Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Are Women Afraid of Mice?

I am not afraid of much. I have hiked through the Andes and the Himalayas, zip-lined through a Mexican jungle, driven on motorcycles far too fast. I have given birth to three children and beaten off two separate muggers intent on grabbing my purse. I have jumped out of a moving car to avoid a man.

Why, then, am I afraid of mice?

Recently, I came up here to Prince Edward Island to open up our summer home. Not surprisingly, I had a special greeter on the front stairs: a tiny gray mouse, a little bitty guy who was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I tried to stay calm and rational. But, since my husband wasn't here, I had to deal with the intruder myself.

“Get me a pan with a lid and a broom!” I yelled to my friend Emily, a poet who had accompanied me on this trip and who, despite being nearly six feet tall and having sailed the seas in Newfoundland and conquered sweaty Buddhist meditations, is even more panicked at the sight of a mouse than I am.

She fetched me my weapons while I stood guard, looming over the rodent. Being just a child mouse, he didn't know whether he should go up or down to escape this giantess who, in his little mouse mind, would most likely swoop down and eat him if he didn't seek cover. He scrambled up, but couldn't summit the stair; he then sat and washed his worried little face, awaiting his fate.

Emily handed me the broom and I got to work, trying to brush the mouse into the pan. In my mind, it was a perfect plan: brush the mouse into a tall spaghetti pan, cover it with a lid, and take him outside (where the mouse would no doubt turn around and come back inside for more yummy toast crumbs.)

Sweeping up a mouse isn't nearly as easy as you think it will be, though. The mouse zipped back and forth on the stair to avoid the broom, with me going, “Oh no, don't you run up my pant leg!” in both English and, for good measure, and who knows why, in Spanish. Finally the mouse decided to take his chances and tried climbing up the wall beside the staircase.

Now, mice are good climbers, but this wall had no wallpaper, so down he went, plummeting to the floor. If it were one of us, it would be like falling from the Empire State Building. But the mouse just scurried down the hall as if he'd meant to do that, with Emily doing a little Mexican hat dance in the hallway to keep her feet out of his path. The mouse then found his bolthole beside the front door and made for the safety of the wall, if only to drown out the shrieking of his tormentors.

All that first night, I had to keep the light on, imagining the mouse scurrying up the bed frame and burrowing into my pillow. All the next day, I kept slippers on, for fear of stepping on this mouse or one of his many, many litter mates who are no doubt just waiting for the cover of darkness before they raid our cupboards.

I told myself this was ridiculous. Irrational. I should be ashamed of myself, I thought, especially since my dad raised gerbils for a living, and I routinely lifted them out of their cages to change the shavings and even fed those little buggers treats from my fingers. Yet, after I accidentally dropped one of the chocolate covered almonds I was eating at my desk and it rolled into a place beneath the heavy bureau that I can't possibly reach, I panicked all over again, imagining a whole army of mice running out to carry that huge treasure home, and oh yeah, me along with it, like some giant Gulliver.

I'm not the only woman in the world afraid of mice; in fact, I don't know a single woman who isn't. “I would have died if that had happened to me,” my friend Andrea agreed. Then she told me a story of her own: something about finding a mouse in the trunk of her car, and her driving to a neighbor's house at sixty miles per hour with the music blaring, hoping to scare the mouse out of its wits and keep it in the trunk. They set a trap in the trunk of the car but never caught it; to this day, Andrea checks the seats every time she gets into her car.

I finally went down to the hardware store and had a long discussion about pest control with the clerk. I couldn't bring myself to buy traps, because I knew I'd never be able to empty them. The “have a heart” traps wouldn't work, either, since they're basically just fun rides for mice who can easily figure out how to hike back home. In the end I bought poison. Or rather, “mouse treats,” which I suppose are the same kind of euphemism we use when buying “roach motels.”

“I nail mine into place,” the woman explained. “That way, the mice can't carry the bait off with them and you'll know how much you have left.”

I haven't put the treats out yet. I keep remembering the look on that mouse's face, and his courageous, foolhardy attempts to scale a staircase that was his personal Mt. Everest. He was, by far, braver than I'll ever be.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

One More Careless Teen Breaks Our Hearts

This past week, when 18-year-old Aaron Deveau of Haverhill, MA, was convicted of violating a recent law that bans drivers from texting, he made history. He also broke a lot of hearts on both sides of the case—especially among those of us holding our breaths every time one of our teens gets behind the wheel of a car.

Deveau, who'd had his license just six months and was only seventeen at the time of the accident, swerved across the yellow center line on the road and crashed into an oncoming car driven by father and grandfather Donald Bowley, age 55. Bowley died and left behind a grief-stricken family. Deveau, who was also found guilty of motor vehicle homicide, is serving a year in prison, doing community service, and having his license revoked until he is 33 years old.

Not punishment enough, say many, to pay for the life Deveau took. But let's not judge him too harshly. This kid could belong to any one of us.

To me, in fact. I have four children old enough to drive, and every one of them has gotten into an accident of some sort, ranging from scraping up the side of the car while backing down the driveway to driving into a ditch while trying to switch stations on the radio.

Nor am I immune from carelessness behind the wheel. At age 22, I was driving too fast when my car slid on black ice. I ended up doing a 360-degree turn into oncoming traffic. I was just lucky that there wasn't any traffic coming at precisely that moment. At age 28, I bought my first brand new car; two weeks later, I drove around a city block too fast and sideswiped a parked car. I was just lucky that nobody was inside that car, or getting out of it at that exact moment in time.

And, just a few years ago, a cop pulled me over for swerving over the yellow center line because he thought I'd had too much to drink. I hadn't been drinking at all. I was just trying to reach down and push the lid onto my travel cup so the hot tea wouldn't slosh around. I was just lucky that nobody was coming from the opposite direction during those two seconds I took my eyes off the road.

I was just lucky all of those times. I was also stupid, stupid, stupid.

We are all stupid sometimes. Mostly, thankfully, we are also lucky. Think about how many times a day you—and your children—climb into the driver's seat of one of those sweet death machines, crank up the tunes, and zoom off to dinner or a movie or the grocery store. We talk on the phone, put on lipstick, sip hot coffee, and eat while we drive. We also make optimistic assumptions about the other drivers: Oh, that guy won't go through the red light. No, that jeep isn't going to pull out in front of me. That woman wouldn't dare turn left in front of me at this intersection, no way!

We are just lucky enough, until that one sad moment when we are not.

I grieve for Donald Bowley's family, I do. They lost a man they loved. But my heart breaks for Aaron Deveau and his family as well. This boy, so proud of his new license and working hard as a dishwasher while still in high school, was as stupid and unlucky as you can be. We must find it in our hearts to forgive him—and to remind ourselves that it could have been any one of us, or one of our children, behind that steering wheel.

We must remember that we are lucky until that one bleak moment when we are not.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Do It Yourself or Die Trying

     My husband came upstairs last night sporting a satisfied smile.

     “Did you fix it?” I asked.



     “Paper clip,” he said, and we both laughed.

     What my husband had done was mend our broken toilet by using a paper clip to reconnect the flush lever to the flush valve, thus proving once again how we're not only surviving this Do It Yourself time in our lives, but getting better at it.

     We have never been rich, but once upon a time, we had a little extra money every month. That was before we put four kids through college, my husband was laid off three times, and we had to pay for our own health insurance. What did we do, back in those heady days of plenty?

     We paid other people to do things for us: the plumbing, the house painting, the carpentry, the snow plowing, the lawn mowing. When I look back at those days now, I think, wow. What a waste. Think of the fun we missed.

     Why did it take me so long to get into the whole DIY thing? I blame it on growing up with a father whose motto was “Do It Yourself or Die Trying.” My father was a Navy officer who dreamed of becoming the world's most famous gerbil farmer. After a popular magazine hailed gerbils as “America's Newest Pets,” Dad spent his shore duties secretly raising them in our garage. He was still in uniform when he bought a remote, rundown farm and built a gerbil dynasty.

     As Dad's first employees, my brothers and I posed with gerbils for photographs he could use for pet books. We cleaned cages and doled out green food pellets. Meanwhile, Dad constantly reminded us that “frugal” was our new middle name.

     Whether my father had wanted to make it big by selling gladiolas or garage doors instead of gerbils, the bottom line of any start-up company is microscopic. Small business owners don't expect bailouts if they fail. Dad reminded us that sweaters were cheaper than heat. His office floor was a flotilla of coffee cans crammed with recycled screws and rusty nails. If something needed doing, we were to do it ourselves or perish in the process.

     We put our backs into making that old farmhouse a home. We built a stable for our horses out of an abandoned barn that we tore down and hauled across the street on a wheezing, Dr. Seuss tractor. Meanwhile, Dad's gerbils went about the happy business of breeding. When they'd multiplied enough to need a home of their own we built that, too, turning sheet metal siding and bags of bolts into the nation's first gerbilry.

     With me, Dad was a total stop-spending vigilante. I had already cost him more money than his other children combined; at age 12, my horse bucked me off and I landed mouth-first, losing seven front teeth. The year that Dad built his gerbilry, a dentist crafted a pricey, permanent set of teeth for me. I was thrilled. No more dental humiliations, like the time I laughed at a cute boy's joke and sent my false teeth flying onto his shoe. 

     The down side was that Dad now materialized at my elbow if I did anything more extreme than sleep. “Watch out for your teeth, Holly!” he'd cry, trotting after me. “Teeth don't grow on trees, you know!”

     Dad monitored my hot showers to the minute. I turned the toilet paper roll as stealthily as possible, because if Dad heard me using it, he'd come pounding up the stairs to knock on the bathroom door. “No more than three squares!” he'd call. “More than three squares is wasted!”

     This penny-pinching paid off. By my third year of college, Dad had nearly 9,000 gerbils housed in three buildings. He proudly announced that we could afford a family vacation. “It's a celebration,” he said. “This year, I made as much money as the governor of Massachusetts.”

“Wow,” I said. “You must have sold a ton of gerbils.”

“Of course, the governor enjoys a few more perks than I do,” Dad added generously. “A mansion. A staff. A secretary. A car at his disposal, and so forth.”

“You have a secretary,” Mom reminded him. “Grandmother's right upstairs.”

Given my history, you can understand why, even when my husband and I started struggling financially a few years ago, I dug my heels in when he suggested that we become DIY sorts of people, taking on projects like reshingling our own barn and putting in kitchen cabinets from Ikea rather than pay a carpenter.

The more we did things for ourselves, however, the more I realized that we were doing more than just saving money. When we dug an entire garden bed and laid the stone paths, when we stripped bedroom wallpaper and repainted the walls, when we shoveled out the old pig sty to create a pond, my husband and I felt, if not invincible, at least like a strong enough team to face nearly any economic or emotional challenge. Instead of drowning every time the economic tide turns against us, we know that we're going to bob to the surface of whatever happens, because we're both paddling like hell and getting stronger every day.

So far my husband has rebuilt that same toilet flush mechanism using dental floss, paper clips, and strips of aluminum. Meanwhile, I've become adept at street picking, gardening, painting, and refinishing. Each DIY victory is sweet indeed.

These days, frugal is the new cool. Boxed wine is in. Fashion magazines trumpet vintage finds. Waste not, want not, is the new reality--only it feels like old times to me, the daughter of a gerbil czar who wanted to do it all himself.