Saturday, December 31, 2005

Smile -- it's almost 2006...

So it’s the last day of 2005. And my tradition, on New Year’s Eve, is to write some kind of little blurb about the previous year. I started doing this when I was about fifteen years old – I had a little stack of paper in my desk drawer that was bundled up with purple ribbon, and every year on New Year’s Eve, I would write something on a few sheets of the paper, tie it up with ribbon, and place it back in the desk drawer. It would usually stay there until the following year, when I’d untie the ribbon, read what I’d written on the previous New Year’s Eve, and then write something new.

I’ve maintained this tradition throughout the years, sometimes writing my New Year’s Eve Blurb on napkins or greeting cards or whatever scrap of paper I can find lying around. If I miss a year – as I did last year, when I spent the New Year at a hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona and completely forgot to write anything – it just feels wrong. I remember one year where I didn’t get to my stack of New Year’s Eve paper until about 11:50, and I suddenly felt compelled to finish my blurb-writing before midnight. I had the ribbon tied back around the paper just as Dick Clark started his countdown. So it’s not only important that I write The Blurb, but also that it be written before midnight. Last year’s blurb was lost forever because of my forgetfulness – so this year I’m starting early.

So let’s see… 2005 – it was the best of times, it was the worst… nah, that’s probably not a good way to start. Well, 2005 did seem to be the “year of natural disasters.” The Asian tsunami clean-up started off the year, followed by a lineup of hurricanes that rivaled the Radio City Rockettes. The name “Katrina” will probably live in infamy. (Which is a shame, because one of Rick’s nieces is named Katrina. She was getting quite tired of all the hurricane jokes told at her expense toward the end of the summer.) All of this was followed by the earthquake in Pakistan and India. Nature was not kind to the world this year…

George W. Bush was inaugurated for a second term, ushering in (in the words of Faisal) “four more years of apocalypse.” And that might not be my own personal view, but I’ve always respected Faisal’s opinion, even when he’s completely wrong. (Just kidding, Fais – you’re NEVER wrong… hold on, I have to stop laughing… :)) And of course Iraq was big news this year, as I’m assuming it will be next year, as well.

Pope John Paul II died, and a new, scary, scary pope was elected. Seriously – I know I’m not the only one who thinks Pope Benedict (what is he? 15th? 16th? I’m sorry – XV? XVI?) is one scary-looking Catholic. And the Chicago White Sox won the World Series. I wish it would’ve been the Yankees, of course… but at least the Yankees managed to surprise everyone by finishing in first place in the AL East. And 2006 is going to be a great year for baseball – I’m already looking forward to opening day.

On a personal note, 2005 brought some changes. My parents, who’d been dividing their time between New Jersey and Austin, made their move to Texas permanent (although now my dad divides his time between Austin and Dallas – and then he multiplies the weekend, carries the one, and confuses everyone…). I flew to New Jersey in June to help pack up the house and clean out my brother’s old room (aka “the black hole from which nothing – not even socks or CDs – can escape”). That was a very sad weekend for me, as I realized I’d never have a “home” to stay at in New Jersey again. Hopefully I’ll still have a chance to go up and visit friends and go to a Yankee game now and then, but I’ll be staying in a hotel, of course. Which just seems strange, after so many years of hanging out at the blue house on Cliffside Way…

It was a good year for traveling – I started out the year with a trip to San Diego and Scottsdale, Arizona, and I’d love to go back to San Diego some time soon. Took a couple trips to New Jersey (which unfortunately will probably be much fewer and farther between now…), and Montana for Thanksgiving. And of course, we had our trip to the Mediterranean, which was great. I got my first stitches ever on that trip, and developed quite an unhealthy fear of umbrellas, but it was still great. :)

So that was 2005 in a nutshell. Happy and sad, euphoric and depressing, cheerful and somber – everything smashed together in 365 little days that pass by much too quickly, before we can even turn around and see what happened. And my resolution, as always, is to make sure I write the correct year on all my checks and anything else that needs a date. 2006, not 2005. It’s a stupid resolution, but much simpler to keep than most of those other resolutions people make. :) So to anyone reading this – happy 2006!

A toast to the New Year? Or maybe just Eric and me being weird...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Is that Australian giving me a thumbs up?

After reading Dave's comments about learning Mandarin Chinese under my last post, I was reminded of a class I took at St. Edward's University a few years ago. It was called "cultural geography." And as the name implies, it was a class about all kinds of differences in world cultures. One of our textbooks was a compilation of (hopefully fictitious) anecdotes, and they all went a bit like this:

Person from culture A -- um, let's call her Juliet, and we'll say she's American -- meets person from culture B -- this, of course, would be Romeo, and let's say Romeo is from the remote oceanic island nation of Ooaauu. Romeo's family has recently moved to the hustle and bustle of New York City, where Romeo finds a job in Rockefeller Center and meets Juliet out on the ice rink one morning. Romeo and Juliet become good friends and eventually fall madly in love, reciting poetic endearments to one another, and making plans to live happily ever after. The day comes when Romeo decides to take Juliet home to meet his parents, certain they'll be as happy as he is that he's found his one true love. Romeo and Juliet arrive at his parents' home, where an authentic Ooaauuian dinner awaits. The food is delicious, and at the end of the meal, Juliet turns to Romeo's mother and says, "everything was excellent. I enjoyed it very much!" At this point, Romeo's mother gasps in horror, springs up from the table and orders Juliet to leave her home. Bewildered, Juliet walks out of the house, as Romeo stands in the living room shaking his head in dismay. Their relationship comes to a crashing halt, and they never see each other again...

At this point, the book would explain that some major cultural misstep had been made -- perhaps in Ooaauuian culture, a compliment after dinner is exactly the same as placing a horrifying curse on the entire household. Except Juliet, of course, had no idea she had done anything wrong. Yet every one of these anecdotes ended up the same way -- whether or not the cultural offender understood the nature of their offense, said offense was generally so great that it resulted in an immediate dissolution of whatever relationship had been formed. Best friends never spoke again... employees were fired... love was destroyed... It was a book full of cultural carnage.

Reading that book made me somewhat paranoid about placing myself in situations where I might not understand the culture. Generally, if this happens, I do nothing. Don't speak, don't move, try to remain invisible -- it really seems the only safe way to go, if I'm to believe everything I read in "Culture Clash: an Illustration of Multicultural Mutilation"... or whatever that book was called. No handshakes -- some cultures prefer not to touch. Be careful about colors -- different colors mean different things. Don't wear anything with a number on it. Better rethink the wisdom of a housewarming gift. Be careful what you do with your hands...

Here in the U.S., superstitious people think the number 13 is unlucky -- in Japan, the number four is considered unlucky. Here, we wear white for weddings and black for funerals. In many countries, white is actually the color of death. My friend Faisal says that red is the color brides wear in Pakistan, and red is considered the color of purity in India. If I'd worn red when I was married, whispers of scandal would've followed me down the aisle, and "purity" would've been the last thing on anyone's mind. I'd have loved to have worn purple at my wedding, but purple is the color mourning widows wear in Thailand. Here, it's perfectly acceptable to bring flowers to a host or hostess of a party, whereas some other cultures believe that bringing flowers into a home is an omen of bad luck. A thumbs-up sign is a positive hand gesture in America, but in Australia and the Middle East, it's akin to flashing someone the middle finger. And I'm pretty sure the "OK" sign means the same sort of thing in Brazil -- there was a Brazilian girl in my cultural geography class, and our professor asked her what the "OK" sign meant in her home country. But she never actually answered, she just turned red and started to giggle. So I'm assuming it's not a gesture typically made in polite company in Brazil...

One of the anecdotes I remember reading had to do with an object in someone's home -- a girl was visiting the home, and remarked on the beauty of a small statue or vase or knickknack of some sort, and the owner of the home insisted she take it. The girl refused, of course, saying she couldn't take such an object away from the family. The owner insisted again, and the girl said no-- she simply couldn't accept such a gift. Once again, the owner insisted she take it -- and this time, probably wanting to end the whole back-and-forth conversation, the girl said thank you, and accepted the object. However, this being the "Multicultural Mutilation" book, there was no happy ending to the story. The owner of the object was extremely offended that the girl actually TOOK the object. Because apparently the tradition was supposed to be that when someone admires an object in your home, you offer it to them (simply out of tradition) and they refuse -- not once, not twice, but three times. Now, my problem is, I can't remember which culture it is that practices this particular tradition. So if I'm ever in a home admiring an object and someone tells me to take it, I'll just have to make sure I refuse three times. And if, after the third time, it's still handed to me, I'll know I can hightail it out of there with the proffered booty, secure in the knowledge that I made no cultural social blunder.

What I find so fascinating about all of this is the way we're all interconnected, even in our differences. I guess I picture some kind of giant silver thread wending its way throughout the globe, turning and dipping and rising and twisting -- but connecting, nevertheless. The representations may be different, but the ideas are all the same -- good luck, bad luck, happiness, sadness, wishes, dreams, hopes. I remember when Faisal's father died, and I attended the funeral -- it was one of the first times I'd been any kind of witness to a cultural practice unlike my own. And at first, I have to admit, I may have been thinking something like "I'm an outsider here... maybe I don't belong..." But at one point, everyone who was in attendance placed a flower on the grave, until it looked as if dozens of flowers had spontaneously bloomed there -- and it was one of the most strangely beautiful things I'd ever seen. Flowers on graves, of course, aren't unique to any one particular culture -- and in that instant, those flowers became the silver thread. As I stared at those flowers, it was like seeing the enormity of the entire world compressed into a moment. Grief, sadness -- they were there, but so too were hope and friendship and vast amounts of love. I stopped wondering if I was an "outsider" and realized that I was nothing more than a human being, just like everyone else. Those few minutes were overwhelming in their significance -- and mesmerizing in their absolute simplicity -- and I've never been able to forget those flowers...

That silver thread makes a 25,000-mile journey around the world every day -- through lucky numbers and unlucky numbers... white dresses and red dresses... handshakes and bows and hugs... hand gestures and smiles... and flowers of every color imaginable. So my wish for you, Dave, is that your Mandarin lessons will go so well that you'll be able to understand, quite clearly, when Nancy's family chides you for your cultural blunders. And if you ever say how much you love the family car, and they offer it to you -- be sure to refuse THREE times. I'm serious -- this stuff could be the end of your relationship as you know it... :)

Friday, December 16, 2005

I don't know what to write about...

Eric threatened to destroy his computer if I didn't write something today, so I promised him I would. But I'm not sure I should take his threat seriously. I mean, to be honest, if Eric's computer was destroyed, it wouldn't be the end of the world. It's a barely-functioning piece of machinery -- probably held together with duct tape and chewing gum and toothpicks -- and it's made up of various parts of old, dead computers. I think he calls it Frankencomputer... or Computerstein... something like that. The last time I was visiting Eric's Chicago apartment, the door buzzer rang... and through the intercom I could hear a cacophony of voices engaged in what can only be described as angry mob behavior. And I, not being the kind of person to simply open the door to strangers, looked over the balcony to see who was out on the street. To my surprise, it was villagers... villagers with pitchforks and torches. Of course I didn't let them in... I didn't even know Chicago HAD villagers. So really, I think it's only a matter of time before Frankencomputer is destroyed, anyway. But since I promised Eric I would write something, I might as well write about Eric.

Eric has been my brother for as long as I can remember. No, seriously -- my very earliest memory is of the day Eric was born, when my grandparents came to my house to watch me while my parents were at the hospital. My grandmother gave me a piece of toast with jam for breakfast, and there was a tiny little black speck in the jam. So I refused to eat it. That was the day I began my life as a big sister. (That was also the day I began a lifetime of picky eating... but that's another story for another time...)

Apparently, Eric and I were some kind of bizarre freak children, because from the moment we were brother and sister, we got along famously. None of that "sibling rivalry" people are always talking about... no screaming matches... no crazy fights. We hung out together, watched TV together, shared our toys, and looked out for each other. And I thought nothing of it -- I figured that's the way brothers and sisters were supposed to treat each other. Until, that is, we moved to New Jersey when I was in eighth grade and Eric was in fifth. In our scary new town filled with new people, Eric and I only knew each other -- so of course when it was time to ride the school bus, we decided to sit next to each other. But sitting with your brother, I found out, was a major eighth grade faux pas. "You actually LIKE your brother?" another eighth grader asked me. "I beat mine up on a daily basis. Just for fun." To my amazement, this seemed to be the general consensus. Beating up your siblings: totally normal behavior. Hanging out with your siblings because you like them: totally nerdy behavior.

But somewhere along the line I decided that I just didn't CARE if it was nerdy to like hanging out with my brother, because... well, because my brother is COOL. I mean, maybe all those kids in eighth grade had stupid, boring, unimaginitive brothers, and that's why they couldn't stand them. However, MY brother is intelligent, fun, and likes to make napkin bunnies... When he was younger, he used to trip over his own feet, and randomly run into tables and walls... He once broke his thumb playing with a NERF ball -- and now he's a police officer so he's allowed to carry a gun (maybe they don't know about the nerf ball story)... My brother is the only person I know who has managed to have some sort of accident in a fire truck, an ambulance, AND a police car. (Now THAT is some serious dedication toward the wanton destruction of emergency vehicles)... When he was in high school, he frequently smuggled menus out of New York City restaurants -- he had menus for places like Mamma Leone's and the Yankee Clipper stashed away in his closet... My brother is also the only person I know who was able to flip a car in a DRIVEWAY -- and he wasn't even IN it... so I suppose Eric is not only cool, he's completely INSANE as well. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. Life is much too boring if it's lived sanely.

One of my favorite silly Eric memories concerns the comic strip Bloom County. Eric and I both loved that strip, and when we heard it was coming to an end, it was a sad day. The final full-color Bloom County comic strip appeared in the paper one Sunday morning, and Eric had the idea that we should copy the entire thing onto a big piece of posterboard. So he and I drew it, by hand, onto the posterboard. There was plenty of room to blow everything up to giant proportions, but we were careful to keep the drawing to scale. We colored the entire thing with colored pencils, and then surveyed our handiwork. It really did look like we'd managed to take that last Bloom County comic strip and enlarge it to poster size. We were quite impressed with ourselves. So impressed, in fact, that Eric kept that hand-drawn poster for years -- until the colors faded away and the stiff paper was curled and falling apart. I think it was hanging on the closet door, where the New York City restaurant menus were hidden...

I guess I just feel sorry for all those kids who liked to "beat up" their brothers on a regular basis. Because maybe they missed out on spending time with a friend. It's way more fun to be your brother's friend than your brother's tormentor... well, you know -- MOST of the time. :) And I'd better post this before the pillaging villagers come to take Frankencomputer away... for all I know, it's sputtering out its last cyber-connection as I type. But at least I'll know it's not because I didn't keep my promise to write something for Eric...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Remember the gummi bear!

This was the oleander tree outside my house yesterday -- the ice-covered branches were heavy and bending toward the ground. (Oleander, by the way, is poisonous -- so don't ever eat the leaves. This is what the landscaper said after he planted it next to my house... and I'm so glad he did, because sometimes I get REALLY hungry...) This is about as "wintery" as the weather gets in Austin. Although we did get about two inches of snow last year -- I happened to be in New Jersey at the time, so I missed it. Other than that, the most "snow" Austin has gotten over the last couple decades has been more akin to dandruff on the lawn than real, honest-to-goodness snow. In fact, I remember the last real Austin snowstorm quite fondly.

I actually lived in upstate New York near Buffalo until I was nine years old. We got so much snow that Eric and I could not only build snowmen, but entire homes in which our snow families could live. ("Here's the bedroom... the living room is to the left... we're having satellite TV installed on Tuesday!") When I was nine we moved to Austin, and there was an abrupt end to our winters of snow-based construction. And when I was 13, we moved up to New Jersey, and the regular bouts of snow returned (although not quite as regular as Buffalo...).

It was right before we moved to New Jersey, when I was almost 13 years old, that Austin was blessed with a snowstorm. My aunt and cousins Steve and Kevin happened to be visiting from Buffalo at the time. The day they were scheduled to fly home, the grey-blanketed skies above Texas exploded in a flurry of white confetti. The city, which was completely unprepared for such a storm, eventually slid to halt. But before it did, flights were still running -- or perhaps they were simply "postponed" with the assumption that snow in Austin never lasts very long. So we piled into our car with my aunt and cousins and made the extremely slow drive down to the airport, on roads that had never seen a snowplow. I'm not sure Austin HAS a snowplow...

When we got there, the airport was nearly deserted, but according to the departures board, the flight to Buffalo was still expected to take off at some point. So we all headed to the gate (this, of course, was back when it was acceptable for anyone to hang out at an airport gate) and waited, bored, for something to change.

I'm not sure who noticed the gummi bear first. But one of us -- either me, or Eric, or Steve, or Kevin -- saw a little orange gummi bear sitting at the edge of the check-in counter at the gate. And since we were extremely bored kids, and the airport was pretty much empty, we decided to wile away the time with a spirited game of gummi bear soccer. Eric and Kevin versus Steve and me. We went out to the open area between gates, and started playing. The little orange candy bear was hard to keep track of, but we managed to run and kick our way to a full-fledged game. Score for Eric and Kevin... score for Steve and Lisa... the teams were competitive and well-matched, and it was anybody's game. I'm sure Steve and I, being the older siblings, had the advantage. We were bending it like Beckham with a gelatinous kids' treat. The score must've been close, but as Kevin got ready to drop-kick the gummi into play once more, everyone braced for one final fight to the goal. He dropped the bear and kicked it -- an orange flash flew into the air... it crossed over the bright lights of the airport gummi soccer field... I shielded my eyes from the glare... the gummi had to be somewhere on our side of the field... I scanned the carpet, knowing I had to get to that gummi before Eric and Kevin found it. But the gummi bear was nowhere to be seen. I couldn't find it... Steve couldn't find it... Eric and Kevin couldn't find it. We searched behind chairs and counters, on windowsills and newsstand carts, we even searched the bathrooms. The little orange gummi bear had simply disappeared.

We never figured out what happened to that gummi bear. Eventually the Austin airport cancelled all flights, and we made the slippery trek back home, where my aunt called family and friends in BUFFALO to tell them she was snowed-in -- in TEXAS. After that day, any time Eric and I had a chance to see our cousins, we would part ways with an earnest, "remember the gummi bear!" in rememberance of our little candy friend. I'd like to think that the gummi bear landed on someone's luggage, where it was transported to an entirely new place to experience entirely new adventures. And maybe, even after all these years, the little orange gummi bear is still out there, providing bored kids with enough spark of imagination to make monotonous time fly, and snowy days even more fun.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

O Tannenbaum

Since it's the first full week of December and the Texas weather has finally (at least temporarily) taken a turn toward "winter," I decided it was about time to put up my Christmas tree. My fake, synthetic, flame-retardant Christmas tree. Admitting that I own a plastic tree feels like some sort of betrayal of my long-standing Christmas traditions. When I was young, my grandparents grew a little grove of pine trees on their property, and every year they'd sell trees for Christmas. So from the very beginning of my life, the tradition was clear -- when it's Christmas, you drive to a place with rows of sappy fir trees, and choose the one that will be outfitted in holiday finery in your home that year.

As I got older, the tradition continued. When I lived in New Jersey, our Christmas tree was purchased from a place called St. Paul's Abbey. There were acres and acres of fir trees, presumably watered and fertilized and cared for by the monks and nuns of the abbey. To be honest, I never saw any monks or nuns out there -- I never saw anyone out there with the trees. But I always imagined the monks, or the nuns (or whoever it was that lived at the abbey) crowding around a windowpane at Christmastime, watching the hordes of families who'd come to collect their very own Christmas tree. The monks and nuns would be so proud to see their trees being shipped off to warm houses, and they'd think about how beautiful the trees would look when they were covered in tiny lights and sparkling tinsel. Then they probably all clasped hands and sang a few rounds of "O Tannenbaum" before heading to their sparse bedrooms for quiet reflection. (Okay, so I really have no idea how the monks and nuns fit into the Christmas tree equation at St. Paul's Abbey...)

Even the first year I was out on my own, living in an Austin apartment with a roommate named Lori, I had a real tree for Christmas. It was mostly Lori's idea, as she had that kind of Texas A&M, high blond ponytail, "c'mon y'all it's Christmas it's gonna be GREAT!" mentality. So together, we purchased a tree that looked nice in the parking lot of Home Depot (no Christmas tree abbeys in Austin...) -- but when we got it home, we realized it took up the entire breakfast nook in the apartment. Good thing we didn't have a table. Another thing we didn't have -- a decent supply of ornaments. Lori had a few strings of white lights, and between the two of us, we were able to scrounge up ten or twelve piddly little decorations for the tree. And when everything was placed on our gigantic breakfast nook monstrosity, it looked profoundly sad. The abundant needles swallowed every one of our ornaments, and the lights only covered half the tree. Every time I pushed aside the branches to get to the kitchen, I'd wish for a tree like the ones I'd had as a kid. And in some kind of bizarre defiance of the oddity of our tree, Lori and I left it standing in the breakfast nook until well past the holidays -- the words "fire hazard" were an understatement...

After years of living in Texas, I've realized that it's very difficult to find a decent real tree for Christmas. We don't have many pine groves in Austin, so every year when Christmas rolls around, candycane-striped tents pop up on the side of the highway advertising "fresh" trees. What I think, however, is that these trees were fresh -- they were fresh when they were first cut down somewhere in Michigan. But by the time they make the journey to a home in Austin, they've already begun drying out and dropping needles like snowflakes. So it was with great sorrow two years ago that I finally conceeded to Rick's suggestion of a fake tree. And I have to admit it's not a horrible tree -- a little too symetrical, perhaps... and the plastic needles are slippery and not as pliable as real fir tree needles, so hanging ornaments isn't always a simple process. But overall, as long as I spray the living room with pine-scented air freshner every day, it's hard to tell the difference. And this year, I decided to be extra-creative and make my own ornaments for my plastic tree. I bought clay, rolled it flat, cut out shapes with cookie cutters, painted them, and hung them with ribbon. And if I do say so myself, my homemade ornaments turned out quite dandy. (Aside to Nick -- are you reading this? Because otherwise, I just used the word "dandy" for no reason... :))

I suppose some people would say that chopping down a tree for the sole purpose of dragging it home and decorating it isn't exactly environmentally sensitive. So at least I can be secure in the knowledge that one less tree will be chopped down this year. Take heart, little evergreen, for this year I shall not disturb your peaceful growth.

But I can't make any promises about next year... :)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Who's afraid of the big bad -- pool drain?

I was wandering through some of the other blogs on this site (I still can't get used to the word "blog" -- I swear that's the exact sound my cat makes before she coughs up a hairball...) and I was reading something about irrational fears. Which made me think about some of my own irrational fears. So here, in no particular order, are a few of the things I'm afraid of but probably shouldn't be:

Willy Wonka's oompa loompas and their creepy oompa loompa song -- I haven't seen the newer, Johnny Depp version of the movie, but I avoid the Gene Wilder version for the simple fact that LITTLE ORANGE PEOPLE WITH GREEN HAIR ARE NOT NORMAL. It's also not normal when they form a self-righteous singing and dancing troupe at the local candy factory, instead of just minding their own business and stirring the chocolate. And I'm pretty sure that after they dragged away the moronic, selfish children who found themselves in all sorts of hilarious (read: CREEPY) predicaments, they pushed them into a ravine, or left them out in a desert, or called some guy named Uncle Vito to "take care" of the "chocolate factory problem." I mean, do we ever see those kids again? For all we know, they're all lined up in glass cases in the oompa loompa break room like naughty children trophies. And just hearing that song they continually sing -- something about "we've got another question for you" -- makes my skin scrawl. Please shut up, creepy little men. If you have a question, try google...

Drains at the bottom of pools -- I have no idea where this fear came from. I've been swimming since I was a kid, and I can even remember diving to the bottom of our backyard pool to collect pennies or toys or whatever we'd toss in the water. I have long hair, but it's never been caught in a pool drain, and I don't KNOW anyone whose hair has been caught in a pool drain. So why do I find pool drains so irrationally frightening? I actually have to swim around them instead of over them, even if the drain is six feet below me. For some reason, if I swim over a pool drain, I'm overcome with this feeling of dread. Kind of like the feeling you might get if you thought someone was hiding under your bed, and you had to get out to use the bathroom. Why would I feel like someone was hiding in the drain in my pool? Maybe it's oompa loompas...

Fire in all shapes and forms -- Actually, this one isn't so irrational. What might be irrational though is the fact that I never even struck a match until I was fifteen, because I was so afraid of those little fire-breathing sticks. I remember a time when I was a kid, probably about six or seven years old, and my older brother -- who would've been about 14 or 15 at the time -- discovered one of his vinyl records had been melted by some kind of heat source. When he showed my parents, they sat me down at the dining room table and interrogated me, convinced I'd been playing with matches. They even put a book of matches in front of me, and tried to get me to strike one, I guess to see if I had the dexterity to pull it off. But I adamantly refused to touch the matches, all the while thinking, "are my parents NUTS? Those things make fire!" I was definitely not your usual "playing with matches" kind of kid...

The wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz... and the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz... and the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz... oh, who am I kidding? The Wizard of Oz in its entirety -- I have never been able to understand how the Wizard of Oz is such a time-honored, beloved movie cherished by both children and adults. That movie is downright scary on so many levels. First you've got a tornado... then the terrifying realization that your house has landed in a bizarre technicolor freakworld... you've got a green witch, who not only threatens a person but a completely innocent "little dog, too"... then you have three things that talk and dance and sing, but absolutely, under no circumstances, ever SHOULD talk or dance or sing. By this point in the movie, a logical person must be wondering, "why won't that stupid Dorothy run away screaming?" This is what a SANE person would do if a scarecrow in a field started talking to them. Perhaps Dorothy had gotten far too involved in the inner workings of Bizarre Technicolor Freakworld to give it much notice. And then, of course, you've got those seriously creepy flying monkeys... and an entire scene where Dorothy and her entourage fall asleep in a field full of poppies and are waken up by falling snow -- obviously some sort of veiled opium reference included to get kids hooked on drugs. And after all of this, it turns out Dorothy was simply having the most horrifying dream EVER, and if she'd just asked one of those stupid Munchkins to pinch her or something, maybe she would've waken up and avoided the whole deal...

Raw meat -- I don't know if this would really be considered a "fear" or simply some sort of obsessive-compulsive thing. But I can't stand the thought of touching raw meat. I don't know how anyone can do it. I do like cooking with chicken, but before it's cooked, I have to hold it away from me with forks and cut it up with poultry shears, and then immediately throw all those utensils into the dishwasher, scrub down the counter, and wash my hands with hot water. I suppose it's just good kitchen hygiene, but I'm always amazed by the people who can just pick up a raw chicken, or stick their hands into a bowl of raw ground beef to make hamburgers. Eeww.

Umbrellas -- This is my newest irrational fear. I'm really not sure I'll ever be able to open an umbrella again. Unless it has some sort of push-button system. Umbrellas are evil.

I'm almost certain my list of irrational fears could keep going, but I wouldn't want to sound completely nuts. Perhaps someday I'll make a list of my irrational food aversions. (Because there's nothing nutty at all about irrational food aversions.) :)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Oh, to languish in the languid language of lawyers...

I went to Starbucks last night with my good friend Cindy (Cindy, look -- your name has once more been immortalized in the cyber-pages of the internet... :)). And we were talking about my adorable little pseudo-nephew Jordan -- a math-whiz who used to be in love with Eeyore and called me "Sasa" when he was a toddler (that was way too cute -- he never should've learned to pronounce those L's...). He's in second grade now, and one of his assignments was to write about his favorite and least favorite subjects. He wrote that his favorite was math, and his least favorite was "language." And when Cindy tried to clarify that a little bit (language arts, perhaps?) he pointed out the fact that his textbook was simply called "Language."

And when we thought about it, Cindy and I could both remember having a subject called "language" when we were in elementary school. Not any particular language, mind you. Just plain old "language." Not English, not reading comprehension, not spelling -- just good ol' no-nonsense language. But what IS that, exactly? If it's not English, or reading, or spelling, what exactly IS language?? Apparently, as children, we thought nothing of it. After all, when you're seven years old and your teacher says it's time for language, you pretty much shrug, pull out your book with "Language" emblazoned across the cover, and assume all these adults know what they're talking about. And then once you ARE one of those adults, you wonder what kind of brilliant minds got together and decided to name an elementary school subject "language." I think they should at least make it slightly more descriptive -- perhaps "Non-Specific Ambiguous Linguistic-Type Language Subject."

I also had a chance to speak with my lawyer friend Faisal yesterday, mainly because I happen to have the same name as his paralegal and he accidentally called me to ask where he could find the Penskie file. (Okay, I made that part up... but why is it that any time there's a "file" of any sort in a television show, it's always called "the Penskie file"? As in, "I've been working on the Penskie file." Or, "Gladys! Bring me the Penskie file!" I mean, really -- has anyone else noticed this? Who, exactly, ARE these Penskies, and why are there so many files about them??) Anyway, I'm starting to think my name is a bit too common -- there seem to be Lisas walking around everywhere. I think perhaps Faisal should take a cue from the people at Starbucks and just change me to "No Name" in his phone... it would save me a lot of work (I mean, I couldn't find that Penskie file ANYWHERE...).

Faisal is one of those lawyers who completely defies the "lawyer" stereotype -- he's an amazingly nice, respectful, intelligent, thoughtful person, and I hope he always stays that way. (I think he probably will... :)) I had the unfortunate experience of working at a law firm several years ago, because I needed the money (and yes, I say that with a certain amount of shame -- "I swear I only did it because I needed the money!"). The day I started that job, lawyer jokes were only slightly amusing to me -- 100 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, a good start? Okay, I guess that's sorta funny. A couple weeks later, I was rolling on the floor in laughter -- oh, a GOOD START!! Yes, I get it now!!

My main duties consisted of managing the closed file room, daily courthouse runs with an extremely scary 70-something-year-old courier named Red, and, when things got busy, helping the other office peons with copying, faxing, mail runs, etc. I'm not sure anyone would believe me if I said that making 20 copies of a complicated legal file is part art and part science -- but honestly, it's something that's so easy to completely ruin, and if you're not extremely organized and focused, the entire thing ends up being a big pile of random paper. So imagine, if you will, an industrial-sized copy machine whirring busily... on top of this machine are precise, logical, sequential piles of finished copies. Pristine, perfectly ordered -- if you set them next to the originals, you'd never know the difference. Now imagine a man walking into the room with a single sheet of paper. I'll call him B. Douglas. No, that's too much information. Brad D. No, no, I'll just call him Doug Bradlas. He walks up to my neat, orderly, copy-machine landscape, and like some sort of horrible natural disaster, sweeps an arm across the perfect piles of paper to move them out of his way. He then proceeds to make ONE COPY and leaves without so much as an "I'm sorry for screwing up an hour's worth of work."

Occurrences like that were common... so common that they eventually had me seeking refuge in the quiet corner of the closed file room, which, fortunately, was a place no one else ever wanted to go. Sometimes I'd be lucky and Red wouldn't find me for the 4 o'clock courthouse run, so he'd go without me. They were always afraid Red would file something in the wrong office at the courthouse, so he was supposed to be driving and I was supposed to be filing. Somehow, the thought of Red taking a wrong turn into oncoming traffic never seemed to bother anyone. File something in the wrong place, and that's the end of the universe. But make a left turn from the right lane directly in front of an angry pick-up driver, and that's FINE. I'm really not sure why they wouldn't simply "allow" Red to retire...

And I believe, without a doubt, the most over-used acronym at the law firm was "ASAP." Actually, I don't even think it's supposed to be an acronym -- it's an abbreviation, as in, A-S-A-P. But at the law firm, it was A-SAP. And everything, by the way, was A-SAP. Someone would walk into the copy center, throw a file on the counter, growl, "I need this ASAP!" and then run out before we could so much as catch a glimpse of their face. And of course we'd make sure it was done ASAP -- we'd place it on the bottom of the pile with all the other ASAPs.

Not that the law firm was completely without its amusing moments -- I can't tell you how many times I'd be hanging out in the copy center when an attorney would come in, walk up to a copy machine, stare at it for a good 60 seconds, and finally say, "um, how do you start this thing?" At which time I'd point to the giant, bright green, three-inch square button labeled "START." (These are people who went to law school... they passed bar exams, for goodness' sake... in all that time, no one ever explained to them the concept of a start button???) Ah well... needless to say, the day I quit that job was one of the happiest days of my life. Any time I think of the time I spent there, I'm STILL glad I don't work there anymore.

And just to reiterate -- my friend Faisal: awesome. Lots of other lawyers I've never met: probably perfectly nice, okay kinda people. Attorneys I happened to work with: losers. I'm about 99.99% certain that Faisal knows how to operate a copy machine. And what's more, if he noticed someone else making piles and piles of copies, he'd probably ASK politely if he could make a copy (as opposed to assuming the universe revolves around him). He'd probably also ask politely if he needed some sort of task accomplished in a timely manner. He might even manage to say the words "as soon as possible, please" and maybe dole out a "thank you" when the task was completed.

Perhaps those attorneys I worked with would have benefited from a few more hours of "language" lessons. Please and thank you are certainly elementary subjects...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Read the book (not the Cliffs Notes)

Yesterday I was talking about my fascination with flags and languages. And since Rick told me he couldn't wait to hear me talk about my love of maps (I'm not sure if he was being sarcastic or not...), I thought I'd write about that today. I can actually remember exactly where I discovered this interest I seem to have in all things global -- it was sixth grade, third period, in a class called (what else?) "world culture." Up until that point, I can't remember learning all that much about other cultures in my school classes. But perhaps once you get to sixth grade -- to the mature ranks of middle school -- you're old enough to start learning more about the world.

Every Friday in world culture class would be a sort of cultural show-and-tell -- anyone who wanted to could bring in clothing, food, books, or any other sort of object that was unique to their culture, or their parents' culture, or their grandparents' culture, etc. Kids whose families came from all over the world were in that class -- Japan, India, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, Sweden (I may have written some sort of presentation about the Swedish side of my family for that class, I can't remember...). Kids would even show up to class dressed entirely in traditional clothing, knowing they'd have to explain their outfit to everyone they passed in the hallway. I was captivated by these tiny, 45-minute, Friday-morning immersions into other cultures.

And then there were the maps -- maps of South America, maps of Africa, maps of Asia. We'd have our boxes of colored pencils, and go to work labeling each country. I'd make sure the green border of Brazil didn't run over into the blue border of Boliva or the red border of Peru, and as I was doing so, I'd wonder what it might be like to be IN Brazil or Boliva or Peru. We had to memorize all the countries in Africa and plot them on a map, which, over the years, I've mostly forgotten. And we had to memorize the countries of the Middle East and plot them on a map, which, over the years, I've somehow remembered. We even learned a song to make it easier -- I can only remember one line -- "Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Em-ir-ates."

Qatar was my favorite country when I was working on my Middle East memorization. How many times had I been taught in my English classes that "Q" is always followed by "U"? Yet here was the rebel non-English Qatar, boldly displaying a U-less Q. I was very impressed. And while my teacher told us this country rhymed with "guitar," the consensus now seems to say the pronounciation is "cutter." Was I taught wrong? Have I been pronouncing Qatar incorrectly since sixth grade? I have yet to find a definitive answer, and I suppose I won't be hopping a plane to Doha any time soon. So I guess I'll trust my March 2003 issue of National Geographic, which had an interesting article on "KUT-ter."

Nowadays, I'm not only still fascinated by the maps I studied back in sixth grade, but I also love to study some of the places I never knew of when I was a kid. Like tiny islands in the middle of vast quantities of ocean. Places like Samoa, and Tahiti, and the Maldives, and Easter Island. I've been to Hawaii, but the Hawaiian islands are downright large compared with some of the other islands on this planet. Depending on how big a map is, the Maldives barely even register. Just tiny blue pinpricks stretching in a line south of India. Yet people are there right now -- living, working, swimming in the ocean, hanging out on what I imagine are perfect beaches.

And I suppose that's the general fascination maps hold for me -- just about anywhere you look, you see a place where right now, at this moment, lives are being lived. Things are happening. Planes full of travellers are landing. People are opening up shops for business. The daily news is being written. People are taking pictures. Different languages are being spoken, different flags are flying, different foods are being eaten. And it's all happening right now. For some reason, that realization was compelling and interesting to me years ago, when I colored the countries on my maps with pencils and memorized their places on the globe. And it's still interesting to me today.

I once read a quote from St. Augustine that said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page." The idea of reading "only a page" of all those different countries seems like such a waste to me. So it's my intention to read as much of the book as possible, because I'm sure it has to be one of the greatest stories ever written. And the best part is, if I want to skip ahead and read the end, it won't spoil any of the suspense... :)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Do what we say or the palm tree gets it...

One of the interesting things about staying at the hotel in Rome was the television programming. It only took one flip through the channels to discover my limited viewing choices. There were two channels in English -- CNN and BBC News. So as long as all I wanted was to stay up-to-date on current events, I was all set. If, however, I simply wanted some sort of mind-numbing entertainment, I was pretty much out of luck. Most of the channels were either Italian or German, with a very large number of American programs dubbed into either language. And I did, in fact, watch an entire episode of "The Simpsons" in Italian, because I'd seen it several times before and understood what was going on. And I understand enough German to catch bits and pieces of conversation, so I also watched some sort of German home improvement show (I think it might have been the German version of "Trading Spaces") and a news program about the lack of affordable housing for the elderly in Germany. Of course, with my less-than-fluent understanding of German, what I heard sounded something like, "the floor... great... I'd like... very happy... my blue jacket... yes, yes, maybe, no!"

There were also three Arabic channels on my television set. One of them seemed to show nothing but a strange sort of Arabic soap opera -- although at first I thought it might be a sitcom. The acting was that over-the-top kind of thing you only see when actors are either trying to be funny, or just happen to be inadvertently funny without realizing how funny they really are. After several minutes of watching the actors and the super-dramatic zoom-in camera work, I realized it was the latter. I watched the soap opera until the credits were rolling, at which time Rick said, "would you PLEASE change the channel..."

Another Arabic channel on my TV was Al Jazeera, which I was strangely hooked on. If I wasn't interested in the English-language news, I'd be watching Al Jazeera. This prompted Rick to dub me "insane girl," seeing as I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. But I would stare at the television in serious concentration, as if simply watching could unravel the unintelligible language into perfectly clear threads. I was also mesmerized by the news ticker at the bottom of the screen -- is it just me, or is Arabic writing lithe and artistic and graceful in a way most other languages aren't? Do non-English speakers think English looks artistic? Or do they think it looks blocky and cumbersome? I feel like I could write "don't forget to take out the garbage" in Arabic, hang it on my wall, and it would make a lovely conversation piece.

And the third Arabic channel on my Roman television seemed to be a very conservative news/prayer channel. Any time I turned to this channel, they were either in the middle of an all-male-in-traditional-dress newscast, or they were simply panning a camera over thousands of worshippers in Mecca. But there never seemed to be any indication of what this channel WAS, exactly. I knew Al Jazeera was Al Jazeera because every now and then the website would scroll past on the ticker. The only identifying characteristic about the conservative channel was a palm tree up in the corner of the screen. A palm tree with two crossed swords underneath it. Which looked rather threatening to the palm tree, actually...

And until yesterday, I assumed that was just some kind of station call sign -- kind of like the NBC peacock or whatever. But last night I happened to be wandering around one of my favorite websites, -- Flags of the World (yes, I have a strange obsession with flags... maps, too -- perhaps I'll expound on that another day). And I was looking at the flag of Saudi Arabia, and reading about it, and I learned that the Saudi Arabian flag is only flown for official purposes -- private citizens aren't supposed to fly the flag. However, private citizens can fly a plain green flag with, guess what? Yep, a palm tree and two crossed swords in the corner. Understanding that helped me understand the third Arabic channel -- it was Saudi Arabian TV. That would explain the very conservative slant, as Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries -- maybe the most? -- in the Middle East.

And by the way, I did understand a little bit of the newscast one night. To my surprise, Saudi Arabian TV was reporting on the World Series -- and I very distinctly heard the words "Chicago White Sox." And then something that sounded like hakuna matata, but I'm pretty sure that was just my imagination...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Mediterranean Pictures

Sailboats in Toulon, France

An "American" bar in Toulon

Cathedral in Mallorca

Everyone thought it would be fun to get a picture of me in this stone hut in Mallorca. I'm not sure why... (and by the way, we'd just walked through a five-minute downpour, so yes, my skirt is soaking wet and my hair is plastered to my head... this is a GREAT picture... :))

Red roofs (and one lonely green terrace) in Monaco

The cast of The Full Monty... oops, no wait -- this is the changing of the guard at the palace in Monaco

A statue in Sardinia... and friends

Ah... the beauty of Sardinia (this picture's for you, Eric :))

Yep, that tower is leaning... (I love the little kid in the red shirt -- he's pushing it over instead of trying to hold it up :))

Me with Eric and Eric (what's Eric doing? No, not THAT Eric, the other Eric...)

The best part of Naples

Another American bar? I'm estatic!

A street in Pompeii

Plaster cast of Pompeii victim

Hanging out in a house in Pompeii

Colosseum in Rome

Trevi fountain

St. Peter's Square

Swiss guard in their aesthetically-pleasing uniforms (I bet these guys never get hit by cars when they're walking down dark roads at night...)

The crowd on the Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps (see that flimsy pink umbrella? That's just an accident waiting to happen...)

Random pic of Eric in the nightclub, contemplating life... or perhaps trying to remember where he stashed his return plane ticket...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Never take an umbrella from a stranger...

I am back in the U.S., after what seemed like the longest possible plane ride across the Atlantic Ocean (we took a rather out-of-the-way route to Atlanta to completely avoid Hurricane Wilma, and then ended up in a holding pattern over Atlanta because of high winds). So after 24 hours without sleep and a couple days back in Austin to reacclimate to the Central Time Zone, I'm ready to write up a recap of the bests, worsts, and just plain bizarre of Mediterranean Cruise 2005:

Best Overall Stop: Rome, Italy. Rome wasn't actually on our cruise itinerary, but it was the nearest city to our departing airport. And when you're that close to Rome, you might as well tack on a couple more days to your vacation to check it out. So that's what we decided to do, and I think everyone was glad we did. Rome is a really beautiful, interesting, historic city with so much to see it's impossible to do it all in one weekend. Unfortunately that's all we had, so we had to do the whirlwind tour and hit all the major sights really quickly -- Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, St. Peter's Square. And we never thought about how our major sightseeing day was Sunday -- a lot of shops were closed, and even if we'd had time, we wouldn't have been able to get into the Sistine Chapel (something I really wanted to see...). But that's okay, because after our short exposure to Rome, I think we all decided we'd have to go back some day for a longer visit. (I hope it's okay that I didn't actually toss a coin into Trevi Fountain... I'm still planning a return visit. :))

Worst Overall Stop: Naples, Italy. Or "Napoli" in Italian -- which I'm guessing translates to "rude, loud and aggressive." Walk the streets, and you'll see people who look profoundly unhappy... not to mention downright angry at times. And I can't say I blame them after wandering the city -- I've never seen a city with so much graffiti plastered over every available surface, or a city with so many buildings desperately in need of a good power-washing. It's like the level of grime and disrepair became too much for anyone to handle, so the city just gave up. Naples is also home to some of the most insane traffic I've ever seen -- crossing the street was quite an adventure. I believe it was our driver/tour guide in Rome who said, "if you can drive in Naples and Bangkok, you can drive anywhere in the world." (Which makes me think I won't be driving through Bangkok any time soon...) And the icing on this crumbling, unappetizing cake came when my dad and Rick and I attempted to cross a street near a waiting taxi driver (and to be honest, we're not even sure he WAS a taxi driver). After politely declining his offer to drive us anywhere, my dad and I began crossing the street, only to realize Rick wasn't with us. When we glanced back at the curb, we saw the "taxi driver" hoisting Rick by his belt as Rick attempted to pull away. My dad and I ran back, yelling "hey!" with as much anger as we could muster (my dad and I being two of the least angry-sounding people on earth...) and the guy finally let go and put his hands up in an "I surrender" sort of motion. We're pretty sure this guy wasn't so desperate for a fare that he decided to accost a stranger -- we think it was more a "distract and grab the wallet" kind of ploy. Fortunately, he didn't manage to get anything. But Rick said it would've been pretty easy for that guy to take his wallet when he was so distracted by the belt-grabbing. The lesson, of course, is to always be vigilant and always pay attention to your surroundings -- foreign country or not. And just so I'm not completely negative about my entire Naples experience, I will say that I had a couple GREAT cups of cappuccino and some of the best ice cream I've ever tasted while I was there. So it wasn't a total loss...

Best Unplanned Port of Call: Toulon, France. We were supposed to stop in Marseille on this day, but because of "labor unrest" (whatever that means...) we were told the night before that we'd be stopping in Toulon instead. I'd never even heard of Toulon, but apparently it's the most important naval port in France. We docked alongside several ships from the French navy, as well as scores of picturesque sailboats. Toulon itself turned out to be a lovely little city -- very easy to get around, with plenty of shops to visit and lots of narrow, but well-kept, cobblestone streets to explore. Interesting observation about Toulon -- the ratio of lingerie shops to churches seemed to be about 10 to 1. Those French really love their lingerie...

Worst Unplanned Port of Call: Palermo, Sicily. This stop was supposed to be in Tunisia, and it was the port of call I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, this port was also cancelled and we ended up in Palermo. I'm sure Palermo is perfectly nice when it's sunny... however, the day we were there, it was raining. And the rain unleashed a chain of events that led to a very unpleasant stay in Palermo... more on this later...

Worst Song to Have Stuck in Your Head on an 11-Hour Flight: That nutty Sardinian folk song we heard on the "taste of Sardinia" shore excursion. I'm not sure of the exact lyrical translation, but I'm pretty sure it goes something like this:

We took your money,
Isn't that funny.
You ate some of our food
And it wasn't very good.
Except for the cheese,
As tasteless as you please.
Even dad ate it,
He really didn't hate it.

Best Trek Up a Hill and Trudge Down a Mountain: The journey to and from the royal palace in Monaco. Wow, that was a lot of stairs. And after walking all the way up, we sort of took a wrong turn on the way back and ended up taking a very scenic, but unnecessary, walk down another large group of stairs. It dead-ended at the ocean, and we had to take an elevator back up to where we'd started (well thank goodness there was an elevator, at least... :)).

Worst Airline for Collecting Baggage in a Timely Manner: Iberia, which decided to put one of Debbie's bags on a later flight, because they apparently ran out of room on our own flight. (Sure, that's nice -- we'll just throw your bag on this other flight without even mentioning it to you, because we're pretty sure you have nowhere to go and nothing to do and plenty of time to wait around for it...) And with all the miscommunication between Iberia and Holland America and the Prime Minister of China and who-knows-who-else, poor Debbie was left without a suitcase and contemplating the feasibility of creating an entire wardrobe out of the curtains in her stateroom, a la Maria in The Sound of Music. The bag did show up after a couple days, but Holland America was disappointingly less-than apologetic about the whole fiasco.

Most Glaring Omission at the Dinner Table: Eric's napkin critters. Not one chicken, bunny, or farm animal of any sort made an appearance at the table this year, and I, for one, missed them. I mean, c'mon, Eric -- I know you're 30 now and supposedly an "adult" and all that, but some of us have come to expect a couple napkin animal photo opportunities when we're on vacation...

Best Show of Cleavage: The "taste of Sardinia" shore excursion. We were served some of the local food and wine by a Sardinian folk group in traditional dress. For the men, this meant poofy pirate shirts and embroidered vests. And for the women, it was low-cut dresses with decolletage-framing lace. After we'd had some food, they proceeded to demonstrate traditional song and dance, bouncing around with oblivious abandon.

Worst Advice Heard on the Ship: "Go see the changing of the guard at the palace in Monaco." I found this to be bad advice not because of the long hike uphill to the palace (which, to be honest, I thought was a really good workout after several nights of eating badly on the ship...) but simply because the changing of the guard was pretty unimpressive. I think we were all waiting for something interesting to happen, but it never did. It made me wonder why so many people were lined up at precisely 11:55 around the palace -- had they ALL been duped into thinking something really awe-inspiring was about to take place? After the disappointment of the changing of the guard, Eric described to us a few of the other rituals that often take place at the palace -- namely, the changing of the Volvo's oil, the changing of the underwear, and the changing of the lightbulb. I'm sorry we missed all of those...

Best Advice Heard on the Ship: "Never take an umbrella from a stranger." This is the advice our assistant waiter gave me after seeing my heavily-bandaged finger on our day in Sicily. Our rainy day in Sicily. The day no one had an umbrella, so I gratefully DID take an umbrella from a stranger -- someone who was on the way back to the ship, and had just bought a rather dilapidated-looking blue plaid umbrella from a touristy stand on the pier. And since it was such a horrible umbrella, she was just going to throw it away -- but why not let someone get a couple hours' use from it first? It didn't take me long to realize that throwing it away would've been a much better option. It was much too difficult to open and close, and one of the metal support brackets was hanging off the fabric. After an hour of on and off drizzling, it began to rain again, and I fought to open the umbrella. The umbrella won when my hand slipped and I sliced my finger open on the broken metal bracket. Sicilians stared at me as drops of blood hit the sidewalk, and I made a futile attempt to stop the bleeding with my other hand. All this really did was make me look like a crazy deranged Lady Macbeth (out, damn spot!). Fortunately, I was with three people who've worked as EMTs at one time or another. Debbie ran into a shop and got me napkins to wrap around my finger, and then everyone steered me back toward the ship. An hour and a half, five stitches, and a tetanus shot later, I was back in my stateroom thinking about how stupid it was to take that dumb umbrella. And even stupider to keep attempting to open and close something that so obviously wanted to be tossed in the trash. Eric and Eric and Debbie were all so great to me -- Rick and I told them they could stay out and walk around Palermo, but they insisted on coming back to the ship and stayed in the infirmary with me until they knew I was all right. It's good to have a brother and friends who care about you that much. :)

Best Gastronomic Experiences Seemingly Unavailable in the U.S.: Coffee and ice cream in Italy. I don't know what these people do to their cappuccinos and dairy products, but the absolute BEST coffee and ice cream I've ever had has been in Italy. I've had perfect cappuccinos everywhere from Livorno to Naples, and we had several bowls of ice cream when we were staying in Rome because the stuff was so addicting. And it's not just the fact that you can find places that serve such great indulgences, it's the fact that they're EVERYWHERE. Stand on a Roman street corner and throw a stone, and you're likely to hit a gelateria or a cafe -- and I'll admit I didn't sample them all, but I'm betting the quality is pretty much standard no matter which one you visit. Good thing I don't live in Italy, because I think I'd be on a constant caffeine high and carry an ice cream cone in my hand at all times...

Strangest Bathroom Fixture in a Roman Hotel: It's a toss-up between the cord hanging in the shower, and the weird little sink-like thing next to the toilet. Now, I'm assuming that was a bidet, but no matter how long any of us stared at this thing, we couldn't for the life of us figure out how to use it. And the fact that there was a little bar of soap and a little towel next to it seemed bizarre, as well. So, what? -- you fill up the little bowl, soap up, swish around and towel off?? Maybe I should've tried it, just for the fun of it. I guess it's one of those American/European differences that only seem strange to the visiting party. :) And the cord in the shower is something I was warned about beforehand -- because apparently the first time my grandfather took a trip overseas, he wondered about the cord in the shower as well. So he pulled it to see what happened, and before he knew it, a woman was in the bathroom asking if he was okay. It was some kind of "pull in case of emergency" cord, I guess in case you fall in the tub. How come we don't have those in American hotels? Are we not all that concerned for travellers' safety? Or are there just far more tub accidents in Europe? Hmmm... Anyway, after telling Rick NOT to pull the cord in the shower, he went and pulled the cord in the shower, of course. However, even though a little red light went on outside our hotel room door, I was dismayed to realize that no one ever came to our aid. Not that anyone actually needed any aid, but what if someone had? What if someone really HAD fallen in the tub? How long would they have wallowed in puddles of lukewarm water before someone came to hoist them out of their porcelain prison? I guess they don't notice if you've pulled the cord unless they happen to be coming to clean the room...

Best Opportunity for a Drinking Game: Every time my brother said, "Tina, eat your ham!" as he quoted Napoleon Dynamite. He really likes that movie. :)

Worst Air Quality: Monte-Carlo, Monaco. I'm not sure if it's because Monte-Carlo is situated at the foot of mountains, or simply because there's a lot of traffic crammed into a tiny space, but it seemed like the exhaust from a million cars was trapped over the entire city with no place to go. It was made even worse by the fact that there was some kind of go-cart race the day we were there (and it lasted all day long...). So by the end of the day, you could actually see the haze settling over the city. Monte-Carlo was a great city to walk around, but it would've been so much better had I been able to breathe cleaner air...

Biggest Disappointment: That I wasn't able to procure a decent amount of European chocolate. When we got to Rome, I was so excited because our hotel was right next door to what looked like a really great chocolate shop. Except it was closed. All weekend. So I thought perhaps I'd have a chance to buy something at the airport, but checking in was so crazy and disorganized that by the time we got to our gate, our flight was already boarding. So I'll have to make do with Snickers and Kit Kats until I have a chance to get back overseas... oh well. :)

Biggest Pleasant Surprise: The fact that most of us, it seems, actually LOST weight on this trip. Even after all that ice cream and cruise ship food. I think it was that long walk up to the palace in Monaco... burned enough calories that day to eat nothing but ice cream for two weeks straight and not gain an ounce. :)

Well, I think that about sums it up. Everything you ever wanted to know about our Mediterranean vacation (and plenty you never really wanted to know at all...). Eventually I'll post some of our pictures (although sadly, I don't have any pictures of Eric's napkin bunnies). :)

Monday, October 10, 2005

...the smithy of my soul...

Hurrah! Leaving for vacation tomorrow! Shall eat yummy French croissants and drink Italian cappuccino and walk on sandy beaches in the sun. Will be thin and worldly and have bronzed skin when I return...

Uh, sorry... just having a bit of a Bridget Jones moment. (Cindy would understand that... not sure if anyone else would. :)) And while I may, possibly, know a bit more about the world when I return, I'm fairly certain I won't be thin (too many good things to eat) and I certainly won't have bronzed skin. Even if I were to lay out on a beach in Monte-Carlo for a week -- I've been blessed/cursed with some kind of genetic, organic SPF 100 in my epidermis. I recall a picture from a Caribbean cruise several years ago, where a group of us were gathered around a table. Most of us were sporting either red noses and foreheads from sunny days of exploring beaches and wandering from t-shirt shop to t-shirt shop, or lovely mocha latte skin in various shades of pigmentation. And then there was me -- white. Blindingly white. I think you can actually see a sort of glowing aura about me in that picture. And it's not like I was hiding under layers of sunscreen and straw brimmed hats and gauzy fabric during that cruise. In fact, I may have forgone the sunscreen altogether, in an attempt to coax my skin cells into pigment overdrive. Didn't work... still Blindingly White Lisa.

I wouldn't have high hopes for a tan this time, anyway -- I've been checking the weather forecast overseas, and it looks like we may be in for some cloudy, drizzly days. But there's something about visiting a new area that makes the rain tolerable. I was just telling a friend about how depressing I find cloudy, overcast, rainy days -- at least here at home. But when I visit a new place, I like to experience the reality of that area -- even if it's not always picture-postcard perfect. And if it's raining in Barcelona on Wednesday, so be it. I'll be happy to hold my hands out, and feel the drops splashing on my palms... I'll be happy to smell the fragrance of rain mingling with the scent of a new city. Because it may rain, but it'll be raining in Barcelona.

It's funny how vacations and holidays and other happy moments tend to sneak up on us. When we planned this vacation, it seemed so far away that it was hardly worth thinking about. And then all of a sudden it's the day before we leave and I'm not even packed yet. If you know you're going on vacation ten months in advance, doesn't it seem like it should be easier to pack? :) One of my favorite quotes from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is when the young Stephen Dedalus is anxiously waiting for Christmas vacation, marking off the days one by one. It seems so far away, "but one time it would come because the earth moved round always." I think of this quote any time I'm waiting for something good and need to be patient -- whether it be a two-week vacation, a much-anticipated meeting with a friend, or simply wondering when my dinner will be ready when I'm out to eat. "But one time it would come because the earth moved round always." (If it seems like that steak is taking forever -- well, as long as the world keeps spinning, it'll get here eventually... :))

Another thing I love about Portrait of the Artist is this pervasive feeling throughout the book of wanting to be free -- wanting to explore, and travel, and learn. I love the symbolism of the name Dedalus -- based on the myth of the Greek engineer who built wings to escape prison. And Stephen Dedalus wants to escape, as well -- "Away! Away! The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. They are held out to say: We are alone. Come. And the voices say with them: We are your kinsmen. And the air is thick with their company as they call to me, their kinsman, making ready to go, shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.... Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Okay, perhaps a bit dramatic for a little two-week vacation. :) But since the world is still spinning, I'd better finish packing. My plane will be taking off before I know it...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Totally random thought...

So have you ever squeezed some ketchup onto a hamburger, or drizzled some chocolate sauce on an ice cream sundae, or squirted some lotion into your hand, and the shape it makes looks like it might mean something in another language? Like maybe Chinese or Arabic or Sanskrit... only you don't KNOW any Chinese or Arabic or Sanskrit, so you can't actually tell what it says? Because I squeezed some bath gel onto a loofah yesterday, and I'll be darned if it didn't look like it meant something. And I imagine that somewhere, halfway around the world, someone is squirting bath gel onto a loofah and seeing the word "hi" and wondering to themselves (in a language I don't understand) if that particular formation of bath gel means something in French or English or German...

And what about those articles of clothing with different kinds of writing on them? I think I have a shirt, buried somewhere in my dresser, with Japanese characters imprinted on the fabric. I suppose I shouldn't be afraid to wear it, but I'm always curious as to what those words on my shirt translate to. Is it something good? Something bad? Total nonsense? Last year I was in a shop in Miami that had some nice clothing imported from India. I found a shirt I really loved, only it was covered in Hindi. I just had this horrible premonition of wearing my Hindi-covered shirt out somewhere, running into someone who reads Hindi, and hearing them laugh as they explained that my shirt read, "please make fun of me -- I have no idea what this shirt says." So instead I just bought a plain cotton shirt and a skirt -- no writing. Maybe if clothing like that came with an accurate translation, then I'd be okay with buying it. Like a little card next to the price tag that says, "here's what these words mean." And if it was something like "peace love hope joy," okay, maybe THEN I'd buy it.

I just wish I knew what my bath loofah was trying to tell me...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Autumn is finally here... I think.

One of the fun things about living in Texas is that you never really know for sure what the weather will be like from one year to the next, or one month to the next, or even one DAY to the next. Summer is pretty simple -- it's hot. And, more often than not, sunny. Winter, spring and autumn are more difficult. In the winter months, for instance, it's not uncommon for me to wrap myself up in a bathrobe and slip out onto the porch for several seconds to gauge the temperature and humidity before deciding what to wear. (Will it be a wool sweater? Or perhaps a nice cotton t-shirt? Maybe something in-between?) And springtime, while usually on the warm side, brings with it the unpredictability of surprise thunderstorms. You can flip through every local station forecast, AND check the Weather Channel just to be on the safe side, and still not have an accurate prediction of what's to come. You might, in fact, decide to take a short nap on a perfectly clear, not-a-cloud-in-the-azure-blue-sky spring day, and soon wake up to the eerie, greenish glow of severe thunderstorm clouds (yes, I'm speaking from experience...). It only takes one tornado warning -- and one afternoon of huddling in the hallway surrounded by pillows and a comforter, which, you hope, will be an effective safety barrier against anything that might happen -- to make you realize that napping is overrated...

And autumn can be equally confusing. This year is a perfect example. Yesterday was September 28th, and the high temperature was 106. I did check my calendar, and autumn officially began on the 22nd. Autumn -- you know, colored leaves, crisp air, maybe a light scent of chimney smoke when the evenings start getting chilly -- autumn. 106 degrees. Autumn. 106 degrees. And as if that wasn't confusing enough, I woke up this morning to a cloudy sky and a reading on the thermometer of 68 degrees. Only I didn't realize it was 68 degrees until I'd already dressed for what I assumed would be another ridiculously unseasonable day. And when you step outside on a 68-degree day after getting used to the weeks of 100-degree-plus weather, it's a bit like being thrown onto the Alaskan tundra without a parka. Okay, I'm probably exaggerating... never actually been to the Alaskan tundra (oh, I've been to ALASKA -- just not the tundra... :)). My point is, that 38-degree difference is quite noticeable. That's not to say it isn't appreciated -- for someone who grew up in the northeast and got used to an obvious line of demarcation between seasons, any hint of a new season is welcome.

Of course, "season" might not be the right word. I wouldn't say Austin has an "autumn" exactly. At least not in the sense I'm used to. I remember when autumn meant groves of brightly-hued trees. Leaves that glowed golden in the sun, and eventually drifted gently -- one by one -- to the ground. Here, it's a different story. True, there is the occasional misplaced maple that valiantly attempts to add a splash of color to the scenery -- but they are few and far between. In fact, I hardly ever notice an obvious change of color in the native vegetation. Instead, some time in October or November, the leaves seem to stage some sort of photosynthesis mutiny and morph from green to brown overnight. This leads to an overwhelming number of trees dropping their leaves at exactly the same time -- if you head outdoors when the conditions are precisely right, you can hear a muffled "whoomp" as millions of Austinite leaves decide to end it all and fling themselves from their branches.

The unpredictability of weather -- not just Austin weather -- is part of what makes every place unique. I'm always amazed by the northerners who assume I live in a flat desert filled with tumbleweeds. It's actually quite green and hilly here, with plenty of lakes and rivers and nary a tumbleweed in sight. Conversely, I'm amazed by the southerners who assume New Jersey is an industrial wasteland buried by a foot of snow every winter. In reality, my home in New Jersey was like some sort of New England picture postcard, and there were years we didn't see so much as one flake of snow. You know the old saying, "don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes"? I think the same goes for places -- it's hard to make an assumption about a city or a state or a country if you've never been there. I've been fortunate enough to visit all fifty states in the U.S., and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that EVERY place has something to offer; every place has something beautiful and unique. Sometimes the beauty isn't as obvious, but it's always there. And while I haven't visited every country in the world, I'm betting that's just as true for every country as it is for every state.

So maybe Austin has substantial temperature differences from day to day, and autumn leaves that can't quite figure out how to be any color other than brown, and surprise thunderstorms, and snow about once every decade (yes, we DO get snow now and then...). But the weather --like the topography, and the culture, and even the people -- is part of the diversity that a lot of people love about this city. So I guess -- as long as I have an ample supply of sweaters and shorts, t-shirts and jackets, umbrellas and sunscreen, swimsuits and scarves, boots and flip flops -- I should be okay here. :)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What's going on in there?

I don't have any kids of my own, but I have plenty of friends with kids. So it was a few years ago, when the first of my pseudo-nieces and nephews started entering toddlerhood, that I began to hear the phrase, "use your inside voice." Piercing screams would gang up with banging blocks and toy pianos, resulting in instant migranes and increased blood pressure for any adult within earshot. This would immediately be followed by mom's or dad's shushing finger over the lips and a stern, "use your INSIDE voice."

And I have to admit, the first few times I heard this phrase, I completely misunderstood its meaning. "Inside voice," I decided, must refer to that voice we all have inside ourselves -- conscience, if you will -- the voice that quietly tells us what's right and what's wrong and what we should be doing with our lives and whether or not we should have an extra piece of chocolate cake for dessert. And surely your inside voice would tell you it is NOT right to throw Elmo onto the kitchen table in the middle of lunch and then squeal in delight as Elmo's head makes direct contact with an extremely unstable bowl of vegetable soup. Of course, eventually I figured out that the actual meaning of "inside voice" in this case was much more simple. It's just the voice you'd use inside a building as opposed to outside a building. I imagine if someone explained this to me, it would sound something like this:

Me: I love how those parents just told their son to use his inside voice. I mean, you're never too young to start some serious introspection, you know?

Someone else: Uh, Lisa, they're talking about INSIDE the house. They don't want him yelling in here.

Me: Inside the house? But that's so much less profound.

Someone else: The kid is two years old.

Me: Touche.

Okay, so "inside voice" in the case of children isn't about some sort of existential reflection. But I wonder, sometimes, why that was the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard it. Is it because I spend so much time inside my OWN head, sorting out the things my "inside voice" is saying? I turn thoughts over and scrutinize each one, as if every small corner of my mind holds a puzzle, and solving it is of utmost importance. I suppose I never should've expected a two-year-old to sit quietly in one of those tiny little kid-sized overstuffed chairs, journal in hand, actively pursuing his "inside voice" and writing down all his enlightened insight in shaky aquamarine crayon. Not that it'd be such a bad thing -- mom and dad would have peace and quiet, and the kid would end up with really good handwriting and a journal full of preschool angst (is there such a thing as preschool angst?? "Mom and dad are making me sit in the corner and use my inside voice again...").

Anyway, I suppose we all use some sort of "inside voice" now and then. Some could probably benfit from using it a little more often, and some of us could benefit from telling it to shut up now and then. As long as I'm listening to mine, I'll probably just keep writing. And if I ever have kids, they're really gonna have to watch out for that "inside voice" phrase. Crayons and journals will be at the ready...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Validation needed...

When I told Rick that I'd started a blog, he said, "blogs are for insecure people who need validation from other people... you know, people who rely on others for their happiness." Now, I'm not really sure where his logic is -- I mean, if you write out all your thoughts in an online forum for anyone and everyone to see, does it really mean you're insecure and hope some equally insecure person halfway around the world will "validate" you? I doubt it. However, I will admit that description pretty much fits me. So... please validate me. Justify my existence. Acknowledge my presence. Just, you know, basically allow me to feel as if my habitation here on this planet is not going to waste...

Okay, now that THAT'S out of the way... :) Writing about people "halfway around the world" has got me thinking about a trip I took several years ago -- a cruise in the Baltic Sea. A lot of the time, if you're on a cruise, and your itinerary takes you to a foreign country, you end up on a nicely-organized (or sometimes not-so-nicely organized) tour of your port of call, complete with air-conditioned bus and English-speaking guide. But at one of our stops -- Tallinn, Estonia -- we decided to wing it and simply walk around the city on our own. Rick and my dad and I wandered over to a church, where we met a man who will forever be known to us as Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy.

He was dressed in plain black slacks, a button-down shirt covered with a modest tweed jacket, and scuffed black loafers. He had a thin briefcase, which he clutched at his side with both arms, holding it against him as if it contained something precious. When we stopped to take pictures of the church, he asked us -- in heavily accented but very clear English -- if we'd like a tour of his city. There was some hesitation on our part. Was it wise, we wondered, to deviate from the travel-industry-approved recommendation of sticking with hired guides from reputable companies? Should we have hidden our cameras and wallets and worn something other than baseball caps and Gap t-shirts -- something nondescript that didn't scream "tourist"? Too late now... and besides, there was something about this man with the briefcase that was too interesting to ignore. He was charming, friendly and energetic. Perhaps it was his enthusiasm that convinced us to take him up on his offer. He was eager to show us his city – and since none of us had any idea where we were or what we were doing, who better to show us than a local?

He took off down a grassy dirt path past the church, walking quickly and glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still following. We lined up behind him like a little band of ducklings – some kind of bizarre ducklings with backpacks and Canon Rebel EOS cameras. He led us over cobblestoned streets completely devoid of tourists, through quiet alleyways lined with apartments, over narrow and cracked concrete sidewalks – pretty much all the places we never would’ve seen had we been on our own or with a paid tour guide. At one point we came across a postcard vendor on a street corner who struck up a heated conversation with our new-found Estonian friend. Apparently she accused him of stealing all the tourists away from her business. Looking back now, I suppose I should’ve bought a postcard… although she did seem rather angry, and did I really want to buy a postcard from such an angry vendor? Then again, I WAS wandering aimlessly through Estonia with a man I'd only known for ten minutes. Buying a postcard shouldn't have seemed all that risky...

Eventually, we found ourselves at the top of a hill overlooking the city. A group of construction workers were lolling about on a break, hanging out underneath the shade of a tree. The views of the city were beautiful, and our cameras were out and at the ready. Suddenly, our guide jumped out over a stone wall onto a rickety old scaffolding, and climbed up onto the platform. He told us the views were better from that vantage point. “It’s okay,” he said, “come up!” We watched as the scaffolding swayed back and forth, seemingly on the verge of collapse. We all politely declined, and I was still able to get some great shots of the red roofs of Tallinn without leaving the safety of solid ground. I believe this was the point our friend went from just plain “tour guide” to Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy.

When we finished our tour and returned to the church where we started, we gave Tour Guide Guy a ten dollar bill. He thanked us profusely, and then reached into that briefcase he’d been holding onto so tightly and handed us a three-page typed memoir entitled “An Ordinary Soviet Custom.” We read it after we’d said our good-byes, and discovered our guide had been an unemployed civil engineer. His story told of living in the Soviet Union in the 80s, when he secretly listened to American radio and the BBC. He was taken from his home one night, and driven in the trunk of a car to a mental hospital, where he was held against his will for several days. Eventually he was able to escape from the hospital and ran to a friend's house, but after his ordeal he lost his job, divorced his wife, and suffered from poor health. Whether he'd been out of work for decades when we met him by the church, or simply fallen on hard times once again, I don't know. But the story was intriguing, to say the least.

Which brings me back to validation -- our guide's name, according to the memoir he'd been holding onto so closely, was Juri. And perhaps Juri simply wanted the freedom to say what he felt he needed to say. And he wanted someone to listen. He wanted what anyone wants -- validation, justification, acknowledgement. Maybe Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy wasn't so crazy after all.

Except for the rickety old scaffolding... that really WAS crazy. :)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Happy blogday to me...

Okay, the title of this post is REALLY bad. (And nevermind the fact that "blog" sounds like something you might cough up after a particularly nasty case of bronchitis...) But I figure since I'm some kind of wannabe writer, I should take advantage of this whole World Wide Web thing and throw my hat into the blogger's ring. So here it is -- my very first blog. (If you haven't jumped up and down in excitement yet, I'll give you a moment...)

So what does one say in a blog, anyway? I wasn't really certain, which is why I'm calling this whole thing my "journal of random tangents." I'm pretty good with tangents. Distract me from my train of thought for a moment, and I'll give you a couple paragraphs about some long-forgotten moment in my childhood, or recall a completely pointless anecdote that makes no sense whatsoever.

But in the interest of staying on topic (wait -- did I HAVE a topic?) I suppose the logical thing to do would be to introduce myself. And I would, except I think anyone reading this probably already knows me. So I'll just skip that part and move on to something else...

Anyway, this first post is more of a test than anything else. I haven't explored this site too much, so I'm not sure what I can do with it. If you were nice enough (or bored enough) to read this, thanks! And if you're ever this bored again, please check back and see if I've added anything new. That's it for now...