Saturday, January 30, 2010

Welcome To Fantasy Island

It snowed yesterday in Washington, DC. Lots of snow. Outside my apartment windows, snow piled up on rooftops and windowsills. Cars crept cautiously down slick streets. But this snowstorm was nothing.

Last year's December 19th epic snowfall? Now that was something.

Unfortunately, I missed some of the hype because I was vacationing in a remote, dreamy place where reality is unaffected by physical and natural forces. A place called ... Fantasy Island.

Maybe you’ve been there.

Sick for my husband’s November birthday, I decide to surprise him with an outdoor December party. The location, Rock Creek Park, is near my apartment. Coveted Lot #1, with a fire pit, shelter and bathrooms, to be precise.

I'm quickly enamored with the idea. I'll make all my husband's favorite foods. There'll be a roaring fire. Snowball fights. Spiked apple cider. (In retrospect, I am recreating parties of my high school days. Not necessarily a bad thing.) I grow a bit nervous that another party may claim dibs on Lot #1. During winter it’s first come first served. (Retrospectively, again, this is quite silly.)

Fun! Why not throw a party outside?

One big Why Not is a winter storm brewing in the Gulf preparing to slam itself into the East Coast. But so what. It’s winter. It’s supposed to snow. Snow adds ambiance. We Islanders are all about ambience.

"All visitors to Fantasy Island may disembark now."

Wed, Dec 16

With both feet planted firmly on Isle de Fantastica, I send the email inviting people to Lot #1 on Saturday, December 19, at noon. I ask them to bring something to burn. It's a Belated Surprise Birthday Party for Chuck, I write, and he loves to burn things. I tie the Winter Solstice into the theme which makes me feel earthy. Cosmically aware.

All that jazz.

The send button is still warm when I hear in the background a weather update. Something about several conditions potentially colliding to create a major winter storm. I suck my teeth. Whatever. People are always over-reacting to the weather around here.

I skip to the kitchen to make a pumpkin pie, Chuck's favorite, for the party.

Thur, Dec 17

Today The Weather Channel confirms that DC is going to get many, many inches of snow.

Perfect. A party outdoors with a burning fire and softly falling snow? How fun is that. But as the day progresses the snowstorm morphs into a big news event involving special graphics and super doplar radar. My husband, a weather geek, is following the snowstorm closely on several websites. “This is going to be a big one,” he says happily.

“Hm?” I respond hunched over my computer reserving a Zip car. He still has no idea about the party and can't understand why I'm renting a car with a blizzard coming.

“You do know that we’re not covered if you hit someone, right?” he reminds me.

I review Zip Car's insurance policies.

Usually my husband is so easy to surprise. For his 40th surprise party, I hid all the food and cake in the refrigerator behind a single defensive line of condiments. He didn’t see a thing. But renting a car during what some are now calling a major blizzard, is proving difficult to hide. So I come clean. He seems happy about the party. Cautiously happy.

By late afternoon on Thursday, the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang is calling for 6 – 12 inches. They've named the storm Snowpocolypse and Snomegeddon. By now you'd think these reports would have made their way onto The Island. But our reception is really bad.

I make Rice Krispie squares.

I also gather firewood. Pulling my son’s Red Flyer wagon down the hill into the woods, the federal woods, I collect sticks and small logs for the fire. I dump the firewood at a neighbor's house and then use the wagon for a beer run. In a neighborhood convenience store, an older man gets nostalgic over the Red Flyer wagon. I tell him I just used it to collect some firewood from the park woods.

“Ooo. I wouldn’t do that, child,” he warns leaning close to me. “That’s government property.”

“And I’m going to burn it, Jack,” I say leaning closer, reading the name on his work uniform.

He smiles. I begin to wonder exactly how many federal crimes I’ve committed since moving to D.C.

Fri, Dec 18, 8:30 pm

Snow starts falling.

Snow keeps falling.

Sat, Dec 19

The day of the party, I awake to a white out. It is breathtaking. What a day for a party!

I retrieve the firewood which I've covered with an old shower curtain. A stroke of genius. It's buried in snow but bone dry. Carrying it across the street is tough. Not only is it 40 pounds of loose sticks and logs, but all this deep snow covering the street makes walking really difficult.

A dark, dank cold encroaches the shores of Fantasy Island.

I'd better send another email.

Sat, Dec 19, 10:04 am

Party Update: Slight Adjustment

Just in case, Chuck, Felix and I will be at Rock Creek party site (Lot #1) at around 12:30 pm. (not noon). Anticipating Zip car issues.

Zip car issues. If ever there was an understatement, this is it.

My rented Zip car, located right around the corner from my place, isn’t there. I call Zip car. “I have a party to throw! I have a fire to start! People will be arriving soon! Where is my car?!” The representative assures me that the other driver is a minute away. So I wait. On the sidewalk in very heavily falling snow. With a pumpkin pie, bags of food. Booze. Firewood.

The driver finally shows up visibly shaken. “I am so sorry. The roads are really bad.” What is he blathering about? A ledge of snow falls in my face from the rim of my cowboy hat. Just give me the car.

My husband and son join me. My son shovels out a Jeep with his toy shovel. I load the groceries while my husband takes care of the federally offensive firewood. Now my only focus is to drive a mile down a very steep, snow-covered hill, to get to the park. People will be arriving soon and I have a fire to start.

As I hit the gas and careen sideways, my trip on Fantasy Island ends abruptly in a 10 inch snowdrift. Tires spin. Husband yells instructions. Something about not turning the wheel. Bouncing in his car seat, my son is laughing, “Do it again, Mommy! Play that game again!”

It hits me. I am not driving down the hill. I am not starting a fire. I am, in fact, stuck sideways in the middle of the road.

I call people to break the news that the party is cancelled. “Yeah. That’s okay. Thanks anyway,” they politely respond. “Don't worry. I had no intention of driving through 10 inches of snow down a steep hill to burn things in the woods,” is the subtext.

My husband has a blast stunt driving the car back into its curbside parking space. I schlep everything back inside.

What in the hell was I thinking? Where was my head??

I feel like an ass for about five minutes. Then I plate up the food, clear toys from the floor and invite a few people over for a modified Snowpocolypse Party. We denizens of Fantasy Island are nothing if not flexible.

The heartiest of the bunch, two couples dressed like arctic explorers, trudge several miles to our apartment. The neighbors who aided and abetted the firewood join the party. The apple cider, properly mulled and spiked, takes the chill off and gives everyone a rosy glow. The children are red-cheeked from playing in the snow. Not from the spiked cider.

The best part is that my husband has a hoot at the party. And he thanks me for setting the scene for one of his favorite activities on this terrestrial world – shoveling snow in the company of Wild Turkey, beer and tunes – which he did for hours.

All for the low, low price of one roundtrip ticket to Fantasy Island.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I *Heart* Coffee. A Lot.

It's morning and my child is up before me. This is foreboding.

Coffee. Must make coffee. Quickly. Before I'm asked to wear a costume or build a tower or read a book or act in a puppet show or have a dance party.

As I pour the water into the coffee maker, I remind myself to use the plastic coffee filter contraption. Boy that was a big mess, coffee and coffee grounds everywhere. At least this morning I'm on the ball, I say as I fill the paper filter and slip it into the plastic thing.

Five minutes later, I hear my husband yelling, "Honey! You need to use a coffee pot when you make coffee!" I peek in the kitchen to see coffee covering the counter and dripping into the dishwasher that thankfully contains dirty dishes.

Pot. Right. My first accomplishment of the day puddles on the floor that I just mopped the night before.

"I didn't do it!" my son yells.

See. Everyone makes a mess, I tell my son trying to make a positive lesson out of a big stinking mess, a mess that my husband cleans because maybe he just wants to help but more likely he probably fears that I'll find a way to electrocute myself without my first morning cup of coffee which is why I now understand my mother-in-law's cup of instant coffee as she brews her morning coffee.

"I'll help you, Mommy."

I accept my son's offer to help make the second pot knowing full well that most parenting magazines, except perhaps those progressive ones that advocate old-school parenting techniques like that mom in New York City who let her 9-year old ride the subway home alone, most likely warn against letting your four-year old operate electrical appliances but "what the hell," I think, he can't do worse than I just did and anyway I stopped reading parenting magazines years ago after one featured this beautiful, famous mom who lives in the Bahamas wearing ethereal floor-length sundresses as she sends her boys to a private boarding school in London because how does that really help me be a better mom ...

... breathe ...

Morning thoughts shouldn't be so complex. Not without a cup of coffee.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Profile of a White Woman

Thanks to the Underwear Bomber, profiling is back in fashion. Which reminds me.

Seattle 1999. I’m living very cheaply with two fantastic roommates and have just finished up a work project. I have time. I have money. Which means one thing.


I call a friend in Brighton to ask if she'd mind a visitor. She warns that if I come now, she won’t be at home for part of my visit - something about driving a bus from Paris to Baghdad to attend a women’s conference. Typical Alex. “But do come anyway,” she reassures me adding that I can always day-trip to London.

Except for the fact that it's winter, a trip to the British coast sounds lovely. And London! Parliament. Tower of London. Seeing "The Mousetrap," the long-running play by Agatha Christie, in London's West End. I'm a sucker for a British mystery.

I buy my ticket the same day.

Now, the recent cross-country trip that landed me in Seattle was a heavy one. Not only was my travel partner a drag, but I also carried with me nearly all my possessions. Photo albums and Chinese texts included.

This trip is going to be light. No luggage. I'll simply wear several mix-and-match layers. One small backpack will hold toiletries and underwear. (Contrary to what the Underwear Bomber says, you shouldn’t layer underwear.)

I approach the U.S. Customs agent at the airport all smiles and excitement. With passport and carry-on in hand, I expect to breeze through.

But a small problem arises. The several shirts I'm wearing are now bunching up in my armpits causing me to pick at them a bit.

The agent looks at me fidgeting and asks for my passport. He flips through and notices the collection of visa and exit stamps from different countries.

Agent: “You travel a lot.

Me: “Yes. I do love to travel.”

I pull at Layer #3 that's riding up my back.

Agent: “Where do you live currently?”

Me: “Seattle.”

I sing-song “Seattle” in Chinese "Xi-Ya-Tu." He's unimpressed.

Agent: “And where do you work?”

Me: “Well, I’m sort of in between jobs.”

I finger-quote the air when I say “in between.”

Agent: “So, you’re unemployed.”

Me: “Well, I wouldn't put it that way exactly.”

Agent: “And how did you purchase your ticket?"

Me: “With cash of course.”

I begin to explain my distrust of the credit card system, but he interrupts.

Agent: “When did you buy your ticket?”

Me: “A couple days ago.”

Agent: “A couple of days ago?”

Me: “Yes. I just called my friend and she said she’d love to see me. Well. Actually, she won’t be there for my entire visit. See, she’s going to be driving this bus through Iraq ... well, that's a different story ... but the point is ...”

I stop talking as he scribbles furiously in his notebook. The agent seems very interested in my story and wants to share it with his female colleague who joins us at the counter.

Agent: “So, you don’t have a job but at the last minute you bought a ticket to London with cash. Is that what you’re telling me?”

Me: “Yes, sir. Guilty as charged.”

He stares at me. I clear my throat.

Agent: “And what luggage are you bringing in with you?”

Me: “Just this small backpack.”

Marveling at my own resourcefulness that I had packed everything for a 7-day visit in a very small backpack, I smile from ear to ear.

He’s not.

Agent: “Would you please step inside the room behind me and place your backpack on the table.”

What is going on? Does he want packing tips? I really don’t have time for this. It isn’t until I’m asked to remove my bulky wool sweater revealing an embarrassing array of shirt collars that I began to feel guilty. Although for what, I haven't a clue. I'm just glad to shed some layers.

Through the glass walls I watch my fellow travelers moving unimpeded to their destinations, while I answer all the questions over again and watch in awe at just how detailed a search of a small backpack can be. (Hmph. I didn’t even know it had a secret pocket.)

After the female agent finds nothing in my bag or on my person, I ask what’s going on.

“You fit the classic profile of a drug mule,” she says matter-of-factly.

"A 'drugmule'?" I ask genuinely perplexed.

"Someone who carries drugs across borders for someone else," she explains now sounding a bit too condescending for my liking.

Me? Really? With my looks, all tall, thin, angular, pale with glasses and frizzy hair, I’m usually profiled as a liberal-vegetarian-PBS-watching kindergarten teacher. But a drug mule? Drug mules sound dangerous. Edgy. And look like Chrissy Hynde.

I divulge that I once declined an offer to carry perfume samples from Paris to Hong Kong and ask if that is considered "muling" as well. They seem incredulous that I would offer such information and tell me I'm free to go.

I sincerely thank the agents who, for the first time, seem caught off guard.