Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Going to the store in the South is not a matter of entering the store, finding what you need, paying, and leaving. Nope. That would be “unfriendly,” i.e. Northern, Yankee and an attitude to be rejected, even despised. Instead, you need to “visit.”

For example, when I drop off a dress at the dry cleaners I know I need to chat with Connie (yep, she's the only other Connie I know) about my children, UTC, and her church. This also means I can’t do my errands in ripped jeans (despite what my daughter says is the coolness factor of holey denim) with my hair pulled back in a ponytail or, even worse, in my sweaty shorts and t-shirt after running the treadmill. Otherwise, I’ll be known as that scroungy Northern woman.

Even in big stores like Sam’s Club, I “visit” with Brenda the cashier. And I have to admit, I’m catching some of the Southern approach to life. Instead of getting in the “short line” with the cranky white lady, I wait in Brenda’s line because she’s my cashier. She always has a ready smile and a laugh. We talk about her children and my children, how the Lord’s providin’, the price of groceries, etc. And if my groceries are done and we haven’t finished visitin’—well, we just finish. And once we’re done she goes on to the next customer, who isn’t frustrated or impatient because they understand “we were just visitin’.”

Monday, September 28, 2009

First Jobs

My first job, besides babysitting, was working at a satellite receiver manufacturer. Before I started my “real job,” they had me do one other thing, reorganize their filing system. After I was finished, I was convinced of two things. First, the company was involved in illegal activities. Two, graduating high school seniors ought to be forced to recite the ABCs, or at least sing the alphabet song—you’d think people would know their letters in order, but they don’t.

After the filing, I moved to customer service. This consisted of me answering the phone and listening to people pitch hissy fits. My job was to pacify them by murmuring platitudes. And if that didn’t work, I transferred them to my boss once they began swearing. Needless to say, I discovered that most Americans have the vocabulary of drunken sailors.

My first job is the standard by which I judge my kids’ first jobs. Luke’s first job was umpiring Little League games. Umpiring is similar to customer service—you’re paid to listen to people scream at you. However, umpiring is worse since the people are actually physically present and trying to intimidate you with nasty looks and threats. And, of course, a Little League pitcher can throw a wicked fastball, and he knows just where the pads end. Enough said.

For Ariel’s first job, she tutored at the Chattanooga State Math Lab. This is a hard comparison. Teaching calculations to people who suck at math is like working as a voodoo doll—it’s only great when they stop sticking pins into you. The problem with this comparison is that Ariel actually liked the job, except for the guys with multiple piercings that tried to “befriend” her or the “old” students who said things like “oh, my goodness, you’re the age of my granddaughter, you must be such a smart little girl.”

Jacob started his first job this fall. Jacob is “mannying.” If this is a new word for you, it’s a combination of the words “man” and “nannying.” Jacob is a manny. (Kind of cool, huh?) He nannies four kids. And aside from changing dirty diapers, which his future wife will appreciate, Jacob’s enjoyed the job. After all, he plays outside with them, and the kids are well behaved. When Jacob started this job, I had no idea how it would change my own status in the world. I mean, you always know that eventually your importance in the world becomes derivative, i.e. “Oh, you’re the mother of so-and-so.” But, you tend to deny it. With Jacob’s job, it smacked me in the face. Jacob babysits a little girl that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to make friends with for a long time. Then one day with wide eyes and an incredulous voice the little girl said to me, “Do you live in the same house as Mr. Jacob?” I said, “Yes.” She breathed out a “Wow,” and I became her friend. As first jobs go, Jacob’s is number one. After all, being yelled at by irate customers or rocking a child’s world—it’s no contest. That’s part of the reason I became a mom and teach, to rock someone’s world—and to be really mean, at least that’s what my kids think.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Every Thursday at the dinner table, Ariel tells us what she’s learned in Linear Algebra. I listen politely and smile at appropriate intervals. She blathers about three-dimensional vectors and invertible matrices while I eat my pizza and then she says, “Oh, and I know how to do encryption now.”

My ears perk up. “Encryption?”
“Yeah.” She takes a gulp of milk, clearly not realizing the amazing coolness of what she’s just said. “You know, encrypting messages. That sort of thing.”
“Luke,” I say, “did you hear what Ariel said?”
“No,” Luke says, “I don’t listen when she stops speaking English.”
“Ariel knows how to do encryptions,” I say.
“Ohhh!” Luke rubs his hands together. “Now the NSA will be after her.”

Sadly, Ariel misses the opportunity to play sexy Spygirl and instead launches into the mathematical “stuff” that you do to encrypt and unencrypt messages—she doesn’t get that matrices aren’t cool and sexy.

Nonetheless, Matt demands to be taught encryption. Ariel laughs. “It takes a lot of math.” She means you have to be an uber-math nerd. That doesn’t seem to mesh with sexy Spygirl. Although the woman in the movie Sneakers was both. Maybe it’s possible…

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Take Me With You

Matt’s hamster Grover isn’t really a hamster. I’m not sure what he is exactly. But here’s a faithful description of what I’ve witnessed. (Ariel will verify it because she was there.)

Here’s the background. Every night Matt moves Grover’s cage to the dining room when he goes to bed because hamsters are semi-nocturnal and spend most of the night running their wheels, which is very noisy. You might not think it’s a big deal, but hamsters have been known to run 8 miles a night—in a wheel that measures 6 inches in diameter. That’s a lot of noisy running.

But, back to Grover. He was in his cage on the dining room floor. Ariel and I decided we needed a bag of popcorn to share while we watched a movie so we headed to the kitchen. We glanced into Grover’s cage. Grover was sitting in his wheel. But not just sitting, he was sitting on his rear-end with his legs hanging over the edge of the wheel and his hands out in front of him, holding a piece of food. He didn’t look any different than a person, except for the hairy body and beady eyes. Then, he had the audacity to look at us and tilt his head. Ariel and I both said, “Did you see that?!”

We chattered all through the popcorn popping. On our way back to the movie, we peeked into Grover’s cage. Now he was walking around. Not on his four paws. He was walking on his two hind feet like any normal biped. In other words, like a person. Once again, we locked eyes, and if I didn’t know better I was sure he was going to say, “What, you’ve never seen a hamster walk?”

I’ve been thinking about it for days now. I do believe that Grover’s a hamster. But he’s not any hamster, he’s a Narnian hamster—I think he ran past the lamppost without thinking and got stuck in our world. And I’m hoping that one night when no one’s around and I whisper, “I believe in Aslan too” that he’ll take me back with him.

Monday, September 21, 2009


The storehouses of the skies have opened, and the fountains of the deep seem to be spouting into my basement. I’m trying to be thankful that we were able to find/buy a second sump pump this morning (our first one keeps overheating and turning itself off). I’m thankful we currently have power so the sumps pumps can run—the electricity has been sporadic. I’m thankful that Calvin was the one who stayed awake all night trying to keep the water level below the air conditioner/heater so I could “sleep off” my migraine. I’m thankful that we weren’t among the many people who were trying to buy sandbags to keep the water from entering their homes—water is much better in the basement than in the living room/bedrooms/kitchen/etc. I’m thankful that we’re not in Walker County, next door to our county, which is currently in a “State of Emergency” and all schools and roads are shut down. That said, I’m trying not to mutter imprecations against the people from whom we bought the house. I’m trying not to blame the city/state for their pathetic notions of water/flood control—okay, I’m not trying that hard. I do blame them. I’d rather have a better storm drain system than a repulsive Urban Art Garden (see previous post).

Oops, I gotta run and check the sump pumps.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Urban Art Garden

I’ve figured out why the city of Chattanooga had to invest in the MTE (see previous blog post). Drum Roll, please. It’s to fund all the Urban Art. The other day as I drove to the Brainerd Tunnel, I noticed that the city had turned the ugly weed patch next to the tunnels into a garden. I like gardens—shrubs, flowers, benches, etc. But, then they installed art. They put up a sign saying “Urban Art.” It seems to me that if you have to notify people that something is “art” there’s a problem. Guess what? This Urban Art is ugly. And not ugly like dystopian, darkness of the soul kind of ugly—I get that. Nope. This is cheap, rainbow-y, flying dove, kitschy hideous.

Since the downtown has some beautiful art, I’m wondering if the Brainerd Tunnel Urban Art Garden got the rejects. Here’s what I think happened. Bob the City Councilman, after a few too many beers at the local micro-brewery, approved the city’s purchase of art. After all, Chattanooga is now a destination get-away according to Southern Living magazine. Bob decided that all we need is some art to make it hip so that we can attract rich tourists. Anyway, one day the art arrives. Beautiful bronzes. Yep, says Bob, these are great for downtown. A few odd sculptures. Well, thinks Bob, we’ll put those on Main Street towards Southside. Then, Bob saw the lame stuff. Bob got a little nervous. This is not the stuff you want tourists to see. But he had to do something with it. A lightbulb exploded in Bob’s brain—an urban art garden in Brainerd near the tunnels. No one will see it because they’re all too busy trying to avoid the MTE. Yep, great plan. Except, well, it’s still ugly. I have one question for you, Bob. Can’t we return it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The city of Chattanooga has come up with a new method of funding. It’s called Mobile Traffic Enforcement. Actually, I have no idea what the city calls it. MTE is my name for it. And I’m sure other people have names like #@#**!!

Here’s how it works. The city bought a special van equipped with four windows on one side. Each window has a camera for taking pictures of speeders’ license plates. The city then hides this van and photographs any and all speeders. Don’t get me wrong—I think speed limits are a good thing, especially in residential neighborhoods, etc. And yes, I do have “sour grapes” as the MTE has ticketed our van. But here’s the thing, the powers-that-be have hidden the MTE at the end of a sharply downward sloping tunnel. As if this weren’t bad enough, the tunnel is so poorly lit that you can’t read your speedometer. In fact, the tunnel is more dimly lit now than what it used to be. Conspiracy? Maybe.

Of course, the MTE isn’t always at the tunnel. Sometimes it’s downtown, concealed behind a tall building. Other times it’s hidden on a side street at the bottom of a hill near the old industrial area. You, skeptical reader, might be thinking that the MTE is reducing traffic accidents. You’d be wrong. I’ve had to warn our kids, “Watch out when you exit the Brainerd Tunnel, drivers are slamming their brakes at the end because they don’t know if the MTE is there.”

The other day, I was driving out of the Brainerd Tunnel in the left lane and another car was beside me in the right-hand lane. Both of us were driving exactly 35 mph. (A quick glance in my rear-view mirror told me the MTE was there). A BMW came up from behind and couldn’t get past us. Immediately, he began tailgating me. I looked into my rearview mirror and saw him gesticulating and becoming apoplectic. I just laughed and thought, “Dude, we’re saving you $50. Cope.” So, remember that the next time you’re driving behind someone driving exactly the speed limit—they’re probably saving you from a ticket.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Category Four

Anyone who has been to college can tell you that professors fit into several categories. Category one is the great, but difficult professors—the ones who bring out the best in their students. Category two is the rotten professors who are either too tenured or too under-the-radar to get fired. Category three is a hodge-podge of everything from the “hot” professor (see the chili pepper ratings of “Rate My Professor”) to the disorganized Medieval Lit. professor who forgets his lecture notes to the non-English speaking statistics professor who always says “for-e-wing?” It’s week six of the semester before anyone realizes that “for-e-wing” means “Are you following what I’m doing?”

This semester Ariel has a professor that belongs in a category all his own. He teaches Linear Algebra. (Yeah, I know, anyone who takes Linear Algebra is asking for trouble, but Ariel is Ariel and chose to major in Applied Mathematics, which is totally asking for a trip through a ring of the Inferno.)

Back to the prof. Ariel told me that he’s “ancient—he’s older than Opa, Nana, or Papa.” I don’t think her grandparents will be amused that someone older than them is “ancient.” (Though my mom will gleefully notice that her name was not included so she’s still young.) At any rate, the prof, let’s call him Dr. Farmer—to protect the innocent as well as the guilty—teaches by doing math proofs on the board. This seems legitimate to me; after all, it’s math class. But, he does it, without explaining what he’s doing, nary a word. And then during question time, he answers questions that weren’t even asked. Ariel surmised that his dual hearing aides must not be working.

Of course, the pièce de resistance is that Dr. Farmer likes to re-name his theorems. For example, the name “Theorem 3.05” is too boring. Instead, he’s renamed it “Theorem Dawg.” Yep, he has a heavy Southern accent. According to Ariel, all the students gaped at one another, assuming this was a joke. It’s not. Whenever he refers to Theorem 3.05, he calls it “Theorem Dawg.” He makes up similar names for the other theorems. Now Ariel dreads taking Advanced Linear Algebra and mistakenly saying to her classmates, “Now if we use Theorem Dawg and Theorem Cow, we can solve the matrices and apply this to vectors.” I guess that’s the horror of Animal Theorems. Yet, another reason not to major in math.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A New Hamster

Matt’s hamster Sam died, and we buried her in the backyard. (You may remember our “male” Sam became “Samantha” when she gave birth to a litter of babies.) After the burial, it was time to get a new hamster. First, we went to Petco. They had hamsters, but Matt didn’t like the conditions of the cages. Unless hamsters are properly cared for they can be aggressive and won’t make good pets. Matt could get a PhD from a major university with what he knows about hamsters, including their Latin names. On to PetSmart.

PetSmart had clean cages and happy looking hamsters. Matt debated whether to get a Roborovski hamster or a Russian white. The Roborovski are small and hyper, which means they can’t be held—they are escape artists. But robos are fun to watch. Russian whites are actually brown/black mottled, but their fur turns white during the winter. As Matt was trying to decide, we were distracted by some dwarf Chinese hamsters. Matt pointed one out and said, “Mom, you should get the small animal care person. I think that hamster is having a baby.” I said, “You’re right!” Promptly, I tracked down the small animal salesman, brought him to the cages, and explained the problem. The man looked at the hamster. He cleared his throat. “Ma’am, that’s a male hamster. They’re just, uh, well-endowed.” I blushed every shade of red.

Later I explained the situation to Matthew. He looked aghast and said, “They look really deformed—I’m glad we bought a Russian white instead.” I guess he doesn’t know everything about hamsters.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gorge: down and up

Yesterday, we and some friends went hiking at Cloudland Canyon. If you remember, my last encounter with CC included me stepping on a rattlesnake. This time, no rattlesnake! Of course, I missed a lot of the scenery because my eyes were glued to the trail.

However, no visit to the wilderness would be complete without a negative experience with some wildlife. This time we stumbled into a swarm of yellow jackets. My friend was going to everyone’s picture and the moment she said, “Smile!”, the screaming started. We scattered, but the stinging continued. I wonder how the picture turned out…

On the hikes we’ve been on in the past, we’ve hiked around the rim of the gorge. This time we decided to hike into the gorge and see the waterfalls and pools. Did you notice the words “down” and “gorge”? Good, remember that. The views were stunning. Tumbling waterfalls, river-smoothed boulders, inky pools, and forest floors of millipedes, centipedes, etc. (Yes, I really do like bugs.)

Time flew. And we turned to hike back, which was great until…you remember “down” and “gorge”—now we faced “up” and “gorge.” Staircase after staircase after staircase anchored to the undulating face of the gorge. The height didn’t bother me—it was the stairs! My friend called them the “Escher stairs.” (You remember the Escher drawing called Relativity of the steps that never end—they traveled forever.) Add to that low blood sugar and empty water bottles. Yep, misery. But we made it, although my calves are exacting a nasty revenge.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Communication Problems

Years ago a British show called Fawlty Towers ran an episode called “Communication Problems.” In the episode, the owner of a hotel (Basil Fawlty, aka John Cleese) had an elderly female guest who refused to turn on her hearing aid because it “wore the batteries down.” And since this was British farce, all kinds of hilarity ensued given the fact that the woman always misunderstood what was being said.

Well, you know the old cliché, “Truth is Stranger than fiction”? Welcome to “Communication Problems” Keller style.

Yesterday at church, Ariel leans over to me during a hymn and whispers, “I can’t see.” Given the fact that she’s not stumbling around blind and that she wears glasses, I think, “Right. Time to make an appointment with the optometrist again.”

As the service goes on, I notice that she’s beginning to look a little “wilted” around the edges. I think, “Ariel’s re-caught that nasty cold that we’ve been sharing.” After the service, Ariel says, “I need to go home—my head hurts.” I find Luke and give him the job of driving his sister home and then coming back. I tell Ariel. She holds out her hand to me and whines, “My hand is numb.” I think, “My goodness, girl, don’t be so overwrought.” But I say, “Yes, yes, Luke is going to take you home. Don’t worry, you’re not having a stroke.”

Ariel and Luke trundle off home. Then we all come home. Ariel is curled up in a sitting fetal position with a deer-in-headlights look on her face. “My head hurts really bad—I took two Aleve, but they aren’t helping.” I assume she has a nasty sinus headache and shift into mother-of-sick-child mode. Within five minutes, I’ve given Ariel decongestant, a vaporizer is spewing out steam, her chest is slathered in Vick’s vaporub, and she has a cold compress.

Now that she has everything she could possibly need, including a bowl of macaroni and cheese made from scratch, I sit with her. And she begins to tell me, “You know when I said I couldn’t see, I really couldn’t see.” “What do you mean?” I ask. It turns out that she had blind spots and flashing lights in her right eye. And then, that numbness in her hand, it actually started in her foot went to her hand and finally ended up making the right side of her face numb.

The proverbial light dawns in my head. “Ariel, did the weird things go away after the pain started?” She looked at me nonplussed. “Yeah, actually.” I sigh heavily, “My dear, welcome to the world of migraines with aura. It’s not a nice place, but there you are.”

After I called our friend who is a neurologist and got Ariel treated (thank you, thank you—she’d have been miserable at ER waiting for hours to be seen), I ask, “Sweetheart, what did you think was happening to you?” She thought that she was going blind in one eye, or getting glaucoma, or some other horror. “And what about the numbness in your face?” Ariel: “That was very scary.” I say, “Why didn’t you tell me your right side was going numb?” “It was only my hand and foot at first, and I thought they were asleep. It wasn’t until I was on the way home that my face went numb.”

This, of course, is why parents carry cellphones. “Why didn’t you call me?” Ariel explains, “I knew you were busy and I didn’t want to bother you.” Children don’t seem to realize that a parent will sprout eagle’s wings and fly home if their children are hurt or in danger. And as Ariel reminds me, “I did tell you.” Yep, communication problems. Watch out Basil Fawlty, you’ve got nothing on me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Building Immunity

I'm not sick. I call it "building immunity." I also don't have H1N1 because I refuse to get something known as "swine flu."

Apparently the only way you can create antibodies for cold viruses, is to run a fever, sneeze, blow your nose a lot, and rest on the couch. And if it weren't for the fever, chills, and congested head, it would be great--I got to read a whole thriller today. (The Perfect Fake was very cool and involved forged cartographs and exotic locales.)

So, that's what I'm doing: reading and manufacturing antibodies...I'm not sick, really.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Old Movies, part two

I have to talk about comedies because they often have the best lines of any movies. One of my favorites is “…when you loomed up in your nightie and shot me in the arm.” That’s from the heist comedy How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. What young woman doesn’t imagine looming up in her nightie with an antique gun and accidentally shooting a would-be burglar who is actually a government fraud expert and drives the hottest yellow Jaguar? And, for the guys, who doesn’t imagine stealing a priceless, heavily guarded statue all to win the tender heart of Audrey Hepburn who is the to-die-for sophisticate in a black Givenchy dress. (Yeah, I know you guys don’t know or care who Givenchy is, but if you’d seen the movie you’d appreciate the designer.) And the “stealing” is for a higher cause—so it’s all good.

Charade is another movie with a thousand quotable lines. Audrey Hepburn says, “I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else.” To which, Cary Grant replies, “Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.” (I’m thinking of recommending the line to Ariel to try on some of the strange guys that insist on introducing themselves to her at UTC.)

Of course, not all the great lines are from comedies: “Round up the usual suspects” (Casablanca). That line gets used at our house when something goes awry—it means “Was it Matt or Jake?”

And the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movies sizzled. “You do know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve,…” or “Anybody got a match?” Well, this is a family blog, but the lines are worth memorizing for later—Cal’s heard me quote Lauren Bacall many times. But, that’s probably more than you wanted to know.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Old Movies, part 1

I love old movies. Perhaps it’s the almost literary quality of the camera shots. For example, there’s nothing like watching the shadows of Errol Flynn’s sword duel in Robin Hood. Or, in the midst of the verbal cacophony of His Girl Friday, when Cary Grant drolly accuses his girl of having been seen with Archibald Leach (Cary Grant’s real name).

But, I think I really fell in love with old movies when I was in high school—this was when videos were a rare and prized possession to be rented, before the VHS-Betamax war. An old local theater decided to have a Hitchcock revival. Every week they’d show a new movie. This was one of the old theaters with balustrades and pilasters and a real, fringed velvet curtain. And people “dressed” for the theater. It was like being in an old movie. I wore a white dress, white hat, and white gloves. It was a wonderful mix of teenagers and old people. We saw Rear Window the way it was meant to be seen—on a huge screen where Raymond Burr loomed over you. Grace Kelly filled the screen in her gold gown in To Catch a Thief—Cary Grant couldn’t help but fall in love with her. And agoraphobic Jimmy Stewart dangling from a building in Vertigo. And the tension in Rope! The film was shot in real-time like a play without a lot of angles or scene changes, and the body was in the center of the screen in a box, which was used as a buffet for a dinner party. Ewww. Every time a character noticed the box, you’d think “Oh, no, they’re going to find the body!”

Of course, good tense movies still are being made. What about Wait Until Dark? Although since that was made in 1967, I guess that qualifies as old. But I think it’s one of the scariest movies ever. Or Deceived (1991)—I guarantee it’ll make you jump. Try watching these movies, especially with the lights out. Have fun!