The Secret Life of Melanie O.
Friday, December 29, 2006
The holiday
When I was a teen, we celebrated the Christmas school break in the cold and snow. This meant that, as a kid, you had to pick a winter sport in order to keep from getting cabin fever throughout the long winter months. Christmas was usually the time your parents bought you the equipment you needed for your winter sport. For many kids I knew growing up, this meant ski equipment. In my house, it meant ice skating equipment.

I went through two pairs of ice skates in my teens, and got to be a fairly decent ice skater, thanks to lessons and plenty of skating venues like the Syracuse Coliseum and the local frozen lakes and ponds. I didn't become proficient, however, without plenty of falls, and my knees bore the brunt of most of these falls. I hurt my tailbone once or twice, and it was enough to convince me that I didn't like that at all. I wound up with heavily bruised knees over the winter months.

Now that I am living "Down Under," winter sports no longer play a part in my Christmas holiday. Instead, it's summer, and, not being a beach kind of person, we tend to head for the Blue Mountains. True to form, Dan and I headed up to Lithgow and Jenolan Caves for a couple of days of fun and relaxation.

The Blue Mountains area of New South Wales is absolutely gorgeous, even though right now, it's severely affected by the drought we've had for the past five years. Once you're up there, you can understand why farmers are loathe to sell up and move out. It's God's Own Country.

Dan and I drove around with Christmas music blaring from the car's CD player, and took in the rustic splendour of the place. It was just stunning.

We were on a mission, however, to explore another of Jenolan's majestic caves. After our last visit, we became determined to come back. And we are so glad that we did!

The first cave we saw was Lucas Cave. Lucas Cave gives visitors a good overview of what to expect in a limestone cavern, with its stalactites and stalagmites, craters, pools, and underground river. We were treated to a recorded concert of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in the underground theatre. It was awe-inspiring and the acoustics were great!

My camera was working overtime as I tried to capture the beauty of the sites around me. The tour lasted about an hour and a half, but I could have easily spent another hour or more in the cave.

We took a short break for tea and cake, which seemed to be the civilised thing to do, and then headed off to the Nettle Cave, a twilight cave, so-called because several openings let in the daylight. Strange life forms called stromatolites grow on the outer cave walls. There was only one minor problem with the Nettle cave, as far as I was concerned. It was the stairway. One very high stairway up into the cave, and one very long stairway down from the cave. Those years of falling on my knees as an ice skater came back to haunt me in a big way.

Everyone has that moment when they realise that they aren't going to live forever. I've had several of those moments, but yesterday's moment came in a rush of clarity. On descending the stairs after our exploration, someone or something was pushing a knife blade in between my knee caps and the bones underneath. At least, this is what it felt like.

Dan noticed my obvious discomfort and I explained what was happening. "I'm too young for this!" I wailed. Especially too young, because I love exploring caves and we hope to do the Off the Track tour, which requires some rappelling and other feats of athletic dexterity. I am irritated that my knees are not cooperating with climbing and descent. Dan's offered to carry me and I raise my eyebrows. Dan is very sweet, but I don't trust him to carry me down that steep flight of open metal stairs.

I wonder if I can ask for new knees for Christmas to support my new Christmastime sport. I can just imagine me, next time we go see the caves. I'll be the one wearing knee braces and a grimace.

I can't wait to go back.

- Click on photos to enlarge. All photos by Melanie O.
posted by Melanie O. at 3:19 PM - 3 comments
Monday, December 25, 2006
Santa's Helpers

posted by Melanie O. at 11:20 PM - 1 comments
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Christmas memories
I confess that I am still a big kid at heart when it comes to Christmas. I'll forever be grateful to my parents who, unlike some modern parents, didn't feel that there was anything wrong with creating a sense of magic around the holidays. I believed in Santa until I was nine years old and every Christmas during those years, was equally magical.

The first real Christmas that I remember, I was four years old. I got a plush lamb toy with an internal music box that played Brahm's Lullaby. I slept with that little lamb every night until one day it disappeared. I couldn't figure out where it had gone to, until one Sunday, I spied it in the toy bin at our church's nursery. Hmmmm. I suspected my mother of doing some precipitous house-cleaning. I wound up rescuing it and took it back, even though I had graduated from the nursery to the older kids' Sunday School class.

During those early years, we woke up at 5 am, no longer able to sleep. When I was five, my sister and I got a wooden doll bed and a doll to play with. I was so excited because it was just like the wooden doll bed that they had at the preschool! At our house, Santa brought the tree and everything. One night we went to bed - the next day, the tree was there, all decorated, with presents under it! We had the old-fashioned large candelabra-style light globes and my father uttered many a curse word as he tried to untangle them and find out which bulbs were burned out. Having the tree appear overnight was completely amazing to a five year old. Even as an adult, I marvel that my parents went to so much trouble to do this.

A couple of years later, tiring of doing it all in one night, my parents decided we would pick out a tree together as a family. Like the Griswolds, we made our way to a Christmas tree farm, where my father sawed his way through the trunk of the tree that we picked out. All of us stood there in the bitter cold, our feet numb. Frozen tree trunks are not easy to saw through. My father worked up a sweat sawing that tree down. My mother made sure the tree was full enough for our decorations. The tree sat in a bucket of water until one week before Christmas. Everyone waited to put their trees up. It was unheard of to see a tree up in early December back in those days. The "saw-it-yourself" thing didn't last through many Christmases.

Santa always seemed to bring us just what we wanted. I wasn't fooled by department store Santas, however. One year, we went to Sears to have one of those Santa pictures taken. I think I was five. I won't forget it, because Santa's breath was awful and I didn't want to look at him and speak to him. I knew he couldn't be the real Santa. My mother still has that portrait around, I'm sure - and there I am, with a sour look on my face. It was the bad breath. The real Santa could never have bad breath.

By the age of nine, I started to question the whole Santa thing, but still enjoyed opening the Advent calendar that my grandmother always sent, and setting up the little nativity set that my mother had. My sister and I would practise singing Christmas carols as we did the dishes, and later put on a little "concert" for my parents on Christmas Eve. I would have given anything for my sons to have done that for me. That gene obviously didn't get passed on.

Quite by accident, I found out who Santa really was. It was Christmas Eve and the neighbours had purchased charm bracelets for my sister and me, which they brought over after we were in bed. My sister and I eavesdropped on my parents and their company, during which we discovered what "Santa" was bringing us that year.

After that, Christmas was never as magical. Testing out our new theory, the next year, my sister and I snooped and discovered our parents' hiding place for gifts - in the rooftop crawlspace of the house. Talk about an anticlimactic Christmas! Lesson learned - we never snooped again. I did find out that I was getting the Tumbelina doll that I wanted, though.

As we got older, the tinsel didn't seem to glisten as brightly and the excitement died down. We got miniature twinkle lights for the tree and the old set was permanently retired. We slept in and didn't get up to open gifts until after the sun was up. One year, we nearly didn't have a tree. It was Christmas Eve and I begged my father for a tree. He and I went down to the local grocery store to see what was out on the sidewalk. We found a half-dead tree, spray-painted pink, and took it home. It had a huge bare spot, but we turned that to the wall. We had a tree by the skin of our teeth that year.

Things changed a little after that. Dad joined the Lions Club and sold trees in their charity tree lot, so we had a decent tree for a couple of years after that. Christmas changes as you get older. My sister and I always hated getting clothes for gifts - why would anyone give a kid clothes for Christmas? Of course, when we hit our late teens, clothes, makeup and records were all that we wanted.

Now that I'm officially middle-aged and my kids are grown, I have a hard time finding the "magic" in Christmas any more - except perhaps for today. Today, Dan was dressed in his Christmas Outfit: a red t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Santa, green and white board shorts, and red flip-flops. A Santa hat finished the ensemble, or as he explained to me, he was dressing in layers: "first a red layer, then a green one, and then another red one. It wouldn't be right with green thongs." He had this totally planned out.

We popped into a homewares store (much like the Sears of my childhood) where Dan received several comments about his Christmas attire. There was a store Santa who offered to sit with us to have our photo taken. We declined, as I explained that "I already have my personal Santa."

I almost believe again.
posted by Melanie O. at 8:28 PM - 2 comments
Monday, December 18, 2006
The dangers of greeting card shopping
Christmas time often means lots of extra shopping trips for me. I enjoy the trappings of the season, and often find myself running to the shopping centre for extra bits and pieces at this time of year. On a recent occasion, I went to get Christmas greeting cards, and was sidetracked by noting that a DVD was on sale for $40.

Since our little DVD player recently died, I decided to give this little $40 player a go. Even if it only lasts for six months, you really can't complain at that price. So, I not only brought greeting cards and stickers home with me, I also presented Dan with a DVD player.

Dan was so impressed, he ran down to the shopping centre and bought a "back-up" player. When he returned, we hooked up the first DVD and settled in to watch Scrooged.

It played for about 15 minutes and then the player froze up. We thought maybe the DVD had fingerprints on it. Nope. The disc was spotless. We managed to get through the DVD, disjointedly, and decided to try another disc. Surely, there was something wrong with that first disc.

Nope. Every other disc that we tried in succession, also froze after about 15 minutes of play.

"Well, that's got to go back to the store," I glumly proclaimed.

We got out the backup DVD player. That one, too, froze after only 15 minutes of play.

So, they both went back to the store, where we got our money back for one player, and got an exchange on the other one.

The third DVD player fared no better than the other two. So, that one went back.

The clerk at the shop remarked: "We haven't had any other returns. I don't understand why they aren't working for you."

Dan remarked, "they've probably been bought as Christmas gifts. Just wait until the week after Christmas." I feel good that he gave the clerk a "heads up" like that.

Fed up with cheap DVD's, we decided to go to our local appliance store and buy a decent known brand DVD player. We got an LG - on sale! We were excited to think we would finally be able to watch our DVDs at home. Dan asked the salesperson: "Are you sure it plays all regions? It doesn't say on the box."

We were assured that it did, and took home the new DVD player. Dan hooked it up and we grabbed a movie to make sure that it played all the way through. It did!

Then Dan got out one of his Luxury Train Journey DVDs, region 1. The screen was black. Not even sound with no picture. Just... nothing.

So, once again, for the third time in a week, we took the DVD player back to the store. I was beginning to think that the Universe didn't want us to watch any holiday films this year.

Thankfully, the salesperson knew how to reset factory settings and adjusted the DVD for all zones. It's something we would have never figured out on our own.

Open the tray. Leave empty.
Push 0 three times.
Change zone to 0.
Hit the pause button.
Touch your right cheek with your left elbow and turn around three times, clockwise.

Voila! It works! I'm not doing any more greeting card shopping for a long time.

To celebrate, we went out to see Casino Royale - at our local cinema.
posted by Melanie O. at 8:45 AM - 3 comments
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Holiday Newsletter
"Dear Friends and Family,

In order to avoid writing 40 personalised messages in your Christmas cards this year, I am resorting to the time-honored tradition of composing the Holiday Newsletter.

D. is doing well at his job. His company is thinking of buying him a new truck. Of course, they have said this for the past two years, but good things come to those who wait. In the meantime, we manage his back pain with massages, hot baths, and lots of Advil. I tried Reiki on him once, but it almost caught the sheets on fire.

I celebrated a year with my company in November. Of course, I was celebrating by myself, as everyone seemed to have forgotten to mention this in the usual monthly announcements. I have managed, however, to finagle my way into working from home once we move back to the old house.

We have a fake tree this year. Since we're moving, there are boxes everywhere. Oh - and I decorated our weeping fig tree, which drooped over like the Charlie Brown Christmas special tree. I keep expecting to hear Vince Guaraldi music every time I walk into our front room.

We went back to the USA for the family reunion. It was the highlight of the year.

My sons seem to be doing OK, with the exception of A. He has probably blown his last opportunity for real help and support. I expect he will enjoy life as a beach bum somewhere. He was hospitalised for almost three weeks, had a bed waiting for him in the local shelter upon his release, and walked away from his social worker, family members, and mental health professionals.

Life is chaotic. Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Happy Yule Near!

P.S. Please write soon."
posted by Melanie O. at 8:10 PM - 4 comments
Friday, December 08, 2006
Bank headache number 47
Banks should come with headache pills. Open an account; get a free month’s supply of Panadol or Bayer aspirin. They should also provide this info in their disclaimers:

When you owe the bank money, we will penalise you if we don’t get it retroactive one month from the date we realise we want your money. If the bank owes you money, however, we reserve the right to credit your account after the birth of our firstborn male child, two days after Easter, or after we’ve received a message from our subconscious while we are sleeping.

Two weeks ago, I went into a branch office of my bank and said that I wanted to pay off my credit card and close my account. I owed a grand total of 62 cents on my card, which was easily paid to the teller. I got my receipt, thanked her, and went on my way, thinking that I would check my credit card account online to make sure it was closed.

The next day, the account was still showing in my online banking, but I thought - oh, they must need a couple of days to take it off the system. No worries.

Well, I've gone about my business and a week later, logged into my online banking only to find out that my card has been RENEWED for another year and I've been charged a $24 fee for renewal!

One annoyed phone call to the customer service centre later, I think it's all cleared up. Today I logged into my Internet banking and my account is STILL there showing the charge. This is a bank that charges $8 for just about any service other than depositing a cheque. It cost me over $100 to send a $60 bank cheque to the USA once - $26 of that was fees. I don't make deposits to my USA bank account any more, because they will charge me $33 to go online and do it myself, electronically.

Anyway - back I go to dial customer service. I try not to sound annoyed as I make feeble attempts at being constructive, all the while, gritting my teeth to prevent myself from spitting into the handset. This time, they said it really IS closed and I will get paperwork to that effect.

This is a recurring nightmare. I’ll believe it when I see it.

I need a martini. And a Panadol.
posted by Melanie O. at 11:10 AM - 2 comments
Monday, December 04, 2006
Merry Anniversary
Dan and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary yesterday. It was a low key celebration marked by lunch at a beachside restaurant, Long Island Iced Tea, and a decadent chocolate dessert. For us, anyway, our wedding anniversary seems to be inextricably intertwined with gourmet meals.

One year it was oysters on the half shell, with various sauces as accompaniment.

Another year, it was roast lamb so tender, it fell off the bone.

This year, it was a seafood platter that made my mouth water before it ever came out of the kitchen.

Other than a good meal, we aren’t really big into gifts. For one thing, we buy whatever we want or need throughout the year, rather than “saving” up for the birthday, or Christmas, or the anniversary. Gifts for “special occasions” therefore are more of an obligation and not terribly inspired. This doesn’t mean that we don’t like them, or that we don’t get them, but we always feel that it’s better to get what you want when you need or want it instead of making someone wait for a “special day.” Every day should be a special day. But that’s just us.

After lunch, we wandered down to the local nursery, with the objective of buying a live, potted Christmas tree. We don’t see any sense in cutting down a live tree. How much better to have a living tree that stays in the house and gets decorated according to the season year after year?

Sadly, the nursery doesn’t see it like we do, and all they had on offer were tiny little Norway spruces that would fall over and droop with the first bauble. Larger topiaries were $250! When I recovered from the shock, I suggested we decorate our little fig tree and buy some poinsettias to stick around the base. So that’s what we did. And the little fig is beautiful – a kind of evergreen for the Southern Hemisphere.

At the end of the day, we sat back and enjoyed the glowing lights and greenery. It’s great having an anniversary so close to Christmas. It feels like the whole world is celebrating with us.
posted by Melanie O. at 3:57 PM - 1 comments
Friday, December 01, 2006
Christmas wrapping, Part II
Today was the day of our departmental Christmas party. We all met on the street outside of our building at 8:30 am to catch the Greyhound bus that we had chartered for the day. The sky was a bit overcast, and we wondered if it was going to rain on our festivities.

As we made our way to Bicentennial Park, the sun came out. At first, this seemed like a really great thing - until we got out of our air conditioned bus and discovered that it was going to be a hot day. We had planned several games and activities for our disability clients - everything from cricket, to volleyball, to soccer and tug-of-war. The athletic field was in the full sun, and by the time our guests arrived, we could feel that it was going to be a sweaty day.

The clients didn't seem to mind the 37 degree Celsius heat and 80% humidity as much as the hosts did. They played games with enthusiasm, even if sometimes the enthusiasm was also accompanied by ill humor and language.

Most of our disabled clients are quite large, and a kick towards the soccer net was often accompanied by having to chase the ball half way across the athletic field. I played goalkeeper for a while, until Paul, a man with Down syndrome, decided that he wanted to be the goalie. He did a splendid job, too. I think he was just tired of me allowing the opposing team to get points.

The women were wonderful. I could tell that since they all shared the same group home environment, that they were a close-knit bunch. I felt quite emotional when Kaye, a disabled woman, got an ice pack for her friend Margaret, who was feeling overheated. Kaye, the lesser disabled of the two, looked after her friend like a big sister.

Karren looked across the field, saw all of the game set-ups, and opened her little Chinese parasol against the sun and heat. "Anyone for cricket?" she asked in a proper posh accent. "All we need now are some cucumber sandwiches and tea," she remarked.

Charlie, an older man, was wearing a Santa hat. Charlie obviously loves sweets, as his round belly attests. "I'm Santa," he declared to me as he grabbed and shook his belly.
"Where's your sack of toys?" I asked him.
"In the sleigh," he matter-of-factly answered.
"What about your reindeer?" another host asked him.
"They're in the snow," he said. No one was going to trip him up on any questions today.

We had some severely disabled clients at the park today with cerebral palsy and severe muscle atrophy. Some couldn't hold their heads up properly, but one in particular was adamant that he wanted to sit in the sun. Even in the heat. I worried about him, but he seemed to soak up the rays and didn't break a sweat. I had a feeling that he didn't get out into the sun too often.

Another Paul wore a tattered sports jacket and a dirty button up shirt and tie. He volunteered for rubbish duty. He was gentlemanly and I thought that perhaps there was some part of him that very much wanted a wife and family when he was younger. Paul's now an old man. He will never get his wish, but he will never stop trying to impress the ladies.

I grew attached to Rosie and Kaye. They were the definitive "sweet old ladies." Both women were about age 60. They smiled and loved following us around, carrying on friendly conversations. It's only after spending time in their company that you realise that they operate on a very elementary level. But since they seem so happy and placid, maybe they have it all figured out, and we should all operate on that level.

Throughout the day, I couldn't help but think of my son Andy, who is also handicapped. Not all handicaps are visible to the naked eye. I'd like to think that Andy would love a group environment like this one - but, no. Andy's a loner who hates rules. Andy's in the hospital now, getting treatment that I hope will do more than just patch him up before he's sent back on the streets again. I fret more about Andy than I do about our clients, who are well looked after.

The day, whilst hot, was fulfilling for all of us. Eventually, it was time to say our goodbyes and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Norm, another disability client, wished me a Drunken Christmas. "Have about 25 Midori Splices," he advised. "There's two alcohols in them," he said.

After cleanup, on the bus back, we hosts exchanged Secret Santa gifts. I opened mine, not knowing what to expect. In the bag was a pink bracelet (to go with all of my girly pink clothes and handbags, no doubt,) and a piece of cut up garland! I couldn't help but laugh, remembering the day we all wrapped gifts in the Board room.

The garland's going on my tree, and the day is locked in a gold frame somewhere in my mind, where I hope to bring it out from time to time to remind me about how precious and precarious life really is.
posted by Melanie O. at 7:24 PM - 1 comments

About Me
Name: Melanie O.
Home: Durham, North Carolina, United States
About Me: Female, American health and beauty-conscious professional who has rekindled a childhood love of dolls.
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