Monday, January 12, 2015

"Got Your Glasses? Got Your Teeth"

or

What Goes Around Comes Around

I heard it whenever my mother or my aunts went anywhere with my grandmother. We'd all be ready to head out the door and, just before we stepped outside one of them would ask her, "You got your glasses? You got your teeth?"

It was as common a phrase to me as "see ya later" or "drive carefully" and part of the ritual of traveling with Gramma. She would put on her black and white tweed coat then drop a clean handkerchief into her purse, which would snap shut with a waft of violet (the only gum she ever chewed) while one of her daughters would wait patiently by the door. And then, "Got your glasses? Got your teeth?"

It's not like Gramma needed either one of those all the time. The glasses were reading glasses and the teeth were only a bridge that fit way in the back of her mouth that no one could readily tell whether it was in there or not.

When I was very small I wondered what cataclysm had occurred that this was the ultimate question prior to leaving. Not, "Got your driver's license?" "Got enough money to get where you are going and back?" What horrible thing happened in the past that remembering glasses and teeth prevented?

When I got older, though, I was embarrassed for my grandmother. It wasn't like she was senile or even forgetful. She was sharp as a tack and quite feisty. In fact, I can't figure out why she allowed the indignity of the questions in the first place. Usually anyone questioning her got a, "don't tell me..." Think: an Italian Miss Daisy.

So, to this day, I really don't get what started the two questions and why they were allowed to become part of our lexicon.

Fast forward to present day.

Personally, all my teeth are my own and, unless I'm sleeping, my glasses are always on my face. For the record.

Dirtman, however, has a cap on one of his front teeth and recently that cap has succumbed to a particularly nasty habit he has of chewing tobacco. He will argue this point and say the cap coming off has nothing to do with the Skoal but, let's face it -- it can't help. And I will use any excuse to scold him for this particular habit. The fact is, the cap fell out and we don't have dental insurance or the money to fix it. So he uses denture fixative to keep the tooth in (and prevent us from making fun of him).

On top of this, since only one of the lenses in Dirtman's glasses is of any use (he is blind in one eye), he has taken to not wearing his glasses a whole lot when he is working at home. Since I do most of our driving (you're welcome), he can go days without having to put his glasses on.

And so it happened. The Heirs came for a visit and, since I had some free coupons, we decided to go to one of our local vineyards and do a wine tasting.

I must admit, my goal whenever I leave the house is only that I'm somewhat tidy and don't smell. But when we visit places like a winery, I do tend to succumb to cultural pressures and try to look a little less like a homeless person and more like a middle class person who can actually afford a bottle of the wines she is tasting -- in other words, I put a scarf around my neck because that seems to be the thing.

Dirtman has no such aspirations. In fact, Dirtman enjoys testing the limits of what society will allow. He is true counterculuralist -- an individual; a nonconformist. He would never be caught dead wearing a scarf around his neck. Or combing his hair. Or...

Okay, I'll say it: we have to check on Dirtman before he walks out the door. As a public service.

And that is why, as Heir 1 turned the knob to leave for the winery I said to Dirtman, "Got your glasses? Got your teeth?"

Glasses AND Teeth
The Heirs looked at me as I must have looked at my mother and my aunts.

I almost wish it was still the custom to bury people in family crypts. Because that is what I would have carved in the lintel over the door.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

From Humbug to Hallelujah

(or how working a catalog call center in December helped me find the true meaning of Christmas)

I never thought there would be a time when I would find Christmas annoying. I don’t mean just “the holidays” – I think just about everyone is a little exasperated with The Season muscling out the cozy earth tones of autumn. But, as December approached, the day itself had begun floating around in the back of my mind like an upcoming dental appointment or tax deadline.

I used to love Christmas. No. Scratch that.

I used to love thinking I could find the ideal Christmas. And the ideal Christmas was one where I would finally hit upon the perfect balance of spiritual fulfillment and holiday ambiance. Needless to say, any time the word “perfect” enters the conversation, you may as well give up right there.

When financial disaster and subsequent unemployment turned our holidays into something visited upon by The Grinch, I thought surely, there would be some sort of epiphany or flood of meaning. Instead Christmas a lá the Cratchits brought an uneasy feeling that we no longer had the entry fee to participate in our own cultural festivities.

Yes, of course there are tons of “free” events designed to foster the Christmas spirit and I would dutifully (because, in addition to becoming more and more cynical about the season, came the guilt over being cynical about the season resulting in an all-out assault on my cynicism) plod to one Christmas concert after another, only to be confronted by the inevitable “free will offering.” I’m not saying anyone made me feel obligated to toss my (literally) last dollar into the basket, but in my mind everyone was watching and judging and waiting to see if I was a freeloader…and did I mention that I’m a pathological people pleaser? But the reality of it is that Christmas is a fundraising opportunity for churches and organizations – and as someone deeply involved in a nonprofit, I totally understand that.

So I was almost relieved when this year the opportunity arose to work through the entire Christmas season, head down, nose to the grindstone, putting in as many hours as I could to make what I earned last long enough to get me through to my next paying gig (someday I will write of the humiliating, heart-breaking, soul-crushing challenge of trying to find a job as a woman over 55, but that is a subject best discussed once resolved). I was going to be a seasonal telephone customer service representative for a national catalogue company based in my home county – and NO I’m not going to name it.

Let me start out with a little Economics 101, for those who don’t know: big retailers have absolutely no feeling for you whatsoever. No matter what they say or what they do, you are a number to them and it’s a numbers game. Know that and you will save yourself a lot of heartbreak and frustration. So, when they “give” you a “deal,” be assured they are getting something in return – your e-mail address, your home address, your shopping habits and the shopping habits of your neighbors.

That being said, as an employee of said retailer, it is my job to maintain the façade that we are, truly, there to serve you. This was the most difficult part of my job because, in spite of all the lip service we were subjected to about delivering quality service, the only thing rewarded, recognized or even noted was sales – not the things you call in to buy, but the things we talk you into buying.

The avarice of my employer was matched only by the rudeness of some of my customers. Granted, most were pretty benign and some were downright charming; but all it takes are those four or five phone calls a day to make you fervently pray for another flood to wipe out the entire human race. I was yelled at, cussed at, talked down to and, on several occasions, called an entirely different species, all over policies or mistakes over which I had no control. At no time was I permitted to “defend” myself, only apologize over and over again for something I didn’t do. For the most part, these were situations for which I had no remedy – I can’t make UPS move any faster or change the fact that you didn’t read the information on how long it would take for specialty items to ship.

What I am trying to say here is that I had landed myself in the very eye of the jaundiced Christmas storm. Had I one iota of Christmas spirit left, it had dissipated after one hour of cyber Monday greed.

It got steadily worse as Christmas Eve approached because the closer we got, the less we could do to get stuff to customers on time and everyone knew that by Christmas Eve, it is too late to do anything about anything. I’d been warned it would get uglier and uglier – and it did. Pretty soon my entire day consisted of people yelling at me and accusing me, personally, of ruining their children’s Christmas.

“This was his only Christmas,” one woman snapped at me about a wind chime she’d ordered for her husband.

That was when I noticed the trend of referring to the stuff as the holiday. She hadn’t bothered calling it a Christmas gift – she just called it “Christmas” – his Christmas. As though he had sole ownership of the holiday.

As if any of us do.

Needless to say, it’s no revelation that gift-giving has usurped the holiday. Turn on the TV during November and December. But I knew something else had shifted and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then, Dirtman and I were driving home from grocery shopping a few days before Christmas when I saw what was probably just a silly little church youth activity taking place in front of one of our local Mennonite grocery stores. It was dark, but whether they had turned the store sign’s spotlight on themselves or someone had provided them with one, I don’t remember. I just know I could see them from a quarter of a mile away.

A line of angels, jumping up and down and waving.

Excited angels, as if happy to be finally delivering news of the Best Gift Ever, to use the vernacular.

Delivery guaranteed by Christmas – to all of us.

Why hadn’t I thought of that when people asked me if their gift would be there by Christmas?

Because I’d get fired, that’s why. And I am no prophet. And, goodness knows, prophets in this day and age would be subject to some nightmarish vetting process I’d rather not think about. No, these days, a gentler touch is required. Something more basic.

No ideological minutia or none of my finger wagging borderline puritan extremism.

Just angels. Glowing in the light. No sign. No shouts of dogma. No expectations – the recipients of their message were passing them at 60 miles per hour.

Why did it make me cry? Why does it still make me cry?

Because of the pure simplicity of it; the boiled-down heart of everything that Christmas about of it. They could have stood at the grocery store door and told people, “Merry Christmas!” They would have gotten a greeting back; they may have even gotten a chance to share their faith (though, considering the venue, they’d be preaching to the choir…so to speak…).

Instead, they were out sharing good will with no chance of knowing if their joy touched anyone. And all for just…anybody. Travelers, truck drivers, farmers, commuters, and maybe even some shepherds. Both the faithful and sinners. People too busy to bother with “that part” of Christmas…

…And at least one angry middle-aged woman having a crisis of faith.

I wonder if they knew how powerful was their little display? They took what had become a selfish, overly-burdened day of high expectations and inevitable disappointments and reminded a bunch of weary travelers that the gift of Christ is all we need to be joyful.

When Christmas comes from that kind of joy, it changes the way you not only see the holiday, but the way you see everything. And so I pass on this message, which I’m almost sure I heard driving down the highway not too long ago:


Glory to God in the highest heaven; and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Friday, October 10, 2014

On 27 Years of Marriage

Thinner, more attractive...and very, very stupid
Anniversaries tend to uncork all sorts of sloppy sentimentality that almost loses its meaning in triteness. And, yes, I know how cynical that sounds.

Let's just say I don't do goo and treacle and I really don't want to be trite. As of 1 p.m. today, I've been married 27 years and, quite frankly, it hasn't been all Ozzie and Harriet and The Cosbys around here. To cheapen the journey by saying "It's been a wild ride" -- or something equally dismissive -- seems disingenuous.

I'll admit that I married for the romance. It really was going to be "a wild ride." I wasn't going to let life turn me and my husband into just an old married couple marking time until death. We were going to be foxtrotting into our elder years without ever resorting to polyester clothing or early bird specials. I would be his obsession and he would be my rock. We would have explosively spectacular fights and monumental reconciliations.We would be F. Scott and Zelda (before the insanity); Tracey and Hepburn (without the adultery); Bogart and Bacall (without the spousal abuse).

Then we grew up and life happened. I found out that when life kicks you in the gut, you don't have time to look like Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn or have the words to express what you are feeling like F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is when it stops being a "wild ride" and starts being dragged down a gravel road hooked to a speeding car.

When life kicks you in the gut you look like hell and you sound like an insane maniac, and sometimes you say and do things you never thought you would say or do, let alone to someone you love. I know, in the teeth of the storm, I retreat into myself; the shades get drawn and my "pithy sarcasm" turns nasty and bitter. Chuck, meanwhile, lives in a happy state of denial and watches a lot of "Restaurant Impossible."

Every couple has their process.

And you love each other through it all, at the base of it all, even when you wouldn't call it love. It's when you have to remember to love; when, for me, I resort to my faith (Matthew 18:21-22) and my belief in the institution of marriage as something that you commit to not only for "worse," but even the worst of the worse*.

Perhaps there are couples who will attest to having the type of relationship I aspired to 27 year ago. If you do, God bless -- I pray you are never tested. I don't say that to be condescending. I say it because I doubt there is any couple that has a marriage that has never been challenged by something. And I say it because I am a better person and we are a stronger couple for the testing.

So if you were expecting some sentimental goo about 27 years of marriage, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'll keep my sentimentality between me and Chuck -- because he won't tell anyone that I'm not the erudite pragmatist I pretend to be.

*...okay, of course abuse would be an exception; but not even a flicker of consideration in my
case because, frankly, I can take him.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back-to-school Shoes

Note: Ugly back-to-school shoes
Why haven't I bought my back-to-school shoes?

Why, at 57 years old, do I still at this time of year look forward to buying what were usually the ugliest shoes ever to come out of the mind of humans? Because, back when I got "back-to-school shoes," they had to be sturdy and functional; patent leather mary janes were for church and Keds (and PF Flyers) were for gym class. But school shoes were dark, leather and ugly and I got a new pair every fall.

And so, every Labor Day weekend in those moments just before dropping off to sleep or just waking up, my mind prepares itself for the first day of school. You know, back when the school supply list consisted of: a cigar box (seriously -- in first grade we asked the druggist for actual cigar boxes, which he nicely saved up throughout the year; in later years, you could get cigarbox-shaped boxes that were sold with school supplies), a pack of six crayons, a jar of paste and No. 2 pencils. In fourth grade I was excited that "ball point pens" were added to the list.

Was I the only one who insisted on wearing my new back-to-school clothes on the first day of school...and then sweated through the day because that's what you do when it's 89 degrees out and you're wearing corduroy and a sweater?

When I see kids board the bus these days, it seems so odd to me that there was a time where girls couldn't wear pants to school and boys couldn't wear jeans. No one was allowed to wear sneakers anywhere but in the gym. If you lived within a half mile of the school, you walked or rode your bike. If you rode a bus, you walked a block or so to the bus stop. Do they even have bike racks at schools anymore?

Side Note: This article from The Atlantic should be a must-read for all parents. I'm not saying we should allow our kids to ride their bikes behind the mosquito-spray truck (Umm...explains a lot, huh?) --  but playground equipment these days looks about a much fun as a handicap ramp at your grandmother's internist's office and, for God's sake, when did the school bus start this door-to-door service?

Autumn is bearing down on us and, while others are thinking in terms of apple-picking, raking leaves and pumpkins, I just remember the stress of that first day with all its dread and optimism, its jockeying for position in the classroom and its forming of hierarchies in the playground. And I remember getting home and feeling like I'd gotten something over with and now I could go back to my carefree summer life, only to realize I had to get up and do it all again the next day. And the day after that.

Mostly, though, I think of the new shoes...the ugly new shoes, glowing with cleanliness and not yet broken in, molding my feet to it's structure and eating away at my old worn socks.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The ALS Bucket Challenge and Snarky Memes

The Lifespan of a Trend

First there are the accolades: "What a great idea! Hope it catches on!"

Then there is the excitement: "Let's all do it!"

Then there is the peak: "We're all doing it!"

The tapering off: "We're all doing it."

The trickling off: "Sorry I'm late with this, but now I (your grandmother) will now do this."

To ambivalence: "Are we still doing this?"

Denial: "I never felt the need to do this."

And, finally, the hate: "What sort of idiot does this?"

If you don't want to do the ALS Bucket Challenge, don't. If you don't want to give to ALS research, then don't.

Nobody cared about the California drought before this, including the many golf courses and green lawns found throughout that state. The ALS Bucket Challenge is not causing the California drought or threatening the water supply in Africa.

You can't deny, though, that this "stunt" raised plenty of money to combat a horrible disease. That is a good thing -- get it? Disease: Bad. Curing bad disease: Good.

Do you have some problem you want eradicated for which you need to raise money? Try just asking people. I guarantee you won't get far.

Involve them in the effort and you'd be surprised.

That's why people run 5Ks or walk around a track all night long for cancer research. That's why people walk 20 miles around their own town for environmental causes.

So, please, enough with the snarky memes on YouTube and Facebook. Certainly there are more constructive things to be angry at than caring citizens who are just having a little fun while doing a little good.

Besides, if I thought it would raise enough money for the farm, I'd be happy to dump a bucket of ice water over Dirtman's head!