Falling Out

We were having lunch at my favorite arts and crafts festival and my brother decided he didn’t like what we were having and went off to find something else to eat. We settled in with our crab cake sandwiches and coleslaw and John returned15 minutes later with nothing more than a scowl on his face.

“Security was following me around,” he huffed. Since he is himself a cop, it annoys him that some other jurisdiction deems him suspicious. “I thought they were looking me over because I maybe looked familiar – like we’d met at a conference or something. But – no. It was like they were getting ready to stop me.”

John is your basic 40-something who dresses like every other 40-something and, were we anywhere else, I would have been equally outraged. But there he was – a lone male heterosexual . . . alone . . . at a craft fair . . . and he wasn’t carrying a single package for his wife.

I’m surprised he wasn’t strip-searched.

PCD (political correctness disclaimer): Someone is going to ask me how they would have known that John was heterosexual, particularly in view of the fact that he is a very tidy person. Oh, lighten up. Everyone knows gay guys would only be at an arts and crafts festival with their significant other or their gal pal – or hawking the refurbished antiques in the furniture tent. I don’t make the rules.

Fall is festival time in the Shenandoah Valley, strategically scheduled for men to garner brownie points with their wives in preparation for football season and March madness. (PCD: Of course I acknowledge there are women who enjoy pro sports – didn’t we all before the Man of Our Dreams sealed the commitment? Remember that moment of satisfaction when we heard him brag to The Guys, “…and she loves football!” Heh. Sucker.)

It stands to reason. Autumn is a beautiful time around here. The federal government scarfed up all the money-making opportunities of tourists wanting to go leaf peeping on top of a high mountain ridge. The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park notwithstanding, fall scenery is a pretty hard resource to charge admission to.

And so we have the Festival of Festivals, so to speak. They range from slick productions like the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival – drawing hundreds of vendors from all over the country and a clientele just as diverse – to tiny local affairs where we basically make money off each other – a sort of gentlemen’s agreement that if we attend Edinburg’s Olde Time Festival, they will attend our Oktoberfest.

Mostly it’s just an excuse to have funnel cake.

The larger the venue, of course, the more high-end the merchandise. You won’t find a single crocheted toilet paper cover at Mountain Heritage. But if you’re in the market for a full John Deere kitchen set or “Git ‘r’ Done” wall plaques, then the local fairs should do you just fine.

As a bonus, with the local events you also get a parade which means that every Saturday morning for the entire season there is only one fire department covering the entire area. Everyone else is part of each other’s parade.

There are also local high school bands, but this early in the school year they only know one song: “On Wisconsin.” And, this being the south, there is a flock of be-sashed and tiara-ed beauty queens waving regally atop mounds of papier-mâché and crepe paper.

The valley is also the D.C. area’s go-to locale for corn mazes and pumpkin patches. Some of the local farmers haul out their farm animals for the city kids to traumatize. Also, you can go to practically any large farm and, for a fee, they’ll cover their manure-hauling flatbed trailer with hay bales and drag you around on it. Just know they consider this highly amusing to talk about over coffee on weekday mornings down at the diner.

I’ll admit I’m not totally immune to the fall festival attitude. I’ve purchased a couple of decorative pumpkins, even though there are no Heirs left to carve them. I’ll probably cave in and buy a bushel of apples. And, of course, there is Rinker Orchard’s Cider, which is possibly the single reason God invented apples – that whole snake thing being a pure accident.

By all means, have a leaf peep up on Skyline Drive. But if that’s all you see of the Shenandoah Valley in the fall, you’re missing a great sideshow.

But, guys — you might want to be carrying packages wherever you go.

I’m Okay; You’re Not So Good

I guess I wasn’t home the day Katie Couric – or anyone else – called for my opinion on healthcare reform.

I’m particularly disappointed to have missed Katie’s call, which I’m sure happened, seeing as she used to live in these parts; ya know – where I have a following. . . or at least a readership . . . providing my neighbors and my brothers count as a readership.

At any rate, I was anxious for Katie to give me the national spotlight so I would have the opportunity to apologize on behalf of my circle of acquaintances.

You see, I am convinced they are the ones driving up the cost of healthcare and skewing the numbers, making the whole country appear to be sicker than we actually are.

The fact is that, other than myself, my husband and my two sons, I don’t know a single normal, healthy person. Getting together with friends is a field of medical landmines that must be delicately avoided lest you serve something dangerous and exotic like, say, cream for the coffee, and trigger a long-winded history of a friend’s recent epiphany about having been lactose-intolerant “all these years.”

Truly, that wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that such a revelation can derail an entire gathering and turn it into a panel discussion on the digestive systems of all in attendance. No amount of Pictionary can salvage such an evening.

I had a long-standing policy when among women to not bring up the subject of pregnancy. Apparently all my mom-friends possessed the most twisted mutations of the female anatomy since Olive Oyl. When I walked into a party and saw the living room full of men, I knew that I was going to go into the kitchen and hear a litany of obstetric horror stories. Apparently only my sons and Harry Chapin‘s kids “came into the world in the usual way.”

These days, though, the Ladies of the Wonky Female Plumbing are experiencing their first bouts with menopause. Apparently they are the first females of our species to encounter this milestone.

Frankly, I couldn’t tell you when the female members of my family went through menopause. I recall my Aunt Angelina throwing open the back door and fanning herself during a major snowstorm – but that’s about it. When asked why she was doing this, her only explanation was to scream, “IT’S NOT BECAUSE I’M GOING THROUGH MENOPAUSE.” So, obviously, the women of my family were asymptomatic during menopause.

The same cannot be said for my peers, though. Not a one can bear to quietly and gracefully bid farewell to fertility. Last month a bunch of them decided that they needed hormones. I don’t know who started it (I always suspect Oprah), but suddenly they all needed it – the problem being that no one really liked the idea that everyone else needed the same thing.

The result of this is that suddenly, for some, the hormones were not enough and something much more exotic was required; while, for others, the hormones were of the wrong type and something more exotic was required; and then there was a rogue few for whom the hormones would not work at all, requiring the employment of alternative treatments so exotic insurance would not cover them.

Along with this onset of menopause came the sudden revelation from among the group that, apparently, my husband and I are the only ones white-knuckling it through our middle years. It seems we know a group of really sad men and women and didn’t know it because they’re all on anti-depressants. Okay, not all – 13 out of the 17 I know about for sure.

There isn’t room enough for me to go into all the syndromes that have swept through our little group, many with symptoms like “fatigue” and “muscle aches” which, to me, are more symptoms of the fact that we’re all around 50 years old and acting like we’re still able to take down a 17-year-old kid on the basketball court. You know who you are.

I know I should feel lucky to be 52 years old with no major illnesses. Instead I feel kind of left out. There is a certain bonding that goes on with medical kvetching. Some people join book clubs; some people join the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Support Group.

Well, I might come down with something yet. I have an under-active thyroid that shows promise!

An Employers’ Market

At last, the public humiliation is over.

Many of you know what I am talking about: the agony caused by having to look for a job in what is clinically referred to as an “employers’ job market;” meaning, there are fewer jobs than there are poor slobs like me to fill them, resulting in what I clinically refer to as “applicant abuse.”

There are the usual degradations of job hunting at the age of 52: being the only one in the interview queue being courted by mail from AARP or assuring “personnel supervisors” only a few years older than my son that technology does not “scare” me. And, of course, there are the round-about ways of asking questions that are illegal to ask; surreptitious ways of asking if I am ill or, if the interviewer is truly biologically clueless, pregnant.

One application came right out and asked the date of my “last period.” I answered, “I use periods constantly in my writing, so I guess the answer would be ‘today.'” I was never called back.

To my credit, it was the only time I resorted to sarcasm during the entire year and a half of job hunting – though it took all my strength to hold my tongue sometimes.

Interviewer: So, if your husband’s soil business picks back up, will you quit to help him, or continue to work at this crappy minimum wage job requiring back breaking labor and being treated with contempt and distrust?

Me: Oh, I plan to stay here forever and work tirelessly to convince the American public that we truly are rolling back prices with no sacrifice to social conscience or environmental concerns. Can I wear that smiley-face sticker home?

Okay, I never really applied to that place – not only because I hold it in contempt, but also because I would actually lose money working there. In fact, that was the case with most of the easier jobs to get, thanks to gas prices. I say this because I know there are those among my acquaintances for whom hearing me utter the words, “Would you like fries with that,” would make their day.

True applicant abuse, though, are the countless applications I sent to phantom e-mail addresses, never to receive a confirmation of receipt or a response informing me a position had been filled; it’s not calling to cancel an interview when a position has been filled, requiring me to drive an hour and a half to be told “never mind;” it’s putting out all the effort required to fill out a civil service application only to find they had filled the position from within long ago and only posted it publicly because of legal requirements.

I boldly point these things out now that I have a job – with an employer who engaged in none of that nonsense. Our interview was straightforward and honest. He told me my salary and admitted it wasn’t enough. I warned him about what he would find when he had my credit investigated and confessed I was from New Jersey.

I walked out of the interview with a job. I don’t think the New Jersey thing was much of a surprise.

My employer runs a group of farms that raise fresh food to augment the canned and prepared foods offered by food pantries. One of the farms is on his own land, the bulk of which he has turned over to fields of vegetables to feed the hungry.

My job is to recruit and organize the volunteers that make the harvest possible, a task that required me to take a giant step out of my comfort zone, pick up a phone and actually talk to people. . . on the phone. . . in person. At one point I had to talk on the radio in person, which cost me a week of sleep and, almost, a marriage (had I been married to anyone other than Dirtman, who views my insecurities as “cute” rather than the raging self-centered, self-absorbing vanity that they really are).

But here is the even more-amazing part that occurred to me only after I’d been working at the farm for a few weeks: My boss started this foundation at the beginning of the housing boom – meaning he could have sold his land for millions and retired to Florida. Instead, the only remuneration he receives is a tax break and a handful of staff that stopped counting their hours long ago.

Oh – and there’s that alleviating hunger thing. We try not to be too heavy-handed about pointing that part out, though. It makes people uncomfortable.

I’m new there, though, and I still can’t help swaggering about it. Mostly because I’m working for the polar opposite of everything that smiley-face represents.