Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Modern-day Gladys Kravitz solves a mystery

Published July 30, 2007

The house down the street looked empty.
I passed it every day on my way home. It always had three or four or more cars in the driveway. Now there was none.
"I wonder if that house got foreclosed on," I said to my husband a couple weeks ago.
I kept meaning to get the house number so I could look it up.
There are a lot of Web sites that list foreclosures, but alas, most of them give only the most basic information - such as the street name - before you have to sign up and pay to get the rest.
One site offered a seven-day free trial.
Shoot, I thought, I only need it for seven minutes. I'll sign up. I had to provide credit card information, which I had no qualms about being the avid online shopper that I am.
And then I read the fine print: If you do not cancel within the seven days, your card automatically will be billed for the following month: $49.95.
I closed out that Web site fast.
I don't know about you but I always, always, always forget to cancel subscriptions that have that caveat after a free come-on.
Anyway, what piqued my interest about the house down the street was that last week after I noticed all the cars gone, I noticed the pool gone. An above-ground pool that had been visible from the street had vanished, perhaps having been drained and folded up and carried off into the night.
"It has to be a foreclosure," my husband said. "Did you check the auditor's Web site?"
The Lorain County Auditor. That's the ticket.
So I went looking.
I tried to figure out the house's house number. It is five houses down, add 10 to my house number and I should have it, right?
No, that would be too easy. My house number plus 10 brought up the next door neighbor's property.
Puzzled again. I ended up - the auditor's site allows this - putting in a range of numbers and looking at all the houses in the range.
I was typing and clicking and studying the computer screen for hours when my husband said, "Hey, Gladys Kravitz, what are you doing?"
For those of you who don't remember - or, gulp, are too young to remember - Gladys Kravitz was the nosy neighbor always threatening to expose Samantha's magical powers on "Bewitched."
"Actually," he said, "you're the modern-day Gladys."
It was true. Gone are the days when neighbor had to spy on neighbor over the back fence or between the slits in the drapes.
Now, with enough time and ingenuity, anyone can get information on just about anyone by using the Internet. It's kind of scary.
I found out the names of the people living on my short street. I found out, in many cases, what they had paid for their house and when they bought it.
I found out how many square feet each house has and how many bedrooms and baths. I compared our square footage with the other houses on the street. I was lost in my research.
And then I remembered what I was looking for.
Did the house down the street get foreclosed on?
I figured out what house number it was and clicked on the address for property information.
Sure enough. The words "sheriff sale" came up on one of the categories on the page.
Hmm. Wonder what the people who lived there did for a living? Wonder how they lost their house? Did something bad happen?
OK, so, I guess the Internet can't tell a person everything about her neighbors.
Maybe Gladys Kravitz was onto something with those binoculars of hers.

(By the way, you have to pay to look on the auditor's Web site, too, but it is a fraction of the cost of the others.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Attack of the cicada killer wasps

Published July 23, 2007

What makes grown men flail their arms and run around the backyard shrieking like girls?
Dive-bombing flying insects as big as your thumb, that's what.
There's been a lot of flailing and running and shrieking around here lately.
Actually, the above scene could be juxtaposed with a magnified version of the scene I am about to describe, and a filmmaker would have himself quite a horrifying Grade B science fiction movie.
A huge striped wasp - the same bug (or its cousin) that has been terrifying swimmers in my backyard - was dragging a big, fat dead cicada into the crevice between the concrete walkway and the pool.
The wasp squirmed down in the hole and tried to pull the fat cicada in after it.
The cicada was clearly twice the size of the hole and its predator.
But the wasp didn't give up.
The dead cicada seemed to move of its own accord like those metal filings in those board games in which you put a beard on a man with a magnet.
But it wasn't a magnet that was levitating the bug; it was another insect.
You could see the wasp's furry little insect legs sticking up through the hole trying to get some leverage as it twisted and turned and tugged at its prey to get it into the hole.
The hard-working bug - according to Shelly Hill, program assistant for horticulture at Lorain County's Ohio State Extension office - is actually called a cicada killer wasp or, scientifically, sphecius speciosus.
Hill convinced me, and now I'm trying to convince you, to please stop swatting and bug-poisoning these annoying dive-bombing bugs that are almost as big as hummingbirds.
"They are beneficial," Hill told me in that sweet bug-loving entomologist way, "and very interesting."
Cicadas - not the 17-year locusts we are all familiar with but the ones called "dog day cicadas" that come around annually - will eat trees and eat the roots of trees.
"The cicada killer wasps go after them," she said.
And although they will dive-bomb you - that is the aggressive male, by the way - they don't sting.
The males don't even have stingers and the females will only sting if cornered or trapped - like in laundry brought in from the clothesline, she said.
I told her about watching a cicada killer fly back and forth over the same small area of grass day after day.
She told me that what I was seeing was probably the same male guarding his brood of eggs or larvae in the ground below.
"The male is real aggressive toward its young," Hill said. "He doesn't have a stinger, but he will head-bang you if you get in his way."
The wasps' life cycle parallels that of the cicada, spanning 60-75 days from mid-July to mid-September. They are solitary insects. They don't live in colonies. There is no queen. Just a bunch of little cicada-killer families. The female lays eggs in the ground, and in one or two days larvae hatch from them. The insects spend about two weeks as larvae before becoming fearsome cicada killers.
Boy, am I glad I didn't kill that diligent dad. I considered it. I wanted to. But, I couldn't find a flyswatter.
So anyway, the next time I walked past that crevice into which the wasp had been trying to pull its levitating prey, the cicada was gone. Either the wasp managed to wedge it into the hole or he swallowed it whole.
"That's kind of surprising that it was trying to take it underground," Hill said. "They usually fly up into the trees with them."
Oh, now that's a comforting thought.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Everything's good -- except my flipping age

Published July 16, 2007

“Have any of you guys ever played ‘Flip Cup’?” I asked a group of 20-somethings in the newsroom.
“Yeah,” said one, nodding vigorously.
“Oh, yeah,” added another.
“Yeah, we used to play it in college,” a third chimed in.
“Well,” I told them, “I played it last week when my sons were home. It was boys versus girls, and we won.”
“Cool (or some other words expressing that sentiment),” they all said.
Flip Cup is a popular drinking game on college campuses. Teams line up on opposite sides of a long table. Each player has a plastic cup into which a couple fingers of beer — the $6-a-case variety — is poured.
The game starts with two players standing opposite each other drinking their beer and then placing the empty cups on the edge of the table with about half of them hanging off.
Then they have to flip the cup over so that it lands on its top. That could take a few tries for the uncoordinated.
As soon as it is done, the next player goes. It’s like a drinking relay race. The first team that finishes wins a point. The game goes to seven or 10 or whatever number is arbitrarily chosen.
It’s loud and it’s wild with team members egging on each flipper in turn.
It’s also a game we never played long ago at Ohio State. Back then, the only energy we expended was what it took to haul our meat off the sofa and walk up to High Street where we found a bar in which to again park ourselves.
I guess the game is just another example of “today’s more active lifestyle” that everyone talks about.
Anyway, I was feeling pretty good about having something in common with my much-younger charges in the newsroom. I was hip to their party games.
That was until one of them came over to my desk a little while later.
“Did I hear you say you were playing Flip Cup?” he asked.
“Yeah. My sons and their girlfriends stayed at our house last week, and they talked my husband and me into playing.”
“Aren’t you a little old for that?” he asked.
Whoa. I felt as if I had been sucker-punched.
Old? Moi?
“No!” I blurted out. “I mean we still act like we’re 22. We still do wild things,” I told him, my voice trailing off.
I spent a few minutes thinking about the way I act, the way I see myself, the way others see me but then my brain blew a fuse and I went back to my work.
I didn’t think about my age — real or perceived — again until my new “Shape” magazine came in the mail. Now, my age I have a problem getting a handle on, but my shape I’m well aware of. I know I’m not the demographic targeted by that magazine but, hey, won’t hurt to try to get some pointers, right?
This month’s cover touted: “Your best body at 20, 30, 40.”
I turned to the story inside. The first pages were about looking good in your 20s; the next, 30s; and then 40s. I turned the page again and it was a different story, so I flipped back and flipped forward again, rubbing the glossy page between my thumb and forefinger to find the pages I was skipping.
Nope. That was it. I don’t know what I was looking for anyway. The cover said it: “Look great at any age (as long as it’s under 50).”
Hmmm. What to make of that?
So maybe I don’t look so good when standing at the Flip Cup table. But, hey, what I lack in youth and beauty, I make up for in wisdom and determination.
And my record as a winning flipper proves it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Some people (not us) just can't let go

Published July 2, 2007

When people buy a new house and fix it up, they want everyone to come over and see what they have done.
Everyone except the old owners, that is.
Well, it's not that we don't want them to see it, it's just that we are afraid they will be offended that their way isn't exactly our way.
I know my husband and I have been worried about the things we have done to our new house.
"What do you think they would think of that wallpaper?" I asked my husband one day.
"Don't you think they would be proud at how clean the pool is?" my husband asked me another day.
But, I have to admit, we haven't made a lot of drastic changes here.
However, at the old house, trees are coming down, rolls of carpet are out for the garbage man and red geraniums have been planted out front.
I think it's great.
When we first moved in that house that was built in 1890, we did the same thing. We ripped out and remodeled like crazy.
Back then, the questions my husband and I exchanged about our work and the new owners started with, "Wouldn't they die," not with "What would they think."
But either way, I think we all do a lot of worrying for nothing.
No one expects new owners not to make changes.
I left a note for the new owners of our house explaining some things and leaving my e-mail address in case they needed to get a hold of us for anything.
A couple weeks later, I got a note: "The house is loved. I am the new owner at your former very lovely old girl as you say. She is quite the lady, I do agree."
And then she went on to tell me about how they both fell in love with the house and were happy to get it.
She ended with "We are making transitions and changes, naturally. Some are from the recommendations of the building inspector. Other changes are just personal."
Hmm. Bracing me.
But I didn't need bracing and I wanted her to know. I wanted her to know that she had my blessing to do whatever she wanted to do with the house.
I told her so.
"I'm sure the changes you make will be great."
An old neighbor came to visit last week.
"They cut down a big tree in your yard," she told me.
I finally figured out it was the hemlock we planted right against the house to hide the electric meter. It seemed like a good idea at the time (when the tree was 5 feet tall) but it grew and grew. I can understand why they cut it down.
But now, the electric meter will show.
OK, I'm beginning to understand why people are afraid to tell former owners what they have done to a house.
I got another e-mail from her the other day.
"Everyone is watching what we do," she wrote. "People in the neighborhood who walk by comment on it and us and what we are doing. I know we are watched but I am not concerned. We only have the best intentions for the house."
And I'm sure they do.
I'm also sure I'll find out about how those intentions look. I don't go through the old neighborhood very much any more, but I know a lot of people who do.
And come to think of it, I wonder what carpet they ripped out.
All the carpet in the house was in pretty good shape - and it was expensive, too.
What could they have been thinking?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Traveling with dad -- and boot

Published June 25, 2007

It was 4:50 a.m. and I was walking toward the back door of my parents' house.
My dad was standing in the doorway.
"You're late," he said.
Hmm. I told him I would be there at 4:45. Five minutes is, relatively, not late for his oldest daughter.
"You said you would be here at 3:45. I've been up since 3," he said.
"Dad, I didn't say quarter to 4," I told him as I reached for the door handle and scooted up next to him inside the doorway. "Anyway, are you ready to go?"
My dad and I were going on a trip. I've been trying to talk my parents into going out to Colorado to visit my son - their oldest grandchild - for a couple of years, but my mom won't fly and my dad won't drive so that was that.
But somehow my son finally talked his grandfather into coming out for a long weekend of golfing. I was just along for the ride.
A couple of weeks before we left, my father did something that would turn our trip into an adventure.
One morning, he took the hard way down the basement stairs - on his side with one arm sliding down the handrail and his long legs buckling underneath him. He got down the stairs faster that way but ended up with a broken ankle.
A broken ankle that - along with the size 13 foot attached to it - was now, in lieu of a plaster cast, encased in a big, black knee-high boot.
A big, black boot not good for hobbling around airports, let alone golf courses.
But nothing holds my father down - not even what amounts to a cement shoe - so the trip was still on.
My husband drove us to the airport and we had to hurry because, of course, even though my dad had been up since 3 a.m., we were still running late.
We were making good time until we got to security. They took one look at the boot and told me to wheel my father over to an inspector wearing plastic gloves and holding a wand.
He was joined by another inspector and while one poked and prodded with the wand, the other got out a fistful of those white circular swabs that check for explosive powder.
The swabber wiped the top of the boot where my father's toes were sticking out and fed the circle into a machine.
Then he got out another and wiped the side of the boot and fed it into the machine. And another. And another.
Finally, apparently convinced my father and his boot were no threat to other passengers, the inspectors released him. I whisked the wheelchair under him and we took off for the gate.
We were flying standby and knew that I - the sister of a Southwest employee - was a low-priority traveler. What I didn't know is that my dad - the parent of a Southwest employee - had a much loftier position that would also carry his traveling companion.
In the end, there was only one flight we wanted to get on and didn't. We were like VIPs on the other three legs of the trip. Being in a wheelchair - or pushing someone in a wheelchair - means you get on the plane first. And at Southwest, where there are no assigned seats or first class, that means sitting right up front.
And while the boot killed any golfing plans, it didn't keep us from sightseeing up in the mountains or sampling some of Denver's best restaurants.
It was a great adventure and, although it may pain my dad to hear it put this way, I think he got a kick out of it.

Operation Leave Me Alone (please)

Published June 18, 2007

Across the hall in a cubicle identical to mine, stood a man with a white woven purse hanging on his left arm.
He was talking to a woman - most likely the owner of the white woven purse - who was lying in a hospital bed.
I peered over the top of my reading glasses to get a better look and as I did, I tugged on the elastic of my hairnet that was digging into my forehead.
And then I went back to reading my newspaper.
I was in the on-the-way-to-surgery wing. You see, a couple months ago, I tore the ligament in my knee and the doctor assured me that all he had to do was "trim it up a bit," and the excruciating pain that it sometimes gave me would be no more.
Sounded like a plan.
I wasn't scared about having surgery. There is a day when I would have been. But there also was a day when I was scared about getting on an airplane.
I'm not sure when I stopped being a fraidy cat -when my kids grew up, I guess.
Anyway, I wasn't too worried about the "little trim" on my knee ligament. My husband drove me to the surgical center for my 7:15 a.m. appointment last week.
"You don't have to stay," I told him as we left the house. "Just drop me off and come back home. They'll call you when I'm done."
"OK. We'll see what happens," he said.
We pulled into the parking lot and I said again, "Just drop me off."
"Don't be silly," he said. "I'll come in with you and see what's going on."
So we went into the waiting room, and I went to the front desk where the woman put a plastic name bracelet on my wrist and told me to take a seat.
I sat next to my husband who was reading one of the newspapers I had brought with me.
It wasn't too long before a nurse came out of the office and called my name.
My husband and I both stood up.
"Bye," I said as I gave him a quick kiss. "I'll have them call you."
And off I went. As the nurse and I walked back, she said to me, "We'll get you checked in and then your husband can come back with you."
"Oh, that's OK. He's going home," I told her.
She put me in one of the little cubicles that lined both sides of the hallway.
"Take off your clothes and put on this gown. It fastens in the back. And put this on your head."
I took from her the gown that fastens nowhere, let alone in back, and a hat-hairnet thingy. I put them both on.
So this is where I was when I looked across the hall and saw the man with the white purse.
I couldn't help but wonder what he and the owner of the purse were talking about. I mean we were in a surgery center. They did minor knee surgeries and removed cataracts. They weren't doing heart transplants or removing brain tumors. There was a pretty good shot we were all going to live long enough to eat supper that night.
I started wondering if I was the odd one. How come I didn't need loving support in the form of another human being in my cubicle as I waited for surgery?
Then I decided, no, I'm actually one of the lucky ones. The people who care about me don't make me talk to them when I'm wearing a hairnet thingy.
And they're wearing my purse.