Monday, December 30, 2013

56. New Year Resolutions

A New Year's resolution to be kinder to my older brother backfired. If you have an older brother you know why I should be kinder to him. He's been telling me what to do all my life, treating me like an incompetent baby sister. I'm 25 years old. I can make reasonable, rationale decisions. So what if I invested in a pyramid scheme. The guy who sold it to me was sooo cute. And I only had $100 to invest so it wasn't like I lost a fortune.

Doesn't Matthew have anything better to think about than remind me of every stupid thing I've done in my life. When he does I end up yelling and crying and looking sooo immature. If he'd just stick his hound dog nose out of my business. But you know what, I've made a mature decision that he's not going to change and I can't make him.

How did I get so smart? My best friend, Alicia, has a brother who got hooked on drugs. To help her deal with her confused feelings, she and her mother started going to Al-Anon meetings. These are confidential, group meetings where people dealing with a loved one's addictions can get help...for themselves, not the addict. So I started reading the Al-Anon material she had in her apartment.

It made a lot of sense to me.

“The basic belief you have to buy into,” explained Alicia, “is that you can't change anyone's behavior, only your own.”

“And how is that working for you?” I glanced up from the booklet.

“It's been hard to let go, but I'm feeling better about myself and even about my brother. And I know my mother has stopped crying herself to sleep every night.”

I don't have anything near the problems Alicia and her family have, but I would like to get along better with my brother. I borrowed her paperback on How Al-Anon Works and stayed up late reading.

That's when I made the resolution to be kinder to my brother and not worry about changing him. But I would also take care of myself and do things that made me feel good.

Matthew is a dentist. I mention this because it explains his strange hobby of collecting old tooth pick holders. As I lay in bed the following morning, I tried to think of how I could be kinder to him and also to myself. New Year's Day, which was also Matthew's birthday, was two days away. Since it was so close to Christmas, he always got a combo-present. I thought maybe he felt slighted because of this, but he never said so. But I decided that one way I could be kinder to him was to find a special gift for him on his actual birthday and then let it go. If he criticized my choice or said I was wasting money, I wouldn't react.

I gave him a subscription to Rolling Stone for Christmas, which was mean because I knew he'd go on a rampage about its editorial content. I needed to turn a new page in our relationship. I would go out and find a 'good' present for him, even if it backfired on me.

On my lunch hour from my job as a paralegal, I dashed out to “Second Hand Rosie's”. I didn't know what kind of special item I'd find but I enjoyed browsing there. So I was being good to myself, too.

Short on time, I went right to the owner, Leon—he'd inherited the store's name when he bought it—and asked if he had any toothpick holders.

“Hey, you came at the right time. I just got some boxes of junk—errr, I mean wonderful merchandise—from a house sale. I think one of those old timey ones was in it. It's in that box next to the stuffed bobcat. Look for a flash of red.”

Everything in the box looked old and dirty, but I did see something red. I gingerly pulled it out and smiled. It was the cutest thing. A red headed bird was perched ready to pick up a toothpick from a hollowed out log, about four inches long. It was made of painted metal, dusty but not chipped. Perfect for Matthew.

I bargained with Leon a little and finally got it for only $40. That night, I cleaned and shined the holder and wrapped it in the financial pages of an old newspaper. I figured if Matthew didn't like the gift, he could always read what interested him.

On New Year's Day, we all met at my parents, I brought a cake for Matthew and after we sang the birthday song and he blew out the candles, I gave him my gift. As usual, everyone else had already given him his combo-Christmas-birthday gift at our Christmas get-together.

“You're giving me a birthday present.” Matthew blinked in surprise. Then reverting to character he said, “Oh, it's wrapped in an old newspaper. I guess it's a joke gift then.” He smirked and tore off the paper. His mouth dropped open when he lifted the holder from its wrappings.

“But this, this is marvelous. I don't know what to say.”

If I didn't know better I would have thought I saw his eyes water. But I did know better so I braced myself to not respond when he started criticizing the gift and me. My New Year's resolution to treat him kinder included not allowing him to get me upset.

He stared at me. “I...I really don't know what to say. I truly did not expect you to give me such a fantastic gift.” I could have taken offense at his low expectation of me and I did feel as if maybe my resolution to be kinder had backfired. But no matter what he said I knew he was really delighted with the tooth pick holder.

I changed my usual behavior. I didn't snap back at him. I just said, “I'm glad you like it.” and, wonder of all wonders, he reached over and gave me a hug.

Perhaps my resolution didn't backfire after all.

                                                                           The End

Monday, December 23, 2013

55. Finding Noel

The moving men stuffed the last box into the van. I took a sad walk around the house that I thought I would live in forever. But life changes, for good or bad, whether we want it or not. The rooms were empty and scuffed looking. I'd come back tomorrow to give it a good vacuuming for its new owners. They were probably excited about moving in and getting settled before Christmas. They wouldn't even notice what I'd done. Oh, well, I would know I had done my best. I looked out the kitchen door at the tiny, snow covered back yard.

I leaned my forehead on the cool glass and sighed. I glimpsed movement below me on the porch. A scrawny, gray and white kitten scratched to get in. I tapped on the glass. His enormous green eyes looked up at me. I could hardly hear the 'mowr' from his pink, opened mouth showing tiny milk teeth.

I tugged the door open. The fur ball hesitated and then with a burst of energy flung himself in as if escaping from a ferocious dog. He wrapped himself around my legs, meowing softly. Now what? I had to go. I needed to be at the new condo to let the movers in. The little guy looked clean. I petted him and he purred like a lion. I could feel his ribs. Was he hungry? I had no food to give him. He had no collar. No ID. But it was below freezing. I couldn't kick him back out in the cold maybe to starve.

He snuggled into my chest when I picked him up. I made a snap decision, hoping it wouldn't be another major mistake. I'd take him with me and when I came back to vacuum, I'd stick up posters in the neighborhood about finding a kitten.

I put him in the tote bag that held my purse and cell phone, grabbed my keys and shut the door on what I had thought would be the perfect home for Jason and me. When I signed the papers I was so much in love I didn't care that it was just in my name. Jason was between jobs and he said he'd just bring down my credit rating. He was so cute, so loving, so attentive. He even brought home a bottle of champagne for the first night in our new home. I think that was the last thing he ever bought.

At first I didn't mind. It's hard for an actor to find jobs that fit his abilities. And my job as an under writer at an insurance company paid all our bills. But I noticed that he never went out for casting calls. His dirty dishes were all around the house. He didn't even carry them to the kitchen sink. I tried to be understanding and considerate. But when I did his laundry--he didn't know how to use a washing machine--I found lipstick on his T-shirts. I was so naïve, I thought it was blood or ketchup. Until I smelled stale perfume that I didn't use.

I took the next afternoon off work, came home and gave him $50 to have a 'nice lunch' with his friends. I shoved his clothes, CDs, Men magazines, and other junk in his duffle bag and put it outside the front door. I put a note on top saying I never wanted to see or hear from him again.

Then I put the dead bolts on the doors and cleaned every nook and cranny to get rid of any sign or smell of him. When it got dark I didn't turn on the lights and took a long, herb scented bath by candle light. I closed my eyes in the soothing water and listened to an audio book, “How to live without a man.” I planned to give it a good review on

Jason came home from 'lunch' around 10 p.m. He banged on the door and yelled until he found my note. I guess he was still sober enough to read. For he picked up his stuff and went back to the bus stop. The next day I put my little 'love nest' on the market and looked for a condo for one, near my job.

I stepped on the gas to get to the one I found before the movers got there. As I drove past all the houses decorated with holiday lights and wreaths, I wished the families inside a Merry Christmas even though I wouldn't be having one.

In the condo, I put the kitten in the bathroom until the movers left. I filled a small box with shredded paper and hoped he'd understand it was his 'litter box.' This little guy was going to be a lot of work. Maybe I had made another error in judgment.

When the movers were gone, I let Noel out. I apologized for giving him a cliché name for a Christmas cat, but I had to call him something. And I pointed out to him, he probably had a real name with a real family who'd come and get him as soon as I put up the 'found kitten' notices. So it didn't matter what I called him. He just looked at me and rubbed against my legs.

There were boxes every where. Noel walked around sniffing everything he could reach. I got two bowls out of the 'kitchen' box and filled one with water. Luckily I had already stocked the kitchen with a few groceries and was able to put some canned tuna in the bowl. Noel started meowing loudly as soon as he smelled the fish. He almost fell in the dish when I put it down. But every few seconds, he stopped gobbling to look up at me and purr. At last there was a male in the house who showed gratitude if nothing else.

I made up my queen sized bed. Thank heavens, I hadn't been able to afford a huge king size when Jason and I moved in together. The acres of emptiness would be even more lonely. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically, and climbed into bed after a glass of milk and a tuna sandwich of my own.

My mind whirled reliving the past few weeks. Christmas was in a few more days and I was alone...

I heard the pad of tiny feet, felt the bed jar as Noel jumped up. He meowed softly, turning it into a purr as he nestled his warm, soft body next to my back. Now I had something else to worry about. What if someone tried to claim Noel?
                                                                     The End

Sunday, December 15, 2013

54. A Christmas Gift

Christmas was coming and I wanted to get my best friend, Josh, a special gift. He'd had a bad year. His Mom, diagnosed with cancer, had suffered through some tough medical treatments. She was supposed to be OK eventually but it was hard on her and everyone in their family. Josh tried to act as if everything was fine. He didn't complain and he joked with us as usual but his eyes were sad.
As a 14 year old kid I knew I couldn't solve any of his problems but it"d would be great if I could make his eyes smile again.

“Sam, stop daydreaming and take out the garbage.” Mom's voice jerked me back to our sunny, blue and white kitchen. I groaned but got up to finish my chores. I knew I was a lucky kid to have a healthy family, but it was hard to keep my mind on what I was supposed to do.

I took the black plastic bag out to our snow covered trash bin, my mind running through possible gifts. Electronic games were good, but my budget didn't stretch that far. I suppose I could get him a new CD but that seemed lame. The dog next door was barking his head off. I guess the neighbors forgot to let him back in after his morning run. Hey, what about that? A dog. Who wouldn't be happy to get a puppy for Christmas? I rushed back into the house to tell Mom.

“A puppy? Ohhh, Sam, I don't know.”

“C'mon, Mom. It'd make everyone smile, not just Josh.” I thought my mother would agree that a spunky, little dog would be a great gift. But she pointed out the flaws in my plan.

“Yes, everyone would love the dog, but who'd end up having to take care of it? Josh and his sister and Dad are away all day. His Mom is home but I don't think she has much energy left after dealing with chemo. A puppy has to be trained.”

“Well, then, I'd get an older dog. One who'd be slow and didn't need to be trained.”

Mom put her arms around me. I was too old for hugs but she kept giving them to me. “Sam, it's a great idea, but a family should pick out a pet for themselves.”

I grunted, “OK. I'll think of something else.”

“I'm sure Josh will be happy with whatever you give him.” She patted my head. She actually patted me on the head like a baby kid. Geesh.

I slumped off to watch TV. Not much was on. Sometimes the cooking show could be funny. Especially when things went wrong. Today it was about Christmas cookies. And that's when I had a terrific brainstorm.

I would make Josh a humongous cookie. Everybody loved cookies. I had never baked before, but how hard could it be. My mom, grandma and aunts baked all the time.

I found the show's “Easy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe” on their web site. The recipe said it would make two dozen--enough for a blockbuster giant one. Three days before Christmas I rode my bike to Kroger's and bought all the stuff we didn't have at home. The streets were a little icy but I kept my balance OK with the bag slung over the handlebars.

Mom was at her weekly yoga class so I had the kitchen to myself. I dumped everything into a big bowl and plugged in the beater. It was like a bucking bronco. Bits of dough flew out all over. I fumbled around but got the speed turned down.

I poured the batter onto a large, round cake pan I had greased according to the directions. It looked lumpy, but it would be perfect once baked in the 350 degree oven. I slid the pan in and set the timer for 15 minutes. It didn't seem very long, but I would test it like I'd seen my mom test cakes. When the timer buzzed I stuck a toothpick in and it came out pretty clean. Hmm, I guess it was done.

I put the hot cake pan on a burner grate from the cooktop to cool off. Then I had a problem. How was I going to get it out of the pan and onto a plate? I hadn't thought ahead about what I was going to carry it on. Our paper plates were too small. I had to take four of them, cut off one edge and tape them together to make a big enough plate for the giant cookie. It was sort of floppy but it'd work.

I put my hand on top the cookie as I flipped it onto the improvised plate. Perfection. It fell out easily. I guess the grease worked. I stood for a minute, wallowing in the successful feeling of an accomplished plan.

I took a red bow from the sack my mother kept in her gift wrapping drawer and stuck it on the cookie. Then I realized I had another problem. How was I going to get the cookie over to Josh. I had planned to ride my bike but no way could I balance the cookie while I pedaled. I would have to walk. It wasn't too far, only about six blocks.
I zipped my jacket and carefully picked up the cookie plate. I couldn't wait to see Josh's face when he saw my gift. Everything was fine until I got to his sidewalk. I guess he hadn't done his chores. The walk hadn't been cleared. I took one step on it and skidded like a clown trying to balance the floppy paper plates. My feet went out and I went down, my face landing in my masterpiece.

Josh opened the door and burst out laughing.

“What's so funny?” I muttered. I wanted him to be happy but not by laughing at me.

“You! I saw you dancing or something out there. And you're face is covered with some kind of stuff. You look like you got an outbreak of the plague. You better not come in if you're contagious.”

“Hey, this is a cookie I made with my own hands. I even walked it over here to keep it in one piece.”

“I guess that didn't work. But c'mon in.” He held the door for me. “I'm sure it's delicious. Sorry, I didn't even notice you were carrying something. Your face looks”

“I get it, no need to say anything else. Here.” I shoved the pieces at him. “It's chocolate chip.”

He started laughing again, “So that's what those brown spots are on your face.”

I scowled at him, but then I noticed that his eyes were smiling. Mission accomplished.

                                                                     The End

Monday, December 2, 2013

53. Accidents Happen

December 13 was about to be the worst day of my life. I was a freshman on scholarship at our state university. It was finals week and I was sure I could breeze through all my exams. Except for one. Introduction to Economics. To keep my scholarship, which was necessary for me to stay in school, I had to maintain a B average. No problem except again for Econ. Professor Jensen was a real stickler having been a successful money manager before turning to his real love, destroying the lives of students.

No actually, he said his real love was teaching. And he was a good teacher with lots of examples from real life. I enjoyed the class and could handle the subject matter. What was tough to handle was his insistence on punctuality. The class was at 8 a.m. I was an owl not a sparrow and as I learned in Psych class it was hard to change from one to the other. I could stay up every night past midnight studying my eyes out, didn't bother me at all. But to get up before 10 a.m. I needed two electric alarm clocks, set across the room, plus a recurring alarm on my cell phone.

At our first class, Jensen explained.Timing is everything. Buying and selling profitably depends on timing, proposing marriage depends on timing, and so does just about everything else.” He paused and it seemed he was looking right at me. “So I intend to teach you the importance of time and punctuality. I will not tolerate late arriving students.

I managed to make his class on time through out the semester. I had only one more class to worry about. The final exam. He said he would lock the door at 8:01—he'd give us a minute of grace. Generous of him, huh. It was almost as if he could read my anxious mind, for he added, “And Mr. Browning, I've noticed that you're always on time, breathless but on time.” All eyes swiveled to my red face.

He continued, “So as not to be unduly harsh, in case some of you don't make it on time, I will open the door to late comers who will be able to take the test, but I will lower their class grade one level.” I wasn't sure university policy would let him do that, but I couldn't afford to take the chance. For me that meant going from a B to a C and losing my scholarship. I was pretty sure I could get a B on the exam and I was determined to get there before 8.

But, as the Scottish poet, Bobbie Burns, once said, courtesy of Intro. to English Literature, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” I was a man whose plan was about to go stray. The night before the exam there was an ice storm. Cramming as much economic theory as I could, I heard the wind howling and trees creaking. Didn't think anything of it. This was Minnesota. Winter storms happened. I slept peacefully unaware that power lines went down all around our dorm.

My electric alarm clocks did not go off. I snoozed on. Even if I had known of this potential disaster, I wouldn't have worried. I had my back up cell phone alarm. I should have worried. I had forgotten to check that the phone was fully charged. The charge ran out during the night and it didn't go off.

My unconscious or subconscious must have been tracking time because I jolted awake at 7:30 feeling something was wrong. First, it was very quiet. No electricity meant no music, TV, hair blowers, or coffee machines heard through thin walls. I looked at my wrist watch. Digital and easy to read in my befuddled state. Its battery was still going strong. One part of my brain was struggling with why I had overslept and another part was intent on getting me to the exam on time.

I dressed like Superman in a phone booth, ran out to my car, turned on the heater, frantically scraped off the windshield frost, leaped in like a deployed jet pilot and took off. Class was only 10 minutes away and my designated parking lot was next to the building. I should make it in time.

Except. I was driving down Green street about to cross Livingston on a green light when a car slammed into my passenger door and spun my Honda around. A dark maroon Audi had slid through the intersection, unable to stop at the red light on Livingston.

As my car turned into a merry go round, I saw my scholarship fly away. Would Jensen accept an accident as a viable reason for missing an exam. No. I'm sure he would say when you saw the ice you should have allowed extra time. And if I mentioned the failed cell phone alarm. He would have shook his head and said, “You didn't charge your battery? What if someone was calling with a million dollar job offer?”

The good news was I wasn't hurt and the other driver emerged from his car looking OK, too. I dug out my license and insurance card and prepared to exchange information with him. I was feeling a little groggy so when I faced the idiot who ruined my life, I thought my sight had been affected. But I looked down at his driver's license and saw he was indeed, Professor Jensen.

“Browning?” he read off my license and stared at me. “Aren't you in my econ class?”

“Yes, sir. I am. And I'm really, really sorry but I think I'm going to be late for your exam.”

He frowned and said, “I think I'm going to be late, too.”
                                                             The End