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orbeez

The mailman hands Gri a small, oblong package marked with foreign stamps and caligraphy. He brings it in and shows me, “It’s from China,” he explains. “Do you know what it is?” I ask. “Not a clue. Do you?” “Nope..” This is a common exchange in our household, where parcels and packages of all caliber arrive almost daily. He starts tearing impatiently through the tape, “Shall we find out?” Not waiting for an answer he pulls a piece of triangular, folded cardboard out of the shipping bag. It’s orange with Russian lettering: Sanaga, where the tools are just that good. China? With Russian packaging? Upon closer examination, we see that it’s from a Sanaga branch in Vladivostok, which kind of makes more sense, geographically. But then we also notice that its headquarters are in Tel Aviv. Sincerely stumped at the possible content, we pry the box open and…seven brightly colored pea-sized squishy gelatinous balls make their appearance. “Of course!” Gri exclaims, “These are the self-growing jelly balls I ordered for Verusha a couple of weeks ago!” Naturally.

With globalization and commercialization in full swing, the age of the internet brings the fulfillment of all of our material wants within a finger’s reach, and right to our very doorstep. Some deliveries take two days, many take several weeks and, if buying artisan objects from around the world through Etsy, even months. So, it’s no wonder that sometimes we lose track. We can allow ourselves a break from the relentless tracking and keeping track, but we cannot lag too behind in the handling of the relentless flow of boxes crowding us in our own hearth and home. Cats sleep in them, children play in them, we trip over them and shuffle them to one side, and ultimately we Cut, Collapse, Stage in the recycling area and Haul outside every Thursday. Our home is a veritable post dispatch.

If we fall behind, the boxes threaten to pack us in and ship us to Thailand. So, Cut, Collapse, Stage and Haul we must.

Stranger things have come to us than colorful, translucent gellatinous self-growing orbs. We start thinking back: 36 miniature glass birds, rooibos tea from South Africa (the only place in the world where it is grown), Russian stamps, marinated fennel with orange rind, Timothy hay for guinea pigs, seashells, old brass instruments in moldy cases, Malachite from the Congo, a 19th century watercolor, small plastic mushrooms (a bag of 47), green cheetah ripstick wheels, black seamless scull face tube mask, 4,000 Orbeez, wedding bands (2), Eastwing E24A sportsman hatchet and a 16″ Rinco boomerang. If Peter the Great decided to assemble a Künst Kamera in the 21st century, our home would be a great place to start. Granted, many of the objects that come in eventually find their way out – as gifts to friends, purchases for those who do not have credit cards, and objects stealthily dumped into the trash in the deep of night.

Cheaper objects get stacked by the mailman wherever they fit, and especially around Christmas time they cover half of our door and create fire hazards. More expensive articles require signatures, trips to the post office, urine samples and retinal scans. The most expensive object we’ve ever received by mail was a custom-made sound system purchased for a Russian heart surgeon that topped 10K. Anyone other than a devout musicophile wouldn’t even know what to do with the thing, but we were still on edge when it arrived in a small, nondescript box requiring no receipt confirmation of any kind. Another time a weeping willow came in the mail, soil pack and all. Flowers from secret admirers, hate letters delivered to the wrong address…And of course the time Gri and I both ordered the same, identical game (Carcassonne) without telling each other about it, and both came the same day and we both thought Amazon made a mistake by sending us double.

As we reminisce, we notice the delivery man drop another box outside. Gri goes to open it, and, slightly confused, comes back to me. “Did you order these?” This time it’s nothing so exotic. Just your usual gray baseball pants, youth medium size. “I’m working to expand my style.” I grin back. “The cleats should come in tomorrow…”

Camping...

Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

Dream

The last few days I was on a very random sleeping schedule as a result of working many night hours. And so today, when I collapsed into bed at 9:30 in the morning, my over-stimulated, sleep deprived brain birthed the following dream…

I wake up and sleepily roll out of bed. It is about 11am, I am fumbling around in my room, only pj pants and a thread-bare wife-beater on, when in burst Gri. He is excited and proud, and he holds by the shoulders in front of him a man of average height, light-skinned and sandy-stubbled, with a trilby hat covering his pale hazel eyes. “Look at her! Isn’t she lovely!” he exclaims gleefully. The man looks at me calmly, smiling with his eyes. “I don’t even have a bra on!” I murmur embarrassedly to Grisha and shove past them into the bathroom, trying to cover the outlines clearly showing underneath the tank.

When I come out, dressed and slightly irritated at my partner’s lack of tact, he is happily peering into a pot of something gurgling on the stove while his friend wanders aimlessly through the house, picking up objects, touching things, sniffing. I am shocked to notice that Grisha is not wearing any pants. No pants whatsoever. I rush up to him and in a hushed voice hiss, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?! Why did you take your pants off??!!”

“Oh, it’s a tradition of ours,” he replies, “When he comes over we always walk around without our pants. It’s freer that way!”

“But what about his wife?! She’s gonna come any minute now, and this is totally unacceptable!” I am incredulous. This is so absurd. I literally take and shove him into the bathroom, telling him that I’m not letting him out until he gets decent. As I’m guarding the door, I hear noise in my bedroom. Coming into it, I see the man and a woman, with full, strawberry blond curly hair below her shoulders, standing in the middle. They have moved my bed and rearranged all of my furniture, and at their feet lies a pile of broken picture frames and photographs that were just in them, hanging on my walls. I am speechless and so they explain matter-of-factly, “We thought you should try something different. It’s a better look, don’t you think?”

“These are the guests from hell!!!” I think. I start hyperventilating because I have a special affinity for pictures, a peculiar sort of attachment to them. Mustering my last bit of courtesy, I ask the woman, “Who are you?”

She looks casually at the man, smiles evasively and says, “Oh, I’m a friend…”

Somehow I realize that she just showed herself inside our house, and get the feeling that Grisha, who’s come out of the bathroom, is also quite surprised to see her. She is someone from his past, but not the proper friend’s wife we were expecting, nor the man’s girlfriend. Quite bewildered, we show our guests back to the living room and there, right in the middle of the room, we discover a huge monster truck, standing with mud dripping off its wheels and its hood scratching our ceiling. “I couldn’t find any place to park” the man says unapologetically. Grisha and I telepathically share the understanding that they must have knocked down our whole garage wall to get the thing inside.

I take Gri to the side and, now in full panic mode, tell him that we have to get these people out of here RIGHT NOW, while we still have a roof over our heads. He isn’t willing to do it though, explaining that the man’s an old friend and that it would be rude. “Let’s just let them hang out for a while longer” he suggests as I glance over his shoulder and see that now we have four guests instead of two. The newcomers are both children, of different ages and degrees of haphazard messiness. One takes me by the hand and leads me outside into my little garden. Long hours I spent there nursing my dill, cucumbers, tomatoes and zennias. But now, everything has been dug out and replanted according to height in one long row. The child is delighted with her creation. I feel like this is more than I can take and stumble blindly back into the garage.

And so the day continues. Eventually four more children appear, as if they belong there, and each gets busily to work. One plays in the kitchen, another plants huge globs of oil paint unto my almost-finished painting, suggesting that it looks better this way. Their connections with each other and the two parent figures are not clear. In fact, it’s a pretty even spread from the 30-year old thoughtful, quizzical man, down to a two-year old rambunctious munchkin. Some sit reading (pulling out of the shelves) all of our books, others wash a long-haired mutt who weaves in and out of the picture in our dining room. A couple others want me to play with them, to run around with them and pretend that I am a dragon. And at some point I just give in.

The sinking sun catches glimpses of me chasing two of the smaller kids across puddles in the backyard, hunched over like a monster and growling in exaggeration. Grisha is talking with the man and the woman, bits of dialogue float past me, “So what is it you do, exactly?” “Oh, I sell money.” The woman responds. “I borrow it from Mortar (evidently a special lending company) and sell it for more…” I come up and chime in, “But why are people buying it from you?? Why can’t they just get it from Mortar for cheaper?” She shrugs, “I dunno. Guess they ain’t very smart” she drawls with a southern accent. “Well, it’s probably time we be headin’ back” the man says softly and glances at me from beneath the rim. “Yes. It’s been awful nice…” the woman adds and disappears into the already moving van. Most of the children are sitting there too, and I catch up to it with the last two, who were chasing me in an exciting game of tag. The van pulls away slowly, and I run after it, feeling unusually light.

I realize that something magical happened today, and in my last attempt to make order of things, I yell after them, “Who are you guys? What do you do??” A girl of about ten, with wavy, flowing hair, pulls a little out of the gently moving van and responds softly, “We just visit people, is all….”

Losing speed, I come to a halt and watch as the van turns into a small street I have never noticed. It slows at a house and one of the kids jumps out, waves a goodbye and heads home. Several houses further, it slows again and another kid nimbly crawls out an open window and skips towards his house. The van is too far away now to see clearly, but I somehow intuit that the man and the woman are the last two left. The darkness brings a haze that envelops the van, and it’s gone.

I turn around and start walking home. Unconsciously I pick up speed, and before I know it I am flying across ditches and driveways, running as fast as I can, feeling as if a thousand weights have been lifted. I realize that these mysterious people came to me to rescue me from the multitudes of complexes which oppress me. Overwhelmed by tremendous relief and gratitude, I rushed home to start a new life. I was finally free.

My owner Anya bought me from the pet store over a year ago, when I was still a baby.  She and her two boisterous kids picked me because I was the least expensive hamster.  After the ten minute drive we were home, and I was thankful to discover that they had prepared my new aquarium for me in advance. Everything was thoughtfully accounted for: the warm bedding, the metal wheel, my plastic igloo, water, food pellets. If I was like my siblings back at the pet store, I would have been thrilled to my little tailbone to have Anya as my owner. Unfortunately for me, I was not like the others and when the children and their mother went to bed, I set myself to the arduous task of planning an escape. You see – I wanted to be free.

Time went by and I developed several highly specialized skills to carry out my plan. With my razor-sharp claws I learned to climb the slick glass walls of my confinement. I would labor tirelessly, night after night, trying to climb higher and higher. Anya suspected nothing because her limited visual perception made it seem that I only floundered helplessly against the walls of the cage, unable to make any real progress. My movements were so minute that nobody noticed what was going on.

Later I enhanced my repertoire by learning how to balance on top of the spinning wheel. This was a great accomplishment because I was able to pull myself up without causing the wheel to spin, and then from it I could grab the side of the open aquarium and climb out. In fact, this is how I escaped. Twice! What transpired during those few days of freedom shall go down with me to the grave untold. But eventually I was cornered and the well-meaning albeit deceived owners put me back into my “home”.

Having tasted freedom twice, I was compelled to try to achieve it again. I learned how to climb up my water bottle, grasping the ring of the lid and pulling towards the top of the cage. The problem here was that beyond the rim, the rest of the bottle was completely smooth, with no grips to hold on to. I realized that freedom could be achieved only through patient perseverance, and began carving out hand-holds in the bottle using my claws. When they’d wear from the work I had to rest for several days until they’d grow back out. Given this method, my calculations told me that within another 349 days I would reach the necessary depth of hold to be able to scale the bottle and climb out. I fell into a good rhythm, working on this daily, and by day 238 I felt confident that my plan was going to work.

But then the unthinkable happened.

Anya decided to buy me a new cage. Granted, this new one was a three-story multi-colored kaleidoscope of hamster entertainment. Anya and her children made a big deal about the upgrades and talked at lengths about improving my quality of life, both physical and emotional.

I could have easily settled there and made my home in the warm, cozy fabric strips on the ground level. But again that pesky need for freedom got in the way. And so, the very first evening I did a thorough inspection of my new living quarters and found several weak spots. The most obvious one was the metal bars of the cage itself. Given my rate of chew, I calculated that I would break out of this “home” within four months.  Encouraged by this new development, I began chewing that same night.

I will never forget the expression on Anya’s face as she peered at me while I was gnawing on the green metal. She looked sad, disappointed and slightly disgusted. I could have gotten angry at her for judging me, but I didn’t. You see, she does not know herself well. It is obvious to me that she bought me the new cage not out of the kindness of her heart, but because of the guilt that she felt about keeping me under lock and key in the first place. She also relates to me on a deeper level and feels that my physical imprisonment resembles her spiritual state. Since I understand this and she does not, I shouldn’t hold her disgusted scowl against her.

In fact, when all is said and done, I am quite fond of my owner. I do not take her quirks personally, because she cannot help it. Her narrow-minded thinking is inherent to the human condition.

We got Suzy over a year ago, when she was still a baby. Once she got used to our smells and our hands, she was a genuinely happy, easy-going hamster. When we held her or played with her, she never bit us, didn’t poo on the carpet, and didn’t chew through our clothes. She could have easily passed for the archetypal small pet, were it not for one outstanding quality. Suzy was dead set on escaping.

The problem was that we housed her in a glass aquarium (with bedding and a igloo home and a wheel and everything), so there was no way for her to get out. She really tried though. First she perfected the “belly polish”. What she did was try to climb right up the vertical, slippery walls of her encasement. She’d jump against the wall, feet and little paws flailing wildly, and slip down, and stand back up on her hind legs, jump again and slip down. This, in real time, looked like she was doing the boogie with the aquarium. All you could hear were little claws on glass and an occasional thud as she pounced on the wall with ever-present determination.

Then there were the couple of times that she actually escaped – once because she brilliantly pushed the rolling wheel on its side, against the glass wall, climbed up and out. Another time because she managed to pull herself up on top of the wheel without it spinning (a feat in itself) and jumped out.

Suzy’s most elaborate attempts at escape happened at around 11pm each night, when you’d begin hearing a rhythmic thumping noise, as if plastic was hitting glass. This was the sound of an acrobatic hamster trying to wedge herself between the corner of the aquarium and her water bottle, and using the pressure of the bottle against the wall to hoist herself up.

Observing these rituals night after night, I began suspecting that our hamster was not having the quality of life that she deserved. She didn’t play with her wheel, didn’t relax and enjoy the evening sunlight streaming through the windows. Instead, she dedicated most every waking moment to the futile task of running away, each night “forgetting” the failures of the previous evening and committing herself all over again to her limited repertoire of escape tactics. In time, this became unbearable to watch – her predicament so closely mirrored our own. And so I decided to buy her a new home.

After an eventful trip to PetSmart, the kids and I brought home a three-story hamster haven, complete with water bottle, feeding plate, ladders, slides, and a plastic running wheel. We also got her the off-white, super-absorbent baby-soft fabric “chips” instead of the woodchips we previously used. Her luxury home was finally ready and we showed her inside. Suzy seemed excited to be in her new place – she carefully clambered up and down the stairs, made a cozy nest in the corner, and ate the food lovingly placed in her dish. We watched her for some time as she explored, but then bedtime routines got underway and she was left to her devices.

Later than evening, when the house was finally quiet, I heard a curious noise coming from Suzy’s corner. I came closer and there she was, chewing maniacally on the green metal bars that formed her cage. After everything that we did for her, she chose to spend her evening (and many evenings to follow) planning and executing various attempts of escape.  Seeing her this way, something turned within me. Finally I had greater insight into the tragic plight of the hamster condition.

(The tale continues here , when Suzy writes about her owner…)

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