Sunday, February 28, 2016

Memories, Truth, and Posterity

The level of truth in memories, like history, depends on the ability and desire of the teller to stick to the real facts of the narrative when memories are voiced and passed on. Sometimes, if a memory has been recounted enough times with a certain bit of deviation from the actual facts, then the telling of it changes the memory, even for those who were present at the original event and, at one time, knew what really happened. It makes me a little crazy when people misremember things and reshape events based on compromised memories.

I have a cousin who is thirty years older than I. She and her husband traveled all over the world in their youth. I used to go to their house for dinner fairly often back in the day. I will call her Millie and her husband Max. Millie and Max always downed a substantial amount of wine at dinner, and before long Millie launched into tales of their travels. She would vastly embellish, while Max would quietly interject with his modifications. For instance, Millie would describe their arrival in some country in the Caribbean on a moonlit night with the scent of jasmine in the air. Max would comment that they arrived at dusk in the midst of a massive rainstorm and all he remembers smelling was jet fuel. Millie would say that they were invited to dine with the American ambassador and that when they arrived for dinner, twelve men dressed as toreadors rolled out a red carpet from their car to the door of the house. Max would take another sip of wine and comment that two men wearing red T-shirts and baseball caps placed a doormat at the threshold for them to wipe their feet on before entering. Millie would refill her glass and tell that the ambassador’s six purebred Great Danes ran to the door to greet them; and Max would say it was actually two Dachshunds and a loudly yipping Chihuahua. As the two of them drank more wine and narrated, Millie’s stories became increasingly extravagant and farfetched while Max’s corrections became increasingly mundane. The result was excellent entertainment. Millie would say that the hotel manager of the Grand Hotel in Bangkok sent complimentary mango sherbet to their room upon their arrival, and Max would say that actually they found a half-eaten mango on top of the TV. And so on.

If I outlive my husband, one of the things I will miss most when he is gone is access to his memories. Between the two of us, we can manage to piece together a tolerably accurate account of our past. However, if he outlives me, then I will be in serious danger of being maligned when he misremembers, which he does with some regularity these days. This is not necessarily a function of age, since my children seem to misremember with regularity as well. Am I the only one who has a clear picture of our past?

For the record, I did not take my own bed sheets to the hotel in Maui, I have never kissed a cat on the lips (do they even have lips?), I did not think Jamarcus Russell would turn the Raiders around, I did not mow the lawn while in labor, I never wore flip-flops to a wedding, I did not bring tofu and broccoli for snack at my children’s soccer games,  I only chased the wild turkeys out of the yard wielding my son’s trumpet once (or maybe twice, but not repeatedly), Scary Movie and Shaun of the Dead did not frighten me (well, only a little bit), I have never eaten a pound of cheese at one meal, I did not bring a megaphone to Little League Baseball games, my children loved the homemade from-scratch birthday cakes I baked for them right up until they discovered I put pureed tomatoes in them, I did not convince the manager at the grocery store to give me the last metal watering can for free (I simply bargained him down from $25 to $5 for it, to the astonishment of the checker and the bagger, who had no idea you could bargain for things at a grocery store), when I sent my niece and nephews seaweed for Hanukah I also sent them some pretty wonderful chocolate (I would never send just seaweed), I only got lost for one hour and not a whole day trying to find Atlantic City (I come from Cali, I turned left instead of right when I reached the ocean, so shoot me). AND I did not knock over a priceless statue at the Rodin Museum in Paris. It wobbled, only slightly. My husband grossly exaggerates the amount of movement of that statue. Do not believe a word of any of it.

When my children misremember things in such a way as to shed a positive light on my husband and a negative light on me, he says nothing and gives me that smug little smile. If they want to blame me for losing the keys to our rental car in New Hampshire, which was his trick, not mine (I put the keys in his pocket and where they went next has nothing to do with me), just see how quiet he is. But if they claim that he threatened to take their bedroom door off the hinges if they slammed it again, well then watch him mount a protest worthy of the SNCC. Meanwhile, I have to live with the fact that my children are convincing each other that I made them eat moldy bread, and I am incapable of setting the record straight on this. Why is it that the truth becomes the property of the one who best tells the story?

Yes, on the bottom of my emails I close my signature with “The lines between fiction and nonfiction blur and in the end all that matters is the story itself, how much of it is truth and how much imagined is of little consequence.” Theoretically, when it comes to narrative, I do believe this. But when it comes to narrative about me, I take exception to being misrepresented. I will come back to haunt my children if they insist that I fed them rotten food to save money. But if, on the other hand, they thank me for all those lovingly-baked homemade chocolate birthday cakes with real whipped cream, then I will leave them in peace.

Who could find fault with such a birthday cake?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Homeownership: The Beauty and the Beast

This blog post is dedicated to my friends who returned from a dream vacation in Costa Rica last week to discover that the lower level of their home had flooded in their absence. (You know who you are and you have my deepest sympathies.) When I found out what had happened to their house, I told them, “This is why I’m not looking in my basement until the spring.” They thought it was a joke. Homeownership is the cornerstone of living the American Dream, right? Owning your own castle. But the road to happy homing is fraught with pests, flooding, mold, faulty wiring, head-scratching plumbing configurations, diseased trees, missing conduit, and alligators in the basement.

In the interest of scientific research, I invite you to take the following quiz if you own your home. Email me your answers to tabulate.
Question 1. I own my home because
a) I like to grow food and pretty flowers on my property.
b) I want to support my local tree company by paying them $5000 to trim my oak trees so they won’t fall on my house.
Question 2. I own my home because
a) I want to be able to do things my way inside my own house.
b) I crave the adrenal rush of getting electrocuted by surprise amateur wiring that a previous owner thought was a good idea at the time.
Question 3. I own my home because
a) I don’t want to be dependent on a landlord to make needed repairs.
b) I would prefer to replace my roof than go on vacation any time in the next ten years.
Question 4. I own my own home because
a) It’s a wise investment and it makes more financial sense than throwing away money every month on rent.
b) I would rather pour my money into the black hole of home repairs than retire to a small but adorable oceanfront beach rental and write my memoirs.

If you chose answer “a” to any of these questions then congratulations, you either just bought a house a few minutes ago or you have a ridiculously positive glass-half-full outlook on life and I will be right over with a welcome-to-the-suburbs goody basket that includes fresh fruit grown in my yard, a pipe wrench, a coupon for a discount on nontoxic carpet cleaning, a kitten, a box of acorns, a fire extinguisher, a plunger, Benadryl, and a catalogue of garage door openers. As you have probably inferred, the correct answer is “b.”

When you buy a house, it is theoretically functional, habitable, and in working order. It goes downhill from there. The most unbelievable (and expensive) things soon transpire, and they often begin as something so small and benign that it seems deceptively inconsequential. The refrigerator leaves a puddle on the floor every few hours that needs wiping up (in the middle of July); this results in a man from the appliance store carting away the refrigerator and informing me that I need to buy a new one, which is mostly under warranty (not completely) and will take three weeks to arrive. Water drains slowly out of the bathtub and when I get around to calling the plumber, he informs me that I have a plumbing leak in the basement that will require a team of experts flown out from NASA and working round-the-clock for a week to resolve. And while they are resolving the problem, I have to drive to the nearest gas station to use the toilet because the water has been turned off. When I turn the heat on, my house smells vaguely like gas; the heating company comes to take a look and swiftly shuts the furnace down and condemns it for leaking carbon monoxide. They tell me I’m lucky to be alive (news flash), and charge me $1500 to install a new furnace. The phone stops working for a couple of hours during a rainstorm and AT&T reports that the wire is bad from our house all the way to the connection box under the street, more than a hundred feet away. They dig up my yard to lay conduit and I am wading in mud along my fence line for months afterward. (Although I found a cool machete under the oleander bush that one of them forgot.)

Occasionally I am let off the hook when something turns out to not be such a big problem. Like once, when I still lived at the Ranch, our water pump stopped working. I thought we had to replace the pump, which would have been costly, but then we discovered that a mouse had made a nest in the electrical box in the pump house and had been electrocuted, shorting out the system. Fortunately this was one problem that was not expensive to fix, however, the pump house smelled like BBQ rodent for months.

The hidden albatross of owning a home is ongoing house maintenance, which happens even when everything is running smoothly. It’s preventative and I never seem to have what it takes to budget for it. Choice:  trip to SoCal to visit my children or servicing the furnace, cleaning the chimney, and clearing the gutters. No brainer. I think I’m supposed to be washing my lighting fixtures and repainting my walls every few years, but who has the time for such nonsense? What really gets to me is that the service workers who conduct house-related maintenance and repairs make so much money off me. The plumber, exterminator, and appliance repairman charge $100 just to make a service call. Period. Out of the box. The guy who repaired my lawnmower a few years ago charged $96/hour, and he never finished high school. I have a master’s degree for goodness sake and he was making more than I was; so I raised my rates for grant writing to $100/hour after that because it infuriated me that I was charging less for my professional services than a guy with a sign on his counter that said all bills must be pade in full at time of pik-up.  

Nowadays, I am starting to feel like I really don’t want to know. This is why I am quite serious about not looking in my basement until the spring. There is nothing down there but cardboard boxes, but if snakes are living in them then leave me oblivious. I have many questions that will therefore remain unanswered, such as:  Why is my dryer leaking brown water? Is the cat eating something it found in my underwear drawer? What’s that high-pitched screaming noise I hear when I turn on the heat? Did I just see a beak poking out of my closet? Never mind.

The thing that keeps me owning a home is basically my garden. As long as I am still agile enough to do the work in the yard necessary to grow my own food out there, I’m going to stay trapped in homeownership. So pass the duct tape, the socket wrench, and my checkbook. I’m doomed by a passion for standing in my yard eating tomatoes, asparagus, peaches, and blueberries straight off the stem.

This plumber looks friendly, but when he gets done fixing the sink 
he will ask you to give him one of your kidneys in payment.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Riff on the Attack of the Suds

Yesterday my husband performed an impressive trick. He made the washing machine overflow with fluffy suds. I discovered this when I emptied the hamper in our bathroom, wrapped the clothes in a towel, and carried them to the laundry room. Upon arrival, I found the washing machine beeping as frantically as a L.A. commuter, while all of the orange and red alert lights blinked at a level capable of inducing a laundry-related Grand Mal seizure (now that would be hard to explain). I had not yet eaten breakfast and felt ill-prepared to deal with the situation on an empty stomach. But no time is the right time for your washing machine to have a psychotic episode. When I lifted the lid, soap suds bubbled over. A detective hot on the trail, I went in search of my husband (since the cats don’t know how to use the washer and no one else lives with us). I found him contentedly surfing the internet in his man cave (he calls it his office but it’s a man cave, trust me).

“What’s up with the washing machine?” I asked, poking my head in, because all I can really fit in there with all the stuff lying around is my head. “What do you mean?” he replied innocently. “I mean what did you put in it?” I pressed forward intrepidly. “My gym clothes,” he answered, with a baffled expression. “You need to come see this. Your gym clothes are frothing at the mouth,” I informed him. When we arrived at the sea of foam in the laundry room, I asked him what he had poured into the machine to wash his gym clothes with. (Dishwashing liquid? Carpet cleaner? Industrial-strength mighty-foam?) He said that he had added some Dr. Bonners Sal Suds to the wash. This was a departure from using laundry detergent and I thought, how adventurous. Or not. “What possessed you to do that?” I asked. “I was trying to get rid of the chlorine odor from the pool,” he explained. He swore he put hardly any Sal Suds into the load. Perception of what’s “hardly any” may be a fundamental difference between men and women.

It took Ron about twenty minutes to bail the suds out of the machine into the utility sink, clear the control panel, and get the machine functioning again. “I think I’ll go write my blog,” I said as he was bailing. He gave me the don’t-you-dare look, so naturally his epic laundry fail is my topic of discussion for today. It got me remembering back over the many years that we have kept house together. Sharing household chores is one of the defining features of a marriage. Unfortunately for me, I came into the marriage with a handicap, which was that my mother had the notion that I was a lousy housekeeper and that Ron had a greater commitment to and firmer grasp on cleaning house than I did.

My mother was what Jews call a balabusta, which is a Yiddish word that doesn’t translate well into English, but basically means an excellent homemaker (kind of Martha Stewart on steroids only with frizzy hair and a pressure cooker). Mom’s home was always immaculate. She was notorious for stealth cleaning when she visited me (when I was single, when I was married, when I had children, whenever). She would scour my cooking pots and baking dishes until they sparkled so blindingly that I had to wear sunglasses in the kitchen for weeks after she visited. She dusted my tchotchkes (more Yiddish—means knickknacks but I can’t handle all the “k”s in the English version, they make me dizzy) and wiped down my windows with glass cleaner. She washed my stairs, scrubbed my kitchen ceiling, oiled my piano, ironed my napkins, reupholstered my easy chair, braided a rug for the driveway, vacuumed the top of my refrigerator, weeded my carpet, and flossed my cats’ teeth.

Honestly, my house was never that dirty. It just wasn’t up to her standard. She didn’t trip me about it. She just cleaned it. After Ron and I moved in together, whenever Mom came to visit, Ron made a point of speaking the housecleaning lingo with her. He talked such a good game that he convinced Mom that if any cleaning was happening at our house at all then it was because of him. He talked with her about the merits of different types of floor cleaners. He knew which bathroom cleaner would really get the mold out of the caulking (never mind that it was the one that emitted fumes so atrociously toxic that I would hyperventilate for a week and break out in hives when he used it in my bathroom). Ron and Mom talked for hours about vacuum cleaner attachments, how to polish silver, wood furniture finishes, and what kind of long-handled sponge to use to wash the walls. Mom loved him. In fact she loved him so much that she proposed to him. (I am not making this part up.) She asked him to marry her daughter and he accepted and the next thing I knew they were choosing plates together at Macy’s and I had to buy a decent pair of shoes because I was going to be a bride in a wedding.

Mom rarely discussed housecleaning with me, probably  because she didn’t think I had the vocabulary necessary. But I was the one who did the daily chores in our house during our childrearing years (when the children were old enough to help, they were assigned chores). I did the grocery shopping and cooking (except for meat, which Ron had to cook because I’m vegetarian, and inevitably when he cooked meat the smoke detector went off so that the children started calling it the meat detector), I did the laundry, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher (and washed anything by hand that needed it), emptied the kitchen compost (and shoveled it out later to put in the garden), vacuumed, cared for the pets, cleaned the toilets, swept the kitchen floor, knocked down the cobwebs, and all the rest. To his credit, Ron has always done many of the more heinous chores that are not required every day; usually the ones that require muscle. He mops the floor in the house we live in now, which is essential for me because I can’t do it without putting my back out; besides, he’s ex-Navy so he needs to swab the deck fairly often or he is in danger of having lapses in judgment that result in washing machine suds attacks. He has always been the one to scrub the stovetop every week or two. I never really did get the hang of cleaning stoves. He still has an obsession with bathroom mold and douses the shower in various chemicals that make the towels curl. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mom didn’t understand the division of labor in our household.

One time, when I had been married for about twenty years, Mom turned to Ron at the dinner table and offered to “buy him a new vacuum cleaner.” She had apparently attempted to vacuum our goldfish and discovered that our vacuum cleaner sounded like a helicopter landing. I couldn’t let that pass. I thanked Mom for her generous offer and explained to her that Ron rarely vacuumed. My children were teenagers by then and they earned their allowance by doing chores regularly. I told her that one of her grandsons had been vacuuming the house once a week for over a year as one of his chores; and when the children didn’t do it, I did it, not Ron. (I thought, but did not say, that if she wanted to buy Ron a useful housecleaning tool she should get him a gas mask for when he cleaned the bathroom with his noxious mold-fighters.) She seemed surprised and a bit disappointed that Ron didn’t often vacuum, but she heard me. Soon afterward, she bought us a new vacuum cleaner, for which we were truly grateful.

Honestly, thinking back on it now, I find it so touchingly sweet that Mom viewed Ron as a kindred housecleaning soul, that I don’t mind so much that she gave him credit for doing 90% of the cleaning that happened in our house. Now that she’s gone (it’s been more than ten years), I wish I could hear her talk housecleaning with Ron again. They seemed to enjoy it so much. It makes me smile to imagine her looking down on our laundry room debacle yesterday morning from the unfathomable spirit world and seeing her perfect-homemaker son-in-law bailing mounds of cloudy suds out of our washing machine. She would have suggested he use a little white vinegar to get the chlorine smell out of the gym clothes. Or something equally practical and simple. Vinegar would be good. Then he would smell like salad, which is my favorite lunch. 

This is not Ron, it's a stock photo, but so apropos! 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

This Is My Brain on Foreign Languages

I am once again trying to learn a new language, which makes my brain hurt. I have never been good at this. I took a full year of beginning Spanish four separate times in my life and I still can’t order enchiladas in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant. To be fair, I eventually did manage to communicate marginally in Spanish the last time I took the classes because I had the opportunity to use the language in my daily life. I worked at Head Start at the time, where nearly half the staff spoke Spanish, and I practiced with them. But when I left Head Start to work from home as a grant writer, the precious little bit of the language I had managed to embed in my brain took the next flight to Bolivia.

This time around I’m trying to learn American Sign Language (ASL), since my hearing is so lousy. Ron is taking the class with me so we can communicate in environments where I can’t hear (such as while I’m running the blender, so I can sign “I’m making a smoothie”) and in general for future use if I lose more hearing. My husband apparently has a more energetic left brain than I do (left brain usually controls foreign language learning) because he remembers the signs for more words than I do. When we came home from our first class, he already knew how to say “I have to go to the toilet” and I didn’t. If I don’t catch up quickly, I will be both deaf and intermittently incontinent. I thought the universal sign for “I have to go to the bathroom” was the I-need-to-pee dance. Not.

My first foray into learning a foreign language occurred when I was six years old and I started Hebrew School. Some of my peers eventually took the AP Hebrew Language Exam in their senior year in high school, but I didn’t have a prayer with this language, and that’s ironic because all the prayers in the prayer book at my synagogue were in Hebrew. I learned to read the prayers, but I couldn’t figure out what they meant. I trust I was praying for world peace all those years and not a pink Cadillac. One root in the Hebrew language can branch into a dozen different words. I couldn’t keep them all straight. The root letters for the word “hear” in Hebrew might also mean spirit, listen, guard, gatepost, deaf as a gatepost, pipe wrench, and please pass the hummus. This is hypothetical. I don’t know how to say “hear” in Hebrew or what the root letters are for this word. I do know how to make hummus. Is anyone else hungry for falafel?

I have often blamed my foreign language learning impairment on the fact that I started learning French in third grade, and that trying to learn both French and Hebrew at such a tender young age ruined my left brain for life. I swiftly became proficient at mixing up words across the languages and speaking Hebrench in both classes. If I did manage a complete sentence all in one language, it usually came out meaning something like “May I eat your boots?” “Please wash my cat,” or “I want to invite you to have a hysterectomy.”

The only language I actually began to master (briefly) was French, which I no longer remember. I studied French steadily for about ten years, continuing with it long after I gave up on Hebrew. By the time I traveled to Paris in 1973, I could navigate passably with my limited language skills. You would think that Paris would be the worst place for a linguistically impaired American to spread her wings, since Parisians are notoriously rude and chauvinistic about their language. Interestingly, to the contrary, most of the Parisians I met were kind and helpful. Many of them humored me and spoke slowly to help me learn. Perhaps they appreciated my earnest desire to improve, but it’s more likely that they simply thought I was hilarious. The biggest obstacle for me in perfecting my French was that I am hopeless at conjugation so even though I had an impressive vocabulary, I could only speak in the present tense. My French cousin, who was a language teacher, nearly cracked a rib laughing when I told her smoothly, “I am an asshole at the Palais Garnier,” which is the French Opera House. (I am not making this up.) The asshole at the opera statement resulted mainly from my abysmal pronunciation. I was trying to tell my cousin about something that happened while I was in the que at the Opera waiting to buy a ticket, and the French word for que is similar to the French word for asshole. Go figure. I don’t even like opera, and I believe it can make an asshole out of anyone if they listen to too much of the stuff.

When I was studying for my master’s degree in English, I was required to complete two foreign language requirements. For one of them, I took a full year of beginning Spanish. For the other I took Old English, which counted as a foreign language in my department. I thought Old English would be vaguely recognizable to me. I had read Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, and I was pretty good at understanding Shakespeare. So why not Old English? I’ll tell you why not. Old English is a cross between German on an extra-rich vowel diet and Norwegian as spoken by a sailor with a mouthful of mutton. Using my Beowulf-English Dictionary, I got up at dawn three days a week and spent several hours wrestling with Grendel. I never, and I mean never, turned up in class with a viable translation. But I was the most popular student in the class. My classmates waited in high anticipation for my turn to translate a few lines. I described the Geats swimming the English Channel wearing full armor and carrying spears. In my translations, Beowulf solicited sex from all his most ferocious warriors, Grendel crunched the bones of oak trees and drank mead from the shell of a giant beetle (possibly a 1964 VW), and the Geats’ dining hall burned down in a freak outhouse accident involving barley gas, a tiki torch, and a failure to bring a fire extinguisher to an illegal pig roast.

So now, after years of traumatic incidents involving violence against foreign language acquisition, I am back at it again, trying to communicate using someone else’s idea of how to shape the world into words. ASL is particularly unusual because it’s an entirely visual language pronounced using the fingers, hands, face, and arms. This means that I am not only in danger of miscommunicating, but I may also break my wrist or sprain my cheek giving it a try. I hope I don’t poke someone’s eye out in class trying to offer them a tangerine, or break a lighting fixture while attempting to say that a plane flew overhead. I am a serious liability in a visual language learning class, I’m afraid. I could potentially bring the house down, which is similar to being an asshole at the Palais Garnier. But I am determined to persevere. Scientific research confirms that learning a new language increases the size of one’s brain. I’m all in. After a semester of ASL, I hope to be able to wear a bigger hat.

This is the inside of the Palais Garnier (where I was not an asshole).