Monday, March 31, 2008

The VBCA and My OCD

Recently I received an email from Bob Moore, Vice-President of the VBCA. The message was of extreme importance: "Would the bottle be 7-1/4" tall and have a 'D' on the bottom?"

In case you're wondering, the VBCA is the Violin Bottle Collectors Association. The reason its vice-president contacted me is that I recently took a brave step into the other side of eBay -- selling. One of my listings was an aqua violin-shaped bottle with a tarnished metal hanger I'd picked up in a little antique shop several years ago.

Bob's email was a little spooky. He seemed to have intimate knowledge of my bottle, as though he'd seen, like those people on T.V. when I was a kid, right through my computer. Gingerly, I picked up my bottle and looked at the base (yes, there was the "D"!). Then I got out the ruler and measured (7-1/4", just as he'd said!).

I sent him an email back, confirming his suspicions, wondering if a 7-1/4"-tall violin bottle with a "D" was a good thing, or if Bob was basically trying to say, "Hey, Lady, get your piece of junk off eBay!"

Bob promptly replied: "The bottle just looked like a Dell small violin, what we collectors call a SV2."

Hm. So what I had was an SV2. Wow. An SV2! But what exactly did that mean? I emailed Bob again. Now the VBCA's mysterious vice-president began to talk: "The Dell small violin bottle in aqua is common compared to the other two categories of SV's ... the SV2 was made by Dell Glass Works of Millville, NJ."

New Jersey, huh? Now I was becoming a little curious. I let it go for a few days, then realized I'd forgotten to ask Bob when these violin bottles were made. I emailed him yet again.

"The Dell SV's," said Bob, "were made in the forties and fifties ... sold as a decorative gift item ... meant to hang on the wall and most folks planted ivy in them and let it grow all around the kitchen. If you could find a Sears catalogue from that time period they'd be there."

Well, now that was interesting. So my bottle had hung in someone's kitchen once, someone not unlike my mom, I imagined, smiling in her crisp, flowered apron and neatly sprayed hairstyle. I began to feel a little guilty for putting my bottle up for sale, for never having paid any attention to it, to feel a growing fondness for what I'd always considered the tacky outcast of my bottle collection. It really was kind of pretty after all, and wouldn't my daughter enjoy it when she was older....

I checked my auction: no bids yet. Then I did a Google search for violin bottles and found the VBCA's website, where I secretly scrolled through images of violin bottles, or "viobots," in amber, green, and purple, luminous as Jolly Rancher candies, hearing all the while Bob's prompting from one of his emails: "You might want to give some thought about getting into viobots. They are inexpensive so far, and very colorful!"

But I wasn't ready yet to collect, to display my VBCA membership card proudly next to my driver's license, to become "one of them."

Still, that night I lay in bed with a gnawing worry. What if someone bid on my bottle? What if I was really meant to keep it? (Hadn't I always loved violin music?) What if my sweet, common little SV2 would soon be in a stranger's kitchen, hanging there on a strange nail in a strange new place, wondering where I was?

I couldn't take it anymore. In the morning, a day left to go on my auction, I did it. A few clicks of the mouse and the auction was ended. The viobot was still mine....

I'm still resistant to the idea of collecting violin bottles, but I do seem to be noticing them more and more on eBay. And I'm looking for a nice place to hang the one I've got, the one that almost got away. Bob's aura hovers around it now, and when I pick it up curiously I can hear him whisper: "That curiosity will turn into a collection, Elise. That's what happened to me...."

published in the Hometown Herald Spring 2004

Saturday, March 29, 2008

You've Been Outbid

I've always been a bit (okay, a lot) on the obsessive side. The perfect quality (in fact, a requirement) for collecting antique bottles. Perfect, too, for becoming addicted to eBay....

And addicted I am. Every morning now around 5:00, while my daughter is sleeping, I'm there at my computer with a cup of coffee, inserting my eBay user ID and password, checking all the bottle auctions I've been watching, seeing if anyone's outbid me on a bottle I want, scrolling through the listings of "new today" bottles in ten different categories, enlarging their photos and studying the nuances of lips, necks, and bases....

And there I am again in the time between my English classes, and again in the evening while my daughter watches "Charmed," pretending to have my eyes on the news, frenetically logging off if she calls from the other room....

How did it get so bad? Well, I've been collecting antique bottles for over two decades now, mostly searching in little junk/antique shops, having fun but finding there's nothing much around here but the most common stuff. Ah, but on eBay.... Bottles of every color and shape and category, bottles from every state in the country and other countries, bottles from not only the 19th Century but the 18th and 17th too! Wow! And they can all be had if I'm only willing to pay enough....

There is also the thrill of winning a bid, your heart racing in the very last seconds of the auction, then eBay suddenly congratulating you on your "win," patting you on the back with a big green check-mark (opposite of a big red X). And after you've paid for your item, what can beat the excitement of getting a package in the mail?

But there is also the crushing downside of eBay: losing a bid. I'll explain the whole emotional sequence step by step:

1. Become intrigued by an item and bid on it. 2. Watch the item for a week, perhaps bidding again. 3. Become deeply attached to the item, which is now "yours." 4. Continuously imagine the item on your shelf and look forward to congratulation day. 5. In the last seconds of the auction, get outbid by a "sniper." 6. Become angered at the jerk (with a user ID like beachbaby23) who stole your item and will soon be holding it in his/her unworthy hands. 7. Grieve your loss. (Once, waking to see I'd lost the bid on a bottle I was certain I'd win, I openly wept. I think the phrase "get a life" applies here.)

But your warm and caring friend eBay is there to console you. In the next few days, not too soon and not too late, an email from eBay will arrive like an arm around your shoulder, gently listing similar items it has found for you to look at. eBay is a slightly deranged friend, however. Here is a list of "similar items found" that eBay sent to me after I lost the bid on an amber three-piece-mold ale bottle:

1. Amber pint flask (okay, that's reasonable) 2. Amber crystal perfume bottle (not really similar, but it's a bottle) 3. Three-piece old lamp (what?) 4. Amber wolf collar necklace (huh?) 5. Seashell jello mold (this is just getting weird) 6. Amber pumpkin enema bag (I guess eBay has a few kinks to work out yet.)

In a few days, though, you're feeling better. The clouds have parted and the world is sunny again. You're ready to get back to your computer, to see what else is out there that could be yours, to watch and bid and win and lose, to enter your password five times a day.... Back to your normal obsessive self once more.

published in the Hometown Herald Spring 2004

Trash Talk

It never fails. If I put my garbage out a minute late, at 7:01, the garbage truck will have already come and gone by 7:00. If I'm a really good girl and remember to put my garbage out at 6:30 or even the night before, the truck will take its time and arrive at 9:00 or 10:00. This is called ... The Law of the Sadistic Garbage Truck.

This morning (one of my more alert ones), I glanced at the clock while I was doing my eBaying, threw the cat off my lap and a robe around myself, and dashed outside to set my garbage can firmly at the end of my driveway at 6:45. Whew. I happily checked off the first item on my list of Monday tasks.

Around 8:30 (refer to law in paragraph one), coming back from driving my daughter to school, I saw the garbage truck on my street and waved as I passed -- half in thanks for letting me drive around them, and half in embarrassment and apology that I have, with four dogs and two cats, the most vile garbage in the neighborhood. But later, when I went to bring my garbage can back up to the house, I noticed a certain little problem -- my garbage was still in it. I called the garbage company right away. Here, in drastically abbreviated but highly accurate form, is the conversation between me (E) and the garbage company guy (GCG):

E: Your truck just came down my street, but they didn't take my garbage. I'm wondering if there's a problem with my bill.
GCG: What's your name?
(I gave my name and waited as he scanned some list.)
GCG: I don't see anything.
E: You don't see my name or you don't see a problem?
GCG: I don't see a problem with your bill.
E: Then why didn't my garbage get picked up?
GCG: I don't know. I'll have to ask him.
E: Okay.... (long awkward pause) What happens then? Will someone call me?
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (second pause as I think about this) He DID miss it. I had my garbage out at 6:45 and I saw the truck come around 8:30. He missed it.
GCG: I'll have to ask him. If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (louder voice) He DID miss it. I ran out in my robe at 6:45 and put my garbage out. I saw the truck come at 8:30. He missed it.
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (louder, staccato) He DID miss it. I put it out at 6:45. The truck came at 8:30. I'm not lying. I can go out to my garbage can right now, lift up the lid, and see my garbage still in there. He missed it.
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (pause as I begin to feel dizzy) Okay. When will he come back?
GCG: Oh ... possibly sometime this afternoon. Maybe by two or three.
E: So someone will tell him that he didn't pick up my garbage?
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (loudest voice yet) Are you telling me that, after six hours and hundreds of houses, he's suddenly going to hit himself in the forehead and remember he didn't pick up my garbage way back at 8:30? It's just suddenly going to dawn on him?
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back.
E: (pacing now, feeling the possible need to be institutionalized) But how will he know he missed it? The main thing about missing something is that you don't know you missed it, right? If you miss something, you don't know you missed it, or you wouldn't have missed it....
GCG: If he missed it, he'll come back....

By now, visions of Kevin Costner and Field of Dreams were circling inside my head (not to mention Eva Gabor and Arnold Ziffle). Obviously, we were having a major communication breakdown. I imagine I should have been more patient and understanding. I'm sure the garbage company guy had to field many a call from customers who were only claiming that the garbage truck had missed them. But I wasn't one of them. I admit (see paragraph one) when I don't get my garbage out in time.

Well, he was right. The truck came back around 2 p.m. and took my garbage away, probably because they didn't feel like dealing with another phone call from me. But it's possible that the driver really did come back on his own, that he suddenly remembered my one missed garbage can six hours later, noticing that his rounds had been just a little more pleasant that morning, that the truck was lacking a distinctive, hideous smell.

written Winter 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pondering the Carman Hall Pond

I grew up in suburban Chicago, but I now live in central Illinois, in the same town where I went to college. I've lived in Charleston for nearly nine years now, and I taught English at our university for five of those years, but once in a while it still feels strange to find myself here "in the cornfields," to shop in a "mall" with only one floor, to have a ten-minute chat with the postal clerk when I'm buying stamps. What feels most strange, though, is being back at the same place where I once "pulled all-nighters" (how did my body do that?), walking my dogs past my first college dorm, beneath the same third-floor window I looked out of one morning thirty years ago to see, victim of some late-night drunken prank, the giant plaster steer from the local steakhouse.

I've been walking my dogs past my old dorm lately not so I can wax nostalgic (though the indelible smell of beer does come flooding back each time) but because I enjoy the pond that's next to the dorm, which, though boasting green scum and the buoy of an empty beer can, was home this summer to family of five geese. For the whole month of June, and part of July, every morning as I gripped my dogs' leashes, I'd spot the two parents and their three inseparable children drifting in a threaded line across the pond, or resting symmetrically beneath the trees (the parents faithful bookends on either side of the kids), or just coming back from their morning stroll across the field behind Carman Hall. Though most of the students were gone for the summer, I feared for the goose family's safety in this college town, but I was also fascinated by both their steadfast "family-ness" and their dedication to what could barely be called a pond -- more like a decorative puddle surrounded by buildings and parking lots, with a "shore" that was littered with hamburger wrappers and cigarette butts. They didn't seem to notice.

So unwavering was their presence at the pond that I wondered if the goose family would ever leave it; they were even still there when I returned from a week's vacation in Wisconsin. But one morning, soon afterward, I looked and looked and couldn't find them anywhere -- not in the pond or under the tree or coming across the field. (And I noticed that the sidewalk surrounding the pond was a lot cleaner than before....) Who had made the decision, and when? And what was the signal? (The jerk of a wing? The twitch of a bill?) Was it day or night when they'd secretly (en masse? one by one?) lifted off into the sky? Where had they gone, and most important, were they thinking of me?

Three weeks later, I'm still walking my dogs past the Carman Hall pond, checking for my geese, certain one morning they'll appear.... Yesterday, from a distance, I saw some bird-like mass on the shore and thought maybe it was them, but as the dogs and I got closer, it turned out to be -- amazingly -- a Great Blue Heron, who suddenly flapped away, its huge wingspan and dangling legs rising ponderously over the dorm, as out of place above the roofs of the fraternity houses as a stolen plaster steer in a dorm parking lot, or a Chicagoan in the cornfields.

written Summer 2007

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tween a Bear and a Brand Name

Imagine my delight when, after a week in Chicago with her father this past summer, my ten-year-old daughter returned with two brand-new (and pretty darn cool) zipper-front sweatshirts from her aunt. My "tween" was growing rapidly and last year's favorite sweatshirts had been heaped in my resale bag for months. Lovely, I said to myself. One less thing for me to buy this fall. Money saved. And she really likes them too, especially the velvety hooded pink one. I sighed and leaned back in the lawn chair in my mind (at my residence on Easy Street) and said a silent thanks to Aunt Ruby.

Ah, but naivete is my middle name.... Barely a month into her fifth-grade year, a certain word -- a word with the sound and syllables and power of the name of an ancient king -- had insinuated its way into my daughter's vocabulary. The word was Abercrombie, and it was coming out of my daughter's mouth at least ten times a day, along with detailed descriptions not only of various classmates' Abercrombie sweatshirts but also of the very shopping trip to the mall when The Abercrombie Sweatshirt (let's call it TAS for brevity) was bought by a particular classmate's wonderful, generous mother.

It went for weeks like this -- the stories, the TAS sightings, the sacred word coming from her mouth from the time I dropped her off at school until I tucked her in at night. Pitching like a smarmy salesman, I played up the "coolness" of her two new sweatshirts. When that didn't work, I went after her tendency to feel sorry for inanimate objects: "But what about your poor new gray and pink sweatshirts?...." I thought I could do it. I thought I could slide past this one. But then the clincher, the thing that was too much for her to bear: her best friend got one.

"Alright," I finally said, "we'll look at them online. But that doesn't mean I'm buying you one...."

The Abercrombie Sweatshirt arrived in about a week, and I must say, even though I paid $40 for it, I really do like it. It's attractive and colorful and well-made, and it has one heck of a sturdy zipper, not a feature to be sneezed at. And the best part -- wearing it, my daughter actually wanted to go to school for a few mornings.

The new sweatshirts from Aunt Ruby weren't for naught. Of course, since The Abercrombie Sweatshirt, like some precious sheltered queen, must never become soiled, must never touch earth, my daughter needs another one to switch into when she's home from school and just wants to be a regular kid. "I'm going out to play," she's been saying lately, draping TAS over the chair, slipping into her ordinary gray sweatshirt and dashing out the door, her new stuffed bear, in its own little sweatshirt, under an arm.

written Fall 2005

My Name

One summer, home from college, I worked as a secretary for a private real estate agent, typing letters and answering the phone at his office in his condominium. One day, sitting at my desk while he conducted business in the other room, I overheard him talking on the phone with a client, saying something about "a lease," repeating it over and over with increasing loudness and exasperation. Finally, scowling, he stormed out to me, asking why I wouldn't answer him when he called my name.

On the other hand, whenever I hear someone say the phrase "at least," I look up like a startled deer....

More often than not, I'm called something else -- Alice, Louise, Elsie. Ah, yes, Elsie, which should really be my name, for all the times I've been called that, on the phone or at the doctor's office, the "i" and the "s" getting transposed at a glance. I even remember, once in fifth grade, back when Elsie the Cow appeared on cartons of Borden's milk, being mooed at by a group of boys as I walked past. After 48 years of being called Elsie, I've stopped correcting people and now just say "Yes?"

Elsie or Elise, I could never find my name in the carousel of bicycle name-plates at the hardware store, turning and turning it while my father searched for tools, staring into the whir of white and red, but never seeing myself in that space between Elaine and Elizabeth. In a world of regular names, I didn't exist, and it wasn't until high school that I met another one of "me." We became instant friends -- sisters, really -- having found each other like the only two humans on a distant planet.

My fraternal twin sister, Ann, could very well have been the one with the name problem. Back in 1959, before the use of ultrasound, my mother expected to give birth to only one child, so when two of us emerged, five minutes apart, the one name my parents had chosen (Elise Ann, or was it Ann Elise?) was split in two, each of us getting half. I believe my parents divided the name at random, but somehow it all made sense. My sister, Ann -- decisive and defined, more consonant than vowel -- is her name. And I -- who still don't know what I want to be when I grow up -- match my own vowel-heavy iambic name that sounds like it's forever pausing, unable to decide, or, as a friend once described, as though it's forever trailing off.

How did my parents know? How -- two similar, crying babies looking up at them -- did they get it right? Does the name shape us? Or, as we live, do we gather our name around us like a skin and mold it to ourselves, to what we already are? Who would I be if, that day in the hospital, I'd been given my sister's name, and vice-versa? (Would I desire to only drink one shot-glass of Bailey's Irish Cream per decade? Would she own too many dogs?)

Just yesterday, my daughter pointed out to me a school-mate named Elise, and lately I've noticed that the name has become a lot more common. Why do I feel a little funny about that, as though, after 48 years of wearing this name and all its confusions, I've somehow earned the sole right to it? Maybe in the next few years the name Elise will finally makes its way into the carousel of bicycle name-plates. I'm sure, though, they'll spell it with a "y"....

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Braces and Reminiscences

Because it is the law, my soon-to-be thirteen-year-old daughter will soon be getting braces. She has what her dentist refers to as a "cross-bite," though this hasn't affected her speech (she enunciates the words Abercrombie, Hollister, and Aeropostale just fine) or her eating of Pop-Tarts and Cheez-Its. Most of her school friends are already wearing braces, so I'm not sure why my daughter doesn't want them, as the "majority rule" seems to be her top method of decision-making. If I can just get the orthodontist to stamp each section of her braces with the Abercrombie moose logo, it will be a smooth and easy life experience for both of us.

My own primitive experience with braces (back in the days when VCRs didn't even exist!) is a different matter, involving, though some people don't believe me, a nightly head-gear that was reconstructed from blueprints of actual torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. Though I can't recall what I had for breakfast yesterday morning, I can vividly remember my head-gear: the translucent-gray acrylic chin-plate from which jutted two notched metal prongs (suitable for ring-toss), onto which were stretched two rubber-bands held by hooks built into the braces around two molars of my lower jaw -- all secured to my head by a flesh-colored nylon strap that, unlike "nude" pantyhose, had no ambition of being inconspicuous. Going to bed each night, the metal prongs rising diagonally from my chin, I looked like a saber-tooth tiger with an underbite inexplicably wearing pajamas.

Kindly, Dr. Zak made me wear this strange contraption only at night. But even though no one but my immediate family saw me wearing it, I still had to sleep in it. And let me tell you what a deep, pleasant sleep it was as I lay there on my back all night, afraid that if I turned an inch I'm impale my pillow with the prongs, the sweat pooling in my chin-plate, readying for the morning "mop-out," my molars aching as the rubber-bands pulled them glacially forward....

Many people have complimented me on my smile, so I guess I'm glad I went through the whole braces thing, but it took a long time. I can't say how long exactly, but I do remember driving myself to an orthodontist appointment or two there at the end, and I'll never forget the day I said goodbye to my retainer forever, "inadvertently" leaving it on my food-tray at my college dorm, feeling finally free as it slid with my dirty plate and crumpled napkin through the dishwashers' window toward the Orthodontist's Office in the Sky....

Braces have probably come a long way since then, and I'm sure my daughter will have a shorter, easier time of it. As far as cost goes, I know it will be exactly $1,500. I know this because I overheard my parents whispering this amount, circa 1972. Since then, this number has been indelibly stamped in my memory, and I prefer to keep it stamped there until I'm told otherwise, until I meet the real bill with my own straight and perfect teeth gritted.

written Fall 2007

If a Joke Falls in the Drugstore ...

Sometimes I tell a joke to no one, as when, reaching into the seafood freezer at Wal-Mart one day, dropping my box of Gorton's beer-battered fish -- which cartwheeled and rattled then slapped to the floor -- I quipped into the rush of ice-cold steam, "Now that's what I call battered fish!"

Sometimes I joke to a stranger standing next to me in line somewhere, but it may as well be to no one. For example, waiting in a long line to check out at our local drugstore, a twelve-pack of beer under one arm and two bottles of wine under the other (do I really want to be telling you this?), I turned to the man next to me, who was struggling to keep his own case of beer aloft, and said, "We can really hold our liquor!" The man replied nothing, just kept staring straight ahead, probably wondering when the line would get moving so he could escape the drunk lady lamely trying to pick him up.

I always wonder about these instances. Had the stranger heard me at all? (And if not -- well, the old tree-in-the-forest thing....) Or had I simply "bombed"? I prefer to believe the former, as my own little impromptu jokes certainly make me laugh....

And laugh I did this morning when, while walking the dogs, I stopped to ask my neighbor the name of his ornamental grass I always admire, and whether he thought his new, young plant would grow larger and wider. In his gentle and earnest voice (if you closed your eyes, you would swear it was Mr. Rogers), my neighbor surveyed his garden, smiled and said, "Everything gets larger and wider!"

There are so many opportunities for jokes in this life, and, Mr. Rogers or not, I try to take as many as possible.... "Including us!" I said and laughed, despite the fact that he has always been quite trim. I was still laughing by myself (although I thought I detected a subtle upward curling of my dog Cookie's lip) as he waved and left for work.

My sister, the neuropsychologist, informed us on vacation this summer that studies have shown that people laugh much more at their own remarks than those of others, and didn't hesitate to point this out, interjecting as we chatted on the cabin deck, "See -- you laughed just now. There -- you did it again." Though I felt like an egotistical slug, I have to admit she was right -- everyone in our group chuckled or laughed heartily after almost everything he or she said.

I'm not sure I really wanted to know this about myself and other humans, but at least when I find myself laughing alone at my own jokes, I'll know I'm not really alone after all, that I was always my best audience anyways when I'm bending into the meat-case, blurting my next one-liner to the stiff and silent porkchops.

written Summer 2007

Stiffs and Stuffeds

I'm not someone who deals well with change. You would have known this by a recent fixture in my dining room: a large glass tank containing a wooden hutch, a water bottle, and rodent bedding -- but no rodent. When our final gerbil, Carmella, died, I couldn't bring myself to take her cage down and left it there for some months, imagining every morning that she was still alive and well, just a little quiet, "napping" the day away inside her cozy hutch. Not wanting to bury her in our back yard for fear the dogs would dig her up, but also not wanting to simply toss her out with the trash, I had placed her curled body in a zip-lock plastic bag and put her "temporarily" in the freezer. There she still lies in cold, stiff "sleep," next to the Popsicles, the frozen peas, and Nibbles the guinea pig.

On the other hand, my 12-year-old daughter, who can be seen in as many as seven outfits per day, adores change, and sometime after Easter this year made her adoration official by turning imperceptibly from a kid to a teenager. Suddenly, without warning, there was no more picture-drawing, no more doll-playing, and no more bug-collecting, and her "old country store" in our living room closed its doors forever, traded for a literal locked bedroom door, behind which she now spends endless time on her laptop, making brief, zombie-like excursions into "the real world" only to eat.

As part of the changing process, my daughter decided to remove all of her ten-thousand stuffed animals from her room, a feat requiring the use of most of my thousand cardboard boxes acquired through eBay. I was delighted by her decision at first, as it meant that it would now be possible to enter her closet completely upright, but as I began packing all her former "friends" in the boxes, something didn't feel right. Not only did I know the "birth place" of each stuffed animal, I knew every single one of them by name, and suddenly there was Pipsqueak, Bun-Bun, and Sad Puppy all staring up at me, tears welling in their little glass eyes (I swear!), as I closed the flaps and sealed them in darkness for eternity....

When my daughter asked with irritation the next day why some of her stuffed animals were back in her room, I answered only, "Pipsqueak didn't understand."

The entombing of my daughter's stuffed animals, of course, is only one of a hundred transitions her young life has already undergone, but for some reason I took this one hard. So even though the gerbil cage has long been emptied and cleaned and relegated to the porch, I've kept an impassable tower of cardboard boxes looming in my living room for more than two months. I wonder just when I'll decide it's time to move those boxes into the garage. Probably when I can no longer stand the tiny, muted pleas of bunnies and bears coming from deep inside....

written Summer 2007