Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pat Robertson Voodoo Doll, Anyone?

My sister’s family spent Halloween 2008 in St. Augustine for a couple of reasons: she had tickets to the Neil Diamond concert in Jacksonville, and her husband went to the Georgia-Florida game. My sister is a Neil Diamond-head, something her husband simply cannot understand; and he’d prefer to have a wad of tobacco in his mouth rather than a Milk Dud, something I cannot comprehend.

Early on Halloween day, my parents walked the beach with the twins. They came upon a dead pufferfish, and my mother called the girls over to see it. She told them that the fish is deadly poisonous but that it can be eaten if prepared properly. In fact, chefs in Japan train for years to learn how to cut the poisonous parts of the fish out so the fish can be safely eaten.
Then, in a nod to Halloween, she kicked at the dead fish and said something like, “Some voodoo doctors use the poison in these fish to make zombies. Do you know what zombies are?”

As the children stood around her wide-eyed, she continued, “Zombies are people whose brains are dead but their bodies are still alive. Bad people give them the poison so they can make them do anything they tell them to.”

Nothing else was said about zombies or pufferfish for the rest of the day. After dinner, the kids put on their costumes, and Mom donned a witch’s hat and wig, along with the requisite green-putty mole on her chin. We spent a couple of hours cruising the neighborhood in the golf cart collecting buckets of candy.

Mom was a little exhausted from all the excitement that night, and she had the beginnings of a rash on her face that would later turn into what looked like angry welts. She took herself to bed, leaving the wig, hat, and green mole on the coffee table (one of the kids later mistook the putty mole for a green Skittle). By contrast, the children, hyped up on six pounds of processed sugar each, were extremely difficult to put to bed. Especially Faith, who absolutely refused to fall asleep.

The next morning, Mom felt worse. In fact, she was unable to get out of bed.

Several years before, she had been given a bone density test, and it revealed that she, a pale-faced tiny woman of northern European descent, had osteoporosis and was, indeed, experiencing bone loss. Her doctor prescribed Actonel. After taking it for several months, she began suffering from debilitating arthritis. She stopped taking the Actonel and went on a detox diet, but it still took her almost three years to feel better.

To this day, if she doesn’t eat exactly right, or if she’s under stress, her joints begin to ache. And it’s terribly unfair, but a few days with four young children constitutes stress, and so when my sister and her family visit, Mom often spends a day or so recovering after they leave. This time, a couple of bite-size Snickers combined with an evening of watching Neil Diamond in his stretch satin followed by one watching little Joe in stretch-Spiderman, and, well, you get the picture.

Mom stayed in bed while my sister, my father, and I took the four children to Disney the next day. After a full day in the park, the kids should have been exhausted (the adults certainly were). But again that night, Faith fought sleep.

The next morning, Mom wasn’t better. In fact, she was unable to get out of bed to even kiss the kids goodbye.

My sister and her husband piled the kids, their bags, their bicycles, and their buckets of candy into the minivan and drove home. My sister called me that evening to report that, for the third night in a row, she couldn’t get Faith to sleep. She said Faith had been unusually quiet the entire day and was still refusing to go to bed. When she asked Faith what was wrong, the child burst into tears. Grace had to tell her mother what was wrong with her sister.

Grace hesitantly explained about the dead pufferfish and how Grammy had told them it was so poisonous it could kill people and that bad people used it to turn others into zombies. Then the girls said, “Grammy touched the fish, and she started to turn into a zombie. We’re afraid it will happen to us.”

My sister said, “What do I tell them? They’re afraid to go to sleep.”

I said, “Tell them it was Halloween and Grammy just made up that story because you’re supposed to scare little kids on Halloween.”

So that’s what she told the twins, and it backfired. They were furious with their Grammy for lying to them. And then my Mom was upset that the girls thought she’d lied to them. Everything she’d told them was true, she insisted.

I looked it all up – blowfish, pufferfish, and zombies. Of course, it’s true that pufferfish, also known as blowfish or fugu, contain lethal amounts of a poison called tetrodotoxin in their internal organs, especially the liver. Apprentice chefs in Japan train for two to three years in fugu preparation before taking a test that includes a written examination followed by a test of preparing the fish and actually eating it themselves. Only thirty percent of the applicants actually pass the test.

Pufferfish poison apparently causes paralysis, and the victims are usually completely conscious until they die from asphyxiation. Some fully-conscious victims have been presumed dead and have awakened just before being cremated, so now, in parts of Japan, fugu victims aren’t buried for three days in order to give the body time to begin decomposing. If there is no decomposition, the victim is still alive – sort of a “zombie.”

The Wikipedia article on pufferfish goes on to say, “The pufferfish is also reported to be one of the main ingredients used in voodoo to turn people into zombies.”

Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, wrote two books during the 1980s that asserted zombies could be created by introducing two toxins into the bloodstream. Based on his investigations of voodoo practices in Haiti, Wade claimed that tetrodotoxin, the poison found in pufferfish, when mixed with a dissociative drug, could induce a death-like state during which the victim could be controlled by the voodoo sorcerer, also known as a bokor.

Mom got her information from a television documentary that further explained how the bokors controlled their victims. According to the show, after the victims ingested the voodoo concoction, they would be so completely paralyzed as to appear dead. They would be buried, but the bokor would go back to the grave later and dig them up. The poison would wear off so that they could move again, but the lack of oxygen during the time they were buried would have caused sufficient brain damage to render them mentally incompetent. Grateful to the person who dug them out of the earth, they wouldn’t know better but to obey their voodoo sorcerer’s commands.

I wonder how long before the people of Haiti hear what Pat Robertson said about the earthquake being God's judgment on them and begin making Pat Robertson voodoo dolls. They could sell those suckers on E-bay and raise enough money to rebuild Port-au-Prince.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's That in Dog Years?

I have a friend who owned an English mastiff named Max who almost made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Unfortunately, the 300-pound dog died before he could be verified as the biggest dog in the world.

Max was so big, in fact, that when he was diagnosed with cancer, my friend had to drive him to Auburn University’s equine veterinary center for his radiation treatments. Max was too big for the canine machines.

My friend was proud of her almost-world record holder. I wasn't so impressed, though. I have three potential record holders.

Dachshunds, apparently, live longer than any other breed. The oldest dog in the world last year, for example, was a 21-year-old dachshund named Chanel. Then there's Otto, a 21-year-old dachshund in England, was listed as the world's oldest dog this past October by The Guinness Book of Records.

My former in-laws had a dachshund named Brandy, an outside dog with an addiction to heavily chlorinated pool water. She was well into her twenties when she died.

I think dachshunds could save the federal government a gazillion dollars every year on geriatric research and longevity studies. Hell, if you want to live a long time, just act like a dachshund.

Dachshunds pace themselves. They laze about all day long, preferably in a nice sunny spot. But those siestas are broken up with 30-40 barking windsprints every day. Barking windsprints are not scheduled exercise to be obsessed about, either. They are spontaneous expenditures of energy precipitated by the appearance UPS guys, squirrels, or garbage trucks. The dachshund exercise prescription for humans: sleep 20-22 hours every day, and run like hell yelling wildly at your children the other 2-4 hours.

Secondly, those crazy dogs might possibly have the most highly developed immune systems of any species on the planet. Copperhead bites, for instance, can kill us humans. But dachshunds react to a poisonous snake bite by blowing up like Rosie O'Donnell at a Ho-Ho buffett. They're back to normal and ready to harass mail carriers by the next business day. The reason their stellar immune response works so well is because it’s tested and fine tuned daily. I caught one of my dogs rubbing her face on a mouse corpse this morning. She was building antibodies to combat the bubonic plague, I suppose.

Finally, dachshund personalities are a fine mixture of not giving a rat’s ass combined with enough self-confidence to propel them, as Buzz Lightyear would say, “To infinity and beyond.” In other words, they don’t give a shit what you think about them, and they’re going to do what makes them and only them happy. We should all live that way.

It's not like I need any of their life-lengthening tips, though. Upon the advice of a financial planner, I took the quiz on the website livingto100.com, which asks a multitude of questions and then predicts how long you'll live, barring Darwin Awards winners or unfortunate situations like being on an airplane with a crotch bomber.

The first time I took the quiz, three years ago, the result was that I’m going to live to 97. My kids went white when I told them. I said it while taking my daily dose of vitamins, and Hunter actually said to me, “Mom, back away from the antioxidants.” So I decided it would be okay to ratchet my healthy lifestyle down just a hair. I quit drinking pool water and replaced it with more alcohol. I now brazenly neglect to wear sunscreen on overcast days. After throwing caution to the wind, I took the quiz again last night, and now it seems I’m going to live to 99.

Maybe I’ll outlive my dachshunds.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Backhanded Compliments

I did something really stupid. I’ve spent the past three years playing very little tennis, a sport I love almost as much as I love Chick-Fil-A tea. To make up for all that lost time, I stupidly agreed to play winter tennis.

The thermometer registered 27 degrees when I stepped onto the court yesterday morning. But the wind blowing across the chunks of ice on the large lake next to the court acted like a giant natural air conditioner, officially making it colder than a witch’s titties during our match.

Since I’m new to the team, I met my new partner for the first time five minutes before the match. Shirley is a tall, gorgeous strawberry blonde with a powerful forehand. Before introducing us, my captain said to me, “You’ll like Shirley. She’s a good player, but she doesn’t talk much. Just tell her what to do, and she’ll do it.”

Sure enough, Shirley said hardly a word the whole first set. We clicked racquets after good points, and she nodded her approval at my better shots, but she still never spoke.

But when our opponent called out the score indicating they were at set point, I distinctly heard her say, “F*ck!”

Halfway into the second set, something happened that got Shirley talking. It was her turn to serve again, and she netted her first serve. She bounced the ball a couple of times in preparation for her second serve, then stopped and looked at me and said, “These are old balls. We’re playing with old balls.”

“I think they’re just not bouncing because they’re cold,” I said helpfully.

But Shirley was having none of it. She said to our opponents, “We need to open a new can of balls. These aren’t bouncing.”

Now, the United States Tennis Association has a rule stating that if the temperature is below freezing at match time, players have a right to refuse to play. One reason for the rule is that balls don’t bounce well when it’s below freezing. But we’d started the match, so we couldn’t refuse to play at that point. And since our opponents were winning, they were not inclined to open a new can of balls.

Shirley practically had a meltdown. “These are old balls,” she began muttering between points. And I’ve played just enough tennis to know that when a player has a meltdown, the match is pretty much over.

I tried to calm her down, but I had to admit that she had a point. Because I don’t exactly like playing with old balls myself.

For one thing, old balls aren’t pretty. They look bald and worn. And all too often, old balls are discolored, maybe even misshapen.

Even when they're warm, old balls have no bounce. And that makes them nearly impossible to play with. In fact, experienced players often can just give a ball a good squeeze and judge its fitness by its firmness.

But having entered into an agreement to play tennis that morning, we were stuck with old balls. So I said to Shirley, “They’re playing with old balls, too.”

As if a light went on in her head, Shirley laughed and said, “I guess I can’t blame my game on a set of balls.” And just like that, she was back in the game.

My new friend is, quite literally, a woman of few words. But they’re kind of profound.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Well-Preserved Happiness

The frigid temperatures most of us are experiencing have brought back fond memories of my trip to Hawaii last month. I’m not sure why, but during the entire trip, a little voice kept nagging me to spend every possible minute in the sun.

It went something like this: The sun is out. Get your ass into a beach chair immediately, and stay there until dark.

See, I’m kind of genetically blessed. I have the immune system of a crocodile and a stomach lined with titanium. I don’t get sick. But what I do get is SAD, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Winter depresses me, and every winter seems to be worse than the one before it.

Knowing that I am prone to getting SAD when it’s cold and I can’t be in the sunshine, when I am in a position to soak up some serious sun, that’s what I do. I never squander sunshine.

One of the pitfalls of prolonged beach chair duty, though, is the potential to begin looking like an actual slug. Especially when I develop an intimate relationship with the roving cocktail waitress. I mean, how great is it that a cute Hawaiian girl with a pleasant personality will bring me anything I want to eat or drink?

I spotted what I wanted to drink on my very first day in Honolulu. Duke’s, the famous Waikiki restaurant, makes a frozen concoction called a “Second Captain.” It’s Captain Morgan rum and banana liqueur blended with fresh bananas and a swirl of raspberry puree. Heaven in a souvenir cup, no?

Determined that I would NOT gain ten pounds during my week on Waikiki, I avoided eye contact with the cocktail waitresses. "Tomorrow. I’ll have one tomorrow" was my mantra for the entire week. And guess what? It dawned on me during the plane ride home that I never had a Second Captain.

While we're on the subject of captains, the first captain I ever knew in my life was my grandfather. He was a World War Two fighter pilot who, for more than thirty years, flew all over the world as a pilot for an international freight company. And sometime during the 1950s, he flew to Puerto Rico. I know that because after he died a few years ago, my grandmother gave me two bottles of Bacardi rum that he’d brought back from Puerto Rico in the late 1950s.

I put those bottles away. They would never be opened, I decided, not because they might be valuable, but because they were a cool reminder of my Pa.

I opened my cabinet the other day to find that one of the bottles is half gone. And I got upset. Someone had taken the only thing I had left from my grandfather. But then I remembered this quote, which has been attributed to various sources:

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini (or Second Captain) in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, ‘Holy Shit! What a ride!’"

So in that spirit, I’m going to blend some banana liqueur and fresh bananas with the rest of Pa’s rum and add a swirl of raspberry puree. And I’m going to toast Pa with those words and enjoy every last sip of what I call a "First Captain."

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow. The liquor store is closed on Sunday, and I don’t have any banana liqueur.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wound Too Tight

My cuckoo clock stopped working. It’s been hanging on the same wall for several years, working just fine, until one day when it just stopped. There are no batteries to replace, since a cuckoo clock is wound by pulling on the weighted cords.

The instructions that came with it are in German, which made it difficult for me to diagnose the problem. But I gathered from the pictures that it’s very important that the clock be correctly balanced, both horizontally and vertically. Looking at it from the side, I decided the vertical balance might be off, so I stuck a folded business card behind it. And when that didn’t help, I folded the card again. Still didn’t work.

The pendulum on the clock has a weight on it that can be adjusted up and down. The higher up the weight goes, the faster the clock ticks; move it lower, and the clock moves slower. Again, balance is the key.

Fooling around with that pendulum brought back memories of the metronome that stood on the piano when I was a kid. Now, I never asked to have a metronome. I hated the thing because it was very good at pointing out how rhythmically and musically challenged I was. And that would have been fine if my parents had heeded the metronome’s warning about my lack of musical talent. Instead, that damn metronome announced to the world with every tick-tock, tick-tock that the only way I’d ever make it to Carnegie Hall would be as a paying customer or a ticket taker. And that meant I needed to practice harder.

Here’s the thing about metronomes and cuckoo clocks: if the pendulum swings two ticks to the left, then it’s going to swing two tocks to the right. It’s the law of pendulums that they must swing the same distance in one direction as they do in the other. And if, for some reason, that doesn’t happen, then the thing is broken.

I think we’re all pendulums, to be honest. In the past few years, I’ve caught up with old friends, and I can’t think of a single exception to the pendulum rule. The people who were wild in high school and college have swung exactly that far in the opposite direction, especially when it comes to how they’re raising their own kids. The straight-laced, zipped up kids from way back when (including my very own self) have turned into irreverent smartasses. And the ones who were never too extreme – well, their pendulums still aren’t swinging out so wide in either direction. They were balanced then, and they’re still that way.

Balance is everything, it turns out. Or as my friend Grant (aka Sister Louisa) says, “I know there’s a balance; I see it when I swing past.”

My clock still isn't working. And I'm thinking about not getting it fixed. Because seeing that pendulum hanging there completely still is a reminder that maybe a little tempering of the wide swings in my life wouldn't be such a bad thing. Maybe I could use a little balance.

Because minus that balance, of course, one might rightfully be called cuckoo.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rooting for Your Dreams

One evening during my recent trip to Honolulu, I was sitting in an upscale sushi bar on Kalakaua Avenue – the “strip” – on Waikiki Beach. To my right was an empty seat, and on the other side of that chair sat an obviously wealthy Japanese woman and several of her friends. Five or six empty chairs were available down the sushi bar on my left-hand side.

As I sat enjoying a lovely miso-glazed butterfish and a Dancing Geisha (crushed blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries with tonic water and vodka), I noticed the restaurant had copies of their “house” music CDs available for purchase. I picked one up and was surprised to find that Bob Marley was the house music in a Japanese restaurant in Hawaii. And sure enough, “No Woman, No Cry” was wailing over the speakers.

At that moment, a woman slipped into the seat between me and the Japanese lady. She was barely five feet tall, and she wore board shorts, flip flops, and a Billabong surf shirt. Her hair was wet, and her clothes were damp. As she sat down, she shivered and said, “I just came in off the beach. It’s my birthday, and I’m treating myself to some sushi tonight.”

“Happy Birthday!” I said. We introduced ourselves, and then Millie began to study the menu. When she began shivering again, the Japanese lady looked at her and then took off the Chanel jacket she was wearing and put it around Millie’s shoulders.

As Millie thanked her, the Japanese woman said, “We take care of people here. It’s the Waikiki Way.”

Millie looked at me and said, “I knew it was going to be like that here. I just moved here from Washington D.C. last month, and I’ve already met the most wonderful people.”

Intrigued, I asked her why she’d moved to Honolulu. “I wanted to,” she said simply.

It can’t be that easy, I thought. It just can’t. As if she had read my mind, Millie looked at me and said, “In life, you have to decide what you want. I wanted to live somewhere with nice weather and with a beach. So I moved here.”

I’d heard those words before. In a television interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, a book that became an international bestseller, said this about her success: “Every morning, you wake up and ask yourself, ‘What do I really, really, really want?’” And once you’ve answered that question, she said, you move in that direction.

I told Millie I admired her bravery and wished her well. As I left the restaurant, I heard Bob Marley singing, “Don’t worry about a thing/cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

I was still thinking about Millie the next morning as I put on my workout clothes, grabbed my iPod, and headed out for a long walk. I marveled at the courage it must take to pull up roots and move such a huge distance.

And then I saw it, the massive Banyan tree growing in Kapiolani Park. Banyan tree branches develop rope-like “vines” that hang from them and grow downward. These “vines” are actually aerial roots that take hold in the ground and grow into thick, woody trunks. With age, these new trunks become indistinguishable from the main trunk, and that’s how the Banyan grows. In fact, one particular large old Banyan on the island of Maui covers almost 2/3 of an acre.

Interestingly, in Hindu mythology, the Banyan is call the “wish-fulfilling tree" because of it's ever-expanding state.

I wonder if moving – or even going for what you really want in life – is really the painful all-or-nothing process we like to make it, the gut-wrenching decision to give up something meaningful for something desired. If we could use the Banyan tree as a metaphor and see change as more of a process of putting down new roots, of growing stronger by expanding, then maybe we can have the courage to pursue our heart’s biggest desires with the assurance that, indeed, every little thing will be all right.