Monthly Archives: January 2014

Pet Peeves

As I cooked today, I had to scoot around my dog more times than I can count.  I kept saying, “Little Girl, go lie down!”  She would slink away but sneak back when I wasn’t paying attention.  I would put her outside, and she would bark up a storm!  We used to have unpleasant neighbors who didn’t like our dog, so I am always worried that someone will leave me nasty notes as the wife of that couple did. So I let her back into the house.  She lingered under foot; I shooed her away.  And like that.  All afternoon.

This got me thinking about pet peeves.  Annoying little habits other people have; common grammar mistakes that make one wince; the sound of someone’s voice that grates on  our nerves.  I’m thinking of making a list of my pet peeves and then performing a cleansing ritual, like burning the list.

What’s your pet peeve? And are you ready to let it go up in smoke?

Really, I’m all right.

My thought today is about real problems.  Cancer.  A child dying.  Flunking a final. Bankruptcy.  Losing your job.

I have found that people with real problems fit into two categories where complaining is concerned.  Half of them groan like blue blazes.  The other half, not at all.  The complaining half seem overwhelmed, unable to cope, and hopeless.  Those who knuckle down with a grin-and-bear it attitude have an air of joyful optimism.

I  had a friend named Jane, in high school.  Help me out if you went to CCHS.  Deacon? Deakon?  I’m kind of embarrassed not to remember.  Jane wanted to be a nun, as I recall; and came from one of those large Catholic families of the 1950s.  (We were on the smallish side with only eight.)

Jane described her mother this way:  “My mom thinks life is a surprise birthday party, and she’s the guest of honor.”

I’m sure their family had the normal number of troubles.  No one in our parish had much money and they all had lots of kids running around needing shoes, food, new uniforms and other annoyingly necessary accoutrements of life.  But Jane’s mother always had a smile on her face and her arms up to the elbow in dish water.

My perennial role-model, my own mother, once gently scolded me for complaining that the nurses at Barnes were not taking good enough care of her.  “Even brain cancer is no excuse for rudeness,” she told me.  “And really, I’m all right.”

Made me think then; still does; so I’m going to make a cup of tea, sit on my porch, and think about it.  If you’re out walking in Brookside, stop by.

Ah yup.

Day 17 found me sitting at my desk, unable to log into the external hard-drive which houses our client documents.  It’s plugged into my legal assistant (slash, best friend)’s computer.  He doesn’t work on Fridays.  I click down to “Homegroup” and fail to see the name of his computer.  Instead of walking out to the receptionist area to query Carolyn, I violate my own cardinal rule and holler.  Ouch.

Two or three re-boots later, I’m back in business and feeling grumpy.  Drat that woman, she smiled through the whole thing.  “It says ‘re-start windows'”, she tells me, standing, waiting, in the doorway.  I sigh.  “Did you?” I ask. She shakes her head.  “Well, would you?” I wrench the words out of the pit of my stomach.  She nods her head.  I grind my teeth.  A few parlays later, I’m drafting a pre-trial order and she remains unruffled.  I, however, am mumbling five Hail Mary’s and three Our Father’s for my sins, in self-imposed exile, under the theory that complaining by way of tone of voice or frigid glance definitely counts.  “Foul!”  Benched.

Two steps forward, one step backwards.  Good thing my secretary is a saint.  She, my suite-mate Jane Williams and I left ten minutes early.  She smiled and told me to have a good weekend.  I wished her the same.  I threw my bag onto the seat of my car and crammed my body between the steering wheel and the seatback.  I glanced in the rear view mirror and watched Carolyn and Jane walk down the sidewalk, wishing, for the first time, that I had been born with something more closely resembling a civil tongue instead of what I got, which is a smart mouth.

Can sweetness be learned?  Gawd, I hope so.

Not complaining — just explaining!

All of us have friends to whom we recount the events, and remains, of the day.  When we’re worried about our children, fretting over our careers, miffed with our partners, we sit down with our closest friends for a good natter.  I did this just yesterday with one good friend, and she nattered right back, trying to ferret out the best path of two presenting themselves to her, lamenting that she doesn’t have a more viable third choice just now.

Is this complaining?  I say: No, it’s not complaining, it’s just explaining. And I want more than just a listen — I want an active engagement.  I want my friend to say, “Why is your brow furrowed?  Why do you clench your jaw?  Can I do anything to help you brainstorm?  Do you need a good cry to clear your mind and your heart, so you can look for solutions?”

By giving up complaining, I don’t mean to stake my claim on the far side of these necessary personal confidences.  But even so, just grousing hardly ever produces anything, even emotional release.   Sitting down and griping about somebody who “done me wrong” might seem attractive at first, but in reality serves little purpose for me.  Rather —  what I want to do is phrase things in thoughtful terms.  “I’m worried about….What do you think about….So-and-so said, and I don’t know whether I should care….”.  My friends might have suggestions and they might not.  But even within my most intimate circle, just complaining has little purpose.  I want to explain; and try to find a solution.  Or get my friend’s support for enduring, changing, or walking away from a situation or a relationship.

But I really don’t want to just complain.  Nobody likes a whiner!  Even my best friend.  They might smile and listen, but deep inside they are thinking, and so?  what are you going to do about it, my dear?

Excellent question!

Swatting Flies

Little things annoy me.

The dangling cord on my office desk phone; it brushes the top of my hand when I reach for the mouse, and I flick it back with a grunt.  The soggy wash cloths draped over the grab-bars in my shower; I push them aside, grumbling about Why some people can’t….Today, I stopped myself.  Can’t what?  Take a shower without neatly hanging their wash cloths over the silver bar in the shower area?  Really, Corinne!

A hundred times a day, I find myself biting my tongue.  This raises a very interesting question:  Before January 1, when this quest to go complaint-free commenced, what did I do instead of biting my tongue?  What words erupted from my unguarded mouth?  And how many hurt feelings did that lava leave in its wake?

I’ve been swatting flies all my life.  These small annoyances that should have rolled past me, like the no-see-ums on an otherwise lovely summer evening that we tolerate because the setting sun seems lovely and the warm air divine.  I look back on 58 years (soon to be 59….) and wonder:  Can I ever find each recipient of my ire, and apologize for my intolerance?

Yikes.  A daunting task.  Maybe I could just share this page with the universe via click, click, click, and somebody will tell them, “Hey, dude, remember that lady who barked at you for standing in her way at Starbucks?  She’s sorry, man.”

Ya think?

Justifiable Complaints

Last night, my son and I attended an open-seating event at which author George Saunders spoke.  We arrived early enough to have our choice of seats.  We picked the fourth row: close enough, we reasoned, to hear but not so close as to have to crane our necks to see.

Turns out, my hearing is not fourth-row grade; more like, negative-fourth row.  If Mr. Saunders turned his head to answer a question in my section of the auditorium, I heard almost all of what he said.  If he spoke to someone on the other side of the room, I heard almost nothing of what he said.

The room held hundreds of rapt fans.  They laughed when he cracked a joke; they murmured at eloquence. I mostly nodded, smiled, and browsed the copy of “Tenth of December” which came with our tickets.  Afterwards, we waited to cross the stage and shake his hand.  My son, who had met Mr. Saunders on a prior occasion, exchanged a few polite words with him and Mr. Saunders, on learning of our relationship, complimented my parenting.  He also asked my son to remember him to the folks at the school from which my son graduated.  We all smiled, and then we left.

I think Mr. Saunders’ speech went over very well.  But I heard almost none of it.  Later, I wondered if I should have quietly slipped to the back and asked for an increase in the microphone’s volume; or clammored down to that first row which we could have selected but didn’t.  And then, of course, my next thought came:  “Would either course of action have been tantamount to complaining?”  The second, surely not; but the first?  Possibly.

Then, because I am my mother’s daughter, I remembered a couple of occasions when my mom got into trouble with co-attendees at public events.

On one of those occasions, she was at the Symphony in St. Louis.  Two women in front of her whispered incesstantly to each other throughout the first half of the performance.  Mom tried tsk-ing, squirming, coughing, and harrumphing, without impacting the ladies in any way.  Finally, she leaned forward and tapped one of them on the shoulder.  The woman turned around, raising one eyebrow, and my mother stage-whispered:  “Must you talk?” Came the rapid-fire reply:  “Yes, we must.”

My mother later learned that the two women were reviewers.  Why that required them to talk during the performance, she did not learn.  That they minded her complaint, or the way in which she voiced it, she did not doubt.

The other event found my mother in the opposite role.  She and I attended church at St. Englebrecht after the St. Louis Diocese transferred our much-loved parish priest there to punish him for being liberal.  On one Sunday, he spoke about abortion and choice.  He always encouraged people to talk amongst themselves during his sermons, something that the folks at St. Englebrecht had not previously experienced.  Mother spoke, in low tones, about her views on abortion to me, her teenage daughter.

The woman in front of us kept turning around and glaring at my mother.  I ignored her, but Mother did not.  After the third or fourth audible admonishment from the woman, my mother turned to me and loudly uttered one of the meanest things I ever heard her say:  “Now there’s one woman whose mother should have at least considered abortion.”  Both the woman and I gasped.

I’ve told both of these stories many times, usually to illustrate my witty and clever mother.  But — and I mean her sainted soul no disrespect — I think now  that neither my mother nor these other women should have been complaining about the other.  All  missed a chance to be kind.  All felt justified; but in retrospect, I’m thinking that none of them were.

Sorry, Mom.  But you should be proud: You raised me right.  You demonstrated love, strength, courage and persistence.  You picketed civil injusice and slapped war-protest bumper stickers on your Maverick, despite your employer’s unlawful ban on political statements even in their parking lot.  You never let doctors treat your children as though we were unimportant just because we didn’t have money or health insurance.  I took these lessons to heart.  But now  I’m just trying to find a balance between legitimate protest and snarky lament.   I hope you would approve.

What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Cranky

When I think of pain, I think of Billie Holiday.

To be fair, what I really imagine is Diana Ross’s performance of “Good Morning Heartache” in the sad, sweet, tragic movie, “Lady Sings The Blues”.  I think of pain as a constant presence, lurking in a bad suit from the 1950s, slumped in a boudoir chair in the corner of a messy, fragrant, frilly bedroom, with me sitting at the dressing table casting a baleful eye in its direction.

I came to the world “in the usual way”, arriving on time after an easy delivery, on Labor Day in 1955.  My first year and a half passed without fanfare, but at eighteen months, I sat down on my little bottom and refused to take another step.  The diagnosis for the swelling in my knees came from a doctor at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis:  “Sceptic arthritis”.  I didn’t hear the word “viral encaphilitis” until the 1980s, when the virus, unknown to modern science when it first attacked my brain, awakened and began another round of gleeful havoc.

The aftermath of the virus’s two runs in my brain causes neurological pain, spasticity, and asthma.  That virus, HHV6, might well be the cause of my heart problems and my sleep issues.  Ah, well.

In between and after all that muck, I’ve suffered the normal number of ailments.  At eighteen, an Oldsmobile parked itself on my right hip (to be fair, the door of the Gremlin in which I was a passenger shielded and trapped me).  I broke the arch of my right foot dancing the Chicken Dance at my first wedding.  An elbow fractured when I slid in gravel pushing my second husband in his manual wheelchair at the Minnesota State Fair.  When my knee replacement fought with my spasticity, a well-intentioned ortho guy prescribed Baclefen; in the resultant wobble, the little finger of my right hand splintered on the asphalt of our driveway.  Right ankle broken twice; left wrist once; left ring-finger (wedding ring saved) once; and I’m told several disintegrating discs in my back remain intact only due to their entwinement with a Tarlov cyst, which might otherwise be a candidate for surgical removal.

Okay, so — maybe a few more than the normal number of ailments.  When emergency room nurses ask me to assess my pain on a scale of 0 to 10, all I can think of is, “Not as bad as my mother must have felt dying a long, slow death of metastatic uterine cancer that hit her bones, lungs and brain before she died, but worse than when my knee shattered against the windshield of a VW driven by an uninsured Iranian”.  Everybody loves a wise guy.

And why, you find yourself thinking, have I detailed all of this pathetic history?  My purpose hovers between the lines:  To tell you how blessed I am, and how deeply I understand that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I stand, one person in a line of millions, looking backward at every person staggering forward in the queue behind me; and forward, to those whose struggles have preceded mine.  All I can think is this:  Thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to overcome the adversities with only a few bruised egos.

Because there are days when the pain does, indeed, make me cranky.  I snap at my secretary and the server at Starbucks.  I shrink away from a smiling stranger and her outstretched hand.  I slam doors, and shove chairs out of the way, and demand to know who left these things here don’t you know I can trip over damn near anything????  I turn away from the hurt in eyes that have gazed on me with love and devotion.  I’ve never kicked the dog  but I’ve been tempted.

One doctor called me “One tough cookie; too stubborn not to live”.  Another advises me every year to use a wheelchair. I thank him and decline.  Lately, though, I’ve wondered at the cost to others of my dedication to answering my mother’s call.  She told me, decades ago, “Walk every day of your life, and you will walk every day of your life.”  In other words:  Don’t sit down.  But the cost of my continued quest to keep on walking might be the ruination of an otherwise tolerable disposition.

Unless, of course, I can securely harness my proclivity to complain about the pain.

That, methinks, will be the most magnificent collateral benefit of this quest of mine.  Stay tuned!

When the Sun Won’t Shine

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine today, i realized that I find it much easier to refrain from complaining in lovely weather.  I chuckled to myself as I walked around the broken cat-food scoop on which our postal carrier apparently set a package, and the water dish on which we know he did because he confessed as much to my son.  Oh, well, what’s a little crushed plastic?  Rain, sleet, snow, all that jazz — and we still get our mail?  Note to self, find new food scoop and put shards of old one in the recycle bin.

I skirted around the piles of dead leaves that didn’t get raked in the fall and are now soupy soggy messes under foot.  No matter, I’ve got on sturdy shoes!  As I opened the car door, a speeding vehicle raced by, easily doing ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.  On other days, I would have shaken my fist at him. But under the azure sky of a strangely warm January day, I didn’t blink.

As I started the car’s engine, still smiling, it occurred to me that I might be dreaming!  “If I dream, let me go on sleeping….”.

When the sun won’t shine, I find it very difficult to be pleasant.  Under its warming rays, I can shake off adversity without a grumble.  This tells me that I’ve yet to truly internalize my new resolve to live complaint-free.  Perhaps I should move to a warmer climate?  She says, laughing, as she raises the blinds in her office and lets the sun’s sweet rays flood the room.


Oh man, the challenges out there!

Sooooo, boys and girls!  I’m in a meeting.  It’s rocking along fairly well.  We all know our goals. We’re all dedicated and passionate.  We all understand what the organization needs.  Everyone’s excited.

Then a johnny-come-lately sits down and interjects. “I’ve got years of experience and I’m here to tell you, you don’t get it!  Here’s what you have to do!  When I did XYZ, I built Rome in a day!”

Dead silence.  The meeting screeched to a hault.  The dedicated group of committed volunteers suddenly found themselves staring at Johnny-Come-Lately thinking, “Uh, really? No kidding.”

I spoke up.  I tried to be respectful, I really did.  And later, finding myself in a brief whispered conversation en route to the door after the meeting fell apart, I bit back a nasty comment.

Oh man oh man, there are challenges out there.  People who test my resolve!  I came close to complaining, when I came home and responded to my husband’s queries with the comment that the meeting was going fairly well until– until — .  Ah, life.  Challenging sucker, isn’t it?  I complained in my mind, which might be the same as lusting in my heart.  I’m working on erradicating even the silent complaint.  That might be the biggest challenge of all!

Living a Dubious Legacy

When my father died, I spent a week at the family home with my seven siblings going through the belongings that my parents had accumulated in the decades spent in the small home.  Somehow, the task of sorting papers fell to me.  Among the many souveniers of his grandchildren’s accomplishments and manuals for long-ago replaced appliances, I found a folder filled with complaint letters.

He apparently appointed himself the product police.  He wrote to any compny, any time.  From a dented can of soup to aspirin bottles short a few pills, my father patroled his consumer purchases, scrutinizing each.  Any slight defect prompted a carefully typed letter to the manufacturer, with a copy kept in a growing file.  He created the copies with carbon paper.  He stapled replies to the original letter of complaint.

I browsed through the folder.  The companies  gave all appearances of taking his letters very seriously, sending coupons, rebates, or substitute items.  The small items of compensation came by way of parcel post or padded envelope, or slipped into a number 10, with a canned letter of apology.

I let the folder drop onto the desk in the front bedroom.  I suddenly recalled an episode from childhood.  I had found a bug inside a cylinder of Wyler’s chicken bouillon cubes. “Write a letter,” my father told me, and so I did, on loose leaf paper in a careful hand.  Several weeks later, a large box arrived from the manufacturer, filled with containers of bouillon, soup, and other items , along with a personal letter from the Customer Service director.

And thus began a lifetime of complaining, unwittingly validated by the Wyler Soup Company’s earnest response to an a eleven-year-old Missouri girl.

I’m still navigating my way through this uncomplaining life.  I know there is a balance to be maintained, between tolerating abuse and protesting irrelevancies.  I’ve known this balance existed my whole life, and only now find myself craving the steadiness that such level-headed reaction brings.  I’m reminded of a saying used by my friend Katrina Taggart:  “Don’t pet the sweaty stuff and don’t sweat the petty stuff.”

I think about my father, alone, indignant, just wanting to have a little acknowledgment of his own importance.  I’m sure that sentiment permeated his complaint letters and drove his need for compensation.  The thought makes me more than a little sad.