Sunday, June 26, 2011

If you go...

If you ever find yourself heading across country or around the world with my travel companion, you should know:

1. Talking is permitted, but discouraged.
The W takes flying very seriously. Why not? We're hurtling through the air at many miles an hour in a quite heavy piece of metal - at least, that's how it's been explained to me scientifically. The best thing for all parties to do, he figures, is keep quiet. Stay in your seat, headphones on, reading or sleeping. There is no need to strike up a conversation with a neighbor -- this can be done once the landing gear has safely been lowered. There is also no reason to talk to one's travel companion -- you'll be seeing each other for the duration of your trip, and any chit-chat can wait. Once, nearly twelve years ago, he turned to me somewhere over the Great Plains and said, "Bag." What? I hesitated -- purse? Shoulder bag? Laptop bag? Little plastic bag from the airport bookstore? No. "Bag. Bag!" he insisted. He was referring to one of the sweet little vomit bags tucked into the back flaps of the seat in front of us. Sadly, I failed that test, which proves the talking-is-unnecessary theory.

2. If you try, you can hold it.
I tested this theory on our recent trip. The W has an iron bladder, whereas I feel the urge to pee every hour or so. After our flight from Sacramento, we had a short layover in Phoenix, during which I grabbed a cup of gelato (so what? It's vacation) and the W grabbed a burger, fries and medium iced tea. On the plane, he was served a plastic cup of cranapple juice and later sipped from my water. It was a four-hour, fifty-minute flight, and somewhere over St. Louis, I gave in and waited fifteen minutes for a chance at the smallest bathroom of my life. You need to get up? I asked. He shook his head, frowning; I had violated rule number one. In Newark, we waited for half an hour for our luggage, discovered the Air Train was down for maintenance, took a RailLink bus to the train station (where the bathrooms were locked and I suddenly had to pee again), took the train to Penn Station, walked to our hotel, checked in, and the W graciously said, "You can have the bathroom first." By my calculations it had been eight hours at this point. The W officially has superhero status.

3. Walk faster, if possible.
The first time the W and I went to Europe (Paris, Athens, Istanbul, Rome), I realized that we walked at two completely different paces. The W walks with purpose, and I sort of slump along, not seeing the forest for the trees or the city for the skyscraper. Occasionally he turns around to make sure I have not disappeared down a manhole, and occasionally I catch up to him to point out things and request a bathroom break. Sometimes this means we get separated by large groups of people and sometimes I'm left to call, "Hold the elevator!" On our current trip, I trailed a good 20 feet behind him at the airport, holding my carry-on in one arm and pulling my suitcase with the other. In addition to laziness and curiosity, my footwear keeps me behind - a high heel or a delicate sandal, compared to the W's steady brogues. He has developed more patience for this over the years, I'm happy to report. Now when he turns around, it's to give me a smile, a shrug, and a look that says: Walk faster, if possible.

4. No need for a map.
The W could be dropped out of an airplane over an undisclosed location and find his way, blindfolded, to his destination. There are reality shows dedicated to this now, but the W does this not for fame or monetary gain. He simply can't help himself. I, on the other hand, once got lost in Venice. In Venice - a tiny island with signs every three feet (er, meters) directing pedestrians to St. Mark's Square. Even if I do get a slight grasp on our location, it's lost the minute I stop paying attention. Tonight, we stepped out of the restaurant onto a crowded street and I realized I had no idea where I was. (This used to cause me no small amount of panic, for which I would like to publicly thank the people who make GPS possible.) The W, however, knew just where we were, including which combination of left and right turns would lead us most directly to our hotel. As I marveled at this (from five feet behind), he turned around and said, "You know where we are, right?" It felt like a trick question. But then I saw the sign: 8th Avenue. "Yes! We turn right," I said, triumphantly. The W gave me a pitying look, and took me by the hand. "Two blocks to the left," he said.

So there you have it. My travelling companion is quiet, a urine camel, speedy and a flawless navigator. And I am one lucky girl.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You've Got Karma

The day I turned sixteen, I picked up my blue-and-gray striped uniform and started working at McDonald's. From that day until I left for college two years later, I clocked in for three nights a week and three weekends a month. In my sleep, I confirmed drive-thru orders. In the shower, I tried to scrub off the filmy coating of vegetable oil that accumulated over the course of an eight-hour shift.

I was basically assigned to the drive-thru because 1) I could speak English and 2) I could do more than three things at once. It was far better than being assigned bathroom duty or the never-ending task of wiping down trays, but the problem with the drive-thru was that I had exactly sixteen square feet in which to operate, and one or two coworkers in that space at all time, with a carful of hungry customers breathing down my neck at the window.

At the time (and probably, still), McDonald's customers could fill out a comment card about their experience. Was the food hot? Order correct? Employees friendly? It seemed a rather unfair system, since we couldn't rate the customer back. (Was the customer rude? Was the customer able to read the menu? Did the customer pay for a Value Meal entirely in pennies?) In fact, all we could do was smile politely, if tightly, and keep up the pretension that the customer was, indeed, always right.

One day I showed up for work, and Monica, who worked the 6 to 2 shift, cornered me. "Oooh, Paula - you got carded," she said. Her eyes were full of a mixture of sympathy and superiority. In the hierarchy of this particular franchise, Monica might have been a step below a shift manager, but this was only semantics.

Now being carded was serious business, but unfortunately, I had trouble with Monica's thick accent, and what I heard was, "Oooh, Paula -- you've got karma."

I wondered about this for the next few hours of my shift, in between asking, "Would you like to add a hot apple pie to your order for only 99 cents?" and restocking paper cups. What did it mean that I had karma? My understanding of the concept was basically limited to "what comes around, goes around." Had I offended one of my co-workers, somehow pissed off a customer? I couldn't recall spitting in anyone's Coke or serving food that had hit the floor. It must mean, then, that I had done something wonderful, and the universe was going to reward me. It was true - I was an excellent employee: always on time (my mom's doing), professional (I didn't get involved in disputes with my coworkers, mainly because my attempts at speaking Spanish were universally mocked), and I had one of the best drive-thru accuracy records on the crew. Of the 40 billion served, I was probably personally responsible for several million. Yes -- good things were surely coming my way.

When I clocked out for my ten-minute break, the store manager cornered me. "Paula, we need to talk in private," she said. Private in this environment meant wedged between the cook station and the walk-in freezer, where we stacked half-empty boxes of promotional Happy Meal toys.

"Okay," I said, wiping my greasy hands on my pants.

"You probably heard that you got a card."

A -- card? Not... karma? The sympathetic looks of my coworkers suddenly made sense.

"Do you want to read it?" She asked, and then handed it to me before I could say, "No, no thanks."

What I read was basically a diatribe against my hair - it was ugly, it was dirty, it was a horrible representation of this fine dining establishment.

I swallowed. I have had the same hair for much of my life - blonde, long, generally in a ponytail, washed every night of my life no matter what was happening, and basically, I've always considered it my best feature. I handed back the card wordlessly.

My manager studied me carefully. I think this was actually the first time she had ever looked at me, other than to notice that I had or hadn't completed a task. "You always wear your hair like that, right?"

"Yeah." Baseball caps were part of our mandatory uniform, so there weren't too many hair options available. Every day when I started my shift, I tucked my blonde ponytail into the back of the hat and that was it.

"Well, Paula," she said, ripping the comment card in half, then half again and again, until dozens of shredded pieces floated from her hand into the trash basket. "I think we should just forget all about this."

"Thanks," I said, and wandered off to the employee lounge, where I spent the final two minutes of my break shaking, wondering what cruel person had taken the time out of his or her busy schedule to humiliate a seventeen-year-old girl. It probably wasn't a person who went straight from school to work and home again to write essays and cram for tests, and yes, try to wash the residue of grease out of my hair. It probably wasn't a person who banked 75% of her paycheck to cover private college tuition. And if there was any fairness in the world, it probably wasn't a person who had good things coming.

Talk about karma, indeed.

Monday, June 6, 2011


My parents are getting cell phones.

The news almost floored me. For much of my adult life, my parents have been virtually unreachable. They have a home phone, yes, but whenever they worked or traveled or went to dinner or stepped into the backyard, they were basically off the grid.

They didn't even... wait for it... have an answering machine.

I took it upon myself to rectify this one Christmas, purchasing them the same new model Will and I had recently bought for ourselves. Testing it a week later, I received the same frustrating series of endless rings.

"It doesn't work," Dad informed me later (when I happened to catch him on the phone) after several minutes of interrogation.

"What? It's brand new. Let me have a look at it."

"Well, the problem is, it picks up too soon," Mom explained, her voice startlingly loud on the other extension. "We need more than four rings to get to the phone."

"I'm sure that can be adjusted," I said. "I'm coming over."

"No, I'll work on it," Dad promised.

He's generally good at fixing things, but this particular project has been a decade in the making -- a decade during which I fielded dozens of phone calls from friends and family: Do you know when your parents will be home? When does your dad's flight get in? Can you tell your mom to call me before ten tonight? It was not unusual to find that one or two of the messages on my own machine were actually bits of information to be passed on to my parents.

Dad eventually did purchase a cell phone, but it was solely for emergencies, turned on only when he traveled and banished to his desk drawer for long periods of hibernation when he did not. "It's for your emergencies, then," I tried to reason. "If one of us had an emergency, you'd never know." It must have been difficult to refute this logic, but my parents offered their own puzzling bits of rationale -- the phone takes too long to charge, charging that phone is expensive, if you overcharge the phone the battery will need to be replaced and that's expensive, and sometimes it's hard to find the phone in the first place.

So when I heard the news at dinner on Friday, I squealed. "You're getting a cell phone? I mean" -- ignoring my Dad's raised finger of protest -- "a cell phone that will be turned on and that I'll be able to reach you on at any time?"

My mother considered this cautiously before replying, "Yes."

It was taking a moment for the information to sink in. I tried to find the catch. "Okay, so you're each going to have a cell phone and you're going to carry it with you? So this whole summer while you're traveling, we'll be able to check in with you?"

Will put his hand on my arm to steady me - in my excitement, I had nearly toppled a glass of water.

"Well, now," Dad grinned at me. "Let's not get carried away."