Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Reflections

Christmas Time
Time for frightful reflection

It is here again.  It is a time of joy, laughter, loving, giving, family, friends, the clink of eggnog and brandy cups, the smell of cinnamon, the blinking reds, greens, blues and yellows of sparkling lights lining the roofs and circling the branches of fragrant Nobel firs.  And it is a time of acute embarrassment.

At least for me.

This year.

It started on Monday.  I hate being late.  In college, Robert Barthol, my California Criminal Law teacher, made us sign in for each class.  He’d snatch up the clipboard the moment the big hand reached the twelve.  If we came in late, he’d give us an opportunity to explain.  If he thought it a good reason, he’d let us sign in.  At the end of the quarter, he told us those who were signed in for every class could use him as a job reference.  Since then, I’ve valued punctuality, so when I remembered my dental cleaning appointment on Monday, and glanced at my watch, I rushed to the car and floored it out of my driveway.  With my right foot on the brake, and my left foot thumping the floor, I waited behind school bus, after school bus, finally careening into the parking lot nine minutes late. 

“Do I have time to, ah, go use the little room over there?” I asked the woman at the front desk, waving my hand toward the far end of the lobby.

She made a show of glaring at me, moving her eyes to the large clock ticking on the wall, and back to me.  “I really don’t think so.  She’ll need the whole hour to do you.”

I was on her naughty list, but she’d not even give me a lump of coal if I didn’t make that stop first. 

“I’ll rush,” I said, and loped across the room.  When I came out, the hygienist stood at the front desk, holding a thick file, her eyes sweeping the waiting room.  “Melanie?”

“I’m here,” I said, and clipped past all the people in the lobby, past the disapproving receptionist and followed the hygienist past x-ray room, past all the dentist treatment rooms, and past other hygienist’s rooms. 

At the end of the hall, she pointed to a doorway. “In here.” 

I brushed by her and laid my pocketbook on the counter. 

“Um,” the hygienist said, and moved closer to me, whispering in my ear, “you, ah, have a streamer.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of days later I couldn’t get warm at my house. I packed up my computer and drove to a Starbucks.  Once I had my latte, I leaned back in my chair, drew in the scent of brewing coffee, stretched my legs in front of me and took a sip of the steamy liquid.  But out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my navy blue socks clashing with the black pants and black shoes.  I downed the drink and walked stiff-legged out the door.

Tonight, I wanted to place a couple of Christmas CDs in my ancient stereo system, but couldn’t find the correct remote.  Every remote I found did nothing to turn on the stereo.  Honestly, I don’t even have that much in the way of electronic equipment.  I don’t even have cable, so what the heck do all these remotes operate, I thought.

I rocked back on my heels and sucked in a panicked breath.   Heat lit my face like a Christmas tree. 


I’m old.

That is the embarrassing conclusion.  There is no other explanation.  When you can’t figure out what each remote is for, that is the time you have to ask your children to come over and label everything for you, with detailed, pictured instructions.  And they should check your fire alarm batteries.  The week makes sense now.

Merry Christmas.  It is Christmas, right?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

And Then I Was in Traction

Hidden Rhetorical Questions
and how to handle them

Years ago I quit a job to take a promotion at another facility.  After several months I attended a sporting event where both companies were in attendance.  As I strolled along in front of the bleachers, clutching a diet cola and fixing the shoulder-strap of my purse on my shoulder, I greeted old friends and smiled at new ones. A woman I had known for several years waved me over.  “Melanie, Melanie, how are you?”

“I’m fine, Phyllis.  How are things going with you?”

“Fine, fine.”  She leaned forward and lowered her voice into a conspiratorial stage whisper.  “Tell me all about your new job.  Have you had any problems?”

It was a pretty dicey job, so it didn't surprise me she'd ask that question.  As it happened, I'd had big problems my second day.  Enough where I'd wondered if I'd made a mistake in taking the job.  “Well, it is going pretty well.  My second day there--”

“Frank,” Phyllis looked past me.  “Frank, how are you doing?”

I paused, not sure if her question had been rhetorical or not.  Perhaps she was just greeting everyone as they ambled past, and really didn't want an answer.

“Hey Phyllis, nice to see you,” Frank called.

Phyllis returned her attention to me.  “Your second day?”

With that encouragement, I continued. “Oh my second day,” I began, but her eyes glazed over and refocused somewhere behind me. 

“Wendy, how is everything with you?” she called.

There were people sitting all around Phyllis and I could feel my cheeks burn as they witnessed the snub.  Trying to cover the cut direct, I continued as if Phyllis were actually listening.  Perhaps the people wouldn’t realize how unimportant I was.  “Yes, my second day I got into a big fight, trying to protect my co-worker.”

Someone stopped behind me momentarily.  “I’m fine, Phyllis.  And you?”  Must have been Wendy.

This happened to me too often to be coincidence.  People would ask me a question and my answers were so uninteresting they could not be bothered to listen to them.  It made me feel small, like an ant in the shadow of an elephant’s footstep.  I straightened my shoulders and continued, “The person grabbed hold of my co-worker’s hair, took her down to the floor, and started snapping her head back and forth.  I jumped on top of the bad-guy and the fight was on.”

“I’m great, Wendy.” Phyllis grinned past me, occasionally flicking her eyes to mine to encourage me to go on.  “It is nice to see you and your kids.  They’ve really grown.”

“Yup,” I explained calmly.  “It took three deputies to break up the fight.”

Wendy and her kids must have moved along because Phyllis glanced at me again.  “Oh?”

“It was a rude beginning to my new job,” I said.

“Oh, I can imagine.” Her gaze slid past me again.  “Bill, how the heck are you?”

“When they pulled us apart, there was blood everywhere," I continued just to be obstinate.  "and a big wad of my co-worker's hair.  They rushed me to the hospital,” I added as an afterthought.  No reaction from Phyllis.  “And then I was in traction for a month.”

“Hey, Phyllis,” Bill barked.  “I’m the heck fine.  Glad to see you here.”

“Then they released me to one of those convalescent hospitals where I underwent extensive physical therapy,” I went on, folding my arms across my chest, juggling the cola, and jutting my chin.

“Glad to see you too, Bill,” Phyllis gushed.

Really warming to my subject, I plowed on, “I only just regained the use of my legs. 
The entire medical staff was amazed.”

“Where’s your wife, Bill?”

“Considering they were thinking I’d lose a kidney.”

“She’s working,” Bill answered, his voice distant now, as if he’d kept walking.

“But they think if I’m really careful I should retain my sight.”

“Bummer,” Phyllis called to Bill.

“But other than that, everything is going well,” I finished, sending her a friendly smile.

Phyllis returned her gaze to me.  “Wonderful,” she said.  “Glad everything’s going well.”

As I walked away, I heard snickering from the row behind Phyllis, and a few guffaws.  I felt a thrill of victory.  Someone had been interested, even if it was a stranger.  It gave me a new sense of confidence. I started my first novel shortly after. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A scream in the night

I'm still shivering and my hair is wet.

This evening I was returning from a writing event, speeding past farms and dairies, not quite out as far as the wildlife refuge (my house), when I spotted in the headlight beams what looked like some eyes beside the road.  Then they were gone.  Ever vigilant for the crafty black tailed deer who wait until they see my car coming and then merrily dash out to scare the living daylights out of me, I braked.  Hard.  As the car slid to a stop, I saw the swish of a long, dark tail, and a head lift briefly before going back to grazing.  This was no deer.  It was a horse.

Study of Wild Horses--Albert Bierstadt  1830-1902

Scenes of chasing my neighbor's rambunctious horses in the middle of the night in my youth flashed through my mind.  There are no street lights out in the wilds of the Vancouver hills and people travel in excess of 55 MPH.  Not me, of course, but others  I.turned on my emergency flashers and pulled into the next driveway, leaving my car near the road, and walked back toward the horse, cooing sweet horse nothings.  The beast turned his rear toward me and trotted ten feet away.  Yup, I thought.  This is going to be a problem.

The gravel crunched as I picked my way up the driveway to the house.  It was nearly 9 PM, but I could see  light through the windows.  I rang the bell.  Rang it again, stamping to keep out the cold.  No one came to the door and I could hear a car screaming down the road.  I jogged back down to the pavement and tried to wave to the driver to slow down but I was wearing all black and I know they couldn't see me.  I squeezed my eyes closed and hunched my shoulders as it flew past, dreading the thud of 900 lbs of horse meeting the bumper of a vehicle traveling at 60 MPH.

No impact, and the car careened away, unimpeded.

I crossed in the darkness and found another driveway.  It was misting, and I hugged my rain jacket against me in the 45 degree air.  A fire burned cheerfully in the fireplace and several lights were on in the back rooms.  I pounded on the door.  Seven times.  A doberman's face appeared on the other side of the glass in the door, but the wild barking did not bring anyone to investigate.  I knocked again.  Nothing, except the dog, teeth bared and frantic barking.

I walked back to the street, crossed and searched for the horse, but didn't see it.  Back in the car, I retraced my route, turned around about a quarter of a mile away and returned.  The horse was back beside the road, grazing again.  I pulled into a new driveway, lights flashing, got out and groped my way up to the door.  A light came one.  The door opened.

"Sorry to bother you but there is a horse loose beside the street and I know if it were mine, I'd want to be told--"

"Oh my God.  A horse?  Just one?  Where?"

I pointed down the road.  We couldn't see it, but her light was shining into a paddock beside her house, where a white horse pranced back and forth, tail high, and whickered nervously.  "Oh my God, it's mine.  Two of them are out."

She leaped off the porch, yelping out names.  "Where are they? Where are they?" she called to me.

I jogged back to the road, and make out the silhouette of one, its head up, ears pricked forward.  It started dancing away from me.  "Over there,  It is over there."  I pointed, but it was too dark to see.  "Here, here, this way." I called.

Then I saw headlights coming.   In each direction.  She saw them too.  Her voice rose an octave as she hollered for her horses.  The loose horse started to canter across the street.  The horse in the paddock paraded  back and forth along the fence, whinnying and snorting.  Out of nowhere a second dark, shape bounded past into the street.  The headlights closed in from both directions.  The woman bellowed, her arms windmilling in the light beams, "Look out! Look out!  Slow down."

Hooves pounded down the street, horses whinnied, engines roared, the woman screamed. Panic lit the night as the two cars screamed past, finally seeing us when they were nearly on top of us, slamming on their brakes, skidding.  The horses, at full gallop, sped away until they were out of headlight beams and only their hooves flying over the pavement could be heard.

A man's voice shouted in question.  "Horses loose," I called as I jogged back to my car and backed out onto the road, the flashers still going.  "They went that way, I shouted, pointing and hoping he could see.  I inched down the road and caught a glimpse of horses and the woman running, running, and I knew there was a corner ahead and could see headlights approaching it.

The horses veered off the main road down a dirt one, the woman still chasing.  I angled my car across the junction, still with the flashers going, and jumped out, prepared to head them off if they turned around, to prevent them from getting back onto the road.   A car sneaked by me, the man holding ropes.  Another neighbor jogged down the street.  "What is going on?"

"Horses loose," I shouted.  I could just make him out as he got closer.  "Wait," I said, and fished my warm jacket out of my car.  "The horse owner has no jacket on."  I held it out.  He grabbed it on the way past.

Another car pulled up.  The driver rolled down the passenger window.  "Horses loose." I called.

She threw the car into park and leaped out.  "How many?" she asked as she hurdled past.

"Two," I said. "And they disappeared to the right about twenty yards in front of you."

Then all was quiet.  The cold seeped into my light raincoat.  Mist coated my hair.  For ten minutes I paced in the blinking yellow light of my car's flashers and wondered how long it would be before my battery suffered, stamping my feet, and blowing warm air on my hands, alert for the sounds of hooves.  Another ten minutes later a car slowly approached, and stopped at the side of the road, his beams spotlighting me.  I advanced and could just barely make out a light bar on the roof.

"Horses loose," I warned.

"Yeah, I know.  I got the call.  How many?"

"Two, and there are about five people out chasing them.  They took off to the right about twenty yards down this road."

"Okay, I'm going to go take a look," he said.

"Can you get around me?  I'm trying to block them from getting back onto the main road if they come back this way."

"Yeah, I can get by."

He squeezed past in his car and inched his way down the dirt road.

I was shivering now, hugging my jacket to me and wishing I'd worn a warmer one.  About five minutes later a white apparition materialized behind me, giving me a start until I realized it was a woman in a white ski parka.  "Where are they?"

I repeated the directions to her, but just as she started down the road, we heard the steady clopping of horses at a sedate walk.  Then we saw them come out from behind some bushes, and there were definitely two-legged shapes beside each horse.  As they got closer, I saw the owner, her hand gripping the rope around one horse and the other hand gripping my jacket.

"You didn't need the jacket?" I asked.

"No.  But thanks.  Before someone brought ropes I thought I could use it to rope one of them."  She held it out.  "I'm Denise."

"I'm Melanie." I took the jacket.

"Thank you so much for stopping.  I'm sure they'd be dead by now if you hadn't."

I followed them back a quarter of a mile, with my flashers going until they were safe in the paddock.

"Merry Christmas," I called as I did a three-point-turn in the driveway of the first house I had tried.

"And to you too," echoed out of the dark.

Can I list this as volunteer work on my resume?