Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let It Roll on down the Highway

The Brewhouse Inn, Milwaukee--Not a bad place to stay.
I decided, after the fact, to add a couple events of last weekend to my list of new experiences.

I'm not referring to my rushed out-of-town trip for my son's emergency surgery. Nor to staying overnight in an old brewery. Not even to cleaning the bathroom in two 22-year-old bachelors' apartment. All three were indeed new experiences, only one of which I ever care to repeat.

What made the weekend list-worthy is that I rode for six hours alone in the car with my former husband. Although we always remained friendly, this was the longest amount of time we've spent together--without our children--in almost 15 years.

And two days later, I spent four hours on a train from Chicago, drinking wine with his girlfriend.

Minus the worries for my appendix-afflicted son, both proved to be enjoyable rides. The shared priority of a child certainly helped. A couple bottles of wine didn't hurt. But what I learned is that some experiences and some relationships are only as awkward and uncomfortable as we allow them to be.

Sometimes, when we least expect it, life is full of pleasant surprises.
Any awkward or uncomfortable life experiences which proved to be a pleasant surprise? Friendly with your ex, or not so much? Is it me, or does wine make everything far easier?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

It's All Happening at the Zoo

I momentarily questioned my love for all animals—each and every species—as I peered over the opened exhibit of a hissing Chinese alligator.

Steve, the friendly and knowledgeable guide for my zoo-keeper experience at The Toledo Zoo, attempted to reassure me. He told me that Mu Shu, at just under four-feet-long, was considered a runt. Yet the gator’s size mattered little when he bared his teeth.

I leaped back. “Could he jump out of there?”

“Well, yeah, probably,” Steve said, “if he really wanted to.” I hoped Mu Shu wouldn’t be so inclined.

My job was to feed this reptile. I hoped breakfast might be Alligator Chow, so my heart sunk when I spied two dead mice on the counter. But, as Elton John sang so profoundly in The Lion King, this was the circle of life. Fortunately, I didn’t have to hold the mice by their limp, pink tails. I grabbed one, using a pair of jumbo tweezers, and dangled it into the exhibit.

It took a few minutes for Mu Shu to spy the mouse. Then, he reached his long snout up and snapped his jaws over it. I jumped. His black eyes remained trained on me. I loaded up the second mouse and as I barely lowered it, he lunged up and grabbed it, nearly taking the tweezers with it.

Steve explained that only about a hundred Chinese alligators still existed in the wild, mainly due to the pollution in the Yangtze River. These creatures could likely become extinct, and zoos were doing their best to maintain a population. I gazed down at Mu Shu, with sympathy for his family’s possible fate. Still, I was relieved to move on. Even though our next stop was in front of the snake enclosures. 

I’d never had a fear of snakes. Seeing them in the wild had never frightened me, although my encounters in these parts of Ohio had generally been with the harmless garter snake variety. Holding a ball python, while it wrapped itself around my arm, proved to be a slightly different story.

Steve told me to relax and let the snake rest upon my arm, wrapping around it like a tree branch. I held the python for a few minutes, stroked his silky skin, and admired his beautiful markings. Then, he craned his head and hissed at me, his forked tongue flicking. I thrust him back at Steve.

“OK,” I said. “I think that suffices to check this experience off my list.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t hurt you,” Steve said, putting the python back in his exhibit. “He’s really a good boy.” Sure, but I didn’t wish to push my luck. I believe snakes deserve their place in our world. Even in our own back yards. In my arms, maybe not so much.

I could barely contain my excitement when two employees in the Zoo Educational Center said they were leaving “to take the dingoes for a walk.”

“Wait, you walk dingoes—on a leash?” I asked. I was told the dingoes were fairly tame and being trained for educational shows. We followed them over to the theater, for a training session.

The Zoo obtained the year-and-a-half-old animals when they were four- or five-months old. Dingoes, native to Australia, look much like small German shepherds. Their claim to fame was a controversial news story a few years back: “The Dingo ate my baby.”

Steve said the male, Indigo, was skittish but the female, Tawny, was friendlier. Sure enough, the trainer allowed Tawny to walk right up to me. She sniffed me a couple times and promptly began licking my hand. I hoped she wasn’t deciding if I might taste good.

But as she continued licking, I realized she apparently just liked me. I instinctively leaned my head down toward her, as I do when showing affection to any dog. Steve yanked me back.

“Not the face,” he warned.

Oops. Right. Tawny was well-trained and seemed awfully sweet, but I’d have hated for the headline for my story to read, “The Dingo Ate My Face.”

Baby wallabies provided my cute and cuddly fix of the day. The soft, furry creatures hopped around me, pausing to eat lettuce from my hand. The little marsupials were nearly full grown but still only a few feet tall. I was told that while many people confuse them with kangaroos, kangaroos actually reach up to eight-feet-tall. Still cute, yes, but maybe not so cuddly.

While I got to spend time with a variety of animals, I spent the bulk of my zoo-keeper stint with the rhinos. As I hesitatingly entered the rhinoceros area, I mentally cued the charging rhinoceros scene from the movie Jumanji.

Probably no such worries with laid-back Sam and Lulu, who at forty-one and forty-six, were considered geriatric. Even so, Robin, their caretaker, noted, “That doesn’t mean they couldn’t smash you.” With each of them weighing in at close to four thousand pounds, I could only assume she was right.

I helped Robin prepare their breakfast, a combination of what looked like rhino kibble, hay, fresh fruit, and various vitamins and nutrients. Because rhinos have a heightened sense of smell and enjoy a variety of scents, Robin said she also sprinkles their enclosures with an assortment of distinctive smelling items, including basil and Aqua Velva after shave.

My duties included shoveling rhino poo. It was, literally, some heavy shit. And it did not smell a bit like Aqua Velva.

I squirted, soaped up, and scrubbed the floors and walls. As we cleaned Lulu’s enclosure and she ate breakfast, Sam grew restless. He rattled the bars with his huge horn. Robin reprimanded him, and he paused for a few moments. But when she walked away to gather some equipment, he started back up.

“No, Sam,” I shouted. “Stop it! Be a good boy!” He stared at me and immediately stood still. I blinked. Why did that kind of discipline never work with my cats—or my two sons?

Next, it was bath time. l squirted down Sam, who backed his butt up against the bars, enjoying his daily wash.

We continued Rhino Spa Day with an exfoliating session. While I always thought of rhinos as scaly creatures, their skin is actually smooth with bits of protruding hair. Layers of scales are dead skin cells which need to be regularly sloughed off. As I rubbed Sam’s back with a rubber mitt brush, bits of dead, scaly skin flew off. 

I moved on from his side to his lower hip. Sam collapsed against the bars, seemingly in ecstasy with his massage. Suddenly, he lifted his back leg on the side I was rubbing. I stepped back.

“Oh! I think he’s going to pee!”

“Um, no,” Robin said. “See his equipment there? This is similar to how we ejaculate him.”

Huh. I moved on to exfoliating his belly. Sam might have become my new best friend, but we wouldn’t be friends with benefits.

As we finished up Sam’s spa treatment, Robin rewarded him with a few treats, given by hand. I hesitatingly reached toward him with a handful of rhino kibble. “Don’t worry, he doesn’t have front incisors,” Robin told me. He sucked my entire fist into his mouth—a gigantic wet vacuum. “But his back molars,” she continued, “could do some damage.” I yanked my hand out.

Yet Sam was a gentle giant indeed. I pet his horn and told him he was a good boy, never minding his one minor indiscretion.

My zoo-keeper gig proved educational, amusing, and at moments, frightening. In fact, this venture, number thirty-four on my list of new experiences, could go down as my favorite so far. I left with fond memories of my new animal friends, a wealth of new knowledge, and an appreciation for all the work done behind the scenes every day at The Toledo Zoo. I felt fortunate to have one of the world’s greatest zoos in my own home town.

And, I added “I gave a rhinoceros an erection” to the list of things I never, ever thought I’d hear myself say.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Video Killed the Radio Star

I hadn’t appeared on a radio show since I was a senior in high school, when a group of AP English classmates and I were interviewed about classic books, or writing poetry, or… something pseudo-literary like that. Considering it was thirty-five years ago, my recollection of the experience remained vague. All I remember was being a bit nervous and not saying much, surely to the surprise of any tuned-in teachers who were weary of issuing demerits to shut me up in class.

Who’d have guessed that public speaking was far more intimidating than muttering wisecracks from the back of a classroom? Whether or not I pulled it off or—more likely—nose-dived, was especially a blur, since my friends and I listened to the recorded session from a car in the parking lot at Charlie’s Blind Pig bar.

Being asked to solo-guest for a live radio gig, at age fifty-two, proved to be even more frightening. Video may have killed the radio star, yet I feared no video would be necessary to kill my midlife radio career. All it would take was two hours of stuttering, stammering, and awkward silence.

I’d been invited to appear on “The Theme Park,” a two-hour Sunday morning show on WXUT, the radio station of The University of Toledo. The co-hosts, Vicki Kroll and Tim Sanderson, had been doing this show together for eleven years. They were old pros, but in their decade-long DJ gig, they had never before had a guest. If I bombed, I guessed I’d be both their first and their last.

A 10 a.m. to noon slot wasn’t promising for someone who was generally just dragging herself out of bed at ten on a Sunday morning. I managed to down one Diet Coke on the drive to the station and finished off two more in the first hour. Still, I felt undercaffeinated and foggy. I hoped my fear-fueled adrenalin would carry me through.

“So, tell us about The 52/52 Project,” Vicki said, starting off the show. Probably a logical question most people would have anticipated and prepared for. My jaw hung open. “Umm,” I replied. I shook off my trepidation, gathered my wits, and followed up quickly with another thoughtful, “Umm.”

But Vicki and Tim’s expertise soon helped calm my nerves, brushing over much of my stuttering and stammering, and filling any awkward moments of silence that would have remained if I were left fully to my own devices.

And, holy hell, were the two of them fun—and funny!

Since it was primarily a music show, I fortunately didn’t have to fill the whole two hours with clever variations of “Umm.”

Each week’s show centered on a particular theme, so we chose songs related to The 52/52 Project. Thanks to Vicki and Tim’s imagination and extensive music collection, we featured a diverse assortment of both popular and obscure songs. Some were tied into specific experiences, such as “Talk to the Animals” by Sammy Davis Jr. (for my upcoming zoo-keeper stint), “Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension (wedding-crashing), and even a snippet from The Karate Kid: “Wax on, Wax off” (let’s hear it for my Brazilian).

Others related more generally to The 52/52 Project, including “I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing” by the Pet Shop Boys, “Dare to Be Stupid” by Weird Al Yankovic, and “Undignified Ways to Die” by Bob and Tom.

Over my two-hour radio gig, I made my share of newbie mistakes, including talking to the co-hosts when I mistakenly thought our microphones were off. *sigh*

And, I’d forgotten that the online audio stream was indeed accompanied by a slightly blurry video of the three of us sitting in the station. My mother told me later that she lost count of how many times I adjusted my bra straps.

Yet still, I sensed my on-air presence got better as I went. The caffeine gradually kicked in, and as I delved into my specific experiences from the past several months, I managed a handful of articulate sentences and even a few witty comments.

As we walked to our cars in the parking lot, I called it a success.

I’d ventured outside my comfort zone and tackled my fear of public speaking, albeit in front of a mostly invisible audience.

I only hoped listeners enjoyed the radio show nearly as much as I did. A few people have graciously told me I did A-OK.

But, if anyone viewing the live stream watched me stammer and—hypothetically speaking—pick my nose? Please know I could gladly go my whole life without that news being broadcast.

On-air speaking--frightening or not? How do you quell your nerves? What's the biggest faux pas you've ever made in public?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Home Unimprovements

With my office closed for the day by a mountain of drifting snow and sub-zero temperatures, I grinned out my kitchen window as a plow attacked my driveway.  I’d found myself in some half-witted situations during the past several months, but selling my suburban home of twenty-one years and moving to a condo would go down as one of this year’s better decisions.

I’d been in my new place for six months. Yet, I was still waiting for the handyman, whom I’d nagged now at least four times, to realize all the shit needing to get done around here wasn’t going to fix itself—and God only knew I wouldn’t attempt any of it myself.

My idea of a do-it-yourself project included changing a light bulb (but never in a ceiling fixture), hanging and rehanging a picture until it nearly looked straight, or puzzling out the self-cleaning feature on the oven.
Recalling my bloody accident with an electric hedge-trimmer two summers ago, I knew I couldn’t be trusted with sharp tools or heavy equipment. But, one of the projects on my handyman’s forgotten to-do list was sanding and re-staining the trim on a fifty-year-old bar, built by my great-grandfather, which now sat in the finished half of my new basement.

I’d already bought sandpaper, brushes, and a couple cans of cherry stain, to save the handyman a trip to the hardware store. The Old Sherry would have waited to pay him to pretty it up. The New Sherry, far braver and a tad more stupid, shrugged and said, “How hard could this be?”

So, I talked myself out of an afternoon of Netflix and Bloody Marys, and I headed to the basement.

Within fifteen minutes, I sanded away the entire top layer of graying wood.

Buoyed by this success, I reached for a can of stain. I peeked back at the bar. My chin dropped as reality hit me. Staining inch-wide strips of wood on a piece of antique furniture seemed a somewhat intricate DIY project for someone with my limited—and by limited, I mean nonexistent—painting skills.

At the age of fifty-two, I had never painted even a single wall. In my defense, I never lived in any apartment long enough to need it, moved into my first house when I was eight months pregnant and was advised I shouldn’t, and bought my second house newly constructed and freshly painted so I didn’t have to consider it. When I bought my condo last summer, I’d run clean out of excuses so I simply put “wall touch-up” on the absent handyman’s list.

So, before re-staining the bar, I decided to take baby steps into my painting career by first touching up the walls. I rummaged through a collection of rusty cans of paint left by the previous owner and found a can of blue. I didn’t bother with a dropcloth; after all, I was only applying just a tiny brushful to a tiny number of spots.

I covered a half-dozen spots on my living room wall and then stepped back. Hmm. It looked awfully dark. But I was pretty certain I’d heard that paint lightens as it dries. Or, wait, does it darken?

Regardless, one room was finished! I perused the paint cans for beige and paused as I spied a second can of blue—a familiar, lighter shade. Very much like the color of the wall I just touched up.


I repainted the light blue living room wall with the correct color, touched-up the beige on another, and then lugged the first blue can into the guest bedroom, which was dark blue with an odd large white anomaly in the middle of one wall. I slapped on the paint, covering the huge sphere of whiteness and skillfully blending in the color. I smiled. This was actually rather fun. Why had I assumed it would be so difficult?

As I reached down to dip my brush into the paint can again, my eyes caught a sprinkling of blue paint on the tan carpet. On second glance, it appeared more of a spray than a sprinkling. On third glance, I realized I’d dripped paint all over hell.

I ran to my computer and Googled “removing paint from carpet.”  I spent two hours trying every remedy listed—vinegar, nail polish remover, WD-40—to no avail.

OK. I was totally effed. Still, I figured I probably saved myself fifty bucks doing my own paint touch-up.  How much could a new area rug cost? At worst, I’d break even, yes? And, if I managed to re-stain the bar, I’d still be way ahead.

An hour later, I’d applied a layer of stain to every bit of trim on the damn bar. Oh, I’d learned something from my afternoon mistakes, too—I was sure to lay down an old blanket as a dropcloth. Only a few drips made their way to the carpet.

And the bar? It looked fabulous! It would need a second coat, I was sure. But, I’d just learned my office would be closed again tomorrow. Plenty of time to apply that second coat and then to glow in my success.

As I stepped back to assess my work one last time, I noticed I missed a strip. I reached toward the paint can on top of the bar—and knocked it over.

Most of the can spilled before I could retrieve it. I frantically blotted up the excess and rubbed in the rest. I’d removed my drop cloth but thankfully, only a half-dozen drips made their way down to the carpet. I added buying a second area rug to my to-do list.

I told myself a quart of stain on the top of the bar shouldn’t harm much. Especially if the bar top was covered with tile. Yes, once this gooey pile of stain dried, a tile top would be my savior. I hoped my handyman could handle that job. I’d gladly pay every penny, if only he’d return my calls.

Meanwhile, I had a second snow day awaiting me. If I felt brave, maybe I’d spend it putting on that second coat of stain. Or else I’d let my handyman finish that off for me, too.

I hung my head. Surely, I must possess some type of home improvement skills.  And just then, my most potentially successful DIY projects dawned on me.

I managed to figure out how to find Netflix on my new TV remote and fixed myself a Bloody Mary.

When the most important of jobs needed to get done, I was nothing if not resourceful. And, I didn’t spill one drop.

Are you the handy type or not so much?  Who wants to stop over for a drink at my freshly stained bar? Anyone willing to replace the dead light bulbs in my laundry room ceiling?

Friday, January 3, 2014


Following my recent ordeal of baring it all at a nude beach, I promised I’d never again complain about cramming my full-sized, middle-aged parts into a bathing suit. Clearly, I never considered the fact that I’d be donning one on New Year’s Day—in Ohio—while plunging my half-naked body into the icy waters of the Maumee River.

As I stood, shivering, on the snow-covered riverbank, it’s very possible I complained once or twice. Or maybe fifty-two times.

I’d lived my entire life in northwest Ohio and spent the last twenty-five years in Waterville, just up the road from the locale of what’s believed to be the oldest Polar Bear Plunge in the United States. Still, I’d never wandered over to even watch because, baby, it’s cold out there! And those people who jump in a frozen river in January are certifiably ca-ray-zee.

But, considering how far up the Insanity Meter my life had measured over the past eight months, crazy suddenly seemed very gray territory. So, as the temperature hovered around sixteen degrees, with a wind-chill of five, I ventured down to the river to take a mid-winter swim.

My fifteen-year-old nephew, Cole, joined me. As we plodded through four inches of snow to the riverfront, I pounded him on the back and told him he was brave. Silently, I toyed with the idea that the poor guy was just genetically inclined toward stupidity. Although my sister, Lori, and brother-in-law, Mike, didn’t make the plunge, they did come along to provide moral support—and, more important—towels and a pre-heated escape vehicle.

A few hundred people gathered along the shoreline. Cole and I attempted to stave off frigidity by wearing our swimsuits underneath heavy sweats and winter coats. Many of our comrades arrived shirtless, in Speedos and flip-flops. One guy came in a bathrobe and Viking horns. Another wore nothing more than a threadbare pair of tighty whiteys. I pointed them out and rolled my eyes, until I quickly realized that while this might be a circus, the two of us were active members of the freak show.

We waited, shaking on the shore, for nearly five years—or five minutes— if one must be technical.

Finally, someone announced that swimmers should get ready. My nephew and I stripped down to our swimsuits.  

And then, nearly naked, we hurried up to wait another five years.

“This isn’t so bad,” I said to Cole, as we huddled together, hugging ourselves. “I’m not really that cold, are you?” My words escaped through my mouth into a frosty cloud in the air. His teeth chattered in response.

Before I realized my words weren’t fully connected to my frozen brain, a hundred people in front of us suddenly raced into the river.

We’d been forewarned it would be safest to wait for the rush of the first crowd entering the water. So, we stood by for a moment, watching and listening to the screams of swimmers splashing into the river. What we weren’t told was that we would be plowed over when that same group immediately turned and fled from the water.

As we attempted to maneuver past the oncoming and frantic, frozen mob, I discovered Polar Bear Plunging was, literally, a slippery slope toward madness. The crowd had compacted four inches of snow into a slick, icy hill. I wore my oldest throwaway pair of sneakers, with not an inch of tread remaining. Just before I went air-born, Cole, who was wearing his football cleats, grabbed my hand and steadied me.

We ran into the water.

Within seconds, our ankles and feet went numb. Even while outfitted in special socks loaned by a friend who’d done the plunge a few years ago, we couldn’t feel our toes. At that point, we figured we had nothing to lose. We crouched down into sitting positions, allowing the shallow water to reach our chests. As the rest of my body fell numb and my brain went hazy, I gazed up at the two rescue squad trucks on shore, praying the EMT squad was watching me closely.

And then, as quickly as we’d raced into the water, we raced back toward the shore, our legs kicking up shards of ice.

I learned later that the water was a balmy thirty-two degrees. That river was damn toasty, compared to how frigid the air felt once we exited the water.

Did I mention it was cold?

No, cold is how you feel when your furnace hasn’t kicked in yet in November. Or when you are forced to walk from your heated office to your nearby, not-yet-warm parked car. Or, perhaps, when your parka, hat, and mittens don’t quite take away the sting of a two-minute ride down a toboggan hill.

Exiting a frozen river in the frigid winter air? This was way, way beyond cold.

I attempted to dry off with a towel. Unfortunately, the nylon leggings I’d worn beneath my sweatpants, to stay warm during the wait, had proven impossible to remove before my swim. Now, they clung to my legs, trapping a layer of cold water from my waist to my ankles.

In the car on the way home, Cole reached down to take off his cleats. Not an easy feat, considering his shoe strings were frozen solid. As we slowly thawed—a process which would take days—our bodies exploded into pins and needles.

I languished for fifteen minutes in a hot shower, drank a hot cup of mocha in front of the fireplace, and reflected on my day.

By taking part in Waterville’s 85th annual Polar Bear Plunge, I’d checked another new experience off my 52/52 list. I wasn’t sure if the fact that three hundred other people had joined in was reassuring or just plain frightening.

Many of them were already talking gleefully of returning next year. Me? I figured it would be a cold day in hell before I jumped in that frozen river again.

That would be crazy.

Up for a little wintertime swim? What's the craziest thing you'd never do again?  And what do you think it will take to erase the old guy in his threadbare tighty whiteys from my memory?