Tuesday, April 30, 2013

There's A Sucker Born Every Minute

At the risk of outing myself as just another delusional blogger, I want to tell you how close I feel to all of you, even though I've never met most of you in person and in all likelihood never will. Sometimes, I tell you all things I would hesitate to share with my closest friends and family.

For instance, I will now reveal to you a source of deep personal shame, something I've never had the courage to speak aloud before: I suffer from acute infomercial envy.

Intellectually, I know that these products rarely (if ever) live up to their hype--because how could they? The entire infomercial philosophy is about overselling, raising expectations to the point where even a stellar product would underdeliver--and let's face it, these are mostly mediocre products at best.

All this I understand intellectually, but believe me when I tell you that it is not my intellect that is standing between me and the acquisition of a Magic Mesh Door Cover. It is only my wallet.

Never has the siren song of "As Seen On TV" been so strong as when those vacuum food storage systems were all over basic cable. I did not merely want one of those systems--I yearned for one, craved it, coveted it.

But even the "ridiculously" low price at which they were being offered was beyond my ridiculously meager means. Sure, I could've splurged, but it would've blown the budget for a month or so, leaving us with no food to vacuum seal, which would've been a cruel tease, not to mention how difficult it would've been to explain to Child Protective Services.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I came upon the Ziploc Vacuum Freezer System. It is a hand pump that you use with specially designed bags. The starter kit, which came with the pump and three quart-sized bags, was less than five dollars. Replacement bags are about $3 for 8 bags.

In the five years I've been using the system, I've frozen leftovers of all kinds in addition to blanching  and freezing fresh vegetables that are on sale and, of course, I've frozen meat from larger (cheaper) packages into smaller meal-sized portions. Though the bags are intended for use in the freezer, they work pretty well to keep cookies, chips, etc. and brown sugar fresh at room temperature. I've not had any problem resealing/resucking the bags after I've opened them when using them this way.

When I first got it, three of our four kids were still at home and the system really let me take advantage of big pack meat sales. Now that all of the kids are out on their own, rather than doing the complex algebra required to decrease our traditional recipes down to a manageable size for just Hubby and I, I just freeze the leftovers, getting two meals for the work of one.

My only caveat (which, I'm pretty sure, is Latin for "lesson learned the hard way") is to be sure to label the things you freeze lest you, as I have, spend the day looking forward to hot turkey sandwiches made with the turkey and gravy you think you're defrosting only to open the bag and be whapped upside the head by the completely unexpected smell of sauerkraut and pork roast.

Z is for Ziploc Vacuum Freezer System

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Rock, The Hard Place

In kindergarten, Daughter-Only started a rock collection. She was especially drawn to fossils and other bumpily textured rocks and then to some others that had sharply contrasting colors or unusual shapes. All these she called "pretty" rocks and deemed them worthy of collecting. At least once a day, she would update me on the number of rocks in her ever-growing collection. "I have twenty-two rocks," she would say. And then the next day, "Today, I found three more rocks so I have twenty-five rocks."

During this rock-crazed period, I ran into the mother of one of Daughter-Only's classmates at the grocery store. This mom confided that her son had quite a crush on Daughter-Only.

"You'll never believe how I found out," she said. "The other morning, as we were getting ready to go out the door, I picked up his backpack and noticed that it was much heavier than usual."

Thinking he might be trying to sneak a forbidden toy into school, she opened up the backpack and found eight sandwich baggies full of little stones and pebbles. When she asked him about it, he said they were rocks for Daughter-Only's rock collection--"rocks" which he had apparently gathered from their driveway the previous evening.

"I made him put most of them back, but I did let him take her one bag. I hope that was okay."

It was not just okay, it was almost painfully adorable. When I got home, I asked Daughter-Only if this little boy had given her any rocks for her collection. She said, "Yes, Mommy, but they weren't pretty rocks. They were just regular rocks. He got them from his driveway. I took them because I didn't want to hurt his feelings and now I don't know what to do with them."

Despite his questionable taste in rocks, the boy's crush was apparently mutual. It was decided that Daughter-Only would continue to accept the rock offerings and just bring them home and pour the bags out into our driveway.

This rocky ritual went on for quite a while, but eventually Daughter-Only and the little boy drifted apart and the baggies stopped coming. Daughter-Only was probably relieved, but I was sort of sad to see them go.

Y is for Young Love

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Old Enough To Know Better

When Son-One was twelve, he needed some push pins for a school project, so I brought home a handful of boutonniere pins from the flower shop where I worked at the time. The pins were about an inch and a half long with a pearly acrylic teardrop on the end.

Son-One had been working on the project for several hours when he wandered into the living room, where his siblings and I were watching some mindless, marginally entertaining show on Nickelodeon. He announced that he was taking a break and he sprawled out on the floor beside Son-Three.

We were all laughing at a particularly hilarious moment in whatever show it was when Son-One jumped up and said, "Mom, I did something really stupid. Am I going to die?"

Without knowing what stupid thing he'd done, but fairly certain that nothing life-threatening had occurred right under my nose in the middle of Angry Beavers or whatever it might've been, I immediately reassured him, "No, you are not going to die, but what did you do?"

Son-One held up one of those inch-and-a-half long pins and said, "I swallowed one of these." He said he had been chewing on the little plastic end when Son-Three, in a fit of hilarity, had nudged him in the shoulder, jarring him just enough that the pinhead had slipped from between his teeth and the pin slid down his throat.

"You are not going to die," I said again, though my heart had begun to race a bit at that point with visions of emergency surgery dancing in my head. "But I do think we should probably go to the emergency room."

When we got to the hospital, the ER waiting room was packed, but it's amazing how quickly you move to the head of the line when you hold up an inch-and-a-half long pin to the receptionist and say, "My son swallowed one of these."

We were ushered in immediately and Son-One was in x-ray within fifteen minutes. They could clearly see that the pin had made its way to his stomach, which the doctor said was a good thing. He said that since it had made it that far without getting lodged anywhere, it was likely that it would "pass normally" within 24 to 48 hours. We were instructed to come back right away if Son-One experienced any sharp abdominal pains or any other unusual symptoms, which, blessedly he didn't.

I assume the pin "passed normally," but I can't say with absolute certainty that it did, which is another blessing, if you ask me.

X is for X-ray

Friday, April 26, 2013

Not-So-Random Quote Friday

"Poetry, I thought then, and still do, is a matter of space on the page interrupted by a few well-chosen words, to give them importance. Prose is a less grand affair which has to stretch to the edges of the page to be convincing."
~~Fay Weldon, Auto da Fay
"All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation."
~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
"It is not a sin to write one's truth. We have an obligation to the living, but this includes the person living within us, whom we may never know if we do not let her speak."
~~Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life
W is for Writing

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Can See Clearly Now

In my high school yearbook my senior year, under "ambition," where other kids listed the college they would be attending or the career path they had chosen, one of the ambitions I wrote was  "...to never stop growing and changing."

It's tough, especially at this point, to say how much that ambition represented a sincere commitment to growth and change and how much it was intended as a subtle dig  at the townsfolk in that tiny,* stagnant town where little seemed changed since the Fifties and even the young people acted old. Either way, if I had only realized how much of that growing and changing would be accomplished by learning and unlearning and relearning the same few life lessons only to unlearn them again, all the better to be smacked upside the head by the same old truth all over again, I probably would've picked a different goal.

They say hindsight's twenty-twenty, but if I've got such a clear view of where I've been, how the hell do I keep ending up back where I started?

V is for Vision

*The class of 1986 had 71 students; it was the largest class anyone could remember.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ways I'm Not A Grown-Up, The Eighteenth In A Potentially Infinite Series

I make assumptions.

For instance, I think it's safe to assume that most of you have long since gotten the news about what happens when you assume. Perhaps you even remember, as I do, a long ago teacher dusted with chalk and a heightened sense of his own cleverness, writing out the word "assume" on the blackboard and then, accompanied by strategically timed underlining, saying, "You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass [ass] out of you [u] and me [me]."

From the first time I heard it, I failed to understand why you would be branded an ass for my assumption--it smacked of blaming the victim. Imagine my bafflement then, years later when I heard Al Franken's Stuart Smalley quip, "Because when you assume, you make an ass out of Uma Thurman."

Regardless of who exactly is made into an ass, I've always accepted that making assumptions--especially about other people--is a fundamentally assy thing to do.

Assumptions, generalizations, stereotypes are mostly inaccurate, often unfair and occasionally even dangerous. Knowing about a person is not the same thing as knowing that person. Just because I know your political leanings, doesn't mean I know your heart. Just because I know your religious beliefs, doesn't mean I know your mind.*  For that matter, there are plenty of valid reasons why you might be at the grocery store in your pajamas at 2:24 in the afternoon, most of which have nothing to do with the impending collapse of civilization and, more importantly, my reflexive rush to judgment serves no constructive purpose for you, for me or for civilization as a whole. I not only believe these things to be true, I have direct personal experience with the consequences of forgetting how true they are.

Still, I spend a lot of time consciously talking myself down from the ledge that hangs out over the conclusions I'm so eager to jump to. I suppose stopping myself before I jump is a kind of progress, but if I were a real grown-up, I don't think I would spend so much time up on that ledge in the first place.

U is for Uma Thurman

*That said, I do believe that how you choose to express those political leanings and religious beliefs can be genuinely revealing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who Needs a Flux Capacitor?

"Right now, I'm having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time."
~~Steven Wright, I Have a Pony

Last Friday marked my four year anniversary working at the halfway house. I was extremely fortunate to have started at the halfway house about a month and a half before the flower shop, where I had worked for ten years, went out of business. That month and a half overlap was a crazy time of 70 and 80 hour work weeks (in addition to two kids still at home and two in college). As exhausted as I was, it seemed just this side of miraculous that I never once answered the flower shop phone with the halfway house greeting or vice versa.

Fast forward almost two years, I pick up the halfway house phone early on a Sunday morning and say, reflexively, "The Village Flower Shop" before breaking into hysterical giggles. Fortunately, the person on the other end was one of the residents in our supportive living program who had long since become accustomed to my occasional bouts of goofiness and he immediately ordered a dozen roses.

A few weeks ago, after two more unblemished years, on another Sunday morning, I again answered the halfway house phone, "The Village Flower Shop." A few other times over the past four years, I've caught myself just on the verge of answering, "The Village Flower Shop" or worse, "Video Connection," a video rental place I worked at for a little over a year way back in 1997.

Once, when I was a senior in high school, I was sitting on the kitchen counter and reached behind me to grab the phone that hung under the cabinet five years and four houses before. It was not a conscious enough thought to be considered an intention, but I'm pretty sure I meant to call my friend Michele, whom I hadn't seen or spoken to since eighth grade.

I have it on good authority* that many respected scientists suspect that time, if it exists at all, is not actually linear. Everything that has ever happened or will ever happen is happening all at once, right now, always. Our perception of time as a linear concept is apparently a defense mechanism designed to keep our heads from exploding (I'm paraphrasing). Most of the time, all due respect to people who actually understand physics, that just sounds like crazy talk to me. But every once in a while, I wonder.

T is for Time Warp

*Okay, maybe Morgan Freeman is not actually a scientific authority, but he narrates a science show with his authoritative voice, that's gotta count for something.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Class Act

If Miss Bauer was not the most reviled teacher at Shikellamy High School in the early '80s, odds are she was in the top three. She was guilty of that most horrific of teacherly sins: she had high expectations for all of her students. On the first day of freshman writing, I remember her referring to herself as "tough but fair." Her fairness was hotly disputed, most notably by students who had failed to complete assignments on time or who had completed the assignments to a lower standard than Miss Bauer thought them capable of.

I incurred Miss Bauer's wrath on only one occasion and it was unrelated to any academic effort or lack thereof. One afternoon, I had stretched my legs out too far from under my desk and she nearly tripped on them during one of her pacing rants. The rant was likely about "alot" and the fact that it was not one word and even as two words should not be used if it could be avoided at all. That was a particular pet peeve of hers, though she had many others as well.

I played along with the "I hate Miss Bauer" thing, but the truth is I didn't hate Miss Bauer at all. If you did your best, and avoided "alot" and "a lot," Miss Bauer was fairly easy to get along with. And, of course, an "A" in her class meant all the more because I knew her standards were high.

It helped that I loved writing--and I especially loved writing for someone who loved the English language the way Miss Bauer did. She was not one to give gushy compliments, but she did occasionally scribble "good job" or "nice work" across the top of an essay that had particularly pleased her.

The first and only time Miss Bauer spoke directly to me about my writing was the day after I'd turned in an assignment on how to plan a trip to Alaska. I don't remember much about the essay, other than that I had put a humorous spin on it, including things like being sure to factor in time for highway closings due to herds of migrating caribou and so on. I walked into her classroom in my usual hunched-over-to-avoid-eye-contact fashion and took my seat. I was the first one in the room.

Without preamble she said, "You know, I love reading your work. You have a pleasing sense of humor.* You should really let it show more; you should smile more and talk to people more."

I may have managed a nod before someone came into the room and the weird moment was blessedly broken. I was spared having to formulate a spoken response. If I'd had to say anything, I would have sputtered something about my shyness as an explanation for that gap between who I was on paper and who I was in the social jungle of 9th grade.

It's been a long time since 9th grade. I've thought a lot (heh) about that moment with Miss Bauer since then. I have written here and elsewhere about the difference between the person I am on the page and the person I am in the real world. Although some differences remain, I feel the two are closer now than they've ever been. And I also feel it's always been true that neither one is more valid or "real" than the other--they are just two parts of a whole.

S is for Shyness

*Miss Bauer also had a pleasing sense of humor. For example, she once told us a long joke, complete with character voices and sound effects. Here is an abridged version:

Once upon a time in the faraway land of make-believe, there were two towns called Tridvillage and Tridtown. In between these two towns was an enchanted mountain. Now the only way to get from Tridtown to Tridvillage was to cross the enchanted mountain through the enchanted forest. One day, Baby Trid wanted to go visit his friend in Tridvillage so he went to the enchanted mountain and at the top of the mountain he met up with an ogre, who blocked the road. Baby Trid asked the ogre to move out of the way, but the ogre roared, "NO!" and kicked Baby Trid so hard he bounced and rolled back down to the bottom of the mountain.

Baby Trid went to Big Brother Trid and told him what had happened. Big Brother Trid said, "Don't worry! I'll take care of that ogre!"

He went to the top of the enchanted mountain, met the ogre and the ogre kicked him so hard he bounced and rolled back down to the bottom of the mountain. Big Brother Trid told Papa Trid who said, "That's it! No one messes with my boys! I'm going to the top of that mountain and take care of that ogre."

So Papa Trid climbed to the top of the mountain, where he met the ogre and was promptly kicked back down the mountain just as his sons had been. As Papa Trid was dusting himself off, a rabbi came walking along the road. He said, "What's going on Papa Trid? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Papa Trid told the rabbi the whole story and the rabbi said, "Well, I'll go up there and talk to the ogre and see what I can do." When the rabbi reached the top of the mountain, before he could even say anything, the ogre moved over and let him pass. The rabbi said to the ogre, "Why didn't you kick me down the mountain?"

The ogre said, "Silly rabbi, kicks are for Trids!"

(This joke is a play on one of the longest running advertising slogans ever. I do realize that not all my readers are the connoisseurs of TV commercials that I am, so here's why this joke's funny, if it is in fact funny at all.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Branching Out

About a year ago, as some of you may remember, I was lured into amateur genealogy by Cranky (Ex-) Boss Lady's Daughter who asked for help tracing their Cranky family tree on Ancestry.com. Since then, Cranky (Ex-) Boss Lady has gotten to know a half-brother she never knew she had and I have developed a full-blown genealogy obsession of my own. (First byproduct of this obsession: I can finally, at the ripe-old age of 44, spell genealogy right on the first try approximately 84.5% of the time.)

I have spent absurd amounts of time (and some of my own money now) on Ancestry.com and have recently begun conducting real world records searches by mail. Even as I am in the midst of some three-hour-long feverish binge, scanning census records for clues until I'm bleary-eyed, I sometimes wonder what the attraction is.

I think part of it is the puzzle-solving aspect--piecing together scraps of information to get one step further back. And part of it is the music of all those names: Benajah Main, Weltha Ann Robbins, Godsgrace King, Zilpha Keyes, Tryntje Melchiors, Alanson Fosset. As enamored as I am of some of the names lurking in my family tree, it's probably a good thing for all involved that my children were named before I discovered genealogy.

The names and the mystery are only part of genealogy's allure, though. I think the real heart of my passion for digging around in my roots is discovering my place in my family's little sliver of history. As Melanie over at Is This The Middle? recently said, in her post of the same name, "...everyone comes from an 'old family.'" As someone who grew up everywhere, who craves permanence still, finding my place in long lines that can be traced to the distant past offers a tremendous sense of comfort. I take great joy in knowing my dead relatives are always right where I left them.

R is for Roots

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Parenthetical Chef: Masked Mom Makes (Inauthentic) Mexican Food

I'm not sure, but I think it was Son-Two who suggested homemade quesadillas the first time. I think he had gone out to eat with friends and really loved the quesadilla concept. I know for sure that it was Son-Two who suggested I fix the "chicken to cheese ratio" after I made quesadillas for the first time--those first ones were, in Son-Two's estimation, a little chicken heavy, cheese light.

It's been seven or eight years since the first quesadillas were produced in my kitchen and they remain a family favorite. As with many family favorites, there was no recipe to begin with, just guesstimation and trial and error, which is how my written recipes always ended up filled with parentheses. (That, and my passionate love of parentheses, of course.)

Quick & Easy Foldy Quesadillas
1 lb. cooked chicken breast, cut or torn into 1/4" pieces
1 envelope Chichi's Fiesta Restaurante Seasoning*

1 cup water

1 (10-count) package soft taco size (6"-ish) white flour tortillas

Butter, softened (I consider margarine to be culinary blasphemy, but I suppose it would suffice.)

1 bag (8 ounces) finely shredded Mexican blend cheese (not the seasoned kind, the kind with four cheeses, but no seasonings) or the shredded cheese of your choice (It's a good idea to have a back-up bag of cheese in case your handfuls are more generous than mine.)

Optional toppings/dips/garnishes: Ranch and/or bleu cheese dressing, salsa, sour cream

In a 10" skillet, heat chicken, water and seasoning packet to boiling, simmer about five minutes and remove from heat. Meanwhile, butter one side of the tortillas and heat griddle, skillet or electric griddle. (I use an electric griddle set to about 350O, so I would imagine medium or medium-high would be the right temp for stovetop cooking, depending on how heavy your skillet/griddle is.) Place tortillas, butter side down, on heated griddle. Place approximately two tablespoons seasoned chicken on one half of tortilla. Top chicken with a generous handful of shredded cheese. If desired, dressing or salsa can be added now. (I do not do this for my own, but various members of my family like ranch or bleu cheese dressing squirted in during the cooking process. Some others prefer to dip the finished product in dressings or salsa.) As cheese begins to melt fold empty half of tortilla on to chicken/cheese side and press to seal. Allow first side to brown and then flip to brown other side evenly. (Time varies, but not more than a couple minutes per side.) Repeat process until all quesadillas are finished. (I suppose quesadillas could be kept warm by covering and keeping in an oven on a low temperature, but usually what happens when I am making them is that people begin serving themselves while I am making more.) Makes 10 foldy quesadillas, which (in my experience with teenaged boys and quesadilla-loving relatives of all ages) serves about three people. (I routinely quadruple this recipe--or more accurately, this recipe is quartered from what I normally make.) I serve them with Spanish rice made from a package and Southwestern seasoned corn.

Q is for Quesadillas

*The seasoning is essential and the packets look like this:
And, yes, that is an entire case of Chi-Chi's seasoning packets, which were ordered from Amazon.com when the local grocery store discontinued them. If you cannot find this particular seasoning in your area and are not ready to commit to a case of seasoning packets, you can substitute one (4.25 oz) can diced chilies, drained; a handful of dehydrated chopped onions and a couple of heavy shakes of garlic powder or garlic salt. It is a passable substitute. The thing about the packets, though, is they are great not just for quesadillas, but for chicken tacos, and chicken chili. (Bonus parenthetical recipe: take the one pound seasoned chicken from the recipe above, put in a large saucepan with 2 cans (undrained) great northern beans and heat through. Voila, chicken chili! Sprinkle with cheese and serve with garlic bread. So good, easy and cheap.) Full disclosure: I received no compensation or consideration from Chi-Chi's for this post, but would not be opposed to receiving some retroactively. Hint-hint. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sacred Silliness

In high school, I once toiled and tinkered for months on a short story I'd titled "The Ketchup Sisters." I don't remember much about it--not the names of any characters or the details of the plot or even if there was anything resembling a plot involved.

I do remember that the title referred to a childhood ceremony the main characters had performed to seal their friendship. Inspired by a blood oath scene in a movie, in which two men cut themselves and mingle their blood together, thereby becoming "blood brothers," the girls in the story were too squeamish to actually cut themselves and instead touched their ketchup-smeared thumbs together, binding themselves together forever in ketchup sisterhood. Silly, yes, but sacred, too. Sacred silliness.

That scene was loosely based on the ketchup ceremony Toni (of the forbidden pepperoni) and I performed at lunch one day. I say "loosely based" because Toni and I were semi-jaded teenagers performing the ceremony mostly ironically as a goofy antidote to the tedium of lunch period; the girls in the story had pledged their oath with sincere hearts.

Is there anything more sincere, more solemn, more sacred than a vow made by a child? We didn't only give our word, we crossed our hearts and hoped to die, stick a needle in our eye if we broke that word. We didn't merely promise, we sealed our promises with a firm shake of entwined pinkies.* And we meant it--or most of us did, not wanting to be caught with our pants on fire, hanging from a telephone wire.

I sometimes wonder what happens as we get older to that impulse to put our whole hearts behind something.

The world happens, of course. Not that childhood is without its fears. But while the monsters under the bed turn out to be mostly imaginary, the monsters afoot among us turn out to be fiercer than we imagined. We suffer loss and disappointment and brush up against the jagged edges of things. Even the luckiest among us are left a little scarred, a little harder, more cynical, the better to protect ourselves, we think.

I don't think it's only the world, though, that we lose faith in. It is ourselves. As young children, we fling our whole selves into projects and people, into lemonade stands and true love, into fantasies and friendships. Eventually, we learn the hard way (is there any other way?) that forever is not ours to promise. Despite our best intentions, we break hearts--our own hearts and the hearts of those we love too little or too much. We learn that our best intentions do not always amount to much.

Our trust in the world is broken, but more importantly, so is our trust in ourselves. We conclude (and who can blame us?) that the problem was in promising too much, in making our way through the world with a heart too open. We are wrong, of course.

Promising less, risking less may mean failing less, but it inarguably means succeeding less. When we are broken and hurt, the best cure may well be flinging our whole heart into something--even something silly. Perhaps the path to healing is paved with sacred silliness.

P is for Promise

*In the house I grew up in, this was known as a "pinkie promise." Everyone else I ever met (including my cousins) referred to it as a "pinkie swear." Even my own children called it a "pinky swear." Not only that, but they upped the stakes on the standard issue "pinkie swear" with the "double pinkie swear." Son-One and Daughter-Only made these by crossing arms and linking all four pinkies and then bouncing their linked arms up and down while chanting, "Double pinkie swear, yeah!" I fully expect both of their weddings to involve some version of this ritual.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I make bacon a couple times a month. Every time I make bacon, I think deep thoughts about the nature of bacon--about what it is exactly and how, if you break down its component parts, it has no business being anywhere near as good as it is.

There have been a few people in my life who have had a daily bacon habit--among them my Pap who had two eggs overeasy with well-done bacon and toast for brunch every day. He would likely not have approved of the word "brunch," but since it was his first meal of the day and it was served between 11 and noon, "brunch" seems fair. His bacon was dark and so hard that it would shatter if you poked it with your finger. Not that poking Pap's bacon was in any way recommended, of course.

Cranky (Ex-) Boss Lady was another person in my life with a daily bacon habit, but she preferred hers rare. She would call up the diner down the street from the flower shop and order four slices of bacon "barely cooked." If someone new was manning the phone or the grill, she would go one disturbing step further and say, "When I open the container, I wanna hear a squeal." That was her breakfast most days, with a chocolate frosted doughnut from the grocery store bakery as her "breakfast dessert."  'Cuz breakfast dessert is a thing, apparently.

While I could--and did--eat both Pap's bacon and Cranky's bacon without complaint (it was bacon, after all), I prefer my bacon the way the bacon on the bacon package looks--crisp and evenly colored. Yum.

A couple of months ago, I fried some perfectly crisp bacon for my famous grilled tomato, bacon and Swiss on seeded rye. As Hubby was polishing off his third sandwich, he said, "Is there any extra bacon?"

I snorted. "Extra bacon? What does that even mean?"

O is for Oxymoron

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Location Joke

Considering how readily (and often) I get lost in thought, I have a remarkably keen sense of direction out in the actual world. Maybe it is some mysterious inner compass thing, or maybe just one more byproduct of a good memory, but either way, it's the reason I was able, thirty-some years later, to make my way back to Hanky Panky Road without the aid of GPS or Google Maps.

That's not to say my sense of direction is infallible. Just after I graduated high school, for example, on a trip from New Hampshire back to Pennsylvania with Little Sister, I took 17 East out of Binghamton instead of 17 West. We were 57 miles from New York City and over 200 miles from where we should've been before I realized it. When I called my mother from the next rest stop to tell her what had happened, she did not believe that I had taken a hundred mile wrong turn and instead accused me of making a deliberate and unauthorized detour to visit friends in Pennsylvania. This despite the fact that up to that point, I had mostly been a tediously rule-abiding teenager. Apparently, an unprecedented rebellion seemed a more likely explanation to my mother than the thought that I had suffered a rare navigational failure.

Little Sister was my copilot on that unintentionally extended trip, but the position was largely ceremonial because it was understood in our family that Little Sister had no sense of direction at all. Like many family truths, this one was built as much on mythologizing and retelling as it was on factual evidence. A surprisingly solid foundation can be built of exaggeration, though.

Years after our wrong-way road trip, Little Sister and I and the rest of the family were gathered at an unfamiliar hospital where my father was having surgery. The hospital was a warren of poorly marked corridors and none of the several wings had the same number of floors, which meant an elaborate elevator system, requiring transferring from one elevator "line" to another to reach certain destinations.

At one point, Youngest Sister, Little Sister, Dad's Girlfriend and I were making our way back to the waiting room from a meeting in the surgeon's office. A nurse had led us there so it was simply a matter of retracing the path backwards. Youngest Sister and I were in the lead, fifteen or twenty feet ahead of the other two when they started giggling behind us.

"We were just saying how glad we are that you guys are with us," Dad's Girlfriend explained. "If we were on our own, we'd be completely lost by now."

I pointed out that if we hadn't been there, they would probably have paid more attention on the way knowing that they would have to find their own way back. They expressed their doubts in a burst of cackling laughter.

A little while later, Dad had been moved to Recovery and we had moved to a different waiting room on a different floor of a different wing. Little Sister announced that she was going outside to make a couple of phone calls. Youngest Sister and I, deep in conversation or thought, let her go.

During a lull in the conversation a short time later, I looked at Youngest Sister and her husband and said, "Did we honestly just let her go outside by herself? We may never see her again."

We all laughed and then I said, "But seriously, how long has she been gone? And when should we start to worry?"

We did the math and figured out she'd been gone about twenty minutes and that we'd give her a little while yet before we sent out a search party.

When she walked back in fifteen minutes later, I immediately shared my joke about her getting lost and she laughed good-naturedly. Then I said, "You know, it's only so funny because it's such an exaggeration. Your sense of direction is not that bad."

She smiled sheepishly and said, "Well..." Then she told us about how she'd been in the elevator and a man had gotten on at one of the stops and pushed a button and she was so distracted that when he got off, she followed him out and had ended up in some weird maintenance room or janitor's closet before realizing what she'd done. She'd eventually made her way back to the elevator and to the ground floor and outside to make her phone calls.

Okay, maybe her sense of direction really is that bad, but at least her sense of humor's intact.

N is for Navigation

Monday, April 15, 2013

All I Need's A Crystal Ball & Some Tinkly Earrings

At work one snowy, blowy night in March, just before a trip into town, a resident with a history of mostly good-natured male chauvinism, made a casual comment to another staff, meant to subtly imply a lack of faith in my (feminine) driving skills.

I gave him my patented raised-eyebrow, cocked-head look, inviting him to go on.

"Aw, man," he said, sputtering a bit. "I am so glad we're not related or married or anything..."

Another raised eyebrow, now with my arms crossed over my chest.

"...because you always know exactly what I'm thinking."

It was a terrible thing to say to me because I already half-believe I can half-read minds. It's neither necessary nor wise to encourage me in this belief.

Though people around me are sometimes impressed (or distressed, depending on the circumstances) by my ability to guess thoughts and anticipate actions, this ability is not some paranormal parlor trick. After nearly twenty-five years of parenting four children, not to mention twenty-six years of marriage, and, oh let's say 44 1/2 years of general people-studying, it's only natural that I would've developed some people-reading abilities. My talents are at least partially explained as the product of my inborn curiosity (some would call it nosiness) about the world in general and human nature in particular. And some credit can go to my memory for details (some would say trivia).

The real secret, though, is that most minds aren't all that difficult to read. We are all of us more predictable than we would like to believe. It's true that the building blocks of human nature can be assembled in infinite combinations, influenced by environment and personal preference and a million other variables. But the building blocks themselves seem to come in surprisingly limited varieties--our basic wants and needs, requirements and desires are more similar than our surface differences would suggest. We are most of us more alike than different. Mind reading is not a magic trick, it's just a matter of paying a little more attention.

M is for Mind Reading

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Butterfly Effect

I learned a lot of things in fourth grade. It was the year I was introduced to Laura Ingalls Wilder and the year I became fully acquainted with the darkness that lies in the hearts of nine-year-old girls (not least of all in my own heart, but that is a story for another time, perhaps). It was also the year I learned the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

Back in the days before the scourge of standardized testing, Mrs. Wentz's fourth grade class learned about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly by tromping out to the field behind the school to gather caterpillars and milkweed leaves. Then we watched and waited while these caterpillars ate and ate and ate and then pupated and then emerged as butterflies which we released back into the same field from which they'd come.

At nine, I was awestruck by the process and at forty-four, I remain so. Over the years, I have occasionally given in to the pull of a certain nostalgic fascination and wandered into a field in search of a caterpillar to bring home.

Every time, I think, "This, this will be the time the system fails." But every time, every single time, it works. The caterpillar eats and eats and eats and then pupates--and I stare at the chrysalis and wonder what's going on in there. What kind of magic? What alchemy does it take to turn that humble caterpillar into a regal butterfly?

Every year, I get a little older. But that? That never gets old.

The butterfly I grew from scratch this past summer,
spreading its wings for the first time.

L is for Lepidoptery

Friday, April 12, 2013

No Pane, No Gain

"But remember: Karma is a bitch, as some person who didn't really understand Buddhism once said."
~~Siobhan Rosen, "The Gentleman's Guide to a One-Night Stand", GQ, April 2013
I blame the Swedes and their irresistible chewy, red fish and, for that matter, the Tootsies and their equally irresistible chewy, chocolaty Rolls. I was eleven and that dime I had snagged from my dad's top left desk drawer would get me ten Swedish fish or ten Tootsie Rolls or some ecstatic combination of the two.
We lived in a tiny town with no mail delivery so someone had to go to the post office every day for the mail. With the purloined dime in the front pocket of my jeans, I generously volunteered to make the trip.

I was still a little too short for my father's ten-speed bike, but I rode it anyway and pulled up in front of Persun's, the family-owned general store across from the post office.

To put it mildly, I did not nail the dismount. As I swung my leg over the bike, the cuff of my jeans caught on the seat and I lost my balance. The store's plate glass Sunbeam bread girl window was there to break my fall seconds before it shattered with a deafening crash.

The crash was closely followed by the shriek of the owner's mother-in-law calling out, "Jeri! Jeri! Someone's come through the goddamned window!"

I was horrified at what had happened and terrified of what might happen next and, also, I was bleeding from three cuts on my right shoulder. The cuts were small--none of them as big around as the stolen dime in my pocket--but they were deep and gushing.

The women at the store gave me wads of paper towels and extracted my promise that I would both make it home safely and confess immediately to my mother that I had broken the window. At home, walking in the door tearful and blood soaked, without the mail or any ill-gotten Swedish fish or Tootsie Rolls, I told my mother I'd fallen through Persun's window.

My mother applied three butterfly bandages she'd fashioned from medical tape and then called the store. Jeri, the owner, reported that they'd lost the window on the other side of the door in a similar way a couple of years before and she thought it might be safer (especially for her mother-in-law's heart) to just cover this new hole with plywood rather than replacement glass. She asked my mother to split the cost of the plywood. My mother gratefully accepted the offer and considered the matter resolved.

In order to explain how a trip to the post office had resulted in a broken store window, I'd had to tell my mother I had a dime in my pocket, but she hadn't asked where I'd gotten the dime and I hadn't volunteered that information. So, perhaps it's no surprise that karma wasn't quite finished with me yet.

That first shattered window ushered in an era of broken windows--three in a matter of a few months. One afternoon, I rollerskated through the upstairs of our house and into the bathroom where I put my hand through the top pane of the window. Then, while trying to throw a padlock through a missing pane in a second-floor garage window (don't ask), I managed to smash out an intact pane instead. Finally, while sitting Mork-style, upside-down with my legs draped over the back of the armchair in my room, I lacked the leverage to turn myself around so I pushed my legs against--and through--the bottom pane of the window behind the chair.

I can't say I made a connection between a pilfered dime and a quartet of broken windows at the time. But I can say that to this day, Swedish fish taste of synthetic berry sweetness laced with the slightest tang of guilt.

K is for Karma

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lunch With A Side Of Excommunication

Those three words are an incantation capable of powerful magic. To speak them is to be transported to another time and place.

Try it: high school cafeteria.
Can't you just feel the air heavy with grease and gossip? Smell the sloppy joes and social anxiety? See the heaps of tater tots rapidly congealing and the heartless interpersonal hierarchy being enforced  like some particularly gruesome scene from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom?1

As high school cafeterias go, the one at Pembroke Academy, where I spent most of my high school career, was worse than most. The school had been built into a hill and over the years, additions had been tacked on in a haphazard and inelegant manner. Half the cafeteria was in one of the newer portions of the building--it had high ceilings and tall windows that let in lots of light. The other half of the cafeteria was in the basement of the oldest part of the school--it was windowless and dimly lit with a claustrophobically low ceiling. The kitchen and serving lines were in this cave-like space along with as many tables as fire regulations would allow, all the better to cram in as many freaks, geeks and social outliers as possible because, of course, the sunny side of the cafeteria was reserved for those with some measure of social standing.

I was a cave-dweller, huddled with my friend Toni at a round table near the snack bar window. By default, we sat with three people we barely knew: Jon, who rode my bus and Joanne and Suzanne, who were friends with each other. For most of the school year, the five of us didn't really eat lunch together, we ate lunch near each other. Toni and I carried on one conversation while Suzanne and Joanne carried on another and Jon did mysterious nerdy things involving hieroglyphic markings on oversized sheets of graph paper.

It seemed likely that Joanne and Suzanne had been exiled to the dark side of the cafeteria primarily for their academic achievements and for the primness they both radiated. Joanne, especially, gave off an air of displaced royalty--she spoke fluent French, quoted Shakespeare, and stopped just short of raising her pinky finger while daintily sipping from her carton of chocolate milk. She seemed to be patiently biding her time among her lowly subjects until she could be rescued by her knight in shining armor from the evil witch's curse that had banished her here in the first place.

It happened that Joanne, Suzanne and Toni did have one thing in common--all three of them were Catholic. While Joanne and Suzanne were apparently church-going Catholics, Toni was more of what I guess you'd call a "cultural Catholic." She and her family did not regularly attend church, but many of the traditions of the Church seemed to be deeply embedded in their DNA.

For Lent that year, Toni had given up meat--not just on Fridays, but for the whole forty days. She seemed to be doing okay, until one Friday, when I noticed she was staring a little too intently at the pepperoni on my pizza.

"I really, really want that pepperoni," she said, reaching for it.

"It's Friday," Joanne warned.

Toni's hand paused for a second, as she considered the fate of her immortal soul. "I know," she said, "but it's just one tiny pepperoni."

"You can't," Joanne said. "It doesn't matter how big it is, it's still meat."2

Toni snatched the pepperoni from the top of my pizza and popped it into her mouth.

Joanne gasped. "You are no longer a member of the Catholic Church."

Toni licked a string of cheese from her finger and said, "It was worth it."

J is for Judgment

1. Lions? Lions aren't ruthless. I'd take a pride of hungry lions over a gaggle of teenage girls any day.

2. An argument could be made that high school cafeteria pepperoni is not really meat at all, but I doubt Joanne would've been swayed.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

With Friends Like Those...

When I was very young, between the ages of two and three, I kept company with a pair of imaginary friends--Julie and Johnny. Though I was too young at the time to have any reliable memory of the two of them1, my relationship with them was so intense, my mother included them on my "Favorite Things" page in my baby book. Not only that, but I believe Julie and Johnny are the reason Lora, a little girl who people besides me could see, is listed as my first real friend. 

Despite their unwillingness to show themselves to anyone else, Julie and Johnny had no trouble occupying me--I spent whole afternoons playing with them, carrying on long conversations and even demanding that my mother make sandwiches for them at lunch time. The way my mother told it, Julie and Johnny only faded away when we moved to a different town and Lora came into my life.

For most of my life, I've thought of Julie and Johnny as just one more layer of quirk, but recently2, I have started to wonder if Julie and Johnny were more supernatural than imaginary.

Once that possibility crossed my mind, I remembered the months after Son-One learned to crawl and then walk. Very often, he would make his way toward the same corner of our tiny apartment's tiny kitchen. He would sit on the floor, facing the corner, his eyes focused on something none of the rest of us could see. Sometimes he would speak to whatever or whomever it was he saw, stringing baby syllables into sentence-like structures--questions, demands, declarative statements. Mostly though, he sat and watched intently in a way that became eerie over time.

After months of this, when Son-One was not quite two, we moved to another apartment and we never saw him "corner talking" again.

So, what say you, my bloggy friends? Quirk or clairvoyance? Is either of them hereditary? And do you have any experiences with either one that you'd like to share?

I is for Imaginary

1. Memory is a such a strange and slippery thing. For most of my life, when I've thought of these two, I've thought of them as Jean and Johnny. Tonight, when I was double checking my baby book for my mother's notations on the subject, I discovered that my mother had referred to the female counterpart as "Julie." I had absolutely read that note before, but somehow had forgotten the written version in favor of my own recollection of "Jean." Based on the ink color and handwriting and the timing of other entries, my mother's note about Julie and Johnny was written around the time I was eight, about five years after my friendship with Jean/Julie and Johnny had ended. Did she misremember Jean's name as Julie as that point? Did I misremember Julie as Jean all along? Or did my mother at some point begin substituting Jean for Julie in her oral version of the story, which I heard a million times and internalized? Or, perhaps, I remember more about Jean and Johnny than I realize? Wherever it may have come from, Jean is so embedded in my psyche that it was an effort to type Julie throughout this entry.

2. The timing may or may not be related to excessive viewing of Celebrity Ghost Stories, where a surprising number of episodes feature childhood friends of the disembodied spirit variety. Hey! If it's good enough for Daryl Hannah, it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Does That Come In A Slightly Smaller Size?

In January, I attended a suicide intervention training1 that involved role-playing exercises. We separated into pairs with one partner playing the caregiver and the other playing the at-risk individual in "performances" in front of the whole workgroup.

One of the teams was comprised of a mother and daughter who were attending the workshop together. The guidelines for this particular program call for the caregiver to encourage the at-risk person to first talk about the reasons she wants to die and then move on to the reasons for living. As the at-risk person, the mother painted a bleak existence for her character--a widowed, childless nurse who was being forced into retirement after 35 years of loyal service. The mother was so convincingly distraught that the daughter struggled to find a positive with which to help her start her list of reasons to live.

When the two of them finished their presentation, another woman in our group asked the facilitator how to handle a situation where "everything in a person's life seems so awful that you can't think of anything good to tell them."

The facilitator turned the question over to the group and, looking for clarification, I asked the questioner, "Are you asking how do you find hope in the face of suckishness?"

The woman's eyes lit up. "Yes," she said, "that's it exactly."

"Well," I answered, "I think that's really one of those core life questions, isn't it? That we all kind of have to answer on our own."

Feigning dismay, she said, "So you're telling me you don't have the answer either?"2

A few weeks later, I was sitting with a friend, an avowed and sometimes vehement atheist, who was trying to move on from the mistakes of his past, but was not at all sure what to do with his future. He was struggling to find a path that felt meaningful and he said, without that meaning, he didn't really see the point of making an effort at change at all.

It hit me that he, too, was talking about hope in the face of suckishness, albeit in a different way than the woman at the training. Even as atheists, we can see that hope in the face of suckishness is one of those things that religion often gets right. Religion offers not just faith, but fellowship and tradition, that can help to fill that hollow spot where hope should be.

For nonbelievers, the search for something big enough to fill that enormous emptiness is daunting. It's an easy thing to say that everyone must figure out for themselves how to fill that void, but much less easy to live with that void in the meantime.

That day, my friend and I eventually had to concede that we'd discovered no easy answers--no answers at all really. But we had at least felt comforted by talking with someone who struggled with the same questions.

It was a couple of days before it finally occurred to me that far from being a consolation prize, that sense of connection, of having found a fellow searcher, was actually part of the answer. A little part, sure, but lots of big things are built of little parts.

"How do I find hope in the face of suckishness?" may be a big question but, for me, the answers turn out to be small ones, or at least a big appreciation for small things: moments of true connection with family and friends, words strung together in a way that makes a bit more sense of the world, that male cardinal this morning at the tippy top of the still-bare silver maple across the street singing at a volume clearly meant to prove once and for all that body weight has no direct correlation with decibel output. 

Taken together, the little things add up to more than enough hope. It's just a matter of remembering that they do.

H is for Hope

1. ASIST. Highly recommended, by the way.

2. The facilitator stepped in then and answered the original question regarding how to steer someone toward reasons to live when there seem to be so many negatives stacked against them. He said that while it's not much, the fact that the person is willing to talk about suicide shows a willingness to live and that they are having the conversation at all can be just enough to build on.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Celebrity Ghost Stories

One of the most mysterious things about Celebrity Ghost Stories*, a show full of mystery, is how the hell I ever ended up watching it in the first place. I've never been a channel surfer and since the advent of the DVR, my television viewing is purposeful and limited to a handful of shows that are set to record. I rarely even check the "guide" to see what I might be missing. But, somehow, perhaps steered by the invisible (ghostly?) hand of Fate, I stumbled across Celebrity Ghost Stories and watch it I did.

And then I watched it some more. In the month or so since I first stumbled upon it, I have deliberately watched 25 to 30 episodes of Celebrity Ghost Stories. It's fabulous. And awful. Its sheer awfulness may well be the most fabulous thing about it.

In each episode, three or four celebrities share their personal paranormal experiences. The show appears to define "celebrity" somewhat broadly, but many of the faces, if not all the names, are instantly recognizable. Just in case, though, each segment is introduced with a white-on-black, all caps Powerpoint-style graphic briefly detailing the storyteller's celeb credentials as well as providing a teaser for the upcoming tale of the supernatural.

These teasers are set to ominous music and make strategic (and melodramatic) use of ellipses. For example: 


The stories feature first-person ghostly and spiritual encounters of all kinds and are told in narrative monologues. Threaded through the on-camera shots of the present-day celebrity seated in front of an unadorned green and black backdrop is the dramatic reenactment of the celebrity's ghost story. With few exceptions, the tone the celebrities use to relay these extraordinary happenings is calm and matter-of-fact, which only serves to highlight the over-the-top hysteria of the reenactments.

While I believe paranormal phenomena are possible in the abstract, I do not find most personal experience stories to be especially credible, which is not to say I think people who tell these stories are being deliberately untruthful. Rather, I know that eyewitness testimony of all kinds is notoriously unreliable and then add to that the vast number of these occurrences that take place just upon waking or just before falling asleep or (as in the case of numerous celebrities) in the presence of drugs or alcohol of various quantities, it just seems likely to me that many, many of these specific stories are more likely explained by less otherworldly means.

I think I watch Celebrity Ghost Stories more as a "Whose Going To Turn Up Now?" sort of thing than as a documentary on spooky stuff. A recent episode featured Natalie from Facts of Life, Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds, Rhoda from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Jamie from Charles In Charge. Some of the most surprising guests have been Sugar Ray Leonard, Dick Cavett, and Joan Rivers.

At this point, I'm close to burning out. I'm sure the moment is coming soon when I will shut off an episode mid-way through and never watch the show again, but in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy every awful, fabulous moment.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Awfabuloful.

G is for Ghosts

*New episodes of Celebrity Ghost Stories appear at 8 p.m. on bio.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Everybody's Got One

A couple of months ago, two of Daughter-Only's music-crazed friends were raving to one another about a band they both love. When A.M. announced that the band was indisputably the best in history and anyone who thought otherwise was just wrong, S.A., pretending to be the voice of reason,said, "They have just as much right to their own opinion as you have to the correct answer."

It was a clever quip and when A.M. shared it with me, I chuckled appreciatively before launching into a mini-rant about how our societal inability to differentiate between facts and opinions is ruining our country and maybe even the world. A.M. mostly ignored my hysterics because he has spent enough time around Masked Mom headquarters to have grown accustomed, if not entirely immune, to my outbursts about the falling of the sky and my upcoming trip to go and tell the king.

When a teenage boy mistakes (or pretends to) his adolescent fanaticism for an objective fact, it's expected and maybe even endearing. But when so many adults imagine opinions, innuendo and rumors to be equal (or even superior) to facts and common sense, it can be demoralizing and maybe even dangerous.

It's not news that the internet is a fertile environment for the spread of not news--fictional "facts" passed from person to person, often gaining velocity and toxicity as they go. Most days, Facebook is less a social network than it is a clearinghouse of crap.

In late February, a Facebook friend of mine posted a particularly disturbing example of internet journalism: the "breaking news" that a provision of Obamacare mandates that all Americans be implanted with RFID microchips by March 23, 2013. Apparently, these chips would not only collect (and transmit) personal health information, but also link directly to your bank account. My friend shared this story with the comment, "Whoever approved this should be fired."

On the face of it, the story struck me as outlandish and paranoid. Even if the concept were believable, the timing was not remotely feasible. Here it was, the end of February with the March 23 deadline fast approaching and no one I knew (and, I think it's safe to assume, no one my friend knew) had yet been implanted, which meant our unwieldy and inefficient government was somehow going to implant 300 million-plus individuals with RFID microchips in a few short weeks.

Speaking of time, the amount of time it took me to research and thoroughly debunk the microchip story was less than five minutes. (Snopes.com and factcheck.org are good starting places.) I sent some links to my friend in a private message and, to her credit, the post disappeared from her timeline within minutes.

I was left wondering--and not for the first time--what criteria people use when choosing to share this sort of thing. Clearly, credibility is not an issue, much less truthfulness. For many people, how believable a story is seems to coincide exactly with how well it reinforces their own preconceived notions and opinions.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like opinions as much as the next girl--some of my best friends have opinions. What's more, many of my best friends have opinions that differ significantly from my own on some pretty major issues. To an amateur student of human nature such as myself, other people's opinions can be fascinating and even revealing.

Whatever else opinions may be, though, they are not facts. Ideally, our opinions are built of facts rather than our "facts" being built of opinions.

F is for Facts

Friday, April 05, 2013

Somebody Get Old McDonald On The Phone: How Did We Ever Settle An Argument Before The Internet?

Most of the time, we buy our eggs from the regular old grocery store, but every once in a while, we get a couple dozen directly from a local farmer. The eggs from the grocery store are perfectly adequate--white-shelled, uniformly sized and mostly free of imperfections, but the farmer's eggs are glorious to behold--varying shades of blues and browns and greens, speckled and solid, petite and jumbo, covered in gritty bumps and pristinely smooth, all nestled together in a single carton.  I get a little giddy just lifting the lid. It's all I can do not to pet them.


That such diversity comes from birds we classify all under a single name is fascinating, and, yes, delightful to me. It also reminds me of a batty and brilliant woman I once knew named Lee. I learned a lot of things from Lee, but probably none as valuable as the one she didn't mean to teach me.

I first met Lee in 1983 when my mom dragged me to Burger King, where they both worked and I would begin working a few months later, to help with a display for the debut of Return of the Jedi. I think my mother drafted me into helping less because she and Lee needed the help and more because I had only rarely left the house since we'd moved to New Hampshire two months before. By that point in my Army brat career, I didn't make friends, I waited for them to make me.

Helping my mother and her fifty-something coworker assemble an X-wing fighter from cardboard and papier-mâché wasn't really an opportunity to meet people my own age, but it would at least get me off the couch where I'd been wallowing in a Funk intensified by the culture shock of moving to a place where "aunt" rhymed with "taunt," sodas were all "tonics," and "wicked" was a wicked annoying modifier used in place of "very."

On that day, and pretty much always, Lee's short, dark hair was a mess of multidirectional cowlicks. She was wearing maroon polyester pants with a broken fly. The gold safety pin she'd driven through the flaps failed to close the gap, but succeeded in sending a clear message: Lee had known her zipper was broken and had left the house anyway. She had more important things to worry about than how she looked.

She was the mother of five grown children, the wife of a minister. She was a chain smoker with a barking laugh and a playful glimmer in her eye. She could be impatient and hot-headed. She was opinionated and outspoken, occasionally foul-mouthed. She was given to speaking in pronouncements, sound bites coated in her authoritative voice.

While training me at the register at Burger King, she told me the golden rule of customer service. "Always remember that people can get a burger anywhere. What brings them back is the quality of our service; a friendly smile goes a long way."

When she came upon a fellow coworker squirting excessive amounts of dish soap into the sink, she shouted, "It's not soap that gets dishes clean, it's elbow grease and hot water!"

She told me I wasn't supposed to accept tips for hosting birthday parties and then said, "But if a tip is offered, you should politely refuse it twice and if the parent insists, then take it. To refuse a third time would just be rude."

One afternoon, just after Hubby-to-be and I had announced our engagement, I was pouting about not being able to take my lunch break at the same time as him. "Listen, hon," she said, "You're going to marry him and mark my words, there will come a day when you want nothing more than to be away from him for half an hour. Enjoy this half hour while you can."1

Around Easter one year, the topic of eggs came up. Now, in New Hampshire at that time (and apparently still), brown eggs, not white, were the default at the grocery store. There was even a TV jingle: "Brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh!" In fact, the only time white eggs seemed to be readily available was around Easter when people wanted eggs for decorating.

My mother remarked upon this in front of Lee, who immediately piped up, "There's no such thing as a white egg. They're just brown eggs that have been bleached."

To my mother and me, this theory was not merely absurd, it bordered on heretical. Everywhere else we'd lived--ten places in five states--white eggs had been the norm. Chickens had been the subject of both my sixth and seventh grade science fair projects so I had exhaustively researched2 chickens as well as incubated (white) eggs on our kitchen counter, producing fluffy yellow chicks. My grandparents kept chickens3, some of whom laid white eggs.

When Lee was unmoved by our personal experience, we tried simple logic. If all chicken eggs were brown, why would anyone want or expect white eggs in the first place?

She responded with a convoluted theory about public perception and corporate complicity and white being a "cleaner" color. She was unshakable in her conviction and, finally, there was nothing to do but walk away.

Lee was a smart woman and she clearly suffered from that condition to which smart people are especially susceptible. She was right so often, she'd forgotten how to be wrong.

Lee, 1986 in the Burger King drive-thru. It was Halloween and we were permitted to dress up. Lee dressed as a Celtics fan, a.k.a. herself.

E is for Eggs

1. About Hubby, she also told me, "You got yourself a good one there, make sure you hold on to him." I used to think these two bits of wisdom were at odds with one another, but now that I've been married for nearly twenty-six years, I see they're just two parts of a messy whole. (Earlier today, while Hubby and I were swapping Lee-isms, he told me, "The main thing I remember her telling me was about you. She said, 'You got yourself a good one there, make sure you hold on to her.'" Smart woman, that Lee. Even though she didn't know a damned thing about eggs.)

2. Full disclosure: the research was only semi-exhaustive and only the first year. The second year, I copied off my own paper from the year before. I placed second both years, for what that's worth.

3. This fact was not unrelated to the fact that two years in a row my science fair project had produced twenty-some fluffy chicks in need of a home.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

This Call May Be Monitored Or Recorded For Quality Purposes

A couple of years ago, I had to call our cell phone provider regarding a billing issue. The customer service representative was not only helpful, but apparently, a little bored and when the fact that Hubby was (at the time) a contractor came up, the representative clucked sympathetically. "Oh, I know how that goes. My father was a masonry contractor. Let's get your situation resolved and then I'll tell you a little story about how my father resolved a payment issue with a client of his."

The mason did business in a small town and one day he received a call from a guy who was not well-known for meeting his obligations. Apparently, the guy owed money to half the town. Nevertheless, the mason agreed to build a fireplace for this guy.

"Get your money up front," everyone warned him when they heard who he was building a fireplace for.

"Oh, I'm not worried about it," the mason replied. "I'll get my money."

The mason finished up the job in June and met with the guy. Instead of a check, the guy offered some lame excuses and vague promises and the mason said to him, "Oh, I'm not worried about it. I'm sure I'll get my money."

Word spread (as it does in small towns) that the guy had not paid the mason. When they ran into the mason, everyone said, "Told you so. You should've gotten your money up front."

The mason just smiled like a man with a secret and said, "Don't worry. I'll get my money."

Summer slid into fall and the nights began to cool. One September night, the guy decided to try out his new (unpaid for) fireplace. As the kindling crackled and caught fire, his living room began to fill with smoke despite the fact that the flue was open. He immediately put out the fire and called the mason to complain.

"There's something wrong with the fireplace you built me. I need you to come over right away."

"I'll come," answered the mason. "But have my money ready. Cash."

The guy met the mason at the door, cash in hand. The mason ambled to his truck and returned with a ladder. He propped the ladder against the house and climbed to the roof. Then he pulled a brick from his coat pocket and dropped it down the chimney. Halfway down, the brick shattered the pane of glass the mason had used to seal the chimney closed months before.

D is for Deliciously Diabolical

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Wisdom For The Ages

Mrs. Barrett, my middle school guidance counselor, was a woman in her fifties who dressed in layered shades of brown--cardigans over button-up blouses over what appeared to be T-shirts. She also wore round-framed glasses with thick lenses that magnified her slow-blinking, watery eyes. All of this contributed to her overall resemblance to an owl, which may be why all these many years later I still remember her as an uncommonly wise woman.

Once, in seventh grade, I was called to her office so that she could break the news to me that I had missed entrance into the gifted program by one IQ point. I don't recall that this was of any great concern to me at the time. I had taken the test over the summer because one of my sixth grade teachers had suggested it, not because I had any burning desire to be in the gifted program.

Regardless, we had a nice chat in which she dominated the conversation and I nodded a lot. She spoke of adolescence as a difficult and confusing time and then she said to me something I carry with me still.

"Probably sometimes you will wonder if you are going crazy. I want you to know that if you are sane enough to wonder if you're crazy, then you are not crazy."

I cling to that notion still. Maybe a little too tightly.

C is for Craziness