Friday, April 22, 2011

airbags and art

My son Aaron and his spouse Lauren, earn their living as professional artists. They live in Portland Maine and Aaron’s sculptures are in and around many public places in that state. He even has one that greets travelers at the gateway into the US from Canada.
A short time ago, Aaron made a proposal in Cleveland to install a large sculpture. Because of airline restrictions on packages, he shipped a model of his sculpture and some presentation materials to us instead of checking them as baggage. He flew into Buffalo, rented a car, stopped at our house, and assembled the scale model of his project. Emmy and I helped him put together the presentation materials before he drove on to Cleveland, Tuesday evening. The roads weren’t very good but he made it there and back to our house by Wednesday night without much trouble.
On Thursday Emmy, I, Aaron and his Grandmother, went out to dinner. The subject of vehicle air bags came up. Grandma said something to the effect that air bags in older cars could lose the compressed air in them as they got older. I said that there was no compressed air involved, but that the bags relied upon powdered chemicals reacting like a small explosion to inflate them.
My statement was met with silence, my mother in law nodded in her non-committal way, as she often does when I speak, my son and wife didn’t say much either. I had the feeling that were it just Emmy and I in the car she would have called me a liar. I felt they all thought mine a nutty idea; as usual Terry was making stuff up.
On Friday morning Aaron was to fly out. East Coast snow storms were causing flights to be delayed and canceled. I was playing with my laptop computer while observing the news on TV. It was near the time of the anniversary of the flight 3407 crash and there was to be a ‘walk’ in memory of the victims and to further the cause for changes in airline training policies. I personally dislike flying because I feel like one in a herd of cattle. I expect flight attendants to use an electric cattle prod at any time.
I had a queasy feeling in my gut as my eyes flicked from the TV to the laptop; Aaron’s flight was on the same airline and same De Havilland prop plane that had crashed the year before in Clarence, NY. He was going to ride it twice the same day with a layover in Newark. I know there is no reason for feeling jittery, if anything, the pilots, mechanics, all involved must want to be at their best.
I insisted that Aaron call me when he reached Portland. Both flights and his wait in Newark had been uneventful. He had landed safely in Maine. My uneasiness was relieved when I heard his voice.
The next morning Aaron called again to tell me that minutes after we spoke the evening before, he and his wife were broadsided at an intersection by a woman who ran a red light. His first new vehicle, a small pickup truck just six weeks off the dealer’s lot, was totaled. Everyone involved was examined by medical personal, one woman taken to the hospital. They all escaped with minor injuries.
Word of the crash was of course scary to me, but when I saw an emailed photo of his mangled and twisted truck I felt a shudder go down my spine.
A few minutes later, Aaron called back to add a comment about our Thursday conversation concerning airbags. After the accident, he and Lauren both were perplexed by a bad taste in their mouths. The EMT told them the taste was due to the chemicals that blew up the airbags.
I told Aaron it was nice that I was right, but I wished they hadn’t gone to all that trouble just to prove my point about the chemicals in those bags.
It was a hard lesson for Aaron and Lauren but, next time my family should believe me when I make up stuff..

Friday, March 11, 2011


I was having difficulty writing about my bad habits. I strolled down to Emmy Lou’s workspace. It’s a remodeled root cellar we call ‘the dungeon’ I asked, “How’s it going? What are you working on?”
“What are you stuck on?” She has an annoying habit of responding to a question with a question.
“What makes you think I am stuck on something? Can’t I just show interest in your work?”
“You don’t usually visit me unless you’re avoiding something.” She said.
I was offended. Questioning my motives! Whenever I procrastinate she feels the need to point it out.
Soon, a plethora of people will show their proclivity for procrastination. They are the ones you will see standing in line at the post office, April 15th. They had months to prepare and send their taxes, but instead, they waited. That used to be me.
In 2008 I filed an income tax ‘extension’ and sent less of an estimated tax payment than the IRS figured I should. I then failed to file on time, at the end of the extension. This really irritated the IRS. Who knew they were so touchy? I received nasty letters, then fees and fines. Now I pay my taxes on time and instead of discarding IRS correspondence I read it soon after it arrives. If punished enough, even the most ardent procrastinator can change.
Last year, that second week in April, I smugly smiled when Emmy came back from the Post Office. She had to wait a long time in line to mail a package; it was so crowded with last minute tax filers. I however, was a model citizen; our taxes had been filed early in March.
I began looking for other ways to break my nasty habit. Online I found, “Procrastination refers to the counterproductive deferment of actions or tasks to a later time.” “Physiologists often cite such behavior as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”
The definition included three criteria for a behavior to be classified as procrastination: it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying.
No one else performs counterproductive, needless and delaying actions as well as, or as often as I do. Mine was a far more serious problem than I previously thought.
I needed additional research. The internet is an enabler, a wonderful, horrible thing. I searched ‘time wasters’ and stumbled onto ‘times of gestation’ for various animals. I found myself looking at a photo of a wombat, a very odd looking marsupial. I don’t remember ever seeing one before. Its gestation period is 20 to 26 days- then up to 10 months in the pouch. I read on, lost in details.
For a burrowing animal they are huge; over three feet long and close to 80 lbs. Dirt doesn’t get in their pouch cause it’s mounted upside down. The most fascinating (and hard to believe part), they have square poop!
On Wikipedia, they call it cubic feces. I Googled ‘cubic feces’, later, as though coming out of a trance, I found myself on a website which explained how to remove and grind the valves on a 283-(cubic)-inch Chevy engine.
While Emmy and I were dating years ago, I had two different Chevys, one a convertible, the other a sedan. I had to replace the engine in one of them, but only pulled the heads and ground the valves on the other. I couldn’t remember which was which, Emmy would know. Changing an engine is more spectacular to bystanders, or those waiting for a ride than those performing the task.
In the ‘dungeon’, I asked, “Do you recall if I changed the engine in the Chevy sedan, or just grind the valves?”
“You changed the whole engine of the convertible in a barn.” She said, then added “What are you stuck on?”
I am making progress; at least she answered my question.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Heart You

Terry Stephan

I asked my wife the other day for some good ideas for a column about bad gifts I have given her for Valentines’ day. I wondered if her list of bad gifts would be the same as mine. I am amazed at how awful some men are at gift giving.
I have tried to be romantic but Emmy is generally a practical person. In the dawning years of our marriage I would buy her a nice heart shaped box of chocolates and maybe some roses, or wine.
She likes flowers but thinks roses are too expensive and last for too short a time. She would rather have a cheap bunch of carnations. Her practicality extends to a lot of areas and I have learned through trial and error what not to get, I am still learning.
She said she doesn’t want expensive jewelry, so diamonds are out. I once bought her a new Volkswagen Rabbit as a surprise, even though we didn’t have money for it. She told me in loud plain English, she doesn’t want me to do that again.
She doesn’t like living, furry things for presents either. I once surprised her with Ginger, a gorgeous purebred Red Setter. The puppy was beautiful, but every brain had been bred from her head. Ginger was friendly but afraid of her own shadow and she ate marbles. I was reminded for the life of the dog that dumb animals are not a good gift for my wife.
I bought Emmy a socket set one year and training books on small engine repair, I thought it a practical gift and for a while she did too. She tried for a couple of months to understand the mechanics of an internal combustion engine but gave up after a while. The socket set sits in my tool box. I got her a small chain-saw one year and she didn’t like that either. She has tried to show appreciation but I can tell, she has been disappointed on occasion.
Our practicality-over-romance in gifts has gotten so broad through the years that we usually give each other things we need. We bought each other office chairs and then a GPS for business trips. Appliances are too practical. We could use a new dryer but I am certain it wouldn’t be received as a good gift for Valentines’ Day.
One year I gave her sexy lingerie, which I thought would be as much for me as for Emmy. It had a lot of white feminine see-through mesh stuff and bright red hearts all over the place. She put it on in the other room and called out upon entering the bedroom saying, “I don’t think you are going to like this”.
It looked so much better in my imagination. Emmy is a good looking woman but the negligee looked like a skimpy clown outfit. All she needed was white face and a red rubber ball for a nose - we both laughed hysterically.
Our talk about bad and/or practical gifts continued.
Emmy said, “I think it is so silly to fall for advertising that makes a man feel guilty about not buying a six thousand dollar diamond bracelet for Valentines’ day.”
Half scheming in the back of my mind, looking for a good idea for a V day gift, I asked Emmy what a good gift would be. She paused, thought a moment and being the true romantic she is, she replied, “I’d like my toilet fixed.”
“Fixing her toilet”, would be a great disguise as a euphemism for something sexy, but she really has been unhappy with the flushing abilities of our toilet. I have again and again adjusted the float valve, announced it repaired only to have it malfunction two days later, not completely emptying every time when flushed.
Romance is so different after multi-decades of marriage. It’s sad when, “How about fixing my toilet” seems like a romantic come-on to me.
Maybe I should try a puppy again..

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Carkers Are Not Acceptable in All Circles

Terry Stephan

We left home for a long weekend a while ago. The afternoon we came back, I walked into the dining room and thought I saw a small animal about the size of a teenaged chipmunk, run through the corner of the room.
I was sure it was one of those things we, who use lined bifocal glasses, see in our peripheral vision. Ephemeral blobs of shadows speed across the outer edges of your vision when the ‘near’ line on your eyeglasses intersects with the edge of a doorframe, the corner of an interior wall, or even a straight line on a tile floor.
My cousin, who is my age, claims to have seen these shadowy splotches passing around the edge of her vision long before she knew about bifocals. She called them ‘carkers’. In an essay in sixth grade, she described them as biting, vicious animals. School officials made her take a series of psychiatric evaluations after that. I digress, that’s a story for another time. However, I claim the noun “carker” and use it as my own, and chose to believe my carkers are docile.
After you wear lined bifocals for a while, you become complacent about the carkers in your life. They flit like small animals here and there and you pay them no mind.
Emmy Lou is not so complacent. A bat got into our house years ago and flew into her hair while we were sleeping. She is usually a heavy sleeper and I realize it woke her up, but then she woke me up loudly exclaiming that bats in the house are unacceptable. I thought she could have explained about the bat in the morning.
I told her to leave it alone, they are more afraid of us than we are of them. She didn’t buy it. She has added all other small, wild creatures to her ‘unacceptable’ list.
An hour after I had dismissed my first sighting as just a shadowy carker, I walked into the living room and the creature launched itself out of the big fruit bowl we keep on our coffee table. It hit the floor six or so feet from the bowl moving at an incredible rate of speed. The light was dim in the room, but I saw it in profile. It was black and had a long bushy tail and front paws like a cat.
The torso was straight like a ferret but I couldn’t see well enough to distinguish the head from the rest of its body. It ran through the dining room and into the kitchen. Emmy Lou didn’t see it but heard the ruckus I made and the skittering sound of claws on the hardwood floor. It had chewed-away drywall around a pipe to get in.
I got a better look at it this time and couldn’t identify it, I still had no idea the kind of animal it was. I wanted to see it closer. Emmy didn’t, I imagined her as a timid little creature herself, popping her head in, peering around before entering a room. She seemed to be developing a facial tick; she wasn’t curious about its origin and did not want the slightest glimpse of the animal.
An article I read came to mind. The author pointed out that people like me probably shot or trapped the last of many species of animals just for a better look. I know it isn’t likely but what if this was the last of some species. What kind of an animal the size of a little chipmunk eats from a fruit bowl and is black with paws the size of a cat?
I posed the idea to Emmy, “What if that animal was the last one of a species? You wouldn’t want to hurt it.”
Her left eye twitched ominously, she said, “Kill it.”
It has been a month now; we haven’t seen the creature since the fruit bowl incident. That is a good thing.
I told Emmy I was probably right, it was more afraid of us than we were of it.
Emmys’ facial tick seems a little less pronounced. That is good too. or