Guilt trip

This post is about a guilt trip not a quilt trip although I did drop off my firstborn yesterday – I left my Baltimore Album quilt at the quilt show venue. They have more than 300 quilts to hang, so it takes a few days. The show opens Wednesday night with a sneak preview for participants. I felt similarly bereft when we dropped Savannah at doggie day camp at the pet store the first time. I remember peeping out from behind the shelving where you get a good view of the playroom through a large plate glass window, except of course dogs can smell through glass so she jumped up at the window and pressed her little nose against it and made me feel worse. I’m glad they don’t have one of those video cameras like some camps do – or I would be glued to my screen ready to rescue her if another puppy was being mean. Silly me – the other dogs are are all scared of our feisty pup, who can hold her own against anything. But even though the quilt show organizer assured me they will take good care of my quilt, what happens if there’s a flood or a fire? That quilt represents hundreds of hours of work, millions of stitches and miles of thread. Maybe someone will kidnap it for ransom – now that would make it worth it.

We then went to one of our favorite French cafes. It’s one of the few places in Atlanta that has real French bread and pastries. The staff turnover is notoriously high – I don’t think we’ve ever seen the same server more than twice, which is a shame because they are always sweet and friendly – and SO young. Cedric asked me how old I thought our server was. I answered immediately, “At least 8.” I asked her – she’s 20. It was the bill that gave me the guilt trip, but not for the amount. I felt guilty when I paid, guilty when I left and I woke up this morning still feeling guilty. How could a croissant do that to me? We always order the same thing – baguettes with ham and cheese and then have a pastry. Then, we get croissants and other goodies to go. OK, the bill was hefty, but that wasn’t the issue. It was the helpful inclusion, in case you are mathematically challenged, of a suggested gratuity right there under the total. They word it, “Gratuity Example” – and they give two amounts – 18% and 20% – yep! What happened to 15%? Now, we are not talking a real French bistro in the middle of town. This is a nondescript building on the intersection of two busy roads in a suburb of Atlanta – not even downtown. There’s no ambiance or street atmosphere anywhere within sniffing distance; you can’t walk along and window shop; you park and walk across the uneven parking lot and you could be walking into a gas station. For 18 or 20%, I want sniffy French serving staff wearing long black aprons over starched white shirts, not 8-year-old girls in T-shirts and jeans; I want linen napkins, not paper; and I want tablecloths and heavy silverware. But what rubbed salt in the wound was the bill included our food AND the items we took out in paper bags, so the suggested gratuity of 20% was on every croissant, too. Now, that’s blackmail. It wasn’t the server’s fault, I know that. When I paid, and added a generous tip but only on what we had eaten at the table, I explained to her that there should be NO gratuity on bread and pastries that they load into a bag and hand to you – otherwise, it would be like paying a gratuity on a pair of shoes when you walk out of the shoe store. She looked at me like I had three heads and I saw her show another server the bill as we walked out and they both turned and glared at me. At least, with their staff turnover, she won’t be there the next time. So why do I feel so guilty?

Real time versus retirement time

Being retired is very stressful. No really! It’s been four weeks and I haven’t checked off enough items on my bucket list. For a list-person, that’s very stressful. Everyone told me that I wouldn’t know how I ever had time to go to work, and every single person was correct. But working is real time. Retirement is a different category. Parkinson’s law is alive, well and active in retirement time. At the end of the day, items on my to-do list remain unchecked, and even though I know I can do them next year, I’m beginning to feel the pressure.

But it’s amazing to have time at my disposal and unless we actually have some place to be at a certain time, time is now fluid. The days are a blur. Someone sent me a picture of a retirement clock divided into days of the week instead of hours of the day and said that’s the only alarm clock I will now need. We are so defined by the time of the day. At boarding school in Nairobi, time was told by the ringing of a bell. I’m sure I had a watch, but I doubt I ever looked at it. We were woken at 6:30 a.m. by the matron ringing the bell – a big brass bell with a handle as long as her arm. There were 10 boarding houses and two houses for day girls. Your house defined your allegiance. Fifty girls from second formers (first years – I don’t know why there was no first form) to sixth formers – lower and upper sixth, belonged to a house named after famous women, such as Baden Powell (wife of Robert – I’m glad I wasn’t in that house – reminder of THAT dog!), Beale (Dorothea), Darling (Grace) and Nightingale (Florence). I was in Nightingale. There were two dormitories with 20 beds each; seniors got a cubicle with a curtain on the top floor – don’t worry, you could still hear the bell up there. We stripped our beds to let them air, washed and dressed in school uniform – white shirt with short sleeves that we rolled up higher, grey woolen pleated skirts (in Sub-Saharan Africa), neckties, and white socks. Downstairs we went to put on our outside brown lace-up shoes and filed past the prefect who checked that our shoes were clean, our nails short and not polished and that our hair did not touch our shirt collar. If it did, it had to be pulled into a pony tail – even if that pony tail was a half-inch long. Then we lined up and waited for the next bell. In line, we were not allowed to talk or fidget. I remember asking once why we had to keep so still and the matron said it was to teach us self control. Years later, in a line at a bus stop in London, when we all waited and waited for a No. 9 bus that never came, a man turned to me and said, “You are so still – you haven’t fidgeted once.” Ha – matron was right! When the bell rang, we filed up from our houses over the five-acre field (a grassy area) and into the dining hall. More on the food and descriptions of 600 girls eating a meal in 30 minutes in another post. We returned to our houses to make our beds, which had by this time been nicely aired – with hospital corners. To make a hospital corner, you pull the sheet up at right angles and turn it back down and then tuck it in. Matron would check those hospital corners and if they weren’t done correctly, you would find your bed stripped. I still make the bed with hospital corners. The rest of the day was one bell after another – assembly, start of classes, break, lunch, rest time (where we had to go back to our houses and lie on our beds), afternoon classes, tea, activities, time to bathe and change for supper (yes, we changed into dresses – another post to come), study time, back to the house and then the final bell to go to bed before lights out. One bell after another, and it started over the next day and the next.

I don’t think I actually thought about measured time before we got a microwave in the 1980s. The first microwaves were huge and had a knob you turned for minutes and seconds – not digital like today’s versions. I recall then specifically noticing the passage of a minute or 90 seconds. Now, with all our devices, we measure time more frequently than we realize. Because I have so much time, I spent some of it this week measuring how much time I take to perform my nightly dental ablutions – I know, sad huh? I used to have an electric toothbrush that timed four 30-second segments so you could be sure you brushed upper and lower, inside and out for exactly 30 seconds each. When my toothbrush died, I didn’t bother to replace it, but I now time myself using my iPhone stopwatch. And I use the time to balance on one leg. This isn’t an original idea – I read it in the New York Times. The writer recommended standing on one leg when you brush your teeth to strengthen your balance muscles. But changing from one leg to the other in 30-second increments IS my idea. It’s actually amazing how you improve over time. So, the other night, I decided to keep the stopwatch going because it’s not just brushing that we have to do, according to our hygienists – right? There’s the gum pick thing that you poke between every tooth and wiggle around to get every last bit of whatever stuck between your teeth. And then floss up and down back and forth. Then the Listerine – everyone at the office knew when I had been in the ladies room at lunchtime because I use Listerine every time I brush my teeth. So that gets swilled around for several seconds (I might time that separately one day.) Well, it takes 6 minutes and 40 seconds every single night – I’m not going to add that up to calculate how many years I will have spent on dental ablutions by the time I don’t have the strength to raise my brush any more. But by that time, my balance will be absolutely perfect. Gotta go brush my teeth. And in my pink nightie and one leg raised delicately, I know I look just like a flamingo.

Poop report

I’ve got a theme going here. Cedric has morphed from chief dog walker to chief cuddlier. And I’ve become chief dog walker and chief poop reporter. We have turned into the quintessential canine hover parents – something I swore would never happen. In Nairobi, the house next door was owned by the American embassy and my parents always befriended the neighbors and even stayed in touch with several of them when they left after their tours of duty. I was great friends with the daughter of one couple – we were the same age and went to the same school. Her mother was very glamorous and there was a full-length portrait of her in their entrance hall. The word on the street was her father was CIA and everyone said to be careful because they thought the house was bugged. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded very exciting. Another couple arrived for their tour with two poodles. This was the first time I’d seen dogs treated like children. We always had dogs, starting with Blackie, a daschund when I was probably no more than 4 or 5. We loved our dogs and treated them well. They were allowed in the house but slept in the kitchen. Dog treats back then, in Nairobi anyway, were one brand – Vetzyme, yeast tablets in a glass jar with a green lid. Dogs got one, maybe two, each day and a cookie before they went to bed and I’m sure they were people cookies and not dog bikkies. Fast forward to today. Savannah has a whole shelf in the kitchen with assorted dog treats depending on the time of day and whether she’s been a particularly good girl. This dog goes from treat to treat. Every day is Christmas for Savannah. And in Cedric’s closet, another shelf hosts more treats in case – perish the thought – we run out of her favorite. But back to the American poodles. They were coddled and cosseted and dressed up and fussed over and talked to like children and I remember thinking I would never treat a dog like a child – ha ha!

Blackie was followed by various other dogs including a smooth haired fox terrier called BP, named for Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. My parents adopted BP from some people leaving the area. BP is the only dog I have ever hated. He was mean and he hated me back. One day, he buried a small stuffed dog that my parents gave me when I had my tonsils out and I loved that little toy. My mother salvaged him and cleaned him up but his tail didn’t survive. I still have that stuffed dog. I also had a glossy, black pet rabbit called Flicka. One day, I wanted to give her cage a good clean. I put Flicka in a temporary box while her cage dried. My parents had to gently break the news that Flicka had escaped her box and run away. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my mother let slip one day that BP had got her. Even typing this, I can feel my blood pressure rise with hatred! BP was a pedigree, though, and my mother showed him at the local dog show, using hair spray to make the hair on the end of his tail stand up straight and talcum powder to whiten a couple of dingy patches. My parents were very involved with dog shows and I even won the children’s handling class at one show. But BP colored my feelings for smooth haired fox terriers and they remain my least favorite breed.

But back to the theme – I can’t believe that every time I come back from walking Savannah, I actually give Cedric a complete breakdown of her business. How sad is that? Before I retire this theme, here’s an interesting fact – an estimated 1,000 tons of dog poop is produced by Britain’s 8 million dogs every day, according to the Keep Britain Tidy group. They are concerned that owners pick up the poop in plastic bags and when they can’t find a garbage bin, they dump the bags, which is bad for the environment. The Forestry Commission has produced a poem in an attempt to spread the message about the stick and flick method. I’m not kidding – please read on. It includes the lines, “If your dog should do a plop, take a while and make a stop. Just find a stick and flick it wide into the undergrowth at the side. If your dog should do a do, you don’t want it on your shoe, find a stick, pick a spot, flick into the bushes so it can rot.” Several times a day, I hear myself say, “Only in America.” Today, it’s, “Only in England.” Woof.

Canine bodily functions

Now that I’ve got your attention, be warned: This post is about dog poop – yep! You know the adage that women in public restrooms only wash their hands if there is another woman in there, presumably taking note of personal hygiene behavior. I think that’s urban myth, myself. Well, I have another one for you – I think dog owners only pick up poop if there is an audience. I am tempted, when walking Savannah along the winding driveway of our complex, to leave her poop where it plops. It’s never on the sidewalk, only on the pine straw or in the brush. And no one would know. I am aware, however, that I am very dramatic with the green plastic poop bag when a car is passing or people are walking by. I wave it madly to make sure everyone sees that I’m being a good citizen and neighbor and picking up poop. Actually, my rule is: If I can reach it, I pick it up. If I have to crawl through the undergrowth on Savannah’s level, I let it mature into manure. I’d love to live in a complex where they take swabs to identify each resident dog’s DNA, test unwanted gifts and publish owners’ names on a wall of shame. That would clean up our complex in a hurry. Not that the little face below does anything like poop.


Mr. and Mrs. Fancy

I’ve just figured out why our Social Security office staff were all so happy – they are located right next to a Cracker Barrel. For my two foreign readers – this is a chain of restaurants, each with a gift shop, across the U.S., serving Southern country food. It’s like a slice of Disneyland at the top of every freeway ramp. I’d be happy, too, working walking distance from Cracker Barrel. If you’ve been following closely, you know that Cedric and I dressed nicely for our appointment. We were business casual Class A and looked fabulous. We already knew we would go to Cracker Barrel for lunch that day. We walked through the irresistible gift shop and were shown to our seats. A lovely waitress approached – motherly and kind. I’ve only ever had one occurrence of a mean waitress at Cracker Barrel – maybe that will be a blog subject one day. But Karen introduced herself and asked for our drink orders. Cedric asked for a Perrier and I asked for herbal tea. Silence. We repeated ourselves. More silence. Finally, Karen said, “This is Cracker Barrel, we don’t serve nothing fancy here.” But she had a twinkle in her eye. We ordered soda water and regular tea and, as she walked away, she said, “I’ll be right back with your order, Mr. and Mrs. Fancy.”

So that’s what she called us. When I asked her whether it was our accents, she said she noticed us as we walked in and she just knew we were fancy. Clothes make the man. Clothes, clothes, clothes – no one warned me that I would end up with a closet full of unwearable clothes one day after the Big R. My sartorial choice each day is now which color leggings to wear and I try to get out of my jammies by noon (just kidding!). I try and wear a touch of lipstick and mascara, but the dress code for retirees is way different, even in Atlanta, where it’s more casual than London or Toronto. I know I won’t be wearing power suits and high heels much any more. Today marks the beginning of Week 3. I can feel myself relaxing and I turned into a “Lady Who Lunches” when I met two girlfriends for lunch – one who retired a couple of years ago and one who had to go back to work. I kept asking her how to spell that word – very mean of me.

I’ll work out soon which clothes stay and which clothes go. For now, Mrs. Fancy signing off – gotta get her jammies on.

Comcast or Social Security? Pick one

OK quick – would you rather call Comcast (U.S. cable/internet company) or Social Security (U.S. government pensions). [I’m translating U.S terms for my many (two) foreign readers.] Full disclaimer: I will not hear a word of criticism against my beloved Social Security (MBSS). Retirement is not for wimps and goodness knows, definitely not for the elderly. It’s exhausting. The amount of paperwork alone is monumental. But every step of the way, we’ve had nothing but amazing customer service from MBSS. I’ve heard a few anecdotal stories and I’m not so naive as to think that things never go wrong. But for us, the Social Security angels were hovering above.

I made several exploratory calls over the last year to get details. As immigrants, the process is different. Even with auto prompts, I was lucky every time. Typically, my accent doesn’t fare well with the auto-prompt menu. I go round and round and inevitably end up back at the beginning. And when I say, “Oh for heaven’s sake, I said YES,” I definitely go right back to “Go.” They have a frustration algorithm that rates your tone and sends you back as far as possible the angrier you get.

But not with MBSS. And their call-back system really works. If the wait is going to be long, they tell you exactly how many minutes and offer to call you back. And when the call back comes, you get the option to take the call immediately or delay 10 minutes to gather your paperwork. That’s so cool. OK, maybe other places do that, too, but MBSS has it down pat. Every employee I spoke to knew the answers – and understood my accent. Cool again. And they are so polite and patient and never condescending. As for Comcast – more on that in a moment.

You know how you can learn anything on YouTube – well, you can get advice on anything on the internet so I looked up, “How to prep for your meeting with Social Security.” The advice was good. 1. Make an appointment. Check. 2. Get all your paperwork ready. Check. 3. Don’t wear torn, dirty jeans and a back-to-front baseball hat and chew gum. Check. 4. Respect them and they will respect you. Check.

We did our homework, even driving to the office to make sure we knew exactly where it was and what parking was like so we wouldn’t be late for our appointment. This makes more sense to Atlanta residents. Again, the MBSS angels were hovering and we got a parking space right outside the main door. Inside, it’s not bad – plenty of seats in the waiting area. If you have an appointment, your officer’s counter is much more private. And so we met Jonathan – after introducing himself as Mister, he asked us to call him by his first name. He liked us and we liked him. And so began the next phase of my love affair with MBSS. Wow, he knew his stuff. But be warned – every time they ask you a question, don’t be tempted to tell a fib. They know absolutely everything about you from the year dot. If you have ever filled in a form anywhere with the color of your mother’s eyes, they have that noted. Any time they ask you a question, they already know the answer and are just checking to make sure you are being honest. But he was kind. The night before, I prayed for someone kind to be assigned to us – and that prayer was answered. Wow, we were lucky. We had every piece of paper he needed; Cedric knew every date even back to the 1940s; we didn’t have to go back a second time nor send in more paperwork. Jonathan got us approval right there. What a great system – gotta love this country!

So, back to the question – Comcast or Social Security. You know my answer. And if you’re interested in our specific Comcast horror story (and we all have them) here’s why. The Mighty Comcast Saga


Who am I now?

When I walked out of The Home Depot’s corporate office for the last time and handed in my access badge, my identity didn’t walk out with me. It stayed firmly there – in the huge building that is known as the Store Support Center (SSC) where I worked for 17 years. For all of that time, thousands of associates have known who I am and what I do. An identity is so often connected to a job, that I feel a little stateless. But that’s not a bad thing. I’m now a free agent and the world’s my oyster. Someone dear to me used that phrase when I left Nairobi in my 20s looking for a new life in London. And my oyster made many pearls over the years. I walked into an employment agency on Oxford Street the first day and got a job, contacted friends of friends who had a room to rent and created a life for myself. When I arrived in London, I had with me a suitcase of clothes – a suitcase with a handle – rolling bags hadn’t been invented yet, unbelievable though that now seems – and I had a kikapu or woven basket full of hangers, with the handles tied up with string. I can’t imagine now what I was really thinking, but I had plenty of wooden hangers in Nairobi and I thought it was logical to bring them with me. Many of them had survived boarding school, too. Just one remains after all these years and countless moves, but I treasure it. I was 24 and completely alone in London, but I created an identity and I wasn’t afraid. I’m not afraid now. Within two weeks of arriving in London, I was sent to work as a temporary secretary for a purchasing manager in a container company. His name? Cedric Pierre Marie. No, I’m not afraid because my oyster will continue to make pearls for sure.

So I will build my new identity as a retiree. I’m not in a hurry and an undefined future means there is no pressure on me. Today, I stopped into the SSC to join a celebration with my erstwhile team. The Home Depot’s Homer Fund is funded by associates for associates in need. We had been instrumental in the annual fundraising campaign’s communications and The Homer Fund treated the team to King of Pops (if you are a foreign reader, please look them up.) Free King of Pops are worth making a journey for. It was a great excuse to make a surprise visit and so much fun to see everyone. The most common remark was that I looked so relaxed. Good! Retirement is agreeing with me. The most frequent question was, ” What’s retirement like?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that question yet. I still feel as if I’m on vacation – it’s only been five days so far. Ask me in three months. And as for the question, “Who am I now?” Ask me in a year – by then, I will be reading music (I hope); have finished Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and many more books in the pile beside the bed; have made my Gypsy Wife Quilt (more on that to come); have tidied and cleaned and downsized our stuff so much that Cedric will be job-hunting on my behalf. I might tackle Shakespeare’s sonnets, too. I don’t need to read the plays again – a couple of years ago, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays in one year. That’s what list-people do and that’s definitely going to be the subject of another post. Oh, wait, I just got it … Who am I now? A blogger! OK, I’m done, I have an identity.