Sunday, December 18, 2016

Attack of the Gingerbread Men!

I find I am a bit nicer to people (especially myself) when I write, and I noticed the sign in our staff room Friday stating that I said I would do that (be nice to myself and write) here we go again. This morning I had another topic in mind, a good one, one that makes me laugh until I can't breathe, but since I am having respiratory distress already in the form of a slight cough, I do not want to risk it. Take heart, today's topic is still funny, in my opinion, but it only makes me cry a little at the corners of my eyes. I will have no need to contact my niece Danielle, the respiratory therapist.

It was so long ago that I think I may have been carrying Jacob in a backpack during this particular trip down memory lane. Since he stopped allowing me to do that just after he got out of high school (kidding) I'm going to say that this was about 17 years ago. Both the kids were little. Kristiana was about 3 and Jake was around 1 when we scooped up Sylvia's mom and went to Octoberfest. Before you inform the authorities that I am a bad parent because I would subject my kids to so much beer and OomPaPa music at such an impressionable age, I should let you know that this was not the stein-laden celebration in Munich. This was in an old folk's home. I know there are more politically correct terms to describe establishments such as these but this place was named, "Altenheim" and that translates almost literally to "old people home" so I feel justified.

Ruth, Sylvia's mom, has gotten the German paper for the bay area for years and she saw an ad for this event. We were off. Being married to a woman  (for 22 years yesterday) who's first generation American and whose parents both came here straight from Germany, I have been to my share of American Octoberfests. There is always food. There is always dancing. There is always a lot of German being spoken. There are a lot of wooden tables end to end where you just sit your group next to the other groups until it looks like there are two, maybe three families at the event when in actuality there are dozens. And there is always a lot of beer. I was sure today would be no different.

Today was different.

We went in to the facility and there was no music, dancing, or beer. I'm pretty sure there were German sausages and pretzels being sold off to the side which you ate while walking around. In the interest of brevity I will refrain from telling you my German sausage joke.'s the wurst.

Anyway....we realized immediately that this was not so much an Octoberfest as it was a fest that happened to take place in October. The truth was that this was a fundraiser for the facility and the funds were being generated by the selling of crafts and food that the residents had made. It was not noisy. It was not crowded. In fact, it was downright serene. No problem. Gears were shifted. Purpose was redirected. I cinched up my big boy backpack and started to look at crocheted ornaments and dish towels with buttons and loops sewn on so they could be hung on the handle of the oven. We were having a grand time. The kids were having an ok time since everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to say hi to, play with, and smile at our kids. We felt a bit like celebrities. (Don't worry...since it was a fundraiser I only charged five dollars for my autograph instead of my usual ten.)

One of the administrators noticed us and quickly found out that a) we were not ready to become residents any time soon, and b) that we hadn't come because we knew someone who lived there. She was thankful that we had taken the time to come to their event. She walked us around the building giving us a tour and a sense of her passion for her line of work. It really was a nice time. When we had seen much of the building and most of the crafts we said goodbye to our tour guide and made an appearance in the last room of goodies. Sylvia whispered, "It's a fundraiser. We really should buy something." We started the search.

It was difficult since we really didn't need doilies made from bottle caps or a ballerina whose handmade dress covered the extra roll of toilet paper that stands on the back of the tank. We did decide to buy some food that was being sold from a cafeteria window. Because, really, you can explain how the pretzels in the United States really aren't as good as the ones in Germany without actually buying one....but it's more convincing when you are holding an American one. Ruth bought a cup of hot apple cider in an official Altenheim commemorative mug. But mostly we were feeling cheap for not locating something to walk away with.

And then I saw it. The table with the sweet elderly woman selling gingerbread.

At this point I should point out to people who have never traveled to Germany that there is a special place in the hearts of Germans for their gingerbread. It is an art form all its own. There are even shops in some of the more touristy towns where they sell nothing but gingerbread. Thirty eight percent of the homes in Germany are even made of Gingerbread! (kidding) I didn't know this before Sylvia. I was young and foolish. When we were dating, Sylvia and her mom went to Germany over the summer. When they returned, and I picked them up at he airport, I was greeted by Sylvia actually wearing a decorated heart made of gingerbread around her neck. There are many sizes available in these shops ranging from gigantic to tiny and they are all decorated in a similar style...and all of the decorations are done in frosting! People give them as gifts and many of them last for years and years. The one Sylvia wore home, in my honor, said "du und mich" the German equivalent of "you and me" written in white frosting that was frozen in time and preserved in a plastic shrink wrapped cover. The only exposure to air was through the two holes poked in the cookie to house the red ribbon that would eventually hold it to the wall (after I got Sylvia to stop wearing it).

Now I say that I saw the table of the gingerbread...and it brought flooding back the memory of someone who loved me so much that she would wear a cookie on a 14 hour flight because she didn't want it to get broken in her luggage...but more importantly the kids saw the table and the cookies! We wanted to help the facility. The cookies brought back memories. The lady seemed nice. It was authentically German. The kids loved cookies. It was the perfect storm of consumerism! We let the kids pick their gingerbread and we walked away feeling better about ourselves.

And then one of the kids did the unthinkable. They asked if they could eat their cookie. What?!? Eat it? Don't you see that this is Santa Claus and it is supposed to hang on the wall forever? Don't you know that mommy wore a cookie home for daddy and that very same cookie is hanging on the corner of the cabinet next to our closet?! You remember it says "Du und Mich"...well it used to say that. All the frosting dried up years ago and now it looks like a heart shaped bowl of alphabet soup since the letters fell to the bottom of the plastic shroud that is protecting it! But that's not important right now. Eat it? You must be mad! Mad I tell you! Then Sylvia looked to me for back-up.

I try to support her in all things. I really really do. I explained that at this time, in the hallway of the Altenheim, after what was essentially a snooze fest of a day as far as the kids were concerned, I could give in to my Americanist ways. I said I thought it would be ok for the kids to eat their cookies. They weren't covered in plastic. It would be ok.

So the kids each bit off Santa's head. They were as happy as kids with a cookie as we continued to walk down the corridor toward the exit when Sylvia asked for a bite of the cookie. From behind me I hear, "Spit it out! Spit it out!" I looked in time to see Sylvia spitting her bite onto the floor. Then she knocked the cookies out of the kids' hands. Then she went digging in their mouths like she was expertly sweeping their mouths for Legos or broken glass or poisonous insects and dropping almost all of the offending cookie pieces onto the floor! I was shocked. I was confused. I think I said something stunning like, "....wha?....who...?....why....?....huh?" My noteworthy investigation was met with, "They're bad! The cookies are bad! They're rancid or something!" So I did what any red-blooded American man would do in the face of certain death. I tasted it for myself. It seemed fine to me. In fact, it tasted like the gingerbread cookies that Mom used to make. As we stood, stunned, over the mess we discussed the fact that Sylvia didn't really like the taste of ginger in anything so maybe that was what caused her reaction. Ya think?

And then, in middle of hallway of the Altenheim, in the hills of Oakland, amid the broken decapitated remains of pastry Saint Nick I made some revelations. First, Sylvia would step into the fray to save our children. Second, the rules of decorum, including the one about not spitting, yelling, and knocking cookies out of the hands of children go out the window if she thinks she'll have to clean up barf in the near future. And most important, Sylvia had used gingerbread as decorations, building material, and even jewelry...but she had never, not ever in her entire life, eaten a single piece of American gingerbread. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Just Two Inches

I don't know if it's the nostalgia involved in watching Hallmark movies non-stop for hours on end, the commercials on TV at this time of year, or that I shouldn't have risked drinking the eggnog that was a week past its carton date...but I am raring to go and ready to tell another story.

Actually I was only half kidding about being influenced by the commercials and the nostalgia. M.C. Hammer just popped out of a chimney, upside down, to tell a woman hammering several nails into a fireplace mantel that she "can't touch this" and it made me laugh out loud. With all due respect to the advertising company, it probably didn't influence whether or not I was going to buy their product...but it did influence whether or not I would write in my blog again today. At the risk of alienating a significant portion of my readers I would like to give you a rare glimpse into the inner workings of my slightly odd and mostly ADHD brain and give you the formula that spawned today's musings:
MC Hammer + holes in a wall + presents = blog about my brother

See...easy as pie. Wait a minute... pie + computer / divided by surface area of a rectangular prism....You don't want to hear all the details. I'll just get started.

Years and years ago Sylvia and I took the kids to go visit my brother in Indiana. It was a hoot of a trip that started when my dad gifted us a camper. We spent time sightseeing while traveling back to California. Our first stop was to my brother's house in the land of Goshen. Until Dan lived there I suspected that "Land o' Goshen!" was simply an expression my grandfather used to show that he was surprised and amazed. "You bowled 199 when you used my old ball? Well land o' Goshen!" The trip was quick and Dan had to work so we didn't get to spend more than a couple days there. He arranged with the homeowners association that we could park our new behemoth on an empty pad that was just itching for a placeholder.

We parked "Thunder" (The name the kids gave to the camper. They were lightning rookies back then. It made an impression) and Dan took us into his house to give us the grand tour. We, of course, did all the "good to see you's" and "did you have any trouble finding the place's" in the living room. It was a pretty good sized room with a giant sectional couch for lounging around while watching TV. The kitchen was equally large and attached to the living room. There was a family room off to the side and there were doors leading into the bedrooms. We got to see their room. Nice. The daughters'. Nice. The spare. Nice...also where Sylvia and I would stay. Then we got to see the son's room. It was nice but there was a little something extra in it.

People who are familiar with me are thinking, "Knowing Jeff. It could be anything!" A giant anaconda? No. A life-sized replica of a stormtrooper? I wish. A bag of miniature antlers suitable for gluing onto the heads of stuffed Jackrabbits? Nope. The extra additions in this room were approximately 20 holes in the wall.

The holes were not angry fist sized cavities. In fact, they were kind of tiny...but they were noticeable. I couldn't take it. "Uh Dan?"
"What's the deal with the holes?"
"Oh. We tried to hang something but we wanted it to really stick so we looked for a stud. We never found one."
"Really. I never would have guessed."

Actually that is exactly what I guessed and I knew that they had never found a stud since the holes were not covered by anything. No artwork. No candle sconces. Not even dogs playing poker or velvet Elvis! Nothing! And what made the holes stand out even further is that all 20 of them were at the exact same height from the ground in a straight line across. You see, Dan had used the old tap the hammer on the wall trick to find the stud. It's a tried and true method among DIYers everywhere and many singing fish have been secured to the wall on stud mounted nails. Not this time.

I think it's time to reveal the final reason this row of holes was so striking and so memorable to me. They were somewhat randomly spaced. This was back in time before people carried cell phones and cameras still used film so I didn't get a picture of the wall and its holes. Allow me to try to paint a verbal picture. Starting at the left was a single hole. About a quarter inch to the right was another hole. Maybe half an inch away from that, another hole. This happened maybe six times to the right of the original hole, each being spaced from a quarter inch to a half inch apart. Then he skipped 2 inches. (allow me to say that again) Then he skipped 2 inches! Then he continued to poke holes in the wall until he finally gave up after 14 or 15 more tries, about 15 inches from the original hole. I could just feel the frustration emanating from the row of holes in the wall as they became less and less uniform toward the end of the row. Some even spread out to about an inch apart...but none of the spaces were larger than the 2 inch gap toward the start of the line.

For those of you not in the construction business I feel I should explain. A stud is a piece of wood framing that makes up the skeleton of the house. In order for there to be room to insulate the wooden frame it's built so that the studs are on edge causing there to be open space from the inside wall to the outside wall. That space is then filled with insulation. The standard depth of these spaces is 4 inches. The average width of these studs is 2 inches. These common pieces of lumber are called 2 by 4s. I mention this in hopes that you consider the coincidence of the width of these boards (2 inches) and the width of space that Dan skipped (also 2 inches...see where I'm going with this) when using his hammer to pound holes in the wall.

Well, I didn't say anything but I did decide to get him a house warming present the first time we went shopping. For generously allowing us to invade his home with a group of Californians I presented my brother with his own brand new stud finder! He, of course, held it up to his chest and we laughed when it squealed to signal that he had indeed found a stud. Probably the oldest joke in the construction business (although I hold my stud-finder to my head to find the stud...or large block of wood...tomAYto, tomAHto).

It's funny what triggers a memory. I lost my brother to diabetes a number of years ago and I never would have thought that of all the things there are to remember about him I would find myself laughing out loud recounting the story of the holey wall at his place in Indiana. I suppose I owe 3M a thank you for putting together a collection of images that gave me a happy thank you. I'll take all the memories you can give me.

By the way, in case you hadn't guessed...he found the stud in the wall. You'll never guess which 2-inch space was hiding a stud. Land o' Goshen!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Who's On First? (revisited)

What started as an attempt to be a responsible citizen ended up being one of the funniest stories my mother-in-law ever told me.

My mother-in-law, Ruth, who is in her 80s, is the picture of doing things the way she has always done them. It's a little problematic when someone wants to introduce something new to the routine, but it is great when there are things around the house that need doing. Every morning she gets up and begins her routine. Every week she does the activities that don't need to be done daily. She even has a few activities that fall into the once a month category. In order to respect her privacy I am going to skip most of the details of all of those things. But I suppose, if you were to imagine her sitting at the kitchen table reading her German newspaper every morning, glass of orange juice by the top right corner of the page, antique letter opener within hands reach, it would be ok.  (she opens her mail as soon as it comes...she would never slide her finger inside an envelope)

Yes, she is a woman of routines. In fact, she even has a few yearly tasks as well. She calls to get her gutters cleaned like clockwork. She services things whose instruction manuals suggested yearly service would be a good idea. And she calls the power company every year as soon as fall starts moving into winter. It's this last activity that I want to talk about today.

There's one more thing I need to mention about Ruth. She has lost her sense of smell. The doctors say it happens more often than people might think and there isn't really anything that can be done about it. If she lived between a refinery and a garbage dump I'd say losing your sense of smell would be a blessing. She lives in a lovely little neighborhood so it's mainly a bother. My wife and I figure it is a side-effect of living with a chain-smoker for the better part of 50 years. (Raleigh....unfiltered)

Back to Ruth's routine. She saw in a news report that a woman's house had burned down because there was a problem with her heater. When the weather got colder this poor woman turned her heater on like she'd done every year. This particular year, however, there was a problem that caused a failure and that failure caused a fire. It wasn't her fault. As it turns out, the only way anyone would have known that there was a problem was if she had a technician come to her house, take apart a portion of the heater, and use a special meter that detects trace amounts of natural gas. To alleviate everyone's fears, and to be responsible journalists, the article went on to point out that many utility companies offer a free service where someone would come out to inspect heaters and gas lines for anyone in their service areas. Ruth called PG&E. They do indeed offer such a service. A routine was born. That routine led to a phone call a few years ago. Here is how, from what she told me, I imagine it went:

"PG&E can I help you?"
"Yes. I want to get my heater checked."
"There's a problem with your heater?"
"No I want to get it checked."
"Does your heater not turn on dear?"

As an aside, because I wasn't there to hear this and because I think it would be funnier juxtaposed with Ruth's thick German accent, the woman from PG&E is from the deep south.

"I don't know if the heater turns on."
"Is there someone there who can help you turn it on?"
"I don't want to turn it on right now."
"You don't want to turn on your heater on?"
"No. I want to turn my heater on...but I want to get it checked."
"OK Darlin', let me see. You want to turn on your heater but it won't turn on so you need to get it checked. Right?"
"No. I want to get my heater checked so I can turn it on."
"I'm gonna just suggest that you turn the thermostat up and let's see what happens."
"I want to get it checked before I turn it on."
"Sweetie, PG&E doesn't fix heaters. You need to call someone who works on them in order to do that."
"Well I want it done for free."
"Well bless your heart. You'll have to pay for someone to come fix your heater. Repairmen have to make a living too."
"I just want to make sure that my house doesn't burn down."

Suggesting that her house was going to burn down kicked it up a notch...and triggered what I'm sure is a checklist of questions that need to be asked in these instances. I also imagine that she is sitting up completely straight and holding her headset against her ear. They told her at her call center training that something like this might happen. Today might be that day. She was ready. At attention. Concerned.

"Are you in danger?"
"I don't know. That's why I want someone to come check."
"If you feel like you are in danger evacuate the area and...."
"I don't have to evacuate. I just want to be able to turn on my heater."

Next question on the checklist.

"Do you smell gas ma'am?"
"I don't smell anything."

Relaxing a little. "Oh, well if you don't smell gas that is a good sign."
Emphasizing... "I don't smell anything!"
"Right, if you smell gas you should leave the area but since you don't smell gas I think you should call a technician to come fix your heater."
"But I don't smell anything."
"Exactly. Not smelling anything is a good sign."
"No. I don't smell anything so I want to get my heater checked."
"If you don't smell anything, you don't need to get your heater checked. They put something into the gas that makes it smell like rotten eggs. Do you smell rotten eggs?"
"I don't smell anything!"
"Not great! I want to get my heater checked because I don't smell anything!"
"But Sugar, if you don't smell rotten eggs, I don't think there is a problem."
"I don't smell anything."
"Perfect! If you don't smell anything that's what we want."
"I want to smell something. I don't smell anything."
"Oh no ma'am. Smelling something means there's a leak and we can come take care of a leak. It is not a pleasant smell, that gas, you don't want to smell it."

Both exasperated at this point.

"Will you please just send someone to my house to check my heater?"
"I can send someone to your house to check your gas line if you think there's a problem but ordinarily you would smell the rotten egg smell. It's very noticeable."

In unison (much like Abbot and Costello at the end of "Who's on First?")

Heaven only knows how many times these two kept running around this conversational track always ending up at the same place they started but I am happy to report that the woman finally agreed, for self preservation's sake I'm sure, to send someone to Ruth's house. The PG&E technician that showed up was able to do, in person, what the poor woman could not hope to do over the phone. He cleared her heater for another year's usage and I got a story to tell.

Ironically, some months after this Sylvia and I happened to be over at Ruth's house when Sylvia turned on the heater. Thick smoke billowed out of all of her heater vents and filled the top foot and a half of her house with a haze in just about 30 seconds before we turned it off and called the fire department. We stopped it in time to prevent any damage and the fire department declared the house safe....but it smelled awful.

Ruth said, "I don't smell anything."