Monday, March 18, 2019

Beach + Bonus History Lesson = Happy (Nerd) Camper

For my second half-day at Carolina Beach, I began by strolling to a nearby java joint called Majik Beanz. In order to do this, I had to forcibly suppress, with great difficulty, my aversion to businesses that think they're being cute by deliberately misspelling words that are perfectly fine the way they're found...in nature...or whatnot. Only the promise of freshly made morning-caffeine-nectar could have tempted me to violate my own strict personal policy of avoiding such establishments. These issues notwithstanding, I will say that things got off to a promising start, as inside the cozy shop, I was warmly greeted by the barista/cashier, who interrupted her animated conversation with another customer (clearly someone she knew personally) to welcome me. After receiving my coffee (which did turn out to be delicious), I sat at a table and sipped it while scrolling absently through social media.

Meanwhile, additional entertainment was being provided by a toddler whose mother followed closely behind him as he ran amok through the obviously familiar space, picking up and moving around toys they apparently keep in the back for just such a...small child invasion. A few minutes later, a father entered with another little boy and exclaimed, "Look, buddy, Richard is here!" (I swear, it was like Cheers...for the preschool set!) It had become abundantly clear that I was the sole out-of-towner currently inhabiting the building...which was confirmed when I got up to leave, and the employee stopped what she was doing again to wish me a nice day...and the father apologetically remarked, "I hope we didn't ruin your quiet time!" Okay, okay...I admit that the local hospitality made up for the grammar faux pas--all is forgiven.

Thus fortified, I made my final pilgrimage to the beach, to meander along the shore for a while and soak in the ocean vista. The weather was shaping up to be gorgeous again--a bit breezier than the previous day, but still delightfully warm and sunny. This boded well for my last planned activity: a history field trip to a Civil War battlefield I'd never even heard of, prior to looking up "Stuff to Do in Carolina Beach" online before my getaway. I couldn't believe this had somehow escaped my notice up to this point, so I was intrigued. (And also, of course, super-excited about the prospect of learning something new along the way...yaaaayyy! What? This isn't everyone's idea of a perfect weekend excursion? Huh...)

Besides, it was only 5 miles from the hotel where I'd spent the night, so I figured it was a low-risk venture. If it was lame, or boring, I'd just hit the road and head back home early. Fortunately, though, Fort Fisher turned out to be neither of those things, but rather a scenic and fascinating site complete with descriptive plaques detailing its importance in the War Between the States, beautifully preserved fortifications that helped you visualize how the conflict played out...and cannons. (I'm such a sucker for those things, I tell ya...no idea why...)

Here's the Cliffs Notes version: with fewer railroad lines in the South, waterways were absolutely vital to the Confederacy, for maintaining trade relationships and transporting supplies to where they were needed. Thus the Union carried out a prolonged campaign of blockading port cities, because every one they captured hurt the Confederacy's chances of winning the war. Wilmington, NC was the last port open in 1865, in part because of its unique topography--there were 2 avenues of entry on the Cape Fear River, allowing small, quick boats to more easily evade the Union ships that were stationed there to bottle up the city.

In fact, this worked for a while, as blockade-running crafts slipped by time and again. However, in January of 1865, a concentrated land and sea attack finally breached the fort, and it fell to the Union forces, effectively ending the Confederacy's ability to move trading goods and war materials by water routes. Not coincidentally, the war came to an end two months later with the South's surrender.

As I mentioned, all of this was news to me... and while it's no secret that I love this kind of gratuitous educational opportunity...in this particular case, it certainly didn't hurt that you could still catch glimpses of the sea while wandering around all the informational displays!

Anyway, when I'd had my fill of "grown-up school" for the day, I hopped back in the Subaru for the return journey to Chapel Hill. While I felt content that I'd maximized my short time at the coast, I always find myself a bit...melancholy when it's time to leave the beach. So it was both amusing and...I don't know...eerily apropos?...that I spotted this sign on the way out of town: "shake sand off your shoes...not off your soul". Dude, I'm not even totally sure what that means, but I think I need a t-shirt, ASAP! For the time being, hasta luego a la playa!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Intro to Carolina Beach

So, we had Derek home for a couple of days, but it was kind of weird, because now that he's in college, his Spring Break isn't going to coincide with Riley's anymore. They did get to hang out a little bit over the weekend...but then Riley went back to his school and homework and weeknight bedtime routine...and that effectively put an end to the brother bonding, at least for this brief hiatus. Besides, Derek was only planning to stay until Thursday, at which point he'd be joining some of his SC buddies in Carolina Beach at one of their family's vacation houses.

Of course, this required him to be chauffeured to the rendezvous...Husband volunteered, earning him a side-eye from me, while I gave him ample time to think about the ludicrous thing he'd just proposed. I mean, in what universe does he imagine that I'm going to pass up a chance to visit my favorite relative...ahem..."Mother Ocean"? (Thank you, Jimmy Buffett...) Sure, it's March, when you never can tell what weather personality you're going to get--hot sun, thunderstorms, biting wind, even snow, who knows? But no matter what, there will be surf, and sand, and that's good enough for me.

Thus I made my own arrangements, to stay overnight after dropping Derek off with his friends, and the two of us hit the road. Once again, it was delightful to have him all to myself, for 3 hours of car convos. (It's not like I had to pay much attention to the actual, you know, "driving", since you literally take Route 40 East from Chapel Hill, all the way until you hit the coast...and it's ohhh sooo flat, straight, and boring. I just realized that tomorrow's solo trek back will likely be super-tedious...ay yi yi...but first, beach!)

As we pulled up into the driveway, we were greeted by a heartwarming "Norm" moment, when the boys chilling outside on the porch (appropriately blasting the surf-vibes tunes of Kenny Chesney) spontaneously yelled a collective "Deeerrrrreeek!" and raced down the stairs to welcome him. Alrighty, then....clearly he didn't need his mother any longer, so after exchanging pleasant small talk for a few minutes, I left the teenagers to it, and set out to find my own hotel.

But first, I did have to linger a few moments while I pulled up the address on my phone...and when I happened to glance up after finding it, I was startled to see the whole gang outside once more, enthusiastically waving me goodbye. Perhaps it was simply a "Dude, can we get rid of your mom, already?" gesture, but there was something sweet about it, too. (These are nice guys, that Derek has fallen in with...thank heavens!) Anyway, I was a little nervous about the venue, since I'd booked an unknown place (the chains being ridiculously expensive, even in the off-season), but it turned out to be fine ("quaint" I believe sums it up...). Oh, and also: Right. On. The. Water. (Yaaayyyy!)

(The one downside I'm noticing is how loud it is, with various noises easily penetrating my walls--such as each and every time someone locks their car...a small yappy dog that keeps barking at random times...or the live music being played at the tiki bar 50 yards away, which sounds like a personal concert happening right in my room. Yeeeahhh...we'll see how much sleep I get tonight...)

As soon as I dropped off my stuff, I hightailed it back outside, to stroll along the water for a bit. Aaahhhh, the sea breeze, the briny air, the...toasty temps? You see, it was about 10* balmier than the forecast had predicted, and I felt warm in a light long-sleeve shirt for the first time in...well, months, for sure. After reacquainting myself with la playa, I decided to do something else on my list: the nearby state park, where the big draw is apparently that it is one of the few places containing Venus flytraps in their natural environment (In the "you learn something new every day" category, these plants only grow in the wild within 60-70 miles of Wilmington, NC. Now we're all smarter, right? Cool...)

Now, it was undeniably pleasant to stroll around the grounds, appreciating the scenery and all. But I've gotta say....as someone who's not particularly...botanically gifted...I would have loved, oh, I don't know, SIGNS of some sort that pointed out these unique carnivorous specimens. I kept my eyes peeled, and was quite proud of myself for spotting one...kind of brown and shriveled...example. Perhaps they need to regrow after the Winter? Or I just flat-out missed all of them. Without some helpful markers along the trails, I guess I'll never know...

Then it was time for some food (Flaming Amy's Burritos...where I had a salad, go figure...) to fortify me for my last activity of the day: one more meander on the sand before sunset. I didn't intend to cover quite so much ground, but you know how when the landscape is very level, and there's nothing in your line of sight to judge distances, you might tend to...underestimate how far away things are? Well, instead of a 20 minute ramble, I ended up power-walking more than 2 miles...each way...to the jetty I was using as my target. Oops! (Oh well, it's been a while since I've had a 25,000 step day, so it's all good...)

Whew--now it's time to relax and rest up for tomorrow's continuing adventures: more beach time, and a historic stop, before heading back to Casa WestEnders. Keep your fingers crossed that the band across the street has a curfew! Zzzzzz....

Monday, March 11, 2019

Just Marching Along...

To recklessly misquote a book (that I've never read), the theme of this week could be summed up as "all quiet on the WestEnders front"...in this case, both literally and metaphorically.

You see, Husband's been away on one of his infrequent business trips, and it wasn't quite time for Derek to come home for Spring Break yet, which left the house occupied by...the two introverts of the family. Yep, it was just Riley and me--both of whom greatly relished the opportunity to spend many quality hours alone in our respective rooms. Sure, we came out and interacted with one another on a regular basis...but in general, there were long periods of blissful silence to be enjoyed. Heck, Riley's even decided that he likes cooking for himself, so he puttered around the kitchen concocting his own meals. Honestly, I don't know why I was even here....oh, right: motherly love and support, blah blah blah. (Eh, I'll have to assume I performed my duties in a satisfactory manner...since the child didn't lodge any complaints!)

And speaking of required tasks, I continued my search for gainful employment--but with a new...wrinkle, if you will. It recently struck me that there's a certain aspect of "figuring out what I want to be when I grow up"  this time around. What I mean is that I'm kind of wanting to branch out and re-purpose my skills...and somewhere along the line I realized that perhaps my same old resume wasn't necessarily telling my story the way it should. Besides, it's been so long since I finished grad school that I haven't had the benefit of on-campus help with these types of things, so I decided it was high time for a professional to take a look at my credentials, and polish them up for me.

So I found an expert located in NC (through the wonders of Google) and contacted her to see how all of this works. When we spoke the first time, I was feeling a little...direction-less, shall we say...about what, exactly, I wanted to do with my life. However, her pointed questions over the course of our conversation--and really, just talking about it out loud with another person--helped to focus and crystallize my objectives a little bit, which felt like an immediate improvement. Then she sent a detailed questionnaire for me to fill out, asking for all sorts of personal and job-related information, requiring deep self-reflection and thoughtful responses. (Of course my first reaction was, "Yay, homework!" Not even kidding, y'all...)

After I sent her my typed answers (complete with appendices and attached supporting documents...never let it be said I shirked on an assignment!), we scheduled another call to sort through all of it together, clarifying, organizing, and fleshing out the data when necessary. And I've gotta admit...this was kind of...fun. Not only because she happens to be someone who's super-easy to talk to, but also because it felt like, I don't know...a career counseling session, in a way? She consulted with me to tease out things like what skills I needed to highlight, what types of positions might be a good fit for my particular strengths and likes, and also, as she put it "what things you're good at, but do NOT want to do in your next job" (which she would then remove or downplay on my CV...which never occurred to me to do...there's just one of the reasons I'm paying her, yeah?)

I actually found the process pretty fascinating. Next she'll draft something for me to review, and we'll chat again to make any revisions I'd like to incorporate...and then hopefully I'll end up with a beautifully wrapped package that describes me in attractive and desirable terms, to submit to potential employers. To be continued...

Then the peaceful week tiptoed to its end, and it was time for me to drive to Charlotte and pick up Derek (whoo hoo!) at his friend's house for his mid-semester mini-vacay. Armed with road snacks and a peppy playlist, I tackled the--fortunately very easy, barring any traffic snafus--145 mile trip, stopping once, but only because once you approach the Queen City, you enter QT territory....and I never miss a chance to pop in and take advantage of their kick-butt food and drink selection. (If I had to characterize it, I'd say "like a next-level Sheetz experience". Does that help? You'll just have to take my word for it...or check it out yourselves!)

Of course, after 2 Derek-free months, it was delightful to catch up on the return trek. With several hours to kill, we covered updates on his classes and the newest crop of amusing friend stories, before settling in to address some of our perennial faves...namely the upcoming baseball season, and the current state of men's college basketball, heading into conference playoffs and the NCAA tournament. (What'd you think I was going to say, "an insightful analysis of global human rights, innovative ideas for saving the environment, and proposals for how to achieve world peace"? Sure, those are awesome and important...but c'mon, know your audience, people...)

On a note related to one of those topics, Derek wanted to be back in Chapel Hill by 6, to be ready for the tipoff of the big rematch between our hometown university and that other school 9 miles up the road. A little context: the animosity between the programs is a HUUUGE deal if you live here, but even ESPN has been known to refer to it as "one of the best rivalries in college sports". And you'll have to trust me when I tell you that the town basically wakes up on game day and starts getting hyped with their morning coffee (or Red Bull, or whatever the kids are drinking these days to get moving). Seriously, even the local police and fire departments get involved...by posting cautionary messages on social media about remembering to "celebrate carefully" in the event of a victory. You can practically feel the air vibrating with anticipation all day long--I swear, it's adorable.

Anyway, it turned out that several of Derek's closest High School buddies were also home for the weekend, so they got the gang together to watch the game, cheer on the Tarheels...and participate in the beloved post-win tradition..."the storming of Franklin Street". According to reports delivered by an exceedingly sleepy teenager the next morning, this was followed by meeting some other pals for a fast food infusion, before returning to our house with the core group to play FIFA19 at like midnight. (Yep, seems right on target for the college crowd--I, on the other hand, was in bed and trusted them to behave in the absence of parental supervision...which luckily they did not give me cause to regret...they're good boys...)

As it turned out, though, the night owl had company, dragging in the a.m., thanks to the blasted switch to Daylight Savings Time. I've never understood how a mere 60 minute-shift can mess me up so much, but Riley felt the same way, so at least I know I'm not the only one who gets their circadian rhythms in a twist....or what have you. But we had Stuff to Do, so we mustered what energy we could, and plowed on with our day...including such scintillating tasks as "attend church" (and try not to yawn more than absolutely necessary), "obtain haircuts" (for the shaggy Male Duo), "purchase items at Lowe's" (for Riley's latest engineering class project, which involves the design and construction of a model roller coaster, and which has quickly become the most expensive school assignment in the history of Team WestEnders....yaaayyy? More like "oy"...)

And finally, there was the...um...highlight?...of the day: a grocery store visit with the 2 adolescents-- before which I foolishly remarked, "I have a short list, but feel free to add to the cart, if you see or think of something you want!" Oh. Good. Grief. You'd think I was new at this, or something--what the HECK was I thinking? Well, let me clarify...Riley picked up only a bag of microwaveable potatoes, a staple that he requests once in a while, to change up his usual school lunch.

Meanwhile he and I had wandered through several aisles when we noticed that Derek seemed to be... missing. A few seconds later he sprinted up behind us, brushing crumbs off his face, and the rest of a cookie in his hand (you know, the complimentary ones, that they leave out for parents to give to their small children, to distract them and/or make them more cooperative during the boring shopping? Or, say, a 6-foot dude who's starving and can't pass up free grub. Siiighhhhh...). He then gleefully admitted that in a quick sweep of the produce section, he'd also managed to score samples of cheese, pineapple, bread with hummus, and chocolate cake. I rolled my eyes at him...but I did make him show me where to find the bite-size desserts...because life's too short to pass up bonus cake, I always say. (New. Life. Motto...)

Thus fortified, he then proceeded to interrupt my purposeful foraging by holding up random items and asking if he could have them. "Can I get (2-pound bag of) jerky?" (Hard pass.) "How about strawberry/rhubarb yogurt?" (I caused him mild concern, I think, when I made a show of considering this one for a minute. He quickly backpedaled and assured me that he was only joking. Ha! Remarkably, that was the last ridiculous thing he pretended to want. Mom Win...)

That concluded our chores for the weekend, and we were able to more or less take it easy for the rest of Sunday--and attempt to recover from the Lost Hour Hangover we were all suffering. Hopefully everyone will rebound for tomorrow...Husband has returned from England and will settle back into his typical work schedule, Riley will kick off a normal school week...leaving Derek and me to choose our own Monday adventure. What could possibly go wrong? Mwah hah hah!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Flashes of February

I realize I haven't written in a while, but...well, the truth is there hasn't been much to tell. In case you think I'm being overly dramatic (Who, MOI?), or my brain is suffering some kind of...I don't know..."Winter Doldrums" that warp my view of reality (wait, that second one is very likely accurate...let's put a pin in it for now and perhaps explore it further...like when the cold season is OVER for reals...) here's a February summary:

*Rain

*Riley: "Hey, Mom, can I order some stuff for the Bonus Room?" Me: "Oh, suuure, honey! No problem; what did you have in mind?" This is how we ended up adding a pull-up bar and punching bag to our already robust collection of dumbbells, resistance bands, kettlebells, sandbag, weight bench and fitness step--the last three also purchased fairly recently. Oh, and we already had a programmable stationary bike. (Yep, we're becoming our own gym, y'all...memberships available--reasonable rates and super-friendly staff!)

*Lots more rain (Hey, at least we can work out indoors to our hearts' content now, right?)

*Me: (with extra free time while I'm unemployed, searching for the Next Big Thing). Hmm, the house could use some...sprucing up. Take the fireplace, for instance...it's totally blah. I know! I'll visit ALL the home decor stores, and wander aimlessly up and down the aisles, until I get a flash of  HDTV-type inspiration...or whatever. (Eh, it's far from Joanna Gaines-worthy, but it'll do...until something better occurs to me...)

*Derek mentions during our regular Sunday conversation that it's only "2 more calls" until his Spring Break. Which struck me adorably reminiscent of the universal parental explanation to their small children in anticipation of exciting events: "X more sleeps until Santa/Disneyworld/your birthday/etc."--so it was precious to hear it from my almost-19-year-old (even if he had no idea he was being cute). Also, yay! He'll be home soon, for at least a short visit.

*AGAIN with the downpours. I try to remind myself that it could definitely be worse, if said precipitation were, say, of the frozen variety. Still, it's wet, and sloppy, and downright unpleasant.

*However, on the plus side, the unseasonably warm temps have confused the local plant life, leading to daffodils popping up willy-nilly, dogwood trees blooming early...and a plethora of pollen. (I swear this is an annual occurrence around here, and I just want to stand outside and shout to nature at large, "No, don't do it! There's more frost coming! Seriously, haven't you learned your lesson yet? This happens Every. Single. Year!" But the green stuff just doesn't listen. And the neighbors might call the authorities on me. So never mind....)

*Then, in a flurry of...what shall we call it?...oh yeah, "water is falling from the sky for the eleventy-thousandth day in a row, and I'm both disgruntled and BORED" should cover it...I turned my energies toward....moving stuff around. As in "I miss my portable standing desk, but where can I put it? Right, it works on this end table, here! But that leaves no space for the lamp that used to be in that spot, so I can fix that by bringing up one of the pole lights from the living room. Huh, now it's dark down there, but if I take the office lamp to the Family Room, and relocate its existing light to the Living Room...voila--it's bright enough, everywhere!" (Just picture me scurrying about the house, muttering under my breath, carrying various items from one place to the other...and it'll be almost like you were present for the actual...interior design chaos...)

*Observing my rearranging/organizing/decorating behavior prompted a mildly bemused Husband to ask, "Is there any thing you're not planning on changing?" Then with a slight note of alarm in his voice he added, "My office? You're not touching that, right?" I pasted on what I hoped passed for an enigmatic smile and responded, "You're leaving on a business trip in a few days...I make no promises!" ('Cuz that's the secret to a long and happy marriage, yeah? A little bit of mystery...that could swing either toward "heartwarming surprise" or "unexpected shock" , depending on the circumstances. Keep 'em guessing, I always say! Spoiler: I've never said that before...but I think it's time to start...or possibly I'm just doing this all wrong. On the other hand, he's definitely had plenty of opportunity to get used my nonsense by now, so why change? Mwah hah hah...)

*Rain, rain, go away (repeat ad nauseum...)
(I mean, I couldn't even take any Friday Field Trips, for heaven's sake, because the weather was so freakin' uncooperative all month. Wait, it's March now...does that mean we can have Spring? Pretty please with cherry blossoms on top?)

*And finally, one more independent consultant--that would be "Riley"--had the following comment regarding my February...antics, (with a great impression of a long-suffering sigh) "Mom...you reeealllly need a job."

True dat, my son. And I am indeed working hard on it. (Ha! Sorry...) But in the meantime, I have to figure out how to be productive--after all, there are only so many trips to Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, and Target necessary to keep the house stocked. So...I haven't tackled Derek's or your bedroom yet! How about it: upgrades to the Boy Caves? Yeeeahhh...I'mma go check the job boards again, just in case...and try to stay out of trouble!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Okay, Universe...you're forgiven, already!

When I recounted my recent mechanical close-encounters-of-the-weird-kind, I never imagined there would be a Part II, but as anyone who's ever seen a movie knows, sometimes the sequel outstrips the original...with sheer goofiness, in this particular case.

You see, rather than learning my lesson, and lying low for a while, I decided instead to press forward with car-related maintenance tasks. I reasoned that I was being a responsible adult, caring for my property in the correct way, scheduling the required upkeep, blah blah blah. It seems like a low-risk, no-brainer, right? However, besides the aforementioned odd incident, the other thing holding me back was the fact that--having priced out all of the odds and ends recommended at the 105,000 mile checkup--I expected it to be a painfully expensive blow to ye olde wallet.

So after a few pathetic whimpers, I decided to suck it up, take a deep breath, and just get on with it. Now, for these sorts of appointments, I tend to visit a local shop that I trust, rather than trek all the way to the dealer. Therefore I dropped off the Forester at 9 a.m., caught a ride home with their driver in the Prius shuttle (because of course it is, in super-green Chapel Hill/Carrboro!), and puttered around the house, waiting for the magical phone call that would instruct me to come back and pick it up again.

Unfortunately--but not entirely unexpectedly, given the age and mileage--they found something that needed to be repaired (and which would freakin' DOUBLE the cost I'd made such a big deal out of preparing myself for...DANG IT!) After heaving an obligatory, gigantic "this sucks" sigh, I gave them permission to go ahead. However, at 4:30, I hadn't heard anything further; not only was this somewhat...worrisome...I also knew that they close at 5, so I reached out for an update myself. Reassuringly, I was told that a technician was currently tooling around town for a test drive, to make sure everything was running smoothly.

Aaaannnd, instead of that information, I received the following: "Um...when it was out, the clutch started making a...screeching noise...and we need to figure out what's happening." Oh, you've gotta be KIDDING me! After making 100% sure the sheepish manager and I were on the same page--that it had definitely NOT been doing this before they got their hands on it, and therefore would also not be my financial headache--I agreed to take a loaner car overnight, so they could keep mine and continue working on it the next day.

Ay yi yi. This was beginning to cross over into the territory of "somewhat surreal", in my opinion. But I graciously accepted the generous gift of a temporary (hybrid, naturally. Ha! Sorry...) Camry, and kept my fingers crossed that they'd successfully solve the mystery...and return a good-as-new (ish) Subaru to me as soon as possible.

The following afternoon, I got the "all clear" text, and piloted the borrowed Toyota back to the shop-- with some trepidation--to hear the verdict. When I arrived, the technician explained that they'd isolated the one part causing the cacophony...which was a circular connector...thingie?...that links the clutch to the engine. To illustrate, he showed me a photo on his phone, of a new, shiny, perfectly round one...then held up mine with an admirably understated flourish, to show me the filthy, misshapen, cracked and warped version they'd removed and replaced. Gulp.

After expressing sheer amazement at the difference...and abundant gratitude for their intervention and rescue...in a small voice I inquired as to how much they WOULD have had to charge, if not for the incredibly, unbelievably lucky timing (for me, anyway). "Well," he replied, "it's about 6 hours of labor...and we usually suggest replacing the clutch at the same time, since we have to take out the whole transmission to get to it." Oh. My. Goodness--or can you say "Holy Dodged-a-Big-Old-Bullet, Batman!"?

There's a footnote as well--something that only occurred to me later that evening. I remembered that I'd been noticing...and studiously ignoring...a barely perceptible...umm...squeak/whistle?...from the clutch for, oh, the past several months. It certainly wasn't loud or scary, and didn't seem to be affecting the actual performance in any way, so I never even thought to mention it to either the dealer or the local guys. In retrospect, or that proverbial 20/20 hindsight, if you will, it was probably our little plastic friend, slowly becoming more and more mangled over time.

So to sum up:
1. Some seriously crazy-ass four-leaf-clover timing on the clutch crisis.
2. An even more astronomical bill narrowly averted.
3. The car gods (and maybe even higher-up powers) totally had my back on this one.
4. Oh, and my clutch, which hadn't even been misbehaving, as I mentioned, now feels all kind of...I don't know...freshened up? (I guess maybe "tight and responsive" if I had to reach for any remotely automobile-related terms. But that sounds vaguely...naughty. I should just stay the heck away from car talk, yeah? Agreed...)
5. Finally, "thankful" doesn't even begin to express my feelings after this near-disaster. So now it looks like I might need to perform not only a cleansing ceremony, but also an offering of some variety. Or maybe they can be combined? Whew, gotta go--there's some very important research to be done!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Definitely not Christine...but a tad creepy, nonetheless!

There are many reasons why I call my ride the "trusty Subaru", not the least of which is that it's been with me for 9 years and over 100,000 miles, while mostly only demanding routine maintenance and a few parts replaced here and there when they've worn out. Therefore it was definitely out of the ordinary when, roughly a couple of months ago, the electronic door lock button quit working suddenly. I initially blew it off--I mean, I figured it was no big deal, because I could still secure the vehicle using the fob (which I carry at all times) once I got out. So I just made a mental note of it, and decided to have the issue addressed the next time I went in for service.

But then...it started to get weird. As in, one day I was just driving along, minding my own business, and the doors abruptly...locked themselves. Now, I do realize that some models--Husband's Hyundai, for example--automatically do this as a safety feature for the passengers once the car is in motion...but mine is NOT one of them! So yeeeeaaaah, I was, let's say, "mildly freaked out" by this event, and began to formulate a hypothesis that my beloved Forester might be...HAUNTED. (Because of course my mind immediately went there--I blame it on waaayyy too many years of being a faithful Supernatural viewer...that stuff starts to stick with you after a while...especially if you're blessed/cursed with an overactive imagination like mine...)

Anyway, it's all super-cool, no harm done, and all that, right? I'll just keep ignoring the up-to-now still somewhat cryptic signs of otherworldly tampering, and carry on as if nothing is wrong. Eh, what's the worst that could happen? Weeeelllll...evidently this attitude and/or plan of action didn't please the... spirits (or whatever)...at all, and they conspired to level-up their spooky game.

What happened was, on Errand Friday I gathered together some household recycling, and traveled to the county's Hazardous Waste Center to responsibly dispose of it. The site is set up so that you enter at the main gate, and then make your way around in a counterclockwise circle, stopping at each area that pertains to what you need to unload. It was a chilly, breezy, damp day, and I'd gotten nice and toasty in the driver's seat, with the heat vents blasting on me for 15 minutes on the way there. That, coupled with the fact that I didn't actually have too many items, led me to formulate what seemed like a perfectly valid plan: leave the car warm and running, and just hop in and out a few times as necessary to drop things in bins.

Thus I pulled up to the first station--for CFL and LED bulbs, in case you care--steeled myself for the blast of cooler air, and bravely exited the vehicle. So far, so good...all I had to do was walk around to the other side, remove a few recyclables, and continue on my merry way. However, as I began to push my door shut, my ears picked up a faint, but familiar "click". It didn't even have time to register in my conscious brain what that sound meant--one that's been repeated countless times in my journeys--because the door was already inexorably moving toward its closed position, and there was no stopping it.

The next noise, though, chilled me to the bone, and caused my mouth to drop open in shock: BEEP. That's right, the unmistakable signal that says, "Your car is now locked up tight, yes sirree--don't you worry about it, no one's getting in and stealing your stuff!" But...but...that's not even supposed to be possible! I know from one unforgettable experience in my distant past that there's some kind of fail-safe (or, you know, "stupidity-proof") mechanism that prevents my Subaru from being able to lock when it senses that the key fob is inside. Uh-huh...clearly its Spidey sense is All. Kinds of Messed. Up.

So there I stood, flabbergasted, glaring at my traitorous Forester and admonishing it for the stunning act of betrayal (out loud--yeah, I'm that "talks to herself...or inanimate objects...in public" person...). Naturally, this caught the attention of an employee, who wandered over and asked with concern if there was something wrong. (He was too polite and respectful to actually address me as "The crazy lady in my parking lot who clearly needs help". For which I was grateful.) I sputtered a (probably barely comprehensible) explanation, and he shuffled his feet, sympathetic for sure, but apparently completely stumped about how to address the situation. Hmm...perhaps I hadn't made myself clear...my PHONE is inside. He brightened instantly and replied with palpable relief, "Oh! Here, you can use mine!"

I only had one play, since my AAA card was of course also (ironically, right?) out of reach: I called Husband and crossed my fingers that he wasn't in the middle of an important meeting...or that he could claim a Family Emergency and come to my rescue anyway. Fortunately, he seemed to be between conferences, so he answered, retrieved my spare key (while I provided him with a gratuitously dramatic narration of my woeful tale), and brought it right over to me. Problem temporarily solved.

At this point, I'd had absolutely enough of this &%$# nonsense, so I contacted the local Subaru dealership and made an appointment...for an exorcism. (You know, they seemed so confused when I shared my sincere and well-thought-out theory that my car must certainly be infested with either a poltergeist...or a demon. I would've thought they'd appreciate the diagnostic assist, but noooo. Also, they reeealllly need to work on their sense of humor as applied to customer relations. Just sayin'...)

And the verdict? Was less than reassuring. "Uh, we're gonna start by replacing the Master Switch (What? Witch? Damn, I didn't look for hex bags--that wasn't even one of my guesses!)...and hopefully that will fix it." Ohhh-kaaay. I'd prefer a more confident answer...but I'll take what I can get?

Still with me? Hang in there for yet another ridiculous wrinkle: because they apparently wanted the luxury of spending hours and hours to figure this out, they sent me home using their Courtesy Shuttle. Now, one reason I almost never go to the dealership is that they're a good 20-25 minutes from my house--not terribly convenient. So, we were pulling up to my driveway when it suddenly occurred to me...I didn't have a KEY. It's just that I never have to think about it, because Husband works from home...except for the, oh, approximately four days a year he has to actually go into the Durham office...one of which was, of course, Friday. And because I don't need them very often, my own set of keys is tucked into a hidden spot...In. The. Car.

Face, meet Palm. Seriously, could this get any more bizarre? It was sooooo lucky that this particular lightning bolt hit me BEFORE I got out and watched the van drive away. So I sheepishly confessed my predicament to the driver, who kindly didn't laugh or call me an idiot, but offered to return me to the dealership so I could retrieve my key. But at least my brain had woken up by this time, and I remembered that Riley has his own house key.

Thus if the very nice gentleman wouldn't mind chauffeuring me 5 more minutes to the High School, I could disrupt my son's class, borrow his key, and get into my home. (Because yes, I would like to be known as someone who causes as much trouble as humanly possible, thankyouverymuch....) The lovely ladies at the front desk listened to my plight, took pity on me, and directed me to Riley's 2nd period. At least it was Spanish, so when I poked my head in the door, I was able to tell la profesora y mi hijo what I needed en Espanol--which made up for the interruption? Sure, let's go with that...

So, shall we sum up what we've learned?
1. My Forester is perchance under some kind of electrical--but more likely paranormal--attack.
2. There may be a larger puzzle regarding keys (of any kind) and me....and how we just don't mix.
3. After Subaru completes their variety of repair, I might also have to perform a...I don't know...purifying ritual? (Or something...open to suggestions, y'all!)

Meanwhile, the new rule is: whenever I stop, for whatever reason or any amount of time, I will turn off the ignition, remove the keys, and place them somewhere on my person immediately! Please keep your fingers crossed that all of this works. (Oh, and if you know any spells that might be useful, feel free to pass them along! Kidding...sort of...)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Extra-Curricular Adult Academia

It's no secret that I've always been a bit of a nerd. (Yeah, yeah--pipe down everyone out there yelling "Wait, a BIT? Is that supposed to be a pseudonym for, like, 'colossally'?" Your protests are noted...) I always loved school--and learning in general--even more so now that I'm all grown up, and have the freedom to choose educational opportunities that capture my interests, on my own time, with no pesky strings attached, like tests, or projects, or grades.

Yep, no stress, all fun--that's how I prefer my "classes" these days. So, there's a teacher at the boys' High School who offers an evening lecture series several times a year, for whoever wants to sign up and pay the nominal cost. I've always been intrigued by this, but never pulled the trigger, for whatever reason...perhaps mainly because Derek never had Mr. M, so although I knew him by reputation and community esteem, I'd never gotten an insider's glimpse, as it were, of what he might be like in the classroom.

However, this year Riley happened to end up in his section for AP World, and began coming home with stories almost from the first day of school. For instance, Riley raved about how great Mr. M was as a lecturer, in terms of imparting information in a manner both clear and compelling. But he also relayed highlights of Mr. M's apparently riotous tangential anecdotes; according to Riley, much like a sports broadcast's Color Commentator, Mr. M injected the dry play-by-play of people, events, and dates in history with lesser-known details that tended toward the scandalous or hilarious, thereby making the material deeper and more real, and bringing it to life for the students. (And according to Riley, also providing them breaks from note-taking, in the midst of intense lessons. Brilliant!)

Then I met Mr. M at Back to School Night in the Fall, and encountered the combination stand-up comedian/gifted speaker/veteran educator in person...and quickly decided that I did, in fact, need to experience his unique brand of instructional mayhem for myself. Thus I registered for the first 4-week block, focused on the War Between the States, with presentations entitled "Causes of the Civil War", "Portraits of Leadership", "Shiloh: Waking America Up to War", and "Lee Rises to Power: the Peninsula Campaign".

Seriously, I could NOT have been more excited. Not only would I get the chance to gain knowledge and understanding of an important topic...but I've always been utterly fascinated by this particular period in our country's development. (It's a well-documented contradiction in my personality: I'm vehemently anti-violence and opposed to armed conflicts in general...yet am somehow also enamored with battlefields and cemeteries, having driven all over the East Coast to tour and photograph them. Make of it what you will--I've never been able to figure it out...)

Really, the only remaining question was: given the fact that I would absolutely want to recall key ideas from the 90-minute talk, would I completely geek out and bring my laptop? Or just go the old-fashioned route and use a lower profile notebook and pen? (Either of which made me feel slightly self-conscious...but not nearly enough to consider foregoing the process. Hey, the struggle of...an over-aged student...is REAL!) I couldn't resolve my dilemma beforehand, so I ended up bringing both, and making my choice in the parking lot--with the less obvious paper and ballpoint winning the mental coin toss.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried about feeling conspicuous--or even anyone noticing me at all--since Mr. M's hallowed hall of learning was bursting at the seams, with approximately 40 people filling every available seat. It was a crowd buzzing with palpable anticipation and excitement...and the veteran showman/historian at the front of the room did not disappoint. He led us through the roots of slavery...the Missouri Compromise...the Underground Railroad...the Abolitionist movement...up to the sowing of seeds that would grow into the ultimate bitter separation between the Northern and Southern states. Aaannnd It. Was. RIVETING.

(How rapt was his audience during all this? At one point he was describing the plotline of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and became so animated that he yelled and banged on a desk with his fist...causing all of us hanging on his every word to jump in our seats. I swear, the whole session was like a dramatic performance, wrapped up in a continuing education course...good stuff!)

Anyway, it should surprise no one that I scribbled 7 pages' worth of notes. It was actually exactly what I was hoping for--while I feel like, growing up where I did, I received a pretty thorough exposure to the Civil War, Mr. M both refreshed my memory on things I'd long since forgotten about the era and the conflict itself, and added to my comprehension with tidbits and nuances I hadn't picked up the first (or second, or whatever) time around.

In short, it was a highly satisfying...and super-entertaining...way to spend a Wednesday night. When I came home, I converted my questionable handwritten sheets into a neatly organized electronic format, so I'm all ready for the next installment. But this time, I'm planning to arrive early...bring my computer so I can type as I go...and mentally prepare myself for those occasional extra-thrilling and/or loud moments! Week 2: Bring it!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fancy Friday Field Trip

Well, it's technically Winter in these parts (although you wouldn't know it right now, as I'm sitting here next to an open window, basking in the 75 glorious degrees flowing into the house on a gentle breeze...), which means the Great Outdoors is kind of drab and not terribly...visually exciting, let's say. Therefore, when I was seeking something interesting to do  last week, I opted to lean in a more cultural direction, and finally spend some time in the institution that I've been meaning to visit for, oh, approximately 4-1/2 years.

The Ackland Art Museum is situated just off of Franklin Street, on the edge of UNC's campus. It's fairly compact, but it also doesn't charge admission--so obviously a no-risk endeavor! You're basically free to just wander in off the sidewalk and meander through the exhibits, taking as long as you want on things that appeal to you, and skipping those that don't ring your particular bell, so to speak. (After all, no cost = no guilt, amiright?)

So, the ancient Chinese pottery? Gorgeous, impressive, cool to glance at briefly, but not really my thing. Kooky modern sculpture made from old keyboards and other random electronic devices, centered around an optometrist-type eye chart? Worth a moment to stop and shake my head in bemusement. But colorful impressionistic still lifes and landscapes, or super-realistic portraits painted with exquisite detail? Those grab my attention, and sometimes I realize I've been standing in front of one for a while, examining it from all angles and marveling at the creator's skill and talent. (NOT that I'm an expert--or even particularly well-educated about art. I just know what I like, and gravitate toward it!)

Labyrinth of the Inner Ear 1908
In my opinion, probably the most amazing display at the moment is the one on loan from Spain, featuring hand-drawn images by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a neuroscientist born in 1852, who was one of the first to study the structure and function of the brain. He produced on paper what he saw through a microscope...and the results are beautiful, complex, and altogether astounding.

Saturated Reconstruction of a
Volume of Neocortex
Right next door, UNC has sponsored a room full of complementary masterpieces, made with full-color imaging equipment, resulting in spectacular pictures...of various internal body parts. Believe it or not, they managed to be stunning to the eye, and not at all creepy! (Ah, the power of technology, yeah?)

After strolling through all of the rooms on both floors--taking both pictures and notes, lingering extra minutes in front of items that I, personally, found compelling, and revisiting those I'd deemed my favorites--I felt slightly more educated than when I'd entered, and also (more importantly) supremely pleased and satisfied with my artistic venture. The best part is, while the permanent pieces obviously won't change as much or as often, the traveling collection switches several times a year, tempting one to check in periodically and see what's new.

Hmm, let's review: a free museum...3 miles from my house...across the street from the only Starbucks in town? I'd say this is going to become a regularly occurring adventure, y'all!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

January in the rear-view...

Hey, there--long time, no...type! Which represents something of a personal struggle for me, because whenever it's been a while since I've created a post, I start to get...twitchy. As the days go by without me being able to come up with a funny story worth sharing, or an interesting adventure to recount, I start to feel certain things bubbling to the surface: stress ("I should be writing something!"), guilt ("I'm letting people down!"), and eventually, a dollop of panic ("What if I just don't have anything to say anymore--forever?" All delivered with steadily increasing amounts of dramatic sighing and tortured self-pity. Okay...not really--but I'm trying to paint a picture here, so just go with it, yeah?)

Now, of course the logical part of my brain (however small and sheltered it may be) recognizes that this is patently ridiculous. After all, this isn't my livelihood, so no one's starving if I come down with a case of Writer's Block. And I'm not delusional enough to believe that anyone's out there anxiously waiting to hang upon my every word, for sure. Furthermore, I recognize that it's probably a holdover from my decades of schooling, where my...perfectionistic tendencies...were born, nurtured, and solidified into an integral part of my personality (which it's faaarrrr too late to modify at this point in my life). Still...I can't quite shake off the idea that I'm somehow--I don't know...failing, maybe?--in my "duties"...or whatever.

And then, as the final days of the month bore down on me, increasing the...let's go ahead and call it mental anguish, for the sake of argument....as though I had an actual deadline to meet, rather than a self-imposed, arbitrary "quota", it suddenly hit me in a flash of clarity: it's just...JANUARY. That long, frosty, dark period after the fun and festivity of the holidays, when nothing much happens, and the prevailing mood leans toward the...blah. So yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and blame the calendar for stealing my missing spark. ('Cuz that seems like a totally healthy, mature way to address it, right?)

Speaking of which, I looked back on the past 4 weeks' activities, just for research purposes, to see if I was, you know, making stuff up (as I have been known to do on occasion...wink wink...). So, here's what commanded the attention of Team WestEnders in the first merry month of 2019:

--We drove back from our Maryland visit, and took another quiet day at home day to recover from all the celebration mayhem. (And so begins the list of Boring but Necessary Life Activities...you've been warned...)

--I employed a handyman to install the new over-the-stove microwave we had to purchase, after the one that came with the house died abruptly...but not entirely unexpectedly, when we checked the sticker and discovered it was manufactured in 1998! (RIP after a long life, well-lived, ye olde GE...).

(Side note: I felt much less lame about hiring a professional to do this, rather than tackling it ourselves, since it took him several hours, including what appeared to be some pretty technical reconfiguring of wiring and general fiddling about with the cabinet structure--all of which falls well beyond Husband's and/or my basic DIY skills! Besides, this reinforces my policy about when to assign tasks to a contractor: if it could cause a fire or a flood, get an electrician or a plumber in here to address the issue!)

--My job search continued, with one interview and several back-and-forth inquiries with other companies, none of which felt like quite the right fit. Thus, still looking...

--In the Caring for Self and Others category (which I just coined; feel free to use it), I accompanied the boys for their 6-month dentist visits...scheduled my own haircut appointment...and defied the early-morning frigid Great Outdoors by attending my regular Sunday bootcamp group. (Whoo hoo! Look, I TOLD you it was mundane, didn't I? Still with me? Moving on...)

--Classes recommenced for Riley after his 2-week break. Then Husband drove Derek back to South Carolina, first to have a short visit with the grandparents, then to return to UofSC for the Spring semester. Suddenly the house was quiet and empty...which did nothing to dispel the dreaded Winter Doldrums, I'm tellin' ya...

--However, I took time out of a dull weekday to catch a showing of Mary Poppins Returns...which proved to be a peppy, uplifting interlude of whimsy...and a lovely antidote to all the prevailing January...ness. And for a second dose of the artistic genius known as Lin-Manuel Miranda, I also signed up for this month's Pop-Up Chorus event...singing a trio of numbers from HAMILTON. Needless to say, it was a rousing, supremely entertaining, entirely satisfying way to spend an evening belting out exquisite songs...with 350 of your newest friends (and several fellow fitness pals from bootcamp, whom I'd enlisted to come with me!). What. A. Rush.

--Whew! Back to everyday household affairs: I'd arranged for Duke Energy (our electricity provider) to come out and perform a "residential audit", where they'd inspect the house, identify areas in which we might be operating in a less-than-optimal manner, and make suggestions for how to improve our usage (and therefore possibly decrease our bills). I know, right: riveting stuff. (Okay, nerd confession--I actually did find it fascinating to walk around with the examiner and hear her comments about the ways our home runs efficiently--quite a few, fortunately--and not so much...)

--Finally, Riley registered for a practice SAT...so he could have the privilege of getting up early on a weekend, and voluntarily subjecting himself to a 3-hour test. He decided to get a jump on this long before it would technically be required, so he could see his scores, figure out what weaknesses he needed to shore up, and be better prepared when it comes time to take the one that counts toward college admissions. Well, never let it be said that the dude isn't motivated...

And there you have it...January in a nutshell. As you can see, none of these little anecdotes warranted a full retelling on its own. But I see now that when you put them together, it does make me think we accomplished more than I originally gave us credit for, I suppose! Eh, howzabout we just chalk it up to...the vagaries of a month named for a two-faced Roman god...and kiss it buh-bye, 'kay? Alrighty, then...February, here we come! (And frankly, not a moment too soon, amiright?)

Friday, January 18, 2019

Epic fail, perhaps...but can I get an "A" for effort?

When I was in college, back in the...ahem..."olden days"...the process of obtaining one's textbooks each semester was arduous, time-consuming, and frankly, a downright pain in the...patootie. I mean, this was pre-cellphone, and before computers took over the world. (Yep, I TOLD you it'd been a hot minute!)

Therefore, the steps involved (as well as I can recall, after all these years): attending the first session of all the classes you were taking in order to collect the syllabi, then writing down the volumes required by each professor on an actual sheet of paper. (Right? Dark. Ages.) Next, you'd carry that order form to the physical bookstore on campus...where you'd stand in line with dozens or even hundreds of other students, for however long it freakin' took, until you reached the front, handed off your request, and received back a stack of materials. Ay yi yi. Suffice it to say that these do NOT represent fond memories for me of my post-secondary educational journey.

These days, of course, the situation is vastly different....which you'd imagine would also be a huge improvement, given the benefits of electronic communication, and the Internet, and whatnot. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not that simple (or maybe, this being only our second stab at this thing, we're still somewhere on the learning curve. I'll let you be the judge...).

You see, one thing that unfortunately hasn't changed since way back when is the outlandish prices they charge for textbooks. Sure, there are now more options than there used to be...in theory, at least. But although the choices abound--such as "new" vs "used" tomes, ebooks, looseleaf versions, and rent-rather-than-purchase--some courses still demand nothing other than the most recent edition, which only exists in the "just-published, as expensive as possible" incarnation. As a parent footing the bill, it's absolutely maddening, I tell ya...

So, how do you handle this? Why, you check your beloved son's online booklist, note the (ridiculous) cost of each text, then do some comparison shopping to see if you can come up with a way to save a few bucks here and there, naturally! This seemed like a no-brainer, especially when we immediately scored a deal on Amazon, for his Calculus monstrosity. From there, however, the whole thing became somewhat...murkier. Because the other volumes he needed didn't seem to be available anywhere other than what appeared to be a consolidator-type website, which was unfamiliar to us, and thus felt...a wee bit risky.

But hey, we're nothing if not daring and adventurous (or, you know, "reckless and foolish", but whatever...), so we took a chance, placed an order with the dark horse company, and crossed our fingers that everything would work out. Yeeeeahhhh....about that. No sooner had I clicked "Submit" than I realized I'd made a fatal error: you know when you dutifully type in your credit card information, like you've done countless times before, and without stopping to give it a second thought, because it's what you always do, you automatically click the box for "Yes, indeed, the shipping address is exactly the same, you betcha!"? Except in this particular instance, you want the package sent to your student's home-away-from-home, where it'll actually be useful? (Because heaven know, I'M not tackling his Chemistry homework, nothankyouverymuch...)

Like I said, luckily I noticed it the minute it happened...but it was after business hours, so I couldn't do much at the time, except shoot off an email to Customer Service, and hope they'd be on-the-ball and fix it for me right away. The next morning, though, I was feeling nervous enough to also reach out by phone--but their recorded message indicated that they weren't able to handle calls at the moment, due to it being an extremely busy time. So I resorted to the last possible method of contact: online chat... which resulted in a pleasant and helpful representative assuring me that she was able to successfully change the information.

Whew! Problem solved, right? You'd think so...that is, until I got the handy-dandy confirmation message that "Your order has left the warehouse...and is on its way...to Chapel Hill!" Aaaarrrghhh! Not only that, but the boxes would be arriving here on Derek's first day of classes, too late for me to turn around and send them to him. So, guess what we had to do? That's right--buy the damn things from the university's bookstore anyway, and suck it up to pay whatever they were charging. So much for shaving off a couple of Andrew Jacksons here and there...siiiighhhh...

When the rogue parcels were dropped on my doorstep (right on time, I might add) I once again got in touch with the company--this time to admit my mistake, beg their forgiveness...and humbly appeal to them NOT to subtract the (substantial) restocking fee from my refund. The kind gentleman to whom I spoke cleared up the shipping confusion by informing me that the original chat-lady had in fact updated the address as she'd promised...but between me placing the order at 7:45 p.m. and interacting with her early the next day, the books had already been packed up, labeled incorrectly, and whisked out of the warehouse in the wee hours of the night. (Huh. A rare case of "too efficient for their own good"? Or mine, anyway...)

Oh well--upon reflection, I still believe it was a solid plan...albeit poorly executed. However, we have definitely picked up some valuable insight into how we can improve the outcome next time, such as: start earlier...and double-check the destination! As an unforeseen plus, Derek received an up-close-and-personal peek into just how pricey college supplies can be, and afterwards he mused, "Hmmm...now I understand why all those small scholarships [the counseling department talks about] might be worth it. A thousand dollars here and there doesn't sound like much, but it sure would help with books every semester!"

Aaahhh, grasshopper, I'm pleased to hear you express this newfound understanding. Perhaps this means he'll actually apply himself to seeking out some of that extra moolah...BEFORE the next time we have to go through this rigmarole? One can dream...