Monday, February 20, 2006

The big chill

I feel as if I’ve just returned from spending a night stranded on Mount Washington. My fingers are cold and stiff, my nose is dripping and I’ve lost all feeling in my toes.

A half-hour ago, the electricity finally popped back on after being off for over 10 hours. I can honestly say that they were the longest 10 hours of my life. I know that many people throughout the state had to suffer a lot longer without power than I did, and believe me, they have my complete sympathy.

I didn’t believe the weatherman when he warned everyone that winds so strong, they could knock over King Kong were on their way and that everyone should go outside and tie down anything lighter than an 18-wheeler or it would end up as a tree ornament. That’s because I’d believed the weatherman the weekend before when he’d said a snowstorm was headed our way that would dump so much snow, we’d have to build igloos…and we got barely three inches.

The wind actually woke me up on Friday morning (um, make that afternoon). I could hear things bouncing around outside and against the house, and as I lay in bed, I found myself trying to remember what I’d left outside that might have been transformed into a deadly projectile. I also hoped that one of the things bouncing around out there wasn’t my neighbor.

I finally got up, got dressed and headed outside to look. I found the lid to our big trash container, the kind that has wheels on it, lying out back near the woods. I figured that the container probably wasn’t too far from the lid, so I checked the area. There was no sign of it anywhere.

Visions of my trash container rolling like a race car down the center of the highway with cars swerving into trees to avoid it, caused me to intensify my search. Twenty minutes later, I finally found it lying in a driveway down on the corner of our street (at least I hope it was OUR trash container). I dragged it back home.

Chilled to the bone, I went back into the house, heated some water for tea and turned on the TV. The cable box popped on, then off…and stayed off. It was official. We had no power.

Not having power during the daylight hours wasn’t so bad, mainly because I still could see and even read without the benefit of artificial lighting. Also, we have a gas stove, so I still was able to heat up stuff to eat and drink.

But the minute the sun went down, things changed. The house got colder and darker…and really boring. I was forced to drag out our assortment of lanterns. Two of the three battery-operated ones had dead batteries, and both of the oil lamps were so old, the oil in them practically had disintegrated. There also was enough accumulated dust on the wicks to cause a major bonfire if I lit them.

Later, as I was trying to cook supper in virtual darkness, I made the mistake of mentioning to my husband that the house was too quiet.

“I can fix that,” he said. I thought he was going to go search for our portable radio, but instead, he belted out a chorus of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” followed by “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

“Christmas was two months ago,” I told him.

“Yeah, but I’m so cold, I feel like I’m at the North Pole.”

Before I could comment, he added, “Something smells like old tires burning.”

It was our supper, but it was so dark near the stove, I really couldn't tell if it was the meat or the squash that was burning. It turned out to be both.

Not crazy about eating cinders, I finally heated up some tomato soup and we ate that. At least it was hot. I would have made grilled-cheese sandwiches to go with it, but somehow I didn't think that producing golden, perfectly grilled sandwiches would be even remotely possible by penlight, which was about the only light source in the house that had fresh batteries in it.

“I think I’ll have a couple pieces of toast with my soup,” my husband said.

“Sure, just pop some bread in the toaster and with luck, it’ll be ready in about five hours,” I said.

Right after supper, my husband crawled into bed to keep warm. I, however, sat bundled up on the sofa, listened to my portable CD player and drank at least six cups of hot tea. I was determined to stay up until the power came back on.

The only problem with drinking six cups of tea is that sooner or later the tea has to come back out. All I can say is that I never knew the true meaning of the words “painfully cold” until I sat on that toilet seat. In fact, I may have to seek counseling just to get over the trauma of it.

Just after midnight, I held the penlight up to our indoor thermometer and saw that the temperature in the living room had dipped to 46 degrees. I decided I’d better go crawl into bed with my husband or my stiff blue body would be found lying like a giant Popsicle on the sofa in the morning.

That’s when I heard our answering machine beep and the furnace pop on. I did a few celebratory dance steps over to the thermostat (even though I barely could bend my knees by then) and cranked up the heat to 85.

But it’s still really windy outside, so I’m not taking any chances. I’m quickly writing this before the power goes off again. And if it does, I’m making a beeline for a hotel…preferably one with a hot-tub…in Miami.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Just keep smiling

A few years ago, my husband and I both decided to take the plunge and get vanity (initial) plates for our cars.

Only six letters were allowed back then, but we didn’t mind. I wanted my plate to read, SMILE, because I was working as a photographer at the time and was saying, “Smile!” about hundred times a week. I also was writing humor.

My husband wanted WIMPY (as in Popeye’s buddy) for his plate because of their shared fondness for hamburgers. So we needed only five letters per plate.

Our cars each were registered in both of our names, so I headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the plates for both cars.

“Sorry, SMILE is already taken,” the clerk informed me. When she saw my look of disappointment, she added, “But USMILE is available.”

I figured that USMILE was better than no smile at all, so I took it. I then asked about WIMPY for my husband. “Sorry,” the clerk said, “but that one’s been taken, too.” She checked a few things on the computer and then suggested WIMPY with a number one after it.

I debated for a moment, not really certain what to do. Finally I agreed to WIMPY1.

My husband was not pleased that night when I showed him his temporary plate.

“WIMPY1?” he whined. “If I can’t be the original WIMPY, I don’t want to be WIMPY at all!”

“Do you know how silly you sound?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, like it or not, you’re stuck with WIMPY1. I wasn’t crazy about getting USMILE either, you know!”

He gave me a look that clearly told me that I shouldn’t have bothered to get the plates at all. Perhaps. But still, I figured that once we’d had the plates for a while, we’d end up loving them.

Once again, I’d figured wrong.

My husband soon discovered that not everyone knew who Wimpy, the Popeye character, was. They did, however, know the definition of the word “wimp” and assumed that my husband was calling himself “Wimpy One” because he was a big sissy. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased.

And I discovered that most people were reading my plate as “U.S. MILE” rather than “U SMILE.” Too frequently, people were asking me if my plate meant that I liked to jog or run marathons. One look at me should have told them that the only “run” in my vocabulary was the kind I got in my pantyhose.

Even worse, I was parked in front of the post office one day and a mail carrier came by and said, “I like your plate! U.S. MAIL!”

As soon as it was time to renew his plate, my husband gave a swift, decent burial to WIMPY1 and got a regular old boring license plate. I, however, decided to stick with USMILE. A few people actually had read it correctly and said they liked it, and I’d even had some drivers pass me on the highway, point at my plate and flash big, toothy smiles at me.

Still, the “U.S. MILE” comments continued. And that’s why one afternoon my husband came home from work to find me, green permanent marking-pen in hand, drawing a hyphen after the “U” on my license plate.

“What are you doing?!” he practically gasped.

“I’m turning my plate into U-SMILE,” I said, coloring the hyphen even darker.

“You can’t do that!” he said. “That’s illegal!”

I shrugged. “It’s only a teeny dash. No one will even know the difference.”

Within seconds, he, party-pooper that he was, used some paint thinner and a rag to transform my plate back to USMILE.

Years passed and I kept the plate, mainly out of habit. It was easy to remember, and whenever my car was parked amongst a sea of other cars, I could find it in a flash because the plate stood out.

Then this past December, I was backed up in traffic and happened to read a vanity plate on the car in front of me. Realization suddenly struck me…it had seven letters!

“How long have the New Hampshire license plates been up to seven letters?” I asked my husband.

“Quite a while, why?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?! I finally can get a hyphen!”

The next month, January, just happened to be the month I had to register my car. Impatiently, I stood in line at the DMV. “I want a hyphen added to my vanity plate,” I blurted out when I finally reached the clerk.

“Where would you like the hyphen?” she asked. After I told her, she said, “Let me check to see if U-SMILE is available.”

I held my breath.

I’m pleased to say that I now have U-SMILE for my plate, and I haven’t been asked about running marathons since I got it.

But the other day in a supermarket parking lot as I was putting groceries into my car, two teenagers walked by and one said to the other, “Cool plate! U-SLIME!”

I can’t win.

Monday, February 6, 2006

Pass the Pepto

I was reading the school-lunch menus in the newspaper the other day and I couldn’t help but envy the kids of today.

Listed were such delicacies as pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, barbecued ribs and French fries. They sure sounded a heck of lot better than the stuff I had to eat back when I was in grammar school.

Back then, the cafeteria routine was much different. We kids would enter at lunchtime and immediately sit at our assigned tables, which already were set with plates, napkins and silverware. Also on the table was a stack of bread and butter “sandwiches,” each made from half a slice of white bread and half a slice of wheat bread stuck together with butter. The corners of the bread usually were curled up by the time we arrived.

Our desserts, in tiny white bowls, also were next to our plates. These desserts always consisted of either pudding (butterscotch or chocolate), Jell-O, a square of cake, or canned fruit in syrup.

As soon as we were seated, six to a table, the cafeteria workers would load a cart with casseroles and bowls of vegetables and then come around and plunk down the food on each table. Everyone ate the same thing. There were no choices to make. And we never carried food or trays anywhere. We sat and stayed sitting. There was a lot less to clean up that way, both on the floor and on ourselves.

At the head of each table sat an upperclassman, usually a seventh or eighth grader, who acted as the server. The responsibility of these servers was to dish out equal portions of food to each of us so there would be no fighting or hair pulling (not that any of us actually WANTED a larger helping of most of the food anyway). They also acted as pseudo mothers and made certain that we were nutritionally fulfilled. This usually was accomplished by yelling at us to eat our vegetables and not touch our desserts until we did.

All I can say is that my parents wasted a lot of money paying for my hot lunches because I hardly ever ate them. That’s because some of the meals the school served back then probably would constitute a criminal offense nowadays…endangering the digestive tract of a child.

One of my least favorites was what the cafeteria ladies affectionately called Welsh Rabbit. A large square of four saltine crackers sat on our plates, over which the servers poured thick, lumpy melted cheese. And next to it, as a finishing touch, they added a big plop of stewed tomatoes.

The end result was something that looked so disgusting, just the mere sight of it made me want to upchuck. Even scarier was the fact that I was convinced that the concoction really did contain “rabbit” somewhere in the depths of all that cheese, and I wasn’t about to eat the Easter Bunny.

And then there was the canned Chinese chop suey sitting on top of some kind of crunchy noodles that looked like bird’s-nest material. I didn’t even recognize half of the ingredients in the chop suey because everything was the same color...gray. It smelled even worse than it looked.

There were a couple dishes that I didn’t mind too much. The macaroni and cheese was pretty good, and the American chop suey wasn’t bad, as long as I ate around the rubbery hamburger. Ditto for the shepherd’s pie.

The boss of the cafeteria, Mrs. Ludwig, didn’t take kindly to kids who didn’t eat her gourmet fare. As we sat there eating, she would walk around carrying a huge spoon and checking everyone’s progress, or lack thereof. If she caught us picking at our food or trying to bury it in our napkins, she would bang the spoon on our table and shout, “Eat up!” in a voice that invited no argument.

I was terrified of Mrs. Ludwig. Every time I’d see her approaching my table, I’d shove a big spoonful of food into my mouth, even if I hated the stuff, and pretend to be happily chewing when she passed by. Then I’d spit everything into my napkin as soon as she turned her back.

Using what I thought were deviously clever means, I managed to escape the wrath of both Mrs. Ludwig and my server for quite a while. Then came the fateful day in fifth grade that still gives me nightmares.

All morning, I’d had a nagging stomachache, and on top of that, the orange juice I’d guzzled during morning recess had given me a bad case of heartburn. By the time I entered the cafeteria at lunchtime, food was the last thing I wanted.

There, plopped down in front of me was a big plate of canned corned-beef hash surrounded by hot beets, complete with the beet juice soaking into the hash. One whiff of it made me want to crawl underneath the table and die.

I didn’t touch my food. I didn’t even fake that I was eating it. In fact, I pushed my plate away so I wouldn’t have to look at it.

That’s when I heard Mrs. Ludwig’s voice behind me. “Eat your hash!” she said. “Your parents paid good money for that meal.”

“NO!” I blurted out, surprising everyone at my table, but most especially myself. My eyes widened and I bit at my bottom lip. I pretty much figured that my life, as I’d known it, was over.

“Well, I am going to stand here till you eat,” Mrs. Ludwig said, folding her arms and still gripping the ever-present giant spoon. “So if you want to hold up everyone else and keep them from going out for recess, then so be it.”

As dozens of beady little eyes glared at me, I knew that I had no choice. I choked down a good portion of the hash, and even a couple of the beets.

And then I went outside for recess and threw it all up. In fact, I spent the next three days throwing up. My parents told me they’d never seen a greener-looking kid.

From then on, I brought my own lunch to school and never bought another hot lunch.

And to this day, if you want to torture me into telling you some deep, dark secret, all you have to do is open a can of corned-beef hash and I’ll spill my guts (literally).