My birthday is coming up soon. I’ll be 44 years old and I’m pretty excited to be back in an even year. I always feel off in odd ages. My partner Marika asked me what I want and I referred back to my notes, where I keep a detailed list of things that would make great birthday presents for me. I start it the day after my birthday and add things that strike my fancy as the days go on. This year I looked back and was surprised to see that I’d added a Dual Voltage Multifunctional Electric Beard Straightening Brush. It was back in the fall. I’d seen an advertisement on Instagram.
Being 44 has its ups and downs. I HAVE indeed noticed a few stray longies on the ole chin, but nowhere near enough to require a Dual Voltage Multifunctional Electric Beard Straightener. I’m sure I had hatched some plan to use it on my head, which develops new and amazing cowlicks every few weeks. I went ahead and told Marika to get me the Scent of Samadhi underarm powder I’ve been coveting for months, but the beard straightener kept calling my name. What even is dual voltage? I wondered.
I looked it up and it means that you can use it with both 120 volts (used in the US) or 220 volts (everywhere else). Apparently lots of international travelers depend heavily on their beard straighteners for the optimum travel experience. Without that dual voltage, if they plug into the hostel in Northern France they could fry their appliance and have to walk around with an unkempt face fro or some crazy doodle longies if they are 40+ year-old women.
All this electricity research got me remembering something I’d been trying to forget. For the last couple years we’ve had a little problem at my house. Sometimes, when a person is sitting in the tub filled with water and she touches the spigots, she gets a little shock. (I say she because the only males in the house are chihuahuas and they don’t do many long soaks.) The shock is a little worse when there’s Epsom salts in the tub, or when you have a little cut.
It’s concerning, right? I mean, how many times have we seen people die in movies when the bad guy throws a toaster in the tub? We all know it’s bad, we all know water and electricity don’t mix well.
It started a couple years ago really, really small, so much so that I thought I might be imagining it. But then my daughter Maya said she felt it too. It was never a BIG shock. Just a little zap, exactly like the one you get if you chew on a lamp cord while you’re hiding behind the couch at your mom’s house. Which was why I was able to keep ignoring it for so long, I guess. I mean, nobody had died yet, ranking it in the “inconvenient, potentially lethal, probably too expensive to fix” category of problems. I got a special potholder to put on the sink to use to turn the water on and off. Then the potholder fell on the floor and the dog peed on it and it got lost in the washing machine, so I started turning the water on and off outside the tub, which is really annoying when you just need a little heat up. After a while I started using the rubber drain stopper, which I thought was really smart because everyone knows rubber doesn’t conduct electricity.
Each month or so I’d sit down and try to do a little research on why it’s happening and I’d quickly get overwhelmed with information and decide to think about it more tomorrow. You’d be surprised at how many people have this problem and how many things could be causing it. So after the dual voltage discovery, I felt like I was on an electric roll, so I decided to finally really try to find some answers to the tub issue. One of the things that kept popping up was a grounding problem. I vaguely remembered a metal stake in the ground outside under the electric box, mostly because I’ve run over it a number of times with the lawnmower. I decided to check it.
I had to go out and turn off the electric main, and the old paper wasp nest was there, as expected. This time I only wore one pair of gloves and no layers and no apiary hood. After months of getting electrocuted in my bathtub, my threshold of acceptability on dangerous activities has shifted quite a lot. Also there was only one wasp this early in the season and it flew away when I opened the box. I just reached in there and turned it off, no questions asked. I looked down at the metal stake and the wire that was supposed to be attached to it, laying lifeless about six inches away. I had to go to the hardware store and buy a “grounding clamp,” which is a pretty cool little device. Not quite on par with a dual voltage beard straightener, but for $2.39, it was worth a shot. I assembled it all up, grabbed the old tiki torch and used it to turn the power back on, and went inside to test the tub with one of those things with two metal points on wires and a needle dial. Nothin! I turned on the tub, poured a good couple cups of epsom salt in there, took off my electricity fixing carhartts, sat down in six inches of water and grabbed the spigot.
No shock. I may have just saved all our lives. I think, maybe, I might just deserve that beard straightener after all.
A couple of years ago I had to replace a light fixture in our laundry room because the pull-string switch broke. It’s fun doing small electric repairs in my house, because it’s very old and all the wiring in it looks like it was installed by George Washington. The wires are covered in white cloth, probably woven by Betsy Ross, and have lots of cobwebs on them. It’s like a little history lesson every time I take something apart to look inside. As a side note nothing to do with bees or electricity, when my partner and I went to the Betsy Ross Historical Home in Philadelphia, we learned that George Washington paid Betsy Ross the modern day equivalent of $2,500 ($77.50 George Washington money) to make him a bedspread in 1774. She sewed in between rounds of melting lead for making bullets, her side hustle in the days of the Revolutionary War.
In order to replace the light socket, I had to first turn off the electricity. I went down to the box and pulled it open to discover a handful of paper wasps on their nest staring at me like I’d just walked into the wrong bathroom.
I’m not exactly SCARED of bees, but I am allergic to them. It’s not a lethal allergy, I just swell like an itchy, red, inflamed Pillsbury bun, which sounds disgusting and it is. One time my sixth graders and I walked over a yellow jacket nest and yellow jackets came pouring out and we ran, screaming up the street. But a few of my kids had gotten caught on the other side of the nest and I had to save them so I made everyone stop running once we were out of the danger zone and started to head back. A man slammed out the front door of his house yelling “what’s happening!?” He had what looked like a magic wand in his hand and I felt a fleeting moment of relief. I pointed and shouted “bees!” and waited for him to avada kedavra them, but he just yelled “I’m deathly allergic to bees!” And then I realized the thing in his hand wasn’t a wand but an epi pen. I ran away to save my kids so I didn’t get to ask, but I always wondered why in the hell he would run OUTSIDE, knowing he’s deathly allergic to bees, with his epi pen in hand, during what most certainly would have been obvious to any sane person as a bee attack, when all he had to do to stay alive was not open the door. I only got stung twice that day, once on the head and once on my left muffin top. That’s where I would’ve stung me too.
The first time I realized that I was allergic to bees was when I stepped on a bumble in my grandmother’s front lawn. It stung me between my little toe and my ring toe. It wasn’t that big of a deal, my grandmother just chewed up some tobacco leaf and put it on there with a band aid over it. But that night it swelled up into an elephantitic pink blob with toenails, which sounds disgusting and it was. I had to attend Mt. Zion Baptist Church Sunday School with only one patent leather Mary Jane and one naked mutant blob foot.
So I contemplated these paper wasps for a while, and they contemplated me. After a few minutes they went back to futzing with their larvae and tried to pretend I wasn’t there. Their nest was about one inch away from the cut off switch. It would appear to them, I was sure, like I was reaching right for them and they would surely come for me. I’ve always had a soft spot for insects, quite possibly the most misunderstood animals in the kingdom, and I didn’t want to kill them, especially since they were trying so hard to not jump off their babies and attack me. Also, I learned more recently that paper wasps are beneficial to yards because they pollinate and eat insects that can destroy plants. So I went back inside and put on three layers of thick clothing, cinched my hoodie to leave an opening about the size of a quarter, put on two pairs of gardening gloves and an old apiary hood we had in the basement (we really do have an old apiary hood in the basement and I really did put it on) and went back out to turn off the electricity, looking like a homeless astronaut. I opened the box and the wasps looked at me again, only now they were looking at me with less surprise and more concern for my mental well-being.
It took me forty-five minutes to get up the nerve to turn off the switch. I just stood there in the sun, sweating, reaching my hand up and dropping it away at the last second. My partner called out the back door to tell me the sun was going to go down soon and it would be hard to replace the fixture in the dark. I knew the jig was up. I had to just do it. The bees had now pretty much accepted me. They still turned their little heads each time I started to reach, but I think they had maybe come to like me just a little. So I did it. I reached up, grabbed that switch, pulled it as hard as I could, and RAN, peeing my pants just a tiny bit on the exit. That’s just something that happens to women in my family, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.
It took me about ten minutes to replace the fixture. Turning the power back on was much easier because of the angle. I got my hood back on, grabbed an eight foot tiki torch, marched over there to that electric box and opened it up. The bees barely even acknowledged me this time. They were so over it. I used the tiki torch to push the switch back up from a safe distance and all was well. Until recently…
The other night my partner Marika, our daughter Maya, and I were taking a family walk with the dogs through Madison Meadow and the sun slipped down behind the trees. I told them that this is my favorite time to be walking the dogs because people haven’t remembered to pull down their blinds yet and you can see them inside, in their kitchens and living rooms.
“Naked?” Maya asked incredulously.
“No,” I said, though I did once accidentally see a hairy man doing a butt naked sun salutation in front of his window at the beach two years ago. “Not naked, just doing life stuff, like baking pies, dipping candles…”
“Finger painting,” my partner added, nodding thoughtfully.
“Really??? I always thought finger painting was a summer activity,” Maya said, quite earnestly, which is why I love her.
This story reminds me of when I was in pre-school and we did a finger painting exercise with chocolate pudding. My teacher, Ms. McGlaughlin, a kind, tall, old lady with giant glasses, gave us each a dollop of chocolate pudding on a piece of paper and we were instructed to make a picture with it.
I was pleasantly surprised with this project. As the helper doled out my medium, I remember thinking to myself that I would only eat a little bit. Not enough that anyone would notice it was gone but enough to get a taste. Then after I’d finished that I tried to paint a little as a voice whispered they won’t care if you eat a little more, followed by maniacal laughter. So I did. Then I ate some more for no other reason than that it tasted great. The jealous boy sitting next to me told me that I’m not supposed to eat the pudding and I felt a little pang of shame. I thought I’d just make a small picture with what was left, fully intending to do the thing right. But by then I had about enough pudding to paint a tadpole. I knew I was cooked and I might as well finish off the job.
As I was licking the last of the of pudding off my paper Ms. McLaughlin came by, peering at me though those enormous 80s glasses everyone was so fond of. She told me she was disappointed in me. I was a little sorry, but not too much, because she gave me another dollop. I made a house that looked like a poop stain out of the second serving, just fine with exchanging a little disappointment for free pudding.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder if Ms. McLaughlin was even really tall, or if I was just short. And maybe she wasn’t even old. Maybe she was like, 48 or something, a few years older than I am now. I wonder if she was mostly disappointed in me because she wouldn’t get to eat the extra pudding after the lesson.
We didn’t see anyone baking pies or dipping candles or finger painting or doing sun salutations on the rest of the walk, despite a lot of rubbernecking on my part.
I remember arriving at my Grandmother’s house in Kentucky late at night after a twelve-hour road trip from Michigan. I ran into the kitchen where I knew she was waiting up to show off the tiny magnifying glass I’d gotten from the Long John Silver’s treasure chest. It was about the size of my thumbnail, with a black plastic case and a tiny hinge so the plastic lens could fold away and stay protected on all of my scalawag adventures. I could see details better when I didn’t look through it, but I didn’t care. She was dutifully impressed.
We had a great Kentucky crew: my sister Joan and my cousins Rodney and Patrick, and occasionally my younger cousin Julia and my little brother Andrew would join in, if we let them. We had epic adventures together. One time we decided to be helpful and pulled all the ivy off the old chicken house where my Uncle Charlie was storing his pride and joy, a 1950-something Woodie that he always meant to rebuild but never got to. We ran in to get my Grandmother to show her and her eyes widened with what we assumed was adoration and happiness, until she told us we’d just spent two hours ripping up poison sumac and sent us go shower and change our clothes immediately.
Patrick and I hung out together all the time. Once we saw Grandad kill a milk snake because “it had come to kill the chickens.” He saw the snake in the grass and reached in his pockets for something to kill it with. All he had was this large ball bearing, the size of a shooter marble, and he strode up to the snake and threw the ball bearing at its head and killed it. I’m much more impressed with this story as an adult than I was then. I’d never seen anyone kill a snake before and I assumed hitting it in the head with a ball bearing was the standard way of doing it. I now know that I probably couldn’t stride up to an 8.5×11 sheet of paper and hit it with a ball bearing, much less a snake head the size of a quarter.
That day my cousin Pat had on these sweet new white tube socks with green and mustard stripes. My Mom bought socks for the six kids in our family from Bethesda Thrift Store and it was nearly impossible to find a matched pair of socks at my house, much less a new, white pair. My socks were already dull grey by the time I got them. I coveted his socks so much. We went into the sprinkler to cool down and he took them off and went home barefoot. I saw his socks in the yard and put them on. When he came back looking for them, I pretended that they were mine. I shrugged my shoulders lackadaisically and said I had the same ones. Which I did, but mine were grey with who cares what color stripes because they’re old, grey saggy socks. He put up a little fuss, but I held firm. A little while later I found that dead snake and was swinging it around. I hit a pole with it and its headless stump swung back round the other side like a whip and splashed snake blood all over the socks. I took them off and gave them back to Pat, telling him I remembered they weren’t mine after all.
Another time we all walked to the big pond where my grandad went fishing. He’d go out onto the dock and throw dog food into the water, baiting the catfish to the surface, then he’d shoot them with a .22 and wade out to collect them for dinner. My cousin Rodney told us that there were snakes that lived under the mud and not to let yourself sink too far down or they’d bite your feet. I made a big show of jumping as high as I could and sticking the landing, so my feet went deep into the mud. I actually believed him about the snakes, I just did it to be contrary. I was pretty certain I was going to get bitten, but it never happened.
There was also the game we made up called “Detective,” which could only be played in The Old House, which had been abandoned a decade prior when everybody moved into The New House, built by my Grandad a few yards away. Detective was basically hide-and-seek, but you had to not fall through the holes in the floor to the lower levels. There was also some sort of detective angle, apparently, from the name, but the details escape me.
We decided, on one sweltering hot day, to build a platform fort in my Grandad’s old tobacco barn. So we gathered the crew and cataloged our resources for fort making. Tobacco barns aren’t roomy and spacious on the inside like other barns. They are like giant drying racks inside, with big round parallel, horizontal beams running lengthwise across the inside, on which they hung stalks of tobacco to cure. According to my mom, this tobacco barn was built in the 1920s by the Buchanan’s, before my Grandad bought the twenty acres it sat on in 1948.
The tobacco barn had a log frame that looked like it was made by Paul Bunyan, with well-weathered wooden plank siding. There were three layers of horizontal beams inside, running left to right, with space at the top for air circulation. Since this barn hadn’t been used for curing tobacco in many years, there were strange odds and ends laying around inside–an old bicycle that looked like it could have been used by a soldier in some World War, riding from camp to camp shouting “take cover!!! INCOMING!!” before he cycled away on his squeaky iron dinosaur. There were plastic detergent buckets that my grandmother didn’t want to throw into the burn pile, wooden screen doors, old rusty car parts, pitchforks, tractor tires, and square bales of hay stacked up for Poco, the fat mean horse. All in all, the perfect place for a bunch of kids to be climbing around making a fort.
We dragged an old set of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs my Grandmother had built from the Old House and nailed them to the first tier of tobacco hanging beams so we could climb up. Then we brought in a bunch of dusty planks we found in another barn, carried them up the stairs and placed them across the beams to make the first floor. We hung out there for a day, about six feet off the ground and it was fun. The next day we decided to drag more planks over and make a second story. To access the second story, we had to walk to the edge of the first floor, grab onto the second floor and shimmy onto it on our bellies (about ten feet in the air) because we’d plumb run out of extra sets of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs. We also made a small lookout platform in front of the ventilation flap, so we could spy on people in the yard.
The next day we decided to make another level. This one was a little scary. It was maybe 14 feet off the ground, and dragging the planks up that high was no simple feat, for 10-13 year olds. We got it done, nailed the extra hefty boards in place into the 70 year old tobacco infused beams. Then we decided we needed a communication system, for when some of us left to get provisions from the woods, or to look at something with my magnifying glass. Rodney used an ax to cut open all the bales of hay so we could use the binder’s twine they were tied with to make some can phones that didn’t work. Then, with all that hay laying around, we decided to pile it up and jump into it off the top level. It was great fun until I caught my palm on a rusty nail on the way down and got a deep cut. Instead of going to get a tetanus shot, my dad made me clean it with a toothbrush, hydrogen peroxide, and the pink torturer, merthiolate. The cut brought some attention to what we were up to out there and some adults came by. That was the only time we got into any trouble with the project. Not because we were jumping fourteen feet down into a pile of hay surrounded by rusty, sharp objects, but because we’d ruined the haybales by cutting them open. That’s how things were back then. We were allowed to do some crazy, cool, super dangerous stuff.
With each passing year, as we continued to travel to Kentucky, we’d make adjustments to the fort, fixing broken boards, cleaning up raccoon poop, clearing the stairs of debris. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, pre-adolescence was over and we became teenagers. I don’t remember the first time I skipped a trip to Kentucky, but I know it happened. Conversing with the cousins became awkward as we all tried to grow into young adults. We spent our bandwidth on other important things, like drinking Boone’s Farm at parties, passing AP history, and falling in love. The Old House was torn down sometime in the ’90s never to host another game of Detective again. Grandad died a few years after that.
But everytime I did go back, I’d go out and look at the fort. It’s still there today, dusty and decaying. For a few seasons a mother vulture decided it was a great place to raise her babies. She took up residence on the third story, hatching eggs, feeding her reptilian looking chicks, and pooping all over our creation. The tobacco barn is leaning heavily to one side. I doubt it will remain standing for much longer. A hundred years is a pretty good run.
I flew back to Paducah, Kentucky this Christmas, the first time I’d been for several years. My sister, mom, and niece picked me up and we drove the last ten minutes to what once was my Grandmother’s house, but now belongs to Pat and Teena and their cute kids. My mom has built a studio on the property, and now it’s the New House and the other house is the Old New House. Once I arrived, I was shown around–the new art pieces my mom made, the tightrope that Pat put up for everyone to try, the cappuccino maker that makes perfect espresso every time. It was all different, but it was all still the same. The house looked different, updated, but it still smelled the same. I didn’t know exactly how it would feel, being in her house, with her not there. Most of the time it sort of just felt like she was in the next room at the moment. In reality, she was up the road in Possum Trot, at the Oakview Nursing Center.
We all went up there to see her a few times. She didn’t recognize us, or even really open her eyes much. I laid in her bed with her on the night of January 2nd, with my arm around her shoulders, trying to let some of my heat soak into her because she felt cold. My mom woke me up the next morning to tell me that Oakview had called and said she wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t too worried, because it had happened like that before. But just as we were pulling into the parking lot of the nursing home, my Uncle Alan texted. She’d died a few minutes before we arrived.
We went through the usual motions, I wished I’d gotten ready faster so my mom could be there with her when she went, we cleared out her closet, we called people. The woman who was caring for her that morning told us she’d whispered to my Grandmother, letting her know we were coming, but she went ahead on anyway. It’s impossible to know what she was thinking, if she was thinking at all. She’d been leaning hard to one side for a long time. But ninety-nine years is a pretty good run.