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Monday, June 30, 2008

Foundations of Fire

*Warning! If you are a teenaged boy who lives in the approximate vicinity of the back bedroom of my house and does not allow his mother to say the word “underwear” in public, do not read the following post. To those of you who have ever gone a little wrong in the laundry room, you’ll understand the situation perfectly.

I found out I couldn’t follow directions when I was in the produce section at WalMart.

I was comparing kiwis and kumquats when I felt an unwelcome sensation in what can only be described as the area “where foundations meet the flesh.” It began as a smallish itch under the elastic band and quickly spread to the sensation of having a thousand mosquitoes trapped in the no-nonsense sections of my Fruit of the Looms. This is what it must be like when the entire New York Giants football team wears their uniform pants without running them through the rinse cycle. I began defensive slap-dance maneuvers designed to relieve the feeling that my underwear had a personal grudge against my skin.

Over by the plums, a mother pushing a toddler in her buggy popped a wheelie and crashed into a produce scale while trying to execute a U-turn.

Once my Hanes Her Way became Hanes No Way, I realized something had to be done. In an effort to soothe the beast devouring my tender skin, I danced over to my husband who was somewhat nonplussed at my glee.

“Are you that happy with the fruit?” he asked as I jitterbugged past, trying to calm the situation in the outback.

“I have an itch,” I answered, arms flailing as I executed enough moves to win the title on “So You Think You Can Dance.” I ricocheted off a display of fresh pineapples and careened into a stand of Georgia peaches.

“Is this something new?”

“No,” I answered as I jogged by, still attempting to quiet the fire without an unseemly public display. “I’ve kept it hidden from you for ten years so I could surprise you with my innermost secret in the melon section of WalMart in time for our anniversary.”

“Very thoughtful. Have we changed laundry detergent lately?”

By now I was scratching my sides like a monkey with mange. “It’s the same stuff. Just in that little bitty bottle.”

“Well you probably have enough soap in your underpants to clean a garbage barge. And you’re dancing around like a monkey.”

If he’d thrown me a banana I would have made fruit salad out of him. “Look, I’m finding out that the word hives doesn’t necessarily just apply to bees. Can we move a little faster down the solution highway?”

“Look, it’s in that little bitty bottle because it’s concentrated. Did you use the same amount as always?”

I tap danced over to look him in the face. “I used more because the measuring cup looked so little.”

“Let’s go to the household products section and indulge in a little light reading.”

Sure enough, in-depth research involving the small print on the back of the bottle of detergent (which Bill Dear read while I clogged back and forth past the bleach-added products) showed that the amount of detergent I used had the potential to turn the elastic in my underwear into a material that would defeat the Man of Steel and could be used to coerce terrorists into confessing the use of explosives, weapons of torture, and non-dairy coffee creamer.

My immediate problem was solved with a foxtrot through the lingerie section where I purchased replacement garments for the trip home where I promised to be more conscientious when it comes to reading directions.

Except on those pesky Sara Lee boxes that indicate the contents is intended for more than a single serving.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Neighbor Hood

Usually life’s little lessons come from something you’ve done wrong, and you’ve suffered through enough inconvenience and embarrassment that you’ll remember never to do it again. Failing to proofread the hymn titles when typing the church bulletin comes to mind. (The Herald Angels SING. Southerners tend to drop letters at the end of words, but in this instance, the “g” serves a vital purpose.)

Sometimes, though, we get a little break and can take a lesson from the book somebody else has had thrown at them. Something like a two-for-one “You’ve Suffered Enough” coupon. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn some of these lessons from careful and conscientious observance of neighbors I’ve had through the years.

One ambitious fellow saw so much of the Sheriff and his dedicated support staff that we voted black and white our neighborhood colors and put up a little sign at the entrance to the neighborhood: “Leashed dogs welcome; don’t feed wild animals or stray children. All deputies report to the second house on the left for briefing and registration and to pick up a fundraiser information packet.”

Community watch takes on a whole new meaning in my neighborhood. We don’t just look for trouble. We sell tickets and rent lawn chairs.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. One baby goat cannot eat an entire forest covered in kudzu. Sure, any kid will do its part for a greener America, but like the small bottles of Coke, it can only hold so much. Also, if you try to burn a field of kudzu, the resulting blaze will attract the attention of a passing bicyclist in flame-retardant latex, a herd of motorists blinded by smoke, and firefighting personnel from three different districts.

2. If you pass out in your driveway surrounded by more beer cans than Paris Hilton has miniskirts, the neighbors will notice. Eventually a representative of the group will venture over to see if you’re dead, with the pretext of helping you up. Lay there long enough and they’ll either decorate you for Christmas or shave off one of your eyebrows.

3. If you’ve made a woman mad enough to slash the tires on your truck and smash the windows into a tinkling pile of auto-glass potpourri, you don’t need to call the Sheriff. You may as well reserve a deluxe suite at the morgue, because your body will arrive there in more pieces than M*A*S*H had martinis.

I don't anticipate putting any of these interesting facts to use in my everyday life. But they do serve to make my tendency to harrass the geraniums and torture the tomato plants seem a bit less severe.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Keyboard Quandary

There are days when everything in my life zips along like waxed skis on new snow. Then there are the days I search aimlessley for my gifts and talents like a doggie dumpster-diving for a lost ham bone.

“Accounts Payable?”
“Trial Balance?”
“Bank Reconciliation?”

None of these terms were on my final exams in English Poets or American Contemporary Literature when I graduated from college. I really didn’t see the use to indulge in them now. Except I was deeply interested in getting paid.

I attended a small Southern university and graduated happily with a degree in English and a cunning little sticker on the corner of my diploma that represented a prestigious honor society whose admiration I welcomed, but whose meetings I never attended. These accomplishments, along with the fact that I knew somebody that knew somebody, and that God mixes miracles and humor like Michaelangelo mixes paints, got me a job as secretary-in-charge-of-everything at a local church. Excited by the opportunity to serve as editor-in-chief (a colorful term meaning entire staff) of the church newsletter and to support my grocery addiction, I accepted the job offer without further exploring the job description.

This zeal for employment accounted for my present distress. Seated at a one-horse computer, I desperately searched my remaining little gray cells for some clue that would translate the foreign language my instructor was speaking into something easier to understand, like Gullah or Swahili.

Motivated by greed laced with liberal splashes of panic and terror, my hand went from adding machine to keyboard as I computed the totals of the numbers he read out to me and then entered them into the database. Back and forth went fingers more accustomed to creating exhilirating expository essays concerning Yoknapatawpha County. Adding machine to keyboard. Keyboard to adding machine. I indulged in the prayer of the selfish. “Please God, at least don’t let me look stupid.”

Suddenly, in a turn of events that provided definitive proof of instantaneous answer to prayer, the computer malfunctioned. None of the numbers I typed showed on the computer screen. I pounded on the keypad. The computer had rebelled! I was free from electronic oppression!

“The computer won’t take this information.” I turned in the chair to see what miracle my mentor would supply. “It won’t accept the numbers.”

“I think,” he said slowly, moving my hand from adding machine to computer, “it will work out better if you’ll use the computer’s keyboard.”

I learned my lesson. Be careful what you ask for. God is the ultimate practical joker.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

IMPortant Turn of Events

I’m pretty sure there’s an imp inside the dryer that turns all the shirts inside out. While everyone is spending their time looking for nonexistent sock snitchers, the real culprits are scurrying around like hamsters on a wheel saying “Quick, grab the washing label and run toward the neck!” and slipping down my new washable silk like sand down a sliding board. By the time they’ve whirled through the spin cycle and survived the “fluff and puff” stage of the dryer, the little imps have had ample time to make sure they’ve left no tag unturned. And a few extra seconds to pry a button loose on my new blouse.

Sometimes to fool them I’ll turn the shirts inside out myself before I launch them into the agitating vortex of the washer. I can just imagine their impish anguish when they find out the job’s done. Or perhaps it’s more a case of The Elves and The Shoemaker, and they’re gleefully performing a Playtime Polka in the washwater while I’m clinging to the machine during the presoak cycle, straining to see if there’s any action below the bubbles.

It’s not just shirts. Underwear invariably dives label-outward from the dryer into the hamper, and I have to execute the “arms through the legholes reverse maneuver” before I tuck them safely into the dresser drawer. I was perfectly aware of the tedium of housework when I signed up for this tour of duty, but if I had checked out the job description for Underwear Reversal Technician, I’m not sure I would have accepted the position. It’s not that I don’t have the qualifications or experience, but that’s a chore that ranks right up there with Shore Patrol for the Tidy Bowl Man.

Now when it comes to socks, I’m afraid I have the opposite problem from the rest of the population. I grow extras. Odd socks appear randomly and with abandon in my laundry room like I’m for lonely footwear. Once, after the children were grown, a bootie climbed carefully out of the lint trap and nestled in the palm of my hand. I didn’t have the heart to turn it away. It’s still curled into a tiny ball in the sock drawer where every now and then, Bill Dear will run across it and snort “Why do we keep this thing?” and tuck it carefully back under the argyles. I’m afraid that one day I’ll run across a single-socked baby at the Super Wal-mart and he’ll wiggle one set of bare toes meaningfully in my direction and demand the return of his fuzzy footwear. But I can’t help it if my home is a clearinghouse for every stray item in the universe.

I won’t even touch on my track record for acquiring lost kittens. They show up in the laundry room, too. But at least they use the door.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Quirks and Quandaries

I’ve been tagged by Karen, aka Karen-Bob, over at Write Now. She said I should list six personal quirks. The problem is, there’s nothing about me that isn’t a quirk, so picking only six leaves me in a dilemma, much like having to choose one dessert over another. I mean, are you going to pick the cherry cheesecake and leave the six-layer Chocolate Sin untouched, or are you just going to Do the Right Thing and dive into the whole dessert tray with a decided Joie de Vivre which is a French term meaning "a fork in each hand"?

So as not to court obvious favoritism, I’ll just throw out six random Highly Interesting Fun Facts and you can decide for yourself the nature of their oddity. (One quirk is that I love words like oddity and use them in conversations. Well, whenever anyone will have a conversation with me. Which is usually in the fruits and vegetables section of the grocery store where I trap someone who doesn’t know me well enough to hide behind the clearance bananas into a discussion of the merits of mangos over kiwis.)

1. I will not be wearing a bikini this season. Oh, it’s not just because I’m worried about throwing Kate Moss and that whole “Cheekbones R US” set into a jealous rage. I’m saddened by their despair and lack of double-fudge brownies, but I’m not going to spend my lunch hour fretting about it. No, the thing is, I just don’t see the point in paying $150 for a swimsuit that no one will ever see the bottom half of. I’m to the stage in life where nothing worn above the thighs and below the belly button is visible to random passers by, and I don’t want to spend a week's wages for a triangle of stylishly designed cloth that will be covered by stretch marks.

2. I read children’s books at night to relax. With ADD brain cells hurling themselves against the insides of my skull with the same relaxing regularity of sixteen marbles and a wheat penny stuck in the dryer with a load of delicates, it’s reassuring to know that the ducklings are going to make it to the island in the public garden every single time.

3. I like geeks. They don’t go with anything, are ill-at-ease in every situation, and have no idea that you’ve just relayed the wittiest joke of the season. But if your computer throws out a fatal error, they can have you back on track in six minutes using only their hands and whatever software they have on their belt-holstered flash drive.

4. I am no longer afraid of circus clowns. After viewing them from behind a popcorn and cotton candy barrier as they cavort in their natural habitat, I am pleased and relieved to say that I am completely comfortable with them in a circus setting. But if I see anybody in a costume at the mall, go ahead and phone for Security. And a First Responder team. And the Jaws of Life.

5. I hate melodrama. If you can make me cry honestly, you get to wear the tiara, but if I have to hear the song “Christmas Shoes” one more time, I’ll puke glitter and rainbows. Luckily, I’ve calmed down since the last time I heard the song six months ago. They’ve almost finished the repairs and hope Santa’s castle will be in shape to grace Center Court at the mall again come Christmastime.

6. I tend to exaggerate.

I’m supposed to tell the rules and tag six people, but I’m feeling rebellious (free quirk; no purchase necessary). I’m just going to tag KODB over at The Doggerel King. That’s because he’s supposed to be working on a daring pirate novel that I really want to read, but instead he’s whiling away his time with selfish miscellaneous activities such as fixing computers for a living. Therefore, I’ll make him write for his blog, an activity which annoys him in a highly motivational way. So be sure to check him out in a month or two and see if he’s taught his new dog some old tricks.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Death Row Valedictorian

Somewhere down the long corridors of death row, wedged in between hatchet murderers and the people who skulk off and leave the office copier jammed, are the real menaces to society. Here, in a dim place where nobody’s day planner goes as far as the after dinner mint, dwell the people who cheered out loud at their child’s graduation.

What cruel lifetime drama brought them to this place? Are these people who held responsible jobs, or are they the type that siphon gas from an idling SUV to save a few hundred bucks at the pump? Loners, probably, who whiled away their time buying poster board at the 7-11 store every time Junior remembered that his science project was due in first period biology the next day. Trapped in the vacuum of stop-time, they raced for morning with an indelible marker in one hand and a bottle of Elmer’s school glue in the other.

Jump forward to graduation night: caps and gowns, sashes and speeches. And a reminder: Thou Shalt Not Jump With Glee When Your Child’s Name Is Announced. Failure to comply would result in A Very Bad Thing.

At my son’s high school graduation, we held our merrymaking like we held our breath. We bit our tongues so many times they were as tender as filet mignon. But one set of parents did not contain their exuberance so well.

After spending as much on school lunches, field trips, and fundraisers as Hillary spends on pantsuits, this set of parents could not contain a whoop and a cheer when their child’s name blasted from the loudspeaker and hovered like dwindling fireworks in the evening air.

The price of that happy shout? A $257 citation for disturbing the peace and a uniformed escort out of the stadium.

From the look on their faces, I’d say it was a bargain.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Hello! Hang Up.

Many thanks to everyone who inquired about the state of my crankiness during the unfortunate demise of my air conditioner. The Man in the White Van informed me that the heat pump was frozen "like a June bug in winter", which made as much sense to me as a color chart for Springs and Summers does to your average jock, but eventually he made everything okay. I am now at peace with the thermostat.

The problem with telephones today is that too many people use them. Oh, they don’t answer them. What wilts my lettuce is that they use them to call me during the congealed salad portion of my evening meal.

Everybody from telemarketers touting time shares to Time-Life Books offering Hillary’s Big Book of Beauty Tips rushes to their phone at 7:00 every evening to call my house while I’m buttering biscuits. That’s why our phone at home is an equal opportunity rejecter. Everyone that calls my house is greeted with its perky message: “Go away! Don’t call here! Have a nice day!”

I enlisted with the National Do Not Call folks long ago, but somehow politicians, creditors, and ex-spouses tend to be the sort of folks who think rules apply to other people, and race to speed dial my number every night during my personal fried chicken time.

I believe these are the same folks spreading the propaganda about family unity coming from eating dinner together. They want us to think that quality time means the whole family is sitting close enough together to share a fork, when all they really want is for us to pile up into one big target so they can hit us with a prime time phone blitz and sell us sympathy tickets to the three goats circus.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. Occasionally, a relative will call during Family Time. When I hear a familiar voice leaving a message, I will turn down the sound on Wheel of Fortune, pick up the receiver and bellow, “Go away! There are important creditors trying to get through!” and slam down the receiver in a stern manner. You have to be willing to set boundaries.

I’ve decided that the only way to combat this ringaling rampage is to install one of those fancy no-human-involved answering machines like they have at government offices and welcome centers. If you call my home, please be prepared to respond to the following menu:

Hello, you have reached the Mullis residence. If the dog answers, please press 1. If the cat answers, ask to speak to the dog and then press 1. If any creature with enough legs to qualify for the insect or arachnid families answers, please ask for the cat. Have a work order ready and please be prompt with payment. At least one of the felines on duty has a pricey catnip habit to finance.

Don’t give personal information to the cat; he can’t keep a secret and only wants to talk about himself anyway, but the dog is great at screening calls. He is very protective of his family, or as he refers to us: the people who dish up the dog chow. He growls at salesmen, barks at government employees, and doesn’t let anyone through unless they use the password, “cookie.”

What can I say? Everybody has a price. And you thought pay phones were extinct.

Please leave a cookie at the sound of the beep, but it'll be a while before I call you back. I can't understand what Slobberchops is saying when his mouth is full.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Guest Post: The Andromedan, Strange

Good evening. Bill here. Amy's husband. Bill.

Amy isn't feeling well today. Mainly it's 'cause of the broken air conditioning unit. Outside it was 96° today. Inside the thermostat read 97°. Before cooking supper. We got blowing fans. We got a window unit to help supplement the coolth in the kitchen. The whole family's sitting around in what amounts to skivvies. And Amy's eyes are glazed and unfocussed.
So here I am, doing my part to keep the flame of literacy alive. By hijacking her blog.

Things – and people – are not always what they seem. Or even what they claim to be.

I had a roommate once, in a city far away. We’ll call him "Larry" because "Brad Pitt" was already taken. I had met him once before I moved in. He was looking for someone to help with the rent, and I was trying to get away to a city far away. We were introduced at a science fiction convention, which was the type of crowd I was running with at the time, and made arrangements.

“Larry?” people said. “He’s harmless enough.” So I showed up on New Year’s Day, with my final paycheck from my old job and an Escort full of my belongings. He was glad to see me, and gracious enough, and I settled in.

At some point in the following week I started noticing the peculiarities. The casual pants that were just a tad too short. The stiff curly hair combed straight out to the side like a sheet caught in a gale. The way his eyes got bigger at random moments, as if he had just had a thought that startled him. The way he stared at his hands as if in disbelief. The little secret smile.

Finally, I had to say something. He had been picking at the back of his hand and muttering under his breath. “You OK?” I asked.

He looked up, and I’d swear he was delighted I asked.

“I’ve got psoriasis!”

“Ah!” I said. “I hear that’s painful.”

“No, you don’t understand! It means something’s wrong!”

“They have medications now….”

“But it’s not supposed to happen!” Larry began waving his arms. “Something’s wrong with my shield!”

I struggled with myself. I could just walk away from him. I wanted to walk away. But the question forced its way out. “Shield?”

“The shield that’s supposed to protect me from harm,” he said, and his eyes lit up.

He wasn’t human at all, he explained, but a Star Being from Andromeda. He had been on Earth for twenty thousand years, and this was his first illness.

“I thought you were from Tennessee,” I pointed out.

“Well of course I have to change bodies occasionally. That’s where my last incarnation was. Oak Ridge.”

“Where the nuclear lab is? Do your parents know?”

Over the next few months I learned more about his special powers. His shield was impervious to bullets and knives, although he was worried that they may be failing. He could levitate whenever he wanted; he just saw no real need to right now. And it had been years since he had made himself invisible.

I was constantly astounded. Here I was, sharing an apartment with a Star Being! And to think that he disguised the fact from the world by posing as a shoe salesman at the local mall. I had to break him. Because I couldn’t afford to move out quite yet.

I looked for chinks in his logic. I challenged him to prove his assertions. I talked to friends who had known him for years. “Don’t fight it,” they said. “He’s taken down smarter men than you.”

Thanks, I thought. And I persisted. I just couldn’t help myself.

“So why are you here? On Earth, I mean?”

“We were each assigned a world to monitor. You guys just got lucky and got me.”

“And you report back to Andromeda?”

“That’s a problem,” he said as his face clouded. “I haven’t been able to make contact for years. My powers seem to be fading.”

“Like your shield.”

“Exactly! You do understand!”

One day, about three months into my ordeal, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “You don’t really think I believe I’m an alien, do you?”

I sat back and stared at him, mildly stunned buy this turn of conversation.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you?”

“Of course not! It’s all a game, a big joke.”

The next day I came home to find him standing rigid in the middle of the living room floor, arms out from his sides, eyes rolled back in his head. He didn’t seem to be breathing.

“Yo, Larry,” I said. “What’s up?”

He took a moment to come out of his trance. He looked crestfallen. “Oh, nothing. I was just trying to see if I could levitate again. Sometimes,” he went on with a sigh, “I think I can feel it coming back. I guess I’ll just have to be patient.”

My own patience was nearing the end. I quietly let it be known I was ready to move, and I wasn’t too concerned about having to share an apartment again.

I still haven’t made up my mind about Larry. I figure there are three possibilities.

It may have been an elaborate hoax, a character he played for at least fifteen years, that nobody was able to break, but that nobody else believed. If so, nobody thought it was terribly funny, either.

He may have really believed, which makes him one of the saddest cases of delusion I’ve ever heard of.

Or, perhaps, he really was a twenty-thousand-year-old Star Being from Andromeda. It is a possibility. Given a big enough universe, anything could have happened. In fact, stranger things have happened.

But not around here.

For more free samples of my work, see me at The Doggerel King.

Copyright © 2008 by Bill Mullis. Used by permission

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Teenage Heroes

I got tagged by Erika, my favorite editor, and hardworking and talented developer of The Wham Magazine, for a meme that's thought provoking enough to make me set down my jelly doughnut and think for several seconds at a time. Why do I like to work at home?

I have a part-time job away from home. So why do I worry and work and stay up so late that people think the racoon rings around my eyes are permanetly etched on, laboring to get my at-home writing base up to speed?

Just now there are four teenaged boys in my living room. Their names are Twinkie, Fatt, Mini, and Seth. I’m not sure why they don’t call Seth by a nickname unless it’s because A) he has one, but I’m too old and parently-impaired to be allowed to hear it, or B) there’s not one awesome enough for a boy who can play the guitar with more ease than the rest of us strain spaghetti.

At present these guys are profoundly affected by the actions of several multi-colored creatures cavorting in cartoon-like battle rage on the television screen. Although they will all be eligible to vote come November, right now the actions of a round pink fellow with large, engaging eyes is more important to them than the actions of any of the candidates engaged in the brawl that is this year’s race for President of the United States. If any of the candidates ran on the Wii platform, they would secure the vote of teenagers all across the nation, and probably a few write-ins from outlying territories.

Following is a conversation taken from these actual teenaged boys. (Teenaged girls take note—these are authentic sounds used for communication in the wild. Not once did the subject of hair, nails, or what to wear to the mall enter into the conversation.)

Psychologists might make much of the fact that these guys seem preoccupied with death. But it’s nothing that a Care Package consisting of sodas and pizza can’t cure. Toss a bag of bite-size candy bars in the mix and they’ll swarm like yellow jackets in a State Park picnic zone. And there’s at least one of them that I know is partial to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

“We’re all gonna die!”

“Stop shooting me!”

“Ow! Stop killing me!”


Silence broken only by the bip boop bang of electronic battle noises backed by cartoon music.

“Run in fear!”

“Where am I? I found me! I lost me!”

“I killed myself off by accident!”

“I’m not dead yet!”

“We’re all gonna die!”

“Am I dead?”

“Run!” (Various colored creatures dash in different directions like a box of Crayolas kicked across the playroom floor. Think Pac Man on speed.)

Eventually, these young men grow weary and tired of the trauma of death by colored laser blasts. Then they switch to a challenge that involves a miniature guitar and more colored notes onscreen than sprinkles on a sugar cookie. One of them wields the guitar like a superwizard wields a magic wand, and the powers of good and evil hang in the balance. The others watch in awe and I stop in the middle of my essay on grieving hearts to see this kid play a toy guitar like Clapton performing Cocaine. The song ends in onscreen applause and real life respectful silence broken only by a hushed, "Dude!"

So why do I like to work at home? Because I get interrupted mid-project by gangland activity fueled by carbonated beverages that I just brought home from the grocery store. Because food disappears from the refrigerator like I have an automatic Hoover installation in the door. Because it won’t be long before these young men have families and responsible jobs and haircuts that don’t touch the collar of their pinstriped suits.

So for now, I’ll plan to do a little extra work later on tonight so I can stop to cheer for a fifty note run in a song that was famous when I was in high school.

And maybe I’ll make a peanut butter sandwich and cut the crusts off.