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... :)