Sunday, August 28, 2016

Receiving Gifts Gracefully Is Not My Superpower

You know that impossible-to-shop for person? The one who is way too particular, doesn’t spend money on frivolous things, and says they don’t need anything? The one for whom you dread having to find a gift? I am that person. I am that ungrateful gift recipient who pretends (not often succeeding) that I like the gift while choking back a scream. Almost every year I buy myself at least one Christmas gift and hand it to my husband with the instructions “just wrap this for me.” I pity my husband and children, who have tried their heroic best over the years. Every once in a while they score. More often, not so much. I have worked at cultivating the ability to appreciate the effort, the love that goes into the giving of a gift to someone special. I have improved at appreciation. But I need to work harder on my gift-receiving skills.

I have tried the tactic of asking for something quite specific. It’s amazing how many ways this can go wrong. I ask for lemon soap. I get a soap that contains parabens, yellow dye, petroleum products, and several ingredients I can’t pronounce. The soap scares me. I dispose of it properly at the hazardous waste drop-off at the dump. I ask for notecards. I get notecards with adorable mice trotting across them. I have a deep-seated aversion to mice. The cards make me have the urge to stand on the furniture and holler “eek.” I put them in a paper bag and donate them to the animal shelter. I ask for vegetable seeds and I get beet seeds. If you don’t know how I feel about beets by now you have not been paying attention. I burn the seeds. Beets are the devil’s work.

When I ask Ron for a gift, I must tread extremely carefully. The dear man loves me so much that he takes a simple gift request and turns it into a project of space expedition proportions. I once asked for a few pairs of white cotton socks. I got a box with a dozen pairs of white socks and a dozen other colors too. I did not have enough room to put them away in my dresser and had to buy a storage shed for them. Last Christmas, I asked for a thermometer to put outside my kitchen window so I could see what the temperature was outside. Ron got me an electronic weather station that tells the temperature (both in my house and outside), barometric pressure, moon phase, tide times in the nearest coastal town, likelihood of an earthquake occurring in the next few days within 100 miles, weather forecast for the next week, my bone density, my cat’s bone density, whether my flowers on the deck need watering, and if we are getting low on coffee; tells this in 12 languages (including Eastern Pomo). I keep trying to keep it simple, practical, inexpensive. He keeps trying to give me the moon. So sweet. Sigh.

Our anniversary is tomorrow (34 years) and Ron asked me what I wanted for an anniversary gift. So I was thinking simple and inexpensive and I asked for a massage. Big mistake. He bought a professional, portable massage table and a package of high-quality aromatic essential oils. My first reaction when I saw a massage table in my kitchen was, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! He tries to surprise me with this spectacular thoughtful gift and I ask him how much the thing cost and whatever possessed him and where are we going to put it and does he expect me to give him a massage on it too (because I’m a horrible masseuse) and what material is it made out of and what drug was he on when he ordered it and was it made using child labor and is it too late to return it. Poor Ron. He is like the proverbial cat that brings home the dead bird as the super-darling present and is stunned by the horrified response. To his credit, he maintained Herculean calm, and waited gently for me to finish melting down. Then he assured me it didn’t cost all that much and asked me, “Do you want your massage?” Truthfully, I do want a massage. I just hadn’t planned on keeping the table, the mellow music, the massage oils, and the masseuse.

It took me several hours to climb back into the skin I had jumped out of, so I could start to embrace my new identity as the owner of a massage table. I am still processing this. It is an adjustment. Do I have to wear white clothes around the house now? Should I start drinking my morning smoothie with a straw? Do I need to buy crystals? Should I plant more cucumbers? Must I keep candles burning? Do they have to be scented candles, because I hate scented candles? Should I smudge the house more frequently? I don’t know how the massage table will change my life and if I can handle this much transformation at my age. Is it possible that I may have to actually relax? It’s tough having a husband whose long-term objective is to rock my world.

I don’t do well with gifts. They confuse me. They are surprise elements that I have to incorporate into my life. Gifts make me anxious. At least the massage table is an improvement over the gift he gave me last year.

Last year Ron gave me a poo aid for our anniversary. He bought something called a Squatty Potty. It’s a plastic stool that wraps around the front of the toilet for the pooer to put their feet up on, the better to push with. It provides a better angle for pooing, or something like that based on trajectory science. Possibly it has something to do with the laws of aerodynamics. I don’t completely understand the biochemistry of it. Ron was pretty excited about this thing. I could not summon an equal level of enthusiasm. I tried using it once and it failed to take me to a higher level of consciousness. I have never used it again. I believe I was born with the genetic ability to naturally achieve the exact optimum poo angle. I have excellent pooing genes. In my case, my pooing ability probably qualifies as a superpower. Several months after this gift was presented to me, I stumbled upon an article in a wellness journal about the Squatty Potty. It said that it is an amazingly beneficial device, that, for some people, is life-changing. Who knew? Perhaps it has changed my husband’s life. As for me, I am just the ungrateful wretch with a perfect pooing superpower who can’t appreciate a transcendent gift.

Obviously, I did not solicit the poo aid. I did not even, for instance, say, in an offhand manner, “I want an anniversary gift that will surprise the shit out of me.” If I had, my sweetheart husband would probably have gone on beyond the poo aid and bought me a home colonoscopy kit. I doth protest too much, dothen’t I? Such an unlucky wife, that I ask for a massage and my husband gives me the entire massage parlor. I think next year for our anniversary I will ask for stuffed grape leaves and then maybe he will give me a trip to Greece.  

[I’m taking a break from blogging for a week to spend time with my children, who are all coming home to see me and my father, who is coming to visit. Nothing like family fun.]

I think this soothing image of massage is much better for this post 
than an image of a Squatty Potty.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zombified? Count Me Out

Scary movies scare me; don’t judge. Dolls that come alive. People drifting in the universe on a space ship infiltrated by aliens that systematically kill them. Creatures with extra appendages in the attic. Slime oozing from the lighting fixtures. Ominous communications with the dead. Eerie organ music emanating from the dishwasher. Unlit basements with drippy sounds. A strange face appearing suddenly at the window in the dead of night. Monsters under the bed. Inexplicable vaguely malevolent phenomena. Supernatural encounters. Evil Martians with bad hair, extra eyes, and extreme weapons. I can’t handle any of that stuff.

When Ron took me to see the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I hid my eyes through almost the entire film. (The only reason I went was that it was filmed in San Francisco and we had friends who worked on the film sets.) “Now what’s happening?” I kept asking him, and he would describe the scene in gory detail, until the guy sitting behind me exclaimed in exasperation, “Lady, just look at it.”

A few weeks ago my sons recommended a Netflix sci-fi/supernatural/soft-horror web series they liked called Stranger Things (produced by the Duffer Brothers). They know I love sci-fi but that horror scares me. My youngest son reassured me that it’s not that scary, more of a sci-fi thriller than horror. I was skeptical. “Oh don’t be a baby, Mom,” he emailed me. “Just watch it. It’s good.” When Ron watched it to vet it for me, I could hear the music and sound effects from the other room. I thought the music was pretty scary.

Although I consider The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan) an excellent film, I never should have watched it. It came out in 1999, and it took me until about 2012 to be able to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without turning all the lights on. Remember that scene when Haley Joel Osment goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night and a dead person flickers past behind him, flitting into the kitchen? Heart-stopping! One of Ron’s favorite movies is the very first Alien (Ridley Scott). He says it’s a classic and is a brilliant piece of filmmaking; and he can critique its merits for hours like only a guy with a degree in film can. You wouldn’t catch me within 50 miles of that film. I saw a picture, by accident, of Alien-star Sigourney Weaver with one of the sets for the film in the background, and was so traumatized that I couldn’t watch anything starring Sigourney until she did Galaxy Quest in 1999. Since that’s my favorite movie, I think it’s safe to say that I have recovered from my Sigourney Phobia. But, to be honest, in 1999 I graduated from my fear of Alien to leaving the lights on at night when going to the bathroom because of Sixth Sense.

I don’t get why people want to watch a movie to scare themselves. I spend a lot of time talking myself out of being terrified in this horrifying world in which we live. It baffles me why anyone finds it exciting to watch teenagers have their car break down in the middle of the night in fog that growls. Or animated mannequins wielding meat cleavers. Or slime-oozing evil from outer space stalking government officials. Or small children following instructions from distorted static voices emanating from the toaster telling them to murder their parents. Or unexplained flashing lights in the garage swallowing up the neighbors’ dogs. Eek. I’m scaring myself.

Ron says that people who watch horror movies don’t get scared, though. He says it’s funny, often campy, and that people who like horror films aren’t fooled by the stage blood and hair-raising soundtrack. I can sort of understand that. I can usually handle goofy space aliens, zombified people if they aren’t gruesome or bloody, spirit communications (as long as any ghosts look 90% lively and have no open wounds on them), and even animated kitchen appliances that run amok as long as they don’t murder anyone. It’s hard for me to define the moment when, for me, images cross the line from hilarious and firmly implausible to alarming and too real. I don’t do gore. I don’t even do implied gore. Period. It does not amuse me. I don’t watch violent films and, no matter how terrific the film or its message or whatever. I refuse to subject myself to violent images. They are not entertaining or educational. I just say no to torture, rape, murder, abuse, or people being force-fed beets.

My problem is probably that I have a ridiculously active imagination. Ron says the actual film image is usually nowhere near as horrifying as what I imagine. But I don’t want any of those images in my psyche. When my children were very young, they were afraid of scary movies too. We could be afraid and practice avoidance together. That lasted for about fifteen minutes. While I hid under the table until I was twelve years old whenever the Wicked Witch of the West or the flying monkeys appeared in The Wizard of Oz, my daughter laughed her way through that film before she had reached the tender age of three. She wanted the ruby slippers and Glinda’s dress, and she wasn’t intimidated by a woman in green-face who had no fashion sense. One of my sons was afraid of department store mannequins until he was four years old. He outgrew that, but I’m still afraid of them. Have you noticed that these days mannequins often don’t have faces on them? (Shivers.)

Ron waits for our children to come home to visit to watch horror movies. I guess it’s more fun to be horrified together with other people. They stay up late at night together after I go to bed watching, and they laugh their heads off. Well, not literally, because then they would be headless. At least I don’t think they do. Are my family members zombies? I don’t want to know. I’m hiding my eyes right now. People who eat actual food can’t be zombie, right? I mean, zombies eat other zombies, chainsaws, babies, small dogs, and beets, right? I have never seen a zombie eat. Does a normal person turn into a zombie if they witness a zombie eating?

Life is already too frightening and creepy, full of bad stuff happening to people, to pile on arbitrary fabricated images of pain and woe. We live in a mysterious world where inexplicable things happen, particularly to people like me who have little or no grasp of fundamental physics. So please help me out here and have a little understanding. Don’t tell me to just look when a scary being with ill intent is waving around a small animal impaled on a weapon or revealing a large mouth full of metallic pointy teeth or lovingly stroking a fat red beet. 

I was going to put an image of zombies, 
but they were too scary, so I chose this classic instead.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


It astounds me the way the simplest little thing can escalate into something of vast proportions. Here’s a for-instance hypothetical scenario. You are about to take a vitamin pill, but it jumps out of your fingers and you drop it on the floor, because of that ancient Law of Objects, which states that everything always winds up on the floor. So you crawl under the kitchen table to get it, and while standing back up you smack your head on the underside of the table. Defying all reason, there is a screw sticking out of the bottom of the table, right in the exact spot where you smack your head. (It wasn’t there yesterday, but it’s there today.) When you hit your head on the screw, blood sprays all over the floor and the front of the cupboards because nothing gushes blood like a scalp wound. At the sight of all that blood, your daughter throws up, your son passes out, and your husband wads up your favorite guest towel and presses it against the minor wound on your head that is pouring forth like a geyser. Before you can say “what removes blood stains from the car upholstery?” you are sitting in the ER. You will have to work overtime for three years to pay the ER bill, your favorite T-shirt is ruined (not to mention the guest towel), your daughter will be teasing your son for the rest of his life about having passed out when mom geysered, and you never did take your vitamin. See what I’m saying? Escalation.

One minute everything is going along just fine and the next minute a twinge in the toe has evolved, step by absurd step, into a broken leg. I have taken my car into the shop for a routine oil change and been told the transmission is shot or the breaks need to be replaced or the primary rotary biliary compressor eggbeater shaft is worn out and I should not drive the car unless I put $60,000 into it to fix it. Escalation. I take my cat to the vet for her annual shots and the vet says she will lose all her teeth if I don’t pay $600 to have the vet sedate the cat and scrape the tuna-fish off her teeth. Escalation. I am weeding my cantaloupe patch and I disturb a nest of yellow jackets resulting in over 15 stings, anaphylactic shock, and an ER bill the size of Nebraska. Escalation.

If you need any more examples of escalation you should visit my husband’s family. They are grand masters at the stuff. After 34 years of marriage, I have come to know a thing or two about Ron’s family. One thing I have learned is that after the sun goes down, when someone in his family says “I’m hungry, does anyone want to go out for something to eat?” mayhem soon follows. A bunch of his cousins along with various and sundry other friends, relatives, nearby unsuspecting people (who may or may not know his family), and a little dog cram into a car or two and head out for the nearest fast-food joint. They are a recipe for escalation. One time a car of his relatives in search of late-night snack was pulled over by the police because either a tail light was out or they were a car full of Black people. While examining the tail light, the police discovered that Cousin Phillip was in possession of an unlicensed gun. If the crew thought they were hungry when they left the house, they were super hungry by the time someone bailed them out. In Ron’s family, going out for a bite to eat after dark can lead to such escalated outcomes as identity theft, lost dogs, mangled drainpipes, transporting outdated shoes across state lines, alien invasion, death, and nuclear war. It rarely leads to the actual eating of food.

Recently some friends of mine were commenting on how home projects can escalate so that they require an inconceivable amount of extra steps because of something unexpected that crops up. Disintegration of fixtures in old homes. Renegade salespeople at the hardware store selling you the wrong part. An Allen wrench falling down the drain. Parts missing from the package. (Did you buy it at Sears? What did you expect?) Assembly instructions in Chinese. Think of those little house problems you notice that turn out to be enormous (and cost more to fix than the mortgage). You notice a little pile of sawdust in a corner and it turns out your attic is infested with opossums. So you go to the library to get a cookbook with opossum recipes in it, but it turns out they moved the library to Michigan to clean the carpets. While in Michigan you contract lead poisoning from the water.

The way one thing leads to another, it’s remarkable that anyone accomplishes anything in this world. I have heard my father tell the story of the ill-fated picnic he participated in with our family (when I was a child) and my parents’ friends the Harts. The Harts set up chairs and a portable aluminum table for the lunch, which was spread out like a vision of picnic perfection. At the lunch, one of the Hart’s children knocked a cup of milk with his elbow while reaching across the table. Mr. Hart lunged to grab the cup of milk before it spilled, and he swiftly performed a chain reaction of maneuvers that managed to overturn the entire lightweight table with food splattered on the people and the ground, and the picnic demolished. Chalk one up for the ants.

I’m considering practicing the art of de-escalation as a preemptive defense tactic. What if I look at situations and consider how I can simplify and avoid extra steps that could potentially go awry and fuel the escalation beast? So if, for example, I’m out of eggs, instead of running to the store, I’ll change the menu for dinner, thus avoiding the possibility of falling off a curb and breaking my ankle. I could become an effective escalation disruptor. The next time I drop a vitamin on the floor, I’m leaving it there until I sell the house. There’s a concept.

Remember this game? Based on the Escalation Premise.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Beach Week

I miss my beach. When my children were growing up, we went to Manresa Beach during the first week in August each year as our beloved family vacation. We stayed in Kamping Kabins (because KOA has apparently misplaced the letter “C”) at the Santa Cruz KOA located one mile from the beach. This simple, low-budget vacation was our slice of heaven. Even now, after my children have grown and left home, I often make the trek to Manresa in August for a visit to our beach. Sometimes I take someone with me and sometimes I go by myself, which is fine with me. Manresa provides all the company I need. I travel so much lighter by myself. In days of yore, when I traveled with my children and their friends, I packed for the apocalypse. Anyone who has gone camping with teenagers can relate. A trip to Manresa on my own is a far cry from the major production number this jaunt once was.

Even though the Santa Cruz KOA and Manresa are technically in Watsonville, not Santa Cruz, we always referred to our annual vacation as “Going to Santa Cruz.” The way we talked about it all year long, you would think we were planning a five-star tour of the Caribbean or something exceptionally exotic. My children were overjoyed to get new beach towels at Christmas “for Santa Cruz.” They saved their allowance for weeks to spend “at Santa Cruz.” In the cold, dark days of winter, they reminisced about “Santa Cruz,” and when summer arrived they started to voice their plans “for Santa Cruz” that year. They pondered which friend to invite to “go to Santa Cruz” with them. They could each invite one friend along. That is, until they were teenagers and driving, and then they could bring as many friends as they could cram into whatever car they drove. We stacked the young folks up in Kamping Kabins (no “C” in sight) and packed in more food. Lots more food. Mountains of food. We were the Grand Tetons of food.

I spent acres of time before and during the “going to Santa Cruz” managing food. When you toss growing youngsters out in the fresh air in proximity to the ocean, they perfect the art of appetite. This is not rocket science. This is the Bagel and Cream Cheese Law of Growing Children. At the best of times, they eat anything not nailed down. At the beach they eat everything nailed down as well. Teenagers at the beach are equivalent to a plague of locusts of biblical proportions when in the vicinity of food. They have a bear’s ardor for a cooler. They never complained about carrying all that food onto the beach from the car. But I had to buy the food, transport the food to the KOA, prep the food (translation:  sandwiches, chopped vegetables and watermelon, etc.), pack the food into the coolers, and estimate the volume and variety necessary. I did not wish to have to leave the beach mid-afternoon because I ran out of corn chips.

We could always punt when it came to dinner at Santa Cruz since this meal was easily foraged at a nearby restaurant. In those days, lucky for my children, I had not yet become a nutritionist, so breakfast was three tons of bagels and a gallon of cream cheese. Easy-peasy. It was the beach food needed to last all day long that kept me on my toes. And then, after dark, around the campfire, we resorted to the legendary, the prototypical, the incomparable s’mores. Graham crackers, chocolate, and fire-roasted marshmallows. Today I could not be prevailed upon to feed a child a marshmallow, and I ask forgiveness for ever having done so. I shudder to think what they put in those things. I imagine they contain refined white heart-attack sugar, pulverized pig hooves, genetically altered cornstarch (does corn really need eyeballs?), bleach, six exciting toxic chemical compounds cooked up in a former meth lab on the planet Zordac, and exhausted sofa cushions. (Or should I say kemikal kompounds and sofa kushions?) You can see that my children were extraordinarily lucky that I did not have time to study nutrition while I was raising them. They ate marshmallows in their s’mores summer after summer around the KOA kampfire. But I digress. This is part of the hazard of marshmallows.

Food aside, it was a crap shoot for me to figure out what might be desperately needed on the beach that I could miraculously produce from my beach bag on demand. The children’s amazement when I had just the thing they needed was my reward for bringing every conceivable object of everyday use with me. I have overheard them over the years speaking about it.
“She actually had surf wax in her bag.”
“So we got the kite back in the air because, go figure, Mom had masking tape, string, scissors, a stapler, and wire cutters in her bag.”
“Mom remembered the Frisbee. Horseshoes. Badminton rackets. Dictionary. Cards. Buckets. Shovel suitable for digging a hole to China.”
“Thank goodness she brought a spare sweatshirt. Sunscreen. Swiss Army Knife. Batteries. Hair tie. Binoculars. Bra. Shop vac. Sandpaper. Lactating goat.”
“And then, you would not believe this, but, she had a dehydrated helicopter in a Ziploc bag in the bottom of the cooler and she gave it to the lifeguard who added water and used it to rescue the drowning boy.”
I challenge you to be as prepared as I was every day on Manresa. I could have aced a job at NASA after just two years of prepping for a day at Manresa with my children and their buddies. But I don’t think NASA can fully appreciate the genius inherent in the job title “Beach Mom.” They have no idea how difficult it is to maintain teenagers at the beach for an afternoon, particularly without the availability of the letter “C.” (Khips anyone?) Someone please tell this to Kampsites of Amerika.

Our pilgrimage to Manresa had so many aspects, so many dimensions, and the vacation evolved over the years as the children grew and changed. We had our Santa Cruz traditions and we also did new and different things from one year to the next. At one point in time the dolphins began appearing in the surf near the shore, and so we began to watch for them eagerly and were never disappointed. Every year we spent an evening at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where the whole gang played Laser Tag while I babysat the mound of jackets, handbags, hats, cameras, phones, and backpacks. Strangers would stop and ask me for a price on something, thinking I was a street vendor. One year we drove south to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. That was back when I admired the beauty of kelp gardens (no really, not celp gardens) without imagining how they would taste (with my nutritionist’s appetite for seaweed). Each year our vacation was different, but the one constant was the beach.

Always the beach. Building sandcastles, only to watch them lapped up by the water when the tide came in. Long walks on the edge of the surf. Finding sand dollars. Flying kites. Reading, playing cards, napping lazily. Chatting with my children and their friends so that I learned about the lives of these young people in great detail. In truth, I have ever depended on the ocean to give me pause for reflection, to bring me back to my true self, and to help me chart my course for the years ahead. This week, in the long, hot days of August, I imagine myself at Manresa. This is the week that we were usually there. How did I let the summer slip by without making the trek? Resolve:  I will find a time in the coming months to run away to Manresa for restoration and renewal. Full speed ahead, and don’t spare the marshmallows.

View of my beloved Manresa Beach.