Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Words from the Little People

Where we live, school begins the day after Labor Day. With the children only recently returned from summer with their dad and my being unable to find consistent childcare for the week, I chose to stay home with them, a decision that turned out to be the best one. We have spent the last couple of days talking as we cleaned up hurricane debris outside, knocked the house back into order inside, organized school supplies, and played in the yard. The conversation has been priceless.

"This is uncomfortable," my son said about something that was agitating him. "It's like having a wedgie."

And later from my daughter: "You know, I feel sorry for homeless people because the only friends they have are imaginary ones."

And last night, the sitter documented this particular conversation between my kids:
"Tiny, talk to Daddy."
"No, I no want to talk to Daddy. He's always angry with me. He spanks me."
"That's because you do stupid things and he gets mad at you," replied my daughter.
"I knoooowww," sobbed Tiny, "and I do them anyways!"

The youngest still fits neatly on my lap and I can, for a little while longer, carry him a good ways. Being five, his baby-ness is fading fast. His sister, who starts middle school as a sixth grader next week, has long left those tender days behind. They still both, though, say the sweet things that remind me they will always be their mother's babies, such as these words from Tiny.

"Mom? Mom. Mommy. I wuv 'ou. I weally, weally wuv you."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Retina Rectal Syndrome

Some years ago after an afternoon with a difficult client, a co-worker stopped me and explained that the woman had been so unreasonable due to an apparent case of Retina Rectal Syndrome. The co-worker, a grandfatherly type named Bob, explained in his gentle voice that his wife, a hospital nurse, had described this sort of thing often. I was 25, still naive and bought it--hook, line, and sinker.

"Apparently, there is a nerve that runs from the corner of your eye all the way to your anus. It can cause all kinds of problems in people, can get inflamed, et cetera," explained Bob to me that day. "Sometimes surgeons have to sever that nerve and it can take a long time. It removes your crappy outlook out of life." He stopped and smiled, then added sweetly, "In some people, both eyes need to be done."

I have held this story close to my heart for years. Having been faced with a jerk more than once, remembering the story while someone spews hate has been a life saver. In fact, recently I sat with my husband at a dinner with an out of town guest. The gentleman there was discussing a notoriously difficult (to say it tactfully) supervisor.

"You know," said the colleague to us that night about his boss, "he's had a hard year. And he even just had some sort of surgery for a nerve problem or something." I had to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

Retina Rectal lives.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Preparedness

Living in an area threatened by Hurricane Irene's wet backlash, I have been growing increasingly antsy. Since my parents' loss of their home to Katrina, I have a little PTSD when storms like this occur. Add to this Tuesday's little earthquake that rocked the floors and walls of my office, and you can see how I might be wringing my hands over whether or not we are prepared for an emergency.

Cruising a list of things you need to prepare for a bad storm or other event, I found something that listed items like this:

Extra water (1 gallon per person per day)
Grocery items for 3-7 days
AM/FM battery operated radio
Blanket and pillows

Seriously? Is that it? Here is my personal list for being ready for a storm:

Masking tape--tape your windows in a big X to catch breaking glass in the event that occurs. Good for those of us who don't have plywood or shutters.
Store all outside furniture and potted plants. They become wind-ammo in hurricanes.
Clean your bathtubs and fill with water. We used to fill every available pitcher in the house and had been known to bathe in a bowl when necessary. The bathtub water is for consumption in an emergency. You can also dip a bucket in there to fill and use as a way to flush your toilets if the water main breaks.
Candles with lighter or matches
Gas in the propane tank of your BBQ pit (When there is no power after the storm, you can still cook what's in your fridge before it goes bad.)
Ice in your ice chest (You can also fill the washer with ice as a back up. The water drains there and the washer is a great insulator.)
Do your laundry now.
Gas up your cars.
How's your pet food supply?
Some extra cash is handy. Don't blow it in candle-lit poker games waiting for the power to come back on.
Honestly, those little camp-style portable burners for cooking are wonderful, but we never had them.

I should have added margarita mix to the above list... and a battery-powered blender.

Be safe. Plan well. Best of luck to those of you who are affected by Irene and her angry path.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Office Humor

Occasionally, there is downtime in the office, and employees will create amusing distractions. In one office where I worked, we used to hide the air fresheners my boss was so obsessed with, or invite him to talk about his distaste for Christmas trees (a blog for later--but just know that watching him lecture about tree-killing removed at least 15 minutes of work-time from my day). To pass the time in my current office, I routinely sabotage a poster of Donald Trump that someone hung in the copy room. I make him a costume out of paper and give him a new alter ego. This week, he is a pirate complete with tri-fold hat, earring, eye-patch, and parrot on his shoulder. Last week, he was a beauty queen. Apparently, I am not the only person in the office that likes to kid around, but I do know what is and isn't appropriate.

One of the managers brought her eleven-year-old daughter to work last week. Before heading to a meeting, she gave the child an iPad and instructions to keep quiet. The daughter, however, had other ideas, and found on the iPad an application that produces snippets of pre-recorded speech. Apparently, she located the perfect one, pressed play, and slid the iPad under the door where her mother was giving the meeting. All of a sudden, the following resounded through the office:

"Will someone open a window? I'm trying to give a meeting and it smells like farts in here."

You can imagine the talking-to that child must have received later, but the prank itself will forever live as one of my personal favorites. I still can't think about it without laughing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Help: The Past and Not So Past

The Help, the newest Hollywood release based on Kathryn Stockett's civil rights era novel, has struck a particularly sensitive note with me due to my own experiences as a child of the South--the divided South and not-so divided South, the South that so many of us hope has evolved.  Central to The Help's plot is a young socialite's motion to enforce that White households install a separate bathroom for Black help. It would be so easy for me to toss the idea aside as ridiculous, to claim no one would ever have thought such a thing. But I know better--there are enough reminders that we still struggle where race is involved.

I live in a house that I rent from homeowners who so judiciously refer to one of our bathrooms as the gardener's toilet. At first, I was struck with a little confusion as to why this home--one that has two baths up and one more down, would need yet a fourth toilet, especially considering the modestness of this little 1960s faux-colonial that was built among homes a bit more gracious in style. Foolishly, I had once asked my husband why any toilet would have been built in a laundry room--mud room, really--with a make-shift beadboard wall thrown around it (we ended up removing the wall so that we could do our laundry, long story short). This toilet, this porcelain bowl that sits so close to the washer that one would have to spread your knees in order to sit or stand to use it, was for the help.... the help that was not allowed to use the more private toilet in the rear hallway of the home, a bathroom only steps from this one.

My own childhood household, when my mother's back started to trouble her, had the help of Ella Mae, who came at first to clean, but later was kept just for ironing what my grandmother had called "all those big damn shirts". Ella Mae was a luxury for us, but somehow my parents afforded her. She lived in Fauborg Marigny, a New Orleans neighborhood that had been a mix of comfortable middle class and low class in the 19th century. By the 20th, it was far from an okay place to raise children and was riddled with poverty. Not far from her lived Albatine, who helped my great aunt in her home nearby--that formerly gracious Italianate home was sinking into decrepitude and decay by the time I was born, an old way of life sinking into oblivion by the time I reached school age. That home, by the way, had a separate bathroom for the help.

There are many stories to be told here. I certainly don't recall my parents ever teaching me to be anything but kind and fair to the help in our household, and I was well aware that those ladies led a harder, less educated, and more limited existence than my own. There were, despite all the tenderness we exhibited with Ella Mae and Albatine, invisible boundaries. Perhaps, their families noted those boundaries with more clarity than we did. I certainly recall the absolute despair in my father's voice when he had learned that Ella Mae, who had long grown elderly, had passed and had her life celebrated in a funeral; we had not been invited, much less told. Perhaps, it did not dawn on Ella Mae's family that we would want to be there.

At one point in my youth, it dawned on me that I should ask Ella Mae about who she really was, and she took the time to tell me about riding the mule home across the fields on her father's farm when she was a child in rural Mississippi. True to her African roots and generations of repeated dialect, she had a tendency to shove Ns in unlikely places, such as when she said Nyew Nyork. She described having lived on a street that she shared with a host of family as neighbors. She would continue to iron for us, clean for others. I would grow up and go away to school. When I returned, Ella Mae would have long passed.

My father and I recently discussed Ella Mae. He remembered his mother teaching him to be gentle with those that  helped keep our homes, mind the children. He remembers giving Ella Mae rides home when possible, paying for her bus fare, and providing her lunch. Ella Mae told us stories about crazy people she worked for--such as the reptile lady, if you can imagine that story--but she never did discuss the nature of her work where her dark skin and class differences were concerned. Apparently, my grandmother treated her as a confidante, sharing family issues and discussions of holiday plans. My grandmother isn't here to divulge the details of their friendship; something else that I consider sad.

Times have changed since the era documented in The Help when the lower class minorities feared for their jobs and lives if they were perceived as anything other than gladly subservient. I see that my neighbor's help across the street is a crew of Latin American ladies whose kids probably attend school with mine. My "gardener's toilet" goes unused for anything other than to hold the super-sized box of laundry detergent my husband buys. In fact, we wedge a garbage can in front of it. The Black yardman we hire on occasion drives a very nice truck and wields a Blackberry to organize his client list. He isn't afraid to price-gouge me (as he has in the past). And my son was the minority race in his classroom last year, the mothers of his African American peers holding jobs ranging from low-paying customer service fields to more-than-comfy-lifestyle-supporting careers as lawyers.

We still have a ways to go, as I have been reminded--I have known Black mothers that still teach their teenage sons to be very careful when they drive as they are easy targets for being pulled over. I see a minority still struggling in schools across the city in the tougher neighborhoods. I listen to the stories that my husband tells after his encounters at his university with young Black women trying to fight their way up and out to a better life. It's one step at a time, steadily forward I hope, and further away from "gardener's toilets", signs marked "colored only", and other reminders of a difficult and ugly past.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Maps Needed of a Different Sort

I work for a corporation that allows for a little play. One of the things we have here at the office is a fun way of naming our conference rooms, something that I wish could be more practical.
A couple of weeks ago, I was told we were having ice cream in Wisconsin. Yes, this firm has offices all over the U.S., but we are not at all close enough to Wisconsin to cross the border for an afternoon going-away party. Wisconsin, as it turns out, is the name of a meeting room. Once I was told which floor and color to find (as we are a color-coded building), I found Wisconsin with little trouble and for considerably less cost than an airline ticket there.
Not only the new employees like me wrestle with the state-named meeting rooms, so maps are available throughout the building. But last week, I completely stumped a co-worker by asking about a meeting in Baltimore.

“Where is Baltimore?” I asked.
She began to describe the drive to Baltimore, Maryland, in terms of hours.
“No, no. Baltimore, the room.”
“Ohhhhhhhh. Check the map.”
The map listed rooms by state only. Baltimore, being a city, was no where close to being listed, but with a little computer research on our company intranet, we found it—the right floor, the right color section.
I have a dilemma this week though. I have to find Tucson. I have learned that Tucson is somewhere in the basement. Who knew? Fortunately, it will be another short trip. I wish like Wisconsin, there was ice cream in it though.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Memorable Moments in Virginia Horse Journal

Every so often, I accomplish something. This month, Virginia Horse Journal graciously agreed to publish a little piece for its Memorable Moments section. I am here on page six. You'll have to wait for the PDF to load and then magnify it to read, but really, truly, there I am in my preferred universe--the one of hard copy.

When my riding instructor contacted me excitedly to say she had read my work, I asked her to read it to the horse who inspired it. Wonder if he gives out hoofprints as an autograph?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Good-Bye, Buster.

My children's father and I had two dogs together, both of whom I had to reluctantly leave behind when the marriage ended; the dogs, of the "his and her" variety, could not be separated. His old girl had to be put to sleep last year, and this weekend, my dog crossed the rainbow bridge to be with her. The sweetest and saddest moment was my ex's description of how Buster was found--with the family's two-year-old Malamute curled up around him. The two buddies had chosen the shade of a tree we had long ago planted as the place of final rest. As my ex and his family were out of town, the dog sitter lovingly buried my pup where he was found. My ex's words were that the hardship of the dog's passing was its representation of the past--the shared past. I find this kind and sweet, but I buried that notion with the first dog. With this one, I was simply sad that I hadn't been there, that during a recent visit to my former home, I hadn't walked the extra twenty feet to call my old dog one last time.

To Buster, the best "bad dog" there ever was, know that I loved you. I loved you for the way you balanced on the pitch of the dog house roof and slept up there like Snoopy. I loved you for the way you peed on only my ex-husband's things (his car tires, his golf bag, his shirts). I loved you for how you sniffed and snarfed and comically blinked at me, all while wagging your tail and challenging me to a game of chase. You let me play with the wrinkles on your Sharpei face and toy with the slight curl in your tail. I will never forget how when you were a puppy, you would clamp your teeth around Dakota's fluffy tail and drag her backwards around the yard. In my head, I still hold a picture of you gleefully relishing my daughter's old doll, the expression of "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine" in your precious button eyes. Leaving you once was hard enough, but deep in my heart, I know you'll never be gone forever.

Friday, August 5, 2011

In Response to "Impact" and Other New Verbs

You'll have to pardon me for not posting regularly this past week. I have been swamped with jobs, travel, kids, and some rather time-consuming issues regarding the house we live in. I haven't forgotten to write--I simply haven't had the time to rework and then edit what I've got. So in light of some constraints on time, I'll borrow from my friend David who wrote a beautiful comment after my discussion of the word impact last week. With his permission, his words are reprinted here, where I thought they fit better than in a little comment box. Another reader also posted beautifully, but her comments are already published, her quoted reference to "dumb shadows" still haunting me in the way that poetic language does. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your beautiful honesty of describing when she learned the true meaning of dumb.

In response to the discussion about the changing use of words, David wrote:

This is why I envy my sister, as she has a full copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. The nature of all language is that it evolves along with the society it is embedded in. As I frequently have to explain to my eldest son, who has a great dislike of words such as "knife", because, according to him, they have extra letters, our language did not emerge from the hills of England, fully formed like Boticelli's Venus, but (has) evolved of centuries of trial and error. Someone once said that English evolved because Norman Frenchmen were trying to pick up Anglo Saxon barmaids. To some extent this is true, and just like the results of such trysts, our language has many bastardized kludges that suggest that it wasn't easy. 

American English is also evolving away from the more formal queen's diction, given not only the influences from our own version of linguistic "genetic drift", but the inclusion of more Romance derived languages such as Spanish, and to a lesser extent Portuguese . We may even find the infiltration of Chinese and Hindi as power and population trends change. Technology is also a big influence as well. "Jawbone", "Bluetooth", "Phone", "Tablet", and "Pad" are all changing their meaning. Also we "email", or "ping". We can "text" or "chat". 

Max and I were discussing this morning about pay phones, phone booths, and their disappearance. He couldn't understand that once upon a time, phones were big bulky affairs that required a land connection. In another generation, I would be willing to bet that phone booth disappears from everyday English. As man continues to evolve, so will his languages. Once upon a time, the lingua franca of business was Latin, then French. At the time of the Revolution, most of the founding fathers were fluent in not only English, but Latin, Greek, and to some extent French. Jefferson had also mastered Hebrew as well. It was only with the rise of the British Empire and the eventual ascendance of the American Republic, that English has usurped French as the language of commerce, though in this hemisphere it may soon take a back seat to Spanish. But let's face it in those parts around the fondly remembered woody groves of Oxford (Mississippi), you are more likely to hear a conversation like this: "Hey y'all, youwanna commonback to the house overtheyar?" "Naw, Igottaget, momanem need me."

By David on The Neo-Verb or Noun Redux on 7/29/11

How lovely that David and his son discuss language. I certainly hope his boy inherits David's skill with words and aptitude for drawing parallels of things with time, space, history, and relationships. I think it's wonderful that anyone would want to meet the subject of changing vocabulary head-on, particularly when spicier pop-culture topics lead the headlines (Kardashian's? Excuse me?). But I digress and must return where I belong--a spacious desk in an office filled with the light that bounces off the wooded lot outside. An afternoon of "post-it-noting" and such awaits. ;)