Friday, February 4, 2011

In which some people try to set my friend up with a child molester

My friend Liz is lovely. She is smart, pretty, athletic and nice. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire, where she set up a pharmacy inventory system for her region. Speaks French. She has led an interesting life.

She is also a serious Christian of the Protestant sort and is quite involved in her church. Not interested in casual dating with someone who does not share her faith. Which narrows her options but should not mean she should settle.

Some fellow churchmembers approached her after services one day.

We have a man for you, they said.

Really? Liz asked cautiously.

He's really great - we've been friends for years. Nice guy. Never married. He's studying for the ministry right now, they told her.

Well, maybe, Liz said.

There's just one thing...

Oh I KNEW it! Liz thought.

He's a convicted pedophile.

Liz, stunned, said nothing. What would you say?

But he prays about it really, really hard! the friends continued.

No, Liz said. No. No thanks.

She later asked me if she looked so desperate that someone thought she would date a child molester.

No, she did not. Her fellow congregants were trying to upgrade the guy.

And yes, I, too, hope that his conviction will keep him away from any job involving contact with children.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In which two people who should have known better ask what my dad's rank was

Here's the deal about rank in the military: it is soooo much more than a job title. It endows status on the spouse (the general's wife is usually the president of the Officers' Wives Club), it confers privilege (size and location) in housing, it determines pay, it guides weight limits for moving.*

Job titles matter in the civilian world as well, but it's not the same. You don't live with, go to church or synagogue with, shop with and socialize with your co-workers in the civilian world the way you do in the military. They are not your next-door neighbors or your kids' babysitters. Title matters at work and work events, but outside of work, not really.

Some people are hyper-aware of rank, as my friend Michael remembers. He is black and his dad was a colonel. The (black) mother of another kid wouldn't let her son play with Michael because her husband was enlisted and she didn't think it was appropriate for an enlisted man's kid to play with an officer's kid.

Side story: Michael's dad retired when he was 14 and they moved to Memphis, where his dad became a chaplain at the VA. Michael says that's when he experienced racism for the first time in his life. When his dad was in the army, Michael was (if anything), the chaplain's kid or the colonel's kid, but in Memphis, he was the black kid. Except to the black kids, of course, who thought he acted white.

My dad was a bit anti-rank, at least when it came to his kids. We were instructed to call our friends' dads "Mister," not "Major So and so" or "Sergeant So and so."

"I call them that," my dad said. "But you do not. They are 'Mister' to you."

We kids knew who was who, but it didn't matter. We didn't care.

Civilians might ask me what rank my dad was when he was retired, which I always wonder about. Why do they care? Do they know how ranking works? If they do, then they know that they are asking a somewhat rude question. If they don't, then why are they asking at all?

I wouldn't ask someone whose mom or dad had been a college teacher what title they held. To me, all professors are equal, but apparently, there is an entire hierarchy. Big deal. Assistant professor, associate professor, plain professor: they all teach at the college level, right? That's all I need to know. Except the subject. That's important because who doesn't want to know more about the archaeologist dad and the summers spent on the dig in Egypt? Or the food scientist mom developing better ice cream?

But military people - a child or spouse of a serviceman - know what rank is what and what rank means. And they know you don't ask, or at least you don't ask unless it's relevant. It is not relevant in a social setting. Which is why I was so shocked when I attended the wedding breakfast for a friend whose father had also been in the military.

An older lady said to me, after explaining how her husband had retired from the army and how her son was the aide de camp to a NATO general in Turkey, "I hear you and Zoe were friends in high school."

"Yes," I answered.

"What rank was your father?" she asked.

I was stunned. She knew the protocol. She knew what she was asking was the civilian equivalent of, "How much money did your dad make? Even if he made decent money, did he earn it doing something icky like being a drug dealer?** Or was his job high status like surgeon? Did you live in an appropriate neighborhood? Did he belong to the right clubs?"

It was an attempt to place me socially, which is why I hate all "What do you do?" questions anyhow. First, if someone is unemployed, it really stinks to have to answer that, and second, too many people use it as a shortcut to the same thing: how useful can you be to me? I ask people I've just met what movies they've seen or what books they've read lately. I was on the jobless answering end for far too long. Plus I am just a superior human being who knows how to be polite to others.

But I was so shocked that she would ask that I blurted out my answer. She turned away from me without another word. My dad could not help her son be promoted to general.

Wow. I vowed that I would never be caught off guard like that again. Zoe later confirmed to me that the woman was kind of a bitch.

Years later, when I met Primo, Sly and Doris showed no interest in me or my family. Didn't ask me anything about college or my growing up or where my family was now.

Mi gente. I am not a boring person. OK, maybe I'm a bit boring, but I have not lived a boring life. I have lived under two dictators and been around for the aftermath of another. I speak Spanish fluently and can get by in French. I have been all over southern Europe. I was a Peace Corps volunteer and most people want at least to know about the food in my host country. I have lived in three foreign countries and Miami. There are things to talk to me about.

But nope. Not interested.

The one thing Sly asked Primo about me - and he didn't even have the guts to do this to my face because he knew! he knew! he had been in the navy and he knew! - was what rank my dad had held at retirement.

That was the one fact he considered important enough about me to know? What rank my father, who had been dead for about eight years by the time Sly met me, had held at retirement? Why on earth did it even matter? He was never going to meet my dad. My dad had been retired for years before he died and had three other interesting post-retirement jobs, including working on a shrimping boat for a season, just because he had always wanted to do that, teaching aircraft mechanics to members of the Saudi Arabian air force, and teaching junior high math and science on the US Navy base on Sicily. So much more to my dad than his rank and so many interesting things to know about him. But Sly just wanted to place my dad and to judge me by my dad's rank. Jerk.

* Primo laughs because I travel so lightly through life and refuse to buy books ("We can afford them, you know"), but when I was a kid, we couldn't accumulate books because they were heavy.

** Not that I am trying to compare anyone in the military to drug dealers - I am just trying to show that income is not the only way we label a person.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In which my sister gets in touch with her inner Rapunzel

I told you we lived in Spain from 1969 to 1973. This was the Franco era, only one generation removed from the Spanish Civil War, which was not a pleasant time in Spain's history. Read For Whom the Bell Tolls if you want to know more, but really, do you want to know about starving people and villagers making their neighbors run through a gauntlet of hoes and scythes until they are pushed off a cliff to their death? Nasty.

"Only one generation" diminishes the horrors, as well. Even in the past few years, in our trips to Spain (doesn't that sound fancy? "In our trips to Spain!" Us! Frequent world travelers! Thank you, Primo's hard, long hours and frequent flyer miles), Primo and I have seen the miniature elderly Spanish walking slowly on the sidewalk. The first time we saw a white-haired couple, each barely five feet tall, we didn't think much of it. But after the third and fourth and fifth and sixth, we realized there was something going on.

They had been children during the civil war. And had been starved. Their growth had been stunted. I saw an elderly, short couple in my grocery store here a few weeks ago. I didn't even have to hear them speaking Spanish to know they were from Spain.

When we lived there, Spain had not yet recovered. It was still a dictatorship. Many poor people. Where there are poor people, even soldiers can afford household help. Heck, even Peace Corps volunteers can afford help. I had a maid and a gardener when I was in the Peace Corps. Not because I am lazy, even though I am, but because it was cheaper to pay a maid to sort of clean my entire house than to take my clothes to the laundry. And it was cheaper to have a gardener than to buy a lawnmower.

My best friend Lisa's mom and dad had a gardener who undoubtedly worked for many families, maybe even ours, as there was simply not enough work at one house to keep a full-time gardener. But he stored his tools in Lisa's carport.

Lisa's brother, Stevie, who now goes by the more sophisticated "Steve," and my sister, Jenny, knew that's where the tools were. Undoubtedly, they had been forbidden to touch those tools, but is there any fruit sweeter than forbidden fruit?

Let me tell you about my sister at age four.

She was gorgeous. Drop-dead gorgeous. Rosy, chubby cheeks. Twinkling blue eyes. Infectious smile. And curly, long to her butt, flaxen hair.

My mom would take us into Madrid to go to the big market with the dead rabbits hanging from the ceiling. Spaniards would stop, bend down, pinch Jenny's cheek, and coo, "Ay que rubia! Que cute!" Vendors would give her strawberries. They loved her blonde plumpness.

They never pinched my cheek. At seven, with stick-straight, chin-length hair and slightly buck front teeth with a gap between them, I was not cute. I was definitely not cute when compared to my sister. I'm over it. Mostly.

My mom usually put Jenny's hair in a ponytail. Four year olds and long, curly, fine hair are not the most convenient mix, but my mom did not want to cut it. Can you blame her? She had a golden angel.

Then came the day that I returned from school to find my sister's hair - gone. When I had left for school, her hair was long. When I came home, it was short.

Jenny and Stevie had broken into the gardener's tool box.

They found the big, heavy, wood-handled pruning shears.

Stevie lifted the shears to Jenny's head and snip, snip, snip, the ponytail was gone.

They made the rounds of the neighborhood, leaving chunks of hair at each stop, chunks that my mother later collected as she tirelessly re-traced their route.

Jenny was scolded quite severely. She didn't need more than a few harsh words before she would burst into tears. Even now, she gets defensive any time I ask why she is still dating that loser.

My dad didn't think it was as big a deal as my mom did, which did not make my mom happy.

My mom had to trim the long hair on the edges to match the very short hair at Jenny's crown. Jenny looked like a little Mia Farrow when Mia Farrow still looked good and before she got involved with that quasi-incestuous creep.

Hair grows. Good thing, because even at 47, I have been known to take the scissors to my own hair. Jenny's hair grew back, but it grew back straighter and dark blonde. There is probably a moral in here somewhere, like lock up your gardening tools or don't let your four year old play with scissors. But if it hadn't been gardening shears, it probably would have been chewing gum in the hair or who knows what. Not that I ever took a nap with chewing gum in my mouth, despite my mother's warnings, and woken up to find the gum stuck in my hair.

Jenny's hair is now long and curly again. Except she blow-dries it straight. I guess she never did like those curls.

In which I finally kick the diaper habit

This might shock some of you, who think of me as this perfect being, a model to emulate in every way, but - I was a bedwetter.

Yep. I wet the bed until I was seven.

My poor mother.

I did just fine during the day. I was as toilet learned as the next second grader. But at night? Couldn't or wouldn't wake up. I understand that. Even now, I hate to get out of bed in the middle of the night just to pee. It's cold. The toilet seat is cold, although it's not so bad since Primo got me a wooden toilet seat for Christmas.

Oh yes this is a house full of wine, roses and romance. I wanted the heated toilet seat (you laugh, but only if you live someplace that doesn't get cold), but it costs $189, even at Menards, Primo's favorite place to shop, and you have to plug it in. The entire design aesthetic of our downstairs bathroom would have been ruined by a cord running from the toilet, across the vanity (which I hate and which will be replaced AA - After Alimony), and to the outlet.

Now, it's me who has to change the sheets if I wet the bed. I have a strong motivation not to, not to mention that I am 47 years old and bedwetting is not a big problem among women my age. As far as I know.

Back then, it was my mother's problem.

After taking me to the doctor and ascertaining that this was not a physical problem over which I had no control, my mom decided to put the burden of the consequences (or most of them) on me. She put me back in diapers.

Not the fancy diapers they have now, where a kid doesn't even know she's wet, a development that has been great for getting rid of diaper rash but not so great, I have heard, for encouraging toilet learning. (See? I am au courant with all the child-rearing lexicon.) But the old-fashioned cloth kind that fastened with pins and were covered by plastic pants. The kind that sat in a plastic bin with bleach until there was a full load to be washed. You wonder why moms in the 60s didn't have time to meet their friends at Starbucks for a latte? It's because they were washing diapers.

By the time I was seven, I was putting on and removing the diapers myself. Which is pretty sad. Even sadder than the kids who walk up to their mothers, unbutton mom's shirt, and hey! Lunch!

Go ahead. Flame me. But I maintain if your kid is old enough to help himself to the boobie, he is old enough to be weaned. And I would have said so to the women I worked with in Chile who would go through three-hour meetings with a kid casually latched on but it seemed like bad manners. Note that the director of my agency, who kept an infant attached to her naked breast, told me that I had to stop knitting during meetings because it was "distracting."

Knitting = distracting

Naked breast with baby attached = not distracting

We were in the Southern Hemisphere, where the water swirls down the toilet counterclockwise or clockwise but opposite to how it swirls in the Northern Hemisphere, so perhaps other things were opposite, too.

Every night before bed, I would put on my diaper. Every morning, I would take it off.

Not such a big deal, really. I wasn't the one washing them. I still didn't have to get up in the middle of the night to pee, so it was win/win as far as I was concerned.

Then my mom started bribing me. If I could go seven days without a wet diaper, I could have a prize, probably a piece of candy.

I can be bought.

I easily went the seven days.

But then started peeing again because what was in it for me?

Then we hit the trifecta, only with two things, so it was a bifecta.

I spent the night with my best friend Lisa, who lived in the same building we did. We were in Spain at the time and we lived in an off-base housing area with fourplex houses. We lived in 61-D. Lisa was in 61-C. Her phone number was 452, which I knew to say in Spanish to the operator: cuatro cinco dos. I don't remember our phone number because I didn't call it so much.

The housing area, which was not a restricted area the way a military base is, was a combination of US and Spanish culture. Little League, Brownies and Cub Scouts plus Spanish vendors and craftsmen passing through. The knife sharpener rode his bike, blowing a little whistle to announce his presence, and sharpened knives and scissors with a grinder powered by a chain looped to the back wheel. The candy guy sold not just red lollipops and gummy bears but also plastic strips for making lanyards, which was present #2 that we made for our parents after present #1, the clay ashtray from the school art class. Whether our parents smoked or not.

We took Spanish classes in school, wrote letters to the Three Kings at Christmas time, and took field trips to the wax museum in Madrid. This was Franco's Spain, so it was still very poor, which meant that even servicemen of modest means could afford household help. We had a maid who came once a week. First, we had Rosario and then there was Sole. Then there was the gardener and his tools, which he stored by Lisa's house, but I'll tell you about that adventure in another post. Let's just say that perhaps a gardener should not leave pruning shears out where there are little kids who have long hair.

The house isn't there any more, or not the way I remember it. Primo and I went to Madrid a few years ago and took the metro out to Royal Oaks, which had been several miles away from the outskirts of Madrid. Now the city is built all the way out to Royal Oaks.

About least 25 years ago, the Spanish government didn't renew the lease or whatever on Torrejon Air Force Base, where my dad had been stationed, and the housing area also reverted back to the Spanish government, who apparently sold it to private developers who knocked the houses down and built luxury villas with walls in front of them. My house was gone. My yard was gone. Nothing remained of what I remembered: our house, the pool, the school. There is a Facebook group for people who went to Royal Oaks Elementary. Everyone remembers their house number.

I was at Lisa's house. And I had to put on my diaper.

Well that's a little bit embarrassing. Second grade and wearing a diaper is not a big deal if nobody knows about it. But when your best friend finds out?

That's motivation.

Plus being sissy enough that at 10:00 p.m., I decided I didn't want to spend the night any more because it was scary, so Lisa's mom called my mom, who came and got me and my diaper-clad butt.

Shortly thereafter, my mom offered me a 30-day deal: dry diapers for a month and I could have the doll advertised on the back of the cornflakes box.

That, plus the allure of not having to humiliate myself in front of my friends any more, was real motivation. The bifecta. My mom had finally hit the proper combination of incentives, which is always so tricky in any management situation. How to align the interests of the individual (me) with those of the organization (my mother)?

My mom found it. Humiliation + desired toy = dry diapers. I kept dry for 30 days and after that, wet was not acceptable. I had been exposed: I could control it after all. No more cereal-box goodies for me.

Monday, January 31, 2011

In which my sister tries to frame my brother for the Eating of the Forbidden Fruit

When I was in high school, we lived on Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. Many of you may not know what life is like on an air force base, so I will give you a primer. The military person's family size determines the size of house he (in the late 70s, it was mostly "he") and his family get. His rank determines the location. As in, the higher the rank, the higher on the hill the house.

I had two best friends in high school, Jackie (whom I sent into babysitting hell) and Julie. Jackie's dad was a chief master sergeant, I think, and she had one brother, so they were in a three-bedroom duplex house on the flatland. My dad was a captain with three kids, so we had a full house (four bedrooms) on the rise to the hill, but very low on the rise.

Julie's dad was a colonel and the wing commander (he was the highest-ranking officer on Howard - the general lived on a different base), so they lived on the top of the hill. Even though Julie's sister was already away at college and there were just two kids at home, they got a big house because her dad had to entertain a lot. Julie's mom would pay Julie and me $5 each to clean up after the parties. Julie and I discovered that rum and Tab was an awful combination at one party. Nothing like something that tastes like crap to convince you that maybe drinking is not for you.

All the houses looked alike - white stucco with red-tile roofs, first floor open for a carport, patio, and maid's quarters. I don't know of anyone who had a live-in maid. My mom used our maid's quarters as a darkroom. We did, however, have a cleaning lady once a week, but she was not allowed to clean my room or my brother's or sister's room. My mom maintained that the cleaning lady was for her, not for us.

Four blocks away was the movie theater and the pool. Another few blocks to the base exchange, also known as the BX (PX on an army post), and the parade grounds. The parade grounds also served as the soccer practice field. Soccer practice usually ended around the time when the flag was taken down and Taps played, which meant standing still until the song was over. Traffic stopped for Taps as well. That's how we roll on a military base. The national anthem was also played before the movies. People knew to stand and to take off their darn hats and I'm talking to you, Memphis Redbird fans who don't seem to grasp that you 1. take off your hat and 2. quit talking on your darn cellphone for the anthem.

Now to the story. The point of all this background - well, just to give you a mise en scene. And to lead to this fact: on a military base, you know your neighbors. None of this going ten years without ever meeting the people who live next door. (It did take me two years to meet one of my next-door neighbors here, but not because I wasn't interested - I just never saw her.) Everyone is in the same boat. They all work for the same employer. Have the same mission. Everyone is moving in and moving out, so it's hard for feuds to develop and alliances to build. The downside is everyone knows everyone else's business.

To the story. When I was in high school, my mom opened the pantry one day to discover that her one precious can of mandarin oranges was missing.

Big deal, you shrug. So a can of fruit is gone. So what?

A couple of things.

1. It was very difficult to get certain items in the commissary, as everything had to be shipped from the US to Panama. It wasn't like now, where it's fairly easy to find what you want all over the world. It was a little bit like the old Soviet Union, I think, where scarcity ruled and you pounced on what was in stock. The irony in all this is that the oranges available from Panama's Boquete region were delicious and abundant.

2. My mother had made it clear that this item was off limits. She did not take threats to her authority lightly.

She asked which of us had eaten it.

Not I! said the first kid.

Not I! chimed the second.

And not I! claimed the third.

My mom was not satisfied with that answer. She asked again. She got the same answers again.

Fine, she seethed. Whoever ate them, leave the money on the counter and this will be over.

Nobody left the $1.32 on the counter.

My mom was angry. Must have mentioned it to her friend Sue. My sister, brother and I all babysat for Sue. Jenny was at Sue's when she casually mentioned, as she carefully studied her fingernails, that she had seen Greg with mandarin orange juice on his chin.

She whispered to me that she had seen Greg with a can opener a few days before the oranges were consumed.

I knew I hadn't eaten them. Which left my brother or my sister.

Greg protested that he had not eaten the mandarin oranges. He didn't even like mandarin oranges!

But Jenny was steadfast in her denial. Never wavered.

I don't remember what Greg's punishment was. Maybe he didn't get punished, as he maintained he had not done it. Alas, my brother had been known to bend the truth in the past, so his denial was not plausible. (He has since overcome this tendency.)

It wasn't until years later that my sister admitted that she had eaten the oranges.

She had done the crime. And then spread a vast, elaborate web of lies, all designed to take my brother down. My sister, criminal mastermind.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

In which Primo and I go on a romantic ten-day vacation and don't wxyz once

This might be TMI for some of you, so I am putting an R rating on this one. If you are squeamish about women's things, then stop reading now. Otherwise, no complaining.

For my engagement gift, Primo got me a Simple Human fancy kitchen trash can because

1. I have fat little fingers that are not enhanced by a ring,

2. I am as thrifty as they come and of an age to understand that any money he spent on a ring would be money not available for other things we wanted, like food,

3. I was sick and darn tired of bending over his 12" ugly plastic kitchen trash can that had to be opened by pressing the release on the lid, which meant lifting my foot 13" and hitting just the right spot, so I could peel onions directly into the can and even then, not getting the peels into the trash because it was too darn small and yes, I learned to peel them into a bowl on the counter, but still, and

4. I wanted to use any extra $5,000 not for a ring but for a trip to Paris. We do not buy that stupid two months' salary bit dreamed up by the diamond industry.

Last Thanksgiving, we took that trip. Not for $5,000 - that went to re-surface our driveway last summer! oh how I love being a homeowner in a cold climate!

It was the perfect storm:

1. A foolproof reason not to visit Sly and Doris for Thanksgiving, as Primo, perhaps hoping for their early demise, has not yet informed his parents that we will never again spend a holiday with them. Not that our freedom has gone unremarked (how, how, how could he take a ten-day vacation to Paris with that castrating golddigging Catholic ho who won't get a job but not come visit them?), but I would much rather deal with an Airing of the Grievances from afar than in their living room. Let them complain. Let them complain from far away.

2. He had to use vacation or lose it.

3. He had enough frequent flier miles to get us there on business class tickets, which is the only way we travel now because we are fancy and enough hotel points for six nights, leaving only three nights for us to pay.

The idea was that we would have a romantic vacation: sleeping late in our Hilton Arc de Triomphe room with its thick walls and sturdy shower and free coffee in the executive lounge, although paying 4 euros at an exchange rate of $1.30/euro for a latte at Starbucks - what? that should bother me?, walking hand in hand through the City of Light, of laughing lightly - tralalalala! at the charming foibles of the French, feeding croissants to each other, kissing at all the romantic spots, like the top of the Eiffel Tower or on the Pont Neuf, and eating long, leisurely lunches at intimate cafes as we watched the world go by.

And, of course, of lots and lots of wxyz, which we are usually too tired to have because Primo works such long hours and I - well, I have no excuse except he comes to bed late and I get up early and we are no longer poulets de printemps.

The stars were aligned for a romantic Paris trip: Primo was going to take a real vacation during a slow time at work, so probably would not be up until 4 a.m. on his computer in the hotel lobby as he was during the first night of our honeymoon in Madrid, we were going to be in a nice, warm hotel, and I had checked the calendar, counted 28 days from the last "x" and discovered I was clear.

But then I didn't get my period. Late, late, late. Took the pregnancy test, drama, drama, drama. Not pregnant but no period.

We got to Paris. Went to our first hotel on Rue Cler, the one we were paying for ourselves. We arrived at about 1 p.m., but they wouldn't let us into our room. We were exhausted, but went out and walked for a few hours, trying to stay warm in the Paris cold that was 15 degrees below what had been forecast.

When we returned, they let us in. We snuck the bread and cheese we had bought past the clerk - no food allowed in the room!, took off our shoes, sat on the bed, ate, and fell asleep. No wxyz.

The next day, we went to the Sewer Museum and walked and walked and walked and walked. Returned to the hotel exhausted, ate, and fell asleep. No wxyz.

The next day, we drove out to Mont St Michel via the Normandy beaches. The sun set at 5:00, so we were navigating from Normandy to the Mont in the dark. In the driving rain. With a map designed to fool the Germans should they get antsy again. We had a crummy, overpriced meal in a restaurant run by a snippy waiter, then went to bed, exhausted. No wxyz.

The next day, we returned to Paris. Hit town at rush hour. Got in the wrong lane and were forced off the road we needed to be on. Lots of panic and Oh noes! Got back onto the spiderweb of Paris streets and made it to Hertz, but not without a lot of drama.

Some couples bond over this sort of thing. We do not. We fight and get cranky. By the time we got to the Hilton, which is where we were staying for the rest of the trip, we were not happy with each other and we were again, exhausted. Went to sleep. No wxyz.

The next day, we got enough sleep. We were in a good mood. We ate a delicious Paris lunch. SH did not work. We had a lazy, lovely romantic day. Returned to the hotel for some wxyz.

And discovered that guess what?

My period had waited until now to arrive.

Two and a half weeks late.

Which meant no nice romantic vacation wxyz.