Category Archives: Notes of a She-Hack

Some validation…

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation storytelling project that I write for just won a silver Wilmer Shields Excellence in Communications award from the Council on Foundations for our 2006 publications about school reform initiatives in Ohio.

All of the writers involved have spent many, many hours at urban high schools that have committed to fight their way out of academic crisis. We are working on two more publications, due out later this year.

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Regret the error…

I love this! As a regular contributor to newsprint for over a dozen years, I’ve had a handful of embarrassing gaffes that still haunt me in the wee, paranoid hours in the night. (And a few that irritate me in the night because I’ve actually had errors edited into my copy as well.)

Here’s reassurance that even the best, most highly-paid folks in the biz make common, and sometimes hilarious mistakes.

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Blood and guilt

In a dream last night, there was no milk left in my breasts, only blood. In the netherworld of REM sleep, I remember feeling surprised and frustrated rather than mortified. I tried to convince myself that maybe there was a good reason for this biological change. Maybe the blood would protect my son from new, volatile viruses or cure his runny nose.

Instead, the nursing just became painful and Declan looked distressed and unhappy. I felt angry that my body was betraying me. The last thing I remember was carrying my crying baby, asking strangers for advice.

This is the precipice every mother I know has told me about at one point or another. Just when you feel like you’ve mastered the challenges of one stage, the next one comes creeping along and the ground crumbles out from beneath you.

Mostly, I’ve gotten pretty good at embracing the falls and having the faith that I will figure out how to keep from belly flopping. But every day I see this essence of goodness in a boy who is becoming more and more himself at lightening speed.

Then I worry about the emotional wounds I’m bound to inflict because I am an imperfect human. Like the times I’ll get angry at his father that he won’t forget, while he wonders at the depth of my feelings. Or the times that I have no answers to hard questions and he begins to feel his first sense of fear and aloneness.

Some say worry is useless and destructive, but if you check my DNA, I am preceded by at least two generations of worrying women. Sure, the rational side of me knows that I can’t control what happens to my son, and that overprotection isn’t going to help him find his way in the world any more than being a militaristic and controlling parent would be.

But at it’s best, I think worry can be a bit of a motivator. It challenges me to look for new means to handle things and be a better mom. It’s the anxiety that I need to extract like a painful molar.

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The big stink, part 2

The house continued to smell of lethal stink-marker when we returned from one night at my mother’s.

Being a musician, my stepbrother did nothing about the stench except sleep at his girlfriend’s house. But he called the next day to tell us that our neighbor to the south now had the smell too.

Because our landlord owns all three of these properties, we finally called him from my husband’s cell phone when we were out to dinner. He immediately called the fire department and the fire marshals managed to arrive and leave before we got home.

According to my stepbrother, they didn’t even bother to fully apply the brake on their vehicle as they gave him the news – this smell was expected because the city sewer line was being worked on a block away. The vapors weren’t flammable or dangerous, they told him, in fact, they were “harmless.” If we just poured water down our basement drains, maybe even ran water for a while, certainly opened several windows (conveniently in October, when the weather was cooling off and natural gas bills are higher than ever) the smell would go away.

We went in and turned on faucets and dumped big pots of water in the basement trap drain, but the vapors were still unbearable and headache-producing 20 minutes later, so we returned to my mother’s for the night. My husband called the fire department and told them he defied anyone to actually come into the house and leave still calling the fumes “harmless,” but all they did was apologize and say that we should have been warned.

The next day the place still stunk. We kept dumping water, running water, turning on fans despite the crisp fall air and calling various Columbus city departments to find out what exactly the name of the chemical they were using in the sewer was. We were bounced from the fire department to the city water and sewer department to some other department called “new construction,” who finally told us that it was styrene, and they would be using it about one more week. Everyone also apologized that we weren’t warned, but they hadn’t expected it to travel a block up to us. They added that we could keep a rag in the trap drain to help stop the smell.

Styrene didn’t sound exactly “harmless” to me, so I made further calls to a national center on toxic substances, saying I was concerned for myself and my 4 and a half month old baby. I received a call from a man the next morning telling me to call the health department because they should be able to measure the amount of styrene in the air. I could take the baby to the doctor to see if there was any neurological damage, but styrene comes and goes from the human body so quickly it would be hard to measure. He also just said to document everything that happened for possible future liability and then told me I should worry about Bird Flu instead.

I talked to the health department and they brought us a fax with facts on styrene while we were out at the zoo to escape the lingering smell.

It’s now been two weeks since the original experience, and we’ve mostly gotten the smell under control, but I’m nervous about what the effects of this really were. There were three days in which just checking out the place gave me a headache, and we’ve all had sniffles for days.

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The big stink, part 1

A week and a half ago, we woke up in the early hours of a Thursday morning with a strange and powerful stench wafting through the house. It wasn’t the rotten eggs smell they put into natural gas lines, or the nasty stink of sewer gas. The only thing I could compare it to was overpowering permanent marker, like the tip of a massive Scripto had been plunged over our house.

Our next door neighbor (who also happens to be my stepbrother and a musician) is reliably up at hours like 4 a.m. pretty much any night of the week. Dan went next door to see if he had the smell too. In the 10 minutes or so that he was gone, I had a panic attack as I imagined us spontaneously combusting. I grabbed the baby, his diaper bag and my purse and headed out the back door, leaving it open so our dogs and cat could escape as well.

Dan was visiting with a group of people at my stepbrother’s house. Basically, the entire closing-time crowd from a bar up the street had relocated to his living room, where the stench was nowhere to be found. People snuffed out cigarettes as I walked in with the baby and started doting on him immediately. Declan was full of sleepy smiles, so he attracted several drunken hippie chick satellites in a matter of minutes. He loves being the center of attention.

A couple of the guys went back over to our house to check things out and see if they could distinguish the smell. Mostly they said “huh, smells like permanent marker.” I called the gas company to ask questions. Not their department. They didn’t even have a suggestion about who to call. There was a chorus of hypotheses from the bar crowd: a dead raccoon under or around the house, some weird smell drifting up from the ravine, or the most popular; that the furnace had kicked back in after months of warm weather. Everyone agreed, including a tipsy electrician who was in attendance, that it was clearly not gas.

After an hour or so, the smell had abated a bit, so we went back home, lit some incense and went back to bed.

The next day, Dan found that a water pipe that had been shut off during a summer plumbing job was also connected to our heater (we have steam heat). He felt certain that this was the source of the smell – the heater trying to run without enough water. He got the water back on and one of the radiators started leaking. He tried to shut it off and it wouldn’t budge. He called the landlord and they decided to shut the heater off until someone could come on Monday. The smell wasn’t so bad, as long as we stayed upstairs.

But on Sunday night, the house was thick with the smell again – it was unbearable, no matter where you went. I called my mother and asked to stay at her house, and while I was gathering things for our overnight stay, my stepbrother called to say the stench was now in his house too. He was going to stay at his girlfriend’s house, but he would make some calls to see what else he could find out.

To be continued…

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Circular cruelty

If I didn’t have enough reasons to hate those hideous circulars that companies randomly drop on your doorstep, I got a big one today.

While trying to comfort a slightly fussy baby, I suddenly heard Arrow freaking out – yelping loudly at the front door. When I got there, I found that a man with a bag full of circulars was holding the front storm door tightly closed on the dog’s foot. Arrow was literally writhing in pain, yelping helplessly. Like an idiot, I tried to grab his collar with the baby in my left arm so the man would let the door go, and he bit my right arm, as a suffering dog will. I ran and put Declan in the pack n’ play and ran back to the door where I yelled at the man to let go and he finally did. Arrow had already peed, pooped and vomited from the fear and the pain.

I was so angry and shaken I ran outside and screamed after him (all he had to worry about from the dog was barking, I was ready to bite him myself), but he had already run off. The dog was limping, the baby was crying and my arm was throbbing. I fetched “The Bag” from the neighbor’s porch to get the number of the company and called to complain. I don’t really remember being that angry. Two people called me back to apologize for the incident, but it didn’t feel like enough.

I’ve been working hard at making sure the dog is trained to be gentle and nonaggressive. He’s definitely been more protective since the baby was born – which mainly makes him bark at male visitors – but he has never hurt anyone, and his biggest threat to the baby has been overloving him. I’m afraid this one man’s stupidity could have just wreaked havoc on my separation-anxiety-ridden puppy.

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The ghost of Frankie Avalon

Originally uploaded by tzt.

Last night, we went to bed to the sound of cries of “Oh my God, Oh my God! I can’t believe we fucking LOST!” all over the neighborhood. The neighborhood being on the perimeter of the Ohio State University campus and the timing being moments after the Buckeyes crashed in the ballyhooed football game against Texas.

Our neighbors change year-to-year, and sometimes quarter-to-quarter. The apartment building full of yutzes behind us has been transformed into a tolerable mix of quiet, foreign grad student families and one annoying hosebag who likes to ride around the parking lot on one of those pocket bikes nightly. (Look at me! I am a GIANT!)

The houses around us largely contain working folks, but there is one place where the highest form of humor is clearly Budwesier commercials. You know you’re in trouble when a house full of undergrads turns on a red and blue neon “Open” sign in its picture window every weekend night and has a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker stuck to a board that’s been nailed to a tree about 12 feet above the pavement.

But last night, they were mostly quieted by the outcome of the game, where the most hilarious sign in the crowd simply said “Austin is better than Columbus.” Riots only bust out when OSU wins.

Meanwhile, our year and a half old puppy, Arrow, barked incessantly in the living room as we were trying to fall asleep. I thought it was the endless parade of hangdog drunks who were stumbling down the street muttering “Why, God, WHY!?” that were bothering him. But my husband went to investigate and found that the arch-enemy of peace in our home was a Dora the Explorer beach ball that I roll Declan around on when he’s having gas pains. The inflatable toy was eerily moving in circles on the hardwood floor in the living room, spun by wind from a fan.

Here I was, still annoyed at him for eating a half a stick of butter off of the kitchen counter the night before – mainly because it transformed him into a butter-obsessed beggar. But incidents like that one mostly serve remind me that I live with two babies.

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