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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love And Loss

Apparently this Tuesday, August 26th, was National Dog Day, also known as National Dog Appreciation Day. I think we can all agree that everyone has their own unique relationship with their dog or dogs, as well as any other pets that they might live with. Some people see dogs as working animals, some as creatures that are meant to behave and stay in their yards or kennels, and some see them as members of their family. There are people who fill into any and every variation of the few relationships that I've described. Unfortunately, there are also some humans whose interactions with dogs prove them to be less than humane. These people sadden and infuriate those of us who actually love dogs and other creatures, and I don't want to focus on them right now. 

Dog Appreciation Day falling when it did on the calendar made me a bit sad and nostalgic as well, because the following day, August 27th, marks a sad anniversary for us. You see, two years ago on that date, one of the brightest lights that has ever shone in our lives was dimmed. Our girl Paris was with us no more.

We are two of those people who loved our dog as a member of our family. She was our friend, our companion, our guardian, our child-of-sorts. People who don't get as attached to pets don't seem to understand that losing them is like losing a member of one's family, one who loves us unconditionally and is always thrilled to see us. The first few days of grief were incredibly painful. The changes to our lives were immediate, and we were reminded repeatedly that she was gone from us.

There's no one to get excited and greet us when we come home now, and no one to tell that we will be home soon, so guard the house and be a good girl. Gone are the good night kisses and scratches and tummy rubs. When one of us gets up in the night to use the bathroom, no little head is lifted, dark eyes watching to see where we are going. The bed seems much larger now that there's no eight-and-a-half pound bed hog taking up more room in the middle of it that two humans did on the sides. Nobody trailing after us as we go to and from the kitchen, sniffing and watching to see what magic is being created there. The toys remain in the corner, no longer tossed across the room to be fetched and shaken and chewed.

The love is still here, but the pain has lessened. We still think of her frequently, but we can laugh about it more now. Whenever I get a case of the hiccups, we laugh because it always made her bark defensively, looking toward the front door as if she was saying, "Hey! Quit scaring my mommy!" When we cook or eat something quite delicious, we remember her following us, nose in the air, craning her neck trying to get a better look.  When I was hospitalized last December, we had a bit of a laugh about it, thinking how Paris would react. You see, when Trent got sick, she would look at me to see if I was aware of what was going on. But when I got sick, she would run and make sure Trent was awake and aware of the seriousness of the situation. We imagined Paris seeing me leave the house for the hospital and saying, "Oh, no! Mommy's sick! We're gonna starve!"

It's hard to make anyone understand how we felt about Paris and how devastating it was for us to lose her, especially if their relationship with pets isn't like ours. And I imagine that there are people who would think we are totally nuts when a bit of food falls on the floor and we laugh and say, "Where's Paris when we need her?" But I think that when we can remember those we have lost, whether they are pets or people, with joy in our hearts, we honor their memory in ways that our tears never can. Sort of like when I had a City Slickers moment just before Gram's graveside service, and whispered to my sister, "God, we send you Gram. Try not to piss her off." I think that Gram would have appreciated us having a happy moment. We also know that Paris didn't like to see us cry, but that she was filled with joy when we laughed. So the next time we eat something that we find truly delectable, we'll say that Paris said it was disgusting and not fit for human consumption, just for dogs. And we'll savor it while we remember the shining eyes, laughing face, and wagging tail of the star that shone so brightly and briefly in our lives. Good night, Poo-Doo, we love you.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Can It!

The crab apple tree in front of our building is loaded with lovely, ripe fruits this summer. In the past, it has had a few little apples here and there, but this year the branches are bending over gracefully with the weight of all of the beautiful fruit. Frankly, the tree had been making me feel guilty every time I walked by. The fruit was just sitting there on the branches, waiting to go to waste. So after getting the go-ahead from the lovely ladies in the leasing office, I decided to pick some of them. I gathered up as many as my hands could hold, avoiding the ones that had already been sampled by the birds, and brought them inside.

I placed the apples, and a few assorted leaves that came off the tree with them, in a lovely brown antique bowl on our dining table. They look so homey and bright and lovely - the reds and greens nestled in the earthy brown bowl on the oak table. Quite charming, actually. As I picked them, and as I set them in the bowl for safekeeping, I thought about long-ago jars of crab apple jelly. Crab apples, if you are not familiar with them, are not exactly a fruit that you just eat out of hand. They are rather tart, and need some sugar and some magical cooking to turn them into something else, like the clear, rosy delight that is so wonderful on a piece of toast. Or even better, on two pieces of toast!

And there they sit, my lovely crab apples, in their brown bowl on the oak dining table. And they look at me reproachfully every time I walk by the dining table or go in or out of the kitchen. I feel guilt for not having turned them into anything at all, much less the lovely jelly I remember from my youth. Heck, I never even turned them into a photographic still life called "Crab Apples With Leaves and Twigs in a Brown Bowl on an Oaken Table in August." When I walk by, I can feel Betty Crocker and Ansel Adams shaking their heads in sad disgust at my inaction.

I really have to give myself a break on this, though. No, I haven't technically made the fruit into anything. Frankly, I don't have the equipment or the counter space to make jellies and jams, much less the energy. But I have made the fruit into something that can't be measured. I've made it into moments of joy. Picking the little fruits reminded me of my next door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, who had a lovely crab apple tree in the furthest corner of their back yard. Mrs. Phillips would make lovely jars of clear, rosy-colored jelly and give some away to lucky neighbors, including Gram and me.

And Gram had several trees that always bore lots of delicious, sweet plums that she made into a heavenly plum jam. There were always enough plums for us to eat right off of the tree, as well as make into jam, and to allow any neighbors to pick as many they wished, as long as they asked first. Gram was very adamant about that. She loved to share, but nothing made her angry as quickly as someone just helping themselves without asking first. It was not just ill-mannered, it was tantamount to stealing.

As Gram got older, she got less enthused about making jams and jellies and such. It takes a lot of work, after all. There are all of the jars and lids to be washed and sterilized. Then all of the preparation and cooking of the fruits, and stirring of sugars and pectins and thickening jams, and filling jars, and special water baths and sealing processes and whatnot. Heck, just thinking and writing about it is exhausting! The last time I remember Gram making jam, she told me she didn't think she was going to do it any more. She had to be in her seventies at this point, and she said that it was just too much for her to do. "I don't think I want to do this again next year. The jam and jelly always tastes good, and it's good to have it, but it's so much work. And when it's finished, there's a mess from Hell to breakfast that still needs to be cleaned up." So Gram retired from the canning business. 

Although I miss those lovely jams and jellies, the plum jam most of all, I've never had a great inclination to make them myself. Like Gram said, when you have a lot of fruit, or vegetables, or whatever, it takes an awful lot of work to can it. And I fully agree - when you're done with all of the canning, there's still that awful mess to clean up. So I'm willing to spend a few dollars from time to time to buy some lovely home made jellies or jams. And I'm also delighted any time someone is so kind as to share with me the fruits of their labors, because I know how much effort goes into it. I'm just not willing or excited to clean up a mess that goes from Hell to breakfast!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This Call May Be Monitored

Sometimes the jobs we have change us in unexpected ways. Of course we have to learn how to perform whatever tasks are part of our responsibilities, and the various hows and whys and wherefores. We often come away from our work experience with other knowledge that changes our thoughts or behaviors. For example, someone who has worked in retail, as I have, might be more careful about putting things back on the shelf nicely, because we've straightened up after people thousands of times. We may also be more patient when we see that there is only one staff member and five customers, because we've been in that situation, too. And we can smell a phony sales pitch from the other side of the food court.

Spending as many years as I have in customer service, both in retail and on the phone in banking, has made me more conscious of my interactions with people who work in service positions. I've always been a a polite and courteous person, but I didn't realize, until I was a bank teller or a retail sales associate or a telephone banker, that some people are not like me. Some are not necessarily kind or respectful. Of course, this goes both ways; not all people in service positions care about the people they serve, and sometimes are flat-out rude or hateful to them. I've known a lot of wonderful people working in the service industry, and some that were just angry, cruel, or downright hateful. Most businesses will do whatever they can to improve the performance of their customer service staff. If a staff member gives horrible service, they can be retrained or their employment can be terminated, but when a customer is mistreated, they are often gone for good. Angry customers often let their friends and family know about their bad experiences, too, so even more damage can be done. 

When I worked in telephone customer service, I knew that I wanted to give my customers the best service possible. I also knew that there might be someone listening to my calls at any time. We were scored by our Service Quality Department on several calls every month, but there was always the possibility that a member of management might decide to listen to your calls at any time. When things were going well, this was a good thing, but if you had an off day it could mean trouble.

Until I became a trainer and had an opportunity to listen to live and/or taped calls myself, I didn't fully understand how call monitoring really worked. I knew that the analysts could start a tape recording on a specific staff member's calls for training and quality monitoring, and I also knew that the taping could occur more randomly. For example, the analyst could set up the recordings so that all of the calls going to loan servicing specialists could be monitored. This gave a more random sampling of staff members, and it also gave me more entertainment.

I don't know about the phone systems for other businesses, but here's something interesting I learned about those recordings one day - when you hear that your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes, the recording doesn't begin when the representative picks up the call. Oh, no. The recording starts when you finish with the press one for this-es, and the press zero for thats-es. So whatever you say while you are waiting for your call to be answered, or while you are on hold, is recorded. This is why I started listening to a recorded call on headphones, and my colleagues ended up hearing me laughing until I cried.

A lady who was waiting for her turn to speak with a banker decided to keep on doing what she had been doing before she placed her call. It was really no surprise to hear her eating and drinking while she waited, but I never realized how having the phone so close to one's mouth could make eating seem so...loud. Then, the conversation with the people around her started. Or perhaps I should say gossip. The only part I remember clearly is her saying, "Somebody really should tell Sue that her hairstyle went out of fashion more than twenty-five years ago. In fact, I think Farrah Fawcett might have worn her hair like that in the late seventies. She really might want to change her hair." I was gasping for air because I was laughing so hard, but the best was yet to come.

A few minutes later, the customer's dog walked into the room. "Hi, my little, bitty baby! Do you want something to eat? Do you need to go outside? Do you need to make a pee-pee? Come on, baby, let's go outside!" The dog was let out, and Sue's hair was discussed for a few more minutes until Fido came to be let in the door. "Come on in, baby! That's my good baby! Who's the sweetest baby doggie? Did you go pee-pee? Do you need a drink of water? Does baby need a drinkie? Did you go poopies? Did you make poopies? What a good baby!" I was getting hysterical. It was like all of my silly pet parent moments, and everyone else's, condensed in just a few moments. I had to stop the recording and set it aside. I was already laughing so much I was starting to cough, and my coworkers were laughing because I was. I knew I'd never make it to the actual service portion of the call, but I'd had some good laughs.

Ever since that day, I have been very self-conscious about what I say or do if I am waiting to get on the phone with customer service. I usually sit quietly, doing something on my computer, or reading a magazine or a book. Although I may be tempted to gossip or discuss the news of the day, I say nothing. I don't want to be the person someone's laughing about at work today. Unless, of course, the person I've been waiting for finds me witty and entertaining beyond belief. That I can live with. And laugh with!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Gram And Dracula

I've been going through one of those cycles lately that I think affect everyone's life from time to time. One of those parcels of your life that just seem to have one piece of stress after another. The car needs to be repaired. All of your other bills need to be paid as usual. Your body just doesn't want to be cooperative - you wish you had the energy, or felt well enough, to do something, anything, for a change of pace, but you just can't. And then a member of your family up and dies on you and things get really strange. What you really need at times like these is the equivalent of a reset button, something that can just make you stop for a moment, catch your breath, and move on. Having it make you smile or laugh would be even better. 

I'm not here to complain, but that's where my life has been lately. Stress and not-quite-feeling-good has made just keeping up with the everyday a bit of a challenge. I am ashamed to admit that I even went ten days without writing a blog post. The few moments I felt inspired, I didn't have the energy to run with any ideas, brilliant or otherwise, and bring them to fruition. And then, amidst all of the other happenings in the world this week, my sixty-two-year-old brother decided to lay down for a nap and quietly slipped away from this world. And so it goes. I needed to hit my reset button, and do so as soon as possible.

I was almost mindlessly looking at social media posts when something from one of my friends caught my eye. It was a fairly simple post, a still from the movie Dracula, AKA Bram Stoker's Dracula, from 1992. My friend Will was letting people know that he was watching and enjoying the movie last night. If you don't remember, this is the version that features the incredible Gary Oldman as Dracula, and the cast includes the also-incredible Sir Anthony Hopkins. It is my favorite version of the story to date, and emphasizes the romance between the Count and Mina.

Suddenly I felt my face doing something really cool. I was not just smiling, I was grinning! You may think this is a strange reaction to a vampire love story, but let me explain myself. When the movie was in the theaters, I just went to see it by myself rather than try and find someone who could see it with me on my odd schedule of working two part-time jobs. So there I was, watching a matinee with only one other person in the theater. It was almost like one of my dreams had come true and I had my own movie theater. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and I remember telling Gram some things about it when I got home, and sharing how much I had enjoyed the film.

Of course when the movie came out on VHS (this was a few years before the birth of the DVD) I had to rush out and buy it. When I brought it home, I did what I always did whenever I bought a new movie. I asked Gram if she would like to watch the movie too. We enjoyed many a movie together, lying on her bed and watching them on her tv. This happened to be one of the times that she said yes, she would like to see the movie. I panicked a little bit; the movie was rated R, and I didn't want her to be offended. 

I decided that I might as well be proactive. Better to warn her than to have her decide in the middle of the movie that she didn't like it. I think I forgot for a minute who I was dealing with. After all, this was a woman whose father immediately went out and purchased any book that was banned by the Catholic Church, and had his daughter Bessie read it to him. He had suffered an eye injury working in a mill as a child, so he couldn't see well enough to read the small print in most books. So she had read books like The Sheikh when she was in her teens. Silly of me to forget that. I sort of sidled up to the subject. "Now, Gram, this story has some sexual situations. I thought you should know about that."

Gram looked at me, her eyes dancing. She answered in a very studied, bland tone, "Oh, wow. The story of Dracula has something to do with sex. I would never guessed that Dracula had anything to do with sex." She had done it again, stopped me in my tracks. We both laughed heartily and settled down to watch the movie. As usual, she watched part of it with her eyes closed, AKA napping. But she did enjoy it. When I saw the picture from the film I was immediately transported to that moment when I tried to protect Gram from being shocked at an R-rated movie, and she turned the tables on me. Just when I needed it the most, Gram, and Dracula, managed to set my reset button and give me a much-needed laugh. Thanks to both of them. I really needed that!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


I missed the phone call, but when I listened to the voicemail it was obvious that something was wrong. It was my niece, Liz's daughter, obviously crying, telling me that I needed to call back because she didn't want to tell me what she had to say in either a text or a voicemail. I knew then that the call was a serious one. "Someone died," I told Trent. I gathered my fortitude and called back to find out who was gone. It was my brother.

We all know, in the deep recesses of our minds, that some day we will start to suffer the loss of our family members. Most people in my age bracket are watching their parents getting older and more frail, and some of them have experienced the loss of one or more parents. For me, the loss of parents happened very early. I was seven years old when I had to attend my mother's funeral. Liz was thirteen, John was fourteen, and Margit was sixteen. Our father died when I was twenty-two, but none of us knew about it when it happened. Unfortunately, none of us cared much, either. Our father was responsible for our mother's death, and the scattering of our family across the country. I can't speak for my siblings, but as far as I was concerned, I lost both of my parents when I was seven. 

When my father killed my mother, he killed our childhoods and killed our family unit. I was robbed of the experience of growing up with all of my siblings; only Liz and I ended up in Colorado. I still don't understand what happened as far as John was concerned. I only know that Alice decided that she couldn't handle him and Gram couldn't, either. He was sent back East, and I don't know for certain where. Margit was older and I think she spent time living with friends, but again, I really don't know. Suffice it to say that our family was permanently fractured. We became strangers to one another. Things were said by our new family over the course of the years that colored our opinions of our distant relatives. We grew up in different cities, speaking with different accents, having different experiences and traditions, and knowing less and less about one another.

I was taught that my brother was strange and scary. If he was different, it was because he was damaged. We all were. He came through Denver unexpectedly when I was almost twelve years old, so he must have been about nineteen. I was scared, upset, and angry. I was experiencing him through other people's eyes. Yes, he was odd. So was I - we had experienced things children shouldn't, even before our mother's violent death. 

In later years, I was able to see John in a different light. I could see the damage and pain that his life and circumstances had inflicted on him. I could also see that he might not have had the abilities many people have socially. But I came to realize that he was incredibly bright. I've been told that at one point he was quite a trivia expert, earning free drinks from some of the bars where he lived by being their 'ringer' in trivia contests. I have also heard that he was banned from playing trivia in some places because he was too good. When he came through Denver a couple of years after Trent and I were married, John asked Liz and I to take him to a bar near where she lived so that he could play trivia. I am still thrilled to say that I spanked his heinie at trivia that day. I don't fool myself into thinking I'm smart; he probably was distracted. But I still enjoy remembering my victory!

About five years ago, John had a stroke and was moved into a nursing home. This morning he decided to take a nap, and when the staff checked on him ten minutes later, he had died. I am glad that after all of the difficult times in his life, his death was quick and peaceful. He no longer needs to be tortured by the memories and experiences from his childhood, or any other part of his life. His years of poor health are over. He is free. We, his sisters, go on. I don't know if this family will ever be mended. Only time will tell. But this brother and stranger, who has been a part of, and apart from, my life, is gone now. Good night, John, and goodbye. Rest well, my brother.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Toast Thief

A couple of mornings ago, I went into the kitchen to make myself some toast for breakfast, and realized what I had forgotten to get at the grocery store the day before. There wasn't even the tiniest bit of butter in the house. Or margarine, or vegetable oil spread, or yogurt-based spread, or any of the other things that people use like butter these days. I'll freely admit that I don't always eat things the same way that most other people do. I often like to eat freshly-baked bread without anything spread on it so that I can savor the delicious flavor of the soft interior of the loaf and the crunchy, chewy crust. And I have been known to be perfectly happy to eat toast devoid of any butter or other spread. There is so much flavor in that toastiness that sometimes it can satisfy my taste buds very well without being fancied up. 

I guess it's just one of the follies of human nature, then, that makes me willing to eat plain, dry toast when I am in the mood, but find it less than desirable when there's no choice. I went ahead and ate the toast with some lingonberry preserves, which was fine, but it would have tasted just a bit better with a nice bit of butter on the toast first. The slight saltiness in between the nicely toasted bread and the tart-sweet preserves would have been lovely. But I remembered to be grateful that I had something to eat, even if it wasn't according to my plan. 

There have been other times when I have been forced to go without butter on my toast, even though there may have been pounds of it in the house. I am sure that most of us have dealt with those times when the digestive system goes a little wonky and we spend the day trying to stay as close to the bathroom as possible. Everyone will tell you that on those days you should eat dry white toast. This is often advised as part of what some people call the BRAT diet - Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. (Sometimes I think BRAT stands for Boring, Really, Awfully and Totally.) When my toast ended up butterless the other day, I had to think fondly of my most memorable experience with dry white toast, which involved a little poodle named Paris.

I was having one of those icky days, but I knew that we had to get out and run some errands in the afternoon. So I decided to make myself a couple of pieces of the supposedly intestinally-soothing dry white toast, and munch on them while I took care of some things I needed to do on the computer. I made my toast, under the ever-watchful eyes of my sous chef Paris. I brought it with me and set the plate on top of a catch-all that was a handy extension of the desk. I nibbled on my toast as I went from one website to another, taking care of bills and such. I turned to get another slice of delicious and enticing dry white toast, and saw that the plate was empty. I checked to see if the toast had fallen on the floor, but there was no toast anywhere. Of course, I had been eating it almost unconsciously, so I laughed at myself for not even realizing that I had eaten both pieces of toasted bread.

We got ourselves out and about to run our errands, and as usual Paris was thrilled when we got home. As was her usual habit, she immediately performed a shopping bag inspection to see if we had gotten her any treats or toys, which we hadn't, and then wandered off. I assumed she was getting one of her toys to inspire us to play with her now that we were home. At some point, I found little Miss Paris walking around in a way that said, "I have something I am excited about, and very proud of, but I'm afraid that when I show you, you'll try and take it from me!" In other words, she was walking around wagging her tail, but had her head tucked down and a bit to the side, like she was trying to hide something.

Paris weighed all of eight and a half pounds, so I simply scooped her up to see what it was that she was trying to hide and show off at the same time. Lo and behold, it was the missing piece of toast! It was entirely too cute to see her with that piece of toast, and she really was a very good dog, so I followed her to the bedroom and let her take it up on the bed. I did take it from her, but only because it was too large for her to eat without being broken up into smaller pieces. She was allowed to eat every bite of her treasure. Ever since that day, one of her pet names was Toast Thief. What follows is a dramatic recreation of the crime scene for the purposes of this program. An edited version of this photo greets me every time I turn on my tablet, and still makes me smile. And yes, she got to eat this piece, too!