Tuesday, December 2, 2014

RamYUM Part 1

If you know me offline, you probably know that I like ramen. OK, I love ramen, but only certain ramen. It's a good thing I like it, because often it was the only food in the house.  I like the game where I delay going to the grocery store as long as possible.

Here is one of my favorite ramen "recipes" which fits into my "give me three ingredients and I will throw down some food" bragging.

Creamy Vegetable Ramen

Creamy chicken ramen (break up the brick before you open the package)
Frozen mixed vegetables
Milk, half-and-half, and/or water

Put some milk and water, or all milk, or half-and-half and water in a saucepan. Use the liquid measure for "soup" on the directions on the packet (if you like. I usually wing it). If you don't have milk or half-and-half, just go with water like the instructions say. But seriously, it's good with milk.

Add the flavor packet and stir it in.

Toss in a handful of frozen mixed vegetables.

Add the ramen.

Heat until simmering and the ramen is a texture you like. Be careful you don't scald the milk, because that's gross.

Eat and enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Edge

When I lived in Tennessee I missed being near the edge of the country. Tennessee boasts some fine geography including the Smoky Mountains, Reelfoot Lake, and several rivers, but eight hours to the nearest beach is just too far for me. 

Living in New England, my friends and I could make a quick decision and in an hour or so be at either the ocean or the mountains. With proximity like that, it is possible to wake up, look outside at the weather, and depart on an adventure.

That’s what happened today. Gal pal Nancy and I had soft plans for her next to last day in town -- we planned to do something, but hadn’t determined what. A few days earlier, we considered shopping, but I lucked out and she went on Sunday while I was deep in the excitement of getting new tires, which left Monday wide open for entertainment.

In the morning we confirmed we were still both available and interested in doing something. We just needed to figure out what. The potential ideas included shopping, a museum, tattoos or psychic readings (for which we lacked appointments). Or the beach.

Yes, the beach. In December. In New England.

It was sunny and 60 degrees out (just a few days after six inches of snow), and dammit, it was possible. We drove to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, even though there are many other options. Hampton is the default when we say “the beach.” Any other beaches are specified by name.

We took the longer, back roads route through some quaint New England towns and landed at the beach on a blue sky day. In December, there is plenty of parking at the beach and the pay stations were wrapped and covered for the off-season.

We drove down some of the side streets packed side by side with rental beach houses, trying to remember which rentals we and our friends stayed in during a very eventful beach week many moons ago, right after we’d graduated from high school. Then we parked the car in one of the gazillion empty parking places and walked on the beach. It was low tide and there were lots of shells.There were a few people on the beach with metal detectors and a few dogs and mostly it was beautifully deserted and quiet.

While we were walking, I said, “I want to find a sand dollar.” As a kid, I had a sea shell collection including many sand dollars found at York Beach, Maine in high school and my 20s. Unfortunately, it was a casualty of a divorce in my 30s when I moved and forgot the jar full of shells on a shelf. In decades of going to Hampton, I’d never found a sand dollar there. And wouldn’t you know it, not two minutes after my declaration, there was a sand dollar laying in the sand. Talk about asking and receiving.

We took pictures of us in the wind. There is a photo from thirty-odd years ago on the same beach, on what we had desperately wanted to be a “lay on the beach” day. That day was cold and windy and in the photo we’re bundled up in sweat shirts and beach towels with no hope of gaining any sort of tan.

And after an hour at Hampton Beach, we left. We had visited, seen, reminisced, and taken photos.

Our next quest was lunch. That proved tricky. The only open place at Hampton was an independent  take-out pizza place with no seating. We agreed on no chain restaurants, and a preference for burgers, pizza, seafood, or Korean food. Nancy knew of a Korean restaurant in Ayer, and as we approached the parking lot I kidded, “Watch it be closed on Mondays.” Sure enough, it was. I was starting to feel a little bit psychic. But there is a pizza and greek food restaurant up the street from the Korean place, where we had gyros and Tri Sum chips.

It was a great day to be at the edge of the country -- weird warm New England weather, the beach, a sand dollar, a locally-owned lunch spot with local chips, and a longtime friend.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Customer Service Tips

As a public service to shoppers and stores associates alike, I present a few helpful tips for your holiday shopping excursions. Even better, these nuggets are gifts that keep on giving -- you can use them all year long, and adapt them to many other life events.

Although these are not actual laws, it might be nice if they were, with violations subject to reprimands, fines, or even incarceration. But, as America is still a free country, you are still free to be an ass to your fellow humans should you so choose.

If you need to return a purchase, even if the store doesn’t require it, the process is a lot faster if you have your receipt with you. A receipt will really speed things up if you removed and threw away all the tags and packaging. Unless, of course, your entertainment for the day includes spending chunks of time leaning on a counter while a clerk attempts to research the product number for an item which may or may not be available on the shelf. If you don’t have a receipt and paid cash, please don’t be upset when the only refund option is a merchandise credit at the lowest sale price in 13 weeks. With no receipt there is no way to verify what was paid, and with the retail custom of sales, discounts and coupons, it probably wasn’t the sticker price.

When you are coming to the customer service to make a charge account payment, perhaps you could write the check out in advance, say, at the comfort of your kitchen table. That way you could avoid fumbling through your things, locating your checkbook, and writing out the check at the counter while the line of people behind you bores holes into the back of your head with their angry eyes.

If you have “just a quick question,” maybe you could ask a floor clerk, instead of cutting in front of any and all customers standing in a register line or queue at the customer service desk, and interrupting the clerk in the middle of a transaction. It’s just a guess, but highly likely that any clerk in the store can tell you where the socks are.

Phone Etiquette
When calling the store with a question, please get to the point. Quickly. The person answering the phone is probably responsible for other activities, like waiting on the line of people at the customer service desk, and may even be in the middle of a transaction. There probably isn’t a person on staff dedicated solely to taking phone calls and just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. We don’t need the history of your shopping habits, we just need to know your question in order to provide the answer, direct your inquiry to the correct department, and get back to the task at hand. 

Newsflash! People often mirror the attitude projected by others. This means, when you approach a service counter or cashier in a confrontational (even hostile!) manner, the person on the other side is picking up on that attitude and is already bracing for a battle.   When you are reasonably pleasant, those around you will be more eager to help.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Anti-social Life

Once a routine hits,  it's hard to break out. Kind of like prison. And right now I'm well into a self-imposed prison sentence/rut.

In Tennessee, I had a social life. I was in art groups (and a roller derby team) with meetings and events to attend. I was out as much as my wallet and sleep needs could tolerate.

That successful social life didn't just happen. It took months to bust out of the cycle of going home after work and doing nothing much, and it was broken largely because my gal pal Stacy dragged me out regularly until socializing became the habit.

And then I moved back home to Massachusetts. 

I returned to my homeland with no job and no prospects. The temporary stay at my Mom's is now approaching its two-year anniversary, and I still don't have an employment situation that will cover rent.

I've been stuck back on square one too long, and feel like a failure on all the major battle fronts -- career, social, residential. I'm embarrassed about my life most days, except for the days when depression manages to crowd it out and fill the space with nothingness.

Because I'm broke, embarrassed, and proud, I avoid social settings. I can slip in and out of the gym anonymously, where only one other member ever says hello to me, and that's OK, because I don't want to have to play the getting to know you game with anyone yet. Maybe after I get some things settled, but not now. Not yet.

The perfect anti-social life is nearly complete. I go to my part-time, it's all I can get right now job and then go home. My paycheck disappears on dogfood and gas. Even though there have been a few social events to attend, there is always a reason to bail, usually financial, nearly always psychological. 

And it's getting old.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday

Black Friday has come and gone. The store opened at 1:00 a.m. with special prices that ran until 1:00 p.m. I worked from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.

The best part of Black Friday is the food. Last year it was subs. 

This year, in the morning it was breads and muffins. At lunch it was salad, ziti and meatballs. My first break was scheduled at 12:15 and the lunch arriving at 12, so I was in luck. I had ziti and meatballs and it was good. My 30 minute break was at 3:30 and I had salad, and more ziti and meatballs. And it was still good.  After I clocked out, I had another meatball and it was good all over again. 

After my final meatball, I ran for the door. I'd had my fill of retail for the day. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. In that regard, it was like most other days, but with better, free food.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Sometimes it’s the small things for which we can be most thankful. This Thanksgiving, in addition to being thankful for my family, I was specifically thankful for specific family members with better driving skills and more patience than I have. And alcohol.

When my family overruled my first choice activity for the Day of the Turkey, which was to spend it at home with my two dogs and Netflix, I was forced to choose between two options. I could go with Mom and Butch to dinner at Butch’s sister’s house in nearby Westminster, or I could go to my sister’s in-laws’ across town.

The alternatives were fine, I just didn’t feel like being around people, which were a feature at both houses. This was one of those supremely rare times when I wished I had a boyfriend or a husband, because I’d have someone to blame for my non-attendance.

I chose the destination starring my sister and my nieces and headed “up the hill,” which might be more of a descriptor if most of the 28.1 square miles of the city of Fitchburg wasn’t hills. Heck, even some of our streets have “hill” in the name -- Oak Hill Road, Westminster Hill Road, Ashburnham Hill Road, Pearl Hill Road.

The view on the way up the mountain to dinner.
Having visited the dinner location only once, maybe 10 years ago, I knew only that it was “up the hill, about a mile, on the right” from my sister’s house. The views were lovely on the way up the mountain, and everything was fine until I arrived at the house. When houses are built on hills, the driveways can be a bit, um challenging.

This house was on a hill, yet down a hill, and it was not a  leisurely turn into a relatively level driveway. Oh, hell no. It looked like the ideal location for a cog railway to be  installed. I have skied flatter trails than this driveway. Did I mention the six inches of heavy, wet, snow the night before?

It occurred to me to keep driving and head back home. But I didn’t.

My sister’s van was parked in front of the house, facing up the driveway, nose toward the road. There was a clearing at the bottom of the most terrifying driveway in the world, which was more like a cliff cleverly disguised as a driveway. If I focused, I could turn around between the trucks, wood pile, sheds, and sloping terrain, and park behind my sister. Maybe.

I inched down the steep, plowed driveway. At the clearing, I got my CRV mostly turned around, and suddenly it wouldn’t budge. Not forward. Not backward. I couldn’t go very far forward anyway, as the woodpile was in front of me. 

Meanwhile, my sister was standing at the doorway to the house, up the driveway, flagging me to the right and forward. I yelled out the window that I couldn’t move forward or backward. I tried to back up again and slid sideways. Yes, sideways, down a slope in this hellhole of a yard.

I put the car in park, turned it off, got out, hiked the mountainside to the house, and asked for the valet parking. As I handed my keys to my brother-in-law, my sister (a brilliant woman) handed me a glass of limoncello.  My brother-in-law, his brother, and the brother's teenaged son headed down the driveway to fix my mess. It was kind of comical. I guess. I’m pretty sure if this had happened to anyone else, I’d have been laughing until I puked. Instead, I hugged my sister and nieces hello and sipped my limoncello, which is a lovely liqueur I look forward to enjoying again.

The guys got my car situated -- back onto the most terrifying driveway in town, and parked behind my sister’s van. When they came back into the house, they mentioned that my progress had been impeded by a stray piece of wood from the woodpile that wedged under my bumper. Oh, and that my tires are practically bald.

Looks like new tires are in my immediate future. Thank goodness for credit cards. And for family members who are great at hugging, cooking things, fixing things, and pouring a lovely liqueur.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Weather Not

The forecast for the day before Thanksgiving called for snow, which was a sharp contrast to the 60-something degree weather of the past couple days. Although it doesn’t always, the weather delivered as predicted. And as usual, the timeline kept shifting, which made planning anything in the country's second hilliest city a moving target and guessing game.

Will I be able to get to my 9 a.m. chiropractor appointment in Fitchburg? (Yup. Began to rain/snow/snizzle at 9:40 as I was leaving the office.)

Can we meet at 10 for breakfast in Leominster as planned, or will the roads be too bad? (We did, they weren’t.)

Will we be able to do some errands after breakfast as planned? (Yes. The less hilly hills of Leominster were navigable.)

Will I have time to visit my storage unit across town and grab my snow boots? (Yes, except I couldn’t find them in the new spot I put them when I recently rearranged stuff. Arrrgh.)

Will Nancy, Darlene and I be able to meet at 4-ish for girls’ late lunch/early supper, or will the roads suck? (We did, and they did.)

Will the reunion gathering at 7 p.m. (and reason for requesting the night off from work) happen, or will it be delayed/cancelled? (Cancelled. Stupid snow. Looks like a TV night after all.)

Will I be able to get back home on snowy mount South Street after the supper gal pal powwow? (Yes! The roads were better at 7:30 than 4:30, all the way until I arrived in my own driveway, got stuck on the plow hump of thick, heavy snow, and had to fetch a shovel and dig my way in.)

When will it stop snowing? (Who knows? As of 10:30 p.m., it was still falling steadily in tiny flakes, having cycled through variations of wet snow and sleet, and already accumulating four to five inches.)

Welcome to New England, where we grow to be flexible, hardy, a little stubborn, and keep going through all sorts of weather. Where a snow brush stays in the car practically all year long, because you just never know. Where you work on the season’s personal best time each time automobile snow removal is required. And where it’s so damned pretty when it snows, even when forced to view it from inside the house, possibly in the dark, because the beautiful mess has pulled down tree limbs and wires and taken the power with it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Today was an adventure. Actually, every day is some sort of adventure, but today involved a tiny road trip and driving is not one of my favorite things to do, so the element of adventure was ripe from the start. The element of danger was introduced when I got sidetracked in the morning (on the computer, of course) and consumed a mere one-third of my usual coffee intake and no breakfast. Oops.

The key components to the day were my favorite thrift store in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where you can buy stuff by the pound), my friend Nancy (who is in town for the week), and Rte 2. If you are familiar with central Massachusetts, you may recognize Rte 2 as the pathetic excuse for a primary road running east/west from western Massachusetts to Boston, and which still boasts some of the original curves, ruts, and potholes from the Colonial days.

I tend to swear a lot on this road. At least today's company was an adult who served in the military and probably has heard worse than what may come out of my own mouth. When I am with my young nieces it is a challenge of monumental proportion minding my language.

The drive into Cambridge wasn't too bad. There was construction, but it was outside rush hour, so the traffic volume wasn't too horrible. The Garmin navigator was programmed, and we made good time arriving at a spot that seemed close to our destination flag on the tiny map, so we parked in the first  spot we saw, loaded the meter for the maximum one hour capacity and began to walk to the store. It was a lovely day for a walk -- not too cold, not too humid. We were excited about the possibility we might be the first people in the door when they opened for business.

That's when things went a bit wonky.

We walked on what we thought was Broadway, and when we determined it wasn't, consulted my cell phone mapping, and took a side street. At an intersection, we saw a Korean restaurant, which we thought would be a great spot for lunch. Once on the correct street, we walked in the direction of the store.

Cambridge does not seem to be very concerned with visible numbers on buildings for emergency services purposes, and it took a while to see any street numbers displayed. When we finally found building numbers to check, we were in the low 300s. Our destination was number 200.

After 15 minutes of walking since leaving the car, we were still not at the building we needed, or even on the correct block, and concern over the time on the parking meter set in. Calculating that we'd have roughly thirty seconds to shop before we had to return to the car to feed the meter more quarters, we headed back to the car to drive to the shop. We congratulated ourselves on our bonus fitness activity. There are bright sides to nearly everything.

We drove to the shop which turned out to be about a mile from where we had first parked. Luckily, there was a parking spot across the street from the store with a two hour meter. We had enough quarters left for 1.5 hours. And we headed in.

The "By the Pound" room was heaped knee high with clothes, with a small footpath around the perimeter. It reminded me of the fitting rooms at work, but better, because here I don't have to rehang any of it. 

 A sliver of the treasure pile.
A woman sat in a corner of the clothing sorting through items, and her friend sat at the opposite side of the room, doing the same. We weren't the first ones there, but we had still beat whatever crowd might arrive on a Tuesday morning. And we started picking through the stuff.

Jeans. Sweaters. Coats. Weird bits of fabric. Shirts. The odd sock. Sheets and comforters with way too many shadowy stains of questionable nature. Name brands (7 for All Mankind, Ann Taylor, H&M) and no-name stuff. Sizes from toddlers to plus-sized adult. All in one heap. It's a treasure hunt and a test of patience and endurance. I wished I'd had breakfast and my usual caffeine dosage.

I was hoping for something like the beautiful white Irish knit sweater some girl snatched from my sight the last time I was there, but no luck. I scored a vintage navy blue long coat, a long gray skirt, and a summer floral wrap beach skirt, weighing in at 4 pounds for a total of $6. Nancy got more pieces than I did -- shirts and jeans -- weighing 3.2 pounds. She was the winner of the "more for less" portion of the shopping. But really, we both won.

Our next quest was the Korean restaurant we had seen earlier. It seemed pretty straightforward, a couple turns, and boom, there it was. The tricky part was a total absence of parking. None. No parking allowed on the street, no parking lot. We did three loops looking for parking on nearby side streets, and gave up. We decided to eat at a Chinese and sushi place back in Leominster. And it was good.

It was a fun day. We got cool new old stuff we like. We ate. Win-win-win. Time to start some laundry and freshen up the duds.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stuffing and Such

It’s Thanksgiving week, so I’m jumping on the recipe bandwagon. BUT, unlike many publications which wait until it’s the day of the holiday and too late to go buy the stuff and make the recipe, I’m not waiting until Thanksgiving Day to release my “favorite stuffing recipe.” I’m doing it today -- Monday -- DAYS in advance of the big feast. So you still have time.

It’s easy, it’s tasty, it can be made all year long, and it was always a hit with my picky-eater ex-husband and at the office potluck at my old job. Consider this my gift to you.

- Boxed/packaged Cornbread Stuffing Mix (no-name store brands are fine, save your money)
- One apple and/or pear, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks (both together is yummy)
- Chopped walnuts and/or slivered almonds (a handful -- or pick some out of the can of fancy mixed nuts)
- Raisins and/or cranberries (fresh or dried, about a handful)
- Butter (for the stuffing mix, and sautéing)
- Onion, cut into small pieces (as much as you like)
- Cinnamon (about 1/2 teaspoon)

Saute the onion, apple and/or pear, cranberries and/or raisins and nuts in butter. Sprinkle the cinnamon into it and and stir. Don’t overcook it, or it will be too soggy. Feeling adventurous? Toss in a bit of wine or orange juice (1/4 cup? I dunno, I don’t measure). (Note: You could stop right here and serve this mixture as is. Seriously.) 

Sauteed apples, pears, onion, fresh cranberries, raisins, nuts.
Prepare the stuffing mix according to the directions -- (It’s usually as simple as boil water, add the stuffing mix and a tablespoon of butter, set for five minutes then fluff with a fork).

Add the sauteed fruits and nuts to the cornbread stuffing mix and stir until mixed.

Serve. Enjoy.

If you are preparing this in advance, you can keep it warm in a crock pot.

Optional activities: If, by some miracle, there is any left over, put it into a casserole dish. The next day, or the day after that, toss in some shredded cheese and bake until hot for a modified side dish.

Meatlovers’ option: Add cooked spicy pork sausage (it comes in a tube). You can probably get away with 1/4 of the sausage tube for one package of stuffing.

I’ll catch you later. I’m suddenly craving some stuffing with fruits and nuts.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Building Strength

Nodding off again. It's 8:47 pm and I've been trying to stay awake since 6:30.
I got home from work today, ran errands with Mom, and even though it was a rather warm day,  I couldn't get warm. Not a good sign.  Then the fatigue hit, and had me trying to convince myself to either have a nap or not.
The chills and tiredness are often my harbingers of illness, often accompanied by hypersensitive skin. Fortunately, I was spared the sensitive skin thing. So far, anyway.
This would be a very bad week to be sick, with the holiday shopping season kicking into gear and culminating in Black Friday, the Queen Mother of all shopping days.
My goal for the early part of week is to hang on through my closing shift Tuesday night, my reward is two days off.
I aim to make it to Wednesday, when I can vegetate for most of the day and with luck,  the most strenuous decision will be what to watch on Netflix. I'll need the day to build the strength to endure a busy Thanksgiving day. If I can pull off my day of solitude,  I will be grateful.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Sometimes the best things are unplanned. Like tonight.

I knew my friend Nancy and her daughter were in town from Michigan. I knew they had a family event in the afternoon, (to which I was invited, but scheduled to work). I knew I had no plans for the evening.

When I got home from work after 8 pm, I dove into the leftover pizza from last night. It was Nancy’s fault we even had pizza last night. She had posted a picture earlier in the day of a slab of pizza from Espresso, the pizza joint we grew up with. And once I saw it, it was all I could think about.

When I got home from work and Mom commented that she didn’t know what we’d do for supper, I said, “Nancy posted a picture of Espresso pizza today, and it’s all I have been able to think about.” The next thing I knew, I was across town picking up my niece to stay overnight and swinging by Espresso to pick up a pizza order that Mom called in. Espresso for the win! And thank you Nancy.

Because there only three of us for the pizza supper, there were a couple slices left over. And because I love pizza, and especially pizza from Espresso, there was nothing else on my mind all day today at work. When I got home, I took off my coat and headed straight for the fridge and the pizza.

As I dove into my microwave reheated pizza slabs, I received a text from the pizza inspiration herself, asking if I was free to meet up. As a matter of fact, hell yes! Within 30 minutes we were convened at the Boulder Cafe, a classic local watering hole since my grandmother’s days. And it was good. Unplanned. Fun. And good. Sometimes things just work out perfectly, even without the benefit of plans.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Niece Night

Every couple weeks,  one of my nieces comes to stay overnight. They are aged 10, 12, and 15, and it's always fun. We joke that whoever comes over gets "to be an only child for a night. "

Last Friday night, the 10 year old and I attended a dance performance at a nearby school and she stayed over afterwards.  In the morning,  my mom,  my niece and I went out for breakfast.
This Friday, the 12 year old came over. I picked her up after I got out of work,  we stopped to pick up a pizza order my mom called in,  and after we ate,  the three of us played a card game and watched TV. In the morning we will go out for breakfast.  

Being able to spend time with my nieces was a major reason for my move to New England from Tennessee. I had been missing out on everything -- the street hockey games,  dance recitals, weekend overnights,  and just goofing around -- and it made me sad to see them only one week a year. 

Being able to spend time with them has made the long (two year) job search and it's disastrous financial effect almost tolerable. We are great at finding inexpensive things to do,  like taking walks in the park, playing board and card games, and watching shows on Netflix. 

They are smart and funny girls and I love their company.  It makes up for my forgetting to have my own kids.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Leftover Soup

When the first chill in the air hits, I bust out the kettle. One of my favorite ways to warm up is with soup. I grew up with Campbell’s soup, and favored chicken and rice and chicken and stars. As a teen, I discovered the cream of mushroom (with elbow macaroni!).

Nowadays, I have two favorite soups. One is creamy chicken ramen, prepared with milk and often embellished with frozen vegetables, a large dollop of Cheez Whiz and smaller dollop of Korean hot pepper paste. The other is homemade soup. If pressed for a name of  homemade soup, I would have to say “Leftover Soup” because that’s mostly what I use, so it’s never the same soup twice.

Once I unraveled the “mystery” of homemade soup, and learned how easy it is to make, I swore off the canned stuff. I’d provide a recipe, but it would be nearly impossible -- like I said, I usually use leftovers, and there is no way to know what those are going to be.

The general formula, however, would involve four major food categories:
protein -- a variety of beans and/or one or more meats (diced)
vegetables -- (the more the merrier)
liquid -- (broth, water, vegetable juice, milk, or all four, maybe a splash of wine, because)
starch -- (rice, barley, pasta)

It helps for soup (or nearly any meal) to have a few pantry basics on hand. One of my favorites is frozen mixed vegetables -- the corn, carrots, peas, green beans blend is pretty handy. I don’t think I have ever eaten them just as a vegetable side dish, but I use them all the time in casseroles, ramen, and homemade soups. Another basic I find useful is boxed or canned soup broth, which I’ve also used instead of water for instant stuffing mix and rice. Jarred spaghetti sauce and canned, diced tomatoes are also helpful.

Soup making is so easy, I made some the other night after dinner, using the leftover bits from dinner and odds and ends from the refrigerator and freezer. The inspiration for this batch of soup was some leftover juice from a chuck roast my mother made in the oven earlier in the week. Instead of pouring the juice down the drain (Mom’s instinct) or adding it to the dog’s food (another possibility), I suggested we save it for soup. I got Mom hooked on soup last winter, so now she finds it less odd when I yell “Keep that tiny not-even-a-serving of ______! It can go into a soup!”

First, I diced and sauteed half an onion in olive oil. I sprinkled in some garlic powder. Then I tossed in the remaining dozen mini carrots lounging in the vegetable bin, cut into thirds and fourths to create even more bite sized carrots. The leftover beef juice came next, followed by the last of the meat and bean chili and rice we’d not finished from supper. There was a small piece of baked chicken and a small piece of cooked pork in the freezer, neither large enough for much of anything, but perfect to dice and chuck into the soup. In they went.

It didn’t look like enough liquid, so I added a box of vegetable broth. It sat on low heat until it simmered, then it was turned off. And it was done. After cooling, it was stored in a lidded container and refrigerated until someone felt like having soup, which turned out to be me, for lunch, the next day.

The beauty of soup is, you can keep adding to it. If we have some form of meat, potato of vegetable for supper tonight, any leftovers will be cut up and go into the soup.

The only thing I did after heating the soup for lunch was add some milk. It’s about the only milk I have, besides what I put into my coffee, and I like the look of the soup broth with milk in it.

My basic soup philosophy is “almost anything goes.” I’ve boosted the flavor with a packet of dry soup mix, thickened it with leftover gravy or spaghetti sauce, stretched it with rice or pasta or diced leftover scalloped potatoes and varying combinations of tomato sauce, V-8 and/or broth.

In all my soup experiments, I’ve made only one or two I didn’t love.  Luckily, my dogs were not so particular.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Falling Up

My family is all about the fall. Yes, we love the changing colors of the New England season, and we love the many sweaters my grandmother knit for each of us over the years, but that isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

My family is noted for being fall guys. And gals. In the literal sense.

We seem to share a genetic quirk. Perhaps it’s a defect. Whatever the cause, it causes us to trip. And fall. But not like normal people who fall down the stairs. We usually fall UP the stairs. Even my dogs have caught the bug, frequently tripping up the stairs with much clatter and proving that yes, we are kin, even though we are not the same species.

We jokingly refer to ourselves as the “Falling Up Family” and laugh at our ongoing escapades. When we hear of someone sharing our special talent, we usually ask if we might all be related. I have tripped and fallen up stairs so many times, it barely registers any more.

Where we hone our skills.
Growing up in a two story house provided years of opportunity for this special skill set to develop. I ruined countless shoes and boots tripping up the stairs and gouging the toes. Some of my favorite and most expensive jeans and footwear fell victim to the concrete front stairs (which thankfully have since been replaced with vinyl planking). I’m talking about you, dark wash Calvin Klein jeans and purple high heeled booties! The jeans were carefully stitched and relegated to ongoing encounters with a ball point pen to camouflage the scuffed pale spot, because you can’t return to the store clothing you damaged just because you are a klutz. The boots would have eventually been all marked up, it’s just too bad it happened the first day I wore them.

Now that I live in that same childhood home again, my falling up talent, which lay mostly dormant in a series of ranch houses in Tennessee for a dozen years, is once more unleashed. I have stumbled up the stairs after losing a flip flop, stepping on my slipper or the front of my bathrobe, or more embarrassingly, nothing at all. Turns out it’s actually pretty easy to forget to lift your feet high enough to clear a step and come crashing onto your elbows like a comic stuntwoman. Or maybe that’s just me. And my immediate family.

Luckily, my numerous upward falls have been largely without major incident. My falls in the normal downward direction, however, are another story for another day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Amused Girls

It's not very often that I am jealous of a kid, but it has happened. It was during a summer vacation in York, Maine.

York, Maine is a place of many memories for me. When I was a kid, my family camped there for a week every year for many years. We had a large tent, bunk bed cots, and almost enough room for the five of us. I remember hating the whole idea of it -- leaving our solid house to go live in a cloth dwelling like a family of gypsies. Having to plan clothing for an entire week. It was hell.

We would leave after Dad got home from work, and arrive at the campground in near-dark (best case scenario) or pitch dark (usual scenario), often getting the only available, least desirable site in the tent park. It seemed like it always rained, and Dad would often have to dig a trench around the tent, which leaked if we left something (like the cooler) touching the fabric. It was also cold and I never had warm enough clothes, but anything less than 88 degrees was (and still is) cold to me.

My camping memories include such delights as being awoken from a solid sleep by the train that passed through the area at around 3  a.m. or some other ungodly hour, so close to our tent that it seemed it was coming through the tent and we would all be killed. I'm sure this heart pounding feature explains  why it was the last site available. One summer my brother accidentally dropped a large rock on my sister's hand, requiring a trip to the ER and a wrist brace she was horrified to wear.

There were comical camping moments involving wildlife, like the goat trying to eat my sister's shirt, a llama chasing my brother, and a duck harassing my Dad on separate visits to the York Wild Animal Kingdom and Amusement Park. There was once a red fox that lept over our campfire.  There were mosquitoes the size of  personal jets.

On a more recent visit to York, we visited the amusement park, where I was the only adult willing to go on the rides with my nieces. The idea that I am actually an adult is laughable to me, but I guess I have lightened up in my old age. I was more of a stuffy old person at age 11 than I am now, which stunk for the young me, but at least I can have fun now.  Anyway. My nieces, aged 15, 11 and 9, and I had a blast on the spinning rides, Ferris wheel, fun house, and bumper cars.

During the day at the park, my nieces saw two girls they knew from home. In both cases, the girls were traversing the park and going on rides alone. ALONE. Unaccompanied. Carefree. One girl was solo and laughing on the Scrambler. The other bold little thrill seeker kept riding the ride where you are strapped standing in a cage that spins like a centrifuge. I watched these girls of approximately 10 years old, each on her own, having fun, alone, without an ounce of self consciousness. I admired what I decided was bravado. I love their carefree spirit. And I was jealous. Jealous of two tweens.

When I was 10, the only solo activity I was comfortable with was visiting the library, where I would routinely check out piles of books to hole up in my room and read. If my friends weren't available to accompany me to something, I didn't do it. I was 36 before I sucked it up and ate alone in a restaurant, instead of hunkering down alone with takeout.

Seeing the two girls in the amusement park, I wished when I was their age that I was as independent and happy as they appeared to be. Hell, let's be real. I wished at my current age that I was as happy and carefree as they appeared to me that day. Maybe someday.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Walks on the Beach

One June not too long ago, my mom, sister and I rented a house at York Beach, Maine for a week. We’ve been to York Beach countless times before, first at a tent in a nearby campground for a week at a time, year after year when I was a kid. As adults, we all stayed for a few days in a hotel across from the street from the beach. But this was the first time we had an entire house for our comfort.

The rental house was three stories tall. From the top floor, which featured a pool table and futons, we could see over the tops of the neighboring houses and see the ocean. There was a footpath from the neighborhood to the rocky end of the beach, which was great for morning and evening strolls with the dogs.

I was anxious to see how my dogs would react to the beach. They came to live with me when I lived in Tennessee, and the few times we walked along the Cumberland River, the two dogs had different reactions to the water. Moose tried to charge down the boat ramp and explore the river, while Winston had no interest in it at all. The ocean was going to be a whole new adventure.

In York during the summer season, dogs were allowed on the beach in the early morning. Accompanied by various combinations of one, two, or all three nieces, depending on the day, I would take the dogs to the beach. Other dogs were running off leash, chasing discs and balls, chasing the waves, and swimming. In keeping with my Hollywood-inspired notion of dogs and beaches, these other dogs (and their humans) looked like they were having fun.

In spite of my efforts to teach them, my dogs don’t seem to know how to play. Although Moose is a champion of consuming any and all fabric or plastic toys (in their entirety), neither dog has grasped the concept of fetching, catching, or returning an item, so I didn’t bother to bring toys to the beach. It was us and the leashes and the great oceanic outdoors. Because I wasn’t sure how they’d react during their first time at the ocean, I kept them on the leashes. We walked near the rocks and over the rocks and down towards the water. Or more accurately, I dragged them to the water. They stepped in the shallowest skim of water and were not impressed. They tried to drag me away from it.

Moose and Winston not really enjoying the beach.
One morning later in the week, I let them off the leashes when we were on the beach, and they ran. Not like I thought they would, though. They did not frolic happily on the beach. They did not explore the water. The second the leashes were detached, they turned and sprinted at top speed away from the water, across the sand, and up the stairs to the sidewalk, with my nieces and me chasing after them. These dogs had spoken, and they said they wanted no part of this beach business. Luckily, some people who were just arriving at the beach stopped my fleeing canines on the sidewalk at the top of the staircase.

Afterwards, every time we approached the little wooden footbridge on the path to the beach, Moose would make himself immobile by tensing up all four of his legs and bracing himself. It’s one of his favorite tactics at home. He whips himself into a frenzy of excitement upon seeing his leash, then after about twenty feet of walking, suddenly decides he doesn’t want to go walking after all. I have never determined what in our neighborhood (if anything) has him periodically boycotting our walk, but on our Maine vacation it seemed pretty clear it was dread of the beach.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nodding Off

The long nights of winter, which seem to start when the clocks "fall back" by one hour in October, take on a life of their own. When it's dark at 6, it feels like midnight and I am often nodding off at 7:30. Good times. Maybe it's more accurate to say it's a total lack of life.

One remedy for delaying sleep so early in the evening may be to drink coffee in the afternoon. The problem is, coffee at 1 pm often means I'm still wide awake at 1 am. And by wide awake I mean dead tired but still too keyed up to sleep.

Other remedies surely exist, but I don't know what they are just now.  I'm too tired to think. It's 9:45 pm and I've been fighting sleep for two hours. 

Fortunately, in late December, the days start to grow longer again, so it's only five or six or eight (long) weeks in the dark doldrums. My energy level returns with the daylight. Thank goodness. I'm afraid I'll get whiplash from the nodding off.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Live Pain

I feel like I'm getting my ass kicked. Or like I've been run over by a truck. 

There was a three year spell without chiropractic visits due to a variety of reasons including a broken leg and a life put on hold. 

There were recent months of stepping on one pant leg under the bottom of my shoe. Same pant leg, different pants. Every day. Dozens of times. My extensive, self-taught and just enough to be very dangerous medical education, gleaned from years of previous chiropractic treatments and hours on webmd.com and google, led me to conclude my hips are out of alignment.

After pulling a muscle in my upper back reaching for a bathrobe and spending four weeks resting it, avoiding the gym, and obsessing over it, it was finally time to call a chiropractor. 

I knew it would take some work getting myself straight again. I guess I forgot about the ongoing discomfort during the process. Or maybe in my younger days I snapped back a lot quicker. Or maybe I am now so old now that I forgot how things actually work. 

A week into treatments my sternum felt like it had been hit with a battering ram. The knotted muscle in my neck and shoulder continues in misery four weeks in, but only if I move my head in certain useful and not always avoidable ways. For instance, looking to the right. Or up.

The pad of the thumb on my dominant hand is newly numb. The three years of numbness from the broken leg is currently supplemented by nightly spasms in my shin, foot, and toes.

A new hyper awareness about posture snaps me out of the slouch I developed through laziness and improperly laid out work stations. At least momentarily.

On the bright side, discomfort (and let's not forget pain) has always served to remind me I am alive. The quest now is for the days to come when the sensation of being healthy and energized is what makes me feel alive. Soon, I hope.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Winter Food

While spring and summer have me craving salads, as the weather gets cooler, it's all about soups and heavy foods. 

Soups are easy and can be a good way to use little bits of leftovers insufficient for a full serving but perfect for a patchwork meal.

Embellishing a basic grocery product makes it heartier. Instant cornbread stuffing steps out of the shadows and grabs the spotlight when enhanced with pears, apples, cranberries, walnuts and almond slivers sautéed in butter and cinnamon. 

Baked sliced sweet potatoes and apples layered with spicy pork sausage seasoned with cinnamon is a favorite. 

Sliced Keilbasa sautéed with potatoes and onions is fragrant and delicious. American chop suey (macaroni, hamburger, peppers, onions,  tomatoes) topped with American cheese was a favorite family dinner when I was a kid.

Sundays in the winter are all about cooking big batches of food for the week. As the snow flies outside,  the house is warmed by the oven and aroma of spices, and it's easy to reheat a few nights later.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Help Desk

One day while I was working at the customer service desk,  two women approached and announced they "have a problem." A full 75% of the people who come to customer service have problems of some sort,  so that wasn't any manner of a surprise. Just another day and another 99 problems.

They asked for the number to the police station. It was more of a demand,  really. I didn't know what the problem was, but instead of having been mugged or in an accident or something else worthy of law enforcement involvement, it  turned out they'd locked the keys in the car, which belonged to the daughter's boyfriend. They wanted the police to come open it. 

It seemed easier to me to call the boyfriend/other key holder. I don't even think the police handle lockouts anymore. I also didn't know if there was a non-emergency police number or if everything went through 9-1-1.

The older of the women,  the mother,  got a smidge huffy when I said I had neither a phone directory nor the number to the police. She acted like it should be a condition of opening for business that we have the walls plastered with a number for the police department and stacks of phone books even though most people nowadays use the Internet to look up phone numbers along with everything else.

Then she said maybe the fire department should be called. Um, I don't think so. Should they bring a ladder truck?  Then she grumbled something about what the store would do in an emergency. Ummmm, duh. In an emergency, which this clearly was not, we'd call 9-1-1. A locksmith was the sensible, though probably expensive, answer right now. 

I went into the office to look for a phone book, and when I said what was going on,  another associate came to the service desk and offered to call AAA. That's when the mother rolled her eyes and made a crack about having to "wait three hours for AAA." It still seemed like a better solution than tying up public safety resources. 

When AAA was on the line,  they asked for info about the car. The daughter had gone off somewhere leaving the mother with us.  I wonder why .... no, actually, I didn't need to wonder at all. The mother got all huffy again, grumbling about why AAA needed info about the vehicle.  

Ummmm, hello? Don't you think they might need to know what they are coming to service in case they need anything special for instructions, equipment, or technology? I bet it helps when driving around a busy parking lot to know what vehicle they are looking for. Or are they supposed to just wave a magic wand? 

And seriously,  my colleague was going above and beyond trying to help. It wasn't our doing that locked the keys in the car, so there was no need for the queen mother to get bitchy at us. I was shaking my head.

Luckily, the boyfriend and owner of the car showed up and rescued the damsel and her damned mother. My colleague got off the line with AAA. She looked at me after they'd left and said, "Wow. That woman was pretty cranky, and I was trying to help."

Yes,  ma'am. Welcome to my world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rules, Rules

Once upon time, like third grade, I sang in the church choir. We had a children’s choir and an adult choir, and wore choir robes and filled the choir loft with the pipe organ at the front of the church where everyone could see me turn bright red when I messed up the song. I liked singing in the choir, but my brother told me I sounded like Olive Oyl from the Popeye cartoons on TV and I was dumb enough to believe him and became crippled with self-consciousness. I eventually left the choir.

Eventually, I left the town I grew up in and attended church only when I was home for Christmas and attending the occasional wedding. When I returned to my hometown after 12 years in Tennessee, I began attending church with my mother until I started working most Sundays in my current retail gig (it’s time-and-a-half and I need the money). The sanctuary is still as beautiful as when I was a kid, but the choir, like rest of the congregation, has shrunk. There are usually only three or four choir members now and they don’t wear robes anymore. Modern times. Some mornings I was one of the youngest people in church and that's just weird.

I don’t mind singing the few songs I actually know that make the list for the services, but most times I have never heard of the songs we are singing, and I forgot what little I knew about reading music since my last music class in, oh, seventh grade. If I’m lucky and try really hard to not space out, I might catch on to the song by about the last half of the last verse, but usually I am fumbling and barely moving my mouth.

One Sunday several months ago I was flipping through one of the hymnals we use (referred to as “the red book” and “the black book” due to the colors of the covers) and came across a list of “John Wesley’s Rules for Singing” from 1761. Holy crap. And I thought I was in trouble before.

I include for your entertainment:

John Wesley’s Rules for Singing (1761)

1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

So many rules!

Sing all? No! The congregation is not ready for Olive Oyl sings the hymns. I promise. Consider it a public service. Can I choose to take up the cross behind door number two instead, please?

How can I possibly “sing lustily, and with good courage” a song from 1800 and something that I have never, ever heard of before? I’ll take the cowardly barely moving my mouth, thanks. As for those “songs of Satan”? Do you think Wesley is referring to Metal, or to Rap?

Number three has me confused. Sing lustily, AND modestly? Talk about a balancing act. Sing it, but not TOO much.

I can sing in time. That one is okay. I can think of a few others who need to pay heed to that one.
As for singing spiritually ... ummm, okay.

Ok, got it. Sing all, lustily, modestly, in time and spiritually. If I can get Johnny Cash or some early Prince or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the song list and pretend I’m alone in my car, I might stand a chance at hitting most of the rules. Until then ... I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Email Me

This is a true story.

Back in the last century when the Internet was still new and shiny, I opened an email address that included my first initial and family name. That email addy and I have shared some living -- two long distance relationships (one across the country, one half-way around the world), a marriage in Korea and seven years later a divorce in America, and at least five cool jobs in my crazy-quilt of a career. 

When I opened another email address reflecting my married name, I kept the old addy, partly for sentimental reasons, partly because I was afraid my friends wouldn’t recognize my new name, and partly because I was simply too lazy to redirect a bunch of newsletters and shopping accounts linked to it.

In the earlier years of the account, there were instances of obvious junk mail or not-really-for-me mail that included “test” or “Tracy” in the subject line, which I deleted without reading. In 2004, I received a letter directed to a Reverend sharing my family name, seeking background information on an applicant for a social work position who said the separation was “not amicable.” I wrote back to explain I was not the Reverend.

For the entire 2008-09 school year, there was bombardment of messages for every PTA meeting, school lunch menu, fundraiser and report card date for the Great Oaks Elementary School, location unknown. The only contact information in the emails was a phone number with no area code, there was no unsubscribe option, and when I sent an email to the sender, I was informed the email addresses were collected from student information forms. I asked, but they never deleted my email, so it was a full academic year of generic school-related messages meant to inform an an actual parent of an actual student.

In 2009, there was a stream of messages from a web hosting company with reminders to finish creating some website I was not part of until the final, welcome notice about canceling the unfinished site due to inactivity.

In 2010, someone with the handle “Todd 1314” in Indiana opened a guest account with the “Ashley Madison Agency,” which had the tagline “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” I’m guessing he mistyped the name of the new secret email account opened to conduct his secret extramarital activities, or just picked a random email address to get past that field and into the good stuff. In any event, I enjoyed reading his meager profile, but because he hadn’t paid for a membership, (maybe he needed to open a new secret credit card, too?) I couldn’t read Todd1314’s only message from “StrangeEyes.” The same weekend, busy, busy Todd also signed up for something on Penthouse.com, again using my email address. Maybe the wife was out of town and Todd was lonely in Indiana. After a while, I got bored with Todd and unsubscribed from his sites to reduce my inbox clutter.

The email address from my former, more interesting life continues to maintain a life of its own, which is arguably more exciting than anything I’ve been up to lately.

In 2012, as I was living in limbo waiting for my house to sell in Tennessee, my email was receiving a series of messages from Terry’s Ford of Peotore, Illinois addressed to someone named Susan, who was apparently shopping for a new automobile in the Chicago area.

A steady stream of messages from twitter began in August 2013, reminding Tiffany to confirm her twitter registration. She better hurry and do it, the messages are still coming in more than a year later.

There are regular messages and newsletters from Desiree, a realtor in Santa Clara, California, with real estate listings, mortgage rates, and open house listings. Sorry I haven’t responded, but it wasn’t actually me who provided my email address at one of your open houses, on your website, or via email or an internet site. But if I do ever need help from the “Rodeo Realty Estates Director” I know who to contact.

Someone named Tyler recently completed a survey at a kiosk at the Fayette Mall, and my email address received a lovely thank you message and follow up email invitation to complete “shorter surveys on your smartphone or from home for cash or points.” I bet if Tyler knew he could be getting paid for his opinion he wish he’d typed his own damned email address.

And another parent in another school district is probably missing some important school information. This time it’s the Bethlehem Elementary School, Bethlehem, New Hampshire sending the 4-1-1 for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years addressed to someone named Tamther.  Again, not me. I hope the real Tamther, parent of the real student isn’t feeling left out of the loop. I, on the other hand, am feeling knowledgable and well informed about this year’s fall festival.

I could take the time to unsubscribe from all the new misdirects, but I rather enjoy checking in periodically to learn what my email address/cyber self is up to. Especially since the old email me has more happening than the real me.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

Every day, the average person makes dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions. There are articles that claim there are 500 decision in a day, and others that claim 5,000, so, although I have not attempted to count the number of decisions in any of my days, I am comfortable saying that we make a LOT of decisions. Regularly. Many, many decisions, every day, from trivial to major to life changing.

Heck, it’s a decision from the moment we awaken whether to get up or not. My morning decision about getting up is usually driven by my dog, who has a steady, unwavering inner clock that does not adjust for the human conventions of daylight and standard  time. Half the year, he wakes me up every morning at 6, and in the fall when we turn the clocks back an hour, he wakes me up every morning at 7. That is when I have to decide to either haul my butt out of bed immediately or tell him 10,000 times to “be quiet,” and  “go lay down,” before conceding defeat and get up. On the mornings I need to be up promptly, I thank him for his reliable service.

After the getting out of bed deliberation, the day is one decision after another, some so automated they have moved from active thinking and conscious decision-making to routine habit. Breakfast now or later .. what for breakfast ... what to wear ... what route to take ... you get the idea.

Along the course of my many days on this earth, I finally (FINALLY!) landed on a key decision that helps me nearly every day that I consciously make it. (I say ‘nearly’ because I don’t want to swear it’s foolproof, but it’s pretty darned good.)

When I wake up, I make a deliberate effort to have a great day. I DECIDE I WILL have a great day. And you know what? Most of the time it works. MOST of the time. I’ll take it.

The first time I tried it, I was a bit skeptical. Ok, I was really skeptical. It went against my usual mindset which tended towards what some call “pessimistic” and I call “realistic.” My attitude was, if I expected great things, and they didn’t happen, it was disappointing, and if the expectation was low and great things happened, it was a lovely surprise.

But when I consciously decided things would go well, and they did, over and over again, meeting the expectation of ‘great’ felt even better than the surprise when things went well when expecting mediocre. It was great.

Sometimes external forces like the weather or the economy make things tough. I can’t decide to change the weather or the economy (trust me, I’ve tried), but I can decide to make the best of how I deal with mother nature and the economy. And traffic. And grumpy customers.  I remind myself that the weather and traffic and customers are temporary, and none of them will be improved by an increase in aggravation. Dealing with the economy is a bit trickier, and it’s fortunate I like ramen and thrift stores.

Sure I get derailed. Yes, I slip into old habits. But I try to be mindful an reset my viewpoint when needed. Like developing many habits, for some of us, the habit of deciding to be more positive takes practice. Soon it will be second nature (my first one served its purpose and needs to go). I’ll get there.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Oatmeal and Cake

I had to work at 9:00 this morning after working until midnight last night. Usually, I skip breakfast in favor of brunch around 11 or 12, but a 9 to 2 retail shift doesn't really accommodate that feeding timetable. Maybe I should have hit the fridge at 1 a.m. before I went to bed. 

In the fog of my morning fatigue, the fastest thing I found to eat before work was instant oatmeal. And because I was tired and in a rush (a risky combination), I screwed it up by adding too much water. It looked like a bad soup. 

The best remedy seemed to be to add another packet which resulted in a half overdone, half okay mixture. It was kind of gross, but there was no time for anything else.

Sadly, oatmeal, which Mom swears by for its heartiness, leaves me starving a shockingly brief time later. My double batch held me until about 11, which was not nearly long enough. It was getting ugly.

Luckily for me, a coworker had a birthday today; someone brought in a grocery store bakery sheet cake; and there was a small square of cake in the break room when I (finally) took my break a half hour before I was scheduled to leave. I inhaled half of the piece, along with a massive glob of icing scraped from the cardboard base. 

I may not always make wisest food choices. Sometimes they feel a bit desperate.

The sugar rush from the icing propelled me through the rest of my shift and kept me from tearing anyone's head off, so it was really a public service (for which I should be richly rewarded with a bounty of chocolates). To borrow the words of a candy bar commercial, I'm not myself when I'm hungry. And "hangry" is an all too familiar condition. 

When I got home at an hour too close to dinner to eat a proper meal, my hunger-weakened state led me down the slippery slope to another poor food decision in two parts. The appetizer was the remainder of Mom's bowl of popcorn. The entree was a packaged chocolate cupcake from the bread thrift store.

Did I mention I don't always make the smartest nutritional choices? At least I tried to redeem myself with real food in the form of a supper of gnocchi and vodka sauce.

Maybe tomorrow I should invest in some vitamins. And some better options for grab-and-go food.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Social Media Mirror

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

This quote was presented without attribution in a list of “quotes to change your life.” It is sound advice that should be kept it in mind if you start feeling down, doubting your abilities, and questioning your own self worth. I know I need to remember it.

As a rule, the pieces of your life presented to others, especially on social media, are probably the best parts -- the highlights reel. The scenes and stories that proclaim “I’m having fun,” “I have a great life and successful career,” and, “I’m fantastically great and so are my kids /spouse /dog /cat /chickens!”

For many people, the less attractive bits, like insecurity, loneliness, and doubt are probably kept away from the glowing technology screens. Maybe it’s better that way. Do you really want to ruin it for the people who think you are pretty damned amazing? It’s probably better to reflect (and reflect upon) the happy moments. The highlight reels and glamour shots. Choose the happy mirror to reflect yourself instead of the cracked one.

In the technology-bereft days of my youth, before social media existed, my fragile self confidence could be shattered at any given moment as I measured my perceived shortcomings against one friend’s great hair, one’s infectious laugh, one’s never-ending stream of boyfriends, and yet another’s seemingly perfect everything. After school, I trotted off to ballet class or my part-time job at a grocery store to compare myself to another set of living, breathing benchmarks against whom I would undoubtedly come up short in my own mind. I was trying to figure myself out. Now, with technology, I don’t even have to leave the house.

The truth, learned decades later, was that my schoolmates, acquaintances, and dance studio friends were doing the same thing. The weight of my angst-laden self-absorption never allowed room to consider that I was not alone in my insecurity. I slogged through my teens and twenties burdened with the assumptions that everyone else on the planet was naturally happier, smarter, more confident, more likable, and more well-adjusted than I was. Maybe they were. Or maybe they just made better choices, like choosing to be happy. 

I think we were lucky in the dark ages of the end of the last century when “social media” involved actually socializing (in person!). With a Facebook news feed providing access to specially packaged slivers of milestone events, vacations, smiling children, adorable pets, and smiling families in coordinated outfits portrayed in perfectly lit professional portraits, it’s easy to measure one’s perceived lack against a (potentially false) perception of what others have.

When I divert my eyes from my phone or my computer screen and see my two yapping dogs, my mother’s house where I reside (allegedly temporarily, but it’s nearly two years already), storage fees for the stuff I moved up with me from Tennessee, a screwy part-time retail schedule and a usually empty social calendar, I want to cry. But I don’t, because I don’t need my mom worrying about me any more than she does already. I try to give her the highlights.

If speaking to a friend, I would undoubtedly remind my friend about “the highlight reels” and offer a hug. Unfortunately, the voice in my head that narrates my life can’t seem to stop commenting that if I knew Spanish or graphic design programs or HTML coding or ten other different things, I would probably have a full-time job by now, which will pave the way for my own dwelling and the life I want. Apparently what I already know is insufficient or I would have a job by now from the 190 or so I have applied for. Right?

And most likely, I’ll be back on the computer, taking breaks from job descriptions and customizing resumes and cover letters to visit Facebook and review the mostly fantastic lives of friends with jobs and spouses and kids and grandkids. I might take the time to choose words and images in an attempt to convey that my life is better than it feels from this side of the microscope (fake it ‘til you make it?), or not posting anything at all, because some days, it feels like the only highlight is merely surviving. Which, in the scheme of things, is still pretty damned amazing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Just Listed

I love to make lists -- shopping lists, lifetime “I wanna do this” lists, books to read, blogs to write, music to buy, people to email, photos to have printed, vacations to take, pros and cons of a decision in process -- my list of lists could go on and on.

When I worked an office job, every Friday before leaving, I updated my project list and posted the spreadsheet on the wall of my cubicle, sweet cubicle. It helped to see it on paper, and it reduced the risk I would forget something. Even if the printed list was lost (not uncommon), it lived on my computer. Another weekly list resided in my Mead "At-A-Glance" planner (model 70-864 in case you'd like to buy me a gift.)

Some tasks appeared regularly, just under different client names and project numbers: write brochure/ad/website copy; proofread brochure/ad/website copy; follow-up with client re: budget estimate; draft meeting agenda; type conference notes; set production timeline. That kind of stuff.

Sometimes an individual project was so big it warranted its own dedicated spreadsheet. One of my first projects at my old marketing agency job was logistics for a client’s 100th anniversary event. The project’s scope was panic-inducing, but my nerves were quelled with typing. During the course of the project, the event task list evolved into a 200 line spreadsheet tracking specific tasks, timelines, and the organization or individual responsible for completion. Corralling the details in one document and knowing all possible variables were accounted for was a relief.

It is common for me to reach into a pocket and pull out an old list. “Dog food, potting soil, half and half.” “Wedding card, facial wipes, nail polish remover.” I pick up slips of paper in parking lots that hold someone else’s list and then wonder who belongs with “almonds, pears, Preparation H, tin foil, bleach.”

It is also common for me to draft a list, check it twice, and then forget it on the coffee table, kitchen counter or in the car, leaving me standing in a store tearing through pockets or my purse for the list written 20 minutes earlier. It’s frustrating, but having written it down is often sufficient and the items can be procured or the tasks completed without the list in hand.

As helpful as making lists can be, the best part is crossing things off. It’s a tangible mark of accomplishment. If I ever hit the middle of a workweek and hadn’t yet used my red pen to cross off a task from my blue inked list, it was time to take a breath and come up with something already accomplished, no matter how trivial. Then it could be added and immediately crossed off purely for the psychological boost and momentum it provided. “Update project statuses.” Boom! Done.

When the calendar page turns to November, it’s the season for the BIG lists -- the Christmas list for gifts and the New Year’s list for goals.

Names are inked in, gift ideas penciled in, and final gift purchases noted permanently in ink. Other items on the Christmas list might be treats to be baked and holiday issues to be resolved like host gifts, party dishes, and attire.

The New Year’s list has generally been harder to develop, and once drafted, often tucked into a journal. It usually reads like a conceptual wish list and over the years has included join gym, lose 5 pounds, create a website, edit/publish a book, buy a house, sell the house, find a job, pay off credit card, travel.

It’s fun to look at old lists. The can be a nice boost, especially when I slide back into adolescent angst and find myself hosting a pity party for one, feeling like I haven’t done anything (ever!). There is therapeutic value in reviewing an old New Year’s list and noting the major accomplishments like leave bad relationship (check!), buy a house (check!), pay off the car (check!), sell the house (check!), move back to New England (check!).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Criminalizing Compassion?

Every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) releases to Congress the two-part Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). Part 1 of the 2014 AHAR report, released in October, has Point-in-Time estimates of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations gathered on a single night in late January.

It’s a good sign that overall, the estimated number of homeless people has declined since 2007 (the chart on page 18 says so), but don’t break out in a happy dance just yet. According to the report, the estimated number of homeless people in America in 2014 is 578,424. Let that sink in. Over half a million people in our country are homeless. It’s a decline of 2% since 2013, but it’s still far too many homeless people.

The AHAR report breaks down the homeless population by state, by subgroups, and by age ranges. Half of the homeless individuals in the U.S. are located in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Georgia. (AHAR, page 20).

Another report from the National Coalition for the Homeless “examines the relationship between work and homelessness, including the contribution of unemployment, underemployment, and low wages to homelessness,” as well as an assessment of “the barriers to employment faced by homeless people and strategies for overcoming those barriers.” The NCH report points out, “Media reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of important reasons why homelessness persists, and, in some areas of the country, is worsening. These include stagnant or falling incomes, and less secure jobs that offer fewer benefits.”

In 1967, a year-round, minimum wage earning worker was paid enough to raise a family of three above the poverty line. Freezes to the minimum wage, cost of living increases, and the demographic change of minimum wage workers from mostly teenagers to a current level of 72% at age 20 or older mean housing is out of reach for many workers. Now, in areas around the country, according to the NCH report, “a minimum wage worker would have to work 87 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.” The report also states that many homeless shelters “house significant numbers of full-time wage earners.” So much for the old American dream of working, owning a home, and retiring at some level of comfort, or the notions that homeless people are all addicts, mentally ill, or choose to be homeless.

Articles circulating for several years claim there anywhere from five to 24 empty houses in the U.S. for each homeless person in America. Some houses in the U.S. are empty part of the year because they are second, and even third homes held for seasonal purposes. Other houses are empty, not because people suddenly decided it would be more fun to enjoy life in the great outdoors or at a shelter, but because economic conditions including disappearing jobs, crappy wages, increased costs, and even medical expenses (the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.) have crippled and even destroyed people’s lives and livelihood. When jobs and income disappear, the ability to make mortgage or rent payments goes with them. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods sit empty as a result of economic conditions.

Not everyone has the safety net of family willing or able to take them in. If being homeless isn’t tough enough, laws are being enacted around the U.S. to penalize those who try to help.

On November 6, 2014, a wire service story headlined “3 busted. Their crime? Feeding the homeless” ran in my local paper. Over the weekend, 90-year old Arnold Abbott and two ministers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida were arrested for violating a new ordinance that took effect Friday, and now face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for feeding the homeless in a public park. The same article says the ordinance “is one of five laws dealing with homelessness that Fort Lauderdale passed in May.” Abbott, who founded a culinary school which produces the food he serves to the homeless, has been ministering to the hungry for some 23 years and was arrested a second time four days later.

In Orlando, groups must get a permit to feed 25 or more in parks in a downtown district, and are limited to two permits per year for each park. It isn’t just Florida (ranked third in the nation for homelessness by AHAR), either. In Texas, (ranked fourth), Houston ordinances require groups to have written consent to feed the homeless in public or face a $2,000 fine. And in Columbia, S.C., organizations must file more than two weeks in advance and pay $150 for a permit to feed the homeless in city parks.

Is the solution to homelessness the arrest and prosecution of people attempting to help their fellow humans with a meal? Do the new laws imply that homelessness is perpetuated because groups are willing to feed the homeless populations?

In Fort Lauderdale, will fines be used to help build a facility that fulfills the new requirements for portable toilets, hand-washing stations, and food temperatures at outdoor feeding sites? Or is the underlying intent more cosmetic, to move the problem from a visible location like a park and drive it underground and out of sight, and preferably outside the city’s jurisdiction? 

I don’t know. But there have to be better solutions. Maybe it’s a case of reframing the problem.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Christmas Pajamas

Christmas in my family has always been a festival of fantastic gifts. Even though we weren’t wealthy (or anywhere close to it, by any measure), there were always lots of presents, ranging from practical gifts of clothing from family members, and toys, music, books and sporting equipment from the famous, fabricated giant -- Santa Claus.

When I was young, my family celebrated Christmas Eve together with varying combinations of great-aunts (who we called "Aunt") and my Mom's cousins and friends. The gatherings felt very glamorous, with the ladies in nice dresses, the men in ties and jackets, and we kids in new Christmas outfits from my grandmother, Mummu.

The family party rotated between the homes of my grandmother  and her sisters, but my favorites were the years it was at Mummu’s apartment. When it was her turn to host, I got to help her cook, bake, and carefully set out the good china serving pieces, trimmed in platinum and used only on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. There was the excitement of last minute hustle and bustle and Christmas music blaring from the radio.

At Mummu’s parties, the traditional Christmas Eve menu included finger sandwiches featuring egg salad, ham salad, and tuna salad, each delicately sprinkled with paprika for color. There were relish trays of sweet baby gherkins, black olives, and green olives, with tiny plastic cocktail pitchforks for serving. Just before the guests were due to arrive, keilbasa in an intoxicating sauce of brown sugar, vinegar and ketchup was set to bake in her Roper Deluxe gas stove and heater. (I loved standing beside the stove in the winter, enjoying the hot air blasting out the vents on the side.) Finnish coffee bread from a local bakery was surrounded by dozens of home baked cookies, some so fresh they were still warm from the oven. 

Our Christmas Eve parties always featured a grab bag gift swap between the adults featuring gifts both mundane (socks) and spectacular (alcohol and cigarettes). There were practical gifts of hats, scarves, socks and underwear from the adults to my brother, sister, me, and any others of our generation. Sometimes the gifts from the great-aunts were a bit off target, like the year Aunt Mary gave me a pair of navy blue stockings. The kind that require a garter belt. I was ten. I thanked her politely and saved those stockings in the original packaging for years, but never came into the hardware required to actually use them.

For decades, in addition to the new outfits we were wearing at the party, my grandmother gave us each new pajamas to open on Christmas Eve, and every few years there was also a new bathrobe. I loved waking up on Christmas morning in my new nightgown or pajamas. It felt special. It was almost as glamorous as the party the night before. One year in high school, I was crushed when my new pajamas, styled like long johns in blue flannel with a red and white snowflake pattern that made me think of ski lodges and reindeer, were too small. Mummu usually bought all the pajamas at the after-Christmas sales and held them until the following Christmas, so there was no opportunity to exchange them. I never even told her those didn’t fit. Like the navy stockings from Aunt Mary, I kept the pajamas for several years.

 Christmas pajamas, many years ago.
With time and the passing of the eldest relatives, changing of family compositions, and the members of the younger generation relocating, the parties got smaller until it was just Mom, Mummu, and the three of us kids with any significant others we may have had. My sister and I eventually picked up the reins and hosted, and when I moved away from our hometown for what became a 20 year stretch spanning four cities (including a foreign country), my sister became the host.

Mummu died in 2005, and although the party begun with her generation continues, our tradition has changed. We attend Christmas Eve church service before the party now. During our party in 2013, as I was quizzing my nieces about what they would wear to bed and for unwrapping their gifts on Christmas morning, I learned that my nieces, born in 1999, 2002, and 2004, never had the family traditional gift of new pajamas on Christmas Eve. Maybe we need to resurrect the Christmas pajamas. Of course, there is the risk my nieces may not find it fun at all. Or at least not as much fun as the keilbasa and cookie traditions. I, however, would love some new Christmas pajamas (hint, hint).

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Civic Duty

Today is election day in America. If you are eligible to vote and didn’t, please don’t whine or try to engage me in any form of political debate later. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t express your opinion at the polls on election day, you aren’t entitled to an opinion on political matters after election day.

Yes, voting can be inconvenient. If you work, you might need to squeeze it in before or after or during your workday. Yes, it might be crowded at your voting location (it was when I went), but that’s a good thing! It means your neighbors are participating in the process that people in America and other countries have fought for (and in some cases, died for). Standing in line is trivial. Chat with the people around you and meet your neighbors.

Mom and I went to vote this morning around 8:45. The parking lot at our Ward 1 voting location, the Knights of Columbus Hall, was crowded. The atmosphere was cheerful.

I had a minor hiccup at check in -- I wasn’t listed at the address for my Mom’s house, where I’ve lived at for nearly two years. Even though I registered to vote when I transferred my driver’s license and registered my car in March 2013, and even though I voted one year ago in the city election, and even though I hand-delivered a city census form for our address to the City Clerk’s office, I wasn’t on the check-in list. I was listed as “inactive.” Umm, how much more active could I have been?

I guess that explains why Mom and Butch received candidate mailings and I didn’t. But in the grand scheme of things, it is still trivial. Minor. I had to go to another table and fill out a form and show my license, then return to the check-in line with the yellow and pink copies of a form. It took five extra minutes. Barely an eye blink to express my position on the next few years.

Meanwhile, Mom had finished voting, visited the check-out table and was standing in the line to place her ballot forms in a big machine. Unfortunately, the machine kept rejecting the forms of a voter ahead of her, which held up the line. One lady was nervously checking her watch, and announced she needed to get to work.

I got my forms and visited the booth to color in my little ovals. Luckily, there was an empty booth. These are not private little stations, they accommodate two people, each facing a corner of the space. But they look mighty cozy for two people, and I was hoping nobody came to the tiny counter in the other side of ‘my’ booth, triggering claustrophobia.

I felt prepared to vote, having read the Massachusetts Information for Voters booklet that arrived at our house several weeks ago. Unfortunately, my preparations still left me unprepared. The booklet contained four questions on the ballot, but it turned out there were actually six. There were offices listed on the ballot I hadn’t heard of, so I was still flying blind in a couple areas.
As I was filling in the ovals on my ballot by hand with the provided black Flair pen, the voter on the other side of the flimsy booth wall was shaking the booth like a damned earthquake, making it challenging to stay in the lines, and making me worry the machine wouldn’t read my ballot if the circles were all crazy. Yes, voting can be exciting, but calm the heck down and stop shaking the entire booth!

When I finished dealing with the shaking booth and coloring ovals and puzzling over positions I didn’t know were up for grabs with candidates I never heard of, I stood in the line to feed my forms into the machine, until someone pointed out I needed to go to the checkout table first. I hadn’t been on the check-in list, but fortunately I WAS on the check-out list. Umm,  OK.

But it’s done. Now I wait for the coverage tonight to see the results. And you know what? Compared to the countries where people have no say in their government, my tiny issues mean nothing. I didn’t have to fight for the right to vote, others before me already paved the way for me. The least I can do is show up and be part of the process. The same goes for you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beer Fashioned

One night last fall, a gal pal and I visited a new local restaurant/watering hole where the menu is interesting and the beer list ripe with microbrews and craft beers. The place was packed with the novelty of newness and a long wait for tables, so we sat at the bar. Note: saying “we sat at the bar” may be too casual. After scoping out the bar, I strategically chose seats next to an attractive guy with a goatee who I spotted when we first entered the place. While sitting opposite him would have allowed for full admiration of his handsomeness, being next to him meant we might actually talk.

Many wines give me stuffy sinuses and a rash, so I ordered a dark beer from the 70-something beers on the menu. As my friend and I talked, I stole glances over her shoulder at Mr. Handsome, who was drinking a beer alone and not wearing a wedding ring. It seemed we were seated beside an available, age-appropriate man, and I was trying to figure out how to start a conversation, because partway into my pint of dark beer deliciousness, I feared he would not speak first. Feeling ready to consider dating again after a three year boycott, I thought the universe might have put us in the same restaurant for a reason. Of course, sometimes I over-think things.

Thanks to my inescapable dorkiness, varying levels of social anxiety, and the ever present voice of my grandmother telling me at least ten million billion times that “NICE ladies don’t chase boys,” with “chase” including looking at, telephoning, and/or initiating a conversation with an unknown male, breezy conversation openers do not come easily.

Yes, as a woman in America in the 21st century I am free to (and probably should) shed definitions and social restrictions rooted in the Middle Ages and advocated by my grandmother in the last century, but I like some of them. I like it when the man makes the first move and opens conversations -- and opens doors -- and takes the initiative to plan dates. Call me old fashioned. Based on this, you may just call me old.

One time I started a conversation with a man in the lodge of the ski resort where we both worked and we dated for several months afterward. It offended me when he told a friend we met when I “hit on him.” Evidently, his definition of “hit on” was what I considered innocent co-worker conversation, specifically, “Aren’t you _____ from_____? You were a year ahead of me in high school.” If that’s hitting on a guy, it’s easier than I thought.

But back to the guy at the bar. He and I were doing the thing where you notice another person and then avert your eyes when they look at you. Or maybe it’s just me who does it, and he and most of the world’s population beyond high school age are more socially adept at meeting people. Scientific confirmation of this notion would not surprise me.

When Goatee Guy asked for a menu, it felt like a natural opportunity for conversation. I offered what felt like a bold, unsolicited review of our meals. A discussion about my beer followed, with Goatee Guy commenting he “didn’t know that women drink beer,” and acting like this was a revelation akin to the discovery of gold or uranium or chocolate. Seriously?

This guy must not get out much. He was impressed that my beer was as dark as night. I feared if I told him my name graces a plaque in a restaurant in Clarksville, TN for completing not just one, but TWO beer tours comprised of 110 beers each, he might think I was going overboard trying to impress him or worse, that I was lying.

It has me thinking that maybe my dark beer fondness could help me meet a man with a similar interest? In my imagination, I date someone who likes brewery tours and beer festivals and occasionally debating the finer points of Beer A versus Beer B. It’s what I was hoping the time I attended a brewery tour alone, but the only guy who was there without a date told me he didn’t drink, and didn’t seem at all interested in me.

As for Goatee Guy ... we went out a few times -- apple picking, a spontaneous lunch, a couple dinners. I may have accidentally offended him on what turned out to be our last meet-up. While he was using the restroom I paid the check, and he acted really weird when I told him. Maybe it’s the contradiction of my being old fashioned in some things, but not all.