Go Ahead, Let Me Have It

I want realistic descriptions not false optimism. I’m unhappy when anticipated rosy outcomes lose their glow. M doctor said, “You won’t even feel this,” then forced a turkey-baster-sized needle into my arm. I jerked, glared and snarled. His mild deception made me act like an indignant child. As a senior citizen, that’s embarrassing.

Cookbook authors should admit making a soufflé is a bit tricky rather than describing their recipe as foolproof. Does a sunken soufflé mean I’m a fool? If my dermatologist had mentioned, before “… a minor treatment with no side effects,” that a huge scab would adorn my nose for most of a month, I wouldn’t have attended my class reunion wearing Mt. Vesuvius on my nose.

I’m not alone in dealing with hard truths  better than reassuring pleasantries. As a teacher, I saw most students react with persistence and determination when told a new learning would be difficult but achievable with work and practice. In contrast, when assured a lesson would be easy and everyone would master it quickly, some students displayed frustration and wanted to quit when they experienced difficulties.

As a fledgling staff developer, I once told participants in my adult workshop we would finish by 4:00, probably sooner, then kept them until 4:10. It was the only time in my forty years as an educator I felt endangered.

Most of us can stand anything if told what to expect in advance. The truth allows us to handle problematic circumstances with dignity. This is evident on delayed airplanes. When people are stuffed on a plane and stranded on the runway for more than an hour without explanation, they begin to exhibit the behavior of caged animals: snarling, pacing, glaring. Children cry; couples bicker; belligerence balloons.

Yet I’ve waited with passengers on a packed flight for almost two hours, with no breaches of civility, because the pilot promised to update us every fifteen minutes and did so. He described the problem with the cargo door, explained why possible options wouldn’t work, reported on the progress of the repairs and apologized for the uncomfortable wait. Some mumbling, sighing and impatient shuffling occurred in the crowded cabin, but calm acceptance, if not good humor, reigned.

If I do encounter honesty about difficult circumstances, I’m appreciative. When a sign along I-70 advises me it will take thirty minutes to reach Denver, I don’t fume at the slow traffic; rather, I’m delighted when we arrive in twenty-five. In airports, I’m less anxious standing in a line that loops forever when posted signs tell me it will take ten minutes to clear security from where I stand. That knowledge helps me decide if a quick shuffle will get me to my gate on time, or if I must abandon all pride and gallop.

The first time I endured the discomfort of a colonoscopy, I appreciated the health care professional who described the escalating unpleasantness of the preparations I had to do the night before. Her explanation allowed me to think, “Well, this isn’t so bad after all,” rather than, “This is awful. Something must be wrong with the directions. This can’t be right.”

I don’t want to be soothed with snake-oil promises. I want the truth. I want to feel either relief when I weather the storm more easily than I anticipated or composed acceptance when it’s as bad as I was warned it could be.

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I’ve Misplaced My Derring-Do

Great Aunt Beulah said, “People think old folks like me are daft and feeble.” Then she decapitated a chicken.

Her words stuck with me; and since my retirement, I’ve realized their truth. When I attend meetings like those I used to facilitate, the other participants allow me to sit in silence and look wise. On crowded buses, parents tell their children to stand up and “offer that lady your seat.” Teenagers with spiked hair hold doors until I totter through.

When I took a bowling class, fresh-faced classmates offered one another advice: “Start your release sooner,” or, “ Move a couple of boards left.” Their feedback to me was “Nice try” and a vacated seat so I could catch my breath after rolling two gutter balls. When I walk with younger family members, motorists who stop for directions address their questions to those with unlined brows, as though my wrinkles mean I no longer recognize my neighborhood.

I notice these age-based reactions without letting them disturb my peace of mind or nap. I do, however, worry that I expect less of myself. During the years I worked as a consultant to small school districts in northwest Colorado, I drove alone through the darkness of winter on narrow, two-lane roads curving along rivers and through ranch lands. I maneuvered steep passes buttressed by frozen waves of snow, made lonely by the absence of homes and fellow travelers. I sang with the radio as sparse snow thickened and fell with increased determination.

Now I hesitate to drive three miles in full daylight if a skiff of snow is blowing across the highway.

I used to anticipate the challenge of walking into a workshop filled with seventy-five professionals sizing up the stranger who would instruct them. I liked convincing skeptics I had content knowledge, could make training meaningful and was serious when I said we would keep the break to fifteen minutes.

Now when a friend asks for volunteers to tell stories of the past to first graders, I avoid eye contact.

In my personal life, I thought nothing of cleaning bathrooms while doing laundry, scrubbing floors while making a shopping list, re-potting houseplants while calling my sister, cooking dinner while preparing to party.

Now I feel unduly burdened by one such task, and it takes most of a day to prepare for an evening out — there are so many more problems to disguise.

I used to fuss about my growing reluctance to engage, to rush from task to task, to agree to do things I don’t want to do. But I slowly realized it is permissible to do things I enjoy, not those others expect. It’s O.K. to relax into the rhythms of the life I have rather than trying to maintain the cadences of my younger self.

Living more slowly allows me to recognize my growing need for simplicity: a cluster on the back fence of sweet peas I grew from seed give me more happiness than watching the latest hit movie. As autumn advances, sharing a homemade meal of soup and bread with Joel pleases me more than dining in a restaurant, and sitting in the backyard surrounded by chickadees doing their flighty thing while I read or write seems more satisfying than a trip abroad.

Simple things refresh me, soothe me, fill me with wonder because I now have the time and wisdom to notice them.

My Resolution for the New Year

Maybe going public with my resolution for 2018 will shame me into keeping it, so here it is: I will stop talking about my medical issues, even though doing so will be more painful for me than my wry neck; I love clucking away with friends and family about the latest indignity imposed on my body.

I first noticed an upswing in my interest in discussing bunions and bursitis a few years ago at a party when I joined male and female friends in an animated discussion at a party and realized I used to run from such conversations.

For forty-five minutes, we discussed tinnitus, sciatica, cataracts, arthritis, insomnia, knee replacements and leg cramps. We described symptoms, suggested remedies, and updated one another — “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”

The same people who used to chatter about jobs, sports, politics, travel, children, hobbies, and preferred beer had discovered another universal connection.

Why the sudden interest in high blood pressure? It’s not like my friends and I had never been sick. We’d endured a variety of ills our entire lives, but we hadn’t felt compelled to share them with all the fishes in the sea.

Like most people, I was born into a pinball machine of childhood illnesses, bumped around by colds, mumps, measles, chickenpox and sore throats. My siblings and I suffered earaches, stomachaches, runny noses, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, because it could lead to a tonsillectomy and polio because it lurked in the background of every day we lived.

We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom, begged for drinks of water and hoped nausea didn’t force us to use the bucket placed beside our beds.

We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts, and scratched our red spots when our mother wasn’t looking. At the height of the polio scare, we were barred from swimming in public pools and dragged to Provo to take part in a blind test of the promising vaccine named after a Dr. Salk.

At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions and colds, the doctor told Mom to make me put on a hat or scarf when outside, wear a stocking cap to bed on cold nights, and forego sugary treats; so while my siblings ate lemon meringue pie and made fun of my night cap, I blew my nose and ate a banana.

I don’t remember inflicting the details of these ailments on others. I would never have introduced my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates or my impacted wisdom teeth into the lunchroom buzz in the faculty lounge.

Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the soundness of our sleep and the status of our nagging issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “Don’t waste your time trying to wish your sciatica into oblivion. You need physical therapy.”

I admire my sister-in-law from my first marriage, a professional woman and involved grandmother with wit, intelligence and frightening health issues that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she doesn’t mention them. Ever. When directly asked by those who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.

Thus, my resolution for 2018: I will stop pouring a description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.

But I don’t promise to stop writing about them.

 

 

The Gift of a Memory

Years have passed since the deaths of my parents and, later, my oldest brother, and I’m slowly losing the nuances that made them unique: their laughs, their intonations, their expressions, their walks. But Christmas helps me remember. As I bake cookies, hang ornaments or listen to the gentle notes of carols, memories of those who shared my early Christmases bring them back in their entirety.

Recently, my sister Carolyn reminded me of a Christmas memory I’d like to share with you. I think of it as “The Dance of the Reindeer.”

On Christmas Eve, we usually drove to our grandmother’s house in Provo. Inside the small, orderly home filled with relatives, warmth, and the smell of baking, we’d tussle with our cousins until told to “settle down or else…” which we did when Grandma’s homemade cookies and candy appeared. Silenced by our chewing, we’d listen to the unfortunate cousins whose parents had convinced them to recite, sing, or play Christmas tunes on their band instruments. When food, talent, and patience had worn thin, Grandma read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible; then we drove home through fields crusted with snow-diamonds under a sky filled with low-hanging stars.

As soon as we arrived, Mom announced bedtime, and with minimal grumbling, we left the warmth of the living room for our unheated bedrooms: Bob and Lawrence in one room and Carolyn, Barbara and me in another.

I don’t know what our brothers did, but we girls partied.

We talked, giggled, climbed in and out of each other’s beds, watched out frost-etched windows for Santa, and took turns trying to sneak into the living room because we needed to go to the bathroom “really, really bad.” When the grandfather clock in the living room chimed, we quieted and counted: Mom had warned us not to get out of bed again until the clock chimed six times.

One year, five-hear-old Barbara listened intently as the clock struck, then said, “Oh, no, I counted eleven. Way past six. Now we have to wait until the big hand makes it to six again. I forgot. How many does it go to before it starts over? A hundred? That’ll take forever.”

But on my eighth Christmas, as we began to doze, Carolyn startled us awake: “Listen, can you hear that? Shh. There’s a noise on the roof. Be quiet!” We sat up in our beds, straining our ears, until we heard a faint clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop on the roof. We held our breath and listened as the clops grew louder and more frequent — a herd of deer tap-danced over our heads until, gradually, the hoedown calmed into silence.

Only then did we squeal with excitement and wonder if we should wake everyone to tell them what they missed. Eventually, we decided rousing the household would be unwise and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, after the chaotic joy of presents, Barbara remembered: “We heard them,” she announced into the general din, “We did.”

Only Lawrence caught her remark. “Who’d you hear?” he asked.

“Rudolph and those other ones.”

“Huh,” Dad said, “ What did they sound like, fellers?”

As we re-produced the sound of the dancing deer we heard in the night, the others exclaimed, questioned and chuckled.

Later, Carolyn, older, more skeptical and not above threatening Bob with physical harm, discovered the truth of our nighttime visitors: Lawrence had saved two deer hooves from his successful hunt that fall. Then, on Christmas Eve, waiting until we lost steam, he climbed onto the roof and clopped until he could clop no more.

In doing so, he gave us a meaningful gift: a Christmas memory of prancing reindeer, laughing parents and an older brother who took the time to create fun for his sisters.

My Christmas Dilemma

Home for Thanksgiving, I overheard a conversation coming from the kitchen where Mom was making cinnamon rolls while telling my youngest brother, JL, “I don’t think having two paper routes is a good idea in the kind of winter weather we have.”.

“But, Mom,” JL’s adolescent voice rose above the closing of the oven door, “If I take another route, I’ll be able to buy better Christmas presents for everyone.”

“JL, you’ve been buying and hiding presents for the past month. Enough is enough.”

“Yeah, but I like giving everybody things they’ll really like,” he replied.

I don’t know which amazed me more: JL’s willingness to ride his bike over the ice-slick roads of a Wyoming winter to buy special presents for his family or his self-assurance in selecting them.

I lack confidence in choosing appropriate gifts for my loved ones, and I’m not alone.

Several of my friends fret about what and how much to buy for grandchildren: “Don’t you think a full-sized St. Bernard stuffed animal is too much for a baby? My husband insisted we buy it, but I think my daughter will be horrified.”

“My grandchildren get way more than they need, and I think when they get so much, the impact of everything is lessened — sort of like the chocolate buffet on a cruise. But will giving them each one gift seem stingy compared to what they get from others?”

“Our teenage grandson wants money that he’ll probably spend on hair dye or another piercing. I love him dearly and believe you shouldn’t give gifts with strings attached, but do I want to encourage his offbeat appearance?”

Parents also fuss about the choices Santa Claus has to make. Following is a conversation some of my nieces and their friend had on Facebook a few years ago. In it, the young mothers shared their frustration with gift giving and suggested possible solutions.

Leanna: Luke just informed me that the toy he wanted so much for Christmas (the one I stood in line for an hour and a half to buy on Black Friday) is no longer on his wish list, and he’d like something completely different. An hour and a half of my life, wasted.

Shauna: I told my kids to make up their lists the week of Thanksgiving and said there’s no changing their minds after that. Santa is inflexible after Thanksgiving.

Carole: Christmas can be magical, but I am over trying to make it the perfect holiday. Give it to him anyway.

A Friend: Years ago I was sitting around with eight youngsters at spring break. I asked them what they got for Christmas. None of them could remember. I quit working so hard after that. Now I give each child a Santa gift, something to read, something to wear, and something to play with. It’s made life so much easier. Works in lean years as well as good.

Shortly after I read this exchange, I shared it with a friend who said that years ago she told her children they would each get three gifts from Santa because that’s what the Wise Men brought for the first Christmas. “And to my surprise,” she added, “they accepted my explanation without question — except the youngest who wanted to know if three was more than five.”

I like knowing I’m not alone with my gift-giving anxieties, but I still fuss. So if you see me in a store examining two different items and looking tense, please approach, point, and say, “That one.”

What’s for Dinner?

Dinners I prepare for company taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I think I’m creating food destined for the culinary hall of fame; then I eat it. “Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with straight faces. But to me, the food tastes edible rather than tasty. Could the stress of preparing company dinners cause my taste buds to run away from home?

First, I grapple with the menu. After  hours of anguish and indecision, I reluctantly decide on baked pesto chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and a French bread roll; then the ensuing complications topple me into trauma. How do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while the guests munch appetizers and laugh at my husband’s witticisms?

After I finalize the menu, shop for ingredients, then chop, mix, knead and spice until the food is under control, I focus on staging: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated? And do I have appropriate utensils? Then I serve the entree with my go-to spatula that has a melted lump instead of a handle.

While setting the table, I worry that the guests seated on the corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed by the table legs; but maybe they’ll be merry from Joel’s pre-dinner comedy routine and won’t notice.

Giving up on a Martha-Stewart table, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and rush to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times has gone awry. At last, a half-hour late and disheveled, I serve dinner. The guests make approving noises; I take my first bite; my taste buds pack their bags.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Family members and friends make company dinners look easy; and I’ve yet to see them choke on their own food.

A friend of mine once invited twelve guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused offers of help. She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at an attractive table and made a grand entrance with a crisply browned turkey — which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out, “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one.” Then she scooped up the bird, returned to the kitchen, brought back its knocked-awry carcass and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of all.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

I should have her advice tattooed on my arm.

Please Read Before Using

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When I drive west from Denver to Craig, I notice a sign posted on I-70 shortly before the off-ramp to Silverthorne, a busy town which sits at the bottom of the long, steep hill I-70 descends before swooping up again. The sign tells truckers not to exit if they’ve lost their brakes. I like to think truckers will see for themselves the folly of taking a short, downhill exit into a busy intersection without brakes, but I suppose you never know.

The sign reminds me of the assembly and use instructions that accompany purchases and divide folks into two groups: those who read them and those who don’t. I read directions; I can’t help it; I’m captivated by words. My husband Joel ignores directions; he could help it; but he can’t be bothered. When assembling a metal shelving unit, he dives in, uses interesting vocabulary interspersed with “huh!” and assembles a sturdy three-shelf unit.

I, on the other hand, must find my glasses, skim all instructions, arrange the components in order of use and collect the necessary tools from wherever Joel left them. Then I begin following the directions, step by careful step, until wayward pieces and a unit askew force me to ask for my husband’s help.

I feel bad when I ignore appliance manuals filled with dos and don’ts. Someone took care with those words; I should read them. Recently, I examined the booklet for my new crock-pot and was relieved to discover its eight pages of directions included French, Spanish and Chinese, leaving a mere two pages in English for me to study.

I’m also happy when I discover a manual includes instructions for different models, because I don’t have to read about those I don’t own. However, while leafing through the instructions, I invariably notice the premium model with its programming options, blinking lights and clever attachments. Then I experience buyer’s remorse: “Oh, I wish I’d chosen the dryer with a steam-refresh option. I wouldn’t look so wrinkled.”

Sometimes the instructions contain surprises. I use my microwave to re-heat coffee, warm-up leftovers, and thaw stuff. But the manual informs me that in addition to cooking broccoli, bulgur, and brownies, this miracle machine can toast nuts, heat herbal neck packs, and kill the salmonella lurking in sponges.

When my coffeemaker burbled and died several months after purchase, I searched its manual for warranty information. In the section on maintenance, I discovered my negligence. I had neither decalcified the coffeemaker every forty brew-cycles nor replaced the water-filtration disk every thirty. A person could get dizzy trying to keep track of when to do what. Wouldn’t common sense suggest that coordinating the two tasks would be more efficient? And is the suggested schedule necessary, or is it a ploy to sell cleaning solution and filtration disks?

I think corporate lawyers write the safety warnings in manuals. Why else would I be warned to avoid looking for a gas leak with a lit match, to refrain from putting my hand inside an operating blender and to prevent children from standing on a cooktop in use?

I also sense a low estimate of my intelligence when I read if my mixer doesn’t start, I may have failed to plug it in, turn it on or notice there is a power shortage in my neighborhood.

Yesterday, I purchased a new toaster; I need to stop writing now so I can read its manual. I hope the directions will warn me not to use it to warm my fingers, because I’ve been thinking about doing so.