The Things We Do For Love

I had my left foot on the third step of the ladder, my right foot on the counter, and my left arm braced on the top of a kitchen cupboard (and my, it does get dusty up there, doesn’t it?). With my right hand, I was applying a strip of gleaming white paint along the edge of a ceiling that someone, under the influence of too many decorating magazines, had painted brown.

Focused on my task, I was only vaguely aware of a whirring noise close to my left ear. I finished the strip of ceiling I could reach and shifted back onto the ladder so I could climb down and move it. As I reached for my paint bucket, something hit my left arm.

That’s when I realized that I had been working away in perfect serenity, oblivious to the ceiling fan blades whipping past just inches from my head. I had a quick flash of the news item: “Woman struck in face by ceiling fan and knocked off stepladder. She suffered only a mild concussion and the loss of a couple of teeth, but on the way to the hospital in the ambulance she nearly died of embarrassment.”

I don’t know how someone in full possession of her faculties, wearing her reading glasses, and fully fortified with caffeine could fail to see a ceiling fan literally in front of her nose. Never mind. Sometimes luck is as good as skill, and a narrow escape from injury and humiliation is still an escape.

After that little incident, the rest of the day was uneventful. I painted edges, using a nifty little pad with rollers along the side to help keep even amateurs on the straight and narrow. My friend applied glistening swathes of white with a thick-napped roller. Loaded with paint, it looked like a long-haired cat that had fallen into a milk jug. We worked, and we talked, and we enjoyed ourselves. By mid-afternoon we had transformed three dark-ceilinged rooms into much brighter spaces for the young family moving into this house.

A young family, including two little ones, that is part of my family. As I painted, I could easily see them growing up here. It’s a great family house with a wonderful back yard. But the very best thing about this house is its location. Instead of growing up two states away, these kids will be growing up right here in Rapid City. I’ll get to see them often, along with their parents, who are the kind of people I would like a lot even if they weren’t related to me.

For that, I’ll paint ceilings, with pleasure. It’s one of those things that we wouldn’t do for money (well, maybe—but only for lots and lots of money), but we’re happy to do for love. You know those things; I bet you’ve done plenty of them yourself.

Things like reading the same book over and over to a toddler who memorized it several thousand hearings ago and corrects you if you slip in an extra word. Or trotting up and down the sidewalk for miles, supporting a little kid who is just learning to ride a bike. Or sewing special-occasion dresses with just-barely-adequate skills. Or cooking family meals every day, for months and years and decades. Or—never mind; I’m sure you can fill in the blanks with your own examples.

After the painting was done, I made a quick trip to the library and ran into an acquaintance. When I told her I’d been painting ceilings, she laughed and said, “I guess you know how Michelangelo felt, then.”

My first impulse was to disagree. After all, I was in an ordinary house, painting plain white paint. He was in the Sistine Chapel, painting God.

On second thought, when you’re painting for love, maybe those two aren’t so different after all.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 3 Comments

“Open Wider, Please.”

Okay, I admit it. I bit him. But he started it—he hurt me first.

True, that’s not much of an excuse. But surely I wasn’t the only child to have committed this particular offense. I can’t be the only one who ever bit the dentist. I may, however, have been the oldest one. I was nine or ten at the time, certainly old enough to have known better.

I remember it clearly, because it was such a deliberate choice. I’m not sure what the dentist was doing, but it hurt, and in cold-blooded retaliation I bit down on his fingers. His only response was to say quietly, “Open up a little wider, please.”

Which perhaps was the appropriate response, because I immediately felt so ashamed of myself that I not only opened wider, but I’ve never been tempted to bit a dentist since. (Well, maybe once. But I had great provocation. Besides, as a mature adult, I didn’t bite him. I got my revenge the 21st-century way instead, by posting something snarky about him on the Internet.)

All of this came back to me this week while I was getting my teeth cleaned. Lying back in my dentist’s well-padded chair, wearing my cool pair of plastic shades to keep the light from shining in my eyes, listening to pleasant background music, it occurred to me that going to the dentist isn’t what it used to be.

I have no desire to go back to in time when it comes to dentistry. I remember—and have no wish to repeat—that old-fashioned experience of being trapped in the chair for what seemed like hours, smelling the pungent aroma of singed tooth enamel as the drill ground deeper with excruciating slowness. I’m not sure why they even bothered to touch your teeth with the drill. The shrill, piercing noise it made was enough in itself to vibrate any cavities right off your teeth and clean out your ear wax into the bargain.

Today’s high-speech, high-tech drills are certainly a great improvement. So are the other amenities of modern dentistry.

Like the supersonic—oh, wait, maybe that was ultrasonic—cleaning tool that scrubs your teeth like a miniature vibrating fire hose and gets the job done in half the time with half the discomfort. Yes, the hygienist still does some finishing work with her little picks and scrapers, but at least it doesn’t feel so much like she’s trying to pry your back fillings loose.

Or the baby vacuum cleaner/sump pump that sucks the saliva and miscellaneous debris out of your mouth so you don’t feel as if you’re going to choke on your own spit.

Then there’s the foamy fluoride treatment stuff that tastes just slightly of citrus or mint. It fizzes as it is brushed gently across the teeth, and makes you feel a bit like a serving of strawberry shortcake being finished off with whipped cream.

I do have mixed feelings about the computer monitor that allows me such a clear look at my dental X-rays. Seeing the intimate details of my teeth, roots and all, enlarged to vampire-movie proportions, might be just a bit too much information.

But all in all, going to the dentist is much pleasanter than it used to be. Maybe that’s why none of those nostalgic tributes that circulate around the Internet look back wistfully at the “good old days” of dentistry.

Categories: Remembering When | 3 Comments

Odd-Sock Words

Odd Sock Syndrome. We all know about this phenomenon. Two matching socks are worn. Two matching socks are removed. Two matching socks go into the laundry hamper. Two matching socks embark on the laundry process that should see them both washed, dried, folded, and back in the drawer, together. Sole mates, as it were.

But every now and then, only one sock makes it through. The other one is never seen again.

Nobody knows what happens to these odd socks. They simply vanish, possibly into some sort of odd-sock alternative universe. We don’t understand this; we can’t explain it. We simply accept it as a fact of modern life.

What most of us don’t realize is that a similar thing happens with words. Modern English is sprinkled with words that ought to have mates but don’t. Here are just a few of these odd-sock words:

Ruthless. It means cruel, unfeeling, without compassion. Think Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, or maybe Star Trek’s Borg. Ruthless is a reasonably common word. But its onetime companion, ruth, meaning kind and compassionate, has long since disappeared. (Maybe we don’t want to think too hard about what that may say about humanity.)

Uncouth. It means awkward, ill-mannered, or unsophisticated. Even though it certainly doesn’t apply to any of us personally, we can all think of a couple of people it fits. But we don’t use its obvious opposite. We don’t say, “Her new boyfriend is so much more couth than the last guy she brought home.”

Reckless. We all know the meaning of this one. But its wiser and sorely needed opposite, reck, just isn’t around any more. Considering the consequences of reckless behavior (Loosely defined as “Hold my beer and watch this!”), one might think the wrong word became the odd sock here.

Unkempt. It means pretty much what it sounds like: untidy or disorderly. Like the typical kids’ bedroom, maybe. Or my desk. I really wish I could keep my desk more kempt, but by now I’ve accepted the reality that it’s just not going to happen.

Disheveled. This means untidy, too, but more in the sense of messed up or wrinkled. The way your hair looks when you first get up in the morning? That’s disheveled. Sorry, though. You can wash it, blow-dry it, mousse it, and style it to perfection, and nobody is ever going to say, “Oh, your hair is so heveled today.” This poor odd sock never had a mate to begin with.

Just to save the nerds among you the trouble of looking it up, some of the lost mates to these odd-sock words are still in the dictionary. I found ruth, reck, couth, and kempt. The first two are centuries old and have long since faded away. The last two are more recent back-formations from uncouth and unkempt. They were probably launched by a few optimistic word nerds trying to bring a little balance into the universe, but they never caught on.

But there’s no need to feel discombobulated about all this. Just imagine a place, somewhere in another dimension, where all the lost socks and all the lost odd-sock words live happily together. They are beings of great couth, filled with reck and ruth, living in surroundings that are always kempt and heveled.

When I think of it this way, I feel much more calm and serene. It gives me a reassuring sense of combobulation.

Categories: Words for Nerds | Tags: | Leave a comment

“Be One With the Smart Phone, Grasshopper.”

Scenario One: You are standing by the table. Your phone is lying on the table. The phone rings. You reach over, pick it up, and answer it.

Scenario Two: You are standing by the table. Your brand-new smart phone is lying on the table. You hear an unfamiliar fragment of music. You hear it again. You hear it a third time and finally figure out that it’s coming from your phone. You pick up the phone. On the screen are two icon images of telephone receivers, one in green and one in red. Being not exactly dumb, even if you’re not as smart as a smart phone, you deduce that the green icon probably means “answer.” You tap the icon. The phone keeps ringing. You poke the icon. Nothing. You swipe at the icon. The ringing gets louder. You keep swatting at the image, with no result. Finally the music stops. You put the phone down, gently, so as not to scramble its smart little brain. The way you might if, for example, you threw it against the wall or slammed it to the floor and stomped on it.

A few seconds later, the plain, dumb landline phone made a plain, dumb telephone-ringing noise. I picked it up and answered it. My partner, two states away, was calling on his own semi-smart phone while he was out for a walk in a small town in southern Colorado. Truly, the wonders and convenience of modern mobile technology are amazing. The only bad part is learning how to use them.

When I told him about my new phone that was apparently too smart to talk to the likes of me, he described an experiment he had heard about. Apparently several four- and five-year-olds were taken to a room equipped with an assortment of electronic gadgets like laptop computers, ereaders, music players, and cell phones. The kids were given no instructions, just allowed to play with the stuff. Within a few hours, they had figured everything out. They were playing games, taking pictures, playing music and videos, and making phone calls—no doubt to buy stuff from Amazon or order pizza from Mongolia.

I did not find this inspiring.

At least, not at first. Then I gave it some more thought. To little kids, a piece of new technology is just another toy. They don’t worry about minor details like having to pay for it if they break it, or whether they might mistakenly delete all their friends’ phone numbers, or what it might cost if they accidently place a call to Siberia, or whether they might embarrass themselves by inadvertently sending rude text messages to their bosses. They just play. They try something; if it doesn’t work, they try something else. They tap icons and swipe screen symbols and mess around until, accidentally or on purpose, they figure out how to make the thing work.

It seemed like an approach worth trying. It worked, too. Once I started playing, I easily figured out how to send text messages, make calls, and use the camera. And it only took me a day and a half of experimenting (well, plus asking my daughter) to learn how to answer the damned thing.

The phone is no help, either. I don’t care how “intuitive” its designers may think it is. It doesn’t provide answers; it just sits there in sleek, superior silence and insists that I figure things out for myself. I’m trying to think of this as an opportunity to learn, not just technology, but important inner qualities. Like persistence. And patience. I’m trying to see the phone as a sort of spiritual guru. Like Yoda, only with a ring tone.

So far, I’m not feeling particularly enlightened. I have realized, though, that technology companies are missing a great opportunity. When I bought the phone, the salesman at Verizon did his best to sell me a whole line of extras, from carrying cases to extended warranties. I declined most of them.

There’s one extra, though, I probably would buy. What they really need to offer with their smart phones is a couple of hours with a smart five-year-old.

Categories: Odds and Ends | 1 Comment

Mother’s Day for the Practical Woman

Anybody who thinks women are more romantic and sentimental than men has never been a woman. Or at least has never been a woman in my family.

Oh, we like getting flowers, and we definitely like getting chocolate. Some of us, I’m sure, have shed a tear at the end of Lord of the Rings or Charlotte’s Web. But all in all, we approach life in a practical way. I suspect there are plenty of others out there just like us. You might be a Practical-Minded Woman yourself if:

• You have ever served leftovers to invited dinner guests.

• You have ever worn snow boots with an evening dress.

• There is at least one tissue in the pocket of every jacket you own.

• You own a pair of insulated coveralls. (Extra points if you’ve ever been whistled at while wearing them.)

• You have a frequent-shopper card at the hardware store.

• You have never owned a pair of shoes with heels higher than two inches.

• You have a multi-purpose tool in the glove compartment of your car, and you’ve actually used it.

• You see an attractive guy in a Corvette and think, “Hmm. . . I wonder where he puts the groceries.”

• The only silk underwear you own is long and came from a sporting goods store.

• You have ever worn long underwear on a date.

• You think the pretty scented candle on your nightstand would be handy in case of a power outage.

• Your favorite poet is Dr. Seuss.

• You’ve ever wrapped a gift with newspaper or duct tape. (Extra points if you’ve used them together.)

Happy Practical Mother’s Day.

Categories: Just For Fun | 3 Comments

Who I Think You Think I Am–I Think

A woman I know has raised horses and been a competitive barrel racer for close to 30 years. A few summers back, she won the barrel racing event at a major rodeo. At the next rodeo, a much smaller one, she didn’t even place.

As she and her son were in the pickup, headed home, she broke the disappointed silence with this: “Well! I guess those girls just didn’t know who I think I am.”

There are a bunch of reasons to appreciate that crack. It’s clever. It’s funny. It deflects the pain of a bad performance with humor that puts a single loss into perspective. You might even call it a classic example of how to “cowgirl up.”

But her smart remark is also true in a larger context. Nobody else can ever really know “who we think we are.” Or who we think they are, for that matter. It’s just one of the many factors that make it downright amazing that we can communicate with each other at all.

If we want people to know who we think we are, we have to let them know. Of course, before we can do that, we have to figure it out for ourselves. It’s one of those lifetime challenges—to be who we think we are instead of settling for being who we think other people think we are.

I think I’ll have to go think some more about what I think about that.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 3 Comments

In Honor of Earth Day

Celebrating Earth Day in the Black Hills this week was a bit of a challenge. For one thing, we couldn’t see any actual earth, since it was covered by ten inches of fresh snow. Not that the snow was a bad thing. After last year’s hot, dry summer and this past mild, dry winter, the earth around here needs all the moisture it can get. We’ll take our April showers even if they have to be shoveled.

Snow shoveling may not be as traditional a way to observe Earth Day as, say, showing up at a rally in your Birkenstocks and “I Heart Mother Earth” tee shirt, but sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Especially if she wants to be able to get out of the driveway.

Besides, there are other ways to celebrate. Earth Day, like any other holiday or special observance from Easter to the Fourth of July, has come to be marked in that quintessentially American way.

With sales.

Apparently, in the spirit of enhancing our environment and protecting our planet, we’re supposed to drive to the mall and buy more stuff. Stuff to fill up our oversized houses. Stuff frequently made in Chinese factories that seem only moderately concerned about carbon emissions or pollution. Stuff that is transported halfway around the world in ships and trucks using fossil fuels.

But maybe I’m not being fair. The Earth Day sale ads in last weekend’s newspaper were full of things described as “organic,” “sustainable,” and “recycled.” These were Earth-friendly products, folks. Like the “pure and natural” disposable diapers with “fluff pulp from certified sustainably managed forests.” (Just try to say that fast while you’re changing a squirming baby.) I’m sure that fluff will sustain the diapers well through all the decades they will spend inside plastic bags at landfills.

Practically everything in the ads contained “naturally derived ingredients.” If it’s natural, of course, that has to mean it’s good for the environment and good for us. Just like some of nature’s finest substances: arsenic, mercury, and sulfuric acid.

Anything that wasn’t “natural” was “organic,” including yogurt and baby food. There was no mention of whether all the plastic in the single-serving containers was organic, though. The prepackaged macaroni and cheese wasn’t specifically labeled as organic, but it was “made with wheat using organic farming practices.” What the heck; that’s almost the same thing.

My favorite Earth-friendly item, however, was described as “a renewable resource.” The packaging was made from “up to 30% plant-based material.” That wasn’t the individual plastic containers, you understand; just the plastic wrap that held the 24-pack of containers together. The product, by the way, was a classic renewable substance. Water. Hey, it’s Earth Day! Let’s all go stock up on plastic bottles of water! What a great idea!

This deep and profound honoring of the true spirit of Earth Day reminds me of another naturally-derived product. A lot of that particular substance is produced by advertising copywriters. The rest of it comes from bulls.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Patience? You’ll Find That In Aisle Three.

When a snowstorm is looming, half the people in town immediately head for Safeway to stock up. (The other half head for Walmart to stock up.) Not me. I head for the library to stock up. If we have enough reading material, who cares whether we run out of milk?

On the other hand, I do care if we run out of carrots, bananas, or chocolate. On the day before our last snowstorm, it just so happened that our last banana was peeled at breakfast and we were down to one lonely carrot. Despite having an ample supply of chocolate, I ended up at Safeway with the rest of the pre-storm shoppers.

All those other people, of course, were over-reacting to the weather forecast. I merely was the victim of bad banana timing.

Getting close to the dairy case meant threading through an obstacle course of carts. Turning at the blind intersection at the end of an aisle meant risking life and limb—or at least the carton of eggs. I felt lucky to snag a decent bunch of bananas from the dwindling supply.

Then I got to the checkout. There were several carts crowded into each lane, spilling out into the aisle in ragged rows. People who were either still shopping or were looking with misplaced optimism for a shorter line were barely able to maneuver past the carts already waiting.

All this would seem like a sure formula for anger, flaring tempers, and disputes over who was in the uneven line ahead of whom.

I didn’t see any of that. I’m sure some people were feeling impatient and irritated. Some of them, like me, may have been annoyed with themselves for not making time for a trip to the store the day before. But the overall atmosphere was one of camaraderie. People smiled and said, “Excuse me,” after near-collisions in the aisles. They made room for each other. They seemed to feel a sense of unity in the face of a common threat—the snowstorm—rather than seeing the other shoppers as the competition.

The woman ahead of me in the checkout line was busy organizing all of us, moving her cart just here so I could park mine just there and make the best use of the limited space we had. While we were waiting, she talked to the baby in the cart ahead of her. When it was her turn at the cash register, she sympathized with the checker about her busy morning. I was so busy watching her no-nonsense kindness that I completely forgot to be irritated and was out of the store with my groceries before I knew it.

For a little while, that crowded supermarket became an oasis of cooperation and tolerance in a week that desperately needed both. It was a small reminder of the enormous value of practical kindness.

Categories: Living Consciously | 1 Comment

“Please, sir, may I have some more?”

It was a scene straight out of Charles Dickens. The unwed pregnant mother, abandoned by the father of her child, was out in the snowstorm. Cold and hungry, she waited outside the lighted windows of a house where people were eating, talking, and laughing. They saw her, but none of them gave her so much as a crust of bread.

Actually, the reality was even worse. It wasn’t just one unwed mother, but several. Heavy with this year’s fawns and with yearlings at their heels, they came through our back yard in the middle of last week’s snowstorm, looking for something to eat.

The snow was more than knee-deep, so no matter how energetically they dug with their slender front hooves, they couldn’t get to the bottom of it. First they explored the area that we pretend is our compost pile, where they often find delicacies like carrot peelings and orange rinds. Nothing. They pawed here and there in the yard. They shoved their noses into the snow in hopes of finding stray blades of grass. All they got for their trouble were white masks.

Finally most of them wandered off to the trees at the edge of the yard and started browsing on pine needles. One doe, however, stayed behind for quite a long time. She stood perfectly still, gazing up at our second-story deck. What had caught her attention was the bird feeder with its tantalizing sunflower seeds.

We could almost see her thinking. “If I just had something to stand on . . .” “If I got enough of a running start, maybe I could jump . . .”

Eventually she started off to join the others in the trees. Then she came back for one more speculative look. “If it snows another foot, I bet I can reach it.”

No such luck. The does nibbled a few pine needles and dry weeds, then moved on.

After the snow stopped falling, we dumped out a fresh batch of vegetable peelings and orange rinds that made a garish splotch on the white world of the back yard. Overnight, it disappeared, leaving nothing but tracks. Except for the onion skins. Even hungry unwed mothers have their standards.

Categories: Wild Things | 1 Comment

The Birds

Picture this idyllic scene of early spring in southeastern New Mexico: The western sky is streaked with the orange, gold, and pink of a glorious sunset. We are standing in a residential neighborhood on a calm evening, watching a flock of birds as they come in to settle in the treetops for the night. As they circle above us, the last rays of the sun touch the tips of their outspread wings with bronze.

Amid all this loveliness and serenity, why am I fidgeting so uneasily, wishing the garage beside me had broader eaves so I could move closer under its shelter?

Because the birds soaring over our heads are vultures. Dozens and dozens of them, circling in a holding pattern and then swooping down to land in a row of trees along the edge of a well-kept back yard.

The vultures settle onto the very tops of the trees, even though it would seem the branches there would be too slender to hold them. There are so many that the treetops are edged in black like an old-fashioned letter announcing bad news.

Each time a few new birds land, a ripple of grumbling goes through the flock. The ones already perching either resist the arrival of the newcomers, shift position to make room for them, or take off to rejoin the circle above the trees. Meanwhile, more birds keep coming, and coming, and coming. They seem to be auditioning for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. All that’s missing is the ominous background music.

And I’m getting increasingly nervous. We’re just standing there watching, for Pete’s sake. The obvious risk of hanging out underneath a large number of large birds is bad enough. But these are vultures. While we’re gaping at them, we are not moving. Staying that still, in this case, seems like a really, really bad idea. There are more than enough buzzards above us to carry off our carcasses like the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

(Which unfortunately reminds me of the joke about the buzzard who checks in at the airport, carrying a dead armadillo under each wing. “Sorry, sir,” the ticket agent tells him, “Only one carrion item per passenger.”)

Sorry.

But these buzzards are no joke. We were told that they aren’t permanent residents, but are only passing through. Their visits last two or three months, though, so they have become a serious nuisance. Not only are the birds big, bold, and plentiful; they are also protected by law. This makes getting rid of them a challenge.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. What would “chile con vulture” taste like? And would it be better with red or green?

Categories: Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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