Friday, October 23, 2009

Throw Me a Bone: What's Your Name Again?


As some of you may have read in my introduction, one of the reasons we chose our particular neighborhood and house was because of its connection to miles of trails. Those of you who know me well know that this isn’t a big selling point one way or the other with me, but Scott likes to bike and run and otherwise just be outdoors, for some ungodly reason. The paths became convenient when we got our dog, Cous Cous, and found the only way to keep her from chewing my shoes and my clothes…and, well, anything that’s mine…is to walk her at least twice a day.

We meet an interesting cast of characters on our walks. There’s “the vet tech dog walker” or “the old dude with the lab” or “the daycare lady with the shihtzu.” At least, this is how I know these people. It’s not that I’m rude, I swear, I’m just not accustomed to retaining names of people and their pets when I pass them quickly and we allow a little doggie hello butt sniff.

Well, lately I’ve not been going on as many walks because as I get bigger and bigger, the prospect of waddling around the neighborhood with a dog who can’t go two feet without sniffing something isn’t appealing. And besides I can’t zip my winter coat. Apparently while I’ve been slacking on walks, Cous Cous has become famous.

I mean, I know my dog is cute. There’s no way I would own a dog under 50 lbs if she wasn’t absolutely adorable. She’s managed to make me break every dog rule EVER (she sleeps with us, she gets tons of treats, I actually walk her instead of throw her out the door on a zip line) with just one little goofy look or noise. But yeah, I had no idea she was famous. And by virtue of the fact that I own her, so have I.

So a week ago I am getting the mail and this woman stops me and smiles and goes “how long is it again? You’re due in the beginning of November, right?” I look around and then sort of stare at her. It comes back to me slowly (as most thoughts come to me these days) that she’s the daycare lady with the shihtzu. Nice lady, annoying dog. The damn thing barks at my dog every time we pass and it takes forever to get Cous Cous calmed down because she’s very uptight when she can’t sniff a dog and show her dominance, and this particular dog has an electric fence far enough away where Cous has to settle for a stare and bark approach. Plus the lady has like 10 kids in her yard who all want to play with the puppy. I have zero problem with kids wanting to pet my dog in theory…except that no matter how many times we say to the little munchkins “she jumps” they immediately go for her face and Cous Cous gets so ridiculously excited she can not control her back feet and she jumps right at the eyes. Naturally this scares the crap out of the kids and about half the time the whole episode ends up in tears. And yet, the next time we go by, the same little kid who was sobbing in fear is once again coming over to pet the dog. And thus the vicious cycle.

I digress. Back to Shihtzu Daycare Lady. She’s all smiles and I mumble an affirmative…I am in fact due soon. She laughs and says “How’s little Cous Cous doing with it all?” I manage to stumble out a little “she’s acting out some, but she’ll adjust” and then we both go our merry ways.

So I come home and tell this to Scott and he just nods and says the woman’s name and tells me she always asks about me while trying to hold back the kids from getting maimed by my overexcited puppy. I should find this all very sweet, treat it as one of those touching “ah, suburbia” moments, but I find it kind of weird. There’s something disconcerting about someone knowing so much about me when all I know is her profession and choice of dog breeds. And now the pressure is on for our walks to remember people’s names and dog’s names and other salient details that on a good day is challenging, and when I’m weeks from giving birth it’s just downright impossible.

So slap me on the wrist, “bad suburban neighbor,” but I don’t think I will ever be able to keep up with the Jones’ on this one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Come and Knock on Our Door




I think it may be inevitable that when you become a homeowner you become your parents. I am slowly embracing the fact that some days I care about whether my hosta will survive a freeze, that my garden is overgrown, that there’s too much trash in my can, that there are still remnants of our roofing project in my yard. Two years ago if you told me these would keep me up at night worrying about being the “junk house,” I’d have laughed in your face and gone back to sleep happy in my down comforter.

But recently I’ve had more than one moment that so channels my mother, it’s become a family joke. The family joke actually started long before my arrival in the ‘burbs. It started when I was a teenager living in Arizona and my father came home one day to find my mom proudly cleaning the house with a new product. She’s showing him how it can be used on tile and windows and even furniture and the entire time he’s following her going “where did you get that?”

After 10 minutes of my mom proving how fantastic this new cleaning product was, my dad finally took her by the shoulders and asked her again where she got it. He’s thinking the worst: my mother, left to her own devices while we were both in school and she wasn’t yet taking college classes, had become a shopping channel addict. It happens to good people, you know. There’s probably a 12-step program dedicated to it and I’m sure my father would have had it on speed dial before the intervention was over.

But, in fact, the truth was much worse. Under duress, my mother admitted how this beloved cleaning product came to be in our home. It was courtesy of a convict.

Allow me to set the scene. We lived at the base of a mountain, our nearest neighbor at least a city block away, our driveway so long you couldn’t see the end of it from any window in the house. The house is surrounded by cactus and the few trees that survive in Arizona. Any of you remember Neve Campbell’s house in Scream, how remote it was? Yeah that was ours.

Anyway, so the doorbell rings and my mother, alone in the house, swings it wide open and comes face to face with a man in a white button-down shirt and jeans. I wasn’t there, so naturally I picture the guy from Office Space, pretending to be a reformed crack addict, but really an unemployed IT worker. Only this dude was a legit convict: we know this because my mother tells us he presented her with a badge identifying him as such.

You have to understand two things: One, my mom is a nurse in addiction medicine and was ready to go back to school to get her degree in psych and she’s a big believer in second chances; and two, at the time we had a 100 pound yellow lab named Rudy.

Rudy was all bark and no bite, but I will confess when we first rescued him, he scared the crap out of me. Seeing 100 pounds of dog bare his teeth makes you not so much want to question whether he’s serious or not. So my mom figured nobody would mess with her and therefore she gladly let the reformed convict in to the house to demonstrate this wonderful product that would change a housewife’s life forever.

This is what she tries to explain over and over to my dad as he is shouting at her in disbelief “You ordered WHAT from WHO?” I think there may have been a few other choice words baked in there that weren’t suitable even for my teenage ears. But the bottom line was my dad was less than thrilled.

My dad could deal with the money spent on Boy Scout wreaths and Girl Scout cookies and gift wrap from elementary school drives. But this was too much for him to stomach: the fact that my mother opened the door to a solicitor over the age of 10 was bad enough, but the fact that said solicitor was traipsing through our house with his ex-convict badge and cleaning our couch cushions while potentially casing the joint was the last straw. My mother was forbidden from engaging with any door-to-door salesman ever again.

So, I’m a few months into this new house and I see my neighbor in the yard with her little daughter and I wave and go in the house. A few minutes later I hear my husband calling me outside, where in a vain attempt to throw the trash out, he’d been dragged into a neighborhood huddle. Those of you in the ‘burbs know what I am talking about. One neighbor asks how you are over the hedge and then suddenly five neighbors mill about to pet your dog or say hi to your kid and all of a sudden it’s like a pack of soccer mom football players all huddled trading gossip and apologizing about the one blade of grass that’s over an inch tall in their otherwise immaculate lawn.

Trapped, I walk over and meet the neighbors from two houses down, who have two adorable girls who are 10 and 7. Said adorable girls, who have been in school for maybe a week, are already selling Christmas wrapping and candy. I am so my mother’s daughter and can’t look in their little eyes without buying SOMETHING.

$50 of gift wrap later, I’ve apparently made a name for myself because suddenly our house is swarmed with kids carrying the same elementary school folders full of order forms. And guilt overtakes me and another $50 later, I’ve got more gift wrap than Hallmark.

So now a year later it’s September again and the doorbell rings and I seriously consider hiding because I trip over the rolls of wrapping paper I didn’t use last year every day and now I’m pregnant and hormonal and the sight of kids is just going to mean I have to call my mortgage company and try to explain that my check is late because an 8-year-old with cute blue eyes convinced me five rolls of penguin wrapping paper wasn’t enough.

I peek through the window and to my relief, it’s a college-aged kid with a clipboard. This part is easy! I can turn away the myriad “we will do your windows/roof/garden/whatever for super cheap, just hire us and help us with college tuition” salesmen out there. They don’t quite pull on the ‘ol heartstrings. So I open the door prepared to tell them “I purposely married a guy who’s handy so I don’t have to depend on randoms like you” when I was blindsided.

Apparently one of my neighbors has sent this young man my way armed with the knowledge that I’m pregnant (in fairness, it may have been obvious when I opened the door, but the fact that news of my impending motherhood had spread to solicitors was vaguely disturbing)and did he have a deal for me.

He begins by asking me about children’s books and I try to stop the spiel. In addition to being a soft-hearted second chancer, my mother is also a hoarder and had informed me more than once of her excitement at handing over all my baby books. So we were going to be more than stocked. Which is what I tell him.

Now I may have underestimated the value of a college education because this kid is good. He comes at me from a different approach. As part of his job, he’d like to know if there is anything in the children’s book world that I would like to see more of. I vaguely say that one thing we were considering is trying to find books that expose babies to Spanish because we were hoping to make our little one bilingual and we didn’t have any books that were for younger babies learning language.

Then all of a sudden he’s taking notes, we’re sitting together on the stoop and my husband is cooking dinner and wondering if he’s watching our baby’s future stepfather here as we huddle closely over a catalog.

My good friend Tage wasn’t interested in the goods or my kid, but boy did he have a deal for me! A package of, get this, bilingual Spanish/English books on first words, shapes, and numbers. He pulls out a set of 4 beautiful hardcover books and places them on my lap as I am sitting on the stoop. I caress them (those of you who know me well know my special relationship with books) and look up into the hopeful eyes of a man I am now convinced will own me and this country upon graduation and suddenly I am getting my checkbook and spending more on books than I spent on groceries.

When my father hears this story, I get the earful my mother got. How could I, pregnant and everything, sit on the stoop of my house with this college kid and get conned (that’s the word he uses repeatedly, despite the fact that I tried to point out that I paid money and got goods in return, some people call that shopping) into buying children’s books? How could it get worse? What were we thinking?

So this tirade is in my mind when a month later the doorbell rings again. At this point I confess I’ve already spent another $100 on wrapping paper and candy so I have satisfied all the little neighbor kids and quickly become a favorite sucker (if we have less than 50 kids this Halloween, I will be shocked. I am sure word has spread). Knowing there’s no way it’s kids, I send Scott down to tell whatever vendor it is to kindly go away.

Ten minutes later this man is in my entry way spreading out boxes of meat. You read that right…boxes…meat. There’s zero way to write this and not make it sound insane. It’s up there with a meat raffle…for those of you not lucky enough to have experienced THAT Midwest tradition, rural bars across the Midwest host meat raffle nights where you literally buy a raffle ticket and if you win, you get your choice of meat, which is laid out on a pool table for your perusal.

No raffle ticket necessary today, though! This man is a door-to-door meat salesman and he has charmed his way into our house through my dear husband. As he’s waxing poetic about prime cuts and marinated meat and less than $3 a pound, I’m watching Scott’s eyes light up and seeing his hand reach for his checkbook. Now, there’s a voice in my head going “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,” but who the hell am I to say no after I’ve spent a small country’s GNP on wrapping paper and wreaths? So he writes out the check and sets about filling our freezer with meat.

My dad heard this one and you could see in his face he was considering disowning all of us and running away. He's convinced there's some sort of signal on our house, like the hobo code in the olden days, there were symbols for houses where work or food could be had. He continues to dine out on the story of how we bought meat from a truck and my mother bought cleaner from a convict.

But I’ll tell you a secret: our house growing up was spotless and I just had a damn good steak. Viva la Solicitor!!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

To Mow or Not to Mow: A Neighborhood Intervention

One of the different things about living in the ‘burbs is that even when there’s space between you and your neighbors, that space quickly decreases as they get to know you. Our neighbors decreased that space overnight when on our first day they dragged us over to their yard and plied us with beer and gave us the neighborhood gossip. Everyone seemed cool enough, even if what they knew about the other neighbors was slightly off-putting.

So a week after we moved in, we were preparing my new home office. I had unwittingly chosen the one room in the house that didn’t have cable or phone jacks. Fortunately, I married an electrician. A patient electrician willing to spend a Saturday in June in the attic hooking and unhooking wires and whatever it is he does that gives me the magical box that brings me the Internet and means I don’t have to go into the office anymore.

It took about three hours, but we were in the home stretch and all Scott had to do was go outside and hook up the last few wires. He looked like a sweaty yeti – completely covered head to toe in dirt and insulation from the attic. After about 10 minutes, I started to get nervous. I was supposed to yell to him when the little light came on, but no light was coming on. And it was only supposed to take a minute or two. As I am about to go outside and make sure he hasn’t inadvertently crossed wires or done something else to electrocute himself, he comes walking in looking…weird. I’m not sure how to describe the look, except it was a combination of perplexed and bemused…we’ll call it “permused.”

He recounts this exchange with our neighbor, who we will call Mrs. Dietz in honor of October and one of my favorite ghost movies, Beetlejuice:

Mrs. Dietz: Hey, Scott, how are things going?
Scott: Oh, well, pretty good. Just hooking up Stephanie’s office. Been in the attic all day [points to his insulation-covered body].
Mrs. Dietz: Yeah, it’s a nice day to mow the lawn.

I must be giving the same permused look to Scott because he shrugs and says “exactly!” But, wait there’s more!

Scott: Yeah, I have to go get my mom’s mower, actually. I got one from my uncle but it’s broken so….
Mrs. Dietz: You should borrow ours, it’s no problem.
Scott: [looking at his watch and brushing insulation off his clothing to indicate he has zero intention of spending what is left of his day mowing his lawn] Maybe I’ll do that, take you up on that tomorrow.
Mrs. Dietz: Oh…tomorrow. Well, yeah, only we’re going out of town at 9 in the morning.
Scott: Oh, oh well.

So that’s how he left it and we’re both obsessing about it the rest of the night. On one hand, I was thinking it’s ballsy to say that to someone who clearly has been busy doing home repairs all day, while at the same time I was also slightly embarrassed. We’d been told at the neighborhood drinking party that prior to us buying our house out of foreclosure, there were years of renters who were less than concerned about the upkeep of the house. And to say our neighbors are super concerned about their property and anything within 1,000 feet of it (trust me, more stories to come on that) is a bit of an understatement so I wasn’t fond of us becoming the ugly yard house right out of the gate. But nor was I going to make my husband go out in 90-degree weather to mow after he’d spent the entire week doing repairs while I decorated.

So we both agreed that we would just let it go and get his mom’s mower the next day and mow the lawn and everyone would be happy.

8:55 the next morning the doorbell rings. Scott and I are still in bed after a late night of hooking up the rest of the office and celebrating my new work at home status with some beer and pizza. We look at each other and both whisper “NO WAY!”

Way. There, standing at our door at five minutes until 9 a.m. is Mrs. Dietz. With her lawnmower. Totally sweetly saying “return it anytime!” With that, she and her family took off and Scott got dressed to mow our lawn for the first time.