3.25.2009

Peanuts and Rats, Curse to Blessing


Real estate used to be a business where you never had to buy lunch as long as you weren't picky. You could have leftover cake from some celebration or award, leftover food from catered open houses, leftover sushi from broker's tours, or if you were willing to sit through an hour seminar about legal issues of property boundaries, new, non-leftover spaghetti lunch courtesy of the title company.

When I worked for Prudential, I was new so I went to all the spaghetti lunch seminars. By the third one I was so sick of my loud talker colleagues that while they were talking up deals on their cell phones, I kept on walking and sat down at another table.

I'm pretty shy and not motivated to change, unless it's changing location or career. Changing tables is much too personal. I'd rather be uncomfortable than be pro-active.

I was kind of sick, too, so maybe that's why I did this odd thing of taking responsibility for my hearing. I figured I'm a realtor now; I need to stop fearing stupid things and grow up.

I picked a non-threatening table, one with two young quiet-looking women seated opposite each other and close to the water pitchers. One of the women had hair down to her ankles, so I figured she'd be interesting. If not, I can refill the water glasses for distraction.

The other woman was Brianne*, who just started at Coldwell Banker. She was quiet, interesting, and when she said something it was funny. I moved to Coldwell Banker the next day.

When you always want to do something, you'd better do it or you'll have regrets. I twice tried to be a realtor, took the classes and everything right up to the exams and fees. I'm happy I did it and I was happier when I quit doing it. Now I know what it's like, I did it, and I am free to do other things.

Brianne texted me and told me what I was missing. She went to our boss's birthday party where a 19 year-old realtor, one of the company's most successful, was entertaining by doing magic tricks. You can't be that successful at 19 without being entertaining, but not in an entirely good way. Especially when there's magic involved.

Brianne texted me again to tell me she also quit real estate'n. She has the job I always think I want, working at Starbucks. I've arranged interviews and cancelled them so many times, I can't count. I imagine myself doing that job but I can't follow through, even though I followed through on real estate. I'm scared to death of making someone's coffee wrong, as if that'd be worse than screwing up someone's home purchase. I'm excited she's doing it anyway. It seems like a forward step, since both of us didn't appear to be destined for real estate.

She tells me working at Starbucks isn't exactly a challenge. "A monkey could do it," she says. "You push a button." It isn't like the old days where you had to know all sorts of things to make espresso drinks. Still, I couldn’t do it. All those people standing in line, watching you, anxious for their caffeine. I get nervous thinking about it.

"It's just coffee," she says, "but it's hard to believe the way people act." I'm thinking back when I was super-picky about my Starbucks, back before the new machines when people could really ruin my decaf Americanos. I hope I didn't bother anyone. Customer service would be easy if it weren't for all the freakin' customers.

"People treat me like I'm their slave," she says. "I'm slaving over your coffee but I'm not your slave."

I've seen this behavior in people a lot lately. Is it the economy or is it just that people are that narcissistic?

She says, "Yelling at me because you’re late isn’t going to make any difference. It’s not my fault you’re late. You should have gotten up five minutes earlier.”

I realize she would make an excellent boss. The people she serves, the ones who yell at her, are probably somebody’s bosses. They should be the ones working at Starbucks. They should be getting the customer service crap they can give so easily. It's good I didn't follow through and work at Starbucks. Along with probably hating the smell of coffee by now, I'd probably hate most of humanity.

Since I'm always looking for career ideas, I ask her what's next. She doesn't sound like she's looking to be a professional Starbucker.

"When I was in high school, my friends told me I was going to be a health inspector. That was the joke. I am kind of OCD, so I always watch and notice things when it comes to germs."

"Like what?"

"I notice my co-workers and when they wash their hands."

"How bad can it be if they're just pressing buttons?" I ask. It's just coffee. The potential for rats and maggots and hair is pretty minimal, right?

"I don’t like it when someone touches the rim of the cup. Some people don’t mind, but I do. Also, some baristas, they hold the cup so their thumb touches the inside of the cup."

Thumb in your cup? That is one small step before finding a hair in your soup. Now I understand.

"It started as a joke but I’m actually thinking about doing it."

I don’t know much about health inspectors but I’ve watched a lot of Dirty Dining. I don’t go to restaurants because of seeing failed health inspection reports on TV and because of YouTube videos of people doing nasty things to other peoples’ food. I’m not sure I’d want to see what goes on in the kitchen. Or maybe I would. Maybe there'd be nothing to be scared of. It can’t all be rats and maggots, right?

"With the peanut scare, I think there might be opportunity," she says.

The peanut scare? That, to me, is a worry worse than bird flu. I know I ate rat feces from that factory. I'm convinced. I grew up on cheap toasty crackers filled with peanut butter-flavored rat feces and I ate them if I didn't have time for lunch. I ate cheap peanut butter products in the free real estate food because I'll eat anything if it contains peanut butter. I was picky but not picky enough. I'm getting OCD by proxy. Anything she can do to make the restaurant world a better place, anything she can do to make the country safe for us peanut butter-eaters, is a wonderful, benevolent, selfless thing

"It’s a way to use my OCD for good," she says.

I never thought about it that way. I hope all health inspectors have a touch of OCD. I might have more confidence when it comes to, say, peanut butter or free food. You can never be too vigilant when it comes to germs.

*Maybe her name, maybe not. Depends, doesn't it?

3.20.2009

What You Pass On (or Hopefully Don't . . .)


My sister Jan keeps in touch with everyone she has ever met. She isn't worried they'll judge her. She doesn't seem to care if they look at her and think, "You've gained a few pounds," or "You do what for a living?" She calls them up if she's in town and just starts talking.

I can't think of anything more intimidating. Consequently, there are tons of people I know that I will never, ever see again. I wish I could stop worrying what people think and just start calling people up. F*@k them if they judge me. They should be worried about what I think of them, right?

Yeah, right. I can't even call a friend I haven't seen for a year, even if she called me first. I just pick up, move on, and don't look back. I miss my old friends and there's a reason we were friends in the first place but I just can't make myself take a step. I can't even call a utility company when they get the billing incorrect.

I don't know how I survived as a realtor except it was fun to call other realtors. They love, love, love to talk. You barely finish entering in their phone numbers and they're already picking up the phone telling you about their car getting washed or something. If everyone was like that I wouldn't text so much.

Chey (yup, in the photo) calls me at midnight. "This better be good," I say. She's called me three or four times today already, even during her break at work. She's worried because one of her old swim team buddies, Jeli, is in Hawaii and wants to meet her. "I'm scared," Chey tells me. "I already made one excuse not to see her. I can't delay it again, can I?"

I didn't know she inherited this. She seems so much better with people than I am. Okay, that's not saying so much. Now that I think of it, everybody's better than me on the phone. Chey used to make me call her bank when she had an issue, but she was a kid so that's normal. She's so good with friends, and so good about keeping up with old friends. She could be my sister's daughter in these situations, or so I thought. Now she's acting just like me. Sorry 'bout the genes.

I tell her the things I tell myself. I say, "If she didn't want to see you, she wouldn't keep calling," and, "You can't lose and it might be fun." I've almost talked myself into calling someone I haven't seen for a while. "Okay," she says. "I'll meet her."

Even though Jeli is a wonderful, positive, gorgeous girl, her mom was my friend, too. Her mom and I weren't friends after whatever happened. I loved being friends with Jeli's mom. She was smart, interesting, and didn't care what people thought of her taste in music. She liked Bryan Adams and she only liked Bryan Adams. We carpooled to swim meets and I got to liking Bryan Adams, too. Every time I hear Bryan Adams, I think if Jeli's mom. She was such a good friend.

What happened was Chey went with Jeli's family to Guam. They were there for a month, helping Jeli's grandma die. That alone made the trip pretty tense, but what made it worse was that I left Chey's dad about three months before. It's hard to be with another family on vacation for a month when you're ten. It's harder when there's a catastrophe in their family. It's even harder when there's a catastrophe in your own. She came back and that was it until yesterday.

"I know it's late, but I had to call you," Chey says. "Jeli was great. She didn't make me feel like I had to apologize for the stupid way I acted when I was ten. There's a reason we were such good friends when we're kids. I feel like I missed out by not contacting her sooner. I miss her already."

There's hope: Chey might have been bequeathed* a few of my sister Jan's social genes. Maybe Chey can talk me into calling up one of my old friends.

Yeah, right. I can barely write that without laughing. Who am I kidding? I'm not calling anyone. I get nervous when the phone even rings. There's a reason email and texting was invented, and that reason is people like me.

*I took the "Which Writer are You?" test and ended up being Shakespeare. I figured I ought to use a Shakespearean word even though this test is just as stupid as the "Where Should You Live?" test which said a rain-hater like me should live in Seattle.

3.17.2009

When Have You Ever Known Me to Want Anything?


Sean came up on the train from Eugene to help a friend move. He’s very good at it; he seems to enjoy it. He helped us move last year and kept bringing more heavy things up, going back down, bringing even heavier things up, without stopping and without complaining. If you didn’t know, you’d think he was getting paid a lot of money. You’d think he was eating ice cream the way he was smiling. When did he change from that kid who relaxed on the couch while watching his 80+ year-old grandfather, all red-faced and sweaty, break up concrete in the front yard?

The friend wasn’t able to use Sean’s help. I didn’t ask for details as I know what it’s like to have plans change so fast you can’t stay on top of everything. All I know is that Sean has the whole afternoon to spend with us.

We are too stressed to plan anything right now, so we’re thinking what are we going to do with Sean for a whole afternoon? On a normal day, we’re boring. On a stressed Sunday, we’re really boring. We go somewhere and sit all afternoon, drinking coffee and reading. This isn’t exactly a roller coaster of entertainment.

At some point you think, he’s going to just have to deal with it. If he wanted a roller coaster, he would have called somebody else to hang out with. He knows us. The most exciting thing we do is go to Kennedy School, eat pizza and watch the $3 movie. It doesn’t even matter what’s playing. We haven’t seen it.

Charlie picks him up and brings him back to the condo. Through the thin bathroom door I can hear them, come in and move about. If I wasn’t moving so quickly, I could hear what they’re saying. The bathroom door is really thin. You can hear everything.

I have my mind on other things. I’m working on the whole grooming thing. I fight this every morning. Weekends are the worst. It takes all the fortitude I have to get naked, get all wet then get all dry again, do the hair and face, decide what to wear, put it on and stick with my decision.

I think about people living a couple of hundred years ago. Sure they had the plague, but they didn’t have to waste so much time grooming. They didn’t have to work so hard either, unless they were poor kids in sweatshops. They had bigger problems than grooming.

I think further back, like what it’d be like to be living off the land in a cave, eating whatever you chased and whatever you found lying on the ground. Although it sounds nice, they didn’t have coffee and they didn’t have teeth. They died before they were 40 and they were probably too cold all the time, without shoes, so it’s possible extreme clothing indecision isn’t such a trade-off for the benefits of twenty-first century civilization.

I’m done grooming, regardless of the outcome. There’s a time limit to which my patience will not exceed. I’m vain but only up to a point.

Sean’s looking through the very old Blevins’ Blurbs, the family newspaper I’ve done for forever. I forgot I had them out. He must be really bored already.

“Why is this picture of Dylan next to Charlie’s anti-voodoo rant?” Sean asks.

At least once a year Sean mentions this voodoo article Charlie wrote. I used to think he was teasing Charlie for being so extreme and for taking a strong stand on people taking advantage of poor people in Haiti. Now I know it’s that Sean enjoys it when Charlie rants; the more extreme, the better. Encouraging, but possibly annoying to the rest of the extended family who also reads Blevins’ Blurbs.

“Are you asking me editorial questions from five years ago?” That takes some thinking. I look at the picture closer. “That’s the picture I took the day Dylan got his braces off.”

Sean continues to comment on my long-ago editorial decision. I’ve moved on. There is coffee to drink and magazines to read. Before we go, though, I have one more thing to do.

“These are for you,” I say, handing Sean a pile of books. He reads a lot of difficult books and I read a lot of easy books. It’s my duty to lighten his life a little and give him a break from thinking so deeply all the time. “I thought you might want something to read.”

I used to try to give him food, money, buy him clothes, more food, or transfer money to his account. I gave up. He won’t take it. He looks like he’s lost at least twenty pounds but the only thing he might accept from me is a book once in a while.

Being the mom, I don’t give up. “Do you want . . .” I can’t even finish the question.

“Mom, when have you ever known me to want anything?”

There must be something he’s wanted. I think hard, as hard as I can. There must be something, a book on Zoroastrianism, maybe? I can’t think of a thing.

“Nope,” Sean says. “Never happened.” He returns to looking through the bag of books. It appears he may be interested, or at least more interested in this than in anything else I can give him so I’ll let it go.

I think of myself as not wanting anything, but can I say this? If I said it, would my friends laugh? Would they bring up things they knew I wanted as recently as yesterday? Things like Guitar Hero, which I really want but really don’t want as I’d never, ever do anything thing else?

I want to be able to say this sometime in the future. Not wanting anything seems relatively light-living, green, stress-free, even. What would not wanting anything feel like? Would it make grooming easier? Would it make me worry less that I’m boring people? Would it make helping people move enjoyable?

It’s something to think about and I will, but later. All I can think about right now is how much I want coffee.

3.12.2009

Vermont is Colder, but I Applied to Bennington Anyway

(<-- colder than today, but not by much)

When you live in a place like Portland, you stop everything when the sun starts to shine. It's one of those days: blue sky and sunshiny day. Even with the puddles in front of my condo still frozen, everybody and their dogs are out today.

I'm put off by the huge trees across the street blowin' their tops off. If freezing puddles are one obstacle to overcome, wind makes it three. I'd rather have rain. No, I'd rather have blue skies, sun, and no wind. Ten degrees warmer, too, if I can completely get my way.

I'll wait to go outside. In the meantime, I got accepted into Bennington MFA for Writing and I have to tell them yes or no. If I say yes, I have to send them money to prove I'm not waiting for the other programs to make me an offer. I don't like this part. I'm not good with making decisions as it is. I've changed the date when we move to San Francisco about a hundred times since yesterday. I'm starting to drive myself crazy on that one.

One of the requirements for the Bennington application was to write an essay about what literature means to me. Since just looking out the window today is hard work, that's what I'm sharing now. My laziness is my best quality. Here it is:


It begins with something small and easily missed: a conversation, a story in the news, something overheard: “Anthony Bourdain is a better writer than you’d think,” someone comments at an adjacent restaurant table. “Better than anyone else on the Travel Channel.” This innocent, useless passing thought, shared by someone I don’t know to someone else I’ve never met, sticks in my head. It grows until I can’t contain the tension. Soon I’m at the library, or at the bookstore register buying everything written by Anthony Bourdain. Is it true? Is he really a good writer?

Once I’ve read everything by Anthony Bourdain and can satisfactorily state that yes, he is a wonderfully descriptive writer, I wonder if other food writers write as well. Is M.F.K. Fisher still the gastronomical best? Why did restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold win the Pulitzer prize? Back to the bookstore I go. I single out Ruth Reichl, MFK Fisher and Sallie Tisdale. I read them all. I read so much about cooking I don’t have time to cook. I’m eating plenty, though, with passion and appreciation. I imagine myself as a food critic or restaurant reviewer. I’m sensitive and I’m aware and I’m not the same as before.

During the past few months my obsessions in literature ranged from Paul Krugman and Keynesian economics to Mark Haddon and Asperger’s disorder. I read four or five hours a day, primarily but not exclusively non-fiction. I read because I need to know: I’m on a constant quest. Please don’t ask me what’s next. It could be anything.

Ever since sneaking Nancy Drew or Laura Ingalls Wilder and a flashlight into bed with me, I’ve lived through the written word. I would have failed fifth grade were it not for extra credit book reports. While my classmates were writing a single, short report, once a month, I wrote two or three booklet-sized reports a week. I would have done much better throughout my academic life if reading were rewarded as much as it was during my fifth grade year.

I believe writing naturally follows so much time with text. I wrote little articles for little magazines during college about the music I liked at the time. I became a features writer, book reviewer, head writer, then editor-in-chief for college newspapers and medium-sized music and art publications. I wrote technical manuals for high-level database software products and I wrote two award-winning screenplays, as well as an Oregonian-featured blog. Words captivate me: reading them, writing them, living them.

Words become subsistence and subsume into life. Literature leads me to places far beyond the library or the bookstore. I once moved to Montana simply after reading a sublime fishing story in an old Outside magazine. I read everything I could find about fishing and Montana, eventually enrolling at Montana State University. I attended writing classes from the author of that little fishing story, as well as from other gifted professors. From an old magazine to a new location, from ignorance to the unimaginable, words promulgate life itself. My kids often tell me they remember the experience of living in Montana with fondness. My obsession with literature has made their lives richer, too.

3.10.2009

While Eating (Cheap) Doughnuts

<---me and my own big mouth

I couldn't stay home anymore. It's cold, it's dark and I'm too lazy to get up to make any kind of a change. This is extreme laziness and I'm extremely good at it. I'm so lazy I can't motivate myself to stand up, walk the five steps to turn on the light. I can't think about doing all the processes involved to make myself some tea.

What else can I not do today? Snooping around the fridge might be entertaining. I know it is for kids. I used to open the refrigerator door and stare. I looked at what was in there for so long, I could have been doing inventory. "Do you think there's anything different from the last time you looked?" my Mom said when she was feeling conversational. "Shut the door," she said when she didn't have the patience for me, "or you can pay the electric bill."

Now I'm too lazy to get up to be entertained by the contents of the fridge. Maybe lazy is the wrong word. I'm being frugal. As if conserving my energy is the same as being green. I think I simplified my life a little too much.

It's still pretty simple. If I'm going somewhere not absolutely necessary, it's to New Seasons (surprised? I'll assume not). It's a grocery store, it's a restaurant, it's sample heaven. The clerks are friendly but not fake and they'll talk back if you talk, but they don't push. I'd rather be alone than be around fake happy people. Even though I'm alone right now, I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. I've never heard anyone defend fake niceness.

That's why I'm here, eating a doughnut at a healthy foods store. I'm around people but they're all at their own tables. It's light and bright, warm and inviting, and it will be after I leave. I have nothing to do with it. I like that. I don't have to talk to anyone, yet people are talking all around me. It's about as good as it gets for me. There's chocolate, too, for total indulgent behavior should I choose.

It's 4:12 pm on a Tuesday and the dining area is packed. There's a little couple sitting behind me discussing soup. A guy in a brown jacket and baseball cap reads the paper with his head tilted like 2 o'clock. An older guy in a maroon sweater picks his teeth while his table-mate hunches over a yellow plate. The usual two homeless people are here, organizing their plastic bags in their carts, writing little notes to themselves on free napkins. Several people work on laptops, including the tall guy with a black eye and ripped shirt showing his tattoes.

These are the quiet tables. They're all quiet here except one. A guy talks like he's lecturing a classroom. He talks and talks and talks and doesn't finish a thought. The tables near him are empty so I sit at one of them. This ought to be fun.

The guy talking wears a badge. It took me several subtle glances to read what it says. It looks like the crawl on the bottom of the screen on CNN. In red lit letters it says, "I Buy Homes."

I've seen this guy before. You only have to see him once to remember him. In fact, once was too much. Other people must agree, otherwise there wouldn't be a table-moat separating him from the rest of the restaurant area. A chubby red-faced guy who pulls at his fingers and sucks on his pen sits quietly across from him. He looks like he might be listening. Or he might be looking out the window. I can't tell from where I sit. He hasn't said a word.

"The Principle Broker might stop the deal, but that's a chance I'm willing to take," the badge guy says. "See now, it looks like there's $22,000 there but our money costs . . . within this you see, the lender, even though. We know who they know. We have a buyer's agent. The buyer agrees to a 4% commission. Well, sometimes they'll do 5%. See right here?"

What? I was recently a realtor, right in this neighborhood. Commission averages 6%, 2.7% for the buyer's agent and 3.3% for the seller's. There is a lot of variation, particularly in this economy, but that's the average. You're not going to get a realtor who wants to work for free on either side, so if you want your house sold you have to pay them something. But 4% a side? I've never seen that, ever. I don't know everything about real estate, but this doesn't sound right.

I'm the kind of person who enjoys discussing Vince from the Sham-Wow commercials. It's odd how many times he comes up in conversation, actually. I'm sure it has something to do with my excellence in laziness, but I'm not willing to give it more thought. He's getting better, too. The Slap-Chop sequel is genius, throwing an unacceptable competitive appliance over his shoulder, rhyming, "Fettucini, martini, linguini, bikini. . ." I know not to admit this to everyone.

Badge guy hasn't taken a breath since I sat down. I'm on my second doughnut. I think his bullshit is making me eat nervously. I don't usually eat doughnuts, particularly not at a healthy food grocery store.

Badge guy talked in this manner to someone similar to this chubby guy, last time too. My husband was with me and was making the comments a normal human would normally make if subjected to someone who talks for two hours straight. As I recall, the previous victim was older, grayer, and didn't say much either. He listened hunched over, and looked out the window toward the end. He signed Badge guy's paperwork quickly and left as if he were late or he had to go to the bathroom really badly.

As soon as the older victim left, Badge guy strutted over to a nearby table. A quiet ten year-old kid sat doing homework. I didn't notice him before. Wonder why. "Get up," Badge guy told him, holding the signed papers. "I gotta go take care of this. Now." I don't see the kid here today, although it's busy. He could be around the corner out of earshot, trying to do his homework without hearing his Dad jabbering about real estate.

"They'll pay a 9% realtor's commission," badge guy tells chubby guy. "I don't know the reason why, but in some cases it may be, see this is part of the, see sometimes, the interest, maybe that investor can more than justify this. They maybe care about, I'm sorry, I'm thinking . . ."

If I were my mom, I might come over there and introduce myself to the chubby guy and give them both an education. My mom used to be a teacher and she still loves to feel like she's educating people. I feel it's butting in where nobody's asked for your advice, but that's just a daughter speaking.

It's embarrasing to go to the doctor with mom because she questions everything, without an ounce of respect, as if she's trying to catch the doctor lying. As her daughter, I've been on the receiving end of this tone. It's easy to notice. She doesn't hide the fact that she's sure she's smarter than you. She gives the impression she's being gracious by not telling you where you're already wrong. It's uncomfortable even if you don't lie; especially if you're not lying. But not as uncomfortable as sitting near a salesman with a flashing badge who bullshits for two hours straight. Mom, your skills are needed. Chubby man in trouble!

"The problem is we can't market your property for less than that," Badge guy says. "I mean, it's cheap to market property. You just get on the phone and call realtors. But to do a . . .a good job, you just can't do it. Some of them, most of them, some of them can't do that. It's usually only, we've gone back, we, if we start marketing time, we don't want to start too late. We want to start marketing the property the day we get it under contract. Because the problem is, there's not, there's not a lot of comps, there's not a lot of property selling these days."

Is it me or is he starting to get sloppy? How does he talk without taking a breath? He leans back, crosses his legs to look casual, leans his chin on his fist. He looks to the right when he talks. He really looks to the right. He's got fat skin between his eyes and eyebrows so it's hard to see into his eyes, but he's clearly not making eye contact.

Chubby guy interrupts. "It might be that they're doing. . ." He's unable to finish his thought before Badge guy interrupts, "I know, the problem is we're hamstrung at the minute. Even though, someone adds value to the property . . ."

Badge guy seems like he's flustered. Five words is all it takes. Now he's looking at the Chubby guy's left ear. Once he gets in control of the lecture again, he's off looking way off to the right. He closes eyes like he's taking a long luxurious blink.

Is this what it takes to be in real estate today? Is this what it takes to make money? Two hours of hammering someone? If so, I made the right decision to get out of real estate. I know it in a general way every time Ben Bernanke opens his mouth, but now I know it specifically, locally.

Now that I've had two doughnuts, I'm not sure that coming here was a good idea. I don't bring unhealthy food into my home, so I would have had a better day nutritionally if I stayed in my cave. There aren't even bugs I can watch at home. I can stare at the window outside, but nothing ever changes. Here, I can feel smug and appreciate my mom all while getting free wifi and endless cups of tea. I can catch the eye of people at other tables, sharing more smugness as we all endure the jabbermouth salesguy with a flashing badge. I don't even have to get up.

Although it'd be nice to have a job someday, but one where I don't have to talk to people for two hours before they break down and sign. I think I might have post-traumatic real-estate disorder.

3.05.2009

Advice-Giving Relatives


My sister wrote me an email reply that really pissed me off. I didn't talk to her for a few days, even. I was that angry. You know what happened: I thought about it and realized she was right. Not exactly right, but pretty close. If I piss you off when I write about this, wait a few days. You'll see I'm not completely wrong. My sister's hardly ever wrong.

This all started with an email. Between Charlie and me, we have eight kids/step-kids/step-step-kids, so there's always something going on with one of them. There's enough to keep us awake at night worrying if our own issues don't fulfill that function.

The email concerned unwanted advice from an older relative, directed to one of our kids. The kid, an adult herself, didn't ask for advice. The kid doesn't particularly have a relationship with this older advice-giving relative. The advice-giving relative, or AGR, has a relationship with me. I was the one who told the AGR about the kid's issues. I was trying to help the kid find solutions.

The kid wasn't excited to get this unsolicited piece of advice from someone she hardly knew about something very personal she hadn't shared. The kid forwarded the advice email to me. She wasn't angry at me for talking about her issues, which she was within her rights. I'd probably have been annoyed if my Mom/Step-Mom shared my private life with relatives. The kid simply asked, "How do I respond?" She doesn't know this AGR well enough to begin to discuss the email of the discussion of her private matters.

I didn't know what to say. It was pretty bold of the AGR to give unsolicited advice to someone she doesn't know well. That's crossing boundaries in my Rulebook of the Way of the World.

My sister has a better Rulebook. I'm quite conscious of this because she's had more success in the world than anyone I know. The way she thinks must be more correct than the way I think, right? It can't be worse. I don't know crap about the world. I particularly don't know crap about how to deal with an AGR. That, for sure, I've proven over and over again.

"Do you see why my kids don't have much of a relationship with the AGR?" I wrote when I forwarded the forwarded email to my sister. I thought the AGR's email spoke for itself. I thought it looked pretty straightforward. In essence the AGR wrote, do this, not that, don't think about doing something else. I'll pray for you. Love, the AGR.

I'm looking forward to doing some smug sister-bonding, dishing on the AGR. Instead she writes, "I tell my kids that no matter how annoying it becomes, your elders have been around the block a few times. You can learn a thing or two from them, so listen."

She couldn't see the reality-show drama between the lines of the AGR's email? She wasn't going to humor me? Send me some compassion? Oh no, no, no. She's above it. Her Rulebook of the Way of the World must have a page saying, see the good in people or some non-reality show crap like that. She continues her email with, "It looks pretty harmless to me. I expect to get advise from the AGR. I told my kids that that's what Grandparents are supposed to do as their elders."

I had to review my Rulebook to see if truly she was the monster sister I suspected after reading her email. In my view, with eight kids, step-kids, and step-step-kids, if you don't work on first having a great relationship with each of them, there's no way any one of them will to listen to you. I wouldn't. I don't take advice from a few relatives I do have a relationship with, even. These relatives have clearly proven they don't have my interests in mind when spouting off advice about what I should do.

My Rulebook seems a little extreme, I decide after a few days. It could use a little editing. I don't need laws. I don't need to be so black and white. I'll think more in terms of rules, of general guidelines, rather than drama-filled reality-show reactions. I don't need to be so judgmental. Being judgmental is worse than giving unsolicited advice, especially when you write you'll say a little prayer at the end.

Oddly, the AGR wrote me another email saying she was sorry about the miss-communication. Good think I updated my Rulebook.

Back to the kid. I called her a few times and tried to do what I would want someone to do if she were me. What I need when I'm upset is a couple of ears. Not a mouth, giving advice, especially after all this. Just someone to listen: avoid being an AGR myself. I can calm down pretty easily when I feel like someone cares enough to listen. Doesn't everyone?

After a while, I told the kid a few things she seemed like she wanted to hear. I told her things I'd want to hear. Things anyone likes to hear even when they aren't geting unsolicited advice. Things like it's going to be okay, you're a good person, you'll make the right decision when the time comes, stuff like that. The trick is to say it so it doesn't sound like that's what you're saying. Say it like you're listening. Listen first.

Listen without judging. If you can do that everyday for the rest of your life, especially with relatives, you're going to have to share your secret. I can't even do it on email.

3.03.2009

Blonde Cable

I went to school in California, so forgive me if this is a little too "blonde." You can't do anything about where you're born, or from whom. I was pretty lucky in all aspects of my young influence but one: too much sun, too much good weather and happiness and success, and you become naive. You have no idea what life is like for the 99% of the rest of the world. You can easily become guilty of Californicating, of thinking everywhere should be just like home.

In Junior High, we were required to write papers concerning issues of the day. We chose a current events topic, clipped an original article, and wrote a couple of pages to show our convincing skills. We had to write lots of these, so I had lots of opportunity to write about the morality of euthanasia, pesticide use ethics and L.A. water rights allocation issues. That's what I wrote about, anyway. Being quiet, I didn't ask what other people wrote about. My colleagues in seventh grade were all full of sunshine and hormones. There were only a few who said anything interesting when they raised their hands in class.

At the time, there was a big debate about whether TV violence was making all us kids gun-crazy. We viewed violence on TV and, the theory went, acted it out without using the critical-thinking skills we were supposed to be getting from all this California education.

My paper argued that even us dumb blonde, sunny, naive California kids weren't that stupid. We saw really awful TV shows and bad sitcoms all day long, but we weren't dressing up in Batman outfits and jumping off buildings, or twitching our noses and thinking we were witches. If only it were so easy. Influence takes a lot more finesse, a lot more subtle roping in than that.

The blogs I love are those obsessed with saving money. I don't know why I love these so much: they don't tell me one new thing, ever. I live in a smaller home than all the authors, from what I've read. I unplug my appliances, use only cold water, don't even have the furnace connected, drive only one car about once every two weeks, recycle, reuse, do without. But these are "my people." These authors are thinking the same way I do. We have the same values. Some are slightly crazy, but that makes interesting reading.

One subject often makes the rounds on these blogs: TV. "Do You Still Have Cable?" is a popular topic. I could feel guilty, as yes, I do. I went without TV for a long time when I went without a house. Doing without some things just makes you feel poor. TV is one of them for me.

The anti-cable blog explained that basic cable is frivolous, as you can get all you need from hulu and online news. It's true. And if you don't want to look at news at all, if you want to stay inside your tiny bubble and pretend everything's sunny and fine, you are certainly entitled to do so.

But the people I know who don't have TV, the ones who brag about not subscribing to cable, these are the people who don't have any idea what people are talking about at their dinner parties. "What riot?" they'll say. "What bomb?" When someone starts to explain, to inform the ignorant non-subscribers, they interrupt, "We don't waste our time on TV." Maybe if they did, they wouldn't be asking what's going on so much.

Having a cable subscription doesn't automatically make you less ignorant. And, as I wrote in seventh grade, it doesn't automatically make you prone to violence. If it did, my History Channel-watching husband would be wearing a Civil War uniform, hiding behind trees looking for errant Confederates. It'd make Top Chef-obsessed me into someone who cooks something besides matzo-ball soup, oatmeal cookies and banana bread.

TV does, however, give you the opportunity to look outside your bubble if you choose. That's a benefit we can all use, regardless of our hair color.

3.01.2009

Alcohol and Sweets Don't Mix

(Evan and Crysti at New Seasons Cedar Hills --->)

I have this theory: if you like to drink, you probably don't order dessert. I don't know anyone who likes them both. Me, I'm firmly stuck on the sugar side. I don't even have to say this out loud. If you know me, you know this. I'm not ashamed. The more you worry about something, the more you judge, the worse off you get. Who wants to live like that?

Even if I liked to drink, I probably wouldn't. My sisters are very similar. We had a step-Grandma who turned into a nightmare when she'd start up with the alcohol. Even though we were little, we could see the craziness coming out. We didn't have to be told not to drink. No way would anyone drink if they spent a dinner with Grandma Dolores.

The wonderful Lis, who works my favorite New Seasons (Cedar Hills) sweets counter, is a strong, independent, tough little blonde Irish girl. She doesn't take crap from anyone. She's so tough it's hard to ask her for bread pudding. She doesn't like New Seasons' bread pudding, which admittedly, sucks. She won't let me have it.

Sometimes, bread pudding at New Seasons is better than nothing and I really, really want it. But to get it I must go through Lis. Her sweet little smiling self is way too intimidating to dare ask. I'd go without before I'd confront her for bad bread pudding. That's how strong she is.

I get gelato almost every time I go to New Seasons so I see her often. She's the gelato gate keeper, too. She says, "Don't you get tired of gelato?"

"If I get the same thing every time, I don't have to think," I say. "I know I like it, so I get it." I don't tell her sometimes I want bread pudding but I wait until she takes a break.

"That's like me," she says. "I have the same thing every day for breakfast and lunch."

"So do I!" I didn't know other people were so blissfully monotonous. "What do you have?"

She told me all sort of things she likes to eat -- lots of healthy things, and lots of bananas. Three, I think she said, before lunch. She sure does like bananas.

I was thinking about how much I hate bananas unless they're baked into something. I'm thinking about how they make that white smear when they dry. What is that white smear? Why don't other fruits make that weird white mark?

She must have thought I was judging her. "I eat a lot, I know," she said. "I like to eat."

"Me, too," I say. "Life's too short. When I die, I'm dying with a full stomach."

Now it's her turn to be speechless.

"Honestly," I continue. "We were made with taste buds. What's so bad about using them?"

She sort of smiled. "I never thought about it like that." She smiled even more.

"I don't drink," she said. I could have told her that. People, like I said, who like sweets don't usually drink. Even though she's Irish, I could guess by her thorough knowledge of the cookie display that she doesn't drink.

"I don't smoke," she says. "If I have a dollar, I can make two. I ride my bike enough to work it off. You're right."

I know I am. There's no such thing as a gelato DUI.