Nailing down love and Christmas

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Stand up picture frame with buttons by Mac. No nails necessary. (Cool photo taken by my brother.)

This year my husband bought a big Frasier fir for our Christmas tree. In fact, if the angel on top wasn’t so busy praying, she could reach her hand up and touch the ceiling.

Two weeks ago, the grandchild came to help decorate. The little one especially liked the lower, right side of the tree and put about a third of the ornaments there. I kept encouraging the child to branch out and decorate in other places, but a favorite part of the tree is a favorite part of the tree, grandma.

Later that evening, I noticed that several of the ornaments looked unhappy. The clay star kept poking the seashell angel, who couldn’t see because the candlestick was in the way. One of the origami angels had turned her back on both the snowman and the candy cane to pout because she was stuck way in the back. When I saw that the wooden reindeer was preparing to leap off the tree, I intervened. Nothing saddens me more than suicidal Christmas ornaments.

After putting everyone in their place as I am won’t to do, I settled into my rocking recliner as my husband reclined on the couch to “rest his eyes,” as in: Did you have a nice nap? I wasn’t sleeping. Well, you were snoring. No, I was just resting my eyes. The tree stood in the corner, not snoring, and suddenly leaned forward as if it had something to say to me. Then in a perfect imitation of my husband, it reclined on the floor in front of me, resting its lights.

My husband may be sixty, but he can still leap like a young man. He pulled the tree up and leaned it into the corner while I cleaned up the mess. We only lost one ornament, a glittery little heart that shattered, much like my little heart when I was a child and my sister broke my arm. You can read about it here . (Hi sis, and Merry Christmas.)

Thankfully, the lights pulled out of the wall socket when the tree fell because most of the water in the tree holder splashed out onto the carpet.

Husband blamed it on the cheap, piece-of-junk tree holder, so we hurried over to a big box store to find a not-a-piece-of-junk one. (Manufacturers, you are missing a large group of consumers out there by not putting “This is NOT a piece of junk” on your products.) We bought one that looked sturdy, but because you can never be too sure or too safe, after we got the tree situated in the new container, my husband nailed the tree stand to the floor. Through the carpet.

This is not the first time he has put nails in the carpet. The floors in the back bedroom squeak and to make them stop channeling mice, he drilled in special screws with break-off tops. They would not be silenced.

The tree, however, continues to stand, bearing lights and memories of Christmases past, minus that tiny heart, because when my husband says stand, he means stand, and if you don’t, he will nail you to the floor, Mr. Christmas Tree.

Now you know why I love that man. Thirty-one years ago this month, he nailed me to his heart, and I’ve been standing here beside him ever since, a little less glittery than when we started, but bearing a thousand memories of our lives together.

Merry Christmas, everyone. By reading, commenting, sharing, writing, and making me laugh and cry, you have given me many more memories to decorate my life.

(If you want to read more about trees and their kindnesses, see the post at youknewwhatimeant.)

I am not Tippi Hedren

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No, I don't want to carry on. I said I wanted carrion.

 

 

I want to tell a story about my father, but the crows won’t let me. I have to talk about them first.

 

When we lived in Tokyo, we shared the neighborhood with crows. Early risers, they would sit on wires, rooftops, or fences, watching us sideways in that way that birds do, the entire eye black, with no white part to indicate if their gaze had shifted and they had stopped watching you. Alerted by internal calendars and clocks telling them which days the wet garbage would appear, they chatted and argued until we brought out the vinyl bags stuffed with rotten food and placed them on the curb.

 

As soon as the morning offerings were laid out and we humans went back to making our breakfasts and scolding our children, who were sure to be late to school unless they woke up right now, the crows hopped down to the street or sat atop a bag and began ripping it open.  After pulling out as much garbage as possible and strewing it across the street like an open buffet, they began sampling. Occasionally a housewife would fly out of the house in her flip-flops to shoo them away, sweep up the mess, and re-bag it. More than one crow must have wondered why we put the food out in the first place if we didn’t want them to have it.

 

In some neighborhoods people nailed blue netting to a wall or telephone post and then placed the garbage bags underneath. Undaunted, the crows would poke around or through the netting and manage to pull part of a bag out from under the blue ban.  One of our neighbors hung an effigy of a crow near the collection area for a while because crows have a natural abhorrence of going near one of their dead.  The neighbor took it down after a short time. I think it may have been more unsettling to the humans than the crows.

 

In the summer, gangs of crows would meet around sunrise. Since there is no daylight savings time in Japan, that meant as early as 4:00 in the morning. Summers are hot and humid and few people have air conditioning in their bedrooms. Many sleep with very little clothing on (this is all hearsay), no covers or top sheets, and with just a fan blowing warm air across their damp bodies. Windows gape open, anxious to solicit  the slightest breeze.  Even from a distance the crows are loud, but when they are nearby, you cannot sleep through the noise.

 

I was, and still am, halfway afraid of the crows. In the park where I walked, they often lined the railing near the river and wouldn’t fly away even though they were within arm’s reach.  Now and then, one of them would set off a chorus of caws, not unlike the harsh laughter you may have heard in junior high school. The ones on the ground would hop a few paces, cock their heads, and stare. I never stared back. I know better: I’ve seen Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.”  The movie did not cause my fear as much as uncrack it. Locking eyes with birds in black trench coats, who are the size of a small dog but have sharp beaks and talons unnerved me. I felt incapable of deciphering what they were thinking, and yet believed that they could easily read my thoughts. The thoughts that said, “I am not Tippi Hedren. Do I look like a movie star? No, right? Please don’t stab me or scratch me. Oh, look. Over there! Garbage and vermin!”

 

Crow terror reached its peak in the spring. During nesting time, crows brood. In both senses of that word. They want to be left alone, and you are bothering them with your walking about like you own the neighborhood. Why are you walking about when you could be at home making garbage? So sometimes they fly straight at you, flapping their enormous wings, or jabbing at you with their hard, pointy mouths.

 

Most people don’t enjoy this kind of thing, and develop rational fears of crows. I know some of them.

 

One of my Japanese friends told me how a crow harassed her husband as he walked down a city street in Tokyo. In the crow’s opinion, the man had no business being there and should have known better, so it repeatedly flew over his head and pecked at him. I thought it might be because he looked like he was already henpecked, but she thought it had something to do with the bald spot on his head. In her theory, the crow looked down, saw the shock of hair surrounding that shiny circle on his scalp and mistakenly thought her husband was trying to carry an egg away.

 

That’s why I had to write about crows today. My father had a bald spot just like that on the back of his head. And one of these days, I’m going to tell you a story about that.

 

(Photo on loan from: http://www.pakshimitra.org/maharashtra-birds.html)

Double exposure

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Double exposure: two lives in one world

Mother loved to read historical romances. She would find them at the Goodwill for ten cents apiece and bring home a stack. On almost every cover, a handsome, rugged-looking man held a beautiful woman in his arms. Sometimes the man wore a Civil War uniform and held a woman in a billowing dress. Other times he wore a royal crown and cape while he embraced his queen. Ripped bodices were optional.The historcial context varied, but the story never did: the search for love ended in someone’s arms.

 

She often sat on the gray couch in the living room to read. One summer day, I sat on the arm of the couch by her while she drank her can of beer and read. It must have been a day like the one in this photo. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse. I could see the blue spider veins in her thighs as she stretched her legs out on the coffee table.

 

I started reading the last words of each sentence to amuse myself and wanted to say something to her about it, but I didn’t want to disturb her. So I would read some of the words, then wait and listen for the soft slur of her finger on the paper as she turned the pages. I looked at her profile, her beautiful nose, straight and softly rounded at the tip; her lashes thick with mascara; and her lips, parted as if ready to sip from either her beer or her book; and I wondered if she even knew I was there.

 

Immersed in her book, she had no idea that I was  reading the words with her. Her books, I thought,  must hold some secret, one that she needed to be reminded of over and over, one embrace after another.

 

For the first time that I remember, I understood that we were completely separate beings, sharing the same space, our thoughts known only to ourselves. She knew nothing about the things my sister and I whispered while we were in bed at night, the forbidden sugar that I put on my cereal before anyone else awoke, and my fear of losing people. These and thousands of other thoughts belonged only to me. As I leaned on her arm and felt her warm skin next to mine, I realized that she, too, must have whispered things in the night to my father and done things in secret that no one else knew of besides her. Inside her head another world existed, one that I knew nothing about, that I would probably never know anything about.

 

I felt like I had just awoken from a deep sleep in a strange room, not knowing exactly where I was. Everyone lived a hidden life, unknown to anyone else, and words were all that we had to find one another. We stumbled in the dark, calling out, searching for the other, reaching out, always reaching out. And sometimes, if only in books, we found solace in someone’s embrace.

 

My head felt light and I wondered if I would fall off the couch. I leaned over, kissed mother on her forehead, and went outside into the sunshine looking for an adventure before the end of my childhood summer.

 

 

I’m here to help you with holiday gift ideas

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Your mother hopes you are not, but if you are like me, you are starting to make a list for your Christmas shopping right about now. For others of you, it’s still too early; after all, there are still four full days left to shop. I understand. You enjoy the Christmas Eve ambiance at the mall: a festive version of the zombie apocalypse but with holiday lights, shopping bags, and pepper spray.

If you prefer online shopping, I’d like to share a few gift ideas from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue. In spite of its German name, it’s a U.S.-based company. I have no association, affiliation, alliance, or other alliteration with this company. In fact, I’m hoping they do not attack me for posting pictures of their products in this post.

The Aviator's Duck Down Hat

 The Aviator’s Duck Down Hat – the perfect gift for that aviator in your family who needs to duck down. “Captain, it’s the Red Baron. He’s going to shoot. Duck down now!”

The Better Winter Driving Cap

The Better Winter Driving Cap – for that driver in your life who is hoping for a better winter or possibly has a better winter than you do.

The Flying Fortress Gunner's Gloves

The Flying Fortress Gunner’s Gloves – for your three-fingered flying friends. (This is what happens when you don’t wear your duck down hat.)

The Keep Your Distance Bug Vacuum

The Keep Your Distance Bug Vacuum – for those who prefer to use electric shock to catch and release their insects. PETI (People for the Ethical Treatment of Insects) had one word for this device: stunning!

The Learn to Play Banjo

The Learn to Play Banjo – for the obsessive-compulsive person in your family who actually wants to learn how to play the banjo rather than use it to fill up that empty space in the closet.

The Marshmallow Shooter

The Marshmallow Shooter – for the busy mom who has a lot of TV shows to catch up on and is being annoyed by her children asking for a treat. “Marvin, stop your bellyaching. Stand over there and open your mouth. There. Now leave me alone. There are some matches in the kitchen you can play with.”

The Weed Whacking Golf Driver

The Weed Whacking Golf Driver – perfect for your wacky multi-tasking golfer who likes a well-trimmed golf course. Whacks both balls and weeds.

The Widemouth Weekend Bag

The Widemouth Leather Weekend Bag – for your widemouth loved one. It’s the gift that has his or her name written all over it.

You can find more gift ideas at http://www.hammacher.com/

Enjoy.

 

(Disclaimer: Hi, Mr. Hammacher Schlemmer! Happy Holidays! This is all in fun! Please don’t sue me!)

Try not to think about roaches

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There's a reason you hear that scary music in the background. (Photo courtesy of Wired.com; scary music courtesy of yearstricken's brain. Try listening harder if you can't hear it; I can.)

I’ve been giving some thought to cockroaches lately. (Notice that I didn’t begin as I so often do with something like, “Roaches are on my mind.” That is too creepy, and I would then plant a disturbing image in your mind that would be very difficult to get rid of, especially if you have ever seen Planet Earth: Caves on the Discovery Channel or on video. If you kept your eyes open during the scene in the cave that was filled with millions of roaches feasting on bat guano, you probably slept with a can of RAID beside your bed for at least a week, or possibly for the rest of your life, if you’re like me. We don’t have a lot of bat guano lying around in our bedroom, but roaches will eat just about anything. And for all I know, as I lie in bed, I may very well look like a pile of bat guano. It’s one of those questions that I find hard to ask my husband.)

 

Why am I using up my limited number of brain cells thinking about roaches? I blame it on my first grade teacher at Ascarte Elementary School, Mrs. Severe. (Yes, that was her real name; and no, she was not severe.) She has always been my favorite teacher because she taught me to read. During that time, the public school system provided education starting from first grade, not kindergarten. In the fall of the year I turned five, mother felt it was time I started school. She had put up with me all day for five years; now it was someone else’s turn. So, the school allowed me to start, with the proviso that I had to keep up.

 

Although my sister was 18 months older, she was one grade ahead of me because she was born in the middle of the year, and I was born in the beginning.  However, just as she wanted to keep a wide space between us when we shared a double bed, having just one grade between us was not wide enough for her, so she skipped a grade. We always attribute that to the fact that she is smart, but I vaguely remember that it had something to do with “cooties.” Mine, I believe.

 

But back to roaches. I lived in Okinawa, Japan for a number of years, so I am familiar with the small, scurrying kind, as well as the large, flying ones. But recently I read this article about the leaproach. This roach can leap a distance of 50 times its body length, has “extreme” bulging eyes, and its favorite food is grasshopper poop. Which leads to the important question: why I am obsessing over a leaping roach that lives in South Africa?

 

Maybe watching all those horror movies as a child created the need for the adrenaline rush that can only come through an adventure in which I face terror (or peek through my fingers at it) without backing down. Right before I am overwhelmed or overtaken, I escape and live to tell about it. Now, when I read an article about something that can scare or startle me, like leaproaches, my imagination takes over. Sure that peaceful-looking field, humming with grasshoppers, looks like a nice place to take a walk. But, folks, there are tens of thousands of roaches in there. Don’t look now, but they’re starting to leap! Somehow I always escape, finish reading the article, and not only live to tell about it, but live to write about it as well.

 

Are you dealing with the loss of imaginary friends this season?

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I am. As you may or may not know or care, I once had 265,194 imaginary Facebook followers. I checked in on them on Friday, December 16, at 2:28 p.m. and all seemed well. Tragically, one day later, they were gone.

 

Saturday morning, I woke up early and made coffee, confident that my tribe of imaginary followers had grown by the thousands during the night. I was even thinking of having a contest to let my readers guess when I would reach half a million. After checking the news on my computer, I reached for my phone for my Facebook follower fix.

 

At first, I didn’t believe it. Not one FB follower! I kept refreshing the website, expecting them to be there for me. Not having a Facebook account had lulled me into thinking I would always be popular on Facebook. When they weren’t there, I wailed, “Why me?” When that brought no response from my husband, I wailed louder. He, however, is used to my wailing and  didn’t even look up from his laptop.

 

Crushed by the loss, I called out in my most anguished voice, “The whole world is against me!” At this point, my husband looked up from his apparently-more-interesting-than-me laptop and pointed out that most of the smaller countries are neutral, so my statement was not technically true. He may have meant well, but I was not going to let logic or reason cheat me out of my imaginary sorrow.

 

Normally I do not eat chocolate early in the day nor do I recommend it. That is a slippery slope, friends, a dark chocolaty slope, almost bitter but still sweet, with extra chocolate drizzle on top. However, the magnitude of grief from losing that many imaginary followers drove me straight to the box of chocolate truffles that my husband bought for our anniversary. That plus another cup of coffee assuaged my pain, and I was able to move on. I did inform my husband that I might not be able to do any dishes on Saturday. Or cook. I still needed time (and chocolate) before I could look at my site stats again.

 

Losing over a quarter of a million followers isn’t easy; however, when they are imaginary, it is easier than I imagined.

 

I’m over them now. I know they’re out there, pretending to be friends with someone else. If you see them, say “hi,” and tell them I miss them.

 

 

Sunday morning storytime

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Michaela is the girl I would have been if I had been born in a fictional family. We are a lot alike. The main difference is that I have real memories and real pictures of my childhood. She doesn’t. All she has are stories. Linda Sue, who is smart and pretty, is her sister. Here is one of Michaela’s stories that she asked me to write down.

I’ve always been the early bird of the family. One of the chief advantages of that is being able to eat my cereal in peace and put just as much sugar on top of it as I please. Linda Sue, on the other hand, always sleeps in if she can.

In Sunday School, they taught us that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory. Apparently there were no crowns left when it came my turn; all I got was straight, brown hair. Linda Sue got the crown — long, wavy blond hair like the angels have. To keep it from getting tangled and matted while she slept, she always braided it before going to bed.

The first time I cut her hair for her was early on a Saturday morning. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I couldn’t have picked a better day. Mother had to spend most of the day helping grandma pack up boxes because she was going to move into an apartment. She left before Linda Sue woke up and didn’t get home until after supper. My stepdad, Mr. Frank, never paid much attention to either one of us. All he cared about was my bratty little brother, who is his son.

I don’t know where I got the idea to cut her hair. I surprise myself sometimes with my ideas. When I crept into the bedroom, Linda Sue was sleeping with her mouth open as if she were surprised too. Each of her braids had a good inch and a half of hair below the rubber bands, so I held each one gently, cut off the bottom part, and put about an inch of her glory in my pocket. Doing both braids only took a few minutes; the hardest part was trying not to laugh. Mother was gone and everyone else was still asleep, so I ate breakfast alone. After adding extra sugar on my cereal for good luck, I finished up by drinking the milk out of the bowl. Then I went to the empty lot on the block behind our house and threw the hair out for the birds to use in building nests for their baby birds.  That was something that Linda Sue had read in a book, and for about a week, she would take the hair out of her hairbrush and throw it outside on the lawn, like a princess throwing her gold to the peasants.

On Saturdays, Linda Sue didn’t usually undo her braids until evening when we took our baths. When Mother got home, she ran the bath water for us, but we bathed ourselves. Back then, Mother washed my hair, but Linda Sue did her own. Mother never noticed anything until she started combing out my sister’s wet hair.

Two years ago, Linda Sue cut her bangs by herself and did a terrible job.  Mother told her to never, ever touch her own hair again with a pair of scissors, or else. In the midst of combing Linda Sue’s hair, Mother stopped and said, “Linda Sue Branson, have you been cutting your hair?”

“No, mommy,” she replied truthfully. No one believed her, including me.

“Well, somebody’s cut it; it’s all jagged at the bottom.  I told you about this Linda Sue; you are not to cut your own hair.”  Mother was starting to squint, which meant trouble. Use of your full name while squinting put a capital “T” on that trouble. It would always start with a list of grievances we had caused her. I was hoping she didn’t get going in that direction because her list of grievances against me were much longer, and I didn’t want to be dragged into this, even though I had done it.

Linda Sue, who cried easily, started whimpering, “But mommy, I didn’t cut my hair.”

“Linda Sue, if you didn’t cut your hair, then somebody else did.  And if somebody else did, then you would’ve known it.”

You had to admire that kind of  reasoning. That left me off the hook in her mind, but not in Linda Sue’s. Mother sent me for the haircutting scissors, which sent Linda Sue into a real sobbing fit. She hated to have her hair cut. She had read Rapunzel and wanted hair that went all the way down to the floor.  I came back trying to look duly chastened from witnessing the evil deed committed by my sister. I, at least, had learned the lesson: never cut your own hair.

She wailed and managed to sob out, “Michaela did it, I know she did.”

Mother, who had already decided that Linda Sue did it, was fed up with her whining and said, “Stop it, Linda Sue. I don’t want to hear another word about it. You will not be able to play after school for a week.”

For once I was the good sister, and I hoped that Linda Sue had learned her lesson. She hadn’t, because three weeks later, I did it again.

For some reason, a wall had gone up between Linda Sue and me.  Whenever we were alone she would say, “I hate you.”  She wouldn’t walk to school with me anymore or even let me step into her room. In Sunday School the following week, I was so glad the story was about how Jesus was falsely accused.  When the teacher asked if anyone knew what it felt like to be misunderstood and unjustly accused, I raised my hand and looked over at Linda Sue.  She just sat there glaring at me.

The second time I cut her hair, I did it in just the same way. I was in the middle of my second bowl of sugary cereal when my little brother woke everybody up.  He had peed the bed and was crying, which woke mother up.  She wasn’t too happy with him and was never very happy in the morning before her coffee.  She decided that if she had to get up early on a Saturday morning when she should have been allowed to sleep in, then everyone else should get up, too.  She proceeded to bang the linen closet door, yell at my brother to get his wet things off, and talk as if he were hard of hearing. Then Mr. Frank woke up. He must have thought that even the neighbors were hard of hearing.  Within just a few minutes, everyone on the block must have  known that neither of them enjoyed getting up early on their day off.  Mr. Frank helped David with his bath.

The first thing mother said to me when she came into the kitchen and saw the sugar bowl next to the box of frosted cereal was, “Michaela, I’ve told you a million times that you don’t need sugar on that kind of cereal. Throw that away right this minute.”

It’s no use arguing with mother in these cases. All the starving children in China couldn’t change her mind.  So I dumped it out and tried to quietly sneak out of the kitchen while she clanged around making her coffee.

“Get right back here, young lady, and wipe that table off.  There’s sugar everywhere, and I’m sick of it.”

It was a wonder mother hadn’t died yet of all the things that made her sick, but in order to prevent the early death of either of us, I meekly came back to wipe it off.

“Michaela, come here. What’s that in your pocket?”

I couldn’t believe that mother could see through my clothing.  I had fooled her too many times sneaking things out in my pockets.  All I could think of was that maybe Linda Sue’s crowning glory was now glowing and shining around my pocket just like the halos around all those angels in the picture Bible. But it wasn’t the hair she saw. It was the scissors.

“Come here, I said.  What are you doing with those scissors?”

I knew exactly what to say. Mother had told us not to tear the inner liner of the cereal box with our hands. It always tore straight down, and the cereal would come out in a burst of oats or corn or wheat spilling onto the table and into the cardboard box.  “And what is the good of that?” mother would holler. “It’s good for nothing, but the roaches, that’s what!”  Use scissors, she told us, and cut straight across so the cereal pours out like God intended. I might have convinced her that I had the scissors for that purpose if Linda Sue, the accuser, had not come into the kitchen just then.

I don’t know what it is about angry parents. Once they get fired up, their five senses are enhanced and suddenly they smell, feel, hear, and see every little thing. Mother stood there a moment looking hard and close at Linda Sue, and her eyebrows started to pull in together like she had a stitch in her forehead.

“May I go outside now, mother,” I asked in my most simpering voice.  I even used “may I” instead of “can I,” which my mother insisted was bad grammar.  But even good grammar couldn’t save me.

“No,” she said with her eyes in narrow slits.  Then to Linda Sue, “Come here and let me see your hair.”  Maybe I had taken a little too much this time because her braids did look a lot shorter. Linda Sue grabbed them, and she could tell right away that some of her glory had departed. There was a lot of yelling, and after the scissors were retrieved from my pocket, my charitable offering for the poor little birds was also discovered.

The spanking was worth it, though, because Linda Sue had to have her hair cut again to make it even.  That was all I have ever wanted anyway, to make things even.