On Kindness, Very Elderly

“Mustard and onions!” he would shout as soon he’d gotten himself through the door, gingerly shuffling up to the counter. He’s pull out crumpled dollars and some change. It was $1.62, always the same order: hot dog with mustard and onions, shortened to just “mustard and onions.”

Sometimes we’d see him coming and start his hot dog before he’d even gotten through the door (we had time; the man was 94 years old and no spring chicken. It’s interesting, to attempt to race an old man by microwaving a hot dog to have it ready for him before he’s even ordered it). His hands weren’t as nimble as they used to be, so we’d open the mustard packets for him and carry the hot dog out to his seat.

He would regularly give us a $5 tip and tell us not to spend it on the opposite sex. “Don’t spend this on men,” he’d caution, and I’d smile and swear I wouldn’t. And I never did.

He had a tiny white Pomeranian-looking dog thing he’d gotten from the Dumb Friends League. The tiny dog was tethered to the man’s walker by his leash, and the both of them were parked outside the large side window while the man ate his hot dog at the tall table in the corner. We used to bring the dog a little cup of ice cream to eat while the man was inside. One time, he yelled at me not to bite his dog, which made me laugh, mostly because it terrified some tiny children waiting in line. Once, the dog ran into the parking lot, dragging the walker with him. That caused a brief upset, and both the dog and the walker were safely recovered, returned to their post on the sidewalk.

Over time, I learned that the man had been a captain in the Navy during WWII. We talked about that when the captain ran his ship aground while showing off for friends off the coast of Italy. The man shook his head, clearly disappointed by the captain’s idiocy. When I was dating a Marine, he told me that the best part about the service was that when I got bored with the man, I could send him right back to the Marines.

He was the bright spot on many days. When we had new people working, who didn’t understand the “mustard and onions,” shorthand, they’d panic, confused by the gruff shout. He lived nearby, and walked the block and a half to the Dairy Queen regularly, exercise and human connection.

This morning, I read a post on Facebook written by a woman who’d taken her young children to a Target store for a quick necessities run, only to find herself behind an elderly woman in line who was paying for each item individually, in change. The woman wrote about her initial annoyance, but then wrote about how the cashier’s patience and helpfulness with the change counting and the interaction struck her. When the woman was done purchasing her items, she asked if she had enough to purchase a reusable bag, which she did. The cashier repackaged the woman’s purchases with a smile, no hint of aggravation or annoyance. She watched her young daughter watch the interaction, and she felt compelled to find the manager to speak about the cashier’s actions. And then she posted about it, which is of course how it came to me this morning, via a newsfeed so full of cluttered self-important noise.

When I was in high school, first beginning my time as the Dairy Queen (a self-imposed title, to be sure), we used to have an old woman come in and purchase a child-sized twist cone. Then she’d linger by the counter, chatting. At first, I was annoyed. I had things to do – re-stocking candies and cups and spoons. My manager at the time, a fantastic manager who somehow commanded and compromised and inspired with her honest work ethic and beautiful handling of high school employees who knew nothing about the working world, always encouraged us to stay and talk to her. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that for this woman, we were human interaction, not just a quick pit stop on the way to other things. It wasn’t until I grew into more adult awareness that I realized the haunting reality of the loneliness that comes with aging.

It tears at me, now, to think of people, not just the elderly, who are alone. I see the posts about how they’ve put a pre-school in a nursing home, and I’m fascinated by the sheer brilliance of the idea. I don’t know why we don’t have those everywhere, because we should.

I shed a few tears this morning, thinking of the hustling, frantic pace of our world, and the isolation that comes with our own self-involved narrow focuses. Much in line with my recent ruminations on the disillusionment of life, I find it disheartening that we feel compelled to share these stories of small kindnesses as some kind of heroic behavior, because in my own idealistic view of the world, these would be commonplace courtesies performed not out of duty but out of sheer goodwill.

I looked forward to seeing that old man every day. I brightened when he came in. I took as much (maybe more) from our interactions as he did. I still think of him, from time to time, and hope he’s okay. He might not be, it might be that he’s passed away or moved to a nursing home, but some small part of me wants to tell him how much he meant to me, and how his presence in my life made me better, happier, more fulfilled.

Listening to NPR cover the death of Alan Rickman last night, I heard the voice of one of his friends describe him using all of the words we all aspire to: kind-hearted, funny, and so on, and I started to think about the legacy that I will someday leave behind. The totality of our lives is summed up not on paper, which will eventually be filed away somewhere and left to the dust, but exists in the impressions we leave on those around us.

We get back what we put into this world, unless we don’t, in which case we must take comfort in knowing that we’ve done and been the best we could have been. My Russian co-worker, who became a dear friend, told me that she felt very deeply that the only reason she’d come back from Russia to be here for 9 months was so I could come into her life and we could become friends. She appreciated my sense of humor and my outlook. She’s back in Russia now, and I miss her every day. I miss our discussions of English language, and her laughter and our shared plants, which mingled in my tiny garden and grew together.

She’ll never know how much that compliment meant to me, and how it drives me when I’m in need of motivation. This. This is the reason we need other humans. We need them because the ripple effects of the smallest kindnesses don’t go unnoticed; they carry onward, softening over time, but still changing their environments. The harder we work to bring joy to those around us, the more joy there is to go around. That sounds Pollyannaish, and I don’t care. Taking the time to make small positive impacts is something that can have a very real and valuable return. It’s important, and we don’t seem to do enough of it.

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On Kaiser, Revisionally

I wrote a post about being frustrated with Kaiser Permanente a few years ago, when we’d first switched over from UnitedHealthcare. I would like to take most of it back.

Before I launch into my apology and glowing reviews, I must say that I still think that whomever handled my initial intake via the telephone really colored my perceptions of the organization as a whole…and I would hope that everyone (including myself) can use that as a reminder that a first impression goes a long way. Being sour or rude or brusque can really taint a relationship or an interaction in a very negative way. I make sure that I go the extra mile to be upbeat and positive (especially with my clients) at all times, because I want to engender goodwill and happiness in them and create a good relationship.

Anyway….

I have been with Kaiser now for several years. We switched over while I was still covered under my mom’s insurance (seriously, thanks Obama!), and when I finally aged out but wasn’t able to obtain health coverage through my job (because I didn’t have one at the time), I went to the magical (not really) marketplace and got myself some continuing Kaiser coverage.

Even though I could technically get health insurance through work, it’d be through UnitedHealthcare and they are horrible about covering Adderall, which is something I need. Also, my Obamacare Kaiser plan is an amazingly extensive plan, for which I was paying $250 a month, but after my tax credit, I now only pay $184 — no deductible, no co-pays, very minimal additional cost, AND my Adderall is only $20 a month. (With my employer’s health coverage — which is laughable, at best — I’d be paying $160 a month and still having to pay $30 or more co-pays, deductibles, and god knows how much for my drugs which used to be over $100 per month.)

Anyway, Kaiser.

I picked my primary care provider’s name off of a random list. I lucked out. He’s amazing. He’s realistic, smart, funny, and totally cool. He’s a realist when it comes to the practice of medicine, he’s not pro-unnecessary testing, he’s all about information and acceptance, and I’ve found him to be very personable, even though I’ve only seen him a few times in my life. (We have to correspond regularly as part of the state-mandated control on regulated medication, so we do get to catch up pretty often.)

One of the last times I saw him, I had pneumonia. He told me I sounded like a 65-year old smoker and looked like hell (both true statements), and then diagnosed me with pneumonia and told me that he wasn’t going to do an x-ray because it was a waste of time and if the antibiotics didn’t cure me, we’d have a serious problem and definitely need more than an x-ray. I laughed, mostly because he’s got a great delivery, but also because I appreciate the elimination of the annoying process and wasteful procedures.

I’ve found him to be supportive, honest, and progressive. Progressive may be the wrong word, but I value a doctor who communicates and who is professional while remaining human (there’s no arrogance or grandiosity there, and I respect that). I appreciate his candor and his humor…that goes a long way in the practice of medicine. He also wears socks with his sandals, which endears him to me because he’s totally a super hippie nerd who once told me that he gets paid whether I come into his office or not, so if I’d like, I can just email him. So happy with that setup.

Yesterday, I went and switched out my IUD. (Haha, that makes it sound like a piece of cake…trust me, no cake was involved.) The nurse practitioner that I saw was fabulous. She was professional as well, but had the same human component that I seek – she was funny and laughed at my stupid, nervous jokes. She communicated to me exactly what she was doing and how she was doing it, and asked me several times how I was doing and attempted to mitigate the pain for me as much as she possibly could. She was genuinely excited when we started talking about IUDs as a magical, immensely viable method of birth control, and I was so happy to see her passion for her work.

As she left, I remarked that the experience had been as wonderful as it possibly could have been, and I genuinely meant that.

Side note — boyfriend deserves a million gold stars and boyfriend points because when I told him I was going, he immediately offered to come with me, saying that he wanted to be there to support me. 

I melted when he said that. I am beyond impressed. I can’t believe I found a human being who’s that kind, and I am grateful for that every single day.

Apparently, one of the nurses told him that they don’t see many men there to support women when they’re dealing with this, and she told him what a great guy he was and then said, “We ALL appreciate you.” (Awww…that was so sweet of her, and again, there’s a certain genuine quality to the interaction that I find so affirming.)

In short, I’m so happy with Kaiser and I would love to keep them as my health care provider for a long time to come. The internet interface is fabulous – I frequently re-order my prescriptions online, and then pick them up at the pharmacy closest to my house; I can email my doctor or whomever whenever; and I can pay my premiums and other assorted bills with a few random clicks and allowance of pop-ups. It’s so convenient. I’ve also found that Kaiser really does do a lot when it comes to preventative health care, and even though they’re a huge company, I feel as though I’m valued — which for me, is the ultimate feeling no matter the situation. I understand that I’m one fifteen-minute time slot – a tiny cog in a huge multi-wheel systems – and I appreciate that I never feel shuffled around or set aside or ignored.

The initial transition may have been annoying and bothersome, but now that I’m into it, I really appreciate and value the care that I get. I regularly recommend my particular plan because the value is so great. It’s not only cost effective, my coverage is extensive and fantastic. I would happily recommend Kaiser to anyone who’s looking or who needs/wants the level of care that we’ve been told is impossible to receive. The disillusionment with the system isn’t present here, and I’m a completely satisfied customer.

On Periods and Parenting, Lightheartedly

We’re dog-sitting this week. Instead of the boxer-lab mix, it’s a tiny thing. Like a shiatsu or something. Her name is Lucy and she’s my mom’s old neighbor’s dog. Turns out, having multiple dogs is really hard. Having a small dog is even harder.

The cat, Carlos (Carl), hates dogs. He tolerates Acorn because Acorn isn’t curious anymore, and lately, I’ve been catching them touch noses in greeting. It makes me all fluttery inside in the best way. It’s like we’re inching closer to my dream of walking in one day to see them snuggling in a furry nap pile. Lucy, the small dog, is curious about Carlos.

Carlos is playing this cool. I’ve spent the last hour surfing the internet (job hunting, reading news, you know), and watching Carlos mess with Lucy. Carlos is sitting on a kitchen chair in the middle of the kitchen. Lucy is sitting on the floor, wagging her tail, intent on inching close enough to check him out. I assume in the animal kingdom this is some sort of mammalian verification program that can only be achieved through an extensive smell-valuation.

Every time she gets close enough, Carlos doesn’t seem to notice her. But I’m not stupid and neither is my cat. He lets her get close, then he rears up into Halloween-silhouette pose and emits a terrifying growl. She starts barking; he flexes his claws; she wiggles; he strikes. She does a calculated retreat back to my legs, just far enough out of his reach that he calms down and close enough to me that he’s aggravated. He’s currently glaring at her through the bars of his chair, eyes narrowed into greenish-yellow slits.

My money’s on Carlos. He’s savvy, suave, and supremely territorial. She’s way out of her league here, but doesn’t know it yet.

***

Of course I saw this on Facebook last week, forgot to click on it because I don’t watch videos in public, and finally got around to it today. Thank you for being seven days late on the news cycle, NPR! (That wasn’t a dig. That was a genuine thank you.)

It’s a 2:19 commercial for a pre-period prep kit for girls. It’s hilarious. It’s about a girl who doesn’t have her period yet and fakes it. Her mom, knowing that her daughter lied, throws her an insane “First Moon Party” complete with “vagician,” “uterus pinata,” and more. At the end, the daughter admits she lied and the mom admits that the party was her punishment and then presents her with the pre-period prep kit.

The commentary by the author misses the mark. It’s about how the ad is a refreshing change of pace from normally awkward and offensive vagina product marketing. (True.) But then she decides to talk about the ways in which the ad is offensive because it pits the mother and daughter against each other, portraying the mother as scheming to embarrass her daughter and the daughter as a spoiled tween. I didn’t get that at all. The video made me laugh out loud. I watched it twice.

I remember when everyone else was getting their periods, and of course, my late bloomer self just wasn’t there yet. I remember pleading with the heavens for a period before I started high school. “Come on, God, please, just don’t let it start when I’m a freshman.” I think that was a pretty reasonable request. Everyone else had it. And they concealed it poorly, carrying unnecessary purses to the bathroom with them, or making a show of putting something in their pocket, while I seethed with pre-pubescent jealousy and got back to coloring and praying for blood. (Game of Thrones really doesn’t have a whole lot on the horrors of middle school.)

When it finally came (right before high school, thanks for making good on that one God), I refused my mother’s offers of assistance and settled down to figure it out all by myself. Much like the first go at leg shaving (again, “I can do it myself, Mom” said more from embarrassment and the terror of coming adulthood than real attitude at her assistance), I failed pretty miserably for a while. The leg shaving was rough because I didn’t know how to just rinse the razor and so instead of slicing my legs like a normal kid, I cut the shit out of my fingers trying to wipe off the blade.

My parents were divorced, and my dad, being completely overwhelmed by parenting a girl child, mishandled the period situation terribly. He’d have female friends bring me pads and try to have some sort of talk, but at that point, I was well-informed about the situation at hand and didn’t want or need assistance. At least he tried, although I could have done without it. It’s not terribly complicated and later, I would discover a vagina community online and the safety of anonymous reading would lead me to a wealth of knowledge without the embarrassment of actual face-to-face communication.

Part of the struggle is going through it on your own, making realizations, and then adjusting behavior patterns as a result. It’s very much like the scientific method, except it applies to your life. Parents are sometimes necessarily the adversary just because they’ve been tasked with ushering their children into adulthood. The unwanted presence of help is often viewed as antagonistic, and whether or not the mom should have punished her daughter for lying to her, the whole thing is an adorable farce about a very thrilling time in a woman’s life.

I’m pretty sure my mom cried. It’s bittersweet. Your kid is growing up — something they so desperately want — and parents are learning how to nurture independence and let go — something they so desperately want to get right. I’m pretty sure it’s terrifying all around. Let’s inject some humor into it, because we can. And we should. Periods suck. Might as well have a laugh.

On the Toes and the Tendon, Weakly

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a pair of shoes. It was $70 at the time, which to any seventeen year old should be a ton of money. I mean, $70 shoes are still a huge deal to me. These were the very best kind – they had blues, golds, and glitter. I was in love. They even had a goldish bow right on the toe. I bought them, determined to have a reason to wear them at some point in the future.

….. Fast forward some eight years to last spring, when I did finally have a reason to wear them. I put them on, twirled, and took a few steps. The damned shoes didn’t work. My heels slipped out of them, my toes curled tightly to try to hold on but couldn’t quite manage. The whole thing was a mess.

But more than that, it was a letdown. I still have them. I’ve been unable to part with them. They somehow stand as a marker of my own financial independence and prudent judgement. (Just kidding about the last one.)

Yesterday I went to a wedding tasting for my dad and his fiance. The chef had created a menu for them, and since I’m not only opinionated but a semi-picky eater, I was the perfect choice to accompany them. I picked up my grandmother and we headed out to mingle with the very wealthy at the country club they’ve selected as their venue. Honestly, I’d love nothing more than to be rich, or at least wealthier. (Any amount of money would make me wealthier than I am now, so there’s that.) But then again, being wealthy means that you have to do so much status upkeep, which isn’t really my jam. I don’t enjoy small talk, or keeping up with someone else for the sake of appearances, and I do tend to agree with Biggie about the correlation between money and problems. Okay, but on the side of pros for the rich, the pools have waterfalls. How can you not be into that?

I’m digressing. Hard.

Dressing for a tasting is difficult. You need to look authoritative, but also make sure that there’s room for some waistline expansion through the course of the meal. I selected a dress. And then it came time for shoes — ugh.

I squeezed into a pair of heels. My big toe doesn’t wiggle correctly and shoes are a problem now. (Surgery on the tendon worked, but sort of didn’t.) I tried so hard. This was the first time I’ve tried to wear heels since my surgery at the end of March. I had them on for about thirty-five seconds before trying to walk, failing, and pulling them off. So instead, I drove out barefoot and then slipped into flip-flops in the parking lot.

Talk about authoritative.

It remains to be seen whether I’ll ever be able to wear heels, but for now, I’m still struggling with stupid things like hiking and walking, so I think it’s best that I set the dream of heels aside and pick it up again later. Talk about a letdown. I even have quite a spread of really suitable conservative pumps. Think of the wedges! As we speak, I’m wiggling the toe, trying desperately to get it to move again. Come on, big toe!

On Greek Yogurt, Persuasively

I’m not the best at eating. It’s not that I don’t love food, it’s just that I forget to eat, and when I get around to it, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. However, now that I’m working out regularly, I find that if I don’t eat, I’m absolutely starving by the time I get around to it.

(I have to cut in to tell you a terrible story: A couple of weeks ago, I learned the hard way that the easiest way to make mortal enemies is to walk into a gym while eating a fried chicken sandwich from Burger King. I wasn’t quite done with our pre-gym snack (the pre-gym snack of champions, of course), and it was cold, so I decided to finish on the way to the locker room, which can only be accessed by making a beeline through cardio. And so I did. Cue the glares. Oh my, the glares. Skinny and eating a chicken sandwich? I’m a huge bitch. Oops. Never again. Lesson learned. Shame endured.)

Of course, trying to maximize my caloric intake while also making sure I get everything essential is a difficult task. This is where yogurt comes in. The Greek yogurt fad is sweeping the nation (has been for some time, but it seems to be getting a firm foothold and more shelf space than ever before), and it’s time you gave it a try.

Each little container of Greek yogurt is somewhere between 100-200 calories, has about 24% of your daily protein, and sometimes, up to 20% of your daily fiber. That’s fantastic. I’m like most Americans over 50, and I love me some fiber. And with my ADHD, it’s important that I get a high protein breakfast, because science. But wait, it gets better. (That was in my best infomercial-salesy voice.) The one I had today only had 6% of my daily sugar. What?! Yes. It’s true.

So while it might not fill you up, it’s the perfect quick and easy breakfast or snack for me. It’s not too complicated; you can jazz it up with granola or fruit or whatever if you’re so inclined, and you can eat it in under 3 minutes. Why am I giving a seal of approval (so much more official than Good Housekeeping) to Greek yogurt? Because I’ll eat it. And that means a lot

On First World Problems, Admittedly

The iPhone was my constant companion for two years. Emphasis on constant. I slept with the damn thing. At some point earlier this summer, it took a fall and the cracking of the screen that signaled the inevitable demise of the phone began. 

The first crack was no problem. I dropped it in my driveway, but a piece of tape fixed everything. I was at work one morning when it dropped off a ledge and landed on hard tile. I saw the glass shards fly out from around it and in my heart, I knew that it was over. To my surprise, it wasn’t over. I picked it up (very carefully, of course, as my track record with broken glass and bodily injury isn’t all that good), and to my surprise, it worked. This wasn’t just a piece of tape fix; it was several pieces of tape, several times a week. But it worked! The front facing camera worked, even though there was no glass around it. 

At some point last week, the little button at the bottom shifted to the side. Strangely enough, that still worked, but I noticed that it was starting to disregard my commands from time to time. And so, with hesitation, I headed over to the Verizon store to get a new phone. 

I’d been researching, so I wasn’t heading in blind. (Never head into a phone store blind. That’s how they get you.) I knew I wanted a new iPhone. But I’d been thinking about the Samsung Galaxy S4. Thinking with no certainty. Just considering. 

They were out of iPhones. So I panicked. I bought the S4. (They gave me $80 towards my purchase for trading in my old, busted phone, so I was pleased.) We set everything up, and confident that I’d crossed all the t’s and dotted the i’s, I left. Turns out there was one little tiny insignificant thing they’d neglected to tell me: when you switch from Apple to Android, if you don’t turn off your iMessage, you can’t get any text messages from iPhone users (unless they have a specific setting set, which they might not).

Tiny. It’s not like I do a ton of texting. Or that most of my friends have iPhones. Except that I do. 

I didn’t realize this until I sent a group text to my gym buddies on Sunday night. “Gym tomorrow? Thinking 10:30.” I said. No one responded. Half an hour later, just to be an ass, I said, “No takers?” And again, no one responded. Staring at my sad double text, I started to worry. What if they’re mad at me? I thought. What if they’ve decided that I can’t work out with them? You can imagine how this continued on for quite some time. 

The next day, one of them came into work, all excited and happy. “We’re going to have the best night!” he said. I looked him with my saddest face. “Are you mad at me?” I asked. He was understandably confused. 

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“You never texted me back about the gym,” I said. 

“We all did! Where were you? I was there at ten!” 

He showed me his phone. After my first text, one of my friends had responded in the affirmative, and then nearly immediately after, I’d sent my “no takers?” text. Then they’d all made gym plans, thinking that I was an ass for ignoring them. Another of the group text participants asked me if I was mad at her the next time she saw me. “You’ve been ignoring me all week!” she said. 

As we discovered that it was my phone that wasn’t getting the texts, I called Verizon. They knew immediately. “It’s iMessage. Do you still have your phone?” No, I gave it to you. “Oh….” Oh? Apparently, it’s a known issue, and yet the salesperson neglected to inform me that by the simple, twenty-second act of turning off iMessage would save me heartache and hurt feelings (however briefly). The tech logged into my Apple account from a test phone to disable iMessage, but it didn’t work. 

Instead, I can no longer get texts from iPhones that aren’t set to send messages as SMS when iMessage isn’t available. My only options are to a) wait 30 days, at which point iMessage will apparently stop functioning or b) delete my Apple account, which is tied to a number of purchases and other things. Fantastic. 

So if you’ve been texting me and I haven’t been responding, it’s not because I’m an ass. It’s because technology is an ass, and the Apple and Verizon people are colluding to make the transfer from Apple to Android products as painful as possible.

(I realize that this is a seriously insignificant issue in the scope of things. But 20 seconds could have saved me 2 hours on the phone with tech support — my least favorite thing on this planet — and a ton of frustration.) 

On AAA, Shamingly

I heard a commercial for AAA on the radio the other day. The voice of a woman details all of the times that AAA has been there for her while her husband was too busy watching sports to come to her aid. This commercial offended me.

I know, I know, we’re too sensitive and jumpy and can get offended about anything. But you’d think that in a culture such a this, too sensitive and jumpy and easily offended, the team of advertisers tasked with the creation of such a commercial would be wary of their content and mindful of public opinion.

Apparently not.

Ostensibly, someone sat down a team of ad people and said, Sell AAA memberships to women. Remember, they’re helpless and scared, so we need to remind them that AAA is everything their man is not: responsible, reliable, prepared.

So the ad people probably said, Fish in a barrel! This one’s easy – let’s be quick about it so we can have an early lunch.

And then they created this sad excuse for a sales pitch.

Now, I must explain a few things. First, I love AAA. I have been a huge fan of AAA since the very first time I locked my keys in a running car at 16 (you’ll note that I said “very first time.” Yes, with my first car, the Green Bean, it happened often since the doors locked automatically 3 seconds after you started the car, which is just enough time to say, “I forgot _____!” and get out of the car). They were there for me in Chicago, when my roommate left my headlights on and drained my battery.

They were also there for me when I got a flat tire. That’s the experience most closely associated with this radio spot, and the experience most likely to get my blood boiling.

I was driving to Boulder one afternoon last summer to see my boyfriend at the time. I was just getting off highway 36 when I heard a sound like an angry rattlesnake. Sure enough, I had just gotten my first flat tire. I drove along in traffic until I could safely pull onto a side street. I parked. I got out and inspected the car. Sure enough, the rear left tire was flat. Gone. Donezo. (If you were to spell “donezo,” is that how you’d do it?)

So, being the resourceful independent woman I am, I opened my trunk, shoved a million things aside, and pulled out my jack and spare tire, prepared to change the damn thing myself. (I’d never changed a tire, but we covered how to do it in driver’s ed and I wasn’t overly concerned.)

I used the tool (the name escapes me, I was to say tire iron but that’s so incorrect) to remove the lug nuts. Except they wouldn’t loosen. I jacked the car up anyway, hoping I’d be able to loosen them then. I couldn’t. So I jumped on the tool. That didn’t work either. A guy on a bike stopped and offered to help. I was stubborn, but after realizing that my full body weight wasn’t going to do much, I accepted his help. He couldn’t loosen them either.

So I gave up, had my boyfriend come pick me up, and decided I’d deal with it in the morning. In the morning, my boyfriend, such a great guy that he was, left me at my car so that he could drive to Denver. I called AAA. And then I waited.

The AAA guy got there to change my tire and said, “Where’s your boyfriend?” I bristled. My internal voice was yelling, “What, just because I’m a woman I can’t change a tire?!” But my external facade was composed as I explained that I had been unable to loosen the lug nuts and had been forced to call AAA as a last resort.

Then he tried to loosen the lug nuts, cocky and masculine in his approach. He couldn’t. I saw his posture change. My internal self cheered, a smug smile on her face. He looked back at me and I just raised my eyebrow at him as if to say, “Where’s YOUR boyfriend?”

“Not as easy as you thought it’d be?” I asked, sweetly. He was sour. He loosened them eventually, put on the spare, and I drove to the Discount Tire where I got two new tires.

I was upset. AAA has always been wonderful. In Chicago, the dead battery happened on a Sunday. I was so grateful to the man who came to jump my car, and he was so gracious about the whole thing. I told him that I was terribly sorry that he had to come out on a Sunday and he was so kind and wonderful and funny.

But this Boulder man? Everything that frustrates me about people existed in him. Grumpy demeanor, sexist, superior, and so on.

That’s why hearing this AAA ad annoyed me so damn much. It’s not hard to say, “We’ll be there when you need us.” or “We’ll make you feel more comfortable when your teen starts to drive.” or “Everyone needs a backup plan.” I don’t know — I’m not the ad guy, but I feel as though they could have gotten their message across a million other ways instead of having the rely on the oh-so familiar tropes of the sports-obsessed, neglectful husband and the weak, incapable wife.

(I get that in my own rendition of the “I’m a powerless woman and I need you, AAA!” story, my own boyfriend fell into the same trope, but he wouldn’t have been able to fix the tire anyway, so it’s a moot point.)

Shame on you, AAA. You get what you pay for and I suggest you get a better ad agency. You’re a valuable service that I find so worth the money, but if you can’t sell yourselves, how are you supposed to sell your services?

On Birthday Weekend and Beets, Happily

I’m not a huge fan of my birthday. That sounds weird, but I just get really stressed out trying to make everyone happy. This year, I decided not to stress, and for the most part, it worked out. I just did what I wanted to do with the people who I wanted to hang out with.

I do love mojitos. I also love my friends. So it was lovely. Here’s most of the group later in the night:

I’m terrible at being aware of where I am in a picture. I think I’m all set up and it’s perfect, and nope, I’m right in the way. It was so lovely of Mike to come out with us – I know piano lounges aren’t his thing. I need to take him to jazz night; I think he’ll enjoy that.

Sunday, we had brunch and then went to the park to play frisbee and be in the sun. The park was packed – people playing volleyball, jogging, biking, practicing martial arts, lounging. We lounged, and ran, and eventually, after watching several groups of young men stop and do pull ups on some bars just off the path, I attempted to do a pull up as well.

It was not meant to be. When I was little, I was never able to climb the ropes in gym class. I couldn’t do pull ups. I thought I might be able to do it with sheer will, but I got halfway up and realized I could go no further.

A very supportive gentleman (mind you, he was doing pull ups like they were as easy as lifting a spoon) told me that most girls can’t do pull ups and that even if I just hung there, it would help build the strength that I needed. He was pretty awesome and I felt less awkward hanging there while he did pull up after pull up next to me.

That night, we went to my grandma’s house, where we were surprised with a visit from my cousins! We played with bubbles in the front yard:

I super love these two pictures and I’m not sure why.

Continuing in the new but still grand tradition of various attempts at adulthood, I roasted beets last night.

Evan brought me beets the other night at work because I had been talking about how much I love beets but when asked how I prepare them, I laughed. Prepare? I prepare them by buying cans of pickled beets and grabbing a fork. I told him that I wanted to try cooking them at home. (In my mind, the leap from not cooking to cooking with ease is a short one…in real life, it’s far more involved.)

I googled “how to roast beets” and was pleasantly surprised to find that the internet didn’t roll its eyes at me. The instructions are basically: turn on oven; wash beets; cut off green parts; olive oil; foil; walk away; after some time, pierce with fork; turn off oven. I guess I could have figured that all out by myself, but you know, why do something by yourself when you can just consult the Google and have it hold your hand?

I roasted them. Then peeled them. I think the internet lied about roasted beets being easy to peel. I may have also just been really into Aztec-human-sacrifice and/or warrior mode, because I had a blast staining my hands.

I haven’t eaten them yet. I was too nervous. They’re wrapped in foil and in a Tupperware in the fridge, so I’m going to do a tentative taste test later tonight. Fingers crossed.

On Books and Chocolate-Covered Pretzels, Hopefully

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I go in for one book, just like I did yesterday, and I’ll come out with five. When I have the time, I devour books. As a child, I had to start borrowing books from the library based on their thickness, simply because I read so fast and so much that I’d be finished with the books and desperate for more long before our next library trip. (And then of course, I’d lose them and the fines would begin to rack up. It’s much easier to locate a 750-page book than it is to find a tiny paperback.)

I found myself standing in Barnes and Noble yesterday, reminding myself why I don’t go in more often. (I had a gift card from when I graduated from college in 2010 that I found and hadn’t used. “Treat yo’self!” said my subconscious, so off I went.) I just want to buy all of the books.

My friend Evan is starting a book club. I’m thrilled. We voted on our first book, so I wanted to run to the bookstore to buy it. (I know, I know, I could have gotten it at the library. But I blame college for giving me the distinct pleasure of writing in books. There’s something so satisfying in marking quotes, starring pages, underlining, making notes in the margins. I don’t know what it is about it, but that makes it the best thing. I’m also far too impatient to order it on Amazon and then have to wait for it to come in the mail.) I got the last copy. He was not pleased when I informed him of that.

Our first meeting is at my house in a few weeks. We’ve got that amazing free space in the basement, or if the weather’s nice, the backyard. I’m imagining hors d’oeuvre, wine, and a lively discussion. I can’t wait. I’ve been wanting to use the remaining intellectual capacity that’s left over after hours of legal stuff, or computer screens and spreadsheets, or fake-smiley customer service for good and I feel like this endeavor is the perfect commingling of friendship and worthwhile debate. Besides, I’m starting to love having an excuse to make bacon-wrapped jalapenos.

I also got the first two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. I’m going on a business trip this weekend through the first half of next week, and I imagine I’ll have tons of time to read. I’m secretly thrilled to have nothing to do after the conference day is over. It’s going to be amazing.

I also got a romance novel (already halfway through it; can’t help it), and a book about resilience in the human spirit. Lately, I’ve been struggling and feeling weak is one of the things I hate the most. I know that time heals all wounds, but I also know that there’s enough uncertainty in my life right now to keep me edgy and upset as I wait to find what the future holds. Perhaps some baby steps toward recovering my inner strength will help put me on the right track, or at least help me feel better about the things that are out of my control.

***

Last night I worked with Evan, who is by far my favorite co-worker and one of my best friends. (I didn’t start to think about this until a few weeks ago, when we were talking about how hard it is to find fun, intelligent people. Then I was like, holy shit, there’s one right next to me.) I was trying to explain to him how much I hoped my Wednesday people would come in.

My Wednesday people are a mother and her teenage son. They’re so sweet. Do you ever just really like people even though you don’t really know them? I can’t put my finger on it, but I love this family. They come in every Wednesday night (hence my use of descriptive naming) and we always have the best conversations. They’re my favorite.

Last night they pulled up and came in carrying a cup wrapped in duct tape. My face lit up. I knew immediately what it was.

About a month ago, we were having a conversation about my serious addiction to the chocolate-covered pretzels we have for a limited time at work and I told them that we’d been cautioned not to eat all of them. (This was as I was shoveling chocolate-covered pretzels into my mouth.) I told them that I wanted to get my hands on a box of them. (They’re terrible in ice cream. Absolutely horrific. But by themselves, they’re delicious. If only they were dark chocolate. If only…..Trader Joe’s needs to hurry up and get to Colorado. I’ve got pretzels to purchase!)

“Where have you been?” they asked me. I apologized; I’ve been working Tuesdays and Thursdays instead.

The mom laughed, “I couldn’t get a whole box, but I brought you these. We thought we’d cover the cup in duct tape so they didn’t think you were stealing.” They have a Dairy Queen connection, and she asked her friend if she could have some pretzels for me. How thoughtful and sweet of them. I am overwhelmed with how happy that made me.

This is what I love about the world. These little moments. I’m not trying to get all sappy here, but if you think about how much impact a little moment can have, you start to realize how important “good” is. I was updating Evan on my life situation, and was telling him about Tobias telling me that I radiate light, and Evan agreed. “That’s such a great way to say it. You give off positive energy.” Last night, as I was handed a duct-taped covered, chocolate-pretzel filled cup, I started to believe it a little bit. No one would waste precious pretzels on someone they hated. (Unless, of course, they hated pretzels. But that’s beside the point.)

On Earth Day 2013, Sandily

Happy Earth Day 2013!

When we were little, Earth Day was a big deal. We did projects, and papers, and dioramas about Earth Day. Maybe I’m making that up, but I remember loving Earth Day. I looked forward to it. I think I imagined that my future self (which would equate to present me) would be this great planter of trees every year on Earth Day. To date, I have planted zero trees.

I did, however, rake my entire garden last weekend and plan on planting some things this year, so I feel like that’s a baby step in the right direction. Some day, we may be eating vegetables that I grew. I’m thinking tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, basil, mint, and so on. In reality, it will most likely be a sad plot that starts out magnificent but ends up overgrown with weeds. But everyone does that at least once, right?

I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I have friends who know how to do this, so I imagine I can call on them to help assist me with planning, planting, and harvesting.

In the meantime, let’s focus on current ecological issues (of which there about ten billion). I was reading this article about building structures out of plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are great (not really – they’re terrible for the environment, but they’re ubiquitous), and they’ve been used in a ton of very ingenious ways such as providing light to homes and being used to help grow gardens inside.

However, reading about building structures out of plastic, all I could think about were the drawbacks. What about weather? What about security? How is the building going to hold up and be a strong structure going forward?

When I was in South Africa, one of the biggest problems in the townships (informal settlements) was the fact that the houses were built out of essentially reclaimed materials. The houses (some more shack than house) were built out of wood, sheet metal, plastic, anything and everything. The floors were often dirt, or dirt covered in carpeting. It’s hard to keep a place like that clean, but more than that, it’s hard to protect that sort of structure from the elements.

When a fire breaks out in a township, it’s often inside one of the homes. However, it’s nearly impossible to contain the fire based on a number of factors, including the lack of accessibility to running water, proximity to the other homes, and the materials from which the houses are constructed. When one house burns, it’s likely that the others around it are going to burn too, causing unnecessary damage and threatening human life.

The building project I visited was creating a house out of sandbags. These sandbags are laid down in a concrete foundation and eventually plastered or covered in concrete, creating a structure that is nearly impermeable, providing a safer structure that can withstand the elements.

This sandbag house is such a wonderful idea because it makes use of the ubiquitous sand that’s found in and around the Cape Flats where many of these townships are located. It’s cheap to buy the concrete mix and the bags for the sand, and with some community involvement and a little planning, a building can be built relatively quickly and very cheaply. Even better? It’s not flammable like the other houses, offering protection in case of a rapidly spreading fire.

Below is the article that I wrote while I was there, that was published in the Cape Chameleon, the publication of the Projects Abroad journalism project. I think it’s important to highlight sustainable building because it can help draw attention to solutions for problems that badly need solving.

Houses of Sand

THE FUTURE OF ECO-BUILDING

Issue No.52010

Words: Katherine Barry

A pile of charred wood is all that’s left of the shacks. The sand where they sat is littered with burned belongings: a blackened Bible, an office chair, clothes no longer usable. The metal sheets that had once been walls have been salvaged, taken for use in new shacks, the obviously burnt edges blending in amongst the rust.

The first fire broke out three weeks before in the same shack that would be the ignition point of the second fire, which would tear through the informal settlement of Village Heights in Cape Town, depriving 15 families of their homes.

Fires in informal settlements – like Village Heights – represent one of the biggest dangers of living in such a community. Even with attempts to build with space on all sides, fires such as the one that destroyed those 15 shacks can spread quickly since the materials used to construct the homes are highly flammable and unregulated.

‘It was better under apartheid,’ says Bernadine, the community leader who has created and maintained the Village Heights library, and who is the recipient of the first Projects Abroad sandbag house in South Africa. ‘At least then we all had our own homes and jobs. Now we have nothing.’

Government response

According to residents, after the first fire the government offered four wooden posts, five pieces of metal and some grounding plastic as a replacement. However, the metal went to the construction of a roof and the residents were left to use plastic to create walls. During the second fire, a woman was badly burned when the plastic melted onto her skin.

Proper housing is something that many people living in South Africa lack, for a multitude of reasons, including long waiting times after application for government housing. ‘I’ve been on a waiting list for twenty-one years,’ says one woman who lost her home in the fire. ‘My daughter is 20 now.’ She went on to detail her experience, saying that she makes regular visits to go check on the status of her application, only to be told that she is indeed still on the list, but that no further information can be released about the status of the application.

While debates rage about governmental involvement and personal contribution for houses, the issue remains that people lack proper living quarters. Residents of the informal settlements around Cape Town and throughout South Africa are forced to create homes using materials that they can find, salvage, or buy, resulting in homes that often lack even basic features such as a floor. Security measures are an afterthought as well, allowing for criminal activity to flourish in the crowded neighbourhoods. Where to go from here?

Sand is nearly ubiquitous in Cape Town and the surrounding areas. It also might present a feasible solution to the problem of the shack homes in the ever-expanding informal settlements. Filling bags with sand and then stacking them within a frame can create a solid structure that is built both efficiently and quickly.

Beginning with materials, construction with sandbags can be a cheap alternative to traditional building methods. Since all that is needed to build a sandbag structure are bags, sand, cement and wooden and metal framing, the cost drops significantly due to the lack of construction equipment needed. No cranes, no stacks of bricks and no heavy vehicles entering or leaving the construction site.

20% of the materials need to be allocated for the construction of the frame of the sandbag building, but there is a certain amount of flexibility as to what those might be – including the use of wood or tin. Bricks can be used as well, but in order to maintain the eco-friendly atmosphere, they should only be implemented if they are within reach to avoid the entrance of trucks and other machinery in to the site.

Benefits of sand building

This cost-effective creation is incredibly ecofriendly. Since most of the building can be done with materials found on-site, the need for waste is nearly eliminated. This waste elimination plays a large factor in the ecofriendly nature of the sandbag buildings.

Builders who choose to use sandbag building as an alternative to conventional construction methods also stand to gain carbon credits for their choices. Carbon credit programmes offer financial incentives for companies to build in keeping with the ‘green’ trends and for waste elimination and recycling of materials.

This waste elimination and recycling process, presents an opportunity for those who are economically disadvantaged. By being able to build effectively and also save money, they can increase community bonds and safety.

Structural soundness

Besides being fireproof, the sand structures also present an element of soundproofing not found in the corrugated iron structures, which currently make up most of the homes in the townships and informal settlements in the Cape Town area.

They are also not easy to deconstruct or demolish, in essence creating a lasting home that won’t be victim to natural disasters such as flooding or tornadoes. The solidity of the sand as it is packed and stacked neatly to create walls allows for an element of indoor climate control that supersedes that provided by the corrugated structures as well. The sand essentially insulates the home, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Spreading the word

The surmountable caveat to sand building is that it is not well known as a possible method for creating homes. The newly homeless fire victims had never heard of sandbag building when asked about it, yet were curious as to how it might work. They eagerly agreed that the community would want to be involved in such a building plan, given the right materials.

Based on the readily available materials and the community mentality that many of the neighbourhoods have, it seems that if sandbag structures could catch on, they might make a wonderful improvement for communities who are underfunded and under protected.

Projects Abroad began constructing their first sandbag house at the site of the Village Heights Library in August of 2010. While normally the construction of such a building (one room) would take less than a month, due to staggered volunteer arrivals, the project has continued for more than three months. Nevertheless, the house is beginning to take shape.

Bernadine hopes to show off the building project as a model of sustainable building. As of the beginning of December, the structure was complete and the roof had been added and finalisation of the exterior decoration was beginning. The hope is that the building will remain a long-standing testament to the possibility of creation from local materials and community involvement.

The project supervisor – Deen Singh – remains optimistic that the sandbag building will be used for the betterment of the community. He explained that everything must be done to help the children. The building has been designated for use in a crèche, or a childcare centre, one that will hopefully create a safe haven for children from all over Village Heights. Currently there are five volunteers working on the building. Rick, a German volunteer, feels that the building he is helping to construct will last, showing immediate change in the place that he came to volunteer. ‘It’s nice to leave something behind,’ he said.

Perhaps this sandbag building can be a model of change for a community that is desperate for change, but lacking the resources with which to create it.