Archive for March, 2010

How the Brain Works

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

John has a very unusual extended family, and I mean that in the best possible way.  We have a family reunion every Labor Day weekend that includes 4 generations of the family, and it is always very well attended with 50–60 people who come EVERY year.  We also get together for a family dinner every Christmas.  The one concession we have made to the growing family’s busy schedule is to move the Christmas potluck and gift exchange to the spring, but it is also very well attended when we don’t have March blizzards like the ones that prevented us from going last year and this past weekend.  These two events are a big reason that we have such a close relationship not only with his cousins, but his cousins’ children and grandchildren.  I don’t know anyone who is so connected to family members who are that far removed from their parents and siblings.  My children know their second and third cousins better than many people know their first cousins.

In addition to the “large group” gatherings, we also go camping with some of John’s cousins several times a year.  Memorial Day and 4th of July have become “small group” traditions that are almost as special as the Labor Day weekend to those of us who attend.  We camp at different lakes around the state and enjoy food and friendship along with swimming, fishing, and other outdoor activities.  We were at one of these camping weekends several years ago when John shared with everyone exactly how his brain works.  He and his cousin, Lynn, were discussing some controversial topic in the news, but I can’t begin to recall the specific issue.  However, I clearly remember that as the conversation progressed and they discussed both sides of the issue, they came to the conclusion that they were in opposition to the view held by the majority of people.  John summarized their position by stating, “I guess our brains don’t work like most people’s.”  This met with some momentary agreement from the group, and the comment would have faded into obscurity if he hadn’t followed up moments later with a completely different observation.  As it turned out, it will live on forever as a part of family history.

Just moments after making his “brain” comment, he shared his recent activity at a local car wash.  I think the incident came to mind because he was wearing sandals and just happened to look down at his feet.  He told everyone that he washed his pickup a few days earlier while wearing the same pair of sandals.  When he finished, he noticed that his feet were quite dirty so he decided to use the power washer to clean up.  He informed the group that they might want to avoid this method of personal hygiene because the highly pressurized water from the nozzle, “almost ripped the toenail off my big toe.”  Without missing a beat, Lynn’s husband, Dave, said, “You’re right John.  Your brains don’t work like most people’s.”

Although the line is used primarily with John, over the years other family members who did things that can be characterized as less than brilliant have heard the explanation of how the brain works.

Do You Really Need 10 Toes?

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

When we bought the property adjacent to our country home, we had many other things to fix there along with the decrepit house.  The property also had a pond with a partially submerged boat dock that could only be accessed by descending a very rickety set of stairs that went down the bank.  Although John is not much of a carpenter, he is not completely lacking in skills, so he decided he could replace the dock and stairs himself.  I have to admit that I was very impressed with his design and construction of the dock.  He attached a platform to some 55 gallon barrels to form the dock, and he connected that to a walkway that ran over to the stairs. The walkway was even hinged to allow the dock to adjust to the varying water levels in the pond. He did such a great job, that I had complete confidence in him when he brought home a set of metal steps he’d acquired to replace the current ones.

After several weeks of working on the stairs, he proudly announced that they were in place.  I was really impressed by the great job he did when I walked over to look at them, as they looked every bit as good as the new dock.  Unfortunately, the one important detail he failed to mention was that having them in place was one project.  Having them securely attached to the bank and ready for use was another completely different project, at least in his mind.  Of course to me, the announcement that they were in place, meant “Change into your swimming suit and enjoy the dock!”  So that’s exactly what Seth and I did the next day.

The first step onto the stairs gave no indication of the danger I was in.  Only after stepping on the second step, eliminating the option of going backward, did the stairs start on a rapid descent down the bank. The following thoughts flashed through my mind:  Should I jump off and risk breaking a leg or ankle in the fall or should I stay on the stairs and see where that ended?  With only a split second to make a decision, I decided to stay on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to the end.  If I’d had on shoes, I might have avoided anything except some bumps and bruises, and initially, I thought that was the extent of my injuries.  After untangling myself from the wreckage, I slowly limped over to the dock and tried to assess the damage. The bottom of my foot seemed to be causing the most pain, so I thought the cool water of the pond might offer some relief.  I quickly realized that wasn’t the thing to do as an intense burning encompassed my foot after I dipped it in the water, so I looked to see why I was in such excruciating pain.  That’s when I discovered that the second toe on my right foot was only partially attached courtesy of a metal support that became exposed when the stairs detached from the walkway. I sent Seth to get his dad because I knew I couldn’t walk back to the house in that condition.

John helped me up the bank and into the pickup. When we got back to the house, he convinced me that this was going to require a trip to the emergency room.  After the doctor examined my toe, he asked if I wanted to see an orthopedic surgeon.  I declined the offer as it was just a toe after all, and the chances of a career as a ballerina or a foot model seemed fairly remote.  I did ask him how many stitches he thought it would take, and he said probably 5 or 6.  I said that seemed like a lot for a toe, and if he charged by the stitch, I wanted an estimate on how much it would cost to just remove the toe.  If that was cheaper, I might decide to do that because I wasn’t sure I really needed all 10 toes.  He gave me a quizzical look and replied that I would miss it more than I realized.  I guess not everyone gets my sense of humor.

Five stitches and almost two hours later, I hobbled out of the emergency room.  The next day John secured the stairs to the bank, and we have enjoyed the dock immensely over the last 9 years. And I have to admit, the doctor was probably right. If you have a choice, you really do need 10 toes.

Fun with Power Tools

Monday, March 8th, 2010

John is not what you’d call a handyman.  However, when you compare his expertise with mine, he becomes Bob Vila.  I readily admit that I am mechanically and spatially challenged, and I’ve known this all my life.  As a child I could never remember which way to turn the handle on the outside faucet, and even as an adult I catch myself muttering, “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” when I’m shutting off the sprinklers.  As a teenager, the army recruiter who reviewed my ASVAB tests expressed skepticism that anyone with mechanical aptitude and spatial reasoning scores so low could park an automobile, operate an electric toothbrush, or tie shoes.  I have learned to compensate for my deficits by avoiding activities that require these skills whenever possible and only passing other cars when there are no oncoming vehicles in sight.  However, on at least one occasion, I let my pride override my common sense with pretty dire consequences.

We had recently purchased an adjoining property and started renovations on the dilapidated house that came with it.  Because of the previously mentioned lack of home improvement skills, we hired someone to do the construction work, but I thought I could save some money by doing the finish work myself, so I had been sanding sheetrock and painting in the basement for several weeks.  To provide a bit of a break, I decided I would sand and varnish some of the new woodwork.  Since one of the pieces of wood I needed to work on was a long capstone at the top of the stairs, I decided the job would be much easier if I used the electric sander rather than expending the effort required using a manual block sander.  At this point I should have called John to ask where to find the appropriate power tool.  Unfortunately, I thought I could find the orbital sander on my own and surprise him with the finished project when he got home from work and avoid any teasing from him about not knowing my way around the shop.  As it turned out, a little teasing would have been a lot less painful.

I found the orbital sander and a sanding disk quickly, and walked the half mile to the property and set about my business.  I peeled the adhesive backing and put the sanding disk in place.  After plugging in the sander, I flipped the switch and started sanding.  I stopped almost immediately as the sandpaper dug into the wood leaving obvious gouges, and the sander emitted a high pitched whine that I’d never heard before.  I tried again with the same result.  Fortunately, I shut the power tool off before holding it up to look for a slower speed setting.  Unfortunately, I didn’t wait for it to come to a complete stop.  As I looked at the handle I was holding, the sanding disk suddenly flew off and hit me in the face with enough force that I took a step back, momentarily dazed.

It only took a second to realize what had happened and quickly run my tongue along my teeth to check for any missing dental work.  Everything appeared normal, and for a fleeting instant, I thought perhaps I had dodged a bullet.  That dream quickly ended as blood started dripping on my shirt.  I pulled the hem of my shirt up to my face to catch the blood as I ran to the bathroom and paused in front of the mirror, reluctant to view the full extent of the damage.  When I finally mustered the courage to look, what I saw wasn’t good, but it also wasn’t horrifying.  My lip was pretty mangled, but the cut stopped just short of my nose, so I thought it might be possible to avoid a trip to the emergency room.

Grabbing a wash cloth from the bathroom, I headed back to the house where I had medical supplies and air conditioning.  The room was suddenly stifling hot and my skin was clammy.  Walking the half mile back to the house in 105º weather with my head spinning was an ordeal, but I didn’t have my cell phone with me, so I didn’t have any other options.  Back at the house, I gingerly cleaned the wound and assessed the damage.  The gashes left by the sandpaper were fairly deep and something appeared to be sticking out of the two cuts that ran from the edge of my lip just clipping the middle of my nose.  Using a pair of tweezers, I carefully grasped the object and pulled it from my lip.  It was a small piece of grit from the sandpaper.  Okay, this was going to be fun.  I irrigated the wound and pulled a few more pieces of sandpaper from my face before calling it good and retiring to the sofa with an ice pack to keep the swelling down.

After 30 minutes or so I decided I’d better call John so he wouldn’t be surprised by my appearance as I now looked as though I’d had a cleft palate repaired.  After recounting the incident and describing the “orbital sander” to him, he let me know just how lucky I’d been.  It seems my orbital sander was in fact an angle grinder, and the uncharacteristic whine I’d heard was the difference between the sound of a 3,000 rpm motor on the sander and the 10,000 rpm motor on the angle grinder.  After he got home and took a look at my injuries, he summed up my luck by saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t cut off your nose.”  I’m happy to report that the cuts healed with minimal scarring; although, 5 years later an occasional fragment of sandpaper will still work its way out.

I continue to avoid situations that require mechanical aptitude whenever possible.  When I’m forced into using anything gas or electrically powered outside the kitchen, I make sure I’m closely supervised.  John continues to be incredulous that my brain is just not wired to use, repair, or purchase machinery.  I, on the other hand, accept the fact that I will never be able to have fun with power tools.

The Driving Lesson

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Over the past 36 years, I have gradually assumed more of the driving duty whenever John and I travel together.  It has been a fairly steady transition that gained momentum when he took a job as a truck driver in 1981.  Driving 10-14 hours a day, 6 days a week renders driving on your day off a less than enticing activity.  However, if you would have been in the vehicle with us when I was driving in the early years of our marriage, you never would have predicted my ascension to head of transportation services.

I readily admit that I was an inexperienced driver when we married.  However, I disagree that I was the highway menace John insinuated I was every time I got behind the wheel.  From the moment I turned the key in the ignition, my performance was under constant assault and critique.  Whether it was my position in the traffic lane (too close to the center line) or my lack of consistency with the speed I traveled in the days before cruise control, I endured an unending litany of complaints.  It got to the point where I would elicit a promise from him that he would not comment on my driving before I would get behind the wheel.  Although it didn’t completely solve the problem, we took a huge step forward the day I gave HIM a driving lesson.

I’m not sure why I was driving on this particular day in 1975, but for some reason I was behind the wheel as we headed over to pick up hay from a nearby field.  As was usually the case, I drove too fast (or was it too slowly), I hit every pothole in the road, and I was responsible for the escalating tension with the Soviet Union.  You get the picture.  So I was already completely irritated by the time we got back to the house and headed up the drive to the barn.  I passed by the first gate as we rarely, if ever, used that entrance, but for some reason known only to John, that was where I was supposed to go.  Suddenly, I was the most incompetent driver on the planet because I missed my turn.  I was already going slowly as I approached the turn at the second gate, and that was how I was afforded the opportunity to avoid any further insults to my driving ability as I put the pickup into neutral and bailed out of the vehicle.  Of course this left John rolling down the driveway seated on the passenger’s side.  I didn’t look back, but I have a pretty good picture in my mind of what that driver-less vehicle and it’s stunned passenger must have looked like as he assessed the situation.

It only took a few seconds for him to slide behind the wheel, bring the vehicle to a stop, and shout out the window for me to “Get back here right now!”  I just kept walking to the house.  The command was repeated verbatim a couple of times before he accepted the fact that I wasn’t coming back.  In a vain attempt to save face, his last verbal missive actually made me chuckle because I knew it carried no real threat when he shouted, “You better not come back because I’ll kill you.”

He later apologized, and I declined to drive for the next few weeks to reinforce my point.  As I said, the driving “advice” didn’t stop immediately, but things gradually improved from that time forward.  I still get unsolicited advice, but that is the exception rather than the norm.  I’m not sure which has improved more, my driving ability or his ability to withhold comments about my driving, but apparently we are both trainable.

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