Monday, February 20, 2017

When Numbers Lie

When Mallory became more serious about dancing, she auditioned and made the competitive dance team in the studio she had been at for years. I was ecstatic for her and clueless as to how much money this would end up costing. There were the monthly dance class fees which were significantly higher due to the number of classes added as a requirement of being on the team, fees for the competition, fees for each dance in the competition, costumes for each dance. It piled up fast.

The team would occasionally do fundraisers to offset the cost - usually a car wash or selling candy. It didn't amount to much but it was something. Whenever a competition was coming up the parents were required to go to informational meetings. I was at one such meeting with a friend when the usual fee payments were being discussed. When that was over the studio turned it over to the father of one of the girls on the team to give a brief explanation of a fundraising opportunity.

He was not brief.

He came with a large tablet and a Sharpie to explain this scheme opportunity. It involved getting cable through a 3rd party who would then give a cut to the team. He drew a pyramid with stick people and houses and cable lines and piles of money and said, "Do you see this? People lie. Numbers don't." And when somebody asked for something specific about the money he would say, "I'm not sure what you mean. Can't you see this? People lie. Numbers don't." What never made sense was why you would go to a 3rd party for cable when you could just call up Time-Warner and get what you wanted, but he kept selling and sweating as he worked the room. My friend leaned over and whispered, "Are you following this because I have no idea what he's talking about." "He's talking about us being a bunch of liars," I said. His wife sat in the front row, smiling and nodding, and I wondered if she felt like she was watching the death of her salesman husband. Finally the studio director cut it off but not before he pointed his Sharpie at his tablet and said, "You can't deny this is an amazing opportunity. Remember, folks. People lie. Numbers don't."

*****

A few months ago the server for my blog sent me a notice that they had made some updates. From my end it looked a little different but it only took me a few minutes to get the hang of some of the minor changes.

When I write something new I will check the numbers for a few days after to see how things look. If I've gone a long time without writing and see that my numbers are depressingly low it motivates me to write again. Ever since this update, though, my daily numbers are crazy and I don't know if the changes cast a wide net of undiscovered new readers or Russian hackers are trying to steal my literary thunder.

One thing I do know after six years of blogging is that the same thing holds true for me as when I was in high school. I'm not that popular and despite what I've been lead to believe these numbers are lying to me like Pinocchio.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

One Suitcase

Several years ago my husband hired someone over the phone for a position in his lab. The person had been recommended to him and because he was a resident of India the typical interview process was not going to work in this case. They had a couple of conversations, a visa was issued, Mark found him a furnished apartment near the campus, and we filled a few boxes with pots and cooking utensils and sheets and towels and washcloths. After months of planning his day of arrival came and Mark picked him up at the airport and brought him back to the house for dinner.

He came in, shook my hand and set down his suitcase. One suitcase. I looked at Mark. Was that all he had to start a new life alone thousands of miles from home?  One suitcase?

Through the years of his career there have been many immigrants that have worked for my husband. Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, Iranian. This is his life and through marriage it has become mine. I have eaten foods I couldn't pronounce and toasted with drinks that burned my throat all the way down. I follow Mark's lead and it is generous, deeply generous. When his Japanese student was leaving the Easter dinner we had for a houseful of people, he came to me in the kitchen to thank me and then stood there. There was a long awkward silence between us until he said, "Dr. Fisher said you'd give me some leftovers."

There have been missteps along the way. Sometimes people don't work out for many reasons and that is a heavy burden - being responsible for any employee, and more so when they are far from home. There have also been cultural missteps. When we had a lab party at the house we thought shish kabobs would be a safe bet and the chicken ones were. The beef ones sat untouched. I have nodded and smiled through many conversations because distraction led me to lose pace with an unfamiliar accent. Time after time, though, I have watched my husband throw himself into the world of these students, post-docs, technicians, and colleagues with gusto, and you cannot be around that without wanting to embrace it yourself.

When a visiting professor from India came and worked for six months in Mark's lab we both fell head over heels for him. He was so much fun and when his time was nearing an end his wife and kids arrived for a whirlwind tour of America - New York and Disneyworld and then off to Los Angeles. Before they left they had us over for dinner and his wife said to me, "I want you to know that my family will never forget the kindness of your husband. Never."

Since last fall I have been working at a university and am exposed to international students on a daily basis.  My job is handling the finances for our student organizations - 300 in total that requires a lot of juggling. It also requires me to always be cognizant that for many of our students English is not their first language and conversations and emails have to be thought out carefully in consideration of that.

I recently had a meeting with a Middle Eastern student who was planning a large event for her organization and needed some advice. Event planning is not part of my job but I have done enough of it in my personal life that I was happy to help her and she wrote down everything I said.

Ask around and see where people like to go for happy hour. Narrow it down to three places.
Be aware of your group's ability to get to your event. Should it be within walking distance of the campus? Near a bus line?
Always talk to a manager. Underline that. Always talk to a manager.
Don't be afraid to ask for a discount.
Make sure that the staff knows that nobody can order alcohol unless they are paying for it themselves.
See if they'll give you iced tea and lemonade for free.
Tell them how many people you'll be having, pick a few appetizers, and tell them you need a ballpark figure. After you have that call or email me and we'll see if it will work within your budget.

When I had finished she looked down at her notes and then at me with her big, beautiful, brown eyes and said, "I have a question. What is this thing called ballpark figure?" And I laughed so hard because I thought I was so measured and careful in my explanation and yet....

"It means estimate. Cross that out and put estimate in there."

"No, no, no," she said. "I like this ballpark figure. It's American."

Yes, my dear, it is American, but you are very much like me because I, too, travel through this life with a suitcase of the hopes and dreams my family handed to me to set my course in the world, and were it not for the kindness of others along the way I'm not sure either of us would make it very far.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

If & When

For the duration of our many years together, Mark and I have had conversations that go something like this...

If we ever have kids.
When the baby comes home.
If we decide to get a dog.
When we go to the shelter to look at dogs.
If we replace the car.
When we pick up the new car.
If we bite the bullet and buy a house.
When we close on the house.
If something I write gets published someday.
When my book hits the market.
If this research takes off.
When the Nobel Prize gets awarded.

We're if and wheners from way back but never more so than when it comes to money.  Somewhere, someplace there is a pile of money that has our name on it if only we could find it. Now that the kids are done with college we are thinking about improvements we'd like to make on the house. We added it up one day and Mark says a mere $100K should cover it, give or take a few grand. We consider this number calmly as if it's hidden in the bushes somewhere and when we go out in the spring and poke around we'll uncover it and can start with the contractors and demo. We pretend spend lottery money we've never won because we never play. Publishers Clearing House could pay us $5000 a week. That would work but the trade-off is Family Circle coming every month and that's a commitment that would eventually take up space in our recycling container. I dream that some day some HR department will take a good, hard look at the unjustness of my salary, call me in and cut me a check on the spot for $500,000 to make amends.

If only.

When that happens.

We were driving to the grocery store the other day when Mark was talking about a workplace issue - a state university where the carrying of guns are soon to be allowed on campus. What could possibly go wrong with that idea? This has been vehemently opposed by the faculty with good reason. Failed test? Lemme get my .45 and show Professor Not Grading On A Big Enough Curve a righteous scare. As this has been an ongoing conversation between us for months, I was only half listening when Mark relayed a story on the subject.

"So we're sitting in a meeting when we're going over it again.
"Un huh."
"How many times do you have to say something's a bad idea before anybody listens?"
"I'm thinking four years."
"And there's a few idiots that think it's okay so you know what I said?"
"What did you say?"
"I said what is this place turning into? Gotham University?"
"What? You said that? Gotham University? As in Gotham City? That's hilarious. Was this in a big meeting?"
"Kind of."
"Was everyone laughing? That's a perfect response."
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?'
"Well, that's when I woke up."
"Woke up from what?"
"My dream."
"Your dream???  This whole conversation is about a dream?"
"Yeah. I said that in the beginning."
"You did?"
"Yeah."
"Oh. I might not have been listening to that part."
"I said it was a dream."
"That stinks. Such a great line and it only happened in a dream."
"You're telling me."
"I bet if you stayed asleep the crowd would have gone wild. Like jump to their feet wild."
"If only I didn't wake up."

On the corner of If & When, the accolades, standing ovations and mountains of money are all hidden and just beyond our grasp, but hope springs eternal so by the time April gets here....


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Drawing Names

As the kids got older they started buying Christmas presents with their own money. Not only did they buy for Mark and I, they'd also buy gifts for each other. They went on to get real jobs and one got a husband, and while we would always buy gifts for them I thought that the rest of the gift giving needed to be reined in. That's when our Secret Santa started and for many years it has been the highlight of the season for me.

Because Maggie and Nate usually travel to see his parents for Christmas, Secret Santa has been held before they left town.  It is an exuberant celebration, usually after a Sunday dinner that includes real napkins and lit candles seeing as how it is a special occasion. Like the exchanging of gifts, the name picking done weeks beforehand is equally exuberant.  The two married couples in the group cannot pick their spouse, you obviously can't pick your own name, and a toss back is allowed if you had the same name as last year's pick.

You would think that the drawing of six names would not be so difficult but draft day is one long drawn out affair - sometimes taking a dozen tries before it is settled.

Last year our celebration was on a Sunday morning as my nephew and his girlfriend were spending the night on their way to Illinois.  Doing Secret Santa in front of them would have been awkward and so the timing of our annual tradition got moved.

Maybe that's why things went awry. Or maybe it was because I didn't light any candles.

We gathered in the living room and like years before there was much excitement on Secret Santa Sunday. Who had whom? What did they get? Did they go off the list or go rogue? Was there going to be a shocker gift? The kind that makes the giftee squeal and jump and yell "HOW DID YOU KNOW I WANTED THIS????"

As the passing and opening and thanking went along we were down to two people - Maggie and Mallory. My son-in-law stood up, faked a move towards Maggie and then walked over to Mallory with his gift. Before he got to her I stood up and said, "NO NO NO NO NO NO. THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!!! I HAVE MALLORY!!  YOU CANNOT HAVE HER! SOMETHING'S WRONG HERE, PEOPLE. PEOPLE, DO YOU HEAR ME?? WE'VE GOT A PROBLEM." We all looked at each other and then at Maggie, who by then realized she had no gift from Secret Santa to open, and I wanted to fall on the floor and have the kind of meltdown my kids often had on Christmas day when they were toddlers. But I kept my tartan together and clenched a smile so tight I thought my porcelain covered molars were going to shatter in my mouth.

Maggie, stoic and six months along (the Mary so to speak) said, "It's okay. I don't need anything anyways."  To which I replied, "Well if this were about needs we wouldn't even be doing this because none of us needs anything," which is exactly the kind of Christmas downer you would expect from someone who had suddenly misplaced her ho.

As is our habit around here when shit hits the fan, we couldn't let it go.  No, we had to pick this cluster apart and analyze it to death. Both my son-in-law and I swore we had the right name. Could Mallory's name have been put in twice by mistake? Were we thinking of draw #8 or #9 instead of the final draw? Who the heck knew but by then the only person without a gift kept saying it was okay over and over until she started to cry which made me cry. Will, in an effort to lighten the mood, said, "You guys, just think, next year we'll be doing Secret Santa with a baby." Then he started crying and with that the Secret Santa train made its final descent.

After Maggie and Nate had gathered their things (which didn't take long considering...) and left, I stood up and said, "I don't care what anybody has to do this afternoon. I don't care if you are sick of shopping, sick of lines, sick of spending money, and sick of mall parking lots. I don't care if you have other plans, a football game to watch or Elf for the twentieth time. Everybody is going out and getting Maggie a present TODAY so that when those guys come back for dinner tonight with the cousins there will be gifts for her to open. Anybody got any questions?"

And there were no questions because the remaining Secret Santas were terrified of me.

We scattered to all points retail and that night when the blessed mother and her husband arrived on their donkey there were four gifts for her to open which really embarrassed her but we didn't care. We had made it right.

This year nobody screwed up thanks to Will (the official chair of Secret Santa and finder of drawingnames.com). There were squeals and surprises, and a few rogue gifts.

And there was a baby.






Sunday, December 4, 2016

Junior Great Books

In the grade school I attended was a program called Junior Great Books.  It was the earliest of book clubs when there wasn't even a thing called book clubs, and my parents, more specifically my dad, thought this would be a good thing for me to join.  Junior Great Books catered to Smartypants and High Achievers - two groups that up until that point I neither belonged to nor was included in. Ever. My dad signed up to be a group leader and so I had an *in* when I would have much preferred an *out*.   Dad, however, knew I loved to read and I'm pretty certain that he hadn't agreed to be a leader unless his daughter was part of the package.

In an era when Mom would dig in her purse and magically come up with a dusty Kleenex to bobby pin to the heads of her daughters to wear inside God's house, the likes of Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars would be far into the future as the books of choice for middle-school readers.

No, Junior Great Books was about the classics and from day one this book club was a struggle for me.  Like it or not, though, that is where I was once a month on a Thursday night with a few of my classmates beside me (none of whom were my friends) and my dad to discuss my skimmed over knowledge of a Junior Great Book.  Added to this coming-of-age-anxiety-cocktail was a generous helping of a yet to be diagnosed speech impediment.

One month our book was Treasure Island - a book I found myself even more uninterested in than the others. Pirates, buried gold, a boy named Jim?  This adventure story wasn't even close to being in the dreams of my thirteen year old self.  My dad started off the discussion questions and the usual extroverts jumped in with their thoughts and opinions, but after a few minutes Dad asked a question and said, "All of you put your hands down and let's give Kathy and Betsy a chance to answer this one."

Kathy and Betsy?

The silence was deafening as me and Betsy, with every pair of eyes in the room on us, kept our heads down and our mouths clamped shut for what seemed like an eternity. I don't know about Betsy but the earth swallowing me up at that moment would have been a welcome sight.

"Nothing?  Neither of you have anything you want to say," Dad asked in the gentlest of ways and I couldn't look up and I couldn't open my mouth.  I shook my head and tried not to cry and Betsy did the same and I knew then what it was like to disappoint your dad with a dozen other kids looking on.

In the front seat of our station wagon driving home in the dark Dad said, "I think you're a smart girl and I know you love to read.  What you think is just as important as anyone else at that table." And for just a minute I thought that maybe, just maybe, I didn't disappoint him as much as I thought.

It would be many years before my voice didn't shake when I voiced an opinion in front of a group of people, but I kept reading and I kept thinking and what I will always remember from that night, besides my burning eyes and my red face and the stare of classmates whose names I can't even recall save one, is the gift his words were to me.

One voice does matter.  One voice can be the treasure that everyone is seeking.


My current stack




Friday, November 11, 2016

Womensplaining An Election

If you've read this blog for even a little while you would know that I am a proud liberal and fierce supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign so this week sucks.  It sucks in a way that I can't even wrap my head around.  As one of the kids at the campus I work at said, "I keep checking news sites for a correction to this.  That it really went the other way and any minute they'll tell us that and it will all be okay."

If only.

I have moments of anger that border on rage which rather than scaring me makes me think that at least I still care.  Mostly, though, I am sad and tired.  I have known a lot of Hillarys in my life.  The kind who work ten times harder than anybody in the office because that is what women who dare think they can claim a space on the management team in the boy's club have always had to do.

I also have two daughters and a gay son so my fear of what has been unleashed is real.  My inner conversations convincing myself of their safety are now as erratic as the behavior of the person who has been elected.  The color of their skin is no comfort but instead a betrayal to every friend without that privilege.  I now know (though I would claim I didn't prior to the election) plenty of women who voted for this man which is as mysterious to me as what happened to Amelia Earhart.  This guy this guy is every girl's bad boyfriend.

He is the guy your friend can't wait for you to meet and at the end of the night you want to hide her away before it's too late. 
He can make a racist joke as easily as he says "Pass the salt."
He stands too close and his hand brushes against your breast and you tell yourself your friend's boyfriend wouldn't try to cop a feel when she's in the bathroom. Would he?
He's got kids from three different women.  She knows that, right?
He tells you nobody has more respect for women than him but the way he looks at his daughter creeps you out.
When the subject of faith comes up he drops a quote from Two Corinthians.
He claims climate change is a hoax and asks you if your air is on.  In November.
The only people in his circle are varying shades of white.
He frequently talks about the size of his hands as if you're too stupid to know he's really talking about the size of something else.
He's old, overtanned, overweight, and out of shape yet rates women's bodies on a scale of 1-10.

After a long year you feel whip-sawed by this bad boyfriend that your friend fell for.  He's abusive.  He's ignorant. You've never known anyone more vulgar. He takes gaslighting to a level you've never seen before.  You feel for her but she won't leave.  You decide to take a break for a good long while but before you do you tell her one more thing because you love her and want her back.

Honey, he doesn't even like you. He never did.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In The Bleachers

The last time I was in Wrigley Field was twenty five years ago.  I went with my sisters and our husbands (or soon-to-be) for a game in the middle of the week.  Baking in the sun with all the other Bleacher Bums could be deceiving, for as warm and bright as those outfield seats were, a different seat in the upper decks could be thirty degrees colder with nary a ray of sun and lakefront breezes to chill you to the bone.  We rolled the dice at the box office that day and shined like the sun with everyone else who decided to play hooky from real life.

*****

Dad started taking us girls to Wrigley Field when I was about ten.  It was hard not to be a Cubs fan in our house, and even though we lived in the southern suburbs and were closer to Comiskey Park, Dad's devotion was to the north side and the Cubs.  Every summer he would take vacation time to work on the house but always kept one day reserved for Wrigley.  That one day usually centered around Ladies Day.  What that meant I can't remember but knowing Dad I'm sure it had something to do with a reduced admission price.

Back then you could bring a cooler into the park, and so Mom would tuck sandwiches, fruit, and candy into glittered Styrofoam where it would rest on the ground between her and Dad.  Believing a trip to Wrigley should always be an experience, we would leave the house by 9:00 a.m. for a 1:10 p.m. start time.  There was traffic and parking to consider, but mainly it was because Mom and Dad believed in making a day of it and thought we should be there when the players came out for batting practice.  They'd tell us girls to get down in front where we leaned over the third base side, waving programs for autographs that never came.  When the Cubs finished their practice and went into the clubhouse we'd return to our seats and have lunch.  One time Mom broke a tooth eating a Tootsie Roll and to this day she will bring it up as if it was yesterday.   "Remember that game against the Astros when I bit into that Tootsie Roll and half my tooth broke off?  That was an expensive game."

It was during those games that Dad showed me how to keep score, how to watch for signs.  "First base coach, third base coach, keep an eye on them, keep an eye on the infield players, kiddo. Big hitter, move your outfield back.  Man on first, watch for the bunt. The signs are always there." 

In 1969 the Cubs were oh so close to winning the National League but by mid-August the wheels started falling off.  We were there for one of those games when every blunder that could be made was done so in a spectacular fall from first.  The bullpen tried to save them from themselves but they were better than average pitchers not miracle workers.  Dad's job was running safety training programs for lineman at Commonwealth Edison and at the end of one of his training sessions the group gave him a coffee mug.  A Fire King beauty with the names of every relief pitcher from the bullpen that year.  He gave it to me.  "You keep it, Kath.  You're an even bigger fan than me these days."

I would return to Wrigley year after year.  Once I went with my brothers and their friends who insisted we leave in the 8th inning to beat the traffic, and even though the Cubs were trailing far behind I couldn't believe we were walking out before the game ended.  Dad would have never done that.  We turned the radio on and listened on the way home as the Cubs tied and eventually won the game.  I was so mad at those guys and when I told Dad what they did he said the two things you should never leave early are church and baseball games.

When Dad got sick and spent the summer at home the Cubs games kept him company.  Whoever was around would wander in and out of the bedroom, checking on him, checking the score.  Those were hard days, especially when September rolled around and the season for both Dad and the Cubs was coming to a close.  The background sound of the t.v. and the ball hitting the bat in the crisp, autumn air, though, sounded like home even as Dad was preparing to depart his.

******

The last time I was in Wrigley Field was twenty five years ago.  While my sisters and our husbands (or-soon-to-be) watched the game our Dad was at an appointment to find out if the tiny, black dot on his cheek was the return of melanoma that started behind his retina. Our optimism that afternoon waned like the sun - if it was bright and warming us we were positive it was no big deal.  If it went behind the clouds we darkened like the sky over us and were sure it was cancer.  By the time we got home what loomed over us had been confirmed and I have never gone back to the place that held some of the fondest memories of my life. 

There have been decades of wait-until-next-years for the Chicago Cubs but finally they have made it to the World Series.  The World Series, Dad!  And if he were here for this he would say what he always did on Ladies Day at Wrigley Field, his wife on his right, his girls on his left, a bag of peanuts passed between us, and a beer tucked next to his feet. 

Watch for the signs, kiddo.  The signs are always there.