Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Can't Think of a Clever Way to Say I Hate Snow

We got dumped on here in Spokane, Wash., with almost two feet of new snow in a little more than a day. I want out. Right now, I want out. I want to live somewhere greener and warmer. Not too warm, like Phoenix or LA, just warmer than zero degrees with a wind chill of minus 20. You know, like Portland or Seattle – okay, they got snow and cold today too, but it's still about 20 degrees warmer there than here.

Warmer would definitely be better for our critters. You can see from this pic that our dog, Maverick, didn't know what he was getting into when he rushed past me out the door this morning. We could trace his journey out to the field for his pit stop by the trail he plowed. Poor old guy, he's past 12 and arthritic, so it's a wonder he even made it home.

As for Snickers, that barn cat has decided being inside isn't so bad. When the temps went lower than 15 and we brought him in the house, he haunted the doorway, waiting for a chance to dash outside, back to what was familiar to him: his heating pad in the garage. Three days later he's sleeping on our bed and following us around the house like a puppy. When the door opens, he yawns and turns away. Smart cat.

Maverick and Snickers are lucky. They don't have the drudgery of back-breaking shoveling or the worry that the power will go out and we'll be stranded with no water, no heat, no lights, and busted pipes. They don't have to get the sprinkler system blown out or scrape car windows or agonize over Christmas presents that will be mailed too late because we couldn't get to the post office.

They don't have to stand in a three-foot drift and extend a golf-ball-getter to its full length to scrape snow off a satellite dish that's 12 feet off the ground. Neither do they have the joy of bribing the neighbor who owns a tractor to plow our driveway (as always, the promise of an apple pie worked its magic – we love our neighbors). The critters just sleep and eat and do that other thing you have to clean up after.

I used to like that song from The Sound of Music, the one that goes, "Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, silver-white winters that melt into springs..." Now I realize these are a few of my un-favorite things. These are things I won't miss about living in Spokane when, someday, I do not.

Snow drifts and cold temps and power that flickers
Shov'ling and scooping up after my Snickers
Scraping the icicles off of my nose
I am so sick of this climate I chose...

Or, to quote a character on tonight's episode of The Office, "One day we're going to move to Disney's Celebration Village in Florida and leave all of this behind." Want to come along?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Toys for Tats

I bought a lot of toys when my two boys were little. To their great disappointment, many of those toys went into the toy closet, unopened, and have stayed there for years. These were not-to-be-played with toys. These were, in fact, investment toys, meant to be sold later when they had increased in both rarity and value.

I've put a few on eBay over the years. Like all investments, some turned out to be a bust, like the Willow action figures that wouldn't even bring a dollar each. Others were absolute steals that paid off very well – a Star Wars Micro Playset bought for $5.99 brought $59.99. I don't do math well enough to know exactly what kind of payoff that was, but I liked it.

This fall I heard eBay was running a half-off-listing-fees sale, and I jumped on it. After I listed fifty-some toys, I sat back to watch the bidding action. I figured the Disney "Dinosaurs" talking Baby would be a sure thing because they'd been selling for big bucks. But no, the auction ended without one bid, and I still have my Baby. But every New Kids on the Block doll went fast. Those Jonathans and Jordans I bought in honor of my boys' names are still popular with ex-teenyboppers, I guess.

The last sale I made was a 1990s Batcopter. The buyer said he lived in Spokane, and could he come pick it up? Knowing how lost people get when they try to find our home in the country, I said I'd drop it off at his workplace in Spokane Valley. Turns out he works at a tattoo parlor, and so yesterday I made my very first visit to such an establishment. The young receptionist was very much like Abby on NCIS: black hair, cheerful, tattooed. She said my buyer wasn't in, but she'd give him the toy.

Later the buyer emailed me and asked if I had anything else to sell, because he and his brother collect 1980s and 1990s toys. Oh Joy! I can give him a list and maybe, just maybe, he'll take those Willow action figures off my hands. And maybe I can finally get that little butterfly on my...

Although if he's thinking of trading tattoos for toys, I guess he'll have to think again, and my butterfly will have to wait. It just wouldn't be appropriate. As my Scotty said, "No Toys for Tats, Dearest." ;)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Last of the Fab Fifties

Four friends and I turned fifty this year. We're all part of the close-knit staff of Spokane's Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter, and our birthday bashes stretched from January through December. But that's not everyone – my husband, Scotty, and our friends John and Ann also hit the mid-century mark in 2008. We're the tail end of the Great Baby Boom, and my December birthday made me the tail end of the 2008 Fifties Club.

I'd heard from my husband that turning fifty wouldn't be easy, and he was right. It was a shock when I filled out a form online yesterday and had to type in 50 instead of 49. More than any other birthday, this one portends the downhill slide toward old age. I'm noticing more of the gray I've been struggling to cover (see "Why I Decided to Go Gray"). I can feel a little stiffness in my knees, and my clothes seem to have shrunk.

On the other hand, I have countless blessings, including amazing kids & grandkids and a wonderful husband of two years. May the next fifty far surpass the first.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bidding Goodbye - to Stuff

Stuff. Too much, far too much, the accumulation of 25 years of living in the same place. A place that has far, far too much space in which to store the stuff. I have a house with large closets, a full basement, a big and very accessible attic, a garage that fits two cars with plenty of room left over, and an enormous barn with three levels of empty just begging to be filled. And, regrettably, it almost is.

And it isn't just my stuff. There's also the stuff I've kept that belonged to my late husband - tools, mostly, and some glassware he liked to collect. Then there's the kids' toys, only the kids are now 23 and 25. The attic is half full of empty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boxes waiting to be reunited with the proper vintage of Donatello, Rafaelo, or Michaelangelo.

There's also a bit of Scotty's stuff, although he is the antithesis of a pack rat. He packed pretty light coming into our marriage.

Mostly, though, it's mine, and that "mostly" consists of books I've never read and never will, though they look interesting; books from my children's childhood days that they may remember and want for their own kids someday; toys, either from my own childhood or from the childhood I thought I wanted, where every toy-related wish is fulfilled; clothes of various sizes fitting the skinny me, the average me, and the upsized me; a pantry full of things like brownie mixes that are going on four years old; and around 450 video tapes full of old tv shows, movies, and home videos.

That's not to mention the antique stove sitting in the basement that looks pretty, doesn't work, and isn't attracting any bids on eBay. What do you do with a "Monarch Malleable Range" that's too valuable to give away but nobody wants? (Want to look me up on eBay? I'm "gibbsj.")

Then there are all those antique vases that are probably worth something, but I don't know what. So I might list them for $20 on eBay only to find they're actually worth $400. Oops. I could sell the whole kit'n caboodle to an antiques dealer, but she'd know exactly what it was worth and I still wouldn't. That stuff doesn't always come labeled with a convenient tag, like, "This is a very rare, very desirable, very expensive lemonware glass shaped like a tulip with a solid sterling base and made in Holland around 1900, and you shouldn't take any less than your firstborn child for it."

Lamps. I got lamps. We closed down the lake house and brought a whole houseful of stuff back, and most of it is still stored in the barn, including all the lamps, which joined ranks with the overflow of lamps from the house. I must have 30 lamps. Extras, that is. My aunt offered me $75 for one of them, but it was so Art Deco ugly that I gave it to her just to get it out of my sight.

It's funny what people want. I advertised a faded red fire hydrant labeled "1949 San Francisco" on Within an hour I had an offer, and later I had two more. I got a bit of welcome cash for it with only ten minutes' work to take a photo and list it.

But nobody wants the Arnold S. "Terminator" doll with glowing eyes. Come on, he even talks! But there's a few dozen of his clones on eBay, and none of them are selling either. So my "investment" just sits in the toy closet and gets dustier.

Not so with my talking Steve Urkel doll (remember Family Matters?). Someone snapped him up within a couple hours' of his appearance on eBay, and they paid a pretty penny for a doll I got for a few bucks on a clearance table.

There are other, non-eBay ways of clearing the clutter, and I don't mean the illegal burn barrel next to the barn. We have at least ten charity-related thrift stores in Spokane that will take most anything, as long as it isn't stained, ripped, or missing pieces. (They wouldn't have taken my vintage Star Wars C-3PO model kit, but some guy in Ireland did.) I have four big bags and a box full of stuff in the trunk, ready to go to my favorite, the Union Gospel Mission's Classy Rack in Spokane Valley. Great people work there, including some who are recovering addicts or formerly homeless. People who are working hard to restore their lives with God's help.

My goal is to dejunk, declutter, and clean out the freezer in the next two months. I sold 19 toys on eBay in the past week and a half, so there's hope the next 26 items will sell too. And after that, I only have 4,368 items to go. Pray for me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why I've Decided to Go Gray

Have you ever had a rash from poison oak or poison ivy? Red, raised, fiery, welted patches of pure agonizing itch that spread... if you've had it, you remember it well. It's called contact dermatitis, and it happens when sensitive skin is exposed to an allergen.

Common hair coloring dyes can have the same effect in some people. Unfortunately "some people" includes me. When I was young and didn't have any gray hair to cover, any old dye would do. I had some fun experimenting with exotic sounding colors like "Warm Golden Sable Brown," which looked a lot like brown, and "Honey Champagne Rosewood Sable," which also looked a lot like brown.

Now that I'm approaching 50 and really need the helpful coverage that little box of Clairol can render to my aging brunette locks, I can't use it. The slightest touch of any dye with p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) will send the nearest patch of skin into an itchy hell. And I don't use that word lightly. I had a reaction so bad once that I had to go to the emergency room and get a steroid shot to get me back to normal. It took a week.

I looked online for a hypoallergenic alternative and found Herbatint. Yes, it still has PPD, says the hype, but so little that "most allergic people don't react." I bought a box of "Honey Warm Sable Ash," or something like that, at the local health food store. Following the directions for once, I did what's called a patch test. I mixed some of the chemicals, smeared the mixture inside my left elbow, and didn't wash it off. "Leave for 48 hours," said the directions, "and if no reaction is seen, proceed with coloring hair."

Oh my, it didn't take 48 hours. It didn't take 24 hours. It took six hours for the inside of said elbow to become inflamed, well beyond the two-inch spot where I dabbed the dye. Because I have friends who read this blog who have an averse reaction to any mention of "swelling," I'll leave it at that.

Three days later, I am in a daily regimen of swathing my poor arm in burn gel - it's the only thing that helps - covered by sterile gauze and wrapped in that stretchy athletic wrap stuff. This was my last try at covering up my encroaching age. I give up. And so I will go gentle into that dark, er, gray night, and I'll go proudly.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Disaster Averted, Pumpkin Pie Triumphs

I failed the holiday acid test. Thanksgiving Day was PP-Day: it was high time for me make my first pumpkin pie, especially since it was on my husband's "it isn't Thanksgiving without it" list.

I already had an apple pie and a chocolate cream pie sitting on the counter - sure things I'd made many times. I pulled out the recipe for pumpkin pie and found it required two eggs. Oh no. I had just used my second-to-last egg in the pie crust recipe, so I was down to one egg in the carton.

There was no way I was going to drive 22 miles round-trip to the nearest little neighborhood market on the chance they'd 1) be open and 2) have eggs. No worries, I reassured myself. I'd just flip open my laptop and Google a one-egg pumpkin pie recipe.

Good idea, but no luck - every recipe started at two eggs and worked up to six, depending on the fat & calories one desired in their pie. So out the window went the pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I was appalled by my lack of planning, but my gracious and understanding husband said it was fine, two pies of the non-pumpkin variety were plenty.

So Sunday (yesterday) rolled around, and I removed my homemade, waiting-for-pumpkin pie shell from the freezer. I had a full carton of eggs, my son and his special girl were coming over, and pie would be had. Pumpkin pie.

As the guests were arriving, I emptied out the can of pumpkin into a bowl and snipped off the recipe on the back. I couldn't read the micro-sized type, so after a failed attempt to blow it up on the copier (which just made it fuzzy), or decipher it with reading glasses (which weren't powerful enough), I peered through a magnifying glass and found, to my horror, that the Libby's recipe required a 12-oz can of evaporated milk.

I usually read through recipes first, but not this time. I had every ingredient mixed and waiting except the canned evaporated milk. I went to the basement, where I have a pantry that would feed the whole neighborhood during a six-month siege - but no evaporated milk.

I did have just over one cup of heavy cream. My son's special girl, who is in her second year of studying culinary arts, agreed that maybe I could substitute it for the evaporated milk. My thought process went like this: evaporated milk is like double-strength milk, and heavy cream is, well, rich and creamy. There was no way I was going to drive 22 miles round-trip to the nearest little neighborhood market for a can of evaporated milk. So why not try? All I had to lose was a homemade pie crust, some inexpensive ingredients, and my reputation as a pie-maker.

I baked the pie per instructions, which seemed kind of odd: a few minutes at 450, and quite a while at 350, then test the middle with a sharp knife. The pie took longer to set than it should have, and both my boy and his girl refused to try it (neither one is a pumpkin pie fan, so I can't blame them; I would've declined too).

My husband galantly stepped up and tasted a still-warm piece slathered in enough Cool Whip to drown out the flavor. The pie was lighter colored than the pies I remembered from family Thanksgivings, but Scotty pronounced it "very good!" And he wasn't just humoring me. He asked for another piece. I then tried my second piece of pumpkin pie ever (my first was a commercially baked "sugar free" pie), again with the Cool Whip. Dang tasty. I don't want another piece, and it'll never be something I make because I enjoy it, but I would've been proud to serve it.

Next year at Thanksgiving, I'll keep the heavy cream handy. Because everybody needs a secret ingredient.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two Years of Laughing

I had never laughed as much or as hard as I have in the past two years. Actually two years, four months, seven days – since the day Scotty came into my life. November 11 marked our second wedding anniversary, and although there are many things I adore about this man, I think the laughter he's brought into my life is one of the most precious.

We have fun, and that's something that was in short supply during the previous 25 years. Life was pretty serious then. Now I have a life companion who knows how to be both silly and serious, goofy and gracious, knowledgeable and knee-slapping. I'm a lot of those things too, but they were hidden, and he's brought them out in me in a new way. I can really be me and he can really be him, and together we're just plain weird. We have to tone it down around normal people.

Now that's pretty sappy, isn't it. But it's the truth - we have fun in our mutual goofiness. Happy anniversary to us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Is the Value of Pie?

I'm not afraid to bake a pie. I've heard rumors there are women who are afraid to try because they're intimidated by the intricate process of crust making, or they've failed to make a perfect crust in the past. Being afraid is far different from being satisfied with the fake, store-bought pies from the bakery. Fear I can understand; I'm scared of souffles and any kind of dough that has to be kneaded (doesn't everyone want to be kneaded?). But take heart if you're among the piecrust-fearful; it's worth it to keep trying.

I wouldn't eat pie when I was a kid. The mixture of flavors and textures wasn't appealing, so I just ate the plain apples or the cherries on their own. Chocolate pie was the exception, because I can't resist chocolate in most any form and because Mom made it from scratch, producing a dessert with a perfectly flaky crust, richly flavorful chocolate pudding filling, and real vanilla-flavored whipped cream on top. Nobody could resist Mom's chocolate pie.

I don't remember the first time I actually made an apple pie, but I think it was the day my mother-in-law asked me to bring a pumpkin pie to a family gathering - Thanksgiving, probably. I disliked pumpkin pie even more than apple pie, and I couldn't stand the thought of contributing something I so detested.

After I convinced her that apple pie was a better choice, I decided to bake instead of buy, for two reasons: thrift and tradition. In my family, one never, simply never, bought a pie of any kind. The closest bakery was at least 12 miles away, and besides, pie making was an art practiced and perfected among my maternal ancestors. If I couldn't make my own pie, I wasn't my mother's daughter or my Grammie's granddaughter. No pressure from them of course; this was all my own delusion. Back then I was still adventuresome in the kitchen and didn't realize so many things can go wrong with a pie: dough that tore apart when rolled, a tough crust, tasteless filling, burnt edges, chewy fruit instead of tender.

I called my mother for her recipe. She lived too far away to come and help me, although kind as she is, she probably would have made the 300-mile drive. She let me in on a secret: her renowned piecrust had two special ingredients - vinegar and egg. This combo made the dough practically fool-proof, which was perfect for a young and foolish wannabe baker like me. I rolled up my sleeves, put on one of those fru-fru aprons, and baked my first apple pie.

If you're expecting a disaster story, forget it; although I hated the floury, sticky mess that was left to clean up, my pie was good enough to please not only my former m-i-l but also her whole family. They were easy to please, not having a lot of experience with homemade pie. Their bakery was only three blocks away, and they weren't much into baking. And so I became the family's designated pie baker, which was fine with me because my only other choice was "designated potato salad maker," and I detested potato salad. I've still never made one and I'm pushing 50.

But I did eventually taste my own pie, because I figured "just once" wouldn't kill me, and I fell in like. When you spend at least an hour creating a dessert, it's practically sinful to let other people eat all of it. Apple pie still isn't my favorite dessert (that title is permanently reserved for something with chocolate in it), but I always enjoy at least one piece, warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream melting down the sides. What I value even more is the look on Scott's face and his "Ahhh..." after the first bite. You'll never get that satiated look or that satisfied sound by serving a store-bought pie.

Over the almost 30 years since unveiling my first pie, I've worked to perfect my own recipe. Experimenting with a combo of apple varieties, a dash of other spices along with cinnamon, chilled dough, and a few other tricks are making it a little better each time. It's one of my favorite things to do on a fall afternoon, especially when I've picked too many apples to fit in the fridge. They have to go somewhere, and there's no better place than in a homemade piecrust. The bounty of this year's crop of Jonathans, Romes, and Golden Delicious is sitting on our side porch in plastic bags, waiting to be peeled, wedged, cored, and sliced.

A fresh, homemade apple pie is such a treasure to certain friends that they'll take them in exchange for doing things like looking after our cat and gathering our mail while we're out of town. They'd do these things anyway, but the pies are a sight more welcome than a thank-you note. We have a friend who shoveled our long, steep driveway after a heavy snow; we offered to pay him for his three hours of bone-chilling work that left him looking like Jack Frost. All he wanted was an apple pie.

I do have a pie-related goal, or perhaps it's a pie-fear to overcome: making a pumpkin pie once in my life that will make Scott go "Ahh..." I won't eat it - that's too big a goal. Well, maybe I'll try it. Just once won't kill me.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Love the Apples, Hate the Hassle

The apples on one of our trees needed to be thinned. Overburdened limbs were bending in sweeping arcs, a sure sign we'd be hearing the "crack" of breaking branches if nothing was done about it. Being a good soldier, albeit a late one, since optimum thinning time was two months ago, I hauled out the 12-foot orchard ladder and thinned. The good news is, I didn't fall off the ladder. Being a worrier, I'm always pretty sure I'll fall off eventually, but it didn't happen today.

If you don't know about apple trees, you may think it would be pretty nice to have one. That's kind of like saying it would be pretty nice to have another fulltime job on top of what you already do. The only benefits of this job are, well, the apples, and you get part of the winter off.

The hobby orchardist – a title I'm qualified to claim, since I own no less than seven apple trees, a real three-legged orchard ladder, and two genuine antique canvas picking bags – starts working in the late winter. Before the tree buds out, it has to have a haircut. All those long, sprangly, straight-up growths from the previous year have to be whacked off. One semi-dwarf tree can produce half a truckload of water sprouts, as they're called. Imagine what's left lying on the lawn under seven trees. And you can't leave 'em lying there, so if you don't have a wood chipper, you either take them to the Waste-to-Energy Recycling Center (the dump), or you pile them up in your field and burn them.

Ever tried to burn green branches in damp weather? Last time I tried it, there were three of us pouring gasoline on the pile, poking lit newspapers under the pile, and generally doing everything to the pile but lighting it with dynamite. A year later the pile was still there. That was the year I got smart and hired a service to prune the trees and haul off the trimmings, including last year's, which by that time were nicely dried and would have made a great bonfire.

Springtime, when young hearts should be celebrating love and bunnies and all that, is the season of spraying. If you don't want nasty greenish worms in your lovely fruit, you must spray. Not once, not twice, but every few weeks for four months. For years, I tried to do it myself. I didn't have commercial equipment, just a thingamajig on the end of a hose, filled with chemicals I measured and mixed myself. I looked pretty goofy wearing coveralls, goggles, and a face mask. I could never get the spray high enough to treat all the limbs, and I was so worn out after spraying a couple of times I quit. Let the worms do their worst; I could eat around them.

I finally got even smarter and paid the chem-lawn service to spray the trees. It's expensive, and it only kind of works; they come out to spray three or four times, which really isn't enough. They spray all the trees, whether or not they have any fruit this year. So maybe it's not so smart, but it gets done, and I don't have to do it.

The thinning I mentioned earlier? That should be done after the little apples start to form, oh, about May or early June. Theoretically you pick off all but a few fruits on each branch or you risk two things: a tree that loses limbs and no crop at all the next year. Both have happened to my trees. Did I learn? Guess not. I was out there thinning apples the size of baseballs tonight. I worked for an hour on one side of one tree and left hundreds of apples on the ground. It hurt me to waste those beautiful, promising little green apples. I left far more on the tree than I should have, and I may pay for it when the apples grow heavier.

At least I don't have to worry about picking up the fallen apples. By tomorrow morning every single one will be gone, along with all the leaves I accidentally tore off. I have an army at hand, and they muster quickly when the apple trees are bearing. Feathered, quilled, and antlered, they are out there right now in the twilight, starting their feast. No, the apples won't go to waste. All my labor this evening will plump up some hungry animals who are facing a cold winter. And that's a very good thing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jedi vs. Airline

I drove my husband to the airport at 6 a.m. I drove back to pick him up at 7:30. We drove out to the airport again this afternoon. All those trips to the airport, and he still didn't make it from Spokane to Montreal. But he did triumph over the airline system.

We knew something was wrong when he didn't get an email confirmation of his e-ticket so he could check in online. I tried to look him up with his United Mileage Plus information; as usual, I couldn't get in. And his confirmation number plus last name didn't get me anywhere. Weird. That had always worked before.

I had called United last week to bump his seats up to Economy Plus, and they found him, so we thought he would be able to check in at the airport. We rolled in a little late - about 45 minutes before his flight instead of the "required" two hours - but pretty confident that he'd be fine, as he had no luggage to check. Well, he was confident; I'm always petrified something will go wrong. And today, it did. Hah! I was right.

I dropped him off and heard this story later. He checked in at the ticket counter and found that his reservation was under "Martes" not Mertes. He might have tried to skate through on a normal, U.S.-only flight, but not on an international one. He didn't want to get stuck at Customs going in or out, with a ticket that didn't match his passport. So he asked the ticket agent to change his name, and she just stamped his ticket and told him to go on through. "It'll be fine," she said. My husband was skeptical, but he tried. Of course the TSA agent stopped him and sent him back to ticketing.

Again, the ticket agent insisted he'd be fine. Again, TSA wouldn't let him through until the ticket agent promised he could get reticketed at the gate. Again, my husband didn't believe her, but what could he do? He followed the accommodating and sympathetic TSA agent (who told him "She's done this four times this morning and we're really upset with her") back to the gate, where the gate agent looked at him like he was nuts. "We don't do ticketing at the gate." Right. And back my husband went to the ticket agent.

Long story short – the flight left without him. The ticket agent refused to issue him a receipt showing his name spelled correctly. She said she couldn't issue anything with his correct name until he bought another ticket. So he came home, frustrated and angry with the airline system, but mostly with the agent herself. He couldn't reticket at the airport because he didn't know when his boss would want him to reschedule.

Once he called the office and got a new date for his trip, I got on the phone with United. I expected to just change up his ticket, and gosh, was I wrong. Half an hour on the phone with United, and I was as upset as my husband. The news was bad: the problem with Scott's name being misspelled was being tied to his Mileage Plus account, which they said had shown his name as "Martes" not "Mertes" since the 1990s. Neither of us believed that, since he's flown on United many times without running into this issue. What I do remember is talking very slowly and clearly to the foreign-sounding agent when I first made Scott's reservations for Montreal: "M-MARY. E-EDWARD. R-RAYMOND..." You get the picture. Apparently she thought that was "A-ADWARD."

The call to United this afternoon left us reeling, because there was simply nothing they could do for us until we got the Mileage Plus mess straightened out. Until then, that $977 ticket was useless. And the price for a new ticket had gone up to $1,800, which we'd have to pay for immediately, since we had no credit coming anytime soon from the old ticket. Oh, and don't forget the $150 change fee, and the $98 for Economy Plus seats that we'd have to buy again. No refunds there.

The agent on the phone gave us a slim hope that we could get a better outcome by going back to the airport. Great, another 44-mile roundtrip on the off chance the same agent would be there (apparently that was a requirement). But we decided to try.

When we arrived at the United counter, we found one female and one male agent and no customers. We had their total attention. While I stood by for moral support, my knees shaking because I hate, absolutely hate, confrontations, Scott stepped up and told the woman his story. He told it with feeling and emotion; I could almost see her mascara run. This woman wasn't the agent from earlier in the day, which turned out to be a good thing. She had a kind heart and some authority, or perhaps she got the power to help us from the guy next to her. They worked our case together.

Twenty minutes later, we walked out with new tickets for the exact day Scott needed to go back and ZERO fees. In other words, instead of an extra $1100 (if our current ticket had had any value), we traded his tickets straight across. This just does not happen. It simply doesn't. I knew if anyone could make a miracle happen at that airline counter, Scott could; he's a likeable, nice, friendly guy, and he got through to a couple of people by appealing to them kind of like Princess Leia did in Star Wars: "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."

So Scott has his tickets to fly out next Sunday, and my Jedi and I have a few extra days at home together. Montreal will keep. All is well.

Monday, September 1, 2008

What I Want to Know

A local TV news program has a promotion that goes something like this: "We want to know what you want to know." I don't quite get their point, but I'm guessing they want their viewers to pitch questions about what's going on in the community.

Okay, I'll bite.

Could you send your TV news crew to the house down the road and find out why it's vacant only two years after it was built. What happened to the teen-aged boys who ripped around their acreage on dirt bikes, happily keeping this entire farming area abuzz with noise and dust? Why did the homeowners leave the entire place in weeds instead of doing some landscaping? I want to know.

And by the way, can you ask the retired farmer across the field why he allows his elderly donkey to run loose? We nearly hit "Eeyore" one day as he dozed, standing up, in the middle of the road. We've dubbed him Eeyore because we kind of like the old guy (the donkey, not the neighbor) and hope he doesn't end up on someone's bumper. People drive altogether too fast past the farmer's house, despite his "Please slow down" signs. Is Eeyore really clever and agile enough to escape his fence, or is the farmer letting him out on purpose to act as a mobile speed bump? I want to know.

This same farmer and his family seem to drive only white sedans that are usually parked in his yard with the trunks open. Could you please find out what's up with that? I mean, was there a body in there and they're airing it out? You never know, he could be the local hit man. I want to know.

I'd also appreciate it if you could get some information from that neighbor who's a member of the volunteer fire brigade but keeps lighting fires in his backyard. "It's just a fire pit," he claims, but I'd swear it's an illegal burn barrel. If I can't have one, neither can he, okay? I suppose it's safer for him to have one than for the average guy, but still... I want to know.

I'm dying to know why another neighboring farmer cuts the hay in his rented fields, gussies it up into those enormous wheels that look like cinnamon rolls on their sides, and then leaves the rolls to rot. They look like something the ancient Romans would light on fire and roll down the hill to get rid of nosy neighbors. Okay, so don't do too much investigating on this one.

Finally, investigate this: Where is the badge of honor that should have been bestowed upon my husband when he ran over a cat the other day? Not for hitting the poor little thing, certainly, but for stopping, tenderly picking it up, and rushing it to the vet for help. This same man will swerve for deer, dogs, squirrels, quail, and just about anything that's in his path.

So when somebody like my husband goes out of his way to get medical treatment for, and find the owner of, what turned out to be a stray cat, why isn't there some kind of recognition? Can you find out who is supposed to appreciate, comfort, and praise him for his compassion? Oh, that would be me. Never mind.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Watching All the Deer Go By...

♪♫ Standing on the back deck, watching all the deer, watching all the deer, watching all the deer...go by. ♪♫

A summer evening in August, sitting in a deck chair, sipping a Diet Pepsi, eating a burger off the grill, talking with my husband and enjoying the smell of newly cut alfalfa - hey, what's that sound? Crunching. Munching. The deer invasion has begun again.

My husband was remarking tonight as the first doe stepped into our back yard that people in New York wouldn't know what to make of the abundant wildlife. I imagine he meant New York City (get a rope), because I'm sure upstate New York has its share of nuisance deer.

And I do mean nuisance. They're lovely to look at; in fact, I never truly get tired of the site of their graceful, red-brown, long-legged forms, sometimes with spots, sometimes with budding antlers. Visitors who live in the city (yes, I mean Spokane) usually get excited when we tell them there are deer right outside.

I remember when I was a little girl in small-town Lyle, Washington, going for a drive with my parents and sisters to "look for deer." It was one of my favorite things to do on a warm summer night. I doubt we went driving around looking for deer more than a handful of times, yet the memory is both clear and dear.

These days all I have to do to look for deer is glance outside the house most any time of day. Yesterday a doe and her fawn were under one of the apple trees. She was eating the fallen gravenstein apples while he napped. It was a lovely sight.

When I went to pick apples today, I couldn't walk underneath that tree without stepping into a pile of deer droppings. They look kind of like rabbit pellets, and they aren't very smelly, but I definitely don't want them tracked into my house. The lawn turns a nice shade of dark green wherever they've been dropped, but I don't dare go barefoot, and that's a hard thing to have to give up. Judging by the dark green spots all over our near-acre of lawn, we have had 5,000 deer visits this summer. That's approximate, of course.

The other day I looked out the front window and there, all alone among the flower beds, was a fawn. He was old enough to be up and running around, but I doubt his mamma would have approved his galavanting by himself. Fawns are normally told to stay hidden while their mothers are grazing. This little rebel wandered around the yard for a while, followed and tormented by two magpies. They used his butt as a trampoline, landing and bouncing off repeatedly. Wherever he went, they followed. Finally he got tired of the game and trotted back into the alfalfa field. He undoubtedly got a scolding when his mother found him. I was pleased to have this photo published in the Spokesman-Review's Valley Voice on Aug. 23.

Everyone who lives in deer territory knows how destructive they are to gardens, fruit trees, and ornamentals. I've suffered my share of devastation. I gave up trying to grow a garden without the seven-foot fence you'd need to keep them out. Sometimes we allow hunting on our property, although I think far more deer are killed on the nearby road than by hunters.

I do get frustrated when plants and crops are messed up by uninvited guests. But if I had to choose between a perfect, poop-free lawn and nibble-free yard or the privilege of seeing a constant parade of gorgeous wildlife, I'd take the deer. Fewer deer, for sure, but this is why we live in the country. I get to stay home and "look for deer" all I want.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How Fifty Talks to Thirteen

I took a dear friend, V, to the movies today. I've known her for five years, and we always have a good time. At least, I do. I sometimes wonder what she's thinking while we're carrying on a conversation. V is going-on-fourteen. I am going-on-fifty.

The fact she cares to spend time with me at all is a wonder. I am quite old compared to her other friends. The first time we went somewhere together, V was eight, and her dad - my co-worker - and I were at a conference in Washington, D.C. I'd seen all the attractions on the Mall, and now I was dying to visit the National Zoo. My young friend-to-be had made the trip with her father, and she had nothing to do while Dad was in meetings. So I volunteered to take her along while I skipped out of the conference for a day at the zoo.

I had the privilege of sharing V's first zoo experience. I saw her take her first up-close look at living, breathing giraffes. Neither of us wanted to leave the giraffe house. Then we pressed our noses against the glass and could almost smell the gorilla sleeping on the other side, just inches away. In the small-animal house, V spied an animal she had never heard of and couldn't wait to ask her dad if they could keep it as a pet. Although it rained on us and we got cold and wet, she fell in love with zoos, and I fell in love with her.

After D.C., we developed a go-to-the-movies type of friendship. It gave us something to do and a way to connect, since we both also love movies. Neither of us is particularly talkative, so keeping a conversation going became a challenge for me. Having a movie to talk about helped.

Okay, so talking to an eight-year-old wasn't a major challenge. Back then, I could bring up silly topics or discuss just about anything and not worry that she would think less of me. I knew she had a dog and a couple of cats, and those were always subjects that got her going. According to her dad, she was a bit in awe of me at first, though I don't know why. Probably just because I was so much older and taking an interest in her. When I told her dad how comfortably we talked together, he was surprised. It wasn't typical for her to say much to adults.

Last spring when we saw a movie together, I looked over at her and realized how she had changed. I asked her if anyone ever told her she was becoming beautiful. She said only her parents. That's what I figured. She probably had no concept of the gift God had given her, and yes, I realize it isn't healthy to emphasize physical beauty over a good and godly personality. Still, I told her what I thought: the little girl I used to know has grown into a lovely young woman.

She also had grown into a teenager. They have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to communicate with, so I didn't know quite what we would talk about today, or if it would be awkward. I had planned more time for talk before and after the movie, because I felt strongly that if I wanted to stay in her life, we needed to develop a deeper friendship. It wouldn't work anymore to just chat for a few minutes on the way there and the way home.

Besides, our habit of going to kids' movies had developed a flaw: at thirteen, she was more interested in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II than in Kung Fu Panda, but the "Sisterhood" type of movie wasn't G-rated enough to be acceptable fare. She was caught between not wanting to be seen at children's movies and not wanting to see the references to sex, drugs, and alcohol that creep into PG-13 flicks.

So I planned for us to hang out at Pig Out in the Park. We would listen to bands, eat, and talk. That plan fell through with the rain and winds that blew in this morning. Neither of us wanted to be out in that weather. We ended up going to Wall-E downtown. Yes, it was a kids' movie, but that didn't seem to matter to her this time.

Before and after the movie, we talked about anything and everything. The key, I found, was in asking V about herself and her experiences and sharing just a little about my experiences, when she seemed interested. Everybody loves to talk about themselves; this quiet girl was eager to answer my questions. From the basic questions about the upcoming school year and how her pets were doing, we went on to discuss the bravest thing she has done: rappelling off a 72-foot platform. That led to a discussion of how she is overcoming her fears. She is as afraid of roller coasters as I am, but she still rides them. She has my admiration!

I asked her about her plans for the future. Her older brother is already looking toward college; she can't see quite that far yet. I remembered how enthralled she was with the animals at the National Zoo and, later, at Spokane's own Cat Tales. Her dad has always said she's fearless with animals. I asked her if she had ever considered a career with animals. Not as a vet, she said; so I asked, how about as a zoo keeper? I told her about the amazing zoo keeper training program at Cat Tales. Who knows, maybe I've planted a seed for a future career.

I came away from our afternoon together liking this teenager even more and very hopeful our friendship can last through the teen years. After talking to her, hanging out with her, and having fun just digging a little deeper into who she is, somehow I don't feel almost-fifty. I feel a little more like a teenager myself. Thank you, V.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Luxury Cars and a Low Stress Life

I once thought it would be cool to drive a "nice" car. When I say "nice," I mean luxury, like a Mercedes or something. I don't mean so "nice" it's impossible for someone like me to afford (Lamborghinis are in that stratosphere), just "nice" compared to a Ford.

The closest I ever got to "nice" cars in my youth was riding in my friend's Mercedes when I was a kid. This friend was the son of the one and only local businessman who was doing well enough to buy a Merc, because he owned the one and only store in our very small town.

I remember feeling quite luxurious while riding in that car, because compared to my family's Rambler, it had style and class, plus a distinctive Mercedes smell I can still recall. I used to hide in the back seat when my friend's mom would come to get him, hoping I could be invisible enough to go home with him to their big house on the hill. Didn't work.

My family had upgraded to the Rambler wagon from a Studebaker sedan, circa 1955. To my dad, the car was just transportation; he liked to know his mileage, so he used to write it on the Rambler's dash with a grease pencil. I didn't aspire to anything high class when it was time for my first car, and the 1965 Ford Falcon my parents brought home seemed just fine. It was cute, quick, and fun, all attributes I didn't have as a high school nerd.

After I wrecked the Falcon in a ditch near Wallowa, Oregon, I went carless for a while. I was in college, and the small Eastern Washington University campus was easy to navigate by foot or bike. But when the opportunity came up to get a big ol' 1971 Chevy Impala for a paltry $700, I borrowed the money from Mom and suddenly became quite popular with the other students in my college youth group. I had wheels, and that beast could haul six or seven other kids.

Later, married to a man who equated "old car" with "great car," I traded downward (he thought upward) to a 1966 Barracuda. It was purple (mauve actually), it stood out, and 25 years later, people I used to work with still ask about that car. Yes, I still have it, but something died in it so I won't get in it anymore. Eldest son can't bear to part with it and tries to get me to ride in it with him. "After a while you don't even notice the smell, Mom. Honest."

During my first marriage I drove that old Barracuda; an old but classic Dodge pickup belonging to my husband; an old, and very ugly, dark green AMC Ambassador; an old Dodge Dart with the vinyl peeling off the top; and then, for many years, a Toyota Tercel wagon and a GMC Jimmy SUV, both of which became old well before I stopped driving them.

I remember how much our two boys hated the old Tercel wagon and how they screamed for joy when it pooped out on our way home from Priest Lake. It had pooped out before, but this time it seemed permanent. A whole new engine was the only thing that would get it going again. Their father, determined to get every last mile out of that (and every) car, slapped a Japanese engine in it and, by doing so, made his poor children cry.

Funny thing is, I never worried much about dings and dents in those old cars. I was careful, more to keep from getting in hot water with my late husband than because I really cared. Those cars were, after all, old. After he passed away and I remarried, my new husband offered up a novel thought: "You deserve a really nice car."

Who, ME? A "nice" car? Like, maybe, a newer-but-used Chrysler or Buick? Or a classic, restored car like the ones my eldest son favored?

No, he said, "nice" like a new Mercedes or Lexus. New as in not pre-owned or rental-returned or anything else except test-driven. I could barely grasp the concept of owning a car that no one else had ever owned, driven, or dripped ketchup in. Or one in which nothing had died.

The opinions of my sons differed vastly. Eldest thought my current car was just fine because, like his dad, he favored old-AKA-classic. Youngest was all for the idea and eagerly went for a test drive with us.

A few days later, my shiny new gold Lexus sedan was ready to pick up at the dealership, and for the first time in my life, I had a premium ride. For which, of course, I was paying a premium price; not just monetarily, but also in terms of stress.

Every parking decision had to be carefully weighed: was I far enough from the store that no one would park next to me? Was I far enough from the car next to me that I wouldn't get door-dinged? Would I remember not to door-ding the car next to me? Could I parallel park without scraping an expensive wheel on the curb or dinging my bumpers?

When the first disaster finally happened, my overwrought reaction was completely out of proportion to reality. My husband had perhaps, maybe, possibly put a couple of tiny, itsy bitsy, wee little scratches in the front bumper. Scratches one could almost not see with the naked eye. And I foolishly got hopping mad in front of my family, which embarrassed him and should have embarrassed me. That's when I began to hear the words, "It's just a car," ringing in my head. My husband was the most important person in my life, and the car was an object. A nice, expensive object, yes, but nothing more.

The perpetrator of the next disaster remains unknown. I was showing the car off to a friend while it was still quite new, and she said, "Oh look, there are dents in the hood. How did that happen?" It looked like someone had dropped something small and heavy, like the claw end of a hammer, on the edge of the hood. Who, how, when? I had no one to be furious at. But it was, after all, just a couple of dents in something that was just a car.

Since then, I have popped a very pricey Michelin tire on a curb, damaging the shiny and expensive wheel. I paid the price for a new tire gladly. Glad there was a matching tire still on the market and I didn't have to replace all five. Oh, and my wondrous, darling, amazing husband backed into a post and put some scratches in the back bumper. He was on an errand of mercy for me at the time, distracted and in a hurry. I wasn't furious. He is more important to me than any object.

I don't know what will happen next to my nice car, but my stress is less now that I know the mantra by heart: "It's just a car."

So when you see me driving around town in my sort-of-shiny gold Lexus with a scraped front passenger-side wheel and a scrape on the back right bumper, be sure to wave. Yes, it's a "nice" car. But it is, after all, just a car.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kitchen Disasters Happen Only When I Have Guests

I make great babyback spare ribs, so good you'd think we picked them up from Outback. At least that's what I told our good friends when I invited them for dinner. Ah, the perils of boasting.

I rarely invite anyone for dinner because a) that means the house must be cleaned and b) I've always thought of myself as a lousy cook. These friends were coming for the first time, and although I didn't need to, I wanted to impress them.

I cleaned like mad to get the house ready. I hate cleaning, but for them it was time well spent. I love them that much. I shopped for ribs, spuds, and whatever else. I like shopping.

I didn't bother to get out my recipe for ribs, 'cause I thought I remembered it was 2 hours covered in foil at 400 degrees, then baste with sauce and broil a few minutes. And I thought last time I made them, the ribs turned out better with some extra time in the oven.

So I checked them after three hours - about 45 minutes before our guests would arrive. What I pulled out of the oven was a crispy, crunchy, dried out disaster. I was horrified to find there was no resurrecting these ribs, regardless of the gallon of Longhorn barbecue sauce I slathered on top. Nothing was going to make them edible.

I checked my recipe and no, it wasn't 400; it was 300. That knowledge didn't do me any good because the dinner, like a Broadway show, must go on.

Another thing I hate is disappointing people. If I promise my friends ribs, then anything less simply won't do. Yes, I had a grill and hotdogs on hand, but I knew my friends, and Outback babyback ribs are one of their favorites.

I was almost too embarrassed to confess this kitchen calamity to my husband, a grand soul who would never laugh at me and has always told me, "You're a great cook." Well, in comparison to what he had before me, maybe. But the only thing left to do was ask for his help.

He was sympathetic and hugged me. He only laughed a little, bless his heart. And he was willing to drop what he was doing and save the day, knight-in-shining-armor style. We agreed he would drive to Outback while I called in two orders of ribs, and maybe he'd be back with them before our guests arrived. It would be tight. Our home is in the country, seven miles from the nearest gas/grocery and a good ten miles from the closest Outback.

Off he went, and I called Outback, getting a promise of "20 minutes"; perfect! I didn't ask what it would cost, because I didn't want to know. Thirty minutes later, with ten minutes to spare, back he came bearing two big, white Outback bags. I hurried the ribs onto a plate and set aside the bread and fries they came with. I was annoyed to find later that we'd paid for them because at Outback you can't get "just ribs," even to-go.

The doorbell would ring any minute. Now came the question of whether to hide the bags and my secret, or come clean with who really made the ribs. Since I have a fundamental aversion to lying, even to save myself embarrassment, and God does say liars hath no part in heaven, and I am counting on being there one day, I chose the latter.

Ding-dong; they were here, and we welcomed into our home two of the most enjoyable people I know. I prepared myself to confess quickly, because those Outback bags were still on the kitchen counter, and soon I'd be outed anyway. Knowing everyone loves a good story, especially one wherein you make fun of yourself, I started off with, "You'll never believe what I did." When my sad-but-funny tale was told and they knew the ribs they were to eat were not mine, my friend Jo said something gracious and kind like, "Oh, you shouldn't have gone to the trouble or expense. You know we'd eat hot dogs." Well, yes, I knew that, but when you're ready for ribs, who wants dogs?

We gathered around the table, prayed for a wonderful evening of fellowship, and proceeded to have it. And to get quite messy eating those ribs. And you know what? They weren't quite as good as mine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I'm Learning to Be a Homemaker

"Housewife" is a word I used to hate or, at the very least, misunderstand. For 27 years I had a career outside the home, and my identity wasn't "Dean's wife" or even "Jon and Jordan's mom." I was a publications specialist working in my chosen field, communications. I planned to work as a writer, editor, or web-updater until retirement because that's what Jenny did.

I couldn't understand what those women who stayed home all day did, exactly, while their kids were in school. I had only taken 6-8 weeks off when my own boys were born. Other than a three-month gap between jobs, I had never not worked since I was 22 and newly graduated from college.

My first husband, Dean, who passed away when he was 56 and I was 43, expected me to work. Yet I never felt my job was a burden; it was who I was, and we saved a lot of money with my added income.

Then came Scott. We were married not quite three years after Dean's death. Scott encouraged me to do what I wanted to do: work; quit; stay home; create a freelance career of editing or writing; finish all the novels rattling around in my head. Or simply be a wife and homemaker.

During our first year together, I felt strongly that my time of ministry as writer and graphic designer at a Spokane homeless shelter should end. The Lord apparently was encouraging me to open the door for people who needed to be on staff there, so, after five years of full-time employment at the shelter, I went part-time. Then I gave notice. In November 2007, one year after marrying Scott, I became a full-time homemaker.

I have not for a minute been bored and rarely have I felt lonely. With the accumulation of 25 years of stuff packed into this house, garage, and barn, I could spend eight hours a day simply sorting and still be hard at work this time next year. I've discovered a knack for organizing and categorizing; more surprising, I have shed my pack rat cloak and taken on the mantle of major donor to our local thrift stores.

The Jenny who claims to be a lousy cook (never had time to learn) has evolved into an experimenter extraordinaire. I made the best pumpkin-chocolate-chip bread last night after merging two recipes. Scott and I like coconut shrimp at Outback, so I'm going to experiment with a few recipes and come up with my own. I can now make babyback ribs you can hardly tell from Outback's. Oh wait, that's another story, an embarrassing one. More on that tomorrow.

I still hate to clean. Vacuuming? Dusting? Let the dust bunnies rule. I can always blame the clumps of lint and doggy fur on my inability to see clearly due to early development of cataracts. In fact, I might just ask my eye doctor to write up such a disclaimer; I will then post it prominently in my home. No one needs to know that my eyesight is actually pretty darn good. Or maybe I just think it is, and post-surgery the world will look as different as when Dorothy opens the door of her house to bright, colorful Munchkinland.

"Homemaker" describes exactly who I am now and what I do. There's nothing better for me, during this year of turning fifty, than to be Scott's wife, making a home that is comfortable and welcoming for the two of us and our grown children, grandchildren, and friends.

As for work, I claim to be retired, but I still work freelance from home - anybody got a book or two I can edit?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Take pity on me...or not

Pity me today. I'm alone with only my dog and the Olympics for company. My husband has been on the road since early Sunday, and it's another 36 hours before he comes home. Pity me because I'm facing a house that must be cleaned of dog hair (why? it'll only come back) and tidied up before a friend visits tomorrow.

Pity me because those I consider friends and who live close enough to visit have perfectly clean homes, so I hesitate to invite them because mine is never clean enough. Pity me because I've been too lazy to do more exercise that walking 1/4 mile every day to get the paper or mail, and I've added pounds I don't want, which contributes to being a hermit because I don't want to fix myself up to go out of the house knowing everyone will surely notice my big butt.

Pity me because I have two huge bowls of quickly rotting apricots on the kitchen counter that won't last another six hours, and I must bestir myself to halve, pit, and freeze them right now. Or throw them out for the deer and magpies crowding my back yard. Pity me because I have an attic full, basement full, garage full, and barn full of 25 years of accumulated treasures (?) that need to be sorted and discarded.

Okay, enough pity. Envy me because I have an amazing, wonderful, caring, funny, loving, sensitive, kind, generous, wise husband who has changed my life in the past two years, one month I've known him. What else does a woman need when she has someone like Scott?