Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The cold shoulder

Two weeks ago, I got out of bed on a chilly Saturday morning, padded out to the living room and turned up the thermostat to 68 degrees. I then waited for the familiar sound of the furnace kicking on.

Nothing happened.

I cranked up the thermostat to 80. Still nothing.

I opened my mouth to shout to my sleeping husband, but then changed my mind. First, I decided, I would try everything possible to get the furnace to pop on. If I failed, then, and only then, would I wake up Rip Van Breslin.

First I checked the oil tank. The gauge said it was half full. Then I checked the circuit breakers. They were fine. Finally, I hit the furnace’s reset button. Nothing happened. There was only one thing left to do…write two obituaries – one for the furnace and one for myself…for waking up my husband on a Saturday morning.

In a last-ditch effort, I called my cousin, the heating/refrigeration technician, and asked for advice. He ran through the list of everything I’d already done, then said there was one more thing I could try.

“You know those two screws on the motor that are holding the wires down? Well, sometimes you can jump-start the furnace if you take a pair of needle-nose pliers and touch the two screws with them at the same time.”

“Won’t I get a shock if I do that?” I asked.

“Yeah, but it will only be a mild one.”

I woke up my husband.

“Well, we’re not calling a repairman till Monday,” he said after he tried and failed to get the furnace to pop on. “They charge double, even triple on weekends. I’d rather wear a hat and long-johns around the house than pay all that extra money. Besides that, the furnace is practically new. It can’t be broken!”

“Well, I hate to say it,” I said, “but the blue tint on my lips and my teeth chattering like castanets are a pretty good indication that it just might be!”

So all weekend, I suffered with a frozen nose and a bloated bladder (from drinking 400 cups of hot tea to keep my body from stiffening up).

The repairman arrived on Monday afternoon and spent a lot of time fiddling with the furnace. At one point, he actually got it to pop on, only to have it pop off again. This continued until he finally got frustrated, muttered a few things under his breath and called for backup. Another repairman arrived within 15 minutes.

Together, the two of them stared at the furnace as if it were a UFO. “I think it’s the heat sensor,” one of them said. “And let’s change the nozzle, just to be safe.”

An hour later, the familiar sound of the furnace running filled the house, followed by the long-awaited blast of warm air. I removed my scarf and earmuffs.

“That should take care of it,” one of the repairmen said. “If not, be sure to give us a call.”

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, bracing myself for cardiac arrest.

He shrugged. “You’ll get a bill in the mail.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. Visions of them leisurely sipping coffee and taking extra time to add every little bolt and screw to my bill, filled my head. Christmas shopping, I decided, would have to be put on hold until that bill arrived.

A week later, I still hadn’t received the bill, so I got up that morning with every intention of calling the billing office and asking about my balance. First, however, I turned up the heat.

The furnace made three loud booming sounds, coughed and died. The strong smell of oil began to fill the house. The furnace then struggled to pop on again and made a helicopter sound. I, picturing my house going airborne and landing somewhere in Munchkin Land, dashed to the furnace’s emergency shut-off switch and flipped it. Then I called the repairman.

I was put on hold for 45 minutes.

There have been only a few times in my life when I’ve been really angry, like the time I found out that my supposedly sick boyfriend actually had taken my best friend to a drive-in movie, but I honestly can say that after minute number 35 on hold, I was feeling just about that angry. In fact, I was so hot under the collar, I didn’t even need the dumb furnace.

The repairman arrived two hours later. This time, he decided it was a clogged fuel line. Maybe it was sediment from the bottom of the tank, he said. Or maybe it was a kink in the line. Or maybe it was air in the line. Or maybe it was a clump of jellified oil.

I was waiting for him to say that maybe a raccoon had crawled up into it and died, but he stopped talking and set to work clearing the line.

The furnace, knock on wood, has been purring like a kitten ever since.

And I’m still waiting for both repair bills. I have the sneaking suspicion I may be doing all of my Christmas shopping at the Dollar store this year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Truly tasteless gifts

My mail carrier is a petite woman who probably has a huge hernia, thanks to all of the catalogs I receive every week. I still can’t help but wonder how on earth I ever got on the mailing lists for some of them.

For example, last week I received a catalog for horse breeders. Another one was full of fencing equipment (fencing as in dueling with swords). I can’t even begin to imagine why these catalogs were sent to me.

There was one catalog, however, that really intrigued me. In fact, it made me stop to wonder exactly what the guy (or woman) who orders the merchandise for it must be like. The words “wacky” and “eccentric” immediately came to mind…which probably explains why I received it.

The catalog, “Things You Never Knew Existed,” features gift items that I doubt anyone on anybody’s Christmas list ever would already have. So for the shopper who is looking for a gift for the “person who has everything,” I pretty much can guarantee that this catalog contains plenty of stuff that the person won’t have.

Here is just a sampling of some of the actual gifts and their descriptions as listed in the catalog:

1. Pipi,” the drinking, barking, puddle-making toy pup with hand-held controller. Leaves a puddle wherever he goes! ($20)

2. The Christmas Chicks CD. Hear the chickens as they join the “Fowlharmonic” Orchestra to sing such classics as Silent Night and the Little Drummer Boy, for 28 minutes of sheer “egg-citement!” ($10)

3. The world’s largest men’s underpants – size 100. Have a party to see how many people you can squeeze into them! Made of 100% cotton. Machine wash and dry (which might shrink them down to size 99). ($17)

4. Nose-hair trimmer in the shape of a finger. ($10)

5. Big Barf and Big Burp candy dispensers. Push down on the top and the dispenser makes a barfing (or burping) sound as your treats “gush” out. ($4 for a set of two)

6. A genuine acre of the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Own a piece of the ocean floor located midway between California and Hawaii, while supplies last. Comes complete with a deed, suitable for framing. ($20)

7. Money soap. This soap comes with a surprise tucked inside – cold cash! Once the soap wears down, your prize, tucked safely inside is guaranteed to be one of the following: a real $1, $5, $10, $20 or even a $50 bill! Great incentive to get children to wash their hands frequently. ($11)

8. Doggy Doo Christmas ornament. This little ornament is made of faux doggy doo and is decorated with a sprinkling of glittery snow and tied up nicely with a holiday ribbon. A great holiday reminder of man’s best friend! ($7)

9. The Butt/Face towel. This soft terrycloth bath towel has “BUTT” embroidered on one end and “FACE” on the other, which makes it easy to remember which end to use when you are drying yourself. ($17). Also available, the butt/face bar of soap ($5) to go with it.

10. “Shocking” TV remote control. Is someone at your house always hogging the remote control? Here’s a great way to get even. Just hand him this remote and then step back. Pushing the power button will give him a real jolt! ($7)

11. Set of eight self-sticking can labels. These labels, from Cousin Skeeter’s Backwoods Cookin’ Kitchen, fit over the labels on your real canned foods. Guaranteed to turn heads and stomachs! Labels include cream of cockroach soup, roadkill ravioli, possum stew, mashed maggots and more! ($6)

12. Magic bean plant. Just open the can, add a little water and sunlight, and watch the magic bean grow to reveal the secret message, “I love you,” right on the live plant itself. A real surprise for a loved one! ($10)

13. Genuine quarters with your choice of two heads or two tails. Finally, those “let’s flip a coin” decisions will land in your favor! ($8)

14. Remote-control talking dog collar. Just clip this small bone-shaped speaker on your dog’s collar, then operate the remote control and watch the reactions as your dog appears to actually be speaking one of six clever remarks and witty lines such as, “I’m a lover, not a biter!” ($19)

I could continue, but I think you get the idea (and I didn’t even mention the dozen or so items that make rude bodily sounds).

Would I ever actually buy something from this catalog? Never!

Okay, maybe…just maybe…I did order the lifelike animated turtle that crawls across the floor while singing, “Slow down, you move too fast.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'm late, I'm late

I have this terrible habit of being late for everything. This distresses both my mother and my husband, especially when they have medical appointments. They like to arrive so early, the receptionist usually is just hanging up her coat and turning on the lights.

“Why does it matter if you arrive late for a doctor’s appointment?” I once asked my husband. “You know you’re just going to end up sitting there with a bunch of germy people for an hour anyway.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “If my appointment’s at two o’clock, I want to be there at least by 1:45. That’s just the way I am.”

So the other day, when I promised my mother I’d take her to her 2:15 doctor’s appointment, she was quick to lecture me. “You promise you’ll be here a half-hour before my appointment? The last time we went, we got there 15 minutes late. I really hate that.”

“I’ll try. I really will.”

“Well, try hard,” she said. “I don’t want to be late again.”

I couldn’t blame my mother for being concerned. I hadn’t been on time for anything in years. And the one time that I actually did arrive on time, it was because I’d misunderstood what time to be there.

All I can say is that on the day of my mother’s appointment, I had every intention of picking her up early. I set my alarm and jumped right out of bed without even hitting the snooze alarm the usual three or four times.

And everything was moving along pretty smoothly…until I looked into the bathroom mirror.

“Ohmigod!” I shouted. “I’m hideous!”

You see, the day before, I’d had a doctor’s appointment (and arrived 15 minutes late) to have a couple small growths removed from the bridge of my nose. After the doctor attacked them with a laser, he’d asked, “Would you like me to get rid of those dark circles under your eyes, too? The laser will really help fade them.”

“Sure, why not?” I’d answered.

Which was how, on the day of my mother’s appointment, I ended up looking as if I’d gone a couple rounds with Mike Tyson. Not only was the skin below my eyes all red and puffy, it was covered with blisters.

I tore through the house, searching for sunglasses to conceal my hideousness. I couldn’t find any. Meanwhile, the minutes on the clock were ticking away. I finally decided that if I left the house right then, I’d have enough time to stop at the local pharmacy and buy some sunglasses.

I slapped on some makeup (which really hurt on top of all those blisters) and bolted out of the house. I rarely wear sunglasses, so my plan was to buy just a cheap pair to serve the purpose.

I rushed into the pharmacy. “Sunglasses!” I practically shouted at the clerk. She pointed to a rack facing the checkout counter.

As it turned out, the only sunglasses the store carried were by Foster Grant. I had the sneaking suspicion that the $5 bill I was clutching in my clammy little hand wasn’t going to cut it.

The worst part was that I had to look into the mirror on the display rack, bathed in fluorescent lighting, to try on the sunglasses. Believe me, I looked even scarier in that mirror than I did at home. Blisters with makeup plastered over them, I discovered too late, looked even worse than naked blisters. I grabbed the darkest glasses I could find. They were $12.99.

There was one woman in front of me at the checkout. I frantically glanced at my watch. I had 20 minutes to get to my mother’s house…15 miles away.

The woman was buying only one item – a can of baby formula. “Do you have a pen?” she asked the clerk. “I want to write a check.”

Perhaps it was just because I was in a hurry, but the clerk seemed to move in slow motion as she searched for a pen. And then the customer took so long to write out the check, I suspected she was doing it in calligraphy. I was tempted to leap in front of her, grab the check and write it out for her.

“I’ll need to see your license,” the clerk said to her.

The customer began to dig through her purse.

“I’m doomed,” I thought, rolling my eyes. “My mother is going to disown me, cut me out of her will, change the locks on her doors…”

“Next, please!” the clerk called out, snapping me back to reality. I tossed the sunglasses and a $20 bill at her.

“Oh, I’m out of register tape,” she said. “Hang on a minute while I get a new roll.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle. “This can only happen to me,” I said to no one in particular.

The clerk, I have to admit, was the speediest I’ve ever seen at replacing a register tape. She then rang up the sunglasses, looked up at me and said, “Oh…do you want me to cut the tags off them so you can wear them now?”

She wasn’t doing a very good job at making me feel less hideous.

I, wearing the sunglasses, bolted out of the store, jumped into my car and headed for my mother’s. I was making pretty good time…until I hit construction in Hooksett and had to sit in traffic for 10 minutes. That did it. I officially was late…again. I figured that my mother would be so upset with me, she’d probably put me up for adoption.

I didn’t even dare look at my mother when she finally got into my car. I gripped the steering wheel and braced myself for the inevitable lecture in punctuality. Instead, she asked me why I was wearing such big, dark glasses…on a rainy day.

I took them off and turned to face her. She gasped, her expression resembling that of someone who’d just seen Frankenstein’s monster.

Funny, but she never mentioned a single word about my being late.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Good fences, good neighbors

Robert Frost once said that good fences make good neighbors (probably because he used to live in my old neighborhood). In the past, I might have been inclined to agree, but where I live now, I’m fortunate to have neighbors who are both quiet and helpful.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Over the years, I have had some real doozies for neighbors.

Back when I was a teenager, there was a woman who lived next door who not only was pretty, let’s just say that from the waist up, she made Dolly Parton look like a 12-year-old boy. This neighbor was in the habit of wearing a low-cut latex leotard and doing calisthenics out in her back yard.

Believe me, her jumping jacks were the reason why every man in my neighborhood had a flat nose…from pressing it against the windowpane. To this day, I still don’t know how many boys walked me home from school because they actually liked me…or because they wanted to see “Mrs. Bouncy” doing her exercises.

After I got married and moved out to the country, we had a neighbor who spoke only French. Even worse, she didn’t understand a word of English, so the only way I could communicate with her was to use charades.

One day, for example, I was in the middle of making a cake when I ran short of milk by a mere quarter of a cup. I went next door to see if the French woman could lend me some milk. She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about.

Desperate, I held up my fingers to simulate a cow’s udders and proceeded to “milk” them with my other hand, to show her that I needed milk. She nodded, disappeared into the kitchen…and returned with a pair of those big yellow Playtex rubber gloves.

This same woman also happened to have three little children whose main objective in life was to make the Guinness Book of World Records for unrelenting brattiness. Every time I looked out at my yard, there they were, tossing rocks at my shutters, hanging from my clothesline, or trying to skewer my cat on the end of a stick.

Their mother did try to discipline them…by shouting every French curse word in history (and even a few she probably invented) at them. I’ll never forget the day I asked my father, who spoke fluent French, “Dad, what do these French words mean?” and then proceeded to spew every word my neighbor had shouted at her kids.

My father’s mouth dropped open and his eyes widened to the size of saucers. “Where on earth did you learn words like that?” he asked.

I suddenly had the feeling that my neighbor probably hadn’t been shouting, “Please behave yourselves, my little darlings!” at her children.

After the French woman moved away, there seemed to be someone new moving in and out of that place every two years or so.

One night, at about midnight, there was a knock at my door. I thought nothing of opening the door at that hour back then (but believe me, I’d never do it now). Anyway, there on my doorstep stood a young woman about 20. She looked as if she’d been crying.

“I’m moving in next door,” she said, “and I locked myself out. Can I use your phone to call someone to bring me a key? It’s a local call.”

I let her in and directed her to the phone. Not wanting to appear nosey, I pretended to have something to do in another room so she could talk privately. Every night thereafter, she asked to use my phone because hers hadn’t been installed yet. And every night, I let her use it.

When my phone bill arrived a couple weeks later and I saw the 10 calls to California on it, to the tune of $115, I stormed next door.

“I fully intend to repay you for the calls,” the girl explained. “When I get my food stamps, I’ll give them to you.”

I just stared at her. “Food stamps? How can I pay a phone bill with food stamps?”

“The money you save on food, you can put toward the phone bill.”

She moved away only eight days later. Maybe it was because her landlord wouldn’t accept food stamps as payment for her rent.

Nowadays, our neighborhood is very quiet. In fact, the majority of the residents are couples with grown children.

It sure is boring.


TURTLE UPDATE: For those of you who have been asking about whether I found a home for my snapping turtle, Snippy, the answer is yes! A reader, Edith Bailat, told me about a woman, Mary Doane, who runs a turtle rescue in Deerfield. I contacted Mary and she referred me to Chris Bogard in Epping, who specializes in rehabilitating snapping turtles to prepare them for release in the wild. Chris now is rehabilitating Snippy to “un-sissify” him and make him a big, mean, fearless snapper, so he can be set free in a pond next year. So I want to say “thank you” to everyone who helped Snippy find a new home! (I sure do miss the big lug, though!)