Friday, November 25, 2011

On Black Friday, what is wrong with us?

I just came across a video of Walmart shoppers trampling one another to grab $2 waffle makers. And I'm horrified -- not because I'm too good to enter into the Black Friday fracas, but because I have. And given the right set of circumstances, I could have been one of those waffle-iron-clamoring folks.

You can see the video by pasting the link below into your browser. The shot of the woman at the :16 mark -- the woman with the short blond hair and too-tight blue t-shirt -- is especially cringe-worthy. Enjoy.

What happens to us when we see a sign that advertises something for less than it's actually worth? Even the most refined of us can turn into barbarians at the gate. And most of the time, we're wasting money, as we're throwing it away on things we don't need and never, ever would have purchased if the sales didn't beckon us.

We're so, so stupid. I'm of course including myself here, as I jumped on the couponing train a few weeks ago. I had covered and written a story about a local woman who does a great job of saving money with coupons; she's not the kind of scary, hoarder-ish extreme couponer you see on the TLC show, but she's halved her family's budget since she began using coupons consistently and responsibly.

Read about her here:

So of course I decide that I'd like to halve my family's budget, too. I clip coupons for a couple of weeks, stick them in a school-supply box, and hit the grocery store. Sure, I use my coupons, but as a result, I spend more than I've ever spent at Hy-Vee in my entire life. Why? Because quite a few of the items for which I had coupons are things I would not normally buy. (Note: In all fairness to the coupon lady, she had warned us not to do this.)

The moral of the story? I can't be trusted with coupons that advertise deep discounts because, no matter what, I will use them. Seventy-five-percent off a springform pan? It's mine, even though I know I'll never in my life make a cheesecake from scratch. A dollar off a roll of paper towels that normally costs $1.39? I'm there, and I'm buying a bunch of them, even though they're so flimsy that I have to wad together three of them to wipe up a spill. A men's razor that neither my son nor husband needs? I have to grab it, you see, because it's free when you purchase the razor blades.

Here I am, then, on Black Friday afternoon. I had promised myself I'd stay put, but lo and behold, the mall -- and my daughter -- are beckoning. I have some coupons clipped and ready to go, and on my honor, they're for things I really, really can use and would have purchased anyway.

Wait, so you're questioning whether I really need that archery set, the coffee-table book on cats, the ice skates or the 70" x 70" white board? Hmpf. You obviously don't know me very well. :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'm old enough to remember "wish books."

I'm old enough to remember "Wish Books." Are you?

My friend Molly tweeted a photo this morning of her little guys poring over a Christmas catalog, determining the items they might want to place on their Santa lists. And it took me back.

During the Christmases of the late '60s and early '70s, when I was little, we'd wait for the mail to bring the two periodicals that officially ushered in the holiday season: The JC Penney "Wish Book" and the Sears Christmas catalog. We'd fight to be the first to start paging through the pristine pages; it was always best to circle our items before anyone else had a chance, as ballpoint pens tended to slice through the thin, glossy paper and make whatever was on the other side unreadable.

I remember seeing a Mrs. Beasley doll -- Buffy's doll from the '60s sitcom "Family Affair" -- on the pages of one of the catalogs. I circled it and ended up finding her under the tree on Christmas morning. Later, I circled roller skates and turquoise necklaces; even after I was old enough to know the horrid truth about Santa, I circled stereos, telephones, Earth shoes and "elephant" pants.

I first attended college at the University of Northern Iowa before transferring to Drake. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving of my freshman year and not wanting to go back, for some reason or another; I distinctly remember that as I waited in the living room for my ride to pick me up on that Sunday in 1981, I circled a set of electric rollers in the Wish Book.

My kids, 23 and 20 now, were always good about letting me know what they wanted for Christmas. With Scott, it was easy; he didn't like gifts for which he'd be forced to find a place in his room, so as soon as he was old enough to know what they were, he requested gift cards. Caroline would print pages from clothing-store websites and bring them to me.

There was something missing.

We all talk about how commercial Christmas has become; in fact, we were talking about it back then, too, as Charlie Brown began lamenting it on his Christmas special in the '60s. And to some degree, of course, it is too commercial; stores begin showcasing holiday decorations in October, and Thanksgiving is sometimes almost a footnote to the "real" holiday.

And we all have so much less time, it seems, to simply sit back and enjoy the holiday. In the Christmas seasons of my youth, of course parents worked, but we didn't have youth sports and music lessons and take-home piles from the office to steal our attention every night. We could hunker together on the couch, watch Christmas specials, and feel the season begin to warmly advance upon us.

I guess we take that holiday warmth wherever we can find it now. There are new traditions; commercialism be damned, my daughter and I look forward to shopping at midnight on Black Friday. We meander around for a while, enjoying the sights and sounds, and then we hit Perkins for a middle-of-the-night breakfast before heading home to bed. My son says he may join us this year.

And when the kids are home from college, we still gather around the TV for Charlie Brown, the Grinch, the Wonder Years' Christmas episode and Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (look it up! It's a good one). We talk and we eat and we laugh, and it's clear that the special feelings inherent to the season don't just fall away as we grow older.

But still, I can't help but hope for Wish Book will show up in my mailbox. As the song says, I need a little Christmas -- right this very minute. And there'd be no better way to find it than paging through slippery pages crumpled by a ball-point pen that doesn't have quite enough ink.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dear Dr. Anesthesiologist, please don't forget to wake me up

I have a 3-inch scar across the base of my neck, an 8-inch one at the bottom of my abdomen and a 6-inch one bisecting my left knee. And the truth is that unless someone happens to ask about them or I happen to catch the reflection of one in the mirror, I usually don't think about them.

Lately, though, they're all I can think about -- the surgeries that led to them, anyway. Unless, of course, I'm thinking about the anesthesiologist not giving me enough medication. Or forgetting to wake me up.

Neuroses are nothing new to me. When I was little, I couldn't go to sleep until I touched all my dresser drawers to make sure they were shut tight and tapped my bedroom doorknob three times with my index finger. Seriously.

As an adult, I learned that I have the "checking" form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that makes me pretty lucky as far as OCD sufferers go; I'm not germ-phobic or relentlessly neat. At night, I check door locks and stove knobs. My husband and kids laugh about it, but it doesn't faze them; it's part of who I am, and it doesn't take a whole lot of time out of my day.

Sometimes, though, the neurosis shifts a bit and the obsessive part takes over. And that's happening now, manifesting itself in a near-paralyzing fear of my upcoming surgery. I'm not sure if it's all the footage of Dr. Conrad Murray on the Today Show, or what -- but I'm convincing myself something bad is going to happen.

Cheery, I know.

When I had my left knee replaced three years ago, I was a model patient, calm, cool and collected from the time my surgeon told me the joint needed to go until I woke up in recovery with a wad of titanium tucked under my kneecap. I don't think I spent much time considering that something could go horribly wrong.

This time, though, here's how I picture myself: strapped to the operating table, eyes taped shut, tube down my throat, awake but unable to let anyone know I'm awake. Gruesome? Yup. Realistic? Probably not terribly. But it could happen. And like any good obsessive-compulsive, I'm determined to make that my focus for the next two weeks.

Here's the other scenario: The surgery is over, but the anesthesiologist leaves the room having forgotten to wake me up. Everyone else goes on about his or her life, but I lie there long into the night and wake up still strapped down.

That makes sense, right? Of course it does.

I vacillate between thinking my anxiety is normal -- have you ever seen a knee-replacement surgery? -- and that it's simply part of where I am in my life. In other words, it's not normal, but I understand why I'm feeling this way.

Not to be too melodramatic, but I watched my dad die eight months ago. And I saw how quickly "alive" can become "dead" -- how something that seems so insignificant at the time, such as an intestinal virus, can initiate a chain of events that can result in a person's not breathing anymore. The night before, he was eating ice cream. At 3 p.m. the next day, the nurse was telling us to hurry, hurry, that this was it.

Granted, my dad was elderly, and he was sick. Despite my kids' opinions to the contrary, I'm really not old. And except for allergies and the pesky low hematocrit that keeps me from donating blood as often as I'd like, I tend to be pretty healthy. So the odds are that I'll sail through the surgery, and I'll have a healthy knee to show for it. I'm looking forward to the eventual lack of pain when I walk, and I'm hoping that I'll even be able to alternate feet when I take the stairs.

But I have to get through the next two weeks. When I'm inside my own head, time is my worst enemy. I can touch the stove knobs and check the door locks all I want, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that will assuage will be this: The lights will be bright, and I'll be disoriented, and my knee will feel like it's bigger than my head. And the far-away voice of the recovery-room nurse will be saying, "Honey, it's all over, and you did fine."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

She was mentally handicapped, but I learned from her

Decades ago, my grandma published a book of poetry. I'll always remember it because she infamously referred to my 13-year-old self as "aloof" in one of the poems; it hurt my feelings at the time, but I'm sure she was right. I also remember it, though, because of the way she described Little Louise.

Little Louise was, as Grandma described in the book, "one of God's special children." When she was born in the 1920s, the term "special needs" didn't exist; doctors called her "retarded" and said she should be placed in a facility. Her parents kept her at home, but they both died when Little Louise was young, and she had an older sister who didn't want to be responsible for her.

So to keep her out of a "home," my grandma's parents, Nana and Papa -- probably the two best people I've ever known -- brought her to live with them. Little Louise was Nana's niece, and she became part of the family.

Little Louise had been deemed "unteachable," but she was indeed able to learn; she couldn't read, but she was good at the household tasks that became increasingly proud of completing every day. She worked outside the home from time to time -- in fact, she was a "lunch lady" at my preschool -- and she knew everything about everyone and considered all her co-workers her very best friends. And she was happier than any person I've ever seen. That was, as my Grandma said, because she had no worries.

Little Louise loved family gatherings; we kids were her very favorite people to be around, and she revered holidays with a childlike enthusiasm that she never outgrew. When it was her turn to open presents, she shook with excitement. I still remember the year my dad, whose name was Charlie, gave her a then-popular perfume called, of course, "Charlie."

"Whenever I wear this, Charlie, I'll think of you," Louise said solemnly, and dabbed the fragrance on her wrists. And every time she wore it, you can bet she reminded my embarrassed dad that she was wearing "his" special scent.

As the years passed, Louise remained much the same; we often talked about how little she tended to age over the years. Her face stayed unlined; her red hair stayed red. As the older members of the family passed away -- Papa, Grandpa, Nana and then Grandma -- Louise would express now and then that she missed them, but she lived largely in the moment.

Even when she was the last surviving one of her family members and lived alone in a seniors' apartment, she took great pride in making new friends, participating in every activity the facility had to offer, and showing off her collection of holiday decorations. Wherever Louise was, she was the life of the party; she had few, if any, inhibitions, and was always willing to be the first to try something new.

Things changed a few years ago, though, when Louise suffered a stroke. One side of her body was paralyzed, she became wheelchair-confined and couldn't speak. The last time the kids and Kevin and I saw her was, I'm ashamed to admit, two years ago.

I don't really know why we stopped visiting; I could use the excuse that my dad became ill about two years ago and I was busy helping to care for him, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Louise lived but a few minutes from my house; I could have easily been in and out in the span of an hour.

I didn't go because it was unpleasant to see her that way. I didn't know where to look; I didn't know what to say. I didn't know if she was hearing or understanding me. I didn't know if she knew me. I let others in the family do the heavy lifting, and that's not my nature. I guess I simply chose to drop the ball.

We buried Louise today. It was a small funeral; she had become an old lady, and not many people knew her anymore. My faith assures me that she's getting ready to spend the holidays with the people who took her in and loved her, and for that, I'm grateful. But as is so often the case, I'm looking back, now that it's too late, and wondering why I chose to be selfish.

One of my frequent soapbox topics is the way we in the United States tend to treat our elderly. How ironic that every time I've spouted off in recent years, I haven't stopped to realize that I was part of the problem. An hour a week of my time -- and hour I easily could have given -- would have meant something to her.

"We should go visit Lou," Kevin would say, and I'd ignore him. It would have been so easy to jump in the car and spend a little time simply holding her hand, but still, I resisted. And today, I'm left wondering why I screwed up, and feeling humbled about learning a pretty important lesson from someone who once was believed to be too mentally "feeble" to learn anything herself.