Monday, February 15, 2010

Priceless or Worthless?

The recent This American Life podcast, House on Loon Lake, got me thinking about the idiom “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” The narrator told a story about breaking into an abandoned New England home as a bored adolescent. Confronted with rooms full of personal effects, he and his friends imagined the fate of the family who had lived there. I don’t want to give away the ending to the story, but the kids’ exaggerated explanations for the abandoned home were far more bizarre than the sad truth.

So, sitting here on my worn, black leather loveseat, staring at my kids’ toys, I wonder if the things in front of me, my family’s things, are worth anything more than the original price tags. Look around your own abode. If you vanished today and someone stumbled across your deserted belongings, would your stories be worth anything to anyone? Will the material things that describe your life be featured in a future museum exhibit or just junk destined for the local landfill?

My mother bought the toy farm set. The silo was attached briefly before it was unattached and used as a vertical garage for Matchbox cars and “bad guys.” I purchased the 36” Toshiba TV with my first commission check earned by selling classified advertisements a decade ago. My good friend Yahroo helped me haul it home from Best Buy. The crooked, miniature glass lampshade was originally part of a pair given to us by our late great grandmother – an incredible woman who is much missed. The warm glow of the two tea lights set the mood for many good evenings. My baby boy’s first birthday is approaching, yet a tourist photo of my wife, first son and me, still sheathed in plastic, rests behind the Panasonic speakers purchased with United airline miles. A white tag on a Smurf’s rear end points toward the ceiling. An exquisite hummingbird, hand-carved and purchased from an artist in Belize while on our honeymoon, defies gravity as it balances on its impossibly narrow wooden beak. Yellowed and dying leaves cling to the sad tendrils of a lush and waxy vine, a remnant of the thirty-some healthy houseplants that used to fill our home(s).

A Pirates of the Caribbean folding chair is stashed beneath the dark stained coffee table turned toy station. The hand-me-down Leapfrog electronic reading device rests limply against a wall, unused; the purple plastic learning cartridges are scattered behind me. The temperature-telling rubber ducky lies on its side. Mac Truck’s trailer, the one that accidentally deposited Pixar’s superstar racing sensation Lighting McQueen near fictional Radiator Springs, is parked harmlessly next to the red, rectangular toy bucket now decorated with Spiderman, Superman, NASCAR and T-Rex stickers. A yellow taxicab lies on its side. A foam baseball separates the Frankenstein bathtub ducky from the recycled plastic recycling truck. The Honda Ridgeline Matchbox truck is parked behind the purple viewfinder with its crumpled photo disc. The empty bucket on the extension ladder of the oversized red fire truck leans against the wall; the cab is stuffed with Marvel action figures. An unused inflatable mattress peeks from a green box leaning against the wall. The pull-along puppy from PAMIDA, a sweet gift from another great grandmother, lies motionlessly on its side, the red pull cord draped forlornly across its snout.

The always left-turning ambulance rests upside down in the dark-stained wicker book box. Blue and red cardboard bricks, hand-folded a year ago, lie buried beneath the rubble of other toys. The furry, green, belching T-Rex’s yellow foot protrudes over the rim of a woven basket. Squeeze, Handy Manny’s animated pliers, stares blankly with never-blinking eyes. A plastic dinosaur mocks its own species extinction as it lies prone. The Thing, Thor and Plastic Man grace the side of a Marvel Super Hero Squad inflatable ball. The homemade rice rattle hides behind the newer, more annoying Handy Manny drill. A bathtub squirt toy peeks from beneath the entertainment system. My firstborn son and his now way-too-small KC Royals cap stares back from a black and white photo taken in Savannah, Georgia.

Is this junk? Are my family’s memories meaningless? Are yours?

The yellow dump truck with no dump box looks as if it crashed into the sometimes face-eating squirrel. A plastic penguin, an overturned toy motorcycle, a yellow choo-choo, a lone fuzzy bear slipper, an insatiable, stuffed yellow pelican, a Raccoon Brewery growler from 2003, an oddly peeled roll of silver duct tape, a tie-dyed tapestry, a hand-built shelf, mini Princess Leia, photos of a first ocean visit celebrated, a bottle of flat bubbles, a bouncy ball with suspended glitter, C3PO, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton, a wooden keepsake box, my youngest' first shoes.

And that’s just what I can see in front of me. I can only hope that if my family had to disappear into the night and leave behind all our worldly possessions, unsorted and unfiltered, that curious kids will someday climb through a broken window and scare themselves with imagined stories of our demise.

Are your family’s heirlooms priceless or worthless?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snowmaggedon Strikes D.C. Metro

Apparently snow is Kryptonite to Superman. At least that’s what came to mind while watching my new neighbor wield a shovel in his too-tight Superman t-shirt. Seeing him helplessly hurl shovelfuls of snow into the wind nearly had me in tears. But after watching defeat set in on his sad face, I thought he might be the one to cry. Bewildered by the enormity of the task ahead, his laser vision fizzled and his angry glare was the only thing hot enough to possibly melt a snowflake or two.

Snowmaggedon? Snowpocalypse? Snowverkill? Possibly exaggerated, but it is true that we received two feet of heavy, wet snow in a storm big enough to silence the jets in the sky. It was by far the most snow I’ve ever experienced in a single event, and certainly the most I’ve ever shoveled. After digging out, I now know how John Henry must have felt when that shaft of sunlight pierced the hole left by the final swing of his mighty sledgehammer: relieved, proud, and triumphant.

I love a good snowstorm, especially a record breaking storm. Everyday life can be so regimented; every minute planned and scheduled. A snowstorm breaks up the monotony like a garden spade through ice. Sure there are highlights to illuminate each day, but the routine is a rut in which the wheels of novelty spin fruitlessly. Big weather events like blackouts (electrical not alcohol), 100-year floods, and blizzards shake things up, disrupting routines. People suddenly snap out of their malaise as if they have just been pelted in the face with a snowball. They’re forced to communicate with neighbors who’ve been hiding behind closed doors since Thanksgiving. People take up shovels and unite behind a common cause, lending a helping hand or sharing a laugh over a shovelful of snow. Heads nod and “mmm-hmmm’s” are heard as broad, pointless statements about the weather and the world are made. Snowstorms also remind us haughty humans that our place in the pecking order is much lower than we care to admit. Because whether it’s Mother Nature blanketing the land in misery, or someone close to us delivering an icy insult, sometimes it’s good to get knocked down a peg or two. Snowstorms, like all major natural disasters, put life back into perspective.

Buried beneath the snow with all the headlines about power outages, lost productivity, and bad drivers is the fact that my sister-an-law and her man have been stranded here since Sunday. Their bosses back home can’t complain about their absence when the snowstorm is the top story on the evening news each night. We don’t see them but a few times each year, so we’ve enjoyed their extended visit. Their nephews have loved the extra attention, and my future brother-in-law is a bulldozer with a shovel in his hand.

And now February Fury (to borrow The Weather Channel’s malevolent moniker) has arrived. In a matter of hours we’ll be pushing a fresh foot of snow to the muted sounds of winter. If the roads are impassable and cabin fever sets in, we’ll once again don the backpacks and trek to the bodega for a “bag of nice” – more beer. Half-Tail the backyard squirrel’s loyalty will once again be rewarded with scraps of wheat bread flung like Frisbees from my sliding glass doorway. I’ll be more than happy to help dig my Vietnamese neighbor out - so long as she brings her Toro snow blower and fresh pork spring rolls to the party again! And poor Superman is next door staring blankly out the window at the accumulating snow, quaking in his shiny red boots.

Check out a slideshow here:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty

When the night began, the plan had been to enjoy an Italian meal and some wine while the boys watched a movie at Kindercare during the center’s monthly Parents’ Night Out. If asked the odds of agreeing to a professional, spa-style pedicure that night, I’d have answered, “HA! Zero chance, no way.” And yet there I was, my pasty white feet a blur beneath the bubbles, and an Asian woman kneeling before me quietly preparing a bucket of lotions, balms, towels and strange clipping tools.

Warm water bubbled up between my toes. My chair vibrated and hummed as a mechanical roller rearranged my vertebrae. A calming heat rose from my lower back and radiated outward like the morning sun crossing the lawn. One would think sitting in that massage chair with my feet submerged would have been relaxing; but, in fact, I was not relaxed at all. Whether it was the full moon, the cheap Chianti, or my recent lack of sleep, my wife had somehow convinced me to join her for my first pedicure.

The food next door had been awful. The Kalmata olives were mushy, the olive oil bland and runny, the fresh mozzarella had the consistency of a wet eraser, the Chianti was overpriced, the gnocchi was chewy, and the pepperonis were nothing more than salty islands floating in a sea of greasy orange globules.

The conversation had been nearly as bad. After a full work week and less than an ideal amount of sleep, the two of us had trudged past exhaustion into the realm of zombies. We struggled to make eye contact, our red-rimmed eyes lazily settling on such exciting things as the back of a spoon or a crust of bread. Sentences were started with hopes of finishing them, but most trailed off into unintelligible mumbles. After 45 minutes of forced pseudo-socializing, we paid the bill and, to the obvious surprise of our waitress, declined boxes for our leftovers. I’m not sure Half-Tail, my backyard squirrel, would have accepted such noxious faire had I offered it.

So it was in this weakened state of mind that my wife asked if I’d be up for a pedicure. “Come on, it’ll be fun!” she had promised. Not wanting to squander what little adult time we had been allotted, I reluctantly said yes and entered the salon.

Angie made the arrangements as I helped myself to the bowl of candy on the counter, plopped down onto an overstuffed chair, and began thumbing through some headlines on my iPhone. A minute later, I was being ushered over to a brown, vinyl chair, similar to a barber’s, but with a bubbling cauldron beneath the foot rest.

The blinding overhead lights and the mirrored walls were disorienting, and I didn’t know where to store my shoes and socks. Was I to take them off, or the attendant? I followed Angie’s lead and set my footwear next to the chair and climbed into the seat. Sensing my discomfort, she slipped me a copy of Washingtonian magazine and gave me a reassuring smile. Seventy-five top bars were featured in the cover story. Sweet.

It occurred to me that watching a barber cut hair in the mirror was far less intimate and more removed. I felt uncomfortable watching the woman work, so I kept my face buried in the magazine and read about lounges, hotel bars and classic dives. My left foot slipped through the woman’s muscular grip like a bar of soap in the shower. Her thumbs pressed into the deepest flesh on my calf. I was beginning to melt into my chair like a pat of butter spread on a steaming ear of corn.

Alternating between right and left legs, she nearly scrubbed the hair off with an orange-scented exfoliating balm. It burned like hot sand and I liked it. With the skin rubbed red raw, she wrapped each leg in a towel moistened in cold water. I peeked over the magazine as she clipped my toenails with the adroitness of a surgeon. She employed a shoeshine boy’s circular wrist action as she filed and buffed the nails, and her block sander smoothed out heels calloused from many miles walked.

Finally, she applied lotion from my knees to my ankles and wrapped my legs with a hot towel. Moments later my legs felt cold and stinging hot at the same, not unlike the sensation of chewing strong peppermint gum. As I reclined in that humming chair, my legs tingling like a fiery snowball beneath the hot towel, my exfoliated feet red and pruned, I realized that this wouldn’t be my last pedicure. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll get talked into one of those creepy, green face masks - and love it, too.