Friday, February 20, 2015

Respecting single people's time

(This piece has been sitting on the back burner for some time, but a comment I read today reminded me that it was long overdue.)

My sister Jenny teaches sixth grade, and she's very good at her job. Not only does she spend hours of time on her class during the school day, but she also expends many hours before and after school preparing lessons, grading papers and otherwise doing whatever she can to provide an excellent education to a hormonally-charged and squirmy group of tweens. After work, she has a place of her own with its attendant responsibilities, bills to pay, meals to cook and functions to attend. In other words, like most professional working adults, she has a full and busy schedule.

But Jenny also has to deal with a frequent social irritant. Some of her friends -- unfortunately, it seems most common among those who are married with children -- often contact her at the last minute, asking her to drop everything and do something with them. Their justification for this behavior? Well, she's single, so she must have loads of free time, right?

Uh, no.


Jenny's experience is far from unusual. A number of other friends and acquaintances -- including Linda, a graphic designer who runs marathons, participates in long-distance bike races and operates a major fansite in her spare time, and Rebecca, a professional singer who currently works two jobs to make ends meet -- have publicly expressed frustration over this same recurring social irritant. Their bosses, co-workers and friends repeatedly assume they have gobs of time to attend social functions, work extra hours and take on additional projects, simply because they're single. To put it bluntly, in Western society most married or partnered people show little respect for single people's time.

This is a social blind spot, and I suspect I know where it might originate. For many adults, the last time they were single was in high school or college, when they had relatively few responsibilities and far more free time. If they don't stop to consider, they may fall into the reflexive belief that single adults have the same kind of open schedules they once enjoyed in their student years. But this simply isn't so. Single working adults have as many responsibilities as couples do -- with the added stress of making do on one income, single-handedly running their own errands, cooking their own meals, taking care of their own finances and doing all the household chores, since they don't have the luxury of delegating these responsibilities to a partner. They are not footloose and fancy-free teenagers -- they are working people, and they are staggeringly busy. When you operate on the thoughtless assumption that they can just clear their schedules at the drop of a hat, you are strongly suggesting that you do not acknowledge their status as full-fledged grownups. That stings. And the more often you do it, the more emotional corrosion it causes to your relationship.

I'm far from free of blame in this regard. On many past occasions, I blithely assumed my sister would be free to do something without taking the time to consult her first. Now that I see what a bonehead I was, I've been making a greater effort to be as respectful of Jenny's busy schedule as she is of mine. But it isn't really that difficult to make the necessary mental adjustment, to recognize and respect the time of friends and acquaintances, whether they're singles or couples. It just requires a few minutes of your own time to stop and think about it -- and to change your behavior accordingly.

(By the way, if I've ever disrespected your time, my sincerest apologies. I know I can do better.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Can-tastic vacation

Miss V has lived with us since 2007, and in all that time Captain Midnight and I have never once taken her to Canada. (Appalling, no? It's not that far of a trip, but for various reasons the opportunity never seemed to present itself.)

Well, the school district gave V a long weekend off for mid-winter break, and since she's had her passport for some time we had no good reason not to go. So off we drove toward the nearest border crossing to enjoy a few days in Vancouver.

The dollar-to-loonie exchange rate, though not as favorable to Americans as it once was, is still pretty good -- as of this writing, one U.S. dollar is worth about $1.25 Canadian -- and Miss V is always looking for a good bargain, so the moment we were settled in our hotel, she made a beeline for the nearest Dollarama. Much squeeing ensued, especially when she discovered all the craft supplies they had available.

Me, I just got a giggle out of the Thrills gum slogan.
In fact, if I had to pick a theme for this particular trip, it would be "bargain hunting." The next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the Red Wagon Diner, Miss V and I scoured what felt like every dollar store, loonie-twonie store, secondhand shop and discount mart in a very wide radius around Vancouver. Captain Midnight, who has nearly infinite patience, tolerantly endured all this shopping (although he briefly showed signs of losing his will to live when we entered a fabric store. I said nearly infinite patience). We also found a pocket-sized specialty store that sold nothing but buttons, and an antique/curio store called Salmagundi West (in the pointiest end of a flatiron building) filled with everything from sock aliens to mammy dolls.

And, of course, we had to take V to Granville Island. We didn't make many purchases or even see everything there was to see -- it was cold and wet, and someone had forgotten to bring along a windbreaker -- but we managed to take her to a few art studios, drag her into a couple of stationery stores (ah, Paper-Ya, how I love you!) and introduce her to the joys of poutine.

I call this one "A Girl and Her Uncle." By then she'd borrowed my coat because she was freezing to death.
But we still hadn't visited the destination V yearned for most of all: the massive two-story Daiso store in a Richmond mall. That was soon remedied.

Most Daiso stores in the USA are relatively small, packed with all manner of household goodies. This place was like one of ours, but ON STEROIDS, and it had a much wider variety of items, including some... interesting... toys.

Captain Midnight spied this one first. His comment: "Nore than Eats the Mye!"
Other contenders for the Odd Toy Award included this series of weirdly rotund plushies:

Bigger Tigger...
...Pig-Iron Man...
...and Hello Fatty.
Meanwhile Miss V was shoppin' it up in the crafting section of the store. Her method of shopping is complex, and takes at least two passes: first she runs around the store grabbing everything that takes her fancy, then she pauses to reflect on her choices, and finally she puts half to three-quarters of it back where she found it. Consequently it took quite a while for us to get out of there, enough that by the time we were finally done it was getting well into the dinner hour and we were famished. Fortunately, we were in Richmond, which has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Asian food. I was in the mood to try some xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from a local emporium of deliciousness. Unfortunately we were in no mood to rack up roaming charges on our phones, and I'd forgotten to write down the address of the restaurant we'd planned to visit.

After about half an hour of hapless meandering, we got the idea to pull over and ask for directions. V went into a Dollar Tree (well, of course she did) and while she couldn't find proper directions for the restaurant where we intended to go, she did get a very warm dining recommendation from a fellow bargain shopper who had seen V in the Daiso earlier. This recommendation led us to Chen's Shanghai Kitchen, a little dive in a strip mall with high native factor and a whole lotta deliciousness. And yes, they did have xiao long bao, although we all ran into trouble when we tried to retrieve them from the steamer intact. Once we were filled with dumplings, long beans, sticky rice and general contentment, we retreated for the night to our hotel.

The courtyard of our fancy digs. Beauty, eh.
The next day we had nothing in particular planned, so we roamed free. We ended up finding the restaurant we hadn't been able to find before (Shanghai River) and feasted there for lunch, enjoying what was easily the best Shanghai-style beef soup I've ever tasted and more xiao long bao (because yum). After another brief trip to Daiso, V and I stopped into a Real Canadian Superstore to get... Real Canadian Stuff, I suppose. Superstore is best described as Canada's answer to Wal-Mart -- lots of generics, lots of President's Choice store-brand stuff, lots of low prices. We stocked up on ludicrous gobs of Canadian chocolate (because YUM), several bags of potato chips (Canadians have a much wider variety of chip flavors than we do, for some reason), a few sodas, and the Big Mistake of this trip... a small bag of longans.

See, Captain Midnight has a real fondness for longans, which he developed during his brief time in Singapore, and when I saw fresh longans at Superstore I thought, "Woohoo! SuperSCORE!" Except Captain Midnight was our designated driver, so his hands weren't free to eat the longans I'd brought him, and I didn't think to switch places with him, and our next stop was the border... and when the U.S. border agent asked the fatal question, "Are you transporting any fruit?" we made the mistake of answering honestly. As we soon discovered, longans from Vietnam are perfectly acceptable to sell and consume in Canada, but not in the USA. Not only did the Agriculture agent seize our longans, but it also triggered a full search of our car for other potential contraband. Did I mention this all went down on Friday the 13th? At least we knew enough about the vagaries of U.S. law to scarf down all our Kinder eggs before we reached the border.

Sadly divested of our longans but otherwise content with our adventures, we proceeded home, where the Roxy-cat expressed her pleasure at seeing us again by freaking out and lolloping wildly around the house for several hours. The chocolate is already gone, and the chips have been broken into, but Miss V should have lasting memories of her trip as long as the Dollarama disco ball continues to hang from a hook in her ceiling. She's already planning another trip (or as she puts it, another shopping spree).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"You can't do that! You're an adult!"

So, this happens a lot: Miss V and I are driving home from her high school. A song comes on the radio, and since Miss V loves to sing along to music in the car, I already know the lyrics by heart. So I grin and begin solemnly quoting the song's lyrics as though I were reciting immortal poetry. 90% of the time, I get this exasperated response: "Soo-ZEE! Stop doing that!"

Yes, I admit I get an unholy joy out of teasing V -- in part because my mother used to do the same thing to me when I was a teenager, and I was just as exasperated with her behavior as V is with mine. Maybe 20+ years from now, one of V's kids will be rolling her eyes and muttering, "Mo-oooom..." as V gleefully perpetuates the cycle of teasing. (I hope so, anyway.)

My mom loved to tease her teenagers. She'd mortify my brothers by putting an arm around their shoulders in public, or she'd begin dancing goofily in the kitchen, gyrating her hips to our music in a deliberate attempt to make us cringe. (It worked.) She also had moments of unexpected spontaneity. One blisteringly hot Utah summer day during my teen years, Mom lost all patience with making dinner. She went out and bought an angel-food cake, a canister of whipped cream and a whole lot of strawberries, which she macerated with sugar. That night was the first of several annual Strawberry Shortcake And Nothing Else nights.

I suspect that sometimes Mom did goofy, spontaneous things as a coping mechanism, handling the stress of being a single parent of multiple depressed, hormonal teenagers. Captain Midnight and I love Miss V dearly and will miss her keenly when she goes to college, but we can tell you that it's sometimes difficult to be an adult with a teenager in the house. Set aside the issues of dealing with hormonal mood swings; your behavior is more or less constantly being second-guessed. If you feel like doing some goofball thing, the teen will complain, "You can't do that! You're an adult," suggesting that your current behavior possesses insufficient gravitas for someone of your advanced age; on the other hand, if you do your best to behave in a mature fashion befitting your generation, the teen will conclude that you are completely out of touch and incapable of understanding what it's like to be a teenager.

And you know, in some ways, the teen isn't wrong. I don't know what it's like to be a teenager in 2015. I've never had to deal with the specific set of pressures and problems that Miss V is facing now. My experience with modern teenhood is limited to the secondhand knowledge I pick up from her after-school comments in the car.

But I do know what it's like to be between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, because I've already gone through those years. And because I was a teenager once, I know that some aspects of being a teen haven't changed. I've never had to deal with a friend who won't put down her smartphone, but I have had to deal with a friend who seemed incapable of paying attention. I never had a boy make deeply inappropriate sexual comments to me, but I had to deal with boys who gave me unwanted attention and harassment. And I didn't have to deal with peers constantly dropping the F-bomb in high school. Instead, I dealt with peers constantly dropping the F-bomb in junior high. I felt crazy and high on hormones, I experimented with my hair and makeup, I was nervous about eating in front of people, I obsessed about being too fat, I pulled all-nighters and fell asleep in class, I had heartrending crushes, I came unglued over every zit. And yes, I dealt firsthand with anxiety, crushing depression and what I now realize was mild attention deficit disorder -- all without the help of medications, because there weren't any available. I don't think my teen experience was better or worse, just different -- but it wasn't as different as most teens seem to think.

I wish I could explain to V in a way that resonates in her, to help her understand that many adults don't grow out of being passionate or excited or depressed or goofy. We're no longer ruled by hormones run amok (at least not at the moment; when I go through menopause, I'll get back to you), but we still possess the same intensity of feeling -- if anything, our feelings become deeper and more intense as we garner more life experiences and develop a stronger sense of compassion for others. Those feelings haven't gone away just because they aren't constantly simmering near the surface of our skins.

Granted, there are some valid reasons why adults shouldn't act like teenagers. Adults are expected to have gained a modicum of maturity, a sense that some behaviors are dangerous, and an understanding that they've already had their chance at being teenagers (I sincerely hope most adults recall their teen years well enough to remember why they shouldn't want to go through them again). When you choose not to use your life experiences to gauge whether your behavior is age-appropriate, you end up pulling the kinds of foolhardy stunts which fall under the general rubric of "mid-life crisis." And yes, when we parents or guardians do damaging things to ourselves or others, our teens are right to be embarrassed of us -- if we're not self-aware enough to feel shame at our own deeply inappropriate behavior, they are put into the awkward position of having to feel both their shame and ours. But if you don't struggle with unresolved mental health issues, a substance habit or an unhealthy fear of aging, you probably already have a good sense of what is or isn't age-appropriate, and when it's OK to cross the line and be silly.

And I think it's healthy to be silly once in a while, to goof off and tease. Not only is it good for us not to take ourselves too seriously, but I think it's important to show teens, by direct example, that adulthood -- while it certainly has its burdens -- is not something to dread. Sometimes we need to act our age, but we also need to know when it's OK to be spontaneous and goofy, when to make strawberry shortcake for dinner, when to tap into the sense of unselfconscious joy that should continue to be welcome inside us, whether at age fourteen or forty.

Physical bodies age. It's part of how we're designed. But souls don't have to grow old -- that inner fire continues to glow based solely on individual attitude. So why not throw a little kerosene on the fire once in a while?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Random acts of (goofy) kindness

My favorite random act of goofy kindness was one I read about years ago, in the Penn & Teller book How to Play With Your Food. Penn Jillette was in a diner once, back in the day, and when he saw "red Jell-O" on the menu he decided to randomly buy some for another customer, a big tough-looking guy. The guy asked his server who had paid for his wobbly dessert, went over to Penn and they talked for a while. Far from being annoyed, the customer was so pleased by the surprise that he vowed to pass it on, buying red Jell-O for other random strangers and telling them "Penn says hi." I loved that idea. Since then I've had several chances to engage in random acts of goofy kindness for others, and they've almost always been fun.

A few years after Captain Midnight and I were married, we were eating out at an Indian restaurant and reveling in the joys of mango lassi (mmmm, mango lassi). In fact we were so pleased by the lassi-tastic goodness of our meal that we felt the need to share it with someone else. On impulse, we called over a waiter and asked if we could anonymously buy a round of mango lassi for some college students at another table. He agreed, and then we had the fun of watching their reactions as everyone suddenly got an unexpected mango lassi. They tried fruitlessly to figure out who their benefactors were, as we finished our meal poker-faced and left with much giggling.

Another time, while crossing the Bay Bridge to go to San Francisco, we randomly paid the bridge toll for the car behind us. The man in that car was utterly befuddled. He kept speeding up to flank us, trying to figure out who we were and why we'd paid his bridge toll, and we just kept grinning and waving and making goofy faces at him until he finally determined we were insane and raced away -- which made us laugh even harder.

You don't have to spend lots of money to spread random acts of goofy kindness. Sometimes it's as simple as leaving a silly little note or an origami model where someone else will see it and smile. Sometimes it's writing an unexpected snailmail letter full of your completely fictitious adventures and sending it to a friend or acquaintance. It's not difficult -- you just get into the habit of adding a little unexpected delight to daily life.

Try it. It's fun!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A modest proposal to anti-vaxxers: Rubellaville

Much has already been said (and will probably continue being said) on both sides of the Vaccination Divide about the recent Disneyland measles outbreak. I've ruminated on it with a certain amount of personal concern, since among my extended family and friends are individuals who cannot be vaccinated (too young, too old, too immune-compromised) and who rely heavily on the blessing of herd immunity not to catch communicable diseases that could be harmful or fatal to them. I've also been thinking about the demands of anti-vaccination advocates that it's their right not to immunize their children, and considering the old phrase "Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose." I've realized we need a solution that's fair to all parties. And, if I may be excused for a certain amount of shameless self-promotion, I think I've come up with a cracking good one.

Let's say you don't want to immunize your family, because UNNATURAL! or GUMMINT! or TOXINS! or AUTISM! (long since debunked, but whatevs) or any other daft reason that wends its way into your little noggin. That's fine by me; after all, it's your decision. But I assume that, as a decent human being with a love of your fellow man, you also don't want the death of anyone else's three-month-old infant, delicate grandma, cancer-surviving mom or HIV-positive uncle forever on your conscience. So I'm sure you won't mind if we relocate ALL of you to the vaccination-free paradise of Rubellaville, a purpose-built town in the remotest section of White Pine County, Nevada.

Of course, this is just an illustration. There won't be cars in the REAL Rubellaville.
Rubellaville will be a model community for the inoculation-free, with all standard municipal services, solar- and wind-powered energy, community gardens and composting bin, state-of-the-art transit system that goes everywhere in town (no need for nasty polluting cars), full-sized Whole Foods grocery, and regular visits from Amazon.com delivery drones. But this anti-vaxx utopia comes with a price: it's a one-way ticket. The town's perimeter will be strictly monitored, and no resident will be allowed to leave for any reason (including summer vacations, out-of-state family funerals, job offers in other towns, or an infectious disease outbreak in Rubellaville itself) unless and until he or she gets a full course of immunizations.

I think that's about as fair as it's possible to get, don't you?

(Oh, and before you start yelling at me about violating your God-given right to freedom of movement, a) try looking up "satire" sometime and b) this was the way Western society tried to stem the spread of highly infectious diseases like measles before the widespread availability of vaccines -- just ask your grandparents. If you want society to return to those bright halcyon decades before inoculation, you should prepare to be subjected to the full quarantine measures that went with them.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bishop Hatto and the Mouse-Tower

For a good year now, I've been enjoying (and occasionally using) the wealth of public-domain images that the British Library has generously shared via its Flickr account. The best thing about browsing images and text in the public domain is when you come across a forgotten gem. I found one of these today: the folk tale of Hatto II, Archbishop of Mainz, and his Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower) on the Rhine. In the tale, Hatto was a cruel despot who used his power as both bishop and prince to mistreat the common people of his area; during a famine in 974, when the grain had run out, the people went to the bishop looking for food. What he did to them, and what happened next, was immortalized in the following poem by Robert Southey (with illustrations by V. H. Darwin -- who seems to be a distant cousin of Charles Darwin).

Warning to musophobes: you might want to skip this one.

Bishop Hatto: a legend of the Mouse-Tower on the Rhine

The Summer and Autumn had been so wet,
That in Winter the corn was growing yet,
'Twas a piteous sight to see all round
The grain lie rotting on the ground.

Every day the starving poor
Crowded around Bishop Hatto's door,
For he had a plentiful last year's store,
And all the neighbourhood could tell,
His granaries were furnish'd well.

At last, Bishop Hatto appointed a day
To quiet the poor without delay;
He bade them to his great barn repair,
And they should have food for the Winter there.

Rejoiced at such tidings good to hear,
The poor folk flocked from far and near;
The great barn was full as it could hold
Of women and children, and young and old.

Then when he saw it could hold no more,
Bishop Hatto he made fast the door,
And while for mercy on Christ they call,
He set fire to the barn, and burnt them all.

"I'faith, 'tis an excellent bonfire!" quoth he,
"And the country is greatly obliged to me
For ridding it, in these times forlorn
Of rats, that only consume the corn."

So then to his palace returned he,
And he sat down to supper merrily,
And he slept that night like an innocent man,
But Bishop Hatto never slept again.

In the morning, when he entered the hall,
Where his picture hung against the wall,
A sweat like death all over him came,
For the rats had eaten it out of the frame.

As he looked, there came a man from his farm,
And he had a countenance white with alarm,
"My Lord, I opened your granaries this morn,
And the rats had eaten all your corn."

Another came running presently,
And he was pale as pale could be,
"Fly, my Lord Bishop, fly," quoth he,
"Ten thousand rats are coming this way,
The Lord forgive you for yesterday!"

"I'll go to my tower on the Rhine," replied he,
"'Tis the safest place in Germany;
The walls are high, and the shores are steep,
And the stream is strong, and the water deep."

Bishop Hatto fearfully hastened away,
And he crossed the Rhine without delay,
And reached his tower, and barred with care
All the windows, doors, and loopholes there.

He laid him down and closed his eyes,
But soon a scream made him arise,
He started, and saw two eyes of flame
On his pillow, from whence the screaming came.

He listened and looked: it was only the cat,
But the Bishop he grew more fearful for that,
For she sat screaming, mad with fear
At the army of Rats, that was drawing near.

For they have swum over the river so deep,
And they have climbed the shore so steep,
And now by thousands up they crawl
To the holes and windows in the wall.

Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
And faster and faster his beads did he tell,
As louder and louder drawing near
The saw of their teeth without he could hear.

And in at the windows, and in at the door,
And through the walls by thousands they pour,
And down through the ceiling, and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop's bones,
They gnawed the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him.

So isn't that fun? Not as jolly as being nibbled to death by ducks, but it makes for a good story. (Completely without historical basis, mind you, but as Jan Harold Brunvand might say, that's never stopped people from repeating a good story before.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The adventures of Roxy-cat: Chow, bella!

When we adopted the skittish but loving Roxy-cat, we wanted her transition to a new home to be as smooth as possible, so we asked the folks at the cat rescue shelter what she'd been eating (I'm not going to shill for anyone, but we'll just say it's a slightly pricey brand of kibble that claims veterinarians feed it to their pets). We picked up some of that, just so she'd be able to experience something familiar, and she dug right in.

Roxy is an unusual cat, in that she prefers dry kibble and will only nibble halfheartedly at wet cat food. (My theory is that dry kibble provides her with both dinner and entertainment -- she likes to paw individual pieces of kibble out of her dish and chase them across the bathroom floor before she pounces on them and devours them, leading us to dub her game "kibble soccer" -- but who knows what goes on in that little brain, really?) However, Miss V is often on the lookout for new food, treats and toys for Roxy, and on Monday she remembered she had a $20 coupon to visit a local shi-shi pet store not far from home.

This particular store (no, I'm not shilling for them either) was full of all kinds of expensive canine and feline goodies: premium raw dog food and frozen bones, homeopathic pet meds, pricey collars and toys, and an entire wall of little tins of fancy-pants cat food. When one of the employees asked what our cat ate and we replied honestly, she gave us a look of mild dismay. "That stuff isn't very healthy for your cat," she warned us, indicating that it was partly formulated with grains and vegetable proteins that cats couldn't properly digest. She eagerly directed us to their own wide range of tinned wet organic cat food (most of which cost more, ounce for ounce, than premium canned tuna for human consumption), helping us select half a dozen cans for Roxy's dining pleasure. These, she assured us, would be so much better and healthier for our cat than the questionable dry kibble she'd been consuming since kittenhood.

Hmm.

Optimistic and armed with lots of advice and tins, Miss V immediately opened a can of healthy wet cat food for Roxy almost as soon as we got home, spooning it into her dish. It gave the entire bathroom a noticeable reek of organic animal protein for several hours. Roxy sniffed the stuff dubiously and walked off. We didn't give the matter much thought (although we gave it several more sniffs) until Tuesday morning, when we discovered Roxy's final verdict: after nibbling a bit at the pungent new food overnight, she'd barfed up some healthy organic protein on the living room carpet. After some quick carpet cleanup, her dish was cleared out and filled with a daily serving of her usual kibble. Roxy immediately and happily began chowing down, apparently none the worse for wear from her little experiment with bulimia.

It occurred to me that "healthy" pet food is only truly healthful if your pet will eat it (and keep it down). Although many other cats love and beg for fancy wet cat food, Roxy obviously finds it disgusting. (Having smelled the stuff, I can't blame her.) And frankly, despite the advice we were given at the store, Roxy seems much more capable of digesting kibble than the premium wet food. So we're just going to keep on feeding her kibble, giving her plenty of fresh water, and making sure she gets lots of time to exercise, play, nap and cuddle.

And these cute little tins of organic whatsit? They're going to the cat rescue shelter.