Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sibling Rivalry

Today I’ll be attending a meeting with one of our sister companies to see if we have some opportunities for working together on projects. Isn’t corporate America grand? Most of us work for places owned by parent companies we barely know. These parents tend to belong to the authoritarian school of raising children, you know, that type of child-rearing you learned in Psych.101 was the worst kind (as you immediately began analyzing your own and your, at the time, significant other’s parents’ child-rearing techniques), the kind that encourages the development of all sorts of neuroses. These authoritarian parents are off in The Netherlands or Germany or some such place most of the time, but they occasionally come to visit and always expect you to be on your best behavior when they do – well-scrubbed and shiny and most certainly busy as a bee, not playing volleyball at the beach or hanging out smoking with friends in a parking lot.

As parents are wont to do, they’ve created siblings for you, siblings you’ve had no say in deciding whether or not you want, siblings with whom you have nothing in common. They call you up from overseas and tell you to play nicely with your siblings. Since you’re scared to death not to do as you’re told (and you know whose side the nanny is on, always so willing to report misbehavior), you creep into your sister’s bedroom one morning, suggesting that after breakfast the two of you get together and find something to do. She doesn’t want to (she’s the rebellious one in the family, constantly getting everyone into trouble while getting away with murder herself). She kicks and screams and says “no,” but finally you convince her your parents are going to sell her to some child slave factory in India if she doesn’t, and she sulkily agrees to join you, but not till she’s had a morning playing volleyball at the beach with her friends.

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. Where the hell is Sister? Your parents are going to be calling the nanny at 5:00, as they do every evening before they go to bed to check in. Nanny is going to inform them that you haven’t spent one minute together since breakfast. Finally, at 3:45, she comes waltzing through the door and tells you she’s home now and can play with you. However, she doesn’t want to play anything you suggest. She’s the outdoorsy type who wants you to hit tennis balls against the garage door with her. You like to stay inside and play Monopoly. Eventually, you reach a compromise. You’ll play jacks outside in the driveway. Things are going fairly well until 4:55, when Sister decides you’re cheating. She didn’t see you pick up all those “onesies” separately. When you tell her you did, she starts screaming, hits you, and throws the ball out into the yard. You get up to go find it, and she’s chasing after you, telling you how much she hates you, just as your parents call. You’ve been grounded till school starts again, because when the nanny looked out the window, it was you she caught clocking your sister.

That night, at dinner, she tells you, “They love me best, you know. I’m the one who’s going to go places and do things. You can never do anything right. I hear it’s you they’re going to sell to the child slave factory in India.” You sneak out after dinner to hang out smoking in the parking lot with your friends.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The More Books You Read

“The more books you read, the more stupid you become.”
Mao Zedong

I got this quote from the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which one of my book discussion groups just met to discuss yesterday. (If your book discussion group is trying to figure out what to read next, I’d highly recommend it. We had a terrific discussion. Not extraordinarily well-written, but the kind of book that provides endless topics for conversation.) I never thought I’d find myself in the position of agreeing with something Chairman Mao had to say, but I think he'd admire my clever ability to take this quote out of context, something he and others of his ilk are so fond of doing. In so doing, I have to say I agree whole-heartedly. As a matter of fact, I’d add to it, “The more books you read, and the more movies you watch, the more stupid you become.”

I’ll start with Wild Swans. Although, I don’t tend to think of myself as being super brilliant, I also don’t go around on a daily basis thinking of myself as being woefully stupid and ignorant. This book had me convinced I need to start engaging in the latter (my own denunciation and self-criticism similar to what so many of the characters in the book had to endure), so here we go: despite taking world culture classes in junior high and high school during which I supposedly learned something about China, I know absolutely nothing about the place. Nothing. Zilch. (Well, except for what I picked up from watching characters in things like Bugs Bunny cartoons as a child.) As a matter of fact, not only do I know nothing about China, but I really don’t know much about Communism, either. General Mao was right. In the few weeks it took me to read this book, I’ve become much more stupid than I was before I read it. I’m feeling the urge to go out and do massive amounts of research on China, find more books like this, read Chinese literature (I’ve already got my copy of A Dream of Red Mansions, along with a collection of excerpted material from classic Chinese literature). And while I’m at it, I want to learn more about Russia and compare the two.

In fact, this whole year has been a great lesson in my own stupidity. Until I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, I had no idea what a racket the house-cleaning business is, and although I had some inkling as to how horrific Wal-Mart is, I didn’t know to what extent, especially as concerns their employees. I’ve always been somewhat aware of the fact that, despite what many, extraordinarily-wealthy, never-really-had-to-struggle people in this country will tell you, no you can’t just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and live the American dream. However, I didn’t really know exactly why that was, and now I have a teeny, tiny little piece of why, but nowhere near all the information I’d like to have to really understand that. Molly Hughes’s A London Child of the 1870s taught me how very, very little I know about the extreme injustices apparently visited upon children in that era, even children of the upper classes, just because they happened to be born female. I want to go out and find out more about this, if I can. Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness left me with close to a million questions, I’m sure, about Mennonites in Canada, as well as about Mennonites in general. Again, my ignorance and stupidity are astounding. I’d feel like a complete idiot asking some of these questions.

And then, there are movies. Bob and I have been watching a lot of DVDs lately, “catching up,” and one we just saw was Good Night and Good Luck. Look for something I’ve always just sort of had a one-sentence description of, and that something would be McCarthyism. Ironic, isn’t it, that Mao has led me to the realization that until I saw this movie, I really didn’t care too much about the fact that I knew nothing about our own “Red Scare?” I’m fascinated by the brain, read quite a lot of books and articles about it, and have been pretty confident that this is one area in which I might know a little more than the average person does. Then we rented Momento. Forget it. I was wrong. The brain and how our memory works and what happens to people who completely lose their short-term memory capabilities is a complete mystery to me. Guess I need to do some more reading.

So, where does it all end? How can I possibly come to fill in all these gaps? If I read more books and watch more movies, will I soon find myself starring in Dumbest and Dumbester? Maybe I need to put The Little Red Book at the top of my TBR list. Quite obviously, it was the one book that could be read without making a person feel like a moron.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Little Annoyances

Last night, I had a dream that one of my former bosses had suddenly given me an assignment – something time-consuming to do with researching sales – and wanted it done by this afternoon. It was one of those weird dreams that combined aspects of a present job with aspects of an old job, because I was being asked to research information on what I’m doing now, but my old boss was doing the asking. I’m sure that's because my clever subconscience knows this is not the sort of thing my current boss has ever done to me. Thus, I would have realized this was only a dream long before I typically do (of course, I'm contradicting myself here, as I found it completely believable that my former boss could still assign me tasks, the way I always find it completely believable, no matter how many times I dream it, that I'm back in school, have a final exam, and am suddenly aware I've forgotten to attend class all semester).

Thinking about it, though, has made me realize that one of the little annoyances of working in an office is annoying people – people demanding things of you, people constantly wanting to chat when you don’t feel you have time to chat, the person in the next cubicle who has that little habit of stomping his feet just so…I could probably go on, but you get the picture. I just came back from visiting our office, and I’m sure I’m that annoying person when I’m around, barging into people’s offices to chat; occupying spaces that are normally vacant, making noise people aren’t used to having to hear; asking stupid questions…I could probably go on here, too, but you get the picture.

So now I’m back home, no longer annoying others, and am thinking about the fact that when there are no others around either to annoy me or for me to annoy, I just annoy myself. For instance, my work phone happens to be a portable one so that I don’t have to be tied to the desk in the study all day. Why I can’t remember to charge this damn thing occasionally is beyond me. Every evening I’ll find myself thinking, “I need to remember to take that phone back upstairs and hang it up,” and then I promptly forget. Luckily, we have the other line, but it kind of takes a little something away from my professional cool to have to announce in the middle of a conversation, “Oops. My phone’s dying. Could I call you right back in two seconds?”

I also annoy myself by not checking my office supplies on a regular basis. How hard is it to make sure I’ve got at least one spare ink cartridge for the printer, so I don’t find myself in the midst of printing out an important document, only to discover half of it hasn’t printed, and if I want to finish printing it, I’m going to have to go to Staples? This is especially annoying, because I know the trip to Staples is unnecessary when it comes to ink cartridges. People at my office are perfectly happy to ship me spare cartridges, and if I don’t want to bug them, the company that makes the printer will also ship them to me. All I need do is put in the request, and they’d arrive at my house without my having to go anywhere.

Something else that distracts from one’s professional cool while on the phone is a barking dog in the background. I’ve mentioned before the fact that Bob and I live with The Barker. However, she doesn’t tend to bark if I close her into a room with me. It’s only when she has free rein of the whole house that falling leaves, blowing grass, and twittering birds become huge threats. For some reason, though, I forget to bring her in with me whenever I pick up the phone to make a call.

And you know the most annoying part? I’ve discovered I’m not half as much fun during the 80% of the time that I’m not busy annoying myself as colleagues usually are.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Meme III

Last week, The Hobgoblin (you’d think I was having an affair with him, or something, as often as I link to his blog, but I could never do that to either Bob nor the lovely Dorothy, whose blog also often finds itself featured on mine) came up with this terrific meme that helped preoccupy me during a long weekend spent at a wedding where I knew no one except the groom and Bob, in the very hot and humid city of Baltimore. You see, I had to think about it a lot, because it doesn’t lend itself to just stealing great answers from others. While I was away, he seems to have, unfairly, posted yet another meme (I have the feeling he was Mr. Slam Book when he was in sixth grade), so maybe I'll get to that one at some point, too. Anyway, no books, no movies, something more appropriate for a blog that’s supposedly about work and telecommuting. Let’s call it the Rèsumé Meme.

I don’t suppose going around the house, bargaining with my mother over the worth of certain household jobs counts, and stealing babysitting gigs from my sisters as soon as I hit thirteen probably doesn’t either. So, my first real job, one for which I had to fill out a W-4 form, was as a cashier in a grocery store. This was an exceedingly dull job, made exciting only by the fact that all those of us who worked the night and weekend shifts were teenagers who seemed to view the place as some sort of boyfriend and girlfriend swap shop. If you didn’t know who Debbie was dating this week or whether or not Tim and Dawn had broken up, it really didn’t matter, because by next week (after Friday night’s party), Tim would be with Debbie and Dawn would have decided Alan was her man.

For a very brief time, I had a job tutoring English to a Spanish-speaking nanny in this very bizarre household that I’m still convinced was part of some mob family. Really. They seemed like they could have stepped right out of The Godfather, and they sure had an awful lot of money for a family that was “in the restaurant business.” The nanny’s English never improved; I never asked any personal questions; and one day they just told me they didn’t need me anymore. I was quite relieved.

I worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home for two weeks, which was two weeks too long. I was put on the most difficult ward, with the patients who were in the worst states (no getting to have life-changing conversations with kindly and wise elderly people as if I were the star in some ABC After School Special. Nope. I was on the hall with the stroke victims and the people who repeated themselves hour after hour after hour). This wouldn’t have been so bad, if I hadn’t felt so sorry for them and hadn’t felt they were not treated with the dignity they deserved. On top of that, the other nurse’s aides (this was N.C., so picture skinny little chain-smoking “redneck women,” with oxen-like strength, who were 21 years old and already had 4 children) decided to make my life a living hell, giving me all the worst jobs (I'll spare you the details) and making fun of me as if we were in middle school. After I had come home for the third night in a row at 11:15 (I was working the “early” night shift) to wake up my parents, crying, my father finally turned to me, and said, “Honey, I don’t think this is the right job for you.” Epiphany! I stuck it out for one more shift and then quit over the phone, too chicken to go back in and face them.

I was at the last company where I worked for ten years, but not at the same job. I would have had to kill myself if I’d been stuck with that original job for ten long years.

When I first started my job in the library world, I worked part-time for the small legal newspaper where I’d worked previously. This makes no sense, and I can’t remember what on earth I was doing for the paper at that time, but I know I did it, because I can remember several occasions in which I arrived at the office thinking someone would be there to let me in and found myself locked out.

The job I have right now is not particularly unusual, but it’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had.

Nigella Lawson gets to cook all the time, and to write regular columns for the New York Times about cooking and food, as well as books, and to have a T.V. show. That’s a pretty cool job. Oh yes, and while we’re discussing ideals, shallow person that I am, it would be nice to be beautiful like she is, too. I’d also settle just for being a food critic with a regular column, even if it were for the Podunk Gazette.

Yep, you.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Food IV

All right, I already have the verdict. If I keep doing this, I'm soon going to be able to model for this. I need to adjust it and adapt it somehow, though, because, I must say, it's very nice to be able to eat an English muffin topped with peanut butter, a cup of blueberries, and a glass of milk for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. and not to be ravenously hungry again by 9:00 a.m.

Oh, to have lived in those glorious cave-dwelling, hunting-and-gathering days (according to everything I seem to read, anyway, about food and nutrition), when weight control was apparently just naturally easy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Meme with Links

(First of all, before getting into the meme, I’d like to note that since I wrote this, my brother has gotten over his fear of Hobbits and unicorns and is back to blogging.)

As I predicted, Litlove has arisen from her chaise longue with a tantalizing and inspiring meme, one over which I've done much mulling. I’m discovering it really pays to be late to the meme table, as I’ve been reading everyone else’s responses and can now pretend you’ve all stolen my ideas, and I’ve been forced to come up with others. This allows me to provide at least two books for some of the questions.

Dorothy went racing off to the Prairie with her burlap bag full of the stolen Little House books, so I’m going to whiz through childhood, which has way too many choices, and head into adolescence with The World According to Garp, which I read when I was fifteen. I was having a very difficult time moving into the world of reading contemporary adult literature. This book clinched it for me (plus probably taught me way more than I should have known about men at that age).

With Courtney swiping Pat Conroy off my shelves and taking him off to a shrimp festival (I don’t think I’d have wanted to endure his childhood anyway, though), I have to go with Mary Roach. Traveling around the world to “research” things like spirits and cadavers and then writing laugh-out-loud funny books about her experiences? What I wouldn’t give to have that job and her kind of imagination and talent!

There’s nothing like Corelli’s Mandolin for making me want to hop on a boat to Greece. I can smell the lemons and olives waiting there with my name on them.

Bob and I love to pose this question to ourselves and to others. We part ways with many of our choices, but we can both agree on Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Absolutely no Shakespeare. I don't care what anybody says, even about Romeo and Juliet. If you're reluctant to read, Elizabethan English isn't going to convert you. Teen readers like to read about themselves, that is, either other teenagers or other families that just might be crazier than their own. I'd start them on any number of fabulous YA titles, because it all focuses on teens, and then, when I felt they were ready, I'd give them James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times.

Alan Garner. I know who J.K. Rowling was reading when she was a teenager. I can’t believe I missed him all these years, but I’m so glad I finally found him.

William Barnhardt wrote a fabulously funny and poignant novel Emma Who Saved My Life, a little gem I’m convinced no one but Bob and I has read (if you’ve read it, please let me know). I want so badly to live in the New York City of that book, back when that most magnificent city was still full of youthful idealism, awakenings, and angst, and with a healthy bit of a chip on its shoulder, before the Reagan era and then 9/11 started leading it along the twisted path to becoming a bitter senior citizen.

Edward Lear. I’ve loved him since I was the child with the Dover coloring book I mentioned in a comment to Bloglily. “Light verse” hasn’t always been taken seriously, but I've decided it must now be part of the canon, since The Library of America published its book on the subject (lacking Lear, of course, because he wasn't American), so now I might be taken seriously when I rave about what an absolute genius Lear was. I wish I had that kind of grasp of the English language to accompany my odd view of the world.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. I wish I’d had her for high school history. She’s a lot like Mary Roach, and has a similar job, so I guess she’s another author I’d like to be (although she has to appear regularly on NPR, and I can’t stand to be recorded).

The Hobgoblin is hiding the stolen Stephen King in some cellar in Maine or something, so I’ll have to go with Ross MacDonald. Not a “Raymond-Chandler Wannabe.” Much better than Raymond Chandler. I promise you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

When I was a child, sitting at the breakfast table, sun streaming through the kitchen window, I happily joined my siblings in making fun of other children who kept the lights on in their rooms at night. I certainly wasn’t afraid of the dark. Nope, not me, the one snuggling down in her bed every night with a nightlight shining brightly. Not the one whose bedroom door stood wide open to the hall light she insisted stay on until her parents had gone to sleep. And when I woke up in the middle of the night, the comfort of the hall light gone, I never turned on my own light to shrink the giant I heard climbing the stairs (probably with a vampire on his back). Nor did I turn it on to scare away the opposable-thumbed lions and tigers who inhabited the wooded lot next door, where they hid ladders long enough to reach my bedroom window. You see, I knew perfectly well when I was out and about during those long, hot summer days, the bright sun burning my skin, that being afraid of the dark was ridiculous. We’d spend our time building forts in those woods, no lions in sight, and sliding down the staircase on pillows, giants’ footprints nowhere to be seen.

Daytime will do that to a person. During the day, when I can see what’s going on and when everything seems so much more friendly, I’m invincible. I hear sirens and don’t automatically think someone’s escaped from the state prison and is headed right for my house. I don’t worry when unfamiliar cars drive by; I just assume it’s someone visiting one of the neighbors. If I get a hang-up phone call from an unknown number, I don’t suspect someone’s hiding in my basement with a cell phone, making sure he really heard me walk in the door. I’m not afraid of being home alone all day, never even think about the fact I’m alone. Only on days when I hear that a friend of mine’s neighbor was raped by a repairman does the thought that I’m telecommuting ever bring me to the conclusion that I might be the victim of a daytime crime, and even then, if I hear this at 2:00 p.m., sun glaring down on me, I don’t pay too much attention to it.

For a brief period this past week, though, I was thinking about it. On Friday, Bob and I were at a party, and when we got home, not late at all, we decided to take Lady for a little evening stroll. We had just turned out of our driveway when a car approached, and I suddenly realized, as the reflection bounced off our post lamps, that the car had lights on top. I said to Bob, “It’s a cop. What on earth is a cop doing on our street?” We have nine houses on our street. It’s a dead end. This is not the sort of place where cops go cruising. His windows were wide open (he must have heard me. Good thing. I couldn’t possibly have sounded like someone trying to hide a crime, so can cross off my “list of things to worry about” the worry that this event would lead to an unfair arrest, and I’ll never see the light of day – the one that helps assuage my fears and worries -- again, as if I were in some Russian work of fiction or something), and he stopped to ask us if we’d heard any gunshots, as someone had reported gunshots being fired on our street. Bob explained that we hadn’t, but that we’d only been home for about ten minutes. By the time we’d taken Lady to the end of the street, there was another cop who’d come along, asking us the same question.

My first reaction was, “Damn, this is so typical of my life. Some sort of crime takes place right on my own street, and I miss hearing the shots by ten minutes.” That lasted about twenty seconds and was replaced with trying to figure out who could possibly be shooting at others on our street. Maybe the grandsons who live with the elderly couple next door are selling drugs, and "Slim Jim" had just visited with a little warning to "pay up." We haven’t even met the people who just this past week moved in on the other side. They’re from Texas, according to their license plates. Maybe they’ve hung out with Dick Cheney, and he’s taught them a few things about guns. Maybe it’s someone we’d never suspect, and we’re going to end up on Nightline talking about how we always thought they were such a “loving couple,” and how we had barbecues with them, and went to baseball games with them, and had no idea he could ever shoot her and put her body through a wood chipper.

Bob decided it may just have been the new neighbors hearing the grandsons shooting at wild turkeys, which they often like to do, and he went to bed. I went to bed, too, but then I found I couldn’t sleep, even though I’d double-checked all the locks in the house. I lay awake thinking there was some mad gunman on the loose in our neighborhood (he was, of course, wearing a ski mask). I wondered if we’d remembered to remove the spare key from under the mat, which we’d left there a few days earlier for our neighbors (and could we trust those neighbors?), so they could feed and walk Lady. I wasn’t about to go outside and check, though. I swear I heard rustling in the trees and bushes in our backyard. By 2:00 a.m., I’d decided we live in a very dangerous area. We were going to have to move, especially if I'm going to keep working from home, all by myself all day, once Bob gets a job.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous, bright, sunshiny day. Our sliding glass door was wide open all afternoon. The front door was open, too. We said "hi" to the new folks next door when we saw them outside with their adorable little dogs. Being afraid of masked gunmen or murdered neighbors? How ridiculous is that?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Food III

Way back when I first started working from home, one of my worries was what to do about food, more specifically how to control my urge to cook and eat all the time now that I had ready access to my own kitchen all day long. Well, the first thing I can say is thank God I have a demanding, varied, and interesting job that doesn’t leave me bored, wandering around the house looking for ways to avoid working. Secondly, thank God for blogs and blogging, which seem to be occupying a good deal of what used to be my commuting time, so that between 5:00 and 6:00, I’m busy reading and commenting on extraordinarily wonderful stuff. Otherwise, I might be busy “cleaning the fridge.” You know, putting everything from it that isn’t rotten into my body, which doesn’t count as eating dinner before dinner, because I’m just “cleaning the fridge.”

Despite these two distractions, however, I still seem to have found some ways to take in more calories than I’m burning and have discovered I’ve been putting on about a quarter pound of weight every week since I started this telecommute. That may not sound like much, but it means ten pounds by the end of the year and twenty by the end of two, and God knows, I’d better get fired before the end of year five, because I don’t want to see what my 5’3” frame will look like with an extra 50 pounds on it. Nor do I want to have to be lugging that extra fifty pounds around with me.

The trouble is I’m lazy when it comes to weight control. I don’t start out that way. I’ll buy a special notebook meant to record what I eat, and I’ll meticulously keep it up for a day or two, noting even toothpaste as I put it into my mouth. But by day five or so, if I remember I have it, I’m picking it up at the end of the day, looking at it, and thinking “well, I didn’t eat that much more than I did the first day, so let’s not bother today.” For someone who likes to cook with fresh ingredients, counting calories is a royal pain in the ass, because nothing comes with a nutrition label and, chances are, each dish has at least six different ingredients that have to be looked up in some mammoth calorie counts book. This book will provide the counts for every frozen dinner Swanson ever made, as well as for such high-demand foods as pickled pigs’ feet, but doesn’t seem to realize mangoes or Smart bacon exist.

And then there’s exercise. It used to be that all I had to do was exercise, and I really didn’t need to worry about what or how much I ate. And exercise could consist of a twenty-minute walk to work in the morning and back in the afternoon and long bike rides on the weekends, and my doctor would proclaim me to be one of the healthiest patients he had. Now, I have to train for marathons and watch everything that goes into my mouth, and my doctor still warns me about my heart-disease and cancer risks.

The other problem is that, even though I’m one of those people who can find herself so involved in something that she forgets to eat, once my stomach starts to really growl, I can’t ignore it. Often, eating is something I’m doing merely to stop the hunger pains, which means I’m reaching for something convenient and filling, like chunks of cheese and huge slices of bread. (I’ve often wished eating were a little more like sex. When you’re in the mood to cook up a lavish seven-course meal and have the time to enjoy it, you could, but if you really weren’t in the mood or didn’t have time, you could just skip it, and it wouldn’t kill you. Or if you suddenly found yourself starving, and it was completely inconvenient to eat, you could just wait a little while and know it would probably go away without your having to do anything about it.)

So, what am I going to do? I’m going to try this. I just picked up the book at the library this week. It sounds easy enough. I think even someone as lazy as I am can manage to drink a little sugar water or take a tablespoonful of olive oil every day, and the theory behind it sounds right to me (address the need to eat less, not so much what you eat), especially since I’m basically a nutrition-freak by nature and believe whole-heartedly in the idea that everyone needs to eat a wide variety of healthy foods every day. Fad diets that restrict food groups aren’t for me. This doesn't sound like it should even be called a "diet."

If I start wasting away to nothing, I’ll let you know. Likewise, if that quarter-pound creeps up to 2 pounds per week.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Meme Virus

Does anyone else remember slam books, those notebooks in which you asked all your friends and family members questions like “What’s your favorite color?” and “Who’s the love of your life?” Those with whom you had bequeathed the privilege of responding to your nosiness would choose a number to represent themselves when answering your questions. You’d, of course, memorized the fact that your best friend (whose answers were uncannily just like yours) was number five, and the boy you now hated, because he had not said you were the love of his life, was number twelve.

When I was in sixth grade, I was Miss Slam Book. Never one to do things (other than sports, that is) in a half-assed way, I wanted to have the best slam book ever. It had to have a pretty cover. It had to be heavily decorated with cute cartoon characters. It had to ask more questions than anybody else’s and to have so many respondents people would have trouble finding room on the pages for their answers. And the questions themselves? Well, they had to be something special, too. Not deterred by friends who would tell me, “You have to ask how old they are,” and “You can’t have a slam book that doesn’t ask for favorite colors,” I decided my slam books would not follow form (well, not completely. I’d pad them with the standard questions, because I was always easily bossed around by friends, but I’d still do it my way by keeping my questions in as well). After all, we already knew how old everyone in the class was. We also, having been in school together for years, knew everyone’s favorite color. My slam book could have been used as “Example A” in human resources departments for what you can’t ask job interviewees: “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” (As if 12-year-olds could vote.) “Do you get along with or fight with your brothers and sisters?”

In the late 1980s, someone came up with the idea (wish it had been I, as I’d have long since retired to Maine on that obvious cash cow) of morphing the sixth-grade slam book into The Book of Questions. This was a pseudo-psychological effort to get people to ask each other questions meant to reveal their inner selves. You see, it was the eighties; the sixties were ancient history, so we’d all obviously forgotten how to reach in and explore our psyches. We needed a book to ask us such things as, “If you could be a multimillionaire but would never be allowed to return to your country of birth, would you choose to be one?” I had many more questions than answers for this book: how had I managed to get into this predicament in which I was the only human alive who had the knowledge that the world was going to end tomorrow? How, exactly, were each of my family members going to die if I chose to forfeit their lives in order to be beautiful and forever young? Despite its stupidity, the book held a certain sort of fascination for me (probably because it once again gave me permission to be extremely nosy).

I thought I’d become immune to this slam-book-loving infection until recently when the “One Book Meme” started drifting around out there in the blogosphere. The meme virus is obviously a new and very virulent form of the old infection. I’m hoping someone will create a vaccine soon, because the germs are multiplying on my kitchen counter, attaching themselves to my eating utensils, and creating food questions to pose to others. Someone’s been coughing and sneezing them on the CD and DVD shelves at my local library. People who don’t even know they’re contagious yet are shaking hands with me when they run into me at Broadway shows.

So, here’s my first attempt to purge myself of it. (Litlove has been infected, too, and is promising to come out to play as soon as she’s well enough, but I’m sure hers will be a lovely and very rare form of the disease -- the one that’s reclining on the chaise longue, feverish cheeks glowing and adding a certain beauty to it all, the one that teeters on the brink of death, ultimately resulting in great wisdom after recovery. Mine’s the one you picked up on the airplane from New York to San Francisco that kept you bedridden throughout your entire vacation, wishing you were dead and knowing full well it wasn't going to kill you). It may not be the most original, but I can promise you one thing: no questions that involve desert islands.


(Rule: yes only one. I was tortured by the one book meme and want my revenge.)

1) The first movie you remember seeing on the big screen.
Lady and the Tramp. My sisters tell me it wasn’t the first, but it’s the one I remember. I hated those Siamese cats, who stuck out in my mind for years.

2) Movie from which you can quote multiple lines in your sleep.
The Wizard of Oz, like everyone else who saw it every year of his or her life from the age of about four to eighteen or so.

3) Director (dead or alive) with whom you’d most like to have dinner.
Jonathan Demme. I’d say Stanley Kubrik, but I worship him too much, and fainting in his presence would probably ruin the dinner.

4) Movie that should have won an Oscar but didn’t.
Everything that was up against Gladiator that year.

5) Movie that didn't disappoint despite being an adaptation of a book.
Sweet Hereafter. I was blown away by this book when I read it, and the book was still better than the movie, but the movie was damn good.

6) Movie you were dragged to by someone else expecting to hate but loved.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So much so, that a few weeks later, when we went to see Traffic at the same cinema complex, I snuck in and watched some of it again.

7) Movie that still scares the crap out of you no matter how many times you see it.
The Exorcist. And I have to do all kinds of things to keep from thinking about it when I'm alone. This helps tremendously.

8) Movie that still makes you bawl, no matter how many times you see it.
The Champ (both versions)

9) Movie that still has you rolling around on the floor with laughter no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
I’m breaking my own “one rule” here with a 3-way tie:
The Gods Must Be Crazy
There’s Something About Mary

10) Now, I'm still eager to completely fill my slam book pages, so no small numbers being tagged here. If I’ve ever commented on your blog, consider yourself tagged for this one. All family members and friends are also tagged.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Get Out of My Office

Bob had to work over the weekend, so he was home today, which meant I had to share my office with him. He was busy writing an essay. At the end of this week, he will be done with his chaplaincy and will be working on writing more essays he needs to compose in order to be ordained (word of warning here: if you’re considering going into the ministry, choose something other than the Presbyterian denomination.You practically have to earn a special Ph.D. in order to be ordained as a Presbyterian), and then he’ll be setting up shop for all his environmental interests, as well as looking for a job that pays money.

After today, I’m suddenly discovering I’ve become very stingy when it comes to sharing my office. I used to have all these lovely visions (back in my office days/his pre-school days when this was nothing but a mere fantasy) of the two of us both figuring out ways to work from home together. We’d work, take mid-morning coffee breaks, walk Lady at lunch. I’d throw ideas off him, ask him "Is it just me, or is this particular paragraph in these sample pages impossible to understand?" I’d help him edit what he had to write for work. We’d knock off work just before 6:00, when he’d prepare one of his delicious margaritas for each of us, and we’d sit out on the back deck on swelteringly hot days like today and talk about how wonderful our lives were.

Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. I still don’t know why I let this runaway imagination have so much power. Doesn’t that fantasy remind you of some fourteen-year-old-who’s-just-seen-An-Officer-and-a-Gentleman-for-the-first-time’s vision of love and romance? You’d think I’d have long-ago learned how to squash these ridiculous little hallucinations of mine.

First of all, let’s translate “my office” as “my whole house.” My telecommuting habits are still such that I move around the house all day. We happen to live in New England, which means we own the requisite colonial-style home. It should take days for two people to be able to find each other in all this space. So why is it that this intruder is everywhere in my work space? When I want to be upstairs, he’s up there. When I reluctantly leave him sitting in the study to go downstairs, I suddenly find either he’s grown to huge proportions or the house has shrunk to tiny ones, because he’s crowding out every last corner of all the first-floor rooms. I’m ready to pick up the phone and call Alice and the White Rabbit for advice on what to do.

Meanwhile, my back turned as I search for the phone number, he’s become Goldilocks, eating things in my kitchen I didn’t say he could have. And he’s sitting in my chair and adjusting it to levels that don’t work for me. He suggests we take a coffee break together, and I growl at him, in true Mama Bear fashion. I certainly don’t have time for a coffee break. He’s screwed up my whole morning schedule. What does he think? That I’m just living a life of leisure here and have absolutely no work that I have to get done? And he’s got another think coming if he thinks I’m going to edit that essay for him, unless he’s willing to pay me what I get paid to do such things.

This is never going to work. He’s got to get a job immediately, one with a two-hour-long-one-way commute. Either that, or I’m going to have to quit this dream job of mine and go become a dentist's receptionist, which is probably the only other job within the vicinity of where we live for which I'd be qualified. Wait a minute. What’s that I hear? The sound of the blender making margaritas? Ahhh, my husband’s home. I think I’ll go join him on the back deck to talk about how wonderful our lives are.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Belated Theater Review

One of my passions is attending live theater performances. I really know absolutely nothing about the theater in terms of directors, producers, actors (well, that’s not really true, but many of them I don’t know), etc. However, I have been completely enamored of stage performances since I first witnessed my sisters up there dressed as pieces of taffy in an elementary school play. My first experience with professional performances was in London. We went to see Tom Brown's School Days when I was eight years old, and I remember turning to my sister when the lights came on at intermission, asking, with tears in my eyes, not so much from the last scene we’d seen, which was enough to reduce even a Buckingham Palace guard to tears, but more from my utter fear that this newly-found love was about to end, “it isn’t over, is it?”

Thus began my career as a theater slut. I'm one of those sluts who'd really like to reform, theater being a rather expensive habit, but I just can't seem to do so. I’ll go see something like the absolutely fabulous production of David Mamet’s Oleander, which I saw years ago at the Yale Repertory Theater (which, by the way, having been a subscriber, I can assure you, despite its status, very often puts on crap), and I’ll think, “That’s it. I’m never again going to any performance that isn’t guaranteed to come somewhat close to that experience.” Then I’ll notice that our local middle school is performing HMS Pinafore, for which I sang in the chorus in first grade, and I’m there. I’ve finally had to admit, give me tickets to any live performance, and I'll take them. In fact, give me a choice between a movie and the stage, and I’ll pick the stage every single time, even if it’s a kindergarten performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten v. a big-screen viewing of The African Queen.

I happen to have been inspired by a couple of posts from The Hobgoblin (lest you fret, I know I’ve referred to him twice lately, but he’s not my sole blog muse), as he reflects on his life as an academic. So, I’m plagiarizing myself here and copying verbatim what I wrote in my journal after seeing The History Boys at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway a few weeks ago.
If you're a non-theater type, this is your cue to stop here and to go visit a different blog. If you're a theater type who couldn't get to N.Y. to see this, you're in luck (and I wouldn't subject you to this if this weren't the case. How infuriating is it to read about some great play you know you'll never, ever see living in The Middle of Nowhere, GA.?). It was made into a film, with the same cast I saw, which I'm sure you can rent (at least, I hope it's available in The Middle of Nowhere, GA. Given its subject matter and fundamentalist Christians' love of settling in places like The Middle of Nowhere, you just might be out of luck).

"Wow! I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I was so completely immersed, and this play tapped into so many different feelings and thoughts of mine, it’s practically left me numb (or maybe that was the two martinis we had at Sardi’s afterwards).

"My first impression was: how familiar is this? I know it was the 1980s, but I suppose my year in the British schooling system in 1979 was on that cusp, so to speak. My fifteen-year-old self quickly assessed this system in which one’s whole life rested on exam results (I’m sure the fact I suffered from an extraordinary case of test anxiety had absolutely nothing to do with this) and found it lacking (how wonderful, isn’t it, that America has now followed suit with No Child Left Behind?). I sort of cruised through that year, fully aware that everyone else was focused on her (I was at an all-girls’ school) O Levels and what she needed to learn in order to pass, while I was focused on Queen and David Bowie and two boys who lived in my village, knowing perfectly well I was returning to America, where the only thing that mattered was my hope that my 'maths' class was enough to guarantee my entrance into a sophomore algebra II class.

"What I came away from this play thinking, though, is 'Why does so much of educational experience focus on taking the joy out of learning?' [I work for an educational publisher that] tries so hard to address this issue, but it seems so often we’re climbing an uphill battle. How ridiculous, though, is it, to take a first-grader who enters school dying to read, dying to count, dying to learn about his or her world, and to turn him or her into a fourth-grader who couldn’t care less? Our system (in complete alignment with that presented in the play) has just a few very simple goals: memorize facts, repeat and write about them, and then spit them back out to gain entrance to that prestigious institution guaranteeing success in life if you can get there (extra credit if you manage to do this in some sort of creative way, unless, of course, your examiner hates creativity; then you fail). Whether or not you actually learn anything along the way doesn't really matter.

"The best teachers always seem to get singled out and punished for something (I’ve come to realize as I age, most likely because others are jealous). Not that a teacher shouldn’t get singled out for what amounts to pedophilia (well, sort of), but this play presented an interesting twist on that. These were, after all, young men of 18 or 19 (not 12-year-olds) who had a very 'knowing' way of dealing with such things (of course, legislation in this country, at least, since the 1980s would have you believe that all young people of that age would have no clue and would be completely damaged for life, but the play certainly doesn’t buy into that theory). And he was a fantastic teacher.

"I was reminded of the professor when I was in college who was universally adored by his students. I never had him, but he was apparently inspiring, courageous, one for whom his students wanted to work and learn. They wrote long, supportive articles about him in both of the school's newspapers. His sin was nowhere near the level of something like "fiddling with students." Still, his sin was such that he couldn't get tenure: he hadn’t published enough. What a wonderful excuse that was for a bunch of bitter old academics who had no clue how to inspire students to pursue learning in that way. I find myself asking over and over again, 'Do we really, really care about young people and learning? Enough to put our own petty jealousies and insecurities aside? Enough to contemplate and accept the fact that one of them might be greater and more accomplished than we are one day?'

Anyway, enough of all this. What a wonderful, wonderful play, especially when juxtaposed with Doubt [another play I recently saw on Broadway]."

I will add: if you live anywhere near NYC and can go see this before it closes (Oct. 1, I think), DO! It's the sensitive poet with a great sense of humor who sends you roses and is looking for commitment, not that piece of eye candy you picked up at some bar at 2:00 a.m. this morning.

Help! I'm One of These People!

I was talking to my brother yesterday, who was the first one in our family to blog, and who was also the first one in our family to abandon blogging. He reminded me of why it took me so long to commit to this pastime. Over a year ago, two people whom I really respect encouraged me to blog. One of them has his own blog, and it’s obvious he enjoys it very much. The other is someone who has been encouraging me to write and whom, I suppose, thought it would be a good discipline, because I’d be forced to write on a regular basis.

So, I went out there and started a blog that lasted about three days. Then, I began exploring the blogosphere, sticking to my own neighborhood, which always seems the safest thing to do when one moves into a new area and sets off on an expedition (I won’t reveal which one here, but it wasn’t blogger). What did I find? People who post images of their own self-mutilation. People who want you to believe the earth is flat. People I thought were humorously referring to themselves as being paranoid, until I discovered they had about 150 posts detailing how and why their phone lines were tapped. I found myself thinking, “Is this really the company I want to be keeping?” If I’d gone to a party and had been confronted with these people, I would have left within ten minutes and gone home to take a bath, hoping to wash off any parts of them that might have found a resting place with me. I did just that. I left the party (didn't need to bathe, though).

I’ve been extremely disappointed that my brother, whose blog wasn’t quite as short-lived as my first one, but almost, never continued. I can’t blame him, though, after yesterday’s conversation and finding out why. It seems he was also cruising his own neighborhood when he discovered one person who had evidence that unicorns really do exist. He clicked on the next blog to read about its author’s little trip with the Hobbits. His thought, not too dissimilar from mine, was, “Oh my God! I’ve become one of these people!” I suppose it was like someone who’s smoked a little pot in his life coming across the desperate heroin addict in an alley and swearing off all drugs forever. If he kept up his humorous musings on life and scanning in some papers he’d written and finding old photographs to scan, would he eventually become someone who was describing his daily conversations with Dostoevsky’s ghost? His blog ended that day.

My other fear when I used to consider the idea of blogging was that my compulsive nature would take reign over my life, keeping me from ever missing a few days of writing and making me constantly check for comments (ever fearful that someone like “Unicorn Woman” was going to tell me I sucked or question my sanity or something). Luckily, in those days, I didn’t know there was such a thing as site tracker, which I’m pretty sure has an advisory board on which Compulsive Nature serves.

Well, after nearly three months of this, I can’t say I was wrong about The Reign of Compulsion, but I’ve discovered it’s a little less dictatorial than I’d assumed. For instance, I’m allowed to go a few days without posting. Also, it’s kind of nice to have it distracted by blogs and blogging rather than some of the other interests it’s shown in the past (like insisting I listen to every single CD we own in alphabetical order just once, before I go back to listening to the same old favorites over and over again. If you’d ever seen our CD collection, you’d know that was an awfully tall order). Will I start believing in unicorns or posting videos of myself engaging in compulsive behavior? I’m not sure, but if the party I’m attending now is any indication, I doubt it. I’m going to party all night long and maybe well into tomorrow, too.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Books II

(Apologies to those friends and family members who already got my email about this. You can ignore this post).

Okay, The Hobgoblin thinks he was the last person tagged for this meme, but he was wrong. I’ve been unofficially “tagged” and thought it would be a good thing to save for a day that I’m feeling lazy. Didn’t know that day would come so soon, but that’s what this heat will do to a person, I suppose.

My biggest question when I first thought about this was, "Only one?” However, it’s an improvement over the single desert island question that people have been asking all my life, so I should quit whining. I was also thinking it would be fun to do this with movies and plays, too, but then what happens when you get to the desert island question? I’m assuming you can’t bring your movie screen and projector on the island with you (even if you have a generator to run the projector), and then if it’s been deserted forever, I doubt you’d have too many people for a cast, let alone auditions and call-backs (well, if you didn’t end up on this desert island due to a Princess Cruise wreck or something). So, books really are the best medium for this. Even art doesn’t work. How do you carry the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel onto a desert island? (As you can see, that desert island question is just a nuisance no matter how you look at it. I vote we get rid of it). Thus, these are my choices.

1. One book that changed your life.
Native Son. In about a million different ways.

2. One book that you've read more than once.
Three Men in a Boat. At this point, I’ve lost count.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island.
It used to be the Bible, but Leviticus and Numbers would get awfully tiresome after about the 2nd read (although I suppose I could just skip them and read Song of Solomon and Revelations twice as many times or something). So now it’s Don Quixote. Everything I’d ever want in a book all rolled up into one tidy little package.

4. One book that made you laugh.
I wonder if it counts to say everything David Sedaris ever wrote when it’s one day all compiled into one big treasury. If not, I’ll just say Me Talk Pretty One Day, since it was the first one I ever read.

5. One book that made you cry.
A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray. Buckets.

6. One book that you wish had been written.
Something else by Harper Lee.

7. One book that you wish had never been written.
The Davinci Code. I think that’s self-explanatory.

8. One book you're currently reading.
Wild Swans. Absolutely fascinating.

9. One book you've been meaning to read.
Les Miserables. I keep picking it up and putting it back down.

10. Now tag five people.
I’m only tagging three: Sarah (who needs to give me her URL), Jess (who needs to create her URL), and Danny. And then I’m going to do what everyone else has done and tell you that if you’re reading this and haven’t done it yet, consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Deflecting Another Visitor

You’re not going to believe this. I wouldn’t, if I were you. But I promise you, I’m a third child, a copycat; my mind rarely comes up with an original thought of its own, so I’m no good at making up stuff like this (although, it occurs to me, I seem to be getting better and better at lying). To pretend this had happened, and to make it sound far more interesting and amusing than it was, is the sort of thing I wish my mind could do.

Yesterday, the chimney sweeper called me. He called on my business phone line, not my home phone line, which I tend to answer even when the caller i.d. gives me an unfamiliar number. Thus, he caught me completely off-guard (the pattern when it comes to these unwanted visitors who seem to have been invented to plague telecommuters -- sort of the home equivalent of that constant chatterer at the office who hovers over your shoulder refusing to leave no matter how busy you try to make yourself seem).

I’d love to say I’ve become very wise and tough and expertly got him off the phone, leaving him without an inkling of a doubt as to whether or not he’d ever be allowed into my house. But we all know that would be the made up story. If only our house didn’t have a chimney. Even I can envision myself happily telling someone, “Sorry, we don’t have a chimney.” Too bad I never get unsolicited calls from the Jaguar mechanic. As long as I don’t have to pretend I would never need a good or service, ever, I have absolutely no problem getting rid of people. It’s when I have to lie in order to get people to go away that things become problematic.

But I had to lie to get rid of this guy. I know our heating company provides some sort of chimney cleaning service, but I also know perfectly well that what they provide isn’t enough, and that we do, every so often, have to have our chimney cleaned, which is something we haven't done in ages. However, I also know we haven’t been using the fireplace much while Bob’s been in school, which allows me to pretend it probably isn’t all that dirty. I also happen to know that my father-in-law recently made the mistake of scheduling a cleaning from one of these unsolicited calls, and the chimney sweeper made a huge mess, which he then didn't clean up. Thus, I knew (even without the imagination that eagerly summons images of rapists and murderers who make up stories to gain entrance into unsuspecting victims’ homes), I didn’t want someone I’d never heard of, who claims to be a chimney sweeper, coming to my house.

Luckily, for me, he didn’t sound suitably enough like Dick Van Dyke to really capture my attention, let alone my business. In fact, he didn’t sound like Dick Van Dyke at all. If he had, my imagination would have been out of luck with its conjured evil chimney sweeps (who probably also dress up as clowns and chase teenagers on merry-go-rounds at summer carnivals), which would have been completely shut out by images of Dick Van Dyke, all legs and blackened cheeks, dancing around with Julie Andrews. I would have invited him over and asked if he’d like a spoonful of sugar to go with the cup of tea I'd have offered him.

So, you see, it wasn’t hard for me truthfully to tell him our heating company is under contract to check our chimney, and when he pushed me on that, knowing that heating companies don’t do the whole chimney, to lie, telling him we’d just had the rest done, too. What was hard was not adding that I’d take his name and number and maybe give him a call next time our chimney needed cleaning. I said “maybe,” though. If Bert happens to show up, unannounced at my door, carrying Mary Poppins’s umbrella, I’m giving him the job.