We Didn’t Start the Fire

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Our favorite vacation spot is a sleepy little undiscovered beach town in North Carolina. We don’t go every single year. Some years we’ve taken the kids to the Smoky Mountains, or to Disney. Sometimes we’d have a family obligation, like a wedding, or a reunion, and we’d use our vacation week to party in Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, and the like. But we keep coming back to our beloved beach town.

Hubby’s parents co-owned a small condo in the beach town; my husband had great childhood memories going there. When our kids were very young, we were lucky enough to be allowed to ‘borrow’ the one-bedroom condo (with bunk beds in the hallway!) to help make a beach trip like this affordable. As the years went by, we found we could afford to rent a beautiful waterfront beach house, so long as we did it in the spring. Later we found we finally could afford summer. One year—our fourth year renting this same waterfront beach house—we invited my folks to join us. We wanted to share with them our favorite home-away-from-home, in our favorite town-away-from-town.

Our first full day at the beach house, my mother informed us they would be providing dinner for the family from the cooler they had brought in the car with them. We would be having slow cooked barbeque pork on Kaiser rolls, coleslaw, potato chips, and pickle spears. My daughter, AKA The Vegetarian, informed us she’d be baking herself a potato.

Suddenly free from dinner making duties, I went outside with my camera to capture the gorgeous pink, orange, and purple dappled sky as the sun began to set. When I came back in, something appeared to be wrong with the oven. There was a small amount of smoke coming out from its vent.

“What’s burning?” I asked my daughter, while I flicked on the stove fan. A light stream of smoke was blowing out of the oven vent, like there was a tiny little chain smoker exhaling from the inside.

“We can’t figure it out.” She opened the oven to show me her potato innocently baking (not burning) on a foil lined pan, inside an immaculate oven. No spills. No charcoaled food particles. Just clean oven.

My mother, busily bustling around the kitchen, opened a few windows before returning to her semi-frozen barbeque thawing project. She was not concerned.

Satisfied there was no fire, I shrugged as I left the room to go put away my camera. I busied myself grabbing beach towels off the balcony and switching on living room lights and ceiling fans.

When next I came back toward the kitchen it seemed…smokier. Somewhat bar-like. My mom and I checked inside the oven once again. Nothing inside was burning. My daughter, somewhat offended that we even considered that she didn’t know what she was doing insisted, “It’s not the potato!”

She was right. But the smoke had to be coming from somewhere. I pulled open the broiler section, lifted out the pan. Nothing. My mom, inspecting from over my shoulder said, “Maybe some old grease somehow dripped back behind the broiler where we can’t see.”

This seemed like the only plausible explanation. The oven was fairly new. The main body was not only meticulously clean, but was solid and seamless in construct. There would be nowhere for food or liquid to exit the oven body except the oven door. Which was spotless.

“Is it smoking more than before? Maybe I should turn off the vent,” I wondered aloud.

“No. I think it’s slowing down. The grease will burn off wherever it is. It’ll stop soon,” my mom assured us as she deftly sliced the rolls.

I hoped she was right. I opened the cabinets on either side of the stove and felt the insides adjacent to the oven. Not warm, really. Or at least, no warmer than the front of the oven.

But it was bothering me. What could possibly be causing smoke to come out through an oven vent when nothing inside the oven was burning?

This is the point in the story I should describe how the house is set up. It is technically a three-story house, built up on stilts, which make it a four-story tall structure. The house is split into two rentable units. The top and middle floors made up our unit. Our kitchen is on the top floor. The only ways to get in and out of our unit is to use our unit’s elevator, or by using the door off the kitchen leading to four flights of warped wooden stairs, some of which should have been replaced in the late 90s.

My husband appears from nowhere. “What’s burning?” He sounds suitably concerned, but really, he just came to grab a beer.

We go through the motions of opening the oven, showing him my daughter’s non-burning—and with this many door openings, non-cooking– potato, then show him how the smoke comes out of the vent when the door is closed.

“Huh,” he says. And leaves to go see what’s on The History Channel.

I glance at the oven timer. The potato still has half an hour to cook. I’m concerned the smoke alarms are going to be triggered. I’d really hate to have to bother the fire department with this, seeing as there’s no fire and the smoke alarms are silent.

I open every window on the top floor of the beach house. I start to wonder if this oven issue will be held against us by the rental agency. I grab my phone and video record the oven industriously blowing smoke into the air in a way Detroiters haven’t seen in years. I have my daughter open the oven door for the camera to show that nothing inside is burning. She uses silent, showy hand gestures reminiscent of a Price is Right prize model.

I decide to email a message to the rental company to let them know our oven is misbehaving. Maybe they’ll come look at it tomorrow. And not blame us. I decide to add an apology for bothering them.

When I return from sending the email, I’m sure the room has become smokier, as my mother and daughter are floating around in a dream-like fog. They make an ethereal picture.

I make a determination: the oven needs to be shut off. The potato can finish cooking in the microwave.

My daughter shuts off the oven.

Smoke continues to stream out.

Determined, my mother calls everyone to eat.

We convene around the table, the menfolk questioning what the hell we did to the oven.

Whilst vigorously defending our collective cooking honor—apparently with wild gesticulations and rude hand gestures—I inadvertently knocked my fork off the table. Leaning down with my face at floor level to pick up my fork, I have an epiphany.

I can breathe.

It was getting down low—you know, where first responders tell you to go when crawling out of a smoke-filled fiery inferno—that made me realize how unbreathable the air had become. I also realized that we were sitting on the wrong side of the oven should it suddenly go Mount Vesuvius on us. The oven was built into a floor-to-ceiling cabinet directly between the dining room, where we were seated, and the door to the stairs, our only logical point of egress. There was an elevator, but those were a no-no in case of a fire. There were windows, but we were four stories up. My parents were 70. If the smoke didn’t kill them, a fall from that height certainly would.

I stood up suddenly into a cloudy haze that would have made Cheech and Chong proud, and announced to my oxygen deprived family, “I’m calling 911.”

My husband asked my father to pass him the potato chips.

My mom, enjoying her sandwich said, “Did I tell you the barbeque recipe I used calls for a can of root beer?” The table en masse emits a joyful sound of wonderment at her announcement.

Undeterred, I retrieve my phone and pause. If I dial 911 from my out-of-state cellphone, will it get routed to the local fire department here at the beach? Or will it be routed to my hometown? Better to just google the local fire department. Now my phone is beeping with an incoming call. It’s the rental agency. They must have gotten my email. I instruct my husband to call the local fire department directly while I take the rental agency call.

Mr. America sighs from the other room with the beleaguered gusto of a teenager being asked to take out the garbage while he’s playing Grand Theft Auto. He does, however, put down his gherkin to make his assigned call.

On my phone, I explain to the on-call rental agent what’s going on. We have a lot of smoke emitting from the empty stove, but no fire. The oven is now off. I can’t tell if it’s emitting less smoke now that it’s off, or more. The smoke alarm has not alerted yet. She thinks we should maybe leave the building, but she’s going to call the agency owner to see what he advises.

In the meantime, my husband is explaining the same scenario to some nice fella at the fire department. Hubby’s tone conveys this information in the same way he might report a cat is stuck in a tree, but he never really liked the cat. He’s not really selling the urgency.

Now his phone beeps.

It’s the rental agency owner. My husband says to the nice fireman, “Lemme call you back.”

And he hangs up on him.

Hangs up on our 911 call, as it were.

Tim, the agency owner, says we’re idiots, and that we need to get out of the house, and he is calling 911 himself. Okay, he didn’t say the ‘idiots’ part but I’m positive he was thinking it.

I was thinking it.

Tim calls 911 while still on the phone with Hubby. He then warns Hubby to be prepared that a full-on fire engine will be showing up with lights blazing and sirens blaring. Inexplicably, I’m mildly embarrassed picturing the scene this will make, and wondering what our neighbors will think. I don’t want to disturb everyone. I’m mentally apologizing to them.

Tim tells Hubby he’s also on his way as well, he’d see us outside in about twenty minutes.

My husband and I explode into action. Rather, I explode into action. Hubby is now firmly in first gear, which is an improvement on neutral. My husband orders the kids outside, no they can’t go retrieve the Xbox. I’m grabbing cellphones, kids’ shoes, sweatshirts, wallets.

I look to my mother and father. They are still seated. And eating, though they are eating much faster than before.

“We have enough time to finish,” my mother assures me. “The smoke alarm hasn’t gone off yet!”

“Mom, they’ve called 911. Somewhere on this tiny island, firefighters are donning turnout gear and sliding down a pole.”

My mother considers this mental image. I can tell, in her mind, all the firefighters are male, and every last one of them is hot. Shaking off her wayward thoughts, she stands and starts clearing the table. “Let me just get the dishwasher loaded,” she says.

I sputter, “Seriously?”

Ever the consummate housekeeper, she informs me, “We can’t have firemen in here with dishes in the sink.” The word fireman is said with the same gravitas one would say The President, or The Pope, or The Queen Mum.

I’m now bodily trying to shuffle my stubborn septuagenarian parents to the door. Only the approaching wail of a siren piecing the night gets them moving.

When the truck pulls up, my parents are winded from the perilous descent on the rickety stairs, and my mother is discomfited by the idea that the nice firemen might think her a sloppy housekeeper once they see our silverware lying unrinsed in the sink.

The firemen are looking dubiously from us to the open doorway at the top of the house.

“Burn something in the oven?” one of the older firemen asks. I can tell they’re mildly amused. Things must have been slow at the station.

“No, I swear.” I say defensively. We know how to bake a potato!

“And it’s the top floor, huh?” He asked this in such a way it led me to believe they were never lucky enough to get those more desirable first-floor fires.

So off they go, five fully outfitted, strapping (and semi-strapping) firemen, up four flights of stairs, their sense of urgency that of men heading in for group prostate exams at gunpoint.

When they make it halfway up, my mom thinks to call out, “Pardon the mess!”

I look for my kids. My daughter is posing in front of the firetruck, flashing peace signs, sticking out her tongue, taking selfies, presumably to post on Instagram. #Vacation #Flaming Hot #First Responders #Blessed.

My son appears to be FaceTiming with someone. He’s currently winning the ‘this is what happened on my spring break’ war with his friends.

A few minutes later, one of the younger firemen pops out the fourth-floor kitchen door. He races down the stairs, hands on the rails. He moves past us wordlessly and goes to one side of the truck, opens a compartment and pulls out a medieval looking spear, nay a trident.

“What is that,” I wonder aloud.

“It’s a Halligan,” my mother tells us. To me she says, “I learned that watching Chicago Fire.”

We collectively watch, transfixed, as the handsome young fireman races back up the stairs with his tool Halligan.

I’m feeling strangely vindicated. There is no way that super-cute and extensively trained fireman hauled ass four flights of stairs with a medieval jousting weapon to pick out an over-toasty spud skin from a crack behind the stove.

My mother says worriedly, “Did you remember to put the coleslaw back in the fridge?”

The vacation rental company owner shows up. We’d never met him in person before this. Still, my dad and husband appear to vaguely recognize him. We discover he’s a retired professional football player. They shakes hands and chat. Very nice guy. He seems genuinely pleased to see we’re alive and well, and that the structure does not appear to be a towering beach house inferno.

We wait.

Finally, the captain comes down the stairs and heads toward us. He and Mr. Football exchange familiar friendly nods. They clearly know each other. Small town.

The captain turns to us and says seriously, “Good thing you called when you did.”

I see no need to remind him that we didn’t call. Or that we did, but in the end, hung up on the fire department in favor of the rental agency.

He continues, “Another five minutes and the entire cabinet unit would have been engulfed. Then the kitchen. Then the rest of the top floor. Mind if I ask how long it was smoldering before you called?”

My family instantly regressed into a classroom of unprepared math students, the teacher having just asked for a volunteer to outline, with examples, the Pythagorean theorem. No eye contact, my family is suddenly interested in the state of their manicures, their shoes, the moonlit ocean, the tires on the firetruck.

Since no one else seems willing to answer, I finally say, “Mmmmbyfrtyfvmnts.”

“I’m sorry?” the captain asks, ticking a finger behind his ear, unable to decipher my mumblings.

I sigh. “Maybe 45 minutes?”

Another fireman comes up behind him, smiling but clearly incredulous. “What on earth were y’all waiting for?”

I scuffed the toe of my shoe in the crushed shells and gravel. I said low, “We didn’t want to bother you.”

The man looked nonplussed. Then his eyes brightened like he’d suddenly figured it all out. “Are ya’ll Canadian?”

I believe he was trying to understand our reticence to complain, in his mind evoking our kind Canadian brethren, our famously polite and apologetic northern neighbors.

And here’s the thing. When it comes down to it, we really didn’t want to bother them. This story notwithstanding, my family is comprised of reasonably intelligent people. There were no flames to be seen. The smoke alarm appeared to be fully charged—the little green light had been aglow—and it never went off. Everyone was upright, seemingly alert, and breathing. There was no emergency in our eyes. You only call in an emergency.

Beyond that, our family has a deep respect for first responders. We also read the news and watch enough television (beyond Chicago Fire) that we know people call 911 for the dumbest reasons, wasting the community’s resources, and spreading first responders thin. This risks their availability for those who really need them.

We didn’t want to be those people.

“The smoke alarm never went off,” I suddenly remembered to say.

The Captain gave me a serious nod, acknowledging this point in our defense. He turns to Tim, AKA Mr. Football. “She’s right. The smoke alarm is hardwired in. It looks active, but it never alerted. I’m putting it in the report. Let the homeowner know.”

At the captain’s invitation -and assurance that it was safe- we all follow him back up the four flights of stairs so he can show us what happened.

“When we got to the third flight,” the captain said,  “we could smell wood burning, and knew this was no potato fire.”

At the top of the stairs we see a large piece of charred plywood, a hole the approximate size and shape of an oven in its center. The captain explained this piece was once inside the cabinet, under the oven, but whoever installed it had put it way too close to the oven’s bottom. Not our fault. It was going to happen eventually. We were just lucky it happened the way it did, with a reasonably good outcome.

When we step into the kitchen, we could see they’d used the Halligan tool to pry the entire oven/broiler combo out of the built-in floor-to- ceiling cabinet. The oven unit was face-down in the middle of the kitchen floor like the dead perp it was. Fire extinguishing foam coated the now empty shell of a cabinet unit, and some of the floor. The familiar campfire scent of wood smoke permeated everything.

Apropos of nothing, the captain says to the other firemen, “Forty-five minutes. They didn’t want to bother us,” as if continuing an ongoing discussion they’d been having while extinguishing our cabinet conflagration.

“Dude!” said a younger surfer-type fireman, “Never worry about that. This is our job. Besides, it was my night to cook. Y’all got me off the hook!” he grinned adorably.

My mother, of course, takes this as her opening to offer the firemen refreshments. They very regretfully decline.

She somehow still manages to send them back to the station with pulled-pork sandwiches and half a bag of potato chips. She apologized three more times for interrupting their dinner.

I think that one fireman was onto something.

We might be just be a teensy bit Canadian.

Hide Your Crazy

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Every hairdresser I’ve ever had was crazy.

It started with Kit. Kit was the live-in girlfriend of a coworker of mine. A sage old soul who could give a gorgeous spiral perm. She had a contagious laugh and a great sense of humor. Until I got a promotion over her girlfriend. Then she harassed and phone-stalked me until I had to have my number changed.

Then there was Helena. Referred to me by a neighbor, Helena initially did a great job on my color and cut. But as we got to know each other, she opened up more and more about her family. Her crazy, dysfunctional family. The stories grew exponentially more bizarre, the latest being when their family Thanksgiving dinner culminated in an argument between in-laws which turned into a food and garden hose fight out in the front yard. Police were called, and arrests were made. To make matters worse, she’d started going rogue on my haircuts. I walked away from my last appointment with an asymmetrical bob, Pippi Longstocking bangs, and a new appreciation for my relatively normal family, in-laws and all.

I tried a lady named Letha whose salon was conveniently located close to my house. I only saw her once. I was getting highlights, and she put me to work. She made me hand her the foils to put in my own hair. I was the client and her personal assistant! She even reprimanded me when I handed her the foils ‘wrong’.

Ruth worked out of a Christian salon, but secretly hated ‘All the bible thumpers around here.’ Her venom was slightly off-putting, but I was desperate at this point. Around my third visit to her, she confessed the reason she always smelled like wood smoke was because she and her children lived in a cabin off the grid. The kids did homework by candlelight. At my fourth appointment, she blithely mentioned she was thinking she might have to break up with her current boyfriend since she found out his family is in the mafia. But she was torn. She knew it wasn’t ideal, as a mother of young children, to date a man who may or may not be directly involved with drugs, prostitution, bribery, extortion and murder. But, alas, he was hot, and the siren song of a crime syndicate was clearly strong. As she put it, “The mafia is so sexy!”

Finally, I found Sela. Sela seemed … normal.

I waited until my fifth appointment to confess how normal I’d found her, that I’d seen nothing but crazy hairdressers for the last twenty years. I told her all the stories, and she laughed and told me all of her customers had said the same thing: she was the only non-crazy hairdresser they’d ever found.

And so, for the next three years I went about my life happy and secure in my choice. I had a talented, professional, non-crazy hairdresser in my employ; a golden ticket to eternally good hair.

But then she dumped her nice, boring, long-term boyfriend, Melvin, and hitched her wagon to Mitch. Mitch was just the greatest, apparently, sweet, sexy, and romantic. She’d vaguely known him from high school, and they’d reconnected through mutual friends. They fell in love super-fast, and since he lived two hours away, near his folks, it was decided he’d move into her condo with her.

A few months later she confessed she was recently awoken in the middle of the night by the police. It seemed Mitch had grabbed her purse in the middle of the night, stole her business ATM/Debit card, withdrew a large chunk of cash, and made a drug buy. Police followed him back to her house to arrest him.

Now she didn’t know what to do. Mainly because it turned out he was a meth addict all along, and she’d had no idea. Secondly, since he’d been bailed out by family on the drug charge, he was back at her condo and refused to leave. His record of address was her condo, so police couldn’t forcibly remove him. I suggested she press charges against him for stealing her debit card and using it, unauthorized, to clean out a large chunk of cash from her business account. Police would then arrest him, and when he was in jail, she could have the locks changed on the condo. That seemed like too much work to her. Maybe he’d just leave on his own, she hoped.

Eventually he got himself arrested again for another drug charge while waiting on his first court date.  She was able to change her locks then. Then he started stalking her. From jail. She got a protective order. Then he was out of jail. Would show up at her condo drunk, in the middle of the night, and berate her through her door, only to leave before police got there. She was pretty sure he wouldn’t show up at the salon and act violent. Hopefully.

I was at a crossroads. I knew I needed to find a new hairdresser. One who made better life choices, and was less likely to have a crazed and vindictive drug-addicted ex show up while I was in her chair.  I was feeling kind of bad about it; she was clearly a victim in this stalking nightmare, but it didn’t mean I had to play Thelma to her Louise.

I’d decided to keep my last pre-booked appointment, and just fade off into the sunset, roots and all. I slid into the chair and she snapped on my cape. She had just sectioned my hair off and started applying color when the salon suite manager dropped by with the mail. Something on the pile caught Sela’s eye. With a softly uttered, “Excuse me one second,” she put down the color brush and bowl, and ripped open the top envelope.

Her eyes bugged out. “Omigod!” she exclaimed, before shoving the letter in my face. “Read this. Tell me it doesn’t say what I think it says.”

I read it, mildly uncomfortable being ordered to read and interpret her personal mail. “It says you failed to pay your premium on time and are currently uninsured.”

“I don’t have insurance? We’ll just see about that!” She grabs up her phone and pounds out a text, while saying to me, “I signed up for a new policy at the end of the year. Sent my check in on time and everything. Now they say I don’t have insurance! Humph!”

She slams her phone down on her rolling cart and starts back on my hair. She’s yanking sections apart smartly and smashing the brush bristles into my scalp like she’s trying to reach my roots at a subdermal level.

She’s shaking her head and muttering to herself.

Her phone chirps; she drops the brush and picks up the phone. “Hmmm. My broker said she’ll take care of it. Not like she did it right the first time!”

Goes back to my hair. More yanking, more stabbing color toward my cerebral cortex.

Every few minutes, she goes back to her phone, pecks in an angry text, returns to me.

I’m feeling less and less bad about my decision to abandon her chair, permanently.

At last, all my touch-up color is applied, and I think Good, now she’ll leave me to sit, and my hair to process, and she’ll go to the breakroom and handle her private business, privately.

But no.

She sits in the dryer chair ten inches across from me and calls her derelict insurance broker, on speakerphone, to berate her. In front of me. I’m trapped. I’m wearing a leopard print cape. My head looks like it has been smeared liberally with grape jelly, the slick purple mess has been smoothed and swirled toward the top of my head. I look like a kewpie doll.

I excuse myself to the bathroom, taking extra time to give Sela the privacy she doesn’t think she needs.

But I come back, and now, from what I can hear on this new speakerphone conversation, she’s on the phone directly with the insurance company. She motions me over to the shampoo bowl to rinse out the color, shampoo, condition, and rinse again. All while she stays on her call. I can’t help but overhear that it’s been determined the root (pun!) cause of the mix-up was a miskey on her date of birth.

She brings her iPhone back to the chair. I follow. I’m guessing she assumes I want no changes from my last haircut; she’s completely involved in giving out all her personal information over speakerphone, while she cuts my hair.

Her home address.

Her date of birth.

Her annual gross income.

Her social security number.

Her history or non-history with cancer, heart disease, diabetes.

What her old premium was. What her new premium will be.

She finally wraps her business up when it’s time to blow my hair dry.

When it comes time to pay she smiles and says, “Sorry about that, Middle.  I probably should have waited to open my mail until I didn’t have a client!”

I say nothing to this, but smile back coolly and hand her my card to pay.

“So,” she says, “you know how I just went up ten percent on my rates?”

“No….”

“Well, I did.”

What? Like, just now? In your head?

She goes on. “But since I was on the phone for your whole appointment with all that insurance mess, I’m gonna knock that ten percent off.”

How… magnanimous of her.

And by the way, I changed the names of all the hairdressers in the telling of this blogpost.

Because, hello, those bitches ladies be crazy.

 

Invitation Only

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The conversation with my future mother-in-law started innocently enough.

“MEE-dil, have you chosen wedding invitations yet?” (Full disclosure, my in-laws have strong Filipino accents. Middle? She says MEE-dil. Heat? She says HIT. Cleats? We’ve asked her to never use that word again.)

The wedding was still a year away, but my future in-laws were in town for a visit, and we were excited to share our plans with them. Pulling out the invitation catalog and the card-stock sample I’d ordered, I handed her both.

She contemplated the items silently with an expression of confusion mixed with mild alarm, as though she’d ask me for a pen and I’d happily handed her a tampon. Cutting her eyes to me she exclaimed, “But it’s so plain!”

My mother-in-law is a beautiful, vibrant woman who loves bright colors, bold designs, and contemporary style. The invitations I’d chosen were in keeping with my style. They were white with a white satin border, black engraved script, portrait orientation. Simple. Understated. Traditional.

My fiancé, keenly aware he’d have to play this carefully, interjected, “Mom, we’re having a formal, American-style wedding. This is an American-style formal invitation.”

His mother waved the explanation away as though his words were akin to a lingering fart. “You know,” she said brightly, “we have friends who own a printing company. They want to print your wedding invitations. No charge! A gift for you!”

A sense of foreboding settled over me. Pointing to the catalog, I said, “You know, my parents are actually expecting to pay for these. They want to, actually. So, uh, thank your friends for us, but-”

“No, MEE-dil! There is no need! Your parents can save their money, yes?”

I tried another angle, sure the ‘free’ invitations would be a mistake. “But this is the exact design we want, so I think-”

“They can do any design!” she cut in. “Very big factory. They own the company!” With this declaration, she took the decision out of my hands,  literally, by shoving the catalog and my beloved sample invitation in her purse, never to be seen again.

Months passed and we heard nothing on the invitation front. At my urging, my fiancé called his mother to check on the progress. Everything’s fine, she assured him, they were going to meet the printer couple for lunch this very weekend.

Monday rolls around. Future mother-in-law calls my fiancé. They can absolutely do the invitation just like MEE-dil wants. But how do we want the wording? My fiancé and I had already conferred on this. I wanted old-school, exactly the way the sample from the catalog read. My parents, Mr. and Mrs. John J. Doe, requested the honor of your presence, at the marriage of their daughter, Middle Doe, to Mr. Middle America, on this date, at this time, at this location.

His mother sputtered, “But what about our names? MEE-dils parents names are there, why not ours?”

“Mom, this is traditional wording, it’s not unusual. See, it’s so traditional, the invitation company used it on their samples.”

“But you can just put our names down there, with yours.”

“Ma, no. Mr. and Mrs. Doe are hosting, paying for the wedding, the marriage of their daughter, to me. That’s what the wording implies. They have the one daughter, the one wedding to proudly host. This wording honors that.”

“But what if people I want to invite don’t know who you or MEE-dle are? Without our names-”

“Ma! If people don’t know the bride or the groom by name, they shouldn’t be invited!”

And that was that. Or so we thought.

A few days later his mother calls back. “So … they have card stock that is exactly like what MEE-dil wants…” She belated adds, “… it just has a very small, simple, embossed flower. Very small. Tasteful!”

I’m not happy. This would not be happening if we’d stuck to our guns and ordered from the catalog as planned. But now we were in the middle of the river; this was no time to change horses.

My fiancé asks, “What, like a small, colorless, embossed flower in the center of the top border?” I think I can picture what she’s saying to him. I have to picture it–we’re running out of time and this is the era before everyone had internet and camera phones.

She affirms this is the gist of it. We grudgingly give the go-ahead.

One month later (and six weeks before the wedding), the invitations arrive. We open the box.

I’m speechless. I’m turning the invitations this way and that, trying to understand how any professional printer could interpret this as nearly a perfect match to our sample invitation.

In the place of our classic, unornamented, traditional wedding invitation, was a top-fold greeting style card, landscape orientation. The left HALF of the greeting card cover was a hot pink embossed orchid the size of a sand dollar. The right side boldly announced future hubby’s first name and my first name.

Name

&

Name

Like we were sitting in a tree.

K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

In 64 point font. A jaunty 64 font, at that.

Then you flipped the flap up. Formal invitation wording inside.

With typos.

When I could find words, I croaked, “Call your mom.”

“Ma, we can’t use these. They’re nothing like what we asked for.”

“But they’re better, no?” she said.

No. No they were not.

“Mom, I don’t understand. We sent a sample.”

She was quiet a moment before she said firmly. “I left the sample at home. It was too plain.”

He told her our next call was to our catalog company to rush order our original choice.

“No! You have to use them!” she insisted.

Use them we did.

As coasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Weeks Notice

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Two Weeks Notice

Back in a previous life, I was a kick-ass dental assistant. If there were awards for dental assisting, I’d have won the dental equivalent to the Pulitzer. Call it the Spitpuller. That said, know that dental assistants do far more than suck spit.

I have many a story from my golden days of plaque and floss, but today I shall regale you with the tale of Dr. Rage, also known as VLR.

VLR was a highly-respected dentist within the community. When I was hired on to his practice, I thought he seemed like a kind, easy-going, middle-aged fella. Harmless. The practice was small with just one dentist, one receptionist, two part-time hygienists, and a single dental assistant. That would be me.

It was probably within my first week of employment that I saw the first of many flaws in VLR’s personality. Located in a posh part of town, the practice seemed to attract more than its fair share of an affluent patients. Surgeons, lawyers, commercial pilots, CEOs, and a few nationally known names in the media came to our office to be drilled and filled, along with the common folk like you and me. So in our morning meeting, where one would expect the dentist to review the day’s schedule with the staff and say, “Our 10 o’clock composite filling on Mr. Jones might turn into a root canal, Middle, so make sure you have the instruments needed set out for both procedures,” he instead turned to me and said, “Middle, our 10 o’clock owns Vandelay Industries*, so I want you to really roll out the red carpet for him.”

First of all, I wasn’t really sure what red carpet he was referring to, literally or figuratively. There was no champagne in the joint, no caviar, no heated neck rolls to offer, no scented candles to light. I wondered, should I double up Mr. Vandelay’s bib? Make him an origami chair companion out of his paper tray cover? Offer him a venti-sized swish of Listerine?

Secondly, this is the healthcare field we’re talking about. People come to the dentist to receive care for their dental health and hygiene needs, and are presumably given the same high standard of care applied to all patients. Dr. Rage’s implication that we should treat our wealthy/famous/influential patients better than the Regular Joe patients didn’t sit well with me. At all. Mainly because in the healthcare field, the same high standards should be held for all patients. Equally. (Which is not to imply VLR didn’t use the same high medical standards of treatment for all patients; he did.) But from a business standpoint, even Mrs. Middle America knows you should kiss all your customer’s asses equally. The patient is also a customer. They are coming to you by choice. Make sure they are happy with their choice, and want to come back; even recommend you!

Suffice it to say, I was super nice to Mr. Vandelay. Bibbed him up (single bib!), prepped the necessary instruments for his procedure, and sucked his spit efficiently, the same way I would for anybody. The only thing I did differently was to see my boss in a new and hugely unflattering light.

Flash forward a few months, and VLR had decided it was time to hire a second assistant to enable him to see more patients per day. Second Assistant was good—not Spitpuller good, mind you—but she was competent, sweet, and took direction well, at least as far as I could tell.

But Dr. Rage started complaining about her. To her. To me. To the receptionist. To the patients, behind her back, and in front of her. There were no real solid complaints. It was just nitpicking. Nitpicking delivered in a super-condescending way. Eventually there was a closed -door meeting whereby voices were raised and Second Assistant stormed out, never to return.

Dr. Rage replaced her. Same cycle: she’s great, then she’s not, he complains, nitpicks, embarrasses, then the dreaded closed-door arguing. This assistant quit or was fired (I was too afraid to ask), and runs out in tears. The next replacement was the perfect fit. This lady worked out great, and the office was finally back on an even keel.

Months later, our front office lady announces she and her husband are moving out-of-state. Dr. Rage says he will sorely miss her, and he hires a nice, qualified lady to replace her. He starts his cycle again. Pick, nitpick, embarrass, complain, screaming match, storm out. Now we have no front office lady.

Mrs. Dr. Rage (VLR’s wife) comes and fills in while they hire and train a new front desk lady. I observed Mrs. Rage handling Dr. Rage with kid gloves, acting as a buffer to any and all potential triggers that might set him off. I contemplated warning the new hire off, away from this nuthouse, but I was torn; Dr. Rage had never had a problem with me. I was afraid to draw attention to myself. I was now modifying my behavior so as not to potentially incite his wrath. Having this realization woke me up. It was while this new front desk lady was being trained by Dr. Rage’s enabling wife that I came to the conclusion that Dr. Rage was a bully, with some sort of explosive anger disorder, and it was only a matter of time before he was inspired to turn his bullying and rage on me.

I sought out and found another job quickly. I prepared a formal two-week notice letter. I decided on a plan of action: I would give my notice to him first thing Monday morning, privately, in his office, before we started seeing patients. He would be surprised by this, I knew. I had given no indication, up to this point, that I was anything other than a happy, good employee. But as all employers know, the fact that employees sometimes quit is part and parcel to owning a business. It will be fine, I’d tried to assure myself. People quit their jobs every day.

“Middle, Middle, Middle,” I’d said to myself. “You hope it will be fine. The reality is, Dr. Rage is a certifiable whackadoodle, and the forecast for Monday could be partly ragey with an eighty percent chance of colossal shitstorm.”

New step added to the plan of action: remove office key from keychain ahead of time, and keep in pocket in case shitstorm ensues. If that happened, I needed to be able to get out of there quickly, leaving nothing to slow me down, and no reason to return to the office, ever.

Monday rolled ’round. Patting my pocket, I verified I had my office key situated for easy access. I set my purse on the counter, near the back entrance, just in case. I came into Dr. Rage’s private office, written notice in hand, closed the door, and took a seat in the guest chair.

Sensing something was afoot (atooth?), Dr. Rage looked up from his charts. “What’s going on, Middle?”

I passed the paper across the desk, and said almost apologetically, “I’m officially giving my two-week notice.”

His face went dark instantly. He pinned me with what can only be described as a death glare, never once sparing a glance to my letter on his desk.

“Why!” he demanded.  It wasn’t really phrased like a question. More like a “How could you sleep with my brother, you filthy whore!”

“Uh…I’m looking to-”

“You should have told me!” He wasn’t really listening to me. He was on a Rageroll. Far less amusing than a Rickroll, I’d discovered.

“I’m sorry-”

“Who are you leaving me for?”

What?  He made it sound like we’d been lovers and I’d betrayed him. Ick. He wanted to know which of his dental competitors dared hire me.  “You know, I’m really not comfortable—”

“This is really selfish of you!” he blustered on. “I have a lot going on in my life right now! My mother’s been sick! I don’t have time to deal with this. You can’t do this to me!” His voice went up a decibel with each sentence. By the end of his tirade he was full-on yelling. There was no way the entire office could fail to hear him.

Up to this point in my life, I’d worked at a fast food restaurant, a few retail stores, and for two other dentists. I’d given notice maybe six times. It had always been met with seemingly sincere disappointment, but well wishes, and a few times, lovely send-offs. Never in my life had I experienced this scorned lover/third degree/Mommy Dearest bullcaca.

Deciding two weeks of sitting a dental chair’s width from this sputtering, narcissistic, raging man-child would be two weeks of me he didn’t deserve, I stood and pulled the office key from my pocket and tossed it on his desk.

Seeing that as a gauntlet thrown, Dr. Rage’s face went florid, verging on purple. Coming to his feet, he shouted, “SIT! DOWN!” pointing me back to the chair. Ordering me. Like a dog. An abused dog.

That was when I realized we had entered the Jerry Springer zone. And that I needed to get out of there before we became forever conjoined by a headline: Dentist Murders Employee in Fit of Rage.

My heart was pounding and my ears were ringing, but I said as evenly as I could, “My husband doesn’t talk to me that way. No one does. You get no notice. I quit.”

Opening his office door, I headed toward the back entrance. The only other way out was through the waiting room, but by now our first morning patients would be seated in there, a captive audience. There was no way they hadn’t heard Dr. Rage bellowing; the waiting room butted up to his private office. The office building’s walls were really thin.

I hustled down the hall, away from the waiting room, fully aware fellow employees (and his wife!) were now observing this drama unfolded.

I threw a glance over my shoulder and was shocked to see he was closing in behind me. Like a horror movie bad guy.

“Where are you going!” he demanded.

I didn’t slow down and I didn’t answer. This guy was unhinged, and chasing me. He was honest-to-God chasing after me.

I got to the back door, inches from freedom. I fumbled with the deadbolt. My hands were shaking.

From behind me he stops and bellows, “WHAT ABOUT THAT SECRET CHRISTMAS BONUS I GAVE YOU THAT NO ONE ELSE GOT?”

Door open, I grabbed my purse, darted out, yelling back, “I guess it’s not a secret anymore!”

He slammed the door behind me, the aforementioned thin corridor walls shuddering from the impact.

Later that evening, my husband, having been apprised of the day’s events, stood beside me at the answering machine, so that he could hear the message Dr. Rage left sometime after The Shitstorm. I’d already listened to it half a dozen times, in shaking disbelief, while I’d waited for Mr. America to come home.

“Hi, Middle. This is VLR.” Long pause. “I guess I sorta lost my temper today.” Medium Pause. “About a 10 on the Richter scale.” Medium Pause. “Anyway, let’s talk about this. If you come back, I’ll give you a bonus. And a big, fat raise. Call me.”

My husband laughed. “This is VLR? This is VLR?” he mimicked my ex-boss perfectly. “He refers to himself by his initials? What’s he think, we’re on Falcon Crest?”

He plays the message again, shaking his head. After listening to it the second time, he turns to me, mock doubt on his face. “You sure you weren’t sleeping with him?”

Narrowing my eyes at Mr. America, I only say, “Dude.”

He plays it again. Looks back at me, speculative. “I wonder what kind of money ‘a bonus and a big fat raise’ entails…”

I look askance at him, incredulous. “Seriously?”

He concedes, “Yeah, no … but aren’t you curious?

“Dude.”

He pops the answering machine tape out to save for posterity. He shakes his head slowly,  wonderingly. “You must be some assistant.”

You bet your bippy I was.

And I have the Spitpuller to prove it.

 

 

*The fictional company made up by George Costanza on the sitcom Seinfeld

photo credit: Markus Spiske / ffcu.io

In the Trenches

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“Something’s wrong with my butt,” my three-year old son told me with all the haunting, round-eyed intensity of Haley Joel Osment explaining to Bruce Willis that he saw dead people.

We were on our summer vacation in northern Wisconsin, staying in one of four rustic cabins my parents usually rented to summer vacationers, and fall and winter hunters. The price point was perfect for a young family (free), and the on-site babysitting (Nana and Grandpa) couldn’t be beat.

Ten minutes prior to his chilling pronouncement, I had been sleeping soundly, lulled there, I suspect, by the hum of box fans my mother had leant us to combat the oppressive July heat.  I awoke in the dark to find myself wedged in the crevice of two ancient twin beds pushed together in our dorm-sized ‘master’ bedroom. But what exactly had awoken me?

“My tummy hurts,” said a small, disembodied voice.  Sounded like a muppet.

In the darkness, I looked across mattress for help from my husband. He’d wisely chosen the side of the bed snugged up against the wall, safe from intruders, as it were. He was still asleep. Allegedly.

Climbing out of bed, I shuffled my three-year-old, recently potty-trained son to the tiny-house sized bathroom. Fumbling around for the light-switch, I began to smell the problem.

Looking back now, I suspect that having been only a few months out of potty-training boot camp, my little recruit had either misjudged which type of evacuation op his lower digestive tract had planned, or he’d miscalculated the timing of deployment.

Suffice it to say, the op went FUBAR.

I know I tried to muster a serene this ain’t no big deal face for my son. The fact that he was reacting so calmly to waking up in a strange place with a Chernobyl-level disaster in his pants dictated that I respond in kind by not outwardly gagging, or panicking and calling for a Hazmat back-up.

I convinced the young lad to hand over his soiled garments and directed him to the throne. I turned, thinking to rinse his underpants out in the tiny pedestal sink. The sink we, and every other innocent vacationer hereafter, would brush teeth at. Drop contacts in. Rinse swimsuits out in. Lay relatively clean washcloths on. I couldn’t do it. It was bad enough I was going to have to give my dear, sweet, intestinally challenged son a Silkwood shower before the night was through. I knew if I let those Spiderman skivvies make direct physical contact with any solid surface of that cabin, the entire structure would have to be burned to the ground.  

I tossed the contaminated objects into the bathroom garbage can, thought better of it, pulled out the plastic grocery bag liner and tied it in a knot, sealing the biohazards inside. I silently vowed to replace his favorite Underoos once we returned to civilization.

It was then he made his pronouncement. “Something’s wrong with my butt,” he said. His little feet didn’t touch the floor, and though he was likely not in danger of falling in (though let’s be honest, a little bidet action would not have been amiss in this instance), he was hanging on to the sides of the toilet seat as if he might be sucked in, should an unexpected flush prove too powerful.

His earnest face, his double-fisted grip on the seat, his grave, quietly spoken pronouncement all pointed to his obvious conclusion: his butt was broken.

His butt.

Was broken.

This was unprecedented!

But alas, it wasn’t. Poor, intestinally challenged Bubby had been a daycare baby, and was sick so frequently during his first year of life, his father and I traded taking sick days, hoping neither of us would be fired for missing too many consecutive days at work. We had his pediatrician on speed dial. Owned a nebulizer. Bought Pedialyte in bulk. He just didn’t remember any of this.

And while the whole situation was miserable (for the both of us), I couldn’t help but smile.

“It’s ok, Bub,” I assured him. “You just have diarrhea.”

“What’s a Rhea?”

It was one of those moments of parenthood where you’re in the trenches (albeit primitive sewer type trenches), wondering how you’re going to survive the next fifteen minutes, let alone the next fifteen years. This little person who isn’t very concerned whether you ever eat a meal uninterrupted, who robs you of sleep, who gets you summarily escorted out of restaurants, is also the same person who makes you laugh without trying, makes you see the world in a different way, makes you wonder if you were ever really living before they burst into your universe.

They become central to your universe, central to your heart.

Even when there’s something wrong with their butt.

 

photo credit: Markus Spiske / ffcu.io