Friday, April 25, 2008

"Stubbirds" (our backyard territorial warriors)

I’ve been fighting a battle. My opponents are steadfast and determined. They are beyond stubborn—the nickname I’ve assigned them does not do them justice. Their exact genus and species are insignificant. They are nondescript birds, drab little sparrows or finches or something or other, and they want to make a home in the eave of our back patio roof.

So far, we’ve been equally determined to fend them off. Todd and I have unapologetically removed their earnest home-building efforts a total of four times. Four. We’ve watched them watching us, twigs in their mouths, flashing us with the evil eye. And each time, under their baleful gaze, we’ve torn down their lovingly constructed nest.

Lest you judge us as nature haters, let me explain. Last year, some house finches built a cozy little spot in the same location. And we, sympathetic and charmed by their innocence and tweetness, permitted the intrusion. It was cute, it was dear, they hatched their little family and fed them and nurtured them and eventually the hatchlings flew away. BUT.

What remained after the coop had been flown was a nasty little microscopic creature called the bird mite. Hateful, tiny, biting, itching beast. We couldn’t shake them. We washed the patio furniture, washed it again, went from cool to warm to boiling hot water when scrubbing the cushions—all to no avail. Finally, the situation came to a standoff: any furniture item with a hard surface was bleached; anything softer was grudgingly packed in garbage bags, left out on collection morning, and replaced with new cushions. It was quite a maddening experience.

And I won’t suffer that defeat a second time. Cozy nests be damned; there are trees all around, perfectly sound, safe, stable locations for bird homes. They can just as well build there—and leave their horrific mites there as well.

So far, so good—after the fourth teardown, we’ve gone a full 24 hours without an attempted rebuild. I remain ever watchful, broom in hand. They won’t win this round. Not while I’m on guard.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My pride and shame

I keep trying to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with the world today.

I mean, there are a lot of things right with the world; I’m not saying the whole place is shot. The people, though… there’s something not right with many of them. They’re not bad, mostly, not mean, not terrible people by any means. But fundamentally, I feel divided from a lot of folks, and not just from the younger generations.

And I think I’ve figured out why. A lot of people nowadays have turned pride and shame into bad words. Negative words. And that doesn’t feel right to me.

Pride can be bad, when it rules you, when it causes you to be unwise in the interest of defending it. Yes, it goeth before a fall—I believe that. And shame can be an evil force, especially when used as a tool to keep people in bondage of all sorts. But of themselves, pride and shame are not really bad. They may even be good.

Think about it. Pride has likely saved you from yourself and your own human weakness at some point in your life; it’s certainly saved me. Pride forced me to keep commitments even when I was tired and fed up. Hating that activity or club? Finish the season—you don’t want people to think you’re a quitter. Going home from your job in tears every night? Stick with it; it’ll get easier. (It did.) Pride was what kept me in line many times—who wants to be a laughingstock when you get caught? Taking some pride in myself caused me to consider consequences, to think ahead and weigh options instead of just responding in emotion.

And shame? Oh, shame. It saved me many times—the mere thought of the shame I’d feel if I did or didn’t do something was often sufficient to deter me from stupid decisions. I still made plenty of judgmental blunders, mind you—I’m simply saying that the fear of shame kept me from many more. What motivated me for years to find and keep work, thus supporting myself? Why, the shame I’d feel if I didn’t. What motivated me to try to live within my means? Because I’d be ashamed if I had to admit that I hadn’t done that and had gotten myself into serious trouble. What kept me from acting even more foolish in college than I did? From wearing some of the most horrific fashions over the years? From being even more stupid in relationships than I was? That’s right, shame. I still had my shame; therefore, I had to make decisions that, in theory at least, allowed for its survival.

Nowadays? Pride and shame are curse words. Pride has been lost in a sea of men and women who have no pride in self. There is no pride today in keeping a budget, in saving money for something, in prudence and self-control. Now, you can buy the latest gadget on credit, and then live like a hog and get your stomach stapled when a gimmicky diet doesn’t take care of the problem. The fellow who works hard all his life to make a comfortable living is no longer respected; he’s a fool because he didn’t do it quick and dirty. And shame? What shame? Have you looked at the way people are living? There’s no shame in overspending—just file for bankruptcy. Bought too much house for your money? It’s okay—foreclosures are up anyway, so what’s the big deal? Those people shouldn’t have lent that money anyway, so it’s their fault. They should know not to tempt those poor helpless buyers. Why are so many more twenty-somethings (and even some thirty-somethings) living at home, jobless? “Well, my friends are, too—there aren’t any jobs that pay enough to survive, you know.” That’s true, if survival means existing in the same fashion as people twice your age.

I’m sure you can think of your own examples. We could easily craft an entire series of articles on the plethora of government programs that are exploited daily for easy money. And what frees people to do such a thing? Lack of shame, or lack of pride—or a paucity of both. They sort of go hand in hand, now that I think about it; if someone doesn’t take pride in himself or herself, it’s quite likely that he or she doesn’t have much shame either.

That seems to be at the root of a lot of problems with the world. The very character strengths that built this country are becoming more and more scarce. I shudder at the thought of our future; from what I’ve seen, successful and self-sufficient cultures cannot be constructed on a foundation of laziness, self-indulgence, and impatience. Absence of pride and shame are the cause; the general deterioration you see around you is the effect.

Boy, what a downer this was. Sorry. I’m sounding more and more like an old person every day. I’ll work on a happy springtime post next—promise.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law

Recently I stepped into a realm that I try to avoid: the criminal realm.

I forgot to get the car inspected.

It just sneaked up on me. There I was, driving carefully and cautiously, using turn signals faithfully, even congratulating myself on the fact that both vehicles were legally registered with PennDOT for another year. And irksomely, out of nowhere, a thought leapt into my mind: inspected? Hmmmmm.

By the time I’d come to a permanent stop and stepped out of the car, the thought was gone. I never glanced at that stupid little sticker on the windshield. When I did remember to check, a few days later, a horrified gasp escaped me. Yep—expired. Not just expired: a couple of days expired.

I called the dealership in a panic, told them my sad, scatterbrained story. They were untouched; they’d heard it before, I’m certain. They had no openings for a week. But, but, I have to drive places! We need food! We need to go to church! We need to tour the preschool on Monday!!! Couldn’t you…? No, they couldn’t. Thursday was the day.

I took the appointment and said a prayer that the police wouldn’t notice my very basic, beige-ish little sedan scooting unlawfully around the area. We cancelled some unnecessary trips, continued on the local jaunts that couldn’t be avoided, and to make a long story short, we made it. I wasn’t stopped during that week, and the car passed inspection on the designated day.

But the brief foray into lawlessness reminded me that, quite frankly, I’m not cut out for this lifestyle. I’m a pansy, a wimp, a coward. I do not have the personality to dwell outside of the established boundaries of legality. I don’t mind not fitting in, and I’ve long grown accustomed to being unstylish. Although I occasionally yearn for some of the current electronic gadgetry, I’ll also readily admit that to me, Bluetooth sounds like a horrible dental condition.

And yet…I am not comfortable being outside of the law. I fear the men in blue. I know they’re my friends, UNLESS. And when I’m functioning in the “unless” state, I cower and cringe and glance over my shoulder. My week or so of being uninspected brought back every other time I’ve been outside of the law. And don’t try to tell me you don’t know what I mean. Come on, now. You can think of some experiences you’ve had when you weren’t playing by the book, either.

The whole week, every time we set foot in that car, my heart beat with trepidation. Every siren or flashing light caused a little quake in my soul. I was uneasy. I felt guilty; I felt like a scofflaw.

So, next year, I’ll try to be more on top of things. Because it’s the responsible thing to do, of course—but mostly because I’m not cut out to be a criminal. It’s downright unbecoming on anyone, and especially so in the mirror.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reality check

Driving along a local highway, Saturday morning. On my way to run an errand. Traveling a little over the speed limit, listening to the radio, checking the clock, enjoying the sunshine. Without warning, a police car ahead, on the shoulder, lights flashing. Great, a speed check. I’ll probably get a ticket, since there aren’t many people out yet—slim pickins increases my chances. Nice.

But no. The cop doesn’t budge. He’s just sitting there in his cruiser, watching the cars in his rearview, undoubtedly noticing the distinct decrease in speed that comes as soon as each driver spots him. And then I notice that from the cop car onward, there are flares. Lit flares. And more police cars, a handful of them. And a fire truck.

And a wrecked car.

The car is a PT Cruiser convertible. It’s literally crumpled into an embankment along the road. The car is on its side, and thankfully there’s no sign of a driver or passenger. But I can see that the roof was down when it wrecked. I can see it’s in pretty bad shape. And I can also see, now that I’m passing the destroyed vehicle, that there is an ambulance at this scene. An ambulance that, while sitting along the roadside with lights revolving, does not appear to be in a hurry to go anywhere.

That’s not a good sign.

And in that second, I’m reminded of the tenuous filament that holds our souls to this little revolving rock. One minute, someone was joy-riding, wind in his hair, no cares. And now? Who knows. The stationary paramedic vehicle isn’t filling me with much hope.

Then, I am past. The open road stretches before me once again; accident and flashing lights and rescue personnel are left behind to pick up the pieces—perhaps of broken headlights and mirrors, perhaps of a life lost. I leave the scene, but not the moment. I slow down a tad; I turn the radio off. The image of that ruined car and the ambulance sitting still remains with me like a distant wail: bearable because it is not mine, but impossible to ignore.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ads that inspire...a chill

The world of advertising is slick and misleading anyway, but there are a few products and services whose ad campaigns really creep me out.

Abercrombie and Fitch: This one’s a no-brainer. The company’s been cited in the past for their inappropriate picture advertisements, almost all of which border on child porn. And they’re not just selling clothes to “aspirational men and women” (quoting the site here)—they’re selling to children (see What are they selling? Clothes? Then why, on either site, are the clothes barely visible or entirely missing? Does that make sense? This is the image being impressed upon our kids: a precocious, seductive sexiness that is entirely inappropriate for the age being targeted. Frankly, it’s inappropriate for any public campaign. This company makes a lot of others who used to be questionable suddenly look tasteful.

Every prescription drug company that has ever advertised on TV or in a full-page magazine ad: I’ve already hit on this topic on an earlier post, so I won’t flog the dead horse here. Just remember how much money these companies make the next time your doctor starts touting the benefits of the newest version of something to save your life. How interested is this drug company in your health? Are they perhaps more interested in your pocketbook, or (gold mine!) your insurance company?

Botox injections: How many of you have witnessed this same toothy dame on television, repeatedly flashing pearly whites at the camera while “Express Yourself” plays in the background? Did anyone else notice her fruitless attempts to wrinkle her brow? Does any other viewer feel slightly ill when viewing her ageless but plastic face? What are we encouraging here?

Aestique Medical Centers, a local plastic surgery company: Okay, this is a more local ad blast. But I see the billboard on my way home all the time and it just irks me beyond belief. A woman— obviously no longer dewy, but redone, redistributed, and stretched in such a way so as to disguise this—is dancing with what appears to be a much older gent in a rather lurid fashion. And the caption? “Waste it again.” Youth, of course. Nice message.

Bebe: I don’t know much about this company, which appears to sell revealing women’s clothing, but the impression I’ve received from their splashy ads in bus kiosks is “Tramps R Us.”

I could go on and on. I won’t. Perhaps you have a few that stick in your craw? Do tell.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Surviving a birthday

We celebrated on Saturday. The rescheduled party went off without any major hitches, or at least that was my impression. Candles were spat upon, cake was eaten, presents were torn open…and the kid had a blast.

The funniest moment was the cake. This is the first year Marcus has given a hoot about cake; the first year he wouldn’t touch it, the second year he wouldn’t touch it, and now? He’s discovered how wonderful it is. But the cake itself wasn’t the funny part: it was his befuddled expression as he stood on a chair, sampling some icing, taking in our off-key happy birthday serenade. He was a bit uneasy—excited but concerned, happy but not quite comfortable with the whole center-of-attention thing.

It brought home to me the fact that we adults tend to dramatize events to the point of excess sometimes. I had started to build up the party a bit much, and then the whole fever/postponement occurred, and we sort of dropped the subject so as not to make him terribly upset about the delay. Honestly, he didn’t mind; he barely mentioned the fact that the party hadn’t happened, even though he’d talked about it and he had seemed to be anticipating it. His dad and I were more disappointed than he was. (Mostly, I was bummed because this meant the duplication of cleaning tasks that I’d thought were complete for awhile…)

But the new party date loomed, and I couldn’t help bringing it up again, several times. It took me until the day before the rescheduled affair to discern his party skittishness. I finally came out and asked him, “Do you want to have a birthday party?” And his answer, in a clear little voice, was surprising but not terribly so: “No, not really.” I had to stop everything and explain that no party meant no big cake, no presents, no fun visits from family. That changed his mind some, we talked more, and finally he was saying, “Yes, I do want to. I do.”

But his uncertainty was evident again, if for just a moment, as he contemplated the cake, the crowd, the song, the fact that it was all for him. And then, he got over it. He ate some cake, scurried away to lay low, played with his new loot. The big solo minute was over, and now he could simply luxuriate in the benefits of temporary stardom: a sugar high and new toys.

I’ll have to remember not to talk so much about upcoming milestones, changes, big deals. There must be at least a little bit of me in that kid—I recognized that expression on his face, and I’ll remember next time that less information isn’t always a bad thing.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A few working observations

Some freelance work came my way recently, which was a nice change of pace. Actually earning money for work is also nice (wink, wink). It reminded me how much I miss defined assignments, and schedules, and paychecks…and it also reminded me how spoiled I have become.

Suddenly, I had to really plan every commitment. I had to skip an activity to meet the deadline. I had to hurry to the computer as soon as the kid was sleeping so I could get busy. One day was rather lovely, and I couldn’t go outside to drink it in. I worked for an hour and, for the first time in a long time, I experienced that old shoulder stiffness and soreness that used to be part of my daily existence. I wondered why my backside ached and why I felt so sluggish, then recalled that I’d sat on that body part for far longer than normal.

I was newly aware of the joys of a more flexible schedule. I was newly short of breath at the thought of sinking back into the life-sucking world of The Office. I was newly cognizant that a huge number of people spend their days sitting and frowning at a pretty little box, arms poised awkwardly and painfully before them, fingers hovering over a little tray of numbers and letters.

I remembered, again, how odd is this world we’ve created for ourselves, where physical suffering and injury is often caused not by hard labor, but by lack of it.

That’s all for now.