When Is a Walk Not a Walk? When It’s a Near-Death Experience

Posted by Kathy on April 27th, 2014

Note: Long read ahead. The TL;DR version is this – Went for a walk with a friend. Walk turned into a getting-lost hike in unfamiliar wilderness. Thought I would die. Didn’t die.

Now for the long version.

Yesterday I met up for lunch with my good blogging friend Valerie. We met halfway between where we each live, in Whitehouse, NJ. After lunch she suggested we go for a walk. "Sure! Let’s!" She pulled out her iPhone and asked Siri for nearby parks.

We were going to drive to one park, but passed a different place Siri mentioned that was closer and stopped there instead, Round Valley Reservoir, a crystal clear man-made lake surrounded by wooded hiking trails, the largest in New Jersey. We parked and headed to the water.

014We stopped and chatted with a fisherman for a while. We said we wanted to walk "way over there to the other side, where that dam is." He said "Don’t do it, it’ll take you at least an hour to get there." But we were thinking "We’re fit and like to walk and you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about old man! Maybe we’ll even walk around the whole lake!”

We set out for that dam. Big mistake. While there appeared to be a marked path starting at a boat launch, it quickly wasn’t. The terrain instantly became very rugged and we hadn’t worn sneakers or boots because who wears sneakers or boots when you’re only planning on lunch? I was in no-cushion Clarks and Val was practically in dress shoes. The paths were rocky, hilly, and covered in surface tree roots and stumps you had to avoid every tenth step.

There was also zero navigational signage, zero warnings about difficult terrain or the fact that you ought to be an Olympic athlete to hike the trails and you should really have a backpack full of food and water and a first aid kit. Siri failed to mention all of these things, and yes, I’m blaming her.

We saw lots of people canoeing and kayaking out on the water, and lots of walkers with and without dogs. Look, everyone’s doing it! Seemed OK, so we kept walking.

Once we traversed about a mile of the wooded area, we crossed a dam with a beach nearby. It was such a perfect weather day, breezy and sunny, so we sat down and enjoyed the peacefulness of it all for a while.

Here, we should have called it a day and turned back, but we kept walking and walking and it took forever to get to the other dam we were shooting for. It was difficult getting there because what looked close by — never was. When we finally got to the dam(n) wall, we’d already walked 3.5 miles and had no idea how much longer it would be before getting all the way around the lake.

Val turned off the iPhone app that was tracking our distance.  You know, in case the battery went dead and we needed to make an SOS call, because by now we realized how hard it was to get where we already were, how hard it would be to turn around and go back if we had to, and had no idea how much further it was to walk if we wanted to get completely around the lake.

057And we weren’t even sure we’d have access enough to stay close to the water. The reservoir is surrounded by tall metal barbed-wire fencing, so you were constantly forced to take the long way around it. At parts, we were walking on the berm of a main roadway, with me screaming at Val to get as far off the road as possible because you know some jerk is going to be texting and driving and veer off-road and kill us.

I asked her if she had a passcode on her iPhone and what it was so that in case she was hit by a car, I could at least call for help. Val rolled her eyes and dismissed me and instead kept waving happily at motorcyclists and other drivers as if we were on a leisurely stroll. We were not. I was counting the minutes to my death.

We kept walking, all the while glancing over at the wooded area from which we came. I wondered aloud how long it would take to loop completely around the lake and get back over there. "Is the lake even round? What if it’s not round? What if we haven’t walked even half of it yet?”

We joked about having to be rescued from our odyssey. This is when I regaled Val with the story of the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors who ate the flesh of people who were killed in the crash, only so they could survive long enough to maybe, possibly, God-willing, be rescued. I told her that after being stranded two months, some of the survivors were able to cross a mountain range in treacherous conditions to get help and they did it. The human spirit is awe-inspiring. We’ll be OK. Then we had an interesting discussion about what part of the human body would you eat if you had to. Like, really had to. I suggested muscle. She suggested we talk about something else.

We eventually came to a juncture where it looked sort of like the lake curved. We were mulling our options because we weren’t really sure where the road would lead. Further away from point of origin or closer?

059Just then, we ran into a woman jogger. I asked "You must live around here. How much further is it to get to the parking lot?"

She said "Which parking lot?" Uh-oh. We showed her  pictures of where we started from our cameras. She said "Oh. You’re very far away here. You can’t keep walking in the direction you’re going, you’ll never make it. You’re looking at three hours."


She tried giving us directions to get back the way we came, but with shortcuts that meant almost nothing to us because we couldn’t remember seeing any of the landmarks she used as reference. Val’s heart sank because her fear was having to turn around and go all the way back along a way that nearly killed us so far. But that’s exactly what we did, shortcuts or not.

And then it started to rain.

And get darker.

And we both wanted to cry.

We walked silently for a bit and the only funny part of our return adventure was when at the exact same moment, we blurted out "Maybe she’ll come back….." We were both going to say "….and pick us up to take us to our cars." I mean, the jogger had to live nearby, and she had to know what we had ahead of us. With no boat, we couldn’t have gotten back to the other side of the lake without another 4 miles or so of walking. In the rain. And in pain.

But she didn’t come for us.

We kept walking. At some point we both imagined the possibility we wouldn’t make it back before dark. We would have only the light of our cameras and Val’s iPhone to see and be seen. I simply could not accept this prospect and put it out of my head.

027We got back over a dam, back along a main road, fearing becoming roadkill, and then back through the rugged wooded area that we’d already cursed once. At points we’d say "Is this correct? Did we really come this way? Check your camera." We often reviewed spots we thought we’d seen before, pictures we took. Luckily we could confirm certain things we’d seen on the way out, odd looking trees, ones with unusual markings that looked interesting for photo-taking sake, but now saved us because they were our breadcrumbs for the way back.

At one point, we walked on a path that led straight down to the water and appeared to end right there. That’s when we looked at each other and got genuinely scared for the first time during our trek.

"How much left on your phone battery?"


"Save it."

Mercifully, we heard people through the brush, a young couple sitting face to face on a tree stump, whose romantic moment was rudely interrupted when we asked them where the parking lot was. They were very vague. Pointing and saying "Just go up that way and it’s to the left."

Do you realize that when you’re in thick woods, you can’t just point like that and say "Up there to the left." “Up there” can quickly turn into really lost and “to the left” would be nowhere near the water, the only way we’d been orienting ourselves thus far. We did not want to stray from the water.

019But the couple began walking in that direction themselves and so we followed them, not even knowing if it would lead to our parking lot. It could have been another. But we figured 1) at least stick by the people and 2) if it wasn’t our parking lot, we were fully prepared to hitch a ride with someone back to our lot. We decided who we’d ask.

It would have to be old people, super elderly, preferably women. Super elderly women are not usually ax murderers. We vowed not to end the day being killed by someone we thought was a Good Samaritan. I told her "I’ve watched a lot of I Survived on the Bio channel, and getting into a stranger’s car never ends well. “Like that one poor girl who got in a van with a creeper, was raped, had her arms chopped off and was left for dead.”

“Stop talking,” Val muttered.

We kept walking, now on a path we didn’t recognize, further from the water, getting scared and planning our next steps.

I called my husband to tell him I was on an adventure, and oh yeah, he might have to send search and rescue. I was only 50% sure this new route was going to get us out, but I told him we were fine. Ish.

More walking, more walking, more walking.

But then.

We saw cars.

As we got closer, Val pulled out her key fob and pressed the button. And her car made the most lovely "I’m over here!" honk and I said "Val, if I could actually jump for joy on these legs, I would, but I can’t. I’m in so much pain."

She was too. Our feet took a real beating. Wanna know the worst irony? I had a pair of brand new comfy sneakers IN MY CAR. Awesome.

028When we got to the parking lot, we saw a young man appearing to go for a leisurely walk in the woods. Har.

We asked "Have you been here before?" He said no and we immediately urged him NOT TO GO INTO THE WOODS. He’ll never get out. It was already 4:30 and if he had no navigational tools and was alone, that was a recipe for disaster.

I kept urging him not to go alone, "Don’t do it. I’m serious." He looked as if I was crazy, but I said "Look. We’ve been in there for 4 hours. We’re lucky to be out." He walked back to his car, grabbed some other things, while we readied to leave.

I called my husband to say he didn’t have to send a search party. After I was done and drove fast away from our body-pounding, fear-inducing, risk-taking harrowing trek, I saw that guy walking away from the woods, up near the main road and I prayed he decided to enjoy the lake from a distance. If he went into the woods anyway, despite our warnings, he’s probably still there.


In Memoriam

Posted by Kathy on September 18th, 2011

dad polka Today’s post is in honor of my father, who passed away on Friday, September 16.

Some of you may know the stories I’ve written about him on Junk Drawer, many about the trials and tribulations getting Dad set up with his tech toys and Internet access. The man loved his tech toys!

What you might not know is that I credit Dad with having given me his sense of humor. He always had a joke in his back pocket, many I heard for only the first time during his brief hospitalization. He had a million of them.

He always had a quick wit, a lending hand for those in need, and a smile for friends and strangers alike.

Dad loved his music, most especially the polka. He and Mom spent many weekends in the 80s and 90s traveling the polka dance circuit, both locally and around the country.

They were expert dancers and I’m not just saying that. Other dancers would clear the floor when they stepped out, so they could sit on the sidelines and watch the beauty of the polka done right. (And yes, there are really wrong ways to do the polka, and it ain’t pretty).

He loved our mother dearly. They celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary this past June. We were with him virtually round-the-clock in his last week, sharing his life stories, laughing loud and long. We yucked it up to his last day.

My father is responsible for my very first post to the Junk Drawer in 2007. I’d like to share it with you again. It’s a very long post, and please don’t laugh at how badly it’s written. I was so green then.

Pour a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy Adventures in Tech Support: When Your 82-Year-Old Father Wants to Be on the Bleeding Edge of Technology.

Love you, Dad.

Oh, Canada!

Posted by Kathy on August 20th, 2008

cntower I’m back home from my whirlwind trip to Toronto, where I met three of my good bloggy friends, Jeff, Jaffer, and JD, a trip that will now be referred to as “The Three J Tour.”

Our goal wasn’t so much to sight-see when we got there. The crappy picture to the left is the best one I took, which proves how little I worked at pointing and clicking. Could I have possibly shot a bigger structure out of alignment?

Didn’t really matter because, for me, this trip was all about meeting my friends.

I’m left with an intense feeling of gratitude for everyone who made it a success and gave me memories to last a lifetime.

And so instead of a lousy photo travelogue, I give you The Three J Tour “Thanks a Whole Lot” Award Ceremony:

Thank you, adventure-seeking sister Ann, for taking off work and driving 1,000 miles to get me there and back. Thank you for dealing with the stress of driving to an unfamiliar place and for not making me feel it was an imposition.

You’re a skilled and steady driver who knew exactly when the GPS lady had her head up her butt. You remained calm under pressure, even when the third street car driver in as many days honked his horn at you. “Have mercy! We’re from Pennsylvania!” For this and more, you get instant membership to the Sister Hall of Fame.

Thank you, easy-going niece Regan, for surviving two 8-hour car trips without complaint. I know in kid time, that’s an eternity. Thank you also for snagging that cab for us after we walked non-stop for six hours the first night. With my newly developed blister, you saved my pinky toe from further damage. You rock.

Thank you Jeff and your three delightful children, Brandon, Austin and Roseanna, for entertaining us while we walked approximately 23 miles exploring the city. Yes, I got a blister. Yes, my legs were lead the next morning. But I forgot all the pain because that night was a jam-packed, Amazing Race-like funfest I’ll never forget.

Additional kudos for not mocking me too much when it was clearly me who messed up the meeting time. You said in your blog last week, and I quote: “But the best part is, Kathy is sure to screw something up big time…” All I can say is you know me too well.

To Jeff’s wife, Charli, I’m sorry I sounded like such a goofus on the phone. I had just seconds earlier met your husband, had a dripping chicken wrap in my hands and a soda can wedged under my armpit. Forgive me?

Thank you Jaffer, for taking a bus 50 miles to meet us in the city. I don’t know anyone else who would do that for me. Hell, I wouldn’t do that for me. Thank you for our Sunday morning coffee klatch, entertaining me with your interesting life stories and being our personal tour guide. But what am I supposed to do now that you treated us to the world’s best gelato and I can’t find it around here?

Our relaxing and delicious lunch was one of the highlights of the trip. I’m so sorry you were the victim of that loose-stool pigeon who had you in his sights. I believe in my heart it was because you were sitting next to me, since wherever I go, trouble follows. Please accept my apologies.

Thank you JD and your husband Dave for letting us glom a day from your vacation to meet with us. I don’t think the hotel staff thought we were too weird for screaming and jumping up and down like fools right there in the lobby when we first met, do you? Thank you for agreeing not to walk 20 miles that day, because I’m quite sure some of my piddies would have fallen off otherwise.

Dinner that night was a blast and I felt warm and cozy, surrounded by friends and family, despite the torrential rain and lightning going on outside. You are exactly the fun and hilarious woman I knew you would be from your blog and our countless emails over this last year. I’m so thankful I had the chance to finally meet you (and your dear, charming husband!)

Thank you nice lady at the border crossing, who let us in the country even though you got suspicious when we said we were only there to meet people instead of truly vacationing. Thank you for not detaining us, even though you rightly questioned why Ann didn’t even know the full names of the people she drove there to meet. We know it sounded a little terrorist-y.

I suppose when you asked what we were bringing into the country, and we answered “Oh, just some whoopie cushions,” (gifts for JD) you realized we were only harmless idiots. Thanks for not probing any further.

Thank you Earth, for putting a small jutting ledge out beyond the railing on the U.S. side of the Niagara Falls, so that I could get close enough to take video. That ledge meant that if I did slip and fall, I would drop only five feet instead of hundreds, straight down to a skull-crushing, body-splattering death.

And one more thanks, while I’m at it, goes to my local newspaper for picking me up for a new feature they call Blogger Tuesdays, where they spotlight posts from “local bloggers of note.”  They published my John Deere gift bag story while I was still in Canada. You hear that? I’m a Blogger of Note! Drinks all around!

I’m off now to bask in the afterglow of my Three J Tour and to figure out how I can meet the rest of you guys. What do you say? Junk Drawer Blog-A-Palooza in 2009?

We Were Almost a Nielsen Family

Posted by Kathy on February 19th, 2008

chocolates My husband Dave and I received a thick, official-looking envelope from the Nielsen Ratings Company last weekend. The Nielsen ratings system measures television viewership in the United States. The information they gather establishes commercial advertising prices and determines which shows stay or go in the program lineup.

Having this kind of control is a huge deal. Think of it as the adult version of being crowned Homecoming King and Queen. Not just anyone gets picked and you can’t volunteer for the privilege. Being selected as Nielsen Family means you’re something. People would kill to be you.

The letter gave a brief overview of how the system works and explained that we could make up to $450 for taking part. Sounds good, right? Wrong. I decided to do some research. Little by little, I realized we didn’t want to do this, since it comes with a whole lot of annoying strings attached.

The letter stated they’d like to “stop by to talk to you about this excellent opportunity.” I planned to give them an emphatic “We don’t want to do this” and the case would be closed. For some reason, I assumed they’d call to schedule the visit.

Instead, my door bell rang at 6PM last night.

Turn on the porch light, open the door and who do I find standing there but a Nielsen TV Ratings representative.

“Hi, you received our letter?”

“Yes, but we’ve decided not to take part.” Deaf to my response, she moved right into her spiel, explaining how wonderful an opportunity this is for me and wouldn’t I like to be part of the select group that was chosen by a very elaborate, scientific process… and on and on it went.

Rah, rah. I still don’t want to do it. It should be noted I did not invite her in. From what I’ve read, they can be pretty forceful and I knew if I let her in, I’d wind up making her dinner.  In more than one case, people have compared these folks to the FBI. My FBI agent came bearing a box of chocolates.

I gave her a look that said, “It’s not you. It’s me. I’m not ready for a relationship.”

She persisted with her cheerleader-y speech and I knew I was in trouble. I was going to have to fight. I was going to have to make her hate me. I was going to have to kill her with questions, and so began The Inquisition.

“I’d read that technicians come to your house and attach wires and boxes, and even solder something to every TV set in your house. Is this true?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. Maybe. But we wouldn’t damage anything.”

“We just bought a very expensive high-def TV and we don’t want anything to happen to it.” Concerned about the amount of time it takes to set everything up, I followed up with “How long will that take? I read it can take six or seven hours.”

“Well, probably not that long. Maybe four.”

I counter, “But then I’d have to take a vacation day. The amount of money you pay us isn’t worth the aggravation. I’m a very annoyed person.”

“Well, we could do it on a weeknight.”

“That’s worse.”

“We could do it on the weekend.”

“Not much better.”

I probe further. “I’ve also read that you have to login to a device every time you walk into a room with a TV on, and then logout when you leave. Is that true?”

“Yes. You need to punch in your name and age.”

“I don’t want to do that. Plus I’ve heard that if you don’t confirm you’re still watching TV after 42 minutes, a box starts flashing red lights until you press something on the remote.”

“That’s true.”

But I’m a very annoyed person.”

She kept the joust going. “If it helps, we asked other participants if they found the process annoying and they said after about ten days, they got used to it.”

Ten days?!?!?!

Now rubbing my temples, and freezing because I’m standing in my doorway in a pair of shorts on a 35 degree night, I tell her “Really. We don’t want to do this. I know you’ll have to pick someone else on our street now. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I wish you’d reconsider. Here, at least have these chocolates as a token of our appreciation.”

“Thanks, but no. We’re dieting.”

“No, really. You’ve been so kind.” Kind? How? For letting you stand in my doorway and not inviting you in from of the cold?

“OK. I’ll take them and share them at work.”

“Would you allow me to call you in a few days to see if you changed your mind?”

Oh my God, lady! I said no! No means no!

Because I’m a crumpled, guilt-ridden, chocolate-box-holding mess now, I sigh, “Yes. You can call, but I really don’t think I’ll change my mind.”

I reluctantly give her my work phone number, knowing full well when she calls me, I’ll be saying no all over again. She thanks me, we part ways, and I finally get back inside my warm house with my box ‘o chocolates.

The first thing I do is get on my laptop and email my sister about tonight’s bizarreness. Her response:

She came all the way from New Jersey!!!! What if you weren’t home? What if you were a serial killer? I would never go to a stranger’s home by myself. Oh yeah, the chocolates would protect me. The idea is intriguing, but I would probably regret the whole thing if I had signed up. Do you have to fork over all your financial statements, too? It’s like the IRS, they’ll make you do it, or else! I would do it for maybe $5,000.

She’s right. If I signed up, I’d regret it immediately. The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is do more WORK. Press buttons, log in, deal with flashing lights if I don’t press a button in 42 minutes?!?! Yikes. I have enough pressure 9-5.

Not wanting to put off the inevitable, I contacted the representative today at lunch, hoping I’d get an answering machine. Unfortunately she picked up. I explained to her that after careful consideration, we still didn’t want to take part.

She was deflated. I reminded her for the third time what an annoyed person I am and to please understand that my time is more valuable than the money they offer, but if they really wanted people to take part, they ought to up the anty to $5,000.  That put an end to the ordeal. FINALLY.

Today I picked up our mail and found another package from the Nielsen people, which contained brochures, a questionnaire and five single dollar bills. A five spot? Multiply that by a thousand and we’ll talk. Or bring me a box of diamonds.

UPDATE: There’s more to the story. See http://www.junkdrawerblog.com/2008/03/next-step-restraining-order.html

The Shampoo Snafu

Posted by Kathy on January 3rd, 2008

I have characterized The Junk Drawer as cheap therapy because it’s where people can come to unload and unwind. Rants are more than welcome here. I have them, I support them and I listen to them because I feel other people’s pain. I believe ranting is how we survive our days.

This is why my sister, Ann, felt it entirely appropriate to call me up today without so much as a Hello, and rant thusly:

Me:  Hello?

Ann:  I’m never going back to Wal-mart as long as I live. Do you HEAR me???

Me:  What happened?

Ann:  I left a freaking bag over there and now I have to battle traffic to go get it!!! I got home and was looking for all my shampoos and stuff and I realized I left it there!!!

Me:  Mm-hmm.

AnnYou know what the problem is?

Me:  What?

AnnI’ll tell you what it is. It’s those stupid bag carousel things that the cashier puts your crap in and when they spin that freaking thing, your bags are out of sight and you don’t know how many you have to take and they put like only two things in each bag trying to match up similar items.

And then you have like seven bags to carry and God, I wouldn’t care if they put a turkey in a bag with my lipstick! Just put it all in one bag and I’ll throw it over my shoulder like Santa Claus and hightail it out of there!!!!

Me:  Breeeeathe. Release. Breeeeeathe. Release.

Ann:  Why do they even have those things? What ever happened to just throwing the bags on a flat bin thing like every other store has? Huh? Then you could see all your bags and not forget any. God!!! I can’t believe I have to go back there! You know how bad their parking lot is!!! I wanted to come home, relax, eat and lay on the couch. But nooooo! I have to go out in this freezing cold wind and battle through all the people to get to my stupid bag. I’m never going there again. Do you HEAR me?

For the record, my sister is a kind and reasonable woman who is only rattled by forgotten, loosely-filled bags.

Oh, now wait a minute. Ann just called back with an update. This next rant is worse than the first and I have to hold the phone a foot from my ear because there’s a TNT explosion coming out of it.

Ann:  Do you freaking believe this!??! They didn’t have my bag!!! They told me to go to the stupid Returns counter behind a line of people. I’m not making a return! I’m picking something up! I flagged down a lady and begged her to check for a bag that I just called about. She brings a bag over, I look inside and IT’S NOT MY STUFF!!! It’s somebody’s else’s shampoo! It’s Pantene! And mine had Sunsilk! And there’s other junk in there that’s not mine. Oh my God! Why are there two forgotten bags with shampoo in them? Why is this happening to me?

Me:  Because it’s Thursday?

Ann:  So they say they don’t have my bag, but they told me I could go run around the store and get the items I’m missing and then go get rung up again. Are you freaking kidding me? Oh my God! I just did that 20 minutes ago. I don’t even KNOW what I DON’T have! By this point I look like Elaine [from Seinfeld fame] in that episode where she’s trying to drive her stupid houseguest to the airport. Remember that? My hair’s all over the place and I’m just standing there, like in a bubble. I couldn’t hear anything around me anymore. I thought everything was gonna go dark. All I was thinking is that I had to get home to meet Regan from school!!

Me:  What’d ya do?

Ann:  I left!!!

Me:  So you still don’t have your stuff?

Ann: No! I’m going to call them again and ask them to look again.


Ten minutes later………

Ann:  They have my bag. Wanna know where it was?

Me: Where?

Ann:  Right freaking next to the other person’s shampoo bag with a note on it that read "Ann FakeLastName. Customer forgot in store. Will pick up."

Me:  What are you going to do?

Ann:  Pick it up at 3AM when there’s no people there except for employees!!!! As God is my witness, I’ll never shop there again!! Do you HEAR me? Thanks for listening. I feel better now.

Me:  That’s what I’m here for.



So you see. If you’re spending too much on therapy that’s getting you nowhere, just stop by The Junk Drawer. I will never make fun of you for a rant, I will never tell you to lighten up and I will ALWAYS listen.

Got anything to rant about? The doctor is in.

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do It Over Again

Posted by Kathy on November 19th, 2007

News flash: I just learned my old Catholic grade school is celebrating its 80th anniversary. A call went out to former students to send in a little blurb about where we are now and any memories about the school we wanted to share.

Hmmm. Memories? Share? With the school that gave me the memories I’d rather forget? Tell me, did anyone have a joyful grade school experience? If you did, you’re either lying or you were the kind of student who made life miserable for the rest of us.

I’m going to take a trip down memory lane, but it’s just for the nerds, the shy people, the insecure and the socially-awkward. So get lost, perfect people. You’re not welcome here. Neener, neener, neeeeeener! If you were like me and wonder how you made it through school and came out the other side, hop on the bus. We’re going for a ride!

You’ll see soon there is no rhyme or reason to what I remember about grade school. But knowing a little bit about Grade School Me at least puts things in perspective:

Fact 1: I had to wear a plaid uniform every day, which could be worn only with a white blouse, white or green socks, and sensible shoes. The only thing that made you unique was the length of your skirt. The popular girls always wore them short, short, short!

Fact 2: My skirt was one of the longest of any girl’s in the school. The rule was “Hemlines below the knee.” The only Moms who followed that rule were mine and the mother of a girl who went on to become a nun.

Fact 3: I wore glasses from kindergarten to third grade. To jack up the ridicule quotient, I also had to wear a patch over one eye to improve the strength of the other, though thankfully, not during school. But I was still known as the poor little Pirate Girl by people who saw me wear it.

Fact 4: I had kinky curly hair and tried to wear it as a shag. I have pictures of how this looks, but they’re in a safe-deposit box where they can’t hurt me anymore.

Fact 5: The first four letters in my last name were M-E-S-S, which lent itself to some interesting name-calling by all the mean girls, as in “Kathy, did you mess yourself today?”

With that vision of Grade School Me in your head, perhaps it won’t surprise you what Grown Up Me remembers. Ready?

Day 1: I Hate it Already

By far, the worst memory is of my first day of kindergarten. I felt like my Mom had sent me off to prison. I cried so hard, I almost threw up. None of the other kids was having a problem, and realizing this only made things worse. My mother was called to come collect me. I don’t recall how the second day went, although it’s possible a teacher’s assistant sat with me to make sure I didn’t go AWOL. I really wanted out.

The Bishop is Coming! The Bishop is Coming!

One day in the 7th grade, our principal got a call from the diocese that the bishop was coming for a visit. I don’t recall why he was coming, but I got the sense that it wasn’t expected. Because as soon as the word got out, I was handpicked along with another student to run outside with brooms, dust pans and garbage bags to furiously tidy up the front of the building for his visit. Leaves, garbage, branches, dog poo, you name it. What said “Housekeeper and Landscaper” about me, I’ll never know.

Roll with it, Baby.

During a 4th grade talent show, I massacred the gymnastics routine I’d been practicing for days. I’d forgotten almost all of it, so to the tune of It’s a Small World, I did the only part I could remember — somersaults. That, and oh yeah, more somersaults. Roll, roll, roll up the mat, Roll, roll, roll, down the mat. I ended the performance with a fist-pumping ta-DA! I got a round of applause, but only because the audience was happy I’d put an end to my own suffering. Worst. Performance. Ever.

I’ll Cast a Spell on You!

In the 3rd grade we had the nun from hell. Only one person liked her. God. And we weren’t even sure of that. Her name escapes me at the moment. Let’s just call her Sister Hates-Kids-A-Lot. One day while she led our class down to the gym for an assembly, Sister Hates-Kids-A-Lot fell down the stairs and broke her arm. Then she did something that we didn’t expect. She began to cry real, human tears. We thought we should help her, but we were immobilized by fear and confusion. Fear, because she was the nun with death ray eyes, and confusion, because we didn’t think she had a soul, much less the capacity to feel pain and emotion. After the accident, we still hated her and she still hated us. And we feared her even more, now that she was wearing a cast on her arm and could use it to crack open our skulls anytime she wanted. To this day, I feel guilty for not having helped her, but I’m also not ashamed to say we thought she had it coming.

What’s in a name? Too many letters, that’s what.

I was the last child in kindergarten to be able to print her full name without the aid of a cheatsheet placard. In my defense, my last name was twelve letters long. But being the last at anything is no fun, and I remember that trailing-behind feeling like it was yesterday.

The Agony and the Irony

In the 4th grade, I received a punishment that did not fit the crime. Painfully shy, I wouldn’t open my mouth unless someone talked to me first. Even then, I was afraid to say anything. One day, as class was preparing to take a quiz, I was turned around in my seat talking to another girl, but never realized the test was starting. The teacher loudly and ceremoniously called me a Chatty Cathy – a Chatty Cathy! Me! The one who never speaks! — and told me to turn around and write a big fat “F” on my paper. She said nothing to the girl behind me who was also talking. I was mortified that day and ruined for weeks after that. Just when I thought I’d finally put it behind me, Geico came out with this commercial. Whenever I hear it, I’m transported back to the 4th grade and I flop to the floor, start sobbing and my husband has to remind me where I am and what year it is.

Being a bad sport about it

In the 6th grade, I made my first attempt at organized sports. I joined the basketball team and at the first practice got hit in the nose with the ball. I bled profusely and then promptly quit. This would be the first in a long line of sports I tried and sucked at: gymnastics, cheerleading, and softball, among others. If you’re a parent and your kids want to quit a sport, let them. There is no value in making them embarrass themselves in front of their classmates. No value at all.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Child Labor Laws

I recall the weekend one summer that some of us kids were picked for a chain gang, whose job it was to paint classrooms and hallways. I’m quite sure someone volunteered me for this job. I couldn’t have wanted to waste a weekend smelling paint and getting lead poisoning. Catholic schools always drew on slave labor one way or another. If it wasn’t painting the school, it was going door to door selling candy like some hobo begging for a place to sleep. But even hobos didn’t have to meet a quota.

I saved this next incident for last because while it starts out badly, it ends on a high note. You need to know that sometimes there was a silver lining.

She Almost Made a Grown Man Cry

My house was only four blocks from school, so I walked there and back every day. Sometimes I’d walk along with another student, Rob S., who lived in my neighborhood. One day as we were dismissed, I paired up with Rob and then heard my fifth grade teacher, Mr. G., inexplicably shout at us “Kathy and Robbie sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g!” It embarrassed me so much I thought I’d die. I didn’t tell my Mom about the incident until the next morning, after stressing about it the whole night before. She made an effort to take my mind off it and I thought “Case closed.”

But what happened next, I’ll never forget. She showed up during recess, and in front of everyone, she marched right up to Mr. G and opened up a can of whoop ass on him. I had never seen my mother like that before or since. She stood there waving a finger at him “How could you say that? What is wrong with you? You ever do that again, and you’ll have me to deal with.” Mr. G. was never more polite to me than after he got a face full of Mom.

Perhaps I’ve triggered some grade school memories that you have. Perhaps you’ll hate me now for doing so. Would anyone care to share their grade school horrors? You’ll find a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on in the comments section.

The Junk Drawer is here for you.

My Punishment for Flying First-Class

Posted by Kathy on October 31st, 2007

One of life’s greatest indulgences is flying first-class. I had the opportunity to do so in 2002 when my husband Dave and his brother Dan got the idea in their heads that we should leave a freezing cold November in Pennsylvania and take a trip to Las Vegas and splurge by flying there in style.

Here’s how we were punished for wanting to live a little.

If you have never flown first-class, you absolutely must try it once before you die. The entire experience is a ridiculous display of lavishness that only a $1,000 ticket can buy. From the time you set foot on the plane, people are waiting on you. The ratio of flight attendants to passengers is about 1:3. Back in coach, it’s 1:3,000,000. There is a reason the tickets cost so much. You’ve bought yourself a servant.

Seated comfortably in cushy, wide leather seats, you can really kick back, breathe easy, and relax. Since first-classers are seated before anyone else, you have the pleasure of watching all the coach- and business-class people salivate over your seats while they walk back to Sardine Land. You know what they’re thinking as they pass you. "I hate you and if the plane crashes, you’ll die first."

But we soldier on and ignore the stares, grunts and eye rolls from the less fortunate passengers, and prepare to be waited on by one of the five attendants dedicated to us. The first thing they do is take your coats and hang them up in a closet so that you are completely unencumbered by your travel paraphernalia. Next, they put your bags in the overhead compartments for you so that you are not inconvenienced by common folk duties. Up next, real pillows and real blankets. You can put your seat back just about all the way without disturbing the person behind you.

Were we not flying at ten thousand feet and had a remote control for the TVs in the seats ahead of us, we would have thought we were laying on our couches at home in our living rooms. And even there, you don’t get someone asking you every ten minutes if you’re comfortable enough and whether you need anything. They ask you all the time if you’re cozy and how they can make your trip more enjoyable.

Once we’re in the air awhile, we are served the first course of our meals. Yeah, first course. There are more to come. We’re given a selection of cheese and fruit, served on a restaurant-quality plate with real silverware. There is no plastic in first-class.

After we finish our fresh fruit and cheese, we are served our second course of chicken cordon bleu with rice pilaf and warm bread. Again, served on real dinnerware with real knives and forks. The suckers in the back are handed sandwiches with meat-of-questionable-origin in plastic wrap, and if they’re lucky, a pack of crackers. We finish up dinner with an assortment of cheesecake, mousse and more fresh fruit. So this is how the other half lives…..

It’s impossible to be too full on a plane unless you’ve brought your own meals, but here we are, fat and happy in first-class. All this eating has made us a little tired. Propping up our pillows and pulling our blankies up to our chins, we lie back in our virtual beds and take cat naps. You can’t do that in coach unless you take coma-inducing drugs that make you forget exactly where you are — seated millimeters next to smelly, irritated people who, if given the chance, would kick you out in the aisle if it meant they could have five more inches of space.

After a thoroughly enjoyable flight that felt much shorter than it was, we deplane and begin our adventures in The City That Never Sleeps. For the first few days, we win and lose some money here and there. We vary our time between soaking up some sun, hitting the casinos and the pool and strolling up and down the strip taking it all in.

We’re having a great time until …..

Dan hails us a cab from one resort to get us back to our home base and we all pile in. The cab driver is chit-chatting with us about where we’re from and where we’re staying and whether we’re enjoying ourselves. Then he drops the bomb.

He mentions how there are hundreds of travelers scrambling to get flights back home because they just got the news that National Airlines, our airline, has just filed for bankruptcy and they’ve canceled all of their flights.

All together now….. Say WHAT?!?!?!

We go from zero to depressed in two seconds flat. This news means that we’re going to have to make other flight arrangements to get us back home and now we’re not even sure we can leave when we planned. Once back at our hotel, Dan makes a flurry of phone calls and secures us a flight on We’re Not Flying First Class Anymore Airlines. Because we had to take what we could get, we can’t fly back in luxury. We had been given keys to the Emerald City and now they want them back.

After Dave picked me up off the floor, I came to and got all the details. First, there’s the no first-class thing ("Stop telling me that!!!"). Then there’s the problem of seating. We can’t get seats together. Lastly, we have to cut the trip short and leave that night on the red-eye. It is called the red-eye for a reason. If you have been up since 5AM and have to leave town at 11PM, then take a six hour flight, you will have red, bleary, Marty Feldman eyes that will scare small children when it’s all over.

After I recover from this news, I try to make the best of our last day in Vegas by sinking a few bucks into a slot machine. Maybe if I pray hard enough, a first-class ticket will fall out. Later in the day, we sulk as we pack our things and prepare for what would become the worst flight ever.

Just a few days ago, we were secretly laughing at the people who filed past us on their way to coach. Now we were those people, cursing under our breath at the people who were going to get nice soft pillows and blankets, and delicious food served on real dinnerware. All we could think as we walked past them was "If the plane crashes, you’ll die first."

As we approach Sardine Land, we get into position for our separate seating arrangement. Dan got a spot next to a window in one row, while Dave sat in the row behind him in a middle seat. I wind up in the same row, but on the other side of the plane.

I am not a good flier. It is almost a requirement that I be allowed to dig my nails into Dave’s thigh during take-off, the part of the flight that makes me the most anxious. I doubt now that I’ll be able to dig my nails into the thigh of Random Traveler next to me, and now I don’t want to because I find out soon enough that my seatmate is a crazy person.

He is wearing a sleeveless camouflage T-shirt, camouflage pants, combat boots and has no reading material or other things to keep himself occupied for six hours. He begins talking to me immediately about where he’s from and how his girlfriend just dumped him. Sure, take away my first-class status and sit me next to Psychotic Nothing-to-Lose Guy.

Dan and Dave have their own little traumas over on the other side of the plane. Dan has the misfortune of getting seated next to a very large man whose body is spilling over the edges of his seat. I later learn that Dan was just about to reach into his pocket and pull out a wad of hundreds to make an offer to ANY OTHER PASSENGER to give up their seat so he doesn’t have to take the seat with half another person in it. But the lights go dim and he won’t be able to get anyone’s attention.

So he sits down in the little room he has left and curses National Airlines for hitting the skids. One of the only ways that Dan can get enough room is if he holds and bends his left arm over his head and scoots over so that he’s plastered to the wall. Dave is seated directly behind Very Large Man. I cannot count the ways that this will make for a bad flight.

In the air for a few hours now, I reflect on the fact that we’ve all been awake for over twenty hours now and are beginning to get Marty Feldman eyes. At some point, I glance out the window past Nothing-to-Lose Guy and see the sun coming up on the horizon. I’m in such a no-sleep stupor that I forget where I am for a minute. Am I dead?

I glance over at Dan and Dave and notice the interesting contortions they’ve been forced into because of Very Large Man. Dan is still stuck with his arm over his head. I can’t tell if he’s sleeping, but if he is, when he wakes up he will probably not realize that the arm is his own and will come out swinging.

Very Large Man has, of course, reclined his chair and appears to be resting comfortably. With the reclined chair four inches from his head, Dave decided to make the most of things by planting his forehead into the back of the seat and sleeping on his face.

When I see these twisted configurations and consider that neither of them are good travelers to begin with, I laugh inappropriately loudly, which unfortunately wakes up Nothing-to-Lose Guy. I look at him and explain that we flew to Vegas first-class and I’m supposed to be up there with all the lucky people and instead I’m sitting here! He shrugs his shoulders and goes back to thinking of all the ways he can get revenge on the girl who dumped him.

Another hour in flight, I’m counting down the minutes until I can get on the ground, get in a car and get in my bed. All told, by the time we fell asleep at home, we’d been up for 27 hours. We looked like we felt and it took two days before we got our normal eyes back.

The lesson of the story is that if you do manage to fly first-class, check out the financial situation of your airline and make sure they’re solvent. We were reimbursed the cost of the return ticket, but it hardly mattered. I’m left wishing I’d never flown first-class.

Because having it ripped out from under you is worse than not having had it at all.

The Devil Dog Disaster

Posted by Kathy on October 28th, 2007

My 11-yr-old niece loves to read stories in this blog about when her mother, my sister Ann, was a kid herself. She loves to hear about what she was like when she was her age and the silly or stupid things she did.

One such story involves a bike, a serious misjudgment and a pair of Drake’s Devil Dogs.

Here’s the thing about Devil Dogs. It was Ann’s favorite snack food back then and the first thing she’d spend her allowance money on. And she could get them just about any time she wanted. We were lucky to have not one, but two, corner stores near our house growing up. One was called The Apple Shack, which was owned by a woman named — I kid you not — Candy Apple.

The other one was called Verna’s, run by a little old lady and her husband. Located about three blocks from home, it was the quintessential Mom and Pop store. Sure, they sold incidentals like milk and bread for adults, but we kids knew it only as Junk Food Central.

Among other things, Verna sold ice cream, popsicles, homemade cupcakes and shoe-fly pie and giant lollipops bigger than our heads. She had a large wooden, glass-front case where we could peer inside at the array of penny candy and ask Verna to put together a little brown bag full of sugary confections. You could score a pound of goodies for about a buck if you chose wisely.

I always liked to get red licorice shoelaces, Flying Saucers, Tootsie Roll Midgies and Chick-0-Sticks, the latter being something of a cross between a less-sweet version of Butterfingers and pretzel sticks. You had to chisel half of it off your teeth, that is, if you had any left after eating them. Chick-o-Sticks and mortar. Same difference.

Then there’s Ann. Ever the discerning snack connoisseur, she had just one favorite — the Drake’s Devil Dog, a devil’s food cream sandwich whose wafers were shaped somewhat like a hot dog bun, hence the name. She’d eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner if our mother let her.

One Saturday afternoon in 1975, after getting our allowances, we decided to go on a candy and Devil Dog run to Verna’s. We hopped on our banana-seat bikes, pedaled hard up a two block hill, rounded the corner, dropped our bikes in front of the store, and had Verna throw some stuff together. Me with my grab bag, and Ann with her two Devil Dogs.

When we got outside and prepared to bike back home, Ann realized she should have gotten a bag for her things but didn’t feel like running back inside for one. Standing there, straddling her bike, she maneuvered the handlebars with just the palms of her hands, while she held the Devil Dogs with the tips of her fingers so as not to smoosh them.

I told her, "You’re not gonna be able to ride right if you hold ’em that way."

"Yes I can!" she shot back.

I seriously doubted it, and sure enough, she would soon pay dearly for this error in judgment.

We set off for home, proud that we still had a few bucks left of our allowance and happy to have enough snacks to spoil our dinner. As we approached the hill we biked up on, we prepared to set sail downward. It was always great to pick up speed and catch the wind in our hair. We’d blast through the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, then race each other home in the last block.

But this ride was like no ride before, because somebody cared more about the welfare of her Devil Dogs than getting home in one piece. We’d gotten about halfway down the hill and picked up considerable speed when Ann hit a patch of stones in the road and it was all over in a flash. Because her hands were gripping the Devil Dogs instead of the handlebars, any chance of controlling the bike went right out the window. It was a hopeless situation.

When she braked to try to stop the slide, she was thrust head first over the handlebars and got herself caught in them so that she and the bike crashed to the ground in a twisted metal ‘n legs pretzel. Together they slid for about ten feet. And all along the way, gravel and other road debris became embedded in what were now ripples and ripples of scraped-up skin.

Had her dismount been part of an Olympic event, the judges would have leapt to their feet and pronounced it a "10" because not only did she damage herself quite badly, she also rendered her bike un-rideable. It was a perfectly-orchestrated knockout and both of them were down for the count.

The first thing I did, of course, was run to her aid and see if she could stand up. Crying and moaning, she gingerly rose to her feet and insisted she could walk home. I helped her over to the curb and urged her to sit back down and get her bearings first. I turned around to assess the damage. Looking in the street at her mangled bike, handlebars all askew, I spotted the reason Ann found herself battered and bloodied.

Amid the mangled mess of her bike lie two perfectly rounded, fully-formed, light and fluffy Devil Dogs, still in their micro-thin plastic wrap. The only visible damage was that some of the cream had oozed out the sides, but the wrap hadn’t burst. And they hadn’t been squashed. Ann’s dribbling blood all down her leg, but by God, her Devil Dogs were safe. And wasn’t that the point of all this?

She and her bike had seen better days. I did manage to bend back the front wheel to align it straight enough so she could push it. It squeaked a sad little squeak with each step we took on the slow walk home. After Ann limped through the door, our mother treated and disinfected her wounds and bandaged her hands and leg.

"How in the world did this happen?" Mom asked.

"I was…. sniffle …. trying to …. sniffle …. save the Devil Dogs," Ann whimpered.

"Well I hope you know that’s not a good enough reason."

Mom’s always right, but to Ann, it felt like reason enough. She did what she set out to do and saved the Dogs. And, as a bonus, was excused from having to go to church that night. To this day, despite the mayhem and carnage of that Saturday afternoon, she might even tell you it was worth it.

Tell us, Ann, was it?

The day I didn’t die

Posted by Kathy on October 9th, 2007

My sister Marlene treated her daughter, Amy, and me to an afternoon at Dorney Amusement Park on Saturday. Every year her company gives its employees free passes, plus two for their guests. Excellent deal, since tickets normally go for something like 30 bucks. I know I’ll still pay a fortune on food, drink and at least one impulse purchase. But since I’m not starting out $30 in the hole, it’s all good. Plus, the park hosts "Halloweekends" in October, where they decorate every square inch for the fall holiday. Even if you don’t go on rides, it’s really nice to just stroll around and get into the Halloween spirit.

But I do go on rides. At least the ones I think I won’t die on.

We meet at my house and pile in one car. For the next half an hour, we complain about the extra weight we’ve put on, how we hate exercise and that we’re doomed until we get serious about weight loss. We get to the park, walk through the entrance, look around and the first thing out of our mouths is "Where do we want to eat?" What did we JUST SAY people???

We head down a pathway that leads to one of the park’s many Dippin’ Dots carts. Dippin’ Dots is (are?) ice cream molded into the shape of tiny beads. Strangest ice cream I’ve ever had, and difficult to maneuver, since half of those little buggers tend to escape and roll away with every spoonful. Whatever. We each pay $5 for a small cup. And I do mean small. I’m done with it in 2.5 minutes, but that could also be because half of the beads have jumped the cup and are now bouncing happily away.

We decide it’s time to consider going on rides. When I say "we" should go on rides, I really mean just Amy. I’ve appointed her the ride inspector and the "oh-come-on-you’ll-be-OK" motivator. It works this way — She picks out a ride she likes, or thinks I’ll like, gets on the ride and then reports back to me about how violent said ride felt. Then I decide whether I can handle it. She gives me the blow-by-blow account of each one, and then we determine how much I would cry and how embarrassing a scene I would make.

While discussing whether I’m going on any rides, Marlene whips out her digital camera and begins taking the first of several hundred pictures in the park. We shall refer to her now as The Sisterazzi. Nobody’s safe. "Look over here! Amy! Kathy! Stand in front of this! Over here! Just one more picture! Oh, wait! Come over here!"

We tolerate this because she loves taking pictures. But we have requirements. Our hair can’t look like any of the scarecrows dotting the park. Above-the-waist shots only. No rear shots. We think Sisterazzi complies, but I haven’t seen the pictures yet. It was too sunny to make them out on the tiny screen.

We head over to the one ride I’ll consider, Talon. It’s one of the best in the park due to its smoothness. Steel tracks are the best. Wooden ones will cause teeth to fall out of your head and you’ll be a bruised and battered mess when it’s over, assuming you survive at all. We wait for Amy to go on Talon once, alone. She’ll report back about how long the line is and whether the teenaged ride attendants look responsible enough to trust our lives with.

Sisterazzi is busy taking pictures of other people on other rides, while I’m getting my stomach in knots just thinking about going on Talon. What freaks me out most is not the ride itself. The ride is awesome. It’s having to walk the stairs to the platform where you queue up for seats. I have real trouble standing still in high places. I have no problem hurdling to the earth at breakneck speeds (possibly literally break neck speeds), but I can’t handle waiting in line up really high, long enough to realize that the ground is way down there and I’m way up here.

Amy returns from her quick trip on Talon and begins her motivational speech. She assures me she’ll talk me through the ascent and that I’ll love it as much as all the other times I’ve been on it. And, no doubt, we’ll ride in the front row. If you ride a coaster, the only good seat is the front seat. Totally clear view of the ground coming up fast at you. There’s no better thrill, except maybe bungee jumping or skydiving. Those I won’t do, because I can’t hang my life on a string. But I will fly through the sky if I’m nailed to a seat.

We decide around now it’s time to eat a real meal and head off to a pizza place. The line is very long, so we briefly contemplate going over to a Subway instead. None of us wants to eat healthy, despite our complaints about wanting to lose weight, so we remain in the long line and then pay a small fortune for a slice of pizza and bottled water, $10. Extortion pizza.

As soon as we sit down at a table in the shade, Sisterazzi is at it again. This time, taking pictures of Amy and me with stringy cheese hanging out of our mouths. Thanks for that. We feel better now that we’ve had food and gotten out of the sun. But it’s a record-breaking 85 degrees on this October day, and we’re suffering a bit from meaty paw syndrome. Amy suggests we could cool off more if we go on Talon and I’m back to stressing about whether to go on it.

We slowly walk up the hill toward the ride and I remind myself that the reason I want to do it is for the exhilaration of flying through the air for little over a minute. There are four inversions: a vertical loop, a zero-gravity roll, an Immelmann loop (whatever the hell that is), and a corkscrew.

Two things happen in this environment. You briefly cannot breathe (wheeee!) and your hair winds up looking like this. At least mine does.

I decide I’m ready for the climb up the stairs and onto the platform. Fortunately, the line is short and I don’t have to spend time standing still on the stairs. But I do need some encouragement from Amy. She distracts me from the reality of my situation by discussing a very boring topic. Routers and wireless access points.

She goes into a long discussion about what kind of network she has at work and talks about getting a wireless router for home. I ignore where I am for a moment and talk about a new laptop and wireless router I’m thinking of buying so I can blog anywhere in the house. I’m hearing all kinds of screaming from passengers already on the ride, but I ignore this. Amy also directs me to look at a spot on the platform full of people and that doesn’t overlook the ground below. I pretend I’m anywhere but there.

We are soon led like cattle into the front row chute. We are shocked that they’re sending the ride out without a full front row. What’s wrong with these people? The front row is the BEST seat in the house. I’m all cocky about it — until it’s my turn to get in the seat.

Blogger’s note: I’ve begun to sweat just writing this. The memory of front row seat lockdown is fresh in my mind and I’m very tense right now. My keyboard has asked me to stop pressing so hard.

So we are led to our seats and we get nailed in. I’m thankful that the ride operator clicks the metal harness into my lap even lower than I got it to go myself. This makes me happy for two reasons: 1) It tells me that my stomach is not as huge as I thought it was, and 2) I’m 100% bolted in. I no longer worry that I’ll somehow slip out of my chair and die a horrible, screaming, bloody death. Wheeeee!!!!

We begin our ascent up the 100+ foot hill and Amy’s still talkin’ about routers. I have my eyes closed because I hate the ascent. She asks me if I want to know when we get to the top, and I reply "No, I’ll know it when we’re about to fall off the face of the earth. Thankyouverymuch."

The ride is exceptional. Smooth, fast and breathless — exactly as I remember it. Since it’s hard to scream when you can’t breathe, I opt for the silent descent. I just smile a toothy smile the whole way through.

Without further ado, here’s how the ride went. It’s my one impulse purchase. The park used to offer still shots of riders screaming their heads off, but now they offer DVDs of riders screaming their heads off. That’ll be me on the left, and Amy on the right. We appear 30 seconds into it.

Amy wanted a picture of me when we got off because I looked like I’d just been electrocuted (sign of a great ride!). We don’t have a camera, but of course Sisterazzi does. She gets the shot and now we can relax a little because I don’t have to stress anymore about doing this ride. I’ve done the deed.

We stroll around the park for another hour or so, jump on a train that chugs throughout the park and decide we’ve had our fill and start thinkin’ about what to eat again. Everything we do begins and ends with food. Will we never learn?

So Saturday was the day I didn’t die on a ride. I’ll have to pencil this in again for next year and, with Amy as my co-pilot, I’ll do just fine.

Run! Run for your lives!

Posted by Kathy on October 2nd, 2007

We’ve all had moments where something fortunate happens to us and it can’t be explained by logic or reason. Some call it luck, some call it fate, some call it divine intervention. One of those moments happened to me this week.

WARNING! The post includes the following: cats, rodents and bugs. If you’re turned off by any of these things, I urge you to click away now and come back tomorrow.

When I started this blog two months ago, I vowed it wouldn’t turn into a blog about my cats. Just so you know, it’s still not going to be a cat blog, but this story does involve a cat, so I have to make an exception. It’s more about bugs, which isn’t much better.

First, let’s meet Stinky.

Stinky is one of our first cats together. We got her and her brother from some friends almost 15 years ago. Her brother, Calvin, is since deceased (RIP buddy). In human equivalent years, Stinky would be on Medicare by now. She’s a self-confident old girl whose partying days are behind her. She doesn’t care, for instance, that this pose is not a good look for her. She lets it all hang out and we let her do whatever she wants. At her age, she’s pretty harmless.

However, there are times when she surprises us and acts all kitteny and spry. About two years ago, she shocked us by bagging her first mouse (I’ll spare you the picture, and yes, I took a picture). We didn’t witness her kill her prey, we only saw the damage. She dropped it on the patio and then laid down next to it, all proud of herself. Luckily for us, the mouse was gone the next day and we didn’t have to worry how to dispose of it. We presume it met its second demise at the claws of some other ravaging animal that happened upon a free lunch. Such is nature.

After the mouse incident, we realized Stinky’s days of being harmless were over and now we had to be mindful of whatever she set her eyes on out in the yard, whether it be bugs, birds or chipmunks. No one is safe now.

Fast forward to this week. I’m reading a book all comfortable on my nice new couch and for reasons unknown I decide to check on Stinky. Despite the collar she wears to keep her within the bounds of our invisible fence, she’s been known to not care too much about the shock fence and sometimes crosses it despite the zap to her neck.

When I look out back, I’m instantly relieved to see her still on the patio, but this relief quickly turns to fear when I see that she’s crouched over the edge of the porch staring at something. This can’t be good, since cats stare at only two things:

  1. Imaginary objects that exist only in their pea brains.
  2. Living things that are smaller than them that they’re thinking of killing.

I’m instantly aware it’s something in Category #2. I can just about make out what that something is — looks like a meaty spider. But because it’s fairly dark outside, I can only make a positive ID if I get within inches of it.

I don’t have many choices here. Get closer and see what it is, and freak out. Consider that whatever it is might jump on me when I get very close, and freak out. Pick Stinky up by the hind legs and drag her away from what she wants to maim, kill and eat, and freak out. Basically, I’m freaking out. And Dave is nowhere to be found, so that is not an option either.

With my crappy options, I proceed anyway. I opt for picking Stinky up by her backside and she begins to growl at me. Not a problem, since I don’t have far to get her in the house. When I get to the door and deposit her inside, I glance back to see what it was she was so intent on investigating.

Meet the praying mantis.

I suspect what I thought was a balled-up spider was just the head of this thing. What will give me nightmares for months to come was the fact that it RAN AFTER ME while I was carrying Stinky inside. I barely made it in before I slammed the door shut on it.

Can someone please explain to me why bugs can’t just simply be gross? Do they also have to torment me by chasing me down?

It was long, ugly and FAST! Apparently they can attack and kill prey larger than themselves. Read more about that here, but only if you’re not eating right now.

Once safely inside, with the door shut, I began to thank God that I got up off the couch when I did. I don’t know what made me go check on Stinky, but I’m convinced if I hadn’t done it at that exact moment, I would have had to try and get this disgusting creature out of her mouth somehow, some way. I can barely think about it without wanting to throw up. I like to think it was divine intervention that saved me.

I’m sorry if I grossed anyone out here, but if you stuck with the story, thanks. You’re a better person than me.

Sausage feet

Posted by Kathy on September 2nd, 2007

Yesterday was my birthday and I’m feeling older than my age. I’m not at all close to AARP membership eligibility, but my out-of-shape body tells me otherwise. To add insult to injury, this week I saw a report about a 40-year-old American swimmer, Dara Torres, who’s gunning for her fifth Olympics. If she makes the team, she’ll be the oldest female Olympic swimmer at the age of 41. If this isn’t crazy enough, she had a baby a mere 15 months ago and yet has freakish washboard abs. It’s just not human. It disgusts me that she’s doing all this at about the same age as me, while I’m getting winded walking two flights of steps.

Today I felt aging pains quite literally as I began the process known as “Chunky Girl Gets Dressed for a Wedding.” Control top pantyhose should be a girl’s best friend, but they’re really not. They make all types of hose, but a woman my age always goes for the control-top variety. Control top, put another way, means “cram all the fat in one neat little package so nothing wobbles around too much and hurts anybody.” They should put that right on the box. I estimate I burned a hundred calories getting them on, so that’s a plus. But once you’re in them and the elastic band takes hold above the midsection, there is nowhere for an expanding, after-dinner stomach to go but straight out. Lovely.

I managed to get into my ensemble without too much difficulty, but what worried me was the shoes I’d be wearing. Four inch high-heel stilettos that should only be sold to 20-year-olds who consider flavored water a food group. I just can’t walk in these things anymore. I know it, yet I keep wearing them. My only other choice was near-flat shoes that make my legs look like tree stumps. I chose the painful ones because they look better. They make my feet swell up like sausages, but they look nice. And nice is the goal. Pain is a necessary evil. Dave was given pre-event instructions to not walk too fast in front of me, as I can’t keep up in these things. I teeter-tottered my way from the car to the church and marveled that I almost fell only once. During various parts of the ceremony, when most of the congregation listened to the minister extol the virtues of married life, blah, blah, blah, all I was thinking was when can I sit down and take a load off? I took every opportunity to remove my cruel shoes – in the church, in the car, and even later at the reception dinner table.

Speaking of dinner, we were having a wonderful time of things until Dave was joined by a few little visitors — ants. Oh, how nice. Makes the meal so appetizing, all those little black specks walking around. I won’t identify where the reception was held, but let’s just say it was a country club somewhere in the Lehigh Valley. Dave showed me the first one when it made its appearance clinging to a straw. “Kath. What’s this? That an ant?” “Um, yeah. That’s gross. Just toss it aside and eat your meal.” Ten minutes later while working through his crab cakes, he gets another visitor. This one’s doing laps around his dinner plate. I discreetly smash it into oblivion with a napkin and vow right then to blog about how it is a $10,000 membership fee country club can serve up ants for dinner. Lehigh Valley Country Club, do you know you have ants in your kitchen? Oops, did I just say that?

Following coffee and dessert, a photographer friend insisted she get a picture of Dave and me outside. I resisted the attempt, as I knew as soon as I stood up, the belly bulge was going make me look like I was pregnant somewhere in the range of 5-7 months and begged her to please restrict her pictures to head shots. I also had to consider that my shoes were choking my feet and making me walk in a way that twisted my back into a new configuration that was going to take my chiropractor weeks to undo.

But we were coaxed into going out anyway, where the photographer asks us to pose real nice and smile pretty. I realize the only way she’s not going to get a grimace out of me is if I kick off my heels, which I gleefully do since the spikes are sinking into the ground anyway. But the problem with removing shoes from your sausage feet is that sausage feet take the opportunity to swell five times bigger when they’re free from their constraints. I’m just hoping no one is looking at my big bulbous clown feet and wondering how it is I’ll get the shoes back on without a shoehorn, a pulley and three assistants.

The photographer mercifully obliges me by taking above-the-waist-only pictures, keeping my faux pregnancy gut horror from public display. I vow that tomorrow I’ll start exercising and lose a hundred pounds. If Dara Torres can keep her shape and kick the asses of swimmers half her age, the least I can do is get a little serious about dropping some baggage and stop having to squeeze myself into control top pantyhose. And I might someday want to wear those stilettos again. Until then, they’re back in the closet where they belong….until the next time, because as you can tell by now, I’m a glutton for punishment.

Furniture shopping hell

Posted by Kathy on August 6th, 2007

For a time, Dave and I loved our living room furniture. We’ve had it for ten years and only started hating it recently. Both the couch and chair are oversized and overstuffed and aren’t the design statement they once were. Now they just look and feel ridiculous. It’s like crawling in and out of those big bouncer gyms you find in backyards at kids’ birthday parties. The older I get, the less ladylike I look getting on and off of them. Sorry old set, it’s time to move on.

We started shopping for new stuff Friday morning and didn’t finish until four days later. Here’s how it went down:

Our trek began in Whitehall, where the largest furniture stores are located. We figured it’d be a cinch to find something in the first big store we went to. Ha! We remember how excited we were on Friday. By Monday, we wanted to kill each other.

We thought we’d immediately find several things we liked and spend a few minutes sorting them out to make a final decision. Our goal was to find either a wrap-around couch, or a couch/chaise set. Over the next couple days, we moved from store to store. Some we visited twice in one day. But after not liking either of our target configurations, we moved on to Plan B, which was to get a regular couch and a recliner. This was a problem because we realized we had to return to stores we already visited to look at Plan B configurations, since we hadn’t even looked for that stuff on the first go-around.

So we ventured back to the same stores, and also stopped at new stores. I insisted on testing every single couch that had a snowball’s chance of being The One in every single store. Dave was soon getting sick of me planting myself on couch after couch, and I was starting to embarrass him because I test for the real world. This means I laid down on them, curled up on my side and pretended to have a remote control in my hand. I fake clicked, too.

On and on we went, in the brutal 90+ degree heat. In and out of a baking car that barely cooled up enough before we hit the next store. Even though we were fast losing steam and getting heavily on each other nerves, we were still on a mission and forged ahead. Over the four days, we visited La-Z-Boy six times, Thomasville Gallery four times, Raymour & Flanigan three times, and six other stores once each. We left every store in disgust over either not finding the right set, or finding one piece in one store and remembering another one we liked in a different store. We took measurements galore and tried to dodge as many sales people as possible until we were ready to ask a question. But once you open your mouth, they latch onto you like Super Glue and you can’t fling them off. Speak at your own risk.

We took swatch after swatch home and back again, because when we had a feeling we liked a certain piece, we allowed ourselves to test fabrics against our living room walls. On Sunday we thought we were ready to make a purchase at Thomasville, but it turns out the couch alone would have cost $2,300 with customized fabric. I just couldn’t part with that much money for a couch unless it had a built-in massager and talked dirty to me. We did, however, find the perfect recliner there and made a mental note of what it looked and felt like.

At one point, we borrowed swatches from Thomasville Gallery in plums and reds and brought them with us to another store to test. When we got to Raymour & Flanigan, we came upon the most disgusting purple couch and Dave exclaimed “Look, Kath, this is the same color as the plum we like! Look. See the comparison,” as he laid the swatch on the seat. “That’s plum??? Oh my God, we just dodged a huge bullet. We almost put that color on the couch at Thomasville!!!” If a guy had shown up to deliver me a plum couch I would have needed oxygen and defibrillation paddles because obviously the color plum on a swatch translates to “Barney purple” on a couch.

Redoubling our efforts in the Great Couch Search, we headed back to La-Z-Boy for the fourth time in as many days. Feeling they had the best overall selection, we figured our chances, no matter how slim, were at least better there than anywhere else we’d been. After walking the showroom in circles, I found myself repeatedly gravitating toward one couch called “The Woodrow.” Hint: If you find yourself going back to the same couch or chair more than once, BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. IT’S THE RIGHT ONE. I laid on The Woodrow for a good five minutes doing my fake remote control thing. I really didn’t care at this point if a sales person or another customer thought it was rude or poor form to be sprawled out all over the place. They don’t know what we’ve been through.

While I thought about whether I loved The Woodrow or not, Dave found a recliner similar to the one we found at Thomasville and dragged me over to see it. It took all of ten seconds to agree that we were going to buy this chair. Not only was it less expensive here, but it was a lot more comfortable. A wave of relief came over us both. We were finally making some progress.

Back at The Woodrow, I began to believe that this could be The One. Because we were so tired and unsure of ourselves, having looked at now hundreds of pieces, we thought it wise to sleep on it before giving our stamp of approval to the couch. Back home, we went online and used La-Z-Boy’s design tool to pick fabric types and colors, and lo and behold, were able to settle on two color groupings. A red/earthtone combination and a blue/floral combo.

When we awoke Monday, we announced with absolute conviction “This is it. We have to do this today.” So we piled back in the car bright and early. I swore I saw online that stores opened at 9AM, but because I can’t be trusted with the simplest things, we discovered stores opened at 10AM and we had to decide what to do for an hour. We killed some time at a Wal-Mart nearby and then headed over to return some borrowed swatches to Thomasville Gallery. To-date, we’d been there three times and bought nothing, so we worried the sales people would see us driving up and shout to each other “The Fredericks are back. RUN!” We watched and waited for someone to come unlock the doors at 10:00. As we approached the store from the side, we inched our car ever closer to the front door and then the hell of our experience reached a crescendo in the form of punch drunk silliness. Dave started to hum the theme from Jaws as he drew closer and closer to the entrance, all the while supposing that the employees are hiding behind really big furniture trying to avoid us. I laughed so hard I started to cry and then worried when the lady came out to let me in, she’d think I totally lost my mind. She would be right.

After returning the swatches to the nice woman who finally came to the door, we drove over to La-Z-Boy one last time with hope in our hearts. Please, God. Let us still like the couch and let these colors work. As soon as I walked in and sat on The Woodrow again, I realized I still liked it, loved it actually, and gave Dave the much-awaited thumbs up. Now all we had to do was pick colors, and thanks to Sharon, their wonderful sales assistant, we settled on floral for the chair and deep blue for the couch. She advised us on how to pattern the four couch pillows to match the chair, and then we were DONE! Thank God Almighty. Our ordeal is over.

We calculated we put in 14 hours of drive time and showroom walking in order to get this set. I’d like to say it wasn’t so bad, but it really was. When it comes time to replace this new set, believe me when I tell you – we’re hiring a designer and we don’t care what it costs. Our next goal is to get new coffee and end tables. We think this might be easier since we have the seating pieces accounted for. Really, how hard can it be?

UPDATE: The new furniture arrived on Sept 26. Check it out here.

Adventures in Tech Support: When your 82-year-old father wants to be on the bleeding edge of technology

Posted by Kathy on July 29th, 2007

tech support It all started Christmas of 1997 and I hold myself completely responsible. For years my siblings and I would get our parents the least exciting and most utilitarian Christmas gifts imaginable; the gift card to their local grocery store, sweaters, robes and slippers, and the ever boring cash. Then one year I had the crazy idea that Mom and Dad might like a computer. It was borderline ridiculous; given their idea of high tech was a touch-tone phone.

Indeed, they saw no good reason to give up their 1950’s Western Electric 5302 model rotary phone that woke up the house when it rang. They were disappointed when Ma Bell broke up and you had to return your old phone to the Bell Atlantic store and buy a cheap, light plastic one that was no substitute for Old Reliable. Still, I thought a little advancement in the technology department would be good for them, and what fun it would be to see the looks on their faces when they opened up their gifts that year.

Dad had been in retirement for a while by that fall. After many grueling years running his own small business, he was finally getting his overdue rest. He and Mom had their usual routine of going out for breakfast, running to the store and making a few errands here and there during the week. But other than that and some weekend trips to Atlantic City, their retirement years were fairly monotonous. So I thought we could jazz things up a bit with a computer and get them on the Internet and check out this thing called AOL that was, at the time, still in its infancy.

 A few months before that Christmas, I suggested to my brother and sisters that we split the cost of a desktop computer. Surprisingly, no one balked at the idea. I wish now someone had the sense to ask “And what are they going to do with it?” so we could have realized our mistake and bought them something easier to use; you know, like a mass spectrometer.

It was really exciting when we delivered it to the house Christmas day.  Dad came to the door, and in a jolly bewildered voice yelled “What the heck is this?” He couldn’t contain himself and neither could Mom.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to be a gift certificate Christmas. Before anyone could even think of opening their own gifts, we had to have them open up theirs first. Mom didn’t want to open such a big gift because she never asked for anything in her life and felt so weird about opening up something so huge. But Dad was intrigued.

 The looks on their faces when they saw what it was couldn’t have made us happier. A computing consultant by trade, I was anointed the one to configure everything and so began the proceedings. I plugged everything in and got right down to the good stuff, getting them on AOL, which we kids also chipped in together to get.    This was a truly momentous day.  Mom and Dad were entering unknown territory. They were going to surf the web.

slingo The decision I made next would ruin me for years to come.   After we got online and poked around a bit, I showed him how to play a game on AOL called Slingo. It’s basically a flip-card game where you click numbered tiles on the board that match ones that appear at the bottom of the screen whenever you click the spin button. Harmless, I thought.  It’s just a silly game, something to show him you can do on the computer.

Fast-forward ten years and – as God is my witness – he’s still playing the game.  In a good game, one averages about 5,000 points, as long as “The Devil” doesn’t appear in the bottom row to steal all your points and you have to start collecting them again. His lifetime score as of today is 1,495,678,435. Yeah, billion. You do the math.  OK, I’ll do the math. That’s about three hundred thousand games.

 He should be in a mental institution by now, rocking back and forth and hearing Slingo buzzes and dings in his sleep. But he’s not. He’s trying to crack into the top 100 positions on the scoreboard that’s been keeping track of everyone who’s ever played the game in the last ten years. Since his efforts began, he’s achieved Slingo Masters status. It can take months to move up just one position in the list. He’s at 108. I do believe he will not actually allow himself to die before he’s in the Top 100.

Games aside, he’s using the computer for some other fun things, although email’s not one of them. He prides himself on not using email because “I don’t get any spam that way!” As a computing consultant at a local university, I’d like to see how it would fly if I told my clients “Hey, you know how you can avoid all that spam in your inbox? Don’t give out your email address or send any email!”

 In addition to occasionally browsing the Internet for news stories, he also discovered Internet radio. This is important because there are only so many polka radio stations in the area. Yes, polka. There may have been a local one at some point, but it’s probably defunct now because they only had two listeners, my Mom and Dad.

How much do they love polka?   Well, you know how teenagers are prone to blasting their stereos so loud the cops are called by the crabby neighbors who hate hearing “that music the kids play these days?”  That wasn’t our house exactly.  The cops didn’t come to shut us down. They came after the neighbors complained about Dad’s infernal polka music being blared from our insane stereo system with two gigantic speakers that were so big you could serve Thanksgiving dinner on them. These were teeth-rattling speakers and when you blasted them, walls shook, babies cried and the cops came.

So Dad loves the idea that he and Mom now have worldwide access to their beloved polka music from stations near and far.  He’s managed to locate stations from states you’d expect polka not be mocked as a musical genre, but embraced and loved, like Wisconsin and Ohio.  But he’s also found international stations that broadcast from Germany, Austria and Hungary.

It doesn’t matter he can’t understand what the announcers are saying. All he knows is he can get stations that play the most beautiful music he’s ever heard. But one thing makes him totally lose his mind – when the station feeds stutter and break their connection. Which leads me to the reason for my pain.

“Kathy, can you do anything to make my music keep playing?”

“Yeah, you need broadband access.”

“But I think it’s the computer. The computer isn’t fast enough.”

“No, Dad. It’s because you’re using a slow dial-up connection.”

“But Walmart has this sale on Dell computers. Look!”

He hands me a flyer from the newspaper.

“Dad, it says they have only four in stock. This is ‘bait and switch. They’re going to get you in the store, not have any left, and sell you something you don’t want or need. And, besides, that’s not going to help with the music.”


“Ok. At least let me find you a decent system for a good price.”

So here we are again, buying Dad a new computer. I’m dreading the call to my siblings to ask for more money. My case is this: “Dad insists a newer computer will solve his music-playing problem and I told him it wouldn’t, but he disagrees and if you guys don’t give me $200 towards a new PC for Dad, he’s going to go to Walmart and buy a Flintstone computer and then I’ll have to support THAT!”

The checks started rolling in the next week. If there’s one argument to be made for forking over money to me it’s the thought that at least they don’t get calls at all hours about how this or that doesn’t work and can you fix it?  They’re basically paying for not having to play the tech support game.

A couple weeks went by while I shopped for the best price on a desktop and when the price was right, I locked in and bought it. The computer arrived at my office a mere four days later. I configured it with some software he might actually use, threw some spyware protection on it and then installed AOL. When I configure new computers for my clients in the office, I install a myriad software applications and test a bunch of stuff.

 On Dad’s computer, there’s only one thing that needs to work, and that’s AOL. More specifically, Slingo. If AOL ever decides to trash the game, I don’t want to be in the country. I want to be somewhere that Dad can’t reach me because it’s going to be a sad, depressing day. Remember, he’s working on cracking the Top 100. Please AOL, if you do anything right in this world, do not get rid of Slingo or I’ll have to kill myself or at least move away and get a new identity.

I delivered Dad’s new computer on a Friday after work, when I’m most exhausted and have already dealt with every confounding computer problem possible during the work week. I called my husband to say I was setting up Dad’s new PC that night and he said “Don’t do it. You know how you feel by Friday afternoon.” I knew I shouldn’t go, but I also didn’t want to spend all day Saturday doing it. I needed to get it out of the way right then. So I loaded up the car and off I went.

I was really fun setting up the new PC with its monster 22” flat panel screen, which made Dad drool. Again, I plugged everything in, cleared away all the old equipment and then loaded it in my car to cart away. Then we stood back, marveling at this amazing, rockin’ fast system that would surely play better music than the one before. Or so I thought.

First things first. We launch AOL and make sure that Slingo works, because we just bought him basically a thousand dollar video game. Up next, we check out the Internet radio stations he’s got linked in his Favorites folder. Within minutes a song that’s playing skips a beat. And so did my heart.

“Dad, you NEED broadband to make songs play smoothly. I told you it was the speed of your connection that was the
problem, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did. So how to I get broadband access? What is it anyway?”

“Oh my God, Dad. It’s how fast the connection brings data down to your PC, how fast data moves out. We’ve been through this before.”

“Ok, so can you work on that next?”

“Yes, Dad.”

For the time being, he’s happily surfing and playing his Slingo, while Mom’s on the couch reading her book, having never gotten interested in the computer, even since the first one. She doesn’t have to be entertained by bells and whistles and games and surfing. Give her a good book and she’s content. She probably reads two books a week, and we think she might have actually read all the books in the small library in Wilson Borough. She’s working on all the holdings of the Easton Public Library now. We don’t know what’s going to happen when she finishes all those. Does the New York Public Library deliver?

ipod Then Dad says something that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. He wants an iPod next so he can listen to his music while he goes on his daily walks with Mom. “Hey! I don’t even have an iPod!” I also don’t feel like being tech support for that, which means my sister Ann is designated as the iPod support person because I know she has one. I inform her of this that night and I get a feeling she thinks he’s joking, but the very next day, he went straight out and bought one. “Ann, Dad’s got you on speed dial. Be ready.”

So she gets the call for help the very next morning. She decides that she’s going to try and squeeze in the visit before going to a picnic at a friend’s house. I told her “Ann, you’re a nurse. You save people’s lives every day. But this is tech support. It’s much, much harder. You need to know that it’s probably not going to go well. Nothing is ever as easy as you think. Problems always crop up and they’re never resolved in the time you think you can get them resolved. You need software and have to install the device. It might go all right, but it probably won’t, so gear up for that. And did you forget, it’s Dad you’re dealing with?”

I tell her that she’ll have to install iTunes, the software that the device uses to download music. “Do you have the installation CD?” “I don’t know,” she says, “but mine came with one so he must have one, too.” I tell her “Well you’re screwed if he doesn’t have it because then you’ll have to download the software from the Internet and you can’t do that over Dad’s slow dial-up connection. The file is monstrously big.”  She completely ignores every single one of my warnings and goes anyway.

One hour later, I get the emergency call while I’m trying to take a nap. “Kathy! He doesn’t have the installation CD and I’m trying to download the software and it’s taking forever and it’s really big and it’s only at 5% complete and that took 20 minutes and Dad’s hovering over me and I don’t know what to do!” “Oh my God, Ann, didn’t I say you couldn’t download it over the Internet and that the file was huge? Does NO ONE ever listen to me?!?!?!”

One thing that being the tech support person for your 82-year-old, legally blind father makes you is sympathetic to anyone else who has to deal with his computer problems. So I make an offer she can’t refuse. I offer to go with her the next day to setup the iPod. We synchronize our watches. We’ll meet at 5:00PM.

The next day, I make sure to eat a good protein-rich meal. I know that I’ll have a brutal, exhausting, stressful time of things in what we now call The Dad Zone, and like a professional marathoner training for a triathlon, I will have to be well-fed, well-rested and well-prepared.

 Before heading down to The Zone, I first stop at Ann’s house to download the iTunes software onto a borrowed flash drive, a device that can hold a ton of files and makes copying and moving data very easy. Or so I thought. Ann doesn’t have a flash drive of her own, and I don’t feel like driving to campus to get mine. So I suggest she borrow one from her neighbor who works in the computing industry. Unfortunately, he’s not home, so she calls another neighbor and borrows his drive.

She gives it to me and I insert it into her computer so we can download the software over her high-speed internet connection. I grab iTunes, and some other stuff I forgot to install on Dad’s PC on the first go-around. When I go to pull the drive out, after safely telling Windows I was about to do so, the drive won’t give. It’s stuck in the port! I know that God hates me now. For everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I do manage to pull the drive out by its metal end, which has unbelievably separated from its plastic casing.

Ann, this NEVER happens! I’ve used a hundred flash drives and this NEVER happens. God hates me. I tell her that taking a faulty drive down to Dad’s is just asking for trouble and we debate whether to run over to a nearby Staples and buy a new one. I don’t feel like dealing with traffic over by Northampton Crossings because I’m stressed already and I might run over people who look like they’re having any kind of fun whatsoever. After chewing this over for ten minutes, we ultimately decide to chance it and go anyway with the flash drive from hell.

We pull into Mom and Dad’s apartment parking lot and take a deep breath. From my past experience in The Zone, there is no doubt that this is what will happen next:

  • Mom and Dad will NOT have the air conditioner on and it’ll be a sauna in their apartment.
  • Dad will have the TV on and blasting and will be asked to turn it off so we can think straight.
  • Dad will hover over each of us in front of the computer and ask a question after every click we make. “What are you doing now? What’s that? Are you done yet?”
  • Dad will throw in some bonus questions about things completely unrelated to the task at hand and we’ll have to say “Later, Dad. We mean it.”
  • Dad will get a time-out. “Dad, just sit there in the corner and don’t say anything until we’re finished.”
  • Mom will be reading a book quietly on the couch.

What didn’t help matters is that Ann brought her 10-year-old daughter Regan along because she has a clarinet lesson in an hour and it’s close to Mom and Dad’s apartment. Ann thinks we’ll finish up quickly and she’ll be able to get her daughter to her lesson in time. But I know different. She’ll have to leave midway through our session because – all together now – THINGS WILL GO WRONG.

And they do. In spades. I insert the faulty flash drive and up comes an obnoxious warning that the drive I’ve just inserted appears to be corrupted and files might not open or be able to copy properly. Should have gone to Staples for a new drive! Curses! We have not started our work yet and I’m already being screamed at by Windows that I’m, indeed, an idiot. I pray very hard to the tech gods that at least the iTunes installation file will be displayed on the drive and that I’ll be able to run it. Mercifully, it does. We’re making progress now. Or so I think.

smiley face We get iTunes installed successfully, but that’s only half the battle. You now have to attach the iPod to a USB port and let Windows detect it and install it. Then you can use the software with it to begin downloading songs. This much went OK until we attempted to load the iTunes Store, where you can search for songs you want to download. The stupid store would not open and no thanks to the iTunes people, you don’t get any meaningful error to help you figure out the problem.

 At the same time, Dad’s hovering around us and for some inexplicable reason, reaches for the iPod cable that’s connected to the PC. We both scream very loud, and in unison, “Don’t touch that!!!!” To which Dad replies, “OK, OK! Just looking.” “No, Dad, you were just touching. You were touching. Now go sit down over there with Mom.”

So at this stage, we’re in a holding pattern until we can figure out the problem. We’re staring at the screen, clicking randomly and desperately trying to get something working, the whole time wondering how it’d be possible for Dad to climb out of a mess like this himself if we weren’t there to help. The feeling of doom was palpable.  Meanwhile, I’m cursing my niece because she’s been text messaging her thousand and twelve friends on her cell phone that Ann just bought her the day before.

It now occurs to Ann that it’s about time for Regan’s clarinet lesson and I’m laughing to myself because I just KNEW we wouldn’t be nearly finished like she thought. So she decided to drop everything and run her to her lesson, while leaving me behind to figure out the most recent complication. While they were gone, I Googled the problem a little more and realized it had something to do with the firewall setting for iTunes. The tech gods have thrown me a bone. I managed to open the firewall for just that software and then I was able to search for songs.

Ann returns a short time later and I silently bless her for even returning. I imagined how she felt coming back to The Zone, sort of like Dead Man Walking. But she got me into this. If she hadn’t come back, I was going to have to find her. She’s pleased to learn I’ve resolved the store problem and now we can search for songs to buy and transfer to the iPod. Since we both know what genre of music he’s going to target first, we start scrolling around looking for it. We glare at each other when we simultaneously realize that polka is nowhere on the list. This is not necessarily a surprise, as there are only sixty eight people in the country who enjoy it and two of them are sitting behind us.

We inform Dad of this bad news, but gently remind him he can always transfer his polka CD collection to the iPod later, but for now he should pick something else. “OK, so what do you want to download first?” There are about a dozen songs that make my ears bleed when I hear them. They stick in my head for days on end and I curse the musicians who recorded them, more so if they were actually popular and made a lot of money. One of those songs is Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. This is the song he wanted to get because God hates me.

Ann very quickly searched for and found the song. She played a sample so Dad could actually confirm this was the exact version he wanted because he pretty much hates live recordings of his favorite songs. Whatever. The song gets his blessing and Ann begins the download. On a high-speed internet connection, downloading an iTunes song takes less than a minute. On Dad’s dial-up connection, however, it took fifteen. While we’re waiting, I’m getting increasingly sweaty and hot under the collar, literally, so I put on the A/C to keep me from melting while Mom’s on the couch reading and now freezing in her double cotton knit robe in the middle of July.

Dad knows we’re irritated, so he makes an attempt to relax the both of us by offering us food. What would have really helped was ice cream, cake or pie. What he gave us was peaches.  A “peach offering,” it was. There’d be no reason to have junk food in the apartment, as Mom is diabetic. So we can’t fault them for not having something better to tide us over. It was a gesture that’d been offered once before in my memory, my wedding day. I’d received a bad hair styling that morning and was freaking out in the bathroom trying to fix it. Picture Bridezilla of the highest magnitude.

Mom was the only person in the house who was allowed to interrupt the madness and try to make things right. What she did was bring me some food to settle me and try and calm me down. What she handed me was a snack I always used to have as a kid. Little pieces of torn up French bread with tiny pats of butter on them. I’ll never forget that. I was blubbering about my hair and eating my snack prepared with love, and things turned out OK in the end.

noose But back to tech support hell. The song finally finished downloading and what’s supposed to happen now is the song should automatically synchronize with the iPod. And, of course, it didn’t. By now, Ann is dying a slow death and she let a curse word slip. We do not curse in our family. But she let it fly and nobody blinked. This was some serious business and cursing was not only allowed, it was encouraged and celebrated, if for no other reason than it kept her from punching Dad square in the face for buying an iPod.

At some point, Ann picked up the iPod to turn it on and see if the device itself showed any errors. She couldn’t tell. And why couldn’t she tell? Well, of course! The menus were in Chinese!  This new wrinkle just about made our heads explode. We were already wondering how Dad was going to scroll through the menu of songs (assuming we could get more than Margaritaville on it) on such a tiny screen, being legally blind and everything. Now we had to wonder if he’d have to learn Chinese. Luckily, a quick Google search later, we discovered how to reset the device to English language. This was the only thing that went right thus far.

I determined at this point that I’d had enough for the night. I looked Ann straight in the eyes and it killed me to see her expression. It said “Don’t you even think of leaving.” But I just couldn’t stand one more minute of this odyssey, knowing of course that I’d probably be back the next day to fix things up. “Ann, I’ve GOT to leave right now.” Deep down she understood and reluctantly allowed me to leave so I could save myself. I felt like I was leaving her to lions who hadn’t been fed for a while.

Just so I wouldn’t get to slip out unscathed, Dad asked me one more question. “I’ve been trying to play my polkas from that one website run by the high school in Ohio (that’s gotta be some high school!). And it won’t play because I don’t have Real Player.” Again, because God hates me, the broadcast station requires the use of Real Player and of course I forgot to install it, and of course the file is too big to download over dial-up, and of course now I have to figure that out, too. “I’ll download it to a flash drive and bring it tomorrow. That’s it. I’m leaving.”

The drive home was a blur. I didn’t realize, while I was both laughing and screaming to myself, that I was doing 85mph. If a cop had pulled me over, I think I could have gotten away without a ticket by simply explaining that I’d just tried unsuccessfully to configure software that doesn’t work for my elderly, impatient father and I have to go back tomorrow, and please officer, have mercy on me.

When I got home, I waited an hour before calling Ann at her house to see how things went after I’d left. There was no answer and I said to my husband, “My God, she must still be in The Zone!” We both bowed our heads and said a small prayer that she’d get out alive. About a half hour later, I checked my email and there was a message from her, which read:

Could you just scream????!!!!!!! I was unable to download his purchased song to the iPod. I believe it may be a “filter” thing again. I came back with Regan and tried for 20 minutes. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I went to the gym, AND SOMEONE ELSE WAS ON MY MACHINE!!!!!!!! That never ever happened before. I was so mad that I just freakin’ left. Now I’m eating a whole box of Wheat Thins and searching FAQs regarding the download. He’s never gonna be able to do it on his own even if this latest problem is fixed. There are too many steps.

Anyway, thanks for letting me vent. And thanks for coming with me.

While I was happy she made it home after suffering this harrowing experience, I still felt ill thinking and knowing that I had to go back down there in the morning to install Real Player. What’s worse is that I didn’t have my own flash drive at home, couldn’t borrow the stupid faulty one because Ann still had it, and now had to shell out thirty bucks for a device I’d probably use only once.

The next day I went to Wal-mart for a flash drive because doesn’t Wal-mart sell everything? I must have walked around the electronics aisle for 15 minutes before realizing that Wal-mart does not actually sell everything. There wasn’t one flash drive in the whole place, so I stormed off to Staples on the other side of town, pedal to the metal.

Luckily they had one and I brought it back to my house where I could download Real Player and then drive down to The Zone again and hopefully put an end to this entire mess. While at home, Ann emailed me again to say that the answer to the iPod not syncing came to her in a dream. She remembered seeing this problem before, related to licensing and that she just had to click on some kind of authorization link in the software.  I told her I’d let Dad know about this new development when I got back down there.

devil As soon as I arrive in The Zone, Dad begins complaining that the devil in the Slingo game is appearing more often than before and stealing all his hard-earned points. I laugh to myself that it’s impossible for a game to be out to get him and begin to wonder if having played 300,000 games has perhaps damaged the part of his brain where reason and rationality are supposed to be. I tell him “Dad, you’re losing it. It’s not a conspiracy,” and turn to my mother who is of course reading a book on the couch and say “Or is it???” She looks up briefly and we both share a little giggle.

Getting that nonsense out of the way, I install and test Real Player with the high school polka broadcast. It boggles my mind that somewhere in the middle of the country, some pimply high school kids are manning a two bit radio station that plays polka of all things, instead of sitting at home in front of their own computers playing the latest video game, like all good kids should be doing on their summer vacations. He’s got the station cranked up and thing are moving along just swell. I explain to Dad that Ann finally figured out the iPod situation and would come back over later to deal with it.

Later that same day, Ann did go back and got the iPod to finally sync stupid Margaritaville. She quickly realized that with all the problems that we had getting Dad to see where to search for songs and how he’d have to scroll all over the iTunes Store, and how slow it’d be to download songs, a major decision had to be made. Ann offered to do the downloading for him on her own PC, over a high-speed connection. She said if he made a list of songs for her and brought over his iPod, she’d take care of it. Dad knew that you could also transfer songs from CDs he already owned.

She told him to just come over one day with the CDs he wanted put on the device. Doesn’t he show up at 6:45AM the next morning carrying a shopping bag full of all his music. An hour later and still bleary-eyed, Ann sent him off with his iPod packed with a few hundred songs and then promptly went back to bed. For now, he’s satisfied.

The saga isn’t over yet, and I know it never will be since new technologies come out every other week and apparently Dad now wants all the latest stuff. He’s since expressed interest in an iPhone, because thanks to the marketing department at Apple Inc., evidently we all need one.

Plus I still have to arrange for him to get broadband access in the apartment to fix the song-playing issue once and for all. Some of his CDs with burned pictures on them still won’t display properly on the computer, so that’s on my to-do list as well. There’s also some accessibility software I have to figure out that reads web page content aloud, and he likes that, except the default voices you get sound like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have to pay extra for voices that sound human. It’s always something. Maybe we should have gotten them that mass spectrometer after all.

Despite our ongoing nightmare, there is one undeniable fact: My Dad may be the world’s biggest tech support challenge, but he’s the only octogenarian in his senior apartment complex who has a computer and is not afraid to use it, and I say that’s pretty cool.