Hanging out at the Salt Lake City airport the other night, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. My airline, like many, had assigned all passengers a “boarding group” number; in our case, we were all in groups numbering from one to four with the ones – all seated at the front of the airplane – given first boarding priority. (An aside: wouldn’t it make more sense to load the plane with passengers from back to front?) The gate agent took her time scanning the boarding passes for all of the ones. Being a four myself, this gave me quite a bit of time to observe that all of the rest of us were drawn, irresistibly and almost magnetically, to form a kind of semi-circle around the area where the privileged ones were standing in line to be scanned. It was an odd juxtaposition: the chosen few, all lined up and orderly while behind them a looming, unruly, mumbling, shuffling horde watched their every twitch and miniscule advance. The ones chatted amongst themselves, seemingly oblivious. The twos, threes and fours, however, shared a single, unified focus: all eyes fixed on the gate agent and her line of chosen people, all bodies pressing against an invisible barrier – that unmarked zone that cannot be crossed until one’s assigned number has been called. The minute the gate agent announced that the twos could joint the line, several dozen bodies, already bent forward at improbable angles, practically fell over the barrier and materialized instantly in line. It seems that the more effectively you loom, the less distance there is between you and the line, and when your number is called… you can just kind of melt across the distance.
It’s like the art of projection, or the law of attraction: if you narrow your focus completely and totally to visualizing that you are in the gate agent’s line even though you are not, you will somehow be able to travel faster than the speed of light when she calls your number – therefore securing a better position in line and the glory that entails: if you are further ahead in the boarding line, obviously, you will arrive at your destination faster.
But the looming, hulking, silent and fixated horde also reminds me of a certain cinematic genre. The next time I’m smashed up against the invisible barrier, along with three-quarters of my fellow passengers, gazing with rapt attention at the chosen few and trying not to salivate, I’m going to start moaning “braiiiiiiiins, braiiiiiiiiins!”
Under my breath, of course; but if others catch on and join in, well, maybe those ones will move a bit faster, and without being quite so smug.
January 9th, 2010
The pantry and the back pantry are located underneath the stairs, tucked away just off the edge of the kitchen. The pantry is a fairly self-evident kind of space; long, narrow, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. The shelves themselves hold a variety of mysteries, from hand-ground whole-wheat flour and home-made granola in glass gallon jars to decaying cardboard boxes filled with ancient, tarnished silverware that we are never allowed to use. This is also where we tend to stash the bounty that our grandmother sends home with us every Sunday: endless packages of disposable plastic plates and paper towels, jumbo sized jars of pickles and olives. A tall vertical cross-section of a tree trunk is nailed up against the far wall. That’s where we measure our heights, all seven of us, a couple of times a year – or anytime we feel like we have something to prove and can do it best through documenting a growth spurt. I have learned that the floor slopes downhill before it touches the wall under the tree trunk; that makes it okay to stand on my toes just a little bit when my height is being measured. Just to compensate.
The back pantry is next to the pantry, and occupies the slanting space directly under the stairs. This is where we keep the wood box, filled with moderately-sized pieces of wood – bigger than kindling, smaller than logs – that are appropriate for the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. We keep newspapers here too, for dark early mornings when the stove is cold, and building a fire requires something immediately combustible. There are no shelves on the walls of the back pantry; instead, the walls are made of thin pieces of wood with a kind of cement squeezing in between the strips. The cement came out in irregularly sized swaths and globs, and dried a hundred years or so ago in eddies and swells. It’s tempting to find the swollen bits and pick them off… but ultimately unsatisfying, as they never grow back and the patches of wall that have already been picked clean look sad and barren. Also, there are strange hair-like threads embedded in the cement that frighten me. Cement that crumbles and falls to the floor is one thing; cement that ought to fall but instead dangles by a thread is unnatural.
The cook stove that we use for meal preparation and for heating the kitchen is just outside of the pantry. It’s backed up against a wall that’s been covered top to bottom in brick, to insulate the wall from the heat. Big, thick iron nails were pounded into the mortar between the bricks when it was still wet, and now they serve as hooks for all of the utensils one needs to maintain a wood-burning cook stove: a shovel, a poker, a small tool for lifting the circular burners that separate the fire from the cook.
Whenever someone with authority (and upper-body strength) desires to summon a child from the upper reaches of the upstairs bedrooms, the most effective method of communication can be found here – in the area between the cook stove and the back pantry. The poker, a two foot long iron rod, must first be disengaged from its nail hook, and then applied – with gusto – to the underside of the eleventh stair. Whack! Whack! Whack! Nothing wins the attention of the residents of the second story as quickly, and as unforgivingly, as a poker pounding against uninsulated wooden stairs.
And nothing causes near-death fright like accidentally standing on top of the eleventh stair when someone with authority (and upper-body strength) unknowing applies the poker to the underside of the same stair.
September 29th, 2009
The dining room is the second most treacherous room to navigate when running in a circle around the first floor. (The most treacherous is the parental bedchamber, but the obstacles there have to do with complicated permissions, rather than physical hurdles.)
The sheetrock ceiling and narrow strips of wood on the floor are reminders that it’s a work in progress, mid-way through a planned renovation. A dramatic triangle-shaped bay window offsets the side door and provides a perfect tiny seat with a great view of the driveway, and all the trees in the side yard. The centerpiece of the room is a big round wooden table that is, perhaps, the last place that we all ate together at the same dining table. We don’t like to interrupt its clean lines with chairs, so we keep them folded up in the sun porch. The table started out a dark brown, and the cracks between the planks were filled with the mysteries of the ages: glue that had split, creating cracks that curved and shivered like mini-ravines cutting through rock. Later the table went back to its natural wood color on top, and became blue on the bottom. More light, but less mystery.
When entering the dining room from the living room, there’s a narrow transition bordered on the left by a library bench. A small wooden seat forms the base of the bench, and in the center is a little wooden square on hinges that opens to reveal a perfect cube of storage, or a perfect hiding space before one is unfortunate enough to outgrow its confines. Towering above the bench are ceiling-height shelves that hold a magnificent collection of unreadable grown-up books. They are unreadable because of their adult content (The Clan of the Cave Bear), because of their age (the encyclopedia that we keep for sentimental value and for pressing flowers, but which is riddled with historical and scientific inaccuracies), and because of positioning (some are wedged in so tightly that to disrupt the delicate physics would cause a catastrophic avalanche of paper and dust; they might never even find the kid buried underneath. One is advised to run on tiptoes past the library bench, lest the tremors caused by pounding feet dislodge one of the piles.
To the right, opposite the library bench, is a telephone table which is actually an antique dresser. It looks simple enough, but telephone cords sometimes become unruly – especially when the phone has recently been transported into the living room in search of more comfortable seating – and sometimes crisscross the floor like subversive snakes, just waiting to coil around unwary feet.
Past the transition, one enters the dining room proper. There’s a dog that lives on a chain to the right, near the side door, but she is almost always good natured, and the challenge has mostly to do with trying to avoid frightening her. More imposing than the dog is the antique hutch, over to the left, which is filled with antique dishes. They’re covered with large purple grapes that you can actually feel on the surface of the glass, and match a set of dark green glass goblets that look like they came out of a medieval fairy tale. We get to use them sometimes at Christmas, but the rest of the year they stay in the hutch and rattle ominously whenever someone runs past. They make sounds that are downright crunchy if one miscalculates the corner and accidentally runs into the hutch. Fortunately, the giant pickle crock on one side (more hiding space), and a woodpile on the other, act as buffers
The final obstacle is the potbellied wood burning stove in the far corner. Unlike the library shelf, or the hutch, we are unlikely to do any damage to the potbellied stove if we run into it. And, during late spring, summer, and early fall the stove is unused and so we can run into it all we like. But it’s risky to allow the fear of direct contact between skin and cast iron to erode, because for the other six months of the year, it provides the only heat in the house and is, thus, a blazing hot inferno. It’s best to give it a wide berth.
January 18th, 2009
Overheard while standing in line at a coffee shop:
“It was crazy. CRAZY. I mean, I was running around like a head with my chicken cut off.”
January 18th, 2009
So here I am, standing in my bathroom, gargling whiskey.
It’s hard – trying to scream and gargle at the same time. Kind of, I’d imagine, like contracting a case of the hiccups while circular-breathing into your didgeridoo.
It all started a couple of Christmases ago. Sam and I were in Montana, and Sam succumbed to a raging cold. He was hot, he was cold, his glands were swollen, his throat hurt too much to swallow. My father, hearkening back to a family physician in rural Indiana, counseled him to drink a shot of whiskey. Just one. At 90 proof, the alcohol is potent enough to kill even the most stubborn of cold viruses. Sam complied, and noticed immediate and dramatic results – he felt better right away, and was warm for the first time since the cold had gotten him in its grip. By the next day, he was all but cured.
Six months later, Sam was in France when another cold descended – this time, one of those horrid summer colds. Remembering the familial wisdom offered by his father in law, he went out and bought a bottle of whiskey, much to his mother’s horror. Then, in a move that must have really made her wonder what goes on in Montana, he took a swig directly from the bottle… and gargled it. It seems he decided that if drinking whiskey could banish a cold overnight, then gargling whiskey would probably have him cured in half an hour.
Here we are, Christmas time again, and I have a horrid, rotten cold: swollen glands, I’m freezing in spite of my fever, my nose is bulbous and maroon, and my voice sounds like it’s squeezing out of my throat between two sheets of 10 grade sandpaper. I remember Sam’s gargling story, so I decide to do as the French do. Er, as the Franco-Montanans to.
But what Sam doesn’t know, and what doesn’t occur to me, is that my family has invented two different styles of gargling. There’s superficial anyone-can-do-it gargling, where you just kind of make gurgling sounds. Then there’s a technique that lets you gargle somewhere mid-way to your stomach, yet without actually swallowing. We all learned how to do this at an early age, since gargling salt water was the go-to cure for sore throats. It didn’t occur to me that Sam and I might have different cultural perceptions of appropriate gargling.
Until I cauterized my tonsils with Maker’s Mark.
I can’t really feel them anymore, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not…
December 3rd, 2008
Sitting on the bench in the sauna foyer, I opened my eyes just in time to observe a woman walking into the steam sauna, carrying a pencil and a pad of paper.
A few moments later I opened my eyes again and spotted a woman walking out of the sauna, wearing nothing but a pair of socks.
She crossed paths with a woman who was just entering, clad in very high-end and very lacy lingerie.
A few minutes later, the unmistakable sound of operatic vocals rose up from the depths of the gym; the voice originated somewhere in the long bank of showers, wisped it’s way along the hallway, along with the steam, then unfurled once it reached the sauna foyer. I was the sole audient for a voluptuous, passionate aria, which somehow seemed perfectly staged there amongst the tiled walls and draped towels.
A few minutes later I ducked into the steam sauna to see what had happened to the note-taker and the lingerie model. The steam, however, was at its densest and I could only make out a single person: a mime, visible only because of a turbaned head and gloved hands, gesticulating silently, seemingly urging the billowing clouds of steam into air currents in our tiny micro-climate.
The gym announced, via speaker, that closing time was imminent and the news filtered into the sauna, muted but still definitive. I started to leave but stopped when a voice, emanating from the depths of the steam, admonished me. “Ssshhhh, don’t move. The ‘we’re closing’ announcement doesn’t count if we didn’t hear it. Besides, they can’t kick us out if they can’t see us.” The turbaned head inclined in agreement, and the hands suggested that if I left, opening the door and letting the steam escape would put everyone in danger.
Fascinated by the mime and the politics of invisibility, I stayed. Time passed; it could have been a minute or an entire day later when I finally stepped out into the foyer. But it was just in time to observe a woman, casually disappearing around the corner, clad only in a breech-clout fashioned from paper towels from the dispenser.
October 2nd, 2008