Thursday, October 20, 2005

Who Reads This Crap Anyway?

Dear Diary,

I have opened your pages to the world.

I’ve thrown away the key.

No one was interested in you before

And as for now, why should they be

curious about my life and my hours

spent twisting thoughts into words?

You once held all my secrets, my dreams,

desires, hopes both realistic and absurd.

But I have no secrets left, dear Diary, I’ve

offered and bared my soul and was kidding myself

in believing someone cared.

Monday, October 17, 2005

What I Wish I’d Said to the Desperate Housewife

The redheaded woman with eyes as green as a Jesus Christ lizard called to me from the back of the tourist bus. “Pssst, Michele,” she said. I wasn’t sure I heard it the first time, however, the second time she uttered my name, I knew I had to turn around.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like a desperate housewife?”

“Excuse me?”

“On the TV show. You look just like one of the women on Desperate Housewives.”

Self-consciously, I smoothed my coiling, rain forest-infused hair and furrowed my brow. “Which one?” was all I could think to ask. The redhead didn’t know any of their names—the characters or the actresses who played them—so she used description, assuming I was familiar with the show and could figure it out. Not an invalid assumption.

Let’s see. I live in America. I watch television and read a couple newspapers per day. I’m a white, middle-aged wife and mother, and I reside in an affluent, suburban community. It’s virtually impossible for me NOT to know many details about the women of Wisteria Lane. The redhead, by the way, was a beautiful woman from Seattle who, in a soft-spoken manner, took every opportunity on the guided nature tour we had just completed to cut down her fat, sweaty and smoking husband. She looked more like a television star than I could ever hope to.

As she configured her description, I sat up a little straighter and my imagination put me into red carpet evening gowns and Emmy Award show glamour. Did she mean the tall and regal redhead who could whip together a gift basket faster than Martha Stewart? The cute, doe-eyed klutz who looks better in T-shirts and blue jeans than any other woman in America? The sexy-little nymph who turns the heads of teenage gardeners?

“It’s the one with the kids,” said the redhead. “The haggard one.”

“Yes, she does look like her,” chimed in a squat woman with corkscrew curls and an Olivia Newton-John 1970s workout outfit. “She’s the slender blonde who can never quite handle what’s going on around her.” This woman looked to her traveling companion, her thirty-something, bookish and humorless daughter, for confirmation. The daughter only frowned, clearly unwilling to admit she knew anything about some silly television program depicting women who had absolutely nothing in common with her.

“The haggard one?” I asked, no doubt slouching back into my tourist seat.

“Well,” said the redhead, “she cleans up nicely.”

Not knowing whether to be flattered or insulted, I simply answered her question. “No,” I said. “No one has ever told me I look like a desperate housewife.”

As she followed her enormous, wet and smelly husband off the bus and into the lobby of her hotel, the redhead didn’t turn to say “good-bye.” Before the door of the van slid shut, I felt like calling out to her, “Hey Red! Has anyone ever told you that you act like a desperate housewife?”

But, of course, I didn’t say that. I just turned to my handsome husband, saw my content reflection in his eyes and smiled as if posing for a camera.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

E.F. L.— English as a First Language

How lucky I am to have English as my first language. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many countries and am continually grateful to find that most persons, even in the remote corners of the globe, understand enough English (mixed with universal sign-language) to meet my communications needs. The consistently most universal word: “OKAY!” Everyone says it and everyone knows what it means. It’s a great, great word.

I’ve taken many years of classroom Spanish and rote memory vocabulary words are etched in my brain. I don’t always get the verb conjugations correct, but I get by. Here in Costa Rica there have been very few incidents of miscommunication. When I ask questions in Spanish, the answers come in English. Today, however, was the first day that I actually received a response or two in Spanish and I’m not sure if the speaker noticed my ojos bug out of my head while I worked quickly to translate his response.

We were on a long and excruciatingly boring tour at the Manuel Antonio National Park. When our tour guide pointed out the first of far too many sleeping sloths parked atop the tree branches, I asked in Spanish, how many toes it had. On the night before we left on our trip, our eight-year old quizzed me on a take-home packet of Spanish words given to her by her Spanish teacher and I distinctly remember being surprised that the word for fingers and toes was the same . . . but made a mental note. Happily, it came in handy.

“¿Cuantos dedos tiene?” I asked, practically under my breath.

“Dos,” he said, spinning around and boring his Costa Rican brown eyes into me. That I understood. I can’t tell you what else he said, but I was certainly pleased that he answered the question I wanted to know en Español.

After the tour, we ate lunch and I had Sex on the Beach. I had no idea what I was ordering, but I simply had to say the name of this drink out loud while reading the menu, and the next thing I knew, a tall, tropical fru-fru drink (the kind with cherries and an umbrella) was set before me. I drank it, got drunk immediately and then went souvenir shopping. I wanted to buy something for the folks taking care of our children and our dog, as well as something for the children (and not the dog).

At a souvenir shop we’d been eyeing for a few days we found the perfect shirt for our 10-year-old, which means it was BLUE and not too girly. The added bonus is that it had something to do with soccer, her favorite sport. The only problem is that the large size looked too small and I didn’t want to give her a legitimate excuse not to wear it. Speaking what I thought was clear Spanish to the shop girl, she assured me that large was the biggest and only size they had in that particular shirt. We were about to leave when a slightly older, plumper woman stepped into the transaction and insisted that the large shirt would be big enough for our ten-year-old.

“This shirt is my size,” she said in perfect English.

“No way,” I said, glancing at her well-endowed chest. She was easily three times as thick as our daughter.

“Sure it is,” she said. “I’ll try it on and show you.”

I laughed, thinking she was nuts, and watched as she stuffed her bulbous arms through the sleeves. Within seconds her dyed red hair poked through the neck hole and she wiggled it onto her body. Spreading her arms in a “ta-da” motion, she broke into a smile and said, “See! I told you.”

Damn! She wasn’t kidding. The blue soccer shirt fit her perfectly. And it looked . . . great!

“She just stretched it out,” whispered my husband. “I think now it’ll be the right size. Let’s buy it.”

“Fine,” said the woman as she took off the shirt and placed it on the counter. “And what else can I get for ya?”

I laughed and tried for a moment to remember where we were. “You have a very American accent,” I said. “Where did you learn English?”

“Jersey,” she said. “I’m from Costa Rica originally, but I lived in New Jersey for years. So, you wanna pay in colones or dollars?”

Like English responses to my Spanish, I wondered if I paid her in Costa Rican colones if she’d give me change in American dollars. Compromising, I decided to charge it to my VISA. And when I presented the card, she smiled and said, “OKAY!”

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Costa Rican Canopying Coneheads

Mention you’re going to Costa Rica and the first question you hear from anyone who knows anything about this Central American country is, “are you planning to go canopying?”

“What, pray tell, is canopying?” was my response.

An Internet pal, someone from Guyana with whom I sometimes chat, zipped me a photo of helmeted individuals wearing harnesses and standing on a platform up high in a forest. She said since she lived on the edge of a rain forest, she knew what canopying was. And apparently, it’s all the rage in the land of rain forests. This was confirmed when we arrived in the San Jose airport and in the customs area there was a life-sized, three-dimensional display of this signature endeavor.

Canopying is an activity that has you climbing to the treetops to perch upon a variety of manmade platforms. Well-trained guides use carabineer clips, cables and cords to attach you to a pulley straddling “zip lines” that go from tree to tree. With a little jump, you’re on your way sailing like George of the Jungle through the trees from platform to platform. All you have to remember to do is lean back and keep your feet up, and then Weeeeeeeeee!

I felt like a kid on a playground going down a slide for the first time, and wanted to do it again and again and again.

From a first timer’s perspective, canopying is as fun as scuba diving, takes less effort and equipment, and certainly less study. They’ll let any able-bodied individual participate—including a group of oversized cruise ship vacationers from Canada. The brochure says they’ll even let your five-year-old do it. And the little kids certainly look cuter in the get-ups they make you wear.

Told to wear long shorts or pants, I chose to wear capri pants, which, as soon as a stud named Alejandro outfitted me, were cinched up tight in a crotch-pinching harness. (If I were to do it again, I’d definitely rethink the thong underwear.) Aside from the Barbarella straps, by far, the most unflattering aspect of the getup was the bright orange conehead helmet teetering atop my skull. I knew my husband looked kind of funny, but I didn’t realize I looked like such a dork until I saw photos of myself on a CD on which we spent 40 bucks.

We just viewed this CD in the comfort of our beautiful bungalow. The array of pictures began with stunning snaps of the flora and fauna of the land: toucans, monkeys, sloths, coatis, hummingbirds, butterflies, poisonous dart frogs, flowers of every color, teak trees, palm trees and ferns, ferns, ferns. We oohed and aahed at the pretty colors of everything and laughed at the human-like features of the white-faced monkeys. And right after a monkey’s face filled the screen, the very next photo was a close-up of my husband’s face. His clear blue eyes protruded with excitement, his smile was wide and, his “package” was conspicuously outlined by the harness for all to see; however, what stood out even more than that package was the STUPID, bright orange conehead helmet atop his head. NOT attractive. And trust me, I looked even stupider.

I’m not sorry we purchased the CD. It’ll be fun to show our kids, who aren’t yet aware of vanity and probably won’t think we look goofy. And frankly, taking the opportunity to relive the memories of a fun-filled day swinging through the trees will make the purchase worthwhile. But for now, my little zip line trip through the jungle reminded me of the fact that LIVE is always better than Memorex.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Nobody Looks Up in the Internet Café

Had my first experience in an Internet Café in Costa Rica. With directions swimming in my head—go past the escuela, past the futbol field, and on la isquerda you’ll see a sign reading Le Chante—we spotted a little orange, concrete building perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Putting the rented Daihatsu in park, we read a sign saying “Abierto a 1:30." Open at 1:30, still fifteen minutes away. This was fine. We could easily fill fifteen minutes. We went back down the road to the supermercado and bought some Pringles. My husband and I have a thing about eating Pringles potato chips in every country we visit. I’m eating them as I type. Crunch. Crunch.

Upon our return the Internet Café was in full swing. One couple in the corner laughed over e-mails, another couple huddled over their computer, clearly into some heavy research. Since I wanted to use my own computer, I asked the young boy running the shop if he had wireless.

“¿Tienes wireless?” I asked. Believing high tech to be its own language, it didn’t occur to me to try and come up with a Spanish word for Wireless. But it did me no good. El niño had no idea what I was talking about.

So, we pulled out the laptops and watched his face immediately brighten. He led us to one of the computers, bent to the floor and handed me a cable, and motioned for me to sit. The cable was a USB cable, which I promptly plugged into my laptop. I called up my browser and received no connection. My husband then picked up the USB cable and followed it to the source. It led to a mouse. Oops. I don’t know the Spanish word for mouse, but of course I’m wondering now if it sounds something like the word “wireless.”

Rather than try and communicate further, my able-bodied husband got down on his hands and knees, found the cat-five cable and plugged me in. And within a few slow, Spanish seconds, I was online. That was my first five minutes. I spent forty more uploading blogs and book reviews (I have a lot of time to read and write on vacation) and checking my e-mail. all at about the speed of an afternoon siesta.

From the moment I logged on, I completely forgot about the couple in the corner, the couple doing research, my husband scrambling on the floor for another cat-five and el niño behind the cash register monitoring my minutes. I was dining heavy at the Internet Café.

Our sessions at El Chante cost about three bucks. Por todo. This led us to believe that time may be slow, but it sure is cheap in Third World Cyberspace.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

For-Four My Irish Twin

There are fifteen days in October each year where I am the same age as my sister. These fifteen days begin today and we are both 44 years old.

Back in the days when age was important, my younger sister (I have never been inclined to refer to her as my little sister) was quick to correct me whenever I said we were a year apart. “Eleven-and-a-half months,” she’d say while thrusting out her lower jaw and standing a little taller. “Yes, eleven-and-a-half months,” I’d cede. I simply had to give her rightful ownership to those two weeks qualifying us as Irish Twins.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what it means to be Irish Twins, it’s when siblings are born into a family in less than a year’s time. It’s not essential that the offspring be of Irish descent, however, where we came from in Irish-Catholicville, it was a fairly common occurrence. Unlike biological twins born minutes or hours apart, the nearest in age Irish Twins can be is about nine months and the far end of that scale is, well, about eleven-and-a-half months.

My sister and I share common genes as well as stories about jeans. I often refer to the times when she stole my favorite blue jeans and used a stapler to hem them to an acceptable length for her shorter legs. Having experienced the same life, at least for the first seventeen years, we regularly call each other to help fill in the blank spaces of our memories. We both still think it was our own pinkie finger that was smashed inside the door of the tow-truck on the day our mother’s car broke down. And the most traumatic experience I had in nursery school was the day my sister spilled soap bubbles on her arm and was sent home.

We have always been able to feel one another’s pains and humiliations, as well as each other’s triumphs and joys. Whenever something important happens in my life, it’s almost like it isn’t true until I get to share it with my Irish Twin. That’s why each day I send her an email entitled, “Today’s Blog.”

We’re thinking about writing a book together about leading parallel lives and how two people who are incredibly similar can choose very divergent paths. My sister is currently a divorced mother of three boys (including a pair of Identical-Irish Twins) and lives in the rainy Pacific Northwest. I’m in the arid Southwest, the married mother of two girls. Sometimes while watching them play together, I squint my eyes and imagine them as my sister and myself experiencing childhood together, and it is my strongest wish that this pair of sisters will grow up and have the same level of love and respect that I share with my Irish Twin, my sweet sister, Gayle.

Happy birthday, kiddo.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Breakfast in the Rain Forest
I woke up in the Sonoran Desert and went to sleep in the Costa Rican Rain Forest. In less than 24- hours, the dry skin around my pedicured toes has disappeared and my arms, legs and face are as dewy the small patch of lawn in my backyard after the sprinklers have ended their cycle. It’s been a day of extremes.

We are on vacation. Six glorious days of nothing but time to do what we want. Our kids are in good hands, staying with a doctor and his wife, and our dog is staying on a ranch with the lady we call “Mother Goose.” We left our home, sat on a plane, and arrived in another world.

Costa Rica doesn’t come off as a Third World country. Second, maybe. So far, we’ve had most all the conveniences of home in the US at our fingertips and the accommodations we’ve chosen are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. But while driving out of the major city of San Jose to get to the touristy areas on the Pacific Coast, we breathed in enough truck exhaust to get down on our knees and praise the EPA back in the States. Further, while taking a required detour through the little coastal town of Jacó, the main road had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Trying to avoid them and keep our tires from going flat was all that was on our minds. We received verbal and written warnings about not letting anyone help you try to change a flat tire. The other warning was to never leave luggage unattended inside the car. ¿Por qué? I asked. “Banditos?” “No,” responded the man helping me load my suitcase into the rental. “People just like to take what doesn’t belong to them,”

Clues You’re No Longer in a First World Country
At the airport you feel the need to turn your rings so that the gemstones protrude toward your palms.

The smell of teak wood, passion fruit, burning fires and car exhaust accompany every breath.

You speak to someone in Spanish and they respond to you in English, which you can’t understand.

You turn on the television and see Katie Curic’s voice has dropped two octaves and she’s making absolutely no sense to you.

There’s no wireless Internet in your room.

A white-faced monkey comes up to your breakfast table and steals your croissant.

Every child you see has dark hair and black eyes and is wearing a school uniform consisting of blue pants and a white shirt, and it makes you wonder how your flaxen-haired, blue-eyed children would fit in.

You ask the housekeeper to restock the mini bar and she looks at you as though you’ve just told a funny joke.

You ask your husband if he’s ever seen so many different shades of green and he takes a serious look around and says, “no.”

You don’t know the name of a single plant, flower, bird, reptile or insect, but you smile at the geckos crawling on the ceiling above your bed.

You don’t know what time it is and you don’t care.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Gross photo of the week

Friday, October 07, 2005

Carmel Chadwick and The Sidebar Story

There are certain people from our pasts who stand out more than others. Favorite teachers, for example, or the neighborhood bully who beat you up in the playground because he didn’t like it that you found him during a game of hide and seek. You remember the kid who told you to go home and call your mother a “fuck.” Or the teenager who looked so cool smoking a cigarette and then offered one to you. Everyone remembers the prom queen, the neighborhood slut and the person who kissed you for the first time.

It’s easy to recall the tabloid moments. For me, screaming headlines stream through dreams like a news banner running across the video screen of my mind.

I, however, prefer the sidebars. The little stories. Dredge up these memories at class reunions and those listening are bound to cock their heads and say things like, “how the hell did you come up with that?” I’ve told many sidebar stories about tiny, random memories—incidents long forgotten by most, but for some reason, are significant to me.

Additionally, I have a knack for remembering birthdays. If I picked up the phone on every birthday I remembered of someone with whom I went to Girl Scout camp, or someone with whom I shared a microscope or traded vocabulary words, I’d have a very big phone bill. Occasionally I’ve acted on the impulse to acknowledge the birthday of an old acquaintance. I’ve sent e-mails, made calls, even sent flowers. Most often, the response has been: “How the hell did you remember my birthday? I don’t even remember my birthdays any more.”

Which brings me to today. Today is Carmel Chadwick’s birthday. I’ve known her since first grade, and she was the smartest girl in class. She was cute, funny, had a big family full of loud and crazy characters and had a little brother who watched “Speed Racer,” on television. She was popular in high school, became class president, sat on the Homecoming Court and gave the commencement speech at our graduation. And by this time she had changed the pronunciation of her name from Car-mel´(stress on second syllable) to Car´-mul, as in caramel corn. How distinguished was that?

When I woke up today and noticed the date, October 7, I immediately thought of Carmel. But it wasn’t all her achievements that I initially recalled. It didn’t even cross my mind to wonder what she was doing today. Instead I recalled an incident in fifth grade, where we attended a parochial school in La Grange Park, Illinois, and our our teacher, Mrs. Fencil, asked us to come up with synonyms for the word “gently.”

Bobby Mastroanni came up with “easily.” Dawn Capilupo offered “smoothly.” I probably said “softly.”

Carmel waited patiently for all the regular kids to get the boring and unimaginative words out of the way before finally raising her hand.

“Yes, Carmel?” asked Mrs. Fencil.

Carmel folded her hands in her lap, raised her chin and said, “Gingerly.” She slowly pronounced every syllable, moving her lips with great exaggeration as though talking to a deaf person.

The entire class burst out laughing. We were sure she was kidding. “Gin-geeeeeeeeer-ly,” mocked Dawn, looking at me for approval.

“Very good, Carmel,” said Mrs. Fencil, bringing our laughter to a screeching halt. “Gingerly is at the very least, a seventh grade word.”

Ooooooh. A seventh grade word.

Obviously I was impressed. Impressed enough to still remember the first time I heard this word THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER.

I have a daughter in fifth grade. She’s a smart kid—maybe even the smartest in her class. She’s cute, funny, has a family of loud and crazy characters and a little sister who watches “I Love Lucy,” on television. With the memory of Carmel Chadwick fresh in my mind, I asked her to give me a synonym for the word “gently.” She’s accustomed to my little games at the breakfast table, where I quiz her on spelling words or ask her questions from the crossword puzzle. So this little quiz was nothing out of the ordinary.

“Another word for gently?” she asked. Then she looked me straight in the face and slowly pronounced every syllable of the word, “gingerly.”

I kid you not.

Wherever Carmel Chadwick is, I hope she has a happy birthday, and I sure wish I had a phone number for her so I could call and gingerly remind her that she just turned 45.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bouncy, Bouncy: The Bane of Bounced Checks

I run a seasonal business. It’s a resort in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and 65% of our sales come from cabin rentals. Most of our guests pay by credit card—everyone wants frequent flyer miles these days—but some pay cash and some pay by check. In thirteen years of running this business I can count the number of bounced checks we’ve had to deal with. It’s more than five, less than 10. Most renters stay on property for a week and I’ll get word that a check bounced prior to their departure. Therefore, I can confront the usually embarrassed perpetrator face-to-face.

“Oh my!” they often say, with a look of horror and surprise. “I’ve never bounced a check in my life.” Or something like, “that’s strange. Someone must have bounced a check to me and that’s why it happened.” No one ever says, “Oops, silly me! I’m an idiot who doesn’t think it’s important to balance my checking account and you’re just the victim of my irresponsibility.” Frankly, I don’t care what their reasons are. I just want them to make good on their payments. As soon as possible.

The only time I ever bounced a check was when I was in college. It happened during one month filled with painful and humiliating financial lessons, when I bounced not one, but five checks. There was one at the grocery store, another at the bookstore, at the local pizza joint, a sandwich shop and a watering hole. Completely unbeknownst to me, I was on a small town crime spree, garnering a reputation as a serial bouncer—and I don’t mean the kind that sits on a stool in front of a bar examining the fake I.Ds of the freshmen. After the fifth notice appeared in my mailbox, I marched into the bank to get to the bottom of this problem, where I learned that my checking account had been drained. It was drained by one check, a check for as much money as I had ever had in that account. And it was made out to my father.

“That’ll teach you to write a blank check,” my father said in response.

It taught me not to ever do that again, all right. You see, he was pissed that my dorm room phone bill was so high that month, which was my first away from home. He had agreed to pay for my first year of tuition, room and board, but apparently, his support stopped short of my need to check in with friends and family.

In time I made good on my debts and closed my checking account. I found a new bank, started a savings account and for the next four years, took full advantage of the free money orders offered to customers. Once I graduated and moved away from that town, I opened a new checking account and have never let a month go by without balancing it to the penny. And, of course, I’ve never ever again offered anyone a blank check. I have, however, offered my father more than one rubber chicken. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, a resort guest bounced a sizable check some two months ago, which has yet to be resolved. Each time I send a message asking for payment, I get a note on the day of the deadline I’ve provided saying payment is forthcoming. Today’s note read:

“My husband and I are divorcing and we have been going back and forth about who should pay this (since it was HIS parents' check to us that bounced, causing ours to you to bounce). He has finally agreed to send you $50.00 every two weeks until it is paid. This agreement is part of our temporary divorce order and is part of the court record so it WILL happen. I apologize for this mess. I've been dealing with this crap for far too long.”

Like I said earlier, I don’t care what her reasons are, I just want payment. And I certainly don’t want her to pass her “crap” onto me. If I were a big institution, I’d care even less. I’d slap some finance charges on her (him?) and perhaps get a collection agency involved. That’s what any of my creditors would do in a heartbeat. But, as the mom of a mom-and-pop operation, I have to be grateful for the correspondence and feel sorry for the split up of a different kind of mom-and-pop operation.

Think I’ll go play some basketball.