I Told You So!

Then came Lockdown…

I admit it: I absolutely LOVE saying, “I told you so!” Love it, enjoy it, and particularly relish saying-not-saying-it with a very evil, falsely self-deprecating grin. Oh, I am usually tactful enough that I don’t actually say the words aloud. I just think them very, very loudly.

But I am hereby declaring, stating and announcing that I WAS RIGHT, I TOLD YOU SO, HA! SO THERE, YOU WACKADOODLES!

What I am (in my mad, gleeful dance of triumphant delight) referencing is my blog post of October 8, 2019, titled Apples to Oranges, the subject of which was that scurvy little mailing that I receive periodically from the local power company; the one which purports to tell me how well (or not) I’m doing in managing my power consumption.

As I pointed out in that earlier post, that unwelcome notice always explains that my power usage is being compared to “similar homes” within the area. It then continues on to state various methods (90% of which I am already doing, barring the quite ridiculous ones) by which I can reduce power consumption and so, one presumes, my bill.

But, as I also pointed out in that previous post, just one dynamic among the many factors which the Gods of Power Consumption fail, in their infinite wisdom, to take into consideration is whether all those people living in all those “similar homes” are (or at least were, prior to pandemic) usually out of the house for ten or more hours a day every weekday, as they go to work or attend school. Never once considered when the Electric Deities make their ridiculous calculations are whether those “similar homes” (which, as I also pointed out, ain’t so darned similar at all) are occupied daily, all day, most days, as mine is. Are the people who live in those homes present in their houses for long periods of time—retired, as I am, or stay-at-home parents of small children? Do the occupants of those houses regularly work from home and therefore are using lights and stoves and microwaves and TVs and computers and power tools and furnaces and air conditioners and whatever, at times when the majority of homes are sitting empty and idle—powered down—unplugged–evincing little draw upon the power grid?

Nope. Neighborhood location seemed to be only actual factor figured into their bogus calculations.

But then came Lockdown. Stay-at-Home orders. Families home together all day long: working from home, doing virtual schooling, cooking three meals daily, using lights and stoves and microwaves and TVs and computers and hair dryers and water heaters and the whole darned schmear the entire livelong day. Home. Consuming electricity. Just like those of us who are retired, or who are stay-at-home parents or who work from home on a regular basis.

Next began to roll out the news articles, one after another: the increase in utility consumption due to lockdown. Gas, water, electricity—all off the charts, over the top, as families whose homes usually sat empty and idle every weekday were occupied 24/7. Increases in electricity use of as much as 37% for some families.

And so, at last, the proof of the pudding. The prize in the Crackerjacks box. The reality in the show. For when the “how you’re doing” mailing appeared in my mailbox last fall–the one that should have encompassed mostly the period of lockdown–it carefully did not cover only those weary weeks of quarantine. Instead, it averaged the preceding multiple months. And I know, absolutely and unquestionably why: because all those who had previously been told how astoundingly slight their power consumption was would have received very bad news indeed, while we, the stay-at-homes, drawing constantly upon the power grid when so the majority of other homes usually sat empty and idle for hours daily, could no longer be told that our power consumption was, comparatively, merely “Good”, or even “Poor”. Instead, our usage would have had to have been recorded as (skirl of bagpipes, blare of bugles, ruffle of drums) great. GREAT. Wonderful. Fantastic!

Well, truth be told, my power consumption has always been great. The very fact that I could be told, time after time, that my usage, when compared to those empty and idle homes, was Good, when my own home was occupied all day long and drawing upon the grid (as well as the many other factors I mentioned in that earlier blog), meant that my careful use of electricity was actually, all along and every single darned day, just great. Cautious and sparing. Stupendous, in fact.

I’ve received several more “How’re You Doing” mailings, as the Divine Managers of All Power use the money that their customers pay them to print up and send out all these scurvy little missives telling us just what power-consuming-gluttons we customers are. Funny thing, though. Lockdown having ended, those mailings once again reverted to covering only the period of the most recent couple of months. Learn the game, change the rules…. I’m not that big a chump, guys. Onto you.

There are few things I like better than being proved right. Especially when it comes to besting a utility company.

If you enjoyed this post, you will probably really, really like Apples to Oranges, in the Archives on 10/08/2019!

Coloring Our World

Decorating schemes are entirely built upon personal preference–and in that, those of us who live alone have the advantage. We need not compromise!

A man I once dated had been divorced for a long while, and, consequently, had erased many memories of his ex-wife by redecorating his home in colors and styles that he preferred. While I knew from our first couple of dates that our relationship would not be long-lasting, his household color scheme alone would have been enough to make me bail on the association.

The worst room was, I recall, his kitchen. It had been painted precisely the shade of bottled mustard and enhanced with a strip of wallpaper border at the top: a coal-black background across which a frieze of golden pears and yellow apples danced. (Where, I still wonder, does anyone even find such a thing?)

It’s possibly needless to say that I experienced difficulty eating a meal in that room.

My own decorating tastes run to pale, rich, quiet colors: shades of ivory and shell pink, lavender and light teal, pale blue and mint green and peach. Since Boyfriend was in the market for a new home to ruin with his lack of taste, I accompanied him while he examined several model houses. Entering one, I found myself enchanted. The walls of the living room were brushed a medium lilac, while a wallpaper border along the top featured wisteria bunches amongst pale green vines on a white background. This room led into a glassed-in patio at one side, filled with white wicker furniture bearing cushions decorated with the wisteria-and-vines motif. I found the combination delightful. He thought it was nauseating.

And that, as I have pointed out many times previously in these blog posts, is perfectly okay. We are each entitled to our personal preferences. The real trick lies in maintaining the validity of one’s own stance while not belittling another’s choices (at least to their faces; in the privacy of one’s own mind is another matter!) By exercising tact, we refrain from making anyone feel that their selections are inadequate or unusual. When Boyfriend, immensely proud of the kitchen that I found so atrocious, extolled the brilliance of his color scheme, I merely remarked that it was “really bright”. I even smiled as I said it. (“Makes my eyes bleed,” was my preferred response, but I bit my tongue. Hard. I may even have drawn blood.)

Another date, stopping by my own condo for the first time, gazed about the lower floors done in my ivory/light brown/shell pink/bottle-green color scheme and remarked noncommittally, “It’s very feminine, isn’t it?” (Well, yes, of course. I live here alone, and I’m a woman.) But I took his actual meaning, and silently lauded him for his tact. Date had admirably overcome the hurdle of expressing his reservations without sounding overtly critical. He actually did a far better job than a female friend of mine. Her tastes run to brighter, deeper shades; she remarked that my color scheme reminded her of an 80s hotel.

Neither Date nor Boyfriend made it into the category of long-lived relationships, so their decorating preferences were really just a blip on the screen. But had there been any chance that I was going to continue seeing either one, I might have been just a touch more assertive in my reply, while still avoiding overt criticism—something along the lines of “Uh, well, to be quite honest, I really prefer softer colors, especially in a kitchen. Dark, bright colors make a kitchen feel very small and hot, I think.” Tactful, while nonetheless honestly acknowledging my own preferences, so that he might file them away for future reference. If Date had been someone I wanted to follow up on, I might have described to him the colors that my condo had originally been painted, while carefully noting his reaction: the living room in camouflage colors, flat khaki green and brown; the tiny half-bath in dark royal purple; the main bath in dried-blood scarlet and poison candy green; a kitchen the shade of Grey’s Poupon and the main bedroom in the darkest teal accented with pale violet and mustard. (Yeesh! The gallons and gallons of paint it took to overcome these shades does not bear remembering! Nor the fact that the young clerk at the paint store insistently debated my decision to use the “eggshell” finish paint, rather than semi-gloss. Once more, an instance of someone attempting to impose their preferences over my own.)

But, as I have pointed out before (and probably at nauseating length), the tendency to compel others to do/think/feel as we do seems to be genetically encoded somewhere in our DNA. No matter, though. I live alone, so I have absolute dominion over my decorating preferences. 80s hotel or not, I will eschew the elementary school Crayola palette and stick with the pale, soft, rich colors that I so love.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Roses of the Soul”,
which you can find in the archives from December 16, 2017.

The Names of Our Years

Now thoughtfully updated, this essay was originally posted in 2019.  What year will 2021 really be?

This morning, as I traced my fingers over the numbers at the top of the calendar, I realized: I know what year it is. I do. It is 2021.

But I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Many, perhaps most people do this, I’ve noticed. Throughout our lifetimes, the majority of years are remembered as the calendar year.  But that number often pales into insignificance as we give the year a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Joe Died. The Year Haley Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Wildfire, the Hurricane. The Year We Bought the House. The Year I Graduated.

These titles lend such richness and flavor to our memories that we often speak of them in just that way before stopping a beat—closing our eyes and searching our memories for a moment to recall the actual date of the occurrence: “The year the kids were married—oh, yeah, that was 2017.”

I have a flock of years like that in my recollection: arrows of memories winging their way through the skies of reminisce, named for events both traumatic or blessed, as I scroll through the chapters of my life—for that is how I think of them: chapter titles. Beneath each title unroll paragraphs tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. Together, they comprise the book of my life, beginning with Chapter One: The Year I Was Born. (Perhaps the book might be titled: I Was Born: It Could Happen to Anybody!)

In these later years of my life, though, I’ve noticed more of a tendency to think only of verbal titles, rather than those numbers displayed so prominently at the top of the calendar page. And so I currently look back upon The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbook. (That second odd title requires a touch of explanation, no doubt: That was the year when I told my cousin, proprietor of our late Grandmother Marie’s huge box of recipe cards, “Look here, Susie, you’re busy! You work, you have a teenage daughter. You’re never going to get around to copying those recipes for all of us. I’m retired; time is on my side. Lend me the cards, and I’ll transcribe them into a cookbook for everyone in the family.” And transcribe I did, through the course of one entire spring and summer, occasionally losing a bit of my mind in the process as I stumbled through difficult handwriting, missing information, and antique nomenclature that required hours of research to resolve.)

The laughable lunacy of The Year of the Cookbook was followed by further insanity during The Year of the Wedding, as I leapt into the preparations for the wedding of my  daughter.  It was a frustrating, amazing, exhausting, magnificent year, in which everything that could go wrong, did.  Despite all that, I somehow managed to help produce a marvelous, glorious wedding celebration for my beloved child.

Then came 2018: My Dickens Year. It was, genuinely, the best of times, the worst of times. I might have titled it “The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth”, but it’s simpler just to recall it as My Dickens Year. Diagnosed with cancer in January, cured by surgery and prayer and natural treatments in March, and finally overwhelmed by breathtaking joy at the birth of my first grandchild in August, it was, beyond any measure, a year of the worst of times, a year of the best of times.

Yet 2019 continued to trace a similar path of instability, as I floundered in a haze of repeated shocks when friends and the children of friends passed away, one after another, without warning, while other loved ones experienced frightening declines.  Despite all of the sadness, though, I found each week punctuated by immeasurable delight as I thrilled to the pleasure of watching my granddaughter’s first year of life. I felt as if I was on a rollercoaster, flung from dizzying heights to indescribable depths.  2019, then, became My Rollercoaster Year, and I prayed for calm and peace to follow.

I was doomed to be disappointed, as were we all.  For 2020 happened, not just to me, but to each of us, all of us, everywhere, worldwide. To anyone who endured (and survived) it, the exquisite torture that was 2020 needs no explanation: The Year of the Pandemic.

So it was this morning, as I traced my fingers over the digits at the top of the paper calendar that I persist in using and enjoying despite a digital world, that I realized: I know what year it is. I do. I really do. It is 2021.

But, for the moment, I don’t yet know what year it will be.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Paper Calendars”, which can be found in the archives from December 11, 2019.

When the Universe Says, “Let’s Kick ’em When They’re Down!”

§   When life is going well, it’s usually going very well indeed.  And then it all crashes and burns.  §

I read an article once which claimed a mathematical probability to “streaks” of good or bad luck.

And while I was definitely cutting class on the day God handed out the math brains, it doesn’t take a numerical genius to see that this is undeniably correct.

I’ve watched the Streak Effect time and again: in my own life, in the lives of relatives, in the lives of friends. When one’s days are going well, they are usually going very well indeed. It’s as though a benevolent Deity has bent down, placed a crown of stars upon one’s head, and whispered, “Life is good!”

And then it all crashes and burns. The snowball rolls downhill, becoming an avalanche. Everything that can possibly go wrong—as well as a few things that could not possibly go wrong—well, they go totally, absolutely, completely, unutterably wrong—and with a vengeance. We are left to wonder just what in the hell we’ve done to piss off God.

I recall a long-ago coworker who experienced what was, at the time, the very worst Bad Streak Effect I had ever witnessed: Her mother passed away, she was diagnosed with a serious illness, her spouse walked out, she was audited by the IRS, and her house caught fire—all in the space of a couple of months. Showing more strength of spirit and resilience than I could ever hope to find within myself, she not only survived the onslaught but eventually reached the other end of her dark tunnel, head unbowed and victorious.  She mourned her mother, got well, dusted her hands together saying, “Good riddance!” to her unsatisfactory spouse, got money back from the IRS after the audit, and used the insurance settlement to nicely remodel her somewhat substandard kitchen.  I heard someone ask this undaunted woman if her faith had gotten her through that dreadful time.  “Faith-schmaith!” she scoffed in reply. “It was sheer stubborn determination that none of this was going to take me out!”

I later related this story to a relative who was experiencing her own horrendous Bad Streak Effect: her oldest cat died, the youngest animal was diagnosed with incurable FIV, and the third required an expensive antibiotic; a storm brought down a truck-sized branch from her old oak tree, necessitating an expensive tree removal service; thugs invaded her garage, taking her lawn mower, and kicked in her front door to steal her jewelry armoire, letting her indoor-only pets escape through the open door; one cat, terrified, refused to come out from beneath the house for three days.  To add insult to injury, the stolen jewelry was, all of it, actually pieces that  had been given her to replace the theft of all her jewelry a few years earlier!

A Very Bad Streak.

More commonly, though, the Bad Streak Effect is just a compilation of worrisome, niggling, bothersome daily problems. Taken one by one, they would each be minor difficulties; irritating, but simple to solve. But when they crumble downward like the Twin Towers collapsing, it becomes almost impossible to dig oneself out from under the rubble of life. You break a tooth while chewing the unlikely culprit of a fettuccine noodle. Your regular dentist is on vacation. The emergency oral surgeon butchers your mouth. The surgeon’s office assistant miscodes the procedure, so your insurance denies the claim. Meanwhile, the site of the extracted tooth becomes infected. The one antibiotic to which you are not allergic is unavailable due to a shortage. And on and on….

Stranger still, it seems that one’s friends and family are often experiencing various stages of the Bad Streak Effect all at the same time. The people to whom one would usually turn for sympathy and support are unable to provide much of it because their own lives are a complete shambles. Conversely, though, there is always that one person in the group who is not only not enduring the Bad Streak Effect, but seems to be (for the moment, at least) Heaven’s Darling. This generally turns out to be the sole individual of one’s acquaintance who is completely self-involved and totally lacking in empathy, so that turning to them with a litany of woes essentially results in a metaphorical slap in the face and a long conversation about all the wonderful things happening in their own narcissistic little existence. (Take heart: The Good Streak Effect NEVER lasts. Their time is coming! And when the Bad Streak effect eventually wallops Heaven’s Darling, you can sit back, nodding and handing off tissues while they weep, all the while smiling secretly and evilly to yourself.)

I suppose the real point of all my rambling about The Streak Effect, though, is to acknowledge the fact that, Good Streak or Bad, the events never last. And while reminding oneself of this during a Good Streak can prove a cautionary tale, keeping it firmly in mind during a Bad Streak can help us keep calm and carry on—even when doing so feels like clawing one’s fingers into cracks in a perpendicular surface, hanging on for very dear life.

Because, no matter how bad the Bad Streak may be, it is, despite everything, a dear and special life.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

Tales of the Office: Earn and Burn

§  We are about to begin another holiday season, where love, compassion and generosity of spirit should reign supreme. Well, just call me Ebeneezer!  §

I am an unsympathetic person, and terribly judgmental.  I’ve heard people tell me, quite without irony, that I am caring and kind and empathetic.  I shake my head in wonder.  They obviously don’t know me even half as well as I know myself!

As a perfect example of my lack of empathy, I recall the ungenerous, hypercritical attitude I held toward certain coworkers during my years working at an office.  These were the people who, the very minute they accumulated their monthly stipend of sick, vacation or personal time, were nowhere to be found, having taken a day off using the leave they’d just accrued.  Several of my coworkers demonstrated this behavior, but one in particular was the unrivalled Queen of what we termed “Earn and Burn”.  Each time she earned a day’s leave she bailed, leaving the work on her desk to be covered by her more responsible coworkers.

Oddly enough, had she been (as some of the Earn and Burners were forced to do) using her earned leave time so quickly for desperate need–her own or loved ones’ chronic illnesses; the needs of small children; other ordinary life crises, such as waiting on dilatory repairmen–well, had that been the case, my minimal amount of available empathy would have been decidedly engaged.  But it was not.  The Queen took each of her days for idle recreation.   Watching her coworkers struggle to deal with the problems caused by her constant absences, I fumed. There was nothing I could do about the situation so long as those in authority allowed her to get by with the behavior.  We all suspected that she must have known where some bodies were buried, for her supervisors, wimps to a man and a woman, turned a blind eye to her behavior. It appeared there were no consequences to her irresponsibility, for the Queen was never disciplined…at least not by the office.

The Universe, though—the Universe apparently had other ideas.

The Queen got sick.  Major, real, big time sick: weeks of hospitalization and further weeks of recovery.  And she had no leave time available to use.  She’d burned through all of it.

Oh, she was eligible for short-term disability leave, and it was granted.  But that essentially meant only that she would have a job waiting, if and when she recovered.  Since she had no leave time, her days off were all unpaid.

Our office, as it always did, pulled together to send get-well cards and a bouquet of flowers; some of the staff visited her at the hospital.  The work on her desk was divvied up among the other employees in her unit so she would not return to an avalanche of paperwork.  A cadre of staff members, perhaps hoping to be heard by those in authority,  complained loudly because our employer did not allow those with excess accumulated leave time to donate it to a coworker in need. 

Unsympathetic jerk that I am, I said not a word.  In point of fact, I had so much accumulated leave time that I could have taken off a good two months without losing a single cent of my salary.  But even if a donation policy had been in place, I wouldn’t have offered up so much as one lousy little hour to mitigate our coworker’s situation.  Her lack of available leave time was no one’s fault but her own, and I wouldn’t have tossed her a rope, let alone bent down to offer a hand helping her out of the hole she’d dug herself into. I am not so evil that I gloated over her troubles, but I certainly didn’t shed a tear over them, either.

Eventually, I was approached by several coworkers who felt we should take up a collection to assist the Queen financially during her time of desperate need.  As the Administrative Assistant for the office, this was my function; would I arrange it?  I smiled through very unsympathetic gritted teeth and agreed.

The staff came through marvelously, anteing up several hundred dollars.  I created a spreadsheet to track the contributions, sent bulletins out to the staff as the total increased, and finally arranged for two employees to deliver the cash in a card signed by everyone.

But my own contribution was decidedly ungenerous, unlike the large amounts happily tossed into the till by my coworkers.

I am, as I said, both lacking in empathy and terribly judgmental. Looking back through the lens of time to that office situation, I believe that, occasionally, that’s okay.  There are times when compassion, empathy and walking a mile in another’s moccasins are genuinely the order of the day.  But there are other times when one just has to put on the Tough Love mask and say, “Hey, you did this to yourself.” 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Tales of the Office: Under the Weather”, which can be found in the Archives from July 15, 2020.

The Dot Principle

Having survived the past four years in this nation, I will never again underestimate the power of The Dot Principle!

In June, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States issued its landmark decision regarding the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry.  This event was a hot topic of conversation the next day at the office where I worked.  At the time, I participated in a walking group; we spent our breaks and sometimes part of our lunch hours getting a bit of exercise by striding briskly through the wide halls and many stairwells of the Indiana state office building, happily (and noisily, according to my boss) gossiping as we did so.

On the morning in question, as it happened, only two of us were walking.  Turning to me with a bewildered look on her face, my walking partner—let’s call her Dot–remarked, “They said on the news last night that gay marriage is now the law in all 50 states.  But what about the other two?”

I was, of course, confused.  “The other two what?” 

“States.”

I’m certain my face  must have done that “eyes-rolling-to one side-lips-twisting” thing which indicates complete incredulity.  “Uh, Dot, there are only 50 states.  Forty-eight contiguous states, and Alaska and Hawaii.”

“But I’ve always heard there are 52,” she persisted.

“Uh, no.”  At her look of skepticism, I continued, “There’s the District of Columbia—DC,” I explained. “It is separate from the States. But not a state.  And there are possessions and territories. Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands…”  I trailed off as she continued to look disbelieving.  “There are 50 stars on the flag, one for each State,” I persevered bravely, finally surrendering as Dot just shrugged.

Dot, a few years older than I (and I was nearing retirement), had, I believe, a couple of years of college under her belt; an Associates Degree, as opposed to my high school-only education.  She’d been born a citizen of the United States.  English was her natal language.

But she didn’t know how many States comprise the union.

I’ve looked back on that rather terrifying conversation many times in the past four years, realizing, “Not only do they walk among us, but they vote!”

I now apply “The Dot Principle” to about 75% of the comments I torture myself by reading at the close of articles when I check the news each morning.  (Do NOT ask me why I put myself through this.  I can only surmise that I am a masochist.)   In any case, I usually peruse the comments.  While doing so,  I remind myself that, not only are the Dots of this nation supremely ignorant, but they are astoundingly unafraid in displaying that ignorance to a cringing populace.  They are utterly confident in the correctness of their outrageous assertions.  No matter what facts are presented, the Dots will not be budged from their convictions, preferring their “alternative facts”.  Ill-spelled, and displaying mangled grammar and mutilated sentence structure, riddled with hateful name-calling and, above all, a dearth of knowledge and factual information, and inevitably peppered with ALL CAPS BECAUSE I’M SHOUTING AT YOU SINCE THAT WILL MAKE YOU BELIEVE ME, they troll the pathways of the Comments sections, providing cheap entertainment when one is not too aghast at the remarks to enjoy the show. 

The Dot Principle provided me just a smidgen of reassurance when I read, shocked and appalled, about the Q-Anon Conspiracy. As much as I enjoy a good conspiracy theory–and I really do enjoy them; some are quite masterful in their depositions, and nearly convincing–as much as I admire the enormous work that goes into constructing these mangled theories that fly in the face of reality and plain old common sense, I don’t genuinely find myself being sucked in.  I tell myself this means I am not a Dot; that I still have a few neurons firing, if not so many as I once had when young.

Having been in ascension for four long, painful years, the Dots of this nation are now stunned, brimming with new conspiracy theories, furious and disbelieving that their construct of reality has somehow crumbled, as that nail-biter of an election finally concluded with the overwhelming popular vote and electoral college selection of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States of America.  Nevertheless, as I pointed out to a fuming and incredulous acquaintance, one could consider this just the swing of the pendulum.  “Give it four years, and, who knows—maybe you can elect Jared Kushner or Trump Jr. or Eric Trump or even, saints preserve us, Ivanka,” I suggested.  (On the other hand, maybe not, since I devoutly hope and expect that most of that crew of con men/women, slum lords, Hatch Act violators, and tax evaders will be languishing in prison.)

But having lived through the last four years in this nation, I will never again underestimate the power of The Dot Principle.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy the essay, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, which you can locate in the Archives from July 31, 2019.

 

 

 

The Trials and Tribulations of Houseguests

§  A young friend won’t be making her annual trip to stay with me and visit her “Indiana Family” during this difficult year.  But I hope she will get a smile from this essay!  §

Listening to a radio show as I drove one afternoon, I caught part of a discussion on the topic of appropriate behavior by houseguests when making visits.  The subject intrigued me because  it had often been covered by those original Agony Aunt columnists, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, to whose advice I’d been devoted in adolescence.

The interviewee, asked to explain what houseguests should not do during a visit, launched into a total bitchfest about guests who, having risen in the morning before their hosts, proceeded to brew themselves a cup of coffee and (horror of horrors!) use the mug which was sitting out beside the coffeemaker for that morning cup…their host’s favorite coffee mug!

 Now, I rarely have houseguests, and I don’t even own a coffeemaker; anyone unfortunate enough to be lodging with me is going to discover that instant coffee is the best available.  Tea, now, tea is a different matter.  Depending on their preferences, they might get a good quality teabag of regular or flavored tea, or even loose tea brewed properly using a tea ball in a china teapot.  But, those facts aside, the truth is that, as a good hostess, if I was providing for a houseguest who I knew might be waiting for a “cuppa” before I rose in the morning, I would have set out not only a cup, but a spoon and a spoon rest and real sugar and sweeteners and a napkin, all awaiting their use.  I’d have made certain they knew where all the other accoutrements were to be found too: the toaster, the bread, butter, jam, and milk.  And, even though I do, yes, have a favorite mug, I damn sure wouldn’t have gone on public radio making an ass of myself because a guest in my home had availed her or himself of simple accommodations.  To do so would be disrespectful.

Respect, as I learned from those long ago Agony Aunt columns, is what smooths the relationship between host and guest.  Both acknowledge the disruption to their usual lives, and treat one another with courtesy, making an effort to be especially respectful to smooth over any bumps in the road during a visit.

A much younger but extremely wise friend once related to me that her mother, having come to visit, was both very surprised and complimentary when she found the apartment beautifully cleaned prior to her visit.  My young friend, while admitting that her home was rarely in that condition, remarked that it was simply respectful to prepare for a guest’s visit by cleaning her home.

I agreed wholeheartedly.  Having a houseguest means that one looks at one’s home differently.  The worn but still useable bath towels that are perfectly suitable for my own bathtime would be disrespectful if put out for a guest to use. The chipped mug is placed to the back of the cabinet, and the nicer ones, including that favored mug—why wouldn’t I want a friend to have the best?– set forward prominently.  Bedsheets are fresh, TVs are turned down low when a guest has retired for the night, and favorite foods are offered.

But, returning to the memory of those Agony Aunts columns, I recall long, serious deliberations on whether a guest should, on the final day of their visit, make the bed (because that’s simply a nice gesture to one’s hostess) or remove the sheets and pile them on the mattress (since they now have to be washed).  Silly debates such as this enthralled me when I was a mere teenager, years always from having a home of my own, much less a houseguest.  Even more interesting (and often hilarious), were the disputes—many of which flamed into fury—over nosy houseguests, those people who snooped and pried into places they had no business being, and how they should be handled.

Putting a jack-in-the-box into a drawer to pop out and send the prying houseguest shrieking, was often favored. I particularly loved the suggestion by one host who claimed to have hidden notes in each drawer which said, “Too bad you decided to snoop here.  I put poison on the handle, and I have the only antidote.”

But then came the rejoinder from a woman who was obviously suspected by her friend of being one of those very sneaks, a charge which she strenuously denied.  While staying there, she related, she’d needed a thread of dental floss, something which she hadn’t packed.  She opened the medicine cabinet to search for some, and was sent screaming back from the sink as a cascade of glass marbles came tumbling out of the cupboard, pouring like a loud river onto the sink and bouncing across the bathroom floor.  When her host came charging up, ready accusation at her lips, the terrified guest was crouched in a corner, surrounded by marbles, stuttering, “I just wanted dental floss!  Just dental floss!”

I seriously doubted that the friendship between the paranoid host and the shocked houseguest continued following this fracas.  After all, it appeared that, just like that belligerent radio show speaker, someone had forgotten the first rule of having or being a houseguest: Respect.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Agony Aunts”,
to be found in the archives from February 16, 2018. 

Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them? (‘cause if they do, teachers, here’s a suggestion…)

§   Monthly book reports were a class requirement throughout all of my elementary school years  §

I am a prolific reader. It’s nothing for me to knock back two or even three light mystery novels a week, especially as I prefer reading to watching TV.  I am also a prolific reviewer; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I style myself “The Savage Reviewer”. (Scroll to the end if you’d like to locate and read that post.)

Due to the number of books I read, though, I’m not merely a reader and reviewer; I’m also a major consumer of reviews. So I find myself constantly amazed (and irked! Decidedly irked!  Really, really, really irked!) by readers who can’t compose a helpful book review.

These are, obviously, people who enjoy reading. Since they are taking the time to write a review, one would suppose that they probably (as I do) rely heavily on these assessments before purchasing a book. Despite these obvious facts, though, instead of writing a review, they produce what is, in essence, a book report.  An elementary school book report!

Honestly, I’m not certain if today’s students are still required to write them, but composing monthly book reports was enforced throughout my school years as an additional study obligation to our classroom textbooks. These were descriptive plot summaries which proved we students had completely grasped the contents of a novel.

Each book report consisted of specific components: the names of the main characters, the location where the action took place, and a brief description of the plot. As we students grew older, our papers became more complex.  Character motives and the theme of the novel were added, and sometimes, even the reasons why we did or did not like the story.  And it is only those “grown up” categories—liked/disliked, motives, themes, and behaviors—that actually have any real place in today’s reader book review process.

The liked/disliked category, nothing more than a row of stars, should be basic enough for the most profound moron.  Nevertheless, some critics manage to botch even that, awarding only a single star to a book they genuinely liked.  From the stars, a review dives into a headline. Most reviewers seem to manage that with the requisite flair, providing quick, all encompassing phrases such as, “Loved This Book!”, or “Worst Book EVER”.  But their remarks often cascade downhill from that point.

Plot summaries and teasers were once the province of dust jackets or back covers, whereas now they generally reside in the online synopsis labeled “Product Description”. But all too often, what passes for a review is nothing more than another synopsis–unfortunately, often replete with spoilers. “After 20 years away, Emily returns home to open a bakery, and her first customer drops dead in front of the cash register!” So the reviews trumpet, one after another.  Great. Thanks. Now I don’t really need bother reading the first chapter of the book.

Skimming these reviews, I grit my teeth. I don’t want to know WHAT happens—I’ve already surmised that from reading the online synopsis. I want genuinely pertinent information that might help me decide if this is a book I want to read. Is the book riddled with typos, misspellings,  rotten sentence structure and poor grammar? Is the poor grammar limited to the characters’ slang speech, or is it part of the text itself? Are the characters three-dimensional, with clearly-defined motives? Are their actions, behavior and speech realistic? Does the book move forward briskly, or does it creep at a snail’s pace? Does it keep one’s attention, or are there long, boring digressions in the plot? Is it humorous, or witty, or even laugh-out-loud funny? Is it depressing, sad? Exciting, thrilling? Terrifying? Is the ending satisfactory, or does it leave the reader hanging, without real resolution? (Or, worse, is the reader intentionally left dangling on a hook intended to make her or him buy the next book in the series?) Can you, the reader, put your finger on just why you did/did not like the book, or are your feelings amorphous—i.e., you hated it, but you can’t quite say exactly why that should be. Do you recommend the book? Would you tell friends, “Don’t bother”?

These are the elements that need to be incorporated into a genuine book review, and rarely are.

Book critics still abound, but, more and more, most of us rely on the advice and opinions of  readers like ourselves. Bearing that in mind, teachers, here’s a recommendation: Perhaps you need no longer require your students to produce book reports.  Instead, maybe you should grade them on just how well they can write a book review.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for
“The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; or
“To Review or Not Review”, from 12/13/2017, or the upcoming “The Savage Reviewer, Part 2” , TBA.

The Savage Reviewer

§   I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews.  §

The ability to read online book reviews written by everyday readers instead of some pompous newspaper critic has been, I find, a marvelous advancement of the digital age. I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews of every book that I finish (as well as a few books so bad that I do not finish them!)

Recently, I scrolled through the site where I post my reviews, re-reading some I’d submitted when I first began writing them a few years ago. It occurred to me as I perused my earlier reviews that I was a lot more hesitant to criticize—much kinder, and certainly far more generous–when I was initially writing book reviews. Now, having gotten into the swing of the game, I’ve become far more critical…and a lot more honest.

All this was running through my thoughts a few months ago as I reviewed a book I’d selected due to an intriguing plot summary. The novel, the very first by brand-new author, had only 10 reviews, all of them 5-Star ratings. Not being a complete moron, I knew that meant that the book had been reviewed only by loving family and non-critical friends. Nevertheless, the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance. And at first it seemed my gamble was justified; I liked the opening paragraphs; the tale seemed to be well-written–a rarity in these days of self-publishing–and the main character was a likeable woman. (There are few things worse than slogging through an interesting novel in which the main character is an irritating, self-serving asshole.)

Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there. I finished reading the whole the novel, although I have to say in all honesty that I did so only because I need to remark upon ALL the book’s failings, not just those found at the halfway point where I really gave up. No, I tortured myself all the way through the book, feeling I should provide multiple facts to counteract all those glowing 5-star reviews. Yet even as I typed the 2-Star review that I eventually submitted, I felt a current of guilt. Although not so much savage as straightforward, my words were bound to make the inexperienced author cringe, perhaps even cry. I sighed and reminded myself that I was attempting to save other readers from wasting their hard-earned money on this schlock. And, I consoled myself, who knew? If the author took my criticisms to heart, perhaps my honest, unflattering remarks might help her get to her next, much better, book–or even a revised edition of this sad attempt. Or so I told myself.

I was far less plagued by guilt over another very unflattering review I wrote for a novel which, despite yet one more promising plot summary and multiple flattering reviews, turned out to be unreadable. Simply unreadable. And that was a tragedy, because, with appropriate assistance—and if some of those flattering reviewers could have been honest—the book might have been great.

But the novel, a mystery, had been written in English by someone for whom English was quite obviously a second language. And while, technically, the author’s grasp of the language was excellent, well, God is in the details. And the details sucked.

The story began in a snowstorm. I think I finally gave up on the book about the third time I read the repetitive sentence, “The snow was hailing…”. Hailing?  What? Was the snow calling for a taxi? As I pointed out in my review, snow can fall. Hail can fall. It can be snowing. It can be hailing. But the snow can’t hail.

Then there was the fact that the car, a Rolls Royce, was constantly referred to as a Royce. Uh, nope. The casual reference is a Rolls. This minor but irritating error continued for page after page, setting my teeth on edge.

But the crowning blow was the sentence remarking that the only thing the characters could see was a “giant pile of snow blocking the road thanks to the car’s headlights.”

Oh, dear. A host of teachers from my distant past, probably all now long dead, rose up in protest.

As written, the sentence indicated that the snow was blocking the road because of the car’s headlights. I genuinely laughed out loud (sadly) reading that fractured sentence, correcting it in my mind to, “The only thing they could see, thanks to the car’s headlights, was the giant pile of snow…” (I shall I forbear even to mention that a “giant pile of snow” would generally be referred to as a snowdrift.)

Just before writing this essay, I reread my review of that novel. It was, as the title to this post implies, savage. Then, with equal honesty, I examined my own writing in this essay.

Yep, far from perfect.

But I was saved from abject embarrassment by two facts: First, I am not writing for publication, but for my own pleasure; and, second, I am not asking anyone to PAY for what I’ve written.

So as long as authors continue with those two objectives, well, I’ll just continue to style myself  The Savage Reviewer.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “To Review or Not Review”,
which you may find in the archives on 12/13/2017.  You might also like the upcoming post, “Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them?”, to be published soon.)

What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.