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The Great Snow Nightmare (Part 2)

Part 2: Belly of the Whale

The snow was coming down heavy, like rain. I watched it cling to the signs, a white mucus that finally obscured my view of any manmade landmark. I called my husband. “You’d better find somewhere warm to stay,” I said. “This could take a while.”

“How long?” he asked. “It’s really cold in here. There’s nowhere to sit down, and there’s no heat.”

“Is there a bathroom?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

We waited in silence.

“Where are you? Can you get off at any exits and take a back way?”

I couldn’t read any signs, but I was on a strip of road that led only to more highways. The “back roads” started right around where I’d have to get off to get to the metro. I told him so.

Silence.

“My phone battery’s dying,” he said finally.

And that’s what started the panic. It wasn’t the snow or the unending line of traffic. It wasn’t watching my gas tank drop from three-quarters toward halfway. It wasn’t the DJ on the radio running call-in contests for “the poor commuters” who would be stuck for hours. No, none of that made me panic. It was knowing that my husband was stuck in a deserted Metro station with a dying cell battery that pushed me over the edge. Somehow, the image of such lonely helplessness pushed me.

“Don’t waste your battery. If you have something to say, text it. Otherwise, just assume I’m still in traffic.”

“You shouldn’t text while driving,” he said. “Especially when it’s snowing like this.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, watching the warm exhaust of idling cars rise above the road like specters. “I won’t be doing any kind of driving anytime soon.”

* * *

I crept along at an excruciating pace. Entire light cycles passed with no movement. Then, it seemed, maybe one car would make it through, and everyone else got to creep up six more feet. I watched the GPS “miles until destination” numbers as they—remained the same.

The momentary panic ceased for a moment as I calmed myself. “It’s just snow,” I reminded myself. “I grew up in Connecticut.” But seeing the lines of cars, I knew it was more than that. I was stopped near an emergency access point for about five light cycles. I had more than enough time to contemplate turning around. The road home was still relatively clear, and I knew if I hurried, I could make it back. But I couldn’t just leave my husband. Finally, at the sixth light cycle, I was the lucky car that made it through. I had crossed the Rubicon. It was Metro Station or bust.

I took solace in the fact that it was still light out—perpetual winter twilight, but light nonetheless. I estimated I’d be home within the next two hours, and I thought about decedent and calorific foods I could eat to reward myself for this nightmare. It helped for a while.

My husband sent me a text. “Phone battery down to eight percent. Going to find other place to wait.”

That was it. My overactive writer’s brain swirled with possibilities of all the sinister things that could possibly happen to him. I’d been to the Metro stop plenty of times, but I never paid much attention to what buildings were immediately nearby. It was around this time that I saw the first Pedestrian. His dress slacks looked ridiculous in the weather. The heavy snow has turned to slush that soaked into his shoes and cuffs. He held a laptop case above his head as a defense against the wet snow. I almost opened my window to ask him where he was coming from, and what was so bad that he had decided to walk, but I thought that would be ridiculous. So I turned back to my windshield.

By now I had turned down my heater and turned off the radio. Paranoia had slipped in as I watched my gas tank continue to dwindle. I have always been paranoid about running out of gas, and I had thought three quarters of a tank was more than enough to drive the twenty-two miles to the Metro stop. But now I second guessed myself. I knew there was a gas station just up the road, but at this rate it could be hours before I arrived. I took an inventory of useful items in my car: two large blankets covered in dog hair; a snow shovel; three-quarters of a bag of kitty litter; snow boots; two pairs of gloves; an extra hat; a tin of mints.

The tinges of panic were still there, and I quelled them for a bit by watching my windshield. The wiper blades pushed the slush to the sides of my window, where it compacted and hung off the side of my windshield until it fell onto my side-view mirror. I wasn’t going anywhere, and it wasn’t like I needed the side-view mirrors to see anything except an endless line of idling cars. Still, it was something I could do. Action I could take. I put on my waterproof gloves, took my ice scraper, and got out of the car to clear off the window.

A man in a big-rig to my left stepped out of the car. He was lonely and wanted to talk.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

I told him.

“The metro?” he pondered as if he were a parent deciding whether to give his child permission to do something. “You’d best just find a hotel somewhere and hunker down for the night. You shouldn’t be out driving in this alone. Other truckers have been saying there are at least twenty-five abandoned cars along the road between here and the beltway.”

“Why are there abandoned cars?”

“It’s a mess out there. People rather abandon them than drive.”

“Alright,” I said, trembling. I climbed back into my car. Already, my work on the windshield had become pointless. The heavy snow had already started clinging again. My mind went wild, imagining pictures of cars in ten-foot snowdrifts, their owners disappearing forever into the snowy wilderness. I imagined roads so bad that people would have to abandon their cars and seek shelter.

After a self-indulgent terror, I realized I hadn’t moved for a really long time. I looked ahead of me. That car from Louisiana was the first car stopped at the traffic light. But each time the light turned green, he fishtailed in place. He was going nowhere.

I gave myself a metaphorical slap in the face. There were no ten-foot snowdrifts here. There was a six-inch layer of wet slush, but that was it. I had grown up in Connecticut. I had treaded through waist-high snow before. This couldn’t scare me. I expelled my fears and stepped out of the car, armed with a shovel. I knocked on the door of the Louisiana car.

A young man with a pale look of panic rolled down his window. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said.

“Have you ever driven in snow?” I asked.

“No.”

I explained the basics. He had been slamming on his accelerator as a way of building up momentum, but all it was doing was causing him to spin out of control. Then I shoveled out the slush around his tires.

“Slowly, now,” I reminded him.

I watched as he pulled away and made it through the next green light. I walked back to my car. The panic was gone. Things were going to be okay. As I continued on toward the Metro, I saw some of the abandoned cars the truck driver had told me about. Some of them were abandoned in the middle of the three-lane road without any effort to be pushed to the side. What had happened to the drivers? Had they run out of gas? Had they, like the Louisiana driver, been unable to move in the slush and given up?

Whatever the reason, their abandoned vehicles made navigation a challenge. But I was no longer worried. I was from Connecticut. I knew how to drive in the snow. I could help others. I would get to the Metro.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Silver Lining

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in musings

 

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The Great Snow Nightmare (Part 1)

As we’re all enjoying unseasonably beautiful weather, I can’t help but think back to nearly a year ago, when the weather was just the opposite. It was January, and I was stuck for hours in a snowy traffic jam on my way to pick up my husband during an evening I thought would never end. But like most adversity, this story also has a silver lining. So here it is, in three parts, the tale of The Great Snow Nightmare…

Part I: The Nightmare Begins

It’s been almost a year since the most ridiculous traffic jam I’ve ever experienced. It was our only real snowstorm of the year, and by Connecticut standards (where I grew up) it was hardly even a storm. Still, it was predicted that the storm would come during rush hour, and my husband was at work in the city.

I don’t even remember now why I was home. We either had the day off from school, or maybe we were released early. All I remember is it was between two and three in the afternoon, and I was sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of hot chocolate that was too hot to drink. I had just cleared out our garage—a “two” car garage that fits two cars if one has a degree in physics to figure out how to park them.

I had called my husband earlier, asking him to come home early because of the impending snow, but his boss followed the federal government’s brilliance in allowing  one-hour early dismissal from work. (I will stay my fingers not to go onto a tangent-rant about putting faith in bureaucracy. Stay, fingers, stay!)

But I was sitting waiting for my hot chocolate to cool and watching the radar map on my computer when I realized that if my husband left when he was allowed to, he would be stuck on a commuter bus for hours. So I called him, told him to get to the closest metro stop (still twenty miles from our house, but at least out of the city), and I’d pick him up.

It was a moment of decisiveness, and I didn’t hesitate. I packed boots, snow shovel, winter gear, and kitty litter. I left my hot chocolate on the table. I pulled out of my beautifully-sparse garage. I was off just as the first few flakes of snow floated like dandruff onto my windshield.

Growing up in Connecticut, I knew how to drive in snow. I drove cautiously but decisively. I drove well below the speed limit, but I still passed almost every car on the road. I knew I was racing a ticking time bomb, and I knew it would be close. I watched the familiar landmarks fly by. Five, ten, fifteen miles. I watched the snow turn heavy and wet and cling to street signs and traffic lights and license plates.

My husband called. He was at the metro stop waiting and wanted to know when I’d arrive. I was five miles away. I estimated ten minutes and turned on my GPS. It was around that time that the car in front of me—an out-of-state plate from Louisiana—fishtailed widely. I eased on the brakes. That’s when I saw the muted red brake lights like bricks in a wall insisting their scarlet hue through the tenacious wet snow.

Traffic was at a standstill.

Still, it was only 3.5 miles to my turn, and the metro stop was less than a mile from that turn. It was the busy section of Tyson’s Corner, and I assumed the backup was just due to the traffic lights. I called my husband.

“When will you be here?” he asked. “Still ten minutes?”

“No,” I said. “Make it twenty.”

I didn’t realize how wrong I was.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon….

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2012 in musings

 

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You Can’t Cancel Christmas

For the first time ever this year, I was sick for Christmas. So sick, in fact, that I had to call off the celebration. Christmas is the time for sharing, but the fever/flu I had was something I’d rather keep to myself. It was a quiet Christmas, one I spent mostly in bed or on the couch. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the film A Christmas Story so many times before!

While I was sick, however, I decided to polish off some of my “to be read” list.  As an English teacher, I’m always reading (and re-reading) the titles I teach, so I have little time during the school year to read for pleasure. Being sick was a great opportunity to tackle my short stack of Christmas reading for the year. So now, feeling much less feverish, I thought I’d share what I read with you:

Sing We Now of Christmas by Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

This is a romance book rated “3” on the “heat index.” I won a copy on a blog contest and wanted to save the story to read around Christmastime. The tale follows Jessica and Johnny, a married couple perfectly in love. But Johnny leaves for an early-morning fishing trip on the Fourth of July and never makes it back. A terrible storm passed over the lake as Johnny was fishing, and everyone presumes him to be dead. Everyone, that is, except for Jessica. Sticking to her hope to the point that everyone else thinks she is insane, Jessica refuses to believe that Johnny is gone, and she holds out hope that she will return for the holidays.

The plot has suspense built right in. As soon as Johnny disappears, the reader wishes for him to return. Flashbacks of Jessica’s first meeting with him allow the reader to feel how perfect their relationship is and increases the sense of urgency to get them back together. Happy flashbacks to their past relationship sprinkled throughout the story help to break up Jessica’s despair at not knowing what happened to Johnny or why he hasn’t made any attempt to contact her. As an author, I appreciated the way Murphy used different points of view to add information, increase dramatic irony, and build suspense. As the story unfolds, we are given more and more information to piece together the mystery. And as promised, the climax of the novel happens right during the holidays, making it an enjoyable read for this time of year.

As I sat curled up in bed listening to my husband cooking in the kitchen, the book helped me to remember what’s really important in life: not having beautifully-wrapped gifts or a perfect Christmas dinner—rather, having those we love the most right by our side.

Journey to Christmas Creek by Melinda Elmore

Earlier this year, author Melinda Elmore’s husband unexpectedly passed away. “Journey to Christmas Creek” is a story her husband used to tell their children, and Melinda wrote it down. DWB, Melinda’s publisher, decided to publish the story as a benefit to the Elmore family, helping them to cover final costs for their beloved. The short story is a fast but enjoyable read—it took me maybe thirty minutes to read it. The cover is wonderful, capturing the beauty of unadulterated nature while also paying tribute to Tommy Elmore.

The story is a coming-of-age tale following Spotted Buffalo, an adolescent determined to help his tribe find a new home and prove his manhood. It is the 1800s, and Spotted Buffalo’s tribe is making the slow trek to search for a better place to live. Eager to find a new home while the rest of the tribe is resting, Spotted Buffalo trusts that the Great Spirit will help him find the legendary Christmas Creek–but his sister, Gentle Tears, tags along for the ride. On their journey, Spotted Buffalo breaks his leg, and his sister must face terrifying dangers on her way back to find help.

This would be a great story to share with family during the holidays. It is a fast, enjoyable read that could easily become a Christmas tradition of its own.

Both stories stress the importance of family, and during this last week of 2011, I hope that you get to spend lots of time with yours. It doesn’t matter how sick you may be or what circumstances you may confront: as long as you have a loving family, you just can’t cancel Christmas.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in book reviews, musings

 

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The Media Mail Inquisition, Post Office Fired, and Other Musings on Mail

I went to the Post Office today. They’ve been on my “list” for a while now but recently have incurred more wrath as a result of their new policy requiring that credit cards be signed in order to be used. I understand this is a policy of the credit card company, but all other businesses I patronize accept my unsigned credit card which says “see ID” on the back. Mind you, all these other businesses that check my card and my ID are actually making a profit.

The USPS’s profit from January through March 2011 was negative 13.58%. *

If this recent policy wasn’t the culmination of a long list of offenses, then I would have just signed the back of my credit card without any ado.

But it was the clichéd straw that broke my back.

It started with our purchase of a PO Box when we first moved to the area. After selling our old home, we spent a month living out of boxes in a hotel room while we waited to close on our new house. During this time, we needed somewhere reliable to forward our mail. After we changed all our bills and magazine and correspondence to our new PO Box number, we received a phone call that the PO Box we had been assigned was “no longer available.” After we had been using it for weeks!

We were assured, of course, that any correspondence addressed to it would be forwarded to a new PO Box for us—free of charge! How good of them!

Despite this promise, mail went missing, including a ten-dollar birthday check mailed by my old-school uncle who, upon learning his check was lost in the mail, insisted upon closing his checking account that had been open since before I was even born.

It only gets better.

I frequently sell my used textbooks on half.com; half.com’s shipping policy is to ship books via media mail. According to the USPS website, “The material sent must be educational media. It can’t contain advertising, video games, computer drives, or digital drives of any kind. Media Mail can be examined by postal staff to determine if the right price has been paid. If the package is wrapped in a way that makes it impossible to examine, it will be charged the First-Class rate.”

One day I was shipping a Norton anthology. This book is shaped like a brick. There is no box I know of that can easily fit a Norton anthology. I made my own by reinforcing a bubble-envelope with packaging tape.

When I arrived at the counter after a pleasant wait in line and told the clerk I wanted to ship the book via media mail, her eyes flashed. The Inquisition had begun.

“It has to be a book,” she said.

“It is.”

“No, only a book. Nothing else.”

“It is only a book.”

She raised an eyebrow. “How many books?”

“Just one.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing. Just a book.”

“And what else?” Her eyes narrowed.

I couldn’t help but smile. “And bubble wrap,” I said.

“And what else?”

“Cardboard,” I said.

“And what else?”

“Packing tape.”

The conversation went on.

“It’s not shaped like a book,” she said.

“It’s a book.” I lifted the package and dropped it down on the counter to show its rugged bookishness.

“Can you open it for me to see that it’s a book?”

“No.”

“I need to see it’s a book.”

“It’s a book,” I said. “I’m not going to rip apart my packing. Why would I waste my time like this to save two dollars? It’s a book!”

“I’ve never seen a book that big.” She eyed her manager.

“I’m an English major,” I said.

She was not impressed. “You need to open it.”

I eyed the package. It was taped up to survive the apocalypse. “It’s. A. Book.”

The manager looked over. I narrowed my eyes at him.

He looked at her and nodded.

She pursed her lips in defeat. “Does it contain anything liquid–”

But I didn’t let her finish. “It’s just a book,” I said.

The thing is, this same clerk had been harassing me about media mail for months. The first time, when I told her I was shipping a book, she insisted, “Actually, you can only use media mail for books that are educational.”

“I’m in luck,” I said.

“It’s for education?” she asked skeptically.

“Not only is it for education, but it’s about education. It’s a book made for students who are going to school to become teachers. That’s like education squared! If that doesn’t qualify for media mail, I don’t know what does–”

But she had already moved on.

It was after months of being subjected to such distrust—as if I have nothing better to do than to scam the USPS out of pennies at a time by shipping non-eductional materials via media mail—that they started their Credit Card Inquisition.

Now every time I go to the post office, I bring a pocket full of change. There is only one clerk who has not yet subjected me to the Inquisition over media mail. She trusts that I have better things to do with my time than get my jollies off by sending non-educational materials over media mail. For her and her alone, I do not pay in change.

And what exactly is the USPS trying to hang onto here?

When I try to track packages on the USPS website, the whole process reminds me of drawings that kindergarteners make. You know the ones—they hand it to you with that innocent little smile, hoping you’ll be proud of what they’ve done. You kind of hold it and tilt it around as you try to make out what it is. “That’s a nice….elephant,” you say, hoping it will suffice. Then the kid’s eyes fill with tears as they tell you “you’re holding upside down. It’s a picture of you!”

Case in point: compare this tracking information from UPS with that of the USPS:

Here’s UPS:

I love how I can practically track the entire package. There’s no way it could be lost!

Compare that with this tracking information from the United States Post Office:

Shipment accepted? Shipment accepted? What does that even mean? That the clerk behind the counter finally accepted the fact that it is a book and nothing else? That the Inquisition for this shipment has ended?

And I love the expected delivery date: August 29. That’s today. It’s almost bedtime, and I have not received my package.

But something happened this summer that almost made up for my dealings with the dreaded Post Office.

Almost.

Packaged in with the most recent copy of Bloomberg Businessweek was a notice essentially firing the post office. “Starting next week,” the notice informed, “your magazine will be delivered like a newspaper,” meaning subscribers will receive their magazines “before [the] weekend begins.” I love how they equate “outstanding service” with no longer delivering via USPS.

Interestingly enough, this follows closely a Businessweek featuring an article about why the Post Office is in big trouble. A few highlights of the article include the fact that the USPS is essentially relying on junk mail to increase revenue, the Internet is destroying first-class mail, and UPS and FedEx—not the Post Office—are America’s go-to companies for express shipping. Also—no surprise there—unions and insane benefits promised to retirees are adding their demands to kill the system.

To try to remedy the problem, analysts were sent to different countries, all of which are making a profit with their postal systems (compared to the USPS, the profit margin of which was some negative-13% this year). Ideas include closing down many USPS branches and reopening in convenience and other stores (allowing for hiring non-union employees and increasing efficiency by linking to the private sector). These are all ideas implemented by other countries with success. The analyst who found all these ideas “returned to America full of excitement” and “delivered… a report to the House subcommittee.” When briefed on this research and offered the suggestions, “Joseph Corbett, the American postal service’s chief financial officer, thanked [the analyst] for his efforts. At the same time, he said the agency was sticking to its plan.”  *

Nothing like the status quo.

Good ole US P O

 

* = Info and quotes from Leonard, Devin. The End of Mail. pp 60-65 in Bloomberg Business Week‘s May 30-June 5, 2011 issue

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2011 in musings

 

Earth-Shaking Weird

This Tuesday’s Virginia earthquake brought with it a number of strange happenings. Perhaps the earthquake opened up a vortex of weirdness from which I have yet to recover.  Perhaps it is an overture leading us into the notorious and prophetic 2012. Or perhaps it’s nothing at all.In any case, here are the strange things that the earthquake seems to have brought to my life:
                                                                                                                                .
Planning
Perhaps the strangest thing that happened on Tuesday was the time given to us teachers to actually plan for the upcoming year. I knew something strange was happening: after lunch we were given a few hours’ reprieve from the countless meetings and other activities that had taken up the four previous teacher workdays. It was amazing, actually, to have a block of time all to myself to sit down with my syllabi and prepare lessons for the first few weeks of school. Those of you who teach can probably appreciate how unique this “down time” is in the presence of so many meetings and mandatory software training sessions and the like. I was thinking to myself: unimpeded planning time? Maybe the world is coming to an end! As if in response, my classroom started shaking… and there went the planning.
  .
Antique Clock
We have a clock
that’s over 100 years old. My father-in-law, a horologist (a clockmaker), restored it for us. It’s the kind you have to wind for both the ticking mechanism and the chime, and you have to swing the pendulum to get it to keep time. While away for vacation at the end of July, my husband and I let the clock run down; when we returned, we forgot to wind it back up. So you can imagine our surprise when, sitting and eating dinner, the clock started striking the hour. We both looked up.
 
“Did you wind the clock?” I asked. 
 
“No, I thought you did!”
 
The clock was accurate to the minute, and only off by an hour. Strange. I guess the earthquake’s undulations were enough to get the pendulum moving again… still, the thing ran for 12 hours without being wound!
 
HP TouchPad
Earlier this week, Leia (one of my dogs, known as the “evil” one), started going berserk early in the morning. Sometimes she barks now or then if a car drives by, but this time nothing would quiet her. I got up to let her out, and in the wee hours
of the morning decided to check my email. On my screen, the BestBuy.com window was still opened: the day before, I had been searching for an HP TouchPad. After the company announced it was bowing out of the computer biz, it decided to sell off its tablets for $99. You can’t beat that price for an e-reader! But of course it was sold out everywhere. I hit the refresh button to find the tablet in stock. Without hesitation, I ordered one, thinking it was just a glitch. After I put my order through, I hit the refresh button once more out of curiosity, and the tablet was once again listed as sold out. I assumed my order would be cancelled. So imagine my surprise when the tablet arrived today! My dog woke me up for the four-minute sweet spot when Best Buy had the tablets on sale. Very strange indeed!
 
Sea Monkeys
In addition to the antique clock, my father-in-law also gave us a sea monkey kit. Until now I thought sea monkeys were fictional. Apparently not. A few weeks ago, we followed the directions, “growing” maybe eight or nine tiny little critters in the tank from a packet of powder into a plastic tank of purified water. We watched with dismay as the tiny critters disappeared one by one until a single behemoth (well, okay, maybe half an inch long?) sea monkey was left. After checking on the dogs and the house, I checked to see how the sea monkeys fared during their first earthquake experience. To my surprise, I found the tank had re-spawned, with eight new specks swimming around. Now if only the behemoth one doesn’t eat them!
.
The whole experience of the day by necessity has to have a quality of weirdness to it. It rings of the ancient days of seers and augurs who would find significance in such events. For me, as I dashed to the door frame of my second-floor classroom, the day holds its own kind of significance. Like the morning of 9/11, I will always remember “where I was when the earthquake came.” I will remember looking up to see my projector swinging from side to side and wondering whether the old school building was going to hold up. I have never felt such an intense feeling of powerlessness, even with something as “mild” as a 5.8 earthquake. It made me think of all those victims of more powerful earthquakes, of tsunamis and hurricanes and all sorts of natural disasters. And it made me think, too: if the earth decided to upheave itself, we humans would have no chance.
 
Here’s to hoping that never happens. 
 
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Posted by on August 25, 2011 in musings

 

Musings on a Plane

I like to write horror, so I can appreciate that some scary noises are fun. Creaky hinges or crisp October evenings. An echo of footsteps during a game of hide-and-seek. Whispers in the darkness around a campfire. The creaking of an airplane cabin is not one of those “fun” scary noises. But such was the atmosphere of my flight to Phoenix on June 25. The flight started out well enough. For once, I hadn’t allowed myself to get nervous ahead of time. But I did have enough foresight to bring my little notebook, into which I ended up pouring my anxieties during the flight. And here, deciphered from the bumpy blue scribbles in that notebook, is my experience on that flight:

Just after the drink service, we hit turbulence. Drinks are spilled. Kids are crying. Not only did the seatbelt light go on, but the flight attendants have been asked to sit down as well. I knew it was bad when, as a passenger tried to hand the flight attendant an empty drink container, she said, “It’ll have to wait—it’s not safe right now.” The only turbulence I’ve encountered this bad was flying home one night on the tail end of a storm.

* * *

After two hours of on-and-off turbulence, during which time I tried to stay asleep, the flight attendants are still seated. They’ve started gossiping in the back—I’m seated in the last row—and most of the passengers have acclimated to the bumpy ride. They say the human body has a mechanism allowing it to ignore repetitive or long-term environmental disruptions like buzzing or birds chirping or jarring, jolting turbulence and the creaking cabin noise resulting from it.

Not this human body.

I press my face to the window watching plots of farms in greens and browns spread beneath my like a quilt. I’m wishing I were there, in the heartland of America, perhaps, safely on the ground. I’d take anything—a pile of manure, a pig farm—whatever it took to get me safely off that plane. My husband asks if I really need the window open so wide. He, like the other passengers, is trying to sleep. The light is disruptive. I break my trance and look around: the kid next to him is sleeping, as are the people in the next two rows.

I shut the window.

My husband nods his head in sleep. The flight attendants giggle in the back at a juicy piece of gossip I cannot quite hear. The plane jolts us from side to side. No one reacts. I am in my own private nightmare. A combination of all my fears. Claustrophobia. Acrophobia. Fear of being powerless to help my immediate safety. I pull up the window, hoping for a clue to our location. I have a napkin with the airline’s various cities mapped on it, and I’ve eyeballed the trajectory, divided the flight time, and estimated where we should be by now. I peek out the sliver of light hoping for a glimpse of the Missouri River.

But there’s nothing but clouds. A mass of white. Another jolt.

A kid that looks like Ralphie from A Christmas Story ignores the seatbelt sign and scurries to the bathroom. I remember an anecdote: just before the flight, this kid and his brother were arguing about whether a McDonald’s wrapper counted as recyclable paper. They tossed it in the recycling bin anyway. My mind dashes to Lost and all the ways passengers caught random glimpses of each other’s personalities before getting only too familiar after the plane crash on the island.

The plane crash.

My mind jolts back to my Hellish reality as I wonder if turbulence can be so bad as to tear apart a plane bit by bit. I wonder what the point of seat belts is on a plane. Really. I always see pilots rolling extensive luggage behind them as they board the plane. I wonder if one of those parcels is a parachute. Is there a secret code pilots have—maybe the flight attendants are involved as well—in which they decide that the plane is done for? They announce the code over the loudspeaker, and it’s probably something innocuous so as not to frighten the passengers, something like “I heard Phoenix is hot this time of year.” And at this point, the flight attendants smile that plastered smile at the passengers and saunter to the back of the plane. And on the count of three, the doors are thrown open and the pilot jumps out followed by his harem of flight attendants, all equipped with parachutes that open to display the airplane’s logo to the suckers left above.

I wonder this as the plane jolts again. I wonder whether the pilot might provide an update on the status of the turbulence. I’m wondering why he doesn’t. And then I think to myself: why would he? If we were past the turbulence, he’d tell us so (or at least turn off the Fasten Seat Belt light). But if things were bad—scary bad—of course he’d keep quiet. Maybe he’s on the phone with his wife, telling her goodbye just in case. Or maybe he has to focus so hard on navigating through the turbulence that he can’t spare a moment to talk to the passengers.

My mind wanders one final time to an anecdote from my dad. He was on a flight, and after a bout of turbulence, the man next to him ordered a double shot.

“First time?” my dad asked. “You get used to the turbulence. It can’t really bring down a plane.”

“No,” the man said. “I’m a pilot. And if you knew what almost just happened to our plane, you’d be drinking too.” The man didn’t say anything more, and of course he could have been making it up, but it makes me wonder what pilots know/encounter/avoid that we the passengers will just never know.

* * *

POST SCRIPT

After finishing the entry above, I forced myself back into “sleep mode,” the same mode I force myself into when watching a really bad movie or TV show. Kind of like “safe mode” on a PC when starting up after a particularly bad crash. Minimal awareness. At the hotel, I researched the purpose of seat belts on planes. It turns out that in 2010, an airplane hit such bad turbulence that passengers who weren’t buckled in were injured by being thrown against the wall and ceilings of the cabin when the plane lost altitude. Lost altitude! It’s a good thing I hadn’t researched that before hand.

We encountered little “Ralphie” again on the flight home: he was sitting behind us this time. He was sitting next to a stranger who insisted in engaging the boy in conversation over the entire course of the four-and-some-change-hour flight. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that the boy had no sense of volume control or appropriateness, and I could hear every scrap of his shrill conversation. But at least there wasn’t as much turbulence. Besides, it could have been worse: if the plane had crashed on some mysterious tropical island, little Ralphie could have been my next door neighbor for years to come!

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2011 in musings

 

Hydrophobia

There were two weeks of school left, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had things planned almost perfectly so that my students would be healthily occupied with end-of-year projects and presentations up until the last day of school.

Things were going well, that is, until I opened my big mouth:

Being an English teacher, I thought I was being clever by using such figurative imagery. But I had inadvertently issued a challenge to Fate.

Despite my happiness, I had slept horribly for nearly two weeks. In light of everything going well, my subconsciousness seemed to be preparing for something. Maybe puckish fate had been sprinkling my dreams with tiny nightmares.

As an English teacher, I thought I was smart enough to know that things like foreshadowing happen in books and movies, but they don’t happen in real life. Turns out I was wrong.

We were sitting on the couch watching TV, when Eric erupted in an expletive.

He had spilled his water. A big, tall, icy glass of it. It was a rare occasion, and I watched as he sopped it up with towels.

I only remembered the incident because it was repeated that night. At nearly midnight, I awoke from a sound sleep by yet another expletive. This time, Eric had spilled his water on the bedroom carpet. Behind the night table. And the dresser.

In the four years we’ve been living in the house, Eric has not once spilled water.

I woke up grumpy and helped him clean it up.

I slept terribly, plagued by dreams I could not remember.

The following night, I awoke at midnight realizing that I had left my phone—my alarm clock—in the car. I checked for it in the garage. This detail is important only in that when I went to look for it, there was in fact NOT a gushing mess of water issuing forth from the hose faucet.

When I awoke the next morning at 5:30, the toilet flushed but wouldn’t refill. I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to figure it out.

My heart pounded. The adrenaline coursed through my veins. Eric had no water pressure. I had no water pressure. This was more than just coincidence. I felt it in my gut. Something was terribly wrong. I rushed down the stairs as theories about a water company conspiracy flooded my brain. Maybe the apocalypse had come while we slept. Or the ocean had evaporated. My brain cooled as everything on the second floor seemed fine.

 But then…

Russsh.

Russsh.

The rush of water. Like a flowing stream.

“Are you running water up there?” I asked.

“No,” came a sleepy reply.

But I heard a gushing nonetheless. I ran down to the basement to check the bathroom. And what I found down there set me on full alert mode. It is a trait I inherited from my mother through which I can wake from a dead sleep and spring into action in a matter of nanoseconds. It’s a talent reserved for the most dire situations, catalyzed only by such things as medical emergencies, screaming family members, or puddles of water in the squishy basement carpet…

Not fully awake, Eric trudged down the stairs, my hysteria not registering yet.

Running into the garage, I discovered Niagara Falls had relocated to my hose faucet. The world moved in slow motion. The fountain wet everything in its path. The insulation. The utility carpet. The pegboard. It had pooled in buckets and in the crevaces of tools.

Swimming through the tool room, I climbed on a crate, my pajamas already soaked, and reached the shut-off valve.

I allowed myself to breathe again. There was nothing but the beating of my heart and the…. dripping of…

WATER!

I sloshed down the stairs to the basement. I checked out the storage area under the stairs. A layer of water was creeping its way up the cardboard boxes, oxidizing the metal armor of a Halloween costume, saturating the drywall.

I checked the clock. I had only 90 minutes before I had to leave for school. My “perfectly-planned” lessons now demanded that I be at school to grade students’ oral presentations. Not that they would have minded if there had been a sub….

My husband called his boss, who chuckled at his reason for personal leave. “It’s not icy out, so I assume the water is–kinetic?” he asked faceteously.

At least SOMEONE got a chuckle out of it.

I spent the next 90 minutes frantically removing saturated cardboard from under the stairs and running the carpet cleaner’s vacuum function, grateful that the thing had finally paid for itself. When I finally arrived at school, my hair still dripping wet from the fastest shower on record, I hurried to make arrangements for substitutes after the student presentations.

As I drove home, I hoped maybe the whole thing had been a dream. A very bad dream.

But it wasn’t.

At home, my husband, who had been running the carpet cleaner when I left, was on the couch, forlorn. He was eating McDonalds. All those cardboard storage boxes were still there under the stairs, soaking up the water.

But at least it had finally stopped dripping.

“I thought you were going to keep cleaning down there,” I said.

“Vacuumed for hours…” he mumbled. “Called some places…” He stared blindly at the McDonald’s bag. “They forgot my double cheeseburger. But I got you two of the little ones.” He looked back down at his fries as if they, too, were in conspiracy against him, as the rest of the day seemed to have been.

“Have one of mine,” I said, tossing him a burger. I ate mine without tasting it and hurried back down the stairs. The dogs (did I mention we have dogs?) were so confused. Eric was home. I was home. Water was everywhere.

Leia, the adventurous one, bounded down the stairs with delight. The carpet squished under her, and she wagged her stub of a tail.

Yoda, who is afraid of everything, ran back upstairs.

Meanwhile, Eric’s phone rang. A moment later, he informed me that someone was coming to help dry the carpets. He would be here in a matter of minutes. “And, um,” he added, “we’re supposed to clear out the room.”

“What?”

“And the storage under the stairs.”

I sprung to action, grabbing things left and right. But Eric just stood there looking like he forgot how to breathe.

I should stop here to clarify:

The basement is Eric’s “man cave.” I’m legally not allowed to clean it. Not even to vacuum. Eric, a notorious newspaper hoarder, has a stack of newspapers that doubles as an extra end table, a stack of video games, and various containers of snack foods to satisfy whatever video-game-induced craving might hit. It was all too much for him, and he kind of wavered in place a little bit as if he might move to do something, but then he’d stay put, surveying the room like a general surveying the remains of his men on a battlefield. He was lucky, however. The water seemed to spare the most important elements of his man-cave.

Here’s a map:

I was so thrilled that the largest stack of newspapers was spared…

I don’t really remember how it is we managed to clear all the elements of the man-cave into the living room upstairs, or the garage, or the patio. But we did. Armfuls of DVDs, vintage video game systems, even a full-body replica of Roman armor found its way safely out of the water.

Now, we have a series of industrial-strength fans and a robotic-looking dehumidifier. We were told that everything will be fine in three days. The carpet has been loosened from the walls, and it undulates with the power of the fans. Leia takes delight in the rippling carpet, prancing around and rolling like it’s her own private ocean.

Yoda, on the other hand….

And me? With the living room full of plastic storage containers and my husband now “homeless” and monopolizing the “non-video-game TV,” I have confined myself to the kitchen with my laptop. And created this. I hope you enjoyed : )

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in musings