Please Read Before Using

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When I drive west from Denver to Craig, I notice a sign posted on I-70 shortly before the off-ramp to Silverthorne, a busy town which sits at the bottom of the long, steep hill I-70 descends before swooping up again. The sign tells truckers not to exit if they’ve lost their brakes. I like to think truckers will see for themselves the folly of taking a short, downhill exit into a busy intersection without brakes, but I suppose you never know.

The sign reminds me of the assembly and use instructions that accompany purchases and divide folks into two groups: those who read them and those who don’t. I read directions; I can’t help it; I’m captivated by words. My husband Joel ignores directions; he could help it; but he can’t be bothered. When assembling a metal shelving unit, he dives in, uses interesting vocabulary interspersed with “huh!” and assembles a sturdy three-shelf unit.

I, on the other hand, must find my glasses, skim all instructions, arrange the components in order of use and collect the necessary tools from wherever Joel left them. Then I begin following the directions, step by careful step, until wayward pieces and a unit askew force me to ask for my husband’s help.

I feel bad when I ignore appliance manuals filled with dos and don’ts. Someone took care with those words; I should read them. Recently, I examined the booklet for my new crock-pot and was relieved to discover its eight pages of directions included French, Spanish and Chinese, leaving a mere two pages in English for me to study.

I’m also happy when I discover a manual includes instructions for different models, because I don’t have to read about those I don’t own. However, while leafing through the instructions, I invariably notice the premium model with its programming options, blinking lights and clever attachments. Then I experience buyer’s remorse: “Oh, I wish I’d chosen the dryer with a steam-refresh option. I wouldn’t look so wrinkled.”

Sometimes the instructions contain surprises. I use my microwave to re-heat coffee, warm-up leftovers, and thaw stuff. But the manual informs me that in addition to cooking broccoli, bulgur, and brownies, this miracle machine can toast nuts, heat herbal neck packs, and kill the salmonella lurking in sponges.

When my coffeemaker burbled and died several months after purchase, I searched its manual for warranty information. In the section on maintenance, I discovered my negligence. I had neither decalcified the coffeemaker every forty brew-cycles nor replaced the water-filtration disk every thirty. A person could get dizzy trying to keep track of when to do what. Wouldn’t common sense suggest that coordinating the two tasks would be more efficient? And is the suggested schedule necessary, or is it a ploy to sell cleaning solution and filtration disks?

I think corporate lawyers write the safety warnings in manuals. Why else would I be warned to avoid looking for a gas leak with a lit match, to refrain from putting my hand inside an operating blender and to prevent children from standing on a cooktop in use?

I also sense a low estimate of my intelligence when I read if my mixer doesn’t start, I may have failed to plug it in, turn it on or notice there is a power shortage in my neighborhood.

Yesterday, I purchased a new toaster; I need to stop writing now so I can read its manual. I hope the directions will warn me not to use it to warm my fingers, because I’ve been thinking about doing so.

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What? You didn’t trick or treat?

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Because I grew up in a rural area where isolated homes were scattered across a landscape of fields and irrigation ditches, I never ran through the chill dusk of an October evening, yelling “Trick or Treat” on doorsteps decorated with jack-o-lanterns. Nevertheless, I loved Halloween and looked forward to it with anticipation because of the annual community party the good folks of Lake Shore hosted to entertain their children.

On October 31, my siblings and I bolted dinner and rushed through chores before dressing in costumes our mother made using her imagination and materials on hand. We admired our transformation into scarecrows, ballerinas and mummies then climbed into the car. Filled with excitement, we forgot to argue over seating arrangements, wriggling and giggling happily until we arrived at Lake Shore’s business district: a small grocery store with a solitary gas pump, an elementary school dwarfed by its playground and a brightly lit Mormon church of cream-colored brick.

Inside the church gym decorated with streamers of black and orange crepe paper, we joined a crowd of princesses, ghosts, witches, cowboys and hoboes to drink root beer ladled from milk cans frosted by dry ice, eat cupcakes piled high with orange frosting and watch cartoons shown on a bed sheet stretched across a corner.

Despite the variety of activities available for our entertainment — bobbing for apples, winning a pumpkin by guessing its weight, having our fortunes told by a gypsy — my friends and I spent most of our time running through the crowd, tripping on our costumes and trying to choke each other with streamers yanked from the ceiling by ne’er-do-well, sixth-grade boys costumed like the hooligans they were.

But, before we could have such fun, we first had to enter the gym along an endless hallway turned into a spook alley manned by disguised adults of the community.

One of my earliest memories of Halloween is holding my mother’s hand, walking a dimly lit hall and wondering why our nice neighbor, Mrs. Aiken, wore a pointed black hat and insisted her bowl of spaghetti was worms. Still having the literal mind of a young child, I didn’t understand the fun of being scared witless on Halloween.

But by third grade, I believed. My stomach knotted in frightened anticipation as I made my way through a giant spider web fashioned from gauze and entered the spook alley along with my mean cousin, Blake, and best friend, Deanne, a fainter.

We made it by the witch with worms, the executioner brandishing a cardboard axe who commanded us to put our heads on his blood-stained block, the open coffin with a corpse that moaned, “Help me; please, please, help me,” and the ghost that lurked in a doorway sobbing and clanking chains. But when ice-cold hands reached through a black curtain and grabbed our wrists, all hell broke loose: I tromped on toddlers as I fled; Blake attacked; and Deanne swooned.

We were escorted from the hall, and our parents were told.

It was a wonderful Halloween.

 

The Games We Played

As a teacher, I supervised playgrounds teeming with children in need of a break who preferred throwing snowballs to building snowmen, chased one another for no discernible reason, and tattled. I applauded antics on the jungle gym, refereed battles caused by too many swingers with too few swings and thoughtfully examined scratches, scrapes and new shoes. Also, in quiet moments, I thought about the games of my childhood.

I remember grabbing a side bar on a merry-go-round, then running and running and running before jumping aboard for a ride as the other passengers cheered the outstanding spin I’d provided. My friends and I took turns pushing, riding on and falling off the merry-go-round, never questioning the sanity of losing our grip, flying off the whirling platform — our bodies hop-scotching across the gravelled yard —and climbing back on for another ride.

We also survived teeter-totters. When older folks suddenly look terrified, they are reliving the moment when their classmate jumped off the low end of a teeter-totter while they soared on high, causing them to plummet to a bone-jarring, spine-collapsing, teeth-crunching stop.

Sometimes the metal slide claimed us. Twelve-feet high with skimpy three-inch sides, it dropped straight to the depression our skidding feet dug out of the gravel. We fought for position on its stairs then descended head first, sideways, on our bellies, or flat on our backs with our legs and arms held aloft like dead bugs. Sometimes, we propelled our bodies as fast as possible without braking or lowering our feet to land, so we could fly through the air in an effort to capture the flight record before we thudded down. And sometimes, after a particularly bloody landing, we descended properly.

We played unsupervised games of dodge ball in a circle scuffed in the dirt with the heels of our shoes. Having lived with easily irritated siblings, I knew how to dodge to avoid being hit, so I liked ducking, leaping and dashing about. On occasion, a hard-thrown ball broke a classmate’s glasses or knocked the breath out of someone, and our teachers would forbid dodge ball at recess. But they usually forgot.

To play red rover, we stood in a horizontal line facing another team, our arms linked tightly, and chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Bruce right over,” which sent the classmate we called for running as hard and fast as he could to break through our line. Mayhem sometimes resulted: bruises, claims of broken limbs and heaped bodies pummeling one another.

I didn’t realize the Lake Shore version of mother-may-I differed from that played elsewhere until I participated in a game at my cousin’s birthday party in Provo. During play, I saw an opportunity and charged the girl who played mother without her permission, knocked her to the ground and leaped up to shocked silence and horrified faces rather than the cheers I would have heard at home.

Aunt Mary listened to my tearful explanation then told me sneaking up on a defenseless mother standing with her back to you and decking her was a Lake Shore adaptation. In the civilized world, a tap on the shoulder sufficed.

Though my friends and I survived the havoc of our play, when I remember the chipped teeth, embedded gravel, scraped knees and bloody noses that littered our lives, I understand why soft chips are now spread below equipment designed for safety.

But as I walk by Sunset Elementary, I also notice that children still run, scream, argue and find creative ways to get hurt at recess.

Public Restrooms, The Downside of Travel

As I hurried along the line looking for an empty stall, a young girl wailed, “No, Mommy, no! I don’t want to go in. It’s yucky!” I glanced into the stall in question and wailed with her. The only thing worse than using public restrooms is their absence when needed. So I use them, but they test my mettle.

I can’t be sure a stall is empty without bending my six-foot frame to look for feet. I used to nudge a closed door to test for occupancy; but too often the occupant hadn’t engaged the lock, and the door swung open to the dismay of both parties. So I bend double and peer.

When I find a vacancy, I often find a missing purse hook and a broken lock as well, which strains my limited flexibility. And when did flushing turn into an IQ test? Too often, I find myself in a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I search for the hiding place of the little black button.

Washing my hands in public restrooms can also be traumatic. When everything I need for the task is supplied and functioning, I’m so surprised I sometimes forget where I am and —as taught in first grade — belt out two renditions of “Happy Birthday” while I lather. People look at me. Once a lady at the next basin sang along like it was a party.

In general, I find airport restrooms clean, well supplied and efficient, though Chicago’s O’Hare has toilets with automated seat liners resembling plastic wrap that trouble me. You press a button and watch the old wrap roll away and new wrap roll in — just for you. Somehow it seems vaguely unsanitary. How do I know the wrap is new and not recycled?

Restrooms encountered when traveling by car sometimes give me nightmarish flashbacks — except in Missouri where I look forward to a particular rest area on the interstate. Open, curving halls without doors lead to a clean, well-maintained facility. But the best part is washing my hands.

I insert my hands into a semi-circular opening in the wall. Then comfortably warm water sprinkles them generously, followed by drops of sweet-smelling soap. After an interval just right for singing “Happy Birthday” twice, more rain-like water descends. Finally, a gentle stream of warm air wafts over my hands until they’re dry.

I’ve touched nothing.

I’d like to end with this miracle in Missouri, but I must air a final complaint: why don’t the architects of public buildings build more capacity into women’s restrooms?

In 1st grade, fun-loving Ronny Huff pulled me into the boys’ bathroom. Before I broke his grip and fled, I caught a glimpse of my male classmates gathered about a urinal, which intrigued me more than anything had all day. At the time, I didn’t realize urinals give men an advantage when restrooms are crowded.

A friend and I bought season tickets for the Reno Opera. While I don’t remember much about the operas, I remember men sauntering into their restroom without waiting in line. I also remember elegantly gowned, carefully coiffed women standing in line in the main hallway of the Opera House, on display to the crowd, as the lights blinked to end intermission.

This experience didn’t ruin opera for me; my preference for Simon and Garfunkle did. But it made me realize women’s restrooms should be designed by women rather than by men who are used to communal toileting.

Comic Relief

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My great-aunt Beulah and I were searching for ripe tomatoes in her garden when she said, “It’s a good funeral when you laugh as much as you cry.” She then spotted a tomato slug and squished it beneath her galoshes while I pondered her perplexing observation.

Seven years later in high school during a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, my English teacher said Shakespeare used puns, witty dialogue and funny characters to weave scenes of comic relief into his tragedies to give his audiences a break from feuds, betrayals, suicides and murders most foul. Mr. Sabatini then paused so we could reflect on his brilliance and ran his chalk-coated fingers through his abundant black hair, a habit we noticed.

“Wow, I thought, “William Shakespeare and Skunk Sabatini are no smarter than Aunt Beulah.”

Research has since confirmed the social blessings of laughter: when something tickles us and we tee-hee together, tensions lessen. Whether disagreeing with a loved one, entering a roomful of strangers or enduring a blind date; we feel more connected to those who share our laughter.

To get a teaching credential in Nevada, I had to be tested for TB at a public health office, which was not a happy place. Some folks were there at the behest of others; a few had worrisome symptoms; some needed a shot or two or three; and others nervously awaited test results. I sat in crowded waiting room filled with anxiety, impatience and sodden tissues.

Suddenly the door flew open and a disheveled young man, who looked a bit berserk, strode to the front desk. “Hey, I need to see a sex doctor,” he announced in his outdoor voice.

“We don’t have a doctor today. Just nurses.”

“Well, I gotta see a doc. Tiny bastards are crawling around like crazy. Down there. I think they’re probably crabs from this girl I met.”

“You can’t see a doctor until Monday. If you’d like to see a nurse today, take a seat and do this paperwork — well, actually, it might be better if you stand.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Monday? It’s the weekend. The little suckers will ruin my social life. I’m going to the emergency room.”

The door slammed behind him, and spontaneous laughter exploded around the room. Even the receptionist lost her professional composure and succumbed to the merriment. “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” we gasped.

In those shared moments of hilarity, we became friends. We continued to chat easily and shared a last chuckle when someone left: “Goodbye, have a good weekend, enjoy your social life,” we said to folks we’d studiously ignored earlier.

As Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the laughter that he make…”

We can laugh as well as we ever did, laugh fully and joyously until the day we die; and when we do, tears will be balanced by laughter at our funerals.

Slow Off the Mark

Man o' War in 1920

Man o’ War in 1920

When I was in elementary school, my dad told me I ran like the great racehorse, Man o’ War, but with a fatal flaw: I didn’t know what go meant.

What was he talking about? I learned the word go in first grade: “See Dick go. Go, Dick, go.” Fortunately, Mom saw my confusion and explained; Man o’ War and I both had long strides, but he started quickly.

And I understood. As a racer, I toed the line and listened intently to “on your mark” and “get set” but “go” flummoxed me. Then, while I gathered my scattered wits, my competitors raced away until even a Man o’ War stride couldn’t make up for the time I’d spent in a stupor.

I’m no longer a racer, but my tendency to be slow on the uptake continues to plague me.

Is there anything worse than realizing you have five markers in a row ten seconds after your infirm aunt and daft little sister have shrieked “Bingo” in tandem and won the prize?

Is there anything more humiliating than hearing the same announcement as the other travelers waiting at a gate, then watching, stupefied as they sprint to the customer-service counter to rebook their cancelled flight?

It’s especially embarrassing when Joel leads the mad dash through the airport, cleverly calling reservations on his cell phone while he runs, and I’m left chugging along in the stampede’s wake, hoping he’ll remember I’m with him.

Joel and I also dance a two-step stutter when we walk busy city streets. I drift along, mesmerized by the staccato sound of heels striding purposefully, brake lights blinking like fireflies, and the optimism of street entertainers. So when we approach an intersection, Joel sizes up the situation, sees a window of opportunity, grabs my hand, and strides into the street.

I take a step, hesitate, pull back, stop, and look both ways like a well-taught toddler as the window closes and Joel joins me on the curb with the head-tossing, feet-stomping impatience of a reined-in Man o’ War.

Unlike my husband, I find my failed jumpstarts amusing. With one exception. Several years ago, my tendency to hesitate cast a bleak shadow on my long-anticipated visit to a fabled foreign city.

I walked Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro just as a moisture-laden twilight made it difficult to distinguish the widespread arms on the statue of Christ that guards the city. Weary from the workshop we’d taught all day, five fellow teachers and I strolled barefoot in water-lapped sand through air smelling of salt, fish and wood smoke.

Suddenly, shadows surrounded us, took form, shoved in among us, grabbed at wrists and backpacks, threatened.

I looked at the hand on my arm and the impassive face of the teenage boy who gripped me. While my friends broke free and dashed away, I watched, helpless and terrified, as other shapes turned toward me.

Then a man in our group turned and shouted, “Janet, RUN!” He grabbed my wrist and wrenched it free, then dragged me along until my feet came to life and the attackers faded back into shadows.

I lost my sense of safety in a city I had begun to love.

And I’m still unable to laugh about it.

 

Frankly, er, if you will 

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A few months ago, I read the following letter in Dear Annie’s newspaper column: “Over the years, my husband has developed an odd habit. When asked a simple question, such as, ’Would you like another cup of coffee?’ he replies, ‘If you are so inclined.’ I find this peculiar, not to mention condescending, and it’s driving me crazy.”

I’d have advised her to run away from home.

The mindless use of words or phrases we develop a fondness for and sprinkle throughout our conversations can be irksome, especially to our loved ones. My normally patient mother looked grim when my father, preparing his bowl of oatmeal, habitually said, “Please pass the shug, Shug,” Seems a small thing, but hearing it several mornings a week, year in and year out, might wear on a person.

Sometimes Joel mentions a flaw in my operating system, such as letting me know he hates it when I assume he’s finished and put his coffee cup in the dishwasher. After I give my routine reply, “I know you do, Joel,” I’m struck by his resemblance to my mother on oatmeal mornings.

My sister Barbara developed a conversational habit when young that turned her siblings mean. When asked a question, she’d answer it and add, “Hint hint.”

“Barbara, would you quit banging on the piano?”

“No I won’t. Hint hint.” Our days were filled with hint hints and thumps.

My first principal relied heavily on behoove. He behooved the staff to use less construction paper, the students to walk in the halls, and the school board to think twice. Every staff meeting ended with “And one last thing: it would behoove you to include more detail in your lesson plans.”

The oldest member of the staff began entertaining the rest of us during staff meetings by dropping his pencil to the floor each time he heard a behoove. He quit after a record-setting fourteen drops because bending over to retrieve his pencil so many times made him lightheaded.

While on a cruise, Joel and I along with fifty other good-timers crowded onto a powerboat that ferried us from our ship to the port of Belize. A young Belizean welcomed us aboard and explained the rules, relying heavily on “right” to check our understanding: “Life jackets for adults are under the seats, right? You should put them on children first, right? And please stay in your seats until we arrive, right?”

He had more than his share of charm and a bright smile, so the passengers began teasing him with a good-natured “Right!” in response. His smile increased, especially when he had the last laugh, “You don’t need to say right every time I say right. Right?”

I sometimes watch a cable talk show during which a panel discusses political issues and current happenings. One of the moderators begins most of her opinions with “I’m sorry, but….”

I long to tell her, “Frankly, my dear, it would behoove you to buck up, if you will. In other words, quit apologizing. Actually, you know, I don’t think you’re really sorry, get it? Like, in all honesty, if you’re sorry, technically, you, um, wouldn’t continue. Right? Hint hint.”

So anyway, I’ve lost my train of thought, OK? Could you, uh, share with me where I was? If you’re so inclined.