Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Clinging to Plastic Ducks

by Zinta Aistars

"Taking one’s chances is like taking a bath, because sometimes you end up feeling comfortable and warm, and sometimes there is something terrible lurking around that you cannot see until it is too late and you can do nothing else but scream and cling to a plastic duck." ~Lemony Snicket

I am being decidedly indecisive, and that is decidedly uncomfortable. I have read about studies that say too many choices can lead to misery. And I’m feeling it.

I suddenly remember Irma, and I sympathize. Irma was my mother’s very best childhood friend, close as sisters, right up until World War II separated them. One (my mother) fled the Soviet occupation to live in the United States, the other (Irma) remained in Latvia to cope with life in the Soviet Union. No comparison—Irma’s life was much harsher, and her health showed that harshness. She aged quickly and died still relatively young.

Still, the two friends did have a reunion. They separated as teen girls, reunited as middle age women. My mother crossed the border into the Soviet Union, and the two fell into a long and tear-christened embrace.

Then it was Irma’s turn to visit my mother in the United States.

I was along for the ride when my mother took her friend for the first time to an American supermarket. By then, Irma had been living under Soviet rule for several decades, and her every day meant coping with poverty, with a world destitute of choices. The State made all her choices for her. And choose what? She could walk into the store, ready to buy something, rubles in hand, alas, the store shelves more times than not were empty. Or nearly. Choices were few and far between. One took what one got.

So there Irma stood in the aisle of the American supermarket. She needed toothpaste.

The shelves were crammed, top to bottom, left to right, with boxes and boxes, tubes and more tubes, package after package of toothpaste. Not just one kind, of course. Every imaginable, every unimaginable kind. Mint flavor or peppermint flavor, gel or paste or streaked with both, for sensitive teeth or for dentures, with screw top or flip, with or without baking soda, teeth whitening or total health, for gingivitis or halitosis, with fluoride or natural, 5 ounce size or full size or family size, on and on the choices went, up and down that endless aisle.

Irma stood in the middle of the aisle and wept.

My mother and I hardly knew what to do. We stood and blinked at her. My mother wrapped her arm around her friend’s shoulder.

Irmiņ? Mīļā, what’s wrong?”

Irma wiped her eyes, her shoulders trembling. “So many choices … how do I choose? Which one should I buy? How can you live like this and not go mad?"

More recently, I’ve come across reference to new studies that seem to indicate that the rising misery quotient in the United States has something to do with too many choices. We get stuck standing in the aisle, overwhelmed by options, and finally want nothing more to do than to run screaming from the rows and rows of unmade decisions. Not that I would give up having choices ... I choose freedom to make my own, thank you, but too many choices can sometimes indeed be overwhelming.

That’s me standing in that aisle. Blinking. With trembling lip and hunched shoulders.

Options. New options keep arising. Choices to make, and surely all of them good. Or not. What if I choose wrong?

How long now have I been aiming to move back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? To the gorgeous Keweenaw, where Lake Superior washes the rocky shores and civilization is remote and the woods surround, filled with wildlife. I will be traveling north again in May, and once again meeting my Keweenaw realtor Gretchen to explore a list of new properties.

Even that is filled with choices. Cabin in the remote woods? Small house nearer town? A ready-made cottage or acreage to build? On shore or tucked back in the forest? For year-round residence or as a vacation abode for the occasional visit?

Now a new option has been tossed into the circle for consideration. I do much of my financial business with the Latvian Credit Union. Yes, there is such a thing, and they are located a very convenient few blocks from my office. My office, however, is not conveniently located. It requires a daily 110-mile commute, which I have been commuting now into my fourth year.

“Tired of it yet?” Jānis asks me when I stop by to say sveiks. I love doing business here. It’s more like sitting around with friends in a living room than banking. If you are of Latvian heritage, or married to one of us, you’re in. Make yourself at home.


He tosses a long roll of paper at me. I unroll it to find blueprints. I arch an eyebrow at him in question.

He tells me about a Latvian contractor, a man from Rīga, who comes in with a couple of builders now and then, buys up a bargain property, perhaps a foreclosure, renovates and puts it up for sale for a tidy profit.

I take a closer look at the blueprints. It’s a compact house, smaller than my current home, but I've been in the downsizing mode for some time now. I don’t need much space, I just need space to fit my needs.

A few days later, I decide to drive by the property on my lunch hour. Oh gee, nice … this is so close! Fifteen minutes on the road and I’m there. I am in the city, then I make a couple turns, and it feels like I am completely out in the country. Both sides of the street are heavily wooded, and neighbors are wonderfully distant one from the other.

I park at the end of the long driveway and decide to brave the mud to take a closer look at the house. The builders appear to be on lunch break; the bulldozer sits silent in the ravine, and the house is open. I walk around and around it, peeking in windows, then brave an open door.


I was hoping to do a quick drive by and cross this off my list. But what I have now is another option. Yet another choice, another decision to make. I like this place.

Granted, at this point, much is left up to the imagination. The house is gutted. Walls have come down. Siding is half peeled from the exterior. Windows are boarded up. The interior is littered with plaster and pieces of lumber, and I can see from one room into the other between studs.

Hey, I’m a writer. I deal in imagination. I stand in the living room and look through the walls to the master bedroom, the kitchen, the rooms beyond. I see myself sitting back on the couch, settling in with a book for a long evening read. I see myself stirring a delicious stew on the stove. I see where the dining area wall is going to come down, according to blueprints, to step out on a new deck, shaded by trees.

Driving back to the office, I wince aloud at how quickly I get there. The gift of time. Fifteen minutes to work where I now cruise the road for an hour.

But my northern dream? Can I do both? And what about my house back in Kalamazoo? And yes, that—what about Kalamazoo? I may work here in this city an hour north, but I live elsewhere, and back there, I have a network of family and friends, of favorite places, a neighborhood where I know every turn and corner like the back of my hand.

What about crossing the ocean? Now and then, here and there, I catch myself thinking about going back. What if I found a little house on the Baltic Sea? Could talk to the family about doing a time-share …

How long would it take me to sell my house? Would I get stuck with two mortgages? Save on commute time but roll back into debt in a buyer’s market?

My head spins. It’s getting really noisy inside my head. Dreams bump into other dreams. One decision closes down another. Or at least makes it harder to manuever. Fear of making the wrong choice paralyzes me.

I want to stand in the aisle and weep.

All I want is a bathtub to call my own at the end of a long, hard day. An oasis in the storm. A quiet place, a place of peace, where the waters warm and soothe, and nothing lurks beneath the scummy murk. Rubber duckies bob and swirl in the bubble bath.

Too much to ask? Too many choices.

When Reinis, the builder from Rīga, calls me to discuss my options, I am giddy with the pleasure of doing business with someone who speaks my language, and with that musical intonation that marks a Latvian from Latvia, not from here. I slip so quickly into a comfort zone that I have to remind myself … hey, wait a minute, this is still business, no matter in what language our negotiations.

Varēsi izmeklēt pati savas krāsas, kādas vien patīk,” he charms me. Make a commitment to the property now, and I can choose colors and paint schemes to my liking.

How long until the house is finished? Oh, six weeks. Maybe fewer.

I bite my lip. Could we make that six months? What if I need six years to decide?

What if I end up living in this house and wanting to drown myself in the bathtub because my duck could have been bobbing in the white-crested waves of Lake Superior? Or in the amber-dotted white sands of the Baltic Sea?

What if you buy here and continue to travel—north and across the ocean? a friend suggests. I feel an arm wrap around my shoulders as I stand in the long, seemingly endless aisle of tantalizing toothpaste packages.

I like mint. I’m pretty sure I like mint. Although the striped kind, gel and paste in one, is pretty appealing, too.

What if I choose the wrong color scheme?

One thing and one thing only is clear in my noisy head. I’m suddenly hungry for a dinner of succulent roast duck tonight. I head down the aisle to poultry.

Roasted duck ... Peking duck ... braised duck ... duck with Hoison sauce ... duck with plum sauce ...

1 comment:

  1. I am reading this in 2013, long after you have made your choice...and although I have not read all the intervening posts until you finally made your decision to buy Z Acres, and also even though I have only "known you" (through your blog and pictures) for less than 24 hours, I can say that I know you made the RIGHT choice for you! Aren't you happy you waited?