Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why so serious?

A former colleague known for her fashion sense once told me that despite these casual times, she dresses up in heels, hose, dress, and hat for church every Sunday, even in the dead of winter.

"I've given up wearing skirts to church in the winter," I responded. "Our church is too drafty. My legs would get cold."

"Perhaps," she said, "but isn't God worth the effort?"

I thought of her this morning as I surveyed the crowd assembled at the funeral of a sweet church lady who died this week at age 93. I wore black dress, heels, and hose (but no hat--I don't do hats), but only one other woman was wearing a dress and she was also a pastor's wife. Only the two pastors present wore suits. Everyone else looked as if they'd dressed for a festive family picnic--and not just the little kids but adults, including the closest relatives of the deceased.

Part of me wanted to harrumph and say "Isn't Lucy worth the effort?" But then Lucy never harrumphed at anyone in her life. I've known her close to 15 years and never heard her utter a negative word. She loved people, all kinds of people, whether they wore dresses and hats or jeans and t-shirts, and she would have been so delighted to have all her friends and family gathered round that she wouldn't have noticed what they were wearing.

Well, she might have noticed me. I'm sure my black dress stood out like a sore thumb amidst all those casual summer colors. Next time I attend a funeral, I'm stashing a change of clothes in my car.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In praise of public rest rooms

In the bad old chemo-and-radiation days I developed a highly accurate mental map of the location of every public rest room on my regular routes around the county, a map that still comes in handy even though I no longer need it so urgently. I know which rest rooms are generally clean and which ones tend to run out of toilet paper, which ones require a big clunky key and which ones are hidden behind doors marked “employees only."
I’ve never forgiven the convenience store that refused to allow me to use the rest room even though (a) I was really sick; (b) I promised to buy something on the way out; and (c) the next available rest room was several miles up a busy road. That store was recently purchased by a national chain and transformed into a full-service gas station/convenience store, and one of these days I intend to walk in there and use the rest room without buying anything at all. They owe me a free flush!
The ladies’ room at my daughter’s church keeps bottles of hand lotion on the counter, which is a nice treat after the harsh soap and hot-air dryers. I’ve been in rest rooms featuring comfy sofas, diaper-changing tables, and soft cloth towels, but all I really require from a public rest room is that it be clean, private, functional, and available.
Still, when the need was urgent enough I’ve settled for a rest room where even the soap looked dirty, where doors wouldn’t shut and there were holes in the walls big enough to toss a shoe through, or with floors so filthy I wanted to apologize to my shoes. I’ve used the men’s room when the ladies’ wasn’t available and I’ve used outhouses inhabited by spiders and portapotties that made me want to puke.
This week I hit a new low: I used a rest room without realizing that there was no running water. Intrepid investigation revealed that the company had turned off the water at the main because the toilet keeps running and the water bill has been through the roof. Did they post an “out of order” sign on the door? No, they did not; they just allowed unsuspecting visitors to discover the problem when the toilet refused to flush.
Here’s a hint: in a pinch, it’s possible to wash your hands with bottled water. It’s not the most cost-effective method, but it works. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Barreling in lumberland, or vice versa

A radio news report this morning informed me that tropical storm Beryl was "barreling" across the Atlantic, but a later report changed the verb to "lumbering." Why? "Beryl is barreling" sounds like a reckless roller-coaster ride while "Beryl is lumbering" makes me think of stolid flannel-clad men carrying axes slowly through a dark wood, hardly the first image that pops into my head when I think of hurricanes.

Perhaps someone found the alliteration too silly for a serious storm, or perhaps the verb was changed in an attempt at greater precision, which raises the question: at what point does a tropical storm switch from "barreling" to "lumbering"? Does the distinction center upon speed or does steadiness of direction enter into the equation as well? "Barreling" suggests an out-of-control swerviness, while "lumbering" pursues the most direct line to the goal. Which would do more harm on landfall, a barreling storm or a lumbering storm? And how should one prepare?

I've got to admire whoever wrote the initial report. Whoever you are, oh nameless NPR reporter who wrote "Beryl is barreling"--you nailed it! 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Academics afoot

“Walking,” writes Hayden Lorimer, “is a social practice that has been subject to increased academic scrutiny during the past decade,” but I did not notice any academics scrutinizing my walk this morning. I headed up the big horrible hill quite early to avoid the scorching heat that promises to descend by midmorning; I saw mockingbirds and brown thrashers, a young red-tailed hawk, and a bunch of chattering birds that made me wish I’d brought the binoculars, but no academics in sight.
“Amongst a variety of researchers,” continues Lorimer, “new ‘walking studies’ have focused attention on what might be considered the founding, or constituent, elements of this most basic of human activities, namely: the walk, as an event; the walker, as a human subject; and, walking, as an embodied act. Whether treating the walk-event, the walker-person or the walking-act as the starting point of analysis,” he goes on, but I’m putting the book down and searching for my walking shoes and some dog treats so I can get my embodied act out the door. 
As a walker-person pursuing a walk-event while accompanied by a walker-canine (or, more accurately, bouncer-and-bounder-canine), I inhale the honeysuckle scent that hangs heavily in the air but still can't hide a hint of skunk. I’ve never encountered a skunk out here except in the form of road kill (and who will scrutinize the essential elements of the splat-event?), but the stink reminds us of its presence even in the absence of the embodied skunk.
The skunk-event would not, I suspect, be considered a founding, or constituent, element of the walk-event, but the “Warning: Fresh Tar” sign certainly suggests a need for scrutiny, academic or otherwise. The route of the walk-event might well be determined by the answer to a simple question: How fresh is that tar? I could subject the question to a little semiotic analysis, or I could walk over and subject the tar-event to increased academic scrutiny by poking it with the toe of my shoe. Not too gooey? The walker-person is undeterred; the walk-event will go on.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

B.W.B. for you and me

The chocolaty goodness of warm brownies served with a glass of milk sends me back, as usual, to the 15-year-old foster child who shared our home 20 years ago. I decided one day to bake brownies but she was befuddled: "Where's the mix? You can't make brownies without a box!"

Clearly, the poor child's education had been neglected. I don't know of a homemade treat easier than brownies without a box.  My recipe takes about five minutes and calls for only six ingredients, unless you want to get fancy and add nuts or coconut or dried cranberries or whatever. Here it is:

Brownies Without a Box

1 stick butter (no substitutes!)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla (the real thing--and no skimping!)
2 eggs
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup flour

Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla. Add eggs and beat well. Stir in cocoa and flour. Spread in greased 8x8x2 inch pan and bake at 325 for 30 to 35 minutes.

I like to sprinkle pecans or walnuts on the top before baking. This makes a substantial brownie with a slightly gooey center--and if you have children helping, it also makes a delicious mess. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Good enough for an amateur

Tiger swallowtail
Just moments after we walked up the hill behind my house the other day, my birdwatching-and-botanizing colleague stood stock-still and said, "Did you hear that?" 

I could hear many things--birds calling, frog croaking, insects buzzing around my ears--but she soon drew my attention to a wheezy call that sounded sort of like "Bee-buzz."

"It's a blue-winged warbler," she said, "and it seems to be over in that hawthorn."

Well it may have been in that hawthorn at that moment, but the warbler's call moved farther away as we crept closer. I don't know how long we spent stalking that particular bird before my colleague called out "There it goes!"--and there it went.

Cedar waxwing, too high for a clear shot
I caught a brief glimpse of the blue-winged warbler (and the yellow-billed cuckoo, green heron, indigo bunting, and common yellowthroat we saw later) and as much as I enjoyed those brief glimpses, I would have been more excited if I'd been quick enough to get a photo. My colleague was thrilled simply to hear the bird and over the moon when she saw it fly, but me? I need to get the shot.

Recently someone asked me what I would like to have done if I hadn't become an English professor, and I said, "wildlife photography," but of course this is ridiculous. At the time when I was in a position to choose my life's work, I wasn't thinking about wildlife or photography or anything outside the realm of writing. I didn't have the talent, the will, or the desire--and besides, I loved to write and knew I could do it well enough to make a living, so why step off the obvious path into the dark, dangerous swamp?

Cicada time!
I didn't know then how much I would come to love photography or how the camera could provide a link to the wonders of the wild. The more I learn about photography, the more I become aware of how much I still need to learn--but that doesn't make me love it any less. I'm frustrated sometimes by the shots I can't seem to get--those cedar waxwings, for instance, were just too high in the treetops for my limited zoom lens--but most of the time I'm happy to be a good-enough photographer. Good enough for an amateur, at least, recalling that the word amateur derives from the Latin amator, lover. I love my birds 'n' buds 'n' butterflies, but I really really love getting a good shot.


Cicada clings to the top of the leaf, discarded skin stuck on the bottom.

Red-bellied woodpecker with claws stuck to soffit.

It clung to the leaf even when we picked it up.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The anatomically correct computer

My first college-issued computer was a hand-me-down from a colleague who, I soon discovered, had given intimate anatomical names to the drives in the file directory: Scrotum, Testicle A, Testicle B, and so on. (I know it's sexist to assume that the computer's previous user was male, but I don't know a lot of women who would name a computer's hard drive "Penis.") I don't know who the previous user was and I really don't want to know, but I'm convinced that his relationship to his, um, equipment was very different from mine.

I've never named a computer drive or a computer or a monitor or any other electronic tool, and as much as I depend upon and appreciate computers, I don't even remember the brand names of some of my more faithful helpers. We had a Compaq at some point and I know we had a Dell--or wait, make that present tense: the little red netbook I take on planes is a Dell. Other than that, I have no memory of most of our computers except for the first.

Our first computer was a Sanyo, circa 1985, with twin five-inch disk drives and a boxy monitor with orange text on black background. I wrote my master's thesis on that computer using WordStar, a program I loved so much that I still remember many key commands. A decade later, though, when I worked for a newspaper that relied on an outmoded version of WordPerfect using similar key commands, I loathed that program. By then we had moved on to Windows systems and WYSIWYG word processing, so monochromatic monitors and CTRL-S seemed SO last Tuesday.

Soon we had our first laptop, a small but surprisingly heavy little box whose maker I've long forgotten. I used to take it to School Board and Village Council meetings, where I would sit in the back row and take notes for articles (or pretend to take notes while actually playing FreeCell, a game that saved my sanity during many an asinine public discussion). That laptop served us well until someone (possibly me) dropped it during a visit to a reservoir. No one as clumsy as I am should ever be allowed to carry a laptop, which may explain why my current college-issued computer is now in the hands of the IT gurus.

I don't feel particularly attached to that laptop, especially since all my files are backed up on an external hard drive. It served me well and it may come back to serve me some more, but as much as I appreciate its faithful service, I've never bothered to name my computer or its various drives. But maybe I should. Maybe if I interfaced with my computer more intimately, it might stop acting as if it hates me. 

But what shall I name it? Calling it "Stupid" doesn't seem to be working. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Adventures in Rodentia

At some point I'll post some photos from yesterday's Adventures in Botany and Birdwatching, but at the moment the files are being held captive by a capricious mouse. It can act tame and obedient for days at a time, but then suddenly it starts scurrying all over my computer desktop opening and closing programs, clicking on files, and moving things around--and once it starts its merry dance, there's nothing I can do to make it behave, although I've been tempted to try whips and chains. So this morning I'm handing my laptop over to the IT gurus so they can take my mouse to obedience school, which is a good thing because my next step would have been to reach for the sledgehammer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Endings and beginnings

The semester is over. My sabbatical is over. The visit from the parents is so very over. But look at everything that's about to begin:

My summer online class begins in two weeks so I've been updating material from last summer's class and giving myself the occasional pat on the back. I had forgotten how hard I worked last May to produce a class full of really cool stuff. A few updates and it'll be ready to run.

Two new freshman classes in the fall...and I've already started meeting with my learning community partners to brainstorm ideas for cooperative learning. I don't have much on paper yet, but I've planted ideas in my brain and now it's time to let them germinate.

And speaking of germinating, the constant rain finally stopped long enough to allow us to start planting the gardens. Herbs are in, and I found a surprise in the herb garden: plenty of cilantro ready to cut. Apparently last year's pathetic cilantro plant reseeded itself. Maybe tonight we'll get the rest of the tomato plants in the ground.

Great clouds of yellow pollen keep billowing down from our upper woods, coating everything with a fine yellow dust. The other day I carried a cup of tea out onto the deck but before I'd walked three feet, my tea was topped by a coating of pollen. I sneeze every time I walk outside the house, but that won't keep me indoors. This morning I'm off for a bird-watching and botanizing walk with my biologist colleague, one last moment of fun before the real work begins.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In Xanadu, with strawberries

I stop at the farm stand just up the road, lured by the sign advertising fresh strawberries. It's still early in the season but I'm hoping for a quart or two to cut up and serve with angel-food cake with a dollop of whipped cream on top. I walk into the greenhouse and find just four quarts of strawberries sitting on the counter next to the cash register. The berries are small but very red and they smell like spring and rain and sweet sweet earth. My lucky day! I choose two quarts, set them beside the cash register, and get out my cash.

But where is the cashier? Out in the parking lot chatting with a middle-aged farmer-looking dude with a beard, a baseball cap, and a pickup truck. Fine--let her have her fun. I'm not in a hurry--much. When I left the house, I told the old folks I'd be zipping up the road to fetch us some strawberries for our supper, so they're not likely to start panicking for another 10 or 12 minutes.

Besides, it's peaceful inside the greenhouse, a gentle breeze rolling through the open windows and rustling the greenery. Here are some petunias in a shade I've never seen before, a sort of soft, buttery yellow, and here's a stunning display of flowering plants marked down after Mother's Day to a mere $110. I've done my flower planting for the year but it can't hurt to look.

I glance out the door. There's the cashier, still chatting with Mr. Farmer. The strawberries are $4.75 a quart and if I had a ten-spot I'd leave it there and let them keep the change, but all I have is a twenty-dollar bill, so I guess I'll wait.

Kind of a zen moment, really. How often do I get a chance to stand around a greenhouse breathing deeply of all that great oxygen and earthy odors? Here's a table of herbs--thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil, two kinds of chives. I've already planted my herbs this year but it doesn't hurt to sniff. Half the joy of growing herbs is inhaling their aroma. I don't see any fennel plants in the greenhouse, but every time I walk past my herb garden, I stuff some fennel into my mouth and savor the fresh burst of licorice. That's not the best way to assure a bountiful harvest of fennel seeds, but with herbs, flavor and aroma are part of the harvest.

I glance out the door. There's that cashier, still chatting with the farmer. I'm not in a hurry, I tell myself. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply, I could be in Xanadu, except the muddy Muskingum looks nothing like a sacred river. A bird flies into the greenhouse and flits around. Is that a nest up in the corner? It flies out. I close my eyes and try to cherish the moment.

The moment is getting a little long. Where is that cashier? The old folks will be calling me any minute, wondering why I've been gone so long. If this is what they call customer service, it's a wonder they have any customers at all!

I walk outside, look meaningfully at the cashier, clear my throat. "Oh," she says, "I didn't know anyone was in there." She walks inside and bustles about the cash register.

"I hate to interrupt your conversation," I tell her, "but my parents are waiting for me to bring strawberries home."

"How nice that you still have your parents!" she said, smiling brightly. "That'll be $9.50."

I leave the lovely greenhouse with two quarts of strawberries served with a heaping dollop of fresh guilt.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Renowned for saving face

Interesting article in this morning's New York Times about a guy who uses scissors and paper to cut portraits of people in the subway (read it here), except the article tells us in two separate places that back home in Shanghai, Ming Liang Lu was "renown."

No he wasn't.

Judging by his skills on display in the Times, I have no doubt that Ming Liang Lu was celebrated, lauded, affirmed, reputed, and even famous in Shanghai, but he wasn't renown. Renown is a nown--er, noun (springing from the Middle English renoun and ultimately from Latin nominare, to name). What Ming Liang Lu was back in Shanghai was renowned. The -ed makes all the difference.

For a recovering journalist, there are few experiences more rewarding than catching the New York Times in an error. I don't get the same frisson from finding errors in my local newspaper, which is a good thing because I would quickly get frissoned out. Error is the order of the day in my local paper, and not just obvious grammatical or spelling errors but serious errors of judgment. Whoever wrote the headline  referring to the "Wife of exotic animals' owner" simply had no conception of how people read. (Wait, she married the animals? How many?)

But experience has led me to expect that kind of headline in my local paper, along with a hearty daily helping of mangled sentences, misspelled words, and general infelicities. If my local paper printed an article referring to a person as "renown," I would turn the page with a ho-hum. And there's no point in bringing the error to the attention of the appropriate editor because my local paper is too busy making new mistakes to worry about going back to correct the old ones.

Not so the New York Times. I have no doubt that renown will be replaced eventually and someone will get chewed out (but not by exotic animals or their wives or owners). A commitment to correcting errors makes them somehow more forgivable, particularly when they are so rare. Besides, the occasional error in the Times is offset by more felicitous uses of language.

Take, for instance, the point in the article about Ming Liang Lu when the artist explains that he's not in it for the money: " 'Not about money,' he said. 'About face.'"

That's just perfect. "About face" evokes the man's distinctive voice while glancing obliquely at other meanings: the artist as drill sergeant barking orders to his models or turning his life around in mid-march. The portraits he doesn't sell get taped to a display board propped on the wall, a place for saving face.

Now let's see the Times save face and preserve its renown by adding that -ed.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Breathing lessons

Two weeks after the final session of my core-and-flex class, I'm still mourning--which is pretty remarkable considering that I always hated gym class because it made me feel clumsy, clueless, fat, and futile. It's true that at first I had to force myself to try out the core-and-flex class, but after a month or so I looked forward to it and by the end I was positively addicted.

Why? The peppy music and pleasant people were part of the class's appeal, and the soothing stretches accompanied by deep breathing always left me feeling relaxed. There's no denying the beneficial effects of the workouts--my bad hip hardly ever bothers me these days and daily back pain is a distant memory.

In fact, the workouts worked so well that I bought some tension straps so I can continue making progress at home. I can breathe and stretch and crunch and punch on my own, and I can even turn on music to help me keep up the pace, but I'm missing one essential element: the master's voice.

The leader of my exercise class has a voice nothing like a drill sergeant's. Without ever raising her voice, she leads us to twist and push and pull and breathe, always breathe, don't forget to breathe. I'm lying on my back stretching my leg as it has never stretched before and I hear that voice urging me to stretch into the soleus, and even though I don't know where or what the soleus might be, the sound of that voice makes my muscles obey.

I can do the same exercises at home, but it won't be the same. No one will be there to tell me which muscles I'm working or to make me keep going when I'd rather just quit or to remind me to breathe, just breathe, don't forget to breathe. Sometimes I need a voice outside myself to make me do the right thing, even when it's something as essential as breathing. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A glut of celebration

In the past eight days I have attended two college commencements (one as a parent, one as a faculty member), one learning community meeting, one marshals' meeting, and two half-day assessment workshops, and I have listened to more speeches and cliches than I would care to count. I have grazed at one celebratory brunch, three celebratory lunches, two celebratory dinners, and multiple snack bars, consuming tossed salad, chicken salad, shrimp salad, ham sandwiches, hummus, tomato soup, three kinds of chocolate cake, and, for the sake of variety, a tiny lovely lemon tart.

I have worn the same skirt to three events, though not with the same blouse. I have worn heels and hose in sunshine and rain, jumped puddles and edged around mud in my favorite sandals, and juggled a purse, umbrella, and a suit bag full of academic regalia while trying to open my car door into traffic. 

I have applauded colleagues winning service awards, hugged another who is retiring, and given a standing ovation to our retiring college president not once or twice but three separate times. I have cheered for students wearing so many honor cords they could weave a rug and others who just barely squeaked by. I have seen students march and sashay and dance across the stage in wing-tips, flip-flops, and spectacular stilt-like shoes, and I've seen a few well-lubricated students miraculously maneuver the steps without falling on their faces.

In short, I have survived the annual marathon of celebration and marveled at the way so many details come together without a hitch. (Well, mostly. Note to catering: if you load up 1000 people with finger foods on paper plates and then hide the trash cans where no one can find them, you're going to find soiled plates and crumpled napkins in all kinds of inappropriate places.)

The head faculty marshal and I were leading the academic procession out of the auditorium after commencement and we were about halfway up the aisle when she turned to me and said, "Do you think anyone is following us?"

Of course they were. They had to: we were leading them toward the next round of chocolate cake.

Hurray for everyone! Now let's all start our celebratory diet!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pushing daisies

The only things that grow really well in our front garden are ants and daisies, but right now we're suffering a surfeit of both so we'd be happy to share. Take my ants--please!

Frankly, it's a wonder anything grows there: thick clay soil with lots of rocks close to the surface and a thick layer of gravel about six inches down where the driveway used to be. A big chunk of the front yard is defaced by an unsightly concrete cistern with a rusted iron cover, but this spring my sweet husband covered it with decking so I could set up a bench at a perfect spot for watching birds at the feeders. The rest of the front garden is a work in progress.

I don't remember how many years ago I saw a clump of daisies growing on our hillside and decided to move them down to the front garden. If they can grow up there on that thin, rocky soil, I told myself, they can grow down here--and that's what they do, threatening to take over every available inch. They're helpful early in the season because they crowd out pesky invaders like creeping charlie, but they also refuse to give my azaleas and ageratums any breathing space. That one little clump of daisies I transplanted now covers half of my front garden and would gladly cover the rest.

So today I've been pulling up daisies (better than pushing 'em!), leaving one swath standing near my new bench and replacing the rest with alyssum. The ants were not particularly helpful, but they did add a certain piquancy to the planting experience. They're nothing like the fire ants I used to encounter in Florida, but they're quite proficient at swarming up legs and nibbling annoyingly at ankles.

We've tried many times to discourage our ant colonies, but if we kill 'em off over here, they come back over there. Something about our front garden makes them thrive, just like those stubborn daisies--and just like me. When I'm done with my planting I sit on my bench and watch the birds visit the feeders and the butterflies visit the daisies, and something within me grows strong and stubborn and calm and colorful.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dave for a day

Every year about this time I start wondering whether it's time to resign from our crack Faculty Marshal squad, and this might be the right time since I am now the only member of the squad whose name doesn't begin with D. The other day I told the head Marshal that consistency and gender equity demand that she replace me with one of our many Daves, to which she responded, "Why would I need to replace you at all?"

Good question. Being a marshal is, as we keep being reminded, an honor, but it's also extra work coming right at the point when we're already really busy. I scan the long document outlining information we need to prepare for our commencement practice meeting and I think, "I don't want to do this again," and then I go to the meeting and walk through all those complicated procedures and before you know it I'm laughing with all those D people and remembering the joys of past commencements and wondering why I would ever want to quit.

We don't get all the perks of marshals at other institutions. For instance, the head marshal at my son's college commencement sang a solo during the ceremony, which will happen at my college when pigs fly, and at my daughter's commencement last week all the marshals wore bright yellow robes and hats with big brims that looked like glittering gold halos. I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd sprouted wings and hovered above us like a multitude of the heavenly host.

Well, okay, maybe I would have been a little surprised. Just a little.

All our marshals do is carry sticks--and not particularly big ones. Maces, I guess they're called, and they'd be more useful if we were allowed to use them for something other than decoration.

Hovering helicopter parents refuse to separate from their soon-to-be-graduates before the ceremony? Use the mace to bar the door.

Graduates refuse to spit out their gum promptly at 12:30? A thump on the back will dislodge that wad.

Faculty members refuse to shut up and find their places? Harry them about the ankles with the mace until they toe the line.

Frankly, being a Faculty Marshal would be much more satisfying if we could deliver a few well-placed wallops, but meanwhile we're ready to step into our Darth Vader suits on Sunday and herd a crowd of bubbly graduates down the path to the next stage of their lives and I don't know about you, but I want to be a part of that.

So what if my name doesn't start with D? I can be a Dave for a day.

Monday, May 07, 2012

A little fanfare

The mingled sounds of thousands of restless people awaiting a big event roll through the auditorium like thunder when suddenly the noise is pierced by a trumpet fanfare announcing that the black-robed students are about to receive their diplomas. My first thought: I need one of those.

Not a diploma. I need a trumpet fanfare.

Imagine pushing an overladen shopping cart toward the check-out lanes at the grocery store when suddenly a piercing trumpet fanfare rings out, clearing awed shoppers out of the way. Or how about when I'm at a restaurant but can't seem to get the waiter's attention? No one can ignore a trumpet fanfare!

In addition to grabbing attention, a trumpet fanfare adds gravitas to whatever follows. I could be standing in front of a chatty class full of restless students who can't seem to focus on the task at hand when suddenly my trumpet fanfare rings out and every eye looks my way. "Turn to page 37," I'll say, and they'll be so stunned by the ringing brass that they'll turn to page 37 without a murmur.

And think of the celebratory tone a trumpet fanfare lends to any occasion. On Saturday the fanfare rang out to celebrate the accomplishments of students at the University of Akron, where my daughter received her Master of Music degree (ta-ta-ta-TAAA-ta-TAAAAA!), but today I could use a trumpet fanfare to proclaim that the new thermostat we installed yesterday appears to be functioning properly (ta-TAAA-ta-TAAA!!!) and the house is no longer a sweltering, musty sweatbox (ta-TA-ta-ta-TAAAAAAAA!!!) and I have finished painting the living room (ta-ta-ta-ta-TAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!)

I don't know how to go about adding a trumpet fanfare to my entourage or what sort of upkeep might be required, but just wait until I find out! You'll hear me coming.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Kiss me--I'm annoyed!

Dear T-shirt manufacturers of the world:

When it comes to casual summer clothes, I don't consider myself particularly demanding. I'd like a few simple shirts I can toss on when I want to work in the garden, walk the dog, or dash to the grocery store to pick up some emergency picnic supplies, and I'd like a few basic colors so I can change quickly after I spill iced tea all down my chest.

Easy, right? So why have I spent the past month trying without success to buy a T-shirt?

1. Fabric so thin it's practically transparent. The helpful salesperson tells me this allows easy layering, but hey, it's summer! I don't want wear two shirts when it's 97 degrees and humid outside! I especially don't want to worry about color-coordinating layers when my brain is about to melt right out my ears! So quit with the chintzy fabrics already.

2. Chintzy fabrics embellished with ruffles, bows, spangles, and glitz. I'm not shopping for a prom dress, people! I want a T-shirt to wear while I'm digging in the dirt! So don't go all girly on me, okay?

3. Super-short sleeves. News flash: many of us have reached middle age without Michelle Obama's upper arms, and the last thing we need is a sleeve that stops short right at the arm's saggiest, baggiest spot. Wearing a sleeve that short is like carrying around a neon sign flashing, "Arm flab! Arm flab!" And then when you make the super-short sleeves really puffy, it looks as if I'm trying to smuggle hams in my sleeves. So please: I'll accept sleeves that stop a bit above the elbow, but don't give me sleeves two inches long.

4. Silly colors. Fuchsia is great and that sickly green must suit someone or it wouldn't be everywhere this season, but such specialized colors don't fit into my summer mix-and-match philosophy. Give me a basic T-shirt in a decent fabric with no frou-frou or super-short sleeves and I'll buy it in three or four colors as long as they can all be worn with jeans.

But I can't find those T-shirts in stores anywhere. Instead, I'm surrounded by ruffles and bows, spaghetti straps, and off-shoulder droopy things with bold horizontal stripes. Today I thought I'd finally located my dream T-shirt--plain red with the right length sleeves--but when I pulled it off the rack, I saw on the front a big pair of lips and the words "Kiss Me--I'm American!"

Seriously? You want an adult human being to walk around with her chest emblazoned with gigantic lips and "Kiss Me--I'm American!"?

I'll tell you what, T-shirt manufacturers of the world: you can kiss that sale goodbye.   

Thursday, May 03, 2012

All that slithers

Nothing against snakes--some of my best friends are snakes! But I don't want a rat snake serving as my personal doorman. (Doorsnake?)

I grew up with snakes and I appreciate their peculiar charm. My baby brother was a pretty accomplished amateur herpetologist who kept snakes in terraria all over the house, including just below our tiny television on the TV cart, so that it was possible to simultaneously watch a thrilling episode of Gilligan's Island and a rat snake swallowing whole a live mouse.

And all these years later the only thing I remember from my Girl Scout troop's trip to the National Zoo was watching a 12-foot-long Burmese python regurgitate a big pile of--um, never mind.

So I don't mind snakes qua snakes. Rat snake in a terrarium in the family room: fine. Burmese python regurgitating behind thick glass at the zoo: swell. But when I open my front door to find a rat snake slithering into a hole just beside my front door, I object.

It's true that rat snakes are not bad to have around given their tendency to eat rats, bats, mice, moles, voles, shrews, and other assorted vermin, but sometimes creatures come to my door who are not vermin and who don't particularly want to be eyed as if they were vermin--who, indeed, might take offense at being greeted by a rat snake rather than a human being. I was, frankly, a little alarmed to note the snake sticking its beady little eyes out of its hidey-hole every few minutes as I worked out front planting purple petunias this morning. How am I supposed to pay attention to petunias while keeping half an eye on the snake?

Hopeful has been known to snatch snakes before but she took no notice of this one even after I pointed it out. Too hot for hunting? Perhaps.

Of course it's one thing to keep half an eye on a snake when you know exactly where the snake is, but it's another thing entirely to walk away for a while and lose track entirely. I'm bound to spend the rest of my days stepping carefully over the snake each time I walk out the door even when the snake isn't there at all.

But I'll promise you one thing: no matter how faithful a doorman he may be, that snake's not getting a tip from me.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Doing it right (mostly)

The last time I painted exterior doors and the trim around the big front picture window, I did a pretty slapdash job--no prep, no primer, leftover paint from another project. This time I resolved to do it right: Good paint! Good primer! Dropcloths! Paint-scraper and sandpaper for the peeling bits! Garish blue masking tape for all the windows! (Including the windows on the garage doors: three doors with nine tiny window panes per door. Whose brilliant idea was it to install doors with so many window panes?)

My efforts paid off: after a whole day of labor (and some sore muscles), I have doors and windows worth looking at--and the parts that aren't worth looking at are invisible. Mostly. I failed to wear a hat even though I know am constitutionally incapable of painting without getting paint in my hair, so I have white specks in my hair and sunburned cheeks. And I did a pretty good job on dropcloth placement, but I failed to anticipate the paintbrush's ability to flip out of my hand, fly across the porch, and land on the deck with a splat.

But those problems are easy enough to clean up. I'm more concerned about the invisible ones. I wanted to do this job right, but the right thing to do when you scrape chipped paint off a wooden window frame and discover that the wood beneath is wet to the touch is NOT to paint right over it. The right thing to do would be to call an expert on such things, a carpenter or a window installer. (Are they still called glaziers? I hope so. It is the dream of my life to one day excuse myself from an important meeting by saying, "I'll just step out and consult with my glazier.")

The right thing to do about that window would be to pull it out and replace it, but that's not what I did, and that's not what the previous owners did either. They pulled out and replaced every window in the house except the gigantic picture window, and one glimpse at current prices for gigantic picture windows will tell you why. If I'm going to invest that much money in the window, I may as well have the skewed door re-hung and replace the rotten threshold and tear out the cracked cement slab and replace the entire front porch while I'm at it.

But that's a project for another day. Instead, I dabbed on a coat of paint and walked away. I can't seem to stop my house from falling to pieces around me, but at least I can make it look good along the way.