JUST CALL ME

turquoiseloungewear

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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LIFE CYCLES OR RIDING TO SPRING

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Today is March 1st and it’s snowing. We’re stuck in a weather pattern that seems unwilling to let go of its hold on us. The thermometer read minus five yesterday morning when I crawled out of bed and headed to the gym for a 7AM spin class. This is my mission- to get ready to ride around the lake on my bike when all the ice melts. I always choose a spin bike in the back row and stuff my big sneakers into the upper clamps on the pedals. As I slowly warm-up before the start of class I look at the shoes of the other class members. Almost everyone has expensive spin shoes with cleats that allow them to lock into the pedal. I recently learned that the spin shoe gives you a better workout . It provides muscle balance, increased power and more comfort but I haven’t made the purchase in part because I’m waiting to see if this spin thing takes. The same way I’m waiting for spring.

It’s strange riding in place at the back of the pack in a cold room with a teacher shouting instructions through a head set over loud music that is intended to inspire you. When we’re simulating an easy ride along a flat road it helps if I close my eyes and remember my childhood in Illinois. Bikes were always at the ready as we hopped on and took off in a moment’s notice. We met friends at the park or in front of Petranek’s Pharmacy and leaned our bikes up against the long glass store front before we went inside for an ice cream at the still operational soda fountain.

Petranek's Pharmacy

Petranek’s Pharmacy

When we’re imitating a climb in class I imagine ascending the hills around my lake house on a warm spring day. Each of these hills vary in intensity and in every  fantasy I never have to get off and push the bike to the top.

Our winding and hilly road is so narrow it runs as a one way strip past our house, so if you forget anything you have to drive all the way around the lake again to retrieve it which can easily take over ten minutes. As a driver you have to creep along at 20 MPH to avoid hitting pedestrians walking their dogs or the occasional jogger. Most drivers are slow and careful and almost everyone waves as they pass you. The road has seven hills in total which can be challenging. For this reason, the hardest thing to do here is ride your bike.

Raising children on Lake Drive didn’t offer a lot of opportunities for bike riding. We have a small flat portion of road that runs about an eighth of a mile just in front of the house. Because the house is set below the street we had to haul the bikes uphill to reach the road, so the image of children running outside and jumping on their bikes for a quick spin to visit a friend never happened.

Jackson learned to ride a two wheeler bike before we moved here but Quinn arrived without that ability. As a parent this always bothered me, that I had somehow failed to provide her with this simple and basic skill. Another mother once announced to me that she had done her duty as a parent and the rest was up to the child.

“She can read, swim and ride a bike,” she proclaimed. “Now she’s ready for life.”

We had the reading and swimming part down but the bike part alluded us. I’m also not entirely sure Quinn held great ambitions about bike riding. She owned a variety of bikes over the years that we lugged to the street, loaded into the car and then drove off to a flat area so she could learn. These experiences never went well and they exhausted me so I stopped initiating them. There was always a small voice whispering in my ear that said, “Yes, of course Quinn will learn to ride a bike.” She was fairly athletic, taught herself to dive and was eager to try new things but riding bikes wasn’t among them. It was hard to reconcile since her paternal grandfather had been a champion bicycle racer.

Then, during the summer before eighth grade we noticed an old Schwinn chained up outside Herb’s Auto & Bicycle Store. We pulled over and got out of the car to take a closer look. The bike only had pedal brakes and it was heavy with big tires and a wide cushioned seat. The cross bar was low so it was easy to climb on. Quinn instantly loved it like an old friend.vintage-schwinn-bicycles

For fifty dollars we toted it home and set it up on the kick stand in the gravel drive. Quinn sat on the wall and looked at it for bit then climbed on. “I’m ready to learn,” she announced. All my failings as a parent were about to be mended and erased with time. I procured a helmet and the instructions commenced right in front of the house.

She steadied herself with me holding her seat and we practiced using pedal brakes and tipping to one side to stop with her feet. This concept alone reassured her that safety was just a step away. Back and forth along the allotted eighth of a mile she pedaled. She rode one way turned around and rode back. She did this activity for three days. She had it, but I wanted more. I wanted her to ride around the lake or even part way around. She needed to feel the freedom bike riding could offer, after all hills are a part of life.

quinn bike1I briefly reflected on the time I tried to ride around the lake with Jackson shortly after we moved in. He had a new bike and as we took off down the hill he steered himself and his bike into a neighbor’s hedge with his legs sticking out one side and his head and hands out the other. Lots of people came running over including the hedge owner who was in her yard talking on the phone.

“I have to hang up, a boy just crashed through my bushes.”

As she helped me free him I repeatedly apologized but she stopped me.

“I hate these bushes, I’m going to cut them down.” Which she did about a year later.

I decided Quinn and I  would go the other direction and take on some smaller hills first. Before starting out I drilled her again on the use of her brakes.

“When we come to a hill don’t pedal, just coast and when it starts to feel too fast push back on the brakes to slow yourself.”

“Okay,” she said as if she wanted to please me.

“You can do it!” I said.

“Okay,” she said again.

Off we went slowly and steadily coasting down a slight slope before leveling off. “You did it,” I sang out. Quinn forced a weak smile and we pedaled on and then climbed up another incline. When we reached the top we stopped our bikes and looked down.

“I’m not so sure,” she said frowning.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I assured her. “Just remember to brake as you gain speed.”

“Can I put my foot down?”

“Well you have to stop to do that,” I explained. “We’re coasting to the bottom and that gives you momentum to ride up the next hill.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’ll be right beside you.”

She looked straight ahead saying nothing. I took that as a sign and started pedaling slowly as she followed me. The time between that launch and her crash was mere seconds but I always see that fall in slow motion. I watched the panic set in as she lost confidence and her bare knees and palms skidded across the asphalt. I was powerless to stop the thing that I had started.

Once again another neighbor woman sitting on her porch ran to the rescue. She helped me drag Quinn to the curb and offered some damp paper towels to quell the bleeding then she went to call our house. Rob glared at me as he shepherded a crying Quinn into the car and he became the good cop. I was the bad cop who rode my bicycle home alone.

Quinn limped along for weeks with bandaged and scabbed legs. She wasn’t having any part of the old back in the saddle adage. The bike was stored in the crawl space and languished for years. Her brother asked to bring it to college but Quinn insisted she would one day use it. Eventually some friends brought her to a park and taught her all over again. Eventually she wanted the Schwinn at college and we pulled it out but now it needed new tires and we couldn’t locate the proper size in any store so it went back underground. For one whole year- Order Quinn’s tires– sat at the top of Rob’s to do list. She occasionally reminded him and then forgot about it. I mean if she really wanted the tires she could have looked for them herself.

Sort of like me riding in the back of the spin class staring at all the other people’s spin shoes, wondering if this is a hobby that will take or if spring will ever come.

photo by Robert Forlini

photo by Robert Forlini

A FEW GOOD MEN

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Our lake is located in the hamlet of a larger town. “Hamlet” is a quaint word to use to distinguish our district from the rest of the town. As to whether it is quaint or not is in the eye of the beholder. The hamlet itself has five businesses: a post office, funeral home, florist, landscaper, an auto repair shop that doesn’t sell gas and a deli. To get anything else you have to drive into the main town’s business district which is a mile down the road. The town itself is an expansive area spreading from one end of the county border to the other, occupying a sixth of the total county. But as I mentioned in the last post, there isn’t very much there and what we have is shrinking. The highway department spends a lot of time before every holiday driving around the county and putting up signs that say Shop Putnam First. They have signs decorated with George Washington’s silhouette, Christmas images, Labor Day icons, veteran’s day icons, Fourth of July fireworks, a Thanksgiving turkey and American flags for any occasion.

“Where?” Rob asks each time we pass a sign. “Where do they want us to shop first?”

When new businesses do open in our town we generally take bets on how long they will last. Mema’s Bakery took over ten years to open (you can’t make this stuff up) but they didn’t bake anything on the premises. They ordered baked goods and had them delivered. They also served terrible coffee and French fries. They shuttered less than a year later. We had a plant store that was terribly cute; they opened in October and closed just after the New Year. A beading store started to pack their boxes last week after opening on Valentine’s Day last year. I guess everyone who wanted to string beads had strung enough.

We had a liquor store that was run so poorly that it was inevitable it would close. You would think that if one thing could survive in a small town it would be a liquor store with no competition. Actually it was a wine store but the owner didn’t know anything about wine and the distributer panned a lot of reject vintages off on him. He rarely carried anything anyone had ever heard of.

“I drink orange-flavored vodka myself,” he boasted in a voice reminiscent of Yogi Bear. “But they say that’s pretty good stuff.” He would point at a vertical case of high priced bottles with maybe one missing.

The wine was never any good. After a few recommendations we stopped going there and preferred to do without if it was close to dinner time and we had a fleeting thought of buying wine.

“Uh, water’s fine,” one of us would say. We went out of our way to avoid Yogi, which is what we called him. Apparently everyone else in town avoided him too. Before long there wasn’t much on the shelves and he blamed the state of the town on his bad business.

“The town’s dead,” he said to anyone who bothered to walk in. He had a point.

A pet grooming salon has now opened in the old liquor store but they’re only open by appointment.

Next to the liquor store was a mom and pop hardware store which was a hard business to like.It was a long running family business that carried loose screws and replaced rake handles on request, but it came with the price of a cranky staff that shouted at you when you came inside. Like a lot of old time hardware stores it was probably run out of business because of Home Depot a little over four miles away.

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But the all-time winner for new occupants was A Few Good Men. They were a motorcycle club that rented one of the abandoned shops on the main street-if you can even call it that. They placed a large grill on the front steps leading into the shop and then roped off the entryway with caution tape so nobody would look in the windows. Club members entered from the back door. A few members gathered everyday to drink a beer or take apart someone’s motorcycle engine and put it back together, but they chose Wednesday nights as their official meeting night and all the “good men” would gather. They lined their motorcycles up in neat rows around the building. The barbeque was stoked and hamburger and hot dog smells wafted across the parking lot towards the hardware store. ZZ Top music blared out from the second floor windows. In warmer weather the men got restless inside the small store and spilled out onto the street. They sat on their motorcycles and revved the engines while drinking beer and leered at the townspeople who leered back at them as we passed. I think the sheriff was afraid of them or he had a brother-in-law in the club because they could do pretty much what they wanted.

During our annual Fourth of July celebration we had a parade that mostly included Fire and EMS trucks. The local Girl and Boy Scouts marched along with a tilted banner followed by the chamber of commerce sitting in a typical parade convertible. We stood on the sidelines and clapped waiting for the Town Supervisor who was wielding a bullhorn from the top of a flat bed truck decorated in red, white and blue bunting.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

But before he could speak A Few Good Men roared into the parade. Their presence in the parade was a public relations attempt on their part to cull favor with the town. It was their misplaced effort to ingratiate themselves because of the townspeople’s grumbling. Somehow they felt they could be seen in a better light if they rode behind the Boy Scouts.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

parade1

Photo by Robert Forlini

The Supervisor’s voice was no match for their endless roaring engines as they hooted at the crowd shouting, “We’re one of you! We’re one of you!” A line of unfamiliar woman lined the street in front of their clubhouse cheering loudly as the bearded men rolled by on their Harleys.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“A few good women?” Rob answered.

Later that year apparently two of them died and they posted a large sign in the window that read “Reefer and Boomer RIP”. It was decorated with a skull and cross bones. From the car window Jackson studied it each time we were waiting at the traffic light.

“That sign is a t-shirt,” he reported.

This prompted Rob to say, “Oh I want one!”

“Me too!” Jackson agreed. But they never had the nerve to ask or else it was just a ruse so they could joke about the missing men Reefer and Boomer. We suspected all of the Good Men had nicknames. It reminded me of Quinn’s experience in Girl Scout camp. Their tradition is to give every girl a camp name for the duration of the session like Squeaky or Chipmunk.

The complaints against the motorcycle club mounted as the Town Supervisor struggled to rid the community of the main attraction. He left office and we voted in a new Supervisor who set about to clean things up. The only way he could get rid of them was to close every business surrounding the main intersection on the premise that the town was going to build some new infrastructure and make a real main street. The recession hit and all we had was a lot of empty buildings. He also drove out the town mechanic where the flat bed truck sat for the parade and where we held the annual tree lighting. A grubby mechanic’s lot seemed an odd place to hold a tree lighting but the mechanic was footing the bill. However, the mechanic had failed to pay his taxes for the last ten years and the county seized the property. The Supervisor felt the shop would make a great brew pub.I suppose it could have if you had a lot of money and wanted to run a business in a town with high taxes and no other businesses. But on the plus side, A Few Good Men had to move somewhere else.

As for the people who live here we’re still waiting to Shop Putnam First.IMG_0406

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.

HANDYMAN SPECIAL

 

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When you buy an old house it’s a forgone conclusion that you’re going to have handymen in your life. Where you find them depends on circumstance, friendship, good or bad luck and poor judgment. As a first time homeowner I did the one thing everyone tells you not to do. I looked in the Pennysaver. I found George. No last name was ever given and when we tried to track him down it turned out the address of his business didn’t exist. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When George arrived, I directed his attention to the strip of lawn that consisted of a few patches of crabgrass struggling to compete with the dandelions and plantains. “We were thinking of putting a walkway along here and a patio in the backyard,” I said pointing.

George grunted a monosyllabic sound as he looked at the ground.

Taking this as encouragement I added, “I’m thinking red brick. It would be so charming, don’t you think?”

“Interlocking,” he mumbled.

“Interlocking?”

George pulled a folded brochure out of his back pocket and pointed to a picture of an interlocking patio resting up against a multimillion dollar house and yard.

“Well… I guess that could work,” I said slowly.

“And I want half up front.”

I nodded and backed away afraid I would jinx the deal.

“It’s all settled,” I proclaimed to Rob who had been avoiding any encounter with George.

“Maybe we should get another price,” Rob suggested. “Did he give you a written estimate?”

I paused. “No.”

“A timeframe?”

I said nothing.

Rob was on a roll. “Did he give you any references?”

“And you found him in the Pennysaver?”

“Well who did you find?” I asked to no response. “Exactly!” I smirked. “And isn’t that the point of the Pennysaver? So there’s no problem.”

We soon learned what the problem was when he started the job. Sometime during the first hour of work our neighbor came over and asked George to fix his steps across the street. George agreed and the next day his men showed up for work at our neighbor’s house instead of ours. The day after that he moved onto third job. Everyone had paid him half upfront and nobody’s work was complete. Our neighbor tried to sue him and we learned the phone number listed in the Pennysaver was now out of service. Then our neighbor tried to convince us to pay for their lost payment to George and have us deduct that amount from George’s remaining bill.

“That’s insane,” Rob finally chimed in. “Why would we do that?”

“You recommended him!”

“You stole him!” he countered.

When George and his workers did show up again he nickel-and-dimed each step proclaiming it wasn’t part of the original price. For example, the Belgium block border he pointed to in the glamorous brochure picture was an additional ten dollars a block installed. The work in our yard was eventually finished but the experience was so stressful and overpriced I vowed never to use the Pennysaver again.

My next brainchild was to hire the man who left a hand written index card in our screen door. It read:

Gutters cleaned and a phone number.

“Our gutters are a mess and this guy said front and back, fifty-bucks.”

“Get a reference,” Rob said.

“Ooo…kay,” I said, knowing I had already hired him.

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The next day Glenn showed up with his sidekick Jerry and the roof and gutters were cleaned within half an hour. They took their money and that would have been the end of it but I was so happy to have two eager workers readily available. I asked about chopping wood. There was still the business of the fallen tree in the lower yard.

On the coldest day of the year, Glenn and Jerry drank Pepsi, smoked cigarettes and chopped a two hundred year old Maple tree into hundreds of fireplace-sized logs. They worked all day with nary a break and climbed the steps to our home with frozen fingers and sweating brows. They sat in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate and I gave them the cash they deserved. Glenn always took the money and paid Jerry himself.

I thought I had found the handyman dream team so when the Spring rolled around I called Glenn (the boss) and lined up a series of jobs: a deer fence, cement repair, re-gravel the driveway and painting the decks.

They started the work with reckless abandon barely stopping to eat or drink. Danger signs were everywhere but I kept ignoring them. We saw them sneak into the woods at odd moments, reappear and sneak off again. Their speech was garbled on occasion and they smoked constantly and downed liters of Pepsi but avoided solid food as far as I could tell. They argued a lot until Glenn would say, “Who’s running this job site anyway?” Jerry always backed down.

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They showed up with black eyes on more than one occasion from what was described as a “friendly fight” the night before.

“Boys will be boys,” Glenn said, when I expressed concern.

One day I arrived home from work and Rob was waiting for me.

“Go look over the deck,” he said stony faced.

“Why?” I asked slowly.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with crossed arms.

I peered over the deck at the splayed body of Glenn spread eagled on the steps leading into the yard.

Since Glenn and Jerry started working for us we had learned a few things about them. Jerry had bad teeth and lived in a  house with other transients. Glenn wore expensive clothes from L.L. Bean and had parents who continued to monitor and support him even though he was thirty-six. They both had DUI’s and were dropped off by Glenn’s father, or they walked. Sometimes gypsy cabs rolled up to get them. Still I kept hiring them because they showed up, had reasonable rates and workers were hard to find. As the Spring had worn on the quality of the work began to fall off. The previous week they had raked a lot of the gravel meant for our pull-off over to the neighbor’s curb. Now, utterly perplexed, I stared down at Glenn’s lifeless body.

Rob walked up behind me. “He’s drunk, well he was until he passed out.”

“Drunk?”

“Drunk, drugged, what’s the difference?” Rob said. “I saw Jerry stumbling away from our house on my way home and knew something was wrong.”

“He looks dead.”

“No he’s breathing, I checked.”

We tried to rouse him to no avail.

“Should we call his parents?” I asked.

“I was thinking police! You never learn your lesson when you hire people. No references, no licenses. If they fall off our roof who get’s sued? We do!”

Some time later Glenn opened his eyes, stumbled up onto our deck and slurred out a long incoherent song he had written that was going to make him famous. I made him some ice tea which he filled with half a cup of sugar and never drank. He chained smoked sitting at our table like an invited guest and told us things about his “woman” nobody would want to know. Finally we coaxed him into the car and Rob drove him to his parents.

His parents never acknowledged the episode but invited us over to play Parcheesi like were Glenn’s new friends. We politely declined.

At one point Glenn quit being a boss and went to work for Cutco Knives. He begged us to let him come over and listen to his pitch. We nervously acquiesced. He cut a penny with a scissor and one half flew into the air and hit me. Then he struggled to saw a piece of rope in half with a knife. We were supposed to be so impressed with his demonstration that we would be persuaded to spend hundreds of dollars on Cutco knives.

Instead I said, “Oh, my.”

“Neat,” Rob said without an ounce of encouragement.

“My parents bought this whole line,” he said, pointing to a six-hundred dollar knife set in a catalogue. “These are the best steak knives in the world.”

“We don’t eat meat.”

“My parents really like these knives.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “But we don’t eat meat.”

His sales pitch was complete.

We did buy a “Japanese” vegetable knife for one hundred and sixty-one dollars and change. We had to help him fill out the order form. He called and told us he had won an award for best new recruit because of our knife and his parents’ set. Unfortunately they represented his first and last sales.

I’d like to write that he went into rehab and we never hired him again but that would be untrue. Glenn and Jerry still came calling a few more times and we offered small jobs with little chance of accidents. Eventually Glenn’s parents sold their home and moved away and Glenn apparently with them. I don’t know what happened to Jerry but he’s probably better off without his boss.

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As for us, all repairmen are now hired by Rob from a reliable reference. It takes a while because their calendars are pretty booked but there’s a lot less drama. The best handymen are worth the wait.

THE PERFECT GIFT

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In 1993 my father stepped off the airplane carrying an oversized wrapped birthday present. My husband Rob loaded it into the back of the car and noted how heavy it felt.

“That’s the perfect gift,” my father had said proudly. “The perfect gift.”

I was expecting my second child in a few months and imagined the box contained a massaging pad for my sore back.

The next day after dinner and cake I opened my presents. Rob gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals. “See, you can adjust the straps as your feet get wider.” Obviously the fact that I had removed the laces from my sneakers had not gone unnoticed.

Our three-year-old son Jackson kept asking when he would get his present. Rob unsuccessfully tried explain that it was his mother’s birthday and there weren’t any presents for him. Jackson thrust his head in my large lap and sobbed.

My father, always eager to keep the fun moving, had the answer. “Hey Jack,” he said, gently tapping his shoulder. “Wait till she opens my present. You can share it with her.”

Realizing this was his best shot at a gift, Jackson stopped crying.

“This is really for everyone,” my father proclaimed as he rested the box at our feet.

Jackson and I unwrapped it together and stared at the contents, which included four heavy red balls and four green balls and one tiny white ball.

“Oh, it’s a bocce ball set,” Rob exclaimed. Rob, who is of Italian descent, is always approving of anything made in Italy.

“That’s right!” Dad said. “Isn’t this the perfect gift?” he said again. He suggested we go play.

“Right this minute?” I asked, feeling weary at the thought of it.

This prompted my father to dive into our exploits of croquet from when I was a child. Our lawn in Illinois had been large and flat and covered in an even bed of perfect grass. The court had been regulation and my father always won.

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Our current apartment was in a house that faced the Palisades and the terrain slanted downhill towards the Hudson River. The yard was bumpy and filled with plantains and crabgrass. My father explained that unlike croquet, bocce could be played on any surface. We paired off and played. As the shiny wooden balls bounced along our yard my father rewrote the rules of bocce.

“You see,” he said, pointing as a ball hit a divot and bounced off course. “That’s just part of the game now.” After we had finished he said, “You’ll play this for years to come.”

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A few years later we moved to an apartment in a small neighboring city and sold off all our lawn items except the bocce ball set which we stored inside an opaque plastic box. A few years after that we bought our first house which was on a lake in Putnam County. The house sits fifty feet above the water and the yard snakes down to the dock along a foot path that runs through a wooded lot. A friend remarked during our housewarming party, “This isn’t the kind of yard you could ever play anything on.”

Once when my father was visiting he pointed out the only level strip of land in the terraced yard and we bandied about putting in a skinny bocce court. In the end we abandoned the idea because of cost and size.

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The summer before our daughter left for college she held a yard sale. She was told she could keep all the proceeds from the sale for herself in exchange for doing all the work involved. As she gathered up our junk she discovered the bocce set under the basement steps.

“What about these?” she asked, peering down at the dusty balls.

My father, who had been dead for almost four years, wouldn’t have known the difference and we hadn’t played with them since before my daughter was born. I picked up one of the heavy balls and wiped away a thick layer of dust with the edge of my t-shirt. I tried to picture all the gifts my father had ever given me but could only remember this one. The weight of the ball transported me back to that birthday and how pleased he had been with his gift. I admired the red wood that still contrasted against the patterned white lines circling around the ball and saw for the first time how utterly beautiful the balls were.

“No,” I said, returning the ball with the rest. “I want them.”

“But you never use them,” she argued mildly.

“Well your father and I plan to start playing just as soon as you leave for school.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I said.

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TRAVELING WITH FAIRIES

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Living on the lake has always been coupled with a driving desire to leave, partly because we know we will always return. Another reason lies in the fact that a lot of what happens at our house and yard requires constant attention and upkeep. It’s rare that a day at the lake is spent resting on the dock reading a good book between naps and a long swim. One of those things might happen after a day of chores. So I am always thinking about the next trip.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

As an Italian, Rob has a difficult time getting in the car and actually driving away. The unspoken fear is, “Who will watch the house?” Growing up in a close-knit compound where three neighboring homes were occupied by blood relatives, there was always someone around to keep an eye on things. The only people around us are an odd collection of neighbors we refer to as “The crazy house,” “The troglodyte,” “Buzz bomb,” “The drug addicts,” and “Scary.” Not exactly a rousing recommendation. But after the trip has been planned and the light timers are set, the wooden pole is slipped into the sliding glass door and the alarm is turned on we barrel away on an adventure accompanied by any number of talismans.Image

These trinkets hold deep and guarded powers over our lives except they probably only hold the power we have assigned to them. There’s Gobo the little Italian hunchback who hangs from the car’s rearview mirror. If you rub his hump he wards off the evil eye and brings you good luck. I’m not sure what evil spirits await us on our journeys but it’s good to know we have that covered before even pull out of the driveway.

Inside our pockets we have silver Chinese coins that have pictures of the animal of our birth year. I was born in the Year of the Dog and I have two of them. I lost the first one and Rob diligently replaced it. The other day I pulled out a pair of shorts for the arrival of warm weather and the original dog coin fell out of the pocket.

“That’s a good omen,” Rob said.

The next day we discovered a long lost blown glass fruit bowl we had decided a visiting handy man had stolen. For years we pulled up the example of the missing fruit bowl as another indication for why you just can’t trust people and you can never have enough safeguards. When we found the fruit bowl buried under platters in the back of a high cabinet we changed our tune.

Rob declared, “When you found that coin your luck changed. Maybe now you’ll find your lost watch!”

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My Chinese zodiac symbol is earth dog. It is associated with the turn of each of the four seasons. It governs the spleen, stomach, mouth and muscles. Its negative emotion is anxiety and its positive emotion is empathy. But I really like the way rabbit coins look so I have one of those too. Rob tells me that the rabbit isn’t doing much for me.

Rob and I have placed guardians all around us. Garden gnomes watch over the lawn, a Lucky Cat statue safeguards the books. We pay homage to our ancestors with their pictures on the mantel.

But the charm I hold most dear is a small silver fairy that I wear around my neck whenever I fly on an airplane. My oldest sister gave me the fairy in 1970 and I partly believe in it’s power because I haven’t ever lost it. It harkens back to an era of hippies and free spirits. My fairy and I lift the plane into the air and safely land the equipment onto the runway. The captain helps but I know that my fairy and I assure our safe return.

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Admitting all of this goes against what I have always believed about our adult selves. We travel with plans. We scope out a detailed itinerary that includes roadside attractions, well researched restaurants, side trips and we only stay at hotels with high marks on Trip Advisor. We allow logic and reason to guide us through most of life. We are firm believers in science and evolution and scoff at organized religions and the zealots who hold their faith dear. We do not believe that catastrophic weather is the result of a pissed-off God. We laugh at the television evangelists preaching to thousands of blinking congregants who nod their heads in agreement.

“Sheep!” Rob barks as he changes the channel.

Followers of God accept truth in the unseen. Their faith is something deep inside them and they believe life’s randomness are acts of God. “God works in mysterious ways” or “only God knows” are common responses to unexplained events.

So you might think that our affection for good luck charms is more than a little duplicitous. We could probably become members of the Church of the Good Luck Charm. The difference lies in the fact we know these things are trinkets. At the end of the day I know the fruit bowl was there all along and why the coin fell out of my pocket and the pilot, weather conditions and air traffic control landed the plane safely.

But the fairy makes me feel better.

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