Friday, April 27, 2007

Equal Time

My sister Joy and I have shared some hilarious experiences. One of the most memorable ones was when Memphis Magazine held a treasure-hunt contest. We travelled all over Memphis and its environs with obscure clues in hand. Once we ended up in Mississippi, or Arkansas, or both, by mistake. Several times we traipsed around mud-filled parks and golf courses. We got soaked in rain. We tore our pantyhose. We went to playgrounds at night with only a shovel and a flashlight, standing behind trees to hide from oncoming headlights. We carried around crowbars to lift up manholes. We had so much fun! Alas, we never did unearth the Bufflehead prize, but I found solace in keeping a written record of our exploits, part of which Memphis Magazine published. Joy only had one reservation about my essays. “How come,” she lamented, “you always make me out to be the idiot?” My answer: “I am the author. I can do whatever I want.”

I was reminded of that this week. After I write each blog entry, I read it to Ed. He’ll smile or laugh or just roll his eyes, but recently he voiced a thought similar to Joy's - wondering how come I always make fun of him, and never mention the stupid things I do or say. My answer: “I’m the author. I can do whatever I want.” I added, “You can get your own blog and make fun of me.” Fortunately, he has never shown any interest in doing such a thing.

After some consideration, I decided it was time for an entry of personal confession. I will graciously give Ed equal time and sacrifice my spotless reputation to reveal my faults. Feel free to snicker or give an all-out guffaw. I can take it.

Most people already know how accident-prone I am. I burned myself by pointing an already flaming (unbeknownst to me) fire starter gel bottle at my face and squeezing, which resulted in an explosion. I’ve sliced a chunk of skin off the tip of my finger while peeling potatoes. I’ve slipped on the kitchen floor carrying a pot of boiling water with oil in it to the kitchen sink. Just last week, I burned my lip trying to get a loaf of homemade bread out of the hot pan. (Some people would find that challenging, but I have apparently perfected the technique. You have to shake the pan so hard that you lose control of it and it hits your mouth. And it has to be a really, really hot pan, right out of the oven.) I’ve sewn through my finger with the sewing machine needle, and another time I had a sewing machine needle pop out and bounce off my eyeball. I’ve run into things, tripped on things, and generally have had so many accidents that my co-workers once gave me a first-aid kit for my birthday. All my friends and relatives have their own ideas about why I am so prone to accidents. Ed says I just go too fast and don’t pay attention.

I also have what folks call “senior moments.” Like trying to turn on the TV with the phone (or trying to answer the phone with the remote). Like putting the yogurt cup in the microwave instead of the refrigerator. Like using confectioner’s sugar instead of flour in a cookie recipe (sweet!). C’mon now - I know you do it too.

I put my hot water bottle in the microwave to heat it up. I’ve done it for years. Yesterday it was one time too many, and it blew up. Water came pouring out of the microwave onto the stove below. That was one of my finer moments.

I guess the most recent incident in my life worthy of confession is my attempt to back up in our driveway. Our driveway is gravel, and it is on an incline with a slight curve to the left. Add to this the fact that we have no grass in our yard to visually separate the brown dirt driveway from the brown dirt yard (or the white snow-covered driveway from the white snow-covered yard), and one can understand how I might have a little trouble.

When the driveway is full of ice or snow, I get stuck on the hill several times when I’m leaving for work in the morning. The only thing to do in that case is to just back up to a flatter area and start over. For some reason, I can’t seem to back up straight. I back up crooked. I should see the side porch of the house in my rearview mirror, in which case I know I’m OK. When I see the front porch of the house in my rearview mirror, I know I’m in trouble. I know if I keep backing up in that direction, my car will be our new piece of living room furniture.

Our driveway is a few inches higher than the front yard, so as I back up crooked, I tend to get stuck on that edge, with the right half of the car being down in the yard and the left half being up on the driveway. For some reason, this perturbs Ed. Maybe it’s because he has placed a reflective post to alert me to the edge of the driveway. Maybe it’s because I’ve backed up on, run over, and flattened that reflective post a few times. Maybe it’s because I get him out of a sound sleep in a warm bed at 4:00 a.m. to go out in freezing weather to get my car unstuck. Who can say?

Well, that’s all I can confess today. It’s all Ed can think of, anyway. I told him that this is his only chance to develop a fan base for himself, to form a group of people sympathetic to his plight, wondering how on earth he could live with a crazy klutz like Carol.

Hey, confession feels good. Maybe I will try it again in the future. In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to focus on Ed and the rest of my family. They provide me with so much wonderful material that it would be a shame not to share it. If anyone in the family ever wants to take issue with my portrayal of their eccentricities, they can just give me a phone call. I’ll answer it as soon as I can find the remote.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Maybe the dog will eat it

Part of our simplification/life enhancement process is eating healthier. For those of you who don’t know, Ed has always done the cooking in our household (and for that, the kids will be forever grateful). I saw a set of aprons in a catalog yesterday that gave me a chuckle. One apron (for Ed) said, “She married me for my cooking.” The other apron (mine) said, “He didn’t marry me for my cooking.” Why should I bother to learn how to cook well if my husband is gifted in that area, and enjoys it to boot?

Anyway, for the last few years, Ed has made a special effort to steer our menus towards healthier fare. His favorite place to shop is the local natural food store. He bought kefir the other day. It’s some kind of Russian dairy product. It looks like buttermilk with lumps of God knows what. So gross. But it’s for him, not for me, thank goodness. I just have to turn away when he pours it.

That’s the point. He can experiment on himself as much as he wants. Just don’t test these concoctions on the rest of us. The family loves his cooking, but when we hear “experiment,” the groans begin. (He cooks for the extended family on holidays and at other times, but I am usually the recipient of his cooking skills, of course). He makes excellent chili, but every time he fools with the recipe, we are disappointed. Why tamper with perfection? He will put something in, take something out, change something here or there. He does this with cornbread and any other thing in his repertoire. Always tinkering. He just can’t leave well enough alone.

One of his dishes I adore is homemade beef vegetable soup. When he makes this, he usually makes a big pot of it and our culinary enjoyment can stretch several meals. The other night, we had some of that leftover soup. I anticipated the dinner all day with joy. I always look forward to soup night.

On this particular night, as I sat down to the table, I had an immediate misgiving. It was the smell. It didn’t smell right.
“Is this the regular homemade soup you usually make?” I asked. “It smells funny.”
Ed was reassuring. “It’s leftover soup from last week.”
Hmmm, I thought. I gingerly took a spoonful and immediately spit it out.
“That’s horrible!” I sputtered. “You say this is the same soup we had before? What happened?”
Ed was on his second spoonful. “It tastes OK to me,” he said. Of course, he had added his usual generous shot of Tabasco to his bowl, so his sense of taste was skewed.
“Well,” I said dejectedly as I pushed my bowl away, “it tastes fishy. It’s beef vegetable soup but it tastes fishy.”
“Doesn’t taste fishy to me,” he said, slurping his third spoonful.
“Well, this is unacceptable,” I replied. “I’m going to heat up a can of Bean and Bacon soup.”

As I got up to head to the stove, the horrible fishy taste apparently had made its way through the Tabasco in Ed’s bowl and he pushed his bowl aside. “You’re right,” he said. “It does taste fishy. Worse than fishy. It tastes like dead fish after the tide has gone out.”
Meanwhile I was at the stove, stirring my alternative entree.
“I can’t understand it,” I kept repeating. “It’s leftover soup, for Pete’s sake! We just had it last week! It’s the same soup, and last week it was delicious!” I just shook my head in befuddlement.
There was silence for a couple of minutes. Finally, Ed’s apparent guilt got the better of him, and I heard him say ever so quietly, “It may be because I put seaweed in it.”


Turns out he had bought seaweed at his last visit to the natural food store and thought it would be a good experiment to add it to the leftover soup. It was not a good experiment. It was a very, very bad experiment.
Ed seemed sincerely apologetic. “I thought it might make it taste salty, like the sea. I didn’t know it would taste like rotten fish. Sorry.”

You would think from this tale that Ed has learned his lesson - that experiments should stay out of the kitchen, that we are not human guinea pigs, and that just because it’s sold at the health food store doesn’t make it good. But somehow I doubt it. I notice he has one package of seaweed left. Lord help us.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Times, they are a'changing

I’ve always enjoyed the company of elderly folks. A lot of my acquaintances are nervous around the elderly for one reason or another. Maybe being around the aged reminds them of their own mortality - I’m not sure. Those acquaintances are much more relaxed in the company of children. For me, it’s just the opposite. Of course, I love my children and my children’s children, and my sister’s children. But on the whole, other people’s children, as cute as they are, quickly drain me, while old people infuse me with energy, affection, and - well - curiosity.

If you consider life a journey, the elderly represent for me the ones who have travelled the farthest. They’ve successfully navigated those areas that I have yet to cross. I love to hear their stories, embellished as they are sometimes. Old people have a lot to say.

My Uncle Tommy, at least, has a lot to say. As a McDonald, he will bend your ear for hours at a time as he talks about Scottish history (don’t get him started on the murderous Campbells!). He is also the keeper of family anecdotes. His sister (my mother) can be rather taciturn. She has a lot of memories, but doesn’t really think anyone else would be interested. I don’t think it ever occurs to Uncle Tommy that somebody wouldn’t be interested in his stories, as they excite him and he is certain they will excite his listeners. Once years ago we stayed overnight with Uncle Tommy and Aunt June. After others had gone to bed, Ed and I stayed up with Uncle Tommy, who was his usual garrulous self. He was full of family stories that night - some we had never heard before. I thought at the time that I should have been taking notes, but fortunately Ed has a wonderful memory and to this day, he can retell those fascinating tidbits of my heritage.

How did our mother get the first name of Arnetta, a name she never uses? Well, there was an uncle Arnett in the family back then, who was always in a cyclic financial status - he would get rich, lose it all, get rich, lose it all - and my grandparents named my mother Arnetta after Uncle Arnett, hoping to catch him in of the wealthy parts of his cycle when it came time to make his will. Alas, it was not to be. He was broke when he died. As they say, timing is everything.

Old people are fascinating, because in them I see my future, and in them as well I vicariously live a past that I have only read about in books. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made his historic moon walk. Ed relates that as he and his family watched the fuzzy pictures on TV, Ed’s elderly grandmother shook her head in amazement. “When I was a young married woman,” she explained, “we and most of our friends still had outhouses. And now a man is walking on the moon.” It just seemed incredible to her, and if you think about it, that’s quite understandable.

I think some of my friends are uncomfortable around old people because it can be frustrating to deal with the mental lapses and slowing that comes with age. But think about it: People my mother’s age (almost 84) have seen countless changes and inventions in their lifetimes, a list of which, laid end to end, would stretch for miles. Just in the field of safety, they’ve seen the creation of smoke detectors, seat belts, car seats, air bags. They’ve seen the invention of TV, color TV, remote controls, VCRs, DVDs. When they were young parents, a walkie-talkie made a great kid’s gift - and now their kids and their kids’ kids are e-mailing friends instantly around the world. They used to depend on department stores; now they can buy anything over the Internet. They grew up with scratchy 78 rpm records, and they lived to see that media evolve into today’s digital music, where thousands of songs can be stored on a portable iPod. They grew up having to talk to an operator at a switchboard just to place a phone call, and now they see cordless phones and cell phones, some with built-in cameras. Speaking of cameras, they’ve lived to see cameras that don’t need film! The medical field advancements they have witnessed would have been unimaginable when they were young. Heart transplants? Total joint replacements? Amazing!

Not everything old people have lived through has been glorious, of course. When they were young adults, there were certain products that were not advertised...let’s say, personal hygiene products, for instance. There were certain things of which proper society did not speak. There were certain things a proper lady would not wear out in public. Heck, the media even agreed to keep Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis a secret! Now the elderly are bombarded with details of celebrities’ sex lives. I can understand why old people these days are awkwardly trying to maneuver around a transformed world. Sometimes they must feel that the world as they knew it has turned upside down.

My sister recently accompanied our mom to a doctor’s visit. While they were in the doctor’s office, my mom mentioned an article in the Memphis paper that she wanted to cut out and send me. My sister, who had her laptop with her, immediately got online, accessed the newspaper’s web site, and e-mailed me the article, right from the room. My mother was astounded. She knows, of course, that things like that can be done now, but watching them unfold always takes her breath away.

We’ve gotten so nonchalant about all the changes in the world that we are sometimes advised to reenergize by stepping back and seeing the world through the eyes of children, with their sense of unending wonder. What we are apt to forget is the benefit of stepping back and seeing the world through the eyes of the elderly, as they have a sense of unending wonder, too. Next time you interact with an old person, and you feel impatient and frustrated and annoyed, calm down and try to imagine what it must be like to have lived through such a world, a world that is still changing even as I write this. The fact that they even survived, and in many cases, thrived, deserves respect and admiration. Old people have a lot to say. I, for one, am listening.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Instrument of Change

I had an ongoing ritual. Every day I would come home from work and complain. I complained about injustice, I complained about how the office was run, I ranted and raved about individuals who were obnoxious, irresponsible, dishonest, and inadequate. After a few of these complaint sessions, Ed would give me some advice which I would usually ignore, but I would be temporarily humbled and make a vow to quit finding fault with everything and everyone, only to find myself before long once more voicing my unending dissatisfaction.

I will not detail my complaints here. Some were petty, some were selfish, some were formed by my sense of fair play, and others were ignited by how co-workers had treated me. I was a helpless victim, at least in my own mind. I did not have the authority to run the office the way I felt it should be run, and I felt as if I had been sucked into a giant vacuum of stress, a condition which I was powerless to overcome.

This past Tuesday, as I finished one of my complaining sessions, Ed said, “When are you going to learn that you can’t change other people? When will you recognize that you can only change yourself?” Something finally clicked.

A few weeks ago, I had dreamed a strange dream. In it, a family friend had given me a dollar bill - a treasure of sorts - torn into three long pieces, each with a jagged, irregular edge. I remember in the dream that my response was one of disappointment. I realized that the money would be of no use to me unless I managed to tape the pieces back together, and with the jagged edges, how utterly time-consuming and frustrating that task would be! The money, though, would be useless in that broken condition.

As I sat there in silence after Ed asked those questions, I thought of that dream. We’re told that we consist of three aspects - body, mind, and spirit. I realized that the stress I was putting myself under at work had torn my identity apart. I was acting in ways that did not reflect my true self, and it was going to take some work to reassemble my mind and spirit parts so that I could again work and live with integrity. I could not “fix” anyone else, but I could certainly take charge of myself.

The next day, instead of inwardly grumbling about a co-worker jumping on the “good” dictations (or even racing her for them), I started giving them away of my own free will. “Here, I’ve had one of these already today...why don’t you take this one?” I also made special amends to one co-worker with whom I have had a very difficult relationship for almost two years. I kind of enjoyed all this. Regardless of the response, it felt good to be kind and generous. I felt like Scrooge after his nocturnal journeys. I concluded that Ed was right - I could only change my attitude, so that is what I changed. As a byproduct of my actions, my co-workers are changing too, even though that was not my initial goal or even expectation. There is now in the office an aura of graciousness and kindness (along with some understandable shock!). My stress level has plummeted, and I don’t dread going to work in the morning.

I’ve often turned to the Serenity Prayer for guidance, but it was only this week that I really - really - understood its meaning. To have the ability to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. In the end, Ed is right. All I can change is myself. And therein is indeed my treasure.