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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Scents Of Life

The night before last, Trent mentioned something that we hadn't eaten in a while that he was really hoping I would make the following day. He said we hadn't had Shepherd's Pie lately. Actually, what we eat is more correctly called Cottage Pie since it is made from beef, shepherds being much more difficult to catch, and all. Seriously, though, Shepherd's Pie tends to be made with mutton or lamb while Cottage Pie is made with beef. In the tiny bit of research, AKA knowledge confirmation, that I did before starting to write this, I discovered that the term Cottage Pie came first and meant both types of meat used in a dish with a mashed potato crust. The term Shepherd's Pie came later, and also meant both types of meat. In more recent years, purists have decided the name should only refer to mutton or lamb pies since those are the animals that shepherds tend, but for most people, the term still covers both types of meats.

So late yesterday afternoon I started to make a Shepherd's Pie to fulfill Trent's request. As I began cooking chopped onions (local, Colorado grown, and wonderful) in a large skillet, I thought about the way the smell of onions, and all foods, really, changes as they cook. The onions start with a sharp and pungent fragrance that soon develops into something related, but entirely different. The biting fragrance is gradually replaced with something more mellow. If the onions are cooked to the point of beginning to turn brown, another layer is added to their lovely scent. While I was stirring these lovely onions and reveling in their beautiful smell, I began to feel different than when I had begun the chopping.  Cutting had been a necessary preliminary task. But the cooking onions smelled like warmth, comfort, happiness, and home. Their fragrance carried the promise of delicious and fulfilling food that would bring satisfaction on multiple levels. There's something about the smell of cooking onions that just makes the world and everything in it seem all right.

This took my mind back to the years when I worked doing shop-floor sales and training of sales staff at The Body Shop. During my time there, a line of aromatherapy products was released, and of course I had to teach myself some things about aromatherapy. (Incidentally, I found it so fascinating that I really wanted to go back to school and become a licensed aromatherapist or herbalist!) I bought some books to learn more about the various oils and their uses, but what fascinated me the most was what I learned about what scents do to our brains. Things that we smell go directly to the limbic portion of our brains, which is the most primitive part of that organ. The limbic system includes the amygdala, which is involved in emotional responses, memory, and hormonal secretions to the brain. It also contains the hypothalamus, which controls the molecules that make you excited, or angry, or sad. There's also the hippocampus, which sends information to our long-term memory for storage, and fetches it when needed.

Little wonder, then, that cooking and eating food can make us so happy. With each stage of the assembly of my Shepherd's Pie, another layer of flavor, as well as scent, was filling my nose, my brain, and my home. The onions, corn, beef and gravy, the mash, the melted cheese, had all worked their magic in our brains before we even tasted a forkful. Without even taking a taste, our sense of well-being had been fed. The smells of foods, while not the only ones to trigger our memories, are among the most evocative. Food plays a huge part in everyday life, but it is often the centerpiece of celebrations or major events. When we smell certain foods or spices, they can take us back to specific foods and the holidays on which we eat them. To this day, a whiff of vinegar can have me sitting at Gram's kitchen table, dying Easter eggs. The combined smells of hot dogs, freshly-mowed grass, and roasted peanuts takes me straight to the baseball field.

And of course there are other smells that transport us as well. Every so often, I like to get a whiff of Coty Airspun Face Powder. It takes me straight back to Gram powdering her face before leaving home to go, well, anywhere. It makes me both happy and sad. The crisp, earthy smell of fallen autumn leaves. The scent of freshly laundered clothes dried outdoors. One that both Trent and I miss terribly - the smell of our dog Paris' tummy. It always smelled clean, fresh, and sweet, and we loved it. Lilacs, roses, trees in bloom. Sweet, unsmoked pipe tobacco. A summer day after a rain. Fresh sheets. A loved one's favorite perfume. Canola fields in Hungary. A grocery in Paris. I could go on for days and still forget some little scent that delights or disturbs me. But in the meanwhile, my nose will continue to play an important part in the experiences of my life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bicycles And Pools

There's a lot of things that I can't do. For example, swim. When I was living with Alice, she enrolled me in group swim classes. This was my first introduction to a swimming pool, other than a brief time alongside one while in the orphanage in Chicago. As a smaller child, there had been a few trips to Lake Michigan, but they carry no fond memories. About all that I remember is not wanting to go in the water because of the dead fish that were floating near the lake shore. Many years later, my sister Liz told me that our father got a big kick out of, as she described it, trying to drown her. Thank goodness I have no memories of that. As I said, Alice enrolled me in swim classes. All of the kids were about eight years old, with no swimming experience. We were attempting to learn basics like floating, and going completely under the water in the shallow end to retrieve objects dropped in the pool. I'm assuming this was done to get us comfortable with having our faces submerged, but I am not certain. When we were having this lesson, one of the other kids told me that there was an easier way to get the rubber ring: just grab it with your toes and then pick it up. Easy! I did as the other kid suggested. I wasn't trying to cheat or be a bad kid. I didn't know there was a deeper purpose behind the exercise. It just was, like the other kid said, much easier.

On the ride home from the pool, Alice was livid. She had seen me lift the ring with my toes and reach my hand down to get it. I was screamed at me and lectured me all the way home, and a good part of the rest of the day, about what a terrible, useless child I was. Once again, I was a liar and a cheat and lazy and stupid. She told me how horribly embarrassed she was that the other moms would know that I belonged to her. I was also told that none of them would ever want someone like me in a swim class with their children. I didn't deserve to be in swim class, and after that day, I would not be allowed to attend ever again. If I drowned, and she hoped that I would, it would be my own fault. And I would deserve it.

After Alice shipped me off to live with Gram and Liz, Gram would drop us off at the local pool. I think she asked Liz if she could teach me some swimming basics. Liz was unhappy about it because it took her away from her friends, people of her own age. She would yank me around, making me scared, while yelling at me to just float. I'd panic, of course, and the cycle would repeat. Then she threw me down into the water with all of her strength. I went straight to the bottom, thinking I would drown. She did pull me back up, but I never again agreed to let her try and teach me how to swim. I can't swim to this day. My husband spent years on school swim teams and was a lifeguard and Olympic-caliber swimmer. He was even the Aquatics director at Boy Scout camps. His friends called him a shark because of the way he could cut through the water. And he's married to a woman who can't even float or go under water. He has offered many times to teach me to swim, and I know over the years he has taught people of all ages. And yet I still resist. It isn't him I don't trust, it's me.

As I got a little older, I used to ride on the handlebars of Liz's bicycle. One summer day she decided it would be a great idea to teach me to ride. Maybe she did it because she thought it was fun to ride, maybe because she was tired of hauling my skinny butt along with her when she rode. I don't know. I was excited to learn, and climbed on, ready to go. It looked so easy, after all. We were out on the street, and Liz was at my side, holding onto the bike. The wheels were wobbling terribly, and I fell off onto the asphalt. And I got back on, the bike was as shaky as ever, and I fell again. And again. And again. I had had enough pain and humiliation. Liz said that I would just never be able to ride a bicycle. I'd never get the hang of it. So when my neighborhood friends went rolling along, I didn't. I found something else to do by myself.

Several years later, when I was babysitting the kids down the street, their mother, Ann, told me that she remembered watching as Liz tried to teach me to ride a bike. I immediately flashed back to my pain and embarrassment on the failed lesson. Ann told me that she wanted to tell me something about that experience. I expected her to tell me that I wasn't made to ride a bike or that I had no sense of balance. Whatever she was going to tell me, I really wasn't eager to hear it. At any age, it's really hard to have someone tell you what's wrong about you. Then Ann surprised me. She told me that the reason I never learned to ride a bike was because my sister was lazy. Instead of running alongside the bike so that it kept upright, she walked next to it quite slowly. This was what had made the bike wobble and fall so much. It wasn't my fault. I had a poor teacher, and Ann had always felt really bad about it. The fact that an adult told me that it wasn't my fault, I wasn't the one who had the flaw, was an incredible gift that I treasure to this day.

And no, I still can't ride a bike. But I have seen these three-wheeled bikes for adults, and one day I want to have one. I will ride it everywhere. I'll go to the park and sit and read a book under a tree. I'll follow my nose to destinations unknown. I'll ride to the store and carry my groceries home in my basket. And after they are put away, I'll put on my swimsuit and do water-walking and exercising in the pool. I'll go in as deep as five feet, but my face will stay above water. And I'll be proud that while I haven't vanquished my fears, at least I have learned to work around them.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How I Learned To Love Google+

I remember seeing a commercial a couple of years ago, as we were getting ready to leave home and go have dinner at our friends' home. There were all sorts of different people and characters in it, even including Richard Branson and some Muppets. Trent and I were intrigued by the commercial. What was it for, we wondered? Then we saw mention of something called Google+. We talked about the commercial on our way over to see our friends. Since one of our hosts works for a very large data and security company, I of course had to bring the subject up. He didn't seem to think too much of it, and frankly, we forgot about it in the days that followed.

In the spring of 2012, I started to think about writing a blog. I wasn't thinking about making money or getting famous. I just wanted to write brief pieces about my history, things that made me crazy, and such. So I asked a few of my friends on Facebook, "If I were to start writing a blog, would you be interested in reading it?" The responses were positive, so I decided that very day to start writing. I had no clue what to do or how to start, so I did what any other person lost in the internet void would do...I Googled it. Laugh if you must, but that is exactly what I did. I went to Google and typed "blog" in the search field. Before the afternoon was over, I had set up a blog through Google and published my first post, Parking Lot Magic, on May 4, 2012. I notified my friends on Facebook, and a few faithful friends read it. I started writing every day. I felt that I had to do so, or risk losing my few (and when I say few, I mean very few!) readers. I'd look up my stats every day, depressed that my readership was so low. Trent said it didn't matter. I should be writing for me, not for anyone else. Then one day something amazing happened. I received notification of a comment on one of my blog posts, and it was someone I didn't even know! Someone name Ally, who lived in Canada! I was international! Well, to be fair, I already was, since I have family in Hungary, but I think you probably understand where I'm coming from. 

Every time I checked my stats or wrote a post, one of the things I saw was a link for Google+. One day I decided to quit wondering and have a look. It seemed pretty interesting, so I decided to give it a try. Both Trent and I jumped in to see what it felt like. I had mixed feelings at first, I won't lie. Since I really didn't have anyone I knew who was active on G+, it seemed like an odd mixture of loneliness and way too much information.  Since I was on the default "What's Hot" feed, I had exposure to lots of those "this is why life is perfect/sad/lonely/love-filled" posts that kind of reminded me of the terrible poetry I occasionally wrote in high school. But then I would see a gem. Maybe it was a stunning photograph of a street in Paris. Or a luscious, colorful mini-album of a meal being prepared, and accompanied by a recipe. I started to notice that some of my favorites were from the same people. And I noticed the option to circle or follow. My journey had begun.

One of the first people I remember following was Terry, a mother of grown children, and a student in her final year in the Culinary Arts program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. She posted pictures of the feasts that she and her fellow students made. And then she'd go home and cook more. I learned a new phrase: food porn. Another was Shinae, a mother of three monsters and a Wiener dog named Honeydew, who posted photos of stunning Korean, Vietnamese, and all other nationalities of dishes. Both of these wonderful women were well-rounded, which really appealed to me. They posted things other than "just cooking," and showed their whole personalities. As I circled more people, and was thrilled to have them circle me back after I interacted with them, I began to catch myself saying things to Trent like, "Oh, honey, you have got to see this picture of Izzy and Honeydew!" And now, I don't have to say things like, "You know, Terry from Canada," or, "My girl Cindy in Nebraska," or "You know, Ali, the one who posts..." He has come to know who they are.

I have had feelings of being lost in a desert. When you have very few people circling you, you have few people who know what you're up to. I was fortunate to find other friends who were drawn to the same people I was following. We'd get into a conversation through our comments on someone else's post, and the next thing I knew, we had added each other as friends. Some relationships are "better" than others, just like in real life. I still remember the sting I felt when someone who had thousands of followers was saying that it seemed like nobody was on G+. I acted like my naturally kind and nurturing self and said something to the effect that sometimes it did feel that way. We exchanged a few comments, and he made one that made me feel really low and awful and later, angry. He said that of course it would feel like nobody was there, since only 88 people had circled me, haha. I told Trent about it and decided to chalk it up to cultural differences.

I was fortunate enough to have my name shared as a recommendation to be circled, and kept finding friends through other friends. I began sharing links to my blog posts, and found some more friends that way, as well. I have made friends that fit all sorts of descriptions. My life intersects with people all over the world. I love that I have been able to interact with this wonderful group of people. I have friends of all sorts of faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics. I have liberals and conservatives and everyone in between. Straight, gays, people who love each other in many ways. Coffee drinkers and deep thinkers. Okay, I'm starting to annoy myself with that rhyming. ("No more rhyming now, I mean it!" "Anybody want a peanut?" Sometimes I just can't stop myself.)

I will state right now, Google+ is not my life. Neither was Facebook. I don't want anyone to think I live my life through my keyboard. But while Facebook has allowed me to keep tabs on my friends and family, Google+ has opened my horizons. I would never have met the aforementioned wonderful women if not for this medium. I would not be sharing the laughter and tears of people who are near to my thoughts, but far from me in physical distance. I have seen the inhabitants of this little world help each other in times of crisis. They have banded together to protect children. They have shared bits of their thoughts and their lives, moments that might make one cry or laugh or get angry. I have seen fellow Plussers take trips around the world and meet their online friends in real life. This is a cool place to be, and I've grown to love it!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Beautiful Budapest

I've written in past blogs about little snippets of my only trip to Europe. In the course of two and a half weeks, my sister, Liz, my friends Marie and Julie, and I experienced Budapest, Pornóapáti (the birthplace of my mother and all of my siblings), a day trip to Vienna, and several days in Paris. If I had the means and opportunity, I'd hop on a plane and go for another visit tomorrow. You may be thinking that the reason I love Budapest is because I am Hungarian, or perhaps because it was my first foreign city. (I'm serious, I had never even been to Mexico or Canada!) I really don't think that is why.

The plan for our trip to Europe began in October, and we flew there in April. There were so many things that had me both excited and afraid in the months before the trip. I had never met any of my Hungarian relatives. I didn't even know their names and addresses. We had a copy of Liz's birth registration with the names of our parents and her godparents, and the street number of their home. But we were going in blind, armed mostly with fear, and faith in our fellow man. Would my mother's relatives accept me? Would the sins of my father, the man who killed my mother, be visited upon his children? Due to the seeds of doubt planted in my early childhood by one of the people who raised me, I feared the worst.

Trent will tell you, if asked, that in the six months leading up to our trip I barely slept at all. I was eager to find my family and to have a sense of belonging, but was also afraid that I might be rejected. Also, at first Liz wasn't sure she would be able to afford the flight ticket. I was fortunate to have my tickets taken care of by Marie's husband's frequent flier miles, or I wouldn't have been able to go either. Liz had a neighbor who worked for one of the major airlines and gave her some buddy passes, so everything seemed good to go. As is my usual fashion, I began to read books and do online research about our planned destinations of Hungary and Paris. I am not one of those "if it's Tuesday, it's bus cruise day" types of travelers. I just like to know about some of the things that are part of the places I will be seeing. It has served me well, and I have enjoyed many things I wouldn't know about if I hadn't done a bit of homework. I guess that's why every time Liz and I travel together, she calls me "Navigator."

After much stress and a horrible, sleepless night, which is another story entirely, I got on my first international flight. I was so worn down that I was pretty violently ill the entire time we were in the air, but felt much better after we arrived. I am not someone who is a sickly flier, but enough stress will wear anyone down. After a brief taxi ride, we were finally in Budapest. We were renting a flat on the Váci utca, a pedestrian-only street full of shops of all descriptions. Our end of the street had more of a "just real people" feel. The other end, many, many blocks away, had the more expensive shops and restaurants. Both have their points, but I was thrilled to be in our little neighborhood. Liz wasn't due to arrive until the following afternoon, so we spent the next morning exploring on foot.

This is the Liberty Bridge, one of several bridges that span the Danube in Budapest. On one side of the river is Buda, and on the other side is Pest, where we stayed, which were combined to form one city many, many years ago. On our outing we saw many beautiful parks and statuary, and I quickly fell in love with the city. Even though there is a fairly high volume of fast-paced traffic, I felt so relaxed. The air was fresh, the trees and flowers were could I not love this city? As we crossed another bridge, we saw people fishing in the Danube for their dinner. Yes, in this day and age, it is a safe source for food. There were also people washing their clothes, and themselves in the river! And I'd like to add that it is a good-sized river, too. We saw an entire, very large tree being carried downstream and there would still have been room for a few boats on each side.

A man fishing for that evening's dinner, on the west bank of the Danube.

A detail of the Hungarian Parliament building, from a tour boat on the Danube.

Eventually we came to a gift show within a block of our apartment. As we walked in, we were given a taste of Hungarian friendliness and hospitality. A man greeted us and welcomed us into the shop. "Hello! My name is Steve!" When I replied with, "Hello, István!" I really caught his attention. I introduced myself and my friends by the Hungarian nicknames I had been using for all of us, mine being Kata. One day I walked in the shop and he greeted me in Hungarian and called me Kataka. Adding the 'ka' suffix is a sign of friendship and affection, and it made me feel wonderful! Over the course of our days in Budapest, we all grew to adore him. He was so kind that when he saw us walking in the rain one day, he insisted on giving us umbrellas. Not selling, giving. But the ladies all said I was his favorite, because he called me Kataka, and because he kept giving me "friend price." We found people of this sort all over the city, and the country as well. In fact, our final evening in Budapest, we were buying last-moment souvenirs at Steve's shop, and Marie mentioned that after we finished, we had to go to an all-night market to buy toilet tissue to get us through our last night. Without a word, the lady she had spoken with went into the back room, and brought out  a roll of toilet tissue. That's just a small example of how giving these people were.

I will write again about my beloved Budapest, but this is just a tidbit for now. May all your dreams of visiting lovely places come true for you!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'm So Angry!

I am one of those people who get all kinds of great ideas while in the bathroom. I believe that there is some kind of special magic within those walls, with their pipes and water, that stimulates the brain. My proof that this is true? As soon as you exit this regal room of thought, all of the great ideas fade away. So, there you go. Today my brain went on a tangent while I was in the shower. To be completely honest, I had some thoughts going before I went in, and they just took on a life of their own when surrounded by all of that water. I suppose it didn't help that I was less than eager for what my afternoon would hold. Getting in a car without air conditioning in 95 degree weather (about 34C) for a drive of an hour in each direction for an appointment in which Trent would be told, "Okay, you're fine, see ya," isn't so bad, right? It's not like it's a car with no air conditioning, bad brakes, and nearly bald tires. Oh, wait, I just described our car. But life happens, and we muddle along.

I wasn't angry about the trip, just not eager to have a sweaty ride. (Thanks to the bottle of brake fluid we purchased the other day, the brakes weren't completely awful.) What was making me angry was my experiences with my doctor's office. I recently ordered some refills of prescriptions by mail for Trent, and one of them, surprisingly, fell through the cracks and wasn't approved for renewal by his doctors. I knew that when he mentioned it today, everything would be taken care of, so no worries. But that made me think about my doctor's office, and specifically about the nurse who handles renewal requests. See, I happen to be taking the exact same medication. I have tried to order it online two or three times, and the online pharmacy notifies my doctor's office asking for a renewal. Of course, the doctor has the opportunity to say either yes or no. But in my case, there has been no response to the request whatsoever. Nada. I don't mean they said no, I mean that the nurse simply ignores the requests. Hey, it's not like the medicine is important or anything. (That, my dears, is what we call sarcasm.)

I find this very upsetting. I'd be okay with them saying that I can't have the refill, but to be completely ignored tells me I am not worth even a moment of their time. I'd rather have them say "shove off, no refills" than say nothing at all. I could get online and contact the doctor's office asking them for a prescription. But I know what could happen as a result of this request. One possible outcome is the nurse finally taking a moment to call me and tell me it's impossible for them to refill my prescription without having blood tests. I fear that I might respond by saying that the tests will be a waste of time. Because the refill requests have been ignored, I haven't taken the medicine in three months. When the results come in, the docs will tell me that I should be taking the medicine so that my results can be better. Oh, really? Shocking!

Scenario number two involves the nurse seeing the request for medicine A, which will cost me a whopping five dollars, and ordering the new-and-improved medicine B (one hundred and seventy-five dollars), along with a supply of insulin pens (another one hundred seventy-five). I will find out about this when I get a message to call the online pharmacy regarding my recent order. That's code for there's no way they will send it out because of the cost, and I have to pay for it before it can be shipped. This will result in me looking it up on their website to confirm my suspicions, and then placing the call. I will be told in a condescending tone that the meds were ordered by the doctor, so they have to fill them. This will, some day, result in my crazy lady switch being turned into the ON position. It may also result in me saying something foul, like yes, I understand, because I already looked it up on the website and I know what was ordered and by whom, and how much it will cost. Can they understand that if I buy these expensive meds we won't be able to afford food for six weeks? Now will they cancel the order, please?

Then my mind really began to wallow in the anger like a pig wallowing in mud. I began thinking about how we paid more than seven months worth of insurance to get to the point where the deductible was reached and the insurance company will finally pick up part of the tab. For example, the pills that cost $175 would have cost $400 a month ago. I am sure that most people who work for insurance and pharmaceutical companies are wonderful human beings. But I am in no way convinced that these companies really exist for humanitarian purposes. It's all about the money. And if you don't have the money to be well, to paraphrase the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, prior to his change of heart, does that mean you just need to die and decrease the surplus population?

It's been a long time since I got this negatively worked-up about something. I already feel ashamed of myself for ranting and raving about it. I do feel a lot better having gotten it off my chest, though. And I apologize if my blathering upset or offended you. Feel free to let me know. This is just a slightly sour slice out of my day. And I usually am not like this. I'll be better tomorrow. Like Scarlett O'Hara said, tomorrow is another day!

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Special Thanks To Stephen King"

For many years now, I've freely admitted to enjoying reading books written by Stephen King. No, I am not one of those fanatical types who has purchased and read every single one of his books. I have read many, however, and even though my husband finds King to be "too wordy," I appreciate King's ability to delve into the minds of his characters. He creates a history and personality for them, and lets us know what it is that makes them tick, whether they be a hero or a villain. Many of his books are scary or disturbing or thought-provoking. I have believed for years that the reason he is so easily able to frighten people is that he can look at the commonplace and see that it has potential to be very frightening. 

I find it amusing that there are so many people who say they would never read anything so common or lowly as a book or story written by Stephen King. (These same folks probably have all kinds of trashy books at home, but if it makes them happy, who cares?) But I have to wonder...if nobody is reading his work, why have over 350 million copies of his books been sold? Are people simply afraid that if they admit to reading popular literature, they will seem less intelligent to others? "Oh, no, not me! I would never read books by Stephen King or Dean Koontz or any of that popular trash. I only read the classics. I read to improve my mind." Whatever! I think that reading all kinds of different things can stimulate a person's mind and expand their horizons. And I'd love to quote Mark Twain to all of these snooty, holier-than-thou readers. Twain famously said, "Classic. A book which people praise but don't read."

As I said earlier, I haven't read everything by Stephen King. For instance, I am not a big fan of the fantasy genre, so I haven't read any of the Dark Tower series of books. There have also been some that have just not clicked with me. Insomnia, for example, seemed to me to be the perfect cure for sleeplessness when it was published. (Sorry, Mr. King!) When my oldest sister told me what a great book it was, I soldiered through it. But I will tell you honestly that I really don't remember very much about it, sadly. Does that imply some fault on the part of the author or the reader? No! Do I think it is a bad book? Absolutely not! Every one of us is multifaceted. There are plenty of other books he has written that I absolutely adore. 

People sometimes ask me how I can read something as scary as a King book. I have two replies. One is, "Have you read any Dean Koontz lately? He's way too creepy for me." The other, a variation of a line from the movie Steel Magnolias which Trent says to me, is that my whole life has been an experiment in terror. Actually, a big part of it is something very simple, and a conclusion I came to many years ago. Monsters like Godzilla and various aliens, werewolves, and other mythical creatures that go bump in the night, or the daytime, aren't the scariest things around. The scariest things are other human beings. Alfred Hitchcock had it right when he decided to make a film based on the novel Psycho. Murderous people are all too possible and real. Hitch said that the scariest person around is the one you'd want to bring home to meet your mother. Think about it for a moment. Who's really more scary, the Freddy Krueger who appears in dreams, or the handsome Ted Bundy who so easily lured women to their deaths? Just saying...

What prompted me to write about this tonight is that we turned on the tv this evening and started watching The Shawshank Redemption, which is not a scary movie. I had read the story on which the movie was based, so I was more than pleased to go see the film when it was released. There I was, sitting by myself in a moderately full theater, with my greasy popcorn and icy-cold drink. I drank in the movie and all of the moments of sorrow, humor, hope, and beauty. I laughed at some moments and cried at others, and enjoyed it immensely. When the movie was over, I continued to sit through the credits. This is something I got from Gram, who always said that the credits were important. Every one of them was someone's child, and someone, somewhere, was proud to see their child's name on the screen. 

The couple who were directly in front of me, a very scary-and-tough-looking biker dude and his equally scary biker chick, were watching the first part of the credits as well. The words "Special thanks to Stephen King" came on the screen, and Ms. Scary said, in a voice dripping with disdain, "Thanks to Stephen King?! Why? What are they thanking him for?" See, even scary biker babes can consider themselves far above reading trash like Stephen King writes. And then, of course, my mouth ran away from me, as it occasionally does. I leaned forward and said, "Excuse me. I overheard you asking about the special thanks to Stephen King. Actually, this movie is based on a story he wrote called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." Meanwhile, my brain was saying, "Nice move! enjoy getting your butt kicked." But the Scaries were surprised to learn the origins of the story, and thanked me for letting them know. They told me they would never have guessed it was a story by King. All was well that ended well, and I had something extra to talk about if anyone asked about the movie. To this day, every time I see it, I think about the people in the row in front of me. And wonder if they ever started reading anything by Stephen King!

Sunday, August 18, 2013


I was thinking today that I used to be a rarity, but I have become utterly commonplace. Seriously! There used to be things about me that were unusual enough to be conversation starters. For example, it used to be notable that I was the only person in my family that was born in the USA. My father was born in a moderately-sized town in Hungary, and my mother in a small village. My sisters and brother were born in the village of my mother's birth. They left Hungary in the middle of the night after the Hungarian Revolution failed, and I was born in Chicago a few years later. My siblings all eventually became US citizens, but I was the sole sibling that was lucky enough to be a citizen by birth. This used to be a story that would impress people, but nowadays people are more likely to say, "Meh. My neighbor/gardener/coworker/whoever came over from Country x on a boat and, and, and..." And my experience has become very usual.

There were three languages spoken in my parents' home, Hungarian, German, and English. I spent the first seven years of my life speaking all three and could have switched from one to another in the middle of a sentence.  But with my mother's death and my father's imprisonment, along with some other factors, I lost my ability to speak anything other than English. Trust me, though, I talk as much as if I still had three languages at my disposal, but I only do it in English. It seems that these days, everywhere I go, someone is able to converse in the language of their ancestors. I am a big fan of people learning the language of the country in which they live, while keeping the language of their forebears alive in their younger generations. 

I wonder if this is the root of my love of languages. I have a hunger to speak other languages, and studied both German and Spanish in high school, as well as some Spanish in college. I'd love to travel all over the world and be able to say a few words or sentences in the languages spoken in all of the countries I visit. Before I went to Hungary and France, I made sure that I knew at least a few words or sentences in both Hungarian and French. I mastered the basics like "Good morning or afternoon or evening," as well as the ever-important "Where is the bathroom?" and "How much does this cost?" But my former linguistic abilities don't even make a blip on anyone's radar any more.

It used to be a big deal that I was born in Chicago and as a result of numerous events ended up living in Colorado. Almost everyone I grew up with was a Colorado native. As an aside, I'd like to mention something that really irks me. Some people act like they are more of a Coloradan (or fill in the state or country of your choice) or a better Coloradan than other people since they were born here. To this I say, big deal. Your mama was in Colorado when you were born. It's not an accomplishment, it is a fortunate accident, just like me being born a US citizen. It wasn't any of my doing, I was just really lucky! These days, Colorado, like most other states, is populated with people from all over the place. They may be from Kalamazoo or Kuwait, Ohio or Osaka, you name it. But being from somewhere else is pretty average these days.

I don't want you to get the idea that being ordinary bothers me. It suits me just fine. But the circumstances that resulted is me losing my languages and being a non-Colorado native? I wish those were more unusual and exclusive. I wish there were fewer of us who lost a parent violently at an early age, and lost the other parent to prison for committing that violence. I wish that no child ever again should find her mother struggling to ask for help because she has been beaten to the brink of death. I wish that any child who loses their parents and ends up in an orphanage will find people there who give them genuinely loving care. I hope that they are hugged and told how worthwhile they are. Let them please be taken into a family that truly wants and loves them, and tells them they are an important and loved member of the family. Let them get away from the cycle of abuse instead of becoming the maternal figure's whipping post, literally and figuratively. Let them stay in a home full of love instead of being tossed away to another home because they are too much trouble to deal with. But if they must, let them not be told that the person they will be living with has always hated them.

I wish for them not to be constantly told that they are inferior. Let them not be told that they are too stupid to come in out of the rain. Let them know that if they need a band-aid, it doesn't mean they have a psychological flaw and they're just trying to get attention. Let them never be told that they are crazy just like their father, or that everyone who finds out about their past will hate them or not want them as friends because "everyone knows that craziness runs in families." I wish that they never hear comments about how their skin is oilier because they are genetically inferior. Or that you can take the girl out of the slum (and I never lived in a slum, thank you very much) but you can't take the slum out of the girl. I hope that children will be cherished and valued for the gift that they are and the potential they carry. I hope they will be loved and treated kindly. I hope, I hope, I hope...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This Thing Doesn't Work!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how Gram would feel about all of the technology we use these days. Since she was born in 1906, she saw all sorts of change both socially and technologically. During her life, she saw Prohibition and bootlegging come and go. Heck, she was even a cocaine addict and didn't realize it. She told me that when she was about sixteen, she and her cousin Gert (Gertrude) just had to go to the drugstore at 2:00 every afternoon to drink a Coca-Cola, or they couldn't make it through the day. When I teased her about being a "coke fiend," she just smiled and said, "I guess there's a lot of things about me that you just don't know!" Sassy!

Gram remembered the sinking of the Titanic and Molly Brown's part of that drama. In his waning years, Buffalo Bill Cody lived in her neighborhood, but she was intimidated by him, so she didn't go to visit. She was just a little girl anyway. She saw travel go from horses and streetcars and the occasional automobile, to flying, although she never got on an airplane. She saw this evolve into the space program and men walking on the moon. Entertainment evolved from radio programs, movie theaters, and legitimate theaters, as she always called them, to television, then color television, and VCRs and cable. She often commented that she had been blessed to live during such a time of great change. She didn't necessarily feel blessed when I asked her to start taping something on the VCR, though. In spite of my many demonstrations and her practice runs, instead of pressing record and play, she invariably pressed record and fast-forward. She always insisted that she had done it correctly, but the machine didn't work right.

As Gram got older, her kids were challenged to find something to give her on birthdays and at Christmas. One year, her kids chipped in and got her a color television, and she thought that was pretty cool. Digital clocks were so-so for her. She did really like her cordless phone, although I never could quite get her to understand, in the early days of cellular phones, that the fact that it was cordless didn't make it a cell phone.) I also failed to make her understand that her granddaughter's telephone out in the country, which had a number something like 303-857-xxxx was not toll-free. She kept saying that yes, it was, because it was one of those 800 numbers. I gave up, it was too frustrating.) When she was about seventy-five years old, her kids chipped in again, this time to get her a microwave oven. I was quite happy with it, and used it almost daily, but if she wanted something microwaved, she usually just asked me. 

One afternoon I called her from work and she asked me how to use the microwave to defrost some hamburger. Keep in mind that the early microwave ovens were very different from what we have now. As I recall, there was one dial that had to be turned to cook, or defrost, or whatever. There was another dial that had to be turned to set the cooking time. And there were push-buttons for starting and stopping the beast. So I ran through the necessary steps several times of setting it to defrost, selecting the time, and starting it up. When I got home, I asked how the microwave worked for defrosting the meat. She was angry and disgusted. "I put the meat in there and it didn't do a d--n thing. This thing doesn't work!" I never did figure out what steps she left out, because I knew that it was best to drop the subject. From then on, the microwave was pretty exclusively my territory.

Thinking about Gram and these things reminded me of my years in banking and customer service. Whether I was a teller or doing customer service on the telephone, the older customers always seemed to love me. My time with Gram filled me with a respect for older people, and perhaps a bit more patience to explain things that were so different from the older days of the banking industry. One day, I had a sweet, grandmotherly lady on the phone that was very frustrated. She had been trying for several days to reach a specific department but everyone kept giving her the wrong telephone number to call them directly. I asked what number she had been given, and looked up the listing for the department. It was the same. Sort of. The young bankers assumed that when they gave her an 800 number to dial, she would know that she needed to dial 1 first. What was second nature to them was new to her. I told her that she had, indeed, been given the correct telephone number, which was 1-800-etc. "Oh, am I supposed to put a one at the beginning? I dialed 800-etc and kept getting through to a cellinar phone. At least that's what they told me, was that I was calling a cellinar phone." I assured her that changing how she dialed would make the call go through just fine. In fact, I had her write down my name and direct-dial phone number so that she could call me if she didn't get through this time. I never heard from her again. Apparently this thing did work!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Does This Dog Scare You?

This is Raja, an American Staffordshire Terrier whom I have been dog-sitting this week. She scares me, although I am definitely not afraid of her. Sounds contradictory, doesn't it? Let me explain. Raja is often classified as a Pit Bull, which, while related, isn't exactly the same. I don't think I need to tell you that there has been some anti-Pit sentiment running rampant in recent years. In some places, like Denver, Colorado, there are strict anti-Pit laws. If you had them before a certain date, they are still allowed, but if you move into Denver with one, the City may exercise their "right" to remove and euthanize your beloved pet and family member. In fact, I am at Marie's house right now (Raja is her granddogger) because most apartments, including mine, have breed restrictions.

I am not going to go into statistics about attacks or weigh in on ordinances that are breed-specific. What really scares me is the possibility of someone who doesn't know Raja looking at her and immediately assuming any behavior to be a precursor to an attack by a vicious beast. And with Raja, this couldn't be further from the truth. She's like a big old roasted marshmallow - she may look a bit dark or scary on the outside, but she is full of soft sweetness. Something that has worried me this week is that Raja loves to talk. Her talking sounds a bit like a variation on a growl. It's much softer, and her snout is tilted up when she does it. Also, her lips look like a letter "o" - no teeth showing. But me being the worrier/realist, I worry that if she got out of the back yard and started talking to someone, they would probably assume that she was growling and ready to attack. Heck, that's one of the reasons Raja's parents brought her with them from Houston to Denver on the first leg of their vacation. They were worried what would happen if she started talking while in a boarding kennel. They flattered me by placing their trust in me, knowing that I understand her behaviors.

So I am not afraid of Raja, but she does scare me. Seriously. I am scared that before I go home, everything I brought over with me will be covered with dog slobber. I think maybe her lips are a bit leaky. And she just loves to walk over to where I am sitting and lay those slobbery jaws on my chest or lap. I guess she is smart enough to leave it on me instead of getting it on her bed. I am also scared when she is on her bed. She watches me closely with those golden eyes, and waits. If I motion to her, or even just make eye contact, she comes right over, talking about how much she loves her Katrina scratches. Why is this scary? Well, she doesn't know how big she is. She comes over and throws herself against your legs, leaning in as hard as she can while she sits down to be scratched. I am afraid she's going to break my legs off. Okay, not really, just love-squish them to bits! Sometimes she tries to be a Ninja dog. She very casually places both of her front legs completely in my lap. She yawns, because scratches are very relaxing, and looks around the room. You see, she hopes I will look where she is looking, so that she can try to climb onto my lap. And fifty-plus pounds of solid muscle and bone is a bit much in one's lap! 

But I can't say enough about how sweet her disposition is. And she is so well-behaved! She tries very hard not to beg, but the first couple of times that I ate sunflower seeds, she had to just stand there and stare at me, turning her head from side to side as she heard the shells crack. I wondered if she thought I was eating her kibble or something. She is in the family room right now, but if I go to the bathroom, she will be in a spot where she can see me when I come out. As we walk to the kitchen, she will start talking, and I will answer in kind. She seems to find this amusing, and she is willing to humor me so that she can continue to get scratches. Her mommy and daddy will be back in Colorado by this time tomorrow. I know she will be thrilled. But I bet if I come over, it'll be me she comes to for scratches!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wild And Crazy Guys

I just love moments like this. I was going to take a quick look at what my friends were up to on social media, and then take a nap. You see, it's a lovely, cool day today, and I am really enjoying it. As I was looking around, I saw a comment made by my friend Cindy. Someone she knows had made a post along the lines of, "Steve Martin, you have xx number of people following you, and you haven't posted anything in the last year?" My friend responded by saying that she loved Steve Martin anyway, he is one wild and crazy guy! Now, for those of you that read that and don't know what's so funny, here it is in a nutshell. Once upon a time, AKA back in the day, the cast of Saturday Night Live included two men named Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin. They had ongoing skits featuring two characters called the Czechoslovakian Brothers. They had escaped Soviet control and moved to the USA. Their clothes were just a bit behind the current fashion, and horribly mismatched. And  they were always trying to pick up foxy chicks. They were goofy and dorky, and every skit included the line, "We are two wild and crazy guys!"

Suddenly I remembered something that happened to me many years ago. I was working as a drive-through bank teller, and my coworkers were a blend of all types of people. There were college students and grandmas, and everything in between. There was a very interesting lady named Nan who also ran her own business as a psychic. I am not going to judge in one direction or another on that subject, because there are charlatans and genuinely gifted people in every walk of life. Also, I have had one or two moments of intuition that have literally saved my life, and since I'm just an average Jane, who knows what abilities might truly exist among others?

One day, Nan started talking to me about a male friend of hers that she felt that I really should meet. She just knew that we would click, and that we might just be soul mates. I won't lie to you, I was a bit leery. How often do these meetings really end up being a good thing? (Okay, it did work out for me eventually, as that is how I met Trent.) And time never goes as slowly as it does when you are out on a date with someone that you absolutely do not click with. So I kept avoiding the situation until the fateful Department Christmas Party. Nan informed me that she was going to bring this friend of hers to the Christmas party so that the magic could happen. Okay she didn't say anything about the magic, that's something I just threw in there. I told one of my friends from work, a very sweet young man named Mike, about Nan's plans. Both of us were nervous and curious to see what would happen, but I did get Mike's assurance that he would help me out at the party if things were weird. Although we both loved Nan, we knew she was a bit of an odd duck, so who knew what her taste level would be in this type of situation?

The night of the party arrived, and the venue was a beautiful old building near a park. Everyone was having fun eating and dancing and enjoying each others' company. And that's when I spotted them coming in the door. Nan looked like her normal self, but they guy with her? My blood ran cold. I am not the kind of person who judges others on standards of beauty or attractiveness. Heck, that would make me a hypocrite since I am certainly not one of the pretty girls. But even from across the room, this man scared me. The first thing everyone would have noticed about him was his impaired fashion sense. The most important to me, however, was when I saw his face. Sounds shallow, doesn't it? It isn't, because I am not talking about his looks. The best way I could describe what he looked like is very chilling. He looked like the person who, as the saying goes, probably has bodies in his basement. To make things a bit more clear, something about his eyes and the way he looked at people reminded me of David Berkowitz. You remember him? Maybe you will if I tell you that he is better known as the Son of Sam killer.

I didn't want to say anything about how his face totally freaked me out, but I turned to Mike and said, "There they are. He makes the Czechoslovakian Brothers look cool!" Mike's smile and laugh disappeared as he looked over my shoulder and saw the man that Nan thought might be my soul mate. His face showed that he was both disturbed and concerned. Without a moment's thought, he said, "Katrina, we're engaged. There is no way I am going to let him get near you. You're staying right here with me." That was the first time I realized that you don't have to be romantically involved with a guy for him to have a moment as your night in shining armor. And several years later, when Mike married a very lovely woman named Gail, I enjoyed sharing the story of how, although she married him, I was his first fiancee! Thanks, Mike, for being a true friend and a hero! 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Speaking The Right Language

Thinking about Alice in the last few days, I have had some funny memories. Having spent the first seven and a half years of my life in Chicago, I didn't speak Denver. Of course, I couldn't speak Southern or Californian or Down-East Maine, either. I did, for a short while after arriving here, still speak German and Hungarian, but lack of use made me lose both. But I began to learn subconsciously that people in different places use different names or pronunciations for the same things.

I was a scrawny little girl from the Near North Side of Chicago (when it was still poor, AKA before gentrification). One of the first things that I noticed that was different was the word aunt. Since I was born and bred in the  Eastern regions, I said awnt. But here in the west they say it ant, and I quickly adapted. But there were other things that mystified me. Like the word homely. As in saying someone was homely. I thought maybe they hadn't put on their going-out clothes, so they looked like they were still at home, like wearing your play-clothes to school. It wasn't until I heard someone described as being as homely as a mud fence that I figured out it meant that they were plain-to-unattractive.

Another that confused me was chintzy. Suffice it to say it took me years to figure that one out. But there was one word in particular that totally flummoxed this city girl who had never gardened in her life. I had heard Alice say from time to time that she loved the flags she had at the side of the house. I thought it was interesting that she liked flags so much that she had them flying in her garden. But a wise child never questions the taste or judgement of the management, because every so often we like a day without a beating. One morning Alice was assigning chores and told me that she wanted me to clear the dead leaves and so forth that were at the base of the flags. I went out to do my task. And I couldn't find the flags. I searched every inch along the side of the house and didn't see a single flag flying. I began to get nervous, because I had failed before I even started. But I had to go back in the house and tell Alice that I didn't see any flags in the yard.

After using some indelicate words to describe what an insane and idiotic person I was, she took me outside to the flower bed and pointed at the plants there. How could I be such a dumb whatever that I couldn't see the flags that were clearly growing in the garden? It turns out that what some people call flags are what most people call irises. I prefer the name iris because it sounds more lovely to me, and it doesn't remind me of how I cemented Alice's opinion that I was mentally inferior. She didn't realize that we were speaking a different language, even when I told her what kind of flags I had been looking for. She calmed down a bit, but did not change her opinion of me. Oh, well.

When I worked in the banking call center, I heard lots of different terms for the same things. One of our other call centers was in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, and in later years there was another call center in Ohio. One day, some of us were talking about a potluck lunch one of the teams was having. Apparently this sort of event is called a pitch-in lunch in some areas. Anyway, in the course of the conversation, I asked what the person was bringing for the lunch. She told me she wasn't sure but she'd probably bring a hot dish. I waited for her to say what she was bringing a hot dish of, and she didn't say. So I asked. She informed me that where she grew up, right next to Minnesota, a hot dish is the name for a casserole. Mmm-hmm.

During an advanced training class, I experienced another language barrier. I was a new trainer, and had not spent as much time working on loan servicing, so a Supervisor who had moved here from St. Paul volunteered to teach it for me. When I was ready to turn over the class to her, I asked if she needed any copies or anything. She said she had all of her materials ready, but she could really use a rubber binder. I am sure I looked at her as if I had never spoken English before. I asked her to repeat, and she again asked for a rubber binder. I was baffled. I had seen cloth-covered binders, and vinyl-covered binders, even paper-covered binders, but never rubber ones, so I told her just that. She was exasperated, but I eventually figured out what she wanted. It's just that here in Denver, we call them rubber bands. At least it gave both of us something to talk about when asked about our day at work. And to me, it sounds a lot better than what I discovered my fellow trainers in Ohio would say. In some parts of the state, they do not say you guys or you all or even y'all. They say you-uns, or even y'ins. I had to go home and call my sister in Canton Ohio to verify this, and it is scary but true.

Although I have thought about writing this before, what really made me do it today is a dog. I am dog-sitting Raja, and here is a conversation from our first day together.

Me: Raja, do you want to go outside?
Raja: Meh.
Me: Hey sweet girl, don't you need to go out?
Raja: Yawn.
Me: Are you sure you don't need to go potty?
Raja: Potty! Yes! Potty! I have to go potty! I will go potty now! Let's go potty!

See, I just needed to speak the right language!

Saturday, August 3, 2013


My cousin Carole called me a few evenings ago. The new happenings in her life and the family were a mixed bag. A new grandson, a promotion at work. And something really big. Aunt Alice is dying. In the past, when I have written about Alice, I have simply referred to her as A or Aunt A. But she is leaving us now, and in fact may be gone as I write this, so I feel that it is okay for me to use her name now.

Alice was born in December 1925. Gram was nineteen years old, but this was her second pregnancy. The first baby was stillborn, so Alice was the oldest of Gram's three kids. It just struck me that the kids died in the reverse order of their birth - the youngest was the first to go. Alice is the last of Gram's children. There is only one of that generation remaining, Gram's daughter-in-law. She will be turning eighty soon, and I am certain that losing all of these people from her generation of the family she married into is devastating. She alone remains. She was a hopeful, fresh-faced bride in the 1950's, and has experienced births, marriages and divorces, and deaths. The young bride is now the last remaining soldier in the old guard. I feel for her, and deeply.

If my life was a Disney movie, Alice would, unfortunately, be the cruel queen or stepmother, or whatever. She is the one who beat me mercilessly. But even worse, she is the one who beat me down emotionally and spiritually. I still bear the scars, both physical and mental, of my life intersecting with hers. I imagine that some people with my history would be smug or happy at a time like this, but I am not. Life and Fate or Karma, or whatever you want to call it, has extracted the price for any and all things she ever did to me or my family. I do not celebrate this. Nobody should have to suffer and die slowly.

The person who was far more frightening to me during my childhood than any monster under the bed could ever have been, is fading from this life. I wish her a peaceful journey. I sit here and wonder what effect this will have on my personal journey, and I also worry about odd things. Should I go to the funeral? Do I dare risk a confrontation with the few family members who decided to hate me eternally at the time of Gram's death? I do not want to have any negative impact on them during their painful mourning. Yet a part of me secretly longs to go and see the family members that I not only loved but liked. I have pretty much decided that if I know about her funeral before it happens, I will stay away. Alice belongs to them more than me.

I also wonder what impact this is going to have on my personal growth and recovery. As I said, I believe that Alice has already paid the price for her actions. The rebuilding is up to me, and is my burden to bear. It is a slow and heavy process, and sometimes I feel like I am not equipped to handle it. But I will continue to do what I have done my entire life. I will take it day by day, with some bad moments and some lovely ones. I may be sitting watching tv or talking to someone, and a suppressed memory may blindside me. Or it may fill me with gladness and joy. Just like playing cards, you never know what you'll turn over next. It might be a rare happy memory of my father or mother. It might be something dreadful about my father or Alice or even Gram. With any luck, I can understand myself and my life better as the memories surface. They may be just what my spiritual garden needs to be able to bloom. Only time will tell.

So, Alice, a peaceful journey to you. May you end up in a place with easels and new canvases and brushes and every color of paint that you can imagine. May you see fields of flowers and sunsets and waves crashing against cliffs, and may they all be more beautiful than they could ever have been in your imagination. May there be happy and peaceful creatures who have no worries or pain. And may you capture them all in your art, as well as your heart. Farewell.