Sunday, April 22, 2012

Conference Rookie

Do you attend conferences? Are you a convention junkie? Somehow, I have gone, lo, these 59 years without ever having gone to a conference. I’ve never signed up for a symposium on self-betterment. Never found fun at a forum on decorum.  

Until now! Yes, I was a convention virgin until Thursday through Saturday when I attended the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop held here at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater.

I was so nervous! I reviewed my downloaded schedule a dozen times on Thursday morning to make sure I knew exactly when I was supposed to be at the first event and what to do about transportation. I laid out my outfit the night before. I got a new pen and a notebook. I was ready. Ahead of time!

Registration was set for 2:00 at the Marriott hotel where out of town delegates were staying. I got there at 1:57. There was no welcome table set up. No signs pointing the way. I wondered if I got it wrong. Within a minute or so, though, a trio of nicely dressed women came along. One put up an easel and hoisted a sign into place that declared: ERMA BOMBECK WORKSHOP REGISTRATION. Ah, I thought, my chance to make contact.

“Hello, I’m just wondering if registration is open yet?” Passive-aggressive, sure, but as I said, I was nervous.

“Not quite,” she replied.

“Ah, well, the materials I got by email said 2:00.”  Once you’re in passive-aggressive, there’s no turning back.

“Oh, I doubt we’ll make it by 2:00!” She made one of those exasperated sounds as she said, “Isn’t it supposed to be 3:00? Oh, well, that’s o.k. I can give you your name tag and packet anyway if you are in a hurry.”

Nice lady, I thought. By now a few more people had arrived to register and were kind of hanging back a bit to see what was going on.

The nice conference lady opened a couple of enormous suitcases containing alphabetized name tags, neither of which was the “N” suitcase. Another attendee beside me consoled the volunteer, “Oh, you poor thing!”

“What!?!” I thought, “I didn’t make her do this!” But I offered an apology anyway. “Yes, so sorry to get you to open up early, I’m just on such a tight schedule today. Ha ha.” It wasn’t true, although I really couldn’t wait until 3:00 or I’d miss my personal training session, but I felt daggers coming my way sent out by the standers-by, and as I said, I was nervous.

Another volunteer came over and offered to relieve the lady who was helping me. “You go. I’ll look for a tag for this lady.” Whenever someone says “this lady” like that, you know they’re irked.  So, now I’m truly feeling like one of those women who makes unreasonable demands of sales clerks and waitresses, and all I can think of to say in my own defense is, “The materials I got by email said 2:00!”  (Oh, Lesley, worse!)

She smiled through her reply, “Well, it’s,” looking at her watch, “two minutes before 2:00. So we’re close!”

“Ha. Ha. Yes, sorry, ha, ha, it’s just such a tight day for me.” I grabbed my tag and tote bag and fled attempting to keep up the impression that I was really pressed for time.

Damn, damn, damn. I didn’t intend to sound pushy. It was merely a statement that when the other woman said 3:00, I panicked and didn’t want to wait, and she offered to get my tag, and I didn’t want to say something about that within her hearing distance or it would sound so whiny, and oh, rats, now I would have to avoid seeing this volunteer all weekend because by now she must be thinking I’m a total nut case or, worse, a total B-word.

Later, at home, getting ready to go to the Marriott for the dinner, I checked the schedule again a couple of dozen times, loaded my tote bag with some personal items, like Kleenex and snacks for the next day’s sessions, and filled up my free EBWW water bottle thinking, “Look at you, what a nerd! What am I? Six? A school kid on the first day of school getting my new book bag ready?” I didn’t see anyone else carrying their conference tote bag at dinner. I hid mine under the table.

Some conference veterans were heading into the bar at the hotel before dinner was served. They asked if I wanted to join them. “Oh, gosh, yes! Could I ever use a glass of wine!” And then I thought, “This is going to be o.k.”

It was. More than o.k. actually. The workshop was fabulous. Lots of things for a novice writer like me to learn from experienced, talented writers, plenty of laughs, a few tears at touching moments when Bombeck family members read their favorites of her columns, and so many interesting and genuinely friendly people to meet. The tone of the whole conference was an affirmation that we are all writers regardless of experience level. I even made eye contact on Saturday with the registration volunteer who smiled back kindly and didn’t appear to be saying the “B-word” in her head, or maybe she didn’t remember me after getting name tags for 350 people out of those suitcases. 
Anyway, pretty great for a first conference. And now I’m not a rookie anymore!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Down the Garden Path

Thought you might like an update on the garden path story from last week’s blog (See: “Really, Riley? Really?”)

No matter how much rationalization we’ve done, we have not grown to love our new “chips and dust” stone path. Riley refuses to walk on it. The grass is littered with gravel chips. Dust has been tracked into the house from one end to the other. The path is kind of creeping onto the sidewalk. And I just know that the next rain is going to send a landslide of dust and rock oozing like a lava flow toward the driveway. This path looks like crap now and, we’ve decided, will look like crap forever more.

The coup-de-gras came yesterday when a friend came by; a guy who is an accomplished builder and contractor who has done exemplary work for us on the interior of our house.  

“What do you think of the path?” I asked, “And I want your honest opinion.”

“Oh!!!” He didn’t even hesitate. He almost jumped backward when he saw it. “That’s not good!”

“Don’t hold back,” I said.

“Is that chips and dust? Chips and dust isn’t a landscape material! It’s a building material!  It’s used under porches and foundations! That’s going to harden up and look like lumpy concrete!” 

“The landscaper presented that idea to me like it was a good thing,” I said.

“Oh, that’s not good!” He repeated himself. This gave me the idea that he was being emphatic. “What made him do that? Why wouldn’t he have used more decorative gravel? Why did you let him do this?”

“He was so excited about it,” I said, remembering the landscaper’s enthusiasm when he presented the idea to me. I had had my doubts, but he assured me it was going to be just the best thing since organic compost. I’m a sucker for enthusiasm.

At this point, however, what’s going through my head is, “Story of My Life.”  In the continuing saga of our home improvement projects, I have been known to order work and have it turn out later to be a total disaster. Like the time, several years ago, that a pair of landscapers circulated an illustrated leaflet through our neighborhood advertising their expertise in laying paving brick at reasonable rates, no less. The pictures were nice, so I hired them to build a paved pathway around raised vegetable beds in our backyard. I'm guessing it was their first project. Ever. They had no ability to lay pavers whatsoever. Their leaflet must have featured project photos taken from some other company’s brochure. The paving was a mess. Their reasonable rates weren’t. Suddenly their European accents collapsed into total inability to speak English and they disappeared from the face of the earth. We had to get another landscape company to rip everything up and start all over again.

Now, those of you who think things through carefully, get comparison estimates, plan things out and visit home building stores six times before proceeding with a project miss out on the thrill of spontaneity and excitement of working without any research or information. I’m being sarcastic. You see, I’m just a bit impulsive. I hate doing research. If I have an idea, I want to see it done like, yesterday. I’m just not inclined to mess around with comparison shopping, or asking time-wasting things like, “May I see a sample?” It just isn’t in me. But I kind of get that the careful method might get more reliable results.

So, when Ken came home that day that our chips and dust path came into being, I could see that world-weary look in his eyes that said, “She’s done it again.” But, he was calm about it. This is one of the things I love about this man.

“You’re not mad?” I asked.

“No, I’m not mad,” he said, “Just disappointed. We HAVE been down this path before.”

“Ha, Ha! Good pun, honey!” I said.

The landscapers came today to tear the path up. They re-sodded the lawn and lay the stones directly into the grass. It looks a lot better.

What’s the lesson in all this? Yeah, yeah, I know. But where’s the fun in that? Estimates? Shmesmitates! Samples? Shmamples! This is the way I roll! Life on the edge!  But occasionally I do get lead down a garden path. Apparently it isn’t too difficult.

Now, hmm. Maybe we should rebuild the front steps!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Really, Riley? Really?

Those of you who are dog owners will likely agree with me that your stereotypically joyous image, slyly promulgated, I believe, by advertising and the media, of a shady fenced yard with a green carpet of lawn and lovely, lush plantings where the family pooch frisks and frolics all day is, in fact, loaded with irony. Next time you see an ad such as this on TV or in a magazine, take note. It will no doubt feature a Golden Retriever.  Think instead: trampled down, brown-tipped grass tufts barely clinging to life. Mud patches the size of Texas. Trodden Hostas laying there pathetically in macerated state. Ploughed pansy beds. Quarried perennial borders. Exhumed daffodil bulbs.

For the first year of Riley’s life, we tried to tell ourselves that the yard wasn’t really a priority. We convinced ourselves that his puppy days would fly by so quickly that he should enjoy his puppyhood digging, chewing, running and ripping up grass. By the time he turned one, he had killed two enormous beds of ivy and dug himself a mid-lawn crater big enough to lie in. Our yard looked like it had been strip-mined.

We might have ignored all this if Riley’s yard was in the rear of the house, tucked away from public sight and scrutiny. What we have, however, is a corner lot. Totally exposed. In a neighborhood with a lot of foot traffic. Daily, a neighbor, a jogger or a postal carrier would comment on Riley’s impressive achievements in excavation. We expected a citation from the city any day.

So, the second summer, we spent a couple of thousand to re-sod the front yard. It was looking good.  But as summer faded into fall, fall waned into winter and winter slid into spring, it became clear that a significant portion of the new lawn was not going to survive. In fact, it was gone. Just from day to day wear and tear, Riley’s path from the front door to the “business section” of the lawn was once again a mud pit. Rain exacerbated the situation so much that Riley would arrive at the door to be let in with paws that looked like he had been to the La Brea Tar Pits.

A drastic landscaping solution was needed. And the idea sounded so good in theory. A stone pathway with nice big flagstones great for us to walk on to keep our feet dry enroute from front door to back. Talking it over with our landscape guy, we mused on the possibility that the path would create a nice play surface for Riley and his little friends.

The path was installed this week. The landscape guy talked me into setting the stones in “chips and dust” – gravel and cement that apparently hardens over time to anchor the flagstones. By the time I was on the scene to inspect the work, the sod had already been removed in a 5 foot-wide swath, way too big in proportion to the yard and way wider than the size of the stones. What we have is ostensibly a gravel path. I looked at it, thinking, “Mmmmm, gee, I don’t know.” By the time it was all done, Ken and I both were thinking the same thing, “Well, this looks like crap.”

But we are rationalizing it and actually finding some acceptance by saying that we had to do something to eliminate the dead grass and mud pit.  Maybe the new stone path will grow on us.

As for Riley? He is totally avoiding walking on it. He’s keeping himself to the few narrow inches of grass left on either side. We might be gravelling the whole yard next year.

Monday, April 2, 2012


They say that travel is broadening.  My hips agree.

We were on vacation in Florida last week. I didn’t count a single Weight Watchers point. Nor did I do any serious exercise, so I figured even if my general well-being didn't necessarily get any broadening,  at least my hips would, which is unfortunate, I guess, as I am already pretty broad in the beam, as my mother used to say.  “There’s someone who’s pretty broad in the beam,” she’d say. She might have included herself in that comment, but reserved it instead for individuals who really excelled in this category, such as Kate Smith who sang “God Bless America” regularly on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Mom often hinted that I was headed in that direction in the beam department.

Anyway, for the last two days of our trip, I tagged along to some events at the conference that Ken was attending. We sat with a couple at dinner one night and I noticed that both he and she looked like they had lost weight since last year’s conference. As they turned down the dinner rolls and ordered the pasta dish, without the pasta, I remarked on their resolve to make wise food choices when away from home. At this point, she whipped out a Weight Watchers’ Points Plus calculator from her purse and asked, “Don’t you have one of these?” I said, “No, but what a great idea.” I didn’t mean it. What? Am I going to use it standing in front of the potato chip display in the supermarket? I don’t think so.

Some people are determined to sustain their diet even on vacation, but I’m not one of them. A salad is a salad just about anywhere. So what’s the point? In fact, I’d have to say that our trips are mostly ALL ABOUT the food. Some of our best vacation memories are meal-related. Some people might say, “Remember our assent on Kilimanjaro?” Not us. We say, “Remember our seasoned, cheesy hash browns at “The Diner” in Yountville, California?”

So, instead of telling you about dolphin and alligator sightings in Florida, although very exciting, let me tell you about our gustatory adventures.

The dear friends we stayed with in Naples recently acquired a Big Green Egg. If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest culinary equipment, a Big Green Egg is a large, highly durable, ceramic cooker in the shape of a cauldron. It fires up quickly and keeps consistent high temps. It’s the ultimate in outdoor grills. The steaks were excellent, of course, but the appetizer pizza grilled in mere minutes was totally remarkable – thin, crispy crust, slight smoky flavor. Oh, yum!

At a bistro in Tampa, we sampled a tapas-style, Southern-cooking menu including  a “pork tasting.” Unbelievably good.  Especially the "lardo" bruschetta – a little slab of pork fat on a sliver of toasty French bread. Fat and carbs in one glorious bite. Oh, and the grilled shrimps with creamy grits. And the cheddar biscuits with pulled chicken. And the roasted cauliflower with walnuts in brown butter. Oh, my.

If a salad turns your crank, fine. But if the local cuisine includes shrimp and grits, or other tasty items, then count me in.  A trip is no time to count points, calories or carbs.

Food aside, I suppose the old saying is really meant to refer to the broadening of mind and spirit. As in, “What you need is a change of scene,” or “A change is as good as a rest,” or “Get over yourselves, the world is bigger than your dinner plate.”
But as I said, for me, a trip is mostly about the food. I might even frame a menu or two as souvenirs. And count Weight Watchers points this week.