Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Summer of My Sons

Summer's great, isn't it? It's like suddenly, for a few months anyway, it's okay to be lazy. Sloth rules. You can almost feel the foggy, sleepy haze oozing out of our own craniums, soaking into everyday life, compelling us to watch mindless cable television and overlook basic rules of personal hygiene and low-salt diets, scratching our where-evers and snuggling on the couch with a beloved bag of chips.

We've been setting the snooze alarm on Life, letting the sun rise and set without us, knowing our bank account's stocked chock full of lazy days. We've been telling Time to move on without us, murmuring that we'll catch up later. But now we're fast approaching the end of the summer, and, like that last sprinkled donut that your brother took when you weren't looking, it's gone and never coming back. Much like, hopefully, the analogies in this paragraph.

My sons were already 9 and 11 and I'd never taken big, lazy, chunks of time with them. To sit, to stay, to just be. Usually I'd miss all this summer stuff, this non-doing. Instead I'd whisk out the door early, off to work in a carpeted box to push numbers around. As a working mom, yes, time was precious, but my boys' time should have trumped work time. With a little luck and a gentle push, boys are not boys forever. Hopefully they mature and, like it or not, eventually move on.

As fate would have it, I was now home. Not much money, but mercifully plenty of time to finally get to know my sons. If they would just, for the love of Morpheus, wake the heck up.

Vacation isn't so much a where but a who. I've gone to extravagant places with people I'd prefer to never see again. And I've crashed on the couch with the most incredible characters. This summer, with my sons, we didn't go anywhere but to each other. And it was great.
We hung out. We slept. We wallowed. We slept some more.

I highly recommend wallowing. Nothing defines summer better than a languid wallow, wrapped in slothful ennui, and smothered in idle sauce. And if you can do it whilst being aware of your own lethargy, realizing how amazingly decadent you are while still in the moment, even better. Bonus points are awarded for gloating. But keep it humble, please. Too much wallow-joy approaches the realm of making an effort, something frowned upon during the summer doldrums. A simple, righteous "Yessss!" while you dribble Dorito crumbs down your shirt is enough of an understated celebration to acknowledge this subtle yet sacred event.

We did do a few things, ventured out to the beach, the park, the pizza place. Just to put perspective on our wallowing, of course. You can't fully recognize the real power of sloth unless you give it contrast by running around like maniacs for a bit. Then the stillness is outstanding even more.

This world of 'do-do' we live in very nearly became my undoing. The daily freeway dance of the commuter lemmings is no place to spend all your heartbeats. Luckily, thanks to my newfound wallowing ways, my life savings is finally full of summer memories. We're rich in a most splendid, if corny, way. Now if only I could get paid for wallowing...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Fresh Air Girl

The first thing I remember about Stephanie was her odd yet joyful habit of jumping in and out of our front door onto the grass. To a little kid from a New York City ghetto, that was apparently the greatest thing in the world. Landing on grass at her high-rise/low-income home involved a major hike and probably some risk. So as soon as she got to our house, she hopped in and hopped out, over and over and over. We’d hear the screen door banging closed again and again, and we knew Stephanie was having fun.

One of the easiest ways to figure out what you have is to be with someone who doesn’t have it. The Fresh Air Fund is a non-profit company that helps inner-city kids get out to the country for a while. They either attend a camp or stay at a private home. It’s a great program and still going strong. I guess the stories about livestock roaming our living room or giant moths attacking our dinner never made it back to the Fresh Air people, because they kept sending us kids every summer.

One thing Stephanie had that I didn’t was confidence. She would go anywhere, anytime, even at times defying my mother. Up until then I thought anyone going up against Herself would vaporize instantaneously. Not Stephanie. She had a Teflon soul. I wanted to be Steph-tough, too.

Stephanie was black. Her mom had sent instructions on how to do her hair properly, and my Mom did her best. But I still remember her frustration as she gamely attempted to put conditioner on Stephanie’s hair and turn a tidy corn row and pigtail or two on a very busy eight-year-old. Low-brow hijinks on a quiet country night. Kids don’t care about whether something is politically correct – it’s either funny or it’s not. Now that’s fresh air.

One thing Stephanie absolutely refused to do was pick crops. She had toiled as a child laborer, doing that for a living for a few summers to help pay bills. I found it fun to pick corn and dig for potatoes. I’m sure if I had to do it all day until my fingers were numb and my back ached I’d think otherwise. But at least I got to sling the slimy 'taters at my brother and flick potato bugs at my sister, so all was not lost.

Stephanie had her own priorities, soaking up the summer every minute she was with us. She was outside nearly all the time, picking flowers, climbing trees, playing with dogs, swimming in the pool. I got tired just watching her. Yet she made it pretty obvious, like only a kid could, just how much I had. Yes, it was different. Yes, I had to shovel chicken poo and heft itchy, heavy bales of hay. But I got the feeling from Stephanie's manic cavorting, that this poo-hefting and bale-pitching was something special. Smelly, perhaps, sweaty, yes, but special.

Later, during my college years, I would swing back and forth between campus life and working construction. Very early on Saturday mornings, I would literally step over my roommates' tipsy bodies to go work the first shift at a blacktop plant. Once a coworker at the plant was gloating over hitting a great garage sale the weekend before. He beamed because he was able to buy decent back-to-school clothes for his kids. At a garage sale. Meanwhile, my snoozy roomies at the university had spent three times that amount on booze the night before. Did this give me perspective? Of course. It also gave me mental whiplash.

There's something to be said for not fitting in, for riding the rail between farm and city, rich and poor. For one thing, when you perch yourself on a fence there's usually a pretty good breeze. And more than one view.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Camping - Do Not Try This at Home

I was recently invited to go camping. I declined. Actually, first I cringed, then I declined.

Camping means different things to different people. In this case some friends were going to cram themselves into a car with malodorous camping equipment of dubious heritage and drive for hours to set up camp next to hundreds of other 'campers' unfamiliar with the term 'noise pollution.' In my eyes, this is not camping. This is a tent ghetto. When the big earthquake hits our town, I will contemplate survival in such a sheeted metropolis. I will then write a book about my experiences and make millions. I will then never have to camp like that again.

My idea of “roughing it” is cotton/polyester bed linens and/or anything below a 300 thread count. I do not "rough it." Keeping my standards above this eliminates the threat of creepy crawlies, since I’m certain bugs are drawn to cheap materials and sub-par feng shui. Think about it -you’ve never seen an insect at a Dolce & Gabbana show. Unless you count Joan Rivers.

A friend of mine defines camping by the dearth of room service. No room service = camping. To her, this is to be avoided at all costs. I can appreciate this honesty. Certainly beats being enticed out on a long weekend, only to find out that the only ‘call of the wild’ to be heard is coming from the KOA kiddie pool.

On the other hand, I love true camping - hiking into the middle of nowhere, with no one around except perhaps a chipmunk or bear, or even a bear eating a chipmunk. I'd take a bear over a gaggle of tent city rugrats any day. Bears don’t usually blast their boomboxes.

The main proviso is that I am warm and dry. No rain, please, and high-end camping equipment only. Air mattress and down comforter, and I'm there. No cooking, of course. I’ll split a pizza with the bear.

As a kid, I camped quite a bit. We were lucky enough to live on forty acres of land, much of it wooded. Camping meant throwing a few sleeping bags in the back of the pick-up and heading north through the pasture gate. However, since this was in upstate New York, whatever part of me wasn’t eaten by mosquitoes ended up frostbitten. I blame the Montgomery Ward polyester sleeping bags for everything.

It was worth it, though, to wake up in the middle of the night to watch a huge buck snort in fear all over my brother. Nothing says ‘country camping’ quite as nicely as watching a deer blast your little brother with snot.

That said, camping is either a little kid thing, a survival thing, or a comfortable get-away-from-it-all thing. It should never ever be considered as a ‘date.’

Ladies, if a guy ever asks you out on a date to go camping, run.
· Unless your sense of adventure is discovering that rainbow trout gizzards are handy for grinding laundry stains out on a washboard, run.
· Unless you welcome mosquitoes the size of soda cans stuck to your arm, run.
· Unless you enjoy watching leeches slug it out with ticks over mining rights to your legs, run.

Camping is God’s way of letting you know that there’s a lot to be said for indoor plumbing and central air. However there are now wonderful camping resorts that feature luxurious cabins, stellar facilities, and astronomical prices. This further clouds the issue of what ‘camping’ truly is. Luckily, I’m here to clarify:
· Camping Threat Level Red – anything involving parkas, portaging canoes and carrying more DEET than food.
· Camping Threat Level Orange – mosquitoes buzz the theme to “Deliverance”
· Camping Threat Level Yellow – polyester anywhere within a 100 yard radius
· Camping Threat Level Pink – no turn-down service and the pillow mint isn’t European
· Camping Threat Level Chartreuse– you call the spa to make an appointment with the manicurist and they say, “Manny who?”

Once you master these levels, we can move on to the next lesson – how to say ‘yes’ to a camping weekend and manipulate it into a stay at a four-star hotel.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hand Over the Money and Nobody Gets Hurt

I went to the bank the other day. More specifically, the bank's ATM. I put my debit card in the slot and away we went on a mystical adventure of uber-pleasant verbosity-

"Welcome to the Bank of Overly Friendly Technology. Would you like English or Spanish?"

"Great! Please enter your code."

"Hey, thanks so much for entering your code. Would you like to check your balance?"

"Hey, I have an idea. Would you like a receipt?"

"Are you sure?"

"Hey, am I being friendly enough for you?"

"It's a lovely day, isn't it? A great day to open a new line of credit. Would you like to hear about our fabulous rates?"

"You pressed '*$#%^!&%.' Is that correct?"

"Is there anything else I can waste your time with?"

"Ok, then. This was fun! Don't forget to take your card. Don't forget to walk away when you're done. The door is to your right. Just push on it and it should open. Have a terrific day!!!"

The ATM was developed to ease the load on bank manpower. If I were to opt for a human teller, I can guarantee I wouldn't be bombarded with so many questions. Because if the teller dared to ask that many questions, one look at my face would warn him that the account on my patience was overdrawn and he'd stop.

Me: Hello.

Teller: Good morning! Would you like English or Spanish?

Me: I've spoken English my entire life. I filled out my application for this bank in English. I receive my statements in English. When I approached you, I said, "Hello," not "Hola." Whatever in the world of sober reasoning would give you the idea I would prefer to chatter with you in Spanish?

Followed by my signature New York stink-eye, that would be the end of that. The teller would immediately become
intuitive, a skill that's considered, for many species, a key to survival. If your surroundings become hostile, you must adapt or suffer the consequences.
However an ATM doesn't do that at all, and still we let it live. Because today's ATM programs were created by passive-aggressive marmosets, programmers who are confident they will never have to confront you face to face, who are prodded by marketing and sales schmos to fill the ATM queries with greasy, friendly chatter in order to create a 'warm atmosphere.' "You want nice? We'll give you nice until you choke on it! Bwahahaha!!"

For our own efficiency and sanity, we should pick the best tool for the job. Common sense dictates that I opt for the teller, either man or machine, that's the least hassle. Sadly, right now, that's the human.

There is nothing, NOTHING, keeping the banks from adding functionality that would make a trip to the ATM a truly pleasant and efficient experience. They know what language you speak, whether you usually want a receipt, and what your most common transactions are. Here's how it should go-

I insert my card and enter my code.

"Hi, Annie. Would you like your usual $60 withdrawal from checking?"

I hit


In addition to basic respect for your time, there's a safety factor involved as well. Every second you spend at an ATM you're exposed, vulnerable to the criminal element. Trimming the time your financial tail hangs out in the wind flailing twenty dollar bills that tempt sub-stellar scalawags would be a very, very good thing. And you don't need a marketing survey to know that the people waiting in line behind you while you slog through the happy-happy options the ATM spews at you might prefer a shorter wait time as well.

Knowing that banks cater to Spanish-speaking dollars but ignore my need for speed and safety sticks
a bit in my craw. Regardless of the language, numbers are numbers. If someone really needs to read the words 'checking' and 'savings' in Spanish, that's their problem. I shouldn't have to plunk through extra buttons because they are language-challenged. I don't deny the bank's right to chase multi-cultural dollars - just keep it out of my face. If any bank woke up and streamlined this process, there would be a stampede to their door.

How intuitive do you have to be to recognize I don't speak Polski or Afrikaans or Spanish? How intuitive do you have to be to recognize that when I visit an ATM, I usually withdraw $60? My bank already has this information. That they have the nerve to ask me these questions anyway is ignorant, irritating, and void of decent marketing skills. In an effort to be more efficient with their time, they are wasting ours. And they need to stop it. Now.

Just think - if this hyper-friendly interaction trend continues, it could get out of control, leading to things such as 'themed' ATMs:

The Comedy ATM
"Heeey, how you doin'? Hey, if one of our bankers pushes you, don't worry. They're just trying to check your balance!!! Hey, I'm here all week. Like I have a choice - I'm nailed to the ground here! Try the veal...and our new Certificate of Deposit!"

The Nagging ATM
"You never visit anymore. You must be using that ATM in the grocery store. What a tramp. I can't begin to tell you how often her buttons get pushed, if you know what I mean."

On the other hand, maybe they should just keep their day jobs.