I am the sort of person who gets all teary at weddings. Over the emotion of it all, of course. But also over the fact that SOMEONE should have done SOMETHING to let those poor bridesmaids know that they look like they slept in their dresses. Would it have killed them to run an iron over that silk before they put it on and traipsed down the aisle in it?
I notice things like this because I have spent decades sewing--everything from wool skirts to Halloween costumes to slinky little numbers for evening. Currently, I possess the perfect, torturous combination of enough skill to make many things myself without the actual time to do so, which leaves me horribly loathe to pay full price for anything--because, of course, I know precisely how much that fabric would cost, and if I could do it myself (not that I will, but I could), how can I justify spending that much on it? I can also spot bad tailoring a mile off, and cheaply cut clothes don't hang right, but do you know what they pay professors who work in the Humanities? So what I really want is clothes that should be expensive but aren't.
Hence, I frequent the large discount stores (you know, the ones whose names rhyme with BK Flax and Narshall's). Perhaps you, too, are too cheap to buy Tahari off the rack at Nordstrom's and instead prefer to buy it at 1/10 the price when you luck into finding it on the rack at your local ______ (fill in the blank the with TJMaxshall's name of your choice). If not, and you think these stores are a high proportion of junk, I will grant you that. But I will see your junk and raise you some perfect Calvin Klein jeans ($10!), sporty DKNY summer tops, cashmere sweaters, gorgeous camel wool retro 40s skirts, or the sweetest pale blue-grey sweater dress you ever saw by Michael Kors ($25!).
Here is what I have noticed about these stores. First: they are torture to shop in because the Good, the Bad, and the Atrociously Ugly are jammed into racks indicriminately and require tremendous patience to untangle, particularly when your children are doing their utmost to add confusion to the racks by playing inside them and stirring up the clothes even further. Second: every single employee in these stores has apparently taken a required course in Incompetent Folding of Garments of All Sizes and Descriptions.
I defy you to find a single employee in any of these stores who can fold one single solitary pair of shorts. The degree to which they all, universally, butcher the process of folding something very simple like a basic sweater is astonishing. It's gone from driving me completely batty to leaving me utterly fascinated.
No where else on the planet, I am sure, does the act of folding clothing precisely mimic the hand gestures for "Pat-a-cake." Don't know what I mean? Sing your way through to the "roll it and roll it" part, and then you'll know precisely how they fold things at these stores. It's like the instructor for these hours-long folding classes stands up at the front of the room loudly singing "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round" while demonstrating proper folding technique for an evening gown.
My three and five year old children can fold better than these folks.
Now, before you go all, "what do you expect from minimum wage employees, poor buggers" on me, please remember that all of us, no matter our day jobs, have to do laundry. And at some point, one assumes, we take that laundry out of the drier and put it into the drawers. And between those two clothes-resting locations, there is typically a little process that most of us like to call F-O-L-D-I-N-G.
Isn't it just a basic life skill? Doesn't everyone, at some point in his or her life, need to learn how to fold a t-shirt? So how is it possible that the employees at these stores can unfailingly manage to put thick, cotton-and-wool sweaters into such tremendous disarray while "folding" them as I check out, that garments that are made of practically un-wrinkleable fabric look like wadded up bird's nests when I get home? And are wrinkled?
The other thing that is almost miraculous is their sleight-of-hand. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to help them out by doing the folding myself. But unlike at the grocery store, where any move towards loading your own bags will automatically result in the evaporation of any and all bag-boys, at TJMaxshalls, the cashier does some tricky hand work what with the removal of the security tags and the ringing up so as to make it completely impossible for you to fold anything yourself. And so, you stand there, helpless, while your brand new soft and yummy sweater dress is unceremoniously treated like a meatball, and rolled into a wad that completely disregards the necessary appendages of arms and turtlenecks.
Seriously, if they weren't so disingenuous about the whole thing, I could understand it better. If they made no pretense of folding, and just shoved items into bags, I could understand. They are in a hurry, perhaps. This is what comes of discount shopping.
But they TRY. They make actual folding efforts. They take time with the folding. But the time involves staring off into space, and rolling their garment-filled hands over and over each other like some kind of basic dance move that will end in jazz hands.
It's like the folding is a reminder: don't feel too empowered by your recent purchase of deeply discounted cashmere goodness; wadded up, you can't tell it apart from a Target turtleneck.
And yet, once you take it out of the bag, you SO can tell the difference. Which makes even the maddening folding worth it, don't you think?
Monday, August 31, 2009
I am the sort of person who gets all teary at weddings. Over the emotion of it all, of course. But also over the fact that SOMEONE should have done SOMETHING to let those poor bridesmaids know that they look like they slept in their dresses. Would it have killed them to run an iron over that silk before they put it on and traipsed down the aisle in it?
Thursday, August 27, 2009
"Let's have dreams," my daughter says to me, in a winning and breathy voice. She wants us to "have dreams" every night when I tuck her in, which means that she wants me to snuggle down, and whisper soothingly to her some beautiful image of what we will dream about that night. For a long time, the image was of us swimming in a pool of water at the bottom of a waterfall, while birds and butterflies flitted overhead. Whatever the scene, I have to describe it in great detail, with colors and sounds, and not omitting to mention the feeling of the wind rushing through our hair as we ride on the backs of our unicorns towards the rainbow.
Tonight she wanted something new. "Flowers," she said, nestling closer to me.
So I began to set the scene for her: "we are in the middle of a beautiful meadow..." I began. "Do you know what a meadow is?" I asked quietly.
She sat bolt upright in bed. "Meadow? Oh, yes," she said, matter-of-factly. "I think it's when you get stuck, fwozen, on a mewwy-go-wound and can't get off."
She clearly wasn't sure why I was laughing so hard, but she was happy to laugh right along with me. So I explained what a meadow was, and all about our picnic that we took there. ("But we don't step on any of the flowers," she said, "because that would smoosh them." "Right," I said.)
And then I tucked her in and gave her the special kisses on her eyelids and came downstairs.
But now I can't stop giggling over her definition of "meadow," and thinking that really, this child would be extraordinary if I could get her to play Dictionary with me (which I might try next time we have a rainy afternoon).
We've had funny pronunciations of actual words before, of course. The current one is that she insists on referring to her armpits as "armpets," and no matter how many times her brother tells her that they are not "pets" of any kind, she insists that she knows that, thank you, but they are armpets.
He's hardly one to call her on it, given that he continually refers to our movies-in-the-mail service as "NetFlake" and that a week or so ago, he gleefully told me that he knows why Ritz Bits are called Ritz Bits.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because they are Rits, and when you take a bite of them, then you spit some out."
"What?!" I said. "You do not spit them. What are you talking about?"
"Well, not in the car," he admitted. "You don't spit them in the car. But," he was serenely confident, "they are Rits and you do Spit them. Rit Spits. See?"
Truly, moments like these are hilarious.
But there is something even better about the definition inventing that Daughter had been doing lately. (Her effort with "meadow" is not the first time she has done such a thing, but of course it's the first time I've been in a position to be able to write it down immediately so that I wouldn't forget.) It comes with such complete confidence in herself. She has a quiet and absolute sense that she knows what words mean. All words. Any word you ask her about. And she has an almost uncanny ability to make up crazy definitions on the spot without apparently thinking about them at all. I hope that confidence follows her as she grows, and the creativity too, and the joy in the play of language.
And so I try hard not to laugh at her, to chuckle gently, to laugh only with her.
Who knows? She could turn out to be the next Lewis Carroll, inventing whole universes full of Jabberwocky to entertain us all.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I'll come clean: it's been a few years since I've been to a professional conference. I've been a little busy with the babies and the diapers and the bottles and the potty training and somehow haven't been able to get my act together to apply, write a paper to deliver, and then be away from the family for a long weekend. But, this past weekend, I finally jumped back into the conference waters, and let me tell you -- it was fantastic.
I'd forgotten how exciting it can be (dork alert! dork alert!) to be surrounded by a giant batch of people who are passionate about the same subject as you are, who do research and have ideas you've never thought about but are very glad to consider, who will give you feedback and professional advice.
In short, this conference reminded me that a couple of days of intense conversation can be really rejuvenating to one's own research, which otherwise often feels as if it happens in something of a vacuum.
I learned a lot at this conference, stuff about the history of India, about emerging online resources for doing nineteenth-century studies, about the periodical press. And, I learned the following, which nuggets seem worthy of sharing.
1. Good towels are like manna for your skin. In fact, they are such a very good thing that if you have forgotten just how good they are, it means you should probably do yourself a favor and buy a few new towels. There was never a better towel in a hotel than those at the Doubletree Guest Suites in downtown Minneapolis: bath-sheet sized, thick and plush as a schmancy spa robe, pristine white. I stayed at a "W" hotel in New York once (and THAT is some swank hotel where you don't want to take your children, let me tell you), and even they -- with their amazing Bliss body butter and other out of this world bath products -- didn't have towels that could compete with Doubletree.
2. Patrone Silver is serious. If you like scotch and don't really like tequila, you will like Patrone. And if someone insists you should try it on the rocks with a lime, you should not believe her little song and dance about how she's had all kinds of tequila and THIS tequila produces no hangovers, and it is like magic tequila or something because she can drink eight shots of it in one evening and still be sober and happy that night, and well-rested and happy in the morning. Because while eight shots will no doubt make someone extremely happy, there is a high likelihood that the sadness of drinking too much will certainly follow. So just go all "la la la la LAAAA, I can't hear you" on her when she tries to get you to order a second one. Because truly, one of these drinks is a beautiful thing. Beyond that, I take no responsibility for your happiness.
3. Light rail that actually connects where you are to where you want to go is the awesomest thing a city can provide. $1.75 from downtown to the airport. I dare you to beat that.
4. When you give a table full of academics a few pints in a pub, you will hear a lot of funny stories involving celebrities and animals. Not usually in the same story. But sometimes, yes.
5. Super famous academics, the kinds whose careers you can only dream about having, wear their hair in braids on off-days, just like everyone else.
I'm pretty sure there are some words to live by in that last one -- something about not being afraid to talk to people who seem so far beyond you on the career track, about having confidence, and so on. All of that is true, and she was very nice to me, and not condescending at all, and treated me like a true colleague despite the vast chasm of difference in our levels of famousness. But, for the next few days at least, I'm going to remain stuck on the fact of the braids themselves. Long silvery braids on a highly distinguished Professor Emeritus. Most excellent.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Son's current favorite tv is anything on the Food Network. He loves Chopped and Ace of Cakes and Food Network Challenge. He watches Paula Deen with serious concentration. He actually spoke the following sentence the other day: "no, not that show; I don't feel like watching Guy Fiere right now."
In case you've forgotten...Son is five years old.
At the end of a long day of playing, swimming, going to the library, drawing pictures, running errands, playing Hot Wheels, and taunting his sister, Son likes nothing better than to settle down for half an hour of Food tv between dinner and bed.
There are certainly far worse things that he could watch. Food tv is G-rated, creative, and hardly likely to give him nightmares.
But I will say this: Food tv is completely addictive. I find that after I read stories and tuck in the kids, it's very difficult to turn off this compelling television. WHO will win the throw down -- Bobby Flay or the sushi chef he challenged? (the sushi chef) Will Robert finally fail one of his impossible challenges? Will today finally be the day when I stop being distracted by her makeup (hello insanely high purple eyeshadow and high-school-bubblegum-pink lipstick!) and can pay attention to what Giada is cooking? Why exactly is Alton Brown so weird?
And apart from the personalities, there is the food...perfect Asian dumplings, espresso crusted sea bass, key lime pie, coconut shrimp, burgers made with chocolate in them...you name it, I want to cook nearly all of it.
Of course, it's ten o'clock at night, and I'm not cooking anything. But this doesn't stop me from wanting perfect dumplings right this very second. And because I can't have them, I make myself a little bowl of popcorn, or an ice cream cone, or a plate of cheese and crackers, or an apple with peanut butter.
Or all of the above.
Okay, I don't actually make myself all of those things at once. But I find I am utterly unable to stop myself from snacking while watching shows about food on tv. And maybe that's their point. Perhaps they are trying to make me gain a pound or two per week, so that they can then pass me on to some exercise tv channel to combat this problem. But I doubt it, since that loses them one more viewer.
And yet I cannot figure out how on earth to enjoy watching Food tv without any plans in the immediate future to eat something delicious. It's like Food tv is crack for your eyeballs...luring you in with the siren song of well-plated meals, giving you a giant rush of empowerment through the sense that you can access the recipe and directions online and then make this yourself at home, and then letting you crash on the fact that you really can't and won't make this food right this second and thus, once again, are denied. Denial, obviously, breeds snacking.
What I need is some kind of will power or motivation that is bigger than a plate full of steaming, perfectly pan fried gyoza.
I just have no idea what that would look like.
Monday, August 17, 2009
I think when you buy your first house, you should automatically receive an Operating Manual for Grown-Up Life. (Perhaps subtitled: Congratulations, You Own a Home! Here's how not to kill yourself in it, accidentally, in the first few years.)
It should contain all those tidbits that we are somehow expected to glean over the years. You know, the "commons sense" things like that you should never EVER mix bleach and ammonia together in an effort to concoct your own more powerful shower cleanser. You shouldn't repair the kitchen sink disposal without turning off the power first. You should know that water will spread rather than douse a grease-based fire (read: most any kitchen fire), and that baking soda is the only safe way to smother such a fire. And that you should always use separate cutting boards for your salad tomatoes and your raw chicken. And so on.
And it should contain a short but important section, emblazoned with high red WARNING letters, spelling out some basic facts about the gas grill that is located out on your deck.
Such as, for example, that if you carry a platter of sausages out there to grill during a party, and you have been assured by someone else that the grill has been pre-heating, and you smell gas...you should proceed with caution.
You should NOT, hypothetically, open the grill, quickly note that none of the four burners is actually lit, immediately see the obvious fact that the burners have been turned on but the pilot has blown out, and then promptly push the starter button.
Because, you will have undoubtedly assessed the situation very quickly (being the possesor you no doubt are of a gas stove, and therefore wise to the ways of the finicky pilot light). VERY quickly.
So quickly, in fact, that when you do press the starter button to light the pilot, all the gas that has been building up under the closed hood of the grill for the past fifteen minutes or so will have had nowhere near enough time to dissipate, and therefore the little spark that normally ignites the lighter burner will in fact ignite a stunning fireball the size of your entire grill.
And the fireball will rush up towards your face and singe the hairs completely off your upper arms, and turn your eyelashes into eyelash stubs, and produce a frizzle of mane around your face, and scare the speech right out of you.
And hours later you will break down in tears (after washing a lot of burned hair down the sink with gallons of cold water, and then spending the rest of the evening trying to calm yourself) because if you had been just a few inches closer, or one of the children had been standing next to you, or the flame had traveled back along the line towards the full tank of fuel under the grill, or... you can't even put it into words...
The warning page should remind you that gas building up in a small closed space for tens of minutes is not quite the same thing as gas slowly hissing from a momentarily unlit burner on your indoor stove, and thus should be dealt with differently. It should spell out in no uncertain terms that the default move of lighting the pilot as quickly as possible so as to shortcut the emergence of unlit gas is precisely the wrong move to take with a large gas grill that has been "on" for a while.
Perhaps it should tell you, in very teeny tiny letters that you will be fine even if you are not smart enough to think through the obvious implications of lighting the burner as quickly as possible. But I'm not sure.
Personally, I think that the more utterly terrifying the description is, the better.
It might make you think more slowly in an emergency.
Because sometimes, in an emergency, your instincts can be dangerously wrong.
(And yes, I'm physically fine. My eyelashes will, according to Dr. Google, take up to 3 months to look normal again. That is small potatoes compared to what could have happened.)
Friday, August 14, 2009
I've been thinking a lot about boredom this summer, and I have decided that it might be the single most useful parenting tool in existence. After patience, obviously.
Let me explain.
Waaaayyy back in the 1970s, when I was a child, summer looked like this: wake up, eat breakfast, clean up your dishes, go outside. On Saturdays, there was an hour or two of chores to do before being set free, and periodically, there were requirements to weed or mow or mulch or some such in the yard. But otherwise, we went out into the fresh warm morning and found something to do. After lunch, we did the same. Sometimes I stayed indoors and read. Other times I wandered across the street to listen to records at my friend's house. There were days when I went next door and helped Teresa make the sock dolls she sold at the craft market (I only did the non-skilled bits, like stuffing their tiny legs or sewing on their buttons). I did a lot of babysitting. Then I climbed the giant magnolia down the block, book in hand, and settled myself in the crook of the tree to read some more.
One summer, we wrote, rehearsed, made costumes and sets for, and then performed a play. Another summer, we collected seeds from our mother's prodigious flower garden, packaged them, and labeled them for sale to all the neighbors. We went to the swimming pool, when we could convince someone to give us a ride -- but no adult stayed with us to supervise. We sewed things: clothes for ourselves, scarves for friends.
I wrote stories.
After dinner (again, kitchen help required, and then we were set free), we ran outside to play Kick the Can and Tiger and other games with kids up and down the block.
The only rules about how we spent our time were that we had to finish our chores before we walked out the door, we had to give mom a vague idea of where we'd be ("outside playing" was considered sufficient), we had to let mom know if we went inside anyone's house (for the simple reason that then we would not hear her when she opened the front door to shout that it was time to come home and help with dinner), and we had to come home to go to sleep at some point. We moved into this neighborhood when I was 11, and my sisters are both younger than I, so it's not like we were independent teenagers at this point.
And yet, we were left mostly to our own devices for several months on end.
It was glorious.
Now, of course, it is hard for most of us to imagine just letting our kids roam around neighborhoods unsupervised. (Unless we are radical mothers.) And yet, despite our fears for their safety, I think we are largely doing our children a disservice by not giving them some measure of the independence we ourselves had.
I am convinced that our freedom in the summers made us all pretty self-sufficient. My sisters and I are very good at devising projects to keep ourselves occupied. We are all pretty resilient. We are creative. We are perfectly comfortable being on our own for stretches of time.
I want these things for my own children, which is why, this summer, I have been sending them outside to play, unsupervised, in the back yard. Before you call Social Service on me (my kids, after all, are only 3 and 5 1/2 years old), here is the situation. Our backyard is small and fenced. Its biggest danger is that someone could fall off the climbing structure, but they could do the very same right under my watchful eye on the playground. I check on them every few minutes, and I can hear them playing through the open window, but, and I think this is the key, they can't see me and don't think of me as involved in their games.
Over the course of the summer, I have seen them develop tremendous fortitude for entertaining themselves. Back in May, they needed me to guide almost any game they played. Or they felt incomplete if I wasn't witnessing their efforts. Now, they can create the narrative arc of a playtime story all on their own. They still have small, bickering dilemmas, but they are beginning to learn how to resolve them (mostly, Son just pulls some kind of goofy antic to make Daughter stop pouting).
They have, in short, grown to the point where they are no longer dependent upon me for every single activity and idea they have for how to spend their time. I, personally, think that is healthy.
The corollary to this is that, as they are now reaching the age to be enrolled in activities and classes, I do not want their every minute to be scheduled. I will happily enroll Son on a soccer team, which he's been begging for. But he won't get to do t-ball until the soccer season is over because I think it is really important for him to have some time every single day in which he could potentially be bored out of his little mind, and during which he, not me, not a team or coach or teacher, will have to figure out how to stave off that boredom.
We recently had some friends over who were clearly very nervous about the idea of leaving the kids outside to play alone. I can appreciate that. I did not get to this point without lots of discussion and "practice" sessions with my own children. I'd go out to play with them, then leave them alone out there while I came inside to answer the phone or make lunch, gradually increasing the amount of time they could be outside alone to the point where I now trust them even in the unfenced front yard. (They know the rule is that I have to retrieve any balls that land in the street.)
I know not everyone would be comfortable with this. And even my kids, on their quiet, relatively safe, suburban street, will not be allowed alone beyond the boundaries of our yard for a few more years. But it is my hope that by the time they are older, I am confident enough in them to let them go on bike rides through the neighborhood without me trailing along behind.
It is a tricky balance, protecting our children and nurturing their own self-sufficiency. But for me, it's vital to find that line.
And, I'm curious: where is that line for you?
Thursday, August 13, 2009
So I'm sitting here, sipping coffee and munching toast and promising myself that I'll only read blogs until my fried eggs are all gone, when blamo! there it is, Marinka going on and on about Entenmann's and how their website is so hypnotic, especially if you are home in bed, feeling all
hypochondriacal sick with a summer cold.
Ever the sucker for allure of baked goods, and mildly nostalgic about my childhood adoration of all things Entenmann's, I of course go to the site, and yes, it really is mesmerizing. (Go ahead, click over. And when you're fully hypnotized by swirling pastries, come on back.)
The giant tag line under the carousel of sugary goodness reads "Everyone's got a favorite. What's yours?" and immediately I think BABKA! with more than a little glee. Honestly, I couldn't describe babka as a food in any kind of detail at all. Babka is the sweet Entenmann's treat you get on the special occasion when you visit your Jewish grandparents in New York. Babka is not breakfast or lunch, not dessert or danish, but something sweet and pastry-ish, perhaps with some jam or some cheese or some chocolate--you don't know--that tastes perfectly of Things Not Usually Allowed On Your Plate At This Time Of Day, Young Lady. Babka is toothsome and wonderful, packaged in that long white box with the fancy navy blue letters, and carefully chosen by you and your father to have for breakfast the next morning with your scrambled eggs--a secret delight that Mommy would never allow but won't know about because this is your weekend to stay with Daddy.
Obviously, I read "Everyone's got a favorite. What's yours?" and I immediately typed "babka" into the Entenmann's search box. Entenmann's told me:
Your Search Results
Sorry, there are no results that match your search criteria.
So, I Googled babka, thinking that it was probably a Yiddish word that had some hidden "h" in it or something, and that if only Google could tell me how to spell it, Entenmann's would hand me the pastry of my youth.
And that's when it got really weird. First of all, I was spelling it right, but my indignation that Entenmann's would stop carrying what was clearly the best pastry it ever produced was quickly eclipsed by what came up in the search results.
Several problems are immediately apparent. First, the confection is described as "a very tall, delicate yet rich yeast-risen cake," which, if you've ever seen the Entenmann's boxes in my mind's eye (or on my grocery store shelves) makes no sense at all. How does a "very tall" cake get into one of those distinctive long, low boxes, the shape of which I so vividly remember carrying?
Second, babka is almost schizophrenically described as a "Jewish recipe" and as a "traditional Polish Easter cake" in alternating entries on the list of Google hits. Both camps seem quite firm in their designation. Yet while there were historically a lot of Jewish people in Poland, I'm pretty sure they rarely baked special cakes for Easter, so this is a somewhat baffling Old World traditional food.
So, what exactly am I blaming on Marinka? The fact that I have spent the last half hour researching babka instead of grading MA exams, certainly. And the longing and mournful feeling I have inside because I will apparently never taste an Entenmann's babka again. I think it's probably stretching things too far to say that it's Marinka's fault that Entenmann's discontinued babka; probably, they don't carry it any more because they couldn't figure out whether to market it at Easter or to Jewish grandmothers who like something sweet baked into their bread. However, I give her credit for the disquieting feeling I have that perhaps I NEVER tasted an Entenmann's babka because very tall cake + very short box = one of those invented memories that people sometimes discover they have forty years after the fact, once they've spent all that time feeling bitter about something their little sister said to them on Christmas Day back in 1969, only to discover that on Christmas Day in 1969, that particular sister was recovering from laryngitis and couldn't talk at all.
Also, the more research I've done, I've discovered that it's really not a cake so much as a brioche. And that it is typically graced with chocolate. Which goes a long way towards explaining my own intense love of all things bread-with-chocolate. (Even though I still have a vague idea that we ate cheese babka or fruit babka as children.)
So, basically, anyone out there who loves Marinka as much as I do (and I really do adore her) needs to come to her rescue and vindicate my memories. DID Entenmann's used to sell babka? Was it short? Can babka have things in it besides chocolate? Is it bread or cake? Am I crazy?
And, for good measure, if you can diagnose Marinka's Sudden Onset Summer Illness, I would be very grateful (as, I'm sure, would she). I would be very very sorry to lose her to the Slow Withering Away with Inferior Pastry that is her current fate.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I reached my wit's end the other day when I answered the third phone call for Comcast. We happen to have their internet and phone service, but we get daily phone calls for Comcast not because we are satisfied customers, not because we have some "in" on the billing or packages, not because we can answer questions. Oh, no. We get daily calls for Comcast because our phone number happens to be one digit different from one of the many call center numbers Comcast has in operation.
Hence, our phone rings during dinner: "Could I please speak to Monica at extension 4567?"
It rings during bathtime: "Is this Comcast? I need to upgrade my..."
It rings during art projects: "Is Terrence there; we just got disconnected...?"
It rings while I'm covered with raw chicken because I'm cooking dinner, and someone leaves an irate message: "This is Sheryl. I've called you people three times to settle my bill. You need to call me back TODAY."
It rings at 5:50am -- yes, A.M. -- and panics me into thinking someone beloved from afar is calling with terrible news. So I scramble out of bed only to reach a hang-up. And then the phone rings again one minute later because the person on the other end got our home answering machine, assumed he misdialed, and then dialed again.
Because, you see, it's not that all these people are dialing their phones incorrectly. Oh, no. It's that someone (or several someones) at Comcast is giving them our phone number by mistake.
How do I know this for sure? I have started striking up conversations with every caller.
For a long time, I just screened the calls. But we were getting multiple calls from people who were clearly sure they had the right number. And then, we got that irate message from Sheryl on our home machine trying to arrange payment for her overdue bill.
Our home machine has an outgoing message with a cheerful greeting, a mention of our names, and the phrase "we aren't home right now, but..." It routinely gets messages from people who are trying to disconnect, reconnect, reconfigure, add, cut down, or pay for their Comcast services.
So, in desperation, I decided to run a little experiment and find out if this many people were misdialing or not.
"Hello," I say, picking up the phone to a caller id number I don't recognize.
"Um," says the voice on the other end, clearly confused by the non-professional greeting.
"Are you calling for Comcast?" I ask pleasantly.
"Yes!" says the voice in some relief.
"You want 555-1234. You've dialed 555-2234."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," says the voice, about to beat a hasty retreat.
"Do you mind me asking: did you misdial, or were you given this number?"
"I was given this number. 555-2234. That's what he said."
"Do you happen to have a name or an extension number for the person who gave you this number? Someone at Comcast keeps giving out our number, and I'm trying to figure out who so that I can get them to stop."
"Oh, man. That's too bad. Yes, I have it right here...It was John at extension 9876."
"Thank you so much."
"No problem. Thanks for giving me the right number."
But here's the problem. So far, since I started having these conversations, every single person I've talked to has given me a different name and a different extension from the last. Sometimes they don't know the extension, only the name. Other times it's the reverse. But since I started collecting this data, there haven't been any repeats.
Which leaves me a little perplexed. Either these people are hearing 555-2234 when they're actually being told 555-1234, or half the Comcast call center has the wrong number to give out. Given that we get at least three of these calls per day, the cynic in me thinks that the fault lies with people at the call center and not the customers.
I have tried calling back Monica and John and Terrence (not their real names, obviously), but of course, their extensions are always busy and the helpful phone service offers to direct me to the "next available representative" -- who no doubt will be one that knows the Comcast phone number and doesn't give out mine by mistake, so I always just hang up.
My latest strategy has been to change my outgoing answering machine message and quit picking up the phone all together. Now, the message says:
You have reached DaddyTime, MommyTime, Son and Daughter. We can't take your call right now, but leave us a message, and we'll call you back.
If you're calling for Comcast, the number you want is 555-1234. Please don't leave us a message. You have reached a home, not a business.
Thank you, and have a nice day.
I tried very hard to keep any hint of snark out of my tone. After all, it's not the callers' faults that someone is giving them the wrong phone number. The real test of whether this works or not, of course, will be that no one leaves us messages any more.
As for stopping the o'dark a.m. phone calls? That I haven't figured out yet.
Friday, August 7, 2009
I am working on a new, meatier post that's taking me longer than I thought it would, so for those of you weary of health-care discussions, please to enjoy the following toothsome morsel for today. And, if you're not a recipe person and would prefer to chew on something more serious, feel free to scroll down to the post before this one, where the really interesting perspectives on health care reform just keep coming.
I adapted this recipe from the Bread-Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook (an indispensable bread-making book, I think). I would not have made any changes to it except that I had put together most of the recipe before I realized that we only had 1 cup of flour in the house -- and with the eggs and other ingredients already languishing in the bread machine pan, I had to improvise.
If you have a bread maker, just dump all of the following ingredients into it, in order. Then set the bread maker on the cake/quick breads cycle, and walk away. DO pay attention in the last 20 minutes of cooking. This makes a small loaf (you could easily double the recipe and have it still fit into a 1 1/2 - 2 pound bread machine), and in my bread maker, I had to pull the bread out ten minutes before the cycle was done. Check the bread as you would any cake: stick a toothpick or skewer into it, and if it comes out pretty clean, with just a few damp crumbs on it, the bread is done.
If you don't have a bread maker, I would recommend putting all of of this into a food processor or blender because you really want the oats to be chopped up pretty fine to make the texture of this bread nice.
1/2 cup oil
1 1/3 cups grated zucchini (about two medium store-bought zucchini, or half of one of the forearm-sized specimens your friend's garden is producing this year)
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup flour
3/4 cup oats
1/4 cup corn meal
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
If you're baking in a traditional oven, grease muffin tins or a small loaf pan, and pour in the well-blended batter. Bake at 350 degrees for as long as muffins/a small loaf usually takes in your oven. (This could be anywhere from 15-22 minutes for muffins, depending on their size all the way up to 50 minutes for a loaf.) Bread is done when it's a rich nutty brown, very fragrant, and the top looks set but still tender. Stick in a skewer at this point; if it comes out pretty clean, with just a few clinging crumbs, you're all set.
Whatever method you use, remove bread from pan immediately, and cool on a wire rack.
This makes an excellent variation if your garden is exploding with zucchini right now. I expect if you made a large batch, you could freeze some, as zucchini bread typically freezes well -- but around our house, we can't get this to last long enough to find out for sure. (Hence, the lack of photo. The entire loaf disappeared in one day.)
Have fun trying not to eat all of it in one sitting!
Monday, August 3, 2009
When I was 13 weeks pregnant with my first child, I was teaching a summer course in Italy. One day at the Vatican, I was trailing at the end of our group, trying to make sure that the dawdling students (and how can you do anything but dawdle at the Vatican, when there's so much gorgeousness to see?) didn't get left behind by the very fast-paced leader of our tour. Busily ensuring we weren't leaving any students behind, I quickly got very far behind. While zooming to catch up, I tripped over something, went completely Superman airborne, and then crashed onto the marble terrace so hard that it knocked the wind out of me. Of course, my group was already so far ahead that no one noticed -- and they had divided in half to go to two different locations, so no one would notice I was missing, since each group would assume I was with the other. Gasping for breath, aching, and panicky, I rolled over and tried to sit up but could not. Some very nice Spanish tourists stopped to help me, and as we eventually walked slowly to the first aid station, my broken Spanish and their broken English managed to converge around the mutual understanding that I was pregnant and deeply concerned that I'd hurt the baby.
Within a few minutes of talking to the nurse on call, I was being escorted into an ambulance (which I didn't expect). A grandfatherly doctor who spoke no English was apprised of my situation, and for the entire ride to the hospital, he patted my hand and murmured gently to me in words I could not translate but which were clearly meant to be reassuring. The ambulance jolted over cobbled streets, siren wailing, and soon I found myself in the institutional-green hallways of a Roman hospital, stretched on a gurney, and trying to rest and calm myself until the doctors in OB could see me. See me they did. A very kindly female doctor gave me a complete exam and an ultrasound. The first strains of my child's heartbeat, thump-thumping strong over the monitor, finally quelled my panic and made me forget my already aching ribs and my developing bruises. The doctor told me everything would be just fine, handed me two small ultrasound pictures, and sternly forbade me to do anything for the remainder of the day but take to my bed.
Grateful for good news, I was only worried about one more thing. Where, I asked in a timid voice, where did I go to pay? The doctor looked at me confused. Was this a bill? I wanted to know of the blue sheet printed all in Italian that has issued from their computer. Where was the office to pay the bill?
The doctor finally understood what I was getting at, straightened her shoulders a little proudly. "Oh no," she said in heavily accented English as she waved me off, "not in I-taly."
And that was that. I took the bus back to my (bed-bug-infested) hostel, climbed into bed, and told no one what had happened. For the next few days, I walked more slowly, was extremely careful not to jostle my very tender midsection, and breathed serenely at the thought that the little life I was carrying was going to be just fine.
I have not read the current health care bill (all 1300+ pages), but here's what I do know: in a country without a national health care system, an ambulance ride, emergency visit with a hospital OB, and an ultrasound would have cost me many thousands of dollars. If I had been an Italian in the United States? The bill would probably have topped $10,000.
I know that people here who have pre-existing conditions will have to spend thousands of dollars each month on health insurance, if they can get insurance at all.
I know that there are millions of uninsured children in the United States (the last figure I can find quoted on a reliable website is 8.1 million, which is 1 in 9 children).
According to the last government data available (from 2007), nearly 46 million people in the US have no health insurance.
I know that many people without insurance cannot afford preventative care (like vaccines), and often avoid going to the doctor at all until the situation is desperate, in which case they are far more likely to end up in the ER and/or needing treatments much more expensive than either preventive care or timely doctor visits would have cost.
I know that hospital expenses are absurdly high, and the current system doesn't help matters. Because hospitals cannot turn away emergent cases on the grounds that people can't pay (read: if you show up with a compound fracture from a car accident, they are bound to fix your leg regardless of your insurance), the people who can pay are charged more. (This is not the only reason for absurdly high hospital costs, but it is an important one, I think we need to remember.)
I know that we spend huge amounts of money in this country on expensive tests and treatments that have a very small likelihood of succeeding, but doctors order them anyway because the way the system is structured, the financial incentives are greatest for trying anything and everything rather than curing people quickly. (Read: doctors make more money the more procedures they try, rather than getting a bonus for curing you.) This is not at all meant to imply that doctors don't try to cure patients as efficiently as possible, but rather to say that a system that has an incentive built into it to try even very expensive treatments that are very unlikely to work, rather than an barrier to authorizing such folly, is a problematic system.
I know that people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own also lose their health insurance -- at the very time when they can least afford the expense of an unexpected health emergency because, um, they just lost their jobs. And then, of course, when they find new jobs, they may find that they are not eligible for coverage through their new employers because now that thing that was being managed quite well, thank you, by their previous doctors and insurance (say, a pregnancy halfway through, or an asthma that needs regular inhalers) is suddenly a pre-existing condition.
I know that a system in which my insurance has negotiated a rate for a routine hospital stay (such as labor and delivery) that is 1/4 of what the actual bill says -- and therefore 1/4 of what someone without insurance would pay -- is absurd and criminal. Why should the bill be different for me and for the woman in the next room?
I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have a secure job that comes with a great and extremely affordable health care plan.
I know that if a national health care plan is passed, the costs of my health care will certainly rise because right now, they are artificially low as this benefit is part of my compensation package (like salary and other benefits).
I know that if a national health care plan is passed, my taxes will probably rise, since something needs to give if all the people currently denied health care in this country are to have access to it.
But I also know that I am somewhat ashamed that I benefit while others suffer because we live in the only first-world country on the planet that does not consider the accessibility of health care to be a basic human right.
I know that I am horrified when I hear stories of people whose children's illnesses bankrupted their family.
I know that something must change.
I do not know if the current health care bill has all the answers, and somehow I doubt it does, since I would imagine that an overhaul of our current bureaucratic system will take more than one try.
But it is a start. And we must have a start.
Because every single day, and every time my kids get strep throat, or fall on the playground and might have broken their wrists but turn out not to--and I can be sure of that because they got x-rays within hours of the fall, or get their teeth cleaned or their eyes checked, or get vaccinated, or have a dresser fall on them and need to be examined for internal injuries...and I get to see a doctor that very same day because I have insurance...I am thankful that I am one of the lucky ones.
And I mourn for those who are not so fortunate.
My taxes will go up. It will cost me, personally, more. But I passionately believe we must have a national health care system.
Because I feel that among the privileges of living in one of the richest nations on earth comes the obligation to be sure that those among us who are not the richest never have to watch a child die from something preventable because they were afraid the rest of the family would not be able to eat after the hospital bill was paid.
It needs to be a system carefully devised and executed. It needs to be a system that will actually work as intended. It needs to be a system in which health care is not a condition of employment and in which pre-existing conditions do not make you ineligible for care. It needs to be a system that I am not well-informed enough to design, but that I am willing to pay for.
Because, quite honestly, it is morally problematic that anyone should be able to write, as I do:
I am one of the lucky ones.
Being healthy should not be a matter of luck.