Sunday, December 13, 2015

Happy Holidays 2015

Since I just spent more hours than I would like to reveal crafting my seasonal holiday letter, I’m too burnt out to write a blog this week. Fortunately, I can simply steal material from the holiday letter. So here are excerpts. (Yay for dual purpose news.) Be warned that I am dedicating the upcoming year to honing my comedy-writing skills. Comedy is hard and I always wonder if I’m giving people a laugh or if I’m merely giving them a wince. That said, have a hearty wince.

Ron and I went on separate vacations this year. He went to Chicago and I stayed home, where I found fun things to do by myself, such as having our ancient toilets replaced with beautiful efficient low-flush toilets, which I surreptitiously stroke in adoration when no one’s looking. (The plumber found a velociraptor claw in the plumbing, that’s how old my former toilets were.) I also refinished the kitchen table and had the kitchen chairs stripped (Ron refinished them beautifully upon his return home). I joined a gym, where I take a high intensity interval training (HIIT) class once a week and work out on the weight machines on a couple other days. My daughter pestered me about this for months because she said I need to build muscle mass. Since I joined the gym, I gained five pounds. Wow, muscle mass is heavy. Does anyone know what this stuff’s actually made out of? I think perhaps cheese. One of the women at my gym wears a T-shirt that says “Strong is the new skinny.” Works for me.

If you remember, we moved off the Ranch to live closer to emergency services because of Ron’s health issues. Since the move, our proximity to the emergency room (ER) has saved Ron’s life on more than one occasion. I count 2015 a good year since we only used emergency services for Ron twice. I have learned from experience that if you call an ambulance and they come and save you, then the service is free (here, anyway), but if they haul you off to the ER then it costs you a bundle in co-pay for services. They don’t take persimmon bread in trade for ER services. Also, when you get the ER bill, they refuse to break it down for you to see how they figured the expenses. ER billing services does not comprehend the words “line item.” They could charge you $400 for using the restroom and the bill would list this as “relief services.” They charge separately for toilet paper by the square. Anyway, armed with this knowledge, I make every effort to have the ambulance paramedics revive Ron from his occasional life-threatening low-blood-sugar episodes without dragging him into the ER. They have all the equipment and know-how right there in the ambulance and it’s free. You can’t say “no” to free resuscitation.

So when the health club phoned to say that they had called an ambulance for Ron because they found him unconscious, I screamed into the phone, “Don’t let them take him to the hospital. I’ll be right there.” The woman who called hung up on me. She couldn’t deal with a deranged spouse who seemed to have a perverse death-wish for her poor stricken diabetic husband. I arrived onsite just as the ambulance was about to pull out of the parking lot with Ron inside and I stood in the road in front of the vehicle. By the time I convinced them to open the doors and let me in to see him, Ron was stable and flirting with the nurse. “See,” I said, “no need to rush off to the hospital. He just needed some juice.” (Actually they had him on IV concentrated sugar.) When Ron began singing “just a spoonful of medicine makes the sugar go down,” they yanked his IV and threw him out of the ambulance. The health club staff was super amazing and they did a great job of getting help for Ron right away. They didn’t even call the police to report my frenzied command not to take him to the ER. In general, Ron’s health has improved this year now that he’s free of the stress of having a job. He’s doing astonishingly well for a man with so many health conditions and a wife who pitches a fit if the paramedics try to take him to the ER in an ambulance. There’s nothing like occasional IV sugar to jumpstart the old system.
A few weeks ago, Ron revived his Binford Tools T-shirt and replaced our garbage disposal because the old one had corroded and started leaking. For the installation, he cleverly built a winch out of nylon rope, a small length of plastic plumbing pipe, and his wife (that would be me). As a result of this maneuver, I discovered that I am now able to bench press a stainless steel garbage disposal, and that sucker is heavy. (Woo-hoo. Working out at the gym is awesome.) This realization would have changed my life had my husband not insisted that the garbage disposal belongs installed under the sink in the kitchen, and will not remain available for me to impress the neighbors or my children. Argh. He’s so mean.

He’s also a bit absentminded sometimes. For instance, he went around for a couple of days saying he needed to make an appointment with the eye doctor because he couldn’t see out of his glasses anymore and he thought he needed a new prescription. “I’m going blind,” he lamented. Then he realized that one of the lenses had popped out. He found it on the backseat of his car and when he put it back in the frame he could see again. I’m not seriously worried about his cognitive ability since he still does the NY Times crossword in record time and he figured out how to replace our garbage disposal. (Did I already say that I can bench press a garbage disposal?)
I enjoy celebrating both the Jewish and Christian holidays. Twice the opportunities to eat festive cheese. My daughter has promised to make tortilla soup for the family on Christmas Eve. We will have all of our children with us for Christmas this year. Plus the daughter of my longtime friend Helen in Scotland is coming to join us for the holiday. The last time I saw Helen, 35 years ago, in Fife (by Dundee), she was pregnant with this daughter, who is now studying poetry in grad school in Texas. She plays the Northumbrian Pipes and I look forward to a demonstration during her visit. Thus we will be the only household in America to pipe in tortilla soup and latkes on Christmas Eve.

I’m going to take a vacation from blogging for a couple of weeks over the holidays to bake gluten-free treats, eat cheese, and spend time with my astonishing children. Look for me on the blog again after the New Year, when I will continue to elicit laughter and winces. May you have health, happiness, delicious nutritious food, laughter, music, time spent with loved ones, a functioning garbage disposal, an abundance of things for which to be grateful, and lots of good cheese during the holiday season.

I was going to put a photo of an uninstalled garbage disposal into this blog 
but I couldn't find one with Hanukkah candles on it 
so I decided to show you this menorah instead. More festive.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

First World Problems

Sometimes my husband says the most profound things. Earlier this week I was obsessing about a decision. Finally, as I ran down the pros and cons to him for the sixth or seventh time, he joked, “First World problems.” I laughed because he was so right-on. I have heard the expression before, but ever since he said it, I keep thinking about it. When I looked it up on Wikipedia I learned that the term first appeared in 1979 in G.K. Payne’s Built Environment. It turned into an internet meme in 2005, and it became a popular Twitter hashtag. It is generally used to minimize complaints about trivial issues by people living in the lap of luxury. The quintessential First World problem is slow internet access. In fact, the expression is frequently used with regard to electronic/tech problems. For instance, classic First World problems are 1) I don’t have access to wi-fi right now, 2) I lost the remote, 3) the PDF downloaded instead of opening, 4) my laptop power cord died, or 5) I dropped my iPhone into a pot of boiling spaghetti sauce. If you google “First World problems,” you will bring up links to heaps of funny examples. I just did this and wasted half an hour that I could have spent writing this blog chuckling over these examples. Wasting time reading things online is a First World problem.

Although generally First World problems, my problems still concern me. Here is a short-list sampling of some of my First World problems.
1. I have so much work right now that I don’t have enough time to do my own creative writing (including writing my annual holiday letter).
2. I lost a piece of cheese in my car.
3. I can’t decide whether to make pumpkin bread or persimmon bread for the holidays.
4. I don’t think my Christmas Cactus will keep blooming all the way to Christmas, so maybe I should buy another one in a couple of weeks? Or not?
5. I dyed my husband’s socks pink by accident washing them with a red dress.
6. Writing comedy is hard and I want to give people a good laugh.
7. Last week I played Dez Bryant in Fantasy Football but then Tony Romo broke his clavicle (again) and the backup QB didn’t throw any balls to Dez meanwhile I left Sammy Watkins on my bench and Dez made 5 points and Watkins made 27 and I don’t even like the Dallas Cowboys and I don’t know who Watkins is and I think I should play Charcandrick West instead of Watkins this week even though West had a hamstring injury and this is the final week of the regular Fantasy season and I am agonizing so much about what to do that I think maybe I should stop playing Fantasy next year and…. I need an intervention.
8. I keep getting robocalls from cardholder services even though I am on the do-not-call list so what is up with that? Argh!
9. I can smell a missing piece of cheese in my car.
9. I am not good with numbers and my math ability sucks.
10. Organic food is expensive.
11. I can’t interest any publishers in my unpublished books. I can’t interest any agents in representing my unpublished books. I can’t stop writing books that probably will never be published. I can’t stop kvetching about it. I need an intervention.
12. They stopped carrying my favorite chipotle habañero sauce at the natural foods store so now I have to buy it online.
13. I mortgaged my house to put my children through college and I have no retirement savings so I will have to work until I die.
14. My orange tabby cat sheds on everything.
15. I cry every time I watch It’s a Wonderful Life and my children laugh at me.
16. I can’t find a chemical-free air freshener that smells good to me. (So I don’t have a nice scent to spray in my car to counteract the lost cheese.)
17. I miss my cheese.

I would like to think that mostly my problems are not the silly non-problem problems of the oblivious privileged person, such as breaking a fingernail on the metal soy milk pitcher at Starbuck’s. My problems are the problems of a middle class person living in the First World, and I wouldn’t trade them for Third World problems. Even so, I do have some problems that I think qualify as All World (global/universal) problems, such as the fact that I am slowly going deaf, my access to clean food is compromised by profit-mongers, I can’t protect my children from the miasma of chemicals surrounding us (not least of which are the toxins in food), the damage to our environment threatens my safety and future (and that of my children and future generations), I don’t have easy access to health care that is honest and free of interference by corporate interests, and I am in constant danger of losing those I love to gun violence. Yet in the final analysis, my week of pondering the expression has led me to recognize that my problems are predominantly First World problems; and for this I am truly grateful, especially at this festive time of year when I anticipate being surrounded by friends and family and enjoying our First World bounty.

When I think about my problems from this perspective, I no longer feel nearly so stressed. Except maybe about that cheese. Why can’t I stop thinking about cheese? I’m hungry (that’s an All World problem). 

I googled "cheese in car" for an image for this blog post and this is what I found, which is perfect 
because it's not only cheese on a car but it's also a football image since it's a Green Bay Packers (the "cheeseheads") car therefore related to both my cheese problems and my Fantasy football problems.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Gluten Phobia

This conversation is dedicated to you folks who find it amusing to make fun of people who don’t eat gluten. And you know who you are. You touch a loaf of bread and shriek, “Ohmygod, I think I came in contact with gluten.” You tell jokes like, “What is the recipe for a delicious gluten-free brownie? There is none, bwahahahaha.” So funny. You show pictures on Facebook of dinner plates infested with bedraggled asparagus and a naked, gray burger topped with a vomit-green pickle slice and label the picture “gluten-free dinner.” You share YouTube movies entitled “How to Become Glucose Intolerant So You Can Be Like Your Friends.” You speculate about the gluten and non-gluten properties of pancakes, soaps, sweaters, Ferris wheels, crescent wrenches, hamsters, and BBQ grills. You delight in sharing the photo series of famous paintings with the gluten removed. OK, yes, those are actually pretty funny, like the Vermeer below, but what does that prove?

We are not as far apart on this as you may think. I have as much trouble as you do with the gluten-free fanatics who blame everything from the melting of the polar ice caps to the popularity of the Kardashians on gluten. These gluten-phobes believe that consumption of bread caused Donald Trump’s psychosis. They attribute the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s to German Chocolate Cake, the British colonization of India on scones, and the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas on wheat fields. If they could erase the amber waves of grain from the “Star-Spangled Banner,” they would do it in a heartbeat. I swear on a stack of cookbooks that I am not one of these people. They give ordinary everyday gluten-free people a bad reputation and make us lose credibility. They are the Westboro Church of the healthy eating movement.

Thinking about those breads, pastas, and pastries you adore, you may wonder why someone would choose to avoid eating gluten. Please, stay with me here. Listen to the logic. Give me my moment on the soap box.

First, I admit that going gluten-free has turned into a popular fad spun out-of-control, much as fat-free became a fad several decades ago. A lot of people who could eat gluten without a problem shun it as if allowing a sliver of wheat bread into their house would cause the foundation to give way and the house to collapse. I can see why you laugh at people with no understanding of nutrition, and no clue as to why someone might give up gluten, becoming gluten-phobic. I don’t want to appear to have no sense of humor. I confess that it amuses me in a perverse way to bake super-delicious gluten-free breads and desserts and to bring them to potlucks and tell people to let the gluten-frees have first crack at them. Everyone there instantly appears to become gluten-free.

While many people can eat gluten quite happily with no evil results, there a lot of people who don’t fare so well on the stuff. Obviously, people with Celiac can’t eat gluten because the nature of the disease is such that they lack the ability to digest it. Also, gluten is inflammatory, so anyone with an inflammatory disease, such as arthritis, would feel better off gluten. Heart disease, fibromyalgia, and gout are other inflammatory diseases aggravated by gluten. Also, autoimmune diseases can be negatively impacted by gluten. Some people simply have a sensitivity to gluten that causes them to experience allergic symptoms when they eat it, like clogged sinuses, skin rashes, or itchy ears. It’s quite amazing how different each person’s body is from the next person’s.

Someone in good health who has no problem eating gluten has no reason to avoid it. And even those who discover they have a mild sensitivity to it can usually eat it now and then with no ill effects. But, if you eat gluten, beware. Here’s the big catch for everyone, whether genuinely gluten-intolerant or not. Commercial wheat contains dangerous chemicals that can make anyone get sick. Wheat is generally harvested (not everywhere, but in most places), by spraying it with glyphosate to desiccate the wheat to render it uniformly dry for harvesting. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s ubiquitous RoundUp, now banned in many European countries and proven to cause a host of diseases from Autism to cancer. So if you are good to go with gluten and you want to eat it, then only eat organic wheat, which, by definition is free of chemicals. The other issue about wheat, and all grains really, is that when they are refined they lose their nutritional value and become a burden on the human metabolism. Sugar and refined flours are the main cause of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a boatload of illnesses. That sentence should be in bold italics and underlined about fifty times. If you eat wheat (or gluten), eat organic only and eat whole grain unrefined.

I don’t eat gluten because it makes me sick. I’ll spare you the graphic description and the interpretive dance version of the explanation of what happens to me. Each of us is a unique ecosystem, an organism that functions in its own way. What works for one person will not work for another. The person who can best understand how a body works is the owner of that body. Each of us must pay attention and notice what happens as we munch our way through life, adjusting accordingly. Avoiding gluten helps me keep my system in balance. I don’t feel deprived. I eat well. We had a full table at Thanksgiving and nothing on it contained gluten. We had gluten-free macaroni and cheese as well as pumpkin pie. I have learned how to cook gluten-free. So don’t pity me, don’t make fun of me, and don’t dismiss me. Not everyone who shuns gluten does so because it’s a fad. Some of us do it because we’re in tune with what works for us. I love my gluten-free life.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


A terrific British expression captures the essence of good luck. If someone has remarkable luck, the Brits describe that person as “jammy.” It comes from the idea that good things stick to a lucky person as if they’re made of jam. I just finished reading John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway, which relates the story of his early life before he became one of the “Pythons” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame. As I read his account of his early career, I kept thinking that this man was about the jammiest comedy writer ever. The most astonishing opportunities dropped into his lap. I am jealous.

Cleese was a law student at Cambridge when he began acting and writing comedy sketches with the Cambridge Footlights, an annual revue put on by the Footlights Club at Cambridge University. He met Graham Chapman (another Python) at the Footlights, where they wrote comedy sketches together. Chapman was in medical school at the time. Shortly prior to his graduation from Cambridge, Cleese landed a job at a law firm, where he was supposed to start working after he graduated. But fate intervened for the jammy Cleese. Just before he started his new job, two executives from BBC radio appeared, took him to lunch, and offered him a job writing comedy at the BBC. They had seen his work with the Footlights and they headhunted him, offering him more than twice the salary he would have made at the law firm. How often does such a thing happen to a graduating law student let alone an aspiring comedy writer? It’s insane. Keep reading, he gets even jammier.

Early on, Cleese took a leave of absence from the BBC to go on tour in America with a production of the Footlights Revue (written during his last year at Cambridge), which was renamed Cambridge Circus. Days before the show closed, he received a call out of the blue from a producer putting together a Broadway musical called Half a Sixpence. He invited Cleese to audition for a role. Cleese found this hilarious since he could neither sing nor dance, and he went to the audition on a lark. At the audition, he informed them he could neither sing nor dance. They thought he was joking, but he reasserted, in all seriousness, that he was completely unmusical. They asked him to sing the British National Anthem and they stopped him several notes into his caterwauling because they couldn’t stand to listen to it. When he returned to his hotel room that night, he told Chapman he got the part, just to see his expression. The next day the producer called and offered him the part. He thought the producer had either had a nervous breakdown after hearing Cleese sing or was having him, on but he was sane and sincere. Jammy. The musical director assured him he could lip-sync the singing and that they wouldn’t put him in any dance numbers. (He was, in fact, expressly forbidden to actually sing during the production.) This leads me to ponder how excruciatingly hard real singers and dancers work to land a role in a Broadway musical while the tone-deaf, uncoordinated Cleese had a role handed to him on a silver platter.

Cleese’s jamminess continued through the chapters of his life. Approximately one day after Half a Sixpence closed, an editor at Newsweek Magazine invited him (yes, invited him) to take a job there as a journalist. They wanted to lighten up some of the articles and hoped he could turn his comic wit to the task. Soon afterward, David Frost (only the most successful comedian in Britain at the time) approached Cleese to invite him (yes, invite him) to work for him as a writer on The Frost Report. And not long after that, Peter Sellers, the funniest man in Britain, solicited Cleese’s comedic writing services. I mean, seriously? Cleese was a mere lad in his mid-twenties when all these invitations rolled in. Jammy, jammy, jammy.

Cleese certainly knows how to elicit a laugh, but a lot of excellent comedians who also have this ability have not had opportunities fall at their feet. The scandalously cheery Rhonda Byrne of Law of Attraction fame has made millions of dollars shaming us into thinking we aren’t trying hard enough to visualize success, to manifest good fortune, if we fall short of our aspirations. She is (pardon my French) so full of poo when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of achieving success. Success requires talent, hard work, and a touch of the jammy. The truth of the matter is that a lot of talented people never have the chance to fully utilize and reveal their talent. They may throw boulders of positive energy out into the universe and still not see any pathway to recognition, success, and the chance to use their talents to the max coming their way as a result. I think those who catch a lucky break often have no idea of the extent of their incredible good fortune, despite their efforts at summoning up sufficient gratitude. The universe is a mystery and randomness occurs.  

[Football reference alert.] At the risk of losing the interest of those readers who consider themselves above the plebeian allure of football, I wish to share one of life’s lessons inherent in this sport. As the season progresses (as it has at this particular point in time), and some of the hottest players go out injured, some of the replacements begin making their presence felt in a big way. This is how young men passionate about football, extraordinary athletes, who formerly remained hidden in the shadows, have the opportunity to step into the spotlight and shine. When a number-one player can’t play, and the coach sends in the backup, the fans wince collectively at the prospect of watching the backup get chewed up and spit out. But sometimes that backup defies all expectations and astonishingly takes our breath away with the outstanding ability he has within him, which has remained concealed from view merely for the lack of the opportunity to step up and show what he can do. I wonder how many tremendous athletes remain hidden in the shadows, kept from showing what they can do because the opportunity never presents itself.  

In one of his love poems, Kenneth Patchen compares his discovery of his beloved to “a boy finding a star in a haymow.” The more years I spend on this earth, the more I have found that nearly everyone is a star in a haymow. Some of us are jammy enough to get those lucky breaks that lead to recognition and opportunities to maximize the use of our talents. Others of us never get those chances. Some of us appear on a highly visible stage and achieve largescale success, like John Cleese and the football greats. Others of us forge our personal successes and count ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to do the things we love and the things at which we excel in our quieter lives in a small-scale way. Lately I find that I look for the passion in people like a heat-seeking missile honing in on a warm body (perhaps a bad metaphor since I don’t want to blow the person up, just hear them talk about what they love). If I can discover what a person feels passionate about, what gets them juiced, and then encourage them to talk about it then I feel like I have hit pay-dirt. I am dedicated to the narrative. Each of us has some time, some place, someone, something that was, is, or will be the great adventure of our lives. I yearn to hear the story of that great adventure. I search for that star in the haymow; and when I find one, I feel roaringly jammy.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stork in the Birdbath, or Blog Interrupted

There are only two kinds of interruptions. The first is the good interruptions, those endearing surprises that jump out at us on the path of life, such as when my husband pokes his head into my study and says “There’s a stork in the birdbath, come quick.” (He’s obviously not a birder.) The second is the unwanted and unsavory intrusions on our mental flow, such as the cold call from the telemarketer selling corduroy frying pans. Although quite different from one another, both kinds of interruptions will successfully murder genius.

As we know, humans only use a limited percentage of our full brain capacity. Some of us manage to use a higher percentage of brain function than others. I use most of my functioning brain to obsess about who to start each week in Fantasy Football. I blame Fantasy Football for the fact that I am not the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I suspect that the most significant thing preventing humans from using 100% of our brains is interruptions. At least this is probably the case for women; whereas for men, of course, interruptions run second to the distraction of thinking about sex. Bad interruptions top my list of life’s aggravations along with landscaping featuring gravel, fruity air freshener, yellow post-its, weeds, cat hairballs, beets, sticky price tags on new drinking glasses that require a flamethrower for removal, and Paul Ryan.

I spend a large portion of my workday writing and this requires concentrated thought. When the phone rings, I could ignore it, but it might be a client with a question, it might be the health club calling to inform me that they are loading my diabetic husband into an ambulance because he has dangerously low blood sugar, or it might be my son calling from the grocery store to ask me to read him a recipe out of the Joy of Cooking. All of these qualify as bona fide necessary interruptions. But when it’s a scam robocall from Bridget at cardholder services with an offer to upgrade my credit line to six billion, my hair stands on end and my best thoughts flee. 

I started pondering interruptions this week after a conversation I had with my son the web developer (the same one who calls me to read out recipes to him while he’s shopping). He sent me the link to an article about why even a seemingly benign interruption can destroy the productivity of a web developer. Here is the link to the article if you want to read more. The gist of the article is that there are two types of deadly interruptions that ruin productivity for web developers:  the random interruption (like Bridget) or the planned interruption (like a staff meeting). A lot of what web developers do is in their heads. I identify with this since it’s the same for writers. Web developers (like writers) must keep a football-stadium-sized volume of information in their heads at once in order to rearrange it and organize it and sort through it. An interruption can collapse the entire stadium into a giant dribble of a pancake. The article talks about web developers building a “mental model” and how interruptions destroy the model. It can often take an hour or more to get back to that point in the construction of the mental model, depending on how invested in it the web developer was at the time of the interruption. Random interruptions (particularly a string of them) can be so disruptive to this process that they can ruin a full day’s work. Planned interruptions can also be very destructive to web developers depending on scheduling. The article explains that web developers generally need about two hours of uninterrupted time to complete a standard increment of work (to implement that model they are holding in their head). So if they have to attend a meeting that starts an hour after they arrive at work or an hour after lunch, even though they can plan for it, the meeting can make it impossible for them to effectively utilize the hour preceding the meeting because they need two hours of uninterrupted time. As a writer, I fully identify with this construct. It leads me to contemplate how managers can so easily diminish the productivity of the doers they manage when they don’t fully understand the nature of the work that the doers do. Lacking a grasp of this, they inadvertently cause destruction, havoc, frustrational aimless web surfing, and the melting of the polar ice caps.

Interruptions are perhaps the greatest challenge facing moms. Children, by definition, are interruptions. Good interruptions of course; but interruptions nonetheless. When my children were young and I had a nine-to-five office job, I would sometimes experience those nights when my slumber was so hopelessly interrupted that I wasn’t fit the next day for anything more complex than sharpening pushpins. As teenagers, my children had a knack for making popcorn in the microwave in the kitchen (next to my bedroom) just when I was in the process of attempting to fall asleep. I could salvage a night’s sleep with one interruption, but nighttime interruptions seemed to stampede in herds. By way of example, first one of the children would wake me up because he had a nightmare and I would lie down with him in his bed until he fell asleep again. No sooner would I have returned to my bed and started to drift off to sleep when the battery in the smoke detector in the kitchen would go belly-up and it would begin beeping. So I would have to climb onto a chair and remove the battery. After that I would lie awake for another hour trying to calm down. When I finally began to drift off again, another child would wake me up because he heard a ghost in the tree outside his window. We would tiptoe down the hall together to investigate and I would discover an owl perched in the tree by his window hooting. The hooting sounded like a ghost to my small child. I would don my boots and bathrobe and go outside with a flashlight to try to flush out the owl. When that didn’t work, I would put my son in his boots and take him outside to show him the owl before settling him back in his bed. By then I would be desperate to get in a few winks before dawn. I would just have fallen asleep when a skunk would spray in the driveway, waking me up with the stench. I often wondered why all these things would happen in the same night. The real kicker to all this is that my husband sleeps like someone hit him in the head with a frying pan. So he would snooze blissfully through all interruptions, especially if he had a calming jumbo mocha espresso right before bed to relax him. Go figure.

Children are the supreme interrupters. Mine know that they have priority over anything else I could possibly be doing. “Yes dear, I’m giving my neighbor mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but as soon as I save his life I’ll see if I still have your kaleidoscope stored in the garage, love you sweetie, will call you back.” Once my son called me from high school in a panic because his chapstick had broken. I talked him down. All of my children have interrupted me with phone calls to ask me to look up their checking account number for them. I am information central. Before Smart Phones, they would call me to have me google things for them, like what time the movie at their local cinema started, where was the nearest Jewish deli with authentic bagels, how much does it cost to fly to Vegas, what happens if you put olives in au gratin potatoes, and what will the weather be like at Newport Beach on Thursday. All of these questions obviously required an immediate answer. When I was on a retreat with a group of women friends at a remote beachside condo, my daughter called in a crisis. While my friends went for a sunset walk on the beach, I played therapist until my daughter figured out how to handle her situation. One peaceful Saturday morning while I was sipping a delicious decaf and writing my blog, my youngest son called because he had somehow tumbled out of bed, tripped (probably on clothing, shoes, soccer balls, musical instruments, collapsible clothing hamper, coffee mugs, blunt objects, raccoons, waffle iron, etc. sprawled across his floor), and fell into a mirror leaning against his wall, breaking the mirror, and cutting his leg. He wanted me to help him find an emergency room near his house in Oakland. Did I mention he was bleeding? It was a small cut and we found an ER as well as someone to take him there. Now what was I saying?

We live in a supremely interrupting world. I don’t give people my cell phone number precisely because of my aversion to bad interruptions. I don’t want people to have the ability to call me when I am in the checkout line at the Coop, going for my daily walk (seriously, why do people bother to go for a walk in the woods while talking on their cell phone?), driving, thinking, making a pie crust, welding a spaceship, or searching in the garage for a kaleidoscope. Actually, even if they had my number, people couldn’t call me because I rarely turn my cell phone on.

There are many interruptions on beyond phone calls to jar me out of my thoughts when I am trying to string words together to actually write something of importance. The neighborhood bully tomcat saunters into my yard and I have to run around chasing cats so he doesn’t beat up my girls and cost me a fortune at the vet. I have meetings scheduled when I would prefer to be writing. The power goes out. My obsessed neighbor who must control every wisp of nature in his half-acre yard spends two hours running his gas-powered leaf blower, which sounds like Apollo 13 landing in his yard. The refrigerator stops working in the middle of July and I have to move all the frozen food to the freezer in the garage (and, unfortunately, I have to eat all the ice cream, so sad). My oldest needs me to find a copy of her birth certificate, scan it, and email it to her by noon. My middle one needs me to run interference for a broken chapstick. My youngest trips over a turtle and sprains his eyebrow.

Honestly, as a mom, I don’t mind those interruptions from my children so much, no matter how ridiculous. I can live with them. Sometimes they make for a good story. The bad interruptions, which I hate, are stuff like the scam artist who calls me, interrupting my flow, so he can try to convince me that my computer has been hacked and he is going to unhack it if I just give him my bank account numbers and all my passwords, the perky lady conducting an opinion survey on the relevance of safety pins, or (and these are the worst) the call to inform me that I am eligible for an upgrade to my weed-whacker and someone will be with me shortly but for now I am on hold listening to Yanni perform a mellow version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and my wait time is twenty minutes but whoa didn’t they call me so why am I on hold? Wha-huh? I hang up. What was I saying?

The next time I sneak off to the beach without telling anyone where I went, you will understand why. Uninterrupted time to meditate, reflect, contemplate, and, dearest of all in Amy’s world, to write. Sweet. 


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Country Childhood

I have a photograph on my shelf of my three children that reminds me why I chose to raise them on forty acres of forest in a small rural community. They are marching in their own little parade, with my daughter (the oldest) in the lead. She and her brother are both playing recorders and they are both barefoot. She is nine and he is six. Trailing behind them is their two-year-old baby brother singing and dancing to their tune. Although our ancient and very tall fir trees are not visible in the photo, I know they are there. I used to tell the children that those enormous fir trees stood guard at our gate and protected us from harm.

When we had lived in our country home for a short time, we went to my daughter’s elementary school one evening for a family night. She was in second grade. Her younger brothers had not started school yet (one was four and the other was a baby). We spread a blanket on the lawn with the other families. The school grounds included vast fields of green (this was before the dreadful drought) and overlooked hills and farmlands. The teachers gathered the children into a motley group, one of the teachers played a guitar, and the students sang a number of songs they had learned for the occasion. On the far right of the group of performing students stood a little boy with a goat on a leash. The goat was almost as big as the boy. It grazed on the grass peaceably while the children sang. Something about that goat delighted me. From that moment on I was in love with my children’s intimate rural elementary school. It was a K-6 with less than 200 students, many of them (about 20%) Native Pomo who lived on the nearby reservation. All the teachers knew all the children by name. When my youngest came home from his first day of Kindergarten he told me with amazement, “Mama, everyone at school knows my name.”

Country living meant living with critters too, of course (not just the friendly goat). We had a dog and several cats that we lived with on purpose. We also wound up living with many wild creatures by default. One of the most annoying critters we were forced to cohabitate with was the skunk. Skunks persisted in living underneath our house. One time we returned from a vacation at the beach to discover a half a dozen baby skunks lined up with our cats in the carport waiting for us to put the cat food down in the evening. Our neighbor had fed the cats in our absence and the skunks had made themselves right at home. When we put the cat food down, the baby skunks joined our cats, who didn’t seem to mind sharing, and chowed down like one big happy family. Those adorable Disney-cute skunks grew up and nested underneath our sons’ bedroom. Argh. We had to hire a trapper to trap them and remove them.

When our youngest child was in high school, a couple of skunks got into a fight under our house at three in the morning. We woke up to the horrible stench. There was no time to deodorize ourselves before work and school the next day. The teacher for my son’s first period class called the assistant principal when my son arrived at school and they removed him from the classroom because they mistook the skunk smell for marijuana. As the assistant principal questioned my son, it dawned on him why they had pulled him from class. He burst out laughing and explained about the skunks spraying during the night. His explanation was immediately believed because in our community everyone knows how much skunk smells like marijuana. And they knew he lived out in the woods. He was embarrassed to have to go through the rest of the school day smelling like skunk, but it made a good story and his classmates were sympathetic since a lot of them had had the same thing happen to them before. That night we washed his clothes with a de-skunk product we bought at the farm supply. (No, not tomato juice.)

My daughter had a college friend who had been raised in the boonies in Idaho. My daughter did not meet many people at college who grew up in the country. She and her friend told me about one of their first conversations when they compared notes to decide which one of them was more country. My daughter told her friend about the skunks that kept living under our house. Her friend claimed that their family had a bear living under their house for a while. My daughter, not to be outdone, asked her friend how many miles of dirt road she had to drive to get to her house. She said less than a mile. My daughter had her there since our house was down more than two miles of dirt. They compared wild pig stories, snake encounters, power outages, trees falling, how many peaches they had put up in a summer, how much wood stacked, getting cars stuck in the mud, frogs in the bathtub, and more; always trying to outdo one another for volume and breadth of country experiences (both disasters and wonders). I have overheard my daughter tell people that if she wanted to sneak out at night as a teenager she would have needed an emergency survival kit just to make it into town.

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound like growing up country is all about learning to live with wild critters. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. My children learned and experienced so many valuable life lessons automatically, almost as a given, as rural children. They helped plant the food they ate, saw it grow, and helped prepare it so we could eat it. We preserved gallons of food every summer. Some of it we grew and some of it we picked from other people’s orchards (like cherries) or bought from local growers (like apples and peaches). The first week that my daughter was away at college she called me and said, “Mom, I met this girl who has never eaten real cheese. She thinks Velveeta is cheese.” She couldn’t get over that. My children know what real food is, the work that goes into producing it, and how to prepare and cook it. They know how to build a fire and keep it going since we heated our house with a wood stove. They know that when you flip a switch and get heat, it comes from somewhere and that energy must be created (it doesn’t come out of thin air). They know that good water is valuable and shouldn’t be squandered. They have seen enough rattlers to be able to stay calm in a crisis. They have spent so many nights at home with their family that they value family time.

They have seen the night sky. It is estimated that 80% of American children grow up without ever having seen the night sky (Paul Bogard, The End of Night, 2013). The 80% may see a few stars, but they never actually see the Milky Way because they live in urban areas with so much “light pollution” that the heavens are not visible. They never experience true natural night darkness. (Or silence.) Perhaps some of these children will go camping or be taken into the country at some time and will have the chance to get a glimpse of the night sky. I hope so. My children saw it every night that wasn’t clouded over. A school assignment they did was to keep a “moon journal,” writing every night for a month what they noticed about the moon. Country living made my children resourceful, resilient, well-read, familiar with the habits of animals, helpful, unafraid of hard work, persistent, appreciative of the wonders of nature, yes I could go on and on. When you spend as much time in a forest with no TV as my children did, you become a pretty imaginative individual. (We got a satellite dish and brought in TV and internet after about seven or eight years, but they spent those first years with nothing but snow on the TV – we rented movies.) No wonder my children are extraordinarily creative, have a great sense of humor, and never get bored.

After my country bumpkin children grew up, they left our remote land and our hayseed town right away. They chose to go to the big city for college. Now the oldest lives in Los Angeles, the middle one and his wife live in conservative and congested Orange County, and the baby shares an apartment in a low-rent inner city Oakland neighborhood with three friends he met in college. All three are completely cosmopolitan these days and they love their lives. They remain outdoorsy people who go hiking, biking, and play sports. My son who lives in Orange County said a couple of months ago, “No one but us three will ever understand how amazing it was to grow up on the Ranch.”

I wonder if any of my city slicker children will move to the countryside at some point in the future. Raised in the suburbs, I lived in cities when I was a young adult. I loved those cities. In those years, I couldn’t imagine what country people did to amuse themselves. But then when we were faced with raising children, my husband and I decided we wanted them to grow up in the country. So we made the move. Sometimes I think we “shot the moon.” It turned out there was way more to do in the country than I could have imagined when I was living in the city. The things my children learned from living out on the land in a forest will last them a lifetime. I still see the powerful positive impact of that upbringing on them every day. Well, it stands to reason, because trees are remarkable teachers.

This is a photo of the photo taken by Ron Reed in 1993.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Old-Fashioned Halloween

Last week more than a few moms of girls complained on Facebook about the sexism inherent in the labeling of Halloween costumes available in the stores. One of the moms bought a Ninja costume labeled for boys for her seven-year-old daughter to wear. Apparently the girl costumes consist of a limited selection of princesses, female Disney characters, witches, and sex vixens; while boys get to be Ninjas, firefighters, pirates, superheroes, grim reapers, devils, ghouls, skeletons, and all manner of interesting creatures. Oh dear.

My children rarely chose a gender-specific costume. They masqueraded as fruits, vegetables, animals, insects, hippies, superheroes, and scary monsters; often using their pajamas as the basis for their costumes. For a few years my daughter was Pippi Longstocking, her favorite storybook character. She loved Pippi precisely because she was everything a well-behaved little girl was not. She was the mistress of her own fate, living with no parents to tell her what to do, she made pancakes for dinner, kept a pet horse on her porch and a mischievous pet monkey (Mr. Nilsson), wore mismatched clothing (oh those magnificent red-and-white striped tights) and wore her wild orange hair in pigtails that stuck straight out from her head (we had to put a piece of hanger-wire through my daughter’s braided hair to get the pigtails right), and she had marvelous adventures in which she often outsmarted evil-intentioned grown-ups. After outgrowing the fairy princesses of toddlerhood, the closest my daughter came to a gender-specific costume ever again was Pippi.

It surprises me how many people depend on store-bought costumes. Really? We never bought costumes, although my son once rented a Chewbacca costume for a fancy party when he was a senior in high school. Living in a rural community, and not having much expendable income, we (and our neighbors and friends as well) always made costumes from scratch. Many families are 4-H families who have farms or vineyards. Our children did not belong to 4-H because we were more involved in art, music, drama, dance, and team sports. Regardless of whether they belong to 4-H or not, the people in our community are do-it-yourselfers. Parents in our community often raised children who participated in sewing as a 4-H activity; but the costumes we (and many other families) produced did not necessarily involve sewing. I can sew, but not well enough to make a complex costume. No, we collected, assembled, and used our creativity. Clever, imaginative, and funny costumes are highly regarded in my neck of the woods. Sexy costumes? Meh.

One of the most amusing costumes I saw over the years was the woman with three children on soccer traveling teams who dressed as a soccer ball. The quintessential soccer mom, she probably felt like a soccer ball bouncing around three counties to take her children to games. When I was young, the urban Halloween “scares” about razor blades in apples and needles in candy bars started (was this an urban myth or did it ever actually happen?); and for a time the local hospital in my hometown offered to X-ray candy the day after Halloween to look for metal objects. By contrast, here in our rural community I remember once when my children received homemade chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven at one door. It was the home of the boys’ soccer coach so we knew the family. But even if we didn’t, I would have been so touched by homemade cookies that I would not have paused for a minute to worry about what was in those cookies. Love was in them.

The best Halloween was the year we took our children to our neighbors’ house across the road at the Ranch when we returned from trick-or-treating in town. Our neighbors, both retired schoolteachers, expected us and they had baked an apple pie from homegrown apples. They admired the children’s costumes (daughter as Pippi, one son as a banana and the other as a bumblebee) and then sat us down at the table for warm pie. While the bags of store-bought candy gathered in town stood idle by the coat rack, we feasted on apple pie. The children had no appetite for candy after that. Nothing you buy at the store can compete with a homemade apple pie.

Sugar is death and disease on a spoon. I use other sweeteners instead in my own homemade treats (mostly maple syrup or honey) and I prefer these for flavor and health, thank you very much. So I have struggled with trying to find the right treat to hand out at the door on Halloween. One year I gave out toothbrushes and another year I gave apples. I have given stickers, quarters, and small plastic animals. I have a friend who is a Ob/Gyn doc. She worked on a tribal reservation for a few years. When she was there, she gave the teenagers who came to her door on Halloween condoms! Fortunately, the parents thought this was quite clever and a bit hilarious. Way to go doc.

I have never been much of a fan of Halloween. I scare easily and can’t stomach creepy costumes, especially if fake blood or wounds are involved. I hid under the table whenever the Wicked Witch of the West appeared in The Wizard of Oz until I was twelve years old. It astonished me that my three-year-old daughter merely giggled when she saw the witch appear when she saw the film for the first time. Everyone in my family gets a kick out of horror movies. Except me. I can’t even watch Scary Movie (the Wayans’ total spoof, which is ridiculously fake and campy) without covering my eyes in parts. Call me squeamish. I don’t see the fun or humor in blood, gore, chainsaws, and terror.

My childhood memories of Halloween are not all that. They consist largely of getting lost in labyrinthine hedges, falling over lawn furniture, and being left behind because my thick eyeglasses steamed up under my plastic mask and I couldn’t see three inches in front of my face. I once had the fake hair on my mask get tangled in a blackberry bush and it took three Jewish moms, two Catholic moms, and an Episcopalian dad to set me free. Scary costumes spooked me and made me cry. Nowadays, I hate Halloween even more because people seem to act terribly weird in costume, many people have extremely poor taste (Ku Klux Klan and Nazi costumes are not amusing), and everyone (especially children) consume piles of toxic sugar-laced fake-food that makes them sick. It’s repulsive. I am an absolute Halloween Grinch. Do not approach me with your head under your arm and a bag of Snickers. Yech!

This year we were invited to a Halloween party and I was very brave and attended. It was good fun. Our hostess was a black cat and her husband was a caveman. Ron was a pirate. What else would he be? He has the lingo down and he looks great in his pirate headdress. It was sort of a theme because there were a few pirate wenches at the party who wore store-bought pirate wench costuming complete with push-up bras and low-cut dress-fronts that caused their breasts to burst out with vigor. It was hard to keep my eyes on their faces while talking to them with all those boobs popping forth. (Avast ye maties.) The men took an awful lot of pictures of themselves with these busty women. I dressed entirely in green and went as chlorophyll, which doesn’t have much to show in the way of cleavage, but it’s healthier than candy. I thought I was clever, but none of the men wanted pictures of themselves with me. Thus I survived another year of Halloween. Now on to my more favorite holidays.

My kind of pumpkin carving. (I didn't do this pumpkin--kudos to whomever did).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Telephone Repair Fiasco

What part of “phone line repair” does AT&T not understand? Five weeks ago my landline went dead. Silly me for thinking it was no big deal. To date, a twelve-foot-long trench has been dug across the street and surrounded by fluorescent plastic cones and yellow caution tape, orange spray paint has been splashed arbitrarily in my yard, four AT&T linemen made a campfire on my front porch and roasted a rabbit on a spit while singing Johnny Cash tunes, and I can hear werewolves howling in the background while talking on the phone; but my phone line is not fixed. I confess that I exaggerate. Cut me some slack. AT&T is making me crazy.

When I picked up the receiver five Sundays ago and discovered I did not have a dial tone on my landline, I called AT&T on my cell phone to report a problem. After wandering in a voicemail maze for two or three years (I found Jimmy Hoffa in there), I finally spoke to Customer Service Rep Katie, who took my information and said she would schedule a service visit on Wednesday. Wait, whatever happened to prompt service? I reminded her it was Sunday and asked her if a repairman could come on Monday. She said the next day a repairman would be in my service area was Wednesday. She insisted she couldn’t send anyone sooner.

I work from home and speak to business contacts all over the country on my landline. I am hard of hearing and the landline phone, with my excellent headset and amplifier, is my best shot at following a conversation. I have difficulty hearing on my cell phone. Without my landline, my ability to work is seriously compromised. I explained this to Katie. She apologized for the inconvenience and stuck to her story about Wednesday.

On Tuesday the phone began working again as mysteriously as it had stopped working and also, to my surprise, AT&T Repairman Bob turned up. Cool – Tuesday was the new Wednesday. Bob checked out the line and reported the big bad news that I have a problem on my line. Dang, I thought the problem had resolved itself. According to Bob, the problem acts up when the line is wet. “Well, Bob,” I said, “if that’s the case, please explain why the phone went out on Sunday because it didn’t rain on Sunday.” Bob said it had rained on the prior Thursday and that it took a few days for the rain to soak down into the ground and knock out the line. Sunday was the new Thursday. He reckoned that until the line got fixed my phone would go out for an indeterminate amount of time a couple days after any substantial rainfall. Finally I had found the upside to the California drought. I figured AT&T would fix the line before the rainy season began, so I was not worried. Bob couldn’t fix the line that day because he couldn’t get to it. He said someone would have to come dig up the street and then an AT&T repairman would climb into the hole and fix the line. Bob put in a request for the hole.

One week later no hole had been dug. I called the AT&T service line and talked to Customer Service Rep Alhambra-Kaminski. He explained that AT&T does not dig holes and that AT&T contracts with local excavation companies to dig holes. He assured me that an excavation contractor would come dig the hole in a few days. The next week the contractor appeared with an earthmover the size and shape of Kansas and half a dozen teenagers in tennis-ball-green vests and dug the hole, carefully placing plywood over it and surrounding it in eye-popping orange plastic cones and yellow caution tape. Progress. There was now a hole. I peeked under the plywood, discovered a teenager who had been left behind, and fed him soup. Just joking.

The hole remained untouched for another week. I called AT&T and spoke to Customer Service Rep Chicklet-Rigatoni, who looked in the computer and found the notes on our phone problem. “It looks like they dug the hole,” she said. “Yes they did, I can see the hole from my window,” I confirmed. “But the AT&T repairman has not come out yet,” she added. “Yup. I’ve noticed that.” She promised me that a repairman would come out. A couple of days later a repairman actually did appear in an AT&T van and he looked in the hole. I ran over to the hole to talk to him. He shook his head sadly and said the hole had been dug in the wrong spot. He couldn’t get to the problem section of wiring from that hole. “What next?” I asked. “They need to dig another hole,” he said.  

But no one came to dig another hole. So I called AT&T and spoke to Customer Service Rep Drainpipe-Chihuahua, who looked in his computer and informed me that the excavation contractor had dug the hole in the wrong spot so the repairman couldn’t get to the problem in the line to fix it. I had just told him this, which led me to wonder why he needed a computer at all, not to mention a brain. He said that a request had been made to the contractor to return and fill in the old hole and dig another one in the right spot. “There’s rain in the forecast for this week,” I pointed out. “I need to have the problem fixed before it rains because the problem happens when it rains.” All he could do was put in the request. I couldn’t scream at him, he was just the messenger. He didn’t have an earthmover and he didn’t even know any Johnny Cash songs.

The following week the excavation contractor returned (yay) and extended the hole another four feet so that the plywood no longer covered the entire hole. Although the hole was still surrounded by cones and tape, it became an open trench on one end, which, while clearly marked, still poses somewhat of a safety hazard. After extending the trench, the contractor sprayed fluorescent orange paint marks on my street, driveway, olive trees, gravel, ground, lavender, rock roses, and other assorted items in my yard. I wanted to report this as vandalism, but my husband speculated that the marks were important guidelines for where to dig and where things could be found underground (such as moles and roots). “If that’s the case then why did he spray orange paint on my cat?” I asked. “Don’t exaggerate,” he scolded, “you know perfectly well he didn’t spray the cat.” Busted.

That week it rained, but fortunately my phone kept working. No repairman appeared all week. So on Monday I called AT&T and explained the whole saga to Customer Service Rep Sawtoothbrakefluid, who looked at the notes in his computer and couldn’t make hide nor hare of them. He suggested that I call a different branch of AT&T called Buried Wire, or B-Wire for short, that would be able to tell me what was preventing the contractor from digging for my renegade buried wire. Sawtoothbrakefluid gave me the number for B-Wire. At B-Wire I spoked to Customer Service Rep Arugula who informed me that the excavation contractor could not dig the hole in the right spot because he needed a permit from the city to dig in that particular spot. From this I inferred that it’s legally OK to dig in the wrong spot without a permit but if you want to dig in the right spot you definitely need a permit. Arugula said that I could find out the status of getting the city permit by calling my AT&T Regional Area Service Manager Gingerfish-goo and she gave me his number.

I called Gingerfish-goo and explained my whole sad saga to him. “So,” I concluded, “I’m calling to find out if the permit has been secured and when the contractor will dig the hole in the right spot.” (Meanwhile, I was silently praying that the right spot was not going to be in my driveway.) Gingerfish-goo listened to my woeful narrative attentively and then asked, “B-Wire told you I’m the regional manager for your area?” I confirmed this was true. “I’m afraid to tell you where I am located,” he said. “I can take it,” I assured him, “hit me.” Gingerfish-goo was in the Philippines. I complimented him on his excellent English accent. He took my phone number and said, “Give me an hour. I’m going to track down your real regional manager and I’ll call you back.” This was the most promising response I had received yet.

An hour later Gingerfish-goo, true to his word, did indeed call back with the phone number for AT&T Regional Service Area Manager Calliope- Potatokugel. Thank goodness AT&T outsources to the Philippines because they seem to be the only people who know what’s going on with the hole across the street from my house. Next I called Calliope-Potatokugel, confirmed that he was located in my local area, and repeated my story. “Wow,” he exclaimed, impressed. “That makes no sense whatsoever.” I agreed. “You don’t live in city limits so why would anyone need a city permit to dig a hole on your street?” he asked. “I think you just won Double Jeopardy,” I replied. He offered to investigate (decent of him) and said he would call me back with a status report, which he did the following day.

With Halloween approaching, I’m considering borrowing a cone and some of that yellow caution tape and dressing as an AT&T phone line repair project. Probably not a good idea since a small child could fall into the trench while trick-or-treating and then I might be held liable for tampering with the hazard zone warning presentation.

So. This is where things stand as of this writing. The permit to dig another hole has been secured but the hole has not been dug yet. I still don’t know who issued the permit, but I suspect it was Gov. Jerry Brown because he’s the only one who seems to get anything done lately. I also don’t know where it will be dug. Perhaps in the Philippines. There is still a hole in the street in the wrong spot. Even though the phone line has not been repaired, the phone works (and it has an adorable little hum on the line that sort of reminds me of Johnny Cash). Unfortunately for me, the first substantial rain of the fall season is forecast to arrive on Tuesday. Maybe Saturday will be the new Tuesday. Maybe the contractor and his flock of teenagers will dig the hole this week, the hole will not be in my driveway or under my olive tree, there will be a shortage of fluorescent orange spray paint in my AT&T region, and the repair to my line will get done ahead of the rain whenever it comes and seeps down to my line. Yes. Well. Maybe Elizabeth Warren will run for president. One can always hope. If you call me and I don’t answer, message me. And send dark chocolate. (Can you hear me now?)


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Measuring Success

How do you measure success? I mean personally, for yourself?

There was a joke that went around when Jesse Jackson was running for president. It goes something like this:  Jesse Jackson and the Pope were out on a lake in a boat. The Pope’s mitre blew off his head. So Jesse stepped out of the boat, walked across the water, retrieved the mitre, walked back across the water and gave the mitre back to the Pope. Then Jesse stepped back into the boat. The next day the headlines in the newspapers read “Jesse Jackson can’t swim.” You see my point. Others will judge your success from their own biased perspective so the opinion that counts most when you look at what you have done in your life is your own.

Do you perceive yourself as successful? How do you measure your personal success in your daily life and, if you are an elder, how do you measure your success over the span of your lifetime? There are small successes and large successes. I am looking at my own life right now (because I can only speak for myself and do not wish to judge others or make assumptions about how others perceive their own success). I am making lists.

Small successes. I grew cantaloupes in my back yard. My husband cleans my stove for me (before I met him I would move to a new apartment when the stove got too dirty—note, I am an excellent housekeeper but I don’t get along with stovetops). He also irons my dresses on those rare occasions when I need to look un-wrinkled. The fact that I looked ironed for my nephew’s Bar-Mitzvah last spring is a success attributable to my husband. He’s also good at other things now that I think about it. I digress. More small successes…. I have never put a Krispy Crème doughnut into my body (they don’t even look edible). I can tell the difference between a fumble and an incomplete pass, unlike certain referees (and a whiny quarterback) who will remain unnamed (Go Raiders). I switched all my Pleistocene-Age toilets out for modern low-flush toilets (now whenever I flush I yell yippee because I love my new toilets). I can do 100 sit-ups on the Ab-X at the gym. All my children were born at home. I made a wedding quilt for my son and his wife. I belong to an excellent book group. I took my children to the beach every year for our summer vacation despite our shoestring budget. I snagged the first Honda Fit off the assembly line that was sold in my town (my wonderful electric blue car that I love). I am a blogger. I take pleasure in small successes, which is a success in itself. (Perhaps a large success, what do you think?)

Large successes. I raised three children on forty acres of remote forest and they are wonderful human beings who delight me and make me proud every day (and they also keep me laughing). I have a terrific marriage to an awesome guy who, despite all his chronic health conditions and near-misses with that scary character who carries the scythe, is still alive and rather well (although on a first-name basis with half the paramedics in our small town). I consider it a great success that I put three children through college since I believe that going to college is an extraordinary and life-changing experience that every young person should have available to them. (Despite the fact that my youngest is practically pathological about refusing to seek work in the field in which he earned a degree primarily to demonstrate to me that he didn’t need the degree to succeed in life. Oy.) More about putting the children through college:  they do not have any student loan debt because we mortgaged the house to do it. Putting children through college on a lower middle class income is no joke. This is more than a success, it’s a triumph. More large successes…. I can cook delicious healthy foods. I earned a master’s degree and my holistic nutritionist certification. I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth and enjoy walking in this landscape every day. I have made friends with amazing people from all over the world with diverse cultural backgrounds and beliefs. I published a couple of books, but will come back to that in a moment because that’s complicated when it comes to how I measure my personal success. I feel successful in my professional life as I secured a lot of money for organizations to do good work helping people who need the help. (If only I could have secured enough money to ensure my own personal financial security. Not successful with that.)

Despite all my successes (of which I am obviously proud), taking the long view, I have to say that I did not accomplish what I set out to do in my professional life so in that sense I consider myself a failure. It’s remarkable what people wind up doing for a living considering what they set out intending to do. As a young woman I set out in life wanting to be a writer (perhaps I should have set my sights more specifically on being an author). I wanted success as a writer, a published author. Sure, I wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize. But I don’t measure success by winning prizes. I have read Pulitzer Prize winners and not cared for them. So how would I measure success as a writer? I would like to have all my books published and to reach a wide audience with my work, and, here’s the heart of the matter, I would like to make a difference in the lives of others (many more others than I have touched so far) through my writing. I would have liked to have a literary career, to have made enough money off my publications to be able to write fiction fulltime. In Amy’s World, I’m basically only as good as my most recent novel, which is not in print.

Perhaps success is cumulative and the sum of all parts. That old “we win some and we lose some.” If I tally up my successes, I believe they outweigh my failures. They equal an overall successful life. And, of course, I’m not done yet. I’m still writing, still dreaming, and still sending manuscripts out into the world with hope in their wake.

Circling back to my initial question:   How do you measure success? I mean personally, for yourself? 

Here I am showing off a delicious vegetarian gluten-free dinner I cooked. 
Chili relleno casserole, beans with peppers and tomatoes, guacamole, 
mango salsa, and salad. (My Jewish Mom pose.) Photo by Sylvia Mullaly.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Welcome Rosie!

This past week my baby brother and his family adopted an eight-week-old puppy they named Rosie. She’s a Cockapoo, which is a cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle. Here’s a photo of Rosie.

Is she the most adorable thing on four legs or what? Rosie is the newest in a long line of illustrious animal personalities who have brought delight to our family over the years. On Thursday evening, a few hours after they arrived home with Rosie, I skyped them to see Rosie in action. I talked to her on the call while she ran back and forth in front of the computer screen sniffing and responding with curiosity to my voice, then she ran off to chew on her 30 or 60 doggie toys that my Jewish-mom sister-in-law purchased for her earlier in the day at Petco. (I’m buying stock in Petco ASAP.) Half the toys are twice Rosie’s size. She likes the squeaky ones the best.

My brother told me that Rosie came from a Dutch Amish breeder (he lives in Pennsylvania) and so she has never seen technology, which, he explained as scientifically as Mr. Rodgers, accounted for her confusion when she heard my voice coming from the computer. Wait, what? I didn’t think dogs understood how computers work, period. I didn’t realize it’s only Dutch Amish dogs that don’t get it. This started me wondering if Rosie might experience a cultural diversity crisis as a result of being adopted by a Jewish family. Perhaps my brother should avoid putting any doggie sweaters on Rosie that have buttons. It’s not feasible for him to transport her by horse-and-buggy. I hope she can adjust to traveling via car. Can anyone suggest a good Amish dog therapist?

Our family’s known history with pets begins with a purportedly highly intelligent Border Collie named Juno who helped raise my father and my uncle in the Bronx. I have a photo on my desk taken around 1935 of my grandfather, father, and uncle with Juno. She looks quite prepared and capable of herding my father and uncle safely through their Bronx boyhood. When I was a teenager, our family adopted a Kerry Blue Terrier named Happy. Although Happy liked to fake intelligence, he had no one fooled. In reality, he was a doofus. Here he is pretending to be a movie star. 

Sometimes Happy would salvage chewing gum from the trash cans and could be seen in the back yard chomping away. His nemesis was my mother’s bread basket (the one she filled with warm rolls for the dinner table), which lived atop the refrigerator. Whenever he caught a glimpse of the bread basket, he would bark as if possessed and chase the bread basket down as my mother carried it into the dining room. He was a terrific outdoors dog, who accompanied my father on countless boy-scouting expeditions (Dad was a scout leader). And he enjoyed birthday parties immensely because when we sang Happy Birthday he thought we were singing to him and he barked and ran around in circles.

Although I grew up with a dog, I am a cat person to the core. I had been away at college a scant two years before I adopted my first two cats, both of whom I named Woossa. However, I tended to call my more favorite of the two cats Woossa-Woo. My dad went with me to pick him up at the vet when he had to get patched up after a cat fight one summer while I was at home between semesters. Dad laughed his head off when the vet referred to the cat as Woossa-Woo Wachspress (with a straight, serious face). What did I know about naming pets? I was a teenager. My other brother is more of a cat person like me and has had several cat companions over the years, the last of which, Perji, was a cat that acquired my brother when Perji decided my brother’s house would be his and moved right in. He was a gorgeous blue-gray longhair with enormous eyes.

I have had cats, always, for over 40 years. Counting a litter of kittens that my female tabby had in Berkeley (kept one and gave the others away to good homes), I have had more than a dozen cats during my life. I have stepped up my cat-naming ability from the Woossa days. I live with two ten-year-old shorthairs now. Golda is a rare female orange tabby and Ella is my impish black cat with the bright green eyes. While Golda is as dumb as grass, her sister Ella is the smartest of all the cats I have ever had. She can open doors. (Still hasn’t learned how to close them behind her.) Golda has watched Ella open the screen door to the back deck for years and still can’t figure out how to do it herself. She sits at the door, pretending to be patient, but I know she’s simply moronic, waiting for Ella to come open it for her. Golda likes to hunt mice, moles, and an occasional bird; and she eats her kill while Ella watches in horrified fascination. Ella is a pacifist. I have never seen Ella hunt anything bigger than a moth. Golda is territorial and she’ll fight off intruding cats. Ella turns her tail and runs away. She once peed in fright at the back door when she saw a large, strange cat enter our yard.

Sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, my cats work as a team to bring chaos into my ordered existence. On more than one occasion Ella has opened the screen door to let Golda bring a live mouse into my living room, where Golda then proceeded to torture it and kill it while Ella made popcorn and pulled up a chair and I jumped up on the couch and hollered “EEK.” It’s virtually impossible to chase two cats and a half-dead traumatized rodent out of your living room with a broom. Trust me on this. Especially so if you have an irrational terror of mice, which I do. If you even attempt to shoo the whole menagerie out, the mouse winds up hiding under the couch and the cats expect you to chase it back into the open where they can see it. If you don’t chase it out, the cats stare at you reproachfully (and Ella refuses to share her popcorn). Your best case scenario is to let the cat kill the mouse and eat it in the open. Otherwise you risk having a smelly dead rodent in a mysterious location in your house for several weeks. This anecdote makes it sound like having cats is all trauma and a three-ring circus, whereas in reality that’s not true. Golda sits on my lap and purrs whenever I watch football, keeping me warm on the couch in the winter. Ella entertains me chasing cat toys and laser lights and keeps me company when I’m writing by sitting behind my computer in the window or cuddling up in my lap. Cats are calming creatures. Beautiful and centered.

During our Ranch days our family had the most excellent dog, our one and only. She was an Australian Shepherd and Black Lab mix. When we rescued her she was four years old and near death with heartworm. We had her treated and coaxed her back to life with jelly sandwiches and pancakes. We named her Juno after the illustrious Border Collie of Dad’s youth. Juno’s favorite thing in the whole world was going for long walks, and when she discovered that my dad would take her into the hills for hours he became her favorite person. She lived to be about 17 years old, which was unexpected for a 60-pound dog who had suffered severe heartworm in her youth. We attributed her longevity to her mellow personality. She didn’t stress. She tolerated anything our young children did to her. Life was good no matter what came her way. She liked everyone, even the UPS driver. (So much for having her be our guard dog.) The three cats we had for a dozen years at the Ranch would sleep on Juno’s back in her doghouse during the rainy months. Once, Ron arrived home from work, pulled the car into the driveway, stepped out, and saw, when Juno got up to greet him, that Juno had been sleeping with a coiled rattlesnake under her rump. Ron ran the rattlesnake off with a spray of the garden hose while Juno looked on quizzically, as if to say, “what did my bunkmate do wrong?” Some years later, Juno startled a rattler and it bit her in the mouth. By then she was an older dog. I raced her to the vet, who administered anti-venom and kept her overnight. The next day, when I went to pick Juno up, she greeted me with a grin as wide as the Grand Canyon. The vet assured me Juno would survive, adding that she was feeling great because she was on super-strong drugs. Having an older dog survive a rattlesnake bite in the mouth was a miracle. Unfortunately for me, the anti-venom was so expensive that I made monthly payments to the vet for over a year to cover the cost. But there is no price tag on the value of a good dog.

Juno lived to retire eventually to the old folks home with my parents, where Dad coddled her to the last days of her life by feeding her bread warmed slightly in the microwave and roasted chicken made especially for her daily by the kitchen staff; and of course taking her on her beloved walks, which became shorter and shorter. I learned one of my most important lessons in life from Juno. Don’t stress. Learn to lie down gently with the rattlesnake; and if it bites you then you can depend on those who love you to take care of you with strong drugs and jelly sandwiches.

Dad used to have a bumper sticker on his car that said:  God help me be the man my dog thinks I am. I strive every day to be the woman my cats think I am. So, welcome to the family little Rosie – you are one lucky little puppy, and you don’t even know it yet, but you’ll figure it out soon.