Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Jeep Wave

In 2004 I became a Jeep Wrangler owner when I bought my 2002 on eBay. Before that, I had owned a 96 Cherokee that I’d gotten brand new when I graduated college. But the Wrangler was different. For one, it was smaller. Getting into parking spaces on the street was a lot easier. The next major difference was the ability to take the roof off the car and drive with the top down and the doors off.

But the biggest difference, whether the roof is on or off, is the wave. Jeep Wrangler owners wave at each other when passing on the street. I first noticed it the first time I drove my Wrangler to work, the day after I brought it home from the car auction place in Wallingford, Connecticut. Puzzled, I kept driving. Then it happened again and again until I caught on.

I shared a secret connection with all other Wrangler drivers in America. I began to wave at other Wrangler owners, and a few of them flashed the peace sign back to me. I tried the peace sign for a few days, but it felt contrived, so I stuck with the half wave while holding the wheel.

I’ve had my Wrangler for five years now, and the Jeep wave still makes me smile when I receive one. In a world where so many people are focused on their own lives, every so often a stranger in another car, trying to get to where ever it is they’re going, waves hello to me. I interrupt my train of thought as I am on my way to where ever it is that I am going and I wave back. It’s a just a tiny spot of friendliness in my day that often interrupts a bad mood I might be in, and I hope it does the same for someone else.

These last few days I haven’t been driving the Jeep, in the wake of getting rear ended on Friday night. I’ve been driving our pickup truck to work, a bright red Ford F150 with a cap on the bed that I’ve nicknamed “The Meat Wagon.” But I still wave to other Jeep owners, out of habit, as I drive to and from work. And now they don’t wave back.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Excuse Me While I Lick My Walls

It all started with a crappy fridge. The house came with a crappy side by side fridge and freezer. It was ridiculously impractical, as both sides were impossibly narrow. We couldn't fit a left over pizza in the fridge side, nor could we fit a frozen pizza in the freezer side--a huge problem due to our excessive pizza consumption.

We lusted after the french door style refrigerators until we bit the bullet and bought one a few weeks ago. It was great, and humongous. It wouldn't fit in the space where the old one lived. We tore out the cabinet over the fridge, which was fine because all we kept up there was a gigantic bag of chocolate chips and my medicine from last year's bout of hot tub herpes.

The wall wasn't painted all the way behind the cabinet. So then we knew we had to paint.

If I was going to paint the walls, I may as well paint the ceiling first, right?

I spent a lot of time looking at the ceiling, and happened to notice the disgustingly filthy recessed lights. One of them had a reddish brown stain smeared on the side, and now I wonder if my kitchen was a crime scene before we bought the house.

Here's the before picture. After the ceiling's been painted and Todd yanked out one of the horrible recessed lights.

Then we haggled over the paint color. I envisioned a cheerful color. In fact, I won a poker hand in which the stakes were the color of the kitchen. I won apple green walls. But Todd was right about his initial assertion about color, and he was proven right by a $5 piece of software I bought at Lowes. (Totally worth it if you want to paint a room and can't pick out a color!)

Now my kitchen is the color of a chocolate milkshake. And all I want is a chocolate milkshake. Eventually my lack of fitting into my jeans will likely force me to repaint to a less suggestive color.

Todd had to frankenstein up these light fixtures. He cobbled together various components that I never would have dreamed of putting together. And it totally works. I don't have the heart to turn them off, and I am a complete nazi about turning the lights off when we're not in the room.

I think I just heard angels sing.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009


It was Friday afternoon, and I stopped to run a few errands on the way home from work. I sat in the idling jeep at a traffic light, listening to “All Things Considered” on NPR. The sun shone brightly as it prepared to set in the west, directly in front of me.

Then my car lurched forward, and a loud crunching noise filled my ears. It took a moment to realize what had happened. I’d been hit from behind. I firmly braced my foot on the brake pedal to avoid hitting the car in front of me, but the force was too great and I nudged the car in front of me as well.

I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw a sedan with a demolished windshield and two spent air bags. “What the hell??” I howled as I shifted into park and turned off the ignition.

“Are you OK?” the teenager from the car behind me stammered as he raced toward me. “OhmyGodI’msosorryareyouOK?” he fumbled.

“First of all,” I began, “Let’s get you out of the street. We’re OK, let’s not make it worse.” He looked down and realized he’d been standing in the middle of the road.

“Oh yeah, good idea,” he muttered. “OhmyGod! I have to call my mom!” he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.

“No, you need to call the police, and then call your mom,” I instructed.

“Oh yeah! Good idea!” He dialed the phone and tried to explain where we were. “I don’t know what street I’m on…”

“We’re on Cowesett Road, at the intersection with route 2. We’re near the Stop and Shop plaza,” I calmly instructed. Then I saw that the interior of his car was smoking. It looked like the passenger side air bag was smoldering. I feared it was a lit cigarette, forgotten in the excitement.

“Um, dude? Your car’s on fire. You really need to go put that out, OK?”

“Aaah!” he scrambled into the car. He fidgeted with the air bag with one hand while holding the cell phone with the other.

“I need your proof of insurance,” commanded the little old lady from the car in front. I don’t recall hitting her at all, really. She insists that her car is scratched from where mine hit her. I inwardly rolled my eyes.

The police came, followed by an ambulance and a fire truck—apparently the dispatcher at the Warwick PD overheard me say “Dude, your car is on fire.”

The teenager then groaned into the phone, “Mom, then can you send someone to pick me up? I’ve just been in a car accident. I need help!”

We moved the cars into a nearby parking lot, to get out of traffic, where we filled in our police reports.

“Can I have my license and registration back?” the old lady asked the policeman.

“Ma’am, you can have them back when I am finished with them. How’s that?”

The teenager’s mom pulled into the parking lot, “I have to work tonight, and I’m not even dressed yet!” she growled at her son.

“Mom, can’t you call work and tell them that your son’s been in a car accident? I’m sure they’ll understand.”

Pretend Me asked the mom, “What the hell is wrong with you? You haven’t even asked him if he’s OK, you stupid cow!” Real Me shut the hell up and sat in her car.

I filled in my police report as the teenager asked “OK, now what did the cop say to write about what happened?”

“Dude, you were there! You know what happened,” I joked. He laughed. He was too nervous to write his report and he paced in the parking lot trying to collect his thoughts. “Crap! I’m gonna get a huge ticket!”

“Well, that’s what happens when you hit someone with your car,” the mom chimed in, supportively.

We stood around while the cop did his thing with the police reports, then said “OK, I am not going to cite you. I believe that the sun blinded you.” The mom took off, obviously freaked out about getting to work on time. Seemingly unconcerned, she left him with a car that had more crack than windshield.

I walked back to our cars with the teenager, “You got lucky, punk” I joked.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Turtle Named Jeffrey

Jeff is a friend of the family. He’s 10 and he follows me around and tells me everything that pops into his mind. He describes in excruciating detail his favorite video game, “And then on level 4 there’s a monster. You have to shoot it, but it turns into a million little monsters and you have to shoot all those too…” he excitedly raves on.

On Saturday, Jeff walked up to me at the party, and tilted his head down. I said hi to him, and asked him how school was going so far. He silently shrugged and mashed his toe into the gravel on the driveway. I’ve seen this behavior before. In fact, I’ve seen it just about every time I see him. He starts off shy. Then as the day wears on he talks more and more.

“What’s with the silent treatment?” I joked. “Normally I can’t shut you up.” His eyes glistened and his face lit up with a smile. I knew that in a few minutes he’d warm up and I’d hear all about everything.

Todd and I took him out on the dive boat. “Wanna steer?” Todd asked. Jeff looked at the wheel timidly, but took it. We stood by to guide him.

“See that red can up there?” I asked, pointing out the navigation marker. “Keep that on our left, OK?”

He caught on fast and steadily drove the boat across the clear water of Lake Champlain.

“You’re doing really well,” I said encouragingly. “You have a very steady hand.” And he did. He looked like he’d been driving boats all his life. His face looked relaxed, even though I knew he was intently concentrating on where he was going.

Todd took the wheel while Jeff and I sat on the bow.

“Did I really do a good job steering?” he asked. He’s 10 now, and he’s beginning to know the difference between when people mean that he’s doing something well, or when they’re just saying it because he’s a kid.

“If you weren’t, I wouldn’t have told you so,” I replied. He smiled, encouraged. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of people drive boats for the first time. And do you know what they do?” He shook his head. “They steer like this,” and I demonstrated how people turn the wheel sharply left and right. “They get nervous about trying to stay in a straight line, so they over-steer. You didn’t do anything like that. You did great, and I am very impressed.” He looked relieved. And another emotion crossed his face. He was proud of having done something new so well.

When we got back to the party, he asked me to play hide and seek. “Jeff, look at those girls over there. They’re your age. Why not go play with them?” He shrugged and mashed his toe into the dirt. I sat down with a beer and listened to the guitarist. When I turned around Jeff was talking to the girls. Later on they were chasing each other.

The guitarist stopped playing. Dinner was over. The sun was setting and the DJ began to play inside. The girls Jeff was playing with went inside to dance. He didn’t want to dance. He sat outside in the dark.

“Jeff, here are your choices. Either go hang out in the boat, or go inside where they’re dancing. You can’t hang out here in the dark on your own.”

He grudgingly went inside and sat in the corner. His new friends were dancing, but he was too shy to dance. One of them sat down to talk to him, and he continued to pout.

“Look! One of the girls is sitting with Jeff,” Todd pointed out. “No! Don’t look!” he laughed.

Another 10 minutes or so went by, and Todd said, “Holy crap, Jeff is dancing.” I clapped my hands and jumped up and down. Even though Jeff was dancing in the corner, behind a pole, he was still dancing. The girl was near him, and two of her girlfriends moved the party closer to them.

Todd and I went outside for air, and watched through the doorway as Jeff made his way into the middle of the dance floor. He was dancing with three girls and had a smile on his face. His dancing was slightly out of time and jerky, but I could tell he was having the time of his life.

He dropped into a split, and then spun on his butt. Then he stood and resumed dancing. The girls cheered and he grinned broadly. The split maneuver appeared to work, and he did it over and over again. The three girls whooped in approval.

Eleven o’clock rolled around, Jeff was starting to wind down.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked.

“No!” he stood up and began to dance again. I knew he was getting tired, and I knew his dad wouldn’t want him up so late.

We said goodnight to the girls, and made our way down the dock to the houseboat we were going to sleep on. He scurried onto the top bunk, excited and unable to sleep.

Until we turned the lights out, and we all drifted to sleep.


Monday, September 21, 2009


Sydney, Australia 10 September 1994

It was a Saturday night like any other in Sydney. The dorm I was living in had organized a pub crawl for that night and I, along with a large crowd of American and Australian students, boarded the city bus bound for downtown Sydney.

I don’t remember the details of where we went, but the idea was that we’d spend an hour at this pub, then an hour at the next, then the next and continue for a half dozen or so pubs. It was just long enough to get a drink, or two if you were ambitious, and then the crowd would move on to the next pub on the list. We pulled our hand-drawn photocopied maps out of our pockets, they were harder to decipher after each stop on the crawl.

I successfully completed the crawl and boarded the bus with my illegally gotten student rate bus pass. American students weren’t allowed to have them, only the Australians. I risked detection from a random bus inspector every time I rode on the bus, but I couldn’t resist the allure of a half rate bus fare. At the wee hours of September 11, I stumbled up the stairs to my 4th floor room. It was conveniently located right across the hall from the stairs, and one door away from the communal hallway payphone. I squinted as I tried to read the small note taped to my door. It was written in blue ink, in impeccably neat handwriting.

“Congrats BJ!! You’re an auntie!! Call home.”

I didn’t bother to unlock my door, and instead scrambled to the phone. I frantically dialed the international calling code, the calling card number, and drunkenly navigated the ridiculously complicated process of calling home to Connecticut.

“Mom! It’s me! I just got the news!”

“It’s a girl!” she cheered into the phone. She gave me the number of my sister in law’s room at a hospital in Hartford.

Your dad answered the phone, and you were crying in the background. I started crying too.

“Her name is Magdolene Jeane, and she’s perfect!” your Dad raved. “She’s so beautiful!”

Months later my brother sent me a video that was shot on the morning of your baptism. It was December, and I was in the throes of the Australian summer. I was living in a flat down the road, because the dorm was closed for the summer. The flat came equipped with a TV and VCR, but the VCR’s format was different than it was in America. I could hear the audio, but couldn’t get the picture. My flatmate Vanessa and I tried to get it to work, and I began to cry because I could hear your dad talking, but all I could see were the static-y squiggly lines.

I ejected the tape and ran to the media center in the library on campus. They had a machine that would show American tapes. I located it, and slid the tape into the VCR. With the headphones firmly in place on my ears, I pressed the play button.

Your dad’s voice guided me through the house until the camera panned to an infant giggling and bouncing in one of those jumpy swing things suspended in the doorway.

“And there’s my baby!” he cooed. His hairy hand extended from behind the camera and caressed your face as you smiled at your dad and the camera. Tears streamed down my face, and I laughed at the same time.

I didn’t meet you until you were 10 months old. You tottered up to me, after having just learned to walk. Without a hint of shyness, you smiled at me as I picked you up and held you for the first time.

And now you’re 15. You’re cool. You’re poised. You’re whipsmart. And I am so very proud of you.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What If?

It's this question that makes me daydream.

A few months ago I was having a lousy day at work. I went to Petco to get the boys some dog food during lunch break. I passed by the candy rack then stopped to look at it more closely. Reese's peanut butter cups promised me a chance to win $2.5 million.

"What if I won?" I asked myself. I bought the candy and walked out to the car. After I dumped the sack of dog food in the back, I sat in the driver's seat.

"What if I open this candy bar and win $2.5 million?" My mind drifted to what I would write on my resignation letter. Then it went on to the first day without having to go to work. What would I do on that day? I wouldn't get up at 5:30 to exercise, that's for sure. I could do it later on in the morning when it wasn't "just to get it over with."

I could work on my book, then on my next one. And then the next one after that. And I wouldn't feel pressured to do something to earn money while I did that.

I could pay off the house. I could renovate it without having to budget.

I could make a donation to the Humane Society, or to Save the Bay.

I probably wouldn't buy a new car. But I probably would take the one I have for long multi-week road trips.

I imagined freedom. There would be no asking for permission to use my vacation time. There wouldn't even be vacation time. It would just be called time.

And that time would be spent canoeing the length of the Connecticut River, sailing the eastern seaboard, and then driving with the top down through the desert.

I tope open the wrapper, then started the car and then went back to work.

The peanut butter cups tasted good anyway.