Thursday, March 31, 2011

Letting March slip through my fingers

If I died today, the most truthful thing that could be chiseled on my tombstone would be:

Here lies Michele Arnett, who never ran out of excuses.

I mean, today is the last day of March, and for reasons I can't explain, I still have roughly the same to-do list as I did at the beginning of this month.  Where did the time go?

I don't watch much tv, I'm not having an affair, I don't drink (during the day, anyway), I'm not a therapeudic shopper, I don't have a month's worth of dinners in the freezer...what the heck have I been doing this month?

Answer:  Internet.

I can lose an entire morning looking at the antiques for sale on craigslist Chicago.

I spend valuable hours chasing down k-cup deals on ebay, effectively canceling my minuscule cost savings in lost time.

  And facebook - well, facebook has become a problem for me.

Once I get caught up on everyone else's business, I jump on a word game and blow another hour.  It's inexcuseable, and I'm preparing to disentangle myself from all but the most cursory involvement on that site.  I'll check in on my kids' activity and a few friends who are far away and not available for regular conversation, but I need to quit posting the status of my laundry on that site.  And the local weather.  And my complaints about the length of whatever season I happen to find myself in today.  I truly don't care about your laundry or your weather - what makes me think you care about mine?

Like many in these parts, the long winter, cold temps and long-lived snow made it very easy to commune via laptop, Ipad, etc., for months on end.  I'd go from facebook to craigslist to ebay to Land's End Overstocks to various news and blog sites before the kids were even on the bus.  Fire off a few emails, play a few games of Word Drop, glance at the clock and it's noon.  Time loses all meaning when you get caught up in surfing, shopping, catching up on stuff.  But when I look up and and entire month is gone, it's time to take my time more seriously, while taking a vacation from OPS (other people's stuff) shopping.

 So I'm setting this goal for myself - wean self from facebook over spring break (next week).  I still want to publish my blog posts there, because frankly, I don't think anyone besides my mother would read Polite Ravings if I didn't smear it all over facebook and Google Buzz.  So I'll stay plugged in, but I'm going to attempt to severely limit my visits to the virtual party room and try to see and talk to people the old fashioned way - in person, or on the phone.

That's right, I'm going to waste more time and precious natural resources dropping by your houses, calling you during dinner, sending silly cards with dogs in sunglasses for no reason, and emailing hilarious recycled jokes and videos to you.  I know you can't wait until I stop using facebook for my social hub.  Now I'm going to be bothering you from multiple communication platforms.

It's going to take some planning, but I'm committed to rediscovering social networking without the aid of a computer.  Today I already talked to 3 people on the phone, and visited two at their homes.  It felt good, and I even got hugs.

And there is no doubt that hugs beat

by a country mile.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Domestic Diva and the Week of Unsupervised Activity

Since Eric's been out of town all week, I naturally set the bar a little high and fell short on project completions.  But I made lots of progress on some sewing/mending jobs that had plagued me for a while, and made a respectable stab at trying to revamp our budget to allow for the huge rise in food and gas prices.  As I said, nothing is totally finished, but I have to shift gears this afternoon and do a little cleaning and tidying (hide unfinished stuff) before he gets home.

So, lacking a real theme to explore today, I'll just do a brief recap of a few interesting things I did this week.

1.  I contributed my olfactory talents to a neighbor whose smoke detectors in went into intermittent alarm mode for no apparent reason.  After a thorough inspection of the house, we took the covers off the detectors and blew them out with air-in-a-can.  A cute little spider ran out of one, and then there were no more alarms.  Saved the taxpayers a small fortune by averting an expensive 911 call, and got to feel like Robert DiNiro in "Backdraft."  Just call me Inspector Arnett.

2.  Watched a neat docu-dramentary about the "little ice age."  Who knew Stradivari achieved the amazing sound we enjoy because of the effect of the temporarily harsh climate in European forests?  It was entertaining History Channel fare, and they didn't propose an alien invasion as the cause even once.

3.  Camille participated in the Stickley piano competition, a prestigious regional competition for young people.  She performed Burgmueller's "The Knight Errant," a happy, tricky piece that she's worked on tirelessly for several months.  This was her first time to enter the Stickley, and she approached her performance as a chance to get her feet wet in the big leagues, so to speak.  She wasn't thrilled with herself, since she made a mistake or two, but I was so proud of her having the courage and determination to try.  She has talent, but more importantly, she has discipline and a willingness to work hard.  These two traits will carry her farther than raw talent ever could.

4.  Mary Kathleen is approaching her 16th birthday, and owing to her almost constant employment as a babysitter or pet sitter, she has enough money that she can't even come up with a decent list of gift ideas.  I'm sure a request for a Japanese teppanyaki dinner is coming, but she won't be pinned down on a party or outing idea.  She's going to end up at Chuck E. Cheese if she's not careful.  Mary's also working on summer plans.  She wants to work at the art camp sponsored by the high school, she wants to do a credit project for Animal Science (anyone want to let her raise chickens at your house?), and she's got to take driver's education.  Plus she wants to get a job at United Arts and Education.  Oh, and visit a few college campii.  Sounds relaxing, doesn't it?

5.  I watched two movies that I've had in the dvr queue for several months, plus went to one at the theatre.  "The Portrait of a Lady," with Nicole Kidman, is a film I've meant to see since it came out in the late 90s.  I like other adaptations of Henry James' novels (The Wings of the Dove, The Turn of the Screw), but this was such a let-down.  I don't intend to do a movie review at this time, but it's so disappointing to get your hopes up about a movie, and have it disappoint.  It's the opposite of my feelings about "Just Go With It," the latest idiotic, contrived vehicle for Adam Sandler.  I dislike him and his brand of comedy so much, I had extremely low expectation (it's amazing what you'll do to get out of the house in winter sometimes). The fact the Jennifer Aniston and the rest of the cast was decent, while not redeeming this piece of trash, made it much easier to enjoy as stupid escapism.  And last, but definitely not least, I watched "Sunshine Cleaning," with Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Adam Arkin,  which was very enjoyable.  In desperation, Adams has to take a job doing crime scene clean-ups, which ends up being lucrative.  She and Blunt have great chemistry as sisters with a bittersweet tragedy in their past.  Anyone would like this story, but it's got a bit of profanity and more than one sex scene, so it's not for the kids.

6.  I joined a new ladies' service club this week.  It's actually a new "branch" of a club to which I already belong, but this chapter will meet at night and on my end of town.  I joke about Medical Margaritas, my drunko group and my life of leisure, but deep down, I care very much about being a contributor in the community.  I look forward to making new friends and helping out with some worthy local causes.

7.  Drunko was last night.  Delicious food, yummy drinks, excellent company, home by 11.  Perfect.

8.  Camille and I are taking off for a quick overnight in Indy tonight.  She's attending a conference which emphasizes STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  She went last year and had a ball; this year she has a friend from Columbus who is attending as well.  I see myself peacefully browsing at one of the local antique malls, broadening my knowledge of the market and honing my negotiating skills.    Or maybe I'll ride down to the Garden Show at the Fairgrounds, if it's not snowing...

Now that I killed an hour recapping my week, I suppose I need to get ready for the weekend.  We have a couple's dinner tomorrow night, where our favorite local chef will be preparing a five-course meal for a group of us who won his services in a silent auction.  I'll see Eric for the first time in a week when we meet at this get-together.  It will be a lovely way to end a pleasant week.

p.s.  Prayers and thoughts go out to the many people affected by the earthquake and tsunami disasters.  I marvel at how lucky I am, and wonder why that is. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pointless Dogs Raves and my First Contest!

It's a mess in here.  It reminds me of the days of raising small children.  Specifically, it reminds me of cleaning up after large groups of small children.  I thought I was done with post-playgroup horror.  You know that feeling  you get when you hosted playgroup, and everyone just left, and it's time to clean the room in which the little darlings were contained for two hours of play, snacks and socialization?

Well, today my downstairs looks as if a small army of 3 year-olds have been quartered here for a few hours.  Empty food bowls have been rolled from room to room.  There are pillows on the floor, surrounded by stuffed animals, rubber noisemakers and amorphous items that defy description.  Blankets have been unfolded and reshaped for better napping.  Magazine piles have been shifted from end tables to the floor, to facilitate perching at the window for stranger patrol.  What few attractive or valuable items we own are placed high in a bookshelf, to avoid breakage or chewing. 

But no toddlers live here.  Remind me again why I have dogs?

They staged a dog version of extreme wrestling this morning, and needed the contents of my mending pile to demonstrate their manliness, I guess.  I kept hoping one of them would take a knitting needle to the haunch and decide to go lick themselves for a while.  Alas, no puncture wounds.  Just an upended basket of mending strewn through three rooms.

I won't share pictures of the mess, although I'm sure you are wishing I would.  I'll just show you the vicious, blood-thirsty beasts, as evidenced by these post-fight photos I snapped:

It wouldn't be so bad if either of these mutts were the least bit useful.  Joey, the shih-tzu, does a decent imitation of a foot warmer, but he doesn't work on demand, just when the mood strikes him.  Grant, the spaniel mix, would really rather be a carnival hawker or some such.  He wants to make first contact with anyone who visits, and barks to passersby, human and dog alike, even if they are quite distant, trying to entice them to come sniff, wrestle and play chase with him.

Like our last 4 dogs, these two were rescue dogs, pedigree guessed at, taken as-is, no returns, no exchanges.  We could only guess at their skill-set, or lack thereof, and hope they'd be healthy and easy-going.   Well, if by easy-going, I meant they accepted my furniture as good enough for them, I suppose they met that minimum benchmark.  Healthy - yes, thank God, they've both been very healthy.

But some days I just wish they could do something practical.  My spray bottle of vinegar and Indiana Jones bullwhip are useless when trying to teach them how to put away their toys.  Or if they would dig where I need to plant bulbs, that would turn an unpleasant habit into a helpful one.  And since they are willing to eat almost anything, why can't I get them to lick up that little pile of debris that is left when I try to sweep the last bit of rubbish into the dustpan?  How hard would that be?

But I generally earn a blank stare when I try to communicate anything beyond "treat" or "squirrel!"  They usually rest or sleep through my workday, oblivious to all the labor-saving jobs they could be doing, if only they wanted to learn.  Like most dogs, a sure-fire way to get their attention is food preparation.  When I'm stirring a pot on the stovetop, or chopping at the cutting board, their expressions convey the most sincere desire to be of service, should anything fall and roll out of my reach (like a meatball).  But they show no desire to retrieve the out-of-reach wet socks that always seem to dot the floor when I'm transferring laundry.  Really, dogs, what's the difference?

No, these dogs don't help much with the chore list.  Although they do require their very own page in the to-do list:  feed, freshen water, walk, furnish toys, chews, dental treats, vitamins, heartworm and flea preventative, brush, clean up messes...I'm getting bored just typing this.  I gave up offering their, um, shall we say, leavings, to composting environmentalists, who would only need to come and collect it from my yard.  I'd even furnish the pooper-scooper, bucket and a beer to sweeten the deal.  Strangely, no takers.  But it's an open-ended offer, folks.

Since I cannot convert their waste to a cash crop, my next idea was their fur.  These two dogs shed an impossible amount of fur.  I sometimes wonder if they are running a doggie equivalent of an underground railroad in my house.  There must be other dogs hiding here, contributing to the fluff piles that blow from room to room.  I fancy that Joey, who seems like a heartless, territorial furball, is actually the leader of an altruistic pipeline operation that helps abused dogs reach some better destination.  Perhaps when Grant is at the front window, distracting me by barking at the sound of air molecules bumping into each other, Joey is escorting some poor, ungroomed yorkie-poo from a basement hideaway, out the back gate and into the care of the next escort dog.  Is that so far-fetched?

Because the quantity of hair that shows up in my dyson canister, almost daily, seems pretty far-fetched too.  A ten pound dog shouldn't be shedding 5 pounds of fur a week, right?  They'd eventually look like a naked mole rat, at that rate.  But that's exactly what I'm dealing with here.  And being a waste-not, want-not kind of girl, I would like to get some use out of this bumper crop of fur.  Surely, there must be an enterprising weaver, knitter or furrier who needs my extra supply.  There are doubtless needy children living on a tundra somewhere who'd be happy to own a parka filled (with love) by dog fur. Every time I throw away a bale of fur, I feel like such a wasteful non-recycler.

But repeated google searches turned up no one who wanted to buy my collection.  I was discussing this situation with my friend, who I will only refer to here as Merin Urphy, and she was in agreement that we pet owners should not have to work so hard to clean up after these animals, without some reward for the products yielded.  I assured her that, although she has also two dogs, and may be able to understand my predicament, I probably have much more fur to deal with than she does.  She contradicted me, which isn't very nice, so I politely suggested we compare our disgusting dustpans one day.  This unpleasant idea drove us to drink, and the challenge was temporarily forgotten.

But since I couldn't think of anything else to write about today, I'm going to take that challenge and turn it on it's ear.

(cue Frankie Avalon):  Hey, kids, let's have a dog fur contest!

Dog fur rolls around my house like tumbleweeds in Dodge City, so we're calling this the Dog Fur Tumbleweed Contest (Thanks to Merin for the inspirational title).  Since I've never held a contest before, and don't know how it's done, there are no rules beyond a request that you play fair.  Your dogs, their fur, your house, and no fair making the kids do all the work.

Take a picture of the largest furball you can assemble that will hold it's shape without excessive manipulation or the addition of super-glue, dryer lint, etc.  Here is a small sample from one corner in my house, just to give you something to aim for:

I know it's a pretty pitiful effort, but there could only be two reasons why my offering is so small: one, my house is spotless, or two, since it's my contest, I'm ineligible to enter, so I'm not willing to work that hard.  I'll leave you in suspense about which reason it is.  (And yes, that's my kitchen counter.  Don't judge me unless you never changed a diaper on yours...)

Finally, this bark-out is for all the Mollys and Baileys, plus Max, McDuff, Sawyer, Maggie, Ruby, Homer, Gus, Buddy, Peaches, Hank, Casey, Lizzy, and all the other dogs we know and love: Tell your owners to get busy and enter this contest!  I'm trying to go viral here!

Email your pictures to : 

The winner will receive a genuine plastic case for displaying their treasure, a Certificate for Prodigious Time Wasted, and a big lick from Grant.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mental Liver Spots

I was always very close to my maternal grandmother, and still miss her every day, even though she's been gone since 1996.  I could write an entire book about Gay Ellis Smyer, and maybe one day I will, but today I mention her because she was the first old person that I knew well.  And since I'm slowly becoming an old person myself, much of what I think about getting old came from her.

I've always thought little old ladies are adorable.  When I was a little girl, I thought our neighbor, who I called Bibba, was the cutest lady in the neighborhood.  She had hair the color of cumulus clouds in the Alabama sky, and she was a teeny, stooped little lady, the same height as me when I was nine.  But no matter the time of day or the occasion, she always had her orange lipstick on. I was fascinated by the streaks and spots that thick orange product left on her teeth, but her lips maintained their brightness through many cups of coffee and cigarettes.  She was always baking something aromatic that drew us kids to her porch door to see what was cooling on her kitchen table.  She baked so frequently that even her old basset hound smelled like cookies.

Many caring older ladies peopled my childhood:  Mrs. Garrick, Mrs. Deese, and one elderly red-haired lady whose first name was Lolita, who always talked to me about her antiques and her garden.  To me, the older ladies of my acquaintance had their acts together.  They were beacons of decency and civility to their neighbors, families, churches and communities.  I never thought getting old was a bad thing as a kid, because the older ladies I knew were so amazing.  And none more so than my grandmother.

I called her Grandmother, which seemed like a genteel title when compared to Memaw or Gammy or any of those folksy nicknames my childhood friends addressed their grandmothers by.  But she was a lady of many accomplishments, back when the terms "lady" and "accomplishment" carried some weight in society.

It's not my intention to write a biography here, but I'll list just a few of the roles my grandmother played:  daughter, sister, scholar, beauty queen, wife, mother, teacher, secretary, nurse, writer, mentor and "port in a storm."  Her talents and encouragement are woven so deeply into the fabric of my being that I can't attempt any task, however mundane, without drawing on some lesson she imparted to me.

I always considered my grandmother the benchmark of beauty for older ladies.  And I guess that's why my childish compliments brought a wry smile to her face. I genuinely thought the things that made her different from me were beautiful.  I thought her thin halo of gray and white hair was so pretty...but when I told her that once, when she had her hair in brush rollers hidden under a  scarf, she looked at me like I was crazy, and probably told me to go brush my thick, tangled locks.

Another thing I admired was her hands.  And not just because they made me bacon and grits every morning and sewed, crocheted and knitted vast quantities of clothes and needlework for me.  I liked the way the blue veins bulged through the opaque skin of her hands.  I truly thought that was an attractive look, compared to my smooth, plump hands.  I would often sit with one hand tightly grasping my opposite wrist, to make my veins pop out like hers.  She and my mother scolded me for doing that, and warned I would do permanent damage, but I just squeezed my wrists in secrecy.  And don't you know, today I have those bulging veins, so I guess that worked just like I hoped.

My grandmother's hands were speckled with spots, what the old folks called "liver spots" back then.  To me, they looked like freckles, and as a fair-skinned blond, I desperately wanted freckles.  But Grandmother corrected me - I did not want freckles, and she had age spots because she was old.  I shouldn't want to look old or be freckled - I should be happy with my peaches-and-cream (whatever that meant) complexion and my youth.  Thinning hair, age spots, spreading hips, hammer toes, trifocals, bright white dentures - these were all fascinating hallmarks of senior adulthood that were interesting because they were so different from me, and because they weren't happening to me.

How silly I must have seemed, sitting with my curled toes jammed to the floor, trying to develop hammer toes.  I also thought I was the luckiest girl in 6th grade, when I got wire-rimmed glasses that looked just like my grandmother's pair.  And my first year of wearing makeup, I bought a tube of Coty lipstick that must have been named "Safety Orange," just because the color looked so beautiful on Bibba.  I even remember stealing some gray bobby pins from the bureau of my great-grandmother Dabbo, looking forward to the day when I could pile my hair into an enormous bun and secure it with pins that matched my gray hair.

Well, today I type with hands that bulge with blue veins and gnarly knuckles, and I have quite a few brown spots as reminders of the years of careless, unprotected sun exposure.  My hair is still reasonably thick, but nothing like the tresses of my youth.  I got my middle-aged spread and the attendant waddle years ago, and during my childbearing years I went from a shoe size 7.5N to 9.5W. 

I also have a few non-visible signs of advancing age.  I grow more forgetful every day, and start entirely too many sentences with the phrase, "When I was younger..."  I find myself very preoccupied with the changes in the world since I was a youngster, which seems to be the favorite subject of 90% of nursing home patients with whom I come in contact.  My brain often behaves like it already belongs to an old person.

As a young adult, I was dubious of the idea of Heaven and Hell, and enjoyed vigorous debates about the existence of an afterlife.  But when I lost Grandmother, right on the heels of becoming a new mother, and losing my best friend to suicide, my devastation decided that question for me.  I became a believer in an afterlife of some kind, because I couldn't fathom an existence without some connection to my grandmother.  And as the years have marched by, I have benefited from that choice. I've felt Grandmother's presence in my life many times; often proud of me, sometimes correcting, but always benevolent.

It's a comfort to think that she's up there, watching me grow older and understanding, only too well, how unpleasant it can be.  She'd probably advise me to wear better shoes, take care of my teeth and gums, lose a few pounds, walk more, drink less and always wear rubber gloves when washing the dishes.

She'd tell me to put some Jergens lotion on my hands, and don't worry with fade cream, because the liver spots are here to stay.  Then she'd tell me to touch up my orange lipstick and look in the mirror, because there is a beautiful older lady there, smiling at me.

Still here

In response to the kind friends who noticed I hadn't been blogging much lately, I submit this poorly-thought-out installment.

I've actually been writing quite a bit in recent weeks, but I find my ideas haven't been flowing so well.  I wish I could blame it on the cold, as I do everything else.  Frozen brain cells or some such excuse would fit quite well.  But that's not really the case.  I think I have an attitude problem.

Firstly, some part of me wants to submit a funny and meaningful think-piece every time I hit the "publish" button.  Even though the size of my audience is small, your feedback has been so helpful and your support so important, that I feel like a lazy pseudo-wordsmith just cranking out chore lists, bird pictures and the occasional wisecrack about our government.  I want to say something more meaningful, more useful, more helpful.

I also get a little annoyed at my own behavior when I do post a blog.  I check the stats constantly, even though I know I shouldn't care, and I even read spam comments, just in case some best-selling author decides to leave me some free advice.  Clearly I'm too preoccupied with the reactions of others.  I can't honestly say I'm just writing for myself.  If I'm only blogging for my own satisfaction, why do I respond to the readership statistics in such a needy manner?

I'm kind of depressed about the whole subject of books and writing, too, if you want to know the truth.  (Not that I'm writing a book, but the subjects are connected in my thinking processes.)  Everywhere I go, it seems I'm reminded of the demise of the printed word, and that saddens me.  In my city, a free-standing Barnes & Noble closed a while back, in order to move into a beautiful new addition at our mall.  Their original building still remains empty two years later.  More recently, Borders filed bankruptcy and is closing my local store as part of the effort to stay in business.  Two mega-bookstores will stand empty less than 5 miles from my home.  That seems ominous.

Experts assure us that Americans are reading as much as we ever did, just in different formats, and I hope they are correct.  Because it's clear that Americans can't write worth a darn anymore.  Writing as a basic skill seems to have been in a constant state of decline (according to my elders) since I was a child. Communication technologies like texting have accelerated the process drastically, in my amateur opinion. Everywhere I look there are abbreviations and slang that used to be in limited usage; now "4" is an acceptable substitute for the useful preposition "for" in almost any venue.  And since when did it become acceptable to write "u" instead of "you?"  Who decided that?  People with tired finger syndrome?

But abbreviations have always been with us.  What's really reached an abysmal state is the creation of a logical, meaningful sentence.  Take a gander at a few ads on Craigslist or ebay and tears of laughter quickly turn to tears of sadness, when you read the examples of adult writing skills on display.  Some would say I'm being picky - what's a misspelling between friends?  Would that it were only a spelling issue.   People who can afford to buy and sell expensive antique furniture, cars, lake homes and jewelry, cannot describe their precious possessions in words and language that would rate a D-, and that's grading on a curve.

Well-written print media seems to have become irrelevant.  I spent a few minutes browsing the bargain table at our soon-to-be defunct Borders the other day.  So many books, with glossy covers, glowing reviews ("...without a doubt, the finest debut high school vampire trans-gender novel I've read in the last five minutes..."), and thrillingly high hopes by the author, stand in huge piles, marked down several times, until a $25.95 hardback published by a once-great publishing house is going home with deal-seeker for $2.99.  It depressed me to see so many unwanted, unread books.

We bought my mother-in-law a Kindle e-reader, and she has thoroughly enjoyed the convenience of the device.  Being disabled, she is an ideal candidate for such technology, and I'm very glad that it is available to her.  But contrast that to a woman in line ahead of me at the grocery store recently.  Her tweenage son was annoyed because the battery in his iPhone was dead.  The lady handed him her e-reader (a nice Nook, I think), and suggested he find something to read. To this helpful gesture he rudely replied that he didn't feel like using "that big pile of junk."  Dealing with her son in distracted-parent mode, she ignored his mouth/attitude/ingratitude and offered her iPhone to placate the poor, neglected child (I named him Damien.)

I don't know where I'm going with this line of thinking, but for some reason these scenarios seem connected and the outcome concerns me.  How can someone not like books?  How can an author put his heart and soul into a project, get it published, and then see it gather dust?  How can it be that the neighborhood book store has gone the way of the neighborhood soda shop or greengrocer or shoe store - a place for people to visit for the purpose of buying something tangible from a human who speaks and smiles to you, and knows something about the product you seek?

I suppose this melancholy is the reason I've been unwilling to publish any of my raves lately.  These thoughts aren't funny.  But to hold back my words unless I can be sure of causing a grin is not healthy for me - as a person or a writer.  So I'm going to post some of these less-than-cheerful essays over the coming days, and I hope I don't turn anyone away with my "Debbie Downer" routine.  

Yes, I'm an optimist.  That hasn't changed.  And I lead a blessed, mostly easy existence, for which I'm very grateful.  But I'm in a mood, and I can no longer pretend that bothersome trends don't bother me.  They do concern me, and I want to work through some of those concerns here.  

So my future ravings may be less funny, less slapstick, less day-in-the-life silliness, but I promise I'll keep it polite.