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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Day I Defeated Peer Pressure

In third grade, my school began our lengthy D.A.R.E. (Drug Awareness and Something-that-starts-with-R Education, or something equally as catchy) program. We spent hours in class learning about drugs. Mostly cigarettes (because to us naive 8 year olds, cigarettes were by far the worst drug in existence). We learned how they can give you lung cancer, and how the smoke can be harmful to other people. In my mind, that translated to "only bad people smoke cigarettes."

We also learned about Peer Pressure. This terrified me. To me, this was something that didn't happen until high school - but it was an inevitable horror I was doomed to face. Nameless high school bullies would corner me in the massive, yet deserted hallways between classes, and they would force drugs upon me. Because, to me, drugs were cigarettes, this meant these bullies (usually boys with long, scraggly pony tails and ominous black t-shirts, in my visions) would be literally trying to force cigarettes into my mouth and lighting them, and I would have no choice but to smoke it, or risk never breathing again (as I couldn't logically breathe without smoking if a cigarette were being held to my mouth).

After learning of the dangers lurking in those thin, white tubes, we were sent home with a survey sheet and instructed to ask both our parents the questions, so we could come back to class the next day and discuss the realities of drug abuse in our personal lives. The survey included a few memorable questions, including: "Do you smoke cigarettes?" "Did you ever smoke cigarettes?" "Were you ever negatively affected by Peer Pressure?"

I, being the very straight-arrow, goody-two-shoes little girl that I was, was beyond eager to go home and question my parents on these most intimate details of their youth and early adulthood (it didn't occur to me that my parents could have actually smoked before they were 18, seeing as how that would have been illegal).

I questioned my mom first. But I had the upper-hand through our interrogation, as I knew already that my mom had smoked. She'd told me before that she smoked until she got pregnant with my older brother, and then she'd quit.

Smugly, I asked her, "So, Mom. Have you ever smoked before?"

She calmly gave me her feeble story of knowing the dangers of smoking and quitting when she knew she would be putting her child's health at risk. I wrote down her answers with a feeling of superiority. Clearly, I had never smoked, so I viewed myself as better than her in a way - Peer Pressure hadn't gotten to me. Oh, my poor, simple mother and her misguided cigarette smoking ways. She just wasn't strong enough to stand up to Peer Pressure! (I learned later in life that, more than likely, my mom was the one who pressured her friends to smoke - in high school, nonetheless - as she was a bit of a rebel. She staged walk-outs at college, was out there burning her bra with the best of them, and actually smoked things other than just cigarettes; though, fortunately, our survey didn't ask that, as I believe my innocent little school girl head might have exploded at that prospect.) The rest of her answers were insignificant to me. I already had all the information I needed. My mother had been a smoker.

I waited with such eager anticipation for my dad to come home that night. Finally, after dinner, I got my chance to interview him. Approaching the questions with true curiosity and no bias whatsoever, I asked him the first question, "Dad, have you ever smoked cigarettes?"

"No," was his clear and simple answer.

I was stunned. My father. Had never smoked a cigarette.

"Never?!" I screeched incredulously. "Not a single cigarette? Not even a cigar??"

"No," he said smiling, proud of his lungs' clean bill of health and the studiousness of his youth.

In light of this revelation, my father became a super hero in my mind. He had never smoked anything. In. His. Life. He was invincible. He had stared Peer Pressure in its cold, dead eyes, and he had come out victorious. Nothing could stop him. He was... My Dad.

At that moment, I made a promise to myself. No matter how great the Pressures offered by my Peers, no matter my age, location, or situation, I would not smoke cigarettes (or anything else, for that matter). If My Dad could do it, surely I could, too. I would build on the strength I had inherited from him to say "no" to Peer Pressure, and my lungs, too, would remain smoke free for all time. Together, we were an unstoppable force of Peer Pressure negation.

Years later, while working at a t-shirt printing store in the local mall, my worst fears came to fruition. I worked with a boy around my age who, ironically, had a long, scraggly pony tail, and frequently wore black t-shirts. One day, he told me he was going out for a smoke break. I expected him to be gone shortly after informing me of this, but when I turned around, I noticed he was still there.

"Why don't you come with me? You could borrow a smoke from me." Oh, Peer Pressure, you sly beast, you. Taking on the form of Austin's body, just to try and press your evil wears upon me. Knowing this with the pinnacle of my D.A.R.E. training, I looked him straight in the eyes and, squinting ever so slightly against the glare of his dark temptation, I stated, "I don't smoke."

"What? Sure you do. Everybody smokes. Come on." Trying your best, I see, Peer Pressure. Well it won't work on me!

"No, I don't. I never have. I'm not going to start now." Taking out the big guns now.

And to my absolute surprise (but surely, somewhere in my subconscious, I knew this day would come - I'd dreamt about it since the third grade), Austin actually stepped closer to me, and literally tried to shove a cigarette into my mouth.

I pushed him away, and, in the process, broke his cigarette. He told me I'd have to buy him a new one, and I just laughed at him. Poor, defeated Peer Pressure. One last attempt to get me on your side, but it won't work. I will not contribute to that filthy practice. Austin left to go on his smoke break without further incident.

A year or two later, one evening, when I was home with My Dad, he made some snide, joking comment about me being a "bad kid," implying that he believed I smoked and drank (thus further propagating the wrongly assumed belief that so many people have of me as a pot head). I laughed and informed him that, not only did I not drink, but I had never, not even once in my entire life, smoked anything. All because of that D.A.R.E. survey in third grade, and My Dad's unique ability to defeat Peer Pressure. "No, Dad, I've never smoked anything, because I wanted to grow up and be like you - and you told me in third grade that you'd never smoked. Anything."

My father got a surprised look on his face. "I told you that?" He said while starting to chuckle. "Well, that was a lie."

The sound of your known world crashing around you can truly be defined as a "deafening silence." The room stood still as everything I'd ever known, the very principles upon which I'd based my entire life's ethic shattered with those simple words: "that was a lie." I couldn't breathe. How could he have lied? He was My Dad! He was a super hero! Together we could defeat Peer Pressure! And yet, it had all been an innocent lie to guide a third grader on the right path through life.

That part of the lie, at least, succeeded. And quite well. As of that moment, I was determined to rebuild my life's principles. So everything had been a lie. I had still conquered Peer Pressure, even without My Dad at my side. He may have lied, but I'd inherited the strength and will power, nonetheless. I could continue our saga even in his absence. I made a new vow to myself that I would never smoke anything, not even once, in my entire life, so that when my own children were in third grade and came home with a D.A.R.E. questionnaire about cigarettes and smoking, I could tell them in all honesty that I had, in fact, not ever, not even one little time, ever in my life smoked anything.

I could feel the super powers begin to flush through my veins.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Brother Doesn't Keep His Promises

I am about five years older than my younger brother. Because of the age difference, we never really fought, but we also didn't have much in common. He, like my older brother, is a very intelligent person, but he has a few social quirks. I'm not sure if it's a result of being so much younger than Brian and I, or if maybe something we did contributed to it (we used to like to throw a blanket over his head and pretend to hold it down over him. Evidently, he was claustrophobic, so we wouldn't actually have to hold it down, and he would just lie in a lump under it and scream. In retrospect, I think we were terrible older siblings), but for whatever reason, he's always been a very independent, relatively quiet person.

He, much like me, suffers from being a "stupid smart person." I once asked him what month was the 8th month (he was at least in junior high at this point), and he not only couldn't tell me off the top of his head, but he had no idea that months had corresponding numbers with which to identify them. He was, however, currently reading Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." After talking on the phone to someone, if asked what they said immediately upon hanging up, he couldn't tell you if his life depended on it. But he can build a computer from scratch.

He's also always been a very contemplative person. When he was just two years old, he would sit quietly in a chair in a room by himself and think. If you asked what he was doing, he'd calmly reply, "just thinking of something."

Because of his known thoughtful demeanor, it was especially disconcerting one day when he was three years old, sitting calmly and thinking by himself, and turned to me and said, "When I'm 21, I'm going to get an ax and cut your head off."

We hadn't been arguing or fighting (and I don't think we'd started the blanket-torture game yet), and he had stated his intentions so matter-of-factly, I got chills. I remember running to my mom and screaming, "Brett said he's going to cut my head off with an ax!!"

My poor mother sighed. "Where is he going to get an ax? Does he have one now? If not, you're probably safe." I explained that he said he would do it when he was 21 (most likely, he figured he'd have to be 21 - a legal adult - before he could purchase his own head-cutting-off ax; he really had put a lot of thought into this) and she brushed off my urgency, "Well then, you've got a few years left."

My mother might not have been concerned about the future of her children, but she hadn't seen the completely calm, sane, rational look in his eyes when he made his fateful promise. He'd thought out the logistics, and his plan had been set in place. At the innocent young age of three, he set our destinies in stone.

Over the years, I thought on and off about this incident (more off than on), and occasionally counted down the years I had left to live. I didn't really believe he was going to get an ax and cut my head off, but the thought did frequently resurface, just to remind me of its existence.

A year and a half ago, when I was planning a gigantic Thanksgiving feast at our house, a terrifying realization dawned on me. Brett would not only be attending our festivities, but he would be celebrating his 21st birthday just six days prior. I tried to push the thought out of my mind, reassuring myself that he had not only not meant what he said, but surely he'd forgotten it nearly 17 years later. But I hadn't.

I told Husband about my fears. He laughed at me (in retrospect, the logical reaction to have), and told me I was being ridiculous. Of course Brett had forgotten. Such a sympathetic man I married.

We had 17 adults and two kids at our Thanksgiving-fest-o-rama. I figured this was the best protection possible. Even if Brett had remembered, and had been serious, it would be hard to get me alone to cut my head off. He clearly wasn't insane enough to cut my head off in front of 15 other people. Plus, he'd had to fly into town - an ax was blatantly not going to make it through TSA security (he'd only brought carry-on luggage). I made sure we didn't have a ax lying anywhere around our house, and double checked to ensure the neighbors' garages were all closed, in the unlucky scenario that they had axes stowed away.

Thanksgiving evening, after everyone was full of delicious food and drink, and we were sitting around playing Mexican Train Dominoes, my fearless protector thought it would be an appropriate time to reminisce.

"Hey Brett!" Husband called out. "Do you remember telling Laura you were going to get an ax and cut her head off when you were 21?" Brett, maintaining his composure, laughed and simply said, "no."

After recollecting for him the story of his calm 3-year old coolness as he swore to be the purveyor of my demise, we all had a good laugh. Brett claimed not to remember the incident and found it especially humorous that I'd been mildly concerned about his threat for the past 17 years. A good performance, for sure.

The weekend ended without head-chopping-off incident. I saw Brett again once during that year, but didn't bring up the ax-promise, and managed to keep my head secured to my neck through the visit.

When his birthday rolled around again last November, I breathed a sigh of relief. Brett was no longer 21. I was free! He hadn't cut my head off with an ax (not that I ever really thought he would, right?). In my state of jubilation, I excitedly told Husband the good news - my life was no longer at risk!!

Husband greeted my enthusiasm with his infuriating logic, "Yeah, unless he just meant at least 21 years old. Since he didn't specify that it would happen 'during his 21st year,' he feasibly could have meant any time after he turned 21. Guess you're not safe after all."

Why You Shouldn't Smuggle Drugs Into Norway

The year after I graduated from college, I got a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Germany, working as a teaching assistant in English at a German high school. I lived in Göttingen, a small town in central Germany. Whenever my skills as a bilingual dictionary weren't being abused by the school (they must have missed the "assistant" part of my job title), I tried to travel as much as possible. This often led to a week of near-starvation at the end of every month, as the US State Department grossly underestimates how much monthly bills as a TA in Germany add up to be, but for me, the choice was usually an easy one. Who wouldn't rather see amazing new cities than eat?

When a group of my friends scattered around Germany (not all were Fulbrights) found round-trip plane tickets to Oslo for 22€ (around $30 at the time), we jumped at the chance. I saved up as much money as I could in preparation (about $100), and eagerly counted down the days until our journey.

The day before our flight left, we all met up in Berlin. Our flight was out of the capital city, and some of the people going with us were lucky enough to be living there. As I've told you before, I used to live in Berlin, so I was thrilled to go back "home" for the day. I met up with my friends who lived there, we walked around town (because that's what you do in Berlin), ate some pizza, and then went to one of their friend's apartments, where everyone smoked a lot of pot. Except me. Because I don't smoke pot. But that is actually a very good story for another time. People have always told me they're very surprised when they learn that I don't smoke pot (and never have). I'm never quite sure how to interpret that...

The next morning, the group of us heading to Oslo woke up bright and early (and hungover), to head to one of Berlin's three airports. The excitement of the impending trip helped with our headaches (I do drink - well, at least I used to, before the whole "having children" phase of life), and by the time we were on the plane, everyone was in great spirits. We were going to Oslo! That's in NORWAY!!

The plane landed after a surprisingly short flight (Europe is really small if you spent your childhood road-tripping across the US). Because we were a group of nerds, we were all very excited about the possibility of getting our passports stamped; Norway is, after all, not part of the European Union. We deplaned and got in line, eager to show the important man behind the glass our passports. We talked eagerly amongst ourselves until it was our turn. We all approached at once, spilling our enthusiasm all over the passport man, who, in turn, didn't really care that we were coming in to his country, and didn't stamp our passports.

Mildly disappointed, but determined not to let that minor glitch get to us, we followed the line out of the customs area of the airport, which led through these giant glass doors and into the unsecured area. A woman a short distance in front of us had an adorable cocker spaniel that was holding up the line. An airport official was with them and pulled the dog out of the line. Before long, we were walking past them ourselves. One of the girls in our group bent down to pet the adorable, friendly family pet. She stood up just in time to be briskly whisked away by 7-foot tall Blond Giants into a secret door behind the hallway we were currently walking down. The rest of us froze in horror as the dog greeted us in his friendly way and the airport official told us gruffly to keep walking.

Before I had any idea what was happening, we were on the other side of the big glass doors, minus one member of our party.

"What the hell happened to Jill??" I tried to keep my voice from exploding into a scream (by the way, her name is clearly not Jill).

"She had pot on her," I was calmly and quietly informed. Panic began to set over the rest of our group as we stood like lost and confused sheep, directly on the other side of the big glass doors. It didn't take long for the giant blond people to approach us and tell us to "move along." We tried to inquire after our comrade, but all they would say was that she had been arrested.

As the recently deplaned crowed thinned out, we realized we were not the only group nervously pacing and waiting on a kidnapped party. A group of Middle Eastern-looking men were next to us looking just as nervous. It quickly became an unspoken competition to see whose abductee would be the first to show. We lost.

We moved away from the doors, but continued to mill around aimlessly. After waiting close to 45 minutes, another Middle Eastern-looking young man came through the doors, and the other party perked up instantly. They shot us victoriously smug glances as they walked away to Norwegian freedom. Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, Jill emerged. Escorted by one of the extremely tall, perfectly white-haired Norwegian Blond Giant police officers. He quietly informed her that she could have a word with us. She walked over to us and we erupted into a bombardment of questions.

"What's going on?" "Are you going to jail?" "You had pot on you?" "That COCKER SPANIEL was a DRUG DOG?!" "Who the hell makes a cocker spaniel a drug dog?!" "It didn't even occur to us that a cocker spaniel could be a drug dog!" "Did YOU know a cocker spaniel could be a drug dog?" "Are you okay?" "What the hell are we going to do?"

Jill managed to keep her cool (although she was clearly shaken as well). She informed us that they were not going to make her go down to the police station. She had been officially arrested, and would have to pay a fine, but she would be released to go with us - in just a few hours. She told us we could go on to the hotel, but we decided, after all the trauma we'd already been through, it would be best to stick together as much as possible. The Blond Giant approached us from behind, and, in his hilarious Norwegian accent informed us that, "Iht was tihme to go bahck." First he escorted her to a near-by ATM, then walked her back through the big glass doors. He wouldn't let her say anything else to us. We stood in slightly calmed desperation, watching our adorable little friend being dragged back to Blond Giant airport prison.

We spent the next two hours getting to know the airport and writing prison letters to our dear friend in lock-up. While waiting, we had another terrible realization: Norway is insanely expensive. We had to share airport food, because we couldn't afford to each eat our own meal. It was the start to a very thrifty four day vacation, which included switching from our decent hotel to a not-so-decent hostel, walking through miles of very cold snow (our visit was in early January - no wonder tickets were only $30!), and eating at gas stations to try and save money, where even the gas station attendants speak English ("Hof course, Ih speahk Henglish").

Finally, our Jill was released to us. She came out through the giant glass doors, once again, but this time without her perfect aryan escort. We sat on a bench outside the airport trying to recover from the terror and fear we'd all just endured (Jill more than any of us) for the last three+ hours. After ensuring Jill was doing better and feeling okay (she even laughed at our prison love-letters), one of the other girls in the group got a sly grin on her face.

"Don't worry, Jill. It'll be okay," she said, quietly, through the conspiratory grin. "They didn't catch me." She pat her bag.

I was shocked. I stared in absolute disbelief. There is no way TWO people in our group attempted to smuggle illegal drugs across countries - especially going from an EU country to a non-EU country, where we were sure to have to go through customs. And yet... here we were. Maybe it's just because I don't smoke pot, but I was starting to question the ability of my friends to make appropriate critical thinking decisions.

Finally, we set out on our way to our (expensive) hotel (that we could only afford to stay in for one night). As soon as we were there, my friends "partook" in the illegal substance they were able to bring along. My disbelief had started to wear off (after all, I have spent a good deal of time with people who do smoke regularly - maybe that's why people are always surprised to learn I don't...) And then, Jill blew my mind (and I wasn't even the high one, people!!).

She confessed to us that this was not the first time she'd smuggled marijuana illegally into another country. In fact, she'd done it just a few weeks before. When she went to ISTANBUL. In TURKEY. Where they probably would have thrown her in jail for a few years (if she was lucky), had she'd been caught. Although now, in retrospect of our afternoon, Jill was lamenting her foolishness and expressing her intense gratitude at being caught this time, in civilized and polite Norway, rather than terrifying and outrageously-strict-on-drug-smugglers Turkey.

The rest of our trip was significantly less eventful and overall very enjoyable. Albeit very cold. Oslo is a beautiful city (even in several inches of packed snow), and we had a great time seeing authentic Viking ships from the 800's, Munch's "The Scream," trying to find Bunny Island, tracking down the tallest person we could find (he turned out to be a German baker who was well over 7 feet tall - we figured he must have moved to Norway to finally live somewhere where he could fit through all the doorways), seeing giant Norwegian fishing boats, shopping at authentic Norwegian butchers (with real stuffed reindeer in the window), watching all the beautiful Blond Giants at their annual equivalent of the Oscars, talking in our best (terrible) Norwegian accents, and tromping through the snow.

And of course, smoking a little grass.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Day I Realized My Boss Was a Serial Killer

I used to work for a wireless company's network. As part of my job requirements, I had to make sure all the individual buildings underneath each cell phone tower were up to the company's safety and environmental codes, as well as conduct inventory on every piece of equipment at every site. This probably would have been a terrible job in a lot of places in the country, but we were based out of El Paso, with our region extending through western Texas and the southern half of New Mexico - so many of our towers were on top of big, gorgeous desert mountains with absolutely amazing views. However, this meant that, for many of the sites, I had to get a ride with my boss, as my company vehicle was just a small SUV, not capable of going up the very steep, rocky mountain sides like the big trucks could.

I got along with my boss fairly well. We had drastically different life views, but as long as we didn't talk about the big three (well, two, really, as money was never a very interesting topic of discussion, anyway - he had quite a bit of it, and I didn't, and beyond that, it was pretty boring to discuss), we usually passed the hours in the truck, driving across the southwestern desert, rather enjoyably.

My boss, I'll call him Jim for this story's sake, was one of the most unlucky people I've ever met. He had a terrible habit of being in the wrong place at the exact wrong time. When he was younger, he had been a police officer in several different states, so he had a decent amount of medical emergency training and was good at handling crisis situations - which was a good skill to have, considering his terrible luck.

Shortly after I started working for him, Jim was the first person to come across a terrible accident just outside the city limits. If you've ever been to El Paso, you know that the city kind of ends abruptly and the desert takes over - and there are few, if any, street lights or marked street signs once you leave town. He was driving home one night (he lived in suburb of El Paso, but knew shortcuts across desert roads, because our towers were everywhere, and we probably knew the layout of the city and desert roads better than anyone in the town), and he was the first person to arrive at the accident. A drunk driver had hit a car full of local college students and then fled the scene. Jim jumped out to start assessing the situation while they waited for the police and emergency services to arrive. One girl was very badly injured, and he recognized this. He sat down in the dirt and tried to talk calmly to her, reassuring her that she would be okay, and knowing that she wouldn't.

He didn't talk much about the accident after it happened, except to say how much it had disturbed him. Even after the years of being a cop, a gruesome car accident could still get to him.

And that was just the beginning. Over the months that I knew and worked with him, more and more terrible things kept happening around him. His best friend from high school (who lived in another state) was diagnosed with cancer, and had a freak allergic reaction to one of the medications they gave her, and she ended up dying. He accidentally ran over and killed two dogs on the busy street right outside his neighborhood. His truck was stolen from a parking lot, but was fortunately recovered right before the thieves could get it over the border into Mexico. He walked into a gas station just moments after it had been held up, only to find a man having a heart attack. He quickly jumped into action, and managed to keep the man breathing until paramedics arrived. He later went to visit the man as he was recovering in the hospital, only for the man to have a stroke minutes before he got to the room to visit him.

At first, I was skeptical of the truth of all these things. It seemed so crazy that he was so often the first person at the scene of the accident. But, because I spent a decent amount of time driving in the company vehicle with him, I became witness to his terrible luck first hand.

One day, as we were driving to a cell site in a town north of El Paso, we came across a terrible accident in the middle of the highway, just south of the town. As was Jim's luck, we were one of the first cars at the scene. A drunken man in a motorized wheelchair had been trying to cross the highway - and a young 17 year old girl, driving her boyfriend's mother's car, had accidentally hit him, going about 50 miles an hour. Somehow, the man was still alive. Jim jumped out right away and began trying to stabilize the man until the paramedics arrived. I stood back and watched in horror. It was truly a terrible scene, and I'm not sure whether or not the man ended up living or dying (he was taken away in the ambulance alive, though).

Another day, while driving on the interstate through El Paso, an SUV full of drunk young men hit us. They tore off the driver's side mirror, but, fortunately, caused little other damage. We watched the SUV play pin ball through the traffic in front of us, hitting nearly every car it tried to pass. We called the police, and they informed us that they had too many other things going on at the moment and couldn't send a single one of their 30 on-duty patrol cars to stop the drunk driver flying down the city's interstate. Thankfully, they managed not to kill anyone.

But Jim's bad luck streak just wouldn't quit. He had previously been a youth pastor at his church in the suburb of town, but had recently quit for personal reasons. However, he kept in contact with many of his students, as he had developed caring relationships with them. One day, one of the girls from his youth group (who was only 16) was hospitalized after her boyfriend brutally beat and raped her when she refused consensual sex. Later, he informed me that she had died due to the extensive trauma to her brain.

On top of everything else, he was in the middle of a very ugly divorce. His wife made a claim to the police that he had hit her, and she got a restraining order against him. Then she proceeded to torture him with it, repeatedly calling the police to say he'd violated the restraining order, or making anonymous calls at 3am that he was throwing loud parties and giving underage kids alcohol, or that he had weapons in the home (a violation of the restraining order), which gave them the right to repeatedly search his house.

I listened in horror to all these terrible things that happened to and around him. Although some of them were hard to believe (or too terrible to believe), knowing that these sorts of things did have a habit of happening to him, and that he really did just have terrible luck, I took him at his word and oftentimes felt sorry for him.

One morning, he had a court appointment first thing, and would be coming in to work a few hours late. We had a tour of the office scheduled for a group of the company's sales associates who wanted to learn more about the network side of things, and he had promised he'd be in to the office on time, so I wouldn't have to stumble my way awkwardly through the tour. Fifteen minutes before they were scheduled to be there, I started to get a little nervous, so I sent him a text, asking if he was still planning on being there on time.

"Got pulled over. Think I can still make it," he replied.

I sat at my desk, anxiously tapping my foot and hoping the group wouldn't arrive early. I had no idea how to entertain them, and my limited knowledge of how things worked (inventory, mostly) was surely not the exciting network tour they were anticipating.

Unfortunately, the group beat Jim to the office by about two minutes. I asked them if they could take a seat in the conference room and wait a moment for him to get there. I assured them the tour would be much more enjoyable with him as a tour guide, instead of me.

I rushed back to my desk and was about to text Jim again, to let him know they had arrived, when he burst through the warehouse door, wiping his arm with a towel. But not just any towel. This towel looked like it had blood on it.

He came over to me and said, "Get me a roll of paper towels and bring it out to my car." "But the tour group -" I started. His icy glare told me to drop it and just get the paper towels.

I met him back out as his car, handed him the paper towels, and as I watched him clean up what looked like blood splatters from the door frame of his car, I noticed that his arms didn't have any cuts. Using my extensive powers of deductive reasoning, I realized, this was likely not his blood.

"What happened?!" I asked, but he ignored the question, walked past me, and went into the building to give the tour, as if it were nothing usual at all.

After the tour group left, he sat me down in the conference room to explain. He said he had been pulled over by the cop, right in front of a school zone near the office. While the cop had his truck pulled over on the shoulder, a teenager from the school had darted out in front of his truck, clearly without looking both ways first, and had run into the street, only to be hit by a passing car that hadn't been able to see around the pulled over cop car and big truck. Because of his training, Jim stepped right in with the cop to give emergency attention to the young boy as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. He said the boy wasn't hurt too badly, and the cop was so thankful for the extra set of hands, he let Jim go with just a verbal warning.

A few days later, we were back in Jim's truck, driving across the desert to another cell site. Things were going along pleasantly enough, when he asked me to reach into the back seat and get a binder of papers we needed to do the inventory. I lifted up the binder, and underneath it, there was a big red stain on the seat cushion - right next to a mostly empty bottle of red food coloring.

My mind froze. I literally went cold all over as the truth spread down my body and into my appendages. I could feel the cold, tingly dread of realization as it leaked into every inch of my being. If your heart really can stand still, mine surely did in that moment.

"What are you doing?" Jim's calm, normal-person voice cut through me. I must have still been leaning back into the seat behind me, too frozen in my realization-terror to move.

"You spilled red food coloring on the seat!" I blurted out before I could stop myself.

For a split second, I saw the dark cloud cross Jim's eyes. But he regained his sane-person persona and calmly explained, "oh yeah, I bought some cake supplies to help some of my kids [youth group students] bake a cake the other day. I forgot to make sure the cap was on that one all the way before I threw it back there! There's a green one back there, too, somewhere." As if that made his story believable. I looked back, and, sure enough, there was a green bottle of food coloring, too. Except that it was in a cup holder, and it had never been opened.

"Oh! That's awfully nice of you." I said, too easily. Surely real me, the belligerent me he's known all these months wouldn't have just accepted such a weak story at face-value. He HAD to know I suspected something. I quickly tried to change the subject, just to show him how believable his story was. "So, another hot day in the desert, huh?" I joked.

After I feebly convinced him of my lack of suspicion and he got talking about something or other, I had a moment to think. Convinced he could see through my weak agreeableness, I just knew he was going to drive us further out into the desert (even though we were pretty far into deserted isolation as it was) and murder me. This must be what he does with all his victims. And really, the area couldn't be more perfect for it. With endless miles upon miles of uninhabitable desert, with a truck big enough to off-road through it, the southwestern desert really does provide a perfect, hidden-in-clear-sight graveyard.

But some how, miraculously, he didn't murder me. Not then, and, so far, not yet. When we got back to civilization, and I got back to the comfort and security of my own home, I began to think back on all his stories of bad luck. I didn't get a newspaper in El Paso, but they still have newspaper archives online. I quickly set out on a massive search to find evidence of any of his past claims of disaster. If the high school boy was made up, were the others, as well?

The more I thought about it, the more of an idiot I felt like. Surely, if four local college students had been in a drunk driving accident and one of them died, it would have made local, if not national news. And yet, no word anywhere. If an underage girl was raped and murdered by her of-age boyfriend, that would have obviously made the news. In a town where someone's apartment catching on fire makes the nightly news, logically, I would have heard about a gas station being held up at gun-point, resulting in a man having a heart attack and ultimately dying of a stroke in the hospital, wouldn't I? I didn't get the local paper, but I wasn't living isolated in a cave, either.

I didn't sleep that entire night. I was too terrified to go into work the next day. But maybe he really did believe that I believed his feeble story about cake decorating? He did think I was kind of an idiot, after all. Whenever he started talking about something that I either didn't care about or really disagreed with but didn't have the energy to argue, I simply agreed and said, "oh, that's interesting." (I've found that to be a very useful survival technique in many situations, actually - there are probably a lot of people who think I'm either very naive or very gullible and kind of stupid, simply because I don't have the energy to argue reality most of the time.) Maybe I had somehow managed to win back his trust! Maybe I wasn't going to be murdered and have my body left for the coyotes in the middle of the desert! Nevertheless, I told Husband (who was deployed in Iraq through all of this), that if I suddenly disappeared, Jim had murdered me, and my body was somewhere in the desert. Husband didn't think this was overly funny, but I didn't really think it was entirely a joke, either.

To this day, I'm still a little frightened of Jim. I actually have occasional nightmares about him just showing up at the house. Although once I got over all the lies and just accepted that he was most likely a habitual liar, I still really rather liked him and got along with him pretty well. It also made being sympathetic toward him much easier - I no longer had to exert any actual energy into feeling bad about the terrible situations he wasn't really ever in. But just in case he reads this and realizes I knew all along and just pretended to go along with his lies, if I suddenly disappear, you'll all know who to investigate first.

The Day I Almost Died

Most people I know have had their wisdom teeth removed, usually without much incident. But when a friend asks me how bad it really is, I usually tell them to settle their debts and say their good-byes to loved ones. I thought I was joking, but since Husband has been studying to become a PA, he's actually learned that I was frighteningly close to not surviving the Great Wisdom Tooth Disaster of 2001.

I had my wisdom teeth removed the day after I graduated from high school. All four were impacted and had started to bully my other teeth into breaking formation. Needless to say, they had to go - I didn't suffer through years of a palate expander, braces, and retainers just for some rogue wisdom teeth to destroy all that hard work. The actual removal was uneventful, aside from being the first and only time in my life I've been under general anesthetic. I remember waking up in the recovery room, my mouth stuffed full of cotton, and seeing the nurses tending to the girl next to me. Sure, she might have finished before me, but I was suddenly awake and needed attention.

I struggled to alert the nurses to my desires - namely, to get the mattress out of my mouth. They looked over at me, but clearly misread the urgency in my eyes and muffled attempts at pleading to be the standard waking-up noises of someone coming out of general anesthetic. After another agonizing five minutes, they finally came over to tend to me.

Leaving the clinic, I felt like I was capable of anything. They explained basic care and rest procedures for the up-coming days, and I nodded knowingly, as if to show I was making detailed mental notes of their instructions, and would have no problems complying exactly. In reality, I was so proud of myself for being able to act like I was paying such close attention and so minimally affected by the anesthesia that all my mental efforts went to congratulating myself on my astounding feat of trickery. I was an all-powerful goddess on ether. When it was time to leave, I stood up to stroll out (again, full of pride at my togetherness), but they forced me to sit in a wheelchair, against my super-human wishes. Unfortunately, they didn't put the foot rests down, and I spent the entire ride out to the car, focusing all my strength and energy into keeping my feet from dragging on the ground. A perfectly with-it person would have no trouble keeping their feet up, so I decided this was a vital part to my performance, accompanied by appropriate smiles, laughs, and idle joking. Looking back, I imagine I most likely looked more like a hopeless drunk, fidgeting awkwardly in the wheelchair and struggling to stay seated in it in general, laughing and nodding to the sounds in my head, and most likely drooling a little down the front of my shirt.

I got in to the passenger seat and instructed my mom to go through a drive-thru and get me a vanilla shake - I did manage to at least hear that part of the nurses' instructions - I needed to eat something in order to take all the pain meds they had given me. On our way, I reclined my seat all the way back (while mumbling incoherently to my mom about my amazing, new-found goddess powers) and dozed off. I woke up suddenly while we were in the drive-thru lane and realized I couldn't see. I started screaming at my mom that I'd gone blind (so much for super-human abilities!). She calmly told me to sit up - and, upon looking out the window, I realized I was not, in fact, blind, but had merely been staring at the inside of the door. Ahh, a simple mistake for us super-humans.

When we got home, I took the pain meds I had been prescribed, drank two sips of the giant shake, and promptly passed out. I continued this routine (with a progressively soggier shake) for at least a day and a half. And then the fun began.

Earlier in high school, I had been diagnosed with mild stomach ulcers. I probably should have told the oral surgeons this. Or at least drank the entire milk shake when I took the pain meds. Instead, I thought I was still a super-human. Oh, how very wrong I was. I started a cycle of dry-heaving for 20 minutes, vomiting for 5 minutes, and then sobbing hysterically for 5 minutes before starting the cycle over. This continued for approximately an entire day.

My parents brought my an empty gallon bucket of ice cream so I could vomit in bed, at my convenience (who wouldn't rather throw up in the comforts of their own bed?) . Needless to say, I couldn't keep the pain meds (or any sort of nutrition) down. I spent those terrible 24 hours in bed, sobbing, and wailing about how I just wanted to die.

Then, after an entire day of this, the pain started to overwhelm me. I actually got to the point where I couldn't cry, the pain was so bad. I moved to the couch downstairs and I remember staring at the ceiling for hours on end, knowing this was the end for me.

Finally, my mom came home and realized something was wrong (my parents have always been very good at picking up on small signals). She took me to the emergency room, where they decided that my ulcers were not agreeing with the very strong pain meds, and instructed her to take me back to the clinic. When we arrived at the clinic, people started rushing around urgently and talking quickly. This was the first time it dawned on me that my experience was not, in fact, the norm. They rushed me back to an exam room, took a bunch of x-rays, and continued talking quickly in hushed voices around me.

Then the surgeon came in. With an army of nurses. They positioned themselves around me and explained that I had obtained the dreaded "dry sockets." In all four of the holes (evidently, the rogue wisdom teeth just had to pull one more stunt before they left me for good). The doctor informed me that the bone was now infected. In all four holes. And that the infection was spreading down my jaw. They were "thankful" that I'd come in when I did. Then they proceeded to give me twelve shots of novocaine and pack the sockets with these very long ribbons full of antibiotics and anesthetics, that tasted, like one of the nurses said, like sucking on a mouthful of cloves. If you've never sucked on a whole clove, I suggest doing it. Really. Go try it. It tastes awesome.

The relief was instantaneous. I went home, happy and with a renewed view on life. At the advice of one of the nurses, I made myself a big glass of chocolate milk (to combat the clove taste), put it to my numb lips, and started drinking it's delicious chocolately milkiness. But I couldn't taste it! Oh, how far the super-human have fallen!! I tried for several more seconds until I realized my younger brother was laughing at me. As he pointed out, I wasn't, in fact, drinking the chocolate milk, I was pouring it down my shirt. I couldn't feel my mouth for about 16 hours after the novocaine shots.

I had to get my sockets re-packed every week for the following four weeks. To this day, I still can't handle the smell of cloves. I also couldn't take any more pain meds - even plain tylenol -because of the stomach ulcers that resurfaced when attacked by the very strong pain meds and lack of any sustenance for over 3 days.

A (very small) part of me thinks it's a shame that I didn't succumb to the poison death spreading through my bones, as it could have impacted all of oral surgery history forever - "How risky is it to get my wisdom teeth out, doc?" "You could DIE." It makes the whole process seem much more glamorous.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Night I Met a Nocturnal Squirrel

I lived in Berlin, Germany for a year-ish when I was in college. It was probably the most fun year of my life, and I not only learned fluent German (which had evaded me for the previous 6 years of German classes), but I made some amazing, life-long friends, and learned that I could handle living in a massive city by myself, including navigating any sort of public transportation. I feel like I had a huge advantage in life by learning how to use public transportation in Berlin. I'm sure other cities have much bigger systems, but I doubt many are too much more complicated, as Berlin was divided between two countries for 46 years - during the major development and planning of much of their public transportation system. When the country was reunited, the two conflicting systems merged together in a confusing, overlapping, spiderweb of German efficiency.

There are two different types of city trains - the actual S-Bahn (or city train) and the U-Bahn (subway), but both go under and above ground, seemingly without regard for the other system. There are Strassenbahns (street cars) in the East only. Then they have the most confusing bus system that runs sporadically throughout the entire city. I once had a native Berliner tell me not to use the bus system unless you were comfortable getting out and walking from anywhere in the city after the driver passed the last stop on the regular route and drove miles out of the way "due to construction," only to kick everyone off at some arbitrary location - because, more than likely, you were going to end up having to do just that.

During my amazing year in Berlin, I lived in the far, far east of the city, in a suburb called Wiessensee (or White Lake), with an absolutely wonderful family that I still keep in touch with and hopefully will for the rest of my life. If you know anything about German history, you know that East = Communist. We lived in honest-to-goodness Communist Block Housing. Our apartment building looked identical to the one next to it. And the one behind it. And every other apartment building, three rows deep, down both sides of a five mile stretch of road. Grey, concrete, block housing. The actual apartment was probably not much more than 600 square feet - and there were five of us living there (sometimes more with guests) - my German parents (Roland and Sigrun), their daughters (Louisa, 9, and Josi, 11 years old), me, the cat Mickey, a turtle, and some fish in a 20 gallon aquarium. We all shared one bathroom (with no shower - Germans typically shower with a hand-held nozzle while seated in the tub), and the kitchen could only fit two people standing side-to-side. But this apartment was an amazing marvel of Communist creativity.

Every single part of the apartment seemed to contain hidden storage places. The bench-seats at the table (in the one living area of the house) lifted - and that's where they kept the girls' underwear. The couch seats lifted - and that's where they kept the sheets and towels. There were compartments above the closet doorway - where they kept the dishes. All the beds had hidden compartments where the rest of the family's clothes were kept. I was always fascinated to see what would open next - and what incredibly common household good would be stored inside it.

The family themselves were fascinating and wonderful people. The father, Roland, suffered from a sever case of what the Germans call "Ostalgie," or nostalgia for the East - he was 65 years old, and had lived his entire life in East Berlin (he was only 6 at the end of WWII). He was retired when I lived with them, and he was convinced that Communist East Bloc German had been the height of civilization. He had a good-paying job (he was an armored truck driver who got paid as much as the best surgeon in the country - who wouldn't think that was a good deal?), he had a car (who cares if it was a Trabant and he had to be on a waiting list for 15 years before he got one?), and it was just a simpler time. His gorgeous, young wife (she was 16 years younger than him), Sigrun, worked for the East German police. As far as I know (she didn't talk about it), she JUST worked for the police - and not the Stasi police. When I lived with them, she was a checker at the local grocery store. She liked her job (and made extra money by organizing housing for foreign exchange students - and housing students herself, just like me), but it didn't make nearly as much as she (and everyone else) had made during Communism. Of course, as we know now, Communism is only so perfect in principal - it falls apart when actually implemented. Roland explained this to me in the clearest way I've ever heard (in spite of it being in German).

"In Communism, everyone gets paid the same amount for their job. Say you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. You pay 76 cents for that loaf of bread. But think of all the people who have to be paid just to supply that one loaf of bread! The farmer who grows the wheat. The truck driver who takes the harvested wheat to the factory. The workers who process the wheat into flour. The truck driver who delivers the flour to the baker. And finally, the baker who turns the flour into the loaf of bread. All of those people have to be paid the same amount for their work - for which you only paid 76 cents. And THAT is why Communism didn't work."

Roland used to frustrate me to no end with his outright dislike for all things "Western." We'd be walking around our area of town together, and he'd mumble disgustedly, "look at all this graffiti! We didn't HAVE graffiti in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republic - East Germany)!!" "Well, Roland," I'd say as innocently as I could muster, "they didn't have spray paint in the DDR." Another day, we drove past this old, worn down factory. "That used to be the radio factory. Now they let the whole building go to waste. And they made the best quality radios there - not like this cheap western crap they sell now! We used our radio for 25 years, and it never broke once!" "Yes, Roland, but how long did you have to wait on a waiting list to GET one of those radios?" One day, at home, he was in charge of dinner, so he made spaghetti noodles, put them in a bowl on the table, and put a bottle of ketchup next to it. The girls eagerly and hungrily drenched their noodles in ketchup (while I sat mildly horrified by this "spaghetti"). Roland looked disgusted (by the dinner he himself had prepared), and said, "you Westerners and your ketchup!! You eat it on everything! I wish you'd never invented it!" "Actually, Roland, the Chinese invented ketchup... not the Americans (or so I'd just learned on the awesome German show "Galileo," earlier that day)." But the Ostalgie aside, Roland was a wonderful surrogate dad to me for the year, and it was a fascinating perspective that I'd never been able to consider before I met him.

Because we lived so far in the deep east of Berlin, Strassenbahns were the only form of public transportation I could take to and from the city center. On average, it took about 45 minutes one way from our house to the Humboldt University in downtown Berlin. There were several lines that ran our route out to the house during the day, but at night, there was only one, and it only came every 30 minutes. I had to take an U-Bahn to the train station at Hackescher Markt, then go downstairs, outside, and around back to my Strassenbahn station. I had a terrible habit of missing the Strassenbahn by about 30 seconds. I'd see it pulling away from the station as my U-Bahn rolled slowly in. That always resulted in a cold me, sitting alone at the station for another 30 minutes until the next one came along. On really cold nights, I would start walking across the city to stations further along my route, just to keep from freezing.

One pleasant night, around 2am, after missing my street car by the standard 30 seconds (racing down the train station stairs as fast as I could, dodging innocently disgruntled Germans on the way down, just to turn the corner and see the Strassenbahn pulling away from the station - too late!), I sat at the station and decided I didn't need to pull out my book (I actually took books out to the bars and clubs to entertain myself on these regular 30 minute waits and the 45 minute ride home), but could instead just enjoy this glorious, Berlin night.

The train station at Hackescher Markt was an above-ground station (for both the U-Bahn, the subway, and the S-Bahn, the city train), renovated to it's original 20's ambiance. The entire station was finished in a yellowish-orange subway tile, and it had huge arches over the windows, walk-throughs, and restaurants that were located on the lower floor of the station. I really loved one restaurant in the station because they kept the original tile, even on the ceiling inside the restaurant - the massive, stretching arches made for the perfect atmosphere for traditional German dining, accompanied by the regular squeals and chuffings of the various trains over head.

The Strassenbahn station (an outdoor, 3-walled shelter, much like a normal bus station in America (bus stations in Berlin are marked only by a sign - and that's if you're lucky)), was on the back side of the train station. There was an entrance to a night club on the backside, as well, and all the dumpsters for the various restaurants located on the main level, but otherwise, it was a fairly isolated place - just across the train station from a usually crowded city square, it was surprisingly quiet and relaxed on the back there. Except for the faint thumping of the dance music that emanated from the disco.

This particular night, while I was enjoying a slight Berlin breeze in the perfectly beautiful, warm night air, as I watched the occasional club-goers stumble drunkenly in and out of the disco, I noticed a big tree next to the train station, alongside several of the massive dumpsters used by the restaurants. To my surprise, there were about 3-4 squirrels running around the base of the tree! I'd never seen nocturnal squirrels before, but then again, for that matter, I'd never seen the adorable red-haired, pointy-eared squirrels of Germany before coming to Germany, either. I watched them for a few minutes as they frolicked happily about.

I decided, since I was one of only a handful of people waiting for a Strassenbahn, and knew I could easily get my seat back, to go and investigate these nocturnal squirrels a little closer. As I walked over to them, I noticed they were chirping happily to each other. As if red-haired, pointy-eared German squirrels were not cute enough already, here it turns out, they're nocturnal, AND they like to run around and chirp at night! How heartbreakingly adorable!

Smiling to myself, I crept even closer to these adorable German squirrels. I was about 5 feet away, watching them dance and play, when I suddenly realized one of them must have been injured - his tail didn't look quite right! Instead of the normal, big, fluffy tail, his was skinny, and seemed to be hairless! What could have happened to his poor, adorable squirrel tail?!

Then I noticed - the other squirrel's tails were the same way! How could this be possible? I'd seen German squirrels before, and they most definitely have big, fluffy, adorable tails. As I stood there, filling with concern for these poor, clearly abused squirrels, watching them scamper around, in spite of the trails they'd obviously faced in their short little crittery lives, it slowly dawned on me.

These weren't squirrels. These were, instead, the biggest rats I'd ever seen in my life. Scavenging from the dumpsters, running around the base of the tree, and squeaking wildly with the success of the night - clearly, they had gotten so big because of the constant influx of delicious food from the over-flowing dumpsters. These things were easily over a foot long, not including their tails. I'm sure they weighed twice as much as my miniature dachshund (who rounds out at a healthy 13 lbs).

Horrified, I made my way the short distance back to the station, but their squeaks followed me. I was convinced they were going come after me, and, most likely, eat my toes (or my entire leg - they were that big). I crawled onto one of the little metal seats (with holes in the bottom - how well with THAT protect me from their little ratty fingers and teeth??), and pulled my legs up (as if I could keep myself away from one of them - clearly, just one could overpower me, if it so desired). I stared in horror at them for the remaining 20 minutes of my wait - willing them to stay by the dumpsters and leave me in peace. But I knew they were watching me, laughing at my naiveté. Laughing their ratty squeak-laughs at how they ALMOST fooled me into being lured into their rat-lair.

Fortunately, in all the many subsequent nights that I waited for 29.5 minutes at that Strassenbahn station, I never again noticed the small-dog-sized rats. I did learn, however, that wild boars live among the streets of Berlin, coming out at night to scavenge from the various dumpsters and terrify innocent people as they walk across the various city squares. With that in mind, I consider myself fairly lucky that I only encountered these giant rats. Even a monster rat is no where as terrifying as a real life wild boar. Oh, Berlin, you fascinating city; a part of my heart will always long for you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Day I Forgot My Library Book

As I've told you before, I have an anxiety disorder. Most people I meet and even know fairly well have no idea, though, because I've had it my entire life, and I've learned how to cope with it very well, and, consequently, hide it from most people. To all but my closest friends and family, I probably come across as a normal, healthy, functional adult. If they could only glimpse into my brain for about five minutes, I think I would have significantly fewer friends.

I think most people who do not suffer from anxiety disorders have a naive understanding of the reality of them (and mind you, I wouldn't say mine is severe, as it has rarely actually affected my life - yes, I avoid many things because of it, but I can't recall a time I couldn't do something I had to because of anxiety. Although I do spend an inordinate amount of time vomiting or pacing, which one could feasibly consider disruptive to a normal life...). For the longest time, Husband would try to rationalize out my anxieties.

"Why are you nervous about going to the vet? You've taken the dogs to the vet multiple times and never had any problems. Is it because it's a new vet?"

"It's partially because it's a new vet. And I've never been to the location before. So I don't know exactly how long it will take me to get there, and since I have a scheduled appointment, it's paramount that I get there in a timely fashion."

"Well, you know it's about 10 minutes away, even with bad traffic. And even if you're late, it's not a big deal. What would happen?"

"They'd yell at me. I'd get in trouble." Ahh, the root of my anxiety - GETTING IN TROUBLE. As I've said before, my biggest fear in life is GETTING IN TROUBLE. This wouldn't be so bad if I weren't convinced that I could get in trouble with any authority figure - and most everyone in my world is an authority figure - parents, teachers, policemen, the vet, doctors, repairmen, truck drivers, drive-thru window order takers, anyone who works at a register in any capacity, motorcyclists, lawyers, park rangers, adults, soldiers, rent-a-cops, waitresses, some children. Did I forget anyone? If I did, you could probably safely put them on the list, too. More than likely, I consider YOU an authority figure in some capacity. Go get yourself a gold star badge and wear it proudly.

Husband has tried repeatedly to tell me that people won't, in fact, yell at me, and, more than likely, they won't even say anything, even on the very rare chance that I WOULD ever be late to anything. But that's just not a risk I'm willing to take.

"Also, the dogs are late on their shots. They're going to yell at me that they're overdue."

He again tries to explain that they won't yell at me. "And if they DO, just leave. You're the customer; they want YOUR money." Besides that fact that most vets would just be glad you're finally taking pet-ownership responsibility and bringing the dogs in, instead of letting them go even longer without getting their shots.

About 30 minutes before I have to leave to get somewhere on time, the real anxiety starts. I can usually put it off for hours or even days beforehand, but at the 30 minute mark, things usually start to get bad. I have to pee every 3 minutes. I can't sit still or concentrate on anything. I start nervously twitching and pacing around the house, checking the clock, literally, every minute to see if it's time to go yet. Sometimes I have to throw up. Unfortunately, I'm not exaggerating for hilarity's sake. I imagine I spend a lot more time throwing up than the average person (with the exception of people with certain eating disorders and most college freshman).

I'm literally nervous about EVERYTHING. Walking makes me nervous. Especially if there are curbs or other objects involved. I have to think ahead and plan my footsteps to make sure I can step up on the curb at the right time and not trip or look otherwise uncoordinated (the irony there is that I'm also a very clumsy person). Calling to order a pizza makes me incredibly nervous. I'll do it if I can't make anyone else around me do it, but if I'm alone, I'd rather go without than make the phone call (I love online ordering, by the way!). My dogs barking makes me nervous. I'm terrified they're going to bother someone else and I'll get in trouble with a neighbor. Going to classes makes me nervous. Not just the first day, or the first week, or for some normal grace period. But every single class, every single time. I'm nervous about getting there on time, remembering which classroom, remembering to have done my homework. Out of four years of college classes, I never once forgot to do my homework, I never once forgot which classroom it was, and I was never late.

And pretty much every other thing you could imagine makes me nervous.

If I gave in to my anxieties, I would have died a long time ago, because I wouldn't have been able to go to the store and get more food, much less work to earn money to get food.

Husband asks me all the time why I can't just get over some of it. Like the college classes. If repetition has taught me anything, it's that I will make it to class on time and be prepared. So why should I continue to be terrified of it?

And that's why it's called an anxiety disorder. If logic could make it go away, it wouldn't be much of a disorder.

I've always been nervous, as long as I can remember. My mom used to joke that I came out of the womb neurotic, because my first baby picture is me with terrible red scratches on my face, one hand digging my nails into my cheeks, the other hand coming into the bottom frame of the picture, ready to scratch the corresponding cheek. I was nervous about being alive.

My mom, who also has an anxiety disorder, though not as bad as mine, recognized this in me from a very young age. And she wanted to discourage it so that I could grow up having a peaceful, normal, not-vomit-filled life.

In first grade, we started weekly class trips to the school library. We'd get to check out a book, take it home for a week, and bring it back the following Wednesday. Things went smoothly for several months, until one dreaded Wednesday morning on the drive to school, while I was checking and re-checking my backpack to make sure I had everything I needed for the day, I realized I had forgotten my library book.

Thrust into a state of absolute, inconsolable panic, I alerted my mom to the situation.


She rationally explained that we couldn't go back to get it, or I'd be late for school.

Oh. Dear. Lord. Two giant rivals - forgetting the library book vs being late. Both would get me in trouble. But which would be worse??

"WEHAVETOWEHAVETOWEHAVETO!!!" I could handle being late. Other people had been late before. Plus, that's really more my mom's fault, anyway. But I'd never seen anyone forget a library book before (in retrospect, I'm sure they had, it was just not a big enough deal for anyone else to have taken notice).

My anxiety-stricken mom saw this as the perfect situation in which to teach me a lesson early in life so I could avoid a similar fate to her own. If she forced me to go to school without my library book, surely I would see that it really wasn't that big of a deal, and I would be able to lose some of the anxiety.


She calmly explained to me that I forgot it, and I would see that it wasn't a big deal. The librarian might tell me I need to be more responsible and remember it next week, but nothing bad would happen. I could simply bring it back next week.

I could see my mom's point, and as I opened my mouth to agree (or protest, it really doesn't matter which), I suddenly realized words were not what was about to escape past my lips.


And thus began the vomiting-from-nervousness. The librarian did, in fact, tell me I needed to be more responsible (why, God, why?? I try so hard! How could I have screwed up on such a massive level?!), and that I could simply bring my library book in next week.

Instead of learning my mom's lesson that it really wasn't a big deal, and I wouldn't get in trouble (but to me, it felt like I did get in trouble - disappointment is a form of trouble), I chose the other path - and I never again forgot a library book on library day. To this day, I can't even handle returning movies late. I love Netflix.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How to PCS Like a Genius

In Army-ese "PCS," or Permanent Change of Station, is the infinitive for "to move." We recently PCSed from San Antonio to Ft. Leonard Wood, in Somewhere-in-the-middle-of-a-big-ass-forest, Missouri. Maybe you've heard of it? It's about an hour and a half south of Frankenstein, MO, my dad's hometown and my prime childhood summer vacation spot. Surely you've at least heard of Frankenstein...

This was only our second official PCS (reporting to the first duty station didn't really count, even though we did have an Army-paid-for move, because we didn't really have our own furniture, so we had them just go to my dad's (in South Dakota - for some reason, he got to bug to leave Frankenstein during his youth) and pack up my old bedroom furniture). And I personally believe we've accomplished a boastful list of PCS must-dos.

Indirectly murder sister-in-law's dog? Check.
Drive 34+ hours for what should have reasonably taken little more than 13? Check.
Sign a year-long lease without having ever set our eyes on the house? Check.
Choose a house that can only be reached on such winding, Ozark backwoods roads that the moving truck physically cannot deliver household goods? Check.
Lose all hope after seeing new house and the dreadful condition of it? Check.
Regain hope after seeing how much better house looks with things in it (even just unpacked boxes)? Check.
Laugh until I cry about ridiculous and dreadful condition of new house (and pretend that all the tears are happy tears)? Check.
Repeatedly tell myself, "it's just a year. It's just a year?" Check.
Discover secret gremlin doors in various walls of new house? Check.
Flood new house with an explosion of soapy water from the washer and a leaky pipe from the dishwasher? Check.
Fail to be surprised that two of the four of our major appliances were broken during the move? Check.
Be ecstatically happy that two of our four major appliances were not broken during the move? Check.
Discover half-eaten rotting mammalian creature in garbage can swamp water? Check.
Succeed in pissing off new property manager with maintenance requests within 48 hours of signing lease? Check.
Declare ice/water dispenser on fridge (which belongs to the house) in the kitchen to be unsanitary and place Haz-Mat signs over both openings? Check.
Declare jacuzzi tub in master bath to be unsanitary and debate placing Haz-Mat plywood board over the top but decide against it because it "would look too tacky?" Check.
Feel bitter toward myself for having previously said, "I can live in anything for just a year!"? Check.
Be glad (and smirk in an "I told you so" way at Husband) that packing our toilet seats purchased for the last house was a good decision? Check.
Discover termites in new house within a week of moving in (just like the last house)? Check.
Get excited about the new post with it's new (to me) PX and Commissary? Check.
Find thought-to-be-lost items while unpacking every single item we own? Check. This has to be the biggest perk of moving every year.
Start an ant farm in my refrigerator? Check.
Finally accept my fate in this ridiculous house and regain some of the initial excitement of moving to a new place after reinstating my constant mantra, "it's just a year?" Check.

What an interesting two weeks it's been.

Instead of driving straight up here from San Antonio, we decided to go and stay with Husband's parents (who only live 4 hours away), so we wouldn't be stuck in lodging on post for a week. It was a good decision, overall, but it almost tripled the amount of time we spent driving. Not because they live out of the way, but because rural, small town Missouri is run by small town folk who are bound and determined to have the final say in all matters related to their small town, in spite of the enormous Army post threatening to take away their small town status (oh, and helping their small town to thrive by flooding their economy with tons of money and outrageously overpaying rental prices out of necessity). We, naively, thought we could call in and switch the utilities to our name over the phone (because we've been able to do that everywhere we've ever lived - and so have all of our parents, everywhere THEY'VE ever lived). But we were wrong. Also, we naively thought we could sign the lease and THEN get the utilities in our name. Also wrong. And finally, we naively thought we could meet with the property manager on the morning our household goods were scheduled to arrive to sign the lease and get the keys. Guess who was wrong again?

So we drove up to Arkansas, spent a day with the parents, then left Boy with them and drove up to take care of utilities/lease (as per Property Manager Bitch's demands) on Friday. The utilities were easy enough - one perk of the small town is that all utilities are maintained by the City Hall - water, electric, gas, waste, and trash/recycling. All one bill, all from City Hall. After getting our proof of utilities in our name, we attempted to meet with PMB, whom we had informed of our short day trip to town and desire to escape town quickly with the looming 4 hr drive home lurking over our heads. PMB, however, refused to meet us until 3pm.

We were early to her office, and she, of course, made us wait. Her ridiculous grandma hairstyle with tight curls was dyed a ridiculous maroon color, and the look was only complimented by her capri-length wind-breaker exercise pants. The real irony was that her screen saver was a floating marquee stating "You are a beautiful, smart, and sexy woman!" She copped an attitude with us almost immediately, informing us that we were supposed to come to her office BEFORE going to City Hall to get the utilities in our names, so that we could pick up her form for them to fill out - stating which companies we were paying for each of our utilities. Not only did she neglect to tell us this (and evidently expected us to get the paper at 3pm, go to City Hall before they closed at 4pm, go BACK to her office to sign the lease papers, and THEN drive 4 hrs back to Arkansas), but the two-page form seemed a bit excessive to write "City of Waynesville" for every utility (since there is no other option for any of the utilities within the city limits).

She also informed us that she "just wanted to be fair." Stating that the house was "not perfect," and we should know that it's "been lived in hard," I joked that it wouldn't be a problem (oh, my naiveté!), as long as she didn't expect to get it back in perfect condition. She glared at me and said, "I think we should just all be fair." Evidently, she's not the joking type.

After a painful hour of going over the lease with the PMB, she finally handed over the keys. Well, she tried to, but she couldn't find them. Then when her secretary managed to find them, she informed us that she didn't know which keys went to what at the house, and she only had a copy of the front door key, so if we could please find out what the other keys went to and get her a copy of them, she'd surely appreciate it. I put that at the top of my to-do list.

After a cursory glance at the house (long enough to feel the impending dread weaving itself into the fibers of my being), we drove the 4 hours back to Arkansas.

We decided to relax the next day. Husband went to play outside with Boy and the dogs (our dogs were also staying at their house, and Husband's sister had a Westie dog). After a few minutes outside, Husband came rushing back in, holding a hysterically screaming Boy. "Pog bit him," he said as he handed Boy over. I calmed Boy down (who was most definitely hurting, but probably more scared, and was babbling about "dog" in between sobs), and looked at the damage. Fortunately, it was on his ankle, and he was wearing pants. The dog broke the skin, but only from sideways scratches - there were no puncture wounds. As far as dog bites go, we were as lucky as you can possibly be. Boy calmed down after not too long - but he's still very nervous around our dogs.

Husband called his parents right away - and his dad drove home from work, picked up the dog (Pog), took him to the vet, and had him put down. This was not Pog's first biting offence - he'd bitten Sister-in-law just the weekend before, and he'd bitten Father-in-law once very badly on the hand. I think there were other biting incidents in there, too, but overall, he was a very unpleasant dog. But Boy wasn't even playing with him or paying any attention to him. He was minding his own business, and Pog just snapped, turned and grabbed his ankle and started to shake it. Everyone (including Sister-in-law) agreed the dog needed to be put down. But Husband and I still felt awful - we're the best kind of house guests - we'll come visit and kill your pets!

Later that day, Boy fell on the driveway and skinned his knee, cut the side of his nose (somehow), hit himself in the face with a wooden ball-and-cup toy, splitting open the skin under his eyebrow and giving himself a mild black eye, and then face-dove into a wicker indoor plant basket, scratching his face again. It must be exhausting to be a 20 month old boy.

The next day (Sunday), Husband and I drove back up to the house in the evening to fill out our walk-through inventory form (it only took about 3.5 hours to write down everything wrong with the house - which is basically everything in the house), and stay the night in preparation for our moving truck to arrive Monday morning. We were at the house and ready to go by 7am. Our driver had called around 7:15 and said he'd be there within the hour.

By 8:30, we were getting antsy. Then the driver called again to inform us that he couldn't possibly get up the street into our neighborhood. It was simply too windy, too steep, and too narrow. At first, I felt disbelief. Husband informed him of another road that goes into our neighborhood - he said he'd try it.

An hour later (what was the guy doing for an hour??), he called again to say he couldn't make it up that road, either. So he was calling his company to see if they had a pallet truck he could use for the day - to transfer all our household goods onto and then make multiple trips with that truck to the house. After another hour, we decided to run to Starbucks.

Husband called the driver to see if we had time to make our Starbucks run, and he told us they got a truck, and they'd be there with the first load in about 45 min. So we drove down to the Starbucks (it can't be THAT small and rural of a town! Don't worry, it's not a self-standing Starbucks, it's in the local grocery store - Price Cutters - or as our friendly new neighbor called it, "Price Rapers"), and as we were about to pull into the parking lot, I saw it. OUR moving truck. I knew it was ours, because it was a United van with the same origin company name on the side. I started screaming loudly in Husband's ear. We stared, unspeaking, as the truck pulled into the grocery store parking lot - followed by a rented U-Haul. I made Husband go over to talk to the driver, who informed us that they would, in fact, be moving all of our stuff from the truck into the U-Haul in the middle of the parking lot. I felt like I was on Jerry Springer - here were all of my possessions - my entire identity, being dragged out for all to see, and in the Price Rapers' parking lot, no less. If only my fridge had been cheating on my deep freeze with the scantily-clad elliptical, I'm sure Jerry would have been there with cameras rolling.

We got our Starbucks and headed back to the house to wait. Husband went inside to do something, and, to keep myself busy, I began to explore the outside. There are trash cans left over on the side of the house, so I went to look at them. Behind the three with lids, there was a forth one, not in the little wooden trash can stall. I glanced in it and saw that it was half filled with stagnant, filthy water - and about a billion bugs. I could only imagine the size of the mosquito nest that must be thriving in it. I called Husband over to dump it out - which he did obligingly. He tipped the garbage can out, pointing the disgusting swamp water downhill, and suddenly, out of the garbage swamp, there it was.

Lying in the grass, surrounded by the remains of garbage swamp, a half-eaten mammalian creature. Of course, this all happened right as the U-Haul truck pulled into the driveway. The smell that was unleashed from the creature and the swamp was the worst thing I could ever imagine. Layers upon layers of the worst smells possible - death, rotting, stagnant water, mosquito nest poop. Laughing hysterically at the absurdity of the situation, I stumbled away from it, gagging and trying not to throw up all over the driveway. I looked up and saw 4 of the 5 person moving crew looking at me like I was a complete lunatic. Husband tried to explain to them that there was a dead animal in a trash can swamp, but these Ozark folk were not fazed - nor did they find the humor in the situation. Evidently, dead garbage swamp minks are a commonplace occurrence 'round these here parts.

The movers were excellent, though, and got everything unloaded in just a few hours (and only 5 trips with the U-Haul). As soon as everything was in the house, Husband and I jumped back in the car and headed BACK to Arkansas (we'd left Boy with Sister-in-law there so he wouldn't be in the way of the movers - it was a very smart decision).

After one very short day of resting, we packed up all our bags, dogs, and kid, and drove up to the new house on Wednesday morning for good. Thanks to some miracle of the timing fates, my dad had just finished his annual fishing trip with his brothers not far from us and drove down to spend a few days with us. He played with Boy while we unpacked, helped us unpack, ran to the store for us, and played with Boy some more. After just 3 days, we got the last box unpacked.

Unfortunately, my beautiful new fridge that we bought in San Antonio just last year does not fit in the fridge nook in the kitchen. Instead, we had to leave the fridge that came with the house there - and banish my beloved to the garage. It wouldn't be so bad if the fridge in the house weren't older than I am. It also would have helped if the cleaning crew that supposedly came through the house had wiped out the hardened puddles of food spillage and rot. Somehow, this ancient contraption has a water and ice dispenser. The spill tray on the dispenser looked like it had never seen a cleaning rag in it's entire lengthy existence. But I told myself it would be fine. After all, the water doesn't touch the spill tray.

But the water DOES touch the water spout. And the ice touches the ice shoot. Upon further investigation (instigated by my desire to scrub everything into oblivion with clorox disinfecting wipes before any member of my family could ingest any terrible particles from any part of the house), both were revealed to be the happy homes to a healthy colony of mold. Reeling from disgust, I reassured myself that I, at least, had ice trays already from three houses ago, and I could simply make my own ice. And it wasn't so bad - I still have my beautiful fridge and deep freeze out in the garage, patiently waiting for me to fill their lovely shelves with over-flow food and ice storage.

I went out to bask in the warm glow of my darlings, now banished to the garage. I threw open the doors in a show of ceremonious reuniting and love, only to be horrified by the sight that greeted me - and will haunt my dreams for days (maybe even weeks) to come.


All over my lovelies. How they got in to both closed and sealed units, I have no idea. At this point, I was too overwhelmed to react. I simply went and sat on the couch, staring blankly into space for about a hour, in spite of Husband's attempts to console me - he called Terminix and got us an account for life (it moves with us!); he turned on both units so the ants would die of cold; he even wiped out all three units (not the moldy dispenser, though - none of us will ever be touching that thing) so I wouldn't have to face the aftermath of Ant Takeover 2010.

Finally, I recovered by doing the only thing that seemed rational. I made laminated HAZ-MAT signs and taped them to both sides of the offending dispenser. At least now we don't have to be tempted by the lurking spores of cool, crisp, refrigerated water.

We began to settle in to the new house. After discovering that the knob to my clothes dryer had been violently torn off, Patrick called Maytag to get a replacement part, and we discovered a way we could still turn on the dryer by jimmying it with a wrench, jumping up and down on the dryer, and doing an ancient Mayan warm air-invoking smoke dance.

One evening, after putting Boy to bed, we decided it was time we did some laundry. We started a load in the washer and went to watch a little tv and relax, since Husband would be starting back to rigorous Army life scheduling the next day. After less than 10 minutes of peace, we heard a terrible noise. It was like normal washer noises, but magnified by about 100. It sounded like a waterfall had just burst through our laundry room ceiling.

Instantly, we both jumped up and ran as quickly as we could into the laundry room - and there, to my horror, I realized my bizarre thought-association had come true. There WAS a giant waterfall, but it was pouring out of the wall of our laundry room. Husband, being the smarter and more rational of the two of us, turned the water off to the washer and stopped the waterfall. As it turned out, the draining cord from the washer had simply come out of its little draining hole - and soaked the entire room with gallon upon gallon of clean, soapy water. We also learned that the wall between the laundry room and the garage is not a very good one, as the garage, too, got soaked in our indoor water-slide experiment. We used the 8 extra towels I could find to mop up as much water as we could.

After fixing the washer hose so it couldn't possibly escape to watery freedom again, we cautiously turned the washer back on, threw the towels in the dryer, did our Mayan air dance, and turned to go back to the living room. That's when things got fun.

The washer and the dryer decided they were tired of their boring middle-aged lives, and they missed the fun, careless times they had when they were young. They decided to relive their youth and throw a dance party in the laundry room. I believe they were trying to do the Salsa, but since I'm a terrible dancer, I couldn't be exactly sure.

We immediately put an end to their youthful exuberance, spent 30 minutes trying to level the washer ("but the level says it IS level! I just don't understand!!"), and got it working again. The dryer was not so cooperative. If you've ever dried a pair of tennis shoes in a dryer, you know how loud the thumping can be. Now imagine if those tennis shoes were made of solid gold with lead laces and bass drum soles. That's a fair approximation of how loud the thumping noise is with absolutely nothing in the dryer. We called in a repairman for that one, and we're still waiting, with our clothes getting more and more desperate.

While doing our walk-through renter's inventory of damages, we ran the dishwasher to see if it worked. Everything seemed fine, and we let it run through an entire cycle. By the time we got to the basement bathroom on our check-list, it was completely flooded. The ceiling tile at the source of the leak was already missing, exposing the skeletal pipes that were draining their water onto the cheap, orange-water-stained linoleum floors. We put in a maintenance request for the dishwasher to be fixed the next day, and now, nearly two weeks later, we're still waiting.

The rest of the exciting "adventures" we've experienced here don't need as much explanation. The exterminator came to spray for ants (we still have an ant problem, a week later), and he found termites next to the house (but not technically IN it yet - hopefully we won't have termites eating through the walls here like we did in the last house). We discovered terrifying gremlin doorways in several rooms in the house, behind toilets, in secret corners of closets, etc. Inside one door, we found a used tissue and a Joe Boxer tag. Evidently, gremlins are modest and hygienic creatures. The jets in our very classy 80's pee-yellow jacuzzi tub (set around seafoam green tiles with mauve walls and a seashell boarder around the top of the room) are so black with mold and filth, I think they might be a bio-hazard. PMB acted like we were the most frustrating renters in the history of all rental homes when we demanded they install smoke detectors in the house. Among other things that either currently escape my memory or are too unremarkable to note.

The final touch provided by the house to really top off and perfect this move was this little momento we found outside the basement door, on the cement patio, staring at us with its cold, dead, unblinking, but all-seeing eyes:

Welcome to Missoura, Folks.