain medications of one type or another—proof that our brave, long-suffering family must have experienced a great deal of pain over the years.
  • A mysterious bottle of Docusate Calcium, which looks harmless, but a scan of the label shows it could cause rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Whoever took this didn’t need it very long—the bottle is dusty and appears to be completely full. But there’s no expiration date—which means we could take it forever, or until we have abdominal pain and nausea, whichever comes first.
  • A bottle of Tylenol Sore Throat Daytime (expired May ’07) and a bottle of Top Care Cough and Sore Throat medicine. (Hurray! Expires January ’09! Sore throats until next Christmas for everyone!)
  • A box of Visine Sterile Lubricant Eye Drops (expired March ’06); a bottle of Visine Advanced Relief Lubricant Redness Reliever Eye Drops (expired May ’07); and a bottle of Bausch & Lomb All Clear Eye Drops (but hurry, hurry! Expires July ’08).
  • A bottle of Omega-3 Fish Oil tablets, unexpired.
  • An empty bottle of Centrum Silver multi-vitamins with a Sept. ’04 expiration date on the label. I do wonder why we’re keeping that empty bottle—but I’d better not throw it out in case there’s an important reason that we’ve already kept over four years.
The final drug on the shelf is one that I actually remember purchasing called Loratadine Orally Disintegrating Tablets to counteract a sinus attack. The pills are about the size of a lentil, and only one is gone—because I discovered that particular drug can absolutely, flat-out knock you on your butt. When I took one, it made me feel like I was having a psychedelic out-of-body experience, and I shakily said , “N-n-n-n-o-o, thank you!” But I hate to throw it away in case Robert Downey Jr. drops by our house in need of some light refreshments.

For a family that doesn’t take a lot of drugs and medications, we certainly have an impressive collection of over-the-counter products on our little drug shelf, even though most of them would probably kill us if we actually ingested them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

HUSBAND’S RETIREMENT RESPONSIBILITIES

After my June 17 entry in 2to4aday where I discussed creating order in my life, an anonymous person posted a comment, “Isn’t your husband retired?”

I believe that this remark implied that my husband should be pitching in and helping with some of the work I did that day. So I thought I’d defend him, explaining exactly where he was on June 17 and why it would have been impossible for him to lend me a hand. Please understand that because of the sensitivity of his work, he is able to tell me very little. But what he can tell me, I will share with you.

My husband “Tim” (name changed to protect his identity) was on a very important secret government mission for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was gone for a week to an unnamed lake in an unnamed Canadian province on a secret mission involving species eradication. The site is so secret that there is not even a road leading to the area—he and his fellow agents were flown in on a float plane and left there in the wild to complete their assignment, with nothing but Lindy rigs as weapons. Their mission: find out if walleyes are threatening to infiltrate and take over North America.

He is evidently so good at this secret agent eradication job that this is the third time this spring he has been called into action by the government. The first time was in May when he and his fellow agents managed to infiltrate Lake of the Woods near the Canadian border, gathering intelligence on how thoroughly walleyes could stage a hostile takeover in a lake that was still 50 percent covered in ice. They found the walleyes huddled in the open part of the lake, but luckily the fish were too cold to have staged a massive takeover at that point.

Then a couple of weeks ago, he and other Department of Interior agents spent several days on Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, Minnesota, fighting three-foot waves and 40 mile-an-hour winds, risking their lives to see if the walleyes had prevailed there. Again, it didn’t appear that the nearby Leech Lake Indian Reservation was in danger of being overrun in a walleye coup d’├ętat.

Midway through these missions, he and other agents were summoned to Demontreville Lake in Oakdale where they were debriefed at a silent “Jesuit Retreat,” which I believe is the code name for the Interior Department’s Camp David-like top-secret government facility. Here they use a complex GPS system to map walleye eradication progress globally.

Does this sound like the kind of person a wife could ask to help clean out a closet or sweep the garage? When “Tim” tells me what little he can about his clandestine life working as a secret agent for the Department of the Interior, I know how fortunate I am to be even a small part of the brave, patriotic work he is doing for our nation. Waxing his boat and mowing the lawn are the least I can do for him while he is away on these missions.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

WICKED SMART

The other day, I was sitting in a waiting room and happened to pick up the December 2007 issue of INC Magazine. The cover story entitled “Entrepreneur of the Year” described the amazing life of Elon Musk, a young man born in South Africa who has done more in his 36 years on earth than a whole truckload of the rest of us put together.

The article described him as a “wicked smart” man, built like a tight end, who drinks eight cups of coffee and several Diet Cokes a day. He’s the one that when others say “it’s impossible” says, “I think I can do it.” Wicked smart.

He is the originator of PayPal, which he sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion (that’s billion with a “b”). He also started another dot.com media company called Zip2 which he sold for $307 million. But he doesn’t just sell multimillion or multibillion dollar companies and retire to Monte Carlo. He has since established two more companies: SpaceX, an aerospace startup which is aiming to cheaply haul astronauts to the international space station by 2011; and SolarCity, which within 12 months of startup was the number one solar panel installer in the country.

His most ambitious dream is to build a human colony on the planet Mars—seriously. He honestly, truly thinks he can colonize Mars.

He’s married—his wife just recently gave birth to triplets. He now has five boys under the age of 4 years.

Elon Musk is the supreme multi-tasker. If we took any one part of his life (whether it’s father of five, CEO of SpaceX, head of SolarCity, originator of PayPal, executor of his multi-million dollar financial portfolio, future Mars colonizer), any of us would be a stressed-out basket case. But he does them all in a mind-boggling juggling act that involves computers and Blackberries and private jets and a Telsa electric roadster. Plus, of course, the added advantage of being wicked smart.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with reading an inspirational story about Elon Musk in INC Magazine; it’s easy to feel like a wicked underachiever. I think I need to start drinking more coffee and Diet Coke.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

CREATING ORDER

Today, if anyone asked me what I did all day, I would have to admit that I deliberately and consciously created order in my life.

I found untidy spots and made them neat. I sorted through storage areas and vacuumed up the dust bunnies and spider webs. I swept and wiped and organized and stacked. I spray painted the rusty basketball hoop and hung a new basket. I cleaned the cats’ litter box area. I filled two huge boxes for the Epilepsy Foundation truck that comes through once a month to pick up donations. I got the garbage can all ready for the truck when it comes tomorrow. I walked three miles as orderly as I could—a steady pace on a nice, neat trail that goes straight east and west.

For some reason, it was very important today that I create order and be orderly.

In the early afternoon, I picked up my 89-year-old mother at the assisted living and took her to visit my 91-year-old father at the nursing home. He admitted he had had a “bad spell” after breakfast, and that he had thought, “This is it.” But it was 2 p.m. and he was still sitting in his chair, so it was a false alarm.

So I went home and washed rugs and put new cypress mulch on the perennial flower beds. I took down a dilapidated clothes line and replaced it with a hanging plant full of bright orange begonias. I vacuumed out the back of the car and swept the garage. I pulled weeds and trimmed dead branches.

So much in our lives is so totally out of our control—with chaos taking over suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s nice once in a while to just feel like everything is neat and orderly and tidy. And that for just one day, all the dust bunnies are vacuumed up and all cluttered corners are organized—and all the bad spells are false alarms.

Monday, June 16, 2008

AS IS

My sister (not the one that jumped off the Alps—a different one) frequently wears a pewter pin on her shirt that reads “As Is.”

I’ve always thought that it was very brave to just put herself out there with an invitation to be judged: “As Is”—take it or leave it. “As Is”—no returns. “As Is”—in whatever condition presently exists.

It’s almost as if she is running an ad for a used car on carsoup.com, and she wants to be up front about the condition of the merchandise: I come with flaws; but if the flaws don’t bother you, it’s a bargain.

If you were to purchase a similar pewter pin and describe yourself like a used car, what would your pin say?

  • Clean and Reliable?
  • High Mileage?
  • Looks and Runs Great?
  • Classic Muscle?
  • Nice Inside and Out?
  • Perfectly Maintained and Always Garaged?
  • Fully Loaded?
  • All Parts Original?
  • Mint Condition?
  • Needs TLC?
  • Neutered and Declawed? (oops . . . wandered into the “Pets” ads)

My pewter pin would probably read: “Engine Stalls Frequently,” or “Needs Extensive Body Work,” or maybe “Muffler and Filters Badly Need Replacing.”

Then again, I’d save myself a lot of anguish if I just borrowed “As Is” from my sister. This simple four-letter description has two advantages over my much-longer suggestions: First, the responsibility falls on the buyer to take it or leave it—to figure out the flaws themselves and decide whether the good outweighs the bad. Second, the pewter pin wouldn’t have 30 letters, weigh 25 pounds, and rip a hole in my shirt.

Friday, June 13, 2008

FLYING BY THE POUND

Did you see on the news last night the latest proposal by the airline industry? With skyrocketing fuel prices, the airlines are looking for ways to lighten their loads since the heavier the plane, the more fuel it takes to fly it.

The latest proposal, called the “fat tax,” is that the passengers themselves be weighed and pay for their own personal excess baggage. The story on the news showed a big scale right next to the check-in line that passengers would need to step on as they prepared to get boarding passes and enter security lines. Even the reporter covering the story self-consciously covered the digital weight readout screen as she demonstrated how the scale would work.

“It’s how UPS charges,” said one proponent. “What’s wrong with charging someone for the actual cost of their transportation?”

The reporter didn’t exactly say how it would work, but one suggestion is to have the passenger and luggage both get on the scale together. A 5’7” female weighing 135 pounds with a 35-pound suitcase would pay much less than a 6’1” man weighting 300 pounds carrying a 20-pound backpack. Passengers would pre-pay for their tickets the way they always do, but then might be charged extra for any weight over a prescribed amount when they checked in.

So we used to have to diet before we went to the doctor for our annual physical. Now we’ll all need to diet before heading to the airport check-in line. But be prepared for long, slow lines as people who used to just remove their jacket and shoes at security now start stripping down to their Fruit of the Looms at the scales.

New conventional wisdom: arrive at the airport three hours early to allow for the slow weigh-in lines—or better yet, check to see if Greyhound is going your way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

JODIES ON THE TRAIL

Last Saturday, I decided to do a four-miler on the Central Lakes Trail at about 2 p.m.—and the trail was absolutely desserted. I walked for the first two miles without seeing another soul, and finally on mile three, a solitary cotton-clad biker wheezed past me (as opposed to spandex-clad bikers that whiz past).

Usually I can keep my mind busy when I’m walking, even without artificial aids like headphones pumping Pearl Jam. I’d usually rather listen to the frogs and the birds and watch the other people out on the trail. But since I was so incredibly alone, I found myself wishing I knew a jodie or two. Jodies are those marching cadences that soldiers use to stay on pace and keep their spirits up when hauling 50-pound packs on a ten-mile hike.

The only song I could remember that works well for keeping up a brisk pace was “The Ants Go Marching One by One.” So I sang it (under my breath, not at the top of my lungs, for anyone concerned about trail etiquette) over and over with the self-imposed stipulation that I could never repeat the same verse twice.

For example, when the ants went marching three by three, the first time, the “little one stopped to climb a tree.” Then the second time, the little one had to “cop a plea,” and the third time he had to “take a pee.” It worked pretty well, except that I started to dread marching six by six. For some reason, every time I got to six, the little one could only think of nasty things to stop and do. Once he stopped to “turn some tricks” and another time he stopped to “harass chicks.” A third time he “watched porno flicks.” Of course, right now I can think of lots of words to rhyme with six—like “eat some Trix.” But at the time, marching six by six seemed like an excuse for the little ant to misbehave.

To prepare for the next time I am out alone on the trail, I decided to learn a real jody:

I used to drive a Chevrolet,
Now I’m marching all the way.
They took away my faded shoes,
Now I’m wearing Air Force blues.
Used to drive a Cadillac,
Now I haul it on my back.
I used to date a beauty queen,
Now I hug my M-16.
Sound off (1,2),
Sound off (3,4)
SOUND OFF!
1,2—3, 4 !

I think I could march for ten miles chanting that jody—and make up a few verses of my own. Let’s see:

Used to be a disco queen,
Now my feet have gangarene.
Used to flash a ring that glints,
Now have bilateral shin splints.
(Oops, have to take a little extra shuffle step on that one.)
Sound off (1, 2) . . .

Monday, June 09, 2008

WIT AND SALVATION ANXIETY

Many people have a little black dress or a dark business suit they can put on when they want to look polished and fit in with a more sophisticated crowd. But to go with that dress or suit, it’s good to have one item of high-brow conversation you can whip out when the occasion arises.

That’s why everyone needs one allegorical movie that they can discuss from a symbolic viewpoint. This is an often ignored social skill, much more important than knowing which fork to use with your salad.

So picture yourself standing in your little black dress or your dark business suit, struggling to think of a topic to discuss that doesn’t include the word “walleye” or “Jello shots” or “grandchildren.” If you’re not quite sure where to start to be prepared for that moment, go to your local video store and rent Wit, a movie that is loaded with depth, substance, and allegoric meaning.

Wit stars Emma Thompson, the talented British actress, who plays Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college literature professor specializing in the works of John Donne, a 17th century metaphysical poet.

Admit it—aren’t you intrigued? Can you see the whole family gathered around the TV set with a bag of Orville Redenbacher’s movie theater buttered microwave popcorn, listening with rapt attention to discussions on the figurative language in the poetry of John Donne? Just remember—this is research. You may want to take notes.

Wit’s plot is an in-depth examination of a woman who has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

Now you’re thinking, ‘The possibilities for mystery, comedy, drama, and intrigue are endless!’ aren’t you? Or maybe you’re thinking, ‘But where’s the chase scene? The George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg special effects?’

There is no chase scene. There are no special effects. The whole movie pretty much takes place within one hospital room. There is chemotherapy-induced throwing up for drama. There is baldness for special effects. There is a thin woman lying in a white-sheeted hospital bed in a rumpled hospital gown for intrigue.

And for good measure—and allegory—there is the irony of salvation anxiety as a woman who has spent her entire adult life studying and teaching the works of a poet who spent his entire adult life studying death . . . well, you just have to pay close attention to understand the irony of it all.

So watch the movie and take careful notes. Then when you’re standing there in your black dress or dark suit, you have a movie you can just drop casually into the conversation with a thoughtful reference to salvation anxiety and maybe sound a little smarter or a little deeper than you normally do.

Or just look for a guy in a plaid sports coat and gravy stains on his tie leaning up against the bar drinking a beer, who doesn’t care what an allegory is, and spend the night talking to him about why the Twins will probably blow it again this year. That works, too.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

CLOSET GUESTS

Have you ever found a wood tick crawling on you, and then for the next hour or so, you were sure you felt a hundred or more inching their way across your skin or burrowing into your scalp? How about head lice? Just one small story about the outbreak at the local elementary school can make your head itch for hours. How about spotting a mouse in the garage? For weeks after, you’re convinced every little noise—every little movement—is a mouse moving its entire family into your walls or your attic or your basement.

So it’s no wonder that lately, I’ve been going through my closets, looking for small Japanese women.

The Associated Press ran a story on May 31 about a homeless Japanese woman who for a year lived undetected in the closet of a Japanese man’s one-story home. Evidently, one day when he went to work, he left his door unlocked and she just moved in. She would move about the house during the day while he worked, eating his food, using his shower—and then hide in the closet when he came home. The man finally became suspicious about missing food over a period of several months. He installed a surveillance camera which caught a shape moving about the house. Police were finally able to find the homeless woman curled on her side on a small mattress in his closet.

So I’ve been checking all my closets, looking for telltale signs of habitation: a sushi wrapper on a stack of towels, a stray yen or sen behind a Band-Aid box, or a postcard from Mt. Fuji hidden in the sheets.

It’s Japanese homeless women I’m looking for because at an average height of 5’3” and an average weight of 114 lbs., Japanese women are small enough to live on my closet shelf without breaking it.

I have absolutely no fears that I will find an American (average height 5’4” and weight 163 lbs.), Canadian (average height 5’3½ and weight 153 lbs.), or British (average height 5’4” and weight 147 lbs.) homeless woman living on a shelf in my closet. Too big, too bulky, inclined to snore.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but while you’re checking for imaginary wood ticks, head lice, and mice, you may want to do a quick reconnoiter of the closets, checking for a tiny little Japanese woman tucked into a corner of your linen closet, right behind the extra blankets.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

GOING TO THE DOCTOR

A couple of months ago, I picked up the telephone and made the hardest call I ever have to make: I made an appointment at the doctor’s office for a complete physical.

I hate going to the doctor. I put off going to the doctor. I am never sick enough or have enough unexplained symptoms to go to the doctor. When I made the appointment in April, I nonchalantly asked the scheduler, knowing she had the information right in front of her on the computer—“Say, um, just how long has it been since I’ve had a physical?”

“2003,” she said coldly, accusingly, as if I had personally offended her. I can’t really see what difference it made to her. She should be happy that I’ve been so well for the past five years.

I tried to make a list of things that have concerned me since 2003 so when the doctor asks how I am, I can appear knowledgeable about my health. After hours of thought, this is what I came up with:

  • Wrinkly neck (but unlike Pricilla Presley, at least my neck matches my face)
  • Chest pain—well, one tiny spot that hurts sometimes when I’m grading a really, really bad paper
  • Writer’s bump (that funny raised/flat spot on my middle finger when I’ve graded papers for hours)
  • Pinched nerve in my neck (started in 1999 and recurs when I lift heavy objects, like elephants)
  • Clicky right knee when carrying laundry downstairs (give up laundry?)
  • Occasional allergies and sinus problems
  • Weight gain (especially when I consume more than 3,000 calories of chocolate in one day)
  • Right ear plugs up when the outside atmospheric pressure drops, but at least I know when it's going to rain.

I think that about does it. After each entry on the bulleted list, I could easily write “ . . . because I’m no spring chicken,” and it would explain it all. But I guess unless I have a doctor formally declare it, write it in my permanent medical chart, attach a diagnosis code to it, and submit it to my insurance company, it’s not official.

I hate going to the doctor.

Monday, June 02, 2008

MOMENT OF CLARITY

Has someone ever told you a story that just sticks in your mind? And you replay the story so many times that you almost feel like it could have happened to you instead of that person? My sister told me a story a couple of years ago that just lives on and on in my mind . . .

Back in 2006, my sister went on a 12-day bus tour of Italy, Switzerland, and France with 25 other middle-yeared women. While traveling, the women were offered an opportunity to paraglide off the side of the Alps. They would be strapped in tandem with a paragliding professional, leap off the side of a mountain, and soar like a bird into the clear mountain air.

Of the 25 women on the trip, only 10 of them actually attempted the jump—and my sister was one of them. She was strapped in a tandem arrangement with a young Japanese paragliding professional. While some of the women in her group chose their tandem professional based on looks (if you’re going to die, it’s best to die harnessed to a good-looking young man), my sister chose the young Japanese guide because she thought he looked smart.

Twice, she and her guide ran toward the edge of the cliff, and twice she balked at the edge. However, on the third try (with her guide shouting “Run, run, run!”), she leaped off the edge of the cliff and paraglided safely to a cow pasture below (“Don’t step in the poop,” her guide warned.)

But here’s the best part: After my sister jumped off the side of the Alps, life became much clearer to her. I had heard before about people having the experience of a life-altering “moment of clarity,” but she was the first person I knew who actually had one. She said it lasted long after she got back from her trip, too. It was like years of cobwebs had been erased from her brain and she was able to think and act with much more insight than she had been able to previously.

When I heard her story, I admit that I was envious. I really wanted to jump off the side of the Alps and have a moment of clarity. I could feel the harness, I could visualize myself running to the edge, and I could imagine myself soaring above the earth below.

So it’s on my list of things to do before I die. Even if I have to tiptoe around cow poop at the end, I think it will be worth it.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

CLAIMING “OLD” OUT OF TURN

“It may seem unfathomable,” said Jen Chaney in the Washington Post earlier this week,” but Duran Duran . . . celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.”

Me (talking sarcastically to Jen Chaney): Yes, Jen, it’s unfathomable that a British rock group at the height of its popularity in the 1980s could celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2008. Evidently math is not your strong point.

I could forgive Jen her bad math. What I cannot forgive is the next statement she makes:

“Yes, Gen Xers, we are officially old.”—direct quote from Jen Chaney, New York Post.

Me (talking trash to Jen Chaney): Excuse me, Jen, but if you Gen Xers are officially old just because a rock group you listened to in the 1980s has been around for 30 years, what does that make us Baby Boomers, looking forward to retirement and still visiting our Greatest Generation parents in the nursing home? If you claim “old,” as your adjective, is there a word older than “old” left for the rest of us?

Me (continuing to talk trash to Jen and not letting her get a word in edgewise): The way I understand it, Jen, Gen Xers are all you people born between 1960 and 1979—ages 29 to 48. You are in the beginning to middle stages of your careers, have decades left on your mortgages, and have children in elementary school. Old isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe you.

Jen Chaney (stuttering because she’s obviously been busted): But—but—

Me (on a roll): And Jen, we Baby Boomers (born 1944-1959) haven’t even officially inherited the “old” label from our parents yet. We still have to retire and buy patio homes in Sun City and look for supplemental medical insurance to enhance our Medicare. Most of us have all of that ahead of us—and you just leapfrogged right over us and claimed “old” as your own. Typical Gen X—it’s all about you.

Jen Chaney (humbled and contrite): I didn’t think . . .

Me (climbing on a soapbox and shaking my fist): How dare you claim "old" before we Baby Boomers have even had a chance to use it?!? Stop butting in line, Jen X.