Friday, December 24, 2010

Oh Christmas tree...

The other day, I was sitting in the kitchen when I got a text from R., who was in his bedroom.  "Come upstairs."

I text, "In 5 minutes."

The phone rings.  "Hello, Handset 1, this is Handset 2.  Could you come upstairs?"

I go to his bedroom.  "Wow, Handset 1, it's nice to finally meet you," he began, and then asked if we could get a Christmas tree.  Sure, I replied.  I have a rule that if I have to push the Christmas tree boulder up the hill, as in thinking of it, going out to get it, paying for it, decorating it by myself, it's not going to happen, but if a young person wants to get involved, sure, lets do it.

"Where do you want to go to get one?"

I want to go in the woods and cut one.  A Christmas tree makes the house smell so nice.  That's what I want it for."

"You mean the woods right outside?"


"Um, that's not exactly legal."

"Mom, my father and his father before him did it that way.  His father was in the war, tho.  But I'm going to do it that way too."

This forest was clearcut 20 years ago, and replanted with seedlings at that time, so everything is the same age and about 60 feet tall.  I'm pretty sure we won't find anything, so I don't feel so bad.  "Really, you think we could find something out there?"

"Yup.  Let's go."

Should I bring a hand saw, or the cordless sawzall?

"Mom, an axe.  That's how its' done."

"No, R., people get a Christmas tree with a saw."

"Have you not heard of Paul Bunyan?  He totally used an axe."

He dons  his bright orange shorts, bright red hoodie, and leather fingerless gloves, grabs the axe, and starts down the trail.  I follow him.  After about a hundred yards, he starts to notice that there are no Christmas-tree sized trees.

"Mom, did you do one of those kid things?"


"You know, like when a little kid says, 'Let's go catch sharks in the lake!' and you kind of go along, like 'OK, honey, we'll give it a try', even though you know for sure there aren't sharks?"

"Yeah, kind of."

So we walk for a little bit, and see a bunch of holly trees.  Holly is pretty invasive, so I suggest we cut one.  It seems pretty Christmas-y, and also really low impact.  R. agrees.  The trees are about 20 feet tall, but we pick one with berries, and R. starts hacking away at it with his axe.  It takes a while, and I'm itching to use my cordless sawzall, but I restrain myself.  He's axeing away like Paul Bunyan.

Eventually, it's falls down, and we drag it through the woods back to our house.  We have to cut most of it off so it can fit in the door, but it looks festive.  Some of the red berries didn't get knocked off during the long drag through the woods still clumped on the branches.

We put it in the tree stand and bring it inside, and put a few lights and decorations on it.  "Um, does it smell like cat pee in here?" 

Let me remind you all, I have no cats.  I have no idea why this holly tree smells so strongly of cat pee. but there you have it. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Whatdya say, send, or not send?

 Deciding whether or not to actually click send... Please advise.

Dear Executive:

I would like to bring your attention to the great disappointment that many, including myselfm feel at DDES with the denial of alternative work schedules.  

Over the past few years, DDES staff have been asked to change schedules and working conditions a number of times.   Three years ago, we were told that we all must go to a four ten-hour day schedule.  There were no options for flexibility.  We were told that this would save a lot of money, jobs, and the environment. We were told we were going to be leaders in commute trip reduction, and reducing the County’s carbon footprint by minimizing commuting, reducing heating impacts by closing the building, and responding to our customer’s needs by starting earlier and ending later. Although it required employees to change their lives, sometimes drastically (making different childcare arrangements, losing carpool options, etc.), everyone made the change with little complaint, because we were told it was really an important way to contribute to the County’s budget crisis, as well as the looming climate crisis. We were also required to take 10 days leave without pay.

A year later, we were told that we needed to reduce our hours to 36 per week, because this was needed to save jobs.  Although it was a hardship for many, to take the equivalent of 26 days of leave without pay, we all changed our lives to accommodate it, because we believed we were helping save our co-workers jobs, and continuing, in our own small ways, to reduce the County’s carbon footprint.

This week, we are being required to return to a 40 hour week.  There is no option for remaining at 36 hours.  The required hours will put us in the dead center of the worst commute traffic.   We were told we could request alternative schedules, but for our section, at least, every single one was denied.  There has been no information provided about the County’s about face on climate change, commute trip reduction, and being available before and after the standard work day for our customers.  It’s hard to feel valued under these circumstances.

Employees at DDES deal with very angry frustrated people every single day.  There’s a myth that their frustration is a direct result of our poor customer service, and that may be the case in a rare instance.  But we could be open seven days a week, answer every phone call on the first ring, and still, people would be angry.  They’re angry because permit costs are high, and they’re angry because we are required to tell them no, they can’t do what they want.  That’s our job, to make sure development in this county is consistent with the zoning code, and it doesn’t always make the customer happy.  We probably take more direct, personal abuse than almost any other non-enforcement job in the county, and most of us endure it with grace and professionalism, and work hard to be reasonable, empathetic, and responsive while still upholding the zoning code.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I will tell you that I do this because I think it’s important.  I think that working with the public to help them understand and abide by the zoning code, in particular, the critical areas ordinance, is a key way to keep this area liveable.

It is disappointing to work for an organization that doesn’t look like it cares much about it’s employees, or being a leader in creative solutions to environmental problems.  I also assume that we will lose more staff by increasing our hours, because permit volumes have not increased.  I did want to let you know directly that yes, I’ll move to the schedule that’s being demanded, but I’m doing so with great disappointment and frustration.  It really is not the way to treat professionals.


'Tis the season

A dusting of snow here last night!
I wrote something a while ago, when my kids were younger, and thought of it yesterday because I was at the Athenian with one of my favorite people, and the waitress who, I have to say, my first thought when I saw her was, is she still using heroin, or is she in recovery?  But anyway, she came by with the menus and asked if we wanted anything to drink besides water.

"Um, I'm not sure.  Nothing just yet," said D. 

A few minutes later, we ordered our food, and I said, "I think I'll have coffee too.  D., do you want some coffee?"

She nodded.  This is where it first got a little weird, because the waitress turned to me and said, "Right, so when you ask her, she says yes?  Fine.   I already asked her, but I guess that didn't matter."  The way she said it wasn't jokey at all, it was more like Waitress had invited her to go ice skating and she said no, but when I invited her she said yes.  I know!  It was weird, like some little jealous rivalry or something.  

She went away, and we started waiting and waiting.  After about 15 minutes, D. walked over to the  waitress station where the coffee pots live, and asked the guy standing there if it would be okay if she grabbed a couple cups of coffee.

"No, that's not okay.  Your waitress will bring it."  So waitress walks by, and there's a little huddle between the man and waitress, and she brings the coffee over right away but she's just looking down, and won't make eye contact, and she looks like she might cry.  With the coffee, she brings a small soup bowl that has two plastic creamers, and we realize we're sort of being punished, because any waitress knows that two creamers is not going to be enough.  It feels like her little way of reminding us who's in charge, and she also looks so hurt, like our relationship is really complicated and involves way more than just the food transaction that we thought it would be.

If the waitress' ex-boyfriend had brought his new girlfriend into the restaurant, and she had to wait on them, that's exactly how she was behaving.  As if she wanted to simultaneously convey how hurt and sad she was while still being remote and in charge.  In fact, it made me look around to see if that scenario was actually happening at a nearby table, but no.  The other table was occupied by a young woman sitting by herself, photographing the menu, her food, and so on with a nice camera. 

It reminded me of the book I'm reading, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which is about a girl who can taste the emotions of whomever cooks the food she eats.  I was glad I didn't have that ability/disability, because I'm pretty sure food from our waitress would taste like pure sorrow.  Our food would be the taste of someone in the fetal position, sobbing.

When she brings our food, I apologize.  "Sorry if we got you in trouble.  We meant no harm."

"It's too late.  You already got me in trouble, and I asked at the beginning if you wanted anything to drink, and you guys said no, and then you said yes and that's just wrong.  If you do it that way, you're going to have to wait."  She went on like this for a bit, and she looked a lot like she was going to cry, and still seemed strangely upset about how when I asked about the coffee, D. said yes.  

It  reminded me of exactly how tender everyone seems to be at this time of year.  I don't know if it's the lack of sunlight, or the whole holiday thing, or what, but I thought I'd post this.


All of the mothers I know are on the edge today, the week before Christmas. There is still a mountain of chores to do. It's time to take a breath and enjoy the season, but instead of a breath, it's a sharp inhale, a sob. 

It's with these women that I've had the most fun, talking, crying, laughing, admitting the toll of the season.  This, I've discovered, is what matters.

Yesterday, I cracked.  I snapped at my kids, went into a giant tirade about how they should help me more, be more considerate, how Christmas isn't fun at all for me.  I was in a huge rage that I couldn't squelch.  it started slowly, over several days.  By yesterday afternoon, I said, hey, I need a nap.  I'm at the edge of my rope.  I'm going to lie down for an hour.  But as soon as I began to doze off, loud metal  music started to blare through the house at top volume.  I laid there for a few minutes, hoping there had been a mistake, they didn't mean to make it quite so loud, hoping that someone would correct this.  But it continued.  I got up, realizing that my tiny window for a nap had just disappeared.

That's when I cracked, started on the tirade that began like this:

"Children, would it be considerate, or inconsiderate to blare music when someone who has just claimed to be at the edge of her rope is trying to sleep?"  I was sobbing as I said it, though, an emotional wad of angel hair pasta -- fragile and tangled in such a way that unravelling things would definitely involved breaking strands.

I don't know if my kids would call this my most memorable losing it moment.  I think if we held an election, they'd probably vote for the time that we were back-to-school shopping in Target on a gorgeous August day, and I suddenly just got so repulsed by us walking around in that horrible store throwing plastic things in our cart amidst that smell of food and people in polyester sweating, not good sweat but that nervous indoor sweat, and that garish fluorescent lighting.  I felt like we were in the fast consumer part of Koyaanisqatsi, and it was urgent that we get out of there right away.  I felt a ridiculous urgency, as if survival of the species depended on me, right then, putting a stop to all of this shopping.  We abandoned our half full cart, and just left, to my kids' dismay.  We drove home with nothing, wasting half a day, and I made us all go swimming in the lake.  I think they'd vote for that, and I'd be outnumbered, but I'd still vote for the pre-Christmas nap sobbing incident.

Fortunately, the story doesn't end there.  I pulled myself together, we all apologized, blah blah blah.   But the damage was done, and I was embarrassed and sorry that I allowed myself to get to such a place.

But I take perverse comfort in this:  all of the other mothers are also losing it.  I get a phone call from a friend, crying.  She's upset at the same things that are bugging me.  Another friend stops by, starts to cry as she thinks about how little help she's received in preparing for the holiday.  As another mother drops her son off to play with mine, I see her tear-stained face, and she asks, "are you always calm, or do you yell at your kids around the holidays?"

At any rate, I don't feel so frazzled around this time of year anymore, but I think there is some collective tenderness out there, especially in these northern dark places.  Be good to yourselves, my friends.  Enjoy your people.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Crow Time

When my kids were little, they had a hobby that we called, “crow time”, which is the few moments that happen at dawn and dusk when the crows go from their night roost to their daytime activities, and vice versa.  In the evening, it happens just when dusk settles in, as the world slips from full color into black and white.  A mob of cawing black birds flies over our yard at a precise time each night that changes ever-so-gradually as the season progresses.

Their hobby:  they would go outside at crow time and wait for a feather to fall from a bird overhead; they would try to spot and catch a feather before it hit the ground.  They called these “fresh feathers”.  As in, “We caught a fresh feather last night, Mom.  We had to wait for a long time for it to get down to us.”  They only ever caught one, but it didn’t stop them from trying every night. 
It makes my heart ache to think of it.  Their gentle, patient little souls.  That’s what they’ve got.  What I’ve got is 30 seconds, and something better happen or I’m moving on.  To go out each evening and hope for a feather to fall.  If, on the off chance that it does, and if they actually see it fall in the dim light, amidst all of the other crepuscular bugs and such flying around, and if you’re able to position yourself to where you might be able to catch it, and then wait and wait and wait for it to reach you, and then  -- well, you have a feather.
Did I mention that the one fresh feather they ever caught was a downy inner chest feather?  It must have taken forever to get down to them.  And they didn’t keep it.  They put it as high in a bush as they could reach, maybe 4 and a half feet up, hoping it would never touch the ground.
That’s what it’s like to be in the present.
What its like to be me right now is to worry about M., whom I haven’t heard from in a week.  I spend a lot of time talking myself down, imagining that she’s fine, and there are good reasons that I haven’t heard from her.  Reasons that don’t involve seizures and fevers and assaults. 
This isn’t the first time she’s gone to a far away in a place that I’ve never been to, gaining fluency in a language that I don’t speak, and having adventures that I can’t quite imagine.  But this time is different, because she’s completely on her own – there’s no college or other parent or anyone whom I could contact to find out what she’s doing if I don’t hear from her.  She’s moving around a three-country area at her own whim, by herself.
When I consider it, she’s just a tourist in another part of the world; this isn’t the riskiest thing anyone’s ever done.  And yet.  I am feeling a huge amount of empathy for mothers of soldiers.
I’m not good at missing people.  It’s not exactly “out of sight out of mind”, but more that I don’t like that pang that occurs when I think of someone I won’t see, so I try not to.  It’s exactly like the sensation you get when you jump into an icy lake, where you can’t breathe for a minute, and the feeling is so intense that you can’t decide it its good or bad, but with missing someone, instead of subsiding as your cells get accustomed to their new surroundings, it just stays there.  You can’t breathe, or think. All you can do is feel that huge feeling.
While I was writing this, I got an e-mail from Little Miss M., and that feeling disappeared.
She said that people in Nicaragua think it’s very strange that American young people are out loose in the world, because they should stay with their mother until marriage.  I’m starting to think I should be a Nicaraguan madre.

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