JUST CALL ME

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I’ve been dropping my phone lately. This habit was preceded by the thought that maybe I didn’t need a cell phone. Rob countered that just having a long commute requires one. I argued that I commuted for years without one and it worked out okay. Then I dropped my iPhone in a parking lot and the glass shattered. It still worked and I pressed on with the idea that I’d trade it in soon enough. About a month later it fell into the toilet. I learned no amount of time in rice would save a wet iPhone with a cracked screen. I was due for an upgrade and went for the cheapest solution. Ninety-nine cents for a 5S. I ordered the phone online and paid in advance. When I arrived at Verizon they had other ideas.

“You want a 5S?” he asked incredulously.

“Weeell,” I demurred. “I had a 5 and now I want a 5S, so it’s an upgrade.”

“The phone is already four years old.”

“Three and a half actually.”

“By the time you get a new one it will be six years old!” Saliva was gathering at the corners of his mouth.

I held my ground. “I like that phone. It fits my wallet, my pocket and I like the cover.”

“We have a lot of covers for the 6.”

I dug in. “It’s already paid for and that’s what I want.”

He shook his head and went to retrieve one from the back. After a bit of back and forth on the service and connections he asked if I wanted to buy insurance for eleven dollars a month.

I didn’t flinch. “No.”

“Well you broke the last one.”

“It took me three and a half years—I’ll risk it.”

“Look,” he sighed. “This phone would cost you over five hundred dollars if you had to replace it.”

“I thought you just said it was old and not worth much.”

“I never said that.”

“You implied it.”

He was finished. He couldn’t get me out of the store fast enough.

I drove home with my new–old phone wondering why a store would offer a product they didn’t actually want you to buy. It made me think about phones in general and how they’ve become far too complicated. What I didn’t tell the hip, young sales associate was that I spend most of my time on a land line. But some things are better left unsaid.

My lake community is an old, sleepy town transitioning from retirees to young couples trying to find buyer’s relief from the New York City housing market. Maybe the new young buyers aren’t installing land lines but the rest of us have them. To begin with we lose power on a regular basis. Once you go without power for more than two days, charging your phone in the car gets old fast. Your cordless land line goes dead too so you have to keep an older land line that’s connected to the wall so you can call the electric company for an update.

I have a friend at the lake who doesn’t answer her phone. She has a landline and a cell but can never find the cell. When the land line rings she’s usually working one flight down in her studio and doesn’t bother to climb the steps and see who is calling. She does 98 percent of her communication on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account so we rarely communicate unless we meet face to face. It was simpler when everyone had and used the same means of communication.

My son owns a hundred year old row house in Baltimore. The entry way has a beautiful hallway leading into the kitchen. There’s a space hosting a small table and chair. He has an old black dial phone resting on the table, but it’s only a prop.

“You should get that hooked up,” I say.

“Why? I don’t need it. I have a cell.”

“Land lines are nice,” I explain and then I tell him all the attributes I can list. “Homey, historical, secure, no battery worries—”

“Unnecessary expense,” he interrupts  and walks away.

It’s easy for him to think any phone expense is unnecessary when he and his sister are still tied to our wireless service and they get their cell phone service for a mere 10 dollars a month. Maybe I have a few unnecessary phone expenses too.

In his entry way, I stand and stare at the perfect little sitting area under the stairs—centrally located for the only house phone. It’s charming and inviting and I can imagine the pace of life in this house and on this street when the first line was installed. I picture family members racing to answer before anyone else could.IMG_0601

This reminds me of my own childhood, when we fought our way to the telephone to be the first to pick up the receiver.

“Make it snappy,” someone would inevitably order when I received a call. “I’m expecting an important call.” All of my mother’s calls were deemed important but none of mine were. Eventually my parents added a second children’s line so one line could always be free. It wasn’t. I often kept a friend on each line while I skipped between them making plans. In the early 1970’s I could have been a major deal maker except my best friend Mary trumped me because her father was a big shot at Ma Bell and she could organize three party calls.

Then there’s the whole idea of privacy.

“Excuse me,” I would say, cupping the voice end of the receiver. “Can I have a little privacy?”

“Nobody cares about your dumb call,” one of my siblings might say in response, refusing to leave the room. The only true recourse was to turn your back towards the interloper. It wasn’t a very effective strategy and it often erupted into a fight.

When my mother wanted privacy on the yellow kitchen wall phone she would say, “Go play outside.” And that would be the end of it.

“It’s raining.”

“Take an umbrella.”

In public, people used phone booths. Early phone booths had little wooden seats and counters to lay out your change and louvered doors that allowed for privacy when you were away from home. Today everybody’s one sided cell phone conversation is public knowledge for anyone within ear shot. “Why does that man think we need to know about his divorce?” I might grumble to Rob over a hot drink at the coffee house. Rob shrugs. He agrees but tries to block it out.phone_booth_real

When my children were growing up they shunned the phone. The unknown voice on the other end was better left unknown.

“Pick up the phone!” I would scream from behind a locked bathroom door. They rarely did. Even when Jackson received his first cell phone after his 8th grade graduation—long after his friends had—he never made any calls.

Texts would travel back and forth between our children and their friends about upcoming plans and somewhere along the way it might become muddled.

“Call them up,” Rob or I would say to them.

“No!” they would cry. “Nobody does that.”

“Well it might make things a bit clearer!” one of us would shout back. Occasionally in an act of utter desperation and at our insistence, Quinn might chance a call and firm up an arrangement to meet someone. It usually worked out well but she never converted.

Once Facebook arrived on the scene all bets were off and messaging and texts were the only known means of communication. Even emails were oddities they received from their parents or professors once they went away to college, but never a friend.

Phones today are complicated and instead of offering labor saving means of communication they come with a bundle of problems especially when you buy a new one. You’re told that the process is supposed to be seamless unless of course you drop your cracked phone in the toilet…then you can’t recover anything that wasn’t backed up on the Cloud which, being old school, I didn’t do.

I spent every evening for a week trying to sync my new phone with my iTunes. I became good friends with the people at Apple support who assigned me a case number and pretended to have great affection for the faux-luddite on the other end of their line. However, each solution ended with a new problem. It turned out that even a teeny little upgrade from a 5 to a 5S meant my laptop no longer supported the phone—too old. I have now learned to back up, migrate and restore but it took six support sessions and a trip to the Genius Bar to get me back on track and I still have issues.

I understand things change and when I complain about this stuff I usually get the time honored argument that the eraser was going to send civilization straight to hell when they added it to the end of a pencil. Between my iphone and my laptop and my PC at work I’m inundated with emails and have a whole host of people demanding things in a very short period of time. We’re expected to work away from the job because they can contact us instantly. Parents of my students tread where parents never used to tread. I think because they don’t have to work very hard before they click send—there’s no cooling off period anymore.

“Now that I think about it, maybe you deserved that B- in Art, Johnny. I don’t think I’ll call the school and contact the teacher about it after all.”

Tasks that used to be allowed a week or two to complete are now anticipated in 24 hours. As a society we spend far more time managing all this stuff than we used to, so I don’t think we’re saving much labor except our now defunct perusal of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to love looking through those books.

Students in my school aren’t allowed to have their phones out or on. It’s sort of like holding a tsunami at bay with a child’s plastic bucket. About half of the school population still complies. A boy in my class recently asked me for the time and I looked at my wrist watch. He marveled at the pie time dial.

“You can read that?”

“Of course. You can’t?”

He shrugs. “I just check my phone.”

It seems pointless to have a discussion about why he might want to learn how to read an analog clock.

“Well a watch might come in handy when you can’t use your phone. Especially in this school where the clocks are all broken.”

“I guess,” he answers, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “An iWatch might be cool.”

“But you can’t call anyone from an iWatch.”

“I never call anyone,” he said.

“Then why do you need a cell phone?”

“To play games.”

We’d better get a bigger bucket.

As for me I’m shopping online for a working rotary phone. It will never shatter and it couldn’t possibly fall in the toilet.

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GOOD-BYE KITTY

 

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At Christmas time I move through stores on autopilot always hoping something will jump out and say, “Buy me!” I want the object to make me feel like I have to purchase it. For a long time there were a lot of products telling me to buy them for Quinn.

Going into my downstairs bathroom I am reminded of one of these earlier purchases. There in the corner of the soap rack, a rubber, pink bath-robed Hello Kitty toy hangs on. It’s covered in years of soap film and I periodically wash her down and prop her back up into position. When we had the bathroom renovated about eight years ago she was the first thing we bought for the new bathroom. She originally fit snugly over the top of some pink shampoo. The plumber polishing the grout off the tiles asked me about her.

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“Who’s that?”

“Hello Kitty.”

“What kitty?”

“No, Hello Kitty,” I said more slowly. “It’s a brand. Well, she’s a cat and they make a lot of products with her picture on it. Quinn loves Hello Kitty.”

He scratched his head and continued polishing. “Well I never heard of her. I’ll have to ask my daughter if she has.”

“I bet she has,” I added, knowing his daughter and mine were only a year apart.

Before he left for the day he checked in with what was left on the job and said he would return the next day to finish up. Then he said, “Hello Kitty right?”

“Right, Hello Kitty.”

“And you say I can find her on lots of things.”

“Absolutely.”

The truth is once you start looking for Hello Kitty items you can’t stop finding them. Which was good because Quinn loved Hello Kitty. She had acquired several t-shirts emblazoned with the squat little cat, lunch boxes, lamps, jewelry, socks, backpacks, pencil cases, tissue boxes, hair clips, and dozens of toys.

When Quinn was less than three we happened upon a Sanrio exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Quinn came face to face with a live Hello Kitty and fearlessly plunged into her arms. This cemented the beginning of a long and loving relationship.IMG_1399 Initially Hello Kitty products were harder to find. We used to travel to Chinatown and visit the Sanrio store on Mott Street. One of us would distract a young Quinn while the other purchased a special item for Christmas like a Hello Kitty suitcase. When we found anything to do with Hello Kitty we bought it because we believed it was special.

Just as Quinn’s fondness mushroomed, Hello Kitty’s popularity soared nationwide and she was available for the taking. Oddly, Quinn was largely alone in her fascination for the white cat among her immediate friends. Which might explain why the plumber with a young daughter had never heard of the character. When Quinn had a birthday party you could be sure that the majority of the gifts from her friends had something to do with Hello Kitty. To know Quinn was to know her love of this character.

When we first moved to the lake house, McDonalds was having a Hello Kitty Happy Meal promotion. For eight weeks they handed out a different Hello Kitty keychain. It was the only time in memory we ate there. We ordered a Happy Meal and ate the fries but threw the burger away so we could have the key chain. A friend explained to us on the third week, “you don’t have to buy the meal, just buy the toy.”

She had DVD’s which told of animated exploits of the little animal and featured her twin sister, Mimmy. The only distinguishable feature between the two was Hello Kitty had a red bow and Mimmy had a yellow bow. Kitty was an extrovert and Mimmy was an introvert. In one story Kitty convinces herself that her mother doesn’t love her and runs away only to discover nothing could be further from the truth. The episode was title “Mommy really loves me after all.” However, whenever Quinn was mad at me it was often referred to as, “Mommy doesn’t love me after all.”kitty-and-mimmy

According to Sanrio, Hello Kitty yields over six hundred million dollars in revenue from over 80,000 different Hello Kitty branded products in more than 60 countries. That’s a lot of Hello Kitty. Maybe if we had known this, we might have stopped buying Hello Kitty products and accepted that our quest was futile. Sometime around 2003 when Quinn was ten she really owned enough but nobody took much notice, including her.

The products continued to pour into her small bedroom. When she was in the eighth grade Rob took Jackson to Miami to sing in an honors choir. Rob had a lot of hours to fill while Jackson was rehearsing, and besides photographing he shopped and returned home with a large plastic Hello Kitty alarm clock.kitty

As he was setting up the clock, Rob said, “I knew when I saw it, Quinn had to have it.” Hello Kitty was coming out of an enormous teacup and a slice of lemon lit up when the alarm went off. It took up most of the available space on her on her nightstand.

She was thirteen and still liked toys, but I think I detected a bit of the flame for Hello Kitty starting to dim with the arrival of the clock. On the following birthday her best friend gave her a large Hello Kitty lamp which we immediately set up, but she made no future mention of it. It went on this way for a while. Each time someone in our circle saw a new Hello Kitty product they thought of Quinn and bought it for her. The next year we bought her a fancy Hello Kitty watch. I think she wore it half a dozen times. I languished in a drawer before I took it over and started wearing to work. Some of my middle school students fawned over it and wished they owned one. I soon stopped wearing it as well.

The following Christmas we went to a Kay Jewelry store to buy a Hello Kitty pendant necklace. It was cute and small and we believed represented a more grown-up version of the character. We discovered the cost was over a hundred and fifty dollars and left without buying it. I decided to feel Quinn out.

“Oh look at this pretty necklace,” I said, pointing out the object in a sales flyer.

“Please don’t buy that for me,” she said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

On her next birthday her cousin dropped off a large stuffed Build-A-Bear Hello Kitty that talked. “Is she kidding?” Quinn complained rolling her eyes. She never took it out of the box.21948Alt1LR

I had to admit it was an odd gift for a sixteen-year-old but in all fairness Quinn had never announced the infatuation was over. It had been over for a few years but maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell anyone. She had long stopped asking for these items, but people assumed once in love always in love. And they were so damn easy to find now.

When she cleaned out her room all of the Hello Kitty items were piled into a box and sold at a tag sale or given away. The small items were brought into my classroom and placed inside my prize box.

“You have an awful lot of Hello Kitty things in here,” a sixth grade girl remarked as she picked over her choices.

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “Do you like Hello Kitty?”

“Not really,” she said.

Lots of people have childhood attachments to characters and retain a few of those things into adulthood. Rob’s niece loved the character Snoopy as a little girl and still appreciates receiving birthday cards with his image on them. Not Quinn. The shampoo cap is the only thing that remains because I can’t bring myself to toss it. I still have to stop Rob from buying anything Hello Kitty. He see’s one and say’s “Oh look,” and then stops himself. We remind ourselves that Hello Kitty is no longer part of our lives and we move on. They still talk to us but we’re trying really hard not to listen.

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LOST AND FOUND

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I lose things. I lose them and then I tend to blame other people. I never blame them to their face I just do it in my mind. I admit it’s a very bad habit especially since the suspected person hasn’t done anything. Most of the time the person never exists.

When I was young my father lost a lot of things too. Except in his case he knew he was the culprit. I remember watching him storm around the house searching madly for something.

“I’m losing my mind!” he would bellow.

“What’s the matter?” I would ask cautiously.

“What’s the matter?” He would sigh and place his hands on his hips. “I’ll tell what’s the matter. I can’t find my god-damned glasses that’s what the matter.”

I would stare at him and twist my mouth.

“What?” he would have asked.

I’d point. “They’re on your head.”

His hand would reach up and drop the glasses down onto his face. Then he would slide them further down his nose and peer out over the top of the frames. “Are these my glasses?”

“You know they are!”

“Well what do you think of that?” He would smile. “And they were here all along?”me and dad_0001

“Yes,” I would have nodded.

The entire family discovered his glasses on his head or resting on the car dashboard or next to the toilet with a magazine. My father “lost” keys, shoes, watches, socks, important papers, you name it, but he always just blamed himself.

I have evolved.  With my inherited bad habit there’s often an unsuspecting culprit.

Several years ago we hired a carpenter from The Pennysaver (again) who showed up while we were both working and was let inside by our son who was home for the weekend. The carpenter was supposed to install a large glass medicine cabinet and repair a wall inside our clothe’s closet. After removing the old cabinet he discovered such a mish mash of beams inside the wall that he backed off of the job.

Jackson called me and explained the problem but I was having none of it.

“Let me speak to him!” I demanded.

The conversation that followed didn’t go well when he reported that he was going to put the old cabinet back and just repair the closet at the original cost for both. He further explained that the closet was a bigger job than he had anticipated. After a lot of back and forth he said, “I am going to finish this wall that I started and you can send me a check for whatever you feel the work deserves!”

“Fine,” I said and we never spoke again.

When I returned home he had done a nice job but I was still a little rattled by his manner. We begrudgingly mailed him a check for the full amount. That would have been the end of it except the following day I went to put fruit in the hand-blown fruit bowl that normally sat in the middle of the dining room table.

“It’s gone,” I declared.

We tried to remember the last time we had used it and who could have had the means to steal the bowl. The logical conclusion was the angry carpenter.

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“He was the only one who had the opportunity,” Rob decided. “He let himself out while Jackson was in his room.”

“He was also unsure what we were going to pay him for the job and he wanted to get something.” I added.

We had a fleeting thought to try to find out where he lived, drive over, and pull a George Costanza.

              “Ah hah!” we would exclaim, as we stormed into his kitchen and pointed at the fancy fruit bowl that his wife was busily arranging with her plastic fruit collection. But of course some sanity returned to us and we resisted. Over the years we would tell the fruit bowl story to anyone who would listen.

Still from Seinfeld

Still from Seinfeld

Then this winter while I was housebound after foot surgery I started to lose things with reckless abandon. I lost my gold watch the same day we had a cleaning woman for the first time. Coincidence? She is a nice, hard working woman who rescued me after a fall and drove me to my doctor’s office, free of charge. Still we couldn’t find the watch and I had never left the house during the period it went missing.

After the emergency trip to the doctor’s office I had returned home without my clown shoe and called the office to explain their error. They denied it but said I could come in for another shoe just the same. How inconvenient.

Early spring arrived and I was able to return to work, remove the boot and eventually start to live a more normal existence. This led to cleaning out my closet where I discovered a long missing Chinese coin that Rob had given me for good luck. I pocketed the coin and carried on. The next day I continued with my cleaning spree and way in the back of a deep cabinet over the refrigerator, under a platter, sat the hand-blown fruit bowl I had written off as stolen over four years ago. It was an odd moment that made us take stock of ourselves. It begged the question: Could we change?

A few weeks later I opened up the sleeper couch in the den and discovered my watch—still ticking. As I strapped it to my wrist I cringed at the thoughts I had harbored against the innocent cleaning woman. Later that week Rob discovered the missing clown shoe inside a laundry basket in the basement. I tried not to think about the words I had spoken about an uncaring medical staff.

These discoveries led to a top to bottom house cleaning that has not ended. Besides accepting personal blame for missing items I was going to combat my inherited forgetfulness with good old-fashioned organization.

With everything back in order I was fully reformed. But in the course of two days I have rapidly regressed. My sister Susan was visiting. Just before an outing I was unable to track down my handbag even after an extensive search. I assumed the worst.

“Someone came through the front door while we were on the lower deck and stole my purse!”

“No?” Rob exclaimed.

“Maybe you should keep the door closed when you’re in the back,” Susan suggested completely unaware of our past transgressions.

Rob called my phone and we discovered the bag and all the contents inside the den. The following day I decided that someone had made off with my laptop from the upper deck. It turned out Quinn had moved it to a chair in the dining room. Okay, so do I need a step program? Accusers Anonymous maybe?

The night before my sister left we went down to the dock to sit for a bit and discovered an empty umbrella stand where a large, nine foot umbrella had once stood.

“Oh my god,” I exclaimed. “Someone stole our umbrella?”

“Are you sure,” Susan asked.

“Well it was right there and now it’s not,” I said, pointing at the hollow stand.

“Wow,” she said.

What else could one say?

“Somebody rowed over here, came on our deck and plucked out the umbrella and rowed away. The nerve—,” I continued until my eye rested on half an umbrella sticking up out of the water a little further down the shore. “Oh,” I added. “I guess the wind did it.”

“Mystery solved,” Susan said.

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Several days later we discovered the umbrella had been retrieved from the muck and returned to our dock by an anonymous and helpful neighbor whose very last intention was to keep it for themselves.  I think I’ll start that chapter of false accusers–if I can find any.

MONARCHS AND THE QUEEN’S BLOOD

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Susan’s Milkweed Bed near Asheville, NC

Recently, my sister Susan who lives in North Carolina, sent me a photograph of her newly planted Milkweed bed. It boasted six young Milkweed plants lined up in two neat rows. She and her husband Tim had sent away for the plants as part of a grassroots effort to help save the Monarch butterflies.

“I became involved in this dilemma after reading the novel The Butterfly’s Daughter last year,” Susan said.

                “Will the Monarchs be able to find your plants?” I asked.

                 “We’ve been told they will. A sort of ‘plant them and they will come’ kind of thing.”

We grew up in a family of six in Northern Illinois. We lived in a split-level home that sat alongside a small, undeveloped stretch of wild prairie. Wildflowers grew in abundance. Each summer produced Bachelor Buttons, Black-Eyed Susans, Thistles, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and Milkweed. Monarchs were commonplace. I remember in the early fall we would look out on our yard and see hundreds of Monarchs clinging to the Forsythia bushes. They might stay for a few hours or a day or two before flying away, followed by a few stragglers that came along every few days after the first sighting. I have always known they migrated but never thought much about them or considered where they were heading.

 When we first moved to the lake, thirteen years ago this month, I was out walking with my children and we came across some Queen Anne’s Lace.

“Queen Anne was sewing some lace and she pricked her finger with the needle, causing a single drop of blood to fall onto the lace,” I explained, pointing to the single crimson flower at the center of the white lacy plant.

               “How did she bleed on all of them?” my then six-year-old daughter had asked.

                “It’s just folklore,” I said as I spied some Milkweed. I hadn’t seen any since I moved from the Midwest.

                 “Look at this,” I said, breaking open one of the pods and revealing the soft white substance resting inside. “Seeds.”

              “It feels like silk,” my son said. He pulled the fine threads apart and we watched them float into the wind.

My book club is currently reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is high on scientific information about Monarchs and climate change, which is fed to the reader through human drama. Kingsolver draws heavy parallels between the plight of the Monarch and human choices. It’s unpleasant to read about the world falling apart. Losing the Monarchs is a symptom of those choices.

I actually hadn’t thought about Milkweed since that first time we stumbled upon it, so I set out on my morning walk in search of it. Today, I didn’t find any.  I also only found three Queen Anne’s Lace plants. Three? And the three I did find didn’t even hold the red drop of queen’s blood.

I felt so obtuse that I hadn’t noticed less wildflowers growing around the lake until I read Kingsolver. I called my sister back.

             “I don’t think we have Monarchs here. I’ve never seen any.”

             “If you used to have Milkweed then Monarchs were there,” she said. “Plant some and they’ll come back.” She told me where to order the plants.

When I look out at my lake from the deck, my world seems visually beautiful.  It’s hard to believe from my vista that nature is out of balance, but intellectually I know it is.

It reminds me of the words of the baboon Rafiki from The Lion King.

             “No, look harder.”Image

The truth is I want to find the drop of queen’s blood inside the lace in abundance and I want bright orange Monarchs to pass through my yard and light on a Milkweed plant.

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