Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Art of the Semi-Foul Mouth

Last week I was waiting for my husband to pick me up from work, so I stood outside my office in downtown Austin for some people-watching. I try to make a conscious effort to watch people because I'm finding more and more that when I'm alone, I have a tendency to use my gadget to entertain me, when in reality the most entertaining stuff is right before my eyes.

While I watched people pass, two 20-something dudes approached. They were both smoking, and waving their hands around in what appeared to be an extremely animated conversation. As I looked closer, I noticed that one of the guys had on pants with super wide legs.  These weren't sweatpants or any kind of workout gear, rather, they were really wide-legged dress pants. They were upsetting.

Since I didn't snap a photo, I searched for a pretty long time to find a visual representation of this guy's pants. They looked most like the ones in black on the right side.



Unfortunately for this guy, he looked nothing like these fetching little runway boys. He looked more like a casual, schlubby software sales guy with a complete lack of judgment when it came to purchasing pants.

As the guys got closer I was able to properly eavesdrop on their conversation. Typically I delight in little tidbits from conversations like this. I'm constantly writing down random sentences from partial conversations I catch here and there. For example, here are a few little snippets from things I've heard in the past few years that I've quickly keyed into my phone before they were forgotten:

"STOP with the games! Just STOP IT, dammit!" (A completely frazzled red-faced, bald little father yelling at his Nintendo-wielding son.)

"Get yourself a stylist, darling. I mean Savile ROW, for heaven's sake!" (An eccentric wiry-haired woman with expensive glasses and yellow teeth throwing back martinis, talking to her colleague about someone that they clearly both hated.)

"And THAT will give you some historical perspective on the shit I've been dealing with for DECADES." (A cute and exasperated old man in the car next to me with his window rolled down, talking loud enough for me to hear that goodness.)

Usually, I write this stuff down because I assume one day I'll use it for dialogue for a short story or screenplay or whatever, but mainly because things like this can make me laugh for days on end. I like to write down these sentences and sometimes I challenge myself to insert them randomly in unrelated conversations. Did I mention I'm weird?

I gather a lot of this material when I travel for business, because eating alone is a great opportunity to eavesdrop. Often when I'm on work travel, I eat at the bar because sitting at a table alone feels very awkward to me.

Once when I was in in Boston, I was having lunch before a customer meeting and sat down next to a drunk guy and his equally drunk mother who were discussing his recent breakup. I never looked at their faces, but they both had reddish freckled arms and sausage fingers, and the only reason I knew the woman was his mother was that he started every sentence with "Ma." The conversation came out in thick Boston accents, which made it ten times more awesome. The guy was telling his drunk mother about how he went into a strip bar with his friends, only to discover that his girlfriend worked there as a dancer. There were so many great things about that conversation. The guy being sincerely surprised to find his girlfriend was a stripper. The mom not being surprised in the least. The intermittent belches by both parties. While all of it was hilarious, perhaps what was even funnier was that never once did the drunk son nor the drunk mother figure out that I was feverishly keying in their conversation on my little phone keypad, trying very hard not to get busted or burst out laughing.

Given my habit of listening in on conversations I'm not invited to attend, when the dude with the unfortunate pants and his friend finally made it to eavesdropping territory, I was extremely eager to hear what they had to say. I hoped it would reveal something about his pants, or why he was flinging his arms around with such dramatic flair. It was bound to be good.

I was sorely disappointed when the guys approached and all I could hear from the guy in the bad pants was a string of expletives so strong even I was shocked, and I have a pretty bad potty mouth myself.  If the word didn't begin with "f," it was one of the even more foul ones that I can't even mention. It was so distracting I couldn't decipher what he was talking about at all.

Something about hitting 40 has given me the confidence to confront these young kids when I feel like they are out of line, especially when little kids are present. There are few things that bug me more than grown-ass adults cussing around little kids. And while I don't mind what people say to each other in a private setting, this wide-legged pants man was speaking that way in public. It wasn't cool.

So I followed my snarky gut instinct and looked straight at the guy and said,

"I'm not sure what's worse, your pants or your mouth."

He looked up, kept walking and said, "Sorry?"

It was hard to tell if he was apologizing or if he was actually asking me to repeat myself, but by the look on his face, I believe my point was delivered effectively. Now, I am pretty certain that my little comment did not cause this guy to go home and promptly donate his pants (or, for the betterment of society, burn them). I highly doubt my comment caused that guy to immediately clean up his mouth, either, but I said what I needed to say. I felt better, and perhaps in that scenario, that's all that matters.

While I'm certainly not advocating that we all censor ourselves to a G-rated level, I do think there's something to say for moderation when it comes to cussing. I'd suggest we all take a page from the lesson book of my 82-year old stepfather, James. James is one of the most polished, gentlemanly men I have ever known. He has impeccable table manners. He taught several of my high school boyfriends the valuable lesson about about discarding your hat at the dinner table when those poor boys seemed to have no idea otherwise. He opens doors. He is incredibly polite. He also avoids confrontation, once telling me that the few times in his life he's had to have a confrontation in the workplace his voice gets high pitched like a little girl. Despite all of these qualities, he is far from wimpy. He has strong opinions and isn't afraid to make them. He is just genteel about it all, and these days, that kind of a man is rare.

When it comes to cussing, James really doesn't do it. Growing up, I learned most of my good cursing from my incredible maternal grandmother Mabel. She was a lady but she had a mouth on her, and I appreciated that. James, on the other hand, never cussed in front of us. In the privacy of his art studio he may have let it rip like a you-know-what, but I never heard it, and that's important to me. Also, because James is so even-keeled, we rarely saw him angry.

One afternoon, when I was probably in 8th grade or so, James was loading the dishwasher and struggling with the bottom rack. The rack had a tendency to fall of the track, causing you to have to yank it around in all sorts of directions before it would go in properly. James went at it several times and finally jerked it so hard a dish broke, shattering all over the kitchen floor.

"SHIT!" he yelled, and as he did, I believe the walls of 2914 Pounds Avenue trembled in fear.

This was ridiculously shocking stuff for us. James cussed? James cussed. James cussed! This meant so much all at one time. James was most definitely angry. James meant business. It was big.

Though we wouldn't have let him know it at the moment, after we got over the initial shock, James' outburst was extremely funny. Because it was fresh. When someone who never cusses says a curse word, it has so much more flavor than if they said it every other word. Think about it. What if your priest stubbed his toe and said, "Son of a bitch!" Imagine the Queen of England saying, "I call bullshit!" Wouldn't that be hilarious and newsworthy?

When I first started this blog, the original idea was that I would provide advice, partly because I'm bossy but partly because people thought it would be funny if I doled out advice. That's because everyone who knows me knows how ripe with imperfection I am as a mother, a wife, a friend and more, so advice from me would not only be funny, it would also be wildly hypocritical.

After many posts where I didn't dole out advice, I'll take this opportunity to offer some now. Consider when and where you choose to cuss. I promise that the less you do it, the more power it will hold. I'm not telling you not to cuss at all; I'm simply suggesting that you cuss sparingly, like you would when thoughtfully spritzing on body spray or slapping wasabi on your sashimi.  And please, do as I say, not as I do, because I drop an f bomb every time I catch my toe on the edge of the bed, which is at least three times a week.

My great grandmother Vera Conrad (the one with the chin whiskers who rode in a wheelchair and talked about idle hands being the devil's plaything) was a classy Methodist woman who lived in a nursing home when I was little. I never knew her very well, but what I did know of her was that she had great manners, was kind, and spent her latter years making quilts for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. In many ways, she was the picture perfect great grandmother. I certainly never heard the woman cuss.

One fateful day, Great Gran got into a fight with another little old lady at the nursing home. I don't know what the fight was about, but according to legend, Great Gran got up in the other lady's face and said,

"If you wash your face, you can kiss my ass."

And that, my friends, is how cussing should work. Save it for the right moment, and it can pack one hell of a punch.

You're welcome.



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ickle Me Pickle Me

A few weekends ago Tim and I celebrated our anniversary. We're terrible at remembering our anniversary, and particularly, what our anniversary date is. It's been a joke between us for years. Is it October 24th? 26th? Who knows.

The only way we can remember our anniversary date is because of our beloved handmade pottery bowl, a wedding gift by our family friend Dave Hendley of Old Farmhouse Pottery. (If you're in the market for some beautiful pottery, check it out.) Inscribed on the bottom of the bowl is our anniversary date. The key is to sneak into the kitchen, pull the bowl off of the top shelf, and flip it over to check the date without the other person busting you. Tim has the clear advantage because he's tall, so it's a little unfair, but whatever.

This year, our anniversary fell on a Saturday. We didn't even have a plan set the day before, and were discussing options at our daughter's school Halloween carnival when friends suggested a literary pub crawl, part of the weekend events at the Texas Book Festival. Since Tim and I are clinging to whatever sense of hipness we have left in us, and because it was taking place on Austin's East side, we figured it might be an interesting way to celebrate our anniversary. Plus, we like pubs and we kind of like crawling, so we agreed to give it a shot.

The pub crawl offered several different options so that you could map out your own custom crawl. One of the most appealing options was to check out Derek Waters, the host of Comedy Central's Drunk History. If you aren't familiar, the premise is simple but genius: wasted storytellers discuss historical events, and then famous actors act out the scenes using the drunk dialogue as their script.

Because we're lazy pub crawlers, I determined that if we stayed in one place, we could enjoy more pub than crawl, so we started at the first stop, then hurried over to the venue where they were playing Nerd Jeopardy. Nerd Jeopardy was Jeopardy with a literary twist -- definitely nerdy but hilarious all at the same time. Directly following Nerd Jeopardy was Drunk History, and by the time that was about to begin, the venue was totally packed out. I consider myself too old to stand at bars anymore, so as soon as we spotted six inches of available picnic table space, we landed like vultures and squeezed ourselves in.

Here's what the scene looked like. It was quite lovely. You might see us if were weren't sausaged in between 25 other people at the back table.

(photo courtesy of the Texas Book Festival website)

As we were figuring out how to adequately fold our butts without half-sitting on strangers, I checked out our table mates, and noticed that the girl across from me looked familiar. I also noticed the girl next to her looked exactly like her.

"I think I know you from somewhere," I said to both of the girls, studying them from across the picnic table.

We went through the various possibilities - school? Nope. Neighbors? Nope. Work? Nope. The guy next to me chimed in.

"Have you had her pickles, maybe?"

"Pickles?" I asked, getting tickled.

"She makes the best pickles I've ever had in my life," he said. "That's Sheena from Sheena's Pickles."

He said it like he was speaking about pickle royalty. The clouds parted and a host of angels squeezed in at the table behind us began to sing. His wife/girlfriend leaned in from down the table.

"Yes," she said, "Her pickles are TO DIE FOR."

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't know much about the pickle business. I've never had a huge passion for pickles. I'd consider myself to be a plain Jane Vlassic girl myself. But that wasn't going to stop me from learning. In a series of probably fifty questions, I began interviewing Sheena and her friends, and by the time it was over, I had a rip-roaring craving for pickles.

Here's what I learned that fateful night:

  • Sheena makes home-made, hand-packed pickles, and offers up four varieties: "The Dilly" (dill), "Texas Heat" (spicy), "Bread & Butter" (B&B) and "The Jefe" (a beer pickle made form an IPA that's usually a special order item)
  • She doesn't yet have a website, so to find her, you need to like Sheena's Pickles on FaceBook and you can message her there. If you order pickles from her now, she will deliver them to you. It's so great!
  • The sister who sat down across from us is Sheena's beautiful twin, a graphic designer responsible for Sheena's adorable logo and personified pickle logo, a pickle named Pete. Pete has a gap in his teeth like Sheena. I love this so much.
  • Sheena attracts amazing friends. She has a friend named Roxy who was also at the pub crawl that I want to somehow steal and bring into my friend world, mainly because when bragging on Sheena, Roxy said, "I swear to you, my pH is completely off because of these pickles. I'm like ALL vinegar now!"
  • Sheena hosts an annual Pickle Party. I'm hoping to purchase enough pickles to get on the invite list.

By the way, the pickle discussion was much more entertaining than the Drunk History session, mainly because it was really crowded, and Derek Waters tried to get someone drunk enough to read a funny version of The Giving Tree, but it wasn't really funny because the guy simply wasn't drunk enough. I thought that was pretty funny that it was hard to find someone drunk enough at a literary pub crawl. After all, writers and literary types are not exactly afraid of the bottle. I guess the timing was just off.

Either way, it was fate that we stumbled upon Sheena, her sister, her hilarious friends, and the news of her blossoming pickle business. I feel strongly that I was meant to meet Sheena, and that big things are going to happen to this gal. Let me explain.

While my husband plugged his ears, I told Sheena that she needed to touch my arm, because at one point in time, I went on some dates with a certain vodka maker who was just dreaming up his ideas for a vodka company. I met him long before he made it very big in the vodka world. My husband isn't wild about this story, but that's just because my husband doesn't realize he's the much better catch, and also because I don't really like vodka anyway.

But given the fate of the vodka maker, I like to think I have something of the Midas touch when it comes to meeting people before they make it big. I met Matt Damon when he was barely starting out as an actor. He was absolutely the nicest guy -- he told me how lucky he was to be getting paid to do what he wanted to do for a living -- and look what happened to him. I met Ashton Kutcher before he was Ashton Kutcher. He's certainly doing okay. Once, Andy Dick was behind me at Randall's, and well, he was three sheets to the wind and belligerent, and nobody likes him anyway. But if you ever need a volunteer to read The Giving Tree drunk, Andy Dick is your guy.

So after our fateful anniversary night, we ordered up some pickles from Sheena. When the order was ready, Sheena delivered our pickles to Pei Wei, where we were having an early dinner with our 10-year old daughter. We resisted the temptation to open them at the table at Pei Wei, but as soon as we got home, we cracked a jar open and WOW. Holy moly, they're delicious. All three flavors we tried (Dilly, B&B and Texas Heat) were fantastic, and we had to pace ourselves not to wolf down all three jars in one sitting. They were even better the next day after chilling out in the fridge overnight. Sheena suggested that we make pimento cheese, so that weekend I made my mom's pimento cheese recipe, served up crackers and pickles, and that was lunch. And it was delicious.

I believe that Sheena is going to make it big in the pickle universe. I'm absolutely rooting for her, and am excited to help spread the word about this pickle dynasty in the making. In honor of today, National Pickle Day, here's to Sheena's Pickles!



(photo courtesy of Sheena's Pickles FB page)



Monday, November 4, 2013

The Upgrade

On Tuesday, my new phone arrived in the mail. Tim called me right away to deliver the news.

"Your phone's here!" he bellowed joyfully. It had been weeks, and we were beginning to wonder if it would ever arrive. "Are you excited?"

"I am! I can't wait!" I answered, doing my best to sound convincing.

Hanging up my loyal and trusty iPhone 4 and holding it tenderly, I thought back to when I got it, and how painful the process was to upgrade from my older version. I recalled how I hunkered down for what felt like half of an entire weekend and fretted over syncing decisions, settings, lost notes, photo sharing... the whole situation was intimidating and exhausting. And yes, as everyone is saying lately, these are clearly first world problems. I have to remind myself of this when I get weird about technology. And this is coming from a woman who works for a tech company, no less.

Still, forced and voluntary technology upgrades terrify me. Because my birthday fell around the release date of the new iPhone 5s, I succumbed to the temptation despite my paralyzing fear of gadget upgrades. I won't lie; I fell for the storage space and the dazzling gold exterior of the 5s. Tim made it easy for me by just casually letting me know that he and the kids were getting me a new phone for my birthday, so he eliminated all of the hemming and hawing that would have gone down had I visited the Apple store to make a selection. Tim, who's arguably one of the most patient individuals on the planet, took on the arduous task of going to the Apple store multiple times, waiting God knows how long on the right kind of blue-shirted youngster, only to find out the phone I wanted wasn't in stock. So he got online and made magic happen so that when my phone arrived, it was already a bit of a friend to me. I am delighted to state that the entire process has been very simple for the most part. If you're like me and never moved to a 5 model, and also never upgraded to the new iPhone software, a few notes:
  • Siri can be a man! Because I've always wanted a little man, this is great news. It's a relatively simple settings change, too. It only took me like half an hour to figure it out. For the rest of you, that will be about 32 seconds. Also, since this is my first Siri, I've asked Male Version of Siri all of the inappropriate 7th grade questions. And he's still being cool so I'm kind of in love with him.
  • The fingerprint technology to unlock your home screen is silly. It may be cool, but that's a lot of hype for a silly product enhancement, if you ask me. My stepdaughter Stephanie had to sit down with me and give me a full lesson, and she's patient as her father, thank goodness, because I was a terrible student. It reminded me of years ago when I took a computer class at work, and one of our older coworkers was so technologically challenged that she didn't know how to properly double-click a mouse, so the instructor began to get frustrated with her, and finally walked up to her and yelled, "It's like Little Caesar's! PIZZA, PIZZA!" With the fingerprint log-on, you have to push the button down and then release it, but keep your finger there while the phone identifies your fingerprint. It's a completely unnatural feeling to me. So I did what the smart folks do and I asked my 10-year old to disable the password option. I am willing to sacrifice password security for sanity.
  • Evidently you don't need 32G or more of storage, and likely never will. My sister tried to explain something about this -- there's a service that costs way less that can store all of your music and photos in the cloud -- but I tuned her out because I was too busy beating myself up for asking for the fancy phone instead of the more affordable plastic variety. I also felt bad about the fact that it was a bit on the wasteful side, especially because the gold phone isn't really gold. As in, I kind of thought it was going to be dipped in real gold. Oops!
  • You may lose your notes. I lost every note taken in 2013, but still have old notes. I don't understand why. So much for every good movie recommendation, random restaurant wine name, cab driver quote, short story idea, kid quote and unsecured password for 2013. All gone. Ugh.
  • There's a flashlight. Big whoop!
  • There's some extra stuff on the camera, including a watered-down Instagrammish filtering option and a fun panoramic option, which is great for seeing what my butt really looks like in dressing room mirrors. That, and my neighbor can use it to capture a group photo of every last one of her cats. It's handy!
Then there's Face Time. Since I'm way too wimpy to use an iPad, and I've never upgraded the software until now, my new phone gave me the opportunity to try out my first Face Time session. Completely by accident.

Saturday morning, I was grocery shopping when I remembered that I desperately needed my mom's pimento cheese recipe. (It's another story I intend to tell soon about this great girl Tim and I met who makes pickles, and how she suggested pimento cheese to eat alongside her pickles, so I was on a mission). I called mom's cell first, and it went to voice mail, so I called her home number and my stepfather James answered. Mom was in Dallas at a music rehearsal with her friends, the Choir Hoes. Now, they are not referring to landscaping tools here. My 65-year old mom and her friends, classically-trained musicians who sing in church choir, refer to themselves as the Choir Hoes because they jump around from choir to choir. I think they just spell it "hoe" so they appear respectable. And they really are respectable. They're just hoes.

Anyway, my stepfather and I are awkward and formal on the phone together, so while my mom was out hoeing around, James and I had a short but hilarious exchange about the key ingredients of pimento cheese, and determined that it's just pimentos, cheese, mayonnaise and salt and pepper. He's frugal, so he suggested that I just make a tiny bit and taste it first in case it was a disaster, and asked me to call him for a report after I made it. I thought that was cute.

Evidently when I called my mom's cell that morning, I did it via Face Time, so when my mom's rehearsal ended, she saw a missed Face Time call, or whatever you call it. Except I didn't know I used Face Time. Much later that night, I saw I'd missed a Face Time from my mom, but I don't think my mom knew she used Face Time, either. I was perplexed.

Later Saturday night, my girlfriends came over for an impromptu spa night -- a terrific idea my daughter had that day to invite over friends, soak our feet, do face masks, and read magazines. Tim served as our personal chef and made a fantastic vegetarian dinner, and we had such fun we never even opened up a magazine. Since I had kicked back with a few glasses of wine, a rejuvenating aloe mask and lots of giggles and girl talk, I was nice and relaxed. I picked up my new gadget and pushed the Face Time button to give it a whirl.

Lesson 1: It's a really good idea to forewarn someone before you invite them to a Face Time session what's about to happen. In this case, I only had a vague and general idea of what I was doing, and it was nearly 11:00 at night, so when I pushed the Face Time button, Mom answered the session. Right away I noticed a face on the top right hand corner. The face was of a scary woman with no make-up, unfamiliar forehead wrinkles, and she was contorting her face in unknown positions, trying make out the larger image. That was me. Note to Apple: let's get some filters on Face Time stat, mkay? Because thanks to Instagram, I'd forgotten what my real face looked like, and I liked it that way.

The larger image was almost 100% darkness, save for some undetectable movement and then two shiny dots that I later figured out were little dotty reflections of my mom's glasses that she had reached for in the dark when her phone began ringing. Just as I began to wonder if I'd called a random coal miner by mistake, the dots wiggled around a minute and finally Mom's bare arm and shoulder appeared as she flipped on the bedside lamp.

"Mom! Are you DRESSED?" the scary woman in the upper corner asked, mortified and very tickled all at the same time. Lesson 2: unless you have planned some kind of awkward online date night, answer Face Time calls when fully clothed.

"I'm in bed!" she replied, and instead of getting angry or annoyed like most parents, my mom just burst into a fit of laughter that easily tacked some extra years onto her full and rich life.

From there, my first official Face Time session consisted of at least five full minutes of non-stop hysterical laughter. Except even better is that my mom's service at home is spotty at best, so every few minutes her face would freeze in an open-mouthed fit of laughter, and my face would do the same on her end, so it just made us laugh even harder. I wish desperately that we could have recorded it.

Tim got the pleasure of witnessing this from the opposite couch, so all he could see was his scary wife looking at her phone and wiping tears, saying, "Mom! What is happening? Why is this happening?!" He was definitely amused by the whole scene.

There might have been a moment when, in an effort not to wet my pants, I used Face Time to show my mom the bathroom to explain where I would be for a minute while she kept on laughing. Because that's just how we roll in my family (and I'm famous for laughing so hard I wet my pants). There might also have been a moment where I left my mom looking at my bathroom ceiling while I left her on the laundry basket, and we might have laughed the entire time, because the moment was an instant family classic.

From there, we finally got things under control and I took my mom back to my daughter's room where I flipped on her light to let Rosie and Mimi say hello. I was waking up all sorts of people with Face Time that night! I even shoved the phone in our dog Taco's face and let him say hello as well. The only person in the family who didn't get in on the fun was my stepfather James, who was next to my mother, sleeping peacefully during the greatest Face Time session ever, dreaming of pimento cheese sandwiches.

Lesson 3? Even if you lose a little data along the way, go ahead and take the plunge and upgrade your gadgets. The fun awaiting you on the other side is well worth it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Up to Here

For several months, my job has gotten a little on the nutty side. It's all good stuff, but my department is changing things around pretty drastically, and because of that, I've had to rely pretty heavily on my deep breathing exercises, daily walks, and a few bursts of headphone time where I listen to Spanish guitar. Or smooth jazz. And let's not judge, please. As I explained to you in the last post, everyone has their "isms." Smooth jazz is one of mine.

All of this recent work nuttiness reminded me again of that job I had years ago as a medical answering service operator. That was when I first started having a hard time coping with stress. One day, a coworker came by my desk with a pamphlet for a seminar called "Women and Stress in the Workplace." The co-worker was a loud man who worked in sales, and he thought I would benefit from a day out of the office. Or possibly, everyone needed a day without me (I was supervising people by that point). I was a bit offended at the suggestion, but I had to admit he was right; I needed some help. I later married that man, but that's another story for another time.

I don't remember the name of that outfit that offered the day-long seminars, but we were always getting mail from them, and they advertised all kinds of seminars to tackle a variety of work-related issues -- Wearing Many Hats in the Workplace (I thought briefly about signing up for that one, and showing up wearing a stack of hats), How to Get That Promotion!, How to Organize your ms-DOS disks -- wait, I'm showing my age here.

Anyway, I signed up for the session for women and stress, thinking I could use a day away, and if I learned something helpful, even better. The seminar took place in a B-grade conference center in a strip mall. We've all been there - the flimsy, carpeted movable walls, the dingy used hotel chairs with suspicious stains on the cushions, the sweaty, frazzled receptionist/greeter in tan hose and square heels -- you get the scene.

When I arrived, I made beeline for a seat on the outside edge, sort of near the front so I could participate but only if I wanted to, but in an aisle seat in case I needed to run for the exit. I took stock of the place and thought about my mom, who has bookoodles of girlfriends but has always despised organized groups of women. Since this was a group of stressed-out women, I looked around to check out the competition. Nobody stood out as particularly twitchy, and surprisingly, nobody looked particularly stressed out. Maybe it was already working!

The instructor was a pasty, meek type who made up for her lack of charisma by offering us glazed donuts. As I explained in my last segment, I can't have idle hands, so I helped myself. What I didn't consider while throwing down a freebie donut was that our instructor was likely drugging us to keep us there. Because we all stayed. The entire day.

The course was completely forgettable except for one key moment. The meek and pasty instructor -- let's call her Patty from here on out - asked us how we handle it when someone walks up to our desk when we're in the middle of something and don't have time to chit chat. I think there was some label for those people, like "Chatty Saboteurs" or something similarly ridiculous. The idea is that there are people who will approach you at work, and they don't mean to prevent you from working, it is completely not intentional -- they're just chatty. But you get the fun job of trying to figure out how to ask them to go away without offending them.

Now, I am THE chattiest person I know, so this is a tough one for me. That said, through the years, I have figured out how to pick up on non-verbal cues so that when I sidle up to someone's desk to say hello, when I start to sense they really can't talk, even if they're making eye contact at first and appearing engaged, I figure out the quickest way to wrap it up and I mosey along.

Here are the signs that someone is hinting for you to leave their desk:
  • watch-looking
  • looking at the computer screen
  • typing
  • looking down to appear to read notes
  • closing their eyes and pinching that spot at the top of the nose in between the eyes

The last one is a dead giveaway that the person you're speaking with is busy. I know these are cues because I do them all myself. But I should think back to that seminar, because Patty didn't suggest any of those things, possibly because she knew from experience they don't really work. Instead, Patty said something like this:

"Now that we work in open environments, you can't close your door and have time to get your important work done. You have so many distractions -- the phone ringing, a meeting, an e-mail, and then you have the Chatty Ones. So, when a Chatty approaches your desk, and they say, 'Hey! How's it goin'?', you simply need to raise your arm above your head like this:

(And she began shaking her hand, firmly, with much more conviction than she seemed to truly possess)

"...and say, 'I am so sorry, but I am just UP TO HERE today. Let's catch up later!'"

And that was that. She had us practice on each other, and we did it with sincerity, fired up to go back to our open environments and practice on some unsuspecting Chatty Saboteurs. It was exciting. And when I got back to the office it worked, at least to some degree. What also worked was turning in my resignation, because the stress of that particular job was simply more than a day-long seminar could cure. But I never forgot that little bit of advice. 

Now here I am, years later, working at a company that I absolutely love. I believe in our product, our management, our vision, and we're in a big growth spurt so our office is getting more and more crowded. I am chatty, as I mentioned, and I genuinely like my coworkers. Yet, as we grow, I find that more and more often, when someone approaches my desk, I want to raise my hand and announce that I'm "UP TO HERE." Except it doesn't work. And it's kind of rude, right? And even if I do say it, we just end up chatting, and it's hard to stop.

I don't blame the people who come to chat, I blame myself for being someone that wants to chat along. 

So lately I've been brainstorming potential solutions to my problem. Working from home isn't an option, and I actually like being in an office. Raising a Pancho's flag isn't an option either, because I don't have a Pancho's flag. If you're not from these parts, Pancho's is a pretty terrible Mexican food buffet that I believe is defunct.  Once you serve yourself a heaping plate of crappy hangover Mexican food, then you can sit tight at your table, and if you want seconds, there's a flag on a little flagpole at your table, and you raise it up, and an underpaid server will appear to give you another enchilada. It's a pretty amazing idea. I kind of want one just to have when I go anywhere, and see what happens when I raise it. Except if I raise it, I'm afraid people will come to me, and that's not the goal at all.

Here's a picture, thanks to a random stranger who was snapping photos while waiting on more flautas. (And thanks to Google image results). There is not much documentation on Pancho's, I'm sad to say!



In lieu of a Pancho's flag, I have decided to go with the Hot Dog Hat.

I own a ridiculous hot dog hat, which is another great story, but I don't have time to tell it. Ask me later, please!

I decided that when I need 100% alone time, I'll slap on this hat and tell everyone what it's about, and that should do the trick. If it doesn't, I'll brainstorm another idea (a Nerf gun?), but I feel confident that my lovely coworkers will get the idea. I have even floated the idea around a few times, and the feedback has been positive. 

So it's official. I shall commence to wearing Hot Dog Hat very soon. When people approach me, I'm going to look up, raise my hands, and shrug. Here's my first attempt. I hope to appear friendly, but not too approachable, because that's what got me here in the first place.

I'll keep you posted on the results!


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Managing the Isms

At some point in my early 20's, I started having difficulty managing stress.

For a lot of people who struggle with stress -- and isn't that all of us at some point in our lives? -- the root of our stress is the pressure we place on ourselves. For me, it's pressure to do well at work. By "doing well," I'm not referring to making a pile of money, or that I become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. My definition of "doing well" at work is that my colleagues think of me as valuable, that my customers know I'm reliable, and that nobody ever questions my work ethic. This has always been the case for me.

That self-imposed pressure comes with a lot of stress. My need to work hard is most definitely an inherited thing. Both my mother and father are crazy hard workers. After they divorced, they each went off and married another hard worker. Look on both sides of my family and you can't find a slacker in the bunch. All of my family role models definitely earned their pay. As if that all of those busy bees in my family weren't doing a good enough job creating a false pressure to work hard, add my great grandmother Vera Conrad, lovingly known as Great Gran. When I was a little girl, Great Gran used to lean towards me in her wheelchair and whisper, "Idle hands are the devil's playthings." I assure you, there is nothing creepier than an ancient woman with long earlobes and chin whiskers telling you about devil's playthings to scare some work ethic into a little kid. And she practiced what she preached. Though she was wheelchair bound and no longer able to tend to a farm (talk about work!), Great Gran sat in her little wheelchair and quilted non-stop, keeping those wiry old hands as busy as could be.

Her creepy words stuck with me. At a very early age, I figured that I better work hard, or the devil would start playing with my hands and oh my goodness no! I'll just get to work, thanks. Given that pressure, it's no wonder I got pretty good at playing the piano. Busy hands. Busy hands.

During school and college, I managed stress enough not to cause problems, but I was always known as a bit of a "Stressball." It's just how I'm wired. But when I started full-time work in my early 20's, the stress of it all began manifesting itself in the form of some ugly little anxiety attacks. I didn't know how to handle it, and that stress fed on itself, so my anxiety worsened.

Lucky for me, when this started happening, one of my longest and closest friends was in grad school, getting her Masters in Social Work. I called her, and she came to my apartment with her hands full. In one hand, she held a six-pack of beer, in the other hand, she held a fat copy of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I will never forget that. It's so indicative of the kind of friend she is: loyal, giving, and fully invested in helping you when you need her most. It's not surprising that to this day, she is still my dear friend, and a successful and highly-regarded private therapist who specializes in many things, among which are anxiety disorders.

That night, with a six-pack, tears and laughter, we began searching the DSM for answers. While we certainly didn't find them all that night (that DSM is one agonizingly difficult read, but a good cure for insomnia), it was a first step in identifying what was causing me to feel like I was completely out of my head. Soon enough, I began seeing a therapist, learning breathing techniques, and learning how to cope with my own definition of "normal."

I hated the way anxiety made me feel, so I didn't tell many people at all. I kept that secret close to my pounding chest. I was so afraid of people thinking that I was crazy. Except guess what? We're all crazy. It's just varying degrees, friends. And guess what? Most of the normal, honest people I know have admitted that they, too, struggled with anxiety at some point in their lives. If not anxiety, then depression. If not depression, then some kind of compulsion.

My sister calls these things "isms." "Isms" aren't always related to mental health. It could be that you need glasses and refuse to get them. That's your "ism."  It could be that you use baby talk when you talk to your boyfriend. Well, that's not an "ism," but it is annoying, so quit it. It could be that you detest laundromats. That's your "ism". Are you getting the idea? And honestly, if you live in this day and age and don't have some kind of "ism", well, congratulations on becoming a Buddhist monk. When you get back from your silent retreat, we'll all be back here in "ism" town when you're ready to talk again.

There's a Facebook thing that's been going around for a year or more that has a sad little drawing of a woman in an ugly pink robe that says, "Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are NOT a sign of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for way too long." The first time I saw it, I thought, "No wonder she's depressed. That robe is terrible." And then I read it again, and realized that the sentiment there is meant to promote acceptance of mental health issues - and that the sentiment is a good one. But it is a tad on the dramatic side. I certainly wasn't forced to be "strong" for a long time, I just got hit square on with anxiety issues. I believe my anxiety issues have much more to do with chemical make-up and a lot of forced pressures that I place on myself.

The post goes on to send a message of acceptance for those of us (1 in 3, evidently), who deal with "isms" at some point in their lives. It also mentions that this week is Mental Health Week. Every time somebody posts it, I "like" it. Because it's a good message. But I also get tickled that since it's on Facebook, that message keeps floating around, making every week Mental Health Week. But in case your particular "ism" is that you're a stickler for dates, October 6-12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. And while I will always take a silly tone with serious topics, it really is a good time to reach out to someone that you know struggles in some way, and let them know that you are there for them. It might also be a good opportunity to ask them how they manage their issue, and how you might help.

For those of us who struggle with our "isms," every day is Mental Health Day. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what would happen if I had an anxiety attack while driving, speaking to customers, caring for my kids, you name it. If it weren't for years off an on in therapy, an extremely supportive family, meditation and prayer, regular exercise and deep breathing techniques, I'm fairly convinced I would be trying to figure out how to leave my people and make a beeline for the nearest ashram for a long-term recovery.

And just because I can talk openly about my anxiety issues, does not mean everyone feels that free. I wish it were easier for everyone, because it would help reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems.

In recognition of Mental Health Week, here's the link to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, where you can tell your story. I shared mine; I hope you share yours.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Passion: Part 2

Now that I am focusing my attention on passion, it's all over the place. It's like my coworker who recently went on a road trip and rented a Kia, and when he kind of liked the Kia, registered online to learn more about them, and now he's getting Kia sales calls non-stop. Now, that is simply a very annoying sales tactic. Except he's also seeing Kias everywhere, when he hardly noticed them before. This happened to me, too, but it wasn't Kias. The Universe began sending me passionate people.

It started with the boy who works at the Starbucks by my office. I don't know him well, but since I'm in there frequently, we have brief chats about the weather, politics, why soy milk is superior to dairy in the matter of all things Chai...you get the idea. When I told him that I sold my car and walk to work, he perked up (pardon the bad coffee pun) and said that he sold his car, too.

"What made you sell your car?" I asked.

"I want to be a glassblower," he said, "To buy the equipment I need, the only way I could get that kind of money was to sell my car."

As I grabbed my chai and finished the walk to work that morning, I thought about how much guts it takes to sell your car to reach your dream, and that the Starbucks guy was willing to make a huge, bold move to get there. That's passion. Plain and simple.

The past few weeks, Starbucks guy hasn't been there. I miss him, especially because the woman who took his place seems to only be passionate about being slow as Christmas. But that's another story. And while I miss seeing Starbucks guy, I'm hoping that at this very instant, he's firing up his glassblowing thingamajig, the happiest he's ever been.

Shortly after that, I was reminded that for some people, it takes time to arrive at that place where you are willing to sell your car to buy glassblowing equipment. Take, for example, the server at the restaurant we went to for my stepdaughter's 18th birthday a few weeks ago. On an energy level scale of 1 to 10, she was about a four. And I've waited tables, so I know that at some point during your shift, you're so exhausted you want to die, but still. Suck it up. There are tips to be made.

Several annoying things took place at this girl's table that I won't even bother discussing. My husband -- a man who loves everyone -- was completely over her after just a few minutes. But I thought about that glassblowing Starbucks guy, and figured surely this girl had a similar story.

When you're dealing with someone who appears to be passionless, it may just be that they're not particularly outgoing. But there's a chance they lack passion, so it's better not to ask them what their passion is because it could make them feel terrible. You're better off starting with something less daunting.

I waited for her to plod back to our table, then asked,

"I have a weird question for you. What makes you laugh so hard your stomach hurts?"

I ask this question to people I have a hard time figuring out. You should try it. It says a lot about a person. Plus, you get to think about how great it would be to see that person laughing so hard they're grabbing their sides for relief.

So I asked the girl, and her first response was to shrug and say, "I don't know."

"No!" I wailed. "No! That is not acceptable! You have to say something!"

She stood there, passionless, and paused for what felt like eternity, and went fishing around in her memory bank of funny movies.

"Bridesmaids?"

Her response was a big bummer to me. Don't get me wrong, Bridesmaids is pretty hilarious, but that's not the point. It was the way she answered it. Had she had answered with absolute certainty, that would be one thing. But she didn't. She was almost asking for permission.

I hoped somehow in our brief exchange that I could figure out what made this girl tick. To learn that she was waiting tables while pursuing her degree in archaeology, because ever since she was a little girl, she was obsessed with fossils. Or Harrison Ford. Or, she really, really wanted to be a tight rope walker. Or that for her entire life, all she really wanted to do was become an assistant principal of a mediocre elementary school. I would have taken any of it had she delivered it with oomph.

If you're doing some self-reflecting and saying, "Aw, man, I'm not sure what I'm passionate about, and this makes me feel like a loser," don't fret. You are definitely not a loser. If you ask yourself the question, "What am I passionate about?" and you answer yourself by saying, "Dog fighting!" then you are a loser. Otherwise, you just need a bit of nudging.

A few weeks after the Passionless Server Incident, a fairly sizable group of my coworkers and I went to happy hour at a nearby upscale barbecue restaurant. Our server was outstanding (and it should be obvious by this point that I am a little on the picky side). She was completely at ease, making it feel like we were at her own dinner party. She knew when to come check on us, but wasn't ever in the way. She handled our special requests like they were no biggie. She was personable and fun, and very good at her job.

When it came time to leave, my coworker Katie and I walked over to where she was standing so we could thank her for her hard work. And for some reason, I was prompted to ask,

"What's your passion?"

She didn't have to stop and think about it. Her answer was immediate.

"I just graduated with a degree in business," she said, "So right now, I'm passionate about getting a job in sales or marketing."

I started digging in my purse for my business cards as Katie said, "As a matter of fact, we're hiring right now!"

From there, things began moving in fast forward. It's crazy how this all went down. Ralph, the person hiring for entry-level positions was with us, and we introduced him to the server. We all went outside to wait, and some time later, Ralph came out and announced that he would be interviewing our server the next morning. The next day, she came to interview, and blew it out of the water. She had done her homework, even though she had less than a full day to prepare. At every step in the interview process, she killed it. And now, she's no longer waiting tables, because we hired her. Yeah, it's a crazy, fantastic story. I love it.

But there is more to this story, and it has to do with the fact that everything lined up not because it was all simple coincidence, but because the right people with the right kind of passion were at the right place and the right time. Without passion, it wouldn't have been possible.

A key player in this story is Ralph, the man who hired our awesome server. Ralph is one of those people who does everything with passion. I have never seen him talk about anything or do anything in a lackluster fashion. When he talks about his wife, his eyes light up like he just went on his first date and he knows she's the woman with whom he'll spend the rest of his life. If you ask about his kids, he'll start showing you pictures of his adorable sons, and you can see how much he cares about being a good dad. Try asking him about how he feels about being a drummer. He's all pumped up. And at the same time, Ralph puts equal passion into Gable Heart Beats, the charity he supports to raise awareness about heart disease.

Ralph is a complete dynamo in the workplace. Every single person I know who has worked on his team at work agrees: when your boss is that excited, you can't help but be excited yourself. So maybe there is some truth to associating with passionate people. If you can be around people who are fired up about everything they do, maybe it will help you find your passion as well. It certainly can't hurt!

So here is your homework: Think about what makes you feel so excited your heart is pounding out of your chest. Has it been a while since you felt excited about something? It's okay. This isn't a test; we're just exploring your passion. Don't panic!

Think back to when you were a little kid. What made you so excited you could hardly sleep?

For me, I think about when I was little, we would go to my Aunt Pat and Uncle LB's ranch where adults with questionable judgment would let my sister and me ride their 4-wheelers all over the place for hours on end. 4-wheelers completely excite me to the point where if I think about them at night, I can't sleep. It's so silly! I also get that same feeling of excitement about riding those huge swinging pirate ships at amusement parks. At Six Flags in Texas, their version of the swinging pirate ship is called The Conquistador, and if I had the money, I would buy one of those for my backyard in a New York minute. Just watch this and try not to get excited! I also get completely stoked about Karaoke (so much that I had my first Karaoke injury last week - I back-up danced with so much passion I bruised my hip with the tambourine). I feel the same way about seeing my husband and kids when I've been away on work travel. Every time! And I get excited about writing, so that when I do it, hours pass and I hardly know it.

More homework: Grab a journal and jot down some of those initial thoughts. Get it down on paper, iPad, text yourself, it doesn't matter. Just write it down, and let's see what happens. And don't get all worried that you're going to mess up. It's just a little list of things that make you excited.

Like the Kias that keep popping into my coworker's line of sight, let's see if things start happening as a result. You're not paying me anything to do this, so don't expect some magic money-back guarantee if nothing works. You may just be a boring, passionless person, and if that's the case, I can't help you. I'm kidding, I just wanted to say that because it made me laugh. I really believe that if you start focusing on what makes you happy now, or at the very least what used to make you happy, that things are going to change.

And by all means, share stories with me. I look forward to hearing what happens next.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Passion: Part 1

I'd like to talk a little about passion. I have so much to say about it, I'm going to break it down into a series.

Don't get too excited, this isn't Fifty Shades of Grey passion, though that would be really fun to write about since the books (yes, I read all three) were so deliciously terrible. I'm talking about the kind of passion that burns deep inside a person and drives them to do something, even if it feels crazy. It's the passion that lives inside 62-year old Diana Nyad, so that despite vomiting salt water for almost the entire 53-hour swim from Florida to Cuba last weekend, she kept on going. And she finally made it. It's such a crazy, amazing story. I'm sorry, but if I were swimming and vomited up salt water just once, I would throw in the towel immediately.

I love passionate people. My mother started by setting the example. Years ago, after her marriage to my father ended, she went back to school, earned a Bachelors and Masters in Music while raising two children. She held down multiple jobs and worked her butt off to make straight A's. She then went on to become a highly-respected piano teacher and professional musician, and runs a thriving studio where lucky kids and adults not only learn piano and theory, but they learn to play with passion. Her students go on to do big things, and even if they don't all become musicians, her influence helps them find passion in their lives. Her website even features the following quote from Beethoven: "To play without passion is inexcusable!"

Here's a photo of my beautiful mom and two of her star students. All of her students are star students, for that matter. Just this morning, I read another post from one of her former students who was just accepted into music school and will be minoring in music, and wrote to thank my mom for her influence in that decision. 




My stepfather James is equally as passionate about art. Every day, for as long as I've known him (he married my mother when I was 8), he creates art. Every single day. He gets up, goes on a morning walk, and returns, usually with a leaf or a flower in hand, and grabs his sketchbook and colored pencils and begins to draw. James is completely driven by the need to create things, and it has given him a rich and fulfilled life. The result is he owns piles of packed sketch books filled with unique drawings of people, places, events, beautiful bits of nature -- all recorded in rich detail.

Here's a blurry photo of James I snapped when I visited home a few months ago. I've witnessed this scene so many mornings as I groggily sip coffee and look out the window, and it inspires me. Sitting in that red chair is a man who lives each day with passion.





I've had passion on the mind quite a bit lately. It began in mid-August, when I went to San Francisco with my colleagues to participate in a Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator team builder. I will admit; I went in a bit skeptically, having done some similar exercises at work in the past. I wasn't sure that the exercise would reveal things about me I didn't already know. But it did reveal things I didn't know. And it helped me better understand my co-workers. And it solidified that I'm indeed an extrovert, just in case I had any doubts.

During the day-long event, our instructor, the dynamic and feisty Carol Enright, asked us to look up on the projector at an image, study it, and write about it for two minutes. The image appeared to be wall art made on a wooden surface that depicted a tree made from dry macaroni and dried beans. It was ugly.

With the instant Carol told us to start writing, I felt an adrenaline rush so strong I could have lifted a sedan. In my terribly sloppy handwriting, I wrote frantically. What felt like seconds passed and she told us to stop, and I had an urge to yell, "No! Not yet! I'm just getting going here!" I could have gone on for days.  Then, Carol pulled two people up to read what they wrote. When she didn't pick me, I wanted to jump up and down and yell, "Pick mine! I want to share with the class!"  By the time we moved on to the next part of our exercise, I was still clutching my little scribbled page, not wanting to let go of that feeling.

A week or so later, my CEO Umberto Milletti came to visit our Austin office. He makes a point of having one on one conversations with his employees, a refreshing practice for a guy that busy. He is genuinely interested in what his employees think, and he values our input. During our conversation, I expressed that during the Meyers-Briggs exercise, I was slapped in the face with the reminder that writing is my core passion. I explained that in my day-to-day work with our customers, I use my writing to make my work fresh. But I also expressed that if I could do more writing at work, that would be a dream.

Umberto provided the most supportive, logical guidance on how to make this work. He directed me to the right person internally to open up a conversation, and since then, there's been a whirlwind of emails around how to provide me with the freedom to contribute from a content perspective. It's kept me up at night, but not in the kind of way that business can often keep you up at night. I'm so excited I can't sleep. I've felt like a little kid who knows that tomorrow, her parents are going to take her to an amusement park, and she is going to ride a roller coaster that will make her stomach drop, and she simply cannot wait to get there.

I am thankful that I possess this passion. I'm also thankful that on Saturday mornings, my husband goes out to procure breakfast, and that my family understands that for several hours, I'll be typing, writing, deleting, re-writing, and reading sentences out loud like a crazy person. I may escape to a local coffee shop and do the same thing there, never worrying about what the hipsters think, because at that hour, most of them are hungover anyway.

This begins my series on passion, because what I hope comes out of this is that you will also remember what yours is. While researching the topic the other day, I read about one inspirational speaker (many of whom I mistrust deeply for reasons unknown) who said that he only associates with passionate people, and specifically dumps friends who don't appear to have passion. I think that's a bit extreme, and also kind of counterintuitive for an inspirational speaker. I don't want to be that heartless. I want to help people find their passion and encourage them to go for it.

In this series, I have a few stories to tell that might inspire you. Let's explore passion and see if, during this process, you are able to uncover yours. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nice Work, Chris Kutcher

Sunday night, after returning from a quick weekend road trip, my sister, 10 year-old daughter and I collapsed on the couch, flipped on the TV and landed on the Teen Choice Awards. I had possession of the remote, so I could have moved on to something much more intellectually stimulating, but I'm a sucker for awards shows. That, and my daughter kind of lost her mind seeing her favorite Disney actors tottering around in neon stilettos. Pair that with some flashy lights, annoyingly catchy summer tunes ("Blurred Lines," anyone?), and we had an instant Teen Choice Awards viewing party.

As a mom, I struggle with some of our viewing choices at home, and the Teen Choice Awards is no exception. I'm certain that my husband Tim and I don't always use the best judgment when it comes to what we let our kids watch. But we're also not a very typical family. We're very open, for better or for worse. I'm the parent who happily rented Team America: World Police when my stepchildren were way too young, asking the greasy-nosed kid at the movie store, "I mean, how bad can it get with puppets?" 

If you don't know the answer, it can get VERY bad. I'm betting the greasy-nosed kid shared a good snorty laugh with his coworkers after we left. Good-natured, blonde stepmother corrupts young kids with dirty, foul-mouthed puppets. High fives all around.

Also, while I'm admitting our flaws, we are pretty heavy on the TV watching at the Arndt house. I'm totally going to blame Tim for that. When Tim was in elementary school, he was a latch-key kid in the afternoons, and I get the feeling he watched a lot of television as a result. He liked Flipper. He loved watching the old westerns. When Tim went to the horse stables with friends when he was a little boy, his friends asked him where he learned to ride.

"I've never ridden a horse before," he answered, hopping on and riding like a pro, "I learned it on TV!"

This made me scratch my invisible beard, pondering this strange and interesting social experiment. Based on this, could it be that a contributing factor to my husband's vast intelligence was because he watched so much TV? Was this television education Tim received the first kind of e-learning? 

My television upbringing was a completely opposite situation. Growing up, the TV was rarely on at our house. When I was very little, I could watch half an hour each day, and that was usually public television viewing. As a result, I've committed several seasons of Sesame Street to memory. I didn't learn to ride a horse by watching Bonanza, but I can do the pigeon. I can also count to twelve, which comes in extremely handy at bakeries.

When I got married and became a stepmother, I had grand illusions of switching off the television and recreating an even more Utopian version of my childhood where the kids and I would be in our living room, decked out in smocks, painting masterpieces, listening to Vivaldi. That never happened (mainly because I hate crafts). I thought we'd be kayaking on Town Lake, singing in harmony like the Von Trapps. But I'm weird about dark water, and kayaks make me nervous. I thought we'd be baking organic vegan brownies together, but my stepdaughter Stephanie takes after her biological parents when it comes to baking, so she could bake me out of the kitchen by the time she was in second grade. And quite frankly, I am just not a homemaker kind of gal. So instead, we'd come home from a long day at work and school, and many of our evenings were spent cuddled up on the couch together, laughing at mindless sitcoms. We might not have been learning quantum physics together, but we were together nonetheless, and we were happy. And I'm not one to get all braggy pants about my kids, but they all make excellent grades, so Modern Family didn't mush their brains completely.

So my Utopian vision of what our free time would look like resulted in a lot more TV than I thought we would watch. And now that the kids are older, we have a TV in every bedroom. I know! We are awful people! Not to make an excuse, but we all have different preferences at this point. Tim watches political shows and city council meetings, so unless you want to sleep, stay out of his viewing area. I pretty much binge watch HGTV while I'm doing chores on the weekends, so I'm in the bedroom folding clothes, groaning at the Canadians for being unhappy with the size of the nanny suite. My stepdaughter watches NCIS-types of shows. My stepson's into car shows. And our 10 year-old is into Disney.

As a mother who fancies herself a feminist, I struggle with The Disney Dilemma. I know that some of my daughter's friends watch Disney and some don't, and I can understand the reasons why some kids are not allowed to watch it. It's pretty terrible. Disney is certainly a far cry from Sesame Street. It's obvious that Disney knows this, and is trying very hard to appear inclusive, multi-cultural, and responsible. But let's not fool ourselves, some of those Disney characters are materialistic, narcissistic and, for the most part, extremely irritating. Then you take something like Teen Beach Movie and it's catchy and fun, and has a strong message of empowerment for girls, and we're sucked back in again. Plus, I double dare you to watch Teen Beach Movie and not get up and try to dance along. I watched the dance-along version and I can bust out the main number like a champ. Was it awkward that nobody was home but me? Probably. 

So Disney has us where they want us, at least at my house. There was a point where my daughter began talking back without seeming to consider the consequences. This went on for a bit before my husband had a very interesting conversation with her about the kids she watches on Disney. Tim's take on it was that the kids on Disney may act a certain way, but that it's TV, where everything gets resolved in a pretty little 20 minute bow. Tim suggested that our daughter consider that choosing to behave like the kids on Disney doesn't work well in real life. And she got it. Lesson learned.

Back to the Teen Choice Awards. I allowed my daughter to watch, but I was with her. For me, this is key. I'm not with her when she watches every TV show, but I am around if I am unsure what the material will be. If I'm present, we can discuss together the fact that Miley Cyrus' 7-inch stilettos were a bad fashion choice, not because she's not old enough to wear them (because at 20 she can wear what she wants to), but because she's still unable to walk in them, and watching that tragedy unfold is a bit of a nail biter. (Ask my sister for her cardinal rule about heels: If you can't walk in them, don't wear them). We also talked about how some of the Disney actors who presented awards were showing entirely too much cleavage. There may have been some mild discussion around side boob, and again, how these young actors are influencing kids like mine, and how much of that is okay, and how much of that needs to be recognized as inappropriate for a 10 year-old. For me, it's the conversation that needs to take place. I understand that some parents will simply shield their kids from the exposure altogether, but the way I look at it, the exposure combined with an open conversation helps prepare them socially much more than if they weren't exposed to it at all.

After an hour of Teen Choice Awards, I was exhausted from the sensory overload and the Disney cleavage, and was about to change the channel when Ashton Kutcher appeared, accepting an award the "Ultimate Choice Award."  One of the first things he said was that he "felt like a fraud," and that name was actually Chris (his middle name is Ashton), and he revealed that his name was changed to Ashton when he was 19 when he decided to pursue acting.

I met Ashton Kutcher before he was famous, and likely before he'd changed his name. It was about 1998, and my sister lived in Los Angeles, and I went out to visit her. We were at dinner at a cozy but loud restaurant in Hollywood where the diners sit at long, shared tables. Ashton sat to my right opposite a woman who appeared to be his mother. He wore a knitted beanie pulled down so far it nearly covered his eyes. His hair was long and he was handsome, but to me, he was just any other guy having dinner with his mother.

Because we were sitting right next to each other, and because it was so loud, we chatted for a while. He had moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and he was with his mother, who was there visiting him. The restaurant was so loud that his mother, who sat quietly clutching her handbag in her lap, couldn't hear what we were saying. Ashton laughed and said, "She's from the Midwest, so she's scared someone is going to steal her purse." 

Ashton told me he'd just signed on to do a sit-com, and they were going to be working on the pilot. He described the show as a flash-back to the 70's. I remember thinking at the time that the idea sounded terrible, but that he was such a nice guy that I hoped things would work out. 

Obviously, things worked out just fine, and the rest is history. When I watched That 70's Show for the first time, I felt oddly connected to that tall, goofy kid who had so much ahead of him. It's been fun watching his career skyrocket, and fun to know that I met him before he made it became a household name and a huge star.

When Ashton appeared on stage at the Teen Choice Awards to accept the Ultimate Award, he laughed, saying he was accepting the "Old Guy Award." At 35, he's certainly elderly compared to the Teen Choice demographic. But I love this speech, simply because it proves that you can make it big and use that opportunity to inspire others to do good things. So perhaps watching TV isn't all that bad, as long as the messages you take to heart are about working hard, being a generous person, and learning that smart is sexy.

Nice job, Chris Kutcher!





Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Celebrating Stephanie

Over the weekend, my stepdaughter Stephanie graduated high school. She walked across the stage at Austin's Frank Erwin Center to wild cheers as many of her friends and family members celebrated the big moment.

I was introduced to Stephanie when she was four, and her brother Matthew was five. Fresh out of a tough experience from their parent's divorce, Matthew and Stephanie weren't exactly certain why I was in the picture. Though I'd fallen in love with their father, at 26, I wasn't exactly sure of things myself. Was I okay dating someone with children? Would they like me? Would it work out?

The first day I met the kids, Tim orchestrated a "chance" meeting where we met at the same restaurant. Tim and the kids arrived on bikes and I sat in my car in a red hooded sweater, excited and nervous all at the same time. The goal was for the three of us to have some time to get acquainted, and to take things slowly. We drew silly pictures on napkins. The kids told jokes. Tim did an amazing job making it all seem effortless. We were all okay.

I started coming around more often, and soon the kids learned that I was more than Tim's friend. The kids were terrific - smart, funny, creative -- but Stephanie terrified me. I didn't know it was possible to be afraid of a 4 year-old, but I was. I remember meeting my girlfriends for wine, and I would talk about how hard it was to connect with her. I was afraid she'd strangle me in my sleep. She seemed to peer at me with certain disapproval. Her dark, serious eyes met mine with doubt and mistrust.

I wasn't patient with this. Kids always loved me! But after time, things got better. We'd sit down for a movie at home and she'd be near my space, open to a little hair patting. If I were reading a book she might cautiously find a spot in my lap. One of my favorite pictures of us is when Stephanie was around 5. We're sitting together eating lollipops. Stephanie doesn't exactly look delighted to be there, but I love it because she's on my lap completely by her own choice. Stephanie doesn't do things any other way. Despite her inner conflict, she was willing to connect, even then. I keep that photo on our refrigerator to remind me of how far we've come.



Tim and I dated several years before deciding to get married. Because our wedding was completely non-traditional, I asked Stephanie to be my maid of honor. Matthew was Tim's best man. Stephanie took her role seriously and did an amazing job keeping me calm, looking beautiful in a pink chiffon dress.

Though the years, Stephanie has met every challenge with a determination I've rarely seen in others. She possesses intelligence that's quietly under the surface; she's never in your face about what she knows, but boy, does she know her stuff. She's most creative when she procrastinates. It's nothing for Stephanie to be awake well after midnight, sitting down to begin a paper or a project. For some, that would be unnerving, but Stephanie thrives under pressure. She's written amazing things at the final hour, studied for tests and aced them, created outstanding artwork, choreographed dances. She's at her best when she's doing things on her own terms.

When boys entered the picture, I did my best to listen and allow her to figure things out. My personal philosophy was to defer to Stephanie's parents for the big talks (convenient, right?), and to be there if she came to me with questions. Except lucky for me, most of those questions were answered one night when our hilarious family friend got tipsy and had a wildly inappropriate birds and bees talk while a pre-teen Stephanie listened on in horror. Here and there, Stephanie would share stories with me about the boys she liked, and when it came time to break up with her first boyfriend, she asked me for advice.

Stephanie was in middle school at the time, and I wasn't sure how I would help, so I gave it my best shot. We went to breakfast together, and sat in a restaurant brainstorming on the best way to break up with a boy without hurting him. I suggested that the standard, "It's not you, it's me," is a terrible idea, as is, "I just like you for a friend."  I even Googled break-up techniques, and found an article that said you should be honest without being hurtful, and, when possible, be specific about why you were breaking up so the person knows why things didn't work. It also suggested that you express empathy and apologize for causing pain.

I asked Stephanie why she wanted to break up with this boy.

"I know this is mean," she said, "But he's boring."

We sat and thought about ways to present this information to the poor boring boy. It got sillier and sillier, and finally, we came up with a break-up haiku:

You are so boring.
I have to break up with you.
I am sorry for you.

It did meet all the check boxes:  Here is why I'm breaking up, this is what I'm doing about it, and I am sorry. After we quit laughing hysterically, we decided this wasn't the best approach. We headed home. Stephanie asked me to be in the room when she made the phone call. We faced opposite directions of the room, fearful that we'd get tickled and ruin it by laughing. She spoke gently to the boy, telling him that she wasn't sure she was ready for a boyfriend, and that she wanted to remain friends. Afterwards, she cried, and I did my best to comfort her, proud of her for breaking up in a mature manner, but remembering how painful those middle-school break-ups can be.

I continued to watch Stephanie grow into a gracious and kind person. She embraced friends of varying backgrounds, and as a result, grew into a person who appreciates diversity and a wide variety of interests. She excelled in school, quietly making grades that blew us away. And while she didn't completely miss the age of being a sassy teenager, honestly, Stephanie was a great teenager to be around.

And then came Billy, the handsome and kind boyfriend Stephanie met in her school's PALS (Peer Assistance Leadership Students) program. During football season, it was fun watching Stephanie in the stands, dressed in her drill team outfit, cheering for Billy.

A few weeks ago, Stephanie and Billy were in a parking lot, and Billy opened the car door for Stephanie. An elderly woman stopped Billy and commented that she never sees that kind of behavior any more, and how pleased she was that Billy opened her door. And despite my feminist qualities, I must admit that I enjoy knowing that Stephanie has a boyfriend who respects and cares for her.

Weeks before prom, Billy met with Stephanie's drill team director, asking her if he would be willing to cancel practice on a specific Monday, and if she would grant him access to the mat room. The director cancelled practice, and told Stephanie that there was a senior meeting. Stephanie entered the mat room to find Billy holding flowers, and this:


From there, it's been a whirlwind of senior activity. Billy and Stephanie were voted prom king and queen (how cute is that?). From prom to honors ceremonies to graduation activities, Stephanie has had a huge cheering squad of people supporting her success.

I am so thankful to Tim and Stephanie's mother for having such an amazing daughter. And what a great combination of her parents she has become -- she has her mother's beauty and her father's height, her mother's discipline and her father's kind and selfless spirit, and both of her parent's intelligence. I'm so blessed to have been a part of most of Stephanie's life.

Stephanie, thank you for sharing your life with all of us. Thank you for welcoming me as your stepmother. Because of my relationship with you, I was awarded the privilege of learning how to be a parent before I became a biological parent myself. We've been through struggles, fights, awkward silences, some killer road trip singalong sessions, huge laughs, silly dancing moments in public places, and yet, through all of it, we've worked on our relationship, and now it's one of the most important relationships in my life.

I cannot wait to see what your next chapter brings!



(Senior Photo courtesy of Kristi Wright http://www.kristiwrightphotography.com)


Monday, April 29, 2013

Tubas and Letters to Playboy: The Resolution


At long last: a resolution to the story of the mystery letter!

For those of you not following along, a brief recap:

On April 11, while walking home from work, I found a letter on the sidewalk at UT. The letter was addressed to Playboy and had not yet been mailed. I picked it up and took it with me, unsure of what to do about it. I was wildly intrigued and found this to be an extremely exciting situation. Friends offered various suggestions on what to do with the letter. I was shocked at how many people wanted me to open it. Though I had no problem kidnapping a random found letter, I refused to open it. It just felt too naughty.

Okay, now you're all caught up.

Because I am a lazy slowpoke, I took a while deciding what to do, and it took me a while to take action. That, and I kept forgetting about it, then I'd see it on my desk and slap myself in the forehead and say, "Mystery letter! What am I going to do about you?"

The best suggestion that didn't require me to potentially put my life in danger (after all, it would be weird just to show up and someone's doorstep with their unopened mail, right?) was to drop the mystery letter in another envelope and mail it back to its rightful owner.

To protect the identify of the sender, the sender's name will be called "H" from here on out.

Here is the letter:

Dear "H",

This is perhaps one of the oddest letters you will ever receive! Bear with me while I explain.

Several days ago (actually, Thursday, April 11), I was walking in the UT campus when I saw the enclosed letter on the ground. At first, I snapped a photo of it, then wondered if perhaps it included a check, so I was a bit concerned about leaving your mail unattended on the sidewalk. I looked around for an owner (or a hidden camera!), and didn't see either. I was unsure what to do – I tried finding you online to give you a call, because I felt unsure about dropping it in the post (what if you didn't want to mail it until a certain date, changed your mind, etc.?)

Given the rather “sensitive” address, I considered bringing your letter to your address, but wondered if you might want this private – who knows?! Knowing that opening someone else’s mail is a federal offense, I kept the mail with me in safekeeping (though my husband did attempt to peek inside and I stopped him!)

I’m a writer, and curious by nature, so I took the letter home with me, and wrote about it. You are welcome to check this out on neverwearanyoneelseshat.blogspot.com. To protect your identity, the information was hidden in the photo. You must admit this is a curious story and quite hilarious!

I am sorry that I have had it with me for nearly 2 weeks, but I simply didn't know what to do until one of my readers suggested that I mail it back to you. Brilliant!

I have one small favor. I would love to know the actual story if you are willing to share it. There are obviously many theories here – is it a simple subscription renewal, job application, hate letter? – I’d love to know the real story here if you’re willing to share it.

Best regards,

Amy Arndt,

Austin

I included my email address and the return address of my office, just in case the letter writer got really angry at me for kidnapping their mail, I would have a security guard at my disposal. Except our security guard looks like he works halftime as our building security guard and halftime as the tenor member of a barbershop quartet, so I'm unsure how much he could protect me if it came down to that.

By this morning, I had given up hope of ever hearing back from "H." And then, this afternoon, an emailed response!

I will not disclose the identity of the writer, but I will tell you what I suspected all along -- it was a woman! That tell-tale girly handwriting gave it away! Also, it's evident that this Miss "H" is not my age, because these young whippersnappers bust out with a lot of "lols." I would peg her to be in her early to mid 20's, as my cousins are this age and they do a lot of "lol"ing as well. Just an observation.

Here is the response. I changed one minor area to protect the workplace of the writer and the type of car they drive. Otherwise, here you have it:

Amy,

I must say, I am absolutely amused by the fact you found my letter to Playboy and even bothered to return it to me. I also found your blog about it absolutely hysterical! (I will also be following your blog now, if you don't mind.) :)

I don't wish to disappoint you, but all it is is a subscription with a check enclosed. I found a coupon for a year's worth of Playboy for $12 (and you returned it to me just in time, too, as it expired at the end of April! lol). Who could turn that down?! I could save face here and say that I was subscribing to it for my fiance, but I'm rather blase about such topics and will totally own to the fact that it was for my benefit, as well. I do enjoy the articles and find the beautiful, au-natural ladies gracing the pages to be an added bonus, as does my fiance too, I'm sure. lol 

I do actually work here at UT and park along where I assume you were taking a walk. I had the letter in my hand when I walked to my car so as to not to forget to mail it and didn't realize until I got home that I had lost it. (And to think I was being all efficient that day. Dammit! There went that! lol) When I realized that I must have lost it somewhere on campus, I had a vision of someone finding it and wondering about the Playboy address. Lo and behold, I get your package in the mail a few weeks later! 

Feel free to blog about my response if you wish for those that may want an update on the situation. 

Thanks for returning the subscription/check to me. If you want, I can send you a complimentary issue for the trouble you took to return the letter to me. ;) LOL
____

As you can imagine, I love this girl. She had me at "I'm rather blase about such topics," and won further admiration for being that type of gal who can subscribe to Playboy as a heterosexual female and not feel weird about it in the least. I have another friend who used to subscribe to Playboy before she started popping out babies. I always admired that, because the raciest thing I subscribe to is Bazaar. Not that I don't get a little tingle at the "Bath of the Month" section in House Beautiful, but I have a thing for huge showers.

The past few weeks have brought me several random adventures - the tuba incident, the mystery letter, and the girl I accidentally pocket friended on Facebook who accepted my friend request after we realized we already have a ton of things in common. I figure that's just the Universe delivering me things to write about, and that makes me happy.

So I suspect, and I hope, that I will someday meet this "H." Given that she's engaged to be married, at the very least, I hope "H" shares this story with her wedding party, and that someone tells this story in a toast at their rehearsal dinner. And that the happy couple has Playboy subscriptions in their future for years and years to come.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tubas and Letters to Playboy

It's been a very unusual week.

Wednesday over lunch with colleagues, one of my coworkers told us that a neighbor in her condo community called her the other day, apologizing for practicing the trumpet. Lucky for the neighbor, she called a wildly open-minded person, who happily offered to get together with the trumpet-playing neighbor and have her over for a jam session (my coworker sings and plays the guitar). This resulted in a lot of trumpet-music-based questions such as, "What happens if she comes over and only knows the complete works of John Philip Sousa?" and "What if she only knows how to play 'Taps?'"

As those kind of conversations go, this led to another coworker telling us about when he was growing up, a neighbor kid was learning to play the tuba. The kid was around 10, and his mother made him practice the tuba on the back porch. Not that I blame the kid's mother, but this took place in West Virginia, so I can't imagine that kid had warm fingers when he was pounding out bass lines in the dead of winter.

I put all talk of trumpets and tubas behind me, and went on about my week. And, despite the fact that my father played the trumpet, we own a trumpet (and I don't actually remember why), I don't go around thinking about brass instruments on a regular basis.

Yesterday, while walking home, I was deep in thought. I was asking myself why I keep procrastinating on a book I'm trying to write, when I looked far down the sidewalk and did a double take. Coming towards me on the sidewalk by the stadium at UT was this guy:


That's pretty random, right? What is even more random was that I was completely okay with stopping him and asking to take his picture, while breathlessly telling him about the boy who was forced to practice the tuba outside. He's laughing in this pic because I asked him to play a few notes for me. While he played, I did a little dance that one does while listening to an outdoor tuba solo. Not exactly sexy.

I walked on, looking down and texting the picture of Tuba Boy to my coworkers, laughing to myself like the crazy person I am.  Because I was focused on looking down, I happened to see this:


I'm sorry that the picture is blurry, but I wanted you to see the proof. Sitting proudly on the sidewalk was this plain white envelope with a fresh stamp, addressed to Playboy.

On my walks, I've found lots of interesting things on the sidewalks of the fine institution known as the University of Texas at Austin. One morning I found a huge pair of grey flip flops, as if the owner just took them off, set them neatly on the sidewalk and said, "Flips, it is time we part ways." That same huge pair of flip flops stayed there for a good two weeks. So weird. Where WAS that barefoot guy? Another morning I found -- in this order -- an empty bottle of cheap whiskey, an empty Red Bull, an empty condom package, and an empty package of Cheetos. I wanted to photograph it and title it "A Good Time Was Had By All." Except that I wasn't sure that everyone in that scenario had a good time.

The letter to Playboy was, by far, the best find to date.

I looked around for a camera crew, figuring this was some kind of "What Would You Do?" taping. When the coast was clear, I bent down to snap a photo and thought I'd move along. Except I didn't. I picked it up, looked around for a possible owner, and carried it with me. I'm not always up on the current laws, but a few laws have been ingrained in me for a very long time: Don't speed in a school zone. Don't pick bluebonnets in Texas (we'll shoot you). And for the love of God, don't open anyone else's mail. So I kidnapped someone else's mail, which may also be a federal offense. But I took my chances.

From there, I had a strong urge to talk to someone. A UT student, or possibly young professor type, came walking down the sidewalk. I walked toward him cheerfully and said,

"I'm sorry to bother you, but something very strange just happened and I'm hoping you can help me decide what to do."

"Okay.." he said, looking skeptical.

"I'm a mom," I said, feeling that would make me appear less mentally unstable, "and I walk this route almost every day. I was just minding my own business when I found THIS on the sidewalk."

I displayed the letter for his review while pointing to the sidewalk where I discovered it. Also, I often find that in random situations, if you tell someone you're a mom, it makes them feel comfortable. I don't think this was the case this time.

"Okay..." he said, twisting his wedding ring uncomfortably.

"I know! It's crazy! Did you see the address? It's to PLAYBOY!" I said excitedly, "It was just sitting there, and the owner is nowhere in sight! Now, I bet you think you're on some kind of reality show right now, right?"

"Um, yeah." This guy was quite the conversationalist. He looked around for cameras.

"Don't worry, you're not," I assured him, "Unless of course we both are, because I just found this letter a few minutes ago and I have no idea why I picked it up. But I have some choices to make here. I could leave it where I found it, but what if it has a check in it? Or, I could drop it in the mail, but what if the owner wasn't ready to send it just yet? Or, I could track down the owner, but it's not like it's just an everyday letter. I mean, it's kind of awkward subject matter. Like is it a subscription renewal? Or maybe it's a hate letter. What should I do with it?"

By this point, the guy was fake laughing like he was laughing at his father-in-law's bad joke. He was not catching my drift, or even remotely excited about this awesome situation.

"Yeah, I don't know what you should do," he said, clearly walking to safety, "Good luck with that."

And with that he was off. I walked on, still clutching the letter, wishing I'd come across someone with more personality and gusto for life and its random happenings, and wondering why this letter was suddenly in my care.

I walked quickly home to share the story with my family, who all found the letter to be extremely entertaining and mysterious, thank goodness. My husband Tim tried to hold it up to the light to review the contents. Then he wedged his finger in the corner of it and blew, trying to peer in, until I got very protective and ordered him to stop. After all, I am the temporary guardian of this strange letter. I need to guard and protect it. (Some of you will get that reference, which makes me happy.)

Tim doesn't like it when I'm bossy, so he quickly lost interest, adding sarcastically that it could be filled with anthrax. I suggested that his decision to blow in a stranger's anthrax-filled letter was probably not a great idea, and he better watch himself.

From there, I spent entirely too much of my free time researching the letter writer's name. Because they only put a first initial and last name, tracking this individual down was nearly impossible, and I am very good at research. I tried the UT staff listing. I did all sorts of name searches, tried LinkedIn, Facebook, and even tried tracking the return address to the home owner. Right as I was identifying the owner of the home (a different name from the letter writer), my stepdaughter came home, and I told the story again.

To set up the mysterious letter story, I started with the tuba story. From yesterday. It's just how I tell stories.

Over dinner, we considered the options:

  • I could drop the letter in the mail. Except somehow I've missed the memo on the fact that you can't find a simple mailbox anywhere anymore unless you go to the post office, and I feel a little weird about showing up with a letter I didn't write addressed to an establishment that features naked ladies. And I know, I know, people subscribe for the articles, but I am unsure of the intentions of my mystery letter writer, so this is an unusual situation.
  • I could mail it from home, but again, do I want to be associated with this letter if it's in any way threatening?
  • Also, if I mail this letter, what if the sender was debating whether or not to send it? What if it was an application for employment, or some kind of private letter to an employee? What if! What if!
  • I could drive to the address on the envelope (the one in Austin, that is) and tell the person who answers the door that I found this letter. Except what happens if the letter was written by a male (with girly handwriting), and the person's wife or girlfriend answers, and is then upset at the fact that their partner subscribed to an adult publication without their knowledge?
  • I could go and put the letter back where I found it. No. That's even weirder than picking it up in the first place.
  • There was brief discussion about putting the letter in the freezer, a technique that evidently opens letters? I'm not sure how my stepdaughter knows this technique. Hmm.

Decisions, decisions.

I hope you're not waiting for a climactic finish to this story, because I still have the letter in my possession, and I have still not figured out what to do with it. I slept restlessly, dreaming about driving up to middle school band on a motorcycle, a tuba on my back, and all the while, worrying about a missing letter.

Rest assured, I'll keep you posted on what happens next!