Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On Women and Their Relationship with Insects

Years ago I had a friend who, while she could be called neither sane nor sober (certainly never the two at once) could always be relied upon to be rather entertaining, to have the perfect turn of phrase - in fact, to be funnier than hell in any situation. One could say that this, and her loyalty as a friend, was always her saving grace. I remember during one particularly frantic time in her life asking her how she was bearing up, her reply being that she felt as though she was 'running through life with a bug in her hair.'

Now any woman can instantly understand that metaphor. Not only does it explain the feeling of the moment rather vividly, one also gets a very clear mental picture of a woman running about, waving her arms over her head, slapping at her hair and screaming. God - who I think has a very dry sense of humor but at the same time loves good physical comedy - must get the ultimate chuckle out of women with blonde or white hair standing next to their front doors at night, desperately trying to get their keys into the locks by the glow of the 'bug lights' before the moths can move into their coiffures.

Just as women have a special, fond relationship with anything on four legs (excepting pigs and goats, in most cases), we have a very wary, live-and-let-live-as-long-as-you-don't-come-anywhere-near-me relationship with the multi-legged.

I don't consider myself to be at all squeamish. Ok, a little, with like blood and parts that were intended by God to be on the inside. But I can look a rattlesnake in the eye - from a safe distance - with the best of them and say, Ok, buddy, this house isn't big enough for the two of us, and you had just better go pack your bags. I can deal decisively with smaller insects: efficiently swatting houseflies with a newspaper, clapping a mosquito into eternity, vacuuming up the spiders who think that with cooler weather they should move into my house. But before anything that is Bigger Than It Ought To Be, or anything that moves faster than it has the right to, I am reduced to a helpless, screaming ninny.

And the helpless, screaming ninny condition magnifies exponentially the more vulnerable a situation I find myself in when encountering The Creature. One such situation that springs to memory was the time I was perched on the potty at school many years back, my jeans around my ankles, when I suddenly found myself facing off with a largish daddy long-legs spider. Not quite the classic Little Miss Muffet story I grant you, but one can easily see the parallels. You may rest assured that I finished my task in record speed and departed with all haste, edging out into the hall, trying my best to keep the door between me and it. I must confess to you here that I did not wash my hands on that occasion before leaving the bathroom.

In the desert, we are not only cursed with the well-known tarantulas, but also with a peculiarly aggresive and terribly large item called a wolf spider. These are every bit as enormous and unattractive as the garden variety tarantula, but will also chase you across the room if it feels threatened. It ain't afraid o' you, by God! I once witnessed one chasing a grown woman out of a room and down the hall at work. (It really was rather funny.) One morning while throwing myself into the driver's seat of my car, late for work as usual, I made a mental notation in mid-sit that there was a largish wolf spider already occupying the seat in question. I was able to arrest the sideways and downward movement of my bottom in an instant, and while leaping gracefully out of the car and screaming my fool head off, I looked quickly about me for a suitable weapon. Spying the broom leaning against a wall, I took it up with the intention of using it to sweep the hideous thing out of my car. Which I did. Only to have it chase me screaming (me, not it) all the way around the car in one circuit, whence I was able to leap back into the driver's seat and speed off. It is probably still running up and down River Road, looking for me.

I should note that I come by this deep aversion naturally. My mother is also possessed of a passionate dislike for insects, and for the legless creatures as well. Her encounters with snakes are still legendary in the neighborhood where I grew up.

One evening when my Mom was sitting outside in her patio chair, enjoying the view of the city lights and contemplating life, I went out to chat with her. When looking down I noticed a large brown spot moving into position under her chair. (Tarantulas are notorious for liking to hang out with people. People are notorious for not liking to hang out with tarantulas. You can see the inherent conflict.) With a care for Mom's cardiac health and fervent wishes for her continued existance, I merely said to her in soothing tones that she might like to vacate her chair. Now, you should know that although she played basketball in high school, that was many years in the past and my Mom was no athlete at the time this story took place. However, despite her limitations and lack of practice she was on the far side of the pool fence before I could finish speaking. I can't say with any degree of certainty that she jumped the fence, I do know that she was in the driveway in an instant and I neither heard nor saw that gate open.

On another occasion around that same time, I was spending the rare evening at home - decided to take my contacts out, put on my jammies and slap a nice gooey green mask on my face. There I was laying on the living room floor, chin propped in hand, face crusting over and watching tv - in short, minding my own business - when a large tarantula popped out from under the tv just to say hello. I was upright in a heartbeat with a cry of horror on my lips, dashing for the hose to our internal vacuum system. Only to find that his body was too big to fit down the end of the hose, he would just plug the thing up. Here we were, I doing battle with the beast while wielding a vacuum hose and with a countenance reminiscent of something out of Dawn of the Dead, while my mother ran to and fro on the outside of the living room windows, looking in and yelling, I can't help you! I can't help you! I actually had to go next door to the neighbor's house in that condition, and beg him to come over and rid us of the thing.

When I was single I would deal with ugly bugs by placing an upended glass over their little selves wherever I would find them indoors. So it was not at all unusual in summer months especially to find several small drinking glasses upside down all over the house. My theory was that they would eventually run out of oxygen in there and give up their little bug lives, so I could then neatly vacuum them away. And this solution worked well for some time. This was the same period where I discovered that hairspray was fatal to insect life. But when I married, a whole new world in insect removal was opened to me.

It should be noted that my dear husband can't kill a fly. Literally can not kill a fly. Oh, he has the best of intentions, and can run about the room smacking at furniture and walls alike with a rolled-up newspaper and a great deal of enthusiasm. But eventually his lack of success causes him to lose interest and he will wander off, whereupon I will take up the weapon and knock the offender dead in one decisive smack. However, this summer, in this house, for the first time in my desert life, we have a problem with what are politely called 'sewer roaches'. These are large brown creatures about the size of Paris Hilton's dog, and twice as ugly. Twice as ugly as Paris Hilton, that is. Her dog is certainly not to be blamed for its unfortunate circumstances.

Sewer roaches love to surprise their victims when they are in vulnerable situations, such as popping up a drain or out from behind a water tap when one is standing naked and sudsy in the shower. They, too, are fond of running out of the shower stall in the middle of the night to greet you when you are in mid-pee. They like to dash across the living room of an evening when you are peacefully knitting away and not harming anyone. Waiting on the bedroom curtain for you to wake up, or on the wall in the dark next to a light switch are also favorites with these playful creatures. I find they especially love to hide in your closet on the floor, or even better, in a pair of favorite shoes.

My aforementioned husband, while always obliging, no longer comes at a breathless run to rescue me as he did in the early days of our marriage. The bloom is off the rose, the honeymoon is over. In those early days I could let out a blood-curdling scream (I'm sorry, but they startle one so!) and he would come dashing to my aid in an instant, dragging a bouncing vacuum behind him, prepared to do battle. Picture me now several years into our marriage, encountering a large ugly brown multi-legged creature and being very taken aback. Though why they have the power to surprise me anymore I don't know, but they do. I let out an ear-piercing scream. Husband, in next room at his computer, rolls his eyes. Gets wearily to his feet, goes to the hall closet. Takes out the vacuum. Strolls sedately down the hall. Looks at me with infinite, irritating ennui and asks, Ok, where is it? I point a shaking finger. All the while, as he is coming up the hallway so slowly one would think he is slogging through jello, the beast is dashing pell mell across the room to safe hiding as I keep calling out in higher and higher tones of distress: Honey? HONEY? HONEEEEEEE??????

Now I ask you, if it were my husband standing on the living room couch and screaming for my help, do you think I would wait until I had finished my row of knitting and set it properly down before I went to see what he was on about?

One time, after he expressed a strong wish that I wouldn't scream when encountering a large insect, that I would instead calmly call his name in dulcet tones, I explained to him that by nature a scream is an involuntary response to a terrifying occurance. In other words, I explained, I'm a girl, this is what we do when we see big bugs. I can and have fought off a mugger with all I was worth, but if the man had been holding a wriggling insect I would have handed over my purse without any further effort on his part. Hmmm... maybe I shouldn't write that, just in case there are any muggers reading. But then, ok, what are the chances of that? Anyway, I then made it very plain to my husband in clear, ringing tones that if my screaming distressed him so, perhaps he might care to take the time to putty up all the holes around the various water pipes and thus add a few years to both our lives. This he has done, and I am happy to report that the beasts have not darkened our door since that time.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On the 'English' Language

My husband is British. Welsh, to be exact.

I don't mean this is the sense that you so often hear people who are native to America speaking of themselves as 'Italian' or 'German'. When my brother and sister-in-law announced that their daughter was getting married, somewhere in the conversation it was mentioned that her fiance was Irish. I expected a skinny, rosy-cheeked man wearing track pants and sporting a lilt. Turns out he's a hulking red-head from Long Island. A bit of free advice from someone whose maternal ancestors were old Yankees already in the early 1600s, and who on her father's side is the grand-daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who went through hell to get to these shores so that I could live here - face facts: If you were born here in the States, you're an American. The rest is detail.

But my husband really is British, right off the boat. Or the aeroplane, if you will. Welsh, to be exact. Please, I beg you, do not call him English. Please don't ask him if he's from Australia. Have a heart for the woman who has to listen to him expound on your ignorance after you've gone.

Reading over my shoulder, he asks me to let you know that he in fact supports Wales, and anyone else who is playing against England.

One of his favorite jokes is to say that we are two countries divided by a common language. He also says that he and I get on well because he speaks a bit of American, and I speak a bit of British. This is partly aided by the fact that we both are avid readers of mysteries. But the funny thing is, while he likes the hard-boiled American detective stories where things blow up, people are shot and there are dismembered bodies strewn all over the landscape - each described in loving detail - I prefer what are called 'village cosies'. This is a particularly British form of literature where there is a body, but it's over on the other side of the room partly hidden by a divan. It is of someone who in life was a perfectly reprehensible cur and like dog sick on the carpet, we don't look at it too closely. We just try to figure out who put it there.

The nice thing is that I now have a translator for things such as Cockney rhyming slang and other forms of British-isms. It is rather convenient when reading in bed at night to look over to the next pillow and ask, Honey, what does it mean when they say they're going to have a butcher's?

For my part, I think the Brits have quite a way with their native tongue. They are true artists of the form in the manner in which they name places and characters, the expressions that they use. Being an American - and especially being an American from New York - my spoken language has always been more direct and up-front. New Yorkers and Yankees (as distinguished from 'Yanks', which term Brits use to refer to all Americans, and not always fondly) like to get the business end of things out of the way, and we appreciate dealing with those who feel the same. We are raised on the ethic of 'I may not like what you say, but I appreciate your candor in saying it.' Not that our own language is without color of its own, mind you. But that color is usually blue.

When my husband and I first began our long-distance courtship I wanted to find a book for him that would describe the difference between American life and British. Some kind soul put me in the way of Bill Bryson, an American-born author who lived in the UK for most of his adult life before moving his British wife and children to the States. 'I'm a Stranger Here Myself' introduced me to one of the funniest writers who has ever made use of ink, and I have privately renamed another of his books, 'The Lost Continent' to 'I Lost Continence' because you do laugh quite nearly that hard when reading it. I had just started working in a new job when reading the former, and I know my co-workers thought me a bit daft when I sat in the back room at breaks, reading and laughing so hard that I was crying. It should be noted that my husband - who wisely has never tried to tell me what I could or could not do - has forbidden me to read anything by Bill Bryson while in bed, because I make the bed shake too much and he can't read or sleep while I'm laughing that hard.

If I have picked up the flavor of his language over the years, he has also picked up the flavor of ours. But one of my favorite memories of his adjustment to the American tongue is of one day not long after we were married, when he and I made a trip to the grocery store. We were at the meat counter searching in vain for something that we had seen advertised, when finally he rang the service bell in frustration. A young woman of the type of limited intelligence that is perceptable upon a single glance came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. 'We'd like the minced beef that is on offer this week for 99p', my husband declared. She stood and stared at him with mouth agape as though he had just started chanting in Tibetan while twirling about on his left heel. I looked at the two of them on opposite sides of the counter, staring at each other in frustrated consternation. Three feet away from each other and they couldn't have been further apart if he had been standing in the parking lot of another market, possibly even the car-park for Tesco's in Cardiff. 'We'd like the hamburger that's on sale this week for 99 cents a pound', I translated.

In a similar vein, it is wise not to refer to your fanny when in the UK. Don't ask.

When a woman in Britain is being an absolute witch, she is called a stupid cow. If she is a twit, daft cow. If it seems as though it costs her 20p every time she smiles, miserable old cow (to which I add for her male counter-part: miserable old coot). If however, she is charming, funny, endearing and just a bit eccentric in a good way she is called by a more affectionate term. My license plates were a gift from my husband, and they read: SLLYMOO.

And yes, I do say to-may-to while he says to-mah-to. And we haven't called the whole thing off yet.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On Shopping for Bras

When was the last time you went shopping for a bra? For one reason or another, it has been several years since I ventured out on that quest, and may I say that those intervening years have not been kind to my body.

I came of age in the mid-70s when women were burning their bras right and left, and much to the shock of our mothers, wearing a bra had suddenly become optional. Never having been over-generously endowed, I have always fallen into that 'Bra Optional' category. I'll put one on to go to work or anytime I have to leave the house and be seen in public, but other than that, the second thing I do when I get home - just after taking off my shoes - is to remove my bra. I have even been known to remove it on the way home in the car, pulling a strap out of first one sleeve and then the other until I can reach down the front of my shirt and whip the darned thing out like a rabbit out of a hat. So from lack of dilligent use the average bra tends to last me a good while before it starts looking dingy and pathetic.

Who invented these instruments of torture? What sick mind decided that we needed to have our parts restrained? If men had to wear tight jock straps everywhere they went in order to avoid looking like a cheap slattern, would they not have done away with the things long since? Would a slatternly look for men not have come into fashion before now? Um, yes, well I suppose it has, hasn't it?

And don't tell me it is to avoid the inevitable sag, because sagging is, um, inevitable. Gravity rules. Having worked in a nursing home in my youth I can assure you that men's parts sag with time, too. Dreadfully. Think two golf balls at the end of a knee-high. Everything heads south, even for those women who were faithful wearers of support garments.

But lately when I dress for some occasion or other I have noticed that my bras are getting a tad shabby. They have seen better days. When I was in my 20s and 30s I lashed out and bought expensive, fancy bras. I had the bras that were all lace and frills and looked as though they were made of clouds. I had velvet bras, satin bras. Money was no object. I had them in every color and fabric and style and mood and they were as much a part of my wardrobe as any of my other garments. There were days when I chose what to wear based upon what bra I wanted to wear that day. Yes, they were damned uncomfortable, but they sure looked nice.

Yet somewhere around the time when I hit my mid-40s I decided to hell with all that, and bought some plain, soft bras and I have been living in them happily enough ever since. Yet as I said, lately they are starting to look a bit tired and it is time to replace them.

But I ask you again, When is the last time you went shopping for a bra? Have you seen those things they sell now? OMG! Walk into the bra department of any store and they face you, hanging on racks, so contrived that they are already breast-shaped. They don't need humans! It looks like rows and rows of multi-colored breasts hanging there before you. These horrid beasts are better engineered than the space shuttle, and probably better able to withstand the stresses of re-entry without breaking up. They are fraught with wires and padding and reinforced side panels. I don't want to be in pain! I don't WANT to look like the front end of a Hummer! I certainly don't want them walking into the room before I do! All I can see in my mind's eye is the image of Sophia Loren crossing the stage at the Oscars. Dear God! Those things were cantilevered out like the deck on a 50s modern in the hills above Los Angeles! They would have supported whole crowds of very fashionable and sophisticated people drinking martinis and eating sushi from the buffet.

Have you ever worn one of those pre-fabricated things? God help you if you are not of the same shape as they are. And no one ever is. God help you if you are a normal woman and have one breast larger (or conversely, smaller) than the other. Then you get this dent on one side that makes it look as though one breast has been in a slight fender-bender (not bad enough to call the cops, you just exchange phone numbers and are glad everyone is okay) and you need to go to a body shop and have that ding popped out.

No, I simply want something comfortable that will keep these more modest endowments from dragging on the floor. That's all. Not too much to ask, one would think. I'm never going to look as though I were in my first blush of youth again. I see no point in the pretense that while everything else has aged, I still have the boobs of a 20 year old. I think of all those women I knew back in my days of working in salons who had face-lift after face-lift and still had the neck and hands of a withered hag. If I'm going to look like a middle-aged woman, then hell, ALL of me is going to look like a middle-aged woman.

But I have gone from department store to department store, specialty shop to specialty shop. I've seen the shop ladies' eyes widen in shock when I ask for a what I want, just before I'm given the bum's rush out the door. I've searched on the internet. There is no longer any such thing as a comfortable bra. I don't want wires to keep them hoicked up around my ears while at the same time digging painfully into my ribs. I don't want reinforced panels that are going to push my back fat around front to look like extra breastage. I don't want extra artificially enhanced breastage by means of pads and stuffing and filling. This is the body that God and genetics saw fit to give me. I have learned to live with it. I have learned that my value is not based on my breast size. And I have learned that being comfortable in your own skin - hell, being comfortable in your own underwear - is more important than anything else, and is a bigger gift to yourself than anything else could ever be.

In the meantime, if you come across a bra that isn't wired, isn't pre-stuffed with padding and comes in colors other than white, one that cannot stand up in a corner by itself, would you let me know?