Telephone Hang-ups

I could talk to someone face to face for hours, but talking on the phone with that same person would fill me with crippling anxiety.  I rarely answer the phone. When I do, I have to take a deep breath before picking up and pretend I’m someone else to get through the experience. This might have to do with the fact that I’ve been burned so many times over the phone.

Just last week I got tricked into answering the phone, because the number on the caller ID was so similar to my sister’s cell phone number. As soon as I answered, I realized I’d made a mistake. When I heard the person on the other end ask for Dr. Colin X, I knew it was our graduate school making yet another one of their endless fundraising appeals. In my politest voice I said, “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. May I take…” Before I could complete the sentence, I heard a click and then the hang up tone on the other end!

This is not the first, or even the second time I’ve been hung up on by someone who called ME in the first place. On one occasion, a complete stranger called me up when I was a grad student in New York City. I picked up the phone and he introduced himself and launched into his life story. Entirely unprompted, he described the color of his eyes and hair and gave me his body measurements. He told me he was trying to break into modeling. He had just moved to New York from California and he was feeling lonely and wanted to meet people. I was fascinated by this bizarre modus operandi.

“So…you’re trying to meet people by calling random numbers in the phone book?” I asked.

“Uh-huh!” he replied with no hesitation or embarrassment at all.

I thought I was being kind and doing him a favor by suggesting that he try one of those chat lines  that were always being advertised in the Village Voice. He got really huffy, told me I was rude, and hung up on me.

On another occasion, a salesman called and performed the usual preemptive maneuver of speaking in whole paragraphs, thereby preventing me from saying “I’m sorry, I’m not interested” or “Please, stop, I’d rather drive a fork through my temple than buy aluminum siding from you.” I guess what normal people do is to just hang up. I, on the other hand, listened to the whole song and dance as an act of charity. When he finally came up for air and said “So let’s go ahead and schedule your free estimate,” I was able to say at last, “Oh, thank you so much for taking the time to let me know about your fascinating product, but I really don’t need any aluminum siding right now.” At this juncture, I was thinking that if not the Nobel Peace Prize, well then some kind of humanitarian award was definitely coming my way. After all, I had just endured the longest, most tedious ten minutes of my life and had very sweetly refrained from slamming the phone in the poor schlub’s ear. Imagine my surprise, when he became enraged and screamed, “Well then why did you let me go on talking for so long?” And yes, he slammed the phone in my ear.

From now on, I’m going to channel my mother, who always deals with unwelcome solicitations with real panache. Although English is her second language, my mother speaks the language beautifully. When she picks up the phone and suddenly switches into broken English, we know there’s a telemarketer on the other end. “Sorry. Sorry. No speak English,” she says with an exaggerated accent. She even waves her hand back and forth as if they could somehow see this gesture. She always manages to hang up the phone on her terms and with a giant smirk on her face. What I really appreciate is how she’s able to turn these situations into a sort of performance art. Once, some very persistent Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on our door. No sooner had they plied my mother with free issues of the Watchtower, than she ran to get her own Bible. “Let me tell you what I believe!” she began, waving the book joyfully, wildly in their faces as she started spouting an impromptu sermon. In no time at all, they were propelling themselves away as fast as their legs could carry them, stealing fearful glances over their shoulders as they ran.

English as a Second Language

I had a conversation with my son this weekend and it was as if he were talking in a foreign language.

While I could more or less understand the individual words, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying at all. It got me thinking about how confusing it must have sometimes been for my parents, for whom English is a second language, when they talked with us.

My mother began studying English when she knew she would be joining my father, who had come to America to embark on the first of many degrees. She still recalls the stilted and unnatural intonation of the recordings she would listen to over and over again: “I am a boy. I am a girl.” She never stopped working on improving her English. In later years, she always had an old paperback copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style stashed in her purse to study whenever she had a free moment. She read it so many times, it eventually had to be held together with a rubber band. The spareness of her Strunk and White-influenced English was enriched by the ornate language of the 19th century novels she also loved to read. From reading Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, for example, she talks about “countenances” rather than “faces.” But it’s her adoption of more modern colloquial expressions that always takes us by surprise. I was once driving her somewhere when she discovered that she had been sitting on my sunglasses.

“Oh! I was wondering what was poking my butt!” she said.

I started cackling.

“What?” she said with a grin, “Should I have said, ‘I was wondering what was pricking my ass?!'”

After all his long years of study and the countless hours he’s spent poring over philsophical tomes, my dad lightly bandies about words like hermeneutics and teleological with the Korean accent he’s never lost. As children, our own native English skills would be called into service from time to time to edit articles he’d written. I still die a thousand deaths whenever I think of the time I changed all his “Platonics” into “Platoics” in one of his articles. Callow adolescent that I was, what did I know of philosophy? I hadn’t yet gained the wisdom to know that I knew nothing. Native speaker that I am, I will never know the meanings of half the words that are part of my dad’s lexicon.

My dad’s English is also nuanced with phrases snatched from more popular sources, and especially from the television shows that he sometimes watched with us when we were children. His discourse is peppered with phrases like “Aw, shooks.” Thanks to some old cartoon, he says “meeses” instead of “mice.” When my incessant  prattling got too unbearable, he’d interrupt me midstream, waggle his thumb and say like some hoodlum in an old gangster movie, “Hey. Get lost, will ya?” or sometimes just, “Shaddup, will ya?”

The substandard language his own children used also added to the linguistic confusion. I’m ashamed to admit that my brother and I went through a regrettable phase when we used to call each other “booger.” My dad bore it for as long as he could, and then one day he pulled us aside. “Adrienne, Teddy,” he said gravely, “I don’t want you to use that word anymore.” He heroically soldiered on, though it was clear that each word he uttered was causing him pain, “I know you don’t realize it, but it has sexual connotations.” Teddy and I were mystified and also a little horrified as we tried to imagine what kind of monstrous sexual perversion could take place via the nostril. It was only years later that we learned the word he had thought we were saying…bugger.

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Rick Riordan, you’ve created a monster!

My daughter got into the Rick Riordan Percy Jackson series in a big way. She has blazed her way through every hefty volume in record time. She drags them everywhere she goes, reading and re-reading them over and over again until they are literally falling apart at the seams.

After a hard-fought campaign of constant hectoring and pestering on her part, I got Mark of Athena for her last year. At the back of the book she saw that House of Hades, the next book in the series, would be coming out on October 8, 2013. As you can imagine, she’s been pining for that book all year long. She started the countdown back in August. In September she slung me over her shoulder and hauled me to the bookstore so that I could pre-order the book for her. At the customer service desk I asked if it would arrive on the 8th, or be mailed out on the 8th. The saleswoman assured us that the book would be mailed out so that it would arrive at our house on Tuesday, the 8th. She tortured me every single day that she waited for that book to arrive. Only twenty-seven more days until the 8th! Only sixteen more days until the 8th! I wish Tuesday would get here already! Only 53.273 hours until it comes!

I don’t know how the girl made it through the day at school. She ran to check the mailbox as soon as she got off the bus. NO BOOK! She concluded that it would be mailed out by UPS and would therefore be delivered to our doorstep later that afternoon. For the rest of the day she kept opening the front door to see if the mail carrier had left a package on our doorstep. As the evening wore on, I seriously thought about driving to the store to buy another copy just to put the poor girl out of her misery. Sure enough, when she had at last resigned herself to the fact that the book would not be arriving, I received an email notification that it had only just shipped.

The long-awaited book finally arrived on Friday. We all said our good-byes to her knowing full well that she would not be entertaining any further meaningless chitchat from us for as long as it took to read her book, and she disappeared into the bowels of Hades.

When she finally resurfaced on Tuesday, having finished the 583 page book, we all exhaled a collective sigh of relief…

And then she showed us this:

Thanks. Thanks a lot, Rick Riordan. You’re killing us here.

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Three and a half poems for Autumn


by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost –
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

The Wild Swans at Coole

by W.B. Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

That time of year thou mayst in me behold (Sonnet 73)

by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

It’s rather difficult to find an autumn poem that’s not tinged with melancholy. Falling leaves and cooling temperatures seem to naturally elicit somber meditations on the inexorable march of time, ever closer to death.

Today on our walk around the lake in our neighborhood, it was these more serene lines from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It that came to my mind:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

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Best weekend ever

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby

From “April Rain Song,” by Langston Hughes

It’s been cold and grey and wet for three days straight, but I still maintain that it was a beautiful weekend. Because of the rain, my daughter’s soccer practice on Friday was canceled, her game on Saturday was canceled, and my son’s soccer tournament that had been scheduled for Saturday AND Sunday in Richmond was CANCELED! Each text or email announcing the cancellation of these events sent me into a paroxysm of unseemly jubilation. Theoretically speaking, (if I happened to be the kind of person to engage in embarrassing self-revelation), it’s possible that there may have been some fist-pumping, jiggety-jigging in place, and squeals of delight.

What fabulous things did I do with all of that time that was handed to me like a precious gift on a silver platter? We went to the grocery store to buy the pumpkin my oldest son needed for a school project. We went to the shoe store to buy much-needed new sneakers for the younger two. We went to the music store to get my daughter’s violin bow repaired. We went to the pet store to buy the only food that doesn’t make the dogs puke foamy yellow bile all over the carpets. (Always the carpets, never – God forbid – on the far easier to clean tile or hardwood). We took my daughter to get her hair cut. We went to Jiffy Lube. (Every 3,000 miles? More like every 10,000+ miles…). I got caught up on laundry, etc. etc. And yes, a million times YES! It was really and truly:  fabulous.

I didn’t take many photos this weekend, but I did record a couple snapshots in my mind to share with you. They are somewhat related insofar as they both involve food and the sweet, innocent thoughtfulness of children.

On Friday, the Helping Hands group I co-lead met for our first session of the year. This fall, our third and fourth grade kids are organizing a school-wide food drive for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. A friend who works at the bank came to talk to us about the problem of hunger in our own community. We discussed how hunger makes people crabby and makes it difficult to concentrate and to work or study. The most powerful moment of the talk came when she told us that the bank serves 26,000 people a month. To give us an idea of how many people that is, she had us visualize a line of people starting from downtown Charlottesville stretching all the way up Route 29 for 8 miles to the airport. This startling image made a big impression on us all. My friend was about to leave after her presentation when one of our students ran up to her and handed her a fistful of coins, all the money she had in her pocket, as a gift to the food bank. It was a lovely moment.

And then there was this moment that revealed to me that my daughter had also absorbed the message about the problem of hunger. On Sunday my husband was feeling a little grumpy and I asked my daughter what we should do to cheer him up. She suggested earnestly: “Maybe we could put a hunk of Jarlsburg (his favorite kind of cheese) under his pillow!”

Finally, I leave you with one actual snapshot from this weekend. This was taken during a brief break on Saturday, when instead of playing/watching soccer, we were checking items off our my list of errands at breakneck speed. First, observe the expressions on the faces of my husband and children. Now look very closely at my reflection in the window. Can you see the maniacal grin pasted on my face?

See? Best weekend ever!

Happy, Pt. 3

Here are my entirely arbitrary rules for compiling my list of go-to things that can perk me up when I’m feeling down. Everything on the Happy List has to be fairly specific. Nothing too vague, obvious, or insipid such as “reading a good book,” “spending time with family and friends,” or “doing kind things for others.” (As delightful as all of those things are).  “Jetting off to Monaco for the weekend” or even “spending a weekend in NYC” don’t count, but “ogling the zebra finches, who spend their days pooping on the exquisite wrapping paper that lines their equally exquisite bird cage at Caspari on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville” does. The basic requirements: specific, doable without too much planning or forethought, and free (or nearly free).

Here’s what’s in my Emergency Happy Kit: 

Visual Therapy:

  • Looking at photos of puppies on the Puppyfind website, or for more diversified animal therapy options: the Cute Overload website
  • This video of my nephew chortling with wild abandon. Watching this video will make you feel like you won the happy lottery. I can’t get the link to look pretty, but click on it and make sure you watch the best part, between seconds 30 and 34.″ width=”720″ height=”480″ frameborder=”0″>

  • Certain photographs of my own family. This set for instance:

Retail Therapy (Closely related to Visual Therapy, because no purchase necessary to get the mood-enhancing benefit): 

  • Stationery stores. Paper, paper, paper.
  • Fabric stores work too. I don’t even know how to sew, but looking at all the different fabrics makes me inexplicably happy…I know. I don’t get it either.
  • The greenhouse at Merrifield Garden Center.
  • Browsing in the children’s picture book section of any bookstore in the evening all by myself.

Food and beverage:

  • Smelling Earl Grey tea. It’s better than drinking it. But the best of all is to alternate bites of Breyer’s natural vanilla ice cream with sips of Earl Grey tea that’s served in a pretty teacup, naturally.
  • A green tea latte from Starbucks, unsweetened. Looks vile, tastes divine.


  • Spending an hour or two playing my ukulele and singing songs from my Daily Ukulele songbook.

OK, now it’s your turn…What gets you out of a funk? READY? GO! Please leave a comment to share what’s on your list!