Sunday, December 30, 2012

Two Kinds of People in This World

Children have an uncanny ability to need a bathroom when one is farthest from reach. This was the case one dark night several years ago when we were on a family road trip, miles from the nearest town. Our daughter Emily Rose was about four, and announced from the back seat that she needed to go to the bathroom. Knowing we were at least fifteen minutes from a viable option, we explained that she could either wait it out, or we could pull over so she could go outside. Her response was quick and decisive.

"There are two kinds of people in this world," Rosie said,  "People who go to the bathroom on the side of the road, and people who don't. I am the second one."

Once we recovered from laughing until our sides ached, I began to think about how Rosie's philosophy could apply to many different situations. From that point on, I have mentally created all kinds of categories about people, narrowing them neatly into two buckets, those that do "X" and those that don't. People who will clip their nails at their desk. People who won't kill spiders. People who will tell you if you have black beans in your teeth. People who won't.

Up until today, I fell under the category of "a person who will not do crafts." I'd rather drink a glass of clumpy milk than set foot inside a Hobby Lobby. It's hard for me to even say those two words together without faking some kind of weird, Fargoesque accent where I say, "Habbie Labbie" and make a gagging signal. The few times I've been inside a Habbie Labbie, it's been due to a school project meltdown, or a sudden urgent need for a glue-stick, but it's never because I'm there to bedazzle a sweatshirt. The few times I have forced myself to enter the terrifying doors of a Habbie Labbie, I've been thoroughly overwhelmed by it. Between the mysterious wooden cutouts of cats and the like, to the unnecessary amounts and sizes of easels, to all of that scrap-booking nonsense, I have to practice deep cleansing breaths of foul potpourri and eucalyptus just to get out of there without a full-fledged panic attack.

And then you have the women with curious choices of accessories (hair and otherwise) who actually go there for sport, dragging around little bedazzled kids hyped up on Sour Patch Kids. Those women sniff me out, scanning me from head to toe, wondering how I had the audacity to enter their place of worship without a single bit of bling on my person, or at the very least a baseball cap with a glittery cross on it.

So I keep my head down and wander the aisles, humming along nervously to the canned contemporary Christian/patriotic music, winding my way through aisles of fuzzy pompoms and fluorescent poster board, clueless to the whereabouts of the gosh-darned glue-sticks. Finally I locate a spinster wearing a Habbie Labbie apron and flashing, four-leaf clover earrings, and she carefully leads me through a sea of craft crap to the vast selection of glue-stick options. By the time I check out, I've developed an eye twitch that lasts for days, reminding me never to return.

So this morning at breakfast, as I retold the story of a good friend who's boyfriend made home-made sugar scrub for her for this Christmas, Emily Rose, now 9, perked up.

"Oooh, let's make some!" she said, clapping her hands.

Inside, I cringed, fearful that this journey would land us inside a crafts store, searching for gingham jar covers. But it's the holidays, and what I felt I missed out on this year was enough travel-free, tv-free, noise-free time with my daughter, so I took this as a sign.

We started poking around online and found a few simple recipes, all easy enough to make, and presented in simple jars with simple labels. Hmm. Getting a little ballsier, I ventured over to Pinterest for a quick peek. I'm terrified of this Pinterest. The last thing I need is another thing to suck away more of my time and, God forbid, invite me into the dark world of crafting. Yet, we found some extremely cool salt scrub photos. Things seemed doable and even - dare I say it?- cute. Hmm...

I ventured out to our neighborhood grocery store and purchased 3 huge boxes of coarse Kosher salt, a large bottle of olive oil, and several lemons. Rosie stayed home with my husband to prepare our work station, and when I returned, we walked across the street to snip rosemary from our neighbor's massive rosemary bush, vowing to return the favor of stolen rosemary with our first batch of salt scrub.

Exhibit A: Emily Rose grates up lemon zest like a pro, having the time of her life. For those of you observant enough to notice that she's wearing a shirt with a glitter heart on it, please note that the glitter heart was not a result of a Habbie Labbie t-shirt project. You love it? I love it. I got it at Ross.



Exhibit B is the finished product. Emily Rose made the labels, which read: "Cozy Rosie's lemon rosemary salt scrub." At this point you're probably wondering if Rosie is wearing a glittery hair accessory. No, friends, that is our Christmas tree, which we may just leave up all year. (My husband actually suggested that today, and I think he was partially serious).



We took the first batch across the street to give to the two girls that we steal rosemary from on a regular basis. I strutted like a proud mother hen, instructing Rosie to be careful with the glass jar as if she had a mason jar filled with liquid gold. I sort of regret not walking over in an apron.

One of the neighbor girls answered the door as we were about to leave the jar at their doorstep. Her hair was wet and she'd just hopped out of the shower, a little startled at our random visit. Rosie explained what we'd made, touting the benefits of skin-softening while also making one's house smell wonderful, while I considered Rosie's promising future in Mary Kay sales. When the girl asked Rosie where we got the recipe, Rosie proudly said, "The Internet!" before I could answer, "Oh, it's an old family recipe we've been making for years." We strutted back home, my chest still puffed up from the Norman Rockwellian feeling of it all, and proceeded to make several more batches until we drained the house out of olive oil and lemons.

At one point during our assembly-line production, I asked Rosie what she liked about our project.

"It's an exercise in bonding!" she said, then scrunched up her brow and laughed. "But wait, we've been bonding for the past nine years. It's not like we need it!"

But we did need it. We had a wonderful time working together, and figuring out something new. Not to mention, I was the first to sample our finished product, and my before and after elbow softness test tells me I should have been salt scrubbing a long time ago.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who will dip their toe carefully into the world of home-made projects, and those who will not. While you won't see me prancing through Habbie Labbie any time soon, you may see me poking around a little on Pinterest.















Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Time to Heal

We've decided to take a break from the news.

Friday, when the tragic news from Newton, Connecticut broke, I called my husband to discuss how we would handle sharing this news with our fourth grade daughter. Like so many of my friends, who posted on Facebook and Twitter that they wanted to pick up their children right that minute, my first inclination was to drop everything and go to my daughter's school, hold her tightly, and not let go.

My husband -- always a voice of reason during times of tragedy and emergency -- suggested that we wait until school was out, and not do anything too disruptive to our daughter's normal schedule. We considered that it was unlikely that the school would share the news with the students, but that we didn't want her to hear the news from other children or parents who might be discussing it in the hallway after school let out.

When we arrived at the school, it was a typical Friday afternoon, children running through the hallways, screaming and laughing, digging money out of their pockets for our school's weekly candy sale, a fundraiser for the school's 5th grade class. I went inside to find our daughter, and spotted her bouncing down the hall, talking and laughing with a classmate. Oblivious to the horrors being reported on the news, the children were the picture of innocence.

"Mommy! You're here early.." she said as I hugged her so tightly she wiggled free, embarrassed, "A lot of parents are picking up their kids early today. Weird.."

And it was true. The school seemed unusually busy for a Friday afternoon, likely because other parents wanted to get their hands on their kids and hug them tightly as well.

We walked together to the cafeteria where the aftercare children meet. A group of kids were lined up to carefully pour a cup of hot chocolate, a special holiday treat. Others worked busily on art projects. Others were tossing binders and backpacks on the floor, a week of school behind them. Several of our daughter's friends ran up for a hug, or to show me something they'd drawn. I paused for a moment and just watched the scene, groups of children on a Friday afternoon, just being kids. I felt immensely grateful, yet painfully aware that nearly 2,000 miles away, another elementary school was the scene of something unimaginable. 

 As I went to sign our daughter out of aftercare, the aftercare teacher and I exchanged a controlled, yet tearful look.

"You're early today," she said, equally surprised to see me before 5:00.

"Yeah," I said, rubbing the head of one of our daughter's classmates as he walked by, "It just felt like a good day to pick her up early.."

At home, the weekend began like any other weekend, except it was several hours earlier and the television was intentionally off. This is unusual for us. We're a news-watching family. Each morning, two televisions - one in the living room and one in the master bedroom - report on a combination of local and national news.   My husband, a political junkie, irons his shirt in the living room as he talks back to the commentators on MSNBC. I dress based on my local NBC weather report, and time my morning around the opening music of The Today Show.

But this time, in an effort to protect our daughter from disturbing information, images of violence, or the sensationalism of a tragic event, we opted to explain the situation by talking. As we had hoped, our daughter had not heard the news. As parents, Tim and I did our best to explain the news to a 9-year old, offering her solace only in the fact that what had happened was so far away, perhaps the distance would make it seem less real.

This reminded me of a friend of my parents, who, despite his profession as a photojournalist, made a conscious decision to stop watching the national news many years ago. It was simply too depressing and overwhelming. Feeling helpless, he decided that the only thing the national news could do was make him fearful of things out of his control. So he chose to only pay attention to local news stories, and felt that by doing so, he could choose to impact things in his own community. And when he made this decision, he felt more at peace. Perhaps it's the ultimate exercise in denial, like those who choose not to vote because they don't feel their vote counts. Yet, I relate to his decision, and wonder if there's a way to stay informed, yet be shielded from the sense of overwhelm that comes from so much tragedy and sadness.

Because the constant reminders of Sandy Hook have been so painful, I decided to step back from social media a bit this weekend as well.  I tried to do my part in sharing some coping tools with my Facebook friends, posting a wonderful article by Fred Rogers on how to talk to your children about unsettling news events. I also stumbled across a post written by a man in Vancouver that was falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman, wherein the author blamed the media for sensationalizing stories of  mass violence, and rewarding those responsible with a celebrity status. In this post, the reader was advised to stop watching the news. And because when Morgan Freeman tells us something, we can't help but think it's coming from God, we pay attention.

As parents, we will never be able to adequately explain to a child why things so tragic happen. We can talk about our opinions on how society cares for our mentally ill, we can share out thoughts about guns, or our thoughts about violence. We can tell our daughter to cover her eyes when a violent scene comes up as we're watching a movie. As parents, we can do our best to protect our children, including our two teenagers who, because of easy access to the media through their smart phones, are more aware of the darkness in society. And while we know that all of our children will lose that sense of wide-eyed innocence soon enough, as parents, we do our best to provide shelter from the news that will forever change them.

So this weekend, we did what we could to help guard our daughter from the painful reality of the tragedy in Newton. And by turning off the news, we blocked ourselves from the pain as well. Friday night, we buried our heads in Technicolor, decorating the Christmas tree, and watching the fantastically innocent "White Christmas."  Saturday, we slept in and stayed home all day, enjoying a day with no schedules and no commitments. Today, we'll attend a holiday party with friends, and as the adults mingle and the children run around making merry, we'll look at it all a little differently, knowing that what we have is something truly precious, and something that we cherish, and that the news will be there tomorrow, if we choose to turn it on.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Celebrating The Original Emily

My sister Emily is graduating college today!

With a ceremony to attend, family and friends to shuffle around, and a celebration of two-stepping at the legendary Broken Spoke tonight (a place where my sister once worked and is famous for being "High Kicking Emily") this will be a busy weekend. Before the revelry begins, I'd like to take a moment to brag on my sister and best friend.

Back in 1976, my parents sat me down to tell me they were having a baby. I was four years old, and instead of expressing excitement, I burst into tears. Assuming I was like a car, I thought my parents were trading me in for a newer model and getting rid of me. Here's an awesome yet blurry pic of my mom, wearing a really cool 1970's pregnancy shirt explaining her bump. What a great shirt! If more pregnant women wore shirts like this, it would avoid a lot of awkward questions. The only shirt that would be better would be the one my friend would design that would say, "Food Baby," another shirt that would avoid a lot of awkward questions. But I digress.



Inside that tummy was the amazing Emily Susan Underwood. We fell in love with her immediately, and my fears of  being replaced were replaced with the joy of having an instant best friend. She was one of those perfect babies who was soft, cuddly, and squeezable. Who needed a doll when you had a real one to play with?  Pardon my bowl cut, sleepy morning eyes and the glare of the hideous wood paneling that screams 1976 and check out that baby. Could there be a cuter baby? I'm pretty sure in this picture, Emily knows that she has a friend for life. That, or she's filling up a diaper.


Our parents divorced when I was 9. While I know the event rattled our world to some extent, I've always felt that both of my parents ended up with wonderful people who were better matches for them in a million different ways. Together, Emily and I navigated the sudden reality of living in two homes, learning how to adapt to two houses with polar opposite philosophies, food choices, schedules, etc. I don't recall ever feeling like I had to take care of Emily, though I was several years older. We took care of each other. While I was the chatty kid who wore her emotions on her sleeve, Emily was a calming force who observed things quietly and seemed to possess a deep insight on people and situations very early in life. It's not surprising that today she'll graduate with a degree in Sociology. 

Em was an awesome little kid. Wildly creative, she created and designed a playhouse in our backyard, using a wooden theater set from a children's play on Noah's Ark, and re-purposing it into a fantastic 80's Party Ark, where she and her friends would hang out and create plays and musicals. Because she didn't have a little sister to boss around, she took ownership of our unusually patient cat Georgia, dressing her up in doll clothes and pushing her around in a cart. During our teens, while I clung desperately to maintain popularity, Em stayed true to herself, rocking unique fashion choices, unafraid to stand out by being different. While I went to prom in sequins, Emily went in leather. She and her date rode to prom on a motorcycle. Emily was the essence of cool, and still is.

Instead of going straight to college after high school, Emily and I both spent a year abroad as exchange students. Emily lived in Switzerland, and while we missed her desperately while she was away, we knew that the experience was life-changing, and would impact her view on the world. She worked in a day care, and the children she cared for taught her French while she took care of their basic needs. It was a perfect fit for Emily's nurturing spirit and amazing connection with children. She returned from Switzerland more beautiful than ever, more mature, and fluent in French.

Then came the Los Angeles years. Emily moved there in the late 90's when she was dating a musician, and for all of us who love her, the sense of loss when she moved was intense. Yet, Emily has always made choices that are well-thought out, and part of her decision to move was to support her boyfriend's dream, but also to experience working and living independently in a huge city. She met great friends, carved a niche for herself in advertising, and was the picture of success.

I moved out to LA in 2000 after finishing my degree. Emily invited me to move in with her, and it was one of the best years of my life. Inspired to be healthy, we jogged together on the beach, bickering in the cold morning air, and rewarding ourselves at the end of the run by swinging on the large swing set facing the beach in Santa Monica. Once, while jogging, we saw Crocodile Dundee. Or not. (Inside joke). We sang Karaoke so often that we referred to it as "Vitamin K". Miles away from our home town, we made lifelong friends in LA, and will always feel like we're a little bit California because of it.

If it weren't for men, Emily and I would be those sisters who live together forever. We're pretty much those sisters anyway, reading each other's thoughts and sharing countless obnoxious inside jokes. We geek out and sing in harmony together, using years of church choir experience to figure out harmonies to all sorts of cornball songs. And since we're Amy and Emily, call ourselves the Indigo Squirrels, named after Amy and Emily of the Indigo Girls. We share a strange language we created based on the movie "The Ladies Man," to the point where I'm sure some people we know think we both have lisps and were raised in Harlem.

We love attending weddings together, where we feel like the oddball Southern sisters in "My Best Friend's Wedding". Here's a picture taken at a friend's wedding in Los Angeles. Shortly after this picture was taken, we were nearly electrocuted/arrested for taking our shoes off and dancing in the waters of the lighted fountain behind us. This is the wedding where we became known as "THOSE sisters." We're proud of that title.



I moved back to Austin in 2001, madly in love with my now-husband, Tim, and we married in 2002. A naturally-talented event planner, Emily planned our wedding from her desk in Los Angeles, generously funding many of the necessary items for our intimate, backyard wedding at my mom and stepfather's home in Tyler. While my stepdaughter Stephanie was my Maid of Honor, we bucked tradition and invited Emily to be the oldest flower girl in history. And as always, she did it with grace and a sense of humor, and she was beautiful.

When Tim and I had our first child together, we chose not to find out the sex of the baby. We had a few names picked out, and had decided on the name Dorothy Eileen if it was a girl. My paternal grandmother's name was Dorothy, my husband's mother's name is Eileen. My grandmother, while flattered, said that naming a girl Dorothy was cruel because it would only conjure up Wizard of Oz references. Still, we liked the name and went to the hospital with that in our back pocket.

When the baby was born, she came out looking exactly like my sister. Drugged up from an emergency C-section, I stayed behind to get stitched up while Tim greeted the family through the glass wall of the hospital nursery. When the family mouthed, "What's her name?" Tim simply shrugged a question mark. Tim brought the baby back to me and asked, "Is this a Dorothy Eileen?" to which I groggily replied, "No, she's an Emily Rose."

I'm not sure where the Rose came from, since my sister is Emily Susan, but I was all sorts of out of it, and I did grow up in Tyler, where roses are kind of a thing. As soon as Emily Rose was introduced to the world, we arbitrarily removed Emily's given name and began calling her Tia. We gave her zero choice in the matter, but Emily Rose and Tia are truly two of a kind. Here's Emily Rose on her 5th birthday, wearing a hand-made cowgirl outfit that Tia designed.




Emily left her life in Los Angeles to move to Austin to be near us, and for that, I'm forever grateful. My kids had an opportunity to be close to their aunt, and each of our children have had the extreme benefit of her influence. She has been there for all of us during celebrations, dramas, birthdays, holidays, and has offered all of us a sense of calm in our otherwise wild life. We couldn't have done it without her.

A few weeks ago, my sister was proposed to on the beautiful beach in Mexico by her soul mate and best friend, Rocky. I was lucky to be there to celebrate in this huge moment. In the essence of full disclosure, this news is still settling in, as for the first time in my life, I am going to have to share the person with whom I've been closest to since we were kids. But take a look at how happy they are! I can't possibly not be cool with sharing with someone who cares about my sister that much.



Emily's choice to finish school when she was sure about what she wanted is another prime example of how she thinks through life's big decisions, and takes them seriously. Through a combination of student loans and financial support from our selfless, hard-working mother, Emily will walk the stage at the Frank Erwin Center today, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She can get over my head very quickly when she talks about theories on populations, crime and other Sociology-related topics. She's a sharp cookie. In January, she'll begin graduate school at UT, to earn a Master's in Social Work. And then, she'll marry the love of her life.

For me, all of this big news for my sister is hugely exciting, and also bittersweet. But I can promise this: when my sister walks the stage today, it will be her moment, and I'll be cheering for her the loudest.

Emily, congratulations on this amazing accomplishment. I love you, Thupa Thquirrel!!!!







Monday, December 3, 2012

Relax? Can't Do It.

Relaxation doesn't come easy to me. In fact, thinking about relaxation makes my palms sweat. It's just too much work.

I'm that girl in yoga who, while everyone else is deep in Shavasana and all connected with their third eye, is having a one-sided internal conversation that goes something like this:

"Hmm, I wonder if the guy next to me has ever tried deodorant? Surely if he spends that much time working on shoulder stand, he could take a little time to consider how he smells. I wonder what his house looks like? Ooh, maybe he's that guy my friend went out with that had a tent city in his living room! Did she say he had a beard? I wonder what Tim would say if I told him I wanted to build a tent city, ha! God, I'm hungry. A burger sounds good right now. Without the bun. With the bun, that's more calories than I just burned. But it would be better with bacon. Everything is better with bacon. I hate this music. This song sounds just like the Monday Night Football song, played with a sitar. Where do you buy a sitar? Do they have sitar stores in India like we have piano stores? OMG, Amy, you're supposed to be relaxing..."

If I'm not having some crazy internal stream of random thoughts, I'm completely asleep and drooling. I once had a yoga teacher tell me that if I can't stay awake to meditate, I'm not truly meditating. I'm guessing my snoring was a little offensive to the rest of the class.

Several years ago I was the recipient of a sales award where the prize was a trip to Aruba. Part of the experience included a choice of special events for the recipient and their guest. I selected a massage; my husband opted for deep-sea fishing.  As luck would have it, my massage was performed by a large Aruban woman who apparently mistook me for an ex-husband that she hated.  What should have been a gentle Swedish massage became more like a 90-minute Aruban Assault, and I left her weird little massage room sore, confused, and a little fearful for my life. It was not exactly the relaxation I was seeking.

As my husband left for his fishing trip, I took a few magazines, a book, a journal, and an iPod with headphones, and headed to the pristine beach, where I found a perfect spot under an umbrella. It was early still, so nobody was around, and I had my pick of all of the beach chairs. I got situated, applied sunscreen, surveyed paradise, and took a deep breath. It was time to relax.

And then I got antsy.

With nobody to talk to, no kids to feed, no customers to help, no television or gadget to amuse me, the mere act of relaxation made me anxious. I needed someone to talk to.

Right away, a scraggly, dentally-challenged boat captain walked up, and offered to take me on a private boat trip on his dingy little speedboat. And of course I went, not just because I'm wildly trusting, but also because he had a sun tattoo on his upper arm with the word "Namaste" written above it, so I assumed he wasn't a serial killer. The boat was primitive to say the least, and didn't even have a seat for the guest. The captain pointed to the front of the boat, where the only way to secure myself somewhat safely was to grab on to a large blue rope and sit cautiously without flashing onlookers my unfortunate thighs. Without warning, he started the boat and whizzed at ridiculous speeds through the choppy waters of Aruba. Clutching the rope with all my might, I screamed for mercy as we bounced up and down over the waves, the scraggly boat captain laughing loudly and completely ignoring my pleas to slow down. Right about the time I convinced myself that my boat captain was either a serial killer or the ex-husband of my large Aruban massage therapist, he brought me back to shore safely. Yet somehow, the experience was exhilarating and I don't regret it one bit, mainly because it's such a great story, and I love telling people I had a private boat captain in Aruba. (I just leave out the missing teeth and unsafe boat portion of the story). I waved goodbye with rope-burned hands, feeling happy. And somehow, I felt relaxed.

Last week, I tried to relax again. I went to Tulum, Mexico, to attend the wedding of our friends Michelle and Todd. Because my husband stayed behind to take care of the kids, I roomed with a friend that I've never roomed with before. Before the trip, I emailed my roomie, jokingly telling her that I enjoy spooning to romantic comedies dubbed in Spanish, and if she wanted to skinny dip with me in the evenings, I'd like to hold hands while doing it because I'm afraid of seaweed. I used that opening to soften the blow of the challenging part of being my roommate: my snoring problem.

My roomie came prepared with earplugs and her iPhone, loaded up with apps to help her sleep. On the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, we bonded over our choices of iPhone apps, and the sounds we prefer to use to help us sleep. These apps are a godsend on work trips. I once drowned out the sound of a screaming infant on a flight from San Francisco to Austin by playing the sounds of a driving rainstorm. Another time, the man in the hotel room next to me watched Pay-Per-View porn until 3:00 am, so I drowned out the moaning with the gentle jingle jangle of a passenger train. 

As we talked about sleep issues (everybody seems to have them), we suddenly came up with a brilliant business plan. (I'm convinced that many brilliant business plans happen on airport shuttles in Mexico while the passengers are throwing back Coronas). 

What if we invented an app that had the sounds of someone talking to put you to sleep? Personally, if I had a recording of my husband explaining the relationship between a flywheel and a clutch plate, I'd be asleep in seconds. And I'm sure that if my husband could have a recording of me recanting the time I had a panic attack at the top of Chichen Itza, he'd be out in minutes. 

We brainstormed ideas for Boring Sound Selections. Imagine if you could have your freshman History teacher lecturing on the Battle of Antietam? If it put you to sleep 15 years ago, I'm sure it would do the trick now. My friend took it to a whole new level, suggesting foreign language recordings, so that you'd wake up fluent in French.

When we arrived at the hotel, energized from our great shuttle conversations, the hotel was postcard perfection. Here's the view from our room:



Perfect place to relax, right?

Because I'm an old married, several nights on the trip, I opted to go to bed earlier while my roomie stayed out to make merry with the other wedding guests. Our room was modestly appointed, and did not have a television, so the prospect of watching rom-coms dubbed in Spanish was eliminated from my option list. I had grand illusions of writing. I didn't write. I brought a book about writing that I planned on reading cover to cover. It bored me, but not enough to make me sleepy. I'd already resigned myself to turn off my phone while in Mexico because of my mobile provider's exorbitant international rate plan. I opened the door, got in bed, and listened to the waves crashing on the beach. 

Now, wouldn't you think that because I'm able to fall asleep to the sounds of a beach on an app on my iPhone that having an actual beach with actual crashing waves right outside my door would do the trick? 

Nope.

The only thing that helped me fall asleep properly was to wait for my roomie to come home, and as we flipped off the lights, I talked. And talked. And talked both of us to sleep.

When the trip was over, I couldn't wait to tell my husband about our brilliant business plan. Many Thursday nights, we meet a friend for Mexican martinis and dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. I decided this was the perfect time to spill the frijoles, and shared the idea as my husband and friend listened. They did not appear enthusiastic about the plan. Perhaps my husband was not amused at my using his discussion on economic policy as an example of something that could bore you to sleep, but still. I expected enthusiasm, and I didn't get it.

It didn't take long for my friend to burst my bubble, stating that most nights, he falls to sleep to classic books on tape (books on iTunes, to be more exact). Evidently, you can download all sorts of classics because of copyright laws that I don't understand. So while we were in Mexico, conjuring up recording sessions of government teachers lecturing on the Legislative branch, my friend was being lulled to sleep by the soft strains of A Tale of Two Cities.

But even better than classic books on tape? A few sips of Mexican martini later, and my friend confessed that some nights, he falls to sleep to the Bible. My friend is not the kind of guy I imagine cozying up in an easy chair for some Deuteronomy, so this cracks me up to no end. He admitted that he doesn't retain much, as it only takes a few chapters for him to fall asleep, but that it works wonders to prevent insomnia. Still, I can't help but wonder if he's earning eternal salvation simply by sleeping to Ecclesiastes.

So while my friend and I likely won't become billionaires with our fabulous app idea, I'm looking forward to downloading Ulysses, because it certainly put me to sleep the first time around. And the next time my husband starts to explain Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs? Don't be surprised if I'm on the edge of my seat, iPhone behind my back, as I listen intently and secretly record him.











Saturday, November 10, 2012

Three Miles in My Shoes

I don't know about you, but I've had about enough of these hurricanes.

When really upsetting natural disasters take place, I have a shameful tendency to stop watching the news coverage. It started with Hurricane Katrina, when I would sit on my dry couch in the comfort of my dry home, and shout at the CNN news helicopters, passing by desperate victims on their rooftops with home-made signs, begging for help. I may not have emergency management experience, but something about a guy flying a helicopter to get flashy news shots who doesn't at least try to throw a rope down and grab some victims seems immoral to me. Feeling frustrated and helpless, I made a few meager Red Cross donations and turned off the television. It was just too hard to watch.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, it wasn't as easy to bury my head in the sand. Facebook made the difference, as friends living in New York and surrounding areas reported the latest developments. I laughed when my fashionable friend who works at Barneys posted, "Moving all my couture to a higher floor."  But he was fortunate. He was certainly inconvenienced, losing power and finding transportation challenging, but he didn't lose his home (or his couture!). Others weren't so lucky, and the news stories reported tragic loss and devastation. Once again, I made the decision to avoid the televised hurricane coverage.

So when I was driving to work and heard an NPR report on Manhattan-based businesses dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I considered changing the station but kept listening. Always amazed at the sheer will and determination of New Yorkers, I was captivated by the story of Paul Nicaj, owner of Battery Gardens Restaurant, who stayed behind to save his restaurant, despite orders to evacuate, and in the process, a marble table fell on his toe and broke it. In classic badass New Yorker fashion, Nicaj taped it up and kept on working. I break toes all the time (okay, about every two years, but still), and can tell you from experience that breaking a toe and just getting on with it is a pretty impressive accomplishment. 

But even more impressive than the strong-willed, hobbling restaurant owner? The employees who came to work the next day to help clean up. Especially those who walked 15 miles to get there.

I simply could not get this image out of my head. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, -- and I believe that everyone who eats in restaurants should wait tables at least once in their lives-- you know how hard that work can be. Imagine going to your restaurant job after adding a little 15-mile stroll. Imagine doing that after God knows what happened to your house when a hurricane came to town.

The mental image of these restaurant workers walking to work lit a very strange fire under my otherwise lazy butt. I imagined what it would feel like to walk to my office downtown from my cozy nearby neighborhood. I mapped the route. 2.7 miles. I considered that often, when I'm walking on a treadmill, I get bored or tired, and stop halfway through to do something more interesting, like eat a scone.  I thought about walking for transportation, and how if I were walking to work, I couldn't stop halfway through, because that would look silly, and I might get fired. I also thought about the fact that many people have no other option. I began to realize how lazy I really am, and how choosing to walk for transportation would be a refreshing change from walking out of a self-imposed guilt trip to exercise for health. Something clicked.

Monday morning, I put on workout clothes, borrowed a manly backpack from my amused husband, and crammed it to the hilt with all of the gear I'd need to dress professionally after arriving to my office. I filled up a huge water bottle, found my iPhone exercise band (hardly used), and my good headphones with a speaker for calling 911 in the event of an emergency. I'm surprised I didn't pack a first aid kit. As much of a deal I made of packing, you would think I was leaving for a month-long hike in the Serengeti.

I walked about ten steps and called my sister, ready to brag a little about my walking project, and hoping for some moral support. My sister was both amazed and cracked up that I had taken on this personal challenge. If you don't know me personally, I'm not exactly Sporty Spice. I detest tennis shoes. Sports bras make me claustrophobic. The many years I spent starving myself to weigh less than 120 pounds have come back to haunt me, so my battle of the bulge is more like the battle of a few bulges I'd rather not talk about.

So imagine my surprise when 55 minutes after calling my sister, I found my reflection in the elevator of my downtown office building, pink-faced and smiling. I won't lie; some of it was challenging. First of all, I had an extra 25 pounds of crap on my back. Also, some of the hills in downtown Austin were a bit daunting. But the stroll through the University of Texas campus was lovely. Not once did I experience road rage. I saved myself the irritating exercise of navigating my impossible office parking garage -- a parking garage designed by an engineer who clearly hated cars and their drivers. I felt fantastic the entire day. My coworkers were like my sister, impressed and amused all at the same time.

By Wednesday, I was eager to walk again. I worked out the logistics with my husband so I could walk home. Walking home was a bit less exciting than my first day, where my sister stayed on the phone the entire time to help me count down the blocks and keep me motivated. Yet, as the sky grew dark and I walked through the UT campus, I thought about what I'm normally doing on the short drive home. Cursing at the Ford F150 driver in front of me. Rolling my eyes at the endless stoplights. And even though about halfway through the walk home, my back ached and I felt a little tired, I thought about those restaurant workers, trekking 15 miles to help their boss save his restaurant, and realized that my little walk was only a fifth of that journey.

Thursday, one of my cute coworkers, a runner in her 20's, showed up to work with a backpack, and announced she was going to walk home. 

"You inspired me!" she said cheerfully. "It took me an hour to drive home in traffic the other night, and I starting thinking that I could get home just as fast if I walked, and I would enjoy doing it."

Imagine me, a lazy 40-year old woman, inspiring already-healthy people to consider commuting on foot. Crazy! Yet, when Friday morning rolled around, I walked to work again. By the end of the week, I'd walked 9 miles.

I'm sure that you're expecting me to tie this story back to a grand philanthropic effort to walk to help the hurricane victims. I can't say that's the case, but maybe I'm on to something here. What if every now and then, we walked somewhere in a reasonable distance, sacked away the gas money we saved, and sent it to the charity of our choice? 

It may not be for you, and I totally get that. You're probably a motivated individual who actually exercises regularly, and that's fantastic. But for those of us who struggle to find motivation, this idea of walking for transportation is really quite rewarding. On top of the obvious benefits - saving gas, reducing stress, helping prevent heart disease - when I ended the week with nearly 9 miles under my belt, something truly miraculous happened. The cute pink dress that hung in my closet that caused an unfortunate sausage effect when I tried it on last weekend? I tried it again last night, and it slipped on effortlessly. 

And that, friends, is reason enough for me to squeeze into a sports bra and keep on walking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

At Your Service

While facing an impossible to-do list this week, I ran through a drive-thru for some much-needed caffeine. I yelled my order as a male on the other end of the speaker asked me to repeat "Medium Diet Coke" several times. When I pulled up to pay, a female stood at the window, talking on a headset, chewing gum, and taking another person's order. She continued talking on the headset as I grabbed the drink and a straw, swapping it for $5. She reached for my change, turning her back to me and saying something to her male coworker, who was also wearing a headset, taking orders as he poured fountain drinks. As he asked the person on the other end of his headset to repeat themselves, the cashier at the window where I was waiting watched him and laughed while simultaneously digging change out of the cash drawer. Turning back in my direction, she handed me a receipt with a few bills and some change, and clicked her headset to take the next order, turning back to the register, indicating the transaction was complete.

Grunting, I drove off with the window still down, saying, "You're welcome!" loud enough for her to hear, but knowing she wasn't listening anyway. Unfortunately I do this fairly often. I find myself sarcastically saying "you're welcome" in customer service settings because more and more frequently, the person taking my order doesn't say thank you at all.

I pulled over to unwrap the straw and toss the change in the console. As I absentmindedly shoved the bills in my purse, I noticed the customer service survey, offering a chance to win $5,000 to share my feedback. Had I not been in such a hurry, I would have called the 800 number to let them know that I had just been through an entire drive-thru transaction without exchanging a single word with the cashier. I would let them know that the transaction required the efforts of two employees; the first one wasn't paying attention at all, the second ignored me completely.

Yet, when I consider the situation further, here is what also happened: Within less than five minutes, I pulled my gas-guzzling SUV through a convenient window, got a Diet Coke in less time than it would have taken me to park and go inside, and received the proper amount of change. Ultimately, I got what I wanted. Right?

But is this what today's customer service is all about? Is expecting eye contact, acknowledgement, a salutation, and a simple expression of gratitude for our business asking too much? Even if our business is only $1.62?

Consider another recent customer service situation. My job requires that I'm a heavy user of Salesforce.com. For those of you who don't work in sales, or those of you in sales who have been living under a rock and still use a Rolodex, I'll do my best to explain. Salesforce.com is customer relationship management software. Its most basic function is to offer salespeople a place to document the goings on with their customers and prospects. The vast majority of our day is spent there, and if we're without it for any reason, we're virtually useless people. Salesforce.com is a beast, raking in a staggering $2 billion a year in annual revenue.

Last week, something went very wrong with my Salesforce.com main page, so that when I logged in, the top of the screen where the tabs normally appear was all jumbled, and part of what I needed to see was hidden from my view. It was terribly distracting, and because some of the screen was hidden, made me feel like something magical and important was hiding there. I don't like missing out on magical and important things.

I began troubleshooting in the only way I know how, clicking and right-clicking around while cussing like a sailor under my breath, impatient with my inability to achieve a quick fix. From there, I turned to the "help" window, baffled that I got zero results from typing in the following:




Defeated, I turned to the last resort, the "Contact Support" page. The customer care you receive as a Salesforce customer has to do with  all sorts of factors: the level of service your company has purchased/how many licenses you have/Lord knows what. Only because I'm not a designated administrator, determining what level of customer service my company has would have required another two hours of research. All I wanted to do was call a number and get some help, but as we all know, it's never that simple. I forced myself to be patient (when my husband reads this he will howl with laughter), and submitted an online trouble ticket, taking great pains to explain my situation without including expletives.

Immediately, an automated email came back to me letting me know my issue would be resolved within 2 business days.

My head nearly exploded with frustration. I have a coworker who smokes, but also eats boatloads of nicotine lozenges, which is really hilarious to me, because at one point, the lozenges were purchased to help him quit. Now, he uses them to supplement his smoking. At the time I received this infuriating email, my coworker was downstairs smoking an actual cigarette,  so I sat at my desk fantasizing about pilfering through his desk and eating his entire stock of nicotine lozenges in an effort to calm myself down.

A few moments later, another email arrived. I was addressed by name, and was instructed to provide my phone number so the customer service representative could call me. I typed in my number, sent the reply, and waited. I'll be honest, I wasn't optimistic about what would happen next.

Immediately, my phone rang, and on the other end of the line was a woman calling from India.

Don't expect a tirade here, because I'm not that girl. I'm one of the rare Texans who actually enjoys conversations with representatives from Indian call centers. It goes back to when I was an exchange student in Germany some 20 years ago, and several of the students in my program were from India. My Indian friends were awesome, knew more about the history and political landscape of my country than I did, and were from hardworking families who struggled to provide their children with an opportunity to study in a different country. We shared great laughs together, especially when making fun of each other while trying to learn German, or when they would beg me to speak with their accents (I'm actually really good at speaking English with an Indian accent, but I don't get to bust that out often since I risk offending people). It's amazing how getting to know people from other countries really helps a person be less of a jerk about other cultures. But I promised, no tirades today.

So when the Indian call center representative called my desk, I was cool with it. Right away, we engaged in a Join.me session where the woman was able to quickly view my screen to diagnose the problem. The representative efficiently and patiently solved the simple fix -- I needed to clear my cookies, not shocking news given that I need to clear the cookies out of my kitchen as well.  Evidently, I have a little bit of a cookie problem.

The entire transaction took less than five minutes. But compared to my recent drive-thru experience, the woman gave me her undivided attention. At least that's how I felt. For all I know, she was troubleshooting my silly little cookie issue while applying glitter nail stickers and eating a samosa. But I don't think so. She thanked me several times and even told me to have a nice weekend. I was so pleased, I actually asked her for a survey so I could document my satisfaction, adding,

"If you were here, I would hug your neck."

I'm from East Texas, and we're big huggers (even to perfect strangers). But since this exchange took place over the phone, it was the only way I knew how to express my sheer delight that this kind woman had saved the day. She laughed uncomfortably (I doubt she gets hug offers from her customers with regularity), and we ended the call.

Comparing the two customer service scenarios I just detailed begs the question: What constitutes excellent customer service? Is it all about how quickly you get what you need? The initial Salesforce.com trouble ticket promised a 2-day delivery, but I got a response much faster. The result: expectations were exceeded. In comparison, the drive-thru scenario service was even faster, but I was ignored completely.

A friend of mine, Ray Seggern, does marketing, advertising, and branding consulting for businesses. One of his clients is a car dealership in Canada called Jim Gilbert's Wheels and Deals. If you check out their website, one of their goals is to make the customer feel like they are doing business with family. Now, I have a few relatives that I wouldn't buy a scented candle from, much less a car, but that's neither here nor there. Jim Gilbert is doing something right. His dealership has won customer service awards for the past seven years.

Considering that car dealers often battle negative stereotypes, when I look at Jim Gilbert's website, it makes me want to buy a car from him. It's testament to the good work my friend Ray does as well. But my favorite thing about Jim Gilbert, a man I've never met? He's known as "Canada's Most Huggable Car Dealer." 

So perhaps hugging and business aren't such a bad combination after all! Personally, I go in for hugs at work all the time, and get really cracked up when the result is that half-assed wimpy hug, the hugging equivalent to the dead fish handshake. But I get it; not everyone is open to workplace hugging. I'm all about it as long as the person on the other side of the hug has the wherewithal to wear deodorant. 

So do me a favor. The next time you're breezing through a drive-thru, and the multitasking teenager chewing gum and taking orders ignores you, offer to hug their neck, and let me know if THAT gets you the attention you deserve.







Thursday, October 11, 2012

Just Dance

The other night, after a particularly frustrating day, I sat down on the living room couch after dinner, clearly bothered. My 9-year old, who had prepared the living room for some scheduled Wii dancing time after dinner, noticed my expression and and said, “Come on, Mommy, let’s just dance it out.”

I didn't agree to participate immediately, offering up several excuses. I was tired. I had been sick for the past two weeks and my lungs weren't ready for the cardio. I had dishes to tackle. But most of all, I offered up excuses because I’m a terrible dancer.

To clarify, I’m not a terrible dancer if a partner is there to help me. I can waltz like nobody’s business. I’m also fairly good at the two-step, but that comes naturally to most native Texans. And even though I have a tendency to try and lead, a good, solid partner can set me straight pretty easily.

On the other hand, if a fast song comes on and I’m supposed to dance by myself without assistance, it’s a pretty tragic scene. Part of the problem is that I dance from the waist up, while my bottom half steps gingerly from side to side in a weak attempt to join the party. While that odd situation is happening, I become extremely self-conscious and fret over what my dance face should look like. Should I try a serious, somewhat sexy expression? Can I even get by with that? Or, should I flash a big, toothy grin like Julia Roberts when she’s laughing obnoxiously? After all, shouldn't dancing be fun? I try to radiate confidence, hoping when people observe my paralyzed hips and gentle side to side stepping that they will find my dancing acceptable, or, at the very least, resist the temptation to point and laugh.

Lucky for me, my husband offers the male equivalent to my dancing style, so we’re a good pair, especially at weddings, where we get a few drinks in us and dance waist up while the rest of the young kids grind around on each other like feral cats.

My issues with dancing started early, but became most prominent at 7th grade Social Dancing. For those of you who grew up outside of Tyler, Texas, let me tell you about Social Dancing.

Social Dancing was an extracurricular series of evening classes for 7th and 8th grade students designed to teach the basic concepts of boy-girl dancing, but its secondary and less obvious mission was to teach the kids some basic etiquette. It was a brilliant business plan. On Friday nights, delighted parents dropped off carloads of giggly girls in dresses and uncomfortable boys wearing jackets and ties to the dance studio at Green Acres Plaza. Looking back, I'm sure these delighted parents all met for stiff drinks at Bennigan's across the street to celebrate two hours of teen-free  fellowship. While the parents relaxed, the kids were left in the care of Carolyn Hardiman, a small, feisty Southern woman who deserves sainthood for devoting decades of her life to working with scores of kids in that horrendously awkward age group.

Back when I took Social Dancing, we learned partner dance classics like the box step, the waltz, and something very basic I only remember as the “forward, back, side together.” We also had many opportunities to do freestyle dancing to the fast songs, causing some of my earliest anxiety attacks. Imagine, if you will, a roomful of sweat-soaked 12 and 13-year-old kids dancing the box step to such classics as Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You,” and transitioning into freestyle dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love.” There was some serious preteen jamming out going down in that dance studio thanks to Ms. Hardiman’s rather unique taste in music. Given that Tyler was almost 100% segregated by race (and still is), it’s pretty ironic that on Friday nights, Ms. Hardiman's dance studio was nothing short of a Soul Train dance party featuring skinny white kids, many of them Southern Baptist. It was a little shocking, really.

The partnering of boys and girls was heavily orchestrated because Ms. Hardiman sincerely wanted to make things fair. She we would divide us up, girls on one side of the room, boys on the other, and instruct the boys to go over and ask a girl to dance. But because there were always more girls than boys, some of the taller, more awkward girls -- yours truly and a few other poor ostriches—had to dance with the other tall and awkward girls left over after the boys picked everyone else. I must admit that I found some solace in the arms of those girls, not because they were great dancers, but because unlike the short boys I danced with on rare occasion, the girls didn't spend an entire Pointer Sisters ballad staring at my chest.

Ms. Hardiman had all sorts of rules she took very seriously. The rule I remember most was her cardinal rule: Never, under any circumstances, do you say no when someone asks you to dance. Always say yes.

I didn't really understand her rule at the time, given that I was thrilled beyond words just to be asked to dance by a member of the opposite sex. Saying no wasn't really an option for me. In 7th grade, I was as tall as I am now, only I weighed about 62 pounds. Add to it the situation that happens when I dance, and let’s just say Social Dancing was a bit of a nightmare.

I would wait, sweating buckets, while the short boys passed me by. Eventually one of the two boys who was taller than me would come over and ask me to dance. The boys were taught to extend an arm, and we would grab onto their blazers as they hurled us onto the dance floor. One of those boys was a handsome boy who was blessed with grace and some mad dancing skills. He had a twin sister, so I assumed he could dance well because they practiced at home. This kind, shy boy helped me feel somewhat graceful as I clomped around, stepping on his feet to the seductive strains of Whitney Houston. But as soon as I let my guard down and began to enjoy the mere act of dancing, the song would change, and the other boy who was taller than me would arrive, and I would spend the next excruciating 80's ballad trying not to bump into the frightening condition that was taking place in that poor boy's pants.

The seemingly endless Friday nights of Social Dancing culminated into a Spring Formal held at our local convention center, Harvey Hall. I have a few distinct and gut-wrenching memories from that event. The first is that my mother gave me $20 to pay for dinner after the dance. My BFF Christi Cole’s very cool parents had offered to take a carload of the girls to dinner afterwards at Chili’s. Chili's was a big deal in 1980's Tyler. We loved the low lights, the giant glass mugs of Cokes, and the cheerful waiters who split our checks 25 ways to accommodate a gaggle of preteen social dancers. 

The night of the Spring Formal, I wore a pale blue taffeta dress with the tell-tale puffy 80’s sleeves. The dress was tea length and had some tasteful lace embellishment on the torso. I felt awesome in it, and wore it with a completely unnecessary bra. Because I couldn't be bothered with a purse, I shoved the $20 in my bra and went off to the dance, ready to bust out my best box step.

Thanks to my BFF Christi Cole's dedicated parents, I own photographic evidence of this event. It's blurry, but you get the idea. I believe that's Michael Horsley getting a nice shot of my non-existent cleavage. Either that, or he's concentrating fully on not getting stepped on by my gigantic white shoes.



The highlight of the night was the awards portion, when Ms. Hardiman announced the winners for Best Dancer. There were several winners in the category, and I clapped and cheered as my graceful friends stepped up for their awards.

So you can imagine my surprise when Ms. Hardiman announced my name. In a blur, I walked up to accept the award, and stood frozen as friends clapped and clapped. Part of the honor was a feature dance with the small group of Best Dancers. Ms. Hardiman turned on a Motown hit, and our small group danced, showing off our sidestepping skills while the others looked on in awe. I should have enjoyed it. But the entire time, I was completely and fully mortified, not believing for a second that my award was real.

I hope you can see the sheer misery in my face as James Greer gets down in his khakis and country club blazer, while I dance waist up while fighting back tears. Also notice the girl in the pink dress, my gorgeous friend Anna Taylor, who, in 7th grade, already looked like a young Marilyn Monroe.



There’s a reason preteen girls are drama queens. Combine all of the hormones with a tight taffeta dress, and drama is bound to take place. As the applause died down, I made a hysterical beeline to the bathroom of Harvey Hall, where I burst into sensitive, self-absorbed tears.

“This is all a big joke! They’re making fun of me!” I wailed, as mildly concerned girlfriends tried to console me while looking at themselves in the mirrors, puffing up their 80's bangs and reapplying blue eyeliner. “It’s because I can’t dance!”

As preteen dramas go, the tears didn't last very long. After all, a piping hot plate of mozzarella sticks was on the evening's agenda. Before I knew it, I was enjoying the evening over a late-night dinner at Chili's, somewhat convinced that I wasn't such a terrible dancer after all. I even manged to convince myself that I’d probably won the award because of my personality. All in all, the night was a success, at least until the bill came, and I realized that the $20 that was supposed to be resting in my non-existent cleavage had made a great escape, more than likely while I was dancing. After another dramatic bathroom scene, my BFF Christi Cole’s father bailed me out and paid my share, saving the night from being a complete disaster.

So let’s go back to the other night when my lovely 9-year old offered me a chance to dance out the drama. I thought about Ms. Hardiman, and how you can never, ever say no when someone asks you to dance. So of course I said yes. I got up off my miserable butt, grabbed a Wii controller, and shook it waist up like nobody was watching. And even though my daughter was watching, and was laughing at me instead of with me, I learned another valuable lesson: dancing it out works. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lordy, Lordy, Amy's 40




It's official. I'm 40!

Yes, that's an exclamation mark, or, as I called it for an embarrassingly long time, and "explanation mark." But since I'm also the person who thought that The Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar" was a gambling song called "Crap Shooter," that shouldn't be much of a surprise. 

To celebrate 40, I wanted to reflect on how I got here, and went digging through old photos. The picture above is one of my favorites. It was taken in Bowie, Texas in 1975, more than likely before my sister was born and I was a spoiled only child and granddaughter of this fantastic woman, Mabel High. It's actually one of a few rare photos of the two of us, because Grandma was usually in the kitchen. This shot was taken at my paternal grandparent's house, which means Grandma was taking a back seat to my other fabulous grandmother, Dorothy. I'm clearly soaking in the attention that is coming from multiple directions. My hair is following suit.

Grandma was all Texas, and had hysterical country phrases and many of her own. She had enormous boobs, and "complained" about them constantly. She hated seat belts, and would put hers on and then moan, "I hate these things! They make me feel like a big ol' tit wrapped up in a brassiere!" And then she'd light up a cigarette with the windows up and we'd drive off, laughing so hard it hurt. 

I learned to realize her boob complaints came from a constant need for attention and praise. But she deserved it. She grew up dirt poor in the Depression, and had some serious hardships along the way. When we would go to her house to visit, it always smelled like bacon and cigarette smoke, but somehow that wasn't gross. She was constantly cooking or washing dishes by hand in scalding hot water, and she would lean down on her elbows while doing it, her large chest weighing down her tiny body. If she wasn't talking to the people shoved into the kitchen to be with her, she'd wash dishes alone, singing old Methodist church hymns. When I got skilled enough to crack open a Methodist hymnal and play the hymns on the piano, I would play the piano in the living room while she sang along from the kitchen. If a YouTube time machine existed, I would love to see one of those sessions.

You can't tell it by this picture, but Grandma was amazingly stylish. She had an organized closet with tons of purses and shoes. She had piles of crazy costume jewelry. Her bedroom was decorated in rich jewel-toned blues and greens, and my mom and sister and I would ALL sleep with her in her huge king-sized bed, where we would discover wads upon wads of Kleenex in the folds of the sheets, and we would throw them at each other and laugh hysterically.

Growing up poor made Grandma sensitive to waste. Once, she ordered fried chicken at a restaurant and folded up the leftovers in some napkins and put them in her handbag for later. Because she was so stylish, she changed bags frequently to match her shoes, and when she changed the bag, the chicken remained. Time passed, and Grandma's bedroom began smelling like a dead animal. Needless to say, that handbag (and the rotten chicken) got tossed. But she saved everything else.

She wore dentures that she removed at night and placed in a glass. I would sneak into her pink bathroom with the hot pink fuzzy rug and matching hot pink fuzzy toilet cover and stare at her dentures. I wanted to try them on, but luckily knew better. I had fantasies of hiding them so Grandma would run around looking for them, screaming through a mouthful of gums. We would beg her to flip them out of her mouth with her tongue, as she scared us and delighted us all at the same time.

Grandma doted on me (if you can't tell from the photo). Because she'd grown up poor, she was constantly throwing $20 bills at her grandchildren. I heard a rumor that when she went on road trips, she kept $20 in her bra, and $20 in her hubcaps, just in case. 

My grandfather died tragically when my mother was a teenager, and Grandma managed to keep things together. She kept on cooking, but she also temporarily took over my Grandfather's oilfield construction business. She was savvy, sharp, quick-witted, and didn't take crap from others. 

Grandma taught me how to cuss (she was a professional), to enjoy washing dishes just by singing, and how to have a great time just throwing bread crusts at the birds outside. She didn't teach me how to cook (she didn't teach her daughters, either), but she taught me that feeding people in your home and surrounding yourself with great people makes for a happy, fulfilled life.

When she got older, Grandma started a new catch phrase (she had a ton of them). "Oh, I'm a dyin'!" she'd say. At first, we believed her, and she got lots of attention from it. But after a while, we knew that Grandma announcing she was dying was just Grandma wanting some attention.

When I was a teenager, Grandma made good on her promise and died. She died from complications from a life spent smoking (and possibly from a life spent eating fried chicken). I was on a youth trip to California, and determined that while I was on Space Mountain, screaming and full of life, Grandma's life was ending. She died too soon, but the life she lived was rich, full of crazy drama, and full of laughter. 

I'm going to think of Grandma Mabel as I dive head-first into my 40s. It's a wonder I got here, given that in this photo, I'm rocking a pretty fantastic 1970's nightgown that not only could have suffocated me from its sheer bulk, but was probably nowhere near fireproof.

When Grandma prayed (and she did a lot of that in her lifetime as devoted member of the Methodist church), she would face her head toward Heaven. I remember being embarrassed by this, and once, as a gawky pre-teen, watching her face the ceiling when we were sitting in the front pews of church, and tugging on her sleeve and whispering, "Why do you do that?" 

"If I face up, I'm closer to God. There's no sense in looking down at the other guy." 

I look forward to facing my 40's looking up, knowing Grandma is looking down, laughing.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Regretting the Bangs


I'm turning 40 next week. Instead of being a whiny crybaby over it, I've taken strategic measures throughout the year to not let this milestone bother me, and to look at it as a positive event to be excited about. I started setting some realistic goals. I made writing a priority for the first time in years. I decided to drink fewer Diet Cokes. I chose to overcome some of my many fears, dubbing the summer at the neighborhood swimming pool, "The Summer of Jumping In." My 9-year old would swim off, mortified, while I stood terrified on the edge of the deep end, plugging my nose and shrieking loudly as I splashed inside, frightening the lifeguards. But by the end of the summer, on my last jump, I went in without holding my nose. It became a defining moment: jumping into a new decade.

Because turning 40 is such a big deal, I really tried not to spend unnecessary time obsessing over my looks. But let's be real here: society wants us to obsess over our looks. It simply can't be helped. When I get ready each morning, I finish my hair and make-up and channel my inner Grandma Mabel. Grandma was a glamorous woman who wore fantastic handbags and shoes, and fancy screw-on earrings she called “earbobs.” She would stand dramatically in front of her mirror after she finished applying her bright orange lipstick and white Coty face powder and say, “Well, I’ve done the best I can do with what I’ve got.” Poor grammar aside, she had a wonderful attitude.

This attitude is fine until you consider my forehead. No matter how hard I’ve tried to ignore them, the three omnipresent lines across my forehead have been mocking me in my reflection like an animated set of moving guitar strings. I actually imagine them singing to me like the popcorn and soda guys on the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” cartoon.

Two weeks ago, I had enough and went to my salon in search of bangs. I cheerfully took the glass of wine offered by the receptionist, sat down in a cozy couch, pulled out my phone and logged onto Facebook with three simple words: "Bangs over Botox!"

I can't take credit for that hilarious line. It came from my coworker Lita, a gorgeous woman of Italian descent who will age like Sophia Loren while I age like Kathy Bates. She’s a few years older than me (we won't tell how many), but she taught me that bangs over Botox is the way to go. Never mind that she has the skin of a 9-year old and I spent the majority of my junior year in high school in a tanning bed; I will still take her advice if it means avoiding the needle.

Since my early 30's, I've sworn I would never use Botox for several reasons. I’m not fond of needles, especially not ones in my face. I don't like how Botox works wonders on a forehead but makes people's temples look crepey and weird. But most of all, I’m the person who obsesses over possible side effects which include: “blurred vision, decreased eyesight, drooping eyelids, swelling of your eyelids, and dry eyes”.  While I have plenty of friends who have used Botox with great results, I am certain that I’d be the one person who tried Botox who left a little more legally blind than I already am, looking like Droopy Dog.

It’s not that I haven’t considered it. In fact, I’ve kept a prescription for Botox in my handbag for years now, ever since the fateful day when my dermatologist's PA, who can’t be a day over 27, peered carefully at my forehead and said, "You know, I get a little Botox right here (pointing to her shiny white forehead). You can’t even tell, can you?”

It wasn't really a subtle hint. She wrote up the prescription and smiled sweetly, patting herself on the back for her little Botox evangelism. And it worked, at least a little, because I kept the prescription in my bag. I just never got the courage to fill it.

Getting bangs seemed like a much more reasonable alternative. I haven’t had bangs in years, mainly because my stylist Danny refuses to let me get them. I have thick hair, a cowlick, and I’m known for a constant ponytail because I’m too lazy to style my unruly hair. And while I pay good money for a cut and color on a fairly regular schedule, beyond that, my hair routine consists of weekly gray-plucking sessions at stoplights. It's a wonder I have hair at all. 

This time, I had to beg Danny to give me bangs. I showed him the photo of Reese Witherspoon with the lovely side-swept bangs, explaining that I was turning 40 in a few weeks, and this was a great way to ring in a new decade. He groaned, but in the end, he agreed to make it happen. And when I left the salon, he gave me what I asked for and more. For an afternoon, I swear, my bangs looked just like Reese Witherspoon's! Even Danny admitted that they looked better than he thought they would. When my sister and I went to dinner to celebrate, I felt like a whole new girl.

Then I washed my hair. Then I dried it. And now, I am seriously regretting the bangs. My new bangs regret me as well, as they seem to have a life of their own. Instead of gracefully covering up the guitar strings, they stick straight up or flop over to the side, defeated. When I look in the mirror now, staring back at me is a dreadful combination of Davy Jones from the Monkees (God rest his soul) and John Bon Jovi. If it weren’t for Goody’s half-size bobby pins, I just might start wearing a wig. I'll wait several weeks before making an appointment with Danny so he can help me formulate a bang-growing plan, simply because I can't take the shame of admitting he was right all along.

So, for the short term, I'm coming to grips with a bad hair decision. In my case, "Bangs over Botox" simply means that when you see me, my weird, uncooperative bangs should keep you distracted enough not to notice that right beside them lies a set of animated forehead wrinkles, just waiting for the day that I decide to take a leap of faith and freeze them for good. 

Or not.......

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Casserole Network

Ask anyone who has an affiliation with a religious organization, no matter the flavor, and they will tell you that when a baby is born, someone has surgery, or someone dies, the women in their community come together and cook meals to take to the families in need. Even for the non-religious, when someone is in need, women cook and deliver food. It’s just what you do.

Heat it and enjoy!
My mother and my grandmothers on both sides were Methodist women, so as far as I knew, life’s big dramatic events meant something fully unrecognizable and ridiculously delicious would arrive at your home. And almost every time, it would come in a Pyrex dish covered with aluminum foil. In Texas, this means that your pantry must always include a back-up supply of Cream of Mushroom Soup, and you can never have enough aluminum foil. I’m not sure if the Cream of Mushroom craze is universal. In remote Alaska, their version of The Casserole Network might have something to do with smoked salmon or elk’s feet. Either way, you get my drift.

This network is magic to me. I’m sure you can trace the origins to before telephones were invented, when carrier pigeons shared the news of an illness or death, and from there, women made large vats of soup to help their friends in need. Today, with iPhones and texting, the process is much easier. And the most efficient way to handle it is the brilliant mealbaby.com, an online meal delivery planning service, introduced to me by friend Amy.

Amy is in a league of her own when it comes to meal delivery. She’s a pro, sending emails or texts and getting the job done while the rest of us are contemplating gift cards (another thing that mealbaby.com offers as an option). Amy can plan a baby shower in less than 15 minutes, down to beautiful personalized napkins. She’s also the friend who announced boldly before having children that she would never serve frozen lasagna to dinner guests in her home. We gave her endless crap about this, but two children later, I think she’s actually sticking to her word. Meanwhile, if Queen Elizabeth came to visit unannounced, I’d probably whip out a frozen lasagna and call it a day, but that’s just me.

Fancy new meal delivery technology aside, I have always believed that The Casserole Network is more like the scene in Snow White where Snow White bakes a pie with the assistance of animated birds with culinary experience. I like to fancy that when someone gets sick, a vast network of animated church ladies simultaneously begin whipping up casseroles while animated birds pull processed cheese out of the fridge. There’s some whistling. It’s wholesome and pure. And nobody cusses like a truck driver like I did when I burned my arm making pasticcio for Geography Day when my stepdaughter was in elementary school.

Last Friday my mother had foot surgery, and the network kicked in right away. But first, a little background: my parents live in a wonderful little house in the Azalea district in my hometown of Tyler, Texas. The house has some definite quirks. For one, it was designed by a creative architect who may have had a little drug problem, or had some hatred for the elderly or temporarily disabled. Each room in the home is on a different level, so in order to get from one room to the next, you confront one or more stairs. The rooms are small, and the floor plan winds itself up from the ground floor, up seven levels to a balcony outside of the top bedroom. It’s basically an indoor Swiss Family Treehouse, except my parents don’t sleep in hammocks, and they don’t pass down dirty dishes on dumbwaiters made out of rope and sticks. But otherwise, the climbing is about the same.

When my mother, a very strong-willed and independent 65-year-old, called to tell me she was having foot surgery, I wasn’t surprised when she said she wouldn’t need my help. But I got to thinking about the quirky house with the stairs, and started imagining my mother toppling down the stairs in her black Velcro boot while my stepfather the artist was drawing in his studio several rooms below, completely unaware. I decided I needed to be there to help out, and that was that.

I arrived at the Swiss Family Treehouse the evening before the surgery to determine my duties and rest up for my mother’s surgery day. While catching up, my mother told me that several weeks ago, one of her dearest friends had a neck injury that required surgery. Because she’s a prominent member of the Casserole Network, my mother and other Sunday school friends arranged a dinner delivery, each taking on a portion of the meal. The woman who volunteered for dessert is a woman of my own heart. She started with grand illusions of making a homemade dessert, but life got in the way, and her back-up plan was to buy ice cream. I love that! My mother offered to handle the delivery, and, because of logistics, planned to meet the dessert volunteer at a local convenience store parking lot.

So far I’ve been pretty sexist here, failing to mention how men fit into this delicate picture. But let’s call a spade a spade, because we all know that most men don’t go whipping up chicken taco casseroles when their friends get sick. I’ve heard of exceptions, but for today’s story let’s consider that women are running this business. The men get to carry the hot plates.

On this particular afternoon, my mother and stepfather are in a convenience store parking lot, waiting on the dessert volunteer. It’s about 127 degrees, a typical late Texas summer afternoon. My mother does most of the driving, so my stepfather is in the passenger seat with a piping hot Pyrex dish of chicken spaghetti casserole on his lap. He’s loving life, I’m sure. He’s a skinny man in his ‘80s who has taken to wearing baseball caps with messages on them. If you had told me 30 years ago that he would be wearing baseball caps, I would fall on the floor laughing. Yet somehow these hats suit him now. The hat he’s wearing lately reads the famous Davy Crockett quote, “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.” In other words, he may be 81, but cross this man in a convenience store parking lot, and he might just toss a hot casserole at you. 

The scene is looking pretty shady as my parents wait on the dessert volunteer. My mother also does most of the talking, so she turns to my stepfather, and says, “How are we going to know which car is hers?”

My stepfather, in his typical deadpan style, says, “She’ll be driving the car with ice cream dripping out of the car doors.”

Soon enough, the dessert volunteer arrives and she and my mother make a shady-looking exchange with a plastic bag filled with individual ice creams in a variety of excellent flavors, thankfully still frozen. The patient and her husband were delighted; The Casserole Network’s job was done.

This weekend, it was my mother’s turn to be the patient. As a bossy firstborn daughter who appears to be “in charge,” I learned  that I am not mentally prepared to be my mother’s caretaker. She’s too strong and independent. She’s really good at getting things done. At the end of the day, I’m a big spoiled baby who likes to see my mom up and at it when I’m at her house. But because my sister had fallen ill several days before and would typically be with me to help out, I ended up the person in charge. My stepfather, also not fired up at the idea of my mother being partially immobile for six weeks, graciously allowed me to enter the tree house and take over.

Given the circumstances, I cannot stress how lifesaving the Casserole Network is at times like this. Even before my mother’s surgery, the network’s machine was smoothly running in the background, waiting for go time. As my mother recovered, the home phone would ring and a friend would be on the line, offering up delivery times that worked best for our schedules. No matter how hard it is for us to accept help, there comes a time when we all need it, and there is nothing better than a Pyrex dish covered in foil, a Tupperware bowl of fresh salad, and a Ziploc bag of cookies to ease the patient and her family down the road to recovery.