I know that someday you'll find better things.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Coup

I've noticed a trend in math class. On the first day of class, every seat was filled. Last Monday, at least six chairs were vacant. Four-- possibly more-- people got up and walked out in the middle of class, too.

At first, I thought it was the flu, and I was grateful that I'd brought my own hand-sanitizer and Clorox wipes.

But the trend has continued. Those who were absent haven't reappeared, and those who left didn't look sick.

A growing faction at the rear of the room has been growing increasingly restless, and I recently overheard this conversation:

"What'd you get?" asked Sunglasses.
"A 40. You?" replied Weird-Beard.
"45."
"If we all fail, there will have to be, like, a major curve, right?"
"I don't know, dude. Seems risky," said Sunglasses. "Maybe we should organize a cheating ring or something."

This may not have been life-or-death like the lifeguard cheaters, but I was not going to sit by silently and give my consent to what they were planning.

From my desk in the front row, I whirled around to face the subversive clan.

"NO!" I interrupted, startling the whole pack, "There will be no cheating ring. If you do that, you'll ruin it for the rest of us-- the ones who are failing authentically. I will support your first plan, but your second idea is unethical and dishonorable. If you're really doing so poorly, at least do it with dignity." 

Since I now had the attention of every student in the room, I took the opportunity to address them all. I wasn't going to let anyone jeopardize my chance of passing this class.

"Everyone, just keep doing what you're doing. Keep trying, keep failing--one way or another, it will all be okay. We're all going to be okay." 

As I spoke, I tried to pause and make eye contact with each one of them. We can pretend it was to give them some personal encouragement, but there was a part of me that was mentally telegraphing: don't you dare mess this up for me because I will find you, and I will make you sorry.

Ugh, college kids. 
They think they can make math pain go away by cheating? 

Math problems are temporary.
Honor is forever.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vote

Last Wednesday, whilst leaving the library with my mind swirling from fresh new math knowledge bestowed upon me by my amazing tutor, my thoughts were interrupted by a fellow in the parking lot.

"Good morning! Please remember to vote!" the man announced cheerfully, as he wrestled his folding chair from its protective tote-case. 

This guy was definitely putting the "camp" in campaign.

Remember to vote? Vote for what? Vote for whom? Oh, good grief, I thought with a sinking feeling, is it November again? Dang it!

It didn't seem mathematically possible, though, since we'd only just passed Valentine's Day.

"Buddy," I wanted to say, "I can barely remember the quadratic equation. I can barely remember to zip the fly on my pants in the morning. In fact, I recently forgot to comb my hair before going to the grocery store, so I'm sorry, but voting is at the very, very bottom of things I'm hoping to remember today."

But he was so sincere and so enthusiastic that I just couldn't tell him the truth.

So I smiled and nodded and just kept walking toward the car.

I hope somebody remembered to vote for something last Wednesday, if only so that poor guy didn't feel like he'd wasted his day.



Friday, February 14, 2014

Burning Bridges

“Are you sure this is what you want to do? Because it could all end badly.”
He wore the expression that I can only recognize in retrospect and only seem to remember after it is too late.

“Someone is in need, and we have the solution right here,” I held out my palm, cupped around the car keys. And then I said the words that would seal our fate, right then and there:

“This is compassion in action. How could it possibly end badly?”

He paused, carefully choosing words that would protect my na├»ve soap-bubble of optimism. “You understand that this gesture of compassion won’t magically turn the recipient into a pillar of good decision-making and unwavering integrity, don’t you?”

Of course I understood. 
We’re all human.

“And you’re okay with that? That it might not change her life?” he pressed.

“It will change her life right now, and that is what matters most. We need to do this.”

“What about the plan to sell it to pay off the debt of the blue car? Remember the plan?”

I remembered the plan. But we could find another way to repay that money. I could tutor. I could get back into hardcore couponing. We could give up meat for a year. We could build that bridge and cross it later.

The time to be helpful was now.

“So many people have shown us such tremendous mercy and generosity through the years. Really, it’s the only way to keep the balance in The Universe.”

He hates it when I bring The Universe into these conversations.


“God, I hope you’re right,” he muttered, as he went off to call the insurance lady to learn more about liability concerns, replace the tire that we suspected had a slow leak, and buy a new battery.

The Universe can be very persuasive.

***


The Universe, I thought, had presented us with a perfect opportunity to model a pay-it-forward attitude for our children.

We wouldn't need to make a big deal about it-- just letting it be a casual, commonplace event could more powerfully secure in their minds and hearts that extraordinary kindness can and should be part of an ordinary everyday life-style.

Our kids were all with the exes when the transition took place, and we'd been so wrapped up with the usual hustle and bustle of starting the week that we didn't think to give them any forewarning.

Caleb was the first to notice the vehicle's absence, and he tore into the house to alert us that it was missing and most likely had been stolen. When he'd calmed down, we explained that we'd long-term loaned it to a friend in need. He was surprisingly skeptical. "Is that a good idea?" he asked.

"I think it's a great idea!" Mia called out. "More room for scooters and sidewalk chalk in the driveway!"

When Hannah arrived home, they clamored to tell her the news. "Is that a good idea?" she asked.

Kindness is always a good idea, I assured everyone, prickling with annoyance at all this doubt. 

How could people so young already be so cynical?

***

Almost two months later, worries about liability had reached a fever pitch. Nothing critical had happened, per se, but with our names on the title and registration, if something did happen, it could jeopardize our household and financial stability.

A steady stream of unpaid bills were trickling in through the mail, namely in the form of Zipcash fees--and eventually fines--issued in my name with photo documentation of the white van.

I was somewhat confused: two days into the loan of the vehicle, I'd been reassured that a Toll Tag account had been established in the recipient's name to be billed to her address.

Many states with toll roads offer some sort of convenience plan at a discounted rate. In the Northeast, it's called EZ-Pass. Mid-westerners have the I-Pass. California has something called FasTrak .

In the thriving metropolis of Dallas-Fort Worth, the North Texas Tollway Authority has blessed us with two "economically and environmentally responsible options" for the grand privilege of using their roads.

Maybe you aren't familiar with the main differences between Zipcash and Toll Tag. I only recently found out. 

The Toll Tag is the granddaddy of the payment plans. It's been around here for at least as long as I have. It used to be a physical transponder box that one could switch from vehicle to vehicle at a moment's notice, but someone must have foreseen the potential problems with that plan-- not too late, I hope--and they've switched to a "sticker below the rear-view mirror" method. 

We are Toll Tag customers, which is why Zipcash--obviously more expensive according to the signs above the toll roads--remained a mystery for so long.

Zipcash emerged around the time that the SRT-121 Autobahn was built. The people in charge of building it decided to do away with the idea of tollbooths altogether, so the Zipcash cameras document usage, and then they bill (at a premium) the cost of usage to--ready?-- the registered and titled owner of the vehicle. 

When it comes to retrieving payments, the Zipcash folks do not mess around. First they send one bill, then a pink late notice, then a third (still bright pink, possibly brighter pink) notice stamped VIOLATION. The fourth attempt to contact is not really a notice at all. They send the situation to collections and continued failure to pay warrants DPS citations and is then prosecuted in court.

Well, this created an uncomfortable situation, especially for someone who goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation and all forms of debt and violations.

We realized that this would continue happening as long as the title was in my name. But, if we gave her the title, the liability would be off our shoulders.

As long as she titled and registered it in her name.

A free vehicle to own forever and ever for the low, low cost of titling and registering it (approximately $150, maybe less)?

Who wouldn't jump all over that opportunity?

***

Saturday, March 31, 2013 was warm and sunny, which could only be interpreted as The Universe's way of giving consent to passing along the title and spare set of keys.

My friend was so sincerely happy and grateful, and so was I.

Making the loan permanent brought a rush of positive energy and a release of all the anxiety that had been building with each subsequent pink Zipcash violation notice.

The rush lasted 17 days.

Reality returned with a vengeance in the form of more Zipcash fan mail and worse still, a red-light ticket.

***

I’ll spare you the details of the next few months. “Few” is easier on my pride than the more precise “ten” because it’s almost embarrassing how long I allowed this to continue.

Really, all you need to know is this gloomy pattern:
Zipcash fees, fines, warnings.
Red-light ticket.
Request about the registration and title status from me.
Deflecting, delaying, and a never-ending fountain of excuses and promises from her.
Lather, rinse, and repeat.

And then, a few quiet months when we thought all was finally well.

It was the January 2014 red-light ticket notice that proved otherwise.

I say this with infinite love and respect: thank goodness my father was busy executing some evictions and tending to other litigious matters, because I know beyond any shadow of a doubt, the man would have hopped aboard the first plane heading to Dallas mad as hell and ready for an all-out war.

And that is not good for anyone’s blood pressure, least of all his. 

It would be exponentially and unforgivably unjust if my foolish trust killed my father.

In order to prevent the untimely death of my dad, I engaged in a long and drawn-out (and sometimes kind/sometimes heated) request for the return of the vehicle. 

And, just to be on the safe side, I started to prepare the legal paperwork for a situation which turned out to be eligible for several charges of varying severity—some civil, some criminal, and quite possibly one real doozy that might've required the state’s attorneys. Fortunately I didn’t have to pursue that one because…

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, the vehicle came back!
Right to the front of the house.
Keys under the front door mat.
Oh, sweet relief!


***

As with the disappearance, the kids noticed the return immediately.
And the body damage.
And the smell.

This time Hannah was the first on the scene. “Oh my word. Oh my word,” she said, again and again with each new disappointing discovery.
“I know,” I said quietly, choking back tears.
“How can so much damage happen in one year’s time?” she asked, circling the vehicle.

It was a question I’d been wondering, too.

The mileage provided a clue--nearly 25,000 miles in twelve months. It didn’t seem mathematically possible.

Because I am in College Algebra right now and you probably are not, allow me to do the math here: the 25,000 miles that the recipient had driven the vehicle in twelve months is double the auto-industry’s standard usage. It is roughly 8 and one-third recommended oil changes, which, from a probability standpoint, does not seem likely to have happened in this instance.

Not to mention, it is the very, very least of the problems.

We'd been given a heads up that the steering was having problems, which was a huge understatement. The vehicle literally growls and shakes, whether it is in drive or reverse, with and without the application of the brakes.

The paint was almost completely scraped from the passenger-side door handles.
The front end had clearly collided with something-- the headlamp assembly was smashed in, the bumper was scraped, the grill was bent, and the hood was rumpled in such a way that it did not close completely on one side, creating a significant exposed gap.

Inside, an effort had been made to vacuum and Armor-all, but it hadn't completely removed the schmutz from any of the surfaces, and it couldn't conceal the black eye make-up on the visor.

Or the drooping headliner, which was now thumb-tacked in place.
Or the missing seat-recliner handle.
Or the missing middle-row floor-mats (oddly shaped and customized to the vehicle.)
Or the the missing rear floor mats. 
Or especially the eye-burningly strong odor of urine.

“It looks... it looks like an old car,” Hannah said, bewildered.

In truth, it is an old car—it's just that nobody really knew it was an old car because it had received immaculate care for its entire existence.

It was an impulse buy from a Texas dealership on the part of my parents the day after my college graduation in 2001. My mom and I had driven it back to Connecticut together, and then I’d flown back to Texas. 

My parents drove it back to Texas when Mia was born in 2006, and along with its title, my father had presented me with a fat file folder of every paper even remotely associated with every interaction regarding that vehicle.

No tire rotation was too insignificant.

I meticulously followed the model he’d set, filing the records and receipts of every oil change, registration receipt, emissions inspection, replacement, and repair. In combination with the Zipcash and red-light records, printouts of every text exchange and email with my loan recipient, before and after photos, and research about legal statutes, the documentation for this one vehicle now spans nearly ten inches in the filing cabinet.

I was overcome with grief and shame for owning the vehicle parked before me.

“This is overwhelming,” I whispered. “It has more damage than any vehicle I’ve ever owned.”
“Even more than the time you allegedly nicked the deer?” asked Hannah warmly, trying to restore my smile.
“Well, yes,” I confirmed. “Granted, there was quite a bit of deer fur stuck in the front grill of that Saab, and that one side door was kicked in, but that—that was an act of nature. THIS,” could I even say the words?

“This,” I said defeatedly, “was an act of compassion.”

***

“I still don’t understand. If it was trashed, why did we even try to get it back?” Caleb asked at the dinner table. Even though I knew the answer, that very thought had been crossing back and forth through my mind all afternoon.

Russ expertly fielded this question.

“Imagine if someone was going around town doing terrible things—robbing banks, hurting people, all kinds of crimes. Imagine if that person was wearing a mask that looked exactly like my face, or like Mom’s face. We’d be the ones that the police were looking for, right? And they would try to hold us responsible for breaking the law.”

The kids’ eyes widened.

“That’s sort of like what happened with the car. The person that we gave it to never followed the law’s directions about putting it in her own name so that she could be the owner. When she started making irresponsible choices like not paying those bills on time and getting those red-light tickets, she was wearing a mask of our family name and honor.”

He’s good, isn’t he?

“If something terrible happened, like a car accident or a hit-and-run, the police would hold us responsible. She had told us that she’d registered it and put the owner paperwork in her name, but that wasn’t the truth. We had to get the car back to in order to protect our family.”

“This is my fault,” I confessed to them. “It was my idea to lend it to her—and to try to give it to her—because I thought she was a friend in need. I wanted to show you the goodness that can come from doing kind things for others, but I feel like it backfired. I feel like I showed you a lesson of why you shouldn’t ever trust people or do kind things.”

“No,” said Hannah, “I don’t think that’s the lesson. I think you showed us that you have to think really carefully about who to trust and how much you are willing to risk before you do kind things. Big kind things,” she self-corrected, turning to Mia and Caleb. “Little kind things are always good—opening the door for someone or offering to carry the groceries. Helping little old ladies across the street is always a good thing. But when it comes to the big things, I think the lesson is to think with your head and not just your heart.”

We agreed and ate in silence for a few moments, pondering the wise words of our amazing fourteen-year-old.

“I feel so sorry about her child,” Mia said softly.
“Me, too,” the others echoed.

I love, love, love being a parent to such compassionate children, even during times like this when the flame of compassion has burned our hands and our hearts. I love that they can see beyond the immediate situation to understand that a child is impacted by the decisions and lifestyle of a parent.

“That’s just one of the sad consequences that happen when people burn bridges,” said Russ.

“I think I understand what that expression means, Dad,” said Caleb. “When people burn their bridges, they don’t have a way to get across anymore.”
“Then they’re trapped,” said Mia.
“And usually alone,” I agreed.

As I looked around the table, I felt especially grateful that we had each other—our own little human bridge across challenging times.


***


After dinner, Russ and I went outside to look under the hood for clues to the steering problem. Is it a clue if everything is covered in reddish-orange dust? Something was definitely going on with the power-steering fluid, too. Black goo covered the cap and the reservoir. 

I couldn't take it another second, and I started scrubbing away at that cap with a Clorox wipe. Russ intervened and said I should probably leave it alone in case it would help the mechanic identify the problem. I argued back at first-- even after the cap was clean, there'd still be a ton of black goo evidence to identify the problem.

"Do you think we'll need to hire a tow truck to bring it to the mechanic?"
“God, I hope not. The bill’s already going to be huge.”
“It’s been airing out for a few hours, but the smell is still making my eyes water. I guess we should close the windows, though, so that squirrels don’t get in…”
“Honestly, I’m not sure if that would make it any worse.”

***

Later that night, it was still on Mia’s mind.
“It used to be so nice, Mommy. Remember?”
I remembered.
“Did she say she was sorry for hurting it?”

She did not, but Mia didn’t need to know that. Russ always says there are two definitions of sorry.

One means "apologetic."
The other means "sub-standard."

We now knew which category this former friend belonged to, and no words could change that.

I know in this case Russ hates to be right, but it did end badly. 

Tragedy was both the impetus and the outcome for our act of compassion.

Why memorialize this mega judgment-lapse by sharing this story with others? Sometimes we all need a reminder that nobody's perfect and even the best of intentions can end poorly, but this is not a cautionary tale to warn the masses against kind actions. Hannah's words were so right: you have to think really carefully about who to trust and how much you are willing to risk before you do kind things.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Zap!

"You really don't mind if I go to Anthropologie later? Walking among the amazingly beautiful and ridiculously over-priced things armed with only my lackluster self-discipline? Really?"

"Of course I don't mind. You'll walk around the store and say, 'I could make this. I could make that.' Then you'll leave without spending a dime."

He knows me so well.


***

My latest do-it-myself project could save us $5,000 for a meager investment of $100. Why is Russ so shocked? Maybe because it involves electrical currents and skin.

We've been watching a lot of old seasons of Survivor in the last few months, so I've had tons of time to consider things like million-dollar windfalls and the unusual lack of body hair on most of the contestants. 

Then there's Groupon's ghost, haunting me and taunting me with those skin-deep seductions.

Combined, the two factors have created a force of Jedi strength.

I just can't stop thinking about electrolysis.

That's right, permanent hair removal.

Imagine all the money we would save in razors! (Although to be honest, I don't think we've purchased razors in years-- back when Gillette introduced the Fusion razors that last forever, the coupons and deals for those things were hot and heavy. Despite their retail price of around $10 each, I think we ended up with at least 20 of them for practically pennies.)

Still, shaving is annoying.
Every aspect of it.
I'm not even that hairy.

This usually cold weather is exacerbating my frustration, I think, because whenever I conjure the motivation to do the deed, I usually just shiver it all back the very same day.

While it would be selfish and extravagant of me to indulge in professional help, what if I found a way to do it myself?

(I'm not judging here, folks-- if you've gone pro, that's awesome, and I am supremely jealous. Remember, though, we're a single-income household with four kids. Electricity trumps electrolysis, as Russ would say.)

So, I found a gadget that resembles electrified tweezers on Amazon, and I bought a great big magnified and lighted vanity mirror. At the last minute, I added some unusually expensive lidocaine to the virtual cart. 

Hopefully there's a relationship between the cost and the effectiveness. 

(See? Algebra is everywhere, people!)

The materials are set to arrive Wednesday, which coincides with my first math quiz of the semester. I'm not going to let this new project stand in the way of my responsibilities, though.

Even as I write this, I am trying to develop an equation (probably a function, actually) for body hair per square inch so I can determine just how long this project is going to take.


PS-- Don't expect any pictures or updates for a while. The consensus among reviewers seems to be that you should start with non-visible places until you get the hang of it, and it appears there is a sizable learning curve!




Natural Born Spellers

Take note, Scripps! National Spelling Bee contestants from the Greater Boston Area are at a distinct disadvantage. Anyone East of New York should receive at least one mulligan.


Orthography has always been a strength of mine—one of those things that comes almost effortlessly, like algebra to math teachers. (More on that topic soon!)

Silent letters and exceptions to the rule were vanquished with ease. No word was too long or too intricate.

In fact, the only challenge that existed (and persisted!) was one that is frequently overlooked:

accents.

Some words are often heard yet seldom seen in writing, which can be a major problem to those living in a region of our country where the endings of words are often replaced with ‘ah’ or dropped altogether.

A committed speller must be mindful of this and compensate accordingly.

Despite the best intentions, certain words still sneak past.

Now you can understand Russ’s confusion and my embarrassment on the day I sent him a text message asking him to please purchase a new spatuler at the store.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Punxsutawney Predicament

Does the groundhog have to make eye-contact and acknowledge the presence of his shadow, or is the mere fact that he is casting one enough to activate our nation’s six-week forecast?

“I already listened to the song on Starfall to prepare for the big event,” Mia announced last Friday, as we drove to her dad’s house for her weekend visit. It took me a few moments to realize she meant Groundhog’s Day, especially since she’s been on this Presidents’ Day jag for the last month or so. (Who can forget Honest Ape?)

“I’m so ready for springtime,” she continued. “Can we watch the news on Sunday to find out?”

Thank goodness she’d still be at her dad’s for the big announcement—the entire groundhog phenomenon just messes with my head.

Am I the only one who finds Groundhog’s Day to be extremely confusing?

Oh, sure, it seems straightforward—
If he sees his shadow, it means one thing.
If he doesn’t, it means something else.

But it’s easy to confuse the two, especially since (and this has taken considerable research and verification from many questionable authorities) the seeing/not-seeing is counter-intuitive.

From a logical perspective, “seeing his shadow” should mean that spring is on the way. After all, you can only cast an organic, natural shadow with the presence of sunlight.

(Incidentally, I think all the news cameras and artificial lighting directed toward poor Punxsutawney Phil may skew the results, too, but we’ll let that go for now…)

Presence of sunlight is symbolic of nice weather. Spring should be on the way!
Lack of shadow is usually due to one of two things: overcast weather or night.
Overcast skies tends to be symbolic of yucky weather.
Ergo, more winter.

Apparently, that is not the way it works. Sources say it has something to do with the groundhog seeing his shadow, getting spooked, freaking out, and hibernating for another six weeks.

Somehow, this renews my respect toward the predictions of The Weather Channel. Although if there’s a conspiracy to be had in this entire hubbub, I suspect they have something to do with it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Clorox Queen Returns



"The reason I didn't reload the dishwasher today is because of the Clorox wipe situation," I explained to Russ.

"Situation?"

"Yes. Didn't I tell you? I asked the kids' art teacher if she might be able to use all those empty ones I've been saving.

"But you know how those containers get when there's extra Clorox juice at the bottom. So I thought I might run them through the dishwasher.

"Then I realized that it probably wouldn't work from a physics standpoint. After all, those containers really are pretty tall, and upside-down, the juice junk would be at the top, so it will probably be better if I just wash them by hand. Or maybe I could use a Clorox wipe..."

"Ugh. That is so you," he said.

"What is so me?" I thought my idea seemed quite reasonable.

"Devising a plan to thoroughly clean a container that held a cleaning product and cleaning fluid."

I wanted to argue with him, but then I remembered this:

These are a few of her favorite things. It took the poor kid until age 4 to realize that her middle initial of "C" stood for Cassidy and not Clorox.