When a full staff adds up to one

Someone called the other day and asked to speak to me. She was surprised when I said that it was me. Sounding disappointed, she said, “Oh, I thought you’d have staff.”

Hey, so did I.

I don’t have staff.

I almost had staff.

There was a time when high school and college kids, aspiring to be columnists or writers, or just get out of class, routinely asked if they could shadow me to learn what a columnist did all day.

My husband is still asking.

In any case, I explained that I worked from home and spent much of the day sitting in front of a computer trying not to fall asleep or fall off my chair.

If they claimed they couldn’t wait to see the heart-pounding excitement of a real-life columnist sitting in front of a computer screen, I usually said yes they could shadow for a few hours, but with the stipulation that they sign a waiver in the event they died of boredom.

A very polite young high school student once asked to shadow me for an entire morning. After a couple of hours, the poor kid was so dazed that I asked him go to the kitchen and make me a cup of tea to make sure he was still conscious.

He seemed to perk up. So then I asked if he’d like to go get the mail.

He bolted for the door.

He returned with the mail and I was just about to ask if he’d like to wash a columnist’s car when his mother arrived to pick him up.

What rotten timing.

Students don’t ask to shadow often anymore. These are hard times for columnists. Hard times nothing—being a columnist today is like having a deck chair on the Titanic and hearing a dull thud.

If I did have staff, I know I could keep them busy.

First, I’d have them bring coffee. Good coffee, not the cheap kind we make here at home, but coffee from some place where they write your name on the cup. That seems so upscale and professional. You don’t write your name on the cup when you work at home. You can, but there’s nobody who’d be impressed.

Then I’d send my staff out for a Fidget. I never needed one before, but your needs grow exponentially when you have staff. Make that two dozen Fidgets.

By then it would be time for my staff to go get lunch.

After lunch, I’d have my staff tackle my backlog of bookkeeping. When they finished logging in income, expenses and figuring my estimated quarterly taxes, they’d understand why I was letting them go.

Hardly anybody has staff anymore. Corporate execs, middle managers and business owners all used to have staff, but financial whizzes discovered tons of money could be saved by having people be their own staff or outsourcing work to other countries.

You can always tell those fortunate enough to still have staff. They’re the ones who like to say they’ll have their people call your people.

When my people call your people, it’s really me calling, but using a very deep voice.

Oh well.

Somedays I do wish I had staff. Like right now.

The laundry needs to be transferred.

It’s nonsense what makes sense anymore

A view of the human brain from the top shows that it looks similar to a whole walnut. Although larger. At least I hope mine is.

Some days I wonder if our brains aren’t turning into pretzels.

I answered two emails and three texts with nothing but emojis today and it dawned on me that we’ve just about come full circle.

Our ancestors used to paint pictures on cave walls to communicate, and here we are communicating with simple pictures once again. But instead of putting them on stone, we send them on mobile devices, some costing upwards of $700.

And we think we’re the smart ones.

I have an entire list of things that make no sense:

I have one pair of feet and more than 20 pairs of shoes, one pair of eyes and three pairs of glasses. Numerically, it appears I favor my feet by a wide margin, which is categorically untrue.

I will never unravel the mystery of why people pay big money for ragged jeans. Ragged clothes have long been a stigma of shame for the poor—now they’re a status symbol for celebrities.

Years ago, people died from malnutrition and starvation. That is still true in some parts of the world today, but here we are killing ourselves with food. We have a hard time finding the happy medium when it comes to eating. Nearly every women’s magazine features pictures of dessert recipes alongside advertisements for workout clothes.

Whenever someone puts a hot plate in front of me and cautions that it is hot, as though I am age 6, as soon as the server turns around, I touch it. There’s a 6-year-old trapped inside my aging body.

There are some things that sound completely illogical, but in reality make perfect sense. I drive three miles to walk three miles on a trail. That makes no sense. But if you saw the beautiful trail, you’d understand.

Roaming through a brick and mortar bookstore the other day, I was astounded by the number of children’s picture books, authored and illustrated by adults, that go into great detail on the subject of toilet training. For thousands of years children were able to potty train without picture books, but now they need visual aids.

The husband takes the little shampoos and conditioners from hotels home with us, then I pack them when we go out of town again even though every hotel routinely stocks little shampoos and conditioners. (No, we don’t take toilet paper or bath towels.)

What makes me doubt our brains the most is how we are functioning as a nation. Many of us know exactly how many generations ago someone in our family came here from another country. In most cases they came eager to become Americans, to become part of a story larger than themselves. But now we are dividing and subdividing, splitting into factions, tribes and clans. There is precious little focus on the things that unite us, and constant harping on the things that divide us. We no longer agree to disagree; we now disagree and destroy.

Self-destruction makes no sense.

Butter be prepared for corn on the cob

There are two types of people in this country – those who eat corn on the cob with those little corn holders with metal prongs and those who don’t.

We are among the group without corn holders. Years ago we had some, but the prongs got bent, half of them went missing and the half that didn’t go missing wound up mangled in the garbage disposal.

The purpose of corn holders is to keep you from getting butter on your fingers. But isn’t that the point of eating corn? It’s not strictly about the corn; it’s about the butter. Lots and lots of melted butter, and salt and pepper and the wonderful combination thereof.

Let’s be honest—eating corn on the cob is one of the most unsightly spectacles that occurs at the family dinner table. (Not like that’s going to stop us.) Using corn holders isn’t going to somehow make eating corn on the cob an aesthetically pleasing experience.

Eating corn on the cob requires lunging, grappling and attacking with bared teeth. You bite down and the corn squirts. It may squirt into your eye, across the table, or across the table and into someone else’s eye.

Not even silver-plated corn holders could make eating corn on the cob a class act.

A friend who lived abroad once said that the French believe the only ones who should eat corn on the cobs are pigs. Leave it to the French to once again make us feel inferior regarding food.

Most of our grandkids are too young to have mastered the art of eating corn. They nibble—a nibble here, a nibble there. The end result is a half-eaten ear of corn that looks like a mass of divots on a golf course.

I tell them to eat across the cob, from left to right, the same way they read. I tell them that eating corn in a row will make them better and faster readers, one day give them better test scores and get them into the best colleges.

I also tell them not to worry about being untidy, that if you eat corn the right way, it’s bound to be a mess. If you eat corn on the cob the right way, you should have butter smeared on your chin. How’s a corn holder with two sharp prongs going to help that?

You might also have kernels stuck between your teeth. I suppose you could use a corn holder to pick them out, but let’s not give the French any more ammo.

If you’re one of those people self-conscious about eating corn on the cob, I give you permission to liberate yourself from the normal restraints of polite dining.

No need to thank me.

You’re thanking me anyway?

Aw, shucks.

Dashing through the season, but not laughing all the way

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are you missed it.

Everybody says it was easy to miss because it was faster than usual, but nobody can prove a thing like that. It’s just talk.

That said, I do believe it was faster than the last one.

The thing about speed is, once you hit a certain momentum, there’s no slowing down.

So that’s it. Another one gone. Blink twice and it’s over.

This one was so short I think everybody will be talking about it years from now. You know, the sort of, “Where were you when you heard the news?”

I was at the mall. The husband had dropped me off and was waiting in the car while I ran in to make a return. I entered the double-wide sliding doors and saw the big red letters on a store window—END OF SUMMER SALE.

I thought it was a sick joke. But then there was another—END OF SUMMER CLEARANCE. It was a one-two punch. And then there was a third—END OF SUMMER / EVERYTHING 20% OFF.

Summer was over. It was June 27th.

You know what June 27th, is right?  It’s one day shy of being a week after the first day of summer. It’s the sixth-to-the-next-longest day of the year—but summer was over.

When I got back in the car, I told the husband summer was over.

“What?” he said.

“Turn down the air conditioner so you can hear me. Summer is over.”

“Might as well be,” he said with a sigh of despondency. He’d be OK with summer being over since his ball team is doing rotten this year. Again.

I don’t know how summer can be over. I’ve only had one cherry tomato off the vine. Cucumbers aren’t ready to pick and I haven’t seen a single roadside stand selling field-fresh sweet corn.

The basil is going strong, phlox are blooming and the hillsides are bursting with black-eyed Susans.

The thermometer says 90. Mosquito season is just getting into full swing. We’ve been eating watermelon nearly every day of the week. Sometimes for breakfast.

My biggest clothing decision each day is whether to go with the khaki capris or the white capris. My shoe choice is between flip flops and sandals.

There are a half dozen Popsicle sticks on the back patio and two unopened boxes in the freezer.

They can say summer is over, but I’m not going along peacefully on this one. They can have my sunscreen when they can pry it from my cold, frozen hands, which won’t be until late December, also known as winter.

Then again, maybe summer is over. The husband was channel surfing and said, “Look at this on the Hallmark Channel—Christmas movies all week long.”

Time flies when you’re having fun.

 

 

 

 

Vacation turns up the heat and knocks ‘em out of their seats

On our last extended family vacation, we decided to drop the better portion of our retirement savings on tickets to one of those venues where you sit around the edge of an arena and watch live family entertainment while eating a four-course meal with your hands.

Our middle name is classy.

Before the show, we were herded into a lobby where there was live music and, in case we thought we didn’t pay enough for the tickets to the show, we could drop a few more bills on pricey soft drinks that came in plastic boots. The idea of drinking out of footwear was not all that novel to our group, as several of the younger children had been gumming their shoes on the 8-hour car ride down.

Once we took our seats around the arena, a very friendly wait staff appeared and started delivering food faster than a Vegas blackjack dealer deals cards.

There was soup, biscuits the size of Frisbees, a full rotisserie chicken for each of us, hot buttered corn, buttered potatoes—food was flying. And napkins. Lots of napkins because, like I said, you eat with your hands.

The preschool kids, who for years have been instructed not to eat with their hands, were hesitant to dive in. They thought it was set up. I kept saying, “No, no, it’s OK. Just tear off that chicken leg and eat it. Look at your daddy eat with his hands. Look at your mommy eating with her hands.
“I know your hands are greasy, but don’t wipe them on my — ”

Too late.

People were wiping hands on napkins, sleeves, pant legs and licking butter off their fingers, but nobody was complaining because you don’t complain when you pay big bucks to do without silverware.

If it’s true that “everything is betta with butta” we were having the time of our lives.

And then they introduced the fire. A huge flame soared from the floor of the middle of the arena. Some of the little ones jumped and a couple of them screamed. I jumped and screamed. You could feel the heat from the flame and I wasn’t sure but what both of my eyebrows had been singed.

When the trick riders came out on horseback and began jumping through rings of fire, a couple of the kids went over the edge.

“Where’d your youngest go?” I asked my daughter.

“Under the table,” she said.

I looked under the table and sure enough, she was hanging onto her momma’s legs for dear life, sobbing her eyes out.

Next thing I knew another kid jumped on my lap and was shaking like a leaf. She tried to bury her head against mine but her cheek kept sliding off my cheek because we both had butter on our faces.

The little one under the table didn’t come out until the show was nearly over and the last horse had left the arena. But the next day, as we hiked trails and enjoyed the mountain views, they jabbered about the trick riders, the disappearing cowgirls and the beautiful ladies that floated down from the ceiling in big beautiful gowns.

That’s how it often is with a vacation—you don’t realize how good it was until after it’s over.

 

Close-captioned open to interpretation

I enjoy other people’s typos, not in a gloating sense, but in the sense that it lets me know I am not alone. I keyboard fast and make a lot of typoes. (Yes, that was deliberate. Just checking to see if you’re tracking.) I probably spend 20 percent of my keyboard time backing up to make corrections.

Despite my diligence, occasionally a typo or another error slips through in a column, which is why I live in constant fear of retired English teachers. They are the first to email. They can never completely let go of the red pen.

The best errors are in the closed captions on the televisions at the gym. I’m the one on a treadmill simultaneously sweating and laughing at the news.

A recent favorite was in a story about a man giving an organ concert. He demonstrated how the massive pipe organ could sound like an entire orchestra. The closed captioning had the man saying, “This sound imitates a fluke.” That was a whale of a claim.

The New York Times was mentioned for hiring a new conservative writer and the closed caption read: “The NYT reserves credit for broadening their left-wing op-ed page.” They probably “deserve” credit, but why don’t we hold that in reserve until we see how long the writer lasts?

Some of the best glitches are in the weather reports.

“Stay tuned, we’ll have weather in a bed.” They probably meant “weather in a bit,” but who knows. Even the weather gets sultry sometimes.

In another weather segment, a meteorologist promised, “milder weather with swiss temperatures.” I have no idea what that was supposed to be. I checked my weather app and it turned out the Swiss were having the same temperatures we were having but with less humidity. Guess we weren’t missing (or swissing) out on as much as I thought.

Reporting on an accident on the interstate, the caption said, “Traffic has resumed posted speech patterns.” When drivers I see engage in speech it’s usually a pattern involving hand signals. I’d like to see “No Speeching” signs posted.

A woman charged with a crime was shown being led to an arraignment with a caption below that said, “Purple walk.” It was a perp walk—and she was wearing orange, not purple.

The caption in a story about a high school athlete who collapsed on a field said, “Nurses and people in the stands rushed to give the boy first aid so he could keep breeding.” I’m 99.9 percent sure they meant breathing. The young man is fine.

A reporter was talking about getting ready for a marathon by eating a lot of spaghetti and pasta. The caption beneath him said, “There’s no need to stuff your face to the point of car bloating.” Who hasn’t eaten so many carbs that you felt like an SUV?

An ESPN closed caption read: “Authorities gave Tiger Woods some field and bright tests after finding him asleep behind the wheel.” It probably meant to say field sobriety tests, but if you suspect someone is under the influence and driving it never hurts to check how bright they are as well.

I don’t know if it means anything or not, but most of the closed captioning errors are made on Mundays.

An eye for an eye and a fork for a fork never ends well

I asked our four-year-old granddaughter about her family’s recent visit with friends.

“It was good,” she said.

“Did you enjoy the little girl who was your age?”

“Yes,” she said. “But she forked me.”

“She what?”

“We were eating bweakfast and she forked me. Wight here in my shoulda. She stabbed me with her fork.”

“That’s too bad. Did you fork her back?” I asked.

She grinned at the thought and said, “No, Gwamma. I don’t pay evil for evil.”

Stunning, isn’t it? A four-year-old understands the value of restraint more than a lot of adults.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a fork for a fork—it never ends well.

While chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in months, our conversation turned to a matter on which we hold different views. We had a good exchange, and were ready to go our separate ways when my friend paused and said, “So, are we mad at each other now?”

She said it partly in jest, but not entirely. No, we were not mad at each other, but many in our nation are mad. Actually, they are beyond mad—they are enraged, furious and seething. And these days many of us seem utterly incapable of holding anything back. It’s as though we are compelled by some irresistible force to say, post, tweet and scream every rotten thing we think.

Is this really who we are?  Is this really who we want to be?

Dozens of columns will probably be published this week documenting the slippery slope we’re on, with calls to scale back the rhetoric.

But how?

Well, we can start by turning down the heat one person at a time and one insult at a time.

For starters, we could all give ourselves permission not to say everything we think. It’s OK to bite your tongue sometimes. And to keep your fists at your side. It’s called self-control.

Second, we can turn down the volume. Screaming has never been an effective means of persuasion.

Third, we can get real. As long as this country has existed there have been disagreements. We will always have disagreements. Aside from the Civil War, national disagreements have largely been resolved without resorting to violence or lethal hatred. Our disagreements may be intense and passionate, but they can still be civil.

If you have a disagreement, go after the idea, the policy or the legislation, not the person. Learn how to structure valid arguments and stop the name calling.

If we do not detox ourselves soon, we will cease to be a nation ruled by laws and become a nation ripe for anarchy.

The day after the nation was horrified by an unhinged man attempting to assassinate Republican congressmen on a ballfield in Alexandria, Virginia, there were three organized prayer meetings on the Hill and numerous spontaneous ones. Each one of us can pray, too. We can pray for God’s mercy on our nation, for temperance, wisdom, prudence, and the ability to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Finally, we can pray our nation does not succumb to being a people who relish  repaying evil with evil.

 

Trying to paint like Georgia O’Keith

I was one of those mothers who believed that every moment was a potentially teachable moment. Not having learned my lesson the first time around, I continue exercising my somewhat misguided beliefs with our grands.

Since a number of them enjoy painting, I thought we might do some intentional painting instead of just slinging paint on paper, the table and chairs and the walls like we usually do.

So we had art camp. It was more like art afternoon and camp was in the kitchen, but I was full-bore intentional. I dug up a wonderful children’s book on the American painter Georgia O’Keefe known for bright, bold close-ups of flowers.

I found jars to mix water and food coloring in and even scored some canvases on sale.

The small painters put on their paint shirts, or emergency clothes as they call them. There is a wild assortment of emergency clothes in a drawer upstairs, which says a lot about what happens at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

“I’m going to tell you about an artist named Georgia O’Keefe,” I said.

“Did she live long ago?” one asked.

“Yes.”

“Is she dead?”

“Yes.”

The inspiration meter was flat-line. I tried to rebound by showing them O’Keefe’s paintings of eye-popping poppies, rich purple petunias and regal morning glories.

“What do you like about O’Keefe’s paintings?”

“I like how O’Keith stayed in the lines.”

“O’Keefe.”

“Yeah, O’Keith.”

“I like that she made the flowers BIG!” said another.

“I like that she didn’t have a fit.”

“Who said she had a fit?”

“I think you’ve got that one upside down, Grandma,” said the 4-year-old.

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

It wasn’t going the way I envisioned. Life rarely does.

They picked flowers from the yard and placed them on the table next to the prints of O’Keefe’s. We talked about layering colors, painting something larger than it is in real life and filling all the space on the canvas.

I explained that Georgia worked slowly, perfecting composition and layering colors for weeks and months at a time.

They whipped out their paintings in 15 minutes.

One who had picked a black-eyed Susan to paint looked at her work, looked at an O’Keefe painting, looked back at her work and seemed satisfied. Then she rolled a big old paintbrush in the blob of yellow on her plastic palette and drew a great big sun in the corner of her painting. Then she put a happy face on it.

Another one painted a zinnia. She looked at her work, looked at O’Keefe’s and seemed pleased. Then she sat up straight and finished off her piece by painting her name so large it filled the bottom third of the canvas.

They may have been implying that O’Keefe had room for improvement.

Don’t we all?

Early risers seize the day and the donuts

Few things knock me off my game like being ambushed before morning coffee. My attackers are 8 and 6 and ready to seize the day. They are hiding behind a door and nab me on the heels. Literally.

I scream. They scream. We all scream. Yet the rest of the house continues sleeping. Or at least pretending.

 “Aren’t you two up early?” I ask.

“We’re early risers, Grandma. You’re an early riser, too, aren’t you?”

“Sure am,” I say, propping my eyes open with stir sticks.

“Grandma, did you know early risers have more fun?”

“I believe it!” I said.

“What are you going to make us for breakfast?”

After a lengthy itemization of food they’d like me to make for breakfast, it is apparent our best option is Cracker Barrel. Or our second option, which is even better – walking to the grocery for donuts.

 “Early riser love to walk!” one of them shouts.

We are six steps out the front door. “Can you run, Grandma?”

Of course, I can run. I run every day chasing after their Grandpa with a Honey-Do list.

“Early risers love to run,” the younger early riser declares.

“Maybe, but I don’t know if we should be running when it is still so early and most people are sleeping.”

They decide to run one at a time. He takes off like a shot and she stays behind with me. We come upon a mallard waddling through the heavy dew in a neighbor’s yard. “Catch it and you can keep it,” I tell her, just like I used to tell her dad.

She sprints after the duck, gains considerable ground, and the duck takes to the sky.

She runs back to the sidewalk, panting. “Grandma, did you know early risers do more interesting things?”

“Clearly,” I say.

We leave the neighborhood and wind behind a strip mall, past back entrances to a dry cleaner and a pizza place, cardboard boxes that missed the dumpster, a lawn chair used for smoke breaks and a couple of pigeons.

They stampede toward the pigeons, which quickly flutter away.

“Your pigeons scare a lot easier than ours in Chicago,” surmises the older early riser.           

“Our pigeons are more flight than fight,” I say.

We plan strategy for crossing four lanes of traffic, which is dicey business, but there is virtually no traffic at this hour of the day.

We enter the grocery and spend two minutes shy of forever choosing donuts for the non-early-risers back at the house. The agreed-upon favorite is the monster claw, a glazed long-john with chocolate iced fingers at one end.

We leave the store and discover the morning sun blasting right into our faces. We shield our eyes, cross the deserted four-lane, walk in front of the strip mall this time and wind back through the neighborhood beneath a canopy of shade trees. They laugh, tell a few funny stories about their mom and dad (the price parents pay for sleeping in) and frequently stop to look at leaves.

“Grandma, did you know early-risers see more beautiful things?”

Their faces radiate curiosity, joy and the fleeting wonder of childhood.

“So I’ve heard,” I say. “So I’ve heard.”

           

         

Try to be clear next time

Years ago, a friend called and asked the husband and me to come to dinner “next” Saturday. Since Saturday was only a couple of days away, I assumed she meant a week from the coming Saturday. On Saturday, the friend called and asked where we were.

I told her we were at home having dinner with friends.

She said we were supposed to be at their home having dinner with them.

Clearly, the vegetables weren’t the only thing steamed.

I apologized profusely, offered a wobbly defense about the confusion of the words “this” and “next,” and then apologized some more.

I’d like to say all was forgiven and forgotten, but there was never another next time.

To this day, when I hear the words “this” and “next” used in reference to a date, I still cringe. I also immediately ask for clarification. The last thing we would ever want is another mix-up. Or to miss a meal.

The Science of Us recently did a piece on the ambiguity of words in relation to time. They offered the example of receiving an email from a co-worker that says: “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days.”

So does that mean the meeting will be Monday or Friday?

The article said our answer to what day the meeting will be reveals our perspective on time–whether we perceive ourselves as moving through time (the meeting will be Friday) or we perceive time as moving toward us (the meeting will be Monday). People are evenly divided on interpreting such things, which is why the person who composed the email should be reprimanded for not including the day and date and possibly even forced to conduct the meeting on both Monday and Friday.

Some of the hottest arguments are between people trying to straighten one another out on time—time zones in particular. One says a time zone is ahead and the other says, no, that time zone is behind. And, of course, nobody ever backs down.

You could put both parties on a plane, fly them to the time zone, have them deplane, see the same clock in the airport, and they’d still be arguing about whether they were behind or ahead.

If you really want to stir people up, don’t just ask them to come for dinner this Saturday or next Saturday, ask if they’d rather come for dinner or supper.

For a lot of people, the word “supper” means, well, absolutely nothing. But for people who grew up in more agricultural country, supper likely means the last meal of the day; dinner was the big meal at noon that gave people energy to get through afternoon work and chores.

As a child we lived in the city, but coming from parents who had grown up on farms, we ate supper in the evenings, while many of our neighbors were having dinner.

We can probably agree that today it is most common to invite someone to dinner. As for a date, why don’t we say the Saturday after next.

Oh wait, that won’t do. Can we push it back a week?

See you then.