Monday, June 28, 2010

No, Not That Kind of Wasp

Some three summers ago, I was out working on the motorbike on a sultry evening. Done with my tasks and whistling tunelessly, I gathered up my tools and prepared to head inside.

Something stung me on the calf. A yellowjacket must have alighted on the hem of my shorts, and was irritated and acted out in the only way it knew how.

A yellowjacket sting is really no big deal, painwise, and I shrugged it off and went on with my evening.

Some five minutes later, I noticed I was coming out in hives on my upper chest.

Hmmmm, I thought. That's unusual....

Took a Benadryl. The hives went away.

I mentioned this to my doctor on a routine visit, and she told me sternly that I must now consider myself allergic to wasp stings. I must carry an Epi-pen with me at all times, and should another yellowjacket take it into its head to attack me, I must hit myself with it and call 911. Immediately. Without delay.

Some months after that, I took a course of therapy: micro-doses of wasp venin, increasing in size until I redeveloped my resistance. Trouble was, life doesn't always cooperate, and I necessarily had to miss the last three doses out of about twelve. So no allergist ever shook me by the hand and congratulated me for being allergy-free.

This was the state of affairs last night. I have been living in a sort of limbo, not knowing whether the therapy completely blew the allergy out of me. And I still have the Epi-pen and I renew the prescription every year.

Last night, the proposition was tested.

Once again walking out of the garage -- doinnnng! Yellowjacket sting on the bare ankle. Well. I guess we're going to find out about that therapy, aren't we.

A few minutes later, here come the hives.

And I panic.

"911, what is your emergency?"


(The Epi-pen has a tendency, I now find, to goose the adrenaline levels astronomically. In fact, that's what it is meant to do.)

Wonder Woman, meanwhile, was doing a little eye-rolling. Real easy for you to be nonchalant about this, sweetie, but if my throat swells shut in the next five minutes, you're the one who's gonna have to find something to use to intubate me. I'm thinking you should go cut a length of garden hose....

She did press a couple of Benadryls on me. Funny thing: As I listened to the siren approaching from far, far away, I could feel the pills soothing my hives. I also began to realize that my throat wasn't constricting, my breathing was normal (if a trifle adrenalated), and about the worst thing I was experiencing was minor discomfort on the stung ankle.

I met the ambulance at the driveway, feeling more than a bit sheepish. I told them I was the guy who'd called, that the therapy I'd taken had indeed had its intended effect, and that I was sorry to have disturbed their Sunday ease. They very kindly told me I had done exactly the right thing, no sense in taking any chances with something potentially so deadly, took me into the vehicle and checked my vital signs. Everything was well within parameters.

I still have one remaining Epi-pen. I'm thinking of ways it could be abused....

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

All the Sweet Green Icing Flowing Down

So, Landon Donovan wins the Algeria game for the U.S., sending us into the World Cup™ knockout rounds as Group C winners...

I've met him, you know. Oh, yes, we go way back, Landon and me.

Some eight or nine years ago, for Freddie's birthday we took a party of ten-year-old boys to RFK Stadium to take in a DC United game. Like most non-major-league teams, United was very solicitous toward groups of boys who visited their stadium to learn about the game, and the birthday-party package (reasonably priced!) included field privileges before the match, in the spaces behind the goals.

These areas were, of course, roped off from the field where the players were warming up. Not being a ten-year-old boy myself, I was watching the warmups with rather more interest than that I expended on the Thunder-Stick fencing matches going on behind me. Donovan, then a mere up-and-coming youngster a year or two out of college, kicked an errant ball that came to a stop near me. I picked it up and tossed it to him as he jogged my way.

"Thanks," he said.

So, like I say, we go way back, me and Landon.

But that is not the memory of that game that I treasure the most. This is that memory:

About half-time, it came on to rain buckets. Everyone scurried up to the covered part of the stadium to wait out the torrent. As the responsible parents we are, we split the duties: Wonder Woman herded the birthday guests out of the rain, and I remained behind to pick up whatever birthday-party paraphernalia that would not survive a soaking. Carrying armloads of sweatshirts, caps, wrapped presents and the like, I glanced over and saw the remnants of the blue-frosted cake, slowly dissolving into a wet, sugary blob of goo. An idea formed in my mind.

I deposited my armloads of stuff safely in dry territory, and then went back. I lifted the platter that held the blue gooey mess, brandished it on high, looked around and made sure I had at least a small audience, and yelled up to Wonder Woman in the next section up: "Honey! Someone left the cake out in the rain!"

And she didn't even skip a beat: "I don't know if I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again!"

I believe I've observed this before, but it bears repeating: I married that woman for a reason.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, the Pain of Listening to You

Well, there's another cherished illusion down the crapper....

We drove this Friday from our usual Northern Virginia haunts to Greensboro, in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Betty will be starting at Greensboro College in the fall, and Freshman Orientation called her down to choose courses, meet other frosh, and what have you.

The trip is drop-dead gorgeous. Down Interstate 81: Winchester, New Market, Harrisonburg, Staunton, and on down to Roanoke, the gentle rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley giving way to the high, wild Appalachians as you approach the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines. We broke off 81 at Roanoke to follow 220 south to the Piedmont country.

The three-finger banjo style made famous by Earl Scruggs originated in the Piedmont. Charlie Poole came from there, as did an huge litany of enormously influential musicians. It was from a North Carolina mountain resort in August 1927 that an already consumptive Jimmie Rodgers, desperate to break into the music industry before he died, showed up at Ralph Peer's Bristol Sessions and cut "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep"; at the same session the Carter Family, from Maces Springs not far away, cut "Single Girl, Married Girl" and pretty much kicked off the entire country-music recording industry.

So this music permeates this countryside. We are smack-dab in the cradle of country music, the music of the people, and the people of the music, and it permeates all in the same way that jazz permeates New Orleans and the waltz does Vienna. The twang of the banjo and the wail of the fiddle is a constant whisper in the wind, and the people who live here proudly claim ownership and uphold the old traditions....

Right? I mean, right?

We stopped for gas in Boones Mill, south of Roanoke. Completely randomly chose a gas station that also had a Bojangles chicken joint attached to it. A desultory Friday evening crowd ate their chicken in the sultry air -- and there, as if placed there by God for the delectation of Suburban Goober Jingo, was an amateur country band! Playing real, authentic country music!

They were ancient. The rhythm guitarist had to have been 85 if he was a day, sunken cheeks telling of lousy Appalachian dentistry. He played in the unusual Lester Flatt picking style: thumb on the downstroke, index finger on the upstroke. The lead guitar-flogger was a bit younger, but not by much. The bassist was probably the baby of the band at 60 or so. The female lead singer, perhaps 70, had hard, angular facial features that sprang straight from a Walker Percy Evans [thanks, Kim! Reminder to self: look shit up!!!] Depression photograph.

They swung into "The Pain of Loving You," an old Dolly Parton/Porter Waggoner number that Parton brought to the Trio project with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt:

Oh, the pain of loving you
Oh, the misery I go through
Never knowing what to do
Oh, the pain of loving you

As I stood in rapturous anticipation of the countrylicious authenticity of it all, something slightly appalling began to make itself clear...




In the first verse, the rhythm guitar looked over at the bass with a look of concern: Why are you playing a C right now? Both lost the count so badly that it became impossible for the listener to tell where the one was in the measure. The singer floundered, trying to complete a phrase at the spot she thought the measure was going to end, and wound up biting off the whole phrase.

Train wreck.

Parton, Harris and Ronstadt's singing in the chorus of their version is a master class in three-part harmony singing -- gorgeous interior movement, dissonance resolving to assonance: church harmony meeting the tight close harmony of Thirties and Forties jazz.

Let it just be said that the harmony singing on display here was really quite... Not good.

This stuff ain't exactly "The Be-Bop Tango," if you know what I mean. They call it "folk music" because it's so simple that "folk" can play it in their parlors. All you need is to be able to count to four while playing simple changes. Sing a third above the melody. Not rocket-science music.

I dropped a buck into the collection bucket anyway. At least they were trying.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I'm-a Tell You About That Wonder Woman

That up there is an Eastern Phoebe. According to the online "Field Guide to the Birds of North America,"
  • The Eastern Phoebe was the first bird to be banded in North America. In 1804, John James Audubon used a silver thread attached to its leg to note when the bird would return each year.
  • Of the three Phoebe species, the Eastern Phoebe’s call most closely resembles its name.
  • Unlike most songbirds who must hear other birds to hone their vocalizations, an Eastern Phoebe raised in isolation will still sing a perfect song.
  • A group of flycatchers has many collective nouns, including an "outfield," "swatting," "zapper," and "zipper" of flycatchers.
Well we have neither zapper nor zipper of phoebes nesting atop our wind-chime on the back porch, but we do have one lone specimen. She (or perhaps a daughter) returns every year to that same spot, hatches two broods between April and July, and then scarpers off for parts unknown. She's been doing this since 2005. We've come to be rather good friends, us and that phoebe. Each year, her little ones leave a pretty impressive pile of birdshit on the floor of the porch, but we deal. Accommodations, you understand. Doesn't seem to be hurting the wood floor.

You may also remember another member of our extended family, the rat snake who inhabited our potting shed a couple of springs ago. We didn't object to his taking up residence, as the mouse population dove into near-zero numbers.

Among their other qualities, rat snakes are known as excellent climbers. Which is why the other evening as I sat reading on the porch-swing, I wasn't all that surprised to see one of that snake's younger relatives, perhaps four or five feet long, making his way up the screen door, making straight for the nestlings. Another few minutes and he'd be making a meal of them.

I called Wonder Woman out, intending to show her the Great Circle of Life or the Food Chain or something.

She wasn't interested in any science. She went straight up to the serpent, snagged it by the throat in fine herpetological fashion, pulled it off the screen door. The thing writhed and wrapped itself around her forearm. She turned its snaky face so she was looking it squarely, eye-to-eye. Then she said in a low growl, millennia of maternal instinct speaking through her, "Not! These! Babies!"

Then she stalked off across the lawn, the snake still wrapped around her wrist and forearm, and cast the accursed thing into a hedge of creeper twenty yards away. "Find someplace else to live!" she shouted after it.

It hasn't been back, of course. How would it dare, after having been chastened that thoroughly?

The chicks, by the way, were fledged the next day. And Mother Phoebe has started in on her second brood.

Live-Blogging USA vs. England

1:00: USA! USA! USA!

Just went out to the 7-11 for a few little something-somethings. Walked up to the checkout clerk with my Slurpee, felt in the back pocket of my shorts -- and realized my wallet wasn't there.

Cursing my idiocy -- the Drive of Shame would be a half-hour, there and back -- I went and pitched the Slurpee into the trash. Then I happened to glance at my left hand -- and there was my wallet.

It's possible the heat is getting to me.

2:57: USA! USA! USA!

On the first day of the last World Cup, I had an operation to try to save my natural hip.

(Oh. Well, so much for that, then. England scores at 3:44. En-ger-land! En-ger-land! Engerland!)

At any rate, I was bedridden for the entirety of the tournament. Watched pretty much every game, in a Vicodin haze. Bummer!

It's not like USA hasn't had its chances... Oh god, that shot to Tim Howard's chest sure looked like it smarted a bit...

39:50: USA! USA! USA! (And where did En-ger-land get that goalie? Looked like a ten-year-old Little Leaguer letting a routine base hit turn into a triple...)

This Landon Donovan: I like the cut of his jib. I saw him play years ago when he was with DC United...

51:38: Player of the Game so far: Tim Howard. Fantastic save.

Confession time: I'm actually watching this about 10 minutes behind on TiVo... (giggle)

85:59: I further confess that that bees'-nest buzzing sound of the horns in the stands is going to irritate me before this tournament is over...

94:00: Fun game. Catch you later!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Radiant, Confident, Deliriously Happy

Well, well....

It's come to this.

When Betty reached the age of two or so, not being much of a talker, she invented a sign language. "Rain," I remember, was an outstretched hand waving up and down. For "Barney," she hugged herself -- "I love you, you love me," etc.

Other things began to bother us a little bit. When she did start to speak, she didn't quite get certain consonants, so instead of "Da-da" I was "Ga-ga." When she started to feed herself, she'd approach her face with a spoonful of food -- and then invert it 180 degrees before it got to her mouth. When she learned to form letters, she was as likely as not to write perfectly backwards. She had no strong preference in handedness, and was as likely to bat or throw rightie as leftie.

Wonder Woman was more frantic than I was, I think. She began reading book after book about learning disabilities, and concluded that Betty definitely had one. We had her assessed, and the conclusion was something called Visual Processing Deficit -- to this day I don't really know what that means, only that the left and right parts of her brain weren't talking quite right to each other. It was explained to us that her brain was working so hard to locate her in time and space that there was little processing power left over for such niceties as mathematics and music.

The public school system failed her badly. I mean, criminally. It became blindingly apparent that she was being passed from one grade to another without any concern for her disability. Yes, she had an IEP, a program that was supposed to compensate for her disability, but it became clear that the program was a joke, a sop to legal requirements -- doing her no good at all while allowing the school system to claim they were helping her.

And goddammit, we knew -- how could we not know? -- that our daughter was bright, brave, beautiful, and a joy to know. It was just that the information wasn't getting in in the conventional way. We were at our wits' end.

The public school she was attending had a "Gifted and Talented" program, a not-so-subtle way of two-tracking kids and giving parents yet one more thing to be competitive about. I recall vividly my rage at a school awards ceremony where this idiot teacher raved on and on about the G&T kids under his care were going to be the Leaders of Tomorrow -- the clear implication being, of course, that if you weren't part of the G&T program, your eternal fate as a Dumb Loser Kid was pretty much sealed. Jesus, what an asshole.

Wonder Woman knew about a place called The Lab School of Washington, an institution in western DC that specialized in LD kids. I was skeptical at first, thinking it was just another way to separate frantic parents from their money. It was 75 miles from our home. It was quite expensive.

But I read about Sally Smith, the school's founder whom we were fortunate enough to meet before her death in 2007. Go ahead, go read about her. The woman was a hero and a saint -- and that's not praise you're likely to hear from me very often.

So we applied. And we were accepted for Betty's sophomore year. I'll never forget the look of rapturous joy on her face when the "Fat Envelope" came in the mail -- maybe, just maybe, this might be something to rescue her self-esteem, which by the ninth grade was in a death-spiral.

Oh, dear God, was it a slog. I can't tell you what 300 miles a day commuting did to Wonder Woman, who bore it mightily. And let's not even ponder what that kind of mileage can take out of a seventeen-year-old. The expense was nearly ruinous, coming as it did during the Great Collapse of 2008, when I was laid off and working only sporadically. But we bore it. Yes, we bore it.

Because we wanted to see that photo up there. Look at her -- radiant, confident, deliriously happy. She blossomed there at the Lab School. Just blossomed. Just a few weeks ago she had the part of Emily -- the female lead -- in the school's production of "Our Town." She brought down the house -- not a dry eye in the joint, I tell you -- certainly least of all Dear Old Dad, who was huffing and puffing and piping his eye from about the first minute on.

She'll be attending Greensboro College in the fall.

We made it!

Betty (whose real name is Emily), your mom and dad are the proudest, happiest parents in the world, and we know how strong you have had to be to get to this moment. My baby, my sign-language-inventing, backwards-writing baby, you are the best!

Wa-hey! Technology!

(On a side note, I hope you believe me when I say that you can consider this my return to blogging. A circumstance that made me feel shitty has now passed, and I feel up to sharing my life with you once again.)