Monday, June 27, 2005

Bag lady

My parents were here for a visit this past weekend. I don't see them all that often anymore, since they live nearly six hours away, and each time I see them, one or both of them seem to have picked up some strange new quirk that I can attribute only to the lunacy of old age. I'll be at their house for the weekend and I'll discover that my father has for some reason decided that it's necessary to roll down his car window when he pulls in the garage, because apparently the air inside the car will remain fresher if it mingles with the air in the dusty garage. Or my mother will suddenly have accumulated 47 artificial plants and 76 various baskets, because presumably baskets and fake plants make things feel homey.

I'm not going to talk about all the reasons my parents are crazy, however. They are, for the very most part, good people (even if they did both vote for George W.--twice). They taught me all sorts of useful things, they provided a good and stable home throughout my formative years, and their dogmatic Catholic values were apparently successful in raising three primarily moral and mostly well-adjusted daughters. Besides all of that, I'm well aware of the minor elements of crazy in myself and most everyone I know, so really I'm in no position to judge. I would, however, like to focus for just a few minutes on one such element of crazy that I somehow can't make peace with... namely, my mother's purse.

My mother's purse is not, in fact, a purse. For most women, it would more aptly be called a tote bag. Like most of my friends, I have purses and bags of varying sizes, and I often choose the appropriate bag for the day based on what I think I'll need or where I think I might be going. On an average Saturday, involving a trip to Target or Home Depot and maybe a movie or a few drinks with friends, a simple everyday purse no bigger than 8" by 6" will do. All I typically carry with me is a small wallet, my checkbook, my cell phone, a pen, a pack of gum, maybe a tampon, and a lip balm. On a more extended day trip or an outdoor event, I'll bring what I consider my "big purse," which provides additional space for a bottle of water, a neatly folded lightweight sweater, my camera, and/or a book.

My mother, on the other hand, seems to consider what she might need for the day in much the same way a studio audience participant on "Let's Make a Deal" once did. She could easily remove the monkey wrench and the ball of twine from her bag, but if she did, it would of course be on the one day that Monty was ready with a $100 bill for the first person who could produce these items.

This past Saturday, as I headed out for a day of carefully planned activities with my family, I brought my "big purse." The extra space seemed a bit superfluous, as I wasn't bothering with a camera and I certainly didn't expect to find any quiet, private time for light reading. I wanted the sweater in anticipation of air conditioned environments, however, so the big purse it was.

Around 10:30 a.m., waiting for the RiverCity Trolley outside the Convention Center, my mother eyed me with jealousy as I pulled out my water bottle. I offered her a sip while I considered the size of her bag in comparison to mine. My "big purse" is actually significantly smaller than her "everyday" purse (a.k.a. tote bag), and yet, she apparently didn't have room to include her own bottle of water. I started wondering how she's managed to carry a bag that size every day for 30 years without developing a crooked back or noticeably sloped shoulders when I suddenly realized she had not one, but TWO bags with her for the day. Having one on each shoulder apparently balances out the load, but I still think lack of calcium will not be the primary culprit if she develops a hump in her old age.

I questioned the second bag, and she replied that it was necessary for the camera and extra film she wanted with her for the day. I am fully confident I could fit the camera, film, and all other daily necessities in just her "purse" and still have room to spare, but I know better than to question her at this point. The ridiculously oversized bag, you see, is apparently MY fault.

If you ask my mother why she needs such a big purse, she'll say, "Oh, I USED to be able to get by with a little purse like that... but then I had CHILDREN! And suddenly it was 'Mom, I need a Band-Aid!' and 'Mom, do you have a nail clipper?' and 'Mom, I need a Kleenex!'" Her favorite purse item to point out is the tiny foldable scissors she decided to carry with her for clipping off restaurant drinking straws to toddler-friendly length (a scissors she still carries with her, despite the fact that she hasn't regularly traveled with a toddler in over 20 years).

I know several women with children, and my mother is the only one I know who blames her children (particularly her grown children) for her literal excess baggage. Most mothers carry an extra bag for necessities while their children are in diapers, but the majority of them are able to pare down again when their children reach grade school age. The fact that she's not been able to do so is not our fault, though I suppose it's in keeping with the stereotypical martyrism of a Catholic mother to feel that it is. Never mind that if she stops carrying all these things presumably for other people, then people will stop asking for them. In some small way I expect it makes her feel useful, of course, to be able to offer a Band-Aid or a pencil sharpener or $40 in Scrip for Shopko or Applebee's at just a moment's notice.

The real culprit of the nomad-worthy purse is, of course, simple habit. If you get used to having a big bag, you get used to carrying more stuff. Once you step up in size, it's hard to go back to the tiny purse. Just ask my friend Lisa, who's trying unsuccessfully to cram all her stuff in her cute new little TJ Maxx find after carrying a utilitarian messenger bag daily for several months. Personally, I'm always hesitant to buy any purse bigger than my current everyday purse, for fear of getting used to the extra space. Many women fear one day turning into their mother; I'm probably one of only a select few for whom that fear involves handbags.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Reading is Fundamental*

I remember this one particular night a few years ago when I stayed at my sister and her then-husband's house during that inevitable in-between-apartments limbo time when you've signed out of your old apartment but they won't let you into the new one until your lease officially starts at noon the next day. I remember my sister and brother-in-law had gone out for the evening, and I was relaxing on the sofa bed by myself, fully engrossed in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs when the two of them returned home.

My sister and I get along all right, but there are times when I probably get unjustifiably annoyed with her, which in turn makes her snap back at me, and suddenly things get ugly very quickly for no apparent reason. This was one of those times. Maybe I was just sick of being around her at that particular moment, or maybe I really was so wrapped up in my book that I genuinely resented the intrusion, but I remember my annoyance stemming from what I thought was one of the stupidest questions anyone had ever asked me. On this particular evening, my sister walked into the room, saw me with a book, and scoffed, "Do you actually LIKE reading??"

I didn't even know how to respond. To me, it was as ridiculous a question as "Is there a reason you wear shoes?" or "Do you think this electricity fad is here to stay?" Reading is good. Smart, interesting people read. Even not-so-smart, uninteresting people read. Isn't this a fairly well accepted and majority viewpoint? I simply didn't understand her question, or what could be going on in the mind of a person who'd ask it.

I bring this up today because I just read something that comforted me with the knowledge that I'm not alone and that in this particular case, perhaps a bit of snobbery is justified. If you're with me, go read it. (And in case you're wondering, no, I did not come across this site because of any type of interest in the Honeysuckle shop... not that there would be anything wrong with that.)

* Tell me I'm not the only one who remembers the pro-reading bits sponsored by "Reading is Fundament" (or "R.I.F.") that used to air every Saturday morning between cartoons? This was probably in the mid-80s... after Schoolhouse Rock had disappeared and probably around the same time as they started showing Menudo videos at the top of the hour. (Or were the Menudo videos somehow just on my TV stations?)

Thursday, June 16, 2005


My boss's husband is one of those people who believes that a positive attitude is the key to all happiness and success. Maybe he's on to something and I shouldn't roll my eyes and resort to my typical cynicism at the idea, or maybe it's just easier to be happy and have a positive attitude when you're a millionaire with a reasonably loving family and the kind of security most of us only dream of. I've mentioned before my annoyance with the meaningless American greeting of "How are you?" "Good; how are you?," but what annoys me even more is this man's typical response of "I am totally fabulous and getting better by the second" when someone makes the mistake of greeting him with the standard "How are you?" query.

Sometimes I think I should try to evoke the Little Orphan Annie "You're never fully dressed without a smile" philosophy, but I've come to realize that it's really just not me. I am not a happy-ray-of-sunshine, spreading-goodness-and-cheer-to-all-who-pass-my-way kind of person. Still, I try not to dwell on the negative all too often. Today, however, I'm in a funk. And while I feel like I should make some attempt to shake this bad mood and try writing something at least mildly entertaining for the three people who might read this, I'm just not feeling the love. I need to vent. This is for me, not you, so if you don't want to hear it, browse elsewhere. If you feel like coming along for the ride, here we are. The list of things that really shouldn't test me... the things causing annoyance and rage that's preventing me even from having any joy and happiness for the good fortune of others (such as my sister, who seriously won $1,000 from a radio call-in contest today... yes, she really won... someone I know won $1,000 on the radio, and I can't even bring myself to be happy for her about it... very sad).

So then. The source of my bad mood. The things that really need to go away right now because I've really just had enough. In no particular order, except perhaps for the first one, which is really (I'll admit it) likely the one that triggered this whole spiral of negativity in the first place.
  1. The Old Republic Extended Warranty company. You're seriously telling me that just because I was too spacey to remember to mention to the Saturn service technician that I have an extended warranty plan and ask if my $485 worth of car repairs were covered by said plan (when really, I shouldn't have needed to ask in the first place, since the Saturn dealership where I've taken my car for service since I purchased it five years ago should really HAVE that information ON FILE), that you're not going to REIMBURSE me for the repairs?? That's just lunacy. I don't care if the contract says repairs must be authorized in advance. If it's something you would have covered at 6:00 p.m. on June 8, it's something you should cover at 8:00 a.m. on June 9. Yes, I know you hate parting with your company's assets to make the day brighter for me, but I PAID you a good sum of money up front when I bought the damn policy precisely to cover repairs such as this. Cough it up, because this is bullshit.

  2. The damn mortgage company, who kindly informed me that they'll be raising my payment by $70 each month, starting with my next payment. Why thank you. I really appreciate that. So much for the "Buy a house! You'll never have to worry about a landlord raising your rent again!" suggestions. I lived in several apartments, and my landlord never raised my rent $70 on a month's notice. I realize that the mortgage company is not a landlord and that it's not the same thing. I also realize it's not the mortgage company's fault, but the fault of whoever raised my property taxes and made my escrow account come up short. For that I'll blame Governor Polenta Log, because he's a quick and easy scapegoat and because I already have plenty of contempt and rage for that man anyway. No need to shoot it at others as well.

  3. Whatever component in the multi-point path that enables my Internet connection (whether it be the wires coming in to the telephone pole in the alley, or the connection on the side of my house, or my phone jack, or a portion of the kluge system of cords and extenders running from the jack to my computer, or the modem and computer itself, or the stupid Earthlink ISP software) that is causing my modem to make a horrible screeching noise and claim there's no dial tone and no ability to make a connection approximately one in every three times I attempt to reach the Internet. I feel a little bit bad that my next door neighbor's visiting adult daughter likely heard me scream "Oh for fuck sake!" through my open window when she was innocently sitting on her parents' porch engaged in a phone call, particularly since technical difficulties (especially clearly routine ones like this) probably shouldn't warrant use of the "f" word, but really. Is it so hard for my damn modem to just recognize that there's a dial tone and make a reliable connection every time? This isn't 1994, after all. I know--screw dial-up. Get a real connection. See #1 and 2 above for financial constraints preventing that option from becoming a reality.

  4. The chipping and peeling paint on my house's cedar shake siding, which taunts me each time I return home, reminding me that I really need to quit procrastinating and start sacrificing every consecutive available nice weather evening and weekend to that project until the scraping and sanding is finally done and the whole house is repainted. I've learned many things to keep in mind the next time I buy a house. Settling for nothing less than stucco or maintenance-free siding is one of them. Meanwhile, I'm stuck scraping, since I clearly can't afford to hire someone to do it for me. (Again, see #1 and 2 above.)

  5. Happy couples. Yes, I know this one is irrational and selfish and bitter and unfair. I don't care. I'll get over it and get back to taking pleasure and finding hope in other peoples' happiness. Right now just let me be spiteful for a little while, OK?

  6. Those damn ribbon-shaped magnets on everyone's bumper and trunk these days. OK, I realize that now I'm just reaching and looking for every little thing that annoys me, rather than focusing on the real source of my bad mood and making some attempt to dissipate it, but really. Pink ribbons for breast cancer research? OK, I'm on board with that. Red ribbons for AIDS awareness? That's cool, too. As long as the ribbon indicates that you in some way contributed to a charity or research organization aimed at eradicating these evils. I'd even go along with the "Support Our Troops!" ones, if it didn't sound like a lecture or reprimand every time I see one (as though I'm supposed to drop what I'm doing--which is, incidentally, DRIVING--and do some vague, uncertain thing to somehow support our troops) AND if the money spent to purchase all those damn magnets in some way actually went to support said troops. I support our troops in that I know they're just doing their job (never mind that it's a job I don't feel they should have been sent off to do), and I support them in that I want them to come home before they're needlessly killed. How a magnetic propaganda device is helping them in any way is truly beyond my understanding. But what bothers me even more is the trend the damn ribbon magnets has set for every other cause imaginable. The other day I saw a car with two of these ribbons--one urging me to spay and neuter my pets and the other shouting "Fight Litter!" I fully support spaying and neutering to prevent unwanted animal overpopulation, and I agree that littering is bad. But are either of these really appropriate for the "ribbon of support" format? I don't think so. (And I'm not the only one who's annoyed.)
OK, I'll stop now, before I get going on the seemingly unending reaches of reality TV or that inane commercial with Hillary Duff and her less famous sister prattling on about whether some dumb mint is liquid or ice. Seriously... Enough. [Rage.]

I'll try to be in a better mood tomorrow. Really.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Who ordered the pineapple?

I had another "why don't I have a camera on me?" moment today--this time in Cub Foods. It seems some produce manager or buyer has decided that Minnesotans are not eating enough pineapple, because upon entering the front door and turning towards the produce department, I was greeted by a stack of pineapples the likes of which I have never seen before (and perhaps will never see again). Actually, even if I'd had a camera, I doubt it would have fully captured the scale and magnitude of this pineapple display. Unless you've worked in a fruit warehouse or perhaps in the kitchen of an island resort, I truly doubt you've ever seen this many pineapples in one place in your life. The display extended at least 30 feet from left to right and was stacked to within five feet of the ceiling tiles, at which height there was a sign proudly declaring this absurdity "The World's Largest Pineapple Display."

World's largest? Who's to say. But really, how many pineapple displays can there be currently vying for this title?

I myself have never purchased a pineapple (not in whole fruit form, anyway). I've never even considered buying a pineapple. I live alone. What am I going to do with a whole pineapple? It's not that I don't like pineapple, but I'm really more of a one ring at a time, once or twice a year kind of fan... maybe a wedge served on the edge of a fruity drink every now and then... but that's all. I really don't need more pineapple than that.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who's never entered Cub Foods thinking, "I think I'll buy a pineapple today." Apparently sensing a need to further promote the pineapple, Cub Foods has wisely placed a greeter at this display--a Pineapple Consultant, if you will. He was mainly offering free samples, but I'm going to assume he was also armed with a full litany of pineapple recipes and serving suggestions. Perhaps he had some handy tips and pointers for peeling and slicing your pineapple safely and easily as well.

I couldn't help but wonder... why the push to sell pineapples? Did the produce manager severely over-order, and the gigantic display is his attempt to "turn lemons into lemonade" (or, more appropriately, turn pineapples into upside-down cake)? Maybe the order for 3,000 pineapples was correct, but occurred only because the store got some amazing deal for buying in bulk, like the time back in high school when we had cheese pizza 14 times in one quarter because the cafeteria lady found a bargain.

Maybe the pineapple is just the first in what will be a series of single-item marketing attempts in the Cub produce department. If that's the case, someone warn me when it's "World's Largest Mushroom Display" week. I think a precariously stacked 20-foot high pile of mushrooms hovering over me is really more than I can take. The mere thought of suddenly being buried in an avalanche of dusty fungus is enough to give me nightmares for weeks. Yech.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Grand Old Day

Each summer, the Twin Cities offer several opportunities to convene outside with thousands of strangers, stuff yourself with overpriced junk food (much of which is deep fried and/or served on a stick), listen to some music, collect a few freebies, and wander up and down the same streets repeatedly until your sandaled feet are black with dust and your blisters and sunburn tell you it's time to go home.

The first such opportunity of each summer is Grand Old Day. On Grand Old Day, a 2.5 mile stretch of St. Paul's Grand Avenue closes to traffic and becomes lined with deep fryers, snack wagons, beverage stands, music stages, and card tables displaying jewelry, small toys, and other trinkets and souvenirs.

Grand Old Day and the State Fair essentially bookend the summer, in my mind. On Grand Old Day, I see thousands of pasty white skinned Twin Citians baring their legs in shorts and summer skirts for perhaps the first time since the previous summer. By State Fair season, most people have worked on their tan a bit, but at both events, I'm aware that long pants and winter sweaters are just a few weeks away--either behind or in front of us. Both Grand Old Day and the State Fair offer plentiful people-watching opportunities, though the State Fair, most would argue, provides much more interesting human scenery, as the event draws visitors from all regions of the state and all demographics of the population. A guy with a mullet might walk by a guy with a purple mohawk, and each will observe the other with a look that says, "Freak."

The most important similarity between the two events, however, is of course, the food. The State Fair, as the larger event, undoubtedly offers more choices... Food vendors fight to outdo each other by finding something to deep fry that no one's deep fried before. Recent entries in this category include the now famous deep fried Twinkies, Oreos, and Snickers bars. At the State Fair, main courses also get a bit more exotic--alligator, ostrich, buffalo... all on a stick, of course. Few foods remain that have yet to be placed on stick by fair food vendors. I have yet to see a placard advertising "SOUP on a Stick!" but I maintain that it is only a matter of time. (I am fully confident it could be done, using some type of bread bowl technology, but I suspect legal worries are perhaps keeping any developer from bringing it to market. That or they're simply smart enough to realize that soup is not likely to be a big seller on a 90-degree August day, no matter how novel the serving method.)

I didn't see a lot of new innovations in street fair food at today's Grand Old Day festivities, but perhaps that's because Grand Old Day (much like the city of St. Paul in general) tends to stick to the classics. Corn dogs. Foot-long hot dogs. Ice cream. Mini-donuts. Corn on the cob. Bratwurst. Pizza. Sno-Cones. And of course, cheese curds. Cheese curds (at least, the golden, deep fried kind) are apparently a regional phenomenon, as my friend Jamie--a native of Ohio--had no idea what we were talking about when she first saw one of us emote the words "Oooo... cheese curds" with a Homer Simpson-esque tone of joy and longing. I'm not sure if she's a convert yet, but we'll keep working on her.

I'm a classic girl, I guess, so the lack of deep fried alligator on Grand Avenue didn't bother me one bit. I had a list of priorities or intentions for my calorie intake today, and I happily filled all of them. Corn dog. Cheese curds. Grand Ole Creamery ice cream. Plus an unplanned Jamba Juice smoothie that was also quite tasty. I did contemplate trying the deep fried garlic mashed potatoes on a stick, but in the end, decided it was just too hot outside to bite into a mound of molten potato. There's always the State Fair, I reasoned. If the deep fried mashed potatoes are any good (and even if they're not), they're bound to make an appearance at the fair. Maybe right next to the "Salad on a Stick" stand. Now that I'd like to see.