September 11th, 2008

On September 11, 2008, I was working on my glib response to a new ad campaign promoting high fructose corn syrup, when I heard two pretty loud bangs out on my usually snoozy street. I hesitated, and then decided it was loud enough to warrant a peek outside. As I parted the curtains, I heard a woman yelling so I booked outside. “Call 911!” a woman in a minivan yelled to me, “That house is on fire!” I whipped my head around and saw a roar of flames shooting out of the house two doors down. I grabbed my phone, dialed 911, breathlessly babbled my address and repeated “It’s bad, it’s bad…”

Fortunately the owner made it out and was being vigorously coaxed by my next-door neighbor to get up off his lawn and away from some fallen wires. He finally did after both tires on his van parked by the house exploded. Whoever was home at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon on our block was now outside gaping slack-jawed at the smoke finding its way out of every window. The fire department was probably there in less than five minutes, (which is pretty good for a volunteer crew who has to make a stop at the station before getting to the scene), but those minutes counted. By the time they arrived, I knew it would be a complete loss. All I could do was stand there with my hands on my head muttering, “Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod…”

In ten minutes, our block was crowded with three fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars, and several other random emergency vehicles. Within 15 minutes, people had parked their cars on our lawns and joined the spectacle. Call it morbid curiosity. I don’t doubt some of it was. But this is a small town. When people hear about a fire on a certain street, they KNOW that street. Their cousin, their co-worker’s cousin, their best friend lives on that street. People need to know who might need their help.

I know very little about this neighbor. He is an older man who keeps to himself. He has lived in town all his life. He recently separated from a woman who seems a little unstable. She now lives in an apartment across town and makes frequent treks past his house, occasionally yelling profanities at it from across the street. 

At that moment, I wished I knew him. I wanted him to know that I would do anything to help him. I wanted to comfort him. I offered him a drink of water, but he looked right through me. I so desperately wanted to do something for someone. What about the firemen? As I rapidly racked my brain for the hydrating options in my house, the EMS team came in with cases of water bottles and 20 lb. bags of ice. That policeman, he’s been here awhile…maybe he needs water. Who needs to use my bathroom? But I stayed put. No one needed a busybody neighbor getting in anyone’s face trying to satisfy a personal need to feel useful. The emergency crew needed to do their job, and my neighbor needed familiar faces. His estranged wife finally made it across town, dazed and confused, his bar buddy joined him, a niece came. My next-door neighbor, the one who pulled him off his lawn, never left his side. She used my cell phone to call work, so that calmed my failing sense of purpose.      

It took almost an hour to extinguish the fire. Apparently our water tower was being painted, thus empty, so they had to bring water in from other sources. By 3:30, the smoke had cleared. Half the block was covered in foam, Alliant Energy was fixing wires, the crowd dissipated. And a shell of a house remained.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. It is not the worst disaster anyone has ever witnessed. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Considering the anniversary of this date, this is a drop in the bucket. But it is a dramatic event. My nerves were frazzled. I have never been so close to a fire. I had no idea how fast your entire castle could go. I have never seen firemen drenched from head to toe in foam and soot and sweat. I have never before watched a fireman sit on the curb, propped up against a bag of ice, red-faced and hyperventilating but getting enough air to tell the EMS “You better check on Tom, he went in right after I did”. It hurts your insides to watch.

But nothing gnaws at my gut more than the lingering image of my neighbor sitting on my front lawn with his head in his hands. I have never before seen the face of someone watching their house burn, and I hope I never do again. 

On a very small scale, this was my 9/11. Although horrified by the attack seven years ago, I was so far removed from it. The images were on TV. But this is my block. That is my neighbor. I was here for the whole thing. I can only now grasp, again to a small degree, that gut-wrenching feeling watching a disaster happen to your folk. What I’ll never fully comprehend is how painful those images must have been for anyone who witnessed the big 9/11 and lived to tell about it. My neighbor started his fire working on an old motorcycle. It might have been prevented. No one in the World Trade Center was recklessly playing with airplanes that day. What did those witnesses do with their level of gut-wrench? Their feelings of helplessness?   

Today, we have plenty of traffic on our block. It is the number one news item in town. The neighbors are chattering like squirrels about where they were when they heard the big bangs. But people need to air it out, get it out of their heads. Talking loosens the tightly wound bundle of nerves. And I know its not supposed to be about The Stuff. Obviously, you get an immediate dose of what is truly a priority, and that is no harm or loss of life. But that Stuff represents your hobbies, your money and hard work, your collections, your memories. It represents you. That Stuff is important. And almost everything that man has worked for and earned and treated himself to is gone.   

My life has not changed. This was not my tragedy and it would be foolish of me to claim it as such. Last night, I did not curl into a ball, I made cookies and attended an Open House at the school. I will not march over to enthusiastically introduce myself to all the neighbors I haven’t met yet because we should rally around this house fire as a reason to unify. On this block, that would just be weird. I will get back to picking apart the nutritional content of processed foods and lipstick on pigs and who will get eliminated on Project Runway next week.

But today, the burnt smell in the air haunts me. I can still see the look on my neighbor’s face. The shell of the house two doors down disturbs me. I can’t deny that I have been given a moment of crystal clear perspective. So today, I will do some praying for my neighbor, count some blessings and watch when my son says, “Watch this, Mom!” for the 25th time. 

Because today it is fresh on my brain that your life can change in seconds.

Emailers Anonymous

Our Internet has been iffy lately. I have had access to my hotmail and could read my messages, but lately it has decided to take it’s smoke breaks during my attempts to reply. It would always return, however begrudgringly, back to work. 

The other day, I trudged upstairs, balancing my daily cup of joe in one hand, reaching for my chair with the other before my bounding, and obviously more-of-a-morning-person-son, could beat me to it. I turned on my computer with my toe and waited for it to warm up, feeling jovial enough to scoop the wiggling child onto my lap to wait with me.

I was completely denied. My husband troubleshot here and there, clicking on all sorts of updates and Internet cleansers, but to no avail. He shut down both computers, rambling on about changes to a firewall something or other and declared, “Don’t even bother trying to get on, you’ll just get frustrated.” He left for work, leaving me standing there with an empty mug and a cold heart.

My name is Amy. And I am an Internet junkie. Hello Amy. It’s been ten years since I started using. Since then, I check my email daily, if not three or four times a day. Ok…maybe more…I’m still in denial. And its not just email. I do it all. I MUST check my blog stats, do a little bump of research, take a sip out of my Wetpaint pages, a couple hits off other’s blogs, oh, and the shared photos Snapfish account, free base the news headlines, maybe lace it with a little celebrity gossip…and ohmigod, the weather, WHAT ABOUT THE WEATHER? I may start convulsing.

I have always had an obsession with communication. Plain and simple, I am a highly communicative person. I am, at times, overly communicative. Just ask anyone who has had the pleasure of my company. Before computers, it was the phone. When I was in junior high I began to fixate on the telephone. I could talk for hours. If I was waiting for a call, or even thought I should be getting a call, I would stare at the phone, willing it to ring using my highly untrained Jedi mind tricks. Limited or no access to the phone left me uneasy and incomplete. In need of a fix.

I didn’t listen to my husband. I had to confirm at least three times (okay, maybe more…) that day that yes, indeed, I still had no access to any of the above. He knows me well, I became frustrated. I was listless, incomplete. It was a full Day Without Access.

Obviously, in reading this, you can see we are back in the land of the surfing. (my husband still has “Wind Beneath My Wings”  ringing in his ears) I could tell you all the things I got done in The Day Without Access. I could go on about the quality of family life without the distractions of technology. How The Day Without Access served as a little wake-up call as to how reliant on the Internet I’ve become. That I now spend the days doing nothing frivolous, but improving myself, my household and my community. 

OR, I could be grateful for the tool that allows me to start projects, write, keep in touch with friends and family who live thousands of miles away, educate my son with interesting facts at our fingertips, provide me with a much-needed escape, and help us prepare for rain.

Yes, I think I’ll pick the latter. Why deny who I am? My name is Amy, and I am a proud and proficient user of the Internet.

Now I better go check the weather. There’s an exciting front moving in.

All Grown Up

While in the process of “staging” my home for the impending Big Sell, I decided that a nice bedspread for the master bed was essential. We did some quality work renovating that room, so the old-dog-paw-hair-infested-once-puke-brown-then-dyed-blue piece of crap we call the Sophie Sheet just won’t fly at the Open House.

 I’ve always had a Sophie Sheet. I’ve never owned an official bedspread. My parents never splurged for the matching set of cartoon bedding. And I’ve never considered myself the “matching set type”. From college on, I’ve always bought king-sized sheets in nice, bold colors to not only to spruce up any sparsely furnished roach-infested apartment, but to protect other bedding from Sophie’s shed and paw residue.

 Now keeping Sophie OFF  the bed isn’t an option. As a half-assed disciplinarian, I crumbled one particularly cold New Mexican winter night in a mildly heated (roach-infested) apartment and called my little 6 mo. old snuggler into bed, letting her burrow down at my feet like a little lump of toasty coal. We were both happier, and have been enjoying this sleeping arrangement for the last nine years. Oh, she’s been demoted to the foot of the bed now. She actually used to sleep alongside me, making appropriate use of the pillow. Jeff saw to her reduction in the bed ranks after his attempts to completely banish her failed. She’ll protest with low groans now and again when having to, god forbid, shift her body to avoid our tossing and turning feet, but she’s still one happy sleeping pups.

 But even pre-Sophie, I had a Kitty Sheet. Yes, I got a lot of mileage out of my bold king-sized sheets. Oh they work wonders as couch covers as well. Such clever yet frugal fashion.

 But its time. Its time for a big girl cover. One that says, hey, I’m worth something solid. Something quality. Something that doesn’t say penny-pinching, incense burning, thrift store decorator. Nothing fancy, just a good deal. But good deals eluded me.

Normal bedspreads, as it turns out, are no cheap fix. I was willing to see what I could find at Goodwill, had my husband not visually demonstrated some repulsion at the thought. And after parting with another round of dollars at Home Depot, it seemed that a fresh, bold new king-sized sheet might step up to the plate and serve its dutiful purpose once again.  

Lo, the skies opened and the angels sang above the back wall in the Kohl’s Bedding Dept. today, where we happened to take a peek before fulfilling our mission to finally buy poor Jeff some new work pants… There it was, an entire wall of four-piece bedding sets, normally priced at $99 now on sale for (dramatic pause) $18.99. We were so excited, we bought two pairs of khaki’s in celebration.

 I have never owned a bed skirt. Or a sham. We didn’t even know what a “sham” was. I now own two shams. We now keep peeking back into the bedroom to look at our new toy. Ah, so pretty. Jeff calls it Asian Delight. I’m going with Regal Asian because the colors and designs suggest royalty. We feel official. We feel a little more adult. And with Regal Asian on our side, I think we can hold our own in this world. 

 Of course my five-year old begged to sleep in the newly adorned bed tonight. He’s already tested out its bounce factor. And of course, the Sophie Sheet will be tossed over it most of the time when we are not showing the house.

 Because really, no matter how official or adult you want to feel, how can you deny a happy sleeping pups?   

Reading Lessons

The Big Shop is a long, drawn-out process that entails buying items up and down every aisle of the grocery store because you are down to one can of garbanzos and some frozen rhubarb at home. The Big Shop with a five-year old involves time, patience, a positive attitude and a baggie full of snacks.

Today I was upbeat and headache-free, so the Big Shop was moving along successfully. As we debated whether or not to splurge on a luxury cheese, I glanced over at the deli and saw a young Goth guy wearing a black t-shirt with red blood dripping letters that read: “F**K THE WORLD AND F**K YOU TOO”. Except on his shirt, the asterisks weren’t there.  

Really? F**k ME too? Nice. And the afternoon had been so pleasant. Now THIS guy is mad at me, and all I wanted was a little queso manchego.

Now I’m fairly liberal when it comes to freedom of speech. And there have been days, okay, maybe a good year or so in my life when I would have worn that t-shirt myself with a snarl on my face. I used to wear all black when I was angry at the world too. Little extra eyeliner, ooh, that’ll show ‘em. I could never pull off the Goth look completely though, because my underlying perky interior would eventually seep through even the thickest layers of sulk. Despite my failed attempts at living on the fringe, I always secretly found these dark and foreboding characters to be somewhat intriguing.

But today the attire of this angst-ridden youth just pissed me off. Not because I’m shocked by the F-word, I use it all the time. I just don’t use it around my kid. Today, my opinion of angry slogans advertised on t-shirts has changed. Because today, I am also the parent of a kid who is learning to read.

This is a really cool thing to watch unfold, Quinn learning to read. He’s putting in a solid effort and I can almost hear the synapses firing as he sounds out a word. When he does so successfully, his whole face lights up. He’s so proud of himself.

I don’t want him to learn the F-word.

I don’t want him to learn to read, “F**K YOU TOO”, on a stranger’s shirt. That pseudo-anger against the world shouldn’t include my son. 

But someday he will. I did. So I can’t control that. I can’t control that someone else’s kid will decide to throw that t-shirt on so he can stick it to the man during his Thursday afternoon jaunt to the grocery store.

I would like to think that my little guy won’t grow up wanting to f**k the world. Who knows, someday I may find myself desperately trying to talk him out of buying an equally angry t-shirt.

But you can be damn sure that it will meet with an unfortunate laundering accident before our next Big Shop.       

Eat, Pray, Whine

 My husband and I just returned from a couple’s mini-version of Eat, Pray, Love. We had cashed in on a couple of gift certificates we received this Christmas, and took a much-needed reprieve from parenthood and the hell that has been this winter. We rested well knowing Little Man was spending the weekend with our most trustworthy babysitters, Grandma and Grandpa C.

The weekend was bliss. We caught up with some wonderful friends in their new home and discussed paint swatches, art, Buddhism, sex, real estate, and Sarah Silverman episodes. I browsed in boutiques for hours without uttering the words, “Don’t touch!” We took a long walk to the beach, yes, the beach (it was a downright balmy 30 degrees) of Lake Michigan where I proved to my winter-weary New Mexican husband that Wisconsin CAN be pretty in February. We had massages, meditation, and delicious meals, one at this restaurant that borderlined on a sexual experience. Yes, it was a weekend where the shoulders finally drop away from the ears, all of the senses get some play time, and the left and right brain are in balance. Surely this retreat would get me through the rest of winter.

It didn’t even get me through 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, which found us in my mother’s living room staring blankly while our extremely loud son shook Grandpa’s bald head back and forth like a cat toy. By 11:00, my shoulders had crept up to my earlobes and I was crabby as hell. Why couldn’t those fleeting hours of serenity transfer into my daily routine, thus creating Zen Mom for at least two days this week? 

They say it takes at least 48 hours of vacation for us to significantly relax. By the time we were getting used to that foreign feeling, we were back on duty. I didn’t even get a chance to miss my son. So I sulked. We didn’t gently ease back into reality, it was thrown back in our faces like a cream pie.

This Monday morning started at 3:00 a.m. with my son whining to come into our bed. I was initially tender, but after hearing him drone, “Mo-ooom” in fifteen minute intervals from 3:15 until 4:30, I bristled hard. I plucked him out of his bed, put him into ours with a “There, are you happy?” and stomped out to make coffee. My solace in thinking that I would now have a couple of quiet hours to write and breathe was completely shattered at 5:00 when I saw his little duck fuzz head poke upstairs, ready to start the day. Sigh.

The next hour of the morning was spent trying to outpout my husband, because whoever is the crabbiest usually gets temporary amnesty from parenting. Jeff is getting sick and is facing yet another ass-clenching drive in newly promised snow. He accused me of spending the morning blogging angrily about my family. And what’s the use of a relaxing weekend if I’m only going to focus on the negative of returning home? He won, because in observing his foul mood, I was no longer irritable with mine.  

I am not angry with my family. Anger, for me, is based on intelligent observation of injustice or wrongdoing and can last a long, long time. I am crabby. Crabbiness is based on the scientific fact that I’m being a big baby and this usually runs its course in 24 hours. I wanted one more day, dammit, okay, maybe two. No fair. But that’s not reality, so after I take a few more moments to whine, those mental epiphanies I had this weekend WILL start to seep into my daily routine. One of those being that I AM happy to return to the home I have. And yes, writing a blog will actually help, as its proving to be a most effective form of short-term therapy for me.

See, I do love my job, more than any other occupation I’ve had. I am grateful that I can keep this job. But I need breaks. And like any job, when I’m in a bad mood, my co-workers are affected. Unfortunately, in this work place they take my moods a little more personally. ‘Cause when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So there’s a lot of pressure to shake off those cranky moods fast. And I don’t get the 45-minute commute to do it, I hit the ground running, crabby or not. Like anyone, I should be allowed a few miserable Monday mornings, especially after an idyllic weekend.

The weekend away was truly worth the bumpy transition home. If I didn’t have my occasional escapes, I wouldn’t be a healthy wife or mother. But if I weren’t a wife or mother, my escapes wouldn’t be very healthy. I need both to fully enjoy what the other has to offer. 

How’s that for balanced thought on a Monday morning? Thank God those Advil kicked in.