Sunday, December 30, 2007

Coming to Terms with 2007 (Or 2007 with Coming to Terms...)

I got this idea from Judi this morning. She, in turn, got it from a couple other blogs she frequents. The idea is to review the past year by taking the first line from the first post of each month. It looked like fun, so I thought I would try it. The results surprised me, a little.

I should preface this by saying that I am not one of those who never goes back and reads my own writing. On the contrary, I derive a measure of satisfaction from going back into my archives from time to time. I guess I just need constant reassurance that I can string together a coherent sentence or two.

So, let’s take a look at those first lines, first posts of the months of 2007---

January--Last Saturday evening we tuned in to NPR to be treated to "Special Coverage" of the execution of Sadaam Hussein.

February--Thirty years of childless marriage have by no means meant that our nest, or our hearts, have been empty.

March--I decided to post something pretty, because today was SO not.

April--Early last week, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards stood beside his wife and announced that the deadly specter of cancer had returned to Elizabeth Edwards’ life.

May--These days, American government is like a bad case of hives: crazy-making and torturous, and you don’t know which itch to scratch first.

June--The ever-shrinking neighborhood of the blogosphere into which I sank my roots almost four years ago, is once again twisting, turning, contracting...fading.

July--I did indeed have to terminate Mr. Hawaiian Shirt.

August--My next thirty hours will be spent preparing to step out of my new life and back into my old one.

September--After school, while my sisters glued themselves to soap operas on the big color console in the living room, I would hole up in my folks’ bedroom and watch the Cubs on their little black and white portable.

October--From time to time, I try to look back and assess the progress I’ve made in any given area of running the café.

November--Fall arrived at the café last month, dropping duffel bags full of problems into our laps.

December--In the last six weeks, my mother has been in the hospital; in a nursing home; a day away from going back to her apartment…then back to the hospital, and back to the nursing home.

Honestly, I thought I had spent the last 365 days (and more) coming here to whine about how tired, abused, put-upon and overwhelmed I was by the challenges faced by an over-the-hill small business owner. But, look! Only four of these twelve first lines are lead-ins to bitch-fests about my café struggles. This truly amazes me. Knowing how much of my life force really was poured into my business over the past year, I’m surprised (and happy) that the café apparently is not all I’m about.

What surprised me even more is that three of these posts are political rants. I can’t say how happy that makes me. I’d started to think that my political fire had been snuffed under tons of the chaff of everyday living. It was easy to explore and promote lofty ideals when I was half-retired and didn’t have anything else to do. Not so easy to write about, or even care about, those things when life is coming at you at 100 miles an hour. And yet…and yet, obviously, I still have my political wits about me. It remains to be seen how that will play out in the new year (2008, folks! I’ll have to get a new graphic for my sidebar…)

And then there were the posts about the losses…in February, we lost one of our dearest animal "children," and in December, my mom slipped away to the other side.

There’s even one post about one of my favorite subjects on which to rant—my ever-changing, ever-shifting relationship to this—my four-year-old ethereal brain-child. I’ve gone full-circle—from no readers, to lots of readers, back to (almost) no readers and all the places in between. I’ve been inside the community, and (more often than not) outside of it. I’ve had friends, and lost them, too. They’ve disappeared **poof** into the ether, never to be heard from again. But…I stick around. Never one to be unduly influenced by the actions of others, I soldier on. I like it here. I write here. I do it for me.

And to those of you who drop in from time to time to see what I have to say…thanks.

And Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Old Life, New Life, and Benazir Bhutto

This morning, my clock radio woke me with the unhappy news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I’m not well-informed about the politics of our "ally" Pakistan. I know I don’t trust Pervez Musharraf any further than I could throw a tank. I know I feel a little soiled, a little jaded, every time I hear Dubya go on about what a great partner Musharraf is in our "War on Terrah." It doesn’t seem to matter that Musharraf’s government presents only the flimsiest pretense of democracy, and only when it doesn’t inconvenience Musharraf.

Benazir Bhutto, as the leader of Musharraf’s chief opposition, was many things. She was loved and revered, discredited and exiled, and tainted by corruption. Who can say, entangled as she was in the political strife inherent to Pakistan, what Bhutto really was. I can only believe that to have become Prime Minister of an Islamic nation—even an unsuccessful and ultimately deposed Prime Minister—she must have been a remarkable woman. I admired her. And I feared for her life when she decided to end her exile and return to Pakistan. May she rest in the peace she was fated never to know in this life.

I considered posting a quick tribute to Bhutto this morning, since I thought I didn’t have to work until 11 am. My life being what it is, however, half my crew crapped out on me today, so I had to give up any nobler aspirations and run to the café.

I get to work, and thoughts of Mrs. Bhutto are still swimming around in my head. I say to my counter girl, "So they killed Benazir Bhutto…!" And she says, "Who?" I say, "Benazir Bhutto." Totally blank face. "Do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Uh, noooo…"

Okay. Counter girl is only nineteen. But she is also in her second year of college. What made me think a college student must have somehow heard of Benazir Bhutto?

Toward the end of this exchange with clueless college student counter girl, my cook walks through the door. Cook is in her late thirties, never struck me as being particularly well-educated…but I also know she is a total internet junkie. "P, do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Who?" No surprise there, really. Apparently, cook zaps right past the news blurbs on her home page…

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had such a hard time letting go of my "old life" and embracing my new life as a (completely lost-in-the-weeds) entrepreneur. And I’ve been trying to figure out what my problem is. Though I’m inching closer to the total immersion I think I need in order to be successful, I really feel like I’ve been dragged to that place kicking and screaming. After today, I have a little better idea of why that is.

I work in the freaking Twilight Zone. I’m surrounded by people who have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world beyond the ends of their own noses. For someone who has spent much of the last four years nurturing and immersed in her personal political identity, this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. I feel like I’m finding a life, but losing myself. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007

Around Thanksgiving (was that only last month?) I predicted a hard holiday for my family, and wished for Spring. It did indeed come to pass, that sad and difficult season. Thanksgiving was a non-starter…we were even then in that watching and waiting pattern that establishes itself as a loved one dwindles. Mom passed away on December 3. Her memorial service, and our ability not to tear each other to shreds in the preparation of it, was the single shining moment for the Baldwin family this season. We sent Mom to her rest with love and dignity.

We didn’t feel like celebrating the holidays, but we thought that not celebrating would be too sad and empty. After the funeral, and the unhappy task of cleaning out Mom’s apartment, sifting through her prodigious angel collection and her sixty years’ accumulation of costume jewelry brought us the comfort of fond memories. Each of us chose one or two pieces to hold and remember. By mid-December, that business was mostly concluded, and we tried to scrape together some kind of family holiday. But we just…ran out of gas. Yesterday saw some of the sniping and the anger and the tears that we had worked so hard to avoid.

In the end, maybe it would have been better to just…give Christmas a pass this year. It was so hard not to compare last night’s somber little celebration to "The Good Years" and find it pitiably wanting. No one was really in the mood to count our blessings and put a good face on it. Mostly there was a lot of food that nobody needed, and a few presents that nobody really wanted. Christmas 2007 is just about over now, and nobody in our family is going to miss it, I think.

Hard to believe that the bright spot of my life the last few weeks has been…the café. That thing which has been more inclined to kick my butt than feed my ego for the past nineteen months…

This may be the worst Christmas since the Grinch licked his evil lips over Whoville, but Old Town Café is chugging along at a record pace. Not world record, of course, but record in relation to our own history. The first week of December, while I was in Eugene tending to my sad family business, my crew piloted the good ship OTC to its highest December sales week in its three-year history. And we’ve repeated that performance in each of the last two weeks. As of today, we’re showing a 1% increase in sales over last year’s total December sales, and we still have six sales days remaining. And I haven’t laid out one dime in advertising money all month. I’m having a hard time believing we’re the same restaurant we were one year ago.

Oh, do I remember the goings on of a year ago, though I’d rather forget. 2006—the year of the chronically sick, reliably unreliable and/or disappearing employees, and sales so bad it didn’t really matter whether I had employees or not. The year of no mercy, which threatened to chew me up, spit me out, and grind me into the pavement. The year where the best I could say of it, as it dwindled into its final hours on New Years Eve, was that I had survived. (And yet, I felt giddily victorious to be able to say that much…)

Last year, my family was my life preserver, the thing that kept my head above the waters surrounding my foundering business ship. This year, my business is the thing that my hands are grasping as the waves of grief and loss toss me about. I suppose I should be grateful—and I am—that there is always something to keep me afloat. But I’m still hoping that next year will be a little less tempest-tossed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reinventing Christmas

Christmas, to me, has always been about tradition. When I was a kid, we had our family rituals. We cleared the everyday chotchkes from the shelves, laid them away and brought out the Christmas knick-knacks. The plastic magi—identical but for their colored robes—one pink, one blue, one green--astride their shiny silver camels; the caroling china angel quartet, their mouths eternally frozen in cherry-red circles; the candy-cane striped "N-O-E-L." My mother’s creche with the hand-repainted figures that she rescued from an attic fire in the ‘forties. We left the manger expectantly empty until Christmas Eve, when we placed the tiny plaster Jesus gently in his crib before we went to bed. To the mouldings around every doorway in the house were taped the scores of Christmas cards we received from every person my parents ever knew.

Dad cooked a turkey for Christmas dinner, Aunt Mary brought her jello molds—strawberry (yay!) and carrot (yuck!) There were pumpkin and mince pies, always over-baked and a tad leathery. The pumpkin was perfect, piled with enough whipped cream to overpower any other flavor. The mince was…well, Dad liked it. After dinner, we’d clear the table, scavenge the leftovers and fearfully wash my mother’s china. With those chores done, we’d adjourn to the living room, where there always lingered that particular smell of hot tree lights inexorably singeing the scotch pine or balsam fir needles.  In the warm glow of those lights, we'd talk quietly, tell jokes or sing carols.  The youngest among us would remain conscious only long enough to nestle a head into the soft lap of the nearest willing adult.

Those were the traditions of a post-war suburban baby-boom family. Quaint, comforting, with deep connections to the past. Written in stone. For about a decade. Until the sixties hit and tweaked everything in the direction of the pop culture of that decade.  Shiny aluminum Christmas trees, Charlie Brown and Barbie... 

The thing is, our family’s traditions never were written in stone. They were liquid, changing with the complexion and demands of the times. As we changed and grew, our rituals evolved to accommodate the growth. When I hear folks wax nostalgic about the traditions their families have followed for decades, I have to wonder how they do that. How can they be so…static?

This year, I’m particularly aware of the temporal nature of our family traditions. In this season of change and loss, the keeper of the last traditions is no longer with us. There’s no call to indulge in the faded remnants of the old rituals, and the traditions that we had built around her decreasing mobility are suddenly unnecessary. There was no trundling her wheelchair around the World’s Largest ChristmasBazaar on Thanksgiving Friday. No Dollar Store shopping sprees. No casting call for the 2007 additions to the heavenly host adorning every inch of her apartment and overflowing into the hallways. In her last years, she was at once matriarch and the child some of us had never had. Christmas, in many ways, was for her. And now, it’s….not.

And so we’re stumbling through this Christmas season, liberated yet bereft. Finding new meanings, missing the old ones. Stepping forward, but with one foot stuck in the past. There will be moments of beauty and magic, punctuated with wistful sighs. We will miss her. But we will take our memories of her, as we did those of Dad and my sweet sister, into our futures. Always part of our ever-evolving traditions.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Another Goodbye

This made me so sad today:

Singer Dan Fogelberg Dies of Cancer at Age 56

A friend introduced me to Dan Fogelberg's music back in 1974.  He was one of two artists I've ever seen in concert multiple times (the other being John Denver--gone ten years, now.) 

Dan Fogelberg was only four years older than I am.  He hailed, as I did, from the cornfield quilted Land of Lincoln.  He sang of love and loss during the years I went through those very things.  He sang about the earth back when we all used to care about it. I feel like we grew up together. 

We never met, but he was part of my youth, part of my history as much as any friend or lover. Of course this is not a personal loss.  But, then again, it is

So much of my history has been swallowed up by death lately.

And it's really starting to piss me off... 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vanity, Thy Name is...Uh, What's Thy Name Again?

Even had it not been for the sad events of the past couple of weeks, this holiday season was destined to be different from the last several.

I just couldn’t consider tearing every room in my house apart and reconstructing the "Christmas Zone" I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. And not really because I don’t have any time to DO the decorating (though I truly don’t...) More because the thought of UNDOING the decorating come mid-January left me absolutely cold.


No five trees in the house; we’ve cut the population to two. And neither of these is in my bedroom. The bedroom will remain holiday neutral this season. No tree, no snow-kitties on the mantel, no candles in the fireplace, no glitter stuck to my face when I wake up.

Nor will the family room get bedecked this year. Hardly seems worth it, since we spend about two hours a week relaxing there anymore.

The living room will harbor one barely over-decorated tree. Easy up, easy down…

Worst of all, one of my favorite holiday indulgences has finally been made redundant by the hands-on nature of living the dream…


Friday, December 7, 2007

My Mother's Hands

All through preparations for my mom's funeral, I knew that what I needed to do was to give of my talent, from my heart.  An artist would paint, a photographer would snap, a seamstress would sew...and I--needed to write.  Something.  But the words refused to come.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday went by...  I understood the imperative, but could not find the inspiration.  The funeral was this morning--Friday.  It was now or never.

No time to fuss, no time to edit and re-arrange and tweak.  And it came, in a rush...

I remember my mother’s hands
Not elegant nor slender
But stout and strong and
always busy

My earliest memories are of those capable hands
Wielding a dust cloth, a dish rag, a scrub brush,
Feeding laundry through the wringer washer
pegging it out on the line to dry
Dipping a spoon into the magic paste
that would become the lumpy dumplings
in our favorite chicken soup

We coveted the gentle stroke
that would calm a fevered temple
And dreaded the near-scalping
when those hands came in contact with
any object surrounding a
shock of hair attached to the backs of our heads
("It’ll only hurt for a second…!)

Those hands, nearly forty years old, were introduced
to the steering wheel of a station wagon in 1961
and carried on a love/hate relationship with that object
for the next thirty years
And in 1966, they traded the dust cloth and mop
for the pencil and the adding machine
The kitchen table for the desk at Woolworth’s--
another love-hate relationship that lasted nearly twenty years.

I remember those hands
fussing with the filmy folds of a veil around my face
taking needle and thread to the great hole in that veil
after I wrapped it around a barberry bush fleeing the rice-throwers
on a chilly October morning in 1976
Those loving hands…those mother’s hands

In retirement, those hands
Clutched a fishing pole or a handful of playing cards
("I’ve got a hand like a foot!!")
Tipped a watering can into one green thing or another
that always responded enthusiastically to her touch
stroked the soft fur of the latest adoptee
or sneaked forbidden bits to furry family members
waiting confidently at her feet under the dining table
Wrapped around a pen, dispatching volumes upon volumes of word puzzles
heavy with the rings and bracelets she loved to pile on
But busy…always busy

I hope now, wherever her spirit is going
they give her hands, as well as wings

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Elsie B. 1922-2007


Fold thy hands sleeping!
Angels are keeping
     Watch o’er thee now.
See, it is dawning!
Light of the morning
     Falls on thy brow.

White wings are flying!
No more shall dying
     Darken thy day.
Leave thou Death’s portal!
Spirit immortal
     Speed on thy way!

When skies are paling
And clouds are sailing
     Over Earth’s night,
Only in dreaming
Shall thou be seeming
     Lost to our sight.

Dream mists are drifting!
Fingers are lifting
     Curtains of space!
Framed in its splendor
Wistful and tender,
     Smiles thy dear face.

                                      --J. Wilmer Gresham

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Stormy Peace

We saw Mom on Saturday for a few minutes. Spent the rest of the day helping my sisters decompress a little. And then stopped by to see her again Sunday morning. Saturday, she was awake and in distress. Sunday, not so much.

We drove home, through the wind and rain of a nasty Pacific Northwest winter storm, no wiser about what was going to happen with Mom, or when.  It could be hours...days...a week. 

When we got home, we called for news. Mom's condition was rapidly deteriorating. Sister D would spend the night at her bedside.

I would sleep fitfully, waking to hour after hour of howling wind and pelting rain. Remembering that when my Dad died, the weather was almost exactly the same.

Mom died this morning around 7:30 am.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Long, Slow Pain

In the last six weeks, my mother has been in the hospital; in a nursing home; a day away from going back to her apartment…then back to the hospital, and back to the nursing home. It has been an arduous ordeal.

I can wish that her trials had ended with that first episode back in October. When her heart slowed and stopped, but the paramedics didn’t know enough to let it be. I can say that was her time, and she was cheated out of it. But that’s not really my call to make, is it?

Six weeks ago, Mom was not ready. She was just approaching the steep end of her final decline. She wasn’t tired enough, wasn’t near done fighting.

My sisters weren’t ready, either. Having been charged with her care since my dad’s death, they were so invested in keeping her going, that they didn’t recognize that the time was approaching to let her go.

Now. Now is the time. Six weeks of pain, confusion and fear have pried loose Mom’s vise-like hold on life. Six weeks of trying to alleviate that same pain, confusion and fear have ultimately served to redirect my sisters’ energies from keeping Mom alive at all costs, to keeping her comfortable as she completes her final journey.

So today, we will make the trip 100 miles south. Who knows, she may not even wait for us to get there. But it doesn’t matter. None of the bickering or the sniping, or the estrangements or the hurt feelings, or the bossiness or the passive-aggressive posturing…none of that matters now. My first thought was of these things, and how I didn’t want to deal with them. Not now, my heart argued. Not in my current sleep-deprived, chronically stressed-out condition. I have done my filial duty. I was at my dad’s bedside when he died. Surely that should give me a credible pass on this one. I told my sister we probably wouldn’t be coming. Call me when it’s over.

A few hours later, in a saner moment, I realized that was the wrong choice. You go to the bedside of your dying parent. You put aside all the dread and the stinging memories and the sibling bullshit, and you go. Not to say goodbye…she will not hear. Most certainly not to make some kind of show for anyone else. You go in love. In thanks. In honor of an eternal connection. In appreciation of a life well-lived.

Memories…they are a double-edged sword, are they not?

Monday, November 19, 2007

My Name is Lisa, and I'm a Yule-a-holic

My low expectations for the coming season notwithstanding, the irresistible compulsions are already beginning...

I took the past weekend off for plans that didn’t come to pass. I knew the plans were history by early in the week. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what I could do with two entire days off in a row.

Go to the beach?

Go shopping?

Take the dog and my camera for a lovely late autumn walk somewhere?

Ummm…not. Weather turned out cold, dark, ugly and wet. Good for sitting at home, curled up in front of the fire with a good book.

Or putting up a Christmas tree…


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gloomy Days

I’m a naturally pensive person. I think a lot; some might say, too much. And my obsessive rumination generally puts me slightly out of phase with other people. It’s an uncomfortable and often lonely place to exist, so my nature is to be somewhat…blue. Seventy-five percent of the time, I put a good face on it, and go forth as if I’m as positive and jolly as the next guy. But my blues are always just below the surface.

Which is what makes Northwest winters difficult. There are so many dismal, cold and drippy days. The weather becomes an extension of my melancholy, rather than a relief from it. The dark of Oregon winters makes me want to drop the happy mask and just…wallow.

Today is precisely that kind of day. It’s cold and damp, and it’s going to be one of those where we’ll never see full daylight. Outside my dining room window, a few little juncoes are dejectedly pecking at waterlogged seeds. Even the birds look soggy and disgruntled. Looking out upon this vignette, it’s hard for me not to think forward to the coming holidays, and contemplate how sad, dark and empty they are likely to be.

With Thanksgiving just over the horizon, and Mom so sick, the first thing that comes to mind is Christmas, 1998. Dad died the second of February, 1999. The 1998 holiday season was a six-week nightmare. Dad was dying, Mom was ill, and my sisters, my nieces and I were at each other’s throats. I’m not sure why, but our normally close-knit and generally amiable family utterly disintegrated during that dark time. It took me, literally, years to get over it. Or not. I’m still not over it, or so I’ve recently discovered.

Yes, things are different now. Mom is desperately ill, but there is not that feeling that she’ll be going before her time…that she might be leaving her life unfinished. That feeling was so strong when Dad died. It magnified the sadness of his passing a hundredfold.

And this time, we know what it’s like to bury a parent. It’s never easy, and you’re never as prepared as you think you are. With Dad, we were utterly blindsided. At least now, we’ve been through it before.

And there’s one other thing we know. It’s a sad and disheartening thing to know, but we know it nonetheless. We know how poisonous we can be to each other. We know the worst we can be, faced with the strain of coming to terms with death…and life. They say forewarned is forearmed, do they not?

Still, I have this trepidation that whatever knowledge we possess, it won’t be enough to keep us from going for the jugular when the stress reaches the boiling point. We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves. Our Pandora’s box was torn open when Dad was dying…and we haven’t yet been able to corral or appease everything that flew out of it those nine years ago.

So my highest wish for this holiday season is…I wish it was spring.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Mom's Journey Goes On...And On

Wednesday morning, I called my sister for the update on Mom. I was thrilled to hear that it looked like Mom was going to recover enough to go back to her apartment. Better news than I had expected in a million years.

That afternoon, my sister called me back. Mom "crashed." She was in bed, barely conscious, too weak to sit in her chair or eat. Nobody knows why.

They took her back to the hospital last night. In an ambulance. I told my sister, "Just don’t let them zap her again." And she said, "Well, with the pacemaker, they shouldn’t need to." Sigh!

And so this card-carrying agnostic stops what she’s doing at odd times during the day, adopts the hundred-mile-stare, and wishes with every fiber of her being for Mom to give in and go whatever there is to go on to. I don’t know why, but I’m convinced there is something, an unimaginable transcendence to the next level, whatever it is… And I can’t help but think it is where our spirits really belong, are in fact straining to go, once we slough off our corporeal baggage.

It breaks my heart to know she’s clinging so hard to…so much less than she could have if she just let go.

But nobody said life was easy.

And neither is death.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Going Down and Getting Up

Fall arrived at the café last month, dropping duffel bags full of problems into our laps. We slid into a dark period of awful sales numbers, missed or retracted opportunities and continued labor crises. The virus that the girls brought through the doors in late August hounded us like a telephone solicitor. We passed it back and forth in various mutations for almost two months. I finally ended up on antibiotics for a strep infection. Everyone was sick, sales were in the toilet, and I personally was so burned out, used up and generally wasted that the light at the end of the tunnel just…went out. When I ended up spending a rare day off running around a Kaiser clinic tracking down treatment for my infected throat, I knew I couldn’t go on like this anymore.
So, in the middle of all this gloom, who should walk up to my front counter and nearly beg for her job back but Flaky Cook? The one who just…stopped coming to work back in June? The drama queen whose combination of general competence and constant personal turmoil made her one of the most frustrating employees I have ever had? Much as she made my life interesting bordering on miserable during her tenure, I knew she was a very available answer to my current dilemma. A capable cook already familiar with our operation who could work morning hours during the week. So I wouldn’t have to be chained to the kitchen for thirteen hours a day. Manna from heaven! I put her back on the payroll.
Despite her promises to do better, I fully expect her to remain flaky and unreliable; and in the end, she’ll probably disappear on me again in a few months. But if I can coax a couple of months of decent work out of her, it will give me time to rejuvenate a little and work on the kinds of things that will keep the doors open—like marketing, menu development, training and working on our décor to provide a more pleasant dining atmosphere. Flaky Cook is in her third week back with us, and I already feel a hundred percent better.
Still, I’ve wondered whether I made the right decision. It was definitely a matter of choosing the devil you know over the devil you don’t know. Fifteen years ago, I never would have even spoken to that kind of employee again, much less rehired her. But if I’ve learned nothing else in the last eighteen months, I’ve learned that times have radically changed when it comes to getting people to work for you. I’ve had to put my impossibly high standards aside and deal with what is.
But if last week was any indication of what can be accomplished when I am rested and released enough to do the things an owner should be doing, I’ll take it. We started out with absolutely dismal sales. October was just destined to be a terrible month for us, I guess, and the last three days of the month trickled away into ignominy. We showed almost a fifty percent drop in sales from Halloween last year. Kind of spoiled what is usually my favorite month of the year…but I wasn’t sorry to close the book on it. However, having Flaky Cook take over for me in the kitchen had given me time to develop a menu and an ad for "Italian Night," the first of which was to take place on November 2. With such a dismal month in the bank, I didn’t have a lot of money to go throwing around on advertising, so I set myself a paltry $100 budget for the ad. This bought me a two-column by five-inch ad in two issues of the local paper.
I spent many hours planning, prepping, designing the menu and generally sweating and fretting. When I got the paper on Thursday, I excitedly leafed through it to find my ad. Damn. It was so small it was almost invisible. I really doubted, then, whether "Italian Night" was going anywhere at all. But I decided to continue on as if it would.
Friday started out as a passably decent business day. We had a lunch rush, which we hadn’t had all week. In fact, on Thursday there was not a soul in the place from about 12:15 until almost 1:30—usually our busiest hour of the day. To say I was disheartened and just plain scared would be putting it mildly… But Friday started out pretty well, so I was in a mood to predict good things for "Italian Night," slated to start at 5:00 pm.
So of course, though we’d had a steady stream of customers in the place all afternoon, at 5:00, we were stone empty. Apparently, "Italian Night" was going to fall flat on its focaccia. I printed off a last few menus, poured myself a glass of wine (my symbol of conceding defeat, since by OLCC rules, I’m not supposed to return to work once I’ve consumed alcohol…) and started up a game of "Spider" on the laptop. I would hang around in case a couple of tables came in and the girls in the kitchen had questions about our new menu items, but it was clearly going to beanother night of defeat and frustration.
About 6:00, a couple of parties came in. Then a couple more. Then more. And more. By 6:30, the dining room was almost full, and we were sending out plate after plate of steaming pasta. Many guests gushed to the girls that they had come in specifically to try out "Eye-talian" Night. Wonder of wonders, it looked like we just might have a winner on our hands after all.
My little barely visible ad had amazing effect. We were, in fact, busy all weekend. The previous Saturday and Sunday, I was absolutely convinced that everyone had forgotten where we were and what we did. This past weekend, they seem to have suddenly remembered. Could my tiny little ad have subliminally reminded them of the great breakfasts they had enjoyed over the summer, even if they weren’t particularly interested in Italian Night? I’m going to choose to believe that’s what happened anyway. And savor this little bit of success as long as I can. Which is until about five minutes ago, when I should have jumped out of bed, because now I’m in danger of being late for work...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Go in peace...

i dreamed of him last night
he was clear
his voice was strong
and he said i
was the only one who knew
but i don’t know
what i’m supposed to know…

i called out to him today
told him to come for you
told him you needed him
to lead you

will you go
light and new and free
or will you stay
sad and tired
frightened and burdened
wizened and stubborn

did he hear
i don’t know
will he come
i don’t know
i can only look at you
and sigh
and hope

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

No Way to Say Goodbye

One of my closest journal friends has vanished. Someone who sometimes posted two or three times in a day simply quit writing. Hasn’t left comments anywhere else. Hasn’t replied to emails. She’s just…gone.

Since I know she was going through a lot of upheaval in her life, I am alarmed at her disappearance. I’m afraid something really bad may have happened. I am worried about her. And I’m completely helpless to do anything about it.

This episode has sent me on another of my "internet friends suck" tangents. From time to time, I am rudely reminded that the internet is a really bad place to "meet" people. Because you never actually do. Meet them. You only know what they write. It could be real, or it could be complete fantasy. When you choose to cultivate internet relationships, there is a huge amount of blind trust involved. And, as is true in any other aspect of our 21st century lives, real or virtual, blind trust is often misplaced.

I have to admit, though…I understand that this sort of thing—this popping in and out of relationships—is not necessarily an exclusively "ethereal" occurrence. There is something about people in our society…we are so able to walk into others’ lives, interact until we have our fill of whatever it was we needed, and then walk away without looking back. We are so…disposable to each other. Friendships are disposable. Marriages are disposable. Family relationships are disposable. We hang around only while it works for us. If for whatever reason the tide turns, we are outta there.

Then again, I’ve never been a master of good relationships. In fact, I have no idea why I have a decent marriage. Just about every other relationship I’ve had in my life has, well, sucked. I have an inkling that I’m too easily bruised, and way too unwilling to be needy. My husband gets me, and to some extent, my family does. But that combination of hyper-sensitivity and stand-offish independence has not been a great way to win friends and influence people over the years. So I haven’t really had a lot of friends upon whom to test out my theories on good relationships… J

So all I can do about my missing internet friend is to hope she is okay and try to wish positive energy in her direction. And hope she will pop back into the ether as quickly as she disappeared from it. What a lame, helpless kind of friendship. But it is what it is, I guess.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More on End of Life Issues

Thank you all for your virtual hugs and understanding nods about my mother’s plight. I wonder how many of you are thinking, "Why did she not just have a signed DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order available for any medical personnel called in an emergency?"
Very simply—Mom is not the least bit interested in dying. She’s old, she’s ill…her body is worn out and failing. But Mom isn’t ready to go. And I don’t think she ever will be. Any more than I suspect I will be, when my time comes. The specter of the unknown is just too overwhelming.
A while back, some bloggers did an exercise expounding upon the concept that "Anything I’ve ever let go of in my life had claw marks on it," or something like that. That is my mother, in spades. Her emotional attachments to places and things are more of Super Glue than of Velcro. She never made a change in her life that didn’t leave a psychological crater the size of the Sea of Tranquility. She is not remotely ready to consider the idea of the most profound and final change she will face on this earthly plain. Not long ago, when my sister approached her with the idea of signing a DNR, Mom, in her uniquely mom-like way, deftly changed the subject. Immediately.
Of course, like it or not, at some point she will have to go anyway. Western science seems to be on Mom’s side, standing ready to prolong her life to the nth degree. But Someone, be it God, the Great Spirit, the Almighty, or the Universe, as I’ve taken to calling It, understood my mother’s issues. On the day when she just…slowed to a stop, the Universe had said, "This is the transition appropriate for this soul." And stupid, bumbling human hands snatched it away.
Now…who knows what’s going to happen? She has her good days, and her bad days. At her best, it looks like she might just get sprung from the warehouse of human suffering she is in; maybe even be able to go back to her Assisted Living apartment…or at least somewhere a little more like home. At worst, it looks like the dreaded call from the nursing home staff, "Elsie didn’t wake up this morning," could come tomorrow. Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst. The worst would be for her to linger in that awful place, between life and death, for weeks or months.
And it pisses me off to know this isn’t what the Universe had in mind for her. But arrogantly stupid western medicine had to interfere.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sometimes It's a Good Day to Die

My mother died last week.

Two seeks shy of her eighty-fifth birthday, her failing heart slowed to a trembling twenty-five beats per minute. Her care-givers became alarmed. "Elsie, do you know where you are? Elsie, what day is this? Elsie, what’s my name? Elsie? Elsie!" They called an ambulance.

On the ride to the hospital, her heart went silent. The paramedics zapped her. A few more miles down the road, her heart stopped again. And once again, they shocked her back to life.

So Mom, robbed of her peaceful, mercifully muzzy exit from this life, spent four days in the hospital receiving the "gift" of a pacemaker, which will keep her heart bravely pumping while she dies, by inches, of kidney failure. Her doctor gives her three to six months before her kidneys give out completely.

Oh, yes; she’s alive. But she can’t go back to her apartment now; she shares a room in a nursing home with two other women in much the same state as she: mostly cognizant, thoroughly miserable, and afraid.

On top of that, it seems my mother was rudely yanked back into this life only to be at the mercy of the 21st century American health care system. A system rife with absentee physicians, overworked office staff, and so many layers of responsibility that it’s impossible to know whom to call when for what condition. And whether that person will deign to call you back if you do figure it out. Mom’s orders have been lost, her meds have been screwed up, her doctor has gone AWOL. Her care since her miraculous rescue can be accurately summed up with the old WW II army term—" FUBAR."

But, hey. She’s alive. In pain, afraid, and not receiving a tenth of the attention she needs. But she’s alive.

Everyone knows that I am hardly mankind’s foremost cheerleader lately. We’ve screwed up so badly that I honestly don’t know why the Almighty doesn’t just rear back a huge celestial hand and squash us like the poisonous insect we are. Every day, in millions of ways, our science merely proves what ignorant control freaks we are. That we have poured a disproportionately immense amount of resources into our ability to physically control our world, and not nearly enough study and effort into learning the intangibles. We’re not interested in why things happen, we just want to know how to change them.

Doesn’t anybody get the inkling that there’s a reason why bodies shut down as they do? Why has modern science "advanced" only to the point where it feels ethically bound to interfere in the dying process, whether it should or not? And why does our system keep a heart beating only to warehouse the body somewhere and allow it to die of neglect?

And why does my mother have to suffer through all this arrogant ignorance?

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Ten. Good. Things.

How long has it been since I've inventoried...

Ten good things:

  1. "Oriental Spice" scented candles, which can be found at Pier One. And, for that matter…
  2. Pier One. Ahhhh…. Do you know, I have been shopping at Pier One for almost forty years? As trendy as they attempt to keep their image, it’s difficult to believe they’ve been around so long. Yet, they were there, the unassuming storefront just a tad south of downtown Glenview, in all its incense-scented, Indian beaded glory. A mid-century counter-culture treasure…almost a head-shop, in those days. Today, re-invented through urbanization, yuppification, generation-x-hileration; on into Queer Eye and generation "y" and beyond. They must have a helluva marketing team.
  3. Fall. Autumn. The Equinox and the dwindling days thereafter. I love this season. The time to pause, rest and reflect…though it all seems to be flying by at astonishing speed this year. Wasn’t August just a couple of weeks ago? I want to drag my feet, throw out my stiff arms and slow it all down, so I’ll have time to look, and breathe…
  4. My "children"—so neglected these days. Lucy, whose gratitude for a walk around the block or five minutes of ball-throwing is embarrassingly evident. And the feline children—soft and sweet and funny and bad; ready to climb in my lap and hold me down if I should actually sit and stay sat somewhere in the house for more than a three-minute stretch.
  5. My "ladies"—the crew at the café that keeps me from completely losing my sanity. They are a great group of girls; I’m not sure they really know how much I appreciate them.
  6. Pumpkin Ice Cream. Tillamook’s seasonal flavor. And, let me tell you….it’s GOOOOOOOOD. We’ve crafted a drink with it—called the "Punk-a-ccino…"
  7. The "Café Cat." It seems like every thing I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been that has been worthwhile, there has been a prominent feline cast member. At the café, it’s Mila, the neighborhood cat who drops by several times a day for her kibbles and turkey. She doesn’t weigh fifty pounds yet, but I don’t know why…
  8. Regular customers. God save me, this reclusive hermit has actually begun to recognize and acknowledge people who consistently grant us their patronage. Essential in any service business, but especially critical in a small town. Makes me think I may yet pull this thing off…
  9. Walking. Early this week, we were able to wangle a walk with the dog in the old PGE nuclear park . And today, I sneaked out of the café early and stole an hour to throw the leash over the dog’s head and get out into the neighborhood to see the sights before this year’s early rain and winds completely denuded the trees and pelted the colors to soggy brown. God, how I needed to just get out into the air and refresh my soul!
  10. My husband. My life partner. My undeserved gift from the Almighty. Sick, depleted and fighting off defeat at every turn, we celebrated our 31st Anniversary on Tuesday. Truly, god only knows what I’d be without him…

Monday, October 15, 2007

It's Almost 2008...

Ever since it became obvious that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were going to be the major players in the Democrats’ bid for the presidency in 2008, I have had an uneasy feeling. "No way," I thought, "is this country ready to embrace a woman or a black man as president. Especially not now, directly following the most conservative administration this nation has known for decades." I could only hope that Bush and Company would screw up SO badly that it wouldn’t matter who the Democrats put up; the clamor for change would be so strong that even Bill Clinton (were he allowed to run again) would win by a landslide.

Not that the Republican administration hasn’t been doing a pretty good job of fulfilling their part of the bargain. Finally, one can sense that the majority of the American people are thoroughly sick of Bush, his war, his oil interests, and his cronies. Isn’t it a relief that we can once again openly express our misgivings about our country’s leadership? At least we’ve come some way from the insane days directly following 9/11. Those days when we were all so intimidated by the gung-ho war-mongering nationalists that we were afraid to speak out--about anything. Lest we be labeled unpatriotic, or worse. I honestly felt like I was living some post-apocalyptic nightmare during those disturbing months.

And yet, I still feel that the Democrats are not advancing a viable candidate. They’ve blinded themselves to the reality of the average voter. The outcome of the 2008 election will have little to do with who has the best strategy for Iraq, or who can come up with a workable health care plan, or who can stop American industry from shipping our jobs overseas. There is such a huge block of the electorate that is patently ignorant. They have no grasp of the issues beyond what’s fed them by right-wing talk radio, Fox News, or the guy standing behind the pulpit at their church. The issues are immensely complex, and there are so many who are not capable or not interested in understanding them. They are sitting there waiting for someone to tell them how to vote. Quite simply, the party that can most convincingly demonize the other is going to win this thing.

So, let’s look at the Democrats’ front runners. We have Hillary Clinton, former First Lady who was routinely vilified by the press and the American people at large during her tenure. She didn’t fit the mold of the dignified, unassuming, social-directing presidential help-meet. Yes…Mrs. Clinton was, or wanted to be, a political force in her own right. And I wish I could say there was no reason why she couldn’t be. She’s intelligent, well-educated, driven, and politically savvy. Unfortunately, she wasn’t what American tradition demanded of a First Lady.

Yes, she has since gone through all the right moves. She relocated to New York, got elected to the senate-twice. Has spent unknown quantities of time and money distancing herself from her husband. Unfortunately, I sense the American public has not forgiven her for her past sins, including being married to a man who they believe utterly betrayed their trust. Though why that should be her fault is anybody’s guess. I don’t think the Democrats have any idea how much Americans relish nursing their grudges against females. Dick Nixon went from "You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore" to the Oval Office within a decade. But mention Jane Fonda to any redneck older than, say, twenty, and see what kind of reaction you get. I like and admire Hillary Clinton, but I don’t think she has a chance

And then there’s Barack Obama. He’s young, he’s charismatic, he’s intelligent. He could be the next John Kennedy or Bill Clinton. He is the personification of the future. Except… How many barely literate voters out there are trying out the sound of "President Obama" and rejecting the candidate on that basis alone? You don’t think the name is an issue? You think the American people are sophisticated enough to get past that semantic road block? Hmm…don’t forget his FULL name. Barack Hussein Obama. If that isn’t the kiss of death, I don’t know what is… And let’s not forget that Senator Obama IS black. As "un-pc" as it is to discuss the race issue, it’s definitely the elephant—no, the tyrannosaurus rex—in the corner when it comes to Obama. What’s really unfortunate is that his name is going to snuff him so fast that the race issue will hardly need to be called into play.

And so, I find myself piningfor a strong, experienced, WASP-ish male Democrat to burst upon the scene. As a woman, a feminist, and a liberal, I’m not at all happy with that feeling. But I’m desperate for an abrupt change of direction in this country, and I don’t see that happening with another Republican in power. And another Republican it will be, if the Democrats can’t dig up, create or draft a more universally appealing candidate.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tending the Fire

For all my touted agnosticism, there are times when I know The Universe has sent me a clear and undeniable message. Tonight was one of those times.

As a "writer," I often deal in metaphors. The Universe conferred my talent upon me, and It knows that metaphors are often the best way to slap me upside the head with a message that I really need to get.

Recently, I’ve tumbled headlong into the pit. Life has chewed me up, spit me out, and left me feeling like a failure. Fifteen and a half months into my "dream come true," I can’t honestly state that I have mastered, conquered, or even held my ground against the challenges with which I have been presented. The best I can say is that the restaurant is still open, we haven’t gone bust, and we haven’t poisoned anybody (as far as I know…) But we sure haven’t set the world on fire. In fact, we aren’t making money. We’re losing a dollar or two or a couple hundred every month. AND I continue to be plagued by labor woes. AND every time a new restaurant opens anywhere in the county, or an existing one comes up with a particularly hot promotion, we slide right to the edge of the abyss.

I have a stack of things—important things—piled a mile high upon my shoulders. Marketing. Labor. Hiring. Training. Menu. Ambience. Christmas catering. Holiday time off requests. How to survive during the slowest months of the year when the busiest months didn’t quite get us to where we needed to be.

So I’ve felt those shoulders giving way. Felt that burden driving me to my knees. Threatening to lay me flat on my face. Yes…all these things should have been part of our original "business plan." But I had no idea what I was going to be up against until it was staring me in the face. Ignorance is…well, in this particular case, it certainly isn’t bliss.

With too many things clamoring for my immediate attention, I have finally, in the past couple of days, simply shut down. I have sat back on my haunches, looked up at my huge mountain of responsibilities and, for the first time, entertained the thought that there is no way in hell that I can do this. Any of it.

This evening, after ducking out of the café early on a disappointingly slow Saturday afternoon, I sat in the family room with my computer in my lap, preparing to compose an Autumn essay to post on my blog. I laid the computer aside for a moment to attend to the business of lighting the pellet stove. It’s not really cold, but a cheery fire usually puts me in a properly prose-worthy mood.

I’m searching, here, for a way to explain to anyone not familiar with the beast, what a pellet stove is and how one goes about making fire with it. Because without this knowledge, you won’t understand the message the Universe chose to confer upon me this evening.

Pellet stoves are contraptions that create a cozy, house-warming fire by continuously feeding themselves little compressed pellets of sawdust. Theoretically, one merely needs to fill the hopper with these magic pellets, press the "on" button, and sit back to enjoy the warm, cheery flames. At least, that is the intention. The reality is, the newest incarnations of these little buggers are equipped with so many safety features that it is anybody’s guess whether you are really going to, in fact, get a fire when you want one. As often as not, you push the button and ten minutes later are staring at…darkness. Because the stove has decided it has gotten too hot during the ignition process and has shut itself off. Superfluous safety feature to the rescue!

Back to this evening, and me, my burdens, my pellet stove, and my message.

I poured in a bucket full of pellets, pushed the button, went back to my seat on the couch and returned my attention to my laptop. Taking for granted that when I next looked up from my work, I would see bright orange flames dancing behind the glass of the stove door. Ten minutes later, I glanced up to see…darkness. Nothing. Damn.

I shoved my laptop aside and went to the stove, where I saw a last few glowing pellets dwindling in the fire pan. Yep. The stupid thing had shut itself off. I reached for the "on" button, hoping the situation wasn’t beyond hope…that if I started the flow of pellets again, they would catch and I might possibly save my fire.

So the pellets began to feed, a dose every ten seconds or so, on top of those last half-dozen weak red embers fading in the bottom of the firebox. With every feed, the glow of those last embers became dimmer and dimmer. Finally, I was convinced that all was lost. I was going to end up with a pan full of cold pellets, and my fire was going to go out. And yet… And yet… Still they glowed. And then they smoked. Until the view through the glass was all but obscured.

All at once, a ball of flame burst from beneath the mounting pile of cold fuel. And I knew I was going to have a fire. As surely as I knew I had been sent a message.

Yes, I am going to have stuff piled on me. Enough stuff to convince me that I can not endure. And yet…and yet…I will not be snuffed. I will catch fire. I will achieve my goal. It will simply be a matter of….tending. No, it won’t be automatic. I’ll need to pay attention; push the buttons and open the damper at the appropriate times. And I’ll get where I need to be.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Losing It

I had a melt-down this evening.
Up until now, I’ve been able to keep these things quiet. I’d go somewhere where no one could see or hear me and just sob like a two year-old. Tonight, unfortunately, my husband was in attendance when I just…lost it.
The theme of this month’s incident was "It’s all too much." I have way too many things to think about, to do, to accomplish….complete with deadlines. And I’m SOOOOOO friggin’ tired.
Today was a fourteen-hour day that followed a fourteen-hour day. One of my key employees is out on vacation this week, and the only one available to stand in the gap is, of course, me. When I made the schedule last week, it looked almost easy. It looked doable. I thought I’d gotten off pretty easy, only having to work TWO double shifts. But hours on paper and hours on my feet dealing with a constant barrage of shit hitting the fan are two different things entirely. The last straw was our last group of customers last night. A party of eight who began arriving twenty minutes before we closed. They stayed until nearly 9:00 (we close at 8:00) racked up an $86 tab (which is really a pretty reasonable cost to feed eight people), displayed some kind of inappropriate sticker shock when they got their bill, and left all of ten dollars for a tip (which is not even 12%, in cast you’re trying to do the math…) Talk about a "WHY THE F**K AM I DOING THIS, AGAIN?" moment…
I struggled to get the money counted and paperwork completed (the first thing I lose when I’m tired is my ability to count money…) All I could think of was that I had to be back at it in less than ten hours. I reached into the closet to grab my purse and coat, looked in my briefcase and spied the stack of bills I’d been carrying around for two days that I would have to deal with before I could go to bed. And I burst into tears.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Something's Happening Here...

Does anyone else REALLY hate that "There’s no reason not to have a plan in case of a terrorist attack..." commercial?

The one where they have all those cute, wide-eyed children gazing innocently into the camera saying things like, "Mom? What should I do? Should I wait for you? Should I go to the neighbors? Should I get Tommy out of class?"

And then the concerned female voice comes on and says, "There’s no reason NOT to…"

Brought to you by the good folks at Somebody-or-other dot gov…

Maybe I’m one of those people who wants to live with my head in the sand. Maybe I’m one of those who wishes life was simpler.

Like it was 40 years ago when I was a kid. When the thing of which WE lived in fear was The Bomb. And the only realistic course of action in the event of that attack was to bend over and kiss one’s ass good-bye. Funny…at school, they did tell us to hide under our desks and cover our heads with our arms. Why? So the final image seared upon our consciousness wouldn’t be that of a young classmate incinerating before our eyes?

It’s hard to say how real the nuclear threat was forty years ago. Equally hard to judge the probability of a large-scale terrorist action on American soil today. There is the fact that the nuclear assault upon our shores never happened; and a terrorist attack, unfortunately, has. Then again, as the only nation that had ever resorted to that particular brand of mass-murder, we knew what The Bomb could do. We knew The Bomb, had it been launched, would be infinitely more devastating—perhaps even unto the end of civilization as we know it—than the temporarily paralyzing kick in the balls of the 9/11 terrorist attack. (My apologies to the families of those who died on September 11, 2001…but the body count on that day amounted to less than one-one-hundredth of the potential devastation of just one of the hundreds of weapons cached in the U.S., Soviet, or Chinese arsenals of WMD’s.)

I can only imagine how terrified my parents were by the fearsome weapons that proliferated following World War II. Weapons capable of destruction almost beyond their ability to comprehend. We were raised with that fear; yet, to a certain extent, we were inured to it. Life was what it was…we never knew the more innocent world our parents remembered. We post-war children of the atomic age learned to take life with a grain of salt. We arrived at the conclusion that, if the wolf is not at this precise moment crashing through the door, all is as well as it is ever going to be. We learned to live in the moment, because there was no guarantee that there would be another.

Forty years ago, Americans were fed a steady diet of hatred and fear of all things Russian, Chinese, East German, communist. "They" were out to get us. "They" were poised across the ocean, weapons raised. Covetous of our prosperity, "they" were ceaselessly plotting to conquer us, to take away our freedoms. I was brought up—not by my parents, but by mid-century American society—believing that crap.

Perhaps it is only with the perspective inspired by the most recent decade of American history that I have come to a new understanding. That I realize that there are those in power to whom it is a tremendous advantage to keep the populace in fear. "They want to conquer you. They want to take away your freedom. They want to kill you. We are the only ones who can save you from Them. Keep us in power and we will protect you."

So pardon me if I have a hard time believing that "Somebody-or-other dot gov" does not have something other than the best interests of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Citizen and their cute, wide-eyed children at heart…

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Sanctuary Part 2

"I know that feeling. That feeling that even the dirtiest, meanest task performed in the place you love, the place you belong, is like an embrace. Just to be where you know you are the perfect fit, is a harmony matched only by the most exquisite, exalted music. Anything you touch there is sacred; anything you do, a masterpiece."
So. If my sanctuary is not in the kitchen, where is it?
Outdoors. Pretty much anywhere not constricted by four walls and snuffed by a ceiling, not supplied with mechanical air.
The sun. The breeze. The rain. The moon and stars. Earth. Sand. Water. Snow. Trees in all their seasonal finery.
Flowers, grasses, brambles and bracken. Animals, from the tiniest beetle to the greatest whale.
And my personal altar in that boundless sanctuary—my garden.
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Old Fart's Talking Points

From time to time, I try to look back and assess the progress I’ve made in any given area of running the café. I must say, I thought there would be a lot more marks in the "nailed it" column after fifteen months of the most intense education I’ve experienced in my half-century on the planet. Then again, I realize I thought I already knew a lot more than I actually did. It’s been mighty frustrating, and humbling, to find that I was not half the restaurateur that I believed I was.

One of the things on which I used to pride myself was my ability to build a team. I had developed a little cache of guidelines that I used to evaluate and reward employees. Rule number one was "Show up and wear the uniform." I always considered that one a "gimme." Once that was accomplished, we went on to the more specific things, like learning the menu or understanding how to handle cash register transactions. Having mastered those basics, we went on to the more abstract things, like what constitutes good customer service, and how to work in tandem with the rest of the team.

In the universe of running a business in a medium-sized university town, where there was an endless supply of poor college students ready and willing to work to keep themselves from starving, my system worked brilliantly. Prospective employees came to me pre-wired with the basic knowledge that they were going to work, for which I was going to pay them. They needed the money, and I needed the help. Seems pretty…basic, doesn’t it?

The reality of the first decade of the 21st century, out here in the sticks, has turned out to be life on a completely different planet. I’m hard pressed to dig up one applicant with anything I recognize as a work ethic…and generally if I find one, I realize they really don’t want to work at a café. It seems that all the competent, experienced people I’ve interviewed would consider working for me only as a last resort. They’ve done their time in the food industry, and now they’re eager to put that part of their resume in the past and "move up" to a real job. Nothing less exciting than a career in some satellite of the booming medical industry or designing web pages for the next dot-com start will do. Working in food is the job that everybody is getting mad at the illegal immigrants for taking away, but is way too much like grunt work for Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia-wannabe or their kids to want to soil their hands with.

The kids! I know I sound like a total old fart, but I honestly believe these kids are in big trouble. They don’t know how to work! They haven’t learned—either at home or at school—the most rudimentary basics of employment. Like that work has to have SOME kind of priority in your life. And that you have to care enough about what you are being paid to do to bother to remember what you’re taught from one day to the next.

Last January, my chronic inability to find people to hire caused me to embark upon a "Great Experiment." The café had never, in its history, hired children under 18. With good reason…first of all, the fact that we DO serve alcohol presents one dimension of problems—since you have to be 18 to serve, we would have to jump through some hoops to make high school students useful in the front of the house. And if they’re under 18 they’re not allowed to run any of the more complicated equipment, like the slicer or a mixer, so that puts a crimp in how useful they could be in the kitchen. Still, I kept getting a steady stream of applications from high school students, and I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the quality of "experienced" help I was able to dig up. I figured maybe it would be a good thing to give a couple of "blank slates" a go.

So, I hired myself two bona-fide High School Students. Two bright girls…or so I thought. One is an honor student at the high school just a few blocks from the restaurant. The other hailed from the next town up the road, but seemed eager to make the commute (mostly because her boyfriend worked at the pizza place a few doors down from the café.) I sat them down and gave them the whole serious talk, about how I was going to limit their hours to two weeknights and one week-end day per week, because I didn’t want their jobs to interfere with their studies. And all the things I expected from them to be able to learn, like customer service skills, and handling money, and cleaning bathrooms, and showing up and wearing the uniform.

Well, I wish I could say that, after eight months, they had at least mastered showing up and wearing the uniform. But…not so much. When it came to "showing up," while they didn’t call in sick constantly or no-show me, they made liberal use of the "schedule request" clause. Prom. Dances. Christmas vacations. Spring vacations. One of them made the softball team last March, and was able to work about an average of one day a week thereafter. Practice was every night after school, and the coach "got mad" at her if she left practice early to go to work. The other girl landed a part in the spring play, so between rehearsals and performances, we didn’t see her much after that, either. I tied myself in knots trying to schedule their work hours around school, extra-curriculars, social activities and family vacations. But I soldiered on, hoping that I would at least end up with two semi-experienced workers who could be counted on for more hours during the summer. And when summer came, they asked for SO much time off, they were as useless as they had been all year. The capper was when the one left me a note on August 15th, saying she was having surgery (which turned out to be an elective cosmetic procedure) on August 20th and she would be able to return to work around September 20th. Apparently she had been planning this for months, but didn’t feel it important to give me more than five days’ notice that she would need a month off. Is there an appropriate expletive for that?

So, Ms. "I Need A Month Off" no longer works for me. But the Softball Queen is still hanging in there. And—get this: in desperation, I hired a friend of hers to replace the surgery girl. Knowing that it would either be a brilliant move (a way to get Softball Queen more engaged with the job) or a disaster. And after four weeks, the scale is tipping towards NOT brilliant. Right off, we discovered that we can’t schedule these two to work together because all they do is huddle and titter the entire time. And then there’s dance/prom/social activities conflict. Since they go to the same school, they both need those same days off. AND the new girl has attitude problems of her own that have nothing to do with her connection to the Softball Queen.

It all boils down to the reason these children want a job. And I have to confess, I haven’t figured out what it is. They don’t seem to need or want or care very much about the money. Softball Queen sometimes forgets to even pick up her paychecks, and then she doesn’t cash them for weeks afterward. The nearest I can figure, they want jobs because their friends have one. It’s fashionable. Like a tattoo or thong underwear. It seems like nearly everything kids do thesedays, they do because "everyone else is doing it." I know peer pressure has always been a great molder and shaper of the teenage world. But, I’m sorry, that’s SO LAME. It seems like such a cop-out to me, to let what everyone else does determine every move you make. When did being a teen-ager become so much a matter of toeing a very narrow, proscribed line or not being fit to live?

I can’t remember being a slave to conformity when I was a kid. I realize that I was a member of a generation for whom bucking the system WAS the fashion. It was the peer-pressure generated course of action. You just didn’t do what everyone else did. It wasn’t done.

You "did your own thing." But you understood early on that you needed money to do it. You needed a job, and you needed to perform adequately at that job in order to make more money. My parents worked. And we understood the correlation between what they did and what kind of life-style we lived. We had a comfortable middle-class suburban life, but we knew it wasn’t served up for free. What don’t today’s kids get about this?

I am not a parent, so I don’t like to trash out of hand the parenting skills of the public at large. I only see and have to deal with the end product of what looks to me like a less and less effective system of bringing up kids…whether or to what degree the parents or the school system or society are to blame, I have no idea. But I’m not inspired to look forward to where this generation might take us when it’s their turn to be in charge. On second thought, it appears that they might never be able—or willing—to take charge. And that is frightening.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Day Off Blues

I took a day off yesterday. I mean, I didn’t just wait for a convenient day to come around; I took one. It was entirely a matter of self-preservation. I’d stretched myself beyond my capacity. For two weeks before the Sauerkraut Festival, I had fretted and worried and tried to plan and organize, to the extent that my chronically depleted brain could plan and organize.

AND I have been sick, with some bug that my young crew members brought back from "Rock Fest"—the local popular music orgy that they had all begged for the day off to attend back in the last week of August. The one lucky break I’ve had since we bought the restaurant is that I have managed NOT to pick up every germ and virus that rampaged through town, and my staff, for the past year. A miracle in itself, considering the cocktail of stress, sleep deprivation and poor diet I’ve lived on for the last fifteen months. Not so lucky with this little virus, though—a particularly nasty one, with fever, sore throat, and head congestion so severe I was deaf for two weeks. I hadn’t felt this crappy, literally, in years. Made exponentially worse by the fact that I couldn’t BE sick.

With my two cooks in training reduced to working evenings and weekends, my schedule has consisted of working every day, including two or three double shifts a week thrown in for good measure. I’ve steadily deteriorated from competent admiral of the fleet to a churlish, oft-flogged swabbie. Last Sunday, I was called out front to deal with a customer complaint…and I handled it SO poorly, I realized that I was rapidly approaching total burn-out. And the last thing that restaurant needs is for me to burn out.

So even though I had already posted a schedule which had me working yet another seven-day week, I sat down Sunday night and re-wrote the thing. A little thinking outside the box (and begging) accomplished what I needed: an entire day with absolutely no contact with the café. I honestly couldn’t remember when my last day off WAS, so I looked back at the old schedules hanging on the wall. August 23rd. Ah, yes! Summer! Back when I still had a complete staff… In fact, I realized I’d only had two days off since our nutsy-busy Scandinavian Festival back in mid-August. That was information I didn’t really need…it only made me feel more desperate to get out of there forat least one day.

The list of things I could do, that I wanted to do, with an entire 24 hours off started to grow: Clean the house. Take the dog to the beach. Do the "Goodwill sort" through my overloaded closets. Go up the river to the outlet mall. Go to Binyons and get new glasses (which I desperately need.) And the husband wanted me to meet him and a business associate for dinner. Sigh! Not only was twenty-four hours not nearly enough time to accomplish all this, but I quickly realized I didn’t have the energy for one-tenth of it. In the end, I chose the closets, the shopping, and the dinner. And the rest of the day, I pretty much sat around and stared at the walls. So I didn’t have a productive day. It was restorative, though.

But of course I couldn’t keep my mind completely away from café issues. And I couldn’t completely banish the nagging guilt for wanting, needing to get away from there. It’s not that I’m a control freak, though I think you need to lean a little in that direction in order to run your own business. I just feel like I wanted this so much, I shouldn’t feel negatively about it, EVER. I should always love being there, always revel in the freedom and the self-determination. Of course, that’s a crock, and I know it. But that doesn’t keep me from carrying the guilt around anyway.

I indulged in a little self-assessment as I puttered around the stores. I realized that I haven’t figured out where my "off" button is. I just keep going full-speed until I run out of gas. That’s the way I’ve always been, no matter what job I’ve had. My work ethic is to go to work, work until the job is done, and then go home. I’ve never done a lot of socializing at work. I’m very much a "nose to the grindstone" kind of person.

The problem is, you really can’t apply that sort of work ethic to your own business, especially when it’s a hospitality business. First of all, the job is NEVER done, so you end up just working and working and working; you do go home, of course, but you’re still working. And working and working. And if you don’t turn yourself off, make yourself STOP working, even for short bits of time, you work too much. And then you start to hate the thing you started out loving and wanting with all your heart.

And this thing about not being social on the job…this has been the biggest problem for me. Not only am I not a normally social person, but the harder I work, the more exhausted I become, and the more I draw into my shell and just want to be left alone. And you cannot do that when you are in charge of a restaurant. You need to set an example for the crew, and you need to be friendly with the guests.

I’ve always known that I was going to have problems in this area. I’ve managed restaurants, and my solution for this particular deficiency of mine was to make sure I hired people who could DO that part of the job for me. For the most part, that has been a successful strategy. But, especially in this tiny café, with no real "back of the house," I’m too visible. Everyone knows I’m there all the time, and everyone knows I’m the owner. The regulars expect ME to greet them, and chat, and treat them like they’re the only customers in the restaurant. And, yes, if I want to be successful, I should do that. And when I’m rested and full of energy (and caffeine) I can almost passably play that role. When I’m exhausted, stressed out and have a million things on my mind—which is all the time—I suck at it.

And now it’s time to get ready and head to the salt mine once again. Let’s see, what’s on my plate today? Write next week’s schedule, see if the new lighting has arrived yet, plan the next promotion, design the new table tents, find out what’s going on with the sign, source a new bread bakery, source a new food purveyor, look through applications, hire two more people, but try to make sure everyone is still getting enough hours… But first I have to make soup and don the apron to cook lunch. Gad…I’m tired already.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Thursday, September 25, 2003
10:25:00 AM PDT


Hello, journal

So, this is my first "blog."  I wonder how this will affect my writing, knowing that someone might actually read it?  I've been writing journals since I was in high school.  Always with the secret hope that someone might read them, and get to know or care about my thoughts, confusions, and yearnings.  But knowing that no one would ever read them, at least not in my lifetime.  In more recent years, I've contented myself with believing that I might be leaving a legacy...that SOMEONE might read the pages upon pages of my life's blood, and think about me when I'm gone.

This wanting to be remembered when I'm gone...this is a relatively new purpose for me.  I guess it's logical for someone my age, who has no children, to start wondering about my legacy.  Not only no children, but no social life.  No church, no job, no volunteer activities.  I sometimes wonder, if I dropped dead today, who would care besides my husband and my sisters?  And how long would THEY even care?  What would I be leaving behind?  As of this exact moment, I have to admit--not a whole lot.

I know I didn't used to be this way.  I've always been sort of a loner, and socially challenged, but I always had at least one or two friends, and some kind of social outlet besides my family.  I've become so isolated since the events that surrounded my sister's and my Dad's deaths.  I don't know if I would still be so affected by their deaths, if they hadn't been the start of this...this time of my life when I've felt expelled from everything I've ever known and loved.  It's been a god-awful struggle just to keep ties with the people who ARE still in my life, and I know they don't understand or care about my struggles.  I spend an awful lot of time wishing I had someone who DID understand.

Happy Birthday,

“Coming to Terms...”

Sunday, September 23, 2007


I just haven’t the time or the energy to indulge in a lot of political debate these days. I don’t suffer as much from those self-righteous hairballs that I used to hack up a couple of times a week, in the form of political rants in this space. However, my sojourn into intense entrepreneurialism has not completely re-directed my focus away from things of more universal import. From time to time, I encounter stories from the outside world that penetrate the fog and insist that I climb, however wearily, atop my soapbox and rail…

The latest story emanates from my own adopted home state of Oregon, where I have resided since 1984— nearly half my life—in a blissful state of magnanimous liberalism, alongside others of my kind. Unfortunately, we liberals are also acutely aware that Oregon is certifiably schizophrenic when it comes to things political. The "Old Guard"—gun-toting, bible-thumping farmers and ranchers—have dug in their heels and heaved as far to the right as humanly possible since the first "dirty hippie" set foot on Oregon soil back in the sixties. The Left has responded with a successful passive-aggressive strategy: we have simply taken over the more densely populated urban areas. Our sheer numbers have been enough to plant Oregon firmly in the column of "Blue States."

Still, we do hemorrhage from time to time. In glorious, unadulterated bright red. The same initiative system that produced our ground-breaking "right-to-die" legislation has puked abominations like the Springfield and Canby anti-gay decrees, and threatens, on the next ballot, to allow Columbia County to declare itself an official "Illegal Immigrant Free Zone." We who bleed blue have learned that we must remain vigilant, and never assume that our conservative neighbors’ most inconceivable perversions of the Constitution to conform to their small-minded prejudices won’t become law (at least temporarily) if we "forget" to vote.

So, what is happening in Oregon today that causes my blue blood to boil? The story comes out of Medford. With a population of over 65,000, it is the largest city in southern Oregon, separated by more than merely hundreds of miles and the Siskiyou Mountains from the liberal bastions of Eugene, Salem, and Portland to the north. Over the years, southern Oregon has remained staunchly agrarian, vigorously resisting economic pressures from perilously nearby northern California and the population centers of Central and Northern Oregon that swing the state to the left. Medford is conservative, Republican, and NRA through and through, and to hell with all them California commies and Bush-bashing Portlanders…

This week, the news broke that a high school teacher in Medford is suing the school district for the right to carry a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol to school. It seems she is a victim of domestic violence, and she fears her ex-husband, against whom she has taken out a restraining order, will confront her and carry out his threats to kill her on school grounds. All together now: W…..T…..F??!?!? This story is absurd, unbelievable and disturbing on SO many levels. Where should I start?

Let’s start with "It’s All About Me." I’m a teacher. I went to school, got a degree, and got a certificate. It’s what I do five days a week, nine months a year. I belong to the union. I’m a state employee, I have state benefits, PERS, and tenure, so it’s damned difficult, if not impossible, to fire me. Why should I care if my very presence in the school could put children in danger, by virtue of the fact that I might be stalked by a violent ex-husband. I have the Constitutional right to defend myself, and if it means plugging a couple of unfortunate kids who get caught in the crossfire while my ex and I are taking potshots at each other in the hallway, we'll just call that "collateral damage."

And then there’s the"Do as I Say, Not as I Do" aspect. "Now, children, you must never think that the key to life is wielding the most powerful weapon. Always control your temper. Always understand that there are alternatives to violence. Talk to each other. Work things out. Empathize with your peers. Violence never solves anything. Oh, this? I just carry it for protection….heh heh…"

This woman is a teacher. A TEACHER. And so, by the by, is the violent ex-husband of whom she lives in fear. Teachers. Of children.

And the religious right screams about gays being allowed to teach.

Truly. I have to wonder if this babe has all her marbles. And I have to seriously question the ethics (and cognitive abilities) of the law firm that took on this case. The first thing that came to my over-worked, semi-delerious mind was, "You have GOT to be kidding."

But they’re not. And that is what causes me to greatly fear for the future of the species. Especially the American breed…