Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eau d'Office

I can take a hint. I smell.
For 51 weeks of the year, my coworkers apparently are too polite to tell me, and are forced to spend our time together breathing through their mouths.
But there is something about the last week of December that gives my colleagues the courage to confront me. Not directly, but in a back-handed kind of way.
How else to explain the onslaught of perfumed items deposited on my desk right before I leave for vacation?

I work in an office with many women. Since I myself am female, I have never knowingly received a gift meant for a male. So I cannot speak for what men give each other. But I would venture to guess some of the men I work with would give each other sports-related or barbecue-oriented presents. Such gifts might make men work up a glisten, so to speak. Yet I didn't see any heart-shaped boxes of scented body powder on the desk of Allan down the hall.

So what's the deal with the annual showering of odor-covering tokens? I shower. I even have been known to exfoliate on occasion. 

Every year, women I know and barely know knock on my office door to present me with an array of presents with one thing in common. They all reek. The items usually come from Victoria's Secret or Bath and Body Works, a store whose name continues to puzzle me. If a body is working, it will need a bath? Shouldn't it be Body Works and Bath? This year, I am pretty sure a trip to Rite Aid or even Wal-Mart may have come into play. Some sort of freshening device was made by Glade, a company I associate with freshening bathrooms. And this person had never even been to my house. The label on a Jamine Rose hand lotion seemed to imply that it had at one time been part of a set. And more than one scented candle may have come from a giver's personal collection, since several were missing the plastic wrap that indicates it has not been used. 

I think many people in my company barely know my name and do not really know what I do, so they err on the side of bestowing gifts on me rather than risk offending me if it turns out I am actually in their department. I am embarrassed to say that I receive a significant amount of lavender body spray from support staff who have not updated their departmental lists and do not realize I have not been in their division for several years.                                      

Because of the placement of my office in the building, I tend to be one of the first stops for the parade of potions.  So if I am unfortunate enough not to hear the heels clicking en route to my door, I end up having to not only fake a smile, but fake a smell of the item being gifted. I am never sure if a hug is appropriate in these instances, since I am not yet wafting the scent in question, so I usually make sure I am holding several large folders and mutter something about having a cold.

And it just so happens that I have intense allergies to pretty much anything scented, making the receipt of such gifts exponentially more awkward. Not only do I really hate having to endure the pleasantries involved with exchanging workplace gifts, but I have to put on even more of a show so as not to offend the givers of the offending gifts by informing them of my medical condition. So I smile, thank them, and itch and sneeze in the privacy of my own home.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Metta Analysis

Being a Clinical Psychologist affiliated with the government of Los Angeles affords me double the exposure to Los Angeles Laker Ron Artest.

Being a Boston Celtics fan, I do not particularly have an interest in my local team. But being a news junkie with ample daily computer time, there are very few areas of popular culture of which I am not obsessively well-versed. I am pretty sure I can name all 12 members of the Lakers and provide details as to the statuses of their marriages. 

With more high-profile players like Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom regularly popping up on TMZ's website, Artest wasn't particularly on my radar screen. Truthfully, I haven't really followed the NBA in earnest since Larry Bird retired, and I keep expecting to see some Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gossip on (sadly, now a subsidiary of Huffingtonpost/AOL). It is hard to know how colorful the pre-internet athletes' daily lives would have been if there had been ESPN reporters leaking private details of their lives.

Ron Artest's personal life was foisted upon me one day as I logged on to my employer's website. Because I need to access this website for most things related to getting paid, it is the one set of passwords that I try to remember, or at least keep up to date on the post-it note on my computer screen. As with most internal work-related websites, the information is not of interest to anyone but the company's legal department, which insists that every disclaimer in the book be listed somewhere on the site, usually in tiny print and on a site so poorly designed that employees will get a migraine attempting to glean any information from it. Which is a problem if one is logging on to the website to determine what the company's official policy is for going home sick with a migraine. 

One day, as I waded through the indent-less columns of information for exempt employees, vacation accrual, and earthquake preparedness, I noticed a blurb in an uncharacteristically eye-catching font. The write-up was accompanied not by the company director's high-school-era headshot, but by a photo of a vaguely familiar-looking face whose smile exposed dental work that would be just a dream for most  mental health professionals. 

The smiling face was of Ron Artest, player for the Lakers, identifying himself as a consumer of mental health services. Not necessarily the taxpayer-funded governmental services provided by the organization on whose website he was appearing. Nonetheless, a well-known professional athlete who appeals to citizens who are not typically fans of mental health services was appealing to citizens who are not typically fans of mental health services. For a government health-providing organization that strives to reach out to families who are skeptical of meddling government officials asking them personal questions, having Artest as a spokesperson was an exciting development.

Until, of course, Artest gave mental health clinicians a peek into why he may be a consumer of mental health services. Shortly after he publicly outed himself as a therapy patient, he announced he was changing his name to Metta World Peace. He showed the media a prototype of his new uniform jersey, with "Worldpeace" emblazoned on the back. The fact that he was changing his name to "World Peace," two distinct words, and his jersey depicted "Worldpeace," one word, is of less concern to the psychologists among us as it is to the former copy editors among us. But I digress.

Our country has a long history of hardworking and honorable people changing their names. Many people entering the United States early last century either had their names inadvertently changed by government officials who had poor handwriting or hearing, or chose to for personal reasons to give their family a new start in a new country. Artest hails from Queens, New York, not far from Ellis Island, so it is possible that his name change is an homage to the ancestors of his fellow Americans who altered their identity as they settled in neighborhoods in and around Queens.

But, assuming Artest is not actually making a statement about our country's immigration policy, his dramatic name change may be indicative of a psychiatric disorder whose symptoms appear to afflict professional athletes and popstars alike. For most psychiatric diagnoses, there are people who legitimately suffer and clearly benefit from treatment. But, to be honest, if most of us were to have aspects of our daily behaviors assessed according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)--a mental health professional's diagnosing bible--we would walk away with a number of alarming and undoubtedly pharmacologically addressable diagnoses. Most skilled clinicians attempt to balance science and clinical judgment by identifying how the patient's life is impaired by the symptoms being presented. Life, like obscenity, is contextual. 

In my experience as both a psychologist and a person with a pulse and eyes, I would say that a disproportionately large number of people who are famous would meet full criteria for what we mental health folks call "Mania." In order for a lay person to be slapped with a label of having had a "Manic Episode" (usually in the context of "mood swings," or "Bipolar Disorder"), according to the DSM, they would need to experience at least three of the following symptoms:

1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
2) decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
3) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
4) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
5) distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
6) increase in goal-directed activity (at work, at school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
7) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments).

For non-famous people, these behaviors are generally severely problematic, causing them to burn through friends, family, jobs, money. It is a disorder that has physiological roots to it (i.e. a brain chemistry that makes one predisposed to these mood swings) as well as environmental (i.e. living in an environment that exacerbates rather than mollifies these behaviors). For famous people, these symptoms are a prerequisite for celebrity. But I will also tell you that I work with adolescents who are detained in jail, and for every Lady Gaga who states she "always knew" she would be famous,  there are scores and scores of teens who say exactly the same thing. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Lady Gaga and Kanye West--with their seemingly inflated egos, endless talk about themselves, pursuit of multiple interests, changing styles, lavish spending sprees, and other unusual behaviors--ended up on the cover of magazines and not in jail. 

Lest one accuse me of not being a fan of either World Peace or world peace, I will tell you that I am neutral about the former, but an advocate of the latter. I know nothing about the former Mr. Artest's career statistics, but I would hazard to guess that anyone with such a grandiose mission may have other deficiencies for which to compensate. This is less of a professional clinical opinion as it is a female one. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Secret Life of the American Pre-Teenager

It isn't easy being a 10-year-old boy nowadays.

It particularly isn't easy being a 10-year-old boy with a neurotic mother and unlimited access to the computer.

My son lives in two worlds. From 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. weeknights, and for most of the weekend, he exists in an environment with two strikes against him: A Type A obsessive mother who once made a living as a professional fact-checker, and unfettered time in front of all electronic screens in the home. From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. weekdays, he is monitored by calm, rational adults, who impose limits and accountability.

At home, we are sticklers for accuracy. Not necessarily relating to anything having to do with schoolwork, but in more important pursuits, like sports and politics. When my son was 7 or 8, he noticed an incorrect lifetime batting average cited in a book on baseball statistics. Of course, my son was correct, and an email was promptly sent to the publisher informing them of the error. Better luck next time, McGraw-Hill! If a pundit on MSNBC erroneously credits John McCain with taking a state in the 2008 election, I will ensure that if my children are within earshot, they are apprised of the correct information.

My poor child, accustomed to the sight of his mother's pained expression and forehead vein bulging at the sight of any "political spokesperson" rambling on, has developed a pretty good BS detector of his own.

On a semi-regular basis, my 5th grader returns from school with a recently heard factoid to bounce off me. One boy, a self-confident chap with a future in sales, was overheard telling a group of gullible girls how his pitches go "2,000 miles per hour." My exasperated progeny knows that it is a physical impossibility that this child pitches faster than 50, 55 MPH tops. Another boy reported that his brother "walks to college every day." Since there is no institution of higher learning in our actual town, my son was rather disturbed at the thought that his friend's brother would be forced to walk 10 miles, Abe Lincoln-like, to pursue his education. Turns out the brother walks the 1/8 of a mile from his home to the local train station, and takes the metro a straight shot seven miles directly to his campus. Another friend, a self-described baseball fan, insisted that the Minnesota Twins had gotten the American League Wild Card berth, which was actually won by the Tampa Bay Rays. This poor child has a mother in publishing who limits her son's access to the Internet. That explains his confusion.

Not to say my son is always the picture of historical accuracy. Recently, at a school event, I overheard him posturing with some friends about their video game systems. My son countered one boy's claim with a sentence that began with "My dad" which did not entirely ring true with my recollection of the incident in question. I suppose life occasionally can be open to interpretation.

The fuzzy logic I witness with 10-year-old boys, however, does not exist in the realm of five-year-old girls. The kindergarten kids have a penchant for precision. I once heard my daughter report to a classmate that she has "one million-billion dolls." And she would be correct. Down to the very last Groovy Girl.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Every couple of days, I see a minivan around town. I see it parked at my children’s school. I see it parked at local sporting events. I even saw it parked near a house hosting a birthday party my son was attending.

The minivan is unremarkable, in that it is similar to minivans owned by parents and large dog owners everywhere. What makes this particular minivan notable is a bumper sticker on the back window. Yes, I know, minivans and bumper stickers go hand-in-hand. Or, rather, sticker-on-window. But this minivan’s particular bumper sticker stands out because it is not an homage to the local school system or sports team. It does not refer to a presidential candidate or aspire for world peace. In fact, I am not entirely sure exactly what it refers to because it is not written in a language I speak. But there is at least one word on the sticker that needs no translation: Jesus.

While I do not personally espouse any organized religion, I support everyone’s right and desire to embrace any and all forms of spirituality. And if I can express my passion for sports teams and cultural beliefs on my car, I wholeheartedly encourage drivers of all creeds to similarly reflect their values.

My city has worshippers of all types. Friends are often not available at certain times on the weekends because of religious-oriented activities. These very same friends are not averse to the occasional bumper sticker declaring their support for outdoor activities, musical groups, alma maters, hometowns. But not so much touting the man or woman upstairs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, who I am pretty sure does not have a bumper sticker on his car referring to anyone mentioned in the Bible. But, seeing such a seemingly anachronistic sticker expression in my ‘hood got me to thinking: 1) How nice it is to live in a society where people like me are not judgmental about other’s beliefs, and 2) Who the hell’s minivan is that?

I kid, of course, but it reminds me of how I have been at events with families from my kids’ schools or extracurricular activities, and have spotted a “W” bumper sticker in the parking lot. Now, it is always possible that a “W” at a local event means the driver is a graduate of Williams College, or hails from Wiesbaden, Germany. But it is just as likely that the driver has not bought a new car since 2004. It can be amusing at such get-togethers to secretly play “Spot the Republican.” By the way, this game is not tricky as one might think. 

*What Would Jesus In A Minivan Do?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mug Shot

The people who owned our house before us had impeccable taste.

They had recently renovated part of the house, and the appliances, tiles, fixtures, paint hues were all chosen with great care. Since we are people with neither vision nor motivation to change things in our surroundings, we were thrilled to buy a house that we wouldn't have to put our own personal stamp on. All we had to do was move in the second-hand furniture bought off of Craig's List that we had been keeping in storage for two years. Our crap would be tasteful by association.

As a disclaimer, we do have some nice stuff. When we got married, I registered for a centuries-old Danish china pattern whose dessert plates alone sell for $50. We have a complete set, some of it vintage. Our silver is of a similar vein, with a four-piece setting apparently selling for $600. We have four people in our family, so this set alone would suffice. But we have enough for 12 people to dine at Buckingham Palace without having their lips touch the same fork tines twice. All of this is stored somewhere away from any potential guest's roving eye. We don't want to mar the shabby un-chic vibe of our house.

After plunking down pre-crash dollars for our little slice of real estate, we had a momentary epiphany: Since we bought a lovely house with lovely appointments, maybe we are meant to be people who live in a lovely house with lovely appointments. The exotic shower tile, the Japanese bidet-ish toilet, the glass bamboo border to coordinate with the bamboo bath cabinets, the elegant South of France mural in our daughter's bedroom, the graceful archways, the vintage stove... Could it be?

When we moved in, we had high hopes. We apparently subscribe to the Minimalist School of Decorating, because the two couches and three area rugs did not really fill the house as we had anticipated. Fortunately, we had four 1990s-era TVs, all of which are deeper than they are wide, so that helped add some bulk to our aesthetic. But since our children tend to run haphazardly through the house, littering belongings along the way, we figured a less-is-more approach to furnishings might be safer, literally.

So, it was with cautious optimism that we unpacked all the boxes and committed to our house. We were lucky that the 1920s Spanish house had various built-in drawers and cabinets, so we didn't have to needlessly buy furniture. I would have to describe our initial strategy of putting things away to be "random." Wedding gifts that had not been used in more than a decade were placed in eye-level, readily accessible storage. Everyday items, such as LA-appropriate clothing, inexplicably were kept in boxes and put at the top of 10-foot-high closet shelves. To the untrained eye, however, our goods were officially "unpacked" and we were "moved in."

We quickly adapted our lifestyle to maximize use of whatever items were most convenient to find. We drank water out of delicate Japanese rice wine flutes. Adults and children alike dried off with dinosaur-themed bath towels. Knick knacks from an unmemorable trip were prominently displayed on side tables. A juicer I always meant to return was taken out of its box and given a place of honor on the kitchen counter.

After filling the kitchen cabinets with seasonal cookware and mini appliances that we did not know we owned, we were faced with a stark realization: As unimaginative as we are with decorating, we are even more doltish when it comes to gift-giving. The last kitchen box to be unpacked happened to be the one containing our coffee mugs. Yes, we are coffee drinkers. Although we own a Nespresso espresso maker, which requires that the coffee "pods" be ordered directly from the company, we are not particular about what coffee we drink, as long as it is caffeinated. But since we are a family with very few hobbies or interests, we tend to give each other mugs whenever we are at a loss for anything else to give. We have novelty mugs from various continents, presidential libraries, sporting events, all emblazoned with a logo of some sort. This wouldn't be worthy of mentioning, except for one unhappy fact: When we unearthed the mugs, we realized the only remaining storage space in our kitchen was a glass-doored cabinet.

Ok, I get it. I read Elle Decor and was a charter subscriber of the ill-fated Domino magazine. I know all about how glass doors, coffee tables, mirrors, windows make a room seem more airy and open. My question is: Why does a room have to be so darn airy and open? Some of us would be perfectly happy living in a dark cave. A glass-doored cabinet featured prominently in a kitchen has no other identifiable purpose other than to humiliate the home's occupants by exposing their novelty mug collection for all to see. I swear, the handblown glass goblets bought at Barneys in 1988 (and not on sale) are represented in the kitchen, just behind a wooden cabinet door. Actually, come to think of it, the really nice cobalt water goblets are also squirreled away behind a non-transparent door. Mixed in with the mis-matched plastic rainbow-colored Ikea plates.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting Carded

My kids have had wonderful teachers. Smart, compassionate, organized, kind, flexible. Across the board, in three different schools on two coasts, we have been very fortunate that our children have had such a positive public educational system so far. Not only elementary school teachers, but teachers of preschool, karate, art, music and ballet, after-school counselors, and even teachers-turned-babysitters. Both my husband and I went mostly to private school, so we don’t really have our own experiences with which to compare with our children’s. But our neighbors seem equally enthralled with the school system and they, like us, subsidize the schools with  pre-real-estate-crash property taxes.
Out of seven grade-school teachers my children have had thus far, only one was a bit of a clunker. She was fixated on my 6-year-old’s handwriting (which, even in first grade, was a lot better than mine), and was heavy-handed with the phone calls home. One such phone call to me at work was to report that my child had returned from recess through the wrong classroom door. Apparently there was more than one. The particular communiqué was problematic on many levels, none having to do with anything my child might have done. First, if a teacher feels the need to physically pick up the phone and call me—at work or otherwise—there sure as hell better be a limb in peril. Otherwise, an email or note in my child’s folder (which I will never see because I do not check it, so let’s stick with the email) will suffice. Second, if I am receiving a call from my child’s teacher, I need to be able to grasp the reason s/he is calling. If I need to ask more than three times why the teacher felt the need to call over the incident in question, this may be an indication that such calls in the future are not going to be particular useful to either of us. I had never before or since received a school telephone call about any of my children that did not have the word “nits” in it. The teacher had a suspiciously anonymous “Jane Doe” kind of name, making me wonder if she wasn’t an exile from a foreign militia, attempting to start life fresh in exurbia.

Aside from blessing teachers with the gift that no money can buy--being able to bask in the charming perfection of our children--throughout the year, we parents are also afforded several other opportunities to thank our children's instructors. Teacher's birthdays, the dreaded Teacher Appreciation Week (yes, week!), end of the school year and the multi-denominational holiday season. I have been fortunate to thus far remain blissfully unaware of when my children's teachers were born. I dread the day when a child comes home with the exciting news that her teacher has the same birthday as her, guilting me into having no excuse not to come up with an offering. I say "her," because although I have both a son and daughter, I am thankful that former would be oblivious to information shared about his teacher's birthday.

However, there is nothing stealth about Teacher Appreciation Week. We parents are warned of it weeks, even months, in advance. The classroom's Class Parent--usually a ridiculously highly educated stay-at-home mom--starts sending emails to the other parents as soon as the class roster is assembled. A tip for new parents: When you are asked to provide your email address to the Class Parent at the beginning of the year, there is no need to wow them with your excellent penmanship (or even penwomanship). If your email address is entered incorrectly, then you have dodged the bullet of a Special Ops soldier. 

Teacher Appreciation Week invariably involves a different home-spun token each day. I don't recall what season it occurs, but I think it is cleverly planned for a month when the chance of snowstorm or nuclear war is minimized, so school will not be cancelled and families will not be deprived five different ways to show they care. Each day the parent is instructed--through a cavalcade of hush-hush emails (to which every parent "Replies To All" with a hearty THANKS FOR ORGANIZING THIS!!!! to the original sender)--on exactly what item is expected from your child, and when and where it is to be delivered. Invariably, one day is "Apple Day," where the kids have to bring in an apple-related gift. This is where the wheat and chaff are delineated. The crafty moms (Yes, moms. I have yet to meet a crafty dad, even the ones who make their living in the arts) force their precious Apples to stay close to the Mama Tree by organizing a hands-on project involving stamping cut apples onto paper with tempera paint. The rest of us grab an apple and jam it into our child's backpack. Some of us, in last minute desperation, may even substitute a container of Trader Joe's Applesauce, without the spoon. But that is purely hypothetical.

The other days in the endless TAW usually involve cut flowers and various written and artistic expressions of positivity. This, by the way, does not only apply to kids in elementary school, but pre-school too. And if you have more than one child, each class has a completely different timetable of TAW events. Working parents will need to call in sick for the entire week in order to ensure that the apple meant for their son's first grade teacher on Wednesday does not go to their daughter's fourth grade teacher on Tuesday. And, of course, if a family lives in a dwelling without a garden that produces fresh flowers, a new job will be needed to be able to afford such a home.

So it is with some relief that, for older kids, the Holiday Season Gift is expected to be crass and unimaginative. The timing of the Holiday Gift can be precarious, however, because it tends to come just days after report cards are distributed. If the school agreed to make Finnish Independence Day (December 6) an official holiday, we parents could slip the teachers their holiday booty prior to them grading our children's performance. Really, it would be a win-win for all.
When my older child started school (age 1), I admit I fell into the trap of thinking his teachers would ooh and aah over a personal expression of gratitude from my child. Like a drill sergeant, I stood over him while he scribbled on construction paper a special work of art for each of the 400 women who rotated through his preschool. I was wiped out well before we got to the parking attendant. This practice stopped by Christmas, Age 2, when, instead, I took the situation squarely into my own hands and analyzed each teacher's personality and attempted to match a gift card to it. This was tricky, since I barely knew the names of most of the staff, and, truthfully, found many of the teachers of this preschool to be sort of annoying. But I spent evenings running around to off-the-beaten-path stores and restaurants and had the establishments issue gift certificates for these teachers. For all my effort, I never knew if they even got them because I was instructed to leave the envelopes in their in boxes in the administrative office. Talk about a buzzkill. 

By the time my son reached elementary school, I had the whole holiday gift song and dance down to a science, literally. I formulated a complex algorithm taking into account how long my child has known this teacher, how many times a week he was in the same room as this person, what impact the teacher had on my child's biopsychosocial development, and whether the teacher ever uttered an un-positive word about my child. This then translated into gift cards, bought en masse at the local grocery store. Interestingly, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, the designated gift amounts magically equalled either a $10, $25, $50 or $100 gift card to Starbucks, Target or Trader Joe's. Imagine that. Gone is my urge for the children to so much as sign their names to the generic holiday cards that hold the plastic goods. I now march up to each teacher personally and hand her or him the card. I make sure my child's name is written in black Sharpie on not only the card, but the envelope and the gift card. I'll be damned if my kid isn't getting full credit for his mother's largesse.   

Thursday, December 8, 2011

You Light Up My Life

When my older brother and I were babies, my parents, from New York, lived in an area of Boston that was not high on diversity. Back then, Boston wasn't considered a bastion of heterogeneity, but from the way my mother describes it, the homogeneity of this particular neighborhood really shone through in the month of December. My family, apparently was a multicultural insertion into this neighborhood, given my parents viewing Jesus in a different context than the neighbors.

According to my mother's recollections, every house on the street was aglow in flashing, multicolored lights from the day after Thanksgiving until past the New Year.  Having previously lived in urban areas with neighbors with less enthusiasm for blatant displays of the Christmas spirit, I am imagining unwittingly being thrust into an environment where everyone but them was "seeing the light" was a bit bewildering.

Once my parents left that neighborhood, we had homes in a variety of either secluded or very urban areas, both of which are not conducive to blatant displays of much of anything. One place we lived was so high atop a steep driveway, we used to sled down it in the winter (right into the street, apparently). Another home was so hidden down a steep driveway that our cleaning man's neon blue Dodge would regularly get stuck halfway down our hilly front lawn and need to be towed. We didn't get many trick-or-treaters at either location, by the way.

As an adult, I have lived in areas where discreet believers and nonbelievers blissfully coexist. In our current neighborhood, full of families, Halloween tends to be where people externally dress their houses in lights and likenesses of Scarecrows and bloody body parts--a more secular version of the creche. The winter holiday season provides an opportunity for neighbors to put up seasonal wreaths--perhaps constructed from repurposed pine needles--and some tasteful strings of lights, hopefully not flashing. After all, even a die-hard agnostic can get behind something that helps light up the residential streets when they get pitch black by 4:30 pm.

During a recent bout of insomnia, I looked out our front window, and saw a disturbing flash in my peripheral vision. We recently had a fire on our street in the same general direction, so my adrenaline rushed as I anticipated another incident of fire. After taking a deep breath and a second look, I realized that a down-the-street neighbor's house was adorned in multicolored lights. And it was still November. I felt for the neighbor's neighbor who would have to get used to living next to something as bright as a neon pub sign for the next two months. Being just days after Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for having phenomenally fashionable and tasteful next-door neighbors who have the most beautiful white lights in their backyard. These lights glimmer like a starry constellation, and are a delightful addition to the dark evenings. For all I know, these lights have been up for years, but since I rarely go outside after 6 pm, I only just noticed them. I secretly want to put similar sparkles up in our backyard, but I have no idea where electrical outlets exist in nature.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Power Trip

We don't lose our electricity much in Los Angeles. We don't get snow to weigh down the power lines. Most of our activities involve being outside, where electrical needs are at a minimum. School cafeterias are outside in courtyards (weird, right?), many buildings are only a story or two (thanks, earthquake code!), so there aren't a lot of elevators to rely on. The infrastructure, while poorly maintained, is relatively new, compared to John Hancock and George Washington's old stomping grounds.

When we lived in a fancy area on the West Side of LA, on some very hot days, we would receive robocalls with dire warnings that the city might impose "rolling blackouts"--turning off the electricity on purpose(?!)--because of surges in power use. The reason for these surges? People had 10,000-square-foot mansions to cool so their pets would be comfortable, and heated pools don't heat themselves. Although we, in our pool-free, tiny slice of real estate, never ended up incurring the wrath of these bureaucratically imposed blackouts, I have a feeling the owners of the aforementioned manses didn't either. Idle threats on the idle rich. LOL, Con Ed!

I am from New England, where the infrastructure is old and pipes and wires are buried beneath streets modeled on 17th century cow paths. Blackouts, water main breaks, and other Modern Convenience Disasters tend not to make national news because they are so frequent. I remember the Blizzard of '78--not to be confused with the Red Sox Collapse of '78--left us without power for three weeks. I don't recall too many negative repercussions from the event, aside from a little cannibalism, but I think at the time we thought going Back to Nature would instill many lasting memories. Maybe I need to spend a little more time trying to remember.

More recently, my friends and family back East had a series of snowstorms that left them without power for many days. It was in the 20s and 30s (that would be Farenheit, for my readers abroad), and there were frozen pipes, no hot water, limited access to food shopping, and accumulating diapers. Yuck. Although I worried about them, while I was 3,000 miles away with 70 degree weather, I found solace in the fact that many of these same people go on camping vacations and enjoy winter sports. A week in a dark, frigid, food-free environment--sounds like a trip to the Vermont mountains to me! But cheaper and no need to pack and drive! The lack of food, power and heat with small children in the house is not a potentially dangerous situation as much as it is a fun holiday! A stay-cation, as it were!

So when a recent windstorm left us without power, we were not sure how to react. In fact, we initially were not even certain we were without power. It was about midnight, and the adults in the family were woken up by the crashing of outdoor objects apparently wanting to come inside. Since the children were sleeping through the Armageddon-force storm (Note to self: Add less Ambien to the kids' milk), we didn't try to turn on any lights, lest we awaken them and have to start explaining that the banging on the roof was not Santa coming a month early. It was a neighbor's tree crashing onto our roof. Or maybe part of another neighbor's roof making a stop on ours before continuing down the street. It wasn't until one of us asked, "What time is it?" that we realized the clock was dark. But, truthfully, the clock often gets unplugged by the TV remote falling on the electrical cord, so even that wasn't sure-fire proof. But, trust me, we eventually determined that the power was indeed off.

After the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, I had stocked up on emergency supplies at an Army-Navy (why not Marines?) store during a trip to Boston shortly after the Japan disaster. Sometimes it just seems easier to buy emergency supplies when you are 3,000 miles away and will need to pack them for a planetrip home, inevitably being charged for having luggage that is over the airline's weight limit. But when it comes to emergency preparedness, there is no rule book I am aware of. Well, there probably is, and that is a Google search I probably should have dome before lugging 30 pounds of glow sticks, NASA food packs, and neon tarps cross-country. Although I was on vacation when I bought the goods, we all know safety never takes a vacation.

So, when we realized we were without power, I was confident that we would be able to flag down a rescue plane, whittle sticks into lodging, and skin squirrels for food. I had not doubt that there would be an Ikea-like instruction sheet with my emergency goodies. Because isn't the US government as efficient and cheerful as my favorite Swedish store? Well, regardless, I was certain we would be fine once it was daytime, because neither my husband nor I had any idea where a flashlight might be. So we went back to sleep. 

The next morning, we were excited to find that the electricity was still out, so our military adventure could begin! We found a plastic flashlight in the garage. We couldn't tell if it was an official adult flashlight, or left over from one of our kid's Diego Explorer Packs, but it certainly appeared to have the requisite flashlight qualities: it was shaped like a flashlight and appeared to need batteries. Fortunately, because my son plays video games 24 hours a day, we have plenty of batteries. Unfortunately, the batteries are all AA, and these flashlights appear to take batteries that are not AA. OK, one thing for the Target list.

When the kids woke up, we gave them the bad news that there was no power and no school. Cool, was my son's response. Can I have a friend over? Well, sure, I said, but it is 7 a.m. and maybe a little early to arrange such an activity. My son immediately grasped that no electricity meant he would not be able to Skype his buddy, so he announced he was going to email the friend to see if he could come over. I informed my son that they would not be able to receive the email because there is no power. Although my son has unfettered access to all things computerized, the parents of his friends have better judgment and do not let their kids use email as frequently as my son. So the electricity explanation did not compute as much as the "Oh yeah, other kids' parents have rules" one did. He told me his strategy would be to email them so in case they were able to read the email during the day off, they could respond. It took a minute for him to grasp that not only could his friends not access email, "no electricity" meant he could not send email either. And, no, he could not use my iPhone to check his email.

Good thing I had just read my son's copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever, so I had a head's up on what to do when there is no electricity. I was easily able to locate the board games, since I had dug them out of the garage for a recent vacation where I thought we would have old school down time. The games went unused. While I was in the garage, I poked around for those elusive emergency items purchased for just such a situation. No luck.

Or, rather, lots of luck, because our lights returned by 11 am the next morning. Our four hours of powerless daylight hell had ended! My children quickly recovered from the trauma of the darkside by gaining an even newer-found appreciation for iPads and Wii. Unfortunately, many friends continued without power for days beyond our personal ordeal. I felt occasional pangs of guilt as they described sleeping with down jackets, or spending 8 hours at a crowded shopping mall just to soak up some heat and cooked food. But think of all the quality time you are getting with your three active pre-teen sons! Babies don't need TV! You like to camp anyway! I did my good deed for the day by helping my friends find the silver lining in their dark, cold lives. All the while thinking warm thoughts of the rosy General Electric glow basking inside our home.

Friday, December 2, 2011


          This is the first photo I have ever included on this blog. I actually take a lot of photographs, but am not into mixing my media, so they remain downloaded in iPhoto, like a collection of postage stamps with images of people I know instead of Eleanor Roosevelt or Lady Liberty.
          I know a picture is supposed to be worth 1,000 words. But the efficiency of a photo is of no interest to someone who prefers to use 30 words when just a single one would suffice. Would Salinger, Nabokov, Amis (Martin, not Kingsley, duh), or any Bronte substitute a picture for any syllable of their intricate prose? You call it long-winded, but I call it brilliant. Better than authors who revel in their brevity. Hills like White Elephants. Yeah, I get it. An Old Man and something to do with the Sea. Zzzzzz. 
         Recently, there was a storm in my neck of the woods. It was attributed to either El Nino or Santa Ana, two names that come up often when it gets windy in Los Angeles, but I never seem to be able to muster up enough curiosity to research either of these entities. Basically, there was a lot of wind. Crazy, howling, Wizard of Oz wind. LA gets earthquakes, mudslides, droughts, floods, and, apparently, lots of wind. I am exposed to a nonstop stream of news, which presumably would give me a head's up that historic gusts of wind would be blowing in my neighborhood, but I didn't seem to get the memo on this one. To be honest, most of the news that I have programmed to inundate me is of the political variety. I am always in the know when there is a political storm brewing, but, unfortunately, Rachel Maddow doesn't do a weather report. Maybe if she did, I would have known that 100-mile-per-hour winds were going to rip through my yard.
         After 10 hours of half-seeing debris swirling around my house in the dead of night, hearing a cavalcade of crashing and mini explosions, and thinking my roof had caved in, it was surreal to go out the next morning to survey the damage. We were relatively lucky, with just a neighbor's tree falling onto our roof, and lots of leaves and branches strewn about. Other neighbors had 100-year-old trees uprooted and lost chunks of their roofs and screens and awnings. 
          This morning-after, I was outside, chatting with neighbors I hadn't seen since the garage fire down the street during the summer. We are Natural Disaster Friends, bonding over events beyond our control  that also happen to impact our property values. I was at the bottom of our driveway, bending down to investigate a wayward piece of bark, when I noticed something under my car. It was the very item featured in the photograph I have included above. This tinny detritus was perched on our driveway, perfectly centered under my car. Since I rarely have the opportunity to view the underbelly of my car, I at first assumed it was just something that was part of the car, sort of like the udder of a cow. But then I thought it was odd to have a part of the car actually touching the ground. I had had the car for almost 10 years and didn't recall ever hearing anything dragging under the car, except for the time the belt of my coat dragged several miles hanging from the driver's car door.
          Now, anyone who has seen my car would probably not be surprised to hear that something had actually become unhinged from the car's working and was dragging down the street. My car is what people in Los Angeles in the 1970s apparently used to call a "Hoop D."I have no doubt that I am spelling that incorrectly, since I was 3,000 miles east and a nondriver during that historical period. But, for those of you unschooled in urban semi-jivespeak, my car is a piece of junk. It didn't start out that way, but that's another story.
          So, as I was one-upping with the neighbors over the extent of damage the storm either caused us personally, or how we knew-someone-who-knew-someone-who-heard about such damage, I told the assembled group how the winds had dislodged part of my car's engine, most likely rendering my vehicle inoperable. My revelation was a real conversation-stopper. "Really? How interesting," was a typical response, combining neighborly concern with scientific skepticism.
          One of the neighbor's 11-year-old daughter actually made the effort to inspect the undercarriage of my Highlander. "That doesn't look like part of your car," the wise pre-teen reported. "Would you like me to get it out for you?" Secretly, yes, I did want the girl to reach under my automobile to free the object, but I counted two lawyers in the gaggle of neighbors, and thought better of it, and said I would do it myself. I sat on the concrete of the driveway and reached under my car, unattractively exposing half of my pale, fleshy back to the unsuspecting brood. The girl was correct, the item did not appear to have any connection with the car, for it did not have any oil odor or was not touching the actual bottom of my car.
          I looked at the item, confused, reminded of a Gilligan's Island episode where none of the shipwrecked crew was able to identify a metal thingy that washed ashore, which turned out to be some sort of every-day item. Had it washed ashore from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, and made its way inland via courier pigeon? Was it dropped from the Space Shuttle's last mission? Did an alien creature leave it for us to discover? I was already drafting descriptions of the item in my head for an Ebay listing. 
          The Savvy Girl Next Door (literally), for some reason, knew exactly what the object was that flew under my car in the storm. "It's the metal thing that goes on top of your house to cover that other thing," she declared. And guess what, she was right. A closer inspection of the doohickey confirmed its identity not as a Toyota proprietary part, but an Americap American Metal Product Co. Type B Gas Vent 5EC, Listed 7336. Smart girl.