6.23.2006

"It's Officially Summer"

The first weekend of the summer: looks like water rising off a road. Summer mornings always have that pink light, the smell of honeysuckle and roses, and hold everything evoked by the taste of weak coffee and the sound of an idling 18-wheeler. My summer memories are also road memories, for it was this time of year, right around my birthday, that we always spent driving halfway across the country to see my family in St. Louis. The stopover nights spent in Columbus, OH; long hours looking out the window; arrival into slowness, lush green, of Missouri. Other things, like the ramshackle trailer court owned and occupied by most of my extended family. The trailer we stayed in, decent guest accomodations; I slept on a small mattress on the floor in the living room, but I had that room to myself. Dogs barking in my grandfather's basement. It's nice to be here now, ruminating on the distance of family, rather than traversing that distance, and anyway, everyone's left St. Louis for the exurbs or the coast.

I wonder what that trailer court is now. I like to imagine that it got taken back. The cracks in the asphalt I used to trace with my big toe on mornings when I woke up before everyone else have finally become saturated with the crabgrass that once worked so hard to break through. Maybe even a small tree seedling struggled in between the heaves of hot asphalt, soaking in enough sun that its growing roots over the years finally broke the concrete circle drive between trailers. Let's say it was a cottonwood, growing strong and big enough to release tufts of soft cotton every summer morning, tufts that fill the air and stick to the empty trailers and land in the corners of abandoned kitchens, covering the brown linoleum, making a soft lining over the old grease stains, making them finally beautiful. The wild red roses that grew in brambles along the fence dividing the cemetary and the court have exploded into a cage of nettles, home to rabbits who slip under the thorns just out of reach of coyote teeth. Whatever happened to the animals? Stray kittens for whom we put out dishes of milk lived entire cat lives by now, becoming street toughs and making it to ripe old age before eventually lying down in the shade of the cottonwood for a final summer rest. And the grave, elegant, sad malemute husky my aunt kept on short lead? I brought him water and friendship for two weeks. My heart broke when I left him in the sun with that hot coat, no shade, to head back to upstate New York. But I think he went on to better things, too. I imagine he was adopted the very next day by farmers who stopped by the court and, entranced by those sad pale blue eyes, couldn't leave without him. His new home was a big farm where he was free to roam, spend hot summer afternoons panting softly in the cool shade of a locust tree, swimming in the pond and disturbing the fish when he wanted, soaking his coat through before running off to help with the horses.

6.16.2006

Joy

Yesterday I got a parking ticket, sat in traffic on 93 for nearly an hour and a half, narrowly missed getting rear-ended by a speeding van on Mt. Auburn, had a bad shopping experience, and sat through a very stressful inter-departmental meeting in which I had to endure a lot of condescension while being the sole voice of dissent. I also got some sad news about my parent's beloved cat Diego. It all weighed on me. But you know what? It was still one of the best days. Ever.

Yesterday I led part of a boxing class at the holistic gym where I volunteer. I drove home overwhelmed with the exuberance and joy and strength of the women in my class, and feeling very spiritual about the whole thing. Had I always been meant to meet these people? Where did all this love come from? Two of my students were people I had led through orientation, so I was lucky to have a personal connection to the class, especially to the at-risk teen who told me she'd recently requested another appointment with me. I'd practiced my bit of choreography in the living room over and over. It doesn't sound like a big deal, leading a warm-up and an abs session, but first of all, for me, to demonstrate perfect anything with my body is to have leapt a big hurdle. Plus, learning how to be authoritative in a group, and humble in the face of strong women trying something new, and working with members who are definitely not your typical gym clientele. Teaching women always means you're teaching the community, because they are empowered to pass on learned skills and attitude to children, partners, neighbors and family. And I can't think of anything better than teaching women how to be healthy and strong.

Next week I lead a slightly longer session. Maybe not feeling quite as overwhelmed, I hope, but as thankful as today. I am so grateful to have such a forgiving, beautiful, fun group of people in which to learn and grow.

Oh man. This blog is not nearly snarky enough.

6.14.2006

Ode to the Cringe

My upstairs neighbor was on my cell phone yesterday while I brought his Scottie dogs into my living room. I petted their graying hair; they wagged little tails. He was speaking to our town's tax office, which was threatening to advertise in the paper that we hadn't paid our taxes (we had, but our money had yet to get through their bureaucratic maze). They hoped to embarrass us, a stance we all found pretty weak. But he said it best. "I gave up being embarrassed when I was ten," he said to the woman on the other end of the phone. I laughed as I leaned forward to hug one of the dogs. I find that sentiment intensely right...strong, smart, and powerful, and ultimately just right. I've been thinking a lot about embarrassment lately because I have to get over some of my own if I want to achieve certain goals. I have to simply get over myself. In other arenas in my life, I've done this, and I've found I can do it consciously. As I recently explained to a friend, "I've decided that if the other person isn't embarrassed, then you don't need to be, either." She agreed, adding that you can refrain from embarrassment even if the other person IS embarrassed, too. That's right. But I have to start with the fundamentals.

Appearing not to be embarrassed is not a strength. When people posture constantly to avoid embarrassment, it's still a part of their life and a core of their personality. Being 'cool' is the yin to the yang of being embarrassed. But then there's someone like my neighbor, who gets it: you can feel it, but it can't rule what you do, so it subsides to a trace of a feeling. After all, some embarrassment is a natural part of growth. Trying something new, especially in front of anyone else, can bring it on. But it's a clunky emotion, and it holds you back. Like I recently counseled my husband, "Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to."

Yeah, I came up with that. Pretty good, huh?

6.12.2006

Getting Serious

Major highlight from this weekend:
We washed our dishes in the kitchen! We washed our dishes in the kitchen!
Did we wash them in the bathroom? No! In the kitchen!

Yes, it was a tame weekend, but still. A real sink. Next Sunday marks 3 months since we were last able to use our kitchen, and although perhaps we aren't making very elegant use of it yet---our first use of our spiffy new oven was to heat up a frozen pizza---we are still using it, and that is the important thing. The briefly-MIA electrician comes tomorrow, and, I hope, will make all the final things work. After that it's mere cosmetics: a tile backsplash (nothing!) and an entire set of wood mouldings (I scoff at the miniscule task!). Meanwhile I've decided to grow a new skill set so I can actually use the new purchases. Yes, it's time to learn how to cook. I scoured Netflix for DVDs that can teach me five or six straightfoward but especially delicious meals, but I ended up with Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver. I'm looking for Italian food, mostly vegetarian, some fish. Piscotarian, as Michael Pollan says. I think I need to keep looking.

That's one of several projects brimming in my cup. Lately one stand-out theme runs through my life and that is: More Responsibility. The two organizations in my life are pulling me up to the next level, and that's either going to bring me more work, which is scary, or make the work I do way more fun, which is awesome. Or both. I'm expending a lot of energy just trying to accept the changes I myself put into motion and ask myself to step up to the plate. Man, look at that big fat sports metaphor. But you know what I mean. It's time to grow.

Fortunately my man gave me the perfect antidote to all this seriousness...an early 30th-birthday present: Onitsuka Tiger purple-and-pink sneakers! They have purple AND pink. So cool!

6.05.2006

The Art of Making Things Useful

Ever since I was six years old, drawing signs for the organic green peppers, carrots and lettuce at the co-op where my dad sold produce, I've cared about useful design. Very clear communication. Aesthetically pleasing graphics. Designing websites gave me another dimension to consider: interactivity. Studying these things in grad school taught me paradoxically about pitfalls of badly addressing user interfaces (my grad school wasn't very good) and Perspectives to Avoid.

As a result, I'm always assessing user interfaces. How easy is something to use? I write directions for a living, but I hate reading them, so I rely on interfaces that have been designed with the user, not the seller, in mind. Directions should be something you turn to when you want to get into details, not basic use. Our new fridge has a very user-friendly water dispenser. One move, and you're got water. Our camera was bought because it had the simplest uploading interface around. Take a picture and email out an automatically-resized version in minutes.

The new program on my Palm, however, stinks. Periodically I need to be reminded that calories aren't unlimited, and so, just as with money, I go on a budget. I use my Palm to help track calories and keep them under a certain limit, and I find it incredibly effective and even freeing (I can relax and be confident about my nutrition because I have a handle on calorie intake, thanks to my very handy Palm Pilot). My entry into this experience was on the back of BalanceLog, a very simple--and very usable--- digital journal where you could enter food and drinks consumed throughout the day and get a continual reading of your calorie intake.

But BalanceLog is suddenly gone, the company dissolved just one month ago, and in dismay I ended up buying the "Diet & Exercise Assistant" designed by Keyoe for Palm. Well, maybe "designed" isn't the right word. Everytime I search for a new food item to insert into my daily log, I imagine the people who slapped the thing together. I actually picture those two guys from Office Space, especially Ron Livingston, saying, "Dude, where do people eat?" And David Herman is like, "Let's put the whole menu of Denny's on there." Fast forward into afternoon. The guys are lounging around their cubicle, slinging spitballs at a pin-up of Denise Richards. "So, catfish has 126 calories an ounce. Put that in there." "Dude, what if it's fried?" "So what, who cares how it's cooked, man? Doesn't matter. Boss says he wants this by Friday."

Was there a Q&A process? Do you have to ask? The Q & A process is me, cursing as I realize I can't enter macaroni and cheese, or find scallops. Why is a boiled egg 13 calories per teaspoon? Why isn't there a term like "each?" Who eats a teaspoon of boiled egg? Why do I have to re-enter my RMR every day? Why do you have to click the word "back" to get taken to the central calculation page, when you never came from there? And so on.

All that said, the digital budget method still works, even with a lousy interface. Now if only I could get a "Writing assistant" for my Palm. I could select "Children's manuscript-short" for Morning and "edit years-old article on affairs" for Afternoon. Select Evening. "Submit humor bit to unknown website." Check.

6.02.2006

My countertop.

We bought it in Burlington, MA. A week later, on a Thursday morning, I drove to Westwood, MA, south of Boston, to pick out the slab from inside a big warehouse. We were buying soapstone, a local material formed from highly compressed talc, but it's easier to get it from Brazil than Vermont, so our rock was mined in Brazil and delivered to Westwood. Jill led me into the warehouse and past hundreds of slabs, each one the size of an office floor. "Oh my god, what's THAT?" I asked, pointing and gasping at a big slab of translucent green studded with brilliant golden knots of veins and points of crimson. "Isn't that amazing? It's called Rainforest Green."

I chose a gray slab that resembles dusty chalk until doused with a cup of water, at which point it turns into a beautiful deep gray punctuated by veins of white and pale green. This is how it will look when we oil it. A week later, on a Thursday, I drove to Milford, NH to lay the template on the rock and mark where I wanted it cut. That was just yesterday. I also had a paper with some measurements in hand. "I think there's been a miscalculation in your quote," I said to the office manager. She took the paper from me. We'd agreed on 38 square feet, not 44, a difference of $500. She explained that we were paying for the waste, too. "Ah, I see," I nodded. "Then we'd like those pieces that we're paying for." "I don't know if that's possible," she said.

We went outside to a huge yard where the slabs were neatly stacked. A remote crane pulled out the slabs I'd chosen in Westwood. "I love the veins," I said. "Oh, she loves the veins," the three stonecutters chorused, moving the templates into place. How did we ever consider not being there for this?

Driving home, I got distracted while on the phone with my mom and missed my exit. I pulled off the highway at the next stop. As if by led by a divine hand, seriously, I was looking for a place to pull over and realized I was in front of the place where we bought the stone: Home Expo Center. I stood with the other women in the sun and waited for the store to open at 10am. I only had 15 minutes. I looked at my measurements, my husband's handwriting, his confident numbers. Why were we being charged for 44 square feet? A pregnant woman looked me over. A woman with two children clung to their wrists and gazed at the locked doors.

Inside, the installation coordinator entered the room with papers in hand. He hadn't known I was coming, but his papers all had my name written across the top. "I think there's been a miscalculation..." I said, climbing onto a stool and resting my elbows on the polished countertop. I was tired. He sat down next to me. "That's all changed now," he said, showing me a fax. The NH fabricators had changed the square footage to reflect the truth: 38 square feet.

But now they were suddenly charging us nearly $20 more per square foot. "That's crazy!" I said, now awkwardly loud. "It's kind of dishonest," said the coordinator, Rob. "It's VERY dishonest!" I yelped again. "You might call it bait-and-switch," said the coordinator. "I DO call it bait-and-switch!" I said loudly enough for everyone in the showroom to hear. Rob was already on the phone to the owner of the fabrication shop, Northern Marble & Granite. "The customer is not paying a dollar more than what she agreed to originally," he said into the phone. I relaxed. Those are good words to hear someone else utter.

Rob spent a lot of time on the phone, much of it on hold while the owner and his receptionist avoided our calls. Once Rob would get someone on the phone, he would say, "the customer is sitting RIGHT HERE." A pause. I put my forehead on my hands, on the gleaming countertop. "Yes, she is here NEXT TO ME." Had I gone home and called, this would have taken days to resolve. But I was there, mostly doing something good by just being there and mad, and eventually we got our $500 back. I left an hour later; two hours after that and about five days ahead of schedule, the shop called to offer me an install date of nearly two weeks earlier than I'd been haggling for. Thank you, Rob.

Endnote: Newly empowered by the just-go-there-in-person modus operandi, I stopped in at my doctor's office today. Calling on Wednesday had gotten me nowhere, so I'd hung up without an appointment. Walking in, though, I was seen in 15 minutes, and lo and behold, I have an ear infection! New credo: Just Go There.