Monday, February 25, 2008

The Great AA Search

I heard the banging from upstairs. The violent, repetitive noise was coming from the dining room. I ran down the stairs to see the teenager attacking her calculator with her clenched fist. Her black pencil was in her other hand and she was surrounded by her algebra book and numerous wrinkled papers. While I was happy she had finally started her homework, I had some concerns for the condition of her calculator, her fist, and most importantly, my dining room table.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked her. “Are you frustrated with your homework?”

“No, I always bang on my calculator.” she said quite matter of factly. “That’s how I get it to work. I think the batteries are going dead, or something.”

I spent the next day and a half looking for the paperwork for her calculator. I ended up finding it in the file entitled, “Manuals and Instructions”. I found the “Battery Replacement” section of the paperwork and read that I needed to buy two manganese R6P (sum-3) AA replacement batteries. Now, I know that most calculators and watches and hearing aides have special batteries. And of course, I’m familiar with regular AA batteries. But I had never heard of this special kind of battery.

I wrote down the battery number on a small piece of paper and stashed it in my purse. A few days later I found myself in the electronics department at Target. I pulled the piece of paper out of my purse and asked the girl behind the counter if she could help me find this special kind of battery. She looked most confused and finally admitted that she had never heard of this kind of battery. She told me that her selection of batteries was limited to mainstream batteries and perhaps I would be more successful if I went to a larger store or maybe even, to Radio Shack.

Later that week, I found myself at Wal-Mart. I again pulled the piece of paper from my purse, and showed it to the middle aged man behind the counter. He looked at me as if I were the dumbest woman he had ever seen. He said he had no idea what I was talking about and insinuated that I had written the number down wrong. He then tried to sell me a new calculator, claiming it was cheaper than buying the special batteries I was supposedly trying to find. I resisted his sales tactic and as I was leaving, he gruffly suggested that I just go to Radio Shack.

Over the course of the next few weeks the teenager continued to bang on her calculator when doing her homework and I continued to pull out my slip of paper from my purse whenever I was in a store that carried batteries. Every single store brought the same experience. No one had ever heard of my R6P (sum-3) manganese AA batteries. The store worker usually ended up looking perplexed and suggested I visit a Radio Shack. I usually ended up looking like an ignorant idiot.

Finally, I wised up. I went to Radio Shack. This time, I wasn’t messing around. I decided to take the actual calculator with me. I also grabbed a screwdriver. I would be able to take the special batteries out and match them to those in the store. When I walked into the store I walked straight past the rack of batteries and approached the 19 year old expert kid behind the counter. He asked if he could help me.

“Yes, I’ve got a real problem here. I need new batteries for the teenager’s calculator. I’ve been to half a dozen stores and no one has ever heard of these special batteries. I was hoping you carried them.”

The Radio Shack expert kid picked up the calculator, turned it over and looked on the back. “Um ma’am, this calculator just needs two AA batteries. It says right here, right on the back.”

“Oh no, that can’t be right!” I said as I quickly grabbed the calculator out of the expert kid’s hands. I took a look at the back of the calculator and saw the words, “Uses R6P (sum-3) OR two AA batteries. “

The teenager looked horrified. The embarrassment was almost too much for her to bear.

I wasn’t done, however. I then barked at the expert kid. “They can’t possibly be regular AA’s. Here, I’ve brought my screwdriver. I’ll just take the back off and show you that they are special batteries. The paperwork mentioned something about manganese.”

It took me a solid 5 minutes to get the 8 super tiny screws out of the calculator. I nervously fumbled with the screwdriver, mumbled unintelligible things to myself and periodically looked up and politely smiled at the expert kid. The expert kid looked back at me in silence with his eyebrows raised. His co-workers smirked in the background. The teenager had disassociated herself from me and was now attempting to appear interested in obscure electrical connectors at the other end of the counter. When I took the back off the calculator two of the screws flew to the floor. I then found myself crawling on all fours, searching the Radio Shack floor for those suddenly invisible, super tiny screws. When the teenager turned and saw me on the floor of the Radio Shack and heard me blurt out a nonsensical question about manganese to the expert kid, she immediately decided to wait in the car. As I searched for my screws, the expert kid gave me a simplified lesson on manganese versus alkaline batteries. None of which I really remember.

When I finally arose, disheveled and red in the face, I pulled my too tight shirt down over my stomach, brushed my hair back in place with my fingers and put the tiny screws in my jeans pocket. I grabbed the calculator off the counter and then proceeded to dump into my hand, what apparently, really were, two regular AA batteries. The expert Radio Shack kid waited about 20 seconds for me to speak. I didn't. He then politely asked me if I would like to purchase two replacement AA batteries for my calculator.

“No thanks” I muttered.” I’ve got a 100 battery mega pack at home.”

The teenager and I drove home in silence. The 2 regular AA batteries were replaced. I forced the husband to screw in those 8 tiny screws. He used a special magnetic screwdriver. His screws never fell to the floor. The teenager now does her homework without any banging. And I think it will be a very long time before I show my face in the local Radio Shack again.

Check This Out!

Bruschetta Pasta

Combine chopped tomatoes, red onion, fresh basil and small cubes of fresh mozzarella with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Toss with your favorite pasta. Throw in some garlic if you like, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

63 Horsepower

It was a rainy Sunday morning when I casually and so very non competitively approached the stoplight in the left of the two lanes. Just after the intersection, the right lane merged into the left lane creating one single lane of travel on the way out of town. The right lane was currently completely empty. There was, however, much to the husband’s dismay and disbelief, one car ahead of me in the left lane. From the passenger seat he began to preach. He nodded with a half cocked head toward the car so innocently stopped in front of me. “OH, COME ON!” he pleaded with his hands raised and a half a chuckle thrown in. “You can’t be serious? It’s a gutless Ford Festiva! Why don’t you get in the right lane? You can beat him across the intersection and then merge in front of him.”

I, being naively unaware that every intersection crossing was full of such extraordinary, exciting possibility and that every red light was a brand new opportunity to race the unspoken race, had taken what I felt was my rightful place behind the tiny Ford. Nevertheless,to appease the husband, I moved over to the right lane and nonchalantly glanced over at the Ford Festiva. The early 90’s, faded aqua colored car had seen better days. The overgrown rollerskate was dented in numerous places and had its fair share of rust. I could see through the front window that the fabric of the front passenger seat was ripped. I looked up and accidentally, not to mention a bit uncomfortably, glanced at the driver of this sad, diminutive car. A scruffy teenage boy, who needed a haircut, glared back at me. I could easily see by his disrespectful expression that he was a bit miffed that I had moved over to the right lane. Apparently, even at this young age, teenage boys are already aware that every intersection crossing was full of these extraordinary, exciting possibilities and that every red light was a brand new opportunity to race the unspoken race. He made it quite obvious as he revved his car. He was threatened. He was going to take me on.

And then the light turned green. I needed to get in front of this tiny, little underpowered car before my lane merged into his. I figured it was a given. We had 220 horsepower. He had 63. We had wide grippy tires. He had 12 inch balding, rubber strips. We had a V-6 with a manual transmission. He probably had a measly 3 speed automatic. We had torque down low. He had hope and a prayer. We had solid, quality construction. He had Korea. I had years of level headed driving experience. He had probably only had his license for a few months.

I firmly, but fairly casually, pressed on the gas pedal. He must have floored it. His tires squealed so loudly on the wet pavement that the husband looked up from the magazine he was reading. And then, shockingly, the tiny Festiva started to surge forward, much to my dismay. I nervously looked over at the husband who by now had a huge grin on his face. “Ha!” he laughed. “Like he has a chance! I don’t know who he thinks he’s foolin’! Go for it, mama.” It was about this time that the kids in the back seat, hearing the word “mama”, decided they should look up from their books and pay attention.

Now, however, I was the one who was a bit miffed. How dare that teenage boy ruffian in the tiny little pretend car think he could beat an almost middle aged woman in her middle class, fairly high priced sport sedan? I immediately shifted to plan B. I put in the clutch and banged that that transmission down into fourth. The husband then pressed his own passenger side imaginary gas pedal all the way to the floor. The children looked on in anticipation of their untimely deaths. The husband had already informed me that our 6 cylinder engine would “so overpower that 4 cylinder engine in that pathetic excuse for a car” that I wasn’t too worried. Neither of us had counted on the teenage Festiva boy being so motivated, though. I didn’t know he would have so much invested in this contest. Again, I was still, naively unaware that this particular intersection crossing was so full of bragging rights for him at school on Monday morning.

For the briefest of moments the boy thought he had a chance. For the briefest of moments, he was right beside me. I looked over and saw the driven look of intent on the teenage boy’s face. He looked back at me and thought he saw a passive, married mother of two beautiful children whom she would never sacrifice for a street race. He was so wrong. By this time, the husband was desperate for control of our vehicle. My poor start off the line was most embarrassing for him. He pressed his imaginary gas pedal to the floor again and muttered something unintelligible about 3rd gear.

It was right about then that the true irresponsible spirit and flashes of rage so common in the unspoken race began to overtake me. I grabbed the shifter and shocked both myself and the husband a bit by downshifting hard into third gear. I punched the accelerator just like the husband was doing on his side of the car and began to accelerate much more quickly than necessary ahead of the unfortunate aqua pseudo car. And then…I kept going. After all, a win in the unspoken intersection race should be a convincing win, without a doubt. I was so intent, in fact, on making a point, that I accelerated well beyond the necessary limits of friendly intersection racing. And it was so much fun. Way more fun than it should have been. I laughed my way for miles. The husband approved. The children pretended it was daddy that was driving and hid their eyes.

My family managed to live through this unfortunate, completely unsafe intersection transaction. I do not recommend that you emulate my behavior in any way. Parts of me are even somewhat ashamed of myself. That teenage boy however, was most unhappy with his loss. When he finally caught up to me he drove about 3 inches off my bumper for about 12 miles until we rolled into the next town and the road again expanded to two lanes. And when it did, having shaken the raging demons of the unspoken race and returned to the world of common sense and safe mommy driving, I casually and most maturely veered off into the right lane. The angry teenager, with much effort, jerked to the left, and then I assume, he floored it. After about a minute, he passed me in the left lane. And as he passed me, I must admit, that I found myself thinking about how easy and how much fun it would be to beat that punk kid to the next light.

Check This Out!
This week the Slightly Exaggerated staffers have been obsessed with the Mark Knopfler song, What It Is, the Queensryche version of the song, Almost Cut My Hair and, after their fabulous Grammy performance, the Foo Fighters and their song, The Pretender.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


Head down, she took her place in line for the first time ever, nervously turning the pink, plastic necklace around in her small, dirty hand. She slowly shuffled forward toward the jump rope, avoiding eye contact with those around her. She quietly chanted the jump rope rhyme, took the end of the rope in her hand and turned it for her classmate. Her turn would be next. As the jumper missed a jump, the shy, small girl moved toward the center of the rope and waited for her classmates to turn the rope for her. One of the louder girls then announced that it was time to play kickball. The rope was dropped to the ground and all of the jumping girls, except one, ran to follow the loud girl to the playfield. The one girl left behind, began nervously turning her pink, plastic necklace around in her small, dirty hand. She slowly shuffled toward the brick wall, avoiding eye contact with those around her. She quietly sat down against the wall and began to cry.

I stood with my head up, in the middle of the blacktop, turning the cheap whistle of power around in my mitten covered hand. I walked around the playground and blacktop and field, attempting to make eye contact with all of the children around me. The brisk, aggressive, chilling wind tried to sneak down my neck. I zipped my girl’s size 16 coat up as high as it would go and marveled at the boy who wore only a short sleeved t -shirt. I pulled the boy aside. “Where is your coat?” I asked him.

“I don’t have one.”

“Did you leave it in the classroom?"

“No, I told you. I don’t have one. My dad got laid off and my mom lives with her friend Tyler now and my grandma died so I didn’t get a coat this year. I do have a sweatshirt though. I left that in my class. Can I go get it? I’m kind of cold.”

A gaggle of 2nd grade girls ran up to me. “Are you really a recess teacher? Because, we’ve never seen you and you’re very short.”

“I’m a substitute recess teacher. “

“Well we were wondering because Emily has the same coat as you and we wondered who had the same coat as Emily because we had never seen a girl on the playground with the same coat as Emily and we were wondering if there was a new girl at school and then we were going to be her friend because she had the same coat as Emily and that was a sign that she could be in our club. But if you are really a teacher then you probably can’t be in our 'Webkinz-Jonas Brothers-iPod club' because you probably don’t have a Webkinz or an iPod or know who hot Nick from the Jonas Brothers is, do you?”

“Well, I don’t have a Webkinz but my daughter had some Beanie Babies. I do know who the Jonas Brothers are and I do have an mp3 player. So can I be in your club?”

“Ewwww!!! No way! You didn’t give the 'Cheeky Monkey Nick is so HOT!!' secret password!” And with that, they all screamed and ran into the field stopping to play somewhere just beyond an innocent childhood.

A small familiar boy ran up to me and pummeled me with desperate hug after desperate hug. “Hey teacher, hey teacher! I’m going to sing you a song. I can sing good. Can I sing good for you? Do you know the name of my song? “

“No, I don’t. What is the name of your song?”

“Well, I haven’t really named it yet, but you know I wanna sing it for you. Except, I can’t really ever sing you my song good without my guitar. I need my guitar.”

“Do you have a guitar?” I asked.

“No, that’s why I can’t sing you my song.”

“Do you have a guitar at home? Do you take lessons?”

“Nope. I don’t have a guitar anywhere. I wanted one but I got a skateboard for Christmas instead which doesn’t help me much because my mom won’t let me go to the skateboard park without an adult, but she is always working or on the computer. So I just mess around in my driveway.”

(significant pause)

“So, do you wanna hear my song or not?” the boy impatiently asked. “I’m going to sing it for you now. So if you wanna listen to me and tell me how good I am this would be the time.”

“Ok, sing me your song. I’d love to hear it.”

“I am the wind and I am the river. I am the things that flow past me. I am the light that goes away and I am the dust that flies away. I am the thing that will never be.”

I am stunned into silence.

“Where did you hear that song?” I finally ask him. He must have heard it somewhere.

“I made it up. I live near a creek and I float bark down it and that made me write that song. Do you like it?”

What was I to do? I should have bought that boy a guitar.

I blow my whistle of power and a leaping boy in baggy pants stops and turns to face me.

“Hey, that section of the field is closed.” I yell to him. “It’s flooded and it’s not safe.”

“Yeah, I know,” the boy yelled back, “but my ball rolled down the hill into the water and I need to get it.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t let you get it. That part of the field is closed. You’ll have to wait until your ball is not sitting in three feet of water before you can get it.”

“But, my ball is down there!”

“Yes, I see that. We will get it when the water goes down.”

“But, my ball is down there and I need it now!”

“I’m sorry. I can’t let you go down there.”

“I hate recess teachers!!” the boy screams. “They only exist to ruin my fun!!” Then he punches his friend in the shoulder and runs off to the basketball hoops.

“Teacher, teacher! He’s chasing meeeee! And I don’t liiiike it! I think he’s sexually harassing me too!” screamed the girl wearing the Apple Bottom jeans and the boots with the fur and the shirt that said “Fitch” on the front underneath a South Pole hoodie.

“What?” he yelled incredulously. “She ASKED me to chase her! Girls! I just don’t get ‘em!”

As I roamed the playground that afternoon, I encountered smelly boys, nitpicky girls, comic book reading boys, muddy girls and all sorts of kids who needed their shoes tied. I witnessed many accidents-waiting-to-happen and many baskets that really should have gone in. I saw a little bit of crying, a little more yelling and a whole lot of laughing. I searched for 1 lost tooth in the pea gravel, bandaged 3 scraped knees and was told of 7 questionable home situations. I learned all about 2 crushes gone bad (in excruciating detail), counted a dozen children in desperate need of a coat, and talked with too many children in desperate need of some attention. I listened to more tattletales than I could have counted, became an expert in wall ball rules and was hit in the head by a hula hoop. I laughed at knock knock jokes, kept stuffed animals safe inside my coat pockets and was hugged more times in 20 minutes than the husband and I do in a month.

At the end of recess, when I blew my whistle of power, the children all stopped what they were doing and ran to their classrooms. “This is so cool!” I thought to myself. “I LOVE recess! People actually like me, I get tons of attention, and they do what I say! How could anyone NOT like recess?”

And when I made my way toward the door of the school I saw the little girl straggling ahead of me. Head down, she walked behind her classmates, nervously turning the pink, plastic necklace around in her small, dirty hand. She slowly shuffled forward toward the door, avoiding eye contact with those around her. She quietly sniffled, took the end of her sleeve and wiped her nose and eyes with it. I walked up beside her and put my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me and quietly whispered, “I hate recess.”

Check This Out!
John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and founder of the charity, Room to Read is the kind of person we should all be. Read his book to find out what it is like to selflessly do more and be more than you thought you could. Find out what it is like to contribute more to society than you take from it. Learn what it takes to make a real difference in this world. If we had a world full of John Woods it would be a very different world.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Blown Up

Head down, I took my place in line, nervously turning the small white candle around in my shaky, sweaty hand. I slowly shuffled forward toward the microphone, avoiding eye contact with those around me. I quietly spoke her name, lit the candle in my hand and placed it on the table next to her photo. When I turned around, I saw them, their eyes gazing downward. The funeral home room was filled with people, including many in my family, who had come to honor their loved one who had died. As I held in my tears and returned to my seat, my aunt and uncle were preparing to take their place in line. My uncle began to gather his oxygen tank that helps him breathe. My aunt then leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Maybe you should stay seated. It’s probably not safe to get your oxygen tank near all of these lit candles. You don’t want to blow us all up!” And suddenly, in that room filled with quiet sadness, deliberate reverence and poignant memories, I found myself highly amused and desperately trying to suppress a chuckle.

While my aunt’s comment initially struck me as quite funny, I have since come to believe it was more ironic, telling and significant than she could have ever known. It has been 4 months since my mother died and I have yet to find a better way to describe what the experience has been like for me. In one sense, my life and the person I used to be have been “blown up”. Surrounded by the resulting confusion and chaos, I am left with the scattered and damaged pieces of an old life that I am somehow expected to use to create a new, unfamiliar, motherless life.

I once read in a grief pamphlet that an important part of grieving, of getting back to “normal”, is accepting the fact that you will never get back to “normal”. The life I had with my mother is gone. I am forced to move on to a new normal, a new life. The trouble is, I don’t have a clue what that is and I don’t have any idea how to get there. And so, in these last 4 months, I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotion and I’ve been through a lifetime of experiences on my consuming, frustrating and unguided journey to the land of my new normal.

On this journey, I have felt lonely one day and embraced the next. I’ve often felt cheated only to then be unexpectedly blessed. I’ve been quite angry on numerous occasions only to then be shown new reasons to believe in goodness and hope. I’ve been precariously unstable at times only to wake up the next morning renewed and strong. One day I will desperately want to forget and the next day I will be desperate to remember. I will be extremely worried about those grieving with me only to draw strength from them later on. One day I will blindly flounder. The next day I will have clarity and direction to lead me on.

I’ve had so many caring, wonderful and thoughtful people ask me with an uncomfortable face and a nervous voice how the holidays were… “without your mom”. I haven’t had anyone ask me what it was like on that random Thursday when my class reunion booklet, the one my mother had planned on reading, arrived in my mailbox. No one has asked what it is like to go to the grocery store, walk by the Russian dressing, and feel like a memory just hit you in the heart with a hammer. No one has asked me what it feels like to stand crying at the entrance to the grocery store realizing that she won’t be able to read the real estate magazine you just picked up for her. No, it’s not the holidays that were hard. It’s every single other day of the year that’s hard.

I’ve learned that grief exists on an extremely wide spectrum. I’ve spoken with people who’ve been through the death of a loved one and, for a wide variety of reasons, it has barely registered as an event in their life. And conversely, I’ve also visited online grief chat rooms. I know people out there who will never recover from the extreme, downward spiral their life has taken since the death of their loved one. I know that I am lucky. I’m somewhere in the middle. While I may depressingly lament my sadness and fully absorb my grief, I also know, without a doubt, that I will someday arrive at the end of this journey fully intact. And when I see people dealing with other severe and often constant hardships in their lives, I can’t help but feel grateful that my own situation isn’t similar. I know that most people will inevitably deal with the death of a parent or two. This is my time.

My uncle stayed seated that day at the funeral home room and as a result, we all avoided what could have been a very dramatic candle lighting ceremony. Despite my best efforts, however, I have yet to be able to avoid my dramatic journey to my new normal. I haven’t been able to jump off this roller coaster and I haven’t been able to speed it up. But, just as I managed to sit, surrounded by grief, and find a bit of humor, a flash of happiness and a little chuckle in that funeral room, I will also do the same on this journey. Sometimes, I will still slowly shuffle forward, with my eyes gazing downward trying to find my seat and trying to control my tears. But, there will be times when I will manage to bend down and pick up my blown up pieces. And as I start figuring out where those pieces belong in the new normal, you can bet I will also find a few bits of humor, some flashes of happiness and many unsuppressed chuckles.

Check This Out!
The theme of the week at Slightly Exaggerated has been armchair mountain climbing. Try and catch your breath when you read No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs. Try and put down the award winning Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. There are also numerous DVD’s and coffee table books with amazing video and photos to visually aid your armchair travels. Check them out at your video store or library.