Breaking Point

The chirp of a dying smoke detector.

That was my emotional breaking point.

Not the day I thought I had thoroughly screwed up a local staff employee’s job out of Embassy Kabul. Not the day I sat with a young woman as she told me she thought she was pregnant while the father of her baby was back in Afghanistan and had not been heard from in weeks. Not when we faced the possibility of measles or drug resistant tuberculosis within our guest population. And not when I sat with guests as they told their stories of escape and survival to a variety of press outlets.

None of these secondary traumas on a military base broke me the way a dying smoke detector in Pentagon City did.

After ninety days at Fort McCoy, working long, stressful hours, carrying the weight of 13,000 refugees and their stories, I arrived back in my DC-area apartment, tired to the bone and harboring the tell-tale signs of a head cold. Wanting nothing more than to eat the chicken and macaroni lovingly put in my fridge by a friend earlier in the day, I walked into my home, dropped by two oversized duffle bags and prepared to flop down on the new couch that had been delivered in my absence. I am not sure my rear had even hit the couch cushion before the undeniable chirp of the alarm squealed in my ear.  

As I looked around the apartment, searching for the source of the godforsaken chirp, my eyes landed on the flat plastic disk sitting flush with the ceiling of my living room. Normally, my super high ceilings are a bonus to my small apartment, but when it comes to needing to do maintenance, they quickly become an issue. Tired and wanting nothing more than cheesy carbs (after all, my body was accustomed to fried cheese curds on a regular basis), I dug through the entryway closet to get my stepladder, teetered on the top step and attempted to pull the detector off the ceiling.


And again.

With no luck.

It would rotate slightly, but with no leverage and balancing on a wobbly ladder in socks, progress eluded me. Worried that breaking it would set off the alarm to the entire building, I hopped down and called the front desk, not wanting to be the reason eighteen floors of people had to evacuate their homes on a cold Saturday evening.

Of course, on a weekend night, there are no maintenance folks on the premise. The lovely concierge promised me that whatever I did would not set off the alarms for the entire building and offhandedly mentioned that whatever I broke could be fixed on Monday.

I took this as the green light to do whatever I needed to do to get the chirping to stop.

Whatever I needed to do.

Back up the stepladder I went, this time with a screwdriver and a hammer in hand. Leveraging the disk off the ceiling a few centimeters, I was able to slide my fingers under it and pull hard enough to get it to come off, only to discovered it was connected by a bunch of red and black wires. Remembering the less than subtle message from the front desk, I used my screwdriver to loosen all the wires and with a bit of a yank, the entire apparatus fell off the ceiling and into my hands. (The hammer turned out to be unneeded, but you never know…)

Standing there, finally in silence, my eyes darting between the plastic pieces in my hand and the wires dangling from my ceiling, I couldn’t help but feel a comradery with the smoke detector. It was just doing its job (and to be fair, doing it well) and I broke it. I didn’t want to tear it off the ceiling- I would have gladly run to CVS for a battery if that would have done the trick, but in a moment of crisis, we each did the best we could.

On Monday, the very kind maintenance man came to my apartment and asked no questions about the many plastic pieces on my kitchen counter. He just competently reconnected the wires and reinstalled the disk on the ceiling, leaving with a wave and a smile as I was in my den on a work call.

While the smoke detector was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, it was also a metaphor for my time in Wisconsin. (What English teacher wouldn’t love both an overused idiom AND a metaphor only relatable to about a dozen readers in a single essay?) But, in many ways, that was Fort McCoy for me. I gave everything to that mission for ninety days, came home a little broken, needing a battery recharge, but fixable.

Petal Power: Meet Petunia

I was a late bloomer.

Bikes. Talking bikes here.

I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was in the 4th or 5th grade, as we lived in the country on a road with no shoulder that was well-traveled by barreling sugar beet trucks and lumbering tractors. The nearby canal bank made for great adventures, but as a haven for goat-heads, it was best left to well-covered foot-traffic. (Those rainbow thongs- yes this was pre-“flip flop” era- that were all the rage in the 80s were not good protection from the spiky edges of nature’s version of stepping on LEGO. Except nature is crueler. You don’t have to pluck LEGO out of your own flesh.)

Once we did get bikes, we rode them endlessly in the neighborhood behind our place, flying down asphalt hills and hoping our brakes would at least attempt their jobs, giving boosts to friends when their bikes were sidelined by flats, and pedaling our hearts out to escape the barking dogs that roamed freely.

Since the endless days of childhood summer, I’ve ridden bikes off and on, but never owned my own again. I’ve had a few bike experiences, but always on borrowed wheels.

The last time I was in Lima, I took a bike tour of the city, which was great until I crashed (who waxes sidewalks?!), bruising both my back and my pride and obliterating the banana I had in my backpack for a snack later.

2020 and the pandemic lockdown introduced me to DC’s Capital Bike Share, which I used all of last summer to transport myself into the eerily empty National Mall, but I got tired of trying to figure out when/where bikes were available at the various racks and carrying my own Lysol wipes to avoid COVID cooties.

So, time for an investment.

I looked online at more bikes than you can count. But, every time I found one I was interested in, it was “out of stock.” Between the desire for alternate forms of transportation and bunged up global supply chains, bikes were not easy to come by. And they certainly don’t give bikes away! Before I started looking, I was thinking $100 bike from my ShopKo days would do the trick.

Ha! How little I knew. (And how old I am!)

I quickly realized that if I wanted something a bit nicer than the ones put together by 16 year olds in the back of the department store, I was going to have to raise my budget. (Having been an 16 year old working in a department store, I am well aware of the backroom shenanigans, and while fun as a participant, I’d rather not trust my commute to those yahoos.)

After looking online several times and then getting annoyed at the options, the prices, the overall hassle, I had mentally walked away and given myself over to another summer of rolling on the red shared bikes in DC. Until, the spouse of a friend and former middle school teaching colleague posted a BEAUTIFUL bike she recently got and I was back in the game!

It wasn’t going to be cheap, but since I don’t have a car/insurance payment, I decided to chalk it up to transportation needs and make her mine.

After much consideration (okay, mostly whining to friends on Facebook and WhatsApp), I finally took the leap and headed over to Spokes Bikes in Ballston. Almost decided, but not quite ready to tap the card, I watched the exact same bike wheel out the door while I waffled. It’s a lot of money and I was feeling like I needed to be all in our all out. The pressure was on. Until, the lovely salesman (who instantly knew the author of the quote tattooed on my forearm, so bonus points) said I could put a minimal hold fee down and have two weeks to consider it. This is exactly what I needed to ease my mind. I knew my pretty bike wasn’t going to go out the door (she was the last one!) but I could also go home and sleep on it a few more days. Needless to say, as I walked home that afternoon, the sale was already made. The shop impressed me with their customer service and openness to a new bike owner- there was no elitist aura like I had felt at other shops.

When was the last time I owned a bike? Maybe middle school! Definitely before high school when I was given the keys to the glorious Bedrock that would be the wheels for all three McDaniel kids. But, I was probably as thrilled with rolling my bike out of the shop at 40-something as I was with getting handed the keys to high school freedom at 16!

So, I’d like to introduce you to Petunia, my blush pink Specialized Roll Sport bike. As she is quite photogenic, I plan to bring you pictures of her summer adventures as we wander the metro DC area together. Join me here for regular “Petal Power” posts and she and I putter our way around town.

(Also, feel free to share your biking advice for this newbie! I only have about a quarter of an idea about what I’m doing when I’m out there “petal-ing” around.)

Introducing Petunia and the new Petal Power tag!

Caracas Quarantinis, Long Walks (not on the beach), and Some HotJamz

Up until now, I’ve avoided booking myself a ticket on the COVID-writing bandwagon. The internet is already full of homeschooling (gone wrong- will 2020 be the year teachers finally get the raises they deserve?) stories and baking tutorials that I could never hope to live up to (I realized yesterday I didn’t even own ketchup- I apparently have the kitchen skills of a sad 13 year old) and first-person essays about how we all need to learn a new skill and come out of isolation as better people.(Who needs new hobbies? I prefer Friday night Quarantini Zoom calls with my former Caracas-crew where I get pro tips about convict workout videos available on Amazon. Spoiler alert- they are heavy on the pushups and you have to supply your own teardrop face tattoos.) (Additional important information- I just looked these up and they are FREE with an AmazonPrime account. This changes everything…) But as it looks like it will be longer and longer before I book a ticket anywhere else, maybe it is time to join the masses with a post for all seven of my loyal blog-readers. (We’ll not talk about the tickets to Taipei and Kuala Lumpur and Accra and Ho Chi Minh City that had I to cancel this spring. That discussion would go in a direction that we’ll deem “mentally unhealthy” and bury away for another day.)

Travel used to look like packed REI duffle bags (purple and monogrammed, of course!) and international tickets (see above parenthetical about voided trips) and a Jansport (pink with lots of pockets) full of books. Then just getting to Main State became a bit of a daily adventure with a llama-covered lunch bag (pb&j, cheese stick, and Cheez-Its), trains running on reduced schedules, and a Jansport (gray polka dot with just two pockets) loaded with my to-do list and planner. Now that I am fully ensconced in the “work from home” life, travel looks like a phone tucked into the waistband of yoga pants, a pair of Nikes, and Shell’s HotJamz on Spotify.

Oh, how the world has changed in four short (long?) months of one Blursday after another. As much as it pains me to admit it, on more than one morning as I brushed my teeth- the one necessary hygiene undertaking that MUST be completed before logging into work- I have had to ask Alexa what day of the week it was before she played my morning NPR updates. Hair brushing and face moisturizing happen on a mid-morning break and a swipe of mascara and pinch of blush only brighten my face if I’ve got a Teams call on the docket. (Side note: Always give your colleagues a 15-minute heads up if you are going to video call. It’s only humane. I can do a quick “tra-la-la-la-la” when my phone rings at 10AM and I realized I haven’t spoken out loud yet and don’t want to sound like a crazy old man grumbling into the line, and then answer as if I’ve been holding high level conversations all morning, but when that video call unexpectedly pops up on my screen, I cannot run to the bathroom, bust out the Caboodle and throw together enough face to not look on the brink of death in the time it takes before you hang up. 15 minutes. It should be a rule as sacred as the 5-second rule for food on the floor.)

The stir-crazy hit hard today. I don’t know if it was the gorgeous sunshine coming in through my sliding glass door or Diet Cherry Pepsi I have been mainlining or the really productive video call (I know, right?!) at the end of the day, but when 3 o’clock rolled around, I needed out of the “office.” (The office right now has two main spaces- a gorgeous desk that I am going to claim I built, which is “kinda’” true, but was mostly a matter of some basic hex key turning, pulled together with a flamingo-printed swivel chair and sitting on a high pile carpet on my living room floor, folded between the couch and the ottoman like a deformed pretzel. I vacillate between the two spaces, mostly dependent on where the current kinks in my back lie, but also occasionally by where my laptop is plugged in and how close to dying without a charge it is.)

Regardless of why, I had ants in my pants.

So, I changed out of my day sweats (differentiated from my pajamas only by the fact that they are what came out of the dryer first this morning) and into yoga pants, tied up my green and pink sneakers (I’m kinda’ dying for a new pair of brightly colored kicks..maybe a post-isolation treat) and headed out the door to stretch my legs for a bit. Opting for music over an audiobook (I needed something that required less brain power), I chose the aptly named “Shell’s HotJamz” station on Spotify and headed out. I must say, the curator of that playlist deserves a raise. She deftly maneuvered from Bon Jovi and Madonna to  Nirvana and Cake with a fun swerve into Nick Jonas and Maroon 5. And, not to be left out of the menagerie of genres, an occasional Clay Walker or Reba McIntyre made a showing in the rotation as well.

I was that crazy person this afternoon that you switch sides of the road to avoid. (Luckily, any sidewalk changing can be chalked up to social distancing and is now not only appropriate, but encouraged!) Walking through the gorgeous neighborhoods of highly manicured yards in Aurora Hills, I air-drummed along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication”, fist-pumped to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and finger-wagged at TLC’s “Scrubs” with the best of them. Luckily, the only real witnesses to this momentary madness were the beautiful red cardinals flitting between sculpted shrubs and the bushy-tailed fox that meandered up the road, as if social distancing were his cue to retake the Washington D.C. suburbs.

Do I know that these long walks, meandering through neighborhoods that I will never be able to afford are good for me? (Ironic, right?) Of course. Do I make it out each day to get lost trying to find a route to the Air Force Memorial without getting run over on a freeway? Nope. I always have good intentions, and yet some days it is easier to log off work and curl up on the couch with a new book or the latest episode of a reality TV show. The hard truth of it is that some days I am going to “HotJamz” it around the District and others I’m going to “warmcuddlz” under a heat blanket on my sofa. As long as I’ve not broken down and started doing “Convict Conditioning” in my workplace (because, you know, my living room would have to do triple duty for relaxing, working AND gyming), I’m chalking it up as another successful Blursday.



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