Friday, October 24, 2008

Finding the Rainbows

For about 10 mid-morning minutes every reasonably sunny day, the sunlight streams through a window in the back of my house at just the right angle to catch a little glass ornament that bends the light into mini-rainbows that scatter themselves across my bedroom.

Most mornings I miss the show-- I’m too late, my attention is elsewhere, or I just plain forget.

That’s kind of the way it is with rainbows: you have to look for them.

How many times have you seen a ray of sun emerge at the back end of a fierce storm and immediately heard someone say, “There’s got to be a rainbow out there somewhere,” prompting everyone to crowd the window, craning their necks in owl-esque circles in an effort to catch a fleeting glimpse of dissected light fanned in seven colors across the sky.

Most times we miss the show: we’re too late, our attention is elsewhere, or we just plain forget to look.

I’ve thought a lot about rainbows this week, as I’ve been tracking the weather with a devotion rivaling that of a retiree with the Weather Channel tuned to HD. See, I have plans to go on a thrice-scheduled camping trip this weekend. I’ve been working on making an annual pilgrimage to a favorite camping location since August. Poor campsite availability, rain, and the usual plethora or family commitments have rendered this trip particularly elusive. Considering this much-loved locale is on a lake in the mountains, I don’t need to tell you that it’s now or never, what with the calendar stating we’re a week away from Halloween, and the 10-day mountain forecast hinting at conditions like snow showers.

And a lot of rain, depending on which of the hundreds of forecasts I refreshed my screen proves most accurate. The conversation went back and forth all week: could it really be any worse than Maine? Should we get a refund, and book early for next year? What if the forecast was wrong? Wasn’t there a sunshine icon next to the name of one weekend day just ten minutes ago?

Which, when you think about it, is a dialogue that pretty much mirrors our real-life musings. Oh, sure, we're pretty good at recognizing a sunny day when it comes along, and we can certainly spot a storm brewing on the horizion--but most of life really plays out somewhere between the extremes: it's a partly cloudy (or mostly-sunny, if you happen to be a glass-half-full type) mix of showers and sun, cool and warm, arid and humid. And, frankly, we don't always know what to do with a forecast like that.

But as for the camping trip? We finally just decided that with the hodgepodge of sun and rain they keep showing us, there’s got to be a rainbow in there somewhere—so we’re leaving tomorrow at first light to find it. We don’t want to miss the show.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Think of This Post as a Test of the Emergency Broadcast System

Earlier this week, I alerted readers to be on the lookout for an upcoming numerical post in a Running With Letters preview trailer. We’re still waiting on that. In the meantime, I wanted to issue an alert concerning a post I hope never appears in this forum. However, considering that life is a fragile web of circumstances, luck, and providence, I thought it best to inform readers about a risky new pastime in which I am engaging, and to set up a clear system of communication in the unlikely event of my upcoming disappearance.

See, I recently got an inflatable kayak as a gift from my husband. It was originally purchased as an enhancement to our camping gear, but it quickly occurred to me that I am literally surrounded by water at every turn. In fact, a quick bit of afternoon research revealed that a brand spanking new launch dock for canoes and kayaks has been erected yards from my door step. Although the waters I’d be putting in are technically river waters, they are brackish, flowing as they do into the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, literature included with my new toy encourages the use of actual ocean waters, which I can easily access within five minutes of my front door.

Oh the possibilities! Morning coffee on the river! Sunsets on the high seas! The adventurer in me can not wait to embark.

My enthusiasm is tempered only by a certain nemesis of which I have been afflicted my entire life: I have no sense of direction. Readers, I couldn’t find my way out of a wet paper bag—and we’re talking land conditions here, with landmarks: signs, buildings, roads and the like. How will I fare should ill winds carry my craft off what I’ll metaphorically call the beaten path? What resources will I employ should I float adrift, with a 360 degree view of nothing but water?

I do not know. But adventure calls none the less.

Knowing that I am prone to disappear from this forum for days, even a week or more at a time, I did not want this news to cause a mass panic should my blogging schedule—prolific as it has been—experience what Wall Street would call a “correction,” or in layman’s terms, a sudden, downward plunge.

It is only a matter of time before routine eventualities will cause me to be absent, here, for a few days. Don’t let this make you uneasy. If you return to this page for two or even three consecutive days, you need not fear the worst. Under no circumstances should you imagine me adrift and clinging to the deflated remains of my craft.

Here’s why: before my maiden voyage, I will leave instructions for my husband to post the following message here in the event that I go missing: LOST AT SEA.

If these words do not appear, then you can rest easy, and assume that my absence signals only that I am reveling in the joys of a seafarer’s life.

Anchors away!

Friday, October 10, 2008

If You Can't See the Forest, it's Because There are No Trees

So, it’s my day off today, and I’m feeling like I should really go plant a few trees following what we’ll simply refer to as an incident that occurred at the Grad Office this week.

I showed up for work on Tuesday only to be greeted by a thick dossier situated prominently on my chair. You can think of it as a really fat file full of stuff that needed to be copied, if you’d like, but I feel it might trivialize the tale. The sticky note affixed to the top of the folder outlined the parameters of the assignment: a stack of 35-odd pages needed to be transformed into 60 sets of double-sided copies, sandwiched between the provided covers, bound utilizing equipment I was to obtain from an unfamiliar part of campus, and then delivered to a cross-campus professor.

I chalked all this up as mostly good news. The overarching message I gleaned form the communiqué was that the assignment was clearly anchored on not one, but two, out-of-office field trips, and I’m all over that kind of work. Sure, there were all those copies; regular readers know that I’m not very adept with office tasks of any kind, and copy machines in general are far beyond the scope of my expertise. However, well into my third semester at the Grad Office, I’ve acquired a modicum of basic skills that afforded me a guarded confidence in my abilities to perform the task.

So, I ran a test round, making sure I was all good with the double-sided format, and everything looked great. I programmed the copier to do it’s thing 59 more times, grabbed my noodle bowl, and headed off to the English Department to use the microwave, giving Dr. S., the professor for who I work, a confident thumbs-up style report on my progress as I passed her in the hall.

The next time Dr. S. saw me, I was on my knees, staring helplessly into the bowels of the copy machine, surrounded by a sea of printed matter, the shredded remains of extracted paper, and a rapidly cooling noodle bowl.

Evidently, the copier suffered a massive shut-down of it’s internal organs while I was nuking my noodles. Fortunately, it seemed to produce around 15 complete sets of booklet innards before it went on the fritz. These I’d dutifully sandwiched and stacked, grateful that all was not a complete loss. Scattered in dubious clusters across the floor was a disturbing amount of superfluous partials—papers I recognized from the project, but in no discernable order.

I’d managed to extract at least three pages from the copier’s innards before Dr. S. found me. I could see a fourth jammed paper, but just couldn’t quite reach it. Dr. S, trained for such an eventuality, showed me how to pull an entire appendage straight out of the core of the machine as removed the stray sheet with a surgeon’s precision.

The copier’s status screen gave us the go ahead to proceed, claiming it would get back to work if I’d re-scan all the originals. Everything seemed back on track until the copier reported that it would NOT get back to work due to a numerical discrepancy between the originals I just scanned and the ones previously entered. I went into a bit of a panic at this point, so I shut down the entire system, fired it all back up again, and scanned my current batch of originals—plus or minus, who knew?—deciding to compare the resulting set of copies against the pre-accident products, in a calm, page-by-page analysis.

The results were shocking. The post-accident booklet contained a page that the pre-accident editions did not—folks, we gained a page here, and, judging from the context, a key one at that. Book by-book, I removed all the pages from the discrepancy onward, thinking how ironic it was that if we weren’t doing this job double-sided to save paper, I could simply just print off copies of just the missing page and insert it in place, instead of recopying what amounted to roughly a fourth of fifteen booklets.

At this point, the copier randomly decided to start printing the materials on legal-sized paper, causing no less than half a dozen emergency stop-the-presses type situations, most subsequently followed by an intense jam session.

By now, the volume of printed matter strewn across the floor was so great, I was beginning to become overwhelmed and confused. Were the corrected editions in this pile, or the other one? Were these good copies or rejects? And where was that noodle bowl, anyway? I knew my co-worker, A, was about to arrive and I wasn’t sure if I should be grateful that reinforcement was on the way, or embarrassed to be seen like this.

“If you’re smart, you’ll turn around and run,” I said, as A appeared at the door.

A gave a knowing glace around the office—she’s seen this sort of scene before. She assumed an air of confidence, and suggested that she take over the copying while I established some sense of order on the floor.

Half way through copying her 3rd booklet, A seemed on a roll. The small office fairly hummed with the sounds of productivity—or maybe that was just how the copier sounds when it works. Whatever the case, you know why it all came to a screeching halt.

Dr. S. appeared about this time and blamed all the trouble on the advanced operations of double sided copies and had us switch to single sided sheets. A suggested I go get the binder while she continued to work on the machine, figuring a finished book or two might buoy our spirits. More than ready for the anticipated field trip, I bolted from the office.

The grad assistant in the department which housed the binder looked a little dubious when I requested the equipment, and went off to get Professor So and So.

I smiled warmly at the stout, stern professor as I introduced myself. “I called earlier, about the binder. I know we asked to use it over here, but we’re in the middle of a—er—situation—and it would really help us if we could use it on site”

“Is this the kind of thing we normally do for you folks?” Prof S&S boomed.

I wasn’t sure if she meant taking away the equipment, or using it in the first place, so I just smiled really big and said I was quite sure it was pretty routine.

Prof S&S handed the equipment over with no small amount of chagrin, causing me to I walk really slowly on the way back, because I wasn’t sure what would become of any of us if I dropped the binder. This gave me time to study the machine, and I kind of got a bad feeling that something wasn’t right.

I knew enough about comb binding to know that the whole process pretty munch hinged on having plastic comb pieces. There didn’t seem to be any visibly included with the machine, and this worried me. I convinced myself that they must be housed somehow inside the apparatus, that perhaps they popped out somewhere when you turned the crank on the side.

“Where are the combs?” A asked when I returned.

“Umm…inside the machine?” I tried.

I trudged back to the office of the irate professor, taking no glee in the bonus field trip.

“We have to supply the materials, too?” Prof S&S boomed when I reappeared in her foyer.

She thrust a box in my general direction, suggesting that I pass along to my department her sentiments that we invest in our own equipment.

“For the one time a year that we use it?” Dr. S exclaimed, aghast, scribbling rapidly on a note pad as I relayed the message.

“I’m sweating,” A panted from the underbelly on the copy machine as I entered the office.

M, a third graduate assistant, appeared at the door. “If you’re smart, you’ll turn around and run,” A and I said, in unison.

“We’ve been working on making booklets for three hours. The copier is down, and there’s a whole department mad at us,” I added helpfully.

M replaced A at the copier. “Which department?” she asked.

“The Dean’s Office,” I replied.

“Oh—that’s a big one. I was hoping it was just a little department.”

A and I looked at each other nervously as the binder groaned against the heft of the product. We ended up having to punch the pages in small batches, which didn’t line up properly.

I finally held the single, jagged booklet aloft three full hours after I found the dossier. Exhausted, I examined the reams of waste product which surrounded me. I imagined the legions of sacrificed forest as I calculated the tax dollars it took to pay three grad assistants to produce the sad specimen I held in my hand. I wasn’t quite sure what the booklet was for, but I imagined it must be pretty important.

Meanwhile, A examined the actual contents of the booklet for the first time. “Hey!” she said, noting the course number printed on the cover, “I took this class last year. I never opened this book once.”

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thrifty Business

I grew up with mixed messages about thriftiness. On one hand, there was the coupon clipping, comparison shopping (my mom actually kept a notebook in her purse, where she recorded the prices of grocery items at various stores), and consciousness over mileage logged on the cars (“a car only has so many miles between breakdowns,” my father would say, “you have to use them wisely”).

On the other side of the equation, I developed an understanding that there were limits to what was acceptable to do in the name of economy. Shopping for sundries at the Dollar Store was just plain smart. Hand-me-downs were a gray area, usually OK if they came from a known source—family was preferred. Under no circumstances were yard sales tolerated, and we never, ever went to—shudder—thrift stores.

“You just don’t know where this stuff has been,” my mother explained matter-of-factly. “Just think of the germs.”

Oh, the horrors! I swear, I could see the contagion crawling all over the wares at every yard sale we passed on our carefully mapped trips to the Dollar Store.

Chalk it up to morbid fascination, rebellion, or maybe just a healthy dose of good old American entrepreneurial spirit—but one lazy afternoon, circa middle school, I organized a yard sale of my own along with my best friend, Sunshine, and a schoolyard ruffian named Robbie.

It started in the Usual Way—a traveling carnival had pitched tents in the neighborhood and no parent was willing to fork over cold, hard cash for us to toss into fishbowls in vain attempts to score cheap, oversized toys.

Totally in character, I forgot all about my mother’s grim appraisals of yard sale fodder, and went into the venture pretty much expecting to rake in enough cash to stage a hostile takeover of the carnival. I wound up asking way too much coin for too little bauble, clashing vehemently with The Ruffian, who just wanted to give it all away. Where was this kid’s vision?

As for me, I’ve slowly acquired a new view on the second run market over the years—I’m not sure that it would be accurate to credit the yard sale (although all three of us earned enough money for a full evening of Tilt-a-Whirl rides and cotton candy) but I’ve been flirting with used goods with increasing abandon.

First there was ebay—a great, big worldwide yard sale—and I love imagining where some of that stuff has been. Ditto for antiques, which I later grew to love. From there, it was just a short leap to vintage clothing—of which I have exactly one piece, if you count the skirt I have that was cobbled together with vintage saris from the 70’s—and it wasn’t exactly a bargain.

In fact, none of the clothes I buy really are.

Then some friends took me shopping during a girls’ beach weekend a few weeks back. They said they were hunting for some bargains. I was really excited to see where they shop- these girls are, to a person, some of the most fashionable friends I have. I couldn’t wait to see where they got their clothes.

I trailed them into a store, not really looking at the sign over the door—sort of blindly following the stylish crowd.

“Three dollars!” someone called from behind a rack of jeans.

“Wow,” I thought, making a beeline to the rack.

I’m not sure what hit me first, once my senses kicked in. Maybe it was a lack of fluorescent lighting. Maybe it was the absence of piped-in music, or perhaps things didn’t have that fresh-from-the box smell—whatever the case, I was suddenly struck by the awful truth that I was in a thrift store. A yard sale with a roof! The last frontier into an unknown wilderness of germs and unknown origins!

I know my mother will be mortified when she reads this (hi, mom), but I actually purchased a couple things. And, even though the girls congratulated me and praised my finds—I sneaked them in my house and attempted to introduce them into my wardrobe without fanfare.

But my family insisted on knowing where I’d gotten such a great shirt, and, later, why they’d never seen that fashionable little skirt before.

When I sheepishly admitted where I had been shopping, everyone laughed heartily. Perhaps there was even a hint of relief in my husband’s chuckle, as he realized I got those trendy numbers for chump change.

“What’s the big deal?” my daughter asked. “I’ve always wanted to shop at a thrift store.”

To borrow a phrase being bandied around the financial sector these days, I still don’t know where the bottom is in all this, but lately I’ve found my thoughts turning to the food industry —specifically two out-of-way little shops I happen to know (one in Oregon, and one right here in Virginia) that carry a large selection of vintage foods.

For me, this is the last frontier. Mom, I promise—I walked right away from those six- month-old eggs and late 80s boxed mixes—really. And those rusty cans encased in a layer of dust so thick I couldn’t even make out the dates…I turned my heel away in disgust.

But that was some time ago, and with the economy as weak as it is, I may have to give vintage foods a second look. Now, I’m keeping the little shops I know to myself, but readers interested in risky little off-the-beaten path investments will want to keep a close eye on the rural mom-and-pops over the coming months. In both shops I was in, the decades-old staples came complete with period price tags. People are going to be clamoring for this stuff. Eighty cent boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes, thirty-nine cent mustard…this stuff is going to go like hot cakes—which happened to be selling for a low, low price of a dollar fifteen.

At least I think these prices are good by 80s standards, but we won’t know for sure unless my mom’s price comparison notebook should happen to turn up.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Think of This Post as a Preview Trailer

At some point within the coming days, alert readers should be on the lookout for a post containing a single number. If the number is greater than or equal to 172, then we’re good: the world here at Running With Letters will progress as normal. Pop the champagne on my behalf, send me some congratulatory remarks if you feel so inclined, as a sum of such stature will indicate that I have passed my proficiency test, and I’m looking at a straight shot toward my post post-graduate life. If the reported value falls short of the target number, it means that you’ll be able to follow along live, online, as my grad program implodes around me. Should be good reading either way. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Here’s Hoping You Are Still Able to Read This After Business Hours

There’s a lot of buzz within the newspaper industry these days to the effect that blogs are replacing newspapers—a sentiment which has caused me to ponder the role of the Running With Letters forum in the ongoing reorganization of the news industry.

I’ve decided that it’s pretty safe to think of me as a fixture in the Lifestyles section—you know, the humor columnist who frequently subs for the books and literature editor, spots the religion columnist on occasion, all the while angling for a plum travel assignment.

However, in the interest of providing relevant and timely commentary to my silent but stalwart readership, I digress from my normal format today to bring you a muck raking exposé from the technological sector.

Readers, it is my duty to inform you that the Internet is not the 24-7 machine in which we have come to believe. Last night, I logged on to the Information Superhighway in search of pertinent information only to have my search engine come to a screeching halt upon discovery that the site I wished to access was “closed.” Not down for maintenance, mind you, not, “currently unavailable,” but closed, like the bank after 3:00. “We’re sorry,” the screen informed me, “the site is currently closed. Please try again during the site’s hours of operation.” This zinger was followed by a breakdown of the site’s operating hours, such as one might find after 5:00 PM in the window of the local five and dime.

Alarmed, I immediately called an IT industry insider (ok, so I bellowed to my husband who was in the next room) to find out if perhaps I had missed out on some sort of new online protocol.

“What kind of crackerjack outfit is this?” the IT insider boomed after an extend scowl at the screen.

At this point, I’d like to be able to report that it was the homepage of a 3rd grade classroom, and that perhaps little Jimmy got a tad carried away with the html. However, I was on the website of ETS, the educational behemoths who bring us the SATs, GREs, and proficiency measures of myriad other alphabetic configurations.

About four weeks ago, I, myself, was required to take one of the legions of proficiency tests they administer, and was seeking feedback on how I may have fared. The internet, I’d been informed, was the fastest and most timely source for test results—just as long as you don’t log on after 8 PM on a Sunday, or before 7 AM on weekdays.

My guess is that the newspaper industry might be in the midst of a premature panic. After all, paper carriers are a robust group of early risers, successfully delivering the news before sunup with stunning consistency. Once the word gets out that the Internet has taken to banker’s hours, people might be just as happy to find their news on the front lawn at 5 AM every morning.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Reality Therapy

"And so then all the children started to clap. We clapped very hard and very long. My palms hurt and even started to bleed I clapped so hard."

Many years ago, I delivered this line while sitting on a sofa in my bathrobe in front of a dinner theater audience during a presentation of Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis, a sort of off-beat art house production involving the emotional unraveling of a girl named Jane, whom I portrayed in the drama. At the root of my character’s disintegrating mental health was a particularly bad staging of Peter Pan she attended in her youth.

Among sundry other irregularities, the production adhered to a grim interpretation of the “clap to save Tinker Bell” scene, whereby the audience was informed that they had failed to cheer loud enough and had caused Tinker Bell to succumb to an untimely demise. Jane, so the story goes, was never quite the same.

Regular readers probably won’t be surprised if I admit to a certain level of identification with my character’s disappointment. Doesn’t the impossible become probable if you just believe hard enough? Can’t you hope and pray and sweat and cheer your wildest dreams into reality? I always thought so.

Why, in recent weeks alone, you’ve witnessed my unshakable confidence in a Bronx World Series. You’ve been on hand as I’ve sown September seeds in full anticipation of sidestepping blooms as I string my Christmas lights.

And that’s just the small stuff.

When my first, independently published YA novel failed to climb to the top of the New York Times best seller list, I was stunned. Oprah didn’t even call.

It only gets worse from there. I pretty much go through life expecting the blind to see, the lame to walk, and mountains to move on a routine basis. I not only believe in the impossible—I’m scoping it out at every turn.

Perhaps Hollywood is to blame, or maybe I’m more of an optimist than most people realize. Whatever the case, I spend a whole lot of time feeling more than a little disillusioned—which could be why more people don’t immediately peg me as an optimist.

I think the hardest lesson I’ve encountered thus far in the curriculum of life is that there are outcomes that can’t be changed no matter how much we clap and cheer. The team doesn’t always pull through in the clutch. Some books don’t even become sellers, let alone best ones. Some seeds don’t grow (although my sunflower is holding on—albeit in need of a pep rally, or, failing that, some Miracle Grow.)

Sometimes the most healthy, practical, and even spiritual thing we can do is to simply embrace what is.

And, more often than not, what is is usually pretty good.

Sure, it might look like a mess from where you’re sitting. Chances are, you’re reading this post from a cramped cubicle in a dingy office. Perhaps you’re trolling the internet out of sheer boredom, clutching the metaphoric scraps of disfigured dreams.

Me? I have a fridge full of decaying leftovers, a schedule of classes I don’t really like, an attic full of orphaned books, and a bathroom that’s been under construction for over a year. I’ve procrastinated on a project and slacked off on my exercise plan. Mouse traps surround the perimeter of my house.

A far cry from a six-figure advance and a New York book tour? You bet. But you know what? It’s a wonderful crisp October morning and I get to work at home today, surrounded by my silly cats and my demanding dogs. I’ll get to spend some time with my kids today, and my friend, Lori, is threatening a visit. The upheaval in my bathroom reminds me that my husband did a lot of good work this weekend. And the coffee this morning is reasonably good, if not quite superb.

Best of all? I’m still here to clap and cheer. Life is good.


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