Monday, December 31, 2007

Out With the Old

So, 2007 has been a weird year. I feel like I should come up with something profound about new beginnings, but the fact is, it's just another day.

I haven't gone out on New Year's Eve since Y2k, when I had my first ambulance ride. I was accompanying my friend and fellow partier on her ride to the hospital after she passed out in her own vomit on the floor of the party venue's bathroom. I vowed then that I'd never go out on New Year's Eve again. Prior years had been slightly to moderately fun, but I was never actually happy. It felt like an obligation to join in the party on Amateur Night. And I never enjoyed the long slog home after midnight in freezing or wet weather.

So that's it -- I'll be at home on my couch watching (*cringe*) Ryan Seacrest tonight after we take in the Three Sheets bar crawl on the Mojo channel from 9-10 p.m.

I hope everyone has a great 2008. Personally, I'm hoping for no further medical revelations, no more painful procedures, and no major extended-family drama. Fingers crossed that that is not too much to ask.

I also hope to increase my focus on writing in 2008.

Coming soon in this space: It's not Christmas without midget wrestling.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Creepiest License Plate Ever Award

The "Creepiest License Plate Ever" Award goes to the person I passed this morning with the tag "HYPOXIA" -- which means a shortage of oxygen in the body. I believe the first time I heard that word it was on an episode of Law and Order, in connection with a person who had been accidentally asphyxiated during some kinky activities.

It made me want to drive the other way, and fast.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Gears Were Stripped When We Got It -- Adventures in Left-Side Driving

At the Dublin Airport, we picked up a VW Golf for our drive around the island. It was stick shift, which meant Steve would have to drive a left-handed stick shift from the right-hand side of the car, as we drove on the left side of the road. He was game for the challenge.

As we sped groggily out of Dublin on the M1 after our overnight flight, we realized we were missing some of the basics, like what these signs with numbers meant along the side of the highway. We also hadn't thought to bring maps for each city/town we intended to visit, although they would likely have been easily available online. So when we saw a small round sign that said "30," we weren't sure if it meant the speed limit was 30 miles per hour or 30 kilometers per hour, both of which seemed way too slow for a highway. Plus, at that point, we were going about 90 kph without too much trouble, so Steve mused, "maybe it's a minimum speed." No sooner had he said this than we found ourselves careening through a serpentine road in a construction zone. Steve handled it by the grace of God. Moments after we shot out the other size of the serpentine, white knuckles and all, Steve observed that the sign probably had meant 30 kph.

After spending our first night in Belfast, we made our way along the northern coast. We stopped in Ballycastle, where I dipped my feet into the very cold North Channel. (See photo below. The cliff in the distance is called Fair Head, so named for the woman who is said to have thrown herself from it.)
The car trouble started when we tried to back out of our parking space in Ballycastle, and we couldn't tell the difference between R, 1, and 3. I mean, there was a general area for each, but they seemed to overlap, and to slip into each other. Our little rental, a VW Golf covered in scratches, had 71,000+ km on it already, no doubt much of those km driven by jetlagged Americans. Over the months of abuse, it seems, the gears had become rather arbitrary, more of a suggestion or innuendo than a physical reality.

After a harrowing minute or two stalling repeatedly while backing out of the parking space into oncoming traffic, we proceeded to Giant's Causeway without incident. Legend says that giant Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland and fight a rival. I was feeling a bit better by now (see The Alien in My Intestines) and agreed to walk, carefully, the 2km down a steep path from the parking lot to the water. On the way down, we met some very friendly elderly Newfoundlaners who offered to take our picture, and we offered to take theirs. Then we had to ditch them, because they were way too chatty, and I didn't have the energy for that.

We climbed on the hexagonal rocks and picked our way out toward the ocean. I climbed carefully, lest I reawaken the angry alien in my gastric system. I took the photo below of Steve on the dry rocks, but you may notice the black rocks in the distance. After taking this photo, I walked out to the wet, black rocks.

When we climbed down from the rocks, we then noticed a sign indicating safety procedures. Basically it said: Whatever you do, don't go on the black rocks, because they are black due to the fact that huge waves wash over them, and the coast guard has to rescue X number of families each year that get washed out to sea into dangerous currents.

Whoops. At left, me sitting on the black rocks.

We made our way back up the hill and headed to the dramatic ruined Dunluce Castle (below right), which ended up being one of our favorite attractions.

We were starving by this time, and we stopped at the "Wee Cottage," a tiny house by Dunluce Castle where a mother and teenage daughter make hot and cold sandwiches for tourists. We sat by a toasty peat fire, enjoying our sandwiches and the ambiance while a cold rain fell outside. That is, we enjoyed the ambiance until the daughter tossed a plastic cola bottle on the fire. Steve's and my eyes nearly popped out, and we tried not to inhale as the plastic bottle was consumed by fire and disintegrated, sending bright chemical flames shooting up into the chimney. Time to go.

After touring the stunning castle ruins, we drove on to Derry/Londonderry. I had an idea that I wanted to see the old walled city, built in the 1600s. We had no map, but I knew the city wasn't that populous, and how hard could it be to find a walled city? In hindsight, this was extremely faulty reasoning.

We careened through the city, shooting blindly around traffic circles as rush hour approached. We saw no signs to the walled city. We did see a sign for the tourist information centre, but it required paid garage parking, and we had just about run out of pounds so we couldn't park there (we were en route to Donegal, which is in the Republic and uses euros). We started bickering. Traffic was worsening by the second, and every time we'd speed uncertainly around a circle, we'd have near misses as other cars tried to enter in front of us, mistaking our uncertain driving as an intention to exit the circle. The stick shift was a major problem in traffic, as it slipped from gear to gear and continually threatened to stall. I started accusing Steve of not knowing how to drive stick shift. He started yelling at me that the gears were completely screwed up. Suddenly, he pulled up his hand and the entire stick shift came with it. (Below, a reenactment.)

We were still speeding forward, but now shifting gears would be far more difficult. We both started swearing and giggling nervously. After a few seconds of alarm, we breathed twin signs of relief when traffic came to a complete stop. We took that time to reinstall the shift knob and cover, and we decided to skip the walled city. It was on to Donegal, with no love lost for Londonderry.

By the next day, Steve and the VW had clearly reached some sort of truce. All further troubles were due not to the gears but to the sad shape of rural roads in the Republic. On the one-lane road out to the Cliffs of Moher, we encountered numerous tourist buses coming in the opposite direction. They did not slow down, and we found ourselves running off the road to avoid them, as brambles on the roadside gouged deep scratches down the entire left side of the VW. One bus incident in particular reminded me of the scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy and Steve Martin drive between two 18-wheelers. I believe that, that time, Steve and I both screamed a little bit. I know I did, at least.

Even with all the road troubles, when we turned the car in at the Dublin Airport, I felt a little sad.

We had been through a lot with that car. I took a picture so we would always remember it.

And happily, we were not charged for the new scratches along the left side of the car. They blended right in with the old ones.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A True Story About a Terrible 'Taint Rash

This is not a forward. This happened to an acquaintance, and this is the story as told to me over a few days as the affliction played out. I'm posting this story without the victim's permission, so no names are used -- just Guy and Girlfriend. But I felt it was a story that should be told.

Guy gets a rash in his 'taint area. Doesn't go to the doctor. Waits until it's so bad he's almost screaming in pain -- it's dried and cracked and bleeding. Guy goes to the emergency room.

He's put in stirrups, naked from the waist down. The doctors are in shock. More doctors come. Guy hears many doctors saying "whoa" or similar. They hang a curtain across his midsection, to protect his privacy (ha!), and medical students begin parading through. They come in small groups and stand there impressed as they inspect his private area.

He's sent home after about six hours on display. The nurses "dress" his afflicted area and show him how to apply said dressing himself. Girlfriend goes to pick up Guy at hospital. He walks to the car as if he's straddling a hobbyhorse. When he gets home, Guy realizes that the dressing is attached with tape to a very hairy area. He pulls it off, screaming like a lost child. Girlfriend tries really hard not to laugh.

The next morning, Guy applies the entire dressing with about one square inch of tape, total. He begins to walk toward the door, and the dressing slides out of his pant leg. Not enough tape. He inquires about the use of maxi pads as a dressing-holder. Turns out maxi pads don't work with boxers.

A few hours later, Girlfriend receives text message from Guy:
"In CVS. Buying Depends."

The next day, Guy does in fact wear the Depends, and Girlfriend notes that they make him look like a baboon. Apparently Depends have a reservoir in the butt to hold bodily expulsions. And it sticks out. Guy loves the Depends, and wears them proudly.

But the 'taint rash is still very painful. Guy goes to a dermatologist and gets a cortisone shot directly in his 'taint. Guy is then lectured on allowing the area to air out.

I am pleased to report a happy ending. Guy was fully healed after a week or so.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wegman's: Like Times Square on New Year's Eve.

I went to Wegman's today on my way home from work; I left early to meet the roofer. It was about 12:30pm when I arrived, and the place was jammed, but I had to pick up the free-range turkey Steve had ordered.

If you've ever been to a Wegman's, you know that it is normally grocery nirvana. However, there are so few of them in the metro area that the stores drown in a sea of people prior to any national holiday. There were three Fairfax County Police Department patrol cars doing crowd control around the parking lot, and Wegman's seemed to have a lot of security staff on hand as well.

I got perhaps the fifth-worst parking space in existence there, and I trotted toward the distant entrance. By trotting I probably got in front of about 20 people who were doing more of a mosey. (Don't these people have jobs?) Inside, it was chaos. I knew it was going to be rough, so I put my New York on.

I grabbed a handbasket instead of a cart, so I could move quickly. Fast and light. I needed eggs and trashbags, both on the far side from the turkey pickup. I dashed around slow-moving carts and moms with kids, swerving through the aisles at a breakneck pace. Got the eggs and the trashbags, and steamed toward the meat section. I needed pancetta for my turkey, so I grabbed some prepackaged stuff at the deli, and went and picked up the big bird. At this point my basket was full, so I heaved the very cold 14-pounder under my left arm and plowed on toward the checkout, tossing two loaves of fresh-baked bread on top of my basket while en route. I got in the express line and checked out without any major incident.

I considered it a victory to have gotten in and out in 35 minutes, and I made it home in time for the roof guy. I vowed I would not return to Wegman's until after New Year's Day, and I certainly would never go to Wegman's on Thanksgiving week ever again.

Unfortunately, when I was putting away the pancetta, I saw that two of the three packages expired 10 days ago. I nearly wept. At $6 for 3 oz. (each), I have to return them. Plus, I need the pancetta for my turkey and Wegman's is the only place I could find it.

Which means that tonight, I have to go back to Wegman's.

More Nerdy License Plates

Both seen in the past week:

ETHRNET

INFOSEC

I guess it's good to be proud of what you do...

Monday, November 19, 2007

No Loaded Guns in the Building

Last weekend, Steve and I attended "The Nation's Gun Show" at the Dulles Expo in Chantilly, Va. I went out of curiosity, and I found that what you hear on the news is true -- you really don't need anything but cash/check/credit to walk out with a high-powered rifle/AK-47/12 ga. shotgun/copious ammo/etc. I know this because Steve bought a gun there, and no records were made or taken during the transactions other than those needed to get his cash. While I support the right to bear arms, guaranteed in the Second Amendment, I firmly believe in background checks and waiting periods. This gun show situation is a massive loophole.

[Update: This page http://www.stategunlaws.org/viewstate.php?st=VA states the following:
GUN SHOW CHECKS
Are background checks required at gun shows? No

No state requirement that a Brady criminal background check be done on people buying guns at gun shows if they are sold by "private" individuals or gun "collectors." Gun shows can operate on a "no questions asked, cash-and-carry" basis, making it easy for criminals and even juveniles to buy as many guns as they want at gun shows, including assault weapons. No records are required to be kept on gun show sales by private individuals or gun collectors, making it almost impossible for police to trace such weapons if they are used in a crime.

I guess the upshot is that, even if you have a huge booth at the gun show with a company name on it, and you take credit cards and offer 100s of items for sale, all you have to do is call yourself a "collector" and you're off the hook re: record keeping.]

Clientele at the gun show included lots of older men in ill-fitting mossy oak camo, many fathers and young sons, and lots of military-looking guys with high-and-tights. Needless to say, there were few women present; the ladies room was very clean. And, based on the variety of people walking around, it would not surprise me to find that some of the patrons were gang members and some were white supremacists. Not that I would admit to saying that certain people "look like" gang members or white supremacists. But take my word for it when I say that the secret is definitely out among the hoi polloi.

Apparently they've had some sort of problems with people bringing loaded guns into the building, evidenced by the signs below. In case you can't read them (cell phone photos again), they say: "UNLOAD YOUR GUNS. ALL OF THEM" and "NO LOADED GUNS IN THE BUILDING."

Included for sale at many tables were historical military artifacts, which is understandable. What is less understandable, to me, however, is the number of artifacts floating around with swastikas on them. I saw at least four tables with Nazi armbands and flags for sale. My thoughts on this: The people who think Nazi stuff is cool are the same people who are likely to go shoot up their high schools. So the only use I can see for this is to allow the crazies to self-select so law enforcement will know to keep an eye on them.

I know we have freedom of speech in this country, and I support that 100%. But what's wrong with these people that they aren't ashamed to sell this stuff? Just because you're free to sell it doesn't mean it's appropriate to do so.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Alien in My Intestines

After a delay due to family obligations, here's the first installment of our Ireland story. It starts on the Thursday night before we left.

I was feeling a bit out of sorts around dinner time, and unwisely consumed a buffalo burger, thinking it would help clean me out. Unfortunately, if anything, it made the situation worse. I began to feel a sharp ache in my lower right abdomen. The rest of my evening was spent more in the bathroom than out of it.

As the night wore on, I found myself heading to the bathroom again and again with nothing to show for it. The pain in my abdomen became excruciating. I began to wonder if I had appendicitis. The next day I had planned to work from home, and by the morning, the abdominal pain wouldn't even allow me to stand up straight. I started visualizing the scene from Alien in which the alien bursts from the guy's stomach.
My mom always told us the story of her cousin who died of appendicitis as a teenager. She wasn't feeling well on the day of her prom, but said nothing because she didn't want to miss the dance. The cousin died of a burst appendix that afternoon.

And here I was debating whether I should go to the hospital. If I went to the hospital, I might not be able to board the plane at 7pm. If I waited out the illness and skipped the medical care ... what if my appendix burst somewhere over Iceland?

I spoke with Steve about my plight. He noted that he'd suffered through a very similar problem about two weeks earlier. Thinking back, I remembered Steve walking hunched over with his hand on his stomach. At the time, I thought he was being melodramatic. (Example #457 of karma kicking me in the ass.)

Ultimately, I popped four Advil and we headed to the airport. That night on Aer Lingus was a long, painful one, and once we landed in Dublin on Saturday morning, I found I could barely stand up. It took me a moment to straighten out. I barely remember going through Customs. We picked up our luggage, some weird bagels to go for breakfast, and went to the rental car lot. After a few shaky trips around the parking lot, Steve seemed to have the right side stick shift fairly under control.

A couple of hours later, we arrived at our Belfast hotel and attempted to check in. It was 11 a.m. local time; check-in was 2 p.m., and the Radisson SAS Belfast refused to allow us to check in three hours early. (This is the first time a hotel has denied such a request in all my recent trans-Atlantic travels.) We left our car in the hotel lot, grabbed a tourist map and trudged wearily into the center of town, unfortunately forgetting our camera. Four more Advil later, I found that, if I didn't twist any muscles in my torso, the pain would stay bearable. If I tried to twist my body at all, it felt like that alien was trying to punch its way out of the right side of my large intestine.

Near City Hall, we hit the excellent Tourist Information Centre and bought a couple of driving maps that would serve us well throughout the trip. Then, we boarded a double-decker tourist bus for a tour of the city. Normally, we would prefer to check out a town on foot, but I was in no shape to hoof it all over Belfast. Not to mention it was about 45 degrees F and it had started to rain.

I'd like to say the tour was exciting and really made the stop in Belfast worthwhile. But truly, although we enjoyed seeing the murals and peace walls on Shankill Road and Falls Road, the epicenters of the Troubles, the best thing that happened on the tour bus was that we got some much-needed sleep. I wasn't even that embarrassed about it. When the tour ended, it was 1:45, and we hailed a taxi for the mile-or-so trip back to the hotel. The cab driver was shocked that we'd need a taxi for such a short trip, but again, I was in no shape to walk, and I was not even a little embarrassed.

Blissfully, we checked in back at the hotel. I collapsed into the bed in a fetal position and slept for a couple of hours. Around 5 p.m. we ordered some room service. I ate a very small portion and fell asleep again until the next morning.

I improved slowly over the next few days, eating bland foods and having the occasional half-pint of Guinness or Smithwick's, which Steve suggested had medicinal properties.

By Wednesday I felt like I had finally been cured. The alien had been beaten into submission.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Stupid Unicorns

Wow, it's been a long time since I've updated. I still haven't gotten to our Ireland recap, but it's on my to-do list. Hopefully things have calmed down enough at this point that I'll have time to post regularly again.

The big news today is that Steve and I have been undergoing some fertility testing, and today we had our "what now" meeting with the doctor. At the appointment today, he confirmed that I have what's known as a unicornuate uterus (UU), which is basically half a uterus and only one fallopian tube. I have two ovaries, but my right one is just floating around in there without a tube attached. Unicornuate uterus is often associated with recurrent loss, second-trimester loss, incompetent cervix, lots of bedrest, an inability to carry twins, and a 40% live-birth rate. How does this happen? About 3 in 10,000 women have this condition (2-4 % of women have any uterine anomaly, and only 1% of those anomalies are UUs), and it's something that happens when we're fetuses ourselves and one half of the uterus just fails to form. So, those of you who know me in person: You always knew I was unusual ... now you know exactly *how* unusual.

The doctor recommended a medicated cycle, which we'll look at starting after the first of the year, when our new insurance starts. It's good to have a plan. Even though my condition has a really stupid name.

One positive piece of information I received today was that even though a lot of women with a UU have just one kidney, I have two. So that's something.

This news scares the crap out of me re: a potential future pregnancy, but all we can do is press on. And I figure, I've already lost two pregnancies, so with a 40% success rate, the odds have moved into my favor, right? (I'll just keep telling myself that.)

When I learned a month ago that I might have this condition, I started looking for info online. There's not a lot of stuff out there -- there's not even a wikipedia page -- but I did find some good resources. You can also find good information by searching for "Mullerian anomalies," of which UU is one type. In case anyone stumbles upon this page while seeking info after a diagnosis, here's a list of some useful resources.

Good Information
Positive Stories
Yahoo Groups (membership required to read and participate in message boards)
Blogs

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grandma Sara's Last Gift

On Monday after the funeral, Steve and his parents and I went to his mom's family cemetery in the middle of nowhere to pick out a plot for Grandma Sara. Several of Grandma Sara's siblings, her parents, and various ancestors are buried there. She will be cremated, so there was no rush -- the burial of her ashes will happen at a later date.

We pulled up to the cemetery, which was surrounded by farmland, woods, and a boarded-up church. I mention its relative isolation to explain our surprise when, as soon as we opened our car doors, a tiny black and white puppy was immediately underfoot. He seemed very happy to see us, greeting us like we were his long-lost family. I picked him up and he urgently licked my face and hands, shaking a little but seeming mostly happy. His fur was fairly clean, but his little ribs were definitely sticking out. In his excitement, he peed a little bit on my shirt, and the color was very dark, almost green. This puppy hadn't had anything to drink in quite some time. I put him down, and he began following us.

We walked around the cemetery looking for a good spot for Grandma Sara. The little puppy wouldn't let us out of his sight, and we kept looking around to figure out where he'd come from. We started to wonder if he'd been abandoned by the roadside. Steve's mom picked him up and asked him if he wanted to come to Mississippi. At first, she didn't seem serious, but I put on the full-court press. "We can't leave him here by himself. There are no houses anywhere around -- he's all alone. We have to at least bring him to the pound. He's so cute he'll get adopted right away. But he seems like such a sweet doggie..."

Finally, we found the perfect location for Grandma Sara's final resting place. As we stood admiring it, Steve's mom began debating bringing the little dog home with her. I said maybe her mom wanted her to have the puppy. Suddenly, the little guy trotted purposefully toward the gravestone of Grandma Sara's father. He hopped up on the ledge of the stone, sat down, and stared at us.

The decision was made.

Meet Barkley.




Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Goodbye Grandma Sara

Hamilton, Alabama, is a town of less than 7,000, straight out of Friday Night Lights. Most businesses had "Go Aggies!" on their marquees -- the Hamilton High School Aggies, of course. As far as national chains go, there's a McDonald's, a Wal-Mart, a Sonic, and that's about it. It's a dry county; we were advised to drive 83 miles to Tuscaloosa for wine or beer. (We went without.)

There were a lot of nice people in Hamilton; there were also many interesting characters. One in particular lived across the street. He was older, at least 65 but possibly as old as 80, few teeth, and spent lots of time sitting on his porch watching us. He had a uniform of flannel shirt, overalls, straw cowboy hat, curved pipe. When it got hot out, it was the same uniform, but no shirt. He also enjoyed riding his adult tricycle back and forth on the sidewalk in front of his house, honking the clown horn on the handlebars. (See photo below. Apologies for poor picture quality -- these were taken with a cell phone camera.)

Saturday afternoon, Steve's brother-in-law Skip started talking to Tricycle Guy. On a lark, Skip asked Tricycle Guy if he'd like to buy Grandma Sara's 1995 Ford Taurus (145,000 miles, needs a jump to start). Tricycle Guy offered $995 for the car, and Skip accepted, still unsure whether the guy could pay. To everyone's amazement, Tricycle Guy reached into his front overall pocket and pulled out a wad of $100 bills -- Skip estimated there were about 50. Tricycle Guy pulled off 10 $100s and handed them to Skip. Steve's mom signed over the title. Skip jump-started the car and drove it across the street, where it sat for at least the next four days (when we left). A few times a day, Tricycle Guy would ride his trike around the car admiring it. At no time did we see him start it up.

On Tuesday, as Steve and his parents finished up a few last things before heading home, I walked the two blocks to Sonic to buy lunch for the family. If you're familiar with Sonic, you know that it's geared toward the automobile, with menu/ordering speakers at each parking space. You place your order and a girl brings out your food a bit later. It comes on a tray that can sit on your window if you choose to sit in your car and eat. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for walk-up traffic, and I walked into the building. I was greeted with shocked stares from the low-wage workers within -- apparently customers NEVER go inside Sonic. I asked them how one orders without a car (no doubt they are still talking about the dumb Yankee without a car who didn't know how to order) and they directed me to a picnic table outside with its own menu/speaker. I walked outside to the table, pressed the "ORDER" button, and then gave my order to the same girls I'd just spoken with inside.

On the way back from Sonic, I passed one of the neighbors from across the street. She'd borrowed a $100 bill from Tricycle Guy so she could buy a bureau Steve had set outside (with a penned sign that said "$40. Pay inside."), but Steve's mom didn't have $60 change. The neighbor returned a few moments later -- with a Sonic bag and the change she got after paying for her lunch with a $100 bill -- to find another guy admiring the bureau. She came running up to the door with cash and Sonic bag in hand, saying something about finders keepers. We helped her move the bureau onto her porch and she took it from there. (She's the figure standing behind Tricycle Guy in the photo above.)

We made three trips to the Guin (pronunciation unknown), Alabama, Salvation Army, our rented pickup truck piled high with boxes of clothes, small furniture, and assorted tchotchkes. The last trip was mostly small furniture. Another donator had left an old recliner to the right of the door (a few feet away from most of our boxes), so we decided to place an end table appropriately next to the recliner. Steve then put a lamp on the end table. I took a broken lampshade across the street to a dumpster as Steve continued to add items. While walking back, I saw Steve place a throw rug at the recliner's feet, and then a console table a few feet in front of it. I was wondering what he was doing with that table when I saw him go back to the truck and retrieve a 13-inch TV. (See photo of living room scene below.)


We wished we could have seen the reactions of the Salvation Army volunteers the next morning. (Hopefully it was amusement rather than dismay at the volume of donations left outside.)

We made the best of things, but in the end, we were there for a funeral. Even I was sad to lose Grandma Sara, and I'd only known her a few years. I met her right after my own Grandma died, and I remember thinking that it was almost as if I still had one grandparent left. Grandma Sara played piano and autoharp (among other instruments), just like my own Grandma did. (My other Grandma died when I was 4, and I do remember her, but for most of my life there was just one Grandma.) After Steve left for Iraq, Grandma Sara called me at home to ask if it was true, if Steve really had gone away. I had to tell her that he had. She asked me if I had a job to keep me busy. I said I did, and we chatted for a bit. She told me to call her from time to time, but I am sorry to say I never did get around to that. I did, however, send her a postcard from a business trip, so she knew I was thinking of her. When I talked to her on the phone that time, I mentioned that we hoped to see one of her choir performances, and she invited me to perform with her group anytime. I demurred, saying I wouldn't know the music, but she kept the invitation open nevertheless.

One of the things we found in Grandma Sara's personal effects was a class picture of Steve from around 2nd grade. On the back she had written: "Steve: A Wonderful Grandson." It was a sweet gift from beyond the grave. But Grandma Sara wasn't done yet.

Next up: Grandma Sara's Last Gift.

An Unexpected Trip South

Last week, we suddenly found ourselves en route to Alabama, due to the death of Steve's Grandma Sara. She passed away the day after her 85th birthday. A faithful member (and former choir director) of the First Baptist Church in Hamilton, Alabama, she'd been active almost up to the very end. The day she fell and broke her hip a few weeks back, she'd been at the local public access TV station, taping her weekly Christian muppet show (she had big round-headed muppets, like Ernie on Sesame Street). She'd developed the shows as a missionary in Malawi and Australia.

Grandma Sara never really recovered from the fall that broke her hip, and she had a massive stroke while Steve and I were in Ireland. We returned home to the news that Grandma Sara didn't have much time left. We flew down into Birmingham last Saturday, rented a pickup truck and drove the 100 miles to Hamilton.

Stories to come, tomorrow and Wednesday. I apologize in advance for the photo quality; I didn't bring the camera for fear it would be seen as morbid, so the photos were all taken with my cell phone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Comcast Triple Play Attempt Ends in Grand Slam

Comcast messed with the wrong lady.

Manassas, Va., resident Mona Shaw was trapped in a spiral of incompetence while trying to switch her phone service from Verizon to Comcast. At times, the 75-year-old was left with no telephone service at all. After attempting repeatedly to have the situation fixed, Shaw lost it, heading to her local Comcast office with a hammer in her purse. After smashing a keyboard, computer monitor, and, appropriately, a telephone, she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

She told the Potomac News, "I figured, 'Hey my telephone is screwed up, so is yours.' "

She's a woman after my own heart.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Just Back From the Old Country

Yesterday we returned from a 10-day trip around Ireland. Coming soon:
  • An alien in my intestines
  • Adventures in left-side stick-shift driving
  • What not to do with a tea caddy
  • Opportunistic tourism and Irish globalization
  • Touching a mummy

Friday, September 21, 2007

Vote for an Asterisk

Last month, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, I wrote that the guy who caught the ball should have thrown it back in protest. I reasoned that that ball was estimated to be worth $100,000, but being "the guy who threw back Barry Bonds' ball" was worth more than that.

On Saturday, that ball was auctioned off for over $752,000. The winning bidder was some fashion designer guy named Marc Ecko, who has set up a Web site to allow the Internet-voting public to decide the fate of the ball. The choices are: give the ball to the Hall of Fame, brand it with an asterisk, or blast it into space.

At first, I thought: I'd definitely rather have $750k than a good story. However, Ecko is now getting oodles of publicity for essentially offering to throw it back. Maybe my initial idea was not so crazy.

Bonds, currently under investigation for steroid usage, tax evasion, and perjury, called Ecko an "idiot" when he heard about the poll.

I voted for an asterisk.

Here's where you can place your vote:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

That Shirt Is 70 Years Old in Internet Years

At Starbucks last week, I stood in line behind a guy in a shabby "MAC OS 8.5" shirt. I was once a Mac aficionado, until the much lower cost of PCs turned me to the dark side. I fondly remember the breakthrough that was Mac system 7.5; the last OS I had was Mac 8.6. A long time ago. (For those unschooled in the Mac OS, Apple is about to introduce OS 10.5 in October.)

I wonder what it says about someone who keeps a shirt far longer than the lifespan of the OS the shirt advertises. Is it like wearing a Mike Mussina Orioles jersey to a Yankees game? Is he trying to show his decade-plus devotion to the Mac? Is he just an unmarried guy without a woman to go through his old t-shirts and draw the line at tech-geek shirts from 1997 that are so worn out the guy's nipples are visible?

Any insight would be most welcome.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Police Concert, November 5 at the Verizon Center: SAVE YOUR MONEY

I just noticed that tickets to the Police at the Verizon Center went on sale last week. I am writing this blog entry as a public service to anyone considering buying them. Don't do it.

When Steve and I heard last winter that the Police were reuniting for a tour, we decided to go. We've been to numerous reunion tours in the past (Hall and Oats, Def Leppard, etc.) and it has always been a good show. We bought "cheap" seats, at $100+ each, for the July 20th concert in Hershey, PA, since no DC concert had been scheduled at that point. We never expected to be so severely disappointed.

It quickly became abundantly clear that Sting, Stuart, and Andy still loathe one other. They each tried to lead the music, playing/singing over one another, and it sounded like three guys practicing who haven't quite clicked to become a band. Sting can no longer hit the high notes, so Roxanne sounded like a shadow of its former self, sung an octave lower. There were only a couple of sublime moments when they really nailed it, in King of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger.

For some reason, the reviews I read of the show were largely positive. I think the critics in this case were far too kind. If those same critics had heard the very same music and didn't know who was playing it, I guarantee they would have dismissed it with, "eh, this Police cover band has potential, but they really need a lot more practice to pull it off." You'd think after two months on the road they would have gotten it together.

In short, the concert sucked, and I regret that we spent that money and drove all the way to Hershey. But it would have been a ripoff even if it were local. On top of everything, the experience ruined the Police for me even on the radio, because now the songs just remind me of that half-assed concert.

As a side note, Sting's son's band Fiction Plane opened the concert. Sting's son, Joe Sumner, plays bass and fronts the three-man band. (Sound familiar?) His voice has a similar timbre to his dad's. It's kind of like watching Sting II. But their songs... not so good. One single, Two Sisters, was catchy. But Fiction Plane decided to end their show with an appalling song that had waaaaay too many "F&#$ you"s in it for the mellow 30-something crowd in front of them. They left the crowd sitting in stunned silence with jaws agape. *crickets*

In sum, there's no reason to go see the Police. I implore you, don't go to the concert in DC this November. You should save your money and spend it on something that is more likely to have a positive outcome. Like street chess, three-card monty, or the DC Lotto.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jamaica Donald and Panama Bill

Last weekend, Steve and I learned to sail at Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria.

This weekend, Steve is in Mississippi, and I was scheduled to practice my sailing with my friend Ruby, who took the class a week before us. Unfortunately, this morning I awakened to a "small craft warning" due to high winds, our outing canceled via a call from the marina. But the bright side is, that gives me the time and opportunity to write about our experience last week.

The class convened at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning at a couple of rickety picnic tables wedged in under a canopy between dozens and dozens of boats. Six students awaited the two on-boat instructors: Donald and Bill. Donald hailed from Jamaica originally, and had sailing in his blood. He told us he was sailing before he could walk. Donald had a scraggly little pirate beard and was probably in his 20s, based on the fact that I heard him discuss his Facebook page with one of the dockworkers. The other instructor, Bill, claimed to have learned to sail two weeks ago. We laughed; his weathered boat shoes were just two of many signs that Bill knew his way around a boat.

I wished I had my camera. Bill was probably in his '50s and had a grizzled look about him. He wore a light-colored Bermuda shirt and standard khaki shorts. One of his boat shoes (no socks) was sliced open on the side, toe to ankle. He topped off the outfit with a light-color brimmed hat and a cigarette that defied gravity as he spoke, dangling off the corner of his lower lip. I decided to call him Panama Bill. Not to his face.

Steve and I set out with Donald and another student named Milena. Milena was from Bulgaria and was wearing cool sunglasses and trendy shoes, both noted repeatedly by Donald to the extent that even Steve wondered later, without my prompting, if Donald was going to ask her out.

I had a tough time that first day. The sun beat down on us, with not a cloud in the sky for any relief. The temperature hovered around 90. And Donald had a very zen style of teaching. "Feel the wind." "Drive the boat." I became frustrated because I couldn't feel the wind and I didn't know how to drive the boat or I wouldn't be in the class. When I tried to ask questions, Donald replied, "no excuses!" Steve, on the other hand, caught on much faster and really enjoyed the experience. Milena didn't seem to learn too much, but her enthusiasm lent a needed levity to the day. Whenever something exciting would happen, like a good gust of wind, Milena would exclaim, "Oh, Madonna!" We came home Saturday night, exhausted, and I fell asleep at 8pm on the couch. The next morning I dreaded going back to the marina, but I figured I might as well finish the two-day class.

We all met again at the picnic tables and headed to the 19-foot Flying Scot with Donald. But after we boarded, Panama Bill drove over in a dinghy with one of his students, a young guy named Brenden. "I'm going to need to impress into service one of your crew," Bill said, his eyes twinkling. Apparently his two other students, a married couple, had gone home because the wife was sick. I took about 1.5 seconds to consider the situation, and I volunteered to switch. I was in the dinghy before anyone knew what happened, and happily motored off with my new instructor. Bill, who appeared to be wearing the same outfit as the day before, kept the mood light, chatting with us, giving specific instruction when it was needed, standing on the bow smoking much of the time. He mentioned a fiance, a move into her house, and the need to sell his own place so he could afford a 45-foot steel hulled sailboat. Bill also mentioned that his 21-year-old son had just knocked up his girlfriend and gotten kicked out, and now wanted to stay in Bill's house -- the one he wanted to sell to finance his boat. Bill wasn't sure what to do about this. I didn't offer any suggestions, but I was thinking that his son is 21 and should be able to take care of himself at this point.

The sailing went well. We learned "man overboard" drills and improved our maneuvering skills through a course of buoys. After some initial tentativeness, I did begin to catch on, and as the day wore on, I can say, I started to almost know what I was doing.

Sometime after our lunch break, Bill brought us in to a floating dock with a large flagpole. He climbed off the boat onto the dock and told us it was time to go on without him. My fellow student and I stared at him -- no doubt Brenden was thinking the same thing I was: "Oh my god, where are you going? How do we do this without you in the boat?" Cigarette in hand, Panama Bill lounged in the dock's lone furniture, a single white plastic chair, and sent us off through the buoys on our own, shouting directions when we made boneheaded moves, which was less often than I expected.

Steve's boat was engaging in similar maneuvers. When Steve was at the helm, it seemed to go well; when Milena was driving, there seemed to be a lot of back-and-forth going on, but no progress being made. I kept hearing Donald yell, "Steven, no helping!" Finally I heard Steve yell back, "I'm not helping!" and then I saw Steve just put his head down.

Meanwhile, I docked successfully three or four times, and I took the boat out totally on my own, managing to round "Bob," the white buoy near the sandbar. Unfortunately, it was at that point that the wind completely died. I futzed with the sails for a while, hoping for a puff, but got nothing. We were drifting. Toward the sandbar. After about five minutes, Bill and one of the dock workers motored up to tow the boat in. "We're calling it a day," Bill said. No more wind. I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to bring the boat in myself, but there was no other choice. On the way in, I saw Steve's boat, noticing that he had busted out the paddle and was manually pulling in to the dock.

As Bill, Brenden and I took down the sails, I realized I was starting to understand the rigging. It's all coming together, slowly. But I'll need to practice a bit more to get it firmly ensconced in my brain. Panama Bill said there is no such thing as an expert sailor, and I believe him. But I'd like to become one with more than half a clue.

Steve and His Unusual Steed

The last activity of note during our Shenandoah Valley vacation was horseback riding, for which we headed over to River's Bend Guest Ranch in Stanley, VA. You may recall that we had decided not to use the 'Net to plan ahead for this vacation, so we found ourselves pulling over and asking for directions once we got to the outskirts of Stanley. The directions involved the following statement: "After you cross the bridge over the river, it's the first left. But not the first left that goes down to the river. The one after that."

We made our way there and found that our horses were already saddled up and ready to go. Steve would ride Bud, one of their tallest horses, and I would ride Red.

[I hadn't been on a horse since horseback riding camp in 4th grade, which cured my interest in horses. They are much less interpersonal than you might expect from the equine children's literature I'd read. And they poop a lot, and at camp, we had to clean it up and scrape it out of their hooves. Not. For. Me. When my parents picked me up at camp that year and I told them what I thought of the horsewoman experience, clearly casting aside all prior horse-related interests, my dad looked at my mom and said, "Huh. Cheaper than buying a horse."]

At River's Bend, Steve hit it off with Bud immediately, and petted him frequently throughout the trip. Since we seemed fairly competent, mounting the horses with ease and quickly catching on to the proper steering techniques, the trail guide upgraded us to the advanced trail, which went over a few streams and up and down some steeper grades.

During this time, Bud had been exhibiting a bit of a rebellious streak. He was the second horse in line, behind the trail guide, and he bit that horse's butt three times. He also seemed to turn and nip at Steve's leg. I was right behind Steve, and saw him peek down over the horse's shoulder to see what was going on. As we climbed down part of the trail, Bud stopped in his tracks and started eating foliage. Steve asked if Bud had eaten breakfast yet, and he was advised that Bud most certainly had, and to kick him and make him keep going -- the trail guide said horses would eat themselves to death if we'd let them. Bud also pooped twice (the other horses pooped once) and engaged in a monumental Austin Powers-length pee that left a bathtub-sized fetid puddle beneath Bud's belly that covered much of the trail.

My horse Red was very professional, following direction for the most part, except when Bud's excessive stream of pee incited Red to trot out of the spatter line. I couldn't blame him for that. And when I nudged him back onto the trail once Bud's peeing had ended, he was happy to oblige.

As we neared the end of the ride, the guide began talking about the polluted Shenandoah River. She said she'd been fishing a few weeks earlier and every fish she caught had lesions on it. It was catch-and-release fishing anyway, she said, because the fish all had such high mercury levels that any more than one fish per month was considered dangerous. Steve and I had spent the prior day kayaking, soaked with river water much of the time (we went through class 2 rapids), and this news greatly dismayed us. For the next couple of days, we both experienced a number of odd symptoms, possibly psychosomatic, such as swollen lymph nodes and headaches.

In just a moment, the river in our eyes had gone from unspoiled wilderness to a major health hazard. It made me think that politicians and the media are always distracted by the "global warming" discussion, but it's kind of a red herring. Even if there is no global warming, we still have a major pollution problem. In the end, less pollution is definitely better, for thousands of reasons beyond the temperature of the earth.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Cloggin'

When Steve and I considered going to see the clogger show on Tuesday night at the Shenandoah National Park, Steve was picturing his low country Citadel classmates and I was picturing the cute clogging guys from "America's Got Talent."

We headed out for the 7:30 p.m. show with those expectations in mind. When we pulled up to the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park, we asked the guy in the booth: "Where are the cloggers?" His reply should have tipped us off: "They're about 20 minutes ahead of you."

We clarified that we wanted to know where they'd be performing. "Skyline Lodge, about 10 miles south on Skyline Drive," he said as he handed us our change.

As we drove on, we wondered how he knew when the cloggers came through. Maybe they had a special ID card that allowed them in at no cost, so that's why he knew it was them? Maybe he just knew them, since they performed once a week? We considered various options for a bit.

Meanwhile, the fog was rolling in. We stopped at one of the overlooks, where we felt like we were looking off the edge of the earth.

We headed on to the lodge, and found a small, packed tavern area with a very small dance floor. The only remaining seats were literally right in front, so we grabbed them and ordered up a couple of beers. I took a moment to survey the scene.

At least half of the audience appeared to be over 70 and out way past their bedtime. The rest was divided among families and crunchy yuppies (I suppose we fit the bill, after a day spent kayaking on the Shenandoah River). Then my gaze fell to the right of the dance floor, where about 10 women in identical outfits milled around an '80s-style boombox. Their ages appeared to range from 20 to 65 or so, and their weights varied widely. There were no men. Clearly, these were the cloggers. And I understood how the park service guy knew them when they came through 20 minutes ahead of us.

The performance seemed to be more line dancing than straight clogging. The musical selection could have been better -- the line dance of Seger's "Old Time Rock-n-Roll" was underwhelming and awkward, bringing to mind cruise-ship guest-participation entertainment or an activity at a senior-citizen's all-inclusive resort. Starting after the second song, one of the cloggers began complaining loudly and repeatedly about the lack of air conditioning. The elderly spectators sat stone-faced, the children hopped around happily, and some of the yuppies snuck out. We were front-and-center, so we stayed and watched the show.

After a brief intermission, the two stars came out, dressed in a new outfit. They had cast aside the full black skirt and puffy-painted sequined white t-shirt in favor of an edgier black outfit that proclaimed them the Banjo Girls. They were good, really good. They did a dance, just the two of them, to an upbeat song called "Banjo Boys," a poignant choice, I thought.

It's about a great banjo player who is going nowhere due to his choice of instrument.
I want to be a rock star, and travel really far, and buy me a big expensive car.
And make lots of money and find me a honey.
And live in nice big house where it's sunny.
With a pool and I'll be cool.
I'll always have a gig cause I'll be big.
I'll have parties and friends and places to go,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

I play the banjo.

I'm a post Hee-Haw mover, a funkadelic punk-rock groover,
A cross between Bela Fleck,
And Eddie Vedder but better.
I'll win a Grammy for the way I pick.
I'll be an instrumental monster with tons of new licks,
And all the babes will love me, sell-out shows,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

I play the banjo.

(Chorus:)
Well I play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
I play the banjo.
I play the banjo.

(Repeat Chorus once.)

I say hear me boys, here my rhyme,
I'm picking on the banjo all the time.
I say hear me boys, here my song,
Picking on the banjo all day long.
Pick.

I'll buy a Lear jet, and a limousine,
And everywhere I go my fans will scream,
"Hey banjo boy, we love you,
I wish that we could all play the banjo too."
And you'll see me on the tv talk show,
With Dave and Conan and Jay Leno,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

(Repeat Chorus 3 times.)

I play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
I play the banjo.

[Thanks to Brincker@localnet.com for lyrics]
After that, the rest of the group came back, and the full ensemble continued. (See Banjo Girls at left, and the woman who required more air conditioning at far right, in photo below.)

Overall, the traditional clogging songs went very well, and we enjoyed that part of the show. The techno version of "Cotton-Eye Joe" and similar, not so much. And there were a few moments when one of the more energetic girls looked like she was doing the running man, right out of an MC Hammer video.

We were about ready to sneak out when they announced it was time for the big finale. One of the cloggers came out with a large flag, which ended up a foot away from me. From the boombox came the insipid strains of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." The girls sang the first verse as I tried not to roll my eyes too much. Then they asked all veterans to come up on stage. My jaw dropped and I stared at Steve. "Are you gonna go up?" I asked him. He decided to go -- he'd certainly earned it. I started laughing as he made his way on stage and a handful of other men joined him. But as he stood up there, I started tearing up.

I was tearing up to Lee Greenwood -- how mortifying. I determined that I may still be traumatized from Steve's time in Iraq, which ended more than a year ago. I fought back the emotion and sat through the song. At the end, the Banjo Girl next to Steve leaned over and I heard her say, "Thank you for your service." The remaining spectators gave them all a huge hand. It was a great end to the show.

But I still don't like that Lee Greenwood song.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Middle America Tourism and Breaking & Entering

On Monday, we headed out to Luray Caverns, billed as "the largest and most popular caverns in Eastern America." The parking lot was chock-full of RVs, and the line to get in included numerous wearers of fanny packs, many of whom appeared daunted at reports that the tour required a 1.25 mile walk, and included about 70 stairs.

We saw several interesting formations. This one is called "Pluto's Ghost" because it looked as if it was following the original cave discoverers as they explored the cave by candlelight in the 19th century.


I found these to be rather amusing.


We also saw and heard The Great Stalacpipe Organ, which is wired to various individual rocks that create the proper notes when played. Kind of like the different levels of water in the glass making different notes. Reportedly this took Mr. Leland Sprinkle (who coincidentally hailed from our town of Springfield, VA) three years to put together in the 1950s. It automatically plays a Christian hymn for each tour group.

After an hour below ground, we emerged and headed over to the "Car and Carriage Museum" (admission free with Luray Cavern ticket). Saw some old cars and bought a lemonade.

Then we checked out the Luray Garden Maze. The goal in the maze is not only to find your way to the exit, but also to find four clues that reveal the maze theme. We found it a bit odd that the music being piped into the maze included the theme songs from "What's Happenin' " and "The Rockford Files." But we pressed on. We found clue #1 with no problem. It was the letter "A." Behind the clue was a small poster of the movie "Labrynth." We moved on. Then, we hit a dry spell, ultimately finding clue #3: "ing." A small obscure movie poster sat at that clue. We briefly debated going back, but instead I stopped a kid we'd seen run past us about four times already, and I asked him what #2 was. "Maze!" he said and dashed off. We began to see the same people again and again, and a small community began to develop. We tossed tips to each other: "dead end." We stood around in groups reading the cheat boards that were posted every so often. We collectively wondered if we'd already been to this part of the maze.

Below, Steve peeks around a corner.


We eventually found clue #4: "Movies." So the theme was: A Maze ing Movies. Steve and I stood there, unimpressed. We discussed the fact that the music we'd heard throughout was clearly a CD of TV themes, and the ratty old movie posters seemed so random. The theme maintenance in this maze was half-hearted at best. We eventually moved on, finally finding the exit.

Next, we drove over the next mountain range to New Market, VA, to see the New Market Battlefield, upon which 250+ Virginia Military Institute cadets fought in the Civil War. We arrived back at the cabin around 5:30 p.m. We stood on the front porch as Steve began checking his pockets. He checked again.

No key. We started checking all the windows and doors, which unfortunately were locked. Wendy was inside, and she trotted up to one of the sliding glass doors, chew treat in her mouth. She wagged her tail at us, waiting expectantly.

For a brief moment, the crazy part of my brain thought: "How can we get Wendy to unlock the door for us?" My sane self answered quickly: "There's no way."

We went around back to the bedroom deck. Steve tried to climb up on it, but it started looking very fragile and we switched spots. Steve boosted me up, and I then realized that the railing was not nailed to the house where I was standing. It was nailed only to another deck railing. My position was precarious, at best. I edged around the outside of the deck to the opposite side, which was in fact attached securely to the house, and I climbed over. Of course, the bedroom door was locked as well.

But there was one last hope. About eight inches from the deck, over a 10-foot drop, was the bathroom window, which we'd left open. However, it only opened halfway, and the opening was parallel to and below the deck railing. This didn't leave much space for me to maneuver.


As Steve went back around the front of the cabin to consider other options, I removed the screen and climbed back over the railing. There was no way I was calling the cabin owner to tell her we'd lost the key. I stepped one foot in the window and lowered myself in, sliding slowly and gracelessly down into the bathtub.

I walked to the front door and unlocked it, and then summoned Steve, who was still looking for another way in. I fed Wendy, and all was well.

My only injury was bruising around my bellybutton. I think I propped myself against the window before sliding in.

That night, we perused the local newspaper, and decided to check out the cloggers at the Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Lodge on Tuesday night. It was not what we expected. Story to come.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Week Without the Internet

A complete lack of connectivity was one of several reasons we chose to spend a week in a cabin in the woods. We didn't print out any plans or directions from the 'net, deciding to wing it like we imagine our parents and grandparents did, back in the day. I felt a pang of anxiety when I shut down the laptop for the last time the day we left. I considered bringing the laptop, but stoically left it behind.

The drive took us over the first range of the Blue Ridge, through Shenandoah National Park. On the other side of the mountains, we skirted the tiny town of Luray and set off down a long rural road. After crossing a bridge over the Shenandoah River, we hung a right and drove north for seven more miles along the water, past cow herds and campsites, cabins and abandoned farmhouses.

When we arrived Saturday evening, we did an inventory of the cabin. I made a grocery list and prepped to go to the store. I looked around for a phone book. Nothing. No phone. No newspaper, and no local guidebooks. No map of Luray, either.

Crap. How would we find the grocery store? We hadn't noticed one in town. We sure hadn't passed one on the way out to the cabin.

Then I remembered the Google cell phone trick. I promptly abandoned our no-connectivity aspirations, texted "Grocery store luray va" to GOOGL and awaited the results.

They were:
Seven-Eleven
610 E Main St
Luray

Bo's Belly Barn
925 E Main St
Luray
I had a hunch that Bo's Belly Barn was unlikely to have what we needed. (We later discovered that Bo's is a convenience store/gas station.) Seven-Eleven might be ok in a pinch, but we needed more.

We checked the cupboards. There was an unopened box of Sam's Choice crackers -- a clue that a Wal-Mart was nearby. I tried GOOGL again, texting with "Walmart luray va." This time, the answer was helpful. Not only was there a Wal-Mart nearby, but it was just past town on the main highway we'd taken between the mountain and Luray. We wouldn't even need a map to get there.

Meanwhile, a storm was coming in over the mountains (see picture above of the view from our deck, with the first clouds creeping around the highest peak). I headed out for food during the resulting thunderstorm while Steve hung out at the cabin with Wendy. The Wal-Mart appeared on highway 211 West like an oasis in the desert. I stocked up and headed back, successful.

The next day, after driving up and down Main Street several times, we located the Luray Visitor Information Center. We ransacked the place, walking out with at least a dozen pamphlets, maps, and guidebooks. It was information gathering, old school.

Next stop, Luray Caverns and the world-famous Luray Garden Maze.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Back in the Land of the Tempur-Pedic

We just returned from a vacation in a cabin in the Shenandoah Valley. Definitely fun and relaxing, but the damn mattress just killed us. Note to rental cottage owners: Even a rental needs a comfortable mattress. You can bet we won't return to that one.

We went to Luray Caverns and saw Pluto's Ghost, kayaked down class 2 rapids, and went horseback riding on the "advanced" trail. I also engaged in some fairly acrobatic B&E when we found ourselves outside the locked cabin without the key.

Stories and photos, including Steve and his trusty steed Bud, to come later, after we've aired out our house and replenished the fridge.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Another *Hot* Personalized License Plate

Seen on I-66 East this evening:

IPSECV6

What ever would possess someone to use his license plate to advertise his expertise/interest in a burgeoning Internet Protocol?

I bet that guy is a barrel of laughs at parties.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Shooting Stars

One summer night years ago, I lounged in my parents' backyard with my then-boyfriend. I was 20, he was 21. We were having trouble at the time -- he was thinking we'd marry soon after my college graduation, but when I seriously considered that future, I felt physically ill. That night, we put aside talk of the future and relaxed on our respective patio chairs.

When a shooting star streaked across the night sky right in front of us, our mouths dropped open; we stared at each other in awe. Moments later, another. Certainly, this was a sign from above that we were meant to be together, that we would overcome our troubles in the long run.

A year later, I sat alone in the same yard. I had just returned from a summer in New York City for a magazine internship. In the past months, I'd made great career strides, but my relationship had collapsed spectacularly. I pondered my future.

Suddenly, a meteor blinked into view, and was gone as soon as I saw it. I waited a few minutes, and another appeared, this one much brighter.

I broke into a smile. I had taken an astronomy course that spring, and now knew that the Perseid meteor shower came every August. There was no higher meaning in it. It meant only that the earth was crossing the path of an ancient comet. And it represented a fresh start for me.

Tonight, the Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak. It's easy to watch -- just look at the eastern sky -- but for more information, visit the Bad Astronomy Web site's "12 Things You Need to Watch the Perseid Meteor Shower."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pickles and Pickled Okra

Our bumper crop of cucumbers continues. The okra has also become very productive, possibly due to the extreme heat. Okra is from West Africa. It's also a member of the hibiscus family, which accounts for its stunning tropical flowers (see photo at left).

We decided to try to pickle some of the vegetables. We bought some quart-size mason jars and I looked up a simple recipe involving vinegar, water, garlic, hot peppers, and dill seed. Surrounded by the strong aroma of vinegar, we sealed up a jar of small cucumbers and a jar of okra. In six weeks, we'll know how it went.

In the meantime, the garlic in the pickling jars has started to turn blue. At first, I was somewhat alarmed. Luckily, a quick search showed that this is nothing to worry about.

Fingers crossed.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I Heart Mike Bacsik

In the New York Times today:
“If I didn’t give up this home run, nobody would remember me,” Bacsik said. ... Bacsik is now hoping for a call from Al Downing, the pitcher who gave up Aaron’s record-breaking home run 33 years ago. Like Bacsik, Downing has a healthy sense of humor. Bacsik believes they can appear at memorabilia shows together.
Bacsik is humble. He has no delusions of grandeur. Apparently he studies baseball lore and is excited to be part of baseball history. What a perfect counterpoint to the shady record breaker.

This guy makes me want to go to more Nats games.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

No, I Would Not Like a Hot Sandwich

Today, the temperature is expected to hit 100 degrees or higher.

Looking for a cool caffeinated treat, I cruised Starbucks around 9 a.m. for an iced coffee. As I rolled down my window at the drive-thru speaker, the heat assaulted me. The disembodied Starbucks voice through the speaker then asked if I'd like to try one of their hot breakfast sandwiches.

No, I would not. Thank you.

Throw It Back

Last night, Barry Bonds, currently under investigation for steroid usage, tax evasion, and perjury, broke Hank Aaron's home run record. I never thought I'd say this, but I'll be rooting for A-Rod to break Bonds' record.

Two minor players in this drama caught my eye.

Mike Bacsik

The pitcher who gave up Bonds' 756th homer, the Washington Nationals' Mike Bacsik, told the Washington Post that he'd always imagined this moment.
"I dreamed of this as a kid," Bacsik said. "Unfortunately, when I dreamed about it, I thought I'd be the one hitting the home run, not giving it up."
In the end, the Nats won, 8-6. Even the lowly Nats are better than the Giants.

Matt Murphy

The ball was caught by one Matt Murphy of Queens, New York. The ball is expected to sell for at least $100,000 -- experts said it could have been worth up to $500,000, but investors are worried the ball could lose value if Bonds is proven to have lied about his past steroid use. Murphy declined to talk to reporters.

I was thinking about what I would do if I had come up with the ball. This is of course highly unlikely, because if a foul ball came my way I'd be more likely to cover my head with my hands and pray it didn't hit me. And if I had caught it, I would still have had to hold on to the ball under the melee of fans trying to steal it away. But let's suspend our disbelief for a moment.

I'd like to think that I would have thrown the ball back. Sure, I'd be throwing back at least $100,000. But I have a good job, a good life. I can buy the things I need. $100,000 would not change my life. Eventually, the money would be gone. But if I threw the ball back, I'd have that story forever. For the rest of my life, I'd be "the girl who threw back Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run."

You can't put a price on something like that.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

You Can Take the Girl Out of the City, but...

Today I was driving home from some tax-free Virginia shopping and I found myself sitting at a stoplight, killing time by baldly staring at the occupants of the cars around me. I was second in line at the light. Beside me in the left lane, the left arrow had turned green, but the guy at the front of the line hadn't noticed yet.

In the New York metro area, the horns of the cars behind the leader would have blared at the very moment the light turned green. As the left lane next to me finally moved forward, I reflected on the fact that I now live in a place that is more mellow, lower key, quieter. A place where you can cut your neighbor some slack if he flakes out at the light.

Then, my light turned green. The guy in front of me just sat there. Precious seconds of green light ticked away. So I did the only thing I could do.

I leaned on the horn.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Pope Is What?

I must share this hilarious letter to the editor that appeared in the July 26, 2007, Economist.
An article of faith

SIR – Will other members of the intelligentsia be as shocked as you were (“An author and his subject”, June 30th) to learn that a book written by the pope “remains uncompromising in its insistence on the divinity of Jesus Christ”? As you are clearly irritated by his unwavering position, it might help if I let you in on a Vatican secret: the pope is Catholic.

Darr Schoenhofen
Phoenix, New York

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Two Questionable Call Signs

So, according to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, it seems that the FCC recently approved the call sign "KUNT" for a small TV station being built in Hawaii. If today were April 1 I would be certain this was a joke. Two things I find nearly unbelievable:
  1. The guy who requested the call sign claims he didn't realize the problem and is now very embarrassed. Come on now -- really?
  2. The FCC missed this? How is that possible when they are so vigilant about profanity, etc., in so many other ways?
According to the article, two years ago another guy was granted the KCUF call sign and continues to happily use it for his little Aspen station.

Apparently the KUNT guy is going to petition to change the call sign. It was one of two call signs he requested. The other one didn't appear to generate any concern in the article, but it is perhaps the most perfect call sign I could imagine, considering the circumstances.

Ready for it? Seriously. It is:

KWTF.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Don't Go in There

I just walked by my office building's 5th floor women's bathroom, and from outside it looked like what can only be described as a hazmat situation. The cleaning people had donned full-body plastic suits and paper hats. I didn't notice any face masks specifically, but it seemed like they should have them.

It made me think of two things:
  1. Thank you to the immigrants, both legal and illegal, who take the cleaning jobs few natural-born Americans ever wanted. May you have a happy, healthy, and fruitful time here in the U.S. and may our government never shoot itself in the foot by screwing you, the foundation of our economy, over.
  2. Remember that '90s movie "Friday" with Ice Cube and Chris Tucker? There was this great quote from Mr. Jones, Ice Cube's dad. It's funny because it's true.
Don't nobody go in the bathroom for about 35, 45 minutes. Somebody open up a window.

"How Do You Get 'Em Off?"

We had some friends come over last night for a barbecue, and they admired our prolific cucumber patch. I showed them the thorns, and they confirmed that they hadn't known about this phenomenon, either. But then, this exchange took place, as one friend asked about thorn removal.
Friend: How do you get 'em off?
Me: You go like this. [I cup my right hand, turn it sideways, and stroke it up and down in the air over an imaginary cucumber. Then my jaw drops as I realize what I'm doing.]
Now there's an exchange that could be taken out of context.

Friday, July 27, 2007

If I were a Simpson...

Just saw my friend Laura's blog post containing her Simpsons avatars and it inspired me to go immediately to www.simpsonsmovie.com to make my own. Here's me at Moe's Tavern.

Here's Steve at Moe's.

Here's my brother Chris.


He isn't at Moe's -- or anywhere -- because he doesn't drink much these days, and Moe's is the only functioning background, oddly enough. The other backgrounds say "coming soon." Considering that the movie opens tomorrow, I wonder if they're ever coming. I would have liked one of myself getting a Squishy at the Kwik-E-Mart.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Recycling Gone Awry

Recently Fairfax County added cardboard boxes to the list of items its residents must recycle. We dutifully began placing our cardboard items in shopping bags next to our newspapers and didn't think much of it.

But today, we had an incident of theft. The perpetrator was apprehended promptly, but an empty Milkbone box was violated.

We'll have to change our recycling tactics from now on.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Musical Legacy

When my Grandma died, she left me her 1907 Steinway upright piano. I don't really know how to play it, other than the standard Heart and Soul, Chopsticks, and a couple of shaky Christmas tunes. My Grandma left me the piano because, she said, I was "the most musical" of her grandchildren.

Music was my Grandma's life. She played on the radio in the '30s, went to NYU to study music, and gave lessons throughout her life. When she was raising her family in Larchmont, NY, she often found herself accompanying her trumpet-playing neighbor, Doc Severinson, who eventually became the band leader on Johnny Carson's late night show. (Really.)

As a child, each Thanksgiving I was forced to bring my acoustic guitar to play "Happy Birthday" along with Grandma on her piano for my brother's Nov. 26 birthday. (The relatives always showered Chris with birthday gifts on Thanksgiving, but my January birthday was much less fortuitous.) My older, cooler cousins, Dutch and Marilyn, never said anything about the guitar, but I know, deep down, that they saw this behavior as incredibly nerdy. Grandma, however, saw it as irrefutable evidence of my commitment to music.

If prepubescent mortification could be considered currency, I paid a lot for this piano.

When Grandma first met Steve, on Thanksgiving in 2000, she was diminished in body and mind but still remained interested in her musical legacy. She took me aside after dinner and asked me, "Does Steve play any musical instruments?"

"No, but he does have a really good singing voice," I answered truthfully.

"Good, good," she replied, nodding her head. I could see the wheels turning, calculating the increased chance that, assuming things with Steve worked out, her eventual great-grandchild would be musical as well, assuring the musical legacy for another generation. I know that made her very happy.

Grandma was too sick to come to our wedding in 2004, and she died in January 2005. We had the piano shipped here last summer, and, $3,900 in restoration costs later, it's like new inside and ready to make music again (see photo, above).

Now I just have to learn to play it.

I Bet This Really Attracts the Ladies

Saw a license plate in my office garage yesterday that made me stop and take note:

UNIX GRU

The guy, and I'm sure it's a guy, might as well get a plate that says:

HUGE DRK

Friday, July 20, 2007

Life's Too Short to...

I was talking to my mom a few months back about drinking good coffee. I don't drink cheap coffee -- if it's not good stuff, I'll stick to my earl grey tea.

"Life's too short to drink bad coffee," I said.

"Or eat bad chocolate," she replied.

After a moment, she thought about her sister, my Aunt Patty, and added, "Patty would say, '...or drink bad wine.' "

What's on your "life's too short" list?

Vicious Cucumbers

We're harvesting a bumper crop of cucumbers in our tiny townhouse backyard. Apparently this tropical vegetable does very well in the steamy heat of a DC summer.

Did you know cucumbers have thorns? It's their natural protection. I had no idea. You never see them because they get pulled off before they go to the grocery store. Check it out.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Fish Guy

Before my uncle died, he had a custom salt water tropical fish tank installed in his foyer. They hired a fish guy to maintain their tank. He's a self-employed marine biologist with a passion for fish tanks and their occupants.

After the fish guy's first visit, my aunt saw to her great dismay that my uncle had written the check to "Fish Guy."

"How are they going to cash a check made out to 'Fish Guy'?" she demanded. "I can't believe you did that! That is so embarrassing. Can't you ask the guy his name?" My uncle waited until she was done excoriating him, and then informed her that the name of the company was actually "Fish Guy."

The family continues to employ Fish Guy for tank maintenance. One night last week, the pump abruptly stopped working. My cousin Tara made the call:
Tara: "Fish Guy, we got problems."

Fish Guy: "Talk to me, T. Talk to me."

Tara: "It's not good, Fish Guy. It's not good."
The exuberant Fish Guy arrived for an emergency visit first thing the next morning. He took care of the problems in no time at all, at a cost of $300/parts, $100/labor.

It must be great to be able to support yourself doing something you love.

It reminded me of part of a song called "Twin Rocks, Oregon" by Shawn Mullins, about a stranger he meets at a rest stop.
Well, I told him I too had been travelin around
livin out of my van from town to town
playin for tips and whatever records I could move

I said "I don't reckon I'll be makin it big.
You know it's hard to get rich
doing coffee house gigs."
And he said "yeah, but ain't it a blessing
to do what you want to do."

And I told him "yeah, I pulled off here
to watch the sun disappear into the ocean
`cause it's been years since I smelled this salty sea"
and he turned his bottle up and down
he saw me lost and he saw me found.
And I said
"I don't know what I've been looking for, maybe me."