Thursday, February 12, 2015

You can come out Denny, it's gone now

When I recently read that Coca-Cola was disconnecting voice mail at its Atlanta headquarters, the first person I thought of was Denny O. Back when I was just a rising young marketing geek with hot-rollered hair and too-big earrings, he had been a Big Deal at the agency where I worked, and he hated voice mail with a pure and holy passion, mostly because he  preferred screaming at people face-to-face, and not via sissified recordings. Poor, Denny: he's long gone now and not here to see the demise of his nemesis. I dug up this nostalgic look back at the floppy-tie and flow-charts era in his honor.

TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2011


Breaking Loose (All Hell Variety)


It isn't often that reading the Wall Street Journal makes me anything other than annoyed, but yesterday's article on employers' nervousness over employees' high-tech gadgets left me feeling positively nostalgic.

On the one hand, I do have some sympathy for management. It must be hard to be a boss in the modern age.  All Mr. E. Scrooge had to do was to tell Bob Cratchit when to show up, then watch him constantly until he went home. I’m old enough to remember an era when showing up on Saturday in golf togs, or staying late and making sure everyone knew about it, was a mark of dedication and ambition. Now we’re working during kids’ soccer games and surfing for eBay deals during conference calls, so it’s harder for the Mr. Dithers sorts to torment the Bumsteads quite so easily. These days, you can only measure people on how effective they are, not how many countless hours they’re logging at their desks, and everyone who's ever known anyone in management understands that achieving results is not half as much fun as making someone suffer.

As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I’ve had the experience of being present at some pivotal moments in the business world when management lost control. It was always fun to watch. The first time happened at the sunset of  what I will refer to as the While You Were Out Age. Back then, I worked in a big company, doing something that resembled marketing, if you didn’t pay attention too closely. My missed phone calls were answered by my secretary, who wrote down the messages on pink “While You Were Out” slips. I would come back from vacation, a business trip or a long lunch, and close the door to my office, reading the slips and returning my phone calls. And if that sounds as antiquated as telling you that I retired to the drawing room to sort out my correspondence with a quill pen, I only just now realized it myself, so be gentle with someone of my advanced years, please.

Then voice mail was invented, and people recorded their messages directly – long, rambling, often incoherent messages, but still. I can remember feeling mighty important on business trips, sidling up to the bank of pay phones at the airport and entering the 800 number so I could check my messages along with all the other high-tech smarties.

While voice mail was instantly adopted by everyone from peons to middle managers, it was reviled by the executives at my company. In a scenario I would see played out again in just a decade or so, the executives hated hated hated voice mail. Now, at this same time, I was part of a Quality Committee at the company. We would gather periodically to talk about Deming and Kaizen, and how we could someday beat the Japanese by being focused on quality processes. Tom Peters was our rock star. We aspired to win a Baldrige Award. Don’t laugh; all the cool kids were doing it back then.

Once voice mail was installed at the company, our little Quality Circle meetings began to be crashed by the Vietnam Vet (and possible PTSD sufferer, I now suspect) who was our Head of Sales & Marketing. He would propel himself into our conference room, where we had plastered flow charts all over the walls, using that new invention, Post-It notes. “Do you want to improve quality?” he would ask (rhetorically; none of us ever tried to answer). “Then kill that God Damned Voice Mail! I call people and I get a recorded message. Then I try to transfer and I get another message. I can’t even find a secretary!” By this point, he’d be red-faced and bellowing, we’d be cowering, and he’d storm out, off to change his shirt (rumor was he changed his shirts several times a day, a fact that fascinated me. I imagined armored trucks pulling up outside the executive tower every week, unloading bales of button-downs).

Even then, hampered as my cognitive powers were by my floppy tie, painfully large earrings and tightly hot-rollered head of giant, anchorwoman hair, I understood the man’s problem. He had lost control. Back in his glory days, he’d been able to call anyone, anywhere and Get a Person. He could shout at a secretary and say, “Find him!,” then put his feet back on the desk and imagine some frightened woman scurrying through the corridors, knocking on the men’s room door to tell some poor broom (our term for any lower-level employee) that HE was looking for him, now. It must have been a great life, but it was over. Now all he had was his supply of fresh shirts, and his temper.

My career spun on, or down, or perhaps in a bumblebee-ish spiral. I ended up at the rival firm to the first place, a company that prided itself on a Sensible Midwestern Work Ethic and a Flattened Hierarchy. Here’s what that meant:  no secretaries. Also, no offices and no doors. On the plus side, everything seemed a little calmer. No one was allowed to burst into meetings to scream at the quality geeks. And since everyone dressed in business casual, there was no need for a constant stream of dress shirts to be delivered to the executives.

It was fine, that life in the cubes, although when I called to talk to my friends at the old place, they accused me of working at QVC, because it was so noisy. Then we got computers, and then we got email. And once again, it was time for the bosses to lose it. They hated email because they were afraid we were using it for Personal Reasons. Someone at the company hired someone else whose job it was to read every single email (I’m assuming that at this point there were hundreds a day) and determine if it were of a business or personal nature. The juiciest personal ones were printed out, and the chief executive took to reading them aloud at weekly meetings.

I tried to think like the executive and understand the difference between emailing “Meet you at the bar at 6” to a friend and calling a friend (on your official company phone) for the same purpose. I suppose, in the boss’ view, he could always walk by and eavesdrop on your non-official communication. But, unless he kept that person reading all the emails his employees sent out, he had lost control.

And now all hell has broken loose again, and, according to my pals at WSJ, salespeople have Facebook pages just for their client base, managers are responding to complaints via Twitter and employees are answering company emails from their personal iPhones. IT Departments are having meetings and setting protocols and trying to stick their fingers in the dykes. Inevitably, people are crossing lines and being reprimanded for actions that, five years from now, will seem silly and outdated.

With a career that has taken me from an office, to a cube, to a spare bedroom with a laptop perched on a card table, and with a business wardrobe that has devolved from power suits to ratty pajamas, I can only shake my head and laugh. And, I suppose, feel just a little bit sorry for those beleaguered bosses.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On your feet all day


There was a clear hierarchy of jobs in my mother’s view of the world, and it started at the bottom: If you were stupid and lazy, you would be relegated to a life of “digging ditches,” or, more peculiarly, you’d be “nothing but a hod carrier.” I was always a little hazy on the nature of hods, but clear on the contempt with which she held their transporters.

Just a rung above those jobs, in my mother’s mind, was any occupation in which “you were on your feet all day.” That view is certainly ironic these days, given the health horrors now associated with a life spent sitting down. (“Enjoying your comfy couch? You’re about to DROP DEAD!”) But Katherine Kendrick was a woman of firm opinions, and she never wavered in her belief that an eight-hour shift spent on one’s feet was a miserable fate.

I have never before considered why those circumstances would be such an object of dread for her. That’s because, I now realize, I’ve never thought about the particulars of my mother’s feet before. This, however, seems to be the year in which I begin to reflect on her life, and mine, from the ground up. Genetics have caught up with me, and the poor quality of my flat and misshapen Irish feet has suddenly become a top-of-mind — or is that bottom-of-foot? — issue in my life. This is the year I’ve developed a close relationship with my podiatrist, have learned how to swallow handfuls of aspirin  without water, and have begun to place significant value on the joy to be found in owning several pairs of comfortable shoes.

An ad for the Chase, circa 1968. Check out those room rates.

 In the 1960s, my mother asked her girlfriends to teach her how to drive, and then she took a job as what was called a “hat check girl” at the one posh hotel in St. Louis — the Chase-Park Plaza. The job opened up her life in many ways — she made friends with staff who were, in the parlance of the time, colored, and she became chummy with actual foreigners. She was great chums with several  Greek waiters, all of whom who slept eight to a room and rotated spots on the three or four cots they had in their sparse apartments near the hotel. She made friends with gay men, who gave her great advice on how she dressed and carried herself. She checked coats for Frank Sinatra (“he looked scared”), Danny Thomas (“biggest cigar I’ve ever seen”), and for all the players in the St. Louis Cardinals (Red Schoendist was her favorite because he was a big tipper). Her friend Libby got to meet Gregory Peck, long considered the biggest “get” among the group of middle-aged “girls.”

The job may have been great for expanding her world view, but it played hell on her feet. Every night, she wore a nice dress, a girdle, and a pair of incredibly pointy-toed high heels. The floor in the hat check room was concrete. She was in her mid-forties. Why did I never put these facts together and think about how much her feet hurt? One summer, our family was even more strapped for cash than usual, and she took a second job, working during the day as a hostess at a tony restaurant. I remember her talking about the restaurant's terrazzo floors as if they were land mines. Now I understand why.

When she and I traveled together, or when she came to visit me, I remember seeing lots of foot-related doo-dads — corn plasters and foot tape and bunion pads. Toward the end of her life, she had a hammer toe so severe that the toe had to be amputated. I was concerned for her, but still unaware of how it might feel for her to take a step, and seemingly unable to imagine it. I am sorry to report that I can remember telling her to hurry up, or to walk faster. “Stop being such an old lady,” I would tell her. She would laugh, and try to speed up. Oh mom.

Yesterday, in the shoe department of the Land’s End inlet store, it all came crashing in on me. I was browsing through the winter shoes, looking for some safe choices among all the things that hadn’t sold, and when I sat down to try a pair, I hesitated. I didn’t want to take my current shoes off, because that would hurt. I didn’t want to put the new pair on, which I was already eyeing with the suspicion that they’d inflict a new level of discomfort in some sore place I didn't know about yet. And then I remembered shopping for shoes with my mom, how sometimes just looking at a pair of shoes would make her wince.

Of course, I thought, sitting there immobile in the brightly lit store, staring across at a rack of potentially uncomfortable footwear. Now I have my mother’s feet. Now I understand what it felt like for her to stand up, and work, and walk. And now it’s too late for me to tell her. I miss her for many reasons, and I’m sure that sharing stories of foot pain would not the first thing I’d want to do if I ever get the chance. Mostly, I’m just thinking about my understanding, and how dim it was before, and how clear it is now. I hope, I really hope, that she’s finally had a chance to put her feet up somewhere comfortable.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

From the peak of Mt. Parenthood


I remember pregnancy and childbirth with all the warmth and fondness of that “127 Hours” guy who had to chop his own arm off, only I had nine months of it, and my parka wasn’t as fluffy. But, it turns out, I think other people’s “pregnancy experience” is adorbs, so go figure. The next-door neighbors had their first child a few months ago, and I had a front-row seat from my office window, which is conveniently perched just inches from their driveway (city living, an exercise in pretending you can’t see or hear what is directly in front of you). I saw the darling mom-to-be grow from adorable bump to clearly pregnant to “I think she’s going to explode,” all from the comfort of my swivel chair.

I was avoiding work and looking out the window the day she and her husband left for the hospital. I was avoiding yet more work and still looking out the window the day they came home, baby in tow. Frankly gawking, I noticed the dad taking a picture of mother and son, together in front of their house for the first of what I realized would be a lifetime of photos. It was very Normal Rockwell, but with an iPhone. I dashed down the steps and asked them to allow me to take their family portrait, and I didn’t even drop the dad’s phone. It was all so lovely, really it was, but of course I knew, even as I smiled at them, that they were about to be hit with the Parent Stick, the poor dumb things. At that moment, the thing I knew and they didn’t was that babies are like catchy pop songs. They’re utterly charming for the first few minutes, but then suddenly it’s the hundreth chorus of “I’m Henry VIII, I am,” and their welcome wears thin.

My baby gift to the new parents was the delivery of weekly Sunday suppers for the first few weeks, which might sound like a pointless present unless you’ve had a baby, and then you know that it’s the Best Gift Ever. As I knocked at the door each Sunday, I got a freeze-frame update on how parenthood was treating these two fine young people. Which is to say, I watched them slowly lose control of themselves and the world around them, as they melted toward the floor in a state of utter exhaustion. I saw it in their eyes, and I saw it in the circles under those eyes. Babies will do that to people. Of course the lack of sleep is a big factor, but complete lack of control and heart-stopping fear can wear a person down, too. I remember reading a bagful of baby books on the long flight to China, on the journey to adopt our daughter. It was pretty much a cram course in parenting, and here’s what I figured out after all that studying up: all babies want to do is choke or suffocate, and it’s a miracle any of them survive, ever. Thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong with a newborn is the ultimate mellow harsher, no matter how cute the nursery has been decorated or how nice the onesies are. After a while, it takes a toll on even the most optimistic, high-energy sorts.

I completed my promised number of dinners, but found myself missing those quick updates on how the new family was doing. On a recent bearably warm Saturday, I ran into them in the driveway, just back from breakfast at a restaurant. As I cooed over the baby, the mom proudly told me their son was eight weeks old that very day. “We ran into someone at breakfast whose baby was only three weeks old,” she confided, “and I told him, don’t worry, it gets better.”

I snapped up to attention and saw her happy face. Clearly, she was so proud she had made it all the way to the two-month milestone, when there probably had been several moments in the past few weeks she wasn’t sure she would live until morning. Standing there in the crisp winter air, I had a crazy old lady moment of flashing forward through this kid’s life … toddlerhood tantrums and school-age hijinks and teen-agery in all its awfulness. She was feeling so proud she had climbed up this tiny little hill, and she had all of Mt. Parenthood yet to scale. 

Contradicting the commonly held belief that I operate without any verbal filters, I did not say, “Right, the first eight weeks, those are the hard ones. The next 18 years should be a piece of cake.” Instead, I remembered all the times when I had done the very same thing, and I recalled challenging times with my kids that, once gotten through, had given me that complacent, “Well, my work here is done” feeling. From sleeping through the night, to curing an incorrigible biting habit, to navigating the mean girls at school, to finally finishing the thank-you notes from the high school graduation party, parenting is just one damn thing after another. And maybe it’s best we don’t realize that, because if we saw, really saw, all that’s ahead, then I’m not sure that many of us would make it. I imagine myself sitting in an aisle seat on a Northwest Airlines flight to Beijing, poring over those baby books as everyone around me slept. If any of those books had even hinted at what was ahead, I might have hijacked the plane and demanded it return me to Minneapolis, asking for  just a few more weeks of sleeping through the night before I committed to Momhood.

Three years later, when I got myself in trouble and was freaking out at the idea of pregnancy and labor, I was gabbling my worries to my friend Lorraine, who calmed my fears and told me I’d have no troubles at all with labor. A few months later, stuck at home with a newborn and an angry, angry three year old, I called Lorraine and shrieked, “Why didn’t you tell me THIS was the hard part?” She chuckled wisely and said, “A lot of times, it’s better not to know things in advance.”

Is ignorance truly bliss when it comes to what lies ahead? Probably. I’ve been thinking of that as I observe the recent Facebook adventures of another new family, two over-the-moon adoptive dads who post a stream of loving photos of their infant girl all with the hashtag #sheisperfect. Well, yes, she is, at least for now. But don’t hold too tightly to that idea, fellas, because she’s got more than “perfect” in her. She’s also got “human,” and that can get messy and exhausting and painful in some monumental ways. But that’s what you signed up for – the artfully posed family portraits are one part of the parenting trek, but so is the projectile vomiting at 2 a.m. So is the scorn, the defiance and the disapproval you might someday see from this same little person who rates her own hashtag right now, just because you love her that much.

I used to think that parenthood had an end-date, that there would be some moment when I had completed the assignment and could move on to my next all-consuming life obsession. Ha. I realize now that it’s a Job for Life in the ultimate sense. And if there’s a chance to be a guilty and worried mother in the afterlife, I wonder how many women snatch at the opportunity, even if it means sitting in the Uncomfortable Anteroom while everyone else frolics on fluffy clouds just outside the grimy, dust-streaked window.

I imagine my own mom, the dearly departed Katherine Clifford Kendrick, sitting on the afterlife equivalent of a DMV plastic chair with one broken leg, looking for a glimpse of me whenever she gets a chance, and nudging me to speak up or shut up or say thank you when she thinks I might be willing to listen. I wonder if I’ll get a chance to join her there, thumbing through old magazines, and trying to help my girls with what they need at the moment -- a great idea for which they give themselves credit, a quick heads up when they need a warning, or an open heart in a time when a little softness is what's required.

Job for Life. As if. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upon observation of my daughter studying for a Neuroscience final

A couple things happened this week. One was that I wrote an email to a woman named Alexandra that began, "Dear Angela ..." She wrote back, harrumphing and claiming confusion as to whether I knew to whom I was talking. Well, vaguely, I wanted to say, and that's about as good as it gets around here. I put your name in one of my 26 available baskets, you really can't expect the Julie Kendrick Brain Filing System to do any better. Besides, maybe you really look more like an Angela, anyway. I could be doing you a favor.

The second thing that happened was that my daughter Emma has been hanging around the kitchen counter, studying for finals in her classes in Gender Studies, Film Appreciation and Creative Writing. Oh, sorry, I meant to say her classes in Accounting, Statistics, Neuroscience and Economics. Watching her in action has been awe-inspiring, so I decided to rerun this blog as a celebration of her brainpower and an honest assessment of my own.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13, 2013


26 Baskets


One recent afternoon, Emma and I found ourselves in the kitchen, each concentrating on what we do best. Across the cluttered and sticky countertop, she was finishing her economics homework. I was rolling out dough for that night’s dinner, that gourmet standby of pigs in a blanket.

Hands busy, mind free, I asked her to tell me more about what she was doing. From across the counter, there came a long sigh and a satisfied smile: “I love derivatives,” she crooned.

“Explain, please,” I asked, reaching for another piece of dough to roll out onto my flour-covered board. My dough has never once required the use of derivatives in its preparation, and it rarely fails, but I was keeping an open mind, at least at that point.

So she explained – or, at least, I think she did. “Can you give me an example?” I finally asked, grasping at the straw of a story that would explain everything, the way people have been doing for thousands of years when they’re faced with religion and mathematics and other great unknowables.

But Emma had no parables that would lead me to pure enlightenment. Instead, she launched into a story about a fat lady, a middle-sized lady and a skinny lady, and how each of them had lost a factor and had thus, somehow, moved into a smaller dress size. Derivatives, I understand, were the reason for the weight loss. “But why?” I asked. “Do these ladies reveal some special math secret when they’re skinny, or when they’re fat?”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” she said, and I’ve spent enough time around math-y types to know that this was usually the last thing they said before I started wanting to cry. I patiently rolled yet another pig into another blanket, pulling the dough into a perfect crescent and listening to the scratch of her pencil in the economics textbook.

Finished, sure this would do the trick, she turned the page around to show me what she’d done,  revealing a long string of formulas, with parentheses and x’s and y’s and other extremely knotty stuff. “See?” she said, as if this, finally, was an explanation so clear and simple that even I could grasp it.

I covered my eyes with my flour-caked fingers. “But what are they USED for?” I finally asked. Her answer was, basically, the answer I’ve been getting since I decided to give up on math in the fourth grade – you use this math thing to help you do more math things.

“Which is why I am AWOL from the army of math,” I said. I decided to make a plea for my side of the world. “See, you don’t just use words to make other words. You use words to write a letter of complaint to the City Water Commission, or to write a knock-knock joke or to craft a sonnet that will make people cry. You use words ..”

“Mom.”

I stopped. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, talking with my hands and flinging flour everywhere. She clearly suspected that a few choice lines from Shakespeare were next on my agenda, and she didn’t have time for that sort of monkey business, not that she’d ever use a term as silly as “monkey business.”

“I have to finish my homework.”

So we settled back, me woolgathering in the vast, pleasant meadow of my words, a Ferdinand the Bull of South Minneapolis, and her, bestriding the globe like a colossus with her multi-sized derivatives that allowed for the completion of even more math problems, and what more did you need to know about them than that wonderful thing?

Dough rising, I turned to the dishes, and that’s when I started imagining what the inside of Emma’s brain looks like. I pictured a long, long white hallway, perfectly cooled to 75 degrees, with hundreds of doors on either side, to allow for complete compartmentalization. Emotions?  Put them behind that big door over there, and I’ll pull them out when I’m bored, or it’s Sunday night, or my mom seems a little too calm. Feminine wiles to turn any man to jello? Third door on the right, and make sure that the biometric scanner has been updated. Complete understanding of the use and meaning of derivatives? In a little file drawer over there; it doesn’t take up very much space around here.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew there was massive control room somewhere in this brain, something that made the Starship Enterprise look like the S. S. Minnow. And right in the middle of that room, there is a console with a big red “Overdrive” button. This is a girl who not only has a brain with an “Overdrive” button, but who knows how to use it – for a college essay, a Chinese oral exam or a life challenge. Bring it. She just presses the button and watches everything else fall away.

She assumes, of course, that everyone else’s brain works just like hers, and that people who aren’t living up to her standards are simply refusing to properly access their Overdrive buttons. (Example Number One: Me.)


I finished one sinkful of dough-covered dishes and started on the next one, being careful not to fall so deep into reverie that I sliced my fingers with the carving knife (it’s happened). Then I started to imagine what the inside of my own brain would look like. Well, different than the Starship Emma, that’s for sure. It is, I imagined, like a combination between the nonexistent 13 1/2 floor of ABC Carpet in Chelsea, and a long-abandoned, but at one time much-loved, off-Broadway theater, right down to the moth-eaten curtains and the discarded bits of set pieces lying around. The floors are wooden, warped and worn. There are inconveniently placed iron pillars, each holding a lifetime’s worth of flaking paint choices. Of course, there’s a constant soundtrack, alternating between snippets of the Great American Songbook and Code Red Worry Alert notices. Stagehands are moving set pieces into and out of the spotlight while actors drift across the stage, forgetting their lines with regularity. The ghost light is always on, because really, is anybody ever really at home?

To bring a derivative into a brain like this is rather like bringing a kitten into Emma’s immaculate hallway. There’s just not a need for it, and it won’t be very happy there, anyway.

I can remember, before I went AWOL, sitting attentively in math class, reading the story problems, but then the stories would enter my brain, and the nature of my attention would shift unproductively. Why did Nancy have four apples and Susan only have two? Couldn’t she just give the girl an apple and put an end to all this busywork? Why was Peter heading on a train to Buffalo that was going to make three stops? Was he running after his girlfriend, who had stormed out after finding him in a rehearsal hall in Greenwich Village with a woman she clearly took to be a stripper, but who was, in fact, just trying out for Peter’s new show? Was Peter going to revive “Gypsy?” Oh, that would be great. Those are the best opening notes in history, although, no maybe it’s “South Pacific…”

Back to work, Julie, I would tell myself, and try to settle down. “There’s Peter, on the train to Buffalo, and I wonder if he even knows that ecdysiast is the synonym for stripper, or that the girl who was auditioning is actually a Vassar grad who refuses to accept anything from her parents because she knows she’s going to make it in the big city…”

“Hand in your papers, children.”

Story of my life.  Sitting in a shabby, darkened theater, watching the sets pushing by, and never getting past the second math problem.


The only other thing I know for sure about my brain is that, in addition to all the clutter, it has 26 baskets, clearly marked, one for each letter of the alphabet. It is a filing system, just a rather embarrassing one, but I seem to be stuck with it. Let’s say, for example, that I happened to run into Peter on that train to Buffalo, and a couple weeks later I bump into him at the corner of Sullivan and Thompson Streets, arm-in-arm with his reconciled girlfriend and flush with his new production deal for that “Gypsy” revival.  “Patrick!” I will call across the street, confused as to why he doesn’t answer. “Paul!” “Poindexter!”

Sigh. I filed his name away, of course, but all I’ve got is the 26 baskets, and they get a little overfull sometimes. There goes Peter down the steps of the Christopher Street Station, and there goes my big chance to find out what happens next.

If only, I often think, I could just get an Overdrive button.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Long-cut cooking


You know the face. It’s the one I plaster across my mug whenever anyone asks me for a recipe. It seems as though it should be a simple and civilized exchange, but it usually goes like this:
You: “This food tastes great!” Can I have the recipe?”
Me: “Um.” Pause. “Um.”

Oh, I get the picture, you’re thinking. She thinks she’s such a great cook that she can’t possibly be bothered to share anything with humble ol’ me. Or, even worse, she keeps all her recipes locked in the top-secret vault she dug under the compost bin because she thinks they’re all so brilliant.

Oh honey, it’s a lot less interesting than that, I have to admit. It’s just that I have taken the slow food movement to such an extreme that I have to confess that most of my recipes begin with, “Six days before you actually want to sit down and eat this damn food, you need to …” And then it’s off and running. Start the sourdough sponge. Gather up all the chicken bones before the sun rises if you want stock next week. Let everything marinate overnight. And then overnight again. And then so many nights that your dish might as well be standing in line to get the iPhone XIII, it’s been waiting for long.

I didn’t set out to be this kind of cook. My mother was a boil-in-bag, Miracle Whip, bundt-cake-with pudding-mix kind of gal, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be following in her in-a-jiff footsteps. Or I could emulate all those people I see eating in restaurants – on schoolnights! – as I walk by on yet another trip to the grocery store.

So what’s my problem? That’s a long list, of course, so we probably don’t want to go down that road. But my main problem -- with cooking, anyway -- is that I’m a supreme cheapskate, and the thing about slow food is that it’s much, much cheaper then selecting ten ingredients at Trader Joe’s for a mere $75 (but lots of yuks while checking out, and plenty of Jimmy Buffet songs being piped into the parking lots!), then assembling them and calling it “cooking.” I have turned into the opposite of the semi-homemade, five-ingredients-or-less cook. I’m more the overly homemade, ingredient-list-that-eerily-mirrors-the-entire-contents-of-my-refrigerator sort of cook. It's not the shortcut, it's the long, long long cut that I find myself following. And I know, deep in my heart, that it’s just not right.

I’m  also keenly aware that what I do isn’t much like fine chef-ish cooking. I’m not preparing complicated sauces or elaborate terrines. Mostly I’m gathering some stuff that most people would consider marginal in the first place (a few grains of yeast, orange rinds, bones, stems), slopping it all together, and then forgetting about it. Then poking around for a bit, and repeating.

I once had a friend tell me she wanted to come over to my house and watch me make spring rolls, and I couldn’t imagine what to do but tell her to bring a sleeping bag, because it takes quite a while.

In my goofball kitchen, nothing is a recipe, and everything is a process. My freezer may be full of a ragtag assortment of mystery contents-to-be that will eventually become something that some poor soul wants the recipe to, but it’s woefully missing in all that swell stuff I could find in the freezer aisle of Trader Joe’s. I’ll be honest – I think it’s just as weird as you do, but, at this point, I can’t seem to help myself. And I don’t think I’ll ever learn to like Jimmy Buffett music in the parking lot, anyway. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What to Wear to the Funeral

Three years is a long time in the life of a girl.  A friend of Mary Katherine's recently lost his dad, and, as we prepared for the visitation, I remembered this day from 2011, and this blog post I composed shortly afterward. Mary Katherine was still concerned, as she was then, about breaking the Secret Funeral Wardrobe Rules, but she was more concerned for her friend and for his loss. And then, when we arrived at what I still think of as "the funeral parlor" (because I am just that old), she saw a girl her age who came wearing shorts, and she remembered, as I'd been telling her along, that it's the showing up that really counts.  Here's that blog post from long ago.

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 2011

Always Go to the Funeral (with Bonus Fashion Tips)

Olivia thought that her purple nail polish might be too cheerful, and wondered if she had time to switch to a more mournful shade. Mary Katherine emerged from her bedroom in a black wrap dress and pumps she’d gotten at the secondhand store, accessorized with a black-veiled headband that gave her the air of a billionaire's widow at the reading of the will. “How do we look?” they wanted to know. “Like good friends,” I said, picking up my car keys and getting our show on the road.

Mary Katherine’s school pal, Meg,  had lost her grandfather over spring break. When Meg had called to cancel a sleepover and mall date they’d planned, and Mary told me the reason, I let her know that we’d be visiting the funeral home soon. When she wanted to know why, I intoned one of the cardinal rules of my usually rule-lenient existence: Always go to the funeral.  

Deirdre Sullivan’s essay for the This I Believe project, which I first heard on NPR in 2005, had a lasting impact on the way I try to live my life. In that essay, Sullivan said, “Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that. ‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

Sullivan’s rhetoric gave me some needed backbone, and I urged the girls forward as if it would be impossible for us not to go. So, on a Thursday afternoon during spring break, we were rustling around in the back of our closets, looking for our best black clothes. The girls were worried about the dress code, as if there would be a Funeral Bouncer who would inspect them for non-black items and toss them out onto 50th street. I felt myself treading carefully around this topic, aiming to instill an understanding of Dressing Appropriately while not being one of those people who believe that a proper wardrobe is the one sure sign of moral superiority. I have, in my life, observed incredible kindness by people who got all their fashion advice from Jaclyn Smith at Wal-Mart, and unrelenting, lockjawed cruelty from the twinset-and-pearls crowd. But still, this was a funeral, and I owed them some advice.

I tried this:  “Here’s the thing -- I recently observed someone at Olivia’s grandmother’s visitation wearing shorts and garden clogs, so don’t get too worried about this. I guess my advice is – if you have something nice and dark to wear, that’s great, but we shouldn’t let our clothes keep us from going to see our friend, and we really shouldn’t judge what other people are wearing. Some of the nastiest people I’ve ever known have the most correct wardrobes, and that garden clog guy probably really loved O’s grandma. You never know.”

That seemed to mollify them, and we headed out. Once in the car, their fashion decisions now irrevocable, the girls began to worry about the next part of this adventure in grief and consolation. Always looking for her lines, Mary asked, “What do we say?” Always seeking to maintain some semblance of control, Olivia asked, “What exactly will happen and when?” I threw suggestions over my shoulder and into the backseat, the way I had been doing for years. Keeping my eyes on the road meant that I never saw the eyerolls or sad shrugs that accompanied my words, which was probably best. “Keep it simple,” I said. "Try something like -- 'I’m sorry about your grandpa; how are you doing?'"

Once there, we wandered past the curated Life Show that has now become the modern funeral – easel-ed collages of photos, memorabilia laid out on a table, big-screen tv with continuous loop PowerPoint of family snapshots. The girls found Meg and said the right words, which were graciously received. Meg suggested that she introduce them to all her cousins, and they headed off. I talked to Meg’s parents until the girls showed up. Meg's dad, who, it should be noted, had just lost his father after a long illness, received huge bonus points from Mary Katherine when he praised her veiled headband. “Perfect for a funeral,” he told her appreciatively. “I know, right?” she squealed with tweeny abandon, forgetting about the reason for the getup and just savoring the accessory perfection.

I had promised “20 minutes max,” so we made our way to the door. Mary, whose vision has recently been sharpened by a surge of estrogen, had only one thought when we left the funeral home:  “That place was full of cute boys!” she squealed. She seems to see them everywhere these days, like Ray Milland and the bats in Lost Weekend. Meg’s cousins, it turns out, had included a hefty percentage of cute boys, cleaned up for the occasion. In Mary’s mind, funerals now ranked with the mall for CBAs (Cute Boy Alerts).

We headed into Uptown, the girls rearranging their ensembles with other accessories they’d brought along. Mary Katherine’s Grieving Heiress turned into Desperately Seeking Susan around Lake Calhoun, and Olivia’s Somber Friend became Urban Hipster in the Calhoun Square parking lot.


Later that night, I bought them grilled cheese and burgers at the Uptown Cafeteria, and they split a malt. Their tiny bit of duty now completed, they giggled over their cotton candy and compared notes on the cousins. I thought about all the meals I’d shared with these two, and all the laughs we’d had together.  I remembered all the years of being kicked by their twitchy feet when I sat across a booth from them. I hoped they’d have a friendship that would last for years. Perhaps someday they’d be together at my funeral. With any luck, they’d tell stories and share laughs at my champagne-soaked wake afterward, attended, I can only hope, by the 20-year-old pool boy with whom my body had scandalously been found.

“Let’s toast,” I said, before we left, raising my mug of coffee to their chocolate malt glasses. “To good friends.”

Here’s Deirdre Sullivan's 2005 essay: Always Go to the Funeral

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Yes, and I'd Probably Eat it Again


I've been checking in with my fellow moms these past few mid-August days, and I have one conclusion:  no matter whether we work full time or stay at home, no matter whether our kids are in diapers or are heading off to college, here's the deal:  We Are Losing Our Minds. It happens every August, but, somehow, it always surprises me. I remembered this blog post from a few years back, and decided it deserved a reposting. Hang tough, ladies. School has to start sometime.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 7, 2010

Why I Ate That Spider

Just so there’s no confusion, I’m admitting it right up front. I ate a spider. I plucked it off the summer flower on which it was crawling, sandwiched it between two snowy white petals, popped it in my mouth and swallowed.

In my defense, I have only this to say: it’s August.

By this I mean: my children have been out of school for sixty days now; no, make that sixty-two. I have spent a significant portion of each day picking up things that don’t belong to me, putting them back, and then noticing their reappearance a few hours later. I’ve also devoted considerable hours to driving back and forth, and sometimes in multi-stop circles, to places I don’t want to be.

In the days leading up to the Spider Incident, I had been experiencing a bit more stress than usual. Daughter Number Two was gone 12 hours each day at a musical theater workshop, followed by rehearsals for her Fringe Festival play. For Daughter Number One, this compounded the misery of one friend off at camp and another at a two-week family reunion. She was left with me, and only me, for each long, hot and boring day.

Granted, she used her time wisely.  Any little character flaws that my father had missed or my mother-in-law had not yet gotten around to, she noted, in detail. My insistence, for example, that we keep our commitment to the Crisis Nursery for a 7:30 a.m. shift on Wednesday was cause for a Spanish Inquisition of verbal assault that began on Tuesday afternoon. Nursery duties done (“Volunteer work!” was her chipper Facebook posting), she was so bored with my company, she reported, that she took a nap one evening, probably the fifth or sixth such event in her entire life.

So, when Friday morning dawned, I was a little, well, worn down. I did my usual rosarydogsmoredogsyogaerrandsbackagain drill. Because it was the birthday of the mother of Emma’s closest friends, and because Emma prefers this woman’s company over all other grownups on the planet, I wanted to make sure, before the next round of Places I Have to Drive people, that I created a bouquet of summer flowers to leave on her doorstep. She is a peach, and Emma loves her. I had mentioned this plan the night before, thinking it might all be done before I got home. Yes, I do still believe in the tooth fairy, funny you should mention that. When I got home, Emma was still in bed, so I picked the flowers, found a vase, tied on a ribbon and wrote a card. I estimated when we’d need to leave to give us enough time to drop the flowers off and still make it to Emma’s chiropractor appointment. (Volleyball season; wrist pain) and began a shouted countdown up the stairs.

As we got to the car and I handed her the vase, I swear I had a premonition. I knew this would not end well. “Is the water going to spill on you? Is holding the vase going to hurt your wrist?” I asked, trying to predict the disaster, never suspecting that Birnam Wood was, in fact, going to move right down my gullet. Withering glance duly noted, I started the car and drove off. Within moments, I heard a gasp that signified terror of the highest order. Assuming I’d see spurts of blood, or perhaps a villain in the back seat with a machete, I turned to my darling daughter while still trying to stay in my lane (if you’ve ever driven with me, that part just made you cringe). She was holding the vase out stiffly, under my nose. “A spiiiiiiiiiiider,” she whispered, as if the spider would hear her and commence to shooting deadly rays of Flower Spider Poison.

I tried to think fast, not my strong suit. If I picked it up and squished it, she’d scream. If I tried to throw it out the window, she’d insist that it had crawled back in the car. So I did the only thing I could think of that would get rid of the spider forever and make her think about something else.

I made a spider sandwich with some petals, and I ate it.

I was right; the focus was way off the spider and back on Mom What Were You Thinking, just as it had been all week.

I'm sorry, little spider.  And, on the plus side, school starts in 22 days.