Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Running Away and Back Again

It is beautiful outside today, too beautiful. Because it is a Wednesday, and because I am a grownup with a list of things I’m supposed to accomplish, I keep turning my head away from the raging glitterfest that’s going on outside my window.

A soft breeze has the jasmine leaves fluttering; two small butterflies hop and dart: this flower, no this one. Sunbeams keep swirling around on the quiet greenery—there’s all this distracting sparkling going on, and working at my desk seems a tragically leaden, light-deprived activity for such an ethereally lovely day. I would liken the feeling to the dread I face when having to do something quotidian and unavoidable: if milk and eggs and laundry soap are in short supply, for example, it means Off I go to the dull old supermarket; add to this that on days like today, doing so requires me to stare straight ahead and march past a jewelry store window full of emerald bracelets.

“I want to say, To Hell with it, let’s go to the beach,” I grumble into the phone.

“Yeah, it would be nice…” my husband says, distracted too. He’s not really listening to me, and I know this because he never normally uses neutral words like nice, okay, or fine. Never. Not unless he’s concurrently reading an email, sautĂ©ing tomatoes, or stretching out a tight hamstring. Right now, I would not be surprised if he were doing all three, in addition to talking to me.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“Just over here, making some lunch.” (Aha.)

I say goodbye and think about my own lunch for a moment. You know, I do need to eat something. I could easily take a little outdoor break, head for the patio with a cup of tea and a tomato sandwich. Yes! That’s what I’ll do. Perhaps I’ll put on a swimsuit top and get a little sun on my shoulders. I’ll need my straw hat, too, and the sunblock and big old glasses. Might as well read a page or two while I’m out there. And take my iPod, which needs charging, so I’ll do that while I make my sandwich and tea.

My desk, which also serves as my office and meditation room, is in the corner of our little living room and is hardly an austere environment: its surface is festooned with the boys’ art projects as well as several unstable stacks of mail, magazines, and paperwork, any one of which my boy Marley could send southward with the flick of a mischievous paw. And as I walk to the kitchen, feeling guilty once again, I turn and look at my dark little desk in its shady little spot, feigning, for no-one’s benefit but my own, a soupcon of concern for that which I am about to abandon for a while. I ought to feel the way a grownup is supposed to feel, which is to say, obligated. But I don’t want to. Not really. Not today.


In my house, now as always, the urge to flee for the open air kicks in around the same time every year. The breeze is still quite cool, but its bite is offset by the sun hitting a certain level in the sky with no clouds obscuring it. This results in a delicious contrast, something like having warm strawberry tart with a mound of cold whipped cream alongside it, or stretching out in a freshly-changed bed, feeling the pleasant snowflake-chill of sheets landing on your skin as a purring heat-bomb of a cat wedges himself against your ribcage. Take this intoxicating mix of sensual treats, throw in some visual lures like skittering sunbeams and fluttering leaves, garnish with a general sense of frustration with the here and now embodied in the growing To Do lists stacked up in my head like so many planes circling in the skies above Miami International, and here you go: one full-blown serving of Spring Fever, coming up.

When suffering a fit of pique, umbrage, or ennui—or, as author Ursula LeGuin called them, the French diseases of the soul—I usually like to lace up my trainers and run away from it all. I started doing this about a year ago, when the depression I’ve suffered on and off since my teenage years had taken especially fierce hold one evening. It had been a typical day of ups and downs with the boys, and if anyone were to ask me what was making me so sad right then, I doubt I could have answered him. To put it in general terms, I felt a non-specific, pervasive sense of doom. More pointedly, I wanted nothing more than to find a dark corner of the garage in which to curl up, and then I’d weep and wail until every foul, beastly demon, every terrifying image of rope or rooftop or fistful of pills, was purged once and for all.

So that is what I did. I got the children bathed and kissed them goodnight, and I went into the garage, more accurately known as the overflow storage room. I crawled behind a tower of Rubbermaid boxes and cried so hard, I thought my heart might explode. I didn’t feel better, so I kept on; I became a perpetual emotion machine of wailing and guttural sobs that gave way to raspiness and croaking as I lost my voice against the soaked knees of my jeans.

“Have you lost your mind?” my husband was demanding from the doorway. “What is wrong? What on earth is the matter?”

And I thought, I can’t begin to tell you. I can’t even begin. I said nothing and kept crying.

Because I couldn’t point to anything in particular that was wrong. It was as if each sad thought, each bittersweet memory, regretted moment, rued relationship, and heartbreaking loss residing in my mind suddenly joined hands and started inviting all the other bits of my brain to come to the wake. The sorrow was overwhelming, like a vicious flash flood, and I was completely caught up in its currents.

And this was not the first or even the fortieth time, alas.

“Listen. You need help. Either get a doctor, or get a lawyer.”

Tough love and tough words, neither of which I have ever responded to very well in my semi-long life. I stayed put, and eventually, I hauled my exhausted self back through the door and into the kitchen, where the light was still on, along with the dishwasher. At least there was that: a clean kitchen. And a sleeping family. I sat on the sofa and waited for my own slumber, but it never came.


The boys’ doctor had been telling me to exercise. “There’s nothing wrong with anti-depressants, Deborah; with the modern ones, you can even take them for a while just to get through this difficult phase,” he said. Difficult phase. To my mind, the whole thing, the entire “phase” known as Life in These Times struck me as difficult, to use a woefully weak adjective. “There aren’t as many negative side effects to them, and I think you ought to talk to your doctor about giving them a go.” He’s assuming I ever find time to make appointments for myself, much less keep them. “But try doing this,” he continued, “Go outdoors tomorrow and run for a little while. Or take a long walk. Do it four or five times a week.”

The day after the garage-crying incident, I pulled out a pair of running shoes I’d bought months earlier and to date had only worn when traveling (they don’t set off the metal detectors). I dug through one of my husband’s drawers and found a pair of long, voluminous nylon basketball shorts—there was no way I’d be seen dead in short-shorts, not while actually moving—and an old Rolling Stones t-shirt. I hid my house keys under some shrubbery and off I went. Two blocks later (and by block I mean four houses, tops), I folded over like a human paperclip and threw up in my neighbor’s front garden. This is supposed to make you feel better? I thought.

The next day, I gave it another try. I made it to the previous day’s Vomit Point, glanced around to see if there were any horrified faces peering through windows, any small children running in the opposite direction having been warned about the Scary Throw-up Girl in the baggy hip-hop outfit, and managed to run for two more blocks before the stabbing pain in my side grew unbearable. I walked to the half-mile point I’d ambitiously predetermined using my car’s odometer, and walked back. I had just traveled an entire mile by foot—four blocks of which I’d actually run—and there had been no vomiting whatsoever.

Nothing exceeds like excess.

“How’d you do today?” asked my husband.

“I made it past Holli’s old house and walked all the way to the bridge and back,” I said proudly. In order to have an idea of the sort of accomplishment this was (in my estimation anyway), please know this: I have never, ever been any good at any sport or physical activity whatsoever.

Ballet, modern dance, jazz…those are the things that have always moved me, so to speak. That’s what I loved, that’s all I loved: dancing and tree-climbing, both of which are nothing short of deliriously enjoyable; neither of which are doable when you live surrounded by palm trees and a non-dancing husband. If it requires running, swinging a bat, or ball-throwing, count me out, or do as my classmates always did: choose me last.

Eventually, I ran a whole mile. Then I ran up a monstrous cell-phone bill calling everyone I knew to brag about it. A few weeks after that, I ordered myself a little iPod and a neoprene armband. Then I learned how to download songs onto it, nice thumpy songs with rhythm that helped me keep moving. Songs that let my mind drift ever further from the dark weight I’d been clinging to like a boulder because even as I fell off the cliff and plummeted, holding on to something felt better, or at least, more familiar to me, than letting go and floating.


So instead of lying in the sun today, I run. Run first, then you can blow off everything else and not feel quite as guilty, I lie to myself, knowing I’ll never make it to the swimsuit drawer, much less the sunny patio; there aren’t enough hours in a day.

I set my iPod to a random mix, Serve me what symphonies you will, O Tiny Electronic Goddess, and I will run to them. I run past the bayou, breathing through my mouth because when the tide is low, it gets a bit smelly there. Guns-n-Roses welcomes me to the jungle as pelicans hover over the water; Public Enemy cheers me over the bridge; David Bowie whispers in my ear as other runners wave at me, pretending to care as I pretend to care in return (I mean, get back to me later, everyone—David Bowie is whispering in my ear!).

I imagine myself as the cleverest copywriter ever. In fact, I’ll email the running shoe company the minute I get home:

Dear Sirs,

Here is your new slogan: New Balance, for Your New Balance.
You’re Welcome.

Sincerely, Deborah

I love the random associations afforded by this selfish sliver of aloneness and indulgence, this interlude of actual running away from it all that has, I believe, saved my life.

What's best, though, is the joy—extraordinary in its ordinariness—that I feel when I'm outside in the light, in the world; I am moving my limbs, breathing the crisp air, and appreciating the gift of being alive. Later today, I won’t be quite as irritable when someone plasters peanut butter all over the countertop or throws a magazine at his brother or fumes about missing a favorite show because he has a project due tomorrow. When I return to my house after three or four miles, I’ll be better equipped to mount some sort of attack against the dragons and dustbunnies therein. And I’ll sit at my desk and draw new inspiration from the bouncing butterflies of distraction that meant no harm in the first place.

Friday, March 24, 2006

And the People, Recovering Their True Sight

At the end of a very interesting week during which we saw the President stand in front of colossal blue plastic panels boasting of his "Plan for Victory", even as improvised bombs continued to explode and further destroy the already-devastated country he illegally invaded; during which we learned that the Vice President demands his hotel rooms have their television sets pre-tuned to the network that, in an ongoing feat of irony to which it alone remains oblivious, contradicts its own slogan--"Fair and Balanced"--by broadcasting only that which the Administration approves; during which conservative, Oooh-look-at-my-Christian Values "writer" Ben Domenech was exposed as the thieving, talentless plagiarist he is, I thought it would be nice to wind things up with the inspiring thoughts of a former American President, one who was not without flaws or sins, but whose words carved some of the most exqusite contours of what would become the sculpture-in-progress that is our democracy:

"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter, 1798

(Hat tip to Queen Mum II for the excerpt from President Jefferson's letter)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I Heart Keith Olbermann

Did anyone catch MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann last night? NBC's Today Show yesterday morning featured an interview with broadcast personality Laura "I'm just as hot and edgy as Anne Coulter" Ingraham, who spewed some pretty jaw-dropping verbiage that insulted journalists in Iraq, NBC's journalists in particular. Ingraham accused these brave souls of reporting from their fancy hotel balconies and focusing on all the nasty bomby-things going off instead of venturing into Iraq proper and talking about what she apparently thinks is the real, rosy truth of the situation there: freshly-painted schools and newly-opened supermarkets.

Well, later in the day, Keith O. came out swinging:

A note about Laura Ingraham's comments. I've known her a long time. I'll in fact give you the caveat that I've known her socially. But that hotel balcony crack was unforgivable. In was unforgivable to the memory of David Blum, it was unforgivable in consideration of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vought, unforgivable in light of what happened to Michael Kelly and what happened to Michael Weiskopft. It was unforgivable with Jill Carroll still a hostage in Iraq. And it was not only unforgivable of her; it was desperate and it was stupid.

Crooks & Liars has the video.

My hero. *Sigh*.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Steal This (Nudge, Nudge):

I think all that Al needs is a little nudge. I'm going to show him some love with every email I send out:

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What's Subversive 'bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

My lovely younger sister, whom I’ll call Princess for her own protection (hey, you never know), teaches English at one of Florida’s public schools. She is a devoted mother herself, someone who, like me, looks at this country’s open-ended entanglement in the Middle East with great alarm. Neither of us can imagine what mothers of soldiers must go through when their children are put in harm’s way for any reason, much less for reasons that, as time goes by, are proving increasingly nefarious. That, in my opinion at least, have far more to do with oil, and the control thereof, than noble concepts like freedom and democracy.

In her email to me the other day, Princess told me about a recent meeting at her school during which a fellow teacher raised an objection about the language of the school’s mission statement. The offending word in question? Peaceful.

That’s right: Peaceful is the new Communist.

My sister wrote:

I was compelled to speak out on this travesty, this utter nonsense. When another colleague and I questioned, "How is that?" she responded that the offensive word somehow suggested "un-American".

Goodness. Who knew?

Or perhaps I am in good company...

"Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind...War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."
- John F. Kennedy

Being a bit of a word-wonk, I pulled out my trusty old OED and looked up the word peaceful, derived from peace, to see if it might have some lesser-known definitions attached to it, ones that might be construed as unpatriotic or subversive. I already knew it came from the Latin pacem (nom. pax). The adjective peaceful means ”Characterized by, belonging to a state of, peace.” (Sounds like a rather desirable state for a school, if you ask me). The noun itself, peace, means “Freedom from, cessation of, war; a treaty between two powers at war; freedom from civil disorder; quiet, tranquility; mental calm; in a state of friendliness, not at strife (with)."

I should add that my Oxford English Dictionary is a beautiful old hardcover version that I found in a used bookstore when I was in college; it was printed—and dedicated to its original recipient in fountain pen ink—in the year 1942, during which time World War II was raging on several fronts. Both of my grandfathers were fighting for Britain; my future father-in-law was in the U.S. Navy. All of them lived to see their grandchildren born in peaceful times. Were any of them alive today, I wonder what would they think of that Neocon teacher's perversion of the meaning of a cherished ideal—the labeling of the term “peaceful” as un-American. Especially since they all risked life and limb so their descendents might enjoy that ideal and, indeed, saw their own colleagues die in the process.

(Hat-tip to Princess for the story and the wonderful JFK quote).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Travels With My Angst

In 2001, I was among the planeloads of optimists who flew into Manhattan on commercial airlines shortly after September 11th. The airports had only just re-opened. Mine was to be a simple day trip from Tampa, a meeting-followed-by-lunch junket that I’d arranged in late August. I arrived at Tampa International shortly after 3:00 am, fully expecting a lengthy interrogation, if not a flat-out Spanish Inquisition.

“We have ways to make you tell us about the contents of that carryon bag…bring on…the comfy chair!”

Oh no, not...the COMFY CHAIR!

All I encountered, however, was a near-empty airport peopled with dozens of uniformed security personnel. There were approximately three such officials for every one passenger. They x-rayed my bag and waved me through the scanner, just as before. No-one said anything about my stiletto pumps, lethal on so many levels; no-one made me remove the chopsticks that were holding my hair in a fat bun (and as martial arts movie fans—as well as their mothers—will tell you, a swift chopstick-to-the-jugular move can take someone out very nicely, thank you).

No, it was smooth sailing, so to speak, all the way to the deserted Starbucks kiosk, where I spent the next three hours reading before boarding my plane.

Within minutes, a dark-haired, olive-skinned and muscular-looking man in a black jacket glanced around the cabin and sat down right next to me.

Bon jour, Madame,” he said, before launching into several sentences of rapid-fire French. He couldn’t have been talking to anyone else: there were only fifteen-or-so passengers on the Boeing 727, and the others were scattered throughout the cabin after having laid claim to entire banks of seats and stretched out to take advantage of the unprecedented luxury. The pleasant-sounding French seemed to be directed at me, and I wasn’t sure why—I wasn’t reading A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu or even Paris Vogue, nor were there croissant crumbs on my lapel (if I’m going to splurge my meager middle-age calorie allotment on a croissant, it bloody well won’t be one of those Starbucks cardboard imitation croissant-flavored products).

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well…” I was scrutinizing him now, having suddenly remembered all the French-speaking countries where Muslim extremists were said to be lurking.

“You’re English!” he said, in very good English. “Only we foreigners are flying right now. The Americans are too scared.”

“Aren’t you?” I said. “I am. A little bit. Worried, anyway.”

“It’s probably safer to fly now than ever before,” he declared. Then he promptly contradicted himself: “Yesterday, when I fly from Africa to Miami, I sit next to a Bin Laden.”

Really?” I said, not sure what to make of that bit of information. I looked at the man’s briefcase, a slightly worn and extremely beautiful Hermes. The engraved nametag read “___ Mercier”. Perhaps he was related to Laura, creator of one of my favorite lipsticks. I decided not to ask.

The engines began revving, and the plane wound its way around the runways until it reached the long stretch used for speeding up and taking off. As is my habit, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. Call me a hypocrite, call me a fox-hole convert; I won’t mind. For in my case, years of childhood Catholic school indoctrination were followed by a couple of grades’ worth of Mennonite Missionary dogma which, in turn, was replaced with a bout of college atheism that later, when I felt my first son’s first embryonic kicks, morphed into a grudging, if vague, belief system involving an unnamed but benevolent and (probably) genderless Creator with limitless patience and no small sense of humor. And the magical thinking encouraged by this Church for One dictates that during the takeoff process, I must always ask God to bless the pilot and deliver us safely to our destination. So I did, and still do, despite the likelihood that every doomed flight in the history of aviation surely had at least one such favor-requesting believer, or quasi-believer, on board.

The flight was uneventful, as they say. Viewed from thousands of feet in the air, the smoldering World Trade Center’s remains were surreal and horrific. Everyone on board gathered on one side of the aircraft; no-one said a word. We just looked and looked, stunned by the enormity of the devastation.

Later that day, I flew home and unpacked my tote bag. There, beneath the notebook and files, lay my trusty Swiss Army knife. I had completely forgotten about it, and it had escaped the notice of not one but two gauntlets of security experts—most disturbingly, that of Newark Airport, the departure point of one of the doomed 9/11 flights.


I recently purchased a new Swiss Army knife—the sixth one in four years. Having them taken away (and, I’m certain, sold en masse by some entrepreneurial eBay merchant) is as predictable as it is annoying. Everyone I know travels with the little red-enameled gems; they come in handy for all manner of travel emergencies: zip-tied suitcase zippers (“This is to notify you that your luggage was opened and searched by TSA personnel…”) that need to be snipped open; wine bottles that need uncorking; eyebrows you forgot to tweeze before leaving; magazine pictures that need to be cut out for collage projects that are due the day of your return and that someone was supposed to finish last week, but didn’t.

I always forget to put the damned pocket knife in my checked luggage, and the TSA goons find it in my handbag and confiscate it about 50% of the time.

Sometimes they make me take off my shoes and shuffle barefoot through the scanning machine; sometimes they let me keep my dignity—mine are not the prettiest feet in the world, though looking around me at airports, I often wonder whose are? More often than not, and more often than I think is fair, the officials pull me aside for what some of them call Additional Scrutiny. I haven’t been asked to strip completely, but I have had to remove everything except my jeans and camisole and endure lots of patting and prodding. This begs the question, Are blonde, fortysomething English mothers suddenly being recruited to hijack planes? Did I miss a memo or something?

“They think you’re a Terrorist’s Bitch,” said my husband after having to wait while I submitted to yet another Additional Scrutiny session. “They watch all those Bruce Willis movies where the guy with the bomb gets helped out by his tall blonde girlfriend in leather and boots.” He pointed to my beloved motorcycle jacket and spike-heels.

“I always get cold, and besides, if I try to squash this jacket into the checked bag it gets all creased and nasty,” I sniffed.

“I’m just saying…”

“It’s ridiculous,” I countered, my caffeinated self-righteousness now fully awake. “They’re wasting time they should be spending looking for the real evildoers. I’m the biggest pussycat in the world; hell, I don’t even eat hamburgers,” I said, logically distancing myself from the probably-carnivorous terrorist bastards who, I was certain, practiced their knife skills on big slabs of red meat.

“No, darling, you’re ridiculous. It’s all part of traveling now; get used to it.”


We’re flying to Los Angeles for the boys’ Spring Break. The plan, insofar as we have any plan, is to stay in the city and make sorties to outlying hamlets like Fontana, where my husband will oversee the loading of plants he has purchased onto climate-controlled tractor-trailers, and Carlsbad, home of the fabled Lego Land.

“When we get there, we’re going to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking.

“No, my love. When we get there, we’re going to the car rental place,” I tell him.

Then we go to Lego Land?”

“Then we go to the hotel.”

“And then…”

“And then, the hotel bar. Followed by THE COMFY CHAIR!

Would that it were that easy. When we arrive in L.A., it’s only 9:30 am, thanks to the miracle of time zones. The boys are hungry. The rental agency’s shuttle bus is nowhere to be seen. Finally, it chugs toward us, and though it’s as tightly-packed as a rush hour subway car, we somehow manage to fit three boys, their parents, their nanny Jade, and six massive suitcases on board.

“The computers are down,” said the young, uniformed man standing outside the sliding doors. “It might take a while.”

When people in L.A. tell you something might take a while, you must listen to them. It’s not for nothing that the nickname La-la land has stuck: Type-A Manhattan-born souls like my husband cannot believe how laid-back and, well, relaxed the pace is here. Today, a while translates to over two hours as the line of people seems stalled in front of us even as it grows visibly behind us, spilling out into the parking lot and toward the street. Eventually, though, we get our vehicles and make tracks toward the hotel, a refurbished Mid-century building on Sunset Boulevard.

Despite the now-late afternoon hour, the rooms aren’t ready. “It might take a while; we can store your luggage, and if you like, you can sit outside, you know, have some lunch and cocktails….”

We like.


Apparently, driving south to Carlsbad on a Monday would be a bad idea. Everyone—well, everyone to whom my husband has spoken, at least—says the freeway traffic on Monday is Pure Murder. Fair enough.

“Today we go to Lego Land?”

“Uh, no sweetheart…today we, um, go shopping. New sneakers for everyone!” I say brightly.

The Puma Store in Santa Monica is great fun, but Lego Land it most certainly isn’t. All the same, Sons One and Two find great shoes and pretty girls with whom to flirt; Son Three chooses a pair of royal blue suede sneakers that are heartbreakingly cute. Jade snaps up a wonderful retro-styled racing jacket. Even I, a woman who regularly promises They’ll bury me in my high heels, am enjoying walking around in a new pair of extremely cool-looking sneakers with Velcro closures that remind me of the boys’ multi-colored toddler shoes, only considerably larger.

On Tuesday, we pile into our politically incorrect rental-SUV and head for Lego Land. The southern California sky is Windex-blue, as always, and there’s a gorgeous breeze. Of course, the traffic is breathtakingly dreadful, in every sense of the phrase, and by the third hour, the three adults are more than a little weary of answering the same questions over and over.

“Yes, we’re almost there.”

“Yes, Lego Land is in California.”

Finally, we take the Carlsbad exit, cheering wildly, and turn into the amusement park’s flowery driveway. There are two steel gates in front of us, and there is a sign on one of them.

The park is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

No. NOOOOOOO! I close my eyes and picture the colorful Lego Land Website I’d visited when we first discussed this trip.

“There was nothing on the site about the park being closed…” I say.

“No way. No way. This isn’t for real…" said Son One.

“What was that National Lampoon Vacation movie, you know, the one with Chevy Chase?” I ask.

“Fucking Wally World,” the husband is grumbling. Everyone else is either crying or swearing. We are not exactly a laid-back, accepting kind of family.

Quick…think….what to do, what to do….

I dial Jo, also known as Tart, who lives nearby and whom we’d planned to meet for dinner post-Lego Land.

“Jo…Hi! It’s Deborah. We’re outside the gate at Lego Land, and the place is closed. It’s unbelievable; I mean, who ever heard of an amusement park being closed for two days, and in the middle of Spring Break…”

“Oh no! I’ve never heard of that, either. That’s terrible,” she says, as the din behind me grows.

“It’s like that National Lampoon movie…”

“…Wally World!” Jo/Tart says, laughing.

“Wait, didn’t they bribe the park owner to open the place?” I say, gesturing toward my husband’s pocket.

“No,” say my husband and Jo simultaneously.

“The Chevy Chase character pulled a gun on the guy…” remarks my husband.

The crying and screaming is now deafening. “Well,” I say, “Are you packing, darling? I mean, of all times to be caught unarmed.”

Finally, we decide to visit the San Diego Zoo instead; Lego Land will happen later in the week, sans our Patient Patriarch.


One panda, two crocodiles, and several orangutans later, we meet Jo for dinner in a part of San Diego known as Little Italy. As soon as we open the doors of the SUV, we’re feeling much better: the sun is setting behind the harbor and the scent of garlic floats on a light breeze. Heaven.

“Tomorrow we go to Lego Land?” Son Three is asking me between mouthfuls of pasta.

“We’ll go to Lego Land, pumpkin. I promise. But it might take a while.”

Tart and Litbrit share stories and sauteed eggplant.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

There's Got To Be A Morning After

Wal-Mart, those loveable builders of cozy little shops that house real, honest-to-goodness Mom-'n-Pop-style pharmacies (if your Mom and Pop were the sort whose idea of birth control was an aspirin held between the knees, that is) have announced an interesting reversal of their emergency contraception ban.

They're now going to sell it (bolds mine):

The announcement comes after Massachusetts last month ordered the world's largest retailer to stock the so-called Plan B pill, following a lawsuit by three Boston women against Wal-Mart.

Illinois also requires pharmacies to carry the prescription drug, and those are the only two states where Wal-Mart has so far stocked emergency contraception.

"We expect more states to require us to sell emergency contraceptives in the months ahead," said Ron Chomiuk, vice president of pharmacy for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart.

"Because of this, and the fact that this is an FDA-approved product, we feel it is difficult to justify being the country's only major pharmacy chain not selling it," Chomiuk said in a statement.

It's about the money, as always. Still, it's a bit of good news for women who live in areas where Wal-mart is literally the only game in town.

I used to live in such a place, and although I absolutely hated doing it, I bought many a packet of diapers at Wal-Mart after the Publix supermarket, like the used bookstore, the tiny fabric shop, and the vitamin outlet before it, closed its doors and left our little hamlet with nowhere to buy essentials. Nowhere nearby, at least. And when the spate (covey?) of hurricanes sent us into hiding back in 2004 and we were forced to spend an awful lot of time indoors with only enough generator power to run the refrigerator, a handful of lights, and the DVD player, Wal-Mart was the go-to place for the family-friendly-yet-still-tolerable-by-adults Mike Meyers movies that got us through.

Weird, isn't it: just when you think the Almighty Dollar has hammered its last nail into the lid of optimism's coffin, it turns around and redeems itself, if only ever so slightly. I keep hearing Wall Street's Gordon Gecko: Greed is good....greed is good.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Adverb is Dead; Long Live the Adjective!

A quick, one-question quiz: which of the following statements was uttered by a college-educated and internationally famous newsperson on a network television show?

“You did good!”

“The hot weather kind of snuck up on us.”

“People are debating whether the United States should have went to Iraq.”

Correct answer: all the above. (And yes, I am quoting from memory, but the trauma wrought by these dreadfully ungrammatical statements—ones that were made by people who should not only know better, but also recognize their responsibility to be good examples—has rendered me unable to recall exactly who said them, and when. Very well, the first one was Katie Couric speaking…)

And while we’re talking about English grammar, can anyone tell me what’s going on with the adverb? Lately, it seems the adjective has been creeping ever closer to the verb in what can only be described as a nasty, aggressive manner; its nefarious intent, obviously, is to completely displace, if not outright murder, a useful and descriptive part of speech.

Drive slow
Think quick!
The economy is real good right now.

No-one likes a smartie-pants. How many times did I hear that growing up? For most of my life, I’ve felt the need to apologize for speaking properly—or, at least, striving to—as if using good grammar and having a healthy respect for what is, arguably, the most richly variegated, broadly expressive, and flat-out beautiful language in human history is a bad thing. As if an appreciation for English and its amazing ability to remain steeped in tradition while still throwing open its muscular arms to embrace fresh, new words as regularly as fresh, new objects and ideas are conceived, is the hallmark of a nerdy word-wonk. Or worse, a snob.

Listen: it’s entirely possible to play by the rules and still understand, and use, colloquial and slang phrases, which I consider the growth hormones of the English language. As humans invent, discover, and ponder things that heretofore had not crossed the linguistic radar (radar! Now there’s a perfect example…), we’re compelled to come up with something to call those things. A new word is born, then its use becomes widespread, and in due time, Webster's and the OED come knocking.

Awwww…isn’t she adorable? So perfect, so unique—I’ve never heard one like it!

No, I’m all for new words, new phrases, and new ways of putting them together—if, and only if, the old way isn’t working any more, or if the new way injects a sentence with meaning or power beyond the reach of the former word, phrase, or arrangement.

Some of my favorite “new” words and terms:

Pimp my ride

Talk to the hand

Trash, used as a transitive verb: “That article completely trashed the Governor.”

Where do you get off? (Which, as opposed to inquiring about train stations, is simply a fresh way of declaring How dare you?)

Way, used as an adverb in place of “so” or “extremely”: “I am way sick of your pedantic, arrogant posturing, Deborah. Where do you get off?”

I confess: I harbor much fondness for new words and phrases that spring forth unabated from the exciting, energetic population segment that advertisers like to call “youth”, “immigrant”, and “urban”. I’ll also admit (or cop) to a deep-seated loathing for business-speak and marketing jargon. Illogical perhaps, and biased, I know; but all the same, I have to salute the originality of the former—a new word or phrase, or a new use for the same, arises when no appropriate alternative exists—and stick my tongue out at the mind-numbing corporate-sponsored (and, therefore, government-adopted) oversimplifications of the latter.

Some example of cringe-inducing business-speak:


Impact used as a verb: “How will the high unemployment rate impact the voters’ decisions?

Fun used as an adjective: “That was a fun convention!”

Reset, used as a noun: “You can’t find the rosemary shampoo because we did a reset on that shelf when all the herbal products were discontinued.”


What I most dislike about these words is their pretentious way of replacing perfectly good English words—words that were doing just fine, thank you—with ones that would seem to exclude, either unwittingly or knowingly, those who might not be part of the corporate world. Why, for example, would you resort to using impact as a verb when you can choose from the far superior (and often more specific) affect, influence, disturb, improve, or transform?

Whereas the other sort of new words, the ones with youth/immigrant/urban roots that I do like, are inclusive, illustrative, witty, and indispensable. I mean, what long-existing English phrase packs the wallop of Talk to the hand while also conveying the speaker’s utter indifference toward, and disdain for, his target, and offering a splendid visual to boot? Was there, is there, a better way to say stugats, which is an Italian-American corruption of the Italian words stunatta and cazzo that literally means stupid dick?

Returning to my original complaint, though, in matters of language, I think we really ought to learn the rules before bending them for fun and profit. And we should consider declaring certain territories—I’m thinking about news stories, both broadcast and print, as well as lessons, legal briefs, and complicated instructions for complex electronics—off-limits to million-dollar language-manglers, if for no other reasons than to set good examples for us all and reduce the frustration levels of my fellow word-wonks and Luddites.

After all, some of the current trends in communication, if followed to their logical conclusion, would have us winding up where we started as cavemen: pointing and grunting. Point-and-grunt…point-and-grunt…point-and-click.

Oh dear.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Summer's Evening on the Potomac

This weekend we were having one of those glorious, adults-only dinners, Mr. Litbrit and I, and somehow the conversation wandered into the area of health care—specifically, the outrageous cost thereof and the increasingly paltry benefits provided to those who can even afford it in the first place.

litbrit: They don’t cover this; they don’t cover that….

Mr. L: Yeah, so what else is new?

litbrit: They tell your doctor what medicines he should be prescribing based on what deals they’ve made with pharmaceutical companies! And if you want the actual medicine your doctor prescribed, you have to pay for it out of pocket. And then they have the nerve to send us bills for massive bloody premiums that keep going up...

Mr. L: And your point, my darling?

litbrit (bristling): My point is that this is bullshit. This is the United States. The only developed country in the world in which the government doesn’t provide its citizens with basic health care. I mean, you’re completely on your own here. And a lot of the time, ordinary, working families can’t afford insurance, so their kids don’t get shots, or they don’t get taken to the doctor ever, and then they get desperately sick and have to go to the Emergency Room at the nearest hospital, who by law must treat the child regardless…and the cost of that gets passed on to those who are insured, and use the ER or hospital, in terms of the ridiculous charges for anything and everything that get billed to the insurance companies. You know, the famous forty-dollar aspirin thing…they have to make the difference up somewhere, or they can’t keep their doors open. And of course, the insurance companies, in turn, charge higher rates to families like ours, who in turn are less and less able to afford insurance at all.

Mr. L: All true. And?

I’ll leave our dinner conversation for a moment. Let’s go back in time a little…all the way back to 2004. During his campaign, President Bush made all manner of promises to America. He led his supporters to believe that small businesses would realize a reduction in the cost of providing health care coverage for their employees. At a September ’04 rally in Wisconsin, he said:

In a time of change we must do more to make sure quality health care is available and affordable. More than one-half of the uninsured in America are small business employees. Many small businesses are having trouble affording health care. In a new term, we must allow small firms to join together to purchase insurance at the discounts big companies get.

Last night I proposed new steps to encourage small businesses and employees and low-income Americans to set up health savings accounts.


What I'm telling you is, there are ways to hold down costs, ways to help small businesses, ways to make sure people have got insurance. And we have got a plan to do that.

And we have got a plan to do that. Ah yes, the man with a plan. Again. Don’t you love it? Hey, how’s that plan working for you, America?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who base their data on figures supplied directly by the Census Bureau, the number of uninsured Americans continued to rise in 2004. Here are a few more unsettling figures (bolds mine):

…The percentage of working adults (18 to 64) who were uninsured climbed from 18.6 percent in 2003 to 19.0 percent in 2004 (an increase of over 750,000 people in 2004).


Lack of insurance was much more common among those with low incomes. Some 24.3 percent of people with incomes below $25,000 were uninsured, almost triple the rate of 8.4 percent for people with incomes over $75,000


Private employment-based health insurance coverage fell again in 2004, for the fifth successive year. The share of Americans with job-based coverage stood at 59.8 percent in 2004, significantly less than the share in 2003 (60.4 percent) and in 2000 (63.6 percent). Over the years, the primary cause for the decline in job-based health insurance has been escalating health care costs, which has led some employers to stop offering coverage and many others to shift more costs to employees, making it more difficult for low- and moderate-income workers to afford insurance for themselves or their families.

We’re all paying taxes. Oh yes. Meanwhile, we’re pounding our chests about what a great country this is—and in many ways, America is great, in all senses of the adjective. But people can’t afford to go to the doctor, military veterans are seeing their benefits slashed, fixed-income seniors—like the lady in front of me at the Target pharmacy last week—have to pay $75 out-of-pocket for crucial antibiotics not covered by Medicare or risk keeling over from a bronchial infection…none of this strikes me as particularly great.

Back to our dinner conversation:

litbrit: What it amounts to is taxation without representation. I mean, what is more basic, more vital to human health, than being able to get the medicine you need when you’re sick? That elderly lady at the pharmacy peeling dollar bill after dollar bill off a stack she probably had hidden away for emergencies, and now she's down to's so fucking wrong.

Mr. L: Taxation without representation. Interesting.

litbrit: Didn’t you guys protest that, once? In Boston? Our King was charging big taxes on tea, but the colonies weren’t getting anything out of the deal—no sugar, no love, no nothing….

Mr. L: It was called the Boston Tea Party. Some ballsy guys climbed onto the cargo ships and dumped all the tea they were carrying into Boston Harbor. Tons and tons of it. It made a pretty strong statement, since everyone including me remembers it hundreds of years later.

litbrit: We need a to do something similar today, you know, to protest the fact that we’re paying taxes yet we’re still the only developed nation without universal health care. It’s ridiculous. We need a health care tea party. Yes! We need to think up a symbolic thing that people could throw into the Potomac, say, in protest of this travesty. Like tons of syringes, maybe.

Mr. L: What, make DC look like Jersey?

litbrit: What could we throw…hmmmm…I wonder what would say, “This administration doesn’t represent ordinary Americans and won’t address our health care crisis, so take this!"

Mr. L: I’ve got it! Douchebags! We organize the Washington Douchebag Party of 2006, get thousands of Americans to throw the things into the Potomac. A media event! Think about it: a douchebag is the perfect symbol because it’s a health-care item, and it also represents the people who should have dealt with this crisis long ago.

litbrit: I love it.