Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sciatic Vocabulary

A NOTE BEFORE READING: If you find certain four-letter words (specifically, the ones that begin with “f” and “s”) offensive, then take a break from my blog and come back next week. Otherwise…

A few years ago in January, I woke up on a Sunday morning with fun plans for the day. But in less than a minute, I realized the hours ahead would not be quite as entertaining as I had anticipated. I couldn’t move. Or rather, I couldn’t get out of bed without using my arms to mobilize my right leg and hip. Something was very wrong, and the pain was unfamiliar.

Once I had made it to my feet, I inched my way into the kitchen and prepared some coffee. And once my cup was prepped, I did what I always do when I don’t feel well. I called my mom.

I realize that might sound childish coming from a woman my age, but the fact is, I have always been relatively adult, and so I deprived my mother of ministering to a certain amount of child-like behavior back when my height would have made it appropriate. I think she likes it when I call her with complaints of a stomach ache or whatever. And in this instance, although I couldn’t describe my ailment precisely, I had a strong need to whine to her and hear her voice.

I should mention, before I revisit the conversation itself, that my mother rarely cusses, and she has never, to my knowledge, dropped the “f-bomb.” She’s heard it, of course. From me. From my sister. Even from our late Dad (who felt particularly comfortable using the word once my sister and I had set a precedent). So I don’t mean to imply that Mom lives in a bubble. In fact, she is the very person who shared with me this little piece of etymology: did you know that the “f-bomb” is actually an acronym used by law enforcement in the UK? It represents for unlawful carnal knowledge.


So that’s my mom. A font of information and a woman who stands by her scruples.

I was pacing in my living room when I called her that January morning. After the difficulty getting out of bed, I knew that sitting down would probably be an unwise idea. Particularly as it would need to be followed, at some point, by standing up.

“Mom,” I said, genuine concern in my voice. “Something is wrong. I don’t know what it is.”

She asked some logical follow-up questions, and as I paced, I frequently felt extremely sharp pains.

“Fuck!” I blurted out, after one especially sharp jolt.

“Shit!” after another.

I continued to try to describe what I was feeling --

“Fuck! Shit!”

-- and how I didn’t recall doing anything particular to cause it.

“Fuck!” (the pain jolts kept coming…)

I shared that I’d been exercising quite consistently in the past month --


-- so having some sort of sudden physical problem like this --


-- just didn’t make sense.

There was a pause in my tirade, and my mother waited a moment. Then, she asked the irresistible question.

“Are you sure it’s not Turrets?”

POSTSCRIPT: As you might have gathered from the title of this piece, my ailment turned out to be sciatica. Avoid it if you can! (It’ll fuck with you.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Frog In His Salad

Life puts us where we’re supposed to be, and when I decided – after four years in the Ivy League – to get a job as a waitress, life put me at a burger-slinging place in the Fashion District of Manhattan.

The burger-slinging place, in turn, handed me a “trainer:” Don.

One of the funniest, warmest individuals I had met and will meet, Don remains a friend today. (He also still happens to wait on tables in New York.)

We worked together at that burger-slinging place for probably less than a year. Then, we moved on. To different restaurants.

About two years (and more than a few restaurants) later, I was working at a glorified coffee shop on the Upper East Side. It was classic. Most of my fellow waitresses were older women who brought to mind the characters from the movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. These waitresses didn’t wear hairnets, but they might have. They had painted-on eyebrows and tri-state accents. They were the real deal.

As were our costumes: our black polyester v-neck jumpers were knee-length. We wore them over cotton shirts in various pastel hues. White neckties completed the ensemble.

Besides age, the primary difference between the other waitri and me was our choice in leg- and footwear. My older colleagues wore support hose and equally supportive shoes. I flaunted bare legs (which were always tanned, thanks to my weekend excursions to Jones Beach), and the black Minnie Mouse shoes that I found at the Eastern import shop were, if I recall, a Chinese size 45.

I was definitely the babe in the mix, but in that place, my status bore no benefits.

It was grueling work, delivering the goods to the tables. And it was particularly grueling on weekends, when customers would order fresh-squeezed orange juice. Sure, it was cool that they could order it, but the squeezing process took a great deal of time, and the waitresses most often had to do that work. If one table ordered four large OJs, I’d be on a ten-minute delay from that point forward. I knew I could kiss all tips good-bye.

There was also the issue of the owner, a man named Irving. He was undoubtedly very wealthy, and he spent barely a moment in his restaurant, but when he did, oh my God, those older waitri would get quite nervous. And they would parlay that nervousness into snippy remarks.

“Irving’s here checking out his precious orange juice machine,” Ingrid said one day, her painted eyebrows rising above the top frame of her glasses as she did the math on a guest check, a half-cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

Ingrid was the most Diane Ladd of the older waitress group, and on the day of Irving’s visit, she had been assigned a somewhat extended shift so as to catch some of the post-lunch spillover. The rest of the gals had left. Only she and I were “on the floor.”

Those who have worked in restaurants and have done the shifts-in-between know that it can get pretty dicey. You’ve got an entire restaurant that will probably remain fairly empty. On the other hand, it could fill up, and it could do so all at once. You don’t want that to happen.

It was relatively quiet when Don walked in. My dear friend. The witty man who had “trained” me as a waitress…

He took one of the deuces close to the soda fountain and we chatted for a bit. Then, he ordered his iced tea and chef’s salad and I proceeded to fill his order. I gave the check with my chef’s salad scribblings to Bill, who was accessible through the half window between the restaurant and the kitchen area. Then, I made the iced tea, delivered it to Don, and approached a couple who had just taken a table in the other section of the restaurant.

At the time, Ingrid was wrapping up her remaining tables. Anyone who entered the restaurant from this point on would be my responsibility. And – as fate would have it – more people showed up. Of course they did! Of course they showed up on the one afternoon when I actually had a friend there. When I would have gladly spent that time shooting the breeze with Don.

Within five minutes, I was running around like a crazy woman. Taking orders. Delivering beverages. Delivering Don’s chef’s salad. Delivering more beverages. More food orders.


Moving as quickly as possible in my Minnie Mouse shoes, I was surprised by Don’s insistent “come here” finger gesture. He kept trying to wave me over to his table, and I kept delaying my response to him as I attended to all the other customers. Don’s persistence surprised and confused me. Surely he saw (and could relate to) what I was going through! I had a restaurant full of customers, and I was the only waitress!

Finally, there was a moment to breathe. So I approached Don and his chef’s salad.

He let me exhale, and then he looked up at me with a mock scolding expression on his face.

“Miss!” he said, in a tone that reminded me of Charles Nelson Reilly. He pointed into the glass bowl I had delivered five or ten minutes ago. “There’s a frog in my salad.”

When I saw the frog – the plastic, one-inch-by-two-inch frog that Don had brought with him and placed in his salad – I doubled over laughing. And, because I was relatively caught up in that moment, I needed to share the comic relief.

“Oh my!” I said, scooping up the bowl. “This is unacceptable!”

As I headed back to the window where Bill, the afternoon cook, was keeping up as best he could, I passed Ingrid. She saw the frog in passing (and from a slight distance), and she blurted out (rather loudly), “Oh my God!”

I proceeded to the window, where I placed the bowl on the pass-through shelf.

“Bill,” I said, in a tone that was obviously facetious. “Look at what showed up in this man’s salad! You gotta pay better attention!”

Bill, who needed to double over laughing as desperately as I had, proceeded to do just that.

So it was all fun and games so far, but when I turned around, still holding the large glass bowl with the frog in it, I confronted something not so funny.

It was Irving. (Still there. Still monitoring his precious fresh orange juice squeezer.)

It was Irving, upset.

He had heard Ingrid’s outburst, and he was challenging her.

“Who said ‘Oh my God!’” he asked, in a low, but very firm, tone of voice. “Did you say “Oh my God!’?”

“I didn’t say ‘Oh my God!’.” Ingrid lied, speaking quietly.

En route to Don’s table, I had no choice but to pass closely to the Irving/Ingrid confrontation, so I quickly hid the frog-infested salad behind my polyester jumper.

Irving continued obsessively. “I heard someone say ‘Oh my God!’,” he repeated, using a stage whisper. “I heard it! And that’s not right. Our customers should not hear that! Our customers should not hear anyone saying “Oh my God!’”

“I didn’t say anything,” Ingrid lied again.

…I couldn’t take the futile battle anymore.

“But look at this man’s salad!” I squealed, moving the bowl from its hiding place and extending it in Irving’s direction.

“JESUS CHRIST!” Irving responded (loud enough for everyone to hear).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shopping at Ikea: What’s In a Name?

Having a close, personal relationship with words serves me well. It enables me to experience joy whenever I create a new sentence. It permits me to add clever comments to conversations. It gives me a niche where I rest comfortably, appreciative of my avocation.

About a year ago, though, I realized that there’s a time and place when one must abandon her verbal relationships and just shop smartly. For me, the moment occurred at Ikea.

At the time, I was in the market for a coffee table. Not because I was craving one particularly. Rather, the piece of furniture that had been performing that function for several years had become worn. You see, my previous mid-living room surface space was never, in fact, a coffee table. It was, instead, a wicker ottoman that I had purchased at Pier One along with its matching chair. Although the chair had held up relatively well, the ottoman had not. It was much too busy being a “project” for the cats. And when I could see through the sides of the squat, textured rectangle, I knew the cats had completed their project. I also knew it was time to move the piece to the curb and replace it with something less tempting to feline trouble-makers.

Before going to Ikea, I went online to peruse their coffee table options. My friend and neighbor, Debbi, who is my go-to girl when it comes to interior design, perused the website with me. She immediately zeroed in on a coffee table that was light in color, had simple lines, and would therefore blend in well with the other pieces in my living room. Beyond that, it was dirt cheap. But I immediately protested when I saw what Ikea had named this table: “Lack.”

“I can’t buy a piece of furniture named ‘Lack’!” I told Debbi.

My veto power having been enforced, we continued to peruse the pages of coffee table options. We found two or three pieces that also would work well in my living room, and although their prices were quite a bit higher than the one assigned to “Lack,” these tables, at least, did not have loser names.

… So with my pre-shopping research behind me, I headed up to Burbank.

I saw the tables in person. I studied them. I circled around them. And once I had given the matter twenty minutes or so of observation and thought, the choice was clear.


(What can I say? Deb was right.)

I recorded the information I would need in order to retrieve my new table from the shelves of inventory, and I headed down to the ground floor, where customers are lured through a maze of goodies that are so small and so inexpensive, one needs a tremendous amount of willpower to resist impulse-shopping.

I didn’t succumb to any unexpected lures, I am proud to say, but I did purposefully spend some time in the lighting section. I already had planned to look at the offerings there, as I needed to replace the floor lamp in my living room.

I should mention, at this point, that much of my living room is all about mobility. With the exception of the furniture pieces that are flush with the wall, I like to be able to move things around. Furniture mobility serves art-making, exercising, and cleaning. So… when I saw a ceiling-directed lamp that featured a junior lamp, which could be moved from its parent and turned about any which way, I was impressed. When I saw that it was only ten dollars, I was even more impressed. Sure, I’d assemble it! What the hell!

It’s name? FINAL.


Before leaving the impulse floor, I stopped by the shelves of lightbulbs and collected enough boxes to ensure that my new lamp duo would remain illuminated for years to come.

Then, I headed to check-out.

My prize purchases of the day – “Lack” and “Final” – may have come with negative, downer names, but the bottom line was a source of joy. I had spent less than sixty dollars.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

City Mouse; Country Mouse

In the fall of 1983, I had a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. I jetted from New York to London, where I would meet my sister, Martha, who was flying in from the D.C. area. From London, Martha and I – two 20-something sisters – would begin a ten-day experience together in England.

Because Martha had spent her junior year in Bath (and because she makes most anglophiles appear to be relatively indifferent to the U.K.), she did all the planning. Accordingly: We would spend the first two days in London. We would then take the train to Bath. After two nights there, we’d travel further into the country’s southwestern region. And after two nights in Devon, we would return to London for the final three days of our adventure.

The first 48 hours in London entailed sightseeing in a jetlag blur. We took in as much as we could. As for the train to Bath? Relaxing and easy. When we approached a particular town, I remember getting excited about the architecture and the way the old buildings lined up on series of hills.

“Look at that!” I said excitedly, directing Martha’s glance to the train’s window.

“That’s Bath,” she said, smiling.

It was fun to traipse around the university town where my sister had lived for two semesters. We did a great deal of walking, and at one point, we happened into a Chemist’s. (Note, that’s the English equivalent of a pharmacy/drug store.)

Within the Chemist’s was a little machine, designed to allow patrons to check their pulse. And for whatever spontaneous reason, I placed my hand on the gadget and positioned the tip of my index finger so as to get a reading.

The machine replied with a rather alarming, fast-paced “d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-!!!”

Oh my.

I removed my hand, and my sister took her turn.

This time, the machine was less concerned. “Du. Du. Du. Du. Du. ” (it said.)


Several days later, our Devon experience behind us, we were back in London. Walking about, we came upon a Chemist’s, and perhaps because we were needing a sundry or some postcards, we walked in.

Within a few moments, we spied one of those pulse machines. This time, my sister went first.

Her index finger primed in the correct position, the machine responded: “d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-!!!”

Oh my.

Then, I took my turn: “Du. Du. Du. Du. Du. ”

So, here’s my theory:

We seek environments that provide balance.

My sister possesses hyper energy. She is a classic extrovert, and when she is in the room, there is no denying her presence. I, on the other hand, have a rather laid-back social energy. As an introvert, I often prefer blending in with the wallpaper.

My sister’s energy needs a quiet environment. Something to meet her halfway. And for that reason, her pulse was mellow in Bath.

I also need to be met halfway. I need the excitement and fast pace of an urban environment. For that reason, my pulse was mellow in London.

City mouse and country mouse.

Our choices do not reflect absolute preferences. Frankly, a part of me (frankly, a big part of me) would love nothing more than to wake up from a good night’s sleep, step outside my back door, and say “good morning” to a cow. Similarly, I bet my sister would love to have the access I have to large art museums, a local philharmonic, and thousands of restaurants representing every cuisine imaginable.

We have chosen our locations not because we need their cows or their cuisines. We need their energy.

We need their energy in order to balance our own.