Archive for October, 2010

Art From Bitterness

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

So yesterday I was trying really hard to behave. Specifically, I was driving. After about eight seconds of that kind of thing, the rage coursing in my bloodstream is at illegal and probably toxic levels.

I suppose I’d be a lot better off if I could just learn to be a cynic. A cynic is someone so utterly jaded by the stupidity around him that he’s no longer startled by it. He sneers or laughs or both. Think Oscar Wilde.

Unfortunately, I’m a curmudgeon. A curmudgeon often comes across as a cynic, and sometimes thinks she really is one. But deep inside, a curmudgeon has an overwhelming and insistent faith that human beings really could do better if they just tried a little harder. And so a curmudgeon is shocked and outraged every time she looks around and sees that — hey! wait a minute! — people are just as stupid as they were yesterday! Or even half an hour ago! (Needless to say, Mark Twain is the patron saint of curmudgeons.)

So every time I go anywhere, I’m absolutely assaulted by surprise. Every time some pedestrian messes up traffic by crossing against the light, or just meanders into the middle of the street because apparently that’s where all the fun is kept; every time a bicyclist not only doesn’t stop at a Stop sign but doesn’t think that red light applies to him, either; every time a motorist takes a left turn while clutching a phone as if it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, or fluctuates wildly between being three nanometers and forty feet behind my car because her response time has been utterly *&#!ed by the attention that all her constant texting demands — every time is like the first time. I’m not just enraged. I’m genuinely startled.

Which is not, I admit, the behavior of one who learns from experience, which some would argue is how we really ought to measure innate intelligence. But I think it would be even creepier to go out and say (out loud or to myself), “That man is simultaneously driving and engaging in behavior that’s been proven again and again to be more harmful to one’s reflexes than being legally drunk. He is operating a vehicle that is in its own way just as dangerous as a gun, in that both cars and guns require very little energy or effort to damage and destroy. People are injured and even killed every day in accidents that didn’t have to happen, because of behavior of the sort I’m currently witnessing. Ho, hum.” Maybe I sound like an idiot doing all that screeching, but at least I still care.

I admit I take this kind of thing more personally than many. Several years ago, I finally had surgery on the sinuses that had been causing me constant and considerable pain for years. It was a really big deal, both moneywise and in terms of my being out of commission for several days afterward. Two days after this surgery, while I was still lying in bed bleeding from the schnozz, my husband was rear-ended on the freeway, with my son in the car, by someone who didn’t bother slowing down when my husband did in order to avoid a collision. Our car was totaled. We’re still paying medical bills. My husband will be in some degree of neck pain for, oh, the rest of his life. And I’m really jittery about the idea of getting some very necessary surgery again. So if you notice that the lady in the car ahead of you is screaming some really inappropriate words in your direction regarding your tailgating, and she’s a redhead, you might be driving behind me. And if my son’s not in the car and I’ve had one too many idiot drivers doing the same damned thing that day, I might decide to test my brakes. On you. So back off, in every sense. But I digress.

(In case you’re wondering if I’m one of those hypocrites who denounces other people while holding herself an exception to the rule: I cross at the light. I stop at the sign, no matter what kind of wheels I’m controlling. I have never, not even once, driven while talking on the phone. Ever. I have a cell phone for emergencies. I don’t know how to do much more than dial or answer it. My son keeps it with him in the back seat, and if it rings and he recognizes the number and it might be someone calling about the very errand we’re currently running, he can get it and pass along any message I need to hear. Usually, I just wait until I get wherever I’m going and check to see if there’s a message. Usually, there isn’t. Because guess what? Most phone calls just aren’t that important. And none of them are important enough for me to risk my life or my son’s. And texting while I’m driving? You’re kidding, right? I can’t believe anyone does that, no matter how many times I see them at it. I can’t even text while I’m walking. Texting while breathing is about all I’m up to, and I don’t do much of that, either.)

Anyway. There’s no way I’m going to stop being angry, because Driving While Stupid is deadly and preventable. But I’ve really been trying to figure out something constructive to do with my traffic-anger. I finally got an idea from Amy Alkon, author of I See Rude People. She suggests carrying a camera and, when safely possible, snapping a picture of whoever’s being a scary idiot in your vicinity.

“Safely” is the key word, of course. Fumbling for your camera while the car is moving and you’re the boss of it has got to be right up there with Long Island Iced Texting in terms of dangerous behavior. But if you keep the camera in the same place all the time and wait until you’re at a red light or (better yet, since you can set the pace there) a Stop sign, snapping a pic is very safe indeed. It calms you down, if you’re me. It gives you something to look forward to. And it really embarrasses the person who’s willing to reveal herself as a complete and total horse’s arse to you, but for some reason doesn’t like the idea of what you might do with a picture of her at it. Such as post it on a blog dedicated to life’s stupidity.

So. Yesterday, while I was driving two children in my car (no, I haven’t had any sudden interesting changes in my reproductive existence — I was just giving a friend’s delightful daughter a lift home from a homeschooling Halloween party), the man driving behind me on Santa Monica’s very busy Lincoln Boulevard decided that he hadn’t been put on this lovely blue planet to wait behind other people in traffic just because they got there before him and are going the speed limit. At a red light, he pulled into the right-turn lane next to me. When the light turned green, he jammed out into the intersection and veered around so that he was now ahead of me.

And no, I wasn’t driving 17 mph in a 35 zone, or anything unforgivable like that. It had nothing to do with me qua me. He did it to the next guy at the next signal, too. Like I said, this man was born for better things.

Naturally, I wanted to get a better look at what might be my only close-up glimpse of royalty. Sadly, it took having another kid in the car — specifically, someone else’s offspring — to remind me that screaming, no matter how justifiable, isn’t the kind of behavior we allegedly responsible grownups are supposed to model for the next generation. Which turned out to be a wonderful thing, because if it had just been my son, who’s resigned to being the child of a howling maniac, alone back there in the back seat, I might have forgotten all about my camera. I’m still getting in the habit of photographing the local wildlife.

As it was, I lucked out. Prince Valiant decided he needed to turn left at the next signal, which was a red light by the time we reached it, and that put him in the lane next to Yours Truly. He was — I know this will shock you — a balding man driving a convertible. And did I mention he was in the lane right next to me?

Sadly, it did take me a minute to haul out my camera. I opened the window and leaned way out — the whole point was to let him know what I was doing — and just clicked desperately without bothering to line up the shot. I think I made my point, because if you look at the photo I’m about to show you, you’ll see the driver in question way up ahead of me, even though we’d both reached the signal at the same time and I’d pulled up right next to him and the light was still red. For some reason, he didn’t feel like sitting there posing for a headshot.

I’m really glad that I made this yo-yo aware that he’s not invisible as well as annoying and aging rapidly. True, the picture in question didn’t turn out quite as I planned. As a condemnation of a particular driver, it’s flawed at best.

But as a work of art, it’s not bad, is it?

Blending Oreos Badly.

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

You’d never guess I’m about to post some super-bitter material. Promise.

What we think of when we think of England.

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

A homeschooling loop I’m on has a thread going of what Americans think of when they think of England. The lady who started it, an expat American who’s been homeschooling in England for the past three months, promised she’d bring back a report on what the English think of when they think of America. As if we couldn’t guess. (Let’s see — does it start with FAST FOOD?)

I’ve never been there, but I have a few friends who grew up in England and are still trying to recover. And of course the Brits have been known to write the occasional book about themselves. And yes, my own southern California town has a brisk and occasionally bitter expat British community. So here’s what the bitter homeschooler thinks of when she closes her eyes and thinks of England:

Tea.

Tea with milk in it, which destroys the flavor but does disguise the fact that said tea is strong enough to sterilize anyone sitting closer than twenty feet away.

Tea with milk pointedly put into it after the tea has been poured, because heaven forbid you put the milk in first and be called a “miffer” and expose your horrifying lower-class origins and ruin your chances of getting a decent education or job.

“Pudding” you can eat with a fork.

Nonstop cake.

Stiff upper lips.

Cool, misty weather.

People who sneer at southern Californians for putting on coats, hats, scarves and gloves the second the temperature plummets to 65 degrees (F).

People who collapse in a heap and refuse to move the second the temperature soars to 75 degrees (F).

People who think Americans are weird fitness-crazed maniacs when we try to compare notes on how many minutes it takes us to run a mile.

People whose idea of exercise is standing up and walking all the way across the kitchen to put the kettle on.

People who obviously backed the wrong horse, given that the future clearly holds a global-warming zombie-crazed apocalypse in which the only survivors will be those with the ability to run from the living dead and cope well with high temperatures.

Sexy accents.

Sexist attitudes.

People who read books worth reading.

People who write books worth reading.

A terrific alternative-rock community.

To balance out the former, a culture that sees no shame at all in being “out” as ABBA fans.

A country in which twenty years ago, you could be arrested for kissing a member of the same sex in public — and now you can marry the girl of your dreams even if you’re the girl of her dreams.

People who say “toilet” when they mean the room in which the toilet is tactfully hidden away.

People who say God only knows what when they actually mean “toilet.”

A culture in which it’s possible to have a good rousing conversation about the Brontes, Dickens, Austen, and/or Woolf with someone who would be considered uneducated by British standards and scarily literate by American ones.

A country in which you can ask a perfect stranger and/or a young child if they have a rubber without being arrested.

A place where the food served at “high tea” is exactly the opposite of the kind of stuff Americans lay out when they use the phrase.

A place where you can say that you like bangers and mash and spotted dick in public, and nobody will laugh.

A place where smoking is so socially acceptable that visitors might be excused for thinking it’s legally required.

Children being shipped off to boarding school at the ripe old age of four.

No stigma attached to being unemployed, since the economy so obviously bites.

Sunday walks.

Sunday drives.

Sunday visits with the family.

All kinds of lazy Sunday activities, since nothing at all is open for business on Sunday.

Or most of the hours of most of the other days of the week, for that matter.

In fact, a shop can advertise that they’re “open every day” and still be closed on Sunday. Which is strange, since America is the land of the rabidly religious and yet England is the place where apparently Sunday is so much “the Lord’s day” that the Lord just went ahead and took His day back, since it wasn’t as if the British were getting any use out of it.

And yet no one there seems to draw any connection between the fact that British shops and businesses are never open and the British economy bites.

Huh.

Anyway.

England is where you don’t ask where an item is kept or put, you ask where it lives. Which is either very sweet or extremely spooky, depending on whether it’s a lovely spring day or midnight on a stormy night in a deserted house in which the power just went out.

And that house might be in a town called Bottlebrush-on-Hammock or something, because English towns and cities were named before dictionaries were invented so no one knew what the word “silly” meant.

Plus the names of tiny country villages in England tend to be larger than the villages themselves.

Speaking of which: when sending a letter to someone in America, a country three thousand miles wide and about a thousand miles tall, the address is three lines long — and one of those lines is the person’s name. When sending a letter to someone in England, a country that will fit into the backseat of the average American’s gas-guzzling car, you have to specify not only the street, county, city, province, notable landmarks, representing member of Parliament, region, and shire (whatever the hell that is), you must also describe every turn in the road and exactly what color the house is, or the postal carrier will feel dreadfully put-upon and may refuse to deliver the missive at all.

Speaking of how little size matters: America, which as I mentioned is as big as a tired toddler’s tantrum, has maybe five regional accents. England, which is about the size of a currant-cake, has so many different accents that really down-home British comedians are completely incomprehensible to Americans because they spend half their stage time ragging on how funny those people in West Little Farthingale talk.

And did I mention cake?

Lots of other baked goods, too.

They’re just everywhere, like running water.

And apparently in England you can actually drink the running water. Tap water, that is.

No, really.

Plus, as I may have already said, there’s lots of cake.

And scones.

And double cream to put on top — or “clotted cream,” as it’s called by Brits who want to make their American friends ill.

And crumpets.

And muffins, although “muffin” is often referred to in the singular rather than the plural in British-ese. Apparently you pass the muffin in England, just as you pass the bread in America. (And if “passing the muffin” means something naughty in England, please don’t tell me.)

And there are biscuits, which are what the British call cookies. And no, I don’t know what they call biscuits. Presumably, they don’t have them. Which is only fair, since they have all the other baked goods.

Americans are the ones with the weight problems. The English are the ones with all the baked goods.

Life is not fair.

And England sounds fun.

My 10 Least Favoritest Things About Getting a Colonoscopy

Friday, October 8th, 2010

1. If the waiting room I sat in was any indication, people who get colonoscopies are generally old and icky. This should have made me feel young and cute and sprightly, but instead I started worrying that I’m in severe denial about, well, everything.

2. I was sent to get this procedure because I’m having a lot of unexplained, debilitating pain — and then I was told not to take any of the painkillers that actually work during the week leading up to the procedure. I can get a lot of pain in a week. Just any old week at all is a veritable grab bag of pain for me at this point in my life. I believe I mentioned this fact to the doctor who recommended that I get a colonoscopy. Maybe she wanted to see if I really meant it. Or maybe we civilians are supposed to just patiently wait out pain that doubles us over, brings us to our knees, and makes us scare the neighbors with our creepy moaning screams. Also apparently, if we can’t get any work done in that particular funhouse, our work couldn’t have been that important anyway. (See more on this subject in an upcoming rant, “Why Doctors Should Be Forced To Be Real People For a Week Before Being Allowed To Receive Their Medical Degrees.”)

3. There’s a prescription drug that is okay for patients to take during the week I just mentioned and that would help my pain — and my doctor never mentioned or offered me a prescription for it.

4. The woman I spoke to when I made the appointment for my colonoscopy specifically mentioned in so many words that I shouldn’t take any blood thinners or iron supplements during the week leading up to the procedure. She seemed to think that this was very important for me to know. What wasn’t important enough for her to mention was the fact that I would not be allowed to EAT the day before and the morning of the colonoscopy.

Just real quick here: Could everyone reading this raise a hand if they take blood thinners on a regular basis? Thanks. Hands down, please. Now, raise them if you take iron supplements. Great. Thank you.

Now, would everyone who ingests FOOD on a regular basis give a quick wave? Wow. That many, huh? I should call that lady back and tell her to get her frickin’ priorities straight and tell people the stuff that really matters.

(See more on this subject in yet another upcoming rant, “Hobbies: Eating, Sleeping, Trying Not To Scream.”)

5. This woman also mentioned an unpleasant, gut-emptying procedure I’d be required to undertake the night before the procedure. She specified that I should be at home — “Don’t do this while you’re at work” were some of her exact words.

She did not bother to mention that ingesting all the horrifying medication necessary to truly empty one’s guts is such a time-consuming procedure that you have to start at noon the day before the colonoscopy. Because apparently everyone who doesn’t work at a doctor’s office — which is where we keep all the IMPORTANT people, after all — ends their work day before lunchtime. “Bye, everyone! It’s almost eleven-thirty! I’m going to stop even bothering to pretend to be doing anything remotely important now! Have to go home and expel everything I’ve ever eaten ever! I’m sure you won’t even notice I’m gone!”

6. The instructions that the doctor sent home regarding the gut-emptying liquid said that I should drink the entire four liters of ickiness. Period. Exclamation point.

The instructions on the bottle, on the other hand, told me to keep ingesting specific quantities at specific intervals until either I was finished with it or I experienced specific symptoms.

I’m a tiny little vegetarian person; obviously the four liters in question are meant to be enough to get the job done for anyone, including some giant-sized hulking consumer of bratwurst and beer whose bowels haven’t been anywhere near empty since the late seventies. The beef-eating hulk and I taking exactly the same dose of exactly the same medicine? Not exactly scientific. Monitoring for specific symptoms as I ingest said disgusting beverage? Scientific. Guess which route I chose. And guess what, doctors? I lied when you asked if I took the whole damned four liters. You didn’t credit me with the ounce of intelligence necessary to analyze the situation competently. I returned the favor.

7. Okay, I know I mentioned the food thing already. But seriously. No one seems to treat that aspect of the procedure with enough respect. Everyone is so caught up in the whole camera-into-your-binkie thing — which admittedly tends to rivet the attention — that they barely notice the whole no-breakfast-no-lunch-no-dinner-no-reason-to-get-out-of-bed aspect of the procedure.

Am I the ONLY one who really sort of needs FOOD several times a day? We live in the most routinely overweight country in the world (oh, hush — you know what I mean), and I’m the ONLY ONE who is horrified and miserable at the thought of having nothing more substantial than a lemon popsicle to console myself with ALL DAY?

Fakers. Liars. Lying fakers. Food is GOOD, damn it. It’s freakin’ awesome. If you haven’t noticed that, come on over. I just spent the day baking raisin bread and chocolate chip cookies. Come over and breathe the baked-goods air, and then LEAVE. I’m not sharing. ‘Cause you don’t care about food, remember?

8. Getting a colonoscopy means you get all the risk, stress, and ickiness that comes along with actual surgery, and none of the sympathy points. Nobody sends a card or calls or (especially) stops by to see how you’re feeling. Everyone is too busy covering their ears and screaming as soon as they so much as hear the c-word.

9. People say they’ll pay you not to talk about your colonoscopy, but they never actually come up with the cash.

10. The procedure itself didn’t hurt at all, and yet I had no trouble finding all this ickiness to write about.

In which I scare the New York Post (and others) with my bitter.

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Sara Stewart, reporter at the New York Post, contacted me via email last Monday. She wanted to talk to me in relation to an article she was working on about homeschooling. Specifically, she wanted to talk to the creator of the Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List — that “legendary (per Andrew O’Hehir at Salon)” piece of writing. Snicker. I Am Legend. She said so.

Which of course just buttered me right up, and I wrote back in my least bitter tone expressing my great willingness — nay, happiness — to discuss homeschooling (bitterness optional).

Maybe the contrast between my voice in the email and the “Don’t *** With Me” tone of the List threw her. Maybe the fact that as hard as I try to be civilized, I couldn’t resist signing off with the same structure of signature line she used, with job title and name of employer-publication — except that mine read “Editor and Head Ranter, SHM.” At any rate, she never wrote back. Which makes me sad.

(“She could have been busy,” my 12-year-old son, Mr. Mature, points out as he reads over my shoulder. Actually more like in my lap. Which also makes me sad. Numb, anyway, since he now weighs almost as much as I do and he’s sitting on me. A lot. Thinks he’s a kitten who can just curl up anywhere he wants to at will. Has anyone seen my inhaler?)

(Now he wants to type for me while I dictate and rub his back. He’s trying to convince me that this is more than a fair trade — it’s positively generous on his part. Yeah, right.)

Anyway. There I go, scaring off publicity I could actually use. And I wasn’t even trying to be scary.

Right after I got that email, my husband, Mr. Monitors Every Electronic Word Anyone Says About Little Miss Bitter, showed me that the Wish List got posted on a Catholic web site, New Advent. I hope I will not be accused of offensive irreverence when I say that heaven only knows why it landed there. It’s true that I was raised Catholic, but I don’t mention that anywhere on the list and I promise that the Catholic church isn’t responsible for any of my bitterness. The fact that I have to walk six stinky city blocks for my favorite chocolate (Lake Champlain Rum-Caramel-filled Dark) is responsible for my bitterness. And I hold no religious body responsible for that painful fact.

So then some guy who only saw the Bitter List because of the New Advent posting blogged about me. He’s not a fan of the Bitter. He doesn’t think the list is funny at all. (He’s big on random italics, too.) He really hopes that now someone will write a wish list of things that homeschooling parents should and shouldn’t do “so as not to give the world the impression that homeschoolers are bunch of defensive, cranky, complainers [sic].” I’d get to work on that right now, but I’m too busy trying to reverse the impression the world already has that homeschooling parents are a bunch of defensive, cranky complainers who don’t know when to stop using commas.

All this got me thinking about The List. Every time a link is posted to it on a blog or loop or news site, there’s always someone who thinks that that’s how I really talk. Like, all the time. I’m really that bitter all the way down, even when there’s raisin toast for breakfast. Which is funny in that sad kind of way, because even if I was only that bitter when homeschooling was the topic, I’d have spontaneously combusted by now. You’d have heard about me on the news. (Maybe not the New York Post, but everywhere else.)

Back to The List. I don’t know that it’s funny in a tee-hee way. I think that it only works on a cathartic level. That’s why it tends to make civilians holler. It’s an inside joke. I wrote it for homeschoolers who needed to know that they’re not the only ones who hear these ridiculous questions all the time, and who needed a safe, private laugh at just such questions. Yes, this isn’t the kind of thing to belt out right in the face of a non-homeschooler — but that’s why it isn’t called “A Bunch of Stuff to Say to The Forty Millionth Person Who Asks You Any Of The Questions We Always Get.”

And yes, patiently and kindly educating non-homeschoolers is important. It’s what most of us do every day. And it’s a lot easier to be patient (and keep a straight face) if you’ve had a good belly laugh first, or can go home and get one.

So why, if it isn’t suitable for civilians, did I post The Bitter Wish List to the not-exactly-private-property Internet?

It was publicity for a then-new homeschooling magazine. I only posted about it on homeschooling loops, most of which were local. I didn’t expect it to reach, or be of interest to, non-homeschoolers. I didn’t expect it to reach all that many homeschoolers. Word got out. Civilians wandered over. Can’t say I’m sorry about that, but they knew this was a party in Homeschoolville. You can’t visit Boston and spend the whole time complaining about all the damned clam chowder.

Speaking of food — that six blocks isn’t getting any shorter. And since I don’t get to eat anything tomorrow, you can bet I’m making up for lost time today.